It was well past two in the morning when Steve finally exhausted himself enough at the gym to make going back to his quarters and his narrow bed seem slightly appealing. He swiped his access card, and the door gave a small beep before sliding open. The room was completely dark except for the mild blue light coming from the room’s control panel.
And the light coming from two glowing red eyes.
“Gah!” Steve jumped backward instinctively, and winced when he jammed an elbow on the closed door behind him.
The red eyes blinked in confusion.
Steve slapped the room’s control panel to turn on the overhead lights. “Wanda.”
Now that the lights were on, he could see the girl standing in the middle of his living area, hands folded carefully in front of her waist. Wanda’s eyes faded from bloody red to a warm brown. She tilted her head to one side, and said, “I startled you.”
“Well,” said Steve, smiling at little, “guess I’m just not used to folks getting a jump on me.” He began unwinding the cloth strips binding his hands. He gestured over to the small couch in his living area. “Did you want to talk?”
Wanda’s hands twisted together nervously. She made no move to sit on the couch, and was instead darting her gaze from the floor, to the window, to the door, and finally to Steve. Despite her worried posture, she met his eyes and said clearly, “I’m sorry.”
Steve got the feeling she wasn’t talking about sneaking into his room. “About what, exactly?”
“For before, when I hexed you.” Wanda was still wringing her hands but her gaze didn’t waver. “I’m sorry. Your mind still lingers there now. You fear that you missed your chance forever. For a normal life, for someone that really loves you as you are. That, and your fear for your lost friend. They keep you up at night.”
Steve hadn’t thought of it that way until Wanda said it. He had thought the “hex” she put on him was just meant to be a distraction, to get him out of commission so Ultron could make his getaway. But based on what Wanda was saying, it seemed like it was meant to target something deeper.
“Is that what you did? Made me see my fear?” It didn’t feel like it, but the vision he saw certainly wasn’t random, either. Why else would he still dream about it sometimes, and wake up in a cold sweat?
Wanda blinked. She paused, and seemed to be thinking on how to respond. “That’s not quite… it’s hard to explain in words,” she said. “It’s more like… I showed you what makes your heart hurt.”
When she said it, Steve couldn’t help thinking about it again. A dance floor of the dying. An empty ballroom. Missed chances. Waiting too damn long.
As if she could tell where his mind had gone, Wanda offered, hesitatingly, “I could… give you a good dream? To help you sleep.”
“No, no, I’m good.” Steve smiled. He knew she was trying, in her own way, to be a team player, to befriend them. “Just a tip, though: most people don’t like having more than one person in their head.”
Under her breath, Wanda said, wondering to herself, “But why? It’s so horrible, when it’s only you.”
And Steve didn’t need to be psychic to understand where Wanda’s thoughts were trapped. “Wanda…”
Wanda shook her head, and turned to leave. “I’m alright.”
“But you’re not,” said Steve. It said something about this girl, that she would concern herself with the worries and sleepless nights of others, when she had basically lost half of herself, not that long ago. Despite everything that had happened to her, she had held onto her good heart, and didn’t let it get lost or corrupted.
“I will be.” Wanda turned and gave Steve a wobbly upturn of her mouth that was the closest Steve had ever seen to a smile from her. “That will have to be good enough for now.”
In the blink of an eye, she disappeared from the room. The door hadn’t opened or closed—the only sign that anything had happened at all was that the lights had flickered briefly.
Steve shook his head. “Good kid or no, I’m just not going to ever get used to that,” he said.
It took Steve a good minute to realize he was half-expecting someone to respond. But he was alone, and there wasn’t anyone standing by his side anymore.
Steve had an odd night where he was uncomfortably tossing and turning in his bed for most of it. He didn’t think he had actually fallen asleep, but he must have at some point, because when the intercom by his bedside trilled, he startled awake. He didn’t feel like he had gotten any rest at all.
He rubbed his eyes, stretching over blindly to jab at a button. “Rogers here.”
“Rise and shine, old timer,” said Sam’s voice cheerily. He was definitely a morning person, a trait that Steve found kind of endearing. “I got a lead.”
Steve sat up. “Got it, I’m coming.” He swung his legs out of bed and began rooting around for his socks and boots. “And stop with the old man jokes, I get enough of that from Stark.”
“Oh, really? With all the undressing with your eyes that you two do, I’m amazed anyone gets a word in edgewise.”
The laces of Steve’s boots snapped in half in his hand.
“We—do not—!” he spluttered. “We don’t do that.”
“Please. Just be glad I didn’t use the R-rated word that Natasha used.”
“What?” Of all the people that he met since he woke up, Steve thought that he and Sam probably understood each other the best. But there were still times when Steve felt like he was sprinting to catch up with the direction of the conversation.
“Eyefucking,” said Sam simply.
“Oh my god.” Even though there was no one to see him do it, Steve still put a hand over his face.
“Are you turning red right now? Because it’s so bad I can hear you turning red over the intercom.”
Steve had a weird urge to throw his boot at the intercom panel, even though obviously Sam would not see it or feel it. “Just… shut up and suit up.”
In the middle of dense woodland at the edge of Yosemite National Park, Steve waited outside of a small, dilapidated cabin that appeared to have been long abandoned. He looked up, tracking a shadow that circled overhead.
“Perimeter’s clear,” said Sam’s voice on the comm in Steve’s ear.
“Sam Wilson, come on down,” said Steve in an attempt at impersonating a game show host.
“This, this is the kind of pop culture reference you can make,” said Sam. “It’s enough to make a grown man cry.”
“Baby steps, Wilson,” said Natasha, also on the comm. Steve could hear the smirk in her voice even though he couldn’t see it. “We’ll have him on Twitter in no time, I’m sure.”
A moment later, Sam landed in a graceful drop next to Steve. His wings folded back silently upon his landing. The Falcon wings had been upgraded by one Tony Stark from the military-issue pack to a customized set, sleek and efficient. “So, what’ve we got?”
“Nothing. A whole lot of nothing. No one’s here.” Steve tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice but it was clear he wasn’t entirely successful because Sam laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. Steve cocked his head towards the knocked-down door and the dark interior of the cabin. “Natasha’s doing a final sweep of the data banks, just to make sure. She’s almost done.”
“No more ‘almost.’ I’m in,” said Natasha. “Huh. Guys, come back in here. He’s been here.”
“What?” Steve ran inside, down the flight of stairs hiding under a trapdoor, through narrow twisting hallways, and finally to the set of HYDRA servers and data banks hidden well underground. It was eerily similar to Zola’s facility in New Jersey, except this one consisted of modern equipment, gleaming in white and chrome. It was still in active use, or had been until recently. Natasha sat at the central computer. Upon their arrival, she spun around in the swivel chair to face them.
“Man, you guys really booked it,” she said. “What was that, like fifteen seconds?”
“What do you mean, he’s been here?” Steve demanded. He ignored Sam’s slightly wheezing gasps behind him. He was sure Sam was just exaggerating. Pretty sure.
“Look.” Natasha pointed at the screen behind her.
Sam lifted an eyebrow. He was still catching his breath, but he said, “Now, I know I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but that’s a blank screen.”
“Exactly. He wiped the data banks here. Either he copied it over and then deleted it all, or just did a clean wipe. I mean, isn’t it interesting that when we got here, no one was here? It’s a ghost town. But this equipment isn’t old, and it’s not cheap, either. Someone shut this place down, and I don’t think it was HYDRA.” Natasha tapped a few keys, and even Steve knew enough to know that she was shutting the computer back down. “I’m pretty sure it was Barnes. I can’t tell what he took, obviously, because all we’ve got left now is the shell of the operating system. No content at all.”
“Why would he be deleting HYDRA data?” asked Sam. “What’s his stake in it?”
“Maybe to guarantee that HYDRA won’t have the know-how to brainwash him into being their puppet anymore,” said Steve.
Both Sam and Natasha fell silent. Neither of them looked at him, either. The word “puppet” had become kind of taboo, after Ultron, but facts were facts. Steve was a lot of things, but he wasn’t one to sugarcoat.
A rumbling sound from above made them all freeze.
“You hear that?” asked Steve.
“Shit,” said Sam, and he ran back out and upstairs.
Steve and Natasha dashed after him, and they ascended the final staircase into the tiny cabin to see Sam looking out of one grimy window, at the woods towards the south.
“Incoming. Two unmarked trucks and a tank.” Sam swore again and pulled his goggles down over his eyes. “Alright, kids. Let’s get dangerous.”
“Darkwing Duck, really?” said Natasha, and before Steve could ask them what in the world they were talking about, a whine and a ding of a ricocheting bullet rebounding off of one of the cabin’s water pipes interrupted them.
Steve unhooked his shield and used it to cover Natasha and himself from the incoming hail of bullets. Someone out there had a machine gun. “I thought you said the perimeter was clear!” Steve shouted over the noise.
“That was like fifteen minutes ago!” Sam retorted. He was ducking as well, turning his back to use the plated steel of his wings to protect himself. “The amazing thing about trucks is that they can move at a hundred miles an hour!”
“Less snarking, more attacking, fellas!” Natasha ducked out from underneath Steve’s shield and made her way to the window, beginning to return fire.
“And… it just blew up? Just like that?” Rhodey was giving Steve what Steve’s ma used to call the hairy eyeball. It was strange—Rhodey’s look was so similar to the look he used to get from his ma when he came home from school with a new black eye that Steve felt a weird sense of déjà vu for a second.
“Well,” said Steve, hedging, “no, I set the fuel tank on fire and then it blew up.”
Rhodey leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his forehead.
“What? HYDRA decided to house one of their data servers underneath a national park. That isn’t my fault.”
“You burnt up a good hundred acres of a protected wildlife area, Captain.”
Steve winced a little. “I know.”
“The environmental groups are already up in arms about the whole ordeal. You have to understand, they don’t care who started it, only that it happened. We were involved and we’re the only ones upstanding enough to hang around and admit accountability for it. Sure as shit isn’t going to be HYDRA. And after we left a crater in Eastern Europe, we don’t have a lot of goodwill left.”
“We didn’t do that, either,” Steve felt obligated to point out.
“I know. I’m meeting with the UN tomorrow to try to convince them of that.” Given his position in the military and his popularity with the public and with politicians —both inside the War Machine suit and outside of it—Rhodey became the Avengers’ de facto liaison with most governmental powers. He had done it without being asked, and was so good at it that Steve was happy to let him continue that role.
“Thanks, Rhodey. We do appreciate it.”
“Not a problem.” Rhodey leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling, shaking his head and laughing a little bit. Steve knew that look well—it was a look that said I can’t really believe this is my life right now. “Believe it or not, it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with the Avengers’ messes than with Tony’s.”
“Really?” That was surprising. Tony had gotten into scrapes on his own, and they had all made headlines, but none of them had caused the global havoc that the Avengers managed to cause whenever they got together.
“Sure. People actually like the Avengers.” Rhodey straightened and got up from the conference table. He picked up his ever-expanding folio of files for various meetings and briefings. “Oh, and speaking of the devil, you better give him a call. He hates hearing news secondhand.”
“What?” Steve’s palms were suddenly sweating, which was… bizarre. “Th-there isn’t any news, really…” He rubbed his hands on the outsides of his trousers. He thought he was doing it discreetly, but Rhodey’s eyes flicked down, noticing it.
Rhodey smirked. “Just… call him,” he said. He gave Steve a wave over his shoulder as he left the conference room. “Trust me.”
“I’m gone for one week and you go blowing up bears without me?”
That was the first thing Tony said when he picked up Steve’s call.
“I didn’t—there weren’t bears!”
“You don’t know that for sure. In the hundred-plus acres you burned to the ground, there were probably bears. Unless you did a survey of the bear population beforehand as part of your recon, which I actually wouldn’t put past you, you… Eagle Scout.” Tony said the last two words like they were a deep insult.
“I didn’t do a survey of the bear population,” said Steve, just barely holding back a sigh.
“Then I’m ashamed to know you, you bear killer.”
This wasn’t how Steve had imagined this conversation would go. That was often what happened with Tony—Steve just couldn’t predict what he was going to say or do. It made talking to him... really infuriating, sometimes. This wasn’t one of those times, but Steve nonetheless felt… warm. Like the temperature gauge in the room was wrong. He unbuttoned one of the top buttons of his shirt.
“What’re you doing right now?”
Steve jumped, hand flying away from his shirt guiltily. He had a second of paranoia that Tony could see him. But that was silly.
“Waiting for the doc. I’m actually sitting on an examination table right now. Just a final check-up before I’m cleared.”
“What do you mean?” Tony asked, voice suddenly sounding sharp in Steve’s ear.
“Nothing. I got burned a little when we were making our getaway.” Steve lifted the bottom hem of his shirt, examining the new pink skin that was already healing over the burns on the left side of his torso. “My uh, uniform kind of melted into my skin. It hurt like the dickens to peel it off, but I’m healing fine.”
“‘Like the dickens,’ he says,” said Tony in a mutter. In a normal tone of voice, he added, “That’s what you get for stealing a 1940s-era suit from the Museum of American History.”
“How did you—?” How did Tony know that? It also made Steve think. “Also, how did you know how much acreage was burned? I thought Rhodey was trying to keep the details out of the news.”
Tony snorted. “Please. I practically built the whole Avengers facility, if you recall. If you don’t think I’ve got a direct wire into everything you’re doing, you… well, you’re just super naïve, and I’m shocked that SHIELD-slash-HYDRA-slash-the entire world in general hasn’t beaten that out of you yet. By the way, you shouldn’t limit your singing to the shower; you’ve got a good voice.”
“You are not—” Okay, no two ways about it, talking to Tony was infuriating. Why was it so hot in here?
“No, no, I’m not,” said Tony, chuckling a little, and his voice was just… warm. Steve could feel it, all over him. “Just a lucky guess. I have some scruples after all. Who knew? Damn crying shame.”
Steve didn’t recognize his own voice when he asked, hoarsely, “So you’re saying you want to—“
“Captain?” The door to the examination room opened and a nurse popped his head inside. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”
“Um, I’ve gotta go,” said Steve into the phone, and he hung up before he could stuff his foot any further into his mouth.
About a week later, Steve went down to the rec room and found Sam there. The TV had been reprogrammed, split into sixteen different news feeds in different languages. Sam was lying on the couch, laptop on his lap and a bowl of popcorn on the floor beside him.
“Hey,” he said when he saw Steve come in. “Package for you, over on the pool table.”
“What’re you doing?” Steve asked. Sure enough, there was a medium-sized shipping container set down on the middle of the green velvet of the pool table. He began peeling back the packing tape.
“Oh, just got bored sitting in the research labs. Thought a change of scenery would do me some good.”
“Sam, I really appreciate you helping out with the search, but you don’t have to spend all your free time looking into—” Steve pried the container open. “What the hell is this.”
“What?” Sam sat up and went over to join Steve. As soon as he saw the contents of the container, he started laughing. And laughing.
That was actually quite a lot of laughing.
The contents of shipping container were: a fire extinguisher, a bunch of adult-sized Eagle Scout uniforms, and a stack of t-shirts illustrated with what looked like the head of a cartoon bear wearing a ranger hat.
There wasn’t a return address label on the container, but Steve knew this could’ve only come from one person. “Goddamn it, Stark.”
“Oh… c’mon, he got you pretty good. This is… it’s pretty damn priceless.” Sam was still chuckling.
“Okay, I get the other stuff, but what’s this?” Steve held up the cartoon bear t-shirts.
“Really? You haven’t seen this yet? Smokey the Bear. ‘Only you can prevent forest fires,’” said Sam. At Steve’s blank look, Sam sighed and said, “It’s a mascot for a national campaign to raise awareness for forest fire prevention.”
At that point, Steve wasn’t really listening to what Sam was saying, because after he had moved the shirts aside, he saw what lay at the bottom of the container. He picked up the bolt of red, white, and blue fabric, and unrolled it. A note fell out, written in Tony’s spiky handwriting.
I don’t generally recommend self-immolation, but in case you go setting yourself on fire again, this should stand up to the task.
Sam snatched the note out of Steve’s hand.
“Hey!” said Steve, and Sam pushed a hand in Steve’s face, keeping him away while he read the note.
“What’s going on?” asked Natasha, who, of course, decided to walk into the rec room just then.
“Steve’s boyfriend sent him a present,” said Sam, and there were just so many things wrong with that sentence that Steve didn’t know where to begin protesting. “New flame-retardant suit.”
Natasha peeked into the container and grinned. Then, because she was Natasha, she produced a lighter from somewhere and flicked it on. She held it up to the new uniform.
“Hey!” said Steve, again, for all the good it was doing.
“Huh, look at that,” said Natasha, running the flame up and down the fabric, which appeared to have no visible reaction to the fire. “You know, despite Tony being… Tony, he really is a genius. The fabric’s made out of microplating. It’s definitely an improvement over your old one.”
“I liked my old one,” said Steve, because he did, and because… he just felt really confused at the moment. Like many interactions with Tony, Steve felt like Tony was simultaneously laughing at him and laughing with him. Nonetheless, Steve took out his phone and sent a message.
Thanks for the package.
It didn’t take long at all for Steve’s phone to buzz with a reply.
The package came from Smokey, not me. He was offended on behalf of his brethren. Also, let me repeat: self-immolation is not recommended.
“Why are you grinning like a doofus?”
Steve snapped his head up at Natasha’s voice. “Um, nothing. I’m… nothing. I’m not doing anything.”
“You’re such a horrible liar that it’s kind of refreshing.” Natasha reached up and patted Steve on the cheek. “Next time maybe you can fall off a cliff or something, and then we can get a second quinjet.” She handed the suit over to Steve and gave him a wink before picking up a stack of books that had been piled on the coffee table and leaving the rec room.
Which left Steve with Sam, who was giving him that knowing look he had. It made Steve feel like Sam could see inside his head, even better than Wanda could.
“It doesn’t…” Steve started. “He gave you new wings! It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Whatever you need to keep telling yourself, man,” said Sam.