Despite its reputation, Evil doesn’t lurk in every shadow, waiting to spring. There’s just not all that much of it, when you look at the numbers. There was only one Red Skull, and only one Loki, and Steve's already helped get rid of both of them. And it's wonderful; it's perfect, that they're not out every day fighting for the streets of New York.
But, Steve isn't fighting crime either, because they have the police for that. He's not Army anymore, so they won't be sending him to Afghanistan. He's not Coast Guard, Search and Rescue, a Forest Ranger, or even a run-of-the-mill SHIELD agent, which means they don't send him out for floods, downed ships, extraction, wild fires, or anything else. Steve is starting to go a little wacky with the punching bags, because it's all the action he's seen for weeks now. He's desperate for something to do.
He tells Fury this, to no avail.
"Captain," Fury says, even more exasperated than usual, "you are a one-of-a-kind, super-powered super soldier, as well as a national icon and a member of a very high-profile defense force. SHIELD will not just send you to get kittens out of trees."
"Why not?" Steve asks.
Fury pinches the bridge of his nose, and then rubs his thumb under his one remaining eye. "Because I said so."
"But -- "
"No buts, Captain. I'm not risking one of the world's most valuable assets to rescue tugboats and catch muggers, it's just not happening."
"Look," Steve says, a little desperately. "I don't need -- I can't just do nothing. I don't even need to leave the Helicarrier, I can learn cryptography or something. I knew a Windtalker during the war; he said I did all right."
Fury looks at him for what feels like a long time, and then says, "Get out of my office."
Damn it. "But sir --"
"I'll think of something. Just -- don't be here for a couple of hours."
Which is how Steve ends up designing and running a training camp for SHIELD operatives and recruits, with the help of an incredible, invisible library called The Internet.
Steve always liked school, and with the whole of history in front of him it's easy to learn about Patton and Eisenhower, Matthis and Patraeus and Ho Chi Minh. He studies the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, the War on Terror. He sees the movement of nations, and understands how ideas can be more dangerous than guns.
Steve looks at video from the Helicarrier disaster, again and again. He watches Loki, and Loki's sceptre. He watches himself arguing with Tony, ignoring Bruce, fighting with Fury and Natasha. He watches until he's ashamed, and keeps watching until he's not anymore, until it's just a scenario like any other, something he can use. Then, he goes to Fury, and talks about his plan.
Fury softballs the first batch: it's a group of three men and two women, all looking competent and surprisingly world-weary. But then, he's really the only one he knows who came to SHIELD fresh. Everyone else has a bigger story.
He starts in a small, nondescript conference room, standing in front of them, holding a pointer and feeling a little ridiculous. He got a dossier on each of them, but he's darned if he can remember any of their names right now. They all watch him with that slightly awed, blank look that SHIELD agents get around him. Well, in for a penny, he thinks.
"All right," he says. "My name is Steve, but I'm also known as Captain America. Director Fury has asked me to train you to be able to react to non-standard hostile situations, both inside SHIELD facilities and in the outside world. This will involve physical training, theoretical scenarios, and exercises. Any footage I show you is classified, so don't talk about it with your lunch partners." Steve takes a breath. Fury is probably watching him, but even if he wasn't, this is important. "Take a look around. These people are now part of your team. You're going to learn with them, work with them, and fight alongside them. I'll tell you this right now: Loki almost won because I didn't treat the Avengers as my team." He takes another, deeper breath, and looks at them for a long time, letting them see his shame and his certainty. "I can't make you a team, but I can show you why it's better that you make yourselves one, and how to fight, what to fight, and when to fight like one. Are there any questions?"
He (suddenly, always suddenly and shockingly, like being hit) thinks of Peggy, and the easy way she handled the men in Basic. Sometimes they came at her with eight questions at once, and she always remembered who had asked what, and knew how to answer so the man understood. He has a moment of piercing, blinding sadness that he'll never get to tell her about this, and then he has to put it aside and do the work in front of him. She wouldn't have respected anything less.
Steve sets up an obstacle course in the Green Gym on the Helicarrier. He gets old tires, a rope, some razor-wire, whatever he can think of that looks harmless and slightly antiquated. He's just rolling the last tire into place when a disturbance in the air behind him prickles the hairs on his arms. He turns around, and Hawkeye -- Clint -- is standing there in civvies, looking around with amusement.
"This is some rig you got here," Clint says. His smirk looks only a little forced.
Steve hasn't really spent much time with him since the Battle of New York. He seems like a good sniper (Steve's heart aches, Bucky) and Natasha obviously trusts him more than almost anyone else, but beyond that Steve doesn't know that much. He should probably change that.
"It's only half-finished," he says, rubbing the back of his neck. "Are you doing anything right now?"
Clint's smile gets smaller and turns real. "They're keeping me somewhere between active duty and the fifth circle of hell. What did you have in mind?"
Two of Steve's trainees actually groan out loud when they see the obstacle course. Steve takes careful note: the shortest man, Ragallan, brown-skinned and usually smiling, always ready with a question; and the woman Alvarez, maybe the smartest person in the group but definitely the crankiest, trying to prove something to herself and her ghosts, but thankfully not trying to prove anything to Steve. He waits a moment and then says, "This isn't a race. In fact, you can help each other if you think it's necessary. This course will be used to test your agility at speed and your concentration. Keep going around until I tell you to stop."
Then, he plays Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm, turning the volume way up, and blows his old-fashioned whistle. They're off.
The biggest man, Webster, is surprisingly quick and graceful. He lifts his knees high like a dancer as he hops over the tires, and he's the first out from under the razor wire. The slowest person by far is Preliminary Agent Peters, the only one of them who doesn't have a military background. He looks determined, though, and Steve is pretty sure he would run this obstacle course all day if he had to. Alvarez, Ragallan, and Cooper are fairly evenly matched, and they even, Steve is glad to see, have some complementary skills. He lets them exhaust themselves by running around the obstacle course a few times, and then he waves his fingers slightly, giving Clint the signal.
Fwip! Alvarez's shoulder blossoms with bright green paint, and she yells in surprise. Fwip, fwip, fwip! Webster gets three shots on his helmet and nearly falls into the razor-wire. Everyone stops for a moment.
"What the hell is that?" Ragallan yells, but he's grinning. The rest of them look shocked and irritated.
"Oh," Steve says. "I forgot to tell you: duck." They stare at him. "Well, as you were." He makes shooing motions. They try very hard to hide their glares, and get back to running the course. They're more aware of their surroundings this time, and they duck at random moments, but after a while they seem to get used to dodging paintballs fired from random locations in the ductwork.
Then Clint breaks out the ray guns.
At the end of the first week, Fury pronounces Steve's training program a tentative success, and gives him another group of five to train while continuing with his first. He names them Team Alpha and Team Beta, and Ragallan nicknames his group Team Turnip for reasons Steve will never understand. It makes him laugh, though, and that makes the team glow.
He and Clint take to eating their lunches together in the Helicarrier mess. Steve talks about his experiences as a Howling Commando, feeling pangs of sadness but ignoring them, and Clint gives him some fantastic gossip about SHIELD personnel he hasn't met yet and maybe never will. Clint, it turns out, is surprisingly talkative when he's not recovering from alien mind-control.
(They don't ever talk about Agent Phil Coulson, or the memorial service, but it's there with them all the same.)
"I don't really know what I'm doing," Steve confesses to him one day over lukewarm macaroni and cheese. It's not that -- he doesn't want sympathy, or reassurance. He just needs this man, this teammate, to know.
Clint raises an eyebrow. "You don't have experience training and leading operatives who are completely unprepared for their assignment, while helping them come together as a cohesive team?"
Well, when he puts it like that. Steve fidgets a little. "With the Commandos, it was like letting a pack of wolves off the leash. They were already trained, and they were angry, and all I had to do was get them to a HYDRA base. They created chaos all on their own."
"And us?" Clint asks.
Steve says, "I didn't make you. I just told you where to stand so you'd have the best shot."
Clint gives him a look, but doesn't push. "See that guy?" he says instead, pointing across the mess hall with a forkful of macaroni and cheese. "Details are mostly classified, but I do know his last assignment involved fishnets and a mini horse."
Steve has Team Beta run the obstacle course, and it's fascinating to see the differences in individual personalities, in the group dynamic. This group is quieter, a little more timid, but they're better at defending themselves, and they make more sacrifices for each other. He learns their names: Miller, van de Ende, Fast, Ambrose, and Li. He learns that after running laps on an obstacle course for hours, dodging paintballs, energy blasts, and plastic chickens (Clint's favorite), Li has no problem with marching up to him, yanking him down to her diminutive height, and smearing yellow paint in his face. Steve falls a tiny bit in love with her, for that.
Team Alpha (Team Turnip!), he sets to problem solving. He sits them down on Tuesday morning of their second week of training, braces himself, and shows a film of the disaster on the Helicarrier. He and Maria Hill worked on it together, taking recordings from various security cameras, phone cameras and computer cameras, and cobbling them together into some kind of narrative.
These aren't his best moments, and they all know it. Several times during the viewing, one of his trainees turns to stare at him in astonishment, irritation, and embarrassment. He keeps his head up and meets their eyes, showing them as best he can that, yes, he knows he was foolish, and the only thing he can do now is accept it and move on.
When the film is over, he takes a deep breath, and says, "All right, so that happened." It's a phrase he got from Clint, and it works well now to break the tension. Webster chuckles, and Cooper almost has an expression. "This isn't classified, so you can tell your friends what bums we all are, but I want two things from you first. One: see if you can find the cameras this footage was taken from. Don't watch it again just yet; see how much you can get from memory. You're going to have to work with each other on this, and you're welcome to take notes. You have until Friday to get me a list. Two: what did we do wrong, when, and why? How could we have done better? I told myself at the time that we couldn't have done any different, not with the personalities in my team, not with the way Loki played us. But I've had two months to think about it, and I know that's not true. Talk to me, tell me how different this could have been."
The five of them are silent for a good long time, looking around at each other. Webster and Peters do something complicated with their eyebrows that Steve can imagine means, I don't want to criticize a superior to his face, do you?
He says, "Trust me. I think this will make you better SHIELD agents. You need to have the ability to see where others can't, and you need to know when it's absolutely necessary to get in a superior's face and tell him he's wrong -- and when it's a terrible idea. That starts here, with me. Tell me what you're thinking."
Ragallan slowly raises his hand. "You should have gotten Hulk out of the lab once Fury and Black Widow came in."
Cooper shakes her head. "No," she says, "That would have made everyone angrier. They had to talk together."
Ragallan turns to her. "Maybe it would have made everyone else angry, but Hulk wouldn't have --"
"Maybe he would have," Webster says. "You can't know that."
"We can't know anything," Ragallan snaps. "But we can guess, and I guess that Hulk would not have lost his nuts if he hadn't fallen through the floor after threatening his team with a magical spear."
Peters opens his mouth, and Steve holds up a hand to stop him. "How would you have gotten Bruce out of the lab?"
"I would have told him he was too hot to be there and to please step out for a minute."
"How do you think he would have taken that?"
Ragallan wilts. "Not well," he admits.
"That's a good idea, though," Steve says. "Let's go with that for a minute, and play it out. Does anybody else have a suggestion for what we could have said to Bruce?" Three of them raise their hands at once.
After a while they almost forget Steve is in the room, they're so busy hashing out ideas, playing out scenarios. He sits back and watches and listens, and he's so proud of them it hurts.
Nighttime is hard, and weekend nights are hardest of all. Saturday night, Steve lies in his cot and stares at the ceiling for hours, trying to forget the smell of Peggy's hair and the tilt of Bucky's smile, trying desperately to hold onto it. He gives up around 0300 and goes to the small Blue Gym, where he keeps his punching bags.
When he gets there, he's surprised to see that the lights are on, and he almost turns around and goes back to his room before he spots Natasha and Bruce, sitting in the middle of the boxing ring, cross-legged, holding hands.
Steve hasn’t spoken with them any more than he'd spoken with Clint, so he's surprised to see that they're on the Helicarrier, much less together at three in the morning. He dithers for a minute, wondering if this is a private moment, and then Natasha says, "Come over here," without looking up. Steve likes that she can do that.
When he gets closer, he sees that they're not quite holding hands. Bruce is sitting cross-legged with his hands palm-up on his knees, and Natasha has her fingers on his pulse.
Steve comes and sits down next to them, awkwardly crossing his legs. He's content to wait in silence unless one of them wants to talk. It's a relief to be near his teammates, even though they don't know each other well. He can already feel himself calming, and he stops thinking of the punching bag and of exercising his body into exhaustion.
Bruce says, "Natasha's taking my pulse," and his voice is loud and sudden in the deep quiet of the room.
Steve says, "That is what it looks like."
"She and the other guy had a tussle," Bruce says, and Steve nods because he's seen the video. It's a testament to Natasha's skill as a fighter that she wasn't broken in half. "And so I offered, a few weeks ago, to let her see what it felt like. When I get scared, or angry, before the other guy comes out. It's actually calming."
"For me too," Natasha says, and Bruce flashes her a quick smile.
Steve . . . he can understand that, he thinks. He thinks, maybe he should give something back, for the truths they've given him, but all he has is Peggy and Bucky and Colonel Phillips and New York, and the smell of the air on fire in the forest and the sound of showgirls singing, and all of it makes him hurt, hurt, hurt until he's got tears dripping down his face and his breath is coming in short gasps, and he's hunched down over himself holding his chest like he might fly apart any second, and he can't, he just can't. He tries to stop crying, but it's useless, he'll just have to wait it out. He sits there in front of his teammates and weeps, awful heaving sobs, feeling everything that's been taken away.
After a while, when his sobs are calming, he feels Natasha's small hand on his pulse, anchoring him, holding him in place. When he opens his eyes, there’s a clean, perfectly folded handkerchief resting on his knee. He feels Bruce's large hand on his back, between his shoulder blades, smoothing up and down, up and down. It's awful, to feel this way, but it's okay that his team can see it. It maybe makes it a little easier, to know they're here.
It's another hour before any of them move. Natasha runs a hand through his hair, and Bruce gives his back one last sweep, and then they're gone, and he's by himself on the floor of the boxing ring, blowing his nose one last time, and watching the sun come up.
A little while later, Clint comes into the gym, and he and Steve devise a game where Steve bounces his shield off the walls, Clint tries to knock it off course with his arrows, and Steve jumps around the room to catch it.
Later that day, Natasha and Bruce join them for lunch.
The first they hear of Thor is that he's visiting Dr. Foster in Tromsø. Steve wishes him the best with his girl, and only aches a little when he thinks about it.
After Thor comes back, it's only a matter of time before Fury will want them all together again. Steve is pretty comfortable with Clint, and he's gotten a better understanding of Bruce and Natasha. But Tony still doesn't make any sense to him, and that's a problem. It's going to be a problem.
Steve hasn't been back to his Brooklyn apartment since the Battle of New York, and most of the time he's fine sitting in an invisible flying airship. But every once in a while it gets difficult, especially when he wants to leave. When Steve requests permission to be dropped off in the city, Fury gives him a look that might almost be a smile, if his face moved. "You have twenty-four hours," he says. "Don't break anything."
Steve gets dropped off near the Chrysler Building, and he takes a moment to just look at it, look around. The sidewalks are dirtier, and the shopfronts are different, but the rush of people and the thunder of cars is the same. The bustle and the thrill of it are the same, even seventy years later.
Stark Tower is just as ugly as he remembers, but the elevators are fast, and the view, when he gets out on Tony's floor, is spectacular. Tony is standing with a tall, red-haired woman and arguing over a hologram in the air. Tony doesn't even turn to greet him, just waves. "Sand Pebbles, c'mere. I want to show you something."
Steve grits his teeth. They're going to have to get used to each other sometime. "Tony," he says. "Ma'am."
The woman walks over and holds out her hand. "I'm Pepper. It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain."
"Steve, please," he says. Her hand feels delicate in his, but her grip is firm and strong, and her gaze is level. Steve likes her instantly.
"Come on, come on," Tony says. "You can polite at each other later. I want you to see this."
Pepper rolls her eyes, and Steve has to smother a huff of laughter.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, Tony," Pepper tells him, sing-song.
"That was blatant disrespect I heard. Don't try to pretend any different."
Something about the exchange is . . . Steve looks over at Pepper again, watches the way she's smiling softly at Tony's back, and oh, she's his girl. That doesn't make any sense at all.
What Tony wants to show him is, of all things, a new home. He's re-designing five floors of Stark Tower to be five different, huge apartments for each of them. There are sleeping quarters, guest rooms, gyms, an archery range, a swimming pool. It's more luxury than Steve has ever set eyes on, and he was in Europe, where there are castles.
"I don’t need all this," he says. "Really, my room in the Helicarrier is just fine."
"Your room in the Helicarrier is depressing. I know this and I haven't even been there. Now, how strong are you, really? Can you rip a telephone book in half?"
"Yes," Steve says, distracted. "Listen, I need to be on the Helicarrier. I train people."
"You, really? A whole phone book? What about two phone books? And I can fly you up there."
"I need to be there every day. You can't be my taxi service every day."
Tony waves a hand. "Bring them down here. How much trouble can they get into?"
"That's not the point --"
Pepper interrupts him, putting a hand on his arm and saying, "Please, Steve, just think about it." There's something in her expression, some intensity, that doesn't fit with the little he knows about her. Why would it matter, that some lug she's just met come live in a building that isn't even hers?
Steve looks from Pepper, to Tony, to Tony's hologram, and then says, "I'll think about it. Oh, and I haven't tried two phone books."
This, of course, means they have to test his strength. Tony doesn't have a single phone book in the entire tower, so he sends an assistant ("Not a secretary," Pepper says) across the street to an apartment building. The super there is more than happy to get rid of all the phone books his tenants didn't want, and Steve tries tearing two, three, four of them in half at a time. Tony comes up with ever more inventive ways to test him, when it turns out his hands aren't big enough to wrap around three phone books at a time, and Steve ends up being defeated by five. "A solid number," Tony says. "I can work with that."
Steve declines their offer to stay for dinner, and leaves them standing in front of the hologram again, arguing about reinforced walls. For just a moment, as he's leaving, the two of them look perfect together; the way they fit is perfect, and Steve understands. Then the elevator doors close on the scene, and Steve is lost again.
Steve learns the hard way not to be vague with his homework assignments. One day he tells Team Alpha, "I want you to be curious about the Helicarrier. Look around; this place is your home, your work, one day it may be your battlefield. Learn about it, and tell each other."
The next day, Steve and the other Avengers are just settling into a meeting on the flight deck when there's a muffled yell, and Alvarez falls out of the ceiling. She catches herself with one arm, hanging over the rows of computers, legs flailing madly. Everyone stops what they're doing and stares.
Steve sighs, tells Fury and the team, "Excuse me," and goes to stand under her. He calls up, "You know, this isn't exactly what I meant."
"Oh, hey, boss," Alvarez says lightly. Steve will never tell, but it gives him a thrill that they've stopped treating him like a hero. "Could you help me out?"
Steve waits for a minute, watching her, and then he shakes his head and says, "Ready to drop." Alvarez lets go without even looking, trusting him to catch her perfectly and set her lightly on her feet. "That's enough for today, I think."
Alvarez nods and doesn't try to hide her grin. "Whatever you say, boss," she says, and leaves with a swing in her step.
Steve looks up at the hole in the ceiling, trying to see if anyone else on the team is up there -- but then, if they were, he wouldn't know it until another one of them fell. He sighs again, and scrubs a hand over his face, feeling an immense sympathy for Director Fury.
When he turns, Fury, Tony and Bruce are staring at him. Clint and Natasha look calm and unsurprised, and Thor is smiling hugely. Finally, Fury shakes his head. "As you were," he says mildly, and everyone on the deck snaps back to their jobs.
Tony, however, does not. "What was that little piece of surrealist theater?" he asks. "Can I try it? Do I want to try it? I think I want to try it."
"No," Fury says.
"That," Clint says, "was one of Steve's ducklings."
Steve says, "My what?"
Clint shrugs. "That's what everybody's calling them."
Tony says, "I want ducklings."
"No," Fury says.
"To be fair, you couldn't actually stop me if I wanted to get my own," Tony says. He has a point.
"No SHIELD ducklings," Fury says.
Steve says, "Please don't call them that."
"I think it's perfect," Tony says. "I want to help."
Thor perks up. "Yes, friend. Can we assist you? I am adept at catching maidens who fall from great heights."
Steve puts his face in his hands.
Tony's first suggestion is actually good. He brings a bunch of machines and pieces of machines to the hangar bay and dumps them all in a big pile in the center. Steve is busy marking out the perimeter in chalk, so he misses some of Team Alpha and Team Beta's questions, but he can hear Tony answering, "Sorry, that's classified," in his most smug tone. Once the perimeter is marked out, the Avengers go to stand on the outside of it, leaving Steve's trainees inside the circle with the machines.
"Okay, teams," he says. He ignores Tony muffling a laugh. "Your job is to last a full hour inside the circle. You can use anything inside of it, and you can't go outside of it. We'll be watching to make sure you stay inside the line, and we'll also be moving to contain any damage. I encourage you to work together. This isn't a competition, this is a test of your skill, smarts, and survival. Ready, Tony?"
Tony says, "Aye aye, captain!"
Steve's trainees all tense and go into fighting stances, and when nothing happens after a full minute, they relax. Then, one of the little machines near the edge of the circle starts scooting clumsily across the floor. It's got three wheels when it's supposed to have four, and something about its navigation seems off. Cooper, who's one of their best when it comes to machines, wanders over and picks it up, examining the chassis. The machine gives her an electric shock and starts whirring angrily, and she yells and drops it. All at once, the rest of the machines come to life, and it's complete bedlam.
Tony programmed about a third of them to be helpful to the trainees, a third of them to be actively nasty, and a third to simply get in the way. He and Steve argued a lot about how nasty they were going to get, with Tony, surprisingly, arguing for clemency. ("They're like babies," he said. "You wouldn't hurt a baby, would you?"
Steve crossed his arms. "They need to learn how to take care of themselves and their teammates. They're not expecting me to go easy on them, and I want them to be safe when somebody meaner and more powerful comes along.")
They finally compromised on flashy chaos with the chance of moderate injury, and Steve promised that Tony and no one else got to make the call of whether to turn them off.
It doesn't seem like they needed to argue at all, though. Both Team Alpha and Team Beta are boogying around the space like their lives depend on it, throwing machines, dodging machines, and attacking machines. Steve has to throw his shield to catch flying metal parts before they hit anyone. One time, he jumps to catch a shirt. Natasha has gotten a whip from somewhere, which she uses to pull things out of the air. Thor catches bolts of energy with his hammer so they don't damage the rest of the hangar bay.
After about twenty minutes, the teams figure out a plan: Cooper and van de Ende grab several friendlies and go to an empty patch at the edge of the perimeter. Fast, Webster, Alvarez, and Peters stand guard over them, while Ragallan, Li, Miller and Ambrose continue to jump around as a distraction.
"This looks promising," Tony says.
"What do you -- oh my goodness," Steve says, staring, feeling shocked and terribly proud.
Cooper and van de Ende have somehow managed to program the friendlies into a tiny army, which is facing off against the nasties while the rest of the trainees knock the useless machines out of the circle. The friendlies and the nasties move toward each other, and then it's just a robot battle, while everyone on Team Alpha and Team Beta watches, cheering their favorite machine. The trainees even sit down on the ground, which is not what Steve wanted from this exercise, but he can't exactly scold them for out-smarting his plan. At the hour mark, Steve blows his whistle, and all the machines collapse where they're standing or floating. The trainees give a cheer.
"Let's hear it for Captain America's Ducklings," Clint yells, and everyone goes, "Hip hip hooray!"
"That's not," Steve starts, and then gives up. "Okay, all right, let's hear it!"
"Hip hip hooray!"
Bruce comes to find him one day, when he's finishing up in the gym. "I'm wondering, ah," he runs a hand through his hair. "I'd like to ask a favor."
Steve's sweaty and tired and cranky. He didn't sleep well, and Fury told him if he busted through any more punching bags they'd stop giving him any. But Bruce is his teammate, so he puts on his pleasant Captain face, and says, "Sure, anything."
Bruce looks at him for a minute, and then says, "Nevermind, I can wait."
"No, no," Steve says, reaching out. "Really. I'd like to help. What do you need?"
What Bruce needs, it turns out, is for someone to ride the subway with him in case he Hulks out.
"I don't completely trust myself, is the thing, and I can't keep taking Tony's limo everywhere. It's just too weird. I would just feel better with someone else there, you know?"
They start off in the middle of the day, thinking they'll work their way up to rush hour if they have to. Steve isn't used to the recorded voices on the loudspeaker, the new shape of the trains, the different routes. He has trouble reading the map at first, and Bruce starts to get agitated when they can't get to Park Slope from the 4/5/6 line without transferring somewhere. But they make it to Grand Army Plaza and Steve decides it's enough for one day, and instead of taking the train out to Sheepshead Bay like they planned Steve drags Bruce into the Botanical Gardens.
Bruce is amazing in the Botanical Gardens. He knows all the plants, and all the paths, and he and Steve argue over who knows the most history.
Steve says, "Well, in the thirties it was --"
"Yes, but then, I don't remember his name, somebody donated the --"
"Wait, but what about --"
"All right, I guess you win this round."
Steve likes that he can make Bruce smile without the aching wryness that's there most of the time. They eat outside in the sunshine, with their backs leaning against the Warm Temperature Pavilion, and by the time they're ready to go home it's rush hour.
Bruce huffs a laugh when they see the packed 2 train, full up almost completely except for two Avenger-sized spaces right near the door.
"You'll be fine," Steve says, although he feels a little doubtful.
"I don't have that big an objection to using Tony's limo."
Steve frowns, and watches the doors close without them. "Do you want to wait for another one?"
Bruce shrugs. "There's a taqueria I used to really like around here. Want to come with me?"
When they finally get back to Stark Tower, Tony is there to greet them, poking at Bruce and saying, "Why didn't I get to come on your play date? Can I go next time? I know stuff about plants."
Steve watches them for a moment, and something clicks in his head, the same as it did when he saw Tony and Pepper together. He can see how they work, how they're good for each other, and it's a relief to know but it's also lovely, this team they're growing out of small conversations and moments of friendliness and growing trust. Steve leaves Tony and Bruce talking in the lobby and goes back out into the tumble of the city to meet his ride up to the Helicarrier.
Thor, Natasha and Tony seem to be bonding over Thor's misadventures in the human world. It's just about the only thing that can make Natasha laugh in public.
"You said what?" she asks, leaning over her lunch tray.
Thor grins and says, "I told him I needed a horse, the fastest one he had."
Tony hoots with laughter. "In a pet store."
Thor looks delighted. "He said they only had dogs and cats, and I told him I would take a creature that was large enough to ride."
Natasha actually giggles, although she muffles it quickly.
"My dearest Jane came along in her Winnebago and transported me into the desert, but if she had not I am sure I would have tried to ride the small dog housed behind the window."
At this, Clint cracks up, and even Bruce is smiling.
"What about you, Cap?" Tony asks, "I'm sure the stories of your adjustment to the future must be hilarious."
Steve tenses, waiting for the ache and the anger, and it's there, but so is -- something else. He looks around the table, and everyone is watching him and waiting and it's not cruel or mocking. He says, "You don't know this, Tony, but the first time you handed me a tablet I spent about fifteen minutes looking for the 'On' switch."
Everyone smiles, but kindly.
Thor asks, "What is this 'On' switch?"
That leads Tony and Bruce into a lecture on alternating currents and direct currents, toggle switches and push button switches, with Thor frowning thoughtfully through the entire time.
Steve and Natasha share a love of old jazz standards, which Steve discovers after he finally gives in and lets Tony build him an apartment. Steve insists on painting and furnishing it himself, but when he gets there, the huge empty expanse of it is baffling.
He asks Natasha for help, and she gives him a long, narrow look before agreeing.
"You're not doing this because you think I have a 'woman's touch'," she tells him. Not asks.
"Oh, no ma'am," Steve says. "I, ah, that is," she's smiling at him now, which is almost worse. "It's just that I don't trust anyone else," he finally blurts out, and she laughs.
"They do make it seem like it's a miracle they can dress themselves."
"I wouldn't go that far," Steve says. "So you'll help?"
Natasha says, "I'd be honored."
She doesn't actually have a 'woman's touch'. She seems as baffled by paint swatches and modern furniture stores as he is. But she is brutally efficient at getting down to what's needed, and what Steve wants: furniture that's a mix of the past he's comfortable with and the future he's starting to love, colors that aren't too overwhelming, and small items of piercing beauty that remind him -- but not too strongly -- of where he came from and what he's lost.
Neither of them know how to paint, so they end up getting primer in their hair and all over their arms before they perfect their techniques. About an hour into it, Natasha says, "It's too quiet. JARVIS, can we get some music here? My jazz playlist, please."
"Certainly," JARVIS says, and the ceiling and the walls start playing Steve's music. It's the strangest, loveliest thing, that he can hear familiar music played by a robot from the future, and he has to sit down on the drop cloth and hug his knees for a minute, while it washes over him.
Natasha sits down next to him. "Hmm," she says, "Maybe this wasn't the best idea."
"No, no," Steve says. "This is good, please -- please don't turn it off. I just need a minute."
Natasha nods, and stands back up. "I'll be here if you need me, all right?" she tells him, and goes back to painting.
Steve sits through three songs, feeling the pulse of them in his chest, before he can get back up again and keep working. Some of the songs he's never heard before, either because they came after his time or they weren't popular enough to get played on the radio. One song, though, makes him look up at the ceiling and frown.
"I know this one," he says. They used to play it at dance halls, while Steve would hold the wall up and watch all the couples swinging around. "Who's that singing?"
Over the speakers, a voice sings, "Can't you see? I'm no good without you."
"Sarah Vaughan," Natasha says. "She was after your time. Wait, this is my favorite part."
The lady, Sarah Vaughan, starts scatting, and her voice is like Tony's flying, all swoops and dizzying heights, and it shouldn't make sense and it shouldn't be beautiful, but it is.
When the song is over, Steve says, "You know, I've always thought the lyrics were sad, but she sounds happy."
Natasha tilts her head. "You think so?"
Steve says, "I don't know why, she just sounded that way."
"Maybe she's accepted it," Natasha says, and her expression is so knowing it makes Steve's chest hurt. He looks away.
"I guess," he says, and Natasha lets it be.
Instead, she says, "I grew up without any music," she says. "When Clint brought me to SHIELD, I spent almost my entire first paycheck on records."
Steve says, "If there was any money leftover -- and there wasn't much -- I'd do the same."
"I like following the history. You can hear musical forms growing if you know how to listen."
Steve asks her, "Will you show me?"
Natasha shows him. She plays music from after his plane went down, introducing him to Marilyn Monroe and Eva Cassidy, bossa nova and tropicalia, and the bright shining edge where jazz, blues and rock and roll come together.
After Natasha leaves for the night, Steve has JARVIS play the Sarah Vaughan song again. He doesn't want to think about what Natasha said; he doesn't want to know what she means, or believe her, or agree. But the song is lovely, and the ache in his chest feels right.
The last assignment Steve gives his trainees is to see which team can capture more of the others by the end of the week. They can escape, and be captured a second or a third time. They can use any means at their disposal. If they are seen deliberately hurting each other, their team automatically loses, but accidental casualties will be allowed. Civilian casualties will result in a 24-hour capture penalty.
By this time, Fury’s ad hoc “Get the hell over here so I can yell at you” gatherings have become weekly meetings, resting somewhere between business and social hour. When Steve mentions his plan at the next Avengers meeting, Tony raises his hand and says, "Oh my god, are we taping this?"
Natasha and Clint go to make popcorn, and Tony figures out a way to track the locations of everyone and gets feeds from the security cameras so the Avengers can watch them.
"Don't think I'm going to forget that you can do this," Fury says, but the effect is ruined by his fistful of popcorn.
They all sit in quiet for a solid five minutes before Clint says, "Guys, is something supposed to be happening?"
Steve says, "They do have three days."
"This is better than The Hunger Games," Tony says, munching on popcorn.
"There's irony in there, I'm sure of it," Natasha says, dry as dust.
"Wait, wait, look over there," Bruce points at a small screen on the far left, which Tony expands and centers with a wave of his fingers. It's a view of the mess hall, filled with stragglers grabbing late breakfast. Li and van de Ende are sitting at a middle table, surrounded by civilians. It's a good place to be if they want to grab some food, but Steve doesn't have much hope for their chances. Sure enough, Webster and Peters walk right up behind them, scoop them up, and carry them away.
The conference room breaks into cheers and boos, and popcorn kernels start flying.
Tony says, "I'm taking bets, who wants to place a bet?"
Natasha says, "Team Turnip, definitely."
Bruce says, "Excuse me, Team Turnip?"
"I think that Li woman has something up her sleeve, I'll bet on her" Clint says. On the screen, Li is lying upside-down over Webster's shoulder, hands flopping. When Steve looks closer, he can see her wriggling something out of the sleeve cuff of her shirt. When he looks over, van de Ende is doing the same. They're carried down the hall away from the mess, and when they get to the T-junction at the end, Li and van de Ende whip ropes around their captors' knees and yank them to the ground. It's the work of a minute to truss them up with their hands and feet tied together, and then Ambrose is coming out from an empty storage closet nearby and helping Li and van de Ende drag the members of Team Turnip inside.
"Woo!" Clint yells, raising his arms. "It's on now."
"I'll take that bet, sir," Tony tells him.
Hill and Natasha start laying side bets over what tools the different teams will use, and Fury starts talking to Thor about his own training before he came to SHIELD. For a second, Steve wants to run away, and find a place where he doesn't know anyone and he isn't becoming part of a team and he can just miss the past without the future becoming home. But it only lasts a second, and then he's just here, eating popcorn and watching the show.
"Hey," Natasha says, pointing. "That's Alvarez up in the rafters."
"Oh, I like her style," Clint says.
"I like all of them," Steve murmurs. Nobody seems to notice, but that's all right.
Steve has forgotten to buy coffee again, so he wanders up to Tony’s kitchen to do battle with Tony’s ridiculously complicated monster of an espresso maker. Natasha is there, wearing pajamas and eating a crepe in small, deliberate bites. Bruce is sitting next to her, asleep sitting up with his chin resting on one hand. Steve likes these mornings, when they invade each other’s space and everyone’s a little more than teammates, a little less than perfectly formal and composed.
It almost isn’t a surprise when an alarm starts wailing, coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the dishwasher. Bruce jumps, his hand whacking the tabletop, and says, “What the hell is that?”
JARVIS’s voice says, “My apologies, sir. Mr Stark programmed a siren to sound whenever SHIELD Director Fury contacted the Avengers Tower with an emergency.”
“We’re the Avengers Tower, now?” Bruce mutters, but he’s already up and out the kitchen door.
Natasha finishes the last bite of her crepe, and gets up herself, pushing the chair back until it’s flush with the table. She looks at Steve, who hasn’t moved, and quirks an eyebrow. “Ready when you are, Cap,” she says, and there are several questions there for Steve to answer.
He doesn’t even have to think before he says, “I’m ready.”