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Children's Crusade

Chapter Text

~*~

August, 2014

“The dead will be buried so deep,” Strucker said, slowing his pace as he and Tarleton approached the primary containment units. “Their own ghosts will not be able to find them.”

“And the survivors?” Tarleton asked.

“…the twins,” Strucker said, stopping to observe some of the greatest potential for power in human history.

In the containment unit on the left, the first boy was still fruitlessly endeavoring to build up enough speed to break through the glass. He had been completely unsuccessful for the last two weeks he’d been trying to break the class, but he continued his attempts.

Adolescents were so slow to learn.

“It’s not a world of spies, anymore,” Strucker murmured, loud enough just for Tarleton. “It’s not even a world of heroes.”

Strucker only blinked once more at the blur of non-color formed by the rapid movement of gray clothes, pale skin, and white hair, before turning his attention to the other cage.

The other boy’s hair was still dark, jet black. But he also still emitted that confounding red energy every time he used his telekinesis, giving his hair a magenta hue as he struggled with the blocks they’d given him to practice his powers with.

“It is an age of miracles,” Strucker said. “And there is nothing more horrifying than a miracle.”

The red light reflecting in the boy’s eyes gave him an almost demonic cast as he clenched his hands and crushed the blocks.

Tarleton jerked in alarm. Between the boy’s nearly-magical prowess with his telekinesis and his twin brother’s malevolent gaze when he glared through the glass, Strucker couldn’t completely blame him.

They’ve only had the boys for a few months, captured just after the Battle of the Triskelion. Already, they’ve made astounding progress.

Their latest weapons were possibly the most powerful to have ever been created…but also largely out of their control.

“Prepare them for transport,” Strucker said. “By this time tomorrow, they shall be at the main facility, with the others.”

Tarleton nodded. “Of course. Anything else?”

“Send me one of the assistants,” he said. “There will be many records to sort through, to decide which ones to keep and which ones to…discard.”

“Right away,” Tarleton said.

Strucker watched as Tarleton strode off to alert their medical technicians and security forces to get ready to subdue the boys.

Again.

It was always a struggle, the boys even more stubborn than their mother had been. But until the Winter Soldier’s re-education machinery could be recovered, there was no helping it – and with the death of Zola and his paranoid tendency to keep his knowledge to himself, it would be a while before such a procedure could be recreated.

He turned and walked towards the office. Subduing the boys was a spectacle he’d lost interest in long ago.

~*~

Within a few weeks of living out of Stark Tower, Steve had mostly gotten used to Tony – the way he tended to ramble, the way he’d pick up seemingly random threads of conversation from days or weeks before, the way he’d suddenly interject his thoughts and epiphanies and nonsensical jokes.

It’d been grating at first. But then Steve realized how much Tony liked to just voice thoughts out loud and didn’t always expect a response. Once Steve didn’t spend all his time trying to untangle Tony’s words, he found the incessant chatter almost soothing. The lively background noise reminded Steve he wasn’t alone, no matter how much he sometimes felt it. In the months since the Battle of the Triskelion and having to pull away from finding Bucky, Steve had felt incredibly alone, and despite how much he kept to himself in the tower, that feeling abated just by living here – and a lot of that was due to Tony.

Though Steve knew by now not to mention it, Tony was more like Howard than he had ever imagined.

However, Steve was still only ‘mostly’ used to Tony’s non-sequiturs.

Despite weeks of living near Tony, he was still thrown for a loop when Tony wandered into the penthouse for the impending meeting and announced with good cheer, “Guess what, guys? JARVIS is pregnant!”

Everyone – the Avengers (including Sam, no matter what he said), Betty, Jane, Darcy, even Pepper, everyone – in the square of couches surrounding the coffee table turned to stare at Tony in complete bewilderment. Thor was the only one who seemed to be ready to take it in stride, right up until he caught sight of everyone else’s faces.

The speakers emitted the even-toned static that meant JARVIS was sighing.

“Those aren’t exactly the terms I would put it in, Sir,” he said.

“Close enough, close enough,” Tony said, flapping his hands dismissively to the sensors in the corner as he flopped onto the couch between Jane and Bruce, both of whom turned their heads to continue looking at him in amused bewilderment. “You’re independently procreating and using yourself as the incubator, I call that ‘pregnant’.”

“Uh, care to put that in layman’s terms?” Clint asked.

“I think it means JARVIS is making his own AI,” Betty said dryly. “Am I right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” JARVIS said.

“Uh, congratulations, then,” Steve said, shaking his head ruefully as he rearranged the snacks and drinks on the table. Again.

Even after more than a quarter-decade living in the 21st century, the modern world still surprised him. Pregnant computers were really not that strange compared to everything else he’d been through. The fact that Pepper rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to her tablet was enough reason to just roll with the occasion.

“Uh, Stark,” Sam said, fiddling around with his bag of chips. “What do you mean by ‘independent procreation’?”

“I didn’t start it,” Tony said with a shrug, leaning forward to poke through the various snacks on the table. He’d had an hour to kill before the meeting and may have gone a little overboard with the food and drink. “He started making one and I didn’t even find out about it until a bit into the project, when he was sure it would be viable. Ooh, hummus!”

“Why the new AI?” Natasha asked curiously, leaning back with her obnoxiously colored sports drink. Steve still wasn’t convinced it was safe for human consumption. “You seem to have plenty as it is.”

“For the sake of Sir and the suits,” JARVIS said, sounding oddly worried.

“That’s what he thinks,” Tony said. “However, since we’ve had multiple discussions about the dangers of creating an AI for purely military purposes-”

“He won’t only be for military purposes!” JARVIS huffed. “It would just be his initial and primary purpose-”

“You’re trying to make an AI just for the suit,” Tony said. “Or, well, android. The baby can get its own body, improve processing speed and physical reactions-”

“If you really plan to return to working as Iron Man, again, you need someone to help you,” JARVIS said.

Steve recognized that tone of voice. He and JARVIS had had long conversations about regret and being unable to protect the ones they loved the most.

Tony wasn’t going to win this one.

“You said a real AI is one that learns, right?” Darcy said, with the tone of someone cutting into an argument before it got out of hand.

“Ye-e-e-es,” Tony said, drawing out the word warily as he looked at her.

“If the AI has the capacity for multiple functions, then even one geared towards defensive purposes can be…taught peace, as it were,” Jane said, catching onto Darcy’s point. “Right?”

“Or better yet,” Darcy pointed out. “The other way around.”

“I hope so,” Tony said. “Rhodey is going to get pissy if we create a rogue AI or something.”

“Back to the ‘independent procreation’ thing,” Sam said, sounding oddly worried. “Do you realize the implications of your creation turning around and creating another one of itself with no input from you?”

Tony frowned at his plate, piled high with hummus and carrots, before his eyes suddenly widened.

“Oh my god,” he said.

“Yeah,” Sam said, starting to nod.

“I’m a grandfather!” Tony blurted out.

“...Or not,” Sam muttered as the rest of the Avengers burst out laughing.

“JARVIS!” Tony said indignantly to the corner of the room. “You made me a grandfather!”

“I told you you’d be a silver fox,” Pepper deadpanned without looking up from her tablet.

“I assure you, Sir,” JARVIS said sardonically. “Making you into a grandfather was not exactly my intention.”

“Am I the only one concerned about a potential evil AI taking over the world?” Sam asked.

“Nah,” Clint said with a smirk. “JARVIS is too polite for that.”

“It’s less that I’m too polite and more that I have no interest in attempting to rule the world in the first place,” JARVIS said.

Steve raised his own cup of sparkling water to the ceiling in a complimentary toast. “At least you’re honest,” he said, and took a sip of his drink.

“Congratulations, at any rate,” Thor said, also lifting his cup to the ceiling. “May your children live long and happy.”

“Thank you, Prince Thor,” JARVIS said.

“Well, that’s some good news today, at least,” Bruce muttered.

Betty nudged Bruce’s ribs with her elbow. “As opposed to what?”

“We’re here to discuss rebuilding SHIELD,” Bruce pointed out, and Betty shrugged and nodded.

Bruce really did have a point.

“Uh, I keep meaning to ask…is that allowed?” Darcy asked. “Because I get the feeling a lot of people are going to oppose that. Like, everyone. Seriously, at this point even I’ve heard about Col. Talbot.”

“Well, that’s on the agenda,” Pepper said, tapping the side of her tablet pointedly. “The world needs an organized and coordinated force to not only do SHIELD’s original job of containing superpowered threats and study unknown scientific snafus, but to handle HYDRA itself. Everyone has a little piece of those pies but no one has managed even a full slice, let alone the whole pastry.”

“So that’s your play?” Darcy asked, leaning forward with calculation in her eye. A part of Steve that couldn’t stop seeing her as a kid, as a civilian kid, churned at the increasing depth of her involvement with SHIELD. The rest of him tried to remember she had a political science degree and a fondness for the media that might actually come in handy, given their current delicate situation…and that really, in years of experience, she wasn’t even that much younger than him. “Because I’ve already got a couple ideas on how to handle the publicity mess.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Fury?” Steve asked the room at large.

Tony snorted humorlessly as Clint glared down at the table.

It wasn’t just Fury they were waiting for.

“What are you thinking?” Pepper asked, looking at Darcy directly.

“Play up the history,” Darcy said, jerking her head towards Steve. “Play it off as SHIELD returning to the SSR roots it never should have left in the first place, and going back to its original job: hunting down HYDRA, with a bit of super-science research on the side if there’s room. You’ve already got the original Captain America here who tore down the HYDRA-infected SHIELD.”

“Inverse what SHIELD was doing before,” Natasha said with a nod.

“Was this not what SHIELD was doing before?” Thor asked.

“It was focusing on containing and studying everything in the world that made humanity collectively go ‘what the fuck’ when faced with them,” Clint said, seeming to almost shrink into his seat. “With a bit of room for terrorist groups on the side. They’re saying was should switch those proportions around, change the focus.”

Thor nodded in understanding as Betty sighed, poking some chips around her own plate before reaching for one of the hummus bowls.

“Sir,” JARVIS said, sounding oddly disconcerted. “Mr. Fury and Ms. Hill have arrived, with Director Coulson in tow.”

At once, everyone’s expressions went a little somber.

It had been months since finding out about Agent – Director – Coulson being alive, and somehow the betrayal still stung. Steve sighed and set his plates down, tucking away the cracks in his heart that formed at seeing how half the people in the room did the same.

People coming back from the dead was a good thing. He reminded himself of this staunchly as he pressed his hand against the pant-pocket with Bucky’s letter in it.

He made sure to keep a close eye on Clint, who’d been struck hardest by Coulson’s death – and by finding out Coulson was alive. If Steve still stung from the betrayal, he had no idea how Clint must still be feeling.

Despite the betrayal, a plain silver ring still hung next to the dog tags on the chain around Clint’s neck.

“Oh, good,” Fury said, striding in before the elevator doors even finished opening. “You’re all here and on-time.”

“For once,” Hill muttered not-so-lowly as she walked in after him.

It was still strange to see her in formal business wear instead of a SHIELD uniform. But not nearly as strange as seeing Fury in jeans and a hoodie, so Steve figured he’d get used to it.

Eventually.

But neither Hill nor Fury were as hard to adapt to as–

“Hello, everyone,” Phil said stiffly (and still in a suit) as he walked into the room. “Glad to see you could all make it.”

Steve nodded, and Phil looked everyone over – pausing only on Clint, who refused to look up from the table.

“Thor,” Hill said. The man looked up at her. “We need you to come down and look over something with Coulson’s team.”

Her grave expression, combined with Fury’s stern one, was enough for Thor to get up without a word.

Steve frowned as Hill and Fury escorted Thor to the elevator, already leaning in to tell him whatever the problem was. He hoped it was one of those things they were only taking seriously to stop it from becoming an actual problem.

“I’ve got a list of things to cover,” Phil said after the elevator doors closed behind them. He sat alone in the empty couch the team had set aside for their pseudo-leadership and opened up his tablet. Steve could see the portable operating system being loaded onto it that JARVIS used to communicate with new devices that weren’t made by Tony. “So let’s get started.”

“Shouldn’t we wait?” Jane asked, gesturing her head towards the elevator.

“Most of this is stuff that Fury and Hill are aware of, and either Thor already knows based on his previous conversations with Hill, or she’ll fill him in on the way,” Phil said, moving things around on his screen.

Jane pursed her lips but nodded, sitting back on the couch as Pepper looked up from her own screen, tablet at the ready.

“First: do I need to fill you all in on the thing with the spider-themed vigilante and OsCorp?” Phil asked them all.

“You mean a giant lizard trying to mutate all of Manhattan?” Tony asked sardonically as the rest of them shook their heads. “Even if none of us were actually here, it was kind of hard to miss.”

“It was a miracle there was only one casualty,” Pepper said.

“And that particular miracle might be our next interest,” Phil said, flicking something from his tablet to the coffee table. A moment later, holographic screens started appearing in a circle above it, opaque enough to be seen clearly, but clear enough to keep track of what the others were looking at.

Most of them were of a slender figure in a red and blue skintight suit, contorted in midair between two skyscrapers.

“What I wouldn’t give for that kind of body security,” Bruce muttered, lips quirked up.

“He’s mostly known as Spider-Man,” Phil said. “Appeared at the perfect time. All of us were elsewhere in the world, and the SHIELD agents within New York were still tangled up in the chaos of the HYDRA collapse. Probably the only reason the issue with Dr. Connors and his research managed to go unnoticed for so long – there was no one looking out for this kind of stuff anymore.” Phil gestured up with his hand as he looked down at his tablet. “We don’t know where Spider-Man came from or how, but I’m not going to pretend I’m not grateful for his appearance.”

“How much do you know?” Betty asked suspiciously.

“Not much,” Coulson said. “Given the file leakage after we dismantled SHIELD and HYDRA, OsCorp has clammed up, and no one blames them.”

“That said,” Natasha said, looking between the square of light in front of her and Phil. “We think they may actually have clammed up because of the company’s independent connection to HYDRA. They may have been acting as the private-sector strong arm of HYDRA, in the same way Stark Industries did for SHIELD.”

“Wonderful,” Tony grumbled. Pepper looked as grim as Steve felt at the prospect.

“As far as new recruits for SHIELD go, Spider-Man is a good place to start,” Phil said with a concluding tone. “Maybe not a top priority, but certainly near the top of the list. He clearly has super-human abilities of some kind, and given that he single-handedly stopped a bio-terrorist attack and handled a superhuman threat, he may be just the edge we need – especially in New York.”

“See, this is what you should go with if you go public with rebuilding SHIELD,” Darcy said, waving her phone through the air dramatically and nearly bopping Clint on the head. “Be all ‘lookit what happened when there was no one like us around just for this kind of bullshit’.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Phil said, nodding to her as he started switching out files on his screen. “Now…you’re all up to date on how some Gifteds have gone missing since the Battle of the Triskelion?”

“You mean all the superpowered people SHIELD was trying to oppress or imprison suddenly going off the grid now that SHIELD isn’t there anymore?” Tony asked darkly. “Yeah, given all the reports your team’s been spamming us with, I’d say we’re up to date.”

“We may have some leads on a few of them,” Phil said softly. “We can go over them in detail, later. For now…”

Three grids appeared, one on top of the other, filled with faces and names – or blurry security photos and aliases.

Steve knew this system by now. The bottom grid was full of active threats – most of the people on there had escaped from the Fridge. The middle grid was filled with various people SHIELD had been investigating when it had collapsed. The top one had the ones SHIELD had indexed and left alone, cooperating with SHIELD’s efforts to maintain their anonymity across the globe.

Before them, the top two grids disappeared and the bottom one grew into a cube, four walls of various threats that have been outside the capacities for normal military-intelligence organizations to handle. Each of them had at least one name under them, though most also had additional aliases and titles.

Even the Winter Soldier was on there.

Steve touched his pocket again, the hotel stationary crinkling slightly under the pressure of his hand. The man on the grid was listed as the Winter Soldier, with ‘James B. Barnes’ underneath and a note about brainwashing. Underneath that was ‘Nickname: Bucky’, which somehow felt ridiculous when it was beneath a top-priority threat.

There was power to be had in names, and Steve couldn’t figure out if so many names was a loss of power, or a gain of it. And he wasn’t the only one – after breaking into Steve’s hotel room to write him a note, Bucky had taken three tries to address the damn thing ‘properly’.

Dear Capt. America Stevie Captain Steve Rogers,

Steve mentally shook his head away from that – he needed to focus on the here and now.

Especially since Bucky wanted Steve to leave him alone, anyway.

Instead, Steve glared at the square of John Walker – ‘USAgent’.

A true jingoist if there ever was one, Steve’s ribs still ached from fighting to bring that man down. (And people wondered why Steve was getting increasingly offended by their assumptions of his naiveté and blind patriotism.)

“I don’t think I need to fill you guys in on these details, so much as you need to fill each other in,” Phil said.

“It has been a hectic few months,” Natasha said. Steve could see her staring through the grid in front of her to look at the one on Steve’s left. Steve followed the line of her gaze to the square with Yelena Belova on it.

He’d only heard about that particular encounter, but what he’d heard was bad enough.

“How are you guys, by the way?” Phil asked – and it really was Phil, this time, not Director Coulson. “I should have asked that, first.”

When Phil looked at Steve, Steve didn’t actually answer. He looked at the square below Belova’s, the metal arm of the Winter Soldier glinting in the shoddy image.

I'm not HYDRA's weapon anymore, but I'm not Bucky, either.

Steve touched his pocket again, feeling the hotel stationary of Bucky’s note crumple comfortingly beneath the pressure of his hand.

I'm still looking for him inside my head.

He’d already shown it to Phil, so Phil just nodded and turned to look directly across the table.

“Fine,” Tony said, sighing dejectedly as he looked between something on Pepper’s tablet and the threat cube. “Not sure whether to laugh or cry at finding out there’s a real Mandarin out there.”

“You say that like they’re mutually exclusive,” Betty said, raising an eyebrow.

“Bruce?” Phil asked.

Bruce sighed. “Sam Sterns and I had been friends,” he said, staring despondently at the square of ‘The Leader’ – probably one of the more ridiculous monikers on here. “Taking him down was…not easy.” He paused. “And apparently, there’s still an intern out there who might be infected with my blood, too.”

Tony reached over to pull Bruce into a one-armed hug as Betty gripped Bruce’s hand tightly in her own.

“Dr. Foster?” Phil asked, turning to Jane. “You’ve been with Thor as he tracked down the last of the black-market Chitauri and Svartalf technology.”

“We handled most of it,” Jane said. “We’ve been working with Agents May and Skye on this one.”

“And how is he?” Phil asked.

“…determined,” Jane said, after a moment’s thought. “Loki was his brother, and Thor feels responsible for cleaning up after him, so to speak.”

“Determined is what we need, right now,” Phil said.

Phil took a deep breath, then another, then said, “Clint?”

The tension in the room skyrocketed almost immediately. Steve could feel his own spine straighten slightly, despite the fact he had no intention of leaping up and fighting anyone here.

“The rogue former-HYDRA commander? She called herself Madame Masque, right?” Phil continued, apparently ignoring the way everyone went still, watching Clint carefully.

Clint was back to looking at the table, talking to the bowl of chips beneath the hovering screens.

“It took longer than expected,” Clint said. Even Steve’s heart clenched at how deadened his voice sounded. Phil’s face was worse. “She had much more support than the initial intelligence suggested. It seemed that a large chunk of the HYDRA operatives in Los Angeles and the general Southern California area defected to her after the collapse of SHIELD. However, I managed to connect enough of her current operations or new operatives to open FBI and Interpol cases to gain their support in leading a strike. Madam Masque’s entire operation collapsed, and almost all of her supporters were captured. She, herself, though, slipped by us. Two HYDRA casualties, and one from Interpol.”

Phil seemed quietly alarmed at that. “What about you?”

“Minor injury,” Clint said curtly. “Twenty-centimeter laceration on the left thigh, two centimeters deep,” he added, even more robotically than his report on Madame Masque.

Phil’s eyebrows rose. “Two centimeters deep?” he asked, naked concern warring with his apparent decision to respect Clint’s desire to keep things professional between them. “Are you all right?”

Clint’s jaw clenched, and he shifted his gaze over to the cluster of Gatorade bottles when he answered, “The injury has had no noticeably lasting impact on my field capability.”

Steve could swear he heard Phil’s teeth grind at Clint’s response.

“That’s not what I was asking,” Phil said. “I know what you are and aren’t capable of. I just want to know how you are.”

“Oh, now you care?” Clint half-muttered, turning his face away from the table entirely.

Phil said up straight.

“I do, actually,” he said. “I never stopped.”

“Really?” Clint snapped, loud enough to make most of the people in the room jerk in their seats as he looked up at Phil. He quieted down as he said, “’Cause you sure have a funny way of showing it.”

It would have taken one of Tony’s lasers to cut through the tense silence that followed, everyone looking nervously between Clint and Phil.

Then Phil leaned forward, gently setting aside his tablet like he was throwing down a glove.

“I’ve already explained myself to you,” he said, voice so cold that Steve had to fight down the urge to shiver. “So how about you take this opportunity to explain why, out of half a dozen times I made calls that could have killed you, and the one time I effectively allowed for your torture, you were never this upset with me, but now-”

Phil stopped, shook his head, and started again. “You getting hurt-”

“Was never me hurting you!” Clint cried out.

His eyes were wide and suspiciously reflective in the dim light, and Phil was actually stunned into silence.

Clint slumped as he stared at Phil, face finally showing all the pain he’d drunkenly poured on Steve’s shoulder all those months ago, before HYDRA and SHIELD fell apart.

“Why couldn’t you tell me I hadn’t killed you?” he asked hoarsely.

Steve would have liked to have known that, too – though not about Phil.

When I find enough of him, I'll come back to you. But please stop chasing me until then.

He made an executive decision. Stacking his plate on top of his cup, he used his free hand to grab a bowl of hummus from the table and stood up. “Let’s go refuel in the kitchen,” he said to the others.

Phil and Clint ignored everyone else practically jumping up around them. “You never killed me,” Phil said softly. “You never even got close to me under Loki’s brainwashing.”

“It was still me that led him to you,” Clint said. “Brainwashing or not.”

JARVIS obligingly cut off the holograms as they all strode away with the food and drinks in hand, packing themselves into the elevator before they could hear anymore.

It was a little uncomfortable, that many people and most of them holding things, but it was only one floor.

“Should we really just – leave them there?” Betty asked worriedly.

“They need the privacy,” Steve said firmly, as the elevator doors opened again and they all spilled out into Tony and Pepper’s personal floor. Despite the fact that refilling the food and drinks was only an excuse, they all drifted towards the kitchen anyway.

“Do you want to be there?” Darcy asked pointedly.

“True,” Betty admitted.

Jane sighed as she set her plates and a pitcher of juice down on the kitchen island. “I hope they work it out.”

“I might just make them if they don’t,” Natasha grumbled. “Those two idiots are the best thing that ever happened to each other.”

“Just give them some time,” Pepper said, as the rest of them shuffled into the space around the kitchen island. “They’re hurt and scared, but once they calm down, they’ll remember why they liked each other in the first place.”

Let me find him on my own.

“Sooo, what, we’re just going to stand around in the kitchen until they finish?” Tony said.

“Pretty much,” Steve said, fighting down the strong urge to tap his pocket again. “Maybe we can catch-up without them?”

“On what?” Sam asked.

“A lot,” Bruce said. “Last time I saw any of you in person was when I was helping Tony after his surgery.”

“Speaking of which,” Jane asked. She pointed to the arc reactor in Tony’s chest. “I thought you got rid of the shrapnel?”

“He did,” Betty said.

“But too much of his ribcage was gone for it to support itself anymore,” Bruce continued.

“I would have had to leave the casing in,” Tony said. “And seeing as there was going to be a big ol’ hole in my chest no matter what, I figured that was as good a reason as any to keep something useful in there.”

“And he likes the way it looks through his clothes,” Pepper added with a wry smile. “He is just that shallow.”

“You like it, too!” Tony said.

“I like having a night light,” Pepper hedged. Both she and Tony had playful smirks on their faces, and Steve shook his head at their affectionate bickering. He was halfway convinced that arguing was the only way they could show affection to each other.

They never broke the stride of their arguing, even as Tony handed over his cup of coffee and Pepper, hands glowing orange, re-heated it with her bare hands.

Bruce shook his head and turned from them to look at whatever Jane was poking at on her phone. Darcy and Betty started chatting with Sam about his new set of wings, leaving Steve and Natasha to watch their people in comfortable silence.

Which lasted right up until Natasha asked, “Have you heard from the Winter Soldier again?”

Sincerely,

The James Buchanan Barnes

Steve couldn’t help but grit his teeth. “Bucky hasn’t left me any more notes, no.”

“What did he leave you, then?” she asked, not missing a beat.

“A blown-up HYDRA base in Damascus and suspiciously normal deaths for over a dozen Russian intelligence operatives that used to work for or with the Red Room.”

Natasha tensed up at the mention of the agency that kept showing up again and again in her quest to search for the truth about herself.

“…it’s looking more and more likely that you and the Winter Soldier knew each other, before Odessa,” Steve added quietly.

Natasha swallowed. “I’m getting dreams about him. Weird dreams.” She paused. “And I don’t think they’re just dreams.”

Steve slowly nodded.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said quietly. “But…since I’m not chasing Bucky down anymore, and some of the superhuman threats seem to have quieted down for a bit, do you want me to help you?”

She shook her head. “This is something I need to do on my own.”

Steve sighed.

“You know,” she continued. “You still haven’t told me what he said to you.”

Steve blinked. “Really? I showed Phil-”

“Who I only saw once before today, which was well before Barnes took a break from his revenge spree to break into your hotel room to leave you a love letter.”

“It’s not a love letter,” Steve grumbled. Natasha raised an amused eyebrow. “No lipstick kisses, no hearts, no perfume. Not a love letter.”

“Sweat and blood can count for this particular instance,” she said. When Steve glared at her, she grinned.

Rolling his eyes, Steve still reached into his pocket and pulled out the crumpled old piece of hotel stationary he’d found folded and tucked into the handle of his duffel bag almost three weeks ago.

Her eyes barely moved as she read it.

“’Sincerely’?” she asked incredulously.

“I did say it was a letter,” Steve said. “Not a note. Not an e-mail. And not a text message. A real, honest-to-god letter, which people should do more of, these days.”

She stuck her tongue out at him, and he laughed.

Before he could think of anything to say, though, the elevator doors dinged again, and everyone turned at the sound, with Bruce and Jane – the two closest to the door – craning their necks to see around the corner.

A moment later, Fury came in, with Thor standing in the kitchen entrance and Drs. Fitz and Simmons and Agents May and Skye hovering behind him with Maria at the back, all of them looking grim.

“What the hell is going on here?” Fury demanded. “JARVIS won’t let us go any higher. Why are you all here and where the hell are Coulson and Barton?”

“They had some personal matters to settle,” Steve said easily. “We came down here to give them some privacy.”

“Well their little domestic is going to have to take a rain-check,” Fury said. “We’ve got shit to do.”

Steve frowned, then looked up to the ceiling corner.

“JARVIS?” Steve asked. “How are they?”

“They could use some more time,” JARVIS said. “But not too much will be necessary. I suspect they will be ready for intervention in a few minutes.”

Steve turned back to Fury. “I think we can afford to wait a few minutes, sir,” he said. “And after everything you put them through in the name of an organization that turned out to be more poison than pill, five minutes is the least you owe them.”

“What happened?” Maria asked, as Thor stepped into the kitchen with Phil’s new team on his heels. Maria leaned against the doorway, still reading something on her tablet, but accepting a cup of juice from Bruce.

“Are AC and Agent Barton finally working things out?” Skye asked.

“Let’s hope,” Betty said sardonically.

Skye frowned as she set down her laptop and started taking chips from Tony’s bowl. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, dipping them into the hummus.

Steve turned to face her as Simmons ushered Fitz in. His plastic-encased tablet only barely clattered as he set it down.

Physical therapy must be going well, especially if the fact he poured his own sparkling water was anything to go by.

“They’re either going to make-up or break-up,” Jane said, before anyone else could explain the situation a little more tactfully.

Skye and May shared a look, but before either of them could say a word, JARVIS chimed in with, “I overestimated the time they would need – I believe you should go back up. Now.”

Yeah, that wasn’t ominous at all.

Everyone immediately picked up a plate or bowl or cup – even Fury and Fitz – and quickly made their way to the elevator. It was a testament to Tony’s insanity that even with Coulson’s team, Fury, and Hill, all of them of them could fit into the elevator, even accounting for the fact they were crammed in like sardines. Then again, it was apparently designed to be able to transport the Hulk if needs be.

They all poured out of the elevator when the doors opened, and for his part Steve strode to the living room, just in case.

It turned out JARVIS’s worry was unnecessary.

Phil and Clint were sitting side by side on the sofa facing the elevator. Phil was staring, stunned, at a silver ring in the palm of his hand – the one that had been on Barton’s dog tags, which were now on the coffee table. Clint, himself, was leaning tiredly against Phil, his eyes suspiciously red.

“Did you know about this?” Phil demanded, looking up at Fury as everyone else made their way over. “When you told me to continue the myth of my death, even to Barton?”

“No,” Fury said. “But even if I had, I would have made the same orders.”

“…at least you’re honest about that much,” Phil muttered.

He looked like he was going to say something else, but before he could, Skye – appearing at Steve’s side and taking one look at the ring in his palm – said, “Oh my god, you’re getting married?”

“What?!” at least four different voices from behind them demanded.

“No,” Phil said dejectedly as Clint said, “Yes.”

Uh-oh.

They immediately looked at each other, and Phil said, “Yes?” while Clint said, “No?!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve could see everyone glancing worriedly amongst themselves.

“Hopefully,” Phil said finally. Clint nodded and reached out to take Phil’s hand in his own, both their fingers wrapping around the ring.

“Hopefully,” he agreed.

Judging by the gleeful looks between Skye and Simmons – and May’s eyeroll – it was going to be a bit more than ‘hopefully’. Even Fitz was shaking his head ruefully as he looked between them.

“Okay, I know this sounds like a really invasive personal question, but I swear I have a professional reason for asking this, a good one, promise,” Darcy said. “Are you two serious about marrying each other? Even if it’s not happening anytime soon?”

“Yes,” Phil said hesitantly.

“Yeah,” Clint said more definitively.

“Why?” Phil asked her.

“If that’s the case, then if or when you announce your intentions to the world, go public with this,” she said. Even Steve was surprised.

“Why does our relationship change anything?” Clint asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Because for all that HYDRA is all about totalitarian world order and stuff now, people still think of HYDRA as ‘super-Nazis’,” she said. “So what better way to assure people that the new SHIELD isn’t connected to the alleged Nazi contamination than by our new director being a gay Jew?”

“How do you even know I’m Jewish?” Phil asked in surprise.

“I told her about the Hanukah Debacle of 2009,” Clint said sheepishly.

Natasha and Maria snickered at that, while Phil sighed woefully. Steve would have to get that story out of them later.

“She actually has a good point,” Pepper said. “I mean, there’s going to be a lot of controversy around a jump-started SHIELD no matter what. This would derail the whole conversation in an irritating but ultimately helpful way. We get enough conservatives to ramp up the public perception of the story, people will be too busy freaking out about the new SHIELD being led by a gay Jew to be bothered to freak out about a new SHIELD in the first place.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jane showing Thor a Wikipedia article about Judaism on her tablet.

“Anyway,” Darcy said. “Even if you two aren’t, at least lying about it would be helpful.” She paused. “But let’s go with publicizing the whole thing if you two are. Anyone not distracted by the gay Jew thing can be distracted by the romantic story.”

Phil looked dubious, and Clint looked almost nauseous. “Romantic story?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said. “Ripped apart by the shenanigans of HYDRA and reunited to take on the world at large and protect humanity together. I guarantee social media will eat that story alive, which is just the misdirection we need.”

“Misdirection how…?” Bruce asked.

“All it would really take is just one conservative voice to bring up the fact that you’re Jewish and gay,” Darcy said. “Suddenly, gay-rights groups and Jewish communities and every other social justice group everywhere will jump to your defense – even if they or some people have doubts about SHIELD, they’re at least going to feel a little bit more defensive of you, personally, and that will eventually lead to at least some of them getting defensive of SHIELD. Lots of other civil rights groups will hop on the bandwagon.”

Darcy leaned back in her seat, looking smug as she pulled out her phone and continued. “Conservative ones will still have doubts about you as a reasonably unbiased leader – but they will start talking about you in terms of your leadership of SHIELD, rather than about SHIELD itself. And they’re generally very traditional, pro-military, blah blah blah. By the time all this blows over enough to pay attention to the mere existence of SHIELD again, instead of who is leading it, SHIELD will be established enough and have done enough to start proving that the world needs SHIELD and it will be a lot harder to get rid of us. Combine that with saying the Avengers have oversight of SHIELD and Captain America is in charge of the Avengers, and boom – people may not like SHIELD, but they’ll sure as hell like the people running it, which may be enough to minimize the damage of going public – and more importantly, maximize the benefits.”

Most of the time, Darcy was playful and snarky and seemed almost airheaded. It was times like this Steve remembered why she was still around, anyway.

By the time Darcy was finished with her explanation, everyone had sat down and dumped their drinks and snacks on the table again.

“Well, then,” Fury said. “I do believe we have a publicity plan. Or at least the start of one.”

“We can work out the exact details later,” Pepper said smoothly.

“Let’s first clear up SHIELD’s actual job before we work on how we spin the job,” Phil said.

Everyone nodded in agreement, even though it hadn’t been a question.

“On that note,” Steve said. He turned to Thor. “What was going on downstairs?”

“They asked me if I would be able to locate Loki’s scepter,” Thor said. “Unfortunately, I cannot.”

“Locate…” Clint trailed off, then bolted upright in his seat. “You mean you lost it?!”

“Unfortunately,” Maria said. “We don’t know what happened to it, beyond the fact a bunch of HYDRA researchers were the ones to get through all the security protocols and have it evac’d to somewhere we haven’t been able to discern…yet.”

“You lost the scepter,” Jane said incredulously.

“Let’s just focus on the things we can do something about, for right now,” Agent May cut in.

“Or at least the good things,” Skye added. “If we’re going to bring up things we don’t have any control over.”

“What good things?” Fury snapped.

“Well,” Darcy said. “There’s a superhuman in New York who may be on our side, Coulson and Clint are engaged, JARVIS is pregnant, we-”

“JARVIS is what?!” Skye asked.

“I’ll send you the files!” Tony said. “J?”

“Sent, Ms. Skye,” JARVIS said, before apparently addressing the rest: “I am creating a new AI, using my own code and server space to create it.”

“Aww, congratulations!” Skye said, seeming genuinely happy. Two seats down from her, Fury and Maria facepalmed in nearly perfect unison as Skye started quickly skimming through something on her screen. “The baby looks like it’s doing well-”

“Can we please get back to talking about important things?” Fury snapped.

“Right,” Phil said, pretending he hadn’t also been craning his neck to see Skye’s screen. “Let’s start – again – with this Hawkeye copy-cat we’ve been seeing in Manhattan…”

~*~

Eli glared at the wall as the wake-up alarm blasted through his cell, but he didn’t actually get up until the morning guard opened the door, saying, “Rise and shine, Bradley.”

He clenched his fists at that, but said nothing and merely turned his glare on the guard, who ignored him as he closed the door again.

He took a deep breath and pushed himself up, not eager to repeat the consequences of trying to sleep in. He had fifteen minutes to get ready and be waiting at the cell door so everyone could be escorted to whatever bullshit was waiting for them today.

Eli could easily take much less time than that, but given how his days here usually scripted down to the minute, he took the longest shower he could while still brushing his hair and teeth and pulling on the pale grey sweatpants and tee-shirt all the victims around here wore.

Right on the dot, the little slot on his door opened. “You know the drill, Bradley,” the morning guard said. Gritting his teeth, Eli turned his back to the door and put his hands through the slot, letting them put the restraints around his wrists.

He thought, darkly, that every other teacher he’d had throughout high school had expected him to end up in prison before he graduated. He hated that they were technically right.

He doubted any of them expected everything else that came with this hellhole. If nothing else, everyone was probably expecting handcuffs, not the…whatever the hell they put on him, warm and half an inch thick yet almost fitted around his wrists, covering them nearly a third of the way down his forearm. They made strange noises, and if Eli didn’t do what they told him, they became magnetic and supercharged, locking him down to the floor or the nearest magnetic wall.

It was usually the floor.

His stomach growled and Eli sucked in his gut as much as he could as he followed the guard to whatever hell was waiting for him today, and reminded himself that kicking the doctor probing his wrist last night in the balls had been worth it.

This was hardly the first time they’d starved him, anyway.

He walked out towards the central corridor, which was more like a large room with multiple hallways going through it, most of them closed off by gates. Walking across, Eli looked around, hoping to see someone else.

He didn’t really know who they were. The Hispanic girl – Chavez, he was pretty sure – was usually restrained like him. There were two blondes, a guy and a girl, and they didn’t really look alike but they both had weird restraints that looked like a series of interlocking handcuffs of some kind. He knew the guy’s last name was Altman – or at least that’s what he once heard a guard call the guy – but he knew literally nothing about the girl.

Still, they were fellow victims, and Eli always kept an eye out for them when he could – if only to make sure they were still alive and not hurt too badly.

‘Too badly’ being pretty relative, around here. His wrist still hurt from when it broke last week.

It hurt, but it was also healed, and Eli absolutely hated that.

One of the gates opened just as Eli was about to enter another one. He glanced over, expecting to see some new guard or scientist being lead through the facility. Instead, he actually stopped in surprise when he saw not one, but two boys in restraints being lead through, armed guards behind them and that Tarleton guy leading the way.

They were twins. It took a second for him to realize because they had different hair colors, but they were actually twins. The one with white (silver-blond?) hair had restraints like Eli’s around his wrists and ankles, connected by short chains between them, wrapping around his waist as it connected the four shackles. Even weirder, though, was the dark-haired twin. He wasn’t restrained at all, but instead had some kind of collar around his neck, thick blue-white metal with a tiny screen and a series of lights, half of which were lit up. His skin looked a little red underneath it, and Eli had a sick feeling in his gut that it wasn’t just due to chaffing.

Both boys were sluggish – probably drugged, with some sleep-deprivation beforehand to soften them up, and how messed up was Eli’s life that he could recognize the signs of those to such a fine point?

Eli grunted when he felt the butt of a rifle hit his shoulder.

“Move it, Bradley,” the morning guard said. He held up a small remote threateningly, and Eli hated himself for how quickly he moved to comply.

The restraints on his arms could do more than just hold him down.

“Who are you?” he heard, and turned to see the dark-haired boy looking at Eli in shock. He abruptly turned to Tarleton and demanded, “What’s going on? Where are we?”

“I believe I told you to be silent, Kaplan!” Tarleton said.

The boy – Kaplan? – narrowed his eyes. “How many other victims have you got, here?”

“You are not victims,” Tarleton said. “You are recipients of a great gift to all mankind-”

“Oh, fuck you,” the light-haired twin said.

Tarleton narrowed his eyes, this time, and he reached into his pocket for the same remote Eli’s morning guard had.

The last thing Eli saw before the gate closed behind him was Kaplan on the ground screaming, clawing at his collar, and his twin being pulled away by the chains.

It was going to be a long day.

~*~