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A Comforting Presence

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Before:

They go for shawarma after the battle. But they’re all too exhausted, the high of adrenaline so completely depleted from their veins that it takes a grumpy look from Agent Romanoff and a barked order from Stark for the waiting staff to take their order.

There are some murmurs, but in the end, they decide to order everything and as much of it as possible. The help are only too pleased to serve the city’s heroes and so Steve had his first bite of Middle Eastern food. It tastes amazing (he never imagined so much flavour and spices in one bite) and he would have had more but he’s so tired that he can’t finish his and ends up falling asleep in his chair.

Later, he’s roused awake by someone shifting his body over, lifting him up and dragging him to the car. Steve groans a little, prompting a chuckle from behind (Agent Romanoff), a teasing remark (“Look at our tired momma bear,” says Stark) and Thor (“The great captain has earned his rest!”)

Steve groggily opens his eyes just as Clint sets him in the backseat and murmurs, “Thank you, Hawkeye... you’re a good guy...”

Barton, he thinks, gives an amused smile. “Thanks Captain, but you’re a better man than me.” He remarks bitterly.

At this point, Steve hasn’t had much interaction with Agent Clint Barton. He knows that the man is dependable, a great archer and excellent at reconnaissance. Barton appears to be rather stoic, save for when he is near Agent Romanoff, and then his demeanor softens. But he is distant.  He was originally put under Loki’s spell but recovered thanks to Agent Romanoff. Steve looks more closely and can see the fatigue written on the man’s face, the self-guilt that seems to weigh him down.

Agent Coulsen and Barton knew each other, Steve realizes... and now Barton feels the weight of his actions (actions that he can’t be blamed for, but he still feels guilty for nonetheless) since the battle is over. An image flashes before Steve’s eyes, of Bucky, falling down into the snowy mountains and Steve being unable (so helpless) to reach him.

He’s been so busy trying to soldier on in this new world that he’s forgotten how to truly look at the people around him. It makes him feel so ashamed to let his own conflicts cloud his thinking, especially when he recalls the things he said to Stark before Loki escaped, things that he had no right to say.

“No,” he replies, though it comes out as a sleepy moan, “No, you’re better. Honest... And if you ever need anything... any help... just come by my place... I’ll listen.”

There’s a lengthy pause, but Steve misses it as he drifts off in his sleep. He doesn’t hear Barton’s answer but he hopes that the archer will consider it, or at least, confide in someone else.

-

Now:

With a smile for the first time in days, Steve sets down his duffle bag and observes his new apartment. It is spacious, much larger than the rooms that he and Bucky used to room in together. The living room is open and spacious with windows lining from the top to bottom, showing the large view of New York City and the waters beyond. To the left is the kitchen and circular dining room table, separated from the living area only by a small counter wall.

Steve has two rooms, one he intends to use for his art supplies and sketching, the other as a guest room (though he doubts anyone will ever visit. He has no one close anymore.) He’s more comfortable with the idea of sleeping with his sketchbooks in his sleeping bag, staring out at the city in the night. Steve can’t quite get used to sleeping in a soft bed after spending years in the army resting on hard ground.

There is an area downstairs that also belongs to him, which has been set up as a gym and training area. Steve peeks in and sees that there are punching bags, weights and a closet for his uniform and shield already set up. There is even a large blackboard (just as he prefers it) for him to pin up tactics and different training scenarios. When he looks at the cupboards, he sees a toolbox that he can use when he wants to fix up his bike.

By the time Steve has investigated each inch of the house and determined that all Tony has done is buy him training equipment, he makes a mental note to thank the young billionaire later. He owes Tony so much for convincing Fury to let Steve live in the city, to get a job like a normal civilian (as an art teacher) to help him when there are no S.H.I.E.L.D. missions. Steve is glad that Tony took his warning not to shower him with charity (and ridiculous furniture) seriously.

They’ve formed a tentative and strange acquaintanceship (he’s not sure if Tony still dislikes him or not) since Steve apologized and they spent a few lunches together. It still embarrasses him that he once thought Tony to be a selfish person when he can see that the man is anything but.

Quietly, after Steve takes in the emptiness of his new living quarters, he goes downstairs to haul up the old couch and coffee table he acquired from an antique shop. He likes them because they look like they are from the Victorian era, out of time, just like he is. The sofa has interesting threaded and leafy patterns, like Celtic crosses linked in vines and the table is old chestnut, little etchings of angels and knights on the legs and edges.

He also brings up a bed for the guest room, finding a cheap one in one of the bargain stores that wasn’t too hard or soft. He buys plenty of sheets, soft silks and cotton of different brightly coloured patterns, anything to fight off the cold and the dark. He has fun piling them up on the new mattress and then in his artist’s room. Steve likes the idea of getting blots of paint on his blankets by accident. More colour to chase away the bad dreams.

Steve gets himself an old fridge too, since he finds them useful but he doesn’t bother getting a microwave (oddly enough they gives him the chills.) He is fine with cooking with the oven and stove (ones that work! His mother would have loved that!) There is also a kettle he manages to save from a thrift shop.

When he is done, he sets up boxes of candles, matches and emergency supplies (first aid kits, these perishable food items that he read up on) and then he brings up a box of ratty old books. They are filled with the ‘classics’ that he never got to finish—Tender is the Night, The Bell Tolls—and they’ll keep him company when his muse is absent.

Finally, Steve rests against the couch, looking at the empty walls and wondering how he will paint them when the nightmares keep him awake.

There is a package that he hadn’t noticed, sitting on the coffee table, and when Steve looks to the window, he sees that it is open.

Slowly he picks it up and peels off the paper, like it will shatter if he isn’t careful.

A brand new sketchbook, along with a tin box of charcoal and sketching pencils greet him. There is a note on the first page and it makes him grin.

Enjoy your new place, stars and stripes. Just do me a favour and get better furniture, I feel like I stepped into my grandfather’s place!

It isn’t signed, but Steve already knows who it is.

-

The next month is quiet. There aren’t many missions, none involving saving the world. Steve takes his bike out every morning for a ride, finding it peaceful and surreal, to stare at all the new signs and neon lights, wondering how fast the world can change in a blink of an eye. Sometimes he still expects to wake up but then he sees the moving advertisements for plastic surgeries or explosive films that don’t make sense to him and he knows that this is the world today.

He trains at the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters after his morning rides, to get updates about the newest threats. Sometimes Agent Romanoff is there if she is finished with her latest assignment (“Call me Natasha”) and they spar. She is very skilled and beats Steve in more cunning ways than he could ever come up with.

Then he goes to the community college where he teaches lessons to senior citizens--how to draw still-lifes and human figures. It’s peaceful and familiar to him, another way he can zone out and pretend that nothing has changed. Helps him pretend that he isn’t obsolete, isn’t entirely useless in this time.

When he goes home, he trains more or he bakes until he gets sick of eating cinnamon rolls and has to give them to the men’s missions. Then he paints. He has already covered all the walls of the house. The living room has more extensions of the city, only it’s Brooklyn during his youth. The broken alleys, the trolleys and dames with their long skirts and men with their suits taking them to dance.

The kitchen is the ocean, littered with shells and fish that don’t exist, fish with fins as transparent as light or jellyfish with bodies like feathers. There are birds too, swimming in the currents as if they have gills, while more of the angel fish flip upwards as if they have wings. The kitchen is for his mother, who always wanted to live by the sea. His mother, who he paints in the clouds, with wings of her own.

He makes the dining area an aura of bright colours, like the aurora borealis and sunrises overlapping together. In between the dancing lines of light, he puts in tear drops of navy blue and black, warring with the luminescence.

His hallways are fields of poppies, dressing the green grass and rows of crosses. He writes down every name he remembers in the war, every sergeant, every agent, every woman and man who gave their lives. They are the petals of the flowers, bleeding on the marble grave markers.

The training area has images of broken buildings and explosions. There is a gaping hole in the sky, filled in with the stars and nebulas of space, flashing in bright warmth. A beam of light rushes down to the crumpled Stark Tower, where Loki stands looking down at the streets with eyes half mad in despair and triumph. He paints the other avengers as he remembers them.

The roads are littered with raining cards, cards with a familiar blue costumed figure on them, stained with blood. If one squints, they can see a silhouette in the backdrop of smoke and sky, reaching out towards the avengers. They can see that he is smiling.

Natasha is brilliant with her red hair, driving one of the Chitauri vehicles while shooting down at the enemy. Her face is blank but it is her eyes that tell her story, wild and desperate. Below is Hawkeye, shooting down any of the enemy that dare to come near his comrades, in particular Agent Romanoff. The Hulk rushes and jumps from building to building, carrying people in his free arm, as if they are fragile glass figurines. Thor is on Stark Tower, a floor below Loki, summoning lighting and thunder when it seems all he wants to do is bring a hand up to his brother.

Then there is Iron Man, chasing a nuclear missile, brighter than all of them despite the stains and rust spreading from his heart to the rest of his armour, reaching up to the picture of space in the sky.

And at the bottom of the mural, hidden in the corners, is a crumpled and cracked shield.

Steve fills the guestroom with images of the forest, strong and healthy. The leaves have words etched on them, words that don’t make sense (star, shell, hand, lotion) and words that do (fear, belief, doubt, failure.) They’re trees of blue and orange, like autumn and wonderland mixed together. He doesn’t have many trees yet, but he will add more.

His room, his artist’s room, is painted with wings. He puts in black wings, grey wings, black wings and brown. He paints until he has nowhere else to paint but the ceilings.

All the ceilings are filled with constellations, and he puts in the names and figures of his fallen comrades, his Avengers, in the stars.

And when he falls asleep, he can’t feel the tears running down his cheeks anymore, only a great emptiness.

-

He wakes to the sound of loud banging and is immediately up, reaching for his shield and ready to aim it at the nearest enemy. It takes him a moment to realize that he is about to attack his easel and that his blankets are still wrapped snugly around him and that there is paint stuck on his cheek and in his hair.

There is someone knocking at his door.

Steve gathers up his checkered quilt and another dog patterned sheet around his shoulders. He’s tired and not really thinking when he stumbles to the hallway and turns his door knob.

What greets him is a bloodied Agent Barton, who has his eyebrow raised in amusement at Steve’s disheveled state.

“...Is this a bad time?” Barton grunts, holding his side that is dark with crimson.

Before Steve can answer, before the situation can catch up to his brain, Barton topples over.

-

Steve immediately places the unconscious assassin in the guest room and pulls out a medical kit from under the bed. He methodically rips off Barton’s shirt and rushes to the bathroom to get a basin of water. Barton is groaning and shivering from the cold. Instinctively Steve puts a hand on his comrade’s arm, rubbing soothing circles in the same way he remembers his mother used to, when he was ill.

“It’s going to sting,” Steve warns, and he presses a wet cloth against the wound.

Barton howls, nearly kicking Steve in the head, but Steve is able to evade it. He continues murmuring calming sounds, petting Barton’s arm and makes sure to clear the injury thoroughly. In a haze, he numbly notes how serious it is (a few bullet wounds, nothing too deep, he just removed them all) and doesn’t realize he is speaking out loud until he sees Barton nodding along with his observations.

“We should call Fury,” He mutters, reaching for his phone.

But Barton grabs his wrists and shakes his head ‘no.’

“I’m not calling that bastard. I don’t trust him. Just, just stitch it up, captain.”

“No, I can’t, I’m not qualified—” But he remembers doing just the same for his fellow Howlers during the war, when there was no chance of a medic rushing in through the gunfire.

Barton forces him to look at his eyes and says slowly, “I trust you.”

They are only three words, but they are his greatest weakness. He can’t refuse this request and he gives a short nod.

The needle is steady in his hands, but his heart is not.

By the end of the hour, Steve is shaking on the floor, and Barton is sleeping peacefully on the bed, bandages hiding his injuries.

-

He washes off the blood and puts the medical kit away. He feels like he is a bystander, watching his body move by itself in clinical patterns. Steve hovers by Barton’s side for a bit longer, changes the bandages hourly and puts a wet cloth on the man’s forehead. Then he wanders into the kitchen and starts making breakfast, making a light soup for his patient and decides to bake bread.

It helps him forget for a while, helps him not to ask the questions (Why are you here? Why didn’t you call S.H.I.E.L.D.? Are you compromised? Are you alright?) But he keeps his promise and does not contact anyone. He does make sure to lock the doors and windows, keeps his shield with him in case.

The eggs are almost done and he has checked the oven. Just as he is pulling the bread from its pan, someone speaks behind him, “Interesting place you got here, Captain” and he nearly hits Barton in the head with the bread pan.

Barton is fast for an injured man and escapes unscathed. In fact, he has a mild smirk on his face, “Whoa there. Sorry for sneaking up on you.”

Steve couldn’t care less about that. “You should be resting, in bed, Barton. Go back to your room. I’ll bring you breakfast.”

“It’s Clint. And I’m fine with dining here with you,” He shrugs.

“You’re injured. You were shot.”

“And I’m feeling perfectly fine now, thanks to you. Now, could we sit down and try some of that soup you have on?”

It’s the strangest morning he has ever had. After a contest of wills (involving a lot of glaring from himself and amused smirks from Clint) Steve relents, telling Clint to inform him if anything should bother his wound.

They settle into a peaceful silence, with Clint closing his eyes appreciatively over ‘damn good food’ and Steve only humming in response. It’s strange that they aren’t awkward around each other when it’s the first time in weeks that he has seen Clint since they’d seen Loki and Thor home.

“What happened?” Steve asked when he finishes his plate.

Clint shrugs, grabbing a third helping of eggs and some of the cinnamon bread.

“Mission.”

“...Right. And why didn’t you want to go to Fury again?”

Another shrug. “He’s a bastard.”

Steve senses that there is more to this, but decides not to pry. It’s not his place.

“Well... you can stay as long as you need to. I’ll do my best to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. off your back. Do you want to inform Agent Romanoff of where you are...?”

The archer looks up, as if he is surprised by Steve’s courtesy and maybe he is. “No,” he says quickly. “Don’t tell her.”

He nods, “Alright,” and gathers up the plates.

Clint sits up and takes them from Steve, “No, I’ll take care of it. Least I could do. And Steve?”

“Huh?” He blinks, for its the first time that the assassin has called him by his first name.

“Thanks, man.”

-

Surprisingly, Steve is alright with leaving Clint in his apartment once he demands that the archer call him if there’s any emergency. He goes on his bike ride and trains at headquarters, noting Natasha’s absence. Then he goes to teach his three classes and rushes back to the apartment to check on his guest.

There are groceries sitting in the dining room, he is surprised and pleased to note. This means he won’t have to go out into the noisy supermarkets tomorrow (and he has an aversion to crowds these days.) Steve checks the guest room but Clint isn’t there, then he wanders downstairs and sees the archer staring at the mural decorating the training room.

His breath leaves him.

Clint is standing by the section of wall with the raining bloodied cards, where the silhouette watches the painted avengers with careful and proud eyes. The archer’s mouth is in a tight line and Steve thinks that if he touches him, the archer might shatter into broken tears.

Steve moves nervously beside him, unsure of what to say (I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken liberties, I can paint it over if you want—but he really doesn’t want to—and I know you knew him, treasured him, it’s not your fault—)

But Clint surprises him, by throwing one arm around Steve and murmuring, “Thank you.”

-

From there, Clint takes a hammock and sets it up in the training room, sleeping under the watchful eyes of the painting.

“I like high places,” he tells Steve, when he argues that Clint should rest in a proper bed, “or do you want me to complain about how you sleep on the floor? Yes, I do know about that.” Steve doesn’t argue after that.

It continues like that for two more weeks. Steve will cook meals and come home to paint, while Clint trains and watches Steve work. Sometimes they’ll play some card games and Clint will laugh when Steve tells him some war stories. The dark lines under the archer's eyes vanish then, and he looks years younger. The groceries continue to show up on the table along with notes with suggestions for paintings and meals.

Clint buys an old radio and sets it up in the gym. “I like the music,” he shrugs. “I play the cello, you know.” And so when Steve paints, Clint brings in his old cello or puts on the music. It fills the silence between them and yet they don’t really need too many words to understand each other.

Steve isn’t sure what Clint is running away from, but he hopes that he’s found some peace here, even if he leaves when his wounds close up.

-

“So Fury is pretty pissed at me and is convinced that I’m hiding Barton in my closet back at the mansion, or something,” Tony says when Steve finally figures out how to open his cell phone to receive the call.

“Oh,” Steve mumbles, as he is walking out of the community college, partially because it’s strange for the billionaire to call him... ever, when he sends random text messages that Steve can never find out how to reply to. “...I see.”

“As if I’d kidnap Legolas. He’s not nearly as good looking as my man Bruce or as attractive as Pepper or, wait, never mind, I’ll stop talking now,” Tony mutters. “Anyways, point being, do you have any idea where Barton is? Fury is seriously on my ass about this and I hate to see the reaction of Barton’s girlfriend when she gets back from god knows where. Maybe another assassin mating ground.”

“Huh,” says Steve, deciding to play the ignorance card. “I have no idea what you just said.”

“Don’t play stupid with me, honey. Are you shacking up with Barton? Because, darling, I don’t think the Black Widow will be pleased, unless you’re having a threesome, oh my god, you are, aren’t you and you didn’t even invite me and Pep over, that’s it, this relationship is over—”

Tony!” Steve stammers, turning completely red, “Tony. Stop. There are people around here!” He whispers furiously into the phone when he notices an elderly couple staring at him oddly.

“I bet they tie you up, don’t they? Because you’re the innocent one, and they probably make you scream for it and—”

“Okay, okay, stop, please,” he’s going to turn into a tomato at this rate, “just, can you keep a secret?”

Tony immediately quiets and is gleeful, “If it’s to piss off Fury, I couldn’t be more pleased.”

“...Right. Well. Barton was injured on a mission of some sort, so he’s been staying at my apartment for a while. He doesn’t want anyone to know. So can you...?”

“Distract our papa bear by being as obscene as possible? Of course I can! Who do you think I am?” Tony snorts. “Consider it done, cap.”

“I... Thanks Tony. I really appreciate it.”

“Hey, if you’re hiding Barton, then you must have a good reason, right? Anyways, I’ll call you later. I think Bruce blew up something in one of the labs, Pepper is not happy right now...”

Tony hangs up and Steve doesn’t notice until one of his students asks him the tune, that he has been humming one of Tony’s annoying hard metal songs on the way to the parking lot.

-

“They didn’t tell me that Phil was dead,” is what Steve hears when he looks at the door, noticing that Clint is hovering at the entrance to the artist’s room. “Not until then we had to stop Loki, and even then, I couldn’t really think about it until we were done fighting.”

Steve drops the paintbrush from the easel and Clint takes it as a sign to come in. The archer sits next to Steve in the mountain of blankets, taking in the traces of feathers on the walls.

“...I didn’t know that... I’m so sorry,” he says, though he knows that the words mean nothing. Not really.

“I went on several missions. I just didn’t want to come back to S.H.I.E.L.D. and I keep seeing him, everywhere I go. My new handler is that chick Maria Hill. She’s a cold one, but she’s not him. They keep telling me to get over it, but I can’t... he’s always there, no matter where I go and... and you know what, Captain?”

“...What?”

“Fury was using us, the whole time, using Phil and his so-called death. I found out when I snuck through Hill’s papers... Phil is alive.”

He freezes. “No, that’s not possible... Fury said...”

He lied to us, Steve,” Clint snarls. “Phil is alive but he won’t wake up. In some sort of coma and when I found out during the mission I got so distracted that I was shot by the enemy. I couldn’t stand having S.H.I.E.L.D. patch me up, fuck, they own my living quarters and Nat's, so I went to you... and now you know.”

It’s cold, so cold that Steve thinks that he might be frozen again. But he’s not, the ice is far away and yet it hovers on the edges of his mind...

“...Well, captain?” Barton asks with a hollow smile, “Are you going to tell Fury where I am? Go on as his usual boy scout?”

“No,” says Steve. “You can stay. You can both stay, as long as you want. I won’t let Fury use us as he likes.”

Clint stills, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, we should find Phil and bring him here. Set up a sick room. I don’t care what Fury says. Phil is one of us, an Avenger. And we’ll take care of him.”

It’s crazy, Steve knows it is. But he’s always done the crazy thing, no matter what the odds. It’s why he got beaten up every day of his youth. Why he almost got his hands chopped off by the dealers who tried to take advantage of his mother. Why he flew a plane into the ocean to save the ones he loved.

But when Clint grins at him, he thinks that he’s probably found people just as crazy as he is

“So, what’s the plan, cap?”

-

Before:

The cards feel like coals, burning in his hands. But he can’t let go of them, can’t stop staring at the red stains on the figures there.

He spots Barton, staring at the empty locker where Coulson used to leave his things. Romanoff is standing by him, a quiet presence. Steve looks at the cards again and then back at Barton’s stern face, one that refuses to show the cracks that despair has given.

Then he’s standing up, handing the cards to Barton and mumbling, “These were his.”

Barton looks at him with surprised eyes.

Steve tries to smile, but stops when it realizes how painful it feels.

“I think he’d want you to have them.”

-

Now:

After they go over plans to free Phil and set up the proper medical supplies for him, he sees something sitting on the coffee table, a frame of some sort.

The Captain America cards are there, still dotted with blood, but encased in glass like they’re something precious.

Steve makes himself look away.

“Alright,” he says, “When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as possible,” Clint replies. “He can’t stay there any longer.”

Chapter Text

Before:

He feels a headache coming from arguing with Fury about his new living arrangements. Now that he has come into terms with the future and (some) of his feelings, he doesn’t think that he should stay and be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s obedient little pet. He’s seen that the leader of this organization is not as honest as he seems (particularly since the weapons building scheme with the tesserect) and he doesn’t want Fury to have power over him.

Steve feels like a fish, stuck in a bowl, unable to swim away. He thinks that if he sees more metal walls (cold like the ice, he can still feel it creeping in his skin) that he will break down and see Bucky’s frozen corpse staring at him or the Howlers, burning in trenches, reaching for him.

His little phone is vibrating, signaling another text message. Steve finds it odd that Stark (no, call him Tony now) has so much time to send little sentences about anything and nothing all at once. He gets texts telling him that Bruce is eating green frosted cake or that one of his robots is an idiot (though Steve thinks that with a name called Dummy, the robot might be doing it on purpose.)

He doesn’t know how to reply to them and he doesn’t think he should. He doesn’t have much to say on the subject. How does one communicate just quiet amusement? It would be easier to paint his feelings.

Frustrated, he goes to the gym and sees that Agent Romanoff is there already, doing crunches and sit-ups with ease. He has not crossed her path since the avengers had to see Thor and Loki off a few days ago.

“Steve,” she nods to him when he comes over.

“Agent Romanoff, good morning,” he sets down his bag. “Mind if I join you?”

She raises an eyebrow, “What, sparring?”

Actually he had just wanted to do some stretches, but a spar would be a welcome distraction. He’s interested to see how long he can last against the Russian Assassin after seeing her destroy so many Chitauri in battle. Steve holds no illusions that he could beat her easily. Combat is a matter of wits and common sense, something that he knows that the black widow possesses in greater capacities than he does.

“Sure, why not? Let’s go a few rounds, I could use some lessons,” He agrees. He’s never been one to back down from a challenge and he truly can learn a thing (dozens of tips in fact) from his teammate.

Oddly enough, she seems surprised if the skeptical look she wears is any indicator. Romanoff studies him for a few awkward seconds before she gives a small smile. “Very well. I won’t go easy on you.”

“Neither will I,” He replies.

And this time, he thinks that her smile is genuine.

-

Natasha ends up winning three quarters of their spars and when Steve is thrown on his back again for the seventeenth time, they decide to sit down for a short break. Quietly they sit on the bench together. Steve offers her a water bottle while she gives him a towel to dry off the sweat. The gym is silent save for their heavy breaths and pleased grins.

“I heard what you said to Clint the other day,” Natasha tells him.

Steve tries not to choke on a big gulp from the bottle. “Sorry, um, what day?”

She rolls her eyes and gives him a heavy punch in the arm, “After we had shawarma.”

“Oh,” He pauses in recollection. “Yes, I remember.”

Even though he’d been half-asleep at the time his promise was engrained in his mind, to be more open and watchful over his new team. They hadn’t fought in any battles together since Loki, but Steve hopes that they will all meet again, under more peaceful circumstances. It would be... nice, he thinks.

“Sorry, I didn’t hear that,” Steve says sheepishly when he realizes that the black widow is waiting for some sort of reply.

Her response is only another amused smile and for a moment, Steve sees his mother, ruffling his hair when he got caught in the mud trying to play with the big boys or climbing trees with Bucky. “Whatever will we do with you, honey?” She used to say, throwing him up in her arms, before the illness, before she would pale whenever he tried to step out of the house.

“Did you mean it?” Natasha’s voice brings him out of the memory.

He blinks, recalling the subject and says without thinking, “Yes. I did. I do, I mean. If Clint, or you, or any of the team need anything, you can come by. I’ll do my best to help.”

Natasha doesn’t respond. She is scrutinizing him, as if he has told her that he can breathe fire (but in this future, such powers might even be possible, so he shouldn’t be surprised anymore.)

“So your offer extends not just to Clint... but to all of us,” She says carefully.

“Of course,” Steve replies, wondering at how strange his comrade is acting. “That includes you too, Natasha. Is that why you’re asking? Do you need anything?”

She surprises him by laughing openly for the first time in his company. “No, Captain,” she reaches up to flick his nose. “Everything is fine. Come on, let’s go spar again. I’ll show you how to take down your opponent in less than five seconds.”

-

Now:

“They have him in a public hospital here in New York. But he’s in a private wing, guarded by agents and surveillance cameras. I’ve only snuck in once but it’s damn difficult to get out, let alone drag an unconscious coma patient out without hurting him,” Clint leans back against the hammock.

They’re downstairs and Steve is staring hard at the blackboard. He’s already sketched a map of the city, and put in the position of the hospital. Clint has given him some vague floor plans (“Sorry, I was distracted, wanted to see if Phil was... there,” and Steve can’t blame him at all.) But they’ll need more details about the layout and more importantly...

“I don’t know much about the technology they’re using,” He admits. “I know there are tiny cameras hidden in walls or something, but I’m not sure how we’ll bypass them without more information.”

“Hey, let me handle that,” Clint sits up, a confident grin on his lips. “I’m an expert at that sort of thing. We’ll just need a few tools... I can’t access my bank account at the moment. Don’t want S.H.I.E.L.D. to know what I’m up to.”

“Alright, I guess I’ll purchase them,” Steve agrees. He doesn’t use his trust fund (and culminated pay from the last seventy years) for much but buying food and art supplies. “What do we need?”

“Some top-secret tech from Stark industries... code breakers and things like that. Here,” Clint says when he sees Steve’s confusion, “I’ll make a list. You can’t buy them at any normal store though.”

Steve wrinkles his brow, “Then where do we get them?”

“Ask Stark. But don’t tell him what we’re up to yet. He’ll just blow up the hospital and try to stash Phil in his big mansion and that is not happening on my watch.”

“But... we really should let him know why we need his tech. He’d want to know,” Steve can’t quite erase image of Tony Stark’s empty and broken expression after they found out about Coulson’s supposed death. He can’t take away the words that he spoke, words that he had had to tell himself over and over again during battle and after Bucky died, is this the first time you lost a soldier?

“No,” Clint shakes his head. “That man is a freaking wild card. He’ll honestly burn headquarters to the ground if he finds out that he’s been played like the rest of us. It’s not about revenge, not yet. This is about Phil and having him home and safe. And...”

He trails off, staring at the silhouette painted on the wall, like it will give him answers.

Steve swallows painfully again and nods. “Okay. Fine, but... we’ll tell him as soon as we rescue Phil, deal?”

Clint sighs, “Alright.”

Tony is going to kill them both when he finds out. Steve is already envisioning himself begging for forgiveness from the top of Stark Tower, having to apologize again for being thoughtless. Then something else occurs to him.

“Wait, how can I possibly ask him for all these materials without a good explanation? Why don’t you ask him?”

Clint smirks and Steve thinks that the people of the future must be taking a class of some sort for mysterious smiles, “Are you kidding? He hates building stuff for me ever since I killed a dozen of his precious robots. Besides, he likes you the best.”

Steve hits his elbow against the blackboard when he turns around, “What? How do you...? That can’t be true! There’s Bruce.” Steve is pretty sure that Tony and Bruce are the best science buddies ever. It would be slightly frightening to observe how fast they bonded if Steve hadn’t had similar experience befriending his squadron.

The archer only smiles and Steve wonders if they’re still speaking the same language.

“Just call him,” Clint tosses him his cell phone. “Oh, and ask for some heart monitors and shit. We’ll need them.”

“Right... and... um...”

“Stark is number two on your speed dial, after me,” his guest replies with mock patience.

Steve throws his chalk at him, missing purposefully by two inches. He is not going to try anymore. Clearly Clint’s brand of insane has a different translation than Steve’s. But that’s fine.

There is a few moments pause before Steve asks, “Clint... what’s a speed dial?”

-

Surprisingly Tony picks up after one ring, which is awfully quick if Steve has any right to judge.

“Wow, congratulations stars and stripes!” The billionaire is practically shouting in his ear. He thinks he can hear more of that obnoxious hard metal in the background. “I thought you’d never figure out how to use my starkphone! Now we need to graduate you from text messages, unless, hey, you’re not phoning the wrong number, are you? Just so you know, I’m number one on your speed dial—”

“Huh?” Steve blinks, “No, you’re not. Clint is.” He’s pretty sure that Clint is, because he just pressed the ‘two’ before calling...

There is a frenzy of cursing that could make even the Howling Commandos pause in shock and Steve only holds his forehead in half amusement and half scandalized shock.

“Fucking Barton,” Tony finishes. “Next time we have lunch I’ll fix it, don’t you worry, stars and stripes—”

“—please stop calling me that—”

“—Now, what’s the occasion?” His voice is light but Steve can hear the undertone of worry there, “Are you finding things okay? Did your new roomie do anything?”

“...I have no idea what means, but I’ll assume ‘roommate’ and no, he’s fine. It’s just... I, uh... I need a favour.”

He sort of expects Tony to laugh off the request, turn it into another joke or lewd sexual innuendo because the man has some odd obsession of making Steve blush (apparently it’s entertaining and like teasing a puppy, not that Tony often teases puppies... he hopes.) Sometimes he thinks that Tony wants him to yell again but he can’t think of a reason why (and maybe he can, but he just can’t think of it yet.)

But when Tony lowers the volume of his music and says in a serious tone, “What is it?” Steve feels guilty all over again.

After they bring Phil to the apartment, he’ll tell Tony that the agent is alive. For now, he hopes that Tony won’t question too much of his requests.

“Alright,” Steve says cautiously. He begins to read out the list.

-

“Wow. This is all high-tech stuff, cap. Didn’t know that you had read up on all this already…” Tony comments in a suspicious way which makes Steve believe that the farce is over, that his acquaintance knows and... “Tell me the truth. You’re not really the one who’s asking for this crap, are you?”

“Um,” Steve begins to stammer, different excuses running through his mind.

“...It’s Barton, right? The little sneak is getting you to do his errands for him or something. Well tell him to get his own shit.”

“No, wait! He really needs it, please, Tony. It’s important.”

He thinks that this is it. Tony will hang up now and then he and Clint will have to find another way to get the equipment that they need but then, miraculously, Tony just sighs dramatically, “Alright. Fine. Just this once. But I’m not going to let this die down. I’ll find out what he’s up to, these are some weird requests, even for him.”

Steve almost collapses in relief, “Thanks so much, Tony. I mean it, you’re a pal—”

“Yeah, yeah,” is the quick response, “Tell Barton that he’s lucky it’s you asking, stars and stripes. I’ll have my people deliver what you need by tonight or tomorrow at the latest.”

He hangs up before Steve can berate him for using that nickname again.

-

“You should wear a disguise,” Clint tells him later, after he stops preening when Steve informs him of the successful phone call. “Maybe purchase some black clothes and a mask of some kind. We can’t have anyone suspecting that Captain America is involved in all this.”

Steve wrinkles his nose. “I’m not daft enough to waltz into a public hospital and S.H.I.E.L.D. guarded facility wearing that flashy blue and red outfit.”

Clint only sniggers, his good humour returning.

“I’m serious,” Steve blushes. “At least you and Ms. Romanoff have practical uniforms, black, good for blending in. I stand out, like someone’s painted a target on my back.”

Even during the war, he had never been comfortable as the national icon for his country. It feels wrong somehow, like he is masquerading in a body not his own, claiming to be a hero—A hero? Like you? You’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came from a bottle—when he would much rather do his job, what is right, as everyone else.

“Well, stars and stripes do suit you... oddly enough.”

Steve blushes again, reminded of Tony’s strange nickname for him, as if all he is meant to represent and be is a symbol America’s patriotism values.

“I’ve only been wearing it in memory of Phil. He helped design it,” Steve says before he can stop himself.

Then he wants to hit himself for having such a bad brain-to-mouth filter. He glances over at Clint quickly, hoping that he didn’t damper the mood. But Clint is staring thoughtfully at his crossed hands, “Yeah, I suppose he did.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says quickly. “I didn’t mean to—”

The lines around Clint’s eyes crinkle upwards, “What? To bring up bad memories? Nah, they’re actually good ones. He’s always been a big geek about you, Cap. When I was guarding the tesserect, all the texts I’d get him from him would be ‘Oh god, we found Captain America’ or ‘He’s actually alive’ or ‘I got to watch him sleep today’ which is pretty creepy but hilarious. I’ve even got a picture of when he was seven in Captain America pyjamas.”

“Oh dear God,” Steve doesn’t think that he’ll be able to glance at those cards on the coffee table with a straight face or without grimacing again, “Please tell me that’s not true.”

Clint bursts into a fit of laughter, clapping him on the shoulder, “Course not. But for all I know, it could be. We should ask him when he wakes up.”

He doesn’t know why, but the archer’s faith in this, the mission, in him, makes him want to bury his face in his arms if only it would stop the overwhelming emotions surfacing inside. But he doesn’t. Steve just swallows and closes his eyes.

“Yes, we should.”

-

“You should finish your dinner, it’s getting cold,” he says as casually as possible. Tonight Steve has prepared a quick pasta dish and some salad. He’d had a baking spree of banana muffins while Clint had explained all he knew about the place where Phil was being held. They sit in a little pyramid-shaped stack which Clint reaches for.

“Pasta first!”

“Yes, mother,” Clint smirks through gobbles of pastry and pushes one muffin towards Steve. “Speaking of which, you should put more on your plate.”

Steve looks down at his own meal, which is barely touched and fills but a quarter of his plate.

“Its fine, I don’t eat a lot in the evenings.”

In the army he was used to the army issues rations and didn’t complain if he didn’t get more. He’s used to being hungry. But since he’s been unfrozen from the ice, he hasn’t been eating, just a portion of vegetables or a quick breakfast before he leaves to train. He bakes until the table is overflowing with baked goods but he has no appetite for them, hence his continued charity to the food bank.

Clint gives him a glare that tells him that he’ll find an arrow desecrating all of his precious sketchbooks if he doesn’t stuff the muffin in his face and so Steve complies. Clint nods smugly, ignoring his salad for more dessert.

“...Maybe we should ask Ms. Romanoff to help us,” Steve suggests once he’s swallowed more muffin than his appetite will allow him (and even then, it’s only half a muffin and Clint doesn’t appear happy about it.) “She could sneak in as a nurse or something.”

“No way,” Clint points his fork at Steve. “We’re not involving Nat. End of story. Moving on.”

“But I don’t see why,” the tactician in him speaks. “We could use as much help as we can get. She wouldn’t betray us.”

“I know that. But just, please cap, I can’t let her get into this. It’s my mission. My fault, my responsibility.”

Steve wants to tell Clint that it isn’t; it never was and never will be. He wants to let Clint know that his actions under Loki’s spell were never his fault and that he doesn’t have to keep fighting to repent for his nonexistent sins.

But when he is about to say just that, Clint shakes his head. “Please, Steve. I know. I know. Just, please. I don’t... I can’t let her do this for me.”

He doesn’t want to agree. It’s against his nature and he thinks that Tony and Natasha need to know about this, more than Steve does. He doesn’t even know why Clint went to him instead of the other two, who are probably closer to him (well, at least Natasha is.) Yet the way Clint is pleading with him tells Steve that there is much he doesn’t understand about the relationship between Natasha, Phil and the archer and he thinks that he may never fully understand it.

He closes his eyes again, “Tell her after we’ve got Phil settled here.”

Again, there’s a sigh, this time more exhausted and worn.

“I will.”

-

Clint goes to stake out the hospital and find out the floor plans. Steve cautions him to be careful of his wounds but the archer tells him that he’ll be fine. “Surveillance is my specialty, captain,” he assures him. “They won’t even know that I’m there.”

It doesn’t stop Steve from worrying but it does ease some of the tension.

Steve spends his morning drive thinking up different scenarios and plans of attack to get Phil out of the hospital. They will need to do their research, find out what kind of medication Phil will need. Will they need to carry the machines at the same time as Phil? Will he be able to breathe without them? Steve is glad the he told Clint to steal Phil’s hospital records as well.

He’s so distracted that he nearly walks into Director Nick Fury but luckily his reflexes let him dodge that collision. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to look at the man without trying to glare him to death any time soon. Steve wants explanations, but now isn’t the time. Clint needs this, to save Phil first, and Steve will be damned if he can’t make that happen.

“Rogers,” Fury acknowledges him, a skeptical twitch of his frown telling Steve that the director has taken notice of his behavior.

“Director,” Steve greets him, trying not to show how tense he is. “Good morning.”

“No missions today, captain,” as usual, “but I do have an update on one of your fellow Avengers.”

“Oh,” He feigns innocence. “Is it serious? Are they alright?”

Fury looks, if possible, sterner, “I’m not sure. You tell me.”

“...I’m not quite sure what you mean, sir.”

“Agent Clint Barton has been missing for several weeks since his last mission. No one seems able to track him down,” Fury explains. “You wouldn’t happen to have any information that we could use to track him down, would you?”

Steve thinks of the confusion (and blots out the other feelings) that he felt when he was updated on the twenty first century, a mere eight hours after he woke, brings it all up so that it shows on his face, and says, “No, sir, not at all. Agent Barton and I aren’t on close terms. I hardly know anything about him.”

Fury studies him for a moment, before he puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder and then nods, “Alright. Enjoy your day, captain.”

It is only when Fury is out of sight that Steve thinks his pulse stops rushing.

-

Of course, it is only then, when he has his guard down that he finds himself yanked into one of the offices and locked in, a hand clamped on his mouth and the other hand to his arms in a hold that he can’t get out of easily. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

Steve thrashes, hoping to knock over the other person while his muffled protests are cut off when he hears a low hiss, “It’s me!”

Immediately, he halts, vision narrowing on Natasha. He hadn’t realized that she had returned from her mission yet.

She lets go of him but doesn’t move her fists from the collar of his shirt. Her eyes bore into his skin. “I know you lied to Director Fury. You have a terrible poker face. Yes, you do. Now tell me, where’s Clint and what’s happened to him?”

He considers denying everything, but one glance at Natasha and Steve just can’t lie to her face to face. Bucky and the Howling Commandos would be laughing at him for his sentimentality, he contemplates.

“Well?” Natasha frowns.

Steve lets out a long breath. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”

She raises an eyebrow.

Then he feels embarrassed to ever have said that, because the Black Widow is the master at holding secrets to her chest. She would be the least likely candidate to diverge their plans. (But of course, this is yet another one of the reasons why Steve wanted Natasha in on the operation.)

“Right, and... Clint doesn’t want you to know.”

Natasha crosses her arms. “I’ll be the judge of that. Now talk.”

He does.

-

The Black Widow is terrifying when she’s on a rampage, cursing violently in Russian. The office is not recognizable anymore with chairs toppled over and the actual tables broken in pieces, the light bulb dangling by wires from the ceiling. He thinks that she’s caused more destruction than Thor did to the gym before the Norse god returned to Asgard.

“I can’t believe this... that Director Fury would... and Clint, that, that stupid”—another guttural sound in her mother tongue—“did he really think that he could stop me from helping? Alright, let’s go, Captain.”

“Wait... Are you sure...?”

Natasha’s smile is, if possible, even more frightening, “You wouldn’t be able to stop me from helping you free Coulson if you tried. Now let’s go back to your place. I think it’s time that you showed me around.”

Steve tries not to feel sorry for Clint, he really does.

-

Natasha takes charge of the bike, because Steve thinks she might cut off his hands if he tries to drive and he’s too polite to refuse (besides, she’s just as an able pilot as she is a fighter, probably better than Steve is.)  She is a reckless driver. Steve has to hold on for dear life because he thinks that they’re going to crash into another unsuspecting truck or taxi with the number of times that Natasha lane changes to bypass the slower vehicles.

They stop at a florist’s shop for reasons known only to Natasha. She carries out stacks of potted plants. Herbs, she tells him, and other healing remedies for practical purposes. “Your place will need them. Never know when you need some aloe or the antidote to an unknown poison,” she says when she makes him hold them carefully in their plastic bags. “Water them every day, and don’t drop them before we get there.”

He treats the plants like they’re the keys to the world and is thankful when he gives her the last directions to his apartment building. Before he knows it, Natasha is pushing him up the stairs where he leads her to his door.

“Hey, welcome home, man,” Clint calls out from the dining area. “I picked up some more flour for your baking and I got the floor plans...”

The archer drops the bag of sugar and salt on his foot when he sees Natasha there.

“Shit,” He stares at him, betrayed. “Steve!

“Um, I’m sorry?”

“Oh no,” the Black Widow growls behind him, “Don’t apologize for what you can’t help, Steve... now, you on the other hand,” she glowers at Clint.

With wide eyes, Clint tries to jump up on the counter to get away from her.

It hardly matters at this point, as Steve observes Natasha storming over to Clint and dragging him by the wrists into the guest bedroom, slamming the door shut. He doesn’t even want to know what they’re going to do there. Hopefully make up, and soon.

He only sighs, moving to tidy up the floor and put his new plants on the floor by the windows. Afterwards, Steve steps downstairs to make some adjustments on the plan to include the Black Widow. There are a series of loud bangs and crashing sounds upstairs and Steve sincerely hopes that they’ll leave his few possessions intact.

-

Its lunch by the time Natasha and Clint come out of the guest bedroom. There are bruises littering Clint’s arms and face yet only a scratch has marred Natasha’s. She looks pleased while Clint is grumbling, acting as if the world will end tomorrow. Steve definitely doesn’t want to ask.

He sets up three places at the table, thankful he has six chairs. They’ve yet to be painted yet, along with the furniture, but Steve’s muse is itching to get started. He wonders what might be created there, if it will be more scenes of nature or colours he doesn’t understand.

Now that she isn’t blinded with anger, Natasha is staring with interest at the murals surrounding them on all sides and above them. Her lips part a little when she takes in the ceiling, the patterns of stars illustrating different people and spelling different names.

“Interesting what you’ve done with the décor, Steve. You’re very skilled.”

“More like a living Da Vinci,” Clint snorts. “You should see what he’s painted downstairs. It’s amazing.”

Steve feels his cheeks colour and he shakes his head, “Oh, no. It’s not that great. You can look at it later. Both of you should eat something.”

The two assassins share an amused glance and take seats beside each other. On the other side of the table, Steve brings out a tray of sandwiches and another of croissants. He has some fruit too, in a bowl, but knowing Clint, the fruit will be ignored. Steve grabs an apple and when Clint gives him the evil eye, half a sandwich. In return, Clint adds a banana to his stockpile of beef sandwiches.

“We need a way to infiltrate the hospital,” Natasha says between mumbled bites, starting with the croissants. “These are really good by the way, did you bake them?”

“Already have one,” Clint mutters, biting into his sandwich with relish. “Just need to hack into their cameras with Stark’s equipment and then we’re all set.”

“Oh really?” Natasha steals one of his croissants. “And how do you plan on entering?”

“Disguises.”

“Uh-huh. What disguises?”

“We’ll be wearing masks and dressed in black, no one will know who we are!”

“Right,” Natasha replies with her blank face. “And if someone sees you they’ll just think you’re a robber or a terrorist and shoot you on sight. Brilliant plan.”

Clint scowls at her, looking ready to start hurtling croissants and bread. Steve takes this moment to intervene.

“Well, what were you thinking then?” He asks. “Because we do need a way to sneak Agent Coulson out of the hospital without being conspicuous—the original plan couldn’t account for more effective disguises since Clint and I don’t have access to them. We were just going to break in, disable the agents and try to run off with him.”

Natasha smiles secretively. “I have contacts. I can get us in as hospital support staff and passes with S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“That’s great!” Steve beams at them. “Clint, we’re going to put you on surveillance and sniper duty. You can warn us when we might get compromised.”

“As long as I don’t have to dress up as a nurse, I’m fine with whatever you say, Captain.”

“Oh? Are you sure that Coulson wouldn’t get a kick out of you playing doctor?”

“Shut up, Nat.”

Steve put a hand on his forehead, “Natasha can get in as one of the staff and gain entry into the wing during one of the hours when there is less security and we’ve bugged the cameras. You’ll need to take the route to the quickest exit, acquire an ambulance.”

“I can get one,” says Clint. “It’d be a good place to put in our equipment too.”

“Great. We’ll need an excuse to wheel Agent Coulson out though.”

“I’ll just make some fake badge, flash it around. Should do the trick,” Natasha tells them. She seems to be on her fourth croissant so far. “You should come in disguised with me, Steve.”

He tilts his head thoughtfully, “Won’t I be recognized? It would make more sense for me to be on surveillance with Clint.”

Though, when he takes the time to survey their options again he knows that Clint is capable of handling surveillance on his own. Natasha could use some backup if things get messy or other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents get involved. There needs to be a second person to take care of outside threats so that Natasha can secure Phil and escape.

“No, wait… it’s a good idea. I’m assuming you have different ways of hiding who I am?”

Natasha smiles dangerously again, “Oh, I do. Don’t worry, I do.”

The rest of the lunch goes smoothly, but Steve doesn’t miss the pained glances Clint continues to send Natasha throughout the meal when he thinks that neither occupant at the table is looking. He wonders what other reasons Clint could have for wanting to keep the Black Widow from the truth about Agent Coulson besides the emotional pain.

He wonders if it could be detrimental to their mission.

-

Clint goes to wash the dishes as he always does. Natasha observes this, calling it ‘domestic’ and Clint responds by flicking soap in her hair. Steve wonders if he’ll have to break up another fight and wishes that they would both just sort out their problems and anger towards each other right there and then.

But surprisingly no water fight erupts by the sink. Instead, Steve sees Clint whistling a tune from Brahms to himself.

Natasha is looking with interest at the mural in the kitchen, the painted face on the cupboard doors, with long angelic wings that stretch into the constellations on the ceiling. She touches the tips of the feathers, like she can feel them despite the flat surface that they exist upon. Then Natasha traces the details of the woman’s hair and her eyes.

“Who is she?” She asks.

Steve feels his throat constrict as he says, “My mother.”

Both Clint and Natasha turn towards him in surprise and regret, but he can’t bear to see that on their faces, so he says ‘excuse me’ and retreats to his art room.

-

Later at night, after he had left to teach his classes and then made some dinner for his guests, he can’t sleep. Natasha has declined the guest room, opting to sleep in the training room with Clint. Apparently they’ve shared the same bed before and are more comfortable in each other’s space. Steve has stopped trying to make sense of their relationship and just accepts it as it is.

He’s sitting in the living room, by the window, pressed against the glass with layers of cotton and silk wrapped around him. He stares at the plants, listing their names in his mind along with their remedies and meanings. Some he has no idea, only looks at them and imagines what they could do.

Something warm touches his cheek. When he peers upwards, he sees that Natasha has two hot mugs, one that is pressed against his face.

Steve smiles and accepts the beverage gratefully. He hopes its not coffee. Before the war, he had never drunk it. It made his heart erratic. Then when the war began, such things were rationed and by the time he went through Project Rebirth, it tasted bitter to him. It still does.

Natasha seems to know about this quirk of his, because she motions for him to take a sip anyways.

Tentatively he takes a gulp and is surprised that he finds the drink sweet and delicious. There is a touch of cinnamon too and it’s the best cup of hot chocolate he’s had in a long time. “Wow,” Steve says after another sip, “this is really good.”

Her lips quirk upwards, “My specialty.”

They share grins and she crouches down beside him, trailing a soft touch on the leaves of her herbs.

“Your mother was very beautiful,” she says. “I’m sorry for bringing her up.”

“Oh, that,” he feels like a heavy weight is sitting on his chest, rather than the featherweight blankets wrapped around him. “No, there’s nothing to apologize for. I mean, what was I expecting after painting her up there? Of course, folks would ask. She wouldn’t want me to be upset about it. It’s just been... a long time since someone brought her up in conversation.”

“I see.”

“You sort of remind me of her, with the herbs,” He tells Natasha, not noticing how she seems to stiffen at the words. “She liked to garden, especially flowers. She told me that she wanted to move somewhere to grow sunflowers if we ever got the chance,” Steve reminisces fondly.

Natasha shifts forward, expressionless. “Flowers are impractical when you’re raised to kill.”

Steve freezes, turning towards her in alarm, “I didn’t mean—”

“Good night, captain,” she says and she walks to the staircase to join a lightly snoring Clint. Steve leans back against the glass, feeling colder than ever.

-

He sits there for what seems like weeks on end, but when Steve glances at the clock on the wall (something Clint brought in with the groceries in the first week together) he sees that only an hour has passed. He tries to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t stumble on his words, where he says the right thing to the people he’s begun to care for without offending them.

In the end nothing comes up, and Steve stumbles into the guest room, where they’ll be putting Phil. He looks at the forest of words painted on all four walls, the different coloured tree trunks linked together in a maze of confusion and colours. He knows why his subconscious had pressed him to paint it now. He had dreamed of this place when he was little, a forest that didn’t make sense, where he ran and ran and could never come out.

He doesn’t want to be lost anymore

... And he doesn’t want Agent Coulson to be sleeping in a rendition of his childhood nightmares.

Steve takes out his cans of paint and a big paintbrush. He smears white all over, erasing the leaves and the swirled patterns of cursive handwriting, lines of wrinkles on the tree trunks. Steve doesn’t stop until all the walls are covered in record speed. It’s fast drying paint, thank goodness, because his hands are already reaching for the smaller brushes.

And then he starts over.

From the corners where the wall kisses the floor, he puts in shoots of grass, long strands of leaves and stems. They are herbs of deep green, thyme, mint, basil. All of them leafy and healthy. From there, Steve puts in the healing plants, aloe, peppermint, ginger and more. Long vines stretch out from the grass and instead of blossoms, they grow instruments.

The cello stretches from a stem, bright hues of blue and orange. A musical staff and notes rise from the cello like a sweet scent, words of encouragement written on each note (get better, believe, hope, always) He puts birds in the sky, birds carrying trumpets and flutes. And in place of the sun he puts a big sunflower (adoration) while the clouds are made up of purple, pink and white hydrangeas (perseverance) with their soft bunches of petals raining down on the garden of instruments and herbs.

He doesn’t notice, until he has collapsed on the floor, that the streaks of petal rain seem to be running in the shapes and patterns of spider’s legs. Then he sleeps and he dreams of being frozen in a coffin of flowers, unable to reach out.

-

“Up painting again?” Clint regards him with humour when he goes to the stove to make breakfast. He can hear the shower from here, so Natasha must be in the bathroom. “When do you even sleep, cap?”

Steve chuckles as he gets out some pans to make eggs. He can still feel the dry white paint on his cheek. When he puts his hand up he can feel some of it clinging to his hair as well but he isn’t sure which colours they are. His undershirt and pyjama pants are smeared in green and brown against a background of light blues.

“...I thought that Agent Coulson might appreciate something nicer for his room,” He admits quietly, watching the eye whites sizzling against the metal.

When he finishes, he sees that Clint is regarding him almost fondly, arms crossed.

He blinks, “What is it? Do I have something other than paint on my face?”

“It’s nothing, just, uh, let me help you with that,” Clint takes the pan and spoons out the portions. The archer makes sure that everyone gets equal amounts, since this is the one meal Steve will eat properly in. “Listen, Steve... about Nat... this mission might not be the best thing for her...”

But whatever else Clint wants to add is drowned out by a knock on the door.

It’s the shipment of equipment from Tony.

-

Later, he tries to send a text back, a simple thank you but he gets a notice that tells him to ‘resend’ his message and when he tries again, he accidentally turns off the mobile network. He’s not sure what it means, but his phone isn’t working after that.

Steve writes it down on in his sketchbook instead, penciling a rough outline of Iron Man flying over the moon, with words of gratitude underneath. Clint comes in then and tells him that Natasha is ready. Steve leaves the drawing on his easel, promising that he’ll get back to it.

-

“We’ll go tonight,” Steve decides once Clint has set up everything. The ambulance that Clint apparently ‘borrowed’ is parked in an alley nearby. “Black Widow, do you think you can have the costumes and the forged identification ready by tonight?”

Natasha nods, holding out the cards that read out their temporary identities in between her fingers. She is as professional as ever and Steve can’t tell if she is still upset from his words the other night. She shares one of Clint’s mystery smirks, “I had them done yesterday evening. My contacts are very efficient.”

“Great,” Steve feels relieved. “Hawkeye, you can do what you need to do to get the ambulance ready. Get started on hacking into the hospital surveillance. I want you in the ambulance when we need you, in case we need to get away. We’ll enter the hospital at 2400 hours, that’s when the shift of guards will switch. Black Widow and I will rush into emergency with a fake body. We need you to watch carefully for any movements that are out of the norm... any sign that S.H.I.E.L.D. might guess that we’re not what we seem...”

-

The brown hair dye and added lines of facial hair lining his chin and upper lip make him feel odd. Steve looks at his reflection in the glassy hospital doors and sees Nurse Oscar Heller staring back. Beside him, Natasha has a black wig on, that is pinned up as a pony tail. She wears dark brown contacts (weird plastic things that change your eye colour! Steve refuses to go near them!) Her alias is Elizabeth Dumas.

They rush through the doors to emergency with the stretcher, a mannequin playing the role of a body under the blanket.

Steve lets Natasha do the talking. Her acting is so well-done that Steve almost believes that they are both nurses, desperate to take this patient up to the right surgeon. When Natasha’s smooth dramatization gets them past the first room of paramedics and doctors, they are in the hallway to the operating room.

From there, Steve takes over, the layout of the hospital memorized in his head. He leads them to an empty room, where repairs are being done and stretchers are stored. They stow the stretcher and mannequin there, then switch identification so that they are qualified to take care of S.H.I.E.L.D. guarded patients, rather than emergency ones.

They don’t need to worry about the cameras. From the stream of codes that Clint is muttering into the earpieces, Steve knows that they’ve been disabled or manipulated somehow.

Quickly Natasha and Steve rush up to the top floor. They take the stairs, less chance of being slowed down. Besides, elevators are creepy to him. What if they break down? He can't imagine being trapped like that, hours on end, in a metal space. Before long they are on the right floor and the right wing...

“Wait! Stop!” Clint’s voice shouts in their earpieces. “Something’s going on; they’re moving him to another room. It’s the same wing but... no, what are they doing? Damn it; get your hands off of him!”

“Hawkeye? Hawkeye!” Steve wishes he could just swear but he doesn’t.

"Just a second, Captain... Oh shit!"

"Hawkeye!"

But he only hears static on the other end, along with shouts and grunts of pain. When Steve returns his attention to their situation, Natasha is already rushing down the white (empty) hallways and he runs after her, shouting that she needs to slow down and stick to the plan.

It’s at the next turn, around the corner, that they see agents escorting a stretcher into a room with steel doors. There, they catch sight of Phil Coulson’s face. He is lying peacefully against the white sheets and pillow. He looks like he is just sleeping. There are no machines controlling his breathing or monitoring his heart... he truly looks as if he is just... sleeping.

It’s disturbing, because Steve realizes that during the funeral service they all attended in his name, they never saw the body.

The agents wheel the bed into the steel room and before Steve can say anything, Natasha has her pistol out and she is shooting.

“No! Black Widow, wait!” Steve tries to tell her. But she is aiming for the agent’s legs and arms, not quite hitting them but close enough. “We’re not here to hurt anyone, just get Agent Coulson!”

She’s not listening and he has to grab her by the shoulders. “Black Widow, Natasha, snap out of it!”

His words don’t reach her. Her eyes are glazed and focused on the enemy, not him. She wrestles out of his grip and resumes shooting.

The agents are recuperating. They’ve begun to fire back and Steve curses their luck as he has to let go of Natasha. She returns to her element, picking off the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents one by one by shooting exactly at their pistols, blasting their weapons away from their hands. There are many close calls with ricocheting bullets. Steve thinks that a few men and women have been shot in the thighs or upper arms by accident (he hopes its an accident, but no time to think—)

He’ll have to trust that she won’t go beyond her morals.

Steve rushes through the steel doors, punching the first two men he sees in his way. He moves quickly, hitting the bodyguards that are left in pressure points at the neck, just as Natasha taught him during their spars.

There is a crash. Steve turns and narrowly dodges gunfire. That’s when he takes in the layout of the room and who is left in it.

It’s bigger than the training area in his apartment, enough to fit three large machines that take up the ceiling and the floor. The machines have large glass tubes attached to them, large enough to fit a living person... and Steve notices the eerie (familiar) blue light coming from the tubes... There is a giant computer screen, larger than the cinema reels he saw back home, with series and sequences of numbers and a diagram of a cube-shaped...

Then someone shoots him in the arm and Steve hisses; he ducks down behind one of the white machines. He takes note that there are three people on the other side of the room, dressed in white lab coats (scientists? But why? And what do they want with Coulson?)

Speaking of Coulson, the man is lying in the middle of the gunfire, on a stretcher. Steve has to jump up and pull the stretcher towards him, so that it is hidden and well covered from any stray shots while Steve is exposed in the open.

Naturally the frightened scientists focus their radical aim towards him.

Steve is lucky. He spots a trolley with metal instruments (scalpels, needles, saws) and spills them on the floor, raising the flat surface of the trolley up as a shield. Then he throws it towards the scientists (hopes that he doesn’t seriously injure any of them), grabs the handles of the stretcher and runs out as fast as he can out of the hospital lab.

Natasha has injured (and perhaps killed) the agents that were at the door. She rushes towards him, guarding his rear as they run towards the elevator. More gun fire. It must be the scientists, pursuing, but Natasha is taking care of it.

The alarm begins to ring then, a loud and insistent blaring echoing throughout the building.

“Run!” He tells Natasha, grabbing Coulson and carrying him on his back.

They rush to the stairs.

-

“Hawkeye!” Steve yells as they push past startled patients and doctors. He mutters ‘I’m sorry’ so many times to them that he thinks the words will become inked on his tongue. They’re out in the parking lot, looking for their specific ambulance but there is no sign of Clint.

Natasha swears loudly in Russian. “Where is he?”

“This way,” says Steve, directing them towards the emptier part of cement. They’ll be more visible for Clint there, but more of a target for the agents that want to retrieve Coulson. He readjusts his hold on the unconscious agent that he's carrying. Coulson weighs as much as a normal man would on his back. Steve wonders how they’ve been feeding him. There is something wrong with this...

The Black Widow is hovering behind him protectively, aiming her gun at any noise that comes in proximity of Coulson and Steve.

“Over there!” Natasha points to where there are figures battling behind what appears to be an abandoned ambulance beyond the fence. They see the outline of a bow and arrow being drawn and when they hear the explosions, they know that it’s Clint.

Both dash towards the fence. Steve rams it down so that they can walk on top of the toppled metal wires and they meet Clint at the ambulance.

“What happened? Where were you?” Natasha demands, “You just revealed who you are with that move!”

“Never mind that,” Steve interjects. “Put Coulson in the back and drive.”

Clint opens his mouth, perhaps to ask about Phil, and why exactly he doesn’t need any machines to help him breathe but Steve shakes his head and then Clint jumps into the driver’s seat. He drives.

-

Steve has Phil propped against him in the back, holding the man steady as they pass along bumps and other detours. Natasha is riding shotgun, keeping her weapons aimed out the vehicle’s windows just in case. Clint goes left and right, right and left, in a complicated pattern to ward off pursuers.

“I messed up their cameras outside the facility too,” Clint informs them as he does a dangerous spin and three-point-turn out of paranoia. The excitement has died down. They haven’t noticed any tanks or helicopters in pursuit. “Don’t think they caught the license of this ambulance but we can’t be too careful. Should be another few blocks before we can head back to home base.”

“Great work,” Steve says honestly.

“Now, could someone tell me why Phil isn’t hooked up to a heart rate monitor... or an IV?”

Another sharp turn and Steve thinks that he’s going to end up with a bruise on his head, “They didn’t have him on any machines. He’s just... sleeping.”

“What?” The ambulance nearly stops from a heavy stamp on the brake. Steve winces, grateful that Phil can’t seem to wake in this chaos. “That’s not possible!”

“Well he’s alive,” Natasha snaps. “We’ll worry about the impossible later. How about you tell me why you used your own specialty arrows on those agents that jumped you? Now there’s evidence at the scene of the crime! They’ll know that you were involved, Clint. You’ll lose your position with S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Suddenly a different tension fills the air and Steve doesn’t like it.

“Nat... I don’t want to talk about it right now—”

“No, tell me what’s going on, Clint? How are you going to get yourself out of this one?” She growls at him. “Fury will have you arrested and then what will happen to you—?”

Steve wants to choke when he realizes just what Clint is planning because—

“...I’m not going back, Natasha.”

There are heavy, stunned breaths.

“...What?

Clint sighs. “I said... I’m not going back to S.H.I.E.L.D. Not after this, not after what they hid from us. I’m not going back.”

Natasha is quiet.

“...And this is why you...”

“...Yeah...”

“...Then all this time, not telling me was...”

Silence.

“...I’m sorry.”

A loud bang startles them both and Steve guesses that Natasha has punched the door on her left. “Stop. The. Car,” He hears her say. “Let me out.”

“Natasha—”

“Wait, Ms. Romanoff—”

Let me out of the car, right now, Clint Barton or I will tear the veins out of your wrist and use them to strangle you.”

He stops the car. Natasha storms out, disappearing into the backdrops of city lights and shadows.

-

“...I don’t understand,” Steve speaks up cautiously, for the first time in the suffocating quiet, while Clint carries Phil up the steps. They’ve left the ambulance behind a few blocks to throw off their trail. “Why did you let her go?”

The sound of their footsteps on concrete stairs makes Steve think that Clint won’t answer. He tries not to feel disappointed. It isn’t his place, after all. They’re just guests and he’s just...

“Natasha used to be a criminal,” Clint surprises him with a monotonous explanation, “like me. Only she killed people for a living since she was a child. She was groomed for it while I picked up the trade while I was on the run. She sees S.H.I.E.L.D. as her second chance. Without S.H.I.E.L.D. she would have been assassinated a long time ago. I can’t... I can’t force her to go back to that. That's her life now. They're the ones who are saving her now. I can’t make her choose this.”

Steve says nothing, only unlocks the door when they reach the right floor and helps Clint bring Phil to his new room. When he flips on the light switch, Clint’s mouth parts slightly, taking in the new mural in the bedroom, the interplay of garden herbs, musical notes and birds.

“He’ll love it,” Clint whispers.

He gives a weak grimace in return.

They settle Phil on the bed, pile on the blankets and set up an IV with basic nutrients. They don’t dare to put in any drugs when they don’t know precisely what is wrong with Phil. The reports Clint swiped from his former handler Hill are not forthcoming.

Clint grabs a chair from the dining area and sets it next to the bed. “I’m not leaving him tonight,” he tells Steve, as if he needs to justify himself.

Steve closes his eyes again, trying to sort out all of his thoughts. His mind flashes back to the Black Widow and the desperation in her eyes back when Clint was under Loki’s control. He had thought her to be so lost and yet so very strong. His opinion hasn't changed.

“...I think that you should give Natasha more credit.”

The archer almost gawks at him, and it would be humourous were it not for the topic.

“She cares about you just as much as you care about her. You should let her choose for herself,” Steve advises him softly. “Think about it.”

-

Steve doesn’t feel like going to his art room, opting to sit by the plants and stare at the ceiling. He is fiddling with his phone, trying to figure out how to send messages (the network still isn’t connected), when the touch screen brings up a different icon. He accidentally presses a few buttons and suddenly Steve sees the long list of messages that Tony has sent him.

9:00 am –Hey did you get the shipment of stuff that Barton ordered this morning?

9:05 am –You’re welcome.

10:10 am –So mind telling me what the hell he wants hacking equipment and IV drips for?

10:30 am –Don’t tell me. He’s going to play doctor with a robot. He has a robot fetish. I knew it. And he’s dragging you down with him.

10:38 am –Steve?

10:39 am –Steve?

11:11 am –It’s not that hard to type a text message.

11:14 am –Wait, did anyone ever teach you how to use your phone?

11:16 am –Oh god, I never did, did I? I just assumed one of Fury’s henchmen told you how and you were just ignoring me.

11:18 am –Should have known it isn’t possible to ignore me. I’m Tony Stark.

11:45 am –LUNCH ASAP. Like today. If not, then tomorrow. I’ll pay. Don’t sorry, stars and stripes, we’ll get you up to date with the future soon!

12:30 am –Wait, all of this is irreverent if you can’t answer back. Alright, cap, I’ll just swing by your place tomorrow. If you’re not there, I’ll go burn a flag or something.

Steve can’t stop laughing to himself.

Tomorrow, he promises himself, he’ll tell Tony about Phil in the morning.

-

His eyes are just about to flutter shut a few minutes later when his door is kicked open. Steve jumps up, ready to attack the intruder, when Natasha storms in and goes to the guest bedroom. Blood is dripping from her brow and Steve thinks that her knuckles are bruises and scarred.

“Natasha, wait!” He grabs a med kit from under the couch and follows her to where Clint and Phil are.

“...what are you doing here?” He catches Clint saying. “What happened?”

“I quit S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Natasha replies nonchalantly. “They weren’t very happy. I got away. There, now you can stop coddling me.”

Before Clint can say more, she snaps at him, “No. No protesting. I’m staying here and that’s my decision. He was—is—my handler too.”

It seems like she wants to say more, both of them of them do. But Natasha clenches her fists and marches out into the hallway, leaving Clint looking helplessly down at Phil.

“...I’ve made a mess of things, haven’t I?” The archer bows his head down in his arms.

Steve doesn’t know what else to say and he doesn’t want to leave Clint alone to wallow either. And yet there’s Natasha, who wears her hurt in her eyes and actions. He can’t be in two places at once.

Silently, Steve kneels down and puts a hand on Clint’s shoulder.

“I’ll talk to her.”

-

Natasha is staring quietly at a glass of vodka. The bottle sits on the table, a stain in his apartment. The blood on her has been washed away. She has not bandaged her hands yet.

His jaw drops but he quickly closes it. It’s not that it’s unusual or shocking for him to see people wasted away in the bar. The Howlers, especially Dum Dum, were found of that poison. Bucky also enjoyed a good beer, and would give Steve a small sip before the serum (but never more, Bucky cared too much and Steve, well, Steve remembers his father.) But he’s always considered Natasha to be careful and composed.

(He doesn’t bother wondering how she got back into the apartment with alcohol; she probably left and re-entered through the window or broke his locks. Clint is going to be very angry.)

“...Ms. Romanoff...?” He asks tentatively, recalling how his father would lash out if he wasn’t careful.

Natasha only looks at him and gives a sardonic smile. His shoulders relax when he sees the calculations still lingering in her gaze. Natasha is coherent enough to have a proper conversation at least. In fact, she walks over to the couch and sits there, patting the space beside her. It doesn’t seem as if she’s had much to drink yet.

Steve only hesitates for a moment before he goes over to join her.

No one speaks for a long time. He hears only the clink of ice in Natasha’s glass and the soft beeps of the heart monitor in the guest room.

“...I nearly killed those men today.”

It’s not what he is expecting her to say.

Natasha continues, tipping the glass back and forth, “I promised myself I wouldn’t put any more innocent blood on my hands... that I would erase the red on my scoreboard... And yet today... I was just so angry... for what they did, hiding Phil, causing Clint so much pain... I...”

She makes a bitter sound.

“No wonder Clint didn’t want me to know about Phil yet. He knew I’d try to kill them.”

“No!” Steve moves, unsure of what to do, but he has to try something to make her understand. “That wasn’t it at all. He just wanted to spare you any pain. He wasn’t thinking of that at all. And it wasn’t your fault—”

She is chuckling now, low and cold. When she looks at him, he sees nothing and it scares him because Natasha, though not an expressive person, has very telling eyes.

“I’m a killing machine, Steve, shaped that way by my country,” Natasha twirls her glass of vodka in her lithe fingers, “What else am I but that?”

“That’s not true—”

“You know it is!” Natasha hisses. “You know what it is to lay down your life for a higher cause. You understand.”

And he does.

We are not soldiers, Tony told him once and he has regretted referring to them as such ever since.

But the truth is that sometimes Steve thinks that it is all he knows how to be. A soldier. That’s what he had done in the first few years. He was a dancing monkey on strings until he went on a suicide mission to save Bucky. Even when he had his own squadron, the Howling Commandos, he had melted into a different persona. He had to become the captain, the soldier, because that man knew (still knows) how to survive.

America needed (still needs) a hero, a figure head for the war and he let himself be melded into that exact person, despite his tendency to break the rules, despite how much he disliked listening to the rules when they held him back from the truth. It was for the greater good. It was for America.

Yet when he hears the same sentiment from Natasha, he can’t stand it because, well...

“You take care of plants,” Steve whispers and the Russian agent frowns, as if he has gone insane, and he hasn’t, though sometimes he thinks he has, but that’s not the point because— “and you make really good hot chocolate, the best I’ve ever had. You make Clint smile and you know the best places to buy furniture and really good Russian literature.”

He quietly takes the glass from her hand and sets it on the table. Her face is still blank, but she is gripping his hand so tightly that he thinks it might fall off.

“...I don’t think a killing machine is capable of doing that.”

She says nothing, only compressing her fingers around his, and they sit together in the dark, staring at the silence written in the air.

-

Before:

“You look happier today.”

Steve stops humming his strange mixture of Cole Porter and Nate Cole, unable to stop the giddiness in his steps, “Tony got me an apartment. I can start moving things in this Friday once I get the furniture. I’ve got to find something affordable from a good store.”

Natasha nods, appearing indifferent. “Ah, I see, Stark moves fast.”

He frowns, “Uh, I guess so?” In the Iron Man suit, Tony could fly at incredible speeds but he has never seen Tony run so he wouldn’t know.

His sparring partner only shakes her head, more interested in what Steve has brought along with him for some light reading when he will wait for another meeting with Fury and Tony regarding his new independence.

She takes the tattered book from Steve’s hand and glances at him with amusement at the title, “Really, Steve? Pride and Prejudice?”

He grins sheepishly, “My mother loved it, and I inherited the same love. I like how witty everyone is.”

Natasha shakes her head, “You are wasted on this. Here,” She takes out a marker from her bag and begins to write on Steve’s hand. “Don’t worry,” She says to his startled movements, “it will wash off... eventually.”

When she is done, Steve can’t help but smile at the messages that start on his palm and trail down his wrist.

‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy, ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, anything by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn can be purchased at Lee’s Attic Books plus some classy furniture. Also, burn your other Austen books.

“What has Austen ever done to offend you?” He tries not to laugh.

She glowers at the book, “Exist.”

They go to spar and if Natasha goes a little easier on him in combat the next week because he has picked up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he doesn’t mention it.

-

Now:

“You should talk to him.”

“I know.”

“Properly this time.”

-

He wakes up, finding himself laid out on the coach with seven layers of blankets piled on top of him. He groans, wondering when he fell asleep the other night and why he hadn’t noticed how tired he was.

Steve raises his hand to rub his face, and sees another message written on his skin in familiar, bold handwriting.

I’m going to take the training room, with Clint. Also found the Austen books hidden in the art room. Will try to suppress urge to destroy them for your sake. Enjoy the house warming plants.

Running a hand through his hair, a choked noise escapes from his throat and he can’t decide if it’s a laugh or a sob.

Sure enough, there is a vase on the coffee table next to the framed cards. It’s a bouquet of pink carnations... with a single sunflower in the middle.

-

“I’m going to call Tony, tell him the news,” Steve informs Clint and Natasha when he finishes making breakfast. The issue has been eating away at his conscience for days and he thinks he might explode if he doesn’t tell Tony soon.

Both look sleepy and indifferent (he can’t tell if they’ve talked or not yet.) They murmur their agreement and remind Steve to ask Doctor Banner to come by as well. They’ll need more than a few textbook guides and advice from nurses on how to care for a coma patient. If there’s an emergency, none of them are sure of what to do. Besides, Phil’s condition... doesn’t fit any of the criteria that they’ve read so far.

It’s scaring them all but none of them show it.

Natasha’s hands are bandaged now and the two assassins appear at peace with each other again. He’s glad. It doesn’t feel right when they push each other way.

Steve goes out to the balcony on the main floor, glad he hasn’t dropped his phone because of his clammy hands. Then he shakily dials the two.

Tony picks up on the first ring once again (“Wow, second call in a few days, cap, I’m impressed!”) and Steve has trouble coming up with a greeting so instead he blurts, “I need you and Doctor Banner to come by. We need medical attention for—”

Automatically, Tony’s voice shifts from lighthearted to serious and concentrated solely on him, “What is it? Has something happened to you or Barton? I’ll be right over—”

“No, it’s nothing like that; we’re not the ones who’ve been hurt—”

“What? Are you sure? This isn’t some noble, self-sacrificing Saint Steve thing is it? Just stay where you are, I’ll go get Bruce—”

“Tony—”

“Where are you?”

“My apartment, look, Tony—”

“Right, ok—JARVIS tell Happy to get the car ready and fetch Bruce from the lab—I’ll be there in ten, five minutes. No, I’ll fly over—”

Tony!” Steve shouts and the noise on the other line stops. “Tony, it’s not for me or Clint... it’s for Phil.”

He thinks he hears the phone drop.

“...You’re shitting me.”

That must be some colloquial expression for disbelief.

“No, god, no, Tony—”

“This isn’t funny, Steve, not funny at all—”

“It’s true!” He stresses, “We have Phil, and he’s alive. Fury lied to us, hid him in one of the public hospitals but we managed to get him out. He’s in a coma and we need someone’s medical opinion...and...” Oh god, he shouldn’t have listened to Clint, can’t bear the sickening silence, “and I’m so sorry, Tony, we should have told you sooner...”

“Don’t move,” is the cold answer. “I’ll be there in less than two minutes.”

Then there is the wailing dial tone, sounding like the bleeding lines of guilt in his soul. Steve waits.

Chapter Text

Before:

It’s just a trip to the store. He’s gone before to the bargain shop that Natasha mentioned, to pick up books and furniture. He can do this; he can go into a mall. It’s an extremely tall (were buildings this tall in his day?) and towering mall, but it is just a normal place to buy different clothes and other things (Tony wasn’t very specific in his offhand remarks.)

Steve takes a deep breath, adjusts the baseball cap on his head and steps through the doors.

There are people, everywhere and he hasn’t realized just how many can fit into a stretch of hallway that is two bedrooms long, just how stifling it is to move through the crowds, enter a mall alone. Steve can’t take a step forward without feeling as if he is squished into a small space (again), unable to get out (never mind how easy it is to get lost in the maze of little stores with staggering prices.)

He takes in another quick breath. There never used to be so many people around (or maybe there had been, but he’d been too busy killing other soldiers, humans, in the war to notice.) He doesn’t remember.

When he blinks again, he can see the signs and advertisements in their flashy lettering, screaming out different deals and prices. There are twenty percent off sales, buy one get one free deals and limited edition banners streamed in the windows with mannequins wearing barely any cloth at all. Steve tries to leave, but walks into another store by accident, this one selling shoes of all sizes including some impractical ones with bottoms larger than two inches. He wonders how anyone could possibly walk in them without falling over.

Then Steve stumbles out, wanting to sit down somewhere, when he is shoved against a young couple (apologizing again and hoping he didn’t hurt them by accident) and almost knocked into a tree. (Why is there a tree in the middle of a building anyways? Is it a real one? Steve can’t understand why they wouldn’t just put in a real tree instead.)

He sees white, (horrible) white clouding his vision, blotting out the scenery and the people in frayed dabs of paintbrush. And then he is numb, trying to get to the nearest exit as soon as possible, it should be behind him, but he can’t see it anywhere and—

“—Rogers, Captain Rogers, are you alright...?”

Steve jerks up when someone’s hand touches his arm, he nearly goes for a punch but stops when he catches sight of the familiar face.

“Doctor Banner?” Steve breathes out, the tension in his joints lessening but a little.

The scientist looks well if not still as wary and guarded as he had when they first met. He is clean, his chin showing signs of a clean shave and wearing his dress shirt and suit like a wall against the outside world. Though he seems apprehensive of being in such a populated area (which relieves Steve, because at least he’s not the only one uncomfortable with so many people) his eyes are kind.

“You alright, captain?”

“Yeah,” Steve swallows, forcing his shoulders to relax. “Just fine. Just... out doing some errands. I... it’s really good to see you.”

Banner’s brow is lifted up, as if he is surprised by the omission. The doctor puts his other hand in his coat pocket. “Oh,” He says, pausing for a moment before a small smile makes its way to his face. “It’s good to see you too, Captain Rogers.” He frowns again, “Are you sure that you’re alright?”

“Just call me Steve, Doctor Banner, and I’m fine,” he insists but he thinks that his hands are still trembling, only slightly.

His teammate seems to notice, but thankfully, doesn’t draw attention to Steve’s nervous gestures or how pale that he feels at the moment.

“Bruce,” Banner says.

Steve looks up at him in confusion.

Banner grins, “If we’re going to be on first name basis, then you should return the favour.”

“I don’t want to be any trouble...” But the idea of braving this shopping center alone is becoming less and less appealing. He feels pathetic and does not let it show on his face, opting for an easygoing manner.

“Nonsense. I was just going for a stroll anyways when I saw you go in here. Needed to take a bit of a breather away from Stark Towers, that place is a bit... Well,” He removes his hand from Steve’s elbow, “if you don’t mind the company...”

“No, no, of course, that would be swell. You’re great company.” And he means it. Already, he feels better now that there is someone here that he knows. The mall is more bearable and he doesn’t have to close his eyes to count his breaths, much as he used to when he had asthma attacks, his mother no longer there to count with him. “Could use someone to lead the way to a good clothing store. I already feel lost.”

Bruce studies him for a moment, like Steve is one of his experiments, a puzzle to be laid out and solved, before he tilts his head to the right, “There’s one down the street, with more sensible tastes than the flashy things on display.”

They walk side to side, Steve asking what the doctor has been up to and how things are living in one of Tony’s many rooms. Their conversation is comfortable and Steve thinks that Bruce is a bit more open and prone to quiet laughter, despite the tense edges lingering in his posture. At least he smiles more easily and with less guarded eyes.

And if Steve notices how Bruce keeps leading them to quieter areas of the city, cafes with soothing music in the background and stores that have only one or two customers at a time, he doesn’t mention it.

-

Now:

For several moments, Steve just stares at his phone, half expecting it to buzz again with another text message, anything to tell him that the phone call hadn’t happened. It doesn’t and when Steve glances at the cloudy sky, the grey reflected in the far off waters that meet the edges of the city, he wonders if Iron Man will fly in and burst through his windows. But Tony won’t risk that, he’s too clever to risk outing to S.H.I.E.L.D. that they know Coulson is not dead. He’ll come by car.

Staring down at the pavement below, the yellow lines painted to separate parked cars (and his bike), Steve watches for any vehicle that might belong to the genius. The height is dizzying as always (he sees the glaciers dotted on the dark sea below as he flies the plane down, down, down, preparing for death) and sometimes, in the night, when all the memories rush back, he has to force himself to stay away from the windows, to paint instead of being tempted to test the fall against the serum.

Steve doesn’t know how long he spends staring down from the balcony (wondering, once more, why he is still here) but when he sees a long black car pull up by the foot of the apartment, he knows that Tony is here with Bruce.

The small figures of Tony and Bruce emerge from the car. Tony appears agitated, storming to the entrance while Bruce has his hands up, as if to calm the other man (or himself.) They don’t look up to see Steve there.

He’s... well, he’s numb as he opens the door and walks back from the balcony into the dining area. Steve isn’t sure what the expression on his face must look like but it must be bad for Natasha and Clint to drop their utensils, up on their feet as if the world is in danger again. They start towards him but Steve just shakes his head. He swallows and finds a chair before his knee buckles in and he says, “Tony’s bringing Bruce over. They’re coming up.”

“...What did Stark say to you?” Clint asks in a low voice.

Natasha’s glower speaks for itself.

Steve looks at his untouched plate. There are two orange slices and an extra egg that weren’t there before, probably added discretely by Clint. He can’t think of eating right now, guilt has consumed what little appetite he has in the mornings.

“Nothing,” he answers. “Just... I don’t think he’s very happy that we’ve kept this a secret from him.”

“Well that’s nonsense,” Clint scowls. “We couldn’t tell him until it was safe to. He’s unpredictable, we couldn’t risk it and I didn’t want him to know yet, Phil’s my—”

“Clint—” Natasha frowns, “I don’t think...”

The doors are blasted open with an explosive blast and Steve jumps to cover the two assassins with his body. He sees blue light rushing from the smoke and smashing a hole through the center window, shattering it and sending glass shards dancing on the ground and some embedded into the murals on the walls. Steve sneaks a peek over his arms, which he had thrown up to cover his face.

Tony stands at the broken door (now in splinters, what’s left of it hanging loosely by its hinges like a limp rag doll), wearing one of the Iron Man arm pieces around his hand like a glove. His fingers are outstretched, the light from the palm dying down. His hair is dishevelled and it’s clear from the untucked dress shirt and striped pyjama bottoms that he has just rushed here.

“Well then,” He can hear the venom in Tony’s voice, “I hope that was a good wake up call for you all. So where is he?”

Clint, who has one of his hidden pocket knives in his hand, an automatic response to the previous blast, lowers it and hisses, “What the fuck, Stark! What if you had killed one of us?”

“Yes,” Natasha steps forward, putting away her own concealed blade, eyes flickering to Steve who doesn’t know how to make the hollow feeling in his chest go away. “You also broke Steve’s door and window,” she says with an undercurrent of a promise to break into Tony Stark’s tower to break his nose for that.

“Oh, you’re here too? Another one invited into the club before me, wonderful,” Tony remarks, “and, no, Barton, I wouldn’t have. I scanned the area first; clearly you weren’t in the living room. I’ll pay for the door and window later. Now where is he?”

Bruce runs in at that moment, taking in the scene of obvious destruction with a strained sigh. Like Tony, he also appears disheveled but seems to have had time to put on his usual dress pants and collared shirt. He carries a plush leather bag in his hand, one with shiny golden handles.

The scientist takes a deep breath before he lets himself glance up at Natasha, Clint and Steve, “Sorry. I tried to stop him.”

Steve draws out a long breath, trying not to hurt at the fact that Tony isn’t looking at him, only glaring at Clint, “Hi Bruce.”

He receives a small smile in turn and it makes the situation, not better per say, but more bearable.

Where is he?” Tony snaps. “And stop making me fucking repeat myself.”

“Who are you talking about?” Clint snarls.

“You know who I mean, Barton, don’t play the idiot. Where’s Phil? Or is this really just a fucked up prank of some kind that you three decided to play in your spare time? Because believe me it’s not funny.

“It’s not a joke,” Steve speaks quietly for the first time since Tony arrived. His words have a rasp to them and Tony still isn’t looking at him. He bites his lip and steps forward, his bare feet stepping on bits of glass. He feels the sharp edges digging into his skin but ignores it, the wounds will heal later. “He’s in the guest room and I really think that Bruce should take a look at him...”

Tony says nothing, only glowers at Clint once more before storming into the hall, while Bruce studies the rest of them for a while longer before following him. Steve and Clint are footsteps behind them, desperate to hear the doctor’s diagnosis. Natasha slips silently in the room, hovering protectively by them both.

When Steve enters the bedroom with Clint and Natasha he sees Tony standing as still as the former haunting trees he had erased from the mural a day or two ago. Tony’s mouth is in a tight line, his face completely pale and Steve flashes back to that moment when they found out that Coulson was dead (Is this the first time you lost a soldier?) and how telling the cold despair was in Tony’s eyes, so different from the bully he had once thought him to be.

Tony leans down, a hand outstretched to touch one of the bright sun patterned and orange sheets protecting Coulson. The (not dead) agent’s chest is slowly heaving up and down in slow (miraculous) breaths. The sound is soothing to the ear, more than the sweetest music and maybe even Clint’s soft lullabies on the cello. The added steady beats from the heart monitor create the most breathtaking sound.

“...He’s alive...” Tony whispers. “He’s really alive.”

His posture slumps and he looks like he will topple over if anyone touches him. Steve feels the pang in his chest again and it hurts more than anything he’s ever felt.

“...Tony...” He moves towards him.

But the billionaire jerks away from him and he feels like he’s been burned. Steve lowers his hand and Natasha steps between him and Tony, glowering at the genius from the corner of her eyes. Clint hovers by Steve’s right for a moment before he goes to stand by Coulson, trailing a gentle hand on the comatose agent’s cheek.

Bruce is kneeling on the other side of the mattress, a stethoscope already pulled from his bag as well as something, Natasha whispers to Steve, which will measure his blood pressure. All four occupants watch greedily as Bruce calmly proceeds with his check-up, muttering to himself and writing things down in a notepad not much larger than his own hand.

Steve admires the doctor for his self-control and steady hands. He thinks that if he were in Bruce’s place, where every test meant the difference between a correct diagnosis and the wrong one that his hands would be shaking. But Bruce has a serene aura that Steve has always envied and by the time he has performed the tests four times over, his brow furrowing more and more.

Finally, Bruce stands up and tells them with a perplexed frown that Coulson is in perfect health. “There is nothing irregular about his heart beat, pulse, temperature... nothing. I’ll need some blood and urine samples to make a more in depth conclusion but so far... it’s as if he’s just sleeping.”

“Impossible,” Tony speaks up, the angry quality returning to his voice. “Your tests must be wrong. Do them again.”

I did,” Bruce grits his teeth, a dangerous tension building in his stance. Beside him, Steve can see that Natasha has her blade ready just in case while Clint discretely grabs at the bow and arrows leaning against the drawer.

“Look,” Steve tries to intervene, never imagining that he would have to placate tension between Tony and Bruce of all people, “let’s try to be logical about this—”

“Logical?” Tony laughs, still refusing to meet his eyes, “Logical? There’s nothing logical about finding out that one of the sorry bastards you can’t stand has just come back from the dead, and what’s more, your teammates don’t deem it necessary to tell you about it until they’ve already rescued him from the hospital without you. Great. Just fucking great.”

“Hey,” Clint stands up, seething, “don’t take this out on Steve. It was my decision—”

“Yeah? And what right did you have for making that wonderful choice, hm? Someone appoint you the ringleader for this shit?

“It was my right—”

“No, it wasn’t! You had no right at all; you’re nothing to him, just one of his —”

I am not nothing to him!” Clint roars and they all fall silent. Clint is breathing heavily, eyes wild. “You should know what I am to Phil, Stark... I’m the cellist.”

Tony’s jaw drops. “You and him...? You two were...?”

Clint gives a taut dip of his head.

“...And no one knew...”

“We were discrete... unlike some people.”

Tony begins to laugh sardonically again, running a hand through his hair, “Of course, just more fucking secrets that the team couldn’t be bothered to tell me. You know what? Fuck this. I’m leaving, I’m going to give Fury a piece of my mind but I’m not dealing with this shit anymore, fuck all of you. Come on, Bruce.”

The doctor frowns, “I need to do those blood tests, Tony—”

“Fine, go do that. I’ll be raining hell on Fury, now a final ‘fuck you’ to all other company,” Tony bows mockingly before striding out into the hall.

“No, Tony, wait!” Steve goes after him, “You can’t confront Fury about this—”

Tony turns on him, finally gazing directly at him but his eyes are accusing, full of sharp anger and contempt, “And why the hell not? He started all this, Rogers, he needs to answer to the consequences. I’ll teach him to pull the wool over our eyes—”

“No, this is why Clint didn’t want to tell you. He didn’t want you to act recklessly, to create more attention and draw it towards Coulson; it was for the good of the team...! Tony, god, I wanted to... I...” He tries to say, but the wounded look in the billionaire’s deep eyes stops all coherencies.

“So... that’s the reason...?” Tony says quietly, and it is worse than his shouts. “Tony Stark can’t be trusted not to blow things up, to ruin everything and for the greater good you decided not to tell me.”

No! Tony, that’s not it, just shut up and listen—”

“How about you shut up, captain?” Tony is snarling. “You don’t know anything about me. In fact, you know nothing about this world at all. You walk around pretending that you understand the way the world works now when really you’re just Fury’s little mascot for S.H.I.E.L.D., obedient to the core, always sacrificing other people’s lives and feelings for the greater good. But you’re useless, a dead man who just shuts himself up in another prison, painting childish doodles of a dead century all over his walls,” he points to Brooklyn peering back from the living room mural, “when it’s gone and it’s never coming back!”

Someone gasps and Steve isn’t sure if it is him or not, if it’s echoing down the hall from the occupants listening in. He’s not sure what sounds he is making, if he is even breathing or not. He can’t speak, can’t think and Tony—Tony’s face is pale, his eyes wide. His mouth is open, as if he is going to add more hateful words over the yelling but then his face darkens and he turns away towards the door.

Steve can’t let him leave, not yet.

“Tony... wait!” But that won’t work, he won’t listen, why would Tony listen to Steve of all people, when he hates him? “...Please...” He adds.

The billionaire actually pauses in the doorway and Steve has no strength to go after him. He feels drained and he hates it. “Don’t confront Fury. Please... if not for me, then at least for Coulson’s sake...”

At first, Tony does not reply, instead stepping out entirely, shoving the splinters on the welcome mat away with his feet. Steve thinks then with sickening dread that he will have to convince Tony to see reason but doesn’t know how. Why would anything he says make a difference when Tony is right? He’s a (dead man) relic of the past and his opinions are obsolete.

But then he hears the faint, “I won’t tell Fury,” echoing into the empty space and all he can do is lean back against the wall, his arm brought up to cover his face while the other is limp beside him.

-

He isn’t sure how long he stays there, until he finally notices Natasha standing in front of him, arms crossed. She looks at him with steady eyes, anger burning there, anger that isn’t directed at him (but what was heard in the entire flat) but makes him apprehensive nonetheless. He doesn’t like it when people see him as anything less than composed; it makes him feel exposed (unworthy.)

Steve drops his gaze.

“He shouldn’t have said that to you,” Natasha says calmly, though disapproval is trembling beneath it.

“We shouldn’t have kept this a secret, not from him. We should have told him.” I should have told him, he does not say.

“Bullshit,” says Clint, whom Steve has not spotted beside him, shoulder to shoulder, practically touching. The archer’s fists are clenched and shaking. “He still shouldn’t have said that to you. It wasn’t your fault. I asked you not to say anything. Let me go give him a piece of my mind...!”

“No!” Steve moves to grab Clint’s arm but ends up slipping backwards, head crashing against the walls with painful resonance.

“Steve!”

Natasha and Clint are both at his sides, supporting his elbows.

“I’m... fine,” Steve murmurs quickly, despite the dizzy sensation he feels. Dots of black and colour decorate his vision, blotting out the hallway, the mural of red poppies and they won’t stop spinning.

“Bullshit,” Clint swears again, “geez, Steve, why didn’t you tell anyone that your feet are bleeding? There’s glass all over the floor, you should have mentioned something, that you didn’t wear any shoes, anything!

“I heal quickly,” he replies as normally as he can manage. It comes out as a whisper.

“Get him to the couch,” Natasha tells Clint, who is cursing under his breath in such creative ways that Steve thinks that even the Howling Commandos would have been impressed.

“No, I’m fine,” Steve protests as the two assassins haul him to his feet, “It’ll heal.”

“Yeah,” Clint replies drily, “with the pieces of glass still stuck in your feet. It’ll heal perfectly. Stark and I are going to have words.”

“There’ll be no need,” Natasha remarks coolly, “if I get to him first.”

Alarm snaps Steve out of his dizzy spell for just a few moments, “No, Natasha, Clint, you can’t—it wasn’t his fault, it was mine—”

“Wasn’t whose fault?” Bruce asks, walking into the living room holding several vials of blood samples and his gab. His curious gaze takes in the streaks of fresh crimson on the hardwood floors (a shame, Steve thinks absentmindedly, he hadn’t wanted to paint the floors red) before his face shifts into something eerily blank, the twisted tilt of his lips the only hint of his suppressed rage.

Clint and Natasha both tense, with the Black Widow moving in front of Steve protectively and Clint taking the job of leading Steve to the couch. The archer grips Steve’s back tightly.

Natasha’s arms are out, as if to placate a wild beast. “Banner—” she says cautiously.

Bruce brushes past her, takes hold of Steve by the shoulders (“Hey!” Clint glares, while trying to tug him back but stops at Bruce’s darker glower) and sits the super soldier down against the soft velvet seat. His jaw is clenched tight as he looks down at Steve’s feet. “God damn it,” He says and Steve doesn’t think he is referring only to the cuts.

With stiff and jolted movements, Bruce takes out a pair of tweezers and begins to meticulously pick out the shards dug deep into Steve’s flesh. It hurts very much, like metal arms are probing and tearing off the layers of skin around the wounds of his heart that he has tried to keep hidden and closed, a wound that Tony could see and rip open in one fell swoop.

Steve feels numb from the shock of Tony’s words, so numb that it almost cancels out the pain. He barely winces. Natasha and Clint are standing on both sides of the couch respectively, like stone soldiers guarding the gate to an abandoned castle. But he barely perceives them, only hears the words (the sickening truth) echoing over and over in his mind.

(...you’re useless; a dead man... painting childish doodles of a dead century... when it’s gone and it’s never coming back...)

“I should have told him,” Steve repeats again, and he’s surprised when his voice comes out as raspy and his eyes feel hot with welling liquid. He closes them and tries not to think.

His temporary house guests are already hissing, swearing and trying to come to his emotional aid but it’s Bruce’s quiet (and barely suppressed ire) that makes them all pause.

“No, Steve. Whatever hurt he was feeling today because of this situation doesn’t justify what he said. It was wrong,” Bruce yanks out another jagged piece of glass. “He’s been... temperamental lately. Things aren’t going well with him and Pepper, and then there’s me.”

That catches Steve’s attention.

“What do you mean?”

“Yeah, I was under the impression that you and Stark have been getting along like long lost friends,” Clint raises an eyebrow.

Bruce shrugs in a self-deprecating way, “We work well together and he’s a great friend but I want to go back to my work in India... and I don’t think Tony is pleased with that.”

He leaves the explanation there but Steve senses that there is more to it, things that Bruce chooses not to say. Quietly, Steve nudges Bruce’s knees imploringly. He doesn’t know if Bruce will talk to him, but he would like to offer. The doctor meets his eyes and smiles silently. He will tell Steve later. Steve nods slightly in agreement.

“Anyways,” Bruce continues, “He’s also been frustrated with other things... I’m not sure what. But I think someone is stealing Stark tech again, he’s been working late hours. No one can get him to sleep or eat. It’s pretty tense back at the tower.”

Steve feels the guilt well up in his chest, threatening to spill out of him. “Oh god... and I just made it all worse with this news.”

“Hey, don’t say that,” Bruce tells him sharply. “Tony’s just... emotionally unstable right now. He snaps at everyone lately. But I can tell you now that he regrets what he said, or at least he will if I have anything to do with it.”

“No, no... It’s fine—”

“I swear to god, if you keep saying that, I’m going to get my arrows out and shoot something, maybe more Stark robots—”

“—I’m not mad at all,” just upset and numb, “I just, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this. I wish I could have done something to help him. I feel really”—useless—“awful.”

“Stark doesn’t need help,” Clint mutters to which Natasha offers him a threatening look.

“Right,” Bruce grumbles, “could you both step out for a moment, somewhere? Anywhere?”

The assassins frown at him. It’s clear that they don’t intend to leave Steve alone with anyone they aren’t comfortable with and Steve can see Bruce trying not to tense in offense. Steve feels indignation on the doctor’s behalf and tells his house guests for Bruce’s sake that he is going to be perfectly alright in the doctor’s presence.

“I trust him,” Steve says, studying Natasha and Clint carefully. “He’s saved a lot of lives, remember?” And he isn’t just referring to Bruce’s medical practise or his research but to the other guy.

Flickers of guilt and regret flash through both of their expressions, in Natasha’s more subtly. In the chaos of the day’s revelations and the lack of sleep, they’ve forgotten that the other Avengers can be trusted too. Though he supposes that with all they’ve been through in the past few days, that it would be natural for them to be protective of the team leader. Isn’t that what team members do, protect their own?

He doesn’t know whether to be disappointed or touched with this revelation.

Clint and Natasha retreat downstairs, to the training area, likely eavesdropping anyways. When Steve turns to look at Bruce, the doctor has that look again, as if Steve is a strange new species that has done something bewildering, beyond any of his scientific hypotheses.

“Thank you,” he says.

Steve frowns, “You know that I trust you, right? It should be a given.”

Bruce laughs in that gentle way of his, “I suppose it should be but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating every time that you show it.”

Calmly, he begins pulling out long strips of bandage to wrap around Steve’s feet.

“Listen, Steve, don’t tell Tony I told you this... but I think you’re wrong. You have helped Tony in all this, whether you know it or not.”

Steve feels his mouth dry. “How do you know?” He asks weakly. “We... we’ve barely...”

“Because the only time he smiles lately,” Bruce tells him slowly, “is when he’s talking about you.”

Steve’s breath hitches and it has nothing to do with how tightly Bruce has begun to wrap the bandages. “That’s impossible,” He says in hushed tones.

“Your choice if you want to believe me,” Bruce holds his hands up in a gesture of peace. “But it’s true. And I don’t think you have to worry about him confronting Fury with any warning yet.”

He looks up at Bruce in silent question.

“Well,” replies his friend with his patient smile, “because you asked him not to.”

-

“Did you get all the samples you need?” Steve asks, fiddling in the kitchen for some mugs to make coffee for the doctor. Clint had bought them a coffee maker a few weeks back but Steve has no idea how to use it so he makes the easier instant blend instead. He pours himself some milk and some tea for Natasha.

His guests are sitting at the table, Natasha and Clint on one side and Bruce on the other. Steve limps over with a tray of cups. Clint jumps up to help him, taking the tray and glaring at Steve to sit or else. Steve hastily takes the seat next to Bruce.

“Not the urine samples,” Bruce says between bites of apple crisp. He and Clint appear to be in an eating contest, each taking in more pastries and finishing them in record time. Whether the race is on purpose or not, Steve has no idea. “You’ll need to take care of excrement a couple of times a day as well.”

Clint swallows his dessert and says, “I’ll handle it.”

“It’s best left to a professional,” Bruce replies drily, “but I’ll show you what you have to do. Make sure you’re extremely careful.”

“Is there anything else we can do for him?” Natasha asks, sipping her tea.

“I won’t know till I put the samples in a lab to analyze them. Just give him plenty of fluids and nutrients through the IV. Keep a record of any abnormalities in his blood pressure or heart rate. I’ll come back later this evening to give him a check-up. Regular morning and evening check-ups should be sufficient. I’ll let you know as soon as possible when I have the lab results and what my diagnosis is. If you need any help, Steve has my number.”

“Great, well, I best head off to S.H.I.E.L.D. to see if they have any missions for me,” Steve says lightly. He hopes that Natasha and Clint don’t resent him for remaining with the organization, but it’s the only way he’ll find out when the world’s in danger, when it needs him. He doesn’t have any other contacts like they do (and even then he questions how legal they are.)

“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” Clint is referring to his foot.

“Yes. It’s healing quickly. I should be fine.”

“Careful of what Fury says,” Natasha warns him. “He may have let you off the hook when he questioned you about Clint... but he knows that you and I train regularly when we can. He’ll be watching like a hawk for any slip-ups when he questions you about my leave. If possible, make your answers as vague as possible. You can’t lie very well.”

“Right,” Steve nods, “I’ll do my best.”

-

He and Bruce accompany each other out of the apartment. They both avoid the elevator and take the stairs. Steve has never been fond of enclosed spaces and being frozen for over seventy years has made his discomfort worse. Bruce, he suspects, avoids them for the sake of the other guy. It would be disastrous for the building if the Hulk were to transform in a little elevator shaft and Steve doesn’t like the idea of the Hulk being trapped in such a crammed space.

“Hey, uh, thanks for tending to my foot,” Steve says gratefully.

“Not a problem,” Bruce grins before his face becomes serious. “But you should be more careful where you step, Steve. Those cuts were pretty deep, even for you.”

He tries not to make his limp obvious, suitably chastised. “Sorry for worrying you.”

They walk out together and Steve heads to his bike. Bruce follows him for a little, since cutting across the parking lot is a short cut to Stark tower.

“Look, uh,” Steve pauses, thinking of how stressed Bruce looks lately, “you know that you can come by anytime you want, if you feel like you need room to breathe and make a decision about India, right?”

Bruce rolls his eyes and elbows Steve gently in the stomach, “Course I do. Take care of yourself, Steve. Don’t get yourself accidentally hurt, alright? And don’t worry about Tony. I’ll try to talk to him... if he’ll listen.” The last part is muttered on his breath but Steve hears it.

He wonders what has happened between Bruce and Tony that has put such a rift between them.

-

When he drives he has to resist the urge to put all the power he can on the gas pedal. His fingers tremble against the handlebars and when Steve feels the wind rush up to his face, flowing under the glass plate guarding his face, he wishes that it would be cold enough to freeze him. He doesn’t want to think about it, doesn’t want to keep hearing the words echoing in his head over and over. Maybe if he was frozen again, he could stop feeling, stop being.

But then Steve bites his tongue, cursing himself for even considering it.

He’s lucky to be alive, lucky not to be forgotten as an old relic (never dying, never living) forever in the cold. He should be grateful… and he is. God damn it, he is so grateful to be alive.

And yet, the wind kisses his wet eyes, and yet…

(…Bucky is screaming at him, clawing through the ice, a half-frozen corpse, grasping at his arms… The Howling Commandos are skeletons buried in the dirt, pieces of their bones stick up at odd angles and he trips on them as he stumbles through the white… Colonel Phillips shouts in his ears, “Move faster, soldier, what are you lying about for? Run! Run and get those damn Nazis!”… And there’s a shadow up ahead, no, there’s two of them, getting farther and farther…

“Peggy,” His lips bleed from the frostbite, “Peggy, Peggy!”

She doesn’t turn around. But the other shadow does… and it’s his mother, she has him by the wrists, pulling with Bucky, pulling him down into the ice—

“You’re a dead man.”)

He goes only two miles above the speed limit, just to move faster. He still feels guilty afterwards.

-

“About time you arrived, Rogers,” Fury greets him when he comes into his office.

Steve tries to remember Natasha and her full proof poker face. He salutes Fury stiffly and settles down in a taller leather chair in front of the director’s desk. The metal walls are as oppressing as ever, made worse by the lack of pictures or windows to the outside in the room. The window behind Fury’s seat only shows the observation deck with all the agents and their large screen computers. Fury’s desk is frustratingly bare as well, a few folders and a pen on top. In the far two corners, there sits tall oppressing black cabinets.

“What is it that you needed me for, sir?” He asks as politely as possible. He expects Fury to bring up Natasha’s rather forceful resignation, perhaps even be assigned to tracking her down. He wonders if Fury will finally hint at or tell him about the break-in to Coulson’s hospital room.

“Just a status update, checking to see how you’re settling in,” Fury replies as casually as is possible for him. Instead when he folds his hands on his lap, he appears more intimidating. But Steve has dealt with intimidating people before, Colonel Philips being one of them.

“Just fine, sir,” Steve replies. His inner tactician is curious. Why is Fury inquiring after his private life? With Tony’s help (and his heart still feels an ache at Tony’s name) he has convinced S.H.I.E.L.D. to stay out of his business and independence.

“That’s good then,” Fury nods. “You’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to ask when I don’t particularly care.”

He manages a small smile; the director’s straightforward manner of speaking is one he can appreciate even if he’s upset of him. “Yes, I am.”

“There have been some… attacks on different S.H.I.E.L.D. assets in the past few weeks,” Fury explains calmly, “including several top secret laboratories and some of our top agents.”

Steve feigns his best ‘I’m Captain America and I’m always innocent’ impression, “What? Which agents were attacked? Why?”

“That’s classified information, Rogers,” Fury says sharply. “If it becomes relevant to your circumstances, I’ll let you in on the know-how. But for now… I should warn you that we have evidence and reason to believe that these attackers may start targeting more of our assets…”

It doesn’t take long for Steve to piece together what Fury is trying to say. “You think they’ll try to attack me.”

It’s almost laughable how Fury has come to this conclusion. Clint would die from the laughter alone. But the tactician in him can’t help but wonder if Fury is trying to bait him, if this is another lie. Still, there’s the possibility that Fury is actually concerned for his safety (at least the safety of a national icon.)

“Yes,” Fury confirms his suspicions. “That’s why I think you should move back into S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters so that we can set up suitable protection for you—”

“With the greatest respect, sir, I would like to decline.”

Fury’s glower is intimidating but not nearly as intimidating as Natasha’s. “Captain Rogers, we only have your best interests in mind—”

“Then I’m sure you’ll agree that I’m perfectly sound of mind and rational enough to make my own decisions concerning my personal safety, sir. I’ll be fine,” Steve says with feigned politeness. He begins to rise from his seat, “Now if you have no missions for me,” again, “then I’ll take my leave, sir.”

He does his best not to stalk angrily to the door and is pleased that though his steps are stiff, they do not betray his agitation.

“We’ve reason to believe that they’ve attacked some of the other avengers,” Fury says in a tone that tells Steve he should pay attention.

He stops, just as he is about to reach the door knob.

Steve swallows slowly but doesn’t turn around. “Who have they attacked?”

“Agents Barton and Romanoff, both on separate missions,” Fury lies without hesitation. “Agent Barton has been missing for several weeks, while Agent Romanoff has recently disappeared.”

Instantly, he tries not to tense, tries not to let his hands shake. “Then,” he replies carefully, “the attackers are incapacitated now. Barton and Romanoff”—he has to resist the urge to address them as Clint and Natasha—“should be fine. Good day, sir.”

Before Fury can say more, Steve is out of his office. He rushes towards the exit, not bothering to stop by the gym (it’s not the same anymore, without Natasha, another oppressing room with metal walls.) He doesn’t dare look over his shoulder, whispers to himself not to walk so stiffly, not to let his expressions betray what he knows.

By the time he reaches the parking lot, bypassing the secret entrance and different exit protocols, he thinks that he can still feel Fury’s eyes on the back of his neck, even as he starts up his bike.

-

Steve speeds down the roadways as fast as the speed limit will allow. His mind is buzzing with the implications of what Fury has just told him. It makes no sense, he thinks. Why is Fury lying? Why doesn’t he want Steve to know that Clint has left S.H.I.E.L.D., clearly betrayed them and that Natasha has followed suit, making her intentions clear with violent confrontation? What is the purpose of keeping Coulson in that hospital and even faking the agent’s death in the first place?

The answer comes to mind instantly, but he doesn’t want to hear it, can’t bear it because if he accepts that this is true, then the America he is fighting for is more corrupt and darker than he has ever imagined.

So he keeps driving, not knowing exactly where he’s going. All he knows is that he wants to shake off the feeling of eyes watching him. He suspects that Fury might have him followed, to find out where he lives, but Tony’s legal threats (another jolting pang) have so far prevented that...

His bike takes him past busy intersections where the brightly lit advertisements dance in the reflection of the glass front of his helmet. He longs to take out a brush and paint over the glass, see how the colours will streak over his line of vision and cover the world he doesn’t want to see anymore. His bike takes him past avenues of cafes and different thrift shops. He sees Central Park, less green than in his day, sees the couples and children walking there. Then he’s cruising past alleyways, looking at the tent cities, the faces of people long forgotten, people who the rest of the world forgets.

But Steve sees them. He even stops for some of them, digging out change and bills, distributing them out amongst the different homeless men and women he sees. It’s the only time he stops, when he sees faces that beg to be seen and helped.

The bike takes him through roads where the foundations of the buildings that surround them are crumbling; their walls are scrawled on by spray paint. Steve takes in the different lettering from his peripheral vision, some of it offensive and some of it not. Where are the angels? One of the graffiti messages ask in bold yellow lettering against dusty brown and grey. Steve wants to take a paintbrush to reply back.

They’re weeping, he wants to say, they’re weeping because all people know how to do, even seventy years later, is cause pain to each other, those they hate and those they love.

He keeps going until he doesn’t know where he is anymore. He’s calling in sick to the collage, he’s not in the mood to teach anything and he has no idea where he is now.

Eventually the gas is running dangerously close to empty and when Steve finally stops it, in search for a gas station, he sees that he is in front of the entrance to Stark Towers.

His jaw goes slack and Steve sits there, on his bike, staring at the tall, winding glass doors that lead into the skyscraper. He stares upwards, at the lines and lines of glass walls, wondering which floor Tony is on. When he squints, he can make out the bold white lettering of ‘Stark’ now fixed on top of the building. He still thinks the building is ugly but he regards it fondly (and now wistfully) because it was created in part by someone he admires so much.

“Tony,” Steve whispers and the ache increases like some animal is clawing at the inside of his throat.

He takes off the helmet, feeling the slap of cold air and moves slowly towards the doors. The closer he gets the more dread gathers in his stomach but he forces himself to the entrance. He has to talk to Tony, explain things, make amends, do something or he’ll go insane.

“Good afternoon Captain Rogers,” Steve hears as soon as he steps into the foyer. “How may I be of service?”

Steve jumps, startled once more. He’s met the AI once before but he’s still not used to voices speaking out of nowhere. “H-hello JARVIS, uh, I was wondering if Tony is home...?” He’s hesitant to use that term, since, looking at the minimalist decor in the foyer, with the bold black and whites, lines running up and down the walls, the building gives off an empty aura he doesn’t like.

“Ah, Mr. Stark is busy at a conference with one of his business associates elsewhere in the city. He isn’t scheduled to return until much later tonight. Shall I inform him that you called for him, Captain?”

“Oh,” Steve says numbly. “Yes, of course. I’ll be back tomorrow then. Uh, will Tony be free tomorrow afternoon?”

“As far as I know, sir, he has nothing booked. But Mr. Stark has been scheduling impromptu meetings with a variety of associates regarding issues with the company.”

His shoulders slump, “I see... probably to do with whoever’s stealing his tech. Well, JARVIS, please let Tony know that I came by... and that I want to talk to him. I’m really sorry about earlier and I just want to make it up to him. Can you send the message to him?”

“Of course, Captain Rogers,” the AI responds politely.

“Thank you,” Steve says, still feeling odd talking into the air. “And JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“How... how is he? Is he taking care of himself properly? Remembering to eat?”

There is a pause, as if the AI is hesitating. He sees the little cameras stationed in different corners of the building whirl, focusing closer on him. Steve doesn’t think JARVIS will answer, after all, isn’t the program on orders not to reveal personal details about his owner? But something about Steve’s composure must convince the AI because then JARVIS answers truthfully.

“I’m afraid not, Captain Rogers. Mr. Stark has been neglecting his meals as of late for the past few months, sleeping at odd hours and overworking himself despite efforts from Ms. Potts, Doctor Banner and myself, particularly today.”

Steve feels like he’s been dropped back in the ice. He throws a hand up to cover his eyes. “Christ,” he whispers, “and the Holy Ghost. Tony, what are you doing to yourself? And I just went and made things worse...”

He shouldn’t be allowed to open his big mouth, he thinks to himself. He should walk around with his lips sewed shut.

“Thank you JARVIS,” Steve says wearily. “Please make sure that Tony gets something to eat and some rest later tonight, if you can. I’ll be back tomorrow...” And he’ll bring food. Even if he has to get down on his hands and knees to apologize, he’ll get Tony to take care of himself if it’s the last thing he does.

“Not a problem, Captain. Have a good day.”

He leaves, mind plagued with thoughts of Tony alone in an empty and oppressing tower, Tony whose eyes accuse him at every turn.

-

“You’re home late,” Natasha remarks when he steps into the apartment. She’s sitting on the couch, legs crossed, and a worn copy of one of Steve’s beloved Tolkien novels sitting on her lap. Her boots sit up on the coffee table, next to the vase of carnations and sunflowers and the frame of bloody cards.

“Sorry,” Steve says in a distracted manner. He barely notices that he hasn’t put his shoes back in the correct order (they’re upside down, diagonal from each other next to Natasha’s heels) nor has he noticed that his jacket has fallen from the rack on the wall.

He almost trips over a large potted palm tree and that’s when Steve takes in the sight of the living room.

There are plants... everywhere. They line the windows in two neat rows, the counter that separates the kitchen from the sitting room and then other two walls. There are herbs, tropical plants, some floral cacti and flowers of different sizes and colours. They make the room much brighter than before, an interesting contrast with the shadowed and night lit buildings of Brooklyn on the living room walls.

“It’s beautiful,” Steve says in awe. “Did you do all of this today, Natasha?”

She hides her smile behind cover of Steve’s book, “Thought we could use more decoration. Also I took a job at a florist’s shop so you don’t have to worry about my portion of the rent.”

“Rent?” Steve blinks.

“Can’t crash in on your place without contributing,” Natasha shrugs. “Also convinced Clint to get a job too, he can’t live on his remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. wages forever. There’s only so many other assignments we can pick up outside of S.H.I.E.L.D. so it’d be good to have a day job to fall back on.”

“Oh, but you don’t need to, it’s no trouble and I don’t mind—”

Natasha flings her bookmark at him.

Yes, we do,” she glares at him.

“But—”

She glares again, before her voice shifts to something soft. “We really do.”

Steve shifts uncomfortably from her intent gaze. He senses that she wants to ask if he’s alright when he’s anything but, so he searches for something else to say.

“When did the door and window get fixed?” The glass is all cleaned up too and there are no lingering blood streaks against the floors.

“Clint took care of it,” she shrugs.

“Oh,” Steve replies, feeling guilty. “He really didn’t have to—” Steve is about to protest when Natasha gives another dark glower in his direction. “Right, I’ll just go and... try and find him...”

He moves towards the hallway just as Natasha calls out his name.

“Steve?”

He stops, looking back at her, “Yes?” He focuses on smiling and acting normally, hoping that she won’t bring up what Tony said in the morning or his feelings on the matter. He doesn’t want to talk about it because then she’ll try to tell him that it isn’t his fault when it is. It really is.

Natasha studies him for a long time, before she shakes her head. “You... What Stark said... it’s...”

“I’m alright,” says Steve, and even when he hears it, he doesn’t believe himself.

It’s clear from the twisted slant of her lips that Natasha doesn’t either.

“I need to... go check on Coulson,” he says quickly. And then he goes to the guest bedroom, regrets and accusations chasing him there.

-

Steve hovers uncertainly in front of Coulson’s door. It creaks open before his fingers can touch the doorknob and Steve can hear a voice speaking harshly in the room.

“Look, Stark, I’m calling to tell you to get off your high horse and apologize to Steve, I was the one who told him—no don’t hang up! Damn it!” A clatter of plastic and metal against the floor, then the steady beats of the heart monitor continue.

Clint sighs.

“I wish I knew how to fix this, Phil... I really do.”

There is no answer, but then again, how can Clint or Steve expect there to be? Steve is about to come in, to make his presence known when Clint whispers to Coulson’s unmoving body again.

“I don’t know how to face Steve, Phil. I can’t bear to look at him without... well...”

Whatever he says next, Steve doesn’t linger to hear. He goes to the kitchen, ignoring Natasha’s obvious stares, and makes a quick dinner of macaroni and some vegetable stir fry. Then he mechanically sets the food on the table and leaves with the murmured excuse of not being hungry. Natasha frowns but doesn’t press him on the issue. She doesn’t know, as Clint does, that Steve is in habit of not eating when he comes home.

Then he shuts himself in his art room to bury himself in blankets, sheets of paper and charcoal. He doesn’t want to think anymore.

-

Steve spends the rest of the evening going through page after page of the sketchbook given to him. Each one is covered with words, different versions of apologies in cursive or bolded lettering. Sometimes Steve drifts off and he finds that he has traced those eyes again, accusing and hurt, staring at him on the page.

It takes him a long time to start a new one. But he can never find the right words and so his scribbles become more erratic, smudged in pure black from the charcoal. He tries to draw what he feels instead, but ends up shading dark and twisting shadows, reaching for a thin figure (who he used to be before the serum) who is trying to fight back.

And then he sketches another figure, with a bright heart, stepping in and never quite reaching out to the thin one. They’re on separate sides of the coil of the open sketchbook, never really touching, but always looking and Steve doesn’t understand it but he knows one thing.

I should have trusted you, Tony.

He slips in and out of sleep, smudges covering his face, tear drops staining the pictures.

-

At some point in the night, Steve steps into the living room. He stares at the walls of Brooklyn, his past and puts a hand out to caress the familiar buildings. It’s so close to him, as if he could step in and explore the old Deli where Bucky used to work at and yet he knows it isn’t, it’s just a wall. And if he tries to walk in, he’ll hurt himself.

A can of white paint sits at his feet and he holds out the brush, ready to erase the mural forever. The tips of the brush are inches away from touching the dresses of the dames out to enjoy the night life, to dance with their partners. But then he sees the expressions on their faces, how happy and innocent they are. He thinks he sees Bucky in the smile of one gentleman, Peggy’s smooth chin in the gentleman’s date.

The paint brush drops to the floor, splattering little white dots at the bottom of the mural, giving a faded effect to the overall picture.

He doesn’t try to erase it again.

-

His phone is vibrating at four o’clock in the morning. He’s wide awake when he opens it and sees a little alert for text messages. It takes him some time but he manages to get the message opened and is surprised to see that it’s from Bruce.

4:01 am –At the front entrance, please bring down some clothes. I might have let the other guy for a bit.

-

“Bruce! Bruce, are you alright?” Steve bursts into the foyer, a pair of jeans and a shirt from his closet thrown over his shoulders. He’s also brought down a pair of Clint’s boots, since they’ll be a better fit on the doctor than any of Steve’s shoes and one of his first aid kits in his other hand.

It’s dark and he can barely see the reflections in the shiny white tiles. He walks into a garbage can and almost hits his face against the wall before he sees movement from the corner of his eye and Bruce creeps out from behind one of the corners.

The doctor is nude, covering his private areas with a newspaper that has articles about the strange drop in Stark Industry’s stocks as well as another headline about mutilated body parts found in random alleyways of New York. Steve rushes over, handing Bruce the pants first while checking him over for injuries. The worst that Bruce seems to have is a shallow cut on his face and bruises that are quickly fading from around his eyes.

“Oh thank goodness, you’re alright,” Steve says, crouching down on his knee to pull out some rubbing alcohol to clean the cut and a few band-aids.

“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce’s voice is muffled as he finishes putting on Clint’s shirt. His eyes rise in amusement, “And Mickey Mouse band-aids? Really?”

“Mickey Mouse is a very noble cartoon character. Besides, it was colourful. Now what happened?” He sticks the band-aid firmly on Bruce’s cheek.

The doctor winces, “Just a bad day. Went out for some air, needed some space from Tony for a while and then some punks attempted to rob me. The other guy didn’t like that very much. I don’t remember much, just me, trying to get back in control. Woke up on top of a demolished car, saw the muggers lying down on the ground, moaning in pain—don’t worry, they aren’t seriously injured, just unconscious, I checked—and I ran for it.”

Bruce looks up at him desperately then.

“God, Steve, what do I do? I lost control again. He would have hurt those people if I hadn’t... and then... I just can’t do this Steve. I can’t stay in one place. He’s not calm in one place. I thought, I thought I could control it, thanks to Tony. I mean, at least he likes Tony, right? But then that tower... it’s so empty and I can feel him in my head, angry—he doesn’t like it, it makes him feel cooped up—and when I tried explaining to Tony why I have to leave, go back to India, keep moving, anywhere, he just won’t listen—I can’t do this. I just can’t do this.”

“Bruce—” He feels something burning at the back of his eyes, “Bruce, it’s going to be okay—”

“No, it’s not, Steve! Can’t you see? It doesn’t matter if you and Tony can accept me and him as we are or not! He doesn’t belong anywhere!” The doctor throws up his arms, “If I stay for long enough, eventually he’ll come out and he won’t tolerate all of you anymore. He’ll hurt you whether he means to or not. It’s only a matter of time.”

The doctor stares at him for what seems hours, his hair dishevelled and his eyes wide as if possessed.

“I have to leave,” he says and Bruce sprints towards the door.

“No, wait, please listen first!” Steve grabs him by the elbows. “You’re wrong. You’re wrong about all of this—”

“Let go, Tony’s already given me his best excuses and it’s not worth the risk—”

“Well then why did you come here?” Steve shouts. He stops when he hears silence and harsh breathing. Bruce is blinking up at him as if Steve has struck him. Quietly he goes on. “If you think the Hulk is such a risk to us all, then why come here for help?”

Bruce doesn’t answer and Steve takes it as his cue to talk.

“Look, you haven’t technically met the other guy like we have. Sure, he’s big and green, intimidating and strong, but... he’s one of us. And I think he likes us. I certainly like him,” Steve says as Bruce blinks up in surprise. Steve grins a little. “I meant it then and I mean it now. He’s pretty endearing. And what happened today was just to protect both of you. I think you need to give the other guy a bit more credit... and you should give Tony a bit more credit too.”

We both do, he thinks, staring at the speechless gamma ray expert.

“No one wants you to leave, Bruce, not you or the other guy.”

He lets out a shuttering sigh, his pulse thumping loudly in his head. But he keeps his gaze fixed on the doctor.

Bruce has his hands on his forehead again, and is shaking his head. With despair, Steve thinks that he’s failed to convince the other man of anything but then Bruce laughs.

“I don’t get it, Captain,” he points at him. “How do you always know the right thing to say?”

Steve leans back against the wall, ready to collapse. “I don’t,” He says honestly. “I really don’t.”

-

“I’ll call S.H.I.E.L.D. in the morning and explain things to them,” Steve says when they’ve sat in silence and random chuckles for several minutes. “But we’re going—”

His friend blinks at him with a small frown. “What? Going where?”

Steve pulls his keys out from his pocket, “To see Tony. I think you two should talk.”

Bruce unclenches his hands with a sad smile, “Guess I’m not going back to India. I should tell him to change the decor at Stark Towers though... the Hulk really hates it. He doesn’t want to live in a depressing place like that.”

“He could always redecorate.”

“Sure,” Bruce snorts, “with a lovely display of rubble and mayhem, thank you.”

Their banter almost keeps away the dread of confronting Tony. Almost.

-

Steve feels strange when he parks his bike, as if something is watching them. He looks around, taking his helmet off but sees nothing out of the ordinary. Bruce glances at him, but shrugs at Steve’s peculiar behavior.

As soon as they enter through the front doors, the lights turn on simultaneously and Steve sees Tony lounging on one of the couches of the foyer, a bottle of wine in one hand. There are empty bottles littering the tiles and a much frazzled woman with lovely blonde hair is yelling at him. Steve recognizes her from the press photos as Ms. Potts, Tony’s beau and CEO of his company.

Bruce and Steve freeze when they see Ms. Potts shout, “—wasting all those months of being sober, how could you? Fuck, I can’t keep doing this for you Tony. I’ll talk to you in the morning, I hope the hangover hurts like hell!”

“But it is the morning, Pepper,” Tony slurs.

Ms. Potts replies with a rude gesture of her finger.

She walks towards the exit, nearly colliding into the two of them.

“Oh god, Doctor Banner, I’m sorry,” she tells him tearfully, giving him a quick hug. “Can you take care of Tony for me? I’ll be back, I just need to... cool down a bit before I deal with him again. Fuck, I can’t even...”

“Ms. Potts,” Bruce holds her gently, “I know what you mean. Don’t worry; I’ll be here until you get back.”

Her fists clench when she embraces him again, “I’m so sorry, Doctor Banner. And thank you,” she glances up at Steve, just noticing him, “Captain America...? Jesus, I apologize you have to see Mr. Stark like this... I can take a message or something...”

“Oh, no, I’m here with Bruce. I’ll help him watch Tony... I’m the one who should apologize, Ms. Potts,” Steve tries to tell her.

If anything it makes Pepper more emotional, muttering about how perfect people cannot possibly exist. It takes Steve, Bruce and eventually the driver Happy Hogun murmuring assurances that Tony will be fine when she comes back for her to accompany Happy back to the car. Then Bruce and Steve are alone... with a drunk and emotionally unstable billionaire.

“...I might have forgotten to mention that the reason that I needed to get some space from Tony was because he was drinking himself to death, pressing me with drunken insults until I couldn’t take it anymore and I left, but I thought Pepper and Happy had it all handled?” Bruce whispers tentatively.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Tony stands up, stumbling towards them with his entire side lopped over clumsily. “Here to laugh? Here to tell me that you’re leaving, Bruce? Can’t be near Tony Stark, he’ll make you burn,” He is singing off-key. “He made Captain America hate him and now he’s drowning in a sea of beer. Must be good beer.”

“Tony,” Steve reaches for him, feeling like he’s been slapped while Bruce appears stricken. “Come on, Tony, you shouldn’t be drinking anymore... let’s get you to bed...”

The strange feeling returns and Steve whips around, seeing shadows moving against the bright tiles. His eyes widen when he sees it.

Its face is twisted, a mould of purple flesh revealing two sharp jaws, a skull that still has smooth muscle attached to its face. Its nose is flat, like a panther’s and its limbs are covered in metal armor. Steve has only seen them once in his lifetime and once is enough for the image to be burned into his memory.

“Chitauri,” Steve breathes, remembering then, Fury’s warnings of people breaking into the labs. He’d thought that Fury was referring to Natasha, Clint and him freeing Coulson but now...

He also realizes in a numb way, that he has not heard JARVIS speak since he and Bruce walked into the lobby... (and how have they not noticed an alien in their midst until now? What is happening?)

The alien bares its teeth at him, almost in a sadistic grin. Its eyes bore into his in cruel familiarity and loathing. It holds up a device of some kind... the device is ticking and Steve’s eyes widen.

Bruce! Get out of here!” Steve roars, grabbing Tony by the cuff of his shirt, rushing to the exit. He looks back, seeing the scientist, struggling to control himself. “Bruce, Run!

An odd garbled noise is snarled and Steve realizes that the Chitauri is probably cursing them, gaining revenge for the slaughter of it’s kind and then—

It pushes the button on the bomb.

Steve throws Tony out the doors, towards the street. They smash open and Tony is gone, hopefully safe and now terribly wounded from the impact. Steve prays that the billionaire will forgive him for a couple of injuries in exchange for not getting buried under Stark Towers; Bruce begins to change, roaring and reaching for Steve—

There is fire and then the world crashes down on him.

-

Before:

Steve laughs again at one of Bruce’s quiet jokes; the scientist still hasn’t lost his slightly surprised expression when it happens. Bruce insists on helping Steve bring up the shopping bags to his apartment and so Steve invites him in for some tea as well.

“If you ever need anything, you’re welcome over anytime,” Steve tells him politely.

Bruce just shrugs but he picks up the pace as they climb the stairs with more energy.

The way that Bruce’s eyes light up when he sees the murals on the wall is worth more than any words can ever describe. Steve feels a blush paint itself on his face as he shuffles to his art room and the spare utility closet where he’s been storing his clothes. When he comes back from the hallway, he sees Bruce staring dining room mural in particular, the mixture of sunrises and auroras dancing in the dark. The colours and blacks look like they’re warring with each other, with no clear winner in the chaos.

“It’s like you’re painting a soul,” Bruce whispers, touching the threads of shadow in between dancing pink hues.

“Um, thank you, I guess, it’s not really... well,” Steve stammers.

“I think this is what it looks like sometimes, in my mind, when I’m fighting with the other guy in my head,” Bruce confesses.

Steve goes still, unsure of how to proceed.

But Bruce keeps talking, as if he isn’t even there. “He’d be the shadows... and I’d be the light. No one ever wins... but I think he gets stronger every time.”

“Bruce...”

“I saw the mural downstairs,” he interrupts, still staring at the shining blue lights painting on the upper portion of the wall. “Does he really look like that?”

Steve frowns, “Who?”

“The other guy,” Bruce answers. “Does he really look that... that gentle when he’s carrying people?”

“Yes,” Steve blurts out immediately, remembering what it was like after they helped Iron Man out, after the nuclear missile and the sky in explosions he will never forget. “He really looks like that.”

He’s not sure what he’s expecting in response to that, certainly not for Bruce to burst out in laughter that is both sardonic and happy at the same time. At least he thinks it might be happy. Steve has never been the greatest at deciphering people. But he tries.

“They showed me so much footage and photos just snapped randomly when the other guy was on rampage but none of them have ever showed him so... so human... I just... how can you...?”

“Well because he is human, isn’t he?” Steve wrinkles his brow. “He’s a part of you just as you’re a part of him. And I like him. He’s actually kind of endearing. You both are.”

Bruce only stares at him, as if he’s gone insane.

“...What is it?”

“Nothing at all, captain,” Bruce shakes his head with a chuckle. “Everything’s fine... I think, that for once, everything is fine.”

They sit at the table, drinking tea, both feeling completely calm.

-

Now:

“...Cap...! Cap... Cap... Cap wake up!”

It’s dark. He can’t see anything except a pair of glowing green eyes. Steve groans, wondering where his shield and helmet are. The howling commandoes might have taken them as a prank again. It’s odd that he can’t hear Bucky’s soft breathing next to him but instead loud snuffs.

“...Bucky...?” He asks.

“Captain awake!” is the deep reply.

Steve blinks again, memories rushing back. “Hulk?” He asks. “Hulk, is that you?”

A loud snort answers his question.

“What happened?” Steve asks, feeling the soldier take over. “Where are we?” He tries to move, but his entire right side is stuck from his right leg to his right shoulder. They feel devoid of any senses and Steve thinks that the warm liquid gathering under his back is blood. He can taste it on his lips.

“Building fall. Hulk protect. Too heavy.”

Carefully Steve squints until his vision adjusts to the darkness. He can make out the Hulk crunched over him, holding up the rubble with his two muscled arms. It is the only thing preventing Steve from being crushed to death.

“Oh,” He gasps shallowly. “Good job, Hulk. Thanks.”

“Cap hurt.”

“Oh don’t worry. It’s nothing. I’m fine,” he says, nearly believing it himself.

“Hulk doesn’t like this place. Hulk want out!” His companion shifts, and pieces of tile, cement and wires fall on Steve’s face. He coughs hoarsely, worse than his past asthma attacks.

Immediately the Hulk stops. “Cap hurt!” He repeats again, this time with an accusing tone for Steve’s white lie.

“Sorry,” Steve says as calmly as he can manage. “I don’t want you to worry. But maybe you shouldn’t move around too much big guy.” He can’t breathe very well but decides not to mention it. He needs to keep the Hulk out for as long as possible, it’s the only chance Bruce has of surviving.

“Hulk want out,” the giant says darkly, but Steve can tell that he is merely sulking.

“Tell you what...” Steve coughs again making the Hulk glare at him, “when we get out, I’ll paint you whatever you want, wherever you want. Do you like paint?” It feels surreal to ask the green giant such things. He can still see the Mickey Mouse band-aids sticking on the Hulk’s face.

His companion grunts, “Hulk want cap paint yellow sun on Hulk.”

Steve laughs but ends up coughing in between. “You got it, a yellow sun. I promise.”

The rubble creaks again, raining more grime on both of them. The Hulk grumbles angrily, shifting some debris on Steve’s left arm.

“Hulk want home.”

“Hey big guy,” Steve tells him gently. “We’ll get out, I promise. Just stay strong, alright? Keep holding that up until rescue comes and I promise that Tony,”—please, God, let Tony be alright—“will have this part of the tower rebuilt as soon as possible. Then you can go home.”

“Tower not home,” Hulk huffs. “Place with paintings home.”

Steve feels something well up in his throat. He’s not sure if it’s blood or tears. Maybe both.

“Yeah...” He feels his breaths grow shallower, faces blurring in his mind until he isn’t sure who is who anymore, “We’ll go home.”

Chapter Text

Before:

“Hey, I’m talking to you, Fury, don’t you dare walk away!” He hears Tony shout from the other side of the wall. Steve shuffles awkwardly in one of the spinning chairs that surround the long and black table. He looks every few moments or so at the clock, the only ornament against bare metal walls. They whisper to him of the cold until he has to rub his hands together to generate any warmth.

It doesn’t work. His fingertips still feel as cool as ever, kissed by frost.

The doors slam open and Fury storms in, with Tony following angrily behind him. The billionaire freezes in mid-step when he sees Steve there. The smirk that Steve has learned to associate with him slips back in place, “Hey there Stars and Stripes, got a little detention with good old Nick here?”

Steve is saved from having to answer by Fury who tells Tony to ‘get the fuck out and wait outside the doors or he’ll send his ass back to Tibet’ or something to that effect. If anything, this seems to fuel Tony’s ire and smug mood but with another quick and unreadable glance at Steve, Tony shrugs and steps out.

Once the doors shut, Fury lets out a frustrated sigh and turns to him.

“What did you need to see me for, Rogers?” Fury asks.

He doesn’t waste any time, “I’d like to set up living arrangements outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., to begin living a civilian life on my own.”

If Fury is surprised or angry, he doesn’t show it. His face is impassive and those calculating eyes which challenge everyone are focused on Steve’s stiff frame. Steve doesn’t look away. He keeps still.

“I see,” Fury walks past the chairs lining the right side of the table, “and what brought this on, captain?”

Images of bright blue light shining from the test tubes of the serum and then the tesserect as Steve had reached for it, trying to stop the Red Skull from reaching it, flash in his mind. Then an old voice that has been haunting him and echoing in his dreams since he arrived in the future (and since the Chitauri) echoes after but he remains as impassive as possible.

“I’d like to figure out how this century works on my own terms, sir. And frankly, I dislike the idea of working with an organization that was, and may still be, planning on manufacturing weapons from the very power source that Schmidt tried to manipulate, no matter what greater good you claim it was for,” Steve tells him bluntly.

 It isn’t his smartest move, mouthing off to his superior, someone with the power to make things very difficult for him but he’s never been good at keeping his mouth shut. He can almost see Bucky standing next to Fury, gesturing wildly and asking why Steve is doing this.

He thinks of Doctor Erskine’s words. You must promise me one thing... that you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier... but a good man. At the time he had promised, had sworn never to change. But has he been a good man lately? Since he awoke in this nightmare, like Alice in her wonderland, he has forgotten that promise, holding on to the only familiar thing he knows how to be... a soldier. It’d taken Coulson’s death and Tony’s near-sacrifice (and nightmares, so many screaming nightmares) to remind him who he is.

He’s not going to let S.H.I.E.L.D. make him forget.

“You’re an honest man, captain,” Fury replies evenly.

“I try to be, sir,” he says politely. “The truth is something I value.”

Fury looks at him sharply, “Those weapons were our own defense against a possible alien attack. You saw how defenceless we were when the Chitauri invaded. Our only protectors were a group of super powered individuals who had never worked together before—it’s a miracle that we succeeded. We must always be prepared for war, Captain Rogers, or have you forgotten that in your time you voluntarily turned yourself into the world’s most valuable weapon?”

Steve stands up, but he can’t think of anything else to say to such cold tactical knowledge without sounding naive and idealistic (everything special about you came from a bottle, Rogers.) Weapons invite war, he wants to argue. And yet they are required to protect others, to prevent war. It is a great contradiction, and he knows from his recent readings (obsessive as he was after his awakening in the future’s New York) that it was only through both sides possessing the ultimate killing device that the Cold War never escalated, that true ‘peace’ (it’s not peace if you are ruled by fear) is possible.

“You made them in response to Thor,” Steve replies, “who is your ally. All of the Asgardians are your allies. They would help defend us form any alien attack and you have us, the Avengers, now. The truth is that you shouldn’t have experimented in a power source you couldn’t understand. It led them here.”

“And Doctor Erskine intervening with your body structure, with the serum, that doesn’t count as dabbling in the unknown? Wasn’t he assassinated right after his first successful human trial? Did he bring that on himself?”

“No, that wasn’t his fault!” Steve says in protest.

“He invited it, didn’t he?”

Fury’s neutral and analytical response makes Steve clench his fists in an effort not to show how emotional he has gotten at the mention of the late German Scientist. That man had given him a chance, had seen beyond his weak body and, sadly, been more of a father figure to him than anyone he had ever met.

“You didn’t know him. Doctor Erskine wanted to end the war, he understood peace, he wasn’t trying to make a weapon,” and yet, Steve realizes in the cold part of his mind, that was exactly what the Doctor wanted, a soldier (weapon) to win the war... and he had made one (him.)

The director shakes his head, “We could stand here and argue motives all you want to, Rogers, but you and I both know that it was for the greater good. Every decision made by S.H.I.E.L.D. is for the sake of homeland security, for the lives and safety of all the people living on this earth. You’re a strategist. You would have made the same decision given the circumstances.”

Steve wants to say no, he really does, but truly, he isn’t sure. Who is he to make decisions about other people’s lives when his heart is screaming for him to save them all? How is he to judge the best ways to defend a nation, a world of innocents without contradicting himself?

His gaze falters and Fury nods, “I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that it would be a high security risk if we let you live independently outside of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s jurisdictions. Your blood is valuable, Rogers, and if anyone were to get their hands on it, there is no telling what they could do. I’m sorry, but your living arrangements aren’t an option. Maybe an apartment, monitored by agents, but nothing more. Your safety is for the sake of the American people.”

This time, Steve does drop his gaze (he can’t be selfish, what was he thinking, but he doesn’t want to stay staring at the same grey metal for the rest of his—)

“Of course, sir,” he says stiffly, though on the inside he is shouting that this isn’t right while his vision of Captain America tells him to accept his orders for the sake of the people. He wants to close his eyes again. He doesn’t. “Thank you for your time.”

-

He leaves before Fury can dismiss him, rushing out as quickly as possible out of the room. His vision is blurred and he can’t stop the voices in his head, each of them rebelling against the other. He isn’t even sure who to listen to anymore as he pushes open the door. Tony jumps back (“Whoa, there, stars!”), obviously attempting to eavesdrop (though Steve isn’t sure if it was successful or not) and bewildered from whatever expression he managed to see on his face.

Tony’s jaw drops and then he is shouting at Fury (“Screw it, I’ll come back later, you asshole!”) and running down the hallway to catch up to him.

“Hey, there, stars and stripes, wait up!”

“Don’t call me that,” Steve says sharply, concentrating on the end of the hall.

As usual, Tony ignores the retort, stepping right beside him, “Hey, talk to me. What did Fury do? What did he say to you?”

He has half a mind to tell Tony, rather loudly, to leave him be. It’s his own problem to solve and his burden to bear, he doesn’t want to involve (bother) anyone else. But he does not want to snap at Tony again, not like how they argued in their first few meetings. There is also the way that Tony is staring at him, as if Steve is fragile and worth his time.

“I asked him if I could begin living independently,” Steve ends up saying as professionally as he can manage. “He refused.”

Part of him keeps expecting Tony to brush away his problems as trivial and insignificant but Tony surprises him (again and again and it’s wonderful) by looking extremely indignant on his behalf, hands thrown up wildly in disbelief.

“What? That is an atrocity! They should be lining the streets, begging to do you a favour! You’re a war hero, a national icon! You can’t say ‘no’ to Captain America! You have your rights, I know because I at least remember that part of the constitution or declaration or whatever, rights—”

Steve’s eyes widen, “Tony, it’s... fine, really. It was a stupid thing for me to ask, I mean, risking national security and...” my blood.

“Screw that! I’m not going to let our country’s, the world’s, greatest hero live in a box his whole life—and stop blushing, darling, you know it’s true—let me go call my people. Or Pepper. Definitely Pepper. She’ll eat Fury alive; even he can’t fight against every legal system in the entire freaking globe. Don’t you worry,” Tony claps his back, “I’ll take care of everything.”

“Tony, I can’t let you do this on my behalf—” He half-wonders when Iron Man’s opinion of him had become so high—

“Nonsense, I’ve got it handled, gorgeous. Already texted them,” Tony gestures to his little phone, which he has apparently typed into with one hand while they were talking, “JARVIS works quick—”

“But Tony—”

“Rogers?” The billionaire puts both hands on his shoulders and meets his gaze very seriously, “Let me do this. Consider it a... welcoming gift to the twenty first century or a favour if you would.”

“A favour?” Steve chokes, “But for what—?”

Tony only looks at him intensely with those big brown eyes that remind him of the first time he really looked at Tony Stark and saw him as he is.

“Trust me.”

There isn’t anything to say... because Steve already does.

-

Tony:

“—Sir, sir, please respond, STARK Towers has been destroyed, the status of Captain Rogers and Doctor Banner are unknown, civilian causalities unknown—”

He groans, arms aching like he’s lifted a hundred pounds of metal during one of his projects. The joints crack and creak while his head feels as if it’s been cracked open by an axe. The pain throbs back and forth but his thoughts are clearer. The haze of intoxication is but a faint curtain in the back of his mind. Calculations and theories are already sounding off in his head, begging to be fiddled with and studied.

Tony blinks, seeing the bright holographic numbers clustered on the screen in front of him. The metal armour is wrapped around him protectively as he is hovering in midair.

“JARVIS,” Tony can still taste the lingering alcohol on his tongue, the bar’s best vodka now soured with time. It makes him want to find a toilet to throw up in. “Why am I in the Iron man suit? And what the hell happened last night?”

His stomach lurches while there is an insistent and annoying buzz at the back of his mind saying that he has forgotten something extremely important. Tony pushes it away (it’s probably nothing) opting to handle this with as much humour as possible.

“Tell me that I didn’t strip naked for anyone again, please.”

“We are on autopilot, sir, and I believe that you did design the newest prototype of the suit to engage automatically whenever you are in immediate danger—”

“Danger…?” There’s another sharp jolt in his head. “Unless I was thrown out of another window again, I don’t—”

Tony stops, vision clearing as he takes in the destruction down below. The tower that he and Pepper built together (well, Pepper mostly) is now a heap of glass and steel, different pieces of jagged wood and furniture sit in odd angles. There are sparks as live electric cords are leaking freely on the ground. Smoke is rising from different point of the scene. It won’t be long before a majority of the block is on fire. All of it, all his work, gone (but his lab, thank god, and Dummy and Butterfingers are safe back in California—)

Whoever had screwed with his tower was going to get the ass kicking of the century.

“JARVIS, what happened?”

His AI’s tones are neutral despite the murder in his voice, “An attack, sir.”

“No shit. But who was it? How did they—?”

“I was hacked, sir, and blocked from the systems inside STARK towers between 250 and 400 hours. I have no data or records of what transpired in between that time, only that you were thrown out of the lobby before the tower collapsed and the suit assembled itself around you before you could be seriously injured.”

“Pepper—” Tony recalls her yelling at him in his drunken stupor, was she—

“Safe with Mr. Hogan taking charge of her care. She was heading home, driven by Mr. Hogun when the tower fell. She has been trying to reach the site but traffic has been jammed in the surrounding blocks and local enforcement is trying to contain the damage and make rescue efforts.”

“Let her know that I’m fine then,” Tony orders.

“Already done, sir.”

He lets himself relax then, Pepper is alive, Pepper is safe, but there’s something still nagging at him… Who knows how many people could be trapped under all that concrete and glass? It makes him feel as angry and disturbed as when he watched footage of the clean-up after Loki’s attack. Fury had ordered the other avengers to stay low but Tony remembers seeing newscasts where Steve was there, with a baseball cap hiding his face, helping to dig people out and Tony began to think that maybe the man was more sincere in his apology than he—

Wait.

“JARVIS, was there anyone else in the building besides STARK employees?” Tony demands urgently. “And yes, I know that you don’t have any data right now, just find out.”

There is a slight pause.

“Ms. Potts has reported leaving you in the care of Captain Rogers and Doctor Banner. She has inquired about their safety but there has been no report of their whereabouts yet.”

Tony feels a painful stab in his chest, worse than when he was dying of palladium poisoning.

“What? Wait… you mean—”

(…sitting against the sofa, feeling angry, angry, angry but mostly hurt. It hurts to look at them all and think that maybe they’ve never thought highly of him at all. He thought he could trust them, but they’re leaving or they don’t trust him, they have to hide things from him or Tony Stark will jeopardize the mission, ruin everything, because that’s what Tony Stark does. Everything he touches becomes so fucking messed up and he hates it. Hates that they can come up to him, pretending to care, so he lashes out, wanting to hurt them in return…)

“Stars and Bruce, they’re…”

It comes back to him in blurry images. The bar, yelling at Bruce and Pepper for no reason other than they are there, being dragged home by Pepper while Bruce has run off to god knows where, hating everyone (was he never good enough?), seeing the captain’s hurt face in his mind until the man steps in the lobby with Bruce and then—

Rogers yelling “Run!” A glimpse of a creature that should have been dead, being thrown out the door—

“…How long was I out, JARVIS?” He whispers.

The AI is oddly tentative. “Sir…”

How long?!

“…Over six hours, sir.”

Tony dives down. He can see the black vans parked around the wreckage below, the incoming helicarriers. They’re late, he thinks. They’re late as usual, late, late, late when stars and Bruce are… are…

He’s landed, stumbling against a few loose pieces of word, once part of an expensive table top. He’d liked that table, damn it…

And then he’s digging, the clean shine of his metal arm coverings becoming entrenched and scratched by sharp bits of metal and glass. But it doesn’t matter because—

“Stars! Stars! Bruce! Can you hear me?!” Tony keeps digging. More glass, more steel. Why is there so much of it, he doesn’t remember there being so much of it—

Bruce! Rogers!

But there’s nothing. He moves one slab of concrete and there is more splinters of desks, chairs, the liquor cabinet (he’s never wanted to smash it so bad.) He hurls a glass bottle of bourbon on the ground, letting it shatter, keeps searching. Bruce should be fine, he has to be fine. He’s the Hulk for fuck’s sake, you can’t kill him, Bruce even tried it himself and Stars, Stars is a super soldier, Captain America, surely he will heal and be up again. They’re probably digging themselves out right now—

“JAVIS,” Tony says, feeling like an idiot, such an idiot, why is he so slow to think today? He’ll never drink again, never, “JARVIS, do you detect their heat signatures? Where are they?”

“Negative, sir. They’ve either been crushed by the heavy weight of the building or buried too deeply down below us. It’s impossible for me to say without the proper equipment.”

“Then we keep digging, fine,” Tony snaps. He moves the clutter faster, shifting back bits and pieces of it.

“Sir—”

“Not now, JARVIS, unless it’s about Ste-Rogers or Bruce, then don’t say anything—” His head is still pounding while his vision seems to have inverted itself and his stupid arms can’t move faster, can’t be more efficient in removing the steel planks and scattered plywood. Cap or Hulk, they could move mountains if they wanted to, but even in this suit, Tony can’t even—

“Stark,” a hand grabs his shoulder and Tony nearly hits the intruder with a lit blaster. But the man is quick enough to move away, grappling Tony into a tight hold and forcing him to look up.

“Fury,” Tony spits out because he can’t compute anything else other than Cap and Bruce, still buried, have to get them out, all his fault—“What the hell are you doing, just standing there? Go find them! They’re still here, I know they are, come on...!”

But Fury is shaking his head, why is he shaking his head?

“You’re not well right now, Stark. We need to get you to the medical bay...”

“Fuck, no, I’m just hung-over; look, Stars and Bruce, they’re...”

The damned man is just staring at Tony sternly with a mixture of pity and something else. “I’m sorry, Stark, but we need have bigger problems right now...”

“No,” Tony slaps Fury’s hand away. He drops back to his knees and resumes clawing into the dump and bones of his tower, “there’s nothing more important than finding them, right now, nothing.”

It doesn’t matter what anyone says, Tony is going to find them. He has to.

And he promises, truly Lord, he promises that when he finds Stars and Bruce again, that he’ll do everything he can to keep this from happening ever again. He’ll follow Captain America’s orders. He’ll go against the law, against hell and heaven itself. He promises, on the very power source keeping him alive.

Just let him find them.

-

Now:

Steve tries to move his right side out of the rubble, but instead he ends up creating big ugly bruises from what little he manages to pull out. The blood pooling underneath him begins to deepen in colour and when Hulk growls at him, Steve stops.

He needs a plan. That fact is in the back of his mind as he attempts to entertain and encourage Hulk to keep holding on. The Hulk has assured him several times that he is “not tired, very strong, will protect cap” after several subtle attempts to ask how the big guy was holding up. Steve makes a mental note to tell Bruce how intelligent his counterpart is. He thinks Bruce might even be proud.

But Steve keeps talking out loud regardless. It’s not the smartest of moves. The dust gets trapped in his throat and Steve has no idea how much air is in this void space. But talking keeps him awake and it keeps the Hulk’s attention focused on him rather than how frustrating it is to be trapped underneath all this rubble.

Steve tells Hulk stories about Bucky and his mother, the good memories. He begins to recite fairy tales, which the Hulk enjoys for a while, his favourite being the three little pigs. He even makes up a fairly ridiculous story about a little soldier stuck in a tower while a thief, that resembles Tony in personality, discovers him.

When Steve feels his throat going dry again, probably filling up with dust, he admits to his companion that he can’t think of what to talk about next.

“Friends,” the Hulk responds, his low voice causing slight tremors from the rubble. “Tell stories about friends.”

“Friends?” Steve tries not to cough. “Like Iron Man?”

“Yes, like shiny Iron.”

So Steve recites as many details as he can remember about the members of their team. His sporadic lunches with Tony (please be alright, please let him have been far away enough from the blast, please) before he moved into his apartment were random but Steve enjoyed eating different foods even if he didn’t have much appetite for them. He tried to eat normally just to keep Tony smiling. Tony would laugh at his awed face when he tried dumplings and at on different day, pad thai. He recalls how Tony would just drop by his room at S.H.I.E.L.D. and drag him by the arm to try butter chicken or Vietnamese noodle salad with no care in the world.

Then there’s Clint, who is slowly beginning to smile more freely, who hums along with the radio when the new mainstream music begins to play because he has a terrible voice. But he plays the cello part of a Brahms ensemble with the skill of a virtuoso, as if the strings are connected to his heart. Clint, Steve tells Hulk, plays soft jazz horribly but does so anyways because Steve likes to listen to it when he sketches. He hums a few bars for the Hulk but has to stop when the Hulk begins to bob his head up and down with the tune, sending more rubble on Steve’s face.

His coughing fit upsets the Hulk so Steve quickly tells him about Natasha, how she can kill someone with a spoon, knows all the different poisons and antidotes in the world (probably from growing her garden that has now migrated to Steve’s living room) and severely hates Regency novels. The most that he’s spent with Natasha is training sessions so far while conversation in between. “She beats me in sparring most of the time,” he says while he smacks his lips. “She could probably beat anyone, maybe even you,” he jokes as Hulk snorts at him.

“Hulk fight good. Beat everyone,” the green giant affirms.

“You definitely could,” Steve agrees, feeling more and more lightheaded. Is there enough air? Hulk seems to be fine. It might be the blood loss, he reflects. Even the serum can’t combat against pieces of buildings crushing half of your body. “You could probably beat Thor on one of his bad days too.”

Perhaps they could plead for Thor to come, but he doubts that the Norse God’s powers work in such a way, being an interdimensional alien and all. It’s strange—wondering about such things. It still feels like a dream, everything about this, and Steve wonders when he’ll wake up.

“Doctor story,” His companion huffs in the silence, his breath blowing bits of grit over Steve’s cheek.

He takes another heavy breath, “You mean of Doctor Banner?”

“Yes. Hulk want.”

Despite the situation, a choked laugh escapes Steve’s mouth though it is slightly strangled. “You two are really alike when it comes down to the basics,” he finds himself saying hoarsely. He can’t stop grinning, absurdly enough. It might be from the blood loss but he’s genuinely charmed by Hulk’s words. “He wanted to know about you too.”

Hulk grunts in reply. Steve can’t tell if that means that the Hulk is pleased or annoyed, but he hopes for the former.

“Don’t worry,” he reassures him (the world is in a daze), “I only said the good things.”

Steve doesn’t hear an answer from the green giant, because then, there is rumbling. The pieces of concrete and metal are shaking all around them. Some bars hit Steve on the chest. Hulk roars, his voice ringing in Steve’s ears as the giant pushes towards him, trying to shield him from being completely buried in rubble (ice, ice, it’s everywhere, even when he wakes) and then—

There are muffled sounds (voices, he thinks) yelling towards them. The Hulk is roaring as it feels that even the darkness trembles and there is a bright light.

This is when they are blown away by another huge blast.

-

Black. Grey. Dashes of white. Black again. He’s tumbling back and forth, stuck in an endless loop, one of the black and white movie reels that he recalls from the old theatre he and Bucky used to frequent. The Hulk is roaring.

Cap!

Steve barely has time to yell out, “Hulk, be careful!” when he feels his head hit something sharp. It makes a long line at the back of his skull, hopefully shallow and Steve can barely breathe.

He sees the gleam of the Hulk’s yellow eyes as the giant wraps himself around Steve in a ball as the rubble, the glass, the steel tosses upwards into different directions.

There is another blast, this one even louder than the last, and this time Steve can see that it is in the same bright blue that haunts the edges his nightmares.

-

“Cap, stay,” the Hulk’s order wakes him.

Steve hisses out, his limbs freed from the wreckage as he lies, arms spread out like a bird’s wings pinned against a platter. Everything stings as if serum in his blood is burning his limbs from the inside and when he tries to move his right arm and leg, they are screaming at him to be still.

“We found them sir, I repeat, we found them,” he hears someone yell.

Colour dots and blurs his vision when he opens his eyes. The bright sunlight stings them and he can’t avoid seeing the extent of damage done on his right side form his peripheral vision.

His arm and leg are mangled, skin peeled off at odd angles revealing varying shallow and deep patches of pooled wounds. It’s like staring into the messy plethora of a Van Gogh painting, the hurried and wild brushstrokes of scarring red, pink, purples, blacks and peach splashed against each other to make up the shape of a leg and arm.

They’re sitting on the edge of a great crater of rubble, likely where they had been positioned before the blast blew it away from them. Steve sees the piles of steel and concrete surrounded them like a mini mountain range of debris. He tries to spot Tony (please be alright, please, please) but sees nothing but sparking wires and leftover screens of broken technology.

“Stand down, I repeat stand down!” Voices are shouting.

The Hulk is roaring. His voice is a mallet against Steve’s eardrums. Steve tries to stand (or at least kneel) but clumsily falls back on his right side, against several sharp slabs of steel. Steve lets out a harsh breath, feeling the points dig against his back, pressing towards his spine. He’s grateful for the fresh air (“One, two, three, four, every breath you are living a little bit more,” his mother used to sing, trying to soothe his asthma attacks.)

“Sir, permission to fire at will? Sir? Sir!

Hulk’s massive shadow hides Steve from sight. His companion is hovering in front of him, snarling at the numb sounds which Steve now realizes are rounds being fired off. The echoes of gunfire and blasts are an old lullaby and he feels then that they’re sitting in one of the black and white photos of a bombed town in the war, built of shattered steel and glass instead of toppled bricks and roof shingles. He can hear them clearly in his head—the aircraft whirling over head, the ominous whistling as a bomb hurtled down towards you, the blasts—

“Hulk smash!

No. Steve looks up, sees the familiar black and white of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, dressed in their blue and black suits, pointing their weapons at the Hulk. This isn’t the war that he grew up with but it might as well be one.

“Stop! Hold your fire!” Steve yells, trying to hobble forward. He’s only successful in pushing his body forward just as the triggers are released.

Steve attempts to duck and roll over, to escape being battered with holes when the Hulk somersaults over to him, covering Steve’s form with his body. The Hulk grunts painfully as the gunfire hits him before letting another roar escape his jaws. He scoops Steve up in his arms and begins to run the other direction, towards the business firms that are still standing around the wreckage.

“Target is hostile and has the captain hostage,” Steve picks up from the shouts that are fading behind them. “We are going after them.”

His breath leaves him for one paralyzing second and Steve is tapping on the Hulk’s chest, trying to get his attention.

“Stop,” Steve coughs, “wait, buddy. They won’t hurt you if you show them that you’re helping me. Let me talk to them before they shoot us.”

But the Hulk shakes his head, growling, “No. Puny agents hurt friends. No S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Steve stops, forgetting what he meant to say. He feels heat well up in his throat and says as gently as possible, “I know, big buy, I know they haven’t been the most trustworthy lately”—his companion snorts at this—“but they’re not the enemy. They won’t hurt us; I know you’ll stop them if they try.”

The green giant grunts in response. “Hulk protect Cap,” he confirms, his steps coming to a pause. Reluctantly, Hulk lowers his arms so that Steve is level with the ground. The descent is dizzying and Steve wonders how much blood he’s lost so far, before he raises his left hand, waving over to the line of agents just over the hill of debris.

“Stand down!” Steve shouts hoarsely, because frankly, he doesn’t know any codes to identify himself with, let alone to signal a situation where the Hulk is not intent on destroying the street. The Hulk’s arms cushion him when his head falls back. “We are not hostile. We’re perfectly alright, just stand down!”

Hopefully, if these agents are smart and observant, they will see that the Hulk is guarding him, not about to tear his limbs apart, and lower their weapons. He can feel the Hulk trembling with suppressed aggression behind him, fighting back the instincts that tell him to defend himself from his opponents.

“Don’t shoot!” He shouts again.

The line of agents stop when they see that Steve is unharmed, lying at the Hulk’s feet. They lower their weapons and Steve slumps back in relief, coldness washing over him.

“Cap?” He hears the worried voices, the Hulk’s booming tones and the echoes of men in the distance. He wants to reassure them that he’s fine. They should tend to the wounded, rescue others who have been trapped from the blast, (“Find Tony,” he is mumbling instead, as arms carry him upwards) figure out what how that Chitauri had survived... where the second blast came from... calm down Hulk before he went on another rampage...

“Cap! No touch Cap!

“...Captain Rogers! Call Director Fury, get him over here. The Hulk is out of control now. The Captain is down...”

“...calm the fuck down, I’m here and I brought Stark, just hand the captain over to us...”

Everything is fine, he thinks of yellow paint and a promise to a giant. Then he blacks out.

-

Steve wakes and he sees IVs stuck into his wrists, little plastic tubes lynching on to his blood. Immediately he recoils, want to tear them out. The beeps from the heart monitor on his left being to hasten, drawing his attention to the stale whiteness of the room (empty and gone, gone, gone) all around.

The heart monitor begins to sound off with overlapping beeps. He needs to get out of here. He has no idea where he is or where Tony and Bruce are and how long has he been asleep—?

“Just one week, cap,” He hears someone say by the wall lined with medicinal drawers and charts of the different organ systems. It’s eerie to see those images on the wall, like staring into the scene of a modernized Frankenstein novel.

Steve nearly falls off the bed when he leans forward, attempting to discern who is standing there. Slowly his vision adjusts and his muscles relax ever so slightly when he makes out the familiar face.

“Director Fury...”

“You’ve been asleep for seven days, Rogers,” Fury reiterates again, this time, turning so that his uncovered eye can be seen.

It takes but another two beats of the heart monitor for Steve to grasp what has been said. Thank god, he thinks. Only one week, just one week and it’s more than he could ever ask for. He’s still here, he’s still here... (A part of him whispers desperately... I’m still... here... and it makes his heart ache.)

But then he remembers the explosion.

He sits upright, doesn’t wince at the pains in his joints. He hasn’t felt so lightheaded since one of his fainting spells as a child. “What happened?” He demands, “How are Hulk and Tony?” The last he recalls, the giant was on the verge of destroying anyone who came near him and Tony... Tony...

“Contained within this facility, Captain Rogers, and physically intact,” Fury replies neutrally.

Steve is able to breathe clearer with this information, like he has a place to stand again when his mind had floated off away from him. It’s a relief, being able to think again. He slips back into the mentality of the soldier once more.

“And what were the civilian causalities like?”

Fury’s brow tightens and his lips form a firm line. “There were over six dozen civilian causalities when Stark Tower collapsed—all of them Stark employees, drivers or pedestrians on the street. Several hundred were injured. We’re lucky that Stark doesn’t hire many to live in his gaudy residence and that the tower was bombed at the foundations rather than an angle. It collapsed downwards instead of taking the buildings around the block down with it. Hell, we’re fortunate enough that few people work around there at three in the morning. Now, soldier, what the hell happened to you?”

He is still. Steve feels his heart clench and a dizzying feeling come over hi. Over seventy-two deaths in an alien attack... it’s unimaginable. More numbers, just numbers and yet... He keeps the statistic close to heart (The war, over sixty million worldwide, Loki’s invasion, over five hundred dead before they could reach them and the bombing, over seventy-two) and replies, “I was buried under the wreckage, sir. There was a bomb. I think we both know who sent it.”

“That’s not what I was asking about, soldier,” Fury raises his voice and from him, it is worse than Colonel Phillips’ yelling. “What were you doing at Stark Tower so early in the morning and with Doctor Banner no less?”

Steve stiffens and frowns at him, “I don’t see what this has to do with the attack, sir.”

Fury glares at him, “Do you have any idea what the extent of your injuries was? All of that blood of yours was leaking out onto the ground. We weren’t sure if you had enough of it to heal yourself. Thank the Lord that you did, or I’d have to find myself another super soldier with another formula and he might not turn out as you did. You put yourself in danger, captain, after I warned you about the attacks on our labs—”

“Then you should have informed me that they were alien attacks, or more importantly, that they’re Chitauri, the aliens that should have been dead,” Steve replies and it takes all his effort to remain composed, neutral, “maybe I would have taken your word more seriously then.”

The director steps forward, “It was classified.”

“Not with live at stake, it’s not!” Steve has to stop himself from very well snapping. “You knew that the Chitauri might be after me. Heck, you even warned me, but did you warn Tony, any of the other Avengers?”

“They were targeting S.H.I.E.L.D. assets, not Stark—”

“They want revenge, Fury, and Tony is in the spotlight all the time, it makes him a walking target for anyone with a grudge against the team. Why didn’t you say anything? We could have protected ourselves better with that information! For that matter, we might have cooperated with you!”

There is silence as Steve breathes out in harsh intervals, as if the dust has returned to his throat. It hasn’t fully healed yet. Fury only stares.

“...How are the Chitauri still alive?” Steve asks quietly. “You told us that they were all dead and yet, one walked into Tony’s lobby and tried to blow up the entire block. There must be more, otherwise you wouldn’t be so worried about my... safety. What aren’t you telling us?”

Fury gives him that stare again, assessing, analyzing but Steve can’t read his expression at all. There are so many secrets and Steve just wants Fury to tell them everything—about Coulson, the Chitauri, his motives—because he doesn’t want to believe that the world has become so corrupt, so secretive. Because if it is then... (no, don’t think.)

He almost doesn’t hear what the director says next.

“Just how close have you gotten to the rest of your team, Captain?”

Steve feels his mouth dry. “No closer than before, sir. I don’t see how this is relevant to our discussion.”

“It has everything to do with this, Captain. After all, haven’t you been living with Agent Romanoff and Barton, even when they’ve abandoned SHIELD?”

This time, he does visibly freeze. Steve glowers at him, “You promised, you signed a legal form from Tony, not to pry into my life anymore—”

“We had people tracking Barton, he led us to you. We didn’t interfere after that—couldn’t, without overstepping legal boundaries. Now answer the question. How close have you become with your team, captain?”

He frowns, “I don’t understand...”

“Let me rephrase,” Fury takes the seat by his bed and says, “What are you willing to do to protect him?”

Steve feels a numbing cold enter into his veins, his chest.

Fury waits.

“...I...” Steve pauses and swallows slowly. “They’re all I have.”

-

For a while, Fury says nothing and when the weight of the truth settles on them both, he says, “Very well, Captain Rogers... I’ll tell you about the Chitauri but first... you have a visitor.”

Steve blinks at the distraction, “Visitor...?”

Brief irritation passes across Fury’s face. “Yes. He wouldn’t relent until I let him see you. Reminded me of our deal.”

“Deal?” He echoes, but his question is ignored. Fury has already stood up and is walking out of the room. The grey and dreary looking doors swing wildly as another man rushes through, only stopping when he is at Steve’s bedside, staring straight at his face.

Steve gapes wildly as he takes in the details of the man’s face, his novel beard, and the wrinkles around his brown eyes just as his visitor grabs him by the shoulders, inspecting him from head to toe. Steve can’t help but do the same, searching for any injuries he can see.

There’s nothing and Steve smiles with relief. “Tony,” he says.

The billionaire manages a worn sigh in return as he sags back against the plastic chair. “Stars.”

They don’t say anything else.

-

The minute hand has passed by the twelve on the clock countless times by the time Tony breaks his gaze and pulls something out from his coat. He puts it gently on the bed and then twists his fingers around, waiting.

Steve looks at the slightly wrinkled sketchbook, the same quality paper and company as the last that Tony had given him. It’s brand new, the pages fresh and clean. Steve’s fingers itch for a pencil just as Tony hands him a tin of the best artist’s pencils.

“...Thought you’d be bored,” Tony says, scratching at his ear and suddenly quite engrossed at staring at the plastic bag of nutrients flowing into Steve’s veins. “Wouldn’t want you to go stir-crazy and start drawing all over the walls. Not that you’d do that, here, in a hospital. But, well, I know how boring they are and you like drawing, right, so—”

“Thank you. It’s... thank you.”

“Really?” Tony blinks, looking back down at his lap and then back at Steve again.

“Yes. It’s perfect.”

-

“You owe me, stars,” Tony jokes quietly.

“Oh really?”

“Yeah. You got blood all over my suit. It’ll take ages to wash off.”

He closes his eyes, unable to fight the quirk of his lips. “I’ll try to bleed less next time.”

“Right,” there’s a sour note to Tony’s voice. “Next time.”

The tension in the room shifts then and Steve takes the moment to study the billionaire’s appearance with more care.

Tony’s clothes are a mess. He’s wearing the same trousers from before, the bottom left legging stained still from drops of alcohol. His beard, Steve can see now, is unusually unkempt, longer than usual with little grooming. There are bags under his eyes and more lines on his face than Steve remembers. Guiltily, Steve recalls the circumstances that led to this.

“I’m sorry,” He tells him, “about before. I should have told you about Agent Coulson and I am just... so... sorry, Tony. It’s my fault.”

Like he is shrugging off the veils of sleep, Tony jumps up in his chair, staring at Steve as if he’s insane. “What the hell are you talking about, Stars?”

Steve opens his mouth to reply but Tony cuts him off.

“You’re sorry? God, what are you apologizing for? I’m the one who should be...,” Tony runs a bony hand through his hair, “Fuck, do you have any idea what I—” He stops again, cursing and pacing the room. “I just, you were... I thought... Hell, Stars, just,” he take a deep breath and looks at him warily with an attempt at a smile, “consider that behind us. I shouldn’t have... you know it’s... I...”

He grimaces, clenching his fists and glaring at the floor.

“...Tony...,” says Steve.

“No, Stars, stop,” the man snaps before he swears at himself again and takes another deep breath. “Look... it’s just... Hulk wasn’t letting anyone near you. They had to come get me and well... you weren’t moving, Cap. And the last thing that I said... well...”

“Tony,” Steve is getting up now, the tubes attached to his arms moves with him, jerk with his veins.

“No, Cap, don’t get up—”

“It wasn’t your fault, I should have—”

Yes it was!

They stare at each other. Steve wants to reach out, to fix this somehow because he’s not sure when or how it became so wrong. But his brain isn’t summoning any words. It’s all blank and when he opens his mouth, he’s sure that more stupid things will come out.

But Tony turns away, “Never mind. I just, I’ll let you rest for now, Captain.”

“Wait, please, you should know that I don’t blame you at all. I trust you; I really do, Tony, with my life—”

“Well you shouldn’t,” he snaps, his face twisting before it shifts into something wearier, more tired and intense. “Just get some sleep, Stars.”

He moves towards the door and Steve tries to get up—“Tony pleaseeven attempts to pull out the IV lines in his skin to go after him and just explain things because he doesn’t think he can bear leaving things unspoken again (just one week, cap.) The machines are being knocked together. One almost falls over onto the bed, over his lap but Steve stops it with one hand.

“Whoa there, soldier!” Tony rushes over and pushes him back against his pillows. He scowls at him, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Rogers? You’re not even fully healed yet.”

“Don’t go,” Steve says quickly. “We need to talk.”

“Oh god, not this line,” Tony groans automatically and normally this would bother Steve, the way Tony seems to dismiss everything as a joke. But it’s become endearing to him and it’s a sign that Tony is acting as himself again, even if it is a defense mechanism.

“I’m sorry,” Steve looks him in the eye, tries to get him to see. “I’m so sorry about hiding the truth about Coulson from you. I know that it was Clint’s choice and it is his right, his say. But I’m sorry. I knew it would hurt you but I didn’t want to disrespect Clint’s decision. It was wrong of me and I hope you know that.”

Tony opens his mouth, stops, and collapses back in his chair, covering his eyes with his hand. For a minute, Steve is terrified that Tony might explode at him, but the man’s body begins to shake and he is laughing.

“Um...”

“Do me a favour, stars,” Tony turns to him. “Let’s just forget about all that. What I said, everything, it never happened. So we’re cool. It’s cool. Everything is as cool as a cucumber.”

He doesn’t understand that reference. And it doesn’t feel like everything is settled. Steve still senses tension from Tony, an undercurrent of frustration and negative emotions bubbling under the surface of tired eyes. Steve wants to pursue the topic, figure out how Tony is feeling but—

Tony shakes his head. “I said some stupid shit to you, stars. Things I didn’t mean. I hope, I really hope, that you’ll forget about it. I’ve already put the Coulson thing away. I barely know what happened. Coulson? Who’s Coulson? Wasn’t he always alive, unconscious and strapped to a bed?”

His chest feels like its being squeezed painfully. “Tony—”

“Seriously, Cap. Forget it. You’re alive. Frankly, I’m just damn grateful to be speaking to you at all. I thought that I’d never hear you nagging at me again. What’s the world going to do without Captain America, after all? Can’t get a replacement Captain America.”

“...Right,” Steve thinks that his stomach is plummeting, that all the colours that Tony has brought into the bland room have dimmed against the white. “Captain America...”

Tony gives a nervous smile, “So, we’re cool?”

Steve swallows slowly, unable to get rid of the sick feeling inside. He smiles back, “Yes, we are.”

-

“How is Bruce?” Steve inquires when they’ve settled into another awkward silence. Tony has been fidgeting for the past five minutes, looking up at the ceiling, fiddling with the bottom of his shirt, clicking away at a mechanical pen. Steve, well, Steve is used to standing absolutely still. “Is he alright?”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Still hulking out, trapped in the glass cage until he turns back. He’s only calm and doesn’t try to break out if I’m in the cage with him. He’s got the whole facility scared shitless. Except maybe Fury, but that’s Fury, man was born without emotions.”

“What?!” Steve bolts up, the IVs moving with him.

“Whoa there, sit back down for fuck’s sake—”

“Why? Why is he—? Are they—?”

“I’ll tell you when you lie back down on the bed!” Tony shouts.

Steve quickly acquiesces and looks at Tony expectantly. With a long sigh and a look that threatens huge consequences if Steve jeopardizes the serum’s healing process, Tony tells him.

“He’s worried about you. The Hulk, Bruce. They wouldn’t tell us how you were. They’ve kept us here all week, claiming that it’s for national security, the usual stuff. I’m only allowed to see you now because I pulled some strings, made a couple of deals. Might have threatened to let the Hulk loose on all of them as well. But other than that, I’ve been holed up in here, hanging with the Hulk, terrorizing agents...”

Steve glances at him in horror, “They can’t just keep you here against your will. Hulk isn’t going to hurt anyone, as long as they don’t threaten him first—”

“—or his friends, because, you know—”

“Have they even let the Hulk see me?” From Tony’s deadpan expression, Steve can see that they haven’t. “I don’t understand why they’re keeping both of you here. And they haven’t even given you a spare change of clothes?”

“Oh that,” Tony grins dangerously. “No, it’s because I refuse to accept their shitty hospitality. There’s not even cable in that glass cell. Besides, I think the rugged look suits me.”

It certainly did in a strange way (he wanted to sketch the outline of Tony’s face, traced with the brushes of his deep brown beard and mustache), but that wasn’t the point.

“Why are they keeping you here? And don’t they usually tranquilize the Hulk to bring him out of it?”

Tony’s face wrinkles into a similar disgust that Steve feels. “Well, yes, they do tranq him. He just sees SHIELD agents telling him that Captain America is now classified property and goes all Hulk again. As for why they’re keeping us here, I assume it’s because they want us to sign forms searing secrecy.”

Steve’s brow furrows. “Secrecy.”

“Yeah,” Tony’s tone darkens, “They don’t want anyone to know about the Chitauri.”

Immediately the heart monitor races. Steve lets his eyelids fall shut. “How much do you know, Tony?”

“...about the freaky zombie alien that blew up my tower? Not much,” Tony frowns. “It was using my tech... that’s what I remember. Some old bombs that the company used to manufacture.” He glares at the wall. “My own fucking tech.”

He is so still (and far away) in that moment that Steve doesn’t know what to say. But it lasts but half a moment and Tony is smiling again, “Why do you ask?”

Steve frowns, wondering how to ask about Tony, as he glances up at the corners in the ceiling. There are likely cameras recording everything, the whole conversation.

Tony follows his gaze and smirks. “Relax, stars,” He says, “I had Jarvis hack into the system. No one is listening. They’ll hear some pre-recorded shit. Stuff we talked about when we went to lunch, Bach, ACDC...”

His muscles loosen and Steve beams. “Tony, you’re amazing. Thank you,” he misses the surprised look on Tony’s face before he tells him more seriously, “Fury knew about the Chitauri before all this happened.”

Tony freezes, then the man who told him that they are not soldiers returns. “Tell me everything.”

Steve does, from his meetings with Nick Fury to the detailed break-in to find Coulson. Tony needs to know.

-

When he is done, Steve feels like he is floating in the air, a balloon that has been let loose from its ties to the ground. It feels good to have everything out in the open with Tony, reminds him of mission briefings and plans with Colonel Philips, Peggy and Howard. There’s a sense that he’s doing, well, something.

Tony looks furious and for a moment, it is like before, when Tony is helping him find a place to live, a place separate from Steve... and it felt like they might be friends.

The billionaire sits back, stone-faced. “He could have prevented all of this.”

Steve doesn’t argue. With some definite and clear warnings, Tony would have had a better idea of who was stealing his tech. All of them could have been more wary of possible attack.

“He said that it was classified information. What does he have to gain from that?” Steve speculates.

“Or what does he have to hide?” Tony seems to echo. “Seems like his proverbial skeleton in the closet is bigger than we think.”

“I don’t like it,” Steve admits, “that we’re being used this way.”

Tony shrugs bitterly, “Welcome to the real world, stars, where everyone you know will stab you in the back.”

The words tear at Steve and he grips the sheets tightly.

“Well then, we won’t let them.”

Tony stares at him incredulously as if he can’t believe that Steve would say such a thing and he continues, “This isn’t right. What else would you expect me to do?” He doesn’t let Tony answer, doesn’t want to know what Tony thinks Steve would decide instead, “Now, Tony, I know you hacked into SHIELD’s headquarters before with Bruce. Think you can do it again with no one finding out?”

Slowly Tony begins to grin again, his eyes gleaming, “Oh, Stars, you’re talking to a genius here. I’ll take care of it.”

“I never had a single doubt,” Steve replies softly.

-

“Where’s Stark?” Fury asks when he marches through the doors. “Thought he’d still be here grovelling or talking your ears off.”

Steve looks away. He’s doodling the beginnings of Tony’s beard beside a shaded sketch of the Hulk. “He left. Had to check on Bruce. Weren’t you going to debrief me on the Chitauri?”

Fury scowls, “And they say you have no cheek.”

“Don’t know what you’ve been reading about me, sir, but I’ve always had a running mouth,” Steve remarks nonchalantly.

Fury throws a thick folder onto the sheets. Agent Hill comes in, rolling what Steve recognizes as a projector, the same kind that they used to try and introduce him to twenty first century technology. She leaves, giving a curt salute to Fury and a wary nod towards Steve.

“There are some things that you should know now,” he says and then he plugs in the projector.

-

“We told you that we burned the Chitauri’s bodies... but that wasn’t entirely true.”

The images from the projector change from the SHIELD logo to images taken of labs, labs that Steve recognizes from the hospital that he broke into with Clint and Natasha (He wonders if they’ve been keeping themselves safe while he’s been gone.) There is the same giant screen, same white walls and glass columns and tubes, attached to a machine.

Except these massive glass tubes are not glowing blue as they were when he last saw them. They are filled with ice.

And Steve can see the bodies of eight Chitauri sitting in each tube. And around them, there are stretchers, stretches holding more alien corpses.

Steve feels sick.

“We kept some of the bodies,” The image changes to a close-up of an alien dissection. It must be the heart and the lungs, just as red as a human’s would be, “and experimented on them.”

He can’t stop looking at the crimson pooling up in the alien bodies.

“Why?” He asks. “Just... why?

Fury’s gaze is neutral. “You know why, Captain. We need the advantage. We have to stay ten steps ahead of the enemy and for that to work, we need information—on their anatomy, their weaknesses and strengths, where they come from, how to defeat them again if the time comes.”

“But they were all killed...! Unless they weren’t...”

The silence confirms it.

“We thought that the Chitauri operated on a hive mentality, with the mothership as the head controlling all the workers. If it was destroyed, then they all died.”

“But that wasn’t the case.”

“No.”

“...They were sleeping,” Steve realizes.

Fury nods. “Yes. The ones that weren’t cremated were in some kind of stasis or hibernation. We think that they were aware the entire time, through all the dissections and experiments... But they didn’t wake. Didn’t have enough energy to. Something about their mothership shutting down cut off their primary energy source.”

The slide changes to another image, one that Steve is shockingly familiar with, the same bright blue.

“The tesserect...”

“Not exactly,” says Fury. “Pieces of the original tesserect. We believe the cube to be one of these pieces.” And they are. They are little jagged pieces that appear to have been chipped off of the cube that Steve remembers Schmidt holding. They glow brightly in another glass tube, kept separate from the others. These things are minuscule compared to the tesserect, like grits of salt that have been placed carefully on a glass slide.

Steve has a foreboding premonition as Fury continues.

“It was only when we experimented with this energy source... that they awakened.” The photos that flash next are blurry and unclear, but Steve can make out the outline of a Chitauri soldier’s face as it slashes the camera apart. “They took some of our people and our technology, as well as the pieces of the tesserect.”

“What?” Natasha had said that the cube was capable of destroying the planet. These small things, could they—?

“Those pieces aren’t powerful enough to destroy us all,” Fury says, “but they are capable of destroying an entire block, if they wanted to, maybe even an entire city. The question is... why haven’t they done that yet?”

“Revenge,” Steve whispers, recalling the alien that had blown up Stark Tower. “They’re after us personally, all the avengers, and SHIELD, because we massacred their entire race in one blow.”

Fury doesn’t answer.

“You said that they took other people. Who did they take?”

“That’s classified—”

Who did they take?” Steve demands again. “I need to know. I need to know everything. I can’t rush into this without all the pieces. I can’t protect anyone that way.”

“Captain, listen to me, you’re not going to be protecting anyone anymore,” The director informs him. “The Avengers initiative is being shut down. We’re taking you all back and dealing with each of you in the manner that will most benefit the safety of the world. You’re SHIELD property again, Captain. We can’t let you go out there.”

It’s cold again. It’s suddenly so cold that Steve can’t stand it.

“No,” he whispers. “You can’t. Tony isn’t part of SHIELD! And Tony, he’s, well he’s Tony Stark, you can’t just...”

“Naturally Iron Man will still be seen in public. SHIELD doesn’t have jurisdiction over him”—thank god, Steve thinks“yet. But the Hulk is a threat, considered unstable when provoked. Since we have no means to terminate him, he’ll be kept under surveillance.”

“You can’t do that,” they can’t, Steve won’t let them, “What about Natasha, Clint, they left, they’re not—”

“A danger to national security. Considered renegades. We’ll have to terminate them.”

Don’t you dare,” and Steve is out of bed, standing on unsteady feet. The sketchbook and blanket have fallen on the floor. “You said that the world needed the Avengers once. Well, it still does, so why are you disbanding us?”

“Because there isn’t a team left, Captain Rogers,” Fury shouts. “You’ve went your separate ways. The Black Widow and Hawkeye have abandoned SHIELD. Stark could care less about the initiative unless the world was fucking ending. Banner wants nothing to do with us... and you; you’ve become a wild card, Rogers.”

He thinks that this is how the ice felt, numb and unfeeling. It’s how his dreams feel these days, suffocating. The more he breathes in, the more he chokes.

Please... don’t do this. You can have my blood whenever you need it, for your research, your experiments, just not my team.”

The director is unfazed. “We would have it anyways. You’re ours now.”

“No,” Steve says fiercely. “You wouldn’t. I will fight you. I won’t cooperate. Your drugs will have no effect on me unless you use them at colossal doses and I doubt that you can spare the resources to keep me drugged all the time. I’ll even end my own life if I have to and you won’t have the perfect specimen to study for the serum anymore.”

Fury is still. “Are you abandoning the world, Cap? Just like that?”

“No, I’m abandoning SHIELD too if you don’t leave my teammates alone. The world needs Captain America on their side. If I was to disappear, what would you tell them? That you threatened me? Regardless, I’ll do my best to protect it, but just not on your side.”

Fury lets out a sharp grunt. “And do you think that they’ll fight alongside you? The other avengers? They don’t want to be heroes... not like you.”

“It’s not about being the hero. It’s about doing what’s right and someone has to do it. I’m not asking them to stand beside me,” and he doesn’t, not when the world has betrayed them. They have their reasons. They have no obligations to follow him any longer now that they’re not part of SHIELD. “I can stand on my own.”

“They’ll call you a vigilante. You’ll be arrested.”

“Then so be it.”

For a minute, he thinks Fury might try to restrain Steve, to stop him from leaving. But then Fury is laughing, actually laughing as if Steve cannot believe his eyes (was there something funny in what he said?)

“...I... is this another test?”

Fury just shakes his head, “You’re the real deal, aren’t you, Captain? Fine, I won’t report Agent Barton and Romanoff’s actions to the council yet, so long as you continue doing missions from SHIELD, Rogers, and cooperate... with everything that we ask of you. But if they step out of line...”

“They won’t,” Steve says quickly.

Fury claps his shoulder, the most chilling look present in his eyes. “See to it that they don’t.”

-

“Um, sir?” Steve asks as Fury is preparing to leave the room.

“What is it, Rogers?”

“That news... about disbanding the Avengers Initiative... that wasn’t just a test, was it?”

The director sighs, and for the first time, Steve sees how tired he really is. “Unfortunately, Rogers. No. It wasn’t.”

He can only see the back of Fury’s coat. “You didn’t issue out this order... did you?”

Fury pauses but he doesn’t get to answer because then Agent Hill bursts through the doors.

Her expression is blank save for her panicked eyes.  “Sir, it’s the Hulk... he got out.”

“Fuck, what is this? The official day of murder and mayhem? Lead the way, Agent Hill,” Fury follows her, he glares at Steve, who is trying to gather up his machines to go after them. “Stay put, Captain.”

“No,” Steve stumbles towards the door. “This is my team. I’m not going to let anyone hurt him. I told you that I’d handle it and I will.”

Fury gives an exasperated sigh, “Well then, fucking hurry up.”

-

“What the hell is going on here? Stark, what are you doing?!”

Tony is sitting on Hulk’s right shoulder, leaning back casually and observing the broken glass around the Hulk’s prison. He has the Iron Man suit on, but no mask, so Steve can see how casually Tony is observing the scene. Agents dressed in suits of blue or black surround them both, pointing their tranquilizers towards the Hulk but hesitant to shoot lest they hit Tony.

“Might have told my buddy here that you were holding Cap against his will,” Tony shrugs. “He might have thrown a baby whale-sized tantrum. Hard to tell.”

The Hulk grins dangerously at them, breathing through his teeth. Steve, held up in the back by the small crowd of agents, thinks that he sees some men shiver in their boots.

“Get down from there, Stark!” Fury shouts.

“How about ‘no’? I like looking down on all of you for once. This must be why Barton nests in high places all the time.”

“Not the point, Stark, get down!” Hill snaps at him.

But the Hulk roars at them all, baring his teeth. His voice makes the floor beneath them vibrate. Several of the agents step back involuntarily.

“The big guy does not approve,” Tony whistles.

Fury’s eye twitches, “Stark—”

“I don’t know about you,” Tony interrupts, “but I’d rather listen to the big green rage monster instead of you right now.”

Steve limps forward, pushing his way through the bodies of stiff men and women. The IV is wheeled behind him, tripping over polishes shoes as Steve makes his way to Hill and Fury.

“Where Cap!?” Hulk all but howls his demand. He raises his arms up, while Tony shifts over on the Hulk’s shoulders to get a better view of his audience. “Bring Cap or Hulk smash!”

Hulk lunges forward and every agent points his or her weapons towards him, fingers ready on the trigger. They are just about to shoot, for fear that the Hulk is really going to lash out at them physically, when Steve shouts, “Wait!”

He moves in front of the Hulk, just in time. Hulk stops and his demeanour changes when he sees Steve. A wide smile spreads across his face, similar to the one that Steve remembers when he let the Hulk smash freely during the Chitauri invasion.

“Cap!” Hulk leans down and moves to grab Steve with his right hand.

Hill moves her pistol up again and Hulk snarls at her.

“Oh, right, like waving your gun around at him will work again,” Tony drawls.

“Tell them to stand down, director,” Steve says calmly. “The Hulk isn’t going to hurt anyone.”

Fury frowns impassively. “You can’t be sure about that, Cap.”

“I know what I’m talking about.”

Steve dares Fury silently to go against his word. He still doesn’t know what Fury is playing at, whether he is on their side completely or not. He’s beginning to think that not everything is as it seems and he has more questions about why SHIELD wants to dismantle the avengers, about the Chitauri. But they can wait.

He wants to know what Fury will decide.

With one hand raised, Fury motions for his people to lower their weapons. Steve sighs gratefully and then Hulk’s fingers warp around him with surprising gentleness. The green giant lifts him and the IV contraption to his other shoulder.

“Thanks Hulk,” Steve smiles. He holds on to the metal pole of the IV contraption with his left hand. The right one still feels weaker than usual. It may be a day or two before he feels completely healed, at least physically.

“Alright, Hulk, now put Stark and Captain Rogers back down,” Fury orders without pause. It makes Steve wonder if Fury even knows how to be afraid (but that’s not true, he remembers seeing a slight flicker of fear, when Fury yelled the reasons for the Avengers being disbanded...)

Hulk growls, backing up a step and raising his hands protectively over Steve and Tony. “No. Hulk take Cap and Shiny Iron home!”

“He’s being hostile again, sir. Permission to defend?” Hill asks quickly, though her fingers twitch over her gun hoister.

“For fuck’s sake, it’s not that hard not to piss off the big guy. Just do what he says. Not that hard!” Tony throws up his hands, “And for the record, I do not like being called after a house hold item. I’m Iron Man, not a flatiron.”

“We can’t let you leave yet—”

Tony raises his right hand, a white circle glowing in the center of the armour’s palm. “I beg to differ.”

“I think,” Steve raises his voice over the rush of weapons clicking back in place, “that for the sake o everyone present, you should let the Hulk escort us back home.”

Fury raises his brow, “I don’t think so, cap. We have documents to sort through. There’s still the matter of your contract with SHIELD and your injuries—”

“We can take care of him,” Tony, surprisingly, snarls. “We’re getting out of here today and that’s that. You really don’t want the big guy or me to smash up the base.”

Hulk makes a punching motion with his hands, as if in agreement.

“We can discuss these things later,” Steve promises, “and I told you that I’d take responsibility for everything.” From his peripheral vision, he sees Tony staring at him suspiciously, “I keep my word.”

The director studies them for a few moments too long.

“Hulk isn’t going to be calm unless he’s with people he knows and trusts,” Tony snaps impatiently.

Fury scowls, “We’ll find you tomorrow Captain. This isn’t over.”

“No,” Tony says so that Steve doesn’t have to, “but this conversation is. Now, Hulk!” Tony turns his blaster to the wall behind him and shoots a hole through it, large enough for the Hulk to run through.

Steve should be horrified, really, he should. There are so many consequences to this wild and impromptu escape that will catch up to him later when he tries to negotiate with Fury. But instead his eyes crinkle up and he silently joins in Tony’s whoops of ‘Freedom!’ and Hulk’s happy roars.

Everything is going to be alright, Steve will make sure of it.

-

Before:

“I know this must be a shock for you,” says Fury and Steve has to resist the urge to tell him that, yes, this is a shock, thank you for stating the obvious. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t think he can say anything ever again, not without thinking of who should be there (I’ll take you out dancing, just one dance, be there, I will, I promise, I will) and who isn’t (reaching out from the moving train, ready to jump into the snowy mountains after him.)

Instead he merely nods numbly, stares at the brightly lit square that the projector is emitting. A few seconds ago he just saw a slideshow of moving pictures (in full colour) that gave a brief (life is never brief) overview of the past few decades. He has learned that he wasn’t really needed to end the war. They found a different weapon. They built a bomb (He wonders if Dr. Erskine ever knew Einstein) and they dropped it on cities of civilians.

He’s learned of nuclear warfare, the Cold War, Korean War, famines, massacres, political drama that makes his head buzz with calculations while his heart aches. He’s learned of technological advancements and SHIELD’s mission statements.

It’s just so much; so many words and pictures, overlapping the images in his head of propeller planes and burning cities, of machine gun fire and nights spent in the snow. And it’s... it’s...

“If it’s alright with you, sir, I’d like to be alone right now,” He says instead and Fury nods. The room is cleared out and it isn’t until Steve’s delicate hearing can detect no footsteps, that he lets his head hang in his hands.

Oh god... why did you let me live?

-

They give him clothes. They tell him that everything will be provided for. His meals are in the cafeteria. He will have to train to keep his body in shape (not that the serum isn’t capable of doing that without the training, but its routine.) They’ll stock the toiletries and provide him with entertainment if he wishes. They want him to feel at home here.

But it is a cage.

Steve doesn’t want to walk out of this tiny grey room. He’s hesitant to learn more of this strange world, half expecting to wake up to heaven or hell any moment. Peggy would be disappointed in him. The Howling Commandos would laugh at his antics while Colonel Phillips would call him a coward He thinks that Dr. Erskine would have understood, Bucky would (always) and they would not begrudge him time to adjust.

It’s masochistic but he spends that time learning how to use the touch screen tablet that SHIELD has provided. Spends time reading article after article of news and modern lingo, about teen suicides and family homicides. He reads about the assassinations of great men and the conflicts in different countries. He reads about the planet slowly dying because human beings are stupid, even seventy years later and—

He throws the tablet against the ground. It breaks, and the sound of the shattering covers his.

-

They gave him a pad of paper. He made some experimental scribbles on it, but ends up making black coils of looping ink, unable to make sense of anything on the page.

-

On the third day, Fury comes in, blank-faced and with arms behind his back. He sees the crumpled pad of paper in Steve’s hands and takes an unwelcome seat beside him.

“You can’t stay hidden from the world forever, Captain.”

Steve gives a chuckle. It comes out as dark and bitter, so unfamiliar to who he is. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t know what this world is anymore.”

“It’s still the same place.”

“I’m not sure anymore,” Steve finds himself admitting.

“You’re Captain America,” Fury tells him, “and you found something worth fighting for when it seemed like the world was going to end, back in 1942. It’s still here, soldier, if you start looking again. You have to let go of your past now and do your job.”

He shakes his head. “Is that what I am now? Your soldier?”

Fury takes the rumpled sketchbook from Steve’s hands. He doesn’t say what they’re both thinking—What else is there for you to do? That was what you were made for, what you chose to be. This why SHIELD is invested in you—but says.

“Not mine. The world’s.”

One of the crumpled pages slips out from the sketchbook; it’s a smudged portrait of Peggy and Bucky. They are vibrant, like they’ll walk off the page and cuff Steve over the shoulder. Fury picks it up and drops it into the waste bin with the sketchbook.

“The world needs Captain America. It’s time to stand up, soldier.”

-

Later, after the Chitauri, after requesting to find different living quarters, only to be rejected, Steve finds that crumpled sketchbook in his waste bin. He takes it out, remembering those words as he tries to smooth out the last few pages. The Peggy and Bucky picture has become smudged with grey streaks, like shadows and light are caressing the figures.

You’re Captain America. You have to let go of your past now and do your job.

Steve Rogers finds a pencil and he begins to draw.

-

Now:

It looks to be night time in the city. Hulk jumps from roof top to roof top by Tony’s direction. “Careful there, don’t jump there, big guy. You’ll fall through the roof,” Tony says from time to time while muttering orders to JARVIS here and there. Steve slowly lets his head lean against the Hulk’s neck, closes his eyes for a few breaths.

“Why didn’t you try breaking out earlier, Tony?” Steve speaks up quietly. He has to lean over the Hulk’s neck to see the man’s face. “You and Hulk certainly could have. I know neither of you do well in captivity.”

Tony blinks incredulously, “You hadn’t woken up yet.”

Steve brings the IV contraption closer. “...And...?”

“You didn’t give any orders yet.”

“Oh.” It’s so uncharacteristic of Tony that Steve doesn’t know what to say to that. “Tony, about earlier...”

“JARVIS just gave me the data that you asked me to hack,” The billionaire interrupts. “Seems that Fury does know about Coulson... they were doing experiments on him too”—Steve freezes, he doesn’t even know how he’ll tell Clint and Natasha about that—“I just don’t know what kind yet. Those files are encrypted and it’ll take me a while to break the code... Damn it...”

It’s quiet again but then Tony shouts, “When I see Fury again, I’m going to make his other eye disappear, and then I’ll blow up his stupid base and throw him in a long-ass coma, see how he likes it.”

Steve doesn’t respond.

“...It was all too easy, don’t you think?” He wonders out loud. “Fury has more than enough manpower to subdue all of us, at least I think so. We still don’t know how many Chitauri are out there. We don’t know when they’ll attack or what exactly they want or who they took.”

Tony frowns and Steve promises to explain later, back at the apartment.

“I don’t know what Fury’s game is,” he admits. Everything feels so surreal, “He’s keeping all these secrets, telling us bits and pieces.”

“Well, I’ll figure it out from these files. Fury can’t hide his secrets from me.”

Steve smiles. “I know you will. I trust you.”

Tony is giving him that strange expression again, twisted and dark. “Stars...”

Home with paintings!” Hulk booms. Both men stare up in surprise to see Steve’s apartment. The Hulk is practically dancing on his feet before he grabs hold of the bottom balconies and begins to climb up to the top floor.

Seeing the building again makes Steve’s chest constrict and ache with a sudden longing that surprises him. He wants to see Natasha and Clint at breakfast again, wants to hear Clint play the cello, to see Natasha water her plants, wants to spar with them and play cards. He wants to see Bruce discuss physics and gamma rays with Tony in enthusiasm in the living room, pictures Thor coming to visit from Asgard.

They’re all I have.

Hulk lands on Steve’s balcony, making it shake. Quickly, Tony flies off from Hulk’s right shoulder to hover next to Steve, reaching out with his hand, probably to help Steve down when—

The glass doors slide open. Natasha and Clint storm onto the balcony, looking murderous and unkempt.

“Where the hell have you been?!”