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Love, 21st-Century Style

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So, this happens:

They're on the bridge of the flying invisible helicarrier (at some point Steve's going to hand his wallet over to Fury, because it's not the first time he's lost this particular bet). Banner's spewing scientific gobbledygook Steve can't follow, and Stark breezes in and spews it right back. Stark makes the 'enormous green rage monster' crack, which even for Stark seems ill-advised, and that's when Steve hears it.

It's a song, of a sort, but like you'd force-fed a jack-in-the-box caffeine pills for fifteen days. And it's doubled; he's definitely hearing it from two sources. Steve looks around. Thor looks confused, too, for which Steve is pathetically grateful. Agent Romanov looks bored. Banner and Stark stare at each other, a look of such naked longing and want that Steve feels guilty for being in the room.

Banner starts babbling. "I'm sure it's a glitch," he stammers. "The early models had bugs, and the other guy's galvanic skin responses can cause feedback loops in certain--"

"Shh," Stark says, but gently. He leans over and presses a soft, careful kiss to Banner's lips. Pulling back, he beams at Banner. "No glitch," he says.

Steve feels pole-axed. Banner presses his index and middle fingers against his lips, and Steve remembers how his own mouth felt after he kissed Peggy.

Stark stays in Banner's space as he pulls out his phone and swipes the screen a few times. "Pep!" he says. "Hey, how's your timer doing? Does it read--" He motions impatiently to Banner, who holds out his right wrist. Steve catches a glimpse of a thin metal band over the pulse point. "--zero days, twenty-two hours, thirteen minutes, 29, 28, 27 seconds? Uh huh...uh huh...listen, the instant you get back, come find me, okay? Got someone you have to meet. Bye." He ends the call and goes back to beaming at Banner, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Pepper Potts. My first. Your second, apparently. I'm sure you guessed that. You'll love her. Well, obviously, you'll love her. But, I mean--you'll love her. Okay. Let's do science." He squeezes Banner's shoulder and begins to herd him off the bridge.

"Wait," Steve says, because okay, really, what just happened here? "What just happened here?" The pause that follows is so loud and deep and awkward that Steve knows he's put his foot in it more than usual. Maybe even to the level of the President Obama catastrophe (and Director Fury may have forgotten about the augmented hearing, but Steve does know what 'cracker' means). "What?"

"Hasn't anyone explained timers to you?" Banner asks.

"Frankly," Stark says, "I'm amazed Coulson didn't strap him down on the flight over and implant one himself."

"Stark, that's enough," Romanov says sharply.

"What?" Steve's pretty sure Tony Stark wouldn't know tact if it walked up and shook his hand. "Everybody knows he's 6M, not to mention a raging Captain America fanboy, so you gotta figure--"

"Tony," Banner says quietly, touching the back of Stark's hand. "Maybe not right now?"

"Yeah, okay." And like that, he's switched off, on to the next thing, and Steve's more confused than ever by how Banner did that. "But, just, I'm not going to stand around explaining it to him. Somebody get him a tablet and point him at Wikipedia. See ya, Spangles." He whisks Banner toward the lab.

"I'm...still not sure what's going on," Steve confesses.

With a small sigh, Coulson steps forward. Steve jumps; he hadn't realized the man was still here, perhaps because he hadn't imagined Stark would say those things (and he gathers they're not nice things) about Coulson in front of him. "Agent Romanov," Coulson says, "talk more with Thor. I want SHIELD to know everything he knows or guesses about Loki's movements and motivations."

Romanov nods. "Yes, sir." She tilts her head to Thor, who follows her toward an empty alcove on the far side of the bridge.

Coulson considers Steve and sighs again. "Do you want a cheeseburger?"

The cheeseburger in the canteen turns out to be one of the best Steve's ever eaten. Coulson tells him never to order anything else here, even for breakfast. "All the other food is crap, but for some reason the cheeseburgers happen to be sublime."

So they sit at a flimsy plastic table, eating mind-blowing cheeseburgers, and Steve tries to understand soulmate timers. "How does it work?"

Coulson gives an uncharacteristically nonchalant shrug. "Hormones? Pheremones? Hoodoo? Voodoo? Arthur C. Clarke--" He waves a floppy French fry around. "Science fiction writer. Genius. We should start you a reading list--anyway, he said 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'" Steve must still look confused, because Coulson continues, "The point is that the researchers who invented the thing know how it works, and the rest of us don't need to bother."

Despite his awkwardness on the flight, Coulson strikes Steve as the epitome of competence, a man with an answer for everything. His lack of concern over the science of the timers tells Steve almost as much as an actual explanation would have. "Why?" he asks. "What on earth is wrong with finding someone the old-fashioned way?"

"By the time the original models were introduced, divorce rates in the US were nearing fifty percent. Almost half of all the marriages in the country, down the drain. To know--to really know you've found the right person..." He shrugs again but looks despondent this time. "There's a comfort in it," he says quietly. "I think you remember what being lonely is like."

Steve remembers only too well. Maybe he could've borne those nights more easily if some piece of metal on his arm had assured him that someday he'd go home with more than a dry kiss on the cheek and an insincere, "Gee, it was swell, Steve".

"What are you thinking?" Coulson asks softly.

"It's still..." Steve spreads his hands helplessly. "There are seven billion people on the planet now, right?"

Coulson nods. "Give or take a few million."

"Then how do--" He rubs his face, not sure how to ask. Not entirely sure what he's asking. "I mean, the whole world--I assume you go on international missions. If your soulmate is in a mud hut in Mombasa or something, you could meet and never know it. How comforting is that?"

Coulson looks...impressed. "We're buying hope, not certainty. Most of us know that going in."

"Huh." Steve knows he's about to violate a major 21st-century taboo, but Coulson volunteered, and Director Fury keeps saying Steve needs to learn the new world. "Can I see?"

Coulson looks at him for a minute, and Steve could swear his lips twitch, but what would he be smiling about? He flicks out his right arm so his sleeves ride up, then twists his wrist toward Steve.

At first Steve doesn't understand what he's seeing. His eyes narrow and he stares at Coulson, not sure why he's feeling betrayed. "It's blank."

Instantly, Coulson shakes his head. "Not blank. Just not counting."

Steve bends his head to look at the display more closely.

----d --h -- m --s

"Hey, 6M!" Steve says eagerly, thrilled to see something around here that makes sense to him. "Stark called you that." He laughs. "A Morse code joke. That's great. What does it mean?"

Coulson tugs his sleeves back down. "Most likely, it means my soulmate, whoever he is, doesn't have a timer yet." Now he smiles for sure, a lot of self-deprecation in it. "Like you say. Mud hut in Mombasa."

Steve coughs around his straw. Contrary to expectations, he's caught on to a lot of the new technology pretty easily, but the changes in people throw him. Obviously, he knew about inverts ("gays", they're calling themselves now); you take whatever comfort you find in wartime, and he's learned that two of the girls (no, women) from his USO troupe stayed together until they died about fifteen years ago--and good for them. But in his time--his old time--people didn't talk about it. Steve respects how calm and forthright Coulson is about this part of himself, but it's going to take some getting used to.

A thought seizes Steve, and he pales. "What Stark said about--you don't--I mean, I'm not--"

"I thought about it," Coulson confesses. "When Fury told me they'd found you, I hoped for a few minutes."

"What made you think--" He can't quite finish.

Coulson grimaces. "We know a lot about Captain America, but our intel on Steven Rogers is embarrassingly sparse. We know about Agent Carter, but there are gaps--your relationship with Sergeant Barnes, for instance--"

The laugh explodes out of him. "Me and Bucky?"

Coulson shrugs, unruffled. "As I said, our records are spotty. I've been privileged to be present three times when the timer goes off. I don't know exactly how it feels, obviously, but I have a good idea--well, you saw Stark and Banner--and it didn't happen when I met you." The tips of Coulson's ears turn pink, and into his coffee cup he mumbles, "When I met you, all I thought was how much I looked forward to being your friend."

Steve gives his hand a manly squeeze. "Thank you," he says. "I look forward to that, too...Phil." He frowns. "So what happens if you never meet him? Will you be..."

Phil smirks. "The world's saddest virgin bureaucrat?" Steve mutters incoherently and looks away. "It's never been a problem. There are clubs for people who aren't with their soulmates for whatever reason. I'm with someone right now--" Steve's eyebrow goes up. "--whose timer has five years on it. When Yosef's time comes, or if my timer clicks on with a shorter time, we'll go our separate ways, no hard feelings, no regrets."

"That's...incredibly mature."

"Didn't Stark tell you?" he deadpans. "I was born middle-aged."

Steve chuckles and gestures at Phil's arm. "So how would it work, if it were..."

Phil brings back the timer. "This is a second-gen model. The most common. The first came out in the early 80s; it was clunky and expensive and hardly anyone had one. It couldn't predict when you would meet your soulmate; it would just beep if it happened to come close to its mate. Mostly useless.

"This one--" He taps the display. "Days, hours, minutes, seconds. At midnight on the correct day, it beeps once, flashes zero, and holds until you come in contact with your soulmate, which will happen within the next 24 hours. You heard the obnoxious noise it makes. When it's your turn, I'm told you don't care about the song, because you've just met the person you're supposed to spend the rest of your life with." There's a brief silence while Steve tries and fails not to imagine how weird that would be.

"Stark and Banner have third-gen models. Stark developed it. It counts to the second, not just the day. And it has two lines, because he always believed some people have more than one soulmate. And that he was one of them."

Steve chuckles, incredulous. "And that's what we saw? Stark and...Dr. Banner?"

"Apparently so." Phil shrugs. "If we can limit the fires and explosions, they'll be good for each other. Especially when we add Pepper to the equation."

"Two soulmates," Steve says. "Huh."

Phil nods in understanding and eats his last bite of burger. "I'll settle for one," he says.

"Yeah." Steve frowns and taps his cup. "Hey, do you think I should--"

Phil squints at him for a minute, then shrugs. "Your choice. Like you said, there's nothing wrong with the old-fashioned way. Divorce rate has dropped below twenty percent, but they're not perfect. Knowing you're with your best match won't keep them from being an abuser, or a cheater, or a plain old asshole. Or someone who helped the government develop ways to kill you."

Steve blinks. "The hulkbusters?"

"I'd hate to be a fly on the wall for that conversation." Phil grimaces. "Anyway, people still choose not to get one, so don't feel you have to.  If you do, make sure it's a Stark model. I can't imagine what he would do if you went with anything else."

*

Things get weird after that. Banner picks up the scepter (terrifying) and then hulks out (somehow less terrifying, though Agent Romanov would likely disagree). They get Barton back but lose Loki, Thor, and Banner. And then Phil...Steve's stunned by how hard it hits him. With all of that going on, Steve forgets about timers until he's in the plane with Barton and Romanov, tearing toward Manhattan.

"Do you think Stark will be all right?" Steve asks. It's funny how the brain compartmentalizes, focuses on little things when big things are too much. Loki has opened a portal to another dimension; aliens are pouring out of it to conquer Earth; and Steve can only think about whether his teammates will be okay.

Barton frowns a bit. "Stark'll be Stark," he says.

"No, I mean, after--because Dr. Banner..." One day, he promises himself, these topics won't make him too uncertain to finish his sentences.

Romanov smirks at Barton. "You missed the big show," she says. Barton cocks an eyebrow. "Stark's famous second line is Banner."

"Seriously?" Barton sounds like he's holding back a lot of laughter. "Oh, man. What I wouldn't have given..." He trails off, and they all shift, remembering why he wasn't there. He taps his earpiece. "Iron Man, this true what I'm hearing?"

There're a brief pause, then Stark's sharp, bright voice. "Me and Bruce? One hundred percent true, Robin Hood. It was awesome. Bruce freaked out; I was super-smooth; Coulson gave Cap The Talk. Aliens. Gotta go."

"Were there puppets?" Barton throws Steve a grin as he mutes the comm. "Please tell me there were puppets. 'Cause Phil had to give his niece The Talk, and--"

"No puppets," Steve says flatly.

Barton shrugs. "Hey, if you have questions about the timers, ask away."

"Maybe when we're not being attacked by aliens," Romanov offers.

But he suddenly has to know. "What happens when someone's soulmate dies?"

Two wrists appear in front of him. He looks between them, frowning. "I don't understand," he admits.

"What's not to understand?" Barton asks. "Redscreens."

"Well, Widow's screen is reddish, but yours is counting down fine."

"What?" Barton snatches his hand back as though Steve's pressed a branding iron to it. He stares at it until Romanov nudges him with her elbow, drawing his attention back to piloting. "Nat, what the hell?"

"I don't know," she says. "The cognitive recalibration, maybe..."

"But...Jonah?" His voice drops to a broken whisper.

She shrugs helplessly. "Zombie apocalypse?"

"Not funny," he hisses, but some of the tension leaves his shoulders. "Damn. I can't wait to show Phil. He will laugh his ass off."

Oh. Oh. In all the chaos, they hadn't realized--

"Hawkeye," Romanov says gently. She reaches over and curls her hand around Barton's where it rests on the flight controls. "Coulson's dead."

"Come on, Nat." His gaze flicks briefly to her. "Seriously."

"Hawkeye--"

"No, seriously. I'm gonna fall for that shit? After Taipei?" He is a single taut line, hands clenched around the controls, eyes fixed unblinkingly ahead.

Steve leans forward, though he doesn't dare touch Barton. "It's true, Agent," he says. "Loki stabbed him. Director Fury told us."

"Fury," Barton all but spits. "Now I know it's a lie."

"Hawkeye, listen to me," Romanov says, the sharp edges back in her voice.

"Nah," Barton says, every bit as sharp, "let's fight some aliens, right?" They bank too fast and scream toward the city. Steve tries to hold onto something, but he's untethered in more than just  space.

*

It is not, as Tony suggests (Steve's not sure when he started thinking of the team by their first names, but after everything they've gone through, anything else feels ridiculous), get Loki, then shawarma. It's get Loki, hand him over to a cadre of heavily armed SHIELD agents, shower, then shawarma. They are all a solid layer of grime; Thor is liberally doused in alien ichor; and Steve refuses to go into a restaurant in his Captain America get-up. Also, Bruce needs pants.

Over what would be an embarrassing amount of food if they weren't feeding a god, a supersoldier, the Hulk, and literally every dazed and soot-covered New Yorker who wanders through the door, Clint, holding himself so, so carefully, shows Tony his newly rejuvenated timer. Bruce pulls out his glasses, Tony grabs Clint's wrist, and when they bend over the timer, they look more like middle-aged yentas than world-saving geniuses. "When did your soulmate die?" Tony asks sharply.

Clint pinches his lips together. "When we were sixteen."

"How?"

Clint's eyes narrow, and he blanches. "I don't see how that matters."

"Neither do I, until you tell me."

Clint's face shutters down, and he says, in a detached voice Steve barely recognizes, "Homophobia didn't go away because science figured out some people are meant to be in same-sex relationships."

Bruce presses his fingers to the edges of Clint's timer. "When did it start working again?"

Clint flashes an "are you for real?" look. "I have no idea. I was busy being mind-controlled. And then I shot some aliens."

Bruce shrugs. "Fair enough."

Tony steps back and brushes his hands together. "The instant we get back to the tower, you are coming to the lab with us. We're fitting you with a brand new Stark timer. I mean, I can't even tell how old this one is, are you kidding me with this crap? We'll get you a new timer; Bruce and I will run ridiculous tests on you...we'll figure this out." He squeezes Clint's shoulder, and Steve marvels at how seamless they seem, how coherent a team. Why did it take a good man's death to get them here?

The restaurant door bangs open, and Tony is holding an armful of tearful Pepper Potts. "You asshole!" she shrieks, clinging to him. "If you ever--"

"I did call," he says over her.

"--suicide mission--"

"--nuke aimed at Manhattan. It's where I keep most of my stuff."

"And you!" Pepper wrenches herself from Tony and turns on Bruce, whose eyes widen comically. Steve wonders if this happens often, two timers going off while one wearer yells at the other. "Sliding down the side of a building! I don't care how big and angry he is; you're not indestructible!"

"I'm...sorry, Pepper?" Bruce asks.

Tony has made clear from the first that he doesn't fear the other guy, but he's still been careful with Bruce. Pepper just tugs Bruce's head down and catches his mouth in the most searing, demanding, bruising kiss Steve's ever witnessed. Tony looks like Christmas, his birthday, and Stark Expo have all come at once.

The kiss breaks, but Bruce and Pepper each keep one arm curled around the other. "I never believed..." Bruce says into her hair. "And then, after the accident I thought...some sick joke, maybe?" He shrugs helplessly, and Pepper tightens her arm around him.

Tony grabs Pepper's free hand in both of his, and Bruce rests his other hand on Tony's hip. "Listen, Pep," Tony says, "we gotta send Loki and his blue cube of doom back to Asgard, but the instant we get home, we're shoving Katniss into the lab and slapping a new timer on him. His redscreen unredded."

"That's not a word, Stark," Clint grumbles.

"I said it, so it is now," Tony counters.

Pepper studies Clint. "You have a count again, Agent?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"What's  the time on it?"

"I...shit, how did I--" Clint's eyes widen. "I was so surprised it'd started working again I didn't even--" He closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and looks at the timer. "Oh, fuck," he whispers. "It's tomorrow."

"Well, then, you'd better get started, hadn't you?" Pepper gives a truly scary grin, kisses her men, and herds everyone out the door.

*

Clint keeps staring at his wrist, but the display remains unchanged. One red screen; one counting down to tomorrow. "Jesus," Clint whispers, cradling his wrist like a wounded nestling.

"Okay," Tony says, "tests. Bruce, I don't know what you want to do, but I'm going to shove this man into a full-body scanner, run all the levels for--"

"Tony," Bruce says, putting his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Do you maybe want to give him a minute?"

"No, what? No I don't want to give him a minute, I want to strap him in and get measuring and..." He looks at Bruce and Pepper, who look back with a hopeful hopelessness. "Oh, a minute? You mean give Barton a minute. Of course. Right. All the time you need." He scoops something off the workbench and holds it out to Clint. "Maybe a vitals tracker patch; adheres to the skin and--" Pepper clears her throat; Tony takes a step back. "All the time you need."

"Is this good?" Steve asks. "I can't tell if it's good."

Clint gives a hysterical snort of a laugh. "Not if it turns out to be...fuck, I don't know. A Chitauri? One of Loki's minions? The survivor of an agent I killed? Not when it's not--"

"Stop it," Natasha says, quiet but fierce. "Don't go down this road. You'll know when it happens, and you can do nothing about it until then."

A painful silence descends, and Steve throws himself onto it like a live grenade. "Tony," he says, holding out his wrist, "can I--"

"Oh my god yes," Tony breathes. He seizes Steve's arm and hauls him to the workbench. "Cap," he says, "I've wanted to do this since the moment I heard you'd been defrosted." He fumbles in a drawer and comes up with something that looks like a staple gun. Steve rethinks the wisdom of his plan. "Except that then, you know, I hated you for a while, but everything's under control now, so, yes. Let's do this. Let's fit Captain America with a timer. This will sting."

Because he's a super-soldier now, Steve manages not to wince. If he'd still been scrawny Steve Rogers from Brooklyn, he would've screamed. He slaps his left hand over his wrist. "What the hell, Tony?" Tony and Bruce spent a full minute fussing over Clint's new timer; he'd expected the same for himself.

"You have to be careful with second timers," Bruce says, raising his eyebrows by way of wry apology. "Only third gens can replace another; with the older models, if they came off for any reason, you were just done. But it still takes a lot of measuring and testing to make sure it goes in a spot where it can read. A blank wrist is..."

"Like a blank canvas for Michelangelo," Tony says rapturously.

Steve rubs his wrist. "I'm pretty sure Michelangelo never stabbed his models."

"Only because he didn't have one of these," Tony counters, waving his staple gun.

Surprisingly, Natasha is the one to crack. "It has to be done calibrating by now. Come on, Captain; what's it say?"

Steve starts to lift the hand covering the display, but Bruce pushes it down. "Listen, Captain," he says, and he's so gentle. It's hard to get used to, the knowledge that that...being is hovering under the surface of such a careful, compassionate man. "It might be...difficult, whatever the lines say. They might both be red, or 6M, or twenty years off. Remember it's not...there's a lot of world out there for you to discover, regardless of who you're discovering it with."

Steve nods, unexpectedly moved. "Thank you, Bruce." He lifts his hand.

The top line is 6M, like Phil's, and Steve knows that if it worked, it would be red. Oh, Peggy, he thinks, and the loss shreds like days instead of decades. The second line..."Huh," he says.

"Huh," Bruce says.

"That's a week from Friday," Natasha says.

And Steve...Steve is not ready for this. Twenty years would've been easier to handle. Because everything he knew is gone, and he doesn't know if he'll ever feel fully at home in this time, and adding a soulmate--good heavens--is more than he can handle, when from his perspective, Peggy's only been gone a few weeks. He looks up; everyone's watching him. "I..."

"Agent, Captain." Pepper appears between Steve and Clint. "Would you like to come with me? I know you can't get drunk, Captain, but Tony has a cellarful of bathtub gin that'll make you feel like you are anyway."

"Thank you, Miss Potts," Steve says, "I'd like that very much." Clint falls in without a word.

"But, tests!" Tony calls pitifully as they leave the lab. Bruce rubs Tony's back consolingly, while Natasha distracts him by poking his experiments. A good team, Steve thinks again. He braces himself this time and doesn't flinch at the thought of Phil.

"I'm not really going to make you drink Tony's bathtub gin," Pepper says as they move toward the elevator. "You can, but it's godawful, and he actually does make it in a bathtub, so. I figured you might like to get away from Tony being proddy. He's not great with...human things."

Clint closes down on himself for a second and then says, "I'm gonna head back to the 'carrier. There's a lot of work to do, and I need to..." His fingers flex. "The range, I think. Shoot something." He holds out his hand, and Steve's proud to shake it. "Cap."

"Hawkeye."

Clint smiles at Pepper. "Ma'am."

She tilts her head to him. "Agent Barton." The elevator arrives, and as Clint steps in, Pepper says, "Oh!" and puts her hand on his arm. "I'd like to think Tony would've mentioned it eventually, but probably not: we're having a small gathering tonight. Nothing extravagant. A...wake for Phil. I mean, if you're not..."

"Well, he's not actually dead," he says, and Steve's too tired to argue, "but, sure. If it'll help folks sleep tonight, why the hell not." He gives a small wave as the elevator doors close between them.

Pepper sighs and then turns her laser gaze on Steve. She sees too much, he thinks. Has to see too much, being with Tony. And now Bruce, too...he feels sorry for her, a little, for all he's aware that she could probably bear even more. "Captain?"

It's been such a long day. He looks down at her, startled. "I need a nap," he says. He doesn't sleep much, but his body has decided that enough is enough.

She laughs gently and calls for the elevator again. "We have rooms for that, too."

*

Steve closes the balcony door and leans against it, watching the skyline. He wasn't looking for Clint, but he's not surprised to find him here. Clint sits on the wide, stone-topped brick wall that encloses this balcony, one leg stretched in front of him, the other drawn up to his chest. He looks over and flashes a tight smile. "Stark grates after a while, doesn't he?"

"Sitwell, actually. I'm no stranger to the stories soldiers tell, but this one--"

"The tailor and the garden hose?" Clint asks. When Steve nods, he barks out a laugh. "Sitwell tells that story on every op he and Phil work together, because he knows Phil hates it."

Steve's eyes widen. "Then why--at the man's own wake--"

"It's..." Clint waves his hand, then pushes it through his hair. "You'll have to see the way they work together. If this was Sitwell's wake, we'd be suffering through Phil's forty-minute PowerPoint on the SHIELD dress code because it bugs the crap out of Sitwell." They laugh, though Steve isn't sure he gets the joke but is sure Clint is trying not to feel guilty that he wishes the situation were reversed. "This, though." Clint raises his wrist, then points at Steve's. "Phil is gonna love this." He smiles as he says it, but Steve hears how his voice is wet and brittle. "On the job, he's Phil Coulson, Superagent, but he has--" He falters. "--has a soft spot for the mushy romance crap. There's like thirty timer romances in his DVR. Two broken hearts given second shots at true love--he'll eat it up."

"Clint," Steve says diplomatically.

"You'll see," Clint insists earnestly, as though Steve's the one in need of reassurance. "I promise you'll see."

Steve pushes away from the door and leans against the railing next to Clint's feet, propping his elbows on cool stone. He studies Clint's profile in the dim light; the defiant twist of his lips, the fluttering of his eyelashes. "You're in love with him," Steve says softly. Clint picks at the fraying edge of a hole in the knee of his jeans, and his silence speaks eloquently. "Why didn't you say anything? He and...Yosef, was it?--why couldn't you have had an arrangement like that?"

Clint turns his head toward Steve, and fire flashes in his eyes. "Because of the part where Yosef promises to let Phil go the instant his timer starts up." He shakes his head. "I would never agree to that."

*

The wake lasts so late it becomes early. Steve crashes in the same guest room where he took his nap before. It has a ridiculous monstrosity of a canopy bed, and at some point he wakes and notes that the canopy is bowing heavily in the middle. He concludes that Clint is sleeping in it; his brain accepts this without protest.

It's just before nine, decadently late for a soldier, when Steve rolls out of bed. The canopy no longer sags, and he wonders if he imagined it was otherwise. He stumbles through the common room (an absolute mess, because Pepper can promise "nothing extravagant", but she can't hold Tony to that) and is surprised by how he's not surprised to find Thor in the kitchen, making sad faces at the coffee maker.

"Good morning, Thor," Steve says, pleased that his voice doesn't sound like the last smoke in a rained-on pack.

Thor beams, and Steve finds it ironic that a Norse god may be the only person in the 21st century he really understands. "Friend Steven!" he says excitedly. "Can you help me master this machine? I have spoken many words in praise of its bounty, as in times of old, but it will not produce for me a single drop of its Midgardian nectar."

Steve smiles. Their technology must seem so ancient to Thor. Quaint, even. "I don't think it--" Then again, this is Stark's coffee maker. Maybe it does respond to praise of its bounty. "I, uh, I'm used to making coffee in tin cans over open fires, so I'm not sure I--"

"Oh, god, you'll kill it." Steve and Thor look up to see Clint lounging against the doorframe in track pants and a black SHIELD t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. He straightens and comes into the room, shooing them out of the way. "Move, move, let me--seriously, Stark, this is an evil thing to do to caffeine-deprived people." He expertly grinds an excessive quantity of coffee beans and feeds it into the machine with water, then stands back and crosses his arms to admire his handiwork. "At least it's not a Keurig." Not looking at Thor, he says, "I thought you were settling Loki in at five-star Asgardian prison."

Steve cants a glare at Clint, but Thor doesn't register the dig. "I was, Eye of Hawks. I was summonsed back mere hours ago. Fury One-Eye has need of me once more."

Clint exhales sharply, and Steve doesn't blame him. He thinks Fury's one of the good guys, ultimately, but his methods make thinking well of him a challenge.

"But I bring also joyful tidings!" Steve manages to duck one of the arms Thor flings wide. The chrome-fronted cabinet isn't so lucky, and, hey, it's a good thing Tony's already spending money on repairs. "Now that my brother threatens Midgard no more, Fury One-Eye has decreed that the Lady Jane need remain no longer in Norway. She has expressed a great desire to come to the Isle of the Mannahatta and assist with its restoration."

Steve says, "When did you read Leaves of Grass?" at the same time Clint says, "That's great. When's she coming?" which is how he almost misses Thor's reply, which is, "She arrives at the end of the week yet to come, on my mother's day."

Realization hits Steve hard. Thor is the son of Frigga. Frigga's Day. Friday. Thor's beloved arrives in New York a week from Friday. The day Steve's timer will be going off.

"Well, frig," Clint murmurs. And he's not wrong.

*

Just past ten, Pepper literally hauls a half-awake and barely dressed Tony and Bruce into the kitchen. As soon as Tony spots the mostly full coffee carafe, he wraps his arms around the machine and sags halfway to his knees, kissing the warm glass surface. "Who made coffee?" he demands, voice raspy. "Who is this savior of men?"

Clint rolls his eyes and waves. "Me, Stark."

Tony leaps to his feet and catches Clint in the most awkwardly ridiculous hug ever. "I love you. You must live here. I'm not kidding. You and..." He waves his hand at Clint's wrist. "...whoever's at the other end of that thing. I will give you an entire floor, and you will make me coffee every day."

"Excuse me, Tony," Pepper says mildly, filled mug in hand, "since when do you invite people to live in the Tower?"

"Since Barton made me coffee. Hey, why do you have coffee when I don't?"

Clint exploits Tony's distraction to extricate himself from the hug. Given Tony's reference to the timer, Steve's not surprised when Clint slips out of the kitchen.

Fifteen minutes later, after Tony's consumed all the coffee in the carafe and half of another, JARVIS announces (and Steve's proud that he only flinches at the unseen voice, rather than jumping half out of his skin like the first time he heard it), "Sir, Director Fury has asked me to relay a message. He requests that everyone proceed as soon as possible to the coordinates provided."

"Who's everyone?" Tony asks immediately. "Because the population of Manhattan alone is--"

"DID I STUTTER, STARK?" Fury's voice is everywhere, booming terribly in their ears. Steve's slightly ashamed that his first reaction is to look at Bruce. But Tony has his fingers wrapped around Bruce's wrist, and Bruce's other hand clutches at both of Pepper's, and he looks startled but okay. "WHEN I SAY, EVERYONE, I MEAN EVERYONE. AND IF YOU GIVE ME THE SLIGHTEST SHIT ABOUT THE POPULATION OF MANHATTAN, I WILL OVERRIDE YOUR AUDIO PROTOCOLS SO YOUR SUITS PLAY NOTHING BUT DON HENLEY."

Tony and Pepper wince; Steve adds "Don Henley" to the list of cultural references he needs to catch up with.

"He also asked me to relay that message," JARVIS says dryly.

"I'll find Clint," Steve offers. Tony looks around like he hasn't noticed Clint is gone. Which he probably hasn't.

Steve checks the balcony, but it's empty. He slips into the guest room and considers the sagging canopy. "You know, I thought I imagined that last night."

"This canopy is made of, I don't know, rip-stop nylon," Clint grumbles. Steve can only see one elbow and some spikes of hair sticking up. "If my plane gets shot down over the Pyrenees again, this is the canopy I want in my pack."

Steve chuckles. "Director Fury wants--"

"I heard," Clint says tersely. He vaults showily over the edge, tucking into a somersault that brings him to his feet in front of Steve, who is, despite his feelings about showing off, impressed. Clint flashes Steve his timer, which reads 63 minutes and change--long enough, Steve bets, to get to wherever Fury's sending them. "Show time," Clint says, grinning almost ferally.

"Hey." Steve grabs his shoulders and stares until Clint meets his gaze. "Clint. You have choice. Whatever happens today, whatever Fury shows us, you decide what to do with that information."

Clint blinks up at him, startled. Steve wonders what lessons kids get about timers and destiny. Maybe no one's said that to him that before. "Thanks, Cap," he says softly, and he smiles, the first real smile Steve's seen on him. It is...breathtaking.

The trip is quiet. They arrive at an unremarkable warehouse an hour north of Manhattan, where Fury awaits them in front of a nondescript door. Natasha stands beside him, Hill and Sitwell behind. Steve's heart jackhammers. The Avengers being called back so soon is nerve-wracking enough; add Pepper and the other agents and it's downright ominous. "Thank you for coming so quickly," Fury says.

"Well, after you deafened us," Tony starts. Fury glares at him, and he subsides.

Fury's complete absence of expression is Steve's only clue as to how serious he's being. He's not trying to intimidate, cajole, or inspire; he's just a guy in the middle of a bad situation. "What I am about to show you," he says, "is of the utmost secrecy. Technically, only Agent Hill has high enough clearance to know about it, but exceptions have been made, for reasons which should soon become clear. If a single goddamn syllable about the subject leaks before I authorize it, the offending party will be transferred to Antarctica, and the subject will be hidden in a location so secure even Mr. Stark's prodigious hacking skills will never uncover it. Is this clear?"

There's a murmur of assent. Clint is staring at his timer, a bizarre, strangled look on his face, like he's trying not to get excited about something. Steve almost has it, a flash at the corner of his mind, but, no, even Fury wouldn't--

Fury gestures to the armed agents guarding the door. They salute and stand aside, and Fury opens the door.

Steve's been in a lot of medical facilities in his life, before and after his crash. This empty, cavernous room looks like none of them. But there's a hospital bed against one wall, a small army of machines beeping around it, and in it--

The room's acoustics are awful, which becomes clear the instant everyone starts talking at once. Sitwell and Hill argue about resurrection protocols and form 57-B/6. Bruce buzzes to the end of the bed, sweeps the chart of its hook, and initiates an earnest discussion with the duty nurse. Tony yells very loudly while Pepper sobs into his shirt. Thor...may just be talking, but since his default volume is 'thunderous', it's hard to say. Then Natasha punches Director Fury in the jaw, which slows everyone down exactly not at all.

If not for his augmented hearing, Steve might have missed the tinny timer song. Certainly no one behind him notices it.

Clint floats forward, looking unconvinced he's seeing what he thinks he's seeing. Phil, lost in his sea of tubes, wires, and bandages, stares at Clint as though his whole world has narrowed to this man. Which it probably has.

"I knew it," Clint whispers fiercely.

"Clint? Are you--" Phil looks wonderingly at his wrist, then at Clint's. "Jonah?"

Clint shrugs helplessly and leans against the bed. "I still have his red screen. But now I've got this, too. Holy shit, Phil. You don't know how long--"

"I died," Phil says. "Clinically dead for two minutes. When they resuscitated me, something reset, and the timer was--" He swallows. "All this time, we both--we're idiots."

"Why?" Clint whispers, and the heartbreak in his voice makes Steve think Natasha had the right idea. "Why didn't he tell us?"

A flicker of betrayal crosses Phil's face. "I don't know," he admits. "I said there had to be a better way, but he said it would be the push the team needed. And there was concern that Loki might come back to finish the job."

"He was busy," Clint says, looking a little smug.

"I heard." Phil grabs Clint's hand. "I was so proud of you," he whispers. His gaze flicks to Steve. "So proud of all of you."

The nurse surges forward, hands flapping wildly. "Agent Barton! Agent Barton, get off of there at once!"  She tries to get at the bed, but Bruce holds her back, and it's a mistake to forget that Bruce Banner's a strong guy in his own right.

And anyway, Clint is being very careful as he climbs into the hospital bed, adroitly avoiding tubes and wires, curling under Phil's arm.

"Wait, what?" Tony says.

*

Other than the facts that Phil's alive and they see little of Clint, life goes on unchanged after the revelation. Everyone's pissed at Fury and thrilled about Phil--until Tony remembers that he (kind of joking but not really, like he does) invited Clint and his soulmate to live in the Tower. "They're going to have sex," he moans. "Under my roof. I did not ever need to think about Agent having sex, especially not in my house."

"Come on, dear," Bruce says, steering Tony toward the lab. "Let's figure out what the best soundproofing on the market is rated to and invent something better."

"Elrond and Legolas are going to have loud, sweaty elf sex in triplicate in my house, and you think science will console me?" He blinks. "Oh, wait. Yeah, let's go."

Steve misses Clint fiercely. He's the only other person to make the connection between Dr. Foster's arrival date and the countdown on Steve's timer. Anxiety is about to make Steve's brain implode, and he has no one to talk to. He could tell someone--Bruce or Pepper or even Natasha, in her quietly terrifying way, would be sympathetic. But then he would have to, you know, tell them. Clint already knows. That made it easier.

The worst part is that Thor would be gracious about it. Strict monogamy is uncommon in Asgard. But Jane has explained that Midgardians do things differently, and Thor has promised to be as faithful as his nature allows, which from anyone else would be the words of a cheater justifying infidelities, but from Thor means exactly what he says. But if Jane showed up Friday and her wrist beeped at Steve, Thor would stand aside and let "true love run its course" (actually, he'd probably start by inviting Steve to become a third in their relationship, and Steve's trying to be a modern guy, but he's not ready for that). Yeah, the weather around Midtown would be terrible for a few months, but Thor would heal, and Steve and Jane would have their happily ever after.

Only he can't imagine how happy his ever after would be if he had to steal his teammate's girl to get it.

*

Clint hasn't been to the Tower since they learned about Phil. Steve hears from Tony (who hears from JARVIS, who's connected--illegally, as Steve understands it--to SHIELD's internal network) that Clint stays at Phil's side until the medical personnel kick him out (although JARVIS also informs them that Fury has given Clint the highest level visitation clearance) and then spends the night in the ducts above the room. Steve thinks Clint wouldn't have acted differently without the timer. If it were Peggy in that bed, he'd've done the same. He looks at the 6M screen on his timer, the one that's not red though it should be, and ignores the stab of not fair that spikes through him.

It's not as if he's sitting around all day moping. The damage they did to Manhattan will take years--and billions of dollars--to fix. Tony's set up a repair fund, and donations flood in from around the globe, but Steve's a hands-on guy, and he's out there every day, doing what he can to help.

With design help from Pepper and string-pulling from Hill, SHIELD comes up with an "everyday" equivalent of the uniform, a blue t-shirt with the uniform star and a cowl, and a pair of blue track pants. It ought to look ridiculous, but when he pulls up the cowl, he looks like Captain America should look for a day hauling rubble and straightening light poles. The uniform's already worlds better than anything he had the first time around, but this is more comfortable, less obvious, and much easier when he has to go to the bathroom.

He sees Natasha and Sitwell at one point, and Thor's flying around the city, tossing downed walls and cars with gleeful abandon. Steve would prefer to go incognito, but anti-Avengers sentiment is simmering, and they need to show they're as good at creation as destruction (even if they're actually not).

He works and works and works more, out with the first crew, home with the last, pushing harder and harder but never able to push hard enough to stop thinking. Three nights he's visited Phil; the others, he's come to the Tower at the end of the day (hasn't been back to his tiny room in the helicarrier but can't think of the Tower as "home"), showered, eaten whatever Bruce and Pepper put in front of him (take-out, always, one more reason to miss Clint, the only one who can cook worth a darn), watched whatever movies Tony thought would educate him on his missed decades, and fallen into bed, where he lay on his back, staring at the parachute canopy, and thinking.

Thursday night, he's the biggest pile of a mess he's ever been. He doesn't even remember being this anxious the night before the injection. He can't remember why he wanted a timer.

Dinner is pad thai (spicier than anyone warned him, but really good), and the movies are North by Northwest and Rear Window ("Seriously," Tony says, "I could keep you on this couch for a month with Hitchcock. And I bet we could get even you drunk with a Strangers on a Train homoerotic subtext drinking game."). It's just past midnight when he flops into bed. He stares at the canopy for two minutes before he registers that it's sagging. "Huh," he murmurs. "Good." And sleeps soundly for the first time in days.

Clint's gone when Steve wakes up, but a note stuck to the door (PostIt Notes may be the greatest achievement of the twentieth century) turns out to be a surprisingly accurate cartoon of Thor pouting at the coffee maker. Steve chuckles and sets the paper on the dresser before he attempts to find an outfit. What to wear to a first meeting with a soulmate he doesn't want to like him? He settles on the kind of outfit he wore before Tony Stark and his black credit card and admittedly flawless fashion sense ingratiated themselves into his life: a short-sleeved plaid shirt and a pair of khaki "grandpa pants", as Stark calls them. He offers his reflection a tiny, mouth-only smile. He looks imminently respectable and presentable--and like nobody Jane Foster would throw over her Norse god boyfriend for.

Relief hits hard when he finds Clint alone in the kitchen. Embarrassment follows immediately after, because Clint takes one look at his outfit and says dryly, "Nice shirt."

Steve blushes. "Didn't expect to see you this morning," he says.

Clint grabs a second coffee mug and fills it. "I told Phil I had something to take care of here." Steve warms when he realizes that by "something", Clint means him. "If it helps," Clint adds, "he thinks it isn't Jane."

Steve's eyes snap to Clint's, and again he floods with both relief and embarrassment. "You told Phil?" He grasps the proffered mug, grateful to have anything else to focus on.

Clint shrugs unapologetically and leans against the island counter. "We aren't gonna have secrets. He's very sympathetic." Clint looks genuinely worried on Steve's behalf, and Steve can't take that. The return of the smirk is a boon. "We made a pretty nice bet on it."

"Oh, no." Steve covers his face with his hand. "You're betting on me?" He separates his fingers and peers at Clint through the cracks. "How much?"

Clint turns an astonishing shade of pink and focuses on refilling his mug, though it's at least half full. "It, um, isn't money. Let's just say we actually both win either way."

Steve feels heat in his own face and covers it with a giant gulp of scalding coffee.

"What's it at?" Clint taps his timer.

"It's--" He doesn't know. He's avoided looking today. He glances down, and the world wobbles. "Thirteen minute," he says, choking a bit.

Clint nods once and taps blunt fingertips on the counter. "I'll start breakfast."

And Steve's freaking out--oh, wow, is he freaking out--but he's soothed, too. He's read Clint's file, knows his reputation. But some things can't be put in a file. "You're a good man, Clint," he says quietly. Clint freezes for a second, flicks Steve an awkward grin over his shoulder, and goes back to cracking eggs.

Steve goes back to freaking out.

Reporters overuse the word 'booming' when describing Thor's voice, but sometimes, it's the only one that suffices. Clint is slipping the first batch of pancakes off the griddle when they hear Thor, exuberantly telling (presumably) Jane of the many wonders of the Metal Man's stronghold.

Steve notes everything with unbearable clarity. The sizzle of butter on the hot griddle. The soft shift of cotton against his arms. A scar on Clint's neck, below his left ear. His brain catalogues it piece by piece, keeping his attention off the real show, the real problem. He count grains of sand to distract himself from the knowledge that he is dying in a desert.

"Steve." Steve looks up, blinking. It's the first time Clint's called him by his given name. Steve looks at him, tries not to envy the calm, relaxed lines his face has settled into in the last week. Clint sets down the plate in his hand and steps toward Steve, open in a way few people get to see. "You have choice," he says. "Whatever happens today, even if it turns out the woman you're meant for is boning a demigod, you decide what to do with that information."

For an instant, Steve stares without comprehending. Then every muscle in his body relaxes a fraction, and he can hold his head up even if he can't get his mind to work right. "Thank you," he says. Clint nods and turns back to the pancakes.

"And this," Thor proclaims, sweeping into the kitchen, the suggestion of long red cape persistent even though he's not wearing it, "is where the mighty Eye of Hawks keeps watch over the clan hearthfire." Steve wonders when Thor started thinking of them as a clan. It makes sense in a strange way.

But Steve has bigger concerns than how Thor describes them.

Jane Foster is pretty, in a delicate way: wavy brown hair, big dark eyes, fine bones. He looks her over searchingly. She looks back, curious and overwhelmed. "Hi?" she says.

"Um. Hi." Nothing is happening. No tinny song, no sense of cosmic inevitability and endless devotion. Just a young woman meeting her boyfriend's weird superhero friends. His timer has about ten seconds left. Who could he meet in the next ten seconds?

"--busy making googly eyes at Jane, but you're the freakin' God of Biceps, so when you leave the luggage for the research assistant--"

It's a reflex. Damsel, distress, Captain America--he can't not turn. But the offer of help dies on his lips when he gets a view of cascading dark hair and heart-stopping curves that an oversized orange sweater does little to conceal.

And, oh. Oh. There is cosmic inevitability and endless devotion.

And the stupid song. Which sounds like the sweetest music in the world. Even if it is still kind of dumb.

Steve barely notices his feet have moved until he's standing in front of her, slipping the largest bag off her shoulder. "Let me take that for you," he murmurs.

She tilts her head gratefully, pupils dilating to swallow blue-gray irises behind her glasses, lips parting in anticipation. "And then put it down and kiss me."

Steve laughs, his easiest, freest, truest laugh since he woke up in this time. He drops the bag, wraps his hands around her waist, leans close, so tantalizingly close, and--"I'm Steve," he says. Because a  woman should know these things about a man who's about to kiss her.

She smiles. "Darcy."

Steve's far from the world's foremost expert on kissing, but this is the best one ever, Darcy's lips soft and sure against his, her nails digging lightly into his arms. Yes, he thinks, this is a good thing to spend the rest of my life doing.

Confused and protective, Jane asks, "Clint, why is that man kissing Darcy?"

The smile is clear in Clint's voice as he answers, "Ah-ah. Why is Captain America kissing Darcy."

Darcy pulls away and blinks up at him. "You're Captain America?"

Steve shrugs. "Yeah."

"Huh. Okay, but--" She tilts her head to the side. "--I tazed a god, so don't think I'm going to be impressed by a superhero."

Steve grins and pulls her close for another kiss. "Then I'll hope you'll be impressed by Steve Rogers."

"With a kiss like that," she says, "you're well on your way." One more kiss, and she's adding, "But we have to do something about your clothes."

*

All six Avengers, plus Pepper, Jane, and Darcy (once again, security clearances have been extended; at this point, Phil is SHIELD's worst-kept secret), file into Phil's hospital room that evening. Once everyone's properly greeted Phil ("I knew it wasn't Jane," he murmurs to Steve, who blushes. "I hope you're ready; that one is a pistol."), Clint stands near middle of the bed and takes Phil's hand. "Everybody listen up," Clint says.

Steve doesn't know what Tony hears in Clint's voice, but his spine stiffens, and he says, somewhat petulantly, "No."

Clint ignores him. "Phil and I--"

"La-la-la-la." Tony actually sticks his fingers in his ears.

"--will be getting married as soon as Phil's released from here."

Tony's singing cuts off abruptly. "For real? Those things beeped, what, a week ago?"

"It's been coming much longer than that," Natasha says. "Trust me." She smiles and moves forward, kissing first Clint, then Phil, on their cheeks with easy grace. "Pozdravlyayu," she whispers and stands aside for the swarm of well-wishers.

"So, what's it going to be?" Bruce asks. "False names on the marriage license or bribe a justice of the peace?"

"Actually," Phil says with a hint of a twinkle in his eyes, "because the helicarrier is a ship, and Director Fury is its captain of record--"

"No!" Tony shouts. "No no no. You cannot have that man marry you. After what he put you through? Children will cry. I will cry. Come on. I own ships. Pepper, don't I own ships?"

"Yes," she says, "but would you want you to perform your wedding?"

Tony pauses, blinks. "Yes. But only if I were marrying myself. Very Being John Malkovich."

Steve leans down to Darcy. "Is that something I need to--"

"Yeah," she says, "but first we have to catch you up on who John Malkovich is." She tilts her head. "Eragon first?"

"You shut your filthy mouth," Clint says, laughing. "Don't even joke about--you're picking on Captain America. Steve, it's Con Air or nothing; don't let her tell you otherwise."

Steve smiles. "I'll ask JARVIS."

Only after everyone has congratulated Phil and Clint (even Tony, though only because Pepper and Bruce poke him until he grudgingly steps forward, muttering about even better soundproofing) and the evening has turned into an impromptu engagement party (against the medical staff's protests, but Phil appoints Bruce his personal physician, and since Phil outranks everyone in the room, there's not much they can do) does Steve notice that Natasha is gone. He finds her at the end of the hall, leaning against the small window. He takes care to walk noisily, and she tilts her head toward him. "Captain."

Under ordinary circumstances he would admonish her to call him Steve, but this doesn't feel like the time. "How are you?" he asks. She answers with a shrug. He grins apologetically. "They--" Well, all right, now. Honesty, Captain. "We can be a bit much, I guess." Natasha leans her head against the glass and hmms noncommittally. "Are you...is all of this okay?" He doesn't mean to imply that Natasha needs a romantic relationship. But it's been so much, so fast.

"Do I feel left out of your circle of love?" Her lips quirk. "Maybe a little. But what I told Loki wasn't entirely a lie: my time for that kind of love is in my past, and I don't miss it. I'm happier as my own woman. Clint and Coulson are family; you and Bruce are friends, and that's more than I've had in a long time." She smiles, and he's never going to make the mistake of claiming to know Natasha Romanov, but she's shown him something precious, some piece of herself she doesn't often share. He thinks he understands her better than he did when he came out here. "You should go back," she says. "You don't want to leave Darcy alone much longer."

"She understands," Steve insists.

Natasha laughs. "Of course she understands. The question is how long you're willing to be apart from her."

For no reason he can name, Steve has a vision of Darcy challenging Thor to a drinking contest. His smile turns into a grimace. "I'll just, um...excuse me."

There's no drinking contest yet, but Dr. Foster is laughing herself sick over a game that seems to be Bruce and Tony saying increasingly bizarre-sounding words and making Pepper guess whether they're science terms or Swedish death metal bands. Even from his hospital bed, Phil adroitly dodges Darcy's attempts to crown him with a bridal veil made of surgical masks, while he and Clint take turns listing "innocuous household items I've killed people with". Darcy may get the veil on Phil anyway, because she is, for some reason, sitting on Thor's shoulder, which seems like a considerable tactical advantage, even if she almost tumbles off as she spots Steve and blows him an enthusiastic kiss across the room.

It's a far, far cry from the image of the Avengers SHIELD has offered America since the invasion. Bravery, competence, moral rectitude--all the patriotic standards. And when he first woke up, these childlike displays of levity might've offended him, too. But the world is different--aliens and soulmate timers and he's still not sure what Galaga is. Clint and Phil raise their wrists and clink their timers together in a half-toast, half-high five, and Steve thinks, yeah. He can get used to this.