Actions

Work Header

Some Assembly Required

Chapter Text

Clint is bored.

Bored, bored, bored, bored, boooooored. Boredboredbored. Seriously, this has got to be the stupidest assignment he’s ever gotten, and he once had to hide out in in aviary for four days straight. There hadn’t even been any real birds in there—oh no, the very pretentious owner just told her guests that the birds were a very shy, very nervous type, so the guests might not spot them between the plants (over half of which were fake). Hell, she even put a badly stuffed budgie in there when she needed to liven things up a little.

He should’ve just stuck to Cap Watch when Fury benched him after his little mishap. The car didn’t even hit him that hard, the concussion went away after like, two days. Okay, so maybe he’s was still a bit nauseous when he first started begging for something to do. Whatever. He could still do his job. He’s worked through much worse.  

Thoroughly off-put by Clint’s tendency to climb the walls when he got restless, a habit especially exacerbated when Nat wasn’t around to keep a lid on it, Fury first assigned him to the newly defrosted Captain America, aka Steve Rogers. To begin with, Clint had been overjoyed; he got to see a living legend find his footing in the modern world; a man, whom even Clint—whose fucked up childhood hadn’t lent itself to much, if any, hero worship—had had a slight competency crush on during his formative years.

To say that it had been a let down wouldn’t be quite accurate. Nor would it be entirely fair to the captain, but damn. If Clint wanted to wallow, he’d go sit in his own shithole apartment and stare at the walls while leaving progressively whinier voicemails for Nat. Seriously, he’s pretty sure he was in danger of getting second-hand depression from following the guy around (that’s totally a thing).   

Rogers rarely went outside. Mostly, he just sat in his cramped dorm room at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base in Manhattan and read through encyclopedias. If he felt particularly daring, he might even look up stuff on Wikipedia (Clint wouldn’t have thought he’d take to technology, but Rogers got around search engines easily enough and seemed pretty comfortable with using a computer. He wasn’t a pro by any means but compared to other folks his (chronological) age, he did pretty okay).

Rogers might even take a trip down to the gym on nights when he couldn’t sleep, or he'll go sit at a little café down near the nearly-finished Stark Tower and Grand Central Station.

Clint had held out for a week, then promptly run figuratively crying to Fury when Rogers, on a long, slow day in which he hadn’t even come out of his room, had suddenly opened the door, looked up and down the hall, gaze passing by Clint without pinning him (he’d been in the vent across the hallway), and left a cup of strong, tar-like coffee on the floor and softly said, “figured you could use this.”

Clint can’t spy on a man that sad, okay. It’s got to be against the Geneva conventions or something, at least that’s what he tried to convince Fury. Also, Rogers offered him coffee; as far as Clint’s concerned, they’re practically friends now. Work friends. Acquaintances. You know.

Fury had stared him down, said ‘that’s sad, I don’t care’ (okay, maybe not those exact words, but the sentiment was there), and reassigned him to preemptively avoid anymore whining. That, or he, too, figured Rogers probably wouldn’t run off and get himself into any kind of mess that’d need an operative like Clint to get him out. Or he’d figured that Clint might try to talk to the man, and they Fury’d end up with two people bothering him.

So, here Clint is: in a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker somewhere slightly south of the Pennsylvania state line, watching over a bunch of rocket scientists (maybe? Kinda. A lot of them were on loan from NASA) while they fiddle about with a blue glow-cube. He knows what it’s called, okay. ‘Tesseract’ is just a stupid name. S.H.I.E.L.D. has had the thing lying about in a dusty cupboard for years but now all of a sudden, they want to try and harness its energy or something. Privately, Clint thinks it’s the higher-ups personal fuck you to Tony Stark for refusing them access to his robot suit.

But fuck, is it boring.

Booooooring. Boring. If you say it quick enough, it starts to sound like ‘boing’. Boringboringboringboingboingboing. Boiiiiing.

Last year, Clint nearly put an arrow through a literal god’s shoulder. No, he’s not kidding. A giant, muscled, god of thunder. No, he doesn’t have a crush, he can just appreciate a fine example of masculinity, Nat, stop judging, you didn’t see his biceps. They put Captain America’s to shame—and Clint can even say that for certain now!

Normally, they wouldn’t even send someone like him to look after the facilities. The scientists have all been thoroughly vetted, there’s more than enough security, and besides, no one fucking knows what they’re tinkering with out here. Ah, the joys of working for an organization of spies. But one of the lead scientists, (who is not even an engineer, he’s an astrophysicist) Dr. Erik Selvig, had been worried about some weird readouts from the machine they’re housing the Tesseract in, and Fury needed Clint out of his (non-existent) hair, so off to Maryland Clint went.

It could’ve been fun; Selvig had been worried about all sorts of things, one of which was the fact that the Tesseract’s readouts hinted at the cube could activate a wormhole in spacetime, a doorway of sorts. He wasn’t basing that theory on his own research, but that of Dr. Jane Foster, whom S.H.I.E.L.D. had, surprisingly, left alone. Possibly because she told them to go fuck themselves (and she has a fucking god on her speed-dial, never mind that said god hasn’t actually been seen on Earth since last year). Sleeping dogs and all that.

If anyone asked him—and they didn’t, but he wrote it in his reports anyway—he’d say that maybe they should just… not mess with the Tesseract until they found a way to block whatever it is that makes it function as a doorway. Back in World War II, the Nazis had thought it was magic (and Clint’s a bit more inclined to believe that now than he was a year ago) and had wanted to use it to invite something or other to Earth. No one listens to him, though. Never mind that doors open from both sides, no one else knows where the cube even is, Clint, everything is under control.   

He should’ve just stayed at his apartment and watched Dog Cops and pigged out on pizza.  Fuuuck, he could’ve been eating so much pizza. They don’t deliver out here. Or, well, they probably do, but he’s not allowed to order pizza to ‘that super-secret lab just by the state line’. Not that he’s ever done anything like that to know, of course (he had had it delivered to an empty house down the street and then walked back).  

Instead, he has a nice, hard perch up in the scaffolding from which he can keep an eye on everything. He’d tried following Selvig around for a few days, but the man had quickly started looking frazzled whenever Clint stood too close to any of the equipment (so he broke a thingie, so what, it hadn’t been that important, the nice science lady told him so).

He’s not even allowed to use the empty energy drink cans for target practice to while away the hours. Something about ‘scaring the squints’. Whatever.

Down on the floor, Selvig and a minion (okay, probably not a minion) are studiously writing on a clipboard. “It’s spiking again,” Selvig notes, his voice barely carrying far enough for Clint’s hearing aids to pick it up. The right one has started to whine a little; he needs to change the batteries, but he keeps forgetting.

Just then, the Tesseract flashes. It’s no cause to worry, it’s done that a few times already. But this time, it sends a shudder through the building, making his perch sway back and forth. Clint slips down quickly, pulling his sidearm and approaching carefully.

A beam of light blind them all, lighting up the whole building. A groaning noise, so deep and rough it nearly wrecks every single electronic device in this place, makes more than a few of the scientists clap their hands over their ears with a pained wince. In the center of the blinding light, a dark hole takes shape, something emerging.

Then it’s over. A tall, slender man kneels before them. His strange clothes—black-and-green leather and metal buckles—smolder softly. His black hair is long and unwashed. He lifts his head slowly, eerie blue eyes flickering about. There’s a long, wicked-looking spear in his hand.

“Sir, please put down the spear,” Clint orders, drawing the stranger’s attention.

In response, the man looks down at the spear, almost wonderingly. As if he hadn’t been quite aware of holding it.

The confusion fades quickly, leaving his face devoid of any expression. Something beastly takes its place instead, lifting the corners of his mouth into a wide, snarling grin.

No time for negotiating; Clint fires.

The man moves just in time, every bullet missing him. The other security guards have no luck either, even when the guy seems to be standing right in front of them. Clint can get a hit; he hasn’t had so many missed shots since before he started training back in the circus.

Suddenly, the smiling stranger appears before him. Up close, the heavy, angry pouches beneath the man’s eyes appear much sicklier, and fear-sweat stains his skin. There’s blood between his teeth, little stains. He grasps Clint’s gun-hand, bends his wrist back sharply, and sets the sharp point of the spear against his chest. In a silky-soft voice, the stranger says: “You have heart.”

 And the world narrows. 

Chapter Text

A cheer like fireworks on the 4th of July goes up from every soldier when the ferry takes them into the Upper Bay, and the Statue of Liberty appears on the horizon. Even those who do not call New York their home are euphoric at the sight, jumping up and down like monkeys at the zoo. It’s like none of them had really quite believed that they’d be going home. Steve shares their sentiments.

From his position up near the bow, he’s been eyeing the horizon with his heart in his throat. There’s something not quite right, something that he can’t seem to put his finger on, a persistent, niggling thought in the back of his mind.  

But now, with home so close to his reach, he can’t quite be bothered to find out why. Instead, he joins in the revelry, shouts as loudly as anyone else, throws his head back and laughs with the sheer, unbelievable joy of being alive. His Commandos join him, howling like wild animals and putting everybody else on the ferry to shame with their noisemaking. Up on the bridge, Peggy rolls her eyes at them, but the smile on her face is plain for all to see.

A warm, familiar chuckle sounds from behind him, and Steve turns eagerly towards it.

This close to home, there’s an angelic light to Bucky Barnes, as if the far-off horizon of skyscrapers and brick buildings create a halo over his head, turning him into a saint. Steve runs to him, buries his face in his shoulder and inhales; he smells like home, something undefined, something evanescent. Their unshaven cheeks scrape pleasantly against each other as Steve raises his head and looks Bucky in the eyes from barely an inch away. Anyone could see them, standing so close, close enough to kiss. It doesn’t matter.

When they make port, the other soldiers abandon ship like it’s on fire. A thousand faces watch from the docks as they’re all united with their families. Steve spots the Barneses; they’re in the middle of the crowd, Becca with her son on her hip.

He moves to disembark, pulling Bucky along by the hand.

But when they reach the gangway, Bucky pulls away. Steve turns, halfway between the ship and the dock. “Buck?”

“You gotta go home, Steve,” he says, smile too gentle. “It’s waiting for you.”

“Aren’t you coming?”

“You know I’m not.”

*

In a ten-by-ten room in a S.H.I.E.L.D. base in Midtown, Manhattan, Steve opens his eyes to a new day. That had been one of the kinder dreams, one of the better sleeps. The alarm clock on the bureau—a fancy, digital thing to Steve’s eyes—ticks lazily into the early hours of morning. It’s 5:02 a.m. on May 7 2012; some sixty-seven years ago, World War II ended, but this is only just starting to become old news to Steve. It’s been two months since he lost Bucky, one since he went down in the Arctic and lost himself.

He’s so tired.

He laboriously rolls to his feet, sore from having slept on the floor next to the bed. He doesn’t like sleeping in it, it makes everything worse—not the dreams, just the falling asleep. He gets more shuteye on the floor with just the sheets for warmth. Mechanically, he goes through his morning routine, showers, shaves, brushes his teeth. As he dresses, he ignores the stack of folders on his desk. They can wait until he’s had breakfast.  

This S.H.I.E.L.D. base consists mostly of private offices and a few conference rooms, so the cafeteria doesn’t open until six. Nonetheless, Steve makes his way downstairs, ignoring the rookie agent following him at a not-so-discreet distance. He almost wishes they’d just have let him keep that first one he’d had, an agent who’d been so sneaky that if it wasn’t for the persistent itch between his shoulder blades, Steve might not have noticed them at all. He’d left out coffee for them, feeling intensely petty and yet also embarrassed that that was the friendliest interaction he’d had with anyone yet. The coffee had been gone when he checked on it.

He just doesn’t have the energy to get truly mad about it. Nor the inclination.

See, it took only two days for Steve to realize that everybody’s fascination with how ‘finely preserved’ he’d been in the ice, no one actually considers him young. Despite that, they also treat him like a toddler—and a highly inattentive one at that. It had become apparent a few days after de-frosting when a technician had shown up to guide him through the basics of using a computer. It’s not that Steve didn’t appreciate the lesson—it’s just that it was delivered as if Steve’d never even heard of the magical wonders of electricity. So, yes, he’d been a bit daunted by the sheer possibilities a little machine like that represented, but it was pretty intuitive to navigate, and it’s not like he had to learn to take one apart and put it back together. He just uses it for databases—slightly limited ones, Google is still a bit too overwhelming, so he mostly uses things such as an online library reference system and Wikipedia (which is also a bit mind-bending, but he manages).

Apart from the insult to his intelligence, Steve had actually been pretty stoked to get started. He’d sworn to make the best of it, and there was so much catching up to do. They’d said he could type any given subject into the search box, and he’d be hit with articles upon articles. So, he’d tried; he’d gone looking for himself. Maybe that’s a bit vain, but honestly, it was the one thing he felt like he might have enough of a handle on to be able to parse relatively easily. A starter course, if you will.

More fool he.

Even the library reference results—normally much easier to navigate than Wikipedia—sent him into a tailspin. He could understand why he might pop up in various entries about the war, but there were also dozens of other subjects that were somehow also relevant to the Steve Rogers story. Those included, but were not limited to, the history of Irish immigration in New York City, socialism in the US, the Great Depression, New Deal politics, and queer culture in the inter-war era.

He’d clicked the last one, stomach roiling; had he been found out? Who had told them?

No one had told anyone anything, it turned out. Oh, there was speculation—and how ill he felt at reading about that, these strangers putting their hands all over these private parts of him, parts he’d barely even had words for himself, and yet they just bandied all sorts of terms about so casually, terms he barely knew what meant except as insults—but mostly, it was just about how tolerant his neighborhood had been back then and how that might have shaped his attitudes towards such things. He didn’t read any of it in depth, too shook up.

And then he’d found out: as of last year, people like him could legally get married in the state of New York. He’d shut down the computer and run, needing to be alone. Shame, anger, and sadness consumed him, desperate and inescapable. There were words for it now; ‘queer’ wasn’t an insult (thought some people still used it as such, but after he calmed down, he thought he might be rather partial to it himself). It wasn’t thought of as a disease. It wasn’t a death sentence. It just was.

If Bucky had lived—as if; get a grip. He hadn’t been like Steve. Even if they’d both come back and lived to be a hundred, they’d never have gotten together. What happened during the war was just… two soldiers seeking comfort, the barest glimpse of home, a distraction. No matter how much it hurt every time Bucky pulled away from a kiss and shrugged it off like it’d merely been practice for Steve. There’s not a single moment with him that Steve will ever regret. But if they’d lived, maybe they’d have seen the announcement of marriage equality, maybe they’d even have celebrated it. Maybe he’d have been able to tell Bucky that he was…bisexual? There’s a lot of terms, it’s a little overwhelming. That one seemed fairly simple, easy in his mouth.

God, he’s so angry about being sad. It’s selfish. So many people can now be happy, why does it feel almost like a taunt just because he never got to wed his love? He shuts it off and doesn’t speak of it, not to anyone, not that he has anyone to speak to. He doesn’t even go looking for more info online.

After that mishap, Steve’d requested a bunch of paper encyclopedias and some history books to get him up to speed. He’d gotten a weird look—didn’t we just show you an online library?—and been handed a stack the next day. Not that it helped; he started with 1945 and kept getting stuck on details about things that happened in his own damn lifetime and yet had never heard of. Thus, he had to go back to the computer database, and the entries just kept pointing him on and on and on, and he’s pretty sure he’s almost getting stupider with everything he finds out he never knew about.

It’s a goddamn fucking mess.

But he’s got nothing but time, so he forces himself through it, reads half a book every day. It’s not like he’s got anything pressing to do—actually, that may not be quite true. S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t outright asked him for anything, but the way they watch him lets him know that they are definitely wanting him for something or other. It’s why he doesn’t put up a fuss about being under guard; the second he starts demanding things, they’ll likely think him adjusted enough for what use they have for him.

He’s not even wanted to get started on the papers that’ll resurrect him, despite being informed that he’ll also get access to his bank account that way—and oh, by the way, they say he’s rich now, due for backpay and a hell of a lot of money from anything that’s ever used his name or face to sell their products. That might be why he doesn’t start, in fact; what is he supposed with do with all money, he’d never had a nickel that didn’t need to be stretched. In all honesty, it makes him break out in a cold sweat. It’s better to ignore it.

As a result, Steve Rogers—and Captain America, for that matter—isn’t really alive just yet. Despite his sudden appearance on Times Square when he woke up, S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to keep his identity hushed up. It hasn’t gotten anymore attention than any other dumbass tourist blocking traffic like an imbecile; it’s not even frontpage news, he checked.

When the clock strikes six, the cafeteria shutter slides up. He’s the first—and only—person in line and gets two trays and a bit of everything. The cafeteria employees have stopped gaping at the sheer amount of food he stuffs himself with, just adds another pudding cup to his tray and lets him go about his day.

There’s so much different food in this century, it still boggles his mind. Just for this one meal—and Steve’s been outside enough to know that it’s neither fancy nor very varied—there’s some fresh fruit, some bread, butter, juice, coffee, bacon, eggs (two kinds!), hash browns, tomatoes, and some kind of pastry that’s mostly flaky crust and air. It tastes pretty good, too, and he hates it a little even as he forces it down.    

As he’s eating, the rookie agent pops up next to him. “Sir, Agent Hill requests your presence in her office at 10 a.m.”

Steve grunts his assent and then goes back to ignoring his suited shadow. Honestly, he’d pitch a fit about being watched all hours of the day—not even in his room does he feel totally alone—but he just isn’t angry enough to get off his ass and do it. Anger, any emotion, is too much work. Just one, and he’s down for the day. Whatever fight he had in him, it’s all but disappeared. Some days, he can barely even summon the strength to go outside, despite it so far being far more interesting and the best way for him to learn about the new world besides. But instead, he lets the various agents treat him like he’s an overgrown baby, like everything is too complicated for him to understand, like he’s just a walking, (barely) talking fossil who has to go lie down when no one has used the word ‘fella’ for a while.

They don’t expect him to have opinions on anything, and actually, he’s fine with that. Otherwise, he might have to start putting his back into it, start actually reacting to the things that happen around here. Like the clothes S.H.I.E.L.D. issued for him; he’d thought nothing much of them first, too busy not hyperventilating after having visited his old apartment in Brooklyn. Someone had taken note of Bucky’s old shirt clutched in his hand, and when Steve moved into his new room, the bureau had already contained everything they thought he’d want, clothes-wise.

That means plaid shirts, plain undershirts, beige and grey pants, leather belts, cotton boxers, and socks. He hadn’t put up a fuss, but in hindsight, maybe he should have. How was he to know that that’s not how most people dressed today? He’s been surrounded by agents in suits or tac-gear, it’s not like he had much to go on. But once he started actually going outside (not that he goes far), the stark difference between himself and ordinary people became clear.

In short, he looks like someone’s grandpa. From the way he wears his button-up shirts—which are ill-fitting, too wide in the chest and waist; maybe they’d thought Bucky’s old shirt had been Steve’s—tucked into his pants, to the cut of said pants—too straight in the legs, too loose for modern fashion. It’s all just another mark against him as an outsider. The only saving grace is his leather jacket, a heavy, worn thing that almost looks like the one he’d had in the war.

It makes him look slightly eccentric rather than just wildly out of touch with the current trends.

On good days, he’ll note the cut and shape of other people’s clothes and daydream about how he’d look in them. He quite likes the look of jeans, though he’s slightly daunted by how tight some people wear them, even men. And, God, no one’s ever heard of modesty—not that that’s a bad thing! He’s just not used to it. The first time he saw an underwear ad on his first trip out and about, he nearly gave himself headrush with how hard he flushed.

Bucky would have loved it.

He’d always wanted to see the future.  

It’d be almost poetic that Steve’s the one to do so, if it wasn’t so fucking awful it makes him choke.

Chapter Text

He’s quite certain that Agent Hill—also known as Deputy Director Maria Hill—doesn’t actually keep an office in this particular building, and that the room they refer to as ‘her’ office is simply the largest of the available offices that they had on hand. Or maybe it is her office, and she just prefers to furnish it with absolutely no personality, whatsoever. In any case, it’s where he meets with Hill once or twice a week.

He’s not quite sure of the purpose of these meetings. However, he’s starting to suspect that whenever he’s called up for an extra check-in, it’s because Hill gets a little bit worried when he doesn’t leave his room for days. Steve’s a little bit worried about that, too, if he’s being honest. He’s not supposed to be fatigued all the time, is he?  

He’s already had a meeting with her this week, so this is definitely another one of those sessions where she’ll frown at him for a few minutes and then send him off quickly because neither of them is quite sure how to talk to one another on a human level. They both much prefer the simplicity of Hill asking him whether he’s settling in this century, Steve lying and saying yes, and then they go about their days, fully aware that he’s lying through his teeth.  

Thus, after breakfast, Steve trudges upstairs despite knowing he’ll be too early, and Hill probably won’t let him in just because he hangs around out in front of her office looking like a sad puppy. It didn’t work the last time, at least, and the expression had only been a little bit faked then.

He plants himself in one of the uncomfortable chairs outside her door and waits, back straight and hands folded. Behind the closed door, raised voices bounce back and forth, Hill’s and another; their faces are hidden by the opaque glass that separates the waiting area from the office itself.

The room is soundproofed, so he can’t quite hear what’s being said, but when the door flies open to reveal Hill, looking stone-facedly done with absolutely everything and everyone and then some, Steve just catches the visitor’s final words: “—and stop sending Agent to my apartment, Pepper’s starting to think of him as a friendly face, but we will not be taking in strays anytime soon—”

As he’s talking, the visitor appears in the doorway, half-turned to keep eye-contact with Hill as she shows him out. He’s wearing a handsome suit, obviously tailored to perfection, and he’s got dark hair and features so familiar the sight of him hits Steve like a fist to the face.

Howard?” he blurts out unthinkingly, despite very well knowing that Howard would be much too old to look like that (though if anyone’d invent eternal youth, it’d probably be him), and also, he’s dead.

The stranger freezes, turning slowly. Upon catching sight of Steve, something like horror settles over his expression. It freezes into nothing less than absolutely disdain, and then blankness as he pulls himself together. From the front, it’s clear to see that it’s not Howard at all, despite many, many, similarities. This must be the son Fury mentioned, the fella who’d sold off Steve’s old apartment to the museum.

Howard’s son is a handsome man with his father’s looks and a doe-eyed softness that he must have inherited from his mother. His large, brown eyes are feathered with dark lashes, and the careful styling of his hair and over-sculpted beard speaks plainly of a man very much concerned with his image.    

“Did you finally fish him out of the sea, or did you just grow him in a petri dish?” Howard’s son asks Hill, sounding almost indignant.

Hill ignores him, looking at Steve instead. “Captain Rogers, step inside, I’ll be with you soon. Mr. Stark was just leaving.”

Stark takes no offense at being so rudely dismissed, too busy still staring at Steve. It’s uncomfortable, but less so than Howard’s gaze had been back in the war. This Stark wants nothing to do with Steve, but he does appear to be trying to murder him with his eyes alone.

Rather than protesting being booted from the premises, Stark rolls his shoulders, fixes his immaculate suit, and swans out, though not without a final parting. “Hill. Senior citizen. Let’s never meet again, bye-bye, don’t call me.”

Despite Hill’s assurance, it takes her over an hour to get back to Steve. It doesn’t bother him; he actually appreciates the time to pull himself together. Seeing Howard’s son, seeing a Stark so much like the one Steve had known, has him more shook than he’d care to admit. Especially because of the quick and unfounded disgust he’d regarded Steve with, despite them never having met. What could Steve possibly have done to make a perfect stranger hate him so quickly (apart from calling him by his father’s name, but that was an honest mistake)? Normally, he’d have to work at making people dislike him—not hard or anything, in the 1930s a few minutes had usually been enough for people to decide that he needed to be taken down a peg or two, usually by way of their fists.

Their opinions hadn’t mattered then, and Stark’s opinion won’t matter now. Anyone that quick to dislike Steve isn’t worth his time, and it’s not like Steve has to see the man ever again.  

Finally, Hill arrives, and they take their places on either side of the desk.

There’s an air of control about her that reminds Steve of Peggy, and sometimes looking at her gives him whiplash. It’s probably why he tries to cut these appointments as short as possible. She’s a rather a lovely woman, a bit severe-looking, always dressed in either a tactical suit or a soldier’s casual uniform—meaning an all-black ensemble of a t-shirt, cargo pants, and boots that look like they can kick the shit out of a small mountain. Her long, smooth, brown hair is pulled back in a business-like ponytail, and her light eyes have a penetrating quality to them—another thing she shares with Peggy.

Not wasting any time, she pulls out a heavy binder and slides it towards him. “A modern-day starter course has been put together for you, supposedly aimed specifically towards your interests.”

Steve eyes it warily, not taking it. “I’m doing fine with the encyclopedias.”

“Yes, I mentioned that. The agent in question, however, seemed to think that would make it easier. I’m told there’s even a list of places it’d be pertinent for you to visit.”

“Who put this together?”

“Agent Phil Coulson. He’s a big fan,” she replies, then changes the subject. “Will you be taking any excursions today?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. Might go to the café for a while.”

Going by how intently she peers at him, she’s not particularly pleased by that answer, but she also doesn’t comment, for which he is grateful. Secretly, Steve thinks she might pity him and the ramshackle routine he’s tried to build.

He leaves the office with little fanfare, heavy binder tucked under his arm.

*

It’s with a heavy sigh that he replaces the folders on his desk with the binder, deciding to go through with his intention to actually look through them. It ends up being a slight disappointment, but he doesn’t know what he expected; everything he’d missed, he supposes.

The lives of the Howling Commandos post-war are laid out before him in the most clinical of ways. It feels almost wrong to read about them like this, like he’s prying; he has to tell himself that he’d been their friend and surely, they’d have wanted him to know all these things if he’d come home with them. They aren’t very in-depth, it’s really just the bare bones of five extraordinary lives, which is why the feeling of being let down persists.  

Gabe Jones had gone on to be a political activist, fighting for de-segregation and equality for black people in America, particularly in the south, his home; there’s a note about a grandson, an Antoine Triplett, though it’s all redacted.

Jim Morita had moved to New York, leaving his beloved California behind to start a brewery, of all things; his grandson (the spitting image of Jim) still lived and worked in New York as a schoolmaster.

Dum Dum had remained in the service all his life, leading the Howling Commandoes both old and new; Steve’s heart jumps at seeing that he’d wed Irina Dugan shortly after returning home. They’d had what seemed like a million grandkids and great-grandkids.

Jacques Dernier had gone the way of academia, teaching courses on chemistry and engineering; he’d remained close with everyone despite the ocean between them.

And Monty Falsworth had joined British military intelligence as Special Agent Union Jack, and God, Steve actually finds it in him to huff a rusty laugh at that name. As a result, Monty’s file is even more redacted than all the rest, only allowing for a note about how his son, Brian, had followed in his footsteps later, and that they’d both been attached to MI-13. Steve didn’t even know that were that many departments.

They Howlies are all dead now, passed before Steve could wake.

But Peggy…

Peggy had lived a full life. She’d founded S.H.I.E.L.D. with Howard Stark and made the world a better place for it, staunchly refusing to accept the doors shut in her face for being a woman. She’d married twice, never changing her name. First, it was to a fella named Daniel Sousa (the name rings a bell in Steve’s mind, brings a dark-haired fella with a serious face to the forefront of his memories) and had kids, and then, some six years after her husband had died from cancer, she’d moved in with—huh, that’s a strange name for a man, wait.

Oh.

Peggy and Angela Martenelli had married in 2011 when such a thing became legal in New York. Steve sits back, heart a little bruised; not because he’d wanted her to wait for him, that would have been selfish and cruel, but because… well. He remembers how he hurt her that night in London, how he flung his secrets at her to make her lash out at him. And all along, maybe she’d known what he felt like, had known how it felt to keep part of yourself hidden from the world as if it were a sin.

Maybe, had Steve not been carried away by his insecurities, they might have learned that about each other in time, in a manner much kinder than this one. Maybe, if he hadn’t pinned his desperate hopes on her, he wouldn’t have been so blind to actually knowing her rather than simply trying to fall in love. God, despite the respect he’d had for her, he really could’ve been a better friend.

Feeling drained and strangely empty, Steve puts the files back in their folders, stacks them neatly, and goes to nap on the floor. Just fifteen minutes, just enough to sleep without dreaming, then he’ll go outside. He’s so tired.

He lies and he waits and he can’t sleep, or at least it seems that way. When the prickle of awareness starts, he knows that he has to be asleep, it’s the only logical conclusion, but that doesn’t help. He knows it’s a dream, but it doesn’t make it less terrifying.

He can’t move. His throat feels swollen; he won’t be able to make a sound. Something’s watching him from the edge of the bed. He doesn’t allow himself to look at it, knows it’ll be worse of he does. Everything in him is focused on moving just one body part, just one little start and it’ll be okay, he’ll wake up.

The thing slips from the bed, lands at his feet. It doesn’t touch him, but he can feel it crawl up his body anyhow, a slow, steady prowl that is as much designed to whip him into a panic as it is to simulate a predator. He knows it’s just his mind playing tricks, has learned from countless nightmares, but it never makes it any easier. He even knows the face it wears, knows the empty eye sockets and the missing mouth, the ragged hair and cold skin.

He’s still trying to make a sound, any sound, a whimper would be fine at this point, when it comes to a stop above his face, so close, too close, please, no. He closes his eyes, refuses to acknowledge it. Scared to.

It doesn’t like him not paying attention, doesn’t like him trying to escape.

It places a skeletal hand on his chest and digs in, nails talon-sharp, and it hurts, hurts like drowning, like blood fills his lungs—his eyes fly open and the monstrosity stares back, wearing his ruined face.

When he finally wakes up for real, he doesn’t go back to sleep, too aware of every corner of the room, every nook he can’t keep an eye on, every cranny that might house the monster. It doesn’t help knowing that it’s not real.

Sometimes, he’s not even really sure that it isn’t.

Chapter Text

Steve always has to work himself up to going outside. Despite the relief it brings, the second he decides to go, every nerve in his body stands on end, and sometimes it takes an hour just to convince himself that it won’t be that bad. People will stare at him, sure, but New Yorkers are generally pretty used to all things strange, so him in his frumpy khakis and ugly shirt won’t hold their attention for long, thank God. The whole thing is made worse by the agent following a few yards behind him; it makes him feel like a dog being taken for a walk.

The café he always comes to lies in the shadow of Grand Central Station, and from his usual seat he has a pretty good view of the skyscrapers towering all around. When he first came here, the waitress, a young woman named Beth, asked him if he came to see Iron Man fly by. Steve hadn’t known who that was—he does now, knows that Howard’s son made a goddamn robot suit and blew some terrorists to kingdom come. But no, he doesn’t come here to see Iron Man fly by.

She got used to his nervous habits and spaced-out stare quickly, and now he actually somewhat enjoys sitting there and drawing in a brand-new sketchbook that had been left for him in one of the drawers in his room. It’s pretty good quality paper; a bit too smooth for charcoal, but just fine for pencils sketches.

He has a routine, and he sticks to it. He orders a coffee (black) and a muffin (today it’s blueberry), pays for it and tries not to lose his shit at the amount of money he needs to fork over. Then he sits and waits for his body to calm down. The first few times he came here, he couldn’t even stay for ten minutes; everything was too loud, happening to much, never standing still. Now, he lets his senses filter everything slowly, focusing on one at a time.

The white noise of Manhattan registers first; the people coming and going, the shriek of that giant machine they use for espressos and all sorts of fancy coffees that Steve desperately wants to try but hasn’t had the guts to order yet for fear that he’ll mess it up, the hum of conversation in all sorts of languages, the rumble of the subway below them. Then, smell; his meal, car exhaust, perfume, trash. Sight; the cut of people’s clothes, the way they wear their hair, the colors of the ads on the busses and signs and everywhere else, inescapable. Touch, even; the slightly sticky table, the scratchy tag at the back of his shirt collar, the shape of the chair beneath him.

He learns a great deal from these visits. Like that music is so varied that he doubts he’ll every know even a fraction of it. That modern advertisement is at once supremely interesting and absolutely uninspired in equal turns. That he likes the brazenness of the girls wearing really short skirts, the way their expressions scream ‘do not fuck with me’.

He likes to imagine that one day, it won’t feel like a betrayal to want to join them all, to live a lifetime free of the guilt of living when Bucky didn’t. Hell, several lifetimes; one of the first things the doctors told him after far too many check-ups was that he was probably going to live to be a couple hundred years old, at least. That’s what Isaiah Bradley will, and his serum wasn’t quite as refined as Steve’s.

Steve’d been shocked to learn that the man—who would’ve been Captain America had his skin color not been a problem for the investors—was still alive and well. He hadn’t joined S.H.I.E.L.D., had taken much the same route as Gabe Jones, and then disappeared as well as a man with no government back-up could. He, too, had built a life, had a family he loved. Physiologically, he appeared to be in his fifties.

The thought of living that long is not one Steve likes to dwell on.

*

When Steve gets back, the events of the morning has settled enough in his mind that he’s started getting a little curious. He hadn’t thought to ask for Howard’s file, hadn’t really thought much about him at all. In fact, he was one of the few people Steve was guiltily relieved he didn’t have to face in this century. Stark wouldn’t have been stopped by the serum’s apparent intractability which had sent all the other scientists into a delighted stupor when it refused to give up its secrets, he’d have pushed and prodded and never given up. It would’ve been a mess.

On a hunch, he opens the binder from Agent Coulson, curious and a little doubtful that it’ll truly be so tailored to his interests. However, he catches on the first page, a list of monuments and historical sites dedicated to Captain America.

And that’s how Steve Rogers is convinced to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. twice in one day.

Much to his rookie agent’s horror, he emerges from his room in a boxy, black suit—in the 30s and 40s he’d have thought it the height of luxury, but now he just knows that the legs are too wide and straight to be considered well-fitting. It’s not a particularly handsome suit, but for what he’s about to do, it’ll do just fine.

To further aggravate his keeper, Steve marches down into the subway. The bustle and hectic pace are almost enough to make him turn right back around, but the thing about Steve is that once he’s set his mind to something, it’ll take death to change it—and obviously, even that didn’t work to well given that he’s currently alive and all.

The subway was there when he was young, too, of course, but maybe being gone from New York has layered the memory with a rosey tint, so as to remember public transports as less… frantic.

Despite the nerves making him curl in on himself to make his body seem smaller, to take up about as much space as he had back when taking the subway was second nature, he gets on the train. It’s not a great experience.

First of all, he has to find the right train, and honestly, he’s half sure at this point that someone rearranged his city just to fuck with him. He doesn’t have any issues distinguishing between uptown and downtown (mostly because the map included in the binder had made it easy to plot out his course), but hell, how was he to know he’d end up in Harlem if he wasn’t careful and ended up on an express train?

When he’s finally on the train, leaning against the compartment wall as far away from everybody else as he can be, he settles in for the ride, telling himself that he’s doing the right thing, that he’s trying his best, that this is an important step. And then, the train starts to move.

The air smells like snow and gunpowder. The wind howls.

The handlebars dent under his grip. A few people eye him verily, and thankfully, the rookie agent watching over him quickly catches on and proves to be at least a half-decent improviser. “Back up a bit, he’s a vet,” he informs the others. “It’s okay, nothing’s gonna happen, just give him some space to breathe.” It’s probably the only thing that keeps Steve present in his body until he can finally leave the train, that jarring categorization of him as a ‘vet’. He fought a war, survived it, came back. It’s in the past. It was yesterday, several yesterdays.

So why does it feel like the war followed him home?

He nearly runs from the station, emerging onto E 77th St and heading west, urgently leaving the smell of cold and violence behind him. The gates to Central Park loom ahead; he stutters to a stop just before passing through them, then forces himself to keep going. The list had said it’d be just…

And there it is.

The memorial for the Howling Commandos and their captain isn’t too far from Cedar Hill, lies a little south of it. The plinth is almost as tall as Steve, allowing the statues a perfect line of sight for anyone who might approach them, and he walks towards it like a man late to a funeral. Which, in a sense, he is.  

The Howlies are all done up in beautifully veined, white marble, their features carefully wrought. The little wings on their shoulders, Steve’s personal insignia, are inlaid in bronze; the metal’s already greener than the original dark shine would’ve been. They stand united, fearless and tall, Captain America front and center, head held high.

At his left hand stands Bucky Barnes.

His knees want to buckle, but he locks his stance and keeps looking up at Bucky’s face. The artist even made him have a little smirk in one corner of his mouth, allowed a hint of dimple. Despite it, he looks cold and untouched by the world in the same way as the statues of angels in church do. They all do, Steve’s likeness most of all.

Tearing his eyes from Bucky, he peers at each solemn face, each man he lost with his own reckless need to dare God just one last time. In the deep recesses of his mind, a small voice begs for forgiveness for letting them die, for not being fast enough, strong enough, for leaving them behind, but Steve stands silently in his plain, funereal suit and dry eyes.

When he gets back to S.H.I.E.L.D.—he doesn’t take the train, just legs it—he doesn’t emerge from his room for a few days, not even to eat.

*

The cafeteria area of S.H.I.E.L.D. is located near the front of the building, allowing Steve a pretty good view of those coming and going. After days of not eating, his stomach finally rebelled and led him here, and it’s still not full despite the dozens of sandwiches he’s already consumed. The pile still next to him has his ever-present watcher looking a little queasy.

He’s mechanically working his way through a meatball sub with melted cheese when thunder shakes the building. Steve looks up but doesn’t otherwise think on it. The weather in New York is notoriously fickle, and though it’d been blue skies when he finally left his room, a sudden thunderstorm wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary.

And then, the single-most beautiful man Steve’s seen this century comes marching in through the sliding doors—which seem to give him a little trouble at first, not opening quickly enough. He’s an artist’s wet dream, so tall that even Steve’ll have to tilt his head back to look him in the face, broad as hell, and with a warrior’s grace present in his every movement.

In fact, he’s so gorgeous it takes Steve nearly a minute to notice how out-of-place he really is. He has long, golden hair, half of it kept out of his face by intricate braids, the rest tumbling down his broad back like a waterfall. His features are strong and pronounced, exacerbated by his dark, arched brows and his dense, dark-gold beard. His eyes are blue like the summer sky.

All that could be shrugged off as simply alternative fashion, but his clothes are… maybe not even really clothes, but armor. Not modern armor—not even by Steve’s reckoning. He’s sporting what appears to be a sleeveless breastplate-slash-tunic, heavy riding boots, and, of all things, a long, red cape. He’s holding—is that a hammer? It is, it’s a giant, square hammer with strange letters etched into the sides and edges.

He looks like a Viking who became some kind of futuristic star-traveler, like the heroes in those science fiction novels that Bucky’d always loved.

Given that this S.H.I.E.L.D. office doesn’t see much traffic (Steve suspects that it might even see less than it should simply because he’s being kept there), the only person currently present and not too busy is Steve himself. The stunning stranger spots him immediately and strides determinedly forward. Jesus Christ, is Steve hallucinating this guy?

He nods respectfully at Steve. “I am Thor, son of Odin, prince and emissary of Asgard, and friend to Midgard. I come in peace and under the protection of the All-father of the Nine Realms,” he rattles off, obviously having rehearsed this. “I seek the Son of Coul. I have urgent business, could you point me in the right direction?”

“Um,” Steve stutters very intelligently, mouth still half-full of bread and tomato sauce. He’s pretty sure there’s melted cheese on his teeth, and he’s talking to a goddamned prince. Thor graciously waits for his brain to start working again. “I’m, uh, I’m new here, I don’t know who—do you mean ‘Coulson’? I-I don’t think he’s here.”

Thor frowns. From an unseen pocket, he pulls out a small card. He sounds a little unsure when he says, “Is this not the field offices on 4th Avenue?”

“No, no, it is, I just—I’m probably not the right guy to ask, I’m not… I don’t work here, I’m just… staying here.” At Thor’s crestfallen face, Steve hurries to add, “But I can take you to someone in charge, let me just put this—alright, let’s go.”

Everyone they pass stares at Thor, but not the way they first stared at Steve when he woke up. Rather than that fascinated and pitying gleam in their eyes, there’s nothing but awe and excitement now. It doesn’t help that Thor immediately steps aside for anyone going in their opposite direction, nodding politely in a very courtly manner and treating each person like it’s no skin off his back to take the time to acknowledge them, despite obviously being in a hurry. It makes more than a few of them absolutely swoon.

Even Steve’s agent shadow stumbles along, cow-eyed with admiration.

Curiosity burns through Steve, makes him bolder. It’s probably none of his business—strike that: it’s definitely not—so he tries to be casual. He’s the master of casual, he can do this. “So, what did you want to talk to Coulson about?”

“Last time I was here, there was… a skirmish. The Son—Coulson was the one to respond to it, and he gave me his card and told me to keep him informed if I or any of my people were to arrive back here again. A year or so ago, I…” Thor inhales sharply, eyes flashing. Steve would love nothing more than to beg him to sit for a portrait (so what that he hasn’t been able to draw a single person since waking up). “I lost my brother.”

“I am so sorry,” Steve offers. Thor waves it away, but he looks grateful, nonetheless.

“This morning, my mother—I don’t think the skill is common here, and I don’t possess it myself, so I’ll put it simply—she saw Loki reappear here, on Midgard. Alive. It is of utmost importance that I be allowed to retrieve him without interference from your peacekeepers.” The hand around his hammer tightens briefly, Steve’s eyes flickering down. “Were it up to me, I’d already be looking for him, but my father demanded I act the emissary first, and I’ve already crossed him far too often recently to risk his wrath.”

“Why wouldn’t he want you to just go get your brother?”

Thor winces. “Well… he did try to kill our father. Again. But, like, seriously this time.”

Chapter Text

As luck would have it, Hill is not alone in her office. Director Nick Fury looks up at them in slight annoyance at being interrupted mid-sentence—Thor didn’t really care to wait outside—said emotion only deepening when he sees just who comes barging in.

Steve is summarily dismissed, but he doesn’t go far. The door doesn’t slam all the way shut, and it’s not his fault if he overhears when they can’t keep their voices down. Besides, Thor’s ease with admitting to his brother’s casual tendency to cause injury in some form or other has him more than a little intrigued. What kind of society can he be from that allows bodily harm to be shrugged off as if it was no more than a common insult? Even in Brooklyn, if anyone tried to hurt Steve, he sure didn’t go about his day without a fight.

For that matter, where even is Asgard? He’s never heard of that place.

The conversation between Fury and Thor is not going well. The longer they argue, the more formal Thor’s speech gets, and the cadence of his accent is one Steve can’t pin down. When he’d first spoken, it had been vaguely British, though nothing like Monty’s or Peggy’s, not even when the former had been drinking. It was far too rough for that, rounded vowels and dropped consonants. Now, he’s almost Shakespearean, over-the-top in a way that has got to be feigned.

Things really fly off the handle when Thor reveals that Loki’s supposed location had been ‘in a strange observatory filled with cold, blue light’, a description that makes something ugly twist in Steve’s gut, even as he shrugs it off. It’s not relevant; the last thing he saw that had that glow was lost to the ocean.

But the mention of it catches Fury’s attention. At first, he is openly disparaging, claiming that such a thing is impossible but not explaining why. Then, as Thor persists, Fury clams right up, refusing to tell him anything, until finally, he orders Thor to stand down and let S.H.I.E.L.D. handle it. If there’s an alien on Earth (Steve’s mind blanks a bit, what the fuck did he just say?), it’s well within their jurisdiction to take care of it as they see fit. Thor tartly informs him that despite Asgard mostly having abandoned it, Midgard is still part of the Nine Realms and as such, he technically doesn’t have to do a damn thing that Fury tells him to because, oh yeah, he’s a sodding prince, and he’ll do what he wants, just you try and stop him. A peal of thunder dramatically punctuates his impassioned speech.

Thor ends up storming from the office, pausing only to look at Steve and in a much calmer manner say, “I did not get your name, and I would thank you properly for your help.”

“Captain Steve Rogers, sir,” Steve says, unconsciously shifting into parade rest.

Thor claps a heavy hand on his shoulder, almost sending him staggering into the wall. “Thank you, Captain. I hope we meet again.” And then flounces off with a last, angry look back and a flip of his golden hair and red cape.

Steve tunes back into the muttered conversation between Hill and Fury, only just catching, “—get in touch with Selvig, go down there if you have to, and take Coulson with you. Barton reported in just an hour ago, didn’t say anything about any strange appearances, but he might have missed something, fucking shouldn’t have let him go back to work with a concussion.” As Hill leaves, Fury spots Steve lingering in the hall. “You’re still here?”

Now, Steve hasn’t seen much of Fury since that first day awake in the new century, but that doesn’t mean that Steve hasn’t already formed an opinion of the man. Despite his calm and easy way of offering Steve a place to stay, Steve can’t shake the notion that he can’t trust him, not completely. It’s not in his nature to accept anything without expecting to give something in return; everything sure had its price back in his youth. He doubts the world has changed so much as for that to be the new norm, especially between strangers.

He cocks his head. “That place with the cold light—you know where it is.”

“I know that unless you’re an agent in our employ, that’s none of your business, Captain Rogers.” Fury peers at him, his one eye managing to convey a certain sense of omniscience. “Agent Jackson reported that you had a panic attack on the train, you wanna elaborate on that?”

“No, sir, it was just a brief spell. I’m fine now.” He’d had much worse in the war; a little shaking on the train was nothing. Besides, he hadn’t panicked, so it can’t have been a panic attack, so there. He was just overwhelmed.

“You given any more thought to that offer I made you?”

There is little Steve has thought less on than the offer to see a therapist. Everything in him balks at the idea, from the notion that he has to talk to anyone, especially someone who might reveal them to Fury or Hill under the guise of ‘reporting’, to the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t trust him to handle himself alone. It stings his pride, to say the least; accepting help when he was low always did, even when it was Bucky or his Ma. He can get by on his own. But you don’t have to, a suspiciously familiar voice whispers in his mind.

“There’s no need, sir,” he says, all polite, though his tone rather finely conveys I would rather go lie down in rush hour traffic. Before Fury can make another unsolicited observation, Steve turns on his heels and leaves.

He’s got a very busy schedule, hiding away in his room and all that.

*

Only a day and a half later, Fury comes to Steve in the gym in the basement, singing quite a different tune.

Steve’s had a bad night—what else is new—and woken up angry at the world and everything in it. When he gets like this, the only place he can really stand to be is in the gym. It’s the only place where he can let his fists do the talking and not damage anything too badly. If he had a choice, he’d rather he was back in Brooklyn in Bucky’s old boxing gym, but given the way the train affected him yesterday and how hard going outside is in general, he’s just lucky he doesn’t have to go far.

He’s in a t-shirt and some sweatpants, hands taped up, almost nose to nose with his personal punching bag, a heavy, reinforced S.H.I.E.L.D. issued monstrosity that weighs in at around a hundred and fifty pounds. That’s one and a half times as much as he had weighed before the serum—and that’s when he’d been healthy for a while and being real generous with an estimate.

His mind is in an uproar, firing memories at him faster and faster. Bombs and bullet, dancing in a back alley to an American ballad, a little girl with a knife, a quiet tent and heavy panting, a hundred men dead at his hands, a kiss like winter and home, Bucky falling, the Commandos grieving, Peggy’s voice the last kind thing he hears. It just won’t quiet down, let him sink into nothingness.

He growls like an animal in a snare, a pitiful, ferocious thing.

With the next punch, the bag is ripped from its hook, thudding heavily against the wall some ten yards away and onto the floor. The metal chain has a broken link, and the bag leaks sand with a soft hiss. Fuck, he can’t stand stopping now, an ordinary bag will have to do.  

He notices Fury come in but doesn’t turn. He’s not in the mood.

“Trouble sleeping?” Fury asks like they don’t both know the answer.

Nevertheless, Steve’s feeling tetchy enough to be snappy. “I slept for seventy years, sir. I think I’ll survive a few nights without it.”  

Fury eyes him shrewdly. “Sleep often troubles those who come back home, soldier. But maybe you’ve not quite returned yet.”

“I went under, the world was at war; I wake up, you tell me it’s done, it’s over, we won.” He starts unravelling the tape around his hands; walking away from this conversation will do him better than breaking another bag, especially if Fury won’t quit it with the staring. “But it seems to me we’ve been at war ever since. Or are the history books wrong?”

“No. They’re not. But you knew that. I’ll admit it, we’ve made some mistakes along the way.” A beat. “Some very recently.”

Oh, so that’s what this is about. Finally, someone ups their courage to just fucking ask him already, enough of the tiptoeing and understanding. It’s not like he hasn’t know in his heart of hearts that fighting was the only path for him, the only thing he might still be able to contribute with. “You here with a mission, sir? Didn’t think I was employed.”

Fury ignores that barb. “I am. We’re putting together a team,” he says, echoing words from long ago, words that sealed Bucky’s fate because they made Steve run right to him.

“It about Thor’s brother?”

“In part. He stole something from us, the Tesseract.”

“I don’t know what that is, sir.”

“Oh, you do. You just didn’t have a name for it back then.”

The file he hands Steve is full of pictures, but the first one is the one that seizes hold of Steve’s attention, and right then and there he knows he has no other choice, even if he wanted it. It’s the cube, Schmidt’s cube, the one that had melted him into nothingness while Steve looked away. The smell of burnt skin rises in his nostrils, making him blow out a long breath.

“Where did you get this?” he asks, carefully not throwing things and getting all upset.

“Howard Stark fished it out of the ocean when he was looking for you. He thought what we think: that the Tesseract could be the key to unlimited sustainable energy, but he died before he could figure out a way to make it work, leaving it to us. Given the way things are going, the world sorely needs its potential to be realized, so we got started on it, few months ago now.”

Steve nods along. “HYDRA used it to contain their bombs, keep them stable and safe for transport.” But touching the cube with his bare hand had been… unwise of Schmidt. He wonders how they got it out of the ocean, how Schmidt even got his hands on it the first time around. “What would Thor’s brother want with it?”

“He’s called Loki. He’s… not from around here. There’s a lot we’ll have to bring you up to speed on, if you’re in. The world has gotten stranger than you could possibly know.”

Oh, really, weirder than waking up seventy years in the future and knowing everything has changed? He already knows about the fucking aliens, thank you, snooping skills. “At this point, I doubt anything would surprise me,” he says with a dejected scoff.

“Ten bucks says you’re wrong,” Fury replies softly. “There’s a debriefing package waiting for you, you’ll be meeting your team at another base.”

“And who is my team, sir?”

Fury snorts, rolls his eyes a bit. “Tony Stark was supposed to have been on it, but he’s made his wishes clear. Didn’t stop him from calling me at shit o’clock in the morning; that man complains like it’s an Olympic sport. Another uncertain element is Thor—who knows where he is now. We don’t exactly have a way to contact him, and the next person to suggest the bat-signal is gonna get smacked. The other two are flying in as we speak, Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff. There was supposed to be another, but he’s… indisposed, at the moment. You’ll be wanting to read up on their profiles. Now,” he turns on his heel, waiting for Steve to pick up his punching back and start walking out, “you saw the Tesseract in action, back before you fell. Is there anything you can tell us about it that we ought to know now?”

Steve strides right past him with the punching back over his shoulder, not the least bit heavy. He needs to force himself to sleep, just a little, just to ensure that he won’t keel over sometime in the next twenty-four hours. Without missing a beat, and perhaps feeling a little vindictive (he has to deal with the fucking cube, again), he chirps, “You shoulda left it in the ocean, how about that.”

Chapter Text

Steve sits across the dinner table from a living corpse, unable to tear his eyes away.

They’re in their old apartment, but also not quite. From down the hall, someone’s humming, a tune and voice that Steve hasn’t heard since before his mother got sick. The air smells like the offal stew that Bucky’s Ma had cooked whenever they had a little extra money during the 30s when things had got only a little more awful for the poor and a whole lot awful for the rest of New York, the scent thick, heavy, and mouthwatering. It’s homey and familiar, except for the corpse.  

Steve is trembling, but Bucky doesn’t seem overly concerned with his decaying state.

The longer they sit there, the smaller the room gets, the less light the windows let in. Bucky eats jerkily, having to contort himself to reach the spoon in his hand, his arm bending wrong. Every bone looks to be broken, some poking straight out from under the skin. Flesh and muscle are exposed and necrotic. His jaw is dislocated almost entirely; he doesn’t even try to chew, just forces the spoon in as far as it’ll go and swallows laboriously. The entire left side of his face is scraped raw, and his eye looks to be in danger of popping right out of its socket.

He’s alive, but his body is falling apart, clumps of hair simply missing entirely. Blood doesn’t even flow from the wounds; it’s just stained all over, a grotesque painting of the progress it first made when Bucky’s body broke.

The only pristine thing are the dog tags around his neck; Steve’d had his spare ones, safe in a trunk at the London SSR headquarters. They rest at the bottom of his bedside table now, another thing he can bear to look at or touch, along with Bucky’s old shirt and a file with KILLED IN ACTION stamped across the front in bold, red lettering.  

Bucky’s big sad eyes track Steve curiously. “Aren’t you gonna eat somethin’, Steve?”

If Steve tried, he’d vomit. He shakes his head. Bucky’s in so much pain, it’s obvious to see. The winces that accompany every slight movement, they way his chest rattles like an ill-tended engine with every breath. Steve’d put his hands on him and put him back together like a broken vase, but he wouldn’t even know where to begin.

As if reading his mind, Bucky says, “This is my body now. It’s just a vessel.” As he speaks, his left ear falls off, bouncing off the table and onto the floor. He’s already missing a few fingers. Soul frozen, but body past due.

God, is there nothing Steve can do? Other than bear witness? In his worst moments, he’d wondered how long it took before death claimed you after a fall like Bucky’s; the Howlies had all seemed in agreement that at least it would be quick, it had to be from that height. Even if the impact didn’t kill him, he sure as hell wouldn’t manage to wake up before bleeding out (not to mention the scavenging animals). Bile rises.

“Please, Buck, just let me help,” he begs.

Bucky just shakes his head; his neck clicks with the movement, a disc of bones reappearing with every turn of his head. “You won’t let me go, Stevie. I can’t leave you when you’re like this. This is the price of staying.”

Steve wakes up crying, curling in on himself and shaking with loss, little mewls of pain rising from his chest. Do the shadows above the bed move, or is it just his eyes deceiving him? Is he truly haunted?

*

The Quinjet that they fly Steve out on is a sleek, almost noiseless contraption that looks more like HYDRA’s giant carrier-aircraft from back in the war. When he first sets eyes on it, his entire body freezes up, but he forces himself to march ahead, trying not to let it show that his bowels have turned to water and his heart is beating right out of his chest.

It helps that the agent accompanying him is too wide-eyed to notice Steve’s hesitation. He’s a middle-aged man with a hooked nose, his hair thin and neat, overall almost bland to look at—likely by design. His dark, uniform suit makes Steve feel underdressed in his trousers and leather jacket, but fuck no was he going to wear the suit he wore out the other day; he’s not going to greet a new team in the clothes he wore to mourn his original one.

When the agent introduces himself as Phil Coulson, his voice cracks, making him first pale then flushed with embarrassment. Thankfully, he elects to just usher Steve aboard without making it more awkward, handing him a small screen as he straps in. It’s a computer tablet, he explains; it’ll contain all the info on his team that he’ll need. Steve’ll maybe admit that having everything on a single device is smarter than paper dossiers, but he’s not going to reveal that anytime soon.

Turns out, the tablet even contains footage and info on the ones who likely won’t be on the team; Iron Man battling some sort of madman with an electric whip (what?), Thor fighting a giant silver robot in the desert (wearing plaid and jeans, maybe Steve’s not as underdressed as he’d thought), and a sandy-haired, slightly distracted looking man whose credentials for sharpshooting are truly admirable (it also, however, explains him to be currently compromised, which: uh, what). aren’t you either compromised or not, what’s with this ‘currently’ business?

Next up is Natasha Romanoff, and recognition like ice shoots right through him. It’s not her name or her face, either of which is unfamiliar, but her call-sign: Black Widow. One word, combined with the Russian name, and Steve sees a little girl as clear as if she’d been right beside him, sees her too-wary eyes and the resignation that shadowed them when she’d failed to kill him in the middle of a forest in France after a week of having slept curled up on his chest like a kitten.

He skims the—suspiciously vague—file quickly, almost as if he’s hoping for a connection between the two to jump out at him and shout ‘Maddie made it back! She made it out! She lived a life free of blood and death!’. There’s only the call sign, a name that is noted as being given to all graduates of an institution called the Red Room, an independent Soviet spy organization with loose ties to the KGB. She’s combat-trained but usually dispatched for undercover, retrieval, and fix-up work—and Steve’s not dumb, okay, he knows enough to read between the lines, especially on the last one. She’s a goddamn assassin, and while the file doesn’t outright state it, she’s been trained since childhood.

But she’s on their side, and that’s got to be enough for him. It’s not like he’d know anyone better suited for the job—or even know anyone at all.

The next file, one Robert Bruce Banner, sends him back into what the fuck territory. Even if it hadn’t been the note on his status as fugitive from the US government. Last known location: Calcutta, India, Steve wouldn’t have had to read much before it becomes clear. At first, there’s just a long list of publications and official documents from universities and the like; the man has an overflow of doctorates, more than were noted for Stark, and Steve’d been pretty impressed at that, despite the left-over annoyance with the man’s rudeness. Then, a report:

  “… the Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project was kept top secret, even from those actively working on it… Dr. Banner was recommended by General Thaddeus Ross to recreate the supersoldier serum, originally created by Dr. Abraham Erskine for Project Rebirth… Despite numerous previous attempts, the serum had never been successfully recreated before, but as Dr. Banner was led to believe that his serum would be used to treat and prevent radiation poisoning, he substituted the vita-ray formula (which was dependent on the Vita-Ray Chamber engineered by Mr. Howard Stark in 1942-43) for a new formula based on gamma radiation

…early testing on isolated cells showed promise… Dr. Banner elected to test it on himself, as he had already done much work on gamma rays and would be exposed to further radiation through his studies anyhow, making him the perfect volunteer test-subject… prior to the serum injection, he was administered a primer created by Dr. Elizabeth Ross (see appendix E), which was later proved to have allowed him to survive the serum… knowingly upped the serum dose to produce more visible results … became the entity known as the Hulk… Culver University labs were destroyed…

Next, a small, dark square appears, and Steve is familiar enough with the internet by now to know it’s an embedded video file. He presses play, a little wary, and a giant, green monster tear through buildings and on-site soldiers like they were all made out of clay. He watches in fascinated horror.

Seriously. What. The. Fuck.  

As the video comes to an end, Agent Coulson makes his way back to Steve from the front of the plane. Steve’s not quite sure what he’d expected from the man that a guy like Thor had talked of with such easy respect, but the nervous reverence with which he regards Steve isn’t it, despite the fact that Hill did say Coulson was a fan. It reminds him a little bit of the children at the USO shows during the war, and it’s both slightly frazzling and sort of humanizing in a way that no one else at S.H.I.E.L.D. have been so far.

Steve tips the small screen to show Coulson the Hulk frozen in motion. “Didn’t really go his way, did it?” he says, carefully not wondering where he himself might have been—what he might have been—if Erskine’s serum had gone haywire.

“Not so much,” Coulson admits. There’s no pity in his voice, but it’s no censure either. “When he’s not that thing though, the guy’s like Stephen Hawking—a smart person, that is.” Steve knows who Stephen Hawking is, thank you very much; one of the encyclopedias had mentioned him and suggested his book A Brief History of Time as an introduction to scientific theory for beginners. Bucky would’ve loved it, so he marked it for further study, but hasn’t actually gotten around to it.  

Because Steve’s Ma would rise from her grave if he didn’t, Steve says, “Thank you for the binder. It’s very useful.” I haven’t looked beyond the first page, but it seems useful. For more than just listing sightseeing spots that’ll rip my soul apart, that is.

Coulson, honest to God, colors with happiness. “You’re very welcome, it was no problem at all.” A beat, then, “I gotta say, it’s an honor to meet you, officially. Not that we’ve met-met unofficially, I mean, I sorta met you—that is, I mean, I watched you while you were sleeping—” his eyes widen in horror “—over! I watched over you while, um, I, uh… I was present while you were unconscious from the ice.”

Steve lets him dig that hole deeper, not really feeling the need to help him out. Let that be penance for his previous assumption.  

They make it almost all the way to the rendezvous before Coulson finally stops blushing and stuttering enough to say in a hopelessly embarrassed sort of voice, “It’s just a huge honor to have you onboard, Captain Rogers.”

Steve finds it in him to smile, even if it’s stiff as all hell. “Well, I just hope I’m the right man for the job.”

“Oh, you are,” Coulson assures him at once, tripping over himself to ease Steve’s doubts. It’s a nice gesture, even if it changes nothing at all. “Absolutely. Uh… by the way, we’ve made some modifications to your uniform. I had some input originally, but it was decided that it’d be best to emulate your old comics get-up, so… um. You’ll see. The idea was to make you more recognizable, reclaim the title so to speak, when you went out in the world again.”

When. Not if. Steve’d been right; S.H.I.E.L.D. was banking on his eventual cooperation, but it’s not like he wouldn’t have done the same in their place. A man out of time—the first superhero in the world—shows up out of nowhere, alive, just as America heads into yet another crisis? Yeah, he would’ve been pushing for help, too.

He probably wouldn’t even have needed to wait long for a crisis, had he been an agent looking to foist a cause off on a sad, lost supersoldier. In fact, it seems to him that America never truly won the war—they just fought another, and another and another. The compromises alone were a battlefield and a half. Additionally, some of his library searches have yielded worrying insights as to the nature and causes of these conflicts. It’s not that Steve hadn’t already been made aware that the war he was fighting would’ve been just as fitting on home soil, but it’s disheartening to learn that his country has retained its injustices in his absence. Sure, there are a lot of things that are so much better—but just as many that are as bad and getting worse.   

“Aren’t the stars and stripes a little… old fashioned?” he asks carefully.

Coulson seems to mull that over, his knee-jerk answer held back. “With every that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light,” he says slowly, visibly believing his own words, “I think that people just might need a little ‘old fashioned’. Something that’ll make just a little more sense than what’s coming at us now.”

Chapter Text

The rendezvous is a huge, oddly-shaped battleship smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic. Privately, Steve thinks that while secrecy is all well and good, this seems like overkill. Like they’re not just trying to keep their business private, but also render anyone knowing their business unable to make off with it easily.

The landing is smooth but still somehow jarring, as if Steve’s body had been expecting the Quinjet to crash, bracing for impact. He walks off the plane and pretends like the sounds of the sea and the smell of brine don’t make him shudder.

He’s busy taking it all in, watching the many planes parked on deck and the activity all around, so he doesn’t notice the woman walking up, not until Coulson greets her politely and introduces Steve in the same breath.

“Ma’am,” Steve greets automatically. His heart jumps when he turns to get his first real look at an adult Widow.

“Hi,” Natasha Romanoff says casually, almost a little dismissively, her eyes on Coulson. “They need you on the bridge.”

She’s a stunning woman, small, curvy, and lovely. Her chin-length hair curls elegantly about her face, with coppery strands shimmering in the sun like the flames of a forest fire. Green, clever eyes take in everything with an easy sort of awareness that would be easy to dismiss as nothing more than a civilian’s curiosity.

She’s not like Maddie, not at all—but not quite like Peggy either. Where Peggy had walked with her head held high, almost daring people to question her competence, Romanoff ambles along next to Steve without drawing attention to her competence. Everything from her casual clothes—a smart, shortish leatherjacket, a bright top, and slim-cut pants—to the way her holstered gun draws the eye to her legs is made to distract. On one hand, she wears the gun easily, not bothered by its presence at all; that speaks of long familiarity. On the other, there’s a swagger to the way she walks, almost like she wants to be written off as just a pretty girl with a gun.

Steve would bet every penny in his bank account that it’s calculated. Might even be a test.

“There was quite the buzz around here after finding you in the ice,” she says, teasing smile in place. It’s so natural that it makes Steve’s lips twitch in response, charmed despite his wariness. “I thought Coulson was gonna swoon. Did he ask you to sign his Captain America trading cards yet?”

“There’s trading cards now?” he asks.

“Oh, they’re not recent. They started making them after the war, and his are a vintage set. He’s very proud,” she adds, sugary-sweet.

Up ahead, a nervous man in a slightly patchy brown suit shuffles around, trying not to be in the way of the crew running maintenance on the on-deck fighter planes. He looks nothing like the picture in his file, and it’s not just because it’s an older picture; his wildly curling hair may be starting to gray, but it looks charming on him. It’s more the uneasy tension in his shoulders and mouth, so at odds with his staff photo from Culver University. The serum didn’t just highjack his body; it derailed his whole life, and despite the good Steve was able to do after his own procedure, he feels an instant sort of kinship with the smaller man. His body felt wrong for a long time, too. Still does, in some moments.

“Dr. Banner,” he calls, striding forward with his hand outstretched. He will not shrink from him, no matter what good sense might say after that video of the Hulk rampaging. But Steve never had the common sense God gave a goose, and he’s not about to grow it now.  

Banner’s eyes don’t widen upon seeing Steve, a good sign. Instead, he just looks more discomfited and only briefly shakes hands, looking Steve quickly up and down. “Yeah. Hi,” he says, curling his shoulders slightly inwards in a way that’s all too familiar. “They told me you’d be coming.”

“I was told you’d know how to find the cube,” Steve forges on.

Banner winces. “Is that the only thing you’ve been told about me?”

“Only thing I care about.”

That finally makes Banner look him in the face; his eyes are large and dark, inquisitive. Warming with surprise, they’re really quite kind-looking, almost a bit like Erskine’s had been and it sends a pang through Steve. Banner gestures to the ship around them, body a tiny bit less tense. “Must be strange for you, all of this.”

“Well,” Steve drawls, glancing at all the military personnel. “This is actually kind of familiar.”

“Gentlemen,” Natasha interrupts from behind them. She stands at ease, a hostess’ smile on her face. “You may want to step inside for a minute. It’s gonna get a little hard to breathe out here.”  

The crewmen are pulling at the last of the straps securing the planes to the deck, then hurrying to get inside as some kind of motor starts up, making the whole ship shudder. Despite this, the noise from the engines is curiously less deafening than what you’d think something this big would make.  

Rather than heading indoors, both Steve and Banner approach the edge, peering downwards. The sea churns below them, in uproar from both the natural movement of the waves and the stirring of the motors. This is nothing like any ship Steve’s ever seen.

“Is this a submarine?” he yells, perturbed.

Banner mutters, “Really? They want me in a submerged, pressurized metal container?”  

Natasha just smirks, and for good reason. The very next second, large, circular rotors rise out of the sea, attached to the sides of the ship. The slot into place with a clang and start spinning. The ship lifts off cumbersomely but levelly, making Steve stumble back a little, hit with the vertigo of having watched the ocean from above like this before.

“Oh, no, this is much worse!” Banner yells in disbelief, immediately turning on his heel and heading inside.

*

The inside of the ship—the Helicarrier; it’s called a Helicarrier—is almost beautiful in that modern way, made to resemble the architecture of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s steel and glass offices in Manhattan. The S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, a stylized eagle in a circle, looms proudly on the wall, reminding everyone of the strength and power behind the whole organization. All around, a flurry of agents flutter between computer stations, doing all sorts of complicated things to keep the carrier afloat.

Steve takes it all in with awe on his tongue. That such a thing can exists and is functional—he’s not forgotten Howard’s flying car from back then, and the way it’d crashed onto the staged. That Peggy, Howard, and Colonel Phillips managed build this organization from the ground up in the 50s and now look at it. It’s overwhelming.

Most of the personnel are dressed in navy-blue flight suits, but he spots Maria Hill in the center of the control deck, calling out orders and marching back and forth in a skin-tight, black uniform, hair pulled back as always. Despite the safety of the carrier, she’s armed; a gun at either hip, the handle of a knife just rising above the edge of either boot.

Fury stands on a raised platform, wearing his long leather jacket. At a word from Hill, he gives the order to ‘vanish’—a glance at the screen with footage from the external cameras show a ripple of light as hundreds of mirror-like plates shuffle into place, fitting together until the ship becomes camouflaged against the sky, virtually invisible from below.

Stepping off the platform, Fury approaches the big conference table just behind him, indicating that Steve and his team should take a seat. Steve, not about to go back on a bet that was likely made in jest, pulls a ten-dollar note from his pocket and hands it to Fury, non-verbally admitting to being surprised after all. He doesn’t point out that technically that note is part of his small, S.H.I.E.L.D. issued allowance, and as such isn’t really his, it’s the gesture that counts.

Once they’re seated and have all been handed new tablets, Fury begins.

“First, thank you all for coming, Captain, Dr. Banner.”

Steve nods, but Banner raises an unimpressed brow. “Thanks for asking nicely,” he says, practically dripping sarcasm. Steve pinches his lips tightly to stop from smirking. “But, uh… how long am I staying, exactly?”

“Once we get our hands on the Tesseract, you’re in the clear,” Fury promises. That doesn’t seem quite in line with the whole ‘we’re putting together a team’ bullshit that he’d fed Steve in the gym, but that’s a worry for later. From the corner of his eye, Steve notices Romanoff lingering over the file for that sandy-haired sharpshooter who’d been amongst the candidates for the team, Agent Barton.

Bruce lets it go, too, but his face remains guarded. “And where are you with that?”

“We’re sweeping every wirelessly accessible camera on the planet; cellphones, laptops. If it’s connected to a satellite, it’s eyes and ears for us,” Coulson explains, coming up quietly to flank Fury. Steve frowns; it is normal for a government agency to have that kind of easy access?

Banner, however, just nods. “You have to narrow the field. How many spectrometers do you have access to?”

“How many do you need?” Fury asks, access obviously not a problem.

Banner shrugs off his jacket, revealing a nice, purple button-up. “I’d call every lab you know of, then, and tell them to put the spectrometers on the roof and calibrate them for gamma rays. I’ll put together a tracking algorithm based on the cluster recognition readings from your files on the Tesseract. That way, at least we’ll be able to rule out a few places. Do you have somewhere for me to work?”

“Romanoff will take you in a minute, Doctor,” Fury says. “But you all need to know what we’re up against before you go.

“For a while now, we’ve been experimenting with the energy pulses emitted by the Tesseract. Back in World War II, the Nazis had been able to utilize it as a self-contained energy source, as most of you will be well aware of.” He doesn’t look at Steve, but the comment feels pointed nonetheless. “They also wanted to use it to create a doorway to another world. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and we didn’t think it was gonna be an issue. Then a few days ago, an alien entity appeared on Earth, coming through one such doorway. His name is Loki.”

Here, the tablets all flicker to show the image of a gaunt, feverish-looking man, his features slightly indistinguishable on the grainy quality of the surveillance photos. Still, it’s obvious that he looks nothing like Thor. He’s dressed as strangely though and wielding a wicked, sharp scepter topped with a glowing blade.

“A year back, his brother Thor was stranded on Earth for a short while, and our first contact with Loki himself was via some kind of Asgardian killer-robot called a Destroyer, supposedly sent by Loki to kill Thor. Given that it nearly took out a small New Mexico town in the process, we immediately classified him as a hostile. Now, he’s taken control of our on-site agents and science personnel, disappearing without a trace.” Fury gracefully leaves out the part about Thor having to warn them and the fact that they hadn’t noticed anything was wrong until then.

“How’d he do it? Coercion?” Steve asks.  

Fury snorts. “We’re trained for that. But Loki’s not an ordinary alien—he’s some kind of god of mischief, by or lore and by Thor’s word—”

Did you say ‘god’?” Steve blurts. He was never the type to clutch his rosary at any time, not even when he was made to say his prayers or on the brink of death, but right now he feels like it’d give him some comfort. Banner, too, seems rattled, but Romanoff doesn’t look like this is news to her.

“—and he’s managed to overpower their minds, using that staff. No one was able to resist it. We don’t know what he wants or why he’s doing it, but he’s stolen the Tesseract and taken hostages. Your task is to find the cube, apprehend Loki, and retrieve our personnel—preferable uninjured, though the brainwashing might make them resistant to coming in.”

Is no one going to comment on Loki—and Thor—being fucking gods? Apparently not. In this new world, aliens come down from the sky, gods walk the Earth, and oh yeah, and magic might have had a hand in stealing free will from trained military personnel. And no one blinks a fucking eye.

Bucky would’ve laughed to see it, but Steve just feels lost.  

As Romanoff leads off Banner, promising him that they’ve got ‘all the toys’ in the lab, Coulson comes up next to Steve, awkwardly fiddling with his sleeves. Steve’s just trying to hold it together and not go sit in a corner for a while, so he doesn’t notice the small, plastic-encased pack of colorful cards that Coulson fumbles with.

“Captain, if I may ask—I mean, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, would you maybe sign these?” he asks, staring straight ahead to avoid looking too eager.

Steve turns. “Um. Sure. Right now?”

“No, no! That’s… unprofessional. Just when this is over, and as long as it’s no trouble!”

“It’s fine, it’s no trouble.”

Coulson leans back on his heels, awkwardly excited. He can’t help but gush, “I just brought them with me in case you wanted to, you know, see them… or something. They’re vintage; it took me a couple of years to collect them all, near mint, slight foxing around the edges, but—that’s not important. It’s just—they’re the first Captain America collectibles based on actual photographs, and the history of them is really quite interesting! I don’t know how familiar you are with the comics they made in the war, but some of the Commandos weren’t accurately represented and—”

At that moment, a bald, bespectacled agent calls out, “We got a hit!” Steve and Coulson both rush forward, Fury and Hill appearing quickly, too. “Sixty-seven percent visual match. Cross match—seventy-nine percent now.”

“Location, Agent Sitwell?” Coulson demands.

“Stuttgart, Germany. 28 Königstraße—at a charity gala?“ Agent Sitwell’s brows jump and he squints at the camera footage from the venue. “He’s not exactly hiding.” Steve has to agree; something smells fishy.

“Captain, you’re up,” Fury orders. “Coulson, bring up his suit.”

Chapter Text

Steve makes the mistake of thinking that the new suit isn’t so bad. Sure, it’s offensively gaudy, but he used to wear short shorts and wings on his head on stage, okay. Kitschy doesn’t scare him.

He changes in an empty bathroom, banging his elbows against the walls. First, he puts on the compression underwear, a white undershirt and a pair of underpants in that newly fangled style called boxer-briefs that he’s become partial to. They’re quite snug, enough so that he’d have flushed to wear them just around their apartment back in the 40s. The socks are made of some kind of sweat-resistant, odor neutralizing material, which they could for sure have used on long missions back then. God, you haven’t suffered until you’ve had every guy in your unit simultaneously unlace their boots and accidentally unleash absolute olfactory hell on poor, unsuspecting bystanders.  

And then, he slips into the costume. And yes, ‘slips’ is the exact term. Maybe ‘shimmers’, or even ‘paints on’.

First of all, there’s almost no protective coverage; the chest has a little, some light-weight Kevlar to keep him from getting gunned down, he assumes—and in which case, putting some of that padding in the stomach and thigh area might have been a good fucking idea, too.

Second of all, and now he’s just getting steam going, the color scheme is even worse than his old stage get-up. While the suit he’d worn to war hadn’t exactly been inconspicuous in any possible sense of the word, at least it’d sort of handsome, in a military-Vaudeville kind of way. This is just… eye-searing. The blue is somehow too dark and too light at the same time, and the fat, vertical red-and-white stripes around his midsection are more suited for a circus tent. The star at the center of his chest isn’t white, but silver and reflective, so they better hope he doesn’t need to sneak up on anyone, because any light can and will catch on that.

Third, and worst, of all: it’s so damnably tight. There is literally not a single part of him that isn’t intimately cradled by the uniform; from his shoulders to his ass to his calves, not a single line of him is hidden. There are pockets on the front of his legs, but despite the zippers, he’s not sure how he’ll be able to keep anything in them. His thighs can barely be said to be ‘kept in’ by the uniform, good God.

And finally, the cowl. In the war, it’d been more like a helmet, something he’d been able to take off entirely despite still wearing the rest of the suit. This is attached like a hood, and it adheres badly all around his jaw, making his head look like a blue potato.

At least the red boots are robust but Steve just knows he’ll be healing blisters all night.

When he steps out of the bathroom, flushed with embarrassment and trying not to keep his hands in front of his crotch because everything feels like it’s on display despite the compression boxers and the protective cup in the pants, even Coulson looks pained. He hands over the shield that Steve hasn’t touched since going down into the ice, and the familiar heft of it calms him, if only just a little. If he positions it just so that it’ll cover his front a little, that’s just a coincidence, alright?

Walking back out on deck to the Quinjet, Steve’s overly aware of every single pair of eyes that linger on his chest, his shoulders, his arms, his ass, his thighs, and he refuses to think of those that are aimed right at the front of his hips despite the shield covering most of him. He almost misses his short shorts; those had at least been a little loose, and they’d covered his behind well enough even when he bent over. If he bends now, he’s pretty sure the pants are just going to… show everything. Jesus.

In addition, the uniform is still stiff and unwieldy, giving him a slightly uptight walk that puts his shoulders back and keeps his legs straight, preventing him from at least slouching and drawing less attention (nothing he could do would make him less noticeable, but it’s a nice thought).  

It soothes his ire a little when Romanoff appears, wearing a black suit that is at least twelve percent tighter than his and equipped with a zipper at the neck, lowered slightly to offer a peek at her flawless skin, and yes, she is definitely testing him, that’s just gratuitous.

Even then, she, too, looks him up and down slowly, a playful leer lingering at the edges of her mouth, but she thankfully doesn’t comment. Thank God—gods? If Thor and Loki are gods, is God true, too, then, or is He a construct to fill the void they left behind?—for small mercies.

“Strap in, Cap,” she tells him in her pleasantly husky voice. “We’re really gonna be testing the engines on this thing.”

*

What should’ve been a seven-hour flight is completed in a little less that three hours.

To keep up to date, the security footage from the charity gala is streamed directly to the screens aboard the Quinjet, showcasing Loki’s movements. He’s not really doing anything, just walking around; despite the long hair, he’s dressed nicely enough for the other guests to shrug him off as merely eccentric. He’s not carrying the spear but has a cane constantly in hand. There’s no sight of the cube, but a few of his hostages appear at the edges of the screen, and the brief apperance of Agent Barton snares Romanoff’s gaze for a just a second.

Perhaps more strangely, Loki doesn’t once stray from the reach of the cameras, even glancing directly into one with cold, restless blue eyes. Something about it is off, but Steve can’t put his finger on it. He’s not that familiar with modern surveillance, but directly engaging the cameras seems strange to him, and going by the tilt of Romanoff’s head, she’s struck by the oddness of it, too.

When they’re twenty minutes out, Loki suddenly strides up to a balding man and claps him on the shoulder. When the man turns in surprise, Loki presses the handle of his cane against his chest, and the man’s face slackens. They disappear without fanfare, no one having noticed.

“Sitwell, who did he just take?” Romanoff asks, tapping her headset to tune in to the Helicarrier.

Fingers tap against a keyboard, loud enough to carry over the comms. “Dr. Martin Kreizler, professor at the University of Stuttgart, head of the science department and specializing in applied physics. He’s recently been doing experiments with iridium—one of the rarest elements on the periodic table. His off-campus lab is in that building.”  

Shortly after, the surveillance cameras glitch and then go dark. They’ll be going in blind, then.

It’s agreed that Romanoff will stay airborne and let Steve go in alone; in all likelihood, Loki’ll have some kind of getaway car (or even plane, given the accessibility he’d have had to all sorts of engines from the S.H.I.E.L.D. lab), and giving chase will be easier if they have something that can keep up. Not that Steve hasn’t outrun a car before, but it’d be a waste of energy when they can just follow him like this.

He sneaks in through a rooftop doorway, padding down the halls on silent feet. He’d glanced at a map of the building before heading in, so finding his way to the great ballroom where the charity gala is in full swing is easy as pie. It’s not until then that it hits him that he’s feeling quite at easy with being outside his room, not at all bothered by the people around him or the unfamiliar surroundings. It hadn’t been an issue back on the Helicarrier either. Was a mission truly all he’d needed to get back on his feet? Maybe. Maybe he just can’t live as a normal human anymore, having to constantly react to anything, but he ignores that thought.  

He’s about to head in the direction Loki’d gone in on the security footage when he spots the doctor.

The man is coming slowly down the staircase, looking oddly blank. At the foot of the stairs, he turns and snatches a tray from one of the passing serves, then starts throwing food around like a misbehaving child, drawing squeals of outrage all-around. Steve skids to a stop, flummoxed.

When the security guards move in to restrain him, the doctor leads them on a merry chase, running about the room and ducking behind pillars to escape their grasping hands, a high, hollow laughter emitting from him. Soon, he’s got the attention of the entire room, of every guard in there.

It’s enough of a distraction to allow Loki to slip away between the gala attendants with a heavy, silver suitcase in hand. Steve moves at once, sprinting forwards. Despite his progress being relatively soundless, all but hidden by the noise of the crowd and the manically laughing doctor, Loki looks up and locks eyes with him.

Forget the stairs; there’s a quicker way down.

Steve puts one hand on the bannister and lifts off, gracefully jumping from the balcony, but Loki is already moving, weaving through the crowd expertly. When Steve lands amongst them, there’s some bafflement and staring, but the doctor is making enough of a fuss to keep everyone out of his way.

What follows is an expertly orchestrated flight through the building, Steve chasing the soundless flap of coattails up and down long hallways, somehow not catching up to his target.

When he finally emerges back onto the roof—he should’ve just fucking stayed on the balcony—crashing through the open door, he’s met with a cane handle straight to the face, sending stumbling back a few steps and spitting blood. Loki dances past him is a swirl of hair and long scarves, grinning like a demented cat.

Either the blow was more damaging that it felt—and it hurt plenty—or Loki’s multiplying, Loki and Loki and Loki materializing side by side, each taking up the former’s laughter. When finally there’s only one left, the (hopefully) original Loki stands tall in a beautifully intricate golden armor, a horned helmet on his head and the glowing scepter in his hand.

“The man out of time,” he says with faux pity. “Come to fight another day.”

Glancing at Loki’s armor, Steve snipes back, “I’m not the one outta time here.”

It makes Loki throw his head back and laugh in that same strange empty way as the doctor had. From above, the Quinjet appears, guns out and ready to fire. Romanoff’s voice echoes over the speakers, ordering Loki to stand down.

“No visual on the hostages or the cube,” she tells Steve over the comms.   

Loki sighs at them, dares to roll his eyes like a long-suffering sibling. Then, quick as lightening, he lashes out, sending a flash of blue toward the Quinjet. It grazes the wing, Romanoff’s quick reflexes only just enough to jerk it away in time.

Steve throws the shield, then rushes Loki, and they begin their dance.

It’s quickly obvious that Loki’s been combat strained, though perhaps not quite the same way as Steve was; he’s not as economic in his movements, almost seems to be putting on a show, his wide, wild eyes manic with the rush of battle. While Steve has gotten a hold of the shield again and is slamming it against the weaker spots in Loki’s armor, he barely seems to feel it, jabbing back just as hard with the scepter.

At one point, he manages to get Steve on his knees, scepter pressed against the back of his head. “You’ll all kneel,” he whispers, “to the new king.”

“Not today,” Steve spits instead of the just as apt go fuck yourself, punching Loki in the knee and ducking out from under the scepter.

They grapple for a while, Steve having to duck at inopportune times to avoid smashing his face into the ginormous horns on Loki’s helmet. Romanoff is in his ear, trying to guide him away so that she’ll have a clear shot. Bucky wouldn’t have needed that, would’ve taken the shot with ease.

And then, another voice.

“Romanoff. Did ya miss me?”

The shriek of guitars rises over the comms alongside a shrill, scratchy voice, and a blur of gold and red streak across the sky. Steve, taking advantage of Loki’s momentary lapse in attention, push-kicks him in the chest, given both Romanoff and Stark a clear shot.

Stark takes it, the blasts from his palms finally getting Loki on his back. He crashes back against the stone bannister, the stone crumbling slightly from the hit. Stark lands heavily on one knee, theatrically rising and aiming a small arsenal at the fallen god, guns of all sorts popping out from under his armor along his shoulders.

“Your move, Reindeer Games,” he offers.

Loki’s eyes flit between Steve with his shield, Stark with his guns, and Romanoff in the Quinjet. The scepter and the armor vanish from sight, leaving him in the strange, still armor-like clothes he’d worn when he first appeared in the lab, and he raises his hands, palms out. He looks disgruntled, but not outright afraid, and Steve doesn’t trust his ability to vanish that scepter into thin air. Where does it go? Can he just pull it back out of nothing? Does this even mean that he’s unarmed?

In any case, Loki doesn’t seem inclined to do anything but wait for them to get their shit together and put him in handcuffs, so Steve rushes to do it, nodding semi-politely at Stark as he goes. Stark nods back, a slightly awkward movement while still in the Iron Man suit, and simply greets Steve with a clipped, “Cap’ain.”

Steve’s not exactly happy that he’s turned up, but at least it means he’ll have more back-up. While he secures Loki on the Quinjet, he notifies Romanoff of the doctor’s fit of childishness at the gala, and Stark surprisingly volunteers to help the guards out despite local law enforcement agents finally showing up.

It ends with Stark having to carry the man out to a cruiser while the doctor attempts to have a slap fight, hands drumming against the sides of Iron Man’s helmet, probably much to Stark’s consternation. It’s quite undignified, like trying to wrangle a prissy cat.

If Steve snickers when a particularly well-placed slap has Stark visibly considering just dropping the man in his arms, well, that’s between Steve and God.

Chapter Text

Steve’s been in plenty of tense and/or awkward situations before. He’s had to go on stage in stars and shorts and happily pretend that war was a really good idea—a notion that being at war quickly disabused him of; it was just miserable, even if it was the only thing they could’ve done at that point, and he’d believed in it—and, oh yeah, remember that time he had the only sexual experience with another person in his entire life and he had to pretend afterwards that he didn’t love Bucky more than anything? Good times.

But this… this takes the cake. Though maybe it’s just that since he’s currently in this situation, it seems so much worse that everything else life has thrown at him, even if it really isn’t.

In the cockpit, staunchly ignoring all of them, is Romanoff. She’s not making it worse, but she’s not making it better either, just watching the sky as she pilots; there’s lightning in the distance, but no clouds. At the other end of the plane, in the cargo hold, is a handcuffed maybe-probably god, watching Steve back with blue eyes full of something Steve can’t pinpoint and isn’t really sure he wants to know. It’s… insidious, almost, parasitic in an indescribable, non-physical way.

And then, there’s the elephant in the room.

Which is somehow not Loki. Quite a feat.

It’s Stark.

That man has got to be the least subtle creature in the whole world, and Steve’s counting dogs begging for table scraps, too. The Iron Man suit just makes his unease so much more noticeable, rendering him unable to fidget like a normal person, or even shuffle his weight around unnoticeably. Instead, Stark clunks awkwardly around, trying to watch Steve out the corner of his eye—and not really succeeding, unless you call ‘intensely squinting’ looking at someone ‘out the corner of their eye’.

The only part of the suit that he’s not wearing is the helmet, leaving his face and hair bare. It’s quite a magnificent contraption, that suit. Having been there when Howard’s almost-flying car was first shown, he can’t help but think that Howard must’ve been so proud of his son for growing up just as smart as him, for rising above and beyond after his death and—

“So. You knew my father,” Stark interrupts Steve’s train of thought. He’s got a faux-casual look on his face that doesn’t quite cover the confrontational set of his mouth. Steve might be wrong, but… somehow it doesn’t quite seem directed at him, almost like it’s not really Steve that Stark is seeing when he looks at him.

But since Stark is also looking kind of expectant, Steve just changes the subject. He doesn’t want to talk about Howard, isn’t sure he’d have much good to say. He’s never really forgotten the possessive way he’d regarded Steve’s body, but that doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing you’d say to a man’s son. “I don’t like this,” he says instead, nodding towards the well-behaved Loki. Who is still watching, God damn it.

Stark glances at Loki, too. “What? Rock of Ages giving up so easily?”

Steve makes a face, mentally adds ‘rock of ages’ to his list of things to look up. “I don’t remember it being that easy, this guy packs a wallop.”

“Still,” Stark insists with an annoying shrug. “So—”

“When did Fury call you in again?” Steve barrels on. “He told me he wouldn’t.”

“Yeah, there’s a lotta things that Fury says that you just gotta ignore,” Stark says with an annoyed wave of his hand. “But I was in Germany anyway, and besides, after our little… meeting, I put a google alert on you, and the whole ‘guy in red-white-and-blue arrives at scene of scientist doing the chicken dance’ thing kinda made it clear that—”

At that moment, thunder shakes the plane. The sky is still clear and full of stars, but Loki leans suddenly forward, eyes wide and face pale.

“What’s the matter?” Steve asks him and then, because he’s a little petty about the hit he took to the face, adds, “Scared of a little lightning?”

But Loki just answers, weirdly polite, “I’m not overly fond of what follows.”

Steve glances at Stark, but the other man seems as clueless as he, eyes narrowed. Another rumble, and then—impact. The plane dips momentarily, and everyone looks up at the roof. Even over the din of thunder, it’s obvious to hear that something has just landed and is now scrambling across.

The next moment, the ramp to the cargo hold is pried open, a hand emerging between the steel, then an arm, a head, a torso, until finally, Thor has broken the plane wide open. Wind whips his braided hair into a frenzy, lightning illuminating his form. He’s only got eyes for Loki, but when Steve moves forward, he glances up; his blinks, looks a little unsure. It’s a standoff for a moment, Steve and Tony on one side, Thor on the other, none of them not quite sure what the hell you’re supposed to do in a situation like this. In the cockpit, Romanoff is wrestling with the yoke to stabilize the plane.

Thor is the first to regain his wits—or maybe he’s just anxious enough to do what he does next: he grabs Loki by the back of the neck like a kitten and just throws him from the plane, then jumps right after him.

Stark comes alive next. “Now there’s that guy.”

“He’s a friendly,” Steve feels the need to point out, despite Thor just having nabbed their number one priority from right under their noses.

“Doesn’t matter. Loki’s our only link to the Tesseract.”

“How do you know about the Tesseract?”

Tony gives him the kind of look that Bucky’d always given him back when Steve’d always been trying to convince him that he definitely wasn’t getting sick, that was just a normal cough, no, his lungs were fine. It’s a frowny brow, lips pulled back from his front teeth a little in disbelief, squinty kind of look. He heads for the broken ramp opening.

“Stark, we need a plan of attack,” Steve calls, running for the cabinet that holds parachutes.

“I have a plan: attack!”

Steve curses, but Stark’s already gone. He shrugs into the parachute.

“I’d be careful with this one, Cap,” Romanoff calls back to him. “He’s vastly more warrior-like than Loki, besides the whole being-a-god schtick.”

“I’m Catholic, ma’am. We’ve got rules about recognizing other gods.” Not that that’s gonna help whatsoever. But denial’s worth a shot, despite the fact that he fully believes Thor and Loki to be gods. As long as he doesn’t worship at any alters, he’ll be alright with his God, right?

He jumps.

*

God, oh god, please, not now, please, please, stop—

He’s falling and instead of lightning and thunder, there are bombs all around him. The Quinjet isn’t silent and smooth, it’s rocky and noisy, its propellers chugging sluggishly as it weaves through the air. It’s not Natasha in the plane, it’s Peggy, it’s not Tony on the ground, it’s Howard, and Steve can’t, he just can’t, it’s all mixing in his head, he’s falling upwards, Bucky, I’m coming, and I’m gonna need a raincheck on that dance, and I’m here, Steve. We’re all here

By some miracle or other, he wrests back control of his mind before he hits the ground, manages to activate the parachute. It’s still far too close, so it doesn’t really do much except slow his momentum slightly—the tree he smacks into helps with that, too—and he still crashes hard. He tucks into a roll, lets himself take a tumble across the hard ground.

He’s sweating. His heart is going crazy. He’s shaking.

His mother’s voice. You always stand up, Steve. Bucky’s. Breathe with me, Stevie.

He gets up, dusts himself off shakily. Nothing’s broken, but there’s bruising, he can already feel it. It’ll be gone by the time they get back, it’s nothing that serious. He looks back up at the Quinjet; it’s further up than the HYDRA carrier had been when he made the decision to go down with it. If he hadn’t suspected it then, he knows it now: he would’ve survived jumping from the emergency exit door. But then, caution is not why he went down. And God knows his sin.

Get going, soldier. Breathe. Stop shaking. No time.

He finds Loki first on a small rocky outcrop, politely waiting and still in handcuffs. He courteously points Steve down to a clearing, not attempting to run. This, more than anything, sets Steve on edge; the only reason you don’t run from captors is if you’ve got another plan. He should know; he’s been bait more than once.

That’s going to have to wait.

In the clearing, Thor and Stark are squabbling, like children. Stark’s suit is smoldering a bit at the edges, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by it, mercilessly mocking Thor’s cape, while Thor is looking more and more outraged, gripping his hammer like his life depends on it. Before Steve can make it down there, Thor takes a swing, sending Stark straight through a large rock; Stark gets back on his feet, firing back and hitting Thor straight in the chest. It makes him bellow like an angry bull.

Fuck this. Steve throws the shield.

It bounces between the two, knocking them both out of their concentrated effort to annoy and kill each other. They look up just as Steve catches the shield, sliding it easily back on his arm. If his heart trips all over itself that he’s still able to do that, well, that’s no one’s business but his own.

“That’s enough!” he yells, jumping down and landing between them. He looks at Thor. “Thor, please, I know he’s your brother, but—”

“This is not for Midgard to meddle in,” Thor insists, half-turned to both keep Steve and Tony in his sights, but also making himself a smaller target. He’s carefully maneuvered himself closer to the rocky outcrop and to Loki. “Asgard will carry judgement on their own.”

“He’s got some of our men, that makes it our business,” Steve maintains firmly, not wanting to fight Thor, but also knowing that he can’t just hand Loki over. When they’ve got their men back, maybe. He couldn’t care less about the Tesseract, despite what Fury might say about sustainable energy and whatnot. That thing is not for them to mess with, and he’ll be glad to see it gone.

Thor shifts. He’s never seemed quite so much like a wild entity as he does right now, cornered, angry, and desperate, and in some strange way, it’s like looking in a mirror. “No,” he says, setting his jaw.

“Thor, put down the hammer—”

“Um, yeah, no! Bad call! He loves the hammer!” Stark butts in.

Thor bares his teeth at him. “I won’t let you take him.”

Any other efforts to calm him goes down the drain as Stark tries to move around him, heading for Loki. Thor backhands him with such force that the suit dents a little, then moves quickly to put himself in Steve’s way. Overhead, lightning crackles, reaching down for Thor, and the smell of wet earth and ozone burns in their nostrils.

Steve moves for Stark—he’s his teammate, after all, and that hit had been nasty—but Thor must mistake it for an attempt to get around him, and he reacts accordingly, the hammer coming down. It’s sheer reflex that Steve gets the shield up in time. Despite the Vibranium, he feels the hit all the way through him, dancing up and down his bloodstream like electricity.

He doesn’t go down, and that’s the important part. Instead, the power and energy from the hammer blow dances outwards from the shield, levelling trees and rocks in a mile-wide radius. That, more than anything, is what has them all, even Loki, falling back onto their asses. When it’s over, they get up unsteadily, looking around with shellshock on all their faces.

Thor takes in Steve’s uninjured state, something calming in his eyes. Still, his jaw is obstinately clenched, and his muscles bunch in readiness. He’s not backing down, Steve’s not backing down, Stark’s not backing down, and Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. sure as hell won’t be backing down either. It’s the kind of standoff that would’ve resulted in broken teeth and bloodied noses back in Brooklyn, but here might end with someone dead and another mauled.

Despite knowing this, Steve goes, “Are we done?” and in a fit of foolish hope, he fits the shield back onto its brace on his back, leaving his hands free. He keeps his body still, relaxed, eyes on Thor only. He can’t dart in for Loki, can’t risk Stark. Thor had been, well, he’d been strangely kind when they first met; maybe he’ll relax into that if they try just talking to him. What a novel concept, just talking. Bucky’s eyes would’ve bug out if he’d been here to see it, just disbelieving that he, Steven Grant Rogers, wasn’t coming out swinging.

The move does make Thor lower the hammer, just a tad. “You can’t hold him,” he says.

“No, we can’t.”

“I have to bring him back.”

“You do.”

Thor narrows his eyes. “Are you just agreeing with me to get me to calm down?”

Steve shrugs nonchalantly. “Is it working?”

Mulishly, Thor finally drops the hammer. “Yes.”

“Oh, good. Now here’s what’s gonna happen.” Fury better not make Steve go back on these promises or they’re going to have one very upset Asgardian on their hands, and Steve’s not so sure he’s not just going to want to sit back and let Thor handle it. You protect your family with all you’ve got. God knows what Steve would do if it was Bucky.

Chapter Text

No one’s quite happy by the time they’re back on the Helicarrier, but there were no fistfights on the way, and really, Steve’s taking that as a win. Thor spent the entire flight alternately standing guard over his brother, and then trying to engage him in what should definitely be a private conversation that Steve did his absolute best not to listen in on; Stark elected to fly on his own, doing loops next to the Quinjet that were in no way impressive, whatsoever; and Romanoff kept shooting pointed looks back towards Loki. Honestly, Steve’s just relieved to be off the fucking plane.

Loki’s handed over to an armed guard and led to a big, round cell that S.H.I.E.L.D. just happen to have on hand. Steve squints at Fury as he explains this. They just happen to have blast-proof, bullet-proof, non-furnished observation cell for those little emergencies that involve gods? Oh, and by the way, the floor can be unlatched to forcibly drop Loki from the Helicarrier if he tries anything, and even gods might not enjoy crashing from this height.

Was the Helicarrier built to contain monsters?

It doesn’t help that Loki keeps smiling. Quite frankly, it makes more than one person reach for their gun, and Steve can’t blame them. It’s an eerie smile, too knowing, too sly. Like this is exactly where he wants to be, despite being persuaded to finally give up his scepter before being locked in the cell. It can’t be trusted, but it’s almost too obvious. It drives Steve’s instincts into a tizzy, a constant sort of alertness that sets his nerves on fire.

Fury gives Loki the run-down of his imprisonment while Steve and the others watch from a safe distance. ‘Safe distance’ being watching it all on a screen in another room entirely. The only one not present is Stark, who’d gone off to… wherever the moment he landed, thoroughly ignoring Fury’s probing questions about just why he’d shown up.

The many security measures don’t appear to impress Loki much, the hatch being the only thing that unsettles him, going by the tension in his frame as he looks down, down, down, upon a demonstration.

“It’s an impressive cage,” he just says casually, walking the length of it but not touching the thick glass walls. “Not built, I think, for me.”

“Built for something a lot stronger than you,” Fury responds with arrogant pride in his voice. At the back of their small gathering, Banner freezes. Steve does, too, but for different reasons. They don’t trust Banner? Why bring him here then?

“Oh, I’ve heard,” Loki says cryptically, flicking his eyes up to the camera. He sounds almost pitying as he continues, “The mindless beast, makes play he’s still a man. How desperate are you that you call upon such lost creatures to defend you?”

“How desperate am I?” Fury spits. “You take our agents hostage, you steal the Tesseract, you wreak havoc wherever you go. Call me a cynic, but I bet you’re not going to use it for good. Oh, no. You have made me very desperate. You might not be glad that you did.”

Loki just blinks slowly, cat-like. His eyes seem to glow, even on the flimsy camera footage. “Such anger, Director. But to have the Tesseract, to have that power—unlimited power—would you even know what to do with it? A warm light for all of mankind to share—what is that in the face of real power?” He gestures to his own body, just in case the unspoken implication was too subtle.

Fury snorts. “Well, you let me know if Real Power wants a magazine or something. It gets boring in there, and you gon’ be here for a while.”

With that, he walks out, none the wiser and seemingly perfectly okay with that. Steve frowns; Fury didn’t even ask where the missing personnel were, or why they’d needed to steal the iridium, or why Loki’s on Earth in the first place. There’s a piece of the puzzle missing, something crucial; Fury knows something that he hasn’t shared with Steve, with anyone. He’s too laidback with his questions for Loki, not like any desperate man Steve’s ever seen. Hell, Stark had gotten a more pointed talking-to just for walking onboard, despite the fact that Fury had wanted him here originally. Whatever’s going on, Fury’s almost as unsettled by his soldiers as he is by his adversaries.

The screen doesn’t go dark, but since Loki’s just pacing like he’s got all the time in the world, they turn away. All except for Thor, that is. He’s shed his cape and put away his hammer, but despite being sleeveless, he’s still wearing goddamned armor, and he doesn’t exactly look relaxed. His face is heavy with grief, watching his brother. Anger, too, and worry.

Steve wants to comfort him, wants to return the respect Thor had shown him a few days ago, but he doesn’t know the first thing to say. Sorry your brother tried to kill you and your dad, faked his death, then started kidnapping people and stealing shit? Yeah, no. He can just tell that’ll go over well.

Banner has no such tact and is probably still smarting for the ‘mindless beast’ comment. “He really grows on you, doesn’t he?”

Steve makes a scandalized face. He turns to Thor, “What’s his play here, do you know?”

Thor shakes himself, eyes Steve for a long time, working his jaw. Then, haltingly, he speaks. “He has an army called the Chitauri. They’re not of Asgard or any known world. He means to lead them against Midgard. When he’s king, he’ll probably give them the Tesseract in return.”

Steve blinks. “Right. An army. From outer space. He told you this?”

“That’s why he needs Erik Selvig,” Banner butts in. “He’s listed as the primary technician for the Tesseract project, and since that’s how Loki made a portal to here—”

“It can be a portal to other places, too,” Steve finishes. So Johann Schmidt hadn’t been that far off the mark after all, hadn’t been crazy to believe in the cube’s powers. Just an ordinary genocidal sort of crazy then—and seriously, how is that thought real? God, a seventy-year nap sounds swell right about now.

“He has Selvig?” Thor asks, more worry-lines taking up space on his big, handsome face. “I know him, he’s a friend. Trust me, he’d never build something like that.”   

“Loki has him under some kind of spell, along with one of ours,” Romanoff adds from her seat near the door. Like Steve, she’s still suited up, her hair pulled out of the tiny ponytail it’d been in for the flight and fight. Steve has only shed his cowl—but that’s mostly just because it makes him look so goddamn stupid, Jesus, this was the wrong time to grow some vanity.

He doesn’t comment on Romanoff so casually disregarding the rest of the missing personnel, can read between the lines to the things she doesn’t say. There may be several missing, but only one matters to her. That can make for an issue if she doesn’t think enough is being done to get Barton back. So, Fury doesn’t trust Banner fully, Thor is acting on emotion half the time, and Romanoff has her own focus. The problems just keep piling on, but only one matters the most right now.

“I wanna know why Loki let us take him,” Steve says, straightening up and trying to look like he feels comfortable leading these people. “He’s not leading an army from here.”

“I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki,” Banner argues, fidgeting with a stack of papers in front of him. “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you can practically smell the crazy on him.”

“Loki’s not crazy,” Thor immediately says, visibly bristling. “He may be… beyond reason, at the moment, but he is of Asgard, and he’s my brother. He’s just… he’s had a hard time, he’d just found out he was adopted when our father—”

“Having a hard time excuses wanting to become king and possibly enslave an entire planet in the process?” Romanoff remarks without any infliction in her voice, but the sarcasm is audible, nonetheless. Thor winces, but doesn’t answer.

Banner tactfully changes the subject. “What about the iridium? What could they possibly need that for?”

“It’s a stabilizing agent,” a new voice answers. Stark strolls onto the platform with Coulson by his side, smartly dressed and hair carefully styled. He even looks like he’s had a shower, and Steve is only a little bit jealous. This suit is going to be really awful to get out of based on smell alone, he can just tell. “It’ll be enough to keep the portal from collapsing on itself.” Stark passes Thor, giving him a quick cheeky smile and a semi-friendly slap him on the bicep (his eyes widen a little, but he keeps from showing too much awe). “No hard feelings about our little scrap, yeah, Point Break? Even if you’ve got a mean swing. Also,” he continues while Thor blinks at him in disbelief, “it’ll mean that the portal can open as wide and stay open as long as Loki wants.”

Steve opens his mouth to ask how Stark knows this, but the man has already spun around to regard the various screens surrounding Fury’s control board area. “Uh, raise the mid-mast, ship the top sails,” he says nonsensically, poking at buttons and making Maria Hill look extremely tense. “That man is playing Galaga!” he yells, making them all jump. “Thought we wouldn’t notice. But we did.” Then he covers one eye with his palm, comically peering at the screens. “How does Fury do this?” And it actually seems like he’s waiting for an answer.

“He turns,” Hill replies through clenched teeth, looking like she wants to herd Stark away from any and all electronic devices currently within his reach, especially when he starts running his hands over it. At a particularly incensed look, he finally steps away, not even bothering to look apologetic.

“Well, that sounds exhausting. Anyhoo: the rest of the raw materials for the portal are things they can probably get their hands on pretty easily, especially with Agent Barton running point. The only major component missing is a power source. High energy density, something strong enough to kickstart the cube.”

“And when did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?” Hill demands, taking the words right out of Steve’s mouth. Okay, well, maybe not the words—thermonuclear whatever—but the sentiment.

“Last night.” Stark looks completely serious. Steve smothers a guffaw. He will not give that man an inch, he’ll take a mile. Even if that was pretty funny, in a snappy kind of way. Bucky would’ve laughed. The urge to laugh passes as Stark looks at them all with a schoolteacher’s annoyance, noting, “The packet, Selvig’s notes, the Extraction Theory papers, interesting stuff, don’t tell me I’m the only one who did the reading.”

Steve did the reading, thank you, but having Morita cuss him out in Japanese would’ve been more coherent than those papers. He’s just not scientifically inclined; all he needs to know is whether something works or not. The technical aspect was never his area, not even when it was being explained to him in a sunny kitchen on a swelteringly hot day over cool water and crispy apples. “Does Loki need any particular kind of power source?” he asks instead, eager to be away from that disparaging look on Stark’s face.   

“He’s got to heat the cube to a hundred and twenty million degrees Kelvin just to break through the Coulomb barrier,” Banner supplies. Steve nods like he knows what just one degree Kelvin is in Fahrenheit. Hell, even Celsius would’ve been easier for him to understand, but hell fucking no is he going to mention that. They probably don’t expect him to contribute at this point, anyhow.  

Stark’s already turned to face Banner. “Unless Selvig has figure out how to stabilize the quantum tunneling effect.”

“Well, if he could do that, then he could achieve heavy ion fusion at any reactor on the planet.”

“Finally!” Stark cries, waving his hands excitedly. “Someone who speaks English!” He shakes Banner’s hand, looking him straight in the eye with not an ounce of fear. “It’s good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. Also, I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”

Steve gapes. What the fuck, Stark?

Banner frowns, looks away, but doesn’t seem quite as offended as Steve would’ve been in his shoes. Mostly, he just seems a little befuddled. “Thanks, I guess?”

Before Steve can get a stress headache from that interaction alone, Fury strides in, having just caught the tail-end of the conversation. He throws Stark a sour look, but magnanimously explains that since Banner is already there to track the cube, Stark might as well join him in the lab.

“You could start with the scepter,” Steve suggests, valiantly not flushing when Stark and Banner both look at him like they’re not quite sure why he’s butting into their whole science thing. “It has something of the cube about it, as I remember it. Maybe one is connected to the other.”

“And I’d also like to know how Loki used that stick to turn two of our sharpest people into his personal flying monkeys,” Fury adds.

Thor scooches closer to Steve, says sotto voce. “I don’t understand.”

Feeling all the more endeared to him for admitting to that, Steve quickly explains, thankful that he himself does understand. “It’s a reference to a movie—a witch uses flying monkeys as her minions.”

Thor makes a face like he doesn’t quite see why you’d use monkeys as your personal minions, but accepts it, nonetheless. Tony, having overheard them, eyes Steve and Thor with something like disbelief and pity, but wonder of wonders doesn’t comment. Instead, he and Banner disappear to go to the lab, talking about things Steve would never in a thousand years understand, even if Bucky’d been the one to try to explain it.

From the back, Stark looks so much like his father it’s like a weird, disjointed déjà vu in progress, his hair seeming darker, his voice more drawling. Steve shakes his head and wills the image to disappear; he can’t afford to be distracted. Not when his fingers still twitch from falling through the air.  

Chapter Text

Thor watches Steve Rogers disappear a few minutes after Stark and Banner have gone, his posture hunched. A great many pairs of eyes follow him, not all of them courteous in their bold appraisal of his body, and while Thor can definitely agree that Rogers is a handsome man—even beautiful, if he is any judge—it is just as obvious that the attention sets the man on edge.

And he already is on edge, constantly. How can no one else can see it? It’s so obvious to Thor, was from the first time they met. It’s in the defeated slump of his shoulders, the non-expression on his face that speaks of loss so deep it cannot be fully comprehended. Rogers might act at being in control, but he’s fraying at the edges. It’s only a matter of time before he breaks.

Had this been any other day, any other time, Thor might have tried to make him his friend. There’s something familiar about Rogers, something terrible that Thor has only seen in the most downtrodden of Odin’s older einherjar, battle scars too deep to heal. It both unsettles him and intrigues him; he was raised for war, despite his father’s insistence that a king should not court it, and as a result Thor’s never met a warrior whom he didn’t in some way admire. The lost Valkyries, the einherjar, the Vanir to whom his mother, Sif, and Hogun were born; even the Jotun and the Giants had a grace to them in battle, something that made them formidable.

But this is not any other day, nor any other time.

Loki is… something is wrong.

No one else seems to think so, just accepts that this is how Loki is. But Thor can’t. He barely recognizes his brother. While Loki’s never been truly kind—despite their mother’s best intentions—he’s never been outright cruel either. Well, apart from that thing with the snake. And the other thing with the snake. And also that time someone thought to challenge his intellect. And that time—anyway. If he’s being cruel, there’s a purpose to it. That might not be the best defense, but it’s all Thor’s got and he’s willing to stick to it.

Somehow, Thor’s always been the softer of the two—despite their father’s best intentions.

Not that anyone is listening to him. Fury didn’t listen when Thor tried to warn them, that Stark person—who otherwise seems to have a pretty sharp mind—didn’t listen in the forest, and Banner and Romanoff both seem to think that he’s too emotional to see that Loki is trouble through and through. Which: please. Thor knows that Loki is trouble on a good day; this is on the verge of catastrophic. He’s neither blind nor dumb.  

But even when Thor had crashed in the desert a year ago, people had treated him like he was a bit slower than average. For not immediately adjusting to the ways of Midgard, for speaking the way he did—which, alright, maybe he’d laid it on a bit thick, but honestly, it hadn’t seemed like any of the humans he’d met had been able to take a joke, so he’d erred on the side of too courteous. It was amusing back then, the cautious and slightly patronizing way they treated him because of it; now it’s a pain in his ass.

The Midgardians need to understand that none of this makes sense. While Loki enjoys chaos, he doesn’t care much to get stuck in it. There’s always a plan. This? This reeks of recklessness. But does anyone listen to Thor when he tries to tell them this? Nooooo. Not even Odin listens to him.

Truly, the fall of Odin’s trust in him had been the whole Jotunheim affair, which, fair, Thor can now see why that was… not smart. Then there’d been the whole adoption revelation—yikes—Thor’s banishment, the super convenient Odin-sleep in the middle of everything, and, oh yeah, whatever had happened in the throne room with the Frost Giants that Odin refuses to talk about and that Heimdall is mysteriously silent about. Not even Frigga knows exactly what happened in there, only that the Giants went in with Loki to broker peace, and out flowed only blood. Then there’d been the whole attempted murder thing, not exactly the best way to cap it all off.

Maybe, if they had been together through it all, maybe then Thor wouldn’t look at Loki now and have a stranger grinning back at him.

It’s hard to establish any sort of argument for peace when the last time Loki’d interacted with Midgard, he’d sent a giant murder robot to dropkick Thor back into godhood—and yes, Thor firmly believes that’s what Loki had been doing. Yeah, Thor got a little maimed in the process, but it got the job done; Loki had said he wouldn’t annul Odin’s last order as king while he held the throne, but he didn’t say he wouldn’t circumvent it. How do you help without helping? You escalate.

Honestly, it’s pretty in line with all the other times Loki has tried to ‘help’. Like that time with the Jotun and Mjolnir where Thor’d almost ended up married to a husband who would definitely not have considered Thor’s needs, and all Loki’d done was egging the bastards on while twirling around in her bridesmaid’s dress. Or that time he’d convinced Thor to ‘borrow’ Freya’s feather cloak because Thor’d wanted to play at being a Valkyrie’s horse. Freya still doesn’t trust him in her home unsupervised.

It’s just the way it is with Loki. Things get life-threatening before they get better. And while Odin might think him a fool for believing that the Destroyer was in any way sent to test him and help him regain his powers, well. Odin’s the one who thought adopting a kid and then keeping it a secret was a good idea, so making bad calls seems to run in the family.

It’s just… This is horseshit. There’s no way Loki’s little conqueror scheme will ever make sense, or succeed, for that matter; why would the Midgardians ever consider him their lord and savior when he tries to have them exterminated first? In what world will the Chitauri ever follow him, when he needs to rely on them for power? His whole plan hinges on a species known for leaving no survivors. Why should they let even him live after? (And who, exactly, does he plan to rule over, when everybody else is dead? Ashes? Tumbleweeds?)

Also, when did he get that scepter? It’s not Asgardian, Thor’d recognize it.

These are the things Thor is contemplating when the Son of—Coulson walks up to him, smiling that soft, little half-smile that’s been created solely to put his interlocutors at ease. They watch Loki on the screen for a moment until suddenly Coulson says, “After Loki took Selvig, we checked to make sure that he hadn’t taken Jane Foster also. Luckily, she’s been consulting at an observatory in Tromsø. It’s quite a bit out of reach for most people, so we upped her fee to ensure she stay for a while longer. She’ll be safe there.”

He says this like that was in any way what Thor had been pondering. It’s not to say that Thor doesn’t care for Jane’s safety—of course he does. But the way Coulson says it makes it clear that his understanding of what Thor and Jane are to one another isn’t exactly… accurate.

Maybe, had Thor not regained his godhood, they could’ve been the lovers Coulson seems to think they are. Thor’d been struck by Jane the moment he met her—literally, at first, what with being hit by her car, then metaphorically by her mind. Her inquisitive nature and stubborn refusal to back down made her all the more beautiful to him.

But, in the end, the choice had been hers. Thor’ll live for countless human lives, never growing old with her. In Asgardian terms, he’s only just become a man and only last year he was a rather poor example of one. He’ll be decades from his best years when Jane passes from this world more than half a century from now. She hadn’t wanted that. Hadn’t wanted to have to wait her whole life for him, grasping only at whatever spare moments he could give her. And he respects that, respects it even more that she told him to his face. So, they’re friends, and he tries to visit when he can, testing his father’s patience with every absence, borne on the waves of the great Bifrost. And if his heart twinges a little at what could’ve been? Those are the dreams of a different man. She made her choice, and he made his. He’ll consider himself lucky that their lives touch just this much.

Nonetheless, he appreciates the concern, and his mother raised him right, so he tells Coulson thank-you and doesn’t unleash his frustrations on him. It’s not his fault that Fury put his brother in a glass prison, or that Thor mourned Loki for a year only to find a stranger looking out from his eyes.

Speaking of Fury, the one-eyed man has been keeping Thor in his line of sight as everyone else moved out. It’s a calculating look and Thor doesn’t like it one bit; it reminds him of the way his father would regard the troops they needed to dispatch for the unrestful corners of the Nine Realms, a look devoid of emotion. In war, Odin’s always said, you cannot afford to fall prey to your heart.

What a fool Thor ever was to believe that—especially when all he’s ever done as a younger man was to charge into battle with rage in his heart and blood on his teeth. There was nothing to lose then, no one to beat back the Asgardian army. Most frightening of all, this is not the way a warrior is supposed to be, not the ones in the songs. So why was he allowed to go on like that for so long?

“You said that Loki plans to start a war,” Fury says now, “Got anything else to share?”

I missed you. Did you mourn? Your father. I remember a shadow. “No,” Thor lies, not feeling bad about it. Those are not words for Fury’s ears; could Thor hide them from Heimdall himself, he would do that, too.

“Could you make him tell you?”

Thor tenses, arms folded. “Tread very carefully. He’s my—”

“Brother, yes, I got that the first hundred times you told me. But when he brings an army to our doorstep, familial ties don’t get him a pass, no matter what god he claims for his family tree.”

“What are you asking me to do?” he demands, not at all eased by the reminder of Loki’s apparent madness. That is not who Loki is, is not the little kid who laughed when Thor had tried to help their mother sing him sleep when he was a toddler himself. Not the young god who confessed to Thor about wanting to be called ‘her’ sometimes, Loki shifting effortlessly between being a man or a woman; or the one who gladly pushed Thor straight into brambles if it’d get them honey wine for the little pains afterwards.

“I’m asking: what are you prepared to do?”

This is going nowhere. “Loki is a prisoner. Not even he can get out of that cage.”

“And yet, he seems quite pleased with being here, doesn’t he?”

Thor doesn’t answer. He’s noticed this, too, but admitting to any of Fury’s points is quite simply not on his to-do list today. Instead, he goes back to staring at the screen. He’s missing something, he’s got to be. It feels like it’s staring him right in the face.

So, what the fuck is it?

Chapter Text

Steve knows that if someone opens the closet door and finds him there, he’s going to have to come up with a better explanation than ‘just looking for a shirt’ to excuse him having sat here for something like twenty minutes now. Honestly, the thought of maybe having to explain himself almost had him ignoring the urge to hide, but it got too much, and the closet was cool, dark, and quiet.

So here he sits. Steve Rogers, at last defeated by his own fucked up brain.

God, maybe he’ll just stay in here forever. Ignore the god in the cage, ignore the otherworldly army lingering at the edge of their world, ignore the expectant stares on everyone’s faces when they so much as glance his way. It’s worse than the army, worse than the stage. At least back then everyone sort of expected him to fail horribly, and spite was always as good a motivation as any. But this?

God, there’s no way in hell he can do this.

It’s too much. He couldn’t save Bucky, couldn’t even stand to save himself when it came down to it, how the hell do they expect him to be able to do jack shit about aliens? He’s just a soldier, just a lost kid from Brooklyn who has no one and nothing in this world, not his ma, not his best friend, no Commandos to back him, no Peggy to guide him. There’s no one here who knows firsthand that when the serum made him big, it didn’t do a thing to change his eyes, or his mouth, or his nose, or his ears. That it didn’t change a single thing inside of him either. No one left alive has ever cared about that. Back then, barely a handful of people ever had.   

God, he can’t even pull himself together when he’s alone, can’t sleep in a bed, has to camp out on the floor like a crazy person, has to eat like he needs to fatten up for winter, can barely go outside, can’t take the train without having a meltdown, can’t do his duty without seeing every failure flash before his eyes. He’ll doom them all; that’s all he’s good for, in the end, only good for making promises that’ll break before they’ve even left his lips, leaving nothing but sorrow. He’s nothing and no one, and they expect him to be Captain America.

I can’t do this.

Maybe it’s finally time to run, to do what he’d always too stupid to do before, to just say to hell with it and… and what? Where can he go? Who can he be? Steve Rogers died on a train in Austria with the wind howling all around him, went to his grave in the ice a month later and let everyone down. No one has need of him here. He can’t be the Captain America they need, can’t be Steve, can’t be anyone. What’s even left of him anymore, what does he have to offer? Thor’s here now; he’s all the strength they need, he’s a god, they’ll be fine. They have Stark and Banner; there’s no possibility of them ever encountering a problem they can’t think themselves out of. They’ve got Romanoff; she’s resilient, she’ll get them through this in one piece.

He just wants it to stop.

He holds his breath, doesn’t make a sound to disturb the silence. Why can’t his mind work like it did in the war? Why can’t it force him to move on and get the job done and then haunt him all night long? Why is he so broken? Killing a hundred men couldn’t, despite the nightmares. He was so stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid to think he could change the world with nothing but his guts. He left everyone behind, never said goodbye, he let Bucky fall, he let the Commandos down, he hurt Peggy again and again, God, please, I can’t do this

As if it were yesterday, he remembers a moment from his childhood. It’d been one of the rare days where Bucky was the one home sick, and Steve had gotten himself into a scrape with an older boy on the way home. The boy had been pushing his kid brother around, roughing him up something fierce, and Steve hadn’t thought twice about stepping in.

Afterwards, in their small, cramped kitchenette, Sarah Rogers had patched up her son with the patience of a saint. When Steve’d first started coming home with bruises, she’d been scared, trembling after she’d bandaged his scrapes and wiped the blood from his face. Now, she was an old hat at caring for him after a fight. At least this sort of care didn’t extend to keeping him from death’s door—which Sarah had had to do too many times already then.

It’d been the anniversary of his father’s death, and as a concession, Sarah had put his picture up. The rest of the year, that picture was hidden in a drawer, even if she would always bring it out if Steve asked. She never talked about Joseph much, only vague, superficial stories whenever Steve got curious. When he was a child, he’d always thought it was because she missed him too much, that the loss of her husband still hurt after all these years.

It was only when he got older that he started noticing the signs.

She never wore her wedding ring in the house—or at work, but that was for different reasons—always picked at it when she did. She froze when men raised their voices, even if she went on as if nothing was wrong. And then there were the physical things, the things that you don’t see as a kid, because that’s just your ma, and that’s just what she looks like. Like the bump in her nose from a badly healed break. Or the silvery scar almost hidden by her hair, a clean, thin line created by a sharp glass edge.

“He was beatin’ on his little brother, Ma,” he’d told her that day.

“I know, love. The Mastersons don’t have the best homelife,” she’d confided. “But don’t go spreadin’ that around now. Times are tough for all of us, and they wouldn’t want anyone’s pity.”

“That don’t excuse beatin’ on someone.”

“No, Steve,” she’d said, eyes flickering to Joseph’s portrait. “It doesn’t. You did the right thing.”

“Ricky didn’t seem to think so,” Steve’d muttered, looking down at his bruised knees. The younger boy hadn’t looked the least bit grateful, just fearful and resigned. “Even when it got his brother kickin’ me instead, he just told me I shoulda stayed down.”

“You listen to me now, Steven Grant Rogers,” she’d said, chucking him under the chin. Her eyes, a color he’d never have known if it weren’t for Bucky patiently describing it to him, had been afire with conviction and love. “No matter who tells you to quit it, to give in, to take it, you never listen. You hear me? It doesn’t matter who they are, that they’re bigger than you, or stronger, or that they claim that no one else will care. You do what’s right. You always stand up, Steve.”

In the dark, cramped space in the closet, Steve breathes in, breathes out. Today is not the day he runs. He stands up.

*

Before he even realizes that he’s come upon the lab, he hears Stark’s voice drift through the half-closed door. He turns to enter, eager to offer his help in whatever capacity they might have need of it, itching to do something, anything, that isn’t sitting around being stared at.

“I promise a stress-free environment, no tension, no surprises.” A buzz. Banner yelps sharply. “Huh, not doing anything for you?”

Steve barrels through the door. Stark looks up, perfectly at ease with a small, rectangular device in his hand that’s giving off faint sparks of electricity. At his side, Banner is staring incredulously, rubbing at his arm. On the table in Loki’s scepter, giving off the same eerie glow that the cube had the last time Steve saw it; the memory pulls at him, prods at sore wounds.

“Are you nuts?” he snaps at Stark.

Stark ignores him, focused now on Banner. “You really have got a lid on it, haven’t you? What’s your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?” He mimes every suggestion, some kind of wave for the first, drumming for the second, and smoking for the last. Considering he’s just tried to provoke Banner into a killing rage, he’s remarkably blasé about it.

So, maybe, Steve’s a little on edge. A little tired, a little stressed, a little everything. And with his doubts still swimming around his head he might not react as calmly as he should, but fuck, Stark’s already on his shit-list for the whole Berlin thing, not to mention his first impression of the man.  

“Is everything a joke to you?” he demands.

“Funny things are,” Stark glibly replies.

Deep breaths now. He’s a civilian. And too privileged to have common sense, apparently. “Threatening the safety of everyone on this ship isn’t funny,” Steve says with what he thinks is remarkable restraint and level-headedness. Banner twitches. “No offense, doctor.”

“No, it’s alright,” Banner says softly, looking away. “I wouldn’t have come aboard if I couldn’t handle pointy things.”

“You’re tiptoeing, big man. You need to strut,” Stark immediately counsels, bouncing on his toes and pushing his shoulders back. There’s a childish grin on his face, almost gleeful, almost kind.

Steve bravely refrains from rolling his eyes. “Are you at all focused on the problem at hand, Mr. Stark?”

“I can multitask, Capsicle.” He holds up his hand, counts off questions on his fingers. “Why did Fury call us? Why only just now? Why not before? Why did he hire Selvig for a project on sustainable energy when the man is an astrophysicist? Did he always know that the cube was a portal? What isn’t Fury telling us?” He shrugs, smiles smugly. “I can’t do the equation unless I have all the variables.”

Steve shuffles his feet a bit, tries not to look like he, too, has been disturbed by these worries. He doesn’t quite trust Stark enough for that. “You think he’s hiding something, then?”

“He’s a spy. Captain, he’s the spy. His secrets have secrets. It’s bugging you, too, isn’t it?” Stark says, turning to Banner.

“Uh, I just wanna finish my work here and—”

“Doctor?” Steve pushes.

Banner works his jaw, looks between Stark and Steve who are both watching him intently. He fiddles with a tool, then sighs. “‘A warm light for all mankind’, that’s what Loki said about the cube. Well, I think that was meant for you, Tony. Stark Tower’s big reveal was, what, a week ago?”

Steve frowns. “That’s that big ugly—uh—” Tony is glaring. “—building in New York. What about it?”

“It’s powered by Stark reactors—self-sustaining energy source, first of its kind. It’ll power the building entirely for, what, a year?”

Tony shrugs and does not at all succeed in looking the least bit modest. “It’s just a prototype.” He turns to Steve. “I’m kind of the only name in clean energy right now.”

“So, correct me if I’m wrong, but that wasn’t part of the recruitment pitch Fury made you the first time around, yeah? So, why wasn’t it? You don’t just work the theoretical side of this, you personally build the prototypes, you’re practically the perfect man for this. And, what are S.H.I.E.L.D. doing in the energy business in the first place? They’re government spies at best, men in black at worst.”

“I should probably look into that once my decryption key finishes breaking into their secured files,” Tony muses.

Steve spins. “I’m sorry—did you just say…?”

“Jarvis has been running it since I hit the bridge,” Tony says like Steve’s supposed to know what a Jarvis is. “In a few hours, we’ll know every dirty secret that S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever tried to hide. Well, the ones hidden on the drives on this Helicarrier, in any case—anybody else weirded out by the fact that this whole thing has to take place on a secret hovering vessel in the middle of nowhere? Blueberry, Brucey?” He holds out a small bag.

“I’m starting to see why Fury wasn’t happy to see you here,” Steve says. He means it as a compliment—really, he does. Stark’s not been here for more than an hour, and already he’s asked every question Steve’s thought up over days, and more. He might not particularly enjoy his company, but the man’s got brains.

Stark, however, does not take it as such. Steel flashes in his eyes, and something petty colors his voice. “Look, I’m sure that in your day, we all trusted the government who wanted to do us no harm, nothing to see here, move along, there’s a good fellow. But an intelligence organization that fears the intelligence of its subjects? Historically, not great. But go on, follow orders like a good little soldier. Following’s not really my style.”

Don’t bite, don’t bite, don’t—"And you’re all about style, aren’t you?” God dammit, Rogers!

If looks could kill. “Oh, I’m sorry, of all the people in this room, which one is A: wearing a spangly pajamas, and B: not of any use whatsoever?”

Before Steve can get into that, Banner speaks up. “Cap, tell me none of this smells a little funky to you?” He’s got his arms crossed over his chest and has hunched forward. He looks soft and a little nervous, but there’s nothing but strength in his gaze, and it calms Steve right down.

“You’re still looking for the cube, right?”

“Like I said, Captain Spangles, I can multitask.”

Steve nods, then turns on his heel and marches out. This might not have been the distraction he’d wanted, but much as it pains him to admit it, Stark’s right. He’s been reluctant to pick at anything that might make him question the credibility of S.H.I.E.L.D., all because it was Peggy’s brainchild. If nothing else, he at least owes her the respect to trust anything she’s ever touched ten times over, but… she wouldn’t exactly be surprised that he went looking. Hell, she’d probably even help him if these were the questions he asked.  

Nothing can possibly surprise him at this point.

Chapter Text

The god in the cage is on his nth lap around his glass prison when Natasha approaches from the shadows. Right now, Coulson’s distracting Thor, Banner and Stark are bickering in the lab, and Captain Rogers has gone to ground, it seems—a worrying tendency, if she’s any judge. And it’s not just physically, either; Natasha’s noticed him going off in his own head for minutes at a time, totally unaware of the world around him. It’s a liability, and a big one at that, but Fury’d insisted on bringing him in. It’s not her call.

She watches Loki for a few minutes, waiting for him to notice her. Though she’d walked in here with a placid expression and no visible tension, she nonetheless appreciates being given a moment to pull herself together before setting the stage, feeling almost like a ballerina stretching before a performance. What sort of woman does he expect, what kind of things does he know of her? He has Clint, has twisted him into something unrecognizable; who knows what else Loki might have stolen from him?

She lets her anger settle, tucks it away in a box and throws away the key. It has no place here, has already had an outlet. A slightly less deserving outlet, but no matter. When she’d gotten the news about Clint, she’d been in the middle of a very successful interrogation of yet another man who thought her size and femininity were the true indicators of her prowess, despite already knowing parts of her reputation. She doesn’t mind such notions; they make her job easier. Blessed be the fools of this world, easy prey for her web. Then the call had come, and the scene had shattered.

She’d hurt that man a little more than was probably necessary, then walked out and not looked back.

First, they’d sent her to bring in Banner. To say that he’d not been pleased was an understatement, and she’s kept her distance from him ever since. There’s something about the way he holds himself, something unbalanced. Anything could set him off. Natasha doesn’t like it, doesn’t trust it; he might seem like he has control, but she knows all about putting on a brave face, and she’s already seen his eyes flicker to green once, before he’d snapped the lid back on his other half. To say that she’s not exactly his favorite person at the moment would be like calling the Cold War just a slightly tense relationship between the US and Soviet Union.

Now, another monster awaits her tender attentions, and he’s finally picked up on her presence.

To his credit, he doesn’t jump or spin around to face her, just freezes briefly, then settles back into his pleasant stroll. “There’s not many people who can sneak up on me,” he remarks, voice soft and silky. When he turns, Natasha makes note of all the little things that give away his mood, from the calm on his face to the slight narrowing of his eyes, almost imperceptible.

She smiles at him, just a small, soft thing, embarrassed almost. “But you figured I’d come.”

“After,” Loki admits, head tilted. “After whatever tortures Fury can concoct… you would appear as a friend, as a balm. And I would cooperate.” The way he speaks, the air he exudes… it’s almost formidable, the crisp consonants, the tragic, graceful acceptance of his inevitable torture. Natasha’s been through unimaginable recalibrations, has been in the crosshairs of the Soldat twice and lived, but this man manages to at least appear as if his experiences are in any way equal to hers. It’s unexpected—he’s a prince, he’s a god, what reason would he have to know such things? Curiouser and curiouser.  

Time to play. He thinks her calculating, but also softer than whatever Fury might throw at him. Even gods are idiots, it seems. “I want to know what you’ve done to Agent Barton.”

Loki hums, shrugs. “I’d say I’ve expanded his mind.”

“And once you’ve won…” she draws it out, looks away, pretends to have to force her gaze back to his. “What happens to his mind?”

Something pitying and cruel makes his smile a feral baring of teeth. “Is this love, Agent Romanoff?”

Of course, it is; not even Natasha is cold enough to ignore that, has known all along that Clint is… he’s Clint. He’s hers, some way or another, same as she is his. Even if they’ve never said it, never even hinted. “Love is for children,” she says instead, settling into the too-soft, too-inexperienced caricature of herself that Loki sees in her place. “I owe him a debt.” A hundred little debts.

It gets Loki’s full attention in a way that just asking for details hadn’t. Not a battering ram of demands, but a Trojan horse with tiny nuggets of truth for nails. “Tell me,” he demands—and yes, it is a demand, despite the feigned sincerity on his face. He’s playing, too, just as she is. It sends excitement rather than fear or frustration through her, a remnant of the Red Room.

She steps tentatively closer, head bowed but eye-contact maintained, like she’s trying to keep this between them, like she’s trusting him. He’ll know it’s fake, of course, she can see that now, but it’s exactly what she wants him to focus on.

 “Before I worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., I, uh… well, I made a name for myself,” she tells him, sotto voce. Behind the glass, Loki curves towards her like a confidante. “I have a very specific skillset. I didn’t care who I used it for then, or on. I got on their radar in a bad way. Agent Barton was sent to kill me.” She allows a small smile, this time real. “He made a different call.”

This close, you have no trouble believing that Loki’s a god. There’s an agelessness to him, something ethereal, though it’s not quite the same as with Thor. Despite being the youngest, there’s a kind of cunning to him that you don’t see in youth, playful at first, sly the next second. Were there no glass between them, Natasha thinks he might touch his hand to her cheek, lean into the benevolence of it all with pretend kindness and warmth. He’d have silky skin and a grip like iron.

“And what will you do if I vow to spare him?” he asks.

She steps back, shakes herself. “Not let you out,” she says with steel in her voice that threatens to shatter.

Loki laughs. “No, I imagine not. But I like this. Your world in the balance, and you bargain for one man?” A second, a flash of something furiously jealous, gone in an instant, never there.

“Regimes fall every day,” she says with an affected shrug. It’s so over the top, but then, he’s meant to see through it. “I tend not to weep over that, I’m Russian. Or, I was.” She was never human enough for even that.  

“What is it that you want, then?”

“It’s really not that complicated.” A snap in her voice, reigned in, lowered eyes for the briefest moment. “I’ve got red in my ledger. I’d like to wipe it out.”

“Can you?” Loki asks, almost a whisper. “Can you wipe out that much red? Drakov’s daughter?” Here we go; playtime’s over. “São Paulo? The hospital fire? Barton told me everything—your ledger is dripping, it’s gushing red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything?” His voice rises with each word, becomes a growled hiss of menace. Yet still, he plays on pity, looking at her like she’s a scared little girl. “This is the basest sentimentality. And for what? Would it mend the hole in him from his broken marriage, or the hitch in his breath at the sight of you in his clothes? Would he be grateful if he knew how close you are to begging for his life? Would he thank you as the ashes fall around him and the world is silent, as he sits alone and forgotten in the midst of a dead world?”

“Stop,” she whispers, shaking. Don’t stop, she means.

“You lie and kill… in the service of liars and killers,” Loki says, soft again, speaking down to her from the throne of his own arrogance. “You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But your ledger is expanding still, always a part of you.”

The tears rise easily, not even needing to be coerced into being. It’s just a matter of letting the truth settle into her and let it be heard. It’s nothing she hasn’t thought before but let him think she’s tried to forget. This rage, this hatred… it’s not only directed at her. Only those who want to tear themselves apart know just where to place their claws.

“I won’t touch Barton,” he promises. “But I’ll make him watch as you relive every horror you’ve ever confessed to him in the dark. He’ll see through your eyes, know each nightmare intimately, and he’ll know it’s all a dream, but by then, you’ll be too far gone. And then he’ll wake, and he’ll know, and there’ll be nothing left. This is my bargain, little spider.”

Natasha turns away, not having to fake the shake that goes through her. Her memories, often fractured as they are, crowd close when she least expects it, and now they clamor for attention. But she can survive this; she has before. “You’re a monster,” she spits at him, choked.

“No, sweet child. You brought the monster.”

Gotcha. Her shoulders drop and she clears her throat. “So, Banner?” she says, taking pleasure in the way his face falls at the sight of her calm. “That’s your play. Keep Banner in the lab, I’m on my way. Send Thor as well,” she reports into her comm, already leaving. Still, just before she crosses the threshold, she spins around, gives a short bow. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

She leaves Loki blinking in upset confusion, mouth agape.

And yet, had someone cared to stay behind, they might have seen a glimpse of triumph in eyes as green as summer grass, quickly smothered in brilliant blue.

Chapter Text

Steve is about ready to tear the entire Helicarrier apart with his bare hands. It’s obvious enough that several agents simply jump out of his path as he stomps back to the lab with a giant gun in his hands. And not just any gun, oh, no. In fact, the gun is the reason he’s currently running on enough rage to power a small city for something like a year.

With Stark and Banner’s worries niggling at his own doubts, Steve’d gone looking high and low, banking on everyone being too preoccupied with the notion that Captain America would never do a thing he wasn’t ordered to, and no way would he ever disobey. No one would think that maybe he wasn’t actually allowed to go wherever he wanted.

Whoever convinced the world that Captain America was all things honest and obedient clearly never knew Steve Rogers himself.

He’d found his way to a small storage area. At first, it hadn’t pinged on his radar; there were plenty of such rooms all around the Helicarrier, many of them locked to dissuade people from rooting through them. But this one had been placed at the end of a deserted hallway, floors away from the general storage bays, and the closets for guns and extra uniforms were generally closer to where people worked. There’d been no other way in except that reinforced door.

Said door was now leaning against the wall where Steve had abandoned it after breaking in.

What he found were guns like the one in his hands; exact replicas of the HYDRA guns from the war, those nifty, deadly things that not even Howard had been able to reproduce despite long hours and several sleepless nights. They’d thought that maybe the machines they used for production were too specialized and that only reverse engineering those would allow them to be able to produce something equal to the HYDRA guns, but now Steve understands.

It hadn’t just been the machines; it’d been the Goddamned Tesseract that allowed them to create such devastating weapons, likely by utilizing its energy or whatever it is that S.H.I.E.L.D. had clearly also been doing. ‘Sustainable energy’, they said, ‘good of mankind’. He could spit fire.

They’re all already gathered in the lab, voices rising in a cacophony fit to wake the dead. Fury’s reprimanding Banner and Stark, Banner’s trying to keep the peace, and Stark is trying to kick the tension into the stratosphere. Underneath, Thor’s confused questions as to why they’ve brought him to the lab, and Romanoff’s bland platitudes.

“And what is Phase Two?” Stark asks dramatically with his eyes on a computer screen, just as Steve comes through the door.

Steve noisily slams the gun down on the first table in his path. Aiming a look of pure disgust at Fury, he answers Stark in his most saccharine voice: “Phase Two is S.H.I.E.L.D. using the cube to make weapons. Sorry, the computer was moving a little too slow for me.”

Fury glances down at the gun, mouth tense, but quickly gathers himself. “Rogers, we gathered everything related to the Tesseract. This does not mean that we’re reproducing—”

“I’m sorry, Nick,” Stark interrupts, flipping a screen around; numerous files are open, the foremost one being a diagram for the various components of the HYDRA gun. Just behind it is a list of potential threats to S.H.I.E.L.D. “What were you lying?”

“You’re using the cube just like HYDRA did. I thought I woke to a new world, but it’s just the same shit, different century,” Steve spits, ignoring Stark’s wide-eyed, flailing excitement over the cussing. Off to the side, the scepter glows brighter; no one notices.

“Dr. Banner, you should remove yourself for a second,” Romanoff orders, stepping closer to Fury to keep both Steve and Banner in her sights.

“I was in Calcutta, I was pretty well removed before you brought me here,” Banner snaps back, arms folded. He’s shuffling backwards, trying to keep his back against the wall.

“Parameters have changed. Loki’s manipulating you.”

“From his cage? Oh, and by the way, what exactly do you call what you’ve been doing if it isn’t manipulation?”

Romanoff narrows her eyes. “You didn’t come here because I bat my eyelashes at you, you made a choice.”

“That’s rich. I’m not leaving now just because you suddenly get a little twitchy. I’d like to know why S.H.I.E.L.D. is using the Tesseract to build weapons of mass destruction, too,” he says, angrily tapping the screen, now showing schematics for what looks like a bomb.

Fury sighs heavily, rubbing a palm over his face and mumbling something like ‘Carol wouldn’t do this to me’ under his breath, then squares his shoulders and points a finger aggressively at Thor. “Because of him.”

Thor, momentarily seized by the urge to look over his shoulder, blinks in befuddlement. “Me?” he asks in stunned confusion, tapping his chest with his thumb. Underneath, he sounds a little hurt, too.  

“Last year, Earth had a visitor from another planet who had a grudge match that leveled a small town,” Fury narrates, settling back on his heels with a righteous glint in his eye. “Within the hour, it was all over the internet. The whole world learned that not only are we not alone, but we are hopelessly, hilariously, outgunned. Weeks later, the World Security Counsel was established, and their purpose was clear: we needed to be ready yesterday.”

“That was a misunderstanding, Loki wasn’t—my people want nothing but peace with Midgard,” Thor insists, puffing up indignantly.

Fury gives him a look. “But you’re not the only people out there, are you? And you’re not the only threat. All the people who can’t be matched, who can’t be controlled, the world’s seeing them now, waiting for them to come here.”

“They’re coming because of you,” Thor says, “because of your work with the Tesseract, Loki found his way here. You opened the door! You made yourself targets!”

You forced our hand, we had to come up with something,” Fury maintains.

“Nuclear deterrent,” Stark adds sarcastically. “’Cus that always works so well.”

“Remind me again how you made your fortune, Stark?” Fury bites back.

“Hold on, how is this about me now?”

Steve doesn’t mean to say it, but it just spills out him, a collection of worry and stress and hurt gaining sentience and taking on his voice. “I’m sorry, isn’t everything?” Now that the words are out, his mind spits images of him, from his first meeting with Stark to him showing up unannounced in Berlin to walking onboard despite not being invited, prattling all the while like everything was specifically engineered to inconvenience him. Stark takes the bait, too, baring his teeth and planting his feet as if for a fight.

Thor pokes at the screen, causing the list of threats to emerge front and center. Steve spots his own name, and a feeling like ice water down his back spreads through him. In fact, most everyone in the lab, except for Romanoff and Fury, are on the list.

From there on, it’s chaos. Stark seizes on to Steve being on that list, mocking him for being a threat just a little more serious than a single angry bee. Steve doesn’t quite register what exactly he with responds with, but snap back he does, making Stark yell theatrically about feeling threatened. Romanoff mockingly questions their naivety, Fury refuses to listen to Thor’s more and more heated defense of his people and his brother, and Banner’s starting to look a little wild around the eyes.

“We’re supposed to be a team? No, no, no! We’re a chemical mixture that makes chaos. We’re—we’re a time bomb,” he mutters, tongue tripping over itself.

“You need to step away,” Fury tells him, hand inching towards his gun.

“Come on, why shouldn’t the guy let off a little steam?” Stark adds his two cent while sneaking a hand around Steve’s shoulder. When had he gotten so close? Steve shakes it off angrily, spinning around with fire in his eyes.

“You know damn well why he shouldn’t! Now back off!”

Stark does not back off, gets in Steve’s face. “Fucking make me, Grandpa.”

Something cruel snakes around Steve’s heart, forming words he would’ve fought anyone for saying before this mess of a life caught up with him. Suddenly, the little guy from Brooklyn feels like he never was at all, and there’s nothing left in him but violence and vitriol. He scoffs, takes Stark’s measure. “Big man in a suit of armor,” he drawls, all Brooklyn before turning stony. “Take that off, what are you?”

“Genius, billionaire, inventor, philanthropist,” Stark answers immediately, flippantly, as if he’s had his personage disparaged before and is not particularly impressed by Steve’s own attempt. “Care to make the same run-down of your achievements, Steroid Rogers?”

Steve only just barely manages not to deck him. “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you,” he growls instead. Not knows—knew, his aching heart reminds him. He left them all. His laugh is brief and broken, a mockery of joy. “The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you—”

“I think I would just cut the wire,” Stark interrupts with a slightly pitying twist to his lips, as if also saying you poor, stupid creature, nothing but muscles to make up for your simple mind.

Steve grins back, a slightly deranged sight. “Always got a way out, don’t ya? You know… you’re on that list, too. Bet you were a long time before I was. So maybe you should stop trying to be a hero.”

With an eye-twitch and a vein starting to pop in his forehead, Stark straightens to his not-particularly-impressive full five feet nine inches, his hair adding at least two more inches and nearly bristling with aggression. “A hero?” he grinds out. “Like you? You’re a lab rat, Rogers, barely more than Frankenstein’s monster. Everything special about you came out of a bottle!

Dead silence reigns. Not even Fury is trying to pick up the pieces. Steve breathes heavily, hands shaking, ears ringing as if the wind is all around him. His throat tastes like blood, just like it used to do when he coughed and coughed and coughed, until there was no air left in him, no strength, no nothing, just trembling limbs and pain and tears he refused to shed. And yet, he couldn’t die, wouldn’t, despite having just one person left to live for. He’s alone now. And yet he promised to live.

“Put on the suit,” he orders under his breath, seeing not just Tony in front of him, but Howard, Colonel Phillips, Senator Brandt, even Erskine. All these people who took Steve Rogers and unmoored him, made him something different, something they could believe in, something little Stevie Rogers had always dreamed of being until he finally became it. They’re the reason he’s here, and where he’d been grateful before, now he despises them. They’ll pay, they’ll beg, they’ll—

Stark is shaking also, but not quite with anger anymore. Adrenaline, maybe, or regained poise, making him finally take a few steps away, shaking his head.

Fury snaps to. “Agent Romanoff, would you escort Dr. Banner to his—”

“Where? You rented out my room,” Banner interjects.

“The cell was just in case—”

“In case you needed to kill me, but you can’t! I know! I tried!”

That, finally, slams Steve back into himself, bringing in self-disgust and fear. What just happened? What did he just say? Why had he been imagining iron bending and skin splitting under his knuckles and felt a flicker of pleasure? God, what’s happening, why did he do that? And Bruce—poor Bruce, watching them all with unsteady hands and desperate eyes…

Stark takes a step towards him, big brown eyes glazed and horrified.

Banner flinches away. “I got low. I didn’t see an end, so I—I put a bullet in my mouth and the other guy spit it out. So, I moved on,” he says, voice rising shrilly, almost manic, “I focused on helping other people. I was good. I was—then you dragged me back into this freak show and put everyone here at risk!”

The latter part is aimed at Romanoff in particular. She doesn’t move, but Steve notices the change settling over her nonetheless, the wariness and deadliness in the way she holds herself still, so still. Her hair is red, it is blond, she’s small, she’s so tiny, she’s got a gun, her hands are empty, there’s a knife, she’s—

Banner’s still talking, prowling about the room like a caged lion. Fury’s got his hand on his gun, unholstering when Banner lingers by the scepter. “You wanna know my secret, Agent Romanoff? You wanna know how I stay calm?”

“Dr. Banner,” Steve cuts in, keeping his voice level and firm, praying to God it’ll do the trick. “Put down the scepter.”

Banner blinks at him, dark eyes getting lighter, a little grayer with each second. Slowly, he looks down, starting when he sees his own hand clenched around the scepter, the blue point pulsing like a heartbeat.

The computer beeps loudly, making them all—except for Romanoff—jump.

“That’ll be the trace on the Tesseract,” Stark says.

Striding forward, Banner drops the scepter carelessly back on the table. His brow furrows as he scans the new data, but at least he seems more settled than he was just moments before. It allows them all to take a breath, just one long inhale-exhale of relief.

“Sorry, kids, you don’t get to see my little party trick after all,” he says. “It’s in New York.”

“I can get there faster,” Stark announces.

“Look—” Steve tries, but Stark’s already heading for the door. Steve grabs him by the arm. “You’re not going alone!”

“You gonna stop me?”

Rage resurfaces. “Put on the suit, let’s find out.”

“I’m not afraid to hit an old man.”

Put on the suit!

And then, there’s a flash and a bang, and the Helicarrier shakes.

Chapter Text

Steve, Stark, Fury, and Thor are all thrown towards the door, Steve instinctively reaching out to pull their softest member—Stark—towards him to break the fall. It ends with Stark crashing hard into Steve’s chest instead, knocking all the air from his lungs. The man is more solid than you’d think.

Stark still gets knocked about some, dazedly stumbling to his feet. Common decency apparently also winning out in him, he tries to pull Steve up with him. Instead of running for his suit, he looks around with wide, wild eyes. “Bruce,” he breathes, starting towards the big hole in the floor that Romanoff and Banner must have gone through, being nowhere else in sight.

“Romanoff!” Fury barks into his earpiece. “Status!”

We’re okay,” comes Romanoff’s faint voice, no longer just naturally husky, but slightly shook.

Before Stark can throw himself down the hole, Steve gets a hold of him, pulls him back. “They’re fine,” he says, forcing Stark to look at him. “We can’t help them right now, but we can do something about this threat. Put on the suit!” It’s not an order, but a plea.

Stark looks torn, but shakes himself, gasping out an acknowledgement and tearing down the hall. Steve is right on his heels.

Outside the lab, it’s pandemonium; emergency alarms blare shrilly, a number of ceiling fire extinguishers have gone off and drenches everything in cool water, and agents scramble to get ready for the fight to come. They pass Hill, the only person appearing calm in the middle of the storm. She’s formidable in the chaos of it all, head held high and barking orders as sharply as Peggy’d always done.

“Turbine’s lose!” she calls to them as they rush by. “It needs to be fixed from the outside! It’s a two-man job, Rogers, you stay with Stark!”

“On it,” Stark responds, quick as any soldier. Huh. So, he can take orders.

They turn down another hallway, getting closer to the exterior walls of the Helicarrier. Stark yells at Steve to head for the turbine before turning left to a storage room, the door unsealing at once at his approach. There’s a glint of red and gold, and then Steve’s already passed by.

Christ, this fuckin’ thing sure wasn’t designed for ease of exit.

It takes another five minutes before he finally locates a door that leads to the deck—well, not the deck, but outside, at least, on some kind of deck. The door would’ve been impossible for anyone but maybe Thor to open by themselves, sticking to its frame and refusing to budge until Steve simply rips it open.

Wind and the acrid stench of burning metal smacks him in the face.

From there, the turbine is fairly easy to find. He just follows the big plume of smoke and the flames reaching for the sky, until he nearly stumbles on a small squad of windblown engineers in hazmat suits, all desperately trying to dose the worst of the fire. The second they spot him, they redouble their efforts, finally dousing the flames before fleeing inside on his command. Best not to have anyone else out here with them; Steve can’t work on fixing an engine—which: how the fuck is he going to accomplish that anyway, Stark better walk him through this if he’s to be of any help—and keep an eye on the engineers at the same time.

A red-and-gold blur streaks past him, Stark only just turning to him long enough to lob a small, hard earpiece at him before heading straight for the turbine. Steve clumsily fits it into his ear. Are these things supposed to be this uncomfortable? It feels like his skin is rebelling at the mere touch of it.

Stark’s already blabbering. “—I gotta get this superconducting cooling system back online before I can access the rotors and work on dislodging the debris, stand by.” Steve doesn’t have a perfect view of what’s going on, but he thinks Stark might be pulling the broken rotors away before diving in between the parts that are actually salvageable. He talks as he works, narrating his movements almost like he’s going to go over them again later. It’s quite fascinating, Steve’s sure, he just can’t appreciate it very much, never having had the interest. Bucky would’ve—

Not now!

When Stark pops up again, the eerily expressionless-yet-somehow-angry face of his helmet is turned towards Steve. “I need you to get to that engine control panel and tell me which relays are in overload position!

The control panel in question is on the other side of a giant tear in the Helicarrier wing. Steve takes stock, doesn’t look down, and takes a small running start before leaping across. He lands at the very edge, his heels meeting nothing but air and making him tip backways just a little. For a second, he’s in another country, on a train, in the middle of winter, and somebody’s screaming. He runs from the memory as he runs for the control board.

The board is behind a protective coverage that’s been slightly dented. Steve pries it open and stares; multiple red lights flash at him, and it has what seems like dozens and dozens of buttons and dials. Shit.

What’s it look like in there?” Stark asks.

“Well,” Steve says, bracing himself for sounding like a complete idiot. “It sure does run on some form of electricity.”

A moment of silence, then Stark quips, “Well, you’re not wrong.”

Somehow, that settles something in Steve, makes him breathe a little easier. Tony isn’t mad at him, isn’t going to start yelling at him again. It’s fine, he’s calm; they can do this.

Over the noise of the failing turbine and the remaining ones working overtime, Steve thinks he hears a monstrous roar. Does the Helicarrier seem to be shaking, or is that just him?

Painstakingly, he describes the layout of the board, growing more and more confident as Tony doesn’t berate him or get upset with how long it takes. On the other side of the comm are the sounds of more debris being blasted away, but not once does Tony interrupt unduly or chatter as he works, despite this obviously being habit for him.

He finally gets to what Tony confirms to be the relays. “They’re intact,” he reports. “What now?”

Even if I clear the rotors, this thing won’t re-engage without a jump,” Tony narrates. “I’m gonna have to get in there and push.

“Tony, no—if that thing gets up to speed, you’ll get shredded.”

Not if you stay in the control unit and reverse polarity long enough to disengage mag—”

Layman’s terms!

There’ll be a red lever somewhere,” Tony says immediately, “Go stand by it, wait for my word!

There sure isn’t a red lever anywhere on the control board, so Steve looks around with as much calm and poise as he can. When he doesn’t immediately see it, he does get a little panicked. Just then, Thor’s hammer smashes through another exterior wall, drawing the eye, before reversing its course seemingly on its own and diving back through. Because Steve looks up, he spots the lever—once again just on the other side of the gorge. Who the hell designed this shit?

He leaps back across, and a small squadron of men comes into sight. They’re all in S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms but seem way too calm for all that the Helicarrier is falling apart around them, and Steve narrows his eyes at them. He’s immediately spotted—damn this blue monstrosity of a tactical pajamas!—and one of the men lobs a grenade at him.

Batting it away with his hand like an angry cat (a move that would’ve gotten him yelled at for hours back in the war, not just by Bucky, but by every single Howlie, especially Morita), Steve only glances between the lever and Tony for a brief moment before throwing himself straight into the fight.

Because they’re obviously not in their right minds, he tries to keep his strength contained, but with his blood up and battle instincts engaged, he hits more than hard enough to send a few guys sprawling with a single punch, cartilage and bone cracking under his knuckles. The fight reminds him eerily of another battle, one between he and some HYDRA soldiers in Azzano, back when he was still unused to death and his stomach roiled at having dealt it. Now, he doesn’t even stop to check whether the guards are alive or not, just piles them up in a semi-safe area between the wall and a railing, then scoops up one of their huge rifles and sprints back towards the lever.

Where more men have arrived. Great.

Time passes in the blink of an eye and yet stands still as well. He has to remind himself not to shoot to kill, a thought he never would’ve had to have if he hadn’t left Brooklyn and gone to war. It’s just… it’s so easy, unlike the focus he has to put into holding back, but that knowledge is the only thing keeping him in check.

On another note: he’d kill for his shield right about now. Why the hell did he leave it inside?

Glancing down, the ocean below seems closer, and the wind roars louder. Tony’s in his ear, responding to a message that Steve isn’t privy to. His voice only just surfaces above that of the rotors he’s trying to push back into functionality.

The break in Steve’s concentration is a mistake. One of the men makes a particularly fine shot, forcing Steve to dodge or take a bullet to the chest—and while this suit does have some Kevlar in the chest region, this kind of rifle will not be stopped by that at such close range. It’s a stupid move, made out of desperation, and he takes a tumble over the edge, banging his chin on the way down.

It’s sheer chance that he manages to seize hold of a loose cable. It gives at first, being pulled from its stays and dropping Steve further into the nothingness of free air. His heart is beating so fast, it feels like it’ll be leaving his body before long.

Also, did something just fall out of the Helicarrier, or was that a figment of his imagination?

Of course, that’s the moment Tony yells, “Cap! I need the lever!

“I need a minute here!” Steve yells back, pulling himself upwards. It’s not easy, holding on to the smooth cable, and his hands are shaking so bad, keep it together, Rogers.

Lever! Now!” Tony’s voice has a slightly panicked pitch to it. Just as the words leave his mouth, there’s a clunk followed by a series of worse, harsher sounding rattles and a lot of ‘ow, ow, OW’s.

Steve pulls himself onto firm ground, finally. The guys he was fighting are nowhere to be seen. Rather than going looking, he quickly hobbles to the lever, pulling it and looking towards the turbine. Tony comes tumbling out below, being ejected like dirty bathwater into the street. He drops and Steve’s stomach does, too, but right himself and soars upwards once more, seemingly unhurt.

He lands a little awkwardly, his iron suit even buckling slightly at the knees. Steve pulls him towards the wall where they both collapse against it. Steve manages to grunt out an inquisitive noise that he hopes is enough of an ‘are you okay?’; Tony responds with an affirmative, if tired-sounding, hum.

Now that the turbine spins without impediment, the sounds of battle are clearer, gunfire and shouts. Tony and Steve look at one another, then get laboriously to their feet. It’s not over yet.

Except, just as they get inside and start down the hallway, Tony stops cold. In the relative quit of the interior, Fury’s voice over Tony’s comm is audible to Steve, and the message comes like a punch to the jaw. “Coulson is down.”

“Let’s go, what’s their location?” Steve barks, Tony repeating it to Fury.

“There’s no use,” they’re told. “Paramedics are here. They called it.”

They’re to report in, so they head downstairs to the bridge. Information keeps coming in over the comm; Thor’s taken a tumble, so has the Hulk—this makes Tony seize up, his face going from dazed to scared to numb—Romanoff’s got Barton, he’s unconscious, and the fighting is dying down.

But Loki’s gone; they got him out.

At the table on the bridge, they review the video of his escape; Thor’d run to his brother the second the Hulk had fallen, hammer at the ready. On the video, Loki watches the chaos descend with eager malice on his face, eyes on the spider-web fractures along the walls of his glass cell as they grow ever outwards. When they finally break apart fully, Thor makes a grab for him—whether to keep him there or run off and take his chances, who knows. Steve’d like to think it was to keep him there, but with the Helicarrier coming down around them and the distrust between Thor and S.H.I.E.K.D., who knows. Had it been his brother, Steve would have made a run for it, too.

But the second Thor touches him, Loki disappears, sending Thor stumbling forward into the cell; the doors slam shut, not at all broken, but fully functional. There are no fractures, never were, just illusions; the guard stationed outside the cell looks up at the camera, eyes blue and sightless. Thor is caught.

But Coulson has arrived.

The fight is short, simple, and brutally ended. Despite carrying one of the HYDRA-copied guns, Loki is too fast, and the mind-fucked guard has brought him his spear, too. It goes through Coulson like a hot knife through butter.

Tony doesn’t make a sound, but his breath stutters as they watch. Surprisingly, Steve notes that Loki seems unmoored, too, lingering strangely above the dying man. His movements aren’t as fluid, his voice not as soft, like he’s fighting just to stay standing. He goes to the control panel, stutters over the button that’ll send his former cell hurtling from the sky.

The brothers’ eyes meet, hold. Thor calls Loki’s name in the most broken of voices, hopelessly hopeful. But Loki’s hand comes down, the latch disengages, and Thor is gone.

Rather than looking satisfied, Loki wastes several moments staring at the space where his brother was just seconds ago. The video isn’t too high-quality, but Steve thinks there’s some kind of war being waged behind his eyes, almost as if the light is playing tricks as he just stands there, pale blue shadows moving over him. Is this another trick, another illusion?  

Finally, Loki turns, but just as he’s about to walk out, Coulson makes his last stand. “You’re gonna lose,” he says weakly, voice barely loud enough to be picked up by the cameras. Steve’s shoulders are so tense it’s a miracle he hasn’t shattered bone; Tony looks the same, grave and pale.

Watching the dying man, a semblance of softness falls upon Loki. “And why is that?”

A breath, stuttering and painful. “You lack conviction.” He fires the HYDRA gun, hitting Loki in the shoulder and sending him crashing backward.

The recording cuts out and there’s nothing but deafening silence on the bridge.

Chapter Text

They’re given clean clothes (well, Tony brought his own, but someone manages to find Steve some combat pants and a blue sweater that is at least one size too small, but thankfully somewhat stretchy) and told to clean themselves up, get their heads on straight. Despite the clean-up going on around them, Fury finds the time to sit Tony and Steve down in a small office and stay with them for a little while, obviously needing a breather, too. Tony’s all restless anxiety, fluttering angrily about the room, while Steve stands with his arms crossed and back to the wall, surveying the other two.

Something has thawed in him towards Tony, soothing the lingering hurt of his dismissal from the first time they met. Even the riotous anger he’d felt just an hour ago has ebbed completely, leaving him drained. The loss of Coulson is regrettable, of course it is, but to Steve, it’s just like the loss of any soldier. He hadn’t really known the man, so he couldn’t really grieve him.

Honestly, he’s more worried about Thor. He doesn’t voice that, though. It wouldn’t be right.

At the table, Fury shuffles personnel files around, signing off on various certificates. The life of a spy doesn’t lend itself to much transparency at home, and the letters that’ll be sent out to the families are going to be heavily redacted. Had someone gone over Bucky’s letter the same way, leaving the Barneses rootless and heartbroken from his loss with no clue what had really happened? Had any part of Steve’s original letter been included, or had it been a formal, emotionless note that merely signed the date and death of their beloved son and brother?

His eyes sting.

Fury pulls a small pack from one of his inner pockets, something colorful and spattered with blood. The smell sticks in Steve’s nose even from across the room.

“These were in Phil’s jacket,” Fury says, thumbing one of the stains slowly. He flickers a look at Steve. “Guess he never did get you to sign them.”

For some reason, that hurts. He’d only just met Coulson—when would he have found time to sign the cards? There was something going on all the damn time, he’s barely slept in the last twenty-four hours, and then the fight. And yet, Fury makes it sound like he went out of his way to avoid it.

He slides the little deck of cards across the table. They fan out from their neat stack, but all make their way towards Steve. He picks one up carefully, praying for his hands not to shake. Gabe stares out from the card, not at Steve, but into the distance. It’s a very well-drawn portrait, obviously based on an actual photo, but still slightly altered from reality; Gabe’s skin had never been that smooth, had been marked by little scars from long, intense bouts of acne during his teen years. But somehow, this beautiful rendering seems more real to Steve than anything else has since he woke up.

“We’re dead in the air up here,” Fury goes on. “Our communications, the location of the cube, Banner, Thor—I got nothing for you. Lost my one good eye. Maybe I had that coming.”  He licks his lips, then finally turns fully towards them. “Yes, we were going to build an arsenal with the Tesseract, going off HYDRA replicas at first. I never put all my chips on that number though, despite what the WSC wanted. I wanted to play something even riskier. There was an idea—Stark knows this, we invited him several times—called the Avengers Initiative. It was first proposed back in the 90s, but it was rejected time and time again, even after 9/11. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, to see if they could be something more; if they could work together when we needed them to; if they could fight the battles that we ordinary people never could. Phil died still believing in that idea, in the notion of heroes—”

Tony storms out, the sliding doors somehow managing to slam behind him. Steve starts upright, too. Tony had had his back, had trusted Steve to help him. If nothing else, there’s that to keep him grounded, and Tony shouldn’t be alone right now.

“Well, it’s an old-fashioned notion,” Fury says softly as the doors close.

*

For such short legs, Tony moves pretty fast when he puts his mind to it. He makes it all the way to the room with the empty cell before Steve catches up with him, approaching slowly so as not to set Tony off. Tony stands over the spot where Coulson died, still as tree in a storm—which is to say, not at all.

“You knew him well?” Steve asks carefully.

Tony shrugs. “He was the one they’d always send to try and talk me into joining. Pepper likes—liked him.”  A shaky breath. “Said he had a good heart.”

Steve’s not going to ask who Pepper is; she sounds important to Tony, and that’s really all that matters. “I’m sorry. He seemed like a good man.”

“He was an idiot,” Tony snaps, turning to Steve with blazing eyes. Steve’s brows go up, and Tony goes on, voice wrecked, “Who the fuck tries to take on a god alone? Why not bring back-up? Why not go for the control board first, get Thor out? Why—”

“He was doing his job. It was his choice.” Give him the dignity of his choice.

Tony is not to be calmed. “He was out of his league! He should’ve waited! He should have… he should’ve—”

“Sometimes there isn’t a way out, Tony.” The air smells cold, sharp. His mouth tastes like snow.

Tony paces angrily, arms now wrapped around himself. Despite the facial hair and the several years he has on Steve—according to Steve’s internal count, at least—he looks so much like a child in this moment, so unlike Howard. Howard would’ve pretended loss and grief didn’t touch him at all, despite it being plain for all to see that it had.

“Right, of course. And how did that work for him?”

“Is this the first time you’ve lost a soldier?”

Tony spins, livid. “We are not soldiers!

“Then what do you call the men who go to war?”

“I—it doesn’t matter. I am not marching to Fury’s fife, so put that thought right outta—”

“Neither am I, Tony!” Steve starts pacing now, too. “He’s got the same blood on his hands that Loki does. He lied to us, he probably still is in some way or other, he didn’t listen when the one ally we had who actually knew Loki tried telling us that something was wrong, and now look at how that worked out! But we need to put that aside and get this done. You and Banner—no, listen, Tony—you were working on the whys of the Tesseract, yeah? You said he needs a power source, if we can just put together a list—”

Tony blinks. “He made it personal.”

“Uh, that’s not where I was going, and that’s not really the point is it?”

“No, Cap, that is the point. That’s Loki’s point. He hit us all right where we live, like he knew they were gonna call us all in. Thor was already compromised, Bruce was already stressed as hell, all they needed was a push—and the mind-fucked S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. You don’t wanna hurt your friends when they’re not in their right minds, yeah? So, the fighting had to be limited to non-lethal, had to be our every focus. But why tear us apart in the first place?”

“We weren’t a threat,” Steve says slowly. “But he made sure to be seen in Berlin.”

“So, he gets our attention, gets onboard, makes it clear that we’re his opponents. Why make an enemy out of the one organization that might pull itself together long enough to come for you? To prove himself? Why? Who is his audience?”

“He wasn’t the focus in Stuttgart,” Steve supplies.

“No, the doctor was—or rather, the scepter. He made us focus on the scepter specifically, knew we’d take it with us. You saw it pulse in the lab, right? It did… it did something to us. Why show us his hand? We already knew he’d used the scepter to mind-whammy the missing agents. He puts on a show, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, isn’t it? Don’t look at this hand, look at that one! He gets our attention, makes it so that we can’t look away. He says he wants a crown, wants something more than he’d ever have had on Asgard, the throne, the army, probably a monument built to the sky with his name in lights—” Tony stops short, blinks. Then, he starts running. “Son of a bitch! I know where he’s going! Get Romanoff!

*

Steve finds Romanoff in a small, secluded medical suite.

For all that he’s heard that she led the Hulk on a chase through the Helicarrier—probably causing a lot of extra damage, but then, she’d been running for her life, so Steve gets not thinking about property damage first—she doesn’t appear nearly as shaken as anyone else would’ve be. Unprepared for his sudden appearance, sure, but apart from the blood in her hair and a blossoming bruise on her face, she looks pretty put together.

Upon seeing him, she gets to her feet and moves in front of him, subtly blocking him from the door to the ensuite bathroom. He can hear running water, and something that sounds like choked cries, sniffles dying a quick death as someone tries to regulate their breathing.

“Time to go,” Steve tells her, not looking at the door. She wouldn’t take that well.

She tilts her head at him. “Go where?”

“I’ll tell you on the way.” Tony might say they need her, and Steve knows she’s good at her job, but he doesn’t entirely trust her. She’s too close to Fury, too at ease with secrets and death. Though, the latter might be one of his sins, too… “We need a jet, let’s go.”

The bathroom door opens. “I’m coming, too.”

Clint Barton, in person, is… well, a hot mess, to be perfectly frank. He’s got a ginormous bruise on his chin—Steve heard something about Romanoff literally knocking sense back into him, this might be the result of that. Despite having wiped his face clear of tear tracks in the bathroom, his nose is still a little pink, and his eyes are red, but his got his shoulders back and chin up, rather like the reflection of the short, thin man that Steve used to see when he looked himself in the mirror.

Still, Steve glances at Romanoff. She cares for this guy, it’s obvious, but she’ll absolutely bench him if he’s more of a danger to the mission than let him tag along. She’s sterner than Steve could’ve been in the same situation.

After a few moments of intense eye contact between her and Barton, she turns to Steve and nods once. Alright, then. “You got a suit?” Steve asks. “Then suit up.”

*

You know what’s worse than Steve’s current suit?

Steve’s current suit but crusty. Despite him not easily working up a sweat, the fight out on the deck managed to not only give him quite the workout, but also poke at both painful memories and lingering anxieties that made him sweat even more. The aroma of the suit is… quite something.

Still, Steve strips out of his actually really comfortable sweater and pulls the suit back on, holding his breath until the last buckle has been clinched, the last zipper zipped. He even puts the stupid helmet on—thankfully not as smelly, given that he hadn’t worn in for the fight.

He grabs his shield and heads out.

Tony meets him in the hallway, suited and booted as well, helmet in his hand. He nods at Steve, mouth pinched tight, and falls in step with him. They walk towards the exit, shoulder-to-shoulder.

“We’re about to do battle with a god and possibly his alien army,” Steve mutters, only just loud enough for Tony to hear. “I trust you at my back, and I want that to go both ways. So, if you’ve got any lingering issues with me, now’s the time.”

Tony stares, snorts. “Trust me, it’s not.”

Tony. What I said in the lab… I wasn’t myself. You’re right, we don’t have time to fix that completely, but I want you to know that I’m sorry.”

“I’m begging you to stop talking.”

“Tony—”

“Fine! Stop saying my name like that! Look, I know you were best pals with my father and all, but—”

“Um, I wasn’t.”

Tony stops dead, blinks at Steve. “What did you just say?”

Steve winces. He’s been taught not to speak ill of the dead, but since Tony keeps harping on it, well. “We worked together, me and Howard. But I didn’t really know him beyond that, actually preferred to stay away from him for the most part. He could get kind of… intense.”

More blinking. Then, hysterical laughter; Tony bends forward to slap his knee, a highly interesting noise arising from the iron-on-iron strike. “Oh god,” he gasps, “I honestly don’t know if you made it better or worse, I can’t—oh my god, my entire life is a lie.”

Steve awkwardly pats Tony on the back. “Are you okay?”

“No, no I am very much not okay, but never mind,” Tony says, an absolutely manic light in his eyes. “Let’s never discuss this again. Now, let’s go, we’re good, Cap, I swear. Pinky promise.”

He’s still chortling when Barton and Romanoff joins them. Romanoff is in her black suit—is it the same one as she’s worn all along? Who knows—the zipper all the way up this time. There’s no use for distraction now, no subterfuge. It’ll be battle, easy as that, and getting debris down her neckline won’t be pleasant. Her red hair is pulled back in a tiny ponytail, another concession.

Clint’s suit is… who the hell designs these things? He’s wearing a completely sleeveless Kevlar vest with a purple V on it, along with black wrist guards, form-fitting combat pants, and heavy boots. There’s a quiver strapped to his back, and he carries a highly technical-looking bow.

Steve doesn’t comment, just nods at them both and walks on.

Up on deck, there’re a few guards stationed around, all looking at the four of them striding forward confidently. Romanoff subtly steers Steve towards the plane they’ll need, herding him like a dog with a sheep. He appreciates that; the planes all look the same, okay? In his day, the difference was way more obvious.

They’re met by a young guard whose voice breaks when talking to them. “You’re not authorized—” he starts, but Steve’s tired.

“Son,” he says in his best Buy War Bonds voice. “Just don’t.”

At his side, Tony cracks up. Even Clint and Natasha smirk.

They board the plane without further ado.

Chapter Text

Bruce comes to naked in a barn amidst a pile of rubble and small flock of curious pigeons. It is not the worst place he has ever woken up, to be honest.

As he starts to sit up and dust himself off, he discovers that he’s not alone. An older guy, a security guard by the look of his uniform, is staring down in the pit of rubble and dirt that Bruce’s landing has made, his face both gobsmacked and severely unimpressed at the same time. For a person who hasn’t met Bruce before the Other Guy, this reaction is really one of the better ones.

“You fell outta the sky,” the guy tells him.

“I’m sorry. Did I hurt anyone?”

“Nah, there’s nobody around here to get hurt. Did scare the hell outta them pigeons though. They appear to have gotten over it.”

Bruce nods. That’s relatively okay. Not great, but… you know. Based on his hellish existence post-serum, it’s practically astounding. “Lucky.”

The guard shrugs. “Or just good aim. You were awake when you fell.”

Bruce freezes. “You saw?” You were here? You met Him?

“The whole thing,” the guard says, waving his hand at the hole in the ceiling. “Right through the ceiling. Big and green and buck-ass nude.” He levels a grandfatherly look at Bruce, throws down a pair of large sweatpants. “Got you these. Didn’t think they’d fit you ‘til you shrunk down to a regular-size fella. They might be a bit big now, but there’s a drawstring.”

“Thank you,” Bruce mumbles, pulling them on and not making eye-contact. He has to leave, has to get back to Calcutta—or maybe not Calcutta, they found him there, maybe Mongolia? There are people there though, maybe he should just run for the hills, find a place with no people, no nothing, live as an animal. He’d wanted to help but look where that got him; retrieved like a secret weapon. There’s got to be somewhere on earth where he can’t hurt anyone with his mere presence…

“Are you an alien?”

Bruce’s head snaps up, and he squints at the guard. “What?

“An alien,” the guard repeats. “From outer space? Like them people that popped up down in New Mexico.”

“… No.”

The guard heaves a sigh. “Well then, son. You’ve got a condition.”

Tell me about it, buddy.

*

Though Bruce would rather make a run for it, the guard is stubborn as a mule and manages to badger him into at least following him to his truck. There, he’s given an oversized flannel and something to eat and drink, the guard graciously sharing half his lunch with him.

It’s salami on rye. Bruce hasn’t had that in years, not since his university days as both a student and a teacher, grabbing a quick lunch with Betty and his other colleagues between classes. The only worry he’d had then was getting his students through their exams. Work and research had been his pride and joy, and he’d collected Ph.D.’s the way other people collect designer cookware.

Life had been so simple, so blessedly easy. He hadn’t talked to his father in years, hadn’t felt the need to, and without the man’s disapproval hanging over him like a dark cloud, he’d learned to trust in himself, to not flinch from his mistakes. He’d had friends, a pretty nice apartment, a partner, a great job. He’d been happy.

How proud he’d been when Ross had come to him, of all people, how vain and reckless with success so close at hand.

And he’d paid for it, hadn’t he? Everything gone in one fell swoop.

Walking onto that Helicarrier, it’d been years since anyone who knew the truth about him had dared look him in the eye. Romanoff had tried, even succeeded for a while, so casually confident in her skills to get him to come with her. One little outburst from the Other Guy, and the façade had slipped. Her distrust had hung in the air like bad perfume, clouding every interaction between them. It had not been a pleasant trip from Calcutta to the US.

And then, Captain Rogers. Meeting him had been like being slapped in the face with Bruce’s every mistake, but the man hadn’t even cared. He’d held Bruce’s gaze, shook his hand without flinching. Even if Bruce hadn’t grown up with stories of his bravery, that simple act alone would’ve made him respect him.

But most of all, there’d been Tony.

God, what an idiot. But for a moment there, he’d felt like Bruce’s idiot friend. Recklessly unconcerned with both his own safety and that of others, Tony had brashly bulldozed through every wall and every non-segue Bruce had tried to put up to keep him at bay. Before he even knew it, he’d told Tony more about himself than he’d done since Betty. Bruce had been… almost charmed.

Now, as he chews through the sandwich, the Helicarrier chase comes back to him in bits and pieces. He remembers the flash of Romanoff’s red hair as she ran from him; little red riding hood fleeing the big bad wolf, girlish in a way that seemed unnatural to her. He remembers the golden god, feels the remnants of the Hulk’s fascination at being matched, and his fury at being beaten back.

God, what a mess. They should’ve never brought him. Tony would’ve figured it out without him, it was all such a waste.

The guard pretends to look the other way as Bruce steals a motorcycle from the barn he crashed into. It’s an older model that’s only just managed to avoid becoming a big ball of broken metal, and the tank is only half full. It’ll get him far enough, though. He’ll figure something else out when the gas runs out. He can’t ask more of the guard; he’s already done too much.

Driving a motorcycle is not exactly something he’s done often. In fact, he never has before, but the mopeds and scooters that are so popular in the East have given him enough confidence to at least gun the engine a little bit while still keeping the bike on course.

Note to self: driving a motorcycle without footwear? Never again.

He’s heads north, spots a sign in the distance, noting the turnoffs. One of them reads New York, so that’s the one he’s not going to take. There’s nothing for him there.

But…

If Loki escaped… he will be bringing an army down on New York. That is, if he hadn’t just had the Tesseract placed there as a diversion, but the army will come no matter what. Bruce doesn’t think so, though; he’d need a hell of a power source to maintain the portal, and he had mentioned Tony, indirectly. What greater power could he find on such short notice than the energy produced by Stark Tower?

It’d be the rational choice. Loki might not have been all that rational, but he hadn’t exactly been stupid either, knowing just how to rattle them all.

Bruce is not going. He’s not.

They don’t want him there. Well, Tony might still. And Bruce could be of use. Might be able to disengage the portal or let the Other Guy at this alien army. He wouldn’t be in the way, might do good. He wouldn’t be a danger to them, would be distracted, at least nominally.

But Romanoff might not agree. Captain Rogers might not, not after actually having seen the damage he’d wrought. Thor might not.

So, Bruce is not going. It’s not good for his stress levels.

Nope.

Not going.

Goddammit.

Chapter Text

Afterwards, many, many months down the road, the memory of Loki’s time on Midgard will all feel like a horrible, far off dream, one he can barely even remember some days. Not as horrible as the actual torture he went through, of course, and the memory of that will never leave him. Still, not exactly pleasant. At the time it all happens, he’s buried so deeply beneath the Mad Titan’s tortures and the scepter’s powers, and the faintest glimpse of who he used to be is more like a little death than anything resembling an escape.

He’d like to think he made those glimpses count.

As this miscreant, all he has is rage, envy, and greed. All that matters is proving his point, winning the argument. He can’t remember the whys and hows, or even a time before being like this anyway. They deserve what he’s doing to them. That’s all he knows.

He’s already at Stark Tower by the time they catch up with him.

Stark has come alone, flying ahead of whatever backup is fast approaching on his heels. After first trying to disarm the Tesseract coming to life via the machinery on the roof (and failing), he touches down elegantly on the extravagant landing stage that’s on the same floor as the living quarters. Seemingly calm, he lets his suit fall away as he strides in to meet Loki.

Something in Loki whispers slyly, speaks to the festering pride inside of him, no longer set for glory but for ruin. He wants to lay wreckage to this place and to be seen. The Titan bids it.

When Stark veers towards the bar rather than Loki himself, Loki feels a smile pull up. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to appeal to my humanity.”

“Uh, actually,” Stark says, setting out glasses and a bottle of clear liquor. “I’m going to threaten you.”

Loki looks him up and down. Despite the slight bulk in his upper body, Stark is no match for him, even taking away the mortal aspect of it all. “You should’ve left your armor on for that.”

“Yeah, probably,” Stark agrees placidly, shrugging. “That one’s seen a bit of mileage though, and you’ve got the whole ‘blue stick of destiny’ thing going on, not sure it’d survive that. You want a drink?”

“Stalling me won’t change anything.”

“No, no, no! I’m threatening you. No drink? You sure? I’m having one.” He throws one back, makes a face. “Who let the cheap liquor in here? I bet it was Rhodey, that scoundrel.”

“The Chitauri are coming,” Loki says—warns? “Nothing will change that. What have I to fear?”

“The Avengers.” A beat; Stark makes a face. “It’s what we call ourselves, we’re sort of like a team. ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ type of thing, I know it’s a bit on the nose, take it up with Fury.”

“Your compatriots, I assume. I’ve met them.”

Stark smiles. “Yeah, not real impressive at first glance, I’ll give you that one. Takes us a while to get any traction, lotta kinks to work out, you know. But—let’s do a headcount here. We’ve got: your brother, the god—demi-god? Doesn’t matter; a supersoldier and living legend who kinda lives up to the legend, much as it pains me to admit that, thanks dad; a guy with breath-taking anger management issues and enough intellect to unfuck this whole mess afterwards; and a couple of master assassins, one of whom has a grudge and the other is just plain mean. And you, big fella, you’ve managed to piss off every single one of them.”

“Now don’t be modest. I’m sure you’re dying to add yourself to their number. And besides, pissing them off was rather the plan.” Right? That’s what the Titan bid him do, wasn’t it? He can’t remember. The orders are… he can’t remember. His own voice whispers an affirmative.

Stark prattles on heedlessly. “Not a great plan. When they come—and they all will—they’ll come for you.” He’s fiddling with the bottle now, setting it down into the cabinet beneath the bar and shuffling around for another.  

“I have an army.”

“We have a Hulk.”

“That wandered off.”

“You’re missing the point,” Stark claims confidently. Something shiny sits at his wrists. “There’s no throne. In fact, there is no version of this where you come out on top. Okay, so maybe your army comes and maybe it’s too much for us, but. Even if we can’t protect the Earth… you can be damned sure we’ll avenge it.”

Loki’s heard enough; up above, the Tesseract gains traction, pulling at the tip of the scepter almost imperceptibly. They’re coming; it’s happening as the Titan said it would. Time’s up, changing child, you served your purpose.

He strides forward, suddenly awash with unfounded fury, grown from spark of annoyance he hadn’t even been aware of until now. Quickly reaching Stark, he taps the point of the scepter on his chest. It makes an odd noise that he ignores, too busy taking in the fear flickering over Stark’s face.

“How will your friends have time for me… when they’re so busy fighting you?”

He taps again and wills the scepter to steal Stark’s mind.

It just plinks uselessly against his chest. Frowning, Loki does it again, harder this time. Stark takes a step back to keep from stumbling but doesn’t otherwise react. He looks down.

“Performance issues aren’t anything to be ashamed of,” he says over-earnestly.

Rage flares. Unthinkingly, Loki seizes Stark by the neck and hurls him through one of the large windows that make up the outside wall of the tower. It splinters but doesn’t crack, and Stark gets back on his feet quickly—though not entirely painlessly.

“JARVIS, anytime now!” he calls with winded breath.

Loki’s already on him, and this time, the window breaks when Stark hits it. He’ll fall to his death. They’ll all fall before Loki now. Is that his voice? It doesn’t feel like it? Why did he—what’s happening—

Something red zooms past him, almost knocking him down. It heads straight for Stark, expanding into a different version of his iron suit. Fully encased, he rises in flight, like something out of the tales Loki was told as a child. Wait. What tales? Who told him? He can’t remember. He can’t remember

“There’s one other person you pissed off,” Stark is saying, palms up and glowing. “His name was Phil.”

The blast hits Loki right in the face. As he goes down, he feels the pull of the scepter and the Tesseract, soaring into the sky, and he falls into himself, alone in his head at last.

*

He unearths himself like a creature buried alive. The scepter is next to him, and he flinches from it. It’s been seconds, hours, months since he breathed easy, but above him, an army rains out like locusts from the giant hole in the sky.

Loki climbs unsteadily to his feet, breath choppy. This is what he wrought.

He knows exactly what’s happened, every little thing he’s done. His very soul is dirtied, and he knows they’ll come for him in the end to break him once more. He knows too much of their plans, has already given too much away in the little windows of self he managed to eke out between orders.

There’s not stopping this, no—

Thunder roars and Thor lands across from him. The sight of his brother leaves him momentarily breathless; Thor had tried to pull him back up onto the Bifrost, despite Odin’s dispassionate face and his total disregard for Loki’s turmoil. Does Thor know now? Does he know that Loki’s not Aesir, not even Vanir? Does he find him despicable? Well, more than his recent actions and that pesky little attempted murder might’ve made him seem.

Will he be found worthy of a quick death in the end?

He says nothing of that. “My eyes are green,” he snaps instead.

Thor lowers Mjolnir. “Loki?”

“It’s me. How many stupid opportunities do I have to give you—”

Thor barrels into him, arms around him in a crushing hug. What a dolt; doesn’t he know to check whether Loki’s lying first? Gods, you’d think no one ever taught him self-preservation. Loki’s tempted to stab him just to put a little common sense into him.

“Loki, turn off the Tesseract,” Thor orders after pulling away.

Loki winces. “So… I can’t do that. I assure you I want to, but there’s no stopping it now. Thor—listen to me! It’s not just the Chitauri. Thanos sent them.”

Thor curses and looks up; the Chitauri are still coming through, untold in number now. The city’s burning, and screams carry on the wind. He doesn’t look like he fully believes Loki (which: fair), but it’s either fighting with him or fighting against them.

“I have to—” Thor says, starting towards the battlefield. He throws another look back, not keen to leave. “But—”

“Go,” Loki tells him. “I’ll wait.”

Thor doesn’t believe him. But he goes.

Loki makes his way back inside, fully intending to hide out until the battle’s over. His strength is low, he can barely glamour himself right now, but maybe after… if he just gathers himself, waits it out. He’ll pretend to be another Chitauri (or human, should the Avengers managed to actually win), he’ll be able to get away.

But…

They did this to him. They held him in their filthy cells, starved him, ridiculed him, and then they gave him to him. To Thanos. And oh, how cruel his attentions. Would they ever had ended had he not been distracted by the resurgence of the Tesseract? Or would he still be in that cage, peeled apart, forced to show his true face, beneath the Aesir mask, until everything was ice and darkness?

Those who live will suffer the same fate. The people below, Thor fighting for their little lives.

They tried to break him, Loki, the god of mischief. Frigga’s son, Thor’s brother. Silvertongue. The first Frost Giant to achieve godhood, the changeling in the palace.   

A Chitauri comes through the window, howling for blood. And Loki lets go of his fear.

They may be strong, but his knives are sharp. There’ll be time to run, after.

Chapter Text

So: good news and bad news. Good news: I shot Loki in the face. Also, Thor just showed up—though I guess that might not be good news, depending on how he takes me shooting his brother in the face. Bad news: everything is awful, the sky is falling, and there are aliens everywhere, where the hell are you?

“We’re almost there, Tony, hold on,” Steve assures him, desperately pretending that the swarm of aliens above New York City doesn’t shake him to his core. They’re close enough to the city that he can just glean Tony weaving in and out between the buildings with dozens of aliens on his tail.

“We’re coming in from the northeast,” Natasha chimes in. Despite her outwardly calm appearance, her voice shakes with how tightly she’s working to hold it together.

What, did you stop for drive-through, Miss Daisy? Swing up Park, I’ll lay ‘em out for you real clean. Tweety-bird, you as good with cannons as you are with a bow?

“Watch me,” Clint replies.

They’re just coming up on Park when Tony leads the Chitauri out onto the street. They’re large, maybe one-and-a-half times as large as a human, with features that are both insectoid and humanoid. Their skin is grey, and they carry armor and weapons that look a hell of a lot more advanced than what’s available on Earth, even counting the HYDRA guns.

Tony dives, and it’s a free for all for Clint.

He takes out the aliens without flinching, almost calms as he pulls the trigger. For a moment, Steve’s in a forest in Europe, and everything smells like dirt and leaves and blood, and Clint’s hair is dark. He stumbles back into the present, savagely cutting off his memory. Later, he begs, later, I’ll remember it all. I won’t look away.

Over the comms, a British voice—soon revealed to be the highly-esteemed JARVIS—informs them that more Chitauri are incoming, and Tony flies off to meet them. That’s about the time that an alien gets a shot at them. It’s a terror-filled decent down onto the pavement, Clint doing his all to keep them from crashing too bad.

Only sheer force of will keeps Steve from falling straight into another, worse memory.

The second the amp’s down, he runs onto the street, Clint and Natasha on his heels. The city has already descended into chaos; though there are only a few people still outside on the street, those that are left have the kind of horror-struck expressions you only see in active warzones, a mixture of numbness and nightmarish disbelief. Overturned cars litter the area, several buildings are smoldering, and above, aliens zoom past, raining destruction in their path.

Steve feels terribly, heartbreakingly incapable of handling this. He’s got a gun and a shield, for Christ’s sake, Natasha’s got some guns, and Clint’s got a fuckin’ bow. They’re going to be eaten alive.

But.

You always stand up.

At that moment, a bone-shattering bellow echoes from beyond the edges of the portal above. Steve’s breath stutters to a stop as a large creature floats from that world and into this. It’s a huge, millipede-like monster, something half-machine and half-living thing, with a maw big enough to swallow a house whole. From its underbelly stream more Chitauri, unhooking from its exoskeleton like remoras detaching from a shark.

“This isn’t how I planned on dying,” Clint jokes weakly, staring up at that monstrosity of a beast. “Though I guess I’m older than I’d ever counted on being.”

“Same,” Steve says, taking heart from Clint’s slightly hysteric guffaw. “Stark, are you seeing this?”

I’m seeing, still working on believing,” Tony replies, sounding as rattled as they are. “Banner there yet?

“Not real sure we should pin our hopes there, Tony.”

Just keep me posted. JARVIS, find me a soft spot.”

The lighting above calls them to battle, the small speck that is Thor engaging the Chitauri in the air.

Steve and his fellow Avengers get to work. Hunkering down behind an upside-down taxi, they divide the area between them; Steve’ll be heading for the overpass where a few people are trying to hide from the Chitauri, Natasha will hold the street, and Clint will head for high ground.

That decided, Steve heads into battle.

The people beneath the overpass are clad in rags and smell musty; homeless folks, unable to seek out a safer spot, or possibly unwanted. Their every possession in the world are carried on their backs, making it both easier and harder for them to flee. More to carry, more to lose, but also more to keep close. Too many of them are young, barely out of their teens.

Steve throws himself at the Chitauri, heedless of any injury he might sustain. He hurls the shield every which way, fights the aliens with his fists and feet and sheer, unadulterated determination. This is his city, the city that Bucky had loved despite their few ups and many downs. It’s not the same as it was back then, but if they get to Brooklyn and the museum exhibition of what used to be their apartment, so help him God. Steve’ll die before they take that from him, too.

The noises the aliens make are nightmarish, an animalistic chittering that chills him through and through.

Once the people beneath the overpass are free to make a run for it to safety inside a restaurant, Steve moves on. He sprints down the street, using overturned cars as steppingstones. Adrenaline has kicked in, masking his fear, and he feels like he’s almost soaring. It’d been like this back in the war, once the blood and guts stopped getting to him so much; sometimes he’d forget where he was and even what he was doing, going through the fight like he needed it just to breathe.

Just like Budapest,” Natasha says nonsensically over the comms.

You and I remember Budapest very differently then,” Clint replies between twangs of his bowstring.

And the battle goes on.

Up ahead, a small police blockade is doing it’s best to keep the street safe. It’s a Sisyphean struggle, the officers at a loss and the aliens legion. The sergeant in charge keeps barking for back-up in his shoulder mic; send the army, the bloody National Guard, anyone!

Steve lands on the top of one of their cars, uncaring of their disbelieving stares. Ain’t nothing I’ve never tried before, they shoulda seen me in shorts if they think this is bad. “You need men in these buildings,” he orders, indicating the ones he means. “There are people inside that can run into the line of fire. You take them through the basement or through the subway, keep them off the streets. I need a perimeter as far back as 39th.”

“Why the hell should I take orders from you?” the sergeant argues, despite the younger cop at his side already jumping to follow orders. He eyeballs his superior with pinched lips.

Behind Steve, there’s an explosion as a Chitauri crashes to the ground, one of Clint’s arrows sticking out of its weird air-scooter thing. Sadly, the alien doesn’t go down with it, springing to its feet and aiming at its gun at Steve.

He ducks behind the shield, plants his feet for the strength of the blast. They don’t use bullets, rely on some kind of energy-laser blasts, like something out of the cheap paperbacks that had filled the bookshelves in his old apartment. It bounces off his shield all the same.

And look! The Chitauri’s got a friend. Wonderful.

Pulling a move he’d just seen Natasha do, Steve flings himself through the air towards them, cat-like, landing in between the two. He throat-punches one, sends it stumbling back. With the other, he aims for the hands first, disarming it. He beats it back using his shield, roundhouse kicks the one coming up behind him. In a move that would have made Peggy Carter proud, he uses the split second of forward momentum between being rushed and being caught, pulling the Chitauri in instead of dodging. At the last moment, he twists away, and it gores its friend in Steve’s place.

Then, he decapitates the living one with a single, good swipe of his shield.

When he turns to the officers, the sergeant is already moving to direct his people as Steve’d requested. Looks like the stupid uniform isn’t a detriment to his authority after all.

Or, well. Maybe all the blood now covering it has something to do with it.

*

He’s fighting back to back with Natasha at the intersection of 7th and 31st when another flash of memory overtakes him. It’s not quite so bad as the other ones, and he shakes it off quick, but for a moment, it feels like having Peggy at his back.

Not that there’s anything about Natasha that’s even remotely like Peggy. Sure, they have the same grace in the way they carry themselves, but when fighting, Peggy’d been about as elegant as a two-by-four to the jaw. In contrast, Natasha’s a subtle knife in the dark, somehow holding her own by doing incredible feats of acrobatics and shooting the aliens execution style.

Still, they Chitauri keep coming.

And then, lighting all around around them, burning the Chitauri to crisps. The smell is close to charred fish, and Steve distractedly notes to himself that he’s going to have to lay off seafood for a while now.

Thor looks like he’s been through absolute hell when he lands at their side. His hair’s not exactly coming undone, his braids are too tight for that, but the braids are dishevelled and rather loose compared to what they’d been like on the Helicarrier. There’s soot and sweat stuck to his face, and the edge of his cape is singed.

Steve is pleased as punch to see him, and not just because he just killed twenty Chitauri with one strike. “Glad, you’re alive. Now, you any idea how we can turn that thing off?”

“We can’t,” Thor says, glancing upwards at the portal opening. “Loki says it’s impossible.”

Not to be a party-pooper, but maybe don’t trust a word he says,” Tony pipes in. Steve relays this to Thor, echoing the same sentiments.

But Thor is shaking his head. “He was not himself, he’s better now. The sceptre had his mind, too.”

Sounds fake but okay. In that case, apologies for shooting him in the face.” Tony doesn’t sound overly sad to have done it, though.

“He’s had worse,” Thor says with a shrug.

Steve turns to the incoming Chitauri. “Okay then. Onwards it is.”

“How do we do this, Cap?” Natasha asks as she reloads.

“I’m still gonna punch Loki,” Clint chimes in. He’s come down from his perch, having had to pluck his used arrows from his targets littering the ground. The arrow tips are too disgusting to contemplate for long, trailing slime and what passes as intestines among aliens.

“Later,” Steve urges. “Tony, where do you need—”

The coughing rattle of a struggling motorcycle engine cuts him off.   

All turning, they spot Bruce driving up. The lull between fights allow him to pass almost unobstructed through the rubble, coming to a halt a few yards from them. He’s dressed in an oversized shirt and a pair of sweatpants doing their utmost to sliding down his hips.

Looking around with a wince, he says, “So. This all seems… horrible.”

“I’ve seen worse,” Natasha says bluntly, watching him closely.

Bruce shuffles, but holds her gaze. “Sorry.”

“No,” she says, surprising all of them, even Clint by the looks of it. “We could use a little worse.” And, in an astonishing show of trust, she turns her back on him, guarding their six.

Hope takes root in Steve’s heart.

“Tony? We’ve got Banner,” he reports. “Just like you said.”

Then tell him to suit up,” is the immediate reply. “I’m bringing the party to you.”

A moment later, and Tony comes careening around a corner, trailing one of the giant space whales after him—because oh yes, more have come through the portal. It takes out a line of windows and a wall from one of the passing buildings, but the whole things thankfully doesn’t start coming down. Small mercies.

“This is the worst party,” Natasha deadpans, hands twitching on her guns.

The otherworldly leviathan comes at them with the presence of a runaway freight train. Even Thor takes a step back, readying himself for the confrontation.

Bruce settles into a remarkable sort of calm. He looks at Steve once, and at Steve’s nod, he walks forward to meet his opponent. “You wanted to know my secret?” he asks them all, looking back just once. “To keeping control of the anger? It’s simple. I just stay angry.”

And with that, the Hulk swells out from underneath his skin.

The change would be horrifying to behold at any other point in time, but with the sky alive with the darkness of another world, it’s practically akin to a revelation. Bruce grows and grows and grows until a large, green creature stands in his place, hair dark and eyes keen.

With an unfathomable sort of grace, the Hulk runs straight forward, meeting the leviathan head on and actually stopping it in its path. Their fighting distorts the very air around them, turning them into a roiling, twisting mess until, at last, the Hulk wrestles it down on its back.

Tony hurries to fire, shooting small missiles from his shoulder canons. The leviathan’s softer underbelly gives, exploding outward in a shower of guts and sticky, purple blood. The stink of it is like the East River on a long, unbearably hot summer’s day, but combined with the smell from garbage left to rot in the street.

However, it’s the noise that’s the worst part. The creature keens as it dies, loud enough to send a spike of pain through Steve’s head. Clint picks his earpieces out with a wince, tapping them aggressively against one another to get them back up and running.

But somehow, it doesn’t all seem bad in that moment.

Above, their enemies watch their creature fall, all turning to the Avengers on the ground next. Steve plants his feet and raises his head, shield in hand. At his sides, his team settle into similar positions, back to back and ready to fight.

And for the first time since he woke up, Steve feels like he’s truly alive again.

Chapter Text

Here’s an awful truth about war: no matter how damaging it is for the soldiers sent to die, it’s much worse for the innocent civilians caught in the middle.

In the war, Steve’d seen countless people suffer, from his fellow soldiers going through shellshock or captured and wounded, to the Jewish and Roma people imprisoned, tortured. and murdered in the camps. But the Howling Commandos were never intended as frontline soldiers, and they had mostly been focused on destroying HYDRA camps and holdfasts.

Bucky and the others had seen trench warfare, but Steve hadn’t. He hadn’t had to watch civilians get caught up in the bloody mess.

In urban combat, it’s nothing but civilians getting sucked in.

It’s by far the worst part of fighting, an additional layer to the sheer horror that is the aliens coming through the portal still. No matter how many streets they try to keep clear, how many people they pull out of the line of fire and send down into the relative safety of the subway or into the banks, they can’t save them all. There are dead bodies littering the stalled cars, little children screaming for their parents, wounded people stumbling around in a daze despite the danger overhead.

Why hasn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. sent more troops? The Avengers can’t possibly be the only thing standing between New York (and the world) and total destruction, can they? They’re six people. One is a god, sure, and Steve and Bruce are no ordinary folk, but they’re still just people. Tony, Clint, and Natasha are doing their best, but they’ve been fighting for hours, and they’re starting to flag. When Steve gets close enough, he can see the whites around Clint’s eyes, can see the exhaustion in Natasha’s stance whenever she gets the tiniest second to breathe.

Hell, even Steve’s feeling it.

People are dying all around them, there are more and more aliens popping up, and it seems his team have been abandoned by the one agency that works with this type of shit. Six people against thousands, with more on the way.

Still, they fight. Steve’ll fight until there’s no more breath in his lungs, and even then, he’ll force whatever kills him to personally escort him to the gates of whatever afterlife awaits him. If he follows his old Sunday school teachings, he’s got a pretty good idea that he’ll be taking a long drip over a short cliff and into the pits rather than the staircase up.

If the teachings were right, then Bucky is in heaven, and Steve’ll never see him again.

Guess I’ll have to fight God and the Devil both, he thinks hysterically, punching the daylights out of another goddamn Chitauri. They have two rows of teeth. Don’t ask him how he found that out, it’s not a pleasant tale. But speaking of, his uniform absolutely cannot withstand whatever the hell Chitauri teeth are made of. It sure isn’t like human or even animal teeth.

Above, more Chitauri and leviathans float in from outer space, casual as you please. Maybe he’s already dead and this is hell, maybe he died in the ice. But probably not. That’d be too easy; living is his punishment. Too bad he promised to make the most of it.

When this is over, he’s going to sleep. Fuck the nightmares.  

Cap!” Natasha barks, jerking him out of his thoughts. The fight’s still going on around them, but Steve’s been standing still for at least a few minutes, just staring up at the ever-emerging army.

Call it, Cap,” Tony says, hovering above Steve.

“We gotta contain them,” Steve decides. “Clint, get to that roof, I want eyes on everything. Call out patterns and strays. Tony, you’ve got the perimeter; anything gets more than three blocks out, you turn it back or you turn it to ash.”

“Gimme a lift?” Clint asks, arms raised like a child.

Clench up, Legolas,” is Tony’s reply before they lift off.

“Thor, you’ve gotta try and bottleneck that portal. Slow ‘em down, use the lightning, fry ‘em crisp. Natasha, you and me, we stay here on the ground, keep fighting. And Hulk?” The Hulk grunts excitedly from where he’s been merrily working his way through the horde of Chitauri a few yards from them. “Smash.”

With a cackle that’s more like a roar of thunder, the Hulk leaps half a hundred feet into the air, slamming into buildings left and right as he climbs higher and higher. In his hands, the Chitauri are like toy soldiers, breaking just as easily. He even uses their bodies as clubs or projectile weapons.  

Despite being a few blocks from Empire State Building, Thor’s lightning streaks across the sky in clearly visible patterns that even Steve can see, spiraling out from the spire at the very top of the tower, a lethal spider-web of electricity. It’s beautiful in the same was an avalanche is beautiful; something so awesome you can’t help but be frozen in amazement, even knowing it’ll kill you if you don’t run away.

The lightning work much like putting a band-aid on a stab wound work. Not really, but also a bit. It stems the tide for now.

But the battle never truly breaks. At one point, Steve gets launched straight through a window; he falls two stories down onto a cold, hard marble floor, and honestly, getting up fucking hurts. Oh yes, there’s definitely a misplaced rib—ooh, it popped back, shit, that’s almost worse. The people hiding in the bank are quite horrified; one even goes green at the loud pop. He should have heard the crack Steve’s spine had made that one time he got run over during the war. Bucky had been livid.

Steve leads them out of the bank and into the subway, handing them over to the police guarding the entrance. In the confusion of it all, he thinks he sees Beth, his waitress from the café. It feels like it was a million years ago since he last saw her, these last few days having passed in the blink of an eye. Maybe he should’ve tried to sleep a little, delirium is probably setting in.

She can’t possibly recognize him under the cowl, but she mouths ‘be safe’ at him before being ushered below ground.

Meanwhile, Natasha has liberated one of the Chitauri rifles. Looking at her, you’d think she was born holding one, bracing for the kickback seamlessly, firing with perfect accuracy. But, despite running on some kind of energy, the rifle does have a limited amount of shots, which they find out when she points it at another alien’s face and it just clicks uselessly.

The way she gets swung around like a ragdoll before angrily cutting the alien’s throat is an unforgettable sight, and not in a good way.

Something whines behind Steve, slumping over when he turns. A dead Chitauri. “Keep an eye on your six, Cap!” Clint yells over the comms. “There’s only one of me up here!

Unthinkingly, Steve salutes Clint on his perch. The bark of laughter in his ear chills him; he’d not expected it, and even if he had, it’s not the laugh he would’ve listened for. Clint’s laugh is high-pitched, a little slurred. It’s nothing like the almost giggling Bucky’d never fully grown out of. Though he probably wouldn’t have laughed; it’d always ticked him off to no end when Steve gave away his position with a lazy salute.

“Cap,” Natasha calls. She’s a mess; there are cuts on her face and her suit looks like it’s been through a meat grinder. “None of this is going to matter unless we close that portal.”

“I know. But if Loki said we couldn’t…”

“Well, maybe he’s not the authority on this. He has to have had a use for those NASA engineers he kidnapped, right?”

Widow’s right,” Tony chimes in. “I saw a few people up on the roof when I arrived, all with their hands on the harness for the Tesseract. They were passed out by the time I got close enough.”

“Alright, then if you wanna get up there, you’re gonna need a ride,” Steve tells Natasha.

“I got a ride,” she says, jerking her chin up at a Chitauri flying towards them. “I could use a lift, tough.”

Steve crouches down immediately, shield tilted so that she can use it as a booster for her jump. She meets his eyes and smiles, and she looks so, so much like Maddie, he can’t breathe for the crush of guilt and misplaced sorrow for the little girl he’d so wanted to help. Then she’s running, and all he can do is follow her lead.

With Steve’s strength and Natasha’s skill, it’s no hardship for her to not only grab on to the Chitauri’s flying scooter, but also choke the driver out and gain control of the flying scooter before zipping off. The fate of the world rests in her hands now, all the rest of them can do is fight.

Steve’s not alone on the ground for long.

Tony lands, cracking the pavement with how hard he comes down, shooting at anything that moves. He’s got some training, Steve thinks; there’s something almost familiar in the way he plants his feet, the way he constantly moves around despite the heavy suit. Maybe he boxed in his youth, was taught to keep on his toes, to lower his head, and to not fold his thumb under his other fingers. Keep breathing, Stevie! That’s it, you got it, way to go, pal! You’ll have ‘em on the ropes yet.

Or maybe Steve’s looking for connections where there aren’t any.

They’re surrounded now, Chitauri streaming in. Because they’ve got back-up, unlike some people. Instead of grouching, Steve whistles sharply for Tony’s attention, holding up the shield to reflect the light. Tony catches on at once, throwing out his hands, palms out, and firing; the blasts bounce off the shield in a steady, unbroken stream, and Steve maneuvers the shield around so as to fell each and every enemy around them.

Out the corner of his eye, he notices Clint choking a Chitauri out with his bow. Must have run out of arrows again. He’d been yelling about that earlier. There’d also been some really creative cussing; Morita would’ve been so proud to hear it.  

The city stinks to high heaven. Ozone, dead bodies, blood, trash, vomit, smoke, shit. Tony reported that the firemen had started arriving some time ago, along with other emergency services, but still no fuckin’ backup from either the army or S.H.I.E.L.D.

Do they even want the fucking city saved? Sure doesn’t feel like it.

They’ve been fighting for so long, and Steve’s adrenaline is so high, that the world has started to mimic the feel of a dream. Nothing, no matter how awful or strange it truly is, fazes him. He rips out the jaw of a Chitauri and watches it choke; it dies slowly, and every spurt of purple blood is like a splatter of paint. Tony kills a leviathan by passing straight through it, flying into its mouth and coming out at the other end; gross, but neat. Thor has taken to beating the Chitauri on their heads like a game of extra dangerous whack-a-mole; don’t start laughing, don’t lose it now.

And then, everything goes to shit.

Avengers,” sounds Fury’s voice on the comms. “We have a missile headed straight for the city.”

Tony reacts the quickest, not even pausing to swear. “How long before it hits?

Three minutes at best. It went out before I could shoot it down. Stark, if you stay low, you can take it out before it hits.

Tony flips upwards, shooting off like a rising star. The sun has passed its zenith; a few more hours, and it’ll start to set. When it rises again, will the city still be standing? Or will it be only rubble and corpses, acceptable casualties if the missile can’t be derailed? Who makes a decision like that, who weighs the life of so many people and find them superfluous in the end? When Steve said he wanted back-up he didn’t mean a fuckin’ missile to wipe them all out.

Thor has taken Tony’s place, keeping Steve company in the melee on the ground.

The lightning that had stemmed the flow above ran out some time ago, and the Chitauri are rapidly replacing their fallen comrades. It feels like standing in the middle of the sea, a sea of living, vicious sharks that are all out to eat then. As in, Steve thinks they might actually feast on them at the end of the battle. Those teeth are not for the consumption of salads.

Still, there’s a joy in having Thor at his side. Maybe it’s the easy camaraderie that sprung into existence the moment they met, or maybe it’s the way Thor matches him step for step, punch for punch. If Steve uses his strength to literally barrel through the aliens like a wrecking ball, Thor flips a car and swings it like a bat. If Steve stumbles, Thor is there to prop him up; if Thor faulters, Steve’s there to goad him.

It’s just easy; like they’ve fought together forever.

“Ready for another bout?” Thor asks between breaths.

“What? You gettin’ sleepy?”

The comm in Steve’s ear crackles. “Selvig is up here,” Natasha reports; Steve relays it to Thor, who is without comms entirely. “He says we can close it! I found Loki’s scepter; the tip can disrupt the portal. I repeat, I can shut the portal down!”

“Do it!” both Steve and Thor yell.

No, wait!” Tony calls. “I got the nuke; it’s timed to blow in less than a minute, I can’t stop it. But I know just where to put it.”

The air crackles with silence. Then, “Tony, you know that’s a one-way trip?” Steve asks shakily, just stopping himself from blurting what would Howard say if I let you do that? Tony wouldn’t like that, would probably do it just for that comment, and they’ve only just buried the hatchet. Besides; Steve doesn’t owe Howard shit. The only Stark that matters is Tony, Steve’s teammate. Steve’s to protect, to support.

It’s just… it’s easier to think of what Howard could lose, were he alive, than Steve’s own if Tony doesn’t succeed. Steve can’t bear another loss, not now, not when he’s just started to find his feet. Just days ago, he lost the Commandos, or at least it felt so to him. Weeks ago, Bucky slipped from his fingers.

Christ, how can he keep living when nobody else will?

Chapter Text

You know that’s a one-way trip? Let’s translate that, shall we: are you sure about this?

Which: well. Tony’s 85% sure that this won’t all end with him being blown to bits along with the nuke, maybe 88%. The last twelve-to-fifteen percent though? Well. Blaze of glory and all that. So he doesn’t answer Cap, doesn’t voice his own doubts, just puts his hands slowly around the bomb and tilts it up toward the portal.

“Power down the thrusters, save the rest for return, J.,” he orders, just in case he does make it back through somehow. The bomb will carry him along for now.

Sir, shall I call Miss Potts?

That’s a no-brainer. The only person whose voice he’d rather hear than JARVIS’ would be Pepper’s, any day. Maybe Rhodey’s—but Rhodey might try to liberate the War Machine suit and come slap Tony around for doing this, and Tony doesn’t want him anywhere near New York right now. But on the other hand, Tony doesn’t like being needy, doesn’t even know how to show it properly; when he tries, they always leave. But this time… it might be the last. There’s nothing to lose. “Might as well.”

Over the dial tone, Cap tries to talk to him, but Tony mutes the comm link. No offence to the good Captain, but Tony can’t quite deal with his voice just now. The sincere concern, the bull-headed stubbornness; it’s not for… Tony doesn’t deserve it, alright? He knows what he did, knows that the things he said on the Helicarrier were so far out of line as to have redefined the word ‘rudeness’.

He can’t stand Steve’s kindness, not even now, at the possible end of the world.  

It’s just… he was so angry. Years and years of doubt, anger, and self-loathing had just come bubbling to the surface, unbalancing him. It’s not that Tony’s exactly polite on a good day, he knows himself well enough to never claim that, but he doesn’t go out of his way to antagonize people either. Well, maybe some of them. The ones that annoy him. Or Hammer Industries people who try to bullshit him. Or the senate when they tried to get their hands on the Iron Man suit…

Okay, he’s not always a good person. He’s working on it. Sometimes.

You try breaking down your full history of childhood trauma all on your lonesome and see how quick you stumble on one of the one thousand landmines in your self-worth. See which one ends up setting you off like nothing else every could have.

Like being called by your father’s name, fuck, that had been the fucking worst. It hadn’t been Rogers’ fault, Tony knows this, but hell, just seeing him there in the flesh all of a sudden, no warning, as grand and glorious as his father had always said, it was like flicking on every single one of Tony’s insecurities in a second flat. And to then be mistaken for his father, the one person who’d never given up on recovering Rogers from the ice, the man who Tony’d always thought was the best of friends with Captain America?

Okay, he’ll admit it; it was not his best moment. It’d just… happened. How disappointed he must be, his father’s voice had whispered, to expect me and find you.    

And then the Helicarrier. God, Tony’d really gone for the throat, hadn’t he? Every single thing he’d said were things he’d thought at some point or other during his teen years, back when Captain America had first stopped being a brilliant story and started being the single most hated thing in Tony’s world. The man who had all of his father’s attention even beyond the veil of death, the man who could do no wrong, the man who Howard dropped everything for time and time again in an effort to bring him home.

Sometimes, Tony’d suspected that Howard had never loved anyone as he loved Rogers, not even Tony’s mother. Probably explained their family dynamic—if you could call it that.

How many nights had Tony spent in his room, some broken invention on his hands that hadn’t held a candle to the wonder of Captain America? His father hadn’t broken it, no, no, he hadn’t needed to. He’d just glanced at it and sent Tony from his office with no more than a cursory, “are you playing with your toys again?” Tony’d broken it after, ashamed.

He has daddy issues. He knows this. But they’re his issues, fuck you very much.

The phone isn’t connecting. JARVIS tries again. And again.

He’s climbing higher, miraculous unobstructed by the Chitauri. The portal is coming up fast now, the edges of their own sky fading from the corner of his vision, there’s nothing but the endless black of space now.

Tony—” comes Peppers desperate voice, the connection weak.

And then he’s through. The connection cuts off.

He’s not going to cry.

In space, he’s weightless and cold. The suit already has a layer of ice forming, he can almost feel it in his fingertips. It’d be beautiful out here, wondrous, if it weren’t for the endless mass of Chitauri and leviathan. They seem larger out here, as if they’re growing and multiplying right before his eyes.

Thoughts come slowly, almost sluggishly.

His heart beats so fast, his breaths come in stutters. If this doesn’t work… Earth won’t survive. The Chitauri are too many, he can see that now, knows with dawning horror that even if the portal closes, they will find a way back. There’ll be no peaceful end.

He lets go of the missile, almost unconsciously. He’s fading.

“Don’t let me die up here,” he begs JARVIS.

He can’t move, can’t comprehend what’s happening. He can only float backwards—you might call it falling back to Earth, but it doesn’t feel like falling. It’s like drowning, sinking into nothingness. He just wants to see New York one last time, hear Pepper’s voice, Rhodey’s, JARVIS’, Bruce’s.

But if this is how he’ll die, well. So be it.

He’ll die a better death than he knows he deserves. So many years of making weapons, ignoring the devastation of war, concerning himself only with profit and growing the company larger than his father ever had. So many people dead, and it was his fault; for not seeing the underhanded deals, for looking away when the US military were obviously interfering in foreign country for nothing but political gain and fuckin’ money. And he’d been a part of that, gladly writing up contracts and inventing newer, larger bombs.

Iron Man was his last chance to rise above that. It wasn’t enough to just rebrand Stark Industries as a clean energy company, the clean energy company, to reroute all their brilliance into making new tech for ordinary people, to try and unfuck a little of the world piece by piece. Iron Man had been his and his alone. Tony Stark’s pride and joy, here to save him from himself.

But if his path to redemption ends here, so be it.

All he wants is for Pepper not to grieve, for Rhodey to be proud of him. They’ll be fine without him. They’re strong. Fuck, he almost wants his mom here, despite her never having taken more than a passing interest in being motherly towards him. He just wants to be held tight, lulled to sleep. Which, maybe it’s Jarvis that he wants, the original Jarvis. The best parent any child could’ve ever wanted.

The last thing he sees is the nuke blowing, and then, Tony Stark’s eyes close and the world falls away.

Chapter Text

“Anthony fuckin’ Stark you better fuckin’ answer me or so fuckin’ help me God,” Steve growls as he chokes out yet another alien. Despite Tony’s disappearance into the unknown, activity down on the ground hadn’t just miraculously stopped, and the fighting doesn’t seem to be dying down any time soon. Last time Steve’d been able to look up, Tony’d just reached the border of the portal, but Nat’s the only one free to keep a constant watch for him.

My ears,” Clint whines gleefully as Steve continues cussing. “My childhood!

Suddenly, the Chitauri drop; it’s almost comical, the way they simply slump like their strings have been cut or keel over like heroines in old Hollywood movies. The leviathans give a last roar of pain, then go down, crashing majestically into the ground and blowing up tons of dust and rubble.

Steve looks up; beyond the portal there’s nothing but fire and death. The nuke’s gone off.

But where’s Tony? Steve demands reports from the others, but not even Clint or Natasha can spot him in the sea of destruction above.

Come on, Stark,” Natasha grinds out, teeth audibly clenched. “Stop being dramatic!

The explosion is getting closer to the edges of the portal; it’ll start spilling over into their world if they don’t do something soon, but Tony still hasn’t reappeared. Steve looks to Thor, whose eyes are also fixed on the portal. After a beat, he nods, mouth pinched.

Steve gives the order with a sinking heart. “Close it.”

Whatever Natasha does up there, it disrupts the stream of energy keeping the portal open until the mystical thread between the cube and the portal breaks completely, and the portal starts to close at last. It’s not a slow process; the second the energy source is lost, the portal edges fold in on themselves, growing smaller and smaller until finally, the light from the bomb blast is but a tiny blip in the distance.

And that’s when something—someone—comes tumbling through just before the portal can snap shut.

I see him!” Clint yells excitedly.  

Steve and Thor both stagger forwards, disbelieving smiles dawning slowly on their faces. Steve pushes his cowl out of his face to better follow Tony’s descent, heart soaring with unexpected triumph. But then they realize; Tony’s not slowing down. His suit doesn’t even seem to be functional.

Instead, he hurtles toward the ground, spinning wildly in the air as he gains speed.

Thor moves as if to fly up there, getting a good swing of his hammer going to boost him. But just as his feet leave the ground, something big and green launches itself into the air, slamming into Tony and cradling him like a doll.

The Hulk’s got him.

Their descent is more a controlled sort of plummeting than the slowed-down slide Steve would’ve preferred. The Hulk grabs on to whatever’s within reach on he way down, be it walls, crenellations, roofs, and even windows. It leaves a highly visible path of destruction of public property, but at least Tony’s no longer in danger of dying upon landing. Besides, it’s not like that building wasn’t already damaged in the fighting.

Thor and Steve sprint towards them.

Upon reaching the ground, the Hulk drops Tony clumsily. The suit thuds hard against the ground, and Tony sprawls lifelessly. The Hulk peels back the face place and then rips it out of the helmet, movements uneasy and animalistic. At the sight of Tony’s pale face, he grunts with what could generously be considered worry, shifts his weight, and then roars loud enough to wake the dead.

Tony comes alive with a gasp, body straining upwards. His uneasy breaths have to fight their way out of his throat, sounding as painful as Steve’s asthma attacks used to be back in the day, and he claws at the glowing core of his suit.

“—reactor—” he gasps, “—faulty—”

Thor pushes past Steve and holds up his hammer. He looks more than a little panicked. “You’ll be fine! I’ll try something, okay? It’ll work! Probably!”

He lowers the hammer to Tony’s chest and it gives off a small flare of lightning. Tony squeaks and slumps, breathing still labored, but no longer convulsing. “Oh god,” he gasps. “What just happened?”

Thor is grinning in delighted confusion. “I had no idea if that was gonna work!” he tells them. He’s waving the hammer around excitedly, and Steve ducks away as subtly as he can.

“Did someone kiss me?” Tony’s asking, looking around with bleary eyes. “Please tell me it was Thor. Oh god, did I die? I feel like I died.”

Steve slumps onto his knees and squeezes Tony’s shoulder. Tony looks severely discomfited by this development, squinting at Steve’s hand like it’s a live snake. Whatever; Steve’s so relieved that he’ll take even Tony’s caustic temper and rejoice with every second. “We won.”

And they did; the Chitauri are dead, somehow unable to sustain themselves with the portal gone and their home world blown to kingdom come. Sure, parts of the city are still on fire, there’s a hell of a clean-up waiting, and the hospitals will be working overtime for weeks, but it’s over, they’re finally done fighting. Steve almost can’t believe it.

Tony blinks, looks up at the sky. There’s no trace of the portal, just smoke from the fighting and destruction. Off in the distance, news helicopters are circling in, the rotors noisily stirring the quiet aftermath of battle. Well, not quiet; the amount of fire alarms and car alarms screeching is simply hellish, but even that’s all background noise now.

“Alright,” Tony says weakly, voice cracking. “Hey, alright, good job, guys! Here’s an idea: let’s not come in tomorrow. Let’s just take the day. Hey, Rogers, have you ever tried shawarma? It’s meat on a stick, Middle-Eastern I think? Maybe Greek? There’s a joint about… two blocks from here? I’ll unearth the damn thing myself, I just want shawarma. And fries. A shawarma box. And Pepper and Rhodey. Let’s go.”

The Hulk roars his agreement.

Steve shrugs. “I could eat.” He’s actually been constantly hungry since he boarded the Helicarrier, having subsided on ration bars—they call them protein bars, but seriously, they’re about as delicious as rations—and fighting’s depleted him entirely. If they could just sit for a while, eat their weight in shawarma, now that’d be grand.

Tony gives him a thumbs up, still lying on the ground.

“We’re not finished yet,” Thor says gravely, eyes on Stark Tower. It’s taken the brunt of the fighting, and it’s not made it any prettier to look at. “Loki said he’d wait. I have to go to him.”

“Are you sure—”

“No,” Thor snaps, then visibly calms himself. “But I have to go see for myself.”

Oh, he’s up here,” Natasha chimes in, somehow having overheard them. “Looks like they came for him, there’s a bunch of dead Chitauri all over.”

“Keep him there!” Thor says, stepping in close to speak right into Steve’s earpiece. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to have a worried god all up in your business, Steve can now tell you this: it is very uncomfortable. Like having an excitable rhino try and headbutt you. He cannot recommend it.

He’s not going anywhere. He’s sorta… flat right now.

“HULK SMASHED!”

“Okay, deal with god, then shawarma,” Tony says wearily. “Or I will riot.”

*

Tony and Thor both elect to fly up to the penthouse rather than taking the long way up. Thor makes sure to keep close to Tony to prevent him from falling; should the suit malfunction on the way, they’re not quite certain Tony will come out of the crash unscathed. Besides, whatever energy reserves the suit has are running quite low, and the thrusters in his boots and arms misfire now and then, making for a wonky flight pattern.

The Hulk, inspired, eagerly climbs the tower after them, racing them to the top. All of them ignore Tony’s whining about the lousy phone towers and his current inability to get a call out to Pepper and Rhodey. The whole city of New York are probably on their phones right now, but then, Tony Stark’s probably never been kept waiting a single day in his life.

Steve ends up riding the—surprisingly functional—elevator with Clint.

It’s a little bit awkward. They may just have fought together, but just twelve hours ago, Clint had been running around doing… God knows what on Loki’s command, and he hadn’t exactly been stable when they met face to face. What the hell do you say to a man after that? Offer him condolences on his sanity? Clint’s already assured them that he’s okay, this isn’t his first rodeo, so Steve doesn’t feel comfortable asking again. And selfishly, Steve would rather forget the fight for a while. If he thinks on it, he might need to crawl into bed and shake for a few days.

Thus, Steve stares straight ahead, and Clint fiddles awkwardly next to him.

He also keeps picking at his earpieces. “Hey, is it okay if I take these out for now?” he asks. At Steve’s confused nod, he goes on, “It’s just that I can’t hear you without them, but I can lipread pretty well. So just, like, get my attention before you start to say something, yeah?”

These earpieces are more advanced than Steve’s. They look more comfortable, for one, and seem a little longer, so as to fit deeper into Clint’s ears. He sighs in relief when they’re out, rubbing vigorously at his head and making his ears all red. One of them has been whining a little, he explains, speech slightly slurred, and it’s been driving him crazy for hours.

They’re halfway to the top when Clint starts to tremble, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. Steve—ineffectually, and perhaps stupidly—calls his name, but he doesn’t react. His breathing has gone choppy, wheezing, and his eyes are sightless.  

Knowing that Natasha will skin him alive if anything happens to Clint on his watch, Steve carefully grabs him by the arm and pulls him around to face him. “Clint, please look at me,” he says, signing clumsily with one hand. It’s not quite real sign language, just a bastardized version that his ma had taught him, something to use on the days he was laid up in bed with an ear infection so strong that even the good ear didn’t let in sound. It’d been just simple words he’d learned, not phrases, just enough to get him through the sluggishness of it all, and it calms him to use it again. “You’re okay; I’m with you; I’m Steve Rogers, you’re Clint Barton. We’re in New York, and we’re safe. Can you breathe with me? Clint, look at my face, follow my lead.”

He holds Clint’s hand to his chest and shows him how to breathe deep, steady, slow breaths. Bucky used to do this with him, even before Sarah had passed, and it’s a bittersweet ache to be on the other side of it, to see Clint slowly regain his wits.

“I-I’m sorry,” he gasps the second his has enough air to do so. “It’s just—it’s just the silence. It was like, like having Loki in my head again, it’d all been—been—fuck.” The whole thing comes tumbling out, almost against his will. The almost overwhelming sense of purpose he’d felt, the lack of emotion that he somehow hadn’t missed, accepting it’s non-existence because nothing but Loki’s will had mattered to him. The secrets he’d spilled, the way his body had moved to obey without his say-so, he can barely stand to be in his body right now.

And now he’s supposed to forgive Loki, because he was controlled, too.

“It’s okay,” Steve tells him clumsily. “It’s okay to not be okay.”

Yes, he sees the irony of him saying that to someone else.

Clint continues to tremble. Jerkily, he pitches forward to hide his face in Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s hands come up on their own accord, grabbing Clint gently around the back of his neck and holding him still, letting him work through it. Steve’s still wearing his bloodied gloves; Clint’s going to be finding stains all over his neck, but he doesn’t seem to care right now. Besides, he’s filthy already, sweaty, dirty, bloody. What’s a little more?

 “I shot an alien,” Clint narrates hysterically. He doesn’t curl his arms around Steve, but he has stepped closer, trying to make himself smaller, child-like. “With an arrow. Oh God, how am I alive?”

“One of them bit me,” Steve commiserates. This is the first time Steve’s been in a hug since 1945 and he’s feeling it, the way his body weeps with longing for more contact. It’s not that it’s Clint, it’s just that he’s been so long without. It’s like a shock to his system.

“Shit, what if you have rabies?”

“Eh. Must be Tuesday.”

Clint laughs weakly.

Even after he pulls away, they don’t separate entirely until they reach the top. Instead, Clint keeps leaning towards Steve, clearly needing the contact but too embarrassed to ask for it. Steve pushes back without shame, letting Clint slump against his shoulder. It doesn’t feel awkward; he’d done this for the Commandos, too, when the war got too much and they all came apart at the seams. When Bucky’d retreated so far into his own head that Steve barely recognized the boy he’d grown up with, when they awoke to each other’s’ cries in the night, when there’d been no running from the blood on their hands.  

“Okay,” Clint breathes as the doors start to open. “Okay, let’s do this. No, wait! Cap, promise you’ll hold me back. If he starts shit, I cannot be held responsible for my actions, okay? Or… maybe just one punch, what’s he gonna do, stab me?”

Chapter Text

Clint squints suspiciously at Loki. “Okay, so who let him have the knife?”

They all look at Thor, who gasps in offence. “I did not.”

Loki’s seated on the floor, looking for all the world like that’s exactly where he wants to be. Or, it would look like that, if only he hadn’t been more battered than even Tony. Being slammed into the floor thrice by the Hulk will do that to a man, and his oddly blown pupils complete the look. He definitely has a concussion.

He regards them all warily, but in the end focuses on Tony. “If it’s all the same to you,” he drawls. “I’ll have that drink now.”

The Hulk snorts; Loki flinches.

“Listen, Addams Family Reject, how about you put down the knife.”

Loki holds up the knife. “This knife?”

“Yes, that knife!”

Loki shrugs and slides the knife towards them.

He doesn’t end up getting a drink of anything stronger than water—they’re not completely heartless, and he does appear to have fought on their side during the battle. Steve, at least, is a little more inclined to trust that he’s on his somewhat best behavior. Maybe, when this has faded into just another hundred nightmares somewhere down the road, he’ll even find it in him to forgive Loki. Clint is very much not of the same opinion, and mostly just glares daggers at Loki from a corner.

“Alright, so, let’s wrap this up, cuff the man, no standing around, chop chop,” Tony directs, more concerned with stabbing angrily at his phone and trying to get a signal.

Thor is the one to pull a pair of handcuffs from seemingly nowhere, firmly but carefully sliding them around Loki’s wrists. They’re not much use, in Steve’s opinion; the chain between the two cuffs is almost long enough to use as skipping rope, should Loki get that urge. Or want to strangle someone, they’ll probably be more useful then.

“I’m sorry, brother,” Thor says, low enough that Steve knows he’s not supposed to overhear.

Loki’s tone could chill the sun. “Are you?”

“It’s ringing! Finally! Pepper—” Tony exclaims, voice falling into a soft murmur of calming noises, the whole thing so unlike him that Steve’s briefly taken aback. He shakes himself; how can he say what’s unlike Tony, when he barely knows him in truth?

Meanwhile, reports are flooding in on their comms. Parts of the city are going to need more than just some tender, loving care; Hell’s Kitchen has taken the brunt of the attack and will need heavy restoration; then the rest of Midtown, and most of Lower Manhattan. Upper Manhattan in largely untouched, Harlem having just skirted the conflict, and none of the burrows were hit.  

“I’ll go down after, coordinate search and rescue,” Steve offers wearily, mentally saying goodbye to his dinner. He wants to help, he really does, but he’d what he’d really kill for? A burger. A nice bacon-cheese burger—he had one of those the first time he ate in the cafeteria, it was practically like seeing God.

Just as he offers, a shimmer wavers over Loki, startling everyone; the Hulk falls into a menacing crouch, teeth bared. But when the shimmer passes, a perfect copy of Steve stands where Loki stood. It’s almost an immaculate double, down to the way Steve parts his hair, and the way he holds his himself at parade rest. The way Loki-as-Steve crosses his eyes, however, is not an accurate depiction. “I’ll go down, coordinate search and rescue,” he repeats in a deeper, more self-aggrandizing tone.

Thor punches him in the shoulder. “Stop that!”

Loki lets the illusion fade and spins to growl back at his brother. “Or what?

“Thor, take a break,” Steve orders, getting between the two before they can start fighting in the middle of the ruined penthouse. “I’ll watch him.”

Thor snorts but moves off. Just as Steve grabs Loki’s arm, Thor says, “Careful, he stabs.” 

“He wha—OW! MOTHERFUCKER!”

Tony pinwheels with glee. “Cap said a no-no word!

By the bar, Clint and Natasha are in the process of sampling Tony’s expensive liquor. They watch avidly as Steve starts patting Loki down for weapons—after having removed the small knife he’d stuck in Steve’s side first, of course, the uniform really is useless; at least the skin’s already knitting closed, and nothing vital had been hit. He finds more knives in Loki’s boots, in between the folds of his cape, and fastened at his trousers. Where the fuck are they coming from? Steve’s pretty sure Loki had had none of these on him while he’d been pretend-lounging on the floor.

Things take a really strange turn once Thor starts bellowing at Loki to behave from the other side of the room, Loki now pulling increasingly larger knives seemingly out of thin air. With every weapon he hands over to Steve, his smile grows, until finally, he pulls a freaking sword out of his sleeve.

Christ, Steve needs a nap.

“Was that all of them?” Steve asks him, trying to channel his Ma’s best Disappointed Tone.

“Of course, Captain,” Loki swears like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

Steve squints.

And Loki pulls another sword out of his sleeve, this one a full-on broadsword. Steve turns to stare at Thor. Thor has the gall to simply shrug at him. Loki positively cackles when Steve hands him back to his brother, though that quickly stops as Thor starts fussing over him, poking at his nicks and scrapes and bickering heatedly.

Slowly, they make their way to the elevator, everyone taking care to stay out of Natasha’s way as she carries the scepter. The Hulk is the last to follow, and the elevator dips worryingly when he takes the first step inside.

Whoa, whoa, hey, buddy!” Tony yelps. “Look, you’re either giving us back Bruce, or you gotta take the stairs, okay?”

What follows is a five-minute tantrum that Steve’d have preferred to never have in an elevator, but when they finally start their descent, it’s with a very rumpled-looking Bruce in their midst. He keeps yawning. Even that makes Loki back away from him, teeth bared.

What’s going to happen to him now? Will S.H.I.E.L.D. insist on taking him on again, after the disaster on the Helicarrier? Sure, he’d been mind-controlled then, but while he’s come quietly this time, Steve doesn’t trust his easy acceptance. His eyes shift around constantly, studying, despite the uneven size of his pupils and the assuredly horrendous headache he’s got to have from the concussion. And what about the scepter? And the Tesseract?

As if in answer, a S.H.I.E.L.D. STRIKE team meet them in the foyer. Steve has to bite his tongue until it bleeds just to avoid commenting on how fast they got here, right when all the fighting is done, what a fucking coincidence. His ire won’t help anyone now, but you best believe that he’ll remember that no one came to their aid. It’s an affront to Peggy Carter’s legacy, is what it is.

But those are troubles for tomorrow.

A brief but heated argument decides the custody of both Loki and the scepter. Personally, Steve’d rather not see an object that powerful in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s hands, but with the world watching them now that the Avengers have made their debut, maybe they won’t abuse it?

Yeah, he’s not holding out hope for that either; he’ll have to keep an eye on it himself.

When it comes to Loki, Thor needs more a little persuading that yes, he will be allowed to bring Loki back to Asgard, they’re just detaining him until Thor’s ready to make the trip home, and yes, he can visit, they won’t be throwing Loki in a hole somewhere. Obviously, Fury’s been doing some heavy lifting on that whole issue; no one even mentions a trial or punishment for him.

Chances are, they know they fucked up, and now just want him out of their hair.   

But then, the Agent in charge—Sitwell? Right?—demands that they hand over the Tesseract.

“It’s still on the roof,” Natasha says. “Selvig is up there with it.”

“It might take a few hours to unhitch it, though,” Steve butts in. At Sitwell’s raised brows, he barrels on, “It’s not like he can touch the cube itself, and the machinery’s a little fried at the moment. Stark’ll get on it, too, won’t you, Mr. Stark?”

Tony looks up at the slight snap in Steve’s voice, eyes narrowed. “Sure,” he says, drawing out the word. What the fuck his look says. Steve ignores him.

“I’d rather not see another hole in our dimension, wouldn’t you agree, too, sir?” he says instead, all politeness. If this doesn’t work… looks like he’ll be committing treason and hurling that fuckin’ cube into the ocean.

Thankfully, it doesn’t come to that. Though not wholly convinced, the STRIKE team disperses back out onto the streets, Agent Sitwell making the last few arrangements for the future transport of the Tesseract with Tony. Tony just waves him on, not really listening.  

Alone now, his team are all staring at him—or rather, squinting. Once the agents are out of range, he says, “We can’t give it back to them. No one who throws a nuke at an entire city should ever have access to a force that can make bigger bombs, no matter what end they think will justify the means.”

Of them all, Tony surprisingly acquiesces the most easily. Neither Bruce nor Clint volunteer an opinion, but they seem relieved as well. Natasha eyes Steve for a moment more before shrugging and heading out. Steve exhales shakily; if she’d fought him on it, he’s not sure he could’ve found a way to work around her. She’s too dangerous to take on.  

“I’ll take it back with me,” Thor offers. “Maybe Loki can be persuaded to glamour it, and we’ll be gone before they find out.”

“As long as I never have to see it again, I honestly don’t care where you put it.” Steve turns, rolls his shoulders. The broken city awaits. “Tony, can we reschedule—”

“Absolutely not. You get that star-spangled ass uptown; we’ve got shawarma to eat. I will physically fight you, don’t think I won’t.”

If Steve tells himself that he only agrees so as not to get into an argument with someone who’s just gone through a kind of heart failure? Let’s just pretend that’s the truth.  

*

In a series of miracles that Steve’d question if he wasn’t so damned hungry, the shawarma joint has survived the attack on the city. It’s a small, hole-in-the-wall place with barely enough room for even their small group.

When Tony tries the knob, it turns, and they flood inside.

Their lucky stars must be out in force, because a messy-haired fella looks up from the counter, eyes going wide when he sees them. Maybe they should’ve changed out of their uniforms. Steve definitely should have, but he shutters to think what smells might emerge once he starts peeling the suit off. He’ll be a walking health hazard, just you wait.

Tony marches right up to the counter. “I will pay you whatever you want if you feed us.”

The man stutters. “Uh, um—I was just checking to see nothing was broken, and—Allah, I’m so sorry, please forgive me—you-you’re the Avengers! I saw you on TV!”

“Yes, correct, but back to the important part: shawarma.”

As if the word ‘shawarma’ is a marching order, the man snaps to, soon roasting spits upon spits of fragrant meat and firing up the deep fryers with all the focus of a drill sergeant. He doesn’t talk much, and for that Steve is grateful. Now that the scents of spices and fries are in his nose, he feels unfathomably sluggish, and he’s pretty sure that following a conversation more complicated than ‘do you want dressing on that?’ will send him into a meltdown. There will be sobbing. It will not be pretty.

He sits slumped in his seat, head resting in his hand. It makes for some slightly difficult chewing. Clint is practically lying down in his chair, legs sprawled. He’d put his hearing aids back in back at the Tower, but they’re lying on the table now; to keep calm, he keeps his knee pressed against Natasha’s leg. She, too, has curled in on herself a little; Steve suspects she might be more injured than she seems. Bruce is practically asleep in his chair, Tony has a heavy-duty thousand-yard stare going on, and Thor is chewing down everything within reach; the plastic fork almost hadn’t survived.   

Shawarma turns out to be… a bit strange, but not bad. There’s a sweetness to the meat that Steve wasn’t expecting, almost fatty, and it blends well with the salt of the fries and the crispness of the salad. He ordered several shawarma boxes, not even caring that he might not enjoy the taste. He’s hungry enough that ration bars would’ve been good.

Outside, the city is rising again. On their way here, the emergency services had been in full swing, recovering the wounded, and even starting to unearth the dead. The only reason Steve had been able to walk on and not get involved was that Bruce had sleepily pointed out that they’d be more a hindrance than a help right now. Besides, people had gotten really twitchy once they got a gander at the Avengers on the street.

Still, it’d felt a little like walking through purgatory, destruction and devastation everywhere. And yet, it’d been almost unreal as well; already, the fighting is fading in his mind, much like it’d done in the war.

Maybe his mind is finally healing. How fucked is it that it took another war to do it?

In fact… Steve doesn’t like to admit it, but it had felt good to fight. The ache and exhaustion and desperation are nothing compared to having a purpose. Here in the aftermath, it’s all the more obvious to him; for a moment, he hadn’t been poor Steve Rogers who lost everything and then some. He’d just been Captain America, just an Avenger.  

And maybe… maybe that’s enough for now.

Chapter Text

Not every broken thing inside of him gets fixed overnight, but some things do get easier. During the day, Steve helps out wherever he can in the city, face half-hidden under sunglasses and a pulled-down cap now that his old propaganda stills are popping up on seemingly every news channel at every odd moment. He still bunks at S.H.I.E.L.D., but now Natasha, Clint, Thor, and even Bruce drop in and out, so he’s never as alone as he was before.

Tony supposedly barely sleeps, but he only appears every now and then, babbling about making rooms for them at the tower. Steve grimaces at him and tells him that while that’s kind (and far, far too much), he’s tower really only looks like the kind of thing that Alfred Stieglitz would’ve been fascinated by.

“Okay, see, from what I know of Stieglitz, I’d think that was a compliment, but you tone makes it very clear it’s not.”

“He had a thing for high-rises,” Steve explains. “The more phallic the better. And your Tower looks like… well. A limp—”

“Stop insulting our Tower, Steven!”

Steve even starts sleeping the night through—still on the floor, but it’s progress.

It’s not that there are no nightmares. There are plenty of those. Some nights, it feels like it’s all there is, especially when that nightmare creature perches on Steve’s bed or on his chest, its long fingers reaching for throat and choking him and he can’t get away, he can’t, not unless he finds it in him to get so angry that he becomes the monster instead. On those nights, he’s unrecognizable in his dreams, so heartless and violent that he tears into the creature with his teeth and cannibalizes it while it screams.

But this; this is not a nightmare.

It starts with a soft bed, with sunlight on his skin, a warm body draped over his back, and fond kisses carefully placed along the nape of his neck. The weight is familiar, but also not; Steve had never experienced this body skin on skin. But the smell; warm, musky, sleep-heavy. Bucky

He knows in that knowing-without-knowing sort of way that this is a dream. It feels real, but also not. The edges blur, but the details are clear. Some truths he can’t recall, like that Bucky’s dead and gone, even if it’s the most obvious truth of them all.

Instead, there’s only the feel of him, the shape of his smile pressed into Steve’s skin, the soft touch of his hands on Steve’s back. Those are more vivid than anything.

So rather than focusing on the wakefulness that hovers just at the edge of his thoughts, Steve rolls over, turns into Bucky, and kisses him and kisses him and kisses him. He tastes like whiskey, like morning, like cold and home, and Steve puts his hands in his hair and pulls him closer. It curls wildly, soft and thick.

This is the Bucky before the war, before base camp, all wide-eyes and crooked smiles.

In that wild way of emotions in dreams, Steve can barely think but for the desire consuming him. He wants Bucky, and he wants him now, a desperate, slightly pitiful yearning that lights him up and makes him stupid, makes him pull Bucky properly on top of him. Their bodies fit together strangely, but perfectly, Steve’s post-war body so incongruent with Bucky’s lithe pre-war form. Another clue to it all being a dream, ignored in favor of stuttering breaths and worshipful wonder.  

“Stevie, sweetheart,” Bucky tells him, much too patient. “Slow down.”

Straddled above Steve, no other vision could hold a candle to him. The only scars littering him are the wounds of his youth, long since healed, like the slightly crooked finger on his left hand from a bad break, or the charmingly wonky shape of his right ear, healed just a little wrong after having been nicked with a broken bottle during a fight. 

Steve wants his body for a canvas, wants to draw him with his fingertips, paint him with his tongue, shade him with his kisses. Some parts are almost too tempting to linger on, like the bend of his wrists, curiously delicate despite the wiry strength of his arms, or the adorable cleft in his chin, or shape of his collarbones beneath his skin.

Steve wants to bruise each and every part of him with his mouth.

But because he wants it so much, because he’s nearly whining for it, there are things his mind refuses him; like the exact feel of Bucky against his cock, never felt in real life, now lost to him even in dreams; or the shape of Bucky’s body between his hip, above his thighs, kept secret from Steve in his desire.

Only when the dream is truly kind can he just sense the weight of Bucky on top of him, but mostly it’s a constant strain to touch, to feel, to reach his peak. Once upon a time, he couldn’t even dream up the feel of Bucky’s lips on his, not until he’d had his first kiss and his mind had ever after flooded with the sense-memory of it. Before that, it’d been easier to dream of Bucky fucking him; all it had taken to replicate a feeling like that had been the first time he’d put his own fingers inside himself on a long night alone.

“Buck, please,” he begs, just moments from the waking world.

If he had been brave back in the war, if he had dared just a little more while lying in the tent with Bucky that morning, maybe he could’ve been feeling every roll of Bucky’s hips now, but it’s all white noise and wanting.

Instead, he pours himself into their kiss, submits to the gentle dominance of Bucky’s guiding hands, the way he holds Steve’s face just so, sucks his tongue and bites his bottom lip. Steve traces his hands along Bucky’s back, across his shoulders, up his legs, but never further. He wouldn’t be able to feel the tautness of his ass or the hardness of his cock; that joy is not for him, no matter how much he’d pay to touch, to finally have Bucky like he’s wanted since he was sixteen.

Because he’s so close, because he can feel the sheets of his actual bed now, the dream is more like a movie scene, just flashes of images and sensory input; he can even hear his own voice desperately narrate the scene in his mind, wanting the dream to go on forever. Too descriptive, and he wakes up a little more, as if his mind can’t handle it. But he’s desperate, is trembling with it in his sleep, and so, finally, he begs, and Bucky pushes him onto his back, pushes in between his legs and slides in all smooth and hard, and Steve cries out.

God, Stevie, baby. I love you so much, so much, darlin’, you don’t even know.”

“I do, I do, Buck, I love—”

And he wakes to echoes of love never spoken in life. 

He’s sweaty, aching, and hard, even a little wet with it. Most of all, he’s still as exhausted as he’d been when he went to sleep. Shifting around, his dick twitches with need, but he can’t bring himself to touch it. Even the knowledge that this is the first time he’s been hard since he woke to the new century can’t sway him.

Instead, he clambers up, moving as cumbersomely as a man of ninety-four years.

He’d never told Bucky he loved him, not even as friends. Men didn’t tell each other that back then. As kids, they’d said it all the time, but even without their parents telling them to cut it out, they’d both soon realized that that wasn’t done in polite society.

But… Bucky must have known how much Steve loved him, even if he didn’t know all of it. Even without the words to say, it’d been in everything they did for one another; from Bucky stubbornly badgering his way into Steve’s apartment so that he wouldn’t be on his own, to Steve’s mediocre but honest attempts at making work lunches for Bucky, or even the way they could just sit side by side, not needing or wanting for anything but the other’s company.

They’d never said it, but they’d done their best to communicate it.

And maybe, there’s a way that Steve can take just one last step, do just one last thing to show Bucky.

At the very bottom of his bedside drawer, there’s a small, oblong box. It takes him two tries to open it, fingers clumsy with nerves. He sucks in a slow, shaky breath when it finally pops open.

On the velvet black pillow rests Bucky’s dog tags, the ones he’d gotten just when he’d been made sergeant. Someone’s polished them before putting them in this box; Bucky hadn’t taken the time to care for them after being issued his new ones for the Howling Commandos, so they’d been a little dirty with greasy fingerprints and even a stubborn bloodstain.

Breathe deep now. Inhale. Exhale. You can do this.

With shaking hands, Steve pulls his own dog tags from around his neck, unhooks the chain. Of the two tags on the chain, he pulls off one, then does the same for Bucky’s, and finally switches them, sliding one of Bucky’s on to his own chain, and leaving one of his tags in the box.

When he closes up the box and puts it back in the drawer, it feels like a funeral.

Slumping back against the side of the bed, he grips his tags so hard the edges cut into his skin. He’ll carry Bucky with him now, carry him proudly and honor him as he should have in life. In a kinder world, they’d both have come home from the war. In another world, Bucky would’ve loved Steve like Steve loved him, and they’d have gotten a little house and pretended to be confirmed bachelors all their lives, and maybe, just maybe, they’d finally have gotten married in New York in 2011.

Bucky would’ve been old and gray by then, but Steve would have loved him all the same. He’d have stayed by his side, spent every moment with him if Bucky had allowed it, and at the end of it all, when the time would come for Bucky to leave this world, Steve would’ve… he would’ve…

God, where had the Barnes’ even buried the empty coffin?

The sun’s starting to rise, the rays reaching through the gap in the curtain. He’s due for a press conference in a few hours, though he wonders how much they’ll miss him. It’s not like he’s allowed to say anything except the cues given to him by S.H.I.E.L.D. They’d not been pleased with him after the first conference. Turns out, people get a little upset when a ‘national icon’ points out how close they came to getting blown sky-high by their own damn government.   

God, he hates public appearances, even more now than he did in the war. The reporters are okay for the most part, asking the kind of questions that he’d really like to know the answer to himself, but some are just plain awful. Like that guy who’d questioned Natasha’s fitness for the team due to her ‘non-super abilities’ (but hadn’t had the same issue with Clint), or the lady who tried to turn the conversation around to focus on illegal ‘aliens’.

Steve’d nearly blown a gasket both times, only saved by Natasha’s acerbic answer that made more than one sexist pig shrivel in their chair, and then Thor’s over-the-top confusion that had led to the racist lady having to actually explain her racism and thus looking severely pathetic on national TV. It had been heartwarming, truly.

Speaking of Thor, Steve’s starting to suspect that he’s not nearly as clueless about Midgard as S.H.I.E.L.D. (and even some of the other Avengers) seem to think. Steve’d overheard him explaining how travel via the Bifrost rainbow worked to a very agitated Tony and a highly confused Bruce. Thor had drawn complicated diagrams in a highly child-like fashion and kept underlining supposedly important features such as: the weight of the sun; the ‘mood’ of the moon; the current location of some squirrel; and last, but not least, the fickleness of someone called Bori.

When Tony’d finally stormed off in frustration, Thor’d turned to Steve and grinned stupidly.

Loki definitely wasn’t the only troublemaker in that family, that’s for sure.

On the subject of Loki; he’s been almost well-behaved during his incarceration. Thor’ll be taking him home in a few days, and S.H.I.E.L.D. will surely be glad to see the back of him (though they will go apoplectic when he takes the Tesseract with him, but the Avengers have all decided to just ignore that for now).

The only hiccups have been Loki’s new-found tendency to impersonate Steve when he gets bored. The first time, he’d almost been let out of the damn cage when the guards came to find Captain America in the cell. Clint likes to tell everyone that the only reason they’d found out it wasn’t actually Steve was because Loki-as-Cap smiled way more than Steve.

Which: thanks, Clint.

In an effort to get out of his own head, Steve heads down for breakfast early. It’s a quiet affair, no one else being awake yet, so when he’s done and has hours yet to waste before the goddamned press conference, he heads out to the café where Beth works.

Walking there without a babysitter agent on his heels feels a little like freedom.

Beth greets him effusively, skipping another few customers just to serve Steve first. Even with the hat and the glasses and the less old-timey clothes (some of which he’s borrowed from Thor of all people, and which thus succeed in hanging loosely on his frame), she recognizes him on the spot. The first time she’d seen him again, maybe a week or so after the invasion, she’d dropped everything and thrown herself at him, gushing with thanks and praise.

She’d kissed his cheek, then gone red and apologized profusely, swearing up and down that she really hadn’t intended to do that, and how sorry she was for forcing that on him. Steve had shrugged it off just to get her to stop apologizing.

He hadn’t been mad, not as such. Overwhelmed, maybe, and he really hopes that no one else will try to kiss him. It’d helped that she hadn’t meant it as a romantic overture, and also that she was somewhat familiar. It’s just… well, Steve doesn’t touch or get touched much, not in any way that matters. Nine out of ten times he’s put his hands on someone this century, it’s been with the intention to wound.

To say that he’s starved for contact is… not an unfair assessment.

It frightens him a little bit, so he pushes that thought back and settles in with a cup of coffee, focusing on the feel of the dog tags resting over his heart. Today will be another day of Tony pouring more Stark Industries money into rebuilding New York, more biting his own tongue to keep quiet, and more nightmares when he goes to sleep at the end of it.

He just needs to make it a few more days and the Tesseract will finally be gone from Earth. It says quite a bit about him that that’s the only thing he’s truly got to look forward to right now, doesn’t it? But please, keep that to yourself. Steve’s well aware of how fucked up he is.

Chapter Text

The letter from Mrs. Irina Dugan arrives just a day before they send Thor, Loki, and the Tesseract off, long after the so-called Battle of New York has taken place. Steve’d been reluctant to open it at first, almost scared even if he wasn’t too keen on admitting to that. But the note inside had been brief and innocuous, an open invitation to drop by for tea if he was in the area.

Given that Mrs. Dugan still resides in her husband’s beloved Boston, Steve’s really not been anywhere nearby, ever. However, the second they see Loki and Thor off to Asgard (the former having refused to glamour the Tesseract, so they’d had to send them off from the top of Stark Tower rather than risk smuggling the cube out with S.H.I.E.L.D. foaming at the mouth to get it back) Steve’s got nowhere to be and nowhere to go.

The dormitory back at headquarters isn’t exactly welcoming, Tony and Bruce are already chattering excitedly about all kinds of things Steve couldn’t keep up with if he tried, and Natasha and Clint are carefully not leaning against each other despite the tension that vibrates between them. Steve makes the call to get out of dodge before anything gets set on fire.

He gets on his new bike—a ‘vintage’ Harley Davidson issued to him by S.H.I.E.L.D. that he hasn’t yet had the inclination to try out, what with the constant babysitters nipping at his heels—and tests his newfound freedom by heading to Boston.

Several times, an officer of the law flashes his blue lights at him for riding without a helmet on, only to drop his jaw and gape when he gets a gander at Steve’s face. Steve hopes to God that that sort of recognition will die down fast; it was bad enough during the war.

It takes nearly four hours, but finally, he arrives at a neat, two-story building. The Dugan residence is a stout, red-brick house that has only the smallest possible flower patch out front. An iron fence indicates a larger garden around back.

Steve carefully parks his bike, takes a deep breath, and jogs up the stairs to knock. The door is answered by a forty-something woman with blonde hair and Dugan’s blue eyes. A foxlike dog with a fluffy, curled tail prances excitedly at her feet, yipping at Steve.

At first, she frowns at him, as if she can’t quite place him, then her eyes go wide before finally rolling skyward. “Should’ve known,” she says nonsensically, waving him in. “Nana! You have a guest! She’s in the living room, just keep going straight, but please take off your shoes.”

The dog headbutts his hand all the way down the hall, panting happily when he scratches it behind the ears.

He enters the cozy, airy living room at the end of the hall in somewhat of a daze, still shook from having Dum Dum’s eyes staring out at him from an unfamiliar face. One wall is exposed brick, the rest painted in warm, reddish-browns, and the furniture is a mix of semi-modern and vintage, all handsomely worn.

Above the fireplace hangs a wedding picture: Dum Dum is smiling so hard in it that his mustache appears near vibrating, and his newly-made wife looks up at him with soft eyes. It doesn’t hurt to see it nearly as much as Steve had expected it to. Instead, he’s swamped by a sense of relief; Dum Dum, the Howlies, they had all been loved, had lived full lives. There’s nothing he’d rather have had happen to them.

In the flesh, ninety-five-year-old Irina Dugan is more contained than her photograph suggests. Her white hair is pulled back in a chignon, and she’s dressed in a nice white shirt and a pink A-line skirt. Wrinkles paint her life’s story across her face, from the groove between her brows that speak of a lot of time spent frowning, to the defined laugh lines fanning out from both her eyes and her mouth. She’s old, and she looks it, but there’s no mistaking her for being weak, and there’s a grandeur to her that only comes with age.

Penetrating eyes meets Steve’s unflinchingly, and for a moment he wishes he’d worn a hat, if only so that he’d have something to fiddle with under her keen stare. “Ma’am,” he greets.

She waves to a deep, soft armchair and bids him sit. “None of that,” she tells him. If Steve didn’t already know that she grew up in Russia, he’d never have guessed it from her accent; she sounds almost abrasively Bostonian. “Drink?”

“Please. Whatever you’re having is fine.”

Steve should’ve been more suspicious when Irina’s nose twitches like she’s trying not to laugh, but instead he just takes a sip of the translucent, peach liquid she pours him. He ends up coughing a little, not expecting the bite of alcohol on his tongue.

Irina barks a short laugh, loud and booming, and Steve immediately feels more at ease. “I’ve been babysitting our great-grandchildren for a few days; I damn well deserve a drink for my trouble. Little terrors, all of them.” She leans back; she’s not exactly a large woman, but she takes up more space than seems normal for her size, like even now the shadow-feel of larger, stronger shoulders affect her movements. “How are you, Steve Rogers?”

She might be the first person to have asked him that this century and actually cared for the answer.

However, he doesn’t want to burden her, so he shrugs and tells little platitudes, emphasizing the things that aren’t too bad and leaving out the rest. He doesn’t think he fools her for a second, but she’s kind enough not to mention it outright. Instead she lets him talk and doesn’t interrupt, just watches him steadily.

Steve can see what Dum Dum saw in her, can recognize the comforting directness in her from the stories told around the fire. “I was glad to find out you two married,” he tells her. “He used to get all starry-eyed when he spoke of you.”

“And not a moment too soon,” Irina says, beaming in her own, subdued way. “He wrote me every week, you know. I knew what he was gonna do before he even stepped foot back on American soil, and when I saw him again, I’d already made up my mind. He nearly chickened out though, so busy convincing himself that I could do better. As if I’d ever trusted another like I trusted him. I couldn’t allow him to make that mistake. When we walked down the aisle five months later, the wedding dress was already a little tight in the belly region.”

Steve throws his head back in a laugh, much to Irina’s delight. If he looks a little surprised that he’s still able to laugh like that, she kindly doesn’t mention it.

He ends up staying for nearly the entire day, being served finger-sandwiches and cookies by various grandchildren who drop in an out of the house, none of whom seem terribly impressed by him, much to his relief. It makes him feel almost ordinary, despite having more in common with the old lady in front of him than any of her descendants.

Several times, Irina gets up to refill the glass pitcher with ice cubes and mix some more of that gin-and-tea cocktail, confessing that she’d found the recipe on ‘one of those blogs for ladies who lunch, God save me’. She also matches him drink for drink, unaffected by the liquor.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he starts slowly. “Is it your… biology that makes this go down like water?”

“That biology being related to my being Russian, or being half a bear?”

He shrugs. “Either. Mostly the latter. Not real sure what being Russian has to do with it; being Irish sure never did me any favors when it came to whiskey or beer.”

“Being Russian probably only counts for vodka anyway,” she allows. She holds out her hand, palm up, and wriggles her fingers. Long, sharp claws emerge from her fingertips, far grizzlier than anything Steve’d think a real bear would have. Not that he’s ever been up close and personal with a bear, but he’d like to believe they don’t have foot-long claws. “It might. I don’t know. After I was transformed, I was always hungry. I just burned right through it, no matter what I ate or drank, so it’s probable that it helps now. Especially when fall comes; it’s like my body tries to prepare for hibernation. I can’t tell you how often Tim had to run to the shop during my pregnancies or risk being roared at for misplacing something as silly as the letter-opener. Does it look like I ever needed to use such a thing? Tch.”

“Did you ever join him for his missions after the war? I’ve read his file, but they were a little vague outside of the Howlies.”

Irina hums. “We wanted it that way. Stark knew of me, so I only went into the field whenever that man managed to completely spoil any chances of peaceful negotiation, but otherwise I mostly worked behind the scenes. Jacques and I had much in common, and we learned a great deal from one another.”

“You taught at a, what’s the term, technical university for a while in the seventies, yeah?”

“On Organic chemistry, yes. There wasn’t a soul in this neighborhood who didn’t know about my new job almost before I did, Tim was so excited.”

Steve can only imagine. He’d have liked to be there, would’ve liked to get a phone call in the middle of the night, his friend so joyous with his family’s success that he just had to tell everyone. It smarts, knowing that it was pure selfishness that made him turn away, but Steve made his choice back on that plane and he’s not so sure he wouldn’t do it again.

There are things to love about this new world, he just has to kick himself into gear and go get them, but… there’s a reason he didn’t try for an out. He reaches for his dog tags, eyes fixed on nothing.

Irina chucks him under his chin, tips his head up to meet her direct gaze. She’s got big, wide hands; you couldn’t mistake the strength in them for anything less than awe-inspiring.

“He would’ve loved to see you again.” At Steve’s flinch, she grows sterner. “No, you listen to me. He knew why you did it—he knew what Barnes meant to you—no, don’t be so shocked! He didn’t mind, and neither do I. In this day and age, good people are much more sensible about such things. He was angry with you for dying for a while, of course he was, it’s all part of grieving. But he never said a bad word about you and meant it.”

Her compassion is almost too much to bear. “Guess I’m always a little too late.” A year earlier, and Dum Dum would’ve been alive still, happy as a clam and surrounded by more than twenty great-grandchildren. He was the last Howling Commando to pass away, nearly a hundred years old on the day he died.

“Things are as they are,” Irina tells him firmly. “Your memory lives still—the true memory, not that drivel they put in their movies and cartoons, or whatever speculation they’re making on the news now. You may have been the captain of the Howling Commandos, but to them you were always Steve Rogers first.”

His smile’s wobbly around the edges. “Bucky made sure of that, with all his tall tales.”

“Not a single one untrue, I bet.” She swipes a thumb beneath his eyes, despite the fact that he’s not crying. “You should visit their graves, meet their families. Not one will turn you away, or they’ll have to answer to me. We all kept in touch. There’s not a single child of theirs that I haven’t bounced my knee. But most of all, remember that not all is lost. You should visit the one who remembers you while she still has time left.”

He shuffles his legs, looks away, knowing at once whom Irina means. “Not sure she’ll want to see me.”

Irina bops him on the nose like a naughty dog. “Don’t be stupid, boy, I’m too old for that. You can’t start living anew until you let go of your regrets.”

*

When he leaves the house, he feels lighter than he has since waking up in the new century. Just being away from New York feels like breathing fresher air, as if memories and loss had clouded everything, until he started to resent the only place that he’d ever truly called home.

Without Bucky, without his Ma, it was just another city.

He now longed for New York even while standing in the middle of its beating heart. It wasn’t the changes that made it so, though those sure didn’t make it easier to slot back into place. It was the loneliness, the regret, and every justification for having left it all behind, and waking up to find it had all moved on without him.

But he has something now, a shining star in the darkness.

He has a purpose again, a fight that might redeem him.

He has people who need him, even if it’s just to lead them, but he thinks that in time, they might be his friends, too. Tony, Natasha, Thor, Bruce, Clint. They all carry the world on their shoulders in some manner or other.

It’s time to make a fresh start, and this time, he’s not gonna half-ass it.