The wind rushed passed his ears as Steve raced through the forest, branches heavy with leaves casting strips of darkness across the ground in front of him. The ground itself was warm and damp with the remnants of a summer storm but the scent of the wet dirt did nothing to douse the cloying stench of blood still flooding his mind as he heaved in huge breaths of air.
He was running faster than he had ever run in his life, his heart pounding in time with every step he took. It felt like it was going to burst right out of his chest. He still couldn't believe that—No. No. NO! Steve's blue eyes snapped shut as if it would help, help to block out the sight still burned into his brain of his pack getting torn to shreds. And the sounds—the sound of it! He was going for help, for those left alive, there had to be someone who could help! There had to be someone left!
With his eyes closed, Steve missed a gnarled root protruding from the forest floor and it caught him. His tired muscles collapsed and a gust of air rushed from his lungs as his body tumbled down to land in a heap on the forest floor. Reality hit hard as he looked down and saw his yellow pelt soaked in red, blood running down in thick rivulets and spattering onto the ground. He tried to get up, to get his legs to just move, but couldn't do anything more than pant against the dirt, his tongue lolling out of his mouth as he failed to catch his breath. There was only so much even he could take. For a moment he considered trying to shift back, but, no, that would just leave him in worse shape.
Was this it then?
This is how it was going to end?
Without the others, Bucky…He was having a hard time convincing himself that he cared.
A soft whimper unfitting for an alpha of his caliber slipped from his throat. The pain coursing through his body wasn't even close to the pain his heart was feeling. It literally hurt, felt like his chest was getting torn in two. For a Wolf, an alpha, to lose his entire pack—those tight bonds suddenly stretched tight and snapped—even a healthy one could die of heartbreak.
Steve didn't know what his chances were and didn't want to know. He could feel and smell his own blood beginning to pool around him and his vision blurred as he began to slip into unconsciousness. The scent of the woods began to fade and sounds began to shutter off, the last thing reaching his ears the sharp, mocking caws of a raven circling the sky above him. He tried to stay awake but couldn't even manage that as his vision grew black.
If only he could get help…then maybe…
…Maybe somebody could be saved…
Steve awoke with a start and a broken name on his lips, his eyes wide and wild. It took him a moment for his senses to catch up. Fear, sweat, wood, metal, the hum of a heater, the smell and feel of laundered cotton…
Releasing a long, shaky breath, Steve ran a hand over his face and was unsurprised when his palm came away covered in sweat. He was home, his new home, and had been for over four months now, but the nightmares—the nightmares never seemed to end. They probably never would.
A quick glance over at the clock on his nightstand told Steve that it was just past four thirty in the morning. There was no point in going back to sleep now but a long run before his meeting might do him some good. Especially if he could get far enough out of town and shift. It had been a while since he had been able to get a good run in and he wanted to feel the wind against his fur again, even if it triggered awful dreams. Just because that part of his life had ended didn't mean he could let himself give up. Not when he was needed—whole and stable—again.
Steve swung his legs out from underneath his covers, slipping out of bed before turning to his wardrobe and pulling out a pair of track pants. Pulling them up over his briefs, he ran his fingers through his hair to comb it out. He'd make himself presentable after he got back from his run. No need to go through the morning routine twice.
Ten minutes later he was out of his tiny apartment and jogging down the city street, his breath clouding up in front of him in the cold, early morning air. He kept up a slow, steady pace as he passed by other apartments and storefronts just beginning to show signs of waking. If he wanted to, he could've made it to the city limits in less than twenty minutes but there was no reason for him to push it. Shifters were rare and if any normal human happened to glance out their window and catch him running down the road at very inhuman speeds it might provoke a panic. That, and SHIELD would surely reprimand him and he was in no mood to be chastised.
SHIELD was a secretive government organization designed to both control and protect Shifters, to manage the danger they posed to humanity and to keep them from being persecuted from those same humans. Until very recently Shifters had been forced to live in the shadows or be hunted down as monsters. Wolf shifters, the most common breed of Shifter, had given rise to the myth of werewolves, men who turned into uncontrollable beasts and preyed upon men during the full moon. In reality the lunar cycle had nothing to do with a Shifter's ability to change forms, though Wolves always had a certain affinity for the bright light provided by the full moon at night. And all that about Wolves losing control and preying upon humans was the unfortunate result of a few bad seeds. Like normal humans, every once and a while a violent Wolf would come around and use their heightened strength and speed to do harm to others, particularly against humans who they often viewed as weak.
Steve wasn't one of those Wolves. He had always loved humans and he never blamed them when they reacted in fear against Shifters. Maybe it was because he understood how they felt. Before he had matured, he had been weak, the runt of the litter. Everyone, even humans, had seemed to be bigger than him, and he had felt fear. It wasn't easy being an orphaned Wolf in a world that didn't want you. But he hadn't let it get him down, and his hope and refusal to back down had won him good friends, like Bucky and Peggy. Then, when he had reached maturity and had experienced a growth spurt almost unprecedented among other Wolves he had gained even more friends and had been able to start a pack of his very own.
They had called themselves the Howling Commandos and under Steve's leadership had devoted themselves to keeping the peace in the land Steve had claimed as their territory. More than just keep the peace though, Steve's purpose in life had become to protect those weaker than himself, namely humans. Soon enough, SHIELD had taken notice and—much to Steve's shock—had decided to support the vigilante group. Well, support in the sense that they didn't interfere with the Howling Commandos' activities.
For five years the Howling Commandos had faithfully served their city and then their state and the United States of America itself as they began to expand their operations. Anywhere there were signs of an aggressive Shifter, anywhere there was a cry for help, Steve and members of his pack would rush in to assist. And they never lost against their opponents, at least never when it counted. It wasn't that they had been stronger than the other Shifters—okay, Steve was unusually strong—but instead they used their heads. They came in with a plan and worked together so seamlessly as a team that all of their operations had the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. The "Special Forces" of the Shifter world, as SHEILD had once said. With Steve acting as alpha and Bucky as his beta, nothing had seemed impossible.
Nothing, that is, until Steve's world had collapsed around him in a wash of blood. The Howling Commandos had been on a regular mission in upstate New York, responding to a letter they had received begging for help with an aggressive Wolf running wild in the woods near a small town. Steve had brought the whole pack out because it had been relatively close to home and it had been a while since they had all come together as a proper unit. They had been lighthearted as they ran through the woods, Steve elated and charged as he led them bounding amongst the trees. With his beta Bucky at his side and the rest of his pack following closely behind, it had felt so right that Steve had been completely unprepared for what happened next.
Their enemy had fallen on them hard and without warning. The first to go was Dernier, the lean Wolf's sharp squeal of pain causing the rest of them to freeze in their tracks and spin around. Dugan and Jones leapt to help ward off the attacker but both were caught midair by two more wolves jumping out from the underbrush. Steve snarled in rage and had been about to launch himself into the fray when a strange scent had caught his attention. Another alpha, but it was…distorted.
By then Kruger, Morita, and Falsworth had already been pulled into the scuffle and Steve's attention was torn between them and the new threat. Bucky stayed close to Steve though, unwilling to leave his side as the other alpha's scent grew stronger until finally its source emerged from behind a tight copse of trees.
The hair on the back of Steve's neck stood up and the wolf inside him tensed as the Shifter stepped out into the light. The Wolf was as big as Steve had ever seen, slightly larger than Steve himself, and had a deep burgundy pelt that looked almost red in the sun. More mesmerizing than the color of its fur though, was the sense of rage emanating off of him. Rage and a touch of insanity that Steve had only ever sensed off of Shifters that had gone completely wild, given over completely to their animalistic side. And yet this one seemed to have some sense of himself left as he stared Steve down, his cold eyes locking with Steve's with a challenging glare that struck him in his core.
Steve shifted slightly to position himself in front of Bucky, knowing that his beta would never survive a confrontation from this creature. Bucky was strong in his wolf form, his jet black limbs particularly agile, but the raw power coming off of this guy was something else entirely. Steve had to act fast before the other could gain the upper hand more than he already had with the element of surprise. And sometimes the best plan of action was the most straight-forward one.
Letting himself run on the instinct of his inner wolf, Steve's muscles bunched up before he launched himself at the other alpha, the two crashing together in a tangle of claws, snarls, and teeth. Steve struggled for dominance, struggled for a firm foothold, anything, as the two tumbled together. He managed to sink his teeth into the other Wolf's haunches before he was thrown off, forced to roll to the side as the other went straight for his throat. Before the other's jaws could find purchase a black shape darted between Steve and the Wolf as Bucky slammed into its side.
While the assist provided enough time for Steve to avoid the hit, Bucky's weight barely threw the larger red Wolf off balance. Before Steve could go to his friend's aid the Wolf had snapped his jaw down instead on Bucky's scruff and whipped the black Wolf away with such force that it sent Bucky flying about four feet, only coming to a stop when his back cracked against the rough bark of a tree. Steve let out a sharp yip as his beta fell silent but the sound was cut off as the red Wolf rushed him.
Steve could hear the sounds of the others fighting around him, caught flashes of fur out of the corner of his eyes, but couldn't do anything to help them as all of his focus was pulled to just surviving his opponent's assault. He was holding his own, but just barely; each time Red managed to bite down or scratch into Steve's flesh, he returned the blow but he was distracted. His pack's cries and the smell of their blood spilling onto the ground were making it difficult to stay on task. He had to end this one-on-one now or he wouldn't make it to the others in time.
With this thought in mind, Steve gave himself fully over to his instincts. His human mind balked at the thought of killing, no matter the circumstances, but sometimes the situation left room for no other option. As his wolf reared up in his head, he fell upon Red with a new ferocity that seemed to startle the other Wolf. Tearing at whatever body parts were closest to his muzzle as they crashed back together, Steve slowly began to gain the upper hand. And Red could sense it.
Letting out a sharp snarl, Red kicked out at Steve and caught him right in his ribs, the claws on his back legs ripping into the golden Wolf's chest. With all the adrenaline flying through him Steve barely even felt the wound but the impact sent him stumbling back a step. It was all the time Red needed to make his escape, a fierce howl signaling the rest of the Wolf's pack to disappear into the woods as swiftly as they had descended.
Steve snapped at Red's tail as he escaped but didn't give chase, instead turning to his own pack to see how they had fared as he came back to himself. What he saw froze his heart.
For a moment he couldn't even move, only stare at his comrades strewn about their makeshift battlefield. He could tell just by looking at them, and by their smell, that they were badly injured, most of them even—even…
Steve shook his head and limped over to them, the sound of his footpads like thunder in the sudden silence. Leaning down, he snuffled against Falsworth's back, nudging the British expatriate gently with his muzzle. He smelled…dull. Woofing quietly, Steve nudged him once more, just, just to check. Maybe, maybe he was wrong. After all, he wasn't a doctor, maybe a doctor could still help him.
A soft whimper drew his eyes over to the trees. Steve hadn't thought he could feel any worse but when he caught sight of Bucky crumpled up against the base of a tree it felt like the ground had opened up and sent him into free fall.
Steve was at Bucky's side in an instant, curling up against the lither Wolf and running his tongue through Bucky's black fur. He tasted like copper. Panicking, Steve frantically tried to wash the blood trickling from a wound in Bucky's neck, nuzzling against his beta to try to get him to wake, to give any sign that he was alright. He had to be alright.
And he did give a sign. Bucky whimpered again and Steve felt him tremble against him. Another surge of panic welled up inside Steve as he realized that Bucky was shifting back into his human form. Steve growled to try and voice his displeasure—shifting would only aggravate Bucky's wounds and use too much energy—but his beta went through with the transformation anyway.
As soon as they formed, Bucky's lips let out a shuddering gasp embedded with so many layers of pain Steve could hardly stand it. A strangled scream soon followed and Steve's ears fell back to try and block it out, lapping at Bucky's chin and curling even closer against his now-human body, his pale skin streaked with red.
Bucky's face was twisted up in agony and it was only then that Steve lost any hope. The wound in his beta's throat was a possibly fatal one in of itself but it was worse than that. Something else was wrong and Steve wouldn't be able to fix it.
Steve nuzzled against him again, nestling his muzzle under his friend's chin with a low whine and tried once more to wash away some of the still-streaming blood from his neck.
Bucky let out a wet cough and rubbed his cheek once up against Steve's head before trying to nudge him away. "Steve…S-stop. My back…it's my, my back...It's broken."
All the air rushed from Steve's lungs.
"You, you gotta get out of here. If, if they, they come back…Steve, you, you gotta run."
A snarl burst from Steve's chest before he could control it. He never ran, never. Once you started running you couldn't stop. And the very idea of leaving Bucky and the others like this made him want to choke.
Bucky understood and his eyes fell closed. Then they opened and he met Steve's gaze, his own eyes clouded over. "Then go get help. F-find help. Go, Steve."
Looking back at it now, Steve knew that Bucky had just told him that to get him to leave. All of them had been beyond saving, even Bucky. When the realization had hit, Steve had felt so betrayed. He had wanted to stay with him, offer him comfort if nothing else so at least he wouldn't have to die alone. Now Steve saw it differently. If their positions had been reversed, he would have done the same. Steve had been badly injured himself; if any one of their attackers had come back, Steve would've been killed too. Bucky had just wanted to save his life, just like Steve would've tried to save his.
Peggy had made him see that. She had drawn him from a deep depression after she had found him dying in the woods after having run twenty miles in search for help, bleeding out with every step. Peggy was a SHIELD agent, the fierce woman more than a match for most of the Shifters she had to deal with on a daily basis even though she was a normal human. She had known Steve before he had hit his growth spurt, back when the only friend he had in the world was Bucky and he was hardly big enough to remain standing when the wind blew too hard. She had made sure he was safe then, and when he had started to assemble the Howling Commandos she had spoken with SHIELD on his behalf and had been the one to convince the organization to support Steve's pack in their endeavors.
And two days ago she had visited him and told him that her supervisor wanted to speak with Steve about something important. She wouldn't say what, said she didn't even know herself, but she thought that it would be good for him. And that was good enough for Steve.
Blinking, Steve looked up and noticed that he had jogged all the way almost out to the city limits. Even at a slow, human-friendly pace he had made pretty good time and after the many miles he had traveled he wasn't even winded yet. Looking around, he noticed that he was getting close to the countryside and decided that he was far enough from high population densities to shift.
He really needed to run.
Ducking off of the main road, Steve jogged into the bushes for nearly another mile before deeming himself safe from prying eyes. Coming to a stop beside a long row of berry bushes, he efficiently stripped off his track pants and his briefs and carefully folded them into a neat pile under the brush. Before he could even get cold he shifted into his wolf form and instantly loved the feeling of the brisk late-autumn air against his fur.
Steve even felt a little bit like his old self as he bounded into the green hills.
Four hours later, Steve walked back into his studio apartment, dressed back in his track pants and flushed red from exertion and the lingering chill. Smelling her even before he opened his front door, he was unsurprised to see Peggy sitting at the small table he had shoved into the corner of his room. He sent her a small smile and she returned the gesture. "I see you already got some exercise in this morning."
"Yeah. I, uh, I needed it. Do you mind if I…?"
Peggy waved a hand before running her fingers through her wavy brown hair. "Go ahead."
Steve nodded his thanks and moved towards the bathroom. A minute later Peggy heard the sound of the shower turn on, steam pouring out of the closet-sized room a moment after. Inside, Steve almost sensed Peggy's mood change to something more serious as he began to scrub the sweat from his hair. He wasn't surprised then when he heard her voice echo out over the sound of the water, her soft English accent comfortingly familiar. "Are the dreams back?"
Biting his lip, Steve considered lying but quickly shook the thought away. He had no reason to lie except to save his own pride…besides, Peggy would know right away. He had always been a terrible liar and she knew him too well. "…Yeah. The same one."
"You know we have pills we could prescribe you to help you sleep better."
Steve shook his head before ducking his head under the water to rinse away the soap in his eyes. Pulling out of the stream, he wiped the suds from his eyes. "I know. And I appreciate it, Peggy, but I don't want them."
"They're specifically designed for Wolves so there wouldn't be any side effects."
"Again, thanks but no thanks." Finishing rinsing off, Steve shut the water off. "I like to sleep on my own, even if I can't sleep very well. Something about taking medication makes me feel…insufficient."
"Well, let me know if you ever change your mind."
"Sure." Steve felt around for his towel. Not finding it, he searched the room then let out a sigh. "Hey, Peggy?"
"What is it?"
Steve hesitated before stepping out of the shower stall, just out of Peggy's view. "Could you close your eyes? I left my towel in the other room."
He heard her laugh but let out a little noise of agreement. Peeking his head out of the bathroom, Steve checked to make sure that her eyes were actually closed then slipped out, skirting into the room and around his bed. Peggy smiled from where she was sitting at the table but kept her eyes closed, "Honestly Steve, I hardly know why you bother. It's not as if I haven't caught you in the buff countless times during your shifting."
A red blush lit up Steve's cheeks and traveled down his chest as he dug through his hamper. He had meant to wash his clothes yesterday and had forgotten. "This is different! I'm not shifting, I'm just—"
"Sometimes I think you were born fifty years too late."
"What? Never mind, don't answer that." Finally finding his towel, Steve whipped it out and wrapped it around his waist. "You can open your eyes now."
"Excellent. Now, I came to speak with you about—" Peggy cut herself off as Steve shook himself off like a wet dog, water drops spraying off and dousing Steve's bed and Peggy's clothes. Looking up, Steve shoots her an apologetic grin and she simply rolled her eyes. "—about the meeting this afternoon. And thank you very much for that."
"Sorry, didn't think about it. And about that meeting, are you coming or am I going solo?"
"I am to escort you to the SHIELD office but I was not authorized to attend the meeting. Don't worry though," she smiled teasingly at him, "I'll be waiting right outside in case you need me."
He knew she was just teasing but Steve was somewhat relieved that she would be nearby. It wasn't that he was nervous, Wolves just had a natural inclination to travel to new places with at least one or two companions. Nevertheless, he didn't want her to think that he was feeling any sort of anxieties over it. He was an alpha after all. "I think I'll be able to handle it. Who am I meeting, anyway? You haven't said yet."
"I did so. You are meeting with my supervisor."
Peggy pursed her painted lips at his prying, though her eyes were dancing. "His name is Agent Coulson and he's human. Anything more than that and you will have to ask him yourself."
Steve relaxed a little bit as he heard that he wasn't going to meet a Shifter. It wasn't as if he didn't like other Shifters, there was just a whole array of little issues that went along with trying to sort out social hierarchies. "So when do we leave?"
"As soon as you put some pants on, and preferably a shirt. The SHIELD office is rather a suit and tie sort of place."
Steve's face fell into a thoughtful frown as he turned to his wardrobe. "I don't have a suit. Should I go buy one?" He didn't have a lot of money, but he could probably stand to invest in some nice business wear if it was going to become a necessity.
Peggy was smiling at him again. "Steve, you're the most clean-cut Wolf I know. Also, I don't know if you even own any clothing that could be considered indecent. Just wear a clean pair of slacks and a button-down and you'll be fine."
Oh good, he could definitely manage that; he had a lot of those. "Can do." His hands paused as he reached for his underwear drawer and his blush returned. "Peggy?"
"Could you, uh, wait downstairs? I'll be down in a few minutes. I just need to—"
"—get naked again?" Peggy's smile quirked up into a grin as she stood. "Of course. I'll see that the car's ready."
Steve joined Peggy outside on the street five minutes later to find her waiting for him in the back of a sleek black sedan, an anonymous driver dressed in a smart black suit at the wheel. Self-consciously smoothing his hair down, Steve stepped inside and tried not to show any sign of discomfort. This was already a little more high-brow than he was used to and he just hoped that he didn't embarrass himself. As he slid inside next to her, Peggy patted Steve's leg and he felt himself relax again.
They drove to the SHIELD building downtown in silence, Peggy's warm hand on his knee a calming presence the entire way. When they arrived, Steve tried not to act the part of a city bumpkin as he craned his neck up to try to find the top of the glass-lined tower in front of him. Even on the ground floor there was nothing listed on the structure to label it as a SHIELD outpost, but Steve trusted Peggy to lead him to the right place as she walked through the revolving doors and the modern, minimalistic lobby inside. It all felt very human, though he could distantly sense other Shifters. The lobby was scented with innumerable Wolves who had come in and out before him, more so than in the average office complex.
He tried not to squirm too much as she loaded him into a sleek looking elevator and pressed the button for floor thirty but she caught the movement anyway. "How are you holding up?"
"Fine. It's just, small spaces. You know."
"We're almost there."
Almost on cue, the elevator stopped moving before the doors slid open with a loud 'ding,' revealing a short corridor. At the end of the hall there was a reinforced door and Steve was finally met with that familiar eagle logo. Stepping forward, Peggy pulled out her SHIELD ID badge and ran it over a scanner embedded in the wall. A green light flickered on and Steve's ears caught the sound of a locking mechanism being undone in the door seconds before Peggy confidently pushed it open.
Marching confidently past the receptionist's desk with a brief nod, Peggy led Steve through a labyrinth of smaller winding halls until they finally came to a halt in front of a non-descript metal door with "Recruitment" stenciled in clear lettering on it. Steve blinked at the words in surprise. He didn't know what he had been expecting, but it hadn't been this. "Peggy, is this the right place?"
At the sound of his question, Peggy glanced over her shoulder at him as she gave the door a firm knock. "You'll be fine. Just speak with him honestly."
"Wait, Peggy, I—"
She didn't wait for Steve to finish his sentence. Instead, she simply opened the door, gave Steve a quick shove inside, and closed the door behind him. Steve's stuttered protests had no impact throughout the entire event and before he knew it he was standing in a room about the size of his entire apartment—though that wasn't saying much—staring at a man seated behind a wooden desk. The man himself didn't look particularly extraordinary and he smelled exceedingly human, just as Peggy had promised. But he did have a certain air to him as he sized Steve up from across the room that he had the authority to make Steve disappear with a snap of his fingers. Then he sent Steve an almost shy smile and the alpha realized that he at least had nothing to be worried about.
The man nodded to him and motioned towards a chair situated across from him, "Mr. Rogers. Please, take a seat."
Steve didn't really feel like sitting but it seemed like the polite thing to do so he accepted with a nod of his own. "Thank you."
The man's thin lips formed another quick smile before he seemed to remember himself and schooled his features. "Thank you for coming into see us. My name is Agent Phil Coulson, and I'm sure you have some questions for me about why you were brought here."
"Yes, sir, I have to admit I am curious."
"We, SHIELD as represented by myself, are very interested in discussing a certain business proposition with you. First, I, know it's hardly proper, but I have to start out by saying that I'm a huge fan."
Steve blinked, "Pardon?"
He almost would've sworn that the agent blushed. "Of your work, of course. Ever since Agent Carter brought you to our attention, I've been keeping close tabs on your activities and you've definitely impressed the right people."
Now it was Steve's turn to blush. Ducking his head, Steve rubbed the back of his neck in an attempt to ward off the flush that was spreading across his cheeks. "I didn't really do anything all that amazing."
"You might not think so, but your file says otherwise. Given the trials you were put through in your childhood, there was absolutely no indication that you'd grow up to be anything beyond normal, but you developed into something extraordinary. And I don't just mean your size or strength. Your actions and those of your pack proved time and time again that you have a remarkable penchant for leadership and high moral standards. I'm not saying it's impossible for Wolves to do right, but you've taken things to a level that is not necessarily part of the standard behavioral traits for your species."
"It was meant as a compliment."
Steve had thought so, but confirmation was good. "Thank you very much for saying so, sir, but I'm not all that special. I just do what I can to make a difference."
"So you'd like to continue your work?"
That caught Steve's attention and he couldn't help but be slightly suspicious. He trusted Agent Coulson, even though he had only known the man for a few moments he could sense that the agent was a good man. But that didn't necessarily mean that Steve automatically trusted Agent Coulson's superiors and what they seemed to have in store for him. "What do you mean?"
Coulson leaned back in his seat and steepled his fingers under his chin. "Do you think it was just by chance that you were relocated to this particular city, Steve?"
After Peggy had found Steve dying in the forest he, along with the other members of the Howling Commandos, had been airlifted back to a SHEILD hospital. There was nothing to be done for the others but Steve had pulled through thanks to a combination of the best medicine the country had to offer and his own natural healing abilities that came with being a Shifter. When he had healed to an acceptable agree Peggy had come to him with an offer of a small apartment in a new city and Steve had accepted. He had no real interest in staying where he had been living. It would've just kept dredging up memories. Besides, with the others gone, he had no real obligations to stick around for anymore.
But never along the way did Steve stop to think that there might have been some sort of ulterior motive behind SHIELD's support. "Well, I did think it was random, but I'm guessing that I'd be wrong."
Agent Coulson didn't seem interested in keeping him in the dark any longer. "We offered you a new start here of all places for two reasons. The first was because this is where one of our main headquarters is located so it would be easier to keep an eye on you and make sure that your recovery went well." Okay, Steve got that. Having a possibly unbalanced alpha Wolf wasn't something you'd want to let run supervised around town. "The second reason is because we knew that there would come a time when we could make use of your services, based on your notable track record."
So that was it. They needed him. Straightening up in his chair, Steve looked Coulson right in the eyes. Most humans shied away at prolonged eye contact with Shifters but the SHIELD agent held his ground without so much as blinking, a new seriousness in his steady gaze that told Steve they had finally gotten to the heart of the matter. "You have a mission for me?"
"Yes, Mr. Rogers, we do." Reaching down, Coulson opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a thick file. "We require your skills as a field operative to try and locate a missing person."
"And who would that person be?"
"One of our own." Coulson set the file onto the top of the desk and pushed it over to Steve in a clear invitation. Curious, Steve didn't waste any time in picking it up and flipping the manila folder open only to be met with a fuzzy photograph of a man. Agent Coulson watched for Steve's reaction then continued to speak as Steve went through the paperwork. "His name is Clint Barton and he's a SHIELD agent and a Shifter. He was sent out on a mission of his own a few months ago but we lost communication with him three weeks ago. We have reason to believe that he's still alive but we're going to need the help of someone like yourself to find and then extract him from whatever trouble he may have gotten himself into."
A frown pulled at Steve's lips as he turned back towards the front page of the dossier. "What about his teammates? Have they been reporting back?"
"He had no teammates with him."
"But, you said he was a Shifter." Now Steve was confused. No one, not even SHIELD, ever sent Wolves out alone on missions. They naturally functioned better as a team; in fact, a Wolf could only really get the upper-hand on their target in a group, assuming their target was also a Shifter as they usually were.
Understanding sparked in Coulson's eyes, "I see. You're correct, I did say he is a Shifter. And you'd be right to be concerned in standard situations, but Agent Barton isn't your standard Shifter."
"What do you—?"
"He's not a Wolf. He's a Hawk. They tend to work best alone."
A Hawk? Steve's eyes widened before he looked back down at the man in the picture. He had never met a Hawk before. They were rare, even among Shifters. In fact, "I've never dealt with non-Wolves before." They just weren't enough non-Wolves around to have the opportunity.
"It won't be too much different, trust me. Besides, you won't be alone. We've assembled a small team to accompany you on your trip as support."
Good. Again, Wolves didn't work as well alone so any help Steve could get was welcome. "Will I get to meet them before we head out?"
"One of them. I'm afraid the second is a little more difficult to get in touch with, but both are reliable people who have worked enough with SHIELD to gain our trust. The man you will get to meet is even a Wolf, so I hope that the two of you will be able to work well together."
"But you want me to be in charge of this mission, right?"
"That's correct. I have faith that no one could manage it quite like you could."
More good news. Steve was happy that he'd get the chance to work with a fellow Wolf but the last thing he wanted was to have to establish his dominance all over again. It probably wouldn't take a long time, but if SHIELD was giving him full authority right from the start than it would be just an accepted fact that he was in charge, no questions asked. "I'll do my best."
"Your 'best' is exactly what we're asking for. Now," Coulson held out his hand and Steve dutifully closed Barton's file and returned it, "I know you might already have a lot on your mind after this conversation, but I believe your new teammate is working here today if you would like to meet with him immediately. I would understand, however, if you would like to head back home and come back another day."
At the offer, Steve couldn't help but smile. "With all due respect, sir, it takes a little more than a talk to overwhelm me. And I would be very happy to meet with my new, teammate." Steve hesitated at the end of his sentence, the word "pack" on the tip of his tongue. He could already tell that he was going to have to constantly remind himself that he was not getting a new pack, just a team to lead. He couldn't expect that same level of community or devotion.
Agent Coulson smiled back as he pushed out his chair and rose to his feet. "Great. I'll have Agent Carter escort you to the Lab." Steve took the opportunity to stand as well and let the other man walk him to the door. When Coulson opened it, Steve caught sight of Peggy waiting for him right outside. His eyes were quickly drawn back to her supervisor as Coulson offered Steve his hand which he quickly shook. "Thank you for joining the team, Mr. Rogers. I can honestly say that it's been a real pleasure meeting you. I look forward to seeing you again soon."
"You too, sir."
Nodding, Coulson turned to Peggy, a small smile still on his face. "Agent Carter, please show our new recruit to the Lab. Last I heard Banner was still working down there almost non-stop, so there's no reason he shouldn't be there now."
Peggy straightened up, "Yes, sir."
With one last nod, Coulson closed the door, leaving Steve and Peggy standing in the hall. They looked at each other for a moment before Peggy tucked her arm in Steve's and grinned up at him as she began to walk him further down the corridor. "So, that seems to have gone well."
Steve let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding and grinned back. "I think so."
"Well I'm sure. Phil was practically glowing. It's obvious that he has a serious man-crush on you."
Darn it, Steve could feel yet another blush growing on his cheeks. "I don't know about that…"
"Either way, you clearly made a decent enough impression that he's let you in on his next mission. Especially if he's introducing you to Banner."
Steve's face smoothed into a more serious expression. That reminded him, "Peggy, did you know about the mission before you brought me here?" He was sure she had been listening behind that closed door.
A frown landed on Peggy's own face as she tilted her head. "Not much more than we had a missing field agent. I only knew Barton in passing, but believe me when I say that he's not the type to simply fall off the grid. I'm certain something has gone wrong."
"Do you think we have a good chance of bringing him back?"
"There's always a chance. And if anyone can do it, you would be the one to find him." Reaching yet another door, Peggy swiped her ID card again and it opened with a swish. "Now, there are a few things that you should know about Dr. Banner before you meet him."
Steve's eyes widened in surprise. "He's a doctor?" If Steve had heard right, Banner was a Wolf. Wolves usually didn't become doctors with an actual Ph.D. It wasn't that they weren't smart enough, it was simply that their other abilities funneled them into more manual occupations, if they even felt comfortable taking on a job among the general human populace at all.
"He's not just a doctor, he's one of the brightest minds in his field. Which, before you ask, is Biochemistry."
When Steve had been in school, he hadn't done well in either Biology or Chemistry, so he was already impressed. "That's amazing! But was that the other thing I had to know? Because you made it sound like it was something more serious."
"There's more. Before he came to work for SHIELD, he was involved with a series of experiments which devolved into something, less than legal." Seeing Steve's frown deepen, Peggy quickly clarified, "Banner himself is a good man, he simply got caught up in his associates' fervor. "
"What exactly were they working on?"
"Given that I'm not a Biochemist myself, I don't know the specifics of it, but now that you have agreed to work with us I can tell you that they were working on what was essentially a method to alter Shifters' capacities when they transformed. To amplify the abilities granted to them in their animal form even further." Steve didn't like the sound of that. "Banner was intending to use the serum as a temporary boost to Shifters in order to allow them to achieve great feats of heroism but as I understand it he quickly began to doubt the moral compass of his colleagues. He began to conduct experiments in his own personal laboratory but there was an accident and, well, he experienced some unfortunate side effects."
Steve felt his stomach sink. "What sort of side effects?"
"You'll undoubtedly be able to sense something off when you meet him, which is why I'm even bothering to tell you any of this in the first place. The end result has been that he has lost nearly all control of his Wolf persona, along with his ability to control his transformations. Instead of having the normal capacity to shift at will, his transformations are now triggered by emotion. To make matters worse, he had managed to succeed in giving his Wolf persona an incredible amount of added strength. I'm sure I don't need to stress to you the need to make sure Banner doesn't lose his temper."
"No, no I think I understand." Steve couldn't imagine though, being a Wolf and to not be able to control your other half. To be unable to allow yourself to shift. To be trapped inside your human form for the rest of your life, knowing what it felt like to run. It sounded like Hell. "Is there any cure?"
Peggy sighed. "He's been working to find one ever since. SHIELD had been keeping tabs on him ever since the accident but we just recently made contact to both make use of his research skills as well as to give him a secure place to live with people who can handle it if he loses himself."
It made sense and sounded like Banner and SHIELD were both getting something out of the deal. "Why was he assigned to the Barton case?"
"Because the assignment Agent Barton was originally put on was to scout out Banner's former colleagues at their remote research facility. That makes Banner an invaluable asset to you now since he's not only had access to the facilities but also knows who Barton was meant to be observing."
"Makes sense then."
"Good, because here we are."
Steve looked up at Peggy's words and peered curiously through the glass-lined room they had stopped in front of. Unlike Agent Coulson's office, this room was huge, though more than half of it wasn't visible from where they were standing. It was filled with computers, shelves full of chemicals, and long tables weighed down with beakers, Bunsen burners, and tools he couldn't even identify. All sleek lines, metal, and electricity, Steve already able to feel and hear the hum of transformers from outside. There were a few humans in white coats milling about near the computers, but Steve's gaze immediately locked instead on a figure sitting at one of the tables near the center of the room after his initial sweep of the space.
Peggy watched his expression for a moment before pulling her arm free of his and patting his shoulder. "I think I'll leave you to get acquainted. When you are ready to leave, report back to the receptionist and she will make sure that a car brings you home."
Steve hardly looked at her, too busy sizing up the newest and first real member of his team. "Sure thing, Peggy."
"Play nice, Steve. Remember what I told you."
That caught his attention. Turning, he flashed her a quick smile. "Don't worry. I'll be fine."