Steve is starting to become familiar with the phrase "It was all Loki's fault."
Well, it's also Clint's fault since he shot the artifact out of Loki's grip, but Loki was the one who'd activated it in the first place. How was Clint to know the weird glowing amulet Loki was stealing from the Cloisters would blast the nearest person with energy when it hit the wall?
Whatever the blast does to him, it hurts like hell. Steve is only vaguely aware of Thor gaining the upper hand and Loki sneering as he makes his exit empty-handed as he doubles over in pain. It feels like his back is being ripped apart.
The energy fades a second later and Steve falls to his knees, pulling his mask off and gasping for air. Last time anything hurt this much was when he went through the procedure, but the pain is mostly in his back this time. When he finally looks up, the other Avengers are just staring at him in shock. Even Tony opens his faceplate to get a good look.
"What?" he asks, but then he notices the stray feather. And the fact that his shadow is a lot larger, and that his uniform top is shredded, and that there's a bit more weight on his back than there used to be. Steve cranes his neck around to take a look and then he's about as speechless at the rest of them.
"Okay," Clint says finally. "Did not expect that."
There's a commotion from the adjacent hall. With Loki's departure, it sounds like the SHIELD agents are coming in to clean up. Or, worse, the press is here. There are plenty of windows, and even with the SHIELD perimeter a telephoto lens could probably get a couple really interesting shots.
Tony elbows Thor. "Quick, give him your cape."
"Stop what?" Tony folds his arms and tries to look innocent, like he wasn't just poking at the wings a minute ago.
Hundreds of scenarios raced through Steve's mind when he'd been blasted - being turned into something, brainwashing, being reverted back to the way he was before the serum - but none of them involved growing a pair of white feathered wings. Huge white feathered wings; it's hard to tell from this angle, but he's pretty sure each one is bigger than he is. Thor's cape didn't completely cover them even when he pulled them in as tightly as he could, but it covered enough to get him hustled back in the Quinjet before a bystander could figure out what they were.
Now, he's sitting on an examination table in a private medical room, waiting for Fury to debrief them there. He didn't really feel like parading the wings through the Helicarrier. Not like he's that comfortable sitting there with his shirt off, but there's less of an audience this way. The wings shredded his uniform top and he still can't figure out how to get a shirt on.
Meanwhile, the other Avengers are dealing. Tony is fidgety and bored and since the medical staff wouldn't let him touch the equipment, he's decided to irritate Steve. Natasha is seated on a stool beside the exam table. She tried to distract Steve for a while by going over the battle and analyzing Loki's behavior and what he might want the artifact for, but they haven't been able to get far without input from the researchers investigating the artifact's history and the scientists now studying the artifact in a controlled environment. Clint is just standing by the door, oddly subdued and quiet.
Thor has recovered his cape and is trying to be reassuring, somehow managing a manly shoulderpat around the wings. "Have faith, my friend. You are not the first to be caught in an accidental shapeshift. Many a time have I heard tales of Freyja's first attempts at changing form. She often told us of how she was trapped as a falcon til she discovered how to reverse the change."
"How long did that take?" Natasha asks.
"It depends on who tells the tale," Thor admits. "To hear Freyja herself tell it, she was trapped for only a day. But in my father's retelling, it was six days before she became herself again."
Steve sighs and resists the urge to flop down on his back.
Bruce is fascinated by the wings, but unlike Tony, he's keeping his hands to himself. He picked up on Steve's discomfort immediately, and looked sympathetic while the SHIELD doctors poked and prodded Steve. So while he's intently studying the wings, he's got his hands clasped behind his back the whole time. "Do they still hurt?"
"No, it's just - strange." Tony chooses that moment to actually bury his fingers in the downy feathers under the bone, and Steve can't stop himself this time from flapping the wings a bit. Bruce immediately leans back and steps out of range, but Steve feels something smack against the left wing. Tony's startled exclamation of pain tells him exactly what it was.
Steve feels a little guilty as Tony stands up, rubbing the side of his head, but only a little. "I told you to stop that."
"You didn't have to hit me so hard, Cap," Tony shoots back, but he does step back from the wings. "Think you got super strong wings to go with the biceps."
"Doesn't make this any more comfortable." Steve folds his arms and folds the wings in closer to his back as he does so. He's getting a slight chill, but the temperature doesn't bother him as much as the exposure does. "How much longer, you think?" They haven't been waiting long, but it seems like it's been hours.
Clint suddenly appears next to Natasha and hands her something. "I'll check with Coulson. He owes me for the Christmas party."
"Hey, bring me a coffee while you're at it," Tony says. "Black, no sugar."
Bruce sighs and sinks down on the small couch. "The last thing you need is more caffeine."
The only response Clint gives Tony is a rude gesture before walking out the door. Steve watches him go, frowning, and doesn't notice what Natasha is unfolding in her lap. Clint isn't actually blaming himself for this, is he?
She clears her throat to get his attention. Steve looks up, surprised to see her holding out a blue hospital blanket. Clint must have grabbed it out of one of the cabinets. "Oh. Thank you." It's not just directed at Natasha, but Clint is already gone.
He takes the blanket and tries to drape it over his front, trying to cover as much of his chest and shoulders while keeping his arms free. It keeps bunching up, and Natasha helps him drape it over his shoulders. Her fingers brush lightly against the wing where it meets his back. Steve sucks in a breath at the unexpected rush of pleasure that touch brings. He wants to groan, wants to lean into that touch, but they have an audience and this is Agent Romanoff and he's suddenly very very grateful Clint's not in the room. Steve shifts a bit instead, and Natasha hesitates. "Did that hurt?"
"No," he says honestly - quite the opposite, but he's not telling her that. "No. Just a little sensitive." He keeps his tone calm, but he can feel himself blush as he says it.
She notices the blush, but doesn't call attention to it, just settles back on the stool.
The awkward moment is broken by Clint, who enters the room and slams the door behind him. "If anyone asks, I was here the whole time."
"Where's my Scotch?" Tony asks, but he's not expecting an answer.
Clint just rolls his eyes and goes back to leaning against the wall. A few seconds later, the door opens and Nick Fury strides in with Coulson at his heels. He looks at Steve and raises an eyebrow, but doesn't even break stride. Natasha and Clint both straighten up. Bruce stands up awkwardly. Tony is already standing, trying to take apart the remote to the small television set in the room for whatever reason.
"At ease, Captain," Fury says before Steve can get to his feet. "Sit down, all of you. Stark, drop the remote now. I want to hear exactly how this happened."
It says a lot about Steve's state of mind that the ensuing briefing - complete with Tony's occasional tangents, Thor talking over just about everyone, and Clint shooting paper clips at Tony when he thinks Fury isn't looking - is something of a relief.
Benched. On medical leave. It all means the same thing, really.
Until SHIELD's cadre of scientists and researchers figure out how to reverse whatever the artifact had done to him, Steve is stuck watching on the sidelines. Which also means more tests. Bruce volunteers to contribute to the research, pointing out that the artifact was obviously giving off some sort of radiation. "I'll need a sample," he says. "A feather, probably, since it's part of the affected tissue."
Steve agrees despite a small instinctive part of him balking at the idea. Fury, however, refuses to even take the chance that Bruce might get clobbered by a wing. (He did find it pretty funny when Tony earned another wing-slap during the briefing, though.) So it takes three medical assistants to pull the feather, two to hold the wing and the other to pull. It hurts, but it's brief and the spot clots quickly. He's irrationally relieved that they only pull a small down feather and leave the flight feathers alone.
Fury assigns him one of the large VIP guest rooms on the Helicarrier, dismissing Steve's protests. "You're going to need the space," Natasha points out, and Steve can't really argue.
The suite is huge, with a king-size bed and windows all along one wall - one-way glass, bulletproof, of course. Steve finds he appreciates the view; just being able to see the sky is oddly comforting. The wings, tightly folded behind his back, reflexively start to unfurl at the sight. Steve starts to pull them in again, but then reconsiders; he's alone, there's plenty of space and he's nowhere near any light fixtures.
Slowly, cautiously, he relaxes and extends the wings out behind him as far as they will go. It's not as difficult as he expected - like stretching out an additional pair of arms, but with different joints and using muscles he's never used before. They're heavy, but not so much that it's a strain, and he can manage. He groans in spite of himself, realizing how cramped they were before and how good it feels just to stretch them out. How do you even work out muscle cramps in wings, anyway?
He flaps experimentally once or twice, and catches a flash of white out of the corner of his eye from his reflection in the mirrored closet doors. Curious, Steve turns to face the mirrors and spreads the wings out wide, as far as he can manage, flight feathers fanning out like splayed fingers.
Eagle's wings, he thinks, although the color is all wrong. He's never seen an eagle with pure white wings. They're even bigger than he thought; fully extended, each one looks like they're ten feet long. He has to turn diagonally to keep from banging a wing against the window. He lets them droop a bit and soften out of the stretch, letting the joints bend more naturally but not forcing them back towards his spine. Even relaxed like this, they're enormous; they make him look small in comparison, and it's been a while since anything's been able to do that. He glances out the window again, wondering if he can actually fly.
Steve immediately stops that train of thought before it can leave the station. Those are not thoughts he needs to be entertaining right now. He's tired, he's stressed and frustrated at being benched, that's all. Sleep is probably the best course of action.
He winds up lying on his side on the edge of the king-size bed. The wings take up the rest of the space and then some, but it's comfortable enough. He's slept in worse conditions. Any other concerns - like figuring out how he's going to get a shower - can wait til tomorrow.
In his dreams, everyone - from his past and his present - has wings. They're all soaring past him as he watches, standing on a cliff overlooking the city. Bucky's look like a peregrine falcon's, the type of wings that you know are fast just by looking at the sweep of the wing. That, and the way he's outpacing Dugan, who's trying to keep his hat from blowing off his head as he and Bucky race across the sky, trash talking as they go.
Colonel Fury has black glossy wings that match his trenchcoat. Steve's mother drifts by in a swirl of white feathers. Tony is in the Iron Man suit, with metal wings to match, buzzing past and annoying Bruce, who's trying to mind his own business on giant green wings that dwarf the rest of him. Schmidt appears briefly in a thunderhead, bat-winged and snarling before several winged Commandos converge on him and the sky becomes clear again.
And Peggy is there, same as he remembers her, in that red dress. She's flying towards him on golden wings and somehow without a hair out of place in spite of the wind. She hovers so she's at his level and extends a hand. "You owe me a dance, Steve."
He reaches out, but hesitates, feet still firmly planted on the ground. "I still don't know how."
She laughs and takes his hand in her own. "The only way to learn is to try. You know that better than anyone."
He dreams of flying.
In case anyone's read the original draft on capkink, yes, I changed the scientist's name. There is no plot reason for this, I just liked it better.
Tests, tests and more tests pretty much sum up the next morning.
Steve tolerates all the additional poking and prodding and bloodwork as patiently as he can. It's not easy, though. The secure lab facilities are huge, but windowless, and he can't shake the feeling of being trapped in a box. It leaves him uncharacteristically twitchy and agitated, which is a bad combination when dealing with brand new limbs he's still not used to. He can keep the rest of himself still, but it's like the wings are too tuned in to his emotional state to ignore the agitation. And for some reason, needles are actually worse than plucking a feather was. After several near misses, the medtechs are incredibly careful, warning him every time they need to touch the wings.
There are two bright spots to all this. First, the lab facilities allow him to get a shower and some privacy. He has to use the decontamination showers, but after hours of tests he really doesn't care. The extra space is a big help when he needs to dry off; he eventually gives up on trying to dry the wings with a towel and shakes them out. Steve figures they would probably dry more quickly in the open air, but he doesn't think Colonel Fury would be too thrilled if he snuck up to the carrier's flight deck.
Second, one of the doctors provides a solution to the shirt situation, which is to cut a pair of slits in the back of a button-down shirt. As much as Steve dislikes ruining an otherwise perfectly good shirt, it's better than going without, and while tucking the back of it in is a bit difficult it's better than a blanket or a hospital gown. While it's still uncomfortable walking down the hallways with the giant pair of wings on his back, at least now he's fully dressed.
Agent Coulson is waiting for him when he emerges from the labs. Steve is glad it's Coulson and not some random SHIELD security detail. Coulson doesn't even seem to notice the wings anymore, unlike everyone else who won't stop gawking at him.
"I don't suppose you're here to tell me they've figured out how to fix this," he says hopefully.
The flicker of a smile he gets is almost regretful. "I'm afraid not, Captain. I'm just here to escort you to the briefing room."
Natasha and Clint are already there, and Thor shows up next, followed by Bruce, who is clutching a cup of coffee. Apparently he stayed up until 3 am again running tests and comparing readings and a lot of technical babble that Steve doesn't understand. Not just because it's technical, but because it's babble; Bruce tends to go off on tangents when he's tired. He gets the gist, though - Bruce stayed up late working on something. Not a rare occurrence.
Tony is absent, having flown out to Malibu at Pepper's request. It turns out that most of the team isn't really needed there - Coulson, not Fury, runs the briefing and it's a recap of the information they've gathered about the artifact. Fury is dealing with a "situation" involving Wakanda. Coulson brings up some images of the object that started all this trouble on the screens as he talks. It's bronze-colored, small enough to hold in one's hand, and looks at first glance like a Celtic cross.
"This was found at an excavation site near Stonehenge," Coulson explains. "It was mistaken for a Celtic cross and was added to the Cloisters' collection." He brings up a couple additional images of Celtic crosses. Steve studies the images. He can see a distinct difference in the internal patterns - they don't actually interlock like Celtic knots.
"But it's Asgardian?" Natasha asks.
Thor frowns. "I have never seen the like in my father's treasure room."
"We're still working on the point of origin," Coulson adds. "Right now, the artifact is in secure containment. We have figured out how it's activated." He brings up another image of the artifact, this one a computer animation, illustrating a catch hidden in the design and how it causes the cross to fold up. "It appears that it was only partially activated when Agent Barton fired upon it." Clint shifts uncomfortably. "It's fairly safe to say that what happened to you was not the intended purpose, Captain."
That doesn't make Steve feel any better. "What was it supposed to do?"
"We don't know." Coulson sighs at their incredulous looks. "It was activated in an isolated, controlled environment just to capture the energy readings and determine how it was activated - and to ensure we could contain it. Given its unpredictable effects and the lack of knowledge, the technicians were instructed not to even try to direct the energy."
"Great," Clint mutters. "Took the greatest minds in the world a whole day to figure out how to turn it on and off." Natasha elbows him. "What?"
Bruce has finally regained coherence. "Agent Coulson, may I?" Coulson nods, somewhat relieved. "I've been going over the reports from the analysis of the artifact. I'm not certain, but the feather Captain Rogers gave me seems to be radiating the same sort of energy."
That gets everyone's attention. Alarmed, Steve tenses, folding the wings even closer to his back. Everyone is staring at the wings. "Wait, if the feather's radiating energy, then that means--"
"If you smack Stark again with them, he'll turn into a pigeon?" Clint guesses. Coulson gives him a look. "Come on, like you wouldn't pay to see that happen."
Thor laughs. "A pigeon? No, Tony would not be a mere pigeon. Perhaps a seagull."
"Peacock," Natasha suggests blandly.
Bruce coughs, partly to cover a laugh, partly to get them back on track. "Only trace amounts - much lower than the actual artifact was emitting. I barely would have been able to pick up on it if I didn't know exactly what to look for. Definitely not enough to have any effect, and the levels have depleted already since last night." He hesitates. "Not sure if that's the case for your wings. We still don't have any data on that."
Steve rubs the back of his neck. "Uh, well, they had to hold off on some scans. I wouldn't fit in the machines they had, and when I did, well..." He looks embarrassed. "I couldn't hold still long enough." The sense of claustrophobia had been almost overwhelming, and he couldn't get comfortable at all.
"I've already processed the requisition forms," Coulson says. "As for the origin of the artifact, we do have a lead." He brings up a photo of a small woman in her sixties, with dark curly hair, glasses and a pleasant smile. "This is Dr. Donna Forrest, a geophysicist working on the excavation where the object was found. She's published some rather interesting theories over the years."
"Is she the one who said that the pyramids were built by aliens?" Bruce asks skeptically.
"No, but that's out of our jurisdiction anyway." Coulson moves on before anyone can process that statement. "She contacted the Cloisters insisting that one of the artifacts in the collection did not belong there. The curator dismissed her claims, but Director Fury wants to hear her rationale. We're in the process of contacting her, but she's attending a scientific conference in Beijing. There's more than a bit of red tape involved. It will most likely take a day or two." He presses a button and the screens shut off. "In the meantime, Captain, you're going to have to remain on the Helicarrier for more tests."
Steve nods. "Understood."
As they file out of the briefing room, Coulson clears his throat to get Steve's attention. "Captain, you'll actually need to see Dr. Ames at 1300 hours. He's looked at your bloodwork and while everything seems normal he's concerned about your serotonin levels."
"What? But if everything seems normal--"
Coulson's brow furrows, and his expression is one that Steve has come to interpret as the "why-does-Fury-always-leave-me-to-have-the awkward-conversations" look.. "Mostly a precaution. He's only concerned that you seem increasingly agitated. Which is completely understandable, given the circumstances. He's attempting to be thorough."
Steve is silent for a moment, processing this. He wants to protest, but going over the events of the morning, the dream last night and how he's been feeling, he can't help but suspect that the doctors are on to something. "He thinks this might be affecting my judgment."
Coulson's smile is meant to be reassuring, but it's strained. "You've just grown a pair of wings, Captain. The medical team isn't going to rule anything out."
So remember how I mentioned there was only a semblance of plot? Yeah. This is the part where nothing really happens, but Avengers team shenanigans are too much fun to write.
(Also, I went back and edited the previous chapters to fix pronoun issues, in case the update timestamp confused anyone. Removed character tags because while Darcy and Erik will show up in this, it won't be for another few chapters.)
The next two days are mind-numbing. Steve can't remember the last time he had such a bad case of cabin fever. He tries everything he can to distract himself - filling up his sketchbooks, working out with the equipment he can still use in the gym. The punching bag comes close to the end of its life, which is impressive considering that it’s designed to hold up against a super soldier and a god of thunder. However, the distractions are just distractions, and they only provide temporary relief.
Loki doesn't reappear, but the rest of the team is sent to deal with an incident at the U.N. building while Steve is stuck on the Helicarrier. The need to be out there, doing something, is even worse than the claustrophobia, even when the villain turns out to be a disgruntled former attache with delusions of supervillainy. "A mere charlatan, hardly worthy of our effort," Thor tells Steve. Coming from Thor, that's probably meant to be reassuring, but it doesn't change the underlying problem. Sure, he has the run of the Helicarrier - except for the flight deck, of course - and nobody even bats an eye at the wings anymore. Steve still can't stop thinking of it as a cage, even though he knows that's not the case. Every time he passes a window lately, he can't help but wonder if it's got a latch, or avoid the twitch in his back.
What if the artifact’s true purpose was to change his mind as well as his body? What if it partially worked for both? He hasn't done anything insane like try to fly through a glass window. But if he finds himself up on the flight deck he doesn't know if he'll be able to stop himself.
Steve keeps these thoughts to himself. He knows it's unhealthy, but he doesn't want to deal with SHIELD psychiatrists. The only people he trusts to really discuss it with aren't around very often; the U.N. incident keeps the rest of the team at Stark Tower to deal with the immediate fallout. He could call, but it's not the same and it would be a waste of resources.
When he enters the kitchen in search of breakfast, he's surprised to find it already occupied. He stops dead in the doorway to find that all of the Avengers - even Bruce, who tends to lock himself in his lab outside of official briefings - are sitting at the kitchen table.
"What are you doing here?" he blurts out without thinking.
"Eating breakfast, of course!" Thor informs him through a mouthful of food. "Come, join us!"
Tony winces. He's wearing sunglasses and is hunched over his coffee. "Thor. Volume down, please." But it's Clint he's glaring at. The archer shrugs it off and continues eating his Lucky Charms. Thor looks confused, but this is probably as low as his personal volume gets.
"You'd better," Natasha advises. "The way Thor is going through the French toast, there's not going to be anything left to eat soon." She indicates the piles of French toast, sausage and bacon in the middle of the table, next to the boxes of cereal and Pop-Tarts.
Steve stares at the spread in disbelief, wondering who could have possibly made it all. There's no indication of a fire, and the kitchen doesn't look like a disaster area. In the end, his appetite wins out over his confusion and he pulls up a chair. It tastes as good as it smells, and he puts aside his concerns and fills up a plate For a few minutes, it’s almost normal. Thor talks back to the news channel and cheers on the players when the channel runs the sports highlights. Bruce studies his printouts and drifts in and out of the side conversations, absorbed in whatever he's looking at. Natasha flirts with Clint and notes how little actual news there is on the channel. Clint and Tony trade insults, Tony pokes at a wing to get Steve to join in and gets smacked by a wing for his trouble. Lightly, of course, since Steve has a little more control now, but Clint finds it hilarious.
"So what are you really doing here?" he asks once he's eaten enough to think straight again. "There isn't a mission, is there?" Last time they at least had the courtesy to brief him on what was going on.
"Absolutely not," Tony says, trying to pat him on the shoulder, but misses and pats the wing instead. At least that's how he plays it off. Steve shakes Tony's hand off, but manages not to smack him this time. "There is no mission, no crisis, I am incredibly hungover -"
"You've got nobody to blame but yourself for that," Natasha points out.
Tony doesn't miss a beat. "- and yet here we are bright and early at..." He makes a show of peering at his watch. "0800 hours. Why? Because somebody wanted to come check on Captain Awesome here."
He peers over his sunglasses at Clint, and it's hard not to notice. Steve follows his gaze, and this time Clint can't help but squirm a bit under their scrutiny. "Hey, Tin Man, I didn't hear you arguing. Don't think anybody here did."
"Of course not!" Thor exclaims. "What sort of warriors would we be, if we abandoned one of our own to the drudgery of these tests?" He says the last word like a curse, and Steve can't help but smile a bit.
When he glances at Bruce, the scientist shifts awkwardly in his chair. "Well, I, ah... figured you'd at least want some company. I mean, there's nothing wrong with tests, but if you're not the one conducting them it does get old after a while." He sips his tea to keep from babbling.
Natasha just catches Steve's eye and smiles faintly. She doesn't need to say anything.
Clint is still getting on Tony's case. "In fact, I seem to remember you proposing a plan to sneak him off the carrier. Something involving three tons of confetti, or packing peanuts, or something."
"Confetti," Bruce corrects. "The packing peanuts were a backup plan if he couldn't get enough on short notice."
"I was on my fifth whiskey," Tony points out. "Any plans devised after the third, as a rule, are shelved to be checked against the laws of physics later." He puts a hand on Steve's actual shoulder this time and adds, "I think the confetti had something to do with confusing the radar. It was an early draft."
"Wouldn't work anyway," Clint says.
Thor looks thoughtful. "Perhaps a sudden storm would suffice."
"No collateral damage," Steve says automatically. It's an old joke at this point, when they're discussing a plan of attack and Thor or Tony (and occasionally Clint) will propose something that has the potential to take out half a city block and he has to bring them back to Earth. He can't help but grin at them as he speaks, though, a warm, comfortable feeling settling in his chest. No one has to say anything - the gratitude is obvious.
Escape plans are reluctantly discarded as the last of the food finally disappears and they catch him up on what he's missed - which really isn't much. The disgruntled U.N. attache was pretending to be a mad scientist, and his acting skills needed work. "He kept monologuing," Clint tells him. "Who does that? Really? Not to mention that if you've got a force-field doohickey you have to shut off to change, you need to remember to trap all the good guys in it first."
"Who made you the supervillain expert?" Tony asks.
"You don't need to be an expert to know that. This guy - Dr. Awful or something - was not the brightest crayon in the box. I'm just saying."
Natasha nudges him. "He did trick Homeland Security into identifying him as a threat."
"Tasha, this is Homeland Security we're talking about. That's not saying much."
Steve decides to clean up, gathering the dirty dishes, although Clint is still working on his second bowl of cereal. He navigates in the kitchen carefully, and doesn't knock anything over. He does have to scoot his chair back a bit to avoid hitting Natasha when he gets up, but he's aware enough now to avoid that. The only downside is that it calls more attention to the additional limbs, something that most of the conversation has steered clear of until now.
"So what's it like?" Clint asks, pointing at the wings with his spoon.
Steve shrugs. "Like having another set of arms. Only I can't pick anything up with them, they make it hard to fit through doors and I knock things over when I turn around."
"Try taking them for a spin yet?" Tony suggests. "We've already got plenty of altitude."
"They don't exactly come with a manual, Tony."
"Manuals. Please. Learn the way all winged creatures do." Tony gestures to the window. "Like a baby bird getting shoved out of the nest."
Steve stares at him, wondering just how hungover Tony really is. "I'm not going to jump out a window. I'm not even sure I can fly."
"I could spot you. Just upgraded the suit. The thrusters'll support an extra 500 pounds, easy."
"It would be an adventure," Thor adds, a dangerous gleam in his eye.
"Not sure it's possible unless you suddenly have hollow bones."
Everyone stops and stares at Bruce, who is poring over the printouts as if he hadn't spoken. "Hey, Banner, want to share with the class?" Clint asks.
Bruce looks up, startled and surprised that anyone was listening to him. "I meant - humans are generally about three times heavier than a flying animal should be. The amount of strength needed to flap the wings enough to raise the body is beyond the capabilities of most people. Most birds have hollow bones, but really, that only accounts for maybe twelve percent of body mass. So that wouldn't work either."
"Yeah, yeah, and additional muscle mass adds more body weight," Tony says. "Heard it before. Besides, Cap's not most people, and those are some pretty strong wings."
"You would know," Natasha reminds him.
He ignores her, lost on a tangent. "Seriously. I bet he could get off the ground."
Steve is getting tired of this. He looms over Tony, one of the few things that the wings make it easier to do. "Tony. Enough."
"Not for any kind of sustained flight," Bruce points out. Neither Tony nor Bruce seem to have noticed him anymore; they're in full geek mode and will be lost in their own world until Fury comes and yells at them or something explodes. "Just the act of gliding would require using only the wings to hold one's entire body weight up for a sustained period of time. That's like - what's it called again, when a gymnast pulls himself up on the rings and holds his whole body parallel to the floor?"
"Maltese Cross," Natasha supplies.
"What about propulsion?" Tony suggests. He's already sketching something on the back of a form he's supposed to be filling out for Fury. Oh, no.
Steve gives up on the attempt to clean and decides to escape before Tony starts trying to weld a jetpack to him. He quietly sets the last cup down in the sink as Bruce and Tony continue debating over aerodynamics and biology and arguing how the energy readings might affect anything. Thor interrupts with some bits and pieces of Asgardian knowledge, which need to be translated from Thor-to-scientist. Natasha just watches them with amusement after reminding Tony just what Fury will do to him when he gets that form. No help there. Traitor.
Without saying a word, Steve goes through the motions of cleaning up, moving towards the exit. Problem is, while Tony's back is to him, Thor can see him and makes a few encouraging comments to try and talk him into a skydiving attempt before the others draw him back in to their argument.
Then Clint gets up from the table with a groan of "get me away from the technobabble." But he doesn't actually try to escape, just stands there and makes snide comments - effectively blocking Thor's view of the doorway.
Steve takes the opportunity and scoots out the door, wings and all. The debate goes on without pause - he figures he's got a few minutes' head start.
He's running away, and it's silly and he hates it, but - the idea was tempting when Tony first suggested it. Sure, he throws himself in the path of danger all the time, but he only endangers himself to save other people. Not just to scratch an alien-artifact-induced itch. This is different - it's instinctive, selfish, and wrong. (But the notion of leaping off the flight deck and soaring out over the city, feeling the wind in his hair and at his back feels incredibly right.)
There's a difference between running away and making a strategic retreat.
He turns and strides away quickly. Already he can hear footsteps behind him and quickens his pace, as if trying to put space between himself and that quiet little voice that's telling him he's got to get out of this box.
"Cap. Hold up."
Steve slows down, surprised, to see Clint jogging up behind him. "Do I want to know what they're planning?"
"Couldn't tell you," Clint admits, coming up beside him. Fortunately, the corridor is wide enough to manage that. "I zoned out about five minutes in. Sounded like they were trying to design a flying bionic coffee maker when I got out of there."
Steve chuckles. "I thought Tony already had one of those."
"Yeah, probably a dozen." Clint hesitates, rubbing his neck. "You okay? Aside from the obvious."
"No." His own response startles him; he intended to just tell Clint he was fine. But maybe he's been bottling that up too long. Clint just raises an eyebrow, and Steve sighs. "I think I'm losing my mind."
"I don't know if you've noticed this, but nobody in that kitchen's the picture of sanity." Clint smirks. "Officially, if Coulson asks, I'm totally sane."
"Nice try. He knows you too well." Steve rubs a hand across his face. "I have to get out of here."
Clint's smirk fades at that, and he glances around warily as if expecting a SHIELD psychiatrist to pop up from the shadows and ambush them any second now. He leads Steve into the nearest empty conference room and shuts the door behind them. "How bad is it?"
"I haven't tried to break through any windows. But -" Steve bites his lip. "What they were talking about in there was actually tempting. Even knowing how crazy it is."
"I don't know. Two days of being stuck here as a lab rat, I'd be trying to pick locks with my fingernails." Clint pauses. "Hypothetically."
Steve looks up at the ceiling, as if he can bore through all the decks to the top with his gaze. "If I get up on the flight deck - if I get out in the open air - I don't think I'll be able to stop myself."
There's a pause before Clint speaks up again. "Look, Cap - I'm sorry about this."
"About what?" Steve looks at him, confused at the sudden subject change.
"This. All this. The - you know, the giant wings that got you stuck here," Clint gestures towards Steve's back. "What happened out there was my fault."
"No, it wasn't, it -"
"I hit the wrong target. Should have gone for the forearm, or the wrist, made him drop it." Clint scowls. "I've worked for SHIELD long enough to know not to shoot the weird glowing doo-hickey when it's about to go off."
"Is that the voice of experience? Didn't know you dealt with so many of these kind of things."
"Well, yeah, if you substitute 'explosive device' for 'weird glowing doo-hickey.' Principle's the same."
Steve sighs. "Clint. It's not your fault."
"You don't have to -"
"Barton. Listen to me." Clint recognizes the leader voice and shuts up. "This one wasn't your fault. You heard Coulson, you were there when it happened. Loki already partially activated the artifact before you took your shot, so it was likely to go off on impact regardless. If you hit his arm, he would have dropped it and maybe it would have hit someone else when it hit the floor. If you hadn't hit anything, well... we'd probably be stuck with Iron Pigeon."
"And that's supposed to be worse?" Clint asks.
"Honestly? Yes." Steve relaxes, glancing around even though he knows they're alone. "Just don't tell him I said that."
Clint punches him lightly in the shoulder. "Better be careful, Cap. Keep making jokes like that and people'll start to think you have a sense of humor."
"I've got a sense of humor," Steve protests, but the tension is broken. "Done blaming yourself?"
"Working on it. Done going crazy?"
He has to think about his answer for a second. "I'm not sure."
Clint opens the door. "Come on. Let's go find the rest of the inmates before they blow up the kitchen."
After lunch, Coulson interrupts a half-assed escape plan brainstorming session (this one involves a lot of electrical tape and balloons and Steve is pretty sure they're just coming up with random crap now and don't really intend to implement any of this), by clearing his throat. "I thought you'd like to know that we contacted Dr. Forrest. She'll be here later this afternoon."
That puts an end to the insane plans - well, at least for the rest of the day. Steve knows that gleam in Tony's eyes too well by now to assume otherwise.
This is technically two parts, but they are being posted as one chapter because I am about to drop off the face of the Earth for medical reasons.
I'm fine, but there won't be any updates for at least a week.
Dr. Forrest doesn't actually appear until dusk. Loki makes an appearance that afternoon, though - a dozen Frost Giants attack a SHIELD installation in New Jersey. It's not where they have the artifact stashed, but there are some sensitive projects locked down there and since Frost Giants can only mean Loki, the rest of the Avengers are dispatched to deal with it. Bruce goes along this time, since they're short-handed and because the installation is not in the middle of a heavily populated area. Steve doesn't like it one bit, but they obviously can't just let the Frost Giants break into the secure facility and the regular agents won't be able to handle them.
So Steve and Fury are the only ones waiting in the conference room when Coulson brings Dr. Forrest in. "- positive this meeting had to be up here?" she is saying as Coulson opens the door. "Not that I don't appreciate the private flight, but I'm much more comfortable with my feet on the ground."
"I apologize, Doctor, but circumstances being what they are, we need to continue this briefing here."
Steve gets to his feet as Dr. Forrest enters. She's a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, with curly black hair peppered with gray. Her mouth opens in shock and she peers at him over her glasses as if to make sure she's not seeing things. "Oh my God."
For some reason, Fury seems to find her reaction funny. "Dr. Donna Forrest, Captain Steve Rogers."
She shakes Steve's hand, still dazed. "My God. Did it really - Are you seriously telling me that -" She lets go of his hand and sighs, rubbing her forehead. "I'm sorry, Captain, all they would tell me was that you were affected by an energy discharge from the artifact from the King's Barrow Ridge excavation." Dr. Forrest folds her arms and gives Fury an irritated look. "That's a rather significant detail to skip over, don't you think, Colonel?"
Fury is definitely amused. "Captain Rogers has already undergone extensive medical testing. I'm hoping you can supply us with information of a different sort. Sit down, all of you." They oblige as Fury continues. "Specifically, what made you think that this particular artifact did not belong with the others." Coulson presses a button and the image of the artifact appears on the viewscreen. "Years before it started generating unknown energy and transforming one of my people, you insisted it was out of place. Why?"
He's giving her that intense, expectant look that he uses when he's trying to unnerve someone, but she doesn't seem intimidated in the slightest. "The strata, for one. Given the relative depth of most of the other jewelry and household items we found from the late Iron Age, and with the relative corrosion -"
She stops, noticing their expressions. "I don't have my notes and you all have that look my daughters get when I try to explain what I'm working on, so I'll make it simple. It was buried too deep. It was at least several meters below the items it was classified with, and it didn't show half the corrosion that we found on supposedly newer artifacts. I'd have thought it was planted there, but it was obviously buried for quite some time - I know what to look for by now, and it wasn't a plant. Older than Iron Age artifacts, but so much less corrosion? That doesn't make sense."
"That was the simple version?" Fury asks incredulously.
"Yes." She notices the confused looks from Steve and Coulson. "Forgive me, gentlemen. I've worked on a number of archaeological excavations that have been... appropriated by Colonel Fury over the years. This is an old routine."
"Excavations that she was allowed to continue to participate in, which furthered her research considerably," Fury adds. "Let's move on." He gestures for Coulson to proceed.
"The curator's notes indicate that it was better preserved due to being sealed in a chamber under a primary structure with some sort of ancient waterproofing." Coulson is reading from a folder, his tone somewhat skeptical.
"What? That can't be right," Dr. Forrest exclaims, trying to peer at the folder. "No amount of waterproofing could have preserved an ordinary bronze pendant so well for almost two thousand years, Who on Earth -"
Before she can snatch the folder away, the emergency alarms start going off. Steve is on his feet at the first wail of the siren. Fury is already shouting into his radio. "Report!"
"We've got incoming, sir," an agent's voice responds. "Code 42. Didn't show up on radar. It's coming in hard and fast." The floor actually shakes beneath their feet. Dr. Forrest doesn't say a word, but her eyes are as wide as saucers. Apparently she doesn't like flying much.
"Dammit. Get the team back now." Fury strides for the door. "Coulson, Rogers, get Dr. Forrest out of here. I'll be in the control room." And with that, he's gone.
Dr. Forrest hasn't moved from her chair. Steve offers her a hand. "Ma'am?"
She snaps back to attention. "Yes. I'm here. Let's go."
She practically jumps to her feet, but just as she takes the first step towards the door, a giant, scaly black tail smashes through the window and sweeps through the room.
As the glass explodes inward, Steve tackles the scientist to the floor, opening the wings just enough to shield them both from the rain of glass fragments as the tail passes over them. He winces as the glass hits, but it doesn't feel like any of the shards embed themselves anywhere.
He doesn't get a chance to check, because a second later the floor tilts at a crazy angle, tipping them towards the open window. The half-open wings are like sails, and Steve is flung backwards by the wind. He manages to grab on to the iron railing beside the window, folding the wings tightly against his back. Dr. Forrest lunges for the shelves that are bolted to the nearby wall. She doesn't make it in time, though, and her hands scrabble for purchase on the floor as she slides towards the gaping hole in the Helicarrier. Coulson is too far away to stop her without taking a plunge himself; the conference room table is bolted down, but even using that as a handhold he can't get there quickly enough.
Steve grabs her with his free hand as she slides by, but it's a near miss - he only catches her fingers, and even with all his strength he doesn't have a good enough grip to hold on to her for long. "Hang on!"
She pinwheels her free arm and makes a mad grab for his wrist, but the carrier tilts again and she loses her equilibrium. Whatever's attacking the Helicarrier is now on the other side, and help is not immediately on the way. Her hand starts to slip - and for a horrible, horrible moment, he's back on the train in the Alps, hanging onto the door, reaching uselessly as his best friend falls out of reach.
No. There might be a chance. An insane chance, even though he has no idea if it will work and it might get him killed. He doesn't even know this woman, but she mentioned daughters, a family, and only happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and dammit she's going to fall -
When her hand slips from his grasp, he doesn't hesitate before letting go of the railing himself.
For a moment, the world is nothing but howling wind and spinning sky. Steve gives in to the pull he's been fighting for days and lets instinct take over.
He goes into a dive to catch up to the falling scientist, angling so he's facing her and can pull her in. She shrieks something that that he can't make out (although he's pretty sure it's a variation on "Are you crazy?") as he wraps his arms around her and forces his wings to open as wide as he can. Just like parachuting, he tells himself.
But a parachute isn't part of his body. The second he snaps them open, it feels like the wings are being ripped out of their sockets. He can't suppress an involuntary cry of pain. Muscles he's never had before and never really pushed like this before scream in protest, and it takes every ounce of willpower he has to spread the wings against the wind. Steve grits his teeth, straining to keep the wings open, hoping it's enough to glide. He thinks he can feel an updraft against the wings and twists them slightly, trying to catch the draft and stay aloft.
And somehow, it seems to be working. He can feel their descent slowing, and as he fights gravity and the strain of holding both of them up, it almost gets easier. The long-unused muscles are loosening up, and the pain isn't quite so bad. Something inside him seems to switch on, a whole new system that he's never used before finally kicking in and all the pieces are starting to work together.
Short of smacking Tony and moving the wings around for countless nerve conduction tests and mobility tests and tests he's forgotten the names of, he's never really used them before, never acknowledged they were a part of him until now. It's like waking up a part of him that's been asleep all this time. He never imagined that flying would be like this - so harsh and demanding and amazing. Even with his eyes tearing up from the wind and the cloudy sky and the dim evening light, the world seems incredibly sharp and clear. It's working. He's gliding. They might just get out of this safely.
But they're not slowing down enough. He let go only a heartbeat after she did - how far did they fall before he caught up with her? And how much farther do they have to fall? He flaps his wings before he even consciously realizes what he's doing, once, twice, again and again, working through the pain to find the right rhythm. Breathe. Flap. Breathe. Flap. He can do this.
Their descent finally levels off as they emerge from the clouds, gliding high over the Hudson River. It doesn't hurt that Dr. Forrest is making herself as small as possible, burying her face in his shirt and trying to wrap her arms around him as best she can. Behind them, he can hear thunder and - snarling? The sounds seem to be getting closer. Whatever it is, they're not out of the woods yet.
Going back to the Helicarrier is out of the question; he needs to get Dr. Forrest someplace safe. Steve can see the city below, can recognize the familiar contours and the city lights easily. He thinks he can see the flight deck of the Intrepid below him, and if that's the case he doesn't have far to go at all. He aims northeast, towards Columbus Circle, trying to maintain his altitude. It's risky to be this high up, especially if he tires out, but he's not sure he can make the climb if he loses altitude and has to get up higher in a hurry. His lungs are burning and his back is on fire, and he can't afford to falter.
Steve makes a beeline for Stark Tower as soon as he spots it, aiming for the roof. Hopefully the SHIELD agents won't shoot him on sight. Already, several dark figures are appearing, guns drawn. But as he gets closer, one of them pauses and starts signaling to the others, who immediately lower their weapons. Looks like Fury figured out what was going on.
He's already starting to lose his second wind as he descends, and his landing is less than graceful. Steve gets his legs under him at the last possible second and throws his weight back to avoid landing face-first and crushing the doctor. He overdoes it a bit, stumbling and falling and winding up flat on his back. Probably not good for his wings, but they already hurt like hell and any additional pain doesn't really register. He's going to need some more practice landing, he thinks.
Steve lies there for a few seconds, watching a stray feather drift by. He sits up slowly, ignoring the pain in his back, careful not to jostle Dr. Forrest as he gets his breathing back under control. He's covered in dust and soot, white wings streaked with gray smudges, and his shirt is dark with sweat. His entire upper body aches almost as much as it did immediately after Erskine's procedure, and he's still flushed from the exertion.
In short, this is the best he's felt in days. He's alive. Dr. Forrest is alive. He actually flew.
He looks down at the woman curled up in his arms. She hasn't moved and is still clinging to him for dear life. "Ma'am? We're on solid ground now. Are you all right?"
She doesn't lift her head, but her grip on him relaxes a bit. "That settles it," she informs his shirt shakily. "I'm working on the ground floor from now on."
Steve can't help but laugh at that.
They've got a medical team on the roof a minute later. Once he manages to detach Dr. Forrest - it takes a minute, she had a death grip on him when they landed and she's still shaky - they whisk her away to the infirmary. The poor woman's still in a bit of shock. Steve waves the SHIELD paramedics away, telling them he's fine, to give him a few minutes and to tend to Dr. Forrest first.
He just sits there on the roof for a while, elbows resting on his knees, resting his head on his elbows and letting his aching wings sprawl out behind him. The evening breeze is cool against his skin and it ruffles his feathers a bit. Everything still hurts, but it's a good kind of hurt, the kind of slow burn that comes from pushing his body to the limit and surviving to get yelled at about it later. It'll be easier next time, he thinks. Next time he won't be starting off in free-fall.
He doesn't move when Iron Man touches down. "You know, when I suggested you take the wings for a spin, I wasn't serious about throwing yourself out a window. Much."
"She fell." That is the only explanation Tony's getting now. His voice sounds gravelly, and he clears his throat. Breathing. Breathing is good.
"Uh huh. Good thing they work. You all right?"
"Sore. Very sore. Bruce... wasn't kidding about the effort." Steve tilts his head back towards the darkening sky and laughs hoarsely; the combination of adrenaline, exhaustion and relief is making him giddy. "I want to do it again."
Tony flips the faceplate up and studies him for a second. "Is that a promise? Can I get that in writing?"
Steve considers this. "Could be a lack of oxygen."
"All right. Come on, up you go." Tony offers an armored hand, and Steve allows himself to be hauled to his feet. He's a little unsteady at first, but he finds his footing before any of the agents hovering nearby can rush forward.
He accepts a bottle of water from one of them gratefully, nearly downing half of it in one gulp. "Frost Giants were a diversion, huh?"
"Yep. JARVIS, power down." At his command, the Iron Man suit peels away from Tony of its own accord, collapsing into a suitcase within seconds. Tony picks it up and rolls his head around a bit, working out the kinks in his neck. "Some diversion. They packed a hell of a punch."
Steve scowls. "I thought there was something else going on there. Should have known." He stands at attention as the chopper lands and Fury storms out. "Sir. I can explain."
"Never mind that." Fury glares at the assembled agents, raising his voice to be heard across the roof. "What I want to know right now is, how in the hell did a goddamn dragon manage to take a bite out of my goddamn carrier?"
The reactions to his impromptu flight are not quite what he expected. Steve expects more strange looks and discomfort, but instead he mostly gets congratulations or scolding.
Tony is, of course, insufferably smug all the way to the infirmary. Steve ignores his comments and focuses on trying not to twitch too much when the medical staff carefully examines his wings. He's strained muscles he's never heard of before, and as cautious as the doctors are, they still need to identify all possible injuries.
Fury is not happy with Tony, nor is he thrilled about the UFO sightings over the city. Fortunately, the few people who actually got photo or video footage resorted to cell phones, and the low visibility and poor video quality doesn't show much. They can probably spin it as a pre-Halloween prank, an idiot with a souped-up hang glider. But he doesn't direct any of his wrath at Steve; instead, Fury just nods and gives him a sincere "Good work," before going back to scowling at anyone whose name is not Steve Rogers.
The only thing Coulson says on the subject is "Thank you, Captain," and Steve hears the unspoken for getting to the civilian when I couldn't, and that is that.
The doctor on duty just shakes his head and comments on the sheer insanity of trying out never-used wings while in free-fall a couple miles over the city. Only when he's convinced that Steve hasn't permanently damaged anything does he let him visit Dr. Forrest.
She's dozing when he comes into the private room set aside for her, nodding at the agent guarding the door and closing it quietly behind him. The doctors assure him she'll be fine - the worst physical injuries she sustained are the scrapes and bruises on her arms and hands from clawing at the conference room floor. She looks even smaller in the hospital bed, and Steve pulls up a stool as quietly as he can, trying not to wake her. He's not really sure how badly this has affected her, given her phobia, and doesn't want to interrupt her rest.
He's not quiet enough, though, and she stirs as he sits down. "'M fine," Dr. Forrest mumbles automatically, turning and blinking sleepily in his direction. When she recognizes him, her face lights up with a warm, relieved smile. "Captain Rogers?" She fumbles for the glasses on the bedside table. Steve wonders how they got her a replacement pair so quickly. "Oh, thank goodness. Are you all right?"
Steve grins as she puts her glasses on. "Isn't that my line, ma'am?"
"Maybe, but you saved my life, I think I'm allowed to worry about you too." She peers at him through the lenses, taking in his generally disheveled state. The nurses cleaned off his face and hands when inspecting him for injuries and treating a few small cuts, but his clothes and wings are still smudged with gray. Steve fidgets, remembering how tightly he held her the whole time he was struggling to stay aloft. She must have been able to hear the way his heart pounded in his chest and every gulp of air he took.
"I'll be fine," he assures her, and he realizes it's true. He's still sore, but it's nothing a hot shower, food and some rest won't cure. "What about you?"
"Exhausted," she says with a wry smile. "Certainly better than I would be if you hadn't done what you did. Thank you." Steve smiles and looks down, but she speaks again before he can respond. "Exactly what happened up there? No one will tell me anything. They seem to think it will traumatize me further."
Steve pauses. "I'm not sure. The Colonel wanted to wait til tomorrow to debrief everyone since he didn't feel like repeating himself." And because he was too busy snarling at people. "Are you sure you're all right with - all this?" He's not really sure how to phrase the question, but he wouldn't be surprised if she wants to go right back to Beijing. More than one civilian consultant has been spooked by some of the Avengers' more explosive encounters, even when they weren't smack in the middle of the action.
It takes her a few moments to understand what he's getting at. "Ah." She straightens up a bit. "Don't worry, Captain. I have work to do and I'm not going to let a bunch of analysts do it without me. I'm not going anywhere."
He runs a hand through his hair, glancing out the window. "I wouldn't blame you if you did."
"You couldn't keep me away." The steel in her voice surprises him, and he turns back to her. "I don't like it when someone tries to cover up what I've spent so much time researching. I especially don't like being threatened over it. Colonel Fury knows this first-hand."
Steve chuckles at that in spite of himself, remembering the byplay earlier. "I might have gotten that impression."
Dr. Forrest smiles, but it fades quickly. She plucks at the edge of the hospital blanket for a moment before speaking. "Did you know, before you did it? That you could fly?"
"No," he admits. "But it was worth the risk."
She blinks at him, stunned, before disbelief gives way to helpless laughter. "Well, I'm certainly grateful you thought so."
While the Helicarrier is the primary base of operations, the top 20 floors of Stark Tower are reserved for Avengers Initiative business, just in case. It's the next best place to stay while the Helicarrier is being repaired, so Steve winds up in the apartment reserved for him in the Tower. It's not as big as the VIP suite, but he finds it a lot more comfortable.
The apartment is only used as temporary quarters in case he needs to crash overnight for whatever reason, but he's stayed there enough to make it his. The smattering of personal belongings he's left there is sparse, but it's enough. The only difference is that the twin bed has been swapped out for a king-size bed and the furniture had to be rearranged slightly. Under other circumstances, Steve might have found the change off-putting, but the larger mattress is more of a necessity than a luxury for him right now.
He's showered and changed and is eating dinner in the lounge when Thor, Natasha and Clint arrive. Bruce is still sleeping off the sedatives and Tony is dealing with demands from both Fury and Pepper, so it's just the four of them.
Thor bounds into the room first, full of energy as usual. "My friend!" he exclaims, pounding Steve on the back with his usual lack of restraint. "It is good to see you alive and well!"
Steve winces and covers it with a gulp of water. "It's good to be alive," he admits as Clint and Natasha enter. "Didn't think I was going to make it for a second there."
Natasha raises an eyebrow. "You threw yourself out of the Helicarrier with no chute. I'm not surprised."
"I didn't throw myself," he retorts hotly, bristling a bit. "Dr. Forrest would have fallen if I didn't, and there was no way anyone could have--" He stops, noticing her amused smile. "Oh. Sorry, I've been hearing that kind of thing a lot from the doctors." Clint is looking at his wings strangely. "What?"
"You might want to avoid playing poker for a while," Clint tells him. "You've got the world's most obvious tell on your back now."
Steve smiles in spite of himself. "Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."
They piece together the sequence of events as Steve finishes eating and Thor raids the kitchen for Pop-Tarts. The Frost Giants put up a fight, and the second that Bruce was forced to Hulk out, a dragon appeared about two hundred feet away from the Helicarrier. Tony picked up on the distress call from Fury and Thor took off to fight the dragon. Tony followed suit a few minutes later after finding out that Steve and Dr. Forrest had fallen out of the carrier, and made it back just in time to pick up Steve's final approach to the Tower. There was no sign of Loki during all of this.
But a few minutes later, the dragon just vanished. "At first I thought the beast had retreated," Thor recalls. "But it vanished just as it was trying to snap Mjolnir from my hands - a foolish move indeed."
"So something else made it disappear," Steve guesses. "Or someone."
"Loki can conjure up dragons too?" Clint exclaims, glaring at Thor. He's sprawled on the couch, pressing a pale blue icepack to his shoulder. "Any other tricks up his sleeve you haven't told us about?"
"That was not a mere trick," Thor snaps. "He tried it once before, summoning a creature from another of the Nine worlds without the aid of the Bifrost. It takes an immense amount of effort just to keep it under control and from vanishing back to its own world. I doubt he will do such a thing again; it must have drained him immensely, and the tools he needs would have burned themselves out in the attempt. I have already said as much to Colonel Fury."
Steve can imagine that discussion. Fury probably started demanding answers about the dragon the second Thor set foot on SHIELD property. "If he wants the artifact that badly, there's no telling what he'll try."
"Oh, wait, you haven't heard the best part yet." Clint sits up. "The artifact wasn't even on the Helicarrier. They moved it to the lab here yesterday without telling anybody."
"What?" Steve stares at Clint for a second and shakes his head. "This makes no sense at all."
"No kidding." Clint settles back. "Loki sends a bunch of Frost Giants to keep us busy in Jersey so he can make a dragon appear for five minutes and chew on the Helicarrier - for what? He doesn't do anything for almost three days straight, and when he does he doesn't go anywhere near the doohickey he was trying to steal in the first place. Even if he thought it was there, that thing wouldn't be able to reach into the labs and pick it out."
Thor folds his arms. "My brother has a great deal of patience. He could very well have been waiting until our guard was down, but then why the diversion? We were no less prepared for an attack today than we were the day before."
"Because he wasn't waiting for us to lower our guard." An idea is starting to take shape in Steve's mind. "The only thing he accomplished today was punching a hole in the carrier and dropping Dr. Forrest out of it. The attack on the facility started, what, half an hour before she arrived?"
"Who else knew Dr. Forrest was coming?" Natasha asks, eyes narrowing.
"Right now, I'm more interested in why he did it." Steve turns to Thor. "Staging a diversion, making a dragon appear - what would Loki put that much effort towards, if not the artifact itself? Is he just trying to annoy us?"
"Loki would not put forth such effort just for mischief." Thor stops, pondering this. "Ever since we were children, his greatest passion has been the pursuit of knowledge."
"And Dr. Forrest is the only person who's done any extensive research on the artifact," Natasha adds.
Steve knows where Natasha is going with this, but it doesn't quite fit. He replays the attack in his mind - specifically, the tail smashing through the window and sweeping through the room. Now that he thinks back on it, the action wasn't just a careless act of violence. The tail lashed about as if it was trying to grab something, and when that failed it resorted to tipping the carrier over to shake its prey out.
He remembers the snarling from the clouds above him, how much closer it had seemed than the carrier really was. "Thor, when you caught up to the dragon, was it still attacking the Helicarrier?"
"By the time I reached the beast, it had broken off the attack and was circling below," Thor replies. "I did not give it the chance to strike again."
"What are you thinking?" Natasha asks.
"I'm thinking that it wasn't going to attack again." Steve straightens up, unconsciously drawing his wings in. Everything is starting to make sense - well, as much as it can with Loki involved. "It was looking for something. Specifically, someone. I don't think it was an attack so much as a smash-and-grab to get Dr. Forrest before we could find anything out from her."
"That's a risky way to go about retrieval," Clint observes. "What if those things," here he points at Steve's wings, "hadn't worked? What if the dragon hadn't gotten to her in time?" Steve gives him a funny look, mildly affronted for some reason before shrugging it off.
"Loki's plans are not always without risk," Thor tells him. "Not if he thinks the reward worthy."
"He might have considered it an acceptable risk, especially if he meant to disguise it as an attack," Natasha says. "Worst-case scenario, she'd be dead, but we'd be out a vital source of information."
"So why bother trying to retrieve her, anyway? Why not just--" Clint stops as he realizes where Steve is going with this. "Oh. Damn."
Steve nods. "I could be wrong, but Loki might not know everything about the artifact yet. And he thinks Dr. Forrest knows a lot more than he does."
Natasha is up and moving before he finishes the sentence. "I'll talk to Coulson about increasing her security detail. He'll find a way to be subtle about it."
Maybe it's because of the workout he got, but Steve sleeps better that night than he has in days. The aches and pains are gone the next morning, and the feeling of being boxed up isn't quite so bad. Despite having to be poked and prodded by doctors, he makes it to the briefing early and in a fairly decent mood. He's amused to find that someone has added a modified version of one of the high-backed chairs to accommodate him, with a narrow, cushioned strip for lumbar support that fits between his wings. Before, he might have found it a little embarrassing, but now he's grateful; he has the feeling this is going to be a long briefing. At first glance, it doesn't look that sturdy, but Steve is surprised to find that it's reinforced and allows him to lean back occasionally without any discomfort. No one takes credit for it, but the gesture improves his already good mood.
Which is a good thing, because as soon as Bruce comes into the conference room he's already in full geek mode and makes a beeline for Steve. Someone caught him up on the events of the previous night, and Bruce is like a kid at Christmas; he's fascinated about Steve's flight capabilities and has a ridiculous amount of questions. Steve takes it in stride, although he can't answer half of them and has a hard time figuring out where Bruce's train of thought is going. But it's not heading towards jetpacks, at least.
Tony is the last to arrive, as usual, and while he and Clint complain about the briefing, Steve turns his attention to the agenda. There's administrative items on the agenda before the actual briefing, which probably means public relations cleanup, expense reports, and Darcy Lewis.
Steve has never gotten a straight answer on how Darcy wound up working for the Avengers Initiative, because no one's really sure how it happened. She started out as Dr. Foster's intern - Jane insisted that Darcy come to SHIELD with her - and somehow got loaned out to other divisions to handle jobs that didn't require a security clearance.
In the process, Tony discovered that she was a whiz with paperwork and was able and willing to irritate the hell out of Coulson. So when her internship was over, Tony offered her a job working for the Avengers Initiative - strictly on his payroll. While Tony got the idea to hire her strictly because she annoyed Coulson and Fury, Darcy takes her job seriously. She keeps things organized, helps draw the line between StarkTech and SHIELD in the Tower, and is constantly after somebody (Clint) for expense reports. She's generally professional in mixed company, and is surprisingly good at handling public relations, but every so often her mouth runs away with her.
Which is exactly what happens when she follows Coulson in, tablet in hand. She's engrossed with whatever she's reading to notice anything amiss, and doesn't look up until Coulson gets through the initial pleasantries and gives her the floor. "All right, folks, we've got a lot to cover- holy fuck, when did Steve get wings?"
Steve shifts uncomfortably, both at the attention and the language. He still hasn't gotten used to Darcy's tendency to curse like a sailor, especially when she can turn around a minute later and act perfectly professional.
"They work, too," Tony points out. Steve nudges him with a wing because his elbow won't reach.
Darcy is staring dumbly at him, and the wing movement only makes her eyes widen more. "They're huge."
"That was covered in the memo," Coulson informs her.
That snaps Darcy out of it. She snorts and flicks a thumb over her tablet. "I got about twenty memos last night. Wait, was it this one? That only mentioned 'temporary physical alteration.' That doesn't immediately translate into gigantic bishie wings."
Whatever that means, it makes Clint laugh uncontrollably. Thor looks confused. Bruce becomes very interested in his notes. The corners of Natasha's mouth quirk up a bit, and Tony leans back in his chair with a satisfied smirk. Steve decides he doesn't want to know. Coulson just sighs. "Ms. Lewis, please."
"I'm just saying. Your memos need to be more specific." Darcy thumbs through a few more documents to compose herself. "Explains a lot, though. Press has been going nuts wondering where you've been," she informs Steve. "Guess the truth isn't going to fly." She flinches. "Wow, that was a really bad choice of words and totally not intentional."
Clint is still chuckling. Steve just covers his face with a hand and is quietly grateful that Fury isn't here yet to hear this. Tony grins widely. "I take it back. This is going to be a fun briefing."
Tony's prediction of fun isn't quite right. Steve drifts in and out of the first part of the meeting, occasionally staring out the window but still managing to keep track of what's going on. The rest of the administrative items are handled without embarrassing outbursts, and by the time Fury shows up Darcy is in full professional mode and there's no indication of her earlier gaffe. Not that Fury would care either way.
The Helicarrier suffered mostly cosmetic damage, but Fury lays into Tony about upgrading the long-range sensors immediately. It'll still be a day or two before Fury's comfortable about relocating the team back there. They review the possibility of Loki transporting a dragon on top of them again anytime soon, and between Thor's input and Bruce's translations of Thor's input conclude that it would take Loki at least two months to gather the materials necessary for a repeat performance. Which makes the whole thing even stranger.
Dr. Forrest is in relatively decent shape considering what she's been through - she's not present at the briefing, but that's only because the doctor insisted she stay in the infirmary one more day for observation. She agreed on the condition that they deliver her notes immediately. Dr. Selvig is going to assist in the research since he has had some experience with Asgardian tech - and even if it may not be Asgardian, it's close enough, and Loki had to have found out about it somewhere.
Thor volunteers the use of the library in Asgard, which actually sparks an argument - Thor wants to take Dr. Forrest there personally. Fury wants him to take Selvig and at least one SHIELD agent. Given the kidnapping theory, he doesn't want to let Dr. Forrest out of his sight. Thor points out that her life has been threatened once already in SHIELD custody. Fury does not appreciate that insinuation at all. After a hushed sidebar with Coulson, Darcy points out that Fury's implying the exact same thing about Asgard's security and that Odin might not appreciate that either.
Diplomacy finally wins out and Fury agrees to allow Thor to take Selvig, Forrest, and three SHIELD agents and that they will need to be back within a set number of hours. They won't be leaving until the doctors give Dr. Forrest a clean bill of health.
Bruce hesitantly brings up the possibility of having Steve undergo flight field tests - his excuse is that they might get different readings with the wings in action. The real reason, Steve suspects, is sheer scientific curiosity and the desire to see if Steve can get off the ground without throwing himself out of a plane. He's certainly not going to object to the opportunity to get out, though, so he doesn't protest. But he also knows not to push the issue. To everyone's surprise, instead of shooting down the idea, Fury just gives Bruce a dubious look and tells him he'll think about it.
The priority right now is to figure out what Loki's up to and by extension reverse the changes and get rid of the wings, period, so Steve can get back out into the field. Steve isn't sure how he feels about getting rid of his wings now, but he does want to get back to work, so he doesn't say anything.
But he can't hide the way his wings close protectively around him at the thought.
As the briefing finally comes to a close, Agent Hill shows up with some reports for Fury to look at. He glances over them and then strides out with Hill at his heels. Coulson takes a moment to speak to Darcy before he departs as well. As usual, the rest of the Avengers linger for a bit. This is standard routine when there isn't an immediate mission, but something feels different. Steve turns to see that Darcy is still there, looking at him hopefully. "Something wrong, Ms. Lewis?"
"No, I was just wondering." Darcy shifts from foot to foot and glances around to make absolutely sure that Coulson is long gone before lowering her voice. "The wings, um - I know this is a little weird, and I totally understand if you say no, but can I touch them?" Clint starts laughing again, and she shoots him a dirty look.
Clint stops laughing when Steve, after a moment's thought, says, "I guess so." He rubs the back of his neck self-consciously at the astonished looks from his teammates. "Just - they're a little sensitive, you might want to be careful."
Tony stares at him. "Just like that? I get smacked in the head, and she gets to feel you up, no arguments? How does that work?"
"I didn't mean it like that," Darcy protests, and Steve goes bright red. "What kind of perv do you take me for?"
Steve takes a deep breath. He's really glad that neither Coulson nor Fury are still around to hear this. "Ms. Lewis, I know you didn't mean it that way. Go ahead." Tony just gets a glare.
"Okay, if you're sure." She's already sitting down next to him as she speaks, and Steve braces himself. He suddenly remembers the effect that Natasha had on him that first night, but he won't let Darcy get anywhere near that spot. Besides, he's trying to prove a point here, and there's no way he's explaining exactly how sensitive the wings can be.
To his relief, Darcy is careful not to ruffle any feathers, and she keeps her touch light. She slides her hand over the outer wing joint and cautiously strokes the outer flight feathers. After a minute or so, Steve relaxes into the touch. It feels soothing, like a gentle back rub, but nothing more. "Wow," Darcy says in a hushed voice, still gently stroking the feathers. "They're really soft."
He has absolutely no idea how to respond to that. "Uh... thank you?"
Darcy catches herself and pulls her hand away. "Sorry. I just... yeah." She turns to Tony. "So, the sightings of the big flying thing landing on Stark Tower. Hang-gliding lunatic, giant bat or another wannabe trying out for the team?"
Tony is really trying not to laugh. "I think Coulson was working the hang-gliding lunatic angle," he tells her. "Works because it's closer to the truth." Steve rolls his eyes.
"Yeah, if we tried the wannabe angle we'd actually have to produce the schmuck. It's fun to make up superhero failures, but... too much work." She taps her tablet, all business again. "You still haven't gotten the new sensor array done?"
"Almost. Keep Coulson off my back about it another day so I can finish up?"
"Piece of cake." She stands up. "See you all later. I've got paperwork to torture people with." Clint tries to blend into the upholstery.
Once Darcy's gone, Tony rounds on Steve. "Seriously. What kind of favoritism do you have going on here? It's because she's prettier than me, isn't it."
"She asked first, Tony. It's that simple."
Tony is silent for a second or two, digesting that information.
"So, can I -?"
Note: any and all statements or implications made regarding the University of Padua and its faculty herein are complete and total fiction.
Also adding a slowdown warning - the next part will be even more delayed than usual due to the holidays, cold season and the fact that a chunk of what I had written got eaten. It's not catastrophic, but I now have to rewrite some scenes from scratch. (Lesson learned: E-mail drafts are not an appropriate draft repository. Thank God for Simplenote.)
I do have the next part edited, but... the way it ends, I think people will hunt me down if I post that one and leave it hanging there for a few weeks. So there won't be a new part until New Year's.
Nick Fury made one major mistake at the briefing: he didn't explicitly forbid anyone from telling Dr. Forrest about the potential field trip to Asgard. Apparently, he forgot how quickly word travels in the Tower when it's not classified.
Dr. Forrest argues her way out of the infirmary by lunchtime.
Meanwhile, Steve is released from the scientists’ clutches well before lunch; there’s only one thing the scientists want to test, and they can’t simulate it in the confines of the Tower. Now that they know he can fly, they want to get readings while he is in flight and figure out how the hell he managed it. But there isn't enough space to properly simulate a takeoff in any of the labs - even the Hulk-sized test chambers - and no amount of complaining to SHIELD security will change that. Letting him jump off the roof in the middle of New York City isn’t an option either. Darcy is already hard at work covering up his earlier flight.
After about an hour of considering and discarding options, the research team finally gives up. Bruce looks thoughtful and hurries off. Steve is left with nothing to do, which he can't stand; he hates being idle, and besides, if he's got nothing else to do it'll be easier for Bruce to rope him into whatever crazy experiment he's got planned. Bruce isn't as reckless as Tony, but when he gets an idea into his head and dives into an experiment he tends to get a little wrapped up in the science even if it contradicts common sense.
He finds Agent Coulson in his office, looking over what appears to be building schematics. "Excuse me, sir, do you have a moment?"
Coulson's head snaps up, and he almost looks relieved to see Steve standing there as opposed to someone else bearing more work. "Captain. What can I help you with?"
Steve closes the door behind him, eying the mountain of paperwork. "I was just about to ask you that."
Erik Selvig stares at a well-worn notebook, rotating it sideways and squinting at the page he's perusing as if the contents will change with his perspective or reveal some hidden pattern in the chicken scratch. Finally, he turns to Dr. Forrest and asks, quite seriously, "Is this some sort of code?"
She looks up from the notes she's perusing. "Hmm?" Setting her notes down, she leans over to peer at the offending page and sighs. "No, that is what happens when you try to write something down while sitting on a bus in the Wicklow Mountains with a driver who thinks he's in the Grand Prix. Here, let me see."
Steve smiles as Selvig trades the notebook for a more legible printed report. Coulson wasted no time in finding him something to do. While helping the scientists and a group of SHIELD analysts sift through research isn't as active as he'd like, it's useful and relevant to his interests right now. For various reasons, they can't just pack up and take the Bifrost to Asgard. Thor has gone on ahead to get permission from Odin to bring a group of mortals to the library, and to ensure that they will have safe transport to and from Asgard. In the meantime, they're basically sifting through everything they've compiled on the artifact, all the scientific and archaeological research, trying to find undiscovered connections or leads so they know what to look for in the library.
Surprisingly enough, the task he was given isn't necessarily busy work. Someone must have remembered that he went to ar school, because he winds up comparing the artifact to the images Dr. Forrest has collected and some drawings from known Norse myths and ancient artwork. They have a program that's comparing scanned images right now, but it's still better to have human beings examine the images as well - especially if there's a discrepancy between what's seen by the program and by the human eye. Even Tony's software can only do so much.
It's an eclectic collection at best. On the one hand, there are the detailed SHIELD notes and observations from the tests on the artifact, and on the other hand, there are what passes for Dr. Forrest's notes. "You weren't joking when you said your notes were disorganized."
"Most of what I've gathered is from oral tradition and observation. It's not what you'd call conclusive evidence." Dr. Forrest spreads her hands apart helplessly. "Until now, all my research has been done off-the-clock, and when you don't have an official grant behind you it's a lot harder to document and verify. A lot of my methodology here was based on assumptions and guesswork."
"Oh, I don't know, that doesn't sound much different from working on-the-clock here," Selvig observes wryly. "Although with research there's less risk of accidentally setting something or someone on fire."
"Ha. Ever been to the University of Padua?" She doesn't look up from her translations of her own chicken scratch, but she's smiling a bit.
"Not recently, no. Why, is there something I should know?"
"Never utter the words 'drinking contest' near anyone in the Archaeology department. Especially if you need to convince the head of the department to let you into their archives."
Selvig chuckles. "Now this is a story I've got to hear."
"I, ah -" She glances over at him, and becomes slightly flustered. "It wasn't exactly my finest moment."
"Can't be any worse than when I took Thor out drinking in Puente Antiguo." Selvig shudders. "Made the mistake of introducing him to the boilermaker."
Dr. Forrest raises an eyebrow. "Really." She reaches for another small notebook without looking, her focus still on Selvig. "Just how much property damage did that involve?"
"Not as much as it could have, now that I think back on it." He pauses. "But I don't remember very much of that evening."
It's her turn to chuckle. "Maybe we should swap stories later, then."
He smiles. "I'd like that."
Steve glances up at the two scientists. He suddenly feels like he's intruding by listening in. Are they - wait, are they flirting? No, he tells himself, it's just his imagination and none of his business and he's just been cooped up too long. He glances over to where Coulson is talking to an analyst at the other end of the room, but no one else seems to have noticed the exchange.
He sighs and turns back to the photos. As he leafs through a collection of damaged cave paintings, one symbol catches his eye. It’s only a fragment of a symbol, since part of the painting is broken off. But it's familiar, and he studies it for a second, comparing it to the archive photos of the artifact that started all this.
Frowning, he picks up another photo from the same collection. Another hacked-off shape that looks familiar. Steve studies both photos, trying to map out the missing parts. He can't say why it reminds him of the artifact, but-- the style seems the same. "Excuse me, but what are these from?" he asks.
Dr. Forrest takes the picture from him, studying it. "Oh, I remember. These were found near Bergen. Supposedly they were images depicting a journey Freyja made to Alfheim. But it doesn't seem to correspond with any known myths and it hasn't been verified as authentic. Not to mention that there's huge chunks of the paintings missing. I wonder--"
Before she can finish the sentence, the doors to the conference room fly open, nearly hitting one of the analysts who's standing near the door. "I bring good tidings from Asgard," Thor booms cheerfully as he strides into the room in full regalia, Mjolnir in hand. Coulson winces. "The Allfather has agreed to our proposal and we may depart this very eve."
Dr. Forrest blinks a few times. Steve realizes that this is probably her first time meeting Thor.
Fury enters a second later, smirking at the reactions to Thor's dramatic entrance. "Dr. Forrest. I don't believe you've met Thor yet."
"It's a pleasure." She recovers, shoots Fury a look and offers a hand to shake.
Thor bows over her hand and kisses it instead. "My lady. I have heard much of your valiant efforts to untangle my brother's latest scheme."
Dr. Forrest is clearly at a loss, and Steve suspects Fury encouraged the theatrics for once. Thor is laying it on a bit thick, even for him. "I wouldn't call it valiant," she finally protests.
Selvig pats her on the shoulder sympathetically. "You get used to it."
"Odin has given permission for us to send a team to Asgard to peruse the library - and only the library," Fury explains. "His condition was that all research be supervised. So don't go crazy."
"But all are welcome," Thor interrupts. "Doctor Selvig, Doctor Forrest, Steven, even you, Colonel Fury--"
Steve blinks, surprised at the invitation and at the possibility. He'd never considered going to Asgard, and the idea is kind of tempting. There would be no worries about security in Asgard - the media hasn't figured out how to sneak reporters in via the Bifrost yet - and he would be out in the open air and probably able to do more than be a lab rat and get stared at by the staff. Nobody there would blink twice at the wings.
"No," Fury says.
"My father will not be offended if you do not join us," Thor says, confused. "Your duties here--"
"Not what I meant." Fury's good eye is burning through Steve. "Captain Rogers is staying here. That's final."
"The court of Asgard is the safest place imaginable," Thor protests, "and my people are no stranger to accidental transformations. You need not be concerned."
"Thor, I am already taking a very big risk here," Fury tells him evenly. "I agreed to send Dr. Forrest, Dr. Selvig, and three agents. No more. End of discussion."
Thor is about to say something, but Steve puts a hand on his shoulder, shaking his head. It's not worth starting an inter-realm incident over. After a moment, Thor backs down and the group immediately starts working, quickly gathering relevant notes and making plans for their departure. Steve politely excuses himself.
He spends the rest of the day in the gym, working out as much as he can. He runs for miles on the treadmill (it's the only way he can run), attacks the punching bag and loses count of how many push-ups he does. He's not really counting, just trying to wear himself out. Exhaustion is the only thing that seems to make the itch go away. That, or actually getting out and flying, but he doesn't think he's going to do that short of breaking out of the Tower. So he pushes himself to the limit instead.
The punching bag does not survive this time.
Warning: Slight dubcon and sexual situations in this chapter.
It's not explicit enough to change the rating, but as this fill has been firmly gen and PG-rated up until this point, I think a warning's needed.
That evening, Steve sits on the edge of his bed and flips through a copy of today's Bugle. It looks like the hang-glider story appeased the reporters, for the moment. Halloween is in only a couple days, and it is New York, after all. The writers don't seem entirely convinced by the cover story, but none of the speculation comes close to the truth. Nobody's been able to take his three day absence and the flight to Stark Tower and combine them to come up with "Captain America sprouted wings." It's not exactly intuitive.
At first, he doesn't notice the sensation of warm fingers massaging his neck. He's preoccupied with the articles he's reading, and his earlier workout has made him a bit drowsy. But when the hands start kneading the muscles in his shoulders, Steve stops and glances around. No one's there, and the feeling is gone. After a few seconds, he goes back to reading. The massage starts up again, this time working its way down his spine. Before Steve can react to that, the touch moves outward to where his wings meet his back, and a strangled sound escapes from his throat. Just an accidental brush from Natasha's fingers there was enough to give him a jolt, and the warm, thin fingers caressing his flesh are anything but accidental, delicately stroking the skin in just the right place. He shudders and rustles his wings as if to brush off whatever is on his back.
The hands on his back keep stroking, undisturbed. There's the feeling of someone leaning over his shoulder now, although the bed doesn't give from any additional weight and there's no additional shadow. He can feel a cheek brushing against his and a voice whispering in his ear. "What's the matter, Captain? Don't tell me you don't appreciate my gift."
Steve grits his teeth, not turning to see the face he knows isn't there, refusing to give Loki the reaction he wants. "Gift? What, now you're going to tell me you meant this to happen?" It's a bluff, he knows it is; Loki doesn't know everything about the artifact yet and there's no way he could have anticipated the effects of Clint's timely shot. "Even for you, Loki, that's a stretch." Why the hell haven't the alarms gone off? They installed special sensors in the Helicarrier months ago to pick up on it if Loki projected or teleported himself in. Loki was extremely annoyed the first time they proved to work.
But that was the Helicarrier, and Steve can't remember if those sensors were installed everywhere in the Tower. Damn it. "And you're going to tell me you're not enjoying it? The freedom of flight, the rush of wind against your wings - it still calls to you, doesn't it." Steve tenses in spite of himself, the paper crinkling in his fingers, and the hands pull away. "Perhaps you'd prefer someone else?"
A moment later, he can feel someone massaging his back again, but the hands feel different - still gentle, still warm, but smaller and no less persistent as they stroke the spot where skin gives way to downy feathers. A smoother cheek brushes his, hair drifting over his shoulder. There's the faint scent of gunpowder, overlaid with an achingly familiar perfume as Peggy's voice whispers in his ear. "I told you I'd show you how."
He knows it's not real, but the shift takes him by surprise, and the sense memory is so strong, so accurate, that it's just too much. Steve moans, his wings spreading wider and his back arching slightly as the newspaper slips from his fingers. When he told Natasha that spot was sensitive, he had no idea how much of an understatement that was. Just being touched there, the way her fingers trace tiny circles in the skin and ruffle the scapular feathers, kneading the muscles where the wings meet his back, is making his toes curl. There's a sudden painful lump in his throat, and he leans into the caress, not caring that it's a lie, because he still misses her and goddamn it's been so long - "S-stop," he finally gasps, but it's completely unconvincing. "This isn't real."
"You don't really want me to stop," she purrs, and he swallows against the lump, knowing it's true.
"I--" The words can't seem to make it from his brain to his mouth, dissolving into an incoherent moan. Every touch sends tremors down his spine, ripples of arousal thrumming through his body. He's rock-hard already, and he grips the edge of the mattress with both hands to steady himself. He should hit an alarm, call someone, get up, but God, it feels like Peggy and it feels so good.
He can't see her smile, but he can hear it in her voice. "I know you, Steve. You can't be happy sitting on the sidelines here."
"I can't just - take off," he gasps, voice rough. "Nowhere else to go. I'd be hiding out all the time."
"And these are your only two options?" Her lips brush against his ear. The familiarity of the words is like a slap - the inflection and tone is exactly the same as when she asked him that in the rain so long ago.
Steve clutches at the comforter, balling it in his fists so tightly he's on the verge of tearing it, and his voice lowers to a growl. "Don't. Do. That." He's torn between need and rage now, rage at Loki using his memories of Peggy like this and his need for her touch, even though it's just memory and illusion.
"Am I bothering you?" Peggy's voice asks. The hands on his back grow larger again, but more callused, and the scent of gunpowder is now mixed with cigarette smoke and aftershave. "Didn't think you were the type to hide out, pal." Bucky chuckles softly. "C'mon, weren't you the one who hated running?"
Rage wins. With a snarl, Steve whirls and jumps to his feet, flapping his wings as he bucks off the imaginary intruder, knocking over the lamp. It hits the carpet with a thud and a crunch, and the light winks out. He stands there in the darkened room for a few seconds, panting, listening to the silence and letting his eyes adjust. When nothing happens, he sits back down on the bed with a sigh of relief. But the invisible presence returns, sitting beside him and leaning on him to whisper in his ear. "Now that was just rude."
Steve closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths to center himself. He focuses on the empty air all around him, like the negative space in one of his drawings. It's all negative space, he reminds himself. There's no one in the room with him, no one else on the bed, and there's nothing on his back but cool air. Slowly, the presence fades and the sensation becomes fainter until it withdraws completely. He opens his eyes and lets out a breath when the room remains empty and quiet. It's not real. No one else is there.
He turns to lie back down only to find Loki grinning at him. "Of course I'm not really here," Loki tells him. "But how do you know I'm not really in your head?"
Steve awakens with a start. He's lying on his side, back to the wall, and the paper is sitting folded on his bedside table. The bedside lamp is unscathed, and the clock shows that it's three-thirty in the morning. He sits up slowly, scanning the empty room. It was all a dream; granted, a very vivid and disturbing dream, but just a dream. If Loki was actually in his head, why not do this to him the night before? He's still hard, though, and the sensation of those warm fingers trailing over feathers and flesh is still fresh in his mind. He groans, burying his face in his hands, drawing his wings around him.
He's going to have to talk to someone about this, he knows. Someone who's not going to write him off as a threat or mentally unstable. Someone who knows how Loki operates, who can tell him whether or not that was Loki or a figment of his imagination, and if Loki could have truly gotten into his head. Of course, Thor would be on Asgard right now.
Fully awake, he sighs, stands up and pads over to the adjoining bathroom to clean himself up. Going back to sleep doesn't seem like a very good idea.
Note: Clint is trying to say "quantum improbability energy" with regards to the sensors. Yes, I stole that from John Rogers' run on Blue Beetle.
Sleep is not an option, and he's already taken out a punching bag, so Steve grabs his sketchbook instead. He stares blankly out the window, trying to get in the mindset to draw something, anything to take his mind off of the dream. He tries a few loose sketches, but his heart's not in it, and he sets the sketchbook aside.
If that was Loki, he's in trouble, but if it wasn't and that was all his subconscious... well, he's still in trouble. Now that he knows he can fly, knows that the wings will support him in the air, he wants nothing more than to be out there again. But here, smack in the middle of Manhattan, there's no way he can go anywhere, flying or not, without being captured by a thousand cameras.
Despite the early hour, he's considering sneaking down to the gym when someone knocks on the door. It's soft, and at first he thinks it's his imagination; since when did SHIELD agents knock with the first five notes of "Shave and a Haircut?"
Cautiously, he opens the door a crack to see Clint and Natasha standing there, both in civvies. Clint sighs. "Oh, come on. Don't tell me that joke's after your time too."
Steve taps the requisite "two bits" on the door in response because he's tired of people assuming everything's after his time. Clint grins. "What's going on?" The hallway is dim and quiet; there's no indication of an attack or an emergency or any big event.
Clint tosses a bundle of clothes at him. "Get dressed. We're going on a field trip."
Ten minutes later, Steve is still trying to figure out what is really going on.
He rules out Loki when Clint and Natasha get into an argument over who Coulson is more likely to believe and why. All the bickering is done in quiet whispers and Clint loses, but by the time it's over Steve is pretty much it's convinced that they're the genuine article. Loki can't possess more than one person at a time as far as Steve knows, and honestly, he couldn't duplicate their timing so well. Tony referred to their banter once as "the Clint and Natasha show" - but he made no further comments after Natasha made a point of sharpening her favorite throwing knives in front of him.
If it was just Clint, he'd suspect this trip was unauthorized - Clint will bend the rules if he thinks it's the right thing to do and he knows just how stir crazy Steve has been getting. But Clint goes on ahead to "secure transport" and it's Natasha who leads Steve into the elevator, and she's obviously a part of whatever they're planning. An unauthorized field trip isn't exactly Natasha's modus operandi - she usually finds other ways to give Fury migraines, most of which involve sharp objects and snap decisions in the field. He steals a glance at her during the ride down to the underground garage, searching her expression for clues and finding none. But Steve doesn't ask. Even with just the two of them, the wings take up a lot of space and he doesn't think a cramped elevator is the best place to have that discussion. At least, that's what he tells himself.
When the doors slide open, she signals for him to stay back and steps out first, scanning the area. After a second, she beckons him out. "Follow my lead exactly, and keep quiet."
Steve frowns, suspicious, but he chooses to humor her for the moment. He doesn't want to unnecessarily set off the Tower alarms yet, just in case this is legit. If it's not he might have a chance to talk them out of it and no one will get in trouble. But he's wary and ready for anything as he folds his wings and follows her across the garage, stopping when she does and moving on her signal. They eventually come to a corner that must be a security blind spot - Steve makes a mental note of that - and when he sees what's parked there, he can't keep silent any longer.
He stares at the laundry truck in disbelief for a few seconds. "Tell me you're joking."
Clint comes around from the cab, carrying a cap and service uniform top. "Would you believe it's stealth training?"
Natasha rolls her eyes, and Steve turns on his heel. "I'm going back to bed."
Clint tosses the uniform to Natasha and practically jumps in Steve's path. "All right, all right, all right. Look. You want to get out of here without the media going nuts. Bruce wants to get some readings with you in flight. Stark just wants to do whatever he wants. This'll solve all of that."
"Yeah?" Steve looks at Clint and Natasha, still suspicious. "So what do you two want?"
"To keep you from going insane, mostly," Natasha answers, shrugging off her jacket to reveal a camisole top. She ignores Steve's embarrassed flush and Clint's grin as she slips the uniform top on, buttons it up, and pulls her hair back into the cap. "Frankly, this is preferable to waiting for you to snap and jump off the roof of the Tower. At least this way I can keep an eye on all of you."
Steve's suspicious look becomes accusatory. Clint raises his hands in a gesture of innocence. "I didn't say anything. Promise."
"He didn't have to," Natasha says. "It's obvious to anyone who knows you. Or anyone who heard about the latest punching bag."
"I can't believe this." Steve rubs his forehead. "Look, I appreciate this, I do, but with Thor off in Asgard, do you really think it's the best idea for us to take off right now?"
"Just for a few hours." Clint's tone is almost pleading, like a kid trying to negotiate extra playtime outside. "Besides, Stark got the whole Tower outfitted with those Asgardian quantum-whatever-energy sensors last month. Loki tries anything - impersonating an agent, spitting in Coulson's coffee, trying to mess with somebody's head - we'll know about it right away."
Somehow, Steve rearranges his shocked expression into something approaching skeptical. "Anything? I thought there were limits."
Clint shrugs. "He sets foot in the Tower or possesses or mind-controls somebody, we'll know. So, yep. That covers everything."
Not everything, Steve thinks. "Are you sure about that? The whole Tower?"
"Yep, the whole Tower, and I should know because Tony got distracted by something shiny and I had to coordinate the retrofitting of every single floor in only a week," a new voice interrupts. Darcy comes around the cab, bundled up in a heavy coat and clutching a cup of coffee like a lifeline. "I hate to interrupt, but it is way too early for anyone sane and if we're not gonna do this I'm going back to bed."
"You got the passes?" Clint asks. She nods and hands him a clip-on badge, smiling and waving sleepily at Steve. "I owe you, Lewis. Big time."
She snorts. "I'll add it to your tab. You know where to meet us, right?"
"Hold on a second." Steve is getting a little annoyed at being ignored. He hasn't agreed to this. "I understand that the Tower security can pick up on Loki, but how are we supposed to know if he tries anything? With all of us out of the Tower, he'll jump at the chance."
Natasha reaches into the pocket of the uniform and pulls out a small transmitter. "Stark put together some portable versions for us. They're also tied in to the Tower via the Starkphone network, so they'll go off if the alarms here are tripped." She hands it to Steve. "Clint, if we're going to go, we need to move soon. We've only got ten minutes before we lose our window."
Steve stares at the transmitter in his hand. Despite their reassurances, he's not sure the dream was all his subconscious at work. It would make sense without Loki's appearance - he still dreams about Peggy a lot and refuses to tell the SHIELD psychiatrists all the details of some of those dreams - but the way Loki appeared, made it seem like he was in control, was just too deliberate. Even for a dream that lucid, his behavior was just too calculated and logical.
If Loki is really messing with his head... He curls his fingers gently around the small device, thinking. The logical response to that sort of taunting from Loki would be to do the opposite of his suggestion, to put himself on lockdown in the Tower and ignore the impulse to escape into the open air. But that would probably push Steve over the edge eventually, and that's probably just what Loki wants.
Besides, the more he thinks about it, the suggestion from Loki was almost too blatant. It doesn't take a genius to realize that using his memories of Peggy and Bucky to persuade him would enrage him instead. And why would Loki tip his hand so early and reveal himself? Assuming that was Loki and he was trying to goad Steve into giving into temptation and breaking out of the Tower, he was going about it in entirely the wrong way. That's just not like him. Not that Steve's intimately familiar with Thor's brother, but... he's fought Loki enough to know that he's too smart and too subtle to be making those kind of mistakes. It's like he's trying to get Steve to be more cautious, to lock himself up. Then again, he could be doing that on purpose, knowing Steve would think of that -
He abruptly gives up on that train of thought. If he keeps trying to second-guess Loki he'll be at it for days. There's one simple question he asks himself instead: What would he decide to do if he hadn't had that dream, and if Loki hadn't interfered?
It only takes him a minute to come up with the answer.
Steve sighs and pockets the transmitter, looking back up at the other three. "I know I'm going to regret this."
Okay, I know it's been forever. Because of Real Life issues and severe computer issues, I had to put this fic down for several months. When I finally got back to it, a few months after seeing the movie, I looked at what I'd written, looked at my outline and went, "Oh, wow, this is crap." Sure, bits and pieces of it work, but I have no idea what I was thinking when I decided on the direction it was going in. It just didn't make sense even for Loki at his most unhinged. Not to mention I found plot holes you could drive a truck through. On top of that, I was influenced by the character dynamics the movie established, which didn't quite mesh with what I've written - and the movie dynamic works better in a lot of ways.
So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be completely rewriting this from scratch. It'll be a little closer to the movie canon, at least in terms of character dynamics, but it's still going to be AU and make a lot more sense than this draft did. The rewrite of this will be coming - but I'm not posting it til I'm positive I like the full draft. This version will stay up until the rewrite's done.
In the meantime, to keep everyone from killing me, I'm posting one more chunk that passed editing muster. So here's the rest of the field trip. Sorry about this, all.
Fortunately, Steve doesn't have to bury himself under soiled linens. There's a false back inside the truck for Steve to hide behind to maintain the illusion that there's nothing but laundry in there. But there are no windows, so he's basically stuck in a tiny box with his wings and knees pulled in tight. The truck passes inspection somehow, much to Steve's surprise and relief, but then again Natasha probably planned for that.
The trip takes about half an hour, and after they stop it takes a few more minutes to empty the truck out. Finally, Natasha detaches the false back and pulls it down so Steve can climb out. It takes all his willpower not to lunge for the opening, but he doesn't waste any time getting out of there.
Tony and Bruce are waiting in a small hangar that Steve doesn't recognize, standing beside what looks like a pile of blankets (or blanket, since it all seems to be a very large comforter) with legs. Bruce is carrying two briefcases and is leaning against a stack of equipment on a dolly. There's a jet waiting - one of Tony's, probably. "So," Steve asks, "where are we going?"
Tony grins - he's unusually alert for this hour, but then again he's always got the energy to irritate Fury. "I still say we should hit Vegas. Maybe try a launch off the Grand Canyon." Bruce rolls his eyes.
"You're not going to Vegas without me." The blanket shifts as the person holding it readjusts their grip, and Darcy peers around it to glare at Tony. "And you need me to run interference back here."
"I pay you to run interference, Lewis."
"No, you pay me to cover your ass. For this, I get overtime." She shifts uncomfortably. "Can I put this somewhere?"
Since no one else has any manners (although Bruce's hands are full with equipment), Steve immediately moves to take the comforter from her. "What's this for?"
"Camouflage," Tony explains. "Got to hide those things somehow."
Steve gives him a flat look. "You didn't really plan ahead, did you? At all."
"I did," Darcy interrupts before Tony can reply. "I got a hold of Fury and Coulson's itineraries. Fury and Hill are gonna be at White Sands until 1 pm. Coulson's going to be preoccupied with coordinating Helicarrier repairs and the sensor retrofit, and I can distract him with paperwork because I remember all about the fun of last-minute security upgrades. You guys need to be back by 11 am at the latest, because I could only keep your schedules 'elsewhere' til noon. After that, people will probably start wondering where you are."
"That doesn't give us much time," Bruce protests, looking disappointed. "Why not by noon?"
Natasha smirks. "Because knowing this crowd, if we try to be back by eleven we might barely get there by noon." Darcy grins at her as if to say, See, somebody else knows how this works.
Tony frowns at Darcy. "I have a schedule?" he asks as if this is an alien concept.
"Pfft. I didn't even bother with fudging anything for you. Officially, you're in Malibu with Pepper. But she's only gonna cover for you til noon and you have to go to the stockholders' meeting on the 4th. And behave like an adult."
"Fine, fine." Tony's aggrieved sigh is obviously put upon. "You see the things I do for you?" he says to Steve.
Clint pats him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Stark, even you can fake being a mature adult for an hour. Now where's our ride?"
Steve has to admit that Tony's private jet is a lot more comfortable than the Quinjet, mostly because of the additional space. Tony gripes briefly about the lack of in-flight service, but there's no way they can explain the wings to the usual attendants. It's just them and the pilot, who meets with Clint's approval after Clint goes up to the cockpit to see what kind of setup there is and they apparently bond over having to deal with Tony's insanity.
But the cabin isn't designed for people with wings. Tony and Natasha try to help get Steve comfortable, with limited success. Tony keeps forgetting that Steve can feel his wings as well as any other limb and that trying to tie them to the seat or tuck them somewhere isn't going to cut it. Bruce watches them from a safe distance in the back as Tony earns another wing-slap when he tries to pull one of Steve's wings into an unnatural position. "If you need me to, I can -"
"You can stay over there," Natasha tells him. "Stark, what are you doing?"
Tony is studying Steve's awkward position in the seat. "Wondering where I can get a chainsaw at this hour." At their incredulous stares, he adds, "For the chair."
Steve sighs. "Tony, just - please go sit down. I'll figure something out."
In the spirit of disobeying orders, Tony ambles off into another compartment instead. Which is just fine with Steve, since it's just him and Natasha, and he's not sure how his wing got stuck between the seat and the wall but he's pretty sure it was Tony's fault. Natasha, though, is oddly hesitant, moving around the chair and inspecting it and not even laying a finger on him. She reaches out to touch the inner joint of the trapped wing, to check to see where it's pinned and how much space he has, but hesitates. "Probably not a good idea."
"What?" It takes Steve a second to realize why she's so reluctant to touch his wings. Of course she figured it out. For once, he doesn't blush, and his sigh is more resigned than anything else. "It's not -" He lowers his voice, even though Bruce is paying absolutely no attention. "It's only sensitive right at my back. Where the wings - come out, I guess. It's fine as long as you don't touch them there."
Natasha blinks. "How do you -"
"I've had doctors poking and prodding at me for days and I don't want to get into further details."
She nods. "Understandable." Armed with that knowledge, it doesn't take long to help free him from the chair. Steve decides to try sitting on one of the couches that line the walls of the cabin instead. It works, sort of; he can't fold his wings but he can spread them out to each side. It's not ideal, but it's better than hanging off the edge of a regular seat or trying to lean back on folded wings. Natasha sits down in one of the chairs across from him, noticing his discomfort. "Are you hurt at all?"
"No, I'm fine." She doesn't look convinced. "Really. Just..." It takes him a moment to find the right word. "Uncomfortable." In more ways than one. For a second, he wanted her to stop being so hesitant, to touch him there again, to see if it really did feel like that outside of a messed-up dream. Shame blocks out what he originally wanted to say, and Steve finds himself suddenly fascinated with the carpeting.
Her tone is as dry as the desert. "I can't imagine why."
"I know. It's a mystery, isn't it?" Despite what Clint says, he can manage sarcasm. But he can't quite seem to stop studying the carpet, and he can't really get around the queasy feeling of discomfort to find the right words.
Natasha is quiet for a second before she saves him the trouble. "I'm not going to say anything."
He looks up, unsure. "About what?"
"Your personal sensitivity." She clears her throat. "I do have a sense of discretion, you know."
"Well, yeah, I know that, but -" His smile is genuine, albeit embarrassed. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She shakes her head. "God only knows what Stark would do with that information."
Steve shudders. "I don't even want to think about that."
Clint chooses that moment to come down from the cockpit, so Natasha doesn't reply. But she can't help but crack a slight smile in response.
It’s a short trip to the private airfield in upstate New York, where there’s a driver and a large gray SUV waiting. The driver isn’t a SHIELD agent and Steve has to wrap himself up in the comforter to hide his wings. They drop the driver off shortly after, and Tony and Clint bicker for five minutes about who’s driving until Natasha threatens them both with sharp objects and takes the keys herself.
The spot in the middle of nowhere is pretty isolated. It's an old horse farm that backs up onto a large chunk of land bordering the Adirondacks. They took a private road to get in, so there's no worries about traffic. They take the SUV down a dirt road and finally park in an open meadow surrounded by trees and an embankment on one side that dips down sharply to a creek about thirty feet below. As they pile out of the vehicle and start to break "camp," Steve wishes he'd thought to bring his sketchbook.
Clint goes to check the perimeter, and Natasha goes to make sure he doesn't miss anything. Tony and Bruce start setting up Bruce's equipment and immediately start arguing over how to set it up. Steve tries to mediate, but he feels more like a babysitter as he orders Tony to leave Bruce alone and handle coffee duty. He sighs as Clint flops into the nearest lawn chair. "Why did I agree to this again?"
Clint shrugs. "Officially? Team-building exercise."
"That's the official word on where we're supposed to be?" Natasha asks incredulously. "I can't believe anyone would buy that."
"Well, putting 'get Winghead out someplace open and private for a test run that doesn't involve jumping out a plane or off the Tower so he doesn't go stir crazy' on our schedule was probably going to set off a couple of alarms." Bruce gives him a funny look. "What?"
Nothing," Bruce replies. "I'm not sure if that nickname is more or less appropriate now."
Clint considers that and shrugs it off. "Anyway. Lewis is good at BS, but not that good. Had to give her some legit-sounding paperwork to cover our asses with in case someone actually takes a second look."
The need for caffeine overrides Tony's usual desire to tinker with just about any appliance, and he has the coffee brewing in no time. The rest of the team crowds around the coffee pot. Steve passes on the coffee; he's wired enough as it is.
He moves out into the field several feet away from the group, where he's less likely to hit someone with a wing. He's wearing a battered work shirt with holes cut in the back and a pair of worn jeans; another shirt ruined, but at least these are already well-worn clothes. Given his issues with landing, he expects he'll probably get them more than a little dirty. It's rained recently, and the ground is still soft and damp. It's not too muddy to run around in, but enough that one or two spills would leave mud and grass stains everywhere.
The drive wasn't that long, but he spent the whole time hunched over and folding his wings in even tighter than the normal rest position, and he's been itching for the open air the whole time. Besides, he at least needs to stretch them out a bit before he does... whatever he's going to do here. Steve rustles his wings, trying to shake out the cramps a bit before letting them fully extend behind him, dropping his chin and rounding his back into the stretch for several seconds before relaxing and straightening up. He draws them forward slowly, then back again, going through the motions of flapping the wings with deliberate slowness, trying to get the circulation going without propelling himself backwards in the process. The slower speed helps him focus, makes him think about what he's doing and what he's going to do.
As he does so, he notices the peculiar lack of background noise and glances over at the others. They've all gone quiet and are just watching him now, with varying levels of fascination.
"That," Tony informs everyone, "is incredibly hot."
Steve looks up at the sky imploringly, wondering for the nth time just what is wrong with these people he calls his teammates. "Are you sure no one's going to notice us out here?"
"It's all private land for miles," Tony assures him. "I was going to donate it. Just never got around to it, I guess."
Clint shrugs. "Perimeter's clear. You're not going to be doing any cross-country flights, are you?"
"I'll just settle for getting off the ground."
Tony unwraps a bundle he retrieved from the SUV. Bruce stares. "You didn't actually bring the jetpack."
"And miss out on this chance? I didn't build it just for fun or to waste SHIELD resources." Tony pauses. "Well, maybe that last one."
Steve folds his arms. "No, Tony."
Tony pats the jetpack. "Come on, I tested it in my lab. It's not going to explode or set you on fire."
"I believe you. That's not why I'm saying no." At Tony's puzzled look, Steve adds, "It'd be cheating. Why use a jetpack if I've already gotthe wings?"
"Are you sure you don't need it?" Bruce asks.
He stretches his wings out to the sides, feeling out the air currents. "I think it's possible. I'm just not sure how."
"You did pretty well the other day."
"No, I mean - I'm not sure how to properly take off. Without jumping out of a plane." There's a headwind, and he can feel it against his wings, but somehow he knows he can't just start flapping and get airborne.
"Get a running start?" Clint suggests. "It works for geese."
"And you know this how?" Natasha asks.
"What? I notice things."
Steve remembers watching seagulls at Coney Island with Bucky, guarding their hot dogs against the thieving birds, and how they always scurried away on their skinny bird feet, unfurling their wings as they did so before launching into the sky. It's not that great a comparison, but the idea makes sense.
"Before you do anything, I still want to get some readings," Bruce says, standing up and grabbing a briefcase. He sees the apprehension on Steve's face and sighs. "Sorry, but this is probably the only chance I'm going to get."
Shaking his head, Steve lifts his shirt up and allows Bruce to attach the wireless sensors to his chest and back, letting Bruce's rambling explanation of how they work wash over him. He braces himself for the worst when Bruce gets around to the wings, and is surprised when nothing pinches and Bruce steps back. "Do me a favor and flap them once or twice?"
Steve obeys, going through the motions once again. This time, at least, the others don't gawk - or at least they're not as obvious about it. Clint is trying to hoard the last bag of chips and failing miserably as Natasha mysteriously manages to snag some every second he lets his guard down. Tony has set the jetpack aside and is poking at Bruce's equipment. "Feels fine, actually. What did you do?" He curves the wings around, trying to see but he can only get a glimpse of a brightly-colored patch on the outside of each wing.
"I modified a temporary wing tag design," Bruce says. "It attaches to the feather, not the wing itself, so it's not permanent. The sensors are inside the fabric, and it should be lightweight enough not to impede you at all. Of course, there's the chance that they might fall off, but I brought spares."
"Huh." Steve rustles his wings, impressed. The tags flutter a tiny bit, but they don't drop off, and they're not uncomfortable. "I guess we'd better get started."
"What? No, I mean, great, just let me make sure the sensors are working first." Bruce dashes back to the laptop, shooing Tony away as he types furiously at the keyboard.
Steve waits patiently, scanning the area and trying to get a better feel for what he has to work with. There's plenty of space in the meadow as it is, but it occurs to him that if he does manage to take off that landing will be an issue. It'll be easier if he tries to land in the open meadow instead of being forced to come down in the woods. Studying the distance between their end of the meadow and the drop-off, he figures that if he can get liftoff at the halfway point he'll still be able to come down in an open area. There's a couple acres of open space to work with. He has to give Tony some credit for picking out a decent spot. It would be better if it was brighter out, but that carries the risk of being spotted.
"Okay," Bruce says after a minute. "Whenever you're ready."
The first few attempts are less than successful. Getting a running start turns out to be a good idea; Steve can feel the additional airflow beneath his wings, and running seems to loosen everything else up. But he can't seem to get the right rhythm when he beats his wings for takeoff, and his feet only leave the ground for a few seconds at first.
At least his landings have improved somewhat. He never winds up on his face or flat on his back, sometimes landing on his feet, sometimes on his knees. Still an improvement over the first time, although his pants below the knee are swiftly covered in mud and grass stains. Each attempt gets him just a little bit further, and Steve thinks that while he's missing something, he's got the right idea. The rest of the team call out suggestions ranging from the ridiculous to the encouraging. "Jetpack!" Tony shouts, and Steve just shakes his head. They briefly consider starting off with some altitude first, but there's no way to make a ramp with the time they have. The drop-off isn't a good option because of the lack of open space.
He's getting up from the eleventh attempt when he notices his audience has gone unusually quiet again. All four of them are deep in discussion and Clint is holding something. Steve can't see what since the archer's back is to him, but he has the feeling they're up to something. "Is this a private conversation?"
"Oh, yeah. Catch." Clint turns and tosses the object at Steve.
Steve catches it easily, and is surprised to find it's a football. He turns it over in his hands and inspects it cautiously to be sure that it's not some bizarre prototype of Tony's in disguise, but no, it's just an ordinary football. He looks up, perplexed. "What's this for?"
"Why a football?" Natasha asks Bruce curiously.
He shrugs. "Better for airborne passes, it's a good size and we don't need additional equipment. Also, it was easy to acquire one without a lot of questions."
"Jetpack would be more fun," Tony insists.
"I wouldn't play catch with it."
"Time out." Steve turns to Natasha, the most likely to give him a straight answer. "Playing catch? What are we really doing here?"
"We're going to try something different," she tells him. "Bruce and Clint's idea, really. Mostly Bruce's."
Bruce looks a little embarrassed. "I think there's an instinctive component that's missing here," he explains. "Basically, you're thinking too much about what you're doing. Normally, this group has the opposite problem," he adds before Tony can interrupt. "But this isn't a normal situation even for us."
Steve looks at the football uncertainly. "So you think I'll have more luck flying while trying to catch a pass at the same time?" Baseball's more his thing, but given the circumstances, that would be a little too difficult.
"It's got more to do with the not-thinking part," Clint says. "I didn't really get the rest of the theory."
"Among other things, the serum gave you an incredible ability to adapt," Bruce explains. "Which I believe is partly how you survived in the ice for so long; your body adapted to the cold, so your heart rate and metabolism--"
Natasha clears her throat. "Banner. On topic."
"Ah. Yes. Sorry." Bruce catches himself before he can stray to an uncomfortable topic. "The wings are seamlessly integrated into your nervous system, as if they'd always been there. But if you were a normal person, I don't believe you'd have been able to move the wings on your own right off the bat. Your brain wouldn't have been able to interpret the signals."
"So they'd be dead weight on my back." It's an unpleasant thought, and Steve is reminded of soldiers staggering off the battlefield with dislocated or broken arms hanging limp at their sides.
Bruce considers that. "Not indefinitely. From what I've seen, you probably would have been able to move them with practice, focus, and a lot of conscious thought as you adapted to it. The human brain has an amazing ability to adapt under normal circumstances. You might have needed to consciously focus on what you were doing at first. But here, it's like you have the opposite problem; your nervous system adapted almost immediately at a subconscious level, so your subconscious motor control is a lot better."
"Subconscious motor control?" Steve echoes, confused.
Clint grins. "World's most obvious tell, Cap." Tony looks thoughtful, and Steve just knows he's planning a poker night.
He studies the football in his hands. "I don't know. I still think it'd be harder trying to do both at the same time."
"Then don't consciously try to do both. Just see where it gets you." Bruce advises. At their skeptical looks, he shrugs. "Worst-case scenario, it doesn't work, but it'll at least make the team-building excuse more plausible, you'll still be out in the open air doing something, and Barton will stop being so twitchy."
"I'm not twitchy," Clint protests.
"Yes you are. You've been fidgeting for the past half hour and it's making me nervous." Clint takes a step away from Bruce. "Not that nervous. It does take more than that to set me off. Ask Tony, he's the expert."
"His powers of aggravation are legendary," Natasha agrees.
Tony looks like he's going to say something cutting in response, but then thinks better of it and grins instead. "What can I say? It's a gift."
"Right." Steve sighs, relieved that for once Tony didn't take the bait. He tosses the football experimentally and catches it again. "Why not? It's worth a try."
It starts out with just Clint, Natasha and Steve passing the football back and forth. Tony follows suit after Clint taunts him and he gets bored fiddling with his phone. Bruce stays with his equipment, wanting to monitor and pointing out that getting his heart rate up is not worth the risk.
They spread out, passing the ball back and forth, gradually increasing their distance as they go and letting the passes get longer and wider. Natasha is especially guilty of this; when she throws the pass it looks perfect and straight, but winds up hooking off to the side. She's throwing it properly, Steve realizes, she's just good at making it look like she's aiming in a different direction than she really is. Tony just deliberately aims away from Steve or fakes that he's going to aim one way and throws it another. Clint calls them both cheaters, and then promptly ricochets the ball off a nearby tree to get it to bounce towards Natasha. "Hypocrite," Tony shouts.
"Show-off," Natasha corrects. "You of all people ought to know the difference."
Nobody mentions flying or takeoff, not even Tony, as the passes get wilder and wilder, and the true objective of the exercise gets pushed to the back of Steve's mind as they keep going, just enjoying the activity. Bruce is quite content to sit with his tea and his equipment and his readouts under the tree, and they do have the presence of mind to make sure the ball gets nowhere near his equipment.
Finally, Clint steals the ball when Tony fumbles it, passes it to Natasha, who smoothly catches it and passes it towards Steve in one fluid motion. She already looks like she's aiming wide and it's going to go well past him since she's fairly close and he was expecting the pass from Clint.
He's already running as she throws it, but it's not enough; the ball is in danger of going right past the drop-off and into the woods. Steve picks up the speed, heading towards where he thinks the ball is going to wind up. He can see its trajectory, can see he's probably going to have to jump to catch it. He's so focused on the point in space he needs to reach that he doesn't even notice that his wings are unfurling. As he approaches the edge of the drop-off, he leaps into the air, snatching the ball before it can plummet down to the creek.
It isn't until a second after he catches the ball and stays aloft that he realizes two things:
1. He didn't just jump to catch the ball.
2. He's about to fly into a tree.
Steve falters mid-flap and throws his weight to the side to avoid hitting the tree, but that knocks him off-balance. Between that and the realization of what he's just done, it's enough to totally break his concentration, and he drops like a stone.
Frantic, he flaps his wings, trying to slow his descent or at least propel himself towards a safe place to land. At a glance, there aren't many options. The creek winds a twisty path between the trees, and the steep hillside follows its erratic course. There's a spot where the creek bends sharply and the slope bends with it, creating a tiny pocket crevice. A mountain of leaves has piled up in the crevice, and it looks to be taller than he is. It's the best bet he can see amidst the branches and rocks and uneven ground.
Flapping wildly, he tumbles into the pile in an explosion of limbs and leaves and feathers. The pile seems to be composed of equal parts mud and leaves, but it's deep enough and soft enough to cushion his fall. He actually goes completely under for a second and has to clear away a layer of wet leaves, spitting out a leaf as he does so.
He just lies there for a second, processing what just happened and moving his limbs experimentally to make sure he hasn't broken or sprained anything. Groaning, he slowly extricates himself from the leaf pile, half-crawling, half-rolling out of the mess until he finds solid ground again and can properly check himself over for injuries.
Everything seems fine aside from a couple of scrapes and what will probably be some pretty spectacular bruises later on. Of course, it's hard to tell since he's pretty much covered from head to toe in dirt and leaves and twigs. Both of Bruce's sensor tags have come off. But he seems to be okay; his insane fluttering must have slowed his fall enough for the leaf pile to cushion the rest of it. He crawls over to the stream and splashes water on his hands and face to rinse away most of the grime. It doesn't do much, but it's something.
Slowly, he gets to his feet and rustles his wings to shake off the leaves, clawing a hand through his hair to get the worst of the twigs out of it. Not much he can do about the rest of the dirt. There's no sign of the football, but that's the furthest thing from his mind right now. He managed to take off. Even better, he thinks he knows how.
Above him, he can hear his teammates shouting. He can only imagine how his descent must have looked from their end. Steve clambers up the embankment as quickly as he can, slipping and stumbling a bit on wet leaves but managing to keep his footing. Clint and Natasha are already at the edge as he makes his way up, and they help haul him up onto solid ground as Tony catches up. "Are you all right?" Natasha asks.
Bruce is jogging towards them, excited. "You wouldn't believe what -" When he gets a good look at Steve, though, his excitement gives way to concern. "What happened? I couldn't really see very much, I was paying more attention to the readouts."
"I'm fine," Steve assures them. "Really. Just need to work on landing."
"Looks like you still need to work on takeoff," Tony points out. "Damn, I wish I got that on video."
"You didn't?" Clint asks him, disbelieving.
Bruce sighs. "Sorry, Steve. I'll admit this was not one of my best ideas."
Natasha looks apologetic. "I didn't gauge the distance well enough. I should have waited til there was more space to work with."
"No, no, it's fine," Steve reassures them. "Let me try it again. I think I know what I'm missing now."
"Yeah," Clint says. "My football."
Steve glances over his shoulder down to the creek and the ground carpeted with leaves, a mishmash of reds and browns that provide perfect camouflage for a football. It's a waste, but they don't have a lot of time, and he thinks he's got the right idea and he just wants the chance to try. He turns back to Clint and shrugs apologetically. "I'll get you a new one."
Several pairs of eyebrows go up at that. "You're serious," Natasha observes.
"Really. I can do it without the football." He glances back at the trees before turning back to his team, looking sheepish. "Just - let's try it a little farther away from the woods this time?"
No one can argue with that.
Setting up seems to take an eternity as Bruce reattaches the spare sensors and recalibrates the program he's using to get the right readings. Natasha uses the spare laptop and the satellite link to double-check flight plans that might be in the area. Steve,Tony, and Clint eyeball the space and try to work out exactly where Steve would need to lift off and where his flight path would reasonably take him so Steve can figure out exactly where to aim. For once, Tony lays off the snide remarks; he's almost as excited as Steve even though he's trying to hide it.
The second Bruce gives him the all clear, Steve starts running.
He doesn't think about his wings, or when to flap, or necessarily about flying. He fixates on a point in the sky, on getting up there any way he can. He's only dimly aware that his wings are starting to flap, but he doesn't really think about it - just like running, he doesn't need to consciously tell himself to make each step. He just has to get from point A to point B.
When he launches himself into the air, he keeps focusing on his destination, not caring about how, just that he needs to stay up there and get higher. As his feet leave the ground, his wings take over. He doesn't think too hard about what he's doing, just keeps straining to get higher, wings beating in response to the need to gain altitude.
At first, it doesn't seem like he's going to clear the treetops, but then he gets this odd rush of adrenaline out of nowhere, an unexpected surge of energy. It's enough to propel him up, almost skimming the treetops as he soars out over the creek. He beats his wings again and pulls his arms in close to his body, taking himself higher and soaring over the forest. The cold October wind blows his hair back, chapping his cheeks and making his eyes tear up, and he can feel it lifting his wings and ruffling the feathers. Below him, the forest blurs into a carpet of red and green and gold.
He's flying. It's incredible. Like the first time he could run full-tilt without gasping for air, when he helped the 107th escape and first realized that he'd done it, they'd made it, Bucky was alive, he was alive and they were free. It's even better than the last time he flew, with no other lives at stake. It's just him and the wide expanse of sky.
Steve laughs, already a bit hoarse, but he doesn't care. Fatigue is already starting to creep in, spreading from his wings and chest to the rest of him, but the sheer adrenaline rush outweighs it all. He closes his eyes for a moment just to feel the open air swirling all around him, lifting him even higher.
Over the howl of the wind, he thinks he can hear someone shouting and cheering from below. It's enough to bring him back to the present, and he turns, almost reluctantly, gliding in a wide, slow arc back towards the open field.
His landing this time is better than the last one, which isn't saying much. Steve falters a bit in his descent, twisting and flapping clumsily in an attempt to shorten the distance so he doesn't overshoot the field completely. His feet touch the ground first, but he stumbles, slips and falls to his knees. He lets himself fall forward, palms to the ground, and stays on his hands and knees for a second to catch his breath. It was easier this time. It gets easier every time. It's never going to be easy, but it's worth every bit of effort.
Looking up, he realizes that Bruce's equipment is only ten feet away - the landing could have gone much worse if he hadn't managed to cut it short. Still, he can't help grinning like a fool as he gets to his feet, wiping his hands off on his already dirt-smeared clothes. He's immediately surrounded by his team; Clint lets out a whoop and punches him in the arm, Tony smirks and says his suit is still faster (which is probably a precursor to a racing challenge), Bruce is flailing and babbling excitedly about aerodynamics and energy signatures, and Natasha smiles and hands him a bottle of water since nobody else seems to realize that might be a good thing to have right now. Steve thanks her and lets the excited babble wash over him, gulping down some of the water gratefully. He tunes back into the conversation once he's caught his breath.
"--told you so," Tony is saying to Bruce, who rolls his eyes.
"You didn't tell me anything," Bruce retorts. "You just said you could break the laws of physics. None of your arguments involved the additional energy readings."
Steve blinks. "Wait. What additional energy readings?"
"Here, let me show you." Bruce beckons him over to the laptop, bringing up a diagnostic. "This shows the energy readings when you were originally on the ground." The outline that appears looks like a normal heat signature, except the wings light up in a different spectrum of color. "Right there, you can see the trace energy signature your wings were giving off. It's barely noticeable, certainly not strong enough to do anything." Bruce taps a few keys and a new image appears, this time with Steve in flight - his wings and chest and back show insanely high energy levels. "I got a glimpse of this right before you crashed earlier, but I thought it was a fluke. Shortly after you launched, everything skyrocketed - those trace energy readings flared up into this."
"Exactly when did that happen?" Natasha asks, peering around Bruce. "In terms of the actual launch."
Bruce thinks for a moment, and pulls up another diagnostic, muttering to himself as he plots the trajectory and peers out over the field. "I'd say... right before Steve cleared the treeline."
"I got a second wind right about that point," Steve tells them. "Didn't think I was going to get up that high, and then - it just got easier all of a sudden."
"So what does that mean?" Clint says after a moment. "He hits anyone while flying, they'll turn into something?"
Natasha frowns. "That's a bit of a stretch, even for you."
"Hey. The football idea worked. Don't knock my insane ideas."
"So you admit they're insane."
"I don't think so," Bruce says, ignoring their back-and-forth. "I'm pretty sure the increased energy readings explain how you're able to get enough altitude without additional propulsion. I'd have to do more field tests and analyze the data further. Maybe compare it to the energy readings from Mjolnir, in case the artifact is similar to Asgardian technology."
"More field tests, huh?" Tony grins. "You up for another go, Capsicle?"
Steve grins. Even that nickname doesn't faze him. "Always. And don't call me that."
The second attempt is easier - Steve gets above the treetops earlier and doesn't cut it nearly as close, and while he's still not confident enough to try any major aerial maneuvers short of wide turns he doesn't fall over when landing this time.
The third attempt, not so much. He's got a better handle on the flying part, but fatigue is starting to override adrenaline. Flying takes up a lot of energy, as much as a full-out sparring match with Thor, and he hasn't eaten since breakfast.
So when a red-and-gold blur speeds by, he falters and nearly falls. Tony didn't mention he brought the suit.
Steve recovers, but it's a close thing. Tony has the presence of mind to stay out of his flight path, generally circling Steve and hot-dogging it without really getting in his way. The proximity is still distracting. He's just trying to help practicing maneuvers, Steve realizes, but a warning would have been nice. It wouldn't be a problem if he wasn't getting tired. There's no way he can tell Tony to stop - yelling will take up too much air - so Steve gives up and starts his descent towards the field.
It's not the greatest landing. He flaps, falters, and at one point drops straight down for a second before catching the airflow again. Tony figures out what's going on and starts moving parallel to his descent, trying to stay out of Steve's way but also close enough for an emergency catch.
He almost makes it down normally, but his wings just seem to give out only three feet above the ground and he drops practically face-first onto the wet grass. Quick reflexes are all that save him from a mouthful of dirt. Groaning, Steve rolls onto his side as Natasha kneels down beside him. "I'm fine," he assures her as Tony touches down and Clint jogs over. "Just - give me a minute."
As he sits up, though, his surroundings seem to blur and tilt a bit. Tony and Clint are arguing, but Steve doesn't quite catch what they're saying.
"Yeah, you don't look so fine to me," Clint says, crouching down to Steve's level. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Three," Steve says. "Four if you count the one behind your back." It's a guess, but judging by their positions and the look Clint gave Tony he suspects the archer is flipping him off behind his back again.
Clint's surprise confirms his guess, and Natasha smirks. "You're not as subtle as you think you are, Barton."
He tries to get up, but Bruce of all people stops him. "Wait, wait, no, you're not going anywhere." As Steve gives him an incredulous look, Bruce holds out his hands in a placating gesture. "No, really, I mean - just hear me out. Your metabolism causes you to burn calories at an incredible rate under normal circumstances. Factor that in with the amount of energy needed to sustain flight, and - well. When was the last time you ate?"
"On the plane," Steve answers. Tony had the forethought to make sure they had a decent in-flight meal before heading out to the middle of nowhere.
Bruce checks his watch. "It's nine-fifteen. That was,what, three hours ago?"
Clint grimaces. "Good thing we brought snacks." Natasha is already opening up a cooler as he speaks.
Three sandwiches and another bottle of water later, Steve is starting to feel somewhat normal again. Still tired, still exhilarated, but the light-headed feeling is gone. Sure, he's used to having to eat a lot more to fuel his metabolism, but he can't remember the last time it hit him this hard outside of an actual battle situation.
"Actually, that's not surprising if you think about it," Bruce says when Steve mentions this. "Everything we know about the artifact suggests that what happened to you was only a partial transformation. It's amazing that you were able to fly in the first place, and that additional burst of energy had to have come from somewhere. Besides, the energy cost of flight for birds is ridiculously high - especially during take-off, and they're born that way." He chews and swallows before continuing. "Anyway. I think I've gotten plenty of data as it is. I think after we finish eating we can wrap things up here."
His disappointment must be written all over his face, because Tony pats him on the shoulder. Gently, since he hasn't taken the suit off. "Cheer up, Cap. We're not going back to the big house just yet." He makes a show of shaking dirt off of his armored hand. "We're going to have to make a stop to hose you down first before I let you get back on my jet. Can't have you getting mud all over the leather seats."
"Thanks, Tony," Steve says. "You're all heart."
"I live to serve." Tony looks up at the sky. "Besides, it's not even ten yet. Even if we abide by Miss Lewis' overly paranoid schedule, we'll make it back with time to spare. Nobody will notice a thing."
As he speaks, however, Steve picks up the faint but distinctive sound of a helicopter. He peers to the east, shading his eyes against the morning sun to peer at the dark shape on the horizon. The black helicopter is definitely approaching, and it doesn't look like a news copter. Too big, too bulky, and too black. "I think it's too late for that."
Clint gets up, scowling. "Damn it, Stark. You had to say it, didn't you?"
"Tempting fate aside, I'd like to point out this isn't my fault," Tony says as the helicopter draws nearer. He has to raise his voice to be heard. "Unless Pepper turned traitor and tattled."
Steve turns to help Bruce secure the equipment and anything that's in danger of blowing away. It's the responsible thing to do, and it's something he can do instead of giving in to the temptation to try to fly away. "She's not going to let you out of that meeting, Tony."
"I can dream!" Tony shouts back as the chopper touches down in the meadow. Steve straightens up, bracing himself for what's going to come. He's not dreading it as much as he probably should be. No matter what punishment Fury has in store for them, this trip was worth it.