Alaska is a joke. The mission, not the state. They get to the mark and he folds like the cheap suit he’s wearing. Bruce doesn’t even have to take off his glasses before the mark is a gibbering wreck at the base of a tree, begging for mercy.
“I think it’s a Hemlock,” says Clint, peering up at it with admiration and envy and a little irritability that he has been denied the opportunity to climb trees and shoot things from a height.
“I think he’s going to tell us everything,” says Bruce, adjusting his jacket sleeves. The mark flinches.
“Twitchy little fella,” says Steve. “Get him back to the jet.” He jerks his head towards the cardboard boxes on the porch of the cabin that was the mark’s safehouse. “And bring the files.”
The mark bursts into tears when Natasha grabs him by the arm.
“Having a breakdown when confronted with four members of the Avengers Initiative is not, in fact, a symptom of insanity. Alphabetising the dossiers and weapons cache locations indicates a certain level of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I’ll agree. Those files were all but gift-wrapped with SHIELD’s name on them. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that someone got to him first. Someone got to him who’s on our side but doesn’t want us to know they’re on our side. They softened him up and left him on the doorstep like a goddamned cat leaving a gift.”
“So you’re saying that Informant Two-Eight-Seven-Delta-Three is like cat vomit, sir?”
“No, I’m saying I know better.”
Captain America is not allowed to have a bad day. It’s in the rules. He is not allowed to rest his forehead against the steamed-up bathroom mirror and he is not allowed to blot a tiny nick on his chin with tissue paper because Captain America cannot cut himself while shaving. He is not allowed, it seems, to be anything less than a national icon on his worst days. He is not allowed to be anything less than an international beacon on his best days.
He takes deep breaths. The bathroom air is cloying and hot and there was a time when breathing was difficult, when he was hoarse from lack of air and when his eyes would water from coughing fits. There was a time when he would be bent over the kitchen table, head under a towel, breathing fumes from a remedy that came as a powder in a lime green tin.
It is twenty-twelve. It is 2012. Captain America is not allowed to have a bad day; not when he can breathe freely.
It is the fifth of July. He is ninety-four and one day old. It is the first day of the rest of his life. It cannot be a bad day. He has lived eighty years longer than the doctors thought he would, when he was five years old and unable to put on weight, despite his mother’s best efforts.
Start as you mean to go on, she used to say, straightening her uniform before going out to work nights and asking the neighbours to check on him.
Start as you mean to go on. He rests the flat of his palm against the mirror. Count to ten. His mother used to say that, too.
(They think Bruce has the market cornered when it comes to anger.)
Tony says that Cap leads a charmed life. Tony says some stupid things sometimes but anyone might be charmed who has lived a death in ice.
There are times, though, when Steve knows he’s lucky.
There’s a dogfight between Quinjets and some kind of Hammer ‘copter and Steve’s struggling to keep the Quinjet on the level while Clint shoots out the back and then there’s an explosion and the ‘copter’s gone in a wheeze of ash and fire and too-hot breath that throws Clint up the length of the Quinjet.
“Good shooting, Hawkeye,” says Steve, his eyes on the top of the nearest building as he wrestles the Quinjet down.
“That wasn’t me, Cap,” says Clint. He’s coughing and covered in soot and Natasha’s voice comes through the comms.
“Your six, Cap, your six!”
They whirl around to see a plane hurtling towards them. It dips its wings, twice on the right and twice on the left, before swerving and departing the scene in a near-vertical trajectory.
“What the fuck was that?”
Steve shakes his head. “I have no idea. Is it one of Stark’s?”
It is one of Stark’s, or it was. It’s an old design, from about fifteen years ago.
“It never quite took off,” says Tony. “Pun entirely intentional.” Clint gives him a high five which is, Steve has learned, the only socially acceptable acknowledgement of bad puns. “We sold a bunch to some private bidders and never heard from them again.” Tony looks thoughtful. “I’ll ask Pepper to check the old orders - ”
“You’ll ask the CEO of your company to rifle through invoice archives?” asks Natasha. Her voice is beautiful and low and dangerous.
“I’m not saying she can’t delegate,” says Tony. “I encourage delegation, in fact.” He beams and it’s impossibly charming. “It means she can spend more time with the former CEO.”
“Cute, Stark,” says Fury. “Now, I need someone to find out what Justin Hammer is doing selling tech to goddamned terrorists.”
“Ooh, me! Me!” says Tony.
“So that leaves the rest of us-” starts Clint, his eyebrows drawing together.
“I’m sure you can find something to occupy yourselves with, gentlemen,” says Fury. “We’re hearing something about activity in Alaska.”
“Is this real activity, sir, or just the sort of activity where Sarah Palin is shooting at Russians or mooses or whatever?”
“Meese? Moosi? Moosinators? Fuck, Nat, there’s no need to hit me, god.”
Clint says that Cap’s always in the right place at the right time and if there is anyone in the world who knows the importance of position, it’s the world’s finest marksman.
After some aspiring criminal genius tries to recreate the Chitauri in Boston, Steve and Tony lean against some smouldering ruins. Thor and the Hulk run off some excess energy around Boston Common, on the hunt for any stragglers, and Natasha and Clint carry out their customary post-battle headcount. Clint usually wins and Natasha punches him for every additional bad guy he’s put down.
It’s a strangely soothing post-mission ritual as they snipe at each other over the comms. There’s a long period of silence which usually means that Clint’s hiding from Nat but, this time, is broken by a hmmm followed by a soft exhale.
“Well, that’s odd.”
Steve puts his fingers to his ear, listening closely. “Problem, Widow?”
“We’ve got some, ah, late Chitauri-alikes, Cap,” says Clint. “But these aren’t arrow holes - “
“And it’s not any ammo I use,” says Natasha. “Not blunt trauma or repulsor burns either.”
“Get clean-up to take one down to SHIELD for examination,” says Steve.
“Maybe a local got lucky with some potshots?” Tony’s suggestion is uncharacteristically reasonable.
“Right between the eye- sensor- hole- things?” asks Clint. He sounds dubious. “If that’s the case, we need this guy on our side.”
“Why is it always a guy?” Natasha says, and then there’s a goddawful shrill, shrieking sound.
“What the everliving fuck was that?” asks Tony.
“Uh. Natasha just took the Chitauri-alike’s head off.” There’s a pause and a muffled exchange in Russian. “For ease of transport, she says.”
He’s not allowed to have a bad day but everyone has misfortunes. The cut on his chin has already healed and he has somehow burned the coffee, despite Tony saying that his grandmother (god rest her) could work the coffee machine. He lines up in Starbucks, with a list of orders from the other Avengers.
The barista looks less than impressed. “So that’s two grande Americanos, one venti low-fat soymilk sugar-free caramel latte, one tall chai latte, one venti cappucino with an extra shot and a -”
“ - grande espresso frappucino,” Steve says, as though he is not speaking a foreign language where coffee can’t just be coffee.
“And all of these are to go?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, peeling off the necessary bills to pay.
“And you’re going to carry them all?” She looks dubious.
“Don’t worry, ma’am.” Steve smiles. “I’m pretty strong.”
He leaves a tip, just a few dollar bills, in the tip jar and the barista’s attitude lightens considerably and he wonders when everything became about money.
He’s photographed leaving Starbucks because people recognise him now.
By the time he gets back to the Mansion, one short block away, he’s greeted at the door by Darcy Lewis, who takes her espresso frappucino with unholy glee, and informs him that he’s on Tumblr. Despite Steve’s best efforts at denial, these websites persist in existing. Darcy takes one of the coffee trays from him and says that it’s been tagged with captain america, coffee!11!, i’ll take your order, captain america’s americanos, CAPuccino, i’ll take mine to go, i’ll have a large, i’ll have a venti and, Darcy’s personal favourite, i’ll have what he’s having.
The coffees are distributed: the two Americanos go to Tony and Bruce, the caramel latte is Clint’s, the chai latte is Natasha’s and the cappucino is for Sitwell, who’s been assigned to live onsite for the summer.
“Aren’t you having anything, Cap?” asks Natasha, her hands wrapping around her drink as she regards him with narrowed eyes.
He shrugs. He just wanted a coffee. “Let’s get this meeting started,” he says.
“Fury wants us to wait-”
Steve sits down at the head of the table. “Does he have new intel, Jasper?”
Sitwell’s already vibrating from his coffee. Bruce tips half of his coffee into a chipped, white Stark Industries mug and pushes it towards Steve.
“I’m cutting down,” he says, a soft smile on his face, almost apologetic.
“Thank you, Bruce,” says Steve and something unfurls a little inside him.
Fury is late and Steve pretends that he is not put out by that. Punctuality is something, he thinks, that has long gone by the wayside.
“It’s HYDRA,” says Fury, distributing file folders.
“How many times, Nick?” says Tony, refusing to accept the folder. “Also, paper. So last century.”
“I thought HYDRA was last century,” says Steve. He thinks he is last century too but the others are too polite to say so.
“Well,” says Fury. “They’re back and, without the Tesseract, they’re looking for new sources of sustainable power.”
“Can’t we just tell them that the cube is in Asgard and closed for business?” asks Bruce. Steve sips his coffee.
“Are they really HYDRA?” he asks. It doesn’t make sense to him, that HYDRA would re-emerge after all these years.
“Maybe a derivative,” says Fury, “or the bastard grandchild but there’s enough similarity in pattern to raise suspicions and hackles.”
“What do you mean?” asks Steve, leafing through the file in front of him. Whatever Tony says, Steve likes the feel of paper between his fingers. Paper cuts heal so quickly now, too. Before Fury answers, Steve’s insides freeze. He knows what freezing is and this is a bad day.
“An entire battalion have gone missing near the Uzbeki border - what they were doing there has yet to be clarified - but air recon has identified two installations that no one is claiming. Not us, not the locals, no one.” Fury pushes some grainy aerial photos towards Steve and he nods tightly.
“Sure looks like HYDRA,” he says. He shivers but Natasha’s hand is between his shoulder blades and Bruce leans in a little closer as he peers at the photos over his glasses. Steve points at various locations. “This is where the containment cells were but there are isolation chambers and I guess the, uh, labs? On the third floor.”
“Wow, they’re really using 1940s blueprints?” asks Tony, coming to stand behind Steve. He leans over Steve's shoulder and frowns and he smells of coffee and sulphur and metal.
Steve nods again. His finger presses heavily on the top photograph. And here is a man, strapped to a table, reciting his name, his rank, his serial number and he is not yet dead.
“Wheels up in half an hour,” he says. His hand closes into a fist.
“Don’t we need a plan of attack?” asks Tony. His tone is flat.
“You know this line, Tony,” says Steve. “I have a plan.”
“I’m no one’s role model, Cap,” says Tony.
“I’ll go alone if I have to,” says Steve. “I’ve done it before.”
“Yes, but, Cap?” Natasha’s looking at him thoughtfully. “This time, they probably know you’re coming.” She smiles. “But they don’t know about us. Not really.”
“Of course we’re coming with you, Cap,” says Clint, like it was never up for discussion.
“I wouldn’t mind stretching the Other Guy’s legs,” says Bruce, mild as anything.
“Great,” says Tony. “It’s a party. All for one and one for all. Go on, captain, my captain. Say it.”
Steve raises his head. “Suit up.”
He knows that, when they have the time and are not thinking solely of themselves, they worry for him and it warms his heart, a little. It is hard to warm his heart in a hard, cruel century and it is hard to warm a heart encased in ice for so very long but his team does try.
Natasha has visited him, on his carefully appointed floor of Stark Tower, and she has curled up at the end of his couch, and they have talked.
“The time has come,” Steve murmurs, into a crystal glass of some expensive single malt Scotch that is entirely wasted on him.
“To talk of many things?” Natasha lips quirk up into a smile, red as anything. In an instant, she is beside Steve, and her fingers curl around his wrist as though she is feeling his pulse.
Steve thinks of saying that she reminds him of Peggy but that is lazy and it would not be right; not all strong women are the same just as not all men are strong equally. He sips his Laphroaig. He is contemplative and Natasha is warm.
She plucks the glass out of his hand and sets it on the glass-topped coffee table and then she is in his lap and in this world of profanity and casual blasphemy, it is only one more sin. It is only one more secret to be pressed into a creamy sketchpad with too-black charcoal smears.
“We’ve all got something to prove,” says Clint. He’s sitting next to Steve and Tony and Natasha are up front. “Except for you, Cap’n.”
Steve opens his mouth to object but then closes it again.
“You died for your country,” Clint says. He fiddles with the buckles of his safety harness. “That’s a free pass for at least a decade. You’ve officially earned the right to be a grumpy old man.”
“Who says I’m not?” asks Steve.
“No, I’ve seen you crack a smile,” says Bruce, sitting opposite. He takes off his glasses and stows them neatly in his briefcase. He takes out a tablet and starts to read. Steve looks at Clint. Clint shrugs.
“He’s the smartest one, remember?”
“Hey,” says Tony from the front.
“Children,” says Steve mildly. “Behave or I’ll get Natasha to turn this jet around.”
They talk about the luck of the Irish. Joseph and Sarah Rogers were both the children of Irish immigrants. Joseph Rogers died two months before the birth of his son. He died six months before the end of the First World War.
Steve hopes that they would be proud of him, even if they might not recognise the man he has become. He thinks he has made his own luck, aside from interventions in Alaska and in Boston and airborne heroics in Manhattan, aside from being exhumed and aside from the Avengers and the Howling Commandos being wayward bands of fortune and misfortune.
He has made his own luck.
When they reach their target and Tony scowls at the Friendship Bridge and no one asks if he’s going to be okay. They’d sooner ask Steve how he feels about the Arctic Circle.
The base is exactly as Steve expected; it’s the image of any number of liberated, immolated HYDRA bases he encountered or he burned in Continental Europe seventy years ago. The difference is that, on arrival here, there’s already thick black smoke pouring from the highest windows and a lower tier of windows explodes outwards and there are screams.
As they plough through the chain-link fence, Bruce transforms with the slick, sickly crunching sound that makes Steve shiver (and there’s guilt, too, and you don’t have one of those, do you? and somehow, they got it right with him, and he does not erupt into an unkillable green monster and he will never be like Schmidt). Tony and Thor take off and Clint claps Steve on the shoulder. It might be commiseration that Steve’s stuck on the ground with the regular kids but there’s nothing regular about Hawkeye and the Black Widow.
“Shit, you guys, they’re out, they’re already fucking out-” Tony’s voice always sounds different when he’s suited up and it’s crackling now.
“Use your words, Iron Man,” says Clint. “Holy shit-”
Behind the base, armed with HYDRA weaponry, which seem to emits a rather sickly aquamarine glow, are the American soldiers they’ve come to liberate.
“So, uh, does that mean our job here is done?” asks Tony.
“What do you see, Iron Man?” asks Steve. He jumps out of the jeep before Natasha pulls up and he takes off at a run towards the building.
“What do you mean - oh. I getcha, Cap. There’s nowhere else to run.”
All of the incendiary devices and outbreaks of arson have been strategically placed to ensure that every HYDRA operative is forced out through the same exit and straight into the custody of the soldiers, who look grim but, as yet, disinclined to retaliate. Each HYDRA operative relinquishes their weapon and puts their hands up and Tony’s right. There’s barely anything left for the Avengers to do.
“How’d’you guys do it?” asks Clint. The nearest officer salutes him sharply, which prompts the widest shit-eating grin Steve’s ever seen on Clint’s face. “Yeah, yeah. At ease. Now, what the fuck?”
“It wasn’t us, sir,” says the officer. He’s young and pale and probably pretty terrified. “I mean, it was that guy - “ He gestures with the weapon he’s holding. “Is he with you? He just tore the place apart-”
“Ah, that guy,” says Clint, sagely. “Of course. Must be one of ours.”
“So some guy comes sweeping in here and single-handedly frees a bunch of soldiers?” Tony asks. He hums. “Sounds familiar.”
“Where did he go?” asks Steve. He hefts up his shield and can’t quite look away from the building, which is starting to fold in on itself.
“I don’t know, sir. He went back in to see if there was anyone else inside.”
“Amateurs,” mutters Clint. “This is what happens when civilians think they’re heroes.”
“With all due respect, sir, I’m pretty sure this guy’s not a civilian. He talked like a soldier, for sure.”
“And he’s still inside?” asks Steve.
“It’s the only way out, Steve,” says Tony. “I can see Thor and the big guy trying to contain it but the roof’s falling in-”
Steve doesn’t look at Natasha. He doesn’t need to look to know she’s falling into step with him as he runs towards that one door and she’s pulling ahead, scaling the outside of the building.
“Is there something in the fucking water?” asks Clint, his voice a disbelieving mutter, and it’s the last thing Steve hears before a blast throws him back and to the side and everything is ringing in his ears and -
“Up, Steve, c’mon, up.”
“Is Jacques - ?”
“Long clear. You know he doesn’t wait around. C’mon, buddy. Need you on your feet. You’re a dead weight, c’mon -”
Steve’s legs are wobbling but he’s up, he’s up, and another HYDRA base is down and if he just, if he can, if he turns towards Bucky and wraps an arm around his shoulder, and buries his nose against his neck, just briefly, just long enough to smell Bucky and soap and the leather of Steve’s own gloves and he’s not a little boy anymore but -
- he opens his eyes and everything is concentric greying circles until he blinks a few times to bring the world back into startlingly sharp focus. Natasha is in a first-floor window and she back-flips down and it is graceful and almost balletic and she is caught by the man standing on the ground outside, the man who is covered in ash and cinders, who kisses the back of her hand, as though he has ever known a moment of chivalry in his whole life.
The man is wearing a long navy coat, and his hair hangs over his forehead, and he is looking at Natasha intently and she is looking back and everyone, from the HYDRA captives to the Hulk, is holding their breath.
He blinks and Natasha’s lips quirk into a smile and he bursts out laughing.
“Decades later and you always win, Наташка,” he says and his voice is rough.
“Sorry to interrupt the staring contest, kids,” says Tony because he always has to interrupt every moment. “But we’ve got some guys bleeding out over here. Sure, they’re HYDRA and all but - ”
“Don’t you have a cautery setting on those repulsors?” Bruce is back to normal, pale and leaning against Thor.
“I don’t,” says Tony in a way that implies he’s already thinking about how to address this glaring defect. “JARVIS, what’s the appropriate voltage to generate - ”
Steve gets to his feet and picks up his shield. He spends an unnecessary moment dusting it off, examining it for impossible flaws, and he imagines he can see dents from Peggy’s bullets.
“Who is this guy?” asks Clint. “Or are we just gonna - holy fuck is that a metal hand?”
Steve looks and it is time to be brave. He takes the first step and the other steps towards him and his eyes are still the same, clear and piercing and laughing at some joke that Steve never quite got.
“You look like a kid I once knew,” says the other.
Steve shakes his head. “You’re a long way from home.”
“Said I’d follow you, didn’t I?”
Steve pulls off his gloves and his palms are on the sides of Bucky’s neck and there is a pulse, strong and steady, flickering beneath his thumbs, and now there is a hand on each side of his own face, and one is callused skin and the other is cool metal, and Steve is forehead to forehead with Bucky.
“You’re one to talk.”
“No, but - ” Steve’s voice wavers. He closes his eyes. He doesn’t really pay much attention to Clint’s voice over the comms (so when they said sidekick?). “No, but, Bucky. You’re alive.”
“Always said you were the smart one.”
And what Steve wants, oh, what he wants is to lean closer, to lick along the seam of Bucky’s pursed and pouting lips. Instead, he loops his arms around him and buries his nose against Bucky’s neck.
“Why’re you wearing a coat?” he asks. “It’s summer and it’s Afghanistan - “
“Says the guy who’s still wearing tights after all this time?”
“Can we keep him, Cap?”
“Shut up, Tony.”
It’s a long flight home because Fury wants time to put the World Security Council in their place.
“He wants to stick a goddamned flag in Barnes, you’ll see. Property of SHIELD.”
“I think a flag’s already been planted, Stark.”
“Shut up, Barton. And get your feet off the damned console.”
Brooklyn is still home, except when Tony complains about the empty floors in the Mansion he built especially for the Avengers.
(“The building that was Stark Tower, you mean?” asks Bruce.
“Built especially for you guys,” says Tony.)
Those are the days when Steve says they should go back and Natasha unfolds from the window-seat and glides her hand through Bucky’s hair.
“Anything for a quiet life?” she asks.
“Because quiet and Stark go together so well,” says Bucky, turning a page of the history book he’s reading.
“Alexander the Great?” asks Steve, settling down next to him and gliding a finger down the spine of the book.
“There’s a great bit about Hephaistion’s thighs,” says Bucky. “Shall I read it to you?”
Steve does not blush. “Maybe we should pack,” he says.
“For the great expedition into Manhattan?” asks Bucky, his eyebrows drawing together. “You know Tony has everything anyone could ever want or need, don’t you?”
“How’s life in the care home?” asks Tony.
“Don’t be a hater,” says Bucky. “You’re jealous of our youthful good looks.”
Tony points at Steve. “Decades in a sheet of ice.” He points at Bucky. “Decades floating in a tub of cryogenic goo.” He points at Natasha. “Fuck knows, but it’s working for you.” He shakes his head. “I’m not jealous.”
“He’s Iron Man,” says Bruce, mildly.
“That’s right. I’m motherfucking Iron Man. I’m officially the coolest - “
Steve raises his hand. “Decades in a sheet of ice over here?”
“Cryogenically frozen,” says Bucky. “Can’t get any cooler than that.”
“Actually, that’s a pretty good point. Sorry, Cap. You’re out. Barnes is my new favourite relic of bygone times.”
“There’s this other part,” says Steve, curling around Bucky, his hand resting on Bucky’s upper thigh.
“Hmm?” Bucky leans back, head turning towards Steve.
“He too is Alexander.”
Sometimes, Captain America has a bad day. Sometimes, he shouts at his team and sometimes, they snarl back. Sometimes, he cuts himself shaving. Sometimes, still, he burns the coffee because it turns out that he’s not perfect.
And sometimes, he wakes up and Natasha is sprawled on top of him, loose-limbed and relaxed, and Bucky’s somehow taking up most of the bed, diagonally spread-eagled across it.
And sometimes, he doesn’t shave at all and they arrive at SHIELD together and Tony looks at them like his brain is breaking a little, like Howard might have left something pretty vital out of Steve’s file because he’s some sort of magnet for Russian-trained assassins and this was not in the goddamned care and feeding manual.
When Clint points out that Steve is not without charm, Tony looks at him sadly.
“Et tu, Barton?”
Tony was right, though, as he so often is. Steve Rogers does lead a charmed life. Flags have been planted and he has always known which side he’s on (it’s the side with Bucky and Natasha, and with Tony and with Clint; it’s the side with the Avengers and sometimes with SHIELD and it’s not the side with websites, even if they make Bucky laugh, and it’s not the side where the little guy gets overlooked) and it’s enough. When Steve says suit up, as he always must, and Natasha’s nails dig into the skin of his wrist and Bucky’s stubble brushes against the side of his neck, it’s more than enough.