Rule 1. All conversations shall include a clear delineation between fictional and nonfictional persons for the benefit of those present whose cultural reference points are displaced in time and/or space.
"You're disappointed," Tony says.
Steve says, "No. Of course not."
Tony looks at him over the clutter on the workbench. "You are," he says. "I can tell. You have your disappointed face on."
"I'm not disappointed," Steve says, in his most disappointed tone. "But... I guess I should have known. It's a bit silly, isn't it?"
Tony sets the soldering iron down and rests his elbow on the bench. "Yeah? Why's that? It's not really that farfetched, all things considered."
"Maybe not," Steve admits. "But--well, just look at us. My parents are dead. So are yours, and they even left you a vast fortune."
"Not quite," Tony says. "They left me a very large fortune. I turned it into a vast fortune."
"But it's not just us. Natasha doesn't have any family. I don't think Clint does either, at least nobody he cares to mention. And Bruce's parents... well."
"Thor's the only one of us who still has parents."
"And look at what a bang-up job they did with their other son."
Steve suppresses a shudder. "I'd rather not. My point is--"
"We should call ourselves the Rampaging Orphans rather than the Avengers?"
"My point is," Steve says, "we have a grand total of ten dead parents between us, and somehow all of us manage to fight evil every day without once being tempted to dress up like a bat."
Tony picks up the soldering iron again. "I'm not sure you're in any position to mock anybody else's costume choices," he says. "You never know--"
Then he stops, narrows his eyes, and looks at Steve carefully.
Tony can admit it's taken him a while to reconcile his childhood image of his father's Captain America the War Hero with the Steve Rogers the guy who comes down to hang out in his workshop and say things like, "Why haven't you invented a flying car yet?" and "You should build a moon base so people can go to the moon," and "Do you think you could make me a jetpack?" Tony is capable of acknowledging when his expectations on a given topic are not consistent with reality. He can do that.
Because the thing he's realized is this: Tony used to hate listening to his father's stories about Captain America. Maybe he loved it when he was little, but by the time he was ten he hated it, and now, many years later, he's beginning to understand why.
It's because Howard had always neglected to share the best thing about Steve Rogers. Dear old dad had never once bothered to mention that beneath his painfully square exterior, Steve Rogers is a sneaky little shit with a wicked sense of humor.
"I can't believe you," Tony says. "I thought we were friends. I thought we were past all of this."
The corners of Steve's mouth twitch.
"But you've been lying to me. To all of us. You let us think that you thought Batman was real for weeks. You asked if you could meet him. You've been stringing us along for your own amusement." Tony puts a hand to his heart. "Captain, I am hurt, but I am also impressed. I had no idea you could be so devious."
"Thank you, Mr. Stark," Steve says, and he's smiling for real now, wide and bright. "From you, that's a compliment. But it's your own fault."
"Oh, this ought to be good. Why is your shocking and frankly very troubling dishonesty my fault?"
"For all the hassle you give me about being an old man, you overlooked the fact that I am, in fact, old enough to have read the very first Batman comic when it came out." Steve gets a distant, wistful look in his eyes, but it's not as sad as it could be. "I gotta say, I never would have guessed the crime-fighting detective who dressed up like a bat would be something the world still remembers seventy-five years later."
Tony shrugs. "The world likes its caped crusaders. Hey, I bet Clint would go out to fight crime dressed up like a bat if we dared him."
He knows it's the right thing to say when Steve's expression changes. Wistful to scheming in half a second flat.
"Can you make a mask?" Steve asks.
Oh, yeah. The real Steve Rogers is so much more fun than the man in Dad's stories.
Tony grins. "Already have one."
Rule 2. All in-house interpersonal disagreements must be settled without resorting to any of the following:
a) excessive violence
b) physical injury requiring medical attention
c) stitches you do yourself still count as medical attention
d) and so do broken bones even if they are very little bones
e) violations of the Geneva Conventions
f) even if you don't get caught
g) retaliatory YouTube uploads and Wikipedia editing
h) even if you make Jarvis do it
i) destruction of property not belonging to any of the disagreeing parties
j) anything involving coins, cards, shell games, darts, dice, rope, boxes for sawing people in half, any object you pretend to stick in somebody's ear and pull out again, or any other opportunity to engage in trickery, sleight-of-hand, confidence tricks, or loaded wagers
They survey the scene in awestruck horror.
"So," Bruce says. He clears his throat. "Do we even know what they were fighting about?"
"Well, maybe they..." Tony begins. "You know what? I have no idea."
The room is a wreck: smashed television, overturned sofa, curtains torn from the windows, chairs broken into splinters, light fixtures torn from the walls. It looks like one of them tried to use a towel as a garrote. Probably Natasha. That's more her style. The wine bottles broken off at the neck and now embedded several inches into the wall, though, that's all Clint.
"I'm a little bit afraid to ask," Steve says.
It's an understatement. He's very afraid to ask. Natasha and Clint don't fight very often. They don't even disagree very often, not about anything more serious than what kind of take-out to order or what kind of weapons to bring on a mission. But on those rare occasions when they do fight, really fight, about something important... Well. On those occasions, Steve thinks it's a good thing Tony tends to shrug off even the most extreme damage within the tower as no big deal.
"But I guess we should," Steve adds.
"Not it," says Thor. He immediately touches his nose. Some Earth customs he's slow to pick up, but some of them he gets just fine.
"Not it," says Tony, and Bruce says it at the same moment, "Not it."
Steve sighs. "Cover me, at least?"
Natasha is sitting on the one surviving chair at end of the room, carefully folding a strip of cloth--ripped from the curtains, it looks like--over a cut on her forearm. Clint is sitting at the opposite end of the room, on the floor, back against the wall, wrapping what looks like duct tape around two of his fingers. They've got a matched set of black eyes and dried blood on their faces
"Sure," Tony says, hearty and unconvincing. He slaps Steve's shoulder. "We've got your back, Cap. Go get 'em."
Steve takes a deep breath and steps into the room.
Rule 3. There shall be no renovations or changes made to the internal or external structure of the building without advance notification of at least twenty-four hours.
They've had a long couple of days, and she hasn't had any coffee yet, so Natasha thinks she might be forgiven for a landing that is somewhat less graceful than it might have been.
"Ow," she says. She gets her feet under her, stands and tries to look like she means to be here.
"Hi," says Bruce. He sounds a bit nonplussed to see her, which is understandable, considering that she just fell through the ceiling and landed in the middle of his bathroom.
While he's taking a bath.
It's a good thing he's so good at handling surprises.
Natasha looks upward while Bruce awkwardly tries to rearrange the bubbles. The ceiling looks intact at glance, but she can see the slight shimmer now, the faint sheen where the ceiling plaster doesn't look quite right.
Natasha says, "There wasn't a hole there yesterday."
Bruce waves one hand; bubbles scatter. "Technically, there isn't a hole there now. It's a multiphasic matter destabilizer."
Natasha considers this. That could be a very useful tool, which is a nice change. About half the things Bruce and Tony come up with are useful; the other half are, in Natasha's opinion, about two caffeine-fueled all-nighters away from bringing about the downfall of civilization as they know it.
But she has to ask, "Why is it destabilizing my bedroom floor right now?"
"Ah, well." Bruce hesitates. He looks a little embarrassed. "It's a very unpredictable test version of a multiphasic matter destabilizer. We're having a little trouble with the aim. And the, uh, restabilizing."
"When you say 'we,' you mean--"
"All Tony's fault," Bruce says cheerfully. "He's the one who builds stuff. I just figure out which laws of physics to break."
Natasha laughs. "Are there any other holes we should know about?"
Before Bruce can answer, there's a yelp from another room, followed by a string of colorful curses.
"I think Tony just found one," Bruce says. He slides down a few inches in the bath and closes his eyes. "Maybe he'll be motivated to fix it now. You should go glare at him. It will probably help."
"We can only hope," says Natasha. She turns to leave, but pauses at the door. "Lavender?"
"It's very soothing," Bruce replies.
Rule 4. Those who make the dares are responsible for at least fifty percent of the bail money.
"Captain Rogers," Fury says. "Do I want to know why every newspaper, media outlet, and gossip blogger in the city is reporting that Captain America teamed up with Batman last night to terrorize the streets of Queens with their own brand of vigilante justice?"
"No, sir," Steve says. "You don't want to know that." He pauses. "Batman isn't a real person, sir. And anybody can buy a Captain America costume. They sell them on the internet."
There is a long silence at the other end of the line. Then Fury says, "I better not hear anything else about a fictional caped crusader roaming the streets of New York."
"Understood, sir," Steve says. "I'm sure you won't."
Steve doesn't like to lie. He'll have to convince Clint to dress up like somebody else next time.
Rule 5. There shall be no experiments or tests on unknown artifacts, devices, machines, tool, or other technological or magical items of mysterious origin without proper scientific documentation, preparation, and emergency fail-safe protocols in place.
Humans, Thor thinks, are very strange creatures. He can never determine if it's foolishness or courage that leads them to take such great risks when they are so fragile.
"In our defense," Tony says, "we had no idea it would do that."
"None," Jane says quickly. "No idea at all. And we did tell him not to touch it."
"We were very clear about that," Bruce says. "No touching."
"But you know how he is." Tony shrugs. "With the touching."
Thor looks at each of them in turn, then he looks at the glowing green sphere on the tabletop. "I am not familiar with this device," he says. "I have never seen its like, and it comes from no world I know."
"We were afraid of that," Bruce says.
"But we're pretty sure we can reverse it." Jane bites her lower lip, as she does when she's worried. "Can you find Clint and bring him back? I think he's really scared and confused right now."
Thor says, "I will." And he sets out immediately to do just that.
Clint is difficult to find when he wants to hide, but if what they say is true, then he is not thinking quite like himself at the moment. Thor checks the usual places, but he doesn't locate Clint until he looks in one of the gyms, the one with the high wall for climbing. There is a small figure huddled in the corner at the top of the wall.
Clint doesn't try to escape as Thor climbs up after him, but he draws his knees up and hugs them to his chest. "Are you the new strong man?" he asks. "Did Duquesne send you to find me?"
Thor has trouble gauging the age of humans, but he guesses Clint to be younger than ten in his present state. His clothes are too big, the sleeves dangling over his hands, and he's skinny, ill-fed. There's a wary look in his eyes that reminds Thor of a cornered animal. He keeps his distance and says gently, "Your friends are very worried about you."
Clint snorts. "Yeah, right. Barney said if I got in trouble again he was taking off."
Thor says, "Barney is your friend?"
"He's my brother," Clint says. He scrubs at his face like he's wiping away tears that haven't fallen yet. His voice is small when he speaks again. "We're supposed to look out for each other. But he's not here."
Something sharp and sudden catches in Thor's chest, and he closes his eyes until it passes. He knows nothing about Clint's childhood; Clint rarely speaks of his past except obliquely, or in jest. He has never mentioned a brother in Thor's presence.
But he wouldn't, Thor thinks. They don't speak of family, the two of them, when they speak. Thor doesn't even know if they could, or if Clint's anger and his own regret would sabotage any conversation before it could begin.
"I am certain he would be here if he could," Thor says. "He is probably looking for you now."
Suspicion wars with a hesitant hope in Clint's eyes. "Why should I believe you?"
"I mean you no harm," Thor says. "But I understand that you are wary."
Clint rubs his nose with his sleeve. "Maybe I'll go with you in a little bit."
"I am content to wait," Thor says.
They sit side by side at the top of the wall, ceiling just overhead and the empty gym below, and Thor pretends not to hear the sniffles Clint is trying to hide.
Rule 6. There shall be no jokes, wagers, contests, dares, limericks, stick drawings, LEGO scenes, songs, teddy bears in American flag costumes, interrogations, falsehoods, suppositions, challenges, skirmishes, arguments, lotteries, parodies, gingerbread persons, pledges, ditties, jingles, Photoshopped evidence, hymns, or robot programming allowed on the premises for the purpose of discussing, mocking, mentioning, or even thinking about the unknown status of Captain America's virginity.
"You know I can't get drunk," Steve says.
Natasha sets the bottle on the table and places two shot glasses beside it. "You can't, but I can, and I hate drinking alone."
"He's going to be fine."
Steve wouldn't have said it twenty-four hours ago, when they lost contact with Clint and had no idea how to find him, and he wouldn't have said it six hours, when they did know how to find him but didn't know what they would find, and he wouldn't have said it two hours ago, when they were waiting for the doctors to give them the news.
But he can say it now, because that's what the doctors said right before sending them all away for the night. Steve is going to keep on repeating it until it sinks in.
Natasha fills both of the glasses and knocks hers back; Steve does the same. It's good vodka, smooth and clean, and he wishes he could do more than taste it.
"What?" Natasha says.
Steve looks at her. "I didn't say anything."
"You don't need to."
Steve isn't sure what she's asking. She doesn't often get like this, a little lost and a lot prickly, and he doesn't want to scare her away. He thinks she doesn't really know how to ask somebody to be a friend when she needs one, and the one person who can figure it out even when she doesn't ask is lying in a hospital bed right now, bandaged and stitched up and drugged into unconsciousness.
"I used to be able to," he says. "Get drunk. I mean, I could, before."
"You could, but did you?"
Steve grins. "I was a teenager when Prohibition ended. What do you think?"
She raises her glass. "Fair enough."
"We used to go up to the roof in the summer, when it was too hot to sleep."
"Me and Bucky. He was--" Steve stops, empties his glass, doesn't go on until Natasha fills it again. "We both lost our parents when we were kids. His grandmother raised us for a while, but she was real sick, so we were mostly on our own. She never caught us when we took a bottle up there. I guess she knew all along, but she let us go."
Natasha doesn't say anything, but she's watching him, and he recognizes that look. She knows he's trying to say something, and right now she's willing to wait for it. Steve slides the shot glass back and forth on the table and thinks about the things that used to seem so frightening, when it was just him and Bucky dreaming about the world and the future, and he thinks about the things that don't seem very frightening at all anymore.
"Jarvis," Steve says. "You there?"
"How can I help you, Captain?"
"What's the spread on the bets for my first kiss? I know you're in charge of keeping track of all the wagers."
"Indeed I am, Captain. The range of the guesses extends from age seventeen to age ninety-seven."
"Ninety-seven?" Steven repeats. "Who thinks--never mind. Who guessed seventeen?"
"That would be Dr. Foster, Captain."
"Huh." Steve shrugs. "Well, she's closest, so she gets all the winnings, whatever they are."
"Duly noted, Captain," Jarvis says.
Steve looks across the table at Natasha, who is watching him with a small, bemused smile on her lips. "I was sixteen," he says.
He doesn't remember what they were talking about that night, why they were outside, but he remembers taste of bad gin on their tongues, the warm summer night, the thick smell of the city all around them, and the way Bucky had laughed quietly when their noses bumped. He's never had trouble remembering the important things.
"We never talked about it. Never said one single word," he says.
Natasha has a full shot in hand but she isn't drinking it, and she isn't smiling now.
"And a few years later we went to war and he died right in front of me," Steve says. It still hurts like a punch to the stomach to say it out loud, but Steve has been getting gut-punched his entire life. He's used to it by now. "I couldn't reach him in time, and he fell. I know it was a long time ago for everybody else, but for me... Just about every time we go out there, see something new and crazy, I still think, 'I can't wait to tell Bucky about this.'"
Steve drains his glass. A moment later, Natasha does the same, and Steve pours again.
"We'll go back in the morning," he says. "I'll bat my eyelashes at the nurses so you can sneak into Clint's room. How's that for a plan?"
"It's a good plan," Natasha says.
Rule 7. No time machines.
The workshop is warm and well-lit, but Jane shivers as she makes her way over to where the machine sits in the center of the room. Tony and Bruce are standing to one side, leaning against a workbench, Bruce with a mug of tea in one hand, Tony with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes narrowed.
Jane joins them. She lifts herself onto the bench beside Bruce and smiles gratefully when he passes the tea to her.
"Any luck?" she says.
"Some," Tony says. He doesn't elaborate, which is the last disturbing thing in a long line of disturbing things to happen that day.
A small phalanx of Tony's robots is slowly picking the machine apart. It might go faster, Jane thinks, if they got in there with their hands, but she's not going to be the one who suggests it.
"What did Thor say?" Bruce asks.
Jane sips the lukewarm tea and shrugs. Thor had said a lot about how brief human lives were, and how limited their comprehension of time, and how troublesome their fear of it, and most of the time Jane is more or less at peace with the fact that Thor was a very old being from a very distant planet. But there are times when how alien he is is nearly overwhelming, and the way he had looked at them earlier, as they were looking at the machine and the man who had built it, that was one of those times.
"He said we should destroy it," she says.
What he had actually said was, There is much longing in your pain, all of you, but it will not ease if you attempt to change the past. Then he had kissed her, and brushed her hair back from her face, and said, Do what you believe to be right, my love.
"We are destroying it," Tony says. The anger in his voice is cold and brittle. "He didn't succeed anyway. Did you hear him? Of course you heard him. He was babbling like a fucking lunatic. And all he kept saying was how he couldn't get it right, he couldn't get to the right day, the right time, it kept pulling him back, and he had to keep trying..."
"A lot of people died because he kept trying," Bruce says.
"I know," Tony snaps. "That's why he's in a padded cell now and this thing is... here. Turning into scrap before any of us gets the urge to do something really fucking stupid."
One of the robots aims a red beam at a metal panel and begins to cut. The workshop already smells of heated metal and old dust. Jane wonders if that comes from inside the machine, if that's what the past smells like.
"He's spent his entire life working on it," Jane says. She was listening to the man's babbles too; she was able to pick up that much, and a lot more. Enough to know he was more right than wrong in his approach.
"And now he'll spend the rest of his life finger-painting on white walls," Tony says. "Good for him."
But Jane knows what he's thinking. It's what they're all thinking: Maybe the man who built the machine hadn't worked enough. Maybe he didn't do it right. Maybe--
She shivers again, and wills the robots to work faster.
Rule 8. No member of the household is permitted, under any circumstances, to allow friends, colleagues, underlings, minions, bosses, team members, or family to believe he or she is dead when he or she is not actually dead.
"I hope you understand," Phil says. Then he has to stop and take a breath, because it kind of hurts to talk. It's a moment before he can go on. "I didn't do it on purpose."
"Doesn't matter," Tony says. "It's going into the rules. You get one freebie, but since you've already used that up, you're out of luck. No more pretend dying." He sits down on the sofa beside Phil, puts his feet up on the coffee table and hands a tablet to Phil. "You should study the rest of the rules too. They're very important."
"What's the punishment for breaking one?" Phil asks, curious.
"We take it on a case by case basis," Tony says. "Mostly we go with a lot of stern looks and subtle shaming. Sometimes we program one of the robots to follow the rule-breaker around telling them how bad they should feel. That was Darcy's idea. It's a good system. You should be proud."
Phil doesn't remember much of the past year. The shrinks assure him it won't last, and sooner or later he'll remember who had him, and why, and what they wanted so badly they were willing to steal his not-quite-a-corpse from a SHIELD ship to get it, so he has that to look forward to. He's one hundred percent certain those memories will involve evil mad scientists in some capacity. Phil hates evil mad scientists.
But all he remembers right now is bleeding out beside the cell on the helicarrier and thinking, "Fuck me, this is never going to work," then waking up when a door opened in a dark room and thinking, "Fuck me, that's Captain America." He only fainted when Captain Rogers--"Call me Steve, please"--carried him out of that facility because he was injured and drugged. No other reason. That's the truth because that's what it says in his report.
It's been a confusing few weeks. Coming back to life is exhausting. Phil decides to focus on the small stuff, like the fact that the Avengers are still a team, and they save the world sometimes, and they seem to like it quite a lot, and they are also living together in what appears to be a reasonable approximation of harmony, and now he's sitting on a very comfortable sofa in glass-walled penthouse reading a list of rules ensuring the peaceful cohabitation of superheroes.
He's also about sixty percent sure what he's witnessing right now is Tony Stark's version of fussing, which is so unsettling he decides not to think about it until he feels better.
But Tony is right. Phil is proud, a little bit, at least until he gets to Rule 4.
"Bail money?" he says. "Why is there a rule about who provides bail money?"
"Coulson," Tony says. He checks himself, begins again. "Phil, when you're feeling better, and when you can talk to him for more than a minute without getting your fanboy tongue all tied up in knots, you're going to ask Steve about the time he and Clint convinced all of us to dress up as the Justice League and go roam the streets on Halloween to keep the city safe from crime."
"The Justice League," Phil repeats.
"What did you think would happen?" Tony asks, his eyes wide with mock innocence. "You can't introduce a former USO stage star to a former circus performer and not expect there to be costumes. Terrible, wonderful costumes, and so much spandex. You've never seen spandex until you've seen Thor dress up like Superman. Seriously, ask Steve about it. He'll be happy to tell you."
"Then," Pepper says from behind them, and Phil hadn't even heard her come in, "you can ask him about how he called me at three in the morning to come down to the 52nd Precinct and explain to the nice officers what was going on." She walks around the sofa and leans down to kiss Phil on the cheek. "It's good to see you up. We have a lot of gossip to catch up on."
Phil briefly considers the possibility that he's still being held hostage and experimented upon by an evil mad scientist. But he's fairly certain even his most drug-addled hallucination couldn't have come up with the Avengers getting arrested in the Bronx for dressing up like comic book characters on Halloween, and his mind definitely never would have called that one being Steve Rogers's idea.
Small stuff. He can deal with the small stuff.
"There's no way you talked Natasha into being Wonder Woman," he says.
"Please." Tony scoffs. "Like Clint would ever let anybody else be Wonder Woman."
"He loves those boots a lot," Pepper agrees. "They do look very dashing on him."
"Oh," says Phil. "That's reassuring. For a second I was starting to think I actually had died and woken up in a parallel universe."
Rule 9. Thursday night is reserved for dinner and a movie, barring interruption by any of the following:
a) alien invasion
b) Doombot attack
c) onset of a potential global pandemic
d) and/or zombie apocalypse
e) black hole threatening to swallow the Earth
h) fucking terrorists
j) HYDRA terrorists riding dinosaurs
k) Clint gets kidnapped again
l) Sharktopus unleashed in the East River
m) just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it couldn't
n) karaoke night
Bruce glances up as Clint comes into the kitchen. "Sure," he says. "Chop."
He tosses an onion to Clint, then tosses the knife too; Clint catches both easily. There isn't an overabundance of culinary skill in their group, and if anybody had asked Bruce a year ago, he wouldn't have pegged Clint as the one with the cooking skills. (The knife-throwing and -catching skills, absolutely, that one he could have called from day one.) Although, in retrospect, perhaps Clint's vehement opinions about Iron Chef reruns and extensive knowledge about obscure seafood preparation methods should have been a clue.
"They're down to The Godfather versus The Little Mermaid," Clint says, making quick work of the onion. Thursday night means movie night, which means a prolonged, complicated, often vicious and sometimes violent debate about which movie to watch beforehand. "Tony just declared a two-out-of-three rock-paper-scissors grudge match, and Natasha took him up on it."
"Well," Bruce says. "Everybody has their traditions. As long as there's no bloodshed."
"Not yet," Clint says, laughing. He scrapes the onion aside and sets to work on one of the peppers. "But it's early yet."
"I think we have to cancel, guys," Steve says from the doorway. "Fury's on the line."
Just behind him, Coulson says, "There's a problem. Dinner will have to wait."
Bruce goes still for a moment. He hears Clint set the knife down, shove the cutting board across the counter, and he feels Clint look at him. Bruce turns off the range and puts the cap back on the olive oil.
"I hate it when they attack on Thursdays," Clint says.
He touches Bruce's shoulder as he walks past, and Bruce doesn't let himself hesitate before following. He knows, logically, it doesn't matter if it's Thursday or Friday or any other day of the week. He knows a call means they're going to have to head out and get to work, because somebody or something decided they want to rain destruction on the planet again.
It means he's going to have to get out there.
And it means that when Bruce joins the others in the room, and Fury's face is up on one screen and he's asking for their help--he doesn't even pretend to command them anymore--and everybody is listening, Bruce is trying to decide if what he's feeling is disappointment or excitement. They've been busy lately. It's getting harder to tell the difference.
"There was an attack on an embassy in Washington half an hour ago," Fury is saying. "Two casualties. It looks like a straightforward assassination."
"So what do you need us for?" Tony asks. He's holding The Little Mermaid in one hand, tapping the plastic case with his fingertips. "That's not our usual gig."
Fury says, "Because while it looks like a straightforward assassination, the assassin responsible is anything but ordinary. This man--"
A photograph appears on the screen.
"I know him," Natasha says. Bruce has never heard her sound so surprised, and he's not the only one who notices. "He's the Winter Soldier."
"That's what we suspected, Agent Romanoff," Fury says. "But our intelligence is limited. We need to know what you know--"
"I know him too."
If Natasha's surprise is unusual, Steve's voice is almost unrecognizable, strangled and small and oddly uncertain. For a moment he looks frozen to the spot, then he steps forward for a closer look at the man captured in the grainy security photo.
"Captain?" Coulson says. "What do you mean?"
"I know him," Steve says, so quietly it's barely more than a whisper. He clears his throat and steps back from the screen. "We're on our way, sir."
Rule 10. Yet to be determined.
She finds him exactly where she expects to find him: sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair outside the room. The door is open and Natasha can see the foot of the hospital bed, the beeping machines, the smooth fold of the blanket over the sleeping patient.
She sits beside Steve and folds her hands on her lap.
"What?" he says.
"I didn't say anything," she replies.
Steve sighs and rubs his hand over his face. He's changed out of his uniform but he hasn't showered yet; he's dirty and exhausted, his face streaked with blood and sweat, his hair standing up in unruly spikes. Somebody has stuck a bandage over a wound on his right arm.
"You can ask," Natasha says. "Whatever you want." It's not an offer she makes lightly, but she knows Steve understands that.
"I don't even know where to begin," Steve says. "He fell. He died." A pause, then he says, very quietly, "I thought he died. I didn't know. I would have gone back, I would have..."
"I know," Natasha says.
Steve would have moved mountains if he had even suspected there was half a chance Bucky Barnes might have survived that fall. But he hadn't. Nobody had, and now there's a man with more holes than memories in his mind sleeping in a hospital room, and Steve is so tense with worry it makes Natasha's neck ache just to look at him.
"Will it be very awkward if I tell you he was my first kiss too?" she says.
Steve whips his head around to stare at her for a second. "You--what?"
Natasha shrugs. "I can't fault your taste in men, Cap," she says, but what she means is, Even in that place, they couldn't strip away all of what made him good. She doesn't know if Steve can hear that yet.
Steve exhales, and then he's laughing, softly at first, but it grows into something desperate and trembling. He bends forward and covers his face with his hands, and Natasha rests her palm between his shoulder blades. He's warm through the thin fabric of his shirt.
When he stops shaking and falls quiet, Natasha says, "He remembers you. He said your name. He recognized you."
Steve nods, as though he doesn't trust himself to speak.
Natasha takes her hand from his back. "Go in there and sit with him," she says. "You should be there when he wakes up."
He hesitates for a second, but then he nods again and stands. "Thank you, Natasha," he says.
She waits until he's in the room before she she stands as well and walks slowly down the hall. She knows Clint is waiting around the corner before she sees him. He's leaning against the wall, hands in his pockets. She presses her face into his shoulder, and he wraps both arms around her, kisses the top of her head and says, "You okay?"
Natasha breathes for a moment before answering. "I will be," she says. "Let's go home."