A Prank Too Far - courtinator (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Chapter 1 Chapter Text Chapter 2: Chapter 2 Chapter Text Chapter 3: Chapter 3 Chapter Text Chapter 4: Chapter 4 Chapter Text Chapter 5: Chapter 5 Chapter Text Chapter 6: Chapter 6 Chapter Text Chapter 7: Chapter 7 Chapter Text Chapter 8: Chapter 8 Chapter Text Chapter 9: Chapter 9 Chapter Text Chapter 10: Chapter 10 Chapter Text Chapter 11: Chapter 11 Chapter Text Chapter 12: Chapter 12 Chapter Text Chapter 13: Chapter 13 Chapter Text Chapter 14: Chapter 14 Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 15: Chapter 15 Chapter Text Chapter 16: Chapter 16 Chapter Text Chapter 17: Chapter 17 Chapter Text Chapter 18: Chapter 18 Chapter Text Chapter 19: Chapter 19 Chapter Text Chapter 20: Chapter 20 Chapter Text Chapter 21: Chapter 21 Chapter Text Chapter 22: Chapter 22 Chapter Text Chapter 23: Chapter 23 Chapter Text Chapter 24: Chapter 24 Chapter Text Chapter 25: Chapter 25 Chapter Text Chapter 26: Chapter 26 Chapter Text Chapter 27: Chapter 27 Chapter Text Chapter 28: Chapter 28 Chapter Text Chapter 29: Chapter 29 Chapter Text Chapter 30: Chapter 30 Chapter Text Chapter 31: Chapter 31 Chapter Text Chapter 32: Chapter 32 Chapter Text Chapter 33: Chapter 33 Chapter Text Chapter 34: Chapter 34 Chapter Text Chapter 35: Chapter 35 Chapter Text Chapter 36: Chapter 36 Chapter Text Chapter 37: Chapter 37 Chapter Text Chapter 38: Chapter 38 Chapter Text Chapter 39: Chapter 39 Chapter Text Chapter 40: Chapter 40 Chapter Text Chapter 41: Chapter 41 Chapter Text Chapter 42: Chapter 42 Chapter Text Chapter 43: Chapter 43 Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 44: Chapter 44 Chapter Text Chapter 45: Chapter 45 Chapter Text Chapter 46: Chapter 46 Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 47: Chapter 47 Chapter Text Chapter 48: Chapter 48 Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 49: Chapter 49 Chapter Text Chapter 50: Chapter 50 Chapter Text Chapter 51: Chapter 51 Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 52: Chapter 52 Chapter Text Chapter 53: Chapter 53 Chapter Text Chapter 54: Chapter 54 Chapter Text Chapter 55: Chapter 55 Chapter Text Chapter 56: Chapter 56 Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 57: Chapter 57 Notes: Chapter Text Notes:

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

Chapter Text

“Iron Man, move around to the south side of the building and scan for any more heat signatures,” Steve commanded, taking out three more robots with his shield. He and Tony had been sent out to Kansas to deal with a hoard of robots that were trying to take over a small business district. They weren’t hard to take out, but there were so many of them that it was a bit overwhelming. The robots didn’t seem to be very smart, but they were programmed to target and attack humans. Luckily, Steve was an enticing enough target to have most of the focus on him, while Tony was flying around, shooting them from the sky, and getting any trapped civilians a path to safety.

“No magic words, Cap?” Tony quipped, flying past him and blasting apart the robots Steve was about to destroy. Steve grit his teeth, not letting the other man get to him in the middle of battle. Clint and Natasha were on an extended mission for Shield in another country and not available for this. Thor was off-world and Bruce was overlooking the construction of a water purification plant somewhere in South America. Bruce was still wary of letting the Hulk out, so they only called him in for missions when it was absolutely necessary. This was not one of those situations. It was kind of confusing to Steve what these robots were even trying to accomplish. It seemed like a lot of work just to hurt people. Shield was scanning the frequencies of the robots, trying to trace back to whoever was controlling them. All Captain America and Iron Man were needed for was protecting civilians and taking out robots, until the other agents could shut down the signal.

Steve took out his frustrations on the next group of robots that were bearing down on him. The whole team, minus Thor, had moved into Stark Tower after the Battle of New York, at the insistence of Tony. Steve had been fine with his apartment that Shield set him up in, just until he was ready to venture out on his own, but once Tony suggested all of them living together to Fury, he’d signed off on it. Something about living together and working together helping them come together as a cohesive unit.

It was okay at first, with everyone getting to know each other and being on their mostly best behavior. But soon enough, the pranks started. It wasn’t too bad in the beginning, Tony replacing all of his clothes with Americana prints and playing videos he found of his USO shows on every screen in the tower. But then it got a little more mean spirited, like trapping him in the elevator for an hour, turning the AC in his room to freezing while he slept, and turning off the hot water in his shower. He never told anyone how small spaces and cold made him flash back to his years in the ice, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out he wouldn’t find much humor in it.

The last straw had been when Tony somehow snuck into his room while he was asleep and surrounded him with cold packs. He woke up in a panic, remembering the moment the water smashed through the front of the plane, sweeping over him and taking away everything and everyone he had ever known. He packed up and moved out that day, not listening to any of Tony’s chuckle punctuated apologies, or Bruce’s calm assurances that Tony would stop and he didn’t mean anything by it. Steve holed up in a hotel for a week before he found an apartment to move into, only meeting up with the team for official Shield and Avenger business. The others tried to coax him into coming back, at least for movie nights and team dinners, but he declined every time. Seeing Tony during missions was enough for him at this point. Maybe he would be able to handle more in the future, when he felt more settled in this time, but he didn’t want to add any more stress than was absolutely necessary.

His apartment was nowhere near as fancy as Stark Tower, but it felt more like home than that had. He used the money Shield had insisted he earned to get a humble apartment near his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Steve spent his time off exploring his old/new home, searching for anything that was still around that he remembered. There wasn’t much, people nowadays preferring modern over classic. He found new favorite places, like the little independent coffee shop down the street, the family run grocery store two blocks down, and the gym run by an old boxer with his own war stories. Steve liked to sit and listen to the man speak, pretending his own stories were told to him by family members, instead of things he experienced himself. Captain America was going to stay private if there was anything he could do about it.

Steve had given his address to Shield, in case of emergencies, but he hadn’t invited anyone over. He was sure the rest of the team knew it too, but they hadn’t asked about coming to visit either. He liked the team well enough, but he felt better about keeping things strictly professional at this point. Steve couldn’t depend on them to carry him into the present, he had to find his own way. Captain America didn’t need hand holding. The team also didn’t need to see their Captain having any moments of weakness. Steve thought back to the letter he’d received in the mail that day, lying open on his coffee table. It took all his willpower to not break down on the spot, the words printed on the page opening up a wound he had no idea how to heal. He barely had time to process the news before he was called in on this mission, flying with Tony on a quinjet.

“Building is clear,” came Tony’s voice in his ear. That was hopefully the last place they needed to check for possible targets. Now they both could focus on taking out the little robots until Shield came through on their end.

“Stay on that side and take them down. We’ll work our way to the middle,” Steve instructed, picking up one of the robots and using it as a bat to bash a group coming up from behind him. They had been at this for almost two hours now and Steve was sick of it. Tony probably could’ve found the person behind this by this point, but Fury didn’t want to send in any of the normal agents and also didn’t want him without backup. He forced himself to focus on the task he was given, not what he wished was happening. There was nothing he could do about it now and being distracted would only make things worse.

Steve winced at the sound of tearing metal as he ripped a robot in half, tossing the sides in opposite directions. He heard what sounded like a small cry, straining to hear where it was coming from. He spun around, throwing the closest robot like a javelin into the next oncoming hoard, trying to create a moment of quiet. Steve heard the sound again and took off running toward it, using his shield like a battering ram to get through any obstacles in his way. There was a small realtor’s office with a car thrown through the front window, hovering precariously over the sidewalk. Steve groaned, not knowing how this even happened. It wasn’t like they tried to destroy towns while they saved them, but after the initial relief of being saved by the Avengers, the people complaining about damage would come out of the woodwork. Usually, these things were unavoidable.

He dodged around another burning car, squinting under the unstable vehicle as he approached. There was a tiny figure huddled underneath, a shock of red hair partially covered in dirt and grime sitting in pigtails on top.

“Iron Man to my position! I’ve got a civilian that needs to be flown out!” Steve yelled into his comm. He skidded to a stop next to the car, kneeling down to get a better look at the situation. The little girl was hysterical, tugging on the skirt of her dress that was pinned under some rubble. “Hey there, let’s get you out of here.” Steve stood back up to get a look at the car. He thought about just ripping it out of the window and throwing it away from them, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to without anything falling on top of the girl. Climbing under and pulling her out seemed to be the best way to go.

Steve laid down on his stomach, shimmying below the car to reach the little girl. She was beginning to quiet, which Steve’s ears appreciated. A child’s screeching mixed with the sounds of battle was not the most comfortable with his super hearing. He got to the girl, ripping the trapped fabric of her dress away from her body. The floor length cupcake dress was now knee length and the little girl scooted away from him, further wedging herself into a corner under the car. Steve groaned, understanding the girl was terrified, but annoyed that she was now out of reach.

“I need you to crawl over to me sweetie, so we can get to safety,” Steve coaxed, forcing himself to stay calm so the little girl might trust him. She sniffled, wiping her hand across her nose before placing it in his hand. He grimaced, glad he was still wearing his gloves. Steve started to drag himself backwards out of the tight spot, pulling the girl along with him, when something metal clamped onto his ankle.

“Iron Man?” he questioned, thinking it was Tony here to help pull him out. When the grip tightened from firm to painful, he knew it wasn’t his teammate. He kicked out blindly with his other foot, freeing his ankle from the vice. No sooner than he was free from the first, more robots took its place, grabbing at whatever parts of his body were exposed.

“Iron Man! I need backup now!” Steve yelled into his comm, not hearing any reply back. He grunted, feeling something slide into the meat of his thigh. They had his legs almost completely pinned down now, barely able to wiggle at all. The little girl was screaming again, the sound bouncing around the enclosed space and stabbing into his brain like the echo from hell. He moaned, feeling something gripping his ankle hard enough to make the bones scrape together. He needed to get out of this fast, before the robots could completely incapacitate him.

Steve pressed his hands under him, lifting himself and the car up on his back like a push up. He shouted at the little girl to run, holding the car high enough for her to squeeze out the other side. Steve waited until she was clear of the area before using his core strength to begin to pull his legs to his chest. It was hard work, having to keep his arms locked so the car wouldn’t fall back down on top of him, and the robots scrambling not to lose their prey. He screamed out in exertion and pain as he pulled one leg in, a piece of metal scraping along the back of his calf. Now that he had one leg, it only took a few seconds to get his second, crouching fully under the car with the weight resting on his shield covered back.

He considered for a moment just staying under the car for a bit to get his bearings back, but quickly threw that idea out. Captain America didn’t hide from a fight. The robots were trying their best to get under the car with him, but weren’t having much luck. He didn’t want them to tire of their mission to get him and move onto going after the girl. Steve couldn’t see where she went, but he didn’t want to chance the robots finding her before Iron Man did. He brought his arms over his head, gripping the underside of the car. His battered leg wobbled a bit, but he forced it to stabilize, preparing to stand up and be free of his small prison. He did a standing back press with the car, his form leaving much to be desired, but getting the job done all the same. Steve yanked the car free from the window, throwing it at the robots and knocking them down like bowling pins. He sagged a bit, catching his breath with his hands on his knees. His right leg was dripping blood, from the puncture wound in his thigh to the gouges down his calf. It wasn’t a concerning amount of blood for him, but the sooner it was bandaged, the better.

Steve brought his hand up to his earpiece, preparing to call out for Tony again. He could hear the sounds of distant fighting, but couldn’t see Iron Man from where he stood. They needed to regroup before continuing on mission.

“Iron M-” Steve was cut off by a creaking sound, looking up just as a large slab of building fell from above him, cracking him on the top of his skull. He fell bonelessly to the ground, his head slamming into the cement as he fell on his stomach. Blood was streaming down his face, puddling on the sidewalk in front of his mouth and all around his head. He gasped, blowing ripples into the sticky red substance with every panicked breath. Steve couldn’t force his body to move, only getting a slight tremble from his extremities.

“T-tony,” Steve stuttered out, his sight wavering in and out of focus. “H-help.” The edges of his vision were slowly turning black, narrowing his view to little more than a pinpoint. One last effort to stand, lift up, roll over, do anything, was useless and his eyes slowly slid closed, consciousness finally slipping away from him completely.

Chapter 2: Chapter 2

Chapter Text

A bright light in his face caused Steve’s eyelids to flutter, blinking rapidly to clear his vision. There was a spotlight directly above him, blinding him as he stared up at it. He turned his head to the side, giving his sluggish brain a chance to catch up with what was happening. He was lying in a bed, but this definitely wasn’t his bedroom. The walls were white, but they were too shiny, like the paint had some sort of metallic essence to them. All of the furniture in the room was metal too, from the table next to his bed, to the chairs on either side.

Steve pushed himself to sit up, his body feeling stiff, but not in any pain to speak of. He pushed the blanket on top of him away, the material feeling more slick than soft, like rubber. His clothes were a basic white shirt and linen pants, which added to the rest of what he was seeing made him suspect he was in a hospital, but he couldn’t remember why that was. He racked his brain, trying to figure out the last thing he could remember. Steve remembered his apartment, going for a jog, picking up the mail as he came back. Opening the letter that had him shaking his head quickly, trying to dislodge that memory before it overwhelmed him.

After remembering the letter, everything else started falling into place. The mission call, the flight to Kansas, fighting robots, saving the little girl. Tony. Steve glanced around the room, as if Tony would just suddenly appear, smart words waiting to spill from his lips. But there was no one. He frowned a bit, feeling achingly lonely. He knew everyone was busy with their own things and he wasn’t really close with any of them, but he always made a point to stay with them when they were injured, knowing how bad it felt to wake up alone. That was his job as the leader, so it made some sense why no one did the same for him.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed, checking his leg for any signs of the injury he got during battle. It felt normal under his pants, no bandages or sensitivity. He must’ve slept a bit longer than usual, giving the serum a chance to do its thing. Steve was about to stand up from the bed when the door opened, a short nurse stepping in and freezing when she noticed her patient awake.

“Captain Rogers!” she gasped, clutching her chest in shock. “You’re awake!” Steve drew back a little from her reaction, wondering why she looked so surprised. He wasn’t even hooked up to any machines, so he must not have been that bad off.

“Sorry to startle you ma’am,” Steve apologized, smiling a little at the woman. “Could you tell me if anyone from my team is here?” The woman seemed to pale a bit, edging back toward the door.

“Let me get the doctor,” she squeaked out, spinning around and racing out the door. Steve stared at the now empty space for a few moments, trying to figure out what the big deal was. Hospital staff weren’t always happy when their patients left their beds before being given the okay, but he wasn’t like a normal patient. This nurse looked downright shocked. He looked around the room a little more, searching for a chart or something that could give him an idea of what his injuries were. The hit to the head he took was rough, but obviously he was fine. He levered himself off the bed, walking around to the foot. There wasn’t any kind of clipboard or paperwork to be found. He moved on to the side table next to the bed, checking in the drawers and finding nothing. Even the little garbage can in the room was empty. He groaned, turning to venture outside of the room when the door opened again. An older woman stepped in, flashing him a kind smile.

“Captain Rogers, I’m Dr. Howser,” the woman said, gesturing toward the bed. “Would you mind taking a seat for me?” The doctor seemed calm, maybe a bit nervous. She didn’t seem young enough to be a new doctor, but a lot of people got weird around the team, treating them like celebrities. Tony ate it up, but the rest of them felt pretty weird about it. He sat down on the edge of the bed, waiting for the doctor to give him an exam or something else along those lines, but she made no move toward him.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, watching as the woman seemed to gear herself up to tell him something. His stomach clenched, thinking about the moments since he had woken up. He had been hurt thinking his team wasn’t around to see him wake up, but what if it was because he wasn’t the only one hurt. Maybe the reason Tony wasn’t here was because Tony had been injured, or worse. The nurse had left the room right after he had asked after them, maybe she just didn’t want to give him the bad news.

“My team?” Steve choked out, pleading with the doctor to give him any information.

“I’m sorry Captain Rogers,” the doctor started, looking away at the sound of his gasp. He felt himself starting to hyperventilate. This couldn’t be happening again. It was impossible for him to lose another team, and all at the same time. They weren’t even on the same mission, it was a mathematical improbability.

“How?” Steve coughed, trying to get his breath back. How could he be lying here asleep, while the lives of his only friends in this time were ripped away? He didn’t even have a chance to get to know them, keeping them at a distance to protect himself from what he was feeling right now. But it didn’t work, he still felt the pain just as sharp.

“I don’t know how to tell you this. The injury you sustained in battle was worse than any of your doctors thought,” the doctor said. Steve shook his head, not wanting to hear anything about himself. He didn’t matter. He needed to know what happened to his team. “They did everything they could.”

“Wait.”

“They looked back on every bit of information on the serum they could find.”

“Stop.”

“Dr. Banner never gave up, doing test after test.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ve been asleep for 61 years.”

Chapter 3: Chapter 3

Chapter Text

Steve froze, trying to absorb what the doctor just said. He must’ve heard wrong, in his shock. He huffed out a laugh, shaking his head. This wasn’t real, couldn’t be happening again. The doctor was standing there, staring at him blankly. Steve ignored her, looking around the room again. The last time he woke up after an extended nap, they tried to fool him with a painstakingly accurate to his time room, but this room was wrong. It was like having a low resolution photo and trying to recreate the scene without knowing the materials. Getting close, but not quite right.

“Captain Rogers, do you understand what I’ve told you?” the doctor asked, cautiously approaching him. Steve sprang up from the bed, moving around to keep it in between them.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at, but this isn’t funny. Where is my team?” Steve demanded, getting angry. He thought about busting out of the room like he had before, but held back, wanting to give the woman a chance to come clean before he went nuclear.

“Captain, it’s the year 2073, they aren’t here anymore,” Dr. Howser intoned calmly, raising her hands in a non threatening gesture.

“Stop it! Get Fury in here now!” Steve yelled, his patience thinned to almost nonexistent. He balled up his fists, the nails digging into his palms hard enough to draw blood. This was not happening. This wasn’t funny, and he couldn’t figure out why anyone would do something like this to him.

If he had been anywhere near ice, maybe he would admit that this was possible. But he hadn’t been, and even if he had, technology was better now and they’d be able to find him. The doctor had said herself that Dr. Banner never gave up on trying to wake him up. But he pushed that thought away, because Bruce never did tests on him, since this wasn’t real.

Unless the mission in Kansas wasn’t the last thing he did, only the last thing he remembered. What if there was time after that he couldn’t remember, a mission near ice where he had been lost? But the doctor mentioned an injury, not ice. She definitely would’ve mentioned ice if he had been in it. But she didn’t, because this wasn’t real.

His team would never do this to him. They would never go along with this lie. Bruce was too mature and he definitely wouldn’t let Tony get away with something like this. Although, Bruce hadn’t stopped Tony before he pushed Steve out of the tower. Unless they really were gone, but they weren’t, seeing as this wasn’t real.

Nobody who knew him and liked him would lie about something like this. Everyone liked Captain America. Almost everyone liked Captain America. Hydra didn’t like Captain America, but Hydra was gone. Who was behind the robots he was just fighting? Maybe they captured him while he was incapacitated? But why do all this? How would they know how to hurt him so badly? It couldn’t be that though, as this wasn’t real.

“I have someone in the hall who’d like to speak to you,” Dr. Howser said quietly, breaking him out of his internal monologue. So this was the part where someone jumped in and said it was all a joke. Steve rolled his eyes, gesturing for the doctor to open the door.

“This wasn’t funny Tony,” Steve started, expecting the inventor to slide in with a co*cky look on his face. It wasn’t Tony. An older woman stepped in, bright red hair sitting on top of her head. She looked around 70 years old, a kind smile on her face. She was wearing scrubs, as if she worked there, with a colorful print. Were those cupcakes?

“Hello Mr. Rogers,” the woman said, walking up to the bed. Steve stepped back a little, his brain trying to make sense of what he was seeing. He knew what he thought he saw, but he knew it couldn’t be possible.

“No.”

“My name is Mary and I never got a chance to thank you for saving my life.”

“During the battle of New York.”

“In Kansas.”

“You worked in one of the buildings we evacuated.”

“No.”

“The girl I saved under that car was six or seven, at most,” Steve panted, feeling his heart pounding in his chest.

“I was five.”

Steve stood there, shaking his head in denial. No, no, no. Nope. His stomach clenched painfully and he bent at the waist, gripping his midsection. No! His brain screamed out at him. He could hear his blood roaring through his veins. His head was telling him it wasn’t real, but the rest of him, his very soul, was shattering. Steve sank down to the floor, trying to catch his breath. It was like trying to breathe through a straw filled with cotton.

“No, no, no,” he gasped, staring up at the blurry forms of the two women in the room. They hadn’t moved from their spots, just witnessing his breakdown. The little bit of breath he had left rattled in his lungs, reminding him of his asthma attacks as a boy. The room was too small, the walls closing in on him. He ducked his head into his knees, rocking slightly.

“You’re lying. Why are you lying? I don’t understand,” Steve murmured, mostly to himself. Had he really lost everything again? He felt his lip tremble and he bit down on it, hard. He couldn’t break. He didn’t the first time, when he burst out into Times Square, almost 70 years past his whole life. He didn’t when he read that letter.

The letter.

The first sob broke through when he remembered the letter, severing the last tie he had to his past. Peggy. He missed her whole life. And now he missed her funeral. By 61 years. Once the first sob escaped, he couldn’t stop the others. His whole body was shaking, the pain of everything he had been through pounding down on him, trying to rip him apart. He choked on the tears running down his face, wishing they would drown him to finally take him away from this life that was too hard, not fair. His greatest blessing was his greatest curse. The serum that saved him from an early grave, preventing him from ever having one. And not saving him from seeing everyone he knew and cared about lowered into theirs.

Steve heard a low, gut wrenching moan, realizing belatedly that it was coming from him, but he didn’t care at this point. He didn’t care who was watching him fall apart. There was no more Captain America left. He had nothing left to give anyone. His massive body was just a hollow shell.

“Why did I wake up? Why does everyone else get to die but me?” he whimpered, knowing with certainty that he wasn’t getting past this, not this time. He was not going to learn a new world that had moved on without him. He was not going to make friends with people who had heard of Captain America, but didn’t really care about Steve Rogers. He wasn’t going to live his life not knowing the next time he’d fall into this messed up hibernation and lose everything again. Steve covered the back of his head with his arms, tucking himself into an impossibly small ball, resolving to never move from this spot. He could wither and die here for all he cared, he was done.

He thought he heard a voice calling out to him, but he ignored it. If those doctors thought they could convince him to live in this new world, they were about to be disappointed. They could just tip him over onto a cart and wheel him off if they needed the room.

Steve closed his leaking eyes tighter, imagining it was Bucky calling out to him, ruffling his hair and asking him what took him so long, the whole gang was waiting for him. Bucky would lead him to a table with all the Commandos, patting him on the back and regaling him with stories of what he’d missed. Peggy would be there too, standing back a little so they could have some privacy. She’d make a joke about how he might’ve set a record for how late he was for their date. They’d dance and he wouldn’t step on her toes once, the guys cheering him on from the side. Maybe the other Avengers would be there too, teasing him about being prone to taking really long naps. He’d laugh, because it was okay now, they were all together again. Because he wasn’t alone, left to live out a hundred partial lifetimes by himself.

A hand was shaking him now, but he didn’t care. Steve just kept dreaming about seeing his friends again. Maybe his parents would be there. His mom wouldn’t look tired anymore, like she always had. She’d give him a soft hug and introduce him to the father he’d never gotten the chance to know. His dad would shake his hand firmly, telling him he watched everything he accomplished and was proud. This is what he wanted and he was so close. Everyone was waiting for him, maybe he could just go?

The hands were shaking him violently now, trying to break him out of his tight ball. Steve resisted, not wanting to leave. It was better in here. He could be happy here in a way he’d never be out there. Why would anyone want him out there? Who would want him to be unhappy? Steve kept his eyes closed, stubbornly blocking out the outside world. The hands lifted his head from his knees, making the voices louder, but not any clearer. It was like he was underwater and everything was muffled. Maybe the water would wash him away again?

A sharp crack across his cheek startled his eyes open against his will. He blinked a few times, dislodging the tears blurring his vision. The body in front of him was starting to take shape and he froze in disbelief.

“Tony?”

Chapter 4: Chapter 4

Chapter Text

His puffy, tear filled eyes were playing tricks on him, because that couldn’t possibly be Tony Stark kneeling in front of him. Howard and Tony had similar features, but if this was Tony’s son, the resemblance was uncanny. He even had the same facial hair.

“Is this a dream?” Steve whispered, tongue poking out to catch a tear that was sitting on his lip. Was he cursed to meet every generation of the Stark family? Were all of the Starks going to be burdened with his presence in their lives, sweeping in and out after an undetermined amount of time?

“This isn’t a dream Steve,” the Tony lookalike said, gritting his teeth. Tony’s son must be angry with him, being left to look after this weight that should’ve died off with his grandfather’s generation.

“I’m sorry, you don’t need to stay,” Steve said, releasing the man from his duty. No one should be forced to deal with a load like this against their will, no matter the circ*mstances. Tony had always resented his existence, he could tell from their first interactions on the helicarrier. Sure, some of the barbs were influenced by the scepter, but his true feelings shone through with his actions after the fact too. And once he had read up more on the Starks after he moved out of the tower, he understood why. How Howard dedicated his life to finding him, neglecting his family with his work. Steve didn’t blame Tony for hating him and he wouldn’t blame his son for hating him too. He hoped Tony was a better father than Howard had been.

“Where am I gonna go? We’re in my tower,” not Tony said, rolling his eyes. Tony’s son had kept the tower after all these years? Steve wondered if there was anything left behind of the team, something he could look at to see how the rest of their lives turned out. Maybe even something he could keep, like a memento.

“Does your family live here now?” Steve asked, curious to have any little bit of information before he left to be on his own. Not Tony growled, balling up his fist before slapping him again across the face. Steve cupped his cheek in confusion, staring at the man in front of him.

“Would you wake the hell up! It’s me!” he yelled, pulling the front of his shirt down to expose his chest. Was he glowing? Steve stared into the blue light, his heart thudding painfully again in his chest. Tony Stark’s son wouldn’t have an arc reactor stuck in his chest. This could only mean...

“Tony?”

“Yes! Who the hell else would it be?” Tony burst out, throwing his hands up in exasperation. Steve wiped a hand across his face, drying the tears that had slowly stopped rolling down his cheeks. He looked around the room, noticing the women had already left.

“Who were they? Was it Hydra?” Steve asked, his brain trying to recover from the shock.

“Was who Hydra?” Tony asked, shaking his head in confusion.

“The people that brought me here. They told me-” Steve stopped, looking away so Tony couldn’t see the pain in his eyes. He couldn’t believe it was so easy for someone to break him down. A little bit of psychological torture literally brought him to his knees. He was disgusted with himself.

“Oh hell Cap,” Tony said, standing up and walking a few paces away from him. He turned, heaving a big breath before looking him in the eyes. “It was just a prank.”

Chapter 5: Chapter 5

Chapter Text

“A prank?” Steve mumbled, staring at the floor in front of his feet.

“Yes.”

“A prank?” Steve asked, staring up a Tony, twin tears falling from his eyes in sync down his face.

“Yes.”

“A prank,” Steve said, his brain slowly catching up to what he was seeing and hearing. His heart still didn’t want to believe it. He was so close to being done, the relief of his decision the first spot of hope he could remember in so long. But just as he thought his team was ripped away from him, so was his freedom.

Steve pulled himself up to stand, his shaky legs barely holding him up. Tony made a move like he was going to come over to help, but a sharp shake of Steve’s head made him pause. He turned to face the wall, a steadying hand braced against it. His shock was slowly starting to wear off, letting him see the past few moments with clarity he hadn’t had before. This had all been a joke. His brain had been screaming that at the beginning, telling him not to believe what he was hearing, but he broke down because it was his worst fear. Who would know that enough to exploit it? Tony Stark evidently.

“The rest of the team?” Steve asked, still needing to hear how they were out loud before he could believe it.

“They’re fine,” Tony said, clearing his throat. Steve nodded, sniffling away the last bit of visible emotion on his face. The fact that the team was still alive should’ve made him feel better. Knowing he hadn’t missed his chance to make connections with the people he knew in this time. But it didn’t. He dug around inside his heart, trying to find something good to cling onto, but he couldn’t find anything. He felt so empty, it hurt. Steve didn’t know how something could be so empty, but also so heavy. And he was so tired, as if he hadn’t just spent the last however long in that bed.

“How long?” Steve asked, hoping to hear he hadn’t lost too much time. That he could still honor the request from the letter.

“Six days,” Tony answered, still hovering in the room somewhere behind him. Too late, Steve realized, closing his eyes in resignation. It wasn’t like he was looking forward to being a pallbearer at Peggy’s funeral, but he was going to do it. He owed it to her to honor her in that way. But yet again, he wasn’t there for her. And now he was out of chances.

“Are we really in the tower?”

“Yeah.”

“Do I need to be discharged or something? Can you call the doctor back in?”

“She wasn’t a real doctor,” Tony admitted, sounding sheepish.

“Right,” Steve sighed. Of course she wasn’t, she was in on the joke. Ha ha. Steve turned back around to face Tony. He looked guilty, which should’ve made Steve feel at least a little better, but it didn’t. He needed to get out of here, put his frayed edges back together in private. Steve started toward the door, but Tony slid into his path, holding his hands up in front of him. Steve paused, staring at the other man with hollow eyes. He briefly imagined punching him, but that would take too much effort.

“Wait Cap, don’t go,” Tony said, rubbing the back of his neck. He looked uncharacteristically uneasy, but Steve couldn’t be bothered to care. He robotically moved forward, sidestepping Tony and leaving the room without looking back. The hallway was empty of people and Steve recognized the floor as the one below Tony’s lab. It wasn’t used much when he lived in the tower, mostly for storage. And now pranks. Steve walked straight to the stairwell, avoiding the elevator and the possibility of Tony having Jarvis take him somewhere he didn’t want to go. Or just trapping him altogether.

He slowly made his way down the stairs, not registering how many flights he had to walk down. If he was overexerting himself, he didn’t feel it. Steve finally made it to the ground floor, walking straight to the exit and out into the less than fresh air of the city. The lack of flying cars was a good sign. He turned toward the general direction of his apartment and started walking. In his dull minded haste to get out of the tower, he hadn’t considered the fact that his pockets were empty. A cab and subway ride were out of the question without money to pay.

A slight shiver made its way through his body, but he didn’t really feel the cold. It wasn’t terribly chilly outside on this late September morning, but the thin hospital garb and lack of shoes weren’t helping. At least he had socks this time, instead of running the streets barefoot like he had after he got the serum.

He quickly shook his head, trying to clear it before his thoughts led him to Peggy again. Young, alive Peggy. She always looked put together and polished, with her shiny chocolate hair and red lips. The same deep shade of red as the cherries he bought at the farmer’s market a few weeks back. He’d never be able to eat cherries again without thinking of Peggy.

Steve walked on autopilot all the way back to his apartment, barely noticing to stop for traffic. It took around two hours, each step just the same as the last. If anyone looked at him strangely during his journey, he didn’t notice. His only mission was to get home. A bomb could’ve gone off next to him and he didn’t think he’d notice. A tiny bit of weight lifted off his chest as he stepped into his building, just a few flights of stairs between him and his apartment now. He stooped down to dislodge a piece of wood from his door frame, a key hidden for situations like these. Another reminder of his past life, Bucky always teasing him for being forgetful. Captain America didn’t forget things, but the old gesture gave him comfort.

He stepped into the apartment and looked around the room. Everything looked the same. It had only been a week, according to Tony, so that was to be expected. But it felt different. What was slowly morphing into a home, somewhere he could see himself living for a long time, somewhere he could relax and breathe, felt off now. Like he was an actor on a set and the things in the room were just put there because they fit the story. It wasn’t about what he wanted, just what should be there. There was a television, because everyone had a television. There was a coffee pot, because everyone had a coffee pot. But Steve didn’t really like watching TV. And caffeine didn’t have an effect on him.

Steve made his way to his bedroom, gathering clothes to take a shower. Shield had given him clothes when he came out of the ice, so he hadn’t bothered buying anything else. They aimed for a style he could recognize from his time, just updated to blend in with the public. But was this really what he wanted to wear? Did it matter? He slowly trudged into the bathroom, carefully setting his folded clothes on the closed toilet lid. Steve was going to turn on the shower as hot as it would go, a ritual he would perform after he woke up from a nightmare about the ice. He’d try to melt away the memory of the cold with scalding water, his skin turning red but still never being warm enough.

He leaned over the sink, bracing himself on his arms. His knuckles were white from how hard he was gripping the sides. He could just forget about today, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Nothing had changed really. It was the same year, he had the same team, the same apartment, the same job. He could shake this joke off like it never happened. So what if a couple random people saw him break down? He was still a super human, probably one of the strongest people in the world. So what if Tony’s little prank got to him? He didn’t care what Tony thought, the man had his own issues. Steve took a deep breath, telling himself he was over this already. Maybe he’d take a day off, but then he’d be back to doing his normal Avenger duties. Simple as that.

Steve looked up at himself in the mirror for a second before his reflection disappeared. Where was the mirror? He looked down to his hand, to the balled fist pierced with shards of glass, dripping blood into the sink. The color swirling down the drain like the color of Peggy’s lips. His fist came up again, punching again and again into the wall, destroying the medicine cabinet and the layer of wall behind it.

His breaths snorted out like a bull, looking around the room for something else to take his anger out on. He stormed out of the bathroom, ransacking his bedroom. Steve ripped the bedposts from the frame, tossing them to the side like twigs. The mattress and boxspring went next, toppling his heavy oak dresser with a loud bang. None of this was his and he didn’t want it.

Steve stomped into the kitchen, ripping the coffee pot apart much like he had the robots during battle. He snapped the door off the microwave, dropping it on the floor before moving onto the cabinets. He flung mugs and bowls and plates at the wall, leaving only one of each. Why did he need so many dishes? No one came to visit and he didn’t need extra for himself.

He saved the living room for last, reveling in the action of putting his already swollen fist through the center of the screen. He still didn’t feel the pain he knew he should be feeling, but he didn’t care. Steve tossed all the books he had collected in these few months off the bookshelf. Books Shield gave him to catch him up on the years he missed. Books the team gave him that they said everyone should read at least once. Captain America didn’t need to know about this stuff. All he was needed for was battle. You didn’t need to know who was president in 1970 to punch an alien.

Steve turned, looking for something else to destroy, when his leg brushed against his coffee table. He looked down and was immediately faced with the one thing he didn’t want to see. The letter. He reached down with a shaky hand to pick it up, his bleeding hand clenched at his side. Steve read the words over and over in silence. It wasn’t a long letter, just a simple death announcement, Peggy’s official SSR picture in the corner. A short handwritten note, printed in delicate writing, asking if he would be willing to be a pallbearer in the funeral that happened two days ago.

He had been gearing up to visit Peggy since he had woken up, after learning she was still alive and living in a nursing home in Washington DC. Shield had kept tabs on her after she retired and they told him her mental health was declining, but physically she was still doing well. He didn’t know if anyone had ever told her about him being found, but he thought he had time. Time to settle a bit more before going to visit her. Just another thing he was wrong about.

Steve just stared down at the paper in his hands, unable to do anything else. Whereas before he couldn’t stop moving, needing to get the rage out so he could at least feel something, now he was stuck. His whole being narrowed down to one little thing. Something dripped down, smudging the ink on the little note. More drips followed before Steve realized it was coming from him. He hadn’t even noticed the tears falling down his face, but now he was hiccuping with sobs. He crumpled to the floor, clutching the paper to his chest.

He cried for his parents, who never had an easy life and died before he could change that. He cried for Bucky, who fell off that train after saving his life, Steve not being good enough to save him. He cried for Peggy, who he hoped lived a full and happy life, even if it wasn’t with him. And he cried for himself, a man who had lost everything and was destined to live an empty life.

Chapter 6: Chapter 6

Chapter Text

Loud banging on the door shook Steve from his slumber, glancing around wearily to figure out where he was. He was curled up on the floor, surrounded by the destroyed remains of his living room. The letter was still snuggled up to his chest and a little worse for wear, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. Steve groaned when the banging started up again, the incessant noise stabbing into his skull. Who knew crying yourself to sleep could give you such a raging headache?

He put his hands under himself to leverage up to stand, but almost face planted when his right hand screamed out at him. The bleeding had stopped during his impromptu nap, but was starting again due to his jostling. Steve hissed at the feel of the glass shifting in his skin, the serum having started to heal around the shards. He was going to have to reopen all these wounds to get the glass out. He used his left side this time to stand, stepping carefully around the books he threw in his rage.

“Who is it?” Steve sighed, leaning against the wall next to the door.

“It’s uh, it’s me,” Tony’s voice said from outside his apartment. Steve immediately bristled, before quickly deflating and sagging back against the wall. He was too emotionally exhausted to feel much of anything at this point.

“What do you want Tony?” Steve muttered, feeling like he would be just fine never seeing or speaking to the other man ever again.

“Can I come in?” Tony asked, more timid than Steve could ever remember the man sounding. Steve sighed again, wishing he was back sleeping on his floor. He’d never had anyone at his apartment before and he sure wasn’t having anyone over now.

“No,” Steve said simply, not adding anything else that the other man could try to use to argue around. He couldn’t stand the idea of anyone seeing his apartment in its current state. It would make him look unstable and he’d be damned if he showed anymore weakness to anyone, ever.

“Okay well, Fury knows you’re awake now. He wants to go over the mission and everything tomorrow.”

“Where and when?”

“Shield building, 9am.”

“I’ll be there,” Steve said, walking away without listening for a response. He made enough noise so Tony could hear and know he wasn’t on the other side of the door anymore. Steve briefly thought about asking Tony if he told anyone about what happened earlier, but he didn’t want to sound desperate.

At first he didn’t care if anyone witnessed his breakdown, because he thought everyone who knew him was gone. But now that he knew it wasn’t real, that everyone was still alive, people seeing that could ruin everything he ever worked for. No one would see the strong Captain America who the world was counting on. They’d see the blubbering mess curled up on the floor. Steve had to build himself back up stronger than before.

He made his way back into his living room, picking up books as he went along. He might not care to read them, but he could give them away to people who would. Steve dug around in his closet for the broken down boxes he had saved from moving and started packing away everything he didn’t need. The books could be donated to the little bookstore he passed on his way to the gym.

The television was a lost cause, so that would go into the dumpster along with his microwave and coffee pot. The clothes went back into the dresser. If this is how Shield wanted him to present himself to the world, that was fine with him. He was here to work and be a symbol for the people, not a fashion icon. The bulk of the bed frame could be salvaged, but he had never really liked the bed, he just slept in it because that’s what you’re supposed to do. He decided to just drag the whole lot, frame and mattresses, out to the curb. Someone would pick it up soon enough. Steve swept up all the broken dishes, tossing the fragments in the trash can.

He looked around the apartment, nodding in approval. The bare rooms reminding him more of his apartment with his ma. They couldn’t afford extras, so Captain America didn’t need extras.
Steve marched back to his bathroom, wanting to get his hand fixed up as soon as possible, to give the serum as much time as he could to heal the wounds. It wouldn’t look good to Fury to have a new injury after he just wasted six days on the last one. Who knows how many people he could’ve helped? Instead he was laid up, wasting time. Captain America was made to work.

He swept his hand over the mess he left on the sink, dropping the remains of his medicine cabinet and wall into the trash bin next to the toilet. He’d have to patch this up some other time. The apartment manager wouldn’t be pleased. Steve dug his first aid kit out from under the sink and began plucking the slivers and shards out of his skin. They hurt worse coming out than going in, but Steve grit his teeth and kept going. Captain America could handle pain.

He deserved this pain for flying off the handle the way he did. The next time he thought about losing control of his emotions, he would think of this moment here, pulling glass out of his skin. What would’ve happened if he had severed a tendon or done some other sort of significant damage? The serum would heal it, but it would take longer, pulling him from missions or making him a liability in the field if he went anyways. You could count on Captain America.

Steve pulled out the last piece, staring in disgust at the bloody holes in his skin. It wasn’t too bad, but his hand looked ugly. There would probably only be pale pink marks leftover by tomorrow. He would just keep his hand out of view as much as possible.

Steve turned on the shower, only setting it to an appropriate temperature, instead of the scalding he preferred. That was a crutch he didn’t need. He stripped off his Stark Tower hospital issued clothes and shoved them into the trash, putting that whole situation behind him. He’d never have to think about this morning again.

He stepped into the shower, immediately shivering under the too cool spray. But it wasn’t too cool, it was warm. His feeble mind was playing tricks on him. If he hadn’t allowed all these weak indulgences, Tony never would’ve gotten him with that lie. If he was strong like Captain America was supposed to be, he would’ve laughed in those women’s faces, stormed out of that room and found Tony. But he hadn’t been strong, because he had let himself become weak. He was trying too hard to be Steve Rogers, to hold onto that person he once was. But he couldn’t be him anymore. Steve Rogers was weeping in a ball on the floor. Captain America would never.

Steve turned the nozzle to cold, forcing himself to stand under the sharp spray. Fear of the cold wasn’t normal. It was worse than not normal, it was weak. There was that word again. A word that should never be associated with Captain America. When Dr. Erskine chose him to get the serum, it was because he was smart and determined and good. He may have been weak physically, but he was never weak mentally. What had happened to him? Everyone dealt with trauma and hardships, but they kept going, got past it. Steve thought he had, but evidently he didn’t, if today was anything to go by. He stood under the water long past the point of being clean, training his body to deal with it. This was how you overcame something. Doing it over and over again until it didn’t bother you anymore. Steve would only allow himself cold showers from now on.

He shut the water off, making himself meticulously dry every inch of his body, instead of hurrying to put on his layers to combat the post shower chill. Steve even wrapped his hand with gauze before allowing a thread of clothing to be placed on his body. This wasn’t so bad, he was fine. Nothing bad happened to him from being a little cold. He nodded to himself in satisfaction, slowly dressing. He wasn’t doing it to escape the cold, he was doing it because wearing clothes was normal.

Steve padded softly into the kitchen, searching for something to make for dinner. All the perishables in his fridge had gone bad since he’d been gone and he groaned at the thought of all that waste. His mother had used every scrap of food she could get her hands on, knowing how lucky they were to have anything they got. She would be so ashamed to see him now. He was becoming so careless with things these days, getting caught up in the excess he never had a chance to indulge in before. But not anymore. Steve was going to shop smart and use everything he bought.

He grabbed a frozen meal out of the freezer and set it on the counter, momentarily wishing he hadn’t destroyed his microwave. But microwaves weren’t a necessity, he had an oven. He turned it on, looking around the room for something to do while he waited for his food to be ready. Everything was already clean and in its place. All of his books were packed up, but he didn’t want to pull one out, since he wasn’t keeping them. He wasn’t going to let himself be bored though, there was always something worth doing.

Steve dropped down to the floor of his living room, positioning himself to do some floor exercise. Being in a mini coma was no excuse to let himself go soft. The serum might keep his body in tip top shape, but conditioning was key. This body would be a waste if you didn’t know how to use it. He decided to start with push ups while the oven warmed up, then do sit ups while the food cooked. The pressure on his hand might not feel good, but it was good practice for fighting through the pain while in the field.

The rest of the night passed quickly, with Steve doing his workouts and eating every last crumb of his dinner. He’d do a grocery run tomorrow after his meeting with Fury, unless the man had a job for him. He decided to call it a night a bit early, planning on waking up a few hours before he needed to go to Shield, so he could take a nice, long jog.

Steve laid his pillow and blanket out on the floor where his bed used to be, setting his alarm clock near his head. This reminded him of being in the Army. Rolling your thin sleeping bag out on the hard ground, wherever you were able to bunk down for the night. Bucky would always be right next to him, half heartedly complaining about the accommodations, moaning that Captain America’s men should get higher quality supplies, with all the work they were doing. Steve would laugh him off, saying he was no different than any other soldier out there putting his life on the line and if they could do it with this, he could do it with less. So sleeping on his floor was just fine. He had a roof and four walls, what more did he need?

He laid back, closing his eyes and waiting for sleep to come. But it didn’t. Steve felt like everytime he closed his eyes, they wanted to spring back open to check the time. Make sure only the normal amount of time had passed. He groaned, turning so the little display was behind him, hoping that would quell the temptation. It didn’t.

Steve sat up, running a frustrated hand through his hair. Another weakness of Steve Rogers coming to the surface. He had to sleep. He wouldn’t be in the condition he needed to be in for his team if he was tired. There had to be something he could do to keep his mind off the idea that if he fell asleep again, he might not wake up. That wasn’t going to happen. It had never happened before. Although, he had just slept for six days after the last mission. That hadn’t happened after any other injury, so why this one? Had the hit to his head somehow short circuited his brain into not regulating his sleeping patterns properly?

He glared at the bright red display of the clock, sitting there mocking him. It was just so easy for it to keep clicking along, doing the one thing it was programmed to do. Steve kept watching the minutes tick by while a plan formed in his head. Maybe he could use this clock, the current bane of his existence, to his advantage. He picked it up, studying the little buttons on top. Steve had read the little instruction booklet that had come with it, front to back, like he did with all the things he bought. He wasn’t going to go through what he did when Tony insisted on teaching him how to use his cell phone. Steve found the thing he was looking for: the recurring alarm button. He could set this to go off every half hour, making sure he didn’t sleep too long. It wasn’t a crutch, it was smart. Steve could fall asleep in peace, knowing he was never too far from waking up again. It was perfect.

He set the new alert, placing the clock back down in it’s spot and laying down. This would be good. He’d wake up tomorrow to a new day. A new day and a new Captain America.

Chapter 7: Chapter 7

Chapter Text

Steve got up before the sun the next morning, eager to set off on his run. The night had been long and miserable, waking up sometimes right after he’d fallen back to sleep, but he didn’t regret his decision to set the recurring alarm. He would not allow himself to lose any more time. He threw on his workout gear and took off to a nearby park. Steve avoided going past the coffee shop he enjoyed, not wanting to tempt himself into swinging by on the way home and picking up one of the fresh baked muffins they sold. Steve Rogers indulged in things like that, but Captain America didn’t.

He ran around the small park a few times, being mindful of the clock so he gave himself enough time to get ready for the meeting with Fury and Stark. It wasn’t quite as much running as he wanted to do, but he could go to the gym later if Fury didn’t have any assignments for him. When his allotted time was up, he started the jog back home. He passed by an ice cream shop that was opening up, reminding him of his first birthday since the ice that he spent in Stark Tower.

Tony had insisted on getting him a cake to celebrate. He had even cut him a big slice too, putting it on a paper plate that looked like his shield. Steve had been touched, wondering if he had been wrong about the man and maybe all the little jokes were just how he expressed his friendship. But then he took a big bite and the inside of his mouth was sharp with cold. Tony then mentioned, from behind his hand to hide his snicker, that it was an ice cream cake. Of course Tony had found a way to poke at him. Unexpected bursts of cold weren’t his favorite. But he had just smiled, choked down the bite in his mouth, and picked at the rest of his slice. It probably had a really good flavor, but all he could taste was ice.

Steve shoved those thoughts away as he got back to his apartment. He didn’t have to worry about things like that anymore. Stark couldn’t get to him anymore. No one could get to him anymore. If Captain America put his mind to something, it became so.

He stripped off his clothes and jumped into the shower, turning the water to cold. It wasn’t so bad. A quick, crisp shower was a great way to start the day off. He should’ve been doing this from the beginning. Steve remembered his mother boiling pot after pot of water on their stove for his baths when the cool water would be too detrimental to his health. And her breaking down in tears when their building finally installed a water heater. The water never got very hot, unless you timed it right, but it was a miracle after nothing but pure cold their entire lives. But Steve wasn’t sick anymore. He didn’t need the hot water that everyone took for granted.

Steve finished his shower, toweling off and peeling the wet bandages from around his hand. It didn’t look too bad, but he’d still keep it tucked away as much as possible. He grabbed his hair gel from under the sink, cursing his bad choices when he realized he broke the only mirror in his apartment. He couldn’t even use his phone’s camera because he had left his cell at Shield before the mission. Steve brought the jar with him to his bedroom, grabbing some smart slacks and a button down to wear to the meeting.

He had started getting a little more lax with his wardrobe these last few months, seeing as no one else seemed to care how they dressed. Tony always showed up in old band shirts and Clint and Natasha always looked ready for a fight. He was the Captain though, so he should hold himself to a higher standard. Why would anyone else consider how they presented themselves if their leader didn’t? Steve styled his hair as best he could by feel and practice, sweeping it to the side so it didn’t fall forward onto his face. Maybe he should just cut it short? Get a nice, tight style more befitting of someone with his title. He wasn’t in the military anymore, but he should still personify the rank if he was going to use it. The only reason he kept it this long was because his mother had loved it so much. She’d run her fingers through it, murmuring about how beautiful his golden locks were. That they reminded her of the wheat fields she and his father had driven past after they got married, the one time they had taken off on a vacation. So he’d always kept it slightly longer than the other boys, so his ma could look at it and smile.

Steve pushed those thoughts away, finishing up getting ready to go. It wasn’t anything he could take care of now, so no point in thinking about it. Especially right before his meeting. He rifled through his drawers, looking for the stash of money he kept in case of emergencies. His wallet was still at Shield too. He looked down at himself, making sure everything was in perfect order. He was the pressed pants and ironed shirt, not the rumpled scrubs covered in tears.

The ride in the back of the cab was spent going over what he was going to say to Fury. First, he was going to apologize. When Shield told him he was going to be paid for all the years he spent in the ice, he had been mortified. He couldn’t fathom being paid for doing nothing. Tony had joked that he was the only person in history who had become a millionaire by being an ice cube. Steve had resolved then to earn every cent they insisted on paying him. So this six day impromptu vacation would need to be worked off and he would assure Fury that this wouldn’t happen again.

And secondly, he was going to ask for a full after action report. He needed to know what he did wrong, so he wouldn’t make those same mistakes. It was embarrassing for something like this to have happened on such a basic mission. But the only way to get better was to learn. Steve expected a full dressing down from Fury and he’d take it.

What he didn’t know how to approach was Stark. Had he already told everyone what happened yesterday? Were there video clips of his breakdown spreading around the tower? Tony had sounded remorseful after the fact, but it could’ve been a ruse. A way to lull Steve into a false sense of security so he could pull the rug out from under him again. He didn’t want to believe Tony could be so cruel, but yesterday had been so unexpectedly brutal that he wasn’t sure if he knew the man at all anymore.

If someone had asked him just a week ago to describe Tony Stark, Steve would’ve said he was a good man. Even after all the stuff at the tower. He would’ve declared that to anyone, anywhere. Tony Stark had defied previous misconceptions he had the second he’d put his life on the line to save the city. Once you got past the public persona and hubris, there was a man who was working to right his wrongs of the past. A man trying to make a better future for everyone. He could’ve taken his money and just lived in excess somewhere, doing whatever he wanted without a care. But he chose to fight evil. To risk a life that could be spent in paradise and bliss. Steve would’ve said that Tony Stark is who everyone should strive to be.

But after yesterday, he just didn’t know. Nothing could discount his almost sacrifice during the Battle of New York, but was there a sinister quality to the man that Steve hadn’t seen before? Everything up until that point could be explained away. Steve had never outwardly reacted to any stunt Tony pulled on him in the tower, until the day he finally left. Even then, he hadn’t shown anger, just quiet resignation while he packed and left. But every time before then, he’d just grit his teeth and pretend it didn’t bother him, saving his true reaction for the privacy of his room. But yesterday, saying that it was in poor taste was an understatement. That was the act of someone actively trying to hurt another person. And why would Tony do it? Steve didn’t think Tony wanted him off the team. Even with all the discord, they worked well together in the field. And yeah, Howard may have been less than a stellar father because he was busy with his mission, but you could hardly blame Steve for that.

Maybe Tony would be fine pretending like it never happened. Steve wasn’t planning on bringing it up, because what good would it do? It would just open him up for ridicule if it seemed like he expected an apology. And it was Steve’s own fault that he’d reacted so poorly. No matter what another person does to you, you are responsible for your own actions. Tony had gotten all he was going to get from Steve.

The cab dropped him off down the street from the Shield building, giving him a short walk to solidify his mindset. Captain America was unshakable. He’d go in, get through the meeting, then move on. There was no need to worry about the past, he’d have countless opportunities to prove himself in future missions. And Captain America fought nazis, he could handle Tony Stark.

Steve bypassed the front desk, heading straight for the elevators. He knew where he was going and didn’t need to sign in. The elevator was blessedly empty when it came and he rode up in a peaceful silence. He’d come to really appreciate the calm that came with quiet, after living in the tower where there was always something going on. And during the war when every little sound meant potential danger. You could never be lonely if you enjoyed your own company.

Steve threw his shoulders back, striding confidently out of the elevator. If Stark had told anyone about what happened yesterday, all they’d have to do is take one look at Captain America and know it wasn’t true. This man did not break down. He was strength personified.

“Director Fury will see you in conference room A,” Fury’s secretary informed him, as he passed by her desk. He gave her a polite smile and nod, noting that she didn’t seem to be looking at him any differently than usual. That was a good sign.

The conference room was empty when he got there, which was also a good sign. If you weren’t early, you were late. And being late told the person who you were meeting that you didn’t respect their time. And that yours was more important. Tony always breezed in whenever he felt like it, and usually sidetracked the whole thing. They were so fundamentally different, no wonder they butted heads so much.

Steve heard the door open behind him and he turned to greet the newcomer, expecting Director Fury. An unusually sedate looking Tony slid into the room, staying near the door. Normally he’d come in talking, complaining about Shield or Fury or whatever it was that was cutting into his busy schedule, but not today. Steve was almost tempted to make a joke about Tony never being this early to a meeting, but he didn’t. They didn’t have that kind of relationship anymore. Steve just gave him a nod and went back to staring out the window, silently hoping Fury would get there soon. He could hear Stark moving around behind him, but he did his best to ignore it. No small talk was necessary in his opinion.

“Hey Cap, about yesterday-” Tony started, before Steve cut him off.

“There’s no need to discuss it,” Steve snapped, forcing himself to take a calming breath. If Tony could hear the anger in his voice, he’d know he wasn’t over it and it would be a weak point he could exploit. “Did you tell anyone about it?”

“Of course not!” Tony exclaimed, sounding more nervous than Steve expected. Maybe Tony wouldn’t tell anyone because it looked bad for him too.

“Good. So we can just forget about it,” Steve declared, turning to eye the man. Tony looked surprised, like he had been expecting something else from him. Maybe a bawling puddle? Or maybe even a punch? Anything but cold indifference. Steve hoped he was disappointed.

“Glad to see you both could make it on time,” Fury said, breezing into the room. He went to stand at the head of the table, Steve and Tony going to opposite sides to stand beside him. “And good to see you on your feet Captain.”

“Thank you sir,” Steve said, standing tall with his hands clasped behind his back. He was ready to hear any disappointment from Fury. “It won’t happen again.”

“Let’s hope not,” Fury said gruffly, signalling for them to sit down. Steve sat stiffly in the chair, keeping his face blank. He knew Fury wouldn’t be pleased with his extended recovery time, but it still stung his pride to hear those words. Steve’s words didn’t hold the power they should, because if he said something, people should be able to accept it as truth. And the fact that Fury had to hope for the best, meant he was prepared, or even expecting the worst.

“I’d like to hear what happened during the last mission from your perspective, since I’ve already gotten Stark’s report,” Fury directed, fixing him with a pointed stare. Of course Tony had already told Fury his version, probably full of outlandish flourishes to make himself look better. Tony always used fifty words when ten would do, and half of them wouldn’t even be about the topic at hand.

Steve started recounting the facts, being brief and precise. He mentioned the robots, Tony clearing the buildings, saving the little girl, and the knock to his skull. If only he’d been better, if he’d moved before the building fell on him, all of this could’ve been avoided. He could still be in his little bubble where he thought his role on the team was secure.

“I never got your message about the girl,” Tony said, glaring over at Fury. “The geniuses he sent to figure out how to stop the robots blocked the frequencies of our comms, instead of the robots. So I had no idea what happened to you until you didn’t meet me in the middle.”

That made Steve feel a little bit better. There had been a small part in the back of his mind that thought Tony was ignoring him, even when he was calling for help. But that would’ve been too callous, even for Tony.

“It was a mistake,” Fury growled, glaring back. “We all make them, even you.” Steve looked up sharply at Tony, tendrils of panic crawling up his spine. What mistake was Fury talking about? Did he know about yesterday? If anyone could sniff out a hint of weakness, it would be Fury. He’d been at this job for so long, it was almost impossible to pull one over on the man. And Tony did look guilty. Had he lied when he said he hadn’t told anyone? Not telling didn’t necessarily mean no one else knew.

“What are we talking about?” Steve asked, staring daggers at Tony. If Fury knew about the incident, he sure wasn’t acting the way Steve thought he would. But what else could he be talking about right now? Fury wasn’t the kind of person to dive deep into the past to play tit for tat with someone, this had to be something recent.

“When I finally got to you, I honestly thought you were dead,” Tony started, looking away from both of them. Steve was taken aback a little, not expecting Tony to feel any type of way about his health and not realizing how bad he must’ve looked to garner this reaction. “There was so much blood and the comms weren’t working, I couldn’t leave you there to get picked off by the robots so I picked you up and carried you away. I found the little girl and she was freaking out, crying about what happened, so I flew her to where all the others had been left, then took you back to the jet.”

Steve bristled a bit upon hearing Tony mention the little girl, thinking back to the older woman from yesterday, but he was glad to hear that she had been found safe and sound. Other than that, he didn’t hear anything yet that could be considered a mistake.

“The injuries you sustained were pretty serious. You had a minor skull fracture and some spinal damage. The doctors wanted to keep you sedated to give the serum a chance to do its job, instead of hoping you stayed asleep while they performed surgery,” Fury explained. “But then you started waking up. Any moving you did would set back your recovery, so that’s when Stark came in.” Fury looked pointedly at Tony, prodding him to explain the next part. Steve didn’t remember waking up at all before yesterday

“Bruce and I have kind of been working on something to give you, in situations such as these. Since the serum makes you burn through normal painkillers and anesthetics faster than they have any effect. We were going to talk to you about it, see if you’d be willing to try it out, but you never wanted to come to the tower,” Tony muttered, staring down at the table. “I had Jarvis fly some over to the hospital and kind of told the doctors we had tested it already. It took some convincing, but I finally got the doctors to let me inject some. And, in my defense, it worked. Just a little too well.”

Steve froze, a million thoughts running through his head. He had been so scared that he had fallen into a random hibernation, that medical intervention had never crossed his mind. Tony was responsible for this? How could he and Bruce work on something like this and not even mention it? They’d had countless opportunities to do so, even if Steve never went to the tower anymore. And Tony thought experimenting on him while he was in such a vulnerable state was appropriate?

Tony was a great actor, pretending he was remorseful in front of Fury, when he had pulled that prank right after his so called mistake. That wasn’t the act of a man who was sorry for what he’d done. That was the act of a man taking advantage of an opportunity he set up himself. Or was it even worse than that?

Had Tony put him to sleep for so long… on purpose?

Chapter 8: Chapter 8

Chapter Text

“Explain,” Steve demanded quietly, needing to know all that happened to him while he was asleep. Tony had never been able to get away with one of his jokes without slipping up somehow. Whether it was a smirk he couldn’t quite hold back, or an unusually placed hand to stifle a giggle, Tony took too much pleasure in his stunts to not give himself away. If Steve saw anything but a stone cold serious face, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. He’d never be able to trust the other man again.

“Since we’d never tested the drug out and we didn’t know how your body would react, except in theory, I didn’t know how much to give you. Banner is better with all that crap anyways, but I couldn’t get in touch with him and there was no time. The doctors were yelling about your spinal cord getting severed if you kept moving and they didn’t do the surgery. So I persuaded them into letting me use the drug,” Tony said quickly, eyes darting from Steve, to the table, and back again. “I gave you 20cc’s, but it didn’t do much and the doctors were talking about having to strap you down so they could cut into your neck, so I injected more, just a few more cc’s. It worked this time, so they backed off. They got you situated in a bed and you didn’t wake up again until yesterday.” Steve waited to see if he had any more to add, but Tony didn’t say anything after a few moments. There weren’t any signs of humor or dishonesty coming from the other man, but he was still wary. He wanted so much to believe Tony was telling the truth about this part, but part of him couldn’t fathom why, after he seemed so worried about him just days before, he could play such a dark prank on him.

“Pardon the interruption sir,” Fury’s secretary said, peeking in from the door. “Secretary Pierce is on line one for you, he says it’s urgent.” Fury grunted in annoyance, but got up quickly.

“I’ll be back shortly,” Fury muttered, leaving the room to go back to his office. Tony was looking around, anything to avoid eye contact with him. This might be his only chance to get answers, because he definitely wasn’t going to be seeking out anymore one on one time with the man. Steve needed to know the whole story, to be able to ask the hard questions, without an audience.

“Stark, I need you to tell me, right now, if giving me too much of your drug was really a mistake,” Steve demanded, leaning forward over the table and keeping his voice low and serious. Tony reared back as if he’d been struck.

“Of course it was a mistake!” Tony gasped, looking shocked at the doubt Steve felt. “I would never do something like that.” Steve snorted at the gall Tony had to sound so indignant.

“I don’t think I ever knew you at all,” Steve hissed, pushing away from the table and stalking back over to the window. He had to create some distance from the other man before he did something he couldn’t take back. Right now, putting his fist through Tony’s face like he had the TV screen and wall sounded very tempting. But if he did that, there was no question their secret would come out. No one would believe the medicine accident would provoke that type of reaction from Captain America.

“That’s real rich coming from you,” Tony scoffed, kicking his feet up on the conference room table. Steve whirled around to stare at the man, baffled by the fact that Tony could argue with him now. Steve had been nothing but professional to the man since the Battle of New York.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You act like you’re so much better than all of us. Even when you lived in the tower, you just kept yourself separate from everyone. Like the only time you could be bothered to be in our presence was when you were bossing us around during missions!”

“Because you were just so welcoming, with all those little jabs at me. Every chance you got you just had to shove cold and ice in my face. So I’m just supposed to laugh it off and have a beer with you after?”

“Right, like you’ve ever laughed in your entire life. You’re such a freaking robot, I wonder if you have any feelings at all!” Tony shouted, snapping his jaw tight after he realized what he said. Steve knew what he was thinking of, because he was thinking of the same thing. Well, at least now Tony knew he could feel things.

“Is that why you did it?” Steve wondered quietly, speaking more to himself now than Tony. Had he been so standoffish that the others thought he didn’t care about them at all? He wished that were true. He wished he didn’t have to form any attachments anymore, because they were always temporary and always ended in pain. But as hard as he tried, he did care about his team. Even Tony. Even after all this.

“Can we just talk about yesterday?” Tony asked, sounding so worn down.

“No, there’s no need to discuss it. I’ve already forgotten about it and so should you. It doesn’t need to be brought up again,” Steve ground out, not wanting to hear Tony try to justify his behavior. If the other man tried to blame Steve for his actions, he might very well lose his tenuous grasp on calm.

“Of course, Captain Perfect,” Tony muttered, turning to stalk out of the room. Steve didn’t bother trying to stop him from leaving, even though the meeting wasn’t over. Fury knew how to contact the man if he needed to say anything else. Steve sat back down in his chair, thinking about what Tony said. He could acknowledge that he kept people at arm’s length, but it wasn’t because he thought he was superior. It was just better that way. This wasn’t his world. It wasn’t natural to form relationships with people who he shouldn’t even be alive to know.

And Captain Perfect? Hardly. But that was his goal now. Being the captain was what he was made to do. That was his role here. He hadn’t been perfect before, but he was going to be now. No more weakness, no more games. Steve wasn’t here for friendships or fun, those had their place in his real life, but that was over. This life he was living now wasn’t his. It was a circ*mstance he found himself in. What a waste it would be for him to spend his time pretending he was a normal person. He tried that already and Tony said straight to his face that he sucked at it. Well, no more. If Tony thought the old Steve Rogers was Captain Perfect, he hadn’t seen anything yet.

Fury waltzed in about ten minutes later, scowling at the sight of Tony’s empty chair. Steve just sat silently, knowing he didn’t have to say anything. They both knew how Tony was and he didn’t even technically work for Shield, so Fury knew how to pick his battles. Fury went over the rest of the mission report, going over what the techs had found about the people behind the attack. It was just some disgruntled group of robotics engineer students who were looking for revenge over a grant they were denied for their research project. Steve thought it sounded pretty petty to cause so much harm and damage over a professional disappointment, but he was glad this wasn’t the first strike of some up and coming super villain they’d have to deal with in the future. He was so tired of super villains.

Fury dismissed him, letting him know that the other members of the team were due back within the next few days, so he could take the time off unless there was an emergency he was needed on. Steve wasn’t too happy to not have an assignment, but he accepted Fury’s direction. At least this gave him time to set up his apartment. He accepted his personal items from Fury’s secretary and set off back to his neighborhood.

Steve stopped by his favorite grocery store on the way home, stocking up on his new essentials. He grabbed chicken breasts, eggs, fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, and milk. That was all he needed. He politely chatted with the cashier, keeping it more casual than he usually did. His new attitude had to include all aspects of his life. If there were any cracks anywhere, it could cause a ripple effect and spread to other parts of his life. Captain America didn’t have room for friends.

When he got back to his apartment, he put his new food away and went into the living room. There wasn’t too much space in his apartment, but not having to worry about a television opened up possibilities with where to put his furniture. Steve put his now empty bookshelf on the street, his old bed already having been picked up by someone. He moved the couch and coffee table into the corner by the kitchen, freeing up the rest of the floor space. He could use this room for working out, whenever the mood struck and his gym was closed. That was one thing he could admit he missed about living in Stark Tower. Access to a state of the art gym with souped up equipment whenever he pleased was amazing. But he’d make due with what he had. Steve gently tucked away the letter about Peggy in the back of one of his drawers. He couldn’t stand looking at it anymore, but he wasn’t going to get rid of it. Maybe one day he’d take the time to go visit her grave, but it was too soon. He didn’t think he’d be able to stand the sight of the fresh grave, with the ground still uneven and the temporary marker.

Steve planned a hardware store trip for the next day, needing to fix his bathroom wall and put up a new medicine cabinet. He should restock his first aid kit too, needing more than just the basics on hand. This would be good, taking the next few days to settle into his new rhythm. By the time the team was all in the same room again, this new Captain America would feel natural. It already felt good, trimming the fat from his life. It was like a spring cleaning of his soul. Goodbye Steve, hello Captain Perfect.

Chapter 9: Chapter 9

Chapter Text

The next three days passed by in a blur of exercise and poor sleep. Steve kept the recurring alarm set, even though he knew it was not his fault he hadn’t woken up before. It just felt safer this way. And it might be hard at first, but he could train his body to deal just like he did everything else.

He dropped the books off at the bookstore by his apartment and leafed through a meal prepping book he noticed on a shelf. It sounded like such a good idea, reminding him of his mom pickling and jarring things she had excess of so it didn’t go to waste. Steve ended up buying the book and splurging on reusable containers he could fill his freezer with. No more coming home after missions to find all his food had gone bad. He cooked all the food he had in his fridge, taking great care to cool and freeze everything properly. This would save him so much time and effort. Time he could spend on more important things. Like training.

Some people might think enhanced strength was the only important thing about a super soldier, but he couldn’t just rely on that. He needed speed, agility, endurance, and stamina. His new living room space was great for floor exercises and stretching. He spent hours in the gym working on strength training, politely shrugging off the owner whenever he tried to make conversation. Steve shouldn’t have even bothered the man in the first place, having to lie to him in every conversation they’d had. His favorite was running. He could do it whenever he wanted, for as long as he wanted. Steve could take off before the sun came up and not come home until the sun went down. His body was a machine and he loved pushing himself to the limit.

The call finally came in to let him know the whole team was back and they were going to meet the next morning. He’d been hoping that they wouldn’t want to meet at Stark Tower, and since Fury wanted to go over things, the meeting was taking place at the Shield building. Steve didn’t know what Fury wanted to discuss, but he hoped it was about the returning members of the team and not him.

This would be the first test of his better self. If anyone could tell he was overcompensating his shortcomings, it would be his team. He’d have to avoid Clint and Natasha as much as possible, since they were most likely to spot a fraud and call him out. Bruce was too polite to say anything and Tony probably wouldn’t want to call him out and reveal their secret. As soon as they went on a few missions together, they’d know the old, flawed captain was gone and the new one he was presenting was the leader they should’ve had all along. There wouldn’t be any pushback once he proved himself.

Steve spent the time before bed ironing his clothes again for the meeting tomorrow and hanging them up on his door. Back in his day, men wore suits. It didn’t matter your social status, you wanted to present your best self to people. He may not be wearing a suit now, but his khakis and button up were still proper according to today’s standards.

Steve moved over to his sleeping area and began his nighttime ritual of trying to settle before bed. He was still so tense every night when it was time to fall asleep that he was trying new techniques to relax. Meditation felt weird and like a waste of time. He was never able to clear his mind, so he just kept going over all his shortfalls. Traditional yoga was a bust because it just made him want to do a more high intensity workout. So now he was trying stretching. Maybe if he loosened himself up, his body would settle along with his mind. Steve meticulously stretched every inch of his body, from the soles of his feet, to the top of his head. His body didn’t feel as tense as usual when he finally laid down, so maybe this would work.

It didn’t work. It wasn’t that he was scared to sleep, because he didn’t get scared. There was just always a chance he wouldn’t wake up, and that would disappoint everyone who counted on him in this time. He wasn’t scared to leave everyone behind again and have to start a new life in a new world. Steve just hadn’t worked off what he owed these people yet. There could still be a little of that drug running through his system, just waiting to pull him under again. He’d slept for a few hours right after he got back to his apartment the first time, but that could’ve been a fluke. It would be irresponsible for him to take that chance, wouldn’t it? Did he even really need to sleep anymore? The serum could probably take care of any typical side effects of missing a little sleep. And was sleep really all that important? He knew rest was, because it gave your body a chance to recover and recharge, but did he have to do that with his eyes closed?

The past few nights of getting a few snatches of sleep here and there before being jolted awake by his alarm were probably less restful than just staying awake altogether. Steve could just lay and rest his body for a few hours, while going over mission strategies in his head. It was the perfect solution. Instead of wasting time asleep, he would be bettering himself as a captain. This was just another advantage of having the serum. An edge no one else had. Steve felt silly that he hadn’t thought of it before. If he wasn’t tied down to a bed for eight hours a night, he would get so much more accomplished in a day. He figured four hours for rest would be a good place to start, maybe a little longer if he had something to recover from. Then he’d be able to get much more running in before he had to go to the meeting.

Steve stared at the ceiling for the next few hours, only moving to hit his alarm each time it went off. He pictured different mission scenarios in his head, thinking about the best way to neutralize any threat he could come up with. This was going to be really good for him. The team would surely be impressed, even Tony. The faster they could get the job done, the faster they could go their separate ways. Them to the tower together, and him back to his apartment.

He decided he’d had enough rest when the alarm rang at 4:00am. Steve carefully folded and put away his bedroll and headed into the bathroom with his running gear. He had about four hours to jog before he had to be back to his apartment to get ready for the meeting. After his quick, cold shower, he headed off, going to a nearby park that was big and less populated enough that no one would notice the same man running around for hours. Steve didn’t need to call attention to himself by passing the same people at an unusual pace. The weather was a little drizzly, but Steve didn’t mind. It was actually quite refreshing. His new relationship with cold was going well. The time passed by too quickly in his opinion, but it was already time to head back. The coffee shop didn’t even ping on his radar as he ran by it this time.

Steve threw one of his premade breakfast meals into the oven, leaving it to heat up while he cleaned up and changed. He took another quick shower and styled his hair in the mirror of his newly installed medicine cabinet. He’d decided to keep it at this length for now, not wanting to waste his time at the barbershop when he could just buzz it off himself some other time. And he thought back to one of the movie nights they’d had at the tower before he moved out, watching a movie where the main character had a mental breakdown and shaved all her hair off. He didn’t want Tony to think he’d had a mental break because of him, because he was perfectly sane.

After he’d dressed, eaten, and made sure he was in pristine condition, he set off for Shield. He sat straight backed and cool headed in the back of the cab, exuding an air of confidence. Steve tried to channel Colonel Phillips. The man always had a strength and poise about him, even during the grittier moments of war. He knew he’d never live up to the man, but it was good to have a benchmark to strive to.

Steve repeated his steps from the last meeting, walking to the building, heading straight for the elevators, being sent to the conference room by the secretary, and being the first one in the room. He wasn’t worried at all this time. Tony wasn’t going to say anything and everyone would be focused on the returning members of the team.

Steve was really hoping Fury would have some sort of mission for them. It wasn’t that he wanted some evil person to be wreaking havoc on anyone, but he needed to be useful. The longer he was sitting at home doing nothing, the longer it would take him to settle his debts. Captain America was made for working and there was only so much training he could do. He wandered over to the windows, looking out at the clouds gathering in the sky. It looked like it would storm later, which would really get in the way of his afternoon run. He’d have to spend that time in the gym then, dodging the well meaning owner.

The door opened behind him and he turned around, standing tall and ready to meet whoever was coming in. It was the rest of the team, all entering at the same time. Of course they did, they lived together. They were all chatting, looking perfectly comfortable with each other. Steve felt a little pang in his heart, but he ignored it. He was separate because that’s what he wanted. It was his choice.

“Good to see you Cap,” Bruce said, walking up to shake his hand. “Heard you had a rough couple of days.” Steve cut his eyes to Tony, actively forcing himself not to crush Bruce’s hand that was still in his grip. Tony really told the team, didn’t he? Steve was not prepared for this. He had been completely sure Tony wouldn’t say anything. Of course he was wrong, he was always wrong. Steve wasn’t going to be able to stay on the team now. There was no way they would be able to respect him or listen to his direction in the field. Why would anyone want to follow someone so weak? But what was he going to do now? Would Shield be able to use him for something else if he wasn’t an Avenger? Would they even want to?

“Yeah, Fury told us you got hit on the head and were out for a few days,” Natasha said, eyeing their still joined hands. Steve hastily released him, stepping back to give himself some space. They were all looking at him now. One minute into the meeting and he was already failing. They didn’t even know and this is how he was acting.

“Oh, you know Cap,” Tony chuckled, pulling everyone’s attention back to him, “nothing can keep him down for long.” Steve glanced over at the other man, feeling pleasantly surprised and slightly confused. Was Tony helping keep everyone off his back? Was it because he was actually remorseful or just so the team wouldn’t know what he did? Either way, Steve was happy for it. He followed the team over to the table, sitting a few seats away from where everyone was grouped. Not enough to be obvious, but enough to keep himself separate.

“Can’t leave you boys alone for a second,” Natasha sighed, leaning back in her chair.

“You were gone for like a month. I think we managed,” Tony scoffed, rolling his eyes at the thought. Steve couldn’t help but agree with Natasha. Tony never would’ve been able to pull off his prank if the rest of the team had been there. But he didn’t have to worry about that anymore. He’d never let himself get in that position again.

“Yeah, and while you guys were playing with dumb little robots and then going home to your comfortable beds, we were doing classified things in a classified place. You know what isn’t classified? That it sucked,” Clint grumbled, laying his head down on the table. They all started comparing stories, trying to one up each other with who had to endure the worst mission. It all seemed so natural. It reminded Steve of his Commandos, laughing and chatting whenever they had down time. He almost forgot why he wasn’t letting himself join in. Why he was keeping himself disconnected. Steve would never be able to fit into this, no matter how hard he tried. Trying again and failing would be too much to take.

“Glad to see you all made it back in one piece,” Fury said as he strode into the room.

“Glad to be back, sir,” Natasha responded politely. “You received our reports last night?”

“Yes, everything is fine with those, thank you Agent Romanoff,” Fury said, moving to the head of the table. “I brought you here to let you know that we have our eyes on a few suspicious groups. I’ve got a couple teams looking into them, but I’m not ready to send you in yet.”

“What kind of groups?” Clint asked, perking up at the sound of another mission.

“A little of this, a little of that. Weapons manufacturing, unauthorized biological testing, you name it, we’re probably looking at someone doing it.”

“Ah yes, same old thing,” Tony grumbled, looking longingly at the exit. Tony never cared to hear about this stuff. He just wanted to go in, be flashy, and get all the glory. Steve knew that it took a lot of legwork to prepare properly for a mission.

“You want us to look into any of them?” Natasha asked, ready to go back out. Steve appreciated that about Clint and Natasha. They were good workers, always ready to follow orders and get the job done. Tony could learn to be a bit more like them.

“No, there are too many to deal with right now and I want you guys ready for when one of my other teams calls in. You’ll all be on standby until further notice. No other missions or humanitarian trips, unless some kind of emergency pops up,” Fury directed, looking around the table for agreement. Everyone nodded except Tony, who looked annoyed.

“You called us here to tell us to stay home?” Tony complained, heaving a big sigh.

“Maybe next time you won’t leave a meeting before it’s over,” Fury shot back with a smirk.

“You left for like an hour to take a phone call.”

“It was twenty minutes at most. Captain Rogers had no problem waiting.”

“Well, we can’t all be your golden boy, now can we?” Tony sneered, glaring at Fury. Steve sat with his jaw clenched, staring at the table in front of him. If any of the tension had eased between him and Tony, Fury did a great job of building it back up. Steve could feel the eyes of the rest of the team pointed toward the dueling men, but he didn’t know if he should speak up. He definitely didn’t want to draw the attention onto himself. And he didn’t think his input would be appreciated right now.

“You were never even in the running Stark,” Fury said with a smug smile, waving his hand toward the door. “You’re free to go. Just remember what I said.”

“I was about to leave anyway,” Tony mumbled, standing up from his seat. “I have a welcome home party to attend with my team. Oh darn, I guess I forgot your invite.” Tony made a big show of patting his pockets. Fury just smiled and turned away. Tony huffed and walked out, not waiting for the rest of the group. Steve stayed in his seat, not wanting to be stuck on the same elevator as everyone else. And he wanted to talk to Fury alone.

“Come on Cap, you should join us,” Natasha said, sliding over to stand by his side. Bruce and Clint had followed after Tony, leaving the three of them in the room. “We’re catching up on the new movies we missed while we were away. And I convinced Stark to order in burgers and fries.” He had to admit, it sounded tempting. His chicken breast dinners were already getting old, but he had to stay strong. Steve made these choices for a reason and giving up this early would just prove to him how bad of a leader he was. If he couldn’t stick to his plan for a whole week, what was the point of even trying anymore?

“No, thank you,” Steve said, with a tight smile, making brief eye contact with the woman. Natasha looked disappointed, but not surprised. He always said no. Steve wished they would stop trying already. When would they finally learn it was better this way? Tony did, but he hoped it wouldn’t take a catastrophic event for the others to learn too. Natasha sighed, tapping the table by his hand softly before she left. Now he could finally get to business.

“Sir, could I have a moment?” Steve asked, stepping up to stand behind Fury. At the other man’s nod, he continued. “I’d like copies of whatever your teams have found about our future missions, if that’s possible. If there are files I can look through it will help us prepare for what we might be dealing with.”

“I’m not sure how much the teams have so far, but I can have whatever they have compiled and sent to your apartment by end of day,” Fury agreed. “Good thinking.” Steve flashed the man a quick smile before he took his leave. He felt so much relief from leaving the meeting on a high note with Fury. Steve knew it wasn’t much, but it was a step in the right direction. If he just kept doing everything right, this past week would be long forgotten.

Chapter 10: Chapter 10

Chapter Text

Steve spent the night poring over the files Fury had sent over. They weren’t delivered until late evening, so it was a good thing Steve hadn’t needed to sleep. He wanted to read everything and be ready in case the call came in for them to head out sooner than Fury thought. There were over a dozen files to look through, most with barely any useful information, but Steve committed each word to memory. He was going to plan out each mission in his head with the information he had, then adjust accordingly as more details were sent. He wasn’t called “The Man with the Plan” for nothing.

He plotted out different scenarios for each mission, using the maps provided and his apartment to act out possible situations. There were always variables that popped up as you went along, but having a solid base plan was always a good idea. Steve thought about going over his ideas with the team, but wasn’t sure if he should. They had all trained together a few times, even after he moved out. Tony never took it very seriously, claiming Iron Man was all he needed to be prepared. Natasha and Clint were always game to work on techniques, even though they were already highly skilled. Everyone was in agreement that Bruce didn’t have to participate, since Hulk didn’t really listen to anyone in the field. Would it be a good idea to meet up with everyone though? He thought he was prepared for the meeting yesterday, but he almost ruined everything within the first minute of the team being in the room. It would probably be a waste of time, since more information could change the plans anyway. He could just call out the moves in the moment.

Satisfied that he had done what he could with what he knew so far, Steve headed out for his morning run. The sun was shining now, so he let himself stay out longer than usual. Running for hours felt great. There was no one he had to think about, nothing he had to do except put one foot in front of the other. The old Steve would be winded after a few minutes, his frail, sickly body struggling to do what so many others took for granted. Not him. Steve appreciated everything his body could do now. He was going to use every gift the serum gave him. Steve should have been the first of many super soldiers, but since Dr. Erskine wasn’t able to make more serum before his death, it was up to him to live up to the expectations. He had to make up for the army that never was.

What would Dr. Erskine think of Steve now, if he could see him? Would he have been proud of the sacrifice Steve made when he put the plane into the water? Would he have been mad that the one super soldier he’d been able to make sealed himself in ice for decades without even seeing the war through to the end? Erskine said he chose Steve because a weak man knew the value of strength. And that all of his traits would be amplified. Steve wasn’t going to let his poorer qualities outshine his better attributes.

Before he realized it, the sun was setting around him. Steve had run for the entire day. He felt like he could keep going forever, if it weren’t for his growling stomach. He reluctantly headed home, not wanting his hunger to veer off to the point of being painful. Steve made it back to his apartment just as the street lights turned on. He threw a few extra servings of his frozen dinners into the oven and hopped back in the shower.

The dial never moved from the cold end anymore. Only a few days in and the icy water felt normal to him. He imagined Tony’s smug face crumpling in defeat as his pranks didn’t work on him anymore. If only he had started this in the beginning, so much drama could’ve been avoided. Maybe that was Tony’s point all along? He knew how weak Steve was and was trying to make him confront it, instead of hiding from it like he was. Tony was never doing it to be cruel, it was tough love. It was kind of like the drill sergeants in the military. They were hard on the cadets because they had to make them strong, not because they enjoyed tearing people down. So while Tony may not have gone about it the best way, he was just trying to help him, to make him better. As Steve got out of the shower and dried off, he resolved to find a time to pull Tony aside and square things away with him. Steve knew he still couldn’t be friends with the team, but he didn’t want Tony to think he was mad at him either.

His dinner tasted great, even though he was eating the same thing every night. It was amazing what a different mindset would do. If you came at things from a negative angle, of course it was going to seem worse than it was. Steve wasn’t missing out on burgers and fries, he was lucky to have access to fresh, healthy food. A little discipline never hurt anyone, it built character. It prepared you for tougher times. He saw a lot of soldiers struggle to adjust to the lifestyle of the Army, but it was easy for Steve. He knew what it was like to have less than nothing. There was nothing more that he needed than he had right now. This life he was living was great.

*

Two weeks later and this life didn’t feel so great anymore. He was currently sitting on his couch, staring at the wall in front of him. Fury’s teams hadn’t called in for the Avengers yet, but since Fury hadn’t changed his mind on the plan, they were still benched. He had sent Steve more files as new information came along, but it barely took any time to read. So basically all Steve did now was train. And that was going fine at first, until this storm front rolled into the city, pelting the streets with constant rain day after day. Which wouldn’t have been too bad, except there was also thunder and lightning. Which still wouldn’t have been too too bad, except the gym he went to had to close for a while due to water damage from the rain. So now he sat, staring at his wall.

Steve couldn’t run like he usually did in this weather. People would notice and that could lead to questions he didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to find a new gym. His floor workouts were getting tedious. Staying in a plank position for an hour was mind numbingly dull. Sit ups and push ups lost their zest quite quickly. His freezer was already overflowing with food, after he spent another day cooking up a storm. He had absolutely nothing to do.

Why was he doing this again? Why had he closed himself off from everyone and everything? If someone had asked him point blank a few weeks ago, he would’ve had an answer. Steve wouldn’t have told them the true answer, because people wouldn’t understand, but he’d know it in his heart. Now though, he couldn’t remember how he got to this point.

Maybe his confusion had something to do with his lack of sleep. Steve’s exhaustion had gotten so bad at one point last week that he had thrown caution to the wind and spread the alarms out to go off every two hours. He could risk sleeping again, just for a little bit. It hadn’t gone so well. It felt like immediately after he fell asleep he was pulled into an intense nightmare. Those weren’t too uncommon for him, but now he had new ones to add to the collection. When he’d first come out of the ice, most of his recurring nightmares had been either Bucky falling from the train or his plane crashing into the water. There would be a few random ones sprinkled in too, like his mom withering away before his eyes or some of the more harrowing moments of war. Now his dreams were about losing time. He’d start off in one dream, watching himself sleep for years, all alone. Steve would try shaking his still body, attempting to wake himself up, but it never worked. He would run around Stark Tower, trying to find his teammates to tell them he was still there, but they didn’t see him. He was invisible, screaming unheard words and watching them go on without him, not bothered at all by their lost captain. The dream would flash to the future, where he was finally awake, but everyone he knew was gone. Steve would be thrust back into war, fighting the faceless people around him until his commanders told him to stand down and await further instructions. And then he would come back to this same apartment. What had begun to feel like home now feeling like a prison. The alarms were the only things that saved him, pulling him out of the dreams when he couldn’t on his own. He’d only let himself have that one night, repeatedly having nightmare after nightmare before he resolved to stop sleeping altogether again, setting the alarm back to thirty minute intervals and punishing himself with wall sits as dawn broke.

That’s why he was sitting here now, contemplating his life choices after a week with only 5-10 minute snatches of sleep per night. Maybe he should go back to the tower with his tail between his legs, begging for a place to stay and some company. That was just his loneliness talking. The fact that he hadn’t had any meaningful human interaction since the meeting with Fury and the team. He said the typical greetings at the grocery store checkstand, but that didn’t really count.

Why had he done this to himself? Steve may have never been the life of the party, but he did enjoy people. Performing on stage may not have been his bread and butter, but he liked talking to the girls backstage, hearing about their lives and dreams and goals. And some of the best times of his life were spent with Bucky and his Commandos, just enjoying each other's company. He wondered what the team was doing right now. Even if they were stuck in the tower like he was stuck in his apartment, their situation was probably much more bearable. They had floors of things to do and the company of each other. Steve could’ve been there too, if he hadn’t been so stubborn.

Maybe he could text Natasha? Suggest a training session at the tower and then just hang around for a while? He doubted Tony would have a problem with it. And Steve could justify it not being just a social call by doing some work. This was a good idea. Steve got up to grab his phone where he left it on the kitchen counter, feeling excited for the first time in days, maybe weeks. He scrolled through the contacts, stopping on Natasha’s name fairly quickly. There weren’t too many people saved in there, just the team and Shield.

His finger hovered over the little text icon, wondering what he would say. Was he going to seem pathetic, like he was begging for a friend? What if she didn’t answer? Of course she would, Natasha wasn’t rude. But what if she didn’t want him to come over? She had been the one to invite him last time, but what if it was a pity invite? A token gesture she only made because she knew he wouldn’t accept.

Steve set the phone back down, glaring at it. What was he doing? He kept himself apart for a reason and even if he couldn’t remember what that reason was at the moment, it didn’t mean he didn’t have a good one when he made the decision. Why was he listening to his sleep deprived mind? He made these choices when he was perfectly fine. This was just one of those hurdles he had to get past. Like when you’re running a marathon and you think you can’t go any further, but you push yourself and hit your second wind and it carries you to the finish. He didn’t need the team to cure his boredom. This was just a moment of weakness trying to creep through and let him go back to the flawed captain he was before. Steve stomped back to the living room without his phone, shaking his head in disgust at himself. That was a close call, but he’d persevered. There would be no backsliding for him. Steve got on the floor and started doing push ups, clearing his mind of his lonely thoughts. He was sticking to his guns because that’s what was best. Once he started going out on missions again, these few hard weeks would be a distant memory. He just knew it.

Chapter 11: Chapter 11

Chapter Text

Two days later the call finally came from Shield, letting him know one of the teams got enough information to justify the Avengers going in and shutting down the operation. The relief Steve felt at finally having a task to fulfill was almost painful. Like he hadn’t realized he had been wound up so tight, that when he finally relaxed, his muscles ached. This is how he knew he was right about what he was meant for. If he wasn’t meant to be constantly working, this time off would’ve felt great. But he only felt good when he had a purpose.

He quickly threw on his always on standby, proper work clothes, packed up his shield and uniform, and headed out the door. The days after his almost relapse went better than the previous ones, mostly due to the weather taking a better turn. He was finally able to leave the apartment and he took advantage of it, running all of the daylight hours. Sleep hadn’t gone any better, but that was fine. The serum kept anyone from being able to tell he was exhausted by looking at him, so as long as Steve did his job, no one could say anything.

He sat stiffly in the back of the cab, trying to stop himself from fidgeting. He really should consider getting his own car, instead of relying on public transportation and taxis. Steve rolled his eyes, thinking of all the cars that sat in Tony’s private garage, barely used. Tony rarely even drove himself, preferring to be chauffeured around the city or just flying around in one of his suits. Steve had left the motorcycle he rode with Shield, since it was theirs to begin with. And a motorcycle wasn’t a practical vehicle, so it would be a waste of resources if he used it. Something with a nice trunk made more sense for him.

Fury hadn’t told him which mission they would be going on, but he knew every file like the back of his hand. Steve reread them every night, making sure each word was seared into his brain. He could not afford to make any mistakes in this mission like he had the last one. He’d have backup this time though, not like before when it was only him and Tony. But he shouldn’t have to depend on backup to do his job. Captain America was a super soldier, he had the abilities of multiple people combined. Steve should be doing all of the hard work.

It was different during the Battle of New York, because aliens. Something like that took all of them. A mission like this, he should be taking all the risks. A teammate taking a hit when he was there to take it was unacceptable. Not like anyone would be getting hurt while he was there to come up with the perfect plan. But not everything could be prevented. Steve would have to make sure he put himself in the most dangerous positions, to give his team the best chance to leave the mission unscathed. He had already lived out his natural life, it wouldn’t be fair if anyone lost theirs when he got a second chance.

Steve bolted out of the cab as soon as it stopped, wanting to get up to the mission floor as fast as possible. He still had to get into his uniform and didn’t want to hold anything up. He briskly walked to the elevator, sending it to the top floor of the building. Shield had it sectioned off just for mission related things and it had easy access to the roof where they’d be flying off from. Steve hoped the rest of the team was there and ready.

Luckily they were, all gathered around a table looking over a holographic image of their mission. Although now that he thought about it, he wished he’d been the first one here, not the last. It didn’t look good for the captain to come in after everyone else. He really needed to get a car. Steve slid into a nearby bathroom, pulling on his uniform as fast as he could. The team didn’t have to worry about making sure they weren’t seen in public in their uniforms, since they all came straight from the tower. And they weren’t dressed in a bright, obnoxious outfit. Steve wished he had something more inconspicuous, but this is what Shield wanted him in, so this is what he wore. So what if it was a big, glaring target for the enemies to shoot at, it looked great in the pictures for the news.

Steve gave himself one last look in the mirror, making sure everything was perfect. This was his first chance to show everyone the new Captain America. The Captain they should’ve had in the first place. The Captain people were counting on and deserved. The Captain he had just spent the last few weeks rebuilding. He was ready.

Steve strode back into the room, walking to stand at the head of the table. He glanced at the information the team was currently looking over, recognizing the details from one of the folders he memorized. This was a great one to ease back into things.

“Hey Cap, good to see you,” Natasha said, giving him a quick once over. He stood tall and strong, pretending not to notice her assessment of him. “Fury hasn’t fully briefed us yet, but the mission is-”

“Only Victory, a small rebel group based out of Ecuador that Shield has had their eye on for a while. They have been making noise about overthrowing the government there, possibly with biological weapons. Local authorities thought they had a handle on it, but there has been talk of branching out with distribution of their weapon once they get it stabilized enough for shipping. We need to go in and shut down the plant and get any information on who they are planning on selling to,” Steve recited, addressing the whole team.

“Yeah,” Natasha said, glancing back at the others. “Were you in contact with the teams while we were waiting for the go ahead?”

“Fury kept me updated on the progress of each potential mission. I wanted to be prepared for when we were called in,” Steve answered, moving over to the display to bring up the map of the factory.
“There are three main entrances visible from the map I was given.” He pointed out the main entrance and side door, plus the large door for loading trucks.

“Any lower levels?” Clint asked, moving forward to take a closer look.

“Not that I’ve seen with the info I’ve been given,” Steve replied, gesturing toward the area surrounding the building. “The warehouse we’ll be breaching is surrounded by woods, so we’ll have to land the jet a bit away from the building. But that will give you a lot of options to find a perch to shoot from.”

“Do we need Hulk for this mission?” Bruce asked, standing to the side of the group.

“I think Hulk could do more harm than good in this scenario. He isn’t known for being careful and we don’t want to risk anything being broken and letting loose hazardous materials,” Steve stated, turning to look at the apprehensive man. “You staying in the jet in case we need you after the site is secured seems like the best idea. We may need to take samples and we don’t know how the weapon is stored.” Bruce nodded, agreeing to his plan. This was going well. The team was listening to his direction and didn’t seem at all worried about following his lead. He must not be in as bad of standing with them as he thought.

“Are you all ready to go?” Fury asked, approaching the team from the bank of computers he had been standing at.

“Yes sir. I have a plan of action and we should be in and out with no problem,” Steve said, standing at attention in front of his superior. If he impressed Fury enough on this mission, maybe he’d bring him in on others, instead of it always having to be Avengers related. He knew he wasn’t technically a Shield agent, but he could still do more than just the big missions.

“Good, that’s what I like to hear,” Fury said with an appreciative nod. “Other teams should be reporting in shortly, so we’ll need you ready to go when the next call comes in. No more six day naps.” If Steve hadn’t already been concentrating on holding himself so stiff, he might’ve jolted hard enough to crack his teeth. He focused on taking one breath after another, his face carefully blank. Did Fury really have to bring that up? Right now? While he was doing so well? Had Fury hidden his disappointment with Steve so skillfully during the last two meetings that he had wrongly convinced himself that things were going to be okay now? Was this a warning, Fury letting him know that he didn’t want to see another failure, but wouldn’t be surprised by one? Steve would throw up if that wasn’t a waste of food.

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Natasha assured Fury, pulling Steve out of his stupor. Was Natasha agreeing with the sentiment that Steve needed to be monitored? Had they all discussed this before he showed up? They could’ve been here for hours before he got there, if Fury called them first. Maybe they had been at the Shield building these past couple of weeks and it was only Steve they didn’t need until now. Just a few moments ago he thought things were going so well. Just another thing he was wrong about. He’d have to perform the best he ever had during this mission so he could gain some ground with everyone.

The team grabbed all of their things, getting ready to head out. Steve was going to be stuck with them for a few hour flight in a small plane, so he needed to get his head on straight. Yet again, he thought he was ready for whatever came his way, but a few words and all of his plans start to unravel in his head. What was wrong with him? He was doing everything right. He was training, he cut out everything that was non essential, he dedicated every waking moment to making himself better. Was there something he missed? What could he do to bolster his defenses against a few verbalized doubts he had earned? Steve Rogers had many harsh things spat at him before the serum. People hadn’t liked having someone that looked like him stand up to their bullying ways. But Captain America shouldn’t have any faults, so when people pointed them out, it was like a knife to his chest. Steve needed to focus on removing any reason for people to doubt him.

He sat alone in the back of the jet, settling in for the flight as Natasha and Clint piloted their way. Steve didn’t particularly enjoy flying, it probably had something to do with a bad experience he had in a plane, but he didn’t let it show. It was just like the cold, something else to overcome. A weakness he couldn’t afford to have. But it was just smart to at least be strapped in during takeoff. And it was easier to forget your discomfort if you were distracted. Tony was his current distraction.

Tony hadn’t said anything since he got to the Shield building, and that was weird. It wasn’t like Tony to not add his two cents into every conversation. Steve had been expecting some sort of reaction from the man after that jab Fury made about sleeping for six days. And now he was just sitting in his own seat, not even chatting with Bruce. Steve thought back to what he had realized in the shower a few weeks ago. Tony probably felt undeservedly guilty about all the stuff that had happened between them. That wouldn’t be good for the team if his head wasn’t in the game, so as team leader, Steve needed to do something about it.

Steve waited until the flight was well underway, coasting swiftly above the clouds. The autopilot was doing most of the work, so Clint and Natasha were casually chatting from their seats. Bruce was thumbing through a book, keeping to himself. This was the perfect chance, since everyone else was distracted. He didn’t want this to be some big to-do, just a small moment between the two of them to square things up. Steve unbuckled from his seat and carefully made his way over to where Tony was sitting, trying to look natural. It didn’t really work if the strange look Tony was giving him was anything to go by. Tony was about to speak, but Steve stopped him with a raised hand.

“I just wanted to let you know that I get why you did what you did. I didn’t understand before, but now I do,” Steve started, looking the other man in the eye respectfully. “You were trying to help me, to make me better, but I took it the wrong way. So I apologize.”

“What?” Tony spluttered, shaking his head at him. Did everyone think he was so uptight that he couldn’t apologize for his actions? Steve couldn’t really blame anyone but himself for how people perceived him. It was a good thing Captain America wasn’t going to do anything that needed to be apologized for from now on.

“I don’t want you to feel bad about anything, because if I had learned in the first place, it wouldn’t have gone as far as it did. I shouldn’t have even had to learn at all and I’m sorry that burden fell onto you. But I don’t want you to worry anymore.”

“I don’t-”

“Thank you.” Steve patted the man on the shoulder and moved back over to his seat. He felt good, knowing that weight was off his and Tony’s shoulders. Steve still didn’t want anyone to know what happened in the tower between them, because it was an embarrassing weak moment, but now he didn’t think Tony would bring it up, since it was settled between them. He couldn’t wait to start this mission and further solidify his superior Captain America.

“What happened?” Natasha asked from the front of the jet. Steve looked up to find her eyeing Tony suspiciously. Tony looked ill, with his face pale and his jaw slack. His eyes were darting around, not meeting anyone’s gaze. This must have been bothering the man more than Steve thought, if his reaction to their talk was so dramatic. Everyone was looking at Tony now, not used to seeing the playboy billionaire so out of sorts.

“Just a bit of motion sickness,” Tony grumbled, glaring toward the front of the plane. “I should’ve flown myself.” The others clearly weren’t buying that explanation, but they didn’t call him out on it. They weren’t the most open group and that was good in this situation. Steve and Tony cleared the air, there was no use harping on it with other people who didn’t need to be involved. The important thing was that they were good and ready to get the job done.

Everyone stayed in their places for the rest of the flight, a little quieter than usual, but this was their first group mission for a while, so it was good to be extra focused. Steve ran through everything he knew about this job again and again, wanting to be perfect. It was going to run smooth as silk and hopefully he’d be back home in time to get a good run in before it got too late. As the plane lowered down in the predetermined clearing, Steve pulled on his cowl and picked up his shield. This was it, the true beginning of his next chapter. He was going to earn this life, even if he died trying.

Chapter 12: Chapter 12

Chapter Text

The weather was nice and mild, perfect for a mission. Bruce got set up inside the jet, waiting for the signal on the comms. They only had a mile trek to the warehouse, so they had to be careful in case there were widespread patrols. Steve wasn’t worried about taking out any unfriendlies, but it would be a lot easier if they were able to get to the building without alerting anyone about their arrival. And he wanted to be swift, to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was a fit leader for this group. Steve pulled up the picture of the map one last time, bringing the group together for a final briefing.

“When we get to the warehouse, I’ll go in through the main entrance, Widow can cover the side, and Iron Man can cover the back. Hawkeye can cover the main and side doors from the trees and catch any stragglers. I’ll breach and secure the weapon and subdue anyone I come across. We want to keep as many alive as we can, in case we don’t find all the information we’re looking for,” Steve directed, pointing out the positions he wanted the others to take.

“You want to go in alone?” Natasha asked, quirking her brow at him.

“If I can cover both doors, Nat can go in with you,” Clint suggested. Steve tried not to let his frustration show at the questioning of his plan. He waited until now to lay it out in hopes they would just agree instead of taking the time to argue. If they trusted him, they wouldn’t need to ask questions, but it was his own fault they didn’t.

“I won’t risk Widow’s exposure to the chemicals if they are able to release some when we get there,” Steve asserted. No one else would be risking contamination but him.

“Then take Tony in and Nat can cover the back,” Clint persisted. Steve really wasn’t expecting any pushback from Clint. He was always one to follow orders, as long as they made sense. This plan made sense. “His suit will protect him.”

“We don’t know what all they have in there and we can’t take that chance. You won’t take that chance. The serum will protect me from anything I come across,” Steve insisted, feeling his annoyance grow the longer they wasted time. They could’ve been at the warehouse by now if everyone would just listen to him.

“Help me out here Stark,” Clint said, turning to the other man. Tony had his suit on, but the faceplate was off. He was staring at the map, avoiding looking at any of them. “We have no idea what’s going on inside that building and it makes sense to go in with some backup.” So Clint thought he needed to be monitored too. Well, that was just great. Had they all gotten together to discuss babysitting duties?

Steve had made one mistake, just one, and now they were acting like he couldn’t take care of business anymore. As if they all hadn’t screwed up at one point or another. But he didn’t see Fury assigning them an overseer. And he understood that Captain America was held to a different standard than everyone else, but it wasn’t like this was a recurring theme. He had finished the main job, making sure everyone was safe. Who cared if Steve was laying there hurt and vulnerable? Everyone that mattered was okay. And he was doing his best to make sure that happened now too.

Maybe being on this team wasn’t the right fit for him anymore. If Shield was worried about him being a liability and putting one of their real agents in danger, maybe he should just do solo missions. He either got the job done and came back for another or he didn’t and then they could send more people to finish what he started. Steve knew he couldn’t stay if the team couldn’t respect him in his role as leader. They deserved a captain they could trust and he deserved to be able to act out his title, instead of it being just for show.

“Just follow Cap’s plan,” Tony muttered, snapping his faceplate in place and stalking off to the open back of the jet. Natasha and Clint turned to watch him go, like they were surprised by him backing his plan. Maybe Steve’s apology had a big enough effect on the man that he decided to go against their supervising scheme. Steve moved to face them, trying to exude an air of confidence he didn’t quite feel. If they just went with his plan, he could prove to them he was good.

“Lead the way Captain,” Clint ground out through a clenched jaw, waving his arm toward the exit. Steve pursed his lips, stopping himself from saying anything back to the man. He got what he wanted, so why bother continuing on with this conversation? Steve marched out of the jet, moving over to where Tony was waiting next to a tree. He was glad Tony hadn’t taken off ahead of everyone, blasting away at whatever he found like he hadn’t a care in the world. The rest of them might not have known how long Steve spent planning out these missions, but they would realize he was still a good leader when this ran smoothly.

Natasha and Clint came out next, having a full conversation with just their eyes. Steve remembered being able to do so with Bucky, always understanding what the other was thinking just by making eye contact. He would never have that again. Steve was too different from everyone in this time. And he would never attempt to try, knowing it would end poorly like every other relationship. Thinking about this stuff, about Bucky, right before a mission was not a good idea, so he forced himself to throw those thoughts away. He had more than enough time to think about everything he lost tonight when he was resting his body, for now, it was time for business.

Steve gestured for the team to follow him and they crept through the woods at a cautiously fast pace. Steve took the lead, obviously, his shield held securely in front of him. The team was flanking him, even Tony was keeping to the ground, instead of flitting about in the air with constant commentary. He never thought he’d see the day where Tony was listening to him the most out of everyone on the team. Steve was glad he took the time to swallow his pride and apologize to the man. It must’ve been what Tony needed to finally be able to trust him. Now he just had to figure out what the key was to getting that with the rest of them. While Tony seemed to be fine with words, Natasha and Clint probably needed actions. So taking care of this current threat without issue would go a long way with them. If he could do the whole thing alone, even better.

They made it to the edge of the clearing where the warehouse sat without encountering anyone. These people were either stupid or co*cky enough to think they were protected from attack based on fear alone. Didn’t matter, because The Avengers were here and they didn’t lose. Steve signalled for everyone to spread out to where he designated, moving into his own position.

This was it, what every sleepless night and training session and boring meal was for. When this mission was finished with no issues, it would make every sacrifice worthwhile. The team would be able to count on their captain again, without having to worry he’d fail like before. This would also do great things for his confidence in himself. He wouldn’t feel like he had to prove himself every second of the day, because everyone would have evidence of his value.

“Go!” Steve called into the comms, running forward in a crouch. He could see Natasha make it to her door with ease, still no signs of life besides their’s. Steve got to his own door, standing to the side of it and listening to see if he could hear anything coming from inside. He could hear movement, but not as much as he expected. This probably was going to be very easy for them. Maybe even easy enough for normal Shield agents to take care of. Is this why they had gotten this assignment? A softball to see if Captain America could still hack it? Well, if it was, he was going to knock it out of the park.

Steve reached out to turn the knob on the door, finding it unlocked. These people really must not be very good at this. He cracked open the door, peeking in to get his first look inside the building. It looked like a low budget version of Bruce’s lab, with all the equipment Steve couldn’t be bothered to try to understand. He still hadn’t seen anyone yet, but he could hear talking, so he knew there were people close. Time to get this show on the road.

“Heading in, standby for runners,” Steve whispered, letting the team know to be ready. Hopefully he’d finish this whole op without them seeing any action. He barged into the room, opting for shock instead of stealth. Immediately there was yelling, men scattering to different corners of the room. Steve ran up to the closest man, thrusting his shield forward into his face, bringing him down with ease. He wished he could throw his shield and take out multiple people at once, but he couldn’t risk breaking any of the delicate glass that surrounded them. On the plus side, it was also keeping the bad guys from wildly firing their guns. None of them seemed to be wearing protective gear, which again either meant they were stupid, or the chemicals weren’t mixed to the point of being too dangerous yet. Steve wasn’t willing to take any chances though, in case his team didn’t listen to him and came into the building anyway.

Steve quickly made his way around the building, the whole thing open as one large room. The men were not prepared for an attack, so they didn’t have any effective offense or defense. They pretty much just ran around, waiting for Steve to take them down. That was fine with him, sprinting from one spot to another, bringing down each man as he went along. He didn’t count more than twenty and none of them were fighters. Shield had mentioned more men, but it made sense for them to not all be in one location. This was the only one they’d found making the weapon though, so normal agents could take care of the rest of the group.

He spotted a couple men running toward the door Natasha was covering and he vaulted over a table, slamming into them from behind just before they could escape. That was too close of a call. He couldn’t have anything go wrong during this test mission. There were only a few people left, gathered together in the center of the room. Steve stalked over to them, ready to get this operation over with. One man decided to be brave, rushing forward and getting a boot to his face for his trouble. Two more tried a coordinated attack, which led to Steve smashing their faces together without breaking stride. There was one more man, standing protectively in front of a man in a lab coat. This must be the person who cooked up all this mess. A good one to keep for questioning. Steve made short work of his guard, grounding him with a swift punch to the jaw. The scientist cowered in front of him, but Steve felt no sympathy. The man had made his choices and now he would suffer the consequences. He bound the man’s hands behind him, making sure he wasn’t carrying anything dangerous.

“The building is secure,” Steve said into the comms, feeling a swelling of pride bubble inside. He’d done what he set out to do. He was perfect. The team entered the building moments later, still on alert, but relaxing when they took in the site of all the men laying around unconscious.

“I guess you were right,” Clint said, toeing one of the men he passed as he walked to where Steve was.

“Iron Man, fly out and bring back Banner. I think he’ll have a few questions for our friend here,” Steve commanded, nodding his head at the scared scientist leaning against a desk. “Widow and Hawkeye, start securing everyone else. We don’t want anyone waking up and causing problems.” The team took off to complete their assignments, while Steve stood guard over his prisoner. He wasn’t going to take any chances.

The only sounds in the room for the next few minutes were the sound of zip ties as Clint and Natasha made their way around the room and the scared panting of the man beside him. Steve took the time to bask in the glow of a job well done. He couldn’t think of a smoother executed mission he’d ever been on. Everything he’d put himself through these past weeks had been worth it. The old Captain probably would’ve listened to Clint’s advice and who knows what would’ve happened then? This was all Steve’s idea and it couldn’t have gone better. All of Shield would know now that the great Captain America was back. The one people idolized for years. The one kids learned about in school. The one they were expecting, but hadn’t gotten until now. This was the beginning of fulfilling who he was destined to be.

Chapter 13: Chapter 13

Chapter Text

Steve laid back on his bedroll, thinking about how the day had gone. After Tony had flown back with Bruce, he left them to deal with the scientist, since that was more their area. He helped Clint drag all of the unconscious prisoners into one spot, propping them up against the wall where they could wait for the authorities to deal with them. Natasha was calling in to Shield, requesting other agents to come finish up. The Avengers didn’t need to stick around to deal with the locals or the bad guys, now that the danger was over.

There hadn’t been much of the chit chat that usually came following a successful mission, but Steve didn’t let himself worry about that. The rest of them were probably just silently appreciating the fact they were all okay and that Steve accomplished what he said he would. The leader they deserved was here.

They didn’t have to wait long for Shield to arrive, since the agents investigating this threat had stayed in the area. They took over the scene, promising to send any information they found to Shield headquarters so Bruce could go over everything, in case the threat was bigger than they thought. It didn’t seem so, after Bruce talked to the scientist, but it was better to be safe than sorry. The other Shield agents were going to take out the rest of the group themselves, now that the threat was a normal one instead of a biologically hazardous one. Steve offered to stay behind to help, not wanting to go home and do nothing again, but they declined, saying Fury still wanted The Avengers on standby in case another call came in. He was disappointed, but followed the directions anyways. He was still on a high from the success of this mission, so it would carry him along until he could go on another.

The flight back to New York was quiet, but still seemed to go by quickly. Tony and Bruce busied themselves with their technology and Natasha and Clint flew the jet. Steve sat in the back by himself, going over each moment of the mission in his head. Even though it went smoothly, there could still be room for improvement. The two men escaping was a close call, so he’d have to keep a better watch in the future. And he should start carrying some other weapons, in case something else came up where he couldn’t throw his shield like normal.

The report to Fury had been brief also, Steve being thorough and precise in his relaying of what all went down. He may have left out the little bit of arguing that went on before the mission, but that wasn’t important. Fury didn’t need to know about any conversations in the jet, he needed to know about the actual mission. A little squabbling wasn’t an issue for him to settle like a parent or school teacher. And it wasn’t like anything like that would come up again, since he’d proved his plans worked and there didn’t need to be any more discussion about it in the future. Maybe he would take Clint aside soon and make sure there weren’t any doubts left in the man. Having a cohesive unit was important.

Steve turned on his side, stretching his arms above his head. He was only about halfway through his designated rest time, but he wanted to get up anyways. It didn’t feel like he needed it tonight, but he knew it was for the best. The op hadn’t been strenuous, but it was good to keep the routine. He didn’t want to change too much up since things had gone so well. And he had already treated himself to an extra chicken breast as a reward for a job well done. That was enough of a deviation.

It had been about three days since he had gotten any sleep, so maybe it would be a good night to try to get a little. The mission going so well might’ve soothed his mind enough that he wouldn’t have any nightmares. Steve settled into a more comfortable position, waiting until the next alarm went off to close his eyes.

A loud banging on his door woke him up, the frantic pace of it relaying the urgency of the person on the other side. Steve sprang from his spot on the floor, snatching up his shield as he moved toward the noise. He threw open the door, shocked to find a distraught looking Tony on the other side. The man was shaking and clearly on the verge of tears. Steve had never seen him like this and he backed up a step into his apartment, feeling the instinctive need to put space between them.

“How could you do this?” Tony whispered, staring at him with haunted eyes. Steve shook his head, denying whatever could cause Tony to look so shattered. “They’re all gone because of you.”

“Who? What are you talking about?” Steve asked quietly, his voice trembling against his will.

“The team!” Tony spat out, glaring at him with so much venom he could practically feel the sting of his words. Steve recoiled, thinking back to the prank from the tower after his injury. Tony couldn’t possibly believe he would fall for this again. And why would the man even try? Tony had seemed legitimately remorseful after, so why would he do this?

“This isn’t funny Stark!” Steve hissed, preparing to slam the door in the other man’s face. He really needed to think about asking Fury to take him off the team. Steve couldn’t deal with someone like Tony Stark if he could be so cruel and immature.

“See for yourself!” Tony snarled, leaning down beside the door and dragging something into Steve’s line of vision. Steve felt all the air in his lungs rush out as he saw what Tony was holding, his shield falling from numb fingers. Natasha’s limp body was covered in blood, her neck bent at an unnatural angle. Tony dropped her in his doorway, her body thudding and settling on her back. Steve gagged behind his hand, the sight of her almost too much to bear. Tony wasn’t done though, dragging and dropping the bodies of Bruce and Clint the same way. They were piled up like trash in his entryway, staining the tiles rust.

“How?” Steve gasped, falling against his wall when his legs buckled and couldn’t hold his weight any longer. This couldn’t be happening. They were fine just a few hours ago when they had all gone home after the briefing with Fury.

“You left them behind, just like you always do!” Tony shouted, banging his fist on the wall, making Steve jump. Tony was staring at him in disgust, shaking his head at the broken man. How could this have happened? Steve did everything right, hadn’t he? He may not have been around for the fun stuff, but he’d been there for every mission they’d called him for. He didn’t leave them behind, he was here.

“I didn’t,” Steve mumbled, denying the evidence that was in front of him. There was no way he had let this happen.

“Oh yeah? Tell that to them,” Tony laughed, reaching down to grab something else. A sob burst through at the sight of Bucky, his body frozen in the position it was in as he had fallen from the train, a look of pure terror on his face. Tony dropped him right in front of Steve, Bucky’s outstretched hand mere inches from his leg. His breaths were coming in short gasps now, on the verge of hyperventilating. Tony wasn’t done though, dragging one last body into the apartment.

She looked just as she had the last time he’d seen her. Hair laid perfectly, lips as red as the most beautiful rose. None of the sixty years she had lived without him visible on her still form. Steve was trembling, staring at the slack face of the only woman he had ever loved.

“You don’t leave people behind?” Tony questioned, poking at Bucky’s body with his toe. “I think they’d disagree.” Steve was fully crying now, the pain of being confronted by his failures more than anything he’d ever felt. He covered his face with his hands, needing to block out the sight of all the people he cared about gone.

“Why did you do it Steve?” a soft voice asked. Steve moaned, shaking his head. This couldn’t be real. “We all were counting on you and you left us behind.” Peggy’s light voice, a voice that used to bring him so much joy, was now stabbing into his heart like a knife with every word.

“I was with you till the end of the line, but you let me fall. You didn’t even look for me,” Bucky’s voice accused, twisting the knife that was already in Steve’s heart. He clenched his eyes shut, pressing his fingers into his ears. Steve couldn’t take this anymore. He needed to get out, but he couldn’t force his legs to move.

“You think one good mission would make us trust you and want to follow you?” Clint’s voice laughed with a bitter edge.

“We’ve been at this a lot longer than you have. Interesting how we didn’t get killed until you were in the picture,” Natasha purred, chuckling darkly.

“I just wanted to be left alone. I’m not a fighter, but you made me come anyways. I’d still be alive if it wasn’t for you,” Bruce muttered, sounding defeated. No matter how hard Steve pressed, he couldn’t block out the voices. It was as if they were all coming from inside him. He’d never be able to escape them, damning him for the rest of his life.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Steve gasped between sobs, his own voice lost amongst the chaos of the rising sounds around him. They were screaming at him now, every failure in his life being thrown at him with violent force. The sounds started blending together, causing a ringing in his ears.

“Stop,” he whispered, begging for a reprieve he didn’t deserve, but desperately needed. The sound didn’t stop though, becoming more harsh and shrill. He could feel the bodies of his lost friends crowding around him, the air surrounding him feeling heavy and thick. But Steve still couldn’t move, feeling trapped under an invisible weight.

“Stop!” Steve shouted, jolting up from where he laid. He sat up gasping, twisting his neck to look around the room he was in. He was on his bedroom floor, his blankets twisted around his body and the alarm blaring next to his pillow. Steve slapped the clock, shattering the plastic beneath his palm. He was shaking like a leaf, trying to suck air into his paralyzed lungs.

The dream had seemed so real that he had a hard time convincing himself it wasn’t. The things that happened in it were impossible, but was there a bit of truth in the words that were said? Were Bucky’s last thoughts as he fell to his death that Steve failed him? Did Peggy live out the rest of her life feeling like Steve had abandoned her? He would give anything to be able to go back and make different choices. To watch Bucky’s back better on that train. To take down Red Skull before he could get that plane off the ground. He had been too weak then, but he wasn’t going to make that same mistake now. All this training he was doing was going to prevent that from happening again. This team would not spend their last moments alive thinking that he had let them down.

Steve kicked his blankets away, shoving them into the corner of the room. It didn’t matter what time it was, he was not laying down again tonight. Especially since his saving grace alarm was sitting in pieces on the floor. He scooped up the little bits and tossed them in the trash, resigned to having to buy a new one later. It was a waste of money, but he would not let himself close his eyes without one.

Steve climbed into the shower, trying to wash away the last remnants of his nightmare. Why would he have such an aggressive one, right after a successful mission? That should’ve earned him a reprieve, one night of relaxation to reward him for a job well done. But his mind wouldn’t let him. Was he never meant to be able to rest? Steve knew he was meant to work, but did that mean he was a machine? He had slept much better when he was at the tower and during the early days in this apartment. Why couldn’t he go back to that? He just wanted to go back to that. Steve gripped his hair, sinking down to the bottom of the tub. He couldn’t go on like this, could he? He thought things would get better, get easier as he got back into the swing of missions and bettered himself as a leader, but they weren’t. The mission went great, but his time alone wasn’t. Steve could distract himself to a certain point with training, but when his mind wasn’t actively being used, the cracks started to show. This wasn’t normal. He needed help. But who could he turn to? He didn’t have any friends. The team were his colleagues, maybe even subordinates if you wanted to look at it with a technical eye. It would be inappropriate to ask them for help with something like this. And they didn’t need to be burdened by the person they should be able to count on, no matter what. He couldn’t talk to Fury, because they definitely weren’t friends and he could block him from the only thing that gave him purpose. There was no one left to help him. But he shouldn’t need help, should he? Captain America was made to be the perfect soldier, not the guy who needed someone to hold his hand at night and scare all the bad dreams away.

What was the right move here? Did he risk ruining the only thing he had in his life by asking for help? Or did he power through, handling things himself, his own way? What would he even say to someone? Help me, I have nightmares? It wasn’t like telling someone would take them away. They would probably just laugh at him and tell him to suck it up. And what could anyone realistically do for him? Talking about them wouldn’t take them away. It wouldn’t take away the underlying truth of what their cause was. He deserved them. It wasn’t like his dreams were random, like being eaten by a dragon or being chased by a vampire. They were his memories, his faults, his failures. Maybe they were just reminders of what could happen if he wasn’t the best soldier he could be.

Steve pulled himself up from his seated position, shutting off the water with purpose. This feeling sorry for himself stuff was over. Hadn’t he just gone through this the other day? This was just a slight hiccup on the road to who he was destined to become. Steve would overcome this moment of weakness just like he had all the others. He toweled off, throwing on his workout gear and taking off to begin his run early. He would jog away the weakness, no matter how long it took. So what if he had a few little issues in his down time? His work life was going great and that was all that mattered. Everything else would just fall into place.

Chapter 14: Chapter 14

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

There was another small lull between missions, but Steve made the most of the days. After spending the whole first day running and that night doing floor exercises in his room, he felt better. That was going to be the key to becoming stronger. If he had anything to deal with, he would run. He wasn’t running away from the problem, he was running through it.

Steve spent the next day buying a few new alarm clocks, just in case. He wasn’t planning on breaking them anymore, but he hadn’t planned on breaking the first one either. It was just smarter to have backups ready. He also used his Shield issued ID with the fake last name to buy a used car. Steve chose a simple pickup truck with a canopy. It would be good if he needed to haul things, or to make bigger shopping trips. No more cabs for him. It was freeing to have one less thing he had to depend on others for, even if it was something as simple as transportation. Now he wouldn’t have to worry about people noticing his uniform and shield.

Steve got the call for the next mission just as he was cleaning up his dinner. It was perfect timing, because he had already gotten a run in and he was in a great mood. The last mission had gone well and so would this one. Steve quickly threw on his uniform, covering the top with a jacket and tucking the cowl into his bag with his shield. He trotted down happily to his car, excited to be able to drive himself to the building for the first time. The ride back to his apartment had always been the worst, since he’d have to hide any injuries or stress after a rough mission from any nosey drivers. But not anymore. Now he was on his own, left to have his cherished privacy.

He was still getting used to driving, the streets being a lot busier than in his time, not that he had many opportunities to drive back then. And it was a lot less fun than gliding along on his motorcycle, but the freedom made up for it. It wasn’t as efficient as the jet the team took to move between buildings, but it would do. Steve had to appreciate what he had, not covet what others had.

Steve parked in the special lot under the Shield building, making a note in his mind to find out about getting a designated spot. It wouldn’t be good if he was held up trying to find a spot when he really needed to hurry. He rushed to the elevators and tapped his foot impatiently as it slowly climbed to the top floor. Steve wanted to be the first one there this time, to get a look at the mission and have his plan ready to tell the team by the time they got there. He was in luck, striding confidently to the empty table to get a good look at the information that was laid out.

It was a pretty straight forward looking arms dealer working north of Igarka, Russia. Just instead of selling them to make money like most would do, this small group was collecting them. They had a small stockpile of weaponry that was growing exponentially, and Shield wanted them taken down before they decided to use it. The normal Shield agents were hesitant to go in themselves, since there was evidence of booby traps all around the base of operations. And just bombing the whole thing from above ran the risk of taking out the surrounding area and drawing massive attention, which was unacceptable. This was a job for The Avengers.

Steve leafed through the papers, seeing if there was any new information he hadn’t already gotten in the older files. Just a few more deliveries coming in, but the agents on the ground weren’t able to find out what they were. Steve rolled his eyes, knowing Clint and Natasha could’ve gotten more info in a day and taken the group out themselves. But it wasn’t his place to tell Shield how to set up the missions, it was his job to lead his team to take care of them. And that was exactly what he was going to do.

Going all the way to Russia wasn’t going to be fun, but Steve couldn’t do anything about that. It was going to be cold, but at least he had gotten over that phobia. The flights to and from were going to be long though, which wasn’t ideal. He didn’t really look forward to being stuck in such a small space for such a long flight, but there was no getting around that. It wasn’t like Tony would have an Iron Man suit for each of them to take. The quinjet was faster than a normal plane, but it still would be a long few hours. Steve covered a yawn with his hand, glancing around to see if anyone noticed. All of the tech agents were focused on their work and Fury was nowhere to be seen, thankfully. No one needed to know how tired he was. It wouldn’t affect the mission, so it was no one’s business.

Steve stood up straighter when he heard the doors open behind him, knowing it was the rest of the team. He had to exude the utmost confidence if he didn’t want the team to question his plans again. He thought about the talk he wanted to have with Clint, but didn’t know when he’d be able to have it. If he confronted the man in front of the other team members, Clint might get defensive and that wouldn’t help anything. But there wouldn’t really be a chance to get him alone before the mission without it looking strange. Clint usually stayed up front during the flights. Maybe he’d take a break during this long one and he could do it then.

“How’s this one looking Cap?” Natasha asked, sliding up to stand next to him. She was always ready to get down to business and he liked that about her. No playing around when it was time to work. He relayed all the information about this mission to the others, going over every detail he’d been given. They all listened quietly, without adding any input. So far, so good. The real test would be when he laid out the plan, but he’d deal with that later.

He looked around the group, making sure they seemed ready, when his eyes landed on Bruce. The nightmare flashed into his mind, Bruce accusing him of forcing him into a life of battle he never wanted. Steve knew Bruce never wanted to let the Hulk out and hated going on missions. How was it fair to make him do something he didn’t want? Even taking the scientist just to leave him in the jet was probably stressful on the man, and stress was something to be avoided. If Bruce was ever hurt on a mission Steve led, it would be all his fault, and everyone would know it.

“I think Dr. Banner should sit this one out,” Steve blurted before he could stop himself, staring straight above everyone’s heads. He could feel their confused looks pointed at him, but he avoided making eye contact with any of them. All he could think of were their dead faces.

“This seems like a good mission for Hulk to be on,” Natasha commented, glancing over at Bruce.

“We can handle it without him. And there doesn’t look to be a science angle to this one, so I don’t think Dr. Banner will be needed,” Steve said, keeping his frustration hidden. Couldn’t they just get through one mission without the team questioning his decisions? He couldn’t say guilt was the reason he wanted Bruce to stay home. Steve was trying to make the right calls here. If he could get away with it, he’d leave them all home and take care of this himself. But that wouldn’t go over well at all, so he was trying to do what he could to at least save one of them from danger.

“What brought all this on?” Bruce asked, rocking back on his heels. “You usually insist on me coming, even if it’s just waiting on the jet.” Now Bruce was questioning him? The man that usually went with the flow, even when he’d rather stay in his lab or off the grid helping others? This is what he wanted, but Steve still had to fight to do what was right. Was he this bad of a leader that everyone needed to question his every decision? Steve needed to give them an answer they couldn’t work around.

“The Hulk is too much of a loose cannon for this. We have no idea what kind of booby traps there are out there and I don’t think we can depend on Hulk to be careful. Taking you as you until we get to the target is too dangerous because there could be action at any time and you aren’t trained for that. They could do too much damage before you’re able to get Hulk out.”

“I don’t think Hulk would let anything happen to me.”

“What if as you’re turning you step on a landmine? Hulk might be fine, but if any of us are next to you, we won’t fare so well,” Steve stated roughly, not wanting to make the man feel bad, but needing to finish this argument on top. This was a good plan. Sure, his other plan had involved The Hulk, but the others didn’t need to know that. That plan was made before the nightmare. Bruce still looked conflicted, so Steve tried a softer approach. “Hulk should only be used in worst case scenarios. We haven’t needed him in the last few missions and we won’t need him this time. It wouldn’t be fair to you to go all that way to not even leave the jet.”

“If that’s what you think is best,” Bruce agreed, shrugging his shoulders. Steve nodded confidently, suppressing his sigh of relief. One less person he had to worry about. One less person who could be hurt because of him.

“Are you all ready for this one?” Fury asked, appearing from what seemed to be thin air. Steve hoped he hadn’t been around to listen to this latest spat.

“Yes sir,” Steve said, turning to face the man respectfully. “We won’t be taking Dr. Banner on this one.” Fury raised an eyebrow, glancing around at the others. They didn’t say anything, so he accepted it. Steve didn’t think the man cared as long as the job was getting done.

“Very well. Good luck everyone,” Fury said, turning around and leaving as quickly as he came. The team remained quiet, waiting for Steve’s direction. This felt nice, like they were finally receptive to his command. It was a little weird that Tony hadn’t said anything since they arrived, but Steve couldn’t let himself get distracted by that. If Tony was having problems, that was his business, as long as it didn’t affect the mission.

The four of them boarded the jet, leaving a worried Bruce to watch from the roof as they lifted off. Steve was stuck in the back alone with Tony, which wasn’t ideal, but they’d manage. It wasn’t like they were going to try to make small talk with each other. He tried to settle back for the long haul, but he couldn’t shut his mind off. Had he made the right decision by leaving Bruce behind? The man probably didn’t mind just staying on the jet the whole time, but Steve couldn’t stop hearing those words from his dream. Bruce had never outright refused to come on missions, but everyone could tell that he’d prefer not to. And it wasn’t like he’d sit back and watch while the world was burning, but this wasn’t one of those times. Only Bruce and Natasha questioned his idea, so the others must’ve agreed. Steve was sure they would see he was right when they finished the mission quickly without needing Bruce or Hulk. They were both valuable, but it wasn’t worth forcing Bruce to act against his will. And this could help set the precedent for Steve going on missions alone in the future.

That was the goal, wasn’t it? To put himself first in line for all the risky missions and let the rest of them go back to how their lives were before he showed up? Clint and Natasha were a perfect unit and they did great on the more lowkey missions where they got to be sneaky most of the time before they went for the final kill. Tony had never planned to be a full time superhero, so he would probably be the easiest to save next. To just nudge him back to his old life with his company shouldn’t be too hard. Then Steve would be on his own, like he was meant to be. No one depending on him, no one for him to worry about. No one he had to fight to lead. No one he could get killed. No one for him to lose. After this mission, he had some serious work to do.

Notes:

Had to make a quick edit to this chapter, just changing breakfast to dinner. Doesn't change much in this chapter, but necessary for the next. Thanks time zones!

Chapter 15: Chapter 15

Chapter Text

It was snowing when the jet touched down, because of course it was. Steve glared at the gently falling flakes, wishing the bad guys only worked where there was pleasant weather. The flight had been mind numbingly boring. He hadn’t been able to do any exercises to pass the time like he would at home, so he just sat quietly, running over different scenarios for this mission.

Clint and Natasha never left their spots at the front, so he hadn’t been able to talk to Clint like he planned. Steve was honestly relieved though, since it wasn’t really the best time for it. It wasn’t that he was nervous or afraid of what the other man might say, but heavier conversations were best left for not right before a dangerous mission. He would just have to be more firm in his direction and not invite questions this time. The others would learn to go along for the time they kept working together.

Tony spent his time either on his tablet in the back, or up in front bothering Clint and Natasha. His earlier unease seemed to go away when he was up front with the others. It was like the other man didn’t know how to act around him after their brief talk on the jet a few days prior. Steve wished Tony would just act normal, but maybe this would be their normal from now on. Now that Tony knew Steve didn’t need to be tested anymore, there wasn’t really any need for interaction except during missions.

Steve slid on his cowl, glad for the little bit of protection from the elements. A real hat and jacket would be nice, but those would get in the way. He hadn’t even brought anything, just to battle the temptation. The others were dealing with the same weather as he was and they weren’t complaining, so he wouldn’t either. Tony was probably cozy though, wearing the suit with the built in heater. Steve picked up his shield, standing near the back of the jet while everyone else did their last minute checks. He was ready to secure another win under his belt.

“We don’t know what kind of weapons these people have or how many of them there are, but I know we’ll be able to handle it,” Steve said to the group as soon as they gathered around him. “The first thing we need to worry about is even getting to the base. Iron Man, I want you to fly in front, scanning the path for any signs of booby traps. Widow and Hawkeye will follow me, stepping exactly where I step. Once we get to the building, I’ll see what we’re dealing with and tell you where to go.” Steve turned and opened the back hatch of the plane, not waiting for any questions or comments. This was the right move and anymore talk would just be wasting time. The sun would be setting soon and this job would be even harder in the dark. He heard them follow behind him, stopping on the ramp so Iron Man could fly up and inspect the surrounding area. The jet was closer and more exposed than he’d liked, but there weren’t many options in the densely packed forest. Anything further would take too long to walk to and from and would be completely out in the open.

Iron Man led them deeper into the trees in the direction of the enemy, hovering low above the ground. Steve stepped carefully behind him, keeping his eyes and ears open for any signs of attack. He didn’t like the fact they were leaving footprints in the snow, but it wasn’t anything he could worry about now. Natasha was right behind him, with Clint taking up the rear position. They moved in sync, the soft snow muffling any sounds from their footsteps.

Tony stopped them with a sharply raised hand, pointing to the ground about a yard in front of Steve’s feet. It was hidden by the snow, but if you looked closer, there was a soft mound not quite matching the natural juts and piles of the forest.

“Landmine,” Tony muttered into the comms. Steve paused, taking a moment to close his eyes and blow out a calming breath. It wasn’t too long ago for him that he was dodging mines and bombs on the battlefield, watching helplessly as unlucky men stepped in the wrong spot and blew themselves to bits. That wouldn’t happen now, thanks to Iron Man, but it was still a little close for comfort. Tony continued on, mapping out their path. The mines became more frequent, causing them to have to make continuous turns and deviations to stay safe. Steve stifled a groan, wishing they didn’t have to waste all this time by not going in a straight line anymore. They had been walking for 10 minutes now and they were only halfway to where they needed to go. He could’ve run this distance in about two.

Finally they made it to a clearing, where a lone building sat. Why did all these bad guys have a warehouse in the woods? Did they build them or just happen upon them after the previous occupants got busted for whatever nefarious deeds they were partaking in? There weren’t any outside guards, but there didn’t really need to be with all the traps you had to get past to get to this point. Most people would’ve set something off before they could get this close. But they weren’t most people.

Steve glanced around, glad the snow had finally stopped falling, but cursing its presence on the ground, covering up anything that may be hidden to hurt them. And the all white backdrop making their dark clothing stand out even more. Once they left the cover of the trees, there would be no hiding. Stealth couldn’t really be the name of the game this time. He wished he could leave the rest of the team behind and take care of this himself, but he didn’t think that was feasible. There were too many unknown weapons at play here.

He and Tony were the most protected in this scenario, so it made sense for them to go into the building. There were only two exits, but Steve wasn’t so sure about splitting up. Although sticking together just gave the enemy a bigger target. And the ability to take them all out at once. Why was this so hard to figure out? He came up with plans for much harder missions on the fly. He had weeks with the info for this one and came up with multiple plans, but he couldn’t remember a single one. Maybe he should call Hulk in? No, Bruce was in New York. Why hadn’t he come? Was he too busy? The reason didn’t matter now, it wouldn’t change the fact he wasn’t here.

Steve discreetly shook his head, trying to shake out all the cobwebs. He needed to stay focused to get through this mission. He had to get his men back home safe, back to their wives and children. No, that wasn’t right either. This was 2012, not 1944. What was he doing here? This wasn’t his time. Why did he have to fight someone else’s war? When did he get to be finished? He was so tired.

“What’s the play?” Natasha’s quiet voice sounded in his ear. Steve perked himself back up, bringing Captain America back into the forefront. His team needed him and he couldn’t let them down.

“Iron Man, take Widow and Hawkeye around through the woods to the back entrance of the building. I want you two to perch up and keep an eye out for anyone trying to escape. Iron Man, plot out a path for them to take to get into the building, in case we need backup. Do not head in unless I give the signal. I’ll wait here until you come back,” Steve dictated, relieved when they immediately took off to their assigned positions. Now he could have a minute to get his head on straight.

Steve’s hands were shaking slightly and he rubbed them together, trying to create warmth. A little shaking due to cold was normal. A few months ago all this snow would be getting to him, but luckily he was strong now and it was barely a blip on his radar. He just needed to get through this one mission and then everything else would fall into place. Fury would send him out on more jobs and the team would trust him for the rest of the time they worked together. This was nothing and he was great. There was nothing that could take him down. Not for good at least. He may go down for a while, but he always got back up. Who else could come back after being in ice for decades? No one. Who else could lead this ragtag group of people into battle? Nobody. He needed to suck it up and finish this.

“Cap!” Tony whisper-yelled into his comm. Steve whirled around, bringing his shield up to attack. Iron Man was standing behind him, arms up in surrender. Steve hadn’t heard the man approach at all and his heart was slamming into his ribs. The suit was made to be quiet, but Steve was still displeased by the fact he’d been snuck up on. He was sure he’d be hearing about this for ages, the other man bragging about getting the drop on him.

“Follow my lead,” Steve growled, turning back toward the building. He’d give them all something to talk about. This would end up being as easy as the last mission, he was sure of it.

*

He was wrong. So, so wrong. Steve was laying flat on his back behind some crates, trying to catch his breath. Things had gone badly, quickly. If he ever found out which Shield agents had worked this job, he would punch them all square in the jaw. It was one thing to not have all the details about what kind of weapons these guys were stockpiling, but it would’ve been nice to know that they took a particular liking to explosives. It might’ve made Steve more prepared for when a rocket launcher was shot at him, striking a glancing blow off his shield. And he might’ve been more prepared for his right forearm to snap as he fell on it, trying to break his fall. But it was too late for wishing now. Now he had to get back to work.

Steve could hear Iron Man blasting away as he pulled himself up to a sitting position. He poked at his arm, stifling a gag as he felt the raised bump of his bone under his skin. At least it wasn’t a compound fracture. He gripped his arm close to his wrist, gritting his teeth as he did what he had to do. Steve pulled sharply, feeling the two ends of the broken bone slide back into place. He huffed out a few quick breaths, concentrating on the little puffs of fog instead of the black spots trying to creep in from the edges of his vision. He needed to get back out there to fight with his team, not sit in the corner and hide because his arm hurt a little bit.

Steve peeked around the side of one of the crates, trying to get a better look at what was happening. Iron Man was holding his own, dodging the men that were shooting smaller rounds at him, stopping the others from loading up a bigger weapon. There were a lot of them though, so he wouldn’t be able to hold them off for long. If one thing hit wrong, the entire building could go up in flames. Steve slid his shield carefully onto his right arm, knowing it would be better to have his uninjured arm free for fighting.

He darted out from his spot, deflecting a blast back to the shooter, taking off the side of his head. There were at least 20 men still standing, all with access to countless weapons. All it would take was another lucky shot and The Avengers could be down a member. Steve needed Clint and Natasha, but they would be the most vulnerable in this fight.

“Try to push them out the back. Take them out as soon as you see anyone,” Steve called, kicking one man through the back door. Clint and Natasha could still do some damage from the safety of their positions. Now that the door had been opened, a few of the less brave men decided to make a run for it. Steve could hear the quiet thwack of arrows hitting home. He tried not to focus on the disappointment he felt from needing help from his whole team and instead turned his attention to taking some of the heat off Iron Man. Tony seemed to be doing well, but it wasn’t his job to take the brunt of the attack. He whipped his shield at a trio of men fiddling with a bazooka, momentarily forgetting about his damaged arm. It didn’t have quite the velocity it normally had, but it still hit its target. Steve cringed as he secured it back into its spot, feeling the weight resting directly over the break in his arm.

The enemy was down to half by this point, so the end was finally in sight. It was a good thing, since the sun was rapidly starting to set. He did not want to go traipsing through the woods in the dark. At least they’d have the light from Iron Man to guide them. Steve darted behind another crate, just as a grenade was thrown at him. He barely got his shield up in time to block the shards of wood that shot up from the impact. Ice and bombs, two of his least favorite things. This mission was like something out of one of his nightmares.

A startled shout from Tony made every one of his hairs stand up on end. That was not a sound that normally came from Tony. Steve spun to look right as Iron Man fell straight to the floor like a dead weight. He blinked in surprise, not able to force his body to move at the sight of something that couldn’t be right. The sound of another missile locking into place jolted him into moving, sprinting faster than he could ever remember toward his downed teammate. He didn’t know what he would find, but anything was better than being blown to bits. Steve dove on top of Tony, using the momentum to roll them out of the line of fire, just as the projectile hit home. The blast was hot, but Steve didn’t take the time to consider how close they’d come to death, dragging Tony to a place they would be protected for a moment so he could check on the other man. Tony hadn’t made a sound since he hit the ground and Steve prayed this wasn’t the end. That his worst fears had come true.

Steve gripped the edge of the faceplate of the suit, sending up another pleading thought to any deity who would listen, before prying off the barrier between him and his teammate. Tony’s shocked eyes were staring up at him. His very alive shocked eyes. Steve choked out a sob, coughing a few times to cover the emotional noise he let slip through.

“That was close,” Tony huffed, glancing wildly around. Steve just nodded, mentally going back to the moment Tony had fallen from space. It was almost the same scene, just with less alien bodies scattered around. But the feeling was the same. Both times Steve had thought he’d just seen the other man die and both times the relief he felt at being wrong was indescribable. Steve felt the overwhelming urge to curl up in a ball and never fight again, but he couldn’t do that. They were still in danger and had to finish the job.

“We need to get back out there,” Steve said, moving around to see if anyone was getting ready to strike. The bad guys seemed to be regrouping, giving them a bit of a reprieve for the moment. But he knew it wouldn’t last long.

“That’s gonna be a problem,” Tony said quietly. Steve looked over at the man again, noticing he hadn’t moved an inch.

“Are you injured?” Steve asked, trying to stamp down on his feelings of panic. Had Tony been hurt when he fell out of the air? It wasn’t that big of a drop, but it didn’t take much if you hit the ground wrong. And had their little roll done even more damage? Steve didn’t think he’d be able to forgive himself if he did irreversible damage to the other man.

“No, but my suit is dead,” Tony answered, sounding way too calm. Steve almost threw up just hearing the man say the word “dead.” What were they supposed to do now? Steve had never considered this. He had seen the damn suit take so much damage before, but keep on going. Now, in the middle of frozen nowhere, surrounded by bad guys with bombs, the suit was just going to crap out on them?

“The Iron Man suit is down,” Steve called into the comms, putting his pride aside for now to focus on getting the job done. “We need to shut this down now. Approach the door carefully and take out as many as you can from outside.”

“On it,” they both said, simultaneously. Steve moved Tony into a more protected position and snapped his faceplate back on, feeling his arm burn in protest. He couldn’t think about that now though. He had to cover Tony no matter what, since he was basically a sitting duck. At the sound of a bullet from Natasha’s gun hitting home, Steve sprang up from his position, hurling his shield with a force powered by desperation more than anything else. It took out two men, before being shot out the front door by a small explosion. Steve stared after it for a second, feeling oddly betrayed by the object abandoning him like that. Wasn’t he planning on carrying backup weapons? What happened to that plan?

Steve felt an unusual amount of anger start to bubble up inside of him. Is this what Bruce felt before he turned into the Hulk? This is what Steve had felt right before he destroyed his apartment. He let the feeling grow, instead of tamping down on that ugly part of him. This was the time to let it out.

Steve vaulted over the crate in front of him, landing a kick to the closest man’s head. He didn’t wait to see if that man was down, moving onto the next with a precise wrath. The next man got his neck snapped, because efficiency was key. There wasn’t time for long, drawn out, hand to hand combat. This was war and it was ugly. There was no choreography, no rules. You fought as dirty as you needed to and Steve knew how to play it filthy. You didn’t get your ass kicked in grimy alleys as much as he did without learning a few things. And he was putting those lessons to good use. Steve let his body lead, his mind taking a backseat in this dance he knew by heart. He didn’t care about the weapons at this point, knowing any hesitation could be his downfall. He just kept his body moving, not giving anyone a sitting target. Steve could hear things blowing up around him, but he wasn’t paying attention to it. He knew nothing but the fight. There were only a few men left, they were almost finished. If he could just get rid of these last men, he could be done. Just a couple more.

“Steve!” Natasha’s voice shouted into his ear. Steve? They didn’t call him Steve. He paused, taking in his surroundings. There was a pile of bodies next to him, none of them moving. Was it over?

“Wake the f*ck up Steve, the building is gonna blow!” yelled Clint, a hint of desperation leaking through into his words. Clint was always calm though. And did he just call him “Steve” too? Now that he wasn’t moving, he could smell the smoke. There was a lot of it, coming from a few different places. That wasn’t a good thing, in a room full of explosives. Steve looked toward the back door where Clint and Natasha were standing, a wall of fire blocking their entrance into the building. They should probably be running.

“Get to the trees! I’ve got Tony!” Steve called out, rushing back to where the billionaire was stuck behind some boxes. Luckily the fire hadn’t spread that far, because Steve wasn’t even sure he would’ve noticed. He hoisted the man over his shoulder, running toward the open front door. Steve carefully picked his way across the snow, following the exact same path he had going in. He gratefully stooped down to scoop up his shield that he passed on the way, feeling better now that he had his familiar item back in his possession. Steve set Tony down where they had sat before, throwing his body over the man with the shield overhead as the building was rocked by a violent explosion. Weren’t they trying to avoid something like that happening?

Debris was falling all around them, a few pieces pinging off the shield above their heads. A bigger slab of building fell hard a few yards away, landing on a mine and setting it off. Dirt and snow rained down on them and more mines followed suit as more chunks of the building were falling around them. Steve could feel his body start to shake uncontrollably, his mind trapped in a battlefield he thought he left behind. He could smell the burning flesh of the people caught in the blasts, hear their dying screams as the pain overwhelmed them in their final moments. This is how he’d always known he’d die, from the first time he’d tried to enlist in the war. He’d accepted it, because it was more honorable to die in war than to never even fight. His father had proudly died in service to his country and now he was following in the family legacy.

“Steve!” Tony’s muffled voice shouted from behind his helmet. What was with everyone calling him by his name all of a sudden? Did they all just decide he wasn’t good enough to be referred to as Captain anymore? He looked down at the man underneath him, his breaths coming out in short gasps. Now that he was thinking about it, there wasn’t really enough air getting into his lungs. Steve scrambled off the man, staying close enough to provide protection if needed, but giving himself enough space to put himself back together. Once again, he was falling apart in front of Tony Stark. What was it about this man that made it so easy for him to get past Steve’s defenses? He needed to put as much distance between them as possible.

The forest around them was starting to settle, at least as much as it could at this point. There didn’t seem to be anything else from the building falling on top of them, which was a start. There was still danger though and they needed to regroup and get back to the jet.

“Natasha, Clint, come in!” Steve shouted, hoping he’d get an answer. If they had said anything since they’d run out of the building, he didn’t hear it. He’d been pretty far inside his own head, which added with the sounds around him didn’t help things.

“We’re okay, making our way toward you,” Natasha answered promptly, releasing a sigh of relief from Steve. This would all be okay, since the whole team was okay. Nothing else mattered right now, as long as everyone made it home. He caught sight of Natasha and Clint carefully picking their way through the trees toward them, a small smile gracing his face for the first time in a long time.

A sudden boom roared through the night, a giant plume of smoke billowing into the sky. The ground shook from the force, but Steve didn’t feel it. He was frozen still, looking in the direction of the blast. It hadn’t come from too far away, but he was begging in his heart that it wasn’t where he thought it was. They hadn’t seen anything along the way that would cause such an explosion. It could only mean one thing. Their way out of this place had just gone up in flames.

Chapter 16: Chapter 16

Chapter Text

Steve stared at the smoke drifting over the trees, his mind stuttering and shifting before it could formulate a complete thought. What did he do? They were stuck. They were going to die here. This wasn’t right. He was the only one meant to die. Not Tony. Not Natasha. Not Clint. Not Bruce. Bruce. Bruce was on that plane. He just got blown up. Bruce always followed orders, so there was no way he would’ve left the plane. Steve killed him.

Why wasn’t anyone else panicking? They had just lost one of their own. Didn’t they care? Weren’t they all so close? He knew they wouldn’t be bothered by his death, but this was Bruce. The one they turned to when they needed help or a cool head. For him to be gone now was just inconceivable. His chest hurt, every breath he was taking harder to come by than the last. This was wrong. He was the only one allowed to get hurt. If he wasn’t the one taking the hits, what was he there for?

His legs felt numb. Was it really that cold? It was autumn in Russia and the sun was going down, but he shouldn’t be feeling this cold yet. He’d trained for this. But even still, Steve couldn’t feel the lower half of his body anymore. Was everyone else feeling like this too? Tony probably shouldn’t be lying on the ground right now, even with the protection of the suit. They couldn’t lose another person.

Steve staggered the two steps over to the man, dropping unsteadily to his knees. He almost face planted, but caught himself on his right arm. It exploded in pain, the edges of the break rubbing against each other and threatening to shift again. He couldn’t do this. He didn’t know how to get them out of here. He was too weak and he’d let them all down. Steve could feel himself start to hyperventilate, his breaths sawing in and out a few inches from Tony’s still body. He could hear the man yelling from behind his helmet, but Steve couldn’t focus on the words.

“Steve! Look at me. What’s wrong?” Natasha demanded, sliding in front of him. When had she gotten here? And how could she be asking what was wrong?

“Bruce,” Steve whispered in anguish. Saying his name out loud making the pain in his heart multiply.

“He’s home, remember? Bruce stayed in New York,” Natasha said, cupping his face in her hands. Was that true? Was Bruce okay? Why couldn’t he remember? He didn’t think Natasha would lie about something like that and it made sense since the team didn’t have any kind of reaction to the loss, but it was still hard to accept. It would just hurt a million times worse if she was wrong.

“Are you sure?” Steve gasped, feeling his breath start to calm a bit. Natasha’s hands were so warm and soft. He never touched anyone anymore, unless it was to do damage. And no one touched him. Steve closed his eyes, leaning into her gentle hold. How could hands that could cause so much damage feel so nice?

“I’m positive,” Natasha assured, whistling quietly under her breath. Steve heard Clint approaching, but didn’t open his eyes. He just wanted to stay like this, just for a few more moments. For one minute, someone could take care of him for a change. “Clint’s gonna take off your cowl for a second. I think you might’ve hit your head.” Steve hummed in agreement, letting Natasha do whatever she wanted. He would be fine now. Steve felt Clint’s careful hands removing his cowl, the cold wind immediately blowing through his sweat soaked hair. Clint’s fingers prodded at his scalp, searching for something. Steve wasn’t sure what, but it still felt nice. At least until they came across a tender spot.

“Visibility is sh*t right now, but I’m pretty sure that’s blood,” Clint said, bringing his fingers around in front of their faces. Steve could see better than most in the dark, thanks to the serum, so he saw the sticky red liquid coating the other man’s fingertips. How had that happened? He didn’t remember hitting his head during the fight. But now that he was aware of it, his head was throbbing. There was an aggressive drummer beating away at the back of his skull.

Steve shook off Natasha’s hands, scooting away from everyone. They couldn’t know he was injured, because injured meant weak. He already looked stupid, forgetting that Bruce wasn’t even here. The unknown head injury must’ve been playing tricks on him. The hit had to have come pretty early, which is why he felt so out of sorts. He figured the only good thing about a possible concussion is that the team couldn’t really hold his little breakdown against him.

“Will someone take this faceplate off of me!” Tony shouted, the rigid suit rattling a bit from the force of his struggling. Natasha scoffed, prying off the metal and uncovering the angry face of the stuck man. Tony’s eyes were darting around, stopping when he made eye contact with him. Steve looked away quickly, not wanting to see what the other man was thinking. Tony had been there for the whole breakdown, trapped and forced to witness his leader fall apart while he was helpless to stop it.

“What the hell happened to your suit?” Clint asked, crouching down to poke at his leg.

“I got blasted out of the air by something. Some kind of electric jolt. Everything immediately went offline and the whole suit locked up,” Tony growled, jiggling as best he could in his temporary prison.

“So I guess you flying us out of here isn’t going to happen,” Clint chuckled, wiping his bloody fingertips off in the snow. He tossed the cowl back toward him, the hood bouncing off his chest and landing on the ground before Steve even noticed it heading his way. Clint frowned at him, eyeing him a bit more closely. Even at his worst, his reflexes were better than that. Steve snatched it up, thankful for the extra bit of protection from the elements and from prying eyes.

“I can’t even walk,” Tony growled, his face probably as red as his suit by this point.

“It’s about to get really cold, really fast, so I suggest we stop sitting around here and find some place to hunker down for the night. We still can’t be sure if there is anyone out here looking for us, so staying right next to this building would make us sitting ducks,” Natasha said, standing up and brushing the snow off her legs. She was right and Steve was angry at himself that she’d even had to say it. He was supposed to be the one to rally the troops, to get everyone where they needed to go.

“Aw, but I wanted to stay and roast marshmallows,” Clint whined, standing up and beginning to hoist Tony up into a vertical position. Steve scrambled up, not about to let Clint carry the heavy man.

“I got him,” Steve said, jerking Tony by the arm to his side. Clint scoffed, pulling Tony back toward him. Steve glared at the other man, tightening his grip on the suit.

“Why does this feel like kids fighting over an action figure?” Tony asked, grunting in protest of all the rough handling.

“It’s not a fight because I’m carrying you,” Steve asserted, staring harshly at Clint to try to force him to back down. These people were too stubborn sometimes. Of course he was going to be the one to carry Tony. He was the strongest and anyone else doing it would just slow them down. Who knew how long they’d be walking?

“But you’re injured,” Clint said calmly. Great, now they were talking to him like he was a child. He was older than all of them, technically.

“A little bump on the head isn’t going to affect my ability to carry him,” Steve snapped, wrenching Tony fully out of his grip. Clint put his hands up and stepped back a little, surrendering to Steve’s will. Carrying a person was like nothing to him. They didn’t need to know about his broken arm because he wouldn’t let it get in the way. He could just carry Tony on his left side. Steve hoisted the rigid metal man onto his shoulder, adjusting him as best he could so it was less awkward. Tony was muttering under his breath about the view, but Steve ignored him. He needed to focus on the important things.

“Let’s head back to the jet and see if anything is salvageable. Then we can try to find some sort of shelter for the night and figure out our next moves in the morning,” Steve commanded, moving to the front of the group. Natasha quickly shifted in front of him, blocking the way. She was holding his shield, staring at him curiously. Forgetting his shield was just another tally mark on his failure chart. He was glad it was too dark for Natasha to get a good look at his face. She probably didn’t need to, with all of her training. She most likely smelled the shame rolling off of him.

“Let me go in front. We don’t know if anyone is lurking around here and it’ll be easier for me to spot them and get a shot off. You’ve got your hands full,” Natasha said casually, sliding his shield onto his free arm. He didn’t let any pain show on his face. She turned quickly and started off, taking a page out of his playbook. There wasn’t really any point in arguing now.

They walked carefully, trying to take the path from earlier as best they could. The ground had been unsettled by all the explosions, but there were still a few areas where they could see their old footprints. Clint was a few paces behind him, letting out a soft snicker every few minutes.

“What’s so funny, Barton?” Tony mumbled, his voice bouncing in time with every step Steve took.

“Just wondering what you were referencing when you mentioned the view. Was it the ground or Cap’s ass?” Clint giggled. Steve rolled his eyes, heaving out an exasperated sigh. They needed to concentrate, but instead, Clint was making jokes. As if things weren’t bad enough.

“Is that why you wanted to carry me so badly? Jealous I wouldn’t be staring at yours?” Tony shot back, smug satisfaction coloring his words. “Spangles isn’t really my type. I much prefer someone better at cuddling.” Steve stiffened a little, his feelings a bit hurt, even though he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like he wanted to be Tony’s type and he knew the man was joking, but it was just dredging up more feelings of inadequacy.

If everything had worked out on that last mission before the ice, would things have progressed with Peggy like he wanted? In reality, they hadn’t spent too much time together over those couple of years. They had the brief time on base before the serum, but then he went on the USO circuit and didn’t see much of her at all. They worked together a bit while he was putting his team together, but then he was almost always out fighting. And then there was the one kiss, right before he got on the plane. Would she have still cared for him if they had really gotten to know each other? Would she have brushed him aside when she realized he wasn’t so different from the small man getting punched in alleyways? No one had wanted that Steve, the one whose body didn’t match his heart. Try as he might, he couldn’t fully leave that part of him behind. Steve Rogers kept finding ways for Captain America to make a mistake. Would Peggy have eventually gotten tired of Steve not living up to his true potential?

Bucky never would have left his side, he was sure of it. He’d been there when Steve was nothing and never judged him for it. Steve knew he’d never experience that again and it hurt. It hurt to hear the casual banter the group shared. Even when he was living with the team, he was never a part of it. That comradery that seemed to come so naturally with the Commandos was just stunted for him here. And he didn’t mean to be jealous of the rest of the team. He was happy they were so close, it was just hard to witness it from the sidelines.

They made it to the edge of the clearing where the jet was without encountering any unfriendlies. The wreckage was still burning, putting out a thick smoke into the cold night air. Any hopes of salvaging anything disappeared quickly, the plane little more than a black husk by this point. Steve stared at the remains of their way home, constantly reminding himself in his head that Bruce wasn’t
burned to ash inside. If it hadn’t been for that nightmare, Bruce would be dead. He didn’t think the Hulk could save him that quick.

Steve made a circuit around the space, keeping his ears open for enemies and his eyes open for traps. If someone had happened upon the jet and blown it up, they could still be hiding nearby. Clint and Natasha were picking through the edge of the fire, looking for anything that could help them or answer some questions. The light from the fire was the last bit of visibility they’d have for the night, with the moon being masked by thick clouds that threatened to pour snow down on them at any moment. They needed to find a place to hunker down for the night, as soon as possible.

Steve tried to bring up the map he’d studied of the surrounding area in his mind, attempting to figure out where there would most likely be some shelter. There weren’t any significant mountains in the area, but there had to be some naturally occurring hills and valleys. Maybe not a full cave, but an outcrop or something they could huddle under until the sun came up. But Steve’s brain was drawing a blank. Of all the times to have a head injury. Any other time and he’d be sharp. He would just have to rely on his instincts.

“We didn’t see any signs of someone being here besides us, so I don’t think our plane was specifically targeted,” Natasha said, jogging up carefully with Clint. “I think it was just bad luck.”
“Of all the places for a bomb to go off,” Clint groaned in disgust. Steve pursed his lips, cursing the fact he didn’t have them land further away. He knew they had chosen here for a reason, but if they had just been a few miles further, they’d be in the air and on their way home by now.

“Can we find somewhere to stop for the night please?” Tony moaned from his spot on Steve’s shoulder. “I’m really sick of being in this position.” Steve repositioned him a bit, trying to get Tony to a better angle. He would be losing his mind if he was stuck immobile like that, relying on the team for everything. Thank goodness he couldn’t remember the years in the ice.

“Let’s head this way,” Steve said, dipping his head in the direction opposite the way they came. He didn’t know what they would come across, but logic said to get as far away from the bad guys’ lair as possible. And there was less of a chance of running across a trap the further they got away. Losing a leg was the last thing they needed. Natasha took the lead spot again before he could stop her, but he didn’t feel as bothered by it this time. His head was really hurting now and his arm was burning. And carrying Tony, which should’ve felt like nothing, was draining his energy. Steve felt like he did before the serum, run down after the slightest bit of exertion. But he wouldn’t trade off with Clint. He could do this.

They made slow progress, picking carefully through the trees. Steve focused on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to distract himself from his current reality. This was like every scenario he didn’t want happening on a mission, all rolled into one. He was injured, he wasn’t being a good leader, there was snow. He used to love snow when he was a kid. Steve would beg his mom to let him go play in the streets with the other kids when the ground turned white. She’d finally agree after all his whining, bundling him up in every layer they had until he could barely move, then send him off, making sure he knew to be careful and not stay out too long. And he’d have so much fun, making snowmen, getting into snowball fights, just not worrying about the struggles of real life. Now, every flake was a reminder, mocking him. It took his best friend. It took his chance at a happy life. And now it could take the lives of his teammates, if they weren’t able to find adequate shelter soon. This was too much.

“Whoa whoa whoa!” Tony yelled suddenly, causing everyone to stop. “Ease up Cap!” Steve looked toward the body on his shoulder, just now noticing the death grip he had on it. He could feel little dents where his fingers were pressing too hard.

“What’s wrong?” Natasha asked, ducking down to get closer to Tony’s face.

“He’s about to crush me like an aluminum can!” Tony hissed.

“Just making sure you didn’t slip,” Steve mumbled, trying to keep the embarrassment out of his voice. He wasn’t even aware of what he was doing anymore. This head injury was really screwing with him. He needed to get away from everyone for a few minutes. Just a little bit of time to get himself together.

“Please tell me we’re almost there,” Tony said, sounding as close to a whine as Steve could ever remember him sounding.

“I’m sure we’ll find something soon,” Natasha said reassuringly, patting him on the head.

“Isn’t this your neck of the woods? Shouldn’t you know where to go?” Tony grumbled.

“Ah yes, I remember playing on this specific tree as a child,” Natasha laughed, walking back to the front of the group to continue their search.

“Hey, you never told me that. I was sure it was the tree back there,” Clint chuckled, starting up a playful back and forth with Natasha. Steve tuned them out, keeping his attention on making sure he didn’t do anymore damage to the man he was carrying. He hoped the rest of them were dealing with the cold better than he was, because he was feeling chilled down to his bones. Steve was sweating a bit from carrying Tony so long and the wind hitting it as it dried was sending spikes of cold directly into his soul. He thought the icy showers had prepared him for moments like this, but those were downright balmy compared to this.

Steve almost cried in relief when Natasha found success. It wasn’t much, just a little patch of ground carved out on the side of a small hill, but it would do. The ground wasn’t covered in snow and there was room for all of them, so it was as good as a five star hotel at this point. Steve let Clint help him lower Tony to the ground, laying him by the edge so he could get as much light as possible.

“I need you guys to carefully pull apart the suit. There are natural seams that you should be able to apply a little pressure to and slide off,” Tony directed, moving his eyes in the direction of his body.

“Wouldn’t you rather keep it on? It’s only going to get colder,” Natasha said, rubbing her own arms a bit.

“I can’t stay like this all night,” Tony whispered, sounding a little scared. Steve suddenly remembered the file he’d read about Tony, skimming over the origin of the Iron Man suit. This wasn’t really what he’d consider a cave, but he could understand why the man wouldn’t want to be vulnerable in a place that could dredge up painful memories. “I think I can get the suit working again, but I can’t do it from the inside.”

“You think so?” Clint asked, perking up. This was the first bit of good news they’d gotten in a while. If Tony was able to get the suit up and running, he’d be able to call for an extraction. Or even fly out to get help.

Tony began explaining how to take apart the suit, since the body was a little more complicated than the faceplate. Steve stood back, letting the others do this part. He didn’t trust himself not to break anything with his lack of control. And his hands were shaking so badly, he didn’t know if his fingers would even be able to move the right way. They got Tony released pretty quickly, the man springing up and wiggling his body in response to his newfound freedom.

“Now what?” Clint asked, gesturing toward the pile of parts that could lead to their salvation.

“Well, since the only light we have is coming from my chest and I need to keep my shirt on so I don’t freeze to death, now we wait until the sun comes up so I can see what I’m doing,” Tony answered, the snark coming back now that he wasn’t being carried like a sack of potatoes. Clint groaned, all of their hopes dashed that they might be able to avoid spending all night in the cold little nook.

“We’re lucky the sun still rises early this time of year. A couple months from now and we’d only have a few hours of sun a day,” Natasha pointed out.

“I sure don’t plan on seeing another Russian sunset,” Tony snorted, squatting down and wrapping his arms around his legs. It was nice now that the wind wasn’t hitting them from all sides, but it was still cold.

“You guys should get some sleep, so you’re ready to work on the suit in the morning,” Steve suggested, moving toward the edge of their space. “I’ll keep watch, make sure we don’t get ambushed.”

“I’m pretty sure you should take the first sleeping shift. Probably all of them if I’m being honest,” Natasha said, crossing her arms across her chest. Steve could tell she was ready for the fight she obviously knew was coming.

“I’m not even tired,” Steve lied, the exhaustion threatening to drag him down and never let him back up.

“You were injured, you need to rest,” Natasha countered, co*cking her head to the side.

“Just a little bump on the head. It’s nothing.”

“I don’t think a concussion is nothing.”

“You don’t know if it is or not. And besides, isn’t it bad to fall asleep with a concussion?”

“I don’t think that rule really applies to you.”

“I’m fine to stay up. The serum will take care of anything.”

“If Stark can’t get the suit back up in the morning, it’ll be up to you to go out and find a way to contact Shield. You’ll need to be fresh for that and you won’t be if you’re up all night keeping watch,” Natasha said, with a smug smile. Damn, Steve was really off his game. Natasha had worked him into a corner. If he stayed up, the team would lose faith in him, since he wasn’t doing what was best for everyone. But he couldn’t fall asleep. If he had a nightmare in front of them, everything he had worked so hard to build would fall apart.

“Everyone gets a chance to sleep,” Steve said, relenting to Natasha’s command. He walked forlornly to the back of the area, feeling completely discouraged. How was he supposed to be the leader when he was unceremoniously being sent to bed? It was like he was a child who couldn’t take care of himself. He’d been taking care of himself for months now and doing a fine job of it. Steve didn’t need to be babied because he had an owie. Yet here he was, laying down on the cold ground, turning away from everyone so they wouldn’t be able to see his face. There was no way he was going to let himself fall asleep. A nightmare would truly be a point of no return. And if anyone thought he was going to willingly fall asleep in freezing temperatures, this close to snow, they were out of their minds.

Steve settled as best he could, his right arm resting on his side as casually as he could get it. He wished he could check it to make sure the bones were still aligned properly, but he couldn’t risk the team finding out about it. He stared at the wall, trying to even out his breaths. Steve couldn’t even jiggle his leg to help pass the time. This was going to be a long night.

He figured about twenty minutes had passed before he got into a good rhythm. He’d take a breath in, count to three, then let it out and repeat. Steve made sure he focused on his blinking too, so his eyes didn’t stay closed for too long.

“When are we gonna talk about Steve?” Clint whispered from behind him. It took all of his willpower to not react to hearing his name. They were talking about him.

“Probably not when he’s right next to us,” Natasha hissed, slapping Clint somewhere if the quiet smacking sound was anything to go by.

“He’s asleep. And I think we need to before we have to go back out there tomorrow,” Clint said back to her, pouting a little from her rough treatment. “That was weird tonight and I’m officially worried. You know he’s been different since we got back from that long mission, we’ve all seen it. This was on another level though.”

“I know that, but can you really blame him this time? This mission has got to be like his worst nightmare. Of course it brought up some stuff. And with the head injury, it was bound to affect him,” Natasha said. Steve silently cheered for her. It was the head injury’s fault. He’d play it up like crazy if it would distract them from digging deeper into his psyche. Not that they would find anything wrong.

“He was acting strange before that though,” Clint pointed out. Why the hell was he going so hard on this right now? Was this to get back at him for their disagreements earlier? Steve didn’t think Clint was the type to be petty. “Did something happen while we were gone, Tony?”

Oh no, this was it. Had they asked Tony point blank about their time away before? Would Tony give up the details Steve was terrified would slip out? Steve clenched his eyes shut, a tear slipping past his closed lids. This couldn’t be happening now. He couldn’t deal with this, in this place. Every time he’d imagined the team finding out his secret, he’d at least had the solace of being able to escape to his apartment or anywhere else. Steve was trapped out here. He couldn’t get away from their judging, their disappointment, their disgust. He had no options.

“What are you talking about?” Tony muttered, avoiding the question.

“I know he got hurt on that last mission, but it wasn’t a big deal, right?” Clint prodded.

“Of course it wasn’t a big deal. Cap always bounces back, you know that,” Tony said, sounding annoyed by the questioning.

“So did anything else happen?” Clint asked, not letting up. Since when was Clint a detective?

“I don’t know. It’s not like I spent a lot of time with the guy, besides during missions. And there weren’t that many, so I don’t know what to tell you. You’ll have to ask the man yourself,” Tony said, making some shifting noises. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Cap isn’t the only one who needs his beauty rest. I have a long day of tinkering ahead of me.” Clint sighed, probably dejected that he didn’t find anything out on his little witch hunt.

“Let’s just focus on getting through the rest of this mission. We can figure things out when we get home,” Natasha said, standing up and moving around the space. Steve breathed a discreet sigh of relief, appreciating the reprieve, as fleeting as it may be. He just had to make sure he was on top of his game tomorrow, not giving them anything they could question or add to their list of faults. Steve knew the game and the rules, and he’d play them to perfection tomorrow.

Chapter 17: Chapter 17

Chapter Text

The night was long and miserable as Steve laid in the dark, powerless to do anything. No one ever came to wake him for his turn on watch and he didn’t want to risk pretending to wake up, in case they found out he hadn’t slept at all. There hadn’t been any more conversations about him, the others really taking their turns to get sleep. Steve hoped they felt better, because he felt worse. His body ached from being in the same position all night, his arm pulsating in time with his heart. He could tell his arm was healing in the wrong position and he didn’t look forward to having to re-break it when he got home. He’d done it once with a finger back in the war, but he knew this would be a bit tougher.

When the sun finally started to peek through the clouds, he figured it was safe enough to gradually wake up, rolling casually onto his back and blinking his eyes open lethargically. Natasha was standing at the edge of their space, looking out over the forest now that she finally had a chance to see. Clint and Tony were huddled over the pieces of the Iron Man suit, quietly discussing the mechanics. Steve needed to get his game face on, to make the others forget everything that happened yesterday. Once they got home, he could prove there weren’t any issues with him, to avoid the talk they were probably planning to ambush him with. Even though his body felt like garbage, his mind was at least clearer, which was better than nothing.

Steve pulled himself to his feet, rolling the kinks out of his body in a relaxed way, like people normally would after waking up. He walked over to Natasha, looking around the area with her. It was all trees and snow, but at least it wasn’t dark anymore.

“What happened to waking me up?” Steve asked in a friendly tone, sending her a mock glare.

“I never said I would. You asked that we all got a turn to sleep and we did,” Natasha pointed out, running a critical eye over him. This was her first chance to see him clearly after the mission and he made sure to make himself stand as normally as possible. No holding his arm carefully to his side. No squinting due to how the light seemed to be burning his retinas.

“I guess you were right about needing the sleep. I feel a lot better this morning,” Steve said, a grateful smile on his face. He was such a liar. If he’d had any food in his stomach it would be splattered across Natasha’s shoes by this point.

“I am the voice of reason,” Natasha laughed, turning her attention back out to the trees. They’d have to get to higher ground if they wanted to be able to see anything significant, but that could wait until they knew the situation with the suit.

“They making any progress?” he asked, gesturing back to the men inspecting their project. Steve really hoped they’d be able to figure something out quickly, because he couldn’t handle the idea of having to spend another night here. He also didn’t know if he’d be able to go out on his own to search for help. There was a small town, but it was miles away. Snow covered miles. It would be very easy for him to get turned around and end up lost. Steve’s instincts and sense of direction were usually unmatched, but he knew that wasn’t the case right now. Right now he was more likely to get himself killed and then his team killed in turn. Their last thoughts and words echoing the ones from his dream. He left them behind and got them killed.

“Steve?” Natasha asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. He looked down at her with a question in his eye. “Did you hear anything I just said?” Well, this was going great so far. Steve was spacing out without even realizing it. And in the bright light of morning, Natasha would see right through him. He had an overwhelming urge to just blurt out every pathetic thought and fear he had right here, abdicate his role as the leader, and beg for them to save him, but he didn’t. That was just the concussion talking.

“Sorry, just caught up in my thoughts for a moment,” Steve said bashfully, rubbing at the back of his neck to subtly move Natasha’s hand off of him. “Planning my route if the suit plan falls through.” Planning where to be frozen for a few more decades was more accurate.

“Oh, ye of little faith,” Tony said from behind them, holding up a piece of the internal mechanics of Iron Man. “With this, I shall set us free.”

“What’s that?” Natasha asked, sliding over to get a better look. Steve followed, staying a bit further back.

“This little bugger, should I be able to get it up and running, will connect me to Jarvis. He’ll be able to ping on our location and send out a message to Shield to have someone pick us up,” Tony said, triumphantly. Steve hoped he was as confident as he sounded, because everything was riding on this. His life. Their lives. The lives of all the people they still needed to help in future missions.

“How long do you think it’ll take?” Clint asked, staring at the little metal object like it was the most beautiful thing on earth. Right now, it was.

“If I was in my lab? Minutes. Out here, a little longer,” Tony sighed, poking around in another part of the suit. “I’m not gonna be able to get this thing flying again, so I can take components of other sections to help me out. I need to be able to connect this to another power source.”

“What other power source?” Clint asked hesitantly, glancing down at Tony’s chest.

“Bingo,” Tony muttered, acknowledging where the other man was looking. Steve cringed, not really understanding how the arc reactor worked, but knowing it was important. He’d never seen Tony without his shirt on, but he knew it had to be an unsettling sight.

“Will it hurt you?” Steve asked quietly, looking solemnly at the man. Tony seemed surprised by the question, staring at him with a startled look. Steve couldn’t let him go through with this if it would cause him harm. It would have to be a last resort, even after Steve trekking out into the snow on his own. He couldn’t allow Tony to damage himself while he stood around and did nothing.

“I can take the reactor out for brief periods of time without causing any pain,” Tony answered just as quietly. Steve nodded, accepting the man’s answer. Maybe he should prod him a little bit more, just to make sure he wasn’t downplaying any of it, but Steve couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t let himself hear that it would be bad, because then he would have no choice but to go out for help. Perhaps he was a coward for that, but he just didn’t have it in him to be The Captain right now.

The rest of them got to work, listening to Tony’s calm instruction and doing whatever they could to help. Steve walked back to the edge of their shelter, trying to rub feeling back into his hands. He knew he would just be in the way if he tried to help, so he wanted to steer clear of what they were doing. And he didn’t want the team to see how badly his hands were shaking.

Last night had been terrifying. There had been a few moments where he was sure he would fall asleep, his eyes blinking heavier than what was safe. What would’ve happened if he had? He thought the worst thing that would happen was a nightmare, but what if there was a worse possibility? What if his body felt the cold and sent him back into hibernation? Would the team have been able to wake him up? Would they decide to cut their losses and leave him here, instead of having to lug his frozen body while they struggled to find their own salvation? They’d be able to get away with it if they wanted to. Poor Captain America, lost to the ice again. They wouldn’t do that, they were good people.

“I’m gonna go use the restroom,” Steve said, looking back toward the team as they acknowledged him. He didn’t really need to go, but it gave him an excuse to get away from everyone for a while. The wind immediately blasted him in the face as soon as he left the cover of shelter. He shivered, blaming the sudden watering of his eyes on the cold air. Steve only walked a little ways away, never letting the team’s spot leave his sight. He didn’t trust himself not to go too far and get lost. And wouldn’t that be the most embarrassing way to die.

Steve ducked behind a tree, making sure he wasn’t followed. He wouldn’t put it past Natasha to sneak up on him, just to prove she could. When he didn’t see any signs of life, he slowly began to peel back the top of his uniform. The weather was harsh on his skin as he exposed it piece by piece, the top of his back by his neck stiff with dried blood that had rolled down from his head wound. He ignored that, focusing on the most important part. The reason he was stripping in freezing temperatures.

He gently ran his fingers across his arm, feeling for anything unnatural. Just as he suspected, there was a little bump that didn’t belong. Not as big as the last time, but still not smooth like it should be.

“Dammit,” he muttered, flexing his hand a bit. He could see the skin moving across the lump, the bone scraping his flesh ever so slightly. This was the last thing he needed. Hadn’t one moment of self performed field medicine been enough for this mission? He shoved the right sleeve of his top into his mouth, knowing this was going to hurt a lot worse without the active battle and post injury shock to distract and numb him from the pain. Steve couldn’t let out any noises and alert the team to what he was doing. He grabbed his wrist like he had before, bracing himself for just a small shift this time. It didn’t need much, just a nudge in the right direction. He pulled sharply, feeling blinding pain, but the bone didn’t move.

“No, no, no,” Steve mumbled, staring at the little mound that was mocking him. The serum had caused the bone to heal enough that simply pulling wasn’t going to move it. He’d either have to pull harder, risking damaging himself even further, or wait until he got home to fully break it again. Why did this have to be happening to him right now? Steve had done everything right in the mission. He put himself in the line of fire and took the hit. He fixed himself and kept going. Why did everything have to go wrong?

Steve jiggled his leg, feeling his emotions welling up and threatening to overwhelm him. He couldn’t cry now. Captain America didn’t cry. What would the team think of him if they saw? Tony saw, and he hadn’t treated him the same since. They would pity him. They wouldn’t respect him. He’d really be alone. It was different when you were the one pushing everyone away. But to have everyone agree you weren’t worth the trouble? That was too much to handle. Steve did this to himself, so he had no one else to blame. It was the right call, so why did he keep struggling with it?

Steve felt the first few tears break free and roll down his face. He couldn’t stop it. He was just too weak. Steve leaned back against the tree, chuckling mirthlessly to himself. What a sight he had to be right now, standing in the snow with half of his clothes taken off, crying about a broken arm. How pathetic. Clint got his mind taken over by Loki and walked it off. Tony fell to Earth after flying out a bomb and immediately cracked jokes and bought them all food. Natasha was just too good to get hurt. But here he was, blubbering about a broken arm and a headache. About being tired and cold. Steve needed to suck it up and get down to business.

He felt a new resolve sinking in, powering him to be able to do what was next. Steve shrugged the pieces of his uniform back on, being none too careful about his broken arm this time. It was already messed up, so why bother worrying about it anymore? His hand and fingers still moved fine, so he didn’t need to think about it again, not until he got home. Steve scrubbed his hands over his face, erasing any signs of the tears from earlier. He could always blame his red face on the cold. He confidently strode up to the team’s hideaway, feeling better than he had before. Steve cried out that little bit of weakness, so now all that was left was strength.

The team was still huddled over the parts of the broken apart suit, words he didn’t understand drifting to his ear here and there. They didn’t need him for this part, so he stood watch, keeping himself productive. There was no way he was just going to sit around while everyone else worked to get them home. He would stand guard, be the first line of defense in case danger found them.

“sh*t!” Tony hissed, setting down something with delicate wires to blow warm air on his hands. “Nobody thought to pack those little hand warmers I guess.” Steve glanced down at his own glove covered hands and thought about how cold they’d been this whole time. His team must be freezing and he was standing here with the most layers of them all. How could he be so inconsiderate? Steve slid the gloves off his hands, tossing them gently in the direction of the group. Tony leaned back from where they landed, as if he expected them to blow up in his face.

“You need them more than I do,” Steve said, gesturing toward Tony’s hands. Those hands were the key to getting out of here, so nothing was more important. He looked over at Natasha and Clint, their uniforms having long sleeves, but still not adequately thick for this weather. He felt a tiny spark of pride inside for them, making it through the cold night without a hint of complaining about circ*mstances. That was all he’d been able to think about as he lied awake, in between his other panics. Steve slid off the outer layer of his suit, leaving his undershirt on for himself, because he wasn’t that crazy, and tossed that over too. They needed it more than he did. History had shown that he could survive severely cold conditions.

“What are you doing?” Natasha asked, picking up the top and holding it back out toward him. He stepped away from it, crossing his arms over his chest.

“You’re going to get cold sitting in one place like that. I’ll be fine,” Steve said, turning back to face away from everyone. They didn’t need to see how his hands were already starting to shake from the cold. Or his chattering teeth. Captain America was the kind of person who would give someone the clothes off their back, so he was going to live up to that standard here. He was doing it out of selfishness really, since the more comfortable they were, the faster they’d get done and get them out of here. It wasn’t because the thought of even one of them getting hurt or dying was always threatening to tear him apart.

“Thanks,” Tony whispered. Steve turned his head to give him an acknowledging nod, watching him pick up the gloves and place them on his hands. Tony must be feeling so relieved that all his little tests had finally worked on breaking Steve of his cold phobia. Steve shifted back to looking out toward the trees. He tried to think of anything that would distract him from how cold he was. It wasn’t easy, since everything he could see was a reminder. And he didn’t have anything in his personal life he could think of to pass the time either. He didn’t have any interests or hobbies, outside of things directly focused on work. And thinking of his old life just made him sad.

No wonder he didn’t have any friends. He didn’t have anything to talk about to make conversation. Steve refused to discuss his old, personal life. All he had now was classified. And he didn’t think the team would want to only talk about work during their down time. They could talk about things for hours amongst themselves, about countless things. They were fully developed, well rounded people. He was a soldier. Not much different from the little plastic Army men he used to play with along with Bucky when they were kids. Brought out to fight in the fake war, then put away on the shelf until he was needed again. It was actually comforting to have a specific role laid out for him to fulfill. So many people were floundering, trying to find their purpose and coming up short. He knew what he was supposed to be and the sooner he fully accepted it, instead of pushing against the idea when times got a little tough, the better it would be.

“I think I’ve got it. Finally!” Tony called out, holding a hunk of metal above his head triumphantly.

“That was quick,” Steve commented idly, confused by the looks the team sent his way. Warmer hands must’ve helped Tony breeze through this last little bit.

“I wouldn’t really call the last four hours quick, but okay,” Tony said, setting the tool on the ground and starting the process of getting to the arc reactor. Steve looked back outside, finally noticing how much the sun had shifted since he started standing watch. It had felt like minutes to him, not hours. Nothing for him to worry about now. Nor were his slightly blue tinged fingertips.

Natasha draped Steve’s uniform top over Tony’s shoulders after the man took off his shirt, giving him unimpeded access to his chest. It was strange seeing the man wear part of the Captain America uniform, since he was so far removed from what it symbolized. Or maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it didn’t really matter who wore the suit, as long as the people had that symbol to look toward when they needed it.

“My arc reactor should power this enough to connect me to Jarvis, who I’ll be able to talk to through my comm. He’ll be able to ping on our location and send the alert on to Fury,” Tony said, laying out everything how he needed it. This was it, the moment of truth. The thing that decided whether or not Steve would be trekking out to find salvation or his frozen ending. He unconsciously held his breath, as if one errant puff of air could sway the results. Tony took a deep breath, pulling the reactor from his chest. It came out easier than Steve imagined it would, nestled in its little metal tube. Steve kept his eyes carefully averted from the man’s chest, wanting to give him as much privacy as he could in this situation. Tony calmly attached all the different wires, moving slowly and precisely. This was too important to rush and risk making mistakes. Steve could feel his own hands resume their shaking, with more vigor now. It was definitely from the cold and not nerves.

“Here we go,” Tony mumbled, pressing a finger to his ear. “Jarvis, you there buddy?” The brilliant smile that spread across Tony’s face almost made Steve collapse to his knees. It worked. Clint good naturedly poked Natasha with his elbow, both of them sharing relieved looks with each other. Steve watched on from the sidelines, equal parts thankful it worked and sad by how well they worked together. Not sad for them, because it was great that they had done what needed to be done to get them rescued, but sad knowing they didn’t need him for it. That they could share in the joy of it together, but he was alone. Even the plastic army men had friends.

“Jarvis, I need you to trace our signal and send the coordinates to Shield. We need immediate pickup,” Tony demanded, listening for the computer’s response. “Something that can pick us up in snow in the middle of the Russian forest. And preferably before I have to spend another night in this place next to Clint. His snoring is why I put his floor so far away from mine.”

“Hey!” Clint pouted, looking to Natasha for support. She couldn’t give him any, because they had all heard it. Steve marveled at their ability to have such lighthearted moments during times so fraught with tension. He still felt like he was about to shake so hard that his bones would fly out of his body, even with the chances of rescue looking more likely.

Steve kept his eyes away from Tony’s face, not wanting to see if there were any signs of pain on it. He didn’t want to be tempted to stop him and force the reactor back into his chest, if he thought the risk to his health was too much. They needed this and he couldn’t let his sense of duty keep them from getting out.

Once they got back, everyone would know that he hadn’t done anything to get them rescued. The fact that they even had to depend on a rescue wasn’t a good look. Tony would be the hero. It wasn’t like Steve wanted glory. The only signifier of a job well done that he needed was another mission. But would he get one after this disaster of a mission? Steve hadn’t gotten demoted after the Kansas robot fiasco, but he knew he was on thin ice because of it. This time was worse, because the rest of the team was in danger, not just him. Natasha and Clint, the real Shield agents. And Tony, the face of the Avengers and irreplaceable genius. He could only hope his forethought to leave Bruce at home would earn him some grace.

Tony sighed, slowly disconnecting the wires and placing the reactor back in his chest. This didn’t look like he got good news. Steve could feel his heart start to race, the air around him somehow feeling colder than before. Did the signal cut out? Were they not going to get picked up by anyone for days, or ever? Would he still have to go out into the dark, snowy woods alone? This was going to be the end, he could feel it. He was going to freeze out there and the team would die because they were counting on him. No one would look for him after that, after he killed The Avengers. He would just end up doing it again

“I’ve got bad news,” Tony said quietly, running a nervous hand over his mouth. Steve walked over to the edge of the space. He couldn’t see the look on their faces when they realized their fate was in his hands. His woefully inadequate hands. “We won’t be able to enjoy the fine accommodations of Chateau Frozen Asscrack much longer, since checkout is coming within the hour.”

“Are you serious?!” Natasha squealed, squeezing Tony with an impromptu hug. Clint laid back on the hard ground, laughing out loud in relief.

“Shield has a helicopter big enough for all of us not too far from here,” Tony grinned, the hero once again. Steve walked straight out into the trees, not caring that half his uniform was still with the others. He couldn’t breathe and he knew he couldn’t freak out in front of the team. Steve was gasping by the time he got far enough into the trees to have a bit of privacy. Tony’s joke had brought him immediately back to that day in the tower, to that stupid little prank that changed his whole life.

He knew they got good news, that they would be on their way home so soon, but he was stuck in those few seconds where Tony was pretending they weren’t. And he was back to those moments in the tower, after he was told he lost his home again. And he was back in the Shield building, in those few seconds where he really believed he had been saved in time to go back to his life.

Steve steadied himself against a tree, trying to focus on anything but those memories. But he had nothing good to think about. Everything from his time was tainted by grief and everything from this time was hollow. His tears were trailing strips of fire down his cold cheeks, dripping off his jaw as he leaned forward, trying to keep from gagging.

Why was he like this? There was nothing wrong right now. Everything that happened was in the past and he was over it. So why did it feel like he was dying? Could he even have a heart attack, because that’s what it felt like was happening. His head was pounding again and he could hear the blood roaring through his veins. He just wanted this all to stop. He was so tired. All he wanted was for this to be over.

A strong pair of hands gripped his shoulders, stopping him from collapsing into the snow. Natasha must’ve followed him and watched him fall apart. Now she’d know. Natasha would never accept someone so weak on her team.

“Easy, easy.”

Steve pushed the hands off of him, whirling around so quickly he almost lost his footing. The last person he ever expected to see was standing there, his uniform still draped over his shoulders.

“Tony?”

Chapter 18: Chapter 18

Chapter Text

The confusion of his freak out and the clarity of anger were butting heads inside his mind. How was it always Tony here during these moments? How was Tony able to drag him to the depths of hell, but also lead him to salvation? He was such a complex man, but Steve had never really taken the time to figure him out. He just accepted whatever was presented to him and let that fill in the blanks. That was clearly a mistake because right now, Steve had no idea what to expect from the man standing in front of him.

“What are you doing?” Steve demanded, trying desperately to collect himself, even though he still felt like he was about to shatter.

“Steve-”

“Screw you!” Steve barked, causing Tony to step back a little. “Since when do you call me Steve? No one calls me Steve.” Well, didn’t he sound pathetic? Whining about people using his name while tears were still filling his eyes. Tony would probably be rolling on the floor laughing if it wasn’t so cold.

“Steve-”

“What do you want? Why are you out here?” Steve asked, cursing the way his voice shook. It was just the cold. “Did you come out here to gloat? To bask in the downfall of Captain America?” Steve spread his arms wide, spinning in a slow circle to showcase himself to the other man. If this is what he wanted, he was going to get it all in its full glory.

“God, Steve,” Tony heaved, slightly shaking his head from side to side.

“I’m sorry you don’t have your cameras this time. I guess you’ll just have to use your genius brain and try to remember all the details,” Steve spat, reveling in the fact the other man looked devastated by his words. “How often do you watch it? Do you bring it out whenever you need a good laugh, or is it just for special occasions?”

“Of course not!” Tony shouted, paling almost to the white of the snow surrounding them. There was a part in Steve’s head screaming at him to stop, but he couldn’t. He was on a roll now.

“Or maybe you’re keeping it tucked away to use against me? It would be a pretty powerful piece of blackmail material if I ever decide to go against something you want.”

“Steve please-”

“Isn’t this what you wanted? To prove to me that I was nothing special? Well, you were wrong there. I’m the guy they wasted the serum on,” Steve laughed, a feral smile on his face. Tony looked close to tears, but it just fueled Steve even further. “Don’t give me that look. Regret doesn’t look good on you.” Tony turned away now, the bright star of his uniform draped across his back mocking him. He couldn’t live up to what that symbol was supposed to represent.

“What did I do?” Tony whispered, the soft words carrying to Steve’s ears with the wind. His posture was slumped, oozing misery that was soaking into Steve and leeching away his anger. The shaking was starting up again and Steve knew he wouldn’t be able to stop it. He closed his eyes, trying desperately to keep the tears at bay.

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” Steve mumbled, clenching his jaw to try to regain some of his hard fought anger. Anger kept him from feeling anything. No physical pain, no emotional torment, no freezing cold.

“Yes it does!” Tony yelled, spinning around to face him. He paused, looking Steve up and down in horror. “We can’t do this here.”

“Why not? Because we’re on my turf?”

“Because you’re f*cking blue!”

“My natural state, right?”

“That’s not funny!”

“Every joke you’ve made is funny though, right?” Steve asked, advancing on the other man. “Every little dig at my expense? Every prank? Now that I’m in on it, it’s not funny anymore?” Steve stopped in front of him, their breaths puffing into a cloud between them. He stared down at Tony, daring him to do something. Steve didn’t know what he wanted, but the need for a fight was crawling beneath his skin. This was more alive than he had felt in a long time, finally something that wasn’t mission or training related.

“I’m sorry,” Tony murmured, a lone tear rolling down his cheek. Steve watched it’s progression, sliding to his jaw and hanging off the end of his chin. It hovered there for a moment and Steve was mesmerized. He didn’t think Tony could cry. The tear dropped, disappearing into the snow below them, but it affected Steve more than he realized it could. It was as if a bubble inside him burst, leaving him completely empty inside. All he could see was the last few minutes, the cruelty he was spitting out toward his teammate. Who had he become? He wasn’t someone who felt joy at the expense of others. Was he one of the bullies he had always fought against?

Steve staggered back, stricken by what he’d done and what he’d wanted to do. Steve wanted to hit Tony, to make him feel all the pain he’d felt these last days, weeks, months. What was he doing here? Taking out his frustrations on someone who didn’t deserve it? Punishing someone for his own weaknesses? The man who had saved them all? His breaths were coming in rapidly, his lungs spasming with each inhale. Steve could feel himself falling forward and tried to lean back, but overcorrected and fell on his butt.

“I’m getting Natasha,” Tony said, startled by Steve’s actions.

“No!” Steve gasped, lunging for Tony’s leg. He snagged the other man’s pants, stopping him from leaving. The others couldn’t know. “I’m sorry, please. It’s just the head injury.”

“No it’s not! You’re not okay! This is not okay!” Tony shouted, trying to shake his way out of Steve’s grasp. He held on tight though, using the other man to climb to his feet and face him once again.

“I’m okay, I just got confused,” Steve pleaded, searching the other man’s eyes for sympathy. He couldn’t lose the team right now, not while they were still here. Steve needed to be the one to save them, not be cast out like trash. “Being in the snow just has me out of sorts, you know?”

“This started long before this mission and you know it,” Tony said quietly, looking back in the direction of the team. Steve could tell he was conflicted, so he just needed to find the right button to push, to convince Tony to take pity on him and stay on his side.

“You promised you’d never bring up what happened,” Steve growled, feeling a little of that anger rise again. He’d just keep a little of it, just enough to get him home. Tony opened his mouth to respond, then snapped it closed. Steve could tell he wanted to argue, but was weighing his options. Steve knew he wasn’t worth all this turmoil and Tony would realize it too. He just had to keep a level head and look at it from a neutral standpoint. This mission had been stressful and emotions were running high for everyone. It wasn’t the time to hash out deep seated issues. Tony sighed in resignation, looking up at Steve with defeated eyes.

“When we get home, we need to talk about this,” he stated firmly, stalking off before Steve could respond. At least Tony hadn’t forced him to lie and agree. Steve followed, trying to hide his nervousness. What were they going to tell Clint and Natasha to explain away their long absence? Maybe they would just chalk this up to more of Steve being weird.

“I have returned with our faithful leader!” Tony proclaimed when they made it back. Natasha pounced on him immediately, grabbing at his hands and frowning at the look of them. They actually were a bit more blue than they were before, now that he noticed.

“What the hell?!” Clint shouted, snatching Steve’s top off of Tony’s shoulders and shoving his discarded layers into his hands. Natasha took the uniform from Clint, slowly threading Steve’s arm through the sleeves and zipping him back in. He felt like a kid being dressed by its mother, but he didn’t argue. She moved back to his hands, rubbing them between hers and blowing warm air on them.

“What happened?” Natasha asked, looking between him and Tony. Tony was rubbing at his own arms, now that he had his normal clothes back on.

“Just lost track of time I guess,” Steve said casually, with a shrug. The helicopter would be there any minute, so he wanted to get past this awkward stuff before they were stuck in a metal box with strangers for hours.

“But why did you leave?” Natasha prodded, moving them further into the space, away from the more open air.

“You know how Captain Baby Bladder is,” Tony scoffed, darting a quick glance at him. Did Tony really think some joke like that would make him fly off the handle? Steve rolled his eyes, trying to act like he used to, so the team wouldn’t notice anything.

“With half your suit off?” Natasha asked, raising a brow at him.

“I guess it just slipped my mind,” Steve said bashfully, trying to pull away from her. Natasha held tight, staring into his eyes as best she could in the poorer light.

“I want you to get checked by medical when we get back. I think you hit your head harder than you realize.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fully healed by the time we get back. The wound has probably closed up by now,” Steve brushed off, wanting to play up the injury to excuse his behavior, but still hesitating to show any weakness. Natasha just gave him a look, letting him know she would not be backing down. “Fine.” Steve would have to figure out a way to keep this exam to his head only. No one could find out about his arm.

“So you went out there to watch him pee?” Clint asked Tony, a smirk on his face. Tony groaned, pulling off his borrowed gloves and throwing them at Clint’s face. He caught them easily, relaying them over to Natasha. Steve stood still while she put them on, submitting to the caretaker side Natasha would swear she didn’t have. He could admit again that it felt a little nice to be taken care of, but he wouldn’t let himself get used to it. He was going to be alone in his apartment soon enough.

Clint and Tony started sniping at each other while Steve finally worked his way away from Natasha. It was hard making it look natural, since there wasn’t really anywhere to go and he couldn’t leave the space without raising more suspicion, but he was at least able to stand toward the edge alone. A fog had rolled in and they only had a couple hours of sunlight, at most, so he hoped the helicopter was as close as Tony said. Steve closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of the wind whipping around them.

“Keep it up Barton and there won’t be room in the helicopter for you,” Tony grumbled, shoving Clint’s arm a little.

“Shut up!” Steve snapped, his head leaning up to face the sky.

“It was a joke,” Tony mumbled, sounding worried. He probably thought he’d hit another nerve, but that wasn’t it.

“Shhhh!” Steve hissed, putting his hand up to get everyone’s attention. They understood now, moving around him in defensive positions. Natasha handed him his shield, ready for action. The wind was getting stronger around them, but it wasn’t natural. A sudden spotlight shone on them and Steve reared back to throw his shield, but Natasha’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“Wait! It’s Shield!” Clint called out, waving at the helicopter with a friendly smile. The light moved away from blinding them, giving them all a better look. Clint was right and Steve felt the urge to weep. It was finally over. The helicopter was hovering around 30 feet up, maneuvering around the trees. There wasn’t anywhere close to land, unless they walked all the way back to their burnt jet, but that was less than ideal. A small black object was flung out the side, landing softly in the snow in front of them. Clint darted out, grabbing the item and rushing back.

"Sat phone," Clint grinned, holding it out toward Steve. He hesitated, not wanting to be the one to talk. He knew he was still the leader, for now, but he didn’t feel capable of taking point on anything at the moment. Luckily, Tony snatched up the phone, reveling in the chance to be the mouthpiece of the group.

"About time. You were about to get a seriously bad review on Yelp," Tony quipped, hiding his own relief behind humor.

"Shut up Stark! Don’t piss off our ride,” Clint groaned, grabbing the phone back and handing it to Natasha.

“What’s the deal fellas?” she asked, getting right to business. The sooner they got on, the sooner they’d be home.

“Forest is too tight to land in,” one of the pilots said, peeking his head out of the side of the helicopter. “We can either lead you to a clearing a few miles off or we can lower a ladder for you.” Natasha glanced around the group, her gaze landing on him. Did she know about his arm? Was he going to be the cause of them having to walk around in the freezing cold again?

“Ladder,” Steve commanded, securing his shield onto his back and standing tall, showing no pain.

“You got it,” the pilot answered, lowering down a rope ladder. Steve hadn’t been this nervous about climbing since basic training. Normally, this would be nothing for him, but with a broken arm and an audience, this would be interesting.

“You got a basket too?” Tony asked, causing Steve to go rigid. Did Tony think he was so bad off that he’d need to be lifted up like a kid who fell down a well? “I’ve got some suit pieces that need to be pulled up.” Steve discreetly sighed in relief, his nerves calming a bit more as the team focused on leaving instead of him.

“Yep,” the man answered, making rustling noises. A large container was carefully lowered alongside the ladder, gently thumping onto the snow covered ground.

“How do we want to do this?” Natasha asked, turning to face the team.

“I need to be the one to load up my suit, but I don’t want those randoms unloading it and messing anything up,” Tony started, moving toward his pile.

“We can hear you,” the pilot said. Tony ignored him and kept talking.

“I need one of you to go up first, then I’ll send up my precious cargo and you can keep watch over it,” Tony finished.

“Cap should go first,” Natasha said, pushing him toward the ladder. Steve spun away from her, moving further under the cover.

“No, I’m going last,” Steve insisted, shaking his head for emphasis. “It’s my responsibility to see you all make it to safety.” That was true, but he also didn’t want the audience underneath him watching him climb, in case he struggled. Natasha was about to argue, but Tony waved his arms to stop her.

"Just let him have it. The longer we fight, the longer we stay cold," Tony snapped, pushing Clint toward the ladder.

"Why me?" Clint grumbled, starting his climb. He made it look so easy, scaling the ladder as easily as going up some stairs. The rest of them made a few trips back and forth, loading up the Iron Man suit. Tony was taking great care in making sure everything was as secure as possible before he called for it to be taken up. Natasha climbed alongside it, with Tony standing underneath, making sure not a wire fell off. As soon as they both disappeared into the helicopter, Tony fixed him with a pointed look. Steve tried not to squirm, feeling strangely affected by the other man’s gaze. They couldn’t say anything with the open phone line with them, but they didn’t need to. Steve knew everything Tony was trying to convey with his eyes. Don’t screw up, they were going to talk about his failures when they were alone.

“Were you planning on joining us anytime soon?” Natasha called over the edge, her voice crackling quietly through the phone.

“Miss me already?” Tony smirked, shoving the phone into Steve’s hands before he started his own climb. He could do this. Climbing didn’t take too much forearm strength. He probably would be able to get up with one arm doing most of the work, but that would raise too many questions if the team noticed. They were on high enough alert as it was. Steve tucked the phone into his pocket, giving one last look around for anything they might’ve left behind. He never wanted to come back here.

“What’s taking so long?” one of the pilots whispered, the sound barely making it to Steve’s ear from the speaker of the little phone.

“Maybe the captain decided to stay in his natural habitat?” the other man snickered under his breath. Steve paused, his left hand gripped around the first rung of the ladder. Was he just a joke to everyone in Shield? The rung snapped in his grasp, the two sides hanging uselessly from the ropes on either side. Steve’s breaths were snorting out of his nostrils like a bull, all the worry of the pain in his arm sliding away. He grabbed the next rung up with his right hand, pulling himself up without caution. They might not know what this was taking, but he did. He had let the pain and weakness lead him and dictate his actions, but no more. Steve climbed with determination, each step putting him further away from the version of him he hated. The one that was scared to save his team. The one that yearned for the soft touches from Natasha. The one that people didn’t respect. He left that Steve in the snow, frozen and forgotten how he should’ve stayed.

Steve pulled himself into the helicopter, securing himself into one of the seats. He tossed the phone at the pilots, the guilt in their eyes showing they knew he had heard his words. Steve didn’t say anything though, turning to watch the ground beneath them as they flew away. Away from what could’ve been his next icy grave. This was the last time he would depend on anyone for rescue. He only accepted it because he needed to get the team out. But next time, there wouldn’t be a team for him to worry about. Steve was going to leave The Avengers.

Chapter 19: Chapter 19

Chapter Text

Steve spent the rest of the way home in silence, brainstorming how to convince Fury that he should be off the team. Through the nauseating helicopter ride to the small airport in Igarka, to the longer plane ride to Helsinki, to the longest flight back to New York, Steve kept quiet. It didn’t really matter what the team thought of him anymore, since he wasn’t stuck with them in the middle of nowhere. And they wouldn’t be grouped together much longer.

He knew he couldn’t be hasty with his decision, since it could be argued that his head injury was influencing his choice. Or some cooked up trauma theory. Steve didn’t think the team would fight him much though. Clint already seemed annoyed with him, which was good. Natasha would probably see it was a smart decision, since she had to take care of him so much this last mission. That wasn’t her job and she didn’t need the distraction. And Tony would probably throw a party, especially after Steve attacked him unprovoked. It was Fury who would take some convincing.

Fury was the one who brought them all together, so he would be the one most reluctant to see them split apart. Steve knew he had to make it clear that it wasn’t a failure on his part, but a smart move to present to the higher ups. He just had to figure out a way to persuade Fury into sending him out on some solo missions, to prove it was the best choice.

They finally landed in New York, where a new quinjet was waiting to take them back to Shield. Steve rolled his eyes, annoyed by the fact they were going in the air, again. A car would’ve worked just as well, but leave it to Shield to go overboard. And now it would be impossible to slip away like he wanted to.

As the jet lowered gently onto the roof, Steve braced himself. He wasn’t looking forward to reliving the mission again as they gave their report. And he needed to figure out a way to get to medical alone or avoid it altogether. He knew he told Natasha he would get checked out, but would she really check up on if he followed through?

Steve followed everyone off the jet, glad there weren’t a bunch of people standing on the roof waiting for them. It was late afternoon, so hopefully most people had left by now. Tony was carrying the pieces of his suit in a tote that he had procured from somewhere along the way, glaring at anyone that came near it. That hadn’t been a fun delay in the airport, but luckily a few phone calls got it sorted out. Steve hoped Tony would be the distraction he needed to sneak off on his own.

None of the agents working seemed to be bothered by their arrival, all continuing whatever work they were doing before they got there. Fury wasn’t around either, which was odd, but the man was busy. Steve was almost relieved and optimistic about his chances to get away when he turned a corner and bumped into a person who took his breath away. Every emotion he thought he left behind slammed into him, making him rear back in shock for a moment.

“Bruce,” Steve gasped out, clutching at his chest as he felt his heart skip a beat. How had he forgotten everything that happened after the explosion? Those few moments where he was sure the other man had died. Seeing him here, alive and well, hit him harder than he expected.

“Whoa there Cap, you alright?” Bruce asked, steadying him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Steve grasped it tightly, needing further confirmation this was real. He couldn’t find his voice, so he just nodded his head. This was why he had to work alone. He couldn’t care about people like this.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Bruce laughed, trying to pull back his hand. Bruce didn’t know. Of course he didn’t know. Tony hadn’t told Jarvis the details of what happened during their brief communication and they hadn’t talked to anyone since they were picked up. Bruce wouldn’t know how close to true his words were.

Steve dropped his hand, turning on his heel to make his escape. He rushed down the hall, trying to conceal his quickly overwhelming emotions. He needed to find a place to be alone. Steve pushed his way through the bathroom door, flipping the lock behind him. He checked the couple stalls, finding no one. Steve sunk to the floor next to the sinks, panting as his pain couldn’t be held back anymore.

There had been times, after the train, where he’d imagine walking into a room and finding Bucky there. Alive Bucky, with that co*cky smile on his face, as if to ask Steve if he had any doubt he was okay. Or that it all had been a dream, they never went on any missions on a train. Or, the rarest of all, but the one that hurt the most, that Steve had saved him. Seeing Bruce now, recreating that hope Steve had long past given up on, was too much.

Why couldn’t it have been true in his time? It wasn’t as if he was unhappy that Bruce was okay, but if Bucky had been, maybe Steve wouldn’t have been in this time to begin with. If Bucky had been with him on that last mission to take down Red Skull, things would’ve ended differently. He didn’t know how, but he was sure of it. Bucky would’ve had a better plan, or been his backup, or even found a way to land the plane. But he wasn’t there, so now Steve was here.

This is why he had to work alone. Steve failed missions. When he failed with a team, Bucky died. When he was on his own, he died kind of, but the mission was a success. With this last mission with the team, they would’ve died without their ingenuity, but on the mission before, where he took care of all the dangerous parts, it went well. And he didn’t end it by sniveling on the floor of a bathroom in the Shield building. When he started taking missions alone, there would be no more pain. There may be physical pain, but he was made for that. He couldn’t take the mental anguish anymore, he just couldn’t.

Steve pulled himself up using the sinks, wiping his face before he was brave enough to look at his reflection. He was sick of seeing weakness looking back at him. When he finally looked up in the mirror, he saw something else. Steve looked terrible. His normally healthy tan from all of the running he did was gone, replaced by a pale, worn looking man. Had a few days in the snow really done this much to him? He wished he hadn’t taken off his cowl during the flight in, because at least that would’ve hidden some of his face. His eyes were a little red and looked sunken, like he hadn’t slept in days, which was more than true. His cheeks looked a little hollow too, but he hadn’t lost weight. He’d actually gained some due to all his training.

Everyone was going to see right through him when they saw his face. He needed to get out of here to pull himself together before he could sit through a meeting, going over some of the worst days he’d had since he came out of the ice. Steve splashed some water on his face, trying to wash away evidence of what was bubbling around inside of him. Just one night of relaxing on his bedroom floor would take care of this, he was sure of it. He patted his face dry, imagining his next moves. He would casually walk to the elevators, go down to the garage, and drive out, simple as that. If the team wondered where he went, he could just say he went to see his own doctor. He technically didn’t have to see a Shield doctor, did he? Steve moved over to the door, taking one more second to prepare himself before he unlocked and opened it. He could do this.

“There you are,” Natasha said, standing just on the other side of the door. Only years of training and overwhelming exhaustion kept him from jumping at her sudden appearance. Steve could feel his plan crashing and burning. There was no way he was getting away from Natasha.

“Just using the bathroom,” Steve said quietly, trying to act cool.

“Right,” Natasha said, giving him a slow once over. She really needed to stop doing that. Was she cataloging his deterioration? “I wanted to make sure you didn’t try to back out of our deal.” Steve felt a stab of anger at Natasha’s words. So now she thought he was a liar and wouldn’t follow through on what he said? Sure, he was going to try, but she didn’t know that.

“I was just on my way there,” Steve said with a strained smile. Natasha could probably see right through it, but this was all he had for her at the moment.

“Actually, Fury wants us to go over the mission with him, unless you really need to go to medical first?” Natasha asked, trying to peek around him to get a look at the back of his head. Steve dodged her, sighing. He wasn’t going to be able to avoid either thing, but choosing to get checked out by the doctor first would look worse for him.

“Lead the way to Fury,” Steve said, motioning for her to go ahead. She smirked at him before turning and walking down the hall to a conference room. He followed along, concentrating on keeping his stride confident. His arm was throbbing again after his emotional incident broke down the mental walls he had built blocking the pain. Steve couldn’t let it show this close to being home free.

“Look who I found,” Natasha declared as she pushed open the door. Everyone was sitting around a table, waiting for him from the looks of it.

“Where was he?” Clint asked, directing the question to Natasha instead of just asking him.

“The bathroom,” Natasha answered, sliding into her customary seat next to Clint. Steve noticed Tony’s eyes dart to his, a knowing look in them. He’d never be able to go to the bathroom again without Tony questioning it.

“Now that everyone’s here, I suggest we get started,” Fury commanded, pointing to an empty chair. Steve sat in it, glad there was space around him. He didn’t want to sit next to anyone, not while they talked about this. He didn’t know how he would get past the explosion with Bruce in the room. “What the hell happened out there?” No one spoke up at first, waiting for someone else to do it. Tony loved to talk, but not right now evidently. And Clint and Natasha were always ready to give a professional report, but not today. Steve felt like a kid being waited out by a parent, trying to trick them into giving a confession.

“Anyone?” Fury prodded, looking around the room at everyone. Steve kept his eyes on the table, not wanting to make accidental eye contact and be called on.

“We got rid of the explosives and the bad guys. Does anything else really matter?” Tony said finally, rolling his eyes and tapping his fingers impatiently on the table.

“I think the uproar you all caused matters. Do you know how much damage control our people on the ground in Russia had to do?” Fury asked, leaning menacingly on the edge of the table.

“Stark Industries has some good PR people on hand if you’d like their numbers? They’re kind of pricey, but great at what they do,” Tony snarked, a bit of the fire coming back that he’d lost during the mission.

“I don’t want spin, I want to know why my best team went out on a mission and had to be picked up a few days later, especially when they had their own jet and a member who can fly!” Fury shouted, his patience thinner than usual. As much as Steve wanted to sit back and let Fury take his frustration out on Tony, he couldn’t do it. He was still the leader for now and had to step up and do his job.

“It wasn’t Tony’s fault, I can explain,” Steve said, sitting up straight to look Fury in the eye. At Fury’s nod, he continued. “The warehouse was filled with explosives and during the fight, the Iron Man suit took a hit, shorting it out and taking it offline. There was also a fire started and after we got clear it exploded. It was unexpectedly far reaching and blew up the quinjet.” Steve paused there, clearing his throat to make sure his voice stayed steady. Bruce was a few seats away and he couldn’t bear the thought of looking in his direction right now. Just one little decision changed and Bruce would be dead right now.

“And?” Fury asked, waving his hand to get Steve to start talking again. Steve chose his words carefully. Fury didn’t need to know every detail. He didn’t need to know about Steve forgetting Bruce was safe. Or Natasha having to find them shelter for the night when he was unable to. Or Steve almost turning back into ice as they waited for rescue. That would just muddy things up.

“We found shelter for the night until they could get the suit working enough to send a message,” Steve said, straightforward and to the point.

“How very succinct,” Fury muttered, leaning back and crossing his arms. “Would anyone else like to add anything?” The rest of the team stayed silent, shaking their heads and shrugging.

“I, for one, would like to go back to my tower and get some sleep in my expensive bed with the memory foam mattress. The cold ground leaves much to be desired when it comes to comfort,” Tony said, adding an exaggerated yawn onto the end. Fury sighed, glaring at Tony before he gave up.

“I expect a detailed report from all of you by the end of the week. Rest up in case you get another call. You look like you need it,” Fury commanded, looking pointedly at him as he said the last bit. Of course Fury had noticed how bad he looked, the glaringly bright fluorescent lights washing him out even more than normal. He probably knew the full reports from the team were going to be full of facts about how Steve had failed them as a leader. Why else would he make a point to tell them to get rest, as if they were children?

“Time for someone to go to their appointment,” Natasha said, pulling him from his thoughts. Steve groaned, wishing everyone would just leave him alone. Why wouldn’t they take the opportunity to get away from each other, now that they weren’t stuck together? Steve knew he would like to be alone for a while, but he had to get through Natasha’s forced checkup. The doctors weren’t even going to find anything.

Natasha stood next to his chair, tapping her foot as she waited for him to get up. He slowly pulled himself vertical, wanting to get this over with as soon as possible. The faster he got through this, the faster he would be back home. He needed to get his arm situated so it would have time to heal properly, in case they got called on another mission. And if he was healthy, he’d have an easier time completing the mission on his own.

They made their way to the proper floor in silence, being waved back into an exam room immediately, thanks to their status. There wasn’t really anyone there anyway, the clinic mostly on standby. Steve stood next to the exam table, glaring at Natasha as she perched onto one of the visitor’s chairs.

“What are you doing?” Steve muttered, frustrated at having a babysitter.

“Just making sure you didn’t try to sneak off,” Natasha answered casually, picking at her nails.

“You don’t trust me?” Steve scoffed, offended at her response. So what if he was calculating his survival from a jump from this height? That didn’t mean he was going to do it.

“This team is full of people who will claim they are fine, even with a body part hanging off. And I speak from experience,” Natasha laughed, settling in. Steve was about to argue further when a doctor walked in. He surreptitiously checked the woman’s credentials, making sure everything looked official. He hadn’t paid attention when he woke up during Tony’s disastrous prank, but he wasn’t planning on getting fooled again.

“What seems to be the problem Captain?” the doctor asked, snapping on a pair of gloves.

“He hit his head,” Natasha answered for him, earning herself another glare.

“It wasn’t a big deal. I’m sure it’s already healed,” Steve said, trying to keep his voice friendly toward the doctor. She was just doing her job and didn’t deserve his anger.

“Why don’t I take a quick look just to make sure? Then you can undress and we’ll run some tests,” the doctor said. Steve backed away from her, shaking his head. He couldn’t take off his clothes. The doctor would definitely notice his arm.

“What tests? I don’t need any tests,” Steve said, plotting his escape. He didn’t want to have to hurt Natasha, but he would to get out of here.

“This soon after the last one, I want to make sure everything looks okay. You can’t wear your suit for them,” the doctor replied, trying to reason with him. Steve wouldn’t budge.

“The serum takes care of all that, it’s not necessary. Now, if you could just check my head, I’d like to get back to my apartment to get some sleep,” Steve ground out, his temper flaring a bit. He had to calm down before he lost control again. The doctor looked to Natasha for support, but she just gave her a surprised shrug. The doctor gave him a tight smile, motioning for him to sit down while she moved around him. He reluctantly rested on the edge of the exam chair, ready to spring back up at a moment’s notice. They weren’t going to catch him off guard. The doctor poked around his scalp for a few moments, making a few quiet noises as she went along. He didn’t feel the pain he had when Clint hit a tender spot, so he knew he was right in his thinking that the wound had already healed itself. The doctor moved in front of him now, checking his eyes with her little flashlight. That brought back his headache, but Steve didn’t let it show. He wasn’t going to give them any reason to think he needed to stay any longer.

“I didn’t find any injuries, but I can see from the dried blood that it was a significant wound. I still suggest we run a few tests, just to make sure everything looks good,” the doctor said, tossing her used gloves into the trash.

“That won’t be necessary, but thank you for your help,” Steve said, trying not to gloat. This had all been the waste of time he’d said it would be. Besides, any injuries he got he could take care of himself at his apartment. He’d stocked up on first aid supplies just for that reason.

The doctor said her polite goodbyes and left the room, leaving Natasha and Steve alone again. Steve raised a brow at her, waiting for her to say something. He knew it was a dumb move to challenge her, but he was feeling co*cky after the easy exam.

“I guess you were right,” Natasha said, her sly smile sitting on her face. That smile made him nervous, but Steve brushed that thought off. He’d won this round.

“No need to worry about me,” Steve grinned, hopping off the chair. He was ready to get out of here. “I’ll see you next mission.” Steve walked out of the room, not waiting for Natasha’s response. He knew it was rude, but he didn’t want to be held up any longer. And he was sure Natasha would be glad to be relieved of her burden. He grabbed his stuff on the way out, taking the blessedly empty elevator all the way down to the garage. His car was just as he’d left it and he felt even more thankful for it after this mission. Steve sank down into the seat, tucking his right arm into his lap to give it a rest before he got to the hard part coming up.

The drive home was luckily swift, as if the city knew to stay out of his way. It seemed like forever since he was in his apartment, but it still didn’t hold the comfort it once had. It was only a place to wait for missions, but anything was better than where he’d just been. At least all of his food was still good, safely tucked in his freezer. But he couldn’t think about food right now. He had work to do.
Steve walked over to his bedroom, stripping off all of his clothes. He desperately needed a shower after these past few days of fighting and stress. He hesitated at the dial to the shower, having an internal battle. What temperature did he use this time? He was so tired of being cold. The plane had been warm, but it hadn’t done anything to take his chill away. But he also wasn’t shivering, so it was probably all in his head. Taking a hot shower would just be a crutch and he didn’t need to start backsliding now. If he let a little weakness in, he may not be able to stop the rest.

He cranked the dial to cold, hopping in the shower and scrubbing down. It would be a quick shower, not because he wanted to get out of the cold, but because he had work to do. Steve rinsed off the soap, turning the water off and giving himself another moment to prepare. He wasn’t nervous, this was just something he had to do. Steve stared at the little bump in his arm, trying to figure out the best way to do this. From what he could tell, it was only the radius that was broken, so smashing his whole arm into something would do more harm than good. If he could avoid breaking the ulna, that would be ideal. Steve needed something that would give him a more precise impact and he had just the thing.

When he replaced the medicine cabinet, he’d bought all sorts of tools. He wasn’t sure what he’d need, but didn’t want to have to make another trip if he forgot something. So he had a fully loaded toolbox just waiting for him under the sink. Steve pulled it out, rummaging around in it for the perfect items. The hammer would do this the easiest, but there was too much risk of extra damage. He didn’t want little shards of bone everywhere. But the hammer would work well with the flat edge screwdriver. That would give him the precision he needed.

Steve set the tools on the edge of the sink, staring at them for a few moments. This was a good idea, right? In theory, he could go to some clinic out of town for help, but that was too risky. They might not know who he was, but there would be questions. Questions he wouldn’t be able to answer honestly. Or he could go back to Shield, tell them he didn’t realize he had the break until it was too late. They’d see right through it though, since he was just with the doctor and refused care. Doing this himself was the only logical conclusion.

Since the bump was sitting at the top of his forearm, it made sense to re-break the arm from underneath. He could just follow the path it had already set. Steve grabbed the screwdriver and positioned it over the proper area. This would be the tricky part, having to bend his wrist far enough to hold the tool in place. Luckily, Captain America was flexible. He torqued his wrist just right, holding the tip of the screwdriver firmly to the underside of his forearm, just at the spot of the break. Steve laid his arm over the open sink bowl, giving his bone space to bend. He picked up the hammer, hesitating just a little. This really was his only option, but it wasn’t unusual to be a little bit nervous. His hand was starting to cramp from the awkward angle though, so he had to do this quickly. It was just like hammering a nail.

The cracking sound echoed in the small space. It was actually kind of a fun noise. Steve chuckled a bit. What had he been so worried about? That was really easy. And it didn’t even hurt. He looked down to inspect his work. Was that blood? A small puddle was gathering around where the screwdriver pierced his skin, rolling and dripping off his arm as it overflowed the slight dip. Oh, that made sense. And there was the pain.

Steve sucked in a sharp breath, letting go of his hold on the screwdriver. It stayed erect, sitting comfortably in the meat of his arm. He lifted his arm slightly, checking the other side of his forearm. Well, now it was a compound fracture. But hey, it worked. The little tool started shaking in his arm. That was odd. Maybe he should take it out. Steve gripped the handle, yanking it out without any fuss. So now it was really bleeding, wasn’t it? He stared at the dripping red, the color swirling down the drain of his sink. He should probably do something about this, but he felt stuck. Steve didn’t like dealing with blood. It was so messy. He didn’t have space in his life for mess. But it wasn’t going to just stop on its own. That would be too easy.

First he had to focus on the bone. That was the point of all this and he’d be damned if he was going to have to do this again. He’d just have to live with a badly healed arm. Steve gripped his wrist like he had the other times. Third time was the charm, right? He pulled, feeling the bone scrape against his broken skin as it slid back into place. Steve couldn’t see if it was right, thanks to all the blood, so he slid his fingers across his arm to make sure it was properly set. Nothing but a smooth, straight line. Steve grinned to himself. This had been simple. He knew he didn’t need anyone else. Now all he needed was a couple bandages. Steve knelt down to grab some from his first aid kit, but stumbled a little at the change in balance. Why did the floor feel like it was moving? Steve tucked his damaged arm against his bare chest, not wanting to accidentally use it like he had before and mess it up again. Was there an earthquake? Steve’s vision swam in and out. An earthquake couldn’t do that.

Steve drug himself over to his toilet, needing something to ground him. This injury wasn’t even a big deal. Why was it having such an effect on him? His stomach was starting to cramp from the lack of food mixed with the smell of his own blood. He lifted the toilet lid and heaved himself over the edge of the bowl. The strong control he had maintained this whole time was gone and he gagged into the toilet. Only strings of bile came out of his empty stomach, making the cramping feel even worse. This was okay, just a side effect of everything he went through. Steve spat out another glob of slime, clenching his teeth to try to regain control. He needed to stop bleeding all over his floor. Steve reached up to flush the toilet, done with this experience. It was time to finish what he started.

The space underneath the sink was easier to get to now that he was sitting on the floor, so he considered that a win at least. He grabbed some bandages and wraps and tapes, avoiding the suture kit altogether. He could admit that his hand wasn’t the steadiest right now. And the serum would take care of the bleeding soon enough. Steve taped down bandages over the open wounds and wrapped his arm as tightly as he could, without cutting off his circulation. He didn’t want to risk the bone moving again. When that was sufficiently taken care of, he leaned back against the tub to take a moment to regroup. His bathroom looked like a scene out of one of those awful horror movies Clint had gotten him to watch. At least he hadn’t bled onto carpet. He could take care of this later.

Steve painfully pulled himself up, trudging back to his bedroom to throw on some boxers. He didn’t want to risk ruining anymore of his clothes. He slowly made his way to his kitchen, his stomach roiling at the idea of food, but knowing he had to eat something. Steve threw one of his frozen meals in the oven, preparing his resting space for the remainder of the night. Laying down seemed like a bad idea tonight, with the chances of falling asleep and rolling over onto his bad arm a distinct possibility. He couldn’t let himself get too comfortable until his arm had a chance to heal fully. Steve moved his stool from around the counter and into the kitchen. This would be a good height for him to rest his arm overnight.

He choked down his meal, the food threatening to come back up, but he forced it to stay where it was. That would be wasteful and he’d just have to eat something else. He sat a towel on the counter and gently rested his arm down on it. This would be the safest option for at least the first night. His arm should be healed enough to lay down tomorrow, judging by how the healing went the last time. Now all he had to do was wait for day.

Steve settled in, staring at the wall in front of him. Only about ten more hours until the sun came back up. This would be easy compared to the night on the ground in Russia. He could still shift around if he got uncomfortable or get a drink of water if he got thirsty. Steve glanced around, looking for something to help pass the time. Maybe he could read through his meal planning book again. There were bound to be ideas he missed on the first read. He grabbed it from its drawer, setting it on his lap and flipping open the cover. The words were blurry. Why were the words blurry? Steve rubbed at his eyes, blinking to clear his vision. It didn’t help. Every little line on the page was swimming together, completely illegible. Steve slammed the book closed, shoving it away down the counter. He just wouldn’t read right now, it was fine. He would focus on healing instead. Reading would be a distraction.

The time passed slower than he thought it would, even slower than in Russia. It had been different then, because he had no other options than to lie still. Now, everything around him was taunting him. The possibilities of doing anything else while he had to choose to do nothing. There were only a few minutes until he would allow himself to get up, the sun slowly peeking over the horizon. As hard as it was, he had stuck with it, which was a great boost for his self confidence. He was just about to get up and stretch, to properly start his day, when he heard a little beep coming from his bedroom. Was that his phone? No one contacted him, unless it was for a mission. Steve felt a little jolt of fear pass through his body at the thought. A mission was what he wanted, but this was too soon. He couldn’t ignore it though, so he darted into the room, rummaging through his things until he pulled out the little black device. There was a voicemail from Natasha.

“Stark Tower, we need you here now,” her voice said, cutting off abruptly. Fear snaked around his heart, stealing his breath. Were they in danger? Should he call back for more information, or would that put them at risk? What did he do? He knew he had to do something? Natasha wouldn’t call him if it wasn’t important. This was still his team and it was his job to protect them.

Steve snatched up the first clothes he could find out of his drawers, throwing on layers without care. He didn’t bother with his suit, that would take too long, but he grabbed the bag with his shield. He raced down to his truck, throwing his things into the passenger seat and speeding off as fast as he could. He broke every traffic law there was, taking his driving cues from maneuvers he’d seen Natasha pull. Horns were honking at him, but he didn’t care. His people needed him. He pulled into the first spot he saw in the garage, sprinting to the private elevator in the back.

“What’s happening Jarvis?” he shouted as soon as the doors opened. Steve wanted to know what he was about to walk into.

“I’ll take you to them, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis replied, sending the elevator up.

“What’s going on? Are they okay?” Steve demanded, pulling out his shield and holding it in front of him. Jarvis didn’t respond and Steve growled, angry that the computer chose this moment not to listen to his command. He knew it had been a while since he was at the tower, but that shouldn’t matter at a time like this. The elevator was taking him all the way to the top and Steve braced himself. He couldn’t hear any sound of fighting, so he hoped it wasn’t a sign he was too late. The elevator dinged and the doors slid open, revealing a smug Natasha standing on the other side.

“What?” Steve mumbled, feeling his defensive stance soften a little. What was going on?

“That was quick. Should’ve tried that ages ago,” Natasha laughed, turning around and walking further into the room. Steve didn’t know why, but he followed after her. He should’ve had Jarvis take him right back down, but he had to be certain the team was okay. The rest of them were sitting on couches, minus Tony, who was nowhere to be found. They were okay. Had this been a trick? Steve felt his anger start to rise at the idea of Natasha pulling something like this on him. Not her too. He needed to leave before he said or did something he couldn’t take back. Steve spun around, prepared to take the stairs so he wasn’t hostage to the whims of Jarvis when he was stopped by a big body in the doorway. Well, there was something he hadn’t been expecting.

“Thor?”

Chapter 20: Chapter 20

Chapter Text

Steve knew his vision was a little fuzzy, but he was pretty sure he was seeing who he thought he saw. There wasn’t really anyone else who looked like Thor, with the height, and the muscles, and the cape. But what the hell was he doing here?

“Steven! It is good to see you again, my friend!” Thor proclaimed, wrapping him up in a big bear hug that lifted him a few inches off the ground. Well, that hurt. At least Thor was gripping him above the break in his arm. Steve struggled a bit, trying to get his feet back on the ground.

“Put me down,” Steve gasped, wheezing in the tight grip. He had only been subject to a few of these hugs since he met the man, but this time it felt like the life was being squeezed out of him. Thor dropped him abruptly and Steve stumbled a bit, trying to regain his footing. Thor steadied him with a hand on his shoulder, beaming at him without a care in the world. Steve gave him a weak smile in return, trying to discreetly get his breathing back to normal. His anger from earlier was slowly morphing into confusion.

Was this why Natasha called him to the tower? Why had she made it sound like an emergency? She could’ve just said that Thor was back. Would he have come? Probably not. But did they really need to resort to trickery to get their way? Wasn’t it his right to say no to doing things he didn’t want to do?

“I arrived late last night after finishing up my affairs at home,” Thor said, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and leading him further into the room with the others. Steve glanced longingly back at the exit, knowing he wouldn’t be able to get away easily without raising suspicion. He was not prepared for this. He hadn’t had to interact with people casually in weeks and after last night, he really wasn’t ready. Why couldn’t he have just ignored his phone?

“Scared the hell out of me,” Clint muttered, glaring at the larger man. “I was out on the landing pad checking out the new jet and almost got hit by a bolt of lightning. Just about crapped my pants!”

“A little incontinence is nothing to be ashamed of now and then,” Thor said, with a hearty chuckle, pulling Steve closer to his side to whisper in his ear. “Although the tiny shriek of fear he let out was most amusing.” Steve tried to return his smile again, but he could tell he fell far short of his goal. His arm was trapped between their bodies and he prayed that the injury was healed enough to withstand this pressure.

“I should get going,” Steve said, trying to extricate himself from Thor’s tight grasp. Normally, Steve was almost evenly matched with Thor, if he put his mind to it. But right now, the power he could feel thrumming through the other man’s body was kind of intimidating. He’d only get away if Thor let him get away.

“Nonsense! You just got here!” Thor laughed, pulling him down on the couch with him, tucking Clint into his other side. The smaller man let out a tiny oof, but looked resigned to stay where he was. This must not have been the first time he was trapped like this since Thor arrived. “I’ve missed you all, even my big, green friend. I hope to get a chance to see him soon.” Bruce grimaced from his spot on a separate couch, not looking very on board with Thor’s plan to greet The Hulk. Steve took the slight distraction to move his arm carefully onto his lap, making sure it was safe from Thor’s considerable bulk. Even if the bone didn’t re-break, he had the open wounds on either side to worry about too. Steve hadn’t had time to check them since he got up this morning, but they hadn’t bled through the bandages last night, so he hoped that was a good sign.

“I was going to get started on my report for Fury,” Steve protested weakly, trying and failing to stand. Thor's arm felt like a ton of bricks on his shoulder, holding him down without effort.

“We have days to get that done,” Natasha brushed off, sitting down on her own couch, shooting him a little smirk. This had to be revenge for yesterday. He should’ve just went along with what the doctor wanted, but he couldn’t, and now Natasha was punishing him.

“Where’s Tony?” Steve asked. He didn’t particularly want the other man up here, especially after their brief confrontation in the snow, but he wanted to know why Tony was exempt from this forced bonding time.

“Interestingly enough, he rushed down to his lab after I called you. Any idea why he’d do that?” Natasha wondered, raising a challenging brow at him. If he was about to get into a battle of wits with Natasha, he was going to lose. Badly. Even on his best day, Natasha could probably get him to admit anything, if she decided it was worth her time. And now, trapped in front of everyone, he was a sitting duck.

“Probably just wanted to work on his suit,” Steve mumbled, glancing away from her. Maybe she would take pity on him if he kept his hackles down.

“No matter, we have an abundance of time. Tony was gracious enough to offer me a floor in his tower,” Thor boomed with a wide smile. “He is most likely planning out a space worthy of someone of my status.”

“I’m sure you can just take my old floor,” Steve offered, even though it really wasn’t his place to do so. But it made sense, instead of Tony having to take the time and effort to fix up somewhere else.

“Actually, after you moved out, Tony turned your floor into a storage space,” Clint said, wincing at the glare Natasha shot him. Steve didn’t know why he felt a pang of hurt at that information, but he did. So what if Tony had turned his floor into a junk drawer? He had moved out so long ago, it would be wasteful to leave all that space for nothing. But a part of him was sad that every reminder of him had been erased from the tower. He wondered how fast the people from his time forgot about him. They mourned the loss of Captain America, but who mourned Steve Rogers?

“Why did you move out? Surely there is enough space for all of us? I once bunkered down with my men in a small cottage by the sea. There were about twenty of us all piled together on the floor, sharing animal pelts in front of a roaring fire. It was glorious,” Thor said, a twinkle in his eye as he talked about his friends back home. Steve wondered how hard it was for Thor to leave everyone behind. It might not be permanent, but intergalactic travel was probably pretty difficult. It wasn’t like he could just flit back and forth whenever he wanted to.

Steve noticed the room was quiet and glanced up to see everyone was staring at him. Had he missed something? He stopped himself from looking down at his arm. If that wasn’t why they were staring, it would be a significant tell if he looked at it with worry in his eyes.

“Why don’t you want to live with your team?” Thor asked again, honest confusion in his voice. Well, how was he supposed to answer that? He could go with the truth, saying that all of Tony’s pranks drove him away, but that sounded so weak and childish saying it out loud. Or the even deeper truth, that he had to keep himself away from everyone, because it was a bad idea to get attached. Steve knew that wouldn’t go over well.

“I just like my own space,” Steve answered, knowing how feeble of an excuse that was. As if a whole floor of a tower wasn’t enough space. But no one called him on it right now, to his relief.

“I’m sure your home is wonderful! I think I’d like to see it. We shall go now!” Thor proclaimed, standing up and pulling himself and Clint with him. Steve couldn’t hide the hiss of pain that escaped his lips as Thor gripped his wrist, practically hearing the point of the break creaking and threatening to snap again.

“No!” Steve snapped, sliding his arm out of sight behind his back. At everyone’s surprised looks, he forced himself to calm down. “I mean, this isn’t really a good time. My apartment’s a mess.” He tried to sound casual. That was a basic excuse everyone used when they didn’t want company.

“Yeah right, says the guy who washes his mug out right after he uses it. You’ve probably never made a mess in your life,” Clint laughed, surreptitiously rubbing his own wrist after Thor’s manhandling. Clint would normally be right. Steve didn’t usually leave pints of his own blood splattered around his bathroom, but they were there now. And no amount of explaining could get him out of that one.

“It’s not company ready,” Steve argued. Why were they making a big deal out of this now? They never wanted to come over before Thor brought it up. “I didn’t have time to make my bed in my rush to get here this morning.” His bedroll was actually untouched and tucked away in his closet, but they didn’t need to know that. Even in the best of times, he didn’t want anyone over at his apartment. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of it, but they wouldn’t understand how he lived. They were used to the excess that life in Stark Tower brought. No matter where they had come from in life, Steve’s apartment would still seem foreign to them.

“You didn’t make your bed? But I can tell you haven’t been sleeping,” Thor said with a quizzical frown. Steve spluttered, searching for the words to defend himself. There was no way Thor could know that. He hadn’t even been on the same planet. Unless the others knew and told him. Had they been talking about him behind his back? Planning this confrontation with Thor as their mouthpiece?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Steve protested, staring straight ahead to avoid eye contact with everyone. There was no way they could prove what they were saying.

“You look quite terrible Steven,” Thor said solemnly, shaking his head. “In my years of battle, I’ve learned to sense the signs that my men are not doing as well as they say. You are not the same man I left after the battle with my brother.” Steve had not been expecting to be called out by Thor. The man had seemed so aloof in the brief time they’d known each other. He’d been pretty playful when he hadn’t been focused on Loki. Steve should’ve known there was more than met the eye when it came to the god. He was over 1,000 years old after all.

The rest of the team was staring at him with knowing looks in their eyes. Like they weren’t even surprised by what they were hearing. How long had they felt this way? He knew they had spoken a little about it while he was pretending to sleep, but he wasn’t expecting a confrontation like this. Or them agreeing that he looked bad. Steve could admit he wasn’t looking his best after this last mission, but he had looked and acted perfectly normal before.

He didn’t have to stand here and listen to this. Maybe it was a good thing they all thought he looked like crap. It was less likely they’d fight his decision to quit. They really didn’t need him now, with Thor back on Earth. Thor could lead them better than he ever could. It might take him a little time to adjust to human battle, but the others could guide him along. Steve could just fade away like he was always destined to do.

“I’m fine,” Steve insisted, backing a few steps toward the exit. Damn Tony and his tall tower. He was gonna have to take all those flights of stairs to get out of here. The ground floor was severely underrated.

“You’re not. We all know you’re not,” Natasha said gently, rising from her seat.

“You all don’t know anything,” Steve shot back, abandoning his plans to stay calm. They were backing him into a corner and he couldn’t stop himself from lashing out.

“Come on Steve, you’re not okay,” Natasha whispered, approaching him carefully. Steve countered her steps with steps of his own, inching his way away from everyone.

“Oh, who told you that? Tony? What did he say?” Steve demanded, glancing up toward where he knew there were cameras hidden. Was that why the other man wasn’t here? So he could watch the show on monitors, rubbing his hands together in glee?

“Tony won’t say anything, but it’s obvious he knows what’s going on,” Clint said, moving around the couch before Bruce stopped him with a hand on his chest. The three men stood together on one side, letting Natasha be the only one to advance on him,

“Tony doesn’t know anything, because nothing is going on,” Steve shouted, pressing his lips together to try to regain some of his balance. This shouldn’t be happening right now. He was supposed to heal up and then go on some solo missions to prove he was better on his own. Not be subjected to an intervention.

“You’ve been different since Clint and I came back. And every time we’ve seen you since, you’ve looked worse,” Natasha said, holding up her hand to stop Clint when he opened his mouth to add more input. “We’re worried about you.” Steve almost laughed at that. No one worried about him. No one needed to worry about him. That was the whole point of Captain America. He was the one people depended on. If people had to worry about him, he was failing. And then what was the point of him even being here?

“I’m fine,” Steve growled, taking another step back. He was pretty sure he could beat them all in a footrace, if he decided to turn tail and run away. Except maybe Thor. Or Hulk, if Bruce decided it was worth it to turn for something like this.

“So why did you refuse to get checked out yesterday?” Natasha asked, looking him over again. Again with that? If Natasha had some sort of x-ray vision contact lens implanted in her eye, he was going to scream. Tony seemed like the type to make something like that.

“Because I was fine. It would’ve been a waste of time,” Steve argued, tucking his arm a bit further behind his back.

“You could’ve proven that with a few tests. But I don’t think it would’ve gone well,” Natasha said, jutting her chin out toward his midsection. “Why are you hiding that arm?” sh*t. How was she so good? Could he get away with denying it still? If anyone challenged him to do a push up, he was screwed. Steve couldn’t admit it, not after all this time.

“My arm is fine,” Steve insisted, pulling it out from behind him and holding both arms out away from his sides. He was glad he was wearing enough layers to conceal the bulge of the bandages he had piled on. Natasha slowly moved toward him, honed in on his arm. Steve forced himself to stay still, not flinch back like he wanted to. This was it. If she grabbed his arm, the truth would come out. There was no explaining away the wrappings. It was over.

“We’ve got a problem!” Tony announced, bursting into the room. Steve used his distraction to pivot away from Natasha, putting space between her and her target. “Fury just called. There’s an incident on the other side of town and they need us, now.”

“What kind of incident?” Natasha asked, sending a sidelong glance in Steve’s direction.

“Some kind of large, sentient rock monsters smashing their way through the city,” Tony answered with a groan. Steve was hoping for an excuse to escape this situation, but another mission wasn’t really what he had in mind. But he would take what he could get.

“I didn’t bring my suit,” Steve mumbled, glancing over at where his shield was resting against the wall. At least he had that.

“I have one in my lab. Come on,” Tony said, darting back toward the elevator. Steve hesitated, looking at the rest of the team. Going out with them on another mission was exactly what he wanted to avoid. But he couldn’t take the time to argue for that while the city was actively under attack. They could just get through this mission and he could deal with leaving the team later.

Steve scooped up his shield, joining Tony in the elevator. They shot each other a look as the doors slid shut. There were a lot of things that needed to be said, but this wasn’t the time. Now was the time to put everything aside and fight as a unit, while they still were one. It was time to go to work.

Chapter 21: Chapter 21

Chapter Text

The team stepped off the jet and straight into chaos. It was a far sight different from the silence they had all been cloaked in since they left the tower for this mission. Tony had led Steve to a dark corner of his lab where a few of his uniforms were hanging, most of them prototypes. Tony pointed to the one that was field ready and left him alone to change. Steve didn’t take the time to think about why Tony had been working on multiple versions of his suit, needing to focus on getting into the suit as quickly as possible so he could make sure his arm was as stable as he could get it.

The sleeve was too tight to keep all of the wrapping on, so he slowly unwound some of the layers. Steve peeked under the bandages, eyeing the puckered pink skin that had stretched over the holes in his arm. He really should’ve taken the time to stitch himself up, to give the serum help in healing, but it was too late for that. He just hoped the new skin would hold for whatever he had to do next.

The whole team was ready by the time they made it back up to the roof, all of them wordlessly climbing in and mentally preparing themselves. They didn’t know enough about the situation to strategize, so they all kept quiet, staring out the windshield of the jet as best they could to try and catch a glimpse of what they’d be up against. And what they were up against was a mess.

Clint and Natasha landed them in a patch of park that was barely large enough to fit them. Most of the ground around them had been disturbed, chunks of asphalt cracked and shifted, making the roads undriveable. The street was littered with abandoned cars, people darting around trying to find safety. The team immediately got to work, not needing to talk to know getting the people around them to safety was the first priority.

Tony flew around the nearby buildings, scanning for the best place to herd all the civilians. They still hadn’t seen any of the monsters, but they could hear destruction in the distance that rivaled The Hulk. Once Tony found a suitable place, Clint and Natasha took point on moving the people toward that area. They were the most ill equipped to deal with a threat like this, at least until they got eyes on what they were dealing with.

Steve looked around at the teammates by his side, giving them a nod before he took off running toward the sounds of battle. He could feel them matching his stride and he could almost convince himself that this was right. That working together worked and why would he want to change things? But then he thought about them getting hurt, dying, and he knew he made his choices for a reason.

Steve could tell they were getting close and as they turned a corner, they got their first look at what they were here to take care of. These things, for lack of a better term, were huge. They were at least 15 feet tall and thick. They were a rusted red color and didn’t seem to have a face or eyes, but it didn’t stop them from doing what they were doing. There were only four that Steve could see and he hoped there weren’t others waiting in the wings, because this was going to be tough enough to handle. The monsters were slowly plodding along the street, crushing anything in their path. Steve hadn’t seen them attack anything yet, but he wasn’t going to wait and see if they would start.

“Everyone take a monster. Hit them with what you’ve got to see if it affects them. If you have success, let the team know,” Steve commanded, taking off toward the one that seemed slightly bigger than the others. He whipped his shield at its leg, all the earlier signs of fatigue gone now that his adrenaline was pumping. The shield bounced back with no noticeable signs of damage to the walking rock. Just once he wanted an easy mission. Was that too much to ask?

If the hit did anything, it got the monster’s attention. It altered its course, heading straight for Steve. Steve ran at it, ducking under its foot and smashing his left fist into what he assumed was the back of this thing’s knee. Still, there was no damage to the monster. Steve couldn’t say the same for his knuckles, feeling the skin split from the force of his punch. The monster swung around suddenly, its fist aimed straight at Steve’s head. He easily rolled out of the way, glad these things were at least pretty slow.
“Any luck?” Steve called into the comms.

“Lightning has no effect, but I’ve taken a good chunk out of mine with Mjolnir,” Thor answered with pride.

“How big of a chunk?” Steve asked, rolling away from another attempted stomp. All of the rolling and running had taken him away from the others, so he couldn’t see their progress.

“At least the size of my head,” Thor responded, sounding a bit smug.

“Did that slow it down?” Steve asked, a little bit of hope leaking into his voice. If Thor could take all these things out, they might get out of here faster than he thought.

“On the contrary. I think I made it angrier!” Thor laughed, throwing himself back into battle. Steve groaned. Leave it to Thor to find this fun. He hoped Hulk was having better luck, but he couldn’t really ask him right now.

“Anything Iron Man?” Steve asked, jabbing the edge of his shield into the thing’s foot. Maybe if he could get it off balance and on the ground, he could get to the more vulnerable areas, if those existed.

“Still working through my different lasers. Nothing yet,” Tony answered, sending out another blast that crackled into Steve’s ear.

“Widow, Hawkeye, how’s it going on your end?” Steve questioned, barely ducking under another wild strike.

“Still getting the people on the street squared away,” Natasha answered, yelling at people to get out of their cars.

“I don’t know why they always want to stay in the middle of the road,” Clint muttered, growling under his breath at someone screeching in his face. At least they were away from the action. If Steve was having this hard of a time, he couldn’t imagine what they would do. He didn’t think arrows or bullets would pierce the rock beasts, so they were kind of powerless in this situation.

Steve kept ducking and dodging, landing any hits he could. They were still having no effect and he was starting to get tired. Okay, he came into this tired, but now it was really dragging him down. The monster on the other hand, while still slow, wasn’t showing any signs of stopping. An angry roar tore through the air, even Steve flinching a bit at the sound.

“Anyone have eyes on Hulk?” Steve called out, backing up a few steps to get a running start on his opponent. Maybe a little momentum would do the trick.

“He’s rolling around with one of these things on the street. I can’t tell if they’re fighting or making out,” Tony scoffed. Steve rolled his eyes. Now was not the time for fun and games.

“Does it look like he’s making any progress?” Steve asked, running toward the monster, leaping on top of a dumpster to come at it from a higher angle. Steve jumped at its outstretched arm, clutching onto it like a bar and swinging his feet at its middle. The force pushed the monster back a few steps, but it didn’t fall. Steve dropped to the ground before the hands could come together to crush him.

“Our green friend may not be making progress, but I have removed another pebble from my beast. He is not pleased,” Thor laughed. Steve scooted away from his own opponent again, trying to think of what to do next. These things were too hard to try to fight hand to hand. His shield was having no effect, no matter how hard he tried. The rock was just too strong. They needed to come at this from another angle.

“Does anyone know what kind of rock this is?” Steve wondered.

“Looking to start a rock collection Cap?” Clint asked, earning a smack from Natasha that they all could hear over the comms.

“We might be looking at this the wrong way. These things are rocks, right? So how do we break down a rock?” Steve explained, sidestepping another fist. It slammed through the wall of the building they were next to, taking out a chunk of brick.

“That’s actually not a bad idea. Jarvis, what are we dealing with?” Tony said, pausing his attack.

“My scans are telling me this is an altered form of hematite, a component used to make iron,” Jarvis said.

“Altered how, besides the obvious?” Steve asked, moving to a more open area to try to mitigate the damage to surrounding structures.

“The outer layer seems to be strengthened,” Jarvis answered. Well, that explained why his shield was having no luck. These things had to be pretty strong to withstand the vibranium. But Thor’s hammer was able to do some damage at least. Waiting for Thor to go through all of them would take too long though. They could cause too much damage.

“Iron Man, can you shoot something into the area Thor damaged?” Steve suggested.

“Maybe the deeper layers are normal rock! Good thinking Cap!” Tony exclaimed. Steve felt a swelling of pride at the praise from Tony. Even after the team had called his abilities into question earlier, he was proving his worth in the field. No one else had come up with any ideas on how to win this fight, it was him. He may have needed some of their tools, but that would be rectified when he started carrying more than just his shield. A noisy explosion rocked the ground under his feet, different from the normal movements of the beasts.

“Nice shot, Man of Iron!” Thor yelled. “I have missed this.” Maybe Steve did a little bit too. Hadn’t it been easy once? Before all the sadness and exhaustion and discord? Could Steve set all of his fears aside and accept the possibility of hurt and loss as a natural part of life?

“Take that Dwayne Johnson!” Tony shouted in triumph.

“Who’s that? Did he make these? How did you find out?” Steve asked, confused.

“Nevermind,” Tony muttered, sending out another shot. “One monster down.”

“Great! Take care of the other two you have out there, I’ll deal with this one until you’re finished,” Steve directed. He was bone-tired, but the end was in sight. He just had to hold out a little bit longer.

“Are you sure?” Tony asked quietly, his voice taking on a soft, worried quality.

“I have it under control!” Steve snapped, frustrated at being questioned again. Why couldn’t anyone trust what he said. If he said he had it under control, then he had it under control. That is, until it wasn’t under control.

Steve wasn’t sure how it happened, but the next time the monster swung at him, he was just a breath too slow moving out of the way. Maybe he had been too focused on what the other team members thought of him? Or let his guard down a bit since they finally had a solution to this mission’s problem? It didn’t matter either way, since the result was the same.

The beast hit a glancing blow to Steve’s left shoulder, spinning him into a wall. Even a glancing blow from this thing felt like being struck straight on by a semi truck. He felt the joint slide out of the socket, the popping sound echoing through his head. Steve grunted, barely moving out of the way of the fist that slammed through the wall right where he’d been standing. He couldn’t fight with two injured arms. Steve grabbed his wrist like he had before, instead this time he jerked the whole limb down harder, forcing his shoulder back into place. It made a disgusting sucking noise, but at least he had the use of his arm back. Painful to use, but better than nothing. Except now, the adrenaline that had been pushing him through this mission was depleted, his reserves more focused on dealing with the renewed pain.

He just had to hold out a little bit longer. The fight was almost over and another injured arm wasn’t that big of a deal. The team wouldn’t even notice. It wasn’t like they hugged and high fived when they got back on the jet. Steve used his shield to block the next attack, not bothering to try to retaliate. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do any damage and he couldn’t afford to waste his energy.

After a few more minutes of ducking and dodging, the monster seemed like it was getting bored of him. It turned away from him and resumed its earlier aimless path of destruction. Steve was torn between letting it go, following along while it did its thing and only interfering if he needed to and fighting back to draw the attention back on himself so he could keep the structural damage to a minimum. But Captain America didn’t just sit back and watch things get destroyed. What would people think if they saw him taking a casual stroll with a monster?

Steve whipped his shield into the back of his opponent, forgetting he should’ve probably switched his throwing arm back to his more stable right side. The shield pinged off the thing’s back, flying off in a direction that wasn’t toward a waiting Steve. Of all the times for the creature to show some emotion, it would of course be now. And it seemed to figure out its speed issue too. It spun around and charged at him, Steve rolling out of the way just as it lunged. Steve let his momentum carry him further toward his shield, needing that protection. He gripped the edge of it, spinning around right into a solid mass.

Time flowed differently after that, as Steve sat crumpled against the wall. His blinks were getting more sluggish, seconds or minutes passing before his lids opened again. Steve raised a shaky hand to his chest, feeling around for injuries. Tony must’ve done a good job with the suit, since he was still alive, but it couldn’t protect him from all the damage. He could feel the ribs shifting under his touch, the bones stabbing into the delicate flesh inside of him. The monster must have brushed him off as not being a threat anymore because it left him alone, continuing on its journey down the road.

Steve’s lip trembled as he tried to pull himself to his feet. His legs were fine, he could stand up. But his head was swimming from where he hit it when he was forced into the wall. He had to pull his weight. He had to finish the job. He couldn’t give Shield any reason to believe he couldn’t be sent on solo missions. Thor and Tony would be done with their monsters any minute and they couldn’t see him like this. They couldn’t know he was hurt.

Steve jammed the edge of his shield into the ground, using it to help him up with a yell of exertion. The yell made him start coughing and he just couldn’t stop. He braced his chest with one hand, trying to support his ribs as best he could. This felt wrong. When his coughing fit finally subsided, he ran a hand across his mouth, surprised to see it come away wet. Steve’s legs wobbled a bit at the sight. How was he gonna hide this? He could just swallow whatever blood came up. It probably wasn’t that big of a deal. Maybe some rock dust got in his mouth and scratched up his throat.

He still had to finish the job and right now, that meant following the monster. It had gotten about half a block down, mostly sticking to tearing up the ground under its feet. Steve staggered after it, forging a path that was mostly weaving instead of a straight line. He was seeing double, so he closed one eye to help focus his attention on what was real.

The monster seemed to have decided a mailbox was a threat and was currently beating the crap out of it. Steve considered that an acceptable loss and let it happen. He hadn’t been pleased with the Captain America stamp the Post Office had put out. Steve giggled a bit, thinking about the terrible picture they used as he bumped into a wall. Tony’s had looked the best, because of course it had. He probably had final approval during every step of the process. Tony was always so smart. They all were really. They didn’t need him.

Steve finally made it next to where the monster was rampaging, moving onto an out of service phone booth. Another relic of the past that didn’t belong in this time. Steve could relate. They still held some sort of purpose, but there were newer, better options to choose. Steve giggled again, spitting out a mouthful of blood without much care. He never thought he’d be thinking he and phone booths were kindred spirits.

The rest of the team had to be close to being done by this point, right? He hadn’t heard any more battle noises in the air or words coming over the comms, but that might have something to do with the constant ringing that was going on in his skull. Steve could just stay back for a few more minutes, letting the creature do its thing. There wasn’t anyone back here to be worried about.

Suddenly a toy truck flew through the air, bouncing off the leg of the beast. Where the hell had that come from? The monster turned toward the opening of an alleyway, deciding the truck thrower was enough of a threat to change direction. Only a kid would be dumb or brave enough to throw a toy at a giant, and now it was in the path of its destruction.

Steve hobbled over as fast as he could, feeling his bones shift with every step he took. Steve liked kids, he really did, but it seemed like they were doing everything they could to get him killed. He slipped past the monster at the last second, before it had a chance to block the opening of the narrow alley. There was a little boy crouched in front of a dumpster, holding out a toy shield in front of him. A Captain America shield. Steve felt a burst of energy at the sight, deciding right then that kids weren’t so bad.

They had backed themselves into a corner, the monster blocking the only exit, but Steve didn’t care. He stepped resolutely in front of the boy, ignoring all of his pains and crouched defensively in front of him. If this was how he was going out, it would be worth it. He would fight to the death to protect this child. The monster approached, co*cking back its fist to deliver another killing blow. Steve raised his shield, bracing himself for the impact.

It never came, at least not on his body. Mjolnir zoomed past Steve’s head, connecting solidly with the fist that was coming to end his life. The monster staggered back a few steps, getting clear of the alley. Steve looked behind him to see Thor catch his hammer as it flew back to his hand, a triumphant look on his face. Steve hadn’t even noticed his arrival, but now he could smell the little bit of ozone left in the air.

“I hope you don’t mind my interference Captain,” Thor said, swinging his hammer as he advanced on the monster. “But it’s time to finish this.” Steve didn’t respond, just letting Thor go off and do his thing. He looked back toward the little boy, who was staring up at him in awe. Steve let himself lean against the wall and watch the rest of the fight as a bystander. Thor was banging away, looking as if he wasn’t tired at all. That was the leader the Avengers needed.

“What the hell Rogers!” Tony snapped, landing in front of him out of nowhere. Steve twitched back, startled by the sudden appearance. What had he done wrong now? “Why aren’t you answering on comms?” Steve put a finger to his ear, feeling around for the little device. He could feel it there, but couldn’t hear anything coming out of it. Steve shrugged, even though it hurt like hell to move his shoulder that way. He couldn’t risk opening his mouth with Tony so close.

“I am ready for you Man of Iron!” Thor called, chipping another dent into the monster. Tony gave him one last look before he took off, probably as anxious as Steve was to finish this mission. Just probably not for the same reason. Steve stayed with the little boy, just in case the monster was able to slip past everyone again. The explosion was loud and Thor stood by the entrance of the alley, batting down any rogue pieces of rock that flew in their direction. Was this finally over?

Steve levered himself off the wall, motioning for the little boy to follow him. The boy did so eagerly, all traces of fear gone now that The Avengers were around. Natasha and Clint joined up with the group a few moments later, looking cleaner than they usually did after a mission. It made sense, since they didn’t see any of the action. Natasha gave him a concerned look, but he waved her off, gesturing toward the little boy. She pushed Clint forward, forcing him to deal with taking the boy back to where most people were hiding. Clint did so with a tight smile, not bothering to argue.

“Where’s Bruce?” Natasha asked, kicking a bit at the remains of the rock monster.

“We sent him back to the jet to shift and wait when we didn’t need him anymore,” Tony said, lifting up his faceplate to get some air. Steve saw Tony eyeing him, so he turned to face away from the group. He couldn’t let the team inspect him too closely.

“Let’s just call Shield to take care of this,” Natasha suggested, placing a soft hand on his shoulder. Steve flinched away, putting more distance between himself and the team.

“I told you he’d be pissed after your little scheme,” Tony muttered under his breath. Steve sent up a prayer of thanks to Tony for that one. If he could get them to think he was being standoffish due to anger, they might not realize he was trying to hide his injuries from them. They might be fine with leaving him alone altogether. “Call Fury, he likes you best.”

Natasha pulled out her phone, letting Fury know the threat was gone and the cleanup crew and damage control agents were free to come down and get started. They walked back toward the jet, meeting up with Clint along the way. He looked like he wanted to question the suddenly somber mood, but kept his mouth shut at the tight shake of Natasha’s head. Bruce was waiting for them outside of the jet, looking fine, just the normal jitteriness after a Hulk experience. They all climbed in, Steve using his shield to block the team from seeing as he braced his chest with his arm. Now that the danger was over, the pain was settling in even further. He held himself as still as he could as the jet took off on the short flight back to the tower. He had to get back and get to his car without anyone paying attention.

The flight only seemed to last through one heavy blink to the next. Steve glanced around worriedly, hoping no one noticed. They seemed to be giving him his space, probably thinking they’d do more harm than good right now if they bothered him. He followed everyone off the plane, trying to keep his gait as smooth as possible. The exit was his goal and he put all his focus on making it there.

The rest of the team, minus Tony, spread out on the couches, taking a deserved rest after a job well done. None of them looked particularly tired, but they always liked to take a little time after a successful mission to unwind together. At least they had while Steve had lived there. Steve always went back to his own floor to decompress on his own.

“Where you going?” Bruce asked him, just as he was about to turn the corner out of sight. Steve gulped, trying to muster up the most normal voice he could.

“Bathroom,” he answered, keeping his face hidden. He didn’t wait for a reply, walking down toward the doors. He couldn’t go on the elevator now, since he wouldn’t have to get on to get to a bathroom. Steve would have to go down at least one flight of stairs to get to the elevator unnoticed. He grabbed his discarded shield bag along the way, slipping through the door to the staircase. He was almost home free.

The stairs were like torture, every step down moving his bones in a way that they shouldn’t. He couldn’t stop the next coughs from escaping, sending a splatter of blood along the arm rail. He ran his hand over it, trying to wipe it away as he kept on walking. If he stopped now, he’d never start back up again. Steve made it to the landing, spitting up another mouthful of blood onto the floor. He couldn’t do anything about it now. The team barely used the stairs though, right? Steve stumbled to the elevator, thankful the doors opened almost immediately.

“Garage level,” Steve mumbled, trying to suppress the next coughs with his fist. He leaned against the side of the car, needing to conserve his energy for the trek to his truck. The ride down seemed to take forever, every second passing was another chance for the team to figure out he was leaving. He just had to get home and clean up a little, in case they had another mission soon. Just a shower and rest and he’d be good.

The elevator finally reached its destination and he almost cried in relief, pulling himself toward the salvation of his truck. He grabbed the hidden key he had tucked away for emergencies and slipped inside. It felt so heavenly to finally be able to rest alone that he was almost tempted to sit there for a while. But that was too risky. Steve slid on an extra jacket he had on the seat, covering the top of his uniform. His shoulder twinged in protest, but he got it on. There was just a short drive standing between him and his apartment. This would be fine and he would be fine. He always was, right?

Chapter 22: Chapter 22

Chapter Text

Tony hesitated before walking back to where the group was, trying to decide if it would look too cowardly to turn tail and hide out in his lab. It was so nice and private and passcode protected down there. He could always use the old tinkering excuse, even though it was getting pretty thin. The others were probably noticing the sudden urge to tinker always came when anyone mentioned their elusive captain.

It wasn’t like Tony wasn’t worried about Steve, because he was. He was the most worried about him out of everyone, because he knew the reason why Steve looked like he was deteriorating in front of their eyes. And that he was the cause.

If Tony could build a time machine and go back in time, he’d never play that stupid prank all those weeks ago. If he’d honestly known how Steve would take it, he would’ve thrown that idea away as soon as he’d gotten it. Even now, he’d stay up at night thinking about those moments of Steve breaking down, huddled on the floor like there was nothing left to live for. And Tony had basically made him believe that was true. Tony knew deep down that he knew why he did it, but the excuse was so thin he would distract himself before he could fully flesh it out.

At first, even after the immediate reaction Steve had, Tony had convinced himself that Steve would be back to his normal self. He was always the guy who brushed things off, who nothing could stick to. And after the first meeting with Fury, it had helped solidify his assumption. Steve was acting like his normal, holier than thou self. Tony was planning on apologizing, but Steve made it impossible. And maybe he shouldn’t have snapped at him, because Tony deserved it all plus more, but it was just his natural reaction. And he had been more hurt than he wanted to admit when Steve questioned if the medication accident had been on purpose. Tony may make some bad choices, but to essentially poison someone wasn’t one of them.

So he put Steve out of his mind, barely thinking of the guy until the next meeting with Fury, after the team was back together. There were a few tense moments, where Steve seemed off his game, but Tony chalked that up to him still being angry with him and regaining his footing with the team being back after so long. The first unignorable red flag was Steve’s little chat with him on the jet on the way to that first mission. Thanking Tony for being a dick wasn’t something he’d ever considered Steve doing. Steve punching him in the face had been higher on the list of possibilities. But again he brushed it off, because the mission had gone so well. Sure, Steve did all of it himself basically, but he was always the type to do as much as possible.

Then came the disaster of a mission in Russia. Being paired up with Steve gave him a firsthand look at every moment of Steve breaking. Tony had his bout of post nuke PTSD, so he knew the signs. And Steve was practically screaming at him that he was not okay. He felt powerless to do anything about it, with his broken suit and the team being around, but when he finally got a moment alone with the man, his eyes were opened and they’d never be able to close again.

Watching Steve break down again was painful. It was the first time Tony was able to admit to himself that Steve wasn’t mad, he was hurt. He wasn’t standoffish, he was crumbling. And it was all Tony’s fault. Tony almost broke down right there with him, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t the place for it and Tony didn’t want to distract from Steve’s pain with his own. So he decided right then that when they got home and settled again, he was going to talk to Steve. He was going to go to his apartment and figure this all out. Then Thor showed up.

Thor threw a little bit of a wrench into his plans, but he was going to stick to them. That was until Natasha cooked up her little plot to get Steve to the tower to confront him about what was going on. Tony tried arguing against it, because it was a terrible idea. Bombarding Steve with something like this was only going to make him angry and defensive. Steve probably would’ve felt the same way about his own plan, but at least there wouldn’t have been an audience. So Tony tucked himself away in the lab, deciding not to be a part of it at all. If he looked uncaring to the others, so be it. They made the decision without him, they could do it without him.

And then Fury called. Tony hadn’t been listening in on how the “meeting” was going, even though he was tempted to. And when he came up to relay the message, he could tell it hadn’t gone well. Steve looked pissed and Tony couldn’t blame him. Tony would get mad if the team got together and decided to confront him about the color of the carpet on the common floor. It didn’t feel good to find out your teammates were plotting behind your back, even with something innocuous.

Tony had been planning on keeping Steve in his sights as much as possible, just in case anything happened, but those damn rocks screwed that up. Steve was almost immediately sequestered from everyone, taking on his own monster where no one else could see him. It was fine at first, since Steve was communicating with them and even coming up with the plan to save the day, but then he stopped. He stopped responding to anything the team was saying and Tony was flashing back to the mission in Kansas that started this whole thing off. He was so scared he would fly over and find Steve in a bloody heap that he almost abandoned the mission to see if he was okay. But he held out for those last few minutes and almost cried when he saw Steve standing in that alley in one piece. He’d snapped at him a little bit, but only because he was so relieved.

Now could be the time for the talk. Steve was here, which was half the battle. And he had a built in excuse to get him back down into the lab, since he’d left his clothes down there earlier. He just needed to get him away from the others without it looking suspicious. Tony walked into the room, ready to present his normal, aloof self, when the man he’d been hoping to see was conspicuously absent.

“Where’s Cap?” Tony asked, making sure he wasn’t tucked in a corner somewhere he wasn’t seeing.

“He told Bruce he was going to the bathroom,” Clint answered, stretched out on a couch with his head in Natasha’s lap. Cap saying he was going to the bathroom was never a good sign.

“Which bathroom? Are you sure?” Tony asked, a little bit of panic creeping in. The bathroom was code for Steve trying to escape.

“The bathroom down the hall, I assume. Why?” Natasha questioned, perking up a little at Tony’s distress.

“Because I just came from that bathroom!” Tony snapped. “Where’s Bruce? Maybe he heard him wrong.”

“He went back to the jet, said he forgot something,” Natasha said, shoving Clint off of her so she could stand.

“Guys,” Bruce said quietly, walking into the room with one of his hands raised. A hand covered in blood.

“What happened to you?” Clint exclaimed, jumping up from the floor where he’d been pushed.

“It’s not mine,” Bruce whispered, his hands uncharacteristically shaky. “It was on Steve’s seat.” The room devolved into chaos after that, everyone shouting over each other in confusion and panic.

“What do you mean it was on Cap’s seat? He looked fine.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have let him out of my sight. He wasn’t just mad, it was different.”

“Steven was hurt? Why wouldn’t he tell us?”

“Enough!” Tony yelled over everyone, making them quiet in surprise. “All that matters right now is finding Steve. Jarvis, where is he?”

“Captain Rogers left the tower approximately twenty minutes ago,” Jarvis answered.

“What?!” Tony shrieked. “He got on the elevator in front of all of you and you didn’t even notice?”

“No, the elevator doors never opened,” Natasha defended, looking rankled at Tony’s accusation.

“If he took the stairs all the way down, maybe he isn’t as hurt as we think?” Clint offered, a bit of hope brightening his words.

“How did he get out of here Jarvis?” Tony asked, not feeling as good about this as Clint was pretending to.

“Captain Rogers went down one flight of stairs and then entered the elevator. He rode it down to garage level and drove away in his truck,” Jarvis replied.

“f*ck!” Tony yelled, rushing toward the door to the stairs. He trotted down them, looking for any clues. He found his first one when his hand slid through partially dried blood on the handrail. Tony winced, but kept going. If it was already dry, it wasn’t that much. The same couldn’t be said for the puddle he found at the bottom of the stairs, gleaming in the harsh lights in accusation at him.

Tony sank down to sit on the bottom step, powerless to move away from the sight of Steve’s blood. This was his fault. Steve hiding injuries from the team was his fault. Steve thinking he had to keep himself away was his fault. Steve not being okay was his fault. Tony felt like he was going to throw up.

The team rushed down a few minutes later, probably wondering why he hadn’t come back by now. They crowded around the small space, staring at the pool of blood. It wasn’t a lot, not for their line of work, but what it meant was what hit them hardest.

“Are you okay?” Bruce asked, setting a careful hand on his shoulder. Tony turned haunted eyes toward the man, the last bits of his resolve coming crumbling down.
“I did it. I broke Steve.”

*

No matter how hard he tries, Steve will never remember how he made it home that day. It doesn’t matter in the long run, but it’s nothing short of a miracle. By the time he made it into his apartment, he was stumbling around, barely able to stay on his feet. He threw up just inside his doorstep, his stomach finally rebelling against all the blood he had been swallowing to hide from the team. At least there wasn’t any food to come up with it.

Steve stood hunched over, bracing himself against the wall with his left arm. His shoulder was still killing him, but he wanted to keep avoiding putting pressure on his right arm for as long as possible. When his stomach finally decided to give him a break, and after he almost face planted right into his mess, he drug himself along to his bedroom.

He needed to patch himself up, so he could start healing. He couldn’t make the same mistake he had with his arm, hoping he’d have enough time to heal before the next mission. But he was so tired. Maybe he could rest a little bit first. No! Now was the time it was most likely for him to fall asleep and never wake up. Steve had to do something to make sure that didn’t happen.

He went over to his closet, pulling out the extra alarm clocks he'd bought a few days ago. While he’d only wanted to admit he’d bought a couple extra, he’d really bought 10, but he was glad to have them now. Steve ripped them out of the packaging, putting in the little batteries with shaking fingers. Another coughing fit hit him, spraying a mist of blood all over his array of clocks. He could clean up later, it was fine. Steve set them up so one would go off every two minutes, at least he hoped he did, since the little buttons were swimming in and out of focus.

When he tried to stand up to head into the bathroom, he lost his balance and fell back onto his butt. The movement jarred his ribs and he couldn’t stop himself from crying out, more blood spilling down his chin. He was going to ruin the suit Tony made for him. How was he going to explain that? Steve needed to get his uniform off and clean it up before he did anything else. Blood was so hard to get out and Tony would be angry.

Steve reached up to remove his cowl, feeling the hair tug in the back. Oh yeah, he’d hit his head earlier, hadn’t he? How long had it been bleeding? Putting in stitches back there would be such a hassle. He threw the cowl to the side, deciding to leave that for later.

He started the painful process of pulling off his uniform top, having to pause a few times to lean over and cough up more blood. Why did it have to be so tight? When it finally came free, Steve was covered in sweat. His undershirt was sticking uncomfortably to him and he could feel the crusted blood covering his back. It was just a basic white t-shirt, but he couldn’t let it go to waste. He could salvage it with some bleach.

The rest of the things would be harder to clean. He couldn’t just toss bleach on it and hope for the best. Steve needed to start scrubbing it now if it stood a chance at all. He tried to stand again, but this time fell forward. He caught himself on both hands, snatching his right one back up when he realized what he’d done. Had he just messed it up again?

Steve settled back down on the floor, unwrapping the thin layer of bandages he had left on earlier. It looked good. The skin where the holes had been were almost the same color as the surrounding skin. And the bone felt straight and solid. Steve felt a laugh bubbling up inside of him. The one part of his body that he’d been worried about hurting the most was perfectly fine. Once the first laugh was out, he couldn’t stop the others.

He held his ribs tightly as he laughed until tears were pouring down his face. The laughs turned slightly hysterical, his breaths wheezing as he lost control. There were a few alarm clocks blaring by this point, but he didn’t care. He just couldn’t stop. His breaths started catching in his throat, the exhales more liquid than anything else. Now the front of his shirt was starting to match the back.
Look at him. Just look at him now. This was Captain America. He imagined being back on stage. Not during the shows with the civilians who loved him, but in front of his fellow soldiers. They knew. They knew he was a fraud since the very beginning. He couldn’t, he just couldn’t. He wasn’t okay.

“Oh God,” Steve sobbed, covering his face with his hands. He hurt. The pain was so deep and would never come out. Why couldn’t it stop? How did he get it to stop?
Steve tipped down to the floor, resting on his side. He wrapped his arms around himself, feeling so cold and alone. He couldn’t do this anymore.

*

“You broke him? What does that mean?” Bruce prodded, leaving his hand on his shoulder. His stupid, comforting hand that Tony didn’t deserve.

“You accidentally hit him during the battle?” Clint asked, looking toward the others for confirmation.

“No, like I broke him from the inside. I broke his spirit,” Tony spat, and didn’t that sound stupid out loud? He sounded like a teenager talking about a crush.

“Explain,” Natasha demanded, stepping up to stand firmly in front of him. She was going to kill him. They all knew that she had a soft spot for the super soldier. Tony had gotten a little buzzed one night and point blank asked her why she was so sweet on the stiff man. Natasha had just smiled and said he won her over after that disastrous attack on the helicarrier when they got Clint back, when Steve without question trusted her word about Clint being on their side. They hadn’t known each other at all, but had such a strong sense of mutual respect.

“Something happened a few weeks ago while you were gone,” Tony mumbled, guilt and fear sitting heavy on his heart.

“Something like what?” Natasha asked, crossing her arms over her chest. Yep, she was going to kill him, and he’d let her. He deserved it.

“I can’t say.”

“What do you mean you can’t say?”

“Steve wouldn’t want me to.”

“Steve is out there bleeding somewhere! I don’t think it matters what he wants!” Natasha shouted, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and slamming him against the wall. Tony kept his hands to the side, letting her take out her frustrations on him.

“It doesn’t matter what happened, as long as I fix it! And I will!” Tony yelled back, closing his eyes in defeat.

“Maybe instead of standing here fighting we should, I don’t know, go and find Steve before he does any more damage to himself,” Clint suggested, slowly easing Natasha’s hands away from Tony’s throat. Natasha shrugged Clint off, walking a few paces away.

“Jarvis, what are we dealing with here? What were his vitals like?” Bruce asked, probably trying to get a better idea of what they would be coming across.

“His oxygen saturation was low, as was his blood pressure,” Jarvis answered.

“What the hell? And you let him leave?” Tony shouted, pulling at his hair in frustration.

“Long standing protocol states that Captain Rogers’ privacy is to be respected,” Jarvis replied.

“I think the man dying is a good enough excuse to override that!” Tony snapped, vowing to look into all of Jarvis’ settings when all this was over.

“Captain Rogers wasn’t dying, but his vitals are cause for concern,” Jarvis said. That was all Tony needed to hear. They were just standing here, wasting time. The fighting and accusations and explanations could wait until after Steve was safe.

“We don’t have time for this. I’m flying to his apartment,” Tony declared, pushing everyone out of the way to go back up the stairs.

“Wait, you can’t just leave us behind!” Natasha objected, right on his tail.

“I’m not going to sit in a car and risk getting stuck in traffic just because some of you don’t know how to fly!” Tony snapped, stomping through the door and marching over to wear his suit from earlier was stored.

“You are not going without me and making things worse!” Natasha spat, blocking him from getting to his suit.

“Get out of my way or I’ll put you out of my way,” Tony hissed, ignoring the fact that his life expectancy was plummeting. He didn’t care what he had to do, nothing was stopping him from getting to Steve.

“I’d like to see you try,” Natasha challenged, gearing up for a fight.

“Enough!” Bruce yelled, echoing Tony’s cry from earlier. “All this fighting is getting us nowhere and Steve is the one suffering for it!” Tony and Natasha both looked away, feeling fully chastised. Bruce was right, as usual.

“How good’s your grip?” Tony asked Natasha, co*cking his head in offer.

Tony ended up flying with Natasha and Clint clutched to his middle, while Thor had Bruce tucked under one arm. He hoped no one on the ground noticed this little display, but Tony didn’t care that much at this point. And The Avengers showing up to Steve’s apartment would probably bring up some hard questions with his neighbors, but Tony didn’t plan on letting Steve stay here any longer. Even if he had to drag the man back kicking and screaming, Steve was going to move back into the tower.

They stormed up the stairs, none of them willing to wait for the elevator. Tony made sure he was in front, even though he wasn’t the fastest one on the team and Natasha was still sending him murder eyes. He flashed back to when he was here before, the only time he ever came, after Steve woke up. Tony had been relieved when Steve didn’t open the door. He was such a coward.

Tony’s breath caught when they finally made it to Steve’s apartment. There was blood smeared along the knob and the door wasn’t even closed all the way. And there was a loud beeping coming from inside. Had Steve been attacked when he got home? Was that a security alarm going off? The team must’ve had similar thoughts, because they all looked ready for a fight.

Tony took point, pushing forward through the door and looking for any threats. He stepped in a puddle of blood before he could notice and avoid it, but kept going. He could worry about that after he got eyes on Steve. The living room was empty and hauntingly bare. He knew Steve had always preferred to live simple, even in the tower, but this was different.

He was pulled from his thoughts by a quiet gasp from Natasha. Natasha never gasped. Tony spun around, pushing past everyone as they huddled in the doorway. If Tony hadn’t had the stability of the suit, his knees would’ve buckled at the sight he was confronted with.

Steve was lying, curled up on the middle of his bedroom floor. He was surrounded by alarm clocks, most of them blaring loudly, but he didn’t seem to notice. Steve didn’t even look like he noticed everyone standing there, looking at him in horror. He was crying, coughing up mouthfuls of blood with every hiccuping sob.

“Oh my God,” Tony whispered, shock numbing all of his senses. He tugged off his helmet, setting it on the floor. Of all the things he’d imagined he’d find, it didn’t even compare to this. He was glad now that Natasha insisted on coming along, because he knew he couldn’t deal with this alone.

“Steve?” Natasha asked gently, stepping over to carefully lay a hand on his shoulder. That must’ve made Steve finally aware of his company, because he sprang up, stumbling back until he hit the opposite wall.

“No, what’re you-” Steve cut off to spit out another gob of blood.

“Clint, go check his bathroom for a first aid kit,” Natasha directed, carefully approaching Steve like you would a wild animal. Tony was relieved that Natasha was taking control of this situation, because he was stuck.

“Don’t!” Steve gasped.

“Um, there’s uh,” Clint said, walking back into the room. Tony had never seen the man looking so pale, not even when his mind was taken over by Loki. “There’s blood.”

“We know, we see it,” Bruce said, not understanding why Clint was so affected by it.

“No, this is a lot. And it’s dry,” Clint whispered. Steve wasn’t home long enough for his blood to dry from injuries gotten from this mission. Bruce went into the room to see for himself, stomping out a few seconds later, looking a little green. Hulk green.

“Thor, take Bruce into the living room and calm him down,” Tony said, grabbing Bruce’s arm and shoving him at Thor. Steve was agitated enough, he didn’t need to feel Hulk trying to burst out.
Steve was absolutely shaking where he stood against the wall, trying to inch away every time Natasha advanced on him. This didn’t seem like Steve at all. Tony had never seen him so scared. Another alarm started going off, joining the chorus of others. What was up with those?

“Clint, can you shut these off before I shoot them?” Tony grumbled, clenching his iron covered fists. The sound was making everything worse. As soon as Clint made a move toward one, Steve’s panic seemed to go up.

“Don’t touch those!” Steve shouted, startling Clint back. “I need them.”

“What do you need them for?” Natasha asked calmly.

“So I don’t-I can’t-I-” Steve stammered, his chin trembling. Tony wished he hadn’t taken off his helmet, because the rest of them didn’t need to see the look on his face. Tony only had a thin grasp on his own emotions right now and Tony did not cry. Tony made jokes. Tony saved people. He didn’t watch one of the best men he’d ever known fall apart in front of his eyes. Because of him.

“Why Steve?” Natasha asked, reaching one of her hands out with her palm up.

“I can’t sleep,” Steve moaned, shying away from her hand. She pulled it back when she realized he wasn’t ready to be touched, trying to keep him as comfortable as possible so he would keep talking. Tony didn’t know how he was even conscious at this point, with all the blood they’d seen. Typical Steve, never knowing how to quit. But he figured the choice was going to be taken out of his hands soon enough.

“You can’t fall asleep?” Natasha asked.

“I can, but I can’t,” Steve gasped, wiping a shaky hand across his mouth, smearing the blood further on his cheek. Steve looked like a murder victim at this point and Tony wanted to throw up.

“Okay, that’s okay. Maybe we should think about getting you cleaned up a little bit?” Natasha suggested, gesturing to the first aid kit Clint was still holding. Steve’s eyes flicked to the pile of fabric on the floor, before moaning in despair.

“Tony, I’m sorry! I ruined your suit,” Steve whimpered, closing his eyes in distress. “I’ll fix it, I swear!”

“I don’t care about that,” Tony soothed, trying to channel the voice his mother used when he was upset. “All we care about is making sure you’re okay.”

“I’m okay,” Steve insisted, his wobbly voice betraying his words.

“You will be, but first we need to take you to see a doctor,” Natasha said, resuming her careful approach. Tony willed her to just grab him already, but he knew that would make things worse.

“I can’t. I-I can do it myself,” Steve stuttered, wiping his mouth again, this time revealing blue lips. Clint swore under his breath, going into the living room to get Bruce. He was the closest thing they had to a medical doctor and they were going to need him soon, if Natasha couldn’t get through to Steve.

“I think it’s a little more complicated than that,” Natasha said regretfully.

“I did it before. I can,” Steve said, trying to sound determined.

“You shouldn’t have had to,” Natasha replied, putting her hand out again. She was so close.

“But I’m Captain America,” Steve murmured, biting his lip as it quivered.

“You’re Steve Rogers,” Natasha said, matching his tone. Steve closed his eyes and wept. Honest to God, wept. Natasha seized the opportunity, wrapping him up in her arms and lowering them both to the floor. He had his face over her heart, coughing blood all over her uniform, but she paid it no mind. She stroked the top of his head, avoiding the areas covered in blood. Steve was trying to gasp out a few words, but his lack of breath and position were making them unintelligible.

Bruce breezed in, rushing over to check over Steve now that his defenses were lowered. His hands fluttered around, uncharacteristically nervous. Was there any place he could touch that wouldn’t cause Steve pain? He settled on his wrist first, checking his pulse. Steve grabbed Bruce’s arm in panic, startling the older man back a bit.

“Don’t let them put me to sleep,” Steve pleaded. Tony heard a choked off, strangled noise, realizing belatedly that it had come from him. He sank down to the floor, feeling his heart race as he absorbed everything he’d done. Clint looked torn on what to do, standing in the middle of the room and clenching the handle of the first aid kit. Thor was standing in the doorway, looking completely off kilter.

“What are you talking about, Steve?” Bruce asked, not fighting the man’s bruising grip on his arm.

“I can’t lose everything again, I can’t,” Steve whimpered, tucking his head further into Natasha’s chest.

“It’s my fault,” Tony whispered, catching the attention of everyone in the room, besides Steve. “I made a mistake.”

“Either explain what you’re alluding to or shut up, because we don’t have time for you to be cryptic!” Clint hissed, his characteristic aloofness completely gone by this point.

“That mission, before you came back, Steve got hurt and I…” Tony trailed off, climbing back to his feet so he could pace. “I had to do something! I didn’t see any other options when the doctors were talking about spinal injuries, so I panicked and I used-I used it. But it was too much and Steve didn’t wake up for a few days.” Tony didn’t even see Bruce approaching until his fist collided with Tony’s cheek. He went down hard, equal parts dazed and shocked that Bruce had it in him.

“What the hell were you thinking? You could’ve killed him!” Bruce shouted, looking utterly infuriated.

“He could’ve been dying! I didn’t know what else to do!” Tony panted, hating even having to say those words out loud. Steve and dying should never go together, but here they were again.

“You let the doctors do their job!” Bruce spat, pointing an accusing finger in his face.

“There wasn’t time! Steve was moving too much and the doctors were going to strap him down, but you know those wouldn’t have held! I couldn’t stand the thought of having to hold him down while they sliced into his neck-”

“Guys!” Natasha’s panicked yell cut off their fight, everyone turning to see Steve convulsing in her arms.

“sh*t!” Bruce gasped, falling to his knees next to the seizing man. He helped Natasha move him into a safer position, watching helplessly as they were powerless to do anything but let this happen. It didn’t last long, but it didn’t need to. They all understood how dire this had become. And how if they had stuck to what they’d been doing all along, letting Steve go off without making sure he was okay, they probably wouldn’t have seen him alive again.

“He needs a hospital, now,” Natasha declared, running her hand along Steve’s cheek. Tony agreed, grabbing his helmet and sliding it back on.

“Jarvis, alert Shield that I’ll be bringing Steve in for emergency medical assistance,” Tony demanded, carefully folding Steve into his arms. He was completely limp and Natasha gently manipulated his body to a more comfortable position. Bruce rushed over to Thor, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him toward the door like he weighed nothing.

“You’re taking me,” Bruce commanded, leading them out of the apartment door and heading for the roof. Tony was right behind, being as quick and careful as possible. Steve’s head was tucked next to the neck of his suit, bobbing gently with each step. Tony couldn’t remember ever being more scared in his whole life.

“You better hold on Steve,” Tony mumbled, not caring who heard him. “You gotta give me a chance to fix this.”

Chapter 23: Chapter 23

Chapter Text

The sound of steady beeping woke him up, but Steve kept his eyes closed. He’d finally gotten some nightmare free sleep and he was hesitant to move and ruin the moment. But the beeping had a purpose and he had to stick to his decisions. Except, it wasn’t harsh like it usually was. It was actually kind of soothing, and that wasn’t right. And Steve must’ve been really exhausted if the floor was feeling this comfortable.

It was right around this moment that Steve realized he wasn’t where he thought he was. His floor didn’t incline. His alarm clock beeping didn’t fluctuate in tandem with his heartbeat. And there usually wasn’t something stuck up his nose.

Steve’s eyes shot open at that revelation, finding himself staring up at the ceiling. A ceiling that was too white. He was frozen, all he could do was stare at the space right in front of him. It had happened again, hadn’t it? Steve had fallen asleep and lost everything. He felt a keening whine build up in the back of his throat, the heart monitor taking up a quality more like the alarms he’d gotten used to.

Not again, not again. How had he gotten to this place? Last he’d remembered he was home, right? How long had he laid there before being found? How much time had he lost?

Machines were screaming now and maybe he was too. He couldn’t tell anymore, but there was noise echoing everywhere. Echoing in this empty room and echoing inside his empty soul. Could anyone hear him? Did anyone care?

Steve thought he faintly heard the sound of a door opening and footsteps racing around. He couldn’t react, couldn’t see if it was real. Then hands were touching him and that he couldn’t ignore. He fought them as best he could, his limbs not quite working in the way he wanted them to. The hands were on his face now and he slammed his eyes shut, not wanting to see anyone. If he didn’t see it, it wasn’t real. Steve could feel the fingers brushing along his cheeks, wiping away the tears he hadn’t realized were falling. Didn’t they know being nice to him would just make this harder?

Someone was saying something to him, right next to his face, but he couldn’t make out the words. His brain was overloading and nothing could make it past the shrieking alarms and his internal panic. Somewhere deep inside he could tell that he hurt, that there was pain fraying all of his nerves, but it had been his constant companion for so long, he didn’t know what it felt like anymore to not be in agony. He just wanted it to stop.

“Steve, open your eyes Steve,” the voice said. It sounded so nice and soothing, but Steve didn’t want to open his eyes and see a stranger.

“No,” Steve whimpered, feeling his throat ache from the exertion of saying that one, short word.

“It’s Tony and it’s still 2012,” the voice said, the hands never leaving his face. Was it true? Was it really Tony? Had he not lost everything again? Steve still didn’t want to open his eyes, wanting to stay in that place where there was still hope that it was true, not wanting to risk it and finding out it wasn’t.

“Tony?” Steve asked finally, hope coloring his voice.

“I’m Tony Stark and you’re Steve Rogers and we’re in the Shield building. It’s November 2012 and you’re a member of the Avengers team. Natasha, Clint, Bruce, and Thor are all here and safe and are going to be pissed they missed seeing you wake up. And I’m gonna brag so hard to them when they find out, but it’s not gonna count unless I see your eyes, okay?” Tony babbled. Steve inhaled a shaky breath, feeling his body tremble as his resolve waned. He opened his eyes, blinking away the tears that had taken up residence behind his lids.

“Tony.”

*

The relief that came when Steve made eye contact with him was almost immediately replaced by horror when those same eyes rolled into the back of his head. Tony caught Steve as he suddenly went limp, his hands on the man’s face the only thing stopping him from slumping forward. The doctors in the room behind him sprang into action, pushing him to the side as they settled Steve back on the bed. Tony moved out of the way, remembering the agreement he’d made with Shield to stay out of the way of the staff in exchange for not getting kicked out of the room. He moved back into a corner, putting his head in his hands like he had been sitting earlier.

This was the first time Steve had woken up since they’d brought him here four days ago. That flight to the Shield building was something he’d never forget. He’d been so close when the alarms inside his suit started going off, Jarvis alerting him that Steve had stopped breathing. Tony stopped breathing as well, pushing his suit as hard as he could as he screamed for Steve to hold on hold on hold on. He was practically hysterical by the time he’d landed on the roof, swamped by nurses and doctors who had to pry Steve from his arms. He’d found out later that Steve started breathing on his own immediately and had only stopped because of the angle he was carried and Tony clutching him too hard. And didn’t that just make him feel like a bigger piece of sh*t? When was he going to stop hurting Steve?

Thor and Bruce had shown up right after, the scientist pushing his way to Steve’s bedside and shrugging off any attempts to get him to leave. He was the leading expert on the biology of the super soldier and he was going to be there to supervise every decision that was made. Tony had tried to push his way in too, but Bruce snapped at him to go wait somewhere else. So he was left to field the questions from Fury with Thor, who was obviously no help in this situation. Tony didn’t even have the energy to make an effort to be his normal defiant self when it came to Fury’s interrogation, somberly answering all his questions as basically as he could. Fury didn’t need to know all the details and Steve wouldn’t want him to. He knew how hard Steve would take knowing what the team had already seen. All the information Fury went away with was Steve was injured, the team didn’t know, and they didn’t know how it happened. Fury stomped off, grumbling about finding out the whole truth one way or the other.

Natasha and Clint showed up a few minutes later, after having to hail a cab to get there. They went to Thor for information on Steve, so Tony knew they weren’t his biggest fans. He couldn’t blame them. He’d leave himself if it was possible. The three of them stayed huddled in one corner, whispering quietly to each other until Bruce came into the room, looking utterly defeated.

“It’s not good,” Bruce said, wringing his hands in front of him.

“Not good according to human standards or not good according to super soldier standards?” Natasha asked quietly, grabbing Clint’s hand in an uncharacteristic show of vulnerability.

“If Steve was a normal person, he would be dead,” Bruce said, matter of factly. Tony felt all the blood drain out of his face and he sank down to the floor. He didn’t care how it made him look, but his legs weren’t going to hold him up anymore.

“Tell us,” Clint demanded, squeezing Natasha’s hand.

“He has a grade 2 concussion, although it could’ve been more severe earlier, depending on how much healing took place already. And given the seizure he had, I think it’s safe to say that may be the case. Although his overall condition probably didn’t help matters either,” Bruce said, blowing out a quiet breath.

“I knew he looked unwell,” Thor said mournfully, shaking his head.

“He’s showing signs of malnutrition and after what we saw at the tower, I’d say exhaustion too,” Bruce confirmed.

“How is that possible? He looked tired, but not sickly,” Clint questioned.

“A malnourished person isn’t always skin and bones. The serum may have masked it, but Steve is not healthy right now. I’d describe it as someone on an extremely calorie restricted diet,” Bruce explained.

“Are you saying Steve has an eating disorder? That he’s anorexic?” Natasha asked, anger leaking into her words.

“I can’t confirm anything until I can talk to him myself. Even athletes can make themselves ill by trying to cut weight in an unhealthy way, before they even realize what they’re doing to themselves. But in some morbid, messed up way, Steve being so unwell is helping him right now,” Bruce scoffed, running a hand down his face.

“How can it possibly be good?” Tony yelled, springing back to his feet. There was no way Bruce could say something so callous.

“Unlike normal circ*mstances, the serum is so overloaded right now that basic medicine is working on him. They are prepping him for surgery right now that he’ll be able to be asleep for. No need for untested drugs to be given to him this time,” Bruce shot back. Tony snapped his mouth shut, knowing he deserved all of the team’s ire.

“What’s the surgery for?” Natasha asked, breaking up the potential fight before it could get started.

“Steve is suffering from something referred to as flail chest. Part of his ribcage has detached from the chest wall and that’s hindering his lungs from doing their job. At least one of his lungs has been punctured and we don’t know yet if there are any other areas where he is internally bleeding, but the doctors decided to go in and see what they find,” Bruce said.

“They’re just gonna cut him open and hope they find everything?” Tony yelled, pacing a few steps away.

“We can’t risk waiting. We’re in the middle of a countdown and we don’t even get to see the clock. They need to get in there and fix what they can before Steve either wakes up or starts healing wrong, and then we’re right back to where we started,” Bruce snapped. He turned around, heaving out a shaky breath. “I’ve got to get back there. They’re gonna let me stay in the operating room in case… in case. I’ll let you know if he starts to wake up and we need help.” Bruce left and Tony immediately rushed to the garbage can in the corner, heaving up everything that was in his stomach.

Luckily, by some miracle Tony didn’t deserve, but Steve sure did, Steve didn’t wake up during his surgery. Bruce had come out six hours later looking exhausted, but relieved. They’d all converged on his room, needing to see the man for themselves. He looked so frail and that was not a word Tony had ever used to describe Steve. They had him on oxygen, but not intubated because Bruce thought Steve waking up and panicking would be too dangerous to risk. They were pushing pain meds for as long as they could, until they stopped working. The steady heart monitor was reassuring, but Steve still looked like death warmed over.

Natasha walked over to him first, brushing his hair off his forehead into a style more like Steve would prefer. She bent down to whisper something in his ear, brushing a light kiss along his brow. Tony looked away, feeling like he was intruding on a private moment. He went over to the chair that was sitting against one wall, settling in for the wait.

That’s where he’d been when Steve woke up, always there, but staying back. The rest of the team had come and gone, sitting around Steve’s bedside and waiting. They hadn’t talked much, knowing the longer Steve stayed unconscious, the better it would be for his body in the long run. The serum was doing its thing, but Steve was still healing. Bruce had cooked up a vitamin co*cktail that was steadily replenishing everything Steve had lost. But they all knew the most important healing couldn’t happen until after Steve woke up.

Tony had been listening to the sound of the heart monitor religiously, noting every time the rhythm changed even minutely. He heard it pick up a little, but didn’t think anything of it until he heard a small gasp and looked up to see Steve staring at the ceiling. Tony felt his own heartbeat quicken as he approached the bed carefully, not wanting to startle the still groggy man. But then Steve had let out a God awful sound, kind of like a dying animal, and then outright screamed, and Tony covered the distance in a second.

The doctors ran into the room in response to the noise, but Tony held them off. The first person Steve saw was going to be someone he knew this time. Steve had closed his eyes and wouldn’t open them after Tony asked him to, panic shaking his body. Tony tried to think up things to say to him to prove he was really him, but realized he had nothing good to say. You’d see in all those movies and TV shows where a person would tell someone things about them, to show they were a friend and cared about them, but Tony realized he knew nothing about Steve. Nothing personal at least. He knew what the history books said, or random things his dad had told him, but nothing personal about Steve. Tony had decided who Steve was before he’d met him and hadn’t bothered to find out if it was true. So Tony went with reassuring him that the team was there and too much time hadn’t passed and he was okay.

It had worked until it didn’t, when he passed out again and scared Tony to death. He was crouched in the corner, watching the doctors flit about all around him, muttering readings and questions at each other while they checked on the status of their patient. Bruce ran in a few minutes later, looking frazzled after he’d been woken up from his forced nap early.

“What happened?” Bruce snapped when he noticed him in the corner. They still hadn’t really talked since they’d been here, Tony not willing to leave Steve’s room and Bruce not willing to argue in front of Steve, in case he could hear it. But Tony knew he wouldn’t be able to avoid it for long.

“He woke up for a couple minutes,” Tony mumbled, gripping his knees. Bruce’s face softened at that, hope gracing his features for the first time in days.

“Was he okay?” Bruce asked, trying to peek around the huddled doctors.

“He knew who I was, but passed back out pretty quickly. I don’t know anything else,” Tony said.

“He’s still stable,” one of the doctors said, turning around to face the two Avengers. “His body decided it wasn’t time to wake up and took him back under. But this is still a good sign. Captain Rogers is healing nicely and I see no reason why he won’t be fully healed in the coming days.” He left the room, leaving the teammates alone again.

Tony pulled himself to his feet, walking back over toward the bed. Steve looked the same as he had before he woke up, except for his slightly mussed hair. He brushed it back like Natasha had, letting his hand rest on his head for a few seconds before pulling away. Steve looked so young right now. Tony had the urge to lock him in his tower and never let him out again. But he knew even convincing Steve to come back to the tower would be a battle. He’d turned a place that was supposed to be safe and a refuge and home for his team into a nightmare for Steve. He was willing to do anything to fix it, even buying a whole new tower so Steve wouldn’t have the cloud of bad memories hanging over him anymore.

“What really happened Tony?” Bruce asked, not angrily this time, just tired. Tony thought about pretending like he didn’t know what the other man was talking about, but he knew he couldn’t avoid this talk forever.

“You have it lucky, you know? Having the Hulk take over during all the fighting, then turning back to yourself after all is said and done,” Tony said, sinking down into the chair by Steve’s bed. He impulsively grabbed Steve’s hand, needing the reassurance he was here and whole while he was talking. “Dealing with something while you’re in the thick of things, when you only have one person to depend on, it’s different. It’s easy to think you’re doing the right thing when there is no one to help you make a better decision.”

“Tony,” Bruce sighed, dropping into the chair on the other side of the bed.

“Imagine if you had been the only one to find Steve today. To have no one to help you and every decision you had to make determined whether he lived or died. You can tell yourself beforehand how you’ll react, that you’ll be cool and calm, but you don’t know, not until you live it.”

“Tony.”

“I needed you guys there. I’m not a soldier! I wasn’t meant for this. But I had a responsibility to Steve and I did what I thought was right. And it worked and the doctors backed off and I stayed with him while he healed and watched him not wake up. They couldn’t do anything for him anymore, so I took him home. It took him six days to wake up. Six days of me sitting alone, not knowing if by trying to save him, that I killed him.”

“And you could’ve. We talked about all the testing we had to do still before that drug was safe enough to try on Steve. Hell, Steve didn’t even know about it yet!”

“I took that risk because I couldn’t stand around and do nothing! If someone hadn’t taken a chance and done some unsanctioned medical procedures on me, I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation with you!” Tony snapped, pointing to his own chest. “Did I get lucky when he woke up without repercussions? Yes. Do I hope to God I never have to make a decision like that again? You bet your ass. But that’s something I need to work through with Steve and I’d really appreciate it if everyone stopped looking at me like I purposely tried to destroy our Captain!”

“No repercussions?” Bruce challenged quietly, gesturing to the man that laid between them. Tony looked away, feeling his face burn with shame.

“That’s different and also something I need to work out with Steve. It has nothing to do with the team,” Tony muttered, still avoiding eye contact.

“Nothing to do with the team?” Bruce snapped, gripping the arms of the chair to help ground himself. “You knew Steve was struggling this whole time and did nothing about it!”

“Bruce.”

“And yeah, some of this can be blamed on the rest of us, because we saw Steve was acting different since we came back and didn’t do anything about it. But you knew for sure what was happening and you didn’t do a damn thing! I don’t know if we should even trust you alone with Steve right now.”

“I can’t believe you’d say something like that to me,” Tony whispered, staring across at someone he’d describe as one of his best friends.

“You’re the reason why Steve moved out in the first place. How do I know you’re not going to go right back to being that guy? The Steve I saw in that apartment a few days ago can’t take him right now and I refuse to stand by and let it happen again. We got lucky this time,” Bruce said, standing up and squeezing Steve’s arm. “He doesn’t deserve this.” Tony snapped his jaw tight as Bruce walked out of the room, knowing he had no defense. He earned all those words and more, and the team didn’t even realize how much yet.

Tony was going to sit right here until Steve woke up again. No hiding in the corner, no letting anyone else take the lead. It was his fault Steve was here and Tony was going to be the one to make sure he was okay. And if Steve decided after everything that Tony being around wasn’t good for him anymore, he would accept that and leave him alone. Even if it meant leaving The Avengers.

Chapter 24: Chapter 24

Chapter Text

“Pepper asked about you. We’re kind of off again and she doesn’t really like to talk to me unless she has to for the company, but she still asked. She’d be by to visit if she wasn’t stuck in France overseeing some SI situation I’m steering clear of. I’m not doing anything business related at the moment. Figured it was a good time to take a vacation. So I’ll just be hanging around the tower, like I have been for a while. I had been doing some video meetings, but not anymore. Got more important things to focus on.”

His head felt thick, like someone had stuffed his skull full of cotton.

“There was a silent movie marathon on TV a couple weeks ago. I’m not sure if you watched those as a kid, but I kept them on in the background while I worked. Made it through about two movies before I figured out where I went wrong. Don’t tell anyone I told you that, I’m supposed to be a genius.”

It was too warm in here, but it was still kind of comfortable.

“Natasha took Thor shopping for some normal, human clothes. That man is really attached to his cape, but it makes him look like some sort of dumb wizard when he wears it in public. And it draws too much attention. As if the broad shoulders and hair don’t already do that enough.”

What was that in his hand? It was warm too. And kind of nice.

“Bruce still isn’t really talking to me. Not that I blame him. He’s off examining your last set of x rays, or else he’d be in here too. I prefer it when it’s just the two of us though. Then we don’t have to sit in silence like Bruce wants us too. I think it’s better for you to wake up gradually, maybe hearing a familiar voice. I’m sure you wish it was someone else’s, but there is nothing that would make me leave this room. I even leave the door to the adjoining bathroom open when I use it, but you don’t really need to know about that.”

Why was this person talking to themselves? Why wasn’t anyone answering?

“Thanksgiving is coming up. I don’t usually do anything, but I was thinking of ordering in a whole menu for it. You probably love turkey. I don’t know though. You’ve got everyone worried about food right now, but I’m sure there’s a good explanation. I sometimes forget to eat too, you know? When I’m busy with something. I’m sure that’s all it is. I really wish you were awake to tell me, Steve.”

Steve. That was him. Someone was talking to him. Should he answer?

“Uh, let’s see, what else is there? Oh, Bruce punched me. Yep, Dr. Banner, not Hulk. I think he’s been holding out on us. Got a pretty nice shiner still. All the injuries you had and you’ll still be healed before me.”

Injuries. Healing. Hospital. Tony.

Steve’s hand twitched before he could stop it and Tony immediately stopped talking. Why was Tony holding his hand? Did he get hurt? How did the team find out?

“Steve, can you hear me?” Tony asked, rubbing his hand softly. He didn’t want to hear him. He didn’t want to face them. Not if they saw. Not if they knew. “It’s okay, if you’re not ready to wake up yet. But I’ll be here when you are. Nothing more important to me in the world.”

Steve sniffled, feeling his eyes burning. No, he couldn’t be crying in front of Tony again. He didn’t want to cry in front of anyone, especially not Tony. It was becoming a habit that no one enjoyed.

“Hey, hey, you’re okay. Does something hurt? Do you want me to get Bruce?” Tony asked, gently brushing at his cheeks.

“Tony?” Steve mumbled weakly.

“Yeah, it’s me. It’s so good to hear your voice,” Tony said, huffing out a small laugh. “Do you need something? Anything? Name it and it’s yours.”

“Go. Please,” Steve whispered, ducking his head down. He didn’t want Tony to see his face. Steve felt Tony move away from him, setting his hand gently back down on the bed. He immediately felt the loss, but he had to stay strong.

“Yeah, sure, of course,” Tony muttered, getting up from his seat. “I should get the rest of the team, cause they’re dying to see you. And the doctors will probably want to check you over, now that you’re awake.” Steve nodded, waiting for Tony to leave so he could have a few seconds to check himself over. But even after a few moments, Tony didn’t move. And then he sat back down in the chair. Steve was so confused that he couldn’t stop himself from looking back over at the man.

Tony was wringing his hands, looking down at the floor between his feet. That wasn’t a look Steve was used to seeing on him. He looked nervous and guilty. Like there was something he wasn’t telling him. Steve felt the panic building up inside his body again. It was just like the moment before the fake doctor told him that sixty years had passed and the team was gone.

“What happened? Is everyone okay?” Steve asked, holding his breath as he prepared for the answer.

“No Steve,” Tony said, looking back up at him. “You’re not okay.”

“I am,” Steve protested weakly, knowing his argument was proven wrong just by looking at the situation he was in.

“Steve, can we just stop pretending for a minute? Can we stop acting like you’re okay and that it’s not my fault that you aren’t?” Tony sighed, scrubbing his hands over his face. “Nothing about this is okay!” Steve shifted slightly on the bed, trying to put more distance between them. He wanted to go back to when the team just left him alone. He didn’t want Tony here challenging him.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Steve ground out, staring straight ahead toward the door.

“Not talking about anything is how we got into this situation in the first place!” Tony snapped, before audibly forcing himself to calm down. “Look at all this. How did we let it get this bad?”

“We didn’t do anything. And I’m fine,” Steve insisted, letting his anger mask any other feeling that might pop up.

“No Steve, you’re not,” Tony said quietly. The soft, understanding voice was about to make Steve snap.

“You asked me what I wanted and I want you to get out!” Steve shouted, ripping off the cords attached to his body when the machines around him started wailing. After all this time, after all that happened, Steve wasn’t going to sit back and let Tony Stark question his mental health.

“I’m not going to do that! I’m not going to stand back and watch you kill yourself!” Tony yelled. Steve recoiled at those words, pausing his efforts to get free from all of the wires. Doctors started filing into the room, alerted by all of the machines going offline.

“What’s going on?” one of the doctor’s demanded, if he even was a doctor.

“Give us a minute,” Tony said, pushing everyone back out of the room.

“What are you talking about, Tony?” Steve asked, so shocked by what he’d said that he couldn’t let it slide, even if he didn’t want to talk to the other man.

“Do you even realize how bad off you were? And I’m not just talking about the injuries from the mission you failed to mention. You’re not healthy,” Tony whispered, leaning his back against the door.

“It’s been a hard week, that’s all,” Steve excused, detaching himself from the rest of the equipment he was surrounded by. He needed to get out. He just needed to get back to his apartment where he could be alone and figure things out from there. His apartment. Steve groaned when the rest of his memories started coming back to him. They were still a little fuzzy, but he knew the team had been there. What all had they seen?

“It’s been going on a lot longer than that and you know it,” Tony sighed. “Can’t we just pretend we aren’t Captain America and Iron Man for a minute? Or even Steve and Tony? Can we just talk like, like-”

“Like friends?” Steve asked, cutting Tony off. “We aren’t friends. We never were.”

“I know, but we could be, right? Try putting everything behind us and start fresh,” Tony suggested. And man, didn’t Steve want to just say yes in this moment. To tell Tony he was miserable and would do anything he wanted to be more like him. Things just seemed so easy for Tony in ways they weren’t for Steve. But he couldn’t. Too much had happened and Steve just couldn’t trust Tony, no matter how much he wanted to.

“I can’t,” Steve whispered, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, pointing away from Tony.

“You’re right. Not talking about things is what got us into this situation. If there’s any hope in moving forward we have to talk about what happened. Everything that happened,” Tony stammered, moving a step from the door.

“No, you don’t understand,” Steve said, shaking his head in frustration. Why was this so hard to explain to everyone? It should be obvious. “I can’t have friends.”

“Why not?” Tony asked, slowly inching closer.

“Because look at me Tony!” Steve burst out, standing up and whirling around to face the man. “I don’t belong here! What’s the point of trying when I don’t even know if I’ll stay?”

“Stay where?” Another step.

“Stay in this city. Stay on this team. Stay in this time!” Steve ranted, pulling at his hair.

“We all want you here, Steve.” Another step. Too close.

“Why bother trying when I could just lose it all again?” Steve mumbled, feeling utterly defeated.

“This team will never allow you to be lost. We don’t give up on anyone and you’re one of us, no matter how much you think you’re not,” Tony insisted, stepping up close enough to touch. It would be so easy to reach out, but it was also the hardest thing he could think of. “Move back to the tower and let us prove it to you.”

“And where would I stay? Clint told me you turned my floor into storage,” Steve said, just a hint of bitterness leaking into his words. Tony could talk a big game, but his actions said something completely different.

“I lied. I told everyone I turned your floor into storage because I didn’t want anyone going there or trying to use it,” Tony admitted, sitting down next to him hesitantly. “I didn’t want to admit that I was always hoping you’d come back. Your floor is exactly as you left it.”

Something inside of Steve broke in that moment after hearing those words. It was such a small thing for Tony to just leave his floor as it was, but right now it meant so much to him. To know the team hadn’t brushed thoughts of him aside as soon as he’d left. That he hadn’t been forgotten.

His breath caught in his throat and his eyes started watering. Steve was so tired of pretending he didn’t feel things. He felt things too much and that was the problem. People thought the serum making him stronger and more resilient was such a good thing, and usually it was. It also made people assume that he didn’t feel the pain, but he did. He felt every hit. And he tried to convince himself what everyone else thought, that it didn’t affect him, but it did. He had all of this pain built up inside of him and he didn’t know what to do with it. He just wanted to let it out.

“You can,” Tony whispered, setting a careful hand on top of his where it sat in his lap. Had he been saying all of that out loud? “Let it out.”

And he did. He let the tears fall, instead of trying so hard to hold them back. Tony sat there, just gripping his hand and being a solid presence at his side. Steve couldn’t tell if this was making him feel better or worse, but it was happening and it wasn’t going to stop until it was over.

Steve had vague recollections of doing something like this with Natasha, but he couldn’t quite grasp the memory. He laid back down on his side, pulling one of the pillows to his chest so he could have something to hold, burying his face in the soft fabric as his emotions poured out of him. Tony stayed by his side, moving his now empty hand to Steve’s knee.

He knew he’d been asleep for a while, but he was still so tired. Tired enough that he couldn’t be bothered to ask how long it had been. Or to worry that it was only Tony here with him. Steve just needed to trust that he could be not okay for a while.

“Will you stay with me?” Steve sniffed, hating how weak he sounded. “Make sure I wake up?” Tony stood up, draping the previously discarded blanket back over his shoulders. He drug one of the chairs to the edge of the bed, settling down in front of him near his feet. Tony’s warm hand found its way back to his leg, giving it one last squeeze before settling more casually.

“No place I’d rather be.”

Chapter 25: Chapter 25

Chapter Text

They didn’t let Steve out of the medical wing of Shield for two more days. Seven days in all that Steve was stuck in a hospital bed, and even if he wasn’t awake for most of it, it still felt like forever. He hadn’t been down this long since before the serum and if he was being honest, it kind of scared him. This just solidified in his mind that he’d never know for sure if he’d wake up the next time he went to sleep.

True to his word, Tony never left his side. The longest he was ever away from him was during his rushed trips to the adjoined bathroom and only when there was someone else in the room. The rest of the team stuck around more now that he was mostly awake all the time. They had all been in the building for the most part, except for a few trips out when they got too stir crazy and had to take care of some things. The doctors hadn’t wanted all of them to always be in the already cramped room while Steve was still unconscious, in case they needed easy access to him. And Bruce was adamant that they didn’t disturb him for as long as possible.

Steve pretty much stayed quiet those last two days, letting the team’s chatter fill up the space. They stuck to safe topics, like Thor’s stories of what he’d been up to back home and Clint and Natasha trying to one up each other with outlandish tales of things they’d seen around the world. Steve knew they were tiptoeing around him and he hated it, hated knowing that they were trying so hard to be careful around him now. But he was also relieved, because he really didn’t want to talk about anything.

Tony had casually brought up him deciding to move back into the tower when everyone else was there, but they didn’t make a big deal out of it. They just nodded in acknowledgement and kept on with their previous conversations. It all felt so staged, like they had planned everything while he’d been asleep.

Fury came in once that he could recall, telling him he was glad to see he was healing nicely and the team was on hiatus until something urgent came up. He’d said something about all of the other teams being stalled in their missions, but it sounded forced. And he noticed all of the others shooting daggers at the man when he mentioned a timeline of when they might be back. Steve could tell they’d been benched. And didn’t that just make him feel lousy?

Everything he’d done had been with the sole purpose of making the world around him better and now none of them were able to do it. If he’d left the team earlier like he’d wanted, they would probably be off on a mission somewhere, not wasting their abilities watching him lay around in bed.

And now he wasn’t even going to be able to live alone, because they didn’t trust him. His memories had slowly slotted back into his mind in vivid detail and he was mortified. Steve couldn’t believe how he’d acted and what the team had seen. From him crying, to the blood, to the clocks. And he’d just let Natasha hold him like a baby. There was nothing he could say to explain away anything they saw. He thought briefly about admitting to murdering someone in his bathroom, since that would probably be easier to explain than his short lived hobby of self trauma medicine.

“All set?” Tony asked, peeking his head in from where he’d been waiting in the hall outside the room. They’d brought him some extra clothes Shield had around for agents and Tony had reluctantly given him privacy to change. That embarrassingly desperate plea for Tony to stay with him was already biting him in the ass. But he had the suspicion that Tony would’ve hovered even without it.

Steve wasn’t sure about the new Tony he was seeing. He could admit that he liked it, not really missing the brash man he’d come to know, but he couldn’t be sure if this was real. It was easy to be on your best behavior for a while, especially with witnesses around, but if it was an act, he wouldn’t be able to keep up with it forever. And now he was semi-willingly going back to his tower with him. If this wasn’t the definition of backsliding, he didn’t know what was. Steve was going right back into a situation he had worked so hard to get out from under. He just had to convince the team he was okay, so he could get back out again. If Tony could do it, so could he.

“Yeah,” Steve said with a small grin, hopping down off the edge of the bed where he’d been sitting. He never wanted to step foot on this floor of the Shield building again.

“Great! Everyone’s waiting up on the jet for us. I ordered in a big breakfast buffet for the team at the tower. Clint challenged Thor to a pancake eating competition, so let me know if you want in on the pool I started with Natasha. Neither of us think Clint will win, we’re just betting on whether Clint will admit defeat or explode,” Tony rambled, leading him toward the elevator to take them to the roof. They’d all been strange around him when it came to food. Bruce would hang around in his room for every meal, trying to make small talk as he pretended to not watch Steve take every bite. He’d eaten what they gave him without complaint, so he didn’t know what the problem was. But this whole buffet thing felt like another test.

“Great,” Steve agreed, nodding at Tony. He figured that was enough. Tony didn’t say anything else, letting the trip finish in silence. None of the Shield agents said anything as they walked by and Fury was again nowhere to be seen. All the better, since Steve didn’t want to talk to anyone. He had enough forced socialization with the team ahead of him that he really didn’t want to waste any on other people.

“Steven! It is so nice to see you up and well,” Thor laughed, patting him firmly on the back as soon as he reached the door leading to the roof. If Thor had done that while he was still injured, Steve probably would’ve died on the spot. Luckily, all of his bones seemed to be in the right spots now.

“Easy there Goldilocks, we just got Steve out of the hospital, don’t put him right back in,” Tony scoffed, easing Thor’s hand away from his back. Thor looked chagrined, tucking his hands into the pockets of the jeans he seemed pretty awkward in. Steve wondered if Tony was making Thor treat everyone gently, but he knew it was only him. The kid gloves were going to get very old, very fast.

“I apologize. I sometimes forget how fragile you humans are. It is quite a shame actually. I once tumbled down the side of a mountain with some of my mates. It was great fun,” Thor laughed, going on to tell the tale. Steve couldn’t hear any of it though. All he heard was the word fragile. Captain America wasn’t fragile. And he wasn’t a normal human. Steve wanted to be angry at Thor for what he said, but he couldn’t. Thor never said anything to be malicious. He said things that he felt were true, so he truly believed Steve was among the fragile humans he had to be careful around.

Steve tried not to let his resignation show on his face as he stepped onto the jet. This was just another thing he had to get through. It couldn’t be harder than some of those days alone at his apartment, but the keyword there was alone. When he struggled, he was able to struggle in peace. Sure, he had his own floor at the tower, but he wasn’t stupid enough to believe that the team wouldn’t be constantly checking up on him. He sank down in his normal seat, sending a tight smile toward Bruce as he passed the man. Bruce was looking at him a little strange, his eyes darting over to his chair and away like he was nervous.

“Are you okay Bruce?” Steve asked, confused by this new tension. They were getting what they wanted, him back in the tower. What was there for them to be nervous about? Did they have some sort of confrontation planned for him when they got there?

“Yeah, just glad to have you back,” Bruce chuckled, although Steve could tell it was strained. It didn’t really seem like anyone was happy though. Why did they push so hard for this if everyone was going to look like they were filled with dread?

“All set?” Clint called from the front of the jet, sitting with Natasha like usual. It was all so normal, but still wrong. Steve felt like he was watching this from the outside, instead of living it in his own body. He was just detached.

Maybe this could work to his advantage. If he could separate himself from himself, he might be able to make it through all this. Steve could play the game the team wanted him to play, convince everyone that he was fine, and then leave the team. If he treated this like an undercover assignment, it would be easy. Steve spent the ride planning out his character. He would base it on his public persona, the Captain he presented to the media. Everyone liked him and the team would see that he was okay.

Steve made sure he wasn’t the last one off the plane this time, keeping in step with Thor as the man chattered about all the pancakes he was about to eat. Steve nodded along, making enough affirmative noises at the right parts to seem like a contributing part of the conversation. He could get through breakfast, then use the excuse of settling back in to take up the rest of his day.

“Everyone dig in!” Tony announced, leading the team to a dining room decked out with every breakfast food Steve could think of. He wasn’t even that hungry, but the sight of all the food made his stomach rumble in anticipation. He would just eat an acceptable amount of food, then head down to his floor.

“Jeez Tony, what’s the occasion? Did you leave any food for the rest of the city?” Clint scoffed, nudging Tony with his elbow.

“Just celebrating the whole team being back together for the first time since the battle. It’s nice having everyone on the same planet,” Tony said, sneaking glances over at where he was standing off to the side. Steve didn’t want to feel anything after hearing those words, but he was still weak. He couldn’t care.

“Quit stalling Archer!” Thor commanded, dragging Clint over to the end of the table with the stacks of pancakes. “You’ve challenged me and I won’t rest until you’ve been defeated.” Thor shoved Clint down into a chair, pushing a plate with easily ten pancakes stacked on top in front of him.

“You want in on this Cap?” Clint asked, staring warily at his future stomach ache.

“No thanks,” Steve declined, sitting on the side of the table that was a bit less sugar based. Everyone dug in, piling heaps of food onto their plates. Even Natasha was going at it with gusto, crumbling strips of bacon over a steaming hot cinnamon roll. Steve scooped himself a couple spoons of scrambled eggs, adding it to his plate with two warm biscuits. He ladled himself a bowl of oatmeal, adding a few walnuts and banana slices to the top. He finished off with a cup of yogurt with mixed berries. It seemed like enough to get the team off his back concerning food, since he caught Bruce breathing a sigh of relief after he settled back with his meal.

“Orange juice?” Tony asked, holding a pitcher next to the empty glass on the table in front of Steve’s plate. “Fresh squeezed.”

“Thank you,” Steve accepted, tucking into his food to give himself an excuse to stay out of the conversations. This was nice, but Steve refused to let himself get used to it. It wasn’t going to last, and losing it after you’ve grown to depend on it would hurt worse than not experiencing it at all.

“Clint, I swear, you better not puke on my floor!” Tony yelled, sitting down next to Steve with his plate. Of all the places to sit, of course Tony was right next to him. He was taking Steve’s moment of weakness a bit too far. If it was going to shape their relationship from now on, Steve would need to leave a lot sooner than he thought. Just two days of this and Steve was already feeling smothered.

“M’not!” Clint mumbled through a mouthful of food.

“You sure you don’t want any pancakes, Steve? The place I ordered from makes their own buttermilk for them. And that’s real maple syrup over there, none of that sugar crap,” Tony rambled, stabbing a fork into a stack to his left and holding it in front of his face. Steve dodged it, clamping his mouth shut. If Tony was planning on spoon feeding him like a baby, all bets would be off.

“Maybe next time,” Steve said, waving Tony’s hand away with his own fork.

“How’s your food, Steve?” Bruce asked, running his finger along the rim of his cup of tea. Steve wouldn’t be surprised if Bruce was keeping a food journal about him, making note of every bite Steve took.

“Good, thanks,” Steve answered politely. He forced himself not to bend the fork that was clasped in his hand.

“Indeed, these pancakes are wonderful!” Thor boomed, shoving a whole one into his mouth with glee.

“I don’t think my arms are long enough to give you the Heimlich, Thor,” Natasha warned, handing Thor a butterknife.

“I’ve got a robot for that, it’s fine,” Tony assured her.

“If he chokes, that’s a forfeit!” Clint called out, shoving another miserable bite into his mouth.

“Who is this Heimlich? Do you think he knows Heimdall?” Thor questioned, using his newly acquired knife to stab through even more pancakes.

“Why would you give him a weapon?”

“I think this was a bad idea.”

“Pass me the syrup Nat, it’ll help the pancakes go down easier.”

“Clint, you’re starting to look a little green.”

“You’d know, wouldn’t you?”

Steve slid his chair back abruptly, effectively halting all conversation. Thor even let a glob of pancake fall from his mouth. This was all just too much, too soon. Steve was used to being alone and being shoved back into the thick of team living felt like the moment he’d ran out into Times Square after the ice. It was overwhelming.

“You alright?” Tony asked, half standing in his chair, like he wasn’t sure if he should get up.

“Yeah- just, bathroom,” Steve stammered, and he realized about half a second after he said those words that he made a mistake, when every set of eyes in the room immediately snapped to his.

“Uh, me too. Let me go with you. I think I changed the faucets since you were here last and they’re kind of tricky,” Tony said, slowly easing his chair back.

“Stop! Just stop,” Steve shouted, standing up a pacing a few steps away from everyone. “You got what you wanted. I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere, so just back off. Please.” His plan sounded so simple on the jet, but he couldn’t even last through one breakfast without throwing up red flags.

“We’re just worried about you,” Natasha said, rising from her own seat.

“You don’t have to be. I just had an off week, that’s all,” Steve insisted.

“It was more than that,” Natasha replied. Steve was flashing back to the ambush from a week ago, but he didn’t think he’d be lucky enough this time for it to be interrupted by rock monsters.

“It doesn’t matter because I’m fine now. The Shield doctors wouldn’t have let me leave if I wasn’t okay, right? So just forget what happened because it isn’t important,” Steve said firmly, spinning on his heels and marching toward the elevators. He wasn’t about to argue with anyone about how he was feeling. “My floor, Jarvis.” Steve listened for the sounds of anyone following him as the elevator doors closed, but luckily he heard no one.

Why did they have to push so hard? They were fine for months only seeing him during missions or meetings at Shield. And now that he was back in the tower, it still wasn’t good enough. They just had to needle at him to try to get him to open up. What business of theirs was it how he was feeling? Steve could understand if they were about to go on a mission and they needed to make sure he had their back, but they were benched, so that wasn’t going to happen. They were fine without him before and they’d be fine without him again.

Steve stepped off the elevator and onto his floor for the first time since he moved out all those months ago. Tony hadn’t been lying when he said it was exactly the same. He’d never added much while he lived here, but it still had a little bit of a comfortable feel. Nothing like his apartments with his mom or Bucky, or even his last apartment at first, but he’d had some good nights here.

There was one night at the beginning where everyone had come back from a long day of public outreach, trying to capitalize on the good press surrounding The Avengers to counteract the naysayers angry by the damage they caused. They were all exhausted from putting on a show for everyone, smiling and nodding at all the right times. One of them had said something funny and it just caused a ripple effect of giggles that soon tumbled into full on hysterical laughter. Even Steve had cracked a smile and for a few moments, he’d forgotten the all encompassing pain he’d been carrying around. But the good feeling never lasted long enough. Not enough to truly make a difference.

Now the floor just felt like a prison. The whole tower really. There was no way he could stay here and live happily ever after. That just wasn’t in the cards for him. He needed to stick to his original plan and convince the team he was fine, ease their minds a little bit, then convince them to let him go without a fight.

He wandered over to his kitchen, checking to see if he’d have to venture from his floor eventually to find food. Steve really needed to empty his freezer in his old apartment, but that was a whole other can of worms he wasn’t looking forward to opening.

There was a note on the counter that distracted him from his goal. It was just a simple folded piece of paper with his name written on top and he could tell by the handwriting it was from Tony. He wasn’t sure how Tony had put a note on his floor without leaving his side, but that wasn’t too important. Steve didn’t know why he felt nervous opening the note. Probably because it could say anything, like how he was only putting on a show for the others and didn’t really want him back. Or maybe it was a rental agreement, telling him he needed to pay to live here this time. All he knew for sure was this little piece of paper was making him unusually wary, and that was making him feel stupid. What could words on a paper do? Steve brushed off his concerns and flipped the paper open, staring down at the two words written for longer than was necessary.

“Welcome home”

How was it always Tony who was able to drag his feelings out of him? Good or bad, Tony just knew how to press his buttons. Steve lightly traced his fingers along the words, grinding his teeth to try to focus on anything but his tremulous emotions. His plan was good, this didn’t change anything. These were just basic, throwaway words you said to anyone after they’d been gone for a while. Thor probably encountered a similar one, with more flair and a joke or two. Tony wouldn’t know that even the calm simplicity of the words would strike a chord in Steve so deep.

Steve picked up the note, telling himself to just drop it in the recycling, but his feet were carrying him to his bedroom. This didn’t change anything. He walked over to his mostly empty dresser, opening up one of the smaller top drawers. This didn’t change anything. Steve tucked the note into the back corner, much like he had with the letter about Peggy. But that didn’t mean anything and it didn’t change anything. It couldn’t change anything.

Chapter 26: Chapter 26

Chapter Text

Steve hid out on his floor for the rest of the night, not entirely sure what to do with himself. He thought about going to the gym floor, but decided against it, since he didn’t want to run into anyone. His floor still had all the things he’d deprived himself of at his apartment, like a TV, stereo, and books, but he didn’t want to fall back into bad habits and use them. Steve felt like an animal in a zoo. He may not be alone in a cage anymore, but he was still trapped. There was no way Tony hadn’t set up an alert for Jarvis to notify him if Steve even thought of stepping foot outside the tower. And where would he go if he left? His apartment was out of the question now and he didn’t have any friends. Any money he took out of his bank account could be traced and between Shield and Tony, they could probably find anyone. He was well and truly stuck.

He had to go back to his previous plan, to convince everyone that he was okay, but he had no idea where to start. It wasn’t like he could just smile and chat with everyone and have them believe that he was fine. They were way too suspicious of him now, it would take much more effort.

But dammit if he wasn’t so tired. Not so much sleepy tired, thanks to his last week in bed, but tired of all this nonsense. Of having to pretend to be something that he wasn’t. Being Captain America was all he was and all he could handle. There was no taking off his armor like Tony did and setting aside Iron Man whenever he wanted. There was no turning into the Hulk when necessary and then living life as a normal man when you were done. There was no retiring whenever Clint and Natasha decided to. He was only Captain America and if everyone kept trying to take that away from him, there would be nothing left.

But he couldn’t say that to anyone, because it sounded pathetic. When he’d gotten the gift of the serum, he’d done it with the knowledge of his whole life being dedicated to being that person. If the team didn’t want him to be Captain America anymore, they would be getting rid of him altogether.

Steve ended up spending most of the night just watching the city that surrounded him. This view was one thing he wouldn’t be afraid to admit he missed. All those people down there, that’s who he was doing all this for. He just had to remember that.

As he waited for the sun to come up, he started to think of his life as a mission. You didn’t just go into one with an objective, you had to plan out the steps. While he didn’t know what all he’d have to accomplish to reach his goal, he knew of a few things the team would be looking out for and decided to aim for one head on. Even if he didn’t quite understand the fixation everyone had on his eating, that seemed like the easiest thing to ease their minds on. Steve had eaten three square meals a day while living in his apartment and they were healthy ones at that. This gave him an idea.

When it was finally a decent hour for most people to be getting up, Steve changed into some of the casual clothes he’d left when he moved out and made his way up to the common floor. He pasted a pleasant smile on his face in case he ran into anyone, but luckily the halls were still empty. Steve didn’t know how long that would last, so he got to work as soon as possible.

The refrigerator on this floor had always been filled to the brim and it did not disappoint. He looked for any leftovers from the insane meal from the morning before, but didn’t find any. They’d either eaten it all or thrown it away, and Steve wasn’t sure which option was more concerning. He’d seen the way Thor could put away food at the shawarma joint, but this was ridiculous. If they were judging Steve based on Thor’s eating habits, no wonder they were worried.

Steve pulled out dozens of eggs and started beating them, setting them aside and chopping vegetables when he was done. A veggie omelette with a side of whole wheat toast was just what everyone needed after their sugar filled disaster of a meal the day before. No one had to worry about a person who made a healthy meal like this.

After 30 minutes of cooking and no one showing up, Steve started to get a little nervous. If no one showed up, he’d done all this for nothing. He briefly considered having Jarvis send out an announcement to everyone, but that seemed like too much. Steve looked around at all the food, wondering what he should do with it. All of his containers for freezing and saving his food were back at his apartment and he didn’t want to use up whatever Tony happened to have in the tower. Maybe he could just leave it in the fridge for whoever decided to come up.

Steve was just about to start putting everything away when he heard the elevator doors open. He was suddenly nervous, wondering who it would be. Thor would probably be easiest to deal with at this point and most likely to eat the food, even if he didn’t want it. Steve turned away from the doorway, pretending to be busy. He didn’t want it to look like he was standing around waiting for everyone to show up.

“Steve?” Bruce asked as he entered the room. Okay, he could work with this. And Bruce was the one most fixated on his eating, so this was actually one of the best outcomes. Bruce alone was much easier to deal with than the whole group.

“Hey Bruce,” Steve said, turning to greet the other man with a smile. “I thought I’d make everyone breakfast. Thank everyone for the past week.” Bruce took in the sight of all the food covering the counter, nodding a little.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Bruce said, stepping up to a stool.

“Maybe not, but I wanted to. I like to cook,” Steve brushed off. No he didn’t, he hated cooking. “When does everyone else usually come up?”

“They don’t, at least I don’t think. We don’t really have meals together,” Bruce replied, shrugging one shoulder. “I only came up because I ran out of tea on my floor.”

“Oh,” Steve mumbled, scratching the back of his head. He’d always imagined the team gathering for every meal, poking fun at each other and having a good time. Like they had yesterday.

“And I think everyone took the stuff from yesterday back to their floors,” Bruce added with a grimace.

“Right. I should’ve found out everyone’s plans before doing all this,” Steve mumbled, feeling his cheeks color in embarrassment. He should’ve just stayed on his floor.

“I haven’t eaten yet though,” Bruce piped up, perching onto the stool in front of him. Steve let out a discreet sigh of relief, plating up the best looking omelette and most uniformly brown toast. If this food was good, then they’d know he’d been eating well and back off.

“Enjoy,” Steve said, sliding over the plate. He busied himself with some dishes so it didn’t seem like he was hovering, but a lot was riding on his meal. If he could get just one person off his back, this would be a success.

“You aren’t eating?” Bruce asked, the clinking of him setting his fork down on his plate sounding accusingly loud. Still more work to be done.

“Of course. I just like to clean up a little first. But I’ll join you,” Steve said, throwing some food on a plate and leaning against the counter across from Bruce. The other man finally seemed satisfied enough to start eating. Steve took a few bites of his own meal, happy for the distraction. He’d always been planning on eating some himself, but he thought it would be with the group, not under the scrutiny of his unhired and unwanted dietitian.

“This is good,” Bruce complimented, taking a sip of water. “This what you normally eat for breakfast?”

“Uh, mostly. It’s pretty easy to cook in advance and have ready for the week,” Steve said off-handedly.

“What do you mean?” Bruce asked, taking a bite out of his toast.

“Well, I found this book on meal planning and it sounded really smart, with how busy we are. I never knew if a mission would take me away from my apartment for too long and I hate letting food go to waste, so I started making a lot at once and freezing it,” Steve explained, a little excitement leaking into his voice as he talked. It was one of the better ideas he’d had and hadn’t backfired on him yet.

“So, is this what you have for every meal?” Bruce asked, gesturing to his plate with his fork.

“No, just for breakfast. I have other things for lunch and dinner,” Steve replied, starting to feel off about this conversation. Bruce looked relaxed, but it seemed forced.

“So what kinds of things do you eat for other meals?” Bruce asked, tapping at his glass. This was starting to feel like an interrogation. Steve was the one who was supposed to be in control here.

“Normal things, like chicken, fruits, and vegetables,” Steve answered.

“Anything fun?” Bruce pressed. Steve squinted his eyes, feeling an unusual irritation toward Bruce bubble up.

“Does food really need to be fun?” Steve asked, gripping the edge of the counter.

“It can be, sometimes. Everybody needs something. I’m powerless when presented with a Twizzler. What’s yours?” Bruce prodded.

“What does it matter?” Steve snapped, clenching his jaw to contain his anger. The team was planning on monitoring his snacking now?

“We’re just worried about you, Steve,” Bruce sighed, pushing his plate to the side.

“You don’t have to be. I eat three square meals a day, I don’t need anything else. I’m lucky to have that at all, because I remember what it’s like not to,” Steve bit out. This was getting too personal and exactly what Steve wanted to avoid.

“Three meals for someone like him, or three meals for someone like you?” Bruce questioned, folding his hands and placing them calmly on the table. Steve felt his own hands unclenching in reaction to Bruce’s calm, without consciously trying.

“I’m eating a normal amount of food, Bruce,” Steve said quietly, his anger turning to confusion. “I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

“When you went into the hospital, you were extremely malnourished,” Bruce started, holding up his hand when Steve was about to argue. “I’m not accusing you of anything, I’m just stating the facts. And I have to admit, it scared me at first, because I didn’t know what had caused it. And obviously you noticed me paying attention to your eating habits. So if you’re telling the truth about how you’ve been eating, then there is something going on with you that we need to figure out.”

Steve felt like such an asshole. Bruce was just concerned about him this whole time, not trying to point out his shortcomings and needle at him for pointless reasons. He felt terrible and wanted to put the man’s mind at ease, but he couldn’t tell him the whole reason behind his limited diet. The team just wouldn’t understand. But if Steve was ending up unhealthy somehow, they needed to figure out something.

“I am eating, just like I said,” Steve insisted, running a hand through his hair.

“Well, if it isn’t something you’re doing, then there might be some underlying illness or something we don’t know about,” Bruce sighed, chewing on his lip. “The serum should prevent something like that from happening, and it prevented you from crashing sooner because you weren’t well. A normal man wouldn’t be standing here with the condition you were in. Has anything happened that could explain this?”

“No, there’s nothing I-” Steve paused, racking his brain for what the answer could be. He could hardly think after Bruce offered up the possibility of the serum failing him. Steve was so concerned about living up to what the serum gave him, he never considered he’d be without it. He’d been so scared everyone else would take Captain America away from him, he’d never thought it could disappear on its own.

“Steve! Steve breathe!” Bruce shouted, moving quickly around to the other side of the counter. He thought he had been, but when his knees buckled and Bruce was the only thing that kept him standing, he figured he wasn’t. He’d be nothing without the serum. Less than nothing. There was no Steve Rogers for him to fall back on anymore. “Calm down, we don’t know anything for sure yet. Just try and think if there is anything that would cause this.”

“No, I-I don’t do anything besides missions. I’m either home or I’m-” Steve felt a wave of relief and utter stupidity wash over him. This wasn’t the serum not doing its job, this was Steve making an idiotic mistake. And now he had to embarrass himself by saying it out loud. “Running.”

“Running?” Bruce repeated, letting go of his arm now that he was steady. Bruce was figuring it out in his head and Steve could tell the moment he put everything together. “How much running?”

“A lot,” Steve admitted, bracing himself on the edge of the counter. He’d been so happy with his premade meals, he’d never thought to compensate for all the extra calories he was burning. Steve had been eating enough for a normal man, not an overzealous Captain America.

“So it’s safe to assume you’ve been burning thousands more calories than you’ve been taking in?” Bruce asked, shaking his head when Steve didn’t answer. “Well, this is actually good news in a way.”

“How?” Steve huffed out, tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“It’s something easily avoidable and nothing we have to fix. We just have to make sure you’re taking in an adequate amount of food to support your enhanced metabolism and exercise regimen,” Bruce said, patting him fondly on the shoulder. That “we” sounded super promising. Steve went into this hoping to push Bruce’s attention off of him altogether, not prove to him that Steve couldn’t be in control of his own life. This plan had backfired spectacularly.

“Yeah,” Steve chuckled, walking blankly toward the staircase. He needed to get back to his floor, immediately.

“Steve?” Bruce called after him, but he didn’t respond. He let the door close behind him and robotically went down the flights to his floor. Steve didn’t care about the food he was leaving behind, or what Bruce might be thinking at this moment. He’d given him enough evidence to use against him for one day. Bruce had all but accused him of having an eating disorder and Steve had to stand there and assure him that no, he was just an idiot. Steve couldn’t even be trusted to feed himself properly anymore. Soon enough he’d have someone dressing him and bathing him and taking him to the bathroom.

Steve punched his door open, slamming it behind him. Just when he thought he’d hit rock bottom, he just dug himself a little bit deeper. He ruined his job, he sidelined his team, he lost his apartment, and now he was losing the respect of the only people he knew. He hesitated to even think that things couldn’t get any worse, because that was just asking for it to happen.

Steve glared at the space around him. Why had he resigned himself to staying here? What could they do if he just decided to leave? After the disastrous time he’d been here so far, they’d probably be glad to see him go. What was the worst that could happen? Steve spun around and went back to the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. He was going to find out.

Chapter 27: Chapter 27

Chapter Text

All of Steve’s righteous anger led him back to his apartment and left him there too. It was like stepping through the door sucked out all his vim and vigor and left him hollow and directionless. He remembered the last time he’d stumbled into this place and how deep down he felt like he was going to die. And despite that fact, he’d never once thought about asking for help. What did that say about him?

He’d had to rely on people so much when he was younger, from his mom, to the doctors, to Bucky, to strangers. Steve was supposed to be past all that. He was the one who helped, not the one who needed help. Any time people spent dealing with him was time they should’ve been using for other people who needed and deserved it. Everything that had happened to him was his own doing and he needed to figure it out himself. But where did he even start?

Steve was expecting to see a puddle of blood just inside the door, but there was nothing. He hadn’t imagined that, had he? As he made his way further into the apartment, he could tell it wasn’t as he’d left it. All of his belongings were sitting in the same spots, but there wasn’t a drop of blood to be found. Someone had come in and cleaned up. He wasn’t sure if it would be less mortifying if it was one of the team or if they hired someone. Either way, Steve knew he couldn’t stay here. This place was tainted.

He kept walking around the small rooms, feeling oddly disconnected as he did so. While this apartment had felt like a refuge at first, a place he could one day call home, it felt like just another place now. A place of loneliness and emptiness. Where the bad moments completely overshadowed the good. A place where he almost died. But going back to the tower seemed impossible. He didn’t know how to live there, under constant scrutiny.

Steve was completely aimless, and that was something he was not used to. Even before the serum he’d had goals. Mostly about survival, and then making it into the Army. When he’d finally gotten there, he’d found the purpose he’d always been searching for. Achieved more than anyone could’ve imagined for someone like him. But had he hit a point where he just couldn’t do it anymore? And what would he do if that was true? Become a recruiter for the Army? Tell kids they could be just like him, when really they should never aspire to that? That the best possible outcome was to outlive your usefulness, instead of not living through your war? That wasn’t true, not for someone like him. Steve had accidentally outlived too much.

What would happen if he just decided to quit? And not just the team, but leave Shield altogether. Would they accept it and let him go? Would they fight to keep him? As much as he told himself he’d prefer the second option, Steve knew it would hurt if they didn’t even kick up a fuss. It would be proof that he wasn’t needed anymore. Could he risk that pain? Would he be able to get past it and scrape together a semblance of a normal life? Steve didn’t think he was ready to find out the answer.

But he still had to figure out his next moves. Did he go back to his original plan of toughing it out in the tower for a while? Why had he even agreed to that in the first place? How was Tony Stark so good at getting his way? Or he could try leaving, even though it was a bad idea and he’d thrown it away earlier for a reason. Steve was just so tired of having to come up with ideas. That “man with the plan” persona was getting to be too much.

Maybe he could just stop. Not worry about the future and focus on getting through the day. He didn’t have a job right now to think about. If he went back to his floor, there would be no reason he’d have to leave to do anything. Tony always had food and household supplies for everyone. Steve had never let himself take a break since he’d gotten the serum, unless you counted those years in the ice. Maybe it was time?

Steve slowly made his way to his bedroom, packing up his clothes to take back to the tower. He remembered folding them into the dresser and closets with excitement when he first moved in, thoughts of freedom and possibilities swirling through his mind. Now he was just resigned, wondering if this was just going to be a cycle he kept repeating over and over. He didn’t think he’d bother unpacking when he got back, just to save the effort when it was time to move on.

Luckily or unfortunately, there wasn’t too much to pack, so he was done fairly quickly. Steve left one drawer for last, not wanting to let something this important get lost in the shuffle. The letter was sitting safely just as he’d left it, carefully tucked into the corner. It seemed like so long ago since he’d received it. And so much had changed.

Would he have been able to handle going to the funeral? Maybe sleeping through it had been a blessing in disguise. If he didn’t think too hard about it, he could imagine that she was still out there somewhere, as feisty as ever. If he’d seen her put into the ground, there would be no chance of living in denial. There would still be an opportunity for him to put aside his own reluctance and go visit her. To pretend that his own cowardice hadn’t kept him from seeing her one last time.

Steve pulled the letter out, sinking down to sit in the middle of his bedroom. He traced his finger along Peggy’s picture in the corner, thinking back to when he first met her. She would’ve found her way through this if she’d been in Steve’s circ*mstances. Peggy never let anything stop her from achieving her goals. She wouldn’t have let fear or pain influence her decisions. Not like Steve had.

“Fancy finding you here,” Natasha said, startling him from his memories. Steve quickly folded the papers, shoving them into his shirt pocket. “What was that?”

“What’re you doing here?” Steve grumbled, ignoring her question.

“I was just in the neighborhood,” Natasha shrugged, leaning against the doorway to his room.

“Right,” Steve scoffed, letting that obvious lie slide. “What do you want?”

“Just wanted to say hi,” Natasha smirked, tipping her head to the side in that way she had.

“Can we not?” Steve sighed, pulling himself to his feet. After his encounter with Bruce, he would be easy pickings for Natasha if she felt the desire to wear him down.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Natasha agreed, crossing her arms. “You can talk to me about anything, you know.”

“I don’t need to talk,” Steve said, brushing her off. Talking wouldn’t take him back to 1945. Talking wouldn’t give him back his whole life.

“Can we just be real for a second?” Natasha asked, expertly masking her frustration.

“Okay, what I really want is to be alone, so,” Steve trailed off, waving his hand toward the front door. He was playing a dangerous game right now, but his self preservation skills were almost non-existent at this point.

“Well, I guess this defiant Steve is better than the one I saw here last time,” Natasha said, slowly creeping into the room. “The one who I could feel dying in my arms.” Steve tried not to react to her words, but they hit him somewhere deep. He didn’t like to be reminded of that last confrontation in his apartment.

“I would’ve been fine,” Steve muttered, grabbing his bags and taking them to set next to the door. He didn’t want to stay in the room where that happened, watching Natasha walk over to the spot where she’d cradled Steve like a baby in her arms.

“Lying’s not a good look for you Steve,” Natasha quipped, following him out of the room. “That’s much more my style. But how about we trade? I’ll tell you something honest if you do the same.”

“I honestly want you to leave,” Steve snapped, opening the door and pointing toward the hallway.

“Childish isn’t a good look either,” Natasha quipped, closing the door and leaning against it. Steve growled under his breath, holding back the things he wanted to shout at her. She didn’t need to come here and act all superior.

“Just stay out of my way,” Steve grumbled, moving over to the kitchen to empty out his freezer. Natasha trailed him in there, hopping up onto the counter to watch him work. He pretended she wasn’t there, stacking his containers into another box that was on a stool.

“Someone likes to cook,” Natasha commented, tilting one of his containers so she could see the contents. “I heard you made breakfast for everyone this morning. Sorry I missed it.”

“I’m sure you heard all about it from Bruce,” Steve said, gritting his teeth. Of course the whole team knew by now about his little spat with Bruce. How else would Natasha know he’d left? His days of privacy were long gone.

“Actually, Bruce didn’t say much. Just that you cooked breakfast before he rushed down to his lab. He didn’t need to say anything else for me to know more than that went on,” Natasha said, trying to catch his eye as he moved around the small space. Steve avoided her gaze as much as possible, knowing she could read him like a book. If Bruce hadn’t said anything, he wouldn’t say anything. He was starting to have so many secrets with so many people, it was hard to keep up.

“Nothing else happened,” Steve declared, rearranging the last few containers into the box. He’d need to cook again soon, if he was even going to keep up with this meal planning thing anymore. It didn’t have the appeal it once held.

“Forgive me if I have a hard time believing that,” Natasha laughed, returning the glare he sent her. “I’ll leave it alone though if you take me up on my earlier offer. A truth for a truth. It can be about anything, but it has to be something real.”

“Why does it matter to you so much?” Steve snapped, finally turning to face her. Why did everyone have to push?

“Because you never say anything, Steve, at least not out loud. Aren’t you tired of keeping everyone at arm’s length?” Natasha sighed. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to keep myself separate from everyone. Before Clint brought me in, every relationship I had was transactional. If someone couldn’t get me something I wanted, they were of no use to me. But I learned that it doesn’t have to be that way. Sometimes being around people for the sake of it is nice.”

“It’s not that simple,” Steve mumbled, surprised by Natasha opening up to him. She always kept things close to the chest, so her talking to him freely like this was meaningful. But it still wasn’t enough to make him want to do the same. Nothing would be gained by letting out his true feelings.

“How about an ice breaker?” Natasha suggested, pulling something out of her pocket. It was a chocolate bar. She waved it around in his face, trying to entice him into taking it.

“No thanks,” Steve said, pursing his lips.

“Aw, come on. Who doesn’t like chocolate?” Natasha teased, opening up the wrapper and breaking off a piece.

“I said no!” Steve shouted, surprising them both with that outburst. He huffed out an angry breath, mad at himself that he’d lost his cool again. It was becoming a regular thing.

“Why won’t you eat the candy, Steve?” Natasha asked softly, setting the bar aside. “I feel like this is something other than a strict diet.” Steve closed his eyes in resignation. He couldn’t keep having this food conversation with everyone. They would never stop asking why he was refusing all their snacks and thinking he was some crazy person when it came to food. The truth probably wasn’t much better though.

“I hadn’t really had to shop when I first woke up, since Shield provided all my food. Then living in the tower, Tony always had stuff sent to my floor or ordered in for everyone. When I moved out, it was the first time I’d been responsible for getting my own food. After I settled into this apartment, I walked around the city, to see if there was anything familiar left. I came across this corner store that was in the exact same spot as one I used to go in as a kid. It wasn’t the same, of course, but it still made me think of home,” Steve said, gripping the edge of the counter for support as he finally said something real. Natasha put her hand on his wrist and he didn’t pull away. “I went in, just to pretend for a second that things were like they had been. They had this wall that was covered in candy and I even recognized a few of the names. The packaging was different, but I remembered the brands. I started to look for my favorite from when I was a kid, but I couldn’t find it. I asked the cashier and he’d never even heard of it.”

“What was it?” Natasha asked gently, rubbing her thumb along his pulse point. It was kind of relaxing.

“A Whiz bar,” Steve said with a small smile. “It was one of the only candy bars I could afford as a kid. I looked it up online later and found out they stopped making it years ago. It was just discouraging, you know? I started looking around at all the other things and wondering how long before they’d disappear too. What was the point of making a new favorite, when I’d just end up losing it again? Gosh, it sounds so stupid saying it out loud.”

“It doesn’t sound stupid,” Natasha murmured, scooting down the counter a little to be closer to him.

“I stopped buying things with a brand, sticking to fresh foods and basic things that don’t really change much, like bread. I just don’t think I can take losing anything else,” Steve sighed, feeling embarrassed, but also lighter now that he’d let out a little of his inner turmoil. It was so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but he’d hidden so many parts of himself for so long, it was nice to have a little bit of his truth out there.

“Thank you for telling me that,” Natasha said, squeezing his arm again. “Can I give you a hug?” The question surprised him so much that he found himself nodding before he even realized what he was doing. She slid into the space in front of him on the counter, wrapping her arms around him and guiding his head down to rest on her shoulder. He put his arms around her waist, melting into her embrace. Steve breathed in the scent of her shampoo, recognizing it as some kind of flower that didn’t really fit her persona. But people weren’t always who they presented to the world.

“Thanks for listening,” Steve whispered, pulling away.

“Anytime,” Natasha said, and Steve found himself believing her. He also realized he might want to take her up on that offer in the future. But maybe not right now. “So, where are you headed?”
“Back to the tower,” Steve groaned, giving his living room one last glance. There wasn’t anything else he cared about bringing with him. He could figure out the logistics of the apartment some other time. “Want a ride?”

“How nice of you to offer, Mr. Rogers,” Natasha chuckled, hopping off the counter and grabbing his box of food. “Will I be the first passenger in your new truck?”

“Yes, that honor goes to you,” Steve scoffed, trying not to let himself get sucked into the banter. It was so tempting.

“Lead the way,” Natasha said, moving out of the way so he could grab the rest of his stuff. He locked his apartment up without fanfare, leaving it behind without another thought. They rode the elevator down to the garage level, Steve taking them to the back corner where his spot was located. Thank goodness the truck was in its usual location, since he still couldn’t recall the details of that part of his escapade. They dumped the boxes into the back, Steve once again thankful for the space the truck had. He could probably sleep back there if he needed to.

Steve hadn’t thought at all about the condition he’d left his car in, since there were other more pressing matters he’d been dealing with. But it figured that the first thing they’d encounter when Steve unlocked the door was more of his blood. And it was everywhere. The driver’s seat was covered in it, which was to be expected, but it was other places too. The steering wheel, windshield, passenger’s seat, and everywhere in between had varying levels of staining covering their surfaces. Natasha sucked in a sharp breath at the sight, glancing up to Steve to gage his reaction. This sure had sucked out any bit of levity that had settled in his heart.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think,” Steve stammered, gripping his keys hard enough that they dug into his palm.

“We can get it detailed,” Natasha brushed off, climbing in and sitting down, as if she wasn’t sitting on rusted patches of Steve. It was so simple, to make everything look fresh and new again. You might not be able to see what was there before, but Steve wouldn’t forget. The outside may look pretty and normal, but underneath it was just as damaged.

“Right,” Steve agreed, climbing in and starting the car. Just another mess Steve left behind for someone else to clean up.

Chapter 28: Chapter 28

Chapter Text

Steve and Natasha went their separate ways when they got back to the tower. He made sure to grab all of his boxes before she was able to, to let his intentions be known. Steve was so tired of having a good moment, only to have it ruined immediately after. It wasn’t like it was anyone’s fault but his own, and that made it worse. He just didn’t know how to be a normal person anymore. All of this up and down was more exhausting than when he let himself stay down all the time. So why bother?

What would he be doing right now, if he wasn’t stuck in the tower? Probably running. It had been so long since he had, now that he was thinking of it, he ached for it. There was Central Park not too far from here, but that was so touristy and he wouldn’t be able to go as hard as he wanted to. The parks by his apartment had been much less busy and no one really cared enough to pay attention. But this time he would be close enough to the tower to raise suspicion.

He thought back to the gym a few floors down that he’d lusted over in his mind when he was stuck in his apartment. With those souped up treadmills that could handle the speed and endurance of a super soldier. Would it be worth it to risk exposure going down there? He knew he would eventually run into his teammates, but right now he didn’t care. Steve needed to let out some of his pent up energy to help level out his emotions. That had been his problem all along probably. He was quick to snap at people because he had too much crap inside he hadn’t been able to exercise out.

Steve stacked his clothes boxes in the closet, satisfied with his decision to not unpack. He tucked Peggy’s letter in the drawer with Tony’s note before he changed into workout gear, promising himself he’d find somewhere more secure for it soon. Too many people flitted in and out of his floor for him to feel comfortable enough to keep it there for long. He shoved as much as he could of his food in the freezer, letting the excess defrost in the fridge for later. Steve made himself set out more than usual, remembering his conversation with Bruce. Even if he hadn’t enjoyed the talk, he wouldn’t ignore the advice.

Steve took the stairs again, avoiding a chance encounter in the elevator. He may be risking running into someone in the gym, but that was different than being trapped in a metal box with them. The gym was empty when he got there and he breathed a sigh of relief. Everything looked the same as it had all those months ago. Almost like no one had been using it. They’d used Shield facilities when they trained together after he moved out, but he figured they would still work out on their own here.

He went straight over to the treadmill that he always used, excited to actually be doing something. Something that wasn’t for anyone but himself. Running was always when he did his best thinking, but it also calmed him and cleared his mind when he let it. That’s what he wanted to do this time. Steve didn’t want to think about anything. Not about being back in the tower. Not about not having a purpose. Not about having to be careful with every move he made. It was all about putting one foot in front of the other.

Steve started off at a jog, wanting to take his time to ease into it. It wasn’t because he was nervous about what Bruce had told him about his condition. Besides the obvious injuries, he hadn’t felt different. That could probably be considered a good thing, since being at death’s door hadn’t slowed him down much. Although he might not have gotten hurt in the first place if his body had been at one hundred percent. This whole clearing his mind thing wasn’t going well so far. He upped the speed, trying to distract his mind with having to pay attention to his feet.

A treadmill wasn’t as good as running outside. Nothing could replace the feel of the wind blowing in your face and the freedom and possibilities that were out there. Running wasn’t as fun when you didn’t get anywhere doing it. But this was still better than nothing. He could get used to this again soon enough.

Did he want to though? Relying on things was what he had been trying to avoid all this time. And it wasn’t like he could just buy one of these from a store. This had been specifically altered by Tony for him. He couldn’t just take this with him wherever he went. Or ask Tony to make him another. And the weather was about to start getting colder, now that winter was approaching. It was one thing to run in the rain, but another to run in the snow. Not because he minded the snow, but because it wouldn’t look right for someone to be out in it for hours. Could he really skip running during the snowy months? That would be way too long.

Steve turned the speed up faster, bumping up the incline along with it. This wasn’t giving him the break he needed. He just wanted a break from his own mind. To pretend for a few hours that there wasn’t anything to worry about. But the thoughts just wouldn’t stop coming. He couldn’t even enjoy his favorite activity.

“What a wonderful pace for your warm up!” Thor boomed, startling Steve out of his rhythm. It had to have happened in less than a second, but to Steve it seemed like slow motion. The sound of Thor’s voice distracted his focus just enough to where his right foot landed a little wide, and he knew he was about to go down. He couldn’t get his hands up to steady himself and he braced for the feeling of his face hitting the running belt.

A thick arm wrapped around his waist at the last moment, pulling his back flush to a broad chest. Steve was reminded of his younger years, when the bigger kids were able to toss him around like he was nothing. Before he felt brave enough to fight back. The only thing in danger now though was his pride.

“Thor!” Steve gasped, wriggling to find his footing away from the man’s grasp.

“You Midgardians and your adverse reactions to being held!” Thor chuckled, dropping him next to the machine. Steve flipped it off, not feeling the appeal of it anymore.

“Thanks for the grab,” Steve mumbled, gesturing to the treadmill.

“The least I could do, since I was the cause of your misstep,” Thor said, dragging over his own machine to sit next to Steve’s. “I was looking forward to training with you when I returned. I told everyone I met tales about the warriors I fought alongside. The ones who knew me were most shocked to hear I followed you in battle. They are all used to me listening to no one, you see.” Steve was oddly touched by Thor’s words, but he also felt immense pressure. He’d been so confident back in those early days, not letting the full reality of his situation sink in yet. Could he be that guy again? The person Thor respected enough to follow his command and tell stories about on his home planet?

“I’m flattered,” Steve said lamely, searching for and ultimately not finding the words that would be an appropriate response. Thor didn’t seem to mind though, hopping onto his treadmill and taking off on a brisk jog.

“Let us finish our warm up and then we can spar!” Thor declared, running without a care in the world.

“Spar?” Steve repeated, mechanically copying Thor’s moves and getting back on his own treadmill. He set the machine to match Thor’s and resumed his run. Did he want to spar with the god? On one hand, he did. It would completely be something he did and enjoyed at one time. And it was nice that Thor wasn’t treating him any differently. But on the other hand, what if he couldn’t keep up? Before, Steve wouldn’t question his skills and would run head first into a fight with anyone. Hell, he still did that with the rock monsters and a broken arm, but this was different. This was a teammate who could report back to the others in every way he was lacking. Did he take the chance and train or say no and look bad overall? Each choice sucked.

“I’ve been trying to entice The Hulk out to come fight me, but Bruce steadfastly refuses. I shall get him soon though, I don’t give up easily,” Thor laughed, bumping up his speed. No, Thor never did give up. And that didn’t bode well for Steve in this upcoming training session.

They ran alongside each other in silence for a while, Steve cranking up his speed every time Thor did. It was actually easier to keep his mind clear now, since his focus was on looking strong in front of Thor. He didn’t have time to mentally batter himself. This could end up being just what he needed. Steve didn’t want to talk about his feelings with Natasha or work through his issues with Tony. He wanted to use his body for what it was made for. Steve was a machine, a tool for good, and working with Thor could only make him better. It would be irresponsible to pass up this opportunity.

“Are you ready Captain?” Thor asked, slowing down his machine. Thor wasn’t even sweating, which was fine. Nothing to worry about.

“Of course,” Steve said, hopping off his treadmill and surreptitiously dabbing at his own wet brow. He’d been down here longer than Thor, of course he was sweating. “What would you like to do first?” Thor's answer was to barrel down toward him without warning. Steve quickly sidestepped, feeling the wind from Thor’s near hit wash over him. Playing dirty reminded him of Bucky and suddenly all thoughts of worry went out the window. Steve bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, letting a slow smile spread across his face.

“Fine reflexes,” Thor complimented, circling him like a predatory animal. “You are not one to be underestimated.” Thor lunged forward, grabbing for his wrist. Steve let him, letting his body be pulled and using the momentum to swing his leg around for a roundhouse kick. Thor ducked it, but Steve hooked his body over the arm that was still holding him, hyperextending the joint in an arm lock. Thor pushed him off easily, shaking his arm out a little in surprise.

Steve made the first move this time, ducking low and sweeping at Thor’s legs. He jumped to avoid the move, but wasn’t expecting Steve to follow up by grabbing one ankle and pushing at his stomach, forcing him flat on his back. Thor landed with a grunt, rolling out of the way to avoid Steve’s strike.

“This is what I’ve been craving!” Thor boomed, popping back up to his feet. Steve found himself agreeing. They kept on this way for a few more hours, evenly matched with Steve connecting with a hit every so often. It felt good. He felt good. For the first time in a long time, Steve felt like he could breathe. Which was funny, since he was currently panting on the gym floor next to an equally exhausted Thor. But this is what he’d needed. No worrying about feelings or the past or the future. Just focusing on doing what he had to do in this exact moment.

Steve and Thor parted ways, making plans to meet up the next morning to work out again. He ate all the food he thawed in his fridge and spent the night in front of his window. The day may have started out poorly, but in the end it had been good.

For the next two days, he followed the same routine and didn’t see any of the other Avengers. Thor and Steve would work out in the morning, break for lunch, then spar in the afternoon until dinner. They hadn’t been doing it for long, but Steve found himself counting on it. That’s why it hurt so bad when it was ruined.

The third day started off just as the other ones had, with the two of them running side by side as Thor told him everything about his home. Steve always made sure to direct the conversation to something about Thor, so he could just listen quietly. He wasn’t ready to open up like that yet. They actually ate lunch together for the first time, Steve eating some of his quickly depleting stash while Thor demolished a pile of leftovers he’d thrown together. Steve thought he saw a couple turkey legs mixed in with some spaghetti, but he couldn’t be sure.

They started sparring as usual, but somehow Steve was momentarily distracted at one point, leaving himself open for a strike to the jaw. Steve braced for the hit, but Thor swung wide, missing him completely. They broke apart for a moment, each of them catching their breath.

“What was that?” Steve asked, nodding at Thor’s fist. The fist that should’ve connected.

“I guess you got lucky,” Thor laughed, sinking back into a ready position. Steve followed suit, going through the motions while his brain was replaying the previous afternoons. As hard as he thought, he couldn’t remember a single instance of Thor connecting with any of his hits. He understood pulling punches when it came to training with a normal human like Clint or Natasha, but Steve wasn’t like them. And he knew he hadn’t just been good enough this whole time to avoid all of Thor’s hits.

Steve decided to test his theory, setting up the same scenario as earlier. If Thor hit him this time, then the last time was just a fluke. But if he didn’t, there was a bigger problem at play. Steve ducked and dodged, throwing his hands down and leaving his face exposed. Thor swung, again hitting nothing but air. Steve froze, all pretenses from before gone.

“What the hell was that?” Steve snapped, pushing Thor away from his space.

“I guess I must be off my game,” Thor said, bouncing again to get ready for another round.

“So you’ve been off your game everyday? Because, correct me if I’m wrong, but you haven’t landed a single hit on me this whole time,” Steve growled.

“It seems your skills are unmatched,” Thor chuckled, waving his hands to urge Steve to continue the fight.

“Bullsh*t!” Steve yelled, ripping off his gloves and tossing them to the side. “Tell me what’s going on, now. You think you have to wear kid gloves with me now? That I’m not on your level?”

“Of course not! I recognize you as one of Midgard’s mightiest warriors!” Thor denied.

“Then what is it? Because I haven’t been holding back with you and I thought you’d show me the same respect!” Steve demanded. Thor looked unusually reluctant to speak, which was not normal for him. Thor always was ready to say how he felt and what he believed. Unless this hadn’t been his idea at all? “Who was it?”

“Who was what?” Thor asked, furrowing his brow. But Steve knew. Tony was the one who warned Thor off being too rough before. Tony was the one who convinced Steve to move back in after he’d driven him out in the first place. Tony was the cause of all of this.

This was it. This was the last straw. Steve spun on his heel, leaving a confused Thor behind as he stomped his way to the elevator. He had been avoiding this talk with Tony for too long, but not anymore. They were going to hash this out right now.

Chapter 29: Chapter 29

Chapter Text

The ride up to Tony on the penthouse floor felt like it took forever. Steve was standing in the center of the elevator, clenching his fists as he resisted the urge to punch the walls. Had every interaction so far with the team been orchestrated by Tony? Were there scripts for everyone to follow? If Steve had been paying attention, he probably would’ve noticed that they came at him one at a time ever since that first day where he’d freaked out at breakfast. If Clint was waiting for him when the elevator doors opened, he would snap.

Luckily for everyone, there wasn’t anyone waiting for him when Steve’s trip up finally finished. Steve stormed out on a mission to find Tony. He didn’t even know what he was going to say to the other man, but he knew all of this had to stop. He would usually feel awkward roaming around this floor alone, but Steve would confront Tony in the bathroom if that’s where he happened to be right now.

“Oh hey Steve, you’re early,” Tony said, somehow from behind him. Steve didn’t know how he passed by him without noticing, but that didn’t matter right now.

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I know Thor is still on the schedule for a few more minutes,” Steve sneered.

“What schedule?” Tony asked, tilting his head in confusion.

“Was it not official? I’m not sure how in depth your meetings with the team went while you were discussing how to handle me!”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about how you have everyone treating me! Bruce with the food, Natasha with the feelings, Thor with the training. What’s Clint’s thing going to be?”

“I don’t have any control over what anyone else is doing!” Tony denied. Steve stalked up to him, standing right in front of his face.

“Look me in the eye and tell me you haven’t had any meetings with the team about how to handle me. That you didn’t come into this with a plan,” Steve challenged, watching the man’s eyes as he tried not to squirm under the intense scrutiny. Tony seemed to be at war with himself, trying to figure out what to say. Steve would know if it was anything less than the truth.

“It wasn’t like that,” Tony admitted quietly, his eyes darting away toward the wall. “We just wanted to figure out the best way to help you.”

“Help me by telling everyone to be fake with me? For what? So when I finally get comfortable and let my guard down you can pull the rug back out from under me again?”

“Of course not! I just told everyone to give you space, so we wouldn’t overwhelm you! I didn’t want a repeat of what happened at breakfast.”

“Wow, I’m so sorry I’m just too complicated to handle,” Steve snickered, shaking his head in disgust.

“What were we supposed to do?”

“Leave me alone!”

“I can’t!”

“Why not?”

“Because I care about you!”

“Since when?” Steve hissed, the vitriol in his voice causing Tony to step back in surprise. “Since when do you give a damn about me? Was it while you were constantly picking at me while I lived in the tower? Was it after, when you questioned my decisions in the field?”

“Steve-”

“Or was it only after your prank when you f*cking broke me?” Steve whispered, hating the way his voice cracked at the end. He felt disgusting saying the words out loud, but they were true, weren’t they? As much as he tried to tell himself that he was okay, he wasn’t. He hadn’t been for a long time, but that prank had completely shattered his illusion of health.

“What prank?”

Both of their heads whipped to the side to stare at the newcomer. Bruce was standing in the doorway, looking on in confusion. Oh no, this was bad. Steve had the overwhelming urge to run away, but he was stuck. He had never planned on anyone else finding out about what happened with Tony. But he could tell by the look on Bruce’s face that he wasn’t going to let this go without getting the whole story.

“What- uh, what are you doing here?” Tony asked, crossing his arms over his chest in defense.

“What prank?” Bruce repeated, staring down Tony with an intensity rarely seen from the man. Steve wanted to make an excuse, say he heard wrong or come up with some harmless joke that could be laughed off, but he couldn’t form the words. He could just feel the shaky ground he was already struggling on crumble to dust.

“It’s- it’s-” Tony stammered, glancing over at Steve for what, he wasn’t sure. Help maybe? As if Steve could fix anything.

“Jarvis, tell everyone to come up here, immediately,” Bruce demanded, glaring daggers at Tony. Steve shuddered, nauseated by the fact he was about to be put on display. If he’d only forced himself to get over everything better, this never would’ve come up. He wouldn’t have to be a bystander in his complete downfall in the team’s eyes. His weakness was the cause of all their problems.

Steve wrapped his arms around his waist, feeling like he was going to shake apart. No matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, he counted on the team always being there. Even if he never went to them for anything, he was comforted by the simple fact that they existed. They might not truly know him, but they were the closest relationships he had in this world. But when they found out how weak he really was, they would have no choice but to get rid of him. They might not at first, because they were good people, but they wouldn’t be willing to work with him anymore, that much was certain. The team wouldn’t stand for such a liability in the field. And then after a while, they would be sick of seeing his useless lump around the tower and give him the boot. If he wasn’t pulling his weight, he wouldn’t be able to earn his place in the tower.

But even if he was wrong about all that, and the team was understanding and still cared about him, there was one thing he knew he’d never be able to avoid. Their looks of pity. Tony hadn’t been able to look at him quite the same as he used to, and now everyone else would have that same little twinge of regret in their eyes when they looked at him. Either way, he was going to lose everything, and that was the one thing he was scared of the most.

Steve just wanted Tony to fix this. He got them into this, he should get them out. Tony was a genius and could do literally anything, but he couldn’t rectify this mess he made? He couldn’t pull Steve from this pit he’d thrown him down? A tiny part inside of Steve was telling him that was what Tony had been trying to do for a while, but he couldn’t let that thought develop into anything right now. The pain and fear were still too strong.

Bruce was pacing in front of the doorway he’d walked through, effectively blocking them from leaving the small room they’d found themselves in. Steve wasn’t even sure if he’d been in this room before, but it looked like some sort of office. Whatever it was, there wasn’t enough space now, and it would only get more stifling when it filled with the bodies of the other team members.

“Why have I been summoned?” Thor called from the elevator. Steve heard the distant voice of Jarvis leading Thor to the room. “There you are, Steven! I was wondering where you ran off to.” Steve ducked his head down, avoiding eye contact with everyone. If Thor was treating him like glass before, he couldn’t imagine how delicately he’d be handled now.

He should’ve just told everyone right off the bat who he really was. It wasn’t fair for him to pretend to be the Captain America they expected when he wasn’t that person anymore. Steve was just too selfish to be honest and lose their respect. He’d taken away their right to choose and that wasn’t fair.

“I thought we weren’t eating Thanksgiving dinner until later,” Clint said, strolling into the room with Natasha before stopping short when he recognized the mood of the room. Steve grimaced, only now realizing what day it was. All the days tended to blend together when you didn’t sleep or have a job.

“I thought we’d tell everyone what we’re thankful for early,” Bruce said, stepping toward Tony. “I’ll go first. I’m thankful that we’re finally going to get to the bottom of what started all of this.”

“What are you talking about?” Natasha asked, hanging back near the door.

“I only caught the tail end of it, but something about a prank. Which is strange, since Tony promised me his prank days were over after Steve moved out the first time,” Bruce answered.

“No need to be a dick about it,” Tony muttered, gritting his teeth.

“Right, because that role is reserved for you,” Natasha shot back, stalking forward to stand next to Bruce. Steve had a momentary urge to defend Tony, which he didn’t quite understand, but he kept quiet.

“Is now really the right time for this?” Tony asked, waving his arm in Steve’s direction. “Besides, this is really between me and Steve.”

“Was me having to watch Steve be cut open and put back together just between you two? Was all of us waiting for days in a hospital room to see if he’d even survive between you two? I don’t think it was, so don’t give me that crap,” Bruce growled. Now Steve could see the Bruce who gave Tony that black eye.

“I made a mistake, but I’m trying to fix it!” Tony argued.

“That isn’t going to cut it this time! This is too important to just trust that you are doing the right things. Not with your history together!”

“So no one trusts me anymore?”

“Can you blame us? With how secretive you’re being right now? You’re leaving it up to our imaginations and I gotta say, I hope it’s not as bad as the things I can come up with.” Bruce snapped.

“I might’ve…” Tony started, sending one more guilty look in Steve’s direction, “convinced Steve he slept through a few more decades.” Steve barely had time to blink before Natasha pounced, slugging Tony right in his recently healed eye. Clint jumped forward, dragging Natasha back before she could do anymore damage.

“What the f*ck were you thinking!” Natasha spat, straining against Clint’s hold. Tony was on his back on the floor, cradling his rapidly reddening cheek.

“This is a joke, because even you, after all the little jokes you pulled, would never be that cruel,” Bruce said, shaking his head in denial. When Tony didn’t say anything, Bruce balled up his fists.

“When?”

“When what?” Tony asked quietly.

“Was it before or after your stunt with the drug?”

“After,” Tony whispered. Now it was Thor holding Bruce back, dragging him bodily out of the room as his skin started to tinge green.

“You waited until he was at his most vulnerable, a position he was in thanks to you, to exploit one of his biggest fears?” Natasha questioned, well past the point of fury.

“I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t know he would get this bad,” Tony murmured, sitting up and running a hand through his hair.

“And that makes it okay?” Natasha shouted. “You think it would be okay to do to anyone, regardless of the circ*mstances?”

“No! I know it was wrong and I know I f*cked up!” Tony yelled, dragging himself off the floor.

“How long?” Bruce asked, storming back into the room with Thor hot on his heels. “How long did you tell him had passed?”

“Sixty years,” Tony mumbled, standing still to accept the next wave of attacks. Thor and Clint were able to hold off the others though.

“You let him think we all died?” Clint gasped, looking to the ceiling and mouthing a few words. “Well, maybe not Natasha or Thor.”

“You let him believe that he had lost everything again, before he even started living in this time?” Bruce growled, visibly shaking in Thor’s grip.

“After all those little pranks you pulled, I thought you were just immature. But this, this was sad*stic,” Natasha spat.

“I don’t have a defense to excuse what I did, but I’m trying to make up for it,” Tony insisted.

“I don’t know if you can,” Bruce scoffed, shrugging off Thor's hands now that he was calmer. Thor stayed ready though.

“We can forgive death and destruction, but not this?” Tony asked.

“He almost died!” Bruce roared, turning away from Tony to compose himself.

“I’m not sure what we all are fighting about, but I think you’re distressing our Captain,” Thor commented. Everyone froze, their eyes whipping over to stare at him. Steve hadn’t realized that when they were fighting, he’d backed himself into the corner. A look of guilt flashed over Bruce’s face and Steve was torn between closing his eyes and trying to block everyone out, or keeping them open to avoid being so vulnerable.

“Steve?” Bruce said, carefully approaching him.

“Don’t,” Steve whispered, stopping him in his tracks. He didn’t trust his reaction to being touched right now. Now that Thor had reminded them of his existence, they wouldn’t stop looking at him. He felt their stares as if they were crawling under his skin.

“Are you-”

“No, I’m not okay. I’ve never been okay,” Steve whispered, feeling a weight lift off his chest as he said the words out loud to everyone. It was out there now and there was no turning back. “But if you think all this is helping, you’re wrong.”

“I’m sorry, I-”

“This was supposed to stay between me and Tony! Why does everyone have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing? Why can’t you all just leave it alone? Leave me alone?” Steve gasped, trying to choke back the words that wouldn’t stop coming. He’d said too much. “I can’t deal with everyone treating me like I’m something that needs to be fixed. You can’t! This is what’s left of me and there’s no coming back from it.”

“That’s not true,” Bruce soothed, but Steve just laughed bitterly at those words.

“I have been white knuckling it since the moment I woke up and I can’t do it anymore. You should’ve just left me in my apartment,” Steve laughed, and even he could hear the deranged tinge to it. Was he having a nervous breakdown? His neighbor had one when he was a kid. Her husband had been killed in a factory accident and she didn’t handle it well. His mom tried her best to help, since she had experience being a widow, but the neighbor still had to go away for a while. She never really seemed the same after that and his mom never had her babysit him again, but Steve never thought to ask why.

“You don’t mean that,” Bruce argued. “You could’ve died.”

“So?” Steve whispered, blowing out a shaky breath. Had he wanted to die? Had he not fought as hard as he could during that last mission on some subconscious level? Steve honestly didn’t know. “I shouldn’t even be here. My life ended in 1945. Me being here isn’t right!”

“I want you here,” Tony said quietly, brushing past Bruce to stand in front of him.

“No, you don’t,” Steve said, trying to still his trembling lip. “I can’t do it.”

“I don’t care if you don’t do a single thing for anyone else for the rest of time. Your worth isn’t measured by what you can do for other people. Just you being here is enough,” Tony stated emphatically. “Captain America is great and all, but he’d be nothing without Steve Rogers.”

Steve closed his eyes, trying to block out the words Tony was saying. He wanted so badly to believe it, but there was an immediate counter argument in his head at every kind word he heard. How could he trust Tony? After everything that happened. If he had someone to blame for every problem he had, he wouldn’t have to admit to himself that the problems had been there long before the prank. Could he admit that weakness? Could he trust these people to help him? Steve wanted to so badly, to just cry out for help and let them take care of him for a while. But they’d always remember that. That he needed them to pick up the pieces of his soul and stitch them back together.

“I can’t.”

“Steve Rogers can do anything. Even accept help. I will never be able to make up for what I did to you, but will you let me try?” Tony asked, reaching his hand out toward him. Steve stared at the hand, knowing what it signified. Steve had to be the one to make the decision. There was no Natasha sweeping him up in a hug while he was incapacitated. There were no words easing his truth out. It was him having to make a conscious decision to put his faith in another person.

Steve put his hand in Tony’s.

Chapter 30: Chapter 30

Chapter Text

Even after Steve had taken that first step, made that leap of faith to put his trust in Tony, the others didn’t leave the room. He could tell they had a lot more to say to Tony, but were holding back since they saw how it was affecting him. Steve couldn’t help but feel a little bitter about the fact that they all knew about Tony’s pranks before, but never cared enough to say anything. Sure, he didn’t need people to protect him from some teasing, but now wasn’t the time for them to hold a grudge. It was his grudge to hold, if anything.

Tony eventually made the first move, leading Steve out of the room to the couches down the hall. He appreciated Tony’s equally tight grip, showing the others it wasn’t just Steve holding on like a child needing to be guided. And he really didn’t feel ready to let go yet. There was still a part of him screaming to take off for good, to leave everyone behind and try to forget this act of weakness, but he knew that was the bad choice. He held on because he knew how hard it would be to reach out again.

Tony pulled them down to sit on a loveseat, still giving him his own space in case he needed it, but close enough to provide that solid comfort. The team trailed along behind them, all of them except Thor looking like they wanted to object. He knew why they were so apprehensive, but Steve needed this connection with Tony. Steve couldn’t even explain it if he tried. He didn’t know how he’d gone from wanting to rip the man apart to aching for him to solve all his problems so quickly. That’s how their relationship had always been though, at each other’s throats one minute and relying on each other the next. How could he expect the others to understand when he didn’t himself?

Steve wished the hard part was over, that making that first move would just slot everything into place, but he knew the battle had just begun. The fear of losing everything was still there. The fear of not being enough was still there. And it would take more than Tony’s hand in his to make it better. But he honestly didn’t know what the next move was.

“Hey Steve, you wanna come with me for a minute? I’ve been working on something in my lab that I’d like you to take a look at,” Bruce suggested.

“What is it?” Steve asked, hesitant to let go of Tony’s hand and leave his side. Why did it feel so hard to do? It wasn’t like it was the only thing keeping either of them from falling from the side of a train.

“It’s easier to show you than it is to explain,” Bruce said, motioning toward the elevators as he walked in that direction. Going with him felt like a bad idea.

“I’ve actually got to make some phone calls. Probably best to cancel the caterers or send them to a soup kitchen or something,” Tony mumbled, scratching at his chin. Steve frowned, once again reminded that this was a holiday Tony had been looking forward to. The whole team probably had been.

“I’m sorry I ruined dinner,” Steve whispered, staring down at his lap. This was supposed to be a day about being thankful for what you had and Steve was blubbering about all the things he didn’t have. He should’ve been appreciating what he had all along, a solid team, but he’d ruined it.

“sh*t, no it’s not your fault, it’s mine,” Tony insisted, giving his hand another squeeze. “I can always have the food come and leave you all to it. I don’t need to be there.”

“That isn’t right. You’d all be happily eating together if it wasn’t for me,” Steve sighed, reluctantly pulling his hand away from Tony.

“Not likely,” Natasha scoffed, earning herself a surprising elbow from Clint. When Steve stared at her in confusion, she continued. “We haven’t been hanging out that much recently.”

“I’m sorry, I know all of this drama with me has kind of taken over everything,” Steve apologized, furrowing his brow. Why was the team insisting on keeping him here if he was just making everything worse?

“Stop saying you’re sorry!” Bruce snapped, raking a frustrated hand through his hair. “You are the victim in all this. There is nothing for you to apologize for.”

“I’m not a victim!” Steve yelled in indignation, gritting his teeth. “Don’t call me that.”

“Okay, that might’ve been a bad choice of words, but the sentiment still stands. You were the wronged party here. You can’t place any blame on yourself,” Bruce defended.

“If I’m the one wronged, then I’m the one who can decide when I’m over it. Just let it go and leave it alone,” Steve pleaded, begging Bruce and the others to drop it. If they kept harping on this, Steve would never get past it.

“But this doesn’t feel right. You can’t just go from one extreme to the other like this. This feels like trauma bonding and that’s not healthy,” Bruce said firmly.

“What is that?” Steve asked, racking his brain for a definition. There was a name for everything these days, but this was something he hadn’t come across.

“It’s when a victim bonds with their abuser,” Bruce muttered, keeping his eyes away from Tony. Steve wasn’t sure what came over him, but he was on his feet in a second, grabbing Bruce by the arm and dragging him out of the room before anyone could react. Steve pulled him down the hall, needing a private moment with the man to figure out how he could say something like that to him, and in front of everyone.

“What the hell was that?” Steve growled, leaning over Bruce who he had pressed against the wall.

“Can you honestly say you trust Tony not to do something like that again?” Bruce asked, falling back into his calm, rational manner. Of course he would, now that he’d gotten Steve riled.

“He wouldn’t,” Steve insisted, although there was a little voice in the back of his mind telling him he couldn’t be sure. He still didn’t know why Tony had done it in the first place.

“Did you think he was capable of it at all? Because it sure came as a shock to me and I wasn’t the one it happened to,” Bruce said, sliding out from his trapped position.

“What do you want me to do, stay mad at him forever?” Steve asked, feeling the gloom of life wash over him again. He thought he’d made the right choice in taking that chance with Tony, but no one else seemed to think it was the right move.

“No one would blame you if you were. But you can’t go to the opposite extreme and just forgive him altogether so suddenly. You can’t base your recovery around Tony,” Bruce replied. “While I’d like to place all the blame on Tony’s shoulders, you said yourself that you weren’t in a good place since you woke up the first time. You can’t rely on only him to get you where you need to be.”

“I’m not, I just-” Steve started, but didn’t know what else to say. He’d tried doing it on his own, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t getting better and he could admit it now, along with the fact that he didn’t know how to. But the team at each other’s throats wasn’t the right move, he was sure of that.

“Can you explain it to me? Tell me how you decided to put your faith in Tony?” Bruce asked. Steve sighed, physically and emotionally exhausted after this whole ordeal. He just wanted to crawl in a hole and hide himself away from everyone. But he’d come this far, he didn’t want to immediately fall back on old habits.

“My whole life, I’ve always made decisions based on what was best for the people around me. And that was reinforced once I became Captain America. What I wanted didn’t matter anymore, it was about living up to that title. Standing back there in that room though, it was the first time I stopped to think about what I wanted. What I needed. And I’m so tired, Bruce. I let my heart make the decision and it led me to Tony,” Steve explained, aching for the man in front of him to accept it. He was exposing parts of himself he never thought he would.

“Promise me you’ll be careful? And know that you can come to any one of us, for anything,” Bruce said, looking up at him in worry, but with a little more understanding.

“I know Tony isn’t the answer to all my problems, but we all deserve a second chance. I hope you’ll give him one as well,” Steve answered quietly.

“If that’s what you need from me, I’ll try,” Bruce agreed, patting him carefully on the shoulder. Steve impulsively moved forward, wrapping the man in a quick hug. It was a bit more stiff and awkward than the one he shared with Natasha, but it felt like a little piece of shell was chipped away from his heart.

“Thank you,” Steve whispered as he pulled back. Bruce nodded, giving him a warm smile. They walked back to the group in silence, finding them all exactly where they’d left them. Tony bounced up out of his seat, looking between the two of them.

“Everything alright?” he asked.

“We probably all want to get changed before the food gets here, right?” Bruce suggested, glancing over at Tony. “Are we still eating on this floor?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Tony stammered in surprise, looking over toward Steve for an explanation. “Should be set up in about an hour.”

“Great, we’ll meet you back here,” Bruce said, gesturing for the other team members to follow him out. He gave Steve one last pat on the back before he left. Once they all were gone, Steve and Tony stared at each other for a few moments. While he’d wanted some time with the man alone right after he’d made the decision to accept his help, now it just felt awkward. Bruce’s words were still swirling around in his head and as much as he wanted to fight against them, he did make sense. Steve had to find a balance between trusting Tony and keeping himself completely isolated.

“I have some nicer clothes for you stashed in a closet on your floor, if you’d like me to show you?” Tony offered, breaking the silence.

“Um, sure,” Steve agreed, rubbing at the back of his neck. He was still in his sweaty gym clothes and needed something to wear. But he didn’t feel like wearing his stiff Captain America uniform of slacks and a button up. Tony nodded in satisfaction, leading Steve back to the elevators. It was crazy to think how he’d stormed up here not too long ago, ready to rip Tony’s head off, and now he was choosing to stick by his side. Steve realized this felt better than he ever thought it could.

Chapter 31: Chapter 31

Chapter Text

Steve got more nervous the closer they got to his floor. No one had been there since he came back. And before when he lived there, it only seemed like Tony came when it was time to pull another one of his jokes. Steve had to remind himself a few times that Tony wasn’t going to do that again, but the thought never strayed too far from his mind.

“So, the closet’s over here,” Tony said as soon as the elevator doors opened, leading him down the hallway. Steve didn’t think he’d ever opened this door in his life. It was filled with clothes he’d never seen before.

“What is all this?” Steve asked, running his hand along the racks of clothes.

“I wanted to make sure you had anything you needed, in case you decided to come back. I wasn’t sure what you’d like, so I got a little bit of everything,” Tony answered, looking down in embarrassment. Steve raised an eyebrow when he noticed a pair of cowboy boots, but Tony just shrugged. “You never know.”

“You really didn’t have to do all this, but thank you,” Steve said, pausing when he got to a shelf full of soft sweaters. They reminded him of the ones his mom used to make him whenever she got her hands on some yarn. Those were always his favorite things to wear.

“No need to go all out with a suit or anything, since it’s just a team thing. You could technically come naked, if that’s what you wanted. Although that might get awkward if we decide to take a group picture,” Tony babbled, earning himself a bewildered look.

“Are you hitting on me, Tony?” Steve asked, biting his lip.

“No, God, of course not. Unless?” Tony stammered, his face pinched in discomfort.

“I think I need to call Pepper,” Steve chuckled, shaking his head at the sigh of relief that rushed out of Tony.

“Did you just make a joke? I don’t even know your brand of humor,” Tony laughed, leaning against the doorframe.

“Mmm, don’t get used to it,” Steve brushed off, turning back to the clothes. He wasn’t sure what came over him to make a joke, but it just seemed to slip out. It was completely something he would’ve said to Bucky, but he couldn’t try to put Tony into that role.

He grabbed the green sweater that was on top of the pile, resisting the urge to rub it against his face. It had been so long since he’d indulged himself in something so soft and comforting. Steve had gotten used to wearing the crisp ironed clothes and workout gear, nothing in between. And while the gym clothes served a purpose, he didn’t really like his other clothes. They were just another barrier to hide behind. Another decision he made to avoid having to make a choice. To have a preference.

“Good selection,” Tony commented casually, plucking at his own shirt. “I could never pull off the cable knit look.” Steve shook his head, but was relieved Tony didn’t stick with the humor conversation. He didn’t want to be swimming in tension, but he also couldn’t pretend to be relaxed either. He couldn’t get what Bruce said about depending too much on Tony off his mind. Was that really taking the easy way out? It sure didn’t feel easy taking that first step. But he knew Bruce was smart and seemed to have his best interest at heart, so he wanted to make a point to listen to him.

“I should probably shower,” Steve said, grabbing a pair of brown pants off a hanger. Did he outright tell Tony to leave now? Did he want him to? Would he even join the team for dinner if there wasn’t someone there to push him along?

“Right. Speaking of showers though, there was something I wanted to show you in there,” Tony said, looking oddly hesitant. Steve couldn’t help but bristle slightly, reminded of the shock of cold Tony would subject him to on a whim. But he reminded himself that he was used to the cold now and Tony had changed. He really hoped Tony had changed.

“Okay,” Steve agreed, trailing Tony to his room. He sat the clothes on his bed for now, following Tony into the bathroom. Tony was standing by a black panel on the wall Steve hadn’t noticed before. Although he never really paid attention to the high tech gadgets that seemed to be sprinkled around all over the tower.

“I had these installed in all the bathrooms,” Tony explained, waving his hand in front of the screen and bringing it to life. “This controls the temperature of everything in this room, from the water temperature to the humidity, even heating the floors. All you have to do is press a couple buttons or ask Jarvis to do it until you get the hang of it.”

“Do I have to use it?” Steve asked quietly, avoiding eye contact with Tony. That was much easier to ask than wondering how easy this would let Tony torment him again.

“I suppose not,” Tony mumbled, tapping his finger next to the panel. “Before you completely write it off, can I tell you something about it?” Steve wanted to say no, because he didn’t want this to turn into a deep conversation before he had to go put on a show in front of everyone. But then again, he didn’t want this hanging over his head either. He needed Tony to prove himself as a safe person, but he’d never be able to if Steve kept shooting down his attempts.

“I guess.”

“I programmed this machine to only work for you. The touch screen will only read your fingerprints and the voice commands will only answer to you,” Tony said, pushing on the different buttons on the screen. When nothing happened, he went on. “Jarvis, set the floor temperature to 85 degrees.”

“I’m sorry sir, but no changes can be made without Captain Rogers’ authorization,” Jarvis replied.

“That goes for the rest of your floor too. No one except you can change anything. Obviously anyone can ask Jarvis a question, but you are in control over what happens on your floor,” Tony stated firmly. Steve's breath caught in his throat at the determination in Tony’s voice. Had they really turned a corner in their relationship?

“I don’t know what to say. Tha-”

“Don’t thank me. This is how it should’ve always been. I was so out of line before, but I promise I’m going to do better and-”

“Wait!” Steve burst out, cutting off Tony before he could go too far. “I appreciate what you’re saying, but I can’t do this right now. Not before we have to go up and have dinner with everyone.”

“Okay,” Tony sighed, running a hand down his face. “But we’re going to need to have that talk eventually, you know. This isn’t- we can’t- it just needs to happen, for any of this to mean anything.”
“I know, but I think we’ve dealt with enough for one day. I just, I need for something to be easy for a little while. No pressure, no looming discussion hanging over my head. Just dinner with the team,” Steve said, hoping Tony wouldn’t push.

“Got it. Discussion is tabled,” Tony agreed, striding back out of the bathroom and into his bedroom. “This place I ordered from has the best rolls. If you like them, I’ll set some aside so you can stash them on your floor.” Tony flopped down on his bed, rolling around like it was the most natural thing to do. Steve felt something in his chest loosen after their conversation. He knew the upcoming talks would be hard, but knowing Tony was willing to have it whenever he wanted was nice.

Steve walked over to his closet to get the rest of his clothes from the boxes. He realized his mistake when he turned back around and caught Tony staring at him. Oh yeah, the whole not unpacking thing.

“Um, I just…” Steve trailed off, searching for the words to explain himself. Should he say it hadn’t felt worth it to get comfortable anymore? That to stay here, he always had to be prepared to leave? Did he lie and say he just hadn’t gotten around to it?

“I think I’ve got some of those plastic storage towers with clear drawers around here somewhere. It would be a lot easier to organize your clothes in them. And then if you needed to take them somewhere, it’s already ready to go,” Tony offered, smoothing his hand along the bedspread. Steve almost said of course not, that he could use the very nice dressers in the room, but he stopped himself. Tony knew what he was doing and gave him a solution. He wasn’t trying to change his mind or convince him that what he was doing was unnecessary. He was just accepting where Steve’s head was at right now. Why couldn’t it have been this way from the beginning?

“Thank you,” Steve agreed, grabbing what he needed and closing the top back up.

“Anything. Just ask,” Tony said simply, watching him walk into the bathroom. If asking for a time machine was realistic, he’d ask for that. But Tony didn’t deserve hearing something like that right now, not while he was trying so hard.

Steve quickly stripped off all his clothes, because while he didn’t think Tony would start snooping around the moment his back was turned, he still didn’t feel comfortable giving him that much of a chance. He was about to turn the shower dial to cold like usual, but stopped. Steve had stuck to his cold showers without even thinking about it. It was just his normal now. But did it need to be? Had he really been trying to train himself to deal with cold or had he been punishing himself? Thanksgiving was about appreciating what you had, right? So it would be okay to indulge just this once.

“Jarvis, what’s a good temperature for a hot shower?” Steve asked, before he could talk himself back out of it.

“I would recommend starting out at 105 degrees and adjusting from there,” Jarvis answered, automatically starting the shower on full blast. Steve didn’t let himself test the water until he saw the steam. It felt like heaven and his immediate reaction was to tell Jarvis to shut it off, but he bit his tongue. No one had to know he was letting himself be warm, just like they didn’t need to know how he was forcing himself to be cold.

Steve climbed under the spray, feeling the hot water pummel his doubts into submission. He ducked his head under the water, letting it cascade over his back. Instead of the sharp, numbing cold he was used to, this was like a wet hug, the steam embracing him on all sides. He never wanted to go back to what it was before. Steve scrubbed any ideas of cold off his body, relishing in the sight of his skin turning pink instead of white. He felt like he could stay in here all day, but he knew he needed to finish up and meet the team for dinner.

Steve reluctantly shut the water off, immediately feeling the loss. The air was still muggy and thick, but the tower’s air conditioning was getting rid of that fairly quickly. He hoped during this time apart that Bruce had been able to convince the rest of the team to relax on Tony a bit. Steve understood why they were so upset, but it was his battle to overcome.

He quickly threw on his clothes, running a towel over his head so his hair wouldn’t drip everywhere. The sweater was just as cozy as he imagined it would be and he took a moment to just enjoy the feel. Even the pants were nice and soft, feeling almost like velvet. The whole outfit was like nothing he’d worn since he’d woken up.

Tony was right where he’d left him when he went into the bathroom, messing around with something on his phone. Steve thought he caught the hint of a smile when Tony looked up at him, but he quickly looked away. He started to feel self conscious about what he was wearing. Did he look dumb? Was there some sort of itching powder sprinkled over the fabric?

“What?” Steve asked, crossing his arms over his chest defensively.

“You look comfortable,” Tony said, crinkling his eyes a bit as he looked up at him. “It’s just nice to see.”

“Oh, I-”

“And don’t take this the wrong way, because I mean it in the best way possible, but I kind of want to sit next to you in a cafe drinking hot cocoa and reading a book,” Tony laughed lightly. Steve snorted, feeling his cheeks heat up in embarrassment at the sound. He cleared his throat, trying to give himself a reset.

“Yeah, these pants are really nice. What are they?” Steve asked.

“Corduroy,” Tony answered with a grin. “Jarvis, order a pair of these pants in every color for Steve.” Steve objected at the same time Jarvis answered an affirmative.

“You don’t have to do that,” Steve sighed, putting his hands on his hips.

“Of course I do. That’s the meaning of Thanksgiving, right?” Tony chuckled, wagging his eyebrows. “I’m just fulfilling the giving portion of the name.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not what this holiday is about, but thanks,” Steve sighed.

“Pardon the interruption, but the food has arrived,” Jarvis announced.

“Perfect timing,” Tony said, bouncing up from his seat. “You ready for this?” He held out his arm for Steve to link up with him, but Steve just pushed him forward with a scoff. Steve didn’t need Tony to lead him up to the others like you would an old lady across the street, but he also didn’t answer his question.

Was he ready?

Chapter 32: Chapter 32

Chapter Text

Steve sat on one of the couches in the main living area while Tony dealt with getting the food set up. The rest of the team hadn’t shown up yet, so he was taking these last few moments to prepare himself for what was to come. He didn’t want everyone to immediately be at Tony’s throat, but he couldn’t expect them to be buddy buddy with him either. He wished they would just go back to how they were when he wasn’t around, but he didn’t see that happening either.

Steve felt so guilty for ruining the good life they all had. He knew they would never say that out loud or put that blame on him, but there was no other explanation for it. Things started breaking down the moment he came back. But for the first time since he’d gotten here, he didn’t really want to leave. Steve had to make sure everyone else felt the same way too.

The elevator doors slid open and Steve forced himself to sit casually on the sofa. He needed to embody the feel of the clothes he was wearing. Steve would be soft, approachable, comfortable. Although underneath he was wound tight.

“Whoa, when did Mr. Rogers get here?” Clint exclaimed as he stepped into the room. Steve stared up at him in confusion. Had they already moved on from calling him Steve?

“Shut up, nerd,” Natasha scoffed, pushing Clint to the side so she could sit next to him on the couch. “I think you look sweet.” She brushed her fingers into the bangs flopping over his forehead. Steve hadn’t had time to style his hair and he suddenly felt self conscious. He was usually a lot more put together than this.

“Mr. Rogers was the host of a kid’s show on TV,” Bruce explained, perching on the arm of one of the chairs. “He always wore a sweater.”

“Oh,” Steve mumbled, pulling at the fabric around his neck. Maybe this outfit was a bad idea.

“I like yours better though. His was a different style and he always wore a tie with it, which had to be annoying after a while,” Clint said, flopping down on the couch so close to him on his other side that he was practically in his lap. He rubbed against Steve’s side like a cat. “This is nice. Where’d you get it?”

“Tony got it for me,” he answered hesitantly, causing everyone in the room to freeze. It was like all the easiness had been suddenly sucked out of the room.

“That’s nice,” Bruce commented lightly, trying to sound supportive. Steve shot him a small smile, appreciating the attempt. What would the team think if they found out he hadn’t bought a single thing he’d worn this whole time? Now was not the time for that kind of talk.

“Natasha bought my clothes for me,” Thor boomed with pride, showing off his casual button up and pants. “And while I prefer animal pelts and armor, this works too.”

“He saw a woman with a poodle at the mall and told her it would look great around his neck,” Natasha huffed, rolling her eyes at the memory. Steve couldn’t hold back the small smile at the idea of their shopping trip. Maybe he could ask Natasha to go with him too?

“If you would be so kind as to head to the dining room, dinner has been served,” Jarvis called out over the speakers. Steve felt his nerves shoot up again, but they calmed a little at the sound of Clint’s stomach rumbling a bit next to him. Natasha heard it too and snickered.

“Hey, I’m a growing boy!” Clint pouted, vaulting over the back of the couch.

“Don’t come crying to me when you eat too much and make yourself sick!” Natasha called after him, pulling Steve up off the couch with surprising strength. “No more eating competitions in his future, that’s for sure.”

“He will learn eventually not to challenge me in such endeavors. My stomach capacity is rivaled by none,” Thor bragged, throwing a massive arm over Bruce’s shoulders. “Although I wouldn’t mind seeing what my green friend can do.”

The dining room was decked out in twinkling gold lights, giving the room a relaxed and comforting feel. The table was covered in food, with subtle fall decorations sprinkled around. It looked like something out of a magazine and completely something Tony would do.

“Wow, this looks amazing,” Steve said, speaking up when everyone else stayed quiet. Tony deserved to at least hear a few kind words after putting forth all this effort. “Thanks Tony.”

“Nah, it was nothing. Since it’s a team thing, I’m going to expense it to Shield,” Tony brushed off, but Steve caught the hint of an appreciative smile before the other man could hide it away. “Sit wherever you want and dig in.” There were three chairs on either side of the table and Steve stepped forward to take one before Natasha grabbed him by the arm and drug him around to the other end.

“You’re with me,” she said, forcing him down into the middle seat and sitting to his left. Bruce immediately sat down on his right, shooting him an embarrassed look. Clint nudged Thor toward the other middle seat and sat himself down in front of Natasha. Evidently the seating arrangements had been something the team had discussed during their short time apart. And with the sole purpose of keeping him away from Tony. It wasn’t like Steve needed to sit next to Tony, but everyone making sure he didn’t was annoying. They weren’t bothering him this much when he kept himself away from everyone, but now that he was coming out of his self imposed isolation, they were trying to control it. Steve pushed those thoughts away for now, since he was desperate to have a nice group dinner.

He turned his attention to all the food that was spread out, watching Thor pile his plate with anything he could get his hands on. Everyone else was a lot more relaxed, passing dishes back and forth. Steve took a little of everything that came his way, picturing his mom telling him to never refuse an offering when you were a guest at someone’s dinner table. Tony made a soft whistling noise to get his attention and tossed over a roll, winking when Steve looked at it in confusion. Steve set it to the side, making sure it would be the first thing he ate. Once everyone was finally done plating, they all looked around the table at each other. Everyone except Clint, who had a mouthful of food.

“Were we supposed to say grace or something?” Clint mumbled through his full cheeks. They all looked in his direction now and Steve wanted to melt into the floor. He was probably the only one that had even dipped a toe into the world of religion, but that had been a long time ago. A different life ago. Steve had thought about looking for a church after he’d woken up, and then again after he moved out, but his heart never led him there all the way. Church had always made him think and look inside himself and that was definitely something he wasn’t prepared to do. And he wasn’t sure he’d ever get there again.

“Hey Thor, you don’t get enough input around here. Are there any pre-feast speeches you like to give up on Asgard?” Tony asked, saving Steve from having to say anything. He shot the other man a grateful smile.

“Of course! I once gave a speech that lasted days. My servants were honored to carve the words into stone as I spoke!” Thor boasted, standing up with a turkey leg gripped in his fist. Clint made a little whining sound in the back of his throat, looking down forlornly at his plate.

“Maybe just a quick one?” Tony suggested, glancing longingly at his own plate.

“Very well. We thank the brave hunters for providing this feast for us to partake in. We shall fill our bellies with good food and our hearts with good company, to prepare for the battle against darkness tomorrow,” Thor boomed, raising his turkey leg above his head.

“Battle?” Steve whispered to Bruce, hoping there wasn’t a fight planned that he wasn’t aware of.

“Natasha is taking Thor Black Friday shopping tomorrow. It’s- don’t worry about it,” Bruce explained.

“The only thing we’ll be battling is the crowds,” Natasha scoffed, letting an evil little glint settle in her eyes. Steve still didn’t really understand what was going on, but he felt scared for whoever Natasha would come across.

“Can we eat now? Clint grumbled, fork poised and ready.

“Let the feast begin!” Thor declared, taking a bite out of his bone. The rest of them dug in with gusto, only the sounds of clinking silverware and chewing filling the room for a while. Tony watched him try the roll, giving him a thumbs up when he nodded in approval. Everything was going well and Steve didn’t even think to worry about what he was eating and if he’d never be able to have it again. He just let himself appreciate it while he could. Of course, things couldn’t run completely smooth for long.

“You know, if you guys wanted, I could have one of my drivers take you around tomorrow. That way you wouldn’t have to worry about parking,” Tony offered.

“I think you’ve done enough actually,” Natasha sneered, taking an aggressive sip of water.

“Natasha!” Bruce hissed, glaring at her across Steve’s plate.

“You can’t honestly expect us to forget about what happened so fast. He had weeks to tell us what was going on, but instead he let Steve almost die! And he still wasn’t going to admit what he did!” Natasha snapped, slamming her fork back down on her plate.

“I was the one who told him not to,” Steve sighed, wishing he was back on his floor. He knew this was going too well.

“He shouldn’t have done it in the first place!” Natasha insisted.

“But he did and we can’t go back and do anything about it now! No one can go back and fix things, because if they could, I wouldn’t be here. So if you want to be mad at Tony, find another reason. I’m the only one who has a right to be about this!” Steve shouted.

“I can be mad at a person who hurts someone I care about!”

“If you care about me you’ll listen to what I’m telling you I need! I don’t ask for anything ever but I am begging you to stop this. I can’t be the reason you guys fall apart. I can’t be the cause of you not being friends,” Steve implored, impulsively grabbing her hand where it was sitting balled up in her lap.

“Steve, when I said before that we haven’t been hanging out, I didn’t mean since you came back. I meant since the first time you left,” Natasha said softly, opening her hand so they could interlock their fingers.

“But what about all the times you invited me back for training sessions and movie nights and team dinners?” Steve asked.

“We would’ve had them if you came. There really wasn’t a point if you weren’t going to be there. Why bother having a team night if the whole team isn’t there?” Natasha pointed out.

“But what about Thor?” Steve asked, not understanding why it would matter so much if he were missing.

“It’s a little different when one person is on a different planet and the other is in the same city. We love having Thor back, but it still wouldn’t have been the same without you,” Natasha answered, rubbing her thumb along the back of his hand.

“It is true. A team needs its captain,” Thor added somberly, looking at the scene with soft understanding in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, I never meant to upset you all,” Steve apologized quietly, dropping his eyes in shame. He honestly had never considered how the team felt about him keeping himself apart. He always thought it was the best for everyone.

“We weren’t upset, we just missed you.”

“I missed you too, even though I didn’t want to. I miss so many things already and I’m so scared to add more to the list.”

“You don’t have to miss us. We’re still here. You’re still here.”

“I know. I know that and I want to believe that, but I can’t,” Steve sniffled, embarrassed by the tears he could feel welling up in his eyes.

“Will you try? Try to let yourself live in this time and maybe even enjoy yourself?” Natasha asked, brushing his bangs back and resting her hand on his cheek.

“Will you try with Tony? I think I’m going to need all of you to help me through this,” Steve whispered, feeling one of the tears break free when he closed his eyes. Natasha gently wiped it away, leaning forward to press a kiss to his forehead. He leaned down, resting his face on her shoulder and taking a minute to feel that she was there and real.

“I don’t know if you should agree to those terms Nat,” Clint warned. “We still don’t know what Stark ordered for dessert.” Steve snorted on Natasha’s shoulder, leaning back and wiping his face. Leave it to Clint to lighten the mood.

“Oh, I don’t know, are ten different kinds of pie enough?” Tony asked, signalling to the ceiling and summoning what looked like an army of robot butlers to clear away the dirty dishes and leftover food.

“What the hell are these?” Bruce asked, leaning back as an overzealous robot almost hit him in the face with a plate.

“Just something I’ve been working on,” Tony said, cringing at the sound of glass breaking. “Still working out the kinks.”

“They are accosting me!” Thor shouted, surrounded by little metal creatures that were poking at him.

“Maybe we should leave them to it,” Tony suggested, pulling Thor out of harm’s way and toward the kitchen. The rest of them followed, not wanting to be left alone with Tony’s rogue creations. The kitchen island was covered in more pies than Steve could count. Clint immediately dove toward them, looking around like a kid in a candy store. “Not really the setting I had planned, but have at it I guess.” Bruce grabbed a handful of forks from a drawer, handing them out to everyone.

Then they just dug in, not bothering to cut slices or get plates. The team stood in a group at one end of the counter, taking bites out of whichever pies they wanted, staying out of the way of the robots coming and going from the sink. Steve moved over to stand next to Tony, bumping him with a friendly elbow. He saw Natasha give them a look, but she shrugged her shoulders and kept eating without saying anything. Steve couldn’t expect everything to be perfect again, but that was progress.

“Thor, if you keep hogging all the lemon meringue, I’m going to sick the robots on you!” Clint hissed, trying to duck under Thor’s arm to get at his targeted pie.

“How about we arm wrestle for it?” Thor suggested, laughing at Clint’s glare. They all stood around eating, laughing at the banter between Thor and Clint. Bruce was the first to excuse himself, claiming he had to meditate to counteract the effects of all this sugar if he even wanted a chance at sleeping that night. Natasha drug Thor away next, reminding him that they had to get up in a few hours to start their shopping adventures. Steve still wasn’t sure what they were actually doing, but he was too afraid to ask. Clint trailed off after them pretty soon after, like he usually did when it came to Natasha. The only ones left now were Tony and him.

“This was a really nice thing you did for everyone,” Steve said, flicking a crumb away from the edge of the counter.

“I could say the same about you defending me. I really don’t deserve it, especially from you,” Tony sighed, tapping his fork on the edge of a pan.

“Gotta stop living in the past, right?” Steve asked, huffing out a disingenuous laugh.

“Steve-”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just been a long day,” Steve murmured, resting his arms on the counter. “I think I’m going to go back to my floor and get some rest.”

“Yeah, about that,” Tony started, hesitating before he continued, “I think I left something down there. Do you mind me coming with you so I can grab it?”

“Uh, that’s fine,” Steve agreed, walking with Tony to the elevators. They had to dodge a few more robots, but they got there unscathed. Steve leaned against the back of the elevator during the short ride down, resigned to another long night of no sleep. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep this up, but he couldn’t force himself to try.

“I think it’s in your bedroom,” Tony said, walking in that direction as soon as the doors opened. Steve trailed after him, leaning against the doorway as Tony made an unusually big show of looking for whatever it was he dropped. “Oh, there it is!”

“What was it?” Steve asked, wondering what could be so important that it couldn’t wait until another time.

“My lucky pen, of course,” Tony scoffed, waving a nondescript pen in his direction before shoving it in his pocket.

“And you needed that tonight?” Steve questioned, raising an eyebrow in suspicion.

“You never know,” Tony mumbled, smoothing his hand along the bedspread. “So how’s this mattress been treating you? I can get you a new one if you want something different.”

“It’s fine,” Steve said, wishing he hadn’t let Tony down here now.

“So you have been sleeping?” Tony asked, looking over at him.

“Why are you asking me that?” Steve snapped, feeling backed into a corner. How could Tony know that? Unless… “You had Jarvis spy on me?”

“No, of course not!” Tony insisted.

“Then how else?”

“The bed is made exactly the same way as it was when you got here. You never made your bed like this before,” Tony said, flicking at the quilt folded along the bottom. Of course Tony would notice these things. “Have you even laid down since you’ve been here?”

“I-” Steve paused, trying to find the right words. Those words didn’t exist. “I can’t.”

“Do you want me to stay with you?” Tony offered.

“What?” Steve asked in surprise.

“You slept well at Shield with me there. Why not try that now?”

“Tony-”

“Did you have any nightmares?”

“Not that I can remember.”

“So what could it hurt to try? I’m not just trying to get you in bed.”

“I don’t know.”

“You can’t keep going on like this. Nothing is going to get better if you’re too exhausted to think straight,” Tony said, walking over to stand beside him. “Believe me, I know a little something about insomnia and nightmares. After the whole space thing, some nights the only thing that kept me sane was Pepper lying next to me. I know it’s not the same as what you’re going through, but I think it would be worth it to try. And if it doesn’t work with me, maybe someone else on the team would be better. I know they’d all be willing to try anything to help you.”

“Okay,” Steve whispered, too worn out to put up anymore of a fight. And the possibility of finally getting some rest was too alluring to pass up.

“Yeah?” Tony smiled, patting him on the shoulder quickly before backing up. “Okay, let me run to my floor real quick to change and you can get ready while I’m gone. Five minutes, tops.” Tony sprinted off before he could answer or change his mind. Steve grabbed a pair of gym pants from his boxes and slipped them on, but kept the sweater. It felt nice enough to sleep in. He finished up with some bathroom business and then sat down on the edge of the bed to wait for Tony.

Was this one of those things Bruce had warned him about? Was Tony slowly becoming his crutch? Steve didn’t want to think it was true, but they had gone from barely tolerating each other in the same building to sleeping in the same room very quickly. But Steve didn’t think he could afford to make another choice right now with how tired he was. And Tony wouldn’t let it go now that he knew he hadn’t slept since the hospital. This only had to be a one time thing. Nothing that bad could happen in one night.

Chapter 33: Chapter 33

Chapter Text

Steve didn’t know what was taking so long and he was starting to get nervous. The longer Tony took getting back, the more he could think about the situation. He should’ve said no to Tony staying in his room for the night. He should’ve lied and said he’d been sleeping fine, just not in the bed, even though Jarvis could’ve ratted him out. But now he was sitting like a little kid, waiting for his parent to tuck him in and scare the boogeymen away. This was too much and Steve needed to be alone.

“Jarvis, could you tell Tony that I changed my mind? That he should sleep on his own floor,” Steve said, waiting for the computer to respond. When he didn’t get one after a few moments, he looked up. “Jarvis?” Steve couldn’t remember a time when Jarvis didn’t answer him before. Maybe this was a new setting, so he wouldn’t be disturbed at night? He’d just have to find Tony himself and tell him to his face.

Steve slowly pulled himself up, feeling strange wandering around in what he was planning to wear as pajamas. He skipped the elevator, climbing the stairs to Tony’s floor. If Tony was just going to the bathroom or taking a shower, he’d be mortified, but he couldn’t turn back now.

The floor was dark and quiet when he opened the door, so Steve closed his eyes to try to listen for any signs where he might be. While he hadn’t cared earlier to slam through all of the rooms to find him, he didn’t have that fog of anger clouding his sense of politeness now. He heard the quiet murmur of talking down one of the halls, so he started in that direction. Steve didn’t plan on eavesdropping on whatever conversation Tony was having, but he wanted to get this over with before he lost his nerve.

“I told him I’d stay in his room tonight, but I didn’t think he’d say yes,” Tony said, causing Steve to freeze from outside the door. Who was he telling this to? Steve hadn’t said outright to keep it a secret, but he didn’t think Tony would be spreading the information like this so casually.

“Of course he said yes. It’s like he can’t do anything without you right there, leading him along like a puppy,” Natasha scoffed. Steve’s breath caught in his throat. It wasn’t too long ago that he was convincing Natasha to give Tony a chance and now she was here, saying these things about him. Is that what they really thought? They all acted like they wanted to help him get better, but were they just saying what they thought he wanted to hear? Had he been right all along that they didn’t really care about him?

“Well, it’s not like I have a choice. Shield isn’t going to want the Avengers without the poster boy with us. It’s all about image,” Tony muttered, clanking down a heavy glass bottle. Steve could almost picture Tony right now, swirling the brown liquid around his fancy crystal, giving off an air of superiority. He felt like he was going to be sick. The one time he’d finally let himself be vulnerable, to ask for help and believe their kind words, and it hadn’t been real. It had only been a means to an end.

The door suddenly swung open and he was face to face with Tony. There was only a moment of shock on his face before it split into a co*cky grin. Tony knew he’d heard everything, so why bother pretending? Steve had been wrong earlier when he thought it was just Tony and Natasha in the room, because the rest of the team was in there too. Even Bruce, who’d seemed so sincere in caring about Steve’s well being, was lounging in a chair, rolling his eyes when Steve’s hurt pair landed on him.

“I guess the jig is up,” Tony laughed, sauntering back into the center of the room. Steve was trapped in the doorway, not able to do anything but stand in shock.

“I don’t understand,” Steve whispered, shaking his head in denial.

“Shocker, Steve Rogers doesn’t understand something. Let’s just add it to the list,” Tony chuckled, raising his glass in a patronizing toast.

“But, you said-”

“Oh, don’t be so naive,” Natasha spat, rolling her eyes. “You think we didn’t know about what was going on with you this whole time? We didn’t care as long as you got the job done, but now that you let Fury know how weak you are, we all have to put you back together to keep our jobs. Do you think Clint and I want to go back to doing deep undercover work all the time?”

“Not particularly,” Clint snickered, stretching in his seat. “But leave it to the super soldier to ruin our cushy gig.”

“I can still do my job,” Steve insisted weakly, feeling his hands start to shake.

“Right, like we’re supposed to put our faith in you, while you’re like this,” Tony sneered, waving a hand at him. “Weren’t you at the top of your game when you got your best friend killed?” Steve couldn’t hold back the sob that burst out in shock.

“You let your friend die for you?” Thor asked, shaking his head in disgust. “What a disgraceful leader.”

“No,” Steve gasped, letting himself sink down to the floor when his legs refused to hold him up any longer.

“Like you wouldn’t let the same happen to us. Bucky was the only person who cared about you and you just let him fall.”

“He should’ve been the one to live a long, happy life. You don’t deserve this second chance.”

“You aren’t even taking advantage of your opportunity. Too busy crying on the floor.”

And all Steve could do was cower with his arms over his head and weep because this was everything he’d expected to hear and now he was and he’d never wanted to be wrong more in his entire life. But then the voices changed and he risked peeking up to see why. Now, instead of the team, it was him yelling down at himself, telling him every bad thought that had passed through his mind since he moved out. Since he woke up. Since he let Bucky fall.

“You should’ve stayed in the ice.”

“You didn’t deserve the serum!”

“Did you really think the team cared about you? They could’ve stopped Tony anytime they wanted. Just look at the show Bruce and Natasha put on earlier. There were so many opportunities for them to do that before, but maybe they liked seeing you in pain. Maybe they liked seeing you knocked off your high horse.”

“Please, stop,” Steve whimpered, feeling himself break apart. He pulled himself into a ball like he had after the prank, when he believed he’d lost everything again. But the worst part was he hadn’t, because he never had anything to lose to begin with.

“Steve!” Tony yelled, jolting him from his position. He wasn’t on Tony’s floor, he was on his own bed. Steve rolled away from the frazzled looking man, kicking at the blankets that were trapping and suffocating him. Tony was hovering at the edge of the bed, standing in front of a chair that looked like it came from his living room.

“What?” Steve gasped, trying to still his trembling body.

“You were having a nightmare,” Tony said, biting his lip. He looked like he wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure if he should. Steve laughed bitterly, tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling. Of course he had a nightmare, because since when could anything be easy. All the talking and the pain from earlier meant nothing because his mind wouldn’t even let him rest.

“Guess your theory wasn’t right,” Steve spat, lurching off the bed and out of the room. Maybe he should turn that room into something else, because he was not planning on sleeping again.

“Wait!” Tony called after him, jogging to catch up. “Do you want to talk about it? About the nightmare, I mean?”

“Why? You wanna know what’s going through my mind so you can use it against me?” Steve snapped, whirling around to face him. They were standing in front of the windows of his living room, overlooking the city. The distant glow usually soothed him during the long nights of staying awake, but now it was just a harsh glare exposing his weak spots.

“Of course not! I wouldn’t do that,” Tony denied.

“Are you sure? Because I’m pretty sure my trauma was your inspiration before,” Steve shot back, needing someone else to hurt as much as he did right now. He needed to spread his pain out before it completely overtook him and rotted him from the inside out.

“Say whatever you want to say to me. I deserve it,” Tony insisted. Steve groaned, wanting to shake Tony for trying to turn this into a feelings session. He wanted Tony to fight back, not roll over and take it. He wanted to bust through Tony’s defenses and make him suffer, not make him a martyr.

“Don’t do that. Don’t treat me like I’m weak!” Steve shouted, raking his hands through his hair. “You wouldn’t sit back and take it from anyone else.”

“But you’re not anyone else. We’re not anyone else,” Tony said firmly.

“Why not? Why can’t we be?” Steve asked.

“We never let ourselves,” Tony sighed, sagging against the arm of the couch. “Natasha and I can be the biggest dicks in the world to each other and it doesn’t matter, because our history is different. With you, too much has happened.”

“Why should I even stay here if this whole relationship is going to be fake? What’s the point of trying?”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Just be honest!”

“I’m scared, okay!” Tony yelled, startling Steve into silence. “I’m scared I’m going to say the wrong thing and hurt you even worse! I’m scared I’m not doing enough to help you and I’m scared I’m doing too much and smothering you. I never know what to do and I never know what to say. And I don’t know how to deal with that because words are my power, but they’re also my weapon and I feel like every time I open my mouth I’m going to blow another part of your life up. Sometimes I just want to shake you and force you to tell me what it is you need, but I know that’s not fair. It’s not up to you to make it easy for me, but I wish on everything that I knew how to make things easier for you.”

Steve didn’t know what to say to all that, so he didn’t say anything. He walked over to his usual spot on the floor, resting his forehead on the glass. Steve had been fooling himself earlier when he thought the hardest part was over, when he finally asked for help. He didn’t realize it would only get harder from there. Tony moved up to sit next to him, keeping his distance.

“I thought I had a good day today, you know? But then I had that dream and it makes me think that it’s my mind’s way of telling me I’d been right all along, that trying to form connections and live in this time isn’t what I’m supposed to do. And I know how wrong that sounds when I say it out loud, but what if it’s true? I have to be doing something wrong for this to keep happening,” Steve said quietly, watching his breath fog up the window.

“Maybe you should talk to someone?” Tony suggested hesitantly.

“I thought that was what I was doing right now,” Steve ground out, just waiting for Tony to say the words he was skirting around. He thought he was crazy. Tony thought he needed to be strapped down in the crazy house until he could be fixed enough to live amongst the normal people again.

“Someone better than me,” Tony clarified, mirroring Steve’s positioning against the window.

“You think I’m crazy,” Steve huffed, shaking his head. “I haven’t said anything that isn’t true.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re the strongest person I’ve ever met to go through what you’ve gone through and still do what you’ve done. But even the strongest people need help sometimes and I don’t think I’m the one who can right now,” Tony insisted.

“Why not you?” Steve whispered, closing his eyes to keep them from watering.

“Because I’m the one who hurt you.”

They didn’t say anything after that, just sat next to each other and watched the sky go from dark to light. Steve tried to consider what Tony suggested, but he couldn’t fathom going to a stranger and spilling his guts to them. There was no one on earth who could understand what he was going through. If he went to Shield for help, they’d never trust him again. They’d know he was out fighting at less than 100% and never have faith that he was healthy enough to depend on. Shield already knew too much, after his last weeklong stay in the infirmary, but it was easier to prove physical strength than mental.

But would it be fair to anyone if Steve tried to go back to being Captain America while he was like this? Hadn’t the last two missions proven that he wasn’t what he needed to be? Was him being stubborn about getting help the thing that would destroy everything once and for all? Was he subconsciously trying to fail so he could prove himself right?

There were too many questions and he couldn’t answer them himself. And who could he ask? He didn’t think the team would be honest if he asked them. If how they acted today was truly how they felt, they wouldn’t say anything negative to him if they thought it would hurt him. Steve was too tired to make a decision he couldn’t come back from.

“I can’t,” Steve murmured as the glare of the sun shined on his face. He didn’t need to clarify. It was just an all encompassing inability to do anything. Anything of substance. Anything that mattered.

“That’s okay. You have time.” Tony whispered, tilting his head to look over at him.

“Do I?” Steve asked, gripping his legs close to his chest. How many times would he go through this in his life? What if when he finally accepted his place here in this time, with these people, it was all ripped away from him again? Was this a never ending cycle that he’d have to keep living through? Would it get easier the more it happened? He didn’t think he wanted it to get easier, because that would mean he had truly given up.

“You do. I swear on everything I have that I won’t let you be lost again. I’ll stick a tracker on you before I ever let that happen,” Tony insisted, pounding his fist on the ground in emphasis. “Howard may have been smart, but I’m smarter. I have more tenacity in my little finger than he could even fathom. So when I say I will fight until my dying breath for all of you, I mean it. I’ll find a way to put us all in cryostasis if it means you won’t ever be alone again, I promise.”

“Are you sure?” Steve asked, needing to hear more of those fancy words from Tony. Those words that could convince anyone.

“Name something that Captain America and Iron Man haven’t been able to accomplish when they work together,” Tony challenged.

“Being friends,” Steve answered, closing his eyes in resignation. They’d fought aliens and monsters and everything else, but when it came down to the bare bones of it all, they couldn’t even coexist.

“Jesus, if you’re trying to make me cry, it’s working,” Tony muttered. Steve snorted, because the idea of Tony crying over something like this was laughable. “Can I tell you a story?”

“I guess,” Steve sighed, not really expecting anything life changing at this point. Maybe this would help Tony’s last bit of determination fizzle out and he’d leave him alone.

“After my parents died, I kind of shut down,” Tony started. Steve’s eyes snapped open to look at him, because that wasn’t what he was expecting to hear. “To the people who didn’t know me, I looked like I was dealing because I threw myself into work and everything, but obviously it was to avoid how I was feeling. In my personal life, I was shutting down. I could barely eat or sleep or do anything, because I had to save all my energy for putting on the Tony Stark show. Does that sound familiar?”

“A bit,” Steve admitted.

“I finally let something slip to my pal Rhodey, and he gave me some advice. Not everything needs to be fixed at once. If you focus on needing everything to be perfect, it gets overwhelming and it’s so easy to give up. So he told me to start small. To set one goal for myself for that day. And not something like mourn properly or become a healthy person. You wanna know what my first goal was?”

“What?”

“Taking a walk in the park. When I wasn’t taking a car to and from buildings, I was surrounded by walls. I hadn’t taken a breath of fresh air in weeks and didn’t even realize it. So that’s what I did. I took a walk that lasted probably five minutes, but that was more than I’d given myself in so long. So then I kept setting little goals like that for myself. Watching a TV show, going to a restaurant, working on a project I actually enjoyed. And after a while, I didn’t even have to think before I started doing those things. It didn’t make everything better, but I stopped making things harder. What’s something you’ve done that’s just been for you? Not something you thought you had to or for the team?”

“I took a hot shower yesterday,” Steve remembered with a little smile.

“sh*t, okay,” Tony said, rubbing at his eyes when his voice cracked a little. He probably realized what that meant about Steve without him having to say it all. “That’s good, that’s a good goal. And if you wanted, that could be your only goal for the day. But you could also make another one after that. There are no rules to this, just take it one at a time. And if you wanted, I’m sure any one of us would help you with it.”

“I wouldn’t mind another one of those showers,” Steve confessed, imagining the feel of the warmth seeping into his body. Like he’d never be cold again.

“I’ll get out of your hair so you can go do that,” Tony said, carefully unfolding himself from the position he’d been in all night on the floor. Tony really had sat with him all night in an uncomfortable position without a single complaint. That had to mean something, right? People didn’t do that for just anyone.

“Thank you,” Steve whispered, staying on the floor for a bit longer. He still wanted to do a little more thinking before he began his day.

“I’ll be on my floor, or around somewhere, I’m not sure. Just ask Jarvis if you need something,” Tony said, slowly walking backward toward the elevator. Steve nodded in acknowledgement, relieved for the moment at the idea of being alone.

Tony’s idea sounded so simple when he explained it, but Steve was worried it was too easy. Would letting himself take a shower and then doing something else just for him really make a difference? He’d indulged so much yesterday, but had been immediately beaten back down by his nightmare. But maybe that was the point. If he went into everyday thinking if he just made the right moves that everything else would fall into place, he was setting himself up for failure every time. If he took it one action at a time and let that be the success, everything else might start feeling a bit more bearable. And it wasn’t like anything he’d tried had been working so far.

He’d been desperate before for someone to come in and tell him exactly what to do to get better. Bruce’s warning about relying on Tony too much still rang in his ears, but Tony had given him the idea and left, instead of hovering and holding his hand through it. Even though the plan had come from someone else, it was still up to him to execute it. But could he? He didn’t know if he remembered how to live.

Steve stood up with determination, striding as confidently as he could toward the bathroom. He was going to give this a shot. He was going to take that shower, for as long as he wanted, and not worry about what came next. That was the point, right? To accomplish one goal at a time and then give yourself some grace? Steve hadn’t done that in a long time, but he could try. The only person stopping him was himself.

Chapter 34: Chapter 34

Chapter Text

Steve took the longest shower of his life, filling the entire bathroom with so much steam that he could barely see through it. He let the massaging showerhead beat the water down on his neck and shoulders, forcing the muscles to relax more than they had in weeks. If this was all he did for the day, that was okay. Steve let himself lose track of time, just soaking the feeling into his skin, trying to thaw the last bits of ice that never seemed to go away. If he concentrated, he could almost forget that feeling, but there was always a shiver waiting to break through.

Steve thought about the previous night with Tony, sitting silently next to each other. It was nice, just having someone there without pressuring you. Of course, Tony had said a few things at first that rankled his nerves, but he backed off when Steve made it clear he wasn’t ready to pursue that line of thinking. And it wasn’t that anything he said had been malicious. Steve truly believed after running through the conversation in his head multiple times during all those hours that Tony was honestly trying to help. He knew all of them were in their own ways, but it got overwhelming very quickly. Everyone had their own ideas on how to help him and he felt like he was being pulled in so many different directions. Maybe that was why Tony felt safest to turn to right now. Even though Tony’d been the one to hurt him, it was easier to talk to him, because he could spit venom and not worry about hurting someone who didn’t deserve it. But he could also let himself be a bit more vulnerable, since Tony had seen him at his lowest and didn’t turn him away.

These were the times he ached most for Bucky. Steve never had to censor himself around him. He could work through every thought in his mind without worrying about being judged. Bucky would laugh at him, sure, but it was never ill-intentioned. And he always knew what to do or say to help. Even if it was just a look and a pat on the shoulder, things just made sense when Bucky was around.

Steve thought those years they had been separated by war would be the toughest he’d have to deal with, but they paled in comparison to what he was living through now. There were no second chances for Bucky. He would’ve been able to deal with all of this way better than Steve was. Bucky knew how to talk to people and he was so achingly genuine. Steve never quite shrugged off that awkwardness he’d lived with when he was smaller.

But he knew how to put on a show. He put on a show for his mom when she was worrying herself into an early grave. He put on a show after he finally lost her, as if she didn’t take the biggest piece of him into the ground with her. He honed his craft in front of the crowds, hitting every cue to inspire people to do what they could for their loved ones who were dying in droves on the battlefield. Steve pretended like he wasn’t trying to convince people to give the last little bit of what they had to a war he wasn’t even fighting.

But then he was fighting and he felt like he didn’t have to pretend anymore. He was doing what he was made for and with people who respected him. With Bucky, who treated him the same as he always had. With a team who accepted him before they knew he was made in a lab and seemed to like him more during the down time when he wasn’t doing a single thing for them.

And then Bucky died, and he broke. Then the ice came, and he froze. And as the years were ripped away from him, so was his ability to fake his way through life. Steve may have gotten away with it at first, because no one was really paying much attention and he tucked himself away. He did what he needed to do in the field and that was good enough. But now that people were actually paying attention to him, they saw through his paper thin facade like it was never even there.

So now he didn’t have a choice but to be the real Steve, but who even was that anymore? How was he supposed to let people get to know him when he didn’t even know himself? And if he really tried, really let himself relax and enjoy his life and this time he was in, would it be a betrayal to everyone he left behind? Knowing how Howard, who hadn’t really been that close of a friend if he was being honest, had dedicated years of his life, to the point of emotionally neglecting his only child, to looking for him, it felt wrong to go on and live however he wanted. How did people move on?

Steve flipped off the water, trying to turn off that train of thought. This day wasn’t about figuring everything out. All he needed to do was live in this day, not plan out his entire future. Steve stepped onto the cool tiles, feeling a little shiver force its way out. No, he didn’t want to feel any cold today.

“Jarvis, can you heat the floor please?” Steve asked, moving back to stand on a bath mat. “And maybe turn up the heat on my floor?”

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis answered. “Would you like me to monitor your vitals to keep the temperature at an optimal level for your biology?”

“Um, I guess that’s fine,” Steve responded hesitantly. “You’ll stop though, if I ask you to?”

“You are in complete control,” Jarvis intoned. “If I may make a suggestion, I think you might find something helpful through the door to your right.” Steve looked over, staring at yet another door he’d never opened before. Even when he lived in the tower right after the battle, he didn’t fully settle into this space. He used the bare minimum of what he needed. Maybe exploring his whole floor would be a good goal for the day?

Steve opened the door, only distantly worried that some kind of trick would jump out at him. The only thing he got hit with was a burst of heat. It was a tall cabinet, filled with towels and robes that were all somehow warm. He ran his fingers along the plush robe that was hanging on one side, immediately relishing in the pleasing temperature. Steve pulled it from the hanger, wrapping the soft cotton around his body. He grabbed a towel and tossed it over his head, casually rubbing at his wet hair. This felt good, not at all like after he’d taken a cold shower and forced himself to towel off slowly to let the cold sink into his bones like it was always eager to do.

He was so comfortable in this moment that all he wanted to do was sleep. Suddenly, that was all he could think of. It was actually painful, how tired he was. It was as if there was a cramp in his stomach that he couldn’t quite get rid of. But he couldn’t risk trying again. That last nightmare had been too much and another one like it so soon might ruin this tiny bit of progress he’d just made. But there wasn’t much more that he wanted right now than to just curl up on the floor and sleep. If being back in his time ranked first, sleeping was a close second.

Steve needed to do something to keep his mind off of it, because he could feel himself starting to tear up at the idea. His hands were shaking as he tossed his towel aside and he shoved them into the pockets of his robe to try to still them. He’d been more tired when he was alone in his apartment, so why was it hitting him so hard right now? Maybe because back then he hadn’t let himself feel anything and now he was being bombarded by emotions left and right. This normalcy thing was backfiring, because now that he let himself have some of it, he wanted all of it. He was tired of seeing every hour of every day.

“Captain Rogers, your heartbeat is rising to worrying levels. Would you like me to call someone?” Jarvis asked, speaking over the choking gasp sounds Steve hadn’t realized he’d been making. Who would he call for this? Did he beg Tony back, after he’d spent the whole night with him already? Would Bruce think that was a bad idea? Should he even care what Bruce might think right now? He needed something.

“I don’t know,” Steve whimpered, shaking his head a little. What was the right move here? He didn’t know. Had he ever known?

“I am only allowed to override your privacy settings in the event of a medical emergency. You have not fallen into those parameters yet,” Jarvis informed him. At least his physical state wasn’t that dire, but Jarvis couldn’t see inside his mind. Steve was stuck there, standing like an idiot in the middle of the bathroom. He achieved his one goal, but it wasn’t enough. And it was also too much. And nothing made sense. And he couldn’t do anything.

“Tony,” Steve whispered, closing his eyes in resignation. Steve wasn’t sure how long it was before he heard the sounds of Tony’s rushing footsteps. What even was time when you never got a break and didn’t know when it would run out because your body gave up or you were thrust into another world?

“What’s going on? What happened?” Tony breathed out, fluttering around Steve in panic.

“I’m stuck,” Steve gasped, trying to clench his trembling jaw.

“Um, okay,” Tony stammered, looking around the room for some sort of answer. Steve doubted it would be found behind another unopened door. “You accomplished your goal, right? You took your shower?”

“Yeah,” Steve sniffed, “but what now?”

“Oh God, of course,” Tony groaned, running a hand down his face. “When I did this, the whole rest of my day had been filled with things to do to distract me from what I was feeling. Now that you finished yours, you’re like, adrift, for lack of a better word.” Steve wanted to jump up and down and scream yes. Finally someone knew what he was feeling without having to say it out loud. He was lost again, but in his own mind, not out there alone in the ice.

“So what do I do?” Steve asked, pride be damned. His desperate ache for help was more important than any hits his ego might be taking right now. He only felt partially guilty putting this weight on Tony’s shoulders, but he’d offered, right? And Steve had spent his whole life helping other people, so why not let himself accept some too?

“Okay, well there has been some stuff I was planning to do, but I’ve been putting it off because I didn’t have anyone to help me. Would you want to? You’d be doing me a huge favor if you did,” Tony suggested. Steve knew what Tony was doing and had an overwhelming urge to fall forward and hug him until he could breathe again.

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve mumbled, nodding his head and feeling droplets of water fly all over.

“Well, first order of business is getting you dry and clothed, I think. Unless you want to stay in the robe, which is a valid option” Tony proposed.

“Maybe another sweater?” Steve said, staring down at Tony.

“Good choice,” Tony beamed, walking back to the cabinet to grab a fresh towel. “Do you mind?”

“No,” Steve mumbled. Tony grinned, reaching up to scrunch the towel through his hair.

“Forgive me if I sound creepy, but I’ve been dying to get my hands in this hair since I met you. Do you color it? Probably not,” Tony babbled, squeezing the last bits of moisture from his hair. “Maybe I’ll go blonde. Would that look good on me? Probably not. I’ll stick with my dark hair thing I got going on with Bruce.” Tony tossed the damp towel into the hamper when he was finished. He hooked elbows with him like he’d jokingly attempted the day before, but this time Steve let him.

Tony left him to put on his undergarments while he dashed down the hall to the closet of clothes. Steve mechanically dressed, not wanting to think about the last thing that happened in this room.

“So I brought options,” Tony announced, breezing back into the room with multiple items of clothing draped over his arm. “We’ve got sweaters and a few different pant options. I wasn’t sure if you wanted to stick with the corduroy or venture into more of a lounge type. And if you don’t like these colors, we can swap.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, grabbing a bright blue sweater and pulling it over his head. It wasn’t quite the same material as the one before, but it was incredibly soft. He found a pair of pants in the same material and quickly pulled those on as well.

“I thought you’d like the cashmere,” Tony grinned, straightening out his sleeve. “You good to come up to my floor with me? Are you ready to get started on helping me with my to do list?” Steve nodded, following along after Tony as the man started talking about being on the phone before he came down here, but Steve wasn’t sure what the call had been about. He just listened to the sound of Tony’s voice and let it fill his head instead of his crippling thoughts.

Steve trailed Tony into his kitchen when they got to the floor, letting himself be perched on one of the stools surrounding the island. The robots must’ve done a good job, because there wasn’t a hint of the mess that had been here the night before. Those last moments with the team had been so nice, just standing around without anyone at each other’s throats. The way he’d always wanted it to be. The way he’d always been scared for it to be.

“First order of business,” Tony declared, sliding a full glass of orange juice in his direction, “you’re gonna help me on my quest to win back Pepper.” Steve made a confused, garbley sound in the back of his throat, trying to figure out if he’d heard the man right.

“What?”

“Well, one of her many complaints, all that are completely justified by the way, is that I don’t know how to take care of myself. She thinks I rely on others too much,” Tony sighed, scraping his finger along the edge of the counter. “She’s not really wrong about that. So I’m going to prove to her that I can, by learning how to cook. Pepper thinks my takeout habit is out of control, so I want to be able to make her some nice meals, if she ever decides to come back.”

“You want me to teach you how to cook?” Steve asked, thinking back to his morning cooking for Bruce and how spectacularly bad that had gone. Not because of his food, but everything else.

“No, I don’t want you to be the teacher, I want you to be the taster,” Tony grinned, grabbing pans out of the cabinets. “Who better than to test my skills on someone who probably can’t get food poisoning? And I know you’ll be honest with me, because you’ll want the best for Pepper. Clint and Natasha will just make jokes and I’m pretty sure Thor would eat roadkill with a smile, but you’ll give it to me straight.”

“What about Bruce?” Steve questioned, taking a drink of his juice. It tasted fresh.

“Bruce is a little gun shy after a situation with Clint and some undercooked chicken. I don’t know all the details, but let’s just say Bruce turned green without turning into the Hulk,” Tony cringed, grabbing ingredients out of the fridge. “He hasn’t eaten anything that wasn’t made by professionals since.” Steve felt a little flutter in his stomach, realizing that Bruce had eaten and enjoyed his food without any hesitation. He wasn’t sure what to think about that, but it felt good.

Steve kept sipping at his juice, watching Tony bounce around the kitchen like he had no idea what he was doing. At least he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Steve watched as Tony had to fish a chunk of egg shell out of a bowl, then started growling when the toast started to burn. Although he didn’t want Tony to fail at his goal, it was nice to see that he wasn’t automatically perfect at everything.

“Maybe try things one at a time?” Steve suggested, leaning over to turn off a burner that was smoking. “Someone once gave me some advice like that. To not overwhelm yourself too quickly with too many goals.”

“That person sounds very wise,” Tony mumbled, dumping the ruined food into the trash. “I guess even if things don’t work out the first time, you can always try again.” Somehow Steve and Tony had gotten good at this vague talk thing, skirting around the issues but still hitting home at the point. Even if the baby steps thing hadn’t worked well for Steve today, it didn’t mean it wouldn’t tomorrow.

Tony rummaged around in the fridge again, slapping down a package of bacon in triumph. He slid the slices onto a clean griddle, glaring at the food intently as if it would burn as soon as he looked away. Steve couldn’t really picture Pepper eating bacon, but he wasn’t going to say anything to Tony. He’d barely gotten to know the woman when he lived here before, since he spent most of his time on his floor and she was always darting around running the world. Steve hoped they’d be able to work out whatever was going on between them, since they seemed to care about each other. Steve knew what it was like to wait too long to make a move.

“Success!” Tony cheered, flipping the bacon onto a plate as soon as it was done. Tony dabbed at the slices carefully with a napkin, absorbing some of the excess grease. Steve smiled a little watching him, realizing after a few moments that he hadn’t thought of his own issues for a couple minutes now. He hadn’t thought about anything negative, just lived in the moment he was in.

“Thanks,” Steve whispered after Tony nudged the plate closer to him. It wasn’t just a thank you for the food. It was a thank you for distracting him. For helping him forget, even if it was just briefly. For helping him live. They munched on the food in silence for a few minutes, Steve humming in appreciation at the taste.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Tony exclaimed, jumping up and pushing aside some packages in the cupboard. He came back with a platter of the rolls from the Thanksgiving dinner. “These were all the ones I could save for us, but I can always order more if this isn’t enough. Although, I’m kind of in the mood for a pizza night.” Steve caught the roll Tony tossed over, spinning it in his hand. Now that his mind was getting clearer, his embarrassment was coming back.

“Hey Tony, I’m sorry for making you come back to my floor. I’m not really sure what happened, but I think I’m okay now,” Steve said, breaking the bun into little pieces.

“While I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better, I don’t accept your apology,” Tony scoffed, placing a hand near Steve’s in an offer. “You don’t know how much it means to me that you would ask me for help, even after everything.” Steve moved his hand over a little, so just the edges of their fingers were touching.

“It shouldn’t be your responsibility though,” Steve sighed, staring down at their hands.

“After the battle, I wasn’t doing too hot myself. Luckily Pepper was still here and she helped get me through it. You don’t ever have to feel sorry about needing other people sometimes.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you. I didn’t even know you were struggling.”

“I don’t think either of us were in the right place to help each other back then, but I think we can try now.” Steve smiled, letting his fingers slide over Tony’s a little bit further.

“I think I’d like that.”

Chapter 35: Chapter 35

Chapter Text

After Tony stuffed him full of rolls, and then gave him a few more on top of that, they moved into the living room. Steve slumped down on the couch, feeling more full than he could remember in a long time. His chicken breasts and whole wheat bread were good and all, but they paled in comparison to these rolls and bacon. He could get used to a little variety. Tony flopped down on his own couch, moaning as he rubbed his stomach.

“Never let me eat that much again,” Tony groaned, rolling over on his side to face Steve. He let out a burp, scrunching his nose at the smell. “Got any ideas for lunch?”

“You’re thinking about lunch already?” Steve asked, grimacing at the thought of more food.

“We’ll play it by ear,” Tony decided, closing his eyes. Steve bit his lip, hoping Tony wasn’t about to fall asleep. He didn’t know what he’d do then. But then he remembered keeping him up all night and he felt guilty, knowing the other man must be tired. Steve could deal on his own if Tony needed rest. He was just about to get up when the cell phone in Tony’s pocket started ringing. Tony grumbled as he pulled it out, putting it to his ear without even looking at who it was.

“Yeah?” Tony answered, listening with no reaction for a few moments while whoever was on the other line was talking. “Already? That’s great. I’ll be there in five.” Tony hung up the phone, shooting him a sly look.

“Is everything okay?” Steve asked, nervous about what Tony was up to.

“How would you feel about being my bodyguard for a few minutes?” Tony proposed.

“What? What’s going on?” Steve questioned, bouncing up from his seat to be ready for action.

“Simmer down, it’s nothing serious,” Tony laughed, rolling off the couch and stretching. “I just need to oversee a delivery and installation. Maybe sign a few papers. You’ll be there to make sure they don’t take advantage of me.”

“Right,” Steve scoffed, as if Tony needed any help when it came to stuff like that.

“Okay, maybe I just want you to see what I bought,” Tony shrugged, waving him over to the elevator. Steve followed, because even though he was suspicious, he was glad to not be left alone. They only went down a few flights, just below one of the gyms. Steve didn’t think he’d been here before. There was a harried looking man waiting for them just outside the elevator, shouting commands at a team of men unloading a giant box.

“I see all is going well, Ralph,” Tony said, nodding in approval.

“Only you could make something like this happen on such short notice, the day after a holiday,” Ralph replied, shaking Tony’s hand.

“Everyone knows I tip well,” Tony smirked, going closer to the men working. Steve remained by the elevator, happy to stay out of the way. He watched Tony do his thing, moving around the room and directing everything like he was born to do it. He pretty much was, after what he’d seen of Howard back in the day. They both always seemed most comfortable in front of an audience, but after these last few days, Steve could see there was more to Tony than the showman persona. Steve wasn’t the only one who put on an act for people.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Tony asked, calling over to him from across the room. Steve slowly approached, eyeing the focus of Tony’s desires. It was a big, plastic bowl type thing.

“What is it?” Steve asked, running his finger along the edge.

“It’s a hot tub!” Tony grinned, leaning down to rest his face on top of the side.

“Is it like a really small pool?” Steve questioned, watching as a worker was screwing something into the base.

“It’s like a permanently filled bath, but better,” Tony explained.

“Why is it so big? Are we supposed to all bathe together?” Steve asked. This didn’t seem like the best way to ease him back into the team. That was a pretty big leap.

“With swimsuits,” Tony chuckled, stepping up next to him to point out different features. “These jets here will give you the massage of your dreams. And you can turn the temperature up to as hot as you can stand. This baby is top of the line and can fit all of us at the same time, just so long as Bruce doesn’t stray too far along the color wheel.” Steve grabbed his arm, pulling Tony into a quiet corner where no one would be able to hear their conversation.

“Did you get this for me?” Steve whispered, furrowing his brow.

“No,” Tony denied, but then sighed when he saw Steve’s face. “Okay, not just for you.”

“Tony,” Steve moaned, running a hand through his hair. “This is too much.” How could he explain that the stupid little welcome note meant more to him than a giant communal bathtub ever could? That giving him autonomy over his floor meant more than all the furniture that filled it.

“Really, it’s not just for you, it’s for all of us. If it was just for you, I would’ve put it on your floor,” Tony admitted, scratching the back of his neck. “Natasha was telling the truth before, when she said we never did anything together. I figured this was a good way for all of us to spend some time together, without having to worry about doing something, you know?”

“I never thought me leaving would matter that much,” Steve mumbled, staring at his feet.

“Of course you matter. We all matter. We just haven’t been very good at showing that to each other,” Tony insisted. “But I’m going to do anything I can to make you want to stay.”

“I am staying. I don’t really have anywhere else to go,” Steve sighed.

“But I want you to want to stay. I don’t want you to be here because there aren’t any other options. I want you to sit on the couch on your floor or at the dining table on the common floor and actually be happy.”

“I want that too, but I’m scared to let myself have it.”

“I know. And God knows you have every right to, but I know one day that you’ll have that moment, and I plan on being there to see it.”

“I hope you’re right,” Steve whispered, hoping against hope that he would be able to just live for one minute without hurt.

“I’m always right,” Tony chuckled, breaking the emotional moment in a way only he could. “Just wait until you get in this thing. If you like hot showers, you’re gonna love this.”

“I don’t think I have a swimsuit,” Steve admitted.

“Oh, I’ve got it handled. I have everything from board shorts to speedos,” Tony laughed, wagging his eyebrows suggestively. Steve would be going for whatever was the most covered, that was for sure. “This isn’t going to be ready for a few more hours at the least, so why don’t we find something else to do for a while?”

“Thanks for the offer, but you really don’t have to babysit me anymore,” Steve said.

“I thought we were hanging out?” Tony said casually, bumping him on the elbow. “I won’t stop you if you want to leave and do something else, but I’ve been enjoying spending time with you. This is actually the most fun I’ve had in a while.”

“Me too,” Steve confessed, and he realized he meant it. He thought when he came back that seeing Tony would remind him of everything that had happened before, but slowly those thoughts were being replaced by other things. Like Tony holding his leg while he cried in his hospital bed. Or Tony smiling at him when he showed him the closet of clothes. Or Tony just sitting next to him saying nothing, just being there. Those moments of constant underlying agony were slowly being replaced by moments of calm, without him even realizing it.

“Great. So, have you thought anymore about lunch?” Tony asked, grinning as they walked back to the elevator. Steve groaned, feeling his stomach clench in protest. Tony didn’t seem to have any ideas when it came to things to do, and Steve was used to literally staring at walls for hours, so they ended up going into Tony’s lab. Tony explained the different things he was working on, and Steve was happy enough to just sit and listen. It felt nice to not be expected to do anything and perform for others, instead just letting everyone else do their own thing around him.

“Pardon the interruption Sirs, but Ms. Romanoff is requesting Captain Rogers’ presence on the common floor,” Jarvis announced. Steve glanced over at Tony to see his reaction, but he didn’t seem to have one. He wasn’t really used to getting summoned to different floors, but he was kind of curious what she might want.

“You can go on ahead,” Tony said, fiddling with a small gadget. “I guess I can learn to share you.”

“Do you want to come too?” Steve offered, feeling kind of rude just abandoning Tony after he stuck by him all this time.

“I mean, I can if you really want me to, but I don’t want to step on any toes either,” Tony shrugged, setting down his tool. “I can always be on standby.”

“Okay, thanks,” Steve agreed, tapping on the table before leaving the room to head to the elevators. He didn’t really need an escort and it was probably a good idea to see where Natasha’s head was at before he subjected Tony to her. Steve hoped his moment with her at the dinner table changed her mind on how to act, because she was really the last barrier between the team coming back together as a somewhat cohesive unit. Bruce already seemed mostly okay, and Clint never fully lost his cool, but Natasha’s influence could change that if she wanted it to.

Natasha was waiting for him when the elevator doors opened, Thor standing behind her holding a ton of shopping bags. She looked ready for a battle at the drop of a hat and Thor looked exhausted. Steve couldn’t remember Thor looking anymore than slightly fatigued, and that was after battle.

“Perfect timing,” Natasha grinned, coaxing him out of the elevator with a finger curl. Steve reluctantly followed, eyeing Thor as he trudged along with them. There were even more boxes stacked near the couches and Steve stared at them in shock.

“What all did you buy?” Steve asked, poking at what looked like a pile of stuffed animals.

“Little of this, little of that,” Natasha brushed off, smiling as she picked up a package of cars. “I almost broke a woman’s arm to get this one.”

“What!” Steve shouted, rearing back. He thought Bruce said this trip wasn’t going to be dangerous.

“She had it coming. I saw her snatching stuff from little kids,” Natasha scoffed, tossing the toy back into the pile.

“But why did you buy all these toys? What are you planning on doing with them?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. How would you like to help me with a toy drive to help less fortunate kids?” Natasha suggested.

“I’m going to be Santa Claus!” Thor boasted, dropping his burden of bags onto the floor.

“You want my help?” Steve asked, feeling a strange mix of levity at the thought of helping others in a way that wasn’t violent and crushing sadness at the realization that Christmas was coming up soon. His first Christmas now. His first Christmas alone.

“Of course I want your help. The whole team is going to be involved if I get my way, and you know I always do,” Natasha smirked, giving him a wink.

“Even Tony?” Steve questioned.

“Even Tony,” Natasha agreed, only the barest hint of annoyance leaking into her words. Well, that was progress.

“Okay, just tell me what you need me to do,” Steve said, picking up a creepy looking baby doll.

“Nothing yet. I can barely stand to look at these things at this point,” Natasha grunted, glaring at the toy in his hand.

“Natasha has promised to feed me, but she hasn’t,” Thor grumbled, looming over the two of them.

“And I will, now that we’re done,” Natasha sighed, patting Thor on the arm. “What do you want?”

“I could demolish an entire boar!” Thor boomed, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

“Anything a bit more realistic?” Natasha asked, looking at both of them for suggestions.

“What about pizza?” Steve offered, thinking back to Tony’s idea from earlier. He hadn’t had pizza since he left the tower.

“Meats and cheeses on top of a flatbread? That sounds perfect!” Thor laughed, wrapping an arm around Steve’s shoulders and pulling him close. Steve let out a small grunt, but didn’t pull away.

“That’s a bit more doable. What kind do you want?” Natasha agreed.

“Whatever is fine,” Steve said casually. How did he say that he was just used to eating whatever was ordered and never developed a preference? That sounded depressing, even to him.

“One of every kind they have it is,” Natasha declared, walking off to give the orders to Jarvis.

“This material is quite soft,” Thor remarked, running his hand along Steve’s arm.

“Cashmere,” Steve commented idly, trying to surreptitiously slide from Thor’s grasp. A quick moment of contact was one thing, but this was a lot. “I can see if I have one that fits you on my floor?”

“That would be delightful!” Thor rumbled, crinkling his eyes in happiness. “I have a few things to take to my floor, but I can meet you on yours in a bit?”

“Okay,” Steve agreed, walking to the elevator with Thor. Only Tony had been on his floor so far since he’d been back, but it wasn’t like Steve had anything to hide. And Thor wasn’t the type to snoop, at least not with the intent to be nosy. It was normal to invite people into your space, right? It was sure to go better than the time the whole team came to his apartment. Compared to that, this would be nothing. But he still couldn’t see having team nights on his floor.

“I’ll be back at once,” Thor declared as the elevator let Steve off on his floor, leaving Thor to continue on his journey. This was the first time Steve had been alone on his floor since his incident this morning, but he found it wasn’t affecting him like he’d feared. Maybe it was the knowledge that Thor would be coming right back, or perhaps the day of pressureless activities had helped settle him a bit. No matter what it was, Steve found that he liked the feeling. And he wanted to keep it going.

Chapter 36: Chapter 36

Chapter Text

Steve told Jarvis to lead Thor to him when he got back and headed toward his closet. It was still strange to see all these clothes hand picked for him by Tony. It wasn’t like when Shield picked out his clothes and thought more about function than anything else. This was Tony getting him a little of everything, giving him a chance to figure out what he liked for himself. He doubted he’d ever wear the overalls he saw hanging further in the room, but at least he had the option.

But then again, having so many options was kind of overwhelming. That’s why he’d avoided them in the first place. Making choices just reminded you of the things you couldn’t have. If he had the option of choosing extra cheese on his pizza, he wanted to be able to choose to eat it with Peggy. Steve knew those things were not alike at all, but it was hard not to fall into that line of thinking. What good was it trying to enjoy things, when you couldn’t share it with the people you wanted to?

Steve was sure the team was great, and they were doing so much to help him, but he couldn’t help but see them as sort of a replacement. Like when a kid loses their favorite doll. You can try to get them a new one, but it is never the same. You always compare it to the one that slipped away and it just doesn’t live up. And then over time the new one starts to feel a little bit better in your arms, but you still harden your heart towards it, because what if you lose this one too? What was life besides a constant cycle of pain?

“I have returned!” Thor called out from somewhere on his floor. Steve shook his head, trying to knock out the bad thoughts. Being sad around the perpetually happy man just seemed wrong. “What a wonderful selection.”

“Thanks Thor,” Steve said, welcoming the man into the room. “Tony got them for me, so I’m sure he’ll get you whatever you like.”

“I’ve actually grown quite fond of shopping for clothing with our Natasha. I never would’ve been able to escape the evil clutches of polyester if it hadn’t been for her guidance,” Thor said seriously, poking at a shelf of denim. “There is not enough fur here.”

“Perhaps,” Steve murmured, thinking that the leather jacket in front of him was probably more his style. Maybe not the leather pants though.

“So, where are these sweaters? I am ready to be as comfortable as you,” Thor grinned, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

“You should probably aim higher,” Steve said off-handedly under his breath.

“What do you mean? Do you have something better to offer?” Thor asked, tilting his head to the side.

“No it’s- forget I said anything,” Steve muttered, turning away toward a different stack of clothes.

“Does this have something to do with what you’ve been so upset about since I returned?” Thor questioned. Steve felt himself go stiff, not expecting this kind of conversation from Thor. He hadn’t gotten too deep during any of their long stretches of time they’d spent in the gym, so Steve thought he’d be safe from the harder stuff. “You all think I don’t notice things, but I do.”

Steve spun to face him now, because that came out of left field. He knew Thor was qualified and intelligent in many ways, but he could admit he went along with everyone who just kind of smiled and nodded in Thor’s direction sometimes. It was nice to have someone around who didn’t know everything about the world around them, since it meant he wasn’t so alone in that regard. But he never thought Thor picked up on those feelings, since he never let on that he minded before.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said sincerely, feeling terrible at the thought of making Thor feel bad.

“Oh, I do not take offense,” Thor laughed, coming forward to rest a hand on his shoulder. “I would treat you all the same way on my planet. But you forget I am over 1,000 years old. I’ve seen more than you think.”

“How can you stand it?” Steve blurted out, before he could stop himself. “How do you learn to lose people and keep going?”

“How do you mean?” Thor asked.

“Living while everyone else slips away. How do you stand it?” Steve ground out, dragging a desperate hand through his hair. “How do you come down here and make friends with all of us, when in the end this is barely anything in your life?”

“I cherish all of you! All of the friends I make hold a special place in my heart,” Thor insisted.

“But don’t you see how that’s worse? Letting yourself care about people who you know will be gone before you even realize it?” Steve argued, feeling his heart slam against his chest. He was not ready to have this talk, but he’d never really thought of the similarities they shared. This would be possibly his only chance to talk to someone who would truly get it.

“Of course it hurts to lose people, but does that mean I should go through my whole life without letting anyone in? How lonely of a life that would be,” Thor said mournfully.

“But is the joy worth all that pain?” Steve whispered, closing his eyes in despair. Thor’s hand moved to carefully cup the back of Steve’s neck and he almost broke down right then, but he needed to finish this conversation.

“I know I will one day lose my Jane, but if you’re asking if that pain will be worth just seeing one of her smiles, the answer is yes. And knowing it was me who put it there keeps me going,” Thor said. “Sometimes it’s easier to focus on bringing others joy, and in the end, I realize I still end up fulfilled.”

“But is it enough?” Steve choked out, feeling his last bits of resolve crumble.

“If you could get rid of every memory you have with people from your time, would you do it? Would you erase everything good, for everyone, just to avoid feeling the sadness?” Thor pressed on.

“No,” Steve gasped, feeling the tears stream down his face.

“Feeling like this, it lets you know that it was worth it. That it meant something. If you are feeling so much pain right now, you are lucky to have felt enough love to cause it.”

Steve couldn’t hold back the full body wracking sobs now, letting himself be guided to rest against Thor’s strong shoulders. Thor just held him as he fell apart, letting him clutch onto his back in desperation. Steve was crying more in these past few weeks than he had in his entire life, but he couldn’t stop. All the anguish had piled up to a point where it didn’t have anywhere else to go and Steve felt himself wanting to let it out. The stoic and poised captain he’d presented to everyone was gone, and only this weeping, broken man remained.

But he could be built back up, couldn’t he? He didn’t have to go back to being that stiff, uncaring man he wanted to believe he was before, did he? There could be room for happiness in this life, if he just let it in. Steve had to stop letting fear rule his life. He’d never backed down from a fight in his life, so he couldn’t now, especially since it was against his own demons.

“Thank you,” Steve sniffled as he finally was able to calm himself back down. Thor grasped him on both shoulders as he leaned back, beaming at him with such fondness.

“We are brothers in arms. It is my honor and duty to support you in any way I can. I know you would do the same for me as well,” Thor said. And Steve would, no matter what. “Now, enough stalling. I demand the comfort of a sweater!”

Steve couldn’t hold back his soft huff of laughter, moving back and wiping at his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He probably looked wrecked, but he wasn’t going to worry about that now. He didn’t think he could ever look worse than when the team found him in his apartment. Steve made his way over to the stack of cashmere sweaters, flicking through the collars to find the sizes. They were almost all in his size, which was to be expected, but a few were a bit oversized. Should be big enough to fit the god.

“What color would you like to try? I’ve got a beige, a gray, and a pink-”

“Pink!” Thor boomed, putting his hand out to accept the garment. He immediately stripped out of his current shirt and tugged it on, wrapping his arms around himself. “This was my favorite color as a boy, but father made me choose red for my cape instead. May I keep this?”

“Of course,” Steve replied with a grin. “It looks great on you.”

“Indeed it does. Everyone else will be very jealous of us,” Thor boasted, puffing up his chest. “What do you say we go show off? I am quite ready for pizza.”

“Pardon the interruption, but the rest of the team is currently on the penthouse floor preparing for a pizza and movie night. Your presence is requested whenever you are ready,” Jarvis announced.

“Finally!” Thor shouted, pounding toward the elevators. Steve snorted and followed along. “Natasha wouldn’t even let me get a pretzel while we were out. Luckily I was able to steal a handful of popcorn from a passing child or else I don’t know if I would’ve made it through.”

“Sounds awful,” Steve agreed, shaking his head mournfully. Some of that lightness he’d felt while training with Thor was starting to come back and Tony’s earlier advice rang through his head. “Hey, would you want to train again with me sometime tomorrow?”

“I thought you’d never ask!” Thor smiled, clapping him on the back. The Steve from before never would have, but now he was glad he did. They walked into the living room of the penthouse side by side, finding the rest of the team laying out pizza boxes and plates on the table. Clint was the first one to spot them.

“What the Malibu Barbie Beachhouse bubblegum explosion is that?” Clint shouted, pointing at Thor in shock.

“Barbie is more of a hot pink. That is clearly in the salmon family,” Natasha scoffed, rolling her eyes. Tony was staring at him, obviously honed in on the remaining signs of his earlier distress. Steve shook his head a little and shot him a smile, trying to convey that he was okay. And he kind of was. Natasha and Clint were bickering as usual and Bruce and Tony were setting things out side by side with seemingly no issue. This is what he’d been avoiding all along, but now he felt himself craving it.

“I guess my invitation to the sweater party was lost in the mail,” Tony whined, plucking at his own band shirt.

“Perhaps next time, Stark,” Thor laughed, approaching the table like a predator.

“I guess we better dig in before Thor demolishes it all before we get a slice,” Tony announced, jumping back as everyone descended on the table like a pack of hyenas. Bruce calmly slid out of the fray with two plates of veggie pizza, handing one over to Steve. He accepted it gratefully, moving over to a couch a bit out of the way to sit next to him.

“So, how have you been since I saw you last?” Bruce asked awkwardly, taking a bite of his pizza to cover his flub.

“You mean since yesterday?” Steve chuckled, raising his eyebrows.

“I guess,” Bruce shrugged.

“Not great, but not terrible either,” Steve admitted, staring down at his plate. It was strange to think of any times these days with any positivity, but he felt like it was starting to get easier, at least a little bit.

“I’m so glad to hear that,” Bruce said with a smile, tapping the side of Steve’s plate with his own. “Say, if you’re not too busy tomorrow, would you mind coming down to my lab sometime? There’s
something I’d like to show you.”

“I’m training with Thor, but I’m sure I can squeeze you in somewhere,” Steve snorted. It was easy to find time for things when you had all 24 hours to choose from. “What is it?”

“Hey, no more shop talk, we need to pick out a movie!” Tony called, waving around a slice of pizza.

“It can wait, it’s not a big deal,” Bruce assured him, taking another bite of his food. Steve finally dug in too, realizing he liked the slightly crisp peppers on top. He didn’t know if he could say it was his favorite kind of pizza, but he at least had an example of something he liked if someone asked.

“I say horror,” Clint mumbled around a mouthful of food.

“I was thinking something a little less violent,” Tony scoffed, scratching at his head in contemplation. “You know, I think I have something good cued up. Wanna play it Jarvis?” All the lights in the room dimmed and the TV screen popped on. It was just like a fancy movie theater. The opening credits of a black and white film started playing on the screen and Steve’s eyes widened in recognition as he saw something familiar.

“Hey, I’ve seen this movie!” Steve laughed, leaning forward in his seat.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Is it good?” Natasha asked.

“Oh yeah, it’s great! Buck and I snuck into the old theater near my house to see it,” Steve grinned.

“Steve Rogers breaking the law? I don’t believe it,” Clint gasped in shock.

“I’m not as innocent as you think I am,” Steve argued, staring back at the faces that didn’t hide any of their doubt. “Okay, I may have stayed after to help clean up the seats because I felt bad, but I still did it.”

“Yeah, that sounds like our Steve,” Clint giggled.

Steve was halfway through the movie before he realized he talked about Bucky without feeling sad.

Chapter 37: Chapter 37

Chapter Text

After the first movie was over and Steve ate all of the slices that somehow kept appearing on his plate, he realized he felt kind of good. They’d tried doing stuff like this before, but Steve had made sure to keep his heart hardened against it. This wasn’t so bad though. He could imagine doing this same thing with the Commandos and Bucky, if they’d had the time.

“Any suggestions on what to watch next?” Tony asked, shooting Clint a look before he could say anything. “Good suggestions only.”

“You don’t know what I was going to say,” Clint pouted, gnawing on a pizza crust.

“Did it involve blood and guts?” Tony questioned, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t have any ideas,” Clint muttered, grumbling under his breath about the lack of appreciation for cinematic masterpieces.

“I have a documentary on Alaskan wildlife I’ve been planning to watch, if anyone’s interested?” Bruce offered.

“And that counts as a good suggestion?” Clint scoffed, crossing his arms. Tony and Clint started squabbling about what constituted a good movie while Steve leaned back into the cushions. He didn’t really care what they watched, as long as it kept his attention and distracted him from how tired he was.

“While you boys do your fighting thing, I’m going to refresh the drinks,” Natasha said, stretching from her spot next to Thor. “You wanna help me, Steve?”

“Sure,” Steve agreed, trying to hide the suspicion from his voice. People singling him out these days wasn’t usually a good thing. He really didn’t feel like crying anymore. Steve trailed after her into the kitchen and when she didn’t immediately head to the refrigerator, he knew he was right to be wary. “What’s going on?”

“I wanted to get you away from the others for a moment,” Natasha admitted, gesturing for him to sit on one of the stools. He hesitated slightly before moving over, resting on the edge. “Wait one sec.” She dashed out of the room, returning a few seconds later carrying a big box.

“What’s this?” Steve asked, watching her set the box down in front of him. He honestly had no idea what kind of gifts Natasha would get people. She kind of seemed like a weapon for every occasion type of person.

“I haven’t been able to get that story you told me at your apartment out of my head, so I did a little research, made a few trips, spent an ungodly amount of money on expedited shipping, and got you this,” Natasha grinned, lifting the lid off the box. Steve was half expecting something to jump out and hit him in the face, but instead he was only hit with the overpowering smell of sugar. The box was filled to the brim with brightly colored packaging and Steve stuck his hand inside, pulling out one that was on top.

“Chuckles?” Steve whispered, rolling the bag of candy in his hand. He recognized these. Not really the label, but he remembered the candy that was hidden inside.

“Surprisingly enough, a lot of the candy you had back in your day is still around. It may look a little different and the recipe might have been tweaked here and there, but not everything is lost,” Natasha said, bumping his shoulder. And Steve said he wasn’t going to cry.

He kept going through the box, each type of candy bringing back memories. He’d won a whole bag of Tootsie Rolls in an art contest. The Commandos had tossed Jolly Ranchers to the kids along the road when they were leaving after a mission. His mom had always gotten a pack of peppermint Life Savers on his dad’s birthday, as a sort of memorial to him, since they were his favorite.

“Charleston Chews were Bucky’s favorite,” Steve murmured, sniffling as he felt his emotions start to bubble back up again. “You didn’t happen to find any Whiz bars, did you?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Natasha sighed, brushing a tear off his cheek that he hadn’t realized had fallen. “I did, however, find a recipe online to make our own. I was wondering if you’d want to try making some with me this weekend? The instructions seemed easy enough, and that way you can always have some, no matter where you are.” Or when he was, but that could be left unsaid.

“I’d like that,” Steve smiled, turning back to the contents of the box. He pulled out a bar, but didn’t recognize it. “Cookies and Creme? What’s this?”

“I thought maybe after seeing how a lot of the candy you remember is still around, you might be more open to trying something new. This one is my favorite and I thought about asking the others for their favorites, but I didn’t want to break your confidence,” Natasha explained.

“This is- wow, thank you,” Steve said, carefully intertwining his fingers with hers. Steve didn’t know what he’d done to deserve all this care everyone was showing him, after he’d pushed them away for so long. He caused himself so much pain just to avoid a different kind, when he could’ve been happy all along. Maybe Tony was right when he suggested that he needed to talk to someone, because his decision making process probably needed a bit of work. He knew he wasn’t ready for that step yet, but he wasn’t as opposed to the idea anymore. If just talking the little bit he had with the team was helping this much, a professional might be just the thing he needs.

“You’re welcome,” Natasha grinned, giving his hand a little squeeze. “Do you want me to put this away for now?”

“No, I think we should share with the team,” Steve decided, hefting the box into his arms and heading back into the living room. The arguing had died down and a new movie was waiting to be started on the screen. The empty pizza boxes had been moved to one side, so Steve set his box down on the center of the coffee table and sat on the couch next to Thor.

“Where are the drinks?” Clint asked, poking his head up from where he was digesting on the floor.

“Oh, I lied,” Natasha shrugged, sitting down on Steve’s other side.

“What’s all this?” Tony asked, carefully approaching the other side of the table.

“Natasha got me some candy that I used to eat as a kid. I thought it would be nice to share it with everyone,” Steve said, rummaging around for something easy to pass to the others.

“Oh man, I haven’t had a Bit-O-Honey in years,” Tony laughed, catching the piece that was tossed to him.

“I love candy!” Thor boomed, his eyes lighting up as he got his own piece.

“You sound like Buddy the Elf,” Clint chuckled, ripping into his own candy.

“Who is that?” Thor asked around his chewy mouthful.

“It’s from a Christmas movie,” Clint replied, crawling forward to get closer to the box.

“I’m no elf. I’m going to be Santa Claus,” Thor scoffed, shaking his head in derision.

“Come again?” Clint asked, co*cking his head to the side.

“I’ll explain later,” Natasha said, waving him off. Steve bit into a chocolate Long Boy, feeling strangely content. Tony started up the movie, as Steve sank back into the couch. He didn’t worry about if his arm was brushing against Thor’s or if his foot sometimes bumped against Natasha. He hadn’t realized before how much he missed touch.

The movie was pretty funny, even if some parts kind of reminded him of some of the weirder battles they’d fought. A giant man made out of marshmallows probably was a lot easier to take down than something made of rock though. The sequel was okay too, but by the middle of it, Steve was feeling the fatigue set in. Eating all that food probably didn’t help and listening to Clint snoring on the floor definitely wasn’t either. Just seeing someone else have the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep was making him insanely jealous, even though he knew he shouldn’t be. There was no one to blame for his predicament, just his permanently unsettled brain.

Steve scooted forward, leaving the warm cocoon the three of them had made on the couch. He couldn’t stay comfortable and risk nodding off. He had to get through the rest of the movie night so he could get back to his floor and find something to do until morning came. Steve had plans to distract himself with tomorrow, he just had to get through another night.

“You okay?” Natasha asked quietly, sitting up to grab another jawbreaker.

“Yeah just…” Steve trailed off, feeling Tony’s eyes shift between him and the screen. He just wanted to sleep so bad he could scream. This wasn’t even the most tired he’d been, but he was steadily creeping back up to that point and that wasn’t a place he wanted to be. Was he only ever going to be able to sleep soundly when his body was too battered to stop him? When his brain was too exhausted to cook up his worst fears?

“Anything I can do to help?” Natasha asked, running her pinky along his.

“You got a sleeping pill I can take?” Steve scoffed, smiling ruefully.

“You’re having trouble sleeping?” Natasha questioned, slowly rubbing along each of his fingers. At least it gave him something to focus on, instead of having to look at her face and see the look of pity there.

“It’s not a big deal,” Steve brushed off, because talking about it wouldn’t fix anything.

“Maybe not, but you don’t have to wait for it to become one before you ask for help,” Natasha said.

“You don’t seem like you ever need help,” Steve pointed out. Natasha was always so strong, he couldn’t help but think she might be judging him a little bit for being so weak.

“I wouldn’t be here without help. I know how hard it is to accept it, but if I hadn’t let Clint, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Natasha said, flicking her eyes toward the sleeping man. Steve knew a little bit about their history, but not many of the details. He didn’t need them though. He could see how much they cared about each other, no matter how much they sparred. Steve used to have that too.

“I don’t think there’s anything that anyone can do,” Steve sighed, fiddling with an empty candy wrapper.

“Well, what have you tried?” Natasha asked.

“Um, it’s not so much falling asleep that’s the problem,” Steve murmured, raking a hand through his hair.

“Do you want to tell me what you dream about?” Natasha probed, bumping her knee against his.

“Nothing good,” Steve whispered. He couldn’t tell her the specifics. That was just asking for the events to happen in real life.

“Would you want to try something else?” Natasha suggested.

“Okay,” Steve agreed. Why not at this point? He’d followed along with Tony’s ideas all day, why not give Natasha a chance?

“Great,” Natasha grinned, giving his hand one last squeeze before standing up. “Let me grab a few things from my floor and I’ll be right back.” Steve watched her walk from the room, wondering what she had in mind. Did she have a prepacked Steve in crisis kit waiting in her closet? He startled a bit when he turned back around to find Tony in Natasha’s recently vacated seat.

“Everything alright?” Tony asked, trying to sound casual. The man had probably been itching to jump over at the first sign of distress.

“Natasha’s gonna help me try to sleep,” Steve shrugged, trying to make light of how desperately he wanted whatever she was planning to work.

“Oh good, that’s good,” Tony nodded, shooting him a smile. “I’m sure she’ll do a better job than I did.”

“Anything will be better than my current plan of never sleeping again,” Steve scoffed, resting his elbows on his knees. It felt like any work he was doing to get better wouldn’t matter unless he was able to sleep.

“You need anything from me, just let me know,” Tony said, patting his shoulder before going back to his old seat. And Steve knew that if he asked Tony for the moon, he’d immediately start planning a mission with Thor on how to get it.

Natasha came back a few minutes later with her arms full. She set everything on the floor in front of his feet, setting a small bottle and a few other things on the table.

“Okay, I think I’ve got everything,” Natasha said, checking over her haul.

“You brought me perfume?” Steve asked, poking the container. Maybe it was some sort of knockout gas?

“Don’t worry, all will be explained soon enough,” Natasha chuckled, batting his hand away.

“The Natasha Special?” Clint asked from his spot on the floor. When had he woken up?

“The one and only,” Natasha confirmed, unfolding a giant blanket. Steve was starting to get worried. “I was planning on saving this for Christmas, but why wait if it can help now?” She draped it over his lap and Steve was surprised to find it was heavy.

“What is this?” Steve asked, squeezing the edge of the material. It reminded him of a sandbag more than a blanket.

“It’s a weighted blanket. Some people find the weight comforting while they sleep,” Natasha explained. Steve wasn’t sure if he liked it yet, but he’d give it a try.

“They’re so good,” Clint moaned, stretching his back like a cat.

“You use one?” Steve asked.

“Oh yeah, I’m a frequent recipient of the Natasha Special. Who do you think she perfected it on?” Clint replied, scooting over to sit on the other side of the table.

“You have trouble sleeping too?” Steve questioned. Clint always seemed so relaxed and aloof. He couldn’t picture him struggling with anything.

“Not as often anymore, but after Loki…” Clint trailed off, shrugging.

“Oh gosh, I didn’t even think!” Steve gasped, feeling terrible. They had only just met after all that, but as the leader he should’ve made sure all of his people were okay. He’d failed them and himself. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’re not the only one good at hiding things from everyone,” Clint waved away, and Steve knew he really didn’t hold a grudge about it. Clint was just that good of a guy. “I would’ve hidden it from Natasha too, but I can’t seem to shake her.”

“You got that right,” Natasha smirked, taking the cap off the mysterious bottle. “Let me know how you feel about this scent.” She waved the bottle under his nose and he breathed in deeply, smelling the floral aroma.

“I don’t think I’d wear it, but it’s nice,” Steve admitted.

“I’ll wear it!” Thor piped up from where he’d been silently watching.

“No, it’s not for wearing, it’s just for smelling,” Natasha laughed, spraying the fragrance in the air around them. “Lavender can have a calming effect.” Steve closed his eyes, slowly inhaling the air around him. It was a lot better than the stale, greasy cardboard smell that was still lingering.

“Mmmmm, s’nice,” Clint mumbled, setting his head on the table. So Steve’s earlier guess of knockout gas wasn’t too far off.

“Hey Bruce, think you can handle this next part?” Natasha asked, tossing him a glass jar full of flowers.

“Oh yeah, you know I brew a mean pot of tea,” Bruce grinned, standing up and heading for the kitchen. “I’ll make enough for everyone.”

“Will those clothes be comfortable enough for you to sleep in, or would you like to go change first?” Natasha questioned, moving the candy box to the side of the couch to clear up space on the table.

“These should be fine I guess,” Steve replied, plucking at his sweater. “Wait, am I going to be sleeping here?”

“Yeah, unless you’d like to move everyone to your bedroom?” Natasha offered.

“You all don’t have to stay out here with me,” Steve argued, feeling embarrassed. “I don’t want to ruin everyone else’s sleep too.”

“Do you see any of us at gunpoint? We want to stay here,” Natasha insisted.

“Like you don’t have a gun,” Clint scoffed, rolling his eyes up at her.

“But it’s not pointed at anyone, is it?” Natasha shot back. “The point is, everyone is free to leave whenever they want, including you. But sometimes it’s easier to fall asleep with other people around.”

“I guess,” Steve conceded, remembering how Tony had brought up that same point with him before. He hadn’t dreamt in the hospital when Tony was there, but he had the other night. Maybe it would make a difference this time.

“Jarvis, can you hit us with a little white noise please?” Natasha commanded, before a strange sound filled the room.

“What’s that?” Steve asked, looking around the room as if he’d find the answer somewhere.

“You are currently listening to the sound “fan”, but I can switch to a different option if you’d prefer,” Jarvis answered.

“This is starting to feel like too much,” Steve sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Do I really need all this? I kind of feel like a baby.”

“I use a sound machine to sleep,” Bruce said, walking back in the room with a teapot and mugs balanced on a tray.

“You do?” Steve asked.

“Yep. The ambient noise helps clear my thoughts and settles my mind so I can sleep. A good book, cup of tea, and forest noises always does the trick,” Bruce grinned, pouring him a steaming cup of tea. Steve accepted it, letting the warmth soak into his hands and flood the rest of his body.

“There’s nothing wrong with having tools to help you with things you need. If you find something that works, why not use it?” Natasha pointed out.

“It just feels like a crutch I guess,” Steve shrugged. “Like I should be better than this. I shouldn’t need anything.”

“Sometimes when I’m homesick, I sleep under my cape,” Thor said, leaning forward to grab his own cup of tea. “Does that make me weak?”

“Of course not!” Steve exclaimed.

“You gotta get these ideas out of your head about what you should and shouldn’t do. Even if you slept in a pile of teddy bears wearing footie pajamas, that doesn’t get rid of your ability to kick like everyone on the planet’s ass,” Clint said.

“And it’s not like you’ll always need all of this every night, which still wouldn’t be a problem really,” Natasha added. “Even Captain America deserves a little grace.” Steve sighed, taking a sip of his drink to collect his thoughts. What they were saying made sense and he’d never begrudge someone else for doing what they needed to get by in life, so why was it so hard for him? Probably because he’d only just started letting himself have anything. It was difficult going from the bare bones of life to having the world at your fingertips. It kind of made him want to go back to having nothing, because the possibilities were overwhelming.

But then he thought of his shower. And all of those sweaters. And the box of candy. The way Tony’s eyes lit up when he smiled. How Natasha’s face softened when he opened up to her. The feel of Thor’s solid hand on his neck. Was he willing to lose all that again by being stubborn?

“Okay,” Steve whispered, giving Natasha a small nod. “So what should I do next?”

“Hey Jarvis, can you pull up Bruce’s documentary?” Natasha asked, scooting back up onto the couch and pressing against his side.

“It’s not that boring,” Bruce protested, curling back up on his own couch with a cup of tea. “The narrator is very good.”

“I’m sure they are,” Natasha brushed off while she curled her body around Steve’s. “If you want me to move, just say so.” Steve nodded his head, unsure if he wanted her to or not. This was a lot of touching for him, but it wasn’t terrible.

“So now what? We just watch the movie?” Steve asked.

“Yep,” Natasha grinned, pulling the blanket higher up his chest. “Focusing on trying to fall asleep will make it harder and stress you out. The more relaxed you are, the better you’ll sleep.”

“Okay,” Steve agreed, turning his attention back to the screen. The documentary actually wasn’t too bad and Steve ended up learning a lot about puffins. But when they got to the moose segment, Steve could feel his eyelids getting heavy.

“Don’t fight it,” Natasha murmured, leaning up to card her fingers through his hair. If he closed his eyes and didn’t think too hard, he could almost pretend that it was his mom doing it, shushing and calming him while he was in the throes of a fever. He felt his head tilting to rest on Thor’s surprisingly comfortable shoulder, but the other man didn’t seem bothered by it, hunching down so Steve’s neck would be at a better angle.

Steve blinked his eyes open again, wanting to see the team one last time before anything happened either way. Tony had moved over to Bruce’s couch and was discussing something with him. Clint had dragged himself around the table and was resting his head on Natasha’s lap. Natasha was still snug against his body, murmuring unintelligible sounds into his ear. Thor was Thor, solid and warm and a little rumbly under his cheek.

Even if this didn’t work, if Steve woke up screaming in five minutes, it would be worth it to have this feeling.

Chapter 38: Chapter 38

Chapter Text

There was nothing Steve could do but put the plane in the water. He wasn’t a pilot and even crashing properly would be difficult, but landing this thing safely would be impossible. He must be doing something right though, with how bad the plane was rumbling and groaning. Steve could barely hear anything over the thundering sound of the engine, but he clung to her voice. Peggy was begging him to find a way, but didn’t she know he couldn’t save anyone, let alone himself? Just ask Bucky.

Steve couldn’t find the words to reassure her, no false platitudes she could take with her after the fact to help her rest easy at night knowing she’d helped ease him into his grave. He didn’t know how, but he knew something was waiting for him that wasn’t what any of them were expecting. He was torn between wanting these moments to last forever and wanting them over quickly. Steve was scared and alone and he just didn’t know what to do.

But then Peggy’s voice changed. The words were still the same at first, but the tone was different. Someone was trying to coax him back, but how did he follow their direction? He was stuck here, wasn’t he? The chair beneath him rumbled again, but it wasn’t cold like he’d remembered it being. But it wasn’t supposed to be cold. He hadn’t gone into the ice yet. Steve was actually really warm.

“Steve, wake up.”

He was awake, but not for much longer. Why would not-Peggy be wasting his last words on something with no meaning? Shouldn’t he be hearing something about how brave he was or how much they’d miss him?

“It’s Natasha and we’re in Stark Tower. Open your eyes for me okay?”

And just like that, he crashed. Steve’s eyes snapped open to immediately be faced with an eyeful of Natasha Romanoff. He sucked in a sharp breath, trying to get his bearings back. There was a terrible grunting rumble in his ear and his body shook with it.

“What-”

“Just a little dream, but you’re okay now,” Natasha soothed, brushing a strand of his sweaty hair back.

“I can still feel it,” Steve mumbled, not fully convinced he wasn’t still trapped in the nightmare. “The plane is shaking.”

“The only thing that’s shaking is Thor,” Natasha assured him, tipping his chin so his eyes could focus on what he was on top of. Steve’s face was pressed against Thor’s chest, and the god in question was snoring in an unearthly way. Surprisingly, even after the nightmare he’d just had, Steve had the urge to laugh.

“I think he influenced my dream,” Steve murmured, curling his lips up into a half smile. He wasn’t feeling the gut wrenching pain and panic he usually did after a nightmare. He actually felt like he wanted to go back to sleep.

“Maybe we should move somewhere with a bit less action?” Natasha suggested, helping him sit up and rest against the back of the couch. She sat down next to him, guiding his head down to rest in her lap. She manipulated his body so his legs were resting over Thor’s and Steve was facing her stomach. He couldn’t even be bothered to feel awkward, because he was just so comfortable.

Steve sighed as he felt her adjust the blanket back over his body. Thor had curled around his legs by this point and was using his calves as a pillow. Natasha started scratching at his scalp again and he moaned at the feeling. He actually wanted to resist the pull of sleep now, but not because he was scared. It was because he wanted to stay in this moment forever.

“Your whole shtick is getting in and out of tight spaces. How did you get stuck under the coffee table?” Tony hissed.

“I don’t know, I did it in my sleep,” Clint grumbled. “Just clear it off before I stand up and chuck everything onto the floor!”

“Right, then you can tell Pepper how you broke her tea set,” Tony snapped, carefully clinking the ceramic cups.

Steve nestled his face further into his pillow, not willing to open his eyes yet. The team could deal with whatever issues they had amongst themselves. He wrapped his arms around his blanket, pulling it closer to his chest.

But then his pillow started laughing. And his blanket felt kind of boney. Steve opened his eyes, seeing nothing but Natasha’s stomach, which was pressed against his nose.

“Oh my gosh!” Steve gasped, jerking his head back. He was so embarrassed. How long had he been rubbing his face on her body like a weird cat?

“Nice work guys, you woke him up,” Natasha chastised, resuming her earlier brushing of his hair.

“What time is it?” Steve mumbled, the events of the previous night slowly becoming clearer as his brain caught up with him.

“A little before noon,” Natasha grinned. Steve rolled off the couch in shock, stepping back a bit from everyone. He had to have heard her wrong, because that would’ve meant he slept for around 12 hours. He never slept that long. But if it was true, what did that mean for him? Steve had long past given up hope of ever having a healthy relationship with sleep. Now it seemed like endless possibilities were opened up.

“I don’t- I don’t know what to say,” Steve whispered, pressing a hand to his mouth. Why did he always feel like he was a second away from sobbing?

“I cried like a baby the first time I slept through the night after the battle,” Clint commented from the floor. And the combination of his calm honesty mixed with the ridiculous sight of him wedged under a table shook out a laugh and some tears from Steve. He brushed the moisture from his cheeks as he smiled, looking around at the group he was with. Steve had always thought they were a perfect unit without him, but there was space for him too. They all had their own issues but Steve’s wouldn’t bring them down like he feared.

“I don’t know how I could ever repay you all for everything you’ve done for me,” Steve said, making eye contact with everyone. They all returned his gaze except for Tony, who glanced away quickly. They still needed to talk about everything, but Steve was hesitant to ruin how well things were going right now.

“You don’t have to. There is no owing when you’re helping someone you care about. We’re just happy you’re letting us,” Natasha said, stepping forward to set her hand on his shoulder. Steve pulled her into a hug, not resisting his impulse.

“Finally!” Thor boomed, wrapping Steve up from behind.

“Aww, no fair!” Clint whined, finally slithering out from his spot under the table and leaping at Natasha’s back, pulling a reluctant Bruce along with him. Tony stood back, watching the scene with a fond look on his face. Steve knew he still didn’t feel welcome after everything, and that broke Steve’s heart. It didn’t mean as much if not everyone was happy.

“Get in here, Stark,” Natasha sighed, extricating one of her arms to wave him into the group hug. Tony didn’t hesitate to join in, coming in at Steve’s side and throwing his arms around as many of them as he could. Steve tipped his head to bump against Tony’s, relishing in the security of all of them being here and safe. If he could convince them all to stay just like this forever, he would.

Bruce was the first one to start squirming, because if there was anyone who was least likely to want to be touched, it was him. He gave Steve’s arm one last pat before he stepped back, collecting up the dishes from last night.

“I’m gonna head down to my lab. Are we still on for today, Steve?” Bruce asked.

“No wait, I have cinnamon rolls in the oven!” Tony said, popping his head up to grin at everyone.

“Isn’t that a lot of sugar for this time of day?” Steve asked.

“Says the guy who plied us with candy last night,” Tony scoffed.

“It was just a little. And no one forced you to eat any,” Steve argued, rolling his eyes.

“Just like I’m not forcing any of you to eat any cinnamon rolls. Rolls that just so happen to be from that little bakery down the street. You know the ones, with the gooey filling and two different kinds of frosting,” Tony said casually, grinning when Clint’s eyes widened in recognition.

“Oh, you glorious bastard,” Clint moaned, sprinting to the kitchen.

“Are they really that good?” Steve asked, ducking his head down to get the answer from Natasha.

“They’re not the worst,” Natasha admitted, and that was pretty much a glowing review from her.

“I guess a few won’t be too terrible,” Steve accepted, finally leaving the pile. Thor didn’t let him go far though, keeping one arm wrapped around his shoulder. Steve mirrored the gesture, throwing his arm around Thor’s waist. The man might’ve been a stress inducing pillow last night, but he wasn’t so bad during the waking hours.

They found Clint in the kitchen, drooling over the pans he’d taken out of the oven. Steve had to admit, the cinnamon rolls did look good. The filling was bubbling up from the cracks and the smell was like heaven. Tony grabbed a spatula and started serving them to everyone, pointing them to two tubs of frosting sitting on the side. Steve took two, smearing each with a different topping.

“So what’s the verdict?” Tony asked after he’d taken big bites of each of them.

“I think I like the yellowish one better,” Steve said through his full mouth.

“Cream cheese frosting. Noted,” Tony grinned, taking a bite of his own treat. Steve smiled, sneaking another smear onto his overloaded bun. Steve Rogers liked peppers on his pizza and cream cheese frosting.

“I’m heading down to my lab for real this time,” Bruce said, finishing off his small roll. “Steve?”

“I’ve gotta go change, but I’ll meet you in about half an hour?” Steve suggested. Bruce nodded, waving to everyone as he left the room.

“Are we still training today?” Thor asked, tearing apart handfuls of dough with his teeth.

“How about after I’m finished with Bruce? Give us time to digest,” Steve offered.

“What about our experiment?” Natasha questioned, nudging his side a little.

“I didn’t forget. How does later this afternoon sound?” Steve proposed.

“Alright,” Natasha sighed, shooting him a grin.

“I thought we’d all try out the new gift today,” Tony pouted, swirling his finger around in his frosting.

“Tonight would be good for that, I think,” Steve recommended. Tony flashed him a smile.

“Don’t forget we didn’t make plans and I have nothing to contribute to this conversation,” Clint piped up, shrugging his shoulders. Steve snorted, sending him a shrug back. It wasn’t like he planned on having so much to do, everything just kind of slid into place that way. And instead of feeling overwhelmed by it, it just felt nice. Before, he’d had to pump himself up at even the idea of running into someone in the tower. Now he was actively planning to see all of them and he didn’t feel like he had to mentally prepare for it.

If days like these were what he had to look forward to, maybe living in this time wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Chapter 39: Chapter 39

Chapter Text

After another amazing shower, Steve stood in the middle of his bathroom, much like he had the day before. And didn’t it feel crazy to realize such little time had passed? Yesterday while he’d been standing here, he’d felt so lost and broken. But now, he had a smile on his face. He was looking forward to what was to come. And for the first time in a long time, he wasn’t tired. There wasn’t that fog hanging over his head and dampening all of his thoughts and actions.

Steve went down to his closet, settling on workout clothes instead of sweaters this time, since he was going to be training with Thor later. He still didn’t know what Bruce wanted to see him for, but he didn’t think the casual dress would be a problem. He did grab an oversized sweatshirt on his way out though. Bruce’s lab might be chilly.

Steve pulled it on as he stepped onto the elevator, riding it down to the proper floor. He’d usually take the stairs, since elevators were too self indulgent for someone like him, but he didn’t bother with that thinking right now. There wouldn’t be anyone keeping track of how many stairs he took per day.

Bruce was hunched over a table when he got there, taking notes with intense concentration. Most people out there only cared about The Hulk and didn’t get to see this side of the scientist. He understood what it was like to have a whole other side to you that didn’t get appreciated very much. But Steve hoped Bruce knew how important he was to everyone, and not just because of Hulk.

“Hey Bruce, you ready for me?” Steve asked, hanging near the door.

“Yeah, let me just finish my thought real quick,” Bruce mumbled, writing down a couple more things. Steve stuck his hands in the pocket of his hoodie, rocking back on his heels. He’d only been in here a handful of times and very briefly, so it was kind of nice to see everything that was going on, even if he didn’t understand any of it. “That’ll do it.”

“Great,” Steve said with a smile. He looked back up at Bruce and was confused by the look he was giving him. “What is it?”

“Oh, sorry,” Bruce chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I sometimes forget how young you actually are.” Steve looked down at his clothes, noting that this was a far cry from what he usually looked like. He hadn’t bothered to style his hair either, so it was a bit more floppy than usual.

“Well, aren’t I technically the oldest?” Steve pointed out, walking up to stand on the other side of the table from Bruce.

“Only technically,” Bruce smirked, putting away his notes and pulling out a covered tray. “I’ve been thinking about your predicament with exercising that we talked about before and I think I came up with a good solution.”

“Oh, well I haven’t been going overboard, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Steve said, looking down at the table. He didn’t think that talk would be coming up during this visit.

“That’s good, but it still got me thinking. It isn’t very realistic for you to eat enough food to replace all those calories you burn, since it would take a lot. Basically, you’d almost have to spend the same amount of time eating as you did exercising to balance it out,” Bruce explained. “Or you could eat a bunch of empty calories, but I wouldn’t recommend that, even for a super soldier.”

“So what did you come up with?” Steve asked. Bruce grinned, lifting the lid off his tray with a flourish.

“High calorie recovery bars!” Bruce announced, nodding his head down at his creation. They looked like weird little chunks of chewed up granola, but Steve wasn’t going to judge. He remembered Bruce eating his food without reservation, so he would do the same.

“Wow, this is so thoughtful. Thank you,” Steve said sincerely. How much time had Bruce spent doing this for him? He probably had much more interesting projects to work on, but he still spent time working on something he didn’t even need to, just to be nice.

“Now, don’t take this as a sign of my approval for you to start overworking yourself again,” Bruce warned, shooting him a sly smile to show he wasn’t being too serious. “I formulated these to your specific biology, to help you get back what you lose during an hour of training.”

“That’s incredible!” Steve said, smiling down at the man. Bruce really was a good guy.

“It also inspired me to formulate one for each member of the team, since we all need different things. Like I need things to boost energy since changing back from The Hulk always leaves me so fatigued. I’m going to have these available in the gym and on the jet for after missions,” Bruce explained, looking proud.

“Wow, you’re amazing. We are so lucky to have you.”

“Okay, enough with the compliments. That’s not what I brought you down here for,” Bruce brushed off, trying to hide his blush. “Unfortunately, the taste of these on their own isn’t the best, but I think I have a solution for that, and that’s what I needed you for.” Bruce moved to another table to grab a different tray, revealing a platter covered in little bowls of sauce.

“I’m here to be a taste tester?” Steve asked, looking over the different options. He recognized chocolate, but there were others he wasn’t quite sure about. “You didn’t have to bother. I would’ve taken whatever’s easiest.”

“Your opinion is important. I wouldn’t want to give you something you don’t like,” Bruce shrugged, busying himself getting the pieces set up. Now it was Steve’s turn to blush. He wasn’t used to people caring about his opinion on anything really. Steve just took whatever Shield gave him. The team actually asking him what he liked would take some getting used to, but he could honestly say it felt nice.

“Where do we start?” Bruce had him try everything, dipping small pieces of the bars in the different options. The white chocolate was okay, but the milk chocolate was great. Caramel was a little too sweet and strawberry didn’t mesh well with the bar flavor at all. His favorites ended up being milk chocolate and peanut butter, and when Bruce put them together, it was perfect.

“I’ll make your first batch this flavor, then later if you’d like some variety, we can try something else,” Bruce said, cleaning up.

“I don’t know what I can do to repay you for all this,” Steve said, sucking the last bit of chocolate off his finger.

“I’m just a friend helping out another friend. There’s no need,” Bruce shrugged.

“Well, Natasha and I are doing our own experiment later with a candy recipe. Maybe I can save you some?” Steve offered.

“Sounds good,” Bruce accepted, shooting him a smile.

“I should probably go meet Thor now. But I promise not to overdo it,” Steve assured him, tapping on the table before he turned to leave. He paused when he got to the door, looking back to ask one last question that had been hanging over him for a bit. “Tony mentioned you had a bad experience with food a while back, but you didn’t hesitate to eat what I cooked you the other day. Why is that?”

“I trust you,” Bruce said simply, like it wasn’t a huge thing to say to someone. Steve ducked his head, not knowing how to respond. He felt honored that he’d earned that confidence and he’d do everything he could to keep it. Steve nodded at him one last time before slipping out the door, feeling like the butterflies in his stomach were carrying him to the elevator.

*

Thor was already jogging on a treadmill when Steve got to the gym. He’d missed the training sessions with Thor that they hadn’t had since Steve freaked out on him before. Hopefully it wouldn’t be awkward, but things usually weren’t with the god. Steve climbed onto the machine next to him, starting off at an easy jog.

“Steven, you finally join me!” Thor chuckled, smiling over at him. “I was worried you had changed your mind.”

“Of course not. I’ve been looking forward to this all day,” Steve said, bumping up his speed. And it was true. Spending time with everyone else was great, but sometimes he didn’t want to think about life or talk about his feelings. He relished in the times he was able to just use his body for what it was made for and hone his skills. And Thor was perfect for that.

“Well then, hurry up so we can really get started,” Thor challenged, increasing his own speed. Steve matched it, running alongside Thor in companionable competition for the next few minutes. This was a lot easier after a full night’s sleep. When they finally finished warming up, they moved to the open area to spar.

“No going easy on me this time, okay?” Steve requested, taking a cheap swipe at Thor’s head that he barely dodged.

“Oh, you play dirty!” Thor laughed, bringing his hands up in a defensive position. “Reminds me of home.” They traded strikes for what seemed like an hour with neither of them getting the upper hand. Steve felt that confidence he’d always had when Bucky and the Commandos were fighting by his side. He never questioned his skills, even with the meager training he’d had before he joined the fight. The serum had given him natural abilities, but it wasn’t the same as being a skilled fighter. That came from hard work. And he still had a lot to learn, which he realized when Thor pulled off some sort of crazy move and knocked him flat on his back.

Steve laid in a daze for a few moments, staring at the ceiling while he tried to get his breath back. He hadn’t even seen what Thor did, but it must’ve been good to get past Steve’s defenses. Steve gasped a little, feeling what had to be a pretty significant bruise start to settle into his skin.

“Steven! Are you okay?” Thor shouted, hovering above him looking worried. Steve huffed out a breath, and then another, and before he could realize it, he was laughing. He wrapped his arms around his chest to brace himself as he was helpless to the laughter that was pouring out of him. “What is funny?”

Steve couldn’t really explain it. If this had happened a few weeks ago, he’d be thinking over each second of the session, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. Beating himself up for being a failure. Resolving to punish himself with extra training and more running and no rest. But now all he wanted to do was congratulate Thor and ask him to do it again. His team’s successes were his successes too, and if they could help each other grow and get better, it would only turn out for the best.

“Nothing,” Steve wheezed, throwing a hand up for Thor to help him to his feet. He stood with his hands on his knees, looking up at Thor through his sweaty hair. “That was a good move. Wanna show it to me again?” They worked through it for the next hour, transitioning into other moves and showing each other little tricks they’d picked up. By the end, Steve’s muscles felt satisfyingly exhausted.

“Shall we do this again tomorrow?” Thor asked, wrapping a towel around his neck as they climbed onto the elevator together.

“You’re on.”

*

Steve went back to his floor and let the showerhead beat his muscles thoroughly. He was going to meet Natasha on her floor in 30 minutes, so he was planning on taking a 29 minute shower. The temperature was set to almost unbearably hot, but it felt like heaven to Steve. The steam was so thick it was almost obscuring his vision, letting him forget where he was for a few moments. There was nothing to worry about in here, and it was nice.

He reluctantly shut off the water when he knew there was absolutely no more time left before he had to get going. He ran a towel over his body, not worrying about his hair. It would dry how it dried. Steve grabbed a random shirt and pair of pants from his Tony closet, opting for something more casual and less cozy, since they would be cooking and he didn’t want to ruin anything accidentally.
Steve was actually kind of excited to do this project with Natasha. It had been nice seeing her more relaxed these last few days, instead of the snappy, tough woman she usually was. He liked knowing that she could best anyone in a fight and still come home and get excited over candy. It showed him that people didn’t have to be just one thing. There were layers, and he was excited to see more of everyone's.

“Right on time,” Natasha called out as soon as the elevator doors opened. Steve wasn’t sure if he’d been on this floor before, so he followed the sound of her voice to lead him to the kitchen. It wasn’t as spacious as the kitchen on the common floor, but everything was sleek. It was exactly how he pictured a kitchen on Natasha’s floor would look.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Steve asked, eyeing a stack of pots on the counter.

“Oh no, I have no clue,” Natasha admitted, tossing him a bag of marshmallows. “I think we can figure it out.”

“I don’t have a lot of practice following recipes,” Steve commented, walking around to join Natasha on her side. “Is it complicated?”

“Just melting and stirring basically,” Natasha answered, flashing him the directions on her phone. There weren’t too many ingredients to deal with and they had saved the world on multiple occasions. How hard could it be?

Steve didn’t even know marshmallows could explode, but the evidence was in Natasha’s hair. And on Steve’s face. And on the ceiling. Steve was staring at the bubbling remains in shock, trying to figure out where they went wrong. Probably thinking this was a good idea in the first place.

“I feel like that wasn’t supposed to happen,” Steve said, licking a glob of cream off his lip. At least it tasted good.

“Not particularly,” Natasha agreed, grabbing a towel to wipe off her face.

“Let me help you,” Steve chuckled, trying to scrape the mush out of her hair. It was stuck in there good and he had no idea how she was going to get it out.

“Don’t bother. I’ll get it out in the shower,” she shrugged, setting down the towel. “I had a feeling this might not go so well, so I bought some backup supplies.” She ducked down to rummage through a cabinet, pulling out a shopping bag.

“Is this gonna explode too?” Steve smirked, dodging her friendly shove.

“No heating required this time,” Natasha assured him, pulling out her ingredients. She had a slab of fudge, jars of crunchy peanut butter and marshmallow fluff, and chocolate syrup. “Time to make the bastardized version.” They pressed the fudge into the bottom of a pan, then smeared layers of peanut butter and marshmallow on top. Natasha finished it off with a drizzle of chocolate syrup on top, making sure to give each of them a squirt straight into their mouths. It was messy and ugly, but it was perfect. Steve cut a couple squares for them to try, taking big bites at the same time.

“It’s good!” Steve mumbled around his mouthful, shooting Natasha a chocolatey grin.

“Does it taste like you remember?” she asked, licking the drips off her hand.

“Not really,” Steve admitted, snagging another chunk. “These are better.” They ate a few more bites, laughing at how messy they were being. This was definitely not the same as a candy bar, but Steve would choose something made with love over a random packaged treat any day.

“Should we save some of this for the team?” Natasha asked, washing her hands.

“Yeah, I actually already promised Bruce some earlier,” Steve agreed, cutting up the rest of the concoction into easily shareable squares. “I was thinking of taking some up to Clint too. I felt bad earlier when we were all talking about our plans and he was left out.”

“I’m sure he’d love that,” Natasha concurred, sliding him a plate for him to use to take a few squares. “Anything sugar is sure to make him happy.”

“Do you want to come with me after we clean up this mess?” Steve asked, looking up at the marshmallow that still clung to the ceiling. It almost blended in.

“Nah, I got this, you go ahead. I’ll get this cleaned up while I let some conditioner eat this crap out of my hair,” Natasha said, shooing him from the room.

“Are you sure? I don’t mind cleaning,” Steve said, hating the idea of leaving everything for Natasha to deal with.

“I’m sure. I’ll let Clint know you’re on your way,” Natasha insisted, setting the plate in his hand and pointing him toward the door. Steve sighed, letting her have her way. He stopped before he left the room, looking back toward Natasha.

“I had fun. Would you want to try this again?” Steve asked. Natasha gave him one of her slick smiles, co*cking an eyebrow in that way she had.

“I’d love to.”

*

Clint’s floor was the one above Natasha’s, so he took the stairs. Steve was sure he’d never been to Clint’s floor, so he hoped this would be okay. Natasha said she’d let him know he was coming, so Jarvis would probably stop him if Clint had a problem with it. He opened up the door and poked his head inside, looking around. Most of the floors had the same basic look to them, but for some reason Steve imagined there would be perches or something else more Clint-like around than what he saw. Everything was normal though.

“In here,” Clint called out, so Steve followed his voice like he had Natasha’s. Clint was sitting in his living room area, watching something on his TV. Were those puppets?

“What’s that?” Steve asked, barely catching the remote that was whipped at his face with surprising speed, but predictable accuracy. “Uhh…”

“Oh crap! Sorry Steve, you just startled me,” Clint panted, covering his heart with his hand.

“I thought Natasha told you I was coming,” Steve said, grimacing at the thought of intruding.

“Oh, that’s what Jarvis said,” Clint sighed, rolling his eyes. “I tend to tune him out most of the time. And I wondered why Natasha was announcing her arrival. She usually just shows up whenever she pleases.”

“And do you throw things at her too?”

“God no, do you think I have a death wish?” Clint scoffed.

“I’ll try not to take offense to that,” Steve snorted, tossing the remote back to the other man with less velocity than he received it. “Anyways, I brought you something.” Steve jiggled the plate he was holding, which thankfully hadn’t been dropped during the earlier attack.

“Is that chocolate?” Clint asked, his eyes brightening at the idea of sweets. Steve didn’t know how he stayed so fit with his love of all things food.

“Among other things,” Steve confirmed, walking over to hand him the plate. Clint took it eagerly, bringing it up to his nose so he could smell it.

“This looks amazing,” Clint moaned, motioning for Steve to join him on the couch. “You actually got Natasha to cook?”

“It was her idea,” Steve said, sitting down on the incredibly comfortable sofa. Tony really did go all out for everyone. “These didn’t involve any cooking though. That part didn’t go too well.”

“Not surprising, since Natasha never cooks. I didn’t even think she owned pans,” Clint said, shoving a whole square into his mouth. Would Natasha really have bought cookware and dishes just to make some candy with him? Steve was embarrassed and flattered by the idea of her going so far out of her way to do something nice for him like that, on top of everything she’d done the night before. He needed to find a way to make it up to everyone, no matter how much Bruce insisted it wasn’t necessary.

“So, what is this you’re watching, if you don’t mind me asking?” Steve questioned, staring at a man singing a song about trains.

“It’s Mr. Rogers,” Clint grinned, turning up the volume a little. “Seeing you in your sweaters the other day inspired me.”

“Oh, that show you brought up,” Steve said, nodding his head in recognition. “I thought this was for kids?”

“Technically yeah, but Mr. Rogers is iconic. He’s got a wholesome message that is important for every generation,” Clint defended, raising an eyebrow in a challenge. Not as strong as Natasha’s, but close. “This was my favorite show as a kid. We didn’t have a lot of channels to choose from, but we had PBS and Mr. Rogers. My brother and I would watch every chance we got.”

“That sounds really nice,” Steve said wistfully, thinking back to watching movies with Bucky. He wasn’t technically his brother, but he was in every sense of the word besides blood.

“You want to hang out and watch some with me?” Clint suggested.

“Sure,” Steve agreed, settling back to get more comfortable. The show was pretty soothing. The themes were nice and the man had a very calming presence. The puppets were kind of weird, but overall it was relaxing to watch. So much so that three episodes in, Steve couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open. His head kept dipping down and bouncing back up, slower and slower each time. Maybe he’d just rest his eyes for a minute?

A quiet giggle woke him up from the nap he hadn’t realized he’d been taking. Steve blinked a few times, trying to figure out where he was. There was a man tossing a shoe in the air, so it was easy to recall that he was still on Clint’s floor. Speaking of Clint, last Steve had remembered, he was eating the last of his treats. But now, it seemed like Steve was using him as a pillow.

“Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!” Steve stammered, leaning back to give the other man space. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep on his shoulder like that. “You should’ve pushed me off.”

“Why? It wasn’t a big deal,” Clint brushed off, giving his arms a stretch now that he was free. “Besides, waking up someone who’s been having trouble sleeping is like moving the nest of a protected species of bird. You just don’t do it.”

“Wow, I guess I was asleep,” Steve said, surprised at how well an impromptu nap had gone. He hadn’t even needed all of Natasha’s tricks this time. “I’m still sorry I trapped you like that. I hope you weren’t stuck long.”

“Really, it’s fine. I used to fall asleep on my brother like that all the time. It was actually sort of nice to be on the other side of it this time,” Clint admitted, looking a little bashful.

“Does that mean I’m kind of like your little brother?” Steve teased lightly, trying to dissipate any lingering awkwardness.

“Only if that grants me unlimited noogie privileges,” Clint said seriously.

“I’d like to see you try it,” Steve challenged, squinting his eyes threateningly.

“Mr. Rogers would want us to be mature,” Clint pointed out, dipping his head back toward the television.

“Well, we all strive to live in his image,” Steve agreed, settling back into his seat. And if they just so happened to be brushing against each other, it wasn’t a big deal.

Chapter 40: Chapter 40

Chapter Text

They were never able to try out Tony’s gift that weekend. Steve didn’t even see him again until Monday. Jarvis informed them that there was an SI emergency that he had to deal with and he flew off without saying goodbye. Steve tried not to worry about it for the rest of the day, since it was just business stuff. It wasn’t like Tony was off fighting monsters as Iron Man without him. But his brain wouldn’t be convinced.

He got co*cky, thinking one night and a nap worth of good sleep would fix him and he went off to sleep in his bed alone. The nightmares proved otherwise. Steve dreamt of getting the call from Pepper that Tony never made it to his destination, that he’d been shot down in an attack. He listened to her cry and scream that Steve should’ve been there to have his back and trusting him was the biggest mistake they’d ever made. Steve woke up sobbing, stumbling back to his normal area in front of the windows of his living room. He’d been so focused recently on his fear of leaving everyone behind that he forgot his fear of being left behind as well. But now it was back in full force.

If Shield called right now with a need for immediate assistance, would they even let Steve join? Was there some sort of mental health evaluation he’d have to pass before he was let back out into the field? They hadn’t heard a single word from anyone at Shield since he moved back, as far as Steve knew. Was the team giving Fury updates on what was going on? Would they tell him if they were? He didn’t think they’d get too personal, but a simple thumbs up or down didn’t seem like too big of a stretch.

He didn’t know what to do with himself and the idea of spending another night awake and alone after experiencing the opposite was almost unbearable. It was only midnight, which wasn’t terribly late, but he didn’t want to wake anyone up just to take care of him. That sounded too much like a little kid crawling into their parents bed in the middle of the night.

“Jarvis, is- is anyone else awake?” Steve asked, curling up around his knees. They wanted him to ask for help if he needed it, right? They weren’t just saying it at the time to make him feel better?

“Ms. Romanoff and Mr. Barton are currently awake,” Jarvis answered. “Would you like me to relay a message?”

“Are they busy?” Steve asked. He wasn’t trying to be nosy, but he didn’t want to interrupt if they were doing something private. He still wasn’t sure what kind of relationship they really had.

“Would you like me to ask them?”

“I guess,” Steve whispered.

“Ms. Romanoff requests that you come to her floor and to bring your blanket if you’d like.” So, there definitely wasn’t any hiding what this was about then. Steve hoisted himself off the floor and shuffled back into his room to grab the weighted blanket. He still wasn’t sure if he liked it or not, but he was willing to try it again. He wrapped it around his shoulders and trudged over to the elevators, feeling completely juvenile. Steve kind of wished someone on the team needed him for something, so it didn’t have to feel so awkward. Nothing dangerous, but maybe slightly embarrassing to even the score a little.

“Perfect timing,” Natasha said right as the elevator doors opened on her floor. She was as dressed down as Steve had ever seen her, in an oversized t-shirt and sweatpants. That kind of helped. “I was just about to have Jarvis see if you wanted to join us.”

“Right,” Steve murmured, appreciating the lie.

“No, really. Clint told me about your Mr. Rogers marathon and I got jealous. Decided I wanted one too,” Natasha insisted, coaxing him out of the elevator and toward her room. The bed was already turned down and looked amazingly comfortable, with stacks of pillows lining the back. Not really what he imagined Natasha’s bed would look like, but the more pillows there were, the more places to hide weapons probably.

“Where is Clint?” Steve asked, letting himself be situated in the center of the bed. Natasha laid his blanket over his lap and he felt like an old maid.

“Just getting a couple drinks,” Natasha said, sliding into the bed next to him. This was kind of weird. It was one thing to fall asleep next to someone on a couch, but sharing a bed was intimate. That was going into something with specific intent.

“Planning on trying to get me drunk?” Steve asked, dipping his head down toward her.

“Oh, I wish I could. I bet you would be the sweetest,” Natasha cooed, reaching up to pinch his cheeks. Steve could feel himself blushing, but he grumbled under his breath to try to cover it up.

“I’m back,” Clint announced as he walked back into the room carrying three mugs.

“Clint, I thought I told you to put on pants?” Natasha glared, pointing at the man who was only wearing boxers.

“You all are lucky I put these on. I usually sleep nude,” Clint snorted, handing over the drinks before sliding into the bed on Steve’s other side. That was a lot of skin, but Steve tried to ignore it.

“What’s this?” Steve asked, peering into the steaming mug. It didn’t look like the tea from the night before.

“Warm milk with a little bit of cinnamon and honey,” Clint grinned, taking a sip of his own. Steve really felt like a baby now, but at least the others were drinking it too. Steve took his own sip, moaning in appreciation as the comfort slowly spread down his body.

“S’good,” Steve murmured, closing his eyes and leaning back into the pillows.

“See, guess I should’ve been invited to your little kitchen experiments. You obviously needed my guidance,” Clint smirked.

“Warming up milk is a bit more simple than what we were doing,” Natasha defended.

“Do you know how much technique goes into warming up milk properly? Making sure you don’t burn any. Checking for hot spots. Getting rid of any of that weird skin that likes to form on top. And then adding the perfect amount of honey and cinnamon. Don’t belittle my craft!”

“Your craft? Please. You probably just put it in the microwave.”

“I’ve never heard something more blasphemous in my life!” Clint gasped, going on a tirade about what, Steve didn’t know. He let the warm drink and voices soothe him and blur his consciousness.

When he woke up the next morning, he was curled up in a ball between them both, with his face pressed against Clint’s shoulder blades and Natasha wrapped around his back. Steve wanted to kick up a fuss about how awkward it all was, but he was just too comfortable. Was this how married couples felt, waking up to the comfort of your partner being right there? If so, Steve wanted that.

Clint and Natasha were very careful not to joke or bring up anything that happened that night. If they acted like it was normal, maybe it would start to feel that way. Steve went off to go through the rest of his day, spending most of his time in the gym with Thor or watching TV with Clint. And when the time came to go to sleep, Natasha just took him by the arm and led him to her bed. They at least made it through a few episodes before Steve passed out again. And he didn’t have a single dream.

It was finally Monday morning and Jarvis informed him that Tony’s flight was due to arrive within the hour. Steve was on his floor, trying to act like he wasn’t counting down the minutes until he saw the other man again. He knew Tony had been fine all along, but until Steve saw it, he couldn’t fully believe it. And if this is how he felt after Tony went to a work meeting, Steve didn’t know what he’d do if Shield sent Natasha and Clint on a mission. Just the idea of it made him want to throw up. He needed to get serious about getting better, so he would be ready in case the team was needed. And that meant putting some of his affairs in order to give him peace of mind.

Steve had been thinking about this since he first woke up and found out that all of his personal belongings that had survived to this point were in various museums around the world. There were old pictures he could find online, and someone at Shield along the way had explained how to print them, but it wasn’t the same as having something from your past that you had touched. And he still didn’t have many material things that mattered to him, but he hoped that would change.

Steve walked over to his dresser, which he still hadn’t started using for his clothes, and reached into the back of one of the drawers. He hadn’t looked at his papers since he’d put them there, but they were the only things he could think of that he had to tuck away. Maybe one of his sweaters, but he wanted to keep wearing them. He traced his fingers along the edge of Peggy’s picture, trying to think of what she would say about how he was living now. He avoided thinking about her when he was at his apartment, because he knew she wouldn’t approve of what he was doing to himself. But now, he thought she might be happy for him. She always seemed to be able to see him, even before the serum.

“Hey Steve,” Tony said softly from the doorway. Steve hadn’t even heard him come in, so focused on the items in his hands and the thoughts of what could’ve been.

“Tony,” Steve whispered. He had an overwhelming urge to rush over and hug the man, but that felt wildly over the top. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Glad to be back, pal. Sorry I had to leave so abruptly, but duty calls, you know? It was nice seeing Pepper again though. I think I made some real progress on that front. Trying to convince her to come visit, but she’s so swamped right now, hence me having to go and put out fires. But we’ll see. Maybe around Christmas,” Tony babbled, rocking back and forth on his heels.

“Right,” Steve said, just to have any sort of response. The relief of seeing Tony was great and confusing and painful, all at the same time. It was the moment he’d always wished had happened so many times in his life, but rarely did. And this was nothing like when Steve thought all was lost and he needed a miracle to be reunited with the person he cared about, but his desperate brain couldn’t help but draw the parallels. He’d had that moment with Bucky once, but he wasn’t going to be lucky enough to have it again.

“Hey, bring it in here big guy,” Tony said, spreading his arms open for him. Steve didn’t hesitate, taking the few steps over and practically collapsing into the other man’s arms. Steve gripped Tony with a desperation that would mortify him if he was in his right mind, but this was exactly what he needed in this moment. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing now,” Steve mumbled into his shoulder. And while that wasn’t really true, having the whole team safe and in one place was probably as good as it ever was gonna get.

“You wanna talk about it?”

“Not really,” Steve murmured, because he couldn’t really articulate what was going on in his mind. Or maybe it was that he didn’t want to. He was already planning on talking to Tony about something that had the potential to be difficult and he didn’t need to add extra onto that.

“Did you take care of the kids while I was gone?” Tony asked when Steve finally pulled away.

“They mostly took care of me,” Steve admitted, feeling more appreciative than embarrassed by that fact.

“Good, now I won’t have to ground them,” Tony chuckled, stepping back. “So, I got you something.” Tony jiggled the bag Steve hadn’t noticed hanging from his wrist.

“What is it?” Steve asked, taking the bag from Tony and peeking inside.

“Ah, you’re one of those people. The kind that asks what a gift is while they’re opening it, instead of just waiting the two extra seconds,” Tony noted, shooting him a smile. Steve didn’t mention that the last gift he’d gotten had been from the man himself and had exploded with confetti in his face. Tony wasn’t like that anymore.

“It’s a… snow globe?” Steve asked, pulling the glass ball out and peering inside. “Of New York City?”

“I had to go into the airport when I got back for some stupid paperwork issue and saw this as I was passing by. Made me think of you,” Tony explained.

“Because of the snow?” Steve deadpanned, feeling more fondness instead of irritation. If that was the joke, it didn’t bother him as much for some reason now.

“No! Well, yes, but that wasn’t the only reason. Look closer,” Tony instructed. One side of the globe showed the bustling, bright city you’d expect from one of these, but as you turned it, the other side showed the city as it used to be. How Steve remembered it. “Both of your homes.”

“Wow Tony, I don’t know what to say. Thank you,” Steve said quietly, setting the gift on the dresser so the older side faced the room.

“Nah, don’t mention it. And I really mean don’t mention it, since I didn’t get anything for anyone else,” Tony laughed. Steve tried to smile at that, but all of his attention was back on his papers.“Well, I’ll let you get back to what you were up to when I got here. We’re still on for our jacuzzi date, right?”

“Actually, I was wondering if you could help me with something?” Steve asked hesitantly, keeping his eyes away from Tony.

“Anything,” Tony answered immediately.

“When they first found me, I had nothing. The only things of mine anyone bothered to keep were sent off to be preserved for ‘historical purposes,’” Steve started, letting a little annoyance leak into his words at the end. Even from the beginning people only cared about the symbol, not the person. “I know that no one ever expected me to come back, but since we know that’s a possibility now, I wanted to do something so that wouldn’t happen again.”

“Steve-”

“I know you want me to believe that I won’t lose time again, but we can’t be sure. And if I’m going to go back to living my life, I need to know I’ll have something waiting for me, just in case.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“I want to find somewhere safe and secure that I can trust will still be there, no matter how much time passes. It’s not like I’ll ever have a family to pass things on to, and that would be way too much pressure anyway. But that’s where you come in,” Steve explained. “I was wondering if you could help me set up a trust that could guarantee and oversee a safe deposit box indefinitely?”

“Um, yeah. I’ve got some lawyers who’d be able to handle all that stuff.”

“Great! Because I have all that money that Shield gave me, so I think I can afford to keep it as long as I need. I just want to make sure we use a place that’s been around a long time and least likely to go under. We should probably have a backup just in case, but I don’t really know much about banks and all that. And I don’t have much, so I don’t think I’ll need a lot of space,” Steve stammered, excited by the idea of having this security blanket waiting for him, just in case.

“What do you have so far?” Tony asked, visibly recoiling at the sharp look Steve gave him. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. It’s none of my business.”

“No, I’m sorry. Of course I can show you. You’re helping me after all,” Steve sighed, kicking himself for having that reaction.

“You don’t owe me anything just because I’m helping you with something. You are always allowed and encouraged to tell me to screw off whenever you want to,” Tony insisted, taking a deep breath to calm his frustration. They’d made big strides in their relationship these past few days, but there were always going to be these little moments until they finally hashed everything out. Steve still wasn’t ready for that, but this could be a good first step to getting there.

“Really, it’s okay,” Steve said, picking up the welcome note and passing it over to Tony. “I don’t have a lot yet, but what I have so far is important to me.”

“You kept this?” Tony whispered, rubbing the back of his hand over his mouth as he read the two simple words he’d written down not so long ago.

“Yeah, I did. I honestly didn’t want to be here when I came back, but seeing that note, seeing you refer to this place as home when it came to me, it meant something. I can’t really explain it,” Steve said, fingering the other paper that would be joining the welcome note in the box. This was the one that would be hard to get through. Steve handed it over, closing his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see Tony’s reaction.

“Oh God,” Tony muttered, taking in a sharp breath. Steve could tell the second Tony read the date on the paper. “Oh God!”

“I wasn’t planning on telling anyone. I got the letter the day of the mission and-”

“No, no-”

“It probably wouldn’t have changed anything-”

“Steve-”

“With how injured I was, who knows if I would’ve made it in time anyway? It might’ve been worse if I was awake and couldn’t go.”

“Do not make excuses for what I did!” Tony shouted, setting the papers back down on the dresser and pacing away toward the wall. “God, how can you stand to be around me?”

“Tony-”

“What kind of f*cking monster am I?”

“You didn’t know-”

“I knew enough! I knew everything you went through and that didn’t stop a single thing I did. Hell, it was my inspiration!”

“Tony stop, please,” Steve whispered, just now realizing he’d started crying at some point. He didn’t want this and now he was going to lose everything because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “I didn’t want this to happen when I showed you that paper.”

“I deserve everything I’m feeling and more. What kind of person am I?”

“You’re the kind of person who opens his home to strangers when you didn’t even have to. The kind of person who fills a closet with clothes for someone you didn’t even know would come back. The person who sat with me all night in silence after my nightmare, even after I yelled at you. Who sat with me in that hospital when I cried and never left my side. One mistake doesn’t define you,” Steve proclaimed, fighting through his own tears and the ones he saw trailing down Tony’s face.

“It wasn’t just one mistake,” Tony mumbled, swiping a hand over his cheeks. “I was awful to you.”

“That’s not who you really are. The Tony I know and care about wouldn’t do that now.”

“Do I even deserve that trust? You don’t know how much it means to me that you gave me another chance.”

“Everything you’ve done has shown me you do. I wouldn’t even be here right now if it wasn’t for you,” Steve stated resolutely. Now it was Tony’s turn to rush into his arms and they clung to each other like they were the only thing holding the world together. Steve knew there was still more to talk about, but this conversation was important. For the both of them.

“Have you gone yet?” Tony asked, tipping his head toward the papers.

“Not yet,” Steve sighed, rubbing his face on Tony’s shoulder. “I can’t say goodbye to my past until I’m secure in my present, you know?”

“Do you want me to go with you when you’re ready? For support?” Steve pressed his face into Tony’s neck, letting his lips twitch in appreciation.

“I think I’d like that.”

Chapter 41: Chapter 41

Chapter Text

Tony went up to his floor to shower and unpack the small bag he’d taken. Steve was kind of embarrassed to find out Tony had come straight to him when he got back, instead of doing whatever he needed to do first. But it also felt sort of touching. It was nice to know that Tony was just as anxious to get back as Steve was for him to come back.

Steve stayed on his own floor for a while, since he didn’t have any concrete plans with anyone and wasn’t going to sit on Tony’s floor and wait for him to shower. He felt like he could finally breathe again knowing everyone was in the same tower, but he didn’t need to always be in their presence.

He finally had enough of his boredom and wandered up to the common floor. Steve had already eaten a few bagels in bed with Clint and Natasha that morning, but he wouldn’t mind eating again. Since he’d stopped his self imposed strict diet, he remembered how much he enjoyed food. There hadn’t always been opportunities to eat something good in his life, but he’d relished in it when he got the chance. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with indulging a bit right now.

The floor was empty when he got there, but Steve didn’t mind. Everyone was safe and accounted for and that was good enough for him. He wandered into the kitchen, poking through the fridge for something he wouldn’t have to cook. There were a few slices of pizza from the other night, so he dug into those. He needed to think of something he could make for everyone, since almost everyone had fed him at some point so far.

“What’s this?” Tony asked, walking into the room holding a little plate in his hand. Steve set down his food, kicking himself for having forgotten what he’d done a few days ago.

“Natasha and I tried to make some candy the other day, but you were gone before I could offer you any. I wanted to make sure you had a chance to try it, if you wanted to. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gone onto your floor without your permission,” Steve stammered. For someone who cherished his own privacy so much, he shouldn’t have infringed on Tony’s. He could’ve just stashed the piece on his own floor.

“Nah, don’t worry about it. I trust you,” Tony shrugged, stepping up to lean on the counter across from him.

“Still, it wasn’t right. You’re allowed to have boundaries,” Steve sighed, picking at the slice on his plate.

“Listen to me. If at any time you want to come to my floor, you have my express permission. I don’t care what time it is or what the reason is. Even if you just want to sit on my couch or take a roll of toilet paper. Never hesitate,” Tony insisted. Tony reached his hand across the counter and Steve was expecting him to grab his hand, since that was the sort of thing they did now, but instead he plucked a chunk of sausage off his pizza and popped it into his mouth. “So, break this down for me, cause I’m not sure if this looks delicious or disgusting.”

“It looked better when we made it,” Steve defended, hiding his smile at Tony’s ability to say something so meaningful, then immediately make a joke to make things less awkward. “Just eat it, since you trust me.”

“Oh, I’m gonna regret saying that, aren’t I?” Tony chuckled, grabbing the treat and shoving half of it in his mouth. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and he slumped dramatically on top of the counter. “Oh my god, it tastes like a six year old’s dream.”

“Is that a good thing?” Steve asked, noticing how Tony’s eating style seemed to match Thor’s at the moment.

“Definitely. This is like the most unhealthy thing I’ve eaten in a long time, in the best way possible,” Tony moaned, licking his fingers.

“A long time?”

“Okay, maybe closer to a couple days, but still,” Tony admitted, eating the rest of the piece just as quickly.

“This wasn’t even what it was supposed to be, but it was harder than Natasha and I expected,” Steve confessed, finishing up his own snack. “When we try again, I’ll save you some.”

“I like this better, since it’s something you guys came up with,” Tony grinned, walking around the island to put his plate in the dishwasher. “So did you guys try out the hot tub? It’s okay if you did.”

“No, we didn’t. I don’t even think anyone else knows about it, unless you told them,” Steve said, adding his own plate alongside Tony’s. It felt weird not immediately washing it, but he was just following what Tony did.

“Good. I’ve been looking forward to simmering in a little Avengers soup,” Tony laughed, rubbing his hands together.

“That sounds disgusting,” Steve cringed, recoiling a little at the idea. He knew they were getting pretty close, but putting it like that did not sound appealing.

“Nah, it’s not as bad as I made it sound,” Tony snickered, patting him on the shoulder. “That’s more of an evening activity though. How have you been passing the time since I’ve been gone?”

“Training and TV basically.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“I don’t think you’d like what we were watching.”

“I meant the training part.”

“Really? You never wanted to join us before-” Steve cut himself off, not wanting to bring up the issues of the past.

“I know, but that was just me being stubborn,” Tony sighed, crossing his arms. “I wouldn’t mind being shown a few new tricks.”

“Yeah?” Steve asked with excitement, trying to contain the hopeful smile that wanted to burst out. “Can I invite the others?”

“Sure. Why not include the whole gang? You have to protect me from Natasha though,” Tony warned, pointing a finger at him.

“I won’t let anything happen to you.”

*

Tony and Steve were in the gym 30 minutes later warming up. He decided to take it easy on him and stick to a few minutes of jogging and stretches, not the aggressive sprinting he did with Thor. Steve was so happy to have Tony down here to train that he wanted everything to be perfect. If Tony could protect himself out there during battle, in the rare times he was without his suit, Steve could breathe a little easier.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” Clint marveled as he walked into the gym.

“Just because I don’t work out with you doesn’t mean I don’t work out at all,” Tony scoffed, flexing his arms.

“Muscles are great and all, as long as you know how to use them,” Clint challenged, stalking closer to Tony.

“Hey, remember we’re on the same side!” Tony squeaked, moving to stand behind Steve. “If you break me, who will pay for this tower we all live in?”

“Pepper,” Clint grinned, making his move. Steve intercepted the arm that was headed for Tony, twisting it behind Clint’s back and pushing him away. “Aw, come on Steve, I wasn’t gonna hurt him.”

“Well then, you shouldn’t be upset that I blocked you,” Steve said, crouching down into a ready position. Clint mirrored his moves as they slowly circled each other. This was going to be fun.

Steve and Clint started grappling, pausing now and then to give Tony a better look at what they were doing and to give him a chance to practice on both of them. The others eventually came down too, even Bruce, though he mostly watched. It reminded Steve of what they could’ve had this whole time, but instead of dwelling on the time that was lost, he appreciated the time they still had.

They were all a sweaty mess by the time they decided to break for lunch. Bruce told everyone he’d take care of the food while everyone showered and to meet back on the common floor. Clint grumbled about how the food was going to be too healthy, but Steve thought that sounded nice, after all the stuff they’d been eating recently. He didn’t want to go back to his chicken breast diet, but a little sugar detox wasn’t a bad thing now and then.

Bruce ended up making turkey burgers, which were really good. Steve chatted with him about the seasonings he used and they conspired to make a plan to get more nutritious options in the team meal rotation. By the time they were all finished, Bruce had dinner from a vegan restaurant already ordered.

They went back down to the gym, with Natasha and Clint pairing up as well as Steve and Thor. Tony would jump in randomly, but groaned about being too old for marathon workouts. Steve could tell Tony would rather be doing anything else at the moment, but was staying down there to make him happy.

“I’m tapping out,” Clint wheezed from his position between Natasha’s legs.

“But I haven’t finished,” Natasha sighed, leaning back on her elbows. Tony snorted, wagging his eyebrows.

“I’ll come help,” Steve offered. He could keep going for hours.

“Oh no you won’t!” Tony barked out, steering him toward the elevators. “Everyone get cleaned up and put on your bathing suits. Meet on the common floor in say, half an hour?”

“Why?” Clint questioned, rolling away from Natasha’s grasp.

“Just do it and find out,” Tony commanded, grinning at everyone as the doors closed.

“Do I even have a swimsuit?” Steve asked.

“You think I’d buy you cowboy boots and not swim trunks?”

“Yes.”

“Fair point. There are some in your closet though. How about I meet you back on your floor when I’m ready and I can show you where they are?” Tony suggested.

“Sounds good,” Steve agreed, stepping off when the elevator got to his floor. He took his third shower of the day, which felt so excessive, especially since he was about to go sit in more water. But he didn’t let himself worry about it, he just enjoyed it. Steve toweled off, wandering into the closet. He still hadn’t seen everything that was in here, mostly just taking whatever he came across that fit the occasion.

“Bottom right drawer,” Tony said from behind him, almost startling him into dropping his towel.

“Thanks,” Steve said quickly, dipping down to open the drawer and hide his embarrassment. He pulled out the shorts that were on top. The very short shorts. “Tony.”

“I thought that’s what you guys wore back then?” Tony asked, trying to contain his laughter. While that was true, Steve didn’t think he wanted to be in tiny shorts while Tony got to wear shorts to his knees and a shirt. “Dig a little deeper.” Steve pushed aside a few more pairs of glorified underwear and pulled out a deep blue pair of shorts that looked acceptably long.

“Much better,” Steve smiled, waiting for Tony to turn around so he could slide them on. Not as long as Tony’s, but mid thigh was better than the other options.

“So, I called my guys earlier and they said they should have the bank thing sorted out by the end of the week. I didn’t tell them all the details, in case you wanted to keep it private,” Tony said, running his fingers along the edge of the door.

“Thank you,” Steve said sincerely. Leave it to Tony to not waste any time, even when he’d already dedicated his whole day to hanging out with Steve.

“Speaking of privacy, I was wondering if you’d talked about this with anyone else? I just want to make sure I don’t say the wrong thing if you’re keeping this on the down low,” Tony asked.

“I haven’t, no. Do you think I should?” Steve asked. He hadn’t really thought about telling anyone about his plans. It was hard enough telling Tony, but he had to, to get his help. Steve knew it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, but it was pretty depressing.

“It’s not up to me to make that decision, but I don’t think it would be a bad thing. They might even help you find things you want to keep.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Sounds good. And until you give me the go ahead, I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“You know how to do that?” Steve joked, laughing at Tony’s shocked face.

“Keep that up and I will turn off the jets in your part of the tub,” Tony hissed, wagging a finger in his face.

“Is that a threat? Doesn’t seem like that big of a deal,” Steve scoffed, following Tony to the elevators once again.

“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough,” Tony said smugly, telling Jarvis to take them up to the common floor. Everyone was waiting by the time they got there and most of them were glaring at Clint. “What the hell is that?”

“That’s just what I was wondering,” Natasha sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. If Steve thought those shorts in his closet were tiny, whatever Clint was wearing made those seem like the epitome of modesty.

“It’s a Speedo. It’s the best thing to wear for aerodynamics,” Clint defended, tipping his chin up in defiance.

“That’s not really going to matter where we’re headed,” Tony said.

“I think they are nice,” Thor commented, sporting his own pair of excessively short shorts.

“Everyone just get on the elevator,” Tony groaned, tucking himself in the corner to stay away from Clint. Steve didn’t really mind, since he’d pretty much spooned him in bed when he was only wearing boxers. And since they were all about to take a glorified bath together.

“I like your trunks,” Natasha said, sliding her fingers down the side of his leg.

“Thanks. I like your suit,” Steve replied. It was a sleek one piece that reminded him of her mission uniform. Tony wiggled his way back to the front as soon as the doors opened, gesturing for everyone to follow him.

“Ta-da!” Tony said with a flourish, darting over to where the water was steaming and bubbling. Steve had to admit that it looked a lot more impressive full than it did empty.

“I guess you didn’t have to worry about aerodynamics after all,” Natasha snorted, elbowing Clint in the ribs.

“How was I supposed to know that?” Clint grumbled, rubbing at his side.

“Enough arguing, get in,” Tony said, hopping over the side and sinking in with a long, drawn out moan. The rest of them followed and Steve understood now why Tony was so excited. This was like heaven. There was a jet hitting him in the back just right, soothing those muscles they’d all worked out that day. Steve felt like he could stay here forever.

“This is amazing Tony, thank you,” Steve murmured, letting his eyes flutter closed at the feeling of utter contentment. He felt Clint and Natasha each grab one of his legs from where they were sitting across from him, massaging his feet. He’d pay them back later, but for now he was going to let himself be pampered without complaint.

Steve felt his head listing to the side, but he didn’t fight it, letting it rest against Tony’s shoulder. Tony chuckled, but didn’t push him off. Steve let himself drift off, trusting that Tony wouldn’t let him sink. He wouldn’t let anything happen to him.

Chapter 42: Chapter 42

Chapter Text

After that, the days kind of started blending together, but not in a bad way. It wasn’t the same way they had when he’d been alone in his apartment, reliving a cycle of exercise and no sleep. Now he was just living without thought, doing whatever he felt like during the day.

Steve got into a routine of making breakfast for everyone with Bruce. They still kept everything appealing, but they just snuck in some better ingredients here and there. No one needed to know the omelettes were mostly egg whites. Or that the pancakes were made with whole wheat flour.

He usually went down to the gym after breakfast. Thor was the most consistent with joining him, but the others did occasionally as well. Steve relished in the times he could let loose with Thor, since the god could take anything he could give, and vice versa.

Lunch was mostly casual, with whoever going up first ordering from wherever they wanted and getting enough for everyone to share when they decided to eat. Steve liked to go up after someone else ordered, so he could try the different things they liked. There were so many different types of cuisine he’d never had before, but he pretty much enjoyed them all, just maybe not the spicier options.

The rest of the afternoon was typically spent wandering around the tower to see what everyone else was doing. Steve still hadn’t added much to his own floor, because he was afraid it would be too easy to go back to isolating himself again. And he just preferred to be around other people still, and see what they liked. It was a lot of TV with Clint, who seemed really excited to show him his favorite movies, cooking with Natasha, which involved a lot of watching internet videos showing the steps one by one, or hanging in the labs with either Tony or Bruce.

They always ate dinner together, casually chatting and laughing like Steve thought they’d been doing all along without him. It felt like a family, like he was sitting with his siblings every night. Even Natasha and Tony were getting along, better than he could ever remember. Steve lived for these dinners, looking forward to them every day.

And Steve always ended the night in the jacuzzi. It helped him relax, even when he didn’t consciously feel he was tense. Somehow the water and the jets still found a way to turn him to goo. He was usually alone, but Tony joined him occasionally. They wouldn’t talk, just sat side by side even with all the available room. Then when it was time for bed, they’d slip on the special robes and slippers Tony had gotten for everyone with their initials stitched on and head up to their rooms.

Steve was still going up to Natasha’s floor every night, sleeping between her and Clint. It didn’t even feel abnormal anymore, although he knew it couldn’t stay this way forever. There was no need to change things up now though, since no one was complaining. And Clint was a surprisingly good cuddler, especially now that he started wearing pants to bed.

All in all, life was going pretty well. Which is why no one should’ve been surprised when a wrench was thrown into it.

*

Steve didn’t leave the tower that often since he moved back in. It wasn’t for any particular reason, but he never really found a need to. Tony provided everything he could ever think of wanting, so there wasn’t a point. He was content to just hang around with everyone. There was a ton of space, so it was easy to find something to do.

So when Tony asked him to run down the street to pick up an important package from the Post Office for him, he agreed without hesitation. Tony was swamped with some sort of emergency work call and needed whatever the thing was, so of course Steve would get it for him. After everything Tony had done for all of them, Steve could do him this favor.

It was a few days into December by this point, so Steve made sure to bundle up for the short walk. It wasn’t snowing yet, but there was no reason to be cold if he could avoid it. And all the layers and the hat kept him from being recognized as easily. More and more people figuring out who he really was was unavoidable in the long run, but keeping his privacy as much as possible was important to him. He wore the cowl for a reason.

The streets were busy, with people taking advantage of the pre Christmas tourist lull. Soon enough there would be barely any room to think with all the people crammed in the city, taking in all the sights and sounds. He should really think about getting his Christmas shopping done early, so he could avoid all that. Steve knew Natasha would be willing to go with him and help navigate the crowds, especially since he’d agreed to dress up as a Captain America themed elf for her toy drive.

The Post Office was a little busy, but Steve didn’t mind. It was all so normal that he kind of appreciated it. He chatted with the woman in front of him, listening to her go on about her online jewelry shop and how many packages she had to send out this month. He promised to check out her website and she told him to message her on there for a discount code. Thor would probably love something that sparkled for Christmas.

There was a slight hiccup when a man at the counter started shouting at an employee. Steve didn’t pay it much mind until he started waving his hands around aggressively. He could tell the postal worker was getting a bit nervous, so he was prepared to step in if needed. But then a manager came out and calmed the situation down. Steve was relieved, because he never would’ve been able to live it down with the team if he’d been caught up in some sort of drama the one time he left the tower alone.

It was finally Steve’s turn and he got Tony’s package. He had no idea what it was and it was pretty small, so he tucked it into the inner pocket of his jacket and went on his way. He took a different route this time, taking in the sights of the holiday decorations that were being put up.

The bank Tony had found for him was only a few streets away, and they’d gotten that squared up a few days back. Steve still only had the two things to put in, but that was okay. He could always go back and add more whenever he found something worthy. Tony had gone with him, asking any last minute questions he had and making sure everything was air tight. He said that he wanted to get a feel for the place, but Steve was pretty sure Tony didn’t want him to have to go through it all alone. And he appreciated that.

Steve was just about to make the last turn to get back to the tower when his phone beeped in his pocket. Tony had made him give up his old phone and start carrying a prototype he’d made for the team. He still didn’t know all the things it could do, but he had a good enough grasp on it to be able to open up the messages.

Meet me on SI floor 14.

Steve suddenly got nervous. If there was this much of a business issue, did that mean Tony was going to have to leave again? He really hoped that wasn’t the case, but he’d have to get over it if it was. Any one of them could find a reason to leave at any moment and there would be nothing Steve could do about it. And if Thor had to go off Earth right now, Steve would probably drop dead. He should really figure out the situation before letting his mind come up with worst case scenarios.

He never went on the business floors of the tower, because there was no need for him to. That was completely another realm in his eyes, and he usually forgot it even existed. There were so many floors to the tower that he only saw other people there when he went through the lobby. Steve went to the normal elevators, since the team elevator bypassed all the others and went straight to the Avenger’s section.

He got lucky at first, stepping onto a car alone. It felt kind of weird to actually have to push a button to get the thing to move. How had talking to a computer become more normal to him? Steve leaned back in the corner of the elevator, listening to the soft music playing over the speakers. It was kind of soothing. Maybe Jarvis could start playing something in the team’s elevator.

The car started slowing down as it reached the fifth floor, so Steve stood up straight and pasted his basic, pleasant look back on his face. He was pretty sure Tony had all employees sign non-disclosure agreements, but he didn’t need to hear a story about someone seeing a scowling, slumped Captain America in an elevator. Tony’s public relations people had enough to deal with.

The doors dinged open and a single person entered. Steve felt his heart stutter a little and his breath caught in his throat. Sweat immediately started beading on his upper lip as he stared in shock. Every muscle in his body went tense and started to tremble.

It was an older woman, maybe around 70 years old, with bright red hair.

Chapter 43: Chapter 43

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

This wasn’t real. Seeing this woman again out of nowhere was short circuiting his brain. Steve could feel everything he’d gained slipping away and he couldn’t do anything about it. He was frozen and trapped in this box and he couldn’t get out. And for some reason, the woman had no reaction to seeing him. What was this? Steve couldn’t understand what was happening.

He didn’t even notice her leaving, or that he’d sunk to the floor in the corner of the elevator. Had Tony set this up? What were the chances that the one time he’d take this elevator that he would see someone from that horrible day? Was his fear from the beginning coming true? That Tony had been faking all his kindness, just to make the fall that much more satisfying? Steve couldn’t believe that, because then he’d have nothing.

Steve ducked his head down to his knees, trying to pretend he was back on his floor with the team. The morning had started off so well, but now Steve felt like he was dying. Was he still on the floor of that fake hospital room? Had he made up everything that happened since in some trauma induced fever dream? Things had been going too well. He should’ve known.

“Steve! What the hell happened?!”

Life in the tower had been too perfect. Since when did Steve get everything he ever hoped for?

“Jarvis, close those doors and stop the elevator!”

He was alone.

“Steve, please look at me. You gotta tell me what happened.”

There was nothing left for him.

“Jarvis, send the footage of Steve getting back to the building to my phone.”

His heart couldn’t handle this.

“Oh sh*t, oh no.”

He couldn’t do this anymore.

“Oh God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Steve could feel himself being moved, but he didn’t fight against it. He didn’t have the strength or drive to do anything. He was resting against something warm, but he couldn’t feel it in his own body. His veins felt like ice.

“Steve, please say something. You’re scaring me, please.”

That sounded like Tony, but Tony was there the other time too. Was he still trying to wake him up?

“S’real?”

“Yes Steve. I’m real, you’re real. We’re at home and it’s December 2012. You have plans to make ice cream with Natasha later, remember? I wanted chocolate and Clint wanted mint chocolate chip, so you decided to do plain vanilla and then set up a sundae bar? And you got that new speaker to listen to the audiobook Bruce recommended in the hot tub?”

“But she- you didn’t?”

“No! God no, I wouldn’t!” Steve felt his head being cradled and wetness dropping onto his scalp. “Please believe me, I would never do that to you again.”

“Tony, Tony,” Steve chanted, trying to anchor himself back into reality. He couldn’t have imagined everything, because even in his wildest dreams he wouldn’t have been as happy as he’d been these past few weeks. And Steve owed a lot of it to the man who was holding him right now.

“It’s okay, you’re okay,” Tony mumbled into his hair. Steve nodded, clinging onto those words. Everything was starting to come back into focus. He couldn’t really explain what happened. It was like one moment he was fine and the next his brain was fried and he couldn’t form a cohesive thought.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, carefully unwrapping his arms from around his legs. After everything Tony had done for him, he didn’t deserve for Steve to even consider he’d do something this cruel.

“Don’t you dare apologize to me. I will never be able to make up for what I did to you. And I can’t fault you for not trusting me when we haven’t even discussed what happened.”

“I don’t- we don’t need to-”

“You have to stop letting me be a coward!” Tony burst out, leaning back to rake a hand through his hair.

“That’s not it. I’m the one who’s scared,” Steve whispered, looking away in shame.

“Tell me why. Please, just help me understand,” Tony implored, reaching forward to wrap his hand around his wrist. Steve stared down at it, imprinting the feeling of it in his memory in case it wouldn’t last.

“I was afraid if you told me why you did it, you’d go back to being that guy. That you’d remember the reason and decide it was what you really wanted,” Steve whispered, brushing away the tears that started to fall again. “I couldn’t risk losing you.”

“God, Steve,” Tony gasped, leaning forward to hold Steve’s face in his hands. Tony waited until Steve looked up and maintained eye contact before continuing. “There is absolutely no chance of me going back to the person I was. I regret everything I did and will never do it again. I love you too much to ever hurt you like that.”

“You promise?” Steve murmured, pressing his forehead to Tony’s. He wanted to believe so badly, but the fear of losing everything was terrifying. It was a lot to ask of someone to never let you down.

“I promise,” Tony said, pulling him into a proper hug. Steve closed his eyes, gripping Tony as tight as he could. He had to put his faith in Tony right now. If he didn’t, he’d always have that doubt in the back of his mind and that was no way to live.

“Okay, let’s talk,” Steve agreed, giving Tony one last squeeze before letting go. They helped each other stand and Tony wiped off Steve’s face with his sleeve. He almost rolled his eyes at the tenderness of it all, but he truly appreciated it.

“Do you want to go back to my floor?” Tony asked, scrubbing off his own face now.

“Yeah.”

“Jarvis, take us to the garage floor, no stops,” Tony directed.

“I didn’t know Jarvis was in this part of the tower,” Steve said, straightening out his clothes in case they happened upon anyone else.

“Jarvis is everywhere, he just only answers to the team,” Tony replied. They switched elevators as soon as the doors opened, thankfully not running into anyone else.

“Oh, your package,” Steve sighed, pulling the little parcel from his pocket to hand over to Tony. “I didn’t mean to disturb your work.”

“You’re more important than work,” Tony brushed off, spinning the little box in his hands. When they finally got to Tony’s floor, Steve was nervous. He could tell Tony was too. They had put this conversation off for so long that it had built into this massive thing. Steve didn’t even know where to begin.

“Living room?” Tony suggested, tipping his head in that direction. Steve shrugged, following along and stopping behind one of the couches. There was so much pent up anxiety that he felt like he couldn’t sit. This was one of those times he wished alcohol had an effect on him, because it might’ve been useful in calming him down a little. He tried to remind himself that this Tony would stay, just like he did through their other hard talks, but this one was getting to the heart of things and it was going to be painful no matter what.

“Um, I don’t-”

“I spent my whole life seeking my fathers approval, doing anything I could to see if I could find a hint of love or pride for me hidden in that man. I just wanted a sign that would tell me he loved me like I loved him. I never really got it and then he died and I didn’t have a chance after that,” Tony started, pacing in front of the windows. Steve let him take the lead, since Tony seemed to need to get this out of his system. “And then you came along and I couldn't help but compare you to him, because he always said more nice things about you than he ever did about me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize for Howard’s choices. They were his and his alone,” Tony insisted, wringing his hands. “When everyone ended up loving you, like people did with my dad, and you didn’t seem to be giving anyone the time of day, I just saw my father again. And I know now why you were keeping everyone at arm’s length, but back then I couldn’t see past my own hurt.”

“I’m sorry I pushed you away. It was like you were my one loose tie to the past, but when it seemed like you hated me, it made it hurt even worse. Like even that small connection was ripped away,” Steve said quietly, looking up to try to blink his tears away. There was no way he was escaping this conversation without blubbering, but he couldn’t break down already.

“Communication issues and buckets of trauma. My, aren’t we a pair?” Tony scoffed, shaking his head.

“A good one now, I think,” Steve offered, hoping Tony would agree. They still had a long way to go, but they seemed like they were getting better. Tony nodded, then continued on.

“So, like an immature child, I poked at you, because even a negative reaction is better than no reaction at all. And I feel like I’m belittling what I did to you by referring to it like that, because what I did was awful and cruel. I’m so sorry for everything I did,” Tony apologized, the shame clear on his face. “But then you left and I understand why, but back then it felt like you couldn’t be bothered with me. Like no matter what, everything was beneath you. Then Kansas happened.” Steve sucked in a breath, because now they were getting to the hardest part. The part he never wanted to think about, let alone talk about again. But he knew they had to do it.

“When you got hurt, I was so scared. And when you didn’t wake up after I gave you that drug, I was terrified. All I did while you were out was sit by your bedside, watching the monitors and listening to you breathe. I started imagining you waking up and us starting fresh, just putting everything that happened in the past. When you were finally healed and the doctors could tell you were going to wake up soon, I started bawling. I was so relieved that you were going to be okay and we could do everything I built up in my head. But then I got mad,” Tony recounted, shaking his head at the memory. “I was so angry that I’d spent all this time worried about someone I was convinced didn’t care about me. Didn’t care about anyone really. You never showed anyone how you felt about leaving everyone you knew behind and I was certain you wouldn’t care if it happened again.”

Steve felt sick to his stomach. He hadn’t shown anyone how much he hurt, because he needed to give everyone the strong Captain America they wanted. He never thought he would do it so well that people thought he didn’t care about anything.

“So I set up that prank because I knew for sure that you wouldn’t care. I’d have proof that you didn’t care about any of us, so I could tell myself it wasn’t just me. You’d wake up and move on, just like you had before. But I was wrong.”

“Were you watching? Did you record it?”

“I was watching from another room, but I rushed back as soon as I saw your reaction wasn’t what I thought it would be. And I promise, there are no recordings of it anywhere.”

“And who were those women? Why was she in the elevator today?”

“They already worked here. The woman in the elevator just happened to look enough like the little girl. I never thought you’d run into any of them. I’d honestly forgotten they existed.”

Steve let his shoulders sag, feeling exhausted now that the secrets were finally out. All this hurt because Tony didn’t think Steve cared and because Steve thought he couldn’t care. It sounded ridiculous now, after how far they’d come, but understandable knowing how they were back then. So much pain that could’ve been avoided, if only they’d actually talked to each other, instead of forming their own opinions and holding onto them stubbornly.

“I-” Steve started, before cutting himself off. He didn’t really know what to say. Or how he felt. Part of him felt like he should be mad at Tony, because was there ever a good excuse to hurt someone like that? But instead of anger, he only felt sadness. Sadness that he’d had to go through all that and that Tony would have to live with the burden of knowing the harm he caused. Steve just didn’t have the energy to hold a grudge over it. “I forgive you.”

“What?” Tony spluttered, putting his hands on his hips. “You can’t just forgive me. Not after everything.”

“I did the holding onto my anger thing and it almost killed me,” Steve admitted, thinking back to that time in his apartment. If he’d kept on that path, he would’ve died, there was no question left in his mind. “I know you now and everything you’ve done since then shows me your remorse. You didn’t just say sorry or make excuses, you actively became a better person. You became my best friend and I’m not willing to lose that.”

“I don’t deserve that. I don’t deserve you,” Tony insisted, angrily wiping at his face.

“God Tony, you don’t even understand how good you are. Look around at all the things you do for other people, without asking for a single thing in return. You once told me that even if I never did a single thing for anyone else again, it wouldn’t diminish my worth. Don’t you get that the same goes for you? Just because you made a mistake, that doesn’t make you irredeemable. You deserve another chance and my forgiveness because I love you too.”

Something broke in both of them at this point and they were both openly sobbing. Steve made the first move this time, walking around the couch so he could pull Tony into a hug. They clutched each other and wept in a way that was becoming worryingly common for Steve, but these tears felt like they were cleansing their relationship. All of the leftover pain and doubt was washing away as they held each other up and supported one another.

Steve didn’t know how long they stood like that before they broke apart, but he was completely drained. It was still early afternoon and he had no idea how he was going to get through the rest of the day. He couldn’t remember how he got through days of no sleeping, because now he felt like he could drop at any moment.

“I think I’ve hit my quota on crying today,” Steve chuckled, rubbing at his eyes.

“Um, I might have something to say about that,” Tony said sheepishly, grabbing the package from where he’d set it on the table.

“I thought this was a work thing,” Steve said, taking the offered box. He was nervous because he had no idea what it could be.

“No, it’s a Steve thing,” Tony whispered. Tony’s tone made Steve tense up even more. He wouldn’t sound like that if this was just a normal gift. Steve peeled off the tape, taking care not to damage whatever was inside. Whatever it was had bubble wrap covering it, so he unwound it until it became more visible. His hands started shaking when he realized what it was.

“How?” Steve gasped, pulling the last pieces of plastic away before holding the small part of his past in his palm.

“They recovered it in the plane when they found you. I guess they thought filling a museum was more important than giving property to its rightful owner,” Tony explained, placing a solid hand on his back. Steve was going to need the support. He popped open the top, staring down at the face of the only woman he’d ever loved.

“Thank you,” Steve sobbed, feeling his knees go weak at the sight of something he thought he lost so long ago. Tony led him to a couch, letting Steve rest against him as he cried.

“Tell me about her?” Tony asked. And Steve did. Steve told him everything he remembered, from when they first met, to working together, to falling in love. He told Tony more than he’d ever told anyone, even Bucky. There were more tears, but eventually they started to be replaced by smiles. It was so hard to talk about, but as he went on, he realized pretending it never happened was even harder. She was so important to him that it wasn’t fair not to remember her, to grieve her. Steve fell asleep against Tony’s shoulder with words of acceptance falling from his lips.

Notes:

The ending of this chapter was inspired by Claw71.

Chapter 44: Chapter 44

Chapter Text

Steve spent the rest of the day on Tony’s floor with him, after they woke up from their nap. He was too emotionally drained to do anything else. The other members of the team breezed through occasionally, but they didn’t ask any questions. They would still be there tomorrow to do whatever they had planned, but today, Steve needed the reassurance of Tony’s presence. His panic from earlier had faded, but there were still little bits of fear that were only mollified by a look or word or touch from Tony.

He listened to Tony talk about work and Pepper and whatever else he could think of. Steve talked about growing up, but stuck to the lighter topics. It was still hard, since even remembering the good stuff left him feeling wistful, but the more he talked about it, the easier it would get.

Bruce sent up salads for dinner, much to Tony’s dismay. But then Clint sent up an apple pie, so Tony stopped complaining. They ate on the couch and watched action movies all night, with Tony critiquing their technology and science and Steve commenting on their fighting abilities. And when Tony fell asleep on his shoulder this time, Steve was content to stay just where he was.

Steve went back to living like he had the next day, feeling lighter now that the burden of that talk wasn’t hanging over him anymore. He didn’t realize the underlying dread it was causing until that feeling disappeared. Maybe talking things through instead of bottling everything up was a good idea? It seemed so simple when you put it like that, but it was much harder in execution. But the end result felt like it was worth it, no matter the effort it took.

He threw himself into helping Natasha with her toy drive, wrapping present after present and writing little notes for each one. Steve asked her about her past Christmases and he told her about his. He focused his attention on helping make everything perfect for Thor’s first Christmas, since he’d never celebrated one, at least not on Earth. Clint started looking up cookie recipes, deciding to join in on his and Natasha’s cooking experiments. He was surprisingly good at baking.

Bruce had all the bars made and personalized for the team and Tony made a robot to package them up for travel. Everyone had been as appreciative and touched as Steve was from that gesture. All in all, the rest of the year was shaping up to be a good one.

And then came the call from Shield.

*

“I think we went too heavy on the almond extract,” Steve said, wiping a cookie crumb off his shirt.

“It may have a marzipan quality to it, but it’s not bad,” Tony shrugged, popping the rest of the cookie in his mouth. “I’d probably forgo the frosting though.”

“We can give the rest to Thor. I don’t think anything is too sweet for him,” Steve chuckled, standing up and stretching. He was visiting Tony in his lab to let the other man try the latest baking creation. Clint was in obsessive cookie mode with Christmas only a week away, so Steve was always looking to pawn off some of the extras to the others. They decided to cook the whole Christmas meal themselves and Clint was determined to have his cookies be the star of the show.

The toy drive the weekend before had been a success, with Thor only making a few kids cry. Once he lowered his intensity, things ran smoother. It was so nice helping out the families who really needed it, giving out toys and canned goods, since Tony had made a few calls and partnered them up with a local food bank. He’d even tucked gift cards to grocery stores in each gift, all out of his own pocket. This was exactly the kind of thing Steve’s mom would’ve been so thankful for, so he was honored to be able to give back in this way. But now the focus was on their own Christmas celebration.

They were going to have a big Christmas movie marathon on Christmas Eve, with pastries and hors d'oeuvres ordered in by Tony. Then Christmas day was going to have everyone cooking together and exchanging gifts. Steve was determined to enjoy the days as much as he could, instead of letting himself be melancholy. Focusing on sadness wouldn’t make anything better, so why do it?

“You’re telling me,” Tony scoffed, tightening a screw in one of his machines. “I once caught him snacking on sugar cubes. Had to sic Bruce on him for that.”

“Is that the day he only ate brown rice and vegetables?”

“Yeah, didn’t take,” Tony laughed, ducking down to inspect his work.

“I’ll let you get back to it,” Steve said, backing toward the door. “Are we still on for the jacuzzi later?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Tony agreed, waving a hand in goodbye.

“Pardon the interruption, but Director Fury is on the line. He says it’s urgent,” Jarvis said. Both of them froze, sending each other similar looks of surprise. Steve had been thinking more and more about broaching the topic of getting back into the world saving game, but he’d always hesitated bringing it up to anyone. He figured it wouldn’t be a good idea to force himself to go back before he was ready, especially if there wasn’t anything they were specifically needed for. But if Fury was calling right now, out of nowhere, there had to be something big going down.

“Put him through,” Tony sighed, tapping his fingers on the table.

“Stark, we need you all on this one,” Fury boomed through the speaker.

“Well, hello to you too. You don’t call, you don’t write.”

“I don’t have time for this. Is the team ready or not?” Fury snapped.

“We’re ready, sir. What’s the situation?” Steve answered before Tony could rile the man up anymore.

“Captain Rogers, good to hear you sounding better. I’d ask you how you’ve been, but this matter is pressing and we don’t have the time for pleasantries.”

“You’ve never been pleasant in your life,” Tony scoffed.

“What are we looking at?” Steve asked, ignoring the churning in his stomach. This is what he was made for. He could do this.

“A heavily armed militia has taken over a secret Shield site in Arizona. We need you to go in there and bring them down, hopefully alive so we can get some answers as to how they found out about this place,” Fury explained.

“Sounds like a pretty basic mission. Why can’t your normal agents take care of it?” Tony asked.

“This call is coming from above my head, Stark. There are some important people and important things in that place that need to be taken care of. That’s what this initiative was created for,” Fury growled.

“Well-”

“We’re on it,” Steve agreed, cutting off any further arguments from Tony.

“Good. Coordinates and any other information I have will be sent to your jet,” Fury said, hanging up immediately.

“What the hell was that?” Tony asked, staring up at him.

“What choice do we have?” Steve sighed. He didn’t want to go either, but how could he say no?

“Staying home is a choice. Telling Fury to send some of his other highly trained professionals is a choice.”

“And doing our jobs is a choice as well.”

“A possibly stupid choice!” Tony shot back, raking a hand through his hair. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to go back out there before you’re ready?”

“How am I supposed to know if I’m ready or not? Who gets to determine that?”

“I don’t know,” Tony groaned, staring down at the table for his next words. “Maybe you should sit this one out and let the rest of us go?”

“You can’t be serious!” Steve gasped, rearing back in shock. “You think I’m going to sit here and twiddle my thumbs while you all risk your lives? There is no way you’re benching me.”

“Isn’t that what you did to Bruce? And what you tried to do with all of us?”

“That was different. I was trying to protect you!”

“Which is what I’m doing! God Steve, things have been going so well. I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it if something sets you back,” Tony yelled, slumping in exasperation. Steve felt all the anger leave him. He knew Tony was only worried about him, and he truly appreciated it, but he couldn’t stay behind. That would be setting a dangerous precedent.

“Tony, I understand what you’re saying, but I have to do this. I can’t think of anything worse than you all going and something bad happening while I was sitting here doing nothing. That is something I won’t be able to come back from,” Steve said, walking around the table to stand next to Tony. “We knew this day was coming, and while it’s probably sooner than any of us wanted, we can’t do anything about that. But it’s not the same as it was before. We aren’t a group of people stuck together on a team, we’re family. And we’ll be able to support each other, no matter what happens.”

“f*ck your pep talks,” Tony grunted, pulling Steve into a tight hug. Steve fell into the embrace, absorbing as much strength from the other man as he could. “You have to promise me you’ll be careful. And no bullsh*t taking on more than you should to keep the rest of us out of danger. We all have skills and jobs to do.”

“I promise,” Steve said, nodding against Tony’s shoulder. Tony pulled back, staring Steve in the eye one last time before they split up to get ready.

“You’re telling the rest of the team.”

Chapter 45: Chapter 45

Chapter Text

The rest of the team had protested the idea of going out on a mission almost as much as Tony. Steve understood where they were coming from, but his issues couldn’t rank higher than the lives of the people who needed them. And the first mission back was always going to be hard to get through, but Steve was glad they’d come this far before being thrust back in. The team reluctantly went off to suit up, leaving Steve to go back down to Tony’s lab to get one of his suits.

Steve hadn’t moved any of them to his floor because he didn’t want a constant reminder of what he was avoiding. Tony kept them all in a closet in his lab, just like he had the one Steve borrowed for that last mission before his breakdown. He didn’t want to think about why that particular suit wasn’t available anymore.

“Just like old times, right?” Tony asked from where he was waiting by the door for Steve to finish changing.

“Better than old times,” Steve replied, stepping out from the closet.

“Well, I guess it still fits,” Tony said, looking him over.

“Is that a weight joke? You’re the one who’s been feeding me so much,” Steve said lightly, running his hands over the material. It didn’t feel the same as it used to.

“I prefer you in the sweaters,” Tony commented softly, tracing his finger along the star on his chest.

“Me too.”

*

The flight over to the mission was spent planning, although there wasn’t too much information for them to go over. The Shield building fronted as a normal office, situated in a small desert town. The area looked eerily similar to the town in Kansas, but Steve tried not to think about that. The whole team was here this time and all the bad guys were human, as far as they knew.

“We’re gonna have to land the jet about a mile outside of town. I’m thinking here,” Clint said, pointing at a patch of open space on the map they were all huddled around.

“Not too far for me to have to go, in case you need me,” Bruce remarked, blowing out a slightly frustrated breath. Steve knew Bruce didn’t particularly care to fight in battles, and really didn’t like having to let Hulk out, but sitting on the sidelines while everyone else did all the work wasn’t ideal either.

“Actually, I was thinking you could sit at this cafe down the street,” Steve suggested, pointing to a small coffee shop a little down the main road. “That way you’ll be closer, but still out of the line of fire.”

“Really?” Bruce asked, a little spark of surprise and pleasure in his voice.

“Yes. It’s ultimately up to you, but I think having you close by is a good idea,” Steve said. And while it was smart from a mission angle, it also gave Steve a little more peace of mind. Bruce couldn’t get blown up with the jet if he wasn’t in it.

“When do I get to sit back during a mission and sip tea?” Clint whined, checking his arrows. Clint had switched out some of his supply for some non lethal options, since Fury wanted to take these people alive. It was easier said than done, but they could try.

“Just as soon as you start turning into a big, green fighting machine,” Tony grinned, slinging his arm around Bruce’s shoulders.

“We want to try to go in as quietly as possible, but it would be nice to have an idea of what we’re dealing with before we breach,” Steve said, looking up at Tony. “Any chance you can get a scan without being seen?”

“For you, I can do anything,” Tony said with a smile.

“Great. The rest of us will hang back in this alley and wait for your findings,” Steve determined, switching off the display now that they had planned all they could. They still had at least thirty minutes until they got where they were going and the anticipation was going to be brutal. He couldn’t stop himself from going over worst case scenarios in his head. Maybe if he prepared for the worst it would trick the world into doing the opposite.

“I am proud to be going into battle with you again,” Thor said, walking over to stand next to him in the corner he’d gravitated to.

“Even after everything?” Steve asked, glancing up at him.

“Especially after everything. It takes great strength to overcome all the obstacles you have,” Thor answered confidently.

“What if I’m not as strong as you think I am?”

“Oh, I’m never wrong. Well, there was that one time Clint asked me which hand he was holding a piece of candy in, but I think he was cheating, so that doesn’t count,” Thor said, glaring at the man in question.

“Thank you,” Steve said sincerely. A vote of confidence from such a respectable warrior meant a lot.

“You ready?” Tony asked, sliding into Thor’s recently vacated spot.

“As I’m going to get,” Steve sighed. He’d never felt this much dread going into a mission before.

“Just like riding a bike probably,” Tony shrugged, bumping him with his elbow. “Hey, whatever happened to that motorcycle you had? We should take a drive sometime.”

“It was Shield’s. I gave it back.”

“It was crappy, now that I recall,” Tony nodded. “Hey, we should all get our own bikes. We could start a biker gang! What would our name be? The Bikevengers? Avengecycles? Tony Stark and His Merry Gang of Misfits?”

“I don’t know. I can’t really picture Bruce on a motorcycle,” Steve chuckled, shaking his head.

“We’ll get him a sidecar,” Tony agreed, scratching his chin in contemplation. “Mine is going to have flames painted along the sides. And spikes on the rims. And a special button to shoot fire out of the back. What do you want on yours?”

“Well-”

“Don’t say red, white, and blue,” Tony interrupted, rolling his eyes. “Such a cliche.”

“Says the man who makes everything red and gold,” Steve scoffed, rolling his eyes right back. “And what I was going to say, for this hypothetical motorcycle, was plain black.”

“Oh, come on! Life is all about customization,” Tony moaned dramatically. “How about a heated seat? And hand grips?”

“They make things like that?” Steve asked.

“They make everything nowadays. And if they didn’t, I just invent it for you,” Tony snorted, as if spending hours figuring out how to keep Steve’s butt warm was the most normal thing in the world.

“Landing now,” Natasha announced. Steve looked out the front window in shock. This last bit of time had flown by, thanks to Tony’s distraction.

“Thanks,” Steve said, patting Tony on the shoulder.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Tony brushed off, giving him a wink before he walked off to prepare his suit. The back hatch opened as soon as they touched down and everyone started making their way toward it to exit. This could be their last moments together, their last chance.

“Wait!” Steve called out, making everyone freeze. Tony looked ready to fly over and whisk him away, so Steve held up his hand to hold him off. “I just wanted to say one last time, just in case, that I love all of you. You are my family and I wouldn’t be here without each one of you.”

“I love everyone too,” Tony agreed, quickly followed by all the others repeating the same sentiment. Steve was kind of soothed knowing everyone was aware of how much they all cared about each other, on the off chance something bad happened. They should’ve been saying these words all along.

“Now, let’s go save the day.”

*

They made the quick journey to the first spot, splitting off from Bruce once the coast was clear. He was going to sit out at one of the patio tables and pretend to read the paper while listening to everything on comms. Tony took off toward the building, using the new stealth setting on his suit. The sneaky flying man routine was kind of hard to pull off, but if anyone could do it, it was Tony.

The town wasn’t too busy, with most of the buildings in the area being offices instead of retail or services. Better to have less people on the street, but easier for them to stick out and draw attention to themselves as they moved along. There wasn’t anything they could do about that though.

“Here’s what we’re dealing with,” Tony said as soon as he flew back. Jarvis projected a holographic schematic for all of them to see. “The building isn’t very big, but it’s nestled right between two bigger structures, so Hawkeye should be able to get a good vantage point on either side. A got a group of heat signatures in what looks like a basem*nt, so I’m assuming that’s where they have the hostages.”

“Makes sense. What do our entrances look like?” Steve asked.

“Main doors in the front and back, not counting windows. No visible guards right at the exits, but heat signatures close by. Doesn’t seem like too many unfriendlies, but we also don’t really know how many employees there are.”

“Stick to non lethal weapons for as long as possible, especially while establishing the innocents from the enemy. Hawkeye, I want you to find a spot where you can best cover the outside of the building. Have Iron Man fly you there. Once Iron Man is back, he and I will breach the front while Widow and Thor come in the back. Try to stick together as much as possible and if you get an opportunity to get to the basem*nt, take it. Avoiding casualties is the most important thing.”

“I know a certain bald man who would disagree with you there,” Tony pointed out.

“I don’t care. He put us on this mission and we do it our way. He can send in other agents to do the investigating after we’re done,” Steve said firmly.

“There he is,” Tony said with pride.

“Ready everyone?” Steve asked, sliding the shield into position on his arm. At everyone’s affirmation, they took off to their designated positions. Steve ducked under an awning as he waited for Tony to join him, crouching down to camouflage himself as much as possible. Giving those last orders felt more natural than he thought it would. Maybe that was a good sign? Tony landed softly next to him a minute later, giving him a ready signal.

“On my count,” Steve declared, taking one last deep breath. “Three, two, one, go!” Steve burst through the door, holding up his shield in anticipation of gunfire. He wasn’t disappointed. The bullets pinged off his shield for a second before Tony blasted the gun out of the man’s hands, sending another into his leg for good measure. Probably a broken bone, but not blown clean off like a normal shot from Tony could do. Steve whipped his shield toward two men in the corner, knocking them out with dangerous accuracy. He heard a strangled groan which could only come from a jolt of Natasha’s bites.

“Sounds like The Electric Company is having good luck back there,” Tony quipped, cutting through a bit of ceiling so it fell down and pinned another combatant. This was going unusually well, which was kind of confusing. They were good at their jobs, but these bad guys didn’t seem to be. This was the high priority mission that just had to go to The Avengers?

“We’re going to look for the way down,” Steve announced, gesturing for Tony to follow him. He didn’t want to give the people downstairs time to cut their losses and kill all the hostages. Tony scanned all the walls, pointing at a door down a hallway. Steve rushed ahead, sprinting down the stairs he encountered with Tony hot on his heels.

“Took out a couple running out the front door,” Clint said through the comms.

“Neighbors are gonna love that,” Natasha scoffed, giving someone else a jolt.

“They’re hidden. Mostly,” Clint winced. “This site is definitely getting retired.”

Steve tuned out the banter as he slammed through the door. He made short work of the guard standing nearby, rolling to stand defensively in front of the group of people huddled in the corner. He was ready to block any stray bullets that came their way as Tony took care of disarming the rest of the enemies. The people were taped and scared, flinching at every bit of action in the room. Steve was satisfied keeping them as they were for now, instead of letting everyone loose and causing chaos.

“Possibly clear,” Tony called out, scanning the room for any other threats. Was that really it?

“Us too. Making our way down to you,” Natasha announced.

“Hold on. Got a ping through the door to your left,” Tony said, lifting his repulsor in that direction.

“I’ve got it. Cover the hostages,” Steve directed, stalking over toward the door. This was exactly like one of those moments in the movies he watched with Tony. Right when everyone thought the danger was over, one last thing would pop out and wreak havoc. Steve wouldn’t risk that happening to anyone else. He brought up his shield, throwing open the door quickly.

There was a woman with dark hair, taped up like all the others. She looked terrified, with makeup streaking all down her face. Steve peeked around the small room, waiting for something to pop out and attack him, but nothing came. He carefully approached her, not wanting to spook her further. He didn’t know why they would single one woman out, but the reasons he was coming up with were all bad.

“I’m gonna take your tape off, okay?” Steve asked, waiting for her nod before he touched her. He carefully peeled the tape from over her mouth, wincing when she whimpered in pain. “Sorry, sorry.”

“Cut me loose, please,” the woman cried, trembling as he brought his hands around to rip her bindings. Steve wasn’t sure if it was the fact that this was his first mission back after everything, or that this was a woman, but he was honestly surprised by the knife headed for his throat. Only his reflexes kept him from getting stabbed in the neck. He fell backwards, scooting back on his butt as she lunged again.

“No you don’t!” Natasha bellowed, springing from out of nowhere and grabbing the woman’s wrist before she could even begin to bring it down in Steve’s direction. Steve heard the bones snapping as Thor grabbed him under the armpits and pulled him up and back into the main room. The woman howled in pain, but Steve couldn’t really feel sympathy for her. He would let her borrow his screwdriver if she wanted to take care of that situation herself.

“Oh my God, are you alright?” Tony gasped, grabbing Steve by the shoulders and looking him over.

“I’m fine. Not a scratch, I promise,” Steve assured him, feeling embarrassed by the save and fussing. “I had that handled.”

“You wouldn’t have handled it harshly enough,” Natasha growled, pushing the now hogtied woman into the middle of the room.

“Do we risk untying all the others? They might be crazypants like this one,” Tony asked, pointing a toe at the seething woman.

“Let’s get a hold of Shield and have them send in agents now that the threat is neutralized. They can figure out all this when they get here. We can take the tape off their mouths, but maybe leave the rest. Depending on how far out backup is,” Steve determined, trying to hide the guilt from his eyes. It may not be ideal keeping everyone tied up, but it was safer for everyone in the long run, if one of them turned out to be dangerous as well.

“Shield will be here in 10,” Natasha announced, tucking her phone back in her pocket.

“Mouths only then,” Steve declared, walking over to start. The hostages didn’t seem too upset thankfully, probably relieved enough knowing help was on the way. “Hulk, Hawkeye, start heading over.”

“On my way,” Bruce said, scraping his chair along the ground as he stood up to make his way over. Steve waited a few seconds for Clint’s reply, but he didn’t get one.

“Hawkeye, come in,” Steve demanded, trying to keep his voice even. Still nothing. Steve could feel his hands start trembling. This could not be happening. Not on their first mission back. “Clint!”

Chapter 46: Chapter 46

Notes:

Trigger warning for talk of self harm and suicide.

Chapter Text

Steve couldn’t breathe. He knew this had been going too well, even with the last minute knife attack. That had been handled swiftly and everything was done. They’d done everything right, but it wasn’t good enough. Steve should’ve made Bruce stay with Clint, so none of them were alone. But now Clint wasn’t okay and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Bruce, can you get eyes on Clint?” Tony yelled through the comms, grabbing Steve’s arm to keep him from falling over. He should be leading right now, but he couldn’t.

“I’m approaching your position now. I don’t even know which damn building he was on!” Bruce shouted, huffing out panicked breaths.

“Thor, go out and assist. Find him and bring him back,” Tony directed, pointing toward the door.

“On it,” Thor agreed, turning and slamming out of the room. He stopped just outside, co*cking his head to the side. “Found him.”

“What?” Steve gasped, trying to figure out if he’d heard wrong.

“Hey guys, what’s up?” Clint asked, striding into the room like he hadn’t a care in the world. Everyone was gaping at him in shock. “What happened?”

“Why didn’t you answer your comm, you dick?” Natasha snapped, her anger revealing her anxiety, even though she’d stayed quiet the whole time.

“After I got the call to come over, I kind of dropped my earwig,” Clint admitted sheepishly. “It was itching my ear and when I went to scratch it, it fell off the side of the building.”

“You idiot!” Tony hissed.

“Sorry! They don’t cost that much, do they?” Clint grunted, crossing his arms defensively.

“I don’t care about that! We thought- we thought…” Tony trailed off, leaving Clint to put together the pieces. Steve could tell when he did, because Clint’s eyes snapped to his immediately. Steve still hadn’t moved from where he stood frozen, trying to calm his heart before it burst out of his chest.

It had only been a minute between thinking Clint was hurt or worse, but it felt like a lifetime. And he’d done nothing. Some things in this world came down to a game of seconds. If you hesitate, you might just lose all your options. Steve used to be good at making those split second decisions and was confident about them each time. But Steve had been paralyzed. And it could’ve cost Clint his life.

Steve rushed out of the room at that thought, staggering over to the first trash can he saw and falling to his knees in front of it. He gagged as visions of what they could’ve found flashed through his mind. Clint with a bullethole in his forehead. Or a broken neck after falling from the building. Or disappearing altogether, leaving no trace and at the mercy of people who wanted to hurt him.

“Oh God, Steve!” Clint gasped, crouching down at his side to rub his back. “I’m so sorry! I thought I’d get here without anyone realizing I was offline. sh*t, how do I fix this?” Steve grabbed him, wrapping him up in a desperate hug. He left himself feel Clint's heart beating in his chest, taking comfort in the strong thump.

“You’re okay, so it’s okay,” Steve mumbled, concentrating on letting his breaths even out.

“Not to sound like an asshole, but Shield is going to be here any minute,” Tony said, urging them to stand up. Clint pulled him up, readjusting his cowl that had shifted a little during his breakdown. He produced a mint from out of nowhere, pushing it between Steve’s lips. “We good?”

“Yeah,” Steve rasped, clearing his throat.

“Maybe I’ll do the talking,” Tony suggested, leading them back to where the hostages were sitting. Steve hoped they were paying more attention to their own panic than his.

“Where’s Natasha?” Steve asked, looking around the room for the redhead. She wasn’t standing over their angry prisoner like she’d been before.

“She’s upstairs with Bruce, waiting to bring the agents down when they get here,” Tony said. Steve was glad she wasn’t up there alone. The danger might be over for real this time, but they couldn’t be too careful. And she scared most of the agents, so they might be less likely to give them lip when faced with her.

“So, what’s the story with this one?” Clint asked, gesturing to the snarling woman on the ground.

“Tried to hurt Steve, Natasha broke her arm. We’re letting the regular agents deal with her because honestly, I want to burn her face off,” Tony muttered, turning away so he wouldn’t be tempted to do just that.

“Incoming,” Natasha announced through the comms. Tony bumped Clint’s shoulder, letting him know to be prepared since he couldn’t hear the warning. Steve stood back, letting the others take the lead.

“Welcome!” Tony greeted, as the agents filed in behind Natasha and Bruce. The two of them came over to surreptitiously give Steve support. “Do you all enjoy coming in after all the hard work is over?”

“We go where we’re told,” the man who Steve assumed was the lead agent said.

“You know, I appreciate someone who knows how to follow orders,” Tony chuckled, waving his hand toward all the people in the room. “We’ve got everything set up here for you, so have fun cleaning up. The one with the broken arm who is currently cursing up a storm may be the mastermind in all of this, but you’ll have to find that out for sure. Any questions? Cause I’d really like to get back to my end of the country before dark.”

“Fury will let you know if we need anything else,” the agent grumbled, stalking off to where the others were questioning the hostages.

“Spectacular! We’re gonna skedaddle, get out of your hair,” Tony rambled, hooking Steve under his arm and dragging him out of the room. “Happy holidays!” Steve let himself be led out, flanked on his other side by Clint. No one said anything as they made their way back to the jet, brushing off the growing crowd outside with polite smiles and waves. Steve could not put on his Captain America face right now. Tony was right; he shouldn’t have come.

They all climbed onto the plane, going to their normal areas for the flight home. Steve didn’t want to talk about it and thankfully, no one was pushing. Bruce just tossed him a recovery bar and left him to his own devices. He replayed that minute over and over again for the entire journey home, imagining everything he could’ve done differently. Steve should’ve been the one to tell Bruce and Thor to go look for Clint, not Tony. Or Steve should’ve gone himself. But leaving people behind was kind of Steve’s deal, wasn’t it? Whether it was due to sleeping in ice for 70 years or leaving his best friend to die in his own icy grave.

As soon as the quinjet landed on the roof of Stark Tower, Steve was off and headed straight for his floor. He needed to get this suit off now, before it suffocated him. The material felt like it was too tight, like it really didn’t fit him anymore. Not physically, but mentally. How had he ever lived up to the symbol before? He was just an idiot who didn’t know how to land a plane.

Steve rushed through the elevator doors the second they opened, tugging at the neck of his suit. He could feel the sweat covering his body, but he was freezing. The moisture was making the material stick to his body and he was starting to panic. It felt like a second, thick skin and it was stifling. He needed help.

Steve ran into the kitchen, banging through drawers to find a pair of scissors to help free him from his prison. He couldn’t find them and he was in too much of a frenzy to pause for a minute and think about where they could be. The only thing on his mind was escaping this trap. He grabbed the chef’s knife out of the knife block, apologizing to Tony in his head for ruining yet another suit, but he had no choice. Steve put the blade under the edge of his sleeve, trying to work the knife up the loosest spot.

“Steve, stop!” Tony screamed from the doorway, startling Steve from what he was doing. Tony had his hands out in front of himself, positioned like someone approaching a dangerous individual or scared child. “Put the knife down, please.” Steve felt like a bucket of ice water was thrown in his face. The panic from before was gone and it was like he was standing outside of his body, taking in the whole scene from another angle. And it didn’t look good.

“Oh God, Tony no,” Steve gasped, carefully pulling out the knife and dropping it into the sink. Tony tracked the movement with his eyes, springing forward as soon as the knife was out of his hand and pulling him into a distraught hug. Steve couldn’t return it, feeling numb from what he knew Tony had been thinking.

“Steve, Steve,” Tony sobbed, burying his face against his neck. Steve stood there, letting Tony take whatever he needed from him. Would Steve have jumped to the same conclusion if he’d seen someone else in the same scenario he’d been in? He hoped not, but he understood why it was so easy to make that jump when it came to him. And that realization made him sick.

“I wasn’t going to hurt myself,” Steve mumbled, closing his eyes in resignation. “I swear, that’s not what was happening.”

“But, the knife?” Tony questioned, pulling back, but keeping his hand on the side of Steve’s neck.

“I couldn’t get my suit off,” Steve sighed, wincing at how stupid that sounded now. He could’ve called any of them for help, but he’d been too caught up in his own trauma to think clearly, just like during the mission. “I couldn’t find my scissors.”

“You left them on Natasha’s floor after you wrapped Christmas presents,” Tony whispered, taking in a shuddering breath as he finally started believing Steve’s words. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have- I mean, I panicked. It’s just, after what happened at the end of the mission, and then you running off, I-”

“I get it,” Steve said, shrugging his shoulders. All too well he understood why Tony’s brain had led him down that line of thinking. He needed to do something about it. “Can you give me some space please? I think I need to be alone.”

“Wait, can we just talk about what happened first?” Tony pleaded, gripping his free hand into the fabric of Steve’s suit. “Please don’t push me away. This is exactly what I was afraid of when you agreed to this mission. I can’t go through this again! I can’t stand to see you in pain and closing yourself off from everyone!”

“Tony, I’m not-”

“And I know I sound selfish right now, but I’m going to be. I won’t let you be alone in this, not when I’m the cause,” Tony shouted, holding onto Steve with an even firmer grasp, as if he was afraid Steve was going to push him off.

“I’m not going to do that this time, I promise. I just need some time to think,” Steve insisted. “Please trust me.”

“I do trust you, I trust you with everything. I’m just scared.”

“Of what? Of me?”

“No, I’m scared for you.”

“Jarvis, I’m giving you permission to monitor me for the foreseeable future. If you see anything alarming, you’re authorized to notify Tony or one of the other Avengers if Tony isn’t available,” Steve dictated, looking down at Tony for his reaction. He looked mostly surprised, with a little relief added in also. Steve wasn’t planning on giving Jarvis anything to report, so he didn’t mind giving Tony that bit of reassurance. “I just need a minute to change, take a shower, collect my thoughts. I promise I’ll come up to join the rest of you soon.” Tony looked like he wanted to argue, but he held himself back. He slowly let go of his hold on Steve, stepping away to give him one last look, probably searching for any sign he wasn’t as okay as he said he was.

“Not too long?” Tony asked, eyeing the knife where it was still sitting in the sink. Steve grabbed it, sliding it back into the block and handing the whole thing to Tony.

“Not too long,” Steve agreed. Tony stared down at the utensils in his hands, clenching his jaw as he set them back on the counter. He gave Steve one last nod before he turned and headed back to the elevator. Steve sagged under the weight of everything that had just occurred. But all this turmoil just solidified the next steps he had to take.

Steve made his way over to his bathroom, peeling off his suit as he went along. It really wasn’t that hard to take off, when he wasn’t actively having a breakdown. He couldn’t even enjoy his shower, not with the talk he was about to have with everyone looming over him. It was something he’d been thinking about for a while now, but the events of the day just solidified how necessary it was. This was going to be one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do, but it was the right choice.

Steve dressed himself in the softest, most comfortable clothes he could find and walked over to stand in front of his window to look over the city. This city, this world needed someone strong to protect it, but he wasn’t the person for the job right now. That much was certain after what happened today. He needed to meet up with everyone and tell them, before he chickened out.

“Jarvis, take me to the team, please,” Steve directed as he stepped onto the elevator. He took a few calming breaths during the ride, trying to think up exactly what he was going to say. The words wouldn’t come to him, but that was alright. He was used to making speeches on the fly. It was more sincere that way.

Everyone was sitting on the couches on the common floor when he got there, staring at him with worry in their eyes. He longed for a day that would change.

“So, I need to tell you all something,” Steve started, rubbing the back of his neck. “This past month has been very special to me, because of all of you. You guys reminded me what it was like to live, to actually enjoy life, and I’ll always appreciate it. I thought with how well things were going, going out on a mission wouldn’t be a big deal. Obviously, I was wrong.”

“Steve, I’m so sorry-”

“Clint, it’s not your fault. Something like this was always going to happen, we were just lucky enough this time that it was a false alarm,” Steve sighed, not wanting any of the team to shoulder any of the blame for this. “But it did show me something that I can’t ignore anymore, and that’s what you all need to know. I can’t be Captain America.”

The room exploded with noise, all of them protesting the idea of the team going on without him. Even though they’d all had valid concerns about him going on the mission that day, actually hearing these words made them forget all those points.

“You can’t do this,” Tony gasped, covering his mouth with his hand. Steve knew Tony would take this the hardest, after everything they’d been through. But it was the right call.

“Let me finish, please,” Steve said, waiting for everyone to quiet down before he continued. “You all know I haven’t been okay since I woke up. I can get through most of the day now, but out there, that’s when the cracks start to show. I can’t keep going on with my life without dealing with my past.”

“We can help you. It doesn’t mean you have to quit,” Tony insisted, looking to the others for support.

“And again, you guys have been more help than I can even describe, but that’s also part of the problem. I’ve gotten so close to you, that the thought of anything happening to you practically cripples me. And I know that has to do with my unresolved grief about everyone I left behind. I don’t think you can help me with that, but I’m planning on finding someone who can.”

“What are you saying?” Tony asked.

“I’m saying that I’m finally ready to talk to someone about all this. A professional. I need to work out all my crap with someone who knows what they’re doing. Who will show me how to accept this life and everything that comes with it.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“I may not be able to be Captain America right now, but I’m going to be Captain America again. I’m going to learn how to be the best version of myself I can be, so I can be out there by your sides saving the world again,” Steve declared, looking each one of them in the eye.

“You’re still Captain America, Steve, even if you can’t see that now. Knowing when to ask for help is one of the strongest things you can do and I think I’m going to follow your lead,” Tony said, stepping up to put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve wrapped his arms around the other man, pulling him in for a heart healing hug. They were all going to make it through this, no matter what it took. The others quickly joined, enveloping each other in the warmth and safety of their ragtag family.

“Thank you,” Steve sighed, relishing in the feeling of everyone together.

“This will always be your team,” Tony said, squeezing the back of his neck.

“No,” Steve said, looking around at everyone, “this is our team.”

Chapter 47: Chapter 47

Chapter Text

Tony took the reins on finding a suitable fit for the kinds of doctors they needed. It almost seemed like Tony had a list unusually fast, as if he’d been working on this before, but Steve didn’t ask. And if Tony dropped an individually curated list on everyone’s floor a couple days later, no one said anything. They weren’t going to be able to start seeing anyone until after the start of the new year, thanks to all of Tony’s careful vetting and the non-disclosure agreements being drawn up. Now all Steve could do was sit back and fret about everything, after he made one last phone call.

He’d been thinking about this since he told the team about not being able to be Captain America anymore. While the world could get by without him, as they already had for decades, it had come to depend on the others. It wouldn’t be fair to the people they could help to stop the rest of the team from doing their jobs. And it wouldn’t be fair to the team to hold them back.

Maybe he was being a little bit of a coward doing it this way, but being direct would pretty much take away their opportunity to argue with him. They could decide for themselves after the fact if they wanted to keep going without him. Tony at least was willing to go on this last mission without him, so the others might feel the same way too. And as much as it would be agony to see them go, he would have to respect their decision, just as they respected his.

There was a lot of extra togetherness these days, with Christmas almost upon them, so Steve had to get a little creative to get some time to himself. He told everyone he was going back to his floor to finish wrapping their Christmas presents, so they really couldn’t justify following him. He just really didn’t want this call to be overheard.

Steve took his cell out of the drawer he kept it in, tapping on the back as he geared himself up. If the call went poorly, maybe that was just a sign that he should’ve left sooner. You never really knew what you were going to get when you talked to the man. That earlier understanding was probably just a courtesy that had expired by this point.

He finally pressed the buttons to make the call, only to be immediately placed on hold, which he should’ve been expecting. Steve’s life had somehow turned into a lot of waiting. This wasn’t as bad as those nights sitting alone in his apartment, but this time he knew there was most likely something unpleasant waiting for him on the other side.

“It’s good to hear from you again so soon, Captain,” Fury said in greeting. If the man sounded unusually congenial, Steve tried not to think much of it.

“Thank you, sir. I hope the cleanup after the mission went smoothly?” Steve asked. The higher ups should’ve been jumping for joy at the lack of damage they caused to the building and surrounding area this time, if they were ever happy.

“Yes, it did. Turns out the woman with the broken arm was a Shield agent who’d been turned down for a promotion. She brought in some hired guns to make it look like outside forces were coming in to steal valuable information, while she would steal it herself and sell it to the highest bidder,” Fury explained. “I’m not sure how she thought she’d get away with it, but I guess she wasn’t the brightest. Hence the rejected promotion.”

“Well, I’m glad we were able to get there in time before anyone innocent got hurt,” Steve said, feeling kind of annoyed that he’d had to relive past trauma in the field due to a disgruntled employee. “And our reports on the mission were satisfactory?” Tony had volunteered Clint to write their reports for them, since he’d caused that little bit of chaos at the end. He’d agreed, since he still felt so guilty about it, even after Steve assured him there were no hard feelings. They’d all read them over and put their seals of approval on before sending them off. And for some reason, Tony had been calling Clint “Breakfast Club” ever since.

“I think we can consider the whole case closed,” Fury said, chuckling a little. “So are you calling to volunteer for another mission?”

“Um, about that,” Steve started, taking a deep breath to brace himself. Before he could continue, Fury cut him off.

“Relax Captain Rogers, I’m not going to send you out there without your team,” Fury sighed. Why would Steve be going out alone? Had he missed something?

“Sir?”

“Pretty strange luck that right after we get you back and ready, three of your teammates go down. What was it that happened again?”

“Uh-”

“Oh, that’s right. Clint fell down the stairs and broke his collarbone, Natasha broke her ankle training with Thor, and Tony, Tony was a bit more vague. Something about a lab accident that will put him on the shelf until further notice. Tough break, and right before Christmas as well,” Fury huffed. Steve was completely flabbergasted, but he wasn’t going to contradict anything the man was saying.

“I’m sorry, I-”

“Nothing anyone can do about it now,” Fury said gruffly, yelling something to someone on his side of the phone. “I have to go to a meeting, but I’ll be in touch. If any unearthly threats pop up, I know who to call.”

“Thank you, sir,” Steve replied, staring down at the phone as the other line disconnected. That wasn’t at all what he had been expecting. He didn’t even get to say what he’d been stressing over, but he couldn’t call back and say it now. And there was the little matter of his team’s mysterious injuries. Steve had to go back up and see what was really going on.

He rode the elevator to the common floor where he’d left everyone earlier. That’s where you could find everyone most days, just laying about and staring at the giant Christmas tree Tony had delivered earlier in the month. It was mostly red and gold, but he’d gotten everyone a special ornament to hang themselves. Of course Steve’s was a little shield.

Steve found them in the living room, everyone crowded around the coffee table while Natasha and Clint arm wrestled. Tony was trying to entice the others into making bets with him, but no one was agreeing. Betting against Natasha would be dangerous.

“Hey Steve, how was wrapping presents?” Tony asked with a smirk.

“I take it you know that’s not what I was doing?” Steve sighed, wondering why he ever bothered trying to get away with anything around these people.

“Your scissors are still on my floor,” Natasha snorted, crowing with glee as she pressed Clint’s arm flat on the table.

“Was that really a fair match? That couldn’t have felt good with Clint’s broken collarbone,” Steve said, his voice dripping with mock concern.

“Ah, so that’s what you were up to,” Tony nodded, grinning mischievously. “How was Jolly Old St. Nick?”

“Will someone please explain to me what’s going on?” Steve asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“We didn’t want to go out on missions without you, so we fabricated a few reasons to make sure that didn’t happen,” Clint explained.

“Why would you do that?”

“It’s one thing for Clint and I to go out on regular missions for Shield, but we aren’t going out there as The Avengers without you. There is no Avengers team without all of us,” Natasha said matter-of-factly.

“Does that mean you didn’t fight without me?” Thor asked, looking around at the group.

“Uhhhh…” Clint said nervously, scrunching his nose.

“You were there in spirit, big guy,” Tony chuckled. “And that rule doesn’t really apply when you’re not on the same planet.”

“But what if they need us? Need you?” Steve asked, trying not to feel frustrated. He didn’t want the world to suffer because he couldn’t fight at his full potential.

“The world rarely needs us specifically. Shield has so many trained agents who are well equipped to take care of any issue that pops up,” Natasha assured him. “Clint and I were doing just fine before all of you came into the picture. But if there is any type of otherworldly threat, we can make an exception.”

“What about this last mission though? We were specifically requested for this. If that happens again, you’ll just say no?” Steve questioned.

“This was a softball. An easy job to keep the higher ups happy with a tally in the win column,” Natasha snorted, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “That should keep them satiated for a while.”

“I don’t want to keep you all from living your lives,” Steve sighed, leaning against the back of the couch in resignation. “I know I was adamant about going with you for that last mission, but that’s my issue to work on. Worrying about me shouldn’t stop you from doing what you want to do.”

“Do you think I really want to be doing all this? I turned Fury down so many times before I joined this team. But do you know why I stay?” Tony asked, walking over to stand with him. “I’m here because of you guys. Because you are my family and I go where you go. I’m not a spy or an agent. I’m just a guy who saves the world with my friends.”

“But what if I never get back to what I was?” Steve asked, looking around to all of them. Would the world lose such an important asset in this team?

“Then I can go back to saving the world in a different way.”

“This is too much pressure. I can’t be the deciding factor on how you all live your lives,” Steve argued. If everyone was waiting to make their next move while watching to see what Steve did, it would be very easy to become distracted with that instead of focusing on what he needed to do for himself.

“What we do or don’t do is our own decision to make. No one is forcing us either way. Personal accountability is a thing and I’m not going to let you blame yourself for any moves we decide to make,” Tony said firmly, placing a strong hand on his forearm. “Remember that earlier advice I gave you, about taking things one day at a time? I think that applies now too. Focus on what you need to do and not what could happen in the future. None of us have made any irreversible decisions, okay?”

“Just promise me you’ll all think of yourselves before you think of me, okay?” Steve implored, needing the verbal confirmation to assuage any lingering guilt.

“Only if you promise the same,” Tony challenged, raising an eyebrow at him. Steve took a deep breath, trying to let go of the need to control everything around him. He had to accept the outcome of everyone’s choices, instead of trying to trace back every bad possibility to his own decision. They were right; they’d all been living their lives for a long time before he came along and he had to trust that they knew what was best for themselves.

“Deal.”

Chapter 48: Chapter 48

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Steve was sitting in a cozy office in a building a few miles from the tower. It was kind of weird to be waiting in the office for the therapist to show up, but nothing was really typical about this setup. Tony had leased this empty building just for them, completely gutting a floor and setting up separate rooms catered to what each of the team would find most comfortable. His room had soft furniture and minimal fuss, with light music playing from a record player in the background. And he had the ability to control the thermostat from his phone.

The therapist Steve had chosen was flown in from Colorado and being paid a handsome fee to remain on standby for the foreseeable future. All of the doctors chosen were staying in nearby hotels, ready to be called in and in a session within the hour, 24 hours a day. Tony didn’t want them to be limited to a certain hour long block a few times a week, knowing that choosing when they were most open and comfortable would make the most difference.

Dr. Charles was a veteran herself, having served as a nurse in the Army during the tail end of the Vietnam War. The little bio in the folder Tony had provided said she steered away from nursing after coming back home and seeing how hard it was for some of her fellow soldiers to readjust to living outside of combat. She’d gone back to school to become a psychiatrist and had been doing it ever since, focusing on PTSD and other issues service members tended to struggle with. She came highly recommended, with glowing reviews from many former patients. Steve still wasn’t sure just how much she would be able to relate to his situation, since he was pretty much one of a kind, but Dr. Charles was probably as good as it was going to get.

A light tapping on the door shook Steve from his thoughts and he stood to greet the doctor as she stepped into the room. She was an older woman with a friendly, round face and salt and pepper hair. She stepped forward, shaking his hand with a polite firmness. Dr. Charles only came up to about his chest, but Steve could tell she was not a person to be underestimated. She had that spark in her eyes that had always drawn him to Peggy.

“I’m Dr. Beverly Charles, but you may call me Beverly if you prefer. It’s so nice to meet you, Captain Rogers,” she said warmly, patting the back of his hand before she let go.

“It’s my pleasure. And please, call me Steve,” he requested, greatly preferring to hear his own name instead of his rank.

“Thank you for telling me your preference. Do things like that come easy to you?” Beverly asked, gesturing for him to take a seat wherever he’d like.

“Getting right into it I guess,” Steve chuckled, going back to the oversized chair he was in before.

“Sorry, I don’t want to seem too forward. I’ve just always been fond of letting the conversation flow naturally and asking certain questions as they come up,” she explained, sitting down on the couch across from him. She pulled out a pen and notepad, setting them down on her lap. “If you ever feel I’ve overstepped or you just don’t want to answer a question, let me know. You’re in control here.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, glad the woman wasn’t planning on being too aggressive. He didn’t mind a challenge, but he didn’t want to be pushed past his boundaries within the first minute of meeting her.

“Do you enjoy being in control?” Beverly asked, softening what was a pretty direct question with a gentle smile. Should he try to brush past this question like he had the last? She didn’t call him on it before, but the session wouldn’t really go anywhere if he refused to open up. That was the whole point of this, right? Working through things he couldn’t on his own?

“Yeah, I guess,” Steve admitted hesitantly, trying to keep his hands still in his lap. He wasn’t naturally twitchy, but he had the urge to grab a nearby throw pillow and wring it between his fingers.

“In what ways?” Beverly asked.

“Well, I’m good at planning, so I like to use that skill to help others, like during missions,” Steve said, flicking his eyes around the room. Should he be making constant eye contact with her? That felt too weird.

“And what about in your personal life?” she questioned. Steve knew this was going to be hard, but he didn’t realize just how hard it would be until confronted with it. He should’ve known, because talking about personal things was still hard to do with the team, even after they’d gotten so close. There was still a part of him that was worried they would judge him or use the information against him.

“I’ve been trying not to be as much, but it’s hard to find that balance.”

“How so? Can you give me an example?”

“After a difficult mission, I kind of went overboard with strictly scheduling myself, I guess you could say. I had my days planned out to the second, not allowing any deviations, even in my meals.”

“And what were you hoping to accomplish with that?” Beverly asked, scratching a few notes onto her paper. Could he ask to see her notes after the sessions? Would that be appropriate? Who else would be seeing them?

“Uh-”

“Let’s come back to the why later,” Beverly said, waiting until he stopped bouncing his leg erratically. He hadn’t even realized he was doing it. “Has that gotten better?”

“Yes, it has. When I moved back into the tower, I started hanging around the others more. I didn’t spend my entire day alone like I had been.”

“But you said it was hard to find a balance? In what ways?”

“I didn’t really know how to live before, so I kind of let the others decide for me. I had a little bit of a breakdown, a few actually, and I didn’t really know what to do after that. Getting as far away as I could from how I was before seemed like the best bet at the time,” Steve admitted. He hadn’t meant to fall down that rabbit hole of acting so helpless, but there was an appeal there to not have to make all of his decisions for himself. Everyone else seemed to know how to live, so they might be able to teach him how to as well.

“And are you still doing that?” Beverly asked.

“No, not like I was. I’ve been making my own choices, while not isolating myself. And I try new things, instead of stopping myself,” Steve answered, feeling a little proud. It would’ve been easy to keep going to Tony and the others and letting them decide his day, but choosing his own path felt nice.

“That’s really great progress. It isn’t easy going from one extreme to the other, so it’s normal to feel like some days you fall short. It’s okay if you occasionally follow what everyone else is doing, as long as you enjoy the activity, but spending time alone is healthy too. Do you let yourself have some solo time?” she questioned. That was a tricky one. He worked out alone sometimes and hung out in the hot tub by himself, but being on his floor felt different. Like it would be too easy for him to go back to how he was, and that kind of scared him.

After that last mission, they’d all slept in Tony’s living room, the billionaire having produced an inordinate amount of cushions and pillows for them to nest on. They piled up, all of them touching at least one other person as they slept. Steve still hadn’t slept in his own room since that last nightmare, but he had stopped sleeping in other people’s beds every night. He usually just bunked on whoever’s floor he found himself on, falling asleep on the couch watching television.

“I don’t really like being alone, when I’m not doing something,” Steve confessed quietly. “It reminds me too much of losing everything again.”

“What about doing an activity while you’re on your floor? Do you have any hobbies?”

“I guess my main hobbies would be cooking or exercising, but those would remind me too much of the time in my apartment,” Steve said. He didn’t want the things he’d really come to enjoy doing being tainted by those old memories.

“What about something you’ve never done before? It would be a good way to ease back into spending some time alone, but it wouldn’t have the same negative associations,” Beverly suggested, making another note on her paper.

“That doesn’t sound too bad, I just don’t know what I’d do,” Steve replied. He’d kept himself from trying new things for so long, he didn’t know where to start. Most of the things he did now were ideas presented to him by one of the team.

“It doesn’t have to be some big event. There is nothing wrong with trying something and realizing you don’t like it. The point is focusing on something, instead of letting your mind take you to an unhealthy place.”

“But wouldn’t that be avoiding the issue? Shouldn’t I just sit down and deal with it?”

“Let’s look at it this way, some people teach their kids to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool, while others take them to classes and let them learn gradually. Neither option is wrong per se, but different methods work for different people. I feel like your life has been filled with thrown into the deep end moments. Don’t you think you deserve to dip your toe in sometimes?”

“I-” Steve started, before cutting himself off. He didn’t know what to say to that. And he didn’t know why those words were hitting him so hard. Steve had gone so long without letting himself have anything that it was still hard accepting everything the team gave him. That Tony gave him. He still felt the urge to go back to staring at bare walls alone, because a part of him told him that’s what he deserved. And that it was safest. And that if there was something that needed to be done, he would just do it. There didn’t need to be any puss*footing around.

“Do you know it’s okay to give yourself grace?” Steve could feel his lip starting to tremble and he hated feeling so vulnerable. He felt like he’d barely talked to this woman and she still knew the right words to fold him open and expose his inner demons. Maybe that was a good thing, but right now he just felt raw.

“I’m supposed to be perfect. I was the one shot they got with this serum and I need to live up to everything they expected of me,” Steve mumbled, sniffling back tears. “Just being here feels like a failure.”

“When will what you’ve done be enough?” the doctor asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Is death the only way this ends? Can you ever see yourself putting the shield down and willingly walking away?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ve seen a lot of soldiers lose themselves leaving the service, after tying their whole identities to the military. Can there be a Steve Rogers without Captain America?” Steve’s breath caught in his throat and he couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.

“I owe everything I have to Captain America, but it’s also the reason I’ve lost everything. I don’t know whether to love him or hate him,” Steve choked out, giving in to his urges and grabbing a pillow. He hugged it to his chest, resisting outright burying his face in the soft fabric and sobbing.

“And why is that so hard?”

“Because I am Captain America, so how am I supposed to accept that I might hate myself?” Steve cried, raking his hands defeatedly across his eyes.

“Why would you hate yourself?”

“I’ve made so many mistakes. I let so many people down.”

“And what are you doing now to change that?”

“I don’t know.”

“What have you done to try to keep it from happening again?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why do you prefer to be in control?”

“So I don’t lose it, okay!” Steve burst out, shaking his head in anger. “If I planned out every minute of my life, nothing could sneak up on me. Anything that looked like an issue I could spot from a mile away. There wasn’t a chance for a mistake, because there was nothing to mess up anymore.”

“But something bad still happened, didn’t it?” Beverly asked calmly.

“Yes, and so I let everyone else take control, but it still didn’t work. Things still went wrong.”

“Giving other people control over your life is still a form of control. Not being willing to make your own choices forces them to take on that responsibility, and also to shoulder the repercussions. Why is it so hard to find that balance?”

“Because then, when things go wrong, I have no one to blame but myself. And then I’m right back where I started,” Steve whispered, closing his eyes and dipping his head. His whole life since waking up had been an exercise in avoidance, but now he couldn’t do it anymore. Not after it was laid out so clearly in front of him that that was what he was doing. Kicking the can down the road would only last for so long. He needed to stop and deal with things as they happened, instead of letting everything pile up and crush him.

“I think this would be a good place to stop for today,” Beverly suggested, setting a box of tissues on the table in front of him. Steve grabbed one gratefully, dabbing at his eyes as he regained his composure. He was glad she recommended ending the session, because him doing it seemed too much like quitting,

“Okay,” Steve agreed, running his hands along the edge of the pillow he was still holding. He really wished it was a person he was holding instead, having gotten used to the comforting hugs the team was always willing to give him.

“You did really well today,” Beverly praised, nodding her head in approval. It sure didn’t feel that way to Steve, but that was probably because crying always seemed like a failure. “I do have a homework assignment for you, if you’re willing?”

“Yeah?” Steve asked hesitantly, hoping it would be something simple. He didn’t want to leave this meeting with something to dread.

“Think of a hobby you’d like to try on your floor alone. You don’t have to start it, but just think of something and maybe have any materials you’d need ready, in case the mood strikes. How does that sound?” she asked.

“I think I can do that,” Steve agreed, standing up as she did. Beverly gave him another handshake before she left the office, letting him have the space and time to collect himself before having to go back out into the world. Just another thing he appreciated about this setup. Steve would’ve hated having to leave like this and be in front of people in this state. Now he could take all the time he needed until he felt ready to go back to the tower.

Steve sat back in his seat, resting the pillow back in his lap. Beverly had given him a lot to think about going forward. He knew not all of his decisions had been the best, but he hadn’t realized how unhealthy some of them were. She hadn’t shamed him for it or told him to immediately stop, but he found himself wanting to do better, to alleviate the pressure he was unknowingly putting on the others.

He couldn’t tell if he felt better after this first session, but he didn’t think he felt worse. Steve would have to see later, when it all wasn’t so fresh. He’d kind of hoped he would make more progress in the first session, but now he knew it was unrealistic. There were no magic words that would turn him into a different person. Steve had to be patient and do the work.

After a few more minutes of sitting and absorbing everything they’d talked about today, he got up. Tony had drivers available at all times to pick him up to bring him back to the tower, but Steve decided to walk instead. The idea of fresh air was appealing, even with the chill of winter. Maybe he would pass by something that would inspire his new hobby. Steve wanted to make sure he chose something today, because he was planning on meeting with Dr. Charles again tomorrow.

Notes:

Forgive me if this therapy session seemed too unrealistic. My only experience was brief and 15 years ago and all I remember was crying a lot.

Chapter 49: Chapter 49

Chapter Text

There was snow gently falling on the city, but it wasn’t cold enough to stick. Steve was bundled up in his usual uniform of many layers, with disposable hand warmers shoved in every pocket Tony could find. He’d just finished his most recent session with Dr. Charles, but this one wasn’t as emotional. They mostly went over his childhood and all of the stuff he experienced before the serum. Even with the constant illnesses, crippling poverty, and loss of his mother, it wasn’t as traumatic as what came after. That was so long ago, even for him, that the hurt wasn’t as sharp. It was the unnaturalness of his other losses and experiences that would be harder to get through.

He hadn’t found the right hobby for himself yet, but he’d tried a few things. Origami was too confusing and he wasn’t sure what to do with all the tiny pieces of paper he ended up with. The ship in a bottle kit Bruce had let him have was too frustrating to finish. And the random jigsaw puzzle Tony conjured up from somewhere was pretty dull. It did inspire Tony to declare that the next weekend would be a Saw movie marathon, but Steve wasn’t sure a movie about puzzles and power tools sounded very interesting. But at least all the failed attempts had accomplished the goal of distracting him from worrying about being alone on his floor. Steve realized that knowing everyone was a word to Jarvis away was comforting enough to not get caught up in the idea of being isolated. But now that that issue was coming along well, he really wanted to find a real hobby that he liked.

There was always drawing, his first love, but that reminded him too much of the past. He didn’t want to risk backsliding by going into something that could be so triggering. But finding a new thing to bring him joy would help him find his way back to that. Steve was walking to a bookstore he’d passed the day before while walking home, hoping to find inspiration. Maybe reading could be his new hobby, even though he’d given up on it all those months ago. Instead of reading to catch up on things he’d missed, he could try to do it for pleasure.

Steve wandered around the shop, looking for anything that caught his eye. Romance novels felt too weird and the young adult section felt too juvenile. There was a big section of biographies, but he didn’t really feel like reading the life story of people he’d never heard of. Maybe he could think of writing his own story one day, but that wouldn’t be anytime soon.

He eventually found where they kept their hobby and self help books, avoiding the latter. The book of over 100 popular hobbies looked promising, so he took it over to the attached cafe and ordered himself a hot chocolate and sat down to flip through it. There were so many things he hadn’t even considered, like candle making and taxidermy. Candle making sounded kind of interesting, but the taxidermy would be a hard pass. Touching dead things didn’t sound relaxing.

“Find anything interesting?” a man’s voice said from in front of Steve. He looked up to see an older man nursing a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper.

“Pardon?” Steve asked, wanting to make sure the man was actually talking to him and that he hadn’t missed anything important.

“You looked pretty focused on that book. Even let your drink get cold. Just wondering if there was something good that I should check out as well,” the man said, tilting his head at the no longer steaming mug sitting on the little table.

“Oh,” Steve replied, tapping his finger on the lip of the cup. “Just searching for a little inspiration, I guess. Something to help pass the time.”

“Young man like you, in the prime of your life, you should be out chasing skirts,” the man chuckled.

“Uh-”

“Or trousers. I don’t judge, it’s just a saying,” the man said with a grin, setting down his paper. “Don’t really see people your age sitting in a bookstore coffee shop this time of day is all.”

“Well, I’ve kind of taken a leave of absence from work, so I’m trying to find something fulfilling,” Steve explained, although he was a bit confused why he was opening up to this stranger. He must have a little leftover talking in him from his therapy session.

“That I can understand. After I retired, I didn’t know what to do. Golfing and crossword puzzles didn’t have the same appeal when they became so readily available. It was easy to get bored, especially when I lost my Claire after 42 years,” the man said wistfully, staring off into the distance for a moment.

“I’m so sorry,” Steve said sincerely, his mind immediately going to Peggy. It seemed offensive to compare his loss to this man’s since they hadn’t even been a couple. Steve couldn’t imagine spending your whole life with someone and then them just not being there one day.

“What was their name?”

“What?” Steve whispered, biting the inside of his cheek.

“The person you were just thinking about,” the man replied somberly, giving him a look full of understanding.

“Peggy,” Steve murmured, looking down at his hands. “Her name was Peggy.” Steve hadn’t even talked to Dr. Charles about her yet, trying to avoid that pain for as long as possible. Thinking of Bucky would always bring up overwhelming feelings of guilt, but Peggy was cloaked in regret. Regret from all those missed opportunities and the time wasted. It was a war he fought in his mind every time thoughts of her popped up in his brain. The truth of knowing he couldn’t go back and change things was staggering.

“How did you lose her?”

“I didn’t, not really. I never got the chance to lose her because she was never mine,” Steve whispered, closing his eyes to try to keep his emotions in check. This was not the place to break down.

“Sometimes knowing you missed out on something is worse than losing it.”

“But that pales in comparison to what you must be going through. After all that time, I can’t imagine.”

“As much as it hurts to live the rest of my days without her, I wouldn’t trade any of it away. She gave me my kids and my grandkids, but more importantly than that, she gave me those lazy Sunday mornings and running errands after work. Overcooked roasts and cleaning out the attic. She gave me a life worth living and memories I’ll carry with me until I see her again,” he said with a fond smile. “You find a way to keep going, no matter how hard it is, because that’s just what you do. Would your gal want you to lose your way on account of her?”

“No sir. She’d have my head if she could see me now,” Steve admitted with a small smile.

“Ah, a feisty one like my Claire. When it was almost her time, she made me promise to move on. Said I could be sad for a little bit, but not to waste the last few good miles I had left,” the man laughed, shaking his head at the memory. “She was a cheeky one, no doubt about it. But I make sure to keep my promise. I get out of the house every day, I try new things. I still let myself feel it every once in a while, but I don’t let it crush me. There is a place for pain in this world and a place for joy. Sometimes you have to work at it so joy wins out, but it’s damn sure worth it.”

Steve was kind of taken aback and he didn’t know what to say. This man, who no one would blame for being depressed and bitter, was making a case for moving on. Not forgetting, but accepting. Maybe it was just a wisdom that came with age, but it was inspiring nonetheless.

“Thank you,” Steve said genuinely, reaching a hand forward to shake the other man’s hand in respect. “I appreciate you talking to me about something so difficult. I’ve really been struggling recently, but your words mean a lot. They’ve given me something to think about.”

“Everyone can use a helping hand sometimes,” the man brushed off, going back to his paper. “Let me know if you find yourself something good to pass the time. I’m here most days.”

“I will, Mister…?”

“Call me Frank,” the man said, tipping his head politely.

“Nice to meet you Frank, I’m Steve,” he said, realizing that was the first time he’d introduced himself to someone beside Dr. Charles in a long time. It felt nice. Steve chugged the rest of his forgotten drink and cleaned up his table before heading to the checkstand to buy his hobby book. He grabbed a cookie cookbook he saw earlier for Clint too, looking forward to trying out some of the recipes later. He’d gone into the bookshop looking for one thing, but he might’ve found something much more meaningful.

Chapter 50: Chapter 50

Chapter Text

Steve got into a routine of meeting with Dr. Charles every weekday, usually in the late morning. He knew he didn’t have to keep it to the same time, per the contract Tony drew up, but it felt weird to keep the doctor hanging like that. And it was nice to be able to mentally prepare, since he knew what was coming. She still let him control the pace of their work, but knew when to push him a little. She also knew when to stop, even when Steve didn’t himself. Dr. Charles had stopped one session after twenty minutes when Steve had a full blown panic attack recounting the events with Bucky on the train, telling him stories about her own life as he tried to regain his ability to breathe. That was yesterday and today was Saturday, the start of another team bonding weekend.

Bruce was in charge of most of the planning this week, after the disaster of Tony’s movie marathon the weekend before. Those movies had not been about power tools and puzzles in the way Steve had imagined, and while he hadn’t enjoyed them, he was fine. Clint on the other hand, who normally loved horror movies, had been triggered into screaming nightmares that night. Apparently his sessions with his own therapist had dredged up some things from his past that hadn’t been properly dealt with, and the blood and gore and little puppet that looked like a clown was too much to handle after he fell asleep. Steve, who had fallen asleep on the couch in Clint’s living room the first night, had almost thrown up in terror at the sound that woke him, but he tamped down on his own panic to investigate and he’d held Clint for over an hour before Clint had the ability to speak again and tell him what was wrong. Steve and Natasha had spent the rest of the week sleeping with Clint, pressing him between them and soothing away the demons whenever they showed up. And while Steve never liked to see the people he cared about struggling, it was nice to be able to return the favor a bit.

Bruce had promised a weekend of relaxing activities and healthy eating as a way to cleanse away the bad stuff and start the next week with a renewed calm. Steve knew he had his work cut out for him. Bruce let everyone know he was serving breakfast at 10am, so Steve was on his floor getting dressed.

He’d been spending a little more time on his floor this past week, after finding a hobby that he actually started to enjoy. The inspiration had struck him during one of his casual meetups with Frank, after complimenting the other man on his scarf. It was clearly homemade, with its uneven edges and wild colors, but Frank wore it with pride. He said his granddaughter made it for him and it was his favorite thing to wear.

Steve had glanced over the knitting section in his hobby book, but hadn’t really considered trying it. It seemed like something for grandmas. But then he thought about the teasing he’d endured for his love of art as a kid and figured it didn’t stop him then, why let anything stop him now? Steve still hadn’t told anyone about his current endeavor, but he’d gone to a craft store and started that day. He got a few different books and watched different videos he’d found online, and before he knew it, two hours had passed with him alone on his floor. Dr. Charles beamed at him when he told her the news the next day and he felt so much pride after accomplishing such a little thing.

Bruce had weird little bowls set out for everyone when he got to the common floor, with eggs and toast on the side. Tony was eyeing it all warily, as if something was going to jump up and bite him.

“What did you say this was again?” Tony asked, poking at one of the bowls with his fork.

“It’s an acai bowl. It’s very good for you,” Bruce said, digging into his own.

“They are very pretty,” Thor commented, admiring his food before devouring it in record time. Steve enjoyed the interesting meal, although he did prefer the more traditional sides that went with it.

“So what’s on the agenda?” Tony asked, scooping the last bit of food into his mouth. “Need me to come up with something?” Tony had been a guilt ridden wreck for a few days after the movie thing with Clint, hiding himself away in his lab to give everyone else space. He’d only come out again when Clint went down and forced him to join the others, saying how he was acting was making things worse. They talked things out in private and now were able to joke about it a little, now that things weren’t so fresh. Steve was kind of jealous that he and Tony couldn’t have done the same thing way back when, but they weren’t the same men as they were before. They were mature enough to not let things fester anymore. It was a hard lesson to learn, and they were still working on it, but they were better.

“I’ve got something set up on my floor when everyone is ready,” Bruce said, getting up to take dishes to the sink. Steve got up to help him, not wanting the man who’d set everything up be stuck with the cleanup as well. Out of everyone, Bruce’s floor was the one he’d been on the least. Not for any particular reason other than knowing he appreciated his privacy. And the other floors were more decked out in things for everyone to do.

“Thanks for doing all this for everyone,” Steve said, piling the dishes in the sink. “I think it will be good to have a purposefully relaxing weekend.”

“Well, I am kind of the expert on controlling my emotions,” Bruce chuckled, sending him a wink. “At least I try to be.”

“For someone who claims to always be angry, I think you do a pretty good job,” Steve noted, filling up the sink with water. They washed all the dishes together while casually chatting, Bruce talking about his latest experiment and Steve mentioning his abysmal attempt at making a braided bread loaf. He still wasn’t sure how he was able to completely burn parts of it, while the inside was raw dough.

When they were done, they all crammed into the elevator for the short trip to Bruce’s floor. Thor was animatedly talking about the new snowsuit Natasha had gotten him, taking up almost half the space. But instead of feeling cramped, it felt cozy. The team all together was when Steve was the happiest.

“Follow me over this way,” Bruce instructed, leading them to his living room. There were a bunch of little trees and boxes of sand in the middle of the room.

“You got a bunch of cats and brought us to scoop the litter boxes?” Tony laughed, glancing around to see if he was right.

“I would love a cat. Can I get a cat too?” Thor asked.

“There are no cats,” Bruce grumbled, walking over to move everything into separate stations. “These are sand gardens and bonsai trees.”

“What are you supposed to do with them?” Steve questioned, ducking down to touch one of the tiny branches.

“You prune the trees into whatever shape you want and you make designs in the sand with the rakes and put rocks around to decorate,” Bruce instructed, handing him a little jar of utensils. Steve sat down and got started, with everyone else following his lead. He didn’t really know where to start with the tree, so he focused on the sand. It was kind of soothing making the little designs, even though there wasn’t much to do.

“Are you really trimming your tree into the shape of your helmet?” Natasha scoffed, looking over at Tony’s work.

“What, did you think I’d cut it into the shape of a heart?” Tony snorted, ducking down to check his tree from another angle.

“Why does Thor’s look amazing?” Clint groaned, staring at his own decimated tree. Thor’s looked perfect, with an intricate spiral design.

“I happen to be good at everything,” Thor boasted, tossing his clippings to Clint so he could shove them onto his almost bare trunk.

“Steve, you’ve barely touched yours,” Bruce pointed out.

“I didn’t want to ruin it. I figure it grew this way for a reason, right?” Steve said, petting the fluffy top. Just because it might look a little messy to some people, it worked hard to get to this point.

“What the hell?” Clint muttered, giving up on trying to salvage his mess. “Got me feeling bad about a tree.”

“Why does Natasha’s look sharp? Can you turn everything into a weapon?” Tony asked, shrinking away from the woman. Her tree did look a bit spiky.

“You never know when you might need something to stab someone with,” Natasha grinned, running her fingers along one of the tips.

“When trees attack,” Tony said seriously, nodding his head in contemplation. “We should totally watch The Happening.”

“That doesn’t really fit with this week’s theme,” Bruce dismissed.

“Mark Wahlberg talking to a plastic house plant is funny enough to make even the most depressed person laugh,” Tony chuckled, putting the finishing touches on his tree. It really did bear a striking resemblance to Iron Man.

“What’s up next?” Clint asked, shoving his tree aside. Steve didn’t think it looked too bad, reminding him of the tree from that Christmas show Tony had them all watch a few weeks ago. It may not be showy, but it had heart.

“Now Natasha’s going to lead us through a little bit of yoga,” Bruce said, standing up and ushering them all into another room. He had mats spread around and started lighting incense that was sitting in different spots.

“Yoga’s never really been my style, but I’m digging the vibe in here. It’s like sophisticated hippie,” Tony commented, rolling his neck in preparation. They each went to their own spots, letting Natasha guide them through a warmup and then some more advanced movements. It wasn’t doing much for Steve from an exercise standpoint, but it felt nice to stretch his muscles in ways he didn’t usually bother with.

They ended the session in something called child’s pose, which turned out to be very relaxing. Maybe even too relaxing, because after a minute or so when Natasha said they were all done, Clint didn’t move. Steve almost panicked until he heard the quiet snore rumble out of the man. They all knew how bad his sleep had been, so no one wanted to wake him up. Natasha draped a blanket she found over his back and they all crept out, not wanting to disturb his nap.

“I guess my next activity can wait until later,” Bruce said, sitting down on his couch.

“I’ll sit with you, in case Clint needs anything,” Natasha offered, sinking down next to him.

“I’m going to go find a spot for my tree,” Thor said, going off to grab his work of art. Steve grabbed his too, letting the others know he’d be on his floor. He hadn’t told them about his doctor setting that alone time goal for him, but they had to notice by this point that something was going on. Especially Tony, since he was usually the one Steve called when he needed something. And the fact that he hadn’t borrowed anymore of their random time killing activities in a few days. But they didn’t ask, letting him have his privacy.

When Steve got back to his floor, he went right over to his supplies that were tucked into the corner. He was determined not to give up on this hobby, after all the others had been busts. He knew he could do it, he just hadn’t found the right instruction video yet. Steve started another project, trying to follow along with the woman exactly. She wasn’t making the same thing he was, but he figured the basics were all he needed and he could take it from there.

He got really into it again, focusing on matching her fingers and being careful with his knots. If Steve could get anywhere close to the quality of Frank’s granddaughter, he would consider it a success. His current project was proving to be too much for him at his experience level, but he didn’t want to give up. Maybe he could just tweak it a bit.

Before he realized it an hour had passed and Bruce was calling everyone up for lunch. Steve shoved everything back into the corner, not realizing one of his previous projects found its way into one of his pockets. He hopped onto the elevator, riding up to the correct floor. He wondered what Bruce had planned for this meal. The healthy options were kind of nice, since they were all still recovering from Clint’s Christmas cookie extravaganza.

“Steve, thank goodness you’re here!” Tony groaned dramatically, throwing himself into his arms. “Bruce is making us eat salads for lunch.” Steve drug him along back to the table, where Bruce was standing with his hands on his hips, looking like an exasperated parent.

“It’s a quinoa salad. It’s very good for you.”

“That’s what you said about the acai bowls!”

“And you liked it, remember?”

“I was under duress! I need unhealthy fats and sugars if I’m going to survive,” Tony whined, sliding down Steve’s legs. His surprise bundle fell out of his pocket and landed in front of Tony before he realized what was going on. “What’s this?”

“Nothing!” Steve insisted, bending down and snatching the yarn out of Tony’s hand. Of course his outburst turned everyone’s attention over to him. And the bright pink color didn’t help.

“Didn’t look like nothing,” Clint said with an evil grin. Steve sighed, knowing being secretive would only make them chomp at the bit more to find out. There was nothing to be ashamed of.

“I started knitting, but I’m not very good at it,” Steve admitted, holding the small project on his open palm. “My therapist wanted me to find a hobby, so I’ve been trying this for a few days.”

“Oh, cool. I did needlepoint for a while. Helps with dexterity,” Clint shrugged, going back to eyeing the food.

“Really? You all don’t think this is weird?” Steve asked, hopeful that his embarrassment was unfounded.

“Do what makes you happy,” Tony said, bouncing up from the floor. “So, what is this?” Tony brought his face closer to inspect it.

“It was supposed to be a prototype for a different project. Something to help work on the dimensions, but it came out kind of weird.”

“Is it a blanket?”

“It was supposed to be a cape.”

“A cape?” Thor asked, perking up from his seat. “You were making me a pink cape?”

“Yeah. After what you said to me in my closet all those weeks ago, I wanted to make you something you wanted but never got. It’s not going well unfortunately,” Steve said mournfully.

“Are you kidding me? I love it! I know just what to use this for!” Thor boomed, thrusting his hand out.

“Don’t you put that hammer through my walls!” Tony shouted. Thor dropped his hand, rolling his eyes in resignation.

“One moment,” Thor grumbled, trotting off toward the elevator. Steve stood in confusion, not knowing what Thor would need his hammer for right now. Thor returned a minute later, spinning the hammer like it wasn’t a deadly weapon. He set it on the table, taking the pink bundle from Steve’s hand and using the loose end strings to tie it around the handle.

“My God, it’s a hammer cape,” Tony murmured, watching as Thor swung the hammer in the air, the little piece of yarn swaying in the air along with it.

“It’s perfect!” Thor declared, dropping the hammer to pull Steve into a hug. “It’s everything I could’ve asked for.” Steve felt oddly pleased with himself, returning the hug with vigor. Thor had that same look in his eye that Frank did. It felt really nice to be the cause of that feeling.

They finally sat down to eat lunch, Tony begrudgingly admitting the food was good, much to Bruce’s delight. The others were talking about what they wanted Steve to make them, after listening to Thor brag about his homemade gift. Steve was glad Dr. Charles had given him this goal, since he never would’ve done this without her push. Maybe trying new things and going outside his comfort zone wasn’t such a bad idea.

Chapter 51: Chapter 51

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“The one with the red face frightens me. I don’t think I like her,” Thor said seriously, pausing his work to look up at the screen.

“She’s not so bad, she’s just misunderstood,” Clint chuckled, elbowing Steve softly in his side. Thor had come in during one of their Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood marathons and had been hooked ever since.

“What the hell is this?” Tony asked, freezing in the doorway as he walked into the room. Steve just shrugged, not stopping his movements. He was on a roll and didn’t want to mess up.

“Just bros hanging out,” Clint said, snipping off the end of his thread with a tiny pair of scissors.

“You’re welcome to join us if you’d like,” Steve offered, scooting over toward Clint to give Tony space on the couch.

“This is weird,” Tony mumbled, slumping into the newly available seat.

“Nah, it’s just chill,” Clint laughed.

“What are you doing?” Tony asked, leaning over Steve’s lap to get a better look at the project in Clint’s hands.

“Steve inspired me to get back into doing needlepoint,” Clint replied, holding up the cloth in his hand to show off his progress. “I’m making him a butterfly.”

“Why a butterfly?”

“I don’t know, I just like making butterflies.”

“Can I get a butterfly?”

“You’re like fourth in line, but you’ll get your butterfly,” Clint chuckled.

“What are you making?” Tony asked.

“I’m making Clint a scarf,” Steve replied, flopping the length he’d created so far over Tony’s lap.

“Can I get a scarf?”

“Of course, but you’ll have to wait until I finish Natasha’s and Bruce’s,” Steve said.

“And what’s up with Thor?”

“I love tiny trees!” Thor exclaimed, pruning the tiniest branch off his current Bonsai. Thor was obsessed with the activity now, spending most of his down time tending to the mini forest he’d accumulated on his floor. Steve had gone down there the other day and had been shocked by the hundreds of trees he found scattered around. Bruce tried to convince Thor to donate or even sell some of them, but Thor was hearing none of it.

“What’s happened to us?” Tony wondered, looking around the room.

“We’ve evolved,” Natasha answered, carrying in a tray of crumpets with the oddly shaped pot holders Steve had made a few days ago. Bruce was right behind her, carrying tea.

“Into British people?” Tony asked, sitting back as Bruce carefully poured the hot liquid into the delicate cups.

“Into people who know how to take a breath and enjoy the little things,” Bruce replied, handing everyone their servings on a little plate.

“Man, if people could see me now,” Tony chuckled, looking over everyone with a twinkle in his eyes. “It’s nice.”

“That it is,” Clint agreed.

“So what’s the plan for today?” Tony asked.

“I’m meeting with Dr. Charles tonight,” Steve answered casually, although inside he was pretty nervous.

“A bit later than usual,” Tony pointed out.

“She said there was a place she wanted to take me,” Steve said. After a few weeks of sessions, Steve had kind of let slip that he was feeling discouraged by what he considered a lack of progress. Dr. Charles disagreed, saying he’d already come such a long way, but they could try something different if he wanted to. He didn’t know what to expect, but he was desperate for some substantial change. Life in the tower was getting too comfortable and he was afraid he’d get used to it and never want to go back to being Captain America.

“Do you want one of my drivers to take you?” Tony offered.

“No thanks, I think the doctor has it covered,” Steve declined with a smile. He was sure that Tony would take that opportunity to keep track of where he was going, just in case. Steve appreciated that care, but he needed to do this on his own.

*

“Tony would be throwing a fit if he knew we were taking a cab around,” Steve chuckled, leaning back to look out the window at all the bustle of the city.

“Why is that?” Dr. Charles asked.

“He likes to remind us often about his fleet of cars that are readily available,” Steve smirked, shaking his head at the thought. Steve hadn’t seen even half of them driven yet.

“Is that the only reason?” she prodded.

“I think he still worries about me too,” Steve acknowledged, flicking his eyes toward the driver. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to their conversation, but he still kept his voice quiet. “I don’t think he would admit it, but the idea of me leaving still makes him anxious. One of the last times I went off on my own without telling anyone where I was going was to my old apartment, and that was pretty traumatic for everyone. I know that memory is still fresh for him and he’s still carrying that guilt.”

“And how does that make you feel? Knowing Tony likes to keep tabs on you?”

“If you’d asked me that a few months ago, I would’ve said I hated it. It would’ve felt controlling and like he didn’t trust me. But now, it’s kind of comforting. I know he’s doing what he does because he cares. And I can say with confidence that if I told him to back off, he would try his best to do that.”

“It sounds like you two have made great strides.”

“It hasn’t always been easy, especially at first, but he hasn’t let me down since we started putting forth the effort. I’m happy with where we are now and excited to see where we’ll end up.”

“It’s nice to hear you talk about the future in a positive way,” Dr. Charles commented. Steve hadn’t even realized he was doing it.

“It feels good to be able to.”

After a few more minutes, they pulled in front of a dark building. Steve didn’t recognize it, not having come to this part of the city before.

“What is this place?” Steve asked, looking around for a sign or clue.

“You’ll see. Follow me,” she directed, leading him up to the front door. It opened up into a small museum, nothing like the flashy ones Tony had shown him pictures of before. There were subdued little displays scattered around, but what it lacked in showiness, it made up for in obvious care. Steve walked over to the closest one, looking at a picture of a group of men in military uniforms.

“Who are they?” Steve asked, running his fingers along the wooden stand.

“These are the soldiers no one talks about. The ones who went to war and came back without fanfare. At least, some of them came back,” Dr. Charles explained with a touch of sorrow in her voice at the end. “This place was started by a group of veterans who wanted to make sure the legacies of the people who served were honored and not forgotten.”

“That sounds nice, but I’m not really sure what that has to do with me,” Steve said, turning away from the story of the sacrifice of a young corporal. His life was splayed out in buildings all over the world, packaged and presented like he was the hero everyone should strive to be, instead of the tragedy every young life lost was. “I don’t belong in a place like this.”

“Captain America might not, but that may not be the case for Steve Rogers,” she said lightly, gesturing for him to follow her into another room. “That debate isn’t what we’re here for though. We’re here for this.” She opened up the door to reveal a brighter room filled with a group of around five or six people.

“What’s this?” Steve asked, not mentally prepared to be confronted by strangers. The normal sessions weren’t looking too bad right about now.

“Hello everyone, thank you for agreeing to meet me here. I’m Dr. Beverly Charles and this is my friend Steve,” Dr. Charles said, walking forward and leaving Steve to stand alone in the doorway. He followed, not wanting to look like he was about to bolt at any second. Even though that’s what he wanted to do. Opening up to the people he actually knew was hard enough, he couldn’t see himself doing the same with an audience.

“Good to meet you, Steve,” one of the men said politely, nodding his head in greeting. “My name is Harry and this is my little slice of American history.”

“This is a very nice place you have, sir. You’re doing such a great thing,” Steve said sincerely. He really hoped the owner being here didn’t mean Dr. Charles was planning on pitching the man to give Steve’s story a place here.

“Thank you. And Harry is just fine,” Harry chuckled. He went on to introduce the others who were in the room as they grabbed seats in the chairs surrounding a round table. Steve followed suit, sitting down next to Dr. Charles. “So what brings you here?”

“Um…” Steve started before trailing off. What could he say? He honestly wasn’t sure why he was here and even if he was, what could he say? His past wasn’t really something he exposed to random people.

“We were hoping to hear some stories of what it’s like for soldiers after they come back from war, if you wouldn’t mind sharing,” Dr. Charles piped up.

“Of course not,” Harry agreed easily, letting the others in the room go first. Steve heard stories of a man who’d gotten injured before seeing combat and had his whole squadron leave without him and never come back. And a woman who’d lost hearing in one ear after an explosion. The rest of the stories went along in the same fashion, with each of them finishing with details of their years after, rejoining the civilian world and forging new paths. Steve was happy to hear that they’d all been able to go on with their lives, but none of the stories could really compare to what he went through. And what he was still facing. Until Harry shared his story.

“This was me not long after I made it through training,” Harry said, sliding over an old picture. There were two men smiling at the camera and it reminded Steve achingly of him and Bucky.

“Who’s this?” Steve asked, tapping on the man who was standing next to a younger Harry.

“Larry. We met on our first day in and got heckled by the others because of our rhyming names. We were inseparable from the start,” Harry chuckled, accepting the picture as Steve slid it back. “Our bunks were next to each other and we’d talk for hours every night. Lar was planning on being a teacher when he got out. I was convinced I was going to climb the ranks and make a career out of the military, like my old man had. But life has a way of changing your plans.”

“What happened?” Steve asked. He knew this wasn’t going to have a happy ending.

“Spending all that time together, it can really change a relationship. We never planned for it to happen, but we fell in love. Of course we couldn’t let anyone know, because of how things were at the time, but we started making plans. When the war was over, he was going to school like he’d always dreamed of and I was going to work construction. Life don’t always turn out like you want it to though.

“We walked into an ambush and people were falling left and right. I knew I was going to die out there that day, and I felt so much guilt over knowing I was going to leave the man I’d never gotten the chance to be with. I saw the bullet that was coming for me, but never saw Larry diving in front of it. He died right there in my arms, after saving my life.”

“I’m so sorry,” Steve whispered, shaking his head mournfully. It was like Bucky and Peggy all wrapped up into one person.

“I was so angry and depressed and I couldn’t even grieve properly because it had to stay secret. I had to pretend it was just another fellow soldier lost instead of what could’ve been the love of my life. I had to keep fighting like nothing was wrong, like the biggest and most important thing to me hadn’t been ripped away forever. That perfect soldier act I’d been putting on had to stay, but there wasn’t even a prize waiting for me at the end. The first chance I had to leave, I took,” Harry said, staring down at the picture of his lost love.

“What did you do next?” Steve asked.

“I spent a lot of time angry. When I wasn’t isolating myself, I was lashing out at anyone who came near me. I didn’t see the point in living anymore, now that my reason was gone. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom and got help that I started to live again. After a lot of hard work, I realized that Larry would be so disappointed seeing me like this. And I would never have wanted him to choose my path if I was the one who’d died that day. But it wasn’t easy.”

“How do you get past it?”

“You don’t, not completely. I know that’s never the answer anyone wants to hear, but something like that changes you in a way that can never be erased. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get better. It took me a while, but I found a partner that fills my whole heart in a way I thought it never could anymore. And that just set off a whole new wave of guilt, because I felt like I was betraying Larry. But I realized I wasn’t happy in spite of him, I was happy because of him. I was only here because of him and that love we shared and nothing was gained from me never giving any to someone else.”

Steve scrubbed a hand down his face, trying to focus on the hopefulness of the message instead of the pain behind it. All these people had gone through so much, lost so much, but they were still here and willing to fight for happiness.

“Loss is a part of life. One of the worst parts, but something unavoidable. It’s up to you to decide if it breaks you or if you do the work to keep going,” Dr. Charles said. Steve had already been working so hard these past months, and the rewards had been more substantial than he could’ve imagined. He wanted more. He wanted to get to where these people had gotten, he just had to be willing to face his demons and put forth the effort. Maybe he was ready?

“Would you all mind telling me a bit more about your lives now? I think I’d like to hear it,” Steve said. He spent the rest of the day listening to stories of marriages, kids, and careers. There was still sorrow and pain, but the one thing he didn’t hear was regret.

Notes:

I have a question for everyone. I feel like this story is quickly reaching the end, but I was wondering if people would want to see the team going back out for another mission, or if the story should end a little more open ended. At this point, it feels like I run the risk of things getting monotonous. Let me know what you think and thanks again to everyone for all the wonderful feedback!

Chapter 52: Chapter 52

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you have everything you need?” Tony muttered, flitting around the room slightly maniacally. Steve stood back and watched him with a bemused look on his face. Somehow Tony was more nervous than he was.

“I think so,” Steve chuckled, shrugging his shoulders.

“You think so? That doesn’t really inspire confidence,” Tony grumbled, pausing as he tried to think up another thing to check.

“What else do you think I need? I’m just going to sleep,” Steve sighed, sitting down on the edge of his bed.

“Yeah, in your bed, on your floor, alone, for the first time since-” Tony stammered before cutting himself off. He didn’t like to bring up the bad memories, in fear of triggering Steve.

“I know, but I think it’s time to try. At least for one night,” Steve said. He’d had a whole session with Dr. Charles about it and he felt confident enough now to try. They had no idea of knowing if the nightmares would come back, but Steve felt better equipped to handle them if they did.

“I feel like I’m dropping my kid off for their first sleepover,” Tony whispered, running a weary hand down his face.

“But you’re not,” Steve chuckled, waving him over to sit next to him on the bed. He gently bumped their shoulders together, giving him a small smile. “I’m already home.” And he really was. Those plastic shelves were sitting empty in his closet and his dresser was full. His latest knitting project was sitting on his bedside table, next to a picture of the team all together that Jarvis had taken on Christmas day. Clint’s needlepoint butterfly was hanging on the wall.

“Can you say that again?” Tony mumbled, leaning over to rest his head on Steve’s shoulder.

“I’m home.”

Steve crawled into his bed, smirking as Tony went back to nervously flying around the room. He explained the lighting system for the billionth time, telling him that Jarvis could adjust it to any setting he could dream of. He sprayed the relaxation concoction Bruce and Natasha had cooked up in his lab, which was mostly a mix of lavender, chamomile, and a little bit of rose. Thor had taken to it like crazy, setting up diffusers of the stuff to put around his floor as he worked on his collection. It wasn’t uncommon to find him sprawled out on the floor asleep in the middle of the chaos at any given time.

“Which podcast are you going with tonight?” Tony asked.

“Good Night, Sleep Right,” Steve replied. He found it was much easier to fall asleep to the sounds of the television in the background, but the brightness from it could get a little annoying. So Bruce did a little research and found podcasts that were people talking in soothing tones about nothing in particular and Steve had latched onto them right away. This one was his favorite, so he figured it would give him the best chance for success during this trial run.

“You know you can have Jarvis call me, for anything? No matter what time,” Tony reminded him, wringing his hands as he stood at the foot of the bed.

“Of course, Tony,” Steve said, giving him an appreciative smile.

“I guess I’ll leave you to it then,” Tony sighed, walking over to tuck the blankets securely around Steve’s body. Steve let him do what he wanted, knowing the actions were helping Tony soothe his nerves. He ruffled Steve’s hair before he stepped away, smirking at Steve rolling his eyes. “Good night Steve.”

“Good night Tony,” Steve replied, laying his head back on the pillow. He watched Tony leave the room, looking back one last time before closing the door. It was kind of ridiculous how much of a thing this had all been built up into. Steve had been sleeping alone most nights on random couches in the tower, so this shouldn’t be much different.

An hour later without a wink of sleep and he had to admit it was different. But he’d been prepared for something like this. Steve had been scared of this exact thing happening and talked to Dr. Charles about it. They’d worked on some techniques for him to use in case he had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Nothing that involved exercise, since that would be too similar to his coping mechanisms in his apartment.

Steve took a few deep breaths, trying to center himself. He clenched and unclenched each muscle group one at a time, letting his body fully relax. He reminded himself that he wasn’t alone, that the rest of the team was just floors away, sleeping soundly like he was about to be soon.

Steve chuckled as he thought back to a few days before, when they were all down in Tony’s lab. He’d gotten jealous of all their new hobbies, so he wanted to share one of his. Steve didn’t think it was a good idea, knowing the team, but Tony was convinced it would be a good idea. No one really knew how Clint managed to burn the ends of Thor’s hair, but now he had a stylish trim thanks to Natasha and Clint wasn’t allowed near fire for the foreseeable future. Thinking of the good memories and the experiences to come soothed him more than he ever dreamed it could. Before it would terrify him, reminding him of loss. But now it just made him look forward to what was next. Steve fell asleep to those comforting feelings.

*

Steve wasn’t sure what woke him up, but it was nothing unpleasant. Usually it was a loud commercial or his bedmate moving around, but this time he was asleep, and then he just wasn’t. He looked around, trying to see if anything was different. The podcast was still playing and the lights were still dimmed to just above pitch black. Had he just woken up naturally?

“Jarvis, what time is it?” Steve asked, rubbing the side of his face against his blanket.

“It is currently 8:22am,” Jarvis replied.

“Do you know what time I fell asleep?”

“You entered the first stage of non-REM sleep at approximately 11:37pm.”

Steve flopped onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Had he really gotten almost nine hours of uninterrupted sleep alone on his floor? And on the first attempt? He couldn’t wait to tell Dr. Charles. He couldn’t wait to tell the team. He couldn’t wait to tell Tony.

Steve rolled out of bed, needing to spread the good word before he could even think about taking a shower and getting dressed. The team probably wouldn’t mind being woken up for this, especially when he told them he was going to make them all breakfast. Steve threw open the door and almost face planted when he tripped over something on the floor outside his room.

“Tony?” Steve exclaimed, staring down at the lump of man who was looking up at him sheepishly.

“Oh, hey Steve. What’s up?” Tony said brightly, as if he wasn’t in a pile on the floor.

“Uh, what are you doing?” Steve asked, helping him to his feet.

“I just came to check on you.”

“Just now?”

“Yep.”

“You’re sure you weren’t here longer?”

“Nope.”

“Really?”

“I might’ve accidentally fallen asleep.”

“A completely unplanned thing?”

“Uh huh.”

“Why do you have a pillow?”

“So, maybe I was down here a bit longer than I let on,” Tony admitted, grimacing a little.

“You slept outside my room all night, didn’t you?” Steve asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep all the way on my floor last night and I just wanted to be nearby in case you needed something,” Tony sighed, staring down at his feet. “Are you mad?”

“Of course not,” Steve chuckled, putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I think I’m too well rested to be mad at anything right now.”

“So you’re saying it went well?” Tony asked, smiling up at him.

“You’d have to ask Jarvis to be sure, but I don’t think I even snored last night,” Steve laughed. Tony flung himself at him, wrapping him up in a celebratory hug. Such a small thing, but appreciating the small things never hurt.

“sh*t, I feel like I’m about to cry,” Tony mumbled into his shoulder.

“No, none of that. You want to go with me to tell everyone and then help me cook breakfast?” Steve asked, breaking apart to gesture toward the elevators.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do,” Tony said, leading the way down the hall. Steve followed, bumping into his back as he stopped abruptly in the doorway to the living room. “Uh, I don’t think we’ll have to go far.” Steve looked up, staring in surprised disbelief to find the rest of the team sprawled out across his furniture asleep.

“What the?” Steve mumbled, shaking his head in fond exasperation. He couldn’t ask for a better group of people to be his friends. Tony strode over to where Bruce was sprawled out on a couch on top of Thor, poking him in the stomach. He jerked back, headbutting Thor in the chest.

“No Bruce, we sleep,” Thor rumbled under his breath, clutching Bruce to his body like a teddy bear.

“Time to get up!” Bruce gasped, trying to escape Thor’s hold.

“Too early!” Clint moaned from his spot next to Natasha. They had been sleeping on opposite ends of another couch with their legs intertwined in the middle.

“You all had a sleepover and didn’t tell me? Where was my invite?” Tony scoffed in mock offense.

“You were down here before any of us,” Natasha said, stretching her limbs like a cat.

“Maybe so, but that hardly matters,” Tony brushed off.

“What are you all doing here?” Steve asked, stepping into the room to stand beside Tony.

“I got confused and thought this was my floor. Decided to just go with it,” Clint shrugged.

“We wanted to be closeby, just in case,” Natasha said.

“We support our brother,” Thor added.

“Well, I guess it worked. I slept great,” Steve grinned. He barely had time to brace himself for the onslaught of joy. Clint reached him first, practically jumping into his arms. Bruce was herded in by Thor, who smushed him into the middle of the group. Tony and Natasha wrapped around him from the back, completing the circle of hug. Steve remembered the hug similar to this one, right after he’d slept the first night in the room with the whole team. They were somehow still celebrating his sleep.

“I think it was my tuck job that made the difference,” Tony bragged.

“Get over yourself. The spray Bruce and I made can’t be topped,” Natasha scoffed.

“It is a powerful elixir,” Thor agreed.

“My butterfly exudes calm,” Clint piped in.

“No guys,” Bruce said, silencing everyone, “it was all Steve.”

Chapter 53: Chapter 53

Chapter Text

Steve tossed his pen down in exasperation, barely holding himself back from ripping up the paper. He knew this was going to be difficult, but he couldn’t even get past the first two words. He regretted assuring Dr. Charles that he was ready for this assignment, still hesitating to admit any sort of weakness when he could avoid it. There was no avoiding it now.

Dr. Charles had finally begun working on dealing with grief in their sessions, which had unsurprisingly been very hard. It took multiple days to work through what happened on the train and Steve hadn’t even bothered trying to sleep alone those nights, outright asking who he could sleep with. Tony and Thor had set up multiple pillows and cushions and blankets in the living room of the common floor so there was space for everyone, and they all slept piled on top of each other.

Now he was on his floor, sitting at his kitchen table staring at an almost blank sheet of paper, trying to find the right words. Dr. Charles said one of the reasons he hadn’t moved onto the acceptance part of the grieving process was because he didn’t have closure. Most people got that at a funeral, but Steve had never gotten the chance for almost everyone he used to know. His mother’s death was devastating, but he was able to think about her without falling apart because he’d gotten the chance to say goodbye.

He’d gotten through the letters for his Commandos fairly easily. It wasn’t that he didn’t desperately miss them too, but he took comfort in knowing they’d survived the war and gone on to live full lives. Their letters were full of recounting good memories and expressing regret at not being able to know the men they’d become. It wasn’t exactly painless, but it was nothing compared to the two he left for last.

How did you summarize a lifelong friendship and unbearable regret onto a sheet of paper? How was writing out his failings and giving them a physical presence supposed to make him feel better? And what was he supposed to say to the woman he loved? Sorry I never took the time to tell you how I felt before it was too late, or visit you while I had the chance? Everything he thought about putting down on the pages just felt wholly and painfully inadequate. They both deserved so much more than a goodbye written on a scrap of stationery.

Steve decided to take a break for now, walking over to look out the window. It was pretty dreary outside, which matched his melancholy mood. It wouldn’t have felt right for the sun to be shining while he was trying to do this.

He remembered kicking around in the puddles with Bucky as they walked home from school. And then getting in trouble with their moms. Talking about what they were going to do when they grew up. Dreaming of a better future for everyone. They sure hadn’t discussed this reality though. And Steve never pictured a world without Bucky in it.

Probability alone told him that he would reach his grave before Bucky, just due to his failing health. And then Bucky got drafted and that evened the score a bit. But Steve always had faith that his friend would find a way back from war, against all odds. And he might’ve, if it weren’t for Steve. He may have saved Bucky and all those men from that Hydra base, but he never should’ve had Bucky join his team. Captain America would obviously be pulling the most difficult assignments and keeping Bucky with him was just selfish. Steve told himself it would be a good way to keep his friend safe, but it hadn’t worked out that way in the end.

Steve stormed back over to the table, grabbing the pen and angrily scribbling on the sheet of paper. Dr. Charles was always telling him to be honest, so he was going to be right now.

Dear Bucky,

I’m sorry I got you killed. It was all my fault.

He snapped the pen in rage, splattering ink across the paper over the angry words he’d just written. Steve quickly pushed the rest of the papers away, before they could get ruined. Somehow the only words that hadn’t been obscured by the spill were “Dear Bucky” and “I’m sorry.” Was the world trying to tell him something? Was Bucky? If Bucky had been there to read his letter, he would’ve ripped it up after the first line. He wouldn’t have accepted Steve taking the blame for any of this. Bucky probably would have made him sit down and repeat that he was an idiot and it wasn’t his fault until Steve started believing it.

If only it were that simple. If they’d just had one last chance to talk, to say everything they needed to while they had a chance. But they didn’t really need to, did they? Steve knew how Bucky felt about him, and how Steve felt about Bucky. They were never afraid to show each other how they felt, even if they didn’t always say the words. Like it was with the team now.

It was Clint always ready to greet him with his warm milk and a spot on his couch. It was Thor helping him back up whenever he got knocked down. It was Natasha brushing his hair out of his face when he was stirring their latest recipe. It was Bruce sitting silently with him when he just needed to breathe. It was Tony squeezing his shoulder and smiling at him. This letter wasn’t about Steve punishing himself for being the reason he had to say goodbye. It was about being able to move on with Bucky still living in his heart.

Steve grabbed a new pen and clean sheet of paper, sat down, and wrote.

Dear Bucky,

I think this letter is long overdue, but it would’ve been a mess if I’d tried to write it sooner. It would’ve been full of guilt and self-recrimination, but that wouldn’t help anyone. Most likely, it would just piss you off. You were always the best at letting things roll off your back, even in the worst of circ*mstances. There really aren’t any circ*mstances worse than this one, but I still think you would’ve handled it with a lot more strength and grace than I have.

Oh Buck, where do I even begin. I think about that day often and what I could’ve done differently. It will never change anything and I think that’s what hurts the most. Being thrust into the future when all I wanted was to go back in time. Back to making jokes with you before the mission. Back to headquarters where we planned everything out. Even back to sleeping on the ground between the trees, wherever we could catch a wink. Anywhere that you were by my side. But I can’t, and that’s the hardest thing I’ll ever have to accept. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’m trying.

I think the only thing I can do now is do my best to make sure something like that never happens again. To fight everyday to make you proud. It would be an insult to your memory to take this chance at life that you gave me doing anything else. And to not try to be happy. Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to feel joy, because you aren’t, but that doesn’t help anyone. It actually hurts the people around me to see me hurt, if you can believe it. Of course you can, you were always so much better with people than I ever was.

You would like my team now. They are the family I never thought I’d have or deserve, but they are mine. I wish you had the chance to meet them. I need to start talking to them more about you, because you should be remembered. Not just for your service in the museums, but as the amazing person you were. As my best friend.

There is so much more I wish I could say to you, but I feel like you can see it in my soul. There will never be enough words to convey how much you mean to me, and how you always will. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for every moment you gave me. Thank you for being my best friend, my brother, and everything else. I will never be able to repay you for all of it, but I’ll try when we meet again. I know we’ll see each other in the future, but I’ll try not to make it too soon.

With my warmest and sincerest regards, I love you. Goodbye.

Steve

Chapter 54: Chapter 54

Chapter Text

“Frank was telling me the other day about this book he was reading on wood carving. I brought it up to the team and Thor was so offended, but he calmed down when I assured him that it wouldn’t involve his trees,” Steve chuckled, shaking his head at the memory. “I kind of scrapped the whole idea anyway after Clint mentioned trying to juggle chainsaws.”

“Maybe it’s something you could try without the team? Maybe even with Frank?” Dr. Charles suggested. Steve hadn’t taken his friendship with Frank past casual meetups at the bookstore cafe. He kept it light, kind of like he had with the gym owner and different service workers he’d talked to way back when. It felt awkward growing a friendship with someone he couldn’t be fully honest with. And he kind of preferred involving the team in all of his activities. There was nothing better than sharing something he was excited about and having them get excited about it as well.

“I’ll think about it,” Steve replied. He didn’t give an outright no to most things these days, trying to stay more flexible than he normally would. You never knew if you’d like something unless you tried.

“So, there’s an important date coming up soon. I know it’s still a few weeks out, but it wouldn’t hurt to start broaching the topic, instead of waiting until it’s right upon us,” Dr. Charles said carefully, looking over at him with compassion.

“The day I woke up,” Steve said, feeling his hands start to sweat just saying the words out loud. He knew the day was coming, but he’d avoided thinking about it. Would it be a big deal to him? Would it feel like just another day? There was so much unknown there and he hated unknown.

“Have you talked to any of your friends about it?”

“No, I haven’t. I’m not even sure if all of them know. Clint and Natasha probably do, since they are Shield. And Tony probably would as well. Bruce and Thor, I don’t know.”

“Do you want them to know? To acknowledge it?”

“I don’t know. I can’t tell if it’s something to celebrate or a day to mourn, if I’m being honest. It’s the day that I officially joined their world, but would they take offense if I don’t see it as something to commemorate? It might be the day I started my new life, but it’s also the day I officially lost my old one,” Steve said, not realizing how he really felt until he said it out loud. He was pretty sure the team would understand where he was coming from, but he didn’t want to hurt them either.

“You can’t worry about what other people think. This is your day to feel however you need. Sometimes you have to focus on yourself first.”

“I know, but they’ve helped me so much. I’d hate for them to think I regret this time with them.”

“You have to stop thinking about this as two separate lives you’ve lived. It’s all part of your story, just spread out over an unusual amount of time. I think the more you come to accept that you don’t have to keep everything so disconnected, the better off you’ll be in the long run. There is only one Steve Rogers.”

“It’s just so hard sometimes,” Steve mumbled, staring down at his hands. He always had this urge to try to fill the holes left by the people he lost with the people he had now. But it wasn’t fair to anyone. No one could take Bucky’s place, but that didn’t mean Tony wasn’t just as important in his own way. If Steve somehow went back in time, there would now be a Tony shaped space that would never be filled. Life was linear and once you left something behind, you had to move on. But it was easier said than done. The pull to cling and hope for impossible things was so strong.

“Some of the most fulfilling things in life take hard work,” Dr. Charles pointed out. “I think you’ve seen that’s true a lot recently.”

“I have,” Steve agreed. The scales had really been tipping in his favor lately.

The ringing of his phone cut through the calm of the session. Tony had set this phone to ignore all calls when he was in with Dr. Charles, except for one of the team. But they knew better than to disturb him during therapy. Unless…

“Tony?”

“I’m so f*cking sorry, Steve. I never wanted to make this call,” Tony muttered, in an obvious rush.

“What happened? Is everyone okay?” Steve asked, barely holding himself back from shouting.

“Everyone is fine, it’s just-” Tony paused, sucking in a sharp breath. “We got called in.”

“Called in? Like, a mission from Shield?” Steve could feel his pulse start to race in anticipation and dread.

“Yes,” Tony whispered, and weren’t there a ton of thoughts and emotions wrapped up in that one word. Steve could feel Tony’s reluctance through the phone.

“Is it bad?” Did they really need them?

“Steve, you can sit this one out. If you need more time, no one will begrudge you,” Tony said firmly. “But I’m going to need an answer from you in the next thirty seconds.” Steve looked helplessly to Dr. Charles, wishing she would have the correct choice waiting for him with a smile. Her face was giving nothing away though.

What was the right answer here? Was he ready? If this went poorly, would he backslide to how he was in the beginning? Steve kind of wished Tony hadn’t called at all, but that would hurt worse than anything. Was his mental health worth more than the safety of his friends? Would he be able to look them in the eye if he stayed behind? Would there ever be a moment of clarity that showed him he was ready to go out and fight again? Steve couldn’t sit back and just let life happen. He had to make a choice.

“I’m in.”

“Meet me on the roof.”

Steve tapped end on his phone, making brief eye contact with Dr. Charles before darting out of the room. She was hot on his heels, trailing him to the elevators. With the floor they were on, it would be faster than the stairs, but it still felt painfully slow.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Dr. Charles asked, stepping into the car and riding up with him.

“Do you think I’m ready?” Steve asked, instead of answering her question.

“That’s not for me to decide.”

The doors opened and Steve turned to look at Dr. Charles one last time before he left. These weeks had been preparing him for this and there was no turning back now. They were about to find out how far he’d come.

“Time to do some hard work.”

Chapter 55: Chapter 55

Chapter Text

Tony flew him to where the jet was waiting and it took off as soon as they got on. Everyone onboard looked antsy, but Steve couldn’t worry about that right now. He went over to the side where his suit was hanging and started getting dressed. If they were in this big of a hurry, there was no time to waste.

“What do we have?” Steve asked, pulling on his gear.

“All we know is robot birds are causing chaos in Jersey,” Tony explained, pacing agitatedly in the small space. “Did I do the right thing? Would you rather I not have called?”

“Tony,” Steve sighed, stopping his movements with his hands on his shoulders. “I’m glad you called me. No way would I sit this one out.”

“Are you sure?” Tony asked, biting his lip.

“Trusting me enough to give me the option means a lot,” Steve assured him, slipping on his cowl.

“Clint, did you bring the super glue?” Natasha asked, checking her widow’s bites.

“For what?” Clint replied, looking around for an answer.

“To make sure your earwig doesn’t fall out again.”

“That was one time,” Clint pouted, pushing the little device further into his ear.

“Maybe I should make everyone a helmet? That way Jarvis will always be in your head,” Tony suggested.

“And cover my hair? Please,” Thor scoffed.

“How would you get it to grow with the Hulk? Figuring out the pants issue was hard enough,” Bruce pointed out.

“We could always go the implant in the skull route,” Tony offered, miming drilling into someone’s head.

“As pleasant as that sounds, I think I’ll have to pass,” Clint cringed, going back to manning the controls of the jet. Steve could feel they were getting close, but the team banter was helping him relax. Their last mission really had gone off without a hitch, for the most part at least. They could do the same here and be home in time for dinner

Steve bent down to grab his shield just as the quinjet banked to the side, almost sending him sprawling down to the floor. Only Natasha’s quick reflexes kept him from face planting and he gave her a quick nod of thanks before he rushed to the front so he could see what they were dealing with.

There were hundreds of mechanical birds the size of geese wreaking havoc around downtown Newark. They were flying into the windows of buildings and dive bombing the people running around on the ground in panic. A few were even pecking at the side of the jet as it approached a suitable landing zone.

“What the hell?” Natasha mumbled, staring out at the rampaging creatures.

“This should be right up Katniss’ alley,” Tony chuckled, flipping his helmet closed.

“Wanna call it, Steve?” Natasha asked, shoving extra clips into her pockets. Steve gave one last look at the scene, then turned to face his team. This was the ultimate test. Was he ready?

“Tony, can you get a scan on one of them, see if there are any weak spots we can target and exploit?”

“On it,” Tony replied, moving to the window so he could get a better view.

“As far as I can see, they are staying in the same general area, so containment doesn’t look to be an issue for now, but call it out if you see that changing.”

“They look pretty weak actually,” Tony said, pulling up a hologram for them all to examine. “I don’t see any type of weaponry on them and they look easily destroyable.”

“Sounds too good to be true, but I trust your observation. Let’s set up a perimeter and work our way toward the middle, taking out as many as we can along the way. Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk will take the furthest points, while Widow and I will start from this end. Iron Man, take Hawkeye to a place in the center so he can do his thing. Consistent check-ins, okay?” Steve directed, looking around for any arguments.

“I think we’ve got a plan,” Clint grinned, slapping him fondly on the back. The rest of them agreed and made their way to the back hatch, preparing to step into battle once again.

“I love you guys,” Steve said, hitting the button to open the door. They were immediately bombarded by a hoard of birds and Thor and Steve batted them back until everyone could get clear of the jet and close the doors. A couple well placed pecks triggered Bruce into the Hulk and he quickly ran off to his designated spot, flicking the birds as he went. Steve thought he might’ve seen Hulk bite one too, but he couldn’t be sure. Thor and Tony took off to their areas with Clint in tow, Thor laughing as he went.

“These things suck!” Natasha hissed, shooting one straight in the beak.

“Do you want to stick together or will you be fine on your own?” Steve asked, throwing his shield through an approaching swarm. Natasha didn’t really have any sort of defense from these things, like his shield.

“I got this,” Natasha assured him, grabbing a bird out of the air and ripping its wings off before tossing the whole thing to the side.

“If that changes, I’m here,” Steve said. At Natasha’s nod he took off, using the shield as a battering ram as he ran full force into the melee.

“In position on a tall, gray building,” Clint informed them, sending out an arrow with a quick swish.

“So descriptive,” Natasha snorted, shooting off a few more rounds.

“Has anyone run into trouble so far?” Steve asked, knocking a bird down then stomping it.

“I had a slight moment of panic when I thought one of these beasts had scratched Mjolnir, but I’m relieved to inform you that I was mistaken. It was but a strand of my own hair,” Thor responded.

“You still oppose that helmet?” Tony chuckled, sending out a blast that caused a small explosion that Steve could hear above the chaos, even without the comms.

“That sounded expensive,” Natasha noted.

“Low five figures, at most,” Tony brushed off. Steve smiled at the commentary, knowing that joking meant they were okay. He got to the edge of where he was going and started working his way in, smashing birds as he went. There weren’t too many civilians where he was, so that was one less thing to worry about.

“Go inside the nearest building,” Steve directed to a group of men who were hovering near a car. Most of them listened, but one stayed behind. “Sir, it’s not safe out here.”

“These are mine!” the man shouted, staring up at the sky. Steve immediately got into a defensive stance and forgot the birds. Had the evil mastermind just revealed himself so nonchalantly?

“I may need backup at my location. Possible suspect identified. Standby for confirmation,” Steve announced. In the past he would’ve just dealt with this on his own, but now he understood the security of having a team by your side.

“You good?” Tony asked, a sliver of worry snaking into his voice.

“If I don’t check in within the next five minutes, head over,” Steve replied. Steve approached the man with his shield raised, keeping a close eye on any moves he might make. “Who are you?”

“I’m the guy who’s out of business, that’s who I am!” the man spat, pulling at his hair.

“And what business is that?” Steve asked.

“Toys,” he moaned.

“Toys?” Steve repeated, shaking his head in surprise. “These are supposed to be toys?”

“They are supposed to be the hottest new toy of the upcoming holiday season!” the man whined, dropping to the ground to fondle a pile of metal carcass.

“A metal goose was supposed to be the most popular toy?” Steve mumbled, looking around at the monstrosities. Was this what kids wanted these days?

“It wasn’t just a bird, it was a best friend. A smart pet with cutting edge technology,” the man explained, resting his forehead in his hands. “Something went wrong in the system and they all went into attack mode. Two years of development down the drain!”

“So, this was an accident?”

“Of course! Who would want this?”

“You’d be surprised,” Steve muttered. At least this wasn’t another evil doer trying to take over the world. “Backup is unnecessary.”

“You sure?” Tony asked. “I can still do a flyover.”

“No thanks, I’m good,” Steve assured him. “Do you know how to stop this?”

“The system is too far gone to be fixed now,” the man sighed, slumping forward even more.

“I suggest you seek shelter until the threat is neutralized,” Steve said, rushing over to pull the man up.

“But they are my babies. I can’t let you destroy my babies,” the man cried, and Steve tensed, expecting some sort of attack. All he got was the man falling into his arms dramatically, knocking his shield out of his grip. Steve leaned him against the side of a building so he could grab his shield.

It must’ve been purely bad luck and just the right angle for it, because when Steve bent down, the inventor got spooked by a flock of the birds and jumped on his back. It was technically more like his head and neck area and Steve couldn’t stop his forward momentum in time. He barely got one arm out and when his body finally crashed down to the ground, he heard that familiar crack.

“Son of a gun!” Steve gasped, rolling onto his back. His mind temporarily flashed back to that mission in Russia, but he pushed away those memories. It wasn’t snowing, it was early spring. The quinjet hadn’t blown up, and even if it had, they were only a state away from home. And the team was family now.

“Are you okay?” the man blubbered, falling to his knees next to Steve.

“I’ll be okay if you go into that building and stay put,” Steve ground out, pushing himself painfully to his feet. The man scampered off, finally listening to his direction. A few minutes too late, but Steve would take what he could get. He grabbed the shield and batted down a few more birds, completely annoyed with this mission now.

Steve moved to a more covered space to give his arm a quick once over. From what he could tell, it didn’t seem so bad. A little pull and keeping it still for a while would probably do the trick. But then he thought of the team and how they would react to that. If they found out he was hurt and didn’t say anything like before. Steve wasn’t that same guy anymore, was he?

“Natasha, I’m coming to you,” Steve called out, jogging toward her section of battle.

“Are you sure? I don’t need assistance,” Natasha said in slight confusion.

“I do,” Steve sighed, preparing himself for the wave of concern. “I might’ve broken my arm again.”

“You what!”

“Again?”

Hulk roared in the distance.

“I’ll explain later,” Steve mumbled, picking up his speed. The faster he could get to Natasha, the sooner she could tell everyone that he really was okay and they could go back to focusing on the mission.

“You are in such big trouble!” Natasha hissed as soon as they were in sight of each other. She shot the birds in their path and rushed over to him, zeroing in on his limply hanging arm. There wasn’t much to see due to the sleeve, but she gently took it into her hands anyway.

“It’s not that bad,” Steve assured her, wincing at the glare she shot him.

“We’re gonna let a doctor be the judge of that this time, right?” Natasha asked.

“Yes,” Steve sighed, rolling his eyes.

“Can you still fight?”

“I can do this all day.”

“He’s okay,” Natasha announced, giving him a quick pat on the cheek. “But let’s hurry up and finish so we can get him in private and scold him.”

“I think Hulk likes that plan,” Tony said just as their green friend let out another roar. Steve swore he could see the buildings around them shake from the force.

They kept fighting for a few more minutes, making a lot of progress. These things really were easy to break, it was just the sheer number of them that were causing problems. Steve and Natasha were working in tandem, with Natasha taking out as many threats in the distance and Steve smashing any down that got close. The rest of the team had a running dialogue going, with Tony teasing Clint about having to fight his own kind and Thor moaning about how they had taken a particular liking to his hair.

“They just want to make a nest, Thor. Sharing is caring,” Tony cackled. “They should ask Hawkeye for advice.”

“I’m changing my name,” Clint grumbled.

“As if that’ll help,” Natasha scoffed.

“The itsy bitsy spider is probably right.”

“How are things on your end?” Steve asked.

“It’s looking beautiful. I’m already scoping out a place for lunch,” Tony replied.

“Our side is thinning out as well. I think we might be finished soon,” Steve said with a grin. Even with the threat of a lecture looming over him, he was eager to be finished. “Hawkeye, how are things looking from your vantage point?” When Clint didn’t answer right away, Steve didn’t panic. He was just talking about a minute ago, wasn’t he? He was probably busy.

“Hawkeye, come in,” Natasha called out. But there was still nothing. “If this is a joke or your earwig fell out again, I’m going to kill you.” Steve sucked in a sharp breath. This couldn’t be happening again. Clint would not play around like this.

“Iron Man, get to Hawkeye’s location now!” Steve demanded, ignoring everything but the sounds coming through the little speaker in his ear. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds, but they were the longest of his life.

“Hawkeye is down,” Tony gasped. Steve felt his whole body go numb. “Unconscious, but alive.” This was his biggest fear and it was happening again. He wanted to curl up in a ball and give up, but he couldn’t. Steve had worked too hard and people were depending on him. He had to stay strong.

“Fly him to the nearest hospital. The rest of us will finish up and meet you there as soon as possible,” Steve dictated.

“Are you sure?” Tony asked.

“Stay with him,” Steve confirmed.

“I’ll keep you updated,” Tony whispered, performing his task. Steve looked up and saw Tony flying their injured teammate away. He sent up a long since forgotten prayer after them, begging whoever would listen to protect his friend.

Chapter 56: Chapter 56

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

There wasn’t anymore banter after that. They were all focused on getting the job done as quickly as they could so they could get to Clint. Steve started using his broken arm a bit more than he should before Natasha stopped him, reminding him that hurting himself wouldn’t help anyone.

Steve felt like chucking the shield into the ocean, but he couldn’t give up now. How much of an insult would that be to Clint if he quit? If they didn’t finish what they started. They would get through this and figure it out from there.

“They just took him back to examine him,” Tony announced through the comms.

“How did he look? Did they say anything?” Natasha asked, taking out her frustrations on a swarm of the fake birds.

“They said he was stable. I couldn’t tell what happened. There was no blood, he was just knocked out,” Tony explained, the worry clear in his voice. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come back?”

“Stay put, we’re almost done. Have Jarvis send the location of the hospital to the quinjet,” Steve directed.

“On it. I also have a team at the hospital on standby to take care of your arm,” Tony replied. Steve wanted to argue that he wasn’t going to be seen by anyone until he knew Clint was okay, but he kept quiet instead. That wouldn’t help anything right now.

The members of the team who were still fighting finally congregated in the center of town, taking out the last of the threat. Steve spun around the space, looking for signs of any birds they missed.

“I think we got them,” Steve announced, looking back toward everyone else. They looked a little tired, but other than that unharmed. That was all Hulk needed to hear before he scooped Steve and Natasha up under each arm and started running full force toward the quinjet. Thor zipped past them, taking advantage of his hammer. He had the jet open and ready for them by the time they got there.

“I’ll get this thing started and call Shield in for cleanup,” Natasha said, dashing inside. Steve and Thor stayed outside, keeping Hulk close as he transitioned back into Bruce. Every bone in Steve’s body was shouting at him to demand Thor fly him to the hospital now, but he couldn’t leave the rest of the team behind. They were just as worried as he was and his feelings weren’t more important than theirs.

As soon as Bruce was back, they drug him onto the jet and Steve signalled for Natasha to go. She whipped the plane around the buildings, going faster than what really could be considered safe in this environment, but Steve didn’t care. Anything that got them there faster.

Natasha landed in a little park adjacent to the hospital and they sprinted over, ignoring all the looks they were getting from the people they passed. News of the chaos had to have spread by this point, but there would be no statements made to the press or reassurances made to the public. They’d done their job. Now they were just people who were worried about their friend.

“Tony!” Steve called out as soon as they got to the right place and saw one half of their missing teammates. They all rushed over to him, hoping to hear good news.

“They haven’t told me anything yet,” Tony sighed, scrubbing a hand down his face. He’d taken off his suit and set it off to the side. A far cry from the man who’d been so paranoid about it before. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve mumbled, looking away. He was, but Clint wasn’t, and that was just so unfair. Once again his friends were taking the hits and he was standing by to deal with the aftermath. “Actually, no.”

“I know. Let’s go tell the nurse you’re here so they can check out your arm,” Tony said, putting a hand on his back to guide him toward the staff area.

“No, I mean I’m not okay,” Steve whispered, gritting his teeth in anger. “I failed again.”

“What are you talking about, Steve?” Tony asked, pausing to face him.

“I couldn’t even get us through one mission,” Steve breathed out, shaking his head in disappointment at himself. He shouldn’t have come.

“Steve that’s-” Tony started, before cutting himself off. “Run through everything that happened during this mission.”

“What? Why? You were there,” Steve questioned in confusion. Did Tony really want him to recount his mistakes?

“I’ll start for you. You came up with a solid plan,” Tony said, signalling for Steve to continue.

“You were the one who scanned the birds.”

“At your direction. You used the resources you had at your disposal, like any good leader would. Go on,” Tony prodded.

“I broke my arm.”

“Not ideal, but what did you do after? You let the team know and got yourself some backup in case you needed it. You didn’t hide it like before, which we’ll discuss later,” Tony said, giving him a scolding look.

“Clint got hurt.”

“Which is awful, but a risk we’ve all signed up for. Tell me what happened after that?” Tony probed.

“What do you mean? Why does it matter?” Steve ground out. He didn’t want Tony to try to spin this into not being his fault. There was no one else to blame.

“You sent me to take care of him, then finished the mission. You did exactly what you were supposed to do. You didn’t freeze, you didn’t give up. Instead of breaking down, like I’m sure we all wanted to do, you kept your wits about you and did what needed to be done!” Tony exclaimed, flashing him a look of determination. “You did what a leader does, even in the face of adversity. You were Captain freaking America. You were Steve Rogers.”

“Family of Clint Barton?” a doctor asked, slipping into the room. Everyone turned to face the newcomer, but Tony held up a hand to silence them.

“One second,” Tony demanded, tipping Steve’s chin back in his direction. “Forgive me for this delay.”

“What are you doing?” Steve asked. They were finally going to get the news they were waiting for, but Tony was stopping it?

“I need to hear that you accept what I said. It will be too easy for you to frame your answer depending on how Clint is. If you know he’s okay, you can say you did a good job without the guilt. If he’s not, all the progress goes out the window. Look at this situation objectively and honestly. Do you believe you were a good leader?”

“Tony,” Steve whined, feeling himself get antsy. He understood Tony’s point, but he didn’t want to deal with it right now.

“Steve, you can hate me for this later, but you can’t avoid this question. You’ll just keep cycling through and second guessing yourself. Speaking your truth is powerful. Tell me how you feel.”

“I feel frustrated!”

“Okay, about what?”

“About you!”

“But how do you feel about the mission?”

“I don’t know.”

“After going over everything that happened, what would you have done differently? And be realistic about it. You may be superhuman, but you’re still human.”

“I don’t- there’s-” Steve stammered, pursing his lips in contemplation. Was there anything else he could’ve done to change the outcome of this mission? If he’d paired Clint up with someone, that might’ve changed things, but what if it made another thing worse? There were always unforeseen consequences, but he’d made his choices with the most confidence and information he had at the time. You couldn’t predict or prevent everything, you just had to try your best.

“Steve?”

“I did the best I could,” Steve said finally, feeling another tiny bit of weight fall from his shoulders.

“I’m proud of you,” Tony beamed, putting a supportive hand on the back of his neck. “Now, let’s find out how our friend is.” Steve held his breath, waiting to hear the news. No matter what it was, they were going to support each other.

“Mr. Barton is fine,” the doctor said, now that she had been given permission to speak. The collective sigh of relief from all of them almost knocked Steve off his feet.

“What happened?” Natasha asked, as soon as she got her bearings back.

“We’re not quite sure how it happened, but Mr. Barton seems to have been electrocuted. It wasn’t severe, but we have him under observation to make sure his heart rhythm stays where it needs to be. He woke up briefly, but was a bit agitated, so we gave him a sedative to help him relax. We’ll run a few more tests when he’s cognizant,” the doctor explained.

“Can we see him?” Bruce asked, probably aching to get his hands on Clint’s chart to check things over himself.

“Yes, but try not to wake him. Rest is good for him right now,” the doctor replied, letting them know what room number he was in.

“Can you send out the doctors who I requested for the broken arm earlier?” Tony asked.

“Tony, I don’t need all that. My arm can wait until after I see Clint is really okay,” Steve sighed.

“No arguments on this one. We’re getting your arm taken care of now,” Tony declared, giving him a pointed stare.

“But-”

“The more you fight, the longer it’s going to take. And besides, we’re all looking forward to the story of the last time you broke your arm.”

*

Steve fidgeted in his seat next to Clint’s bed, flicking at the annoying sling holding his broken arm in place. It was barely even a break really, more like a couple cracks in a few places. All of the fuss over him was excessive, but at least he’d talked them out of a real cast, settling for a soft one for the few days it would take to be fully healed and strengthened. The rest of the team stared at him intently when he assured them that he knew how long it would take to heal.

“It really isn’t that big of a deal,” Steve mumbled, willing the sleeping man to wake up and distract everyone. He knew it wouldn’t really work for long.

“So then it’s not a big deal to tell us,” Bruce prodded gently.

“Just remember that this was a long time ago, okay? And that I’d never do something like this now,” Steve sighed, staring down at his lap.

“I promise we won’t be mad,” Natasha said, urging him on. Steve groaned, tapping the side of his foot against the leg of his chair.

“It happened during the mission in Russia,” Steve started, feeling all of their eyes on him as they thought back to everything that happened those few days.

“When you wouldn’t let the doctor check you out at Shield,” Natasha said, audibly grinding her teeth.

“You went to fight those rock monsters with a broken arm?” Tony asked, carefully keeping his voice even.

“It was mostly healed by then,” Steve replied, wincing at how thin that excuse sounded.

“And who was the doctor that told you that?” Bruce asked. Steve grimaced, knowing he was really gonna get it now.

“Dr. Rogers.” The team whisper yelled incoherent objections to his admission, demanding the rest of the details. He begrudgingly came clean about it all, even down to the screwdriver.

“Oh Steve,” Tony moaned, leaning back in his chair.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds. And I’d never do anything like that again, unless there was no other choice. But I promise I’d tell you all first,” Steve assured them.

“That- that’s so-”

“That’s so metal.”

“Clint!” everyone exclaimed, coming up to hover around his bed.

“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” Steve asked, searching for any signs of discomfort on the other man’s face.

“I need you to teach me how to be that tough. A screwdriver? Really?” Clint murmured, grinning up at him.

“Don’t encourage him,” Natasha scolded, giving him a kiss on the forehead. The doctor came in and tried to shoo them out so she could examine Clint, but they all refused, tucking into a corner out of the way. Steve finally started breathing again, now that he heard Clint cracking jokes with the doctor. It was one thing to hear someone was going to be okay, but a whole other thing to actually see it.

“Your friend is doing just fine. There seems to be a little bit of a memory issue surrounding the event that caused this, but that’s nothing to be concerned about. We’ll give you some time before we come back and take him down for tests,” the doctor said, escaping before she could be grilled by Bruce again.

“You really don’t remember what happened?” Steve asked, sitting back in his previous chair at everyone’s urging. He broke his arm, not his leg.

“No,” Clint mumbled, looking down at his heart monitor.

“What’s the last thing you can recall?” Bruce asked, flipping through his chart for the hundredth time.

“Just the robot birds.”

“Oh, you’re lying!” Natasha gasped, covering her mouth in exaggeration.

“Shut up, Nat! I am not,” Clint denied.

“I can tell when you’re lying and you are so lying,” Natasha snorted, giving him a pointed look.

“I hate you,” Clint whined, poking his lip out.

“What is it? What happened?” Steve asked, putting a comforting hand on his arm. “It’s okay, you can tell us.”

“Oh dammit Steve, don’t give me that look,” Clint moaned, glaring at Natasha. “I electrocuted myself.”

“What? How?” Tony asked, tilting his head to the side.

“I wanted to see what would happen if I shot one of my electrified arrows at a bird. It kind of flew into me and I got shocked. That’s all I remember,” Clint blurted out, turning a bright shade of red. The room was silent with everyone trying to absorb what they’d just heard. Steve put his head down, trying to regain control of his emotions. It was no use though. He could feel them bubbling up and there was no way he could stop them.

The first gasp broke through, and then it was over. Tony went down hard, clutching at his chest as his breaths caught in his throat. Thor was full on crying, using Bruce’s shirt as a tissue. Natasha fell on top of the bed, covering her face with her hands. Bruce was shaking his head with his lips firmly pressed together, but his eyes were shining bright. Steve was the last to crack, holding on until he couldn’t anymore.

“You shocked yourself?” Steve giggled, looking at Clint in pity. He wasn’t going to be able to live this down for a long time.

“Oh my God, I can’t breathe. Clint is trying to kill me!” Tony barked out, rolling on the floor.

“I wield lightning, and yet I’ve never shocked myself!” Thor choked out between gasps, draping himself over Bruce’s shoulder.

“Very funny, guys,” Clint pouted, crossing his arms as best he could with all the wires.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Steve chuckled, wiping at his eyes. “We were just so worried and hearing that this is what happened, it’s like the best outcome we could’ve asked for.”

“Me shocking myself was the best outcome?”

“Everyone being okay is the best outcome,” Steve said, looking around at the group. If someone had told him almost a year ago, when he came out of that ice, that he’d have friends like this, he would’ve laughed in their face. Probably not even laughed though, since he wasn’t doing much of that back then. This group meant more than he could ever describe. They were his family.

Everyone finally collected themselves and decided to give Clint a break, moving onto safer topics. Clint was demanding to pick the menu for the whole week after they got back home and Bruce was trying to gently persuade him to add some vegetable options into the mix. Tony was talking to Jarvis in his suit, trying to hack into the hospital systems to change Clint’s name to Candy. Thor was braiding Natasha’s hair, copying the pattern she’d put into his own hair while they’d been waiting for Clint to wake up. Steve just sat back and watched, enjoying these calm moments. They were his absolute favorite.

Things still weren’t perfect, but he doubted they’d ever be. One good mission wouldn’t fix everything, but it helped. Steve was learning to recognize and appreciate small victories, and he was doing that right now. A meteor could hit the earth and kill everyone tomorrow, but that shouldn’t stop him from living today. The next mission could end in disaster, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t go out and give it all he had. He would most likely lose someone again, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t form bonds. Those were what made life worth living. And Steve Rogers was planning on doing just that.

Notes:

One more chapter after this. That hurt to type.

Chapter 57: Chapter 57

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze. The cherry blossoms had bloomed unusually early and the petals were gently falling around them, reminiscent of snow. All in all, the setting was perfect. It was everything he could’ve asked for on this day.

Steve straightened out his tie and smoothed out his jacket. There was no one he needed to be presentable for, but he wanted to show respect to the significance of what he was doing. He didn’t want to look back on any moment of this with regret.

This wasn’t an official ceremony, but that didn’t stop Tony from trying to go overboard, attempting to deck the place out with every flower in the city he could get his hands on. Steve was able to convince him to keep it low-key, so they wouldn’t draw too much attention to themselves. Tony ended up doing a beautiful job, sticking to white and red roses placed around the space.

He kept rubbing at his breast pocket, where the sheet of paper was tucked. The words marking it had been so hard to write, with the sense of finality so strong. But it was already over and nothing he did or didn’t do would change that. Acceptance was still such a hard thing to grasp, but he was working as hard as he could toward it. And this was an important step.

The team was by his side, a somber but strong support. Some people went their whole lives without forming bonds as powerful as the ones he had, but he’d been lucky enough to make them in multiple lifetimes. And he was fortunate enough to have them here to help him say goodbye to the final one from his past.

“I’m not really sure how I should do this,” Steve murmured, looking to the others for advice. He’d had weeks before now and the whole flight over to plan out what to do, but now that he was here, all of those thoughts flew from his mind.

“Do whatever feels right,” Tony said, squeezing the back of his neck. Steve sighed, stepping up to the edge of the grave. The headstone was a gleaming marble with a simple epitaph, just like she would’ve liked. If she could see him now, she’d tell him to get on with it already and stop stalling, that there was no use in putting things off longer than they needed to be. So Steve would do just that.

“When Dr. Charles brought up this day a few weeks back, I didn’t know what I should do. Should I make a big deal out of it, or pretend I didn’t remember it? Nothing really felt right,” Steve said, sliding the letter out of his pocket. “Then I remembered this.”

“What is it?” Natasha asked.

“Dr. Charles had me write letters to everyone I left behind. Oh gosh, it was hard. But getting through it, putting those words out there and giving them a physical presence did help,” Steve explained, running his fingers along the edge of the paper. “I thought maybe I’d read the one I wrote to Peggy, as kind of like a eulogy to her.”

“That sounds really nice, Steve,” Bruce said quietly.

“Seemed like a fitting way to spend a day like this,” Steve sighed, looking up at everyone. “You all really don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. It might be a little strange to hear someone read a letter at a memorial for a person you’ve never met.”

“We’re right where we want to be,” Clint assured him. “If she is important to you, she is important to us, because you are important to us. We’re here for whatever you need.”

“Thank you,” Steve whispered, giving everyone one last nod. He carefully unfolded the paper and started to read.

Dearest Peggy,

I’m not even sure where to begin. There are so many things I wish I’d said to you while I had the chance, but circ*mstances or nerves stopped me from going through with it. How I wish I could go back and change things, but unfortunately I can’t. Writing this letter is a weak substitution, but it will have to do.

I think I fell in love with you the moment we first spoke. It sounds so cliche, but I felt with you something I’d never felt before. You were unlike anyone I’d ever met. Stunning, strong, competent in everything you did. You were a force and I was captivated. I could’ve stared into your brown eyes for the rest of my life.

Working with you, when we finally got the chance, was something I’ll always cherish. You made my newfound status bearable. While everyone else treated me like some mythical hero, you treated me like the kid from Brooklyn. I was still the same person you talked to in the back of that car and I appreciated it so much.

And of course the only kiss we shared was initiated by you. You were bold and I can only hope to live my life with the kind of courage that you went into everything with. The fear of rushing into battle paled in comparison to the fear of opening up to you, as silly as that sounds now. But lost opportunities with you have taught me to tell the people I love how I feel about them often and without hesitation. I’m sorry I didn’t figure that out sooner.

The thing I’m most sorry about is not coming to see you when I had the chance. Everything was just so raw back then, and it was easy to convince myself that it would be better for you if I stayed away. Or that I had more time. It’s a mistake I think about a lot still. Saying goodbye to you like this is not enough, but it will have to be for now.

I do take solace in the fact that you lived a long, happy life, even though I wish it were with me. You deserved every achievement you earned and every happy memory you created. I hope you didn’t think of me too often, at least in a way that caused you pain. I know how it feels living in a world of “what ifs” and it’s not a fun cycle to get stuck in. But I believe that if we’d had a chance together, we would’ve been amazing, and that has to be good enough for me.

All that’s left for me to do now is keep living and fighting, just as you did after I was gone. I doubt I’ll do it with the same grace as you, but I’ve got some good people to help me with that. I’ll tell you all about them when we see each other again. I’m sorry I missed our date, but I know we’ll have one someday.

With deep and sincere love, I miss you. Save me a dance up there.

Steve

Steve took a deep breath, tenderly tucking the letter back into the pocket over his heart. Somehow he’d made it through without breaking down, but it felt like a near thing.

“That was wonderful,” Thor said softly, stepping up to wipe at Steve’s eyes with the blush pink handkerchief he’d made him. Steve chuckled wetly, letting the other man soothe him.

“Thanks,” Steve sniffled, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Thor’s broad shoulders. Natasha came up behind him and wrapped herself around his back, followed quickly by Clint and Bruce at his sides.

“Come on, make room for me!” Tony whined, squeezing into the huddle. He found his spot under one of Thor’s arms and settled into the hug. It was chaotic and shouldn’t work, but they just fit together.

“I love you guys,” Steve said, closing his eyes to let the comfort of this moment soak into him. One year ago today he’d woken up more alone than he could fathom, but now he had a family. He had friendship, joy, and laughter. He had love. He also had all the hard stuff that came along with life, but Steve didn’t let himself wallow in it. He used the knowledge of it to appreciate what he had even more. And he had all he could’ve asked for.

Steve finally pulled back, breaking up the embrace. He felt ready to take on the world again, with these people by his side.

“So, where should we go for lunch?” Tony asked.

“How are you always thinking of food?” Natasha sighed, shaking her head in exasperation.

“Eating is a biological need. I do it to survive,” Tony laughed, throwing his arm around Steve’s shoulders. “I know about this amazing fish and chips shop not too far from here. You’ll love it.”

“That does sound pretty good actually,” Bruce admitted.

“Got the doctor’s seal of approval,” Tony bragged, nudging Steve in his side.

“I hope they have a lot. I could eat an entire shark right now,” Thor boasted.

“I could probably eat one too,” Clint challenged, shooting a grin at the bigger man.

“Here we go again,” Natasha moaned, pinching the bridge of her nose. “If you make yourself sick again, you’re taking care of yourself.”

“I’ll take care of you,” Steve offered, smiling at Clint’s bark of offense.

“I appreciate the thought, but I don’t understand why you all think I would need help. I could win,” Clint whined.

“Sure you could,” Thor cooed, patting the top of his head. Clint launched into a tirade about everyone’s lack of faith in him. Bruce went into a detailed description of the physiology of the human body, focusing on stomach capacity and digestion. Thor laughed at the more unpleasant details and Natasha walked along in disgruntlement, but Steve saw a smile sneak through every so often. Steve sighed in contentment, wrapping his arm around Tony’s waist. If this was how life was going to be, he’d take it.

“Are you good?” Tony asked, tipping his head to the side to look up at him. Steve took a deep breath, looking around at the group before letting his eyes settle back on Tony.

“Yeah, I really am.”

Notes:

We finally made it to the end. Excuse me while I go cry. Thanks to every everyone who read, left kudos, and commented on this beast. It all means so much to me.

A Prank Too Far - courtinator (2024)
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