U.S. Recruitment Office, Patient Medical History Assessment
DATE: 14th March, 1941
FIRST NAME: Steve
WEIGHT: 95 lbs.
SUMMARY OF PATIENT HEALTH ISSUES:
Chronic or frequent colds
High blood pressure
Palpitation or pounding in heart
Nervous trouble of any sort
Has had household contact with tuberculosis
Parent/sibling with diabetes, cancer
[ ] 1. Found fully acceptable for induction into active military services.
[X] 2. Found not acceptable for induction into active military services.
FOR STAMP 1A/4F:
[ 4F ]
“Where is he? What have you done to him?”
Bruce decided right then and there that he hadn’t previously had a full understanding of just how terrifying Thor could be when he wanted to be terrifying. Thor’s sometimes almost cheerful battle cry was nothing compared to the weight of threat he could layer into a seething, low-voiced command. Gone was the good-humored man with the laughing eyes and a boyish smile; present was the God of Thunder, Mjolnir gripped in one hand like an extension of his arm.
Listening to Thor, and watching the object of Thor’s wrath shrink back, stirred Bruce’s own suppressed rage. Bruce wouldn’t let himself go there. Not yet. Not unless Hulk was actually needed. The whole team was here, spread out through the labyrinth of a mad scientist’s basement lab, all of them acting like a single unified body: in sync, unanimous in purpose—angry. Over the comm system they were all equipped with Bruce could hear Natasha, Clint, and Tony calling clipped information, like echolocation for one another: “Clear,” or “No signs of life,” or “This place is a dive.”
Bruce wanted desperately to be a part of the rampage, not as himself, but as The Other Guy. The one who could do more than act as Thor’s voice of reason. He was wasted in the role, anyway. He wasn’t about to stop Thor from shaking the scientist until his teeth rattled. Even assuming he’d wanted to, success would’ve been debatable. Definitely inadvisable as Bruce.
But he knew The Other Guy could easily smash this place to bits, bringing it down around their ears. And, in any case, the place was deserted. At the door, taking care of Grunt One and Grunt Two had been child’s play, Tony and Natasha doing so with relish before Thor could charge ahead or Clint could nock an arrow. This room, with its skeleton crew of patchwork equipment on rickety tables, was as furnished as any of the rooms that Bruce had seen on their way in.
It would’ve been a laughably amateurish operation—if it weren’t for the fact that the guy had developed some kind of knockout gas strong enough to take down Captain America. It would have been laughable, had he not kidnapped their teammate for God-knew-what purposes.
As Thor had put it, “The coward had not even the decency to issue a challenge in open combat.” Which was far more delicately put than Natasha’s response to the news that Steve had been grabbed while out on his motorcycle three days ago. Bruce didn’t speak Russian, but he’d gotten the gist of it regardless.
SHIELD had of course immediately been on the case, securing every piece of crime scene evidence down to the last dust mote that might’ve come in contact with Steve or his kidnapper. But it was a sleep-deprived Tony who crowed in triumph first—a little hoarsely, from yelling a steady stream of orders alternately at JARVIS, Pepper, and occasionally Bruce, who’d done what he could to expedite the search (which had mostly comprised of standing in as a Watson to Tony’s Sherlockian leaps of techno-forensic deductions).
And here they were, not feeling so triumphant at the moment, because there was no sign of Steve, after all.
“You took too long. He’s dead,” the scientist sneered in Thor’s face, the most convincing proof yet that the man was certifiably insane. “Or as good as dead. He probably wishes he was.”
Bruce instinctively reached out as Thor grabbed the man by the front of his shirt, bashing him against the bare cinderblock wall. Bruce met Thor’s dark gaze and couldn’t hold his actions against him, but he did crouch to check the scientist for a pulse. He was alive, which was only a good thing because they might still need answers from him.
They’d just finished trussing the man with some handy electrical wire when a shout from Clint came across the comm: “Found him! West wing, third door down.”
The Avengers converged.
It was anti-climactic, really, rushing through the mauled and crushed door to find… Steve. Alive, thank God. Definitely alive, if bruised and grimy. That was the sort of anti-climax they could all handle.
But relief started and ended there. Steve was curled up on a cot, and the face turned towards the flickering light of a florescent bulb…well, it wasn’t unrecognizable, exactly. Clint had recognized him enough to call them all as soon as he’d spotted him.
And it was Steve. There was the currently-disarrayed shock of blond hair, covering his forehead, almost hanging in his eyes. The level, serious set of the eyebrows and chin. The familiar blue eyes, fluttering half open to regard them. It was all there, carved into a long face with thin cheeks and a sharp jaw.
As for the rest of him, it was even more of a punch to the gut. He was tiny. Curled into a fetal position like that, he looked like a starved street urchin.
They all stared, for one surreal moment of incomprehension. Then Steve coughed, using one all-skin-and-bone arm to push himself up into a sitting position. “Hi guys,” another cough interrupted, his free hand pressed to his sternum as if to keep himself from shattering apart from the force of the paroxysm. He shivered, and smiled a rueful smile—and, however wan, the smile worked like a spell-breaker, because it was one-hundred-percent Steve.
“Took you long enough,” he added, because Steve was always up for using well-worn punch lines for the greater good, if only to say something—anything—to unify the team. But, really, if anyone could pull off using phrases that should’ve been long-since retired, it was Steve.
“My friend,” Thor was the first to speak, stepping forward, with a voice suddenly bled of anger, “we came as swiftly as possible.”
“I know you did. I knew you would—be coming.” Steve’s eyes were fever-bright, genuine, earnest. Pained. “He… Radner. The guy who took me. He did something while I was unconscious.” He shook his head. “I think he said he was trying to find a way to reproduce the serum’s effects, or transfer it, or distill it, somehow. But whatever he did…” Steve’s adam’s apple bobbed, drawing attention to just how skinny his neck was. “I woke up like this. Like I was, before the serum.”
Tony swore under his breath with an uncharacteristic depth of unstinting feeling, and not even of a sarcastic variety. Actually, the fact that he hadn’t made any wisecracks so far was groundbreaking enough.
Clint looked decidedly in need of something to shoot, his face a stony glower, fingers twitching with the need to caress the fletching of an arrow.
Natasha shrugged out of her leather coat, handing it to Steve, before looking chagrinned at her own actions—at her assumption that out of the team she and Steve were the closest in size. It was an assumption based upon a painful new reality of fact. “Steve—”
“—No. Thanks, Natasha. Really.” He slipped into it, and his rueful expression sharpened. “It fits. It actually fits me, with room to spare.” His choked laugh made something tighten in Bruce’s chest.
“Let us get you away from this place,” Thor’s voice was barely a rumble. “We have detained the villain responsible for harming you. He will answer for his crimes.”
“Fury’s waiting to take him into custody?” Steve asked.
“Coulson.” Tony said it flatly, like a death sentence.
“Ah,” Steve remarked, with a feeble chuckle, beginning to stand, arms braced against the cot for support. He stood a moment on his own, eyes going from one teammate to the next, assessing each as if they were the ones changed, standing there stripped of strength.
But, then, his vantage had changed after all, quite literally. He was so short, especially next to Thor.
Then he took a step, hand returning to his sternum, a suppressed cough lodging in the back of his throat with a breathless huff. His face blanched, brows furrowing and mouth tightened. And then his eyes glazed over, rolling back in their sockets.
Thor caught him, picking him up with ease—not in a fireman’s lift, but in his arms, like a child. “He breathes,” he informed them, movements deft and unexpectedly graceful as he secured Mjolnir to his belt without jostling Steve. But Thor’s expression as he looked down in surprise at the inconsequential weight of Captain America, unconscious in his arms, was one of clear bewilderment.
There was something unquestionably hard to witness about the whole thing.
Chin thrust out defiantly, Thor departed with long strides, as if he were called upon to carry around downsized friends every day—as if he needed to use his own strength to maintain enough dignity and pride for himself, and Steve.
The rest of them fell in behind wordlessly but still vigilant, and were maybe just a little bit disappointed to leave without being accosted.
Coulson’s expression when he saw them—when he saw Thor, and Steve—was priceless, because of its rare and unguarded expression of surprise. Bruce hadn’t ever seen him so look unprepared. But he didn’t remain startled for long, and hurried by quickly with a retinue to take Radner into custody.
Better you than me, Bruce concluded, wishing Radner all the worst.
“Believe me,” Fury spoke calmly, forcefully, “we’re leaning on him. Radner will talk eventually.”
They were gathered at SHIELD HQ, Radner in a holding cell, Steve in the infirmary. The Avengers had arrived to debrief at Fury’s summons without having to wait for anyone, even Tony, to trickle in ten minutes late. That didn’t mean any of them had been in a docile mood as they’d gathered around the table and taken seats.
“Yeah?” Tony’s voice bit with sarcasm. “‘Eventually’ doesn’t quite have the ring of imminence I’d like to hear. How about letting the green guy lean on him a bit?”
“I would be all too willing to question the prisoner at length,” Thor volunteered, a hand resting on the table, fingers loosely curled as if around a phantom Mjolnir. “He would not resist my persuasion long, that I can promise you.”
The all turned to look at him, not because the offer was unexpected, but because of the volume of his tone. Or, rather, the lack of volume. Thor seemed to have found his indoor voice at last. It was unnerving.
“I could tag along.” Clint shrugged under Fury’s look. “You know. We could get a little good cop/bad cop routine going.” It wasn’t clear where Clint planned on getting the good cop, because it was obvious which part of the skit he auditioning for.
Thor appraised his suggestion with confusion, but a clear willingness to learn and adapt whatever technique he’d had in mind.
“You all know that when it comes to interrogations I am the expert here,” Natasha interrupted, a compelling look of purpose in her eyes.
“Yeah, well,” Tony added casually, “if anyone’s going to confuse Radner with witty banter, you all know who’s got to be involved.”
“Enough,” Fury cut them all short. “None of you will go anywhere near Radner.” His gaze met each of theirs in turn, glare ever potent enough to make up for only having one eye for the task. “Right now, he’s suffering from a rather nasty concussion.” Far from casting any blame, there was a certain grim amusement in his tone. “He’s hardly been conscious for more than a few minutes at a time, but when he’s in a state to answer any question, Coulson and I will be the ones to get them from him. Now,” he continued, “as for Captain Rogers, we’ll keep you apprised of his health.”
Coulson entered then, fingers tapping vindictively at the tablet in his hand. “I have news on that front, Sir. Apart from the obvious issue at hand, Captain Rogers is suffering from malnourishment, dehydration, and some rather serious lung congestion, none of which is aided by the return of a myriad of previous standing health concerns, including asthma and a weak heart.” He looked up for the first time, and there was a brief hesitation almost of embarrassment or apology, as if he’d forgotten has was talking to a live audience. The formal tone relaxed, as he added more kindly, “He’s being put on broad-spectrum antibiotics, and monitored carefully. The doctors assure me he should be alright, given time and rest.”
The obvious retort to that ridiculous assurance hung in the air like an accusation that Coulson didn’t deserve just for being the bearer of unhelpful and analytical news. It was going to take a lot more than antibiotics or rest to make this “alright.”
Fury sighed heavily. “Thank you, Agent Coulson. The rest of you are dismissed.”
“But Sir…” Natasha started.
“I think it’s unanimous,” Clint continued for her.
“We’d, ah…prefer to stick around here,” Bruce joined in.
“I could not leave at such a time,” Thor concurred.
“Yup. Guess I’m stuck raising my hand, too,” Tony drawled, actually raising his hand. “Can’t abandon the Cap just ‘cause he gone and got himself fun-sized.”
Fury glanced around at them with bemusement. “I’m not suggesting you abandon him. We will keep you updated about the situation. Go home. Leave. Get some rest. You got him back—there’s nothing else you can do right now.”
“He is our friend,” Thor stated, as if there was nothing more meaningful or persuasive in the world.
“He doesn’t really have anyone,” Natasha added. “You know. A friendly face.” She looked embarrassed as soon as she’d said it, but she didn’t take it back.
Clint’s smirk was always a little alarming. “Well, I’m not sure any of us can provide the friendly… But she’s right. He doesn’t have anyone to bring flowers and teddy bears to his sick room.”
Tony grimaced at the words “sick room,” as if the selflessness of the motion he’d volunteered to join was just beginning to dawn on him. “Hey, I’m not saying I’m in this to mop any fevered brows. I can, however, provide teddy bears. Maybe even balloons.”
“Sir,” Coulson added his voice to theirs, “Perhaps it is time Captain Rogers woke up to something familiar for a change?”
None of them, Bruce thought, had really been thinking about their reasons for wanting to stay in those exact terms. But they were thinking it now.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole verbal game of Ping-Pong was the fact that Fury had remained mute long enough for them to play it. When they were finished, his responding scowl wasn’t his most convincing. "Do I look like I care if you people choose to spend your money and downtime on teddy bears and balloons? Suit yourself.”
None of them but Tony had the poor taste to actually take the last part as a pun, and grin about it. Or maybe he was just grinning because he was Tony, and he’d thrown a tantrum (albeit an altruistic tantrum), and won.
Coulson didn’t leave with Fury, resuming tapping on the tablet again. “I’ll warn the nurses to expect you,” he informed them pleasantly.