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In the white-washed present, where the layered and peeling past is juxtaposed beside strips of freshly gessoed progress, Steve Rogers can use Google. He's figured how to make calls on his bright-screened smartphone, all clean edges and bold blocks of color. He can even navigate the crooked and haphazard mosaic of modern New York public transit.

He can handle his motorcycle in the piecey jumble of city traffic, decades older than anything else on the road. He's more or less got used to the overwhelming amount of junk, a constant from all angles, hawked ruthlessly by an endless collage of marketing architecture.

He knows better than to believe what they say in television commercials. He's settled into twenty-first century life admirably, all things considered.

Doesn't mean he likes it. Just, he hasn't got much of a choice.

Problem is, after the Initiative Steve's world stretches tiny and tight around him, like a canvas too small for its frame. Listless weeks pass. His restlessness grows.

For something to do with his hands, he picks up a pack of cheap sketchpaper; pencils with a range of lead densities; a rubber eraser. He starts drawing again, and in the too-bright light of his living room, he carefully re-learns the smell of graphite. He makes hesitant plans to teach himself to paint.

He tries to reclaim bits of his past where he can, awkwardly using the internet to stream old movies and try to make sense of modern music. He researches recipes from his childhood. He tries very hard not to fumble through pages and pages of obituaries, tracing the fate of every name he can think of and find. He's successful most days.

Steve still spends a lotta time at his gym, beating the ever-loving hell outta old-world canvas punching bags against a desaturated backdrop: faded paint and discolored wood floors, waxed to a high gloss.

What Steve doesn't do is wait for a phone call, day after day. Or pay any mind to the dull ache in his chest. Or think about what it means to want someone who's made it clear they don't wanna be with you, 'cause they've got a good thing going with someone else.

If he'd known about Pepper, that night with Stark never would've happened. He's got more self-respect than that. He doesn't like hurting people. If he doesn't believe these two things about himself, he's lost.

So Steve sweeps all that junk under the rug and, instead, embraces the fierce satisfaction that comes of a job well done. Makes it his beacon, his inner firelight: chases off the sticky shadows of despair, keeps them from creeping close, cutting off his breath.

So Tony Stark used him. So what—Steve helped save New York City. In all her gilt-and-garbage glory, he saved her.

Now he's just trying to find some breathing room, fit into this bright, brittle world. There's too much space within the soft grays and blues of his apartment, too many sharp edges. It's angular and cold. Alien. He can't figure how to make it a home.

He means to go to church. He means to find one he really likes, to recapture the feeling he got when he was smaller. When he was young and physically powerless.

It would be a place, regular. Sundays. Somewhere to belong for an hour every week. He could start small, could weave a few solid strands together through the frayed and groundless tapestry his life's become. Build from there.

But Steve doesn't go to church, 'cause he never finds what he's looking for.

What he does find—churches run outta seedy storefronts or built like fancy executive buildings. Small churches that move around to whatever litter-strewn stripmall will host 'em, and big, formal churches with the stone floors and high, jewel-toned windows he's used to.

None of them ring true. As if, while he slept, the essence of Catholicism was altered to fit newer generations.

When Steve was a kid, the hard wooden pew had hurt his legs and his back. During the winter, the air'd bled in through doors half-rotted with age, feeble under decades of worn sealant and stain. Had him shivering for hours.

Churches shouldn't be comfortable. Discomfort's a reminder. It says, You're not here to feel better. You're here to do better.

Steve's not looking for absolution, so he's unhappy when he finds it. Seems to be the thing, nowadays: people do wrong by people, go to church, ask forgiveness. They don't change their behavior. Just keep hurting each other and apologizing for it.

Steve's never held with original sin, 'cause a man's mistakes are his own. A god says otherwise, that's not a kinda god Steve'd get on with too well. It's a hell of a bully who punishes you for the trespasses of others.

But, conversely, people are responsible for their own mistakes. The real sin's when you don't learn from them.

Church isn't for wiping your slate clean. Maybe you're punished for the bad you do, and maybe you're rewarded for the good—but they don't cancel each other out. None of it ever goes away.

No, Steve went to church so he could feel, at the end of the day, he'd done all he could. To be reminded when he got it all wrong. To learn to do better, next time around.

Except next time around is now, a now where Steve's trapped in an airless sky, an isolated freefall. Searching and searching for something to come to grips with, to slow his descent. Coming up short every time.

Mondays, he meets with a SHIELD counselor. They won't let him outta the program completely, so he makes do with requesting someone new every couple weeks. He figures they'll eventually run outta people and let him off the hook.

His life's an abstract piece of art, removed of its context, ever-changing based on the angle you inspect it from. Deconstructed, the pieces scattered through time and space.

Doesn't matter how well you mean. Some things you can't put back together.

After Thor's taken Loki home in a rush of ethereal wind, after Tony spirits Bruce off to Stark Tower and never bothers with a damn phone call, after SHIELD splinters apart Natasha and Clint to perform whatever's up next on the liars-and-killers docket—Steve wakes up in the early, muted dark of morning.

In his bereft apartment in Brooklyn, the moon spilling like dusty white chalk over the empty half of his bed, he's got nothing to do, nowhere to go, and too much fight in him to sleep.

The second Monday after helping to avert a global crisis, a young woman who'd reminded him a bit of Bucky—blunt, carelessly affectionate, kinda overwhelmed by Steve in his current circumstance—asked him what he was most uncomfortable with in today's society. Then she'd asked him what he saw as constants in his life, aspects he could still identify with.

He'd thought about the barely-there clothing dames wore these days. The endless reach of skyscrapers. The cacophony of vehicles clogging the streets like a carnival of metal and blaring horns and car exhaust.

Thought about Peggy's bright lipstick. Howard's shameless grin: brilliant and half-cocked and crookedly kind, younger when Steve knew him than his son is now.


The Chitauri.

The deep-sea blue of the tesseract, the shadowy teal blue of backlit ice. Falling asleep in halo of perfect pale arc reactor blue.

Eventually the girl'd said, "I don't think there's anything I can do for you, Captain Rogers." Her smile had flickered out. She'd sounded so sad. "But I'll definitely write you a referral."

That Sunday, Steve finds himself in a spare, grayscale room at SHIELD HQ, windowless under blinding fluorescent ceiling lights, sitting across from a man in a wheelchair. He's older, probably in his late sixties, with a clean-shaved head and jaw. His kind mouth looks like it was drawn on in one broad, pink stroke, and he dimples when he smiles. He looks honest. He looks sharp and clever.

Steve's not sure how someone can be each of these things simultaneously.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Captain Rogers," the man says. His voice is educated and cultured; his shoulders are low and relaxed when he unlaces his fingers to shake Steve's hand.

"Agent Hill told me you came in as a special favor," Steve mentions. At this point, he's not sure what another psychiatrist can do for him. "Appreciate you taking the time to see me."

Their palms slide together, and what follows the contact is immediate and steady. Warmth. It permeates every part of Steve, swallows him whole, leaks outta his thoughts in a slow, languorous rush 'til something shakes loose.

He gets an image in his head, immobile and cold: a collection of sea glass. A stick drawing of icicles on a field of frost. Translucent stones, and sunlight filtering through leagues and leagues of wintry salt ocean.

Steve's never considered it before. How maybe, when he came outta the ice, there were pieces of him that never fully thawed.

He feels the ghost of an echo, then: memories, melting and indistinct. Sweet and lost to him.

He opens his eyes. Hadn't realized they were shut tight.

"Who are you," he asks, the words coming out short and rough. He's got his palms pressed to his face to cover the wetness there.

"My dear boy," the old man says gently, eyes like bright, pure flecks of sky-colored pigment on leathery paper. His hands are once more folded in his lap. "I am truly sorry for your loss."

"Which?" Steve asks, hoarse and wounded.

"The whole of your life, of course," is the kind, rueful reply.

Charles Xavier is a mutant, which isn't as much of a future-present thing as a been-around-awhile-but-only-recently-went-mainstre am thing. He explains what he can do, and Steve lays down on a hard, uncozy couch and lets him get to it.

"If there is anything you wish to keep private," Charles tells him, "simply imagine the knowledge as wrapped up tightly inside of a black box. I will respect your privacy."

Steve asks, not 'cause he's concerned, but outta general interest, "That help protect me from other people like you?"

"Heavens, no," Charles murmurs serenely, patting Steve on the shoulder. "It's like painting a target on a glass skyscraper so I'll know not to peer inside."

"Comforting," Steve exhales, shutting his eyes. "Are all telepaths so considerate?"

"Not by half," Charles replies. There's a smile in his voice, and he touches the inside of Steve's wrist. Rests the pads of his fingers over his pulse. It's oddly comforting.

Later, he tells Fury: "Steven's mind is truly remarkable. Everything is very clearly divided, and there are no gray areas so much as areas weighed carefully in context. It is all quite tidy. He shows no signs of PTSD that I can detect, and his mind reacts instantaneously to any outside stimuli. He learns at a frankly alarming rate." Charles pauses thoughtfully. "It is a shame all elements of that serum were lost; from it, we might have derived treatments for countless mental ailments."

The director shows rare deference to Charles throughout the entire conversation. It makes Steve wary.

"If it isn't stress or trauma or shock," Fury asks bluntly, hands clasped behind his back as he watches Charles' face with a hard eye, "then why is he having trouble adjusting?"

Charles looks at Steve, meets his eyes with warmth and sympathy. "As overwhelming as the circumstances may seem," he says, "the root of the problem is much simpler."

His wheelchair is parked beside the couch where Steve's seated. Bent forward with his elbows on his knees, Steve glances at him curiously. Like this, they're almost of a height.

Charles sighs. "Steven is lonely. He needs regular social contact."

Again, Steve feels something creak and ache in his chest, feels a coldness that bleeds out by degrees.

Charles says, with a firm kinda gentleness that surprises him, "You can't assign him friends, Nick."

After he leaves, Fury stands stiffly at Steve's side as they watch the X-Jet lift off. It seems unnecessarily opulent. Tony doesn't fly all over the city unless he's Iron Man, and Steve thought that was flashy.

He's starting to realize he's moving in the circles of some very powerful people. That maybe Tony's flashiness comes mostly from Tony's personality.

And now he's thinking about Tony again, so he stops.

"Rogers," Fury says, turning away from the landing pad and heading back into SHIELD HQ. The wind sweeps across the flat rooftop, causes his long coat to twist and snap. "I'm assigning you some friends."

Natasha's at his door the next day. She's got on jeans and a light jacket, her hair short and choppy in a tiny ponytail at the base of her neck. She doesn't look like a spy. She looks like someone's girlfriend.

Not that she can't be both, Steve thinks conscientiously. He wonders if he's being sexist.

"If you call me 'ma'am'," she warns before he can say hello, even as she pushes past him into the apartment, "I'll have to murder you with a penknife. I won't have a choice."

"They still got those?" Steve asks, stepping aside.

"I'm sure I could find one lying around," she says with a narrow blade of a smile, "but if not, I've worked with less."

It's not 'til after Steve shuts the door that he realizes he's essentially a bachelor, alone in his living room with a beautiful dame. The air smells just the slightest bit different.

It doesn't have the impact it otherwise might've, in a different time and place. Also, he's seen her take down alien monsters with her thighs. If that's not the clearest definition of boundaries, Steve can't say what is.

"Noted. What can I do for you, Miss Romanov?"

"Natasha," she corrects. "And you're taking me out to lunch."

She chooses a bakery-cafe picked out in pale greens and muddy browns. It's got high windows, frosted on the bottom, with a bar table underneath. The spindly stools have short backs and tall armrests.

They sit together and look out the window. Natasha watches the strangers outside, and maybe she's daydreaming. Maybe she's taking in every small detail, maybe she could hunt down any random dozen pedestrians ten years from now, tell them what they were wearing out on the streets today.

He's glad, suddenly, to be here with her. To know she won't fill the silence with stilted conversation.

He puzzles over French-sounding appetizers. The waiter doesn't even look up from his order pad when Steve stumbles over the words, feeling cramped and bulky. But it's not horrible. With someone else here.

"Pretty soon you'll be just like every other New Yorker," she adds, sipping mineral water. With the sun on her face and shadow just behind her, she's a study in contrasts and contradictions. Color where the light touches her and darkness beyond. A beautiful facade in pale washes over the sharp lines of her hard, base nature.

Steve wonders if she'll let him paint her, someday. When he learns to do it properly.

He smiles. It's not very big, but it doesn't feel forced. "Way I see it, I'm pretty much the original New Yorker nowadays."

"I'm sure Stark would have something to say about that," Natasha purses her lips, eyes dancing. She uses her fork to angle off a piece of her lemon poppyseed cake for Steve. At first he thinks maybe she'll spoon-feed it to him, like his mom used to when he was sick. He's not sure where the impression comes from—he's in perfect physical health, and Natasha's nothing like his mother.

She sets it on the corner of his plate.

"Then again," she continues, "'contrary' is more or less a staple descriptor of his personality. He'll play devil's advocate all night just to prove he can make you doubt your own position. Even if you're right."

Steve eats the bit of cake. It doesn't taste at all like he remembers—it's sugary and bland. The flavor distantly echoes cellophane. He wipes at his mouth with a napkin. "No, I think it's more he'd argue to make sure you knew what you thought you knew."

Natasha orders a latte and Steve thinks, Socrates. Tony is like Socrates. He wonders how he never made the connection before.

Unsettled, Steve can't help but draw parallels. He knows how one of these stories ends. He knows what happens to people who pick other people apart to see how they tick. At worst, Tony makes enemies outta everyone who can't hold together under his scrutiny; at best, he finds people he likes and approves of, and by the end they want nothing to do with him.

"Fury told me to set up regular playdates for you," Natasha says eventually. "But I'm a busy girl. I'd delegate to Clint, but he's on a hit in Argen—," she pauses at the look on Steve's face, and her own hardens almost imperceptibly. "I know how you feel about it, Cap," she tells him, and this is what he likes about Natasha: she's whoever she needs to be on a mission, but when it's just her, she always gives it to you straight. She reminds him a bit of Peggy. Solid, even if she's not a sure thing.

"You guys aren't," Steve starts, and he's got no idea what to say that's not murderers.

"Bad guys? We are," Natasha says, not unkindly. "But less, now." Her full lips flatten into a thin line, but her eyes've softened. "It's hard to be a spy when you're a famous superhero."

Steve drinks his coffee and doesn't reply.

Natasha looks like she's about to say something else, but then her phone starts to vibrate. It's quieter than most of the modern-day noises Steve's learned to tune out. He's got sensitive ears; there's hardly a day goes by he doesn't gotta sit through some irritating sequence of buzzes and hums and jingles. Makes him kinda hate being in public, now and then.

When she answers, her face immediately slips free of all expression. "Is this going to become a habit, sir?" A pause. The barest trace of a smirk. "Seventeen-hundred sharp, got it." She hangs up and gets to her feet.

Steve stands outta habit and watches her gather her things.

"This mission has been officially aborted," she tells him, reaching up to squeeze his shoulder. "But if you ever want to hang out, call me sometime. Thanks for lunch."

Steve offers his hand. She stares at it, then up at him. Rolling her eyes, she gives him a one-armed hug around the waist, too quick for him to flounder or feel awkward. "I should be back Thursday afternoon," she says. Today is Monday.

She leaves after making sure Steve's got her phone number.

He takes his time finishing his coffee. He doesn't finish his cake.

On the way home, he stops at Old World Grocers and asks Tom, the eighty-ish owner and manager, if he's got any traditional cookbooks.

He shows Steve the rack, and Steve takes his time picking through the faded volumes 'til he finds the recipe he's looking for.

He purchases the book and the necessary ingredients. He also tries to buy groceries for the next week. It's not something he's used to, stocking up. Before he joined the army, he never had that kinda money. While he was serving, he never had to cook.

He gets home, does a thorough inventory of his baking utensils. He's able to roughly approximate what he needs.

Then he reads the instruction manual for his oven. Eventually, he preheats it.

As he stirs poppy seeds into batter that smells like lemonade, he thinks: Here's to the twenty-first century.

At noon the next day, after Steve's run about twenty miles and just as he's getting outta the shower, his phone rings. He doesn't recognize the number when he answers. "Hello?"

"Steve." It's Bruce's voice, soft and steady. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, of course not. Can I help you, Doctor Banner?"

There's a slight pause. "I think we can dispense with formalities," he says, amused. "You've fought beside the—other guy. And you've seen me naked," he adds as an afterthought.

Steve coughs out a startled note of laughter. "You got a point there. Bruce."

He can hear the doctor's smile frame his reply: "Are you doing anything later? I was wondering if you'd stop by Stark Manor. I'd like to take a blood sample, if that's okay." He pauses, and Steve waits. "If it isn't, I completely understand."

"This about the serum?" Steve asks, shifting his phone between his ear and his shoulder.

"Right," Bruce sounds hesitant. Steve supposes he would, too, if he were the failed experiment talking to the guy who got lucky.

"Sure," Steve says. "What time?"

"Well, that depends. How long will it take you to get here?"

About a half-hour later, Steve finds himself outside a huge mansion that's got none of the clean, modern lines Tony favors and all of the artless grandeur Howard thrived on.

He rings the bell. No one answers. He rings again, and there's muffled yelling, a distant thump, and then a minute or two of silence.

Eventually the door opens and, for the first time in three weeks, Steve's face-to-face with Tony Stark.

"Steve," Tony says, eyes wide and surprised. His hand's loose against the door frame. He doesn't seem to have the presence of mind to let Steve inside.

Steve kinda wants to skip past whatever awkward conversation they're gonna have. And he kinda wants to shove Tony up against the wall. And he kinda wants to punch him in the face.

He recalls, in hazy detail, his last morning on the helicarrier: sitting on the corner of Tony's bed, still damp from a slow shower in Tony's bathroom. Scribbling a terse, careful note with nervous hands beside a sleeping body. If he'd listened to those steady breaths a little while before leaving—well, Steve's lost a lotta people in a handful of instants. The world may long be over the bright lives of Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandoes, but Steve's grief is fresh. He takes what comfort he can.

"Tony," Steve finally acknowledges. "Is Doctor Banner—?"

"Bruce, please, Steve," Bruce says from somewhere inside, and Tony finally gets outta the way.

Steve does everything he can not to touch him as he passes by, but he feels the ghost contact of fingertips low on his back. When he looks over his shoulder, Tony's shutting the door, hands to himself. Not even looking at Steve.

"I want to be clear," Bruce murmurs, his knuckles twisting together. He guides Steve through the front room by his elbow, almost as an afterthought. "I respect you as a person; I am not objectifying you; you are not a lab rat." He smiles in his restrained, careful way. "That said, I'd like to take some blood samples and run a few comparative analyses."

"That's fine," Steve says. Now he thinks about it, he wonders why this didn't come up sooner.

Bruce excuses himself to finish setting up, and Tony says, "Are you hungry? There's coffee—"

"Coffee's still not food," Steve murmurs without thinking. Tony glances sharply at him, expressions unidentifiable and tight and unhappy warring over his face.

"I remember," Tony says, his words suddenly heavy with everything between them, and Steve crosses his arms. Just for a place to put them. Steadfastly refuses to think about that conversation, the one where he'd realized how bad Tony was at taking care of himself. The one that made Steve want to do it for him. Just to be sure it got done.

Tony watches him for a long moment before ducking his head into the refrigerator. It's much bigger, more angular, than the one at Steve's apartment.

Steve leans against the countertop a safe distance away and thinks about nothing. Including the canted lines of Tony's body, or how the bright yellow kitchen lamps catch the curves of his face. Soften the fine shape of his bones, rather than throwing them into sharp relief.

The color's all wrong, warm and vibrant against Steve's quiet memory of cool arc reactor blue in a dark room.

It's so clear in his mind his mouth goes dry. It's been nearly two weeks, and he still spends every morning coming into his fist, gasping Tony's name. It's that bad, this thing. He needs to shake it. Tony's got someone, Tony's happy, Tony made the mistake of not saying no when Steve threw himself at him. It's no one's fault, it should never've happened, and Steve needs to get over it.

Tony emerges with a plastic tupperware container. He passes it over, a metal fork balanced on top. "Cold pasta," he says, mouth quirking. "Bruce does most of the cooking these days. So, leftovers."

"Right," Steve says around the knot in his chest. The bowtie noodles are dark green and red and yellow, and the dressing is spicy and oily. It's good, when he takes a bite of it. So he takes another, and it's great this time 'cause he realizes he doesn't have to talk.

Tony makes coffee in relative silence. Presently, they're standing and eating and drinking, not looking at each other and not saying a word. There're perfectly serviceable chairs in the otherwise-empty kitchen, but neither of them sit.

It becomes increasingly difficult to ignore their proximity—details like soft, worn jeans and a faded blue t-shirt. Wild hair. A smudge of black on a stubbled chin.

Tony looks like he hasn't slept in days. Without the extra layer of distance afforded by expensive slacks, without button-downs and suit jackets and ties and fancy shoes, without his damn armor, he looks bare. Approachable and human. He looks touchable, and Steve's got his heart in his throat.

"What," Tony asks, knitting his eyebrows together. His sleeves are rolled up. When he reaches over to refill his mug, there's a crease on his elbow from leaning against the counter.

"Nothing," Steve says, looking back down at his food.

Tony exhales through his nose. Then he says, all at once and into his coffee, "I'm sorry I didn't call." He tilts his head up, meets Steve's eyes like it costs him something, like he doesn't have everything he's ever wanted in the world. It's frustrating to no end. "I meant to call, but then I thought I should give you some space, and then I got caught up with the Tower plans and I just," he gestures elaborately, except his shoulders are kinda hunched in, "...didn't."

"It's fine," Steve says, 'cause it's gotta be. Doesn't matter how his chest's gone hot and tight. Doesn't matter how it's awful, that someone can make you want them, make you miss them. They don't even mean to: they don't even need you.

Tony sets his half-empty mug on the counter. "Look, Steve—"

"Sorry about that," Bruce says, wandering back into the kitchen. He's wearing loose cotton pants. Steve hadn't noticed before, but his dark gray t-shirt's got the Black Window sigil picked out in worn red ink. "I had everything ready, but then Tony accidentally took out one of the divider walls. It was kind of a mess."

Tony's at least got the grace to look ashamed. Sorta. "Hazards of sharing a lab."

"You could really hurt somebody," Steve says. It comes out angrier than he means, and a fresh flush of irritation rushes through his body when Tony simply shrugs.

"Bruce is pretty much indestructible," he points out. "My lab, my lab equipment. Are you saying I can't break my own things, Rogers?"

"You need to think about other people," Steve says. "You—"

'It probably wouldn't kill you to get some rest," Bruce mentions lightly, "before updating the armor's touchier protocols."

Something ugly and hard crosses Tony's face, but for whatever reason it dissipates as soon as he meets Bruce's gaze. "It was a relatively small explosion." He gestures benignly. "I'm doing better."

"Right, well," Bruce says with a half-smile before turning to Steve. "Moving right along."

Steve ends up sitting on a medical table in the basement. It's drafty and not at all what he expected, but Stark Tower's still being rebuilt and this is technically just a home. A really big, really expensive home.

He wonders if Howard ever kept a lab here. He wonders a lotta things about Howard, really. Maybe someday he'll be able to ask without the accompanying twist in his chest.

Nearby, Tony is fiddling with—schematics, Steve thinks. For some kinda machine. Blueprints suspended in the air, delicate and ever-shifting, as endlessly incomprehensible as lovely. Breathtaking like flame and spun glass when you've only ever worked with chisel and stone.

Tony looks up at him, and Steve looks away.

Bruce, who's been prepping a needle, takes Steve's arm in his hand. "I want to be clear. I'm not going to try to reverse-engineer the serum." His fingers are splayed, blunt and careful, dark beneath the thin latex of his gloves, over the alcohol swab on Steve's skin. "I'd just like to see if I can determine where I—went wrong. Maybe use your blood to fix mine."

He looks uncomfortable. Steve doesn't understand why.

"I trust you," Steve says soberly. He looks at Bruce's face, finds his own reflected back at him in the doctor's glasses.

Bruce raises his eyes, startled. He nods wordlessly and reaches for the syringe.

"Bruce," Tony says, and he's suddenly hovering close, all hands and gentle earnestness. "Brucey-Bruce. I can field this part if you wanted to warm up the centrifuge."

There's a span of seconds where they have a fleeting, quick conversation with their eyes. Steve almost misses it.

But he didn't miss the slight tremor in Bruce's fingers. And he doesn't miss Bruce nodding gratefully at Tony before turning away.

Tony situates himself between Steve's knees, takes Steve's elbow in hand and leans in close. He smells like laundry detergent and coffee and sweat. There's a whiff of smoke in there, a hint of plaster. There's shampoo. Salt.

"He okay?" Steve asks softly, voice pitched low so Bruce can't hear them across the room. He tries not to think about body heat.

"Make a fist," Tony instructs, tapping the vein. Steve hardly feels the needle.

As the tube steadily fills up, Tony says quietly, "He has a lot of bad memories attached to—well. Blood, experimentation." He pauses, pressing a cotton ball over the puncture site as he withdraws the needle. Then he brushes his thumb over the tiny red mark left behind. It vanishes in moments. "The other guy."

Steve watches Tony's face, takes in the sleepless, half-moon bruises under his eyes, the uneven trim of his goatee, the looseness of his mouth. Thinks about his lips, how they tasted. How they felt stretched tight around Steve's cock.

Tony sets the syringe on a table. When he turns back to Steve, mouth open like he's about to say something else, his breath hitches.

Steve stares him down, defiant, aware that his cheeks are flushed and his heart's racing. Aware that Tony's taking in every detail, eyes catching on Steve's lips and the flash of his throat.

"Steve," he chokes out, and he's reaching his hand forward to touch Steve's face, and Steve's not—he can't turn away. He can't actually stop this. Tony's engaged and Bruce is yards away with his back turned and Steve can't stop this.

But Tony apparently can. He turns sharply, gets his fingers around the vial of blood and walks over to Bruce.

Steve wishes he'd never learned what it was like, falling asleep with him.

"Here you go, gumdrop," Tony says easily. Presses the tube carefully into Bruce's waiting hands on his way to the stairs. "I'm gonna pass out for like. Two hours. Wake me up early in the event of science or dinner."

"Science or dinner," Bruce echoes pleasantly, and Tony leaves without a backward glance.

Steve hops off the table and tries not to stare after him like a lost kid.

"This next part isn't really as exciting as it sounds," Bruce says, motioning toward the centrifuge. Steve moves to stand next to him.

"If it's gotta do with finding a cure for the Hulk," Steve replies, "I'd say it's pretty exciting."

Bruce flashes a sideways smile, small and quick. Steve wonders if, before he moved in with Tony, he was as isolated as Steve is now. If he's still getting used to having other people around.

He's fiercely glad Bruce isn't alone anymore.

Steve's outta his depth with science, so he watches Bruce's face instead of his hands. The wrinkle in his forehead, the focus of his deep-set eyes. Sometimes Bruce explains what he's doing, and sometimes he doesn't.

At one point he's got the sample under a microscope. There's a second sample too, from a glass jar labeled green.

Whatever happens on the glass must be vitally discouraging, 'cause eventually Bruce steps back with his hands in a tight knot at his navel. He's staring blankly at the slides.

"Doctor Banner?" Steve asks quietly. Then he says, "Bruce."

"I'm sorry," Bruce says. "Could I—I'd like to be alone for a minute."

Steve's a man who values privacy as much as anyone else. But he also knows what it's like to send someone away, not 'cause you don't want them—but 'cause you don't know you got them.

Steve touches Bruce's shoulder. "Tell me what happened."

There's a beat of silence, anxious and sad. Then Bruce says, "Okay. Yeah." He exhales slowly and rhythmically. Carefully untangles his tight, desperate hands from each other and lets them fall to his sides. Then drags his eyes to Steve's face.

The bone-deep disappointment that radiates from his small, compact body makes Steve sick in his guts. It's a tremendous relief when his thready voice eases into practical detachment.

Bruce says, "The way my blood cells react to certain potential treatments tells me whether or not those treatments will be successful. Best case—the Hulk cells will succumb to the treatment and all traces of the other guy will be eradicated." He pauses. "Worst case, the Hulk cells infect the treatment cells. That's what usually happens."

"And this time?" Steve asks, pretty sure he knows already. Bruce looks up at him, smiling flatly. It's so many leagues from good humor that Steve wonders how it's even a smile at all. Bruce seems full of these not-smiles.

"What happened this time," Bruce says, angling in a bit, "was nothing. Congratulations, Cap. The serum makes you invulnerable to infection by its angry green cousin."


"But you aren't a cure." Bruce turns away. "I had this funny idea that maybe I was just—unfinished. That all I needed was a, a missing part of the code." Even though he doesn't say it, Steve can hear it clear as day. How he was probably Bruce's last lead.

"Well, back to the drawing board," Bruce says, except he's turned so his back's to Steve. His face is hidden, and his voice is the same as always. But there's something crucial and telling to the angle of his hunched shoulders, the way he's ducking his head. How he's got a hand on the counter pressed flat, like it takes everything he is to keep from curling it into a fist.

"I'm sorry," Steve says, 'cause there's nothing else. He doesn't bother hiding the sympathy in his words. Peggy'd hate it, Tony'd hate it—plenty of people would hate it. But Bruce might feel just that smallest bit better 'cause of it. Might not see it as pity, just fellow feeling.

"It's not your fault," Bruce says. "It's mine."

"Doesn't mean you deserve this," Steve says. Then he adds, "Can't believe Tony wouldn't leave you alone about it." He remembers walking in on them on the helicarrier, Tony poking and prodding at a dangerous situation just to watch it go off. How angry Steve'd been, and how worried.

"Well, he's not the first brilliant, dark-haired scientist to cross my path. Or to want to help me." Bruce starts to tidy up. When he finally turns to face Steve, he looks rumpled but solid. Composed. He touches Steve's arm, and Steve feels a surge of affection that, oddly, kinda reminds him of Natasha. "But he's the first person I met—after—who was more interested in me than the other guy."

Steve says, "I think Tony's like that. With people he loves." He's not sure where it comes from, but it hangs there between them.

Bruce is silent for several moments. "Yeah," he says finally. "He is."

Steve goes home and makes supper. He's got a slice of lemon poppyseed cake for dessert, and it's just as good today as it was yesterday.

Before he falls asleep, he notices the status light flashing on his phone.

He hasn't got any missed calls, but there are two text messages. Both from Tony:

Why didn't you stay for dinner?

Tomorrow you're staying for dinner.

Steve doesn't actually plan on visiting Stark Manor again, but that's where Fury tells him to go when he gets the call, early next morning, to suit up.

Thor's on Asgard. Widow and Hawkeye are outta the picture, probably outta the country.

So the first time Steve faces down the militant, volatile mutant named Magneto, it's with Iron Man and the Hulk at his side.

Specifically, Iron Man's above. Hulk's just behind, scaling a building, bulging muscles coiling and stretching for the jump.

Magneto gestures with his elegant fingers, and the hood of a car peels back and away. Swirls through the air like a bolt of cloth, spins into a point.

It becomes very clear, very quickly, that Tony's at a horrible disadvantage.

Their opponent can twist metal with his brain. He can levitate metal and use it to fly; he can shape it into piercing projectiles and send it hurtling through the air, and Tony needs to get the hell outta here.

"There's a safe distance," Tony insists over the comm. "There has to be, if I'm far enough away I don't think he can—"

That's when the line goes dead in a crush of static. Steve jerks his head up and around, sees the stilted flash of red and gold against a summer sky.

The thing about vibranium is concussive force disturbs it about as well as light disturbs a mirror. The other thing about vibranium is it's not physically heavy.

A third thing, a thing Steve's only learning just now, is that Magneto can't control it or deflect it.

That's how it looks, anyway, when Steve flings it at his head.

Tony's falling to Earth in monochrome, a gleaming tumble of precious stones. Hulk's screaming and launching himself through the air, a disruptive and unnatural streak of green. Magneto's dazed and listing like a half-finished portrait, composed of uncertain and badly-sketched lines. But he'll be righting himself soon.

Steve's unarmed, outta his head with worry. His hands are sweating; there's fear all down his back. He experiences abject terror, thinking about the damage Hulk's gonna do trying to catch an already-mangled Iron Man—

—and that's when, over a crash of thunder and a burst of bright lightning, Thor appears.

Jane Foster cries more than any dame Steve's ever met.

It's three hours later and they're in Tony's kitchen. Bruce is exhausted and pale in a baggy Captain America shirt, gratefully sipping coffee. The skin under his eyes is the stained blue-gray of storm clouds, bruised and translucent. Steve's showered, changed outta his uniform into slacks and a button-down. There's a lukewarm mug in his hands, untouched.

There's blood on the tile floor and Miss Foster's shirt.

Tony's leaning awkwardly against the counter. It's a repeat of yesterday, except this time his arm's in a sling and Steve isn't eating leftovers. Or thinking about Tony's mouth, his hips. His firm backside.

Steve willfully refocuses on the matter at hand.

"It's my f-fault, I didn't know, I," Miss Foster sobs. If Thor were here he could hug her, maybe. Quiet her down, offer some comfort. Instead she gets Steve, who's still kinda shy with dames on his best days, and Bruce, who's not in any shape to help someone else right now. Who's looking pale and weak and sick.

So Miss Foster's stuck with Tony.

"It's not your fault, it's Magneto's fault," he's saying irritably. There's a hot flush in Steve's chest, a rustling of residual worry and relief: that Tony's okay, that Tony's talking and drinking coffee and frowning at his arm. That Tony's not a broken red smear on gray pavement.

"But if I hadn't gotten the portal to work," she sniffs, and Tony rolls his eyes. Since he's such a sympathetic guy.

"Okay, I take it back—go ahead and regret one of this century's greatest scientific achievements because your boyfriend got a little banged up." He's got that ugly look again. He's gonna say something awful this time, Steve's sure of it.

"Tony," he means to say, but Bruce beats him to it. Raises bloodshot eyes.

Tony looks at Bruce, lips pursed. His expression doesn't exactly soften, but some of the malice drains away.

"I'm sure Thor will be fine," Steve says to fill the silence. "Look, your portal got him back to Asgard, right?"

Miss Foster hiccups in response. Steve takes this to mean yes.

"When we had Loki in custody, we were able to observe his healing capabilities. They were beyond even Steve's," Tony offers. It's his version of a compromise, if not a concession. He's really an asshole. Steve's palms twitch with the urge to touch, to search with his fingers 'til he can affirm and reaffirm every part of Tony is safe from harm.

She scrubs at her eyes. Her brown hair is loose and messy around her face. Arbitrarily, Steve thinks about dark-haired scientists and helping people. "You're right," Miss Foster says. "I'm sorry, I just. I'm so worried."

"Not to beat a dead horse, but I've got shrapnel in my heart. It's made out of metal. So I'm pretty happy Thor was here to distract that assclown long enough for Bruce to scare him off." Tony says, jaw tight.

Steve dumps his coffee into the sink and rinses out the mug. Doing so brings him closer to Tony. For damage control. This is his completely logical reasoning. It's got nothing at all to do with the angry set of Tony's shoulders, the angle of his thighs. The swell of his arms in the tight sleeves of his t-shirt.

Fortunately, Fury comes in before any Stark-is-mean-to-girls complications manage to arise. He wipes his hands on his black slacks, then settles them on his hips. He looks weary. "Foster, Agent Hill will direct you to your flight home. Banner, how much blood would you say you lost?"

Miss Foster shuffles over to Hill, who's appeared at Fury's right hand.

"It was nice meeting you, ma'am," Steve says politely, and Miss Foster flashes him a watery smile before Hill leads her away.

Tony says nothing, just leans back with his palms on the edge of the counter and stares at the floor moodily.

"—but if I had to estimate," Bruce is saying, "I don't know, a pint and a half? I feel light-headed, but not like I'm about to die." His mouth quirks faintly, like it's some kinda joke.

Tony must notice, 'cause he goes pale. His face sets again, and he isn't looking at Steve, but he does shift marginally closer. Then he says, "Are we done? Can we be done? I'm definitely done."

Fury's eye twitches over to Tony, his expression unreadable. "Get out of here, Stark."

"Steve, you're coming too. I need to figure out why that prick couldn't brain-control your shield."

"Sir?" Steve asks, glancing at Fury.

"Fine." He turns back to Bruce, clearly finished with the two of them. As Steve follows Tony outta the kitchen, he hears Fury say, "I didn't think the other guy could bleed."

Hears Bruce reply, somber and wondering, "You and me both, Director."

"You okay?" Steve asks. He tries not to think about Thor's armor turning against him, twisting and burrowing into his flesh. The bright fan of Hulk's blood as shards of metal shredded through his obliques. The way it fell like rain as he plucked Tony outta the sky, the way it coated all of them.

Fact of the matter is, the other guy's blood can kill regular people. Steve's safe 'cause of the serum, and Thor's an alien and maybe a god. Tony, though—that was all luck, that his armor wasn't punctured. That it remained sealed, even with one of the shoulder joints twisted up and in on itself.

Steve's trying very hard not think of everything that could've gone wrong, but didn't. You can't get by on luck forever.

"Gimme that," Tony mutters, manhandling Steve's shield outta his hands. He's followed Tony downstairs.

Tony shuts the door behind them. They're in his workshop.

Then he throws Steve's shield on the floor.

"Stark, what—," Steve begins, outraged, but Tony's shoving him up against a wall with his uninjured arm. Kissing him.

His mouth is hot and wet, searching. Perfect. Steve opens to it automatically, and it's like a light bursting behind his eyes. He can't see past it.

"I'm sorry, I didn't. I didn't mean to," Tony mumbles against Steve's lips, his hand sliding up into Steve's hair. It's still wet from his shower. Tony tightens his fingers into a fist, tugs sharply at it.

"Tony," Steve says, the word hardly more than strained breath through his tight throat. The vague anxiety that's been plaguing him for weeks, the tight knot of unhappiness and despair churning black in his guts, it all falls away. Just like this.

"No, I just." Tony's still talking, still kissing him. Scraping his nails over Steve's scalp, dragging them down over Steve's neck and lower. Palming Steve's waist through his shirt, snaking his hand up underneath to splay over Steve's bare back.

Steve tries to push Tony away. He ends up crushing Tony to his chest.

"I didn't mean to do this," Tony gasps, "I just meant to, to yell at you or," he breaks away, but he doesn't go far. Just mouths Steve's jaw, nuzzles just below his ear and breathes in. "Meant to give you time, need your space, I can't, I," and then he shuts up 'cause Steve's kissing him again.

But he manages to stop. It's one of the hardest things he's ever done, pulling away from this—this mess. Tony, flushed and warm in his arms. Tony with bedroom eyes and tangled hair. Tony who doesn't smell like blood anymore, who smells clean and safe, who's getting married to some dame named after a condiment and who kisses Steve like he means it when he doesn't.

"Can I," Tony asks, lips swollen.

Pepper is my girlfriend.

Steve turns away. Gets some space between them.

It won't be an issue, Tony.

Steve clears his throat. "You were gonna look at my shield?"

Tony looks confused at first. Then his eyes sharpen like chips of stone. "Right," he says. Steps carefully away, and except for his flushed cheeks and wet mouth, this might never've happened at all.

It's for the best, even as Steve's world slots back into place, heavy and overbearing. Even as that awful feeling blooms in his gut all over again. That sense of loss and detachment. That sense of unbelonging.

It's for the best. Steve's never hated anything half so much.

When Steve gets home, he goes for a walk. It doesn't help to clear his mind, but a distraction's all he's really looking for right now.

Tony'd explained the shield to him this way: vibranium isn't very good at reacting to things, it's good at neutralizing things. He'd talked about molecules and vibrational distribution. The gist of it seems to be, Magneto's like anyone else on the planet—he's not strong enough to break Steve's shield, just like he's not strong enough to lift Thor's hammer.

It's comforting. It's a constant, and Steve's got few enough of those.

When he climbs the stairs to the front door of his building, it's dark outside. When he goes in, it's dark there, too. Through the gloom, a blue light flashes on his telephone. Steady like a pulse.

He turns on a lamp and checks his messages.

"—asshole, I thought you were staying for dinner, you are a terrible leader and you suck at team-building exercises and fostering good will. This is bad for family morale." Tony's voice is crystal-clear, and he seems to be settling in for a long rant. Steve half-listens as he pokes around his kitchen. It's almost like someone else is home with him, like he isn't alone on a Wednesday evening. Like there's almost more to his life than these blank walls.

"Really, what will the children think if their dad's never home, I can't raise Bruce all by myself and Natasha came in looking like something the NYPD found when they dredged Lake-whatever last year, and I just—"

Steve pauses. Natasha's not meant to be back for another day.

"—staying for science but not for dinner, who does that, it's rude and just, just irresponsible. Call me, Cap." This should be the end of the message, but it's not. There's a soft sound that Steve recognizes as Tony breathing through his nose, impatient and unhappy.

"Take your time if you need to," he says flatly. "But call me, Cap. You've got to call me."

Steve's voicemail rolls over to the standard options, the automated voice enthusiastically and artificially polite. The contrast to Tony's rough tone is jarring.

Steve hesitates. Then he goes over to the machine and deletes the message.

And makes dinner. And sits quietly. And eventually goes to sleep.