Steve hadn’t been de-iced for more than two weeks, and he was on a crumbling street in New York City, fighting another army. From outer space. Yeah, sure. It’s fine, it’s fine.
It was taking every ounce of his brain power and lagging energy to stay in the fight. It was brutal and bloody and exactly like what he’d left back in Europe, except for the parts that weren’t. Civilians screaming as buildings crashed down around them. Men in uniform running to and fro, some of them trying to help, some of them panicking just like the rest. Guns that fired energy instead of lead and burned like the heat of the sun when his shield didn’t stop them in time from grazing him.
Aliens getting goo on his fucking spandex.
Yeah, this was fine.
Steve charged a small party of fucking aliens with his shield up like a battering ram and bowled several of them over, taking advantage of their bulky body armor to crunch their faces and necks – Jesus he hoped those were their necks – while they were down and struggling like upended turtles.
Even the aliens had body armor.
He could hear the carnage both in his earpiece and on the streets around him. His teammates, well, his new teammates, anyway, doing their best against the constant influx of new Chitauri streaming through the portal in the sky.
“I didn’t sign up for this shit,” Steve muttered as he gazed up at the hole in the world.
A soft chuckle came against his ear. “Yeah, Cap. And I did?”
Steve squinted into the sky to see Hawkeye perched on the edge of a building, arrows flying rapid-fire from his bow. Neat trick.
“You’ve got me there,” Steve huffed as he turned to glance down the street he’d just massacred a bunch of aliens on. Gross.
Civilians were being herded away, toward the basements and subways, by a string of harried-looking NYPD. Two of the smaller flying machines whizzed over them, strafing the empty street, making a line for where Steve stood in his goddamn neon multi-colored dancing monkey suit it wasn’t even armored Jesus Christ, and Steve slammed the edge of the shield into the street, ducking behind it and playing turtle as the shots ate up the pavement on their way to him.
“Fucking Christ, you moron, at least dodge them!” a voice shouted from his right. Steve was too busy ducking for his life to glance over at the peanut gallery right then, but he got the feeling whoever had just shouted at him would look great with a black eye or two. Or hell, what did Steve know anymore, maybe he had three eyes and Steve could give him an extra.
The strafing fliers sped past overhead, Steve untouched but the street around him busted all to hell. He stood and straightened his spine, spinning to face the banking flying . . . things. Were they planes? He’d call them planes until someone told him different. The Chitauri had to go high in order to make the tight turns, and Steve readied himself for their return, clutching his shield and preparing to throw it at what he was pretty sure was the engine. A nice bank and he’d be able to hit both of them.
God. Maybe the future had alcohol strong enough to get him drunk after this.
As the strafing started up again, defiling the street in ways New Yorkers had never thought to try, a figure wrapped in black strode purposefully to the middle of the street, twenty yards in front of Steve, carrying what looked like one of the Chitauri’s giant rifle laser gun thingies.
“Get back!” Steve called over the roar of battle and blood in his ears. He couldn’t just stand there and watch some stupid civvie get himself blown up, but he was almost too stunned to move as he watched the man.
“Listen, pal,” the guy called over his shoulder, like he was walking in the goddamn park. The goddamn park was twenty blocks east, okay. “This is my city, too.” He walked with a hint of a swagger, or maybe it was a limp. Steve thought he was probably almost the same size as Steve was, but he looked bigger, what with the body armor he was covered in. Body armor. Novel idea, SHIELD, let’s give that a try next time, huh?
The man planted himself in the middle of the street and hefted the long, evil-looking rifle to his shoulder. He was calm and collected as the Chitauri’s shots rattled ever closer to his feet. Steve gaped. “What the hell are you?” he breathed out loud.
"What was that, Cap?” Hawkeye asked in his ear.
“I think I hit my head,” Steve mumbled back.
And then the man fired twice, two quick, electric pops. The engines Steve had been intending to aim for both burst into flame, one after the other, and the two flying motorcycle planes careened wildly, drifting into one another and exploding in the air in an impressive fireball of alien guts. The wreckage hit the street and began to barrel end over end toward the sniper – because that’s definitely what he was, Steve had known many of them in the War and they all had that is-it-a-swagger-or-is-it-a-limp-but it’s-definitely-a-swagger. The man merely stood and watched, his muscles tight and tense but his body completely under control as the wreckage slid to a screaming stop not ten feet in front of him.
Steve realized that he was gaping once he started tasting ash on his tongue, and he snapped his mouth shut.
The man didn’t turn, just strode right up to the last living Chitauri trying to crawl out of the flames and pulled a handgun from a holster at his thigh. “Welcome to New York, motherfucker,” he growled out, and shot the alien in the face.
Steve started tasting ash again and snapped his mouth closed. Again. The guy turned and peered at him. He had a black bandana covering the lower part of his face, and clear protective glasses like the ones Steve had seen agents using at the shooting range. He straightened and gave Steve an appraising once over.
“You really Captain America?” the guy asked.
Steve stared at him. “Uh.”
The man snapped to attention, giving Steve a smart salute. “Sergeant James Barnes, 107th Ranger division.”
Steve’s heart gave a happy little flip. “The Army’s moved in?” he asked eagerly as he edged closer, still wary but willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. He was also, oddly, eager to see what the guy’s eyes looked like. Hell, he would kiss the fucking guy if he’d brought the Army with him.
The man winced behind the bandana. “No. It’s just me and some of my team. We were on leave.”
Steve looked the guy up and down. “That’s standard gear for leave these days?”
“Yes, sir,” the man said, snappy and prompt like a good soldier. He didn’t even look like he was smirking behind the cover of that bandana.
“Sarge!” a voice bellowed from the building two doors down and to the left.
The man, Sergeant Barnes, slid his eyes sideways and gave a hand signal, and five other men kitted out in various amounts of tac gear streamed out of the building. They moved in formation. Steve was impressed. Barnes gave Steve a nod. “Captain Rogers. We’re at your service.”
Steve glanced over them, hesitating. They certainly looked capable, but Steve couldn’t take responsibility for them in the field. He had to deal with his own team, with the portal, and he had to save as many lives as possible.
“Sergeant, get your men out of here,” Steve said to Barnes, his voice going gruff. He was pretty sure it was all that smoke inhalation from gaping like a fish, but it made him sound angry and authoritative, so he was okay with it.
Barnes gave him a cock of his head, like the most murderous and heavily armed puppy Steve had ever seen. “Captain?”
“Get out of here. Clear as many civilians as you can on your way to the barricades.” When Barnes’s eyes went mutinous, Steve glared at him. “That’s an order, Sergeant.”
Barnes stiffened, and Steve could feel his men shifting beside and behind him. “Yes, sir,” Barnes gritted out.
Steve nodded as his communicator crackled in his ear. “Cap, they need you on 47th.”
“Copy that, Hawkeye,” Steve said, then gave the sergeant and his men a curt nod before breaking into a jog and heading toward the location Clint had called out. He gave one glance as he was going, saw the six men he’d left behind, still in formation, watching him go. Steve was almost certain he saw the sergeant give another hand signal, and the team moved off with perfect military precision.
They weren’t heading for the barricades, but Steve had bigger things to worry about. Like space whales, apparently.
“I’m out of arrows!” Clint called through the comms in a strained voice.
“Wow, shocker,” Tony grunted.
“Get on the ground, Clint,” Steve ordered.
“Yeah, almost there.”
“Try not falling this time,” Natasha advised from somewhere in the air where she was no doubt strangling an alien with her thighs. Steve glanced up, squinting.
A shot hit at his feet, and he turned the shield in that direction, preparing for another barrage. The Chitauri soldier-thing bearing down on him stopped and stumbled, arms flailing out and dropping his gun-thing. He fell to his back, a wound in his forehead oozing blood. Or goo. Whatever these things were made of, Steve was pretty sure it was supposed to stay inside them.
Steve glanced over his shoulder, where the shot had come from, expecting Clint to be coming up on his six. He saw no one, though.
Sniper. Great. This fucking asshole again.
Two blocks down, Steve could make out a group of men fighting steadily with a troop of Chitauri, and they were actually pushing them back, holding the line in front of the civilian barricades set up further down the street near the subway entrance. Those weren’t civilians, there was no way with the way they were fighting. It had to be Barnes and his team. Steve supposed they were sort of doing what he’d told them to. One of the men lowered his sidearm from where it was pointed toward Steve and gave Steve a cheeky salute, then turned back into the fray, fighting with the vicious delight of a berserker.
Steve was still staring when Clint jogged up to him, breathing hard. “Dude,” Clint gasped. “Who the hell is that? That was one hell of a shot.”
“Asshole,” Steve grumbled.
“Are you allowed to curse?” Clint asked as he gathered up as many sharp implements and guns as he could fit on his body. “Are they on our side, at least?”
“Well they’re not gross-looking or screeching, so probably,” Steve answered, and turned back into the fray.
Down the street, one of the errant Rangers let out a hideous war-cry, followed by a barrage of weapons fire and damn near terrifying laughter.
“Well,” Clint said as he fired steadily at Steve’s side. “I’m sure they’re not gross-looking, anyway.”
Steve sat on the street amidst the rubble, his exhausted teammates at his side, Tony still sprawled in his dead Iron Man suit, all of them peering around at the utter devastation left after the battle.
“Do we have to clean this up?” Clint asked as he eyed an overturned car.
Steve groaned. Was he bleeding? He was bleeding. Fuck it, at least it wasn’t goo. Of course, he was also covered in goo, so there was that.
“Gross,” he grunted.
Tony laughed maniacally but didn’t move.
Movement down the block had Thor stiffening beside Steve, drawing everyone’s attention. Steve expected maybe cops, or perhaps the National Guard. Maybe the Army had even showed up and they could all go take a shower.
It was the Army. But it was definitely not anyone Steve wanted to see. Sergeant Barnes walked with the same fuck-you swagger as he had in battle, his men still in formation behind him. They all still had their faces covered. Every one of them carried at least one Chitauri weapon, plus what they each had left of whatever weaponry they’d started the fight with.
Steve idly wondered what they’d been doing on leave to be so heavily kitted out. Of course, some of them were obviously carrying stolen NYPD sidearms and kitchen knives, so maybe heavily wasn’t the word for it. Efficient, anyway.
As they got closer, Barnes held his fist up and the rest of the team went at ease behind him, peering at the mangled Avengers curiously.
One man was bleeding. One had a tear in the knee of his tac gear. One guy’s Mohawk had gone a little flat with sweat and goo. But that was it. They looked damn near pristine compared to Steve’s team. Steve sneered at them and didn’t bother standing.
Barnes stared for a few uncomfortable seconds, the two teams eyeing each other. Then Barnes turned his head to the side, giving a nod, and one by one the team came forward to discard the alien weapons they’d collected during the melee, adding whatever human weaponry they’d picked up along the way, then stepped back into formation.
“Figured you’d want these back,” Barnes said stiffly.
Steve looked them all over. Barnes still had a Gerber Mark II on his thigh. One guy still had a wicked looking modified handgun at his hip that had a bright red tip Steve had never seen on a gun. Were those the only weapons they’d started with? Jesus Christ. Another had a bright blue splotch of what looked like paint on his thigh. None of these aliens had been blue . . . right? Wait.
“Jesus,” Clint blurted. He started laughing. He walked up to Barnes and offered his hand. “Were you playing paintball when this started?”
Barnes cocked his head, his eyes crinkling like he was smiling. Some of the men behind him began to chuckle.
“Big ugly dude dropped through the ceiling in the middle of our game and he sure as shit wasn’t shooting paint. Figured we could help.”
Clint nearly doubled over laughing, his hand on Barnes’s shoulder to hold him upright.
“Sarge?” One of the men stepped forward. “Army’s moving in. We need to clear out.”
Barnes nodded. “We weren’t here,” he said to Clint, though his eyes strayed to Steve like the words might have been for him.
“What’s your name?” Clint asked with a nod.
Barnes shook his head. “We weren’t here,” he said again, backing away. He gave a hand signal to his men and they moved back, disappearing into the rubble within seconds. Steve stared hard after them, scowling and wondering why the hell those men wouldn’t stick around to get the recognition he knew they deserved.
He’d been kind of an asshole to a bunch of guys who’d arguably saved a lot of lives, including maybe his, for no other reason than they were there and they had the skills to do it. Maybe he could make that up to them if he gave Barnes’s name to someone who could give them the medals they damn well deserved.
Steve was not skulking through the halls of the Pentagon. He was not, Natasha. He was just trying to avoid another sweaty handshake and go home after another round of debriefs and meetings with people he wasn’t certain he had to report to anymore.
He stopped when he came across an open door, voices spilling out to catch his attention. Angry voices. One, he was surprised to find he recognized. He’d heard it on the street of New York City amidst the screaming of civilians and screeching of aliens and the destruction of the city.
“Sergeant Barnes, are you saying you undertook this operation all by yourself?” an older, gruff voice demanded.
“You didn’t have the rest of your team with you.”
“No, sir. I was on emergency leave, visiting my sister.”
“Sergeant Barnes, you don’t have a sister.”
“And you weren’t granted emergency leave, to our knowledge.”
“That’s odd, sir. Maybe the paperwork got blown up by aliens.”
“And you just walked out the door with your daddy’s rifle, is that what you’re telling us, son?” another, slightly kinder voice asked.
“Yes, sir. My kit was on base. With my team,” Barnes replied, his voice almost droll for all Steve knew that what he was saying was utter bullshit.
“So all these reports of a man in a black bandana, that was you? Is that what you’re claiming, Sergeant Barnes? In all those places at one time?”
“It’s the truth, sir. I couldn’t stand by and watch and Rangers are pretty quick on our feet.”
There was a grumbling of responses that was too muddled for Steve to pick up on anything being said. But he wasn’t listening hard anymore. He was fuming. He’d given Barnes’s name to the Army on the good faith that the man would fill in the names of the men who’d been with him, who’d risked their lives with him, during the Battle of New York. But here he was, taking every ounce of credit himself.
Steve’s blood boiled over, rushing through his ears. He fell back several steps, out of hearing distance of the undertones once more, gritting his teeth. Should he intervene? Storm in there and call the Sergeant a liar? He was still debating it when he heard someone say, “Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Barnes responded, sounding stilted and like he was gritting his teeth as well.
Steve was caught in the middle of the hallway, his fists curling combatively, when Sergeant Barnes stalked out of the room in full dress blues. His shoulders were straight and his jaw muscle was jumping like he was trying to wrestle his own tongue into submission. Steve was struck momentarily dumb by that jawline. Jesus, Barnes had a killer face when it wasn’t covered by a bandana. His eyes looked like the iciest of winter ponds, silver and glinting in the light.
Steve’s anger overcame his eye for beauty, though, when Barnes realized he wasn’t out there alone and turned to meet Steve’s eyes. They stared at each other in the hallway for perhaps two whole seconds before Barnes narrowed his eyes with what seemed like muted fury.
“Captain Rogers,” he gritted out, grinding his teeth and making that unbelievable jaw jump again.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Steve responded in the exact same tone. Steve took a step toward the man, wishing he wasn’t nearly Steve’s height so he could tower over him rather than just boop him with his nose or something. He got closer anyway, trying to be intimidating, lowering his voice so the men in the room couldn’t overhear. “You lack any ounce of honor I thought you had in you,” Steve hissed.
Barnes merely jutted his chin out, stubborn and proud, his beautiful eyes glinting like ice when he met Steve’s and didn’t back down an inch. “Yeah,” he said in a low, guttural whisper. “I hear that’s going around.”
He gave Steve one contemptuous up and down glance, then spun smartly on his heel and stalked away.
“I may be new to the future, son, but in the Army we still wait to be dismissed, Sergeant!” Steve called after him.
“Go fuck off a cliff, Cap,” Barnes called over his shoulder.
Steve really didn’t have anything he could say to that.
He watched Barnes march away, kind of admiring the guy’s murder-walk for a minute, before he shook his head and snapped himself out of it. He glanced at the door, peering inside at the committee of eagles and stars in there who’d likely just decided to give Barnes the goddamn Medal of Honor or something, and Steve’s anger boiled over again. He broke into a jog, running after Barnes. If he had a minute he could come up with something more scathing to say than, ‘oh yeah, well you go fuck off a cliff.’
He caught up with the sergeant at the entrance and watched the man put his cap back on his head, adjusting his dress blues and the impressively wide array of medals that already hung on his chest. He jutted his chin out again and faced the sunshine, and Steve could see from where he stood that Barnes had closed his eyes.
Good, maybe this asshole actually had a conscience.
Steve was about to dart down the steps after him when he saw five men converging at the bottom of them, forming a half circle like they were about to confront their beloved Sarge for his treachery. Steve hung back, just within earshot. Call it fucking schadenfreude, but he wanted to see this.
“What’s the verdict, Sarge?” one man asked. He had the darkest, most beautiful skin Steve had ever seen, and he thought maybe that was the guy who’d been Barnes’s second in command during the Battle, the one who’d had the paint on his leg.
Barnes’s incredible jaw jumped again and he lowered his head.
“No!” one of the other men cried. “That’s fucked up, Buck, they can’t do that!”
The others began to clamber in closer, protesting, distressed. Barnes stood in the middle of them, his head bowed, his eyes closed.
“Can you appeal it?” another man asked. He was shorter, the guy with the struggling Mohawk, though it wasn’t struggling today. Hispanic. Or . . . did they call it Latino now? Steve needed more Google.
Barnes shook his head. “Dishonorable discharge,” he said, though it sounded like his tongue wasn’t quite working right. “I can appeal, but . . .” He shook his head and straightened. He stared into the distance over the heads of the other men for a few seconds, then shook his head again, swallowing hard. “Willfully disobeying direct orders. Failing to report in at the conclusion of a mission. Misappropriation of the Army’s property, Jesus Christ. I’m done.”
“Fuck!” one of the guys shouted, loud enough to scare the impertinent pigeons nearby.
Steve’s heart was going faster, almost enough to make him dizzy. There was no way he’d read this wrong.
“It was a tiny detour!" one guy protested. “What were we supposed to do, let aliens take New York City while we sat around with our thumbs up our asses?”
“How’d they even know we were there?” Mohawk asked.
“My fault,” Barnes answered in clipped words, his voice shaky. “I gave Captain goddamn America my name and rank. He turned us in.”
Steve stared, still eavesdropping, his shoulders hunching. He glanced around for something . . . yeah, something to hide behind.
“What?” one of the team asked, incredulous enough that he was almost laughing. “Why?”
They all stared at Barnes for an answer, at their Sergeant who’d led them through who knew how many battles, and he gave a helpless shrug. “Apparently, I . . .” He trailed off, sounding lost and hurt as he stared at his perfectly shined dress shoes. “Apparently I ‘lack honor’,” he finally answered in a hoarse, broken voice.
There was a stunned silence. For several seconds, no one said a thing, a moment of pure motionlessness as the world buzzed past around them. Then one of the guys huffed. “Geez, Buck, what’d you do to Captain America? Fuck his sister?”
The others began to make noises like they were trying not to laugh, but when Barnes snorted and looked away with a smile, the rest of the men began to chuckle and guffaw.
“Senior citizen discount,” Mohawk mumbled, which sent the rest into further fits of laughter.
Steve couldn’t even be offended. He recognized what these men were doing from his years with the SSR; they were trying to make the best of a shitty situation with their bleak, morbid humor. Suddenly Steve missed Dum Dum Dugan terribly.
“What do we do now, Sarge?” the beautiful black man asked finally. “You gotta appeal it. We weren’t due back on base, we finished our mission early for Christ sake! They can’t punish us for being better than they think we are!”
“They ain’t punishing you,” Barnes growled. “I told them I was there alone.”
“But Sarge –”
“First of all, you’re going to stop calling me ‘Sarge’. I’m a fucking . . . civilian now. Got to get used to it, I guess. Jesus, dishonorable discharge. I’ll be on fucking welfare in a month.” He looked like it was taking every ounce of control he had not to bury his face in his hands.
“I still got my paintball gun I accidentally stole from that place in New York,” one of the men offered. “We can rob a bank.”
Barnes tried to laugh. He really looked like he gave it his best shot.
Steve shook himself out of his horror and took a step forward. This could not stand. This wasn’t what he’d intended at all, and if he couldn’t fix Barnes’s predicament – which you could damn well bet he was going to try – he could at least let the man know he’d completely misread and misunderstood the entire thing.
It didn’t sit right with him at all, these men thinking badly of him.
One of the guys glanced over Barnes’s shoulder and saw Steve coming. He narrowed his eyes, jutting his chin out in an impeccable imitation of his sergeant, and he put a hand on Barnes’s shoulder to tug at him and prevent him from being able to turn and see Steve coming.
“Come on, Sarge,” the man said with an almost evil glint in his eyes as he stared Steve down. Jesus, Steve hadn’t seen that amount of malice and open combativeness in a man since he’d killed a goddamn Nazi. “Let’s go get you shitfaced drunk. And then laid.”
“You better take a shower first if you’re offering.”
The team led Barnes away, flanking him, surrounding him in a protective detail to rival the President’s, and hurried him away from the confrontation they’d thought Steve was bringing.
Steve stood on the steps, staring, until the group had disappeared. Jesus, what had he done to this guy?