"Steeeeeeeve," Clint groaned from where he was curled over the toilet. It bordered on a whine, but he was far past caring. He felt like shit. He felt like shit's shit. Mother Nature had run over him and backed up for good measure, and then thrown him in his grave, laughing hysterically while she beat him with a two-by-four. Actually, he might have been confusing Natasha and the flu virus. They were similar.
He felt a warm hand pat his back, and shuddered at the sudden warmth. "Feelin' pretty bad, huh?"
"I feel like shit," he growled.
His head pounded furiously, making the noises go quiet and loud with every throb. A glass of water nudged against his arm, and Clint looked at the cup and up at Steve.
"You're kidding me."
Steve shook his head. "Nope. You don't need to deal with dehydration along with the flu. Just trust me."
Glaring, he jerked the water from Steve and took a tentative sip. It was lukewarm, which was kind of nice, really. It didn't shock his stomach, but the queasiness remained.
"Do you think you're done...emitting toxic fluids?" Steve asked, his nose scrunching as he flushed the toilet.
Clint flicked him off.
Steve grinned, and Clint was smacked in the face with a fistful of oh-damn-Steve's-like-six-years-old. He stood from his crouch, and said, "I'll take that as a yes. Come on, you'll be more comfortable in a bed." Clint was about to protest, because he was very close to his toilet, they were best friends, but Steve slid his hands under his arms, without his permission, and lifted him to his feet like he was a sack of potatoes.
It was ridiculously unfair how easy Steve made that action seem. Clint would grouch about that but his stomach started having a temper tantrum for the century, and he almost plummeted back to the tile floor.
"You gonna puke again?" Steve asked from above him.
Clint gasped for air, swallowing rapidly, praying to anyone who would listen that he would stopped throwing up. There was no way he had anything left to expel. Maybe water, which would be Steve's fault. "No," he rasped. "I'm good. I'm good, I swear."
"If you have to, you might as well do it now."
Clint pouted and shook his head. "I'm done. Promise. I'm done."
Steve patted his back and tugged him towards the door. Thank God the guy had that Super-Soldier serum thing, because Clint was totally uninterested in walking right now, and he was almost but-not-really being carried to his bed. How demeaning. Then again, he'd just upchucked everything he'd ever eaten in front of his captain. Not that he really saw Steve has his superior when he wasn't dressed up like a Fourth of July party. Captain America was a total badass, Clint would readily admit to that, but Steve was just incredibly quiet and soft-spoken.
The guy totally had multiple personalities.
He was plopped on his mattress and went to lay, maybe curl into a ball and die, but a hand tugged him back up and pressed down on his shoulders. "Stay sitting for just a second, okay? I'll be right back."
Clint was pretty sure he groaned something along the lines of fuck you and your mother. But it came out all mumbled and stuff, and before he knew it, Steve was back.
He realized with horrified mortification what Steve was doing.
"Don't tell me I did," he whined as Steve swiped the wet paper towel over his chin, and then tossed it into the trash can across the room like he'd played basketball all his life.
"You did. You got it on your shirt, too," he retorted. He tapped Clint's biceps. "Arms up."
Clint's mouth dropped open in protest. "I'm not five!"
"That's what they keep telling me, and you keep proving them wrong."
Defeated, Clint pointed his hands towards the sky, and Steve peeled his shirt off. Well, damn. It was pretty sticky. Stupid American icons and their stupid logical ideas.
"Yeah. Well. I hate you."
Steve snorted and headed back to the bathroom. "You can lie down now."
Clint groaned in relief and sunk into his bed. He heard the faucet run for a moment, and then Steve was magically next to him again, a cup in one hand and an amused expression on his face. Clint shoved his face into his pillow. "What?" he moaned.
Hands lifted his feet and threw them on the mattress.
He'd forgotten about those.
"Weren't you on a mission?"
He heard Steve set the glass of water on the nightstand next to him. "Yes, and then I come back and everyone's sicker than a dog."
Steve started wriggling the covers out from underneath him, and he didn't even bother attempting to help.
"Oh. Didya kick ass?"
Steve was separating the comforter from the sheet, which was actually a really good idea, because Clint was kind of hot, but not really, because he was all clammy and stuff.
"I survived, and I did what I needed to do. So I guess you could say that."
The cool sheet settled over his shoulders. "That's good. I'm a good teacher, aren't I?"
Clint shuffled restlessly, and a thought came to him. "You didn't get hurt, did ya?"
"Nothing I can't manage. Go to sleep."
Clint curled around his sore stomach. "Good. 'Cause you ever pull that shit you did in Turkey, I'll kill you."
"I'm sure you will."
He heard the popping of a bottle lid coming off. "I'm not afraid to threaten Captain America," he grumbled.
"Good to know your self-confidence is high. This is Tylenol that you should take when you wake up, and maybe finish the glass of water while you're at it."
Gentle hands tugged at the covers, and Clint started giggling.
"I'm getting tucked in by Captain America."
"And now you're getting told to shut up by Captain America."
Clint chuckled tiredly, exhausted to the point of fighting sleep for some weird reason. He rolled to his other side, turning into the cool side of the pillow. "Feisty."
"Good night, bud."
"You're the best mother hen ever."
"Well, thank you."
The lights turned off and Clint fell asleep.
Leaning against the doorway, Steve ran a hand over his face and observed the figure attacking the punching bag. They were slower than usual, a tired routine rather than a calculated whirlwind. He had one down, only four more to go. Coming home from his mission to find out that everyone had retreated to their separate corners to deal with the flu had been a surprise. Part of him thought it was kind of funny, the all-powerful Avengers getting knocked out by a virus. He could sympathize with them, though. God, the sicknesses he'd contracted before the serum. He was a seasoned pro at illness.
After one solid hit, he slid behind the bag and stopped it with my hands.
"I've been told that it's impossible to punch the flu out of oneself."
Natasha gave him a weak glare, something that was much more intimidating when sweat wasn't dripping down her face and bags didn't hang underneath her eyes.
She went to punch the bag again, but Steve held strong.
"You really don't look good, Natasha." Her chest was heaving, which was a rare thing to see, because she was in top shape. "You're also wheezing."
She shook her head. "Steve, I'm fine."
"So that's why you look like you're about to fall over."
The next time she went to punch, Steve shoved the bag out of the way.
Relaxing with a smooth raise of her eyebrow, Natasha straightened up. "It's not your job to mother me."
Steve shrugged and grabbed her hand, carefully beginning to unwind her wraps. "But it is my job to make sure my team is in fighting shape. Now your reflexes are slow, your footwork is clumsy, and your respiration is heavy. That's not fighting shape."
Natasha let him unwrap her other hand, backing up until her knees hit the front of a chair and sinking into it. "Why Steve, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to flirt with me." She paused for a moment and then took a breath. "How did your mission go?"
He tossed her wraps to the floor. "Good, I suppose."
"You look tired."
He absently rubbed his cheek. "I am tired."
"You should sleep then."
Steve smiled. "You're only number two on my list."
"So I assume that you'll only be satisfied if I quit training and go to my room?"
He laughed softly. "Pretty much."
Natasha looked down at her sweaty shirt. "I do need to take a shower."
Glancing at his wristwatch, Steve commented, "And it's also three in the morning."
"You're very convincing, Steve." Natasha stood up, and in an uncharacteristic display of vulnerability, yawned and wiped her eyes with her hands. "I think it's the baby blues."
Steve smiled weakly. "Bucky used joke and say they were weapons of mass destruction." The well of pain in his chest reared up on him without warning. An unexpected heavy sigh fled his lungs. Sometimes he'd be here, and he'd be okay with it, and other times he was still wandering the gritty streets of Brooklyn, tailing his muddy best friend.
A fleeting hand graced the bandage on his cheek. "Destruction, no. Getting people to do what you want, yes," Natasha whispered.
He frowned. "You're supposed to be going to bed."
"Going," she sang, already halfway out of the room.
Steve took a deep breath and hauled himself to his feet. He wasn't lying when he said he was tired. He was exhausted. The mission had been rough, bloody enough that he didn't want to touch it, even come close to thinking about it. But he was home now, and he could confidently identify this as home. So he'd be alright. The rest of the Avengers and their flu issues, he wasn't so sure about. He wasn't sure if he'd survive checking on Tony, either.
Stepping into the elevator, he selected the kitchen and waited idly, twisting his arm to see the bandage wrapped around his bicep. That wound hadn't been fun. The bad guy hadn't cut, he'd stabbed. For a terrifying three minutes, blood had poured out of his body without any signs of stopping. He must have hit an artery. Luckily, that had slowed, but for two hours afterward, he couldn't move it.
Gosh, his stress levels must be off the charts.
The bell went off, and Steve stepped into the kitchen. It had been a while since he'd had a fever. Staying hydrated was important, so he grabbed a water bottle and started the collection. A cold rag would feel good. He added that to the pile. Hunger would become a problem eventually, but she wouldn't want anything heavy. He grabbed a granola bar from the box. This should be good.
There was coffee still sitting in the pot.
Natasha didn't need that.
Steve would appreciate the flavor. Even if the caffeine didn't affect his metabolism anymore, the act of drinking it still acted as a placebo in waking up. Noting that for later, he gathered the things he'd picked out and started towards Natasha's room. He lingered for a moment, but the shower didn't seem to be running, so he knocked.
The door swung open, and he was greeted with Natasha's wet hair, strikingly straight, and cool brown eyes.
"Come again?" she asked. Her eyes went down to the supplies in his hand. "You didn't need to get those."
He shrugged and slid past her, settling the water bottle and bar on the nightstand beside her bed. "I did anyway." To his surprise, she crawled onto her bed and slid under the covers. "I'll be going now. I hope you feel better."
Turning uncertainly, he faced her again, watching flushed cheeks and heavy eyelids. She patted the space next to her. "I'm not asking you to have sex with me. I'm asking you to stay for a minute. Contrary to popular belief, I do enjoy company every now and then. Besides, you look horrible."
Heaving a sigh, he sat down on the bed.
"Why do you do it, Steve?" she asked.
He kneaded his knuckles. One had split open, probably when he'd punched someone. "Do what?"
"Care so much. It seems like an easy way to get hurt."
His eyebrows furrowed, and he looked at her. "I don't know how not to care. Beyond this team, I have nothing. But, Natasha, you care just as much as I do."
She exhaled heavily and rolled her head away. "I'm a murderer."
"You're working for the right side to kill the right people."
"I killed a lot of good people before I came here."
"You can't change the past," Steve whispered back. "As much as you'd like to. You can't."
Natasha rested her fingers on the inside of Steve's elbow. "You of all people would know."
"You shouldn't try and remove yourself from the team. For some reason you think that you don't belong with us because of who you used to be, when all we care about is who you are now." Steve unfolded the rag in his hand and laid it on her forehead like it wasn't the tender action it truly was. "Why don't you try to go to sleep? I think you're telling me a bit more than you'd like to." He pulled the sheet up higher on her shoulders.
Natasha blinked long and slow. She smiled softly and gripped his hand.
"No, I don't think I am."
Steve got up and dimmed the lights. "I hope you feel better when you wake up."
Natasha rolled to her side and for the first night in a very long time, her dreams didn't wake her up again.
"Captain Rogers, I do believe my nasal cavity has just been accosted by a deathly saliva storm."
Steve blinked, stared at Thor with a blank expression for a long minute, and then turned and busted out into laughter. He spent another few minutes attempting to recover, because Thor was looking at him with a worried and slightly horrified expression on his face.
"Captain, you're wheezing!"
Well, jeez. Thor was concerned. He needed to control himself. The exhaustion must be making him loopy. Steve glanced at his watch again. Damn, he was going 49 hours without sleep. Luckily Thor didn't seem to be faring too bad. He was rather surprised that the god had gotten sick in the first place, what with being magical and all.
"I'm alright, Thor," Steve said, little bit of tired hysteria contained again. "How are you feeling, anyway?"
Thor shuffled into the living room, Steve following on his heels, and sank into one of the armchairs. "I feel as though my head is the weight of a thousand planets."
Steve debated that momentarily in his mind. "That can't feel very good."
"It does not," Thor said. "Captain, how do most humans cope with this infectious beast I seem to have acquired? It is most distressing."
Surveying the living room, Steve silently eyed the plush couch next to him. Man, he could just dream of sinking into it, melting into the cushions, closing his eyelids, wrapping himself in a comforter and sleeping for a week. A wide yawn made his jaw crack. "Well," Steve sighed. "You need a lot of blankets." He went over to the chest sitting against the wall and pulled out several throw covers, tossing them over Thor. "You need something to get your mind off it," he commented, turning on the television. He used to listen to the radio, but that was outdated these days. "Water would be good," he said, grabbing one from the miniature fridge and setting it next to Thor.
Thor looked at Steve.
"Where have you been the last few days? Our team has been quite unruly in your absence."
Steve started scrubbing the inner corner of his eyes. They were scratchy. They had been open too long. Much too long.
"I was on a mission. And I'm sure they've been off the wall."
Thor nodded. "How did this 'mission' go? You appear wounded!"
This seemed to be a reoccurring theme.
Steve collapsed onto the couch, making sure to that he stayed sitting up, because otherwise he'd really want to fall asleep. "The mission went well. The wounds are healing quickly enough."
"That is good," Thor hummed. "I commend your covert operations, for I do not believe that I could be discrete my actions. A successful battle is meant to be celebrated for all the ages to hear."
Smiling, Steve dropped his head onto the back of the couch. "I used to think that, too."
On the television, the news was flickering through a montage of pictures. Wreckage and destruction, destroyed buildings, bombs, crying children. It was the two month anniversary of the Loki's attack on New York. A list of the deceased started scrolling down the screen. Fifteen people died. They hadn't evacuated fast enough. His heart thundering and dropping, Steve looked away, guilt clogging his throat. He wasn't used to civilian casualties. He'd never been responsible for innocent people dying in the line of battle. Now he was.
Rearranging his expression back into one of complacency, Steve glanced at Thor.
Startled by the shattered look in the god's eyes, Steve leaned forward, resting his hand on Thor's knee. He tended to shy away from physical contact, but Thor usually responded to tactile communication much better than he did verbal.
"Hey, Thor. I can change the channel if you want me to," he said, trying to pull the most comforting tone he could.
Thor exhaled roughly, shuddering in the slightest. "This is my fault."
"No, it's not," Steve deadpanned. "This was Loki's fault."
"I indirectly caused these deaths."
Steve shook his head. "You didn't make those buildings collapse. You didn't tell Loki to come to earth and trample everything in his path. You didn't lay a hand on any of those people. Do not take the blame."
Thor's hand gripped the arm of the chair, and he turned his head away. "I feel as though I must."
"Guilt can destroy you."
Thor sent Steve a piercing look. "With all due respect, that is hypocritical of you, Captain."
It was. Steve knew it was.
"It's my job to take responsibility for the failures of the mission."
Thor clenched his teeth. "Do you think we cannot tell how affected you are by the deaths that follow our successes? To assume that you can handle guilt and I cannot is offensive."
Tired, Steve rested his face in his hands. "That's not what I meant." He looked up. "If I don't take responsibility for my actions, then I'll never learn. I'll never learn to make the better decision next time. The concept of making someone the leader of an army is so that they can make the choices while the soldiers focus on fighting. If your past mistakes weigh on you now, they'll affect your future actions next time. Listen to me when I say let it go."
He took a breath and let it out slowly. "And I'll say this from a different perspective, as your friend, I don't want to see this eat you alive. I don't."
Thor sighed. "And you either."
Considering the conversation laid to rest, Steve released his grip and sat back.
"JARVIS, what time is it?" Steve asked.
The automated voice responded with, "It is currently four twenty-seven in the morning, Captain."
That was his queue. Steve lurched to his feet, stifling another yawn. He looked at Thor's relaxed form in the chair. "You should get some sleep. It's late."
Thor nodded in agreement and said, "As should you, Captain."
"I still have some babysitting to do," Steve retorted.
"The best of luck."
Steve rolled his eyes. "You're tellin' me." He looked at the ceiling, as he always felt he should, because that's where the computer's voice came from. "JARVIS, could you dim the lights, please?"
"If only Mr. Stark displayed the same manners as you, sir. Lights dimmed."
Thor nestled into his pile of blankets, and Steve left, satisfied that he just had two more to go. Only he knew he was saving the worst for last.
Steve snagged a water bottle from the fridge.
"JARVIS, where's Bruce?"
"Dr. Banner is currently residing in the library's study."
With a headache pounding at his temples, Steve started weaving his way through the hallways. He was hoping that Bruce wasn't too sick. The serum protected Steve from sickness, so he hoped that it did the same for the other man, but it wasn't like everything with the serum had gone perfectly for Bruce either. Maybe he'd only have a cold, like Thor. But with Steve's luck this wasn't very likely.
Bruce was probably the most self-aware of the Avengers. He wasn't a warrior trained to fight through illness; he was a doctor, which meant he knew exactly how his injuries were affecting him and what he needed to do to fix them. This was a bit of a relief for Steve, because there had been plenty of times that the rest of them had ignored wounds, not in some sort of cry for attention, but simply because there was no time to tend to them. One less person to worry about was less of a blood pressure hound for Steve.
They were all level-headed in one way or another. Tony was debatable at times, but a mastermind in his own right.
Knocking quietly on the door, he heard the locks click, and the entrance swung open. Bruce was sitting at a large wooden desk, glasses perched on his nose, and a pile of papers laying in front of him.
Bruce turned to face him on the spinning chair. "Hello, Steve."
Steve looked him up and down. Bruce looked tired, like he hadn't slept in a few days. He didn't necessarily look like he was sick, though. Steve walked forward and sat in the chair across from the desk. "So have you caught the flu, too? Just so I'm prepared, of course."
Chuckling softly, Bruce took his glasses off. "I happen to be on the tail end of mine, actually. I just couldn't sleep because of the headache, so I came down here."
Steve nodded. "That's good. At least you seem to be getting over it."
"I'm rather surprised that I got sick in the first place," Bruce commented. "I just assumed that the serum would take care of it."
"It hit the others pretty hard. Maybe the serum prevented the worst outcome," Steve said. He fluttered a hand up. "What do I know, you're the physicist here."
Bruce smiled. "I suppose I am. You might be right. I'd have to look into it."
"You look tired," Steve said.
Bruce scratched at his eye. "So do you. How'd your mission go?"
Huffing in amused exasperation, Steve dropped his temple into his propped up hand. "Um, alright, I guess. I got the job done."
"What happened to your arm?"
Steve blinked a few times, trying to clear his blurred vision. "The usual."
Bruce nodded. "If it starts bleeding through the bandage, make sure you change it."
"I can do that. It's around five; don't you think you should get more sleep?"
Bruce sent him a humored smile. "I'm going to guess you've made your rounds and got everyone else to?"
"Almost everyone. I'm kind of afraid to check on Tony. Have you seen him?"
Frowning, the other man rubbed the bridge between his eyes. He looked older than normal, older than Steve would like to think.
"No, I haven't. He's locked himself in his lab. I generally can't talk to him when things get like this. And I'm assuming the combination of alcohol and the flu isn't going to produce favorable results, either." Bruce started organizing the papers in front of him into one neat stack. "If I'm going to be honest, I don't want to check on him, because I'm not the one who's going to be able to help."
Steve drifted the back of his hand up his bristled cheek. He hadn't shaved in a few days. He wasn't used to five o'clock shadow. A heavy exhaustion weighed on his brain, accounting for the slow realization that came with Bruce's statement.
"Are you saying that I can?"
Bruce folded his glasses and set them on the desk. "Does this surprise you?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah," Steve replied dumbly. "We're not exactly kindred spirits."
Bruce stared him in the eyes. "Steve, I'm going to give you a lesson on Tony. I've been waiting to do this for a while now, and this seems like as good a time as any."
"Tony's been through a lot," Bruce started. "Afghanistan was hell. That was his version of hell. He was tortured for his intelligence, and that shook him to his core. It would shake anyone. Obviously, there were side effects: the drinking, relationship issues, complete disregard for his well-being. And he's kept it very private for a very long time." Bruce paused. "Until your mission in Turkey."
"But I don't—"
"—remember most of it, I know," Bruce finished grimly. "The three bullets lodged between your ribs probably had something to do with that." He pointed a finger at Steve. "Never do that again, by the way. But it was the infection afterwards that changed things. Because during those three days, you ran a fever of one hundred and eight, and Tony was there for almost every minute."
Horrible shame drenched Steve's face. He looked away from Bruce's burning gaze.
"Now I know this isn't something you like to talk about, but it's something that Tony needs to talk about. And the moment he realized that you could relate to his experience on some sort of level, he started seeking you out."
Steve nervously started picking at the hair on the back of his neck. "But I'm not… I'd rather not… I don't know how to—. I don't talk. I mean, I can't relate—"
"World War Two is widely regarded as the most horrific war in history."
"That still doesn't mean I know how to help," Steve muttered.
Bruce's voice went very low and very comforting, the same tone he used with children and people who were seriously injured. "For two hours you were convinced that enemy forces were trying to bomb you again. For three hours after that you thought you were walking through 'the camps' again. And Tony witnessed it all, and he made sure you didn't hurt yourself again, and then he realized that someone finally knows where he's coming from."
Steve swallowed roughly.
"I was going to go anyway. The psychological grilling wasn't needed."
Bruce laughed softly and ducked his head. "I'm just attempting to help you get that Tony sees that you know what he's going through, and whether he consciously knows it or not, he wants someone to talk to about it."
"Are you one of those…'therapist' people that are so common these days?"
Bruce shook his head. "No, I'm just someone who pays attention."
Steve took a deep, gathering breath and stood.
"Let's hope he just got drunk, huh?" he said.
"That would be assuming Tony does anything quietly."
Anxiety curling in his stomach, Steve slid out of the library and into the hallway.
"JARVIS, I'm guessing Tony's still in his lab?"
"You would be guessing correctly, sir. I fear that Mr. Stark is heavily intoxicated and exhibiting signs of post traumatic hallucinations. He is rather violent, Captain. I felt as though I should warn you."
Steve swerved around the corner. "Is the door open?"
"The locks are currently engaged."
That would prove to be a problem. "Can you override them somehow?"
"I believe I could if this qualified as a life threatening situation in which my manual programming is considered overruled by immediate danger to the health and safety of Mr. Stark."
Steve paused outside the glass doors of the lab. The lights were off for some reason. This wasn't a good sign. "JARVIS, I think this qualifies as a threat to his safety."
"There are weapons inside the lab, Captain Rogers. Use caution."
Running a hand down his face, Steve wondered how this would go while he was this exhausted. He had a long fuse, but fifty-two hours and ticking without sleep was wearing it down. His patience was getting spread thin. He still had to check on Tony. It was his job, and more importantly, he was worried.
"Opening the doors now," JARVIS chimed in with an air of finality.
Stepping inside the lab, Steve listened for movement. Good thing his hearing was so advanced, otherwise he'd be thoroughly blind.
"Tony?" he inquired.
There was a soft shuffling coming from the left.
"Tony, I'm going to walk over there, alright?" he said quietly.
Easing forward, he edged his way around the tool bench. His eyesight may have been better than the average bear's, but the lab was pitch black, and he had no light to go off of. Raspy breaths echoed from below him. Tony already sounded confused. Steve crouched down where he assumed the other man was.
"I'm going to ask JARVIS to turn the lights on now, okay?" Steve asked.
The barest yellow light flooded the room.
"Whoa, bud," Steve breathed sadly.
Tony was a wreck. Glazed brown eyes danced everywhere but Steve's face. Stubble covered a normally perfect beard, and his hair was greasy and matted. A light sheen of sweat covered his forehead. There was an air of sickness hanging around him. He definitely had a fever, and if the blatant confusion on his features didn't point to that, the flushed red of his cheeks was convincing enough. Random black streaks dotted his skin. He must have been working until this point.
And Steve thought he was having a bad day.
His patience was suddenly infinitely long.
"Tony?" Steve asked, hoping for some recognizance.
Steve stared down the barrel of a gun.
A breath fell out of his tensed lungs.
Oh, boy, this was bad.
Steve calmly lifted his hand but stopped when the weapon inched closer to his lips. "Tony, you know who I am. You don't need that."
Jaw clenching, Tony shook his head. "You're going to try and take me again."
"No, I'm not," Steve responded.
The cold tip of a gun pressed a perfect circle into Steve's cheek.
"I don't trust you," Tony grunted.
Steve rested his fingers on the metal barrel. "You don't need to trust me. You just need to listen to me. It's Steve, Tony," he said, slowly inching his grip towards Tony. "Steve Rogers, born July Forth, 1920, in Brooklyn, New York." His hand slowly started covering Tony's, carefully tugging on the trigger finger. "And I may annoy the hell out of you, but I'm pretty sure you wouldn't shoot me."
"How can I be sure you're you?" Tony asked, gun wavering slightly. Steve eyed the shakes racing up his arms.
Struggling to control his adrenaline, because he was ninety-nine percent positive Tony wouldn't try to hurt him, but that nagging one percent just wouldn't let up, Steve grabbed Tony's hand with his other arm. He didn't know what he was doing, but something had to be done.
"Well," he settled Tony's hand on his head. "This is my hair." He squeezed the other man's fingers. "This is my hand." He pressed Tony's knuckles over his chest. "And this is my heart beating. I know it's not much, but it's the best I have to offer, and it's as real as it gets."
Tony's grip on the gun loosened, and Steve carefully pulled it away, resting it on the table above him.
"Oh," Tony whispered.
Steve released the slightest noise of relief. "Are you with me again?"
Shuddering, Tony curled in on himself, pulling one knee closer to his torso. "I'm…I'm not sure. I think—I think so. Maybe. I just…I don't know."
His breaths started coming faster and faster. He was panicking.
"Hey, hey, hey," Steve intercepted, resting a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Just calm down, okay? Nothing bad is going to happen. No one's going to take you."
Tony's eyes were unusually wide and vulnerable as he looked at Steve. "I can't…be sure of that." There was a heavy pause. "I don't want to go again. I can't go again. I won't survive."
"Yeah, well, you're not going anywhere as long as I'm around."
Hey, he never said he was good with words. Communication wasn't Steve's strong point. He was just trying to say what he knew. What he knew was in that moment, he'd do anything and everything to protect the frazzled pieces of the man in front of him. Protectiveness wasn't an unfamiliar trait in Steve Rogers, murderous rage was. He would crush anyone who dared to threaten Tony, because the naked fear swimming in those normally confident brown eyes was horrifying. It was horrifying and he never wanted to see it again.
And Captain America was a rational, noble person…
Tony looked down.
"You're holding my hand."
Tony blinked a few times, a troubled expression crossing his face. "I just held a gun to Captain America's face," he said, sounding strangely broken. "That's embarrassing."
"It shouldn't be," Steve replied. "Fevers are nasty business." He plopped his palm on Tony's forehead. "And you definitely have one."
Tony's eyes flicked upwards. "That is a horribly inaccurate detection system for an abnormally high temperature."
"You think I'm wrong?" Steve shot back, eyebrow raised critically.
Tony exhaled. "No, probably not."
"Good, then you won't argue when I say that you need to go to bed and get some sleep." He patted Tony's bicep. "Come on, I'll help you up." He hauled Tony to his feet with his right arm when his left gave a particularly painful twinge.
He was ignoring a lot of things. He was ignoring the tremors transferring from Tony's body to his. He was ignoring the cold sweat making his fingers slick. He was ignoring the shattered appearance of the man in front of him, and the ignoring the fact that Tony was in shaky pieces. Steve wasn't impressively perceptive, but he was aware enough to realize that Tony was humiliated and mortified that Steve had witnessed this crack in his smooth exterior.
"This is…I'm sorry," Tony whispered, looking away.
"Nah, there's nothing to be sorry about," Steve replied easily. He started weaving their way through the scattered furniture and tools lying in the lab, guiding Tony by his arms. They finally exited through the glass doors, and entered the kitchen. Steve was so busy making sure that Tony didn't fall over that he almost missed the hand that reached for the longneck bottle sitting on the counter. He jerked Tony away. "Don't even think about."
"Get off me," Tony growled. "I just need a little."
Steve wrestled him away, which wasn't hard, considering that Tony was already exhausted and intoxicated already.
"No, you don't," Steve retorted.
"Quit treating me like a kid," Tony argued back.
Steve spun Tony around to face him. Because he'd had this argument before and he would have it again, and he knew he was right. "Don't you think that if alcohol fixed it, the problem would be gone by now? It doesn't work. It'll never work. Not now, not ever."
There was a pregnant pause, filled with trepidation and Steve's urge to get up and flee.
Tony sighed roughly.
He hadn't expected it to be this easy. Tony wasn't compliant. He was stubborn.
Tony swerved away from the hallway that led to his bedroom. "If I don't get alcohol, then I at least get bad TV."
"I'm willing to make that trade," Steve replied, still acutely aware of the fact that Tony wasn't himself and not quite in control yet. He'd always hated that feeling. After a particularly strong memory, flashbacks, they called them these days, he'd feel weak, powerless. Being treated with kid gloves was exactly the opposite of what he wanted. So he would act like nothing was wrong until there truly was nothing wrong.
Tony crumpled onto the couch as soon as they approached it.
"Alright," Steve breathed, turning away. No kid gloves.
Begin the retreat.
There was a tug on the hem of his shirt.
Steve looked down and followed the hand to the face.
A guilty expression crossed Tony's features as he unclenched his fingers. "How'd," Tony started uneasily. "How'd your mission go?"
"Do you guys rehearse this? I don't even remember telling half of you that I was leaving," Steve whispered, utterly confused. When Tony failed to respond, only looking at him like he was crazy, Steve sighed and sat down next to him. "I completed it."
"Good," Tony replied. "That's good."
"Why don't you try to get some sleep? You look exhausted."
Shuddering, Tony faced the television again. "Easier said than done."
They sat in silence for the length of a sitcom full of canned laughter and bad puns. Tony was strung tighter than a bowstring next to him. One of the characters set off a stream of fireworks. The explosions went off, loud and popping, littering the air. The sound was immediately muted but it was too late.
Steve could see the relationship between fireworks and gunshots.
A body-length tremor rattled Tony, and Steve grabbed the other man's wrist without even thinking about it.
"Don't go there, Tony," Steve warned. "Just take a deep breath. You're not there. I promise. I swear you're not there."
Tony released a pent-up shiver, and then to Steve's surprise, slid down and rested his head on Steve's shoulder. Every one of his red flags went up. Steve wasn't a touchy person. He didn't like people invading his personal space at all. Physical contact was never invited.
"I just," Tony swallowed. "I'm there every time I close my eyes. I see it."
There went his kid gloves idea.
"Then don't look at it. Listen to…" he pressed the info button on the rarely-used remote, "'The Real Housewives of New Jersey.'" He frowned. "I don't understand. Were there once fake housewives?" Tony chuckled into his shoulder, and Steve watched the show for another full minute. He shut off the television in a fit of horror. "They were…they're like a…pack of primates."
Tony laughed quietly. "I was thinking hyenas."
"I never liked television much. JARVIS, could you get us a replay of the Dodgers game from this afternoon? I missed it."
Tony sighed. "Are you trying to bore me to sleep?"
"Is it working?"
There was a lapse of buzzing silence, white noise from the radio, before the announcers' voices started chattering about the game. They were smooth and deep, perfect for the airwaves. Tony stated to relax next to him, on him, really. Ants were still running up and down Steve's arm, but he knew that moving would be a bad idea. It'd be insulting.
"Yeah, maybe," Tony drifted. "Jesus, you're freezing."
"No, you're just too hot."
Steve could practically feel Tony's mood lighten.
"Why, Steve, you flatter me."
Steve rolled his eyes, listening to check of the score of the game. He could've just asked JARVIS whether they'd won or not, but that ruined it.
"So why the fascination with baseball?" Tony asked.
Steve exhaled and dropped his head on the back of the couch. "I wish I could say I played it all the time as a kid, but I didn't. I was constantly sick. The dust got up in my lungs and I'd just cough like a maniac. I remember sitting at the window and watching all the other kids play and feeling so jealous. My mom finally saved up enough money for a radio sometime later. So that's what I listened to."
"That's all the explanation you're going to give me?"
Steve bit the inside of his cheek. That was Tony, push, push until he got what he wanted.
"Baseball never changed. There's still a pitcher and a catcher and popcorn and homeruns. It's just—it's nice."
Tony looked half-asleep already, which was the ultimate goal, but Steve felt rather foolish until the other man spoke up again. Steve was expecting some sarcastic comment, maybe a dig at how nostalgia murdered his manhood.
"Oh. I can understand that," Tony said quietly.
Part of Steve desperately wanted to leave, another part didn't mind, and a very large part just wanted to sleep. He was burnt out. Fried. He glanced down. Well, who would've guessed? Baseball was soothing. Tony was out.
Carefully sliding out from underneath the other man, Steve made sure to guide him down to the pillow on the couch and stood up. He had three things to do: fill out the debriefing papers, eat, and sleep. He went up to his room first, fetching the files from his backpack. He eyed his bed for a long moment before his stomach growled in protest and he headed down to the kitchen with a disgruntled gurgle.
There was some leftover spaghetti in the fridge, so he heated that up in the microwave. Those were a real nifty invention. Must faster than an oven. There still wasn't the same flavor, but he was past caring at this point. After he dug into the food, sated his hunger to a manageable degree, he started on the papers.
Wow, he was tired.
Steve took a huge sip of water and shook his head. He was only halfway through. Sniffing, he gripped the fountain pen and went back to filling out a description of the mission. Injuries sustained, weapons used, civilians involved…
There were three sets of lines. Weren't there two before?
Steve blinked repeatedly, trying to clear his vision. The exhaustion was crashing over him hard.
Maybe he'd lay his head down. Just for a bit. A few seconds.
Just for a few seconds…
"The captain has entered a state of suspended consciousness on the kitchen counter!"
Face creasing with amused confusion, Clint came around the corner and nearly ran into Tony trying to fit through the same hallway. "Feeling better, feathers?" Tony eyed him critically.
"Getting there. You?"
"Back to my devilishly handsome ways."
They entered the kitchen and the first thing Clint saw was Natasha sitting on the counter, feet swinging while she picked at a sandwich with her fingers. Thor was bent over in front of them, obstructing the view of, what Clint could only assume, Steve. Tony advanced forward quickly, peering over the god's right shoulder.
"Oh my god. This is enough blackmail for the next century," he said, rather gleefully.
Curious, Clint leaned over Thor's left shoulder.
Steve was curled over the kitchen counter, head ducked into one elbow, and he was passed out. Clint started laughing, apparently too loudly, because Natasha nearly ripped off his ear. "Ow, ow, okay. Done laughing, done laughing." She released him, and he rubbed the tender skin with a pitiful expression.
Clint hopped on the counter on the other side of Steve. He noticed that while one arm was resting in Steve's lap, the other was bent on the table over a few papers, a pen still knitted through his fingers. Clint carefully wiggled the file out from underneath him.
He looked up as Bruce walked into the room.
"What's going on?" he asked.
Tony leaned closer to Steve.
"Do you think Fury would let me adopt him?"
Natasha ran her hands through Steve's hair when he shifted. "As if he hasn't been corrupted enough."
Bruce pushed up Steve's sleeve. "Why did I believe him when he said he'd change the bandage?" he muttered to himself, catching the pair of scissors that Clint slid down the granite countertop. He cut the gauze off and frowned when he unveiled the wound. "This must have been deep. It's not even half-healed."
"How can we be sure that he isn't," Tony gently prodded Steve's temple, "I don't know, unconscious?"
Natasha slapped his finger away. "Because. He's tired. Leave him alone."
"Someone should move the cold spaghetti before I hurl again." Thor picked up the plate and tossed the entire thing in the garbage, all while giving Clint an equally baffled and disgusted look. Clint raised his hands in defense. "I just thought I'd give you guys fair warning."
Bruce finished wrapping the new bandage around Steve's arm. "We should get him to a bed."
"He looks comfortable to me," Tony inserted. "But we should probably return the favor."
Clint had something to say first.
"Before we tackle that mission, all in favor that the next person to get sick will be forced to take a chemical shower."
Five hands went up. The sixth sneezed.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me."
A few points to tackle.
- Apologies about the Bruce section. He's hard for me to write. It was more of a set-up for Tony's scene than anything.
- While most concentration camps weren't liberated until around 1945, Captain America mentions that he went to the fictional camp "Diebenwald" in the 616 comics. I borrowed that.
- I tried to make it as Tony-angsty as possible, but I just couldn't restrain myself. Steve's too dang cute.
- The next chapter of A Winter Never Ending should be published sometime tomorrow or the next day. I've been on vacation this past week and without internet. It was quite horrifying.
- This MIGHT turn into a collection. I'm debating on writing an angsty prequel that is the infamous fever Bruce mentioned Steve got. I don't know yet...
Thank you for reading. And reviewing. You know you want to do that too. :)