Actions

Work Header

Fifteen Short Stories About Teamwork

Work Text:

It’s been a week since they stopped an alien invasion and sent Loki back to Asgard. Bruce has spent most of that time in the unruined floors of Tony’s building. He’s not hiding – SHIELD knows exactly where he is – but he isn’t sure where he’s planning to go next. Bruce hasn’t had the time to plan a ‘where’ over the past few years. ‘From’ has habitually been more important.

“So stick around,” Tony says.

“I can’t just stay here forever, Tony.”

“I’m not saying forever. I’m saying as long as you want.”

“Tony.”

Tony is looking at his hands, or at the point where his hands are pressing inside the guts of his repulsors, spread out over the workbench. “I’m not getting the impression you actually want to go anywhere. Or am I wrong?”

“It’s not that I want to… I can’t just live here.”

“Why not?” Tony asks.

“Tony.”

“I’m serious. People have roommates, that’s a thing normal people do, right?”

Bruce laughs. “We’re normal?”

“We could be normal.”

“No we couldn’t.”

Tony puts the metal down and turns to look at Bruce. His goggles are pressed into the mess of his hair and there’s grease streaked down the side of his face. Tony says, “Okay, so we’re not normal. Stay anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because I have three or four houses and a lab right here full of exciting data about inter-dimensional travel and unlimited power supplies that maybe, maybe, ten people in the world would understand and we’re two of them.”

“So it’s not just because I have nowhere else to go?” Bruce asks.

Tony smiles. “You have lots of other places to go. I’ve read your file, Banner – it seems to me you could go just about anywhere and probably have. If you really want to go, don’t let me stop you.”

“But?”

“But don’t go just because you think you should. Why leave when things are starting to get interesting?”

Bruce stays.

 

*

 

“They told me you were in here.”

Clint exhales, takes his shot, and lowers his bow. “Well, they would know.”

“Are you supposed to be back on the range?”

“No.”

“But no one’s going to stop you.”

“I guess they think if they try I might go crazy and shoot some people again.”

Banner sighs. “I don’t think that was their concern.”

“I’d ask if you have a lot of experience with people thinking you’re… but I’m a little smarter than that. Just a little.”

“You mind if I sit here?”

Clint shrugs. He’s already being watched on camera by SHIELD security, probably at least one set of psychologists, and maybe Hill. One more person can’t hurt.

He stretches up and draws another arrow. Clint feels as though he needs to get back in shape, as though he doesn’t know his own body. That’s a feeling he isn’t used to. He’s been unsure of a lot of things but the shape of his hand around a bow hasn’t been one of them since he was first learning the trade. He hadn’t faltered, with Loki in his head. He had been so sure.

Banner is videoing Clint. He says, “I’m going to move over here to your left hand side, all right?”

Clint is a little sick of being treated like something that might break, but he also knows how he feels about people sneaking up on him. He takes the warning the way it was meant. He asks, “Do I want to know what you’re doing?”

“Research.”

“All right.”

“For Tony.”

“You’re still over there?”

Banner tips his head to one side. “Well, he doesn’t want rent, which is good because I have no money. But he does send me out to look at things. He’s subcontracting his consultancy.”

Clint lowers his bow. “He’s consulting on me?” Clint can take the SHIELD scrutiny but Stark?

“No,” Banner says quickly. “Well, the bow, but he was doing that before. He’s consulting on me, I suppose. We’re working on an arrowhead that can take the other guy out without destroying the block.”

“And you want me to have one of those?” The rest of SHIELD still won’t let Clint take the bow out of the range in the Helicarrier.

“We figure if they lose control of him, you’re the one they’re going to send.”

Clint readies another arrow. “They’d have to approve me for field work again first.”

“They will.”

“You know that for sure?” Clint fires and turns.

Banner says, “Well, given that Loki’s in Asgard, he’s unlikely to make a threat out of you again. I am pretty much always a threat, and SHIELD sent me into the field anyway. You’ll be approved to go out again just as soon as they get a mission that needs your skills. My bet would be within the next two weeks.”

That’s more comforting than it should be. Clint knows this is all ostensibly for his own good, and the good of the mission, but it’s nice to be reassured that when it comes right down to it, SHIELD are going to choose the asset over his perceived psychological well-being. Clint heals better on the move.

Banner coughs. “Anyway. I’ve got my film. When Tony calls you tomorrow, he’s trying to ask you to visit the Tower and have a look at the designs. So ignore whatever it is he actually says and just come over around seven.”

Clint nods before he thinks about it. “Sure, okay.” At least Stark’s going to let him have a bow.

 

*

 

Steve has been doing some sightseeing, but when Fury calls and says they need him on a mission, he takes the motorbike and drives to Tennessee.

He meets up with a SHIELD team of agents he doesn’t recognise and who get flustered when he speaks to them. That doesn’t seem like a good start to a mission. Steve is proven right in this feeling three hours in, when he gets stranded on the warehouse floor with all of his back-up team on the other side of the building.

Steve takes down the first wave of guards. All the alarms sound, and they send in another team, better prepared this time. Steve could really do with his backup finding their way through to him. Something flies past his head – Steve can feel the air move - and then there’s a wall of smoke between him and the new attackers.

Steve hears the zipzipzip of arrows coming down around him. When the smoke clears, the guards are all down.

Steve taps his radio hesitantly. “Hawkeye?”

“Up here.”

Steve looks up towards the rafters but doesn’t see him. “I didn’t think they were sending you out on ops yet.”

“First day back.”

“They didn’t tell me.”

“Don’t think they were planning to.”

“Why not?”

“Maybe they weren’t sure you’d want to work with me. Sssh.”

Steve hears the footsteps too. He moves across into a better corner. When the men burst into the room, Steve sends the shield ricocheting across the warehouse and follows after it.

Clint calls, “Stop!”

Steve freezes where he stands. An arrow flies through the open door at an impossible angle, and there’s a yelp from the hallway. Steve takes out the one that has managed to get through into the room. He looks around to where he can see Hawkeye now, hanging upside down from a beam. Steve asks, before he can think not to, “Why’d you think I wouldn’t want to work with you?”

Clint says, “Did you? I saw the look on your face when you heard the arrow.”

“You surprised me.”

“Surprised you when Natasha gave the okay to have me in the field the first time too.”

Steve remembers that - he remembers everything about that day. He says, “I wasn’t checking you were clean, I was checking you were okay.”

Clint exhales. “We’ll have to disagree on that.” He drops from the beam and flips to land on his feet. “Ready to go?”

They step past the unconscious and incapacitated bodies that the two of them have left. Steve nods at the one in the hallway and says, “I think I’ve only known one other person who could have made that shot.”

Clint smiles at the ground. “I’m more or less okay with being second best to Bucky Barnes.”

Steve hadn’t meant to say that, hadn’t meant ‘you’re good but my friend was better’, but Clint is smiling anyway. Steve says, “Thanks for the back-up. I hate working alone.”

 

*

 

Natasha isn’t entirely comfortable tailing Steve. She’s also not sure why they’ve sent her. She usually gets the difficult sells, but Steve is already filled with the joy of duty. Plus he’s already said yes to working with SHIELD, and they’ve tested him on assignment. He just goes missing occasionally. He visits VA hospitals and piano bars and other places where, as far as she can tell, he has no history at all.

He is Steve Rogers, and no one ever had to tell him what to use his talents for, so she takes the seat beside him in the movie theater and stops chasing. “Captain Rogers.”

“Hello Natasha.”

“Hello.”

“How long have you been following me?” Steve asks.

“A few weeks, on and off. People are concerned about you.”

“There’s an awful lot of concern,” Steve says. “Not a lot of talking. I saw Clint last week.”

“I know.”

“You aren’t concerned about him?”

They wouldn’t let her trail Clint, even if she could guarantee that it would work. They have very recent proof that she can take him at close-quarters and Natasha is mostly sure that she could follow him without him spotting her. But right now he is even more alert to tails than usual, which is reasonable because he definitely has one. It just isn’t Natasha, because they don’t trust her to be objective. That’s probably reasonable too.

Natasha says, “Clint is fine.”

“He will be. We all will be,” Steve says. He leans back in the seat. “So what have you found out about me?”

Natasha has found out a lot, none of it particularly surprising. Steve is what he appears to be. That is surprising in itself; she knows no one else with so few secrets. Natasha looks at the movie screen and says, “You like fairy stories.”

Steve laughs. “Did you know the princesses save themselves now?”

“I did,” Natasha says.

Steve offers her his popcorn, a gentleman ever, and says, “Yeah, I guess I did too.”

 

*

 

Thor tries to keep his footsteps soft, although he does not want to startle Dr Banner either. It has been ten months by the Midgard calendar since he saw this team, and once this new battle was done Thor had accepted the invitation to go back to Tony Stark’s mansion.

He hasn’t seen Dr Banner at all – the man was in his other form during the battle, and Thor has not seen him since. When he asked, Stark had said, “He’s in the lab but I wouldn’t- oh, you’re going anyway. Fine, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Thor coughs. “Might I ask what you are studying?”

Banner startles a little. “That depends how you are on gamma-ray bursts.”

“You are looking at other worlds?”

He turns to look at Thor. “Other galaxies anyway. But I suppose with you around I shouldn’t limit myself.”

“No. You should… my Jane, I think, would like to meet you.”

“Yes?” He seems a little amused by this. “Maybe we can double-date some time.”

“She studies the stars too.”

“I don’t really- it’s not so much the stars as the energy given off by stars.”

“This is what gives you your power.”

He is trying to understand but Banner makes a sound that is half a sigh and half a growl. It makes Thor’s hackles rise. Banner takes off his glasses, folding and unfolding them. He says, “That’s not how I would put it. Why are you here, Thor?”

That answer he knows. “Because you landed a blow on me in battle once again.”

Banner says, “Pretty sure that was the other guy. If you want to talk to him about it, I’d rather you waited until I was finished working.”

“No.” He is not always good with words. Loki has that skill but Thor has never mastered it. He says, “If I have offended you in some way-.”

“Again, it’s not really about me.”

That is not true. In battle, Hulk follows the commands Steve issues, and he tracks Iron Man carefully. Thor is the only one of their team he has struck more than once. Thor shakes his head. “I have not always been… I respect your prowess as a warrior and a man of science.”

Banner blinks a few times. “Okay.”

“I would appreciate if your counterpart could refrain from punching me when we are in combat with another. I would gladly take him on in a test of strength, but in the midst of battle we could be distracted by such things.”

Banner smiles at him. “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

*

 

Tony is probably the only person on the team who would be surprised to learn that Clint’s a little bit claustrophobic. So naturally he’s the one around when the walls fall down and Clint gets stuck underneath a good three floors of a building.

Tony says, “Huh.” His voice is as clear through Clint’s comm. as if he were standing beside him, though he was on the other side of the collapse when it happened.

Clint can deal just fine – he’s had to, over the years, but he’d be dealing better if it weren’t for the fact that he’s out here with Tony who has to talk about everything. Clint has been forced into more talking over the past months than he’s comfortable with, and he would much prefer if they could just sit here in silence. Tony of course has other plans.

Tony says, “No, really, it’s just- huh.” He coughs. “If it- I’m not great with my head under water. Or caves, though that’s less of an issue in my day-to-day life.” He must take Clint’s silence as inquiry because he continues, “Apparently I am not a good hostage.”

Afghanistan, Clint realises. Tony went missing in Afghanistan and there was never any ransom demand but something must have happened out there. Water, he says, and caves.

“I’m not a big fan of caves myself,” Clint says. “And I’ve really gone off magic in recent years.” Tony probably already knows that, but Clint feels like he should offer something as a response. Clint had been an excellent hostage.

“Yeah,” Tony says. “Well, hey, look on the bright side. If it weren’t for the resiliency of Stark-tech, we wouldn’t be able to talk at all, and you’d be freaking out alone over there. But, you know, I’m here.”

It’s typical Stark bombast and Clint knows half the time he does it for effect so he laughs. “I’m feeling real reassured.”

“I don’t do reassurance, so much,” Tony says. “But I’m going to be through this stuff in another minute or so. You just lie there and keep me amused.”

“Is that what you tell all the girls?”

Tony laughs. “You would be so lucky.”

Clint laughs back, and keeps breathing. He’s stuck but he’s not stuck in his head, and he can already hear Tony breaking through the floors to get him back. He has been trapped in worse places.

 

*

 

Tony is never going to get used to the way Natasha sneaks up on him. He doesn’t give her the satisfaction of shouting out, which is a small victory but he’ll take it. Tony asks, “What’s the point of me having state of the art security if people are going to keep on walking in?”

“What makes you think I walked?” Her smiles are becoming no less terrifying with familiarity, but Tony is mostly sure that she’s not here to kill him. She says, “I heard you got into a fight today.”

“I get into all kinds of fights.” Tony doesn’t touch the bruises still blossoming on his face.

“I hear you weren’t wearing the suit.”

“Not when it started. I blame Happy for that. He needs to get faster at bringing the case through security. Or I need to figure out how to fool metal detectors. Or, really, people need to stop being such jackasses about me just bringing it with me. You bring weapons places, right? And the armour is only sort of a weapon anyway. If anyone asks you. Which they probably won’t, and if they did you would just do that eyebrow thing, but anyway. You’re here.”

“Yes.”

“To mock me for getting my ass handed to me?” Tony asks.

“To show you how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“We’ve discussed this,” Tony says. “I had three plans to stop it happening again.”

“Then this is number four,” she says. “You’re coming with me to your gym.”

“And what makes you think my ego can take you wiping the floor with me like you did Happy that time?”

“Because it’s me or Steve, and I think your ego knows its priorities.”

Tony follows her. “It couldn’t be Clint? I’m far less threatened by Clint.”

“Then clearly you don’t know him well enough.”

Tony is a little, although only a little, tired of being surrounded by gorgeous people who could kill him with their pinkies. At least there are compensating factors.

Natasha takes up a stance in front of him on the mats. “I’m going to rush you, and you’re going to try and stop me.”

“And when you flip me over your head like the terrifying ninja assassin you are?”

She says, “Then I’ll explain what you did wrong, and we’ll do it again.”

“And approximately how long do you think it’s going to take before I actually stop you?”

She smiles again. Tony really needs some new friends.

 

*

 

Natasha has only met Jane Foster briefly, but she liked the woman. That is the only reason she stops Thor before he leaves the Tower. “What is that?”

“On this day, two years ago, Jane struck me with her car after I fell to this world.”

“Yes,” Natasha says. She has heard that story, thankfully, so she can work her way from near vehicular manslaughter to second anniversary.

“I am told that the Midgard tradition is to bring foliage.”

“Flowers,” she amends. “Not usually trees.”

Thor heaves the hazel tree with its bundled roots behind him. “I have consulted with the internet. In your world, this tree symbolises knowledge. It resembles an Asgardian tree with similar properties, which also offers protection to the possessor. Would this not mean more to her than fragile blooms which are already dead?” This appears to be a genuine question.

Natasha thinks about it. She isn’t romantic. Plenty of men have bought her flowers but none of them have meant anything. The men she cared about in return aren’t the kind of men who buy flowers. She looks at Thor. “At least tell Jane why you brought her a tree.”

He nods vigorously. “I will. I intend to serenade her.”

“Are you planning to do this in public?”

“I had not decided. Jane has told me that there are some things we should only talk of in our own company.”

“I think a love-song is one of those things.”

Thor pats her arm with the hand not holding onto a tree. “I thank you for your advice.”

Natasha smiles at him and lets him leave. Then she goes to find the others. Thor had passed at least three other people en route to leaving the building and no one else had asked what he was doing with the tree? She needs to have a little talk with them.

 

*

 

The problem with Thor, Tony decides, is that he doesn’t really get irony. Or sarcasm. Or most of their cultural references, which is a problem Steve has too, but Steve can mostly figure out when Tony is taking him for a ride. Thor is pretty literal.

So when Tony stubs his toe on the armour abandoned on his living room floor, and demands, “Does anyone actually remember me inviting them into my home? Because I’m not sure I asked to have the extended costumed sleepover from hell going on across ten floors of my building,” Thor looks hurt.

Thor says, “If I am unwelcome, I can take my leave.” He turns on his heel and heads out of the door.

“Crap. Hey, wait, don’t.” Tony trails him out to the hallway. “Mi casa is su casa, you know that.”

Thor wrinkles his brow. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m working on a translation chip, actually, which would be really helpful right about now. Stay, you guys can be- it’s fine. Though if you want to not leave heavy pieces of armour on my floor, that would also be good.”

Truthfully, Tony didn’t invite any of them here but Bruce, and that was mostly because Bruce had nowhere else to go. The part of it that wasn’t about that was because Tony needs company sometimes and needs solitude the rest of the time and Bruce understands both of those things. The others don’t, always. Tony might have invited them anyway, because the only other place that Clint and Natasha live is SHIELD and that’s too depressing to think about, Steve still doesn’t like to spend money on himself so his apartment is barren, and Thor’s other residence is in another world altogether.

It probably worked out better this way. If Tony had actually invited them, they most likely wouldn’t have come. This way, Clint had visited to discuss arrow upgrades one day and Tony hadn’t noticed for months that there were weapons hidden all over his house. He didn’t notice Natasha at all until the house was attacked in the middle of the night and she appeared out of the shadows to break the invader’s neck. (That was before security upgrade number twenty-six.) Steve had been more obvious, cautiously asking Tony if it was okay if he spent the night on the couch, as if Tony doesn’t have enough guestrooms to open a hotel. Thor had just been the last piece of the puzzle, and it was only the fact that he hadn’t been on earth for months that had kept him away.

Tony mutters, “Did I accidentally make us a clubhouse?”

Thor cocks his head. “In my father’s court, the most respected warriors feast at one table, the better to celebrate their mighty deeds. In wartime, they gather to counsel together. Surely this is no different?”

Tony imagines that in Odin’s court they hold fewer X-Box tournaments on their quiet days, but he knows what Thor means.

 

*

 

Steve Rogers claims that he does not relish the thrill of combat. Thor is more cautious now about entering a fight, but when he is in one, there are still moments of splendour. His blood still sings with it.

“Well, you’re Asgardian,” Steve says, “I think that’s probably a part of it.”

“I am a warrior,” Thor argues.

“And I’m a soldier,” Steve says, “even if Tony says we’re not.”

“Tony is not a soldier,” Thor agrees, “although he relishes the battle.” Tony makes his machines sing as enters the fray, like the poets of old.

Steve does not appear to agree with this. He says, “I’m not saying I want to be doing something else. I just don’t- I’m not sure that it should be fun.”

“We do not take joy in another’s pain,” Thor says. “We do not rush to battle. But when we are called to one…” He sends Mjolnir crashing into the enemy hordes. “Then we should find what pleasure we may.”

Steve slams his shield into the oncoming fray. “How is that different?”

“We do our duty,” Thor explains. “We fight for our honour, for our homes, in defence of the innocents, of those we love. What greater joy than that?”

Steve moves so he is back to back with Thor. The battle crashes around them but the tide turns their way. Steve looks over his shoulder, smiling, “There could be something in that.”

 

*

 

Clint calls, “Remember when you said we weren’t trained for this?”

Natasha’s head turns, surprised. Clint awards himself points for that. She says, “I remember.”

“You think we’re going to hit something we were trained for any time soon?”

“You are shooting things and I am shooting things. What part of this is unexpected?”

Clint can see the smile she’s refusing to give him but he feeds her the line anyway. “I personally find the fact that we’re shooting animated toys a little unsettling.”

“SHIELD isn’t going to like the press photos of this one, no.”

They’ve had to shoot out more than a few teddy bears. It’s the sort of thing Coulson would have hated: dealing with the headlines that come out of a photograph of crying kids when Clint explodes an army of Tickle-Me-Elmos. That’s a hurt that still stings, but Clint is prodding at those a little recently. It’s been long enough. Clint says, “I’m sure Tony can arrange for us to do a toy drive or something later to earn back the good publicity. He’ll pay and Steve can do the handing out part.”

“And you and I do what?” Natasha asks.

“We keep an eye out for anyone trying to enchant the toys and use them to take over the city. Just like we were trained to do.”

He catches the flicker of smile as she turns, hair a red blur around her face. She takes off at a run and doesn’t say, “Cover me,” because that is something no one ever had to train Clint to do. Some things become instinct.

 

*

 

Thor knows that he is not to be held responsible for Loki’s misdeeds, but he still has difficulty meeting the sharp eyes of Clint Barton.

One of Loki’s adherents had found their way to the City of New York, creating weak illusions which were nevertheless enough to sow confusion among the people.

Thor had heard Clint curse, “Fucking magic,” and then go silent for the rest of the bout. Thor had not been on Midgard for months after Loki’s assault, but he has been led to understand that Clint spent some of that time forbidden from combat. His leaders had believed that he could still be damaged by the thrall, although Thor had told them that all the spells were broken.

Thor goes to find Clint, though the archer is well at staying hidden when he chooses. This night, though, Clint is merely sitting alone in the kitchen, his hands curled around a coffee mug.

Erik has told Thor that he should drink less coffee at night, but he does not believe it has the same effect on him as on the mortals. He crosses the room to pour himself a mug.

Clint asks, “Can’t sleep?”

“I was looking for you.”

“Found me.”

“What were your thoughts on today’s bout?”

Clint’s eyes widen a fraction. “You’re asking me?”

“Yes.”

“Uh, I think it went okay? Except for the parts where we never have a clue what we’re up against when some asshole comes in with- yeah.”

“With magic.”

Clint shrugs. “Tony and Bruce say it’s all science.”

“You disagree.”

“Yeah. I think there are things that- you know, I don’t even know. We’ve got the stuff to brainwash people, we just can’t do it in three seconds flat with a stick. Maybe it’s all just degrees.”

Thor doesn’t like the helplessness in his voice. He says, “It requires study. Loki always said that…” He stops when Clint’s mouth tightens. “Forgive me.”

“What for?”

“I shouldn’t speak of him. He-.”

Clint sighs. “He’s your brother.”

“Yes.”

“And if I could have put an arrow through his eye that day, I would have. I don’t have much problem killing people who deserve it and I’ve got no love in my heart for your brother save what he planted there and Nat blew away again. But he’s your brother, so I get that you disagree with me.”

“It is not that I-.”

“No,” Clint says patiently, “but he’s your brother. Believe me, I get it.” His voice is smaller when he says, “I would have done anything for mine. And he tried to end me just about as thoroughly as yours did.”

Family, Thor thinks, Asgardian or Midgardian, they have no rationality when it comes to the ones they love. Thor says, “Then he was undeserving of you.”

Clint smiles wryly. “Yeah, I’m told I have heart.”

Thor sits alongside Clint at the breakfast bar and leans against his shoulder. “There is no shame in that.”

 

*

 

Natasha is not afraid of many things but she is afraid of him. She does not take her eyes off him while he transforms from Bruce into Hulk. And when he is Bruce again, he seems to remember that. He walks softly around her, smiling that apologetic smile which she knows is no guarantee against violence.

He can’t be reasoned with. The others, no matter their strength, have buttons she knows how to push. Hulk is not only rage, but there is enough of that so she cannot talk her way through it. Natasha has tried to talk him down before without success.

And so he scares her, but she cannot let that stop her. They all have their own contingency plans for what they would do if; Tony denies it but she has caught Bruce talking with him, urgent the way he is about the things that matter. She can’t be the one to stand back.

Bruce stands beside her in the kitchen and pours them both tea. “You scare him too, if it helps at all.”

“I’m sorry?”

Bruce smiles. “Or you scare me, and that’s enough for him.”

“You’ve said yourself I couldn’t shoot you without getting him.”

“No,” Bruce says, “but we’ll work on something.”

She knows that Bruce and Tony worked together on Clint’s arrows. She doesn’t know what they can do to her bite, but they’re smart men, she’s sure they’ll think of something. Natasha says, “It doesn’t bother you?”

“What?”

“That he scares me.”

“Someone should be scared. Tony’s not- I like that he’s not scared, but it’s selfish. So I like that someone’s scared too. You’re scared but you would come after me anyway, if it came down to it. You’re the one who sees what he is – you would do what you had to do.”

Natasha is used to being valued for her ruthlessness. She says, “Yes.”

Bruce smiles. “Thank you.”

She isn’t used to being thanked for it.

 

*

 

Bruce is always exhausted after a fight. Steve accompanies him to SHIELD for the debrief, not much less tired himself. The team always sends someone with him, if he hasn’t been in a position to give a report as himself right after the battle. Bruce would protest the over-protectiveness but truth be told, he still gets a little antsy in the Helicarrier. He appreciates the distraction of company.

Steve asks, “How are you feeling?”

“The usual. Somewhere between a bad hangover and being run over by a truck.”

“But you’re not hurt? You did take a pretty bad hit from the-.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“I know, but-.”

Bruce says, “I’m fine.”

This is how Steve shows concern. Tony makes jokes and Thor makes earnest attempts at small talk over too much food and drink. Clint and Natasha alternately lurk and threaten, depending on the nature of the problem. Steve is the leader, so he can’t come at the problem sideways. Or Steve is the leader because he doesn’t come at problems sideways.

Bruce says, “I’ve never done this so often for so long. I spent most of my time trying not to do this.” He doesn’t even bother counting time between incidents any more, although SHIELD will have a record somewhere.

Steve says, “Bruce, I hope you don’t feel that we’re pressuring you to-.”

It’s not pressure, Bruce thinks, so much as that he has got into the habit of being useful. Sometimes that’s working in the lab with Tony, and sometimes that’s letting the other guy out to play. He’s part of a team now and that tends to mean using the skills he has even when he’s not sure of the consequences. Bruce says, “If I did, would that stop you?”

“Of course it would.”

It wouldn’t stop SHIELD – the needs of the many over the one, and they have plans if it all goes wrong. Bruce doesn’t think it would stop Tony, who has the best of intentions. Steve is the one to wonder about the consequences of that power unchecked. Steve is the one to wonder at what it might do to Bruce, rather than what damage the other guy might do.

The jet lands on the Helicarrier. Bruce takes off his seatbelt and waits for Steve to do the same. “You don’t have to come with me,” Bruce says.

“No,” Steve answers easily, “but I’m going to.”

 

*

 

It takes Steve time to work up to the question. Tony reacts to things in ways Steve can’t always predict, and he can’t decide if this is going to be one of those unexpected conversational landmines. But it’s eleven a.m. on a Sunday and they’re all in the Tower having breakfast (“brunch,” Tony corrects, “a spread like this is definitely brunch”) so Steve follows Tony into the kitchen.

“Cap,” Tony says.

Steve could push on the name issue (again) but Tony says Steve when he doesn’t mean to and Cap most of the rest of the time. At the moment it’s a mood barometer but it’s getting to be less clear. A few nights ago Tony got a little buzzed and turned to smile at him saying, “Steve. Steve, Steve, Steve,” and then nothing else. Steve is still trying to work that out.

“Can I ask a question?” Steve says.

“Sure. I might even answer it.”

“Why’d you never fix the Tower?”

Tony’s brow furrows. “Hmm? I fixed the Tower.” He waves his arms around. “I spent what Pepper considers to be an unconscionable sum tricking this place out to be the kind of place you lot wouldn’t destroy for the second time. Third time.”

“I meant- the sign. You never fixed the sign.” Tony’s name in lights, all but destroyed.

“Oh,” Tony says.

“Yeah.”

Tony rolls his shoulders. “I like it the way it is.”

“Okay?”

“It’s a- it’s a symbol. You know, like the, whatever ‘a mighty battle happened here’. The thing they put on old maps and those little signs by the road. I can build more towers, I promised Pepper one with her name on it, and there’s still plenty of time to put my name on more stuff. This thing is where we- so I like the symbolism.” Tony looks at him. “Yeah, I know. Me and image.”

Steve meets his gaze. “You’re the one that said… I go into battle wearing an American flag. I suppose we both have a weakness for symbolism.”

“You didn’t choose the uniform,” Tony says. He wouldn’t have made that concession before.

Steve agrees, “No, but I stuck with it.” He wouldn’t change it now. Now all he can think of is being told that people might need a little old-fashioned. He can’t betray that memory. Steve says, “And now it means something.”

Tony nods. “Yeah. It does.”

“So what does the A mean? Other than us.”

“And other than the battle thing?” Tony asks. “We took on a God and we got the crap kicked out of us a little bit. But we’re still standing and here’s the proof of it, right on the side of the building.” He grins, bright enough that it lights his face. “So come and fucking get us.”