Fury found Steve Rogers in the mess tent, drinking coffee he didn't much want, and taking a break that he didn't need, but which the other weary members of his search team really did.
Steve had actually noticed him coming -- Director Fury, or rather Director Fury's leather coat, had a distinctive scent to it that was as good as a fingerprint to Steve's overdeveloped senses, -- but for once Steve figured he'd let trouble come to him rather than charging into it. He didn't figure he'd be waiting long.
He looked up and nodded. "Director Fury."
"May I ask why you didn't come to SHIELD HQ for debriefing?"
Steve was silent for a moment, meeting the Director's eye, and considering his insubordination levels. Then he took a slug of the weakly bitter joe, and just let it out. "Given that my suit was full of tracking bugs and cameras, it seemed a bit redundant to me. Especially with people still trapped under half these buildings."
And though Steve expected him to contradict, the man didn't even look surprised. "And I'm assuming that your search team does not mind your not belonging to any of the first responder unions?"
Steve followed the glance to the far table, where the five men and three women who'd been with him in the rubble were watching the exchange with wary hostility. "Nobody's making a profit here," he answered, angrily covering the fact that such an offensive consideration might even have been on the table, "We're all just trying to get as many people out of the ruins alive as we can."
He expected the Director to say something about how much worse it could have been, how many lives Steve had already saved in the battle, how this really wasn't his business, and he was ready for all of that. What he was not ready for was the Director just staring at him, silently, considering. Twenty two years of bullying had taught Steve when he was being sized up, evaluated for weaknesses, and it was all he could do to keep himself from straightening to it with boosted chin and narrowed eyes.
"When did you last sleep?"
"Sleep, Captain Rogers," Fury said, picking up Steve's abandoned coffee cup and sniffing the brew in distaste. "Something that is actually required by law for persons working in search and rescue, so that fatigue does not lead to life-endangering mistakes. Something that, unless I am mistaken, you have not done since before I picked you up for this mission. That was fifty hours ago, by my count."
"I've been a little-"
"Now I know you're not here just because you can lift half a ton of concrete, so it's a fair conclusion that you're proving the motivational value of a good example, which is all well and good, except for the fact that the example you are setting just now is a dangerous one." Fury gestured around the mess tent, well beyond the team Steve had been working with, to include the nurses, firemen, coroners, engineers, dog-handlers -- every human soul that wilted, dusty and exhausted, over the dusty tables. "They can't keep up with you, Rogers, and they're killing themselves trying to."
"I can't just do nothing!" Steve cursed the wheedling tone that crept out on his words, cursed the fact that Fury was right -- not only in what he was saying outright, but at what he was hinting at between the lines. Steve was tired. He was exhausted, to the point that his vision would go blurry and grey when he lifted heavy things, and when he did not actively think about it, his hands would tremble just a little. He did need to sleep, and he knew that, but he just… couldn't.
"Not asking you to do nothing," Fury replied, sphinx faced. Something in his careful neutrality made Steve sure the man had his checkmate spotted, though, and it wasn't twelve moves out. "I'm asking you to come back to HQ, and let these people get on with what they're trained to handle." Fury gave two beats' rest, and then flicked a glance at the cup in his hands, as though it held a shameful secret. "And, to be honest, Loki escaped SHIELD custody once already. Until such time as he is no longer on Earth at all, I would feel better if all the Avengers were in range to respond, in case he tries something cute again."
Aw heck, that was his pitch. It was a force of will for Steve to resist the urge to rub his neck in chagrin at how accurate Fury's hit was. Still, he'd never been one to stay down when he was knocked over, so he sipped his cold coffee, and summoned a defiant stare. "I don't recall doing all that well against Loki's machinations, Director. If anyone's good for that guard duty, I'd say Stark's your man."
Fury just lowered his chin and looked at Steve. And maybe it was the fatigue, but suddenly Steve found himself imagining Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, philanthropist playboy, up against the tedium of a guard post. Loki wouldn't even have to say a word to guarantee mayhem -- Stark's own boredom would see to it. Steve managed not to laugh at the thought. Just.
"My apartment was inside the perimeter," he said finally, apropos of nothing. "It was destroyed." Fury nodded, waited. Steve turned the cup in his hands, watched his reflection blur in the dark surface within. "I didn’t have a lot there, but now it's pretty much all gone." He didn't mention that his pension was still tied up in federal red tape, with lawyers arguing over whether he was entitled to the sum that accrued whilst he was encased in ice, or whether the declaration of his death had put an end to the matter. He didn't mention that Manziti's Gymnasium, and his job there, were both buried in the ruin of 34th street. He didn't tell Fury that he was, essentially, on the bum now, just a month of missed meals distant from those hollow eyed men he'd seen in his boyhood, standing in lines that went around the block, waiting for soup, or bread outside the charity houses because there was no work, and no money, and the dust of Oklahoma falling as gritty red mud from New York skies. There were no bread lines in New York now, and there were more folks than him who were suddenly homeless that day. At least at SHIELD, he wouldn't be taking a bed away from someone else who needed it, and little as Steve wanted to ask for charity, he knew he was going to have to accept it from someone. National Symbols could not be allowed to sleep in the streets, after all.
He was relieved when Fury seemed to take his meaning. "I'm sure the commissary can loan you some jammies," he said, standing from the table and turning to go, as if certain that Steve would follow him. Which, Steve reflected as he swallowed the rest of his coffee and stood up, the man had every reason to be.
"Turns out Loki did substantially more damage to the Helicarrier, and SHIELD's New York headquarters than he did to Stark Tower," Fury explained as he showed his good eye to the retina screen outside the elevators.
"Yeah. It's not much of a power seat for world domination if you have to rebuild the whole thing," Steve agreed, stepping up to present his own eye when the machine requested it. The flare of blue across his vision, just that shade of blue, made him want to shiver, but he quelled it. "How much is he charging you for the privilege?"
The elevator doors whooshed open, and Fury regarded them with a smirk before stepping in. "With salvage rights for the downed Chitauri tech on the bargaining table, let's just say that Mr. Stark is in a singularly generous mood. Come on -- I'll show you your rooms."
On the way, though, Fury showed him to the lounge, (which looked something like a seraglio with concrete floors, a firepit, and three separate bars,) the exercise room (which looked something like an airplane hangar with hardwood floors, torture devices, and an amazing view of Manhattan's still-smouldering wreckage,) the shooting range, (which looked something vaguely like a shooting range, barring any sign of actual projectiles,) and the kitchen (which looked like no definition of kitchen Steve has ever imagined, and he was not even sure which of the machines was supposed to be the stove.)
"All this isn’t just for me." It wasn't a question, so much Steve's way of letting Fury know that he was not remotely prepared to accept this much charity. Not from SHIELD, and not from Tony Stark. But to his relief, Fury switched on his one-second smile and shook his head.
"No. The rest are here as well."
Steve leaned against what he was almost certain was the sink, cradled his pile of borrowed clothes in the cup of his shield against his hip, and looked pointedly around the alien and quite empty room. Fury's smile lasted two seconds before turning into a smirk as he glanced at, or more like through, the ceiling. "I did mention containment of the prisoner, didn't I? Well, they're sorting that out right now."
For a moment, Steve weathered the mental image of Loki, hogtied and squirming underneath the Hulk while Tony helped Clint and Natasha choose the right tool for temporarily incapacitating a demigod. Then he realized that he was probably selling Natasha's creativity, Clint's resentment, and Tony's tool collection short, and he gave in to a shiver. "All of them?"
"Dr. Banner declined in favor of the hot tub. Said he'd take the second shift, once they'd worked out Loki's little talking problem."
"He keeps doing it," Fury supplied, and pushed away from the counter. "Your room's this way."
Steve followed. "If I may ask, why aren't your people handling this?" he asked to distract himself from thoughts of pliers, welding torches and electric drills. "This team seems a bit ill equipped for humane treatment of a hostile prisoner when SHIELD's resources are-"
"Fully engaged in damage control," the Director cut him off, pushing back a door at the end of the hallway to reveal a bedroom that was, to Steve's relief, not a lot bigger than the berth he'd been assigned on the SHIELD Helicarrier. "We're fielding the hysteria of the international media, the internet, the casualties, and every national leader in the world just now. We're just a little busy."
Which Steve, no stranger to matters of publicity, understood to mean 'we need you all to be invisible for awhile, and letting Stark bait Loki seems like a good way to keep him occupied.' He couldn't quite work out whether it annoyed him more that he'd seen through Fury's plan, or that he thought it would probably work. Give or take Thor.
"You might want to consider joining Dr. Banner on second shift, Captain Rogers," the Director's voice, perfectly neutral, broke into Steve's reverie, and he only just managed to stifle his impulsive reaction. Not that he thought Director Fury wouldn't understand a simple matter of battlefield habit like that, but Steve had always made it a point to avoid hitting ranking officers if he possibly could. The temporary boost in morale never really made up for the inevitable 'supply officer's revenge.'
Instead, he turned around at a perfectly normal speed, mindful of his size in the small space, and set the folded pile of clothes and linens down on the small chest of drawers. Then he fixed the Director with his Captain Face -- one part uniform-respect, one part insubordination, and two parts fair warning that he meant to have his way. Colonel Phillips had hated the look, and called it Steve's 'Captain Guess-Which-Order-I-Want-To-Hear-Next' face, which was a pretty fair assessment of it. By the time Steve and the Howling Commandos had tracked Schmidt down to his last base, the Colonel had gotten pretty good at guessing right too.
Good command was like that. All about communication; understanding the people you were fighting with, and for, so everyone could trust what everyone was going to do once the fur started to fly. Steve hadn't yet seen that kind of trust as a particular quality in Director Fury.
"I'd like to finish the tour first, if it's all the same to you, sir," he said, parade-rest and precise, "I like to know the layout of a place before I kip down in it." Which was not to say he didn't trust Tony to have more than one exit from his big, shiny monument-built-to-the-sky-with-his-name-plastered-on-it, but that more than half of them probably required the suit to use safely. For Tony Stark values of safety, of course.
Director Fury gave him a long look, letting the silence stretch until it became brittle as glass. Steve looked back, unmoving. It was surprisingly easy with there being only one eye to stare into, and he thought he might have gone on indefinitely, but for the yawn that came out of nowhere and ambushed him from behind. His jaw cracked under the force of the thing, and by the time Steve shook it loose, Fury had retreated to the hallway, where he stood with his hand on the door and a smirk on his face.
"Jarvis, Captain Rogers would like to see schematics of the Avengers area," he said, looking at Steve while talking straight through him, "Please bring them up on his room monitor once I've gone, and then see to it he is not disturbed for at least twelve hours."
"Twelve hours?" Steve protested, appalled. "I can't sleep for-"
"Certainly, Director Fury," a polite voice spoke over him in reply. To be fair, if Steve weren't so tired he was sure he would have remembered about the robot butler referenced in Tony's dossier before he'd whirled to check behind him. "Captain Rogers, I've uploaded layout diagrams for floors twenty five through thirty to your touchscreen monitor. I am not currently authorized for further disclosure, though I might be able to answer specific questions if these documents do not provide what you need."
"We'll collect the uniform for repairs later, once you've had a chance to sleep yourself out," Fury said, fixing Steve with a look that was more than half dare. "You can keep the shield with you, in case of emergency."
*Damned straight, I'll keep the shield!* Steve thought, but took a deep, quelling breath and tried diplomacy one more time. "Sir, I'd really prefer to showe-"
"And I'd really prefer not to find out what the Super Soldier is capable of when fatigue poisons and sleep deprivation make him start hallucinating," Fury cut through his protest with the kind of heat Phillips had never managed. The ferocity stole a lot of the mustard out of Steve's determination, until the Director added, "In other words, Captain Rogers, Go. The fuck. To SLEEP!"
And then he slammed the door.
In Steve's defense, he did try. He shucked out of his filthy uniform, brushed as much of the grime, blood, and ash off his skin as he could manage with what was left of his undershirt, pulled on sleep pants of thin blue cotton, and then stretched out on the bed with his eyes closed.
It was a good bed; just long enough for his frame, (not many were now he was so much taller.) It was soft and solid, without lumps or coils or taut-stretched canvas over suspension spindles pressing into his shoulders or ankles. It had sheets so fine Steve had to squint to see the weave, and a blanket that was somehow heavy without being sweltering in the cool room. The bed even smelled good; as if a beautiful woman's perfume still clung there from the night before. It was the kind of bed a poor kid from Brooklyn, and even a Super Soldier only ever dreamed of.
It was also absolutely and utterly useless to him.
As exhausted as he was, as much as he craved it to the sore, battered core of him, Steve couldn't even begin to drift off. His mind flickered, manic and fractious through remembered scenes of combat near and far; the Chitauri swarming into Manhattan; Schmidt reaching out, snarling as the stars ripped him through a hole in his bomber; Loki leering over a crowd on its knees in Stuttgart ready to cut down the first man who would stand; Hydra infantry razing prison towns in Poland, littering their trail with civilians to slow the pursuit down; insurgents on the SHIELD Helicarrier pinning him down with bullets while the engine ground Tony Stark to pieces; pulling Erskine's assassin out of the Queens river to watch the man die spitting spite and poison on the docks; Thor flattening the forest grove around them in Carpathia; Bucky's fingers gripping, slipping on icy metal as the gorge yawned wide below him; rage and resentment twisting like a snake in his mind as the walls of the SHIELD science lab loomed tighter and tighter, and all he wanted to do was bloody that sneer from Stark's face; Peggy's voice in his ear, demanding his promise as black water, shockingly cold and seventy years deep closed over Steve's head.
He was shivering, convulsing with the ghost of that cold, bathed in sweat and gasping, teeth hammering out nonsense rhymes in morse code, and in that bed, pinned down under those memories was positively the last place Steve Rogers wanted to be. He struggled out of tangled sheets, hurled the pillow at the window, and the amazing, alien view outside it, and was at the door in three long strides.
It was locked. Of course. Steve gave it one questing tug, and then drew a long, steadying breath. He considered his options, his resources, and his obstacles, and settled on a plan. "Jarvis?" he said to the empty room, and hoped Tony's robot butler was on automatic.
"Yes, Captain Rogers?" the empty room answered.
"When I break this door down, are you going to sound an alarm?"
There followed a pregnant pause, as if the robot was considering the matter. Then the voice returned, unruffled and conciliatory. "I am required to notify Mr. Stark in the event of any security breach incidents, specifically those involving property damage for which he is not directly responsible. However," and Steve felt the doorknob give a metallic shiver under his hand, "I can log the override code for Director Fury's timed request in the building's security roster without disturbing anyone further."
"Smart man," Steve murmured, sliding the door out of his way.
"While mindful of the compliment, Captain Rogers, I am not actually a man, but an artificial intelligence programmed to see to the-"
"I know that, actually," Steve interrupted, checking the corridor for movement, "Stark's dossier had three pages on you."
"Only three? I must update that. Captain Rogers, may I make a suggestion?"
Steve held up a quelling hand. "If you're going to tell me to take a nap, save it." He wished he could see a camera, or at least a blinking light that would tell him where to aim his Captain Face, but the long light of the afternoon revealed nothing but carpet and concrete, and a smudge of rising smoke painting the sky behind the glass wall at the end of the hallway.
"I was merely going to suggest that you put on shoes if you intend to leave the sleeping area in your pajamas," Jarvis replied, and Steve swore he could hear eyes rolling with long-suffering patience in the disembodied voice. "The maintenance robots are still finding broken glass on these floors, and I would prefer you did not lacerate your feet."
Steve looked down at himself, more chagrined at the oversight than at his exposure -- you couldn't spend a year in the battlefield and retain any amount of modesty, after all. The burn across his belly hadn't quite healed up yet. The flesh around it was pink and hot and sore to touch, but the scab was holding. Steve had taken much worse and the serum had carried him through. He shivered. Much, much worse.
"I'll be fine," he told the robot, and started to turn for the lounge. A flicker of blue -- that blue again, -- from out of the window stopped him cold. He closed the distance in two strides stared hard as he could into the city below, but it did not reappear. Must have been a welding torch, he decided, palms on the glass, still staring, They're cutting up that big… ship to let the fire trucks get down 29th.
For a moment, the pang of I should be there fought hard for dominance against the sense of hopeless alienation he felt in looking at the city that had once been his city, but in which he could barely recognize a single feature. He might as well have been John Carter, staring out for the first time at the barren red hills of Barsoom, rather than Steve from Brooklyn looking down on New York City.
"If you tell me what you're looking for, Captain Rogers, I would be pleased to assist you." The robot's voice came in too smoothly to trigger Steve's startle reflex, even tired as he was. It reminded him where he was though, and when he was, more firmly than did the strange cars and ugly buildings sprawled below him; he was in a New York where Tony Stark built a butler who didn't have a body. Where Shops sold spicy food while they were still sweeping up the debris of an invasion. Where nobody knew who Steve Rogers was at all.
He drew in breath until his lungs ached, and let himself sag against the wall. The admission slid out of him almost without effort. "Just looking for home, Jarvis," he said. It was a computer. It couldn't pity him.
"According to my records, the tenement at 500 Ocean Parkway was-"
"Torn down in 1967," Steve cut in, and scrubbed at his face with one hand. "I know. I went there. But I didn't mean literally. I'm just trying to get my bearings, is all."
"Perhaps this will help," said Jarvis, and suddenly all the streets, buildings, and even vehicles and people below him were labeled minutely in glowing blue on the window glass. Steve had to laugh at that, thinking that poor old John Carter would have got on much better on Barsoom if he'd had Jarvis in the walls to help him along.
But before he could explain himself, three things happened, more or less at once -- three things which, in Steve's experience, had never even once meant anything good. First, the wall under his shoulder gave a *ding* and wrenched away to the left, toppling him into empty space. Second, hands caught at his arms, grappled him as he was falling, so he couldn't hope to catch himself. Third, his reflexes took over. Steve dropped his weight straight down, burst the grip on his arms, spun to pin his attacker between the wall and his back, then reached back to catch his attacker's head in both hands before he'd even registered the shouting, or that he recognized the voices.
Clint. Natasha. Both sprung like cats, wide eyed and horrified. Clint armed with three knives between his raised knuckles, Natasha coiled down to the floor with Loki's scorched staff in her fist. There was something round ridging hard into Steve's shoulder. He eased his grip a little, gave a searching pat or two to the head, and let go when he found the beard.
"Elevator?" he asked around his chagrin.
Natasha nodded, but the only part of her that uncoiled at all was her smirk. Clint's smirk was considerably less shy as he tucked the knives away. Behind Steve's shoulder, Tony Stark snorted a damp blaze of heated breath across his skin. "Stand down, Jarvis," he said, and then a not-especially-gentle shove at Steve's back reminded him that he was still pinning Tony to the wall. "I think Captain Rogers just doesn't realize I'm not kind of date he can molest without buying me dinner first. I get that a lot, actually."
"Sorry," Steve said rubbing his neck, "I never expect elevators to be so quiet. Wait, I didn't molest -- I mean I didn't mean to molest…" Tony's eyebrow, just the left one, was climbing his forehead in patent disbelief. Clint had his arms folded and was looking between Tony and Steve like he was watching a tennis match. Natasha was openly grinning at him now. And Steve was wearing nothing but slightly damp, sweaty pajama pants. It was all faintly terrifying.
He took a breath, stepped backward out of the elevator, and changed the subject before he made things worse. "So where are-"
"Your pants?" Tony asked.
Steve cut him a glance, and pretended he hadn't heard. "- the showers in this place?"
"We'll get to that once we've discussed why you're running around Stark Tower pulling half-naked commando ambushes in your long-johns with a bullet hole in your washboard." Steve blinked, but he couldn't really be that surprised at the anger in Tony's voice. After all, Steve had just tried to pull his head off. He hadn't tried very hard, but still.
"I am sorry, Tony. I was just startled, is all."
"You're just oozing, is all," he persisted. "Why didn't Fury throw you to his rabid medical team like he did to the rest of us?"
"Couldn't find him?" Clint offered.
"Was distracted by your whining?" Natasha countered, with a look at Tony, who had several small bandages on his cheeks and nose.
"He didn't need to," Steve answered them all. "He's read my file. He knows I heal fast. This is nothing, really. It's almost closed up."
Tony looked, if anything, even more outraged. "It's a bullet hole!"
"It's a burn, actua-"
"It's leaking!" Tony shouted, grabbing Steve's arm and hauling him toward the lounge like he wished it was his ear, "Nobody's allowed to run around my place leaking and refusing medical care except me! It's a rule!"
"He just made up," Clint added.
"Steve has a flag though," Natasha mused, trailing after them and climbing over the back of the sunken sofa just before Tony shoved Steve down onto it.
"Steve IS a flag," Tony snapped at the two of them, "and he's gonna sit his star-spangled butt right there while I go and get Bruce to come and look at that leaky bullet hole." He turned on his heel, then turned back to glare at Steve for a second. "Don't let him go anywhere. Or get any nakeder." And then he stormed away down a corridor Steve hadn't noticed before.
Clint leaned on the back of the sofa, just beside Natasha's perch. "Methinks the lady doth," he said, and she nodded.
"Yeah, WAY too much."
And Steve, who was pretty damned sure he'd have caught up to that Shakespeare reference quicker if he hadn't been so darned tired, still had to wonder when American English stopped using things like verbs and proper nouns. It was very hard to coordinate a team when they kept leaving important things like verbs and nouns and actual facts out of everything they said.
Which reminded him to ask, "What's the status with Loki? Is he secured?"
In another, simpler world, the look that rose to Natasha's face would have been in answer to someone asking about her promotion at work, or her dashing beau, or the diamond on her finger. But in that world, she wouldn't have Chitauri gore under her fingernails, and be carrying the remnants of Loki's staff around like it had his head impaled on it.
"Oh, he's good and secured," she said.
Steve looked to Clint, hoping for mercy and data. After another smirk, the archer took pity on him. "Turns out Thor's Daddy was tuning in from Asgard via raven-cam. We were just getting beyond the duct tape and zip ties stage of things when these two big-ass black birds come flapping right in through the broken windows and drop a muzzle and some manacles on Stark's head." He grinned, clearly relishing the memory. "When we put them on Loki, the metal sealed itself shut on a molecular level, and now Thor says only their Mama can get it off again."
"Um," Steve had to ask, "Zip ties?" Because he didn't think they could possibly be talking about clothes.
Clint looked a bit hurt. "We took them off again."
"I did the duct tape," Natasha offered, looking only smug. Steve wondered how much hair Loki had lost in the process.
"And Thor's standing guard?" Steve asked.
"Thor's having a shower," Tony's voice came in answer from behind them. "Or a nap. Or maybe both. The water's been running in his room for a long time now. Jarvis, he hasn't drowned, has he?" Tipping his head back was easier than turning, and awarded Steve an upside down view of Tony hustling a very wet Bruce Banner into the room. Bruce appeared to be wearing only wet jockey shorts under his toweling robe, and Steve only then recalled that Fury had said something about a hot tub.
"Mr. Odinson is indeed asleep and in bed, sir," the polite and ghostly voice replied from nowhere. "He appears to have mistaken the shower in his suite for a water feature. I've shut it off now."
"Thor's got a shower in his room?" Steve hadn't meant to sound pathetic -- hadn't meant to speak the thought aloud at all, in fact, but once Tony turned that outraged look on him again, he realized there was nothing for it. "Mine doesn't, is all." His room didn't have a toilet or sink either, and that was actually okay, because he hadn't ever had his own bathroom facilities as a kid, but seeing the scandalized look on Tony's face, Steve thought he might better not try to explain any of that just now.
"Jarvis!" Tony called, as if he were calling a particularly naughty dog to heel.
"Director Fury appears to have shown Captain Rogers to…" and Steve just knew he wasn't imagining the note of trepidation that crept into the robot's voice then, "Agent Coulson's room by mistake."
The room went still in a second. Steve watched each one of them slip away to that small, guilty place which now, they all shared. Then Tony Stark, God bless him, kicked the silence over like it was a table full of losing cards.
"Aw hell no!" he said, and stormed off down the hallway toward the room Steve had thought of as his. "Steve, no offense, but you can't have Phil's room. You're moving upstairs."
"Phil's room?" Steve called after him as Bruce rounded the sofa and poked Natasha out of the way so he could sit. He got no answer, so he turned the question on those Avengers who remained. "Phil Coulson? He has a room?"
"Yeah, apparently we all do," the doctor answered, opening what Steve had thought was a small shaving kit to reveal scissors, clips and gauze within. "It seems, Director Fury once told Tony he couldn't play in his sandbox, so Tony just figured he'd make his own sandbox just in case he ever got the chance to steal all Fury's toys."
Steve scowled. "I'm not a toy. We're not anybody's toys." Then he stopped, confused by the fierce sense of déjà vu, until he remembered Tony's protest to him aboard the SHIELD helicarrier; *We're not soldiers!* And though they'd gone on to do soldier's work that day, they really weren't, when all was said and done. None of them except him.
"We are all loads more collectable after today's news coverage though," Clint put in, waving a device at the wall, which switched on and became a videoscreen, all flashing movement and colour, and thankfully no sound at all. The four of them paused, watched the Hulk leap up to intercept a plummeting Iron Man, and then dump their velocity into the side of a building on the way down. Steve felt the fall in his heart and his gut, helpless and furious at it all over again, even though he knew it had come out all right, that his man had lived. He closed his eyes, made himself remember Tony as he'd been half an hour afterward; grubby, grumpy, with pita bread in his beard. Alive.
He heard Bruce turn to face him and forced himself not to tense up under the doctor's regard.
"Tony tells me you're leaking," Bruce said after a moment, and Steve realized that he'd cupped a hand over the wound, hiding it, shielding it.
"Tony has a gift for exaggeration," Steve dug out a smile and brandished it like a carnival show's conjure man. "It was just a little burn, and it's all but gone now." Bruce's stare was long, level, and unrelenting. Steve, who didn't run, didn't ever run, because once you run, they chase you, stared straight into it.
It was Bruce who broke first. He huffed a laugh and looked down at his own fist, which was clean, tanned, and didn't look at all as if it had clawed apart an invading army and half of the city it was invading just a few hours before. "Seemed like you trusted me earlier," he said, and Steve was ashamed to hear the bitterness rolling over his colleague's tongue. "What happened?"
"I…" he looked down at his own hand, battered and dusty. Then he moved it stiffly aside. The wound beneath wasn't any better than it had been, and to Steve's chagrin, it had begun to bleed again after all. "I do trust you. You've proved yourself as a teammate, as a fighter, an ally. It's just…"
"Not as a doctor." Now he could hear the anger too. Bruce laughed again, and the sound held not a trace of amusement in it. "Makes sense, given what I did to myself-"
"No." Steve caught his arm before he could get up and walk away. "It's not that. It's… your dossier. I read it, read all of them before I met any of you. Yours said you were trying to replicate Dr. Erskine's serum." The doctor nodded, wary, but he was looking up again, meeting Steve's eyes, and so there had to be hope.
"After the," Steve swallowed, surprised that this should still upset him to say. Then he tried again. "After the assassination, I was the only trace left of Erskine's work. The serum was in my blood, and nowhere else. Not even his notes had survived the explosion. There were loads of scientists who wanted to get the serum any way they could. Politicians too. But when I met Schmidt… you've heard of…?" Bruce nodded, listening now, really hearing him. "After I met Schmidt, I realized how powerful this gift really was. The serum, the research. Me. Erskine had trusted me with something incredibly dangerous, and I realized that I had to guard it from people who wouldn't know what they were toying with. Who wouldn't know what powers like this could do to a person who wasn't ready for them…"
And if he'd been less tired, Steve might have realized the absurdity of his saying those words to that man in time to stop them. But it wasn't until Bruce gave him a sad, slow smile, and turned his arm to grip Steve's own in return that he realized just how it must have sounded. Then he flushed, and knew he couldn't help it.
Bruce only said, "I really wish I'd met you ten years ago, Captain."
"I do too," he said back, and meant it.
"And playing devil's advocate here, because someone's got to while Stark is busy," Natasha broke in from the other end of the sofa, where she was sharing a carton of ice cream with Clint, "if you had been around to warn Dr. Banner off, Captain, then the rest of us would have got our asses handed to us by an invading army and a guy with a brain like a bag of cats today. And you'd be doing a lot worse than leaking right now."
"Which, by the way," Clint said around a spoon, "you totally are."
Bruce took that as his cue, and let go Steve's arm to pick up the medical kit again. This time Steve let him, trying not to flinch when he tore open a foil packet and the sharp scent of alcohol filled the air. "Sorry, but this will hurt you worse than it will me," the doctor said, and wiped blood and sweat and grit away from the wound with gentle, stinging fingers. "This would be easier if you'd washed the blood off yourself before you rolled in… what is this, horsehair? Brick dust? Powdered concrete?"
Steve nodded, curling his fingers into the sofa's stiff cushions and hanging on. "Probably, yeah."
"Our Boy Scout was down with the rescue crews until Director Fury grounded him," Tony said, marauding into the room and the conversation like he'd been there all along. "Because he clearly didn't get enough of making us all look like slackers earlier, and needed to buff up his shiny reputation."
Not ten hours ago, Steve would have bristled at that. Now, though, he heard more than the smart-mouthed mockingbird Tony wore to hide his goodness. There was also approval lurking in that snide comment, as if somewhere between the genius billionaire and the playboy philanthropist, Tony had found a kid whom he could forgive for wanting to grow up to be like Captain America. Steve couldn't help smiling at the thought.
Nor could he help refusing the backhanded praise, though. "I didn't mean to, actually. I just went back to my apartment for clothes, but the building was down. And the fire crews weren't sure everybody had got out, so…" he shrugged, then hissed as the movement altered Bruce's aim, and he got more alcohol into the wound. Why did having wounds treated always seem to hurt worse than getting them, anyway?
"So you decided you might as well go for the Search and Rescue merit badge while you were there," Tony finished his sentence from behind the bar. "Well, since you're grounded now, why don't you have a drink with the rest of us?"
"I can't really get drunk," he said, tipping his head back to watch Tony drop ice into highball glasses and pick up a decanter, "so it won't do much good."
Tony looked scandalized again. "But it won't do any harm, right, Doc?"
"Shouldn't," Bruce answered, mercifully setting the alcohol swab aside, "although what I don't get is why this hasn't healed already on its own." He shrugged at Steve's unnerved glance, and began unrolling gauze. "I've read up on you as well, after all. What was it, five minutes for abrasions, three hours for flesh wounds, ten hours for most bones?" Steve nodded, refusing to look past Bruce's shoulder, where Clint and Natasha were shamelessly eavesdropping.
"Well, you were up and around for Shawarma after the fight," Bruce went on, laying strips of gentle white over the angry, oozing flesh, "So this couldn't have been much more than a flesh wound. Which, by my watch, you've had for about seven hours now."
Steve could hear Tony approaching behind him, feet bare on the concrete floor, ice tinkling in the glasses. The fact that he had nothing to say as he held the bourbon in front of Steve's face spoke volumes. He wasn't annoyed, he wasn’t condemning; Tony Stark had plenty to say about those emotions. No, he was alarmed. They all were, Steve realized, looking at his teammates, the humans who had helped him to save humanity. They were worried for him, and it was just possible that they had been for some time.
He took a deep breath and then confessed. "It's because I can't sleep." Steve took the glass from Tony before it could drop into his lap, indulged in a polite sip, and didn't grimace as it went down. "Those timelines you gave were mostly based on how long I'd sleep after getting hit in the field. Except for minor stuff. The serum can always handle scrapes and bruises without putting me down. It's just… since the crash…" no, that wasn't right. Didn't he owe his team better? "Since they woke me up, I haven't really been able to…" he waved a hand, encompassing the nervy brain-chatter, the flickering memories, the mounting anxiety that built and built when all he could hear was his own heartbeat, his own breathing. "Sleep. Much."
"Well that explains some things," Tony observed wryly, and climbed over the back of the sofa to perch. "So I'm guessing if booze won't work on you, then drugs are probably a bust too?"
"Yes." Steve blinked at Bruce, who had answered with him, but Bruce just shrugged and finished putting the medical supplies back into their case. "They don't really work on me either. That's one aspect of the serum that remained the same. My healing, assuming I'm the one injured, usually takes place during the, um, transformation though. All at once, and done once the other guy's on the scene. And he… well, he doesn't actually seem to get hurt."
"So you what, meditate instead of medicate when you can't sleep?" Tony asked Bruce, abrupt and intrusive, which Steve was beginning to understand as an overture of friendship. "That sounds boring."
"Being the point of meditation," Bruce replied. Then he stole the drink from Tony's hand, which was a bit silly, because Steve would absolutely have surrendered his if he'd guessed Bruce wanted it. "I'm okay leaving the adrenaline rides to the other guy."
"Fair enough," Steve agreed before Tony could goad. "He seems to make good use of it." Then, by way of peace offering, he put his own drink back into Tony's hands and asked, "What do people do about that kind of thing these days?"
"I usually just work it off," Clint offered. He was walking a spoon back and forth across the knuckles of his right hand, not watching as it twirled around each finger in turn. "Go to the gym and hit things until I've got nothing left to go on. Then I crash and sleep it out."
Steve nodded, thinking of his collection of salvaged and carefully repaired sandbags, now buried under several tons of brick dust and timber. He wondered if he could go and dig one out before too long -- the ceiling girders in the gymnasium looked strong enough to hold one up to his normal boxing routines. "That's what I've been trying," he admitted. "It keeps me busy, but that's about all."
"Endorphin release," Natasha said, deadpan. Steve could tell from the half-stunned expressions on the other men's faces that he'd missed something, but Clint looked half-smug, and Bruce looked half-embarrassed, and Tony looked half-gleeful, and Steve just knew he was about to have another Fondue incident to regret if he even thought about asking what she meant by that.
So he leaned his head back onto the sofa again, and offered the question up to Tony. "And you?"
"Oh, I'm for endorphin release, all the way," Tony answered at once, nudging his knee companionably into Steve's shoulder as he knocked back his drink. "But lest anybody think I'm going to invite America's Blue-Eyed Boy to a circle-jerk, I want it known that I my inherent virtue allows me to sleep the sleep of the just on most occasions, and upon those when I don't, the endorphin release in question is actually of the gaming variety."
Steve was pretty darned sure Tony couldn't be talking about cards and dice there, and he was also pretty sure he was going to regret asking, but, "Gaming variety?"
Kids looked like that at Christmas. Just like that -- eyes wide and gleaming, fists shoved up against their mouths, shoulders drawn up tight to contain their delight. On them, it was cute. Tony Stark, it was terrifying.
"What?" Steve asked, almost convinced he was going to wind up breaking some law or other soon, but not sure he could avoid it.
From behind his knuckles, Tony said, "We beat the bad guys, we kicked alien army ass, we saved the world, and now I get to teach Captain America how to play Mario Kart?" Then leapt up onto the couch, bouncing and spilling bourbon everywhere as he bellowed, "BEST! DAY! EVER!"
It was also ridiculous amounts of fun. Steve wasn't surprised to find he was not very good at it -- there was just something wrong about trying to steer into a turn when there was no velocity pushing you to the outside. And besides he couldn't figure out which button let the little cartoon man shift gears. But that was all right. He had more fun watching the others play anyhow. Especially when Clint turned out to be better at it than Tony was.
War was declared. Bruce, who wasn't bad at the driving game, surrendered his controller once the conflict spread to include a game about shooting zombie clowns in a ruined city. Natasha made popcorn, and sat between Steve and Bruce to share it, which was where Thor found them all when the screaming, shooting, and shouting of the duel roused him from his nap.
He was an instant fan once they explained the concept of computer games and animated zombies to him, and persuaded him to put the hammer away. He insisted on being taught to play at once, and to the surprise of nobody at all, turned out to be terrible at it. So long as Clint and Tony took turns letting him team up with them though, he seemed not to mind in the least.
Somewhere in all the merry chaos, between the dragon boss, and the jumping eel-creatures, sleep snuck up and ambushed Steve Rogers from behind. He never saw it coming.
Steve cracked an eyelid to find Natasha settling back down beside him where the sofa cushions were still warm and dented-in. Thor was flailing about as if his controller were a broadsword, and cursing at the speed of his latest monster-opponent. Tony, Clint, and the game were all shouting at him to reload. Bruce was on Natasha's other side, stretched out and dozing with his face pressed into the cushions, and the tassels of another afghan tickling his chin.
Natasha noticed Steve watching and gave him a knowing smile before leaning against his shoulder as if she meant to use her slight weight to prop him upright. The warmth of his skin just there suggested that she'd been doing so for more than a little while already. It was nice, Steve realized with a smile, like with his squad in the field sometimes. Keeping warm against the cold, keeping close against the dark, leaning on each other, propping each other up when they needed it, and knowing it didn't mean anything except trust when all was said and done. Trust, and that someone had your back.
"It's all right," Natasha's voice, low and confidential beneath the racket of Thor dying yet again, drew Steve back to the present. "You're not alone anymore, Captain."
He blinked, wondering if he'd said that earlier though out loud, and she let out that tart, dangerous smile of hers in answer. "You aren't the only one who read the dossiers. And you aren't the only one with monsters under your bed." Then she tucked the blanket in tighter under Steve's knee, and said, "You can stay right here and sleep all you want. We've got your back. And we'll still be around when you wake up again." Then leaned her head against his shoulder, curls too bright, too short; weight too slight, too low against his arm. Not familiar at all, but somehow as comforting as the rowdy din Tony, Clint and Thor were making, and Bruce's gentle, wheezing snore.
The word was out of Steve's mouth before he could even consider not saying it. "Promise?"
He cringed to hear himself asking it. Promises were for children who thought they could turn back time with hope and fairy dust. Promises broke, no matter how hard you tried to keep them whole, and what were the shards worth in this sharp, shallow world? Promises failed and faded like photos in a shoebox, and he knew better than to give, or ask for them. He really did.
But he was warm, and he was drowsy, and even the memory of the ice couldn't get hold of him in the shelter of Tony's brightly lit playroom. Steve's absurd demand didn't give Natasha a moment's pause. She just snuggled her head into a more comfortable position, and gave an exasperated snort. "Of course… unless Thor gets eaten by zombie frogs again. Bozhe moi, just shoot at the top right of the screen!"
Steve took that for all the promise he needed. Then closed his eyes to let the rowdy warmth around him fade back into sleep once more.