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"Okay, we're going to have to work on some things," Steve suggested to no one in particular as he relocated his shoulder with a wince. That never got any more fun. His uniform needed some adjustments as well; it shouldn't be that stiff and that easily torn. He guessed field tests were a good thing for figuring out the kinks in one's equipment, and a battle with some overstressed super-weapons mechanic that leveled three city blocks could certainly be called a field test.

Unfortunately, though, because the team didn't have all their kinks smoothed out, one of those leveled blocks was their fault.

"I did say I wasn't a team player, you know." Iron Man piped, brushing off debris from the armor. "Anyway, the nut was taken down and no major injuries were had, so I'd say win." He couldn't be sure, but Steve suspected Stark was smiling behind the faceplate.

Thor landed at Steve's left and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I say the Captain is correct."

"You weren't even supposed to be here, kiss ass."

"What?" Thor readied himself into a stance in a heartbeat, hammer at the ready.

Yikes. "Easy now," Steve moved between them, mildly annoyed, "we don't need to fight each other." He looked around, trying to spot Widow or Hawkeye, and the action only served to annoy him further as it meant him taking in the all the rubble their battle had left behind.

"Gentlemen," Agent Coulson called, walking toward them, not fazed by the rubble or the fact that thunder rumbled above them as he listened to whoever was on the phone.

"You know, sometimes I'd swear you're half Vulcan or something."

Steve had no idea what that meant, but coming from Stark, it had to be a bait. Coulson didn't even glance Iron Man's way; he just blinked and muttered an "understood" before flipping the phone shut. "Okay, you three. Back to SHIELD for a debriefing."

"I shall pass, Son of Coul! I am to meet with Jane." Without giving anyone time to react to that, Thor bowed slightly before taking off into the sky, not so subtly sending Iron Man a glare.

"Yeah," Iron Man spoke a second later, waving an armored hand, "I'm just going to go home. I have more important stuff to work on." Repulsors firing up, Stark gave a flippant salute. "Don't make a racket when you get in, kiddos." And he was gone, too.

Steve glanced at Coulson; the agent had simply watched the two flee the scene of the crime without so much as a frown, though there was a slight crease to his brow. He stared after them for a few more seconds before turning his attention on Steve, and Steve straightened out of habit. Coulson raised an eyebrow. "What a team, hm?"

Opening his mouth to respond, Steve blinked then thought better of it, mouth closing with a soft click. Instead, he said, "Widow and Hawkeye haven't checked in."

"Yes, I expected that from Barton. Agent Romanoff is a surprise." Coulson seemed anything but surprised, though, as he stared at Steve, in a way that was a little eerie, making Steve stand a fraction straighter. Coulson blinked. "At ease, Cap. You technically outrank me."

"Oh, I —" Steve wanted to kicked himself for stuttering.

"Everything's fine, Captain." The eyebrow Coulson raised might have been in amusement; Steve wasn't entirely sure. "I can debrief you on the way to Stark's mansion." He gestured to the car a few yards away. "And I'll have a talk with Agents Barton and Romanoff."

Squaring his shoulders, Steve nodded as he followed Coulson, trying not to feel like he failed.

———

Steve walked into the gym, mildly surprised when he noticed Barton and Coulson packing up. Well, Barton packed up his bow and assorted arrows as Coulson watched, water bottle in hand and dressed in casual gym wear, which might have been a little unsettling as the man usually wore suits. Huh. Didn't figure them for workout partners. He also didn't figure they'd be there this early in the morning. Coulson saw him first and gave a nod in greeting, a little quirk to his lips as he took in Steve's confusion. When Barton noticed that he wasn't the center of the older agent's attention, he turned, smile fading a bit when he spotted Steve. Out of habit, Steve stood a little straighter as Barton narrowed his eyes.

"Morning, Captain." Coulson called, striding over to meet Steve half way for a hand shake. "Isn't it a little late for you to be hitting the gym?"

Steve grinned despite himself. "I went for a run first." The corner of Coulson's mouth twitched at the answer, almost like he'd known. It wouldn't surprise Steve if he did. "I'm surprised to see you two here." He said honestly, curious. "Do you always spar together?"

"What's it to you?" Barton asked, effectively cutting off whatever reply Coulson had.

"Barton." Coulson nearly sighed, tone a warning.

"I didn't mean anything by it." Steve spoke quickly, taken aback by the hostility in Barton's voice, "I just —"

"You don't know dick, gramps." Barton spat as he made his way to the exit, leaving a confused Steve behind.

"Barton!" Coulson barked, but Barton only waved as he slipped out the door. "Well, looks like we're going to have a lovely chat later." Coulson shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Uh, did I offend him in some way?" Steve blinked, trying to recall any moment that could've been taken as ill will.

Coulson snorted. "Probably not. He's a special brand of personality; you'll have to get used to it." He looked at Steve, face blank again, free from the traces of annoyance that were there a moment ago. "So, is there a reason you went for a run first?"

Steve raised an eyebrow. "Is there a reason you know my daily schedule?"

Coulson just smiled.

"Okay then." That got a chuckle from the agent. "Well, since you're so interested, running helps clear my head." Steve shrugged, feeling Coulson's eyes studying him as he focused on stretching.

"I see. And why would your head need clearing?" Coulson crossed his arms, clearly not leaving without getting an honest answer, and Steve had to inwardly grin because that made sense; he remembered Fury calling the agent a nanny to take care of their team of big babies. He didn't know if he should be insulted or not.

Standing his full height — not because he felt a tad defensive, nope — Steve tilted his head, regarding Coulson carefully. He didn't know as much about the man as he'd like, namely because Coulson was as secretive as his file was classified, and that saddened him; even with all the crypticness about him, Coulson had been a good friend so far. "How long have you been married?" Steve finally asked, hoping he wasn't pushing any sort of boundary.

At the question, the corners of Coulson's lips dropped downward, though it wasn't quite a frown, and he stared back for a few seconds, clearly mulling over how to respond. Steve almost retracted the question when he finally spoke. "A good while, I guess."

That caused Steve to frown. "You guess?" He asked before he could stop himself.

Coulson smiled, though, at Steve's surprise. "She doesn't see us as married anymore." He shrugged, just a small movement in his shoulder. "In fact, she thinks I'm dead."

"Oh... I’m sorry." Steve didn't know what to say to that, and he regretted bringing it up. "I just thought, I mean, because you wear your wedding ring, you know, you..." He tried not to gesticulate too much; Bucky used to rag on him for doing that.

"It's the logical thing to assume, yes." Coulson still had that smile on his face, almost as if he were taking amusement from their conversation, but Steve could see that faint gleam of sadness in his eyes, which caused him to bite his lip to stop babbling.

He might as well tell the truth. "I don't understand, sir."

"The events surrounding my death are highly classified, so I can't really tell you anything about that," there was a slight twinkle in his eyes when he mentioned his death, and Steve felt a chill, "but the only thing you really need to know is that, officially, I'm listed as killed in action; my dog tags were given to my wife, and there was even a funeral, which was a bit nice if a little too much." Coulson subtly made a face, and Steve realized that Coulson had been present to see his wife grieving. "I still wear my wedding ring as a reminder of what I'm fighting for and as a memento of my past life, for lack of a better word."

Steve remained quiet as he processed what Coulson said, noting that the agent simply stood there waiting, not in any hurry, face blank but open. Coulson had a lot of patience. "I'm sorry for bringing it up, especially since it's, uh, classified." Steve shrugged, feeling a bit off balance. Even though Coulson spoke with nonchalance, Steve knew it was very personal information.

Coulson smiled. "I know you can keep secrets, Cap. Besides, you're only the second person to ask about my marriage." The way he said it brought a frown to Steve's face, but he wasn't given time to comment on it. "I assume your asking has something to do with my earlier question, of course."

Steve blinked, backtracking to recall what his thoughts were before. "Oh." Coulson's answer actually made this a little easier. Or possibly worse. He wasn't sure yet. "Does," Steve breathed, already knowing how foolish he'll sound, "does it get easier, letting go of the life you had, the people you left behind?" It's silly, really; Steve knew that his friends lived good lives, that they accomplished a lot. He shouldn't feel so bad. So lost.

Coulson didn't seem surprised to hear the question, but Steve figured he wouldn't be. Fury had probably debriefed all of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the notion that Steve would probably feel homesick, depressed. Hell, Fury probably never had to. How else were people supposed to act to someone out of his element, out of his time, other than to treat him like a time bomb? That's probably why Coulson was so patient with him.

"Our experiences aren't the same," Coulson began, speaking slowly, choosing his words carefully, and that told Steve something, "and I can still check up on my loved ones, if I really need to," he shot a look at Steve, and Steve felt pretty sure the man tried to avoid looking back — for whatever reason, "but I do understand what it's like having your world shifted, waking up in a different bed, alone." Coulson's lips pressed in a line, then. "The first few weeks are definitely the hardest, but it gets better." A pause. "Gaining new friends helps."

Steve felt himself chuckle, couldn't help it; it sort of felt like he was on autopilot. "You have friends, sir?"

"I'm very popular on Facebook." Coulson replied without missing a beat.

Tilting his head to the side and furrowing his brow, Steve asked, "Facebook, sir?"

This time, Coulson smirked openly. "I know you know what that is."

Trying very hard not to grin, Steve narrowed his eyes. "Stark's right. You take the fun out of everything."

Coulson nodded solemnly. "It's a burden I must bear, yes."

Steve laughed. He didn't know what the others whispered about; Coulson was a good guy. Even if he was only babysitting them. Steve considered the agent's words. "So you're saying don't get so stuck in the past and make new relationships in the here and now?" He tried to smile. "Be friends with this team instead of just their leader."

Coulson raised an eyebrow. "No, that isn't what I'm saying at all." At Steve's confusion, he smiled. "I'm saying busying yourself allows you to better process your situation while also relieving some stress, which," he leaned in to stage whisper, "I'm not supposed to be telling you. They'd rather you sit quietly and do some psych evals, but that can be just as stressful, I know."

"I can do that, if that's what they want." Steve was used to being tested and prodded.

"I know you can, Steve." Coulson just kept smiling. "With that mind of yours, I'm sure you'll be cleared in no time. That or you'll end up too much like me, and I'm not sure S.H.I.E.L.D. — or anyone, really — would appreciate that."

"What do you mean?"

"Another time. My point is that method wouldn't work for you; we both know how automatic your responses would be." The way Coulson looked at him made Steve avert his eyes. "So, busy yourself with this team. They don't work together. Big egos clash too much and all that."

"I can't make them be friendly toward each other. I apparently can't even get them to act civilly toward me." He didn't know what Coulson was thinking, really. The man just witnessed Barton's display, and Steve was sure Coulson had seen Stark's attitude toward him.

"Barton and Stark are asses."

Steve blinked. "That was very... blunt." He smiled at Coulson's matter-of-fact shrug. "Are you sure you're not telepathic?"

"That would be telling." His smile turned into a smirk. "And also giving you an edge in the bet they have over at Central. Can't be accused of nepotism, now can I?"

"No," Steve shook his head, grinning, "that would damage your reputation."

"Exactly." Coulson nodded, smiling again.

"You know," Steve spoke conversationally, trying to look innocent, "I can ruin it by telling everyone how human and helpful you're being right now."

"Oh dear." That infamous blank expression settled on Coulson's face in an instant, but his eyes gleamed with amusement. "We can't have that. Tell you what, we'll spar, and the winner decides what's done."

Steve stared. "You want to spar?"

"Sure, why not?" That eyebrow of his quirked, and Coulson jerked his head for Steve to follow him to the mats.

"Um, okay." Shrugging, Steve went along. He could hold back some in order to have their match.

———

In hindsight, Steve should have been more prepared when sparring with Phil Coulson.

"You fight dirty." It wasn't a pout, but it was a near close thing.

"That I do." Coulson smiled while drinking his coffee. The bastard.

"That'll only work once, you know." Steve informed the agent as he settled into his chair, three big platefuls of breakfast, along with a tall glass of orange juice, before him. "I'll be prepared next time." He picked up his fork and began to dig in.

Coulson nodded as he unfolded the newspaper, not batting an eyelash at the food. "If you say so."

Placing his fork down, Steve pointed a finger at Coulson, challenging. "We can go right now."

"Eat your breakfast." He spoke without looking up, face blank as he read. Steve tried not to smile.

"You just know I'll win," Steve said with confidence, but he did as he was told, munching on his hash-browns.

"If you're worrying I'll tell the team how easily I whooped your butt, well," he raised his eyebrow at Steve, the barest hint of a smirk on his lips, "you have every reason to."

Steve snorted. "You're going to do that anyway because you'll laugh when they try to take me down."

"It would be wonderful seeing Stark go flying." Coulson nodded, turning a page with a little smile.

"Sadist." Steve muttered around a mouthful of eggs. All Coulson did was chuckle, so Steve contented himself with eating, not so subtly pushing a plate toward Coulson. The agent just kept on reading. "I can force feed you, you know."

Coulson looked up, eyebrow raised. "Are you trying to be my mother hen?"

"Sure," Steve shrugged, swallowing his mouthful, "no one else is here, and you did say to busy myself with fussing over the team."

Coulson blinked, and Steve would have sworn the man was confused. "Over the team, yes." It was minute, but Coulson definitely tilted his head as he spoke.

"Which includes you." Steve stated, matter-of-fact, taking in the way Coulson stared at him. It was almost as if he didn't believe it, and Steve wasn't having any of that. "So suffer." He did his best impression of an evil laugh, which probably didn't sound impressive if the quirk of Coulson's lips said anything.

"I severely doubt that suffering your mother henning would be worse than suffering Clint's chatter. Or his boredom."

Happy to see that the look disappeared from Coulson's face, Steve nodded, studying the man. "You two are close, huh?"

"No more than other agents are."

"Mmhmm." Steve grinned, eating another forkful of eggs. He might've hummed a little.

Coulson narrowed his eyes. "Is there something you want to say, Captain Rogers?"

Trying to rein in his grin, Steve shook his head. "No, sir. I'm sure I can gossip with the others later."

Coulson's eyes widened. "Excuse me?"

"Gossip, sir. A form of bonding. I'm sure the others will have all kinds of things to say about you and your relationships with coworkers."

"You're going to start gossiping about me." Coulson blinked, brow creasing. "You'll be adding to the rumors, won't you." He accused, placing the newspaper on the table.

"Nah, I know enough about how that goes to not contribute to it. You should have heard what they said about me and Bucky. And the Howlers." He added as an afterthought, cutting his waffles. "Pretty sure the word orgy was thrown around a few times." He dipped the waffle pieces in syrup then popped them in his mouth, chewing quite happily.

Eyebrow quirked a bit, Coulson neatly folded his paper before stealing a sausage patty off of one of Steve's plates. "For a guy from the forties, you're pretty nonchalant when talking about homosexual orgies."

Steve actually laughed, covering his mouth so he wouldn't be rude. "Well, they did happen back in my day, I guess. Pretty sure they happened in every decade since ancient times." Shooting an amused look at Coulson, Steve took a nice sip of his orange juice. "But yeah, you get used to that kind of talk in the army. Being with the Howlers didn't exactly help, of course." He grinned. "Remind me later to tell you about the bar fight in France."

"So I'm to expect the same kind of behavior out of you with the Avengers?"

"Orgies, no. Gossip, probably." Leaning in closer, Steve tried to pull off the puppy dog eyes that Bucky had always said he had. "Unless you want to tell me things up front."

Coulson simply looked at him, amusement pretty clear in his eyes. "That would be nepotism."

"Drat." Steve smiled to himself as he shrugged. "Well, we're human. I'll be here when you cave." He pointed to the plate he had pushed closer to Coulson. "And if you don't eat that, I'll tell everyone you hurt my feelings, starting with Fury."

Snorting, Coulson actually started nibbling on another patty. "Who's fighting dirty now?"

"I learn from my opponents, sir." Steve grinned, finishing his breakfast. "Hey, where is Barton?"

"Probably holed up in his room. He has this thing about eating breakfast outside his room."

"Oh. Okay." He took another drink from his glass. "And where is everyone else?"

"If I recall what Ms. Potts said correctly, Stark has a board meeting he cannot miss. I believe Thor is spending whatever time he can with Jane and Darcy. You never want to wake Natasha up on her days off. As for Banner, I think he's in that lab Stark gave him."

Steve hmmed as he stared at the plate in front of Coulson. Stark giving Banner a lab was an improvement in team dynamics, right? Unless he was just trying not to get Banner to Hulk out, but Steve doubted that. Still, it was a nice thought and gesture, whatever the reason behind it. Of course, that just meant Banner had a place to avoid the others if he wanted to, and Steve couldn't say he approved of that. He shouldn't have to shut himself away, and Steve hoped Banner didn't feel like he had to do that.

"Also, you have a meeting with R&D for another suit fitting later this evening."

Blinking out his thoughts, Steve groaned, slumping his shoulders and nearly letting his head rest on the table. He hated fittings, of any kind; they were just awkward. "I'm not going unless you finish your breakfast."

"Excuse me?" Coulson sounded taken aback, and Steve tried not to chuckle. "And this isn't even mine. This is what you couldn't finish."

"Oh, I could finish it. But you haven't eaten." Picking up his head, Steve gave Coulson a bright smile. "And I'm not going unless you eat it."

Coulson stared for a few seconds before blinking. "You're serious about the mother hen thing then." He reached for the plate, pulling it closer.

"Of course." Steve got up and walked to the cabinet, fishing out a clean fork and knife, placing them next to Coulson's plate. "And don't even think about wasting that." He warned as he took his own plates to the sink. The thing beeped, reminding Steve that he didn't have to do anything. It also reminded him to have a talk with Stark; Steve actually liked doing dishes. "I'll have Jarvis inform me if you do, you know." He turned around with a grin, leaning against the counter, arms crossed.

"I don't think you have that authority." Coulson mused aloud as he cut his waffle.

"Really?" Steve's grin faltered. Permission had be granted in order to talk to Jarvis? He looked up at the ceiling. "Hey, Jarvis?"

"Yes, Captain Rogers?" The reply came instantly, the voice crisp yet alluring.

Steve smiled. "Will you let me know if Coulson doesn't finish his breakfast? Please?" Steve added automatically. It's rude not to say please when asking for a favor.

A slight pause. "Of course, Captain."

"Thanks." Grinning like a fool, Steve looked at Coulson, pleased with himself. Asking nicely went a long way. Speaking of... "Oh, and can you point me in the direction of Dr. Banner? If he isn't too busy." He paused, making a face. "And if it isn't too much trouble."

"Not at all, Captain. Would you like to me to lead you there now?"

"If you don't mind." Out of his peripheral, Steve saw Coulson giving him a strange look. Frankly, he didn't know why. Wasn't this normal?

"Then if you would make your way into the hallway, we can begin."

"Thanks, Jarvis." Steve moved, though he looked over his shoulder at Coulson and his breakfast, making sure the man was still eating. He was, with a small smile on his lips. Turning around with his full attention on Jarvis' directions, Steve smiled to himself.

———

With Jarvis' helpful instructions, Steve found himself stepping quietly into Banner's lab. It wasn't that big or luxurious, but the scientist seemed to have made himself at home. Looking around, several experiments or tests were scattered here and there, and Steve wasn't sure if he should be there; something might be set off or disrupted, and then he'd feel bad. He debated on sneaking away.

"Can I help you?"

So much for sneaking out. Steve craned his neck to see Banner peering at him from behind a stack of paper, his expression puzzled. He had his glasses on, so Steve figured Banner was busy with whatever work he was doing. "Um. I guess not." He shuffled his feet awkwardly, rethinking Coulson's idea, and let out a small chuckle. "Sorry to bother you."

"Everything okay?" Banner asked, emerging from the stack of paper and research equipment, a Petri dish in one hand. He gave Steve a curious look as he settled at his desk, placing the dish next to a microscope.

Steve grinned. "That was supposed to be my line, I think. Have you eaten?"

Arching an eyebrow, Banner nodded. "I ate an hour ago, actually." He turned his attention to the contents of the desk. "You came here to mother hen me?" He fooled with the scope, moving the dish, and Steve tried not to huff. I'm going to be known as the mother hen again, huh? Bucky would love that.

"If you want me to leave, I can." Banner looked at him, and Steve shrugged. "I know what it's like to want to be alone with your work."

"I don't think a mother hen would say that."

"I never said I was a good one."

Banner chuckled. "I have nothing against you being here. You might be bored, though."

"Are you saying I'm not smart enough for you?"

There was a quick upward twitch of Banner's lips. "Didn't say that." Waving his hand in the general direction of his right, Banner spoke as he examined his scope. "Feel free to pull up a chair."

Nodding to himself, Steve fetched a stool and settled on it, keeping a fair amount of distance from Banner's desk, enough so he could still converse with the man without it feeling like Steve was crowding him. Banner seemed unconcerned that he had an observer, and Steve found that mildly fascinating. His fingers idly tapped against his thigh, the urge to sketch Banner in his element suddenly strong. Too bad he didn't have a sketchbook; he clearly needed to rectify that.

Moving his eyes off Banner and his work, Steve shifted his gaze to the desk itself. Surprisingly, it was messy, items scattered here and there. Of course, it might only look messy to Steve; Banner probably knew where everything was, and Steve grinned at the thought. His grin faded slightly as he took notice of a framed picture of a woman. "Who is she?" Steve asked lightly, unsure if the topic was taboo. Plus, he didn't want to pry if it made Banner too uncomfortable.

Banner, though, only glanced at the picture, almost as if he forgot it was there. "That's Elizabeth Ross. She's… a friend." His brow furrowed just a bit. Steve felt he might not be used to those kinds of questions. The man probably got too many about his accident and its after effects. Steve knew what that was like, and he didn't feel like putting Banner through that just yet.

Eyes falling back to the picture, talking in how the woman was busy looking at some type of paperwork, Steve found himself thinking of Peggy. He smiled, small and wistful. "Are you two going steady?" The question came out of his mouth before he could properly think about it, and that surprised him. Looking up from his work, Banner raised an eyebrow, a corner of his lips quirking upward. Steve felt his cheeks warm slightly. "That isn't the correct phrase, is it?"

At the question, Banner smiled fully, small and quiet. "No, the phrase is fine. And, the answer to your first question is a bit complicated." He shrugged and turned back to his work, but that slight grin still stayed on his lips. Steve sat there for a few minutes, watching as Banner adjusted the microscope now and then, and was about to get up when Banner spoke again. "It isn't a crime to still use terms like that, you know. Of course," he looked up from the scope, blinking thoughtfully, "it means something slightly different from what you're used to, I think."

"How slightly?" He was a little wary; he kept forgetting that language also changed since his crash.

Banner shrugged. "It just means dating someone exclusively, without the serious thoughts of marriage."

"Ah," Steve breathed in relief, "well, that isn't too bad, I guess."

Banner turned to him again, eyebrow raised. "Better than some?"

"You could say that…" Steve glanced at the floor, another light blush gracing his cheeks.

"Do I want to know?"

"Seeing as Stark explained some things, I guess you don't."

Banner didn't exactly snort, but it was a close thing. "It figures he would jump at any opportunity."

"It wasn't so bad." Steve shrugged. "I've spent years with the Howlers; you get used to hearing about stuff like that." Despite himself, Steve smiled at the memories.

"Okay, I really don't want to know now." Banner once again faced his work, and Steve mildly wondered if it was habit or if he just really like to busy himself.

"You know… I think you and Stark could be good friends." There he went again, saying things before really thinking them out. But now that he'd said it, he realized that it could be true. And wasn't that kind of terrifying?

"Yes." This time, Banner actually snorted. "That's all I need. Tony Stark hovering over my shoulder with bad music and snippy or baiting comments, not to mention the lack of self-restraint and frequent bouts of driving at dangerous speeds." He couldn't be sure, but Steve thought he saw a hint of a smirk on Banner.

"I don't think he hovers. Maybe." Steve didn't bother touching the other comments. "And I'm not saying to go on adrenaline rushes with him. Just sit down and talk for a bit. Try convincing him it's okay for him to have a few gray hairs. Things like that."

Pausing in his movements, Banner glanced at Steve. "Have you been talking to Ms. Potts? Or Romanoff?" He made a face. "Thor?"

Smiling, Steve shook his head. "Nope. Barton, actually."

Banner blinked at him. "I can't tell if you're joking or not. I wouldn't doubt it."

Steve chuckled. "Actually, I was joking. Barton doesn't seem to like me that much." He tried to say it lightly, and he’s almost certain he pulled it off.

After staring at him for a moment, Banner nodded. "I guess winning everyone over with your boy scout ways isn't a super power."

Widening his eyes, Steve put a finger to lips. "Don’t let that out; it's supposed to be a secret."

"Yikes, don't let the others know you have a sense of humor. It'll be all downhill from there." Banner focused his attention back on the microscope with a grin, and Steve couldn't help letting out a small chuckle.

There was a lull in the conversation, and the following silence wasn't uncomfortable. It wasn't exactly comfortable, either. Steve watched as Banner wrote whatever he found out on a yellow legal pad. The action made Steve smile. It's nice to know not everyone is so dependent on computers and such. Though, Steve could see Banner casting him a glance or two out the corner of his eye, right before he went back to his scope.

Steve blinked. "Do you have control?" When Banner shot him a look, he shrugged. "You were expecting me to ask it, so I thought I'd just go ahead and do it." He let a sheepish smile cross his lips. "You don't have to answer, though." And, surprisingly, that was the truth; Steve didn't need to hear the answer right now.

Banner just stared at him for a long while, head tilted slightly in thought. It would have weirded Steve out, but there was no disdain in Banner's eyes; he was just regarding Steve curiously, and Steve had plenty of instances to get used to that. "You're not what I expected," Banner commented after a few moments, glancing over his scope once more before turning to fully face Steve.

Shrugging, Steve picked at his pants, just a little uncomfortable now. "I'm thinking a lot of people will be telling me that." Now's not the time to talk about insecurities, Rogers, and Bruce doesn't need to hear them."Though," Steve raised an eyebrow, letting himself grin at Banner, "I could say the same to you."

"Yes, I suppose so." He murmured, watching Steve's hands with minutely narrowed eyes as he debated whether or not to answer. After another few minutes, Banner spoke again. "I have more control over it than I did a few months ago. Won't transform over any little thing, if that's what everyone is worried about. Though, jamming my toe comes pretty close." He looked Steve in the eye then.

Steve smiled, pretty sure that was a joke. His smile widened, just a little, when Banner returned it. "I don't think anyone would be able to stay calm when that happens."

"Heh, no, I guess not. Though," Banner smirked, "I would think Captain Rogers would be able to handle his temper."

"Steve," he corrected automatically then blinked, a hand rubbing the back of his neck, sheepish, "Ah, well... I can get pretty riled up, if someone knows my buttons. So, Dr. Banner, I guess you're not alone in that."

Banner stared at Steve for a moment then said, "Bruce."

"What?"

"Well," he tilted his head, amused, "if I can call you Steve, it stands to reason that you can call me Bruce, right?"

A bright, genuine smile spread itself on Steve's face, and he nodded. "Guess so." Bruce returned the smile, and Steve felt the urge to sketch again. "Does this mean I can come bug you from time to time?"

"Depending on the definition of bug, sure." Shrugging, Bruce reached across the desk, getting a hold of a pocket watch and what looked like a claw of some kind.

"Well, actually, I'd like to draw you." Bruce turned to him again, eyebrow raised, which definitely made Steve blush when he realized what he said. "Uh, I mean, if you don't mind? It's just, you looked so focused before, you know, in your work, that I, uh, thought you'd make a good model." Steve stood up, clearing his throat. "And, yeah, I'll go now."

Bruce was looking at him with a mildly amused expression, eyebrow still arched and a smirk quirking at his lips, and as he retreated Steve had the strong urge to throw something at him. Like a crumpled piece of paper or an erasure or something.

"You know," Bruce called before Steve made a complete escape, and Steve chanced a glance over his shoulder, "I wouldn't mind that, I think." Bruce smiled to himself, once again focused on the microscope.

Chuckling, Steve left the lab, a smile on his face, making a mental note to ask Jarvis for directions to a nearby art store.

———

One of the things about having the serum was the fact Steve didn't sleep as long as the average person. (He also didn't like to sleep one second past six and a half hours, but that was more of a personal choice due to being in the ice for so long; unless he was extremely exhausted, Steve would wake up on the clock.) Because of this, Steve was used to being awake when the others were sleeping. If they did sleep.

Even if they weren't, the mansion would most likely be empty. Thor usually hung out with Dr. Foster or Darcy, both of whom now resided at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. Steve had met them once and felt awkward about Foster's questions and Darcy's... well, personality. She had absolutely insisted he call her by her first name; she also insisted she take him out on the town, her arms wrapped around one of his as she tried to lead the way to the exit, but Dr. Foster smacked her upside the head and pulled her away, much to Steve's relief. Though, that didn't stop Darcy from calling after him for a rain check as Steve left, Thor laughing all the while.

Steve didn't know where Barton or Romanoff went to when they weren't at the mansion. He assumed HQ because they were agents before this team formed. Truthfully, Steve tried not to think about their past or even their relationship. Something told him that it was complicated. Very complicated. Though, the fact that they were so close made Steve smile. Everybody should have at least one friend like that.

He sighed, turning over the sausage patties as he tried to think of ways to help the team with the whole teamwork thing. "Jarvis," Steve called, glancing up at the ceiling, "do you read?" Maybe he was overthinking things. Maybe he just needed to step back a little.

"Read what, sir?"

"Well, books?" He replied, turning off the stove, "I was thinking about reading some of the literature I've missed in the last few decades, and I wanted to know if you had any recommendations." Steve shrugged as he fixed his plate, moving to the table when he was finished.

"Ah. I do not read, but I can compile a list for you, if you like, based on critic and reader reviews."

Smiling, Steve nodded as he placed his eyes on his plate. "Sure, if you don't mind."

"Of course not, Captain. I will be done shortly."

At that moment, Stark staggered into the kitchen, hair a mess and grease everywhere. Steve blinked at him as he made a beeline for the coffee pot, grumbling nonsense to himself, and immediately poured him a mugful. As he began to cut his pancakes, Steve watched as Stark simply stood there, breathing in his coffee, this dazed look on his face that Steve would have chuckled at if he wasn't afraid of spooking the guy.

A sigh escaped Stark as he took another sip, then he blinked and looked around the kitchen, a puzzled expression on his face as he took in the sight near the stove. His gaze settled on Steve. "Why are you cooking all this food?"

"Um. Sometimes Coulson comes here, and I make him eat?" Steve answered around a bite of pancakes, raising his eyebrow.

Stark grunted, eyes studying Steve over the brim of his mug. "But you don't know if he'll show?"

"Nope. It's a fifty-fifty chance every morning." He gave a halfhearted shrug as he ate a sausage patty.

Making a face, Stark rolled his eyes. "That's dull. Why not just text him?"

"I don't have a phone."

"Excuse me?" If he hadn't just swallowed, Steve was sure Stark would have spit out his drink. Instead, he just gaped at Steve for a moment. "Well, that's just bullshit. I'll get you one later."

"Stark, you don't have to," Steve tried to protest, not sure what he'd do with a phone if he had one. He saw everyone he really knew nearly everyday; why would he need to call them?

"Tony," Stark stated pointedly as he waved Steve off, "and the hell I don't. No person living under my roof will be phoneless."

"Well, okay. How much will I owe you?" Steve didn't see the point of arguing if Tony was dead set on it, so he might as well just go with it.

"You're kidding." Tony stared at him, and Steve just stared back. "You're not kidding. Jesus. Fine, okay," he ran a hand through his already messed up hair, making it wilder, as his eyes darted across the room, landing on Steve's plate, "how about I take food as payment? I don't actually remember the last time I ate a decent meal for breakfast..."

"Why am I not surprised..." Steve muttered, but he pushed the plate toward Tony.

"Captain Rogers," Jarvis cut in, and Steve looked up slightly, aware that Tony was furrowing his brow at him, "your list of literature recommendations is finished and is awaiting you in your room."

"Thanks, Jarvis." Steve smiled brightly, taking a sip of his orange juice.

"Jarvis," Tony blinked, "why are you giving him a list of books?"

"Because he asked, sir," came the reply, and it might have been Steve's imagination, but Jarvis sounded amused.

"Since when do you take orders from Cap?" Tony demanded, a hand on his hip, his coffee threatening to spill as he pointed his other hand at Steve.

"I didn't order him," Steve interrupted, indignant, "I asked nicely."

Tony narrowed his eyes, staring at Steve like it was the first time seeing him. "You asked nicely," he echoed, expression wary.

"Yes. Jarvis has been very helpful."

"I smell mutiny," Tony mumbled as he refilled his mug, picking up the plate afterward, then nodded to himself. "Well, anyhow, you'll get your phone later today, after I finish up some work," Tony informed Steve as he left without so much as a glance.

Shaking his head, Steve sighed and fixed another plate for himself. At least he's eating solid food. Maybe I should start cooking for him, too? Steve sat down, shaking his head. No one seemed to eat anymore, and there was plenty of food in the house.

Barton stumbled into the kitchen then, eyes sweeping the area like they were looking for enemies. When he spotted Steve, Barton pointed at him, an aha! expression on his face. "Hey, listen, do me a favor and tell Coulson you didn't see me, okay? Oh shit." And with that, Barton ran past Steve, jumped on the counter then into the ceiling, leaving Steve blinking in his wake, glass of orange juice paused midway to his mouth. Idly, as he faced front, he wondered how many secret hideouts Barton made in the mansion and if Tony was aware of them all.

A few minutes later, Coulson came into the kitchen, expression sour — for him, that was. "Did Barton come through here?" The agent regarded him with critical eyes, and Steve snorted.

"Yeah," he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, coincidentally toward the living room, "ran that way like he was on a mission." Taking a sip of his drink as Coulson's lips twitched downward, Steve quirked his eyebrow. "He in trouble?"

Sighing, just a bit, Coulson shrugged. "Clint is always in trouble, in one form or another."

"Ah, but this is a personal matter, not work related, right?"

"Why would you say that?" Coulson blinked.

"You used his first name," Steve pointed out, placing his glass down. Coulson's expression didn't betray his emotions, but the very light tint of pink on his cheeks did. "Well, whatever it is, you won't catch him without something in your stomach." Steve nodded to his plate.

"Cap," Coulson breathed, trying not to smile, "do we have to go through this every morning I come here?"

"Probably," Steve grinned, "unless I know for certain you're actually eating."

"How do I know this isn't stalling to give Clint more time to escape?"

"I don't think he can hide from you, so what's the point in stalling?"

Coulson snorted, reaching for a sausage patty. "He still has a surprise or two, I'm betting. Also, I'm only eating this one patty; I've actually eaten this morning."

"With Barton?" Steve guessed as he cut his pancakes, smiling wider when Coulson narrowed his eyes.

"No. With Natasha."

"Ah, that's where you got your information." Steve nodded, practically beaming at the man as he munched on his breakfast.

Coulson shook his head, a small smile on his lips as he finished his snack. "Is this payback for our spar?"

"Nope. Just a slow morning. Expect payback later."

Arching an eyebrow, Coulson nodded. "Noted. Now, if you're done being my mother hen, I have a hawk to catch."

"Good luck, sir!" Steve saluted, a grin on his face as Coulson narrowed his eyes again before he left. Shaking his head, Steve took a sip from his drink, wondering what went on in the minds of his teammates. He wasn't entirely sure he really wanted to know.

"Holy crap, you lied to Coulson."

Steve turned and blinked at Barton. The man was squatting on the counter, eating cereal from the box. "You stayed there? Huh. Would have thought you'd go hide somewhere else."

"I don't have secret tunnels in the mansion, dude. Well, not yet. That was basically just a hide box."

"Ah, okay then." Steve took another drink, watching as Barton continued to munch his cereal, and they stared at each other, the silence stretching just shy of awkward. "He's going to find you if you just sit there, you know."

"He's following your directions; it'll take him a while to come back this way." Barton hopped off the counter, though, light on his feet. "So, why'd you lie?" He rounded the table, eying the contents of Steve's plate more closely now that he wasn't in a rush.

"Technically, I didn't. I just didn't tell him you jumped after you ran." Putting down his drink, Steve pushed the plate at him, offering. "And I figured whatever the issue was wasn't life threatening, or you'd own up to it." Steve shrugged, reluctant to reveal teammates asking for favors was a sort of weakness of his; the Howlers had exploited it occasionally, though Bucky would always frown.

Barton grunted, helping himself to the food, abandoning his cereal box, and Steve wondered if he'd have to force them all to eat a decent breakfast. "You can call me Clint, you know." Barton abruptly said around a mouthful of eggs. "You calling me Barton outside the field makes it sound like I'm in trouble or something."

Trying not to smile, Steve asked, "Just when I say it?"

"Well, it's all about inflection with Phil and Natasha," Clint grinned, stealing a patty, "Thor and Stark can call me whatever they want; I don't really pay attention. Banner alternates between my first and last name." He reached over to steal Steve's drink, and there was a brief hesitation in his movements when Steve didn't do anything about it. Clint cleared his throat. "Besides, me and Nat call you Steve when we gossip about you."

Steve smiled, leaning back in his chair, eyebrow arched. "Fair enough. Okay, Clint, now that you've had your breakfast, don't you think you should talk to Coulson?"

Clint snorted. "Nat doesn't know what she's talking about, you're totally the mom." He got up, though, and stretched. "Does this mean you're on permanent breakfast duty?"

"I'm thinking about it."

"I'll get Natasha to persuade you. She's pretty scary when it comes to food." Clint grinned, stealing another patty. He stood there, swaying slightly as he ate, then huffed. "Anyway, have fun being out of your time and shit." He waved a halfhearted two fingered salute and snuck off to the living room.

Blinking, Steve got up to clean the table, wondering if Clint was being cross or just Clint. Either way, Steve considered he made a lot of progress this morning.

———

"Am I the only one who comes in here?" Steve asked one day as kept his promise of using Bruce as a model.

Bruce, to his credit, had only stared at him for two minutes before shrugging and getting back to work. So far, he'd been a good model, as he rarely moved from his spot at the desk, looking at some charts on his laptop, occasionally writing something down on his legal pad, his glasses slipping down his nose every now and then before he corrected them. "Tony's been in here several times, actually. Claims he's allowed to show up randomly because it's his place."

"Well, that makes sense, I guess." Steve nodded, noticing Bruce's small smile.

"Except he also thinks it gives him the right to trip me whenever he wants. Or electrocute me."

"Electrocute you?" Steve echoed, looking up at him, aghast. "Why would he electrocute you?"

"Trying to get me to transform," Bruce replied as if it was the norm, and Steve didn't know if he should be worried or not. "Don't worry, it wasn't as bad as it sounded. I'm pretty sure he's obsessed now that he's seen that I don't fly off the handle that easily."

Well, if Bruce wasn't worried, Steve wouldn't be either. "So it's kind of like he has a crush? What they call it again, pulling pigtails?" He smiled to himself at the thought, focus back on the sketchbook in his lap. The drawing was coming along nicely.

Bruce snorted, but he didn't move from his position, still writing whatever down on his legal pad. "Guess that explains why he kept trying to surprise hug me."

"You do look like you could use a hug." Steve laughed.

"Does that mean you're going to give me one?" Bruce briefly glanced at Steve, eyebrow quirked.

"Debating." Steve grinned as he shaded Bruce's hair. "I usually only force a hug on someone as a last resort."

"What if they don't want one?" Bruce was smiling to himself, and Steve grinned.

"Then they fight me off." He remembered the time after a long mission in France where he had hugged Dum Dum; the man had allowed it for forty-five seconds before punching his way out of it. The rest of the Howlers had laughed.

Bruce snorted. "I don't think I could fight you, short of kneeing you in the crotch, which I wouldn't do because that is never fun."

Chuckling, Steve shook his head, erasing stray lines; he made Bruce's arm too long. "Maybe you can't fight me now, but the Hulk certainly could." Bruce turned away from his desk, and Steve might have whined about not keeping his posture for the drawing, but he sobered up when he noticed the look on Bruce's face. "What?"

"I'm just trying to wrap my head around that statement." Bruce stated as he stared at him.

That confused Steve. "What, why? I figured if a hug really bothered you, he'd come out, and that's that."

Bruce blinked. "He could kill you."

"Probably, but he won't."

Bruce made a choking sound. "What makes you so sure?"

Steve frowned. "He isn't a murderer, and you aren't either." He didn't know why Bruce kept looking at him like that, like Steve was crazy. To him, it should have been common knowledge. "Bruce, you're both good guys."

"You've met him once." Bruce turned to fully face Steve, work temporarily forgotten. "How could you possibly know what he is?"

"True. But I've seen footage and have read reports involving him. He's never harmed any innocents, and the only reason anything is damaged is because he was provoked, right?" Steve searched Bruce's face, smiling slightly. "He isn't a monster."

Bruce didn't say anything, didn't even change his expression, for a long while, and Steve found himself waiting for something. Then, Bruce blinked. "You're weird," was all he said, facing his desk once more, causing Steve to gape.

"What?" He didn't think he heard Bruce correctly.

"You're weird," he repeated as he continued about his work.

"Yeah, well," Steve fumbled slightly, "you're weird, too."

"Oh, very mature response." Bruce chuckled, writing something down.

"Just following your example." He muttered, but honestly, Steve felt close to laughing. Where did this conversation even go? "Really, who calls their friend weird for having faith in them?"

"Me," Bruce answered without looking up from from his work, "especially when said friend doesn't have a brain to mouth filter when it comes to art." He smiled slightly as he spoke, so Steve figured Bruce didn't mean anything by it.

"Are you calling art weird?" Steve asked, getting back to the drawing. "Because you're just insulting yourself, if that's the case."

"I didn't say weird was an insult."

"Oh, well, that makes it okay then." Steve deadpanned, making Bruce chuckle. They settled in a comfortable silence, each doing their own thing. Steady pencil strokes crossed over paper as Steve's gaze flickered to Bruce every now and then, taking in how Bruce didn't hunch over so much anymore. "I meant it," Steve spoke up after a while, "what I said, you know."

Bruce paused, just for a second, then glanced at him. "I know." He went back to work, fiddling with his laptop before adding a quiet, "thanks," a small smile resting on his lips, and Steve simply continue detailing Bruce on paper, sporting a quiet smile of his own.

———

Mad men, power hungry folk, and delusional persons were all something Steve was used to dealing with, in both his past and in this new age. A vengeful brother of one of his teammates was a little more out of his experience. Tony had encountered him first, and because of that attitude and mouth of his, things went south. He had just managed to make the priority call when things started blowing up.

Coulson had pitched a fit, in that subtle way of his, and tried to find out where the hell Thor was. He actually sent Darcy to seek him out because she had the uncanny ability to find things that were assumed lost (Tony often suspected her of being secretly superpowered or at least a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in disguise).

In addition to the explosion that Tony just barely escaped, some kind of fire demons were roaming the city, causing panic and literal firefights, as they didn't seem averse to fighting each other. The good thing, though, was that they didn't take too much effort to get rid of; there were just so many of them.

Steve took out one as he listened to comm activity, making a mental note to talk to Tony and Barton about the proper time to snark at each other, when Thor's brother — Loki, Steve reminded himself — came into sight. He wasn't facing Steve, but Steve could spot the smirk on the Asgardian's lips as he watched the building adjacent him burn. Debating on whether or not to try to take him on, Steve ducked as a fire demon that crept out of nowhere took a swing at him. As he fought off the creature, he heard Loki laughing.

Then, he heard thunder.

"Loki, stop this!" Thor landed near his brother, hammer lowered yet still poised for an attack. Steve watched as Loki turned to regard him, features blank. Thor stepped closer, hand outstretched and imploring. "Come back home, and speak to father. Explain what happened."

"Explain?" Loki sneered, and Steve would swear that the Asgardian was part snake; Loki looked ready to strike. "You would have me lie down like a dog at your father's feet?"

"Brother, you know that to be false!" Thor looked hurt at the very thought. "Our father would never —"

"I told you once, so hear it again: I am not your brother." He smiled then, cold and harsh. "Or is this still madness?"

Thor flinched as if physically struck. "Loki..."

"Enough!"

Before Thor could react, ice snaked out from the ground, lightning quick, and started encasing him where he stood. Thor only managed a gasp of shock and a wince of pain before it claimed him. Mjolnir had somehow fallen out of Thor's grip, landing securely on the ground next to the Asgardian ice sculpture. Loki glared at the hammer then at its wielder before turning his back on them.

Steve narrowed his eyes, worry spiking through him as he took in Thor's state, and he didn't even register that he threw his shield until he saw it collide with Loki's back. Yikes. Not... one of your finer moments, Rogers.

After a small stumble, Loki turned sharply, gaze narrowing on Steve, eyes as cold and furious as the ice surrounding Thor. Definitely not your finest moment. Steve blinked, and Loki appeared behind him. Crap. Swinging his shield blocked the blow, but only by a little, and it made Loki angrier. Two quick jabs later, Steve was without his shield, it having been knocked a good few yards away, and Loki delivered a blow that sent Steve flying backward, landing next to Thor in a heavy heap, causing a small crack at the bottom of the ice.

"You think a mere human like you could hope to defeat me?" Loki questioned as he approached Steve, once again giving off the impression of a snake. Or maybe a panther. Steve couldn't decide which felt more appropriate. "You are insignificant."

An icicle pierced Steve's right leg, making him wince, but his eyes never left Loki's, even as he tried to grope around for something, anything, that could be used as a weapon. Not that he had much chance of defense when his opponent could use magic.

"Pathetic," Loki blinked, brow creasing just slightly as he stood over Steve. "I should just finish you both off right here and now." He slowly made a fist, and the icicle in Steve's leg drew out at an achingly slow pace, causing him to grind his teeth in pain.

Not good. Think, Rogers, or you and Thor will be in serious trouble. A curse escaped his lips as the icicle drew back into his leg at that same slow pace, and Loki only allowed a small upward twitch to the corner of his lips. But a faint cracking sound reached Steve's ears, and his mind raced, distracting him from the pain. That's coming from the ice. Thor's fighting it. He can overcome that. I just need to give him time.

"Afraid to see what a mere human can do?" Steve heard himself saying just as his fingers brushed along Mjolnir's handle. Well, either try this or let Loki kill Thor.

Loki's eyes widened in blatant surprise as Steve swung, Mjolnir colliding with Loki's chest, sending him a block or two away. Steve stared in a kind of awe as Loki landed. He didn't even swing that hard, yet Loki went flying. Hell, Steve wasn't even sure he could do that. Huh.

Just as Loki managed to get back on his feet, a dazed expression on his face, Thor broke free of his frigid casing, sending ice here and there, and fell to one knee, breathing in deeply. Steve sent a worried look at his teammate before focusing back on Loki, jaw set and Mjolnir still gripped in his hand. Eyes narrowed, Loki disappeared, and the tension in Steve's shoulders eased.

"You okay, Thor?" Steve asked as he placed Mjolnir between them. It felt wrong to have it while Thor was conscious. "Can you stand?"

"In a moment, Captain. I'll be well." Eyes closed, Thor took a deep breath, held it, then released it, and he rose to his feet, only the slightest bit shaky. He searched the area. "My brother?"

"He disappeared." He watched as Thor's face fell a little, and Steve felt bad for him. "I'm sorry, Thor."

Thor shook his head, murmuring in a wistful voice, "I still believe he'll find his way back." He then looked at Steve, taking in his condition. "And you, Captain? Can you stand?" He peered at Steve, expression curious.

"Sure can." Steve winced slightly as he stood up. The wound in his leg would heal in a day or two, if he kept off it. He just hoped nothing major happened in the meantime.

"Looks like the demon things aren't appearing anymore." Iron Man commented in his ear, and Steve scanned their surroundings, noticing the lack of fire.

"Noted." Coulson acknowledged. "Anyone have a visual on the Hulk?"

"I hear him." Hawkeye answered. "Won't take me long to reach him. Do you want me to tranq him?"

Steve made a face and cut in before Coulson could reply, "Don't do that."

"Procedure, Captain." Coulson assured him, voice even.

"Give me a few minutes." Truthfully, he didn't know what he'd do, exactly, but it had to be better than tranqing Hulk. What kind of effect did that have on Bruce? He only wanted to do that if it was a last resort.

There were several seconds of silence. Then a reply of, "Ten minutes."

Nodding to himself, Steve turned to Thor. "Do you think you can give me a lift?" He didn't want to ask Thor to exert himself, but he merely called Mjolnir back into his hand, giving Steve a curt nod.

"Bringing him to you, Cap." Iron Man informed them suddenly, his words followed by a roar.

"Little more warning next time, Iron Man," Steve chided on reflex, blinking as Tony flew by, and soon Steve saw Hulk running toward him. It was quite the sight.

"That was a warning."

"Do you need assistance?" Thor asked as he raised his hammer.

"No, no, stand down." That's the last thing they needed; it was well known Thor and the Hulk didn't always get along. Trying to stand his full height without putting too much weight on his leg, Steve raised his arms in the air, waving them slightly to get Hulk's attention. It seemed to be working as he slowed, even stopped before Steve. Though, he still looked like he wanted to fight, and he might have been sizing Steve up as his next opponent, one of his fists raised slightly. "Hey, Hulk."

"Conversation, really?"

"Hush, Barton." Coulson ordered.

Ignoring the comm chatter, Steve took off his cowl, smiling a bit up at his teammate. "Fight's over, big guy. Let's head back home."

Hulk sneered, baring teeth. "Home?" He growled, fists clenched.

"Yeah, home. The mansion." Steve nodded, really hoping he wouldn't get punched. "We can walk, if you want. Though, I might be a little slow," he shrugged, lifting his leg so Hulk could see the wound.

Hulk narrowed his eyes. "Where's Cupid?"

"Did he just call me Cupid? Seriously?"

"Barton, be quiet, or I'll double your amount of paperwork."

Trying not to smile, Steve pointed in the direction he last saw Barton. "Somewhere over that way, I think. Why? Do you want to see him?"

Hulk snorted. "No." His eyes were still narrowed as he regarded Steve.

"Damn. Shot down. Don't worry, buddy. I still like you."

"Yeah, that makes me feel loads better, Stark."

"Children."

"Okay then," Steve spoke over the others, amused as he was, "so, you want to walk or...?" He made vague gestures with his hands, having no idea what else the Hulk would want to do.

Hulk made a noise that wasn't quite a growl, but it was close. "No darts?"

"Nope. Not today." Steve promised as he spotted his shield; he tried to move toward it but winced, muttering a curse. His leg hurt more than he expected. If magic was the reason, he'd be very upset.

Huffing somewhat, Hulk turned around, and Steve thought he was leaving to do his own thing when he picked up Steve's shield before walking back to his side.

Hand outstretched, Steve smiled. "Hey, thanks, Hul—whoa!" Without any real warning, Hulk plucked Steve off the ground and draped him over a shoulder. Then he gave Steve the shield. "Ah. All right then. We can do this."

Another snort. "Only once." Hulk started walking, passing Thor without so much as a glance.

"Gotcha." Steve grinned, maneuvering his shield so it wouldn't be in Hulk's face before pulling his cowl close, making sure not drop it. "Looks like we're walking back to the mansion, Coulson."

"Copy that. We'll meet you there."

Well. That was easy. Though, it sounded like Barton grumbled something before the line went silent.

"Steven." Steve looked over at Thor, the Asgardian keeping pace with no trouble, expression contemplative as he walked.

"Yeah, Thor?" He felt silly, really, talking to his teammate like this, but he managed to sound casual, even if he wanted to laugh.

"The wound in your leg. My brother caused it, yes?"

"Uh, yeah. Why?"

"How did you best him?"

"Um," Steve stalled, partly because he didn't know if his answer would annoy Thor and partly because Hulk made an irritated noise in the back of his throat. "I used Mjolnir, actually. Knocked him away before he could do further damage to you or me. He disappeared after you broke free." He glanced at Thor, wishing they could be eye to eye.

The thunder god stayed quiet for a few seconds before focusing his gaze on Steve, eyes bright. "You have my thanks, Captain, and," Thor reached for him, hand outstretched, "it is an honor to hold your friendship."

Smiling, Steve shook Thor's hand. "Likewise, Thor."

"Quiet," Hulk grumbled, the low growl rumbling in the back of his throat making Thor narrow his eyes. Steve just shrugged. It was certainly going to be an interesting walk back.

———

Steve didn't always visit the roof of the mansion — he was actually told not to go there anymore; something about renovations and now the cold — but the day had been long, even for him; something about fighting Doom tended to exhaust them, for some reason. As he looked out into the New York skyline, still taking in the changes, Steve smiled. Sure, the team clashed often, but progress could be seen.

Coulson even commented on it after the debriefing. Yeah, he delivered an acknowledgement that sounded awfully like an I told you so, but the point got across: the Avengers were starting to fall in sync with one another. It only took three major battles, but they were working. On and off the field.

"You should see 'em, Buck." Steve spoke to the stars, a tiny grin on his face. "I think we're all becoming friends."

That little fact shouldn't cause such a stir within Steve, but it did. Each team member needed the others, in their own little way, and it made Steve smile when he noticed Bruce humoring Clint in whatever outrageous topic the archer wanted to talk about or when Natasha smiled back at some of Tony's attempts at flirting. He even caught Thor and Coulson discussing the very important topic of which bagel went well with which brand of coffee in the mansion.

Yes, Clint still needed an attitude adjustment whenever he was in range of Steve, and Tony still needed to actually open up more and be a team player, but everything was going rather well; he'd get to those issues in time.

Steve felt a sort of contentment when he thought about it, really. It was nice to have a family-esque environment again. Shaking his head clear from somber thoughts of Bucky and the Howlers, Steve turned around, intent on heading inside for a late night snack, and stopped cold.

"Alone, Captain?" Loki stood before him, tall, menacing, still, blending into the night despite the lights of the city around them.

How long has he been there? Steve didn't even sense someone near him. "What do you want?" His tone automatically slipped into what Bruce called his Cap voice, his body subtly going on the defensive, mind racing with possibilities for why the god was here and how to get out of the situation with the least amount of damage if and when this went south.

"I want your little team dead." Loki took a step back toward the door, giving Steve a look that blatantly said I thought that was obvious.

He was baiting Steve; Steve knew that, but Steve also knew Loki could just as easily follow through on his threat. Taking a step forward, challenging, Steve spoke back evenly, "Not going to happen." He raised his arms and widened his stance. "I won't allow it." Not the smartest thing he ever said — and that was a long list — but Steve refused to let Loki harm his team, his friends.

That got a raised eyebrow. "Won't allow it?" Loki sneered, eyes sweeping over the captain's face, critical, assessing. Blazing. "You would die for them?"

Steve stared back, unwavering, and spoke the truth. "Yes. I would." He knew he didn't have as much chance as he'd hoped against the Asgardian, considering he lacked his shield — hell, Steve probably wouldn't stand much a chance even if he had it, not by himself, anyway. But that didn't mean Steve would lie down without a fight.

Silence filled the space between them, Loki's face a blank mask as he took in Steve's stance, the look in the soldier's eyes: no contempt, no fear, just plain truth and resolution. "Well," the god spoke finally, voice smooth as ever, toneless, "aren't you vexing."

It happened before Steve could really blink, and it should have concerned him how fast Loki could actually move. He tried to speak, but Loki's grip around his throat proved the action extremely difficult. Steve could only stare, almost as if in a daze, into those narrowed green eyes that seemed to glow with anger.

"Still unafraid?" Loki nearly spat. Whatever he saw in Steve's expression only made his grip tighten. "You should learn your place, human." He growled, and his hand closed even tighter, nearly paralyzing, so much so that a breath of pain escaped from Steve's mouth, as best it could, as his own hands shakily clasped onto Loki's wrist.

Even now, as his vision blackened around the edges, Steve did not back down, trying to get a good kick in, trying to rip Loki’s hand away from his throat.

Loki paused, blinking, and his grip slackened by a mere fraction, though his hold still immobilized Steve. "I will not kill you. Your death, as you are now, would be heroic, sung about throughout the ages. Your name will be the battle cry for your allies, just another reason for my brash brother and his idiotic friends to act the valiant in avenging your death. No. I have something much better in mind for you. A more befitting end."

Steve winced, feeling his chest tighten as Loki's free hand pierced him, fooling around in his insides, grasping his heart. He felt a pull, felt as if his heart would be gouged out, and Steve tried to fight it off. "W-what...?" was all he managed, sending a defiant glare to his opponent.

For a moment, they stayed like that, Loki once again assessing Steve with those heated, critical eyes as Steve's heart beat strongly in his hand.

Then, with a small smile, Loki released Steve's heart. "I see you, Captain; I see the true you. And soon, so shall the world." His smile broke out into a grin, twisted and sinister, when Steve’s brow furrowed. "Will you still be able to count on your so-called friends, I wonder, when they see how pathetic you truly are?" And with that, Loki yanked both hands from Steve, causing him to topple to the floor, harshly breathing in the air that was denied him. As he tried to get back up, he vaguely noticed how Loki's hands were glowing a faint blue. "Sleep well, Steven Rogers."

And everything grew dark.

———

Steve gets backed into a wall and barely manages to dodge the punch, but he isn't able to evade the kick to the ribs, doubling over in pain, his wheezing failing to block out the laughter of his bullies; they push him down, completely on the concrete, a foot holding his face against the stone as they taunt him, call him names, cuss at him, and he closes his eyes and tries to ball his fists, tries to find the strength to fight back, to push them off of him and give them a good sock between the eyes, except he can't, he can't, and they know it.

Pathetic.

———

Steve blinked, mind hazy and head aching, and tried to look around his surroundings, wincing slightly at the harsh sunlight. "Ugh, Bucky, we need to get curtains."

"I can adjust the lighting for you, Captain Rogers, if you'd like," came a voice from nowhere, and Steve opened his eyes wide and bolted upright, only to be met with pain. He tumbled over in his bed, in his very plush bed, gasping and clutching the sheets, the fine, expensive feeling sheets, and promptly passed out.

———

"Hey, Steve? Come on, wake up."

He knew that voice, despite the cloud of muck in his head and the ache pounding his, well, all over. With a groan, he muttered, "What?" Then he opened his eyes, blinking to focus his vision. "Uh, not that I don't mind your company, but what are you doing in my room, Bruce?"

Steve had hoped his question would gain a smirk or some form of amusement from the man, but Bruce only looked down at him with concern, studying him as if he was a disease that needed a cure. No one's looked at him like that since...

"What's wrong? What happened?" Dread immediately boiled within his stomach, and Steve tried to sit up to better gauge Bruce's reactions. A gentle hand on his shoulder stopped him, and the sharp trill of pain told him why. Steve groaned again.

"Easy, now," Bruce told him, almost as an afterthought, "I'm the closest thing to a doctor in the mansion, that's why I'm here. Tony's going over the security footage, and Natasha called Fury; I don't know if he's sending someone over or what." He spoke as he looked Steve over again, pressing the back of his hand to Steve's forehead.

Trying to bat the hand away, Steve stared at Bruce in confusion. "What are you talking about?" He asked again. Something didn't feel right, and Steve definitely didn't like the expression on Bruce's face.

Bruce didn't say anything for a moment, and while normally that didn't bother him, Steve became irritated, impatient. Angry, even. Whoa, Rogers, calm down. That isn't like you.

Whatever expression crossed his face seemed to pull Bruce out of his musings. "Okay, since there's no easy way to say this..." Bruce stood up and got a mirror from Steve's bathroom, a mirror with an elegant handle like the dames in the old movies used to hold up to study themselves. "Brace yourself," was the only warning Bruce gave as he turned the mirror's face on Steve.

And he could only blink. "Trick mirror?" He murmured after a second, though he knew it wasn't; Bruce wouldn't pull something like that. When the man shook his head no, Steve swallowed. "How?" He impressed himself when he kept his voice steady.

Sighing, Bruce shrugged. "We were hoping you could give us some clues. Jarvis woke Tony up two hours ago saying you passed out from pain, and he came to investigate. When he saw you, he rushed to get me to give you a look over; damn fool nearly gave me a heart attack barging in my room." Bruce offered Steve a small smile, trying to lighten the mood. Steve didn't laugh; he didn't think he could without it sounding forced.

Bruce still held the mirror up for him, and Steve felt transfixed. His face stared back at him, but with subtle changes. Or not so subtle, he guessed. Paler, narrower, more gaunt. Steve took a breath and sat up, pushing past the pain, grateful that Bruce didn’t stop him this time; he just lowered the mirror and watched as Steve pushed away his covers.

His t-shirt pooled around him, and Steve bet if he stood up, it'd look like a nightgown, sort of. He was certain that his gym shorts would fall to the floor, so he tossed the idea of standing up out, not really wanting to embarrass himself like that. Or Bruce. He did cover himself up again, not to hide his slight frame — what would be the point of that? — but to suppress the shiver that ran through him. It seemed colder in the room.

"Well," Steve spoke, brow furrowing at how hoarse he sounded, and looked up at Bruce, "at least you won't be the shortest in the mansion?" That wasn't even what he wanted to say; it just came out.

Bruce chuckled, an eyebrow raised. "Guess not. But," he crossed his arms, that small concern creeping back into his features, "that still doesn't explain this. Did this change occur when you were sleeping? Before? What was the last thing you remember last night?"

Steve could tell the man entered his scientist mode, though he could still pick up on the faint traces of worry. In a way, Steve was grateful for that; he didn't know how he'd feel if Bruce made this a big deal — not that it wasn't. Closing his eyes, Steve tried to remember what happened last night. "Well, I had actually gotten Tony to eat dinner. We talked for a few minutes afterward then parted ways. I went up to the roof," Steve ducked his head, a little sheepish, "then... I don't know." He looked at Bruce again, puzzled.

"You don't know?" Bruce echoed, brow furrowing. "Do you remember what you did on the roof?"

"Um. I usually look out at the city when I go up there. You know, to think or reminisce or something..."

"Usually. But you don't remember if that's what you did last night?"

"I'm pretty sure I did that. I remember looking at the stars, but then I just, woke up, I guess." Could he had dreamed the whole thing? Bringing his hand to his head, Steve closed his eyes again, trying to recall anything concrete, but a dull ache settled, throbbing right at his temples, and wouldn't let him think beyond the stars. "Ugh, my head," he muttered offhandedly, trying to massage the pain away.

Bruce tilted his head to the side, studying him again. "Do you normally get headaches?" He reached over to place the back of his hand to Steve's forehead again; this time, Steve didn't move away. On the contrary, the touch soothed him, if only by a little bit.

"Not like this." Steve breathed, feeling tired all of a sudden. He could tell that this ordeal was going to annoy him.

"Not like this as in not this intense or not before the serum?"

"Oh, sorry." Steve let himself smile, sheepish, eyes still closed. "Not this intense, I guess. When I got headaches before the serum, I usually couldn't tell they were there, mostly because I was so used to them. And after the serum, well, they only occurred under severe stress." Opening his eyes was oddly taxing, but Steve did it and peered up at Bruce.

Bruce made a noncommittal noise, brow creased as he mulled the situation over, his hand still resting on Steve's forehead. "You're starting to burn up."

"I feel fine." Steve shrugged, fighting to keep his eyes open. "Just tired."

Frowning, Bruce removed his hand. "I wonder if S.H.I.E.L.D. has your medical record."

"If they don't, I can tell them." Steve tried to smile. "I had that memorized long ago."

"Even after the serum?"

"You don't forget a lifetime after only a few years."

"Steve... It's going to be fine."

This time, Steve's smile came much more naturally. "You really believe that?"

"I hear optimism is good for the soul."

"Maybe in small doses, but I don't think it'll cut it in this case." He took in a deep breath, shakily releasing it. "Guess this means I won't be part of the team anymore."

"That hasn't been determined yet."

"It's just a matter of time. I mean, can you see Fury letting me out in the field? Me, with asthma, high blood pressure, and easy fatigability?"

"I don't think we should rule anything out just yet, Steve. You went through training before the serum and kept up."

Steve stopped himself from saying 'barely' and really looked at Bruce. No judgment, no pity, just concern. And faith. Letting himself smile, Steve lay back down and stared at the ceiling. "You're weird."

Bruce snorted, crossing his arms. "I thought we went over this already."

"I'm stubborn. Takes a few rounds for something to stick."

A knock sounded at the door, startling Steve somewhat, and Bruce walked over to answer it. Steve watched as the door opened to reveal Coulson with his usual calm demeanor, staring blankly at Bruce as he was let into the room. The man's mask cracked just a little, though, when his gaze landed on Steve, his eyes widening minutely and mouth twitching as if wanting to gape. The reaction was gone in a second, so Steve had to give Coulson props.

Walking further into the room, Coulson blinked, taking in Steve's appearance more clearly with those sharp eyes of his. "So. This is new." He commented blandly as he took out his cell phone, his thumb moving over the keypad without his gaze focusing on the screen.

Not bothering to move from his spot, Steve tilted his head to the side, more interested in what Coulson was typing than anything else. "I think you mean annoying." He looked at Bruce still standing by the door, and Steve received a shrug in reply.

Coulson arched an eyebrow. "Isn't that the same thing?" His cell buzzed, and Coulson only let his eyes flicker to the screen for five seconds.

"Heh, I guess so." Not all new things annoyed Steve, but it was becoming apparent that most did.

"Did you come straight up, or did you talk to Tony first?" Bruce asked as he walked back over to the middle of the room, standing by the foot of Steve's bed, arms crossed as he regarded Coulson.

"I try not to talk to Stark unless I absolutely have to."

"That's mean." Steve raised his finger at Coulson, miming tsk, tsk. "Play nice."

"I'm not the nice guy." Coulson stated with a small smirk, giving Steve a pointed look. Really, the man shouldn't be able to fill an overall blank expression with so much sass and amusement.

Refusing to stick his tongue out, Steve narrowed his eyes, letting out a huff. "Bruce, punch him for me."

Bruce nearly did a double take, and he was trying very hard not to laugh. "I'm not punching him just because you're too lazy to get up."

"Excuse you, I am not lazy."

"Gentlemen," Coulson called, smiling slightly, "can we move on?"

"You started it." Steve muttered, but he sat up with a grin. "So. How mad is Fury?"

"He isn't mad, per se; he just wants answers."

"Well, we don't have any." Bruce sighed. "At least, not on this end."

"Yeah, looks like you have to talk to Tony now." He shouldn't be smiling, but Steve was.

"Evidently." Coulson narrowed his eyes at Steve, and for a moment, Steve thought he might stick his tongue out. Coulson didn't, of course, but it would have been a sight. "We might as well do that with the others. They're all up anyway. Meet you down there in ten?"

Shrugging, Steve nodded. "Sure." He watched Coulson give Bruce a quick glance before leaving the room, closing the door behind him. Oh man. We're going to have a debriefing about this, aren't we? Steve felt another headache creeping up on him.

"Need some clothes?" Bruce asked, looking at him curiously.

Steve chuckled. "I'm thinking yes." Everything he currently owned would definitely be too big for him to pass off as presentable. He looked up at Bruce, expression wary. "Why, you have something that'll fit me?"

"As shocking as it is, yeah, I think I do." He didn't move though, just kept on staring at Steve like he was trying to figure out a puzzle.

He didn't know if it was because of his transformation or Bruce's look, but Steve suddenly felt exhausted.

"You're taking this very well, you know."

Steve smiled. "Give me time to fall asleep and wake up again." He had to suppress the shiver that threatened to run through him at the thought of another seventy years.

"Or give you some time alone," he spoke quietly, eyes narrowed. Then, he smiled, a little hesitant thing. "Which I'm not going to do right now, so come on; we're going to my room. The others are expecting us." His posture clearly left no room for discussion.

Snorting, Steve kicked off his covers and swung his legs off the edge of the bed. "Yes, sir, Dr. Banner." He stood up, mindful to keep a hold on his shorts, and gave Bruce a salute. "Whatever you say, Dr. Banner."

Rolling his eyes, Bruce gestured to the door. "Brat."

Steve felt genuinely relaxed, and he cheerfully responded back with a "jerk," as he walked passed Bruce, smiling, his previous exhaustion ebbing away. He heard Bruce chuckle behind him.

———

Steve sat perched on a bar stool in one of the billiard rooms, dressed in one of Bruce's old t-shirts and a pair of shorts — Natasha had offered something of hers, but Steve had politely turned her down, figuring Bruce's outfit would do until Steve could go out and buy a few clothes for himself — as he looked at his teammates. He felt on display, just a bit, but he wasn't as fidgety as he thought he would be, considering his frame now, not with Bruce and Coulson sitting calmly at his side.

The others were studying him, expressions ranging from mild curiosity to confusion to slight concern.

"So," Clint broke the silence, causing the attention of the room to shift onto him, "does this mean you can get drunk now?" He asked, raising an eyebrow, leaning on his pool cue.

"Uh," Steve blinked, completely not expecting that, "I guess so? I don't really want to find out, though, because, one, I'm a severe lightweight when it comes to alcohol, and two, I never enjoyed hangovers." Steve offered his friends a small smile. If these were the kind of questions he'd get asked, Steve wouldn't mind.

Tony cleared his throat. "So, what now?"

Natasha sighed, laying down her own pool cue. "It's obvious. He can't fight —"

"Hey, I'll fight you right now." The words left his mouth before he could stop them, and he blinked in surprise, a light tint to his cheeks when Natasha raised an eyebrow at him.

Thor grinned. "The warrior's spirit still rests within him. I approve!"

"Yeah, well, that's all peaches and cream, but what good would it do him if he can't even throw a punch?" Clint stretched, cracking his back.

"Just because I don't have the serum anymore doesn't mean I forgot how to fight." Steve muttered, having half a mind to show Clint how he could use that pool stick against him.

"I'm afraid fighting is out of the question," Coulson cut in before Clint could open his mouth, "at least until we find out how this happened. Stark." Coulson nodded, blinking.

"Jarvis shows nothing unusual with the security footage." Tony shrugged, eyes not leaving Steve. "Can't exactly account for what actually happened on the roof, but Jarvis tells me Steve was fine going out there and he was fine returning to his room."

Clint made a face. "It's a little creepy how you have your program spy on us."

"He doesn't do anything pervy, perv. Besides, it clearly comes in handy in situations like this."

"Except not really."

"Children," Coulson warned, "let's try to focus here."

"Steven has to stay confined?" Thor asked, head tilted to the side.

Steve made a face. "Ugh, I hope not." That would be the worst; even back in the day he was allowed to roam about.

"Fury wants him to go through several medical tests to see if we can pinpoint a reversion catalyst." Natasha glanced at Steve with a raised eyebrow. "Attempting to recreate the serum is also an option."

"But I thought the process was lost with, with Dr. Erskine..." Steve breathed, loosely folding his arms across his chest. It still got at him, sometimes sneaking out of nowhere, that Erskine died the way he did.

Natasha shrugged. "Well, that may be true, but we have samples of your blood stored at S.H.I.E.L.D. R&D."

"Who's the creepy one now?" Tony mumbled.

"What kind of samples?" Bruce asked, an edge to his voice that made the hair on the back of Steve's neck stand up.

"They were taken while our scientists thawed him," Coulson replied for Natasha, sighing just so. "The samples aren't contaminated and were just taken as standard blood work."

Bruce didn't say anything to that, and as Steve glanced at him, Bruce's lips were pressed in a thin line. Steve sighed. "People have had my blood since 1943. The process hadn't been recreated successfully since." He winced internally. That sounded harsher than he intended, and he glanced at Bruce again, apologetic. Bruce's expression didn't change.

"Ah, but you're forgetting one thing," Tony grinned, all charm and arrogance, "they didn't have two of the greatest minds helping them."

"Two?" Steve tilted his head to the side.

"Yes, two. Me, obviously, and Banner."

"Who says I want to be apart of that?" Bruce questioned, that edge still present in his voice. Then he made a face. "And for that matter, who says you could do better?"

"Because a) I'm a genius, and b) I have my dad's notes with me," Tony answered like it was the most obvious thing in the world, "and don't even act like you wouldn't be interested in this." He pointed at Bruce, and Steve could feel the man tense beside him.

"Would you like to explain how you have Howard Stark's notes on a classified project?" Coulson asked calmly, unfazed by the tension.

"No, I wouldn't, but ask yourself a question: why wouldn't I have them? He was my old man, after all."

Natasha snorted. "Genetics don't give you clearance."

"Doesn't really matter now, does it?"

"Avengers," Thor called for attention, "If Tony can replicate the process, shouldn't we be encouraging him?"

"Encouraging him to break security?" Clint snorted. "Yeah, somehow I don't think that's a good idea, Thor."

"And," Natasha was quick to cut in, "there's no guarantee that he'll be successful."

Tony bristled. "Even without those notes, I could get farther than any of the other birdbrains."

Narrowing her eyes, Natasha pointed her finger at Tony. "This is something not to be taken likely, Stark, and it certainly isn't something for you to add to your bragging list."

Steve could feel a headache creeping up on him; he was getting annoyed with the little back and forth. "Stow those attitudes." He ordered, and everyone once again focused their attention on him. "We're getting ahead of ourselves. Let me go through all the medical crap first, then you can bicker about who gets to attempt the process recreation. Got it?"

"Were those orders?" Clint muttered offhandedly.

"More like polite requests," Steve replied, his hand massaging his temple. "Plus, I don't think I'm comfortable with others fooling around with my blood at this time."

"And yet you'd let Stark and Banner prick and prod you?"

"Well, I trust them." Steve answered honestly. Tony, whose mouth had been open to respond to Clint, blinked at Steve, this look in his eyes Steve couldn't quite place. Next to him, out of his peripheral, Bruce relaxed some. "Now, when does Fury want the tests conducted?"

Natasha glanced at Coulson before replying. "Right away."

"Yeah, I figured," Steve chuckled, hopping off the stool, "Okay then, lead the way."

"Why not just test him here?"

"Stark," Coulson nearly sighed.

"What?" He pointed at Natasha, giving her a look, "You know what I went through with the ARC reactor, so you are fully aware that Jarvis is capable, if not more so, to conduct the tests Fury wants."

"That was in your Malibu residence," Natasha pointed out, unimpressed with Tony's accusing finger or his pointed look.

"As if I wouldn't have those capabilities in my other residences, what with this thing in my chest. Come now, Tasha, I thought you were smart," Tony tutted, which earned him raised eyebrows from Clint and a pair of narrowed eyes from Natasha.

"Are we really fighting again?" Steve muttered, leaning against the stool, and Bruce snorted.

"Who's fighting? No one's fighting." Tony seemed scandalized. "I'm just suggesting a more efficient way to go about this. And, after all the medical stuff is taken care of, me and Banner can get to work on the serum."

Steve looked at Bruce, and the man just sighed. Facing the group again, Steve shrugged. "I'm okay with that." He arched an eyebrow at Coulson, waiting for the official decision.

The agent didn't do anything for a few seconds, and it seemed like he was going to say no. Then, Coulson let out a quick huff of breath and nodded. "Fine." Clint rolled his eyes while Natasha blinked, and Steve was honestly surprised that Coulson was allowing it. "I expect the proper paperwork and regular updates, Stark."

"Yeah, yeah, Bruce can do that," Tony waved his hand dismissively as he all but ushered Steve out of the room, not even making sure Bruce was following them. Sighing, Steve resigned himself to his fate as Tony listed off what Jarvis needed to prepare as they made their way to the lab. Glancing over his shoulder, Steve noticed Bruce walking a few steps behind them, hands in his pockets, and when Steve raised an eyebrow, Bruce just shrugged, though a tiny smile rested on his lips. Smiling back, Steve faced forward, letting Tony position him at a certain point in the lab.

Medical tests always made Steve's mind take the back seat, and he usually went through the motions and responses on autopilot; this time, though, as Jarvis scanned him while Tony maneuvered him around, Steve was thinking about the team. Coulson said he'd be grounded until further notice, and while he wasn't happy with that, Steve doubted he could go up against however many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Fury sent to watch him. Hell, Fury only needed to have Coulson keep an eye on him, really, considering Coulson was deceptively strong and his mind freakishly sharp. Of course, given how he knew Coulson liked to be imaginative when sparring, Steve would probably put up a decent fight before eating mat.

So, with field work decidedly out of the picture, Steve started planning training exercises for the group, to compensate for his absence. He'd need to focus on Iron Man first. For whatever reason, they had fallen into sync with each other, and Steve not being there might break Tony's concentration. Steve didn't think it would, but it was best to be safe than sorry. The others wouldn't be too much trouble reworking; they just needed to learn to listen to each other and follow Coulson's orders. Unless Steve could convince Coulson to let him oversee any confrontations the Avengers had — from a safe distance, as they'd probably be concerned for his well being. And just to be on the safe side, Steve decided to pull Clint aside soon and talk to him about the Hulk. Well, Clint or Tony would be ideal, as they seem to have good relationships with Bruce.

Speaking of, Steve glanced around until he spotted Bruce, standing a nice distance away from Tony and his scans, a light crease in his brow. Though, he rolled his eyes and snorted at something, so Steve decided to pay attention to Tony's ceaseless babble.

"I'm serious, Bruce, can you have sex without going green? It's a legitimate question."

Maybe Steve should've just kept ignoring the conversation.

"Wouldn't you like to know," Bruce replied, arms crossed as he watched the latest scan wash over Steve.

"I would, hence me asking." Tony glanced at Bruce in a way that Steve could only describe as come hither. "I'd love to test it out."

Another snort escaped Bruce. "Keep dreaming."

"Okay, but I have a very wild imagination." Tony grinned, winking.

"Shouldn't you at least ask him out to dinner first?" Steve commented, amused by the conversation; it was calming seeing the pair act like themselves, and something told him that they've had this back and forth before.

Tony blinked at Steve like he just realized he was there. "What?"

"You know," Steve shrugged, "go on a date or two before bringing up your desire to sleep with him." When Tony continued to just stare at him, Steve arched an eyebrow. "Or did he turn you down there, too?"

Bruce laughed as Tony became indignant. "Excuse me, Bruce did not turn me down. He hasn't even given me a straight answer."

Eyebrow raised, Bruce shook his head. "My answer is no."

Steve grinned as Tony glared. "Wow, Tony, I thought you could get a date with anyone. You must be slacking."

"Who told you that, Steve?" Bruce made a face, walking a little closer. "Whoever it was obviously doesn't know better."

"Okay, how is it fair that the both of you are ganging up on me? And not even in the good way." Tony mock-pouted, though Steve could see amusement in his eyes. "And anyway, why are you talking so casually about this?" Tony narrowed his eyes at Steve, ruffling his hair. "Shouldn't you be flipping your shit or something?"

"I was an art student." Steve stated simply, trying to straighten his hair. He used to get ragged on by a lot of fellas Bucky knew, and being as slight of frame as he was didn't help the stigma that came along with the 'artist type.'

"So you had wild sex parties with your classmates and models?" Tony wondered aloud as he walked to one of his workstations, rummaging for something or other.

"Nope, I usually left before they started," Steve replied with ease and was very proud of himself for keeping a straight face even as Tony tripped over his own foot, an electronic tablet almost falling from his hand.

"I think you broke him," Bruce remarked offhandedly at Steve's side, and Steve looked up at the man, grinning. Bruce only gave him that small, quiet smile of his, but Steve was glad he was starting to relax a little.

"He did not," Tony muttered, very near sulking. "You two are not allowed to speak anymore." He gave Bruce the tablet then shooed him away. "You just look at the data, and you," Tony narrowed his eyes at Steve as he pulled something electronic closer, "you're not supposed to be talking, anyway, so hush."

Trying to suppress a grin, Steve noticed Bruce shaking his head, smiling to himself as he put on his glasses to fiddle with whatever was on the display screen of the tablet. Steve closed his eye and just let the two of them do their thing.

"Jarvis," Tony spoke up after a while, "why is getting warm in here?"

"For Captain Rogers' benefit, sir."

Steve opened his eyes, surprised. "I'm fine, Jarvis, you don't have to adjust anything."

"Given your medical records, I recommend staying inside until this cold front passes. Forecasts predict an eighteen degree drop in temperature, and —"

"Oh my God," Tony interrupted, eyes wide, "Jarvis, are you mother henning him?"

"I am merely looking out for Captain Rogers' health."

"You're mother henning him!"

Smiling, Steve let Tony and Jarvis bicker, more than amused that Tony completely forgot about Bruce and him. "Do I really have to stay quiet?" Steve asked softly, not wanting to disturb Tony's affectionate threats to Jarvis.

"Nah, you can talk. Though, if you keep your wit sharp, you might break Tony again. Or worse, actually encourage him."

Smiling, Steve shrugged. "I think I'll leave that to you."

"If that's your way of saying I told you so, you can hush." Bruce spoke more to the tablet than Steve, but there was a smirk on his lips.

Steve chuckled, shifting his weight lightly. He lost track of how long they'd been at this, and his earlier weariness was starting to come back. "Sorry. For dragging you into this again."

"I've gotten used to helping people with medical ailments, so it's no trouble." He shrugged, tapping on the tablet to bring up what appeared to be charts of some kind.

"No," Steve shook his head, "I meant —"

"I know." Bruce looked at him, the tablet momentarily forgotten, and smiled. "It's okay." He placed a hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed then turned to Tony. "So far, nothing out of the ordinary."

"Yeah, ditto." Tony replied quickly, snapping out of his argument with Jarvis easily. "At this rate, I doubt we'll find anything at all. How you holding up, Cap?"

"Hm?" Steve opened his eyes, blinking; he didn't remember closing them.

"You're probably lacking sleep," Bruce frowned, looking at Steve over the rim of his glasses as he adjusted something on the tablet, "given the fact that you barely slept when you had the serum." He held up a hand when Steve opened his mouth in protest. "I know you didn't need that much, but this reversion will probably screw up your normal routines for a while."

"Why do I get the feeling that adjusting my routine to fit my life is becoming a thing?"

"Isn't that up your alley, anyway?" Tony commented as he futzed with another display screen, a scan once more washing over Steve. "Improvise, adapt, and overcome, right?"

"That's the marines, not the army." Bruce arched his eyebrow at Tony, shaking his head slightly. "Anyway, I think you should get some sleep." He regarded Steve with a small frown.

"But the scans..."

"Eh, we got the majority of what we need. Bruce is right, shoo. It's adventure time in science now."

"I've asked you not to call it that," Bruce sighed, and Steve smiled, which only caused Bruce to roll his eyes. "Go to bed before I change my mind."

"Oooh, Dr. Banner, how forceful." Tony sing-songed from his work station, Steve trying not to laugh as Bruce simply gave him a flat look.

"Okay, okay, good night." Steve waved at them and made his way out the lab before any more quips could be made.

———

Steve's attention was so focused on the TV screen that he didn't notice Clint had entered the living room until the man snorted at the sight before him. "Are you two seriously cuddling on the couch watching Disney?"

Blinking, Steve tore his eyes away from the talking animals long enough to raise his eyebrow at Clint, but he didn't respond as he didn't want to miss any dialogue; in fact, he quickly turned back to the screen, absorbed once again.

"Jealous?" Bruce asked evenly, though Steve thought he could hear vague amusement in his tone.

Truthfully, Bruce had surprised him by suggesting a movie night, complete with several movie choices and a nice, fluffy quilt. He'd surprised Steve even more when Bruce got under the quilt with him, and, without Steve really realizing it, they had been close to cuddling before Clint came in the living room. Huh. Must be because it's winter.

"Maybe I am," Clint replied easily, plopping down on the couch next to Steve, snagging some popcorn for himself. "You never invite me to cuddle time while watching The Lion King, Brucey." Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Clint hide a grin as he munched on the popcorn.

"That's because you talk during the movie. Now shut it, the stampede's coming up."

"Stampede?" Steve piped up, quickly looking from the screen to Bruce and back again, burrowing more into the quilt, worried for the little lion cub.

"Nothing, keep watching." Bruce replied, bringing his arm out from the quilt to lightly cuff Clint upside the head when Clint snickered.

Steve obediently did as he was told and watched in a kind of awe as the herd of wildebeest ran down the canyon. It transfixed him, really, the animation of the film, so much so that he hardly paid attention to the other two bickering lightly over him. (Besides, he really didn't care to know about the laws of hunting wildebeest, and that's what they were clearly discussing.)

He kind of drifted in and out, narrowing his eyes at the screen every now and then, not liking how the movie was able to stir his emotions like it did. And they say this is for kids. While it had elements he could see kids enjoying, Steve was struck with how much depth the film conveyed through its script. Couple that with the animation and score and, well, it packed quite a punch. Who'd have thought?

Tony entered the room as the lions returned to take back the pride lands, and he paused, glancing at the screen with an arched eyebrow but said nothing, quietly sinking into one of the plush armchairs, splitting his attention between the movie and his tablet.

A thought struck Steve then, as he watched the lionesses battle the hyenas, that their little group could learn from this film. Well, from the part that talked about dealing with the past. Closing his eyes, he wondered just how tightly they were holding onto things that they couldn't change. When he opened his eyes again, Steve was shocked to find the movie over, though he was amused that Clint seemed to be stating that he'd be a better princess than any of the ones Disney had. Tony somehow gotten a hold of scotch.

"Clint, you are far from a Disney princess." Bruce snorted.

"I don't know," Natasha piped up from nowhere, and, really, Steve was more impressed than startled, unlike the rest of the group, "he knows how to do a thorough tucking, and he has great legs for stockings and heels."

"Natasha!" Clint exclaimed, betrayed, as Tony snickered. "See if I ever get drunk around you again," he muttered, crossing his arms and pouting like a child.

Steve smiled, feeling more at home than he had before. "Great legs aren't enough to pass off as a dame, though. Arms and shoulders give it away." He found out the hard way, and Steve blamed the Howlers for the whole mess that happened in that French bar. He also gained so much more respect for women who ran in heels.

"Are you saying you've dressed in drag?" Natasha raised an eyebrow, a slight quirk to her lips.

Blinking, Steve bit his lip. "Um."

"Oh, my God," Clint gasped then grinned, "you are!"

"Spill, right now." Tony demanded with a smirk.

Oh dear. "What? I thought we were watching movies."

"Don't try to deflect the subject, which, just an FYI, you suck at," Tony pointed a finger at him, and Steve made a face.

"I wasn't deflecting! It was nothing, just something the Howlers made me do as part of a mission. It was more of gag, though." In fact, Steve knew it was a gag, considering how they all laughed about it for weeks after the fact.

"Bullshit, tell us everything," Clint practically bounced in his seat.

"There's nothing to tell!" He was beginning to regret commenting on the matter at all.

"What if we dress you up in drag?" Natasha asked, all nonchalant as if she was talking to herself and not planting an idea into two very impulsive and stubborn minds.

"Yeah, you'd probably be more convincing than you were then, right?" Clint agreed, a gleeful expression on his face.

"We will not be testing that out." Steve stated firmly as he scooted away from Clint, crowding further into Bruce's space, and Steve hoped he wasn't bothering the man. But he refused to dress in drag. Again.

"Aw, c'mon, Cap! It'll be fun!" Tony chimed, sporting a shit-eating grin. It was remarkable how much Tony channeled his father sometimes. Not that Steve would ever say that out loud.

"Yeah, sure. No." He said instead, expression stern in hopes of them dropping the subject.

"We can get Natasha to get you a nice dress; it'll be great." Clint was almost sporting the same grin, and Steve just knew he was in trouble if they really did get Natasha on their side, which, considering she started it, was becoming more plausible.

"Guys," the group shifted focus to Bruce, "shut the hell up and watch Aladdin, or I'll get angry." He stared at everyone evenly a few seconds then raised an eyebrow. "You won't like me angry."

Steve laughed, relaxing back into the couch, happy to comply, noticing Bruce's small smirk in his peripheral.

"Holy crap," Clint grinned, "shoot me in the foot —"

"Careful with that offer," Natasha warned.

"Banner made a joke. That's gotta mean a disaster is about to happen, right?" Clint wondered aloud as he flicked popcorn at Natasha.

"If you just jinxed us, I will so repulsor your ass, Barton." Tony promised as he refilled his glass.

"Fellow Avengers!" Thor boomed, striding into the living room with a huge grin on his face; Tony nearly dropped his drink. "I have returned from mine evening with Jane."

"Mine evening, really?" Clint muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Fabulous, Thor. Were you a gentleman?" Tony asked before taking a sip.

"I am always a gentleman!"

"Sounds boring." Tony rolled his eyes. "What y'all do?"

"We had a glorious feast then met Darcy at an establishment called Thighs R Us, and I shed my clothing and danced for charity."

"Wow," Clint made a face, "that sounds... special."

"Verily. I came to see if you all would like to do the same." He turned to Natasha. "I'm afraid you will not be able to dance."

"I don't mind, Thor. I'll be fine just watching for charity."

"Yeah, I'm going to pass on that." Bruce said dryly, not even sparing a glance at Thor.

Chuckling, Steve nodded. "Same." While he definitely didn't want to go, he wasn't even sure he was allowed outside the mansion yet.

"I'll just send them money, if you want." Tony waved his hand as he took another drink. "I actually like this one."

"Oh ho! I have seen this!"

"Really now?" Clint tried to subtly hide the popcorn from Thor. "How that happened?"

"Darcy said every Midgardian should watch Disney, and so we had a marathon." Thor happily took the bowl with a grin, much to Clint's dismay.

"It isn't that great." Natasha commented, standing up to crack her back. "There are better animations." She ventured into the kitchen.

"Hey, that's blasphemy!" Clint called after her. "And get me a beer!"

Thor made a loud gasp, nearly dropping the popcorn, and the others looked at him in alarm. "Friends! What if all Steven needs is a kiss?"

"What?" Steve squeaked, pulled out of the movie at the question, and felt a blush spread over his cheeks as Clint and Thor studied him.

"Want to run that by us again, big guy?" Tony blinked over his glass, eyebrow raised.

"In the Disney animations, transformations occur when one is kissed! Perhaps Steven's reversion will correct itself when someone kisses him."

"That's, that's ridiculous," Steve managed, wanting to elbow Clint when he laughed. Next to him, Bruce sighed.

"Hey now, we can't rule something out until it's tried, right?" Clint reasoned, that grin on his face again.

"Clint's right, surprisingly," Natasha agreed as she returned to the room, walking in front the couch to hand Clint his beer, which he took as he stuck out his tongue. "So, let's try it." And without any further warning, she leaned down and pressed her lips to Steve's.

While he was frozen in surprise, Steve internally flailed, eyes wide. He didn't think they'd actually go through with the whole kiss thing, and he really didn't see how watching supposed children's movies led to kissing at all. He was so lost in his nervous musings that the hand in his hair caused him to gasp in surprise, and that apparently gave Natasha free rein to explore his mouth.

He definitely didn't expect that. And to make matters worse, he heard catcalls. If he wasn't blushing before, he certainly was now. There was a slight nip at his bottom lip as Natasha pulled away, and they both stared at each other for a few minutes, Steve very aware that the guys were staring at him as well.

"Well," Natasha tilted her head, "guess I'm not your Prince Charming." She smiled, just a small twitch of the lips, and ran her hand through his hair again. "Pity."

"Nat! What was that all about? You don't kiss me like that." Clint pouted, and Steve looked down at his hands, knowing that he was still blushing.

She snorted, returning to her seat. "I only make out with you when a mission calls for it."

"I don't recall the whole kiss thing requiring tongue." Tony interrupted them offhandedly, but Steve could tell he was grinning, the jerk.

"I know. I've just been wanting to do that for a long time." She smirked openly and gave Steve a wink. He blushed darker.

"I think you just took advantage of him." Clint pointed out. "I'm pretty sure Coulson will scold you. Or Bruce will punch you."

"I wouldn't punch her; that probably wouldn't end pleasantly for anyone. Though," Bruce raised his eyebrow, "I might hide all the alcohol."

"Hey, that's so evil," Tony complained. "Don't punish the rest of us, jeez."

"Totally worth it." Natasha nodded, still smirking.

"Guys, can we stop talking about this," Steve mumbled, sinking further into the couch and, inadvertently, into Bruce.

"But the others haven't tried to break the spell yet," Natasha said, the all too innocent voice at odds with the smirk she carried.

"Natasha is right! Who will be next?" Thor boomed as he looked from Tony to Clint.

"Ugh," Steve frowned at Natasha, "I hate you." She didn't even have the decency to change her expression. The others began to argue over possible candidates, Lord help him, and Steve huffed, trying to tune them out by focusing on the movie. That didn't work well because he kept hearing Clint mention something about setting up a kissing booth.

"Not going to tell them to stop?" Bruce asked quietly, shifting slightly under the quilt, and Steve nearly fell onto him, tangled in the bedding. "Whoops, sorry." He fixed the blanket so they weren't as pressed together.

Chuckling, Steve shook his head as he righted himself. "Nah. This is better than the drag thing, and I doubt they'd actually go through with it. Besides," Steve grinned up at Bruce, "who really believes a kiss is the answer?"

Smiling, Bruce shrugged. "Weirder things have happened." They tried keeping their attention on the movie, but Thor's loud suggestion of a tournament made Bruce sigh. "I think we might have to pause the movie."

"Heh, I guess so." Steve watched as Bruce found the remote, stopping the movie, and Steve smiled to himself as he closed his eyes. He felt nice and warm, come to think of it, and it was beginning to make him tired.

"Look, Steve's becoming sleeping beauty. We better hurry and find someone to kiss him." Clint snickered.

Steve opened one eye. "I am not, and you do not."

"Clint, why don't you kiss him?" Natasha remarked, that smirk still settled on her lips. She looked like the cat that got the canary, lounging across the armchair, her leg swinging lightly.

Clint narrowed his eyes. "I am not kissing him."

"Are you saying Steve isn't good enough for you?" Tony asked, with a much too straight face to Steve's liking.

"Steven is a fine match, Clint." Thor scolded.

Snorting, Steve closed his eyes again. "If Clint doesn't want to kiss me, he doesn't have to kiss me." Instead of more bickering, the room stayed silent, and that made Steve creased his brow. Curious, he opened his eyes, looking at the faces staring at him. "What?"

"You're saying you'd let him kiss you?" Tony questioned, puzzled.

"A kiss is a kiss," Steve shrugged, blushing lightly again. Besides, if he knew it was coming, he wouldn't have a mild freak out. "If he really wanted to try to 'break the spell,' I would let him, yeah."

"Can't say that's a wise idea," Natasha tutted, and that earned her more popcorn thrown at her head.

"Shut up," Clint glared at Natasha, crossing his arms, "and I'm not kissing him."

"I will kiss him!" Thor declared, finger in the air. Tony choked on his drink.

"How about no one kisses him?" Bruce suggested, and the tension in Steve's shoulders eased a little. "Like Steve said, who really believes a kiss is the solution?"

"Are you jealous, Banner?"

"Yes, I'm green with envy instead of rage." Bruce deadpanned, and Steve tried to hide his smirk as Tony laughed.

"It's okay, Bruce, you can kiss him, too." Clint sing-songed, reaching over to pat Bruce's head.

"Kiss who?" The group froze as Coulson blinked at them all.

"Seriously, you need to announce yourself," Tony grumbled as he finished his glass.

"Clint's trying to get Bruce and Steve to kiss," Natasha informed Coulson with a straight face, though her lips twitched when Clint sputtered.

"I am not! She's just trying to get me into trouble."

"Again?" Steve couldn't help asking, and he laughed when Clint shoved him into Bruce.

"You shut up."

Natasha sat up, leaning forward with a smile. "What do you know, Steve?"

"Children," Coulson clapped twice to regain their attention, "gossip later, Avengers need to assemble. Doom's at it again."

Tony groaned as he stood up. "Prepared to be repulsored, Barton." He glared at Clint as he made his way to suit up, Natasha getting up behind him, sending Clint a look of her own. Thor had already left.

"Isn't he the Fantastic Four's job?" Clint complained as he dodged Natasha's kick, pushing Steve further into Bruce with a small yelp. Bruce smacked him upside the head again.

"They're otherwise occupied."

Clint huffed. "That guy needs a new hobby or something." He complained as he jogged for his gear.

"We'll need you on location, Banner, just in case." Coulson spoke after narrowing his eyes at Clint. "Doom isn't working alone."

Sighing, Bruce disentangled himself from the quilt, sending an apologetic shrug Steve's way before walking out. Steve watched him go, frowning when Coulson turned to leave without so much as an acknowledgement. "Hey, Coulson..."

"Fury is against having you out there." Coulson said as he looked over his shoulder, a small downward twitch to his lips. "Sorry, Cap." One final look later and Coulson was gone as well, leaving Steve alone in the living room, feeling smaller now that it was empty.

"Would you like me to continue the film, Captain Rogers?" Jarvis asked in a quiet voice after a few moments.

"Sure, Jarvis," Steve murmured, still burrowed into the quilt, nice and warm, and stared at the screen as some rich guy on a horse called Aladdin a street rat. Frowning, Steve closed his eyes, tired all of a sudden, and he only caught bits and pieces as he drifted off to sleep.

———

The lullaby plays on repeat as they all pass Steve up, walk by him, see through him, fixate on those he's with, never him himself; he walks with his eyes downcast most days as he tries to remember his mother's words, but each day they fade farther into his mind, the orphanage's lullaby growing louder over them.

If only the moon could shine so bright
without relying on the sun's light
But try as hard as the moon might
on her own, cannot shine in the night

Someday, he thinks when everyday goes by without a change in the routine.

———

Steve peered out the window, sitting cross legged on the ledge, taking in the view. It wasn't exactly the width of a bay window seat, so he never would have fit like this before — not that that was a reason to stop looking into what happened; he just needed to appreciate the little things. Like the quiet, gentle snowfall outside. If things continued as they did, the streets would be white for weeks. Despite the early cold, it wouldn't be a problem for Steve; he'd just build an impressive snowman in honor of Bucky. If the others let him out long enough to do it.

"You look like a puppy, you know."

Blinking, Steve glanced at Tony, having not heard the man approach. He was pretty sure Tony was supposed to be working; he definitely remembered Pepper threatening to shave his head if he skipped out this time. A small grin appeared at the memory of Tony's appalled face.

"I see you're not denying it." Tony pointed out, nodding sagely as he moved closer to the window, undoing his tie; his coat and jacket had already been shed before he snuck up on Steve.

It took a few seconds for Steve to figure out what Tony was talking about. "Oh," he shrugged, "Bruce told me that before. Guess it really is true." He didn't see it, personally.

"Ah, so you're playing up the kicked puppy routine?" Tony tilted his head in thought. "Yeah, that can work on the ladies. Good thinking, Cap." He grinned.

Steve rolled his eyes. "I am not. And I'm pretty sure Bruce only called me that because I barely understood the science behind his project a week ago." He smiled slightly, recalling how Bruce tended to rattle off when actually asked about his work.

Tony nodded again, glancing out the window to see what Steve was looking at. "So, playing favorites?"

"I... What?" Steve's brow furrowed. He was getting used to how Tony went through topics of conversation as if the man had the attention span of a goldfish, but that didn't mean he could always follow along.

"Playing favorites. By sitting with Bruce as he works." Tony clarified, peering at Steve like he should have gotten that. "Don't think you do that with anyone else."

Steve made a face. "Thor works again?" Thor tried a part time job at a coffee shop a few weeks earlier, just because he wanted to see what the fuss was about. It didn't end well, and Coulson had to basically forbid him from getting any more jobs until further notice. Which probably meant never.

"Eh, irrelevant," Tony waved his hand dismissively. "You could sit with him as he plays video games, though." He added thoughtfully. "Big guy treats that like work as much as Clint does with shooting arrows at targets. Or like Natasha treats being terrifying as work." He seemed deep in thought for a minute.

Steve blinked. "Is this talk a persuasion to get me to make sure you get your work done so Pepper doesn't have to shave your head?" Steve asked, eyebrow raised, just barely hiding his smirk.

"That is an offensive topic which we don't talk about." Tony snipped, nose in the air and everything. "Bald is not my look."

"I don't know. I think you can pull it off." Steve chuckled, leaning back to stretch, careful not to fall from his spot. Then he looked at Tony, curious. "Speaking of, I thought you had to spend the day at the office. Something about board meetings?"

"Priority call for Iron Man cut it short." Tony answered with less than his usual flare when it concerned his armor.

Steve studied him. "I thought Pepper requested that those calls be handled by another Avenger when you have company work to do." Pepper was extraordinarily thorough when it came to Stark Industries, and Steve thought on more than one occasion that he wouldn't want to cross her. He didn't know how Tony stood up to her, really.

"She probably did," Tony shrugged, still gazing out the window, "but I get the call anyway when it concerns Stark weapons."

A silence settled between them, and Steve watched Tony from the corner of his eye. Tony always got this look in his eyes whenever his company's past was brought up, and no matter how stone faced he became, how blank his expression was, Tony's eyes revealed what he was thinking; they were just so expressive. So Steve could tell that something had happened during his mission today, or that it brought up bad memories. "Where did you go?" He ventured. It seemed like Tony sought him out for something, so he might as well try to talk it out.

"Africa," was all Tony said, and Steve mulled over whether or not to push for more information when Tony spoke again. "I kinda just want to know how people keep getting them. And why. Surely there are better weapons by now." He meant it lightly, but Steve could see the seriousness in his eyes.

"Maybe they were just replicas. Something to draw your attention?" It seemed farfetched, but wilder schemes had been used before. Maybe someone just wanted to drag the Stark name through the mud again. Lord knew how many competitors the company had, and that wasn't even counting the personal vendettas that Tony could have stirred.

Shaking his head, Tony allowed a slight smirk to cross his features, though there was hardly any amusement behind it. "Nope. I know my tech; those were the genuine articles."

Steve chewed on the inside of his lip as he resumed watching Tony. The man had yet to look away from the window, and Steve would be willing to bet Tony wasn't paying much attention to anything. The look in his eyes was one Steve knew all too well. "Tony," he started gently, voice quieter than he meant, "it wasn't your fault."

Tony's jaw clenched. "See you around, Steve." He abruptly turned on his heels, halfheartedly sending a wave over his shoulders. "Don't stay near the window too long or you'll become a Capcicle again."

Steve watched him go, a frown on his face and a headache building, and with a sigh, he rested his head in his hands. He was getting these headaches more frequently, and it didn't help that he couldn't remember his dreams anymore, which meant he always woke up disoriented.

"Don't let him get to you." Bruce spoke quietly, suddenly beside him, and Steve wondered when he got so bad at noticing his surroundings. "He'll probably hole himself in the lab with the serum recreation to take his mind off it." He looked outside for a bit then turned to face Steve.

Staring back at him for a moment, Steve faced the window, blinking. "Is it going anywhere?" Oddly, he forgot about them working on the serum.

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Bruce breathe in deeply before speaking, his eyes never leaving Steve. "We synthesized a prototype, but it isn't looking too good."

"So I might be turned into something else?"

"We wouldn't inject you unless we were absolutely sure."

"But you can't be sure with things like this." Steve found himself smiling despite everything he was feeling. "For all we know, I could turn into another Hulk."

"That isn't funny." Bruce stated, quiet and controlled, though his body tensed.

Steve didn't take the hint. "Though, maybe a different color," he mused aloud, staring out at the falling snow, unconcerned when Bruce stood up straighter, "like blue, or maybe purple."

"Steve," Bruce said tightly, and Steve could feel Bruce's eyes boring into his skin, could feel the disbelief.

But Steve didn't stop.

"It wouldn't be too bad, right, to have someone have the same issues as you?" Bruce placed his hand on Steve's shoulder, turning him to face Bruce almost roughly, and Steve just stared at him, taking in the look in Bruce's eyes, feeling how his hand gripped at Steve's shoulder. He blinked, searching Bruce's face, and Steve swallowed. "I'm sorry," he said, soft and hesitant, not knowing what came over him. "I'm sorry," he repeated, and he was because he could see how that thought affected Bruce. He closed his eyes, exhausted.

He opened them, though, when he felt himself be gently pulled forward, and Steve's eyes widened as Bruce leaned down some to hug him. His surprise, though, didn't stop him from closing his eyes and sinking into the contact almost immediately. The last person to hug him was Bucky — he had always been the more affectionate of the two, if anyone could believe that — and if Steve was honest, he definitely could have used a few hugs since waking up in the future, which is why he took advantage of the opportunity Bruce presented, his arms tentatively wrapping around Bruce in silent thanks.

Bruce pulled away after a bit, and Steve had to fight the urge to follow him, mostly because he would have fallen off the ledge. Bruce was staring at him, a hand still on his shoulder, watched as Steve just blinked slowly, not quite as exhausted as before but still tired. Letting out a breath, Bruce withdrew his hand. "Going stir crazy, huh?" Steve only huffed a laugh response. "Well, good thing I came to tell you you're no longer under house arrest."

Steve stared. "Wait, really?"

"Yeah, you can come and go as you please again. I just came back from talking with Coulson." Bruce shrugged, hands in his pockets. "He agreed that, because there's nothing medically wrong with you, you shouldn't have to stay cooped up."

"So I can go to the park?" Steve asked, hopeful.

"Yeah, you just have to wear layers, what with this cold front."

"I can do that." Smiling, Steve glanced out the window, happy. Then, though, his smile faded as he turned back to Bruce. The man simply watched him, eyebrow slightly arched. "Bruce..." he began, still unsure what came over him a few minutes ago.

"It's fine, Steve." Bruce shook his head, that small, quiet smile on his lips as he shrugged. "We all have our moments, I think." He didn't comment any further, so Steve didn't either, turning back to the window, thinking of ways to make it up to the man as they stared outside in silence.

———

Pulling his coat tighter around him, Steve hurried through the mild crowds, keeping in mind not to run, which was a little difficult as cold weather always made him feel more hyper than usual. But if he ran to the coffee shop, Bruce would give him that raised eyebrow look that would make Steve both guilty and defiant, and he didn't feel like going through that routine today.

He was just glad to be out of the mansion, finally. Though, he felt pretty sure that there was an agent shadowing him, just to make sure he didn't keel over or something. Steve was almost insulted. He didn't live as long as he did by being some delicate flower.

Adjusting the strap to the messenger bag Coulson gave him, Steve checked his watch. Running a little late. He probably shouldn't have gotten so caught up in his sketching, but really, how could he not draw the different scenes at the park? Well, that and a German Shepherd had tackled him and treated him like a pillow until the owner had run over apologizing. Steve had been too busy laughing to really be upset that the dog wasn't kept on a leash, and his sketches hadn't been ruined so everything was all right.

Still, Steve would have to explain why he was late to his little lunch outing with Bruce. Hopefully, the man wasn't starting to worry. Oh wait, I can text him to let him know right now. Coming to a stop, Steve dug out his cell phone from one of the pockets in the messenger bag and started fussing with it, looking for Bruce's name. Maybe he shouldn't have let Tony put in his contacts.

He just managed to click on Bruce's name — titled "Rage Monster," really Tony? — when some sort of shrill roar sounded, followed by an explosion, the force nearly knocking Steve onto the ground. "What the...?" Another explosion occurred, this time followed by some kind of giant lizard, a bit bigger than a horse, that roared again before releasing a beam of concussive force, tearing apart the building across from Steve.

People panicked. Steve was almost run over by people trying to get away, but he wasn't focused on them; his attention was on a little girl across the street, crying behind a pile of rubble from the torn up building. She looked fine, no cuts or anything, but with that thing running around, who knew how long that would last. Steve shuddered. Mind made up, he dropped his bad and ran toward her, zigzagging through the stray people running in the street.

Steve skidded to a stop right by the pile of rubble, intent on getting the girl out of there, when he noticed the man on the ground, cut on the forehead bleeding and a leg trapped underneath a chunk of building. The girl's crying lessened when she realized she wasn't alone, but she still hiccupped with soft sobs, looking at Steve with scared eyes as she tugged on the man's sleeve. Crap.

"Daddy!" The little girl cried, screaming as another building got torn up, littering the street with debris.

"It's gonna be okay," Steve reassured her, taking a swift glance at their surroundings. Whatever that lizard thing was didn't seem to be near them at the moment, but that didn't stop people from running in panic. Maybe he could flag one of them over to help with the unconscious man...

A roar sounded a few blocks away, and by the new flood of people running in the street, the creature seemed to be heading their way again. Great. The girl started whimpering, scooting closer to her dad and curling in on herself, eyes shut and arms over her head. Her dad stirred faintly, eyes trying to flutter open as another shrill roar filled the air. Not good, not good.

Moving so he could squat next to the man's trapped leg, Steve tried to think quickly, noting that the man was starting to become very aware of the situation and likely to panic. "I promise everything's gonna be okay," he spoke to the girl again as he pulled one of his gloves off and placed it on her dad's cut forehand, letting it stop the blood, "I need you to be brave for your daddy, can you do that?" She peeked up at Steve and shivered when something exploded down the street. Running out of time. "Give me five if you can do that." Steve held out his free hand, holding her terrified gaze even as he felt her dad try to shake away from his other hand. Hesitantly, she straightened up and weakly slapped Steve's palm, and he smiled for her. "That's a good girl. Now let's try to help your daddy, okay?"

At that moment, her dad's eyes snapped open, and he nearly flailed trying to get sense of what happened before wincing in pain. "Daddy!" The girl whined, moving closer to him, and he calmed at the sight of her.

"Jenna, are you —" an abrupt coughing fit forced him to put off his question, and Steve quickly cut in, removing the glove from his forehead.

"Sir, your daughter's fine —" another explosion occurred, and the man's eyes widened as Jenna whimpered again. "Look, you need to stay calm, for your daughter's sake, and we need to get this off your leg. I need your help with that." Steve stared him down a little; they didn't have time for a freak out, and Steve couldn't handle the heavy lifting on his own.

The man took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay. Okay." He still seemed pretty shaken, which Steve could forgive under the circumstances, and he glanced at his daughter, swallowing as he reached for her hand. "Okay, let's get through this." He squeezed Jenna's hand before looking at Steve.

Nodding, Steve placed both hands on the debris trapping his leg, senses on full alert as the trill came closer. "Sir, you're going to have to help me here, but don't strain yourself if it's too much." In the back of his mind, Steve's conscious chided him to follow his own directions, but he ignored it. "On three. One, two, three..." They lifted, both struggling, until they got it high enough to pull the leg out, which Jenna helped with. "Think you can stand?"

"I don't know. Let me try..." He moved to stand, wincing slightly as Jenna tried to help prop him up. "I think I can manage, but I won't be quick." He stared at Steve, seeming to realize just how slight he was.

"That's fine. We'll just have to be smart." At the wary look he was given, Steve narrowed his eyes. "Hey, we can do this."

The lizard let out a hiss as it appeared near them, tongue flicking out in their direction. It hissed again. Steve refrained from cussing, only because of Jenna. It didn't seem like it was going to move. Is it waiting for us? Please tell me that thing doesn't eat people. Another hiss. Think, Rogers.

"Okay, new plan." He glanced at the pair then back to the lizard. "I'm going to distract it while you two slip away. Keep out of the streets, if you can."

The man gaped at him. "I thought you said we'd be smart?" He demanded, incredulous.

"Look, that's what we're doing. I distract it while you get Jenna to safety, got it?" Steve held his gaze, challenging. They stared at each other for a minute longer before the man sighed and nodded. "Okay then. Good luck, and look after your dad for me, okay?" Steve held out his hand to Jenna again as he smiled for her, and she weakly tapped it again, tears falling onto her cheeks. Casting one last look at the man, Steve nodded and ran out.

The lizard hissed again as it followed Steve, letting out another of its roars, and Steve ground his teeth at the noise, though he didn't look back. Turned out he didn't need to. The thing's tail cracked like a whip against his back and sent him tumbling onto the ground, rolling a few feet from the force and knocking into a parked car. Jesus and the Holy Ghost, that hurt. Discombobulated, Steve tried to get back on his feet, only to crumble face first to the ground. The pain in his back dulled slightly as his ankle flared. Not to mention the ache in his whole body from the tumble and collision. And today started out so well, too.

A hiss gained his attention, and Steve looked up, staring at the lizard, whose teeth were bared. It opened its mouth and roared, letting out another, rather impressive, concussive beam, aimed at the building behind Steve. Great. Steve narrowed his eyes as he heard the cracks and breaks of the building crumbling. With his ankle, and whole freaking body, in its current condition, there was no way Steve could maneuver out of the way in time. Steve glared as the lizard hissed, and he steeled himself, hearing the debris from the building closing in on him, vaguely aware of another roar sounding in the distance, rough and deep and angry.

Steve blinked, and the building fell down on top of him with such force that the ground shook.

When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find himself not crushed, though the darkness confused him. Wait, am I dead? He tried to roll over and immediately regretted it, groaning in pain. Nope, definitely not dead. Unless I'm in Hell, which would suck. Steve tried not to panic as the thought of sleeping another seventy years crept into his mind, but the thought was quelled as he heard a grunt above him. "What...?"

"Steve..." came a gravelly voice from above in reply.

Steve blinked again, twice. He reached up, wincing in pain, and touched whatever was shielding him from the building. The flesh beneath his hand tensed slightly, and Steve felt his mouth open in surprise. "Bruce?" The name got a grunt in return, almost amused. Or maybe annoyed. Steve wasn't sure he was in the right state of mind to tell. "What happened? How...?" Steve coughed as Bruce — or, rather, the Hulk — shifted, causing dust and sand to stir.

"Quiet," Hulk spoke again, and Steve felt him better brace himself against the ground, two strong hands a little above either side of Steve's head. "Cover ears."

As Steve shakily did what he was told, he heard Hulk growl and felt him lean in some, much closer to Steve, the gamma radiation warming him. Then, with a roar of his own that made Steve press his hands to his ears harder, Hulk pushed against the ground with enough force that caused Steve to sink lower into the concrete and abruptly stood up, sending the chunks of building on top of them flying. Eyes adjusting to the sunlight, Steve watched as Hulk rolled his neck, sending a glance to Steve then a snarl at the lizard.

"Hulk," Steve tried again, but Hulk was distracted by a hiss.

Growling, Hulk picked up a nice chunk of brick and flung it at the lizard. The creature yelped as it narrowly avoided being hit then preceded to let out a series of yawps, which only seemed to irritate Hulk further. He let out a roar.

"No need for a shouting match," Steve muttered, stubbornly trying to get up again.

Hulk turned to him, and Steve froze, unaware that he spoke out loud. Green eyes narrowed, and a large, green finger pointed at him. "Stay."

If it was a different occasion, Steve might have laughed. As it was, he just shrugged. "I can't really go anywhere, big guy." And that sucked to admit, but it was true. Not one of his finest moments.

Seemingly satisfied with the answer, Hulk focused on the lizard again, growling once more. The creature let out another beam, and Hulk took one step forward as he pulled his arms back then brought them forward to an impressive clap, its force redirecting the trajectory of the beam back at the lizard.

Steve's eyes widened as the reptile flew backwards a block or two. Hulk, strangely, didn't go after it. He just stood there in front of Steve, head tipped to the side as if he was listening for something, his hands balled into fists.

"Do you have a comm link?"

Hulk regarded him with narrowed eyes and let out a grunt.

"Just thought I'd ask." He tried to stand again, wincing and shaking with the effort, and Hulk growled at him again. "Hey, don't give me that. I need to call someone, and my bag's over there somewhere." He pointed, with a wince, down the street, hoping his belongings weren't destroyed. He'd feel bad asking Tony for another phone, and Coulson seemed proud of that bag. Not to mention he'd feel sad about his sketches if they were lost. Steve tried taking a cautious little hop forward, but pain seared throughout his body, nearly causing him to stumble onto the ground.

The pain in his ankle and back were understandable, but Steve had no idea why the rest of him was giving him trouble; his head ached, and his arms didn't seem to want to cooperate. It didn't make any sense; he'd had worse tumbles from bullies back in the day.

Hulk moved a step closer, head tilted as he watched Steve, his lip twitching in a grimace. "Puny." It wasn't quite a mumble, but it was close.

Steve couldn't help but snort. "A lot punier, thanks for noticing." Experimentally, Steve tried to hop again, which had, more or less, the same results as before. "Dammit."

A hiss in the distance caused Hulk to hum another chunk of brick in the general direction the noise came from. Then, he turned back to Steve.

"I'll be fine. Go get rid of those things." He tried to shoo Hulk away, but that wasn't something someone did; he stayed put. "Look, the city needs you more than I do. Go."

Eyes narrowed again, Hulk breathed in deeply, teeth bared slightly, and Steve wondered if he just made Hulk angrier when the big guy reached for him with both hands. Gently, Steve was lifted off the ground and cradled against Hulk, almost like a baby.

"What are you doing?" Steve asked, dazed. He must really have hit his head hard because he seriously wanted to laugh. He received no answer, though, as Hulk jumped to the spot Steve had pointed at, the impact jolting Steve a little.

Hulk was about place him back on the ground when another reptile appeared a ways in front of them, hissing and letting out a beam aimed directly at them. Quickly, Hulk turned around, his arms protectively encasing Steve's body as he took the hit with growl, the impact moving him a couple of inches. Steve felt rather than saw Hulk jump, and for a few seconds they were airborne, Steve catching glimpses of more of those things running around before Hulk began losing altitude. Where are they coming from?

"Magic," Hulk spat out, grumbling deep within his chest.

Magic? Steve wondered then winced as a sharp pain shot through his entire body, leaving him gasping as they landed. The last thing he was aware of before blacking out was Hulk's guttural roar.

———

Can't even manage to stay out of trouble. Honestly, why do they put up with you? You're useless.

Loki smiles at him, eyes ablaze and piercing, and he holds something that shines blue. They'll see, he murmurs, smiling. They'll see how worthless you are, he coos, disappearing into the stars. Pathetic.

———

When Steve woke up, he nearly had a panic attack. There was no sound save a very soft whirring, a few tubes and IVs were hooked to him, and the walls were that faint off white that he had come to dread so much. He tried to move, tried to get up and away, but his whole body felt heavy. A frustrated grunt, or maybe a whine, escaped his throat when he couldn't even manage turning his head. His heart rate sped up, blood pounding in his ears.

"Jesus. Steve, hey, easy," Bruce came into his line of sight, hair a mess and eyes tired.

Blinking, Steve stared at the man, his breathing slowing some.

"How're you feeling?" Bruce asked after a long stretch of silence, tiredness melting into a concerned focus.

"I had a dream," Steve found himself saying, closing his eyes slowly, trying to pull his thoughts together.

"Oh?" Bruce sounded concerned, possibly even confused, and he cleared his throat a little. "EEGs showed extremely low activity. You were out two days. I think Coulson was actually openly worried."

"I was?" Steve opened his eyes, brow furrowed. He felt like he was missing something. Or forgetting. "Sorry, I didn't mean to make anyone worry."

Bruce raised an eyebrow at that, smiling slightly. He pulled up a chair and kept in Steve's view. "What did you dream about?"

"A building. I think it was a building." He closed his eyes again. "Green eyes. A blue light."

"Well, the city was attacked by lizard things, and I hulked out. Were you dreaming about that? Or maybe you're just remembering it?"

"Yeah..." Steve opened his eyes, not quite convinced that was the case. His head hurt. "Maybe..."

Steve noticed Bruce chewing on his bottom lip in thought. "We didn't think your head injuries were that bad," he muttered, eying Steve with concern. "Sure you're okay?"

"Yeah," Steve breathed in deep, letting it out with a slight wince, "just a little groggy." He took in Bruce's small, fond smile a moment before speaking again. "Am I drugged?"

Bruce blinked. "Yeah, I think they're giving you something. For the pain."

"Can you stop it?" Maybe that's why he felt so off. Maybe that's why he couldn't do anything. His heart began to race in nervousness.

"What?"

"Can you stop it?" Steve repeated, looking him in the eyes, trying to keep his voice even. "Please?"

"Um. I don't think I have that authority." Bruce halfheartedly shrugged, apologetic.

"Oh." Shifting his gaze, Steve stared at the end of the bed, clenching and unclenching his hands, still uneasy about the dull buzz in his head. He just knew he was forgetting something, but it felt like he couldn't think straight.

Bruce cleared his throat. "I can talk to Coulson, see if he can do something about it, if you want."

"Really?" At Bruce's nod, Steve smiled. "Thanks, Bruce." Bruce returned the smile and started to get up. Steve's hand twitched, still felt too heavy to lift. "And thanks," Steve said before Bruce could stand up fully, "for being there the other day. I didn't get a chance to say it then." He smiled. "I think I annoyed him."

Bruce snorted. "A lot of things annoy him. Don't worry, he had those things to take it out on." He stayed in his seat, looking at Steve with a thoughtful expression.

Steve didn't fidget, but it was close. "How did you know where I was?"

"You called me, but all I heard was screaming. I alerted S.H.I.E.L.D. and found out those reptiles were popping up all over the place and that one was near you, so I ran."

"You ran?"

"Heh, yeah. S.H.I.E.L.D. gave me your location."

"So someone was following me?"

"I don't know, actually. I just thought we were going to have lunch."

"Yeah, that went well." Steve sighed. "They're never gonna let me out again, huh?"

"I don't see why not." Bruce gave him a funny look. "This was just poor timing."

"So you believe in coincidences?"

"You think this was meant to happen?" Bruce countered, making his words more statement than a question, his eyes minutely narrowed.

"I don't know. Maybe?"

They sat in silence, and for the first time since knowing the man, Steve felt uncomfortable. He could tell Bruce felt so too, so at least the feeling was mutual. Bruce sighed and stood up. Steve's stomach knotted.

"Where are you going?" He tried to sit up, panic flaring in his eyes.

"To talk to Coulson." Brow creased, Bruce hesitated, looking at Steve as he mulled over something.

Steve felt his cheeks warm in embarrassment. "Oh. Right." His hands toyed with the sheet, looking at the end the of bed again.

Then he felt Bruce's hand on top of his, and Steve glanced up in surprise. "I'll be right back. Promise." Bruce gave his hand a comforting squeeze and offered him a smile. More surprising than Bruce's display of affection, Steve immediately calmed down, the dull buzz in his head momentarily forgotten.

"Okay." Steve smiled, turning his hand some so he could squeeze back, trying to convey his gratefulness. Bruce nodded, still donning that small smile, then left, and Steve blinked in the emptiness in the room. The whirring sound of whatever machinery they had him hooked up to sounded deafening, making Steve close his eyes as he focused on breathing in and out, on keeping his heartbeat steady. He hated hospitals.

When he opened them again, Bruce and Coulson were murmuring near the door, and Steve turned his head to the noise. Bruce noticed him first, giving a nod to Coulson. He glanced at Steve, made some low comments to Bruce, then turned to Steve, walking over to his bedside. Bruce offered Steve a smile as he stepped out, closing the door behind him.

At Steve's confused look, Coulson spoke, "I ordered him to get some sleep. He's been awake the better part of your stay here."

Steve nodded; he'd make Bruce rest as well. Coulson looked at Steve, watched as he tested out his movements, which seemed to be a lot better than earlier. He guessed they stopped drugging him.

"The Thompsons send their thanks."

"Thompsons?"

"According to them, you helped get them out of danger during the reptilian attack."

Steve blinked. "How did they know I was here?"

Smiling, Coulson shook his head. "They didn't. When we placing you on the stretcher, the girl noticed. Her father called me over, and we talked. Of course, I'll still need your account for the debrief."

Steve couldn't help but chuckle at that, and he nodded. "Will do. When can I be cleared?"

At that, Coulson arched an eyebrow. "We're not sure yet. You had a pretty nasty cut on your back. Your coat was shredded."

"Ah," Steve remembered that part. It was a shame about his coat, though; he liked it. "And my ankle?"

Coulson blinked at him then prompted, "Your ankle?"

Brow creased, Steve tilted his head. "How is it? I couldn't put weight on it. Hulk carried me because of it." He was pretty sure that actually happened.

Coulson didn't respond for a few seconds. "Don't worry about your ankle; it'll be fine. In fact, I'll have the doctor come back in here and show you. Plus, you should probably eat a little something. I'll be right back." Coulson nodded then left, and Steve stared after him. His composure was perfect, same as ever, except Steve knew he was worried, knew that Coulson just lied.

That feeling of missing something returned tenfold, and Steve lay there in the medical bed, exhausted and, for the first time since this dilemma began, scared.

———

What do you think you are? It isn't enough. It isn't worth it. Nothing but a glorified lab rat. You aren't what they're concerned with.

———

"Hey, Steve. Hey. Wake up. Steve. Hello. Dude, I will hit you. Hey, Steve."

Steve blinked awake, frowning when something kept poking him in the side. Then, suddenly, Clint's face was in his view, too close for comfort. "Jesus, Clint," he muttered, his hand pushing Clint away. "What are you doing here?"

"Breaking you out. Now come on, Sleeping Beauty, up and at 'em."

"I don't think I'm supposed to leave yet."

"That's why I said breaking out. Come on, dude, here's your clothes." He held up some slacks and a button up shirt that Steve was pretty sure was in his closet the last time he checked.

"Where did you —"

"Bruce. No idea where he got 'em, though." Clint shrugged, dangling them impatiently. "Anyway, you're wasting time."

"How are you even here?" Steve asked as he hopped off the bed, mindful of his ankle, wobbling only slightly, legs protesting activity after the two weeks of bed rest. He reached for his clothes. "Thought I was being watched or whatever." He shrugged on his pants, grateful to be able to get out of the gown they had him in, before pulling on his shirt.

"Yeah, about that." Scratching the back of his head, Clint turned away a little. "You need to thank Stark later. He totally created a distraction big enough to get Coulson to look the other way." He cleared his throat, clearly not going to go into it any further. "But yeah, you're still wasting time."

"Jeez, I'm coming." Steve frowned, buttoning the last few buttons on his shirt, reaching for the coat Clint hand in his hand. He hoped whatever Tony did wasn't something bad. At this rate, Coulson might openly frown at him.

"All good?" At Steve's nod, Clint nodded and clapped. "Awesome, now hop on." He turned around, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

Steve felt like he was missing something. "Excuse me?"

"Piggy back, dude." Glancing over his shoulder, Clint sent a look that screamed duh.

"Why?"

Clint huffed. "Because I'm faster, and we kinda need speed to escape." He waited a bit, and when Steve clearly didn't move, a smirk formed on his lips. "Plus, you know you want to hold me close."

Steve snorted. "Oh, yes. Secret's out." Clint grinned at him as Steve stepped forward and, with a sigh, wrapped his arms around Clint's neck, feeling awkward. Clint immediately stood up, causing Steve to make a tiny yelp, and secured Steve's legs with his arms.

"And let the amazing break out by one Clint Barton begin!" Clint declared triumphantly as he ran out the door, Steve clinging to him so he wouldn't fall. He might have had a smile on his face, but Clint didn't need to know that.

———

"Why are we at a bar?"

"Because they'd be expecting you to turn up at the mansion."

"Well, that's a given, but why a bar?"

"Why not a bar?"

"Somehow, I can't see this ending well." Steve muttered, staring at all the liquor on display.

Clint snorted. "I'm not gonna get you wasted then leave you in the care of some very friendly and tipsy person, if that's what you're thinking."

"Wow. That wasn't what I meant." Steve shook his head at the image; he really didn't want to know how Clint's mind worked. "Won't you get in trouble?"

"You know I always get in trouble. Coulson doesn't scare me as much he does other people."

As he couldn't argue with that, Steve looked around the place, noticing a few stares. "Um. I don't think I should be in here."

"Cause you look like jailbait?"

"Like what?"

"Don't worry about it. You showed your ID to get in here, so the barkeep knows you're legal. Order what you want." Clint waved his hand at the collection as he fooled with his phone, probably turning it off.

Deciding not to comment on that, Steve just sat there, wondering how long it'd take for someone to find them. He hoped this place wasn't a frequent of Clint's because, if so, Coulson would definitely know to check here. A glass appeared in front of him, and Steve blinked.

"Don't just sit there, have a drink." Clint scolded, taking good swig from his own glass.

"I don't know if I should," Steve hesitated.

"If you're worried about mixing alcohol with whatever the docs gave you, don't. Looked at your charts to make sure everything would be fine."

Chuckling, Steve shook his head. "And Coulson said you had no brains." He allowed himself a small taste. He grimaced a bit. Whiskey.

"Talk about me, do you?" Clint muttered, taking another, larger drink from his glass.

"More than the others, yeah." While breakfast talk usually consisted of a wide range of topics, the conversion would eventually lead to the team, and since Steve was curious about Coulson's friendships, Natasha and Clint were discussed more often than not. Of course, that didn't mean Coulson actually said anything that wasn't vague or cryptic. In fact, Steve felt pretty sure that whatever background he had with the two agents was a lot darker than any of them liked, which made Steve relieved that they had found friendships with one another. Smiling, he took another drink.

Snorting, Clint raised an eyebrow, glancing at Steve. "Guess that makes me special." He knocked their glasses together, causing Steve to spill some of his drink on the bar. Clint laughed into his glass as Steve shot him a look, reaching for napkins to clean up.

"Why wouldn't you be?"

"If you give me a pep talk, I will dump your drink on you."

Raising an eyebrow, Steve asked, "Why mine?" He took a larger gulp from his glass.

"You think I'd waste mine?" Clint scoffed, taking a sip for emphasis. "Besides, you're barely touching yours, so I'd say you wouldn't miss it."

Shrugging, Steve continued to sit there, taking a sip every now and then, his legs swaying a little as Steve turned his stool slightly. He probably should stop drinking; he wasn't used to anything other than beer in this body. Well, except for that one New Years, but he paid for that dearly, and Steve didn't want a repeat. But Clint just sat there in silence, practically inhaling his glass, so Steve continued to drink. He belatedly realized that he hadn't had anything to eat before they came here, but Steve was too mellowed to really care.

"Okay, gotta take a leak. Sit tight till I get back." Without much more warning, Clint hopped off his stool and made a beeline for the bathrooms. He didn't even hit on the pretty ladies on his way. Steve obediently sat in his spot, trying to finish off his glass while trying to figure out Clint's deal. He still felt the archer didn't like him, so Clint springing him from medical confused him. He didn't want to think about it too much because it made his head hurt. Clint was just confusing. He took another sip, nearly finished with his whiskey. Steve felt oddly proud of that fact.

"You alone?" Steve blinked up at the guy who was now sitting on Clint's bar stool. He was about to say just that when the man spoke again. "Can I buy you another round?" The guy reached over and grabbed Steve's drink, but he didn't take it; he just stayed like that, leaning into Steve's personal space, which Steve felt was rude.

"That seat is taken," Steve said instead, raising his eyebrow at the hand on his glass. He wanted to finish it, but the glass wouldn't budge from the guy's grip.

"Then maybe we could go somewhere?" Steve made a face as the man leaned in closer, crowding, and Steve had half a mind to punch him.

"Hey, back off."

Steve froze at the sound of Clint's voice as he watched the other man lean away. Uh oh, Clint's mad.

Clint moved between Steve and the guy, placing some bills on the bar. "Come on, Rogers." He felt Clint's hand on his shoulder, and he was steered away from the bar and pushed out the door, the rush of cool air making Steve dizzy. He actually tripped over his own feet. "Steady there." The hand on his shoulder tightened briefly before withdrawing.

They walked a little ways in silence, Steve doing his best to keep up and not trip again, eyes trained on the sidewalk.

"What's wrong with you?" Clint asked after a few minutes, sending him glance. "Not hurt, are you?"

Steve shook his head. "I'm fine..."

"Yeah, I'm calling bullshit."

Shrugging, Steve kept his eyes on the concrete. "You're mad at me again."

"Whoa, back up," Clint stopped walking, blocking Steve's way and almost causing him to stumble. "What are you talking about?"

Steve blinked up at him. "In the bar. You got mad at me."

"Jesus, Steve, I wasn't mad at you. I was mad with that creep back there. Hate to break this to you, but while you're like this, you're basically the wet dream of shady people with loose morals."

Steve didn't even try to process that. "But you don't really like me." He pointed a finger at Clint's chest, just to make sure he knew what Steve was talking about.

Clint stared at him for a long while, and Steve felt his eyes droop. "You really are a bad drunk," he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "Why you think I don't like you?" He looked at Steve thoughtfully, uncaring that they were having this conversation outside in the cold.

Steve didn't really care either, though. He was just a little tired, but that's been happening a lot so he didn't pay it any mind. "Because Coulson likes me." He answered, nodding matter-of-fact.

Clint's eyes widened. "What?"

"Yeah. I mean no. Not likes me likes me. I wouldn't insinuate that. Or be that presumptuous. I meant that we're friends, and that might bother you 'cause he's your friend. I think you guys are best friends, actually." When Clint said nothing, Steve continued talking because he didn't like the silence, and he figured Clint would stop him if he babbled too much anyway. "And you like him. But not like that. I think. I don't know, actually. But if you do, you should tell him because that's nice. And time is precious. But that's not what I was saying. You respect him and don't like me taking command. Right? That's why you don't like me. Because you think Coulson is a better man. Which he is, I'll admit it because it's true." Steve clarified, not wanting Clint to think he thought badly of Coulson because that was so far from the truth it hurt. "Coulson is the best." He nodded, all matter-of-fact again.

Clint just stared at Steve, an amused eyebrow raised; he was trying to hide a grin. "Yeah, we can't let you get drunk in front of Stark. You'll never hear the end of it." He smirked openly then, and Steve smiled on reflex. "So, since you're such a lousy drunk with no brain to mouth filter, do you like Coulson? As in, like like." He did air quotes, a smile on his face.

Steve laughed. "I don't think I like like anyone. I'm not there yet. Still hurts, I guess. I'm just happy to have a family again." A small smile found its way onto Steve's lips as he thought about going home to the mansion. It was nice, wonderful even, to have something like that again. That feeling of belonging.

Silence stretched once more, and Steve blinked, looking up to find Clint frowning. When he noticed Steve, though, the frown faded. He jerked his head down the sidewalk, putting an arm around Steve's shoulders as he continued walking. Steve followed automatically, mostly because he would have fallen down if he didn't, but partly because he was reminded of Bucky.

If he leaned a little too much into Clint because of that, Clint didn't say anything. "So..." Steve ventured after a minute, "you don't dislike me?"

"Nope. We're good. Well," Clint shrugged, shaking Steve with the movement, "we weren't good before, but that's only because I was a bit jealous. I can tell you that 'cause I don't think you'll remember this in the morning."

"Jealous?" Steve made a face. "Why were you jealous?"

"Because Coulson's your freaking fanboy! I haven't seen him so excited to meet someone before, and it kinda got to me." Clint laughed, sounding a bit wistful. "You should have seen his face when Fury handed him his orders, oh man." He chuckled again, squeezing Steve almost affectionately.

"What?" Steve became slightly rigid.

"Seriously, it was pretty hilarious in hindsight. But yeah, it didn't make me a fan of you. I mean, Coulson broke rules for you! That was big, man. How could I not be jealous? Plus, you should have seen how worried he was when you were laid up in medical. I'm guessing that's how we got outta there without any real trouble. See? Breaking rules and procedures for you." Clint shook his head, smiling. It faded a bit, though. "This whole ordeal of yours is eating at him pretty good. We're all worried, you know."

Steve stopped walking, didn't even notice when Clint almost knocked him over, and stared at the ground. His palms were sweating, his mind racing. What...

"Hey," Clint stopped and turned to him when he realized Steve wasn't keeping stride anymore, "what's up? Everything okay?"

He didn't say anything right away, feeling sick. Dizzy. Steve shivered. "Coulson's... my fan?" It took a surprising amount of effort to get the words out; his tongue felt too heavy.

Brow furrowing, Clint nodded. "Well, yeah. I'm pretty sure you're the reason he enlisted. Hell, most people are fans of yours, including everyone on our team. Even Thor, once he learned about the war, though that stunt you pulled with the hammer helped." He stared at Steve, eyes searching his face. "Hey, you're not looking so hot." He placed the back of his hand to Steve's forehead. "Shit, you're kinda burning up."

Steve didn't really hear him, mind still working a mile a minute, or trying to, anyway. "I thought..." he shivered again, eyelids heavy, "I thought we were friends." His voice might have had a pathetic edge to it. He was too tired to really worry about it.

"What? Of course you're friends. What're you talking abo— Whoa!" Clint caught Steve, saving him from a nice face plant to the concrete. "Steve, Jesus, are you okay?"

Weakly, Steve shook his head. "Fans aren't friends..." He barely registered his own words as he cupped his head in pain.

"Fuck, that isn't what I meant. Hey! Come on, solider, don't black out on me now."

"'m not that soldier," he mumbled, eyes squeezed shut as he gripped his head harder, vaguely aware of Clint shuffling with something. His head hurt like he didn't know what. "Something's... wrong—" and Steve blacked out.

———

Loki smiles. They're searching for their hero. That's why they worry, why they fight for a cure. What could they possibly want with this little man, hmm?

You're of no use to them. You have no place. Not in their team. Not in this world.

———

Blinking in and out of consciousness, Steve was vaguely aware of worried voices and careful hands around him. Some sounded angry. But then Steve was out again.

———

Another body added to the count. Another life lost. Added to the list like Bucky. Another sin.

He's falling, every memory of the field flickering in the background of his mind, and a voice whispers, "your sentence," as coldness surrounds him, the ice biting.

A darkness that's far too bright.

———

Waking up with a start, Steve looked around, eyes wide as he tried to figure out where exactly he was. He blinked, breathing calming as he remembered his room in the mansion, as he remembered the year. Just a dream, he thought warily, exhausted, still taking in the surroundings, it's fine. It's fine. It's okay... Steve closed his eyes, sinking back into the pillows with a deep breath. Why did it sound like he didn't believe himself? "Shit."

"Well, that's a first," Bruce stated, startling Steve somewhat, as he walked out the bathroom, a damp face rag in his hands, "I don't think I've heard you curse before."

Feeling his cheeks warm, Steve tried not to look sheepish as Bruce placed the cloth on his forehead. "Sorry."

"For what? You want to curse, go all out. I won't tell."

"Maybe later." Steve smiled. "How long was I out this time?"

"Only a few hours." Bruce settled in a chair pulled up by Steve's bed; it looked like he'd been there a while. Steve watched him clear his throat. "So. Nightmares?"

The warmth in his cheeks grew hotter as Steve glanced to the side. "Occasionally." He could feel Bruce's gaze on him, and after struggling not to fidget Steve huffed. "Okay, fine, a lot." Turning to face Bruce, he sighed. "But I don't really remember them nowadays. I just remember the feeling, not the details. And honestly," his eyes focused on the ceiling, "I don't know which is worse."

"Sorry for bringing it up," Bruce murmured. In some way, Steve thought that Bruce might understand what he was talking about.

"I didn't have to answer," he replied. Silence stretched as Steve just lay there, feeling the coolness of the rag against his skin, feeling a lot better than before. "Hey." Trying to sit up, Steve cast a worried look over to Bruce. "Where's Clint?"

Bruce frowned but got up to help maneuver the pillows so they propped Steve up in a seated position, plopping back down in his chair when done. "In his room, I think. He has an early appointment in the morning."

"Oh," the rag slipped off his forehead, landing on his chest, and Steve fiddled with it, worrying his lip, "he didn't get in trouble, did he? For, uh, sneaking me out?"

"Well, I'm pretty sure Coulson gave him a look when you were brought back to medical, but I didn't hear any words said. Between Natasha and Tony, though? Clint might have walked away with a bruise or two."

Steve winced. "But he didn't do anything."

"Kids will be kids."

Steve blinked. "I think Natasha would kill you if she heard you calling her a kid."

Smirking a bit, Bruce nodded his agreement. "I trust you to keep that between us."

He tried to smile at that, but Steve felt on edge, slightly gripping the face rag in his hands out of nervousness.

Leave it to Bruce to notice, a frown forming on his lips. "What's wrong, Steve?"

"It's nothing."

Bruce made a noncommittal noise, leaning back against the chair. "Does saying that ever work?"

That got a small smile out of him. "Guess not."

"But you're still not going to tell me," Bruce guessed.

Shrugging, Steve glanced sideways, noting his sketchbook lying on his nightstand. Oh. I thought that was lost. He wanted to reach for it, to make sure it was all right, but he refrained, fingers idly playing with the rag.

"Look, if you really don't want me here, I can go." His tone of voice was light, but his posture made it clear that he didn't want to leave.

"Why are you here?" Steve blinked in surprise. He hadn't meant to be so blunt.

He'd clearly taken Bruce by surprise as well. "What?"

Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? "Why are you here? To keep an eye on me?" Steve shrugged, nodding up at the ceiling. "Jarvis can do that; you don't have to be here."

"Of course I don't have to be," Bruce's brow creased, a puzzled expression settling on his face, "but we're friends, so I'm allowed to worry."

"Oh." It seemed like Steve could never say anything intelligent after passing out. At least, not when talking to Bruce, but that was basically the same thing. Bruce had been there each time Steve opened his eyes after the whole reversion thing.

Bruce sighed. "Does this have to do with what Clint told you?" Reaching out, Bruce gently plucked the face rag from Steve's hands, effectively leaving Steve without a distraction. Now he really wanted his sketchpad.

"What did he say?" Feigning ignorance never really worked for him in the past, but Steve just didn't want to have this conversation. He already felt bad that he got Clint in trouble because of their little field trip; he didn't want to add to that all because Steve was still insecure about some things.

"Something about you freaking out because Clint told you we were your fans." Bruce raised an eyebrow.

"I don't recall freaking out..." Steve muttered, crossing his arms defensively.

"Well, Clint was the one telling me the story. I expected some exaggerations." Bruce shrugged. "Though, the freaking out part could pertain to how you blacked out."

"My head hurt," Steve recounted slowly.

"Yeah, he said you were holding your head in his debrief with Coulson."

Groaning, Steve tipped his head back, resting on the ridiculous amount of pillows behind him. "They had a debrief about that?"

"Only the technical stuff." Bruce sounded amused, though it was only for a moment. "Clint told me about what he said in private."

Lifting his head up a little, Steve raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"He felt bad and didn't really know how to make up for it. Plus, Coulson would probably be mad at him."

Steve stared. "For letting me know?"

Bruce narrowed his eyes. "For letting you think your friendships were superficial. It was bad enough that he got you drunk, and telling you that didn't help matters."

"He didn't force me to drink..."

"That's irrelevant." Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, Steve, we're not worried about you because there's a possibility that you won't be able to fight alongside us anymore. We're worried about you because there's a distinct chance that you'll die from whatever this is. You don't remember what happened that night, which gives us no real leads, and that's difficult for us. Because we're your friends."

It shouldn't be that difficult to comprehend, but Steve's mind felt muddled. He had to close his eyes for a moment, letting the words wash over him, letting their truth settle. The gang was his team, and spending as much time together as they did was sure to form a camaraderie, which meant mutual respect. In retrospect, Steve didn't know why he was so alarmed. Of course they were all friends. A minute smile twitched at the corners of his lips as he cataloged through the memories he shared with them. It faded, though, as the impact of what Bruce said hit him. "Why am I here instead of medical then?"

"They don't know how to treat what they can't detect." Bruce answered bluntly. "Your body and mind feel like crap, right?"

"That's putting it nicely."

"Right. None of the equipment can pick up on that. Take the gash across your back, for example: while it isn't bleeding, it looks bad, and yet no matter what's done, nothing changes; it's the same condition as it was when you were first brought in. Same with your ankle, to an extent. The doctors tried scanning them with several different instruments, but no results were found, despite the proof being right there. Who knows what else is going on inside your body. We have no way of making sure everything is functioning properly."

"So." Steve swallowed. "What, my body isn't even working anymore?" Steve looked Bruce in the eyes. "It's failing?"

"It appears so." Bruce sighed. "The headaches, the fevers, the disorientation, and particularly your increasing drowsiness could all be signs that your body is shutting down on you. Thor thinks magic is involved, which makes Coulson think Loki is, too."

"Loki?" Steve echoed as he scrunched up his nose, trying to recall something, but a coughing fit seized him suddenly; he doubled over from the force, feeling his eyes sting and — holy crap, he's never had a fit like this before, not this powerful. On impulse, Steve reached out in front of him, hand groping for something to anchor him as he leaned forward, throat and chest aching, eyes closed, trying to overcome whatever this was, as it certainly wasn't like anything he's experienced since his reversion; he didn't even remember ever experiencing something like this before the war, either.

Steve felt Bruce sit down next to him, felt the arm wrap around his shoulders, and felt Bruce catch his searching hand, giving much appreciated support, and Steve clung to that, gripping Bruce's hand as he tried to calm down. "Jesus fuck," Bruce muttered, rubbing Steve's arm.

"That," Steve managed through ragged breathing, opening his eyes slightly, "that might be blasphemous." Another coughing fit overtook him, causing him to squeeze his eye shut. He shook all over.

"Yeah, well," Bruce let out a breath that could have been a laugh on another occasion, "scold me later. Right now, hush and focus on breathing."

In response to the command, Steve's head slumped onto Bruce's shoulder as he tried to calm down. "Sorry..." Steve gasped after a while, namely just to say something. And possibly because he's nearly close to cuddling the man.

"Oh, it's so much trouble," Bruce deadpanned, squeezing Steve's hand in reassurance. "You're fine, Steve, just relax, okay?"

Not having the strength to nod, Steve remained quiet, eyes still closed as his breathing evened out. It's tolerable now, somewhat. He still felt pain, but Bruce's presence and support helped relax him as he leaned further into the man, weary.

"Better?" Bruce asked lightly, idly moving his hand along Steve's arm. "Whatever's happening, it's getting worse. We need to get to the bottom of this." He spoke quietly, almost as if he were talking to himself.

Steve hummed a little, not even attempting to move; he was too comfortable and felt a lot more at ease. "What were we talking about?" He murmured, nearly on the verge of sleep.

"What?" Bruce went still beside him, and Steve frowned slightly.

"And why are you in my room?" Nothing happened for a while, then Bruce gently maneuvered them so Steve was leaning back against the propped up pillows, blinking up at Bruce standing at his bedside. "What...?"

Bruce set his jaw. "Try to get some sleep, okay? I have to go check something." He stood there another few seconds then, with a nod, left the room, leaving Steve staring after him, feeling as if he was missing something.

———

Another cold night settled over New York City, and the others told Steve to stay in his room. Stay away from the windows, even. And Jarvis would probably tattle on him if he moved around too much. Which meant he was resigned to reclining in his bed, sketchpad in his lap, light from his nightstand lamp pooling over his bed. Bruce had brought him a few books, which he tried reading, but Steve wasn't in the mood.

He was flipping through the pages, looking at everything he drew after he woke up, touching up a few things, when he felt a chill in the air, causing him to look up. There stood Loki, green eyes watching him from the shadows of his room. Steve blinked. Loki was still there. The god smiled, and suddenly everything clicked into place. "Here to gloat?"

"Why?" Loki raised an eyebrow, stepping out of the shadows. "Have I reason to, Captain?"

Unimpressed at the bait, Steve returned his attention to his sketchpad, flipping to the most recent sketch. "Guess not, or you'd be here in the flesh."

He couldn't see it, but Steve felt Loki narrowing his eyes. "Well done. Most don't see through my illusions."

"I didn't see through anything. You just told me. Plus, I know you wouldn't risk coming here while the others are upset. You know that they'd love an excuse to throw punches."

He made a noncommittal sound. "They do seem rather taken by you."

"Surprised?" Steve looked up then. "Didn't think they would care for the runt?"

"Tell me," Loki started, taking a few steps closer, "is it wise for you to speak so boldly in your current state?"

"I never said I was wise."

"Your friends mistake your stupidity for bravery. My brother had the same problem."

"I thought you said he wasn't your brother."

"Remember that, do you?" Loki smirked. "Interesting."

Steve stared at Loki's projection for a while. "So, my memory's going to go, too? My body is already failing for no medically explained reason."

"I must admit I am impressed you lasted this long."

"I'm more stubborn than you think." Shrugging, Steve looked down and started to idly erase portions of the drawing.

"Stubbornness has nothing to do with it."

"And what does?" He looked up again. "Me being on the same team as your brother? Or me being able to lift the hammer?" Steve felt something graze his cheek, and his eyes widened minutely as he felt blood trickle from the cut.

"Don't think I can't cause you pain simply because this is an illusion."

Refusing to wipe the blood away, Steve gazed evenly at Loki's illusion. "Struck a nerve, then?"

Loki narrowed his eyes. "You must truly wish for death."

"No, Loki, I don't. I just have faith that my team, that my friends will win against whatever you choose to throw at them. You took my capabilities as Captain America out of the equation, but that doesn't mean the Avengers will be weaker because of it." Steve stared as Loki made a face. "And you know it, don't you? Whatever your plan was backfired." Steve spoke with more certainty, and Loki's eyes narrowed as he stepped forward.

"Their strength will change once you're dead."

"I don't know about that. They like avenging things. My death would probably make them stronger."

"And what if you didn't die?" Loki smiled. "What if you simply lie here, in this bed, asleep, in obvious pain? Do you think they could keep level heads in that situation? Or do you think tension will build to a breaking point? Or better yet, what if you lose your memories of them? Picture it: you, stumbling around in this room in agony, trying your hardest to fight those who try to help you. Do you think that scenario will be better at breaking them?" Loki reached out, his fingers ghosting over Steve's cheek. "Tell me, Captain, which, of the many possibilities I can make reality, would you prefer? The result, of course, is the same, no matter which option you choose: their leader will be their downfall."

Steve remained quiet, face blank as he listened to Loki, as he felt the chill against his cheek, his eyes never leaving the god's. He didn't like the game Loki was playing, but he didn't doubt his team. Not anymore. "No matter what you do to me, they will defeat you." His mind had never been clearer, his conviction never been stronger, as he held Loki's gaze. "You won't win this."

Face blank, Loki stepped back, eyes ablaze. "We shall see." Loki snapped his fingers, and Steve was out.

———

Run. It's so close. You can taste it. Keep running. Keep fighting. Don't you dare give up.

———

Bruce opened his door, pushing Tony into his room, and Steve raised an eyebrow. "This idiot keeps walking past your door, so I figured he wanted to see you."

"I will kill you, Banner." Tony muttered, but he didn't try to walk out.

Steve smiled, gesturing for Tony to come in further as he chuckled. "Hi, Tony." He waved at Bruce, who smiled as he closed the door. Tony just stood there, eying Steve as if he was going to attack him. It almost made Steve sigh. They've been treating him like a time bomb for the past day, and sure, he had little strength, but Steve refused to go out that easily. Next to him, his phone buzzed. Curious, Steve looked at the screen. It was a text from Bruce.

I'm pretty sure he wants to have a heart to heart. Try not to break him again.

Suppressing a smile, Steve typed back, Jerk.

The almost immediate reply was, Brat.

"So," Steve started as he put aside his phone, tilting his head as he took in Tony's wary expression and hesitant posture, "about your dad." Instantly, Tony's body language changed as he frowned slightly, his shoulders becoming more rigid, his hands balling into fists, and his jaw set. Nothing about him spoke hesitance, and he practically screamed defiance. Steve laughed, which caused Tony to arch his eyebrow. "Sorry, but that look is better than the one you had before."

Narrowing his eyes, Tony tried not to let his smile show. "Asshole." He moved to sit in Bruce's chair by Steve's bedside, lightly drumming at his knees when he got situated.

Another wave of weariness hit him, so Steve figured he'd better just get to the point. "What did you do?" He asked, suppressing a wince, "When you were captured. When you realized the condition of your heart."

Clearly caught off guard, Tony fumbled. "I..." He cleared his throat.

Steve coughed a bit, trying to downplay it and hoping he didn't pass out on Tony. "If you don't want to talk about it, it's fine."

Looking at him worriedly, Tony shook his head. "Didn't say that. I was just... surprised." He remained silent, and Steve, even in his state, could see Tony thinking it over. "It was a bad moment, certainly."

Steve grimaced, trying to regulate his breathing. "How so?" He felt slightly guilty, asking Tony to have this conversation, especially right at this time, but he just wanted to hear it; he wanted Tony to talk about it.

"I was whacked over the head with my... mortality. I had been going through life thinking that it was one big party. And suddenly, wham-bang, you only have a week to live. Bad moment. Bad."

Biting his lip, Steve nodded. "Were you scared?"

"Terrified." Tony tried to smile with his usual charm, but it fell flat.

"But you didn't accept it." Steve prompted, breathing in deeply.

"Well. There was a moment when I was ready to just... roll over. But... Yinsen... I told you about Yinsen, right?"

"Not really, actually. You don't talk about that time a lot." Hence this conversation, Steve wanted to add, but that would have been pushing it. He couldn't fault Tony for bottling it up.

"I didn't?" Tony blinked, and for a moment he looked offended. "I should, then. I owe him my life. He... talked sense into me. He told me that I should man up. Asked me how I wanted to go out — like a coward, or like a hero. Well, he didn't put it like that, but that's essentially what he said."

Closing his eyes, Steve smiled, small and tired. "Sounds like a good man."

He heard Tony sigh. "Yeah. He was. I..." Tony's voice broke, and when Steve opened his eyes, he saw Tony set his jaw, his whole body a little tenser than it was before. "I wanted to get him out, too. But turned out he had a plan, and it wasn't to get out alive."

Steve simply stared at Tony, studying the man's posture and expression, which only made Tony more tense. Steve's features softened as he murmured, "He died to save you."

Hesitating, Tony nodded. "Yeah." With the word came a crumble to Tony's rigidity, his shoulders drooping by fractions. "He gave me the time I needed to boot up the Mark I. Without him, I wouldn't have made it." He looked away then, and Steve just knew he was remembering whatever final moments Tony had with Yinsen.

Steve remained quiet, processing the information, frowning slightly. He knew what that was like; he knew what that was like all too well, but this isn't his story, his time of reflection. It was Tony's.

Fidgeting a little in the silence, Tony cleared his throat again. "Yeah. He helped me become the man I am now. I was... reborn in that cave. And no, the significance of that image isn't lost on me."

Steve nodded weakly. "And ever since, you've been trying to make it count, huh?" Then, in a softer tone, Steve added, "His sacrifice, I mean."

Tony stared at him, eyes bright with remembrance, and when he spoke, his voice was just a bit heavier with emotion. "He asked me... when he was lying there, bloody and dying, he asked me not to waste two lives. I... Yeah. How could I have gone on, being what I was before? It would have made a mockery of his sacrifice. I... realized what I had been before, and that it had to stop." Eyes downcast, Tony frowned.

Steve stayed quiet for a few long moments before trying to offer a smile. "I'm sure you make him proud, Tony." He took a breath, hoping he wasn't pushing anything with his next statement, "You make me proud."

Tony's eyes snapped up to meet Steve's, surprised for a moment before Tony turned unusually serious. "It's not enough. My legacy is based on a body count, Steve. I can never make up for that."

"Tony," Steve breathed, and he hated seeing that look in Tony's eyes, that self depreciation, "you didn't give the bad guys loaded weapons; someone else did. Yes, I know you made them, but you at least had good intentions, right? War is a tricky situation. Lines get blurred; trust me, I know. And trust me when I say you can't live in the past. Learn from it, overcome it, and use it to try to better the future. That's what you're trying to do." Reaching out, Steve placed a hand on Tony's knee, trying to offer what little comfort he could. "It's never easy to deal with death, whether it be from natural causes or battle. It's probably the hardest thing you can go through. But you can't let that weigh you down." He stared at Tony, sighing just slightly. "I have blood on my hands, too. I've lost many men — both under my command and, in some cases, civilians — during that war, and after every battle, I wondered why I was still there and they weren't. I'll never have an answer, not while I'm alive, so the only thing I could do is honor those who've fallen to the best of my ability... until my own death."

Tony looked at him a moment, gaze flickering to the hand on his knee, those eyes of his gleaming with so much depth. Did Tony even know how expressive his eyes were? "I know," he said after a while, tone quiet, as he tapped his own forehead, "in here, I know. And it's what I do. Bettering the future, I mean. It's all I can do. But still... Sometimes I long for the days when making money and having a good time was all I worried about, before Yinsen jump-started my conscience. Life was so much easier then..." He sighed, running a hand over his face. "And even thinking that, longing for that, tells me that I'm not really a better person after all. I'm just trying to be. Faking it, maybe." Tony tried to smile at him, his hand plopping onto his thigh, inches away from Steve's.

Suppressing a sigh, Steve shook his head. "It doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad person. It just makes you human. What makes you a better person is resisting the easy road, and you've done your fair share of that recently. You're a good person, Tony, with the makings in you to become a great person." Squeezing his knee, Steve looked Tony in the eye. "Don't ever doubt that, and don't stop fighting to be that."

Steve could see an actual blush, as light as it was, creep onto Tony's cheeks at his words, and Steve refrained from tapping on Tony's knee, the urge to sketch making his fingers twitch. Tony cleared his throat, twice, three times, and tentatively tried to place his hand over Steve's, though he kept pulling away several times before actually doing it, almost as if he'd get burned. "I'm trying to live up to your example, you know. I keep telling myself, if you think enough of me to consider me your friend, then there must be something inside of me that I'm maybe not seeing, and that I should encourage. It's all down to you. So," — he cleared his throat one more time — "don't die, hear?" Tony gave him a shaky smile. "I mean, you're my conscious, right?"

"You know me, Tony..." Steve tried to smile, eyes downcast somewhat. "I'm a fighter. I've been fighting, and I'll keep fighting. But sometimes, at the end of the day, it won't be enough. It doesn't mean I won't try, though."

That answer didn't comfort Tony at all, Steve could tell. He just sat there, brow creased as he looked at their hands. Then, he let out a huff, frowning. "God, I hate that guy. And magic."

Arching an eyebrow, Steve titled his head. "That guy?"

"Nothing, nothing," Tony waved it off quickly, and that only served to make Steve suspicious. Tony snorted. "Good to know your 'I do not approve of such shenanigans' look still works."

"So you admit there are shenanigans?" Steve smiled, amused but too tired to argue.

"Well, according to Coulson, shenanigans always follow me."

Steve chuckled. "Don't be so difficult with him; he's been through a lot, too."

"Yeah," Tony agreed, a distant look flickering in his eyes for a moment before it was gone, "you think it's a requirement for being on the team?"

"I hope not." Steve closed his eyes, breathing heavier again. "I hope that, when we add more members, some people didn't have to go through some traumatic life changing experience in order to decide to help others." Steve could feel himself falling asleep even as he talked, but for the life of him — what's left of it — he couldn't open his eyes again.

"An ideal world," Tony murmured, and Steve felt a hand on his forehead, a soothing contact that made him sigh, "you'll be okay, Steve. I prom —" Steve heard the door click open, but whatever else was said was lost to him.

———

You won't be alone, you know. Peggy gives him that look, that half smile of encouragement, that half stern expression telling him to get the job done. Bucky just grins, arms crossed. That little guy from Brooklyn too dumb to run away from a fight; he's a man anyone would be proud to follow.

Follow your own words. Beat this.

———

Walking in a straight line proved to be somewhat difficult, but Steve managed to make it to the living room, sketchbook in hand. He refused to stay confined to his room any longer. For the first time in a long while, Steve's mind felt clear, sharp, and he knew he was being kept out of the loop. He also knew the others were in a sorry state because of this mess that he had somehow landed himself in, and Steve didn't like that one bit. They've become something like a family, and he wouldn't let them be torn apart. Hoping that Jarvis actually listened to him when he asked to kept his movements secret, Steve peeked into the living room. And frowned.

Steve watched them, pointing at each other, arguing, talking over one another. This wasn't right. Getting fed up, Steve threw his sketchbook at them, watching as it landed in the middle of the circle they had formed, and their attention snapped to him, surprised. It took all of Steve's strength not to glare as he stepped into the room, his steps shaky.

Tony frowned. "Steve, you shouldn't be —"

"Shouldn't be what? Walking around? Getting out of my room? Not sulking in defeat?" He knew he was being a little harsh, but Steve needed to talk to them. Since they all walked on eggshells around him, this was the only way to do it.

"You know he didn't mean it like that." Bruce commented, eying Steve with curious concern.

"I know, but it came across just the same. But please, don't let me interrupt your arguments, go right ahead and continue."

"We weren't arguing," Coulson started, but Steve held up his hand.

"No? Could have fooled me. You all were ready to tear each other's heads off because you're worried about getting the serum back, getting me healthy, and I'm sorry, but I've had enough of it." He stared them down, looking each of his friends in the eye. "And here's why: We aren't special. None of us are special. We simply do what's right, and we will continue to do what's right, regardless of how much backlash it brings us. All of you, each and every one of you, know what that's like, know what it is to rise above something that was meant to keep you down. This is no different. This, whatever it is, is meant to hurt the team, to stop you from doing what needs to be done, and I'll be damned if I'm the reason the Avengers fight each other. So you better own up because, regardless of what happens to me, there will always be those who try to take what they want without care of what lies lost and broken in their wake, and there needs to be someone around to stop them, to stand firm and united for what's right."

"Steve," Bruce sighed, running a hand through his hair, but Steve shook his head, smiling slightly.

"I know I don't know what's exactly going on." He spoke softer. "I know that I'm missing some key memories, but my mind has never been so clear, and I know that what my gut tells me isn't wrong. Trust me. I refuse to be used against you."

"What do you want us to do then? Just not care?" Tony demanded.

"I didn't say that. I'm glad you do, but if that means turning against each other and not working together, you need to stow it." He sighed, eyes downcast. "I know what it's like, losing a friend. We all do." He looked up then, resolute. "But we can't let that stop us or let it come between us. We have to fight the threat, together."

Coulson raised his eyebrow. "You know who's behind this?"

Smiling humorlessly, Steve shook his head. "I don't, but my sketchbook does." At the confused stares he got, Steve shrugged. "I can't look in it. Jarvis told me I tried four times, and each time I passed out. I don't remember any of that." Though, he did remember feeling so groggy when he woke up after the fourth time, when Jarvis informed him of his behavior.

Clint picked up the notebook and flipped through it, Natasha looking over his shoulder, scanning the pages for whatever clue was in there, as Tony paced lightly. Thor and Coulson simply stood where they were, waiting for the answer, and Bruce moved closer to Steve, though not crowding.

"These are nice," Clint commented offhandedly after a while.

Steve snorted. "I don't even remember what's in there."

"Bruce, mostly." Natasha informed him, eyes not leaving the pages.

The others looked at Steve, and he opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He cleared his throat, blushing a bit. "Ah. Well, okay then."

"Does this mean Bruce is the key?" Thor questioned. "So it really is a kiss to break the spell?"

"I don't think so, Thor." Bruce offered, face mostly blank except for the small quirk of amusement to his eyebrow as he looked at Steve, which caused his blush to darken.

"Hey," Clint nudged Natasha, nodding at a page, "what does that look like to you?"

"Clint, you're not supposed to be playing guess." Tony rolled his eyes, rocking slightly with nervous energy.

"No, there's a word erased into this drawing," Natasha clarified, her face darkening. She whispered something to Clint, and he shrugged.

Steve narrowed his eyes. "Whatever it is, don't let me be used against you. Got it?" They all nodded hesitantly.

"Well, what's the word?" Tony asked, practically twitching in anticipation.

"I don't think we should say it in front of Steve." Clint dodged, placing the sketchbook on the coffee table. "Though, looks like Coulson was right."

Thor's grip on Mjolnir tightened. "So it's —"

"Loki," Steve gasped, eyes wide as memories came crashing back, causing him to stumble backward, a hand holding his head.

"Steve, Jesus," Bruce rushed to catch him before he fell, "what the hell."

"Loki's here." Thor growled, swinging Mjolnir and taking off.

Coughing, Steve shivered, clutching his head tighter. "Together," he grit out, hoping the others heard him as they scrambled. Bruce's concerned face was the last image he saw before the world turned black.

———

Loki stands before him, eyes narrowed, and Steve doesn't cower. He'll never cower. Shaking his head, Loki outstretches his arm, a blue flame flickering on his palm. Unafraid, feeling the warmth of his team in the distance, Steve reaches for it. Loki sneers. "So vexing." Steve grabs the flame, holding it in his own palm, eyes never leaving Loki's. "I told you." Steve closes his hand, the fire burning bright before it sinks into his skin. "There will be more opportunities, Captain. Rest while you can." Then, Loki disappears.

Turning slightly, Steve sees Bucky and Peggy, and they wave him off. "That's the Steve we love."

———

Steve opened his eyes, blinking up at the ceiling of his room. By the light trickling in, he'd guess it was just after seven in the morning, and the room temperature was its usual, before Jarvis adjusted it for his lack of body heat. He didn't have to look at himself to know he had the serum back, not when he could breathe easier, could hear everything in the room again. Turning his head, Steve saw Bruce sitting in his chair, going through his sketchbook. Well then. "We've got to stop meeting like this." When Bruce looked up, Steve offered him smile.

"Well, stop being a lazy ass and get out of bed." Bruce returned the smile, not bothering to move from his position.

"Where are the others?"

"Assisting Thor with Loki. I don't think he was expecting that much force coming at him."

Steve hmmed, recalling all the memories since Loki messed with him. He hadn't counted on the team sticking with Steve; hell, he hadn't counted on Steve sticking with Steve. Loki would never make that mistake again. A page turn brought Steve out of his musings, and he focused on the sketchbook in Bruce's hands. "I don't recall giving you permission to look through that."

"I don't recall giving you permission to draw some of these." He responded, eyes still on the pages. "What do you do, stealth draw?"

Snorting, Steve shook his head. "No. I just have a photographic memory, more or less." He sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, accidentally bumping into Bruce's chair. "Sorry."

"More adjusting to do?" Bruce asked, eyebrow arched, as he closed the book, placing in on the nightstand. He stood up, pushing the chair back some with his leg.

"It's a constant thing, I guess." Steve shrugged, not bothering to hide his grin.

Bruce shook his head, sporting that smile of his, and he leaned down to place a chaste kiss on Steve's lips. "I have faith you can handle it." Bruce said simply when he pulled back, amused.

"Jerk," Steve murmured, his hands on Bruce's hips, a besotted smile on his lips.

Chuckling, Bruce replied, "Brat," as he leaned in for another kiss.