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So.  I'm not dead.  Life does suck incredibly much right now though, which is why you haven't seen much of me.  Anyway, happy birthday Who!  And have a Avengers BB fic.

Hole in My Heart (That Goes All the Way to China)
By: Memory Dragon
Artist: whipbogard
Art: Panda Takeover!
Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers movie-verse, nor do I make any claim to.
Characters: Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Rhodey, Dr. Wu
Warnings: Minor PTSD and PTSD-induced violence (nothing worse than a sore wrist).  Anxiety attack of the IM3 variety.  Suicide of the crunching tooth Hydra Agent variety.  Steve being a bit of a douche.  Tony making bad choices for his health.  Pandas that are just too darn cute.  Post IM3, but no mention of CA2.  Also, a slightly screwy timeline, since this fic takes place during the summer and IM3 took place over Christmas and some hand-wavy medical science.
Rating: PG13
Summary:  In which Steve is in stubborn denial and wants to shake some sense into Tony, Tony has a broken heart and wants to cheer Steve up, and pandas are cute and want bamboo.
Thanks: Many thanks to narwhale_callin for betaing a second BB fic when the first one ended up not working out.  And for trying valiantly to persuade me to change the title, even if it ended up not working.
Notes: So yup.  I'm an overachiever.  When I write one BB fic that's too team fic for the com, I apparently have a second go and come out with this.  Unsurprisingly it slash fails.  It also has less slash than even my previous attempt did, but the focus is definitely on Steve and Tony this time since I limited myself to only having two characters (Rhodey snuck in for a scene.  I can't say no to Rhodey).

The first thing you should know that the basis for setting this fic in China is taken from the little known Chinese scenes from IM3 that were shown only in China and my memory of a friend translating them for me.  Basically, they followed the Chinese doctor who would operate on Tony for the arc reactor surgery and they set the operation in Beijing.  The second thing you should know is that this fic is entirely too self indulgent with giving Steve and Tony my own experiences in China.    I didn't get everything in there, but let's just say I didn't have Steve's help with my twisted ankle.  Third, this fic came about entirely when I visited the Panda Breeding Research Center for the first time and couldn't stop thinking about Steve fighting while trying to protect a panda, because the cute attacked and didn't give up until it was written.  And finally, no, I won't apologize for the title of the fic.  XD

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

~

Steve Rogers's hands were bleeding.

He wasn't that surprised to see red splotches staining the white of the wrap he had around his hands. He'd lost track of how long he'd been in the gym, and how many bags he'd destroyed. Stark had made a punching bag recycling unit where all Steve had to do was feed it the abused bag. Five minutes later, it was good as new. 'Green', Stark had called it. Better for the environment.

Ignoring the pain in his hands, Steve kept hitting the bag until it burst. He stood there panting for a few moments before dragging it over to the recycler. While that one was being refurbished, Steve hung up the second bag.

"You're going to over-heat the machine if you keep this up," a voice said from behind him.

Steve didn't look up. He knew who was standing in the doorway of the gym, and he didn't really need to see the overdressed son of a dead friend. "You need something, Stark?" he asked, testing the connection of the bag.

"Nah. Not particularly," Stark said, his voice light.

Steve ignored him, throwing his first punch. The weight of the bag spelled out agony on his burning knuckles, but Steve ignored it. He was used to pain management. He had to be when drugs and pain killers didn't last long enough to actually get in his blood stream.

"Okay, here's the thing," Stark said, his voice closer. "JARVIS tells me you've gone through a record number of punching bags and I'd rather not have to fix the over-heated machine."

"I'll stop after this one," Steve said. He could always go back to his old gym in Brooklyn. They still had a ton of bags lying around from when SHIELD funded his punching bag addiction. The drive there would give his hands a chance to heal and by the time he got through those, the machine should have had plenty of time to cool down.

"Yeah, I don't believe that," Stark said, this time from right behind him.

Steve spun around at the sudden proximity, only barely stopping from breaking Stark's arm off when the genius let out a startled yelp. Steve let go of his arm immediately. "Sorry," he grit out. Because the last thing he wanted was to hurt someone else. Stark didn't deserve that. Steve ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. "I'm jumpy. I shouldn't have... I'm probably not good company right now."

"I noticed," Stark said, brown eyes examining his knuckles like they held the formula to an alloy that would revolutionize the world. He wasn't wearing one of those fancy suits after all, but rather a black wife beater and jeans, fingers tapping at the area on his chest that was no longer lit. He looked exhausted.

"Can whatever it is you came down to say wait?" Steve asked.

Stark looked up, finding something in Steve's face that was unsatisfactory, if his expression was anything to go by. "Nope. Can't wait. Come on, Cap. We leave in three hours and you should get those patched up if you don't want blood on your clothes while you pack. And trust me, getting blood out of fabric sucks."

Steve blinked. "What are you talking about, Stark?"

"Trip to China," Stark said, reaching out to Steve's hands slowly. Steve tensed, but he let Stark start unwrapping the gauze with surprisingly gentle and deft fingers. "Fury wants something from the People's Republic. Not that he'd tell me what it is, nor do I care, but I've got some business there anyway. An appointment with the doctors."

"And I'm going because?" Steve said, wincing as the last of the gauze was pulled off.

Stark started working on the other hand. "Publicity. China loves Iron Man. But I've got things to do, so you've just been volunteered to help me. Go spread some American goodwill among the Communists, Cap. It'll be good for you."

"Find someone else to go," Steve said, pulling his hand back and unwrapping it himself. It hurt more than when Stark had been doing it, but at the moment Steve didn't care.

There was a brief second when Stark looked uncertain before stubbornness set in the line of his jaw. "Look, Cap-"

"Stark, I'm really not in the mood to be a dancing monkey for the press," Steve cut in. "Just leave me alone."

"Okay, you don't have to do any of that really," Stark said, frustration seeping into his voice as Steve turned away to pack his gym bag. "Would you let me put something on your knuckles at least? A change of scenery would be good for-"

Stark didn't learn. Steve barely felt the hand on his shoulder before he pivoted, grabbing Stark's wrist and yanking it behind his back with one hand pressed between Stark's shoulder blades.

"Please don't break my arm," Stark gasped.

Steve immediately let go, stumbling back a few feet. He was shaking, though he didn't know if that was from tension or from the fact he'd been about five seconds from breaking Stark's wrist.

"Right. No surprise touching or sneaking behind you. I should have seen that," Stark said, rubbing his freed wrist with a grimace. "I can work with this. I'll-"

"You need to leave," Steve said, his voice trembling.

"Actually, leaving you alone right now seems like a spectacularly bad idea," Stark said, but he took a step back, putting enough space between them for Steve to breathe. "You're pretty worked up. Want to talk about it? Cause I didn't hear anything, so it's news to me."

"Not really," Steve said. And not to you, he thought. If the hurt that flashed through Stark's eyes was anything to go by, he'd read between the lines. "Why me, Stark? Find one of the others to-"

"Rhodey's on a mission," Stark said, looking away. He was tapping at his chest again, and Steve could see where the bruises would form on his wrist. Guilt flashed up as Stark continued "But he'll come anyway, because he doesn't want to leave me alone if there's something wrong. And he's already taken off so much because of... Anyway, he'll take it off regardless if there's not someone with me."

"You've got a tower full of other people to ask," Steve said, leaning against the wall as he closed his eyes. He needed to calm down if Stark was going to keep ignoring basic self-preservation instincts.

"And they don't look like they need to be distracted," Stark replied. Then hesitantly, "Can I come closer?"

Steve sighed, forcing his shoulders to relax. "Are you going to take no for an answer?"

He opened his eyes, knowing that if Stark was going to move, Steve had to be aware of it. "I'd rather not," Stark said, but he did wait until Steve's eyes were on him. "You need to calm down."

Steve snorted. Understatement of the century. Guilt was ripping him up inside, and he couldn't control his strength when he was this worked up. This was why he only sparred with punching bags when he was in this mood. That was why he was down here in the first place, so he wouldn't see anyone while he got worked up into this mood.

"If I touch you again, are you going to snap my fingers off?" Stark asked. This time he didn't wait for an answer, though his movements were slow enough Steve could say no if he wanted. Which he did want to, but Stark seemed to have made up his mind to be a nuisance.

He wasn't expecting to find Stark's deft fingers at his temples. "Stark-"

"Just relax," Stark said as he started to rub gently. "I've been learning about pressure points, okay? It helped when I... You know what, never mind. Bad subject right now. Just relax, okay?"

Steve didn't want to relax. Relaxing meant thinking, and he'd wound himself up this much so he wouldn't have to think. But he'd found himself helpless against the light pressure of Stark's fingers. Slowly, his mind unwound, and his body with it. The things he'd been pushing aside came back, but slowly, and at a pace that didn't overwhelm him.

He hadn't realized that he'd closed his eyes again until Stark rubbed at his inner wrist, pressing down sharply. "What are you-?" Steve asked, ignoring the sharp pressure. But then Stark let go and Steve felt the tension leave his right arm completely. He looked at Stark in surprise.

Stark just smirked, taking Steve's other hand. "Pressure points," Stark said again. "They used acupuncture on me during the surgery. It seemed like a good thing to know about before I let them try it on me."

Steve winced as Stark did the same to his left wrist, but didn't protest this time. "Why are you doing this?" Steve asked instead.

Stark looked down. "I need someone to go with me to keep Rhodey from flipping out, and you look like you could use a change of pace."

Steve considered it. Since the battle of New York, he and Stark had been on civil terms, and he could admit to being grateful that Stark let them all stay at the Tower, even if it was ugly. And Stark had been pretty subdued after the whole thing with the President, moving back to New York with the rest of them, but sticking to himself. Steve himself was generally busy with other things at SHIELD (or being kept busy, so that he wouldn't fall into a mood like this one, which was probably more likely) to really wonder about the son of a dead friend.

He looked at the punching bag, wondering if he could really exhaust his body enough to pass out without dreams, or if he should just give in. He'd never been to China before.

"Come on," Stark said, turning his hand over to frown at Steve's bloody knuckles. Steve looked back at the man, and when their eyes met Stark looked so damn desperate that Steve found it hard to say no. "Let's get these cleaned up and you can call Rhodey while you pack, because he won't believe me if I tell him."

And Steve couldn't muster the energy to care anymore. He nodded, letting Stark drag him along to the nearest first aid kit.

It wasn't like visiting a grave in the few days remaining would make a difference. There was no body there, and Steve slept through the funeral while he'd been in the ice. There was no sense of closure to be had from an empty gravestone, no matter how much he wanted it.

* * *

The flight out of Beijing was quiet. Stark fell asleep after a few hours with his tablet, and Steve pretended to be immersed in Tolkien. Not that Tolkien was bad, but he didn't have the focus at the moment to really appreciate Middle Earth. Talking with Rhodes had actually helped. He'd been given strict orders to keep an eye on Stark, and he was able to switch into mission mode. Stark was not to over-exert himself, not to be allowed to disappear for more than an hour, and under no circumstances could the doctors talk to Stark by himself. "If that rat bastard tries to hide that he's dying again, I'll kill him myself this time. If they say there's something wrong with him, you call, no matter what time it is here. Understood?"

Steve honestly didn't care if Stark was hiding something or not (and Steve was certain he was, though he wasn't sure if Stark was hiding the things Rhodes was worried about), but a mission was a mission, and it meant he wasn't allowed to focus on the things that kept him in the gym until his knuckles were bloody. And that was fine with Steve for now, because he owed Stark an apology for misjudging him, and because he was Howard's son and one of the few links to the past that he had left.

Actually, the last two were reasons not to come, but it would get Fury off his tail to get back into things, which outweighed some of the cons. He had a long list of them by now, because he wasn't willing to admit that part of it was the almost painfully hopeful smile Stark had offered while patching up his now healed knuckles. Stark's trip through that portal had already cut too deeply. Steve wasn't ready to face losing someone else. He'd already lost too much of his future.

They landed in Beijing without any fuss, with Stark being whisked off by people who looked important. Steve preferred to be forgotten, but he was ushered into a car by a Stark employee. The hotel was nice, but Steve wasn't looking forward to spending the day doing nothing but sitting around. Maybe this had been a bad idea after all, and he was revising his stance on being forgotten.

He stepped closer to the windows. They were on the thirty-eighth floor, yet all he could see outside the window was smog. "How do people breathe in this?"

"Not well," Stark said. Steve looked back to see that Stark was leaning in the doorway. "They almost had to have the surgery somewhere else, because the arc reactor was bad enough for my lungs, but we found a clear day over the holiday."

"I thought I wouldn't be seeing you again 'til tonight," Steve said, glancing back out the window.

"You won't," Stark said with a grimace. "I've got publicity shots and a charity ball tonight, and they're even worse when you have to talk through a translator. I figured you'd want to skip all that. The Summer Palace is always good this time of year. I've got a driver waiting if you want to go."

"Summer Palace?"

"Exactly what it sounds like, the summer digs of the guy in charge. It's pretty big, and there's a lake nearby if you want to sit and draw. Tomorrow you can-"

"You've got an appointment with the doctor in the morning," Steve said. "I'm going with you."

Stark sighed, waving him off. "Yeah, yeah. Make sure I'm not dying so you can keep Rhodey happy. But after that, you can go to the Forbidden City while I'm in meetings. Then we can do the Great Wall on Wednesday."

"You planning on asking me about any of this?" Steve asked. He couldn't decide between being amused at the plan or frustrated at his lack of choice.

"That you take up with Pepper, not me. She..." The amusement in his eyes faded, but it was so quick that Steve nearly missed it. "She likes arranging people's schedules. You could always sit around the hotel room and sulk instead though. Be my guest."

When it was put that way, Steve didn't have much choice. Besides, doing the touristy things sounded better than Stark's itinerary. He shrugged, figuring this was why he decided to come to China with Stark in the first place. "Might as well."

* * *

"They don't know who I am, right?" Steve asked the next time he saw Stark, which was five minutes before the doctor's appointment the following morning. "They can't. Not even the people back home know. Why do they keep taking pictures of me?"

Stark blinked at him, then burst out laughing. He only laughed harder when he saw Steve's glare. "What is it?" Steve snapped.

"Steve, you thought..." Stark gasped, sending a jolt through Steve for hearing his given name. Stark didn't seem to notice, too busy trying to breathe after laughing at Steve's expense.

Steve fought the blush creeping up his face and the anger that threatened to turn this into a shouting match. "Stark..." he said warningly.

"Sorry, sorry," Stark said, wiping his eyes which were dancing with mirth. "Let me guess, they were all staring at you too?"

"Yeah," Steve said, shifting uncomfortably. Even in the hospital, he was getting stared at. Stark's laughing fit hadn't helped with drawing attention to them either. It was unnerving.

"And people constantly want to have their picture taken with you?"

"I think I can walk through New York in costume easier than I can here," Steve admitted. It'd been embarrassing. Most of the people who asked for his picture didn't know enough English to explain why.

"And they take pictures when they think you aren't looking," Stark said with a smirk.

"What?" That was alarming. He'd seen a few people yesterday with cameras pointed his way, but he thought they were taking pictures of things that were behind him. "Do they know or-"

"Relax, Cap. No one knows," Stark said, the smirk fading to a more genuine smile that Steve wasn't sure how to deal with. He didn't return it, since he was still angry at Stark, but the other man didn't seem to mind. He just continued talking. "No one warned you, I guess. Try to think, Rogers. Describe the physical features of the average Chinese person."

Nonplussed, Steve thought about it. "Short, dark-haired, dark eyes that are usually small, um..."

"That sounds about right. Now you, on the other hand, are tall, blond, and all-American wholesomeness that practically oozes off of you." Steve frowned at the last part, but before he let his temper get the better of him, Stark touched his arm. Steve didn't jump at the contact, but it was a near thing. Most people hadn't tried to touch him since he came out of the ice unless they were a bad guy throwing a punch, and Stark's casual touches were unnerving. "Steve, most of these people have never seen a foreigner before. You're a novelty to them, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Sorry. I figured you knew about the whole foreigner thing here."

Steve brushed off Stark's hand, ignoring the hurt that flashed in Stark's eyes, though it was quickly covered. "So they take pictures because I'm blond?" Steve didn't like it, and all that staring left him feeling paranoid, but at least it wasn't an evil plot to drive him insane by people who had been his allies during the War.

"Tall and blond. Either of those will get you attention here. You get used to it." Stark obviously reveled in it, was what Steve took that to mean. Of course he was used to everyone staring at him. "And it wouldn't have been as bad if you hadn't taken the subway back to the hotel instead of ditching my driver," Stark added.

"I wanted to see the city," Steve said stubbornly. Touristy things were all well and good, but Steve preferred seeing the real city. And he'd managed to order dumplings by himself with the money Stark had exchanged for him, so that was a plus. The nice lady who made them even showed Steve how to use chopsticks, despite the fact that she didn't speak any English and Steve didn't speak any Chinese.

"And the Chinese won't stop staring if you keep going-"

"Mr. Stark, Dr. Wu will see you now," a pretty woman in the hospital's uniform said in stilted English.

Stark tensed, his fingers tapping at his chest before he stilled them. He was nervous, that much was obvious. He'd been pacing the room when Steve walked in. And Stark thrived off physical contact. If Steve reached out and laid a hand on Stark's back, it would relax the other man. He knew that as well as he knew his own shield.

Steve didn't reach out. That would be getting too involved. That wasn't a good enough reason to soothe the guilt of his inaction away, but it kept him from acting on the notion all the same.

They walked down the hallways, and Steve tried not to think about how a third of his childhood had been spent in a place like this. Well, not like this exactly. This was obviously a hospital for rich people, and it was clean and modern. Not at all like the run-down hospital in the twenties and thirties that his mother had taken him to when he got too sick for her to care for him herself. Hospitals were too much medicine, which barely covered the smell of the sick and injured. Steve was already uncomfortable.

Stark managed to produce a bag of dried mangoes from somewhere (Steve hadn't seen from where and was quite baffled by their sudden appearance) and offered some to both him and the assistant. The assistant declined, but Steve didn't think he'd ever tasted mangoes before. He accepted one, popping the sugary fruit in his mouth. Mangoes weren't bad. He told himself it was that, and not guilt, that had him accepting a few more when Stark looked pleased.

The doctor's office was clean and smelled faintly of incense. It was a calming smell, and Steve liked it. He didn't understand why the rest of the hospital didn't use it, since he felt more at ease here than he had just outside the room.

Dr. Wu was an older gentleman with a kind smile. He sat behind a wooden desk and stood as they entered. "Mr. Stark, Captain Rogers. Zăo shang hăo," he said.

"Ní hăo," Stark said, bowing politely. Steve followed suit, and they took a seat as the doctor started speaking in Chinese. Steve looked at Stark to see if he understood any of it, but he looked just as blank.

"Dr. Wu says that it's a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Stark," the assistant said, and Stark nodded at the doctor.

"Always good to be back in Beijing," Stark said, an easygoing tone at odds with his tense shoulders.

"He says that he is happy to see that you are well, since Iron Man is a friend to the Chinese people. If there is anything you should need, please do not hesitate to ask," the woman said. Steve found himself looking more at her than the doctor. He wondered if that was rude.

"Yeah, thanks. I'll keep that in mind. And uh, back at you, if you're ever in New York," Stark said.

The woman translated for the doctor, then smiled at them. "You have seen the descriptions of the tests Dr. Wu wants to run, right?"

"Yup, just give me the forms to sign," Stark said, shifting in his chair.

The doctor spoke as the woman handed over the documents, and she nodded. "He says he is very surprised to see you've come back on your own. He was not expecting you to actually come in for the check-up. Has anything changed with your condition?"

"Hey, Steve, there's a great place serving milk tea a block away that-"

"Stark," Steve growled, refusing to acknowledge Stark's continued use of his first name.

"Right, orders. I know. Had to try." The last was under his breath, but Steve heard it anyway. "I've been running hotter than normal occasionally, and JARVIS said my heart rate is faster than it should be. Especially if I'm doing strenuous work."

That sounded serious. And piloting the Iron Man armor definitely counted as 'strenuous'. "Any reason you hid that from us, Stark?" Steve asked, gritting his teeth against the urge to shake the man as he started to see why Rhodes was so worried. They'd been out as a team at least half a dozen times since Stark's surgery.

"Need to know basis, Rogers. It wasn't important."

It sometimes amazed Steve how much of a selfless, yet intensely frustrating idiot Tony Stark was. It was a good thing their translator started talking again, because Steve was pretty close to killing Stark himself. Or maybe just shaking him silly. "Do you feel out of breath when this happens?"

"Yeah, it... it can get hard to breathe sometimes," Stark admitted quietly, not meeting Steve's eyes. Steve cursed softly, and he'll admit he was petty enough to take some small satisfaction in the way Stark flinched.

"Then please, come this way. We should start on the tests as soon as possible."

* * *

The tests were inconclusive as far as the ones that could be processed immediately went. The other tests would take longer, and Stark agreed to stay in Beijing to wait for the results. When Steve tried to get the frustrating man to talk to him about it, he'd been essentially kicked out and forced into the car to see the Forbidden City. He couldn't focus on the hired tour guide though, not when Stark had been hiding this for weeks.

A part of him was screaming in frustration and wanted to shake Stark. A larger part was terrified at how worried this made him. Worrying over Stark meant he was starting to care again, and he couldn't, not right now. Not when it was only days away from...

Steve pushed that thought away with a vengeance.

He didn't see Stark that night or the next morning. He wanted a punching bag, but in lieu of that Steve drew one of the stone carvings he'd seen on the stairs yesterday. He was shading the dragon when Stark stumbled into the common room. The man had obviously had a late night, and Steve couldn't help but wonder if that was putting a further strain on Stark's heart. It was a disinterested sort of curiosity, since obviously Steve Wasn't Involved.

Col. Rhodes would want to know, after all.

"Late night?" he asked, attempting a more roundabout form of questioning.

Except Stark merely hummed, leaning over the couch to see his drawing. "You're doing it wrong," he said absently.

"Thanks," Steve said curtly. "I wasn't aware you were an art critic."

"Whoa, that wasn't..." Stark ran a hand through his hair. "Okay, yeah, that sounded bad. Sorry. Lack of coffee does things to my brain and words don't come out right, because even I'm not that much of an ass. Well, I am, but I'm actually trying here, so-"

"Then what did you mean?" Steve cut in before Stark could get too worked up. He filed the fact that Stark thought he was making an effort to work things out for later.

"The story," Stark said, as if that explained everything. He must have realized that Steve had no idea what he was talking about, because he started to explain more. "About that one Chinese painter? I forget his name. But he painted four dragons. And they were - they were amazing and life-like, like they could just jump off the wall. Except he didn't paint the eyes."

"Why not?" Steve asked in spite of himself.

"Because you have to save the eyes for last. Someone made him finish two of them, and they supposedly flew away," Stark said, waving his hand tiredly. "So, not what I meant. Anyway, Great Wall?"

Steve nodded, looking down at his drawing. He wondered where Stark had learned the story from, and if he'd looked up some things that might interest Steve. He looked down at the dragon, running his pencil lightly over the eyes. In an odd, Stark-sort-of-way, it was almost a compliment. He compared his drawing with the one that was good enough to fly away on its own. Stark probably didn't mean it like that, but it was a nice story.

It wasn't until thirty minutes later that Steve realized he'd been successfully distracted from questioning Stark further.

* * *

"There's a reason I've never done the Great Wall by foot," Stark wheezed as Steve took a break to take pictures. "Too many fucking stairs. They never mention the stairs. I've flown over it enough times that I don't need to walk it."

Privately, Steve agreed. This was way too strenuous for a man with heart problems and Steve was half terrified Stark would keel over and break his neck on the stairs. He'd stopped reminding Stark they could go back thirty minutes ago when Stark had made sure there was a physical distance between them to show his displeasure. He couldn't keep the idiot from falling like that, and Col. Rhodes would do a lot worse than a dishonorable discharge if he failed at this mission.

Steve sighed, snapping another picture. "Chairman Mao said that you can't become a man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall," Steve said instead of what he wanted to say, which was 'Let me take you back down so the doctors can check you over, you idiot.' Shaking the said idiot while saying it would have done great things for Steve's sense of calm. He'd tried saying that earlier (sadly, he'd held off on the shaking bit), and it had just made Stark more determined to not let Steve help in the slightest. So he continued the pretense of stopping to take pictures every few minutes or so, in order to give Stark frequent rests. He now had more pictures of the Great Wall than he knew what to do with.

"Hold up. Did Captain America just quote a communist dictator?" Stark asked incredulously. "A man who's on par with or worse than Hitler with the sheer number of people he's killed?"

"That's what I overheard one of the tour guides saying down at the bottom," Steve said with a shrug. "Besides, the Chinese and Russians were our allies during the War. But I've read Mein Kampf too, if you want quotes from that. Trying to ignore the bad things doesn't mean that they aren't there. I prefer to know more, rather than less about bad men in power."

"All the better to smite them with, I suppose," Stark said, straightening up. "You done with those pictures yet, Rogers?"

Steve snapped another one, scanning the horizon for an angle he might have missed. "You can actually see the sky out here," Steve said, taking a moment to breathe the clean air. They were above the smog level, which Steve counted as one of the few pros to Stark's insistence on coming along.

"No point in staring at the sky all day," Stark said, looking vaguely uncomfortable. He glanced up at the sky once before shivering. "Yeah, let's just not. Stairs. Lots more stairs. Stairs are good. Time to get moving Captain Slow-Poke."

Steve glared at the nickname but ignored it for now. He supposed neither of them had the best memories of the sky after the Battle of New York, Stark in particular. "It's lonely up here, the further up you go," Steve said, attempting to change the subject. "I guess a lot of people just don't make it out this far. Gets harder to breathe when you get up here too."

"Can we just not?" Stark said, starting to climb again and forcing Steve to follow behind him. "Subject change. We need a subject change."

"Stark, what's wrong?" Steve asked, gritting his teeth against the genius's ability to peck at his calm. He'd been trying to change the subject. "What's wrong with talking about how high up we are? There's no one here so-"

"You are officially worse than Harley," Stark said, walking faster.

"Who's Harley? Stark, you're going to get yourself killed at this rate!" Steve shouted after him, losing his temper as he reached out to grab Stark's arm.

But the moment his finger's brushed Stark's shoulder, the man jumped. It was then Steve realized how his plan had backfired into his worst nightmare. Stark's foot missed the step by a half an inch, but that was more than enough to send Stark tumbling down as Steve scrambled to get a better grip. For one heart stopping millisecond Steve reached, finally feeling his fingers close around Stark's jacket.

He yanked the man up to a closer step, arms wrapping around a still-panicking Stark to get a better grip. "Let go!" Stark shouted, struggling to get away. "Rogers, let go of me or-"

"I can't," Steve gritted out. Because he wanted to let Stark go. The genius was terrified, and currently terrified of whatever he saw Steve as in his mind, and that was horrible. Steve never wanted to hold Stark against his will, no matter how much Steve wanted to hold him tight and not let go until his own heartbeat slowed down. But... "I let you go now and you go right back to falling. I can't let you go until you've calmed down."

He tried to make his voice soothing over how rattled he felt, but it was hard when Stark was trying every dirty trick he knew to get away. "Stop!" Stark yelled as he tried putting an elbow into Steve's gut. Steve had to tighten his grip. "Don't-"

"Iron Man," Steve said with as much of a command voice as he could muster. "Stand down. That's an order, Stark, stand down."

Surprisingly enough, that worked.

Steve gaped as Stark went limp against him, trembling something fierce but no longer trying to bite and kick his way out of Steve's hold. Steve took a deep breath to ground himself, then looked around and considered his options.

"I'm fine. You can let go now," Stark said, attempting and failing to keep his voice even.

"I'm not letting go of you while we're still on the stairs." Steve wasn't taking any arguments on this, his own heart barely calming down after that. He could only imagine how Stark's was pounding, and the man was still having problems catching a breath. "We're ten steps away from the next landing. Can you walk?"

"I'm fine," Stark said again, continuing to try to pull away.

Ask a silly question, get a stupid answer, as he'd heard Banner say a few times. He sighed internally, willing the urge to shake Stark until he started answering truthfully to die down.

Instead of letting Stark go, he scooped the genius up in a bridal carry, because with Stark struggling on the stairs, Steve couldn't risk the momentum to toss Stark over his shoulder like he dearly wanted to. It said something about Stark's frame of mind that all he got was a shout and a weak glare rather than an actual response. Steve went up the steps a bit quicker.

When they got up to the landing, Steve set Stark down carefully, then backed off a safe distance. He didn't want to let go of Stark at all, not when that fall was repeating itself every time Steve closed his eyes, but Stark obviously needed the space. "Are you-"

"Just - No talking. Not about skies, not about being alone, or not having any air, or about New York or Portals or-" Stark cut off with a gasp, trembling harder.

"No talking, got it." Steve didn't so much as agree as turn the statement back around into a command. "Breathe, okay? Try to match my breathing."

Stark nodded, curling up against the stone wall, and boy, was it weird being on the other side of this. How many times had his asthma gotten worked up when he was younger, and Bucky had to...

At least he knew what to do, even if he'd never been on the giving end before. When Stark seemed a little calmer, Steve slowly moved to sit beside him, leaning back against the stone. A few people passed them, but Steve just nodded and motioned that it was under control. That, at least, seemed to not need a translator. "Are you alright?" Steve asked finally.

"Fine," Stark said, not quite as breathless as before.

"How often does this happen?" Steve asked, because the way Stark had listed off subjects not to talk about meant that this had happened before, and Steve wasn't happy with this conclusion.

"Not as often as before," was all Stark said.

Steve grit his teeth, reminding himself that Stark was an idiot and therefore needed to be treated with patience. "Have you told anyone about this?" Steve asked, grasping what little remained of the calm that Stark systematically sought to destroy.

"Pepper," Stark said, and Steve felt some of his frustration slip away. At least Stark had told someone, and Ms. Potts seemed quite capable when it came to taking care of her boss/boyfriend/whatever they actually were to each other. "Rhodey and Harley found out too. It was probably just the lack of air up here that set me off. Pepper was helping, but now she's..."

Stark cut himself off, standing up suddenly. Or rather, attempting to, since he toppled over with a curse. Steve only barely managed to catch him before his head hit the pavement. At this rate, Steve was going to die of a heart attack before Stark did. "What's wrong?" Steve asked.

"Everything," Stark muttered darkly. "I do not need your help, Rip Van Winkle, so just back off."

"Not if you're going to get yourself killed. That defeats the purpose of me being here," Steve said, replaying in his memory what had happened. Stark hadn't started to fall until he put his weight on his left side.

Making sure Stark was stable leaning against the wall, Steve kneeled down and poked at Stark's left ankle. He got a hiss of pain in response. "Let me see it," he said, with less of a command than he'd have liked it to be and more resigned than anything.

"Captain America on his knees for me and asking to see it. What will people think about-Ow! Fine!" Stark lifted his foot with a glare. Steve didn't feel the least bit apologetic for the pinch.

Now that Stark was cooperating, Steve gently ran his fingers over Stark's ankle. "Sorry," he said as Stark drew in a sharp breath. The ankle was already starting to swell, but it appeared to be fine other than that. "Doesn't feel broken. Just twisted."

"Fantastic," Stark said sarcastically. "And that's why I always do this with the suit. Well, let's get going again. We don't have all day."

"What do you mean, let's get going?" Steve asked incredulously. "You can barely walk!"

Stark looked at him like he was a particularly stupid child who couldn't understand the concept of two plus two much less nuclear physics. "Well, we can't camp out here forever until it heals. Either we keep going or we head back down." And Stark, of course, obstinately started walking to the next part of the stairs that lead to the top. He was limping badly, and obviously in pain, but he kept going.

Was this divine retribution for all those times Steve had been too stubborn? He couldn't help but think Col. Philips would be laughing at him right now for getting a taste of his own medicine. "You're going to hurt yourself worse," Steve said.

"Story of my life," Stark hissed over the pain. "Besides, I'm told you're not a man until you've climbed it, so let's avoid singing songs from Mulan and just get to the top of this damned thing already."

Steve counted to ten. Then he counted to ten again, because good God in heaven, even his patience was running out. Finally, he took a deep breath and grabbed Stark's arm. "Let go!" Stark said, steel in his eyes as he tried to yank free. Steve could feel the trembles running up Stark's body, either from suppressing the pain or from the earlier panic attack, Steve didn't know. He almost wished Stark would call the armor, if just to stop from getting himself killed here.

"Hang on for a moment," Steve said, fighting off the anger that he knew wouldn't help.

"What, so you can take pictures?" Stark sneered. This time when he tugged, Steve let him pull away. "You've got an eidetic memory, or near enough according to my dad's notes, so I know you don't need them. I'm apparently so weak that you think I need to - What are you doing?"

Stark's bafflement took the place of the anger. Steve looked back over his shoulder from where he knelt on the ground, returning Stark's two plus two incomprehension look from earlier to the best of his ability. "No, really," Stark, said. "I mean, apparently you like being on your knees, which hey, I've got no problems with to be honest, but that's facing the wrong way and-"

"Unless you want me to throw you over my shoulder or carry you bridal style, this seems like the most dignified option for both of us," Steve interrupted, as he fought back a blush at what Stark was implying. Really, there was no dignity to be had in this situation, but Steve was beginning to learn that with Tony Stark, sometimes it's best to commit to damage control rather than containment.

Stark hadn't moved though, and Steve sighed. "Haven't you ever ridden piggy-back before when you were younger?" Steve asked.

"Not really," Stark said, and Steve caught the barest glimpse of loneliness and uncertainty before Stark covered it up with a wave of his hand. "So, um, how does this work?"

Stark was limping closer, which meant Steve just had to keep coaxing while appearing non-threatening. The latter was more difficult, considering he really just wanted to shake Stark silly. "You're an engineer. Figure it out," Steve said with a shake of his head. "And I know you've seen it done before. You're the one who wanted to hurry this up, remember?"

Stark obviously didn't know what to make of the situation, and Steve pat himself on the back for confounding the genius. He wasn't usually that petty, but Stark did bring out the worst in him.

At least Stark was close enough and leaning down now. "Arms around my neck," Steve explained, since Stark seemed to be slow on the uptake. "Legs braced on my hips. And hold on. I'll make sure you won't fall off, but I'd prefer to keep a free hand on the wall with all these uneven steps.

He felt Stark still trembling as arms slid around his neck, but they were minute tremors that were obviously being suppressed. Steve didn't comment, waiting until Stark felt secure before rolling to his feet. "This okay?" he asked.

"Yeah," Stark said, his breaths coming out short and fast against Steve's ear. This time instead of ignoring the impulse, Steve placed a hesitant hand on where Stark's arms crossed around his neck, whether to give comfort or to steady him, Steve didn't know. Stark managed a full breath after that, arms tightening around him fractionally. Steve told himself he allowed the contact this time because he was trying to comfort a teammate who had just had a panic attack. A dark part of him warned he was getting in too deep.

Shifting one hand under Stark's thigh, Steve started their trek again. Twenty minutes later, Stark was relaxed again, humming something softly in Steve's ear. It was almost pleasant, as pleasant as spending time with Stark could get at any rate. Naturally, that was when Stark had to go and ruin the moment.

"So I could get behind this whole piggy back thing. Though, speaking of something to get behind, I can think of a much better way to ride a man."

Ignore him and don't think about what he's implying to do to you, Steve thought furiously. The silence lasted a few more seconds before Stark piped up again. "Your ears turn red when you blush. Did you know that?"

Would Rhodes have him court-marshaled for dropping Stark on his ass? Steve weighed the pros and cons of this and found he was severely tempted to find out.

~TBC~