Steve kneaded his temples with his fingers. His head still hurt from the battle they just finished. Part of him knew this wasn't from the brick wall he flew through. It wasn't from that horrible face plant against the road sign advertising the location of the nearest Wal-Mart either. Tony would never let him live that one down. He had a stress headache. Captain America, practically invincible, never affected, Steve Rogers, had a headache.
Bruce was never supposed to be involved in this one. He was not supposed to be lying in a hospital bed right now. And Steve felt guilty as hell. It was a SHIELD operation. Clint and Steve were doing a simple recon mission. No mission was ever really simple, but it had been halfway across the country. The rest of the Avengers weren't going to be anywhere near danger. Bruce should have been completely free to be as complacent as possible. Bruce hated violence. He hated the things the Hulk would do, how much pain he could accidently cause. So Steve always tried to keep him away from it.
It was foolish, considering they were an elite squad of "superheroes" that were hired to tackle the big, bad, and ugly of the super-villain variety. It was their job to fight. They were destined to do this, Fury had contemplated once. Steve listened to his superiors, he really did. But that was a line of bull. They were a group of lost and broken misfits thrown together as a failsafe for humanity. None of them had signed up to save the world. Tony only recently realized he had a noble bone in his body, as did Natasha. Any aspiration Clint had for a normal life was crushed the minute he was born. Thor was Thor. Thor was…awesome. Bruce had made a mistake, and paid a huge price for it.
Bruce wasn't built for this.
So maybe it was a little odd, that Steve tried to shelter Bruce from violence, even though the man was a good twenty years older than him, had lived through a horrible childhood, had already been exposed to a thousand different types of war, and came out alive. Everything in Bruce's life had been so tough, and Steve hated it. He couldn't stand bullies, but despised seeing anyone he knew in pain more.
Because when it was all broken down, Steve Rogers was a like a mother bear with her cubs. Family was just so far and few between for him, he couldn't help but guard it as closely as possible. He couldn't help it. The laundry list of dead loved ones he had behind him was long enough. He had a breaking point. He knew he did. So if extreme paranoia and fierce protectiveness were what kept him from reaching that line, it was okay. He woke up in this century and he was dealing. He was trying, anyway.
Bruce and Steve had developed a quiet friendship. There was a certain understanding that they both knew where the other was coming from. They were both a little lost. Steve appreciated Bruce's mild temperament, as ironic as it sounded. Bruce seemed like he respected him, and when you lived in Tony's mansion, that was appreciated.
"Captain, you can see him now."
Steve looked up into the slightly awed eyes of the doctor. "How is he?"
The weathered lines on her face creased with a smile. She gestured for him to follow her, and he stood, looming just behind her petite figure. She looked older, which was good, that meant experienced.
"The head injury was worrying at first. But the pressure on his brain has rapidly decreased, and that's exactly what we want. We stitched the wound on his forehead, and the drugs should almost be flushed out. The test results came back, and it turns out that he was given a very lethal combination of sedatives. They were practically tranquilizers. Fortunately, his system flushed them out with no problems."
Steve heaved an aching sigh of relief. "So he's awake? He's going to be okay?"
She turned her head and smiled at him, "You got there in time, Captain. Dr. Banner is going to be just fine."
"It was my team and I, ma'am. We got there in time."
She laughed softly and veered off to the left. Steve came around the corner, finding her leaning against a doorknob.
"You're as good as they say you are. It was nice meeting you."
He nodded his head in return and slipped through the doorway. Steve was promptly introduced to his Other Guy: guilt.
Bruce had a white bandage stuck to his forehead, two IV lines running up his arm, and vivid bruises around his neck. But his eyes were open, and he smiled when Steve walked in.
Steve frowned, concern tensing his muscles as his gaze traveled up Bruce's supine form on the bed.
The ones responsible for Bruce's condition were dead. Steve was positive. He'd shot three between the eyes. Point blank.
Steve was not a murderous man, but yet everyone seemed to forget that, four months ago, he was in World War Two. He was watching men go down like flies. It was kill or be killed. The American public could believe he was as innocent as they wanted to; he'd been in a war.
War was hell.
"Hey, Steve," Bruce started. His voice was raspy with disuse. He'd been gone for two days before his team had found him.
Steve swallowed, remembering the dread that had curled in his stomach when Coulson had called him. Bruce had been captured from right underneath SHIELD's nose. He was just gone. Steve had immediately aborted the mission. A nerve-wracking fourteen hour flight later, in which Steve learned how to use an iPad on the fly, two hours of Tony scrambling with his computer-in-the-wall, one hour of frenzied strategy, and Steve was busting down the door and finding Bruce unconscious on the floor.
He'd been so angry, so ready to just lose control, but he was Captain America.
Captain America did not kill and did not lose control.
Steve could still see the surprise coloring Natasha's face when she walked in just as he shot the man who was holding a needle and laughing.
He still had a smile on his face when his heart stopped beating.
"Steve?" Bruce repeated.
Blinking, Steve stepped closer and sunk into the chair next to the bed. "How are you feeling?" he asked, not quite ready to meet the other man's eyes.
"I've been better," he conceded. He looked exhausted.
Steve exhaled slowly. "Do you remember what happened?"
"Not much. I was going back to my apartment when I was ambushed. The Other Guy didn't have time to defend me before they drugged me." He frowned, hand drifting to his neck. "I admit that didn't feel the best. I vaguely remember hearing shots go off. I'm assuming that was my rescue team." He smiled at Steve. "Thanks for that, by the way."
Steve's eyebrows furrowed.
"You need to learn hand-to-hand."
Bruce chuckled. He looked awfully small in the hospital gown he was wearing. He was just so sad. "I'm not really interested in fighting, Steve. One wrong move and—"
"You still need to learn hand-to-hand."
Bruce blurted out a short laugh. It was rare that he ever did that, laughed without reservation. It gave Steve some sort of satisfaction, although slight, that he'd gotten there in time. Bruce hadn't been awake for any of it. He was okay. It was still a frightening experience, but dug his pain no deeper.
"Is that an order, Captain Rogers?" Bruce asked.
Steve crossed his arms. "No, mostly because we're friends. But," he sat back, a determined expression on his face as his next words slid out in a rushed breath, "I can make it one if you don't take a few lessons."
Bruce sighed. "You're right. I don't feel like experiencing a repeat of yesterday."
"You were unconscious for two days," Steve inserted heavily.
For once, he managed to look alarmed about his condition. "You really know how to charm a guy, Steve. You know that?"
Steve stood, his back aching from the hard fall he'd taken on his way through the tunnel that had led to Bruce's cage. It hadn't been lightly guarded. He lumbered to the end of Bruce's bed and perched on the mattress. He looked back, watching Bruce's drowsy blinks.
"Go to sleep. I've got watch."
Bruce lazily nudged Steve's hip with his foot. "You always do, Steve. You always do."
Part of him wondered if that was a good thing.
"The good doctor Jane and I seem to have had a disagreement."
Steve took another bite of his omelet and chewed slowly.
Steve liked Thor. A lot. Thor with his booming personality, cut and dry honesty, and good-natured intentions. Thor didn't have personal demons by the hundreds sitting in his closet. Thor didn't require special handling if you wanted him to respect you. Thor didn't question every order he gave him. Thor was willing to follow Steve into any battle, simply because he thought Steve was worthy.
Thor was all about worthiness. Steve didn't quite get it. He didn't know how he'd somehow earned such complete trust from the Asgardian. He didn't want to examine his worth either. In this America, his worth was pennies. He went from the willing pawn, taking blows for everyone else simply because he could handle them, to the chess player, shaking hands orchestrating every move.
When Tony had said he wasn't of use during that first battle, he wasn't wrong. Even if it was said in the heat of an argument, he'd been right.
Steve was outgunned by these men he claimed to lead.
Thor especially. Thor was a god, because apparently there wasn't just the Good Lord upstairs anymore, there were other dimensions.
But there was something naïve about Thor. He didn't have death flickering in his eyes. He wasn't guilty, or lonely, perpetually angry, or a loose cannon of repressed emotion. Asgardians rarely died, rarely fought, and seemed like the pinnacle of the entire point of existence.
They just sounded so much smarter than human beings. Thor had described it perfectly with the word petty. Humans were petty creatures. They killed and maimed for reasons they couldn't even place. Some killed just because they could.
Steve had seen the pictures.
Thor was the happy one in their group. That was something to protect. He kept them sane when insanity felt like the only option. Steve tried, he really did, but he couldn't muster enough good cheer to carry them that way. He simply did everything he could to get them off the battlefield alive. He figured he lost his sense of humor between War World Two and everyone who listened to what he said dying.
So Thor was part child sometimes, and Steve wanted it to stay that way.
"Thor, I'm not sure I'm the right person to go to for relationship advice."
Apparently not caring, Thor took a seat on the other side of the bar, facing Steve.
"You always seem well-directed in battle. Does this skill not translate into the ways of human courtship?"
Steve contemplated this for a moment. No, no, it didn't. Steve wasn't exactly a charmer. He had grown up so little, so used to girls skipping over him for Bucky. Countless memories of being the awkward third wheel stabbed him in the heart, so he searched for an escape.
"I'm sure there are better people you could ask," Steve said.
Thor looked strangely human, dressed in jeans and a button down shirt. Steve sometimes forgot that his team had lives outside the Avengers.
He was probably the only one who didn't.
"Why, who would you suggest?" Thor asked.
Steve set down his fork and thought about it. "Cli—" No, Clint was wading waist-deep in a painful looking rut called Natasha. He didn't understand their relationship at all. "You could ask Bru—" He wasn't even sure if Bruce had a girlfriend. "What about Ton—" Oh, lord, he wouldn't curse Thor like that. He sighed, pushing his plate in front of him. He really sacrificed a lot for this job. Did he have a pension? "What did you two argue about?"
"Jane does not want me to return to Asgard. She feels as though I am absent from Earth too often." His face crumpled. "I do not wish to upset her, yet I miss my family."
Steve debated this for a moment. "Well, I'm sure you two could make a compromise. Family is very important. She probably understands that."
"I was recently home at the turn of the month. This is where my lady finds fault. I do not want to see her angry, but my father feels things are tenuous on my planet. I want to help."
Thor looked genuinely concerned. He was a powerful man, but on the emotional standpoint of things, he wasn't good with humans. Especially females. Steve didn't get females, either. He didn't want to see Thor manipulated, but Jane was a good person, and she wouldn't do that, at least he hoped.
"This is a problem you should discuss with her, Thor. I'm not exactly the best at these things."
Thor flicked Steve's coffee cup between his two massive hands. "Well, she is not happy with me at the moment," he remarked.
"Because you want to go home?"
Thor's nose crumpled. He really was a child in some ways. "I believe because I said some things I shouldn't have. She doesn't like it when I raise my tone."
"So you yelled at her?" Steve asked, mildly surprised.
Thor nodded, and then looked down at his watch.
Steve normally frowned when he heard of men disrespecting ladies, but Thor just didn't realize a regular octave in his world was breaking glass on Earth.
"I do suppose I should be going now. I have to meet Darcy." Thor stood and came around the table. He clapped a warm hand on Steve's shoulder. "You're a good man, Captain. You care deeply for your team. A lady would be blessed to have you on her arm!"
Steve offered up a weak smile. Thor grinned and headed towards the door. "Hey, Thor," Steve called out right before he was about to leave. The god turned back to him. "Bring flowers…Women. They love flowers."
Thor shook his head in understanding. "Flowers, says the good captain. I will do that!"
Steve heard the door click shut, and looked up. "JARVIS, could you make sure he doesn't assault the cab driver like last time?"
"Of course, Mr. Rogers."
Steve picked up his fork and looked at his food. It was probably cold by now. He was seeing a vivid flash of dark eyes and smiling lips. Sometimes he missed her so much he just wanted to lie down and not move for days.
"Are you all right, Captain Rogers?" the automated British accent asked.
Steve stared at the countertop.
He inhaled and exhaled slowly.
Clint was missing.
He could be dead, dying. Suffocating.
Steve cursed and ran his hand down his face.
They killed the bad guy. Clint shouldn't even be close to danger now. This was bad. This was really, really bad.
Steve had made a mistake.
Tony had just taken out the last drone, so Steve called Clint down from the top of an office building so they get could get reconnected and decide where to begin on the clean-up. Luckily, they had evacuated as many people as they could in a four mile radius, but the wreckage was massive, and Steve was getting reports of civilians that were trapped in the ruins on the outskirts of the yellow tape.
Steve heard the explosion before he saw it, and Clint wasn't answering his comm.
He started sprinting toward the dust cloud, hand pressed to his ear. "Hawkeye? Clint? Damnit! Tony, can you see anything down there?"
"I'm seeing a lot of dirt, Cap. Clint's comm. is completely down."
Steve growled and ran faster, jumping over blocks of cement and destroyed cars. "Do you think you could calculate where he might've landed? That blast must've thrown him a few."
"JARVIS is on it. You're about four blocks away from the explosion."
Steve stepped up his speed. "Widow, are you there?"
"I'm on the other side of town, Captain. I'll be there as soon as possible."
The strain in her voice was painfully obvious.
"Are you hurt?" he demanded.
Her breath hitched. "I broke my wrist. I'll be there."
"Get it checked out first. Tony and I have already started looking."
Steve bounded off an overturned Volkswagen and faced the remains of the building. This was not good. This was definitely not good.
"Natasha," he added patiently. "We'll find him."
She exhaled sharply. "I'll be there as soon as possible."
There was a rushing noise, and Iron Man landed beside him. Steve carefully looked him over. The armor was dented and scratched in a few places, but he'd seen him look worse, a lot worse.
"Are you all right?" he asked critically.
Tony flicked his mask up just so Steve could see him roll his eyes. "I'm fine. Nice eye shadow, by the way. Purple's your color."
"Do you have an idea of where Hawkeye is?" Steve asked.
Tony plopped the Iron Man face back down. "He's approximately 36 degrees left and about 120 feet in front of us. JARVIS says he's getting a temperature reading, but that could be excess heat from the blast. Where's Hulk?"
They heard a roar.
"Coming," Steve said. He looked at Tony. "Can JARVIS figure out what we can move without making anything collapse?"
"Considering I made him, yes, yes he can."
The Hulk lumbered up to Steve and Tony, shaking buildings and crumpling weak concrete.
Steve craned his neck to look at him. "Hulk, I need you to lift a few things for me, okay? Hawkeye's trapped in the building. We're going to get him out. Can you do that, buddy?"
The Hulk shook his head, an expression of concern that mirrored Bruce's.
Tony hovered off the ground a few feet. "So the largest game of Jenga ever played begins. Let's find Robin Hood, pal."
Steve watched them, apprehension making every muscle in his body rigid.
He and Clint had a very competent working friendship. After Steve had woken from his time in the iceberg, and after the Chitauri invasion, h'd needed something to do. So he joined SHIELD. One especially dangerous mission with Clint, a few times saving the other's life, and they had an easygoing companionship. Clint was an unassuming man. He didn't demand anything from Steve, didn't push like Tony did, or make him wary like Natasha did.
What Steve truly appreciated about their friendship, was that on the field, they read each other's actions like a book. It was a relief not having to worry about Clint deviating from plans. Clint was straightforward. He was reliable, and an absolutely amazing shot. He had good instincts, all the intangibles.
Clint was his friend, his soldier, and that slid him right under the umbrella Steve had over the Avengers. Natasha would be gone without him, Thor wouldn't have anyone to watch the "Pawn Stars" with, and Tony would be missing a valuable partner in crime for all the stupid pranks he pulled.
The Hulk had removed at least ten large pieces of plaster and brick, and there was still no sign of Clint. Steve hovered in the background, as Tony flitted around like a hummingbird, directing which things for Bruce to pick up.
"Cap! JARVIS has got a reading, but there's a web of steel bars that Hulk can't move without collapsing the entire building on Hawkeye."
Steve jumped closer, onto the pile Hulk had created. He could see the hole that was dark, but open, their only way to Clint.
Iron Man looked at Steve.
"I hope you brought your dancing shoes, because it's going to take noodles to slide through this."
Steve gave him a funny look. "Noodles?"
Tony shrugged. "My head hurts. Don't expect perfection. Where's Natasha? We could really use her bendy self in this situation."
"She's got a broken wrist. She's out. I can do it."
Before Tony could get another snarky comment in, Steve stepped forward and wiggled into the entrance of the wreckage. They had uncovered a tunnel of sorts, although it was crisscrossed with rebar and long steel poles that the Iron Man suit couldn't possible fit through. It was a bit like maneuvering on the jungle gyms he saw on playgrounds, except the stakes were much higher, and he was a lot bigger.
He was only about ten feet in, and he could have sworn his legs were not meant to bend like that, when Tony chimed in.
"Wow, Steve, you are quite flexible for one so…stiff. Does that translate into other areas in your life? I bet it does. Oh, how gymnasts would have fun with you."
"Tony?" Steve stopped him, out of breath from his strained position. "You remember that time in Reno? With the wait staff? And the goo? Because I do."
He heard Tony's voice get quieter as he probably turned away from the hole and talked to Hulk.
"I think I just got blackmailed by Captain America. Is that even legal? That can't be legal. I'm going to protest. With picket signs. And face paint. Oh, imagine the people I'd piss off if I brought in a bunch of liberal college students!"
Steve stopped long enough to smirk as he wiggled through a very slim opening on his stomach. The dust was incredibly thick, threatening to clog his throat, but he held his breath and kept weaving forward.
"Hawkeye!" he called out.
He heard the groaning of shifting metal reply. Damn. If Clint wasn't conscious, Steve could spend hours crawling around without direction.
"Clint!" he tried again.
Someone coughed. "Steve?"
Clint's voice was quiet and raspy, but alive. Steve stopped, muscles trembling, and rested his forehead on a bar in front of him, heaving a sigh of relief. Too close. Much too close.
"Clint, just keep talking. I'm coming, okay?"
There was a chorus of coughing and a frustrated moan. "Oh, damn. I hate bombs. I hate people. I hate office buildings. What kind of man works in a cubicle? It's like your very own hell box. I'd rather be getting gunned down in Iraq than stuck in one of those. Actually, Nebraska was worse than Baghdad. Who would've thought? The capital of Kool-Aid is worse than the Middle East. Well, I guess it depends on who you talk to. There were snakes in Nebraska. I hate snakes."
Clint's rambles were getting clearer, and pretty soon he sounded like he was a few feet away. Steve paused in confusion. He was surrounded in darkness, the barest of light filtering through the debris above him. There was a large desk in his way.
If he moved it, Clint would be on the other side, but if it was supporting a large amount of weight, he would get them both crushed.
"Steve? You still there?"
Steve hesitantly wiggled the desk. It wasn't that heavy, but a large piece of unbroken plaster rested on an angle above it. Part of him wondered how the hell that could possibly happen, but the other knew it could easily kill them both. He felt around him. There was a large steel bar propped against the desk, creating a triangle with the ground. If he pushed it up and got it on top of the bar that was sitting horizontally above it, it might hold.
"Yes, darling?" the archer replied in a snarky tone.
Steve positioned his shoulder underneath the support beam. "Brace yourself."
He heaved upward, the bar squealing against the metal desk, and with a heavy jerk, it slipped onto the top of the metal. The desk shuddered under the weight. Steve pushed again, but it didn't move. He had no idea how much weight the thing was holding now. Clint was coughing hard. Really hard. Steve planted his feet and shoved with everything he had. For a frightening two seconds, the bar was only held up by him, and then he pushed it onto the other beam.
Everything shifted above him, and Steve was throwing the desk to the side, diving over the slumped figure of Clint on the ground. There was a screeching of metal on metal, and a glass window shattered over Steve's back. His suit protected him from the shards, but it had landed on him standing up, a heavy pain lining the small of his back.
He swallowed his groan and looked down at Clint.
The archer was blinking rapidly, blue eyes red with dust.
"You look good, Cap."
Steve laughed breathlessly, propped over Clint's head.
"Watch the bombs, would you?" he asked.
Clint patted his arm. "Man, the day you fail is the day the world ends."
"We'll go with that, Clint. We'll go with that."
"Put the gun down, Nat."
Steve stepped closer. She stepped back.
"They're dead, Natasha. They can't hurt you anymore."
Her blood-splattered face was completely blank. She wouldn't hesitate to shoot him. Natasha had always tiptoed the line of friend and enemy, and some days he didn't know which one she was.
The Black Widow was only recently involved with the lighter side of humanity. She had danced in the gray area for a long time. She was neither good nor evil.
Steve had never had such an anomaly on his team before. He had never had to watch, worry about someone turning a pistol on him in his sleep.
She was exceptional. There was no one better. She could manipulate the best agents on the planet to their knees. She was cold, and she was good.
But she was also human.
Steve inched closer, hands raised in defense. "Natasha."
The Black Widow was completely in control here. The Natasha he saw slinking around the Tower in pretty dresses was nowhere to be found. She was like an alter ego, a complex mask she rarely wore.
"They tried to touch me, Captain Rogers," her smooth voice replied.
He moved forward.
"And now they're dead," he placated, copying her tone. He was within a foot of her. Steve carefully reached for the gun in her hand. She swiftly pointed it between his eyes. His breath caught in his throat. "Natasha, you don't want to do that."
"Do I?" She tilted her head, hand not trembling a breadth.
Steve looked her in the eye. "No, you don't."
She dropped her arm. "They tied me to the ground. I couldn't get out. They touched me."
"But I came in time, Natasha."
She swallowed thickly, jaw grinding. Her eyes were black. Slowly wrapping his fingers around her hand, Steve tugged the gun from her grip, thumbed the safety on, and tossed it to the side.
Natasha kicked the dead man out of her path, and started towards the door. It wasn't Steve's best idea of the night, nothing like the unusual chance he'd taken splitting off from the rest of the group without telling them, but he grabbed her wrist as she tried to step in front of him.
Her fingers tightened reflexively, turning and staring him down like one of men she'd just killed point blank.
"You're fine," he said weakly, trying to remind her. It was a horrible idea. This was the Black Widow. She didn't care about meaningless platitudes. She could murder him with one move. He would be a useless pile at her feet.
Her features lightened almost imperceptibly.
"Thank you for getting here in time, Steve. I'm incredibly grateful."
He pulled his arm back, sliding his hand into hers. He squeezed it tightly.
"So am I."
If Steve had to choose one word to describe his friendship with Tony, it would be turbulent. They were complete opposites in almost every respect. Tony was all flash, fireworks, and fame. Steve was quiet, shy, and modest. He didn't like cameras, or people talking about him. Tony thrived on attention and attraction. Steve came from no money, growing up during the Depression. Tony had more than anyone could even comprehend, billions. Billionaires hadn't even existed in Steve's time.
They had an interesting connection, but Steve wasn't quite sure it was a good one. Sometimes it blew him away, that he was talking to Howard's son. Howard's son who was a good ten years older than him. Steve had wanted to ask, what Howard was like later in life, but by the time he'd worked up the courage to even speak about it, he'd gleaned enough information from Tony to learn that Howard wasn't a good father. He'd been neglectful, arrogant, and absent.
Although, he'd apparently saved Tony's life with the new atom for the arc reactor.
Steve didn't want to broach the topic, even if he felt it hanging in the room when things got quiet.
Tony had gone through some heavy stuff in Afghanistan. He'd been captured, almost killed, and got a car battery attached to his heart. Yet he'd been genius enough to construct the first Iron Man prototype in a cave and escape with his life.
Tony didn't handle it well.
First and foremost, Steve was a captain, and he knew his men. Tony didn't really cope with the memories Afghanistan had left him in a healthy way. He drank too much, risked too much, and sometimes just had a generally poisonous personality.
Steve had fought in World War Two for just about a year, watched his best friend die, watched hundreds of men die, crashed a plane into the sea, woke up 70 years in the future, and jumped into another battle three weeks later with a bunch of aliens.
He didn't drink himself into a stupor or antagonize people to the point of a fistfight. He wondered if men were built differently these days, because he wasn't allowed to break like that. He was Captain America and Captain America didn't have character flaws.
So Steve maintained his picture of complete composure, even if he felt like falling to his knees one day and never getting back up. He watched out for the Avengers with a critical eye, despite the fact that part of him knew they weren't really going to return the favor. He was okay with that. They didn't need to.
Steve had just gotten back to the Tower after visiting the nursing home and riding his motorcycle for a few hours. Always had to ride his bike afterwards.
Peggy was there and she brought up a whole disastrous mess of emotions he just couldn't deal with, so he didn't. He shoved them to the back of his mind like he did everything else that had ever crushed him, because that wasn't his thing. Feelings were definitely not his thing.
He slid off his leather jacket, threw it on his bed, and went to the bathroom to wash his face. He shook out the trembles in his hands and scrubbed the emotions from his skin. Wandering back down to the kitchen, he opened the fridge, searching for something to eat.
"JARVIS, do you know where Tony is?"
Despite his initial shock, he'd gotten used to JARVIS as the mysterious Englishmen who lived in Tony's walls and knew everything.
"Tony is currently in his lab, Mr. Rogers."
He grabbed a water bottle and started down to the basement.
"I feel as though I must warn you, Captain. He is quite intoxicated."
Steve blew out a heavy breath, continuing down the hall. "Thanks for the heads up, JARVIS."
"I am a creature of habit," the computer mused. Steve thought that was weird. Computers weren't supposed to have senses of humor. JARVIS wasn't even a creature.
The doors to Tony's lab were open, so Steve strolled through them and searched for Tony. He found the man lounging lazily on one of the couches. He had a bottle of vodka swinging between two fingers.
"Steve! Welcome…to my humble abode."
Tony was definitely intoxicated.
Steve walked forward until he was in Tony's line of vision. Tony's eyes were bloodshot from a combination of alcohol and insomnia. He laughed and held up the bottle in his hands.
"You want some?" He took a dramatic breath. "Oh! That's right. You can't get drunk. That must really suck, you know? I mean, if I couldn't get drunk…" his eyes went wide at the thought. "It'd be baaaaaad."
He hated when Tony got like this.
Steve pushed Tony's legs off the couch, grabbed his arm, and pulled him to a sitting position. Tony paled at being vertical and his head lolled drunkenly. "Whoa," he breathed. Steve waited for the inevitable, except Tony just burped loudly and giggled.
Steve rolled his eyes. "Come on," he said as he hauled Tony to his feet. "Let's get you to bed."
He looped Tony's arm over his shoulder and started dragging them towards the elevator.
"You're such a good person," Tony slurred, trying to do something that resembled walking. "Like my dad bragged about. Good, good, good."
Steve stabbed Tony's bedroom floor number and the lift started upwards.
"He searched for you for a long time, Steve. He cared more about your ghost than he did me! I mean, the guy's dead now, but ouch. Hard to measure up to a superhero, you know? You probably don't. Nope. Captain America, so damn perfect. That's what my dad thought, I think. It sucks 'cause you kinda are."
The doors opened and Steve half-carried Tony to his bed and plopped him on the mattress. Tony flopped back on the covers. Steve plucked the bottle out of his hand, and slid both his shoes off his feet.
He was about to tell JARVIS to shut off the lights when Tony grabbed his wrist.
"Hey, stay. We never talk, Steve."
Steve looked at him quizzical. "I wasn't aware we were married. And we talk all the time."
Tony jerked his arm, and Steve sat down, underestimating the man's strength while he was this wasted.
"We don't really talk though. You just look all stoic and shit and I just tell you about all the stupid projects I'm working on even though you have no idea what I'm saying."
As if he wasn't already aware of his inadequacies. Being around Bruce and Tony made a guy absolutely positive he was the dumbest primate to ever walk the earth.
"I know. It's shocking I'm capable of using opposable thumbs, isn't it?"
Tony's face crumpled and he held strong when Steve got up to leave. "I'm sorry. I'm not good with people, or serious conversations. You are, though. You're all… understanding an' shit like that. Like I said, perfect! 'S why my dad liked you way more than me. Can't blame the guy, really."
Steve felt his features harden. "I was Howard's best science project, that's it."
"Still," Tony protested. "I can't even begin to compare."
Steve looked Tony in the eye. "In a lot of ways, Tony, you're a better person than I'll ever be."
Tony barked out an incredulous laugh. "You are lying through your teeth right now, Cap."
"Listen," Steve stated. "You, Tony Stark, are kind, generous, and incredibly capable. You saved the entire island of Manhattan. You gave me a place to live, and I really appreciate that. So stop with the self-deprecating crap because I don't believe any of it. You're a great friend and a greater person."
Tony seemed to settle for a moment.
Steve was laughably adept at handling Tony. Practice made perfect, he supposed.
"Where were you today, anyways? I fixed your suit again!"
Tony was constantly adjusting all of the Avengers hardware. It was one of those things he did that showed just how much he actually cared.
Steve stood, shaking Tony's hand away. "I went to visit Peggy. Now go to sleep."
"You're so damn sad," Tony sighed dramatically. Freezing in his spot, Steve glared at Tony. The man raised his arms in defense. "Don't give me that look! I can tell. Even when you're doing your whole," he waved his hand with a complete lack of coordination toward Steve, "stoic leader thingy. It's pretty depressing, I must say. I mean, if I were you, I'd be a wreck. And you can't even get drunk! Ugh, woe is me. And you never do anything about it, either. I keep waiting for you to shoot one of us, or maybe me, but no. You just get all Captain American-y and we all think you're secretly insane."
Steve searched for something to say and came up empty. Luckily he didn't have to because Tony started snoring.
He made sure JARVIS turned down the lights and left.
They were all lounging around the living room, and for once, his whole team was in one space. It was rare that they were in the Tower at the same time, with SHIELD, battles, running companies, and being a billionaire getting in the way.
Steve was pretending he was listening to the conversation going on between Bruce and Tony about the finer points of molecular something-something, and Clint and Thor were attempting to play Connect Four, while Natasha aimlessly watched on, probably plotting their painful demise.
It was late, the moon splashing blue light through the windows, and for the first time in a long time, Steve felt sort of peaceful. It wasn't complete, or happy. He was just relaxed.
A vibrating sound drew him from his reverie, and he hastily dug his cell phone out of his pocket. It had taken an embarrassingly long time for him to figure out, but eventually he'd gotten to the point where he could use it for the simplest of things. An unknown number was calling him. He frowned, and got up, retreating to one side of the room so he didn't disturb anyone's conversation.
Steve tapped the screen and brought the phone to his ear.
"Is this Steve Rogers?" a feminine voice asked him.
Strangers almost never called him. "Yeah…" he trailed uncertainly.
"I apologize for contacting you so late in the evening. My name is Sarah and I'm calling from the East Regional Nursing Home. I regret to inform you that Peggy Carter passed away earlier this evening."
His fingers went loose. "What?"
"I'm truly sorry, sir. I know it's not of any consolation, but she died in her sleep."
The room was buzzing. Maybe that was his ear. Everything was ringing.
"But I just—" his voice broke. There had to be an explanation. An excuse.
There was a heavy sigh on the other side of the line. "I'm truly sorry, sir." Silence deadened his eardrum. He looked at the blinking time on the illuminated screen.
"Is everything alright, Steve?"
He was breathing all wrong. It was raspy, uncontrolled. He squeezed his eyes shut and scrambled to fix his features. He turned and faced the group.
"Yeah," he replied. "I'm fine," his voice broke miserably on the second word. His heart was in his throat. He sounded bad. He was fine. He was fine. They didn't need to know. They didn't need know what happened. They wouldn't care, anyway. They were finally together and they were calm. They were in one piece. He tried for a lopsided smile. "I just need to go. To my room. I need to go to my room." There were gaping holes in his words. That wasn't good.
He sounded hollow. His voice gave out at the end again. They were giving him critical looks. He turned and slowly walked to his room.
This wasn't possible. He just saw her. She was breathing. She was breathing and she was alive and she was his only connection to what it used to be. Back when he was Steve and not Captain America, and he laughed and he cried and things were vividly colorful and not gray and dead. When he was actually living and he wasn't this emotionless robot who did what he was told without regard for anything.
He saw his bedroom door, and rushed to the refuge. Once he got behind it everything would be okay. He'd be alone and not so devastatingly vulnerable. They wouldn't be able to see what was happening. He had to be fine outside that door.
He nearly tore the knob, but muscle memory had him twisting it and he was through.
She was dead.
Peggy was dead. She was gone and that meant he was gone. And her beautiful curls and her beautiful eyes and he was gone, gone, gone.
He couldn't breathe right. There was something around his lungs, squeezing them to nothing. Maybe it was his throat. It was shut.
He spun in a helpless circle, not knowing what to do. He was capable a lot of things, but break he could not. There were pictures of her on his wall. They were all the sketches he'd done. It was stupid. He could never get her jawline right, and her eyebrows were always wrong, and she was dead.
Steve lurched towards the wall. He ripped them off the tacks. Every single one. It tore a hole through the top of the paper. He didn't care. They had to be gone. He couldn't be reminded of her. They weren't right anyway. She was gone. They were pathetic. He was pathetic. He couldn't even move on.
He'd just talked to her.
There was a strange whistling noise coming from his chest. Maybe he was wheezing. He probably was. Breathing was hard.
Every day in this decade was hard. He never told anyone that, especially the Avengers. They really didn't care. He cared about them so much, but they couldn't care less. It was foolish how he tried to protect them. It was pointless. He was so unimaginably alone.
It was pointless. They all had their own lives and then there was him. He didn't belong here at all. He was absolutely useless and he was alone.
Peggy was dead.
Steve angrily crumpled every single sketch he'd made. He threw them on the floor.
He was going to break. He couldn't break. He had to keep it together. If he kept it together than nothing would hurt and he'd be fine.
Peggy was dead.
She was dead.
He would never see her smile. He would never dance with her. He would never hear her voice again.
Steve felt his legs give and connect with the carpeted floor. He didn't bother to stop it, only controlled his fall enough to leave him sitting, elbows on his knees. He shoved his fingers in his hair. He needed something to hold.
She was gone and he was alone.
His eyes were burning and he screwed up his face in an attempt to stop the tears. There's no crying in the military, son, countless colonels had told him. Nope. You're Captain America, kid. You ain't got no time to cry. An entire country is relying on you to be the strong one.
He heard the soft padding of footsteps.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. He'd left his door open. They could see it. They didn't want to see it. They shouldn't see it. They were standing in his doorway. He probably looked like the picture of weakness, sitting on his floor like this.
"I'm fine," he broke. His voice sounded too high.
His chest was heaving up and down, throat constricted to nothing.
He heard the soft whisper of, "Oh, Steve, buddy," and then there were legs kneeling next to him.
"Leave, please, " he begged. Manners. His were perfect. Peggy once said she appreciated that, that even though he was in the military he still treated her like a lady.
He dug his fingers deeper into his hair.
He was surrounded by pictures of her.
A hand landed on his shoulder. He started shaking his head. "You need to leave." He heard a strange whimper. It came from him. "You shouldn't see this."
"Steve, it's okay," someone whispered.
He jerked, trying to throw off the palm off his shoulder. "No, no, it's not. You shouldn't see this," he protested. His voice broke in an empty sob. "Leave."
He wasn't convincing at all.
"Steve, your only connection to your home is dead. Sweetheart, you're allowed to break."
That was Natasha.
He felt his features crumple even more, and he weakly shook his head. "I can't."
"Yes, you can," a voice fervently whispered. Tony. His eyes were on fire. He shut them. He heard a sharp inhale. "Steve, no one ever said you had to be strong for us."
He clutched his hair tighter. "It's my job," he pleaded. They needed to get it. He couldn't do this. If he did this than he would be allowing himself to hurt. He'd be giving in to the fact that on the inside he was absolutely crushed. And then they wouldn't even begin to respect him and everything would go to hell and he'd be alone again and, and, and…
"Not right now."
Then the tears were coming and he was curling in on himself, tipping over on his side, horribly ashamed and pained at the same time.
His head hit something solid and warm and the stupid ringing sound was back, so he covered his ears with his palms.
"I'm sorry," he apologized.
Fingers were immediately prying his hands away, and he realized he wasn't hiding from the ringing, he just didn't want to be aware that they were witnessing this in any way.
"There's nothing to be sorry for," someone crooned.
There were fingers in his hair, on his arm, warm against his side.
He took a shuddering breath, one last attempt at pulling himself back together.
"Let go," Tony said.
Steve Rogers broke.
It was pathetic and it was embarrassing. He brought his fist up to try and stifle the sobs threatening to come out, but his hand was caught and clenched. The entire time he cried, he was waiting for them to leave. They didn't.
Tony never moved his leg from underneath Steve's head. Bruce never stopped pulling his hair from his brow. Clint never shifted from where he sat next to Steve's chest, hand on his ribs like he was trying to stop them cracking. Thor never stopped whispering, low tales of mystical adventures in a faraway land. Natasha never left.
He woke up late the next morning, magically in his bed, with a familiar redhead seated on a chair next to him.
"You shouldn't find it so surprising that we care about you."
He blinked, brushing his still-swollen eye against the pillow.
Natasha gracefully crouched in front of him, the back of her hand drifting up his jaw. She really was a beautiful woman.
"They love you, Steve. They notice every single thing you do to take care of them, and they find it incredibly touching." She smiled, a genuine and coveted thing. "Just between us, so do I."
She disappeared, sometime after he slipped back into an exhausted rest, like she always did and probably always would. The next time he woke up, it was Tony perched at the foot of his bed.
"I had no idea."
Steve shifted up, feeling especially sleep-rumpled, but better than he had since he'd woken up here. The hole of desperation that had been burning in his chest for so long felt the slightest bit soothed.
"I mean, I can figure out how to fly, but I can't realize that you are convinced we all hate you."
"I don't..." he trailed off. His voice was rough from last night.
Tony shook his head. "Steve, you panicked at the idea of us helping you."
Tony threw his hands up. "I mean, I threw all of my crap at you, and you took it, and you made sure I didn't kill myself somehow, and I just thought you knew." He turned and looked Steve in the eye. "You're like, my best friend. Hell, you're practically everyone's best friend. So stop thinking like that, okay?"
Tony stood and shook out his arms. "All these emotions. They make me feel funny." He shoved his aviators on. "And Steve? I really am sorry for your loss."
He leaned down, squeezed Steve's arm, and started for the door.
"The next time you feel like having another grief explosion, which you have every right to do, actually come and talk to me. I have the gin and lesbian porn to pull us through!"
Tony Stark hit his compassion limit for the day.
Rubbing his eyes, Steve swung his legs out of the bed.
Every single one of his sketches lay in an unfolded pile on his nightstand. He slid the top paper into his hand, lightly running his finger over her smiling teeth.
Peggy Carter was dead, but Steve Rogers wasn't.