The sound of Colonel Nick Fury’s hand slapping his desk was like a gunshot; clearly audible through the glass walls of his office. Outside the Avengers lounged with seeming indifference but all were straining to catch the muffled words between Fury and their team leader.
Inside there was no straining required.
“Your team’s performance in this latest exercise is a perfect example of what makes the top ten percent possible,” Fury drawled. Steve flushed at the biting words but remained at attention. “Real sloppy, Cap.”
“Sir. Yes sir!”
Fury continued to glare and Steve wondered if there was more but then he dropped into his chair and muttered, “Dismissed.”
Steve spun about and pulled open the office door when Fury’s next words carried clearly into the outer office.
“And get some sleep. You look like shit.”
Steve bolted upright in bed, a scream trapped in his throat. His heart raced and he was drenched in sweat. He looked around his sparse room as blind panic still coursed through him. The terror of the familiar nightmare was already receding. He had so many to choose from but this one was particularly bad.
His hands shook slightly as he reached for the glass of water on his nightstand. He drained the glass and waited for his breathing to even out. He wanted to lie back on the bed but now the sweat-drenched sheets were cold and uncomfortable. Besides, he knew from experience there was no going back.
Pulling on a pair of SHIELD issued track pants he padded barefoot to his desk and turned on the computer. He’d get an early start on the day. Fury’s words still filled him with shame. He was right. There had been no excuse. They would train harder.
Because the thought that his team might fail to protect others was unacceptable to him.
It was becoming a habit.
The nightmares were more frequent. He’d wake and go to the computer and start reading til morning. Sometimes he’d go a few days without sleep which meant he couldn’t focus, which meant he wasn’t helping the team-
You need more sleep.
Steve leaned back in the chair, closed his eyes against the glare of the computer monitor and pinched the bridge of his nose. He was tired, his eyes stung, but he was determined. He would get caught up on the last 70 years of the world come hell or high water. He was going to adjust to this loud, flashy, fast future. He was going to be not only a “productive member of society” but a “functional member of the team”.
Steve covered his mouth from an overpowering yawn, shook his head, and opened his eyes. Three a.m.
I mean it, Captain Rogers. Sleep.
He moved on to the next section about “Watergate” and slowly the soft, clipped accent of the most beautiful agent in the world faded away.
“You look like hell.”
Steve cracked an eye open and saw Natasha standing over his bed, a cup of coffee in her hand.
“What? Nat? What are you doing in here?” he asked, scrambling to a seated position and yanking the top sheet up to cover himself. He wasn’t sure whose modesty he was trying to salvage. “Uh, this isn’t really appropriate, right?”
Natasha’s gaze lazily roamed from the hastily covered pecs up, up, until stopping to look him full in the eye at which point she arched one graceful eyebrow. Steve felt a wealth of teasing commentary but manly chose to keep his mouth shut in case he said even more stupid stuff.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said in a soft breathy voice. She sat on the edge of the bed and leaned closer. “It could be all kinds of appropriate…if we were two different people,” she finished in a lighter tone and grinned. “God, you’re an easy mark.” She handed him the cup of coffee and tucked her feet under her. “Scoot over.”
“Uh, if you give me a moment I’ll-“
Steve moved. He took a sip and tried to gain some composure. Natasha settled against his leg, seemingly unconcerned about the effect she was having on him. When was the last time a beautiful woman was in his bed?
Try never? Although Agent Carter did walk in on you in the showers that –“
Shut up, Bucky.
I think it was on purpose. I will swear to that on a stack of bibles.
Steve decided he’d go for team leader normal. “So, what brings you in here? I’m assuming it’s team business.”
“Yes.” She looked straight into his eyes. “I’m worried about you.”
“Me?” he almost squeaked. He cleared his throat and spoke more naturally. “Me? Why?”
The gig is up. She knows you’re crazy.
Shut it, Bucky. Can’t you see you’re upsetting Steve?
Steve felt an almost insane urge to giggle at the fight carrying on in his head. Giggle or burst into tears.
Natasha cocked her head to the side, noting the quick flash of emotions across his face. He quickly took another sip of coffee.
“You’re…well…you look tired.”
Ha! Woman’s intuition and all.
Steve was indignant. “I do not.”
Natasha smiled. “Ok. Granted it would be hard for you to look tired in a physical sense like the rest of us but you do. What is it? Do you want to talk about it?”
“With you?” Steve blurted.
Natasha’s smile slipped a bit and Steve could have kicked himself.
Still doesn’t know a bloody thing about women.
It’s not like dames ever gave him the time of day, Peggy. Er. Agent Carter.
Steve closed his eyes and prayed for a moment of sanity. He opened them and looked down at his hands. “Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
Steve sighed and raked his hands through his hair, unaware of Natasha’s eyes widening briefly at the sight of his biceps flexing. “Thank you for-“
Natasha patted his leg and abruptly stood up. “Team meeting in 30.”
And then she was out the door.
“Once again,Captain, your team has failed to live up to the extremely low standards that you set for yourselves.”
Steve wondered if Fury got these words from a special book of reprimands or if it was just a natural gift. Was this his second or fourth reprimand? Oh God, the days were blurring. He was caught off guard by his sudden yawn and did his best to stifle it.
"Am I boring you,Soldier?" Fury's voice rose towards the end.
Steve prayed for the floor to open and swallow him whole. "No sir."
Fury made a noise of disgust. “Dismissed.”
Steve was in a foul mood. He glared. “Come on then.”
Thor answered with a grin and ran towards Steve who had already launched himself at his sparring partner. The two met in the middle of the training room with a tremendous crack. Enhanced human reflexes unflinchingly matched those of a god. The blows landed hard, floors, walls, and flesh all absorbing the power and destruction. It continued for five minutes, each warrior trying to gauge the other’s weakness.
Thor fought hard, holding back but a little. Humans on the whole were so fragile and no fit target for the full measure of Asgardian strength. But Steve, fortified with Midgardian science, was a worthy adversary indeed.
Steve’s head rocked back from Thor’s fist to his jaw, more blood spraying from his already split lip. He altered his fall into a graceful reverse turn and channeled the power of the spin into a body blow, his elbow connecting with a sickening thud in Thor’s solar plexus.
Thor went down hard on his backside with a sharp exhalation, fighting for breath.
Steve swayed but stayed on his feet, his fists up in front of him and slurred, “Come on. I can…I can do this all d-day.”
Thor looked up at his team leader. Steve was drenched, his short locks sweat-dark, more sweat mixing with the blood dripping from a cut brow. Bruises were already beginning to show all over the super-human’s torso.
“Nay, Steve.” Thor smiled. He eased up into a standing a position and touched his ribs tenderly. “T’was a good spar-“
“Come on!” Steve raged. “We’re not done –“
“-Aye. We are.” Thor’s voice had lost its light tone. He moved slowly towards his friend.
Steve shook his head, ignoring him. “I’ll say when we’re done. And we’re. Not. Done.” The last was said in a low, belligerent manner.
Thor paused, head cocked to the side. He brought a hand up to place on Steve’s shoulder but was surprised by the uppercut he was dealt. Steve was about to land another blow with his left fist to Thor’s midsection but was intercepted.
Thor’s grip encased Steve’s fist. He cast a steady gaze upon his troubled teammate.
“As you say…Captain.”
Thor’s emphasis on Steve’s rank seemed to act as a dousing in cold water.
Steve’s hands dropped to his sides and as he closed his eyes Thor thought he beheld agony, shame, and… resentment?
Thor spoke softly. “Battle madness doth overtake even the best of us when we least expect it.”
Steve spun abruptly on his heel and stalked out of the training room.
Steve’s hands were still trembling an hour later. The cuts were well on their way to healing and even the bruises were taking on the days’-old hues of a mottled yellow.
It wasn’t fair.
Life’s not fair, Stevie.
Shut up, Bucky. You’re dead.
Way to kick a man when he’s down.
Steve barked a painful laugh before a sharp, shocking sob choked it off. He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, pushing hard. Bright stars burst behind his eyelids. He inhaled deeply through his nose and released a shaky breath. It failed to slow his racing thoughts.
He needed to get out.
He ran along the shore, full out, his bare feet pounding the wet sand at the surf’s edge. There was some light from the quarter moon but he didn’t need it to see. He was enhanced – the perfect soldier.
I can't do this anymore.
You volunteered. Had to go off and be a hero.
I wanted to serve. I wanted to help.
You were made for this. Remember?
I don't want to be here. It hurts too much.
I always knew you'd fail. You should have stayed with the chorus girls and left the heroics to the real soldiers.
You are a hero. I have faith.
Nothing but a stupid kid from Brooklyn. Look at you run.
Steve ran until he was at the most eastern point of the island. In the distance he could see a flicker of light from a distant freighter ship. It seemed so familiar. The lapping of the waves, the smells of the ocean, the twinkling of the stars…
But it wasn’t his world anymore.
The anger he had struggled to contain for so long burst forth. He screamed in utter rage. And then he screamed again. He picked up the debris on the beach and launched it at the waves and continued to shout until, exhausted, he fell to his knees.
He felt empty. Numb. Exhausted. Like he did after he was beaten up in the alley.
If you run, Steve…
Steve hung his head and spoke brokenly to no one. “Then I’ll never stop running.”
Steve didn’t know how long he had lain on the sand but he felt utterly drained and unwilling to move. When he heard the sound of footsteps in the distance he held his breath. Please keep going. Please -
He smelled her perfume first, mixing with the sea air. Then he realized he recognized the footsteps.
Natasha settled gracefully in front of Steve.
He tossed an arm over his eyes. “G-way. Please.”
Steve sighed unable to summon the energy to insist. Maybe he’d simply stay here until the tide washed him out to sea. Surely Nat would get bored and go back to headquarters. However as the long minutes ticked by punctuated by the sound of the waves breaking on the shore he began to reassess Nat’s patience. Images of spiders in their webs came to mind.
He sat up and raked his hands through his hair before settling his forearms on his upraised knees. The waves crashed another twenty times before the silence was broken.
“I miss her.” His voice was nearly inaudible.
“She knew me…before.” He waved his hand awkwardly to indicate his physical appearance. “And afterwards, well, she treated me the same. She saw me. Not the super-soldier but me…Steve.” He struggled to take a breath. “And Bucky. He knew me. And…and, oh God, even Colonel Phillips knew me b-before –“
His voice cracked on the last. His throat closed up and he felt the sting of tears again. This wasn’t manly. This was humiliating. What must Nat think –
He felt her arms wrap tightly around him and he buried his face in the hollow of her neck and shoulder. Deep, silent, painful sobs wracked his body over and over again. In all that time he’d never allowed himself to grieve over the people they had lost. Every mission, every failure, every lost face bubbled to the surface and demanded that he acknowledge them…and forgive himself for what was beyond his control.
I’m so sorry Bucky. You should have lived, not me. Dr. Erskine. I’m sorry I failed. Oh God, Peggy. I’m so sorry I missed our date. I’m sorry. I love you. I miss you so much-
He felt Natasha hug him tighter once he began to settle down. He realized he’d soaked her t-shirt and was mortified. He tried to pull back but she slid her hands to the back of his head and met his forehead with her own.
“Oh Steve,” she whispered, her fingers soothing in his hair. “You have been the loneliest person in the world.” He flinched at these words but didn’t pull away. “I can’t truly imagine all the pain and grief you have endured but please know that you’ve never really been alone.”
He inhaled deeply and leaned back. Natasha’s hands dropped to his. “I know. You’ve all been really swell, uh, great –“
“No.” She gripped his hands tightly, her eyes closed as if she was in pain. “We know what it’s like,” She looked up quickly and he felt pierced by the force of her gaze. “To be…to be cut adrift. To be alone.”
And Steve had an epiphany. All of his team members had suffered and grieved for a life that had abruptly ended, one they longed for but could no longer have. Natasha was betrayed by her homeland. Clint had lost the security of his family and later those he trusted. As had Tony. And Bruce, well, he could never safely trust himself around anyone.
“Thank you, Nat,” Steve murmured. He scrubbed at eyes with the heels of his hands and sniffled. He decided to try for a reassuring smile but it didn’t feel quite right. No, he hadn’t gotten it right because she was still watching him with concern.
He was momentarily alarmed when she moved closer to kiss his cheek. His eyes closed when she kissed the missed tear in the corner of his eye. He startled at the soft kiss she pressed to his closed lips - a kiss of friendship. And then she kissed his forehead and he was most surprised at how free he felt; as if he had received some sort of blessing.
And maybe he had. Because he no longer felt lost, or guilty, or helpless. He felt…grounded. He felt like he had come home.
Welcome back, Captain
Steve suddenly felt embarrassed and ducked his head which was how he missed Natasha’s hand signal and subsequently was surprised by the sudden arrival of three others.
Clint sat next to Natasha. Tony dropped a pair of socks and sneakers in Steve’s lap. The same sneakers he’d left in his room when he’d abruptly left headquarters earlier this evening. He flushed. “Thanks.”
Tony sat on his right and promptly leaned back on his elbows, ankles crossed. “No worries. It was on my way.”
“Running barefoot through New York is kind of disgusting don’t you think?” Bruce murmured as he sat on Steve’s left. He tossed his backpack to Tony.
There was a moment of silence before Tony snickered and Natasha made an abrupt choking sound. “You’re shitting me, right?” Clint asked wide-eyed.
Steve couldn’t help it. He burst into laughter. Bruce flushed but then even he started laughing at the ridiculousness of his question.
“Oh he’ll be along,” Tony drawled. “He had mentioned something about warriors bonding over copious amounts of ale. I doubt he’d miss this.”
To be drunk. Steve sighed. “Sounds great. I guess I’ll be designated driver –“
“- runner,” Clint interjected.
“- after you’ve all had too much.”
“Oh, quit your whining,” Tony said, rummaging through the backpack. “Woe is me. I can’t get drunk. I have special cells. I’m too perfect. I’m –“
Steve cut him off. “Well I can’t! Dr. Erskine –“ his voice caught and then continued a bit dejected. “He thought the serum would have an effect and it does. I’ve tried to get drunk. I so want to get drunk.”
Natasha, Clint, and Bruce all shot Tony similar looks of disgust.
“Well he is,” Tony shot back. “Bruce practically swooned when he read Steve’s file-“
“-I wouldn’t say swooned,” Bruce said.
“Really Tony,” Natasha said defensively. “You were the one begging to redesign his suit.”
Tony continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “And you two,” he glared at Natasha and Clint, “you two sit around and drool when you see him shirtless.”
“I wouldn’t say drool,” Clint drawled.
Tony arched an eyebrow mockingly. “I can’t help it! He has perfect pecs!” Natasha blushed.
“Which is why I always bring a handkerchief.” Tony muttered and now it was Steve’s turn to blush. “Anyway…that’s not why we’re here. Or maybe later Steve can lose his shirt. I think I’ve got a deck of cards in here.” He rummaged a bit more in the backpack before pulling something out of it. He made a show of presenting Steve with an expensive silver flask laser engraved with the Captain America shield.
Steve glanced around at his team and took the container hesitantly and uncapped it. “Uh…thanks. But nothing will work.”
Bruce gave Steve a sympathetic pat on the back. “I’ve taken care of it.”
Steve’s hand twitched, alarm racing through him. “Wha-?”
Tony snorted. “We had to put the taxpayers’ dollars to good use. Banner got to play with his chemistry set.”
“I tailored it to account for your high metabolism,” Bruce explained. “It should do the job.”
Steve took a cautious sip while all eyes were on him. It tasted like the scotch he and Bucky had snuck from his father’s cabinet when they were 16. They’d sat on the top level of the fire escape and taken turns drinking from a mason jar. And an hour later there had also been an impressive splat as the contents of their stomachs had hit the alley several stories below them.
Yeah. The burn going down felt the same. So did the warmth and the fuzziness a few swallows later. A lopsided smile slid onto Steve’s face.
“Dear God, Banner. Where’s mine?” Clint demanded.
“I told him to whip up something especially frou-frou for you. Barton,” Tony snarked.as he reached into the backpack and tossed more personalized flasks to Clint and Natasha. He then reached into his own pocket and pulled out another flask, this one complete with a soft glow emanating from the engraved arc reactor.
“Show-off,” Clint muttered.
“It’s genetic,” Steve commented.
They drank in companionable silence and Steve found himself getting wonderfully loose-limbed. But then –
“Hey,” Steve said suddenly. “Where’sss Thor? Heesh late.” Ooh. Slurring. Bonus.
It was as if he’d summoned him. The earth suddenly shook and a brief flash blinded them. The engine of the Humvee shut off and Thor leaped out of the driver’s seat. A large filled blanket was flung over his shoulder like some sort of dazzlingly hot Santa Claus.
“Has the feasting begun without me?” he asked, a slightly injured pout one his face. He dropped the blanket at their feet. Wheels of cheese, loaves of bread, and whole hams unveiled themselves amongst other goodies Steve could not identify.
“Thor brought snacks,” Steve said in awe.
The others laughed and dug into the feast. Steve gazed around at his teammates and felt a warm glow from within that had nothing to do with the alcohol.
He wasn’t alone. Not anymore.
The women sat in the SHIELD cafeteria but no one seemed much interested in eating. Three cell phones sat in the center of the table. Jane absently doodled in her notebook and sipped on a coke. Darcy was stacking her French fries in some semblance of a log cabin, and Natasha was expertly walking a coin between the fingers of her right hand.
Something was off today. The murmurs in the cafeteria seemed more muted. Natasha kept scanning the cafeteria but she felt edgy.
“Stop it,” Jane said without looking up.
“Stop what?” Natasha leaned over and took a fry from Darcy’s cabin and popped it in her mouth.
“Surely we’d have heard something by –“ Darcy was cut off by the sound of all three phones giving off a high priority alert.
The ladies bolted to their feet and sprinted out the door.
Two minutes later the cafeteria emptied as everyone else followed the same path taken moments earlier.
It was heartstopping - a spectacle of mammoth proportions, breath-defying, spine-tingling amongst other sorts of tingling.
Tony, Natasha, Jane, and Darcy were soon joined by Clint and Bruce. Tony made a show of presenting Natasha and Clint with handkerchiefs.
“Tony! Tony!” Pepper came scrambling down the hall “What’s the emergency? You knew I was meeting with acquisitions regarding – “ Pepper cut off in midsentence, her jaw open as she slowly joined the rest of them in front of the floor-to-ceiling reinforced glass wall. “Oh,” she said breathlessly.
Darcy nodded. “It’s so pretty.”
Steve and Thor were sparring in the repaired gym clad only in SHIELD issued pants. Sweat glistened off both of their torsos as they circled around each other before clashing again. It was positively, deliciously epic.
The pounding of approaching footsteps brought Tony around. “Place your bets! Place your bets!” and money began to furiously exchange hands. “Ladies and gentlemen there’s risers for your viewing pleasure. Standing room only I’m afraid.”
The cafeteria crowd jostled with office workers for the best spots. Flashes began going off as camera phones began snapping pictures and recording the match.
Inside the room Steve paused and swiped at the blood with the back of his hand. “Are you aware of what’s going on?” he murmured, embarrassed but not looking at the window filled with spectators.
Thor grinned. “I may have mentioned to Tony how I long to spar in an arena. Sometimes it is just the thing to lift a warrior’s spirits.” He tossed his sweat-drenched locks and slid his eyes to the glass wall.
Steve observed how the group seemed almost to sigh as one. “Thor!”
“Try it.” He charged Steve and grabbed him around the waist before slamming him to the ground. Steve continued to flow with the momentum, and rolled on his back flipping Thor off of him and coming to rest on one knee and one foot, his left hand on the floor. He glanced up quickly, to get the hair out of his eyes and saw the adoring eyes of the members of SHIELD. Who was he to deny these hard working folks a bit of fun? Life was serious enough.
Steve let a slow smile cross his lips and winked at the crowd before exploding from his crouched position to attack Thor.
Outside their was an increased flurry of flashes and a couple of quiet, desperate moans at Captain America’s sudden display of wicked charm.
Tony sighed dramatically. “It was good while it lasted.”
Agent Coulson slowly walked toward the packed group of people in the hallway. The accompanying agent stood menacingly by the exit. A silence followed…as if one hundred SHIELD employees had been caught ogling two of the finest specimens of man and god and were suddenly busted.
He raked his expressionless face slowly across the crowd, holding them with his silent gaze. “Back to work. Single file.” He set down an evidence box on the corner of the lowest riser. “By me.”
The closest people walked by and quickly dropped their company issued phones and tablets into the container before practically sprinting back to their desks. When the last of them had gone Coulson sealed the box and nodded to the silent agent standing in the corner. “Bring it.”
The two of them left and by the time the Avengers, Jane, Pepper, and Darcy had turned back to the room Steve and Thor were gone.
“Well shit,” Darcy murmured.
“I agree. Maybe next time you won’t invite everyone else,” Jane said darkly.
Tony nodded. “Not the best plan but still-“
“Hey, we still on?” a voice interrupted in a stage whisper. Two employees peeked around the corner.
Tony spread his hands expansively. “Oh, absolutely! Footage from the room’s security cameras are available as well as a special “Stark” color version from my own special camera placements.”
The two employees gave a nod of understanding and left to spread the word. Tony turned to the others. “If any of you would like to purchase-“
Natasha walked into his personal space. “Mine’s free,” she growled and left.
“As is mine.”
The rest shot him equally threatening looks as they went back to work but Tony was undaunted. “See you in two days.”
“We’ll be there.”
He grinned and sat down on the bleachers and was joined a few minutes later by Steve and Thor.
“So that’s why the wall was replaced with glass,” Steve said. “And here I thought you were testing some new indestructible bit of Stark tech.”
“Two birds with one stone and all,”Tony replied modestly.
Steve shoved off from the bleachers to head to the showers. He hadn’t gone more than a few steps before he paused. “Uh, there’s nothing in the showers is there? None of those cameras?”
“Oh please. Give me some credit.” Steve smiled in relief but it was shortlived. “I put those in your room.”
Thor’s booming laugh joined with Tony’s snickers. Steve tossed them both a saucy grin before turning to jog towards his room.
Tony’s shout of laughter made Steve smile.
It was going to be okay.
He had absolute faith.