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a road less traveled

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         (U.S. Army) Abbreviation for ‘Fucked up beyond all recognition (or repair).’



Steve wakes up on the cold stone floor of the foyer. He scrambles up; there’s glass shards everywhere and they crunch under his gloved hands. People are staring, holding themselves back. They must have seen the fight, must have seen two of him.

His own voice rings in his head.

“Bucky is alive!”

No, not his voice, Loki’s voice. It was Loki in disguise as him. Steve’s already seen him do it once today.

His body feels heavy and sluggish, but he pushes himself forward. Past the frightened office workers who’ve barely had time to emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding from the Chitauri army.

Fucking space whales!

He eventually makes it to the front entrance, where everything is in full chaos. Paramedics are crouched over Stark, the Hulk is nowhere to be found, Thor is yelling at an old man in a grey suit surrounded by a SHIELD STRIKE team dressed all in black, and Steve, Steve can’t breathe.

Bucky is alive. Bucky is alive. Bucky is alive, echoes in his head, and he can’t make it stop, even as he knows it’s a lie. Maybe because he knows it’s a lie.

It has to be a lie, it’s from Loki, after all, but he can’t quite make himself ignore it. Those words said in his own voice; desperate and struggling. Steve shakes his head, trying to silence that one piece of him that thinks it just might be real.

When Thor shoves the man in the suit with his hammer, shouting “you and your petty laws can go fuck themselves!”, and then the entire STRIKE contingent raises their weapons, Steve rushes forward, grabbing Thor’s arm and pulling him away before the situation can escalate even further. Everything’s already gone FUBAR with Loki in the wind and the Tesseract God knows where. At least the portal’s shut and the weird space whales are dead, but they really don’t need an incident between Thor and SHIELD right now.

“Captain Rogers,” the man in the suit says, suddenly turning to look at Steve. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

His voice is steady and authoritative, as if he expects to be listened to. Obeyed. Thor is still glowering, and Steve scrutinizes the man while still trying to disengage a pissed off God of Thunder from a group of very twitchy-looking agents.

“Who are you?” he finally says, as Thor lowers his hammer a fraction and some of the electricity in the air dissipates.

“Alexander Pierce, secretary of the World Security Council.” He pauses, looking right at Steve. “And the head of SHIELD. We’re here to collect both Loki and the Tesseract for safekeeping.”

“You have no authority over –” Thor yells, and Steve yanks him back, putting some serious force into it finally, managing to pull Thor off-balance enough to step in front of him and take some control over the situation.

“Well, as you can see, Mr. Pierce, Loki isn’t here anymore.”

“Because of your interference!” Thor bellows from behind him, and Steve struggles to hold him back from launching himself at the SHIELD agents again, who are all clearly beginning to regret ever having put on Kevlar.

“We’re not going to let this go, Captain.” There’s steel in the man’s gaze, and Steve finds himself bristling.

“You’re very welcome to conduct your own search, but he isn’t here anymore, as I already stated.”

“We’ll see about that, Captain Rogers.” There’s a threat there that Steve can almost taste, but before he can reply, there’s a soft tap on his shoulder and a gentle “hey, let’s go.”

It’s Natasha, her lip still bloody and swollen. Steve has no idea where she’s materialized from, and she doesn’t seem inclined to explain. “Stark needs medical attention and Pepper’s just landed at LaGuardia and is on her way.”

Thor’s already turning towards her, giving the STRIKE team his back like their hastily assembled tactical formation and pointed guns mean nothing. Natasha is still talking, not giving STRIKE even a fraction of her attention.

“They’re taking him to Mount Sinai, Stark’s got a private wing there, so come on.”

She motions them to follow and Steve wants to spit out that his city is in ruins and of course rich assholes get priority, but for once, he keeps the thought to himself. He catches Pierce looking at them as they go, his expression flat and unreadable.

They get into one of those stupidly large black cars which has appeared from somewhere, strangely undamaged, and Clint follows the ambulance all the way to midtown. They get let through all of the roadblocks with minimal fuss behind the ambulance. Steve’s in the back with the still-glowering Thor, the comforting weight of the shield against his calf. None of them has any idea where Bruce, or the Hulk, for that matter, is, nor what the fresh hell actually happened in the foyer. Steve hopes that at least the Hulk’s somewhere finding Loki and bashing him into the floor again. That would be great.

Bucky is alive. Bucky is alive. Bucky is alive.

It still rings in his head as they drive, he can’t help it, and he has to ask. Has to know. He leans over to Thor, who’s still squeezing the hammer like he wants to break the handle in one of his meaty paws.

“Do you know who Bucky is?”

“Who?” Thor asks, frowning.

“Bucky,” Steve repeats, and even saying the name out loud hurts.

“No. Should I?”

“It was something Loki said. He told me ‘Bucky is alive.’”

Thor’s shaking his head, looking out at the destruction they’re driving past. “I don’t know, my friend, I have never heard that name. Who is he?”

Steve breathes, forces the words out. “He was my friend, part of my unit. He died.” It’s not even close to what Bucky was, is, to him, nowhere near, but it’s all he can force himself to say.

“I’m sorry,” Thor says, like he somehow knows the gamut of emotions running through Steve’s head, and he presses a warm, heavy hand over his shoulder, grounding him in the moment, into the stiff leather seat of the car.

“How could Loki have known it?” Steve asks, without really expecting an answer.

“I do not know,” Thor says, and it sounds as though he’s thinking out loud. “I have been thinking that something is amiss with my brother. Mischief is to be expected from him, of course, but these past few days, his actions have seemed extreme, even for him. I have even wondered whether someone else may have been acting through him…. Perhaps some other power could have given him the knowledge of your friend?”

It’s the only answer Thor has for Steve, and he shrugs apologetically as they drive the rest of the way to the hospital in silence and park in the underground lot. Even the parking space is labeled ‘Stark’.

Stark gets taken into the OR as soon as they get through the doors, and the rest of them are told to wait. The hospital is teeming with SHIELD agents as well. Fury’s there on Stark’s floor, as is the Pierce guy, who inconveniently manages to corner Steve by the vending machines while Steve is trying to find a bag of something called ‘flaming hot Cheetos’ for Natasha. Instead of the cold shoulder he’d shown at Stark Tower, though, he grabs Steve in a tight handshake.

That steel and threat has been totally wiped off his face and now he looks glad, the corners of his eyes crinkling as if he’s smiling. “I’m so glad to have you on our side, Captain,” he says, with so much conviction, and Steve just nods stupidly, whiplashed by the sudden change of pace.

It’s not like he’s officially agreed to work for SHIELD yet, but maybe Fury had said something to Pierce. Maybe with everything going on, it’d be a good choice. Natasha and Clint seem happy enough, and he wouldn’t mind working with them again. But there’s the issue of SHIELD using the Tesseract to make weapons, and Steve isn’t quite ready to let that go yet. He wants to talk to Peggy before he makes any decisions. He knows she’s still alive and in a nursing home in England. Maybe he could call her, at least.

“Sure,” he ends up saying, “it’s good to be back,” distracted by still trying to read all the names in the lurid-colored packages in the vending machine. God, he doesn’t even know how the machine works. Is there even a coin slot in the fucking thing?

Pierce smiles, sharp and hungry, and for a moment, Steve wants to clarify that he’s only saying that because of Peggy and her legacy in founding SHIELD, but he doesn’t get a chance before Pierce is patting him on the shoulder and saying, “I look forward to seeing you in DC. We have great work to be getting on with.”

“Yeah, yeah sure,” Steve nods, seeing Natasha beckoning him from further down the corridor. He takes the chance to make his escape, even if he didn’t even manage to get the weird flaming hot Cheetos she’d wanted.

Once he’s disengaged himself from Pierce Steve makes his way back to Stark’s room, where he’s finally back from surgery. Most of the medical staff have left and Pepper is standing at the end of the bed wearing a wrinkled white suit and she’s yelling. Loudly. Steve gets the feeling that this isn’t an unusual occurrence, from the look on Stark’s face.

So, yeah. FUBAR all around.


* * *


They end up sitting around the hospital room for hours, Clint perched on the windowsill, Natasha and Pepper on the armchairs provided, which leaves Steve and Thor the plastic chairs that a nurse brings along when she sees them standing around aimlessly and getting in everyone’s way. Thor leaves briefly to call someone whom he refers to as “the lady Jane,” who’s apparently some scientist who works for SHIELD and Thor’s girlfriend, maybe? He calls her his “paramour,” which makes Natasha roll her eyes, and when he returns from the call, his spirits seem a little lifted.

The doctors do test after test and Steve is only a little bit weirded out by modern medical practices, not to mention the fact that the cardiologist is a woman. No one else makes a comment, so he assumes that’s normal now.

The evening begins to darken, and even with all the beeping and clicking machinery, Steve spies Pepper nodding off in her chair. Eventually, Stark badgers everyone to go and sleep in the Tower, and surprisingly, everyone seems to agree. It feels like safety in numbers, curling up in a pup-tent or a foxhole. Bucky and Dum Dum and Jim and Frenchie and Gabe and Falsworth snoring all around him in the dark of the night out on the Western Front.

It feels good, right, to go and rest with his team somewhere safe. As they head through the door, Steve can still hear Stark yelling. “And get shawarma! Pepper! Shawarma for everybody! Make an order! That place off Lexington!”

Surprisingly, food, which Steve is told is called ‘shawarma,’ does show up at the penthouse where they’ve all congregated not an hour later, and Clint hands him a rolled-up bread that smells kinda garlicky. It’s good, a bit strange, but still tasty. Steve eats seven of the bread things and then looks around feeling sheepish, only to notice that Thor is surrounded by at least eleven wrappers. Emboldened, he grabs another one.

When Stark does arrive, he doesn’t stop talking, even when Pepper guides him to sit on the couch and pushes some shawarma into his hands. He keeps talking between the bites. About what happened, how it happened, how something really strange went on. Steve doesn’t argue with that. Having to fight himself is probably going to stay as the strangest thing that’s ever happened to him, even if it was just Loki in disguise. At least the copycat didn’t rip the skin off his face, because that incident with the Red Skull has now moved down to number two on the ‘weirdest things’ list.

Somehow, Pepper manages to arrange everyone a change of clothes, bedrooms to sleep in, and even toiletries. Steve wonders how a man like Stark has managed to keep ahold of this miracle lady. He tries to give her a smile and a ‘thanks’ as she hands him a stack of clothing, but his face feels like putty. The shawarma is sitting heavy in his belly and the past 48 hours are finally starting to catch up to him.

“There’s a private bathroom off all the bedrooms and you’re all down the same corridor.”

Her smile is gentle like she already knows everything Steve is thinking, and he doesn’t know how to even start expressing his gratitude, so he just ends up lamely saying, “Thank you, Ms. Potts.”

“Pepper is fine, Captain Rogers.”

“Steve, please.”

She nods and touches his shoulder softly. “Just let me know if you need anything, and thank you.”

“For what?” he asks, suddenly feeling bewildered. What could she possibly have to thank him for?

“For keeping him alive, I know it’s not always the easiest of things.” She motions towards the couch with her head, where Stark is lying, fiddling with his phone.

“Oh,” is all that Steve can think to say, as he clutches the pile of clothes to his chest.

“Tony and I will be in the master suite on the other side of the living room, but you can just ask Jarvis if you need anything.”

“I am here to assist with anything you may require, Captain Rogers,” comes a mechanical voice from the ceiling. Steve manages to not punch the wall in surprise, but only just. This must be Stark’s famous AI.

After a second, once he’s over the surprise, he nods and heads to the room Pepper’s pointed him towards. Natasha and Clint have disappeared behind two of the already closed doors, and Steve can hear Pepper giving Thor his clothes and things.

When he closes the bedroom door, Steve lets himself just lean against the wood and close his eyes. Grateful for the darkness behind his lids, though it’s not that the room is bright, the only light coming from a modern-looking bedside lamp. Eventually, he has to move. He finds that the second door goes into the en-suite bathroom, which turns out to be stupidly opulent, with gleaming dark stone floors and several light switches that Steve doesn’t even try to work out. Even with that, it takes him more than five minutes to figure out how to turn the shower on and then how to get the water hot.

He stands under the spray for what feels like an hour, breathing in the steam and trying to get his whole body to unclench, even just a little bit. It doesn’t really work, his whole being like a livewire still. Eventually, he gives up on the relaxation and just gives himself a cursory wash with the liquid soap placed in the little cubby hole.

Afterwards, he pulls on the soft pants and the t-shirt bearing the Stark Industries logo which were both in the pile of clothes and lies on the bed. Even tries to get under the covers. The lights are off and everything is quiet and still he can’t sleep. Every time he closes his eyes, he hears the crash of the glass wall and the strangled “Bucky is alive!” in his head.

An hour or two passes, tossing and turning, and eventually, Steve just gives up trying. It’s still dark outside and all the lights are off. The penthouse is dead quiet, but not empty, as he sees when he walks into the living room.

Natasha is sitting on the couch, her feet tucked in, staring at the dazzling New York skyline. The lights of the buildings aren’t all there tonight, the damage to the city screaming out in those dark blotches, those strange broken shapes that cut the sea of light.

“Can’t sleep?” she asks, her voice hoarse.

“No,” Steve says, shaking his head and sitting beside her on the couch.

He doesn’t really know her. Doesn’t really know any of them, not truly. Combat only does so much. But still they sit there quietly watching New York together, the city still not asleep even after such a close brush with absolute destruction. Natasha doesn’t speak and Steve is grateful for the silence.

Clint comes out of his room around 4 am, and joins them on the couch. He doesn’t say much either, just sits there and stares at the horizon. Steve aches for him, the way he holds himself tight and closed off until Natasha leans on his shoulder and he relaxes just a fraction. There’s something in his posture that makes him think of Bucky right after Kirschberg, and the ache in his chest is so bad he has to press his hand to his sternum, just for a second.

They hear the muffled yell cut through the silence, all of them tensing until Pepper’s voice calls out, soothing. Everything goes quiet again after that. They don’t look at each other or talk. They all know that not sleeping is a valid choice when faced with nightmares.

Thor is the last to arrive at 5:30, when the sun is already peeking over the horizon, streaks of light cutting through the destruction of downtown Manhattan. He looks just like Steve feels; like he’s spent the night tossing and turning on sheets and pillows softer than clouds and not finding any rest.

They all turn when the elevator doors open not long after 6 am and Bruce walks in, sheepish and tired-looking, wearing what can only be a stolen jacket in a multitude of lurid colors. “Sorry,” he says, shrugging awkwardly and trying to hold up his pants. “The other guy just had to cool down, I guess.”

They all nod silently and Bruce waves as he makes his way down the corridor. He must shower in one of the empty rooms and even manages to find a change of clothing from some cubby or another, because he shows up dressed and shaved just in time to see a woman in chef’s whites and a rattling cart come through the door. After being thoroughly inspected by both Clint and Natasha, she’s let into the kitchen to prepare breakfast.

Steve thinks of army canteens, of men queueing for chow, and how this is nothing like it. The chef lays down cutlery and glasses and plates on the dining table they had foregone last night. White napkins and carafes of what appear to be different kinds of juices. It’s all so wasteful, the way she unwraps each dish from foil or some kind of plastic wrap, cuts up all the fruits into neat little squares and circles. Stark and Pepper arrive just in time when a heaping bowl of scrambled eggs and a tower of pancakes and French toast are placed on the table.

“If anyone would like eggs Benedict, please let me know and I will prepare those fresh,” the chef says, and Steve just looks at her and the food, bewildered.

“Yup, we’ll have some,” Tony declares while seating himself at the head of the table. “Tweety? Red Menace? Brucey? Eggs Benedict, anyone?”

Steve just shakes his head as he takes a seat. Everyone starts to eat, and after seeing Thor skewer about eight pancakes on his knife and deposit them onto his plate, Steve starts to help himself. He gets eggs and bacon and sausages, pancakes, and French toast. It’s all excellent. Except the bananas, which taste like shit, so Steve tries to covertly push them to the side of the plate. He doesn’t want to be rude, but they really do taste like garbage; mealy and bland. Everyone else seems to be eating them, so maybe he just got a bad one.

“So,” Tony drawls out, looking around the table. “What’s the plan, care bears?”

When no one says anything, he carries on. “The space whales are dead and the portal’s shut and we saved New York, so yay for us! But Loki’s still out there, still has the Tesseract. So we gotta have a plan, because he’ll be back.”

“So, what do we know about the cube?” Natasha asks, sipping her orange juice. “We need intel.”

“We know that SHIELD had it,” Steve butts in, not ready to let that particular revelation lie quite yet. “We know they were making weapons with it. We know that the safest thing for it was to not be on Earth.”

The silence between them is thick and heavy. Steve feels the bitter taste of failure in his mouth, and no, it’s not just the disgusting bananas.

“The Tesseract is an item of immense power,” Thor eventually says tiredly from his end of the table. “It came into the care of Asgard during my father’s rule. He kept it locked away in the vault.”

“How did it end up in fucking Norway?” Steve spits out, feeling the same anger he’s felt ever since seeing the guns, the armor. Of how similar it was to HYDRA, to Schmidt.

“I don’t know,” Thor admits, after a pause. “I am not sure when and how it was moved, but my father must have deemed it to be safer here on Earth than on Asgard.”

“Daddy dearest found it in the fifties when he was looking for Capsicle over there,” Tony quips, pointing at Steve with a fork. “And somehow, it ended up at SHIELD.”

Steve doesn’t dignify that with an answer. It’s not his business to try and unpack whatever bad blood seems to be between Tony and Howard. It feels like only weeks since he saw Howard last and now he’s long dead and buried. Like everyone.

“It’s bad fucking news, is what it is,” Clint says, not looking up from his eggs.

“Yeah,” Steve grunts. “Should’ve left it in the ocean.”

The words feel bitter on his tongue now, when Fury just didn’t seem to give a fuck, and look how it all ended.

“No shit,” Clint mutters, and at least he seems to be on the same page. Steve gives him a tight smile across the table.

Tony’s still waving around with his fork. “Okay, so we datamine their systems then, I still have that full data dump from the helicarrier, and it’s not like breaking into their networks is hard, right?”

Natasha snorts, but she doesn’t look opposed to the idea, which Steve doesn’t know how to read. She works for SHIELD, after all, but from where he’s looking, she doesn’t seem to have much loyalty to them. Thor shoves a pile of eggs still on his plate with the serving spoon he’s been using to eat them with and grimaces.

“I need to warn Asgard. If Loki has the Tesseract, he may try to return there, and I will not be able to go back without it.”

“Is there a way to do that?” Bruce asks with a frown.

“Not that I know of,” Thor says, shaking his head.

“We’ll figure something out, Point Break,” Tony says, and for once, he sounds genuine. “Never tried intergalactic communication before, but how hard can it be?!”

“Yeah, sure,” Bruce laughs, without humor. “How hard can it be?”

“You, me, Point Break,” Tony points at himself, Bruce, and Thor in turn. “My lab, after breakfast. And after we crack intergalactic comms, we’ll crack SHIELD open like an egg!”

Tony lifts up his glass in a toast, but when no one else does, he takes a sip and grumbles, “You’re all boring.”


* * *


That’s how they all end up living in the penthouse for five days. It’s comforting in a way, the closeness, except no one is ever really there.

Stark and Banner start building a communication system for Thor and another tracking device for the cube, and it takes Steve almost a day to figure out that Stark mostly eats and sleeps in the lab several floors down. Bruce spends most of his days there as well, but at least he comes up for dinner, even if he spends most of that time reading stacks of scientific papers and barely paying attention to whatever he’s shoveling into his mouth.

Pepper is around, but she seems to keep almost as strange hours as Stark, fielding conference calls with far-flung locations from the office next to the master suite whenever she’s in. Steve assumes she eats somewhere else, because besides using the strange coffee machine in the mornings, he never sees her in the kitchen. Except for that one time he saw her drinking a green sort of sludge from a glass jar and decided to not ask about it.

Clint and Natasha come and go as they please. Apparently, there’s some kind of shooting range in one of the basement levels which Steve has yet to investigate. They come back in the evenings with a variety of different take-out from countries Steve has never heard of before. A spicy rice dish from somewhere called Nigeria, or a stew called ‘curry’ from Bangladesh, or a set of crispy-looking rolls and noodle soup from Vietnam. They say that they want him to try out new things, and it’s all pretty tasty, even though some of the spicier things make him cough.

That leaves him and Thor as the outliers, and outsiders. There’s a strange kind of affinity between them with how ill-at-ease they are. Men out of time, the both of them, Thor maybe even more than him; at least New York is still New York. Rude and loud and smelly. The places are still called the same, Red Hook and the Heights and Vinegar Hill. Steve takes Thor for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and tries to point these places out even though the skyline has changed too much for him to recognize them anymore, and there are so many tourists out with their cameras and their phones.

Eventually, when the tracking for the cube comes up empty, Stark sets everyone up with new, secure computers and the data from the helicarrier gets divided between all of them. They’re still working on the communication device, and every time Thor asks about it, Tony just shakes his head, almost angry.

Steve ends up with a lot of operational reports and write-ups from debriefings. Some of the language and terms are familiar, some are not, and he ends up spending considerable amounts of time on Wikipedia looking up modern military terminology. It’s one way of trying to catch up. There are a few ops that Steve puts to one side. There’s something in the language, in the way the debriefing is coded, that makes him smell a rat.

Stark and Bruce take up all of the files from the R&D departments and anything that was collected from the scepter during testing. Thor gets anything and everything relating to the cube which doesn’t neatly fit into the science camp. He reads it all with consideration and a notepad and pen, jotting down words in a language Steve doesn’t understand.

Clint and Natasha eat bags of nuts and kettle corn and candy while reviewing real estate holdings and financial data respectively. Natasha ends up sitting at the table for a whole night tracking two sets of payments that had been wired through fifteen fictitious accounts before she agrees to go to bed. During that particular hunt, she also finds several odd references to the Ideal Federal Savings Bank, which get filed away for further investigation once everything about the cube has been parsed through.

It’s not a great feeling, the slow realization that there’s something going on at Peggy’s agency which doesn’t seem to be above board. Steve isn’t stupid, he knows that sometimes in order to win a war you have to put morality aside, but there’s something different here. The way the data is coded, hidden and parsed, that makes the pit of his stomach knot. The way Natasha looks at the numbers on her computer makes him think she’s feeling the same thing.


* * *


It’s day six at the Tower when Steve runs into Natasha and Pepper early one morning in the hallway. They’re both wearing what he’s come to know as exercise clothing, with duffle bags on the floor by their feet.

“We’re going spinning,” Natasha says over her shoulder and then turns fully to face him, asking “Would you like to join us?”

“Uh, what’s ‘spinning’?”

“Oh, yes, it’s an exercise class on stationary bikes,” Pepper clarifies from behind her.

It all sounds a bit loony, but so do most things in the future that people supposedly do for fun, and Steve does want to try things. He’s starting to go at least a tiny bit stir crazy in the penthouse. There’s only so much military data even he can absorb in one go.

“Sure, I’ll come.”

Somehow, Pepper manages to find him a pair of shorts and a t-shirt that’s not too tight and they walk the three blocks down to a very exclusive-looking gym. Pepper signs him in as a guest at the reception and he’s handed a towel and a branded water bottle.

He waits while Pepper and Natasha put their bags in the women’s locker room. Everything is shiny and clean, and the gym looks more like an expensive hotel. Steve feels woefully out of place, especially when a group of young women walk past him with a matching set of appreciative smiles. He turns away and looks at the midtown traffic instead, a long line of cars bumper to bumper stretching all the way down Park Avenue.

The spinning studio, as they call it, is a huge rectangular room filled with strange-looking bicycles. They find three free bikes next to each other and Natasha shows him how to set everything up for his height.

“You adjust the resistance with this knob,” she says, pointing to a red handle on the frame of the bike. “It’s probably not going to give you a huge amount even at the highest setting, but just have fun with it.”

Steve isn’t sure if ‘fun’ is really going to be the word for this experience, but he’d promised himself to try things, and this is definitely trying things. Slowly, the room fills with svelte, athletic-looking people. The instructor is an exuberant woman with short hair who keeps shouting “Are you ready?!” into her microphone. Steve most certainly isn’t ready, and he’s surprised to see that they turn off all the lights as the class starts. Pepper smiles at him in the dark, her teeth white and gleaming.

It’s actually surprisingly fun. Like Natasha says, the bike really doesn’t give him enough resistance on the bits where they’re supposed to be climbing a hill, but Steve’s ass is in enough pain from the seat to make up for that oversight. He can see Natasha laughing at him and his relief when the instructor tells them to stand up from the saddle, but doesn’t hear anything above the pounding music.

It’s nice, just doing something physical in a dark room with others. No one is looking at him or judging him, or God forbid, asking for his autograph. There’s no room to think beyond the next set of instructions, and the music helps too. It’s not like any music he’s heard before and most of it is just noise, but at least it keeps his brain quiet for an hour.

Afterwards, Pepper and Natasha buy smoothies from the bar at the reception and take him into an empty studio. They try to teach him a set of convoluted yoga poses while they all finish their drinks. It’s actually a lot of fun, trying to pretzel his body into impossible positions that both Natasha and Pepper make look easy. He finds himself smiling and then laughing as Natasha shoves him over from a handstand.

He feels lighter somehow when they walk back to the Tower.

All of the good cheer disappears, however, as soon as they get back to the penthouse and find Tony lying on the kitchen floor with an ocean of coffee and a shattered cup next to him. They all rush to him, Pepper shouting “Tony!” as she crouches over him, the coffee soaking into her white leggings.

“Tony, Tony,” she repeats, rubbing roughly at his sternum just as Tony starts awake.

“What, who, why am I wet?” he asks stupidly, looking at all of them. “Spangles, why are you wearing shorts?”

Pepper huffs angrily and chides him about excessive caffeine. “The doctors told you to take it easy on the coffee!” She sounds angry, but Steve can read the fear underneath the words.

Maybe Tony reads it too, because he reaches for her and pulls her into an awkward low hug. “It’s alright Pep. It’s alright. I’m alright.”

Steve and Natasha help him stand while Pepper dials the doctor, which is good because Tony loses his footing twice trying to get up on his own. Slowly, they get him on the couch while they wait for the doctor, the constant bickering between Pepper and Tony keeping them company.

“I told you to be careful.”

“I was, Pep, I was, it wasn’t –”

“I told you to sleep and not overdo it, Tony!”

“Pep, honey, I wasn’t, honestly!”

“Well how do you explain this!?”

The back and forth is interrupted by the ding of the lift and Jarvis announcing the arrival of the doctor. Tony gets checked out and then re-checked on Pepper’s demand, but as far as the doc can see, nothing is wrong. Tony even runs diagnostics on the arc reactor and everything seems to be okay. He does stare at the readings for a tad too long, but eventually discards the tablet announcing that everything’s fine.

The doctor doesn’t look too pleased with the assessment. “Mr. Stark, I know everything seems to be working correctly, but please make sure you rest and recuperate.”

“Don’t worry, Dr. Porter, I’ll make sure he does.” There’s a level of threat in Pepper’s voice which five-star generals would envy. Tony seems to slink back further into the couch cushions under her gaze.

They all still need showers, and once Pepper’s plumped up the pillows on the couch and gotten Tony a green, sludgy smoothie from the fridge, which he makes a disgruntled face at, both Steve and Natasha head off to their rooms.

“You can’t just leave me here! I need entertainment! People! Hello!”

Tony’s voice echoes down the hall even as Steve gets into his own room. He thinks he even hears it in the shower, and he definitely hears Tony monologuing while he changes into a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. Tony just keeps hollering until everyone eventually shows up in the living room just to get him to shut up.

In the end, it’s actually not a half-bad evening. Pepper orders a stack of pizzas and appetizers, not letting Tony have any of them, and pulls up a few cases of what Clint proclaims to be “excellent microbrews” from the drinks fridge. The fact that someone can have a separate drinks fridge still blows Steve’s mind.

Jarvis lowers a huge cinema screen from the ceiling and after ten minutes of arguments, a movie called ‘Predator’ is chosen. It’s gory and quite stupid, but everyone, except him and Thor, seems to know all the lines, often shouting them out loud with the characters.

The pizza and beer are excellent and Steve is glad to note that New York pizza hasn’t changed much since his time. Thank God for the Italians. He ends up eating three whole pizzas without noticing, but when he turns to look at the others, he can only see Natasha smiling at him gently. She and Clint are squeezed together into an armchair in the corner. He smiles back at her, suddenly feeling just a tad more at home.