Steve’s totem is his shield.
When the team had first been introduced to the concept of dreamsharing and its perils, each of them had been encouraged to think of a single item that they knew intimately, that nobody else would be able to replicate in a collective, drugged illusion. Tony had made a tiny, sardonic sound while Clint and Natasha hadn’t even blinked; looking back, Steve realises they probably already had their own totems long before that briefing.
Being an Avenger is still their day job, and Steve never goes anywhere without his shield, so his answer was pretty clear to him. Nobody else knows the exact heft and balance of the vibranium disc. Nobody else has had nothing but the shield between them and certain death. It’s part of him in a way that even his own body isn’t, and, after two months of continuous dreamspace training, is one of the only things that he can count on knowing the reality of.
Today’s training session comes right on the heels of three hours of gruelling physical multi-party sparring. They’re exhausted and barely have the time to scrub the sweat from their skin before Bruce sets the PASIV down in the middle of the gym floor.
“It’s tough,” he acknowledges. He looks fresh and put-together, mostly because he hadn’t spent the past few hours diving from Tony’s repulsor blasts and Natasha’s… well, Natasha. He continues, “Unfortunately, field situations are seldom comfortable and well-timed, and you have to get to a point where a less-than-optimum physical condition doesn’t negatively affect your abilities in the dreamspace.”
Steve sheds his glove, and tugs his sleeve up. Tony is already leaning against a wall, armour off to one side. They arrange themselves in one of several pre-determined setups: Steve and Clint on the far ends, Bruce beside the PASIV where he can check on the Somnacin levels, Tony and Natasha flanking him. Bruce smiles at them, and pushes the button.
The city is at its most crowded this time of night, a liquid blue streak of sirens and engines and voices. Steve’s coat is torn and his shoes have gone missing. Overhead, a cat hisses at a shadow. Steve begins to walk.
“Hey,” says Clint. His shoes are intact, as is his jacket, but he doesn’t have a shirt on, and his hair looks like it has been burned. He falls into step with Steve. “Just one layer, looks like Banner’s just putting us through our paces today.” They turn a corner, and blink at the enormous crack in the road. “That’s really obnoxious, Stark.”
Tony is sitting, legs dangling, on the edge of the chasm, head tilted back and admiring his creation. Having to assign basic dreamsharing team roles within the five remaining members of the Avengers meant that Tony had to pick up basic architecture and city planning within ten days, something that he took to like a duck to water. “I build Formula One cars and flying suits of armour,” he’d said to Hill and Fury, the first time they all discussed it. “I used to build missiles so advanced that they made space shuttles look like cardboard boxes in the backyard. Creating mazes in buildings in your mind is going to be the best playtime ever.” And it was. During those first few days, they toured Tony’s most ridiculous dreamscape interpretations of each of them: Clint was a gigantic bird’s nest made of metal arrows, while Bruce was a bouncy castle in acid greens and purples. Natasha was a predictable spider’s web, and Steve a pastoral landscape in red, white and blue.
He gets to his feet now, and walks to Steve and Clint. “Have you figured out the mission yet?” he asks, wearing that smug look of knowing that he knows both more and better. It’s a look he wears very often, and, to Steve’s mild irritation, it’s almost always justified.
There are a lot of people – projections – around them, and all of them are staring at the hole in the ground as they scoot around it. One or two are glancing at their group suspiciously. “It’s a basic exercise,” Steve tells them. “Tony messes with the dream, and we see how long it takes before my projections notice.” They also have to look for Natasha, wherever and whoever she is.
Clint looks around. He’s the point man in their literal dream team; the role is similar to and yet completely unlike his position topside, where he keeps out of sight, watching the team, picking out ambushes and blind spots, and taking them out when necessary. But aerial views are useless when even the landscape can change without warning. The hawk is grounded, here, but his eyes work better than ever.
“Stark’s obviously gotten a head start,” he says. “I’d say try something subtler, but that’s not really your style, is it?”
Tony grins, and the skyscrapers begin to melt like a Dali painting. It should be enough to make the projections start attacking, but it happens so slowly and organically that it attracts far less attention than the crack in the road.
“That’s the Sagrada Família,” Steve says suddenly. The movement has slowed to an almost imperceptible degree, but it’s still flowing.
“Ten points to Gryffindor,” Tony exclaims, and wanders off down the street. The lights flicker and neon advertisements become classical oil paintings; dry city sidewalk trees sprout and bloom, lush and laden with sweet-smelling oranges; as they walk through the unidentified dream city, it slowly morphs into a scene out of some Renaissance tapestry. And yet, the projections are still only staring at the hole in the cobbled road.
Steve is slightly less impressed than he knows he should be. “There’s no historical basis for this entire thing,” he tells them. “The Sagrada Família is from the late 19th century, but those paintings are from the early Flemish artists. In the 1500s.”
He pauses when he notices Tony and Clint both staring at him. “I was an art student before I joined the army,” he mumbles.
“Good thing we’re not professional dreamers,” Clint remarks. “There’s far too much homework involved.”
“Spoken like a tried and true SHIELD grunt,” Tony tells him, and they argue good-naturedly as they approach a tiny garden filled with blooming tulips.
They settle down on a wrought iron bench, and Tony’s hands twitch in his lap as the landscape changes. It had taken him weeks to curb the habit of swiping the air in front of him while manipulating dreams. The shade of the palm trees above them is a cool respite from the desert air.
Steve feels the exact moment the dream goes out of control. It’s a dripping chill down his spine, like someone had dropped the contents of a raw egg down his shirt. Beside him, Tony and Clint sit up, bracing for the inevitable. It’s slow, but it happens: the projections peel away from the whitewashed buildings and make their way over, faces contorted in anger.
The fight isn’t brutal, but it has the potential to be. Clint punches a man in a bowler hat. “Lesson recap!” he barks. “What exactly was the turning point?”
Tony is pushing people into the decorative fountain, where tiny flesh-eating fish devour the projections quickly and soundlessly. “I think it was the skyscraper,” he says thoughtfully.
Steve shakes off a tiny girl who was latched onto his back, gnawing at his shoulder. He looks up the street at the glass and metal building. “Where did that even come from?” he demands, and ducks a punch.
“I was trying to go back to the beginning, grow the city from the sand, you know. I guess I shouldn’t have made the sun rise on the historically inaccurate Italian town. It was noon by the time the desert was done, and I guess the light reflecting off the massive steel structure was too much for your subconscious to handle.” He winks at Steve, and then dunks a woman in the fountain.
Clint suddenly takes in an audible breath, almost a gasp; Steve and Tony glance over at him, and, in their shock, nearly get overwhelmed by their respective opponents. Clint’s face is as white as the little houses of the desert town. “Natasha?” he whispers. Prays.
“Wrong,” says Coulson, and shoots all three of them in the head.