Steve's finished his workout early if it's still mid-morning in New York City. He doesn't have anything better to do, so he wanders off the lift onto the common area of Avengers Tower with phone in hand. Tony's Instagram-- permissions set to Avengers eyes only-- is loaded on the screen, and shows a photo of Iron Man surrounded by multiple-eyed tentacle beasts dressed like rejects from a Kentucky RenFaire.
Clint's playing the game system hooked to the massive television in the living room. It looks like he's got one of those Action-RPGs going. Those things never hold Steve's interest, but Clint loves them, so every time a new one is released on Steam he mainlines it like crack cocaine.
"Hey, Steve," Clint says.
Steve grunts. "Clint, JARVIS."
Steve walks towards the kitchen, stops to stare at the wall for a moment, then turns and goes back into the living room to get another look at the television.
"Is that princess called Tony?" he asks.
On the television, the character moving in tandem with Clint's thumbs on the game controller is wearing a massive pink dress, a tiara, carries a mondo big wrench over her shoulder, and is talking to an anthropomorphised ladybug. All her dialogue has the title TONY over it, while the bug's speech box has THE SULK.
Then Tony the Princess chants long enough for runes to appear in the air before her, smashes them with her wrench, and performs a soft shoe as the camera swings around to show a big block of ice that is melting faster than the laws of physics allow.
A tinkling noise filters over the orchestral soundtrack, and a long-limbed blond elf creature blinks his eyes, then stands up from the puddle.
The dialogue box pops up.
TONY: Oh cool, that worked!
UNKNOWN PRINCE: You saved me, my queen! I am Prince Ste'eve, and my life is yours.
Steve snaps out of his stupor for that part.
"This isn't funny you guys!"
Clint cackles again and taps through another screen of dialogue where Prince Steve talks about being the last elven prince. Yes, seriously. "Wait until we get to the brawl part, man. Bruce outdid himself."
"Don't you guys have a Minecraft world you're building? " Steve asks, desperate. "Why aren't you--"
Clint waves a hand at him. "Got bored. Playing this now."
Steve glares at the screen as Tony the Princess makes Steve the Elven Prince carry her to her horse. Then the screen fades, the loading screen pops up, and a chibi version of Tony the Princess does the samba while they wait.
Clint hums along with the music and Steve stomps back to the lift.
Tony's Instagram account is henceforth completely forgotten until the next update chimes in later that afternoon.
# # #
Across the street from a ritzy upper-class kindergarten, Steve and Sam have situated themselves next to a side door of a closed restaurant pretending to be cleaners on a smoke break. It's all a cover to use the prime position to case the kindergarten for suspicious suspects.
Ivy League Kinder-Care has four stars on Yelp and six-foot tall iron spikes set four inches apart in lieu of a fence. A playground is set up out front, swingsets and sandboxes and a couple intricate slides that wouldn't be out of place in a McDonalds.
Said yard is full of toddlers running around. Some of the kids playing close to the fence have already spotted Steve and Sam, and give them distrustful, wary looks from time to time.
Sam scrubs at his face with one hand.
"This is some kind of Stranger Danger bullshit," he groans.
Steve takes a drag from his Pall Mall. "We had a tip."
"'Scuse me, what's this we business? Your tips suck."
Steve glares sideways at Sam and resolutely doesn't blow smoke directly into his friend's face.
"I've been going after HYDRA since before your parents were born, so if you don't feel up to it you can just stick this attitude up your--"
Sam rolls his eyes and raises a placating hand. "Just saying, no need to bust your pressure, man."
Steve shuts his mouth with a click and proceeds to sulk.
A couple minutes pass in silence. The kids dart three more glances in their direction, worried and unsure.
Finally, from Sam, "So, you see the shit Stark's posted? The one with the cyclops was insane."
Steve's glare at the playground intensifies and that's the final straw for the kids, they flee indoors.
"He looked concussed," he bites out, then smashes the cigarette filter against the brickwork.
Sam follows his lead with his own cigarette. "Well, yeah."
The front doors of the kindergarten swing open to let a tall man wearing a military uniform out. He's got a scar across on eye, a small hat perched on his bald head, and a scowl set so firmly on his mouth it's probably permanent. He's also got a super stiff bearing, which Steve notes with interest.
"We've got the right place. Look at him."
Sam looks at the guy, takes in the swinging arms and near goose-step march, then looks back at Steve.
"He could just be tired from dealing with rugrats all day."
"Or he could be HYDRA," Steve insists.
Sam side-eyes Steve and then shrugs. "We get arrested and you gotta use Stark's money to bail us out, okay? I'm too pretty to spend the night in jail."
Steve glares at his friend, then stomps back into the depths of the alley to find the nondescript SUV they drove over in.
They debrief in a nearby cafe just two blocks from the kindergarten. Steve uses a StarkPad to show Sam what the scan on the man's face came up with. There's reams of data containing lots of bad stuff like genetics, brainwashing, and two jaywalking charges.
"Yeah, jaywalking just screams HYDRA."
Steve glares at Sam over his cup of pitch black sludge.
"He's laying low, okay? We gotta get in there before he damages those kids."
"So you think he's indoctrinating kids into HYDRA that early?"
"Or they could be kids of HYDRA, in which case we'll steal the records of the parents, arrest all of them, and send the kids to live with healthy families."
It's Sam's turn to glare. "Foster care isn't healthy."
"Is it worse than HYDRA?" Steve shoot back.
Sam sips at his tea and thinks for a moment.
"I don't know, does HYDRA do family game night? Cos I hated that shit when I was a kid."
Steve ignores him as he carefully taps a message on his phone to JARVIS with a request to find the blueprint on file with the city for the building. He needs to see if they might be hiding children in the basement, performing experiments with vats of stuff or something.
Sam is still pondering the StarkPad on the table next to his tea. "Monopoly's the worst. People get cut-throat on that game."
Steve's phone lights up with an answer from JARVIS, "I have the plans for your perusal, Captain."
He drains his coffee and stands. Sam is a beat behind him, slurping at the hot bog water of his preferred tea and juggling the StarkPad at the same time.
"Boggle was okay though," Sam says as he follows Steve out of the cafe. "Not many things go wrong on Boggle."
# # #
Clint's still playing the game, but instead of serenely sitting on the sofa with controller in hand, he's moved to a sprawl that has him upside down across the cushions, knees hooked over the back of the sofa and head hanging over the seat cushions as he concentrates on his game.
Steve doesn't want to look at the television as he passes, but does anyway. He feels disgusted about his pitiful level of self-control as he peeks en route to the kitchen.
It's some kind of battle going on, with a horde of enemies surrounding Princess Tony and Elven Prince Steve. Princess Tony is spinning her skirts round and round which causes red-lettered damage to the enemies and intersperses every three turns with a high-kick right up the nose of whichever hapless troll is closest. Elven Prince Steve is slapping at everything that gets closest to him.
Clint makes a disgusted noise as Princess Tony is knocked onto her ass. Little yellow birds twitter around her head with a countdown starting at five hovering in the corner as she sits there.
"You're not timing the kicks right, JARVIS," Clint grouses. He slides onto his side so now he's looking at the screen sideways instead of upside down. "We're not getting enough points!"
"I do apologise," JARVIS answers. If a machine could participate in an Olympic Event for being Unimpressed, the AI would medal in it.
Steve grabs the entire bowl of fruit instead of bothering with a careful selection and skitters back to the lift from whence he came. The button for the floor with the gym lights up without him having to do anything but clutch at his bounty and stare at his reflection in the mirrored doors with wide, scared eyes.
His artificial mountain of ruined punching bags greet him when he gets inside the gym's main floorspace. Since Tony left Earth, no one can replace them, so he's just leaving them in a pile where the boxing ring is. If Natasha gets back early and sees this mess, she'll have his head.
He selects an apple to eat and places the rest of the fruit on top of the small fridge full of electrolyte solution and ice packs. The bag pile looks bigger than he remembers, so he squints at them and tries to figure out how many there really are.
Mental arithmetic concludes that there are enough bags to indicate that Tony's been gone for two months now. Steve chokes on his apple and grits his teeth as he coughs through it.
Maybe he'll go for a run instead.
# # #
JARVIS's modulated voice is soothing in Steve's ear. "Your name is Fred Rogers, and you teach first grade primary, Sir."
Steve adjusts the neckline of his pale yellow cardigan against his collarbone as he walks down the street.
"All due, JARVIS, but Sir is Tony."
"Of course, Captain."
He finishes fussing with his clothing and glances at his reflection in the tinted windows of a car that he passes. He's going to be so out of place, he'll be made in a split second. The ear piece he's got on is invisible, at least. They'll spot him as an impostor, but they won't know what kind until he starts breaking limbs.
Sam has decided to stay two blocks down the road in the car. There was only one opening for a teacher at the school anyway, and Sam doesn't like kids enough to cut stars out of construction paper with them.
Speaking of art supplies: "I bought fingerpaints yesterday, will that work?"
The massive iron gate is open and waiting for him. No one is outside so Steve walks right in through the front door and into the empty hallway papered with construction paper faces and bubble lettering talking about CONTRIBUTE TO SOCIETY! and BE HELPFUL ALWAYS!
A woman with fuzzy hair pokes her head out from an open door down the hall. She's best described as mousy in the face and draped in drapes for the body, and she staggers out to greet him.
"Hi, I'm Clarissa," she says as she shakes his hand. "You're Mr. Rogers, huh? I recognise you from your picture, but it said nothing about how tall you are!"
"Is that a problem?" Steve asks, worried now. He brandishes the bag of paints like his shield. "I brought finger paints!"
Clarissa grins, but it doesn't reach her eyes.
"Oh, how wonderful. We normally supply our own supplies, but great initiative! Have you been subbing for long?"
Steve's face feels like a plastic mold of a smile. He nods as eagerly as he dares.
"I normally teach inner-city kids, sorry."
"Ah." Clarissa gives a knowing nod, then turns away and sweeps her arm towards one of the closed doors about five feet down the hall. "Well go on in and introduce yourself!"
"Too perky to be a inner-city sub," Sam says over the comm. Steve refrains from wincing and goes into his classroom for the day.
It's full of tiny humans. Toddlers to be exact, twenty of them between three and five years old. It's supposed to be a gifted school for gifted children-- according to the pamplet, anyway-- but he really doesn't understand why they're mixing the ages.
"Who wants to finger paint?" he asks the room of staring children.
Tentatively a little girl raises her hand with hunched shoulders.
"Great!" Steve grins. He turns back to Clarissa, who's standing at the doorway and watching closely.
"You've got them for four hours, Mr Rogers," she says, not at all ominously, then closes the door on him so he's stuck in the room.
"That's not freaky at all," Sam groans.
The kids return to their little art projects when Steve turns back to the room. He waves the girl who raised her hand over and hands her the paints.
"We ne' to use a smock," she informs him.
"Are they in this room?" he asks.
She nods furiously.
"Okay, I'm making you leader of this activity. Make sure everyone who paints has a smock, and I'll check on you when you're ready to start."
She grins and toddles over to the open picture window that looks over a spread of lush green lawn and a swingset.
"You're locked in that room for the duration, bro," Sam says.
"I can get into the office when I get my cheque," Steve says as quietly as he can. A couple little boys sitting around a patchwork mess of construction paper and Elmer's glance at him blankly, then dart back to what they're doing when he grins at them.
"And how we gonna get in later?"
A little girl gets up from her table and brings a toy over to Steve with a serious look on her face.
"Maybe through the cellar?" Steve mumbles, then grins brightly at a doll a little girl hands him with a shy smile. Her face pinks and she runs away to hide behind a sleepytime couch against the far wall.
"I'm not crawling through a garbage chute or whatever you white folks call being too rich to walk your trash down to the street like civilised people."
"You use the garbage chute in the Tower."
"I'm not walking down seventy flights of stairs, man."
A boy stumbles over to Steve and takes the doll from him with a dark look. Then he rips the head right off and lobs it at the girl from clear across the room.
"Hey, no," Steve says. He doesn't even know the kid's name, but he's gonna write a stern note for the boy's parents anyway. "You don't get to do that, go apologise."
The boy scowls up at him with a hard glint to his eyes. Then he shouts "HAIL HYDRA" and kicks Steve's knee so hard something pops and he falls back onto the floor.
Sam's voice shouts "Shit!" in Steve's ear followed by a screech of static. Steve rolls to avoid being kerb-stomped by the kid and ditches the comm en route.
"HAIL HYDRA!" a chorus of tiny voices shout. A rain of hellfire that consists of toddler-sized furniture and crumpled popsicle-stick art projects begins to fall upon Steve's retreat.
He drags himself behind the small desk for shelter. A Capri Punch lands on the tabletop and explodes, covering him in sugar-overload. Steve sticks his head over his cover and shouts at the raging beasts, "Stop it, stop it now!"
The toddlers hesitate and look at him. The door to the classroom swings open to show Clarissa wearing a HAZMAT suit without a helmet. She takes one look at the mess, says, "Oh no, they activated," and then closes the door again with her on the other side of it.
The HYDRA toddlers begin anew. Steve curls under the desk as much as he can and almost blacks out from the pain from his shattered knee.
The door slams open again, and Sam says "Holy shit it's like Thunderdome."
Steve peeks out from behind the desk. The HYDRA Agents stare at Sam in full Falcon regalia with open mouths. One of the girls points her finger at him and screeches, "A superhero!"
The kids all shriek and wail, then scramble out the window.
Twenty small humans climbing out an open picture window takes time and is like watching the Puppy Bowl but with broken glass and nasty glares from the kids who get trodden on by other kids.
Steve groans and scrubs both of his hands over his head when the last one is out.
Sam whistles. "Gotta admit, I did not see that coming."
Steve struggles to a sitting position. He's covered in paint and bits of broken furniture, in a lot of pain, and the buzzing in his ears is probably rage.
He looks at the blood pooling on the floor and amends the rage to blood loss. But the rage doesn't help, that's for sure.
"We gotta go after them," he says. He scoots backwards two feet to clear from the wreckage of his desk and grabs at a sitting mat nearby. "Come set my knee for me, then we'll go."
Sam looks dubious. "That's not gonna heal in ten minutes."
Steve drags the mat towards himself and proceeds to tear it into strips.
"I can hobble around until it does, now help."
# # #
Three hours later, Steve is still limping instead of walking properly, and both he and Sam are skulking down a sewer somewhere in the Bronx. Steve has one side of the seven foot wide walkway while Sam is on the other, and they carefully sweep their flashlight beams across the floor and up the walls.
Steve doesn't want to be caught unawares by the crazed creature some hobos reported to law enforcement, and he doesn't want to be surprised by the HYDRA toddlers either.
"I thought these things weren't big enough for humans to crawl through."
Steve shakes his head. "Most aren't. This one is."
Sam waggles his flashlight towards the ankle-deep run-off they're wading through.
"We gonna find any alligators down here? I'm not crazy about alligators."
"Unless they mutated the Hulk's genes, the toddler will be a human, come on."
"I'm just saying, okay."
Steve decides to ignore him and does another even sweep of his flashlight across the parameter. The beam of light skitters over a lump about twelve feet up ahead, Steve hesitates and then focuses on it.
It's a huddling toddler covered in slick black rubbish bags and looking straight into the light with a glitter to its eyes that is completely and totally feral. Steve falters at the image.
"Hey, kiddo." He stoops down a little and peers at it. Is this the one with the daisy dress who liked his paints? He can't tell. "You wanna come with us back up to street level?"
The toddler emits a low-pitched growl, then sprints teeth-first at Steve's leg. He tries to step back but the kid latches on with grubby fingers, scrabbles at his boot and leg, starts to scream.
Steve shakes his leg to dislodge the kid, but that doesn't work so he clouts it upside the head as gently as he dares while he holds his shield up and away.
The kid falls off of him and lands in the sewage with a plop.
Sam starts up a slow clap.
"Shut up," Steve breathes, then pokes the toddler with the toe of his boot. The kid groans, gurgles in the sewage runoff. Good, he didn't kill it.
Sam coughs, nudges his shoulder. "Shit man, did you get bit?"
Steve looks down. The wrap on his knee is slipping and the whole limb is twisted oddly. His good leg, however, has a chunk missing just where his boot stops and his chainlink armour begins.
Steve leans down to gently prod at the wound. The kid bit out muscle, and it looks like took a chip of his bone too.
Sam clucks his tongue. "Ankle biters."
"It's my shin."
Sam shakes his head.
"Wanna truss him up?" He takes a turn to prod the kid with his foot. "How are we doing this?"
The kid rolls onto its back, and now it is obviously a he. Glazed eyes stare blearily up at them, his face is covered in blood, and he makes little "om nom nom" noises as he gums the air.
# # #
Dr. Patel is on duty in Medical today. She's taller than Steve, waif thin, and punches the suture needle through Steve's shin like a vicious piranha. She also keeps muttering the word "Unbelievable" at every other pass-through.
Steve has reason to believe she's upset with him, so he grits his teeth and doesn't say anything.
"Unbelievable," she snarls again, then knots the thread and snips the end off.
She straightens to look him in the eye. Definitely upset with him.
"In the line of duty, sometimes--" Steve tries.
"You have a death wish?" she snaps, interrupting him. She once put Clint in traction when he didn't need to be, so Steve shuts up and lets her talk. "You could have bled out. Earth's Mightiest Hero, One Man Wrecking Crew, and dead from blood loss in a sewer."
The lift pings open down the hall and Bruce shuffles in carrying a stack of papers. He stops just inside the door, takes a good look at Steve, and sighs.
Steve knows he should be offended by that, so he is. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Bruce shakes his head as he crosses the room, then beings to poke at the displayed X-Rays of Steve's mending kneecap.
"Do we need to do another Intervention?"
Steve freezes in terror. The last Intervention they held for him was two weeks after Tony had left Earth. All of the Avengers were present, the active ones and the reserve-- except for Iron Man of course. To make up for the lack of Tony they'd gotten him to record a video message and send it along across Orion's Belt direct to JARVIS' mainframe.
Unfortunately said video had become slightly corrupted during the Interstellar Transfer, and what the very solemn and intense gathering had left was a static display of Tony's Very Concerned Face with his mouth splitting sideways with pixels and the audio equivalent of a distinctly lacking in vowels demonic summoning ritual. JARVIS had then decided to help by translating the array of consonants into a word from the Alien Language found in Quasar Six.
Tony growling the word Asparagus in an Alien Language had put a dampener on the whole affair, and Steve was let out of the room so long as he promised to sit down and have a long think about what he's done, and to never do it again.
Bruce stares at Steve over his glasses like a dubious school teacher. Steve holds out both hands in a don't shoot gesture. "I'm not overdoing it like last time!"
Bruce swaps his stack of printouts with Patel for a lit-up StarkPad. He narrows his eyes at the screen.
"Tony will be back before you know it."
"This isn't about Tony!" Steve all but yells.
Doctor Patel tuts and slaps a thermometer across his forehead.
"He's right, this is about his burst kneecap that he kept walking on for six hours post-injury before seeking treatment."
Steve glares at the doctor, who glares back until the thermometer beeps.
Bruce calls over his shoulder as he leaves Medical, "I'm telling Tony."
"THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM!"
# # #
There are four Avengers in New York City at the moment: Sam, Steve, Bruce, and Clint. All of them gather in the conference room where the comfy chairs are and let JARVIS give a nice and dandy presentation on the busted Kindergarten HYDRA was using, what data Bruce has managed to collect about their methods, and what they know about the toddler Agents now roaming wild in the Urban Jungle of Manhattan.
"I'm staying home, man," Clint announces when the presentation dims and the epic music fades. "I am not crawling around after brainwashed little people, I got shit to do."
Shit to do being code for, naturally, "play more of my games and mock you all mercilessly when you come back injured and/or recently on fire."
Steve rubs at his forehead to try and stave off a headache. "Fine, you can help Bruce with data analysis while Sam and I round them up," he bites out.
Clint shrugs and leans back, elbows up in the air and hands locked behind his head.
"JARVIS, I almost killed that kid yesterday. I need a safer option for subduing them."
"Does Tony have like a stungun or something you can use?" Clint asks the ceiling.
Steve blinks, and JARVIS announces that the database is being scanned for the relevant parameters.
"Actually I was thinking about a net?" he says to Clint.
Clint exchanges a look with Bruce. The latter coughs into his hand and hunches his shoulders against Steve's glare.
A series of pinging noises start up from everyone's pockets. Tony coded in a protocol that Avengers get alerted when he updates his Instagram regardless of their own wishes, and it's activating now.
Sam pokes at his phone and hums, angles the screen so Steve can look over his shoulder at it. A new photo's been put up by Tony, shows him him sitting on a massive skull, cross-legged and bright-eyed.
Clint gives a low whistle. "Well all right, then."
"I hope he found that lying around and didn't kill it himself," says Bruce.
Steve feels ill about the size of that skull. He ignores the motion out of the corner of his eye that means Sam is looking at him.
"Dude, you ever gonna say anything on these pics? I never see you on here."
"Is today "talk about Tony day"?" he mutters. "He's not here, you know. We can survive without him."
Everyone in the room is staring at him now. JARVIS chimes over the intercom to announce that he found a low-voltage projectile weapon that will work safely on small humans and, "If you'll proceed to Sir's workshop to retrieve it, Captain, I will gladly show you."
Steve all but flees to the lift. JARVIS sends him to the sublevel where Tony keeps his main lab and turns the lights on as he approaches the clear sliding doors.
Said doors slide open for him without a sound. He stops on the threshold and crosses his arms. "He didn't lock down when he left? This is a security risk!"
"You are on the approved list, Captain."
Steve growls, then peers into Tony's lab. Of course it's not dusty, but it still feels like a tomb. Avery shiny, sparkling, laser-spewing tomb with touch-point temperature control and three different styles of coffee available.
JARVIS lights up one section of the room, off to the side but well within viewing distance of Tony's main workbench. "What you're looking for should be in this area, Captain."
Steve skulks into the room and pokes at the illuminated array of gadgetry. Lots of half-covered circuit boards, bundles of wiring, USB cords a-plenty. Halfway down the pile is a stungun with rubber ducks painted delicately along the side.
He removes it from the pile and inspects the rubber handle that squeaks as he squeezes it. "Why does he even have this?"
"I'm sorry but you would have to ask Sir for an answer to that question."
# # #
They track down a second diminutive HYDRA Agent on a trash barge ten minutes from disembarking out of New Jersey. One of the operators called in a report of something small and vicious crawling around the industrial-grade refuse, and when Steve and Sam get there, the something small and vicious is obviously a toddler gnawing on mouldy refuse out of Hoboken.
Sam watches the kid skitter across a barrel of toxic waste and winces.
"Is that legal?"
Steve takes a photo of the scene with his phone and forwards it to JARVIS. He'll discuss the situation with the proper authorities later.
The toddler sees them, finally, and hisses like a rattlesnake at them.
"Oh, this kid'll do great in Foster care," Sam says.
Steve readies the rubber ducky taser and starts sliding down a hill of garbage to engage with the enemy.
"Shut up and help!"
# # #
Steve carries two toddlers gathered in a Kevlar-weave sack over his shoulder, while Sam follows him with another kid in a plastic dog carrier. They go straight to the common floor's kitchen to get food for the kids instead of to Bruce's lab, not because they want to, but because JARVIS is loyal to Scientists first and wouldn't let them off the lift on any other floor.
The toddlers are writhing in the sack against Steve's back, snarling and snapping and trying to chew through the side of the bag. Sam's captive is still sleeping off the tranquiliser.
Clint is still in the living room poking at his controller. He gives a lazy salute-cum-wave in their direction as they pass.
"I just got past the cut scene where Steve kisses Tony and goes off to battle. Wanna watch it? I saved right before."
Steve stops his trudging to the kitchen.
"Hey Clint, you like kids right?"
# # #
They end the day with ten toddlers captured, assumed ten more still free. Steve's class alone had twenty, at least, but there might have been more in the other four classes he saw in session. This all makes Steve Officially Nervous, and when he's Officially Nervous he hovers a lot. Preferably over Tony's shoulder, but Tony's not here so Bruce will have to do.
Thus: in Bruce's lab he gets to stand in the middle of the room and watch the toddlers act meanly through their cage doors. A couple of them are smacking the mesh wire, others are picking at their toes, and two of them are asleep like perfect little angels of the dread level of hell.
Sam refuses to go within a ten foot radius of the cages, so he's perched next to the door messing with his phone. Steve tries to wave him over, and he ignores his team leader so completely that Steve has no option but to be impressed.
For his part, Bruce is running a battery of tests on enzyme solutions to see if the process underwent is even reversible.
"I am breaking so many laws right now," Bruce mutters and side-eyes the stack of cages holding human children. If hominids weren't in the cages, there'd be nothing to distinguish this setup from a typical dog kennel at the pound.
Steve claps a hand on Bruce's shoulder and gives him a gentle shake.
"Do your best, okay?"
Sam makes a noise at his phone. "Steve, gotta see this."
Steve hurries over and cranes his neck to look at the screen of Sam's phone. Instagram is loaded with Tony's account up. A new picture shows, one where he's high-fiving a multiple-handed alien that has a head that looks like a very large penis.
Sam sighs dreamily. "I want to go to space."
Steve stops staring at the picture in favour of looking at Sam in a very disapproving way. "What? Why?"
"Dude, can you imagine this alien's wife?"
Steve raises his eyebrows.
"How do you know that alien isn't a female?" he points out.
Sam makes a face, and Steve takes the cue to sidle out of the lab. Out in the hall he stands to the side as some of Bruce's Grad Students walk past-- on loan from NYU and all of them fully terrified-- then gets inside the lift.
The doors slide closed and JARVIS brings up a floating display with called in reports of creatures from NYC's citizens without being asked. Just on the edge of the display is one lone dot with the label of Maryland on it, tiny type indicating it's really close to the edges of D.C.
"I took the liberty of contacting Colonel Rhodes to apprehend the target located near the Capital."
Steve nods. "Good call. You told him about the biting, right?"
# # #
At night Steve would normally sleep the sleep of the righteous, but right now the chuck out of his leg is itching as it heals and it's driving him up the wall. So, while Plan A is Operation Righteous Sleep, Plan B is Midnight Snacking With Extreme Prejudice.
He toddles off the lift onto the common floor with great intent of ransacking the pantry. His own kitchen doesn't have much in it except pasta, and he doesn't want to chance boiling water while he's so loopy with Plan Changes and whatnot.
Clint is still in front of the television, game controller in hand. Steve shuffles past him on a mission, doesn't stop to say hello.
He eventually finds an unopened box of poptarts in the Narnian wasteland of the back of the pantry and carefully rips at the top flaps. He darts a few cautious glances at the television as he works, and yup, Clint's still playing that damn thing.
"How long have you been playing that? Isn't it over yet?"
Clint shrugs. "It's an indie, so probably not much longer. Want me to ask Bruce?"
Steve pauses in his opening of a poptart box. "Bruce played it?"
He gives Steve a disparaging look.
"Bruce made it. He makes shit in RPG Maker with Tony all the time."
Steve is stunned. On the television, Steve the Elven Prince leaps in front of an energy beam shot out of a gelatinous blob at Princess Tony. His HP goes down to 2, the bar flashes in warning, and Princess Tony casts a heal on him.
"I feel like I should be strongly objecting, but I don't know how," he says, faint.
Clint shrugs, mashes some buttons. The characters on the screen launch into a frenzy of violence unknown to modern man or machine. "Makes a lot of money on Steam, man. Whole revolutionary gameplay matched with innovative plots kinda thing."
Steve slams the box of poptarts onto the counter hard enough that all the foil-wrapped pastries eject from their packaging and scatter across the floor.
"Tony doesn't need money," Steve growls and starts to pick up after himself.
Clint shrugs again. "Still works as a progress bar for achievement, dude."
The pastries are back on the counter again, but Steve doesn't feel like eating anymore. He crams the poptarts back into their box, dumps the entire thing back into the pantry, and shuffles back to his room with the distant plan to stare at his bedroom ceiling like a good little insomniac.
# # #
By three in the afternoon they have another five toddlers caged in Bruce's lab. JARVIS is running scans on all the reports of disruptive behaviour for Steve in the background, so they just have to wait to find the next location.
Sam sulks in the corner and dabs at a graze across the back of his hand with a cotton swab. One of the toddlers had gotten a scratch in, and Sam had spent the rest of the time out in the field moaning about rabies.
Steve ignores his friend's angry glaring and cocks a hip against the edge of the table Bruce is working at.
"Tell me about these games."
Bruce hums and bobs his head a couple times, which as far as Steve is concerned, is not how a guilty man should be acting.
"Ask Tony about them," he says after he finishes typing something.
"Tony's not here, you are," Steve bites out.
A toddler growls like a mutant dog in one of the cages. Bruce reaches into a basket of morning cupcakes and absently tosses it at her. A grubby hand snags the treat and the toddler snarfles it, grumbles a bit as she chews.
Bruce finally looks at Steve.
"I know you're angry that he left--"
"I'm not angry!" Steve says quickly, "It's his right to go running around if he wants to!"
"--but I really think you need to take it up with him," Bruce finishes in a sedate and unhurried way. Then he turns back to his keyboard and types some more.
Steve will have something to say to that as soon as he thinks of it. He crosses his arms and makes a face at the ceiling, then startles when JARVIS says, "Agent Romanov is calling on the secure line, Captain."
"Route it through my phone please," Steve says and answers it before it bothers to ring.
"There are two suspects on your list who are in my area," she says without preamble, "I will let Bucky take them down, it'll be good for his mood."
Steve frowns. "Is he getting depressed again?"
"No one takes him seriously because he's shiny," she explains with a bemused hum in place of punctuation.
"Does he know they're making agents out of toddlers? That'll perk him up."
"He knows. He wants pictures of your teacher set-up for blackmail purposes."
"It's not blackmail if everyone already knows about it," he points out.
Another bemused hum from Natasha. "He's looking to the future. When it's faded from memory, you'll not want them resurfacing, correct?"
Steve makes another face, this time at the array of toddlers. One of the little girls defiantly blows a raspberry at him.
"Keep me posted on your progress," he says, "and let me know if you need backup. I can send Clint."
"I recall that you decreed that Clint and Bucky aren't to go on the same missions anymore," Natasha laughs, then hangs up before he can reply.
Steve eyeballs Bruce, who is ignoring him in favour of examining the brain scans of a sedated toddler compared to one he pilfered from cracked hospital records that only display a mild concussion. For all the protests he makes about "ethics" and "declining moral standards," Bruce is taking the illegal acquisition of medical data in stride.
His phone pings and shakes in his hand. The screen lights up with the Instagram app loading automatically, makes Steve wince and tighten his grip on the phone until the case creaks alarmingly.
The photo that loads has Tony with an arm around Peter Quill. They're holding up glittery tankards full of purple foam with wide grins. Tony's gauntlets are still on, but his chest piece is off and all he's wearing is a thin Captain America shirt with a small hole on the collar.
Softly, Steve asks, "Timestamp please, JARVIS."
JARVIS routes his answer through Steve's phone to match the quiet tone. "Posted last night at 1730 hours, thus taken and posted Monday the 23rd at 0500 hours Eastern Standard Time."
He thumbs at the screen absently and makes the photo zoom in and out again.
"The delay is getting shorter."
"That's because Sir is on his way back to our solar system, Captain."
Steve can't stop staring at his shield covering Tony's chest.
Oh fine, he decides. He sighs, selects the comment field under the photo and begins to type.
# # #
The toddlers' cages have been upgraded to have padding on the inside. Steve inspects the Kevlar weave stuffed with fibrefill, then sidles away with a wince when he notices that one of the tots is staring at him from under his blanket.
"They want comfort just like any other creature," Bruce says. He stands across the room inspecting his brain scans and sipping tea from a mug. "So they want blankets, then they have to not eat them or use them as weapons."
Steve eyeballs the staring toddler right back. After a couple of seconds, the kid wiggles back a bit more so his face is completely obscured by the blanket.
All of the contained toddlers are doing slightly better on the calm-and-quiet front, but no matter how you shake it they're still kennelled like dogs and Bruce is still uneasy about it, if his tense shoulders are any indication.
"How much longer until you get a solution?" Steve asks.
Bruce elects to glare at him instead of using his words.
# # #
Clint and Steve have a bet going. If Steve can eat all ten boxes of macaroni and cheese at once-- prepared, of course, because they're not animals-- then Clint will take up a sensible game like Doom or Call of Duty instead of this aRPG with thinly-veiled references to Steve and Tony nonsense.
Steve's down to a quarter of the mess left and just starting to feel queasy. Clint looks queasy too, for that matter. Too much cheesy goodness in one place shouldn't be a bad thing, but it is.
JARVIS beeps from the ceiling. "Sir is breaking atmosphere South of the Manhattan Harbour Yacht Club."
"Wha?" Steve asks with his mouth full.
Clint runs to the glass doors leading to the launch pad. Steve coughs up his masticated horror and follows.
"What's going on?" Clint asks and looks outside at the sky. Steve goes outside and stares up at the sky. Is that burst of light Tony or just the sun getting in his eye?
"Sir is approaching atmosphere at a much higher speed than required for safe landing at the Tower," JARVIS says.
"The hell does that mean?!" Clint shouts, and then the light Steve's staring at explodes into a starburst.
The sonic boom hits the Tower hard and makes the windows shake and rattle. Steve feels Clint's hands on his shoulders and he realises that he's on his knees now, has no idea how he got down here, and there's this high-pitched keen piercing the air.
The keening might be coming from him, actually.
"JARVIS get Bruce," Clint says and shakes Steve's shoulders. "Fuck. Fuck."
Steve slumps forward and puts his hands flat on the floor, tries to feel the warmth, gasps in air and tries to stop the noise coming from his throat.
The lift dings and Clint turns, leaves on hand on Steve's shoulder and looks back into the building.
"Hey Bruce, get over-- What?"
Steve turns his head to look.
Tony walks through the doors, does some jazz hands, and says "Hey, Daddy's home!" with a grin.
# # #
It takes Clint to stop Steve from strangling Tony, Sam to help when Clint's hold eventually breaks, and Bruce to drag Tony downstairs ahead of them so everyone can calm down and act like adults before anything productive really happens.
Twenty minutes pass in a flurry of anger and shouting. Clint and Sam stop sitting on Steve when he solemnly gives his promise to not break Tony's neck, and they all go down to the conference room where Tony's supposed to explain himself.
The fact that Tony's leaning back in his chair without a care in the world undos all of Sam and Clint's hard work towards calming Steve down. The only reason he doesn't leap and attack is because the conference table is really really big, and they'd grab his ankles before he can get to him.
Also, Tony decides to open the conversational gambit with "There were some folks after me, it's fine. I took care of it," which doesn't help.
Steve's jaw hurts from how hard he's clenching it. His fingers are leaving indents on the metal tabletop. Sam and Clint are cautiously moving away from him, probably to avoid flying projectiles if it comes to that.
"You didn't take care of it," Steve bites out, "You made us think you were dead."
Tony waves both hands in the air, his "I'm dealing with morons" gesture. "I'm here! You thought I was dead, what, ten seconds? Twenty? Not a lifetime of grief, Steve!"
"I don't give a crap about a lifetime of grief, I care about those twenty seconds!" Steve is all but leaning across the conference table to yell at Tony better, and he can't bring himself to stop. "I'm your Team Leader and you could've--"
Tony slams one hand flat onto the table. "Could've what? I didn't have time, I just acted and--"
Steve crosses his arms and looks down his nose at Tony. "You had time to relay with JARVIS, you had time to have him send me an alert that you were staging something. No excuses."
"Yeah, I'll go ahead and add that to all the protocols. Hey JARVIS, when I decide to wipe my ass make sure to send a receipt and sitrep to Spangles here so he doesn't worry, okay?"
JARVIS is tellingly silent. Tony grin viciously at the room.
Steve, for his part, stares at Tony and thinks for a moment. He considers the angles. He ponders this situation. The white noise is a background to his hearing, voices come in static-like and faint then swoop into loud, headache-inducing, then back to the faint frequency again.
Because of that hearing situation-- Bruce would tell him something about blackout rage and white noise being his blood pressure rising, later-- Steve doesn't hear Bruce chastise Tony, or Clint make a threat on Tony's suit or anything.
Instead, he hears Tony's answering laugh. A sharp cruel sound that stings Steve right at the throat as Tony curls his lips at all of them.
Steve calmly reaches down to the coffee maker and picks it up. For a wireless device, it's very heavy. He tests the weight in his hands without taking his gaze away from Tony.
"You gonna use it or you gonna lose it, Spangles?" Tony sneers, coming in loud and clear.
Steve heaves the coffee maker in an overhand swing right out the window. The glass shatters on impact and lets in the wind that comes with being so high up from the ground.
He turns and walks out of the room in measured steps, because if he doesn't force himself to keep going, he's going to find something to throw at Tony next.
"What the hell crawled up your all-American underoos and died?!" Tony shouts over Clint asking "Isn't that glass supposed to be bulletproof?"
Steve gets out of range of them and into the lift before he can hear anymore.
# # #
He's been muttering and fuming in the Gym for the last three hours when JARVIS gently pings over the intercom and announces that, according to the parameters set by Steve earlier, a recorded surge of activity on a disused part of the electrical grid has been found.
"The duration of the surges match your original tipoff at the kindergarten, Captain," JARVIS says, "though this instance is in a closed bakery in Brooklyn."
Steve stops dragging a broken punching bag to the corner where the stationary bikes are and stares at the ceiling. It's his way to show JARVIS that it has his full attention, and it helps to have a consistent place to look when he's in conversation with a disembodied voice.
"Which Avengers are available?"
"I'm sorry, Captain, but only Sir is available at the moment."
Steve kicks the punching bag away from himself and stomps over to the boxing ring to get the next one. "Sam left?"
"Three hours ago, Sir. He was called in on a day-job related reason," JARVIS answers.
He separates another bag from the pile, then boots it clear across the room. Sand flies everywhere and poofs up into a cloud when it collides with a treadmill.
It's a total mess now, which makes his scowl.
"Fine, tell Stark to be ready to leave at twenty-hundred."
The bakery is called HAPPY CREAMPUFFS TO THE HEART. The bubble-letters making up the marquee over the door are still as bright and sparkling as they must have been when new.
"No wonder it failed. Probably had a crap business model," Tony says through Iron Man's vocal modulator.
Steve doesn't roll his eyes but it's a near thing. "I'm taking point," he orders, and leads the way down the side alley.
The backdoor to the building is locked, but Tony takes care of it with some electronic thing he produces from his boot. Inside is dark, hardly the bastion of a major electricity draw.
Tony finds another closed door. He pokes it open at Steve's silent go ahead to find stairs leading down with an eerie greenish glow diffusing the darkness.
Steve climbs down first. Three steps away from the landing he can see a generator, a five foot tall particle accelerator, two laptops hooked up to the wall directly, and three rabid HYDRA toddlers bumrushing his knees again.
He drops to one knee and pulls the rubber ducky taser from his belt like a gunfighter, squeezes off two shots in quick succession. Both shots are true and two of the toddlers go down.
The third launches up the stairs and leads teeth first on a rush at Iron Man. The kid bites down on his shin guard with a screech.
"Wow you weren't kidding," Tony mumbles. He shakes his leg to dislodge the kid, but it doesn't work.
"Can you get her subdued?" Steve asks. He doesn't want to tase Tony on accident.
Tony levitates two feet from the floor and starts to slowly spin in place. The little girl's feet swing out in an arc as a prime example of orbital mechanics.
"She's gonna fly off," Steve points out as he stacks the two toddlers.
"That's the point."
Steve sighs and approaches slowly. "Stop, I'll pull her off."
Tony slows the spin. The girl's now making little whimpers, but still holding on by her teeth like a trooper.
Steve grabs at her feet and after two sharp tugs she lets go.
"Om nom nom," she whines.
"Yeah, yeah," he says and tucks her under his arm like a football.
Tony lands on the concrete floor with a thump and stomps over to the laptops, pokes at the closest with one finger.
"This thing says detonation sequence," he announces.
The Particle Accelerator makes a cracking noise and Steve leaps forward to grab at the other two toddlers.
"Steve!" Tony shouts.
That's when the roof caves in on Steve's side of the basement.
# # #
It takes three hours for Tony to dig him out of the rubble. At hour two, or so JARVIS tells him through his communicator, Natasha and Bucky join Iron Man in the excavation straight from the airport where they landed after their three month stint in South America.
The toddlers curl up under the protective bridge provided by Steve's body after the first ten minutes of thrashing under the rubble. When Steve pulls away and reveals them to the cold night air, one sobs and sniffles, another is still curled in a ball with her eyes squeezed shut, and the last coughs a bit, blinks at everyone, then shuffles forward to try to weakly gnaw on Steve's leg.
Steve shakes off the toddler and moves back to let Bucky stuff the kid into the sack headfirst. Tony reaches out to take the bag, which Steve slaps at until he retreats.
"I'm fine, check for surrounding damage," he snaps and takes the bag from Bucky, much to his friend's amusement.
The Iron Man helmet stares blankly at him for a bit, then the entire suit pulls a smart about-face and stomps back to the rubble.
Steve hurriedly shoves the other two stunned children into the sack, taking less care than usual, then all but throws the sack of toddlers into his friend's arms.
"Gee thanks, just what I wanted," Bucky says. He looks nonplussed, but he doesn't drop them, so point to Steve.
Tony stomps back over. Pings of crushed concrete scatter everywhere under the force of the suit's ire.
"Structural damage is contained to the crumbled building," Tony snipes. He flips the front of the helmet up and squints at Steve's face. "That good enough, Spangles?"
Steve nods his head, regrets it with a wince.
Bucky snorts and hauls the sack of toddler over to the nondescript cargo van idling fifty feet away. Steve tries to follow, stumbles for no reason, and Tony grabs his arm.
"Come on, Steve," Tony grumbles and supports his suddenly weak knees over to the van.
# # #
Steve crawls out of Medical feeling like a truck rolled over him while going 85 on the I-10, but that's a normal reaction to adrenaline overload so he bites back a groan and joins Bruce on the lift.
"You successfully shielded the HYDRA agents from the worst of it," Bruce tells him immediately. Steve's shoulders relax at the news, and he nods at Bruce in acknowledgement.
His head still hurts though, so he's planning on nuking leftovers and marathoning whatever horrible television show Clint is enamoured with until he passes out.
Tony and Clint are sprawled on the sofa when they gets there, talking about games and something regarding achievements. Bruce scurries over to join them and talk to Natasha, who is sitting on the floor watching a cartoon.
Steve doesn't say hallo. He goes to the freezer, finds one frozen waffle left, and gnaws on it on his way back out. Clint catches sight of him as he comes in and begins to furiously dig amongst the couch cushions.
"Steam will never approve it, the combat metrics are still buggy," Bruce says.
Steve pulls out his phone and thumbs the on button. The case on the back is cracked clean through, shows the battery sparkling behind it. He doesn't remember breaking it, but maybe it happened in his pocket.
He stops contemplating his broken phone when Tony leans forward to speak to Natasha.
"Didn't you guys bring back some shady characters from below the equator?"
By virtue of being Natasha, her shrugging answer looks elegant and refined.
"We dumped them with the CIA," she says.
Tony sighs. "Am I gonna have to invest in an interrogation department too? I don't think the Board will approve that without a full song and dance number."
Steve chokes on a piece of waffle. "Tony, no!"
Clint pulls out a wig from the depths of the furniture with a triumphant yell, then puts it on his head and stands up tall, points at Steve. "Hey, look!"
Steve hesitates. The wig is made of yarn, a russet brown colour, and is giving Clint a pair of tattered pigtails.
Clint tosses his head to make the pigtails bounce, then looks Steve in the eye. "You watching?"
Steve is confused as hell, but he nods.
Then Clint leans down to Natasha. "Hey Nat, pull them."
Natasha reaches behind her without looking and yanks the wig right off Clint's head. He yelps and falls sideways, tumbles back to the sofa.
"You snatched me bald, woman!" he shouts in anguish.
"I'm confused, are you confused?" Tony asks Steve.
Steve is getting an idea of what this is about, but he shrugs at Tony anyway.
Clint stops swooning and points at Steve again.
"This was me imitating you around the prodigal son here," he declares. Natasha snorts and puts the wig on her own head, Bruce hides his face behind a StarkPad, and Tony leans back to get a long view of this situation then gives up to shrug.
"I got nothing," Tony says to the room at large.
"Grow up," Steve snarls at Clint.
Clint curls his lip at him. "Only if you grow some balls!"
Steve can feel his face go hot so he leaves. He stomps right on past the little bastard and gets inside the waiting elevator because if he throws a punch at Clint, who knows how the brawl will end. Probably with them rolling out the window.
Tony asks, "Okay, what did I miss right there?" as the doors slide closed. Steve grimaces at his reflection in the doors and tries not to growl.
# # #
He gets up the courage to traverse to Tony's workshop well after everyone else has settled for the evening. JARVIS identifies the other in-house Avengers as upstairs and watching a film, so Steve uses the stairs down a couple levels past the residencies and uses the lift at the first floor of offices. The Tower is by and large a daytime hub of activity and a nighttime hub of quiet, so he doesn't run into anyone on his way down to the sublevels where Tony blows things up on the regular.
Tony sits at his central workbench hunched over the rubbery ducky taser when he gets there.
Steve watches for a long moment, then clears his throat and says, "You can make anything I ask for, right?"
Tony's head jerks up and he narrows his eyes at Steve.
"Within reason. Why?"
He sounds suspicious, and Steve doesn't blame him.
"How about a net that won't hurt brainwashed kids when I catch them?"
Tony's lips quirk up at that, he hums a bit. "Reword that question if you gotta ask someone else, okay? But yeah, sure. Can put a dampener field on it to keep them from bruising. Can't stop them from being knocked around some, but--"
"How about a way to bring up discrepancies in resource use in the private sector without having to waste JARVIS' time?" Steve cuts in.
JARVIS says, "It's my pleasure to help, Captain," as pissily as an AI can get, which isn't very.
"I can make a shortcut so it's quicker," Tony shrugs. "But don't cut JARVIS out, he'll get all mopey and sad before you're neglecting h--"
"If you can make all of that, then why can't you have your team leader get a message that you're gonna fake your death for a minute?"
Tony's mouth snaps shut. Steve stares him down.
After a moment of glaring, Tony finally says, "I didn't come back from space to get a lecture."
Steve's hands curl into fists and it takes real work to not punch out a nearby machine.
"Then why did you come back?"
Tony snorts and turns away. A new display pops up with the heading NEW PROJECT at the top, Tony uses his fingers to start inputting something or other directly into it.
Weariness hits Steve like a sledgehammer between the shoulderblades. He rubs a hand across his mouth to help stifle the groan.
"I said within reason, all right?" Tony snaps. He doesn't look at Steve. "You'll get the net and the shortcut, but don't hold your breath on the warning system."
Steve uses both hands to grab at the top of his own head and dig his fingers into his hair.
"You are the most insufferable, pig-headed, most insane man in the world and I have to fight all the time to not strangle you with my bare hands!" he shouts.
Tony coughs out a short laugh. "Yeah yeah, love you too, Steve," he mutters.
Steve's throat constricts, forcing him to shut up. There's a buzzing in his ears now. He blinks a couple times and tries to process, but Tony ignores him so he sucks in a breath and leaves the workshop without another word.
JARVIS takes the lift up to the common area without being asked. Steve stares at his reflection in the doors blankly and doesn't take in a damn thing.
Head still buzzing, he staggers out of the lift and down the hall, into the kitchen. The living room is still full of Avengers, Bucky says "Hey Steve" as he passes.
Steve grunts at the sound of his name and opens the fridge, stares blankly at the contents. The buzzing is getting worse, not better.
"Why did you build that on the water, JARVIS?" Bruce asks in the living room. Clint laughs.
"Mister Barton asked me too, Doctor," JARVIS answers, and the metallic sound effect of the Iron Golems in Minecraft fill the room. They're done with the movie then, back to messing around with the map JARVIS and Clint have been working on for a couple years now.
"I'm not doing it," Bucky says, part of a conversation Steve's not been privy to.
Clint snorts, says "Yeah, but next time you lose a arm you gotta say tis but a scratch."
Bruce sighs loudly. "I'm making an app for us. It logs near death experiences, and if you cover the whole board you get blackout bingo."
Steve's grip on the fridge door tightens hard enough to make the plastic creak like a gunshot and the entire door comes off at the hinges in his hands.
A shuffle of booted footsteps happen, and Bucky peers around the corner of the kitchen to watch Steve frantically try to shove the door back on.
"Hope you guys didn't want anything cold," he drawls.
Clint staggers past Bucky and takes in the scene. He gasps horribly, hand to chest and face gone bloodless.
"What did the vault of deliciousness ever do to you, Steve?!"
The lift down the hall dings loudly and ten seconds later Tony saunters in on the scene.
"The Appliance Watchdog Service shrieked, so here I am," he announces. "Who broke what?"
"He murdered it," Clint wails and points at Steve.
Tony looks absolutely delighted by Steve's misfortune. "Do I need to get you into Anger Management Classes, Cap?"
Steve props the fridge door against the rest of it and stomps out of the kitchen. He shoves past Clint-- still wailing-- and brushes against Tony as he goes, who spins on his heels and follows with a sing-song admonishment of "Don't you walk away from me, young man!"
Steve whirls on him just outside the lift doors. Tony draws up to a stop less than two feet away, tilts his head, narrows his eyes.
"I'm sorry I broke it," Steve says, forming his words carefully.
Tony nods slowly. "Yeah I bet you are, you freak."
Steve bristles and takes a step forward so they're almost nose to nose. Tony's jaw clenches because of the height disparity. Steve fights the urge to back away from the heat radiating from Tony's body.
"Why did you even come back if you don't want to be here?" Steve growls.
Tony's eyebrows go up and his eyes take on a blank quality that causes Steve's stomach to quickly tie up in knots.
"I thought I was needed, sorry for the misunderstanding."
"But you are needed, you're an integral part of--"
Tony waves him off. "I was going to stay gone for only six months anyway. I can go back and fill that out later on the Guardians' next pass through."
Steve stops trying to yell. Later? What later?
JARVIS chimes in as Tony eyes him warily.
"Sir, your "welcome back from space" party is about to begin. Mr Barton is withdrawing the cake from its hiding place as we speak."
"Unnecessary," Tony mutters. He shakes his head and turns on Steve without a second glance, wanders down the hall back to the common area. Steve stands there and watches him go.
"Well Barton, where's this cake?"
"What the hell?"
"I apologise, Sir, but the cake was a lie," JARVIS cuts over them smoothly.
# # #
A box of nanobots sit on the table in the centre of Bruce's main lab. Steve peers inside at the sluggishly writhing mass of technology and eyes the mess warily.
"--and then I inject this stuff straight to the spinal cord to speed it up," Bruce says as he waves around a syringe. "We irradiate to speed the process up, then boom. Good as new. JARVIS will monitor on the molecular level and alert us if anything goes wrong."
Tony watches the arc of the syringe from his side of the room. "Should the Hulk really be using the word "boom" in common conversation?"
Bruce puts down the syringe on the table in a very dignified way.
"You're just peeved that you didn't think of it yourself."
Tony laughs and leaves the lab.
Steve watches him go, then watches Bruce bustle around as he arranges syringes in a careful line on the table.
"So how long will the process take?" he asks.
Bruce wobbles one hand back and forth. "Week, give or take a few."
There are now far too many syringes on the table for the amount of toddlers locked into the dog cages, Steve notes.
"And the radiation will...?"
Bruce looks up at that. He's very earnest. "Not kill them. Hopefully break down some of the chemicals HYDRA pumped into them. But mostly not kill them."
Steve nods his head slowly. Mostly sounds like questionable wording, but he's not about to argue.
"I thought you were worried about ethics," he says.
Bruce snorts, takes the box of nanobots from Steve, begins to sort them.
# # #
Bucky helps move the inoculated and irradiated and-- most important of all-- tranquilised HYDRA toddlers to a couple padded detainment rooms to wait out the treatment. Bruce supervises, hums and his clipboard and inputs specifications into JARVIS on who is where, how long to let the nanobots work between rest period, so on.
They all pile into lift. Steve peers out the closing doors in full-on Worry Mode about this "science".
Bruce is pissy the entire ride up to the common floor and stomps down the hall. Bucky and Steve follow at a more sedate pace.
Steve's Super Soldier Hearing is great for picking up dim conversations before he actually gets into the room. In this case, he hears Tony talking to Clint in the living room, some blockbuster explosion-fest chattering away in the background.
"--It's not like you guys really need me here. I'll do some bug fixes, write up a patch, then jet off again."
"Only if you fix the fucking combat dynamics first, man. I want all these achievements. It'll fuck with my perfect game score if I don't get them."
Steve and Bucky get to the living room. Bucky glances at Steve, face blank, then goes to perch on the chair Natasha is sitting on. Tony startles at the sight of them and doesn't have the grace to look guilty.
"Jet off?" Steve asks.
Tony won't look at him, focuses on his hands folded in his lap.
"To Space, Cap. Can't do much here."
"What about aerial support?" Steve's pretty sure this feeling that's choking his throat is despair. "Your laser things?"
Tony looks up from his hands, all bemused in the face.
"Stick around because I got laser things? Really?"
"You contribute, Tony! You're cannon fodder!" Clint punches Tony in the arm hard enough to make him fall against the arm of the sofa. Tony stays where he falls and raises one hand to flip off Clint.
"Can I talk to you?" Steve asks. He grabs Tony by the arm and starts to drag him off the furniture. "Not here. In the. In the kitchen?"
Tony mumbles something about "distinct lack of choices" and Clint cackles as they stumble out of the living room and into the empty kitchen.
"Be good, kids!" Clint shouts after them. Someone-- likely Bucky-- turns up the sound on the television to drown out the noise.
Tony flails his way out of Steve's grip and puts a good two feet of distance between them. This leaves Tony back against the counter next to the fridge with his arms crossed, and Steve standing there grasping at thin air.
"Don't go. I-- please. Just don't."
Tony examines his nails while Steve stammers at him. They're perfectly done, and Steve is hit with the mental image of Iron Man leaving his gloves of to let an alien manicurist use a nail file on him.
"Are there manicures in space?" he asks before he thinks better of it.
Tony startles, blinks and looks a bit disarmed. He doesn't meet Steve's eyes though.
"I've got one of those boxes to do it. Like the "fear death" box things from Dune." He narrows his eyes and crosses his arms again, tilts his head back to glare at Steve's face. "What?"
Steve backs away from that digression as quickly as he can.
"Tell me what to say to keep you here."
"It's not simple like that," Tony says.
"Of course it is, it's--"
"You walk out of the room when I walk in," Tony snaps. "You look angry when you're stuck with me. And sorry, Steve, but I want this team assembled and in working order just in case we get another megalomaniac tripping on his own balls to speed up humanity's extinction. I want it too much to fight with you over it.
"So I go off into space, okay? I get some shit done, help people out, and you can get your head on straight."
"I don't want my head on straight," Steve pleads, then snaps his mouth shut when he hears himself because that isn't what he means at all.
Tony blinks at him, stunned for a moment. He recovers quickly enough, gives a humourless chuckle. "You're made up, huh? Figures."
An immense bitterness seeps into Steve's bones, his clenched jaw. He doesn't let his shoulders slump, but it's a close thing.
"Yeah, I know," he snipes, "Love you too, right?"
Tony freezes, blink and you'll miss it. But Steve didn't blink, so he sees it, the tensing of the muscles and the shock that flickers like rain across Tony's face.
"Tony, you--" Steve reaches out a hand.
Tony slides away, out of reach, and his face is back to affable and slightly pissed off. He sketches a salute and darts around Steve, telegraphing his intent to leave the kitchen without saying anything else loud and clear.
Steve grabs Tony's arm and all but flings him back into the kitchen, follows him back across the linoleum. Tony gets his feet under him just as Steve settles for caging the other man up against the counter and fridge with his arms.
"You're not self-sacrificing, you're a coward," Steve hisses.
Tony has always sneered in such a way that it goes right through ugly and comes out pretty again on the other side. He does that now, flashes his teeth too. "Get out of my face, Rogers."
Clomping footsteps get them to both shut it. Clint appears, walks past the breakfast bar, opens the pantry and rifles through it. He emerges holding a box of microwave popcorn, swears at it, selects a package and toddles over to the correct appliance to cook it.
Steve's breathing has gone ragged and he keeps track of Clint's progress out of the corner of his eyes, but he's still focused on Tony and Tony's rigid posture, his crossed arms and his lips pressed so thin they're nearly white.
The microwave beeps, Clint takes his hot back of popcorn and dumps it into a bowl, then leaves the kitchen. On his way out he pauses, finally looks at them with an even, flat glare that is just this side of calculating, then turns away.
"You stay away from that fridge, killer," he says, then he's back in the living room and squawks loudly at Natasha about stealing his popcorn before he can even sit.
Steve angles himself up against Tony and looms again. "Damnit, Tony," he hisses
"No, you listen," Tony hisses back, "You get out of my face now, and then--"
Steve slams a hand against the fridge, keeping Tony cornered against the counter.
"And what? You'll go out to space, leave me standing here like a moron wondering what I did wrong? I was thinking you didn't want the team anymore! I was thinking you'd rather disappear than be around me."
Tony angles his chin so he can look down his nose at Steve despite being a helluva lot shorter than him. "Wow, project much? We can get you into therapy for that--"
"Stop talking in circles around me, I'm not falling for it this time!"
"You're making it sound like you're being stood up for a date!" Tony raises his voice on the last word. "You're making this more than it is!"
Steve snarls, "Shut up," then presses his mouth over Tony's harsh and firm.
It's basically a dry press of chapped lips on chapped lips, but Tony stops shouting, goes very very still instead. Steve feels like shaking apart from the bones outward just doing that much and pulls away far enough to look Tony in the eye.
Tony's eyelids are half-mast but alert, scanning Steve's face as thoroughly as anything JARVIS could do with a sensor.
"Don't go," Steve says and is surprised to find that his voice has gone croaky. "Please. I never want you to leave."
Tony's shoulders slump and he leans back against the fridge. A corner of his mouth twitches up and he huffs a laugh, more of an amused exhale than anything.
"Congrats, you figured out how to get me to stop talking," he mumbles as he wraps his hands up in the hem of Steve's shirt and holds on firm.
Steve doesn't know what to say to that, so he kisses him harder instead.
Tony's mouth slides open, invites to reciprocate with hot wet breath, and Steve responds eagerly, presses his tongue in and swipes as slow as he dares. Their bodies press together, hip to hip and chest to chest. Steve stops bracing his arms on the counter to wrap them around Tony's waist.
That's all the stress the fridge needs, apparently, because the door to it falls off again.
Steve and Tony jump sideways to avoid the violent action of the appliance, and Clint bellows from the living room, "God damnit what did I just say?!"