Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Genre: Drama, angst, hurt/comfort
Rating: T / FRT
Characters: Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man). Also: JARVIS, Pepper Potts.
Small appearances from: Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel), Henry “Hank” Pym (Ant-Man/Yellowjacket), James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), T’Challa (Black Panther), Janet van Dyne (Wasp), The Vision.
Summary: After Iron Man suffers a brain injury during a battle, a guilt-ridden Steve Rogers stops at nothing to help Tony survive the aftermath, determined to be there for his friend during the most challenging time of his life.
Written for: Cap/Iron Man Reverse Bang 2013 (c_im_bigbang). Story based on & inspired by the beautiful art by the talented gabbi!
Warnings: Violence and injuries, language.
Disclaimer: The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, its characters and places belong to Marvel and all other creators involved in the making and distributing the show. No profit was made by writing this story and the author owns nothing at all.
Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire)
Feedback: Very welcome.
About Dependence: Written during my first time experiencing a reverse bang (second fic of that particular round).
The world needs more AEMH fics.
Also, I have no idea how exactly this story grew from that simple image, but here we have it; I hope you all enjoy it!
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Author’s note: I have no real experience with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or its effects, but I know a thing or two about watching someone’s body not do what they want it to. So, that’s the route I took, and I apologize for any medical/rehabilitational flaws that may appear in this fic. This is fiction, these are superheroes, and from what I took while exploring the subject online, the resulting problems from a TBI can vary a lot, depending on the damage.
Written for Cap/Iron Man Reverse Bang 2013, inspired by Gabbi’s art!
Tony came at him hard, throwing caution to the wind. At this point he should have been taking care, having already been thrown down several times, but the less steady his legs got, the more Tony kept forgetting what he had been told: when he was supposed to be cautious, he was brash; when he should have waited for an opening, he rushed in to make one by force.
Only, Steve wasn’t going to give him an opening. He only needed to step aside, sweep his foot across the mat, and Tony went down, hard, not even trying to regain his balance at the last second. Not that it would have helped much.
“Fuck,” Tony muttered into the mat.
“Had enough?” Steve asked, holding back a smile. Steve knew that if Tony wanted to go on, he would oblige – and he also knew that if he taunted Tony, or if Tony thought he was taunting him, their good-natured sparring would come to a grinding halt until the next big disaster busied Tony’s brain enough to make him forget the humiliation.
Not that Steve needed the exercise with Tony, exactly, but he rather liked it. They worked together on the battlefield, and it was important that they maintain a certain balance between each other. Besides, a work-out with Tony in the armor was often better than what the training room had to offer.
However, shaping up Tony’s self-defense and attack skills without the armor had little to do with Steve’s own work-out and more with the fact that Tony could benefit from it. Over the years, it had become a comfortable routine, and Steve could see Tony making progress even when no one else could – Tony himself included. Steve had also learned how to avoid the landmines made up of Tony’s pride and inferiority complex.
“Maybe,” Tony finally replied and started to roll over. He was sweaty and close to calling it a day, but Steve guessed he might have one last round in him before he collapsed.
“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted before Tony could get up. “There’s an incoming distress signal from Madison Square Garden.”
“Yeah?” Tony moved to sit on the floor. “What’s on the menu today?”
“It would appear the cosmically-irradiated group called U-Foes has finally made an appearance.” The villain group of four had managed to escape their prison a few weeks ago, and the Avengers, among many others, had been trying to track them down.
“Call the team together,” Steve ordered. “Anyone who’s close by.” He looked down at Tony then, after the AI let out a sound of affirmation. “Are you up for this?” he asked.
“Please,” Tony smirked and picked himself up from the mat, reaching for a towel, “this was a nice warm-up.” He wiped his face and hair briefly, then twirled the towel in his hands. In the next second he was walking towards the door, and Steve moved to follow him. Tony was still a bit unsteady on his feet, so Steve caught up with him easily enough, then led them down the hallway until they came to the door that led to Tony’s armory.
Steve was just about to tell Tony to suit up and meet him at the Assembly Hall when he felt something smack hard against his ass. He looked down just in time to see Tony’s towel sway between them, and then met Tony’s mischievous look. “See you in a bit, Cap,” Tony mock-saluted him and stepped inside the armory to prep for battle.
With a smile of his own, Steve turned and continued down the hall to put his own uniform on.
The arena in midtown Manhattan had been the scene of many a villainous plot. Steve guessed that he had been here, fighting, more than he had actually gotten to visit the place off-duty. It was a shame, really; Steve liked sports well enough, even if they had changed somewhat from his time.
Wasp was already on the scene when Steve and Tony got there. Hawkeye arrived soon after with Black Panther, who had joined ranks with the Avengers while visiting the States.
“Is the Hulk coming?” Steve asked, looking at his four companions.
Hawkeye shrugged. “Haven’t seen the big guy in weeks.”
“I would have thought him interested in battling the U-Foes,” Black Panther noted, then looked towards the main entrance. “Shall we?”
“Let’s,” Tony decided, and Steve nodded, leading them inside.
It wasn’t hard to find the villains on most days, and this occasion was no exception. There were four of them, and the Avengers had fought the group at the Cube – a prison for radiation-based villains before the great breakouts; Steve was confident they could handle the situation once more, yet they shouldn’t get cocky. That was when mistakes started to happen.
Led by a telekinetic called Vector – who looked like the shape of a man cut out of outer space, a constellation crammed inside his chest – the criminals were gathered on the main court, circling multiple hostages. Vapor, a woman composed entirely of gas, kept swirling around the group. X-Ray, a man wearing a strange suit with a face that looked exactly like an x-ray image inside the helmet, was zapping the hostages with electricity at random. The fourth member was Ironclad, who looked more like a giant robot with his dense metal body than a person.
“Avengers!” Vector called out when he noticed their entrance. “You’re early for tonight’s game.”
“Let these people go, and we’ll give you a show for free,” Tony called out, full of bravado as usual. It didn’t even bother Steve so much anymore, because it didn’t surprise him like it used to. In fact, the day Tony lost his sass was the day they should all be concerned.
“You think me stupid, Stark?” Vector asked, clearly incensed.
“Nah,” Hawkeye called out, “just a coward. Hiding behind a bunch of cleaning ladies and tourists.” The archer already had an arrow ready, but he knew they needed to get the civilians out of the way first.
It shouldn’t have been that easy to taunt their enemies…
“Take them down!” Vector shouted.
Then again, it usually was.
“Wasp,” Steve called out, “blow Vapor away and then make sure these people get to safety. Iron Man, take down X-Ray. Hawkeye and Panther, deal with Ironclad. I’ll take Vector.”
There were no arguments and the Avengers moved out to take down their assigned opponents. Wasp flew into action first, her wings flapping, tearing Vapor to pieces before she could attack anyone. “Come on, people!” Wasp called out just as Iron Man flew right at X-Ray, picked him up and rocketed them both across the court before smashing the villain down. Hawkeye and Black Panther were already firing at Ironclad, who gave them chase, but both men were too fast for their bigger opponent.
That left Steve, who faced off against the leader of the U-Foes. Vector sent two chairs flying at him from the side, which Steve easily blocked with his shield, and then charged the man himself. Before he could strike, though, he felt his body leave the floor and get flung to the side by invisible hands. He hit the floor hard but climbed back up, dismissing the brief pain.
On the side, X-Ray was zapping Tony, but the armor seemed to be handling it well enough; Tony was moving closer, slowly, then eventually punched the villain in the face, sending him flying onto his back. Steve noted Tony’s posture was getting better, then turned his attention back to Vector, and dodged another object tossed at him by telekinesis.
Hawkeye and Black Panther were doing well, and eventually Hawkeye sent an arrow flying at Vector, distracting him enough to let Steve slip closer and deliver a blow that would have knocked out a lesser man.
Vapor had pulled herself back together and whirled above them, then descended suddenly to where Tony was about to place a power dampener on X-Ray, and wrapped around the Iron Man armor. Steve cringed as the armored body went rigid; he remembered Vapor’s suffocating kiss from their last battle at the Cube, and it was on the tip of his tongue to order someone to help Tony, but Tony suddenly stuck his hand out, seized X-Ray by the throat, and in a final attempt to overcome their enemy, X-Ray released an electric current at him. Of course, that current also hit Vapor, making her scream and fling herself away from Iron Man, who used the opportunity to blast them both with repulsor rays.
A sixth sense warned Steve just in time and he dodged to the side before a table flying through the air caught him in the back. Vector swore, and Steve rotated his body, then sent his shield flying. It was a hair’s breadth from hitting Vector when it stopped, spinning in the air.
Steve crouched lower, bracing himself.
Vector smiled, raising a hand to make a point that he was controlling the shield. “Did you think we would just roll over and surrender?” he asked.
“The result would have been the same,” Steve promised him, body ready to move.
With an annoyed huff, Vector sent the shield flying with an angry motion of his hand. Steve dodged easily, then watched the shield sail across the court – right at Tony, who was securing the two unconscious villains.
Tony was just starting to turn towards the sound of Steve’s voice when the shield hit him on the side of the head, sending him to the floor with a loud crash. The shield fell beside him, lying still.
Steve whirled around and attacked, clearly taking Vector by surprise; the man seemed the type to enjoy his victories a little too much, which left him distracted and open. Steve had no problems using that to his advantage, hitting him hard enough to make his shoulder ache.
Another crashing noise made him turn back around, just in time to see Ironclad roll to the floor, several of Hawkeye’s arrows embedded in him, with a few smoking mementos from the Panther among them.
“That wasn’t so hard,” Hawkeye noted, steadying his breathing.
Black Panther didn’t reply, instead glancing over at where Iron Man still lay on the floor. “Stark,” he called out.
“Maybe he finally got some sense knocked into his head,” Hawkeye offered with a grin.
“The shield hit him pretty hard,” Steve recalled and started walking over, trusting the archer to secure the last two villains. “Tony,” he called out as he approached, but there was no reply. Black Panther was only a step behind him and they both crouched down by the prone body of their teammate. “Hey, Tony,” Steve said again, tapping slightly at the armored shoulder.
“Captain,” the Panther said, and Steve looked at him, then down at where he was touching the shield. There was blood on the edge of the vibranium disc, and Steve felt dread clutching his stomach. He quickly turned his gaze back to Tony, touching the back of his head, then carefully lifted it to check for injuries.
Sure enough, there was a deep gash in the side of his helmet, smeared with blood.
Steve knew that it took a lot to cause damage like that, but between vibranium and the extra force Vector may have pushed it with… Anger coiled inside him and he glanced back at the leader of the U-Foes, wishing he had hit him harder.
Black Panther reached over, curling his fingers around the helmet, and Steve felt it unlock. He helped Panther remove it from around Tony’s head and supported the unconscious man as Panther inspected the wound. “He has not woken up yet,” he mused. “We might have to take him to a hospital.”
“Guys?” Wasp called out, flying back in.
“What’s going on?” Hawkeye asked, walking over, Wasp following him.
“Oh, no, Tony!” Wasp called out as soon as she was close enough to see and flew over, then changed back to her actual size as she knelt beside Steve and Black Panther. “Is he okay?”
“He’s breathing,” Panther replied.
“That’s a good thing,” Hawkeye said, but he was quieter, more serious. “That was quite a blow…”
“Cut through the armor,” Steve murmured, staring at Tony’s still face, willing him to wake up and shrug it off.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Black Panther said suddenly.
“I let go of the shield,” Steve stated.
Wasp looked between them. “We should get him to a hospital, right now. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was, but he’s bleeding!”
Steve moved his eyes, seeing the darker red staining his red gloves, then moved his eyes back to Tony’s face. Did he always look so pale…? No. “He’s going to be okay,” Steve decided, and Wasp nodded eagerly, then got up to call Jane Foster.
The steady beep of the machines was almost maddening; as long as they didn’t change, nothing else was going to change either – which meant Tony lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, with no one able to say when he was going to wake up.
No one had actually said the words ‘if he wakes up’, which was either from fear of being punched out by Captain America, or a sign that it wasn’t that serious.
Well, it had been two days since the fight at Madison Square Garden, so Steve considered the situation worthy of some concern.
They had given Tony a private room – of course – and it was possible the attending doctors were privately hired by Stark Industries as well, but they hadn’t moved him out of the hospital so in this room was where Steve sat, waiting, still in uniform although he had stripped the gloves off and pulled back the cowl, to make himself slightly more comfortable.
For two days people had come and gone, doing tests, writing down notes that made little to no sense when Steve looked at the chart hanging from the end of the bed. Their fellow Avengers visited daily, depending on who was in town and not fighting crime. More than once they had asked Steve to step outside, to go and find himself something to do.
Today was no different: Janet van Dyne and Hank Pym came by, with T’Challa and Carol Danvers. They were all out of uniform save for T’Challa, whom Steve had rarely, if ever, seen out of the Black Panther uniform.
“Still nothing?” Carol asked, resting a hand on Steve’s shoulder.
Hank reached for the chart, flipping pages. “He suffered a brain injury; it’s hard to predict how it’s going to go from here.” He put the chart back down while Jan moved to the other side of Tony’s bed and touched the unconscious man’s hand.
“He’ll be fine,” Jan reassured them. “It was just a little knock on the head…”
Steve’s mind flew back to the moment when he had realized what Vector was doing. He heard the sound, over and over, and sometimes he imagined he perhaps heard Tony’s skull breaking…
“It wasn’t your fault,” Carol said resolutely and sat down in a chair beside him.
“Carol’s right,” Jan chorused. “If that’s why you literally haven’t left this room for two days –”
“I didn’t have his back out there,” Steve snapped. “I need to… have it now.”
“We have been fortunate, thus far, that we have not lost one of our own,” T’Challa noted. “I know Stark to be a stubborn man. He’s not going to let this slow him down.”
“He needs to wake up first,” Hank murmured. “After that, he can move as fast or as slow as he wants. Selfish… he’s probably going to rub our concern in our faces once he wakes up.”
Steve knew better than to get riled up about Hank’s words; they were all concerned, and tired, and the scientist spoke a lot more in anger these days than he used to, like he wasn’t bottling it up so much. Then again, he seemed angry all the time – or maybe it was just the Yellowjacket performance he put on.
“Let’s go grab a bite,” Carol suggested after a while, giving Steve’s shoulder a solid slap.
“I’m fine,” Steve replied.
“Have you eaten anything since yesterday, when I brought you that sandwich?” Jan gave him a serious look.
“No, ma’am,” Steve hung his head, just a little.
Jan sighed and moved around the bed, scooting down in front of Steve. She took his hands, squeezing them desperately. “Come on, Cap. T’Challa will stay here while we’re gone. You need to get some fresh air. Shower. Change. You seriously haven’t left this room since they brought him in?” she asked, twisting her face as if imagining something disgusting.
“I’ll leave when he wakes up,” Steve said resolutely.
“And if he doesn’t?” T’Challa asked. He was ever a… rational man, and right now Steve hated him for it.
“Then we’ll be here for the long haul,” he decided.
Needless to say, Steve didn’t join the others in the cafeteria, but they brought him lunch.
That night, Steve stirred from his light sleep. At first he wasn’t certain what had triggered it, but then he realized Tony’s breathing had changed. Not by much, but enough for his keen senses to notice.
He sat up at once, leaning forward, and in the weak lights of the room that never went out, he could see Tony’s eyes were open, searching the ceiling.
“Tony,” Steve said, relief washing over him. The eyes stilled, then moved towards him slightly. Steve stood up and leaned closer, reaching out to touch Tony’s hand as he did. When their skins touched and he applied a little pressure, Tony’s arm flinched as if he had been shocked. Steve drew his hand back, alarmed, and looked at Tony. “How are you feeling?”
For the longest time, Tony just stared at him. Steve was afraid he had slipped away again, but then he blinked slowly and appeared to be looking around again. At that point, Steve guessed he should call for a nurse or a doctor, and reached over to press a button by the bed.
A nurse came in a long ten minutes later, looking bored and worn out. She was probably one of the hospital’s own staff, because the ones Pepper Potts had hired didn’t look so rumpled. “Did you need something, Captain?” she asked. Normally he didn’t bother the staff, as long as they let him stay. All of them knew who he was, and who Tony was, and they knew better than to mess with him.
“He’s awake,” Steve noted, amazed she had missed it. If Steve hadn’t been there, how long would it have taken for them to notice Tony had finally stirred?
“Oh,” she said – and then ran out of the room.
Steve blinked after her, then glanced down at Tony. “That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting,” he mused, and he imagined he saw Tony’s mouth curl in a smile, just a little.
“You’re a lucky man, Mr. Stark,” the doctor mused, shining a light into Tony’s eyes for the fifth time. “You’re recovering well, considering. TBI’s nothing to fool around with,” he noted, giving Steve a sideways glance, as if the two of them had been ‘fooling around’ when this happened. The doctor probably knew better, though. “Responses to stimuli are almost back to normal.”
The day after Tony woke up had been unbelievably hard, regardless of the obvious relief. Tony spoke haltingly, as if his mouth didn’t work right. He was frustrated, and kept dropping things if he was handed something – like pen and paper by Jan in order to establish a line of communication. Tony had looked ready to stab her with the pen when they realized his hands weren’t really working.
The doctor left, saying he would come back later for some more tests, and Tony slowly, deliberately, rolled his eyes. “Oh. My. God!” he sighed, closing his eyes, leaning his head back, all in a dramatic way that was so like him. “If he was going to try and blind me one more time, I was going to strangle him with his stethoscope. Or have you do it,” he amended, looking at Steve.
Once he had woken up properly, Tony had vehemently communicated there was nothing at all wrong with his mind. No blanks, no confusion. He remembered the fight, remembered being hit – and he wasn’t carrying a grudge by the look of it, either.
What was the problem, however, was that his body seemed to be asleep still – or not in complete synch with his brain. Speech wasn’t giving him that much trouble, although sometimes it was easy to tell Tony had to slow down, to focus on what he was saying, and sometimes use simpler, more easily pronounceable alternatives. Everything else, however, was putting him on edge, and he took it out on anyone who came by – unless he was in the process of hiding it.
Steve had already learned the difference between the two, and he felt worse whenever Tony figured out yet another thing he had been able to do a few days ago, but which now took extreme effort or was downright impossible. Any sparks of anger that followed those failures, Steve took willingly because he had participated in causing them, no matter how unwillingly or unintentionally.
“The doctor thinks you might be able to go home if the next scan looks promising,” Steve mused.
“I heard,” Tony murmured, eyes narrowing as he looked at the door of his room. He glanced at Steve next. “Or, you could just help me out of this bed and we could leave right now.”
“I’m sure someone would spot me carrying you out,” Steve raised an eyebrow at him.
“We could take the fire escape,” Tony suggested, not even catching the ‘carrying you out’ part, which spoke volumes; Tony knew that if sitting up and holding items in his hands were giving him trouble, standing up and walking out might not happen at all, least of all while sneaking past the hospital staff.
Steve offered him a good-natured smile, at which Tony gave him a critical look.
“When was the last time you left this room?” the genius asked.
“When you arrived,” Steve replied. No reason to lie about it, because as soon as Tony asked someone else, he would hear the truth.
“Huh,” was Tony’s only reply and he laid back down again. His fingers drummed an uneven rhythm on the bedspread for a moment, then stopped, and the rather familiar look of disappointment was back on Tony’s features. “So this is Captain America guilt-tripping,” he said next – probably after having gone over how the discussion was going to play out.
Steve wondered if he should admit it, or deny it, or go with one of the many excuses he had been giving the others. Before he could decide, the door opened and Jan flew in – literally flew – and the others followed behind her. The only ones missing, from the whole Avengers line-up, were the Hulk and Thor.
“Look who’s up!” Jan greeted and grew back to her human size, bending over to smack a kiss on Tony’s cheek.
“You were here yesterday, when I was also awake – and why didn’t I ever get kissed before?” Tony complained.
“He’s a grumpy patient. What a surprise,” Clint rolled his eyes. “Good to see you back among the living, though.”
“I wasn’t dead,” Tony frowned.
“They said you’re recovering nicely,” Hank noted, already looking through the chart.
“It’s a cons… conspiracy,” Tony replied, halting in the middle and looking mad at himself when it happened. “Did you at least bring me some nice ‘get well’ gift?”
“Did you want flowers?” Clint asked.
“I pointed out, on our way in, that flowers are considered a customary gift to those staying in a hospital,” the Vision pointed out from the side. The synthezoid was looking at the room, probably analyzing every piece of equipment.
“I’m allergic to flowers,” Tony claimed, which probably wasn’t true – unless he meant the gesture of giving flowers. Steve was proud he knew Tony well enough to be able to figure that out.
“Then it’s good we didn’t bring you flowers,” Hank noted and dug something from his large messenger bag, tossing it into Tony’s lap. It was a teddy bear, about fifteen inches tall, with soft light brown fur and a small red heart in its lap that said ‘We ♥ U’. Tony raised an eyebrow at it, then looked at Hank. The scientist shrugged. “Jan picked it out.”
“It was so cute!” Jan enthused. “I really wanted to give it a whole Iron Man makeover, but we ran out of time.”
Tony gave the teddy another look then started to toss it away. Steve reached out before he could, grabbing it and sitting it in his lap instead. Tony stared at him suspiciously, as if the plushie meant him bodily harm. “Thanks,” he finally muttered, and gave Jan a somewhat genuine smile.
“Maybe we should have tied a miniature Cap shield on its arm,” Clint suggested.
Carol elbowed him hard in the side. “That’s tasteless, even for you.”
“I thought his armor was supposed to be tougher than that,” the archer muttered, rubbing his ribs.
“You’re free to borrow my helmet and test it yourself,” Tony offered.
“Okay,” Jan cut in, “no one’s throwing anything at anyone. Will they let you out soon?”
“Tomorrow, maybe,” Tony answered. “Cap refused to sneak me out. How about you, Danvers?” he asked Carol instead. “There’s a window right there. We could pick up take-out on the way.”
“Charming, but no; we have errands to run, baddies to catch,” Carol shook her head.
“I’ll remember this, when one of you is stuck in a hospital,” Tony threatened.
“Sure you will,” Clint snorted. “Get better – we need him,” he pointed at Steve.
“We need both of you,” Jan amended quickly, and came over to kiss Tony’s cheek again and then gave Steve a quick hug. “We’ll see you tomorrow, if they won’t release Tony. Otherwise, we’ll have a welcome party ready at the Mansion!” She waved and ushered everyone else out of the door. It felt empty and quiet afterwards.
Steve looked down at the teddy in his lap, and after a moment Tony did the same. “He is kind of cute,” Steve noted, picking it up with one hand and shaking the toy gently like one would to endear a child.
“If you’re going to start baby-talking me, I’ll shove it down your throat in your sleep,” Tony threatened.
“You may try, soldier,” Steve informed him. “I’m a light sleeper.”
“Every time I look at you, you’re awake. How do you not look worse than that?” Tony demanded to know.
Steve looked at himself. He could use a shower, sure, and he had barely cleaned up after the battle by the sink in a bathroom before they wheeled Tony into this room. He wondered if he should have perhaps taken a look in the mirror, seeing as so many people came and went while he just sat here. Then again, it hadn’t seemed important how he looked when Tony was still unconscious.
“Give me that,” Tony said, reaching out, and Steve offered the teddy to him. Tony’s fingers curled around it, but as soon as Steve let go, the toy fell to the floor between them. Tony’s fingers twitched, as if he were debating whether to admit what had just happened or not. Steve waited ten seconds before bending to pick up the toy, and then placed it beside Tony’s hip on the bed. The brown eyes moved to stare at it, hard to read, but Steve was certain the same disappointed look was floating around in there somewhere.
“It will get better,” Steve told him.
“And if it doesn’t?” Tony asked, voice hollow.
“We’ll fix this,” he decided.
“You’ll fix my brain?” Tony threw a look at him, the sadness and defeat washed away by anger. “Gee, it’s good to know you’re going to do better than the best trained professionals in the world!”
Steve took it, held it in, and swallowed it down. It felt like acid, but he deserved it. He had let go of his shield, knowing full well that when fighting a telekinetic, anything that wasn’t directly fixed into something solid was fair game. He had sent his shield flying, and might as well have delivered the blow to Tony’s head personally.
Tony let out an angry huff, and for a moment Steve was afraid he would start hyperventilating. There had been a miniature panic attack on the first day, when Tony wasn’t yet fully aware of what was going on, and he didn’t wish to repeat that.
“Just breathe,” Steve reassured him, touching his hand. He knew Tony hated the sensation now, because it felt wrong – that’s why he’d flinched the first time Steve did it, right after he woke up. However, it took Tony’s mind off whatever was trying to set him off.
“You should tell me I’m an idiot,” Tony informed him. “Tell me I’m going to be okay, and that it wasn’t your fault. That it was no one’s fault. You should go home with the others and then maybe come pick me up tomorrow.”
“We’ll leave together tomorrow, if they let you go home,” Steve told him, not for the first time.
Tony gave him a baleful look, then just sagged back on the bed, against the pillows. “I’m not sure I want to go home. Not that I want to stay here, but…” Something seemed to dawn on him, suddenly, and he closed his eyes, looking at bit happier. “It’s going to be okay.”
Steve wasn’t certain whether to trust that statement.
“Tony, are you sure?” Pepper Potts asked. “They said you need extensive therapy –”
“And they’re still letting me leave,” Tony cut her off. “Trained professionals agree I’m free to leave the hospital, so I am. I’ve taken up enough space here. Hand me my shirt.”
She looked indecisive, and turned to Steve. “Do you know what he’s up to?” she asked.
“No, ma’am, but they cleared him to leave,” Steve admitted, then looked at Tony. “Should we… make arrangements? Ms. Potts is right, they said you need rehabilitation.”
“I’ll arrange that. The best money can buy, of course,” Tony mused, struggling with his shirt. He was losing the battle, and eventually Pepper sighed and reached over to help, finding the sleeves and then buttoning it up. “Did you get the plane ready?” Tony asked then, swaying slightly, his body still struggling to maintain the position as he sat. They had made him walk this morning, which had been painful to watch, but Tony was a survivor and he had promised to work on it, only he didn’t need to be in a hospital to do it.
“Plane?” Steve frowned.
“Tony, you need to get home, and rest,” Pepper said.
“I am going home,” Tony insisted. “I’m going to Malibu.”
Steve felt something shift inside him – something large and painful. “What’s in Malibu?” he asked.
“My house,” Tony shrugged. “I’ll get things sorted out and... shoes,” he pointed, and Pepper bent down to pick them up.
Steve’s hand shot out, preventing her from doing it, and he met Tony’s stare full on. “You’re going to go and hide in Malibu, instead of staying here?”
“What am I going to do here, Steve?” Tony asked him, voice harder. “I can barely stand. I can’t scribble down a goddamn note. Talking to you is taking too much effort, and I sure as hell can’t play a hero in this condition.” The last statement seemed to hurt him the most, but Steve wouldn’t have let him suit up anyway, so it was good they agreed on that.
“That doesn’t mean you have to leave,” Steve insisted.
“What do you want me to do?” Tony snapped. “Come back to the Mansion, cuddle with this on the couch and gather pitying looks from our team?” he said, picking up the teddy, his hand shivering as he maintained a desperate hold on it before trying to toss the toy across the room. The motion didn’t go quite as expected and the teddy fell on his knee, and then down onto the floor. Tony’s eyes were full of poison as he watched it go – then even more so when Steve picked the teddy back up.
“You’re going to Malibu to hide and lick your wounds,” Steve told him, looking Tony in the eye again.
“There’s a whole lot of licking that needs to be done,” the other man noted. “Your sentry duty’s over, Captain. You did your part, paid your debt. You can go back to the Mansion and keep the world spinning.”
“You think that’s the only reason I stayed by your side?” Steve narrowed his eyes.
“Yeah, and you’re just too proud to admit that you feel like shit about what a mess I am right now. You’ve done all you can, though. You’ve held my hand and combed my hair, and it’s been real nice, but that’s all you can do. The rest? That’s where other people come in. Not you.”
Pepper shifted beside them, and Steve could feel her eyes moving back and forth, trying to read the situation and find something to say to ease the tension.
“Let me help,” Steve begged.
“You’ve done enough, I think,” Tony said. He wasn’t exactly concealing the hurt, and Steve nodded, standing up. He grabbed his shield from behind the chair – cleaned of Tony’s blood the first night – and offered Pepper the teddy bear toy. She took it and moved aside, to let him pass and move out of the room.
“Thank you, Captain!” Pepper called out after him. “For everything.”
Steve wondered if she actually meant it.
Steve could admit he was upset. Depressed, even. Well, perhaps not depressed – that’s what he had felt, briefly, when the Avengers dug him out of the ice. This was deep discontent, with a little bit of betrayal, although what had he expected? Tony had been nice enough about it, but in the end, if he never fully recovered, it was all on Steve. He had been the leader, he should have… done better.
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS called out in the midst of a grueling work-out. He half-expected the AI to admonish him for demolishing so many punching bags earlier, but really, hadn’t those been designed with his super-soldier strength in mind?
“What?” Steve replied, the program coming to a halt around him. Clearly JARVIS really wanted to talk to him.
“Ms. Potts has left a message for you. She said that you should review it at your first convenience.”
“I will, once I’m done,” Steve answered. “Continue the –”
“Captain,” JARVIS interrupted him, which wasn’t like the AI, “Ms. Potts left the message over three hours ago, when you first came down here. Would you be interested in viewing the message?”
“Do I have a choice?” Steve muttered, sliding his shield back on his arm and stepping towards a wall where a screen appeared, with the familiar logo of his message box.
A smaller tab opened and Pepper’s face appeared in it. “Captain Rogers, I hope all is well in New York. I have a… request to make. I know you feel guilty about what happened at Madison Square Garden, but I want you to know I don’t ask this of you because of that: I don’t blame you, and even if I did, this request should come from your desire to help Tony, not to make up for the hurt you may have inadvertently caused him.” She took a deep breath, looked at something off-screen, then back at the camera. “Tony’s not handling his current situation well. He’s… getting worse; he’s moody, the therapists are not getting through to him, and frankly, I think they’ll keep failing at motivating him. You, however, are someone he trusts and respects. You’re his leader, and his fellow Avenger. You stayed with him when he needed you the most, not judging him, and… I just think you might be able to help him,” Pepper finished, with a pleading look on her face. “The choice is yours, and I fully understand if your duties keep you in New York, or if you simply think you’re not the man for the job. Tony can be difficult, more so now than ever, but… If you decide to come, let me know and I’ll arrange for your arrival in Malibu.”
Steve blinked at the screen.
“Would you like to call Ms. Potts?” JARVIS prompted after a moment. Sometimes, Steve forgot the AI was actually Tony’s personal AI – which meant his loyalties were to Tony first.
“How is Tony doing?” Steve asked. “I mean… are you connected to his home in Malibu?”
“Indeed I am, Captain,” the AI replied. “Mr. Stark is having difficulties adjusting to his… disabilities. He requires help, but is ill-suited to receive it.”
“But Ms. Potts thinks I’m the man for the job,” Steve frowned, thinking the message over.
“You and Mr. Stark have much in common. You command much trust and respect from my creator.”
“How is that going to help Tony?” Steve mused.
“It will, if I may, make him listen. It will make him accept help, which has been rather difficult for him for most of his life.”
“He has to do everything himself,” Steve smiled softly. He had learned that much about Tony early on, and now, if Tony couldn’t do things on his own … “Tell Ms. Potts I’ll be ready to fly to Malibu at her earliest convenience.”
“Very well, Captain.”
Steve nodded and then left the training room, heading up to his own quarters. He showered, pulled on a fresh set of clothes, and then packed a bag. After a little hesitation, he also packed his uniform and shield, knowing he would feel uneasy without them. He walked down to the main floor when he was done, waiting for JARVIS to confirm when he would be leaving. Knowing Pepper Potts, it would be only a matter of hours.
“Going somewhere, Captain?” T’Challa’s voice reached him, and he looked at the Black Panther approaching.
“To Malibu,” Steve replied.
The King of Wakanda nodded. “Give him our regards,” he said, not even asking why Steve was going, or for how long. “In your absence, who do you wish to be in charge? After all, there is always disaster afoot.”
“You and Carol,” Steve responded. “I know you will return to Wakanda soon, and if there is anything I’m needed for, don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“Let you know about what?” Clint asked as he walked in, a bag of popcorn in one hand.
“If you need my help,” Steve repeated.
“With?” Clint frowned.
“We will manage in your absence, but shall confer with you should there be a matter that cannot be easily resolved,” T’Challa decided.
“Are you going somewhere?” Jan’s voice reached them as she flew over, taking a look at Steve’s bag and landing on top of it, still in her shrunken form. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m going to go see Tony,” Steve replied.
“You’ve done enough for him,” Clint said. “You don’t need to help him hide.”
“Clint,” Jan snapped. “We talked about this. Tony’s hurt, badly. Just because he didn’t say as much doesn’t mean it isn’t true! Steve’s going to help him get better.” Her smile was warm and radiant. “Did you pack some sunblock? It’s really nice on the West Coast. I’m actually jealous. Maybe I could come with you?”
“Maybe later,” Steve hedged.
“Captain Rogers, there is a car waiting outside to take you to the airport,” JARVIS announced suddenly.
Jan grew up, suddenly, and leaned over to give Steve a hug. “Take care of yourself – and him,” she ordered fiercely. “We’ll hold down the fort until you get back. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
Steve wasn’t certain why that made him feel a little concerned, but he forced himself to let go of that and step out of the door without a backwards glance.