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shooting stars, falling objects

 

“Inception,” Steve says, “is an art.  It isn’t like extraction—it’s not that simple.  It’s deeper than that.  Rawer.  More intimate.  Extraction is just pulling knowledge out of someone’s mind.  It’s easy.  Impersonal.  These days we’ve got it worked down to almost an exact science.  But inception, inception’s differentIt’s not exact. It’s not a guarantee.”

“Oh god,” Tony says, and he’s rolling his eyes behind his sunglasses, Steve can tell.  “It’s not a hot babe, Steve, stop talking about it like you want to bend it over the table and—” 

“If this is going to work,” Steve continues, ignoring Tony, “if you want it to stick, we need to know everything.”

The client leans closer.  “Everything?” he asks.  “What, exactly, is everything?

“We need to know your brother better than anyone,” Steve explains, very carefully.  “Better than his friends, better than your parents, better than you, even.”

Thor Odinsson frowns.  “You mean everything. His whole life, our history.”

“Actually we know most of that already,” Tony chirps, tapping at his phone.  Steve, again, ignores him. 

“Yes,” Steve says.

Thor sighs heavily and he looks sad, and from all the pictures they’ve gathered of him, prepping for this meeting, Steve’s never seen him sad.  Thor Odinsson is happy person.  This is a fundamental law of nature, it seems, like puppies are cute and Coulson is more coffee than human being

Steve leans in, close, earnest.  Trustworthy, Tony’s told him, you just look trustworthy.  “Thor,” he says.  “I promise you that we’ll do everything we can to help your brother.  But you have to let us in.”

And now Thor smiles, wide and big and brilliant.  “What do you need to know?”  

“Nailed it,” Tony sings. 

Steve tries not to roll his eyes. 

----

“It’s a pretty straightforward job,” Steve says, running a hand through his hair.  On the other end of the phone, Clint makes an annoyed sound most often heard in small dogs. 

It’s inception, dumbass.  Straightforward doesn’t even come into the picture.

“Come on, how hard can it be?  We’ve done it before.  It’s not even that complex of an idea.  We’ll only need two layers.  Cobb’s team did it with three.”

Don’t talk to me about Cobb’s team.  We’re not Cobb’s team.  Cobb’s team is a mess of psychological issues and overblown theatrics.  We’re elegant.  We’re concise.  We’re fucking better than they are.

“So you’re in?” 

Clint sighs heavily.  “Yeah, yeah, I’m in.  Meet you in two days.

The phone clicks off before Steve can say goodbye, but, well, he wasn’t expecting anything different. 

Two down, he thinks, looking over Tony’s pile of cardboard and plaster.  Two to go. 

----

It works something like this: Steve is the extractor, Tony’s the architect, Clint runs point, Natasha’s the forger, and Bruce makes chemical compounds so potent he could put a Columbian drug dealer out of business in about three hours. 

They don’t work together all the time.  It just isn’t safe, not in their world, and besides jobs that need a whole team are few and far between. 

But they keep in touch, and trade clients, and generally make so much money it doesn’t even matter that they can’t dream anymore and Steve can’t walk into a room without first making sure no one’s there to kill him. 

It’s good.  Not the life Steve imagined for himself, way back when, but that was then.  That was Bucky and the army and boots that weren’t filled with sand, and this is now. 

If Tony were here, he’d tell Steve to stop living in the past.  To let go and move on, viva la vida, because Tony is an asshole and out of control and so much smarter than Steve it’s ridiculous.

Clint shares Tony’s philosophy.  He doesn’t let anything hold him down unless it’s Coulson and Tasha, and even that’s touch and go, depending on their mood. 

“You’re an idiot,” Clint had laughed.  He meant it in the most affectionate way possible, but he said it all the time.  Steve isn’t a genius but he’s not stupid.  He’s perfectly aware that he has issues, thank you very much Barton, but he’s working on them.

They’re all working on them.

Natasha might agree with Tony, but she also might agree with Steve, might think that the past defines you, and you can’t let go of it ever or you’ll lose who you are.

It’s hard to tell, with Tasha. 

Steve had asked Bruce once, a few months after Berlin.  Out of all of them, Steve thinks that Bruce is the one who gets it the most, who understands all of them and their stupid problems better than they ever will. 

“I think,” Bruce had said slowly, not looking up from his work, “that maybe you should take a break, Steve.  You’ve got a house in New York, right?  Go over there, take a few months off.  You’ll be okay.”

You’ll be okay.

Steve doesn’t know why people kept saying that to him. 

He’s perfectly fine.  No, really.  He did like Bruce said and spent a month and a half with Coulson in New York, and by the end he was ready to kill someone out of sheer boredom and Phil threw him out because he was tired of buying new gym equipment. 

Work is the best thing for Steve.  It’s the best for all of them, really it is.  All that psychologist bullshit about needing your own space, time to sort it all out, is wrong.  What Steve needs is to be busy.  Doing something, always moving around, keeping his hands and his brain occupied so that the flickers at the edges of his vision don’t become full-blown nightmares, that works. 

Viva la vida, Tony always said. 

“What do you mean by that?” Steve asks, looking up from his notebook.  (He’s frantically trying to find a number for Natasha that a) gets her on the line and b) doesn’t trigger the security protocols of five different government agencies.  So far, no luck.) 

“Mm?”  Tony is elbow-deep in cardboard and plaster and wires, his hair sticking up like it does when the closest thing he’s gotten to sleep is twenty minutes face-down in the coffee pot.  Glue splatters across his nose. 

Viva la vida.  What do you mean, when you say that?” 

Tony blinks, then laughs.  It’s edged with exhaustion and maybe a little hysteria.  “Oh baby,” he says.  “You know what I mean.”

Steve looks back down at the hastily-scrawled numbers.  “Yeah,” he mutters.  “I guess I do.”

----

Phil Coulson is not human. 

Anyone who’s spent more than a week around him figures this out.  He’s just really, really not.  For one, Steve has never seen anyone, not even Tony, drink that much coffee at once and be okay.  For two, he’s so terrifyingly efficient that he simultaneously does Secret Government Things (Tony’s words), runs a coffee shop in New York, and takes care of-slash-bullies Clint into something resembling a functional human being. 

And for three, he knows everything.

Seriously.  Everything.

Coulson shows up at the warehouse two days after Steve calls Clint, a bag at his feet and several steaming cups of coffee tucked under an arm.

“Move, please,” he says. 

Steve, because he knows better by now, doesn’t argue and lets Coulson in. 

Clint drops his head on the table.  “Damn it,” he mutters. 

“You tell him?”

“Nope.”

“You should know better than to try and hide things from me,” Coulson says, setting his coffee down.  “I know everything.” 

Clint sighs loudly, and Coulson smacks Bruce’s hand when he tries to sneak one of the coffee cups.

“Mine,” he says sternly.

“All of it?”

“Leave it, Bruce,” Steve mutters.  “There’s still some in the pot.”  Tony hasn’t been out yet this morning—the door to his workshop is still firmly closed—so it’s one of the rare occasions where there actually is enough caffeine for everybody and Steve is not letting that go to waste. 

“Your plans are shit,” Coulson says, and sweeps them off the table. 

“Those are my plans,” Clint growls.

“And they’re shit.”

“Well,” Clint says defensively.  “I just started!  I still have to research the fuck out of this guy, what did you expect, Budapest?” 

“Budapest was shit too.” 

“Budapest was a fucking work of art.” 

“I nearly died in Budapest.”

“Baby.”

Steve tunes them out, as per usual.  Clint and Coulson are weird when they’re in the same room together.  Natasha’s the only one who can really understand or tolerate them—they are, as Tony says, ménage à trois, and Steve really doesn’t want to know what that means—and she’s not here right now, so for the sake of his safety, Steve slips away and leaves them to it.

Tony’s workshop, when he gets there, is a mess, but that’s the usual.

Tony is nowhere to be found.  He’s been working, though.  Half a dozen models litter the table, cities yawning and curving in on themselves, buildings like bare bones tucking inward. 

Steve runs his fingers through sawdust, and it feels like sand. 

He doesn’t like sand, all that much. 

“Ah ah ah,” Tony sings, leaning against the doorway.  Steve jumps and pulls his hands away guiltily.  Tony has this thing about people, even Steve, touching his work before it’s done.  The only person he’s ever let do that was Pepper.  “No touching.”

“Sorry,” says Steve.

Tony rolls his eyes.  There’s sawdust in his hair and dried glue caked to his fingers, smeared on his Black Sabbath tee.  “Uh huh.  What brings you up here, fearless leader?  Got bored playing with the big boys?”

“Coulson’s here.”

“And you ran scared?”

“Shut up,” Steve mutters, and Tony cackles, wandering over to him.  He smells like Berlin. 

“Tasha here yet?”

“No.  I can’t get ahold of her without the CIA threatening to hunt me down.  I don’t want the CIA to hunt me down, Tony.  Nick Fury scares me.”

“Nick Fury scares us all,” Tony says reassuringly, slapping Steve’s shoulder.  “As much as I love your company, honey, get out.  Work to be done, and all that.  You know how it is.  Go mope somewhere else.”

“I don’t mope,” Steve laughs, letting himself be ushered out the door.  “You’re the one shut up in a dark room all day long.”

“The daylight, it burns,” Tony deadpans, and shuts the door in Steve’s face.

Steve grins, and then it fades a little, the harsh note of Berlin still hanging around him.  He palms his totem.  It’s a solid, comforting weight. 

Downstairs, Clint and Coulson are still arguing and Bruce has vacated the area, muttering about ridiculous government agents and brain bleach. 

Might as well call Tasha again, Steve thinks, and follows Bruce upstairs. 

----

In the end, it’s Bruce who gets Natasha.  He disappears for two days to go see a chemist friend and comes back covered in dust, his hair a wild mess and a new bruise blooming brilliantly across his cheek, with Natasha in tow.

“Mombasa,” is all he says.

“Ah,” says Steve, understanding.  He grins at Natasha.  “Good to see you, Tash.  Nick Fury says hi.”

She laughs.  “You tried to call me?”

“Several times.  I’m on his most-wanted list now because of you, did you know?”

“Sorry about that," she says, not sounding sorry at all. "Fury's always been a little possessive."

"You can say that again," Clint mutters, prowling in with a stack of files and Coulson trailing behind him, tapping on his Blackberry.

"Oh, a big job," Natasha says, a sharp smile creeping onto her face. "Excellent. I was getting bored."

"It's inception," Steve explains.

She raises a single eyebrow. "Again?"

Steve shrugs.

"Okay then. Mark?"

"His name is Loki Odinsson," Clint says. "Hey, sweetheart. The hell did Bruce find you?"

"Mombasa," Bruce calls, from where he's currently sprawled face-down on a dusty couch.

"Ah." Clint looks Natasha up and down critically, his eyes sparking. "Worse places to hide, I guess."
Natasha grins.

"So," Steve says, ushering them all to a rickety table. He leaves Bruce where he is. Mombasa doesn't agree with him. "Now that we're all here, let's get started."

"Thor Odinsson hired us to preform inception on his brother, Loki," Clint says, handing them each a file. "Loki is the second son of Odin Borrsson, also known as—"

"The Wanderer," Natasha murmurs. Clint and Coulson both seem to understand, but Steve wrinkles his nose in confusion. Bruce makes a questioning sound from the couch. "The Wanderer's the biggest European crime lord outside of Russia," she explains. "Or at least he was. Last I heard he's retired and encouraging his sons to go legit."

"Thor Odinsson seems to be taking this advice to heart. He's not exactly a model businessman but in the last few years he's mostly reinvented the family business through sheer stubbornness and enthusiasm alone. Asgardian Enterprises is one of the biggest names in the R&D field right now," Coulson adds.

Clint glares at all of them for stealing his thunder. As point it's his job to research and he takes it Very Seriously.

"Sorry," says Coulson. Natasha just smiles.                                                                  

"Anyway," Clint continues, "Thor's doing pretty well, but his baby brother isn't.  Loki Odinsson, twenty-four.”  He pushes a picture across the table and Steve picks it up, curious.

Odin’s youngest son is skinny, pale, and dark-haired, with flashing, clever eyes and long-fingered hands.  Steve almost wouldn’t believe that he’s related to Thor if it weren’t for the sheer determination—Thor’s determination—in the set of his mouth. 

“Kid doesn’t look like much, I know,” says Clint, “but he’s a dangerous little shit.  While Thor’s been working his father’s business into something pretty respectable, Loki’s been dragging things the other way.  Odin had a lot of contacts off the books, and it looks like his kid has found them.”

“Contacts like…?”

“Arms dealers, drug kingpins, low-level terrorists.  You name it, Loki’s got his fingers in all the pies.”

“So what did Thor want us to do to him?” Natasha asked, frowning.  “The son of a crime lord will have a militarized subconscious at the very least.”

“And he’s unstable,” Clint adds.  “Prelims say that he’s unbalanced on his good days.”

“And on his bad days?”  Steve asks.

“Remember that one time we thought it’d be funny to mess with Bruce’s chemicals and fed that one dog concentrated gamma by accident?”

Steve winces.  “Yeah.”  (He still has the scars, actually.) 

“Like that.”

“That,” he says, rubbing his forehead, “is not good.”

“No shit,” says Natasha but she sounds excited.  “We could use a challenge.”

“Are you up to it?”  Coulson says, abruptly leaning forward.  He’s looking directly at Steve in a way that makes his shoulders feel too tight, skin stretched to a breaking point. 

“Yes,” Steve mutters.  “I’m fine.” 

“What does Thor want us to plant?” Bruce says, looking between Coulson and Phil uneasily. 

Steve starts, jerks his head up.  “He wants us to stop Loki from taking up their father’s business, I think.”

Coulson blinks.  “Alright then.  When d’you think the models will be done?”

Steve looks upstairs.  Tony’s workshop is still closed, sawdust leaking from underneath the door.  “I dunno,” Steve says.  “A few days, probably.  Once we get more information, they can be refined for Loki specifically.”

“Great,” Clint hums.  “You said what, two levels?”

“It should be enough.”

“Okay, two levels.  Nat and I will try and get close to Loki.  Bruce, we’ll get you medical records so you can detail some compounds.  Phil, you got Odin?”

“Sure.”

“We’ll get Thor,” Steve says, referring to himself and Tony.  “I have a few more questions about what he wants, exactly.”

“Okay!” Clint claps his hands together, rubbing them.  He grins, wide and familiar.  It’s good to be working together again.  It feels right, and it’s been too long. 

“Hey,” says Bruce softly, drawing Steve’s attention away from the others.  “You sure you’re alright?”

Yes,” Steve snaps, standing and fighting the urge to hit something.  “I’m fine.  Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

The chemist holds up his hands, smiling crookedly.  “Just lookin’ out for you, big guy.  We worry.”

“Worry,” Steve mutters, grabbing his file and stalking up the stairs.  “I’m fine.” 

He can almost make himself believe it, too.

----

Phil Coulson has an encrypted laptop.  Steve’s only seen it once or twice—Coulson hides it—and he’s never seen what’s on it, but he’s a pretty smart guy and he can guess.

Coulson makes lists.  Long ones, short ones, all kinds of lists, and he keeps them scribbled down on napkins or coffee holders or his encrypted laptop.

And Steve’s pretty sure Coulson has lists about them, the team, and what their problems are, because Coulson is hyper-organized and, well, they’ve all got issues.

Tony’s file, if it exists, would list his alcoholism, his risk-taking, his complete disregard for rules, authority, and conventional living. 

Natasha’s would list her trust issues, her PTSD, and her penchant for making anyone who crosses her disappear. 

Clint’s would also mention PTSD, and control issues, and the inability to stay in one place for long. 

Bruce’s would have only pictures.  Since they would be pictures of mutated dogs, acidicly melted tables, and that one hotel bar, they would be enough.

Steve’s list, if he has one, would have his service record.  Bucky’s death certificate.  A PTSD diagnosis, a few mugshots, and a video.

This video, if there is indeed footage, would be from a small warehouse on the edges of Berlin.  It would be timestamped 2:32 AM, 05/04/11, and it would last maybe five or six minutes.

There would be five people in that warehouse, asleep on old lawn chairs.  They would be hooked up to a slightly-glowing machine. 

At 2:33, other men would swarm the building.  They would wear black, faces covered by ski masks, and they would quickly and efficiently shoot three of the five people.  One of the victims, a woman, would wake up for a split second. 

Then she would die. 

The masked men would take away the machine, and then, at 2:35 AM, while the other two still slept, a bomb would go off, and the ceiling would collapse.

The tape would abruptly go dark.

This video may or may not exist.  Steve doesn’t know for sure.  His memories of that night are warped and faded, less like memory and more like watching an old home video with the quality all fuzzy, detached but strangely present.  All he knows for sure is that he made it out, that he crouched on the side of a German road with Tony and held them together and prayed for all he was worth for a miracle. 

This video may or may not exist, and it may or may not be in Coulson’s possession.

This video may or may not be of Berlin, and the last time Steve tried to preform inception.

And this video may or not be Steve Rogers’s worst nightmare.

----

For the record, Steve’s pretty sure his last words are going to be “I can handle it.”  It, in this case, happens to be half a keg of vodka he’s pretty sure Natasha brewed in her bathtub, and it’s the best fucking stuff on earth.  He can handle another glass.

Tony, who’s spilled in beside Steve, tucked close and warm against his chest, cackles.

It’s all his fault anyway. 

He’d taken one look at Steve after the meeting, declared, “That’s it, we’re getting you hammered,” and promptly led the way to their hotel.

(They’ve booked out the whole top floor, and it’s less a collection of neat, ordered, divided rooms and more like our huge communal room that just happens to have some very poorly placed walls.  Within the month, most of those will be gone.)

Natasha doesn’t have a distillery in her bathtub yet, but she’s only been here long enough to drop off her bags and then follow Bruce to the warehouse, and she does have a couple of cases of vodka—always, she’s a firm believer in the get-them-drunk-and-steal-their-secrets method—so Steve is now very drunk, Tony’s even drunker, and Natasha is going to kill them.  With her thighs.

“She has very nice thighs,” Steve says, a little helplessly.

Tony makes a vague gesture that might be a soothing pat.  “I know, big guy.  I know.”

Steve groans, thumping his head back against the bathtub. 

“Meeting went badly, yeah?”  (Tony is an expert on team meetings—well, life in general—going badly.)

“No,” Steve says, because it’s true.  It’s great to see everyone again, to be working and laughing with them after all this time.  He’s missed them, these last few months.  It’s just, well.  “I’m tired of them asking if I’m okay.”

“Ah.”  Tony gets it.  “Berlin?”

“Berlin.”

Tony takes another drink, his eyes dark and unfocused.  “You’re alright, you know.” 

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Tony says, fiercely.  “You’re just fine, Steve.”

Steve cracks a grin.  “Thanks, Tony.  But I can’t exactly take your word on mental health issues, you know.” 

Tony doesn’t ask why.  He just laughs.  “Yeah,” he says, “I know.” 

----

Thor Odinsson is delighted to meet with Steve and Tony again.  “My friend!” he booms, striding across the tarmac—private tarmac, Tony said, approvingly—to grab hold of Steve’s hand and crush it happily.  “You have come with questions, yes?”

“Uh, yes, Mr. Odinsson,” Steve says.

“Please, call me Thor, friend,” the blonde giant laughs.  “Mr. Odinsson is much too formal.”

“Thor, then.”

“I like him,” Tony says, matching Thor’s broad grin. 

“And how are you on this fine day?”

Fine is an interesting word for it.  They’re in Switzerland—Steve currently can’t be in the States, thank you Nicky Fury—and it’s beautiful outside, but it’s fucking cold. 

“Fine,” Steve says instead.  He wants Thor to think he’s friendly, that he’s on Thor’s side.

Steve isn’t. 

The second rule of dreamshare (the first being don’t fuck up) is no one’s on your side but you.  Don’t forget it.  In their business, clients have as many ulterior motives as they themselves to, and good thieves always look into, manipulate, and occasionally steal from the client, maybe even more so than they do for a mark. 

Somehow, Steve doesn’t think that the son of a notorious crime lord will appreciate that too much. 

“Come,” Thor says jovially, speaking at a somewhat-normal level now.  “Are you hungry?”

“I could eat,” Steve says.  Tony hmms in agreement.    

Thor leads them over to a neat little table already loaded with food, and together they sit under the cold sun. 

“So,” Steve mutters, taking out his notepad and a pen.  “What can you tell me about your brother?” 

Thor carefully wipes his mouth.  The smile on his face slackens, for a moment, and then returns brighter than ever. 

“Loki is smart,” he says proudly.  “Far smarter than I, to be honest.”

“Is that why he took over your father’s business?”

Thor’s expression blackens.  “My brother has always been clever, you see.  Some might say too clever.  He was always playing tricks as a child, always trying to prove that he was the smartest, the brightest.  And he was,” Thor adds hastily, noticing Steve’s thoughtful look.  “But he gets bored.  Since our father retired, I have tried to keep Loki on the right side of the law, where our father wanted us.  He did well, but he is, as I said, bored.”

Steve nods.  “I know someone like that.” 

Thor smiles again.  “My brother is not a bad man,” he says.  “He is a good person, who has made some bad decisions.  I want you and your team to help him, Mr. Rogers.” 

Somehow, the use of his last name is threatening.  Tony’s eyes darken behind his sunglasses. 

“We’ll do everything we can,” Steve promises, and they will.  They’ve never botched a job, together at least.  They’re the best. 

“I’m sure you will,” Thor says amiably, taking a drink.  “But, you see, this is my baby brother.  No one knows him better than I do, and I can’t trust just anyone to wander around in his mind.”

“Mr. Odinsson, we’re the best.  We have a perfect track record, and we’ve done inception before.  There’s no one better,” Steve says soothingly. 

“I’m sure.  But I do not have to worry!  My advisors—” and doesn’t that sound just sketchy— “have presented me with a plan.”

Steve leans forward.  He has a gun within reach, and a knife in his belt, just in case.  “And that would be?”

Thor beams.  “I will join your team!” 

----

“Just so you know, this is a really bad idea,” Natasha mutters, giving Thor a sidelong glance.

Steve shrugs helplessly.  “What did you want me to do, tell him no?”

“That would’ve been nice,” Clint chimes in.  “We don’t need tourists.”

“He’ll be fine,” Steve says.  “He said he’s had dream training before, and he’s the son of a mob boss.  I’m sure he can handle himself.  Besides, won’t it help to have a familiar face when we go into Loki’s head?”

The point and the forger give him identical flat looks. 

“Someone for the projections to focus on, at least,” Steve points out. 

“Eh,” Clint says.  “Whatever.  If he gets hurt or drops into limbo, though, I’m not going in after him.”  

Steve blinks, startled.  “Is that a possibility?  Dropping into limbo, I mean?”

“We don’t know yet,” says Bruce.  “While you were gone we started to do some research, and we might need to go a little deeper than two levels.”

“How much deeper?”

“Another level, probably.  Maybe two.”

Four levels?” That’s insane.  Steve’s only done three twice, and the second time didn’t go so well.  He has no inclination whatsoever of going down three again, let alone deeper than that.  “What the hell do we need four levels for?”

“Have you met this guy?” Clint says. 

“No.”

“Well while you were off recruiting the jolly blonde giant over there, Nat and I spent two days shadowing this kid.”

“And?”

“He’s fucked up,” Clint says.  “By our standards, even.”

“His brain is like a box of cats,” Bruce grumbles.  “I could smell the crazy from three blocks away.”

“So, what, we’re going four levels down?”

“If you still wanna do the job, yeah.”

“Is that even possible?”  Steve drags a hand through his hair.  He feels like everything is spinning out of control.  First Coulson shows up, then Thor jumps on board, and now they’re going to need three levels to get the fucking job done. 

Everyone looks at Bruce.  “Theoretically,” he says.  “We can do three, easy, we’d just have to bring Loki here.  My friend in Mombasa hooked me up with some new compounds, and I can have them tailored up within the month.”

“What about four?”

The chemist shrugs.  “I’ve heard rumors that it’s been done.  I can make a sedative strong enough, easy.  The only problem would be the somnacin, and keeping the dream stable.”

Jesus,” Steve mutters. 

“You wanna call it quits?” Clint asks. 

He chews his lip.  “I don’t see how we can.  We’ve got Thor here already, and he’s financing the whole thing.  We made the commitment.”

“We could always back out,” Bruce says, and the other three almost smile. 

“Back out of a job commissioned by the boss of one of the fastest-growing enterprises in the world, he says,” Steve mutters. 

“Commissioned by the son of a mob boss, he says,” Natasha laughs.

“Whose arms are the size of truck tires, he says.”  Clint shakes his head. 

“Alright, alright, I get it,” Bruce says, throwing up his hands.  “If we back out we’ll be blacklisted.”

“At the very best,” Natasha corrects. 

“At worst?”

She gives Bruce an even, blank stare.  “He’ll do what I’d do.”

“Ah,” the chemist says tactfully.

"We’re screwed,” Clint hums.  He doesn’t seem all that concerned about it.  “Might as well go with it.”

“Damn it.”  Steve doesn’t look forward to telling Tony.  Two models are hard enough, but four?

“You’ll be alright, yeah?”  Clint asks.  His face is unreadable.  “The last time you did three levels was—”

“I’ll be fine,” Steve says, plastering a grin on his face.  “I’m just a little out of practice, is all.  Hey, Bruce?”

“Mm?”

“Will you hook up a PASIV for me?  I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Sure,” says Bruce, watching Steve make his way through the mess of cardboard boxes and folding chairs.  "Where are you going?"

"Just upstairs.  I have to somehow get two more levels out of Tony."  

Clint opens his mouth, a question on his face, but Natasha shakes her head minutely.  He closes his mouth. 

"Good luck," she says.

Steve gives her an odd glance, and shrugs.  He has better things to do that puzzle out the mystery that is Natasha Romanoff. 

Such as bully an architect into building two more mazes. 

Joy.

----

His dreams are invariably of the desert. 

Afghanistan left its mark on Steve whether he wanted it to or not, and he can’t shake it off no matter how much older he gets. 

He learns not to mind too much, after a while.  Even a desert has a sort of strange beauty about it, once you sit down and look for it.  After all this time Steve even finds the red red sun comforting, almost, and the cacti are pretty in bloom.  He used to sketch the desert for hours, trying to capture every little sun-soaked detail and trap it on paper.  The only thing Steve doesn’t like about the desert is the sand.

He really, really hates sand. 

It’s messy and rough and it gets everywhere, and makes it damn near impossible to get a grip on, which sucks if you’re trying to run away from insurgents with guns and bombs that burn sand to glass. 

No, Steve thinks irritably.  Bad Steve.  Think about something else.

The desert is lonely, this time.  Sometimes Steve dreams people into it, projections stretching like sand for miles and miles, but this time it’s just him and the cacti and the sun, sinking lower and lower into the sand. 

Steve’s drawing.  His dreams of being an artist kind of fizzled and died years ago, before the war even, but drawing is something he’s never—and will never—give up.  Barton teased him about it, years ago, back when they were new and still learning each other’s neuroses, said that now they were in dreamshare he’d never have to hawk a painting that took him seventy hours of grief and mental anxiety for ten bucks again. 

Steve had casually pointed out that a bow and some arrows weren’t much use against men with guns.  They had then fought like bull-headed soldiers in the middle of warehouse, and never brought it up again. 

Drawing for Steve is just… Relief.  Drawing is clean.  Simple.  It’s easier to get his brain and hands to work together than it is his brain and mouth, and when he draws he doesn’t have to think, he just has to feel. 

It’s like dreaming that way.

“Man,” Tony says, kicking up sand as he shambles over to Steve’s side and flops down next to him.  “You really need to let this go, you know.  These are some serious issues bundled up in here, I can just tell.

“I’ve been in your dreams,” Steve shoots back.  “You want to talk about my issues?”

“Okay, that one thing with the giant alien was totally not my fault.  You’re the one who had that H.P. Lovecraft movie marathon on all day.  It’s actually amazing that my brain didn’t try and impregnate you with alien babies or something.”

“That’s Alien, Tony,” Steve says patiently.  “And do you realize how awkward that sounds?”  

“Yes,” Tony says unrepentantly, flashing him a grin.  The sun reflects off his sunglasses, and sand doesn’t seem to stick to his suit. 

“What are you doing here, Tony?  I told Bruce I wanted to dream alone for a little while.”

“Bah.” Tony waves his hand dismissively.  Steve has to duck to avoid being smacked in the eye.  “Bruce can’t keep me out, you know that.  No one can keep me out.”

“Again, awkward.  And I bet Natasha could.”

“She’s not even human.  She doesn’t count.”

Steve grins.  “You’re still mad over the whole Tokyo incident, aren’t you.”

“No!  I am a very gracious and forgiving person, even if she did get me on Proculus Global’s shit list for the next three decades.”

“You’ve always been on Proculus’s shit list,” Steve laughs.  “You think Saito was ever going to let you near his R&D department?  You’d make all of them cry.”

Tony shows all of his teeth.  “You know it, honey bun.”

Honey bun,” Steve mutters scathingly, shaking his head.  He pointedly focuses on his drawing.  So far it’s less of a desert landscape and more of a few abstract catci and grains of sand, but whatever, he’s making a point.

Tony lets him sulk for a little while, basking in the desert heat.  (Tony is a firm believer that anything below fifty degrees is a sin against nature, and should be wiped from the face of the earth.)  He can’t sit quietly for longer than five minutes, though, and breaks the silence right on time.  “You don’t look so good, you know,” he says softly.

Steve’s fingers tighten around his pencil.  “I. Am. Fine.”

“Sure you are,” Tony says, tapping the side of his nose knowingly.  “You look just fine to me, fearless leader.  Begs the question, though, what are you doing dreaming of deserts when you could be sleeping?  You’re all jet-laggy and shit.  It’s important to get a good night’s sleep, you know, otherwise you won’t grow up to be a big strong boy.”

Tony,” Steve snaps, and stops himself.  The desert-dream wavers, turning Berlin-cold in a flash, the sun plunging away and the sand collapsing to dirt and a rough, cracked road. 

“Steve,” Tony says.  He smiles.  His lips are flecked with blood.  The stink of Berlin is all around them and Steve remembers, for a moment, in a blinding flash-bang of noise and color and screaming, waking up to find Pepper dead and Peggy dead and Erkstine dead, and Tony with a hole in his chest, pressing his fingers to the wounds with wide, wondering eyes. 

He’s always known.  He pretends he doesn’t remember, sometimes, pretends that it’s okay to talk to Tony in the workroom and sit next to him in the sunshine when it’s not, of course it isn’t, but Steve has to cope somehow. 

“What are you doing here,” Steve says heavily.  He turns away.  He can’t look. 

Tony laughs softly.  “You sound surprised.  What, tired of seeing me topside already?”

“I don’t particularly enjoy the looks I’m getting, no.”

“It’s not Clint’s fault.  You know how he is.  He just wants to help.  Thinks you need a stiff drink and you’ll be good to go.”

Steve barks a laugh.  The air tastes like Berlin tasted, blood and ash and somnacin pressing down on his tongue, and he remembers and burns with it.  “Good ol’ Clint,” he says. 

Tony hmms an agreement.  “You’re not taking your medicine, are you?”

Steve shrugs.  “Didn’t see the point.  I’m alright physically, and what’s wrong with my head—” you goes unspoken— “the meds won’t fix.”

“Meds never fix anything,” Tony says agreeably.  He feels real, warm and solid and alive at Steve’s side.  Steve grips his totem so hard it hurts like help come too late, like blood drying tacking and gritty on his fingers, like a howl breaking in his chest and dying there, sitting in shocked silence as Phil Coulson cleans the blood from his face, tells him gently that he did everything he could, he tried, it wasn't his fault. (It was.)

“Why are you here, Tony?”  he asks again.  “Why can’t you just—” His throat closes.  It’s hard to swallow, this.  “Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

“You know I can’t,” Tony says.  He still doesn’t sound sorry.  “You’re the one with the messed-up brain, big guy.  Why can’t you stop seeing me?  You really miss me that much?”

“You know I do,” Steve says before he can stop himself. 

Tony laughs.  “Sentimental bastard,” he says fondly.

Steve cracks a watery grin.  “That’s me,” he tells Tony, leaning against him on a German roadside.  Darkness bears down from all sides, but Tony is warm.  Is solid.  Is very nearly real, it a way that slices Steve to the bone.

“It wouldn’t even be that different, I bet, if you stayed down here,” Tony says thoughtfully.  He leans against Steve, familiarity in every line of his body.  “Hell, you don’t even need to stay dreaming.  Your reality is fucked, my friend.” 

“Tony,” Steve says, very, very calmly.  His hands hurt, and his bones protest as he shoves up and away, stumbling to the other side of the road.  Tony stays where he was, blood dripping down his chin now, wet-dark in the thin light. “Tony.”

“Steve.”

Somewhere in the blackened sky, music floats down, old worn-out Dean Martin because Steve’s always loved the classics. 

Tony’s lips quirk up. 

The kick’s coming.

“Tony,” Steve says raggedly, “why can’t you just leave?”

“Oh baby,” says the shade, smiling wide and bright, out of place here in dark Berlin with Dean Martin falling down around them, “I’m here to stay.”