Despite Tony's best efforts, their communication devices still found ways to get broken, even after stress-tests that involved being run over with tanks. They finally found their wayward captain in the ruins of what had once been a bank, after Clint had spotted his distinctive shield hanging on a twisted girder.
“That's just one step up from a smoke signal, Cap,” Clint commented, bounding in on light feet. Thor helped Bruce into the wreck, followed by Tony, and Natasha brought up the rear.
“You're here,” Steve said tersely, kneeling on the ground. His back was to them, and he was pushing down on something in short, quick, rhythmic bursts – CPR. “Get the paramedics, Tony – you're fastest.”
Tony cocked his head, hesitated briefly for what Bruce now knew was a JARVIS scan, and then they could all hear the wince in his voice: “Not a body bag?”
“Go.” Tony shook his head, pivoted, and sped off.
“Bruce,” Steve paused to give two breaths to the prone form, “come help me.”
Bruce has seen a fair amount of injuries and sicknesses; by trade, he was a scientist, though he has enough knowledge of biology and physiology to make for an impromptu medic. The years of caring for impoverished people has lowered his sensitivities to the frailties of human flesh, but he was no medical doctor.
The other guy may be more impervious to death and destruction, but his breath still stopped short at the sight of twisted limbs and the deformed chest, at the sickening crunch-grind of fragmented bone every time Steve pushed down. He did not need to palpate the abdomen to know that the organs were bleeding out.
The body (patient, Bruce reminded himself) was thin and dressed in rags. Greasy hair and beard, matted with concrete dust and blood, framed a haggard, sunken face, peppered with cysts and open sores. Bruce caught flashes of rotting and cracked teeth when Steve wasn't administering breaths.
The drugged-out vagabond probably wouldn't even have anyone to grieve his passing.
“He's already dead, Cap,” Clint said bracingly. Bruce glanced up from putting pressure onto the man's gashed thigh.
“He's been clinically dead for at least 9 minutes and 39 seconds,” Steve replied without missing a beat, and damn, the man had been counting.
“We've all lost soldiers,” Clint pointed out, and the implication hung in the air: this man is anything but.
Clint wasn't saying so to be cruel, Bruce knew. It was a warning to not get caught, not get emotionally involved; it has been pointed out to them repeatedly that they couldn't save everyone. Normal citizens didn't heal as well as Captain America, after all.
“Would you say that if it was Natasha on the ground? Or Bruce? Or me?” Two more breaths; Steve didn't even bother looking up. His voice was even if terse, without a hint of hysteria or desperation. “He's already dead. It won't hurt to try.”
Clint paused, looked away. “Don't get your hopes up. He's not...you.”
“I'm just a kid from Brooklyn,” and Bruce loved Steve a little for that reply. “He's worth no less than me.”
Thor has little respect for the Midgardian profession known as reporters.
They asked questions of every kind imaginable. Sometimes they were amusing, sometimes pitiful; sometimes insulting, and other times wounding. They were vulture-like in their dogged tenacity, akin to a hound chewing on a bone – the bones of their enemies.
One would think that they would not offend the mighty warriors and shield-brethren that had defended Midgard so many times, but these carrion-feeders had not the senses the gods placed in a cantaloupe.
“Mr. Thor, sir,” one hyena waved her speaking implement in his face, “can you tell us your thoughts on today's accident during the battle?”
Thor swallowed hard. Rare was the occasion that inspired more than indignation and righteous temper; the son of Odin was not accustomed to shame. And yet he had been the one fooled by illusion and trickery, leaving the position assigned to him by the Captain of America. Many mortals paid for his foolishness.
“An orphanage and hospital were lost in the explosion, Mr. Thor.” His silence had been mistaken as invitation, and another hyena's microphone joined the first. “All those that were inside have died. Who will be held accountable for this?”
The dead's ascension to the Valhalla would offer little to their families' grief and outrage. They wanted blood, a villain to lambaste, and Thor could not deny them that reprieve. “I shall – ”
“I made the call,” Steven Rogers' voice cut through his, and the public turned as one to face the captain's weary, blank face. “That'll be on me.”
Thor turned to stare at his comrade, blood boiling now for a different reason. “He lies! I – ” But all of Thor's other protests were overwhelmed as the hyenas swarmed the Captain of America.
“You will explain why you denied me my chance to speak,” Thor demanded of Steven when he returned, many hours later.
Steven held his gaze for a moment, then looked away. “They'd have tried to hold you responsible.”
“And rightly so. It was my error, was it not? Honour demands that I be held responsible,” Thor rumbled, eyes narrowing. “Responsibility and duty are essential to every warrior, every king. You shall not deny me that.”
“God, no.” Steven closed his eyes briefly, expression weary and drawn. “That wasn't what I meant. But...how do you want them to hold you accountable? They can't take you to trial. You're not even from here. It's not like any punishment they could mete out would even hurt you. Whatever they do would be an empty spectacle; there would be no satisfaction for anyone.”
He straightened, almost as tall as Thor himself. “The public needs to hold someone accountable for our mistakes. Then let them have someone who can be held accountable. A god aiding us cannot, and should not, be held responsible, when he's fighting a battle not his own.”
“But that is thoroughly unjust,” Thor protested hotly, his previous righteous anger exchanged for another.
Steven smiled at him, quiet and sad. “Wars aren't always just and fair, Thor. They just have to be right.”
Natasha found Steve by accident.
He was leaning against the ladder at the shallow end of Tony's Olympic-sized pool, dressed in swim trunks she didn't remember him buying. He stared at the lapping water blankly, and did not greet her as she passed.
Steve rarely got like this, a little scared and a lot lost, like he's trying to say something but didn't know how to ask. Those who'd know without asking had fallen to war or illness or plain old age during his 70 years of slumber, and Natasha couldn't replace them if she tried. She didn't try. But, she could wait for the answer.
He fidgeted under her gaze, trying to pretend she wasn't there. She watched him, steadily and unabashedly, at the terse set of his shoulders and the white-knuckled grip he has on the ladder's railing.
Then he shifted, took a deep breath, and plunged into the water.
Steve's face blanched white as the water reached his chest, stark terror in his eyes. One hand slipped, the other ripped the railing free of its bolts entirely; he tumbled into the pool with a loud splash that muffled his cry into a gurgle.
Natasha shot through the water, grabbed the flailing man and threw him bodily onto the ledge, herself following a split second later. She pinned him down with a knee and her gaze, him spluttering underneath her; she held him for a long, drawn-out moment until the panic ebbed from his eyes and Steve stared shakily back.
“Okay?” He nodded; she let him up.
“Idiot,” she said, but there was no heat. “That's not how you desensitize to PTSD.”
He tried to smile; it wavered, watery on his face. “I knew how to swim, once.”
“Before you froze over for 70 years. You even only take showers now.”
He didn't ask how she knew that. “I just thought...”
“...that you had to get over it, because Bruce had to fish Tony out of the ocean today, even though you were closest?”
He hung his head, blond hair plastered to his stricken face and looking thoroughly ashamed. And wasn't this ridiculous now, the paragon of American virtue looking guilty and lost because he was too traumatized to swim?
“Idiot,” she said again, but it was kind.
Natasha hadn't a use for any sort of leader for most of her life. Assignments didn't come from leaders, after all; her tasks were best done alone, the only warmth from rapidly cooling bodies - Talia Tasha Nat darling, love in fists and knives and bloodstained ice.
And then she'd loved clean of blood – a lithe body arching under her, as taut as the bow he carried. Warm black leather and cool body armour, bodies – no, people - surrounding her, that weren't trying to kill her and she wasn't killing.
Such things were foreign to her, as foreign as the laughter she found slipping from her lips, as foreign as the Hulk and her, fighting back to back, as foreign as the fierce protectiveness that welled when a man almost drowned himself to be useful to the team.
(yes, she has a team)
She would never change for them, but maybe, possibly, because of them.
Natasha sat down beside Steve, two dripping, scantily-clad superheroes shivering in unheroic spandex, and she wasn't sure who smiled first.
“Love is for children,” she'd said, but respect knew no such bounds.
Steve had found him, with very little effort, in the airducts alongside Pepper's dismantled office. He was equal parts impressed and chagrined; even Nat hadn't found him, much less the squad of SHIELD agents and team of psychiatrists storming Stark Tower. In contrast, Steve had merely walked his recently-frequented paths a few times and arrived at the proper location in less time than it would've taken for him to drink a coffee.
There'd been no point in hiding when he'd been thoroughly ferreted out, so Clint had climbed out when Steve gently tapped the section of duct he'd been sitting on.
“How'd you do it?” JARVIS was offline for a conveniently-timed upgrade, per widely-smiling Tony; besides, Clint hadn't even been close to a vent grate. Steve couldn't have seen him.
Steve offered him a slightly abashed smile. “Scent.”
“And the exact location?”
The blond reached up on tiptoe to brush the duct's underside, wiggling his fingers briefly. “Heat.”
Clint sighed, cursing himself for choosing the unfinished portion of the Tower renovations. Cursed the Serum too, for good measure. “Gonna turn me in now, Cap?” He held up both hands as if awaiting handcuffs, smile somewhere between wry and bitter.
Surprisingly enough, his only reply was a very mild, “Should I?” At Clint's utterly blank look, Steve clarified, “is it necessary?”
“Fury seems to think so. And Coulson.” And every other member of SHIELD.
Clint frowned up at him, wariness creeping into his voice. “Does it matter? What is this, Twenty Questions?”
“Yes, it matters. Do you think it's necessary?”
“Fuck you,” Clint snarled back, because he couldn't admit he'd been hiding. He whirled around to stalk off – not that it'd help much, if the Cap had a nose like a bloodhound. Maybe if he shot him...
Clint froze mid-step, turned to stare.
“I don't think it's necessary,” Steve repeated steadily, as if Clint hadn't heard him the first time. “I'm sure these men and women are all experts in their...field,” Clint remembered that Steve has no historic context for things like therapy, “but mind control is probably...out of their depths.”
“Sleeping for 70 years is too, I bet,” he retorted, and something familiar and pained flickered across Steve's face.
Clint balled his fists, trying not to recall too-invasive questions about Loki and scribbles on prescription pads. He drew a long, slow breath, blew it out. “Not afraid I'd turn on you?”
“I'll take you down myself if you do,” he promised, and that startled a (sharp, jagged) laugh out of Clint.
Neither moved for a long, measuring moment. Then, Steve tilted his head. “They're coming,” he said, and then Clint heard it too: orderly footfalls, at least six of them, single file line.
He leaped back into the duct like a cat, all lithe power and coiled muscles. Steve strolled away without so much as a backward glance.
Clint listened to the measured footfalls reverberating hollowly in the duct, suddenly reminded that this man had disobeyed all orders and parachuted down solo behind enemy lines, just for the sake of one man. This man had faked five thoroughly illegal recruitment forms, just to try to make a difference.
“I'll bring coffee next time,” Steve suddenly said, and Clint didn't think it was to JARVIS.
Steve sketched a lot. It was the only other hobby he had, besides quickly and systematically destroying every piece of Stark-reinforced gym equipment in existence. He went through sketchbooks almost as fast as he did gym equipment (because Tony noticed details, and every sketchbook has a different pattern of coffee stains and dogeared pages). Tony put in an automatic recurring order for sketchbooks into JARVIS' shopping list, and life went on.
People usually sketched the things around them, and Steve's mostly around the Avengers (and Stark Tower, but Steve didn't appreciate modern architecture), so Tony expected to show up in a sketch or two, really. Maybe alongside the others in questionable positions, depending on Steve's tastes (but no, he's too blushing virgin for that, wasn't he?).
So he's not surprised when Steve glanced over his sketchbook to look at his face, then repeated that ad nauseum for twenty minutes straight; he was surprised at the hisses of frustration and the furious way Steve applied the eraser. And because Steve was more interesting than the stockholder's report Pepper was making him read, Tony couldn't help but ask, “What're you drawing?”
Steve shifted, suddenly guilty; Tony grinned as he got up to peer over Steve's shoulder. “C'mon, Cap, you sweet on me now? Drawing – oh.”
Those were Stark features, all right, dark hair and sharp grin and daredevil eyes. But the shape was wrong, the angle of the chin, and just a mustache, no beard...
“Dad,” Tony muttered, all levity gone, and he hated himself for calling Howard that.
Steve looked down into his hands. “Sorry. I couldn't...remember, the details, and, well...”
“I know.” Tony reminded himself to not take this last connection away from a man who'd lost everything.
“You look a lot like him.” Steve exhaled softly. “He...was a good man. Good friend.”
“Then you and I knew very different Howard Starks.”
“I didn't say he was without flaws.”
“Willful neglect of his own kid goes a bit further than a character flaw, Cap. But I guess you don't want to think about that.” It was cruel, he knew; Steve winced as if he'd been slapped. “Always the idealist.”
Steve stared at him, eyes bleak. “Do you even know what an idealist is?”
Tony blinked, taken aback. “Someone who believes things as better than they are?”
“Idealism is the belief that reality is immaterial, that only the vision is important. It puts the future before the present, the kingdom before its people, the ideas before the individuals.” Steve's voice was brittle, flat. “I've crawled battlefields from Normandy to USSR, lost friends and brothers in the trenches, shot down soldiers younger than the children on the streets. I've been carried on the backs of men and women ten times better than I, and the only reason I'm here and they're not is because I'm – ”
Lucky, and Tony understood that; the resentment loosened a little, because he wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for Yinsen, either.
“I am not an idealist, because they are not...immaterial.” Steve drew a breath, let it out, every one of his missing 70 years written on his face. “I...need to remember them, faults and all. Howard...changed my life. Saved my life, even.”
“I'm not my father.” It slipped out, bitter. “He was a shit father, for what it's worth.”
“So I've heard. You're Howard's son,” and Steve's looking at him now, not a dead man's ghost, “but you're not Howard. For one thing, he loved a thrill, but he'd never have been able to stand in the front lines like you.”
And Tony sucked in a breath, with nothing to say to a man who remembered the individuals far more than any legacy they wrote.
Thor had sat him down, actually pushed him into a chair, before Bruce handed him the file. And Steve was glad for that, because when Bucky's face stared back up at him he all but forgot to breathe.
“Where...? How...?” He didn't recognize his own voice, trembling cracks in baritone.
Tony launched into an overlong explanation involving his sketches, and leaving a mess, and Natasha freaking the fuck out, then long research sessions with JARVIS and hacking into every server SHIELD has and several blaring rows with Fury and Coulson and other suits whose names Steve promptly forgot.
“You didn't tell me,” was all he managed after Tony's speech drew to a close. There was no blood in his face.
“Wanted to have something in hand first,” Tony replied, apologetic.
Steve flipped through the file again, memorizing locations, dates, times, then rose to his feet. “I'm going to go get him.”
There was a long silence and he thought they would protest, before Bruce cleared his throat and said, very quietly, “we're coming with you.”
He looked up sharply. “No – this isn't – ” This is personal, he wanted to say, not Avengers business, I can't –
“You're an Avenger, aren't you?” Clint cut in, calm and cool, and he realized that the duffels in the corner were packed. “Then yes, it is.”
“I don't have a plan – ”
“Never needed one.” Natasha's staring at him, sharp and polished like her boot knives, her chin raised. This was personal for her too.
“Jet's already primed,” Tony said, gentler than Steve's ever heard him. “Lead the way, Captain.”