Steve always knew that all of the Avengers living under one roof, it would paint a target on their backs. Easy to locate, easy to track routines, easy to attack. He’d always, in the back of his head, expected an attack of some sort. Kidnapping? Par for the course. He’s been waiting for it since day one.
What he didn’t expect was that the victim would be Natasha.
Tony is the one to deliver the surveillance footage, showing how they darted her and drugged her and dragged her off already bound hand and foot. When Steve sees, his vision goes red and he can feel a fire in his belly the likes of which he hasn’t felt since the war, since watching Jim go down with a bullet in his leg.
All of Steve’s instincts switch to high gear and he clenches his jaw until his teeth ache, afraid that if he so much as opens his mouth, he’ll do something he’ll regret and then he’ll have to explain a few things about himself to his teammates. That would be an uncomfortable conversation and a long one, one they don’t have time for when Natasha is in enemy hands.
It takes a moment for Steve to realize that Tony’s speaking. “—call the others. Right, Cap? I mean, we need to act, right?”
Steve nods sharply and heads for their command room. He can feel hot air blowing through his nostrils and he has to quickly check the glass. It’s not showing. It’s fine. And his eyes are normal, too. The others won’t notice if he can just get his instincts under control and focus on Natasha. Natasha who needs them.
He pulls up the footage again and starts watching for cues, clues, anything that might lead them to her. Tony arrives shortly after, the Iron Man bracelets conspicuous at his wrists and Pepper on his heels, her face set in an icy mask. Clint’s there shortly thereafter, as is Bruce. Thor is last to arrive, flying in from the apartment he and Jane share in Queens.
She looks at them all, meets their eyes and forces himself to breathe. They’ll get her back. She’s theirs and they’ll get her back. They have to. Steve’s lost everything dear to him once before and he won’t allow it to happen again.
“I’ve got a license plate,” Pepper says as Tony shows the footage again.
“I know their weapons,” Clint offers.
Bruce is terrifyingly silent, his eyes cast down but his fists clenched. He’s almost as protective of Natasha as Steve is, perhaps because of what the Hulk once did to her on the helicarrier.
A moment later, JARVIS offers a separate projection. “I’ve located the vehicle in question, but it appears to have been abandoned.”
“Footage of the switch?”
“I’m afraid not, Captain.”
“They’re 2R. Russian program. Nat’s…familiar with them.”
“Where would we find them.” Steve means to ask a question, but the words grind out of him like stones, settling on the table for the team to stare at. He passes a hand over his face and tries to calm his expression. No one says anything and after a moment, Clint continues.
“On US soil, 2R’s probably got a secret office in New York. Close to the Russian embassy, but not inside it. They need to be disavowable if they get caught.”
“Great,” Tony groans. “Would they take her to said facility?”
Clint shrugs helplessly. “Nat would know, but I’ve never really gone up against them. Fury. He might know.”
“Get on it,” Steve says, holds himself back from snapping, and he turns back to Pepper. “Any likely switch cars?”
“JARVIS has pegged a few, but they did the switch in a tunnel. Lots of traffic passing in and out.”
“We should still check the vehicle. There might be clues.” Steve knows there’s probably not, that this organization probably isn’t that sloppy, but he can always hope.
Thor nods and steps forward. “I will do this task.”
Steve nods and has Pepper give Thor the location. “Subtlety, Thor. We don’t need someone calling the cops on you.” With a thunder clap and a whirl of wind, Thor is gone.
Clint is back in fifteen minutes and he’s got a few leads courtesy of SHIELD. JARVIS tackles the addresses and starts up better surveillance on those areas, watching for increased or suspicious activity. Within nine minutes he has a likely suspect and Thor’s back, bearing a small metal coin with Natasha’s hourglass symbol on it.
“God I love spies,” Tony says, snapping up the disc and slipping it into a tiny drive. Immediately they have audio.
“She’s waking up! Dose her again.”
“Too soon. We could kill her and Petrovitch would have our heads for that.”
“If she’s awake, she’s deadly. Dose her. I’ll take full responsibility.”
There’s a hiss, a thump, and a grunt. “What did I tell you?” the man, the senior officer obviously, says. “Honestly.” Compressed air and a thunk, Natasha groaning, but the audio keeps going.
“Take a left up here. They want us to make the switch at the tunnel and then dump the car.”
“Bastards get to steal all the glory,” the grunt complains. “Can’t believe she managed to kick me trussed up like that.”
“Widows. It’s what they’re made for.”
Beneath Steve’s fingers, the table goes soft and he hastily pulls away, hoping everyone thinks it was his strength alone and not his heat that made the impression of his fingers. There’s the k-chunk of a car door and then more doors opening and closing, faint voices speaking with each other.
“Taking voice prints, sir.”
At almost that same moment, Pepper makes an “AHA” sound and points at one of her displays. It enlarges for all of them and shows them a van pulling up to a dry cleaner’s. “This is one of the points Director Fury gave us, and this van just pulled up twenty minutes ago. They carried in a large canvas bag. Large enough to fit Natasha.”
“Looks promising.” Clint says, leaning close. He’s studying the lines of the workers, their drab gray jumpsuits, their burly arms. “They don’t look like your average dry cleaning schmucks.” It becomes even more suspicious when the next snap from the security cam on the corner shows two more guys getting out of the van, both burly, both carrying bags that look suspiciously like they might be stuffed full of firearms.
“I think we have our place,” Tony says with a predatory smirk. “Game plan, Cap?”
The fire is roiling in Steve’s belly, almost unbearable. Natasha was the first person he claimed for himself in this century, the first one to fill the void that was left gaping inside of him with the loss of the Howling Commandos and Peggy and Bucky. The other Avengers had quickly rushed in as well, become his, but Natasha was the first and Steve can’t bear the thought that these bastards are going to do something to her, something that requires she be alive and well. It almost makes him more nervous than if they’d been cruel to her.
It takes him far too long to swallow the rage back down, and by the time he looks up, sure that his face is controlled, the entire team is looking at him with expressions that seem to vacillate between concern and apprehension.
“Cap?” Tony asks, almost tentative. It doesn’t fit at all and it almost sends Steve’s rage tumbling out completely. But he can’t. Nat needs him. Them. She needs them.
“Quick strike. I want her out. Everything else is secondary. Hawkeye and I will be doing the infiltration. Iron Man, I want you on standby for secondary support. Thor, Bruce, I want you as last resort. If we call you in, we’re past the point of finesse.” There. That was good. Measured, solid, completely sound plan. They were still looking at him like he might explode at any moment, but finally Clint nodded.
“Let’s do this. No quinjet, right?”
“No landing zone. Iron Man, Thor, you’re on transport. Bruce, I assume you can be there quickly if we need you?”
“If you need me,” Bruce said with a nod, though his head remained tilted down.
Tony suits up and Thor changes into his armor and cape, and then they’re off, JARVIS speaking coordinates and updates in their ears. He has them drop a block from the dry cleaner’s and he and Clint approach on foot. The front of the store is already closed up for the night, but they need the back, where the van is parked. They each take one side of the door, Steve to open and Clint to aim, and then the break in. The top floor is completely empty, but it doesn’t take long to find a secret passage belowground, and there they find the first guard. Steve takes him down before he can even aim and they take off running. They’ll find her. They have to.
The R2 base is seriously understaffed, and Steve’s grateful, because it makes it easy to maneuver unnoticed. The other two guards they meet both go down as easily as the first. But then they come to a room, one where there are voices, and they both pause. Russian. Steve doesn’t speak it, and he doesn’t know if Clint can hear it, but he knows Nat’s voice. He knows the sound of her anger.
Steve gives a hand signal for a three count, and as one they burst through the door. Natasha is standing free, her black boot on an elderly man’s neck. A cut over her eyebrow is bleeding heavily, but she otherwise looks well all things considered. There are other guards dispatched around the room, lain in messy heaps.
She turns when they burst in, the gun in her hands training on them both, and that turns out to be her mistake. The man beneath her grunts, lifts a knife and sinks it deep into Nat’s calf. Steve sees red.
He roars without meaning to, watches as flame spits out and scorches the chair where Nat had likely been held, the old man’s legs, and one wall. Beside him, he’s vaguely aware of Clint shouting “What the fuck?” but he’s focused on the man, on making him drop the knife. He does, crying out and batting at the fire licking at his legs as Nat topples away, barely keeping her balance.
He knows Clint has her, will get her out of there, but his rage must be satisfied. This man took what was his, hurt her, and he’ll make him pay. More flame pours forth, his mind receding completely as instinct comes to the fore. In the quiet place where his consciousness retreats, he knows he’ll wake tonight with this man’s screams in his ears, maybe with scorched sheets, but in the roiling boil of his anger, he’s helpless to do anything else. He doesn’t stop until half the room is in flames and the man has stopped screaming. Only then does he turn and stalk back up the stairs, spitting small balls of flame at any cameras he sees. No one can know. Bad enough that now his team knows.
When Steve emerges aboveground, only Thor is waiting for him. “Iron Man and Hawkeye delivered Widow to Dr. Banner to be treated. They asked me to wait here for you. Hawkeye seemed…troubled.” If Thor’s expression is anything to go by, Clint was more than troubled. He was probably freaked out.
Steve nods and steps tiredly into Thor’s grip. Now that his rage has been sated, all he feels is exhaustion. That’s always how he feels when it gets the better of him, rises to the surface to flash its fangs. When they touch down on the landing pad of the tower, Steve almost falls to his knees before he gets his balance, and then he trails after Thor into the building. As if exhaustion weren’t bad enough, he has to explain. The Avengers are not about to let this go. He knows them well enough to know that.
Thor leads them straight to medical, where Bruce is sewing stitches into a stone-faced Nat’s leg. Her other cut has been pulled together with a butterfly bandaid, and without the blood gushing over her face, she looks more or less fine. Steve feels even more ashamed of himself. Nat probably still could’ve taken that guy, even with her wound, and he’d just…
“So,” Clint says. He’s leaning in a corner, arms crossed, expression carefully neutral. “I feel like history class skipped out on some things.”
“You barely even went to class, you carnie,” Tony says, not without affection, but then he turns sharp eyes on Steve. “I, on the other hand, have read all my father’s notes on you, plus the locked SHIELD servers. That,” he gestures and JARVIS pulls up footage from Clint’s vest cam, “was not in any of their notes.”
“It wouldn’t be,” Steve says, hanging his head, feeling both the urge to check up on Natasha and hover over her until she snaps at him and the equally strong urge to curl up in a ball in his room out of shame. “Only Erskine, Peggy, and the Commandos knew. No one else.”
“Not even Fury,” Natasha asks. She’s just as carefully neutral as Clint, though when Steve looks up, she’s studying him with a layer of mistrust she hasn’t shown him in a while.
“No. Fury doesn’t know. Peggy and the Howlies took the secret with them. Peg, she knows of course, but she…I don’t know. Maybe she knew it sounded too fantastic to be believable.”
“And what is ‘it’ exactly, Steven?” Behind him, Thor sounds warm, almost understanding. Of course, Thor’s brother turned out to be a Frost Giant, so maybe he's used to people suddenly having strange new abilities.
He takes a huge breath and runs a hand through his hair, staring down at his toes. He’d hoped this time around, he’d be able to control it. Hide it. He’d been making do with blows traded in combat, friendly claps on the shoulder. His nest is well hidden in his room, where JARVIS cameras don’t reach and the team doesn’t come. But his temper always gets the best of him. Always.
With another deep breath he looks up. He will meet this proudly at least. He will tell them the truth, no matter what they decide after. “I’m part dragon.”
He's not particularly surprised when Tony snorts and Bruce’s frown deepens. Natasha’s face doesn’t shift at all, though he sees how one of her hands drops to the hospital scrub pants she's now wearing, tracing at the outseam. Clint smiles outright, tilting his head back and silently laughing. Pepper, at Tony’s side, looks like she's wondering if she should be bring around medical supplies to start testing Steve with.
“Nice try, Star-spangled Sass. That’s hilarious. Want to try again?”
“I’m telling the truth.”
“Steve, you may have all the stubbornness and strength of a dragon, but there’s a little flaw in your explanation. There’s no such thing. So try again.”
“Tony, I am telling you what I know. I’m part dragon. End of story.”
“He’s telling the truth,” Natasha says, and God he just wants her to make some facial expression other than sharpened steel. He’d give anything for her to just relax.
“’Tis true,” Thor says, placing a hand on Steve’s shoulder and nodding gravely. “Dragons do exist, Anthony. A great many of them, and a great set of variation among them, at that. It would account for our Captain’s fiery breath.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Bruce, back me up here.”
From where he's bent wrapping Nat’s leg, Bruce looks up. “I believe him.”
“Brucie-bear, you can’t be serious. He’s—“
“Tony, if you’d asked me ten years ago if something like the Hulk could happen or if a God would fly down and spend a week in New Mexico or if a giant portal would open up over New York and a host of aliens would attack us, I would’ve told you no and handed you a card for a shrink. Nowadays? I’m less quick to discount those kinds of stories, wild as they may sound.”
Tony gapes at Bruce like he’s genuinely been betrayed, but in the meantime, Clint says, “When you say dragon, you mean…”
“Fire-breathing, gold-hoarding, diamond-scaled, flying dragon, yes,” Steve says tiredly. He wants to sit down, but he can’t. Not for this. It feels like being dressed down by Phillips and he never would’ve dared sit for that.
Clint squints at him like he’s trying to see through him. “Come on, man, you’ve gotta give us more than that.”
Steve shrugs, and for this he does duck his head. It’s a little embarrassing, honestly, because when Erskine had first told him, he’d laughed too. Assumed Erskine was dumbing down science into a palatable mythology for Steve. He hadn’t dreamed it would be real.
“Part of the super soldier serum. Dragon scales, dragon blood, dragon horn. I don’t know where Erskine got them, but he used them in his solution. He told me what the possible, uh, side effects might be. I didn’t really believe him, but then I breathed fire while rescuing Bucky and the 107th. Sent the whole facility up in flames. So, yeah. Part dragon.”
“Oh. Oh, well that’s less weird.”
“It is?” Steve asks, looking up at Clint with a baffled expression.
“I thought you were saying your, like your dad was a dragon or something. Or your mom. That would’ve been weird. Scientific experimentation with ancient artifacts, though? That’s pretty par for the course.”
Thor is nodding too, and how is it Steve’s lot that he has a Norse god backing him up in all this?
“Side effects,” Natasha says. “Plural. What else.” She hasn’t moved a muscle, even though Bruce is done with her leg. She’s still watching him inscrutably and he wants to shrink under her gaze.
“Uh, well. The health, super strength, growth spurt. Those were all part of the deal. Fire-breathing, hard-skin—though not unbreakable.” He hesitates, because if he reveals everything, then they’ll really know. They’ll understand that he wasn’t hiding his powers because of secrecy, but rather because this last secret is the worst one. The one that disrespects them all.
“What aren’t you saying, Steve?” Pepper. Even Pepper can see that he’s holding back.
“Hoarding,” he says, and for this he can’t bring himself to meet their eyes. Because the next question will be—
“Hoarding what, exactly?”
For a second he considers lying, considers telling them that he hoards blankets or sweatshirts or some innocuous object that has little value and can easily be spotted in his room. His nest is more or less just a whirl of blankets and pillows, after all. But he can’t lie to them. They’re his team. They deserve the truth.
“People. Good people.” He waits, doesn’t dare look up. They’re all intelligent. They’ll connect the dots.
Tony suddenly laughs, a rough sharp bray. “Of fucking course. What could be more apple pie than Steve Rogers, dragon, hoarding ‘good people.’”
Steve glances up sharply at that, watches as Tony puts his face in his hand. He’s hiding something now, just as much as Steve was before.
“Jesus,” Clint mutters, “and here I was thinking you had a crush on Nat.” That sends a flush racing up Steve’s cheeks and he manages to meet Clint’s eyes. “She’s part of your hoard, isn’t she? That’s why you got so angry.”
“It’s part of the…part of the instincts. All the old stories are true, you know? If you steal from a dragon’s hoard…” Steve shrugs helplessly. He can’t help the way he is, even though it reduces the people he cares most about into, into objects. He’s tried to make himself not do it, not think of them as his, but it’s never worked. He even still thinks of Peggy as his, though he does his best to hide it. She moved on, lived her life, and she doesn’t deserve to have him ever hovering over her and trying to keep her close.
“So what, you just, just claimed Nat?”
“I can’t help who I choose. The…it’s not that easy. One minute you’re just a person I know and the next you’re mine. It happens at an instinctual level. If I could make myself stop, I would.”
“Why?” Thor asks, squeezing Steve’s shoulder gently. “Why deny what is in your nature?”
“Because it’s not fair to you guys. You never asked for me to collect you like some, some pieces of gold or something. You’re your own people. It’s not fair to treat you like things.” He only realizes that he’s raised his voice once he finishes his thought, and he has to duck his head again, embarrassed.
For several breaths, there’s only silence in the room. Then several people say several things at once.
“You don’t treat us like objects.” “Wait, ‘you’ as in all of us?” “You didn’t collect us. We came of our own free will.” “Jesus, you’re such a martyr.”
It comes at him from all sides, so he doesn’t really see it coming when Nat is suddenly in front of him, her face still carved into a perfect mask. He meets her eyes as the voices die away again, and he waits for her judgment. After a moment, she speaks.
“The way I remember it, dragons usually slept on their hoards.”
His face flames again, so hot his ears burn with humiliation. But then Natasha’s mask cracks just a little, into a crooked smile. She’s teasing him. And then she’s hugging him, her thin arms tight around his chest. “Thank you for coming to get me. I’m glad you didn’t leave me behind.”
Hesitantly, he curls his arms around her, not daring to apply any strength. “We’ll always come for you,” he says, even though he knows she hears the “I” that’s implied beneath it. “You…you don’t mind?”
“Just don’t make a habit of stealing my kills from me. He and I…we had some unfinished business.”
He leans back to see that her eyes are dark, her face blank again. Unacceptable. Part of them being his is that he makes sure they’re happy and healthy. He can’t stand them being anything less. “I do, you know. Or did.”
“What?” she asks, glancing up, snapping out of whatever place she’s gone.
“The Commandos, when they found out, they used to take turns bunking with me. Really cold nights, they’d let me pile in with all of them. Said it was because I was warm like a space heater, but I think they were just humoring me.”
“Wait, seriously?” Tony asks, perking up like a curious dog. “Do you really actually like to sleep on your hoard?”
He’s blushing so hard, he’s not sure how Tony doesn’t already know the answer. But he has to be honest with them. They’re his. “Well, not ‘on.’ I’m too heavy for that, really. But…it helps. To know you’re close. I don’t…sleeping is…” He runs his hand through his hair again, frustrated that he doesn’t know how to explain this.
“Guys,” Tony says with excitement, “we have all been missing out on sleeping with Captain America.”
“Not like that,” Steve says, looking up sharply because he wouldn’t take advantage of them like that. And besides, the need to be with them, to protect them, it’s got nothing to do with sex. Tony’s already nodding, though.
“No, I got that. But seriously, sleepovers are the best. I vote Steve’s. What do you say?”
Clint pushes away from his corner and nods. “I’m in.”
Nat, her arms still loosely around his waist, nods as well. “Sounds like fun.”
One by one, the Avengers assent, and Steve’s head starts spinning. He wasn’t…didn’t expect they’d ever… Even Pepper’s nodding and she’s more an honorary Avengers, for all that Steve claimed her as one of his the day he found her tucking a blanket around Tony’s shoulders in the shop. She doesn’t know that. Or maybe she does, because she’s looking at him with a kind of soft affection she usually saves for private moments with Tony.
“Great,” Tony says, practically vibrating with excitement. “Showers everyone and then meet up in Cap’s.”
Somehow, Thor herds Steve out ahead of the rest of him and deposits him at the door to his quarters, where he stands steamrolled, unsure if he hasn’t just dreamt the past thirty minutes or so. He walks dead-footed into his living area and straight on through to the master bath, where he strips and showers with mechanical efficiency. Once he’s clean and dry, he pulls on his pajama pants, and, after a moment’s hesitation, a shirt. He’d normally go without, but if they’re really all coming…
All that’s left is to stare at his nest, formed of a massive mound of pillows and blankets more or less arranged with a sleeping depression in the middle. Staring at it now, he laughs at himself and then frowns, passing a hand over his face. It’s large enough for all of them. He built it large enough for all of them and he’d always thought that was really pathetic, but now…
There’s a knock at his door and it pulls him from his own thoughts. Natasha’s there, dressed in soft, mismatched plaid PJs that are clearly two sizes too large for her. Her hands swim in the sleeves, and she looks almost childish. Something in his heart clenches and then releases. For a moment, he’d thought they weren’t coming. But here she is, and she presses past him into his living space and then deeper in to his bedroom. She’s already trying to hide her limp, and Steve frowns at that, following after her. He wonders if Bruce managed to foist some painkillers on her or not.
“Nice digs,” she says, staring with hands on hips.
“Make yourself at home.”
She does just that, elegantly tossing herself on top of the blankets at what he thinks of as the bottom of the nest, the part closest to the TV. He almost goes to join her, but just then Tony and Pepper burst in, followed by Bruce and then a jovial Thor and lastly, a slinking Clint.
“Knocking is considered polite in most societies,” Natasha drawls, throwing a pillow Tony’s way.
“Not in mine,” he answers, catching the pillow and sending it sailing on a return. Before Steve can do much of anything, there are hands on his back and shoulders steering him down into the nest. Before he knows it, the team has ranged themselves around him, placing him directly in the center of the depression where he can touch all of them at once. Bruce is at his shoulder, hip gently pressed against his bicep, Tony curls on one side of him, with Pepper on his other side, reaching over so he can press her hand to Steve’s chest. Thor takes up the other side, turning so he can use Steve’s stomach as a pillow. Clint and Natasha claim his legs, curling so that they can each take a kneecap.
“Ok,” Tony says, the moment they’re all settled. “Cardinal rule of sleepovers. Movies and then Truth or Dare.”
“Oh my god, Tony’s unleashing his inner twelve-year-old girl.”
“Yes to the movie, no to the truth or dare. Take it or leave it.”
“You have no sense of adventure.”
“What movie?” Bless Pepper for being the voice of reason.
“Something sweet. No action. Not after today.”
“When Harry Met Sally.”
“Oh god yes. I haven’t seen that film in forever.”
“Seriously? Can’t we do…I don’t know. Sixteen Candles?”
“No. Your thing for Molly Ringwald is not shared among us.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Natasha! I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Redheads have to stick together.”
As Nat and Pepper share a smile over his body, something in Steve curls up and lies down quiescent, pleased, immensely smug. They’re all here. Somehow. They’re all his. More or less. He sinks into the pillows and blankets with a sigh, staring up at the waiting TV. His inner fires are banked for the moment, but they’re steady and strong, and he’ll use them to keep his team safe and warm.