"That kind of day?"
Steve had been leaning against the elevator wall with his eyes closed, but opened them at the words, then stood up straight at the speaker because, even out of uniform and even with Steve retired from the service, Colonel Rhodes was a senior officer and it was still instinct to respect the rank.
Said senior officer gave him a dirty look until Steve resumed his slouch against the wall.
"That kind of day is all I seem to have here," Steve replied, forcing himself to swallow the 'sir' before it passed his lips. They'd had that discussion already.
The Triskelion was gone, but there were still other SHIELD towers to elevate the powerful over the rest of them. With Pierce dead, Fury "dead," and most of the WSC chairs still empty, Councilwoman Hawley was the de facto head of the agency until some order could be made out of the chaos -- or at least until they could figure out who was HYDRA and not promote them to the Director's chair. Hawley was tough edging toward ruthless, which under the circumstances was understandable, but it didn't make Steve's life any easier or less complicated.
"You tried to quit again, didn't you," Rhodes asked with a chuckle as the doors closed. He didn't hit a button, so he was going down to the lobby same as Steve. "Third time wasn't the charm?"
"More like fifth and no," Steve confirmed sourly. He understood why Hawley wasn't interested in accepting his resignation -- he wasn't oblivious to the chatter that he should be the next Director, which was unwanted and ridiculous from every perspective but the PR optics of an intelligence organization that had been corrupted to its core -- but he didn't quite understand why that mattered. He wasn't a slave of SHIELD, wasn't indentured in any way... except he was, for all intents and purposes. Hawley had made it clear that there would be repercussions beyond stopping his pay if he refused to show up to work when requested and when he'd tried other avenues, there'd been an apologetic but firm phone call from the President more or less confirming the threat. He wasn't sure how they'd actually make it work, although he suspected it would be through the Army, and he'd been convinced by the people he actually wanted to work with that there were worthwhile reasons not to find out. Hill and Fury both wanted him at SHIELD, which didn't not matter, and both Natasha and Tony had put forward cases for why it was better to play along than not. But that didn't mean he had to like it or to go along with it docilely and today's meeting, in part, had been about reinforcing that.
"You heading back up to New York?" Rhodes asked when they got to the lobby. Steve nodded. "Want a lift?" Rhodes gestured upward, a smile playing at one corner of his mouth. "I'm heading that way."
With Tony both unready and, to a degree, unwilling to jump back into the Iron Man armor -- major thoracic surgery, repairs to his professional and personal lives, rebuilding the suits and their accouterments -- the Avengers had needed a flyer and War Machine had filled the void. Tony was much closer to a return, but Steve hoped that Rhodes would stick around. He was good for the team and good for Tony and, Steve thought, the good went both ways. The purging of HYDRA from the uniformed ranks had been an ugly spectacle, however necessary, and everyone who'd served, past and present, had felt it to a degree. The Avengers were still finding their footing and their identity as an independent entity, but they were a decent sanctuary for battered idealists. Steve should know.
"I drove down," Steve replied with a slight shrug to admit that it wasn't necessarily an obstacle but one he was choosing to allow to be one. He needed the time to think and clear his head before returning to Avengers Tower and, as much as he loved getting a lift through the air -- and make no mistake about it, he loved it -- feeding his adrenaline habit wasn't conducive to organizing his thoughts. Getting stuck on 95 in bumper to bumper traffic between Philly and Trenton was higher stress, but also more effective.
"I'll make sure they save you some pizza," Rhodes said with a nod and they parted.
The drive up from Wilmington did its thing, more or less. He rehashed the discussion with Hawley, parsing out the meanings of what she was and wasn't saying to try to get a little bit of a glimpse of her bigger picture. They'd explicitly disagreed about the profile of Steve's missions; he'd accused her of turning him into a trick pony and tipping off the local media when he'd gone in to take down a HYDRA-infested SHIELD sub-base in Minneapolis. She hadn't denied it exactly, just shifted the topic slightly and he'd been dogged in his refusal to drop it. She got the benefit of his good name by his continued participation in the organization; there didn't need to be photo-ops and press releases. "I'm not running for office and you're not my campaign manager," he'd said, which in turn had brought up another round of sounding him out about the Directorship, although in oblique enough terms that he couldn't call her on it. This was the part of the discussion that was shaded and opaque and while he'd gotten pretty good at hearing what was being said as opposed to what was being spoken, he didn't have a good enough handle on Hawley yet to figure out her game. He didn't know if she wanted him to be the Director or not, whether she was positioning him for a promotion he didn't want -- and might have no chance to refuse -- or the opposite, setting him up for a disgrace that would end his chances once and for all so that she could bring in someone else without the specter of Captain America looming in the near distance. The way it would if she just let him quit and be a full-time Avenger.
By the time he pulled in to the garage at the Tower and made it upstairs, he still wasn't sure what Hawley was going for, but it wasn't a question that was going to be answered in a day, either. He went to his own quarters and might have been tempted to stay there and cook dinner for himself, but there were three messages (from Clint, Tony, and Sam) via JARVIS reminding him that tonight was a communal dinner and attendance, short of an actual emergency that might require proof of a missing limb, was required. He was the field commander of the Avengers, but he made no pretense as to actually being in charge of anything.
When he got upstairs to Tony's penthouse, Pepper was sort-of consoling Sam about his continued frustrations dealing with the VA's bureaucracy; the sort-of coming from the fact that she was probably laughing-at more than she was laughing-with. Sam had readily agreed to join up when Tony had formally rebooted the Avengers Initiative as a Maria Stark Foundation project, having transferred up to the VA's New York offices once he had been reasonably sure that replacements had been found to lead all of his sessions in DC. He was enjoying the new work responsibilities, but tonight he was lamenting the fact that he'd had to search in three different boroughs to find his VA pay stub, even though he was on direct deposit, because he rotated between the Bronx, Harbor, and Brooklyn VA hospitals and none of them had had his.
"You know what the ten most dangerous words in the English language are, don't you?" Tony asked with a smirk as he crossed the living room to hand Steve a beer. "'Hi, I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' Reagan was wrong about a lot of things, but not that."
Sam, who was not naive, but was from the government and did help, made a silent appeal to Steve.
"Don't look to me, Sergeant," Steve demurred as he sat down heavily and took a long sip of his beer. "I just spent the afternoon being reminded that I am not, in fact, a free citizen because my government needs me."
A smirk from Tony. "Rhodey mentioned you had gone a few rounds with Hawley today," he said, perching on the armrest of Pepper's chair. "Wasn't sure if you'd won or lost."
"I'm not sure, either," Steve admitted. "But I think it probably gets filed under 'wining the battle and losing the war.'"
He'd at least gotten Hawley to stop putting him on 'sunshine' duty and back to the sort of work he'd been doing before HYDRA's presence had been detected. It wasn't that he thought the work was beneath him, just that he was unsuited for it by training and temperament. He'd never really dealt with the field agent and research parts of SHIELD; he'd led the cleanup of the STRIKE units, with whom he was familiar, but he was a soldier and not designed to wrangle spies and scientists.
"Where is Colonel Rhodes?" he asked, looking around. Natasha and Bruce were not in town for different reasons and Thor had gone to Cleveland for a weekend to accompany Jane Foster to a conference, but if pizza night was mandatory, that still left Clint and Rhodes. "And Clint?"
"Barton's in the little archer's room," Tony replied, getting up off of the armrest because Pepper was pushing him and the timer was going off in the kitchen. "Rhodey has a date."
"I get increasingly dire warnings of what happens if I miss Pizza Night and other people can skip out on dates?"
"If there were even half a chance that you were skipping out to get laid, you could blow it off, too," Clint said from behind as he rejoined the group. "But there isn't. You would blow it off to go sit at your kitchen table and eat Cheerios and read RUMINT about where Bucky Barnes might be. Which is why it's mandatory for you."
Steve looked over at Sam, who was grinning. "Don't look to me, Captain," he replied in the same tone Steve had used.
"Pizza is served!" Tony announced from the kitchen doorway. "First up is pepperoni-mushroom and sausage-broccoli. And yes, Pep, there is a salad because no, Pep, I know that broccoli on a pizza does not count as a serving of vegetables."
Pepper smiled as she stood gracefully, taking her wine glass with her. "I have him so well trained."
"I don't know if this counts as good news or bad news," Natasha warned as she slid a tablet over to his side of the table. She'd gotten back from wherever she'd been -- as with Clint, he didn't ask and they didn't tell where they went off to -- on Sunday, slept until Monday afternoon, and shown up at his door on Monday evening with news.
(Clint was living up to his codename and playing bird of prey for Fury, Natasha was doing a mostly less lethal version of the same thing for Hill, who was building a shadow version of SHIELD within all levels of government and the security services -- people like Sharon Carter who'd be reliable even in another agency's uniform. Steve didn't need to know details and was happier not knowing them, not because he quailed at it, but instead because it was safer for him not to know while he was still ensnared in SHIELD's power games.)
"Who did he kill?" Steve asked with weary wariness as he accepted the tablet. He knew Natasha's tones of voice well enough by now that he recognized this one, vaguely apologetic and striving for 'unaffected' was the one that came with unhappy news about Bucky. Who was still very much in the wind and showing no sign that he wanted anything to do with Steve. Revenge, on the other hand, that was of interest to him. There were four people they could reasonably assume that Bucky had killed, all four of them with ties to both SHIELD and HYDRA and, judging by their scientific specialization, all likely to have been responsible for working directly on the Winter Soldier project. But they'd been elderly, inactive for decades, and neither Steve nor Natasha could make a guess as to why Bucky was starting there, whether he was being methodical or whether his memories were so incomplete to make them his only possible targets.
"Nobody," Natasha answered. "But I'm not sure this is better."
The tablet was showing a newspaper clipping from the Fresno Bee about the desecration of a Howling Commandos memorial, complete with a photo. Fresno had been Jim Morita's hometown and while he'd moved out of the city proper after the war, it had still claimed him as their proud son. There had been acid thrown at the abstract art piece that symbolized the Commandos, a seven-pronged affair that looked like a cross between a candelabra and a jellyfish with each prong having the name of the Commandos, Steve included, engraved in it. He didn't need to read the article to know which prong had been so badly marred.
"At least we know where he's been," Steve sighed, since Natasha was clearly waiting for some reaction. "There are a million memorials, but he picked one that mattered and he only tried to wipe himself away, not damage anyone else's name."
Which meant he knew who he was -- or who he was supposed to be -- and who the others were, since Fresno could not have been an accident. Steve was going to take it as a positive that Bucky hadn't splashed his own prong as well.
Natasha made a face that could have meant anything. "We can't monitor everything with James Barnes's name on it. Not even just the ones that have significance."
Steve nodded in agreement. "But we can watch the school," he said. There was a public elementary school over in Brownsville named after Bucky, a random enough choice because Bucky had probably never been anywhere near Brownsville, but at least it was in Brooklyn. Steve had originally thought it funny less for the location than for the fact that Bucky, never the most eager of pupils, would have found it hilarious. Except now, instead of finding it funny, they had to worry about Bucky blowing the damned thing up. "He won't do anything when the kids are there, that I'm sure of, but..."
"Yeah," Natasha agreed. "Brooklyn's a special case. We're still tapping into the security feed of where your old place used to be."
It was now a new building entirely, a laundromat on the first floor and a couple of apartments above it. There was a little plaque on a cornerstone saying that this was once where Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes had lived, which Steve had rolled his eyes over, but that was it. There would be nothing to look at that Bucky might see and find familiar.
"But right now, Fresno," Steve said, looking at the date on the clipping. "Is it worthwhile looking over anything in Boston for Dugan or... where did Gabe end up settling down? I know he was in Atlanta for a while after he retired, but... I talked to his grandson once and he said something about North Carolina, I think."
In the end, though, it didn't matter. They wouldn't be able to do more than pick up any word after the fact, like they had done with Fresno. There were ways JARVIS could parse the newspapers to find any other memorial that had been damaged, but they could not dedicate any more resources at the moment.
Wednesday night, Steve took a late train from Penn Station down to Wilmington because mission kickoff was oh-dark-thirty Thursday morning. He went over the mission notes on the train, then dozed in an empty office with couch for a few hours before going downstairs to meet with his team and make the drive down to Dover AFB, where SHIELD was renting space to keep aircraft while things were getting repaired closer to DC. It wasn't a complicated mission, just down to Nicaragua to take out a HYDRA facility that intel said was supposed to be an indoctrination/training camp but turned out to be a munitions development plant, so they wound up shooting less and accidentally blowing up more, then blowing up more on purpose because they couldn't carry all that they had found. There were computers and notes and prisoners and they took all that back to Delaware and, after a quick debrief, Steve was back on an Amtrak heading north by midnight Thursday.
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead," Tony's voice echoed around his bedroom as the lights suddenly turned on, startling him awake. He looked over at the bedside clock, which said 7:25. "You know that cute little pet apatasaurus you had growing up back in the Jurassic Period? Well, he's off the leash in downtown Houston and we need to go get him before he sets the Gulf of Mexico on fire."
"Tony," he groaned, rubbing at his face. "I got to bed at four-thirty. I am, in the parlance of your people, not in the mood for this shit."
"Sorry, Cap," Sam's voice echoed next; Tony could be heard cackling in the background. "I really wish he was pulling your leg, but we got actual dinosaurs to go fight."
Steve supposed he should have been more shocked by this than he was, but he'd also been frozen for seventy years and then had to fight aliens, so he wasn't. He was instead showered, shaved, and in the meeting room in track pants and a t-shirt inside ten minutes holding a mug of coffee, still a little too hot to drink, and watching video footage that the others were making movie references about. "Do I want to ask where the dinosaurs came from?"
There were three, a brontosaurus, a triceratops, and a stegosaurus, and the fact that they were all herbivores and not trying to eat anyone or their pets did not mitigate against the fact that they were laying waste to much of Houston. The brontosaurus -- whatever it was called now -- was seventy feet long and had a tail that was leveling buildings and sending cars flying. They had shown up at dawn and nobody knew what the hell to do with them. The Air Force, which had scrambled fighters immediately, was reluctant to try missiles or heavy weaponry because even if they hit the dinosaurs, there was no saying how much damage they'd do, either to the dinos or to whatever got hit by falling beasts -- or flying dinosaur parts. And if they missed, there would be more casualties and fires to take care of when the Houston and area first responders were already overwhelmed.
"This dude is our bet," Sam answered, flinging a different image on to the holographic projector from his tablet with an expressive gesture. A man with dark brown hair and pointed ears wearing only a pair of brief swimming trunks appeared on the screen hovering over a group of policemen on a city street. "He's calling himself Namor and he's kinda pissed at all of us humans for what we've done to the oceans. The bar for eco-terrorism has just been raised so high you can see it from space."
Namor could fly, apparently, was bulletproof without armor, and tossed cars and people with equal ease. There was no audio on the footage, but even without reading his lips, it wasn't hard to see how furious -- and mad in the more traditional sense -- he was. He was shouting, snarling, and gesturing imperiously at innocent civilians and first responders alike. He'd found the mayor of Houston and had grabbed him by the shirt lapel, hoisted him into the air like a pillow, and shaken him hard enough to knock him unconscious before dropping him without a care.
"That doodad around his neck looks too pretty to be decorative," Clint said sourly. Namor was wearing an amulet around his neck on a heavy gold-colored chain that looked to be made of orange light, but from a different angle Steve could see that it was just an oval gemstone of unusual brilliance.
"I would not have believed it real," Thor murmured, still mostly to himself. "There are stories told on Asgardia and other worlds, children's stories not worth repeating for their context, but they tell of a sun stolen from the skies of a faraway land and trapped in a diamond the shape of an egg. The sun was not just any sun, however, but instead an elemental fire from the dawn of time and the possessor of the gem could control all time and know all things."
Steve looked up and over at Thor, who was frowning, as if he'd just realized something unpleasant. "Is there more to the story?"
Thor shook his head. "I would not know fact from fiction," he admitted. "I could tell you many versions of the tale, but not what to expect from this Namor and his beasts of a past age."
Tony came into the room, dressed in the clothes he wore underneath the Iron Man armor; he'd been testing the latest model for the last couple of weeks, but only flying around the Tri-State area and not even in simulated combat and Steve wasn't sure he was ready for the real thing. "Okay," Tony announced, "we have an official invitation from the governor of Texas to come in and try to lasso these guys. Rhodey's already en route from DC, Natasha's off the grid, and Bruce will be ready to go if we pick him up."
Steve started drinking his coffee, feeling the burn as it went down. He could feel eyes upon him; Tony was their facilitator in many ways, but when it came to running into a battle, everyone still looked to him because that's how they'd trained. He swallowed and nodded. "Let's go."
Thor, Sam, and Clint started toward the door, but Tony was picking up the tablet to rewind some of the footage and Steve went over to him. "Are you ready for this?" he asked. "I know you want back in the field and I want you there, too, but we both know that while diving in headfirst will get it done, there are better ways. This is going to be one hell of a shakedown cruise."
Fairly early on in their acquaintanceship, Steve had figured out that the key to getting a straight answer out of Tony was to wait him out. Tony's default reaction was always to laugh off concerns and say something that might be funny or might be mean or might be both at once. But if you held your ground, the veneer disappeared and you could, if you were patient, get a real response. This was no brilliant insight, but it had required time and effort to be able to put it into practice because Tony was very good at driving people away.
Steve waited, watching Tony cycle from defiance to pride to thoughtfulness to wry resignation in all of a heartbeat.
"I'm not ready to go mano-a-dino, no," Tony admitted, running his fingers through his hair so that stood up at odd angles. "That's why Rhodey's already in the air. But I need to be there, both for the armor and, well, for me. I'll stay high, coordinate, fire off a few repulsor blasts from a safe distance. I won't make things worse."
Steve had his doubts about Tony's ability to live up to a promise to stay out of trouble, but this was part of the learning curve of the new Avengers -- trusting each other to be honest, to think of others, to obey field commands, to be a unit instead of a group of individuals coincidentally in the same place fighting the same foe.
"Let's go then," Steve said, handing Tony his coffee mug and walking toward the door. The other key to successfully managing Tony was to never acknowledge that you'd seen the soft underbelly beneath the armor. "Put that in the kitchen so I can go change."
"I'm not your gopher," Tony said sourly, but he took the mug.
"I'm not the one with the magic self-dressing armor," Steve called behind him as he walked.
Three hours later, they were hovering over the southern part of Houston, where the stegosaurus was being ineffectively corralled away from an oil refinery. They'd picked up Bruce en route, Rhodey had arrived a few minutes before they had, and so Steve had a full complement (minus Natasha) to work with as he organized the team and their activities. The best play, he thought was to maneuver the trio of dinosaurs into Galveston Bay, where they could be dispatched with less collateral damage than inside the city, and that would also maximize the use of the military elements that had come up from Corpus Christi and east from the inland bases. The tanks and infantry units had not proven to be able to stop the dinosaurs, but maybe they could be sheepdogs, herding them toward the coast.
Namor, on the other hand, was a problem of a whole different order. He had, if anything, grown madder in the hours since the Avengers had left New York, not quite foaming at the mouth, but definitely at the spittle-flecked stage. He was threatening tidal waves and tsunamis and the destruction of every coastal city around the globe as punishment for what the "surface dwellers" had done to his kingdom of Atlantis. He had killed more than two dozen personally, apart from what damage the dinosaurs had done, picking up a city bus that was being used to evacuate civilians and throwing it at an oil refinery's tank, starting a fire that still hadn't been put out.
Steve put the Hulk on dinosaur duty, explaining first to Bruce and then to the Hulk what he wanted done, and partnered him with both War Machine and the Falcon because Rhodes had the firepower and Sam had the best rapport with the Hulk and was deft enough to play bait for a brontosaurus. He sent Thor and Iron Man into the sky against Namor, the former to try to engage him on a royal-to-royal basis (it couldn't hurt) and the latter to provide backup and use some of his fancy sensors to give them any clue about Namor's power limits and, especially, to figure out what the hell that amulet could do besides possibly summon dinosaurs. He took Hawkeye with him to the command center to serve as liaison by attaching himself to one of the aviation units; Clint could get himself a helo and have the run of the sky without needing a lift from one of the other Avengers while also ensuring that the military elements were both feeling useful and being useful. Clint had a good ability to see the larger picture from on high, not always a given with a sniper used to viewing the world through a scope, and his regular-dude-with-a-bow fearlessness often had a better morale effect than Captain America barking out orders. Steve's orders would be followed, unconditionally at this point, but he knew from his war that regular units worked better alongside specialized ones if they didn't feel like they were the chorus girls dancing in the background.
"Cap, we've got the dinosaur parade going in the right direction," Sam reported in about an hour into the action. Steve was riding along in an Army humvee, chasing the airborne Thor and Namor as they clashed, verbally and with brute physical force, across northeast Houston. They were trying to guide Namor toward the parks and away from the civilian populations and away from Galveston Bay, just in case he really did have some control over the water. "It's not gonna be pretty, but ETA at the bay is probably three-oh mikes if nobody gets distracted by anything shiny."
Even odds whether the Hulk or the dinosaurs would be so distracted.
"Roger that," Steve confirmed. "Hawkeye, get those Ghostriders ready to go when they get there."
There were two pairs of AC-130s making great circles over the Gulf of Mexico, waiting for permission to rain devastation upon the dinosaurs once they were in the water. Steve wasn't a fan of destruction for its own sake, but the first time he'd seen a Spectre Gunship in action had been an impressive day. Air support, close or otherwise, had been one of the biggest changes in warfare since he'd come forward in time, to go from not being able to risk daylight bombing runs during his war to having a jumbo jet able to fire precise bullets from thousands of feet up in the air now had required more than a little adjustment on his part.
"Thor, how are we on convincing Namor that the oil spill wasn't an act of war?" he asked once Clint had confirmed the instructions. There hadn't been a lot of sense in what Namor had been raving about all morning, but that much had been sussed out and, while he hadn't said so explicitly, it was their leading theory for why he'd chosen Houston instead of, say, New York or Tokyo as his attack point. Galveston might've been more obvious, but Houston was bigger.
"He does not care," Thor answered after a few minutes, during which Steve's humvee crossed on to a sidewalk to get around another massive traffic jam. There were a lot of abandoned cars, which had made things worse in terms of evacuations of civilians and containment of the threats. "He views the heedless exploitation of resources as a continuous affrontery. The oil spill was notable for its degree, not its novelty. His grievances stretch back centuries, it would seem."
Thor sounded a bit weary. Not physically so, although he'd had quite the battle with Namor so far, but rather of the rhetoric of a madman.
From the gunner's position, Corporal Hernandez called down that he could see Thor at their ten and they made the left turn accordingly. Tony, who'd volunteered for search-and-rescue but had spent the last twenty minutes shoring up a skyscraper that had taken a hit from one of Namor's lobbed projectiles announced that he was free and Steve told him to see if anything else needed doing on the construction or SAR front first but otherwise find Thor. Who had successfully maneuvered Namor over Sheldon Lake State Park and, hopefully, could keep him there for a while.
Namor took a dive into the reservoir and came out looking refreshed, which wasn't good, but also a lot less wild-eyed, which maybe was. Steve caught up to him and Thor inside the park, leaving Captain Dorfenberg to set up and maintain an infantry perimeter while he made his way on foot to where the two were standing near the edge of the water and heard from Clint, who said that the aerial bombardment of the dinosaurs in the bay would be starting in about ten minutes, once the dinos were a little further out into the water.
When Steve broke through the the tree line, moving slowly and carefully so as not to startle anyone, Namor looked annoyed to see him and Thor something closer to grateful and bemused.
"You are not supposed to be here," Namor accused, glaring at Steve, who held his hands up in a "I mean no harm" gesture. His shield was strapped to his back and while he carried a sidearm, he didn't think that raised his threat level to Namor any.
"I'm just here to help," he said easily. "You have a list of grievances, can't hurt for someone else to hear them, too."
"You are not supposed to be here," Namor repeated, this time sounding less accusatory and more... not distracted, but less focused somehow. Like he was listening to something else and Steve hoped he didn't have super-hearing and could tell that there was a battalion's worth of soldiers positioning themselves to hem him in.
"I'll leave if you want me to," Steve said in the same careful, calm tone. "But I think I can help you get what you came for."
The gemstone amulet was starting to glow brighter and Steve realized at the last moment that Namor wasn't listening to the soldiers in the trees, he was listening to the stolen sun around his neck. He unslung his shield and pulled it around to defend himself from the blast of orange light as he heard Thor bellowing; he felt the impact drive him back, rattling through his bones like a shockwave, and he hit something behind him at speed.
The last thing he remembered was getting blasted into a tree, but it might have been something else because it had clearly knocked him out and the average oak didn't do that anymore. Whatever it had been, he was now he was lying on a stretcher somewhere safe and indoors, although no doubt still in Houston. He was too woozy to open his eyes to see where and even moving his hand on his chest forced out an involuntary gasp of pain.
"Stay where you are, Cap," a voice ordered him gently from the other side of the room, sounding muffled, like he was speaking underwater. "The Army still hasn’t built any bed you can’t break if you try to and General Sherman might’ve slept on this one."
Steve chuffed out a laugh that sent fire down his arms and legs. Spinal damage, maybe, and he resigned himself to a ride home on a stretcher and an evening of lying on an MRI bed instead of the couch. Avengers Tower had everything, but a way of getting out of medical treatment was not one of them, not with JARVIS able to chase you down.
"Matching museum pieces, then," he said, mostly to see if he could talk without pain. He could.
"Museum pieces my ass, young man,” was the bemused reply from much closer and Steve did open his eyes then because he knew that voice, the timbre and tone and the sarcasm that covered up near-paternal fondness for his younger teammates.
Dum Dum Dugan was sitting on a stool next to him and even in the dim light of a half-shielded kerosene lamp, Steve could see the concern on his face.
It had been a while since he’d dreamed of the Commandos. He’d always been woken up by the nightmare of watching Bucky fall from the train — especially after they found him again as the Winter Soldier — but he’d stopped dreaming as often about the others. He'd felt guilty about that, about abandoning his friends, but Sam had told him to quit it, that this was part of healing and his friends weren’t going anywhere because they were still in his heart.
"We thought we’d lost you, sir," Dugan said quietly. "Helluva fall you took. You’ve been out for three days. We moved you while we could, but you were getting worse, so we set up shop here and Dernier and Morita went ahead to rustle up some help."
Steve, feeling tears prick at his eyes, could only offer a weak smile, not trusting himself to nod or speak. He didn’t remember any falls like this, so maybe it was his brain accommodating his modern-day injuries. Nobody knew how brains worked, something he’d been told constantly as they’d searched for Bucky. Maybe he was hurt worse than he’d thought and he was already back in New York.
Or maybe Thor’s stories about the orange gem that could control time were true.