Chapter 3 of 3

Chapter Warnings: None for this one. It's mostly fluffy. Because, well... Steve.

"Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty." Steve looked over, not surprised to see Clint's smirk after having heard that comment. Commentary like that only ever came from Barton or Stark. "Or maybe I should say Snow White. You'd get that reference, right?"

"I get both, Clint," Steve said wearily. "I'm familiar with both tales."

The ache in his head was gone, as was last of the nausea. Steve had to wonder what kind of drug had been given to him that could overcome his metabolism so thoroughly. Whatever it was, he was glad to be rid of it.

He rubbed at his face, startled when he felt a sharp tug at his arm. There was an IV needle taped to the inside of his left arm, and he followed the tube up to a clear bag hanging just over his bed.

"Doc says you were majorly dehydrated," Clint offered. "It's mostly just fluid. Some bruises they say looked days old—man, you had the snot kicked out of you. Who'd you piss off?"

Startled at the declaration, Steve considered his bare arms. Somehow the doctors had gotten his uniform off without waking him. His shirt and boots anyway. It felt like the pants were still in place. He was glad they did not try to cut them off. He would feel bad asking Tony to get him a new set of uniform pants.

The bruises were mostly gone, as Clint already observed. But there were faint yellowish marks on his arms and torso, and probably on his face if he were to look in a mirror. That was… interesting.

"I don't remember getting hit," he admitted.

"Had to have happened in the last twenty-four hours," Clint shrugged. "Or you'd be our perfect, fair-skinned boy again."

Which meant he had been beaten while unconscious. No wonder he had felt so horrible that first time he woke. But why would anyone bother hurting him while…

Steve sat up, looking around the otherwise empty room. He met Clint's knowing stare.

"Where's Tony?" he demanded.

"Figured you'd get to him sooner or later." Clint hopped off his chair and produced a wheelchair that had been hidden by the foot of the hospital bed. "Banner's with him right now. Kind of ironic, actually."

"Why's that?" Steve didn't hurt anymore, but he was not one to shirk hospital rules. He waited while Clint unhooked the IV bag from over the bed and attached it to a rod fixed to the back of the wheelchair. Then, settled in like an invalid, Steve relaxed and let Clint push him along.

"Stark freaked the fuck out when he came out of sedation," Clint explained, way too casual for Steve's liking. "Banner was the only one calm enough to bring him down. He won't let the doctors near Stark now. They had him in restraints. Brucie didn't like that. Whoa! You don't like it either!"

Had Clint not drawn attention to it, Steve never would have realized how tense he had become. He was grinding his teeth, and he was pretty sure he had just growled.

"Relax, Cap," Clint patted his shoulder and aimed toward a door just down the hall. "I kicked their white-coated asses out of the room. Nat's making sure they don't try to go back in. Stark will be fine. Speak of the devil…"

Clint wheeled him into a room that was similar to the one they had just left, only with more machines. Steve felt something in him release at the sight of Tony propped up against several pillows, playing what looked to be a game of chess with Bruce.

Both men looked up at their entrance, Tony's face brightening in a smile.

"Steve! You look ridiculous!"

"I don't think he even needs this," Clint mused. "I just wanted to be able to say I pushed Captain America around in a wheelchair."

Steve raised an eyebrow at him but let it pass. He was too relieved to see Tony awake and alert. He really looked like crap, but none of it seemed too serious. His left arm was in a sling, and there was bandaging wrapped around his head, making his hair stick out like he was some sort of mad scientist. (Which, curiously, was not too far from the truth.) He was a little pale, but otherwise he seemed okay.

"You said you'd call Phil, but then you went and fainted," Tony said brightly. "I had to make the call while they were poking and prodding me. Plus, it was, like, eight or something in New York, and Phil was on a date or something. He was completely pissed that I called. It should have been you. He wouldn't have said boo to you."

Boo? Steve looked at Bruce, who just smiled faintly and shook his head. Then Steve saw the game on the rolling table over Tony's lap, and it made sense. Because Tony was good at chess, but you'd never know it by the game in front of him now.

"Stark's on the good stuff," Clint muttered.

"I can see that."

"For the record, I was only mildly irritated." Steve looked up, not overly surprised to see Agent Coulson walk into the room. The man picked up the file at the end of Tony's bed and flipped through it, the slightest of frowns on his face. "I was on vacation and had yet to be informed that both Stark and Captain Rogers were missing in action."

"I think it's sweet that Fury wouldn't want to worry you," Tony said. "Don't you think that's sweet, Steve? Fury's just a big ol' ball of bloody fluff. Hey! Hey!" Steve caught the hand that flailed out toward him. He kept a straight face when Tony grasped clumsily at his hand and fixed him with a drunken, solemn look. "How's your head?"

"My head is fine, Tony," Steve assured him. "I feel great."

"Good!" Tony fell back to the pillows and beamed at him. "Because they were just kicking the shit out of you. I tried to stop them—I did—but there were a lot of them and only one of me, and the suit is at home because why would they kidnap me and then bring along the suit for me to use against them, right? Then you go and get yourself shot—"

"Tony, you should try breathing a little," Bruce suggested. Steve frowned, a little concerned when Bruce sat on the bed next to the billionaire and pressed his hand to Tony's face.

"Breathing? Oh." Tony took a breath, grimacing when Bruce made him hold still a moment longer.

"Your eyes are a bit glassy. Agent Coulson, would you bring me the thermometer?"

"What's going on?" The worry was coming back full force now. Tony was a little doped up, that much was obvious, but Bruce was still handling him like he was one of their delicate experiments.

"He has two broken ribs, another two cracked, and there was fluid in his lungs earlier," Bruce explained. Tony squirmed when Bruce shoved a thermometer in his ear. "I'm worried he might develop pneumonia, or we would have moved you two out of here already. Hmm."

"Hmm?" Clint craned his neck to see as Bruce marked something on Tony's medical chart.

"Hm? Oh," Bruce's lips twitched slightly in an almost-smile. "97.4. He runs a little low normally, so that's good. He's just in a bit of pain right now."

"You could give me another hit of that—what's that stuff? Mep… re…"

"Meperidine," Bruce offered. For the benefit of the rest of them, he added, "Demerol. It's a narcotic analgesic. Morphine is a bit stronger, but the other doctors felt this would have a calming effect. They're probably right." To Tony, he said, "If I give you more, you would overdose. You would probably suffer a seizure or respiratory arrest."

"That's bad."

Amusingly enough, Tony was utterly serious about that. Bruce responded, just as solemn.


"Good thing I've got my doctor here looking out for me," Tony grinned, then giggled. "Doctor Banner."

Bruce patted his hand before tucking it under the blanket.

"Try to relax, Tony. It'll help with the pain."

"Screw you, Bruce. I could run a marathon."

"When you're not hooked up to a catheter, I'll consider allowing it," Bruce replied.

"I knew something felt funny down there."

Steve knocked a light fist against Cliff's arm to stop the snickering. Bruce gave them a tight smile and returned to his chair. Seconds later Tony was breathing easily, out like a light.

"You can talk normally," Bruce offered. "As long as no one starts shouting, he should sleep right through it."

"What are his injuries?" Steve asked, because, as team leader, this was something he needed to know. Also, as the one who had slept when he should have been up and protecting his friend, he needed to be able to judge just how much guilt he should feel.

"He'll be fine, Cap," Clint said, and Bruce nodded. "Hey, Coulson! Maybe we should debrief now? Since Stark's finished—Cap, you'll have to read that report. Stark is fuckin' awesome when he's not being an asshole."

"Agent Barton is right," Coulson pulled up a chair and set a recorder down on the table next to the abandoned chess match. "Captain Rogers, if you're not opposed…"

"No, it… it's fine." Steve glanced at Tony, sleeping peacefully despite the four men talking less than five feet away from him. "Was he like this when you debriefed him?"

"Stark never responds well to debriefings," Coulson said bluntly. "It was better to interview him while he was under the influence."

"That seems… immoral," Steve muttered. Coulson was probably right, but even so. Unfortunately there was nothing he could do about it now. He sighed and nodded. "Shoot."

"Stark said you were unconscious through most of the events," Coulson started. "What's the last thing you remember before waking up the first time?"

"We were just outside of Dubai, investigating a Magneto sighting—which was why Tony wasn't along." Because placing Iron Man in the sights of a man who could control the magnetic fields around metal would have been just plain stupid. Instead, they were with Storm, Cyclops, and Wolverine (which also seemed stupid, but Steve was not the leader of the X-Men, and if they thought bringing along a man with a metal skeleton was wise, he was not going to argue). "I don't know if they ever found him. A building exploded, something hit me, and the next thing I know, I'm waking up in a cell with Tony."

"That's consistent with Agent Romanov's report," Coulson said, jotting some things down on a notepad. "What happened then?"

Steve told them about waking up to Tony's babbling. He told them how he passed out again, unable to overcome whatever drug they had given him at first. The story grew more cohesive as he recounted the events following his second wakening. He had been more aware by that point, and he was able to tell them about Tony's impressive shooting.

Steve considered withholding the bit about Richter's death, but it seemed like a lie. He took the story all the way up to landing at the Kandahar International Airport with some help from a US Air Force pilot. He did not stop until he explained how he had made Tony go with the medics and then had fallen asleep completely by accident.

"Thank you, Captain Rogers," Coulson turned off the recorder and closed his notebook. "You're free to go back to your room if you would like."

"Actually, I'd like to stay here awhile, if that's all right."

No one was going to object. Steve knew it, even as he made it a proper request. There were only two people in the room who might have protested, and one of them was sleeping. The other was Banner, and he nodded his acceptance easily enough.

"I claim the TV in Rogers' room!" Clint declared, already striding out of the room. Steve exchanged a wry smile with Bruce. Hawkeye had been worried, but now that the worst was over, he was as uncomfortable with any sort of affectionate display as Stark usually was.

"ETA of the helicarrier is just over two hours," Coulson offered. "Flying into this airport is murder in daylight hours, so the transport is scheduled for just after nine o'clock tonight."

"You came during the day, didn't you?" Steve asked.

"It was an emergency," Coulson said, and left it at that. Steve watched him leave the room before turning back to Bruce.

"Natasha is here as well?"

"She was not pleased that you were snatched from under her nose." Bruce moved the rolling tray away from Stark's bed and glanced at the screen that looked to be monitoring Tony's heart rate and blood pressure. The billionaire looked tragically frail in the hospital bed, and Steve was tempted to go for the medical chart so he could see just what kind of damage lay beneath the blankets. "You shouldn't blame yourself, you know."

Steve jumped, startled by the unexpected declaration.


Bruce looked at him, utterly calm.

"He was protecting you," he said, and Steve had to wonder what the hell Bruce was talking about. Protecting whom? Tony protecting him? Without his suit? That was… well, it was laughable.

Apparently his skepticism was noticeable. Bruce smiled and shook his head. Removing his glasses, he absent-mindedly cleaned them while he explained his declaration.

"You were fed an interesting cocktail of opiates and synthetic narcotics. The average human body would have almost instantly shut itself down with the kind of doses you were given. As it was, you stopped breathing a couple times."

"I… really?" Steve had a hard time believing that.

"Captain, you slept through the better part of twenty-four hours," Bruce reminded him. "Even after your body burned off the effects of the drugs, it took you another six hours to recover. Tony said he had to administer CPR at one point. The second time you started breathing again on your own. I suspect you had metabolized the worst of it by that point."

"Tony gave me mouth-to-mouth?" Steve asked incredulously.

"That's what he said," Bruce shrugged. The glasses went back on, and Bruce looked at him solemnly. "Tony's a brilliant engineer—the best of our time. You're aware of this."

"Of course."

"His skills are unparalleled, and he's not shy about it." This was said with exasperated fondness. Steve found himself nodding, smiling in his agreement. Because Tony was many things. Modest was not one of them. "That makes him a target. Mostly for big weapons manufacturing firms. His affiliation with the Avengers has drawn the eye of every greedy eye out there. Hydra wanted him to recreate the weapons they built decades ago. You're familiar with them."

"Tony doesn't have access to the power source they used then," Steve protested. "Why would they even think he could do that?"

"Because he probably could," Bruce said bluntly. "SHIELD engineers were getting close, and Tony is smarter than all of them combined."

"Don't let Fury hear you say that." But Steve was smiling. It was true, after all. Fury probably knew it.

"The point is: it wasn't your fault," Bruce said, directing the conversation back to the guilt Steve couldn't quite shake. "You're team leader—you said it. I know you think it's your job to make sure we're all okay, but you're really just as human as the rest of us."

"What about Thor?"

"Don't be a dick. You know what I mean."

"Tony's sleeping. I had to fill in."

Bruce started it by chuckling. Steve could not help himself. He was soon laughing right along with the doctor, and then there was no stopping it. Unfortunately, their laughter woke the subject of their conversation, and Tony blinked at them uncertainly.

"What's so funny?"

"Nothing, Tony. Go back to sleep."

"I don't want to sleep," Tony grumbled. "I want to get out of this goddamned country."

"Not until you've rested," Bruce said gently. "I mean that. Sleep."

"Fucking fascist," Tony complained, but he was already drifting off again.

Steve and Bruce watched him for a long minute, waiting until his breathing evened out.

"Maybe we should leave him alone to rest," Steve suggested, eyes following as Bruce puttered around the machinery surrounding Tony's hospital bed.

"That didn't work out so well last time." Bruce felt Tony's forehead again, his cheek. Satisfied with what he found, he crossed his arms and looked at Steve. "Are you okay, Steve?"

It was a bewildering question. Tony was the one who was practically strapped to a bed. Steve didn't even feel a twinge from where the bullet had grazed him.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"You just found out your friend was tortured," Bruce recalled. "And that you were used against him. Plus, you've got that kicked puppy look on your face again."

Steve winced. Kicked puppy? Really? But Bruce had a point. Finding out what Tony had done just to keep him safe was like a blow to the gut. It was never supposed to be that way. When Tony was out of the suit and just another vulnerable human being, he needed to be protected. It should not be the other way around.

"I'm worried about him," he said finally. "You weren't there, so you didn't hear him." He looked up, willing the scientist to understand. "Bruce, he was so scared. I've never seen Tony lash out quite like that."

"He probably hasn't done it since Afghanistan," Bruce grimaced and added, "The last time in Afghanistan."

"I read the report—he built the suit and blasted his way out of there," Steve mused.

"He built the suit and killed a lot of men blasting his way out of there," Bruce corrected. "This must have been one big flashback experience for him. Of course he was angry. At least this time he was able to keep his friend alive."

"I should have been able to protect him," Steve said before he could stop himself.

Bruce shook his head.

"Steve, you're missing a big part of what your presence meant in this situation," the man scolded. "Do you really think Tony could have fought his way past two dozen armed guards without some help? Do you think he would have tried so hard if he didn't have something to protect?"

Steve sighed and looked at Bruce irritably.

"You make it very difficult to have a good guilt trip," he announced.

"This group has enough self-loathing without you adding to it," Bruce retorted. "Next, you'll have to convince Tony that it wasn't his fault you got the shit beat out of you."

Steve grinned at that.

"I've been beat up more time than I can count in my lifetime. And that was before I joined the army."

"Good riddance."

Steve doubted Tony meant for anyone to actually hear that comment, but his hearing had always been good, even before the serum. Plus, he was sitting next to the man as they watched the desert fade into something greener from the observation deck of the helicarrier.

They had not been able to keep Tony in his bed. The man was still doped up on Demerol, according to Bruce, but it was just impossible to keep him in one place for long. By the time everyone had been transferred to the helicarrier for the trip home, they had resigned themselves to the fact that Tony would not be controlled.

Bruce did what he could. He strapped Tony's sling on tight, ordered it not to come off under penalty of loss-of-access to the lab, and demanded that he return if he felt even the slightest bit off. That, and he was assigned a baby-sitter.

Steve took the first shift. If he had his way, which he probably would not (what, with Coulson, Banner, Natasha, and Barton who would all oppose him), he would take all the shifts.

"If you want to go do something more interesting with your time, I won't tell anyone," Tony offered.

"What's more interesting?" Steve countered.

"Staring at a wall? Listening to Fury try to make his soldiers smart?"

"That's not very nice."

"It's the Demerol," Tony said, and there was that hard grin again. Steve had never seen the man so angry. Even when Coulson had been thought lost, he had not been like this. "Makes me mean."

"To yourself?"

Silence followed. Steve felt Tony's eyes on him and turned to meet the wary frown. Steve shook his head and looked out the windows at the darkened landscape. They were racing against the time zones, and Steve was certain he was not imagining that it was getting lighter despite his inner clock telling him it was getting later.

"I'm sorry about earlier," Steve said abruptly. "I said I would have your back, and I didn't."

"You totally had my back!" Tony looked at him, utterly confused, and it was kind of adorable if Steve was one to admit such things. "And my front, if we're being honest about it. I had the damn gun, and you, with your self-sacrificing nonsense, kept throwing yourself in front of me."

"Yes, well," Steve sighed. "I meant later, after we escaped."

"Oh, you mean when you fainted!" Tony sounded utterly delighted by this. "Hey, Cap. Don't worry about it!"

"I didn't—" Steve closed his mouth against the protest. This was not about wounded pride. He took a controlled breath. "I just want you to know, you don't have to battle these things alone. If you need anything…" Tony was watching him now, eyes narrow and closed off. Steve continued anyway. "Even if you don't want to talk about anything important. I'm here, okay?"

It was incredibly awkward saying it, and he could not imagine Tony felt all that comfortable hearing it. Still, it needed saying. Steve felt better with it off his chest.

They sat in companionable silence for a long time, just staring out at the passing landscape as it transformed from land into inky water that slowly brightened. The sun was setting here. By the time they reached their destination, the sun would be a bit higher, but it would set soon after. It was strange, watching darkness continually attempt to fall. Like they were battling to keep it at bay.

Battles with nature never ended well for anyone but nature.

"I don't like standing water," Tony announced. It took every ounce of willpower Steve possessed to keep from looking or responding. This was a confession—Tony was choking on the words—and if he interrupted, he would never hear it again. This much he knew. "Lakes, pools, tubs—puddles. I don't like them, won't go near them without the Iron Man suit."

Tony had been wet earlier, water in his lungs.

"People want things, though," Tony murmured, musing aloud. "They want things, and they'll hurt anyone just to get them, and I don't like that either."

This Steve understood. Bullying, Steve always understood. He also got that Tony had been hurt, but that the billionaire was more okay with this than he should ever have to be. Some things were more important than a fear of death.

"Don't… take this the wrong way, Cap…" Addressed, Steve finally looked. Tony was still staring out the windows, but his focus was closer, like he was attempting to see his own thoughts in front of his face. "You're stronger than I am, and I get that. But I don't need your protection all the time. I don't want it. It… it pisses me off when you look at me and see someone small and weak."

"You're not weak." This much was true. Steve had seen it. He had watched as Tony blew through Hydra's defenses with his wit and a gun. And if Steve had done anything, well he had been nothing more than another weapon Tony had taken in hand and aimed at the enemy. Bruce was right. Tony might not have made it out alone, but Steve would have been dead too, without Tony orchestrating. "You're brilliant."

That earned a rueful smile.

"I'll hold you to that the next time you yell at me for not following orders."

"Just because I acknowledge that you can handle yourself doesn't mean I won't worry," Steve retorted. "You can't ask that of me."

"I'll try all the same. I'm irritating that way."

"Yes, you are," Steve agreed, but somehow all he felt was affection. He had an unreasonable amount of affection for this asshole genius inventor, and now Tony knew it. A change of subjects was in order. "Back when I first woke up, and we were talking. You were worried Hydra would notice. How is it they didn't notice us talking?"

Tony's smile was a bit wry.

"I checked out the security in that room the instant they dumped me in it," he explained. "Their cameras were crap—no audio—so it didn't matter. I just made damn sure they thought I was talking to myself."

"You were talking about something," Steve realized. "About someone in financial?"

"You remember that," Tony chuckled. "I actually told you a lot of things. I'm kind of glad you were out for most of it. Personal shit, you know? But I figured if you ever woke up, it would be better if it looked like I was still talking to myself and not you."

"Smart thinking," Steve praised.

"Well, I am a genius."

"You are."

Tony looked at him, and Steve smiled at the curious mix of surprise and bashful pleasure. The public praised Tony Stark relentlessly for his mental prowess, but it occurred to Steve that his closer friends rarely did anything of the sort. The man was arrogant enough without constant ego-stroking, but Steve made a mental note to offer a compliment every now and then.

"This is touching."

Natasha was horrible when it came to sneaking up on people. Steve jumped every single time.

"You need to come with some sort of alert service," Tony said dourly. Natasha's lips curled in a faint smirk, and she held up a phone.

"Pepper on the line for you," she said. "If you think your delicate heart can take it."

"A reaming from Miss Potts? I might die, but it'll be worth it," Tony declared. He held out his hand, and despite the shouting that could be heard through the line even without enhanced senses, he was smiling. He put the phone to his ear, "Pepper! Light of my life! I think we need to upgrade the security in the tower again."

Natasha's hand fell lightly on Steve's shoulder, and he knew his shift was up. He nodded and stood, knowing he needed rest even if he wanted to keep watch just a little longer.

At least he understood now. He knew fear and what it did to people. He knew his own fears, knew that he had some he had yet to overcome. Such as the thought of losing a friend again. It was a paralyzing terror, and it made him make choices that hurt people. Had hurt Tony.

He knew one more of Tony's issues, and knew what the man would do in response. It was difficult to find any fault in his behavior, even if it was a bit frightening. Because he got it.

"Hey, Cap!"

Steve paused at the door and looked back. Tony held his phone aside so that he would not be shouting into the receiver. The look on his face was strangely neutral.

"We should go to the firing range when we get back," he offered. "Work on your aim."

Warmth spread through him at the invitation. Steve smiled.

"As long as you promise to train with me when you heal up," he agreed. "Your defensive maneuvers could use some work."

"Sure, sure," Tony agreed, halfhearted at best. But Natasha looked up with a raised brow, and Steve knew they both heard the pleased tone to Tony's voice.

Exhaustion hit all at once, and Steve left to find a bed. He wondered how crazy Tony would accuse him of being if he admitted that the day had not turned out all bad.

Right. It would be better just not to admit it.

A combination of geekdom and love for Peter David's writing means I read the novelization for the first Iron Man movie. The thing about the person from financial was from that book. The person was Virginia Potts, and I always thought it was a cute way to have her and Tony meet.

Interesting fact: Kandahar International Airport is reportedly very challenging for pilots during daytime hours due the fact that the airport runways look much like the desert sand around them. With the lights at night, visibility is much better.