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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2014-12-28 10:32 pm

Works No Longer In Progress 2014

Every year I do a post of all the bits of fic I couldn't find a place for. Some stand alone pretty well; most are just starts I don't have the interest or energy to finish.

Thse works are also available at AO3.

Snowpiercer: After The End Of The World
Rating: PG
Summary: Curtis has hope, now. Yona has only her survival.
Notes: After seeing Snowpiercer, I desperately wanted to fix it, which I know is kind of directly opposing the spirit of the film. But the end was just...hard. So this was my idea for a fixit, which would eventually have included Curtis walking the train tracks to get back to New York.
Warnings: Brief discussions of cannibalism and rape. Brief nonconsensual drug use.

SPOILERS for the end of Snowpiercer.

***

When Yona saw the polar bear, up on the ridge, for a moment she thought perhaps it was a sign; some kind of symbol of rebirth, sent by a deity who was sorry for what He'd done to them. She'd seen pictures of polar bears in books as a child, before everything went wrong, back when the mid-carriages of the train seemed like heaven and her father still had hope in his eyes.

After a few seconds regarding the bear, she decided it was more likely that it had smelled the carnage in the air, and if it had survived then it was not going to be the last predator or scavenger who came looking. Yona had little experience of a world that didn't jolt and rattle along tracks, but she knew enough; she gathered up Timmy, leading him back towards the wreckage, and set about making herself shelter. It was almost ten minutes before she heard the crash and the groan.

"It's Curtis!" Timmy yelled, ducking under debris and clambering over it, dodging fires that hadn't yet gone out (good; they would need the heat). Yona followed more slowly, disbelieving, and found Curtis alive, hissing in pain and swearing, the stump of his left arm pressed into a snowbank to numb the pain. The hand had come off just above the wrist. He sounded almost feral, but when he looked at her, his eyes were clear, and there was triumph in them.

Well, she supposed, if they were going to die and be eaten by polar bears, they might as well enjoy their pyrrhic victory.

***

Curtis was not good for much more than sitting around and suffering, at the moment, but Yona was used to shifting for herself when her father was in the Kronol haze. She built them a passable little hut against the cold, out of scraps of metal and parquet flooring and one end of Wilfred's carriage. She built a fire -- clumsily, never having dealt with fire larger than the flame of a match -- and shifted a piece of paneling so that the wind blew the smoke the other way. She left Timmy and Curtis sleeping there while she picked her way along the train, wondering what they could salvage or if they should even bother.

She turned to study the ridge often, but the polar bear was gone. He might be on his way to eat them now.

And then, the last time she turned to look over her shoulder, she saw people on the ridge.

People on the ridge.

They couldn't be anything else, not with arms and legs like that and in thick fur coats, not the way they hurried down the side of the mountain and became hazy dots across the snow field as they came towards her.

But Yona had experience of the desperate. She had found a hatchet in the wreckage, and when she realized what they were and what they meant, she ran back to Timmy and Curtis. She stood outside their little hut, the axe in one hand, a warning scowl on her face.

The man who approached first looked harmless, at least. Some of them were white, like Curtis. Two were not -- they looked a little like her father, but not enough.

The man spoke in a language she didn't know, but his gestures were calming, and a woman following behind him offered food. When he realized she didn't understand, he waved for one of the others to try, but the language still wasn't anything she recognized.

There were perhaps ten of them in all -- men and women, two older children -- as well as animals she recognized as some kind of burden beast, maybe yaks. The children began to make a camp; some of the others began to pick through the wreckage as she had done. One, tugging at a bit of her hut curiously, yelped in surprise when Curtis surged out of it, a thick plank in his good hand, roaring a warning to Yona to get back.

They stood there for a split second, a terrible tableau. Curtis, half-crazed with pain and fear, plank upraised; the newcomers in a circle around him; Yona between them, with Timmy clinging to her leg.

Curtis heaved a deep breath, looked around wildly, and dropped the plank, cringing.

"It's okay," she said, as he shrunk away, staggering backwards, a large man trying to make himself small. "Curtis. It's okay."

"Am I hallucinating?" he asked her. She shook her head. "Who are they?"

"Ah! English!" one of them said in a thick accent, and stepped forward. "I speak some. We didn't know you did," he said to Yona, who rubbed her fingers together nervously. Curtis was kind but volatile, and these people, these strangers who had come out of the wilderness where nothing was supposed to live, were perhaps their only chance of survival.

"I'm sorry," Curtis said, and Yona breathed a sigh of relief. "I didn't know who you were."

"You came from the train," the man said. "We knew it would smash one day. Sooner than some thought. Lucky it was here. Lucky we were hunting. Very lucky, the three of you," he added thoughtfully. The others nodded. "Who else lived?"

Yona shook her head. "I don't know."

"Hopefully nobody," Curtis muttered bitterly. The man's smile was kind, the kindness reserved for wounded children.

"You must rest," he said, spreading his hands, pointing with one at the hut. "Rest. We'll gather anything of use, find any who lived. When we're finished, you'll come with us."

"Come where?" Yona asked warily.

"Home," the man said with a smile. "The town will be glad. I'm sorry, I don't know the words in English -- I think you would say fresh blood?"

Yona tensed.

"We will be happy for new people to come into our family," the man added.

"Oh," Curtis said. Yona glanced at him. "They want new gene donors," he explained.

Understanding washed over her, but it didn't make her less tense. There was a town full of survivors, and their first concern was genetic diversity. She knew enough to know that meant she would be bred.

"Please, please don't be so afraid," the man said. "We are happy here. We are peaceful people. There is a place for you, a safe place, just over the mountain."

"Thank you," Curtis said, though he looked wary too.

"And now, please, you are wounded, and you," he said, turning to her, "have suffered, you all have. Rest. We will watch over you, wake you when it's time to leave."

There was shouting then, from down the line of the wreck, and Yona knew what it meant.

Survivors.

***

The man who spoke English gave his name as Ivan; he had been a linguist before the ice and spoke many languages, so it had always been his job to make newcomers a part of the family. They hadn't had many, but there had been some over the years, enough that Ivan knew what to do.

In all, there were fifteen survivors of the wreck aside from her, Curtis, and Timmy. Most of them were children. There were two dazed-looking people in club gear who'd nearly frozen to death, and an elderly woman who looked like she was on death's door.

"She won't make the trip," Ivan said to Yona and Curtis in a low voice, as they prepared to leave. The children had been bundled up and put on yaks; they were all in shock, tractable and fearful, and Yona couldn't help the vicious spike of satisfaction in her that caused. Terrible little shit-heads, but they couldn't help that; they'd been indoctrinated since birth. She felt bad, feeling pleasure in their awakening to the truth of the world. But she still felt it.

"What do we do?" Curtis asked him, nodding to the old woman. Ivan looked at him, perplexed.

"We can't leave her here," he said. "We'll take her with us. Make her as comfortable as we can. As we will do for you," he added, pointing at Curtis's arm. Yona could see pain lines creasing Curtis's face, even though one of the people from the town had made a disinfecting poultice to press to it, and another had helped him pack snow around it to keep it numb. It would need more attention when they reached wherever they were going. "There are twelve of us, to get the children and you up the cliff, and we have things from the wreck to pack in as well. We'll have to send people back for the rest. Scavengers'll probably get it first," he added regretfully. "Still, not bad. More than a polar bear, it seems. Oh, how I yearn for farmland," he continued, as they began the long walk back to the cliff.

"You don't farm?" Yona asked.

"Once, we did. Even then it was hard. When the snows came, impossible. We lived as we could. Very hard at first. Soon, though, I think we will farm again."

Yona thought of her father, patiently checking the crashed airplane under the Yekaterina bridge. Year after year, waiting for signs of a thaw. Only seventeen years. She had enough education to know that the process was probably close to exponential, as the snow melted and stopped retaining the cold. In another seventeen years, the land might emerge from the permafrost.

In another seventeen years, she would be the age Curtis was now. Timmy would be a man. Curtis would be fifty-one, God willing he live so long. Imagining it pleased her. Seventeen years in this chill waste, as long as there was food and shelter, with the pure white snow fields slowly receding...yes. It would be good.

"You smile," Ivan said, looking pleased. "You will smile more soon, when we reach town."

"What town?" Curtis asked.

"A small suburb of Yekateringrad. The city itself is not a good place to go yet."

"You're Russian," Curtis said, then paused. "Or -- Ukrainian?"

"Russian, most of us. Some Ukrainian, Chinese. Kazakhstani, Finnish, Polish."

"People made it to Russia from China?" Curtis asked. "From Poland? After the ice?"

"Where did you come from? You are westerners, I think."

"Korean," Yona said, though the word meant little to her. The train barely skirted Korea; her father used to take her to the window and point south. "There is your father's home," he had said, but all she'd seen was snow.

"Westerner," Curtis agreed.

"Did you board the train where you lived?"

"No, we -- we made it from Chicago to New York before the cold got too bad," Curtis said. The man spread his hands.

"Our refugees made it as far as Yekaterinburg. I think maybe others were not so lucky. It was great chaos. But we survived." He grinned. "Russians. We know the cold. So you will be our first from Chicago, and you our first Korean," he added. "And the children, they must come from the train. No country; no past. Well, we will give them both. There are many empty houses. There are many women and men with no children of their own. I know you have no choice," he said, looking regretful, "but if you must be taken into a family, I think you'll find we are a good one."

"Are there any other survivors?" Curtis asked. "In other parts of the world? Ever made contact?"

"We knew of the train, but you never stopped. Have you never found any?"

Yona shook her head.

"Well, if we survive, I think others may. We were sheltered by the mountains, and we knew how to live in the cold. Surely -- Inuits, maybe? Tibetans? Siberians? And -- is it so cold everywhere? I learned as a boy that the equator is warm."

They crossed the equator four times in a year. In the mid-carriages, it had meant a special treat with dinner and a day off from school.

"Not anymore," Curtis said. Yona thought for him the crossing of the equator had probably meant nothing at all.

Ivan smiled. "Well, it was a warm winter. Perhaps in another year or two, we will send someone to see the world."

***

The journey to Yekaterinburg was hard. It took two days; normally they did it in one, apparently, but between the children and Curtis and the death of the old woman that night, they were delayed. Yona felt fearful over it; what if they were left behind, too much of a burden? But the thought never seemed to cross anyone else's mind. They didn't even leave the old woman; her body was bound in scraps of rag and thrown over the yak she'd been riding.

The morning of the second day, Curtis fell sick; infection, they said, and by the time they reached town he was still walking but he was delirious. He kept asking where the mall was. Whatever a mall was.

When they saw the town, dominated by a huge building at one end of a main road, Yona felt herself go into the shock she'd delayed for so long. It was enormous, to her eyes, a sprawling assortment of houses like the ones she'd seen in books, so wide and high, so open and seemingly vulnerable, and so still. There were people waiting for them; the hunting party had sent a man ahead to spread the news, and the children were lifted down from their mounts, the hunters welcomed home, the sacks of loot from the train shouldered by new men and women, all of them laughing and speaking an unfamiliar language.

A woman cupped Yona's face in her hands, seemingly delighted, and two men began to lead Curtis away, one of them carrying Timmy. Yona screamed, lunging for them, startled at the surge of fear she felt when she saw Curtis and Timmy being taken from her.

Everyone froze. Ivan said, very gently, "They must go to the school. Curtis for medicine, the boy to meet his teachers and the Lama."

"Why can't I go?" she demanded.

He looked surprised. "You can, of course. Wouldn't you rather have food? Somewhere to sleep?"

"No. I want to go with them."

Ivan said something in Russian, and the one who was carrying Timmy held out a hand to her. She took it and followed, carrying Timmy when the man tired of him. It seemed like more people than she'd ever seen in one place came with them in a procession down to the biggest building, this so-called school. They walked on bare ground, swept clean of snow; she remembered her father explaining dirt to her. Trees, like in the greenhouse, stood at points along the path.

A man wrapped in a faded red blanket met them on the steps of the school, smiling.

"Yona," Ivan said. "This is the Lama. He came from Tibet, once. Lama, this is Yona, from Korea by way of the train, Curtis, a Westerner from the train, and Timmy, a child of the train."

Curtis dropped to his knees. The Lama made a gesture and three people spilled past him out the door, helping Curtis up. Yona clung to him with one hand, Timmy a weight on her other arm, and the Lama said something quick and sharp.

Those who had been bending to take Curtis from her stepped away. Ivan, sighing, hoisted his shoulder under Curtis's arm and said to her, "Let them carry the boy, and I will carry the man; follow me."

***

They had tea in the sickroom, a long warm corridor full of beds, most of them empty. She had thought tea had gone extinct years ago. It was a treat her father took on equator-passing days until she was nine, when the tea ran out.

"It is very old, and not very good, but special occasions call for special things," Ivan said, pouring her a cup and offering her a bowl of something golden and syrupy. "It's honey," he said. "It's sweet."

She took a dollop in her tea, but with suspicion. The man in the red blanket -- a robe, he was a Lama, she remembered a photograph of one now -- adjusted himself in a chair, while an attendant took a sharp knife to the dead skin of Curtis's arm. Curtis was unconscious, sweating, but still. The Lama talked, and Ivan translated. Timmy slept against her side, breath warm against her ribs.

"We've seen the train come through every year," the Lama said, through Ivan. "We wondered who was on it, and why. The first year we merely saw you; the second year we recorded you; the third year you were late, and we tried to stop you, but there was no stopping, then or any other year we tried, and we had larger concerns. I am sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," Yona murmured.

"How many were on the train?"

"Nearly a thousand."

The Lama whistled. "Seventeen from a thousand."

"It was hell," Yona said. "It was a sentence to hell. We just didn't know it."

"Well, then your suffering has been rewarded. Here you are," the Lama told her with a smile.

"There is a woman in the town who wishes to be your mother, and Timmy's if you like," Ivan added.

"I have no mother."

"You have now," the Lama said.

"What if I don't want a mother?"

The Lama and Ivan exchanged looks. "Then you will be given a house, until you come of age," Ivan said.

"Age to do what?"

"Raise children. Or work. All must do one or the other. Some do both. How old are you?" the Lama inquired.

"Fifteen," Yona lied. To be younger seemed better, now.

"Then in six years you will be of age. Until then, you are a child to be cared for. You may go to school, if you like. Many of our young women like to explore the mountains," the Lama said. Yona relaxed a fraction. She could do a lot to protect herself in six years.

"Is she nice, this woman?" she asked. Ivan nodded. "Then, maybe. For Timmy." She looked to Curtis, who had cried out softly, though the doctor wasn't touching him. "What about Curtis?"

"He's old enough to work, once his arm heals. I'm sure there are women who would like a child by a strapping man like him. Is he violent?" the Lama asked. "Some of the men were violent when they came here."

"What happens if he is?" Yona asked.

"They were," the Lama said. "They no longer are."

"Violent?"

"The penalty for rape is death," Ivan said. Yona stared at him, mouth open. "Is he?" Ivan pressed.

She looked back to Curtis. Yes, he was; violent, prone to fury, eager to lash out in fear. She couldn't say he wasn't violent. He had eaten the weak.

But he was also kind. And he suffered for his sins.

"He didn't lose his arm in the crash," she said, hearing her voice as if from far away. "He sacrificed his hand to save Timmy."

Ivan looked interested. "Is he the boy's father?"

For all she knew, he might have been, but she didn't think so; she shook her head. The Lama made a questioning noise, and Ivan explained her answer. The Lama smiled and rested a hand on Curtis's forehead, which seemed to ease him somewhat. Then he stood and took Yona's hands, squeezing them in rough palms.

"Stay with him as long as you like," he said. "Finish the tea. Beds will be brought. Ivan will make arrangements for your new mother."

***

She stayed with Curtis for three days, sleeping in a cot with Timmy clutched to her chest at night, washing in bowls of clean snowmelt they brought her, eating whatever was given her, starving if nobody came (but someone always came, sooner or later).

Curtis sweated and moaned, fighting the fever; he raved for his mother, and called for Edgar, though it was clear it was the little boy and not the man Yona had known -- Edgar, come here, it's not safe -- I'm sorry, kiddo, it's all we have to eat -- Edgar, sit down!

Sometimes he counted to eighteen, over and over again. Twice more, people came to treat his arm. Daily, they changed his sheets, bathed him, and fed him in his calmer, glassy-eyed moments. She saw the terrible scar on his arm; she saw the stripes on his back, and knew that he had been flogged, as it was rumored they sometimes did to keep the tail-enders in line. A man, seeing the whip marks, looked at Yona with such intense hate in his eyes that she protested it wasn't her who'd done it, even though he couldn't understand what she said.

The Lama came too, sometimes with Ivan and sometimes without. When he came without Ivan, he taught her little words, like me and you, bed and cup and bowl in Russian. Slowly, gently, he and Ivan teased out of her the story of the train, such as she knew it. They had assembled parts already from their scavenging of the wreckage.

On the third night, Curtis screamed, wailing his guilt and terror to the empty walls. Yona considered the screams, carefully, calmly, and took the last rock of Kronol out of her pocket. She scratched dust into her hand, and then pulled his head up, holding her palm under his nose. When he exhaled the dust scattered, and she scratched another small pile carefully into her palm. This time, raising his head, she cupped her hand over his nose and mouth, until he gasped in the Kronol and choked on it.

She let him lie back, and within minutes he was quiet. His breath came fast and hard, and his eyes, open, darted back and forth, seeing things she couldn't. His mouth curved eventually into a loose, stupid smile, and he tilted his head back.

"Peter," he said, in a voice thick with love and desire. His eyes closed, and for a brief second his body arched forward, sinuous, like the one boy she'd had in her life, back before she was put in a prison drawer to be forgotten and then brought out to be sacrificed. His hips rolled up and he cried out in ecstasy, just once.

Then he was quiet.

***

When she woke the next morning, Curtis was not in his bed, and the thick blanket atop it was gone as well.

She found him wrapped in the blanket, sitting outside, in a field that the children from the school wing had turned into a snow-sculpture garden. She sat down next to him, on a bench made from a board perched on two stones.

"We went from Chicago to New York after it happened," Curtis said, after a few minutes. "The real deep cold hadn't set in yet."

"I was born on the train," she replied.

"Well, it used to be warm in the summer in Chicago. New York, too. We made it to the train. My parents put me on it without them, y'know -- we didn't have enough money for one ticket, let alone three. Mom -- she did what she had to, to get me on board." He had a handful of snow in his remaining hand, and his thumb sifted it slowly. "They said the train was the best chance, but they were going to go to the emergency refugee station at the library in Manhattan."

She waited, silently, for him to come to his point.

"How ridiculous the train was," he murmured. "How absurd. That this stupid -- closed ecosystem would keep us alive forever. We lasted less than two decades. And it wasn't even necessary. These people live just fine here."

"Here is not New York."

"No. But now, see, I have hope," he said bitterly. "If they could survive here, maybe my parents got into the refugee station. Maybe they're alive, halfway across the world. I had this dream last night -- I thought I was walking along the train tracks, trying to get to New York. I just kept walking and walking, but it was okay, because I had -- I had someone with me, someone from before the ice, someone I was -- good friends with," he finished, and it sounded like a frail half-truth even to her ears. "I never got there. And I wouldn't anyway if I tried, now. But every year we passed through New York and I could have...somehow I could have left the train, tried to find them, it would have been worth the risk of dying to know -- but I was afraid -- "

His chest heaved.

"You have hope," Yona said. Curtis brought his hands to his face, and then realized he only had one, and let his left arm fall. "I have none. Everyone I knew in life died on the train."

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Which is better, do you think?" she asked, leaning against him, and he shifted so that he could lay his left arm across her shoulders. "Hope, or no hope?"

He was silent for a while, and then he asked, "Are the people here nice? It seems like they're nice."

"I don't trust nice."

He laughed, drily. "No. I don't either, anymore. I did once. But they seem nice?"

"Yes. They seem nice."




Captain America: The Greatest Generations
Rating: G
Summary: Steve couldn't be there for his children, and he won't abandon any of their children -- even if they're older than him now.
Notes: I wanted to try a different sort of story about Steve and kids, particularly about the possibility of a Serum breeding program. It got slightly out of hand and then ground madly to a halt.
Warnings: Discussion of parental death; brief discussion of all-partners-consensual extramarital affairs.

***

The first thing Steve Rogers said to Nick Fury on the street in New York, shortly after waking, was I had a date.

The second thing he said, before Fury could respond, was What happened to my kids?

It shocked Fury to silence, obviously, and in some ways that was a relief. The idea of the children in the hands of this terrifying monolith, this place that played with your mind, was unsettling.

"Director," someone said, from behind Fury, and a nondescript, middle-aged man stepped past him. "I think this is where I come in."

Fury was clearly surprised at this, too, and he began to look angry at how out of control the entire system was. Steve's attention, however, was drawn to the other man.

"If it's been seventy years," Steve snarled, "You're too young. I'm not an idiot."

The man smiled. "That's not wrong, Captain. Mariah was my mother. Vivianne was my grandmother."

He had pale brown hair just a shade away from blond, but then so had Vivianne. She'd said in a letter to him that their child took after her more than him. And something about the eyes, something about the jaw...

"You wanna explain to me what the hell is happening here, Coulson?" Fury snapped. Steve just blinked, stunned by the sunlight, by the terrible smell of the city, by this man before him, visibly older than him, who was nonetheless, probably, his grandchild.

"Mariah?" he said.

"I don't know if you'd recall -- "

"I remember," Steve said. He remembered all of them. He'd died with their names on his lips.

"Come with me," the man said. "Let's get off the street, hm?"

***

Phil had inherited, from his terribly organized grandmother, the keeping of the family geneaeology. Vivianne hadn't trusted the SSR by the end of the war, but she'd worked in the SSR records office, and in the shuffle of property between the various three-letter agencies after 1945, she had quietly made away with their dossiers -- all of the women from the program and all of their children. The scientists who worked on the project thought the government had taken it over; the government thought the scientists were handling it.

The salaries and administrative budget for the project kept coming from the SSR (and then OSS and then CIA), expertly managed by another of the participants, Loretta, a sweet southern belle who was ace at hoodwinking and who distributed the budget primarily amongst the unmarried mothers in the program who needed it the most. By the time the money dried up in the seventies, all the children were out on their own, and some had children of their own -- children like Phil Coulson.

Thanks to the SSR's bright idea for a super-soldier breeding program, Steve Rogers had a total of nineteen children from eighteen different women (one set of twins, who went to the Olympics as gymnasts, some year or other). Only fifteen grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren -- one of Phil's generation, a geneticist, was studying the fertility issue -- but still, that was sixty-four names to remember, sixty-four people to keep tabs on. Fortunately, most of them had gone into the military or government service, which made Phil's life easier.

"I wrote to all of them," Captain Rogers said, sitting in Fury's office, looking down at the list Phil had quietly compiled when they realized the Captain was still alive.

Phil contemplated just how long Fury would be angry with him. Really, this wasn't the kind of thing you could disclose in a job interview, but telling your friend of a decade or more that you were the grandson of Captain America was probably suggested.

"All of the children. Well, to the mothers, but I spoke to the children in the letters," Captain Rogers continued. "If I died, I wanted them to know who their father was. At least a little."

"There are a few left in the family collection," Phil said quietly. "My mother has two."

"Grown and gone," Captain Rogers murmured. His finger found a specific name. "Gladys. She was so nice to me. She sent me a photo of our boy Jimmy, once. Dunno where it is now. Looks like he...oh," he said sadly. There were two dates next to Jimmy's name. "He died...young?"

"Korea," Phil supplied. He had no memories of Uncle Jimmy, but he was one of the ones the family drank to, whenever a few of them got together. Captain Rogers first and foremost, then the others who had fallen. Now that Captain Rogers was up and about, Phil really should contact the other grandchildren still living.

Captain Rogers gave him a blank look. "Korea?"

"There was a war."

"Another one?" he asked wearily.

"Another few. We can deal with that later. And this, too -- but I can have the other grandkids come to see you, if you want. And the parents that are left. Though you might have to go to see some of them," Phil added. Most of the mothers had died in the last few years; some still held on, but only two were really mobile. "Right now, I think the Director's mainly concerned with keeping you from bolting again."

That earned him a small, dry smile. "He's an intimidating fella."

"You have no idea."

"You aren't pulling my leg, are you?" the Captain asked. It was a strange feeling, knowing how young he was -- Phil could remember being equally young and, if not equally in over his head, at least close to. He'd trusted in his commanding officers, sometimes erroneously, but he'd sometimes felt that the chain of command was the only anchor he had.

"Captain, I wouldn't do that to you," Phil said. "We all grew up hearing about you -- I think you'll find us a credit to your legacy. I hope so."

"My legacy," the Captain muttered. "All right, so. What happens now?"

***

Whether Fury ripped Phil a new one for keeping the Serum Child project from him, Steve never found out; Phil had Vivianne's sweetness of temper, and took whatever punishment was meted out to him quietly and without flinching. He told Steve that Fury wanted to wait to bring the grandchildren and great-grandchildren to him until he'd acclimated, and Steve was depressingly relieved. He wasn't ready for this century, let alone to be the patriarch of a grand clan.

When they took him to Almagordo in '42, before he became the Senator's dancing monkey, they told him that they wanted him to try to father children, to see if the serum bred true. Steve thought it was gauche, and cruel in some ways, and he worried it wouldn't, that any child of his would be sickly and weak. But he understood their logic -- and he had very little choice, in the end. They assured him the women were willing, and the women themselves assured him they were as well, when he asked them -- most of them were married, but hadn't been able to conceive with their husbands. It felt strange, being with a woman who was married, but they wanted children -- and he'd been able, in many cases, to provide a longed-for son or daughter.

Nineteen children. He'd never seen any of them in person, but he'd sworn he'd be a good father and he'd found it easy to love them, at least from a distance. He knew all their names, and mostly knew where they were and how they were faring.

And now many of the mothers were dead, and some of the children as well.

He'd written. He'd sent trinkets and candies when he could, special drawings on their birthdays. He hadn't thought about what he'd do when the war was over, but he'd wanted to at least see them all. They were all healthy, thank God, not a bum heart or colorblind eye in the bunch. The oldest, Rose, had already been walking when he'd gone into the ice.

They were his kin. Kin was important. And he'd abandoned them. And now, he'd lost them.

Still, aside from poor Jimmy, most of them had lived long and happy lives, and their mothers had banded together, so Phil said, so that all of them were close. That was good; that was how it ought to be with family. Five of the fifteen grandkids were in SHIELD. One was a Lieutenant Colonel in the air force. Most of the great-grandkids were still children, but the oldest was at West Point.

"What am I supposed to do?" he asked Phil at one point, and then realizing he was asking advice of his own grandson. "Sorry, I just..."

"None of us want anything from you," Phil said, head cocked sympathetically. "Well. Perhaps to meet you. But we don't need money, we don't need...bringing up, even the little ones. We -- they -- just want to know you." His smile turned shy. "They've heard a lot about you from me since you woke."

"It's a helpless feeling," Steve admitted. "Knowing I ought to have been there. For them. For you."

Phil shrugged. "You died for your country so that we could live in safety," he said. "I don't think there's a single one of us who doesn't understand that sacrifice."

"Cheapens it a little when I'm still kickin' around."

"No, Captain," Phil said gently, and the affection in his eyes was both reassuring and painful. "I don't think it cheapens it at all."

***

The first one he met after Phil wasn't one of the other SHIELD grandchildren; it was the Air Force officer, a slim man named James Rhodes. "Rhodey" Rhodes. And he was not what Steve was expecting.

"Well," he said, as they shook hands. "You didn't take much after me on the outside, huh?"

Rhodey looked startled, and then he laughed. "No sir."

"Steve is fine. Phil keeps insisting on calling me Captain; makes me feel about a million years old. Have a seat," Steve said, settling in at the table in the mess hall. "I don't really know how to...do this, I suppose."

"Nothing to do, really," Rhodey said, with a bright, wide smile, and in that Steve did see -- not himself, so much, but the charm in that smile reminded him of his own mother. "Just wanted to introduce myself. Phil's a nice guy but he can be a little excitable on the subject of our venerable ancestor."

"He's been helpful, though," Steve said.

"Yeah, he is that. His ma was really nice; when my dad married my mother, even some of the other children gave him the eyeball. Vivienne and Mariah shouted 'em down."

"Your dad, now, he was Phyllis's son? Phyllis and -- she was married to Mike Rhodes, right?"

Rhodey nodded. "Good memory."

"She was fun, Phyllis. Made me laugh so I wasn't so nervous," Steve said. "I got to know them all a little, before I left."

"Well, she always had nice things to say about you."

"Seems like everyone does. I feel a little like I have to live up to myself, now," Steve admitted.

"From the sound of things, it won't exactly be a problem."

"Maybe. Hey, I hear you run around with Stark's kid, Tony?"

Rhodey laughed. "A word to the wise, Steve -- don't let him hear you calling him 'Stark's kid'."

"I'll take that under advisement. Kinda glad he's not one of mine, truthfully," Steve said. "So, tell me about this War Machine suit you have."

***

Over the course of the months that followed, bleeding into one year and then two, he met the children that still lived, the grandchildren and their children. He held one great-grandson on his knee and made faces at him, delighted at how much the boy resembled him. He learned how to use the calendar on his phone purely because he now had to keep track of so many birthdays, but he made sure everyone got a card and something small. He had money now; he could afford more than hard candies and kewpie dolls. His grandchildren said he didn't have to, but he liked to. It was one bright thing he could make in his life.

Then came the fall of SHIELD, the fall of SHIELD at his own hands. One of his grandsons was suddenly Director (suddenly alive again, after Steve had mourned his death at Loki's hands). Three more grandsons and a granddaughter had been loyal against HYDRA; not a single child with Rogers blood in them had been a traitor, and it filled him with pride.

But one of those SHIELD grandsons, Tom, had died in the fighting. And Tom had a young son, Steve's great-grandson.

Who he had named Steven.

It wasn't the first time one of the children or grandchildren had lost their parents, and the extended family was relatively quick to assemble. They met in the back room of a restaurant in Virginia, him and the grandchildren and the two eldest great-grandchildren. All the grandchildren but Tom, of course -- and Phil, who was holding the reins of SHIELD by the tips of his fingers, and who Steve had ordered to stay put and get the house back in order. Sam had come too, but he was out in the restaurant proper, sitting with one of the younger great-grandchildren and helping him to mind Steven.

"Someone's got to take Steven," Rhodey said, when they'd settled down to discuss matters. "He's one of our own. We aren't sending him into the system."

"I agree. We can work up some papers, but who's going to take him?" Alyssa asked. "Half of us are still cleaning up after Hydra, the other half are practically still babies."

"Hey now," one of the younger ones said. "That doesn't mean we can't take him. He's four, he's a Rogers kid, he's durable. How much can we mess him up?"

"Plenty, with that attitude -- "

Steve sat thoughtfully, listening to them argue -- so stubborn, very much his blood, stubborn and determined to do the right thing come damnation or disaster -- until he felt it had gone on long enough, and most of the grandchildren had been discounted for one reason or another. Then he stood up, and everyone fell silent.

"I have a duty to discharge," he said. "Some loose ends from Hydra to wrap up. Then I'll take the boy."

The rest of them exchanged looks.

"Steve," Rhodey said, in an undertone. "Are you sure about this?"

"I didn't get to raise a one of you. Didn't even get to provide for you. And honestly, I could use a leave of absence," Steve said. "Brian."

"Sir," Brian said.

"You and your wife can take Steven in the short term?"

"Sure, as long as she doesn't get deployed anytime soon."

"I'll have Phil ensure it. I'll be back for him in six months at the outside. Anyone object?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. A few looked discontented, but nobody was willing to speak up against him. "All right. Thank you all for coming. I'd like to speak with each of you before you go, but I know some of you are on schedules." He smiled. "Remember, grandfather loves you all."

That put smiles on the faces of even the unhappy ones. By the time he made it out to the restaurant's public dining room, Little Steven was asleep in the arms of his cousin Big Steven, who was twelve and still overawed by his celebrity great-grandfather.

"Hey," he said, crouching next to Big Steven. "Looks like you did a great job."

"Thank you," Big Steven said shyly.

"Your uncle Brian and his wife are going to take the little one for a while," he said. "Now, you live near them, so it's your job to check up on him and make sure he's fine while I'm gone, okay?"

Big Steven nodded, eyes wide. "Yessir!"

"You have my phone number. I won't be around much but you can email me or text me if there's something wrong," Steve said. "Even if you just have a feeling."

Big Steven nodded again, releasing his little charge as Brian came over to collect him.

"Thank you," Steve told him. Brian smiled.

"Hardly a trial," he said, cuddling the boy to his shoulder. "The wife'll be surprised. Still, Phil gave her the We're Family speech before she married me, so she knew what she was getting into, and she likes kids. I'll let you know how he settles in. Come on, Big Steven, let's get you back to your mom."

Steve slid into the booth across from Sam as the rest of the family left, and once they were gone, he rested his forehead on his arms.

"So?" Sam asked, tapping him on the crown of the head lightly. "What's the verdict?"

"Brian's taking him for now. We have six months to find Bucky," Steve said.

"Or what?"

"After six months, I'm coming home. Steven needs me."

He could feel Sam's skepticism radiating. "Steven who has like, a million uncles and aunts? Are you sure it's not you who needs him?"

Steve sighed. "Does it matter?"

***

Four months into the search for Bucky -- hampered by the fact that he had been hitting Hydra bases, torching them, and leaving no traces after him -- Steve got a text message from Big Steven.

You better come home, Steve, it said. Attached was a photograph of a tree. Steve frowned, enlarged the photo, frowned again, zoomed in, and then dropped the phone.

"SAM!" he yelled, and Sam yelled back from the bathroom of the hotel room, "WHAT?"

"He's back in DC," Steve said, holding out his phone as Sam emerged. Sam blinked down at it.

"Who took this?" he asked.

"Big Steven."

"For real? That's one observant twelve-year-old."

"Chip off the old block," Steve said with a grin, pocketing the phone. "Get dressed and pack. Bucky's found the family."

***

They arrived at Brian's place in Alexandria the following afternoon, and Brian was waiting for them. Steve had sent him a heads-up as soon as he got Big Steven's text, but Brian already knew; his wife, Nina, had spotted the man in the tree, but she had assumed he was a bodyguard Steve had sent. He wasn't aiming his rifle at the house, she said. He was aiming where he'd hit someone trying to break into it.

"When was the last time you saw him?" Steve asked, settling in at the dining room table with a beer Brian had offered him. Little Steve was lying on the kitchen floor, drawing with crayons, stolidly impervious to the drama taking place around him.

"This morning. He generally comes out at night. I assessed the threat, found he wasn't threatening us, and left him to his peace," she said. "I thought you'd sent him."

"In a way," Steve said. "He's...an old friend."

"He's your loose end, isn't he?" Brian asked. Steve nodded. "What's he doing here, Steve?"

"Protecting him, I think," Steve said, nodding at Little Steven. "Waiting for me, maybe. I'll find out tonight."

"What, you're just going to stroll out and say hi?" Sam asked.

"Yep," Steve replied, as Little Steven got up to bring him a drawing to admire. He hefted the boy onto his lap. "If he wanted to hurt me, he knows how," he added, stroking Steven's downy, dark-blond hair. "This is wonderful, Steven. Look at all that blue."

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Nina asked. "Not the...creepy sniper in the tree thing. With Steven, I mean. I'm not saying it'd be easy to keep him, with the life Brian and I have, but he's family; we'd change if we had to, to keep him long term. You shouldn't feel responsible, Steve, the mess they got you into..."

"I want to," Steve said. Steven looked up and smiled at him, and he smiled back. "I need to take what responsibility I can."

Steven solemnly offered him the blue crayon. Steve took it, and let the boy squirm out of his grasp and down to the floor, running off.

"How much does he understand about what's happened?" he asked Brian.

"He knows his father's gone; his mother died when he was born, so it's not his first experience with the idea. I've tried to explain to him that he's staying with us until you can look after him, but..." Brian shrugged. "I didn't want him to think we didn't want him."

"No, I'm sure you did fine. It's not like I know what I'm doing," Steve admitted. "I have a place lined up for us to live, and I found a school for him in New York, but that's pretty much it."

"That's not too bad," Brian said. "New York, eh?"

"Stark offered me a place. He has a computer living in the walls," Steve said.

"Well, that won't be weird," Nina said with a grin.

***

It was night before Steve caught a glimpse of Bucky, and then only because a passing car bounced a brief reflection off his arm as he moved into place. Steve gave him time to settle, then stepped out of the house and crossed the street.

Bucky didn't move, didn't even look at him. Which in some sense, was a good thing. He clearly didn't consider Steve a threat.

"So," Steve said, looking up into the branches. "Saw your handiwork in Iowa. And California. And Montana. And I think, outside Chicago?"

"Yep," Bucky said grimly. "That was me."

"You were thorough. Why'd you come back to DC?"

"Always do."

"To come here?"

"No," Bucky said. "It was home base. Then I found out about the kid. Kids."

"Yeah, there are a lot of 'em." Steve rubbed the back of his head. "Don't suppose I could convince you to come down and talk to me? Sam's in there, Steven's safe, and I feel a little odd talkin' to a tree."

Bucky considered it for a while, then dropped from the tree, gracefully and more silent than Steve could have managed. He looked like he hadn't eaten in a while.

"What do you want?" Bucky asked.

"I think you know the answer to that, Buck," Steve said. "How -- how much do you remember?"

Bucky glanced at him. "Little more all the time."

"You know who I am. Who we were."

"Ain't that fella anymore, for sure."

"You don't have to be. But Buck, I haven't got much. The kids, most of them are older than me. Sam, Natasha...Sam understands. Natasha too, in a different way. Different parts. I just -- not like you do, not like you would. I'd really like if you came back with us, Buck," he said, voice cracking.

Bucky didn't look at him. "Back where? In there?"

"I'm going to New York. I have to look after Steven. Come with me, Buck, please," Steve said. "Don't make me pick between my blood and my best friend."

Bucky looked down. "I shouldn't be around him."

"Why?"

"Dangerous."

"Well, you've done all right so far. And I could use a couple of dangerous fellas looking out for the kid. It's an awful world for a little one to grow up in unprotected."

Bucky snorted. "Just like that? Happy family Rogers?"

Steve exhaled hard, frustrated. "At least come to New York. I know a guy can get you a warm place to stay, meals on the regular."

"Your pal Stark."

"Howard's kid. He's not so bad." Steve shrugged. "I love you, Buck, but I have other concerns too. Come or don't. But it'd make me happy -- it'd put me at ease -- if you came."

"When?"

"Couple of days. Gotta get Steven packed, make sure everything's arranged."

Bucky was silent for a few minutes. Steve waited patiently. Across the street he saw Steven's face appear at the window, smashing his nose up against it.

"I'll meet you there," Bucky said, and when Steve turned to ask him what that meant, he was gone.

***

Steve put Steven to bed that evening, a daunting task in itself; he remembered what his mother used to do for him, but maybe things had changed. He sat next to Steven's bed, tugging the blankets up fretfully, and asked, "Do you want a story?"

Steven looked up at him with Steve's own blue eyes, mouth working as he decided. "Yah," he finally said. "Captain 'Merca story."

"Who tells you Captain America stories?" Steve asked, amused.

"I get to be Captain Merca someday," Steven whispered.

"Do you?" Steve asked. He wondered if Steven had absorbed his heritage -- it wasn't like the others never spoke about it -- and misinterpreted its meaning.

"Maybe," Steven allowed.

"Well, you should know all about him, then." Steve wondered if Brian -- or Steven's father -- had made the stories up, or told him real stories passed down through the generations. Phil said he'd been raised on Captain America stories, but those were the comics, a strange blend of reality and fiction.

"Did you know Captain America had a best friend?" he asked. Steven shook his head. "His name was Bucky. Captain America protected people, but you know who Bucky protected?"

"Captain Merca?"

"That's right. Whenever Captain America was hurt, or sad, or lonely, he had Bucky to make him feel better."

Steven yawned prodigiously, then blinked up at him. "I want a Bucky."

Steve sighed. "Don't we all."

***

Tony Stark called the next day, while Steve was playing Go Fish with Steven, who really loved Go Fish. Steve saw a lot of Go Fish in his future, and resolved to teach the kid poker as soon as he was old enough to be discreet about it.

"Hey, so, I think I found your friend," Tony said.

"Let me guess," Steve said. "A guy in black broke into Stark Tower, bypassed your security systems, and is walking around on the floor you designated for me and Steven."

"...wow. Are you in my security network?"

"I told him we were moving in with you. He said he'd meet me in New York. Kinda had a feeling he might be shoring up the place," Steve said.

"What do I do?"

"Let him be, if he's not harming anyone. You might leave some food out for him."

"What, like a stray cat?" Tony asked. "If I feed him does he sit outside my door at 3am and beg to be let in?"

"Probably not," Steve said. "If he does, just have Pepper swat him on the nose."

"You're really funny, Steve."

"I do what I can."

"How's the kid?"

Steve glanced over at Steven, who had picked up Steve's cards and was arranging them in numerical order.

"He's great," Steve said. "We'll be there in a few days."

"Sure, whenever, I can feed the pet mercenary until then."

"You're all heart."

"More than you know," Tony said. "Seeya in a few."

"My regards to Pepper."

Steve pocketed his phone and went back over to sit down at the card game. Steven got up and climbed into his lap, settling in against his chest.

"Let's play like this," he suggested.

"I can see your cards," Steve pointed out. Steven bounced a little, his bony elbows digging into Steve's ribcage. He twisted, looking up at him.

"M'I gonna live with you?" he asked.

"Yes. I have a place for us to live in New York. Would you like that?" Steve asked, apprehensive.

"Does it have a swingset?"

Steve smiled a little. "I'm sure we can arrange for a swing."

"Can I bring my Go Fish cards?"

"Yes," Steve said. "We'll bring all your clothes and toys."

Steven flopped sideways into his chest, heaving a breath. "Just you and me?"

"Maybe. Maybe some of my friends, like Sam. You remember Sam?"

Steven nodded, fiddling with his cards. Steve felt simultaneously thrilled and terrified; anxiety squeezed his ribcage one minute, reminding him that he was taking responsibility for an entire life, but the next minute his heart swelled with affection for the little boy. It would not be hard to make Steven the axis around which his world turned.

And a little corner of his mind, one that he was not entirely sure of, said that Bucky would love the boy too -- that little Steven, effortlessly, would anchor Buck to Steve and draw him in. After all, Bucky hadn't gone off to bodyguard the grandchildren, who didn't need it, or the other great-grandchildren, who all had a parent or two. He'd come to Steven, the orphan of the battle of the Helicarriers, to protect him until Steve returned.

It was unfair to pin so many hopes on the child, Steve knew, but he was a Rogers. He'd carry them fine.

***

Taking Steven to New York wasn't quite as easy as it had seemed when Steve was explaining it to him. Steven was fussy and anxious when he finally realized he was leaving Brian and Nina's house for good. He cried for a good half an hour even after the train had pulled away from the station. Steve, helpless and wondering if he'd done the right thing, could only cuddle the stiff little body and hope it was just nerves.

Once he'd cried himself out and calmed down a little, though, Steven began to perk up -- staring out the window at the scenery rolling past, climbing on the seats, and eventually wandering up and down the aisle, occasionally attempting to make a break for it through the doors at either end of the car. The crying had been horrible, and the rambunctious exploration was not all that much better -- by the time they pulled into Grand Central, Steve was exhausted, and Steven looked like he was threatening to cry again from all the noise and bustle.

"There he is," said a voice, as Steve wandered wearily through the station. The next minute, a friendly fireplug of a man was easing his luggage cart away from him, under the direction of Tony Stark, and Tony was guiding them towards an exit. Steve bewilderedly followed him into the sunlight briefly, and then into a limo, as the other man, Tony's driver, loaded the luggage into the trunk and got behind the wheel.

These things happened with strange regularity around Tony.

"Now, let me meet you properly," Tony said to Steven, once they were moving. Steven buried his face in Steve's shirt. "Unfriendly little cur, isn't he?"

"He's tired," Steve said.

"Sic transit gloria mundi," Tony said, and turned one hand palm-up, cradling a little device that popped a wavering green hologram into the air. Steve caught Steven eyeing it, and gently maneuvered him around so that he was sitting properly on his lap. The hologram -- a little smiling robot -- waved at Steven. Steven's jaw dropped. Steve felt his shoulders relax.

"Hello, young master Steven," the robot said in a familiar voice. "My name is JARVIS."

"Lo, Jarviz," Steven answered shyly.




Captain America: Rebuilding SHIELD
Rating: PG
Summary: In the aftermath of SHIELD's destruction, Steve has more hard decisions -- and more friends -- than he expected.
Notes: This is a super long and going-nowhere-fast fic I wrote after seeing Winter Soldier three times in three days, and it was almost immediately jossed by Agents of Shield. Always the way.
Warnings: Extensive description of hospital stay and injury-related PTSD.

***

The police found James Barnes in the alley that used to lead to Steve's apartment (now it led to the back of a shopping center, more stores going in every day). He was shivering despite the spring warmth, with the bloodshot flicking eyes of a junkie.

They were just going to take him to the ER and dump him off, one more candidate for the charity rehab ward, but then one of them eased the glove off his left hand.

SHIELD was in tatters, both human and infrastructure, but its servers had been deep underground, run on generators designed to withstand calamities even larger than the one Steve had brought down on them. The servers, with their secure lines and processing power, their access to camera feeds and police scanners intact, were accessible to anyone who knew how.

Natasha knew how, and she'd set up a watch program to look for Bucky. So despite her absence, despite the space Steve had deliberately and carefully given her, within an hour of Bucky's reappearance on the grid he had a text message from her with a hospital address and a room number in Washington.

"How are you?" he texted back, but she didn't reply. Later he realized it had probably been an automated system. Natasha might not even know.

Given SHIELD's recent spectacular meltdown, Natasha's testimony, and the information received from loyal SHIELD agents (now scattered to the winds, for the most part), nobody would have taken SHIELD credentials terribly seriously. Fortunate, then, that all the credentials Steve would ever need were on his face and on his back -- the jawline of Captain America was internationally known. That shield, with that face, gained him access to surprising places, like the private room where his best friend lay unconscious in restraints that wouldn't hold him for a second if he didn't want them to.

Ten minutes after arriving at the hospital, two minutes after he finished speaking to the doctors about what was going on -- how he'd been medevac'd to Washington on mysterious orders, how they'd been asked to post guards on his door and how sick he truly was -- Steve stepped outside and called Sam.

"They found him," he said.

"Well, that's good news, isn't it?" Sam asked. "I mean, unless he was gettin' up to old tricks."

"No. He was practically unconscious in -- he was trying to...I mean I think he was -- it looked like he was trying to find me," Steve ran a hand over his face. "He just forgot I'm not in New York anymore."

"Hey," Sam said, and Steve could hear his professional VA Counselor voice overtaking his personal interest. "Are you okay?"

"I really need some help here, Sam," Steve answered, pride stinging at how broken and weak he sounded. "I know you've already done more than -- "

"Shut up, asshole. I'm coming to you," Sam said. "Tell me where you are."

"I'm at the hospital," Steve said, pitifully grateful, and relayed the address. "They think he's in some kind of withdrawal, that the...the arm, thing -- "

"His prosthetic."

"They think it was feeding him drugs. He has burns on his scalp, under his hair, he has infected wounds, things I did to him, he has broken bones, I don't -- "

"Steve," Sam said sharply, and Steve took a ragged breath. "Listen to me, okay, man, I need you to keep it together. We're gonna unpack this right now and you'll be okay until I get there, just work with me. I'm good at this, so let me help you, you get me?"

Steve swallowed. "Yes."

"Okay. So are you more freaked out that he's hurt, or that he's hurt from something you did?"

Steve tried to think clearly, to grasp the lifeline Sam was throwing.

"That he's hurt," he said finally, thickly.

"But he's getting care? He's at the hospital."

"For the surface stuff, the stuff they can. They're afraid to take his arm off. He has scars, really bad scars," Steve said.

"So they're doing what they can."

"Yeah."

"So really you're freaked out it won't be enough."

"I can't get him back and lose him again, Sam," Steve managed.

"You're anticipating a whole lot you can't know," Sam replied. "So focus on right here and right now. You got your buddy back. You got to see him, and they got doctors working on him. Is he lucid?"

"He's not even awake."

"Sedated?"

"No, I don't think so." Easy questions, easy answers. He breathed in through his nose.

"Okay," Sam said, and there was silence. "I don't think you're gonna like this, but maybe I'm wrong. Your pal is in the hospital, and I know that's hard, but your pal is also someone who ripped up large portions of this city like two minutes ago, and who may not be very stable. So I'm gonna push you a little."

"What?" Steve asked.

"Right now you need to put Steve aside and be Cap," Sam said. "I need you to stop worrying about your friend and start worrying about a confused assassin who damn near killed us all who is lying un-sedated in a hospital room."

"He's not -- I saw his face -- "

"Cap," Sam said.

"There are already guards on the door."

"You know they won't be enough if he decides to get up and cause trouble. Right now you need to be Captain America and you need to stand guard over a prisoner. You can do this. I swear to God it'll help."

Steve took a shuddering breath. "What if I have to -- I don't know if I could put him down again."

"I'm seriously ten minutes out from your location, we will worry about that shit when I get there," Sam replied. "Right now, go inside, go to his room, and stand guard, okay?"

He swallowed bile. "Yeah. I can do that."

"I know you can. Go on."

"Should I hang up?"

"I can stay on if you want."

"No, I'll be okay," he said. "Thanks, Sam."

"This is my job, man," Sam replied, a smile in his voice. "I mean my actual job, not my superhero job. Be there soon."

Steve hung up and went back inside, ignoring the sidelong looks from nurses and doctors as he followed the maze of hallways back to Bucky's room. He was still unconscious, but the metal in his arm rippled and shifted occasionally. His lips twitched, eyes darting back and forth in a dream.

Steve touched his hand, his right one, the one he kept thinking of as the real one. Bucky didn't stir. He touched his face, tracing the thin line of a scar high on his cheekbone, a memento of combat back in the war when a sniper's bullet had zinged out of nowhere and grazed Buck just as he was lighting a cigarette. Steve had pivoted, fired, and dropped the sniper and his spotter in two shots while Bucky swore and dove to the ground. The ash from the cigarette had flicked up into the wound, cauterizing it, but it left behind a thin brown mark that never fully faded.

Bucky's body seemed to settle, eyes stilling, mouth relaxing. Steve nodded, pleased, and stepped back against the wall, falling to attention.

He had a job to do. Guard the prisoner. It was a sensible task, a task he was uniquely fitted for. The rest -- the fresh pink wounds where they'd scrubbed out infected flesh and pus, the broken bones, the fever, he didn't have to worry about that right now. Not until Sam arrived, at least.

Sam was there soon enough, carrying a brown paper bag with a couple of tupperware containers in it (tupperware -- right up there with no polio for best parts of the 21st century, in Steve's book).

"Hospital food is bullshit," Sam said, as Steve opened one. It was filled with a tan substance. "Hummus. Should be carrot sticks in the tall one."

"Okay," Steve agreed, setting it aside. Sam smiled and guided him to the chair in the room, leaning against the foot of Bucky's bed like it didn't contain a medical miracle and a dangerous threat rolled up together.

"You all right?" he asked. Steve nodded. Sam put the tupperware back in his hands. "Eat. This is a different kind of battle."

Steve cautiously swiped a carrot stick through the hummus and ate, not really tasting the food.

"So, correct me if I'm wrong here, but I made a list on the way over," Sam said, ticking off points on his fingers. "One, we're worried about your boy there. Getting better, getting loose of whatever drugs they've been dumping in him."

Steve nodded.

"Two, we feel guilty because some of the damage he's healing right now is stuff we did to him."

"We?" Steve asked.

"Mostly you, but I'm sharing your experience here."

"Is this a therapy thing?"

"It's a good friend who happens to know a lot of shit about trauma thing," Sam replied, and continued. "Three, we're worried about how much is your friend and how much is the guy who tried to murder you. When he wakes up, which one will he be, and are you gonna have to take him down again."

"Four, I'm not that sure he won't be arrested," Steve said. "The fact I'm here means they think someone in charge is going to take care of him, but I don't know how long they'll think that. They could call the police. I mean..." he jerked his thumb at the cop standing outside. "It's not like they'd have far to go."

"Is it just those four?" Sam asked. "Or is there more?"

Steve thought about it, trying to pick through the wreck of his feelings about everything. "Other than free-floating anxiety about SHIELD, no."

"Okay, so let's work out what's actionable," Sam said. "You can't do anything about his medical treatment. Are you his next of kin?"

"I think I am now," Steve said.

"We need to see if there's a legal way to make you his medical proxy. Might be you could arrest him, that'd do it," Sam said. "They told you what all was wrong with him, though, so maybe they think you already have."

"Well, that's something. Guess it'll keep the police out of it."

"Probably."

"On to two," Steve said grimly.

Sam smiled reassuringly. "Sorry, it's gotta be done. You feel bad because you did some of this stuff to him, but -- you were saving lives, man. You were saving his life, too, in the end, weren't you?"

Steve nodded miserably.

"This Catholic guilt has gotta go, Steve."

He managed a weak laugh at that. "I'm a Protestant."

"Well, then that guilt's gotta go too. So, one and two are separate things -- you're working on one and you know the other shouldn't be your concern."

"You know, they made me see a shrink when I woke up," Steve said. "He was much less efficient than you are."

"I aim to please. So the big question, the big thing on your mind..."

"Who will he be when he wakes up?" Steve asked softly. Sam glanced over his shoulder at Bucky.

"He looks tired," he said.

"Yeah, well." Steve sighed. "Didn't stop him from shooting me."

Sam was distracted, though; Steve saw him frown, then reach under the bed for a plastic bag. Bucky's effects, he realized; whatever had been on him when they'd brought him in. Sam opened the bag and peered inside.

"You want to know who he is now, it's not a bad place to start," he said, taking out a plain black ball cap. He set it aside and pulled out a pair of leather gloves, so new they weren't yet creased. Frowning, he set those down as well.

"Now where did a man with no money and no allies get brand new gloves?" he asked, taking out a green Army-surplus jacket. Well, half of one; it had been more or less shredded to get it off him.

"Let me," Steve said, taking the coat. He felt the sleeves, then ripped open the cuff seam of one. A slim stack of hundred dollar bills tumbled out. Sam whistled.

"There's probably more," Steve said. "His dad was an immigrant; got his life savings past the crooks running Ellis Island using that trick."

"Where'd the money come from?"

"Who knows," Steve said. "Some kind of stash, maybe. From what I've gathered, this isn't the first time he was in-country. Or Zola could have had stashes and he knew where they were. Or I suppose he coulda knocked over a bank."

Sam had gone quiet; Steve looked over and saw he was holding Bucky's equally shredded trousers in one hand, a small metal object in the other. He offered it to Steve.

It was a little replica of his shield, a button not much bigger than a nickel. It seemed like these days you could get a Captain America button on any streetcorner, but this one was nicer, enameled, with a stick pin you fixed with a backing, like a lady's earring.

"They sell those at the Smithsonian," Steve said.

Sam emptied the other pocket. There was a folded up bit of paper, part of a guide handout from the exhibit. A picture from the pamphlet had been torn out: Bucky Barnes, mid-laugh, Steve smiling at him. Steve had been intensely embarrassed by the use of the photo, like his love and his grief were both on display to the world, but at least they'd used Bucky laughing. Granted, Bucky had kept his hard moments -- the nightmares and the occasional flashback -- out of public view. He'd laughed a lot, for the newsreels.

The paper was already creased, worn with handling, the edges soft, ink beginning to blur.

"I don't know if you can stop worrying," Sam said, as Steve placed the photo on the tray by Bucky's bed, "but I think you can breathe a little easier."

***

He woke in darkness faintly blue-lit, and he wasn't sure who he was, which was getting to be depressingly familiar.

Still, he thought, as he slowed his breathing from the nightmare, at least depressingly familiar was a feeling. A few weeks ago he wouldn't have called anything depressing; he wouldn't have cared. He had lived from hour to hour, unfeeling, for the most part unthinking outside of what he'd been sent to accomplish. If nothing else, the man with the shield and his friends had provided fascinating opportunities for off-the-cuff strategy. He hadn't felt so alive in a dozen missions, even before he started remembering things.

The missions themselves hadn't always been such clear memories -- not the first to return, either. But at this point they were still the sharpest.

Others were trickling in, and he gritted his teeth against the onslaught of emotion after so long without. His muscles contracted, a high whine emerging as he relived it: the little man with the shock of blond hair, the hunch of his shoulders, the swell of love and protective anger associated with him. And finally a name: Steve.

"Yes?" someone said, and he startled; he didn't think he'd said it out loud, but then a face appeared in the darkness. The little guy, Steve. Not so little, now -- his face was filled out, neck thicker, jaw sharper. The man with the shield.

He had a flash of deja-vu -- somehow he'd been in this position before, in a bed, in pain and confused, and seen this face looking down at him with fear and worry.

"Buck? It's Steve. Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are?"

Buck. His name. Bucky. James Barnes. James Buchanan, you get your hide back here right now!

He heaved in a breath, trying to get a handle on the surge of feeling in his chest. It was really Steve, he didn't die falling from the train, Steve saved him somehow -- but when he reached out to touch him to be sure, his wrist caught on a strap holding it to the bed.

"Steve," he cried out again, frantic, frightened, ashamed of how like a child he felt, and there was a familiar sight too: Steve, eyes wide, realizing something.

"Oh! Oh, wait," Steve said, fingers unbuckling the strap, and Bucky surged up and grabbed him in a one-armed throttle-hug, clinging to him tightly. He felt Steve tense and then relax, both arms around his chest.

"Where are we?" he asked, loosening his arm, but Steve held on and shuddered, and Bucky realized he was crying into his shoulder. "Hey, it's just a flesh wound."

Steve was gasping, trying to breathe around great wracking dry sobs, and it sounded like an asthma attack from back in the day. Bucky pushed gently at his shoulder and Steve let him go, bringing his hands up to his eyes and pressing his palms over them. He didn't stop wheezing in air like a dying man.

Bucky's hand was trembling, and when he ran it through his hair to brush it irritably out of his eyes, it was a lot longer than it ought to be. He twisted to see about unbuckling his other arm --

A shock went through him, like someone had struck lightning on his insides, and memory and emotion rolled through, sucking him under -- death, numbness, hatred of his captors but the inability to move against them, hatred of the machine that took him away from himself every time. Deep, blood-tinged hatred, nothing he had ever known before the little doctor took his arm and gave him a new one. He panted harshly in the aftershock.

"Get it off," he rasped, looking down at the metal arm. He reached out and grabbed Steve's wrist without looking, pulling him forward, up out of the chair. "Steve, get it off me, Jesus Christ please get it off, get it off -- "

Steve leaned across him, hands already working at the metal, and Bucky turned into him, hiding his face against Steve's shirt. "Get it off get it off get it off get it off -- "

"I'm tryin', Buck, I'm not an arm scientist!" Steve answered, and the phrase struck him as hysterical, making him choke out the mantra between hiccupping laughs.

"Please, get it off me, please," he continued, but the panic was dying down, his voice falling to a murmur and then just to a whimper as Steve worked. He was prying up plates of metal, picking at the wires underneath, and a distant memory surfaced: one of the scientists thumbing back the plates that made up his star, revealing a button that when pushed ejected his whole goddamn arm from his shoulder.

"The star," he said, clutching Steve's shirt with his good hand. "It's under the -- "

"Got it," Steve said, in that satisfied way he had when he accomplished something particularly good, and the weight on his shoulder fell away, the horrible murder-arm, the cold heavy burden of the Winter Soldier.

Steve ripped the strap out of the bed and flung the arm away, and Bucky's breath came easier. He sat back, brushing his hair out of his eyes again, and Steve ducked his head to give him that bright Captain America Eat-Your-Carrots smile.

"Hey," he said, practically glowing with happiness. "Welcome back, Buck."

"Thanks," Bucky said unsteadily, still trying to contain the last remnants of the flood that came every time something triggered a Soldier memory. "Not sure I'm all the way back yet."

"That's okay. That's fine. That's okay," Steve babbled, hands hovering over him, eyes taking him in. Bucky tried to calculate what year it was and failed; Soldier had thought in terms of missions, not years. He had a sense of great distance, at any rate, and a memory -- the last memory.

The museum exhibit. Steve Rogers went down in the ice and slept for nearly seventy years. Bucky Barnes died the day before, falling from a train. The man with his face, the man everyone thought was a hero.

Funny, he thought distantly. Soldier had never been given much context for the missions. It wasn't like they kept him up to speed on politics or movies or anything. But he remembered noticing changes. Images hovered just at the edge of his memory. Seventy years of missions -- what struck him most, for some reason, was the changing shape of phones. Even Soldier had been able to identify the shifts in technology. Phones -- phones and cars.

A specific memory surfaced: the Pacific Coast Highway, a perilous curve, a car tire shot out. Maria Stark already dead; Howard's terrified face as Winter Soldier torched their car, already wrapped around a guardrail. Howard had called for his son when he died.

"Seventy years," he murmured.

"But it's okay, Buck, it's okay, I'm here, and you came back, and you're gonna be fine," Steve said, looking worried and vulnerable. He could kill him now, quickly -- no, Steve was not his mission any longer.

It was amazing, Bucky thought, how Steve hadn't changed; he still made the same faces as he had even before the Serum, for the love of Pete. The sad starving-terrier face was turned on him now, all huge eyes and trust. He didn't deserve it; a voice in his head still wanted to snap Steve's neck, and exhaustion was gathering around him like a thick fog.

"I'm gonna sleep now," he managed, slurring through the sudden fatigue, and Steve caught his head with his hand, helping him lie back. Steve's other hand rested over his heart, warm against his skin. It was the last thing he felt before weariness pulled him down.

***

Sam brought breakfast to the hospital the next morning, and found Steve awake and cheerful.

"He woke up in the night," he said, beaming as he tore into a breakfast burrito. "He remembered me. It was Bucky, it was all Bucky. He's gonna get better, I know it."

Sam watched the emotional whiplash with interest, and some concern, but mostly with pleasure that Steve was so enthusiastic. Recovery was hard; it was always better when the wounded had someone to keep them going, to keep going for them when they couldn't. It would be good for Steve, too, he thought. Heal some of that lost rawness he was pretty bad at hiding.

His instinct was to tell Steve to keep calm, that there was likely to be a long road ahead, but this morning, today, no. Realism could wait. Steve was like a delighted kid, happier than Sam had seen him in their admittedly brief friendship, and he didn't want to spoil the first damn happiness the man had probably felt in months.

"What's with the arm?" he asked, waving his fork at the prosthetic, sitting in a corner and mostly covered with Steve's coat.

"He asked me to take it off of him," Steve said, casting a look at it like it might come alive and attack. Sam realized with alarm that the way his life was going since hooking up with a bona fide superhero, it might. "I gotta figure out what to do with it. Normally SHIELD would take it."

"Aren't you pals with Iron Man?"

Steve looked thoughtful. "He worked on the repulsors for the Helicarriers."

"You really think Iron Man is Hydra?" Sam asked.

"I dunno what to think. I didn't think Sitwell was Hydra either. Or Pierce. Or Rumlow."

"Point taken. Hey, you could find out, though," Sam said, taking out his phone. "See if Hydra has a file on Stark. I think if he was with them, he'd have been arrested by now. FBI's scooping up everyone they can find who's on the member rolls."

Steve watched as he scrolled through the wiki -- within an hour of the files going public, white hats were building a wikipedia to cross-reference all of it. The lead on the project was someone called JSAI, who never seemed to sleep and who read at a prodigious rate.

"Tony Stark: SHIELD files regarding Tony Stark have been sealed by the Department of Justice," he read. "It is a federal crime to possess or share this information. Hydra assessment of Tony Stark: Summary: Hydra had considered Stark for candidacy at high levels but rejected him after Stark's imprisonment and subsequent creation of the Iron Man suit. See full report here. See also, Stark, Howard and Stark, Maria." He tapped the close button on his phone. "Guess Stark's in the clear. Besides, paranoia'll kill you. Take it from someone who works with hypervigilants a lot," Sam said.

"It's not paranoia when they're out to get you."

"Maybe, but I think we can trust Stark."

Steve tipped his head, acknowledging.

"Besides, Hydra already had the tech to build the arm," Sam continued. "Worst case scenario, they get it back, we go kick their asses."

Steve smiled. Sam narrowed his eyes. "What?"

"You said we," Steve said. "You keep doing that, I'm gonna think you want to keep the gig."

"What, the Falcon gig? I'm thinking about it," Sam said. "Government's offering me a new flight suit."

"You have to re-enlist?"

"Yeah. They want me to. They don't want to admit I stole the last one. They're taking credit for my work with you."

"Guess I've been a little out of touch when it comes to the news," Steve admitted.

"You had your reasons."

Steve rubbed his face. "Too bad you have to depend on -- "

He stopped, lowering his hand.

"What?" Sam asked.

"SHIELD's gone. The Avengers Initiative is dead in the water without it. Unless we have some other source of aid -- someone with resources. Who can build Bucky a new arm. Build you a new flight suit. Sleeker. More durable. Repulsor-powered," he said.

"Oh, suddenly now Stark's your best bet?" Sam asked, grinning.

"Well, you said paranoia will kill me. If he isn't Hydra, he's got to be pissed they misused his tech. He's probably pissed they didn't try to flip him; he's proud that way. But you know what Stark loves more than anything else?" Steve asked.

"What's that?"

"A power vacuum," Steve said. "He likes to swoop in and take control. He likes to save the day but he loves to be seen saving the day."

"You think you can get him to bankroll the Avengers?" Sam asked. "Also, not to sound like a bleeding heart, but is the idea of Tony Stark building a private superhero army really going to fly with your adoring public?"

"We'll make it work," Steve said. "But -- I can't leave Bucky," he added, looking back at the bed where the man who had been the Winter Soldier slept, oblivious. "I'd call him, but my phone kinda broke when I jumped out of an elevator. I don't exactly have his number at the moment."

"I took a few days off from the day job," Sam said. Steve frowned, puzzled. "I said a buddy of mine had a friend coming home from a tour, needed my help. You want me to kidnap Stark?"

"I don't think you'll need to," Steve said. "Take the arm to Stark Tower. I'm willing to bet his talking computer will let you see him. Tell him I need him."

***

Over the next few days, Bucky's hospital room became a kind of nerve center. Stark came and went, every time with fresh holographic plans -- for Bucky's new arm, for Sam's new flight rig, for an Avengers Initiative that was government-funded but Stark supported. Fortunately, since the file dump, a lot of senators hostile to Stark had been arrested or found dead, and most of the people on Capitol Hill right now were friendly with him. He was sure he could get them some kind of cut of the military funding pie, with Stark Industries contracted to provide oversight and technical support. It seemed to make him happy; Steve left him to his politicking.

Bucky didn't wake up again, but the doctors said not to worry; he'd lost a lot of blood and he was coming down off something (even if they still didn't know what) and this was more or less normal. Steve worried anyway, sitting up late talking to him in the hope of drawing him out, but maybe after seventy years of being woken violently, he just wanted to do it on his own for once.

Steve lived in that little room -- slept on a cot in the corner, met with Stark and Sam, ate from the cafeteria. Nobody stopped him. The doctors seemed happier if he was there when they examined Bucky.

Ms. Potts, whom Steve had heard about but never met, brought flowers for Bucky's hospital room. She was kind, and Steve was awkward.

Sam was there most often, helping Steve strategize, sometimes sitting vigil with Buck while Steve ate and once when he convinced Steve to go home for clothing. His apartment was unsettling, unpleasant -- it reeked of betrayal, and Nick Fury's blood was on his floor. Besides, SHIELD had paid for it, an enticement to bring him from Brooklyn to DC, and a lot more blood than Fury's was on SHIELD's money.

He retched from the smell of corruption and death -- it couldn't be real, but it felt real, it made him choke and vomit in the toilet -- and then he cleaned up, packed a bag with anything he valued in it, and left for good.

When he got back, Clint Barton was leaning on a wall in the hospital reception lobby, eating a candy bar.

"I leave the country for two weeks and you stage a coup," he said, as Steve approached. To his surprise, the man came forward and caught him in a hug, thumping his back with a fist. He hadn't spent a whole lot of time with Clint, but they were both SHIELD, and normally when they did meet Clint was a lot more standoffish. "Thanks for putting me out of a job, asshole."

"Got you a new one," Steve said, leading him down the hallway. Clint was smiling. "You don't seem too upset."

"Everyone at SHIELD hated me," Clint replied. "You kill a couple dozen guys -- "

"Clint," Steve protested. "That wasn't you."

"Well, whatever," Clint muttered. "They didn't seem to care about the distinction. Fuck 'em, Hydra rotted us out from the core. Clean sweep and fresh start," he said. "Tasha got in touch, said I should see you once I got back in-country, which was a lot fucking harder with no SHIELD ground support."

"Sorry," Steve said. "You seem to have done all right."

"Wouldn't be where I am if I couldn't improvise," Clint replied. "You said something about a new job?"

Steve pushed open the door to Bucky's room, where Sam and Stark were sitting together, consulting on Sam's new flight rig.

"Hey, Pointy," Stark said, without looking away from the holographic plans. "Nice of you to join the party."

"I would have come sooner but Steve torched my ride," Clint replied.

"Clint Barton, Sam Wilson," Steve said, as Sam came over to shake his hand. "Codenames Hawkeye and Falcon. You two oughta get along."

"He's funny," Sam informed Clint.

"So I hear. Saw your work on the news," Clint said. "If we still had an Avengers I'd say you should consider joining."

"He is," Stark said, still not looking up. "I'll have contracts for you to sign on Friday."

Clint blinked.

"Stark's setting us up with new government funding," Steve said. "If you can find Natasha, 'cause I can't, you should let her know we need her to come get notarized."

"That'll go over big."

"I don't know," Steve said. "She wanted something honest. I know she's big on second chances. I think the Avengers deserve one."

Clint gave him a long, searching look. "Well, someone had a heart to heart."

"I bring that out in people," Steve said. "So are you in or what?"

"In," Clint said. "I'll call Tasha."

"Yay, the band's having a reunion," Stark drawled.

***

He woke to the sound of quiet laughter, the second time. For a minute, still not quite sure who or where he was, he thought it was the Commandos -- when he blearily cracked an eye open he could see Steve, sitting with a group of men and smiling as they laughed quietly. Then the faces resolved themselves, and that wasn't Howard and DumDum and Gabe. He recognized Falcon, the flying man he'd hobbled on the carrier, and he recognized Steve, and with Steve came the familiar surge of memory. His identity shifted and settled; for now, at least, he was Bucky.

Steve looked up from the huddle of men around the table in the corner -- two of them were playing backgammon, with small piles of cash sitting next to the board -- and quietly excused himself, crossing to Bucky and putting himself between him and the others.

"Did we wake you?" he asked quietly.

"Maybe," Bucky answered. His head pounded and he felt fuzzed, like after a night on the town. His skin itched, hot and prickly. "Don't mind. C'I have some water?"

"Sure," Steve said, reaching for a bottle on the table. He cracked it open and offered it. Bucky heard the seal break and was obscurely grateful. He lifted a hand, but Steve held it to his lips, and he drank half the bottle in a go.

"I'm starvin'," he said, when he was done.

"They've been feeding you from an IV," Steve said. "I can rustle you some grub."

"No!" Bucky almost yelled, and he lunged desperately, uncoordinated, to grab Steve's wrist. He missed and caught his arm, fingers slipping, but Steve froze and every other head at the table -- the men who had been studiously ignoring him -- looked up.

"Okay," Steve said gently. "I'm not going anywhere if you don't want me to."

"I'm not that hungry," Bucky mumbled. He didn't need to eat as much as he needed Steve there, a reminder of who he was. It had been so hard to cling to Bucky when the Soldier was distressed and angry, and he was distressed and angry all the time now that his masters were dead.

Steve smiled. "Liar," he said. "Hey, Stark?"

The man he'd called Stark rolled his eyes. "Sure, sent the genius to buy your boyfriend lunch. I'm probably the only one of you meatheads who can make exact change."

"Like you've ever made exact change in your life," the blond man at the backgammon board said.

"Too busy revolutionizing the century," Stark replied. Bucky looked away as he passed. He had Howard Stark's bantam strut and his dark eyes. The boy Howard had called for? Or his grandson? Hard to know. Everything was so muddled in his head.

But Steve was there, and while many things in life were complicated, including his friendship with Steve, Steve himself was simple. You knew where you stood with him 'cause he never worked out how to lie about it. And Steve had shifted so that his hand was tucked in Bucky's.

"How ya feeling?" he asked.

"Tired," Bucky said. "Confused."

"Not surprised. You're pretty sick, kid."

Bucky smiled. "That's always been my line."

"Well, time for you to collect payback," Steve said. "You got some broken bones, some pretty deep cuts. Infections have pretty much cleared up but you aren't gonna be doing drill anytime soon."

"Like that's a bad thing," Bucky said. Steve held the bottle of water to his lips again, and he drank. "Where's my arm?"

"Do you remember?"

He thought back. He remembered begging. Steve nodded at the look on his face.

"I gave it to Stark. He's Howard's kid, he's even smarter than his old man. He's gonna make you a better one," he said. "Keeps joking he's gonna put a smiley face on the shoulder."

Bucky turned his face into the pillow, hiding as much as he could.

"I killed his parents," he said.

Steve sighed. "He knows," he answered. "The Winter Soldier files are public. All of his kills are there, at least the ones after Hydra got hold of him. But he's not you, Buck. You didn't do those things."

"I did, I remember -- "

"Bucky, listen to me," Steve said, and Bucky fell silent. "You're my best friend and my best friend wouldn't do a thing like that. He did 'em with your face, I'll give you that much, but you didn't have anything could be done about it. He pulled the trigger. He just used your hand to do it."

"I was only following orders," Bucky said mirthlessly.

"You weren't even hearing them," Steve said. "Stark knows that."

"Steve?"

Steve turned; Bucky could see, beyond him, the Falcon rising from the backgammon game. They had both been getting progressively louder, so perhaps it wasn't that surprising.

"This is what I do. Wanna tag out?" Falcon asked.

Bucky gripped Steve's hand tightly.

"Not just yet," Steve said, squeezing back. "Another day, Sam."

Falcon -- Sam -- nodded. "You want some privacy?"

"S'all right," Bucky said, before Steve could speak. "Don't wanna bring the party down."

It occurred to him to be curious about why so many people were in his room; he still had no context for the blond man at the backgammon board. Steve followed his gaze.

"Bucky, this is Clint Barton. He's a friend," Steve said. Clint lifted an eyebrow. Steve looked at a loss to explain why he was there.

They were interrupted, maybe fortunately, by Stark's return. Bucky watched warily as he unpacked a massive bag of food -- plastic-wrapped sandwiches, small aluminum pans with clear lids, crackly white boxes. He handed them out seemingly at random, chattering about hospital cafeterias and comfort food, and Bucky ended up with a white box. Inside were little compartments, filled with meatloaf and mashed potatoes and gravy. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten; definitely not the last time he'd eaten this well. Soldier's masters had mostly given him nutrient bars.

Steve, apparently unwilling now to leave the bed, perched on the edge of it and ate something with chopsticks. Balls of rice with fish on top -- he'd eaten that once, or Soldier had. On a mission in Japan. The fish was bright pink and orange, cheerful colors, and when Steve caught him looking he offered him one. Bucky smiled and took it from the chopsticks with his fingers. When they were kids Bucky always shared his meals with Steve, even if he didn't have enough himself. When they were soldiers, Steve always saved whatever part of their rations Bucky liked best, and shared it with him.

He finished the food from the container, and two more pieces of fish from Steve despite Stark muttering about cafeteria sushi. He ate one of the sandwiches when Steve offered, a doughnut that Clint stole from Stark for him, and Sam's left-over salad.

"You'll be here when I wake up again, right?" he asked in a low voice, aware he was exhausted again, crammed full of food but still struggling to keep his mental balance.

"I'm not leavin' till you're better," Steve said. "Well, unless the world is ending. But you'd give me a pass for that, right?"

Bucky smiled, though the idea terrified him. "Sure."

"Hey, when do you get interesting?" Stark called. Bucky flicked him a dirty gesture with his good hand. "Retracted."

"Don't you have a company to run, Stark?" Steve asked.

"Thank god, no, not anymore. I should go pay attention to the woman who does, though, she loves it when I pay attention," Stark said. "Give either of you guys a ride?" he asked Sam and Clint, who shook their heads. Bucky watched sleepily as Stark left, as the other two returned to their game, as Steve drifted around the room cleaning up.

"Sleep if you want," Steve said, passing the bed and taking the empty food boxes away. "Wake up faster this time, though."

"Do my best," Bucky murmured, and he bit back the Soldier's rebellious snarl.

***

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Captain America asked him, and Sam grinned.

It was, admittedly, a far cry from striking up a conversation after a morning run. He hadn't meant for this kind of thing to happen. He'd just -- well, a part of him had wanted to find something in common with the resurrected hero of the Greatest Generation, but mostly he'd just thought he was a nice guy, and it seemed like they had stuff in common. When Steve -- plainclothes Steve with a bright, false smile as he admitted he didn't even know what made him happy -- came by the VA, Sam had been equal parts thrilled (Captain America actually took my advice!) and pleased (any time he could even try to impart sanity to the crazy that was coming-home-from-war was good). And when the Captain had shown up in his goddamn backyard, Sam had understood there was no going back.

"I'm sure," he said, as they sat waiting their turn with the notary and the lawyers, who were walking Stark through signing his new Avengers Initiative contract. Clint was waiting behind him and ahead of them, clutching an identical sheaf of papers and looking faintly apprehensive. Then again, as Sam had discovered, Clint often looked faintly apprehensive up until the moment he totally destroyed you.

"Because you don't have to," Steve persisted.

Sam sat back, steepling his fingers. "I told you."

"You said I needed your help, and that was reason enough," Steve said. "I did, and I think it was. I'm glad you were there with us. But you got out once."

"Because I couldn't find a reason to stay. I got one of those now. Besides, this is keeping me out of the military."

"You can still go back to the VA," Steve said.

"Who said I left?" Sam asked, amused.

"You know what I mean. You can go back to your life, Sam. Avengers -- we are many things, but normal and sane aren't high on the list."

"No I can't," Sam answered. "And it's not because of you, or duty, or any of that bull."

"Then why?" Steve asked. Sam shot him a grin.

"When I was up there with you, going after the Helicarriers, that was a good day's work. And I wish the good day's work was what pulled me in. I really do. But it's not." He inhaled. "When they put us in those experimental rigs, they gave us all kinds of flight sim first. They didn't want pilots; they wanted people who would think with their bodies, not with instrumentation. The wings are just there to keep you up; it's your body doing the work. You spend more time falling than flying, and I was good at falling."

Steve was nodding, but clearly perplexed.

"Anyway, the first time we strapped 'em on and went off the edge of a cliff with them, half the trainees just pulled their chutes and landed on the canyon floor. Never even spread their wings. Couple more got airborn but they were too careful. They couldn't -- well, maybe wouldn't -- pull the kind of evasive maneuvers you need to use with those. Me?" Sam smiled, remembering. "I loved every second of it. Never felt so free. Stark offered to put me in one of his suits but I'm not fixed to be a hitter like War Machine. I was in ParaRescue, not ParaPunching."

Steve smiled.

"Being up there again, flying a mission, playing air support, it was like the first time all over again," Sam finished. "I want that. I want it bad enough to sign my life away."

"Not your life," Steve said. "Just some of it."

Sam nodded. "Don't think I'll regret it."

"Hope you won't," Steve agreed.

"I'm sure sooner or later I will," said a voice, and Sam turned to see Natasha standing in the doorway. Steve's face broke into a wide, brilliant smile.

"Clint found you!" he said, rising to greet her. "How's your, uh, new cover coming?"

"You know what I found out?" she said.

"What's that?"

"Contemplation of my purpose in existing and performing a searching and fearless moral inventory of my life both turned out to be really fucking boring."

Sam laughed. "Coulda warned you."

"Why didn't you?"

"You didn't ask."

"Anyway, I'm tired of trying to find myself," she said. "I liked who I was when I worked for SHIELD. It's not my fault they were covert Nazi science spies. I think I could like who I am working for an independent initiative. Even one run by Stark."

"Heard that," Stark called.

"On purpose," Natasha called back. Sam glanced at Bucky -- the guy was waking up on the regular now, and sometimes because of noise, but this time he slept on. "Everyone onboard?" she asked.

"Bruce signed already, I guess he's staying with Stark at the Tower," Steve said. "Stark says he...what's the word?" he asked Stark.

"Faxed," Stark said. "I faxed a copy to Thor with instructions. I kinda wish someone was filming his attempts to follow them."

"Why didn't you email them?" Steve asked, curious. Sam laughed. Stark made a face and threw up his hands, going back to chatter with the lawyers. "Anyway, I think everyone's signing. And Sam," he added with a smile.

"That's good," she said, giving Sam a warm, wary-seeming smile.

***

"I have a question for you," Stark said to Steve, once the lawyers had gone and it was just the Avengers -- and Bucky, who was sitting up and eating the second of the lunches the hospital had brought him.

Every time he woke, Steve made sure to be there, to be seen, and he never left the room when Bucky was awake. He could feel his eyes on him, constantly, and he could sometimes see the slip -- he'd seen it with Peggy, that moment when the world got lost and they scrambled to re-situate. Bucky seemed to orient himself, continually, with Steve as his north star.

"A real question, or a sales pitch?" Steve asked, a little wearily. Stark gave him a sharklike grin.

"You're getting sharper, old man," he said. "You want the pitch?"

"Sure. Might as well."

"Your enthusiasm thrills me. Here's my question -- what exactly are you foreseeing happening with Barnes? Because this hospital has a wing with my mom's name on it, so they will do with him exactly what you or I tell them to do, but he's seeming a little oblique and you don't appear to be the man with the plan lately."

"I feel like I should be insulted, given I just destroyed an entire government agency."

"Hey, I'm not saying you're not talented for having no plan. I'm just saying. Consider one for Barnes."

"I can hear you," Bucky said. Stark's head jerked up, startled. Bucky tapped his ear. "Enhancements."

"Well, do you have a plan, Superman?" Stark asked. Bucky shrugged. Steve went over to lean against his bed, popping a grape from his lunch into his mouth thoughtfully.

"You don't have to know what to do yet, Buck," he said. "Stark's just a little old lady who likes to handwring."

"Excuse you," Stark said. "Here's a thought: this is all cosmetic at this point, right? I mean, you don't have to be in a hospital to do what you're doing, eating and sleeping. It's a good life, just, you know, if you're stable, you could come to Stark Tower. There's a trauma center nearby. In-building 24/7 health monitoring."

"I can look after him," Steve said.

"Been meaning to ask you, actually, but you've been in DC, which I assume is not an issue anymore. It's not like I have a space I specifically prepared for your presence, that would be insane and invasive, but space could be made," Stark said.

"Um." Steve frowned. "Are you offering me an apartment?"

"Actually technically it's already yours. Accommodation or rent remuneration is included in the Avengers benefits package. You lose the reading-the-fine-print pop quiz," Stark said. He was elaborately casual about it. Steve narrowed his eyes, but before he could say anything, Bucky spoke.

"I killed your parents," he said quietly.

Stark glanced at Steve.

"Did you not tell him I knew that?" he asked. There was a brittle quality to his voice that suggested he was not as okay with discussing the deaths of his parents as he showed, but Steve let it go as Stark turned back to Bucky. "Look, we're down an entire intelligence agency, Congress is in uproar, there's next-gen defense tech floating around in the Potomac that one of my subdivisions is doing cleanup work on, we're two weeks late on a new OS release for the Starkphone 2, and I'm trying to assemble the Avengers in some kind of coherent structure. I think I might be shortlisted for Secretary of Defense to replace Pierce, and I can't admit that the time I suggested wanting the job in a congressional hearing was a joke. Captain America is living in a hospital room and for some reason that means people keep asking me about him. Pal, I got ninety nine problems but your supervillain alter ego killing my folks twenty years ago ain't one."

Bucky blinked at him. Stark pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Look, I have places to be. Take the apartment or leave it. JARVIS will give you keys if you show up. Keep in touch, Rogers, you work for me now," he said.

"Hey, Stark," Steve said, catching his arm before he could leave. Stark glanced at his hand pointedly, and Steve let him go. He'd acted on instinct; he had a question that had been bubbling in the back of his mind and he wasn't sure why he was asking it now, but he felt like he needed to know. "Did you really get the Department of Justice to seal your SHIELD file after Natasha leaked the database?"

Stark frowned. "No. The hell would I do that? I know what's in it. I guarantee it's less risque than a Google search for my name."

Steve detected bullshit, but he let it go, because Natasha had started casually paying attention.

"I'm gonna hit the road," Stark said. "Feel better, crazy murderer," he added to Bucky.

Natasha fell in with Stark at the door and offered to walk him out, which Steve would suspect was just her wanting to mess with him, but was taking on a new significance he couldn't quite pin down.

He took out his phone, returning to the SHIELD-Hydra Wiki, and searched Clint Barton.

Clint Barton's SHIELD Personnel file has been sealed by the Department of Justice.

He searched Phil Coulson.

There is no entry in SHIELD or Hydra files for 'Phil Coulson'.

He searched four more names, SHIELD agents he'd known who hadn't been on the Hydra rolls when they were released. Two of them had no entry. One had an open personnel file. One, who he happened to know was in deep cover, had incorrect data in her file.

"Buck, I gotta go get Natasha," he said. Bucky looked up from his food. "I'll be back in half an hour, maybe less. You okay?"

Bucky chewed his lip, eyes dropping. "Sure."

"I won't go if you need me."

"Nah, this is stupid, go," Bucky said. "I'll be fine. Sam and Clint are here."

Steve patted his leg and stepped outside, heading in the direction Natasha would return. When she turned a corner he caught her by the arm and guided her calmly and quickly into an empty waiting room.

"We have to stop meeting like this," she said.

"Did you doctor the SHIELD files you released?" he asked without preamble. She gave him a cool look. "Wow. Fury taught you well."

"You weren't going to be happy unless we burned it to the ground," she said.

"No. And I'm not happy now, Natasha."

"Seems like maybe that's an emotion you're going to have to get used to," she said, her voice sharp and cold, and he almost flinched. This wasn't the combative liar from the last time they'd had a fight in a hospital. This was a woman enraged, and barely containing it. "You know what you don't get to do, Steve? You don't get to put your goddamn idealism above other peoples' lives. I'm pretty fucking tired of trying to live up to you, so don't you dare be disappointed in me that I wouldn't let you burn down good people along with the bad."

"What are you talking about?" he asked, bewildered now.

"Peoples' lives were in those files. Agents in deep cover would have been outed and at least a few would have died. Clint's abuse is in his file. You really think it's for the greater good to tell the world his dad knocked him around as a kid?" she demanded.

Steve felt his heart sink. "Natasha, I -- "

"You didn't give your life to SHIELD. You just came along and deigned to work for it while it suited you," she continued. "So yeah. You wanted to destroy SHIELD? I was on board with losing my entire life because it was the right thing to do. But I wasn't on board with destroying people I cared about. So you went and got a good night's sleep, and Fury stayed up all night building the dummy database I dumped."

"Where are the original files?" he asked.

"In the SHIELD servers."

"So you can rebuild SHIELD."

"So we can rebuild SHIELD with good people, if we want to," she said. "But mostly because I have enough blood on my hands."

Steve ran a hand over his face. "SHIELD is dead, Natasha."

"Agencies like SHIELD are never dead," she replied. "You think the Vault and the Sandbox and the Cube and all our other bases just went away because you broke the Triskelion? They're still there. Most of them are Army-owned now. They weren't wrong in the hearings, you know. We need intelligence apparatus. Just...not like that."

"What do you expect me to do with this?" he asked, reeling at the idea that the Army had SHIELD assets. SHIELD shouldn't have them, but the US military definitely shouldn't.

"I never expected you to do anything with it. I didn't dump this on you, you asked me. I told you the truth. You're pretty liberal with your disapproval, Steve, but you might try a little positive reinforcement once in a while," she added, then looked down. "Sorry. That's harsher than I meant to be."

He nodded. "Yeah, maybe. Probably not unwarranted, though."

She didn't look up, but a quick smile flashed across her face.

"Natasha, I can't sit on the fact that you basically have an entire intelligence organization at your fingertips," he said. "Even with the purge of the Hydra loyalists, there's enough secrets in those files to make you very powerful."

"Or to make you very powerful," she said.

"What?"

"Think about it," she replied, looking up at him. "Think about what you would do with an agency like SHIELD. Or maybe more accurately, what you wouldn't do."

He had, hadn't he? Occasionally, prepping for another janitorial mission, or after an argument with Fury. How he would do things differently if he were in charge. But that was a fantasy. A guy like him could never do what needed to be done. A guy like him probably didn't want to know what needed to be done.

Then again, someone like him with someone like Natasha for a right hand...

"We'll talk later," he said. Then, before she could go, "Thank you for telling me the truth. I hope I've never punished you for that."

She gave him a half-smile. "I'll let you know."

***

After that, things got really weird.

For one, Steve found himself moving into Stark Tower, into a space that was clearly, ludicrously obviously designed for him, with hasty additions made for Bucky (a guest room with a hospital bed, fixtures and appliances that could be operated one-handed). He heard Stark had made offers to all of the others, mainly manipulative offers designed to make it seem like this was such a burden on Stark Industries but out of the generosity of his heart, he would allow it. Sam, whose work was still in DC, declined the offer, but he came up the first weekend after Bucky got out of the hospital and spent two full days abusing Steve's kitchen and sleeping on his couch.

Second, Bucky refused to sleep in the guest room. He slept in Steve's bed. He wouldn't even respond to Steve's suggestions that they discuss this, just followed him to bed that first night and when Steve asked "What are you doing?" he said "Sleeping" and closed his eyes, and if he wasn't asleep he was faking it pretty well.

Third, about a week after Steve moved in, when he was basically still killing time and trying to figure everything out, George Batroc climbed Stark Tower.

Even JARVIS missed him until he was about forty floors up, at which point all Avengers in the area were summoned. Steve, suspecting this was potentially a distraction, stopped them before they could suit up and made Stark get into the Iron Man suit.

Batroc was on the 48th floor when they popped up next to him, Tony hovering silently with Steve hanging off his shoulders, and Steve said, "I thought you were in prison," in French.

"No," Batroc replied, finding a new handhold and hoisting himself up another few feet. "Hydra broke me loose. They committed a lot of sabotage in the European SHIELD bases when they fled."

"Well, I guess you owe them one," Steve said. Batroc spat. It splatted pretty awesomely on the sidewalk below. "You wanna talk about why you're climbing Stark Tower?" Steve continued, as Stark trailed Batroc's ascent. He adjusted his grip on Stark's shoulders, just in case Batroc wanted a rematch.

"Got your attention," Batroc replied. "Hell, Captain, I come in peace. What floor are you on?"

"Ninety fifth," Stark put in. Steve curled around his shoulder to give him a look. "What? I speak French."

"I come under a white flag," Batroc said. "I'm enjoying myself. See you on ninety-five? No fighting this time unless you want to."

Steve sighed. "No chance we can give you a lift?"

"No, thank you." Batroc tossed him a smile. "So civilized. If I fall to my death, give my body to science."

"Ten-four," Stark said, and Steve got ready to descend -- but instead Stark kicked his boot jets into high gear and zipped them straight up the exterior wall of the Tower, so fast Steve could barely breathe.

It took Batroc a while to get to ninety five, but true to his word, he didn't attack and he didn't sneak in. He knocked on the balcony door.

Steve opened it, most of the Avengers ranged out behind him (no point in being careless). Batroc held up his hands, slung his backpack around, and opened it, easing out a bottle of wine. He offered it to Steve with a little bow.

"For you," he said, in gently accented English. "Congratulations; you have done more damage to the government of your country than I could dream of."

"That wasn't my government, and it damn sure wasn't my country," Steve replied, taking the wine and setting it aside. "What do you want? Because I should be arresting you for piracy and terrorism."

Batroc's smile was toothy. "Perhaps I want to pay my debt to society."

Steve tipped his head to one side. "Surrender?"

"No. More like...a bid," Batroc replied. "I am a mercenary, Captain, I fight for pay. It was all one to me, you know, who hired me, but in the end it was Nick Fury, wasn't it?"




Marvel Comics: The Incredible Roadtrippers
Rating: PG
Summary: Steve and Bucky are good role models who make poor life decisions.
Notes: This was a longer take on my "Quentin as the spiritual successor to Captain America" fic I did here.
Warnings: None.

***

When Bucky arrived on the terrace outside Steve's housing level at Stark Tower, Steve was prepared; he took a bottle of beer from the fridge and a plate of food from the oven.

"Thought you might come by," Steve called, as Bucky let himself in. "I put some lasagne aside for you."

"How domestic," Bucky replied with a grin, accepting the beer and toasting Steve with it.

"I had leftovers."

Bucky sat down, picking up a fork and watching Steve over the top of his food. "Made the news blogs, did we?"

"Little bit," Steve replied.

"Cadet said we would. You know the first thing he does after we win a fight is check his phone? He doesn't even stop for a witty quip."

"He's an infant," Steve said. "They're all that way now. Besides, he has a girl, doesn't he? They probably text."

"Well, he says we were trending tonight." Bucky chewed morosely. "I'm trying to teach him to be covert, but he has us flagged in Google and he reads the FuckYeahCadet blog on Yamblr."

Steve smiled gently. "Quentin likes the spotlight. Negative attention is still attention."

"Maybe you should've taken him after all."

"Too late now."

"Thanks for the reassurance," Bucky grunted. Steve patted him on the arm as he got up to recycle his beer bottle.

"He'll settle down. He gets regular attention from you, and in the fall he'll get more than he probably wants from the students."

"Maybe," Bucky said. Steve caught the hesitant note in his voice, and cocked an eyebrow at him, leaning on the kitchen counter.

"You know, when you were assigned to me, I had no experience that qualified me to be your mentor," he said.

"I was sixteen and special-ops trained," Bucky pointed out.

"Yes, and if you think that didn't make you a double-handful of trouble, you're wrong," Steve answered. "What's eatin' you? You're doing a fine job with him. Even Logan says so."

"He's just...I never get the feeling he needs me. Or even cares that I'm there. He obeys orders, mostly, but he's a very self-contained bastard," Bucky said. "I know there's a lot more depth to him than I'm getting."

"Little worried about what's lurking in that depth?" Steve asked.

Bucky held up a thumb and forefinger. "Little bit. Mostly I worry what happens when some bad guy with more insight than us cracks through and lets it out. Whatever it is."

Steve crossed his arms thoughtfully. "Well, I didn't see anything irrevocably evil when we worked together. It could just be there's a broken little kid down there, Buck. God knows he wouldn't be the first."

"I'm his mentor. He's supposed to trust me."

"I'm sure he does, as much as he can. He probably wants to impress you. Hard to trust someone you're pretending to be cooler than you are around."

"Since when did you get a psychology degree?"

"I read books," Steve answered airily.

"So, you got any ideas?" Bucky asked.

Steve considered it. "Well, do you guys ever just...talk?"

"Talk?"

"Sure, like we used to in the barracks. Sit around. Shoot the shit."

Bucky shrugged. "Not outside of mission parameters, at least not much."

"Maybe you should. Get yourself an excuse to talk to the kid. He's probably going to be a pain about it, but that can't last forever."

"Got any ideas?"

"Dunno. Taking you to the movies always worked. Or those awful transport trains we rode on once we were overseas." Steve's eyes lit up, and Bucky had known him well long enough to be worried by that. "What about a road trip?"

"A road trip," Bucky repeated.

"Yeah!"

"With Quentin Quire," Bucky continued.

"Well, there's no point to going without him. Oh! It's been years since I did a see-the-country trip, I can come along." Steve beamed at him.

"Steve, don't take this the wrong way..." Bucky began, but Steve frowned, and there were few people on the planet who could survive the weight of a Steve Rogers frown. Bucky had never been one of them.

"But it's a great idea, Buck. Lots of time to talk, the freedom of the open road -- I bet Tony would loan us that Impala he just finished restoring. It has an mp3 player and he put a little fridge and a microwave in the trunk."

Bucky was momentarily sidetracked. "Why does a car need a microwave?"

"Since when has 'need' been a part of the Stark philosophy?" Steve asked drily. "This is perfect. He has a month of summer left. We can do a loop of the country."

[There's a gap here, where whatever I was going to write to join these bits never got written.]

"Quentin may wield the Phoenix Force someday," Steve said. Bucky frowned. "Yes, I know, supposedly we killed it, but...we saw the future. There's a chance. And he controls it."

It dawned on him why this was...the way it was, and he nodded. "That's why me. Why not a mutant to mentor him."

"We want a Phoenix who's more Wolverine than Cyclops," Steve said. "Mad as that might sound, a Phoenix who's friendly to the Avengers. Someone who trained under one of us. And Buck -- look, there's a legacy here," he said, trying to be delicate. "You wore the star for a time. Yes, I know, I wasn't around, it wasn't my decision, but Tony made a good call. You were the Cap we needed."

"You can't seriously be considering passing the shield to Quentin someday," Bucky protested.

"Why not? He has the usual qualifications," Steve said with a grin. "Stubborn, self-righteous, kind of a punk. Or are you worried he won't be able to lift it?" he asked, turning sober. "I know it's a burden, Buck, but you know that to the ounce, you carried it. Do you really think Quentin couldn't?"

"It's not a matter of can't," Bucky protested. "It's just -- I mean, that poor kid, Steve, if he's not Phoenix then he's Captain America? If he can't be Cap are we gonna put him up for President? Seems like everyone's got something riding on this kid."




Captain America: Twelve Tiny Steves Again
Rating: PG
Summary: Bucky can't help looking after Steve. Even eight of him.
Notes: This is a more traditional take on the Twelve Tiny Steves trope, inspired by this post.
Warnings: Brief scene of child abuse.

***

It's been a year since Bucky came back -- came home, Steve insists, but there are still days that "back" is as far as he's willing to admit. It's for Steve's sake; sometimes Bucky wakes up with the terrible anxiety of an unfinished mission, and he's still worried one day he'll wake up with his gun pressed to Steve's temple. He just hopes he'll come to his senses before he pulls the trigger.

Still, he's doing all right. Steve and Sam helped him. At this point Steve has handed him off to Phil Coulson, who is calm and quiet and sends him on missions, which is very satisfying both personally and professionally. Bucky likes Director Coulson.

So he feels sane and useful, most days, and particularly on missions, which is why he does not immediately assume "Oh good, I've finally just jumped completely off the deep end" when he walks into what appears to be a shelter for underfed blond waifs.

Like, he might be crazy, but this is probably actually happening.

He settles in the rafters and considers the situation. Below him are two young women, one middle-aged man, and one-two-three-four-five-six-seven children, some smaller than others. But all small, with the frailty of the ill, most bruised, and --

He shakes his head, trying to shake loose the memory. One of the boys, who is shouting defiantly at one of the women, is the spit and image of Steve Rogers at nine. Blue-fire eyes, seventy pounds soaking wet, and angry.

He withdraws to a safe corner, out of earshot, and taps his comm. He's not supposed to make contact on missions but he thinks this might be the exception.

"Coulson," the Director answers.

"It's Winter Soldier," Bucky says. He's working to reclaim the name.

"Mission achieved? That was fast."

"I need intel."

Coulson's voice sharpens. "Report."

"I'm looking at three potential Hydra agents and at least seven civilian children."

There's a silence. "Are they...I'm not entirely sure how to phrase this, Soldier. Are these children in danger?"

Bucky peers down. Little Steve is certainly not acting like it.

"I don't know," he says honestly. "I'm not sure how to assess this, Director."

"Our intel said this was a Hydra nest. Long-neglected, low-funding, probably not weapons. The implication was that it was a storage unit for something that could potentially be used against Captain Rogers. That's why you requested the mission, if I recall."

Bucky sits and thinks. Coulson waits. He's good like that.

"Okay," he says. "I -- "

At that point, there is a yelp and a thud from below, and he leans forward. Little Steve is on the floor, being restrained by all three adults, one of them punching him in the head.

"Gotta go," he says, and drops effortlessly from the rafters. The other children scatter. He takes out the man first -- he's the one doing the punching -- with a clean head shot. The women fall back, scrambling away, and he shoots them in the knees.

The boy, chest heaving, stays on the mat. Bucky remembers this, remembers Steve's attacks. He reaches out, pulls the boy up to a sitting position, and rests a hand on his chest.

"Blow out, hard," he says. "Relax, I gotcha. Blow out hard."

The boy does, his breath a whistle. One of the others, a little blond girl with green eyes, creeps forward and holds out some plastic device. Bucky looks at it. She's as far away as she can get from him and still get the device in arm's reach. He holds out his hand, palm up, and she drops the device into it.

Little Steve snatches the device from him and puts it to his mouth, inhaling with a hissing noise. After a second, his labored breathing calms.

Well, ain't that a new trick.

"You shot him," the boy says, eyes huge as saucers.

Bucky considers this. "Yup."

"Why?"

"Ain't no grown man got cause to wallop on a little kid," Bucky replies.

The boy looks around. Most of the children are hiding, but Bucky has good peripheral vision; he knows where six of the seven are. The girl from before crawls forward another few feet, then lunges into Little Steve's arms.

"Are you Captain America?" Little Steve asks, cradling the girl against his chest.

Bucky grins. "I'm a pal of his. You wanna meet him?"

***

"What the actual hell," is Sam's reaction when Bucky arrives at the Tower.

He has eight children (there was a baby, currently riding shotgun in his backpack) and one large suitcase filled primarily with the pharmacy's worth of medication the kids are on. Most of the kids have some kind of security object, a stuffed toy or a blanket. Little Steve (whose name actually is Steve) is carrying one of the younger ones whose "legs don't work so well yet". Bucky bypassed debrief with the Director and came straight here because trying to herd the kids all the way to SHIELD temporary HQ and then home seemed unfair for everyone, including Bucky. Coulson's got someone cleaning up the rest of the nest; Bucky passed them on the way in.

"Sam," Bucky says tiredly. He had to shove all the kids into the tiny electric car he'd taken to the site, get them back to civilization, and stop four times for potty breaks. "This is Little Steve, Magda, Johann, James, Secundus -- we're changing his name -- Charlie -- she's a girl -- Michael, and Bobby's in the backpack. They were in a Hydra nest."

Sam looks at Little Steve. His thoughts are clear. "Are they -- "

"Yes. I think so."

Magda, clutching a small plush elephant, coughs.

"Serum didn't take," Sam says, and Bucky nods. "O-kay. Hey, kids, I'm Sam, I'm a friend of your friend Bucky here."

The immediately look of distrust on seven of eight faces (Bobby is asleep) is actually pretty hilarious.

"It's okay," Bucky says. "Sam's all right."

"Bucky killed Mr. Bartner," Little Steve announces, his voice full of the raw love of a child. "Because he was walloping me."

Sam's eyebrow speaks volumes.

"Sirs," JARVIS says, and the kids look up like a flock, in unison. "If I may, two of your young charges are running mild fevers. Shall I summon Dr. Banner?"

"Should we...put them somewhere?" Sam asks. Bucky shrugs. "Real helpful, Barnes."

"I have to potty," Secundus says. Bucky's gonna get to the bottom of that name if it kills him.

"You take him," Bucky takes Secundus's hand and passes it to Sam. "I'm gonna put them all in the guest room."

By the time Secundus comes back, the kids have eagerly taken to the large guest room bed, Little Steve piling up pillows and blankets he finds by climbing the goddamn shelves in the linen closet, as if Bucky needed more proof he's Steve's. Bruce Banner arrives shortly after Bucky's heart attack over Little Steve.

The children are very, very obviously of the Rogers line. Little Steve demands that Banner do everything to him before he does it to one of the others, and most of the kids have strong feelings about anything that might hurt their siblings. Magda, second-oldest, chatters on about asthma and rickets and heart murmurs like a little doctor, and when Bruce tries to listen to Charlie's heart, Charlie takes a swing at him.

"Easy," Bruce laughs, ducking out of the way. The others flinch, and Little Steve steps in front of the mass of them. Sam and Bruce exchange a look.

"How often did you, uh, get walloped?" Sam asks gently.

"Dunno," Little Steve says sullenly.

"Okay, well, here in the real world, we don't hit kids," Sam replies. "Nobody's ever gonna hit you here."

Magda looks distrustful; the others look hopeful. Little Steve lifts his thin, pointy chin imperiously.

"You're right you won't," he says, fists balled.

Bucky likes this kid.

***

Charlie and Johann have colds, Bruce says, so they quarantine them in Bucky's room (after Bucky goes through and locks up all the weapons). The others are in various stages of tired, so they leave most of them on the bed in the guest room to sleep, and take Magda and Little Steve to the kitchen. Little Steve accepts a glass of milk; Magda's allergic.

"Dairy an' peanuts," she says. Sam pours her juice.

"Do you know everyone's allergies?" Bucky asks them, sitting down. Little Steve nods, mid-gulp. "Hey, slow down, Tex, it's not going anywhere."

Sam makes a phone-call gesture to Bucky, mouthing Steve, and Bucky nods. He slips out while Bucky contemplates the kids.

"Where are your mothers?" he asks finally.

"Dunno. The minders say they grew us in test tubes," Little Steve replies.

"We're disappointments," Magda adds.

"Maybe to them. I kinda like ya," Bucky says. Magda smiles, pleased. "Why were they disappointed?"

"Because we're supposed to be super soldiers," Magda tells him. "But instead we're 'lergic to everything and everyone's got asthma and -- "

"Yeah, I got the laundry list," Bucky says. Interesting. Murky things become clear. Hydra got ahold of Steve's...samples, somehow, and to judge by their age they were born years before Steve came out of the ice, which means they must have been the old samples Steve told him about donating, back in the war.

They had me, you know, in a cup, Steve's mortified voice rises up in the back of his mind. Eight or nine times!

In a row? Bucky hears himself ask.

Well, the Serum's good for some things, Steve replies.

Back in the present, Little Steve finishes his milk and looks indecisive.

"You want more?" Bucky asks. Little Steve nods hesitantly.




Avengers: The Offspring
Rating: PG
Summary: When Tony and Rumiko's daughter announces she's marrying Rhodey and Carol's son, Steve might be the only one who can prevent another civil war.
Notes: I don't even remember where this came from, but it was fun writing Tony with a kid, and doubly so Rhodey and Carol.
Warnings: None.
***

"Five days," Steve grumbled, as he packed the last of his clothes into the suitcase. "Five days was all I asked."

He hadn't done too badly, really. He'd had three and a half days of leisure, quiet, and warmth on some beach that Tony and Rumiko owned and had loaned to him, promising him it would provide uninterrupted time to do nothing in particular. It'd been years since he'd taken a real vacation -- maybe not since the one with Sharon, where he'd gotten that brutal but thankfully short-lived sunburn and had to fight his evil twin from the fifties.

That hadn't been much of a vacation either, come to think of it.

He was so far from anything that even Stark Wireless didn't penetrate to the island, but an hour ago someone had come out from the mainland in a pontoon boat, carrying a message from Rumiko saying that Tony needed Steve's diplomacy badly. Given Steve was not known for his diplomatic skill, this probably translated to Tony having gotten himself into something he couldn't easily get out of without Captain America's political pull and infamous stubborn glare.

If Rumiko had interrupted his vacation it was urgent, but she'd have said if it was so urgent she needed him immediately, so he didn't fret too much as the pontoon boat took him back to the mainland, and the commercial flight took him back to New York.

His first inkling that something was really very wrong was the pilot saying that they were going to have to put down at Republic instead of LaGuardia, because there was an Avengers exercise taking place over Manhattan. Steve hadn't been appraised of any such exercise, and he certainly wouldn't have left the state if he'd known any large-scale war game was going to take place in a major urban center.

His second inkling was when his phone, now back in touch with the Stark satellites, exploded with text messages, emails, and missed calls as soon as he switched it on.

He tried to listen to the voicemails but gave up after the third. Text messages were still arriving, none of which made any sense. After a while he turned off text and email notification and just called Tony.

No reply. He tried Rumiko, then Pepper; no reply.

He tried Kamiko, then, and began to get nervous. Kamiko would have her phone surgically implanted if Rumiko would allow it; Tony would encourage his only daughter to attempt it herself if he didn't think Rumiko would kill him. And Kamiko always picked up for her godfather, unless she was unconscious or out of cell range, which with the mods she'd made to her phone (a Stark through and through, that one) was almost never.

"Kamiko, it's your godfather. Call me," he said sternly, as he left luggage claim, heading for the cab stand. Finally he tried Clint, who had been texting him, and Clint answered with "Sam's got a lock on your phone, he's on his way."

"Clint, what the hell is going on?" Steve demanded, as repulsor fire lit the sky.

"Oh man, Tony's gonna kill Rhodey," Clint said. "And Danver. And Pepper's gonna kill either Tony or Rhodey, and Rhodey's about to kill Danver too, and Carol, I'm not sure who she's gonna kill but I'm pretty sure it's someone. Maybe Rhodey. Definitely Tony if he kills Rhodey. And I think Kamiko's gonna kill all of them. Maybe not Carol."

"Clint, slow down," Steve said. "I was gone for three days."

"Yeah, that was a bad choice of days to be gone," Clint replied. "It's Civil War the Second up there and this time it's personal."

"It was pretty personal last time, in case you forgot."

"I'll let Sam fill you in, I promised," Clint said, just as a dark speck in the sky coalesced into the form of Sam Wilson, descending. Steve hung up the phone on Clint still chattering away.

"I'm gonna need you to explain to me, in ten words or less, what just happened," Steve said.

"Tony blew up when Kamiko told him Danver got her pregnant," Sam said. "Sorry, that's eleven."

"Danver did what," Steve said flatly.

"Don't kill him, man, let me explain, because God knows nobody else is listening," Sam answered, holding up his hands. "They've been dating for two years."

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. "Sam."

"I know -- "

"These children, their four parents have a combined IQ upwards of nine hundred."

"I know!"

"I am godfather to both of them."

"And you do a very good job," Sam said loyally.

"How did they keep it hidden that they've been dating for two years?"

"Well, they're both overachievers."

"Sam."

"Look, they're smart kids, they're adults," Sam said. "Kamiko seems happy about it. Danver's over the moon. Or was, until Tony started talking shotguns."

Steve looked up as War Machine roared past, chasing Kamiko in the newest Iron Patriot suit. He remembered, with an already nostalgic fondness, the days when all he had to worry about was the fact that his beloved, precious, and very small goddaughter wanted to suit up and join her father and godfather on the Avengers.

("Is this what it felt like to be you?" he'd asked Bucky once, watching Kamiko spar with Teddy. "Waiting for tiny-me to throw a punch and break his wrist?"

"No," Bucky had said. "Kamiko's got way better form than you ever did.")

"So, Clint said Pepper was up there too," Steve sighed, as Sam slid an arm around his waist and secured the flight harness to his chest. He threw an arm over Sam's shoulders and leapt when Sam did, the powerful Falcon rig lifting them quickly into the air.

"Carol, Pepper, Rhodey, Tony, Kamiko, and Danver," Sam said. "I was gonna try and break it up, but fuck that, I'm not getting killed over this grandbaby."

"I think it's nice," Steve yelled over the rush of air. Sam nodded, but didn't respond until he'd taken Steve over the fight, to check out the angles and general allegiances, and then deposited him at the top of Stark Tower.

Most of the Avengers were sitting on the ledge of the Tower, arms propped on the railings, legs dangling over space, eating snacks and watching the fight. None of them seemed to be taking it seriously. Rumiko was standing just behind them, watching various helmet cam feeds on a Starkpad, looking disappointed and annoyed.

"Rumiko," Steve said, kissing her cheek. "Thanks for calling me back."

"Well, I had hoped you'd get back soon enough to prevent..." she waved a hand at the battle. From the StarkPad, Tony roared in rage, and Kamiko yelled back in Japanese. "It's interesting to watch, I'll say that."

"What kinds of sides are we looking at?"

"Free for all. Tony was going after Danver until Rhodey intervened, but now I think he's more angry with Kamiko. Carol's furious with Tony and Rhodey, but she's also angry with Pepper, who was trying to help her stop it. Rhodey's not sure if he wants to kill Danver or just wants to calm Tony down, but he's doing a poor job of both. I think Danver and Kamiko are enjoying egging everyone on, the brats," she added fondly.

"And you?"

"Oh, you know I don't involve myself," Rumiko said airily. Steve smiled. Rumiko's total disinterest in Tony's superheroing had done wonders to deflate his ego and keep their relationship stable. If anyone had told Steve twenty years ago that Rumiko Fujikawa would get a ring on Tony Stark, he'd have laughed. That was before he knew Rumiko very well.

"I can certainly put a stop to all this if you like," Steve said. "As long as they're not causing any property damage, though, it might be more therapeutic to let them all go at it."

She smiled. "True. But when you didn't show up in a timely fashion -- "

"Rumiko!" Steve mocked hurt.

" -- I called someone else who has a little more experience at swift conflict resolution. Or at least more pull," she said.

On cue, there was a sudden throb, like a bass beat passing through the body, and War Machine, Iron Man, Rescue, and Iron Patriot all dropped out of the sky. Carol and Danver, whose powers weren't dependent on metal, drew up short, looking at each other in confusion.

Then the armors all rose up over the edge of the tower, casually circling a hovering man in a deep purple business suit, his mane of white hair neatly combed back and not at all disturbed by the wind this high up.

"Magnus," Rumiko called. "You're a gift."

"My pleasure, my dear," Magneto replied, touching down on the deck, the armors still fluttering around him, faint protests coming from inside the helmets. "Where would you like them? Captain," he added, with a nod for Steve.

"Magneto," Steve replied. "I'd like a word with Tony."

The other man twisted his hand slightly, and Iron Man floated forward. Steve tugged the faceplate up. Inside, Tony was looking disgruntled.

"I know it takes...six to tango," Steve said, "but only you could cause a hexagonal sortie, Tony."

"That whelp -- " Tony began, and Steve shut his faceplate as Carol and Danver touched down. Danver immediately went to where Kamiko was floating haplessly and swearing loudly.

"Well, this is delightful," Rumiko said. "So glad my husband and daughter are making spectacles of themselves in front of all of Manhattan."

"He started it!" Kamiko yelled.

"I did start it," Tony said unrepentantly. "I'm going to wallop that kid so hard his dad sees stars."

"Just try it," Rhodey snarled.

"Dad, shut up!" Danver said. "Kam?"

"I'm fine, or I will be as soon as Uncle Magnus puts me down," Kamiko replied. At a nod from her mother, Magneto set her gently on her feet. she shrugged and twisted, setting off the chain reaction that collapsed her armor into a slim box strapped to her back.

"Diplomacy is, admittedly, not playing to my strengths," Mangeto said, as he set down Rescue, allowing Pepper to unsuit. He kept Iron Man and War Machine floating, inoperable. "Captain, if you'd care to take the baton."

"Thank you," Steve said. "Stay for dinner if you want."

"No, I'd best get back to Westchester. Always a...delight," Magnus drawled, and strolled inside.




Avengers: The Time Gem
Rating: G
Summary: Steve is tiny, Bucky is back, and Sam and Tony both need a drink.
Notes: I love writing uppity tiny Steve. But I realized even more than that, I wanted Classic Bucky Barnes and the modern Avengers.
Warnings: None.

***

The hows and whys aren't really that important; there was a time gem, which sounds so much like something out of a nineties fantasy quest video game that it hurts, and Steve and the Winter Soldier both went for it at the same time for vastly different reasons, and now here they are.

"Can I ask you a question, bearing in mind we are near-total strangers?" Tony Stark says to Sam, as they stand in front of the observation glass in the emergency medical floor of Stark Tower and try to work out (at least in Sam's case) where their lives stopped making sense.

"I honestly don't know if I could answer any question you'd be thinking of asking," Sam replies, and Stark seems to assume this means "yes" because he asks anyway.

"Why did you decide to bring them here?"

Sam supposes it's a fair question. "Decide implies a lot more rational thought than went into that action," he says. "We were in New York, I didn't know what to do, Stark Tower was five blocks away. This is your gig, right? You guys deal with this stuff, the physics stuff."

"I'm sure physics got involved somewhere," Stark agrees. "Next question, why were you and the Captain and the assassin in New York?"

Maybe the whys are important, at least to Stark.

"Man, why does everything happen in New York?" Sam replies. "You had aliens last year, you're so shocked that this year you have freaky mystical time-travel diamonds fucking shit up?"

On the other side of the glass, the Winter Soldier shifts restlessly in sedated sleep (sedation at levels that would kill a normal man, but are barely keeping him under). On the other side of a wall from him, but still visible to the two men at the glass, Steve Rogers sleeps fitfully as well, coughing occasionally, pulse fluttering at his throat.

They'd both gone for the gem, and there was a flash of white light Sam could see from where he was laying down fire against the Hydra cell also going for the gem, and then a sense of intense, longing nostalgia that still haunted the back of his mind. It felt like reality hiccupped, and then -- then Barnes took out fifteen Hydra in a screaming rage, and Steve lay where he'd been standing, crisp blond hair suddenly strawlike and wispy, body so small and thin Sam was worried he'd break him to pick him up, a wheeze rattling in his chest.

Steve lies on the bed, skin so pale his veins stand out. Sam knows the story, everyone knows the story, but seeing what Steve really used to be before he was Captain America is unnerving. Not least because Sam knows Steve, and he knows that he possesses several inherent qualities he didn't get from the serum: stubbornness, mouthiness, ironclad inability to preserve himself in the face of doing the Right Thing. All things a person can carry when he's also two hundred and thirty pounds of muscle; it's a lot harder not to worry when Steve's carrying all that at a hundred and seventeen pounds with a heart condition.

"I'm freaked out," Tony Stark says. "Are you freaked out?"

"Yeah, this is not right," Sam replies. "But you can fix it, right?"

"Well," Stark says, thoughtfully. "We can try reversing it, that's probably going to be a better bet than trying to re-create the Serum. I mean. I'm not a biochemist, and while I do have one more or less on call, his last few attempts have not gone swimmingly. If anyone could do it, we could, but that's not incredibly likely, so let's go with trying to reverse whatever happened first. So uh. Not to be indelicate but who actually grabbed the mystical time-travel diamond thing?"

"Fellas?" a voice says, and oh fuck, Winter Soldier's awake. He's sitting up, looking straight through the glass at them, and he's holding a little blue gem in one hand. "This what you're looking for?"

"Can he hear us?" Tony asks, like a character out of a horror film.

"Yeah," Winter Soldier says. He taps one ear. "Kinda part of the gig."

Sam has no idea what to say. This isn't what he's used to from the Soldier.

"Look, if I was gonna kill you, I'd already be doin' it," Soldier continues. "You wanna tell me what you did with Steve?"

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