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Sweet Child of Mine

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The house is tiny, rundown, isolated. It's both exactly the kind of place and exactly not the kind of place you'd expect to find a bunch of HYDRA agents hiding out with stolen alien tech. The paperwork says the place belongs to Jessica and Wade Cleve, but Wade is a farmer and Jessica is a homemaker and neither of them have any family or anything like a regular close circle of friends and nobody in town can really tell them anything about Jessica or Wade except that they haven't seen Wade down at the co-op recently. They go in prepared for the worst, and that's what they find. There are five HYDRA agents, seven crates of stolen tech, and two corpses.

Once the HYDRA goons are taken care of - two body bags, three sets of cuffs - they give the house a careful going-over. The only thing out of the ordinary is the nursery; it clearly indicates that the Cleves had a baby girl, a very new one judging by the clothing and supplies, but there appears to be no baby in residence. One of the HYDRA goons, when questioned gently (that is to say, lifted up by his throat at the end of a bionic arm and “accidentally” slammed against a tree once or twice) swears that they never saw any baby; just the man and the woman.

McBryde says she'll check around in the town, find out if there's anyone who might have taken the Cleves' baby for the night and still have it. Steve goes to oversee the packing up of the crates onto a SHIELD van. Bucky, unsettled, prowls the house.

He starts in the basement, poking at boxes without any real curiosity about their contents; they're labeled with things like “Wade's Family Home Videos” and “Christmas Decorations.” He comes upstairs, wanders through the kitchen, the dining room, the living room. Something isn't right. He checks the little den that Wade was apparently using as an office. There's nothing there.

He prowls up the stairs, peeks into the spare bedroom where the HYDRA guys were keeping the crates. It's empty; just a blandly decorated guest room. He checks the baby's room again. It's as he's stepping out into the hallway that he finally hears something. His head jerks up, automatically tracking the sound, and he makes his way on silent feet down the hall to the master bedroom.

This is where the Cleves were when HYDRA took possession of their house; the bodies are gone now, but there's still blood everywhere. He drops to one knee and peers under the bed. There's nothing there, not even dust bunnies. Jessica Cleve must have been a very meticulous housekeeper. He rises, checks the free-standing wardrobe. Nothing. He checks the en suite bathroom; it's empty.

Then he hears it again, and in two strides, he's across the room, tearing at the drywall. There's a hidden panel in the wall, and from its shape and size it used to be a dumbwaiter. Whoever closed it over did one hell of a job hiding it; even he never would have noticed it, and he's famous for seeing everything. He doesn't even bother to search for whatever hidden switch opens the door, just digs his metal fingers into the wall and rips it out.

The baby is lying on the shelf inside the hidden panel, next to a cigar box that holds Jessica Cleve's two pieces of “good” jewelry, the Cleves' wills and insurance papers, and a few hundred bucks of emergency cash. He thinks that her parents must have heard the intruders and stashed her in there to keep her safe; that's the only reason she's alive now. If the HYDRA goons had known she was there, they'd have killed her along with Wade and Jessica. She's been there for some time; she's filthy from diaper overflow and not breathing well.

He reaches into the hole and tucks his right hand under her tiny body, drawing her out and cradling her against himself. She squeaks, waving her little fists weakly, and he can't help but smile as she starts to breathe a little better now that she's out in the fresh air. He moves out into the hallway and bellows for Steve.

Steve comes to the foot of the stairs and sees the bundle in Bucky's arms. His eyes go wide. Bucky says, “Check the kitchen for milk or formula. She's starvin'.”

Steve nods and heads straight for the kitchen. Bucky carries the baby into her room, lays her down on the changing table. It is the work of only a few moments to have her cleaned up and dressed in fresh clothing, and Bucky's thankful for his strong stomach because this poor child has been lying in filth for at least a day. He goes heavy on the baby powder before applying a clean diaper, and there may be a moment of hilarity when the self-sticking tabs get stuck to his metal arm, but nobody was there to see it so he's not admitting to anything. Once she's clean and diapered, he pops her into a little play suit and hoists her up against his right shoulder.

Her breathing has improved enough that she's squawking for food now, but Steve can warm a bottle like nobody's business, and he's holding it out to Bucky when Bucky comes through the door. “Take her,” Bucky says, and Steve does, resting the baby against his own shoulder and popping the bottle's nipple into the baby's mouth. Bucky goes outside to advise McBryde of this new development before she goes into town.

By the time he gets back inside, the baby is shrieking and refusing the bottle, and Steve looks frantic. “What do I do?”

Bucky gives a rough sigh. “You never did know how to talk to a dame right, punk,” he growls. He grabs a clean, soft kitchen towel and wraps it around his metal arm, then reaches out. “Give her here.”

Steve hands her over, and Bucky cradles the baby properly, her head resting on his left arm, her ear against his heartbeat. He strokes her downy head with the fingers of his right hand, murmuring soft things under the sound of her cries. Then he takes the bottle from Steve and runs the nipple across the baby's lips. Instinctively, she makes a little sucking face, and her cries die down. He does it again, getting the same response, and then again. Then he slides it into her mouth and she latches on.

McBryde steps into the room. “Impressive,” she says, with a carefully straight face. “Everything's loaded on the van. Do you want to call social services and wait here for them, or just carry her to the local sheriff?”

Steve looks at Bucky.

Bucky looks at Steve.

They both look down at the baby that lies contentedly in Bucky's arms, emptying the bottle.

Bucky clears his throat. And he says, “I'll take her.”