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Resurrection, Reconstruction & Redemption

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The warehouse was dark, lit only by the dim, flickering glow of black candles. There were thirteen of them, and they were no doubt made from the rendered fat of Latverian babies and the tears of virgins; the wax was very soft, and most of the candles were slightly misshapen.

The candles were set in a circle around an intricate array of magical symbols, drawn on the cement floor in purple chalk. There was incense swirling in the air, almost chokingly thick, so that the body lying in the center of the circle was difficult to see through the haze; unsurprisingly, the incense was patchouli.

Doom, Doctor Strange reflected, had always run to clichés. Clichés, and sloppy work. He had not even bothered to walk the warehouse’s boundaries before beginning the preparations for his ritual -- had he done so, he would certainly have discovered Strange’s hiding place in the shadows.

An ex-army surgeon he had worked with during his first year of residency had once told him that soldiers in Vietnam had used patchouli to mask the odor of dead bodies. He claimed that it hadn't worked, and time had not improved its effectiveness.

In the far corner, a dead man was hanging from a meat hook, his naked body visible in the dimness only because of its extreme pallor. Blood from his severed throat was dripping sluggishly into a pan set beneath him.

A familiar voice echoed through the cavernous room; "You're certain we have the correct body, Skull?"

Red Skull stepped forward into the circle of candle light. Still half in shadow, his face looked even more cadaverous than the body on the floor. "Yes, Victor," he said evenly. "I am certain." His face moved oddly when he spoke, stiff and almost mask-like, but Strange could sense the residue of the cosmic cube clinging to him. It was as much a proof of identity as the skeletal face. "I of all men would know him. Will this ritual of yours take much longer?"

"Be satisfied that I am not using the spell which calls for the heart's blood of an enemy." Victor Von Doom made a dismissive gesture and turned away from Red Skull, tattered cloak swirling about him, and strode towards the very edge of the chalk design, metal boots ringing on the concrete.

His back to Red Skull, he began to walk in a slow circle around the outside edge of the ring of candles, chanting in a low voice. The words were a mixture of Latin, Greek, and High Medieval Latverian, an archaic form of his native tongue, with its old Magyar bones still detectable inside Slavic flesh.

The words were familiar, similar to the beginning of the spell Doom was so fond of using to raise up zombies, but subtly different in places, and the power he was raising far exceeded that necessary to animate a corpse.

The circle walked, Doom stepped away from the candles and bent to open the lid of a wooden crate set to one side of the circle. A black cockerel exploded out in a flurry of feathers and spurs, and Doom grabbed it out of the air, its spur striking uselessly against his metal gauntlets. He raised the struggling bird high over his head for a moment, still chanting, and then snapped its neck with one hand.

The effect was immediate; the temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees, an illusory effect of the magic powers being deployed, and the air became heavy with ozone as a gateway opened itself invisibly over the circle. Beyond it, the Dark Powers waited, cold and patient and hungry for anything Doom might care to feed them.

Now was probably the appropriate place to intervene, but curiosity had always been one of his besetting sins. There was a chance, after all, that Doom's spell might actually succeed, in which case some good might still come of this, Dark Powers or no.

With a theatrical flourish, Doom produced a stone-handled knife from one sleeve and gestured imperiously at the goat tethered to one of the warehouse's support posts. Red Skull glared, but obediently untied the tether line and began hauling the animal over to the circle, ignoring its attempts to plant it hooves and balk.

The cockerel had opened the gateway. The goat, once sacrificed, would restore the body. Neither was unusual in traditional, zombie-focused necromancy. The blood of the dead man was what would make the difference.

The dead could not return to the world of the living without the shedding of human blood. It was one of the truths about the unseen world that the ancients had gotten right.

The goat went kicking and bleating to its death, and the temperature made another perceptible drop. Slowly, like a time-lapse film of decay run in reverse, the corpse in the circle began to reform. Skin faded from grey, to white, and back to healthy flesh. The familiar Y-incision of a medical autopsy vanished. Bloodless wounds closed up as if they had never been. The smell of rot that the incense had not been able to obscure vanished.

"Now the blood," Doom announced, pausing in his chant and switching back to English. "Add three drops of your own blood to the basin and pour it over the body." Regardless of Doom's assertion earlier, it  was  a variant of the ritual making use of the life's blood of an enemy; the three drops of Red Skull's blood would permit Doom to use the dead sacrificial victim's blood as a symbolic stand-in for his ally's.

He waited until Red Skull had the basin ready in his hands before he added casually, "And don't set foot inside the circle or spill any blood on yourself in the process. I don't fancy spending the time and power necessary to cure you of possession. The soul seeks out its own flesh, but will settle for the closest living body if forced to."

Red Skull glowered at him, but held the basin gingerly away from his body, leaning over the chalk circle with exaggerated care; apparently, playing with the Cosmic Cube had taught him a thing or two about the dangers of possession.

Doom began chanting again, and Red Skull tipped the basin, carefully pouring out the blood. As it fell, it turned into a swirling red mist that absorbed into the body without a trace; looked at from certain angles, there were shifting eldritch shapes almost visible in it.

The man on the floor began to twitch convulsively, and started to cough, probably from the thick cloud of incense in the air. He managed to choke out a single word between gasping breathes. "Sharon," he said, staring about wildly.

It was not precisely the result he had anticipated--he had expected to step in to perform some sort of dispersal when Doom’s meddling accidentally called up one of the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions--but now there was absolutely no question of permitting him to perform the remainder of the ceremony. Now it was time to intervene.

Doctor Strange stepped forward out of the shadows, where he had been concealed since before the ritual had begun, and said, "You have called upon forces beyond even your control, Victor Von Doom. These magics are too deep for you."

Doom turned on him with a snarl. Beneath his mask, his lips were doubtlessly twisted into an unpleasant sneer. If he still had lips. "Moralizing fool, do you know what your interference has cost me?"

Strange folded his arms across his chest, and strode over to where the newly-revived man lay. "Yes," he informed Doom, "but I do not think that you do." He leant down and gently touched the man on the forehead, and said, "Sleep."

With that, and a single, subtle flare of magic, Doctor Strange teleported them away.






He remembered the ambulance, and Sharon stroking his hair and telling comforting lies, promising that everything was going to be all right; lies, because her voice was far off and muffled, and he couldn't see her--or anything else--anymore.

It was like floating and falling at the same time, and then he hit the ground hard and opened his eyes to light that was too bright and air that was too thick -- smoke that smelled like dead things and someone shouting, voice loud and garbled.

And then everything faded out again.

Waking up the second time was different, slower, like floating up through water ('good painkillers,' a voice in the back of his head suggested). The smoke was gone -- had he imagined it? -- and the eye-searing light had faded to a soft, golden glow.

The ceiling was old-fashioned molded plaster, with bas-relief grape leaves and clusters of tiny, white grapes in the corners. Not St. Vincent’s. Not the Helicarrier. Steve blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, the grape leaves had shifted slightly, as if they were real, and rustling in the wind.

Really good painkillers. Painkillers weren't supposed to work on him that well.

Where had Sharon gone?

Someone was still talking, some kind of low, even chant. Steve rolled his head sideways -- hard floor underneath him, why was he lying on the floor? -- and found himself staring at Doctor Strange, sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away from him, and surrounded by fat, white candles.

"Weren't the candles black before?"

He didn’t think he’d said that last part aloud, but he must have, because Strange answered him. "I've always found black candles a touch too melodramatic for my tastes," he said, leaning over and giving Steve a smile that was more mysterious than reassuring.

Steve blinked, trying to process that; his brain didn't seem to be working very well at the moment. He'd definitely never had painkillers that were this effective. "What the hell is going on?" he asked.

"Victor Von Doom brought you back from the dead," Strange told him, leaning back so that Steve couldn't see his face anymore, voice unreadable.

Back from the dead... God. "How long?" Steve asked. How much had he missed this time?

Strange leaned back over him, face visible once more and revealing faint confusion. "What?"

"How many years has it been?" Steve asked, keeping his voice even.

"Approximately six weeks," Strange said. He looked bemused now, or maybe faintly amused at Steve’s expense.

Steve didn’t really care. Only six weeks. He closed his eyes for a moment. Six weeks; only a little over a month. That wasn't anywhere near as long as it could have been.

Wait, had Strange said that Victor Von  Doom  had brought him back from the dead? Zombie army Doom?

"So, is this good or bad?" he asked after a long moment.

"Well," Strange said, voice thoughtful, "as Doom is nowhere near as skillful a practitioner of the dark arts as he imagines himself to be, it could have been a very bad thing indeed. I, however, am a very skilled sorcerer, so now I imagine that whether it is good or bad is up to you."

Steve nodded slowly, and closed his eyes again, trying to summon his thoughts.

He woke again some time later, without having realized that he had fallen asleep.

He must have, though, because he was no longer lying on the floor. Someone had moved him to a couch, and most of the candles were gone.

It wasn't a very comfortable couch -- one of those severe Victorian ones, covered in faded red velvet, and designed mostly for looks -- but it was an improvement over before.

He was dressed now, which was also an improvement, although he didn't recognize the clothes.

His mind was clearer than it had been before, but he still felt oddly disconnected; his body was numb. But he couldn't work up the energy to worry about that much at the moment.

He glanced around the room, trying to get his bearings. The rest of the room matched the sofa; there was a lot solid mahogany furniture covered in ornate carvings, heavy brocade drapes, and a thick Persian rug on the floor. The walls were lined with high bookshelves filled with thick books and a scattering of odd-looking artifacts.

Even if he hadn't been fairly certain who had brought him here, Steve was pretty sure that he still would have been able to guess.

"Doctor Strange?" he said.

Stephen Strange appeared, wearing the serene smile he often favored. "Ah, you're awake again. You know, sleep spells usually take quite a bit longer to wear off."

"Oh. Um. I can't really feel my body," Steve said; he was aware of the rough texture of the faded velvet beneath his fingers, but it was distant, as if he had been anesthetized.

"That's side-effect of the spell; it will wear off in a little while," Doctor Strange said. He paused, tipping his head to one side thoughtfully. "You know, it was quite a nuisance trying to get clothes for you without letting anyone know that you were here."

"You haven't told anyone I'm back yet? Is there a reason no one can know?" Steve asked. If there were something wrong, he felt that he deserved to know about it.

Doctor Strange gave him the same mysterious and distinctly unreassuring smile that he had before. "Well, I didn't want to let on until I was quite sure that I had fixed Doom's spell properly."

"Fixed Doom's spell? What was wrong with it? What was he planning to do with me?" He didn't really want to think of what Doom’s plans for him might have been.

"Many things, I'm sure, but he didn't have the chance to get to any of that. Rather, I 'fixed' the spell like one fixes a negative; I simply made sure that his rather shoddy spell work wouldn't unravel, that you were back for good. You can see why I felt it would be best to wait until I was certain to say anything to the others." Strange said, making a descriptive gesture with one hand.

That made sense; it would have been unfair to say something earlier, if there was any uncertainty. "So no one else knows I'm back yet?" he asked.

"I thought we'd leave that for later," Strange said. "When all of the spells’ side-effects have worn off, and you're ready to deal with everyone. For the moment though, you might as well get some rest."

Steve nodded. This time, he felt himself falling asleep, but didn't bother to fight it.

 




When Steve woke for the third time, he actually felt like himself.

The drapes were open, and mid-morning sunlight was streaming in, making the room seem almost cheerful.

He blinked, then sat up carefully, stretching. His body was stiff with disuse, but at least everything seemed to be working properly now.

Working properly... God. He had been dead. Not just in suspended animation, actually dead. For over a month. And now he was fine, nothing but a few stiff muscles from Strange's uncomfortable couch. He felt at the side of his neck, pulled up the hem of his borrowed t-shirt and stared at his torso; there weren't even any scars. Surely dying ought to leave a scar.

Should he even ask Strange how Doom had brought him back, or would he be happier not knowing?

He suspected the latter.

He felt perfectly fine when he stood up, not light-headed at all, despite the fact that most of his most recent memories involved bleeding to death. Strange's carpet was soft under his bare feet, the pile so thick his toes sank into it.

It felt almost odd to wear civilian clothes again, especially the slightly-too-big ones Strange had found for him (where, exactly? There weren't many men even in the superhero community who were both taller than him and broader through the shoulders). He had been wearing the battered costume SHIELD had captured him in for days, before this -- not this morning. Six weeks ago.

He'd wanted to wear a suit to the arraignment, but the guards wouldn't bring him one, probably because Tony -- or whoever Tony was taking orders from these days -- had wanted to make some kind of a point by having him appear in court in the costume.

He'd always known he would die in costume; he just hadn't expected it to be that way, some anonymous sniper with a laser scope. He'd really expected to go down for the last time fighting Red Skull, or possibly in one of the giant explosions that always seemed to surround super-powered fights.

He didn't even know who had been responsible. Not SHIELD, though, he knew that. No matter how insane he had gone, Tony would never, ever...

"I see my spell has finally worn off."

Steve spun, automatically shifting his weight to the balls of his feet, to find Dr. Strange standing in the room's doorway. He shouldn't have been able to sneak up on him like that, so either Steve was still off balance, or Strange was softer-footed than he'd thought.

He relaxed and tried to look as if he hadn't been bracing for an attack. "So," he said, "Doom brought me back from the dead. Somehow, in some way that I probably don't want to know about. You fixed... whatever it was that was wrong with his spell. What now?"

"Well," Strange said, "I imagine that now would be the time to tell the rest of the Avengers that you are no longer dead."

"You mean they still don't know?" Come to think of it, which set of Avengers was Strange referring to? His people? Tony's people? Maybe his people were Tony's people by now, unless the fighting still hadn't ended.

Strange apparently decided to take pity on him. "And by the Avengers, of course, I mostly mean Peter, Jessica, Luke, and Luke’s friend, Danny. I’m not entirely sure where Wolverine is at the moment."

Steve frowned, and gestured vaguely. "Then are we --" he said, breaking off. He wasn't entirely sure what to ask first. There were so many things he had missed out on in just the last six weeks, so many things he didn’t know, that he wasn’t even sure where to start.

Strange looked at him for a long moment, before crossing the room to sit in a chair opposite the couch that Steve had been on. Steve followed suit, and sat back down; if Doctor Strange felt that they should be sitting for this, Steve wasn’t going to question him.

"As I told you before, it’s been about six weeks. In that time, your group of Avengers has done their best to remain underground and out of sight while still continuing to act as Avengers," Strange gestured descriptively with one hand. "It hasn’t been a simple matter, I assure you. After your fight was over, Stark was declared director of SHIELD; obviously, the Superhuman Registration Act has remained in effect, and SHIELD has continued to enforce it. Amnesty was given to all of the superheroes locked up in the Negative Zone prison, and unsurprisingly, most of them have chosen to register. However, a small number still refused to, and we have been trying to help them."

"We?’ Steve asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Yes, we," Doctor Strange replied. "I’ve been doing my best to help the Avengers for the past few weeks. It seemed the least I could do at this point."

Steve nodded; he knew that Strange must have had his reasons for staying out of the registration mess earlier, but if he had decided to help now, Steve certainly wasn’t going to question him. "Is everyone all right?" he asked. Ultimately that was the most important thing.

"For the most part. Other than yourself, we haven’t had any major casualties. Except for Spiderman’s aunt, I’m afraid." Strange said, folding his hands in his lap, expression solemn. "Shortly after the fighting finished, his family was targeted by a sniper sent by the Kingpin. She was injured, and lapsed into a coma."

"Oh God, poor Peter. Is he all right?" Steve asked, looking away; he knew May Parker had raised Peter, and that they had been very close. Just one more tragedy caused by this whole mess; just one more regret Steve had to add to the list he had been keeping since about ten minutes after Tony had left him alone in his cell on the Helicarrier. There were so many things he had reacted to badly, so many opportunities he had missed, so many things he had jumped into without thinking them through all the way.

"As well as can be expected," Doctor Strange said, catching his eye. "And you do have a literal second chance, you know," he added, a faint smile on his lips. As far as Steve knew, Strange wasn't actually psychic, but he  was  good at reading people, and he obviously enjoyed being able to catch people off guard. "So you can deal with whatever regrets you’ve got in time. Right now, I rather suspect that letting your teammates know that you’re back would go a long way to making everyone feel quite a bit better."

"You haven't told them anything at all?" Steve asked again. Strange had always been a secretive man, but this was a fairly big secret to keep. He thought again about Strange "fixing" Doom's spell -- it must have been more difficult and less certain than the other man had made it sound. That, or he had been waiting to speak to Steve and make sure he was really himself. Superheroes had been resurrected before, and not all of them had come back from the dead as the same person. "I guess I can't blame you. It's not going to be easy to explain."

Doctor Strange just looked at him, one dark eyebrow arched.

Steve stared down at his bare feet for a moment, then looked back up at Strange, who had risen to his feet and was now looming over him. What did you say to people when you came back from the dead? People who had gone on fighting without you, and who probably thought you had abandoned them? Last time, there had been no one left who remembered him, and no explanations to make. "So," he finally said, "where are we hiding now?"

"Inside a Starbucks," Strange said, with a little half-smile.

Steve blinked, decided that any possible explanation could only make that statement more confusing, and stood up. "Okay then." He straightened his shoulders and braced himself for, well, for whatever was about to happen. "I guess I have a team to meet."

He could hear them before he saw them; Luke Cage's voice carried through even Strange's thick wooden doors. "Daredevil ain't gonna help. There's some new crime boss trying to move in on the Kitchen, and the man's got his hands full keeping the body count down."

"It'll take him, like, a week." A new voice, not one Steve recognized. "Do you know, when I was filling in for him, some guy robbing a convenience store actually screamed and ran away when he saw the costume?"

"Yeah." Peter's voice. "I don't know how he does that. No one ever runs from me."

Strange nodded at Steve to stay where he was, then opened the door and stepped into the room. "Perhaps if you were to begin breaking burglars' arms, they would become terrified of you, too."

"I know, but it makes this gross crunching noise when you --"

"Man, you are such a wuss."

"I am not a --"

Strange cleared his throat. Peter and Luke both shut up. "Entertaining as listening to the two of you bicker is, I have some news you might be interested in hearing."

"You found out what all those ninja guys downtown are up to?"

"No, Danny, not yet. I have, however, discovered what Doom was up to. The night before last, I sensed a great surge of dark magic at work in the vicinity of the docks. I tracked the power to its source last night and discovered Doom in the process of sealing an alliance with the Red Skull. It seems our Latverian friend is more skilled at necromancy than I had previously given him credit for."

"Oh, ew." The partially closed door still hid Peter from view, but Steve had no trouble picturing the expression of disgust on his face. "Tell me we don't have to fight zombies again."

Red Skull had been in on it, too? Steve resisted the impulse to shudder, suddenly feeling unclean in a way that even the idea of being resurrected with black magic couldn't equal. He would almost rather still be dead than owe his continued existence to Red Skull, though he knew that was irrational. Skull poisoned everything he touched.

"Doom wasn't raising zombies. He was performing a ritual much darker and more dangerous -- a resurrection and a soul-binding. Fortunately, I was able to intervene before he had reached the 'binding one's victim to an eternity of servitude' part, and..." Strange paused, just long enough to let tension build but not long enough for Spiderman to interrupt him, and then said, "I think you should come in now and show them."

Steve stepped into the other room, ducking his head slightly. He had never been very good with emotionally charged moments, and he couldn’t imagine anything more emotionally charged than telling people that you weren’t dead any more.

There was a moment of silence as the three others stared at Steve. "I'm not really sure what's been happening while I was gone," Steve started awkwardly. He looked away from the staring eyes, rubbed a hand against the back of his neck.

Then Peter, who had been sitting at the table -- they were in what looked to be the kitchen, sitting around a large wooden table -- made a strange, choked noise, and jumped to his feet, knocking his chair over with a clatter.

He managed to get halfway across the room and wrap his arms around Steve in what appeared to be a single leap. "Oh my God, you’re here, you’re not dead, oh my God," he chanted, hugging Steve so hard he could actually feel his ribs creak. Peter was short and slight enough that people tended to forget he also had the proportionate strength of a spider. Steve froze, not sure how he was supposed to respond.

Then Peter jumped back half a foot to look at him suspiciously. "You’re not a clone, are you?" he asked Steve. Then he turned to Doctor Strange, apparently deciding that if Steve was a clone, he probably wasn’t the best person to ask about it. "He's not a clone, is he?"

Doctor Strange looked amused. "No. But he was very nearly a zombie, if that helps," he said.

"But you're sure he's not a clone?" Peter asked, expression wavering for a moment between relief, curiosity, and continued suspicion.

Doctor Strange merely raised an eyebrow at Peter.

"Right," Peter said, nodding. "I thought you weren't allowed to raise the dead," he added.

Doctor Strange shrugged. "By the time I intervened, his soul had already been restored to his body. Dissolving the spell at that point would have been the equivalent of killing him all over again, and I do not use my powers to kill."

Peter nodded again. "Good to know."

At that point, Luke, who had been leaning against the far wall, crossed the room to stand in front of Steve. "Well, as long as you’re not some kind of zombie or clone," he said, sparing an amused glance for Peter, "it’s good to have you back, man." He held out a hand to Steve, which Steve accepted gratefully. He wasn’t sure how he would have handled it if Luke Cage had tried to hug him. It had been awkward enough with Peter, and he had half expected that.

Then Luke yanked him forward, wrapped one arm around him, and whacked him on the back. "Sorry," he said after letting go. "Couldn’t resist. You looked all frantic while Spiderman was clinging on you." He was grinning so widely that his face was all white teeth. "Hey, Jess, Jessica," he shouted in the general direction of the door. "Get in here!"

Iron Fist, also grinning, offered Steve his own hand. Without his mask, Danny Rand looked almost as young as Peter did, though the addition of a black eye and a butterfly band-aid over his eyebrow made him look significantly less innocent. "So, um, congratulations on not being dead. You're not going to get all messed up and depressed because Doom pulled you out of heaven or something, are you?"

Steve absently shook Rand’s hand -- there was a splint on one of his fingers -- and then what the other man was actually saying penetrated. "What?" he asked.

"Yeah, that would suck," Peter said. He bounced on his toes, wearing a familiar manic Spiderman grin. "Then everything would be all poorly written, and Danny would get addicted to using the Iron Fist, and then Luke would die."

Except for a few confused images of Doom chanting, there was nothing in Steve’s memory between being in the ambulance with Sharon and waking up on Strange’s floor. Everything had stopped, and then it had simply started again, as if the intervening six weeks hadn't happened at all. It had been that way when he was frozen, too; for him, no time had passed between falling out of that plane and hitting the water, and waking up in the Avengers’ submarine with Thor and Tony peering down at him.

Steve frowned. "I don't think I was anywhere. Or at least, I don't remember it," he said. Had he remembered to tell Sharon he loved her? He had wanted to, but most of what he could recall after the first sniper’s bullet hitting him was a jumbled blur.

Luke rolled his eyes, although he was still smiling. "Ignore them. It's some stupid tv show they giggle about like the little girls they are."

"So you’re really all right?" Peter asked. He had edged closer to Steve again, and was looking up at him with a wide-eyed expression that made Steve slightly uncomfortable; he was never sure what he was supposed to do when people looked at him like that.

"I’m fine," he said, laying a hand on Peter’s shoulder. Then he frowned. "Well, actually -- do you have any food? I don’t think I’ve eaten in a while."

"Oh, um yeah, sure," Peter said, bouncing over to rummage through the cupboards along the far wall. "We’ve got cereal, and ramen, and, um cookies. And I think there’s leftover Chinese food in the refrigerator."

"As you can see, there have been a few issues in having a team without any real leader," Doctor Strange said. He looked like he was only refraining from making snide commentary as to the contents of his kitchen out of good manners. "And Luke and Peter have been doing most of the shopping."

"We finished the Chinese last night, remember?" Danny told Peter.

Steve shook his head slightly. This actually wasn’t all that different from how things had been before; they just didn’t have Jarvis to shop for them anymore. "Cereal would be fine," he told Peter.

Peter nodded, and pulled a box of Cheerios out of the cupboard; Steve suspected that Jessica must have had a hand in that purchase. He knew for a fact that left to his own devices, Peter would cheerfully eat horrifically sugar-covered cereal with no regard for nutritional value.

He could still remember the first time the New Avengers had sat down to breakfast together; they had been a team for a little over a week, and everyone had just been getting settled into the tower. Peter had been downing a bowl of some kind of cereal that was both covered in sugar and electrically colored, and had been excitedly explaining how he had designed his old non-organic web-shooters to Tony. Tony, meanwhile, had been looking at Peter’s cereal with mild horror, and clutching his coffee mug; he had never been much of a breakfast person.

Steve shook himself sharply; this was no time for pointless reminiscence. "So who else is with the team?" he asked, taking a seat at the table as Peter handed him a bowl of Cheerios and a carton of milk.

"Spiderwoman’s with us," Luke said, pulling a chair out from the table, and sitting opposite Steve. "And Jessica; she came back from Canada; said we were too dumb to look after ourselves without you to lead us. Oh, and MJ, too. Wolverine’s been in and out; we never know when he’s gonna be with us, but that’s pretty much like it always was anyway."

Steve nodded. It was basically the group he had expected, but it was good to know that they were still all free.

"We’ve been trying to keep up with the superheroing," Peter said, leaning against the counter, looking serious. "Of course, the cape-killers and the so-called 'Mighty Avengers' are still after us." He said the name "Mighty Avengers" with palpable sarcasm, as if it were an unfunny joke. It was strange to hear Peter, of all people, saying something in such a bitter tone of voice. "And things are kind of a mess right now. I mean, Doom and Red Skull have been causing all kinds of trouble, and there’s been a real upsurge of crime lately. We’ve been keeping pretty busy."

Luke frowned. "I don’t know where those girls are," he said, turning in his chair to face the door. "Jessica, MJ, Jess, get down here! There’s something you’re gonna want to see."

"Luke, how many times have I told you not to shout, you --" Jessica Jones said, pushing the door open with her hip, baby in her arms. She froze as she saw Steve. "Oh," she said, shifting the baby to her hip.

The door swung open again as Mary Jane and Jessica Drew entered together. Jessica looked irritated, wet hair dripping onto her shoulders -- Luke's shout had obviously pulled her out of the shower. "What is it  now? " she asked, pushing past MJ. She paused in the doorway for a moment, then flung herself at Steve, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him fiercely.

When Spiderwoman kissed, she did it enthusiastically, with tongue and accompanied by a cloud of pheromones. For just a moment, Steve found himself kissing her back, and then his mind flashed on Sharon's hands on his face, stroking his hair, blood everywhere, all over everything, and the smell of cordite much too close. Jessica must have felt him freeze, because she pulled back from him and let go, giving him a suddenly uncertain smile.

"It is him, right? MJ asked, going to stand by Peter, who slipped an arm around her waist. "I mean, he’s not a clone, is he?"

"I’m me," Steve reassured her. Jessica was still holding onto his arm, water from her wet hair dripping onto his borrowed shirt.

"Doctor Strange said," Peter added, nodding solemnly.

MJ let go of him, and came over to hug Steve, thankfully somewhat less ardently than Spiderwoman had.

"So you’re back," Jessica Jones said, laying a hand on Steve’s arm, squeezing it tightly. "Good."

He was back. And from the sound of things, there was even more to do now than there had been before. Steve just didn’t know where to start.