There seemed to be a permanent taste of ash under his tongue as he walked through the grounds toward the barracks. Nameless battles—too many to count, too many blurred together to pick out any details—left the tang of gunpowder and sweat in his mouth.
In gray mornings like these, muffled bombing heard beyond the horizon, it felt like the acrid tastes was soaked into his uniform and the bomber jacket he wore over it. He couldn't bring himself to take off his jacket though. It warded off the cold, even if he didn't feel it as acutely as the others did anymore.
His shield, though, seemed to have been spared the stench, but it was looking a little scuffed from holding up barbed wire so others could belly crawl underneath. It could use a bit of polishing. He should mosey over to the shed later and see if his friend could work his magic again.
But later. After chow.
He nodded to a few chiming "Captain," but none gave him as much satisfaction as the varied tones of his platoon. Gabe, in his robust voice coming deep from his barrel chest, greeted him before turning back to the radio he was messing with. Artie Shaw's band hiccupped, then crackled away into silence altogether.
"Oh, fer crying out loud…"
"Dad gummit, Gabe. Where did you get that piece of junk?"
He cleared his throat when it looked like Gabe was going to sock the radio off its stool perch.
Dum Dum, head bowed in conversation (most likely in disagreement) with another soldier, looked up briefly to give him a curt nod, but his mouth was crooked to a smile as he nodded toward the tables where the rest were chowing down.
His stomach gurgled. Maybe it was because it was still hard to imagine getting food simply by waiting in line, or maybe it was because he'd had lunch two hours ago and was already hungry again. Either way, he felt a bit sheepish as he got in line once more, got his beans and mashed potatoes and hunkered down. It wouldn't do well to linger when the next group wanted to eat.
To his delight, the mashed potatoes today weren't as watery as before, and the gravy was thick enough that he got to relish wiping his tin plate clean with a hunk of crusty bread old Gus had dropped onto his tray with a wink.
As he chewed, he surveyed the camp grounds. He felt a mixture of guilt and a sense of placement as he watched the brown-green uniforms gathered around the various makeshift barracks. It was war. He shouldn't feel this happy to be here but, still, he felt lightheaded whenever he took in his surroundings. His limbs still thrummed with activity whenever they charged through trenches and dismantled yet another HYDRA camp.
A distance away, he heard one of the Howling Commandos hoot as an impromptu game of stick ball started up for cigarettes. He should put a stop to that; gambling among the men was never good for morale, but his team was obviously winning as he'd just heard his friend shout in a clear and triumphant voice.
The warmth in his belly this time had nothing to do with the real coffee (how the heck had they managed to find that? He'd just been thinking that morning how much he missed a real cup of Joe.) in his belly. It also had nothing to do with the fact that the day after tomorrow, he had a one day pass, a promised jeep, and a dance with his girl to look forward to.
The grin that broke out probably made him look pretty darn goofy but he couldn't help it. His team. Here, fighting next to him, not against him. No bullies in the alleyway this time; they were comrades in arms, fighting HYDRA, the Nazis, and Hitler for the U.S. of A and freedom for all.
When he glanced around to make sure no one saw him sitting there all dopey with gravy on his chin, he noticed two soldiers staring at him from the next table. He flushed. Then, after a moment, he frowned.
Funny, he thought he knew everyone in the current company.
"Hi there," he called out. The two looked at each other. Even under their helmets, he could see the light and dark-colored hair plastered to their skulls, although the cover looked too small for the dark-haired one. That wouldn't do. Maybe Supply had something bigger that would fit him better. A good fitting helmet could mean another day alive.
"Afternoon," the dark-haired one returned, almost defiantly. There was a brief flash of teeth, surprisingly white under a smudged, soot-covered scruffy jaw. "Mind if we join you?"
He blinked. The other didn't appear to think it as a swell idea. Still, he got up and dragged his feet after his friend. He was a slim, disgruntled shadow that dropped in a seat opposite of his buddy. The helmet tipped over, nearly concealing his light hair when he offered a nod to his "Good lunch?"
The other soldier didn't seem to agree.
"I'm trying to decide if this is supposed to help us or kill us," his friend grumbled. He stirred a battered fork into his mashed potatoes. "I actually think I prefer that spam thing from yesterday." He shuddered as if he was cold. "If the paparazzi ever hears about this..."
Papa what? He wondered if maybe he was a foreigner with his dark hair and brown eyes, one of the Allies. No, the uniform was like everyone else's.
The blond elbowed his pal, who sighed and swallowed a spoonful of potatoes like it was cod liver oil.
"Better than the powdered eggs in the K rations," he offered as consolation to the pair because it wouldn't do to have the others start complaining. "And the chocolate's good in C rations." He poked at his own food. It wasn't that bad, was it? He eyed the two across the table.
"Don't think I've seen you two before." He smiled faintly in apology.
"Transferred a few days ago," the more vocal one replied. He waved a neatly turned hand in the air like one of those magicians he'd seen in those USO shows, when he'd actually had a chance to watch them rather than be in them. "We're joining you on tomorrow's mission."
The other just kept shoveling mashed potatoes and beans into his mouth, but he caught the silent man tracking his surroundings with keen green eyes. When he realized he was being watched, both eyes went back to the food.
Huh. Shy sort of fellow? He could understand the unease himself. He tried not to fidget in his seat; he wished Bucky was here because he was better at this. One quip and most guys were best pals with him.
He smiled as best he could.
"I never got your names."
"It's Solo, Han Solo," the dark-haired guy answered. Solo nodded to his buddy. "Luke Skywalker."
Skywalker? He fought the urge to make a face at the oddness of it. Funny, the guy didn't look like an Indian. But Colonel Coulson did mention one of the Navajo code talkers would be joining them.
"Solo, huh?" he mused. "I don't think I've ever met a Solo before. Where are you from?"
Solo thumbed his helmet up. He looked solemn but his brown eyes were laughing. "From a place far, far away."
Skywalker choked on his potatoes. He hastily washed it down with a cup of water. Solo pounded his pal's back, but it didn't look like it helped as Skywalker shot him a glare from under his helmet.
"Son," he told Solo with a grin, "I think we all come from a place far away." He looked around ruefully. "Each day, it seems a bit farther, too." He shook his head. He glanced back over at the pair. Solo was staring intently at him. Oh. That's right. Where were his manners?
"Sorry." He stuck out his hand. "Forgot to introduce myself. Captain Steve Rogers."
Han Solo, for some reason, nodded as if it was an answer he'd been waiting for. His eyes glinted, like there was so much more he wanted to say. Solo's smile faltered and he cleared his throat. He paused and it looked like he wasn't sure if he wanted to shake hands or not. But there was that toothy grin again and he clasped Steve's hand with a tight grip. His words were choked for some reason.
"Nice to meet you, Captain Steve Rogers."
Again, his eyes drifted back to Solo at the far end of the trench, his M1 Garand slung too casually over his shoulder. His buddy Skywalker held his more appropriately: two hands cradling it from the bottom, spread apart to counter the weight of the weapon and its attached bayonet. At least it looked like Skywalker would be fine with close hand-to-hand combat. Unlike Solo who kept elbowing his weapon back behind him like it was an annoying dog. He only stopped when Skywalker slapped his hand away from it. Solo gave him an injured look, but thankfully left his gun alone.
And his helmet still didn't fit. It sat on his dark head, too small to sit over his ears right, in place only because the chin straps tethered it to his head.
Steve had submitted a request to the Supply clerk for a larger helmet for Corporal Han Solo. The clerk looked puzzled, but promised as soon as their next supply drop arrived from the Quartermaster, a larger helmet would be found.
Solo rolled his eyes when Skywalker pointed to something on his gun. Then fell on his rump when Skywalker followed with a swing in the air, nearly socking Solo in the jaw as he demonstrated.
Steve pressed his mouth thin.
"What's cooking?" Bucky dropped in next to him. The mud smeared on his cheek was a match for the dark hair plastered over his forehead. He peered over the line to where Steve was looking. He chuckled.
Steve gestured with a jut of his chin. "Will you get a load of that?"
Bucky shook his head when Solo awkwardly repeated what Skywalker showed him and knocked his buddy's helmet off. Solo threw up his hands in surrender when Skywalker glowered at him while he retrieved his cover. It would have been funny if they weren't all sitting there, two miles from possible death.
"Geez, those are the new guys, right?" Bucky murmured, watching the two take swings at each other in the air like Abbot and Costello. Skywalker was clearly the more experienced one.
"They're the second wave in the charge," Steve murmured back as he tracked their fists, noted at least the hands were balled right, thumbs where they should be. "Stay with them."
Bucky looked sharply at Steve. "Thought I was with you."
Steve shrugged. "I think they'll need you more." He crooked a smile at his best friend. "I'll be okay."
Keeping his voice low, Bucky huffed out a laugh. "Sorry. Habit, I guess." He didn't throw an arm around Steve like he used to. Steve had gained a few inches over Bucky after the serum, and there were times Steve did miss Bucky wrestling him in for a one-armed hug. But one couldn't do that with Captain America, he supposed with a pang.
"Can't keep fighting off my bullies, Bucky." Steve nudged him with an elbow. He nodded toward Solo and Skywalker. He wasn't sure why, but his attention kept drifting back to the two. They were new, Steve reasoned, and his responsibility.
The moment he thought it, a warmth settled in his chest. Yes, his responsibility. His men, like everyone else.
It was like someone had given him a hot cup of broth. The feeling in his stomach felt right, good, comforting as he considered the men hunched in the trenches. Falsworth caught his gaze and waggled his brow. Gabe rolled his eyes because he chafed whenever anyone tried to mother him.
"Hey, what's that goofy look for?" Bucky poked him on the knee. He grinned. "Thinking of fighting off bullies for Agent Carter?"
"Bucky," Steve muttered. He ducked his head because, shoot, it wouldn't do if Captain America was caught blushing. "Cut it out, will ya?" He punctuated that with another jab with his elbow. "I think Agent Carter can fight off her own bullies."
Bucky snorted and elbowed Steve back. "Guess I better help you fight off the dames then." He grinned at Steve's look. "What are friends for?"
Steve flushed at Bucky's snicker. Of course Bucky was exaggerating. He smiled at his best friend. He was tempted to change his mind, keep Bucky where he could see him, help fight off his bullies this time. There was something comforting knowing there was someone unchanged in a world Steve felt was still shifting around him. He went from invisible to having his likeness on every newsreel back home. Bucky, at least, stayed the way he always had been to Steve: his best friend, a brother, a steadfast comrade in arms. Steve wouldn't know what he would do if anything happened to—
Out of nowhere, Steve felt a lurch in his stomach, like he was falling. His arms twitched, like they wanted to whip out and reach for something. His chest felt hot and tight, his face numb, chilled. He looked up at the gray sky, but the snow he thought he felt on his cheek was not there. He glanced back at Bucky.
Steve opened his mouth, to tell Bucky to forget about the two corporals. He wanted Bucky here within grabbing distance. He looked over to Solo and Skywalker again. Skywalker was pointing at his own face, pointing out the most vulnerable spots. Solo stared intently, but Steve knew this wasn't going to be enough once the scout returned and the mission began.
"Bucky," Steve found himself saying anyway, "keep an eye on them."
Bucky sobered. He glanced back and nodded. He gave Steve a salute with a smile and half-crouched, half-crawled down the trench toward the pair.
The shield Steve had set against one bent knee, wobbled left and right like a top trying to spin. A breeze drifted down, and instead of smelling like burnt gunpowder or blood, it smelled like his friend's lab after he'd made something spark. Or worse, blow up.
Steve frowned up at the thickening sky. Waiting for the scout, huddled in the trenches with water dripping into their collars was never good for morale. Then again, rain often sent HYDRA soldiers inside for cover so sneaking up on them would be easier. Hopefully, the scout would return before the storm.
The first shot had Falsworth throwing himself over a comrade as the bullet pinged and buried itself into a dirt wall. Bucky readied his gun, threw a curt nod at Steve, all humor gone as he directed Solo and Skywalker to the trench around the bend. Skywalker barked something, slapped a hand over Solo's neck, and shoved his head down when the corporal tried to peer over the rim to see.
Then, one hand still clasped around the back of Solo's neck, Skywalker calmly shot two soldiers from fifty feet away.
Solo, despite Bucky's additional covering fire and Skywalker's grip on his neck, popped his head above the trench, threw something at the HYDRA soldiers. Something round skipped across the field with surprising speed, popped, and a flash of light erupted.
Five soldiers flew back, crashed to the ground, and didn't get back up again.
Steve couldn't spare a moment to wonder about that. He did feel grateful that it looked like Solo and Skywalker would be okay. Bucky, too. Their scout though....
There was a heavy feeling of regret for Private Stewart, the scout from Boston who had volunteered, eager to help out Captain America and his Howling Commandos. He had wanted to be a police officer and marry his best girl after the war. Steve had seen the bright light in his blue eyes, no doubt inspired by the newsreels capturing the less bloody truth of him and his team. And though Steve was only four years older than Stewart, the soldier's joyful "Yes, sir!" at the assignment had made him feel decades older. He had sent that boy to his death.
Steve darted across the muddy field, his shield up to his chest, his legs pumping as he charged toward the HYDRA men, toward the one he identified was their commanding officer. He didn't flinch when a shot zipped past. A mortar shook the ground under his feet. A tree splintered too close to his face.
Gabe and Dum Dum doggedly followed his lead. Their strength at his back, their rallying cries strong and loud, Steve dodged every attack, but never running too fast or too far away that his men couldn't keep up. He would fight, survive, or perhaps even die alongside them.
When Steve drew close enough to strike, he felt the sky open up with rain as if God Himself approved.
Steve threw his shield in the direction of the artillery cannons and watched it sail, cutting a gory path through the thick swarm of Nazi and HYDRA soldiers. Rain dribbled down his face as he faced the stronghold his men had watched for weeks while silently digging trenches as they prepared the attack.
The fortress stood cloudy, dark, and murky in the distance. He could hear his men one by one, finishing the battle. There were stray calls for a medic, but overall, he could feel them gathering behind him like a wall. Alive. And waiting.
"Captain?" Gabe panted as he stood shoulder to shoulder with him.
Bucky jogged over. He wiped mud off his face with a sleeve. It didn't help.
"They know we're coming," Bucky stated the obvious.
Steve nodded. He narrowed his eyes toward the enemy base. He thought about Stewart, grinning as everyone around him had pounded his back for luck, cold on the ground somewhere.
The shield was streaked with red and brown. Steve wiped it down until the stars and stripes were clear. He shrugged it over his shoulders until it was a shell on his back, freeing his arms to hold his weapon, centering the shield on him so his men could see their red, white, and blue as they set forth.
Steve straightened. Even though he didn't see them, he could sense the rest of his team doing the same.
"Let's bring Stewart home."
Standing under a large cooling tank, within its shadow, Steve allowed himself a moment to sigh. Another HYDRA base destroyed. It felt like the same base they'd destroyed just last week, in fact. They were all starting to look the same and while Steve relished the chance to crumble Hitler's forces bit by bit, he was starting to feel like one of his friend's odd little machines on electricity, doing whatever it was told. Over and over.
"Looked like the kid didn't talk." Bucky slid into the darkness to join him. He sucked on his lower lip, at the cut splitting it there. "At least, not right away. Took a long time before the bastards got what they wanted."
Steve folded his arms and leaned into the heavy duty tank. He watched with hooded eyes as the others milled about the room, examining the finished weapons, mining for intelligence, papers, anything.
"How were Solo and Skywalker?"
Bucky blinked blankly at Steve before starting, remembering.
"Those two? They did all right. Skywalker has an eagle eye, that's for sure. That Solo guy? Him over there? Darnedest thing. Threw out a couple of grenades, or at least I thought they were grenades, and boom, knocked HYDRA cold to the ground." Bucky slapped his palms together in show.
"Never seen anything like it." Bucky scratched the back of his head. "Asked the fella if that was our new munitions. Know what he said?"
Steve arched an eyebrow, waiting.
"Son of a gun said 'not for another few years.'" Bucky grunted. He looked like he wasn't sure if he was impressed or annoyed. "How do you like that?"
Steve's eyes swept over the building until he could see the pair by a pile of what looked like small rocket ships standing as tall as him. Next to them, Solo seemed upset about something. Even with his enhanced hearing, Steve couldn't figure what Solo was ranting about, his arms waving like he was going to flap them and fly away. Skywalker nodded, not really looking, like he'd heard it all before.
"...we're not even...Manhattan Project...These shouldn't be here for...another seventy—"
Steve could feel his spine snapping ramrod straight when he saw Solo brush a hand over the strange rocket. Unbidden, Steve's mind pulled up the thought that it could take off, snaring Solo with it, zipping higher and higher into an unfamiliar night sky.
"You know that's a one-way trip."
"Don't touch that!" Steve barked.
The command rang out across the room, loud enough to reach Solo, who jumped back from the miniature white rocket like it burned him. Solo gaped at him, his ill-fitting helmet skewed, his face smudged with dirt and smoke that for a moment it looked like he wore a beard.
Skywalker glanced over and stared hard at Steve. He didn't appear upset at Steve's yelling. He appeared thoughtful.
"Sorry, Cap," Skywalker called out and, under Gabe's direction, went back to searching the premises.
Steve blinked at "Cap." He watched the two, Solo in particular, as they stepped away from the pile of strange munitions.
Bucky elbowed him. "What's the matter with you?" He grunted as he considered the scene. "Hey, maybe we can get Stark to figure it out?"
"Maybe," Steve murmured. However, he doubted their friend could explain the overwhelming relief he felt when Solo stepped further and further away from the white weapons.
The boy was someone's son, Steve thought as he trudged ahead, so the comparison was painfully accurate. He took care to keep his head up, his footsteps even. He really just wanted to sit down with a warm glass of milk, some cookies that weren't too hard, and Glenn Miller's band filling his tent. But Howard had needed something to make something, and stole some parts from the radio Steve had salvaged a few missions back. His friend had promised he would buy Steve a new one, rattled on about some RCA radio model X, Y, Z (Steve had a hard time following whenever Howard started talking all that gobbledygook about machines) or 4, 5, 6 valves or something or other, and that was nice and had all the bells and whistles and, gee, wasn't it swell.
It had sounded expensive, far too expensive and Steve had balked. He'd told Howard to forget it, waving off the old Philco as part of the war effort. He did feel kind of funny having it anyway. His men had insisted he take it for his own.
Howard had smirked, twin smiles with his thin mustache. He playfully punched Steve's arm and promised he would buy lots of war bonds, too, if it made Captain America feel better.
Steve dug a heel into the ground when he felt himself falter. Serum or not, the long battles wore on him. He was done in. He righted his helmet with the heel of his hand as he counted left, right, left to himself. His limbs ached, bone deep, enough to make him almost wish he'd let Howard waste all that dough on some fancy radio after all. Steve just wanted to drop onto his bedroll and listen to something other than artillery shells battering the ground.
Behind him, Bucky, perhaps sensing Steve's mood, was quiet during the long trek back. When they arrived in camp, those who had remained behind, watched their arrival without ceremony, without the usual boisterous cheer.
"I have to make my report," Steve told Bucky tiredly. He shook his head when Dum Dum and Gabe stepped forward. "Why don't you all grab some chow?"
"We'll keep a plate warm for you!" Bucky called out after him. Steve was grateful they had known each other long enough to never need to reply.
The rows of makeshift tables were full, but he spotted Bucky yukking it up with some of the newer members of their platoon. Dum Dum and Falsworth were arm-wrestling. Dum Dum lost when Gabe snuck up on him and hollered into his ear.
Steve smiled faintly. He felt a little guilty at how relieved he was they had all survived. Stewart had deserved to live, too.
"Steve!" Bucky bellowed when he decided Steve was taking too long to come over. Steve snorted, felt the weight over his shoulders lighten as he lengthened his stride. As he drew near, his smile broadened when he realized someone had already gotten him his chow: a nice full tin of warmed milk, still steaming in its cup, and a baking soda biscuit the size of his fist smothered in chipped beef.
Bucky didn't say anything, wordlessly sliding Steve's food over. He nodded at whatever a freckle-faced soldier had been saying. He was complaining about their radio.
"...I mean, it took me two tries before I got the—oh! C-captain, sir! P-private Mar...Marshal, Captain! S-sir!" The boy nearly upended the table in his haste to stand up and salute.
"At ease, son," Steve said, ignoring the smirk Bucky shot him. "It's chow time. Relax." He sighed to himself when the boy sat down and resumed eating his food, but now with his back as stiff as a board. Steve would never get used to that. Everyone was an eager beaver in front of Captain America. He curled his hands around his tin cup and savored the heat curling shyly around his fingers before tiptoeing down his wrists. It was like when his mother used to splurge and buy a bag of roasted nuts. They'd taken turns holding the bag, only getting around to eating the treats when the sack was cool to the touch.
Steve took a tentative sip of the milk to quell the ache in his gut. He dug into the biscuit and enjoyed the steam wafting up his face. His stomach gurgled.
Marshal got over his stammer and went back to complaining about their portable transistor radio again.
"You have electrical feedback looping in on your wavelengths. That was common with those things. It's probably the audio wire. Exposed copper filaments are such a pain. If you take out that red wire going up to the external speakers, which were redundant anyway, you'll get rid of the interference in your transmitters. Probably sound as clear as a bell, too."
At the rapid flow of words, Steve looked up and realized Solo and Skywalker were sitting at their table as well. Skywalker jabbed Solo in the ribs with his elbow. Solo's mouth clamped shut to stop himself from saying anything more.
Steve flushed. He hadn't even noticed the two, his face bowed to his meal. That wasn't nice of him. He nodded toward the pair. Skywalker curtly nodded back then went back to his food.
Solo, who'd been watching Steve, now arched an eyebrow at him as if he'd said something funny. Huh?
"That's right," Bucky said around a mouthful. He pointed a fork full of biscuit at them. "You did that thing before. With the grenade?" He twisted around to Steve, his thumb jutting over his shoulder at Solo. "So, get a load of this. We got HYDRA on all sides and Skywalker here was picking them off one by one like he's at the county fair. But Solo can't shoot for a damn though." Bucky snorted.
Solo muttered darkly under his breath about calibration.
Bucky grunted, half-chuckling as he continued "So this guy here gets up on his feet, cursing like nobody's business and took off."
Steve frowned mildly at Solo. Skywalker shook his head at Solo. Solo responded with an eye roll.
Bucky didn't appear upset, still snorting and taking it for a ride. "He came back seconds later and started tossing these round black things like he was Bullet Bob and whammo, HYDRA's dropping like flies!" At Solo's blank look, Bucky paused. "Bullet Bob? Bob Feller? Pitched a no hitter against the Tigers? 36?" His eyebrows rose almost as high as Steve's as he gaped. "Baseball? Hello? Thought you boys were from our side?"
Steve patted Bucky, trying to get his friend to sit down. Skywalker and Solo exchanged a look and Steve wasn't comfortable with the way Marshal was giving them the stink eye now. Others on nearby tables turned to look as well.
"You're good with machines then?" Steve asked, louder than necessary. Everyone around him blinked and went back to their food. He shot a look to Bucky, who returned a sheepish one and dropped back into his seat.
Solo shrugged, his posture stiff like he could feel the others still watching him. "I tinker."
"You look like you would be good with machines." Steve blinked. Why had he said that? He offered Solo a sheepish grin.
Solo stared intensely at Steve, his brown eyes almost black. He squinted, then slowly nodded, agreeing.
"Machines are easier to figure out," Solo said slowly, like Steve was hard of hearing. "They're easier to fix, too."
Steve frowned mildly. "I don't understand what you mean." He narrowed his eyes at Solo. Around him, everyone fell silent.
"He likes machines better than people," Skywalker offered, out of the blue. His cup of water sloshed over his pants when Solo kicked him under the table. Skywalker kicked him back, hard enough Solo nearly choked on the biscuit he was reluctantly eating.
"They probably make more sense," Steve agreed. He relaxed. It felt like the world suddenly exhaled. Everyone went back to their chow. Falsworth could be heard guffawing as Dum Dum gave chase after Gabe.
Steve paused. "You think you can make enough for the platoon?"
Bucky brightened. "Say, there's an idea! Weapons like that could give us a leg up. What do you say, Solo? Think you could make a few more of those to kill a whole lot of Nazis?"
Solo grimaced. He ground the biscuit hard into the chipped beef, mashing the biscuit until it crumbled into the gravy. He shrugged one shoulder.
"Well, don't get all excited about serving your country," Bucky grumbled out loud before Steve could stop him. Around them, soldiers were peering over their shoulders.
"I don't like making weapons," Solo muttered. He rubbed at his chest idly. He hid his expression in his mug when he tilted it back for a drink.
Steve pressed his mouth thin, not liking Solo's attitude or his men glaring at the soldier, which was growing darker by the second. Skywalker tensed, holding his fork like a knife, and edged closer to Solo.
Loudly, Steve coughed and he could feel everyone's attention on him as he smiled at Solo and his friend.
"I can understand that," Steve told him. He paused. Actually, he really could. He gave himself a mental shake. "But we're at war right now. We're doing a lot of things we don't like to do, but the fate of the world relies on us doing things we don't always like." Steve chewed on a gravy-soaked bite of biscuit, thinking. "How about this? We have a consultant back on home base. I'll take you there tomorrow morning and you show him how you made it. He's a real smart guy. I'm pretty sure he could figure it out."
Solo didn't relax. If anything, he looked like he'd rather face a firing squad. But he nodded slowly. He wiped his fingers on his shirt and mumbled he'd see Steve in the morning and tossed out his food, biscuit and all, in the garbage bucket. Steve frowned; he didn't approve of wasting food.
With two more gulps, Skywalker finished the rest of his own food, shot off a sharp salute to Steve, and hurried after Solo with a stride that looked like he wasn't hurrying.
"What's eating him?" Bucky muttered before shrugging. Bucky let things slip over his shoulders like water. He thumped Steve on the shoulder.
"Have fun at Stark's tomorrow. Make sure he doesn't blow you up."
Steve scoffed. "I'll tell him you said that."
Eyebrows bobbed up and down. "Maybe Agent Carter will be there?"
"Aw..." Steve ducked his head, ears burning. Bucky gave his back another hearty slap before he scrammed.
Steve finished his meal with a satisfied sigh. He nodded solemnly to greetings as he headed back to his tent. There, he changed quickly and settled back onto his cot to review the next mission's plan under the flickering lantern: hitting a HYDRA munitions factory twelve klicks from camp. Hm, he'd need a scout. Steve made a note to ask for volunteers tomorrow after returning from Howard's workshop. Maybe that new kid Stewart would want to try.
Something niggled at the back of his mind, but Steve's head was too foggy to care. He popped the last of the chocolate chip cookie he'd kept in his pocket. Mm. Still warm. Steve sighed, his insides loosening. He just suddenly felt very tired. He knuckled his eyes and sank deeper into his wobbly cot (they were never long enough for him now) to listen to Glenn Miller's Tuxedo Junction floating out of his RCA Victor radio.
Steve blinked blearily at the sunlight seeping into his tent. He lay there, feeling a little like there was something he'd forgotten to do the night before. He sat up, rubbing his eyes when Bucky poked his head in. He grinned broadly, wide enough that Steve knew exactly what he was thinking. Steve threw his thin pillow at him. Bucky snorted, not even bothering to dodge it as it smacked him right in the face.
"Better get the lead out; mustn't keep Agent Carter waiting," Bucky nearly sang. He combed a hand through his dark bangs. "Wear the dress uniform. The dames love a man in uniform."
"We're going to Stark's workshop on business," Steve reminded him, but he was pulling out his best jacket anyway.
"If Stark could make Solo's machine, think what it could mean for the war."
"Uh-huh. That why you're shining up your hat?"
Steve glanced down. Sure enough, he's been scrubbing at the eagle on his cap. He flushed.
"I think Morita has some shoe polish you could borr—Okay! Okay!" Bucky guffawed as he avoided the polishing rag. "See you at breakfast!" Bucky hollered as he hightail it out of Steve's tent.
Steve rolled his eyes and began to dress.
Steve stared at the back of Skywalker's head. Strange, wasn't Private Hogan his driver? Steve fiddled with his tie again, forced himself to stop before he turned to Solo. When he did, he found Solo staring. Caught, Solo didn't look apologetic. He only shrugged.
"Are we there yet?" Solo whined. He pinched his tie straight. Steve bit back the temptation to ask Solo how he managed to get his tie into a perfect knot in one try.
"With your accuracy, I thought you know how to get from point A to point B efficiently," Solo griped.
The jeep's rear wheels slipped and shimmied. Solo had to grab the back of the seat in front of him before he flew off. Even so, Steve had to grab a fistful of collar to keep Solo in the vehicle.
"Mud. Sorry," Skywalker said, not sounding sorry at all. When Steve cleared his throat meaningfully, the jeep steadied.
"Not much further," Steve assured Solo. "I've been here so many times, I could probably get here in my sleep."
Solo muttered under his breath, "You probably have."
The vehicle abruptly rolled over a rock. Solo gripped the back of the passenger seat again. Skywalker muttered another apology.
"We can't stay long," Steve said. He felt a twinge of regret himself. He hoped Agent Carter would be there. "We have to prepare for our next mission." At Solo's raised eyebrow, he added "Munitions plant in sector fifteen Bravo. We'll send a scout to recon; get to work on some trenches in the next few nights."
"Didn't we just do that?" Solo stared hard at Steve.
Steve made a face. "It certainly feels like it, huh?" he agreed. "But each one we destroy is one less gun in the enemy's hands."
"No," Solo pressed. "Didn't we just do that one?"
Skywalker's gaze darted up to the mirror. They dropped as soon as Steve met them.
Turning to consider Solo, Steve pursed his lips. "What are you getting at?"
"We're almost there, Captain," Skywalker said loudly just as Solo opened his mouth. "I'm going to have to drive a bit more slowly here, sir." He nodded toward the road ahead of them. "Road's getting rocky. Wouldn't want anything bad to happen."
Solo slumped back into the seat. Steve clapped Skywalker's shoulder from behind. "That's good thinking, son."
"You know, we're older than you," Solo pointed out.
Steve laughed awkwardly. "Sorry about that. There are times I feel older than everyone else."
"Why is that?"
"Solo," Skywalker grumbled.
"I'm just asking a philosophical question," Solo shot back. He grinned brightly, his too white teeth flashing again. It was a showman's smile. "Is it because you have a higher rank?"
Steve shook his head. "Just because I'm a captain doesn't make me better than anyone else. I still fight the same battles as you fellas."
"So maybe," Solo tapped a finger to his chin, "you feel old because you are old."
Skywalker groaned, but Steve smiled good-naturedly at the corporal. Solo was a funny sort of fellow. Howard was going to like him.
"And how old do you think I am?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe ninety-three, ninety-fo—Hey!" Solo yelped when the jeep swerved sharply.
"Squirrel," Skywalker offered.
"Here?" Solo bit out, his hands back on the seat, fingers digging into it like a grappling hook.
Steve peered out his side. "I don't see anything." He glanced back at Solo. The corporal finally relinquished his white-knuckled grip on the passenger seat.
"Ninety-four, huh? joked Steve.
"Give or take." Solo gingerly sat back, his eyes narrowed on Skywalker's back.
Living to see past ninety sounded a bit fantastic; then again, they took an asthmatic pipsqueak from Brooklyn and made him Captain America. Maybe it could happen.
"That's a nice thought, but no, nowhere near that. But you're right though, you are older than me. Oh. Um, I meant no disrespect, of course, sir," Steve offered Solo.
Skywalker coughed, loudly, shoulders shaking. Solo glowered, looking like he was tempted to hop up front and drive himself.
"It's fine," Solo muttered. He sank into the seat. "Watch the road, Skywalker."
Skywalker sounded a bit squeaky when he replied.
Solo grumbled. He rotated the odd black ball in his hands.
"That's not going to blow up in here, is it?" Steve leaned back to his side. He looked at the thing warily.
"No, it doesn't—oops. Uh, wait." Solo unscrewed the top, peered into it, gave it a violent shake before adding, "No, no, it's good."
A muttered prayer drifted to the back.
"I never seen anything like it," Steve told Solo. "If we can make a lot of these for the platoon, it'll help. The workshop we're going to is Howard Stark's. He's our military contractor. You heard of him?"
A shadow flickered across Solo's face. He sat back and touched his chin briefly, paused, and dropped his hand on his lap.
"I know of him." Brown, weary eyes slid to him. "A friend of yours?"
Solo's face shuttered. "Good for you."
Skywalker's eyes flicked toward the rear-view mirror. Steve found himself startled not to see blue eyes, blue filling every bit of space. Vacant blue...
Steve knuckled an eye and squinted into the mirror. They were green, like they should be.
"Uh...Cap? What's he like?" Solo sounded bored, like it didn't matter if Steve answered him or not.
Steve hemmed. "He's all right. I'm warning you though, he can seem a little bit of an...oddball. But he's okay. Smart. Real smart. Funny, too. You'll like him once you get to know him. He grows on you." He hesitated. It shouldn't matter if Solo and Skywalker liked his friend or not. He cleared his throat and faced forward again.
"Howard Stark's a good man," Steve declared. "A patriot, a genius and a go—"
"A good man, I've heard," Solo cut in tightly. He smiled wanly at Steve's frown.
Steve glanced away. He wondered about Skywalker's constant glancing up at the mirror, Solo's cloudy expression as he turned away from Steve to look out his side. Steve resisted sighing out loud. Shoot, maybe this was a bad idea. Knowing Solo, he probably saw Howard in some newsreel about the Expo. It was hard to be friends with that version of Howard, smirking, gesturing, scantily dressed dancing girls behind him. But Steve wasn't afraid to admit he had been wrong about a person.
Wouldn't be the first time.
Steve furrowed his brow. But then the base rose up on the horizon and he forgot all about it.
"If you're here about that portable torch, it's not ready yet. We still have some issues with it spontaneously setting other things on fir—What's that?"
Steve never had a chance to introduce the pair. Howard Stark plucked the device out of Solo's hands, muttering, shaking it up against his ear. To Steve's worry, Solo and Skywalker blanched and both took a step back.
"...not bad, not bad, but could be better. How much gunpowder can it—oh, ho, that much? Maybe if we compress..."
"Mr. Stark," Steve said loudly. Howard's head shot up, eyes almost crossed in annoyance when he tracked Steve's finger to where it was pointing. Face clearing, Howard's grin slipped into his familiar smirk, the one where that had made Uncle Sam drop hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Corporal Solo and Skywalker," Steve introduced.
Howard snapped his suspenders back over his shoulders and stuck out a grease-stained hand.
"Nice to meet you. Is this yours? Bit flawed, but I think we could work with this. Mind if I borrow it? I'll just be a min—make that an hour. I'll get it back to you in tip top condition! Okay, at least in recognizable shape and form. Wait, you might want to just consider it a loss. I just need—" Abruptly, he shouted for his assistant, who replied with one hand waving frantically out of a pile of spare machine parts like a drowning man. Howard trotted in that direction, head already bowed over Solo's invention.
"Maybe if we—Ouch." Howard absently waved a hand as whatever he did made it spark. "All right. Maybe not. We could—Ouch! Holy moley—Say, that might—Ouch. Or not..."
"And that," Steve chuckled awkwardly, "was Howard Stark."
"Huh." Skywalker stared after Howard then looked at Solo for some reason. The smirk he wore dimmed.
"You okay?" Skywalker murmured.
Solo ignored him. He gazed after Howard almost wistfully.
"Maybe he would like some help?" Steve suggested, but Solo shook his head almost immediately.
"He never does," Solo said with an odd bitterness in his tone. He glanced around and perked up.
"Is that…is that an MZ-17 carburetor?" Solo didn't wait for Steve's reply (not that Steve would know the answer) and hurried to a pile of automobile parts. He unconsciously mirrored Howard, rubbing his hands in anticipation before shoving both arms into the mountain of very sharp-looking machinery parts. One of Howard's welders squawked in alarm but Solo ignored him, already sighting something else with a whoop.
Geez, you would think it was Christmas.
Steve arched an eyebrow at Skywalker. The shorter blond merely shrugged.
"He likes shiny things." Skywalker surveyed his surroundings warily, as if expecting something somewhere would blow up. It wasn't an inaccurate assumption. Howard's workshop was a minefield of strange and loud, exploding things.
"Sounds like Stark over there," Steve joked.
Skywalker's face went deliberately blank. His eyes darted left and right. He took a deep breath. It looked like he came to some sort of decision.
"You…" Skywalker paused and Steve thought he was just going to walk away. He exhaled sharply. "You might want to think about why," he murmured, almost too low for Steve to hear. His eyes shifted left and right as if looking for chumps not minding their own businesses, but when no one seemed to be listening, he relaxed. He strolled away, not acknowledging Steve's baffled, "Huh?"
Scratching his head, Steve canted his head toward Skywalker. Unbidden, his gaze drifted to Solo, who was on top of the junk pile now, randomly tossing parts to Skywalker. His pal was catching them begrudgingly, but stayed where he was with a long suffering look on his face.
After a few moments, Steve's scrutiny dragged over to Howard. The inventor was currently doing something to Solo's device behind a blast shield, whooping when it belched an alarming amount of smoke.
Solo. Stark. Steve went back and forth between the two. A prick gnawed the back of his head. His eyes blurred.
After a beat, Steve shook his head and headed to Howard.
Solo and Skywalker, Steve decided, were a little strange.
A smile crept up the corners of his mouth even as he nodded toward the snap to attention "Captain, sir!" some of the boys gave him the moment they saw him. It was still odd, he mused. It seemed like yesterday, he was the scrawny kid from Brooklyn, barely past Bucky's ears, invisible if it weren't for Bucky's friendly arm over his narrow shoulders, his determination to plow through the crowds with Steve like an oar cutting through water. Bucky was dead set to make Steve as loud and noticeable as he was. Without him, Steve found himself still flounder—
Steve scowled mildly to himself. What was he thinking? Bucky wasn't gone; he was back in camp, no doubt waiting to rib Steve about Agent Carter. Don't jinx him!
His steps lengthened, moving quickly to shake loose unwanted dark thoughts. He reached Howard and the small cluster of assistants gathered around him like he was a newsie. They parted, revealing the slender brunette standing beside Howard with a deceptively bored expression as she eyed Solo's device being tossed up and down Howard's hand like a softball.
Maybe that was the reason the others scattered.
Even from this distance, Steve could pick up Howard was definitely not talking about Solo's funny little grenade.
"...eight hours, maybe five if the Messerschmitts cooperate. We could be enjoying fondue like a king and queen."
Steve resisted rolling his eyes. Oh, boy, there goes Howard again. If he hadn't found out what fondue really was, he would have about-faced right about now, face heated like he'd been sunburned. But Bucky had explained, and Steve didn't know what the big deal was about melted cheese. When Natasha took him to Artisanal, it tasted like—
Skidding to a halt a few feet from the pair, Steve furrowed his brow.
Around him, the clanging in the munitions workshop abruptly stopped. Steve looked up and found others staring. He flushed. Swell. He would look at himself funny, too, for standing there and looking at nothing. He cleared his throat, loudly.
Sheepishly, many turned back to whatever they were doing. By the time Steve continued on his way, still feeling his stomach flip flop over the embarrassment of stopping for no particular reason, Howard and Peggy had finished their conversation. Howard was back to pointing and gesturing at a fellow by a tall, steaming vat, and Peggy was inspecting Solo's device in the cradle of her pale hands.
"Afternoon, Agent Carter." Steve was glad his voice was steady. He tucked his cover under his arm and stood as straight as he could.
"Captain." Dark lashes hooded even darker eyes as they casually went up to his face. Peggy's red mouth curled at the corners.
Steve resisted fidgeting.
"Thank you." Steve rested his full weight on his heels to keep from shifting foot to foot. "Didn't know you'd be here today. Not that I didn't want you here," Steve added hastily when an elegant brow arched high. His eyes drifted over past her left ear, where a wayward long strand of her hair was tucked; a ribbon of brown silk behind a nicely shaped ear. Steve wanted to draw her, right now, the itch to find a pencil so strong, he missed her question.
"I'm sorry. Could you repeat that?" Steve coughed. He waved toward the goings-on behind them as an excuse, unable to lie out loud, unwilling to confess he hadn't been paying attention because her profile looked like a painting he'd had the good fortune to see once.
The slight tilt of her mouth curved deeper now, as if she knew what Steve couldn't say. There was a soft chuckle that fluttered out, like it was furled in the base of her throat the whole time. To Steve's dismay, he thought he could feel his ears pinking and wished he could be rude and jam his cap over his ears.
"I said," Peggy said slowly, "were you going to introduce us?"
Steve glanced over and nearly jumped when it turned out Solo and Skywalker were standing next to him. Solo was gaping at Ms. Carter, his mouth open. Skywalker jabbed him with an elbow. The mouth snapped shut.
"Sorry!" Steve said hurriedly because a little voice inside strangely warned him to speak up before Solo does. "These men are in my unit: Corporals Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Corporals, this is Agent Carter."
"Hello, Agent Carter," Solo drawled. "You can call me Han."
Skywalker rolled his eyes and mumbled a polite greeting.
Peggy studied them coolly, eyes narrowed. "I don't believe I've met you two before."
Somewhere, something dropped. Solo and Skywalker winced.
Steve's stomach sank. He'd hoped Peggy and Howard would be square with them. He wasn't sure why, but the thought of his friends not liking any of his men was an uncomfortable one.
"They just transferred," Steve offered. He pointed to the grenade in her hands. "Solo made that."
The shadows cleared on her face. Peggy nodded. "Ah. So you're the clever one. Stark was fascinated by it."
In the back, Howard's next test belched smoke smelling vaguely like burnt grease. The floor vibrated. Howard yahooed, and hollered they should do it again. A couple of his assistants groaned. Steve thought he heard one whimper.
"Very fascinated," Peggy added, dryly. She gave Steve a smirk. Steve couldn't help but grin back at her.
Solo looked at them both strangely, though he said nothing.
"We were hoping Stark could be able to make enough for the Commandos," Steve explained. He nodded toward Howard as the man finally remembered they were there and he ambled over, grin bright under a soot-covered face.
"Providing he stops blowing things up first," Steve said, loud enough for Howard to hear. Howard shrugged one shoulder as he wiped his face clean with a rag.
"Isn't that what you military boys want?" Howard zeroed in on Solo. "You there. This was yours, right? Come on, you can be my assistant. Everyone else seems to be scaredy cats for whatever reason. Today's your lucky day, buddy!" Howard smacked Solo soundly on the shoulder. The corporal staggered forward. Howard, as usual, didn't wait for a response, already waving a wrench as he snapped his suspenders off his shoulders to slip a welder's apron on.
"Guess we'll be here for a few hours then," Steve said. He wasn't too put off by the idea. He wondered why Solo was rooted to the spot. "You all right there, Corporal?"
"Pity I can't stay." Peggy appeared to be biting back a smile as she watched Howard swinging a blowtorch as he pointed toward the testing area. His assistants jumped back to avoid getting singed. One yelped and fell on his rump.
A lump lodged in his throat. "Oh." Steve glanced back over to Howard. "So you're going. Fonduing, I guess." Steve smiled wanly. "Have a nice time."
Peggy scoffed. "Only Stark would find time to think about flying across the ocean for fondue." She shook her head when there was another boom from Howard's area. "General Fury requires a report. It'll take me all day."
"Oh. Good." There was a warm bubble growing in his chest, threatening to burst. At Peggy's bemused look, Steve added falteringly, "Uh...I mean, I would hate to say good...goodbye." His breath caught at the last words and they came out slightly choked, that awful lump in his throat large enough it hurt for some reason.
"Don't worry, Captain. I wouldn't miss a chance to go dancing with you." Peggy shocked him with a wink and she walked away, delicately on her heels, like when she'd come into the bar in that red dress. Steve hoped she'd wear it when they have their date. He really, really—
Steve drew his gaze away from Peggy's...departure to Solo. The corporal stared up at him with an intense look that rang oddly familiar.
"I'm sorry?" Steve almost took a step back at the stare.
Solo shrugged but his eyes were pinned on Steve. "Just wondering if that's why we're all pulling a Bill Murray on Groundhog's Day."
The words were baffling. Steve's brow knitted. "What the heck is a Gr—"
"Never mind." Solo shook his head. He ignored Skywalker's warning hiss. Solo stepped into Steve's space, his eyes fixed on him.
"Doesn't this all seem familiar to you?" Solo shook his head like a wet dog. "No. I mean doesn't this all seem too familiar?"
"What the hell are you doing?" Skywalker whispered sharply.
Solo ignored him. "Captain. Steve." Solo gripped him by the arms.
Steve was too taken aback to push them away.
Solo's voice dropped lower. "You can feel it, can't you? Deep down, you know it's wrong. All of it."
It felt like the world froze around them. The next explosion rang in muffled ears. His chest throbbed as if something heavy sat on it.
Steve couldn't pull his eyes away from Solo. "Wrong? Solo, what are you talking about?"
"We can't do this—" Skywalker began.
"We've tried everything else," Solo bit out with a ferocity that drew ice deep into Steve.
Cold. Very cold. Heavy and sinking...
Solo shook him by the arms. Or tried. Steve's head barely bobbed.
"Look around you, Cap," Solo said, his words tumbling out in a hissed rush. "There are things off. Things that have always been off but we're all still stuck here and we thought it was because of the machine. But it isn't just the machine, is it? It's you. You're—"
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw stray pieces of sheet metal, hot from the newest explosion, flying toward Solo's back, aiming for his heart.
"Look out!" Steve grabbed the pair by the shoulders and pulled them to the floor. He threw himself over them just as the shrapnel embedded itself an inch deep into the wall they'd been standing against.
"Holy..." Steve gaped at the still smoldering pieces above them. Solo raised his head and gawked. Skywalker started swearing strong enough even Gabe would have blushed.
"Rogers! You boys okay?" Howard hollered. He was standing on top of a ladder, his goggles pulled up to his forehead. The inventor smacked a rubber glove at his assistant two rungs below.
"Hey, nice going, Butterfingers!"
Solo made a choking sound.
Steve offered a hand and tugged the pair to their feet. A quick glance told him they were okay. But Solo, for whatever reason, was back to staring at him, the metal shards forgotten.
Hand up, Steve halted whatever Solo wanted to say.
"Solo, I don't know what you're jabbering about, but I think I know what this funny feeling you have is." Steve patted a tensed shoulder. "That was your first mission with us yesterday and I'm sure it was different to what you're accustomed to."
"No, I'm not—"
"You're rattled," Steve continued soothingly, "and that's understandable. But if you don't keep a cool head, it'll get you or one of us killed." Steve steadied a look at Solo. The corporal gritted his teeth.
"Thank you, Captain," Skywalker said before Solo could.
"I think Mr. Stark could use some help," Steve reminded them. Solo was a little pasty; probably still in shock at the near miss. What a rotten way it would have been to go.
Solo seemed to have woken up. He checked with Skywalker, who shook his head at whatever he saw. Solo twisted back around to Steve, despite Skywalker's death grip on his elbow.
"Cap..." Solo pleaded. There were lines on his face that hadn't been there before. He took a deep breath. Solo's shoulders drooped. He let Skywalker lead him away.
Steve stared after them for a moment. He exhaled and focused, his vision clearing like he'd been squinting for too long.
He was startled to see his breath curl into an icy wisp.
"It could have been better," Steve said glumly. He moved the pins to where he thought they could safely dig the trenches. He swept a hand over the map to try and zoom in—
Steve knuckled an eye and stared hard at the water-stained map, its edges curling despite the pins. The map looked like it should. Steve rubbed his eyes. The map didn't change. Of course it wouldn't change. He hadn't done anything to it yet.
The tiny, lined up flags were staring back at him in a lopsided smile. It looked kinda goofy.
He moved a flag pin further up, breaking up the curve. The rest of the map stayed the same. And it was reassuring. And yet it also felt wrong somehow. His stomach twisted and grumbled. Maybe it was time for a snack even though he'd already had his evening chow an hour ago.
Steve absently shook loose his hand. He kept staring at the map, waiting for it to do something, even if he didn't know what.
"Aw, you're not getting the heebie jeebies, are you?" Bucky made a face at the map, moved the peg that represented his unit closer to Steve's position on the front lines.
"About the mission? No, I think if we get a scout in, letting us know the layout, I—"
"I'm talking about your date." Bucky lightly punched him in the arm.
Steve made a face at him. "Can we focus here?"
"Sure. Which thing are we focusing on? The conversation with Agent Carter or the mission I still know nothing about?" Bucky chortled at Steve's scowl. "Stop making that face. That's got you in plenty of brawls and fistfights back home."
The frown smoothed out to something rueful. "Kept you busy getting me out of them."
Bucky shrugged, never one to hold a grudge. "And kept you in good practice for punching Hitler." He grinned toothily at Steve.
"You're a riot," Steve grumbled. He lowered his eyes. He smoothed out a corner of the map that was curled, its point shying away from the table.
"You always did get me out of trouble, though," Steve murmured, raising his gaze to Bucky. He lifted a shoulder, his mouth crooked into a sheepish grin. "I guess it's my turn. I owe you."
"Hey, who's keeping count?" Bucky smiled, but then something sad seemed to shadow his face and he shifted, looking past Steve's shoulder over at the canvas-covered shield Steve was never far away from nowadays. "Besides, you're Captain America now. You don't need me anymore."
Not true, Steve wanted to say as he stared hard back at the map. It blurred. He rubbed his eyes again and swallowed hard.
"Unless," Bucky continued, his voice suspiciously gleeful now, "you want to know more about fonduing."
"Shut up," Steve groaned. Bucky guffawed. He patted Steve on the arm, like he had before, before Dr. Erskine, before Steve had become his commanding officer, before everything.
"Be sure you tell me all about it, Steve."
"As if you'll let me not tell you." Steve smiled crookedly at Bucky. Despite the ribbing, there was a warm spot deep in his belly, like after a hot meal. He did want to tell Bucky all about it. Hell, about everything that had happened, the people he'd met, the new things he'd seen, the squirming feeling burrowed deep in his chest whenever he needed to make a command decision that could send his team to their death. Bucky knew when to agree or disagree with him. Bucky knew when to yell at him if it was needed. And Steve was never Captain America to him; he was good old Steve Rogers from Brook—
"I miss you," Steve blurted. He started. Huh?
Bucky stopped laughing, but his eyes were still smiling when he arched an eyebrow full of affection.
"Geez, you were only gone a few hours." Bucky narrowed his eyes at Steve, but the corners of his mouth were twitching. "Hey, if you're that nervous about your date. As your second-in-command, I'll be more than happy to go in your place."
"Bucky," Steve growled.
Bucky snickered and duck out of the tent before Steve could throw something at him. Bucky laughed, cackling like a hyena as he trotted across the clearing to his barracks.
Shaking his head, chuckling, Steve was about to return his attention to the mission packet when he caught sight of Solo and Skywalker walking past his tent. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but by the wide sweeps of arms, they were arguing.
Steve's mouth pressed together. That wouldn't do. He trotted after them behind the mess tent. There was something about their tension. Steve quickened his pace before the two got into a fistfight.
"...can't rush this," Skywalker was saying. "You can't just tell Rogers like that."
Steve halted. He ducked back behind the tent. He peered around the corner. Eavesdropping never did anyone any good, and yet...Skywalker was standing awfully close to Solo's space, a finger jabbing Solo's chest with every word.
Solo knocked the finger away. Steve tensed but Skywalker only glowered at him.
"He's already starting to notice things," Solo argued. He scratched the corner of his mouth, stopped, and dropped his hand with a sharp exhale. "He's already seeing things that aren't right—"
"And whose fault is that?" Skywalker pointed out. "Our orders were to be careful and—"
"Careful?" Solo snorted. "What is it with you people and 'careful'?" He gestured wildly around them.
Steve edged closer, his brow furrowed as he considered their words.
"How long do you think he can last?" Solo went on, his voice rising until Skywalker hissed wordlessly. Solo screwed up his face like it physically hurt not to shout. "How long do you think he can stay hooked up before he starts wasting away and—" He grit his teeth. "And I'm getting motion sickness from all this perpetual déjà vu. If I'd known I wouldn't be able to get off this merry-go-round, I would have taken some Dramamine!"
Skywalker ran a hand through his hair. "Look, the last time you tried telling him, we took a grenade to the face. Remember?"
With a grimace, Solo grunted.
"And the time before that, it was a land min—"
"I get it," Solo bit out. "I got it the second time."
Skywalker muttered under his breath, but Steve thought he caught the words "gassed," "mortar fire," and "bayonet."
Solo paced. Short and sharp. He took two steps to the left, appeared to change his mind and went to the right, only to stop again. He grumbled to himself, random words that made no sense to Steve. Who was Jarvis? And why did Solo need iron?
"I think we need to stop tiptoeing around," Solo declared as he pivoted to face Skywalker again.
"And I think this could blow up in our faces…literally," Skywalker countered.
What? Steve tensed.
"Just tell him before—"
"Before what?" Steve asked mildly as he stepped out from behind the tent. The two jumped. Solo narrowed his eyes on Steve, measuring, tracking Steve as he drew closer.
"We can explain." Skywalker didn't flinch when Steve steadied his pistol at them.
"Before or after it blows up in our faces?" Steve said tightly. He considered the pair.
"Of course you zero in on that." Solo sighed. He appeared unfazed by the gun pointed at him. That was never a good sign. Solo stared hard at Steve. "There's a logical explain—no, hell, this isn't logical. Half, no, ninety percent of this doesn't make sense."
Steve grimly agreed. "No, it doesn't make sense how you two were able to infiltrate us so easily."
Skywalker ignored the gun. His eyes searched Steve's face intently. "Who do you think we are, Captain?"
His gun rose higher but for whatever reason, it wavered when he tried to line it with their faces.
Solo's eyes stayed on Steve's face, his own expression now calm, too calm, as if he knew something Steve didn't. As if he was waiting for something.
"You can't do it, can you?" Solo said quietly. "You can't look at us for too long. Subconsciously, you've probably already worked it out." He gestured between both of them. "That's why you can't even aim that thing at us, which I appreciate." He took a step forward. "Because you know who we really are."
"I know you're spies," Steve said tersely. He jerked his gun higher. "Stay where you are."
"Spies?" Solo scoffed. He rolled his eyes toward Skywalker. "Well, maybe him."
"Shut the hell up," Skywalker growled out of the side of his mouth. "And don't move."
Solo looked skyward. "Don't you get it? He's already worked it out. He's not going to—"
A warning bullet zipped past Solo, knocking off the still too small helmet.
"You shot me!" Solo patted the side of his head, checked his fingers for blood before wagging two of them at Steve. "You are going to be so sorry when this is all over, Cap!"
"Solo!" Skywalker snagged Solo by the sleeve and yanked him back.
"Seriously, I am only going to accept groveling and—"
Behind Steve, he could hear Gabe and Falsworth running toward them, drawn by the gunshot.
Solo abruptly stopped his strange ranting. "Look around you, damn it," Solo shouted. He shook free from Skywalker's grip. "How is any of this right? Think! Think!"
"Watch out!" Gabe called out, his own gun whipping out, already drawing a bead on Solo, who stepped towards Steve's direction.
Skywalker called out "Wait!"
Falsworth shouted they were spies, Solo flinched, his arms flying up toward his face as Gabe pulled the trigger...
Before Steve realized it, before he could question it, his body moved, legs surging forward at the sight of Solo and Skywalker bracing for death. Steve grabbed Gabe by the wrist and jerked his gun hand up toward the sky. The gun fired at the heavens.
Chest heaving, Steve and Gabe stood there, staring at each other in shock. It wasn't clear who was more surprised.
"Steve!" Bucky elbowed through to grip Steve by the arm. "You okay? What the hell happened?"
Steve found he couldn't answer.
"Spies," Falsworth spat.
Around them, soldiers muttered darkly, crowding in around Steve, Solo, and Skywalker. Steve could hear the men murmuring, arms flexing.
Something shot up his spine, straightening him like a ramrod.
"No," Steve snapped. His chest tightened, realizing no one voiced what they were going to do to the spies. It looked like everyone had already silently agreed on what they wanted to do. And Steve knew. He knew if he walked away right now, the two behind him would be torn apart.
"We question them." Steve turned to the two. Skywalker was looking at each face warily, body tensed.
Steve didn't like spies, too many tried to usurp the tides of the war. Yet something deep inside him strangely approved of the way Skywalker kept his eyes on Steve's men, his hands minutely flexing, a step away from yanking Solo behind him.
"Question them. That's it." Steve raised his voice to draw those angry faces to him instead. "Are we clear?" Steve dragged his gaze to Bucky. "Tie them up; set up guards."
"All right, Captain. We'll interrogate them first," a soldier in the back called out. Others grumbled but parted as Gabe and Falsworth hauled them away. Solo dug his heels in as they were dragged past Steve.
"You know this isn't right," Solo hissed. Despite Gabe's thick arms wrapped over his chest, Solo managed to stumble into Steve's personal space, toe to toe, his face intense.
"Look around you. Look. You know things aren't right. You're the only one who can fix—All right! Quit shoving! Haven't you heard of the Geneva Convention?" Solo barked as Gabe bodily lifted him up an inch, swung him away from Steve and toward the prisoners' tent.
"I don't think they have here," Skywalker drawled. He was more cooperative, marching behind Solo.
"Shut up," Solo barked over his shoulder at his partner. Then to Gabe and his mutterings, he drawled, "A firing squad? Really? Well, that would be new."
Steve stood there, still breathing hard like he'd been running all day.
"You okay?" Bucky asked, placing a hand on Steve's shoulder.
Steve stared at the pair as their hands were roughly tied behind their backs and shoved into the tent.
"Steve?" Bucky looked to where Steve's attention was. "What just happened?"
"I'm not sure," Steve murmured.
Steve heard the whispering as he walked across camp. He wanted to duck into his tent. Dinner couldn't draw him to the chow line this time. His mind felt foggy, confused, and he didn't know why what his men were saying would twist such knots in his gut. For all he knew, it could be true. Solo and Skywalker could be the enemy, and maybe everybody was right and they should be dragged in front of a firing squ—
Boot heels dug into the dirt. Steve was startled by his own conviction so loud and resolute in his mind. It sounded like his Captain America persona had crawled in.
Steve absently tugged his ear. He contemplated the tents, his and the guarded one. He didn't want to go to either one.
With an about face, Steve pivoted and marched toward the general barracks instead.
"Nuts! Who broke this? Last thing we need is seven years of bad luck." Bucky rapped the wooden plank that was shoved deep into the ground to serve as a wall for the glass. He didn't appear to be looking for an answer though, for he went right back to swirling his toothbrush in his cup.
"I just think there's something funny about those two," Steve insisted. He sat on the edge of a cot.
"Agreed. So we let the gang have a swing at them."
Steve's stomach twisted at the foamy smirk Bucky offered in the mirror. Steve shook his head. "What? No! I mean we should ask them?"
Bucky held up a fist and pretended to punch himself under the jaw. "Hey, buddy, I'm not disagreeing with you."
"No, I wasn't talking about torturing them." Especially not those two. Not again.
Steve blinked, momentarily wrong-footed. Again?
Bucky lifted one shoulder as he shook his toothbrush dry and pulled out a tube. He held it over the bristles. "Hey, they're not going to talk just because you asked them nicely—"
"What are you doing?" Steve stared at what was in Bucky's hand.
His friend arched a dark eyebrow at him. "Uh. Brushing my teeth? Almost time to hit the rack."
"That's..." Steve squinted at the white tube squished in random places. He hated when that happened, the paste got all—
"You okay?" Bucky turned completely around.
Steve reached over and swiped it out of Bucky's hand. "This...this shouldn't be here!" He glanced down.
The tin of tooth powder glinted dully in his hand.
Steve's mouth ran dry. "I ah..."
"Steve?" Bucky frowned. "It's just toothpaste, buddy. What's the big idea? Did Dum Dum complain someone was using his again? Hey, I won it fair and square off of Stewart just now."
"Stewart?" Steve blurted out.
Bucky's eyebrow rose higher. "Yeah. Private Stewart? Kid who volunteered to be our scout. Remember?"
The tent seemed to be doing a whirly twirl, like in those fancy dances he'd seen in the reels. Steve knuckled an eye, but it didn't get any better. "Wait. Stewart? But didn't he..." Steve knitted his brow.
A hand dropped onto his shoulder. Steve raised his eyes and met Bucky's, cloudy and dark and anxious, on the brink of saying something very important. The ground seemed to rumble underneath him. Cold bit his cheek like ice had pricked into his face.
Steve suddenly wanted to grab Bucky's hand and hold on very tight.
"Steve?" Bucky sat down next to him, his mouth flattening as he considered him, his eyes widening a fraction. "Whoa, pal, what's up?"
It was only then Steve realized he could feel the wet track skimming down the side of his cheek. When he screwed up his face to hold back the ache in his throat, he tasted salt.
"Look, we won't be rough on those two, okay?" Bucky bumped a shoulder against his. "I know how you feel about bullies. We'll just put the fear of Captain America in them."
A wet snort choked out. Steve jerkily wiped under his nose with a sleeve. He could feel his cheeks and ears burning. He was sniveling like his momma had just died again.
"Aw," Steve grumbled, but the corner of his mouth quirked.
Bucky sniggered. He clapped a hand soundly on Steve's knee and it was like they were still in Brooklyn, hiding in old man Wicken's backyard, sharing an apple Bucky claimed he had won off Joey Beaumont in a game of poker.
"Get some chow. I think Roosevelt can hear your stomach grumbling. Sun up, I'll make sure you're there with Falsworth before the interrogation."
"Sure," Steve muttered. He tracked Bucky heading back to the mirror, the tin and toothbrush back in his grip.
Bucky mumbled, "Night," with a mouthful of foam as Steve ducked out of the barracks.
The sky decided to share Steve's mood; its heavens heavy with storm clouds, spinning like gray floss candy, winding up until it revealed the bejeweled night sky within its eye.
Steve glanced up at the gap, staring at the circular patch of night and stars before clouds floated by and curtained the scene.
Absently, Steve thought it would be nice to sketch it: a hole in the sky...
"I can close it. Can anyone copy? I can shut the portal down."
"Do it," Steve murmured. He stopped and frowned. He glanced around but no one else seemed to have heard the smooth, lightly accented voice. He glanced up, but the sky was a quilt of gray clouds again.
It felt reassuring for some reason, as if the sky were no longer open to attack.
Steve grunted. No longer? Obviously, he'd forgotten about the Luftwaffe, or the blimps, or the chariots shrieking as they veered around...
"Darn it," muttered Steve as he found himself stopping again. He rubbed his eyes and squinted hard at the green weathered tents, swaying slightly in the breeze, nothing but mud, soldiers, and tanks all around him in the endless flat land.
Concrete shot up in front of him, long stone fingers clawing the sky, decked out in gleaming squares of glass. Shadows of towering structures. Cars honked. The ground rumbled. Steve yelped as a rider zipped past him in a strange, sleek bicycle, close enough to see the rider point at him with his middle finger. It felt like Steve should feel offended.
Without a sound, the strange tall structures vanished instantly, Steve flinched, expecting to be rained with rock and glass from its abrupt disappearance. It was quiet again; well, quiet in the way he recognized, with the subdued murmuring of war-beaten soldiers around him, the shuffle of boots on the dirt, the mournful whisper of yet another cold wind.
When Steve's name was repeated, he focused and was taken aback by the realization that he had stumbled, maybe ran, toward the guarded tent. Dum Dum and a face Steve swore a landmine had taken away last week, therefore should not be here, stared back at him with twin looks of alarm.
Dum Dum stepped forward, ready to abandon his post.
Steve shook his head. "Sorry," he managed. "I uh..." His gaze drifted to the tent's closed flaps. "Thought of some questions I needed to ask."
"I can get Fals—"
"No. At ease. That's okay. I'll be real quick." Steve smiled faintly as the other snapped into a salute. Dum Dum rolled his eyes, winked at Steve, but saluted as well.
Steve took a deep breath before stepping in.
Two pairs of eyes silently greeted him when he entered.
Shackled to the center post holding up the tent, Skywalker and Solo sat on the ground, both cross-legged, backs to each other and suspiciously disheveled.
Steve narrowed his eyes as he considered the cut lip Skywalker now sported. Solo wore something similar, only he kept worrying his with his teeth, causing it to bleed.
Brown eyes scanned him up and down. Solo smirked, appearing a bit gruesome with his bloodstained teeth.
"When this is over," Solo rasped, "you're lending me your shield."
Steve snorted. "When this is over," he pointed out to the prisoners, "you could be dead." He ignored the queasiness in his stomach at the thought. "Spies are shot."
Unbelievably, Solo rolled his eyes. Skywalker scoffed.
"Shot?" Solo nodded behind him to Skywalker. "Try being flattened by a tank. Or worse: tossed off a cliff."
"Landmine," Skywalker fired back.
"Stray. Javelin," Solo countered.
Skywalker paused. He winced. "Okay, you got me. You win."
"Yay me," Solo grumbled. He dragged a glower to Steve.
"Where in that defrosted mind of yours did you conjure up a javelin?"
"What?" Steve scowled at the pair. "You're talking in riddles."
"You're dreaming in riddles!" Solo practically howled indignantly. He vibrated like he could shake off his bindings. "And with no sense of the laws of physics!"
"Here we go again," Skywalker groaned aloud and he directed a glower at Steve as if he was to blame for whatever got Solo so worked up.
Solo ranted about how things were not going as fast as they should, bullets shouldn't react the way they do, explosions with, blah, blah, blah.
"…and the way you remembered tanks? Tanks don't do that! They can't, not with the kind of stress they take over a terrain of—"
Skywalker had looked torn between dissuading Solo from his odd rant and encouraging it. It looked like he'd chosen the latter when he interrupted with, "What's the deal with it raining all the time here? It's like Seattle."
The interruption didn't deter Solo. In fact, he veered topics, talking over Skywalker as if he had never spoken. "…couldn't you drag their coffees in here, at least? It would have made this—And that's another thing. Your rifles don't work that way. Not with those barrels and the distance between the loading and exit ports. The trajectory of…"
Wait. This sounded familiar.
Steve stood there as Solo kept going, Skywalker helpfully supplying examples when Solo sputtered for breath, the mess of strange words mixed with the odd sense of familiarity started to nudge the back of Steve's mind. It was like walking into a room, immediately sensing this has all happened before. Steve focused on Solo as he went on and on. There was something off though. Something missing...
"...and who ever heard of a motorcycle with that many cylinders being able to—Whoa! What are you doing?"
Steve furrowed his brow as he stooped down and leaned into Solo's space. Solo's odd tirade stuttered to a halt. His Adam's apple bobbed visibly at the open collar of his uniform, a button missing because Supply had yet to receive new shirts from the Quartermaster.
Closer, Steve crooked a finger at the open neckline and tugged down to peer inside.
"Uh...that's new," Skywalker drawled.
"Hey!" Solo yelped. "You have to buy me dinner first!"
Steve's hand dropped. He opened his mouth. Closed it. He wasn't sure what he wanted to say.
"Your heart's missing," he burst out. Then stopped. Okay, he wasn't expecting to say that.
Solo heaved a sigh. "No, my heart isn't missing."
Steve rocked back on his heels. He gestured toward Solo. "No, you...there should be a..." Steve made a face. The vague notion ebbed and flowed around the edges of memory.
"Go on," Solo coaxed. His voice dropped to a softer, encouraging tone, and there was suddenly something more alert there. "A what?"
Steve dug his fingers into his hair. He could almost see it, far away but beckoning, like a beacon.
"A light," Steve bit out, forcing the words out like he could force the memory forward. "A circle of light. It..." His eyes widened. "It kept you alive, didn't it? It...It was a machine! A mechanical heart!"
"No. No. It's not a heart," Solo said with a sigh like he'd said it many times before, in just this situation. "It's a device that powered the electromagnet field inside that's drawing shrapnel away from my heart. It couldn't be my heart because I'm not Dorothy's rusty sidekick or a Vulcan with it on the wrong side of my body. It's leasing some space right in the center, it's—"
"—an arc reactor," Steve said along with him. With a start, Steve realized how easy it came out and yet the words buzzed in his ears, almost obscured.
Somewhere, outside, a landmine exploded. Yet no one in the tent seemed to care.
Solo's mouth dropped open. "Wait. You remember?"
Steve frowned. "You have a magnet in your body?"
"Can someone remember to untie me?" Skywalker piped up.
Solo scrunched up his face. "Forget that. Go back a revelation. What are you remembering?"
"I..." Steve straightened. The ground seemed to reel under him.
"No, wait! Come on, you're so close!" Solo kicked out a boot like a toddler stamping his feet fighting bedtime. "I do not want to be Bill Murray! Your version of coffee is a step down from drinking dirt! And have you people not heard of sodium? And how can you stand not having anything running even on a microchip over here? God, it's like the twentieth century's version of the Dark Ages!"
Steve made a face to get away from the inexplicable urge to laugh. He folded his arms in front of him. "Don't you think you're exaggerating a bit, Tony?"
A boot thunked to the ground. Outside went quiet.
"Finally," someone breathed but it wasn't clear who.
Steve stumbled, blinking rapidly, and found the two staring at him intently. Steve raised a hand to his head. It throbbed like he'd been standing too close to an artillery shell when it went off. But he blinked through the ache and the feeling faded like a coat that hung over his shoulders wrong and sodden and finally slipping off.
Steve raised his head with difficulty and met Clint Barton's face. He found he wasn't sure what to say. What could he say?
Smiling hesitantly, Steve offered a "Hi?"
Tony, behind Clint, snorted. "Hi there, yourself." He gave Steve a quick check up and down before exhaling. "Took you long enough."
Steve looked around him. He expected New York to spring up around them like concrete pikes now. Instead, the prisoner tent still hung limply from its poles, green and threadbare in places.
"Did we go back in time?" Inside, hope flared warm in his gut. But it cooled when Clint grimaced.
"You did. Sort of."
Steve's eyes slid over to Tony. Unreadable brown eyes met his gaze. Something flickered on his expression and despite being bound to the pole, sitting on the dirt ground, Tony looked serious.
"What do you remember?" Tony asked abruptly. He huffed at Steve's pointed look. "Besides us, obviously, although I'm kind of insulted you could ever forget someone like me in the first place. Him I get. Spies are trained to be 'forget-me-nots' but come on, me?" He shook his head. "Shame on you, Rogers. But seriously—"
"About time," Clint joked.
Tony jerked an elbow back, catching Clint in the back.
Clint retaliated with an elbow of his own. Ignoring the indignant yelp behind him, he studied Steve with the same look whenever he gauged which arrow he needs to use. "Do you remember how you got here?"
Steve furrowed his brow. "Doctor E—"
"No. That's an actual memory." Tony shook his head. "No, no, no. How did you get here?"
Steve stilled. He ran through his memories, picking through stray images like the rubble of war-shattered homes. The pieces wouldn't fit though. The more he thought about it, the foggier his head wanted to be.
Outside, the wind seemed to have picked up: dry and hot and the tent fidgeted around them on the brink of collapse. It was only a tent, Steve thought absently. There was no real reason why Clint and Tony should look so worried when it groaned around them.
"You need to calm down."
Steve lifted his gaze to Tony's. Tony leaned forward, despite the bindings, his dark brow furrowed.
"Cap," Tony said exaggeratedly slow. "You need to calm down."
"I am calm."
Tony raised an eyebrow. He glanced about their surroundings. "Since your subconscious constructed this from your episodic memory centers using experiences you've already encoded, it relies on your present dreaming state to retrieve each representation and set them in place. The projections of your subconscious act like white blood cells and attack anything that threatens…" He stopped at their looks. He huffed. "You've got to be kidding me—Look, your brain is hooked up to a version of what we call a PASIV."
Steve's mouth dropped open. "A what?" He felt around his own head. There was nothing. He gave Tony a suspicious look. "What's a PASIV?"
"Piss ass shitty invention—" Clint stopped. He exhaled. "I got nothing."
"It hacks into your head," Tony explained. He shot Clint a dirty look. "It's an interface that accesses your memories and throws it up on IMAX: big and loud."
"So," Tony gestured toward Steve with a chin still clean of his goatee (and how nuts was it that he hadn't thought it was strange before?), "I get this sounds very science fiction to you. You're excused. You were asleep during that class. Literally. But, you..." Tony elbowed Clint again as best he could. "Didn't you read the brief Fury gave you a few months back when some of the sleep manipulation prototypes were reported missing? Why am I the only one who ever reads those things besides B—"
A spot in his mind expanded to a name, many names. "Doctor Banner," Steve finished. "Bruce." He checked left and right. "Is he here as well? Hulk? Thor? Natasha?" He waited for his teammates to pop up. When they didn't, his face fell.
Tony shook, looking just as unhappy. "Whatever you're hooked up to is a sensitive son-of-a-bitch. It wouldn't sync with Bruce's brainwaves, probably because of the Sybil thing he has going with the big guy. As for Thor, I didn't even want to chance his godliness frying it with his lightning. And Natasha…"
Clint and Tony exchanged a look over their shoulders.
Expression deliberately blank, Clint told Steve, "It didn't like Natasha."
"At all. If it could, that machine would have cowered in a corner and eaten its own wiring," added Tony with a drawl and a mock shudder. "Long story short: we two lucky devils were the only other normal brain patterns to hijack your REM cycle without shorting the device."
Tony's words finally sank in.
"Wait. We're dreaming?" Steve asked.
"No, you are. We're hitchhiking in your head," corrected Tony. "If I was dreaming..." He trailed off, mouth crooked to a smirk as Clint muttered and Steve rolled his eyes. And it felt right to do so.
Steve's smile faded when something else occurred to him. "So Howard, Peggy, Buc—everyone…" Steve swallowed. "They're not real?"
Tony's somber voice physically hurt to hear. "I'm sorry."
Outside, the wind howled and it sounded like it had picked up a truck and rolled it across the grounds.
Steve held up his hands when twin looks of alarm snapped to him. "I am calm." Belatedly, he bent to untie them, shaking his head at his own absentmindedness .
"Actually, I don't think it has anything to do with that anymore," Tony muttered as he rubbed his wrists. He stood up shakily and leaned against the center pole he'd previously been tied to. "The thing was constantly trying to build the dream based on your memories, but the more you think about the fact you're dreaming, the more unstable your dream becomes."
"So I should be waking up then." Steve waited for the tent to melt away around him.
"That's just it." Tony made a frustrated noise.
"We haven't been able to wake you up," Clint explained when Tony began pacing the small confines of the tent. "When we found you hooked up to that thing—"
"Wait. Found?" Steve's chin dropped as he took hold of an image that went floating by. "AIM. Brazil."
"We got separated in the jungle by the homicidal drones," Tony offered helpfully like it was every day killer robots came after you.
"Everyone thought they were trying to cut down the Amazon. Who knew they were wannabe Dr. Doom's killbots trying to burn down the Amazon? A little extreme. It's like Greenpeace, only not." Clint said, and Steve felt the echo like he'd heard someone saying that description before.
"Blowtorches instead of hands," Tony pointed out. "Honestly. Who does that? I mean, besides me."
"They nearly burnt a hole into your suit," Steve said and he could see it. The Iron Man suit blazing hot and white like a solar flare. And then felt himself diving between the red heat and Tony, his shield arm raised.
"It was a mess," Clint agreed. "That blast you blocked set everything on fire. Fried our com circuits all to hell. Those robots were desperate to make Swiss cheese out of everything. Only way to stop them was to bust them back to Legos. Bruce got knocked out. Iron Man's joints melted. They set Thor's hair on fire. I nearly drowned. Nat broke a nail. It was one big cluster of ducks. You can probably still see the burn marks from space."
"Not our finest hour." Tony rubbed his chest as he made a face, remembering. "Then, by the time we were done making the killbots back into things appropriate for ages two and up, you were gone."
Steve glanced down at himself. "Gone?"
"I mean, gone. Like no GPS, no footprints, no bread crumb trail to grandma's house, no nothing. All that was left was the shield. Just laying there next to the river. We spent a lot of time searching the bottom of that damn thing," Tony grimaced and glanced at Clint and there was a heavy look exchanged between them.
Clint ran a hand against the back of his neck. "Definitely not our finest hour."
"But we found you. Eventually. And, hey, isn't that what counts?" Tony added brightly, still rubbing absently at his chest. "Though, just so you know, we're not allowed in Rio any longer. I mean, who really wants to go to Rio anyway? Except for the hot chicks, and the hot dancing, and maybe the next summer Olympics. But that comes once every four years anyway and I'm nearly a hundred percent certain they'll be totally over it by then. I'll just have to buy them a new stadium or something."
"I wouldn't bet on it," Clint muttered.
"Rio?" Steve was confused.
"I know. I know. It was the nearest big city." Tony shook his head and leaned against the pole still rubbing at his chest. "You allegedly threaten to blow a few things up, and maybe start a few international incidents of name calling when they won't fork over the communications equipment we need, and then they hold a grudge. Like they didn't know I would pay them back."
"I thought your 'you can fucking bill me' came off really sincere," Clint offered helpfully.
"I know!" Tony agreed, wide-eyed. "Can you believe those guys? But still we found you, not dead, not drowned, and that's what counts. Am I right?"
Clint watched Tony's hand pressing absently against his chest, a worried frown on his face as he added grimly, "Except when we broke into the facility, you were asleep and we couldn't wake you up."
"Some sort of bastardized version of the military's experimental PASIV dream-training system," Tony filled in, as he pressed a thumb to his breastbone and grimaced. "See, we think AIM was trying to pump you for information about the Avengers, and since they obviously weren't going to get you to talk, they tried dreaming it out of you. You'd be amazed at how much industrial espionage is being attempted that way these days. Anyway, we busted in, you were all hooked up, we unplugged you, and nothing." Tony's grip tightened against the shirt's fabric. "It was like Sleeping Beauty. Only without the fun part."
Clint reached out to check Tony's chest, but Tony batted his hand away. He waggled a finger at Steve. "Turns out you have a very literal mind, my friend. Best as we can tell, when that old noggin of yours picked up that something wasn't right, it took to hiding back when the motto was still 'loose lips sink ships.'"
There was exasperated affection in his voice even as he clutched at his chest and hunched over, his face blanching. "We've been stuck in here forever to get you to wake up and smell the twenty-first century."
"What's happening?" Steve demanded as he wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulders. Tony slumped against him, tried to straighten then slumped further against Steve.
"Is it your heart?" Steve asked as Clint crouched in front of Tony to peer up at him. "Is it your arc reactor?" His eyes flicked toward the white knuckled fist clutching the shirt, the top button gone, leaving a gap to reveal—
"Where's your reactor?" Steve's arm tightened around Tony. "You...you still don't have your reactor!" Tony needed it. In the brief time they knew each other, Steve had learned the arc reactor wasn't built to create Iron Man, it was to keep Tony alive. "Tony, where's your arc reactor? Shouldn't it be back?"
"It doesn't exist here," Tony gritted out. "Your subconscious never created it for me because it didn't fit with your world."
"But I know I'm dreaming now." Steve locked his knees when Tony's buckled.
"You're realizing it's a dream now." Tony squeezed his eyes tight. His breathing quickened. Sweat damped the back of his uniform. "It's not enough to make the arc reactor exist for me, but enough to remind you that it's crucial for me to have it."
"Stop talking," Clint snapped as he slipped an arm around Tony's middle. To Steve, "Your mind can only build what it knows into the dream and that includes technology."
Steve's eyes widened. "So...but if I'm dreaming this. Your real body's okay, right? This isn't real."
"Feels pretty real to me," Tony managed between pants.
Steve's stomach lurched at how fast Tony's face had gone gray.
"You need to wake up, Cap," Clint said tightly as he held Tony up by the arm. "When we're killed, it's instant and everything resets, but something's different now. If he's still here and nothing started over, this could be happening for real to his physical body right now." He looked like he was going to shake Tony in hopes of knocking the impending cardiac arrest out of him.
"I..." Steve looked helplessly around. "How? Shouldn't I be able to wake up from this? Now that I know?"
Clint shrugged his shoulder, but he looked like it angered him. "You should, but we've been trying. Each time we've tried, we get killed and find ourselves right back here at the beginning, planning for that damn mission again."
"I don't remember any of that," Steve admitted. He peered down at Tony's head, dark hair matted with sweat and butted up against his shoulder. He could feel the trembling. "What should I do?"
"Reset," Clint said curtly.
Steve adjusted his hold on Tony when he felt him tense. "Reset?"
"A redo," Tony gasped out, his teeth gritted. "Reboot the server, mainly you."
"Didn't I tell you to stop talking?" Clint told him as he slid two fingers under Tony's jaw. His mouth pursed. "Makes it hard for me to decide when I shoot you in the head."
"Ah ha," panted Tony. "Knew you were…still bitter about…the last 'ox of Twin'ies…"
"They were discontinued." Clint paused. "Besides, you fixed it by buying the company."
Steve only heard one thing out of the entire exchange. Eyes huge, horrified, Steve looked down at Tony. "Shoot him?"
"Pay attention, Cap. If we die, we reboot." Tony gasped. "Like Pac Man. You remember Pac Man. You and Thor, sitting on my couch, eating way too many powdered donuts, yelling at a screen. Pac Man."
"Then maybe..." Steve trailed off. Tony's face was pressed to his shoulder now. He could feel Tony's gasps tearing out of his body.
Clint swore. He curled and uncurled his fists. "Shit, okay, time to hit the reset button." He swallowed, appearing to be fighting back nausea and when Steve saw his steady hand reach for Tony's neck, Steve fought back the gag as well.
"No." Tony edged away, but he didn't get very far, bumping shoulders against Steve and bouncing back.
"Because it hurts just as bad as the real deal," Clint empathized. Relief flickered across his face before he was able to squash it down.
Tony shook his head, nearly knocking Steve in the chin. His voice was strained, barely louder than the wheezing that seemed to rattle in him. "Closest we ever got. Can't start over. No way. No more B—"
"No more Bill Murray. Got it. Got it." Clint tapped a fist against his thigh. "No more do over. If Steve wakes up, your body should recognize it has the arc reactor in it?"
Tony nodded jerkily. Sweat dripped off his nose.
"So wake me up!" Steve hugged Tony closer to him.
"We don't know how." Clint grimaced. "We've been trying but then we get killed and the whole thing—"
"Resets," Steve finished. His mind spun. "Wait. You two died and everything restarted. What if I die...I mean this is my dream, isn't it?"
"You were killed in action once." A shadow flicked across Clint's face. "We were shot down before we could get to you and died as well."
"And did we...?" Steve's heart sank when Clint shook his head.
"Maybe the device left in you some sort of failsafe," Clint said as he hefted Tony higher against him, his eyes glued to the top of Tony's head.
"No," Tony grit out. He reached out a hand, almost flailing until Steve caught it. "Not the machine." Air came out whining, forced out between clenched teeth. "You." His fingers curled tight around Steve's grip.
Steve's arms tensed around Tony. "Me?" He looked wildly at the tent. "I'm doing this?" He could feel Tony shaking against him.
"Need to want to wake up."
Steve had to lean in, practically bowed over Tony to hear him this time. He straightened at the words.
"Want to—but I do want to wake up." Steve's head swiveled but apparently they weren't the right words because everything was still the same. "I want to wake up," he repeated, louder, toward the tent's ceiling.
By now, Tony's bloodless grip moved from his chest to dig painfully to Steve's forearm wrapped around his middle. Steve winced when fingernails drew blood, but when Tony tried to pull his hand back, Steve firmly clamped his other hand over to keep it there.
"Okay." Steve came to a decision quickly, more spurred by the sawing rasps below his chin. "Maybe we need to ah…reboot simultaneously? I know I'm dreaming now so maybe that's what we need?" Steve noted the furrow on Clint's brow. "Could work."
"Could work?" Clint echoed. "No offense, Captain, but I think I would feel better if there was a bit more specificity."
"It's like turning your computer on and off," Tony agreed with a wheeze that distorted his reply, "s" and "z" sprinkled all over.
"It's the only thing we have to go on," Steve said, trying to sound like he would with his Howling Commandos—like he knew the answers, like he was prepared to do what it takes.
Tony nodded weakly, although it seemed more like he was bobbing his head up to draw breath. Clint gave an aborted nod, still looking unhappy, but then Steve doubted there was little to be hopeful about.
"How are we going to do this?" Clint eyed the pistol in Steve's holster. "I'm not that good of a shot to nail all three of us."
Steve swallowed. Ah. He considered the tent flaps.
"Please," Tony groaned. "No more jav…javelins."
Clint looked over to Steve over Tony's bowed head. "Stray javelin doesn't sound so bad right now,"
Tony made a distressed sound. Clint grimaced. Awkwardly, he patted Tony's slumped shoulders.
Steve gave Tony's hand a squeeze. "No more javelins. Grenade?" At Clint's headshake, Steve bit his lower lip. "Firing squad?"
"Unless you plan to fling yourself at our feet, they'll never shoot Cap…Captain…" Tony bent double as he coughed.
"Save your breath," Clint ordered. He gave Tony a gentle shake, flinching when it rattled out more coughs. "Seriously, do I need to gag you, Stark?"
Tony, always needing the last word, wheezed, "Kinky." He butted Steve on the chest, leaning on him when his knees shook too much.
"Cliff," Tony bit out.
Steve's eyes widen. "Four clicks from here. We jump?"
Tony shook his head. "We Thelma and Louise it."
Clint huffed, tapped a loose fist on Tony's head. "Next movie night. Is there a jeep?"
Steve drew the pieces together and something clicked. "Drive us off it?"
"Or into the sunset," Tony panted. "With your screwed up laws of—"
"Quiet," Steve ordered. When Tony did, his gut tightened. Steve gave a brief squeeze in apology. Tony managed a half-hearted eye roll in response.
Clint peered cautiously out of the tent flaps. He stiffened.
"What?" Steve hefted Tony higher against him.
"The guards are gone. In fact..." Clint stepped through before Steve could warn against it. "...everyone's gone." He checked over his shoulder. "Jeep?"
The trembling body pressed against him straightened as Tony locked his knees. "Yeah."
Steve glanced around the tent, memorizing everything he could, even the damp stench of burlap failing to dry right in the wind before he staggered out, acutely aware of the sagging weight against him.
Lifting his heavy head, Tony considered the area. Even the distant sound of tin pots and murmuring by the chow line were gone.
"Was it something we said?" Tony rasped.
With a snort, Clint tugged Tony's right arm draped over his shoulders closer. In silent agreement, Steve did the same with Tony's left, and in a mock march, they fell into an awkward stride toward the cluster of jeeps huddled on the edge of base.
Deep down, a part of him knew Clint couldn't be the only one eying the tents and the abandoned posts with a wary eye. But the way the frost-crusted dirt crunched under his boots distracted him. The flippy flap sounds the tents made under the winds kept drawing his eye. Steve tentatively took a breath and was struck aback at how sharp the scent of damp earth tasted in his tongue, like the first bite of ice cream.
And it was so empty, like he was left behind again—no. He left them behind before, everybody, and slept the war, their lives, his world away. And he was leaving them behind. Again. For good. Because he can't stay. None of them can.
"It's quiet," Steve murmured, unwilling to break this odd calm that settled over the base. Even the distant tank fire was missing.
"Don't say it," Tony wheezed when Clint opened his mouth to apparently agree. "Too cliché."
Clint's mouth snapped shut. He peered around the last tent before reaching the jeeps in the clearing. His eyes darted about as if waiting for someone to jump out of the shadows.
"Clear?" Steve whispered.
There was a curt nod, but Clint's set mouth indicated he wasn't too happy about it. There was a general sense the world around them was holding its breath. Nevertheless, Clint again took up one side of Tony and they crossed the clearing. Tony nearly fell into the back of one jeep.
"Guess we'll take this one," Clint remarked dryly. His hand drifted to press under Tony's jaw. He ignored Tony's one-fingered response, his head bobbing slightly as he counted. He frowned.
Clint raised a slitted gaze to Steve. "We better move out…"
Steve twisted around when Clint trailed off, his eyes widening at something past his shoulder. His shield was balanced in his grip, front and center by the time he turned around and faced…
"Bucky," Steve breathed out as his friend broke away from the group surrounding them, appearing almost as if they sprang up from the earth.
"Hey, Steve." Bucky's grin was easy going as he sauntered toward them, his hands in his pockets. He didn't give Clint and Tony a second glance. "What's up?" When he stopped in front of Steve, his gaze drifted behind him and the grin faltered.
"What are you doing, Steve?" Bucky looked hurt when he looked back at Steve. "You weren't thinking about going AWOL, were ya?"
"Captain?" Falsworth called out hesitantly from the back.
"He wouldn't do that," Gabe argued in return, his temper flaring up just as quick as Steve remembered.
"Sergeant," Steve chided before he could stop himself.
"They're not real," Tony hissed, almost inaudibly somewhere below Steve's ear.
"Sorry, buddy, but I was talking to Steve here, not you," Bucky interrupted, still not looking at Tony or Clint. That broad grin Steve knew since they were kids was on Bucky again. It faltered at Steve's look. "You're not really listening to this knucklehead, are you?"
"They're spies," protested Morita.
Steve caught sight of the telltale Asian dark hair trying to elbow through the crowd before Gabe's meaty grip stayed him.
"Captain, you can't believe what they say!"
"I…" Steve's head spun. The faces around him sharpened in focus. He glanced behind them and Sky—no, Clint—looked at him with barely disguised panic. His face blurred and…wasn't there someone else with him?
"No," Steve said. "They're not spies." Somehow, saying it out loud put Clint's white-lipped expression back into focus. He saw Tony's grip on top of the backseat; he couldn't sit up anymore, but Steve heard him, clawing for each breath.
Bucky snorted. "And how did ya figure? They told you? Steve, I hate to tell you, but spies will pretty much tell you anything."
"'e has a point," Tony wheezed.
"Quiet," Clint and Steve snapped. Miraculously, Tony did, but Clint didn't act like it was a victory. And when he shot Steve a look, it didn't feel like one either.
"Come on," Bucky pleaded. "You don't really believe them, do you?" He gestured jerkily toward Clint. "Look at him! He's a HYDRA spy! Didn't you think he just came out of nowhere? The little guy, too!"
"'ittle?" Tony choked out.
"Will you shut up?" Clint hissed. He didn't look down; he kept his gaze steady on Steve.
"You're 'orter t-than me! I'm 'ot—"
"Tony," Steve called out. He heard a half-hearted grumble but Tony obeyed.
"Tony?" Gabe grunted. "Thought he said his name was Solo, Cap."
"What other lies did he tell you?" Falsworth called out.
"Just what a spy would do," another said darkly.
Steve bit his lower lip as the crowd around them pressed in, murmuring louder and louder. Their voices seemed to sink into Steve's bones.
"Don't listen to them," warned Clint. "This is your mind trying to correct the dream—"
"A dream?" Bucky barked. "What are you, nuts? Is that what they been telling you? If we were dreaming, where are the dames? What the hell kind of dream is this?"
"You're not dreaming," Clint shot back angrily. He easily shook off Tony's weak tug on his sleeve. "You're not really here!"
Morita laughed. "Oh, that's rich! Where are we then, HYDRA?"
"Nowhere, because you're all nothing but a bunch of—"
"Skywalker, that's enough," Steve ordered before the corporal could finish.
There was a stunned silence.
"Steve," a voice rasped from inside the vehicle. "No, damn it. Don't do thi—" Harsh coughing interrupted the plea.
Steve shuddered. He stared down at his hands then at the jeep. Clint was bent over Tony, coaxing him to take a deep breath, easy, he's not really feeling the shrapnel, breathe in and out Stark…
Tony gripped Clint's uniform, determined to pull himself upright.
"It's all right, Tony," Steve called out shakily. "I'm back. I remember; it's okay."
The hand on Clint's shirt relaxed and limply dropped out of sight.
"So it's Tony, huh?" Bucky said sourly. "Now you're buddies with the spies? Steve, you're Captain America. You can't be pals with spies."
"They're not spies," Steve protested. He wished his voice sounded surer. "I believe them."
"Spies are good that way," Peggy spoke up. "They can be very convincing."
Looking between Clint, Peggy, then the jeep, Steve swallowed. "But—"
"You can't believe both of us," soothed Peggy. "You have to decide who you believe."
Steve turned away from Peggy, but facing the others wasn't much better. They stared back at him like ghosts. Falsworth frowned, Howard was shaking his head, Bucky looked at Steve like there was so much he wanted to say, and Morita…Morita…
Steve stared at Morita. Where were the stray white hairs on his temples? As they were hunched in the trenches, cold and hungry, Gabe had teased him, offering his boot polish to fix that right up. And the whole platoon had dissolved into snorts and wheezes as they tried to keep quiet; it hadn't really been that funny. But after that mission, Steve had found a dozen tins of black polish on his rack, ready to be shoved into Morita's books, his knapsack, his bedroll.
It'd been Bucky's idea.
But Morita never got them because…
"When did you give him the shoe polish?" Steve fixed his gaze on Bucky.
Bucky's toothy grin sent a sharp pain in Steve's throat. "Hell, Steve! It was right after the Grotwin mission. Remember? I snuck around after dark grabbing everybody's shoe polish—"
"And when did you give it to him?" Steve nodded toward Morita. He could hear Tony's ragged breath behind him shushing Clint after he hissed, "Don't believe them!"
Steve considered Peggy, beautiful Peggy, appearing strong and capable in her uniform, amazing in that red dress.
"Was it before or after I told you about our date?"
Bucky chortled. "After. Remember?"
"No. I don't."
The group around them, who had been murmuring and scowling at Clint and Tony the entire time, stilled, suddenly silent.
Steve's eyes burned but he kept them on Bucky. "You never gave them to Morita because you…" His throat worked. "And only Peggy and I knew about that date. We talked about it on the plane's radio."
"Aw, Steve, you told me after—"
"No," Steve came close to shouting, "I didn't and you never gave Morita the polish because you died, Bucky! And I wanted to tell you, I really did, but you weren't there and then later, I—"
"Why'd you have to keep digging?"
Peggy's weary voice drew him away from Bucky's stunned face.
"Why couldn't you have left well enough alone?" Peggy came up close to Steve. Her slender fingers, the ones he drew in his sketchbook, skimmed the side of his face. "You were happy. Weren't you? It's why you came here. To be with us."
"But I'm not," Steve murmured. "I'm…" He tore his eyes away and made himself stare at the jeep's bumper instead. "I'm not really here. You're not real." A lump in his throat choked the rest out. "None of you are."
Peggy smiled softly, her fingertip on his lower lip. "It doesn't matter. Does it?"
Steve stared. "What?"
Fingers stroked his lip, his chin. Steve wanted to close his eyes, remember but, no, this wasn't a memory. This had never happened.
Steve caught Peggy by her wrist. Carefully, he pushed her hand away from him.
Hurt, Peggy looked up at him. "It's everything you wanted. We could have that dance."
"You could make me the best man," Bucky piped up. "It's what you wanted. Right? Well, you can have it."
"He'll die!" Clint snarled from the jeep.
Steve didn't turn around, but he could sense Clint was ready to vault.
"If he stays here with you, his body will forget how to live."
Peggy smiled serenely, unbothered. "But in here with us it'll feel like years. Like a lifetime."
"We'll win the war, Steve," Gabe spoke up. "We'll all go back to America heroes."
"All of us," Bucky added. He stepped forward. "All of us. Just how you wanted it."
"I'll even get that flying car for you, Rogers."
Steve's stomach dropped when Howard emerged out from the back of the crowd. He was smiling, all slick and "Have I got a deal for you."
"You and Carter get hitched, we'll go back to New York, and I'll introduce you to my wife and kid."
A choked sound behind him made Steve snap out, "He's right here, Howard! He's in the jeep and…he's dying. Your son, Howard!"
Howard stared at Steve blankly. "What are you talking about? Maria and little Anthony are waiting for me and their Uncle Steve back in New York."
Steve shook his head. It felt like he was drunk, when he could still get drunk. Things were getting cloudy. He mentally reached out and grabbed the first thought that came to him.
"No. You weren't married until after the war."
Howard scoffed. "Are you kidding me? You were at my wedding, Steve! Don't you remember? We joked about me and Maria fonduing, too! Uncle Steve was going to tell my kid all about it when he gets older."
"'hrist," Tony garbled weakly, "this just gets better and better, doesn't it?"
"Don't you remember, Steve?" Howard pressed.
No—yes, Steve could see him and Howard, exchanging stories, ribbing each other in front of a small, wide-eyed Tony chewing on the socket wrench he found playing in Howard's workshop. He'd come visiting, old Uncle Steve, every Sunday with his wife just like he'd wished—
"Stop it," Steve whispered.
"Cap?" Clint called out sharply.
"Steve, listen to me," Peggy murmured as if floating by his ear. "Everything you hoped for. You could be there with Howard, watching his son grow up, watching our children grow up…"
Steve shook his head. "Stop it," he said, mustering every bit of voice he attached with Captain America. "Stop this. Right now."
"Cap," Clint breathed harshly, "we got to go."
"No," Peggy said resolutely, her gaze fixed on Steve. "He's staying. You want to stay. Don't you?" She canted her head. "No fear. Just love and comfort. And safety."
"Stay with us." Bucky stood shoulder to shoulder with Peggy. Howard lined himself up with the pair.
A trio of his past stood like a wall before him; a past he should have completed. A past Steve thought was his life. A past interrupted when he suddenly found himself in a future he never should have been in.
"We can finally have a future together." Peggy settled a hand on Steve's chest, over his heart. "We could have our own family. It'll be just how you had wanted it. A family. Your friends alive and happy around you."
"I can't stay here," Steve told her, his throat working. "I need to go back. The others…"
Bucky snorted. "Why is it your job? Haven't you done enough?" He crossed his arms. "Didn't you tell me you missed me?"
"I-I do. God, Bucky, I miss you every day since I woke up!" Steve looked pleadingly at Bucky. "You were my best friend."
Bucky screwed up his face. "Were? I'm still here!"
Steve's throat was tight when he croaked, "No, you're not. Not really."
Bucky scowled, an expression unfamiliar yet sent a pang to Steve's chest. "So you're just going to go AWOL on us with these knuckleheads?"
It felt like the ground under his feet was moving without him. Around them, his Commandos—No, they weren't really them—rumbled restlessly. For a brief moment, Steve feared they were going to surge forward and tear them apart.
Steve opened his hands and looked at Howard, Peggy, and finally Bucky. "I…I'm not supposed to be here."
Bucky folded his arms, unmoved. "So you're gonna leave us?" He turned to the others. "Will you get a load of this? Our Captain was going to ditch us without so much as a goodbye."
Steve's breath caught in his throat. "Goodbye."
"Cap?" Clint called out tersely.
Steve swallowed. "I left you all and woke up with the war behind me."
"'ot your fau—" Tony couldn't finish as coughing tore the rest out of him into a harsh, tearing noise.
"Not your fault," Clint agreed. "You didn't have a choice."
Steve placed a hand over Peggy's on his chest. "Doesn't matter. I…I always felt like I had abandoned everybody. If only I could have stayed—"
"Steve, you can." Bucky stepped forward. He threw an arm over Steve's broad shoulders and began to steer him into the crowd.
"No!" Clint lunged forward. He grunted when Gabe and Howard grabbed him by the arms. He fell back into the jeep.
Tony grunted, pained.
"Let go! Cap! Steve! Don't listen to them!"
Steve dug his heels in, stopping Bucky in his tracks. "Bucky. No. I wished I could have stayed, but only long enough to say goodbye."
"But now you don't have to," insisted Bucky. "You don't have to get on that plane. You don't have to wake up in a time you don't belong."
Steve took a deep breath. "I don't regret getting on that plane. I only regret…" He smiled sadly at Bucky, his face cracking at the seams. Or at least, it felt like it was.
"I'm sorry, Bucky." Steve pulled his friend to him. Bucky squawked, just like Steve remembered he used to. "You were the best friend from as far back as I could remember. I wish you could be there with me to see everything."
Bucky didn't move for a moment, but then his arms slowly came up. A fist grabbed the back of Steve's jacket and held on tight.
"I'm sorry I couldn't save you," Steve whispered into the top of Bucky's head.
Bucky patted Steve. He said nothing. But after a beat…
"Aw. You're so much taller now. This feels weird."
Steve choked. Yes, this was exactly what he'd thought Bucky would say. He sniffed loudly, giving Bucky one last squeeze before stepping back. He took a deep breath before turning to Peggy.
Peggy still looked as beautiful as he remembered her: slinking into the bar in that red dress, looking like she owned the place, the street, the whole world.
Steve smiled tightly, head dipped because he wanted to kiss her but he would never be able to walk away if he did.
"You were the prettiest woman I ever met," Steve whispered.
Peggy tilted her heart-shaped face toward him. She smiled that small secretive smile she always wore whenever Steve caught her looking.
"And I loved you the moment we met," she murmured. She stepped closer, into his shadow and her tan uniform faded into that red dress he remembered so well. He could even smell a hint of roses in her perfume.
"We can have that dance, Steven. You can ask me to be your wife. We can be happy."
"Great, they're bringing out the b-big guns," Tony rasped from behind him.
"Cap?" Clint called out worriedly.
Ignoring them, Peggy drifted a hand to his arm. "We can have that dance. Every day if you want. And when the war is over…"
Steve blinked. That tight feeling in his chest, that coil of want and longing loosened, more like abruptly cut slack, at her promises.
"That's just it," Steve croaked.
Peggy tilted her head.
"The war." Steve pressed a palm over his own heart. "The war was never over for me. It'll never be over here because I didn't know anything else." He lifted his burning eyes to cast a look at the faces blurring around him.
"This isn't real," Steve whispered. No matter how much he wanted it to be. He looked over his shoulder at the jeep. His stomach twisted when he realized he could only see Clint now, eyes staring hard into the backseat where Tony had fallen. Even Tony's white-knuckled grip on the seat was missing.
"That's real," Steve murmured, turning back to the faces he still saw in his dreams when they weren't filled with ice and snow. He swallowed.
"I'm sorry. I can't stay." Steve blinked rapidly. He picked up Peggy's hand, drew it to his mouth. He paused. No. He couldn't. He can't.
Steve dropped her hand.
Peggy sighed softly, a bright sheen over her eyes.
"You never chose the easy way," she murmured. She squeezed his hand. "Always have to be the one to land on the grenade." Red tips brushed the bottom of his lip. "I'm sorry we never had that dance."
Eyes burning, Steve barely croaked out, "Me, too."
"So you're not staying?" Gabe's mustache wiggled unhappily, but no one moved. In fact, the crowd seemed to have thinned.
"I don't belong here," Steve called out. He smiled tightly. "Not anymore."
"But you don't belong up there," Howard protested, but his conviction was no longer there.
Steve shrugged. "I can try." Abruptly, he tugged Howard into a hug. Howard predictably muttered a protest, fidgeted, yet Steve thought it was more something that Tony would do.
Howard sighed, giving up. He reluctantly returned the embrace. He felt reed-thin in Steve's arms, a ghost fading into memory. Steve hugged harder.
"Geez, Rogers." Howard patted Steve's back. His voice dropped. "Take care of my boy, will you?" Because I didn't, was left unsaid.
Steve wordlessly nodded, releasing Howard. He cast his eyes on his Commandos. All of them. Their faces. The scar on Falsworth's brow, Morita's lopsided smile. They no long tried to surround him. They stood back, waiting for new orders.
Back straight, feet together, Steve saluted them. Then he turned away, twisting his body around with a wrench he could swear actually hurt.
The vehicle squeaked under his weight and there was a brief, scary moment when the engine wouldn't turn over. Steve heard Clint exhale when the engine growled. He didn't hear anything from Tony at all.
Steve's foot stomped down on the gas.
The cliff appeared past the fog that had surrounded the grounds. Steve squeezed his hands around the steering wheel.
I want this. I want this, Steve thought over and over to himself as he drove toward the edge. The road that started out so rocky, smoothed, and Steve's chest lightened.
This was going to work.
"Steve," Clint said quietly. "Behind you."
Steve tensed as he glanced in his rearview mirror.
Everyone stood at the edge of the base in solemn salute.
The road blurred in front of him, the decline into the drop no longer in focus.
"Goodbye," Steve whispered. He closed his burning eyes when he felt the jeep's front wheels roll off the edge...
A flurry of noise assaulted him. Feet were pounding around him. A whine cut through a mix of voices. Metal groaned as the platform he was lying on folded up into a chair.
"Are you okay? Captain? Steve?"
There was a glimpse of Bruce Banner's face, tight with barely hidden worry, eyes tinged bloodshot and green. But it left his view before Steve could answer.
"How long before the Helicarrier gets here?" Clint was shouting somewhere past his head.
"I can fly our brother to our Tower." Thor's voice rumbled like distant thunder.
"Too far and Tony can't tell us what we may need." Natasha's voice was as flat as Steve remembered it, but there was a thread underneath that made his stomach twist.
Natasha crossed his view, dark eyes flickering across his face. Steve blinked back at her and something eased in her face, but her expression didn't change. He felt a brief touch, a light squeeze around his shoulder before she, too, disappeared from view.
At this point, as he sat up with a hand on his back and a "Captain, it is good to see you aware again," in his ears, the long beep registered. His eyes zipped to what he assumed were heart monitors, attached to him with electrodes. Clint's were still attached, the boxy monitor dragged off its shelf when Clint got off his platform. He was absently peeling them out from under his shirt with a distracted frown as he stooped over Bruce and Natasha huddled over—
The long beep of a flatline nearly drowned out Bruce's terse counting as he bent over Tony's supine form. It was almost comical to see Iron Man's red and gold boots sticking out from under the ledge of Bruce's bent knees and shredded pants. The rest of Tony, partially hidden by Natasha's form, was clearly out of the armor, Tony's black t-shirt torn down the middle, the blue glow everyone was accustomed to see with Tony was absent.
"...four...come on." Bruce was still counting, seeming unaware of his post-Hulk undress.
Natasha said nothing, sucking in a breath and sealing her lips over Tony at Bruce's "Four."
"...Three minutes?" Clint was hissing into his earwig. "Are you fuc—"
Natasha lowered her head to Tony again.
"Captain, remain seated. You have been under a coward's spell for a long time," Thor advised, but he did not stop Steve when he slid shakily off his table. Torn shackles clanged as they fell to the ground, but no one looked up.
The com Clint held cracked audibly in his grasp. "You don't have traffic up there. Three minutes is not an option. You guys should already be here!"
"Six," Bruce chanted, his voice growing hoarse.
Natasha tilted Tony's head back, drew a sharp breath, bent forward... and stopped.
"I have a pulse," she said abruptly, her voice still calm, but she sat back on her heels the same time Bruce did.
Tony jerked on the floor and began to cough. Loudly.
Steve dropped to his knees beside Tony. He dropped a hand over the circle of light sputtering, flickering like a candle in the wind.
Watering brown eyes, red-rimmed from coughing, tilted up at Steve. Tony didn't try to sit up, although everyone acted like he would and loomed around him, poised to tackle.
"You're...you're...we're awake," Tony wheezed.
Steve swallowed. He looked around at the shambles of a deserted warehouse. He could smell gunfire, the sizzle of ozone where lasers had cut through air, the damp humidity thick with dust from destroyed walls. The smell of modern warfare.
His stomach twisted. His throat tightened as the cavalry came not with a flood of shouts, but with a distant whump-whump of propellers high above him.
"I...I guess we are," Steve croaked.
Tony's shoulders slumped, but Steve couldn't tell if it was from relief or the exhaustion filling his bones.
"Better," Bruce pronounced as he took Tony's wrist to check his pulse. He exhaled and smiled wearily down at him. "Hello, Tony."
Dazed brown eyes blinked sluggishly up at him. "Hi." Tony smacked his lips.
"Who the hell kissed me?"
"Bruce," Natasha said primly before she rose to her feet to make room for the arriving medics.
Tony blearily scanned Bruce up and down just as Steve wordlessly passed Bruce his jacket to cover his...modesty.
"Ew," Tony announced breathlessly before his eyes rolled to the back of his head and he passed out.
"Shouldn't that be above your pay grade or something?"
Steve looked up at the barely audible croak and frowned. Through the panes of arc reactor holograms JARVIS had helpfully displayed in mid-air, Steve could see Tony leaning against the entryway for what Steve suspected was for support.
"Shouldn't you still be in bed?" Steve countered. He tracked Tony as he padded barefoot across the living room, idly scratching his stomach under a shirt that had fit better just a few weeks before.
"Medical released you yesterday only if you stayed in bed for the rest of the week," Steve reminded him.
Tony dismissed both Steve's admonishment and the holograms away with an irritated wave of a hand before dropping heavily onto the other end of the sofa. He slumped there, legs outstretched in front of him.
Steve's frown deepened when he spied what was underneath the loose-fitting sweatpants.
"Aren't you supposed to keep wearing the compression socks, too?"
"Tony, you know what Bruce said about blood clots—"
"You and Pepper!" Tony groaned as he dropped his head back. He scowled at the ceiling. "Did you know she's holding out while I'm on bed rest, which is ridiculous considering how that is counterintuitive in encouraging me to stay in bed? I don't see how pantyhose and celibacy can make me feel better!"
Steve's ears pinked. That explained Miss Potts' absence the past few days. He fidgeted in his seat.
"Oh my God. Really?" Tony gestured toward Steve. "I thought it was 1940, not 1840 you defrosted from."
Steve scowled at Tony who smirked back wearily. Steve sank back into the sofa, his ears only now cooling from its flush.
They sat in silence. Steve was debating asking JARVIS to bring up a movie on Tony's ridiculously large screen when Tony spoke.
"Can't sleep?" Tony asked casually, his eyes glued to the ceiling.
Steve shrugged. "Don't you think I slept long enough?" he joked weakly. When Tony didn't laugh, his shoulders slumped. "Can't really," Steve mumbled.
"So were you thinking reading specs on my arc reactor was going to put you to sleep?" Tony snapped his fingers tiredly. JARVIS dutifully brought the holograms back up.
Steve rubbed the back of his neck, "Sorry. I asked JARVIS if it was okay—"
Tony waved his apology with another hand. It looked like it took a lot of effort though to keep his hand up in the air. It flopped over his stomach.
"If it was off limits, he wouldn't have let you see them." Tony knuckled an eye. He blinked rapidly at the floor. "You have authorization. Bruce, too." He squinted at the complicated holograms.
"Yikes. Although why would you want to see them …" Tony idly spun one glittering pane like a top with a finger. "These aren't exactly bedtime reading material." He nodded to himself. Shrewd brown eyes flicked over to Steve before going back to the line drawings of the reactor.
Steve watched as Tony shrank the blueprint by pinching his fingers together, then expanding with a flick.
"Wasn't your fault."
Steve blinked. "What?"
Tony traced the arc's profile on the hologram. "Even if you knew the arc reactor inside and out, you wouldn't have been able to dream up one for me in there." He gestured vaguely to Steve's head. "It took two generations of Starks to figure out the technology. I doubt a couple of hundred hours of heavy reading would have caught you up. There aren't Cliff Notes for it. You can't look it up on Wikipedia."
Steve only understood half of what Tony said. Oddly enough, that was comforting. He shrugged. "Just thought I'd better prepare."
Tony stared. "Prepare for what? God, don't tell me you think this will happen again? Even Doom isn't that repetitive—Wait, then again…"
Steve chuckled. "I think Doom has…" What Clint had called it? "…lost his groove?"
"He never had it in the first place. Only reason why he fights us now is because Team Reed has already seen all his parlor tricks." Tony screwed up his face. His thumb rubbed a spot on his shirt.
"Chest still bothering you?" Steve remembered how quiet Tony was the week he stayed in the hospital, because breathing deeper for talking hurt too much after chest surgery. Clint had joked half-heartedly that was the first time he'd seen Tony so quiet, but it'd felt flat to everybody's ears.
Tony lowered his hand. "Not really."
"Just…" Tony nonchalantly lifted his right shoulder. His left still bothered him. "Kept waking up to make sure it's still there." He slumped deeper into the marshmallowy couch, clearly discomfited by what he hadn't meant to say.
"Oh." Steve watched the blue lines glimmer on the line drawings Tony still spun around. He winced when he saw the side profile of the deep chassis occupying essential space that was for his lungs and sternum.
Oblivious to the scrutiny, Tony gazed at the biological blueprint and the lines of his arc reactor bisecting lines of his ribs, his lungs. Steve wished he would stop looking. Steve wasn't sure why Tony kept staring at a device to bury deep into his sternum that he'd built for himself in a dank cave.
Tony absently tapped fingers over the circle of light, his eyes glued to the schematics. Every so often, Steve caught a finger tracing the reactor's edge as if memorizing.
"I…" Steve falteringly offered. "I kept waking up and asking JARVIS what year it is, where I am."
Tony appeared surprised at the admission. He glanced over and nodded.
"JARVIS is good with questions like that," Tony said cryptically. He faced forward again and fell silent, offering nothing more.
Now Steve really wished he'd asked JARVIS to put on a movie, even those weird ones with the wizards and elves Clint liked so much.
"You know what's the worst part out of all this?" Steve said abruptly, surprising himself. "Every night I go to bed, but every morning when I wake up, I have to check what the date is and when JARVIS tells me, I'm not..." He nodded helplessly toward the large TV screen hung high on the wall, the large picture window showing a city slowly losing its glittery lights to an approaching dawn.
"You're not sure if you're glad or not to wake up here."
Steve's eyes flew back to Tony, who shrugged.
"I know a thing or two about waking up in different places." Absently, Tony settled a possessive hand over the muted glow on his chest.
Steve averted his eyes. "I'm glad to be here. This is where I should wake up."
Tony's eyes were half-mast but he caught what Steve said.
"No. I meant…" Steve sighed. He pressed his mouth shut. He hadn't meant to say that.
"It could have been worse. Could have been another seventy years." Steve offered a smile but even that felt weak. Judging by Tony's deepening scowl, he agreed.
"Super serum or not," Tony pointed out, "how long do you think you would have survived without food or water? From what we saw when we arrived and Hulk invited us in, you weren't hooked up to any IVs. But even when we initiated deactivation, it wasn't working. We couldn't wake you up." His jaw worked. He looked angry. "You didn't want to wake up."
"I just..." Steve shrugged. There was little use denying it. "Back then, during the war, I never got to say goodbye. Well, at least not the way I would have if I knew it was the last time."
Tony's dark eyebrows knitted. "It sounded like goodbye when you crashed that plane in the water." At Steve's look, Tony rolled his eyes. "There were copies of that transmission. What? You think I wouldn't listen?"
Steve's mouth quirked. "No, I suppose not. It would be like asking you to not heckle during Fury's debriefings. "
"Admit it, I keep them lively."
"Fury doesn't think so." Steve chuckled in spite of himself.
"Fury thinks counting ammo is fun."
The picture of Fury, sitting cross-legged, counting golden bullets with a smile on his face made Steve's fingers itch for a pencil and some paper.
Tony snickered, catching the look on Steve's face. "If you draw that, I want a copy."
Laughing softly to himself, Steve promised.
Steve sobered soon after, though. "On the plane, I got a chance to say goodbye to Peggy, to everyone because I thought that was it. There just wasn't time to...do it right. I didn't think I would wake up after that, or that I would be left behind." Steve's chuckle caught in his throat. "No, I mean, I left them behind." He sighed. "It felt like the other way around though."
Silence fell between them again. Steve stared at the screen; he could feel Tony do the same. Neither thought to ask JARVIS to turn it on, yet neither made any move to get off the couch.
"Question," Tony said abruptly. Steve glanced over and caught his frown.
Tony circled his head with a finger. "The helmet? Each time, that thing was smaller and smaller."
Steve gave it some thought. He pinked. Oh.
"Head too big to fit my helmet?" Tony grumbled. "Something you want to share, Cap?"
"Well," Steve fumbled. "I'm sure it's one of those...failsafes you mentioned."
"Oh?" Tony drawled archly.
Steve fidgeted. Maybe JARVIS could find a movie if he asks (begs).
Tony harrumphed. Thankfully though, Tony left it at that.
Steve breathed out. He tensed when a moment later, Tony cleared his throat.
"So," Tony said casually. He shrugged, his eyes focused very hard on the screen in front of them. "That was Howard."
Steve found himself smiling sadly, throat working. He smiled only to himself though. Howard Stark was a landmine between them Steve couldn't quite disarm or completely get why he needed to.
"Funny," Tony mused, his index finger idly stroking across his goatee. "Thought he would be taller."
A chuckle burst out of Steve. "Strangely enough, when I heard you were Howard's kid, I thought you would be taller!" He snickered when a throw cushion and a glare was tossed his way.
Tony growled, which only made Steve laugh harder.
It felt good to be laughing about something, to know there was still something Steve could enjoy even if it was at Tony's expense. He let the rumbles of it roll comfortably over him and sit warm in his chest. He thought what Bucky would have said to that; what he would have thought about Howard's kid. And he grinned wider, Bucky's hoots ringing in his ears instead of the screams as he fell.
"It wasn't that funny," grumbled Tony, catching Steve's smirk. He pursed his lips in thought. "He was different."
Nodding, Tony looked far away again. "That's not the Howard Stark I grew up with."
A lump lodged in Steve's throat. "Oh."
Tony shrugged and the shadows on his face evaporated like they were never there. "It'd been a few years. People change."
"Most people don't change that much."
Tony shrugged again. "Howard Stark wasn't most people. Neither am I." He wiped his palms on his thighs. "Well, nice playing 'The Way We Were' with you, but I better get back to bed if I ever want to have sex again—"
"Tony!" Steve yelped.
Sniggering, Tony gestured he'd stop. He rose to his feet. He paused, wavering where he stood.
Steve caught sight of a hand curling and uncurling before it was shoved deep into a pocket. "You okay?"
Tony wordlessly waved him off, nodding jerkily.
"I was thinking of catching a movie," Steve said easily. "Want to stay up?"
Tony shakily sat down again. He was pale now, almost luminescent in the dim. Sweat beaded on his brow.
"Yeah," Tony remarked unsteadily. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and cradling his face. He exhaled slow and long. "Sure," he muffled behind his hands, "why not?"
"Great! What movie are we watching?" Clint considered the two yelps when he rose from where he nimbly landed after exiting the air duct above.
"Why aren't you in a galaxy far far away?" Tony demanded breathlessly. He clutched at his chest dramatically.
"Anthony!" Thor boomed as he entered the area. "Does your heart still bother you so? Shall I render aid?"
Steve burst out laughing at Thor, who had spread his massive arms wide, his mouth pursed to a pucker.
"What?" Tony stammered. He stared wide-eyed at Thor. He pressed deeper into the couch. "What the hell is that?"
"It is the CPR, is it not?" Thor lowered his arms. He looked over to Clint, baffled. "Have I not done it correctly?"
Clint couldn't answer. He was too busy laughing into the seat cushion next to Steve.
"It…" Tony flailed his hands, warding Thor and his pursed lips away. "Really. The ticker's fine. Still t-tocking. And ticking. No need to—No, no, no, Thor, really!"
Clint caught his breath and looked up at Thor. His face was back onto the cushion, this time hiccupping.
"Um, Thor?" Steve ventured. "I think Tony's fine. We're about to watch a movie. Why don't you stay, uh, in case Tony needs aid later?" He ducked the red pillow Tony threw his way again. It bounced off the back of Clint's head.
"I'm afraid to ask," Natasha drawled. She stood at the entryway, still looking poised in her loose-fitting yoga sweats. She raised an elegant brow at Thor. When Clint lifted his flushed face, his mouth gaping open like a fish, Natasha raised a hand, "Still not asking."
"Good," Tony grumbled from the couch, "Because we're not telling." He tracked Thor warily as he sat down on the armchair next to him.
"I want to tell," Clint finally managed between giggles. "Oh yeah, I want to tell. Ask me. Please."
"Then maybe you can tell me why Tony's out of bed at two in the morning." Bruce yawned as he padded in. He squinted at Tony. He frowned mildly. "And not wearing his compression socks? Tony—"
"So, movie," Tony declared. "And snacks. We need snacks!" He clapped his hands. He ignored the look Clint and Bruce shared when Tony tried to get off the couch again, only to abruptly sit down once more. "Figure what you want to watch, tell JARVIS. He'll either have it or he can get it. And get food."
"You really should be in bed," Bruce told Tony, but he made himself comfortable on the floor by Tony's feet. Bruce glanced over at Steve. His knowing eyes scanned Steve up and down, widening a fraction before softening. "Doing okay there, Steve?"
Steve smiled faintly. "Sure." He cleared his throat and watched Clint and Thor systemically empty the kitchen of snacks. Natasha joined in when the freezer popped open and the ice cream came spilling out.
There was a smell of burnt popcorn in the air. Clint was yelling something about not putting fish in the microwave. Fish?
"You better leave my kitchen in one piece or I'm sending out eviction notices!" Tony called out. He sighed when, sure enough, he was ignored.
"…Perhaps all three!" Thor enthused. "And we shall add this strange thing called kimchi!"
"Uh…Thor can have my share," Bruce muttered. He made a sound and excused himself to make tea when he realized the only drinks Clint was pulling out were beer and soda pop.
"I'll give it a try!" Steve called out after Bruce. He found himself grinning from ear to ear.
"Seriously?" Tony made a face. He slid further down onto the couch.
Steve shrugged. "We didn't have stuff like kimchi back then." He paused. "Then again, there's stuff back then you guys don't have now. Or, at least, doesn't taste the same."
Tony winced when the smell of vinegar wafted in. He studied Steve's profile thoughtfully.
"What?" Steve asked.
"You still miss it," Tony murmured, subdued. He didn't have to elaborate what it was.
Steve paused. He sagged into the couch as well. He shrugged a shoulder. "I think I'll always miss it, my time. I can't help missing it. Things made more sense then."
Tony cast his eyes ceilingward. "You guys didn't even have binary processors or dual chamber carburetors or even color television; how did it made sense?"
Now it was Steve's turn to roll his eyes. "Life was simpler."
"You mean ladies don't try to skewer your foot when you open the door for them?"
"I still don't understand why that is offensive," Steve burst out. "This time is so…contradictory."
"It all stemmed from the bra-burning."
Steve gaped at Tony, unsure if he was pulling his leg or not. "Br—burning what?" When Tony chuckled, Steve slumped into the couch.
"This century is weird," Steve grumbled half-heartedly.
"Nah. You're just old-fashioned, Gramps."
Steve chuckled sadly. "Guess I am." He plucked at his t-shirt. Even its motto puzzled him. "I probably seem very old-fashioned or outdated to everybody here."
"Oh my God."
Steve tensed. "What?" He scanned Tony up and down.
Tony was staring at his feet for some reason.
"Are you okay? Should we get Bruce?"
Tony lifted a foot. He pointed to it, one hand covering his mouth. "I have no socks on."
Steve arched an eyebrow. "I noticed."
"You saw my ankles." Tony gasped dramatically. "You saw my ankles. Does that mean we're engaged?"
Groaning, Steve returned the two pillows to Tony's face.
Tony pretended to wheeze, clutching the pillows to his chest as he laughed. He stopped when Thor bellowed, asking if Anthony was well.
Steve smiled as everyone trickled back in. He accepted his bowl of plain (thank God) popcorn, passed Tony his plate of apple slices. He shifted to make room for Natasha. Clint dropped down by Natasha's feet and promptly was an Ottoman to a dainty foot on his shoulder. He grumbled but didn't push it off.
"All right! I know the perfect mov—" Clint growled when Natasha prodded his back with a heel.
"No," Natasha vetoed.
Clint's face fell but then he perked up. "What about—"
"No!" Bruce, Thor, and Tony chimed in.
"You guys have no taste in movies," complained Clint. He tossed a red-speckled kernel at Tony. Tony flicked it off and let it roll onto Steve's bowl.
Steve popped it in his mouth and yeouch! There were some things this century he could live without trying.
"…fifteen times…" Bruce grumbled. "My tinnitus was starting to talk in Elvish."
"The battles are no longer…"
"…gotta admit she's hot…" Clint pointed out.
"Not after the fifth time," Steve tossed in.
Clint shot him an injured look.
"I nearly went into Limbo for you," Clint said. He sighed dramatically. "This is the thanks I get?"
"Why is it that Clint always chooses the movie anyway?" Tony complained.
Steve rolled his eyes. "Because Bruce likes movies with subtitles, Natasha likes way too much M. Night Shaymalan, Thor is still trying to understand The Matrix trilogy, and you keep interrupting Star Wars with your Dark Vader imitation."
Tony grumbled but said nothing more.
"JARVIS, maybe you can suggest a movie?" Steve asked toward the ceiling because Tony was looking twitchy. Howard used to look like that before he went into the workshop. One time, after a long period of nothing but battle planning, Howard had claimed he was bored and had locked himself in the workshop. And very promptly, he'd made something explode. Peggy had looked about ready to shoot him. Bucky wouldn't stop laughing each time Howard came by with half his mustache burned off.
Steve paused. It was the first time thinking about them didn't physically hurt.
Dutifully, Tony's large screen flickered to life.
Clint yelped. "Terminator?" He twisted around and glowered at Tony. "Your AI trying to tell us something?"
Tony grinned wolfishly at Clint.
It wasn't clear who threw the popcorn first, but Steve suddenly found himself holding an empty bowl, an apple slice sliding down his face.
Bruce sighed. He sat down on the couch by Steve, eyes tracking Tony to make sure he didn't overexert himself.
"Sorry," Bruce offered with a wry smile. "I know you were planning on a movie."
"…no, no, no, Thor, put the hammer down!"
"No, wait! He didn't mean that literall—"
There was a flash, a boom, and Steve found himself staring at the rest of the Avengers through a hole where the TV used to be.
Tony sat down on the edge of the hole. Something sparked. He covered his face with a hand.
"JARVIS?" Tony sighed.
"Contacting the contractors now, Sir." JARVIS dutifully replied.
"Nah," Steve murmured. He found himself smiling even as the sprinklers popped on. Water trickled down his face. It felt like it was baptizing him.
"This is fine," Steve said as he wiped water off his face. His eyes stung—from the sprinklers, from something else, it didn't matter anymore. Steve smiled at Bruce, at everyone and no one in particular.
"Nowhere else I rather be."
"Right now I'm having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I've forgotten this before."
― Steven Wright
happy birthday again, dear Brate