Normally, recovering Bruce is…perhaps not easy, but in the realm of things the team does, not particularly hard, either. Because of this, it's something of a surprise when they lose him altogether. There's no way to trace him. Bruce won't allow a subdermal implant and Hulk can never keep anything on him. Usually, Bruce eventually finds his way to some type of shelter. If he's lucky, he'll manage to borrow someone's cell phone. Usually, though, given the nakedness and all, he just has to wait for them to follow the signs of destruction around his last known location.
It's exactly what they do this time, except that he's nowhere to be found. Tony is already muttering to himself about tracing the gamma particles, and Natasha is on the line with Fury. When she hangs up, she says, "We have a problem."
Everyone outside of Steve goes very still, so he knows he's missed something. Natasha swallows then succinctly says, "The genetics design branch of the army managed to acquire 'rights' in him for 48 hours."
Steve is pretty aware he looks like an idiot, just staring at her, but he's got memories of exactly what AGD did to him threatening to overwhelm all logic. Then he forces his brain back into working. "Fury signed off on that?"
"Someone above him," Tony says, and Steve can hear that it's just a guess, but Natasha's nod confirms it.
"The Council—" Steve starts.
Clint shakes his head, once, sharply. "Is just one of our problems. This could be the President, Secretary of Defense, some interagency task force head—"
Steve nods to show he's gotten it. He breathes for a few moments. "They'll have taken him to Base 9. It's the only lab in this area with the kind of materials they'd need access to."
The four team members in front of him stare at him for a second. Then Clint says, "Okay, yeah, makes sense you'd know AGD stuff. Can we get in?"
Steve has never, ever wanted to go back to those buildings, but he doesn't hesitate before nodding. "Yes."
By the time the team reaches Bruce, the ADG personnel have him on a cocktail of lord-only-knows-what to keep him docile, and he's got a few more needle pokes and incisions than he had before, but nothing that won't heal up quickly. Bruce will be better long before the AGD manages to reassemble what's left of the base. Steve hadn't bothered restraining his team.
Steve knows damn well there's no way Fury will be able to keep him off the post, that he's going to pay for every dollar of destruction, for every letter of orders disobeyed. He just doesn’t care.
As a rule, Thor gets into less trouble than the rest of them put together, mostly because nobody really feels the need to piss Asgard off. Steve can acknowledge that, once or twice, there might have been a tacit agreement among them to have Thor do something that would land one of the others counting strikes. The post is a far less common occurrence in Steve's life now, with Fury as direct supervisor. There was the thing with Bruce, obviously, but Steve had gone to Fury before they could even come find him and just said, "Make everyone happy."
Fury had. Then he'd taken the team off rotation for two weeks, which was a full week longer than Steve had needed to recover.
In any case, with Thor covering some of the heat, Steve has only been at the post all of twice in as many years. Tony argues that it's twice too much—a point on which everyone seems to agree—but Steve kind of feels like he's living a miracle, chosen-family included.
Given all of this, it's a bit of a surprise when Thor calls a team meeting in the middle of a four-month interdimensional lockdown on the tail of a narrowly avoided attack and says, with anguish in his eyes, "I must get to Asgard."
Steve might blink. The President himself has ordered the lockdown, based on SHIELD intelligence that better blocking technology can be put in place in that time. The President has ordered it on account of a treaty with the G20.
Thankfully, Bruce is literally an expert at staying calm and thinking rationally. "Why?"
"Mother is failing," Thor says, and it's soft, quiet in a way Thor never is.
Steve's memories of childhood aren't all that clear anymore. It has been a long time, and he was very young when his mother succumbed to a mix of poverty and poor health, but he can remember holding her hand, needing to be by her. Thor has had his mother for hundreds of years. Steve cannot begin to imagine that pain. He takes a slow breath. "Dr. Foster believes she can do it?"
Thor nods once. Steve nods in response. "Let's see if we can figure out a plan where nobody notices."
The plan is not the worst one they've ever come up with. Then again, that particular plan intricately involved dental floss and dozens of rubber balls, so Steve isn't sure that's saying much. Natasha, who is generally the voice of reason in these situations is suspiciously quiet, and Steve knows exactly what that means. It's shocking—and mostly due to Dr. Foster—when they smuggle Thor off-planet quietly.
It's not shocking when they get called into action three days later, sans Thor.
Steve goes to Fury on his own. Fury raises his eyebrow. "You have anything you can say that will help me to keep them from killing you?"
"His mother is dying."
"I don't think that's going to fly against 'planet-wide-security.' I'm not even sure it should."
Steve doesn't say anything. He does not regret the decision. Thor fights for a planet he has no allegiance to, lends a strength it wouldn't otherwise have. If Steve can give him special dispensation from time-to-time, especially seeing as Thor rarely asks, he's going to.
Steve wins the stare-off he's not even consciously participating in. Fury grunts. "I'll see what I can do."
They don't kill him. That's about all Steve can really say for the experience.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tony's like a magnet for trouble, even when he's not actively seeking it out. The plus to all this is, Tony can generally get himself, and anyone else, out of trouble without causing an international incident these days.
Then Pepper is kidnapped by mercs hired by corporate espionage types.
Tony looks at Steve apologetically, because there is nothing the government hates more than having to explain collateral damage by agency teams acting outside orders, and these are civilians he's going to target. Steve looks back at him evenly. It's Pepper, and that is not playing by any of the rules. He asks, "What do you need?"
Tony nods, once, and they brainstorm strategy.
Considering everything, there really is very minimal damage. No buildings are destroyed, the total death toll is three and one of them was trying to drag Pepper by her hair when they found him. As far as Steve is concerned, he's lucky it was quick.
They get her home and cleaned up and patched. There's nothing too bad, in truth, but a strained elbow and bruises too big to have been caused by fists are more than sufficient to have all of them on the edge of a beserker rage. She holds up long enough to yell at them for being foolish and not asking for help. Tony lets her yell.
She sniffles, "Love you," and drifts off to sleep while still sitting up.
Steve tells Fury, "I can take it."
Fury says, "They can go fuck themselves."
Steve shakes his head. "Save your political capital for when we really need it."
Fury glares, but gives in. The resultant twenty from a non-barbed cat don't even faze Steve.
They lose Clint in the middle of a firefight, and if there is one thing Steve knows, it is that Clint does not stop when there is shooting happening, not unless he's made to. He pushes the panic of this knowledge away until afterward, when they can get to Clint's perch, only to find him missing. Missing is better than having a dead body on their hands, but not that much better. This particular enemy has only attacked twice, so there's not much information on them, but the one "soldier" they'd managed to capture in an earlier attempt by this group is a fifteen year old street kid who'd been snatched by them and starved and threatened until he agreed to fight. Steve's not optimistic about what they'll do to a member of an opposing force.
The team is able to get hold of the records of all information the captured kid has given, but within six hours know it is all a dead-end. There are quite a few new captures from this latest fight—they're being a lot more careful about amount of force used, given the knowledge of who they're fighting—and a little food and careful, evidence-based reassurances that they are safe and those kids are willing to talk, too, but they don't know much. Evidently these people learned their lesson after the first kid spoke.
Twenty-eight hours after the fight, they receive a ransom demand. It is threefold: money, weapons, and a prisoner release for a guy serving time for rape. Nobody has any idea what connects him to the group. Fury sends Sitwell to see what he can find out. In the meantime, they all know what SHIELD's policy is in these instances: the answer is always no.
Tony has the money and can acquire the weapons, but even if any of the team thought giving into the demands was a good idea and would get Clint back for them, they've got no leverage on the third prong.
Forty hours after the fight, they send proof of life by way of a video of Clint lying on a ground, breathing, clearly unconscious, clearly alive, the most current edition of the Times resting right beside him. His right leg is bent at an odd angle, and the color of his abdomen is a serious concern.
Natasha looks at the video, over and over again, even after Pepper tries to coax her away. Forty-three hours after the fight she informs them: "Clint's telling us where he is. His hand is clenching and relaxing in Morse code."
Steve doesn't ask for permission for two reasons: 1) he doesn't have the time to waste, and 2) he doesn't really care what the answer is. They're going in.
Tony is able to hack basically everything within the general area Clint has given them, and from there it takes about two hours to locate the right types of body-movements, the correct heat signatures. They use the time to agree on a workable plan.
It's a half-hour flight from the Tower. Tony engages in his version of helping by annoying all of them to within an inch of strangling him, and Steve, in spite of himself, appreciates it. It's better than the alternative.
Once they arrive, the plan does not execute itself flawlessly—for one thing, Bruce, who's only supposed to come in if they need backup, gets treated to Clint's broken off screams over the comms as Natasha and Steve get near. Steven isn't even sure how he has time, but Bruce is big and green and right there with them within seconds. For another, Natasha isn't really as interested in taking prisoners as her silence during that conversation might have implied.
They get in and out with no casualties on their end and Clint alive, if in need of serious medical attention. Steve isn't interested in even pretending to feel remorseful over their actions.
When no word filters down about any kind of repercussion for failing to ask permission and using government property without authority, Steve checks into Fury's office with, "Barton's healing up. Doctors say another month in the cast, two in physical therapy."
Fury nods. "I'll see if I can expense you a sniper who'll work until then. Talk to Barton, see what he says."
"Sir," Steve agrees. He knows he should just leave, that if something is coming down on his head, he'll be told, but he hates waiting for that other shoe to drop. He says, "We didn't fill out the proper paperwork."
Fury tilts his head. "You didn't?"
Steve frowns. Fury would know. The Director flips through his tablet, looking for something, and hands it over. "Sure looks like you did."
Steve skims through the weapons and permission forms, the flight manifest. He cannot tell from the language who filled it in, but he'll wager on Hill. He's noticed she has very little patience for what she sees as backwards policies. Steve hands back the tablet and says guilelessly, "Must've been Stark, sir."
Fury says, "Get out," and Steve somehow knows the other man is fighting not to laugh. Steve salutes and leaves. Later, he'll discuss a thank-you gift for Hill with Pepper. Pepper is an actual genius at saying thank you by way of material goods and services.
Steven often thinks that, against all odds, Natasha is the sturdiest, most balanced among them. He gets so used to relying on her calm, methodical, invincible presence that when she shows up to a weekly debrief with red eyes, chapped lips, close to no voice and is huddling into two sweatshirts layered atop each other, it takes him a moment to understand what all of this portends. "Are you ill?"
Clint glares over at him. "Can't all be SES's."
Steve shakes his head. "That wasn't—"
"In Cap's defense," Tony says, "I would have expected all viruses and bacteria to wisely avoid going anywhere near Natasha as well. But where angels fear to tread, evidently."
"Why are you here?" Steve asks, genuinely boggled. He's decently certain he's never given off the impression he'd want to drag anyone from their sickbed for a routine check-in.
Steve's glad Natasha can't actually kill anyone with her mind, since he'd be dead right now, if her expression is any indication. She rasps out, "'M fine."
Steve has a moment where he remembers, in full, what it felt like to be sick, to present that vulnerability to the world. He nods decisively, and starts the meeting. If he runs it a little more quickly than usual, whatever, it's a nice day outside, they could all use the time.
Steve spends an hour riding his bike around the city before deciding he's being a wimp. He picks up some groceries and goes back to the Tower, where he heads straight to Natasha's floor and into her kitchen. Quietly, he works at making soup, a skill he hasn't exercised in a long time. He'd learned in one of his last group homes before the Army, and it isn't a time he likes to dwell on.
When the soup is set to boil down, Steve sorts through the various medications he picked up, pours a glass of water, steeps a cup of herbal tea, wets a few face towels found in the guest bathroom and balances everything on a cookie-sheet: the first tray-like object he finds. He makes his way to the room Natasha chose as her bedroom and knocks on the door.
There's no answer, so he does it again. He knows she's probably asleep, but she needs liquids. It takes patience, but eventually the door is yanked open. Natasha stops right in the middle of telling him off to blink and say, "You're not Clint."
He can barely hear her, but he parses the words. He says, "No," and ushers her into a plush chair in the corner. He makes her drink some of the water and tea before asking, "Where are your linens?"
She looks at him like he's grown another head. Actually, he suspects that would seem more normal to Natasha. Softly, he repeats, "Linens."
Once she's given him the information, Steve changes the sheets on her bed. He uses the cloths to wipe the worst of the sweat from her face, neck, arms, legs and stomach. She holds herself stiffly at first, but as she realizes there's no threat, slowly goes limp against his touch. He gets her to finish the water and the tea and to swallow some meds before he hefts her up and puts her in the freshly-made bed.
He kisses her forehead—she's still too hot for comfort, but not the nuclear blast she'd been when he'd entered—and leaves the door open just in case she needs him.
Steve coaxes soup and more water into Natasha the next time he wakes her. He tips another three Tylenol into her palm, has her swallow the recommended dosage of Nyquil and wipes her down again.
She's restless, fending off nightmares for half the night, until she seems to reach something of a crisis, crying out in her sleep. Steve can't help himself: he gathers her to him and rocks her until she's fallen back into a peaceful sleep. At some point he must drift off himself, because he wakes to the sight of sun streaming in the windows, Natasha still resting against him. Her breaths are slightly deeper, though, and Steve can tell she has cooled.
When she wakes, he asks if she feels up to a shower and she agrees. He changes the sheets once again while she's cleaning up, toasts some bread and seeps more tea. She eats in the dining nook, sitting up. After a few sips of tea, her voice, which is still strained, but much more audible, pipes up. "Why?"
Steve frowns. Natasha smiles a little, which he doesn't understand. She says, "If I really needed something, Clint and I have an emergency code. But I can take care of myself."
Since the thought that she couldn't has never crossed Steve's mind, he saya, "Obviously."
"That doesn't mean you should have to." Steve doesn't think about all the times he'd had to drag himself from the post, had to wait until he could get himself back to the barracks or somewhere relatively conducive to healing.
Natasha tilts her head and is silent for a long time. Finally, she decides, "I—it was nice. I thought it'd be…invasive, but." She shrugs. "Thanks."
Steve gets up and pours her another glass of water and grabs another few Tylenol. He sets them down in front of her and says, "Any time."
Although Tony likes to pretend there's not an issue, having a foreign entity lodged in his chest interfering with every heartbeat, causes problems at times. Steve has, more than once, caught Tony dawdling after a debrief, waiting to be alone until he can rub at his chest and make undignified, mewling sounds in private. Tragically for Tony, Steve really isn't interested in his pride so much as his welfare, and has taken to staying until Tony relents and allows Steve to help massage away the worst of the strain.
The big problem, however, is not the discomfort. It's that Tony's heart is much more vulnerable to infection than the average human's. And Tony's insomnia-bouts do not exactly help. Three or so years into Steve's tenure with the team, Pepper comes down with a seasonal cold and works through it. There's too much to do, and she's not the kind to let a fever of 101 degrees keep her from teleconferencing.
It takes a couple of weeks, probably longer than it should, but Pepper gets over it, only to realize Tony has caught it. Tony, to his credit, is good about trying to recuperate. He still tinkers and reads and talks, but he does it from bed, accepts the fluids he's given, and even sleeps. It doesn't matter: he ends up in SHIELD medical anyway when the virus causes cardiac distress.
At the same time, Clint, trying to cover for Tony during a mission, breaks both his left ankle and his collarbone, benching him for at least six weeks. Thor gets called to deal with diplomatic responsibilities between NATO and the Asgardians, something he cannot put off.
The three remaining team members are pulled for a mission dealing with suspected HYDRA presence in a quiet corner of the southwest. It's supposed to be a milk run.
The intel is off. It's understandable, given the cleverly hidden nature of the compound—and the fact that they only find it entirely by accident—but problematic because whatever Steve was shot with upon discovery makes him feel like his entire body is made up of crumbling rubber bands. One glance around and it's obvious the compound is working on Bruce, too, since he's fully human. He's also in some kind of containment cell. It doesn't look like the SHIELD one: there's more metal, for one thing, but there's enough glass to see Bruce and for Bruce to see Steve, when he wakes.
Natasha isn't visible. Steve hopes that's a good sign, and that she's bringing backup. There's several hundred of the enemy to grapple with.
A man returns with questions about what they are doing there. He asks them politely on the first go. Then he has four men pin Steve and give him two more injections, at least one of which is a truth serum. It burns in Steve's veins and he has to concentrate with all his might to come up with truthful answers that mean nothing.
Bruce is raging in his cage, but whatever they've given him must work. Steve's glad they don't seem willing to test whether it will withstand torture. He can play the mindgames needed to turn attention to himself, but it's easier not to have to. Steve thinks he deserves a break now and then.
They bind Steve on his stomach and ask a question. If he's being honest, Steve doesn't even bother to actually listen to what it is. It takes a second for him to understand what happens next, a quick sting and then a harsh burn of agony, but it makes sense when they hold a stretch of his own flesh in front of his eyes and ask, "How much do you think we can remove before your body can no longer heal itself?"
Steve doesn't know the answer.
He gives up trying not to scream at some point. He wouldn't bother, except Bruce is vibrating, his features green, and Steve's a little worried he's going to do himself permanent harm trying to break through whatever is keeping Hulk neutralized.
They pour something on him, alcohol, maybe, or salt water, he can't say. He thinks his heart actually stops for a moment, the pain is that acute.
When flaying becomes too monotonous, they sit him up and drive heated needles through his genitals. Steve can barely remember who the hell he is, let alone the information they want from him.
He pretends he's on the post; something has happened, he's protecting the others. He pretends they are holding his hands, one of them counting, that there is an end to this. He pretends this is only punishment, deserved or not, and there is nothing he can do to stop it. He pretends there will be a soft bed, his favorite foods and muted laughter, meant not to wake him, when this is all over.
Steve misses the rescue. He's been in and out of consciousness for a while when it comes, and he's firmly out at the time. He wakes in SHIELD medical with Bruce, Clint, Tony, Natasha and even Thor there. It's Thor's presence that makes him ask, "How long?"
"Three days," Bruce tells him, looking a little wan, but mostly recovered. "Which, considering you'd be dead if not for your SES upgrades is pretty good."
Tony coughs. He's still pale. Steve asks, "Should you be up?"
Tony rolls his eyes, but reassures Steve, "I okayed it with the doctors, mom."
Steve takes a breathe, trying to relax, but now that he's aware, the antiseptic smell of medical is making him itchy under his skin, too reminiscent of army hospitals where team leaders were last on the list of people to be treated after a whipping and labs. Natasha must see the shift, because she stands up. "We're taking him home."
Steve knows he should tell her not to frighten the medical personnel. He wants to leave too badly.
The team settles Steve in his room. His sheets have been changed. Bruce orders him to drink a glass of water before he sleeps again, and when he wakes up, he's treated to potato pakoras and hamburger stew. Clint sits beside him, and slows him down by asking questions when he thinks Steve is going to make himself sick.
Thor applies topical medicines that are more about alleviating the soreness by this point than actually healing. The skin has repaired itself, but it is almost as if his body cannot believe it to be so. Thor's hands are competent and surprisingly gentle at the task. They dig into muscles when necessary, and soothe when desired. Steve falls asleep more than once under those hands.
Tony sleeps almost as much as Steve does in the first few days of his return, so the two of them often share Steve's bed, which is more than large enough for four people. It is still not unusual to find Tony curled up around him when he wakes. Steve admits this to Pepper, just in case she wishes to remove Tony to their bed. She smiles, kissing Steve's forehead and says, "Yeah, he's an octopus. Just let me know if it starts to bother you."
Natasha teaches him words in Russian and sings lullabies from all over the world. She makes him smile without laughing until the latter won't hurt. She cards her fingers through his hair and holds his hands when she wakes him from nightmares. In the aftermath of one, he tells her, "I pretended. I pretended it was just punishment, and that all of you would take me down and...and—"
She brings his hands to her lips, kissing at the knuckles. "Until the day there's no need, Cap, we are always going to cut you down and heal you up."
Steve thinks the statement should feel like a revelation. Instead it just feels like warmth and familiarity. He tells her, "I know. I—you too, all of you."
She smiles. "Yes, we know."
"Good, then," Steve says. "That's good."
She dips her head in tacit agreement. Clint hobbles into the room and asks, "Hey, room for one more?"
Steve gestures to all the space on the bed.