The first time they meet, Cap doesn’t look anyone in the eye. He stands in the corner and stares at his shoes as everyone talks around him. His blue eyes stay fixed to the ground, not seeing but looking, thinking, feeling thoughts race behind the mask he has on. Coulson almost feels like walking up to him and patting him on the back. But he doesn’t. That’s not his job.
He looks around the room again. There’s Stark, tousle-haired and still wearing the Iron Man suit, still talking—always talking. Arguing with Romanoff, by the looks of it—or is that just banter? Coulson can never tell. Stark just needs to keep his mouth moving, all day and every day, and what comes out doesn’t seem to matter. He shifts his weight from foot to foot. The guy gets under his skin.
“—it’s improbable—scratch that, impossible—what?—oh, really?” Stark’s eyes are blazing with something that’s either irritation or excitement at the prospect of a good fight. Romanoff’s fists are clenching. “You really believe that’s going to work. A decoy? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
Her hand slides to the mysterious black bulge strapped to her thigh.
Before Coulson knows it, he’s shouting, everyone’s shouting, and two shots have been fired. Odinson’s waving the hammer dangerously close to the walls and Barton’s already gotten to his feet, bow drawn, and Stark’s yelling and grabbing at the smoking, bullet-riddled piece of metal barely clinging to his elbow and Romanoff’s eyes are gleaming—and Banner’s still sitting in the corner, twisting a tiny watch dial with furrowed eyebrows.
Coulson makes Barton and Odinson both take Romanoff away to calm down, one around either arm. She’s still twisting back to Stark and hissing expletives that he hasn’t even heard before, damn it, and the words coming out of Stark’s mouth aren’t much better.
Coulson’s head hurts already.
He pulls up a laptop on the sofa next to Banner and starts to file a report—Jesus H. Christ, five minutes in and a report already. He’s not being paid enough. Coulson’s almost too distracted to notice Stark wander over to Cap, still standing silently in the corner.
“Jesus,” he mutters, leaning on the wall and tilting his head back to the ceiling. He glances back to Cap—Cap, with his neatly-combed yellow hair and dull blue eyes—and narrows his eyes. “You’re Captain America, right?”
Cap’s eyes linger on the ground for a few seconds before he snaps out of it and looks up at Stark. His eyes widen in recognition—too wide, because how could be possibly recognize him?—and then a dull pang hits Coulson in the stomach. Because he realizes exactly why Anthony Edward Stark looks familiar.
“Captain America?” Stark repeats, raising an eyebrow.
Cap’s eyes drag over his face. “I—um, yes,” he stammers.
Stark nods and reaches down to fiddle with the flickering blue wires sticking out of the hole in his elbow. “Thought so. You look the part. Blonde hair, blue eyes—America’s favorite symbol, right?”
Cap bites his lip. Jesus, the look in his eyes—something familiar, Coulson thinks; something old. That’s all it is.
“What’s wrong with you?” Stark glances up for a second before turning back to his suit. Little screws are popping out of their sockets along his arm.
“Nothing,” Cap says. “I—you’re H—you’re Tony, aren’t you? Tony Stark?”
“The one and only.”
“I worked with your father,” Cap says quickly. What’s that in his face now? Hope? Coulson doesn’t even want to know. He forces his eyes back to the screen, but it’s white, too white, and he’s distracted—
But it’s over. Stark narrows his eyes at Cap. “My father.”
“I—Howard Stark. He was one of my colleagues in the war.”
Stark nods then. He nods once, slowly, and turns his attention back to the short-circuiting pops of electricity coming from the suit. He doesn’t look back as he walks out, leaving nothing behind but the smell of smoke.
* * *
There’s something wrong with Captain America. Something is amiss about the way he sits, the way he stands—the way he talks, the way the light in his eyes flickers every time they brush across his shield or his uniform or the photographs scattered across the table. Coulson doesn’t know what to do—doesn’t know what he could do, even—so he lets Cap sit in at the break-room table, pushing a pencil around in his notebook, while he pretends to make coffee in the corner.
He doesn’t know what to say. He never knows what to say when it comes to Cap. He’s something else, somewhere else—he doesn’t belong here. It isn’t right—waking up in the wrong place, the wrong time—and talking to him feels like he’s making it worse. But he has to say something. Anything.
Coulson speaks finally, slowly. “Are you okay, Cap?”
Cap’s eyes are fixed on the notebook. Coulson might have not know if he had heard him at all if it wasn’t for the fact that his pencil has stopped moving.
Again, he feels completely and utterly idiotic. It’s a novel feeling; he doesn’t usually feel stupid, and he certainly never feels entirely so. He wants to take the words back, swallow them down and hide them away. Are you okay? Christ. He swallows nervously and pushes a fake smile onto his face as he turns the stove off and joins Cap at the table. He doesn’t meet Coulson’s eyes when he sits down.
“I’m ready,” Cap says quietly.
“That’s the spirit,” Coulson says, injecting a measured dose of cheerfulness into his words. “The car’s waiting for you out front. I’ll get your luggage and meet you in—” —he glances at his watch—“twenty minutes.” He looks back up at Cap, whose eyes are fixed numbly on the shoulder seam of Coulson’s suit. “You’ll be okay. You can do this.”
Cap nods slowly and makes his way to the door.
Coulson watches him go. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man from the past—hard to believe that a hero, the one that saved America in the depths of World War II, is trapped in the lifeless body that is Steve Rogers. That’s how he introduces himself to everyone now: Steve Rogers. But to Coulson he is Captain America, always Cap, because he’s more than just a man. He is brave. He is a hero—a real hero. Not like the other jackasses that he has to deal with—definitely not like that Tony Stark, fooling around with everyone and their grandmother and deliberately trying to sabotage everything just so he can piece it back together. Not like the alien, Thor, not like that agent, Black Widow, not like Hawkeye or the Hulk or any of them. Captain America—well, Captain America is everything that he has to be and more.
Cap stops suddenly, hand on the edge of the doorway.
“Phil?” he asks suddenly, and Coulson twitches at the sound of a name that nobody uses.
“They—at the party—is Tony going to be...?” Cap falters. “Never mind. It’s just—never mind. I’m sorry.”
He leaves before Coulson can say anything else.
This is wrong.
Coulson wonders briefly what’s right and regrets it immediately. Because debating what’s right is peeling back a layer, and another layer, and traveling through time and going back to the comic books piled high on his bedroom table, teetering above tattered algebra textbooks and math worksheets and chewed-up pencils.
Debating what’s right is going back to the flashlights under the sheets in the dead of night, back to the panels of Krak! and Bam! and Pow! and aliens pounded into the pavement. Thinking about what’s right is going back to the corner store with fifty cents and a head full of wishes and coming back with an armful of hastily-inked comic books tucked in the crook of his elbow.
What's right doesn't matter.
He gets to his feet, almost dizzy, and his hand brushes something on the table. Coulson glances down to see it’s Cap’s black notebook, shut, but with a pencil tucked in between pages. His eyes stay on the notebook for longer than they should.
His fingers twitch.
Maybe—it wouldn’t be—it’s—he’s just going to pick it up, Coulson tells himself, and give it back to Cap. That’s all. Cap will thank him for it.
But that doesn’t stop him from opening the notebook, doesn’t stop him from turning to the marked page. And there, perfectly penciled in a thousand small gray lines, is the unmistakable stone-eyed face of Howard Stark.
* * *
They fight a lot. That’s the only thing that keeps Coulson from going out of his mind. They fight all the time—on the battlefield and in the break room and when planning and even at parties and doughnut shops and in movies. The Avengers is a team—they stick together—but Cap and Stark are like a pair of South poles. It almost worries Coulson a little. Because when they fight, they yell and hiss and bang on tables, but they still come back and start over again the next day.
They’re fighting now.
The Avengers have learned to tune them out when they start up. Romanoff’s cleaning her gun in a corner by the window and Barton’s hovering next to her, leaning against his quiver and trying to catch her eye. Thor’s fiddling with the Blackberry that they’re all required to have—it almost looks like he’s texting—and Banner’s in the lab downstairs, but he probably went down there hours ago.
“Jesus, Rogers, you can’t just pack everyone together and expect us to just—fit—there are some of us who don’t work that way!”
“We’re not putting everyone at risk just because you want all the attention!”
“Attention? I want attention?—look at you! Strutting around with that shield all the time—was that a Newsweek interview on Wednesday?—said the past was so much simpler than the future—well, we’re in the future now—”
“Maybe it’s just because people were better then! Maybe people made sacrifices, did the right thing, didn’t just sit around moping because they couldn’t be in the front of the line—maybe people could put themselves aside for once—but you can’t understand that, can you, Tony—”
“It’s not the forties anymore!”
Stark’s eyes are blazing. Coulson’s eyes flicker from his face to Cap’s, hoping, wishing for a retort, but his face is devoid of any emotion. There’s no expression there—no anger, no hatred. Blank eyes.
Silence rings in the air. All eyes are fixed on Captain America, standing silently in his uniform, big white star gleaming under the thousand sparkling lights above. There’s a distant click as Romanoff loads her gun a second late.
Coulson wonders briefly if he should say something, but looks around the room of edgy Avengers and decides that he’s tired of being the playground mediator. Let the kids sort out their problems for once.
Cap turns and snatches his shield off the table. His feet make soft sounds against the floor as he makes his way to the door.
“Jesus, Rogers—Rogers, I didn’t mean it. Come on—” Stark cocks his head to the side and fixes the back of Cap’s head with a pleading look.
He reaches out and seizes the doorknob.
“Rogers—come on. Please. We—I’m sorry. There—I’m sorry. Jesus, Steve—”
He stops at the sound of his name, hand still frozen on the knob.
Coulson’s watches Cap turn around slowly and walk back to the table. No, no, no—but there he is. Cap stands opposite Stark, avoiding his exasperated gaze, and points to a spot on the holographic city map laid out in front of them. There are tiny images of each one of them—Captain America, in the front with his shield pressed against his chest, the Hulk grumbling faintly in the back—even Coulson, standing inconspicuously behind a telephone pole.
“There,” he says, prodding the tiny iron suit holograph. “That’s where you’ll be standing, Tony. There, with all of us.”
Stark only sighs once as he nods.
* * *
Maybe things get better after that. Maybe it doesn’t happen quickly; maybe it happens slowly, every time they look at each other, every time they speak—maybe they stop fighting. But Coulson wouldn’t know. Because he’s too busy with the upcoming mission.
He’s too busy to notice the way Cap’s started to smile—not just a halfhearted curve of the lips but a smile, a real smile. He’s too taken with his work to pay attention to the way Cap whistles and swings his shield and the way he perks up when Stark enters the room. Really—he’s nearly too busy to eat and sleep, let alone pay attention to Captain America. If anyone could function by themself, it would be Cap, anyway. He doesn’t need Coulson.
Honestly, when the big day comes, Coulson’s too worried making sure that everything will work out right to see the Cap’s examining the old Iron Man suits set up in glass cases along the walls. And—Jesus, he really doesn’t need to be looking that closely. Those suits can’t possibly be that fascinating.
“Hey, Cap,” he calls from his desk.
Captain America turns around, every hair combed neatly into place. He’s dressed up a little today—a blue shirt—fancy, probably Italian or something, Coulson wouldn’t know—and crisp vanilla slacks. “Hey, Phil. Did you need something?”
“I—” He suddenly feels flustered—but that can’t be right, there’s no reason for that, aside from the fact that his childhood idol is looking at him with that hypnotizing propaganda-poster gaze that’s exactly like the ones on the comic books packed away in boxes in Coulson’s basement. “Can you take a look at these plans? I want to make sure there won’t be any problems.”
“Sure,” Cap says, taking the papers from Coulson and settling down on a chair next to one of Stark’s cluttered worktables. Coulson didn’t want the plan to be set up here, of all places—the Stark fucking Mansion—but for reasons beyond him—well, not really—they’re mostly security reasons, anyway, aside for the fact that someone forgot to pay the rent for the headquarters last week—they’re here. Well, not everyone. Not just yet.
“You seem more... adjusted,” he says finally.
“Mm,” Cap says, keeping his eyes on the page. “It takes a while to settle in. Things are getting better. I’m getting my driver’s license next week.” He looks up and smiles at him, and Coulson can’t help the stupid grin that appears, dumb and automatic and almost puppy-like, from spreading over his own face.
“Driving school?” he asks.
“No, it was Tony,” Cap murmurs absentmindedly, turning a page. “Let me tell you, I learned a lot faster trying to drive those fancy cars. Pressure, you know? Wouldn’t want to put a dent in those Ferarris.”
“Mm,” Coulson says, but he can feel his stomach sinking and his thoughts have drifted elsewhere. He lets his eyes linger on Cap for a second—so perfect, damn it, and that word sound funny when he applies it to a man but it’s true—Captain America is perfect, from his handsome red-nosed face, to the way he speaks, to the way he thinks: perfectly predictable in the way that he will always, perpetually and unflinchingly, do the right thing.
A doorbell rings distantly.
The papers are down and Cap is up in an instant. “Is that—” But he falls back into his seat when he sees Romanoff stamp down the stairs. “Hi, Natasha,” he says, and she smiles back before falling into the chair beside him, tossing her hair, and raising an eyebrow.
“What’re you reading?” she asks.
“Plans,” he said. “For Phil.”
She nods at Coulson and he nods back. Coulson’s about to say something when the doorbell rings again, but he forgets what it is when Cap jumps out of his chair and goes red in the face as Stark walks through the door.
* * *
Coulson’s usually better with words, but that’s the least thing on his mind right now. He shoves his gun back into his holster and lurches out of the path of another laser as it lands behind the lamppost, leaving a charred patch of pavement where he had been standing all of five seconds ago. More whiz past his head, crackling electricity and making the remaining hairs on his head stand on end.
The city is falling around them—well, at least, 34th street is. The ominous black clouds swirl and fire electric rain at them—fast enough to be lightning but not nearly as pretty—and the Avengers below are mostly hovering around the Hulk’s feet—he’s like a giant, green, thousand-pound umbrella—and trying not to get crushed as he absorbs the blows. Buildings flash white and crumble; rubble falls through the air like confetti.
Barton spits and yells, “Jesus fuck, what are we supposed to do?” Thunder booms overhead. He’s pressed tightly against Romanoff in a way that’s not quite accidental, but she’s too busy avoiding electrocution to really care.
“Fight in return!” Thor bellows. “We shall not be bested!”
“What the hell are we supposed to be fighting?” Coulson’s gun is out again, but he doesn’t know where to point it. He’s not even supposed to be here, really, but then again, things weren’t supposed to get like this. They were only supposed to come out to meet with—
“Loki!” Captain America cries suddenly; bouncing a bolt off his shield; “Loki—Loki’s behind this!”
“Are you fucking serious?” Stark spits. “He said—Jesus, this was supposed to be a fucking negotiation—”
“What’s that?” Romanoff shouts, pointing a black-gloved finger. Six pairs of eyes follow it to the top of a building, where a single swirling dark shadow stands. Barton whips out his arrow and fixes it in the bow in a heartbeat; he’s raises it, ready to—
“Stop!” Stark slaps Romanoff’s hand down and snaps the bow out of Barton’s. “Jesus, you think he’s stupid enough to stand right there where he could get—fucking shot? That could be a decoy—Jesus fuck, this is the god of lies and mischief—” His eyes narrow. “I have—I’ll take a look—I’m the only one here who can get up there.”
There are sounds of protest around him, but, expectedly, Stark isn’t the type to listen. He pushes Cap out of his way and leaps into the rain, soaring upward. It’s almost kind of amazing—Coulson hates to admit it, but it’s true—it’s amazing the way he can fly, the way the suit shines as it zooms upward, upward, into the gaping depths of sky—
It isn’t electric rain this time. It’s a bolt of lightning—an actual fucking bolt of lightning that strikes him, that hits right on his gleaming golden helmet, and before anyone can understand what’s happening, the invincible Iron Man is falling, heading towards the Earth. There’s another infinitely worse crack as he strikes the pavement. Coulson doesn’t even realize he’s holding his breath until he lets it go.
Stark doesn’t move.
“No!” That voice isn’t Captain America’s—that’s someone else, someone that sounds insane. The rain smudges Coulson’s vision as Cap lurches into the rain. There’s a distant blur of blue that mixes with the dull gleam of red that lies limply against the black road. And then the wind hisses and whistles and picks up and they can’t see anything, pressed against the Hulk’s quivering body.
“Jesus Christ.” Barton shakes his head. “Is this really—did he really just—”
“This doesn’t even make sense,” Romanoff hisses. “Tony got hit with Vanko’s fucking electric whip and it didn’t do anything—”
“This is lightning, if you haven’t noticed,” Coulson interrupts.
“Lightning—the force of a thousand suns—a god’s weapon!” Thor adds, unhelpfully.
But all of them fall silent as a distant blue figure emerges from the darkness. He lumbers slowly forward, unflinching despite the white rain falling all around him. Coulson can’t help the feeling that’s growing in his mind. Cap doesn’t just look like Cap—he looks like Captain America, a comic magazine cover—standing alone in the rain, splashed in the yellow spotlight of a lamppost, dark shadows over his eyes—Coulson feels strange, almost giddy. And then, slowly, and almost like dream, he realizes that his arms is the dying iron suit of Anthony Edward Stark.
* * *
The nurses all love him. He can’t possibly need to be checked up on every five minutes, superhero and all. Coulson’s wouldn’t stick around to watch, but he’s stuck in there with him—security, that’s what Fury says, but what he really means is babysitter. Needless to say, he’s not exactly having a ball.
Stark has a thousand wires plugged into his chest, hooked up to the arc reactor.
“Enjoying the view?”
Coulson rolls his eyes and sighs exasperatedly. They don’t pay him enough. Not for this. Defeating evil, sure, but not for looking after middle-aged men with atrocious goatees and all the restraint of a two-year old. He focuses his eyes on the pile of crumpled-up tissues on his bedside table.
“Where is everybody?”
Coulson doesn’t take his eyes off the tissues. “They’re in the cafeteria. They came up to visit you a few hours ago, but you weren’t awake.” He glances up at Stark, who seems to be digesting the information slowly. There’s a jingle of bells and he looks up to see a nurse pushing a cart—are they supposed to be wearing skirts that short? Stark perks up.
“No thank you, he’s fine,” Coulson says. The nurse rolls dejectedly away.
“Party pooper.” Stark glares.
Coulson doesn’t say anything. He has nothing to say. He feels a little angry, for some reason, at the man sitting in front of him—it’s strange. It didn’t use to be personal. The irritation he used to feel for Stark was strong but detached; he didn’t really care—but now, somehow, he wishes this fucker would go back to sleep and stop staring at him.
“Was it Loki?”
Coulson looks up at the ceiling. “Yes.”
“What’d you do?” His eyes flicker to the dented gun on the table next to him. “Shoot him?” A long, silent minute passes. He looks around the room and sighs. “Where’s Steve?”
Coulson’s fingers itch for the gun and he doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s Coulson—the one everyone can depend on, the one that does all the work, the one that keeps everyone together and works late nights and early mornings and always seems to end up here, shoved in a corner with Stark, of all people. But that Coulson doesn’t think about shooting anyone. He hasn’t shot anyone in, like, four weeks.
But look at his face.
Stark’s smug face, undeniably handsome and unshakably irritating—that stupid smirk glued to his lips, the glint in his eyes that exudes brilliance—Coulson realizes that he hates him. Not hates in a detached manner, not hates for his work—hates him. He swallows, forces the feeling down, and stumbles to his feet. He’s out the door in a second and Stark doesn’t protest.
Coulson hardly looks where he’s going as he stumbles down the hall. Nurses bustle around him, pushing carts laden with plastic-wrapped hospital dinners and bedpans. He’s not paying attention s he bumps into someone.
“Sorry,” he mutters, and tries to move on, but the person’s gripping his wrist.
“Where—what happened?” he asks. “Where’s Tony? Is he all right?”
Coulson’s eyes linger over Cap’s face for one long second before he realizes that Cap’s touching him—his hand around his wrist. He’s warm, so warm, and Coulson might even feel tingly, or happy, or something else that was stupid—if the context had been different. Instead, he snaps out of Cap’s grip and looks at his face. It’s serious: his brow is furrowed, mouth set in stone, chest heaving. He looks like he’s about to cry.
“You should just see for yourself.”
He doesn’t look back as turns back down the hallway. He walks until his breathing evens out, until he loses himself in the white walls and clear glass and pastel-colored scrubs. Coulson’s mind is empty as he blunders into the coffee shop-cafeteria. The Avengers aren’t here, but there is one familiar face sitting alone in the corner, clutching a latte and dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
“Is this seat taken?”
“I—” –she glances up and something cracks in her eyes– “No—no. Hi, Phil.”
Coulson sits down and orders a black coffee when the waitress trips over to their table. He looks at Pepper, who’s not even trying to keep herself together. Her eyeliner is running, damp in the corners of her face, and her eyes are rimmed with red. Crushed tissues sit in a pile around her coffee. He doesn’t know whether to not mention it or tell her he’s sorry. Coulson’s not really the kind of guy that finds himself around weeping women often.
“He’s stable, you know,” he says finally. “There aren’t any permanent injuries.”
“I know,” she says. “I don’t care.”
He stares at her. His coffee comes, hot and dark, but he doesn’t touch it. They sit in silence for a while.
“I mean,” she says, “I don’t even know—he’s so—why does he do it, Phil?” Her voice cracks on the last syllable. “Why—doesn’t he realize what he’s doing? Christ.” She sinks on her palms, elbows propping her arms up, and shakes her head slowly. “Sometimes—it’s like he forgets that we exist. Like he forgets that I exist.”
Coulson leans back and sighs. “He’s reckless,” he says. “A risk-taker.”
“There has to be something,” she murmurs. “What am I doing wrong?”
He doesn’t know. It’s almost sad that someone as pretty and smart as Pepper Potts is sitting here at a hospital cafeteria table dishing her problems to a middle-aged SHIELD agent with high blood pressure. No. It’s not almost sad—it is sad. Where would she be without him? Happy somewhere. A family. A boyfriend. A dog. Anything—she could have had anything, but instead she chose Tony Stark.
“You’re not doing anything wrong,” he says. “It’s just—it’s in his blood. It’s not your fault. He’s... just a bastard, Pepper.” He cocks half a smile at the choked laugh that bubbles up through her nose.
“Then what does that make me?” she asks. “Someone who falls in love with bastards?” She turns her head sideways, so she can see him out of one eye. “It was—it didn’t work out, you know, Phil. We just—we weren’t suited for that kind of thing. I mean—nothing’s changed, really. We still talk—it’s still the same—but it’s really not. It’s really not the same.” Pepper sighs. “So why am I here?”
Coulson doesn’t know.
“I visited him, you know,” she said. “I was going to tell him that it was over.”
“I was going to tell him that—I quit.” She cracks a pained smile and avoids Coulson’s gaze. “But he was asleep. And—and all of those wires were hooked up to him, and the arc reactor wasn’t even glowing, and—he looked so weak, Phil. He just looked like a man. Not even Tony Stark—just a man. And I thought—if I’m not there for him, who else does he have?”
Coulson knows exactly who Stark has.
He looks at Pepper, red-eyed and remorseful and hanging on to a man who doesn’t deserve an ounce of her, and feels something stirring in his stomach.
“Pepper,” he says slowly, “You need to let go.”
And he’s on his feet again. Coulson excuses himself and, knows that, for some reason, he’s going back to Stark’s room. He doesn’t have a clue, and that bothers Coulson more than any doe-eyed look from Captain America.
He stops his tracks before the door when he hears a familiar voice. His hand is on the doorknob, and then—he freezes. Coulson tells himself no, this is wrong, but another part of him whispers that there’s nothing wrong with this. He’s not eavesdropping, per se. He’s just... listening.
It’s quiet. The radiator hums inconspicuously in the corner. There’s a small swish and a chair creaks.
“You’re so warm—Jesus, why are you so warm?” Stark sounds almost embarrassed. “I’m cold. Here—feel.”
Coulson’s stomach lurches.
They stay like that for a second. Just breathing. Stark’s breathing is shallow and rapid, but Cap’s is slow and deep. Dependable. Steady.
“You know,” he says slowly, “When I saw you hit the ground, I thought you were dead.”
The silence stretches and fills the room. “Really.”
“I thought it was going to be like Bucky all over again. And—and I told myself that if you lived, I would—” Cap’s voice falters suddenly.
“What?” Stark asks.
“I—I told myself—I—” He swallows loudly. “I—can I—”
“Steve, you’re terrible at this,” Stark murmurs, but then there’s a shuffle and sheets crinkle and then nothing.
Coulson realizes that he’s gripping the coffee too tightly. He eases his hold.
“Mmf.” There’s a strange popping sound and the chair creaks again.
“Christ,” Stark says, sounding more than a little alarmed. “Steve, I’m sorry—”
But he’s cut off and now Captain America’s humming softly, buzzing, almost, and making soft, wet noises and moving slowly. Stark moans, almost appreciatively.
Coulson doesn’t know what to do.
He feels like he’s been shot.
Before he knows what he’s doing, he finds himself fumbling with the doorknob with both hands. It’s not working—it’s not working!—and he raps frantically on the door, feeling slightly hysterical as he realizes, too late, that the coffee is no longer in his hands.
There’s a crash and a few seconds of frantic muttering before Stark coughs and says, “Come in.”
Coulson throws the door open and there’s Cap, sitting a respectable distance from Tony’s bed with his hair sticking out at all angles and his shirt collar turned up. Both of them are flushed red and slightly out of breath. There’s half-smirk on Stark’s face that Coulson wants to hack off with a knife.
“What’s going on?” Coulson doesn’t know how he can sound so calm.
“Nothing,” Stark says quickly. “I was just thanking Captain America over here for saving my life.” He nods solemnly at the man trying to hold a smile back in the corner. “Cap, thank you.”
Steve nods back. “Don’t worry about it, Tony. It’s my job.”
“What happened to your shirt?”
“I—uh—” Cap’s eyes fall upon his upright collar. It doesn’t reach high enough; Coulson can still make out the swollen red marks bitten across his neck. “It’s... really cold in here.”
“Yeah,” Stark pipes up, and it takes all the willpower Coulson’s got to keep him from hitting him then and there. “Tell them to turn up the heat in here. Feels like the fucking Ice Age.”
Coulson swallows and the words come out before he knows what they are. “Okay. Will do.”
He makes his way to the door and backs out. Before he shuts it, Cap adds, “Thanks, Phil.”
And despite everything that’s happened everything he’s heard, he’s seen, every second that passes as he leaves Stark’s room, every piece of his childhood heart that’s shattered on the tiled hospital floor, Coulson can’t deny that same surge of electric excitement at the sound of his name on Captain America’s lips.
* * *
They can’t get him to come out.
He’s not coming out—never—no, Coulson’s barricaded himself in the Avengers security-surveillance room, and he’s going to stay in there forever. He can’t meet anyone’s gaze. He feels strange inside, empty, like someone’s stolen something. And that can’t be his heart—Jesus Christ, this isn’t some stupid love song, this is Coulson he’s talking about—he doesn’t have a heart in the first place, let alone one big enough for someone to steal.
But he’s here.
He watches them. Fury’s still pissed about it, but he thinks that Coulson’s going through some kind of anti-Stockholm-syndrome phase and he’s going to come out one morning like nothing’s ever happened. Until then, he’s holed here, with cups of coffee sent up to him by the jittery interns. He hasn’t showered in a week, but that’s the last thing on his mind.
Coulson sits in front of a hundred computer screens mounted on the wall. They burn black-and-white in the darkness, bathing his face in a ghostly blue light. Beneath them is the switchboard, all knobs and levers and flashing lights.
Maybe he’s not there, but he can see them. The Avengers come and go through the blue screens, eating lunch and sparring and cracking stupid jokes after fights. When they first figured out that Coulson was up here, they would try to talk to him—hey, Coulson, seeing any action up there? hey, Coulson, can you send me a feed of the ladies’ locker room? hey, Coulson, hey, Coulson, until they figured that he’d probably gotten bored by then and stopped paying attention.
But Coulson has nothing better to do. He sees Pepper a lot, now—looking back, it’s really the same amount as always, but now he actually notices her—and she’s always working. She’s filing reports with Fury, making sure everyone’s gear works, keeping track of press—it’s almost like she’s taken over Coulson’s job, except without the guns and anguish. She’s quieter than usual. There’s a kind of ice settling in between her and Stark. Or maybe it’s just him ignoring her. Because he’s been spending an awful lot of time with—with—
Coulson can’t bring himself to think about it.
He doesn’t want to watch any of the feeds with Cap in them. Because he can’t—he just can’t watch him, the way he looks at Stark, they way he lets him win sometimes when they’re training, the way he laughs when he teaches him how to do laundry and make coffee. He doesn’t even like the way Stark almost seems happy—not pissy and bitter as he usually is, but happy. They like each other—and maybe that’s what makes it really sting. Stark’s not using him as a toy or a fuck buddy. Stark likes Cap.
And he likes Stark.
But Coulson doesn’t care.
He’s not even watching them linger behind the rest of the Avengers as they return from a training session: red-faced, bruised, and grinning. He’s not even watching as Stark says something witty and Cap laughs, flashing those white, white teeth under his red lips. And he’s certainly not watching as Stark pushes Cap against the wall, Iron Suit gleaming under the bright lights, and kisses him. And Cap tenses, for a split second—freezes, and Coulson almost hopes that he’s going to push him away, ask him what the fuck he’s doing, but then Cap relaxes and lets him, weaves his hands through Stark’s hair and pulls him closer, flush against him, two writhing bodies locked together.
And it’s Captain America—Captain America who’s being led. Captain America who’s making those sounds as Stark’s hands roam, fall, tug at his clothes. He’s a rag doll, bending to Stark’s will, twisting around his touch. He’s playing into him like a puppet. He’s on a string, Jesus fuck, he has to be on a string, because Captain America wouldn’t let another man press up against him like that, grind like that, groan like that as his hand drops lower.
“Tony,” Steve gasps, tilting his head against the wall as Stark bites into his neck; “I—Christ, Tony, oh—” His hands slide across Stark’s neck and his mouth is a perfect red o. “Yes,” he breathes, and sucks in a breath of air as Stark pulls his shirt off. His chest shines with sweat, heaving in and out with every breath.
Coulson doesn’t know—he doesn’t know anything, in that instant, except for the fact that the man against the wall is a stranger. That can’t be Captain America.
No. It isn’t—it isn’t Captain America. It’s someone else—it’s—it’s—
“Fuck,” Cap hisses, and the smirk spreads across Stark’s face like spilt milk—slowly and surely—as he reaches down and grasps his belt buckle. He bites his lip and looks down at Stark, tugging at his jeans, foreign hands that press against the sharp angles of his hips, writhes as he tears the last barrier away, and the sound Cap makes as Stark sinks, drags his mouth down his chest and settles on his knees—he’s red in the face, swollen-lipped, covered in bruises and little red marks, his eyes are fluttering and fuck his hands are tangled in Stark’s dark hair and he’s bare, inside and out, gasping, pleading, and—
The monitor shuts off.
Coulson doesn’t even know what’s happened until he looks down and finds his hand resting on the feed button for hallway 7. His breath comes raggedly.
There is nothing to be said, nothing to be thought, as he leans back in his chair and lets his eyes drown in the glowing blue light.
* * *
The elevator starts moving.
Coulson stares as the buttons light up gold as a Christmas tree as it sinks past floors—tenth, ninth, eighth.
It’s slow. Everything is slow. He doesn’t even know what he’s thinking. Maybe he isn’t thinking. Maybe he’s mourning—yes, that’s probably what it is. Coulson’s seen a death today, in the screens of flickering blue. He shakes his head. No—it’s not the time to think about that. There are other things—there is the world. It sprawls around him, and he’s trapped in this elevator. The music piped through the speakers is light and ditsy, waltzing slowly around his head. There’s a mirror behind him, but Coulson won’t look because he’s afraid of what he’ll see.
The elevator doors slide open on the fifth floor.
Coulson’s holding papers in his hand—a bunch of papers. There’s a word stamped at the top that he thought he’d never see in the Avengers headquarters. Maybe he thought he’d see it in the very end, when he was old, when he had enough money to go around. Enough money to travel, to see things. Dark, deep jungles of honeyed yellow blossoms and croaking poison-flecked frogs. The blank slate of the desert, orange sweeping restlessly against a burning blue sky. Blistering tundra, lands blown with ice and frost that burned his ears red and carried up glacial white mountains and crystalline snow.
But he wasn’t really expecting that, was he? No. To say he’s been waiting for this is a lie. He was planning to stay. He was never going to leave—never. If Coulson is anything, it’s loyal.
Stark doesn’t say anything.
Coulson wishes he would say something. He wants an excuse to turn around and just—do something.
God, Stark almost looks like a presidential candidate right now—blue tie, black suit, combed hair. They could never guess—none of them will ever guess. They’ll never know, never understand, that the man they trust with their lives is a killer. A murderer. They’ll never know what he did. Only Stark will know. And Coulson. Of course, Coulson will know. He’ll never forget.
And there are a lot of things he’d like to forget, he knows, but as the elevator dings and slides open again to reveal the smiling face of Steve Rogers, he pushes past and knows that there is nothing he’d like to forget more than the death of Captain America.