After Fury and Barton left, Agent Hill led them to a small conference room. "You can wait here," she said, gesturing for them to sit down. "I'll be in and out; there are things I need to take care of."
Stark paced around the table, but the rest of them sank into the chairs. Steve suspected they felt as stunned by everything that had happened as he did. It had been one hell of a day.
"JARVIS, do you have access yet?" Stark asked the air. "We need to know where Fury's taken Barton. And I don't know about the rest of you, but I'd like to confirm Coulson's status among the living for myself."
"I'm afraid I can't get through yet, sir," the computer answered. Jeez, that was eerie, the way it just followed Stark everywhere. "Wherever Director Fury has taken Agent Barton, it's wired separately from the rest of the carrier. I'm attempting to bypass, but it will take some time."
"I don't like this," Stark muttered. "Pepper will want to visit Coulson, and why shouldn't she? Who knows what kind of doctors they have in this place; they're probably quacks. We need to move Coulson into the private wing my father built at Columbia Medical Center."
That sounded like the kind of thing Howard would have done.
"You sure that's a good idea?" Banner asked, peering at Stark over his glasses. "He doesn't sound like he's in any condition to be moved."
"So we'll be very gentle," Stark said, waving his hands. "Seriously, he doesn't belong here, being cared for in some secret bunker in the middle of the ocean, don't you guys get that?"
"I agree with Stark," Steve said. Agent Romanoff looked at him and raised an eyebrow; he was pretty sure that meant she was on board. "I think we should wait until it's safe, but as soon as Agent Coulson is stable, he should be moved somewhere outside of SHIELD's influence." Maybe if that happened, Steve could let go of his anger at this whole situation.
"See? Steve agrees with me!" Stark said with his typical enthusiasm. "And, hey, would it kill you to call me Tony?"
"Fine. Tony it is," Steve said, the corner of his mouth lifting despite his efforts to remain stern. They were his team, and as Tony had pointed out, they weren't soldiers. They should be on a first-name basis. "How can we arrange to move Coulson? Agent Romanoff, what do you think?" He may have been ready to call Tony by his first name, but he wouldn't dare call her "Natasha" unless she asked him to.
"Clint's got Coulson's medical power of attorney," she said. "If he wants Coulson moved, he has that right."
"What if Fury says no?" Steve said, because someone had to ask.
"Then we will take the Son of Coul without his permission," Thor said. Steve suppressed a sigh, because, yes, they would if they had to, but he'd really prefer to avoid it.
"You don't need Fury's permission," Agent Hill said from the doorway. Steve had forgotten about her, which was stupid and sloppy; he had to do better. "Not if I authorize it ahead of time, which I'll do right now." She tapped her ear and moved away again, speaking in a low voice.
"Well, that was creepy," Tony said, sitting back in his chair. "But handy, if she's telling the truth."
"We still have to convince Barton," Bruce pointed out. "And Coulson, if he wakes up."
"Why always with the doom and gloom, Bruce?" Tony asked plaintively. "After everything that's happened, do you really think Barton's going to want Coulson kept here?"
"He may not have a choice if he wants to see him," Agent Romanoff said, frowning. "He was compromised, and technically he went AWOL. According to regs, he should be confined to quarters."
"I'll bet Agent Hill can take care of that little wrinkle for us as well," Tony said, but Steve wasn't so sure.
"If she can't, we'll have to make do," Steve said. "Yes, in whatever way we have to, Thor, but let's take it one step at a time," he added, holding up a hand to cut him off. "We need to consider every contingency. Does anyone have any paper?"
"The table is equipped with touchscreens, Captain Rogers," the computer said. Steve guessed he'd better start calling it JARVIS; it seemed like it was determined to be as much a part of the team as a disembodied voice could be. "I can save a record of anything you create."
"We being monitored, JARVIS?" Tony asked. Steve should have thought of that. Sometimes all the new technology struck him as wonderful, but sometimes it just gave him a headache.
"I have a lock on all transmissions, sir," JARVIS answered.
"Great, JARVIS, thanks; is Pepper awake?" Tony asked. "Don't bother her if she's not."
"Ms. Potts is awake; she's been asking after you," JARVIS answered. "Shall I put her through to your phone?"
"Yeah, thanks," Stark said, taking his phone out of his pocket.
He turned his chair to the side, but everything he said was still audible. Steve tried to focus on making the table show him their exact position within the carrier, but he couldn't help listening as Tony gave his girl the news about Coulson and instructed her to make arrangements at the hospital. At the end of the conversation he told her he loved her. Steve blushed, embarrassed to have heard, but no one else seemed to pay it any mind.
Steve looked at his watch. It must be dark out by now. Thor borrowed Stark's phone to call his girlfriend, his loud, effusive words somehow easier for Steve to deal with than Tony's casual "Love you, Pep" had been.
Everyone else was busy doing whatever everyone did these days on computers, checking emails or maybe playing games like that guy on the bridge. If Steve had some paper, he'd probably start sketching, but instead all he had was this fancy keyboard that glowed up from the conference table. He supposed it was easier than the paper maps and models of Hydra factories they'd had in London, but he really wished he knew how to touch type. Everyone these days seemed like they were born knowing. He hunted and pecked a bit, fumbling for a plan, and Agent Romanoff gave him a sympathetic look. He forced himself to smile at her blandly.
Steve knew what people thought of him. People had always made assumptions about him; that was nothing new. The assumptions may have changed, but that was all. To the people of this century he was a fossil, a tool kept around because he was a useful symbol of a simpler time. A poster-boy with a shield, an innocent who never swore, had never had sex and would be shocked to hear of two men being in love.
It was a load of crap. There was nothing simple or innocent about Steve or his life. He chose to fight for what he believed in for one reason: because he knew what it was to lose. Most of these people had no clue how easy their lives were.
When Bruce had said his secret was that he was angry all the time, Steve had felt a thread of connection to the man that only grew stronger when he transformed and started smashing. The battle with the Chitauri had been a relief, a release far better than destroying endless heavy bags in a deserted gym. Fighting was a chance to forget, to live in the moment of another battle, even if this battle was with aliens and giant flying eel things. Now, instead of fighting, he was sitting in an office sixty miles offshore, trying to make lists on a glowing keyboard with clumsy fingers.
Maybe he was a fossil, but at least he knew better than to lie about the brave act of a subordinate in order to manipulate men into doing something they damned well would have done anyway.
When he'd found out just how much Fury had lied to them, he'd wished he had another flying eel to take down. The worst thing was, Steve had bought it. Steve figured Fury had no idea how close he came to getting laid out by Captain America like one of his punching bags.
Sweet Jesus, he missed Bucky. He missed Bucky every minute of every day, but when Agent Romanoff told him about Clint and Coulson, it had hit him all over again. The immense grief seemed like it should end him. He'd thought it would end when he'd put Schmidt's plane down, but here he was two months and seventy years later, still alive. He had to keep going, however he could.
He hadn't intended to, what was the word they used these days, "out" himself to a guy he barely knew, but he couldn't find it in himself to regret telling Clint about Bucky. It was easier than it had been with Peggy, that's for sure; he hadn't even had to explain. Clint had accepted it; he'd acknowledged Steve's loss like it was perfectly normal. Like men getting married to other men was normal now.
It wasn't fair, and it wasn't right, but Steve couldn't help feeling terribly jealous of Clint Barton.
He rubbed his forehead and went back to his plans, making a list. He needed to talk to Thor. He needed to talk to all of them, maybe even Coulson when he woke up (because he had to wake up), but it could wait a little longer.
JARVIS' voice startled him out of his thoughts. "I'm pleased to say I have gained access to the section where Agent Coulson is located. It appears he has regained consciousness."
"Thank God," Steve said again, meaning it even more than he had the first time.
"That is wondrous news!" Thor boomed.
"Show us," Tony ordered, sitting up from where he'd slumped in his chair.
"Agents Barton and Coulson deserve some measure of privacy," JARVIS said, a touch primly. "I'll give you a visual feed only."
Even without sound, the image JARVIS projected above the table struck Steve as almost unbearably private. Clint and Coulson were cheek to cheek, and Coulson had his fingers on Clint's jaw. As they watched, Clint pulled back and kissed Coulson gently on the lips. The picture was crystal clear; you could see the tears on Clint's face.
It was beautiful, it was intimate, and Steve felt like an intruder watching it. "That's enough," he said brusquely, turning away. "We shouldn't be watching that."
"I agree," Bruce said. "Shut it off, JARVIS."
"You'd better not be grossed out, Capsicle," Tony said. "Because if you're disgusted by a guy kissing another guy, I rescind my offer to let you call me Tony."
"Why is it that everyone assumes I have something against homosexuals?" Steve snapped. "I went to art school!" He was surprisingly tempted to blurt out the truth, but even if he could get up the courage to tell them, this wasn't the time or place.
"JARVIS, note it for the record: Steve Rogers is fine with the gays," Tony said, rolling his eyes. Steve supposed that was as much of an apology as he could expect.
"What does learning and art have to do with men loving?" Thor asked. Agent Romanoff bent her head toward his ear to explain. Steve wished her luck with that.
"So, Coulson's awake, that's good, and he and Barton are all hearts and flowers and true love, hooray for that," Tony continued. "Let's get back to my plan to break him out of this place and get him set up somewhere where Pepper can visit."
"Yes, because whether your girlfriend can bring Coulson flowers is the key issue here," Hill said dryly. "Do me a favor, Stark. When Fury comes back, keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking."
"That depends on what you plan on saying to him," Tony said.
"I plan on saying that resources are stretched tight with everything that's happened, so it makes sense to transfer our injured offsite if we can," Hill said. "Does that meet with your approval? Oh, wait, I don't care."
Steve decided that Agent Hill might just be okay after all.
"We can't allow anyone outside SHIELD onto the carrier," Hill continued. "Once we have the go-ahead from the doctors here, we'll transport Coulson to the hospital ourselves. Stark, I assume you can arrange clearance for our bird to land?"
"Yeah, sure, no problem," Tony said, tapping things into the table. "As soon as we get the okay."
Steve stared at the list on the table in front of him. It wasn't anywhere near complete.
1. Talk to team, feel them out. Start with Stark.
2. Loki and cube out of SHIELD and contained. How? Asgard?
3. Talk to Thor.
4. Coulson out of SHIELD. Talk to Clint.
He scrubbed at his forehead in frustration as Tony and Hill bickered, eventually adding a few items to the list.
5. Plan op with team.
6. Team off grid after op. Romanoff?
7. Communication with team when off grid. Stark.
He stared at the list some more and realized he couldn't make any more progress until he talked to everyone. And as okay as she was, he wasn't going to do that with Agent Hill anywhere close. He added one more item to the list (8. Learn to touch type.) and tapped the spot JARVIS had indicated would save it. He was starting to wish he'd gotten some sleep when he'd been at the tower.
"How're you holding up, Captain?" Agent Romanoff asked him. He hadn't even heard her sit down. Peggy would have liked her and Hill, he thought. Peggy would have liked all of them, even Tony, but she would have loved the way that Hill and Romanoff were accepted by the others, were given the respect they deserved.
"Please, ma'am, call me Steve," he said automatically. "I'm fine, thanks."
"Only if you call me Natasha," she said, putting her hand on his forearm. "May I?" she murmured. Her finger tapped lightly on the table next to his list.
"Of course," he said. She tapped a few keys and got rid of the question-marks after her name and Asgard. Then she added "tonight" to number 5 and made "Move packages offworld tomorrow" number 6, renumbering the rest. Then she did something that he couldn't quite follow.
"Encrypted attachment sent to Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Phil Coulson, Natasha Romanoff," the screen flashed.
"It'll be a while before Clint and Coulson see it, but it's easiest to just send it to everyone," Natasha said quietly. "I have some ideas on how to manage things. I'll send them to your email." She looked at him, considering. "You have email?"
Steve nodded. "I may not know how to type, but I've been reading for a number of years," he said, giving her another bland smile.
The corner of her mouth twitched. "Good to know." She tapped the screen again and everything vanished.
Which was helpful, because Director Fury was walking up to them to give them the news they already knew (Coulson had regained consciousness) and more. "His vital signs are stable, and there are no indications of brain damage. He made Barton give him a report before he'd accept any pain medication."
Steve observed that Natasha and Hill both relaxed noticeably when Fury said that last bit.
"He's asleep at the moment, and so is Barton," Fury continued. "We'll move him into general medical once he wakes up, and you can see him then."
"Yeah, that's not going to work," Tony said. "We'll see him now. I promise we won't wake him up. And he's not staying here, he's going to New York Columbia Medical Center. I've got a room all ready for him in the private wing, with hot and cold running health care professionals itching to give him the best medical care my money can buy."
Hill glared at Tony, and so did Fury, but after a moment he nodded. "Fine," he said. "Follow me."
They eventually made it through a few hallways and some security to a mostly empty ward. Steve supposed he shouldn't be surprised that there were computers everywhere in hospitals now, along with everywhere else, but the number of screens showing confusing medical things was still kind of overwhelming. He wondered what his mother would have made of it, if it would have made her job easier or more difficult.
In the middle of all of it, though, was a room containing Phil Coulson, pale and with tubes coming out of every corner of the bed, and Clint Barton, perched precariously on a stool, his back propped against the wall, his head leaning towards Phil. Their eyes were closed, their expressions full of peace. Clint had Phil's hand gently grasped in his.
"That is just adorable," Tony said as they stood outside, looking through the glass. He took his phone out. "I have to take a picture of that and send it to Pepper."
"Tony, you can't!" Steve said, appalled.
"You really can't," Natasha agreed, and Bruce was nodding, which Steve found a bit of a relief.
"Why can't I?" Tony asked, waving away Natasha's attempt to answer and frowning at Steve. "Tell me, Steve, why can't I?"
"You can't just out someone without their permission, Tony," Steve said firmly, hoping he was using the word correctly. "You said your girlfriend told you about Coulson's cellist, so she obviously doesn't know about Clint."
Tony's eyes widened. "Steve Rogers does like the gays. You know, this thing where you're right all the time is really getting annoying."
"I was wrong about you," Steve said, feeling his ears warm. He put his hand on Tony's arm. "I'm sorry about that."
Tony winced. "Not helping." When Steve opened his mouth again, Tony interrupted with, "Apology accepted; you're clearly the better man; can we move on, please?"
"In Asgard we would celebrate these good tidings with a feast," Thor announced.
"Of course you would," Tony said. "Cap, I bet you're hungry again, aren't you?"
"I could eat," Steve admitted. "And I don't know if you noticed, but Clint threw up everything he ate at the shawarma place."
"He looks hungry," Natasha agreed. She hadn't taken her eyes off Coulson and Clint. "JARVIS, did he eat anything at the tower?"
"He did not," JARVIS said.
"This is a big ship; there's got to be a commissary or something somewhere," Steve said, looking at Natasha, who was still watching Clint and Coulson sleep. There was a line between her eyes that hadn't been there earlier. "Maybe a couple of us could go pick up something and bring it back."
"I will go," Thor said.
"I'll go with you, big guy," Tony said. "Come on, Bruce, let's see if we can talk one of the nurses into showing us where it is."
"I can go with them if you want," Steve said to Natasha.
She turned to face him. There was a bruise developing on her cheek, another visible at her collarbone, and her eyes were red. She looked just a tiny bit lost. Steve figured that meant she was feeling pretty bad. "I wouldn't mind the company," she told him, putting her hand on his arm.
"Of course," he said, nodding. "I'll see if I can grab us a couple chairs."
"Thanks," she said, turning back towards the window.
They'd been sitting for a few minutes when Natasha said, "Do you know how I came to join SHIELD?"
"No, I don't," Steve answered. Coulson had said something on the jet about getting him the files on the team, but Steve had never had the chance to look at them.
"I was born in Russia, and when I was very young, many years ago, I was taken and trained to be an assassin. Eventually my masters lost power, and I was on my own. You might say I went freelance," she said, her eyebrow quirking. "Clint was sent to kill me. He saw something in me, and he made a choice. He persuaded Coulson, and Coulson persuaded Fury, that I could be more than what they'd made me."
Steve took a breath. "I'm glad," he said after a moment.
"Coulson basically did the same thing for Clint a few years before that," she went on. "Clint wasn't in as bad a place as I was, but he was in a lot of trouble. Coulson saw something in him and made a choice to help him. It wasn't until a year after they found me that they finally admitted how they felt."
"I'm glad about that, too," Steve said quietly. "I mean, that they found each other."
"So am I," Natasha said.
Steve took another breath. That kind of story meant something, especially coming from someone as controlled as Natasha. It deserved a real response. "You know, when Clint told me they were married," he said hesitantly, "I didn't know that anything like that would ever be possible. I think it's the most wonderful thing I've heard since I woke up."
Natasha turned towards him, a smile on her face. "I misjudged you, I think," she said. "I won't do it again."
Steve smiled back at her. "People find out you were born more than 90 years ago, they tend to make assumptions," he said wryly.
"Art school, hmm?" she said, arching one eyebrow.
He laughed. "Among other things," he said, shocked at how easy it was to say. He looked through the glass. There they were, holding hands, sleeping.
He and Bucky had been born fifty years too soon, he thought, and put his hand up to his face.
"Steve?" Natasha said, touching his arm.
"I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "Like I said, I'm really happy for them."
"You don't have to tell me anything," she said. "But I've been told I'm a good listener. I'm also good at keeping secrets."
He looked up at the ceiling. "You know, before today there were only two people who ever knew, and both of them were dead."
"I told Clint earlier," he explained. "About Bucky." God, it was a relief to say his name, to say it and have it mean what it really meant. "He was…he was my best friend since we were kids, that's what everyone knows. They assume; they think he was some sort of sidekick, Captain America's best pal."
"But they're wrong," Natasha said.
Steve pinched his nose. "They're wrong, yeah. Bucky was captured by Hydra; everyone thought he was dead. I went after him and brought him back, him and 400 other men. People think they know that story, too."
"I don't know it," Natasha said.
"It took almost losing him for me to finally let him know how I felt. When he said he felt the same, I was so happy. We were so happy, even chasing down Hydra installations all over Europe. We were together for less than a year, and then he died, and a few days after that I died. Except I didn't."
"I'm sorry," she said, just like Clint had said. Because in this new century he could tell a beautiful woman he'd been with another man and lost him, and she looked at him the same way Fury had looked at him when he'd said he'd missed his date with Peggy. It was remarkable. He wasn't stupid, he knew not everyone would react that way, with honest compassion and sympathy, but it was still remarkable that the two people he'd told had.
"Thank you," he said eventually, although it didn't seem an adequate expression of his gratitude.
"What was his name?" she asked. "I assume Bucky was a nickname."
"Yeah," he said heavily, remembering the first time they'd met, back when their mothers were both still alive. "His name was James, James Buchanan Barnes, but even his mom called him Bucky."
Something odd flickered over her face for an instant, and he narrowed his eyes, trying to read her expression. "They're back," she said.
She was right, Thor and Tony and Bruce were coming back up the hall, although she couldn't have seen them from where she was facing.
Steve watched as Natasha carefully woke Clint and took his place without disturbing Coulson. They all ate at the nurses' station. Thor had predictably brought back much more food than they needed, so they gave the extras to the nurses. Steve remembered his mom bringing home cookies or candy one of her patients had dropped off; she never ate it herself, always saved it for him.
Bruce and Tony went to talk to the doctors and make whatever arrangements they needed to make to move Coulson. Steve was on his second cheeseburger when he glanced over and saw that Coulson's eyes were open.
Coulson looked to be having a pretty serious discussion with Natasha, so Steve didn't mention it to Clint, who had a pinched look to his face that reminded Steve a little too much of the way his own used to look in the mirror. The fact that Clint was more focused on his food than Coulson was probably another sign that he really needed to eat, anyway.
Once Clint slowed down a little, though, Steve nudged him gently with his shoulder. "Take a look," he said.
"Hey, somebody's awake again," he said, his face breaking into a smile.
"Let us go see him!" Thor exclaimed, putting down what looked like an entire roasted chicken. Steve wondered how the hell he'd managed that.
"I'll see if he's up for visitors," Clint said. "Stay here."
No one made a move, not Thor, not even Tony, until Clint spoke to Coulson and gestured for them to come in.
"Hello, everyone," Coulson said in a weak voice as they clustered around his bed. Natasha was standing next to Clint, her arm around his waist, his around her shoulders. Everyone looked really happy; it was a good moment.
"Okay, there are a few ground rules here," Clint said, his face growing serious. "Phil needs rest, so we're going to keep this short. This is not work, and there will be no debriefing, is that clear?" he said, looking at Coulson until he nodded, frowning a little.
"Phil isn't going to talk much, because talking irritates his throat and makes him cough. You don't want him to cough, trust me on that. He can have some ice chips but nothing else. The doctors say we can move him to the city in an hour or so as long as he remains stable. Thanks, Stark, for making that possible," Clint said.
"No problem," Tony answered with a shrug, but Steve could tell he was pleased. "Pepper's looking forward to spoiling you, Agent."
"Tony," Coulson said, the corner of his mouth twitching. "When we're not working, you can call me Phil."
"You got it, Phil," Tony said, and this time he smiled.
"I'm pleased you are still in this realm, Son of Coul," Thor said cheerfully, clasping his shoulder.
"Thank you, Thor Odinson," Coulson said carefully. It looked like he was trying not to wince. Thor noticed his expression and removed his hand with an apologetic glance.
"We all are, Coulson," Bruce said. "Glad you're still alive, that is."
"So am I," Coulson responded. "About all of you, I mean," he added, but he was looking at Clint when he said it.
Steve stepped closer, putting on his most earnest expression. "Agent Coulson, I just wanted to let you know that I watched you while you were sleeping," he said, hoping Coulson would get it.
"What the fuck, Steve?" Clint muttered, but Coulson was smiling ruefully.
So Steve went for it. "I mean, I stood over you while you were unconscious," he said, grinning.
Coulson laughed, and Steve felt a little guilty, because it sounded like it hurt. "I suppose I deserved that, Captain," Coulson said in a rough voice.
"Call me Steve," he said quickly. "Like you said, we're not at work."
Coulson nodded, looking almost as star-struck as he had on the plane. "Thanks, Steve. Call me Phil."
"I'm really glad you're not dead, Phil," Steve said sincerely. Phil's pale face turned a little pink.
"Son of a bitch!" Tony said. He was picking something up from the table. "Looks like Fury lied about one more thing," he said to Steve, handing it over.
Steve looked at the trading cards, neat and clean in their plastic sleeves. He shook his head in disbelief. "Son of a bitch is right," he muttered.
"What are my trading cards doing here, Barton?" Phil asked, in what Steve realized must be his Agent Coulson voice. It was very different from the star-struck Captain America fan's voice. Steve liked it; it reminded him a bit of Peggy when she was getting ready to take someone down.
"Fury dropped them off," Clint said with a shrug. "Said they were in your locker. I don't know why Steve and Tony are pissed."
"Steve and Tony are pissed because Nick Motherfucking Fury tossed what he said were Phil's trading cards, spattered with what he said was Phil's blood, on a table to try to guilt us into working together," Tony said angrily.
"He did what?" Phil said, and this time his face actually got a bit red.
"You find out he told us you were dead, and you're okay with that, but you're surprised he'd mess with your trading cards?" Clint said to Phil, his tone fond and exasperated. "They're fine, by the way. Not a speck on them. Unlike you."
"I guess the cards were as fake as the blood, huh?" Tony said to Steve.
"And this is the guy we're trusting with the cube?" Steve said before he could stop himself. "Sorry, Clint, I broke your rules," he added quickly.
"No, it's okay," Clint said, frowning. "You're right. I don't like SHIELD having custody of that thing any more than you do. Or of Loki." He clenched his fists as he said the name.
"I think we need to do something about that," Steve said, because Natasha was right, they needed to get going with the plan. "Thor, what happens if you take your brother and the cube back to Asgard?"
"Loki will be imprisoned, and his magic will be taken from him," Thor said, his voice serious and his face downcast. "He will not escape, this I promise you. As for the tesseract, my father will keep it safe. It should not be here; your people are not ready for something so powerful."
"Thor's right," Phil said. "What's your plan, Captain?"
"Not something we're discussing with you, Phil," Clint warned.
"Don't worry about it," Tony said, waving his arm. "Got your list, Cap. I took the liberty of talking to Thor and Bruce about it when we went to get food. I think we've got it covered; we can discuss the details later. Clint's right; Phil doesn't need to hear about it."
"I can help," Phil insisted.
"Not gonna happen," Clint said firmly. "Keep talking about it, and I'll sedate you myself."
"I'll help you," Natasha said.
Coulson's eyes narrowed. He took a breath, probably to protest again, but then he swallowed, shutting his eyes in concentration. The lines on his forehead deepened, his jaw tightening until his lips were a thin line.
Clint looked at him and immediately reached for a button by the side of the bed. When a voice came through, he yelled, "We need some more ice chips!" He got in Phil's face and said, "Breathe for me, Phil, nice and slow," in a calm, soothing, loving voice.
Steve thought of Bucky strapped to Zola's table, muttering his name and serial number. He remembered Bucky saying, "I thought you were smaller." Saying, "So help me God, Rogers, if it's some other guy I'm gonna kill you." Saying, "I'm in love with you too, punk."
He stepped away from the bed, pretending it was just to make room for the nurse bringing in the ice chips, trying to remember how to breathe himself, trying not to listen as Clint kept coaching Phil. Natasha came up to him and gave his hand a squeeze. Bruce appeared on the other side of him a second later.
"Are you okay, Steve?" he asked quietly. Thor and Tony were gone; Clint must have banished them.
"Yeah," Steve said, pinching his nose. "Just remembering something. Someone. I'm fine." He could hear Clint trying to talk Phil into taking some more morphine. "I just, I'm going to get some air."
He walked past Tony and Thor to the end of the hallway, then stopped.
He couldn't leave. Bucky was dead, Peggy was dead, everyone on his old team was probably dead (he'd been afraid to check), but he could mourn them later. He had a new team, a good one, even if it wasn't one he'd picked himself. And they had an op to execute.
He remembered Dr. Erskine using his last bit of energy to poke him in the chest, and he turned around and walked back down the hallway.
Everyone was back in the room. Bruce was talking quietly to Natasha, Thor and Tony, something about negative pressure, tubes, and punctured lungs that Steve would rather avoid hearing. Clint was still trying to persuade Phil to take some medication. Steve hesitated at the doorway, but Clint looked up and motioned for him to come in.
"Maybe if you hear it from Captain America you'll listen," he said. "Cap, tell this stubborn ass it's okay to take something for the pain he's clearly in."
Steve looked at Phil's face, which was pale, his jaw clenched, a few beads of sweat on his brow. There was dried blood at the corner of his mouth and crusted around the tube in his nose. He couldn't help thinking of his mother gasping for breath in her last days. "You should listen to Clint and take some pain medication," he said sternly. "I'll make it an order if you need me to."
"I outrank you," Phil said hoarsely, but then he nodded. "Fine. Five minutes."
"You can have as long as it takes for the nurse to draw it up," Clint said. "Bruce, can you let him know?"
"Sure," he said, leaving the room.
"I need to talk to Steve about something," Clint said. "Nat's in charge of making sure you take the medication." He bent and kissed Coulson on the mouth.
Phil looked a bit stunned. "Clint?" he said, looking around at all of them.
"Phil, I told you, the cellist story is officially retired," Clint said, and kissed him again. "Besides, I'm sick of hiding, aren't you?"
After a long moment, Phil nodded, his expression smoothing out. "Yes," he said, reaching up to touch Clint's face. He smiled.
"In fact," Clint said, reaching into his vest, but Phil grabbed his arm before he could finish the movement.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"I'm sure," Clint said, and Phil nodded again, dropping his hand. "Besides, Nat and Steve know already." He pulled a chain out and over his head, unfastened it, and took the ring that hung there, placing it on his finger. "I'll leave it off on ops, just like you do, but the rest of the time it's staying right here."
It was only then that Steve realized Phil was wearing an identical ring on his left hand.
"Holy shit," Tony said as he looked from Phil to Clint and back again. "Uh, congratulations? Although I have to say, I'm hurt you didn't ask me to stand up for you, Phil."
"I offer my congratulations as well," Thor said, in a tone that made it clear he had no idea what he was congratulating them for.
"It means they're married," Steve told him, unable to keep a smile off his face.
"Two years next month," Clint said, his eyes on Phil. "Smartest thing I ever did."
"Yes, it was," Phil said, smiling at him, his expression full of love.
"Wait, you knew before I did?" Tony said to Steve as Bruce and the nurse came back in the room.
"Yep," Steve said, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. "Clint told me."
"That is just wrong," Tony said. "But at least I can tell Pepper now."
Steve shook his head. "Not your story to tell, Tony."
"It's really not," Bruce agreed.
"Definitely not," Clint said, putting his hand on Steve's shoulder. "Come on, Cap. Let's go outside; I don't want to disturb Phil. Tony, Bruce, Thor, come on. Everybody out."
Steve looked over. Phil's eyes were closed again, and Natasha was back at his side. He followed Clint out of the room. "Steve, come with me. You, stay here," Clint said, pointing at the others.
"Staying here, but under protest," Tony said. "Don't think I've forgiven you for telling the Capsicle before your beloved Agent bothered to tell me."
"You'll get over it," Clint said. He led Steve around the far corner of Phil's room to a small hallway where they could talk without being overheard but Clint could still see inside.
"Clint, I'm sorry about what I said to Phil," Steve said before Clint could open his mouth. "I was just trying to make a joke."
"Are you kidding me?" Clint said, grinning at him. "I'm not mad at you about that, Steve, it was awesome!"
"It was?" Steve said, unsure.
"Dude, you made Agent Phil Coulson laugh," Clint said gleefully. "You made him laugh when he was surrounded by people he works with…and you don't have any idea why that's a big deal, do you?" he went on, looking at Steve.
"Not really, no," Steve admitted. "It's a big deal to make Phil laugh?"
"It's a very big deal,'" Clint explained. "Some of the juniors are convinced he's a robot. He's the baddest fucking agent there is, all wrapped up in perfectly tailored suits and a deceptively mild exterior. They call him the Agent's Agent. Phil Coulson never loses his cool, not even when he's taking out armed robbers with a bag of flour. I was working with him for over a year before I heard him laugh, and believe me, I was trying a lot harder than you were to ruffle his feathers. Stark tries to get to him all the time, but Phil just threatens to taze him and he shuts right up."
"Huh," Steve said, hiding a grin. "He seemed kinda flustered when he met me."
Clint snorted. "Yeah, well, you've got an unfair advantage. You've been his idol his whole life. His whole face lit up when he heard they'd found you. That's something the junior agents don't know about, by the way."
"I won't say anything," Steve promised. "And you can tell him I'll be happy to sign those trading cards once he's healed up."
"That's great," Clint said, his expression turning serious. "Look, Steve, about not telling people things, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. What you did, back at the restaurant, it meant a lot to me, and what you told me, about Bucky. I just wanted to let you know I won't tell anyone. Not even Phil, not unless you say it's okay."
"Thanks," Steve said, his face warming.
"But I also wanted to say I think the rest of the team would be fine with it. You saw how they were when they found out about me and Phil."
"I know they're good people," Steve said hesitantly.
"They are," Clint said. "Listen, Steve… Loki, and then losing Phil, or thinking I'd lost him, that probably would have broken me, except for knowing Nat and you and everyone else were there with me. Even though most of you hadn't even met me until I tried to kill you all."
"That wasn't you," Steve said firmly, willing Clint to believe it.
"Yeah, that's what Nat keeps telling me," Clint said, looking down. "You had a team, right? The Howling Commandos."
Steve nodded. "Phil tell you that?"
Clint laughed softly, his eyes drifting to Phil's sleeping form. "Let's just say he's not the only one who read comics when he was a kid. Don't tell anyone, or I'll never live it down."
"My lips are sealed," Steve said.
Clint smiled in acknowledgment. "You lost your team, and Peggy, and you lost Bucky," he went on, meeting Steve's eyes. "I'm sure you felt like you lost everyone and everything you ever cared about, and I'm not going to argue that point. But what we have here, this Avengers Initiative, I think it's the real deal."
Steve nodded for him to continue.
"It started out as Phil and Fury's baby, and no one thought it would ever happen. I certainly never thought it would, or that I'd be on the team. I'm not exactly a super hero. But it did, and I am on the team, and right now I'm with Phil in thinking it could be something pretty fucking special, you know?" Clint said. "Because Stark may be annoying as shit, but he is also generous to a fault, and both he and Banner are certifiable geniuses. Thor's a goofball but you can't deny he's good in a fight, and so is the other guy. Nat is Nat. And you, you're Captain Fucking America, and you're even better in person than you were in the comics. I think you were born to lead this team, Steve."
"It's a good team," Steve said. "I hope I can live up to it."
"You will," Clint said confidently. "And we'll have your back, Cap, no matter what."
"I never doubted that for a second," Steve said truthfully.
"No, I guess you wouldn't," Clint said, patting him on the arm. "So if and when you ever feel like telling the rest of them about Bucky, I know they'd understand. They'd want to help, the same way you wanted to help when I heard about Phil."
Steve nodded slowly. "I know," he said. "I told Natasha. You can tell Phil if you want; it's okay."
"I could," Clint said, looking at Phil again. "It would mean more if you told him yourself."
"Okay," Steve said. "You know, I couldn't tell anyone on the Commandos. No one knew."
"Yeah, I figured," Clint said. "That really must have sucked. Uh, do you know what that means? Like, it must have been awful."
"It was," Steve admitted. "I'm glad I told you and Natasha."
"Me too," Clint said. "Come on, let's see if we can find out when they're letting us take Phil out of here."
They waited around for a little while longer without much happening. Fury came by and had a serious discussion with Clint and Agent Hill, which apparently went okay, as there was no more talk of Clint being confined to the carrier. They waited a little bit longer. Phil slept. Either Natasha or Clint or both of them were always at his side.
Then everything happened at once. Before Steve knew it they were on Tony's helicopter flying back to the city, this time with Tony in the cockpit so Clint could remain with Phil. Tony being Tony (why was he even surprised the guy could fly a helicopter?), they landed on the roof of the hospital well before the SHIELD helicopter did. They walked into a plush waiting room on the top floor of the hospital, and a woman with strawberry blonde hair immediately stood up and rushed over to them. She was impeccably dressed, beautiful, and wearing heels tall enough that Steve was impressed she could walk.
"Pepper," Tony murmured happily, pulling her into his arms. "God, it's good to see you. It's always good to see you, don't get me wrong, but I am really, truly happy to see you right now."
"I'm happy to see you too," she said, sniffling a little. "Where's Phil?"
"On his way," Tony said. "Hey, people who haven't met her, this is Pepper. Pepper, this is everyone."
"Hi, everyone," she said, waving without looking up. Tony kissed her, and the two of them stayed wrapped in each other for a few minutes. Steve turned away; it seemed like the polite thing to do.
Eventually Miss Potts stepped back from Tony, touching his face. She took a deep breath and walked over to Steve. "Captain Rogers, it's a pleasure to meet you," she said, shaking his hand.
"Please, ma'am, call me Steve," he said, glad he managed to get it out without stammering.
"I will if you promise never to call me ma'am again," she said, smiling at him. "I'm Pepper."
"And you must be Dr. Banner."
"Bruce is fine," he said.
Just then JARVIS announced, "I've been informed that Agent Coulson's helicopter has arrived. They're asking that you all remain here until they've gotten him settled in his room."
"JARVIS is here, too?" Steve asked, looking up at the ceiling.
"JARVIS is everywhere," Tony said, making a face at him. "Well, everywhere I am, anyway, and why would you want to be anywhere else?"
"Why indeed," Pepper said dryly, but then she smiled at Tony. "This one I don't know," she added, looking up at Thor.
"I am Thor Odinson, my lady Pepper," Thor said, bowing to her.
"Of course," she murmured. When she offered her hand, he kissed it.
When Pepper got to Natasha, her forehead wrinkled briefly. "Natalie," she said politely.
"It's Natasha, Ms. Potts," was the reply. "Natasha Romanoff."
Pepper looked at her like she was trying to figure something out. "Natasha, sorry. Oh, wait, you…. You're not Phil's cellist, are you?"
Natasha laughed, her head back. "No."
"Okay," Pepper said, sounding relieved. "But…Tony, you said she was here, right? Was she on the helicopter with Phil?"
"Uh, sort of?" Tony hedged. Steve was a little proud of him for not coming right out with it. "It's complicated, Pep."
"It's a simple question, Tony," Pepper said, taking his arm. "Is she with Phil or not?"
"Is who with Phil?" Clint said as he walked in. He looked beat down, the lines in his forehead and the bruising under his eyes nearly as bad as they were earlier, before Fury told them the truth.
"His girlfriend," Pepper said, looking at Clint, clearly confused. "The cellist."
"Phil doesn't have a girlfriend," Clint said shortly, looking her up and down.
"What do you mean?" Pepper asked. "Of course he has a girlfriend. I'm sorry, I don't know who you are."
"Clint, how's Phil?" Steve asked quickly.
"Okay, I think," Clint said, his shoulders slumping. "The trip was rough; they're checking to make sure he didn't pop any stitches. He's in a lot of pain, or he was. They gave him something that knocked him out."
Pepper was staring at Clint, her eyes narrowed. "Oh my God," she said, her hand at her mouth. "You're the cellist, and I am an idiot. I am so sorry; you're Phil's cellist, and I was so rude to you," she said, turning pink.
Clint shook his head and gave her a weak smile. "No, you weren't. You didn't know. I'm sorry about the cover story; people in our line of work tend to want to keep their personal attachments under wraps. We didn't want any of our targets to have anything they could try to use."
"No, of course," Pepper said. "That makes sense. I always wondered why he wouldn't tell me her name."
Clint straightened up and faced her squarely. "You must be Pepper. Phil speaks very highly of you."
"Thank you," she said, offering her hand. "I'm sorry, was it Clint?"
"Clint Barton," he said, shaking her hand. "I'm Phil's husband. Thanks for coming, Pepper. I know Phil considers you a friend."
"It's mutual," Pepper said, her eyes widening slightly. "He's a great guy."
"Yeah, he is," Clint said, with another weak smile. "Hey, Nat," he said softly, and she went to him immediately and put her arm around his waist. He put his head on her shoulder.
"He's going to be fine, Clint," she told him.
"I hope so," Clint said, so softly that Steve could barely hear him. "Shit, Nat, I really hope so."
Pepper was back arm in arm with Tony, looking at Clint and Natasha like she was still trying to work it all out. Tony said something into her ear, and her expression smoothed into acceptance. Steve sat down next to Bruce and Thor to wait.
They called Clint back into the room shortly after that, but it took another couple of hours before the doctors would let the rest of them in. They spent the time strategizing. At first Pepper pretended politely to ignore them. Then she touched Steve on the arm and said, "Excuse me, but I really don't think anyone's going to question if Captain America wants to look at the cube. It won't be a problem, Steve."
"She's right," Bruce said.
"On that same line, I think Thor should just say he wants to talk to his brother," Pepper went on. "What are they going to do, tell you no?"
"That's my girl," Tony said proudly.
Pepper laughed and said, "Twelve percent, huh?"
"One hundred percent. No, I'll change the rules of math and make it two hundred," Tony said, which made them both smile, and then they got back to planning, with Pepper taking notes and making other suggestions now and again.
By the end of it, they had a plan. Steve thought it was a decent good one, all things considered. They trooped into Phil's room around midnight to fill Clint in on his part, which they limited, because none of them wanted to take him away from Phil any longer than they had to.
The relief that Steve felt when he saw Phil was awake again was almost as strong as when Phil woke up the first time. Seeing the cot that had been made-up and placed next to his hospital bed made it even better.
The two men listened closely and made a few suggestions, good ones, but Steve could tell that Clint was flagging badly, the bruise on his temple standing out from the pallor of his skin. From the concerned looks that Phil and Natasha were giving him, Steve wasn't the only one who'd noticed. "Okay, I think we're set here," he said as soon as he could. "We'll see you at 0900. And Clint?"
"Yeah, what is it, Cap?" Clint asked, making an unsuccessful attempt to keep from yawning.
"Get some sleep. I'll make it an order if I have to, and I know for a fact you don't outrank me."
Clint shook his head. "Won't be necessary," he said, waving his hand. "Go on, get out of here. You guys need some sleep, too."
"That is definitely true," Tony said. Natasha kissed Clint's cheek, and Pepper kissed Phil's, and they all trooped back out of the room and back up to the roof. Because apparently they were taking Tony's helicopter back to the tower and sleeping there. Steve thought about protesting, but the idea of getting on the subway and trekking out to Brooklyn, only to have to do it all over again the next morning, convinced him that he could probably handle a night at Tony's place. He'd figure out clothing in the morning. Knowing Tony, he'd already dispatched people, or maybe robots, to buy new outfits for all of them.
When he got into his suite, the same one he'd been in earlier, there were several shopping bags on the sofa. The clothes inside looked like they were his size, they were tasteful, and the price-tags had been removed. The note on top said "I hope these will suit you" and was signed "Pepper."
It turned out that an enormous, comfortable bed didn't have much effect on his overall sleep pattern. Steve woke from a nightmare after about four hours, just like he had every night for the past two months.
The gym in Stark Tower was nothing like the one he'd been using at SHIELD, but the treadmill was easy enough to figure out. Running up an incline at his top speed wasn't as good as destroying punching bags, but at least it was something to do.
"JARVIS, can you let me know when it's 0700?" he asked as he ran.
"Of course," came the smooth answer. "If I might make a suggestion, Captain?"
"Sure, go ahead," Steve said, and that's how he ended up trying out a bunch of high-tech sparring equipment that did not, in fact, break apart when he punched it with all he had. That was much more satisfying.
"Thanks," he said when the computer told him it was time. He scrubbed at his face and arms with one of Tony's sinfully plush towels and had a sudden thought. "Hey, JARVIS?"
"Yes, Captain Rogers?"
"Two things. First, I don't know if it's in your programming or protocol or anything, but do you think maybe you could call me Steve? I mean, when it's just the two of us talking."
"I can do that, if you'd prefer," the voice said, and damned if it didn't sound pleased. "What's your second question?"
Steve sat on a bench and scratched his forehead for a second. "Last night, on the carrier, you were listening in the whole time, right?"
"That's correct," JARVIS said. "I was monitoring all communications on the carrier, but Mr. Stark and the rest of the Avengers were my highest priority."
"So you heard my conversations with Natasha and Clint."
"I assure you that, like Agents Romanoff and Barton, I would never share anything you said to someone in confidence without your express consent, Steve," JARVIS said.
"Thanks, JARVIS," Steve said again. "I appreciate that. But I was wondering what you thought about what I said. I mean, do you have thoughts about that kind of thing?"
"I am accepting of all sexual orientations," JARVIS said. "Mr. Stark programmed me to reflect his own values. If I may say so, Steve, he would never judge you for your feelings for Sergeant Barnes. I don't believe the others would either."
"Yeah, I don't guess they would," Steve murmured. He sighed. "Okay, enough of the heart to heart. I'm starving; tell me where I can get some breakfast."
Tony was in the kitchen when Steve got there, wrapped in a bathrobe and communing with a very large mug of coffee. "Help yourself," he muttered when he saw Steve, waving vaguely over at the counter.
Steve studied the contraption in front of him cautiously. The aroma was wonderful, but he had no idea how to get the coffee out of the machine and into a cup. Fortunately, Natasha chose that moment to appear at his side. She pushed a few buttons, slid a cup under a spout, and handed it to him once it was full.
"Thanks," he said. "Oh, wow, this is really good," he said appreciatively after his first sip.
"Of course it is," Tony said.
"Of course it is," Natasha said into his ear, a hint of a smirk on her face. Her own mug looked like tea rather than coffee, but she seemed to be enjoying it as well. Steve briefly mourned for the time when he could get more out of coffee than just the taste (most mornings he thought the fact that caffeine no longer had any effect was worse than not being able to get drunk ever again) before opening the enormous refrigerator and taking out a dozen eggs.
"Scrambled or fried?" he asked, looking at both Natasha and Tony.
"Scrambled," she said.
"You know how to cook?" Tony said.
"Of course," Steve said, rolling his eyes. "Scrambled it is."
"I'll start the bacon," Natasha said.
"Toast," Bruce said as he walked into the kitchen. "Homefries would be good, but I don't know that I'm up to peeling and chopping this early."
"I can take care of that," Tony said, waving his hand. "I have machines for that kind of thing."
Thor arrived, and Steve took another dozen eggs out of the fridge.
Which is how the group of them, excluding Pepper (already at the office, Tony informed Steve when he asked), ended up eating a communal breakfast that included enough food to feed an entire barracks.
Steve could count the number of meals he'd eaten with any company at all since he woke up on the fingers of one hand, and most of the fingers had happened the day before. Eating like this, with his team…it was nice. It was really nice.
"Should we take some food to the hospital?" Steve asked as they finished. "For Clint, I mean?" The doctors had said it would be a few days at least before they'd remove the tube in his stomach and let Phil eat.
Tony shook his head. "Private wing. That includes gourmet meals for the significant others of any patients. They probably gave him crepes and a mimosa. Mmm, mimosas, where's the champagne?"
"You can't have any champagne now, Tony," Steve said. "We've got to get ready. We're on the move in thirty minutes." He made the decision right then; there should be enough time.
"There's always time for champagne," Tony groused, but he was getting up and heading for the hallway.
The group of them walked into Phil's room together, with Steve in the front and Tony just behind him. Natasha was at the back--on their six, Steve thought wryly.
Phil looked a lot better this morning. Steve studied Phil and Clint unobtrusively as the others greeted them. The Stark private wing of the hospital apparently didn't truck with the kind of ill-fitting gown Phil had been wearing the night before. Instead, he was dressed in crisp white pajamas. His surgical dressings were hidden, as were the snaps Steve knew had to be there for the nurses to access things. The machines and monitors were present but unobtrusive.
Phil was wearing the pajamas like one of his suits; Steve wouldn't have been surprised to see him take out a tablet and start issuing orders. This was the Agent's Agent Clint had told him about the night before, despite the tubes in his nose, his arm, and other places, despite the unobtrusive machinery and the fancy monitors showing his vital signs.
Clint looked better too; still tired, but with less of the sharpness to his features that had worried Steve. There was a bandaid covering some gauze on the back of his right hand, and he was wearing the same kind of pajamas that Phil wore, although his were more rumpled. "Give me a sec and I'll get changed," he said after they'd been there a few minutes.
"Clint," Steve said, putting his hand on Clint's right forearm, "It's okay if you want to stay here. We can run things without you." It would be more difficult, but they'd manage.
"Nah, it's okay, I'm fine," Clint said.
"What happened to your hand?" Steve asked. He could see Natasha looking at them and frowning.
"Nothing," Clint said, shaking his head.
"Looks like someone drew your blood, Legolas," Tony said, his eyes narrowing. "Or else you had an IV. I'm betting on the IV."
"None of your damned business, Stark," Clint said, pulling his arm away from Steve. "I'm fine, and I'd like to get dressed now, if you don't mind."
"Since Barton will be on your team, you'll need to understand his definition of 'fine' includes nearly passing out from dehydration, exhaustion, and the effects of a concussion," Phil said, his mild voice immediately garnering their attention. "They gave him two liters of IV fluids last night. He's stubborn enough that he'll go with you no matter what, and I know you need him for the op, but I'd appreciate it if you keep him out of anything else you have planned for the near future. He needs to rest."
"That was a nice speech, Coulson," Clint said, rolling his eyes. "Now shut up and have some ice chips before you start coughing again."
"I can't believe no one knew the two of you were married," Tony said.
"It seems pretty obvious in hindsight," Bruce agreed.
"That is the way of hindsight, is it not?" Thor asked. "Do not be concerned, Son of Coul, we will watch over your mate and return him to you unharmed."
"Thank you, Son of Odin," Phil said graciously.
Clint rolled his eyes again and disappeared into what was presumably the bathroom.
When he came out again, dressed not in his suit but as a civilian, like the rest of them, Steve took a moment to look over his team. Bruce and Tony were standing together, Tony gesturing expansively and pointing out something on his tablet. Thor was showing Natasha the runes on his hammer. Clint had moved to Phil's side, taking his hand and speaking to him softly. They all looked at him when he cleared his throat.
"Time to go, Cap?" Tony asked, putting his tablet away.
"In a minute," Steve said. He put his hands behind his back and stood at parade rest. "I'm guessing it was Fury who picked the name for this team," he said, feeling his way carefully through what he wanted to say, "so maybe it makes sense that he thought we needed someone to avenge before we could work together. He was wrong about that, at least in the particulars, but he was partially right. Loss can be a motivator, and we've all experienced loss. We nearly lost Tony yesterday. We thought we'd lost Phil. Natasha and Phil thought they'd lost Clint. No one let any of it stop them from doing what needed to be done. I may not know you very well yet, but I know none of you are the type to give up, no matter what happens."
He took a breath. They all seemed to be paying attention, at least.
"Yesterday, the battle, the missile…it was all because of the tesseract," he said. "Loki couldn't have come here without it, couldn't have done what he did to Clint, couldn't have brought the Chitauri here. If it hadn't been for the cube, SHIELD could never have built the weapons we found on the helicarrier. If it hadn't been for the cube, Johann Schmidt never would have built the Hydra weapon that killed my best friend, my lover, in 1944." He fought to keep his voice steady, his head up. Clint met his gaze and nodded. Tony's eyes went wide, but he didn't say anything. Phil took a slow breath and squeezed Clint's hand. Thor frowned in sympathy, and Natasha gave him a tiny smile.
"We're alive, all of us, but we have losses to avenge," Steve continued. "Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes died almost 70 years ago, before any of you were even born. I understand if you want to fight for something or someone else, but I thought you should know his name. I'll be fighting for the rest of my life to avenge what happened to Phil, to Clint, to the city of New York, for those that Hydra killed during the war, and for every loss that we have all suffered or will suffer in the future. I hope and pray that each one of you will be fighting with me for many years. But I'll be fighting for Bucky Barnes most of all, and I wanted all of the Avengers to know his name and who he was to me."
No one said anything for what was probably only a few seconds, although it felt a lot longer to Steve. Then Tony stepped forward, put his hand on Steve's shoulder, and said, "For Bucky Barnes, people. Let's do this." He walked out of the room.
"For your shield mate, Bucky Barnes," Thor said, patting Steve on the back and following Tony.
"For Bucky," Bruce said, with another clasp of Steve's shoulder.
"For James Barnes," Natasha said, and kissed Steve's cheek.
That left Clint, still at Phil's bedside. He bent and kissed Phil, who softly said, "For Bucky."
"For Bucky," Clint agreed. He stood up and said, "Come on, Cap." The two of them left the room together.
After that, the mission to steal the cube and kidnap Loki was a bit of a let-down. Everything went smoothly, at least at first. Thor said he needed to speak with his brother, then used Clint's help to smuggle him out of SHIELD to the van they had waiting. Tony did his computer thing to keep them off surveillance. Bruce wandered around looking disgruntled, which put all the SHIELD operatives on edge but also kept their minds off other things.
Steve easily bluffed his way into the room where the tesseract was being kept. Apparently Pepper was correct and no one wanted to question Captain America after what had happened the day before. Natasha and Tony helped him unlock the box it was kept in, they packed it in a briefcase, and they walked out the door.
That's when they saw Nick Fury, standing in the hallway, waiting for them.
"Captain, Agent," he said, looking them up and down. "What a surprise, running into you two here."
"Sir," Steve said, nodding and stepping to the side to walk around him.
"Hold on there, Cap," Fury said, moving in front of him. "Where do you think you're going with that?"
"With what, sir?" Natasha asked.
"Didn't they ever teach you not to bullshit a bullshitter, Agent Romanoff?" Fury said dryly. "I know what you've got waiting outside, and I know what's in that briefcase. I haven't done anything to stop you…yet. Now tell me where you're taking it before I change my mind."
"Someplace safe," Steve said. "That's all you need to know, sir."
"That someplace safe better be offworld, son," Fury said.
"Yes, sir," Steve answered. Fury nodded at him.
"As far as I'm concerned, the lot of you have gone off to places unknown," he said to Natasha. "You might want to get on that."
"Of course, Director," Natasha said.
"I'll let you be on your way, then," Fury said, moving aside.
"That was weird, right?" Steve asked as they got into the van. Natasha nodded.
"What was weird?" Tony asked, so Steve explained, and by the time he got finished the van was stopping. A few minutes later and it was all over. Thor and Loki were gone, taking the cube with them.
Tony gave them all new cell phones, "the latest technology; SHIELD couldn't break the encryption in a million years." Natasha passed out new identification and credit cards. Steve thanked everyone, and then they scattered.
Steve left his bike in long-term parking at the airport and used a passport that said he was "Michael McMurray" to book a flight to London. He had a list of names and addresses on his new phone, and he thought England was the place to start. He'd have to work up to the others, but he'd get there eventually. JARVIS had promised him he could use the GPS on his phone to find the ravine in the Alps.
He saw Bruce in the international terminal, but both of them pretended not to notice. He only found out Natasha had been there much later.