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Freezer Burn

Chapter Text

The thing of it was... Bruce wasn't wrong. They weren't a timebomb -- yet -- but they absolutely were not ready to be a team. At least not when the sky wasn't full of attacking aliens.

It was a slow realization for all of them. Flush from the success against Loki's army, bolstered by Fury's defense of them against the WSC, they thought that would be enough. They'd made war together, grieved together, lost and won together, surely that would bond them in lasting ways. But it didn't, or at least not in ways that allowed for daily civil interaction. The fact of it was that while they could fight together well, they couldn't really live or train together well. Or at all. So after a few weeks of trying to deny the obvious, they stopped.

Clint and Natasha returned to doing whatever it was that they did when they weren't fighting aliens, which everyone mentally translated into "killing people," but nobody said as much aloud. Not even Tony, although that might've been because he was largely not talking to anyone not Pepper and that was only because she had the override codes to the lab in which he'd barricaded himself.

Bruce lasted three weeks before he quietly told Maria Hill that he could use a ride someplace remote. One-way, please. This actually did get Tony to talk because apparently he and Bruce had been collaborating on a few things -- they had stopped using any more precise language after the first three days of blank looks and uninformed questions that provoked heartfelt sighs of despair in them both -- and the loss of "the only other person around here who doesn't need the Idiot's Guide to Really Basic Science to only miss 85% of what I'm talking about" was unacceptable.

(Steve had a really good deadpan and a great poker face; his ability to make Tony crazy with anachronistic questions had been a reliable balm during the team's early tensions. It was probably the only upside to the legacy of Captain America as a business-first-and-only hero, something that Steve really didn't like or understand how it had come to be -- hadn't anyone watched the USO footage? But Tony, who really had no excuse, kept falling for the doe-eyed earnestness. Bruce wised up after the first week.)

Tony wanted to set Bruce up in Stark Tower ("the part that's got electricity, no gaping holes, and doesn't smell like burned plastic") with his own lab, he could handpick his staff, would never have to talk to anyone but Tony or Pepper or Jarvis if he didn't want to, a budget bigger than the GNP of most of the EU, first crack at all of the new Stark toys...

"He wants you to be his science gigolo," was how Clint put it during one of his returns 'home.' "Tony Stark, sugardaddy."

"I never pay for it," was how Tony replied.

"Unless Pepper's running your company for free, you kind of do," was Clint's last word on the subject, since he immediately afterward fled from the room without looking at all like that was exactly what he was doing because Tony was wearing one of his Iron Man gauntlets, although he didn't seem to realize it.

But in the end, Bruce was unmoved -- and moving out. It wasn't the money or the toys or even the people per se, although he'd admitted that the intrateam squabbling was not helping. It wasn't anything about what he didn't have -- it was what he did have. "I have everything -- or close enough to it -- that I am starting to get annoyed by little things. Stupid things. My coffee isn't strong enough. The elevators are slow. I want this test run now but the techs have fifty other people making the same demands. These aren't things worth risking the Other Guy's arrival for. Piling more everything on top of the everything I already have isn't going to make it go away."

So, instead, he did. With various means of keeping in contact and some Stark toys (because Tony really was serious about not losing his favorite playmate) and the promise to return when needed.

Which left Steve alone. And so Steve left, too.

Not far, mind. To a SHIELD-provided loft in Brooklyn, one that was wired six ways to Sunday to keep tabs on him. (He'd allowed Tony to do a search for surveillance, but told him to only neutralize the invasive ones. He didn't ask what Tony had found, nor did Tony tell him anything beyond "don't do anything in the kitchen you wouldn't want on youtube.")

But it turns out that Steve wouldn't have a chance to spend too much time worrying that his culinary adventures were being watched by Fury and Hill and the others. (There was a farmer's market twice a week two blocks over; Steve came home from his run on Tuesdays and Saturdays with a backpack full of items he could only partially identify and had to Google to figure out how to prepare.) At least not if the Army had its way.

Ever since the battle in New York, the Pentagon started pushing for Captain America to make a tour of US bases. A chance for the men and women serving today to see and meet a legend, which was Steve's main objection because he might have a legend, but he wasn't one himself and that was just setting himself up for failure and everyone else for grave disappointment.

SHIELD ran interference for a while, but someone at the Pentagon eventually remembered that Steve was actually technically still under contract to the Army and tried to use that to force the issue. Maria Hill's response to that was to say that if they wanted to play that card, Captain Rogers was owed a lot of backpay, adjusted for inflation and with interest, and probably a promotion.

Steve ended up with a retroactive discharge coincidental with the original 'the duration plus six months' contract he'd enlisted under and a shockingly large bank account after some of SHIELD's forensic accountants figured out what had been in his account back then, what he'd have earned before his 'discharge,' and what that came out to today after inflation and interest rates were applied.

"It kept FININT busy for weeks, which meant that they were out of my hair for weeks," is what Hill said when Steve brought it up, embarrassed because it seemed like an absurd amount of money to be paid for doing what every other young man was doing at the time. "Which means it totally paid for itself. And we needed to set up an account for you anyway; SHIELD only does direct deposit for paychecks. So don't worry about it -- Stark probably spends more than you're worth on new shoes -- and go buy yourself something nice."

Steve didn't have anything nice he wanted to buy. Tony provided him with more gadgets than he could want to figure out how to use, SHIELD had already bought him a wardrobe full of contemporary clothes, and while the farmer's market was much more expensive than C-Town, he didn't think Hill meant he should splurge on extra helpings of funny-colored carrots and squash.

What he did end up doing was booking a hotel in DC and spending a week touring the museums and the monuments and the memorials. SHIELD needed two days to find him because he'd made his reservations on the computer that Tony had given him and not his SHIELD-issued laptop ("Use this one to surf for porn unless you want SHIELD ordering up a customized-to-your-preferences hooker for you next time they think you oughta get laid.") and had ducked the agents assigned to tail him once he got on the subway.

Fury found him at Arlington, standing in the middle of a sea of simple white tombstones.

"Appreciate the note, Captain," he said dryly. Steve had left one on the kitchen counter, in full view of the camera he now knew was hidden in the light fixture. "If you'd said something, we could have organized a trip for you."

"With all due respect, sir, this was something I wanted to do on my own," Steve replied after taking a long deep breath. "I had hoped that you'd see the note, realize I was safe, and leave me be. I'm supposed to be learning how to make my own way in the world, right? I'm over eighty; I didn't think I still had a curfew."

Fury made a noise. "We've been encouraging you to adapt and engage, yes," he admitted. "But you'll understand if we get nervous the first time you decide to actually test our sincerity."

"And are you?" Steve asked, because Fury wasn't wrong. This had been a test as much as it had been about getting to see the Smithsonian. "You tell me I'm free to find a life here and now, to find things that interest me and meet people. But you keep me under surveillance around the clock and chase me down the first time I go somewhere without telling you first. Do you think I'm a threat, Director?"

"No, Captain."

"Then why are you treating me like one?" He looked over at Fury, who had the decency to meet his gaze. "You've been watching me since the moment I woke up. What have I done for you to have so little faith in me?"

Steve wasn't an idiot; he knew that between what Loki had done to Clint and what Bruce was capable of doing to himself, Fury had a reason to be mindful. But that didn't mean he didn't resent being considered as a potential threat instead of as what he was, which was innocent until proven guilty -- or at least until he'd actually committed a crime.

"We're standing here surrounded by men who had unquestioning faith in you," Fury said after a long silence. "You don't think of it like that. I'm not sure it ever even crossed your mind that this might be the case. But it's true. You meant something extraordinary to these men, something that passed out of our collective thoughts once you 'died,' something we still need but forgot how to look for and lost the ability to find.

"You never understood the true magnitude of the power you wielded. It had nothing to do with the serum, which I think you did understand, but you didn't appreciate where it did come from. How could you? And now, when everything else is so new to you, I don't know that you understand how much of that power you still have, how much more you could have. But I do. And I know that our enemies do and that they will do whatever it takes to destroy you because once you catch up -- and you will catch up -- they won't have a chance.

"To answer your question, Captain, I have all the faith in the world in you. I couldn't have otherwise. But you've been through a helluva shock and, since we're being frank with each other, you were very slow to adapt to your new surroundings. Having faith in your honor does not mean I can't worry about your state of mind."

It was Steve's turn to be silent; Fury's answer was not at all what he'd thought it would be and he wanted to parse it for meaning. Meanings, since he was not still so frozen between the ears that he wasn't aware that Fury could lie to anyone about anything and not be caught.

"If I tell you that I'm fine, will you at least take the camera out of my kitchen?"

"It's already been taken care of," Fury replied. "I worry a lot less about you when you lie about where you're going than when you lie about how happy you are."

Steve smiled. Fury might have smiled back.

"I'm buried here, right?" Steve asked after a much more companionable silence.

"Next to Sergeant Barnes," Fury confirmed. "Those of the Howling Commandos who chose to be buried here are there, too."

Steve nodded, not quite sure the words would come out levelly if he spoke. This part, the direct confrontation with the most intimate parts of his old life -- his comrades, his friends, his family -- still remained unhealed and the pain undiminished. The shrink said it would be the last part to do so, but Steve wondered if it ever would.

"There's been some talk about a ceremony to remove your headstone," Fury went on.

"I'd rather there not be one," Steve finally answered. "At least not a public one."

Fury nodded once. "That can be arranged," he said, then turned to go. "I'm going to get back to real problems, since you don't qualify as one. Do you need directions to where it is?"

Steve shook his head. He wasn't sure he was ready to go there today, but didn't want to admit as much.

"Then I'll see you next week at the Avengers meeting," Fury said. "Don't take your newfound independence to mean that it's optional."

"No, sir."

Chapter Text

Steve spent the rest of his week in DC alternately amazed and appalled. He lost hours in the Air and Space museum, needed time to compose himself after the Holocaust Memorial, thought the Spy Museum was the silliest thing he'd ever seen, and thought the statue of Captain America at the World War II memorial looked more like Fred MacMurray than him.

(He wanted to ask someone why the WWII memorial was the last to be built despite it happening before Korea or Vietnam and, from what he's read, being the largest and most horrifying of the three, but wasn't sure who could answer him.)

He waited until the last day to visit Bucky's grave. He'd been there before, many times, but none since he'd been defrosted.

Back in 1945, it had been a simple, tasteful tribute to the first Howling Commando to fall; a larger headstone than the Arlington standard, set apart by what was then a tiny hedgerow and kept company by an oak sapling. Now, of course, the sapling was a mature tree and Bucky had others to keep him company. Jim and Dum Dum had identical markers to Bucky; the others were buried with their families elsewhere with only a simple stone with their names engraved to recognize that the Howling Commandos hadn't been a barbershop quartet.

Steve brought six flowers anyway.

His own gravestone was taller than the others, more ornate, and Steve hated it for those reasons alone. The actual memorial to Captain America had been moved over to the WWII site when it had opened; it was as full of praise and half-truths as any of the newsreels had been and that, at least, Steve hadn't really cared about.

(During his last visit, Peggy had apologized for the "awful, ugly tribute" and had said that she and Howard Stark had tried in vain to convince the powers that be to do something more in tune with what Steve himself would have wanted. Howard had even offered to pay for it himself, which Steve had to think was a gesture to impress Peggy because Stark certainly hadn't liked him that much. But the memorial was being built on government property and President Truman had wanted something 'uplifting and beautiful' after the ugliness of war.

"Honestly, I cheered when it got blown up in '68," Peggy had admitted with an archness that hadn't dimmed at all with age. "I was all ready to get to work to have them build something less tacky. Instead, it got even worse. You'd have cried if you had seen it, Steve. Be grateful only the plaque and statue were kept when they moved it over to the war memorial.")

Here and now, however, Steve could ignore the gravestone with his name on it and focus on the ones next to it. Dum Dum and Jim had been colleagues, friends, teachers, and heroes to him and he genuinely grieved at seeing their gravestones even as they proved that the men whose remains lay beneath had led long post-war lives that he knew to have been fruitful and contented.

But Bucky... Bucky had been his brother in more than just arms and even as his gravestone was the oldest, the only one who had died before Steve fell asleep, it was still the wound that was freshest. Bucky was the one who had known him before the serum, the one who had understood that Steve really didn't miss the ability to get drunk, the one who could read monologues into Steve's silences and still refuse to respect them when he thought Steve was brooding, the one who'd tried to buy prostitutes for him in four different countries before Steve had finally confessed to him that that particular 'condition' had been taken care of before he'd ever gotten to Europe. Bucky had been the one to protect him when he'd needed protecting, both before and after the serum, and no amount of time or reminders that Bucky had volunteered and that so many millions of soldiers had died, too, some because of Steve's own orders, would relieve him of the guilt. For letting Bucky fall, for leading Bucky to a place where he could fall, for surviving his own plummet from the heights into a frozen abyss.

Before he left, he pulled out a black marker and drew a "Kilroy was here" doodle to the side of the James and Buchanan on Bucky's tombstone. He'd always done that after every visit back in '45, except then in chalk that would wash away in the next rainstorm. A reason to return, he'd always said, a reason he would live until the next visit. This time, the permanent marker said something else: I'm here to stay.


On the way back to New York, he stopped in Philadelphia to see Peggy. She wasn't as energetic as the last time he'd been; she was coming off of a cold and his heart broke a little with every wracking cough. She pretended otherwise, of course, and Steve let her, although he privately vowed to invent an Avengers emergency if he thought she was fading.

It wasn't nearly as hard to see her this time as the previous time, even as both visits were dwarfed by the pain of their initial reunion. He knew that his visits were still difficult for her, but not in the same ways and that the pain was far outweighed by her joy in seeing him again. He'd been a lost opportunity, a lost love, a lost hero she'd admired, all true, but she'd had seventy years to mourn those losses and could now focus on her happiness at what she had unexpectedly found.

For him, on the other hand, all of his losses were still fresh and new and, at times, neverending. Everything he'd known and cared for and missed while he was away at war was either fading fast ("like me," Peggy had chirped) or was already so far gone as to have passed completely from memory.

Not wanting to mope - Peggy was quick as ever to prick any bubbles of self-pity -- he regaled her with his DC adventures, including getting lost in unsavory parts of town and his opinion of his statue at the war memorial now that he'd finally seen it in person. She informed him that everyone at the time had thought his statue looked like Fred MacMurray. "A pity he was too old to play you in the movie."

"Lex Barker wasn't a bad choice," Steve demurred. "Jeans Simmons was an excellent one, although not as pretty as the real thing."

An arched eyebrow. "We are both far too old for that kind of flattery, Captain Rogers."

"Never," he assured her, meaning it.

It turned out he didn't have to invent an Avengers emergency; Maria Hill called him on his cell phone - Peggy pretended to be flabbergasted that he knew how to use one - to tell him that Bruce had had "a very bad day" and some help in rounding him up would be appreciated.

"Gotta go," he sighed as he stood up, kissing Peggy's cheek. "My teammate has leveled Butte."

"So what was it?" Tony asked as he sat next to a supine Bruce - and he was back to being Bruce, albeit not a conscious Bruce - and sipped on an energy drink. Still in his Iron Man armor with just the visor up, Tony looked faintly ridiculous sucking blue liquid through a straw like a schoolboy. "Steak overdone? Really tricksy level of Angry Birds? WiFi went down while he was downloading porn?"

The Hulk had been full of energy when they'd arrived, the rapidly-mobilized units of the Montana National Guard having the apparent nutritional equivalence of popcorn in terms of sating him or at least slowing him down. He'd been flinging Ford pick-ups like old sneakers at whoever caught his eye, clearly still looking for a real meal. Or at least a building tall enough to feel good about knocking over, of which there were none because this was Butte and not Boston, and that, too, seemed to add to the Hulk's frustration.

Steve had directed the guardsmen to focus on evacuating and protecting the civilians before turning them over to Clint because, with Thor unavailable and the Hulk currently being part of the problem, Steve had been elevated to one of the heavy punchers on the team. Clint had argued vociferously about this reclassing even as he'd followed orders, but they both knew that they couldn't leave Tony to Hulk-baiting duties alone and, out of the two of them, Steve was more likely to survive a direct encounter with a pissed-off rage monster.

Thankfully, that hypothesis was not tested and their Hulk-wrangling concluded without any more human damage, although they'd caused at least two cattle stampedes if Tony were to be believed.

They'd torn up a pretty large swath of lightly populated southwest Montana and northern Idaho before the squadron of fighters out of Mountain Home AFB, each plane armed with Hulk-strength tranquilizer-tipped missiles, had done their job and the Hulk had toppled like a vaudeville clown tripping over a shadow. Once they'd determined that the Hulk was down for real - he was not above playing possum - then all there was to do was pull out the Hulk Recovery Kit one of the SHIELD techs had handed Steve before he'd exited the jet ("Really? We have these pre-made?" "Order 'em in bulk, sir.") and wait.

The Hulk Recovery Kit, for the record, included: one complete set of clothes (including sneakers) in Bruce's sizes, one giant space blanket, first aid supplies, two MREs (beef brisket, vegetable lasagna), three water bottles, a packet of 'moist towelettes,' and a pre-paid SHIELD credit card to cover anything else.

"He went postal," Clint announced as he joined them, dropping down heavily on the other side of Bruce from Tony. Clint looked intact and unbloodied, but he was covered in dust and sweat, his quiver was empty of non-lethal arrows, and he wasn't bothering to hide how tired he was.

"Well, no shit, Barton," Tony retorted, finishing his drink with a loud suck and gesturing imperiously with one gauntlet for Steve, who was next to the rest of their supplies, to toss him another. Steve did, but a pink one because he hated those and there was only one blue one left and Tony didn't really care. "Or did you mean that literally?"

"How do you go literally postal?" Steve asked, aware that he was setting himself up to be either a punchline or a target or both. "For that matter, how do you go figuratively postal?"

Clint and Tony exchanged a look that could have been smug amusement but might have been each checking with the other to see if they thought Steve was messing with them again.

"Back in the '80s and '90s, a whole bunch of mailmen went nuts and started spree-killing in the workplace," Clint finally said as he reached over Bruce and picked up each MRE in turn before taking one. Steve frowned; they all knew by now that Bruce's first reaction upon waking would be embarrassment and concern for the damage he'd caused, but then he'd be ravenous. "What? I just spent three hours running around without so much as a piss break. He can spare me one until we get him back to base."

That Bruce's next few days would be spent in SHIELD custody went without saying.

"It really was the post office?" Tony asked between slurps. "That's... kind of poetic, actually."

"Seems he didn't realize they'd raised the rates on first class stamps," Clint said as he fished around in the MRE bag. "'French vanilla cappuccino?' Are they fucking kidding me? Where did we get these from? The Air Force?"

Steve chuckled absently as a pair of helicopters flew lazily by; he shielded his eyes to look up at them. As a species they intrigued him because he'd had no exposure to them. The few the US Forces had had during the war had been in the Pacific theater, where he usually hadn't been, and now SHIELD, at least the part he dealt with, didn't use them.

"Five million separate parts moving in a loose formation," Clint said and Steve looked over at him. Clint gestured toward the helicopters with a peanut-butter-covered knife.

Clint, whose military and SHIELD careers had involved a lot of helicopter travel ("usually with at least part of me dangling outside the thing"), was not a fan and did not understand Steve's fascination.

"Why didn't he just buy stamps online like everyone else?" Tony asked as he finished the second pouch of energy drink. "I'm pretty sure the USPS website's development cycle is directly tied to a drop in the national murder rate."

"You ask this like you have ever bought stamps," Steve pointed out, returning his attention to his own drink pouch.

"I have people who spend my money to buy stamps and they do it online," Tony replied, unperturbed. "And you should talk. The last time you bought stamps, they cost a penny."

"Not true," Steve said. "I bought the 'forever' stamps and they have Edith Piaf on them."

The baseball ones had looked nice, but Steve hadn't wanted to spend even SHIELD's money on anything with a Yankee on them.

"Would've thought you'd have gone with the flags," Clint said with his mouth full of peanut butter and cracker.

"Too matchy-matchy," Tony explained. "Well hello, sunshine!"

A groan from Bruce, who burrowed further under the space blanket, was the only response.

It took another half hour before Bruce was fully awake, dressed, fed and watered, and ready to go. He was clearly displeased to be returning to the helicarrier in custody, however informal that custody was with Tony complaining about Clint's peanut-butter-scented belches, but not the kind of displeased that indicated an imminent repeat of the evening's activities.

Fury was on board the helicarrier, but neither he nor Maria Hill were there to greet them upon their arrival, which Steve thought was probably for the best. Bruce went without protest to his old quarters, Tony flew off after realizing he had six messages from Pepper indicating with increasing irritation that he was supposed to be somewhere not-there, and Clint vaporized in that way he had when he sensed that there was bureaucratic business to take care of. None of which surprised Steve, who had long ago figured out that his teammates' unquestioning faith in his leadership was at its purest in two situations: combat and the after-action debriefing. This was nothing new; the Commandos' adherence to proper military custom had been directly proportional to how much paperwork there was going to be.

Steve had time to shower and change before going to report to Hill, who did not blink when he suggested that Bruce could probably be returned to the wild in a few days and preferred the roast beef MRE to the brisket.

Chapter Text

"So how long before we call it?" Steve asked, tilting his head to the side so that the rainwater accumulating on the brim of his hat would leak over to the side and stop dripping in front of his eyes.

"They may show themselves," Natasha offered, not sounding for a second like she believed it.

They'd been sitting on the same ledge for hours except for nature calls and to take turns eating, hidden from the depression - it was too shallow to be called a ravine - in the forest below, but not from the rain, which had been coming down when they'd taken up their positions and hadn't stopped since. The trees around them were good visual coverage, but did nothing to stop the endless plik-plik-plik of water everywhere around them. Their wet weather gear was amazing (by his standards, not by Natasha's), but even it wasn't meant to protect against hours of unremitting deluge. They were both damp down to their drawers, cold from the inaction and the ambient air, and sure that the mission was pointless.

Other than that, it had been a pretty nice day. Long, comfortable silences broken by the odd observation; it had been quality time, companionable for all that the two of them hadn't spent a whole lot of time in each other's sole company, and Steve was pretty sure that he wasn't the only one who'd come away from it with a higher estimation of a teammate. Stillness was as good as any other metric by which to assess a person. That, and cocoa; Steve earned a smile from Natasha when he'd produced two packets.

"The bad guys don't like this kind of weather, either," he said. "Unless they've got someone there with the ability to make them do something they don't want to do, they're not budging. They would have moved already otherwise."

Natasha grunted something that might have been agreement. "We'll give them another hour."

Another hour would bring them to dusk, or as close to dusk as they were going to get on a sunless day. It would make it that much less likely that the cell members would risk traipsing through a muddy forest with an unstable weapon - if they indeed had the weapon - and it would also make it easier for Natasha and him to get away without attracting the attention of the guards, who were huddling under the lip of the entrance to the cave but were still doing a half-decent job of maintaining watch.

Twenty minutes later, they got to watch a shift change on the guard detail, which was enough for Natasha to decide that there was no point in staying a moment longer. She backed away from the ledge, indicated that he should do the same, and started gathering up the padded mat they'd been sitting on.

"They've got no night optics," she explained to whoever was on the line back at SHIELD's Bratislava station as they policed their position and packed away their gear. "If they were really working on a dirty bomb in that cave, they'd be protecting it better than they are. It's going to be pitch black at that position inside an hour and they won't be able to see a meter in front of them."

It was an hour's brisk hike back to the rendezvous point; they moved quietly but quickly. They weren't worried about being spotted by the bad guys - out here, in the middle of nowhere, Slovakia, they were at much greater risk of being spotted by a civilian, someone who knew every person in a twenty-mile radius, and would know that they didn't belong. And that news, in turn, had a reasonable chance of making it back to the underground bunker in the woods.

Five hours later, they were sitting in a depressing but clean safe house (apartment), dry and changed and eating takeout. Natasha had been the one to go get it, insisting that she'd blend in perfectly on the streets - "every woman in Eastern Europe dyes her hair this color" - while he would stick out with his looks and lack of local languages.

("I've heard German here," he'd pointed out, not ready to let her go out alone even if he had to keep his mouth shut. She'd waved his protest away. "You don't sound like a Austrian here for the beer and girls.")

So he'd showered while she'd gone out and he'd come out in only a towel, not expecting her back so quickly, to find her unpacking a shopping bag. Which she stopped doing so that she could watch him dig through his pack for his dry civvies.

"I can drop the towel if you want," he'd said, not looking up from his search so that she couldn't see that his bravado extended no further than his words. "But you'll have to ask nicely."

He did look over then and was glad for it because it was possible that she was a little shocked by his words. He was, too, but he had a good poker face and the light wasn't good enough for her to see him blushing from here.

The shopping bag turned out to be full of cabbage and cabbage byproduct and mystery meat and doughy things in broth and doughy things not in broth.

Mostly because of his surveillance teams and partially because he'd volunteered the information, Steve's adventures at the farmers' market and in his kitchen were well known to his teammates. And well-derided by Tony, who'd complain loudly that Steve couldn't even figure out which green leaves to recreationally abuse. But the end result was that everyone seemed to think that he ate particularly healthy and well because of philosophy and not because he'd grown up with never enough of anything and that for a kid from Brooklyn - the dirty, cramped parts of Brooklyn and not the leafy sprawling parts - getting to choose between a dozen kinds of fancy lettuce was preposterous and its own entertainment.

"It's comfort food and it was close and cheap and the guy behind the counter was too busy looking at my boobs to remember my face," she'd offered by way of explanation - and a little bit of apology.

"I've eaten a lot worse in my time," he'd replied, since he was pretty sure she hadn't meant to say the first thing aloud. "Both home and abroad."

They went up to the helicarrier the next day, after a quiet night and a report from Clint that actually, yeah, the guys watching the warehouse in Trencin were a bit more put-together and looked like they were ex-special forces and not local help.

Steve didn't mind not having to do the debrief for once - in fact, he might have been a little smug about it - but he was also aware that part of what Natasha was reporting about was him.

Fury had taken Steve's trip to Washington to mean that he was ready to be put to work in non-apocalyptic and non-Hulk-wrangling scenarios. Tagging along as extra muscle on a mission the Black Widow could certainly have handled on her own was a test, both of his actual emotional readiness (as opposed to his stated emotional readiness) as well as his skill sets. He'd been at the peak of conditioning and training when he'd gone down, not just physically but also operationally - everything from marksmanship to tactical awareness to intelligence acquisition - but nobody knew what his long sleep had done to that and his months of idleness ("pouting," Fury now felt free to say) had certainly worn away whatever sharp edges had been left.

So now there were tests, sometimes explicitly referred to as such and sometimes, like Slovakia with Natasha, not in as many words. Which was why Steve was unsurprised a week after flying home from Bratislava to receive a summons from Fury.

"Well?" Steve asked. "Pass or fail?"

"It's not that simple, Captain," Fury replied, which Steve automatically took to mean "fail" because he'd learned long before the serum that there were many ways to say that but only one way to say "you're in."

"So what are you going to do with me?" he asked instead, because having a good poker face meant sometimes gritting and bearing it while you were told something you didn't want to hear.

Fury smiled. "We're sending you back to the USO."

During Steve's first stint with the USO, he had been more or less a chorus girl and treated like one. It had been remarkably like his time in basic training with every moment of his day accounted for and orchestrated by people who had a bigger picture to look at but not necessarily the right glasses to see it with. The biggest difference, near as he could figure, was that being 'talent' with the USO  just came with more sparkly outfits as the Uniform of the Day and a cohort that was more concerned about keeping their legs shaved than their faces. (Although Gertie, bless her, had had to worry about both.)

This time around, however, Steve was not a chorus girl. He still posed with them, though, marveling privately at how different they were from the old gang with their uniform heights, uniform measurements, and uniform skin tones. The Liberty Bells ("are you sure you're not missing an 'e' in there somewhere?") were gloriously un-uniform, gracious and vivacious and hiding behind their smiles the same kind of yearning for something better that Steve remembered so well. It was harder now, he expected, without the natural progression from chorus girl on stage to chorus girl in the pictures. They didn't need chorus girls in the pictures anymore.

This time around, after the photos and the handshakes with the USO brass, Steve was not handed his itinerary and warned not to be either late or fat for the next engagement. He was still handed an itinerary, but then he was wished a good trip and thanked profusely for giving his time and for his own service. (It embarrassed him, frankly.)

The itinerary wasn't all the USO's idea. In fact, Steve wasn't sure any of it was their idea beyond handling the promotions for the appearances and events. The schedule was all SHIELD, crafted to look like the long-promised publicity tour. The tour stops just happened to take place at bases with specialized training facilities and schools, just happened to have gaps big enough for Steve to fit in time to learn how to be a soldier for the twenty-first century.

He'd already been through the armory on the helicarrier, could identify almost every mass-produced firearm in even semi-common usage, and could strip, clean, and reassemble many of them in respectable time. He'd read about the history of the tools of war in the twentieth century, appreciated that the AK-47 was durable but not meant for accuracy, that the Uzi was ideal for close-quarters fighting, and that the M-16 was not even close to ideal but certainly good enough for its purposes considering it, like everything else in the US arsenal, had been offered by the lowest bidder with the best golden handshakes.

But just because he could hit where he aimed on the range and had tried on everything from fast-rope gloves to body armor with SAPI plates didn't mean he really appreciated their use and, especially, their effect on those who did use them. The soldiers (and sailors and airmen and marines) of today were totally different creatures than anything Steve knew. He'd fought with their grandfathers, enlisted and conscripted to fight a concrete evil far from home. These men -- and women -- were all volunteers who'd chosen this life and had very, very different expectations from it.

The first stop was Fort Benning, which looked absolutely nothing like what Steve remembered from 'before'... except where it did. Which, the longer he was there, was actually a pretty good bit. There were new buildings and the barracks were just ridiculously opulent and Steve cracked up the entire entourage by expressing envy that the privates were living in nicer spaces than any BOQ he'd ever stayed in, but he honestly didn't think he'd have gotten lost if left unattended.

He got another big laugh asking if his jump wings from his original rotation through the Airborne School were still good. The commander assured him that they never expire.

The tour through the Infantry School was an easy day, both for Steve, for whom basic exercises weren't even much of a heartbeat-raiser, and for the recruits who were getting a break from being run into the ground. Steve smiled a lot and shook hands and privately marveled at what eighteen-year-olds looked like in this day and age. Some of them had no idea who he was beyond 'the reason they weren't on a 10-mile ruck,' some of them knew and clearly didn't care (or were trying very hard to pretend that they didn't care), some of them had stories told to them by their grandfathers (a few of which retained a kernel of truth), a few more had stories of where they'd been when New York had gotten attacked. One of them had gotten rescued by Natasha, apparently, and had enlisted, at least in part, as a result. His buddies teased him for needing to enlist after getting rescued by a girl, but Steve pointed out that there was no shame in being saved by the Black Widow and he himself had enjoyed the privilege.

There was a dinner that evening at the post commanding general's, a formal thing with lots of brass and senior enlisted and not enough rank and file for Steve's taste. He was, when it came down to it, a retired company grade officer who'd never spent any time in an actual company, who'd never given one whit of a half-thought to his career. He left as soon as it was polite to do so, claiming that even super-soldiers needed their rest before showing up to Ranger School.

Ranger School was fun. Three days of public activities, including that time-honored military misnomer, the dawn "fun run," obstacle courses, and mountaineering. And getting to ride in and fast-rope from helicopters. More than once.

(Steve sent an email to Clint that evening, informing him that he was a dirty liar for saying awful things about helicopters and wondering what else he'd fibbed about.)

The rest of the week was not public, at least not beyond the fact that it was going to be hard to keep from the rumor mill that Captain America was doing some training with the 75th Ranger Regiment. This was what Fury had sent him here for and it was instructive.

They had plenty to teach him and seemed intrigued and even a little grateful for the opportunity to do so. Steve was definitely grateful for the opportunity to learn. Away from the grinning brass and photographers, Steve could step away from his own legacy and enjoy the fruits of someone else's.

The Rangers were professional in ways that recruits and even the experienced soldiers at the Ranger School were not. They were not cowed by Steve's legacy or his fitness level; they saw him as a challenge, not an icon, and Steve reveled in it.

Which did not mean that he was going to give them any shot at earning their name off of him if he could help it, but he did enjoy the increased level of difficulty in opponent.

From Benning it was off to Fort Campbell, entirely because Steve's only specific request to Fury had been "helicopters" and Campbell was where the 160th SOAR was based. Steve got to ride in and half-in and sort-of-in all manner of rotor vehicles driven by pilots whose command of their vehicles in very tight spaces was simply breathtaking to watch and even more so to experience up close.

(Steve asked Natasha in an email if she thought that they could get Fury to authorize a helicopter for the Avengers. He also told her about the kid at AIT who joined up because he wanted to save people like she did. They both knew that 'saving people' was not even in the first paragraph of her job description, but he thought she'd like it nonetheless.)

From Fort Campbell it was a short trip to Fort Bragg, where again Steve had a few public activities and a whole lot of quieter training. He also ended up doing a little bit of teaching because here, among these small units with command leashes that had a bit more slack than those of Big Army, Steve's wartime experiences were still relevant and had been much more thoroughly studied. The Commandos had made a lot of crazy assaults on improbable targets, but they'd spent more of their time working with resistance movements and trying to play nice with the Allies' regular forces and all of that was still relevant in the twenty-first century, especially for Special Forces, among whom Steve found the most eager ears. He spent time with the lower-key units, the ones not necessarily officially on the books (at least as written) and with the more exotic reputations and portfolios, but the SF teams were the true descendants of the Commandos and Steve was most at home with them.

Which was not to say that he didn't have a great time with those quieter units, especially considering just how much high explosive they considered to be "demonstration level." Several of these guys remembered Clint from his days among them and none of them were surprised to see where he'd turned up; a few of them assured Steve that a round of beers at the bar later would buy a lot of stories. A few of them had met Tony, too, but they were the ones who offered to buy Steve beers to tell them stories.

(Steve pondered telling Clint some of what he'd learned at Bragg, but decided to save that knowledge for when it would be more useful than a virtual postcard from the road. Having dirt on your teammates was always good, especially if involved the unintentional misapplication of breadfruit. He did send an email to Tony informing him of the offer for unlimited beer in return for dirty tales, to which Tony replied - immediately, because Tony almost always immediately responded to emails that interested him - that Steve didn't know the best stories. Steve replied to that that it didn't really matter because he didn't need the beer because he couldn't get drunk, but he'd happily tell lies about Tony just for the hell of it. Tony's response to that was "nothing with farm animals, please.")

There were a couple of classes to sit in on at the JFK School of Warfare and Steve really wished he could have stayed for more. He received an open invitation from the school commander to return and he sincerely hoped that the general was serious because he was planning on doing just that.

The next stop was supposed to be Fort Hood, but Steve never made it to Texas for his promised spur ride. A SHIELD jet was waiting for him at oh-dark-thirty on his last day in North Carolina. Once aboard, he was handed a tablet computer and told to buckle in.

Once they were airborne, Steve turned on the tablet to see a single folder on the screen. He didn't even need to open it to feel the last of his good humor drain away, just the title was enough:


Chapter Text

"New Coke or original recipe?"

Steve looked up from his notes at Clint, who'd appeared at some point earlier but hadn't said a word before now. "Pardon?"

He'd gotten back to the helicarrier by 0830 and headed straight for the aft library (the one nobody liked to use because it had a subtle hum you could feel in your bones because it was so close to the rotors), pausing long enough to pick up a cup of coffee and a prune danish. He'd set himself up in one of the overstuffed chairs in the corner and hadn't moved since. His tablet had updated itself with new folders once he'd turned it back on, most with notes from either Fury or Hill, and he'd also requested files as needed. Most of those had been converted to PDF and were delivered wirelessly, but there was a large crate of folders next to his right boot, ferried to him by junior agents who handed them over with a murmur and then departed.

"Are we looking at the HYDRA you faced or is this some new group hoping to make use of a very old name?" Clint elaborated, tapping the folder on Steve's lap with the tip of an arrow. At the other end of the table, the part not covered with Steve's research, there were fletching supplies.

"Haven't you had a hundred analysts working out the answer to that question?" Steve asked by way of reply. He'd been initially annoyed and a little hurt to realize just how much work SHIELD had already put in to finding out what they could about HYDRA before bringing him in. But after hours of reading, Steve could appreciate the situation a little better. Not that he thought that Fury had made the right choice to exclude him, but instead that SHIELD, like the Army and every other hierarchy, assumed that nobody below a certain rank or outside a certain cohort had any useful contributions to make to any important decision. Steve wasn't part of the intelligence analysis inner circle, so the quality of his intelligence or analysis was suspect at best. That attitude was what it was. Which was generally 'counterproductive,' but nobody ever said that the Army (or SHIELD) was a model of efficiency.

"You're the one who has first-hand knowledge," Clint said with a shrug, gesturing with the arrow toward the crate of folders. "They sat in comfy offices eating Ding Dongs and reading about what you did."

Which wasn't entirely true - not the part about them sitting around and reading old Commandos files, that was very clearly true - or entirely fair. The realization that the global terrorist group that had been the focus of so much SHIELD attention was in fact calling itself HYDRA was a recent one; SHIELD had been calling it a succession of names either culled from online sources or made up in-house before then. Steve had read all of those files before moving on to what had come afterward, the attempts to prove or disprove the link between this current HYDRA with the Nazi-era one.

"I was also asleep for seventy years," Steve pointed out, since that wasn't irrelevant to the matter. "Does it sound like something I've heard before? Sure. But there are also neo-Nazi movements running around today and their rhetoric sounds like things I've heard before, too."

It was more than that, although Steve was still having a hard time articulating it, even within his own mind. Like a tune he couldn't quite remember the melody of but still couldn't get out of his head, there was something about the way this HYDRA was prioritizing its objectives that was both tantalizingly familiar and even more tantalizingly out of reach.

"Out with it," Clint ordered. "I can see the stars and stripes twirling behind your eyes."

Steve made a face. "Not yet," he replied, standing up and putting the folder he'd been reading on the table. "I'm going for a run."

He was completely unsurprised to see Clint changed into PT gear and waiting for him when he came out onto the flight deck. Clint was a good running partner - kept pace, kept quiet, and was not above starting a sudden, unannounced sprint lap that kept Steve on his toes. Today, however, they kept the racing to a minimum because they both knew that Steve was out here to think as much as for the exercise.

Schmidt, even before the serum, had become obsessed with 'objects of power,' items that were occult in the original sense of the word - so mysterious in their workings that magic and science were equally likely. The tesseract had been the most obvious and most powerful, but there had been others, some Steve had never seen and some he'd never believed existed and some he'd accepted proof of only when they'd been turned against the Allied forces. Zola, in his OSS interviews, had spoken at length about Schmidt's theories about science and the border of what was beyond, about how learning to move past that border would grant them the tools to rule the world.

Those ramblings - Schmidt's, filtered through Zola's hindsight and revisionism - were the basis for that melody that wasn't quite in or out of Steve's head. Science had come so far since the Forties and he wasn't sure anymore what counted as occult and what was just something that blew his mind because he'd slept through the first three generations of the nuclear age. More importantly, perhaps, he had absolutely no idea what would count as occult to people like Tony and Bruce, who were both far more qualified to understand Schmidt's work than anyone seemed to realize.

(Steve didn't think that either of them believed in the occult, that for both of them there was no magic, just science they hadn't conquered yet. It was a prospect both marvelous and miserable, to see no hand but man's in the workings of the world, and one Steve wasn't sure he wanted to share.)

SHIELD's intelligence analysts weren't looking at objects of power, at least not as expansively as Schmidt had meant the term. They were focused on things like dirty bombs and co-opted jihadist networks and weapons caches and communication networks and other perfectly practical things to focus on when your job was to keep the world from blowing up. They'd stepped back far enough to see that there was a bigger picture, that there was, in fact, this entity calling itself HYDRA. But even as they debated whether the name was just something someone had gotten off Wikipedia or whether it had a deeper and darker meaning, they were missing that half-audible melody that wouldn't quite go away.

Steve turned to ask Clint something about the Trencin mission when he realized Clint wasn't there. He looked at his watch, realized he'd been running for ninety minutes and that Clint had probably stopped half an hour ago and given him a parting nod that he'd totally missed.

Without breaking stride, Steve ran off the deck and didn't stop until he got to Fury's suite of offices. Hsiang, Fury's secretary ("administrative assistant" was her official title), watched him enter with a speculative look on her face. She ruled Fury's office life like a four-foot-nine absolute monarch and firmly believed that her boss worked better when kept on his toes through occasionally capricious interruptions by people he couldn't easily fire. So she buzzed Steve right in and Fury, not unaware of his petite overlord's worldview, looked unsurprised when Steve barged into his office at a gallop.

"Why are you dripping sweat on my floor?"

"Objects of power, sir," Steve said as he looked down. He wasn't actually dripping. Mostly. "I think we're being too literal. We're looking for enriched uranium and weapons-grade biologicals. We should be looking at… I don't know, the internet."

Fury raised his visible eyebrow slowly. "The internet's a big place, Captain."

Which was not a "you're being crazy and wasting my time" response. It was a "explain yourself further before I decide whether you are being crazy and wasting my time" response. So Steve pressed on.

"The original HYDRA collected all sorts of things that were rumored to have magical power - divine power, even," he continued, wiping his sweaty face with his hand and then his palm on his shirt. "Schmidt wanted to understand how it all worked so he could make it work for himself. He had teams invading shrines where miracles were supposed to have been performed and stealing reliquaries out of monastaries. They went after magicians that had tricks nobody could figure out. They got the tesseract by chasing some old Norse myths."

"Which turned out to be a little bit more than that," Fury said wryly, holding up a hand to keep Steve from interrupting. "I understand what you're getting at, Captain. We need to start thinking about what the modern equivalents of those mysteries are."

Steve wanted to say that reliquaries and shrines were still very much part of modern life to people who didn't take jets to go work in flying aircraft carriers, but chose not to. "Talk to Tony and Bruce," he said instead. "Ask them for their lists of miracles and wonders."

There was more, but not much and by the time Steve was showered, changed, fed, and back in the aft library reading old OSS files in a chair that very faintly vibrated, Tony had sent him something called the "hampster dance" that was meant to poke fun at Steve calling the internet a modern miracle but instead ended up teaching Steve what an "earworm" was. Also, he'd researched what New Coke was and promptly put it in the mental file of Things He Was Glad He Had Slept Through.

"This would be a lot easier if we knew who we were dealing with."

Tony's voice came from everywhere and nowhere. Bruce's lab aboard the helicarrier had speakers in strategic locations to eliminate echoes and make it sound like you were submerged in whatever was coming through them. Which was much more pleasant when it was nature sounds or quiet music and not Tony.

Steve did not roll his eyes. Bruce, however, did and Steve grinned at him.

"If we knew who we were dealing with," Steve explained patiently, "we wouldn't be going on a wild-goose chase to figure out what he -- or she -- is up to."

A put-upon sigh filled the room. "I'm just saying that your request for a list of 'modern miracles and wonders,'" - Steve could hear Tony making air quotes, even if he couldn't see them - "would be easier to compile if we knew what kind of person we were looking at. Is it someone dumbstruck by indoor plumbing? Are they flummoxed by a blu-ray player? Are they able to follow a graduate-level article on partially ionized force field generation? If we can't tell if they are they building their own particle colliders or birdhouses out of popsicle sticks, it's kind of hard to narrow it down."

Bruce put down the not-a-soldering-iron carefully, lifted up his protective goggles so that they were on top of his head like cat ears, and sat down on his stool. And then he started laughing, a silent laugh that reached his eyes and, for one brilliant shining moment, let Steve see who Bruce might've been if The Other Guy wasn't around.

"Tony," Steve began patiently, sure his smile was audible. "There is a very big gap between barely understanding how to dig a latrine trench and building space shuttles. Those of us who are more on the popsicle birdhouse side of that divide have it covered. What I'm asking you for is the space shuttle angle."

A surround-sound snort. "Space shuttles are easy, just for the record? I built my first orbit-capable module when I was nine."

"You went into space when you were nine?" Bruce asked, skeptically. Or, really, that kind-of-skeptical that you had to use when Tony was telling you things about his life because so much was plausible and it was sometimes hard to tell when he was full of it without calling Pepper first. Pepper, bless her, was used to these sorts of queries.

"I did not. Because my father wasn't impressed with my re-entry protocols and my mother didn't like the idea of having to send the Navy out to the middle of the Indian Ocean to fish her little boy out of the drink," Tony answered, still managing to sound aggrieved at the injustice.

"Okay, so let's set our baseline at 'people who could work for the space program' and not 'people who could singlehandedly be the space program?" Steve suggested.

This turned out to be harder to follow through on than Steve had imagined. Entirely because Tony really had a hard time gauging what constituted an average intelligence and no ability to scale up or down.

"I don't intentionally interact with average people," Tony explained after the fourth time Steve and Bruce suggested he was being hilariously patronizing. "Who would?"

But eventually Bruce, with rapidly diminishing assistance from Steve, maneuvered Tony into a frame of understanding that produced results. Or, at least, what Bruce seemed to consider results because Steve had absolutely no idea what the heck the two of them were talking about. He wouldn't have been able to say animal, vegetable, or mineral as they threw suggestions back and forth, finished each other's sentences, laughed at each other's jokes, and sent each other files to illustrate their points. (Steve was looking at Bruce's HUD from the back, but he didn't think he'd be able to comprehend a thing even if it weren't backward.)

It was entertaining to watch, absolutely, but it was also like that time when Dum Dum and Jim had come back from a recon mission with a couple of film reels they had sworn would be blue movies but had instead ended up being some dense Dutch family drama where everyone kept their clothes on and yet they had watched it anyway because there'd been nothing else to do. Then and now, Steve would have loved subtitles.

As Bruce and Tony got further into their swirling vortex of genius chatter - was that a volcano on Bruce's screen or some kind of physics proof? - Steve let his mind wander a bit. He would have been happy to let his body wander a bit, too, since he wasn't contributing to the conversation, but this was nominally a discussion instigated at his request and, as glad as he would be to leave Bruce to be so entertained and positively stimulated, Steve actually needed to come out of this with a list that could be passed on to Maria Hill. Which meant that he had to stick around, at least physically, or else they'd be at this for hours.

And so he stayed, feet up on the bottom rung of the stool next to his, and let the discussion wash over him like gentle waves of nonsense until he heard something he understood (or thought he did) and could ask a follow-up question. So long as he kept the interruptions infrequent and on-topic, Tony didn't seem to mind and would in fact help Bruce explain whatever it was to him. Both of them respected his intelligence, something he'd been maybe a little more grateful for before realizing that Tony had a hard time distinguishing between the intelligence of a goldfish and the intelligence of an adult human, and they didn't intentionally talk down to him.

Nonetheless, this would go down as one of the most difficult conversations he'd tried to follow since the very beginning of his post-sleep life, when everything had sounded and looked absurd and unreal and foreign. He had loved science fiction as a boy and had read and reread the pulp novels the various Commandos had carried until they'd disintegrated, but he'd lost the taste for it since he'd woken up to find himself living in one. Here and now, however, his teammates were redefining the genre while he took notes, deciding what was possible and plausible and, when Steve could get a word in edgewise, they'd debate whether these things would be of interest to anyone trying to take over the world.

Eventually, Steve got them to stay on topic long enough to get a working list of possible targets, tangible and not, and make sure each of them was what Steve understood them to be. He excused himself then, leaving the two of them to continue some joke about anti-hydrogen that Bruce found so funny that he couldn't get the rest out. The final sound he heard before the door swooshed closed behind him was Tony's laughter filling the room.

Natasha shanghaied him about ten steps after he'd gotten out of Hill's office. "Spar with me?"

Steve gave her a look. "I just went through two hours of having my intellect pummeled into mush, you want to go for my body now, too?"

She smiled brightly. "You're a fast healer."

"That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt at the time," Steve pointed out dryly, but he let her loop her arm around his and lead him toward the elevator that would take them down to the gyms.

"Did you get anything out of them?" Natasha asked as she pulled off her sweatshirt and started to limber up. Steve was never sure where to look when she did that; she'd roll her eyes if she caught him looking away, but he privately thought she appreciated it. She used her sexuality as a weapon - Steve had no idea just how far that went and didn't think he ever really wanted to know - but that was, more or less, at her discretion and under her control. Getting good looks for free just because she was a teammate seemed like taking advantage. She was gorgeous, she knew he thought she was gorgeous, and there was no reason to carry that discussion any further.

"I got a waterfall out of them," he answered, stretching his right shoulder by pulling his arm across his chest at the elbow. "I understood a trickle."

A grunt of sympathy from Natasha, whose head was down by her knees with her hands flat on the floor.

"But it's on Hill's desk now and she can handle the follow-up if there needs to be any," he went on, switching arms. "I'm happy to stick to what I can do without needing Bruce to translate it into very small words for me."

Natasha stood up and fixed her ponytail. "Captain America and the search for the Spear of Destiny," she said with a fake announcer's voice. "Sounds like a dime store novel."

"I wouldn't bat an eye if it was one," Steve replied, toeing off his sneakers and pulling off his socks before walking on to the mat. "I spent the better part of a month looking for the thing back in '44."

The Spear was on the list of objects of power that he'd submitted to Fury, along with the note that HYDRA had spent a lot of time and resources looking for it to no success, which made Steve doubt whether it actually existed. There had been several dozen fakes, of course, but the real thing? They'd have known if either Schmidt or Hitler had found it.

Natasha joined him on the mat and they began, a slow circling that sped up before they closed in enough to strike. He had reach and strength, but she had speed and agility and much more recent experience with hand-to-hand. Also, despite his awareness that she could take a lot, he still ended up pulling his punches a little and that, invariably, got her pissed off enough that she'd attack with such a fury that he had no choice but to drop the gentlemanly routine and fight to stay upright.

That's what happened this time, as it always did, the banter and conversation dying out in favor of muttered Russian curses (Natasha knew very well that his rudimentary knowledge of the language covered all of the ugly things she was saying to him) and the grunts and smack of violent flesh on flesh contact. She knocked him over, he got up, she tried to fell him again and needed to bounce herself off of the wall to keep from being flung halfway across the room in rebuttal. They went back and forth, his endurance making up for her fury most of the time, his healing factor covering for the rest.

Finally, she started a complicated attack that Steve needed all of his remaining quickness and strength to turn away, but turn it away he did, resoundingly. He finished without having enough left in the tank to check his momentum, which carried him into the far wall. He landed against it hard and stayed there, hands on his knees, blinking sweat out of his eyes, and forcing himself to breathe deeply and slowly.

"How did you do that?"

Steve wiped his eyes and looked over at Natasha, who was sitting on the mat where he'd thrown her, albeit in a far more dignified pose now than when she'd landed. She was looking at him like he was a stranger, almost, like he was showing something he'd successfully hidden up until now and she had just now gotten to see.

"Do what?" he asked, since he hadn't actually done anything novel or interesting as far as his personal repertoire of moves went.

"I've never had that attack fail before," she answered, rolling into a graceful stand and going over to where they'd left their water bottles. She picked up both and tossed him his. "I'm one of the only people who can pull off that combination and I've never seen anyone defend against it before."

He took a long drink before replying, organizing his thoughts. He'd managed to defeat the attack because he'd been able to recognize very early on what the kill move was going to be and had kept Natasha from being able to get in a position where she could use it. And he'd been able to do that because the entire approach had seemed very familiar, although this was only a realization that he could have in hindsight.

"It reminded me of how the Commandos used to fight," he said with a shrug. "We sparred together, all of us. Mostly boxing, some judo, some savate, a lot of street brawling, whatever we picked up from whoever we were working with. It kind of got mashed together after a while. I guess I just saw enough of that in where you were going."

The answer didn't completely satisfy Natasha, but it was the only one he had, so it would have to do.

"Ice cream?" he suggested. "Rumor has it that Tony's gotten us a $4000 ice cream maker."

Natasha's eyes lit up. "He got the Pacojet? Oh, then absolutely."

Some women got that gleam in their eyes when talking about clothes or jewels. The way to Natasha's heart was directly through her very refined palate, something that Tony understood well. His bribes to her always involved five-star restaurants and private dinners catered by world-famous chefs. Steve, neither as rich nor as refined nor as connected as Tony could only work with what he had. And that, in this case, was Tony's $4000 ice cream machine.

Which, for the record, made a pretty killer blueberry ginger sorbet.

Chapter Text

"I liked them. They were whimsical."

"Whimsical?" Clint repeated, sounding either outraged or out of breath. Presumably the former because this wasn't that steep a staircase for their fitness levels. "That's what you're going with?"

Steve paused, adjusting his shield bag over his backpack so that the former would hopefully stop banging in to the latter with an audible, if muffled, clank on every step. He'd had to fix it twice on the long march from Kabah, but it kept slipping. They were dressed in civvies - well, what could conceivably pass for civvies that went with their loose cover as adventurous tourists who'd come to Uxmal to see the Mayan ruins and hike around - and he didn't want to draw any more attention to his oddly shaped luggage than he had to now that they were surrounded by more people.

"What's wrong with whimsical?"

Clint gave him a flat stare over the top of his sunglasses as he caught up, then turned to keep marching up the steps of the Grand Pyramid without a word and without waiting for Steve, who had to skip steps to catch up.

"What did you do?" Natasha asked him as he got to the top. Clint stood next to her, still scowling.

"I didn't do anything," Steve protested, holding his hands up in either innocence or surrender. Or both, because this was Natasha. Clint harrumphed and moved away from them, deftly dodging a child carrying a stuffed animal jaguar as he made to take in the view from on high.

Natasha gave him a look that had made many give up their secrets.

"Clint asked me what I thought of the Indiana Jones movies and I said that I liked them and found them whimsical," Steve reported, although he knew it came out sounding like a confession.

"Ah," Natasha replied with a knowing nod.

"What am I not getting?" Steve asked, looking past her to Clint, who was simultaneously staying close while also pretending that he didn't know either of them. "Is this one of those missing-time things?"

Natasha smiled fondly, although Steve wasn't sure if it was for him or for Clint. "They're his favorite movies," she explained. "I think he was probably hoping you'd have a bit more of a… visceral reaction to them."

Steve wasn't sure whether he should feel like a heel or burst out laughing. The movies had been Tony's idea, a suggestion delivered with that sly tone that meant that Tony thought he was setting up some kind of hilarity that you could either be witness to or subject of, depending on how clever you were. Steve had ended up being both, mostly because he hadn't realized that Tony's 'background research' was a trilogy of action comedies ("there's a fourth, but it's better if you pretend there isn't") when he'd been presented with them. But he'd recovered nicely, by Tony's own admittance, and Steve thought he'd gotten clear of that particular trap until five minutes ago.

"Does he want to discuss details?" he finally asked, since openly laughing at his teammate - who was still in earshot - would not be good leadership. "I can critique the fictionalization of the Ahnenerbe and HYDRA if he wants, but that would be defeating the purpose. I liked the humor, but some of it was like watching the newsreels back in the day - a peppier version of a much darker reality that I'd seen up close. Other than that, Karen Allen over Kate Capshaw for romantic interests, but Sean Connery for best sidekick."

This time, Steve understood Natasha's smile perfectly because he'd worn that same wry, rueful expression himself. But then she winked at him and he couldn't help grinning.

"Why don't we get on with things," she suggested. "I've got five units emplaced up here, which should be sufficient. I've got a few suggestions for down below, but Clint can make those calls."

They were in Mexico to set up surveillance of the temples at Uxmal because, once upon a time, Schmidt (according to Zola's files) had put it on HYDRA's list of places of import. They'd never gotten to Mexico; HYDRA, like the Ahnenerbe, had been sharply circumscribed in their actions by the ebb and flow of war and while they'd managed to make lasting inroads in Argentina, they'd had neither the courage nor the manpower to come so close to America. The assassination of Abraham Erskine remained HYDRA's only major triumph in North America and while SHIELD's official documentation treated this as a great success, Steve understood all too well how much that one failure had cost them.

Here and now, Clint, the sniper, had final - and essentially only - say in where the rest of the trackers and cameras went. He double-checked Natasha's work, arguably one of the only people who could get away with it, and announced his suggestions for the balance of the surveillance devices with a calm detachment that had nothing to do with his earlier pique. What made Clint so effective was that while he had the studied eye of the long-distance shooter, he could also effortlessly factor in the ground-level reality, a shift in perspective that not everyone could pull off. Steve certainly couldn't; he'd left the sniping to the other Commandos, first Bucky and then Jacques, who could look through a scope and still work the math for a world without magnification. Clint was levels beyond them, beyond everyone, which was why the guy with the arrows was on a team with Iron Man and The Hulk.

Steve followed Natasha back down the steps, leaving Clint in his perch while they moved around the site to verify sightlines and serve as models and markers for Clint's imaginary scope as he positioned them via their comms. The actual relics that Schmidt had and HYDRA might be interested in were in a museum a half-kilometer away, but the temples were here and all of them agreed that anyone interested in seeing what kind of magic or mysticism or uncategorized science was behind centuries' worth of miracles and strange coincidences would follow the ancient rituals in their fullness, which meant bringing the artifacts to the temples in which they'd been used.

They were almost done when they got a call from Neal Tapper, who was essentially the Avengers' liaison with 'regular' SHIELD but carried some other title because, even within the bureaucracy of SHIELD, Phil Coulson's memory still lingered.

"Is this an emergency?" Steve asked, already knowing it wasn't - it would have been Hill or Fury himself if it were - but accepting that it might be almost to that level because Neal was an experienced field agent and was very aware of what everyone was doing and how interruptible they were.

"It'll keep insofar as you're too far away to do anything," Neal answered, voice tinny and frustrated over the comms. "But yeah, it's rapidly progressing from bad situation to epic goat rodeo."

They finished installing the surveillance devices as quickly as they could without sacrificing either secrecy - they were acting without either permission or knowledge of the government of Mexico - or efficacy and then dispersed, each of them finding their own way to the first rally point, a quiet spot in the forest that surrounded the site far away from the main tourist paths. Steve got there first and called Neal back as he pulled out his iPad (Tony was still pissed that Steve always left his StarkTablet at home, but there wasn't a ruggedized case for it while there was for the iPad).

By the time the live feed was playing, Natasha had joined him. Clint showed up a moment later.

"What are we watching?" Steve asked, holding up the iPad so that Natasha wasn't forced to stare at his lap. "Besides 'combat,' because that part's clear."

The footage was from one of the floating cameras that SHIELD had taken to using to document their actions entirely to prevent getting hauled before international courts and Congress. It was of a firefight, the kind that Steve was familiar with but had largely disappeared before Clint's and Natasha's careers had really gotten started - groups of uniformed combatants with roughly equal technology shooting at each other with some attempt at tactical maneuvering and nobody 'shooting and scooting' or hiding behind civilians. Take away the high-tech body armor and sleek uniforms and it could have been any smallish fight from 'his' war. But it wasn't his war; it was a SHIELD team being pursued with prejudice in the middle of an urban center by a surprising number of opponents he didn't recognize by their uniforms and face masks.

The cameras showed an empty -- emptying -- square, people still fleeing and some huddled on the ground either in terror or pain. The SHIELD agents were doing their best to protect them, providing cover (and covering fire) as their teammates bodily moved those unable to run, depositing them behind cars or planters or whatever could serve as any kind of protection from danger. The bad guys -- was it too soon to call them HYDRA? -- were firing away anyway.

"This is outside St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow," Neal answered. "It was on the list of places to tag because it contains relics that the Ahnenerbe spirited out of Poland during the war and were actually returned. We sent a standard team; there was nothing to indicate that this was a target of any higher value than any others."

SHIELD's allocation of resources for this operation had been a balancing act between where they could act with impunity - Poland had excellent relations with SHIELD; Mexico was considered less reliable and better acted around than with - and how many resources they could dedicate, even short-term, for an op that was still almost entirely a wild-goose chase based on the speculation of a guy who'd been frozen for seventy years and was 'little more than a slab of beef with a high school diploma.' (Steve wasn't supposed to have seen the minutes of that debate, but Tony's inability to respect other people's boundaries was also coupled with a charmingly perverse sense of protectiveness toward his teammates.)

"What did they do? Kick over an ant hill?" Clint asked over Steve's left shoulder. "There are dozens of them."

Steve could hear the anger in Clint's voice and shared it. The powerlessness was suffocating and watching it on the same iPad he had used to watch Duck Soup on the flight down to Mexico added to the surreality and made the distance seem even greater. These were agents put in harm's way because of him - he could already hear Fury remind him that he hadn't signed them up for SHIELD, hadn't tasked them with the mission, and oh, by the way, he wasn't the head of SHIELD and the buck did not stop with him - but it didn't matter. He'd given orders that sent men to their deaths before, but he'd been either right there next to them or far away and had only found out the results in briefings after the fact; he'd never watched the consequences of his actions play out in real time from an unreachable distance.

"Are there reinforcements en route?" Natasha asked tensely. The camera, presumably unintentionally, passed twice over a tiny pink backpack with a blonde ragdoll stitched to the back panel. There was blood on the doll's cheek.

"Only to help with the exfil," Neal replied. "We're respecting the Poles' request that we not add fuel to the fire and send in more shooters. They're deploying local forces and handling containment."

A snort from Clint as the camera surveyed the ever-expanding boundaries of the firefight and found a single young man with his phone held up, taking a picture of the carnage. "And doing a piss-poor job of it."

"This is a heavily-trafficked civilian location," Neal pointed out with more than a touch of asperity. "Their priority is to keep the collateral damage down. We went in there with the promise that we'd be out before anyone realized we'd arrived. We've already made liars of ourselves, even if the other guys shot first, and we have to do what we can to not make things worse."

There was no good reason for them to stay where they were and watch the fight unfold; Neal could give them radio updates and they had every reason to get going and keep to their schedule and get to the airstrip. But they stayed, without so much as a word of discussion between each other or with Neal, and watched as a SHIELD jet descended right in the middle of the square, cutting off the HYDRA agents' line of fire and allowing the team to escape, wounded but alive - and with a prisoner in tow. This was not a strategic withdrawal, it was a flight, but there was no shame or dishonor in it. Outnumbered, vastly outgunned, surrounded by civilians, they'd come out with all of their number plus one. Neal reported when the team had been safely evacuated, then told them to get going and make their own exfil; he'd already radioed the team at the airstrip (they were traveling by civilian equipment piloted by SHIELD personnel) with an ETA.

Steve re-covered the iPad and stowed it in his pack, taking a moment to rearrange the contents of the outer pocket so that his shield wasn't going to be clanking cadence all the way to the car, which was parked by Kabah. He looked up, though, when Natasha gave his shoulder a quick squeeze as she moved past him. She gave him a half-smile, one that proved that while he'd been trying to keep his emotions and thoughts to himself as they watched, he might not have quite totally succeeded.

They beat the Polish SHIELD team back to the Helicarrier by a few hours, which was long enough to do a quick debrief of what they'd seen and done in Mexico - Steve, Clint, and Natasha had been able to boil that down to its bare essence on the flight up - and to have a longer discussion with Fury and Hill and Tapper about what had happened in Krakow and what it meant both for SHIELD in general and the Avengers in specific.

That the bad guys in navy body armor and face masks were HYDRA was already considered to be established fact; the cameras had pretty awful audio, so Steve had missed the shouts of "Hail HYDRA!" over the video feed. What HYDRA wanted, who was running them, where they were based, why had they wanted a reliquary of a saint's finger bone, those were all questions still unanswered. And now, with the entire world watching, SHIELD was that much more pressed to come up with answers.

"We're calling them terrorists for now," Tapper explained as they left Fury's office, only Hill staying behind. "Ideology and demands unknown. It's pretty bland as far as public statements go, nonjudgmental-"

"You're calling them terrorists," Steve pointed out.

Tapper waved the objection away with a hand gesture. "It gives them the opportunity to correct us and give us a clue what they're about. They'll say that they're freedom fighters or environmentalists or millenarians and we'll know how to proceed from there."

"And what if they say that they're out to reunite all the disparate Aryan peoples under one flag?" Steve asked as they reached the elevators. "What if their goal is world domination and not safe whales?"

"Then we've got a fight on our hands," Tapper said simply. "You going up or down?"

After a quick check to verify that neither Tony nor Bruce were around - they'd spend the occasional day together working in one of the labs on projects - Steve wound up in the chow hall because his last meal had been a pollo pibil plate from a roadside stand before he and Clint had started the long walk to Uxmal.

The food on the Helicarrier was edible but never anything more than that, so Steve bypassed the more exotic offerings and sweet-talked the line cook at the sandwich station into making him a croque-madame (she had no idea what it was called, but she willingly grilled a gruyere-and-ham sandwich for him and dropped a fried egg on top and wished him bon appetit with a smile). He picked out a fruit salad that wasn't all unripe cantaloupe, a black-and-white cookie (that was probably only going to disappoint him), and a can of flavored seltzer and went to find an unoccupied table.

He found the next best thing, which was Natasha sitting at an otherwise unoccupied table. She was absently eating a salad - not for figure-watching reasons, but for the same ones Steve had for not trying the lasagna or chow mein - and reading a Russian magazine article.

"Fashionable bears?"

Natasha looked up at him in confusion. "What?!?"

"The article. I was reading the big print upside down," he explained as he sat down, gesturing with his chin toward her magazine. She turned the magazine so that he could see the title right side up. "Oh. Well, I'm sure fashionable bears are more interesting than whatever the Duma's considering doing about a free press."

She made a face that was probably agreement as she popped a tomato into her mouth. "What did Fury say?" she asked after swallowing.

"That he wants to wait until he's talked to the strike team and the interrogators have had a crack at the prisoner before making a final decision," Steve answered as he shuffled the contents of his tray around from the optimal setup for carrying to the optimal setup for eating. "But I don't think he really expects anyone to believe that. He knows what he wants to do; he just doesn't want to tell anyone yet."

Fury had been in a mood, understandable with SHIELD's botched op currently splashed on every television and computer screen on the planet, but Steve recognized it for what it was, which was the mood after the mood, what was left over after the surprise and anger had burned away. Fury, in Steve's modest experience, wasn't a stewer or a sulker; he had already moved on to what had to be done next. Which didn't mean that he hadn't been unpleasant to be around and sharper than he'd needed to be, just that he hadn't been lashing out just to make himself feel better.

"They're going to pick your brain like sesame seeds off a bagel," Natasha said as she dug a crouton out of a forest of romaine. "Whoever's left, at least. Heads are going to roll over this and I'm not going to feel bad about it. We blew this sky high."

Steve grunted agreement as he sliced his sandwich all the way through. A sizeable enemy force with at least moderately advanced training, definitely advanced materiel, and yet nobody had known a thing about them until they'd opened fire on a junior field team inside one of Poland's biggest tourist attractions. Even if there turned out to be no connection with the old HYDRA - highly unlikely considering their first target - there was just no excuse for this kind of massive intelligence failure when SHIELD's whole purpose was to keep on top of these things and stop them before they started. That there had actually been an open op focused on the old HYDRA when this went down? Only made things that much worse. Someone was going to have to take the blame for this, possibly even someone who was responsible for it.

"I'm not sure if I'm hoping it's the same ideology or not," Natasha went on. "A break from fighting bad guys who are in it for their mad gods or their dollars. Or who are mad gods."

"I don't think Loki was nearly as nuts as we'd all like him to be," Steve said before taking a bite. Warm cheese oozed down his hand and he licked it off before it could hit his wrist. "And in my experience, the secular idols aren't really any better than the religious ones when it comes to fighting true believers."

They ate quietly for a while, listening to the snatches of conversation from other tables, all of which concerned what had happened in Krakow. Mostly it was shock and surprise and, occasionally, concern for someone on the team who was personally known. A large smattering of rumors as well, some ridiculous and some plausible and some both.

Clint joined them as they were still chuckling over an overheard declaration that the Krakow firefight was actually a cover for a secret field day for The Hulk. While Bruce would no doubt appreciate the beauty of the basilica, Steve highly doubted that The Other Guy would sit around uploading vacation snaps to Flickr if he could.

"Polish team's about half an hour out," Clint announced as he sat down next to Steve. Clint's tray was holding three glasses of brightly colored drink (pink, orange, blue) and a heaping plate of what looked like beef stew over french fries. "Gonna run 'em through medical and then everyone gets to sit in a very plain room and answers a lot of questions."

Natasha reached across the table to steal a fry off of Clint's plate; he made a halfhearted effort to defend his dinner with his fork. "Are they interviewing the prisoner upstairs or downstairs?"

SHIELD had several interrogation rooms, most of which would soon be occupied by the returning agents. They were spartan and well-lit and all came with observation rooms attached. There were others on the lower decks, which were the opposite in all respects, and they were subject to more rumors than even botched ops because nobody went down there without a very good reason and prior authorization. Steve hadn't been, although he knew enough about them that he had no curiosity (and even less interest).

"Upstairs," Clint answered with a frown. "Can't use a rubber hose on a guy everyone on the planet saw us haul away."

It had never crossed Steve's mind that the downstairs rooms would be an option in the first place. Not for the media awareness angle -- he was still too much of an old soldier to have those thoughts be automatic -- but because it was something that he'd never imagine the good guys doing. He wasn't naive; he knew what sort of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were used today and why -- there'd been a lot of talk about that during his visit to Bragg -- and he would not pretend that he hadn't done far worse himself during 'his' war. But that had been war, declared and waged, and this... this would be war, Steve knew it, but it was not war yet. These were not anywhere close to the kinds of extenuating circumstances for which he'd be willing to push the envelope a little too far, certainly not with what was undoubtedly a low-level fighter whose ability to provide useful, actionable intelligence would be minimal at best.

An agent with a probationary badge on her shoulder came up to their table. "Captain Rogers, sir?" she began tentatively. "Director Fury thought you might like to know that the team's ETA is ten minutes."

"Apparently we're not invited," Clint murmured to Natasha, who made a properly scandalized face in reply.

The probationary agent's eyes widened. "I--"

"Don't worry," Steve assured her, holding up a hand to placate her and realizing there was grease on it. He reached for a napkin. "Agent Barton is just making fun."

"I was not making fun," Clint retorted after the young lady beat a hasty retreat. "I was being facetious."

"Don't mess with the rookies," Steve chided, bunching up his napkin and dropping it on his tray. "You never know which one of them is going to be in charge of your itinerary or your lodgings six months from now."

Steve was on the flight deck by the time the Polish team arrived, along with Fury and Hill and the commander of the team's squadron. They stood together in the area designated by the Air Boss, whom even Fury would not so much as sass, near a phalanx of SHIELD's equivalent of MPs. They waited for the jet to land and taxi, following the yellow-clad aircraft director until he told them via hand signals to stop, power down, and drop the ramp. The MPs quick-marched over to the rear of the plane as soon as the ramp door began to open.

The first HYDRA agent Steve had seen in person in the last seventy years was... a kid. He wouldn't be able to reach twenty-five with a ladder and he seemed even younger as he looked around at his surroundings with curiosity and maybe a little awe. But he also carried himself with a lot of pride and a level of confidence that made Steve immediately wary.

Not just Steve, either.

"Why do I get the uncomfortable feeling that we've just let another Trojan horse into our fair Carthage?" Fury asked, shouting to be heard over the noise of the flight deck.

Steve could only grimace in reply.

The field team came out next, their commander meeting them halfway and inspecting each in turn as they presented themselves to him. They were two short of their complement, the others left behind at Landstuhl Medical Center for treatment of injuries that would not wait until they were Stateside. The ones who did come back were bloodied and bandaged, including two with arm slings, and a few had that slightly glassy-eyed look that Steve recognized as part of the crash after the post-combat adrenaline surge. This was a young team, most of them still had the marks on their service uniforms from where their probationary badges had so recently been, and for them, this would have been their first time facing live fire outside of a training exercise. He made sure to meet the eyes of any of them who looked at him, giving them a ghost of a smile and a brief nod; he'd talk to them later as part of the debriefing and any words now would probably not be heard.

After the parade of field agents, all directed to go straight to the infirmary, don't even stop at the head first, Steve followed Fury and Hill back inside and down to Interrogation Room Four, which had an adjacent observation room already populated by technicians for the recording devices, an agent from Legal, and Clint and Natasha, who'd taken the best seats but promptly got up after glares from first Fury and then Hill.

The prisoner -- photo and fingerprints obtained in Poland and still running through the various databases -- was escorted in, dropped without too much force into a chair, and his wrist shackles adjusted so that he could reach for the water bottle and energy bar on the table before him. In the unflattering fluorescent lights of the interrogation room that made everyone else look nervous and ill, he was still almost glowing with peace.

"He's gonna allahu akbar on us, isn't he?" Clint asked rhetorically. "Got the look of a martyr about him."

"Not unless he chokes himself on that energy bar," Hill said. "We searched him stem to stern. Got some interesting tech and we're running the serial numbers off of the Sig Sauer, see if we can't figure out who sold 'em. Hopefully, it wasn't us."

"They didn't file the numbers off?" Natasha looked more displeased than surprised. "It's never good when they don't care about that."

The interrogator, an agent from the Intelligence division that specialized in such, came in. She was a tall, attractive blonde who clearly had her uniforms tailored to fit her figure and Steve, who'd spent more time around women than most deployed soldiers did during the war, idly wondered if that was for professional or personal reasons.

She introduced herself as Anne, informed him of his rights as a detainee of SHIELD, and asked if he'd either like anything or like to report any violations of those rights.

"No thank you," the prisoner replied. He had an accent that, coupled with his physical appearance, put him as a native of the Indian subcontinent. Steve, at least, could not distinguish further. But others could.

"Pakistani," Natasha announced, then turned to Clint with her hand out. "You owe me ten."

Clint frowned. "I want a little more evidence before I concede."

Natasha must have made a face because Clint stuck his tongue out.

"Children," Fury warned.

Anne asked the prisoner what his name was and he said nothing. She asked him what he would like to be called, then, since Detainee XG468713 was a bit of a mouthful.

"Bob," the prisoner replied with a cheeky grin. "I don't see why I should be any more truthful in this regard than you are."

Anne and Bob's early discussion was notable for its utter lack of interesting information. Of any information, really, because Bob would not answer any questions. Anne asked where Bob was from, where he had been educated since it was clear that he was very well educated, was he still in contact with his family and what did they think of his current occupation... and Bob sat there, patiently, looking attentively at Anne in a perfectly gentlemanly way, and didn't say a word.

"Did we scan Bob for internal augmentation?" Clint asked. "Because I'm fine with him doing himself in, but I don't want him blowing up the rest of us."

"He went through the body imager," Hill answered. "Nothing popped."

The doors to the interrogation and observation rooms opened almost simultaneously. On the far side of the glass, a burly security agent handed a folder to Anne. On this side, just a head appeared.

"Director Fury? We've ID our prisoner. Fingerprints and school ID from the Government College of Technology in Lahore."

Fury snapped his fingers and the technician at the computer terminal on the right started typing.

Clint grumbled and started digging into his pocket for his wallet. Natasha turned back to look at Steve with a smug smile.

"If I'd known you two were wagering, I'd have put my money on you," Steve assured her. Natasha's smile turned coquettish and Steve grinned at the cheerful falseness of it.

A photo and text appeared on the large screen on the side, showing a school ID picture of Bob that had that criminal-in-the-spotlight trapped look and the biographical data that SHIELD had been able to collect once a name had been provided.

"Tahir Mahmood Zubair," Anne read off the file. "How nice to meet you. Shall we begin again?"

Bob was not much more cooperative the second go-round, so Anne stopped playing quite so nicely. She pressed him on his personal details, picking up the pace until it was a relentless barrage of questions and Bob lost a little bit of his beatitude.

"Why HYDRA?" she asked. "Fellow like you -- educated but jobless, unable to find a wife, no prospects and plenty of people to blame - they usually go the other way, up into the hills of the Northwest Frontier Province or somewhere else where the destination is essentially the same. You wind up in an entirely different kind of terrorist organization and are caught trying to pilfer Catholic relics. What makes a nice Muslim boy like you choose such a life?"

"I have no desire to live in the seventh century," Bob answered calmly.

"What do you desire?" Anne immediately followed up.

"The same things that all creatures desire," Bob replied, looking like he might be willing to become a little more chatty. Which was good, Steve knew, but didn't make Bob any less creepy to watch.

"A Lexus?" Anne suggested mildly.

Bob frowned. "Food, shelter, a purpose."

"And HYDRA gives you all of these? What is your purpose?"

"To serve HYDRA."

Natasha murmured something that Steve didn't hear clearly, but it sounded ominous.

"What is HYDRA's purpose?"

Bob's beatific smile turned feral. "To rule the world."

"Well, I guess we got that settled," Clint announced to no one in particular.

Anne tilted her head. "How do you expect to fulfill your purpose -- or HYDRA's -- by sitting here in a SHIELD detention cell?"

"I don't matter," Bob said with a tone that was almost patronizing. No, not patronizing. Instructive. "Cut off a limb and two will grow in its place. Hail HYDRA!"

And then he bit down on something that made a crack and slumped forward, unconscious.

"Well, shit," Hill spat out as guards burst into the room to help Anne try to revive Bob, who was very apparently past any such point.

On this side of the glass, Clint held out his hand and Natasha gave him back his ten dollars.

Chapter Text

“How much have you gotten to read so far?” Natasha asked as she poured them both glasses of wine, a crisp white that was currently residing in a bucket of cool-but-not-cold water because Natasha was picky like that. The wine for the steaks, a Cotes du Rhone, was sitting on the far end of the kitchen island because she’d insisted it be let ‘breathe.’ “Rumor mill says that Intelligence is having analysis paralysis after the shakeup.”

After Bob’s suicide-by-cyanide-tooth two weeks ago, the Helicarrier had been a tense place to be and SHIELD not the jolliest place to work. Between the public relations nightmare of the Polish mission and the realization that there was a major new player on the international terrorism scene, even the most casual observer could tell that Nick Fury had had better months and the news networks and internet had all had plenty to say on the matter. But for the more-than-casual observer, things were even messier. The entire Intelligence section was still reeling from the firings, re-assignments, and Fury’s command to the survivors, delivered in a low, bloodless voice, that they would go through everything from the beginning and figure where the hell HYDRA had come from and what they were about. (“And if that beginning dates back to the woolly mammoths and cave paintings, then so be it. Don’t think you’re getting overtime for not doing your job properly the first time.”) It was a tough environment to work in even for those who’d had nothing to do with HYDRA intel or action and Steve had avoided going up to the Helicarrier except when necessary – which was still fairly often. He’d given up some of his “luddite” ways to have files scanned in and delivered to him electronically and participated in his first few video teleconferences from the relative peace and comfort of his apartment.

“I’m not reading most of the product they’re spitting out right now,” Steve admitted as he unwrapped the towel in which the bibb lettuce and purslane had been wrapped. He chopped them up and put them in the bowl, then went to the fridge for the bowl of green grapes. “They’ve just finally gotten up to the splinter groups from the Fifties and I know how those songs go without needing to see the music sheet.”

After Schmidt’s disappearance and Zola’s flip to the Americans, HYDRA had crumbled, but not fallen completely. They’d ceased being any kind of factor in the war, so they’d essentially been ignored in favor of more pressing problems, but it turned out that some of the surviving commanders had spent the time marshaling resources and resetting the goals of an organization that had once planned to be the power behind the throne of the Thousand Year Reich. A couple of them had been rounded up in the post-war cleanup; one had wound up in one of the Nuremburg Trials with the other committing suicide. Of the others, one had been tracked down by the Israelis in the Seventies and killed in his villa in Switzerland, another had died in a car accident in Italy (popular opinion was that the Israelis were behind that, too, but the more likely culprit was the bottle of wine he’d consumed before getting behind the wheel), and one had lived to old age as a professor of archeology in Austria, where there’d apparently been a statute of limitations on feeling guilty for the Holocaust. There’d been a sixth, Oberstleutnant (originally Obersturmbannführer) Strucker, who’d simply vanished after a joint British-American operation in 1951 had destroyed the shadow HYDRA. HYDRA had lived up to the name even then and the splinter groups had popped up, necessitating further operations by various national security services, but Strucker hadn’t been an identifiable part of any of them and it was assumed that he’d been killed in one of the raids. And if he hadn’t, then he’d probably have died of old age before Germany had been reunified.

“They’re sending agents out to interview anyone still alive who was on the 1951 raids,” Steve went on, cutting up grapes and adding them to the salad, slapping away Natasha’s hand with the flat of his knife as she reached for one of the cut grapes. “They’ve had agents with Peggy Carter all week.”

Natasha gave up her pursuit of the grapes until Steve held out the bowl and she took a cluster and put it next to the cheese plate. “I know. I’ve been tasked to assist the Russia desk with the Soviet material she’s making them reopen.”

Peggy had more or less run the operation. In her opinion, which Steve had gotten when he’d gone down to Philly before the SHIELD people had shown up, was that it was completely possible that HYDRA had survived in some manner, shape, or form since the original, that the current iteration was not, in fact, a current iteration but the original with a face lift for a new age. “We missed so much, Steve,” she’d sighed. “Some of it intentionally – we knew there were Soviet moles everywhere and we didn’t want Uncle Joe getting his hands on what HYDRA had been hording. But we know they did, a lot of it, and we’ve never quite figured out what it was. They took people, too. Scientists. No wonder they got into space first.”

Steve put the grapes back in the fridge and took out the gorgonzola. “I’m not sure if I’ll be relieved or worried if she’s right and this turns out to be the re-emergence of the original,” he said as he turned on the burner under the cast iron pan. “On the one hand, it’s something we can at least use. On the other, it’s kind of like finding out that the monster under the bed is real.”

“All of the monsters under my bed were real.” Natasha cut herself a piece of the soft cheese that wasn’t brie but the young lady at the dairy stall had assured him was even creamier. She arranged it artfully on a torn-off piece of fresh baguette before popping it into her mouth and making a happy noise. “Did this come from your cow?”

“Not that I know of,” Steve replied, crumbling gorgonzola and sprinkling it on the salad. He wiped off his hands, returned the gorgonzola to the fridge and took out the butter, cutting off a knob and dropping it on the heating pan. “I may be a city boy, but I’m pretty sure the cows that make cheese aren’t the same cows that make ribeye.”

Steve had purchased half a cow at the farmers market the other month, entirely because the very fact that he could was even more preposterous than having to think hard between purslane and tatsoi. He’d imagined it to be a kind of solomonic process, with him agreeing to either the north or south end of a cow, or maybe there was some kind of process that would split the cow down the middle. He’d been tempted to ask Bruce about this, entirely because of the way Bruce would pause, blink, then break out laughing when encountering the absurd. He hadn’t been tempted to ask Tony, entirely because if there wasn’t any such process, Tony might invent one just to mock him. Tony found out anyway, of course, and told him to watch Goldfinger because that problem had been solved a long time ago.

But there'd been nothing even slightly biblical about the cow. He’d simply gotten an email saying that so many pounds of fresh beef (broken down by cut and quantity) were ready for retrieval and he had the option of letting them age his steaks and retrieving those at a later date. And he’d asked Clint to drive with him upstate to pick up his beef because Clint, of all of his teammates, was the one who’d think it was a cool idea because Clint was forever moaning about how it was impossible to get good beef in New York. He had agreed, of course, and had promptly wheedled a promise of a porterhouse out of Steve.

The aforementioned ribeyes sizzled when placed on the pan.

“I hope this is something new,” Natasha said, sipping at her wine. “Otherwise, we have to start asking ‘why now?’ and I don’t think that it’s going to be the same answer as you have for why you popped up again after seventy years.”

Neal Tapper texted while Steve was out running:

"Thor turned up at the Helicarrier; call for pickup."

Steve's ability to handle electronic printed communication was respectable, but he absolutely refused to either learn the modern shorthand or forget the rules of basic grammar when composing texts and emails. He inserted apostrophes and other punctuation when required, spelled everything fully and correctly, and was apparently deemed enough of a prig about reading other people's compositions that they'd generally put in the effort to do the same for him. Except Tony, but Steve had no trouble replying to anything Tony sent him with a request for an English translation.

("You have killer puppy-dog eyes," Clint had told him. "Nobody wants to be the person who made Captain America disappointed or confused.")

Tapper's summons wasn't urgent; Steve finished his tour of the waterfront, stopped at the bodega for copies of the Bugle and the Post, and showered and made breakfast for himself before setting a time to be retrieved.

The call had been out to Thor for weeks. Steve had initially been a little taken aback that the means of communicating with Asgard had quite literally meant giving Dr. Jane Foster a sign to put up in her workspace for Heimdall to tell Thor that his presence was desired. He'd asked Bruce and Tony why they couldn't do something a little more direct and timely than the intergalactic version of a message in a bottle, but that had only made them at first flustered and then a little defensive and they'd wound up by suggesting that his ability to distinguish between science and science-fiction was still in progress. Which Steve couldn't argue with, although he could blame them for some of it. He had only realized rather after the fact that they'd thought he was challenging their (intellectual) manhoods.

Neither was around when Steve got to the Helicarrier. Bruce was scheduled to arrive later (standing orders were to let Doctor Banner get ready on his own time; he could conference in from the plane if required) and Tony was in the middle of a board meeting that was uninterruptible (actually uninterruptible, not just Tony being afraid that Pepper would get mad at him if he bailed in the middle again pleading planetary threat). There were jokes about Tony worrying more about the particular nature of Pepper's ire than anything to do with Stark Industries, but Steve knew it really was the latter. Between the damage done to the tower during the assault on Manhattan and all of the different ways Tony being Iron Man (and sometimes just Tony being Tony) made life more difficult and expensive for Stark Industries, this was still a delicate and difficult time for Tony in his professional life. Which generally meant Tony put extra effort into pretending it wasn't, but it wasn't a mask that could fool anyone who knew him well at all.

The deck level with all of the command offices (sadly not called the poop deck because so much of the Helicarrier's crew were former sailors and objected to the inaccuracy) was busier than usual and more crowded with science personnel than, well, ever. They had their own areas of the ship and tended to stay there, even more so after Tony had brokered a deal for SI to upgrade a lot of the equipment at only slightly over cost. But there were pockets of them here and there, snatches of indecipherable conversations leaking out of conference rooms with ajar doors, as Steve walked by. There were also more understandable overheard bits from the historical researchers and data analysts (the last speaking the most quietly because they were the ones still rightfully terrified of Fury) who had found themselves corners to coordinate briefing data for their possible summoning.

Hsiang pointed toward Fury's inner sanctum without looking up as Steve entered the outer office. He knocked, waited for a barked "What!" and then presented himself. Hill, Thor, Doctor Selvig, Linda-from-Archives, and Doctor Grossman from Princeton's history department (the leading American scholar on HYDRA's scientific and mystical research) were seated around Fury's conference table, with a seat near the foot, presumably for Steve, and Fury's space at the head both vacant. Fury, at his desk, organized some papers and stood up.

"Friend Rogers!" Thor boomed as he stood, arms outstretched, and crossed the room to Steve, clapping his shoulders with enough force to jar and then embracing him. "I trust you are well and prospering?"

"I'm doing okay," Steve answered with a smile. Thor wore his emotions for all to see and his joy at seeing someone he considered a friend was radiant. "It's good to see you. I'm glad the message finally got through."

"It got through almost immediately," Thor said as they went back to the table. "But events in other realms prevented an earlier arrival and then I spent some time visiting with Doctor Foster before presenting myself here. Doctor Selvig indicated that a few days would not affect matters of import."

Fury and Hill gave Selvig matching filthy looks, but the scientist was clearly unrepentant, although he had the decency to at least to pretend to be chastened.

The meeting began with catching Thor up on what everyone had been doing for the past month and why, then jumping back in time to World War II and the story of HYDRA as they had known it - including the discovery of the tesseract - and now why they were re-evaluating that. It was a collaborative telling with frequent guest appearances by the scientists and researchers parked in the conference rooms down the hall, Fury letting everyone speak to their strengths, and Linda had the entire SHIELD database at her fingertips, pulling up photos and videos and even a hologram once.

Steve was a little surprised at how grateful he was that Thor didn't so much as blink at seeing archival footage of Steve looking identical to now. Everyone always reacted, from Fury to Tony to the clerks who always gave a not-quite-double-take when handing over anything relating to Steve's pre-sleep life, and he hadn't realized how much of a relief it would be when someone didn't until it happened. Of course, why would Thor notice - what were seventy years to a man who had lived through millennia? But it was still a tiny gift, one Thor didn't realize he was giving and one Steve hadn't realized he'd wanted. Which perhaps shouldn't have been a surprise, either.

For all of Thor's bluster and tendency to lead with his hammer, he was a sharp man and his years had brought all kinds of experiences. He also had a long tradition of stories that were complicated and fantastical, was aware of his own place in Earth's versions of those stories, and had a subtle and insightful approach to peeling myth from legend from tale from fact. He followed the occasionally circular and meandering discussion easily, asked pertinent questions, and found humor (sometimes quite darkly) in what figures at the time tried to pass off as their own versions of history and legend.

The questions for Thor had been prepared in advance and were mostly a way to draw a 'true' narrative out of him of what Asgardian toys were really floating around Midgard and how they'd gotten there. The tesseract's story was mostly already known from before Thor had taken it back with Loki, but there was also his hammer, since it had not only been lying in the New Mexico desert for a few weeks, but history was also rife with tales if it being available at earlier points in time. ("I assure you, Mjolnir has not left my possession since its bestowment save but the once.") There was a question of what HYDRA could have done to or with the hammer while it had been in New Mexico, but that went to Selvig and he admitted that SHIELD had been unable to do much of anything with the hammer while it had been pretending to be Excalibur, so the logic went that if HYDRA had come by - and there was every reason to believe they had, until proven otherwise - that they wouldn't have gotten any more.

Thor bristled at the question of whether Loki could have deposited or gifted anything dangerous at any point in time. "His behavior of late has been neither explainable nor excusable, but such acts are not consistent with my brother's history. In times past, he would not have been so malicious with a people so unable to use or understand what they were given; there is no pleasure in such a jape. In times present... I do not think he would so heedlessly share."

The tenseness was broken up by the process of patching Bruce in via telephone, which turned into a full-blown distraction when it became clear that Bruce was not on the plane sent for him, but instead in his home. "I don't really see why I have to be physically present for this part," Bruce told Fury with a slight edge to his voice. He'd clearly already been through this discussion with the agents sent to fetch him. "I can be patched in to the video screen and I can hear what people say and I can speak when I need to. I'm going to be there on Thursday anyway and there's a lot I want to do here before I have to go."

There was more to the exchange, but not much more. Bruce wasn't entirely wrong and Fury wasn't going to risk The Other Guy over something so trivial. Which may have been Bruce's plan all along and Fury might have realized this by the way he curtly suggested that the next time this happened, Bruce could at least save SHIELD the jet fuel and crew flight and maintenance hours.

They got back to the history of Norse legends and artifacts as understood by HYDRA and by Asgard, finishing up an hour or so later with a scavenger hunt's worth of items for Thor to check on back home as to whether they'd disappeared for any duration and for any reason. Many of the items weren't from Asgard, but were instead from other realms in Asgard's sphere, since all of them would have had equal access to Earth.

(Steve knew the mythology, but had a hard time not superimposing their own planetary system with Yggdrasil's branches. Even if it didn't even work anymore because he'd slept through Pluto being stripped of its planethood.)

"It will keep us busy for a while," Thor assured, sounding entirely like a man who knew how big a job it was and that he'd have very little of the heavy lifting to do himself. At least not the unpleasant-for-him bookish parts; he'd gotten a gleam in his eye at the mention of going to some troublemaking worlds and banging heads to find out if anyone had dropped anything on Midgard and when. "But Heimdall will be of infinite value and I believe my mother the Queen shall solve many of these riddles before even then."

Thor chased Steve into the hallway after they'd finally escaped, seeking updates on their various absent teammates. He hoped to see all of them before returning home, of course, but in the interim would settle for news of their exploits. Steve tried to find a happy medium between OpSec (not everything everyone was doing was at all related to the HYDRA hunt) and what Thor would either understand or appreciate and then just general gossip. Thor got a big laugh out of the story of how Natasha had gotten the range aboard the Helicarrier to use puppy pictures for target sheets after Clint had had a near-miss with an overly-aggressive poodle during a late-night visit to his current ladyfriend. He left out the part about Clint having been out all week on a mission prior to that and returned drawn and edgy and had been practically thrown off the Helicarrier by Hill before he failed a post-mission psych eval. Because that part wasn't really funny and wasn't Steve's to share and Natasha's proactive response had made it irrelevant to a story that was quickly becoming legend on its own.

Both he and Thor had other things to do aboard the Helicarrier; Thor was expected to give a more complete accounting of Loki's reckoning than "it has been dealt with" and Steve had an appointment to read files and see tapes from the various HYDRA team missions that hadn't been sent to him at home. They made promises to see each other again that were genuinely meant while also being understood to be largely out of their control, and went their separate ways.

Steve didn't get to see Thor again; most of the way through a 'best of' briefing of possible HYDRA activity in the Sixties, a call came in for Steve from Stuttgart: EUCOM had updates. Steve spent the balance of the afternoon on a video teleconference with the general staff there trying to get useful information out of people who'd been in the military long enough to completely confuse "protection of career" with "advancement of mission." They were all -- or mostly -- decent men and women, Steve was sure, but they spoke in babble and their first reflexes were to excuse any perceived lack of execution rather than fix said lack. It was comforting in its own way, a familiar frustration that not all of the time and change had modified in the slightest, but it was still deeply aggravating.

("Don't trust anyone who wears their olive drabs to a war," Colonel Phillips had advised him after a particularly offensive briefing in Italy. Steve had cocked an eyebrow because Phillips was, in fact, wearing just that. "It's a disguise. They won't take me seriously otherwise," had been the reply.)

Eventually, through enough repetitions of "I don't care who is to blame, I just want to talk to the action officer running the HYDRA file," Steve was able to get an actual name and contact info. He might have possibly used underhanded means by sounding especially disappointed; nobody's career benefitted by making Captain America despondent in front of witnesses.

He'd been back in his apartment for half an hour when the doorbell rang. When Steve went to look at the video screen to see who it was, all he saw was the label for a bottle of bourbon, but then Tony's voice warned him that if he didn't open up, he would be happy to sit in the vestibule and drink right there.

He pulled another steak out of the fridge and let Tony in.

"I have spent the last five hours trying to convince my own board not to sue me," Tony announced as he parked himself on a stool on the far side of the kitchen island. "It seems that the insurance company -- to which we are paying ungodly sums -- won't pick up the tab for the entire repair of Stark Tower. In fact, they won't pick up most of the tab. They are saying that Iron Man is responsible for at least part of the damage, that since I am Iron Man and also the owner of the building, therefore they are off the hook because it is a self-inflicted injury and I should have realized that no good was going to come of inviting Loki in for a drink."

Tony held up his tumbler of bourbon for pause and effect, taking a swallow.

"Which is not quite how I remember things happening," he went on, spearing a piece of apple with the knife he'd been cutting it with and taking a surprisingly delicate bite. "But the fact is that there's no proof of anything either way and there are enough actually documentable lawsuits against Iron Man for damages that the Board is not inclined to fight them too hard."

Steve took a sip of his own bourbon. It was potent -- he could feel it a little, but not a lot and it wouldn't stay -- but nice. It tasted like something more than alcohol; Tony, like Natasha, could be counted on to take into consideration that Steve drank mostly to be social and for the taste, not for the buzz. "So they're suing you to pay for the repairs of your own building?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "It's more complicated than that, but yes. Because while I am the majority owner of Stark Enterprises, I am not the sole owner. And Stark Enterprises owns Stark Tower, for which I have been deemed responsible for more than fifty million dollars' worth of damages."

Steve shook his head. "No wonder Pepper wanted you out of her hair tonight."

"Pepper's about as frustrated with them as with me," Tony replied almost cheerfully. "Between this and the botched bid for the EU power plant contract, Stark Industries' stock is somewhere between volatile and plummeting."

"Are you going to be poor like the rest of us?" Steve asked, entirely unseriously, as he sliced potatoes.

"I don't think I have either the creativity or the liver capacity to blow through enough money for that."

Chapter Text

"Detroit," Steve repeated, letting his disbelief show. "HYDRA's biggest US base is in Detroit."

Maria Hill shrugged slightly. "It's a completely logical choice if you're going to stay out of California. Easy border access, good domestic transport options, and the place is so broke and run down that law enforcement wouldn't be able to find them with a heat-seeking missile."

"A heat-seeking missile would improve property values," Clint murmured on Steve's left.

"City services are so overwhelmed that they can't keep up with the fires and the crime," Hill went on, acknowledging Clint's aside with a wry expression of agreement. "There are commercial and residential districts that have been turned into ghost towns between the economy and the crime and the corruption and the end of the auto industry. HYDRA can act with impunity there, especially if they're keeping a low profile."

The photos projected on the wall were mostly of brick factories, with a few homes and stores and a crumbling Beaux Arts building that might have been a railway station thrown in, either surrounded by weed-choked lots filled with dumped trash or streetside in urban areas with burned-out car shells and sleeping drunks and leaning prostitutes and drug dealers parked in front. It wasn't just the decay, Steve realized. It was the undignified manner in which things stood now. He'd grown up during the Depression, had seen the privations of first economic hardship and then wartime rationing, and this was nothing like that had been. The apathy was as visible as the architecture.

"I just..." Steve broke off with a sigh, unable to articulate the precise nature of his discomfort. New York looked like an updated version of the city he'd grown up in; Philadelphia and DC had also managed to build the new into and on top of the old and he'd just assumed that places like Detroit, solidly built to last, or so he'd thought, had done the same. "I guess I'm still a little behind on how the country has changed. Back in the 1940's, Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy and now they're a HYDRA stronghold. I'd always figured that they'd go back to building cars and dreams once there was peace."

"They did for a while," Hill said, her tone a little softer, a little gentler, and that made Steve bristle a little because he hated being comforted in this way, hated that it still happened, that he was still doing things to make it happen. "But the Sixties were hard on them and they never quite recovered."

"So what do we do?" Steve asked, hearing the sharpness in his own voice and wincing. "We aren't going to call in the Army and invade Detroit, are we?"

The maps of Metro Detroit projected on the other wall were marked with Xs to show suspected locations. There were over a dozen of them. It would take a lot of manpower to pull off a raid on any one place, let alone all of them.

"Not quite," Hill answered. "We're going in there with our own people after some coordination with DHS so that the other agencies don't get their panties in a wad."

SHIELD was supposed to let the various enforcement agencies handle domestic ops, Steve knew well, giving out intelligence and lending support and personnel but never taking the lead. It was out of deference to the Posse Comitatus Act, the application of which when it came to SHIELD never quite having been decided de jure, but de facto the other federal agencies had enough pull to make it hard for Fury to act with impunity when there wasn't an immediate threat. And sometimes when there was.

"Drugs or Immigration?" Clint asked, looking up from the packet they'd been given at the start of the briefing. He'd asked Steve if he could sit in on what originally had been a meeting between him and Hill and Steve had agreed because, well, why not? Clint had counter-terrorism experience that was more or less applicable and he was between assignments (Clint's explanation; Steve knew that he was more or less on an informal stand-down) and it kept him occupied and engaged and not dwelling on how much faith Fury (and Hill) had in him. Which is what he'd told Hill when she'd made a face at his suggestion.

"Both," Hill answered wryly. "Plus guns and whatever the hell the Feebs want to use. This is going to be a chunky alphabet soup. Good thing there'll be enough to share."

Steve let his skepticism show. "If we're going to be running simultaneous drugs, guns, immigration, and whatever-else raids around Greater Detroit, there's no way this doesn't look exactly like a federal government invasion of the city. Is this really what we want?"

There would be media coverage at a level he probably couldn't properly comprehend, pushback from the local population and probably the local government, and then there was the matter of what HYDRA did as a response. For all of the manpower and work that was going in to figuring out what HYDRA was doing and where, they still didn't have a complete picture. Or even a really good picture. They still hadn't decided whether this was the same HYDRA Steve had fought during the war, let alone how close they were to putting in a good faith effort to take over the world. This seemed like action for its own sake, not a considered response to a large and still amorphous threat.

Both Hill and Clint looked displeased when Steve said as much out loud.

"We can't let them just sit there and continue to do whatever it is they're doing," Clint said, tapping his pencil on the folder. "Some of these places are old factories; they might already be running the assembly lines to produce God knows what."

Steve shook his head. "We have the world's best surveillance equipment, isn't that what everyone keeps telling me? We have dozens of sites around the world tagged with supposedly undetectable bugs. Why aren't we at least considering that option? Because we got caught with our pants down in Poland?"

"We need a proactive response," Hill agreed. "But we also need more than that. We can get these places wired for sight and sound and NBC detection, but that's not enough. We need hands-on, hip-deep work done on this organization and that only comes with physical possession of evidence and personnel. There's only so much you can get out of analyst reports. You, of all people, should know that."

Steve glared at her for throwing his own frequent complaint back at him. "I also know that HYDRA has built redundancies into their redundancies. If we take out Detroit, they're going to pop up again somewhere else -- two of them, if we take them at their words. Are we even prepared to find out where those two are going to be? I'm all for wiping the Motor City clear of these goons, but not if it's going to create a bigger problem down the line. Or even next week."

He'd been sent on these sorts of missions before, during the war. The rationales had been the same then, too -- show of strength for either side, salvaging pride, proof the Allies were paying attention, a sop to someone with too much rank for their bad idea to be ignored. All on the premise and promise that the cost wouldn't be too high, that there might actually be some gain, that it wasn't all a dog-and-pony show with live ammo. Sometimes, the promise had even been kept. Most of the time, however, it hadn't been and once in a while, it had been broken spectacularly and with great loss and the frustration and futility had been unbearable.

He wasn't sure how much power he had to challenge or change things now, whether it was greater or lesser than it had been during the war. He suspected it was greater, but his own temperment and unfamiliarity with how things were done now had never led him to challenge it explicitly on any larger scale than the personal, both for his own sake and for the sake of his teammates. He generally got what he needed, was listened to and treated with respect, and while he'd always suspected that there was an element of... not condescension, but perhaps bemused tolerance for the noble warrior out of his time and place, he'd never looked for proof. He wondered now if he could make a power grab if necessary, if he'd be taken seriously or if this new life he'd settled into was as fake as the movie stage he'd woken up in last year and he'd be quickly revealed as the star of a show he'd never realized he was in.

"These raids are going to cost us dearly," he went on when neither Clint nor Hill said anything right away. "They are going to cost us our advantage of surprise, at the very least, and almost positively a few lives. I just want to know that what we are going to buy in the exchange is worth the price we pay for it."

"All right, ladies and gentlemen, once more from the top," Agent Burrows began, smacking his hand on the tabletop. The room, full of ATF personnel supplemented by Steve and two SHIELD agents, went from cacophany to din. "Dominguez, where's the schematic?"

Agent Dominguez, proof that the ATF did not apparently have a minimum height requirement, keyed in something on the laptop and the wall behind Burrows went from white to red and blue and purple as the factory schematic, color-coded by which areas would be covered by which teams, came up.

"We have assurance from the geeks in the vans that we'll have no electronic eyes on us for the approach to the building," Burrows went on, pointing at the red and blue arrows with his pen. "This does not mean we can mosey on up there like it's the Joe Louis before a Wings game. Human eyes can call in the alarm just as easily, so be sharp."

Steve had lost the fight not to stage the raids, but he had not necessarily lost the war to keep the bigger picture in focus. Fury had been honest with him about the need for some action, for all of the reasons Steve had understood and still deemed insufficient. "These things matter, Cap," Fury had told him. "Much more now than during your war. In no small part because our war is still undeclared and thus deniable. We have to justify our actions not only to ourselves, but also to those who can say that we have other things to worry about and have the power to force us to change our focus. I don't want to change our focus. We're right -- you are right. So if I have to waste a little capital to prove it, then I will."

But he'd nonetheless let Steve have a little extra time and resources to make his objections and suggestions and poke holes in the plans as they were being put together. Whatever else anyone thought of him and his ability to accept and adapt to the twenty-first century, nobody really questioned his tactical experience and strategic vision and he'd used all of everything he had to try to minimize the ways this could go wrong. (It would go wrong, no plan was perfect, but there were ways to make the wrongness survivable and to keep the objectives attainable even after the original plan was unfollowable.)

As for the rest, Steve had done his research. He'd read all about Detroit in the twentieth century and had shocked the heck out of Hill by pointing out that there were going to be serious image problems in a massive vice raid on a majority minority city. Fury had laughed at that -- not at Steve, but in appreciation. Which hadn't gotten Steve what he wanted in terms of an abort, but clearly did something to raise others' estimation of his learning curve. It was a victory in the long game, if only by proving that he'd realized it was being played.

"Red Team has the north and east faces," Burrows went on, waving his pen in that general area where the fat red arrow split into two smaller red arrows. "There's a door on the north side, but windows along both. Blue Team has the south and west faces; same deal with the door on the west face."

Steve was leading the red team; he'd not asked for the spot, but the incredulous looks he'd received when suggesting that it wasn't necessary had made it clear that nobody had considered any kind of alternative.

"Ground level is purple," Burrows continued in the same slightly-bored tone of a man repeating well-worn instructions to people who should know them by heart. Which he was and they did. "Red Team will enter through the north entrance and proceed to the staircase on the east side, clearing as you go. Blue Team will enter through the west entrance and clear and hold the rest of the floor. Red Team's got the upstairs, so don't dilly-dally. Once the building is secure, we'll let the armies of freaks and geeks in to tag and bag and take pictures. Any questions?"

This was not the first or the fifth iteration of the order of operations, so there were none, not even the joking kind that had made the first couple of repetitions less boring. They were an hour from mission launch, although Steve suspected that it was going to be closer to ninety minutes because this was not the only raid site - there were six, with the others being heavily monitored - and that kind of coordination took a lot more than simple effort and good radios could provide.

After Burrows dismissed them, Steve left the briefing room to go drink water and then pee, his usual pre-mission routine. He saw Clint in the hallway, leaning up against a wall with his attention solely focused on an arrowhead until it wasn't and he looked up and met Steve's gaze. Clint was assigned to the other mission team using this building as a prep point; Natasha and Hill, whose determination to prove the necessity of the raids went far enough to join one of the mission teams, were at a different one. Clint tapped the arrowhead to his brow as a kind of salute and Steve returned it with a nod.

Back in the ready room, he circulated among the agents, mostly just to be friendly but also to gauge their own preparedness. There was a range of agents assigned to the mission, from the seasoned veterans who sat quietly and conserved their energy to the young guns, eager for action and talking about what they were going to do. Steve's own team, a dozen agents (eleven men, one woman), got a little extra attention because he needed to reinforce whatever trust he'd been able to establish - it was all well and good to be told to follow Captain America into a building full of bad guys, but it would be easier on everyone if they did it because they believed it was a good idea and not because someone else had told them to.

With a half-hour to go, they were rounded up and told to get in the vans - flat-paneled trucks with dark sides and the logo of one of the area power companies on the side - to be driven to the sites. It was a ten minute drive through empty streets, but there were still jokes about getting lost and flat tires and wouldn't it be funny if some poor mook tried to carjack a DTE van and picked this one.

They got to the assembly area without incident, prompting a few sarcastic disappointed sighs. The factory was in the gutted-out remainder of an industrial zone, one that had, by day, given Steve a succinct telling of Detroit's recent history in a single snapshot: buildings that had not been new when Steve had been a child, abandoned and then burned and then abandoned again, if that were possible. They'd built the seats for Pontiac cars there until 1982, the files had said. Now it was a husk with boarded-up windows and a chain-link fence that was missing sections and rusted in the places where it still stood upright and a parking lot choked with weeds that everyone had agreed were tall and thick enough to hide them. There were three burned-out cars (not Pontiacs), two supermarket carts, and the charred remnants of some kind of garbage bonfire.

The assembly point was about two hundred meters away from the fence's borders, which for their purpose was considered the start line (Burrows, a Marine vet, called it the LD, for 'line of departure,' which Steve had had to look up to learn was actually a general term that had come into usage while he'd been asleep and not some weird Marine lingo). With ten minutes before mission launch, they got word that there were holdups at one of the other sites, so mission launch was now 2215.

At 2210, Steve gathered his team, now nearly identical in their matching ATF body armor and ballcaps. He looked them all in the eyes, and, comfortable with what he saw, told them to follow him to the fence and stack up on him. Then he turned and started to walk.

Once they were in position, he had them count off and then they waited for Burrows, over Steve's earpiece, to give the mission launch codeword. At 2220 he did and Steve unslung his shield and then gave the hand signal to begin forward movement.

The walk to the factory door was quick but still a walk, treading carefully over dilapidated asphalt covered with broken glass, garbage, and, as Steve was thankfully able to see in enough time, at least one dead animal (cat or raccoon; too hard to tell in the dim moonlight). They positioned themselves at the door, Conlin and Misuzaki with the battering ram and everyone else ready to provide cover or covering fire, and waited for Burrows to relay that Blue Team was also in position. It took less than two minutes and then they got approval for ingress.

Steve braced himself with his shield in front of him once Conlin and Misuzaki went to work, nobody quite sure what would be waiting for them when the door was gone - or even if it would wait that long. There weren't any loud noises coming from inside and the boarded-up windows made it impossible to tell how much light or how many people were inside. The place was drawing power - with SHIELD help, Detroit Edison had found where a supposedly unoccupied building had tapped into the grid to a shockingly high gigawatt usage per month - but for what and whom was still unknown. That's why it hadn't gotten knocked off the list of raid targets.

The door took three whacks before it flew open and they streamed in, moving in a carefully coordinated dance of covering corners and taking in the scenery as they moved toward the stairwell to the second floor. It was definitely a live factory with four long modern conveyer belts running most of the length of the main floor, each dotted by white plastic stations with computerized equipment and electronics and benches for the absent works. The belts weren't running, but the place was still lit up like daylight inside.

"Where is everyone?" Hatcher asked no one in particular. "Shouldn't there be guards or dogs or something?"

"Silent alarm," Pierczynski suggested as they paused at a corner made by tall cabinets and some metal shelving. "Let's get this place locked down before they come to investigate."

They got to the stairwell and then up, pausing for a moment to reposition because the tiny foyer on the other side of the door could very well be a kill box.

It wasn't. The second floor was a single giant room used for warehousing, boxes and drums and crates piled almost to the ceiling for as far as they could see. They broke into smaller groups to clear the aisles and the small offices they found at the far end of the room. Steve confirmed to Burrows over the radio that there was nobody around and once Blue Team was comfortable, they could consider the building secure and send in the forensics people.

About five minutes after Steve finished with Burrows and was about to accept a handful of Liu's peanut M&Ms, they heard gunshots. Not the isolated pop-pop-pop of a pistol or the more fluid bursts of a couple of semiautomatics, but a fusillade. Accompanied by shouting and the awful scream of someone getting hurt.

Steve left four of his team to keep an eye on the aisles and brought the rest of his team back to the stairwell. They made it down to the first landing before the first wave of HYDRA troops entered from the ground floor. His team started to fire back, but Steve ordered them back upstairs to a more defensible position than a stairwell landing with 270 degree full body exposure, using his shield to provide cover as he climbed up the steps backward and tried to raise Burrows. He couldn't hear a reply, but he wasn't sure if it was because communications were cut or simple the deafening noise of a fierce gunfight in an enclosed space.

"We'll have to hold them off here," Steve told his team as he rejoined them. The HYDRA agents were swarming up the stairs like hungry ants, shooting and being shot at and falling down only for the next wave to replace them. His team had broken itself down into four pairs, two pairs shooting and two ready to step in at the first empty clip. "Conserve your ammo. I'll be right back."

In the relative quiet of the warehouse level, he tried to raise Burrows, getting nothing the first time and then only static the second. Not willing to wait for comms to be re-established or trust that Burrows and the others were either aware of or able to help the situation, Steve pulled out his cell phone and called Fury. "It's an ambush," he said before Fury could get a word out. "We're about to be overrun. I don't even know if anyone's alive downstairs. Get someone here before my team dies."

He repositioned the quartet inside from watching the aisles to watching the windows, taking their extra clips before doing so. None of them were happy about that, but Steve knew that the ammo was of better use holding off the attack on the stairs; if there was any secondary incursion through the windows, they were so screwed that an extra few bullets wasn't going to make a difference.

Back at the stairs, the situation was stable but macabre as Steve redistributed the extra clips, including his own. The HYDRA agents were still shooting up at his team, but there were now so many bodies that there was no direct line of fire for either side and the greatest threats were from ricochets. Occasionally HYDRA face masks or simply hands holding automatic weapons would appear over the berm of bodies, get shot at, and then disappear.

Steve used his shield as a kind of umbrella as he talked to his teammates, checking on their ammo and their mental states. Everyone, him included, flinched at each dull plunk of bullets hitting vibranium, but they were holding up well. He'd kept the veterans in the stairwell and, well into careers involving the pursuit of illegal guns and those who used them, none of them were strangers to firefights.

Conlin's right arm was covered in blood, having taken a ricochet to the top of his triceps, by the shoulder joint. He'd been field-dressed, but they weren't carrying many medical supplies and the dressing had already started to bleed through. Steve tore Conlin's sleeve from the wrist and folded it over before untying the field dressing and sticking it underneath, rewrapping it much more tightly than it had been because Conlin had possibly nicked an artery and the longer they went without help, the closer they got to having to decide whether Conlin should risk bleeding out or risk losing his arm at the shoulder because they'd cut off the blood supply to save the rest of him.

Steve told none of this to Conlin, who was a little shocky but mostly in pain and that familiar mixture of angry and scared that was as close to a universal reaction to combat as Steve could come up with. He instead joked about how he didn't know what this was going to do to Conlin's fastball.

"Don't worry, Captain," Conlin said weakly, biting off a groan as Steve yanked the dressing even tighter before tying it off. "I'm a southpaw."

Steve left him with Washington, resting after his time on the front line, and went back to the others. He got there just in time to see what he'd prayed he wouldn't see but had been half-expecting all along.

"Grenade!" Steve shouted, flinging his shield before he'd even gotten the word out. The grenade rebounded back in the direction from which it had come and Steve grabbed his shield and positioned it to protect from the explosion, which occurred too high up to do as much damage to the HYDRA agents on the other side as it would have had it landed among his own people. He was a little surprised that it was a frag and not a flashbang, but he supposed he shouldn't be - HYDRA clearly had no trouble running through their own personnel like bathroom tissue.

"Fall back and get ready to barricade the door," Steve ordered as he watched Washington and Liu haul Conlin up and half-drag him to safety. Another grenade, this one from an angle that Steve couldn't throw the shield to deflect and had to wait for it to be in range to be batted away. He swatted it over the bannister and heard it explode on the first floor, where it caused injuries he couldn't care less about. He backed through the door and pushed it closed as Misuzaki started pushing heavy cardboard boxes in front of it.

Pierczynski, who had bomb squad experience, directed the layering of the barriers to keep them safe should HYDRA try to blow through the door.

"They going to stick to the stairs or are they going to go for the windows?" Ginsburg asked. Her mascara had left smudges on her sweaty face that made her look far more scared than she probably was. "Or is there another route that we didn't pick up on because we don't even know where these guys were hiding?"

Steve looked at the windows, boarded up like the ones downstairs to look decrepit from the outside but secure from within. "I'm going to guess we missed a basement," he said, since he could feel Ginsburg looking for him to answer. "But unless they've got an elevator or a secret staircase, they still have to get up here and the stairs are going to be faster."

They should probably check for both of those options, although if there were an alternate route up here, he was pretty sure HYDRA would have used it by now.

"Until they blow them up," Ginsburg pointed out. "Or just blow the building."

Steve grimaced in acknowledgement of that possibility. "The longer they don't do it, the more likely they won't do it," he answered. "There's a lot of stuff here, a lot of investment. If they think they can get rid of us and get their belongings and go before anyone shows up to save us, then that's what they'll do."

Ginsburg didn't quite look like she believed him, which Steve could understand because they'd just watched HYDRA pile bodies atop of bodies on the stairs, but he'd been in the first war where human beings had officially been valued as worth less than lamps or shoes or sheep. And HYDRA, no matter how it was related to Schmidt's organization, had chosen its model intentionally. People, especially cannon fodder, could always be replaced, but that didn't mean that they'd be as cavalier with their other possessions.

His phone vibrated on his belt and he reached for it, noting that he'd missed messages from Fury and other SHIELD extensions. This call was not from them, though.

"About time you picked up," Tony said, his voice both relieved and irritated. "I'm ninety seconds out and you're in the middle of an anthill. I'm going to do a little bug squashing before I drop in. Do you need anything first?"

Steve looked over at Conlin, who had given up pretending that he wasn't worried about a lot more than his fastball and was touching his numb right hand with horrified apprehension.

"Do what you gotta do," Steve answered. Conlin's arm would wait another few minutes; he couldn't risk the safety of the others for an immediate evac.

He warned the not to worry about what they might hear outside. Which wasn't a lot, especially not when it seemed like HYDRA was trying to blow the stairwell door in earnest. The barriers Pierczynski had constructed shifted, but ultimately held and they reinforced them with extra layers.

Steve wasn't sure how much time had passed before Tony called again, but his phone said it had been twenty-three minutes. "I'm coming in through the northeast window. Tell your people not to shoot me."

Steve had enough time to shout out that they had friendlies coming in before Iron Man blew through the window, landing with heavy grace at the top of the nearest aisle and raising his visor as he walked the last few feet.

"Ants, meet blowtorches," Tony announced, holding up his gauntlets. "Cavalry's a few minutes out; it's been a clusterfuck all over Greater Detroit tonight. What do you need?"

Steve gestured to Conlin. "Get him medevaced. We'll be fine until the cavalry shows."

Chapter Text

"...that these losses will not go unanswered and these deaths will not go unavenged. Thank you for your work tonight and know that it was not in vain."

Fury left the podium and went directly to the regional director of the ATF to express condolences, Steve assumed, before being surrounded by the representatives of the other federal agencies. There'd been twenty deaths tonight spread over five agencies including SHIELD, but the ATF had taken the brunt of the losses because Blue Team had been theirs save two. The HYDRA casualties were still uncounted; Steve had heard people wondering on whether it would crack triple digits, had been asked himself, but he had neither answer nor insight. Truth be told, he didn't care much; blood could answer blood just fine, but only when it was worthwhile blood. The blood of someone who'd matter to HYDRA, who'd ordered these ambushes, who'd count for more than the cannon fodder who'd thrown themselves in front of bullets shouting 'Hail HYDRA" and dying assured that there'd be a replacement waiting to takes his place.

Steve got up from his seat heavily, bracing himself for the hard task of seeing to others' peace of mind when his own was unsettled. He'd returned his team to Burrows's replacement - HYDRA had taken out the assembly area and the command post - but had kept cycling back to them, checking in, getting and giving updates on Conlin (who seemed likely to keep his arm), listening to stories about those who had perished, exchanging and squashing rumors of what had happened to them and to the other teams, and just maintaining human contact. He'd spoken to others, too, of course, whoever crossed his path, but he had a special responsibility to the men and woman he'd been with tonight. They'd come through something horrible and shocking and while their survival had registered, it hadn't yet penetrated and if he could do anything to make that part easier, he would.

SHIELD had a larger presence here, at this impromptu survivors assembly-cum-after-action-reporting, than it had had at any point since ground-level agents had gotten involved. If Fury and Hill had been the engines of this operation, they'd delegated most of the tactical planning work to the agencies that were putting personnel into the field and so SHIELD, while known to be around, hadn't been a dominating element. Tonight, now, they were for more reasons than just that half of the Avengers had been required.

(Tony had flown off before the meeting had commenced; he'd muttered something about listening in on the flight home and not wanting to spend so much time sitting around in the armor and pressing work back in New York. Steve suspected it was probably more about not wanting to have to breathe in the pain and sorrow and sense of failure that hung about everyone like a fog, but he'd thanked Tony for his help and wished him a good flight and meant it. Iron Man's role in this operation had been as emergency support and he'd done everything needed of him; there was no reason for Tony to bear a burden he'd never been meant to shoulder.)

Fury had been airborne before Steve had gone down an inflatable slide from the second floor of the factory; by the time they'd been driven here - the building where the other four missions had launched from - Fury had been waiting. He'd taken to the podium and started talking, handling the briefing himself and, when the details had been reported, had started speaking of the greater mission, of a newer threat, and all of their roles in combating it. He'd been gracious, ruthless, and matter-of-fact, and had kept things rolling through from the announcing the names of the dead to the way that SHIELD was directing everyone's public relations departments to handle the media.

Steve had listened to all of it impassively. He knew his own reactions, knew that he could sit here and listen and it would absorb and he could, if requested, give reasonably informed opinions about what he'd seen and what it might mean, and that he'd still want to go for an hours-long run once he got back to Brooklyn because it was the closest thing he could get to being able to get out of his own skin. He could feel the itch already, the uncomfortable cling like wet clothes, and but pushed it aside as not relevant to now. Now was for other people and for figuring out what the hell had gone so very wrong.

Even before the after-action briefings had been fully given, let alone compiled and corroborated, there were two theories as to what had happened in Detroit tonight. The first was that they'd grossly underestimated the technological capabilities of HYDRA, that they'd taken HYDRA's security for granted and gone in like they were busting up a drug cartel or a jihadist cell while HYDRA was playing on an entirely different level. The other theory, the more dangerous one, was that HYDRA had inside information and that the ambushes had, in fact, been ambushes and not the unlucky confluence of time and place and personnel. Steve wasn't sure which one was better or worse or more likely - or even if they had to be mutually exclusive. HYDRA had constantly proven to be ahead of where the good guys thought they should be, starting with the fact that they existed at all when everyone was swearing that it had been sixty years since the last HYDRA move of note.

"I think we're getting out of here in about ten," Clint said from behind Steve's right shoulder. He turned; he hadn't seen Clint at all since before the mission began and looked him over now, quickly, although not quick enough to avoid a smirk when Clint caught him. Steve hadn't been too worried about Clint's absence; he hadn't seen Hill anywhere and had assumed her absence was caused by injury and had been relieved when she'd not been on the list of the killed, but Clint was of a different sort (and a different import to tonight's proceedings) and his absence from Steve's line of sight meant nothing until it did. "You going to be ready to go?"

Steve nodded yes, although he would ask to stay later and catch a different jet back if he wasn't quite. He couldn't leave without speaking to a lot of people, so he started looking for them now, aware that Clint had melted back into the crowd and would be off to find Natasha, who was visible (by her hair) on the other side of the massive room.

They ended up leaving about twenty minutes later, with Hill, her left arm in a cast and sling and some light shrapnel wounds on her neck and jaw, meeting them at the plane. She had the slightly glassy-eyed look of someone on painkillers, which spoke more to her wounds than the visible signs because Maria Hill, possibly even more than Natasha, did not show weakness unless there was no alternative.

Away from the other agencies and the need to put on a strong, competent front, they could afford to expose their private doubts and grief. SHIELD had lost two agents tonight, a tragedy in and of itself, but it had also lost a gamble against HYDRA and the true price of that loss had yet to be valued.

They filed on to the plane quietly, sitting facing each other without making eye contact and it was a bit of a relief when the pilot raised the ramp and told them to strap in so that they could focus on that instead of each other. Steve sighed and leaned back and closed his eyes and the engines flared at the start of the taxiing.

"This is going to be one hell of a mole hunt," Natasha said as they soared into the night sky. "They probably have people everywhere and we don't even know what to look for."

"May not be a mole," Clint said a few minutes later. "Or at least not one in a position to do a lot of damage. We ran this op like a traveling carnival and we can't be that surprised that we drew a crowd to see us at our next stop."

If Steve's objections to the operation had been that it existed, Clint's had been for the operational security and the fact that six agencies and hundreds of people were in on a complex network of raids. Clint had wanted the op run, believed it necessary, but with a much smaller footprint and a fraction of the trailing comet of bureaucrats and logisticians.

"You know why it couldn't have gone any other way," Hill said sourly. "This was too big to do alone."

"Or we took too big a bite of a pie we didn't have to share," Clint retorted. "Considering how many kids are about to get woken up to be told Daddy's not coming home, I'd have been fine with just us walking in to an ambush."

"Stow it," Fury ordered from his seat closest to the cockpit.

They did and the flight was quiet until they touched down on the Helicarrier, docked off Staten Island.

Steve showered and changed into civvies; past experience said that if Fury had wanted to talk to him tonight, he would have already sent someone to chase him down, so instead he headed up top and requested a lift back to Brooklyn. He saw Clint and Natasha heading for the hourly boat to Manhattan and Natasha, with a head gesture, asked him if he wanted to come along. He shook his own head no.

It being the middle of the night and both sea and pedestrian traffic were light, Steve directed the little speedboat's pilot to drop him off at a tiny dock in a park near his loft and not the big one at the Navy Yard that was for regular trips and the ferries. He got home, tossed his duffel and shield on the couch, went into his bedroom to get changed, and went running until dawn found him in Coney Island staring out at the murky sky over the Atlantic, the Cyclone standing silently behind him.

"You're like a caveman with power tools," Tony sighed with something close to true despair. "Seriously, how can someone with your reflexes and muscle control be so bad at this?"

Steve gave Tony a dirty look as more food fell to his plate from halfway to his mouth. "Because you're asking me to pick up slippery little bits of food with polished twigs."

It had been hard to tell who had been more horrified that Steve had never tried sushi, Natasha or Tony. Either way, it had led to a short, intense, and half-silent conversation between the two resulting in an agreed-upon place and date. Clint had been invited along once he, too, expressed shock and dismay at this lacuna in Steve's edible education. Which Steve might have taken as an extra insult because Clint, bless him, was neither a picky eater nor a terribly adventurous one, but it turned out that he'd spent some time in Japan ("Doing what?" "Fury's not even allowed to ask.") and had surprisingly refined -- according to Natasha -- preferences on the subject. They'd even gotten Bruce to come in for the day -- for the weekend, since Tony had a whole list of things he wanted Bruce to play with while he was here.

"You're not even using real chopsticks," Bruce pointed out, bowing his head in thanks to the sushi chef who had just presented him with another tiny plate of food. "You're using the equivalent of training wheels."

Steve's chopsticks, unlike everyone else's, were bound together on either side of a wad of cloth so that all he had to do was squeeze them like pincers. At least that's what he'd been told and shown. In reality, the pincers had enough freedom of movement to allow everything and anything to twist enough to slide off no matter how hard he'd gripped. And he'd already gripped hard enough to snap the first pair he'd been given.

"I didn't ride a bike successfully the first time, either," Steve replied evenly. "Or the second."

Or the third, which had involved Bucky dragging both him and the bike out of the way of oncoming traffic, but there was no need to belabor the point. His current failures were entertainment enough.

He flagged down one of the waiters -- all of whom were idling because Tony had reserved the entire restaurant and there were no other customers save for the quintet sitting around the tiny U-shaped bar -- and asked for a fork.

"Look, either you can teach me how to use chopsticks or you can teach me about the wonders of Japanese food," he explained over everyone's protestations and horrified expressions. "You can't do both, not in one night."

The waiter returned with a pair of elegant long-handled forks with delicate tines, said something to the sushi chef, who grunted something back in Japanese, and took away the plate of food Steve had been massacring, replacing it with a new plate of carefully presented items both cooked and raw. Steve wasn't sure what most of it was beyond "fish," although some of it was not fish. There had been no menu -- apparently that was not the done thing, which instead was to let the chef do what he wanted ("I'm going to remind you all of that when you sit in my kitchen and make demands"). There'd been an initial attempt to instruct him in what was what, but that had gone by the wayside in favor of the chopsticks lessons. Now, however, everyone had thankfully decided to give up on all lessons and Steve could choose his own adventure.

On the whole, he thought it was a positive experience, although he wasn't fond of the more rubbery bits. Freed from the effort and embarrassment of the chopsticks, he could appreciate the new tastes and textures for what they were and, finally, get a glimpse of the artistry behind the combinations, which he'd ignored up until now. The presence of seaweed and rice stopped being just something that made an item easier to pick up, for instance.

Some of this must have shown on his face because the sushi chef had stopped scowling at him and he'd started getting a wider variety of elements on the little plates that never seemed to stop coming.

Eventually, however, they did all fill up on enough fish and savories that, with a final 'domo arigato' to the sushi chef, they repaired to one of the empty tables with their beer, sake, and green tea... only to be presented with a staggering array of Japanese sweets, starting with what Natasha explained were glutinous rice cakes stuffed with ice cream (red bean and green tea and strawberry and vanilla) and ending with tiny, intricate chocolates and cakes that came out with more tea.

"This was almost enough to make up for the utter shit that was this week," Tony announced as he drained his sake glass again. He was leaning back, but he pushed up to retrieve his tea glass. "I would like this week to not ever repeat itself."

Steve, doing little else other than working through reports and the still-raw-and-incoming intelligence from Detroit, had no particular context for why this week had been any worse than another for Tony. But clearly Natasha did, because she nodded and raised her sake glass in a toast.

"Down with the Swiss," she said, then drank the contents. "Next time, HYDRA can blow up their cities and then we'll see how cooperative they want to be."

Steve didn't bother to look confused or surprised at that bit of potential context because the Swiss, unlike so much else, had not changed appreciably in seventy years. He'd been largely uninvolved in the financial trail-seeking parts of the hunt for HYDRA, but Natasha had not been so lucky.

"I go back and forth on whether a convenient bomb in Zurich would improve things," Tony mused, eyes on the contents of his tea glass. "If it helped SHIELD, do you think Fury would get the charges dropped?"

"No," Steve answered before anyone else could, because he knew he'd be outvoted otherwise and because at least three of the others at the table would know exactly how to do it with a better than even chance of getting away with it. "We are not bombing your corporate rivals."

"Not even for world peace?" Tony looked up guilelessly.

"Trident's done a lot more for world peace than Stark Industries," Bruce said as he cut a tiny translucent-white-frosted square in half to reveal an impossibly black interior. "I did some work for them a few years ago."

"You did?" Tony sat up, surprised. "Bastardous traitor. Why? Can I use it against them?"

"I helped them build clean-energy generators in rural villages in Malawi," Bruce replied, popping half of the black cake into his mouth and then balancing the other half on the knife to offer to Natasha. "First-rate operation. Wished I could have done more with them."

"But then you saw their inherent evil and reconsidered?" Steve offered, eyeing a rainbow-colored sphere and wondering if it was more mochi.

"Had a rough few months between projects," Bruce said with that placid tone that meant that he really did not want to talk about it and wanted your sympathy even less than that. "Fell off their radar while lying low."

Clint reached across the table with a pair of chopsticks and picked up the rainbow sphere and ate it in one bite. Steve frowned, mostly because he'd wanted to know what was inside. Clint gave him a shrug in return.

They lingered for another hour, then Tony paid, left handsome tips all around, and they thanked the staff and left. The restaurant was a tiny hole-in-the-wall on 27th Street with nondescript signage and nothing to indicate that this was anyplace Tony Stark would know, let alone any place he would take people ("Nobu is wonderful. It impresses clients. This place is for people who are more interested in the food than how much it costs."), and there were no photographers waiting for them when they went outside, which was a common-enough hazard of going anywhere with Tony.

"Please tell me you're not going back home to work," Tony sighed as he caught Steve looking at his watch. "We had enough sake that even you should be mellow enough for a night off."

"I'd considered it," Steve admitted, because Tony wasn't wrong, but he'd be completely sober before getting back to Brooklyn. "I got a lot of files delivered right before I left."

HYDRA had prepared well for the ambushes and had stripped away almost everything useful to learning about their operations; it had taken SHIELD and her sister agencies the better part of a week to realize that the factory Steve's team had been besieged in had been the hub and they were still roaming around in the tunnels leading from the not-on-the-blueprints basement levels looking for more clues. Steve got a steady stream of photographs and inventories and the occasional video; Fury, for whatever reason, hadn't wanted him to go back there just yet.

"They'll keep," Tony said. "You've been staring at that stuff for days, give it a night off."

Steve frowned. "You'll excuse me if I don't take work-life balance lessons from someone who locks himself in his lab for days on end."

"But that's fun," Tony dismissed with a wave of his hand. "That is the manifestation of my firm belief that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. You're just... wading around in evil. Let the abyss get a look at someone else for a few hours."

"I'll see," Steve said.

He ended up spending about an hour looking through the files; there was something about one of the sites - the one where Hill had gotten ambushed - that was familiar, although he could not explain why or how or what, in particular, was pinging his memories in such a vague and frustrating way. And then he gave up and watched the second half of Toy Story because that's what was on when he turned on the television.

The following morning, he got through his run and half of a trip to the farmer's market before it finally dawned on him what the connection was. He apologized to Anne and Rubin for not sticking around to try the full spread of this week's cheeses and headed home, waiting until he was out of the thickest of the market crowd before calling Linda-from-Archives and asking if SHIELD had anything on an old HYDRA base near Freiburg, captured by the Allies when the French took over the place in '45.

By the time he'd gotten home and showered, there were files waiting for him on his computer and more coming in. While he waited for those to finish, he used his newly-gotten goods to make himself a garlic scape and purple squash omelet with the goat cheese with herbs that Rubin had been holding aside for him.

The doorbell rang as he was finishing eating; the woman in the vestibule was wearing a FedEx uniform. SHIELD used that disguise for delivering things to him, so he figured that this was the delivery of the photos that Linda's assistant had suggested would be faster to ferry over from the Helicarrier ("the old-fashioned way") than to scan in and electronically deliver.

But it turned out to be an actual FedEx employee holding a deceptively light box that required a signature to be released into Steve's care. He had half a thought about sending it to the Helicarrier to be screened because he knew he hadn't ordered anything and this could be from HYDRA for all he knew, but decided not to because that would be paranoid and he'd probably be able to survive whatever it was if it wasn't paranoia.

Inside the cardboard box was a lot of packing peanuts and a well-wrapped smaller box that, when unwrapped, turned out to be made of beautiful lacquered wood inlaid with mother of pearl and depicting a Japanese woman dancing with a fan in front of a cherry blossom tree. Inside was a pair of beautiful ivory chopsticks tied together around a wad of fine gray cloth.

Steve might have chased a couple of packing peanuts around his counter with them for a while.

Chapter Text

"I'm not imagining this, right?" Steve asked maybe a little hopefully. He held up the two photos again. Both were of offices in HYDRA headquarters, but they were taken seventy years and half a world apart from each other. They had different contents, different lighting, different angles, and yet... there was something there, Steve thought. Thought strongly enough to have come two hundred miles in hopes that someone else, someone in particular, might see it, too.

"You very well might be imagining it," Peggy told him with a wry look. "But one could understand why."

Steve frowned. "I was hoping for a little more than that." He put the photos down. "I brought pie."

The pie shop by the subway station made him feel old and out-of-time with its intentional irony, strange menu, and clientele that had been explained to him as "hipsters," which was usually why he bought his baked goods at the farmer's market or the tiny Polish bakery across from the CVS, but needs had musted and so the blackberry-apricot pie had come from there.

"It was very good pie," Peggy assured him, enjoying this a little too much. "And I'm all the more grateful for the contraband with Nurse Ratchet having gone through my freezer and confiscated my last pint of Bassetts. But illicit sugar won't make me see what isn't there."

Steve was about to protest and Peggy held her hand up to still him.

"I don't disbelieve you," she continued. "I trust your instincts and, even more so now than seventy years ago, I respect and envy your prodigious memory. But you are also holding two photographs that do not, on their own, support anything. Instead of starting at the end and asking me to work backwards, why don't you start at the beginning and then let me see what I can see instead of what you want me to see?"

Steve nodded, took a sip of his now-tepid coffee, and started the story again. This time, it began almost at the beginning, at the HYDRA facility where he'd found Bucky and the other Commandos. He described the offices, what he'd later come to be able to recognize as absolute signs that both Schmidt and Zola had been present for any length of time, and the working spaces that gave up details even within the industrial similarities of every HYDRA facility.

Schmidt's vision had permeated to the lowest levels, his minions devoted to it either out of desire to please or fear of failure or both, and like the many homes and possessions of a wealthy man, everything within HYDRA's scope had reflected its importance (or lack thereof) to Schmidt. There'd been the prized projects with the latest technology and most competent staffs and the collections of trophies and artifacts and art and treasure, but also the still-necessary shows of obedience and good faith to Berlin and the Fuhrer's objectives and desires, sometimes with genuine application (if Schmidt thought it possibly worthwhile) but more usually with the bare minimum of men and materiel.

After Zola's capture, there'd been a change, not a very drastic one considering that Zola was then in enemy custody spilling all he knew, but a more tempered one that reflected that Schmidt had lost the person who'd had the most (any) influence upon him. HYDRA's mission had been streamlined, purified almost, into Schmidt's personal one now that it was unimpeded by Zola's occasional bouts of conscience and more frequent fears that Hitler or (more likely) Bormann or Himmler would realize that Schmidt was increasingly less shy about using HYDRA for personal gain and not the betterment of the Reich. (There was also a marked reduction in human experimentation and other obscene work; Zola had cherished his own life, not others'.) HYDRA had both grown exponentially while also being simultaneously being reduced to its essence.

All of which had led to a fateful flight over the frozen sea.

HYDRA underwent another personality shift after Schmidt (and Steve) disappeared; in some places it happened quickly, in others (like Freiburg) not as much because HYDRA's many heads that had replaced the one Red Skull had needed time and infighting and attrition to come up with the necessary power to effect change. This part and what followed - the '51 raids, the occasional blips of successor organizations, the tenuous links to everything from American radicals to Ugandan rebels - was what SHIELD was still trying to figure out now that it had thrown away what it had, in arrogance and ignorance, told itself and the world about what had happened. But while it had risen in importance since Poland and, especially, since Detroit, this was still very much a history project for Fury and the others, something that was good to know, important to know, but not crucial to know because the real story was in the present and in the future yet unwritten. Steve was starting to get a very strong suspicion that this was not the case, that the future and the past were a lot more intimately related than anyone had considered and that by neglecting this part of the story, they were condemning themselves to more Detroits. But he needed proof, which meant that he needed more than his defrosted memories and some hunches that could not be quantified or qualified in SHIELD's databases by Linda-from-Archives or her assistants. Which was why he'd bought pie from irony-soaked hipsters and traveled down to Philadelphia to seek the counsel of the woman who had lived through all of HYDRA's many iterations and who would not, unlike almost everyone at SHIELD, treat him like he was imagining things so that his present and his past didn't look so very different from each other.

He didn't think he was imagining the connections between the HYDRA he'd fought during the war and the HYDRA that had chosen now to make itself known to the world. Or, rather, he didn't think he was imagining the tightness of those connections.

"I'm not saying that the Red Skull is back," he hedged. "Just that, taken as a larger picture of the whole of what we got - what we're getting - out of Detroit, that this version of HYDRA is looking a lot more organized according to Schmidt's plans than any other version. Or like any new version that has nothing to do with the one that came before save the name."

Peggy picked up her teacup, frowned at it, then put it back down. Steve took it from her, emptied the contents in the sink, and then poured her a new cup from the thermos.

"Of course it's going to try to look like Schmidt's version of HYDRA, Steve," Peggy said gently, accepting the cup. "Why emulate the parts that were either subordinate to someone else's plan for world domination or that were a failure."

Steve sat down. "It's not that they've picked the obvious role model. It's... Okay. If you and I were to sit with easels and paints and make forgeries of the Mona Lisa, there would be a lot ways to figure out which ones were the fakes-"

"Starting with the fact that I can't paint a wall, let alone a masterpiece," Peggy cut in tartly.

Steve waved away her interruption. "Even if we both did flawless renderings, used period-appropriate paints and canvases, got the craquelure perfectly... there'd be things like brushstroke technique to give the game away."

He held up the two photos, one of a HYDRA base in Danzig from '44 and one of an old ramshackle church in Detroit from the other week. "It's not that they've chosen to paint the HYDRA Mona Lisa. It's that they've got the little details right, too. If these aren't Schmidt's brushstrokes, they're darned close. 'Studio of Johann Schmidt,' at the very least. Whoever's running the new HYDRA either learned at the foot of the master himself or learned from someone who did."

Peggy said nothing for a long moment as she ran a still-elegant fingertip around the rim of her teacup. Finally, she looked up at him.

"When they found you in the ice," she began slowly, "Nick Fury came to see me. It wasn't a courtesy call to tell me that the young man I'd fallen in love with during the war had lived through it after all. It was to ask me - grill me - whether it was at all possible that Schmidt could have survived as well."

Steve sat back, unsurprised that Fury would so quickly consider that a possibility - and similarly unsurprised that Fury would keep all of this from him. "Was it?"

"You'd know better than anyone," Peggy said. "And I don't doubt that you've wondered the same thing yourself. You were there then, you saw what happened. And since then, you've seen what the tesseract can do."

There was no point in denying it, so he didn't.

"I don't know," he admitted instead. "Did I think it might be possible once we found out that there was still a HYDRA? Absolutely. But... I don't think it's the most likely scenario. I think it's possible. I think we should treat it as possible. But even with all of this--" he gestured to the folder he'd brought down with the pie, "--I don't want to go too far to the other extreme, from 'no connection' to 'no distance.' Just because I think it could be someone from Schmidt's circle doesn't mean it's the man himself. It's far more likely that this is all the work of Strucker or someone else who was around to see how Schmidt did things and learned very well."

Peggy reached out to touch his hand, squeezing his in her own tight grip. "Or it really is him and the rise of HYDRA is no coincidence at all," she said. "You've been back in action long enough for Schmidt to rev up his engines now that he has a worthy opponent again."

Steve looked at her sharply. He'd never thought of that, not even in his most exhaustion-fueled flights of fancy. He'd always been irrelevant to HYDRA's aims except as an irritant. "It's never been about me."

Peggy gave his hand a final squeeze and sat back. "It has always been about you, Steve Rogers. Always."

The clock in the other room chimed the hour. Steve knew he had to go, had to get back to New York for a meeting aboard the Helicarrier, but wished he didn't. Not because he wanted to talk about this anymore, but because they'd not had a chance to talk about much of anything else and, no matter how much time had passed and left its mark, he still loved listening to what she had to say about anything and everything.

"Go," she exhorted. "I have important things to do today and I can't waste all my time with doughboys and their naughty pictures."

Steve smiled as he stood and collected the papers and photos and stuck them back in the folder he'd brought.

Peggy walked him to the door and offered her cheek for him to kiss, which he did.

"You should know that Fury didn't come alone when he asked me about Schmidt," she said as he shouldered his bag. "He brought a very pretty agent he introduced as his assistant, which I found insulting and told him so. Bright red hair, very slight trace of a Russian accent. You could probably find her if you had any questions, I rather think. In fact, If I were a gambling woman, I'd say she knows an awful lot about what SHIELD has been doing about HYDRA since you woke up."

Steve was in the gym section of his loft, the southeastern corner with its exposed brick walls and heavy bag and free weights and jump rope and mats and nothing that beeped or made intentional noise or required electricity except for the fan and the radio and the light. He'd been at the bag for a while, almost enough to soften it too much but not quite there yet. He'd stop when he got that far; his current supply was supposed to last him until the end of the month and while today was clearly worth an exception, he had to make them last.

The meeting on the Helicarrier had gone as expected, which was 'not very well.' There was enough distance from the events in Detroit that the blaming and the accusations and the second-guessing had begun. The other federal agencies wanted answers, wanted more information, wanted out from under the ruling that SHIELD was the lead agency, wanted input on operational decisions, and, most of all, wanted Nick Fury's head on a pike. Fury wasn't inclined to give it to them, nor was he at all willing to welcome the overtures of the other agencies to send people in exchange for more access.

"You will give me what I ask for because that is the direction you have been given and because it's the right thing to do," he'd told them. "This isn't getting solved in a committee meeting."

Steve had been there nominally because he was a critical part of the HYDRA operations, but he was also there to be both shield and flak magnet and he kind of resented that. Not the part where the agencies' representatives questioned the necessity of the mission or its scope, that he would defend with genuine and heartfelt belief. But the rest of it, especially the questions that had mirrored his own - was the Detroit raid rushed, was it really necessary to go in so quickly and without sufficient intelligence, was it necessary to have gone in at all? - these were the ones Steve deeply disliked having to answer with a confidence he did not feel and with words he did not necessarily believe. He did it, of course he did it, because he was a good soldier and because he knew that Fury wasn't wrong and that there were too many ways this could be derailed and they could not, under any circumstance, allow the hunt for HYDRA be shunted aside in favor of easier-to-solve problems. But he hadn't liked any of it, had felt the words sour on his tongue, and had hated that bone-deep discomfort that came with going along with orders he knew weren't right but weren't harmful enough to disobey.

And then afterward, the reward for his dutifulness had been a sharp dismissal from Fury when he'd asked for a moment. He'd respectfully insisted that it was important and would, in fact, be only a moment, but Fury hadn't cared. "Now is not the time, Captain."

So Steve had left and gone straight down to Archives and asked for all of the files on the Red Skull. And when he'd seen the inventory of the files on offer, he'd asked for the rest of them. And then he'd asked again when Linda had been summoned because the low-level archivist had known that there were other files and that nobody was authorized to see those files without prior approval and, Captain America or not, Steve did not have such prior approval.

Hsiang would not put Linda's call through to Fury's office, in which everyone who could authorize Steve's access to the files was currently ensconced.

"Linda, it's the Red Skull," he'd tried to reason. "I'm not asking to see the tesseract files or Fury's service jacket. The Red Skull. I spent the war fighting him. I was there when he died. I am the source of almost every piece of intelligence in the files I can already access. It's like reading my own high school English homework. I just want to read someone else's."

Linda offered to flag the files in such a manner that the request would end up in both Fury's and Hill's email inboxes and he'd probably have the access he wanted by the end of play today or first thing tomorrow, but she could not let him see them right now.

He'd agreed, reluctantly, and asked if she'd also flag the other HYDRA files as well, the ones that were never offered to him on any of the countless requests he'd made. She'd given him a look then, a speculative one, and he'd met it calmly and with determination. Captain America was not going to be the nice boy and not cause any ripples in the pond. Not today.

He'd gone home after that, run errands and, on a spur of the moment, gone to see the pop-up art installation in the storefront on Front Street that had been a bank until the start of the previous month. (The paintings had been kind of pretentious, the metalwork sculptures surprisingly moving, and he hadn't even realized the pile of trash in the corner was an exhibit until he saw someone take a picture with their iPhone and saw the label card.) But the restlessness of mind hadn't abated and, rather than spend it with his neighbors on a surprisingly pleasant afternoon, he'd gone home to work it out in private.

Which was why he was in danger of blowing his allotment of heavy bags for the month two weeks early.

When he finished, he went to the kitchen to get some water, unwrapping his hands as he went.

Natasha was sitting on one of the stools at the island, her back to him, as she read the Post.

"I didn't hear the doorbell," he said by way of greeting as he circled around the island to get to the fridge. He pulled out his water bottle and drank heavily from it.

"Clearly," Natasha agreed, looking up and closing the paper. "I rang it three times."

"You could have tried my phone," Steve said, wiping his face with the bottom of his shirt. "I could have been out."

"I knew you were home," she said, gesturing in the general direction of the door. One of the security features that SHIELD had required Steve maintain after the surveillance and other measures had been removed was a simple program that monitored his entrances and exits. It didn't use audio or video, just kept track of his fingerprints on touchpads on the inside and outside of the loft's entrance door, and so he hadn't objected. "And if you weren't answering the door, you weren't going to answer your phone."

"So you broke in?" Steve asked, since "So you're here because Fury sent you?" seemed fairly rhetorical if she was being open about accessing the monitoring.

"I had gelato," she answered, gesturing with her chin toward the freezer behind Steve. "I didn't want it to melt."

Steve noticed for the first time that there were shopping bags on the island's countertop. "You brought dinner?"

A bright smile from Natasha. "I did. And while you go shower, I shall reheat it."

Accepting that whatever reason she was here for was not an emergency, Steve saluted her with his water bottle, drained the rest of it, put it in the sink to be refilled, and headed off to go get clean. When he returned, he stopped short at the vague boundary between where his living room ended and the kitchen and dining area began.

On the floor, in the space between the kitchen island and the dining room table, was a blanket of bright orange and gold and red and, upon it, plates and wineglasses.

"We're having a picnic?"

Natasha turned from where she was standing over the stove. Natasha was a gourmand and had a mental file on every fancy restaurant in the world, but she didn't cook and was actually fairly proud of the fact that she didn't cook, explaining that, like her own particular skill sets, cooking was an art and she appreciated outsourcing that sort of work to experts. However, she was extremely proud of her reheating skills.

"We are not having a picnic," she told him. "We are having Ethiopian food and we are going to eat it like Ethiopians."

"They don't have tables and chairs in Ethiopia?" Steve asked as he accepted the bottle of wine she handed him. When he reached down for the wineglasses, he noticed that something else was missing, too. "Or forks and knives?"

"This is easier," Natasha assured. "You'll see."

Everyone had told him that the chopsticks would be easier than a fork, too, Steve did not point out.

Ethiopian food turned out to be a lot of differently colored mushes, some thin and some chunky, some incredibly spicy and some not, and all of it actually pretty tasty, if unfamiliar. And it was eaten by scooping it up with pieces of the giant flatbread Natasha had put out alongside the array of mushes. Steve wasn't very graceful with the scooping and eventually got up to get a spoon to help the process, but Natasha could do it elegantly and the trip from tearing the bread to loading it up to eating it was one smooth motion. Either way, eating on the floor, facing each other over the food, was definitely the easiest way to go about it.

Dessert came from il laboratorio del gelato and was a selection of pomegranate, rose petal, white fig, and lavender honey. That they ate on the floor, too, although it was totally unnecessary.

"That was lovely," Steve said when he put down his bowl. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome," Natasha replied, looking at her watch. "You ready to go?"

Steve cocked an eyebrow. "Go where?"

"Detroit," Natasha answered. "You want all of the answers, you might as well be in the right place to ask the questions."

"How long have you been looking for the Red Skull?" Steve asked as they walked across the parking lot of the factory where Steve and his team had been besieged last month, where Blue Team had perished in its entirety without a chance. The perimeter was now fully contained by a new chain-link fence with electrified razor wire and other security measures, the entire area lit up with flood lamps, and there were guards and dogs and agents working even at night. The lot itself was clear of weeds and the burned-out car shells and the other debris, although even clear of all of that, it didn't look like an unused parking lot. It looked like an empty battlefield.

"Since the day the Stark team finished their excavation of your crash site and found no sign of him or his remains," Natasha answered. "But it wasn't really a serious search until we realized that the tesseract was more than just a battery."

While everyone had originally just thought that Thor was being unhelpful when he'd been so vague about the tesseract's capabilities, it eventually became clear that he wasn't doing it intentionally and that he honestly hadn't been sure of what it could do. Or, more precisely, what it could not do. Which in turn made everyone wonder why Loki, whom Thor would readily admit was the cleverer of the brothers, had not done more than he had with it. To that, Thor seemed to have an answer, although he'd been unwilling to provide it in full.

"Because the tesseract could have sent him anywhere, not just made him disintegrate," Steve concluded as they reached the stairs. "What I saw as him burning up could have been something else entirely."

The inside of the factory was as well-lit as it had been the night of the raid and looked much as it had then, except for the entrances to the sublevels, which had been hidden at the time but were now wide open. There were three of them that he could see, all of which would have allowed the first wave of HYDRA soldiers to easily trap Blue Team inside the building. The air still smelled of industrial-strength cleaner; there had been a lot of bodies to clear away and a lot of blood to clean up.

They walked to the closest sublevel entrance, nodding to the guards at the mouth of it.

Steve had seen photos of the HYDRA tunnel network, but up close and in person it was, somehow, more malevolent for being so well-constructed and so permanent. These weren't makeshift excavations or glorified storm drains or bomb shelters; they were reinforced concrete and metal with electricity and cell service and water and sewage pipes. There were fire extinguishers and directional maps and the occasional bathroom and water fountain and even a snack vending machine. This wasn't a criminal hideout; this was a place of business. The banality made it all the more perverse.

"Has there ever been any sign that Schmidt is on Earth?" Steve asked as they turned down another hallway. "That he had anything to do with HYDRA after he..."

Natasha shook her head no. "We're still going through the old material, talking to the original actors, but so far, there hasn't been anything. Or at least anything we can't say doesn't have half a dozen other explanations. Occam's razor cuts both ways and all that."

She gestured with her hand to a set of double doors and they went through them to a stairwell. At the top of the stairs was another double door and, past that, another set of guards. Beyond the guards, however, were the backs of wooden pews. They were at the church, the one Steve had taken the photographs of to show to Peggy.

"The problem we're having is that too much time has passed," Natasha went on as they walked down the aisle toward the pulpit. "The people we need to talk to are old and their memories aren't sharp and they haven't had to think about these things in fifty to seventy years. We can't be sure that what they remember is what actually was and most of what they tell us that isn't already in the files can't be independently verified because the evidence is long gone."

"Peggy's mind's still very sharp," Steve objected, knowing that he sounded like he was defending her honor. Which, in a way, he was.

"Peggy Carter is a singular woman," Natasha allowed. "But even her memory is not infallible. She's on the far side of ninety, Cap. I've interviewed her more than once. There are a lot of things she can't recall with clarity or accuracy."

She remembers me just fine, he didn't say. "That hasn't been my experience," is what he did.

They stopped in front of the pulpit and climbed up to the raised platform and turned around to take in the entire room. The pews were actually workstations, each with its own outlet and a wired connection to the internet and a flip-down work surface for a laptop or whatever else HYDRA used. There were two sets of stairs that went up from the back of the room to offices and a set of computer servers that had been rendered useless before the raid; it was one of the offices that had made Steve think of Danzig.

"I know we debriefed the hell out of you at the beginning," Natasha said, "but we both know now that we weren't asking the right questions."

Steve chuckled mirthlessly. "When all else has failed, ask the genetically-modified side of beef with the high school diploma?"

"That's not-"

"It is, Natasha," Steve cut her off. "It's why I never got to see the full files on HYDRA or the Red Skull or everything to do with my own last mission. It's why you've been leading a mission for which I am your absolute best resource and you are just now getting around to me. Which happens to coincide precisely with when I start making enough of a nuisance of myself that it becomes convenient to do something to shut me up. And maybe you were right, maybe I'm not that sharp because it took me this long to realize - and I still wouldn't have realized if a forgetful old biddie hadn't prompted me to see when all I'd done was look."

He turned to Natasha, who met his gaze evenly.

"I'm not sure if you all thought I spent the war as a better-dressed Hulk, smashing my way through Europe, or if you really understood what I was doing and just didn't value it very much," he went on. "Either way, I'm still a USO chorus girl to you folks."

"That's not true," Natasha protested, pushing her hair back from her face with a sharp motion. "Cap -- Steve -- You can't think that's how we feel. How I feel."

Her expression was earnest, almost pleading, and he wanted to believe that it was truthful, too, but he also knew how good she was at her job and that right now, her job was pumping him for information.

"Can't I?" he asked. "Why is now the first time I'm allowed to come back to Detroit? Is it the same reason it took weeks before I was allowed to go into my kitchen without an agent watching me through a video camera? Do you all still think I'm that delicate?"

"We thought you were a high risk for a bullet to the brain," Natasha replied sourly. "Fury had credible intel that HYDRA had the sites still under surveillance and he didn't want you getting assassinated. Not in uniform, not here in a HYDRA base. Not while the country is still reeling from having an advanced terrorist compound in their midst and we haven't even told them about the others."

Steve frowned.

"You're an icon, Cap," Natasha said with a wry expression that was not matched by her tone. "You are an icon and this is a nation of believers."

His frown deepened. "Which doesn't disprove the chorus girl part of the story."

Natasha gave him a ghost of a smile. "Why do you think that the idol worship stops at the Helicarrier ladder? Do you honestly believe that Phil Coulson was the only one who had your trading cards or read the books or saw the movies? You matter, Cap, within SHIELD as well as without.

"Everyone grew up knowing who you were - who you were supposed to have been. And yeah, the acceptance of who you really are has maybe been a little slower than you'd like, but you're also presenting us with a moving target. You're changing, too."

He shook his head. "That's not an excuse."

"It's not," Natasha readily agreed. "But it's a reason, even if it's one that has outlived its usefulness. I'm sorry. I really am." She held out her hand to shake. "No more bullshit?"

"You can't really make that offer on behalf of either Fury or SHIELD," he pointed out.

Natasha rolled her eyes and smiled. "Nobody can make that offer on Fury's behalf," she retorted. "Not even Fury."

She held her hand up a little. "But for me, I can make that promise."

Steve nodded and shook her hand. "Accepted."

"So," Natasha said. "Why don't you tell me what's so hinky about this place that you went running off to see Peggy Carter."

Chapter Text

"What the hell, Stark? I'm on your side!"

Steve took his eyes off of his own problems -- a phalanx of HYDRA agents coming toward him holding what looked to be a cross between a giant bazooka and a lit cigar -- to glance over at Clint, who was still looking up at the sky in irritation but seemed otherwise unharmed despite the plume of smoke rising from just behind him.

"Problem, Hawkeye?" Steve asked as he tossed the shield, watching it until it hit the bazooka-cigar and ricocheted to the right. From there, he knew where the angles would lead it and he could move independently until they were both reunited near where the blue pick-up was parked. His own path took him through the left flank of the scattered phalanx, up over a donkey-less donkey cart, behind two more HYDRA agents (the 'knocking heads together like coconuts' thing really never got old), and over the roof of one of those tiny little cars that looked like they should have clowns in them but instead usually had hipsters in them, at least in Brooklyn. He caught the shield easily at shoulder height, then spun around to use it to deflect some bullets as he scanned the battlefield for his teammates.

Tony was still airborne, hovering over something on the other side of the squat building in the south-west quadrant of the compound, which wasn't where he was supposed to be but presumably he had a reason for it. Natasha had been attached to the main SHIELD force, leading a smaller contingent toward the main buildings from the other side and hadn't been part of this little diversion. Clint was about ten feet off the ground as he was scaling the outside of the main building, conveniently constructed with many natural footholds and window ledges.

"No problem," Clint replied with false good cheer over his headset as he climbed, moving quickly because HYDRA agents were firing at him. A bullet ricocheted off of his quiver. "Except for a little blue-on-blue violence."

Steve ducked as something came whizzing by his right shoulder; he watched the contrails of a small -- purple?!? -- fireball as it lodged itself in the tree a few feet away, then hunkered down as a rain of splinters followed the explosion. The main of the tree fell sideways, but a few of the longer branches made nerve-jangling noises as they scratched their way down the side of the pick-up.

"Hail HYDRA!"

Still in his crouch, Steve turned around to see another wave of blue-clad cannon fodder coming toward him with rifles drawn; the armory at this base seemed to be stocked with H&K UMPs so new they still glistened. He angled the shield to deflect their bullets back toward their feet, then launched himself up into the air and over the pick-up's cab, landing in a crouch on the other side where he was hidden by the leaves from the fallen tree. He was supposed to be getting inside to meet up with Natasha, which meant either a hundred-yard dash over open ground or finding a less direct route that involved fewer chances for HYDRA's minions, who tended to make up in quantity of lead what they lacked in quality of marksmanship, to get lucky.

It would have been helpful if Tony were on station where he was supposed to be instead of wherever he was, which was not in Steve's line of sight. "Iron Man, are you even still in Mexico?"

The HYDRA base, an old hacienda with a palatial main house, more than a dozen smaller buildings, and over a hundred acres surrounded by high walls, was less than a two-hour drive south of the border between Mexico and West Texas, deep in the mire of the drug wars without being part of it. They'd asked for and received intelligence from all of the relevant agencies, all of whom had pegged the place as a drug kingpin's stronghold and none of which had been at all surprised to find out that HYDRA was making use of the same chaos that every other enterprising bad guy did.

"If you go straight for about fifteen meters once you get out from behind the tree," Clint offered and Steve looked up. Clint was already on the roof. "you'll get to the porta-johns and from there, you can make it to the trailers. I can cover you from there to here."

Steve watched as Clint fired an exploding arrow at whoever was massing on the other side of the pick-up, waiting for the sound of impact before he edged himself past the fallen tree-top. The stench of the porta-johns hit him before he got close enough for them to provide shelter, but he got there unharmed, only to be nearly undone by a HYDRA agent with a small bladder who stepped out of one of the cubes just as Steve approached it. The HYDRA agent reached for his rifle, Steve punched him in the face, slammed the door shut, and pushed the entire thing over on its side. He could hear the shouts of disgusted horror as he ran on.

"Hey, Cap, you still need something?" Tony asked, sounding entirely like a man who had no idea that he was not in the fullness of his teammates' grace and affection at the moment.

"Where are you and where were you?" Steve asked as he ducked behind a porta-john to hide from a quartet of HYDRA agents running past. "Because you're not where you are supposed to be and I know you know what 'overwatch' means."

"Wait five seconds and you're clear as far as I can see," Clint said. "I've got no visual on your right flank, so keep that in mind."

"I was sealing the armory and immobilizing those who had gotten toys already," Tony replied, undaunted and a little primly. "Which was on my to-do list. And Hawkeye's in overwatch position, which I believe was your plan in the first place."

..four Mississippi, five Mississippi... Steve took off, holding his shield on his right arm and running full tilt. He felt the plunk of bullets on vibranium and the less dull impact of a bullet on the outside of his right thigh, but got to the cover provided by the three trailers without anything else getting hit. He looked at his thigh by instinct, even though he knew the bullet would have been deflected by the material of his uniform. It had been and there was a sore spot underneath, but the bruise would fade before he ever had a chance to see it.

"You were supposed to be on station so that Hawkeye did not have to scale the outside of a building while under fire to get to that position," Steve retorted.

"Especially since you were the one firing on me in the first place," Clint added. "There's a technical full of bad guys approaching from the northeast. Looks like they've got a Ma Deuce mounted on the rear."

"On it," Tony replied. Steve could finally see Iron Man as Tony flew north and launched an energy blast from his gauntlet.

"If you're going to go," Clint told Steve, "go now. The reinforcements are showing up and our boys and girls are going to need a few minutes to get them all contained."

Steve poked his head out from between the trailers, didn't get it shot at, looked around first at his immediate environment (parked SUV, picnic table, two propane tanks next to the one attached to the rear of the trailer, three HYDRA agents jogging toward him in a way that made it obvious they didn't see him) and then at the route to the main house atop which Clint was perched and, in theory, to which Natasha was leading her people from the other side.

Clint had climbed up the side of the house, but Steve's best option was to get up on to the back porch and enter through the doors there.

Tony reappeared in the sky on the far side of the house. "The cavalry's here, which is good, because so have the reinforcements. I think we seriously need to start considering that HYDRA has cloning tanks. There's no way they're just signing all of these people up to die in these quantities."

With that, he ducked down again and Steve could faintly hear the sound of an explosion.

"Cap?" Natasha began, "we're going in the front. There are two teams coming around to cover the back. Do you want to wait for them?"

Steve thought about it for half a second. "No, I'll go in on my own. Just tell your people that we have fulfilled our daily quota of friendly fire and don't shoot me."

There was a louder explosion from the front and the start of a smoke plume climbing past the roof. Back on this side of the house, the noise was building, too.

"Cap, now or never," Clint reminded him. "You've got a pack of 'em closing in on your four o'clock."

Steve looked over and yeah, that was definitely a posse worth running from.

"On three," he told Clint.

On three, he ran. The posse behind him was firing, but they were a little too far away and not good enough shots to hit a moving target while they were running. He ran up the first set of stairs three at a time and the second two at a time because they were bigger steps. There were HYDRA agents standing inside the french doors and they started shooting without opening them. Steve deflected the bullets with his shield and then threw it. The vibranium cut through the wood and glass and hit the guards hard enough to send them scattering as they held their wounded arms. Steve pulled open the destroyed doors and picked up his shield, pulling it up quickly to deflect more bullets, of which there were many. Had to be at least six shooting at him, all of them focusing on the shield because that's what everyone always did, although HYDRA aim being what it was, they were hitting his thighs as well and he fought the urge to crouch down to spare the discomfort. The bullets weren't going to penetrate, but they stung like angry bees and enough of them hitting him was going to make it hurt to move for a couple of hours.

He pushed forward, keeping his head and arms protected by the shield even as he looked around for more cover because he couldn't progress too far into the room without getting flanked. To his left looked to be a living room of sorts with couches and chairs and a giant television on the wall. Even HYDRA needed to relax, he supposed, but there wasn't anything there he could use. To his right was a wall with a door about ten feet further in that he might be able to reach, but he really had to hope that he could get through it and that there wasn't anything worse on the other side. They didn't have blueprints of the house or the other structures on the hacienda, just satellite imagery that had helped them identify most of the buildings by function.

There was a crash and an explosion somewhere else inside the house; SHIELD was under orders to not destroy anything they didn't have to and he hoped they'd keep HYDRA from destroying anything useful. The steady chatter of bullets on vibranium died down suddenly, from rainstorm to shower, and Steve ventured a look and could see that there were only three HYDRA agents left firing at him. He couldn't toss the shield because there wasn't anything directly behind them and he didn't want to have to go chase it down.

Instead, he just charged them, smacking away the UMPs with the shield and then swinging again and kicking out to bring them down. He pulled off their face shields and was surprised to see that one of the unconscious agents was a woman, but left the three of them in a jumbled heap and went back to the door he'd seen earlier. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked, so he kicked it in. It was a reinforced door, but not so reinforced that it could stand up to a well-placed boot and it flew open, banging against the wall and springing back with such force that Steve had to hold out his hand to keep from getting hit by the rebound.

"Please don't do that," Steve said to the man standing at the desk of what was definitely an office, papers in one hand and a shredder in front of him. The man was not in HYDRA gear, was instead in business clothes and looked to be about thirty years too old and twenty pounds too heavy to be one of the minions out of uniform. "We want those."

He waited a half-beat for the off chance that the man would put the papers down, then flung his shield at the shredder before the guy could get too close. But the man hadn't been reaching for the shredder; he'd been reaching for a glass jar that Steve immediately recognized as an old SIP grenade.

"Please don't do that, either," Steve sighed as he changed the grip on the shield so that he could strap it on to his arm. He could knock the grenade out of the guy's hand, but that wouldn't really help because while carpet in the office was thick, it probably wasn't soft enough to keep the glass from shattering and Steve knew very well what one of these could do in an enclosed space.

"What are you going to do, Captain?" the man asked mockingly in a German accent. "Shoot me?"

"No, but I might," Natasha said from behind Steve as she entered the room, gun drawn. She stopped next to Steve. "Building's secure, by the way."

He wanted to ask if she was sure, that he'd thought the factory in Detroit had been secure, too, but the guy with the firebomb in his hand and a death wish on his mind was arguably the more immediate problem.

"Why don't you put that down and come with us," Steve suggested to the man at the desk. "You don't really want to die today, do you?"

"I get the guy, you get the jelly jar?" Natasha murmured, crossing in front of Steve so that she stood at his left and he could make an unimpeded running grab at the SIP.

"I won't get there in time," he answered. Once the phosphorus was exposed to air, it was all over but the fiery mess because the rest of the jar was full of benzene.

"No, you won't," agreed the man. "And now that both of you are here-"

Steve threw the shield at the far wall, past Natasha's face. It drew her attention even as she snapped her head back, but it also drew the attention of the man at the desk for the few heartbeats Steve needed as a headstart so that when the grenade was thrown, at the wall opposite to where he'd thrown the shield, he could get there before the jar did. He didn't catch it cleanly, fumbling it once, but he held on and reached down to pick the shield up off of the floor.

"Hail HYDRA!" the man shouted and they heard the crunch of a cyanide tooth and then he collapsed.

"Oh, not even," Natasha growled, pulling what looked like a cigar tube off of her belt. She opened it up and a syringe came out; she pulled the cover off the needle and tossed it on the ground, roughly turning the fallen man over so that she could inject the antidote effectively. She stood up to watch, pulling out her gun and pointing it at the door and then reholstering once she saw that it was a trio of SHIELD agents.

"Get him to a hospital," she told them, gesturing with her chin to the man at her feet. "The Captain and I have work to do."

One of the agents radioed for a stretcher and Natasha gestured for Steve to follow her out of the room. "Once he comes to a little, he's going to be projectile vomiting," she explained with a wrinkle of her nose. "What's in the jelly jar, by the way?"

Steve had honestly forgotten that the SIP grenade was still in his hand. "It's a World War II anti-tank grenade," he answered. "The British version of a Molotov cocktail. Unstable as heck back then. I have no idea what it will do now."

Natasha got a gleam in her eye that Steve recognized as one that generally led to no good. "Wanna try it out?"

Steve looked out the destroyed french doors, which were now guarded by SHIELD agents. The three HYDRA agents he'd stopped were gone, too. "Sure," he said with a shrug. They were going to have to blow it up anyway.

They went outside and Steve looked for a suitable target. He settled on the donkey-less donkey cart, since it was not too close to anything else. He tossed the jar and it shattered in the cart bed. Seconds later, the cart went up in a bright flash followed by a brilliant fire.

The SHIELD personnel securing the area - dozens of them - all stopped what they were doing and stared.

"Hunh," Natasha chuffed approvingly. "I can see how that might not have been a good indoor toy."

"Did you just Molotov the donkey cart?" Clint asked over the radio. He sounded a little dumbfounded.

"Yes," Steve replied as he watched the charred remains of the cart burn. There was a ring of fire around the cart, probably from wherever the benzene solution had splashed. "Yes, I did."

"Wait," Tony chimed in. "Captain America's tossing firebombs and I missed it?"

"Kind of the story of your afternoon, now isn't it?" Steve replied mildly.


It took almost an hour for all of the HYDRA personnel to be rounded up (be it by the security forces responsible for prisoner transport or the mortuary unit) and carted off. SHIELD's learning curve on cleaning up after HYDRA raids had been pretty steep; the suicide rate of prisoners was much lower since they'd started packing tranquilizers and the mouth-guards that prevented death-by-false-tooth. The rest was getting better, too, of course. There'd been four raids since Detroit, none in the US, and they'd gone acceptably well except for the fact that there'd been so little useful intelligence gained as a result. The events in Detroit were still being analyzed and dissected and learned from and Steve was confident that many of the mistakes they'd made that night would never be made again.

The database of possible and probable and definite HYDRA bases was growing; SHIELD was surveilling all of them and raiding some of them, but only those for which a case could be made that it would do more good than harm. This base, one of ten they knew about in Mexico (so far; that HYDRA was paying Mexican officials to look the other way had quickly become obvious), had been chosen because it was the closest to the US and because there was evidence that most of the weapons that had been recovered in Detroit had passed through here and Fury wanted to get a better picture of HYDRA's logistics because the assumption had been that everything in Detroit had come through Canada instead.

While they waited for the all-clear, Steve wandered room to room, Natasha trailing behind, and looked. He wasn't sure what exactly he was hoping to see, at least that's what he told Natasha when she asked, but he didn't think she believed him and he didn't believe himself. He was looking for the Red Skull, for some kind of proof that Johann Schmidt might have been here.

The middle-aged German with the WWII munitions had maybe rattled him a little.

They went back to the office once the forensics people had been through; the basket from the shredder had been emptied and the documents reassembled in one of the labs. The rest was untouched and Steve stood in the middle of the room and turned around slowly, then closed his eyes to better compare what he had just seen with what he had once seen long ago.

When he opened his eyes, Clint was standing next to Natasha and they were both watching him.

"I don't think we're going to find anything useful here," he said. "It's going to be a waypoint for materiel, not a treasure trove of intelligence."

"Finding out where HYDRA's getting their weapons and where they're going isn't nothing, Cap," Natasha offered. "It won't solve your mystery, but it will solve others."

He grimaced because she wasn't wrong, but he still felt that that was the unimportant part of the matter. They were no closer to finding out who was running HYDRA. He was no closer to finding out if the Red Skull was back.

"Tony took off, by the way," Clint said. "Said he had other things to do."

Steve made a helpless gesture because, really, there was nothing to be done on that front. Tony wouldn't have been especially needed once the fighting was over with and he'd have been the first to point it out, although on any other day, he probably would have hung around anyway and just made a playful nuisance of himself. But Steve knew that Tony was having some trouble on the business front and, clearly, it was starting to bleed through on to the heroics and, for that, it was just as well that he'd gone because otherwise Steve would have had to have chided him for his inattention and how that had put teammates at risk and, as both cause and effect, Tony would not have listened very closely. Better that they have that conversation later on, when there was a better chance of Tony actually hearing Steve tell him that he had to compartmentalize better.

"Captain, sir?" A SHIELD agent stood in the doorway. "We found another crate of the incendiary you threw. Three of them, actually."

Clint's eyes lit up like Christmas. "Oh, please. Pretty please with cherries on top. I'll be your best friend forever."

"We're going to need a clear space for a controlled demolition," Steve told the agent, who nodded. "The SIPs should be transported in water, so see if you can't scare up some buckets."

The agent left and Steve turned to Clint. "We don't want to set fire to the entire state of Chihuahua."

"We don't," Clint repeated, although he made it sound slightly more like a question.

"You have maps," Steve told him. "Find us a place."

Clint's gleam returned. "Best friend forever," he said, then left the room.

"He's so easily bought and paid for," Natasha sighed.

Steve smiled. "Does this mean you don't want to join us?"

"Oh hell no, it does not mean that," Natasha retorted, looking offended at the thought that she might not want in on wanton destruction. "I'm just saying he's a cheap date."

Steve's cell phone buzzed and vibrated its way acros the stack of papers on the coffee table. He had a pretty good guess who was calling even before he saw the number.

"Good evening, Miss Potts," he said quietly, looking over to where Tony was lying on the couch snoring softly. "He's here."

Pepper sighed and Steve didn't know if it was from relief or something else. "If I send Happy with the car, could you get him to it?"

"Of course," he replied. "You're welcome to leave him here until the morning, though. He's down for the count and remarkably not in the way."

Tony had shown up that afternoon with a couple of styrofoam takeout boxes, a large bottle of vodka, and the same slightly stunned look he'd had on his face for the last few times Steve had seen him. They'd eaten the hamburgers and fries and Steve had taken two drinks of the vodka because Tony had insisted and he'd been on that edge of cruelty he sometimes rode when too many things weren't going as he'd thought they should and Steve knew that if Tony was going to tie one on, then it would be better for everyone if he wasn't being mean before he got drunk.

Tony had come very close to finishing the bottle on his own, drinking it neat and choosing to keep it in an ice bucket rather than put it in the freezer between refreshing his glass.

(Steve sometimes wondered if he wasn't being a very good friend or team leader by not stopping Tony's clearly excessive drinking, but Tony was an adult who had to know that he was drinking excessively and it was probably better that he did it somewhere safe because he was going to do it somewhere.)

"In other circumstances, I'd take you up on that," Pepper said. "But we have an early board meeting and I need to get him presentable and into the conference room even if he is just going to sit there and blink stupidly because he can't see past the migraine."

Pepper was the first person to joke about just how little her day-to-day experiences had changed since she'd exchanged her role in the Life of Tony Stark from personal assistant to CEO-and-girlfriend. But in the time that Steve had come to know her, he'd come to appreciate just how much of that similarity was only surface-deep. And that watching him struggle, as he was now, was frustrating in entirely new and different ways.

"How are you holding up?" Steve asked. She was dealing with much of the same mess that was driving Tony to distraction as Iron Man and to passing out on couches in his street clothes, but her role was to be the strong and stable one, which was a pretty thankless task when it came to Stark World.

Pepper's sigh was far less ambiguous this time. "I have had better months. Quarters. Years. I don't think I've ever been this worried for Stark Industries. Not during Tony's most self-destructive excesses, not when he went missing on benders or in Afghanistan, not even when he came back and decided that everything Stark built, it wasn't going to build anymore and oh, by the way, he's Iron Man. And I have just enough perspective left over to appreciate the irony that this time, it's not because of anything that Tony did or didn't do."

Steve had gotten bits and pieces over the past few months as the storm had been building, but Tony had given him the rest this afternoon into evening. Stark Industries, already a little wobbly because of all of the Iron Man-related complications, was taking body blows from Trident, a Swiss corporation that had been slowly and steadily building itself into a serious rival. Almost everything that Stark Industries did, Trident could now do -- perhaps not as well, not yet, but they were growing faster than Stark Industries and didn't have "the Iron Man problem" holding them back.

The Iron Man problem, Tony had wryly assured Steve, was normally very surmountable because they'd been dealing with it for a few years and for all that it could be a drag on Stark Industries' otherwise smooth sailing, it had upsides, too. Iron Man had made Stark Industries billions of dollars because it had reminded everyone exactly what kind of brilliant and brave man Tony Stark really was. But now, coupled with the mounting threat from Trident, the Iron Man problem was back to being a problem. And Trident was making the most of it.

What had sent Tony into Brooklyn this afternoon with burgers and vodka was the news that the EU was proposing new regulations that would make it all but impossible for anyone from non-EU countries to win the bidding for major government contracts. ("Nothing, absolutely nothing, makes money like getting paid by the government. Any government, even the kleptocrat banana republics.") Stark Industries had European subsidiaries, of course, but the proposed legislation would disqualify them from competition unless an overwhelming majority of the contracted work was done in Europe by those subsidiaries.

Stark Industries was not designed to function that way. Trident, of course, was and while they were not directly linked to the proposal, Tony didn't think anyone would have to dig very hard to find such a connection. Which was a strategy he respected and, apparently, had used to great advantage himself on US soil, but he seemed to deeply resent the fact that Trident had spent enough money to make buying 'no' votes difficult-to-impossible. The fact that this would be sticking it to both the Americans in general and Iron Man in specific probably also did not hurt, Tony had mused darkly.

"I think we can blame it all on Tony out of habit," Steve said, knowing that that wasn't actually a comfort.

Pepper laughed. "I do, but he knows I don't mean it."

They spoke for a little longer, about things that were not related to Tony or Stark Industries, and Steve assured her that yes, of course, she was welcome to come along with Tony for dinner one evening and no, he was pretty sure that watching him cook was not nearly the experience Tony had made it sound like. Also, chopsticks would not be involved.

After he hung up, Steve went to the kitchen to fill up a liter bottle of water from the tap and put it down on the coffee table next to the couch and proceeded to try to raise the dead.

Chapter Text

"Welcome back, Captain," Tapper greeted Steve as he disembarked from the quinjet, ruck in one hand and book in the other. "How was your trip?"

Steve waited for a fighter jet to roar by on takeoff - a busy day on the Helicarrier's flight deck - before replying. "Kansas was a lot of talk-talk-talk, but I could have stayed an extra week in Missouri."

He'd just spent a two weeks back with the Army, first at the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, talking tactics, strategy, and training with the people who made these decisions for the Army and then over to Fort Leonard Wood, where he put several minds at ease by proving that yes, he had been brought and kept up to date by SHIELD on nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare ("Yes, sir, I am aware that we've come a long way since mustard gas.") and then had spent enjoyable days building and then blowing things up with the baby sappers.

He'd been initially resistant to the trip to Missouri - he really had paid attention when the SHIELD agents from the NBC department had tutored him and he didn't think he needed the refresher course in combat engineering (he already knew almost everything a non-sapper needed to know). Plus it would be another week away from SHIELD and the search for HYDRA. Fury had more or less told him that some distance from the HYDRA hunt might not be a bad thing and that after a week at the CAC, he'd better appreciate quality time with high explosives. ("I already greatly value time with explosives, sir. You saw Agent Paulson's report from Mexico.") Steve would readily admit that Fury had been right about the latter being welcome after a week of meetings with brass, but he couldn't help feel a little pushed aside on the former, like Fury was once again hiding things from him for his own purported good. He'd asked Natasha to keep him updated, but the only interesting news had been that Bruce had been called in to work on something found in Detroit and he wasn't sure if that was all Natasha knew - she'd been on her own international assignment - or all that anyone felt he should be told.

Tapper gestured for Steve to follow him and he did, nodding and smiling to the various flight deck personnel he recognized and giving a half-bow to the Air Boss, who interrupted his bodily correction of one of the purple-shirted fuel handlers to acknowledge it.

"So what got found in Detroit that Doctor Banner got called in?" Steve asked as soon as they were indoors and didn't have to shout. "Is it something actually useful or is this yet another red herring?"

It had escaped no one's attention that the quality of information that came from the raids on HYDRA bases had been weak at best, that each base had been almost prepped for invasion even if they were still populated and productive. There was more useful intelligence to be gained from what they weren't finding instead of what they were, which was almost nothing. Even Mexico, where they'd gotten everything almost entirely intact and had kept all of the prisoners from suiciding (they'd still killed a lot of them in the fight), had been just the latest in the long string of exercises in futility. At least as far as determining HYDRA's structure and plans and principals; they'd gotten enough on the logistics end to earn back a tiny bit of goodwill from the federal agencies that had been so badly treated in Detroit.

"We think it may be legit," Tapper said as they waited for the elevator. "I mean, we're still ready to accept that this is yet another false trail laid down by whoever orchestrated the ambushes, but it was well-hidden, hard to decrypt, and has the delicate odor of something that they might not necessarily have meant for us to find. In no small part because it took us this long to find it and we've been looking very hard for a very long time."

The elevator opened and half of a SHIELD field team stepped out, all of them dressed for a mission. Steve wished them good luck before following Tapper into the elevator. "Do you know what it is besides 'science'? Because that's all I got out of the Widow."

(Natasha had restated her promise not to feed him baloney after saying over email that no, Fury wasn't sharing.)

Tapper shook his head. "Banner's not talking to anyone right now and nobody wants to be the one to set him off," he said with a shrug. "I've had to stop by his lab a few times and he's... tense."

Steve frowned. "Is that a 'don't go near him' warning or an obliquely-framed wish that I venture down into the lion's den and bug him because I'll best survive the impact if the Other Guy does show up?"

Tapper grinned and gestured grandly for Steve to precede him out of the elevator once the doors opened again. "Fury'd probably dock your pay if the Hulk ends up wrecking the Helicarrier again because you were prodding Banner for information you weren't supposed to have yet."

Steve stepped outside of the elevator and realized that they were on the deck level that housed Bruce's workspace. Tapper feigned innocence when Steve cocked his eyebrow at him.

"If Fury does garnish my wages, you'd better start passing a collection plate," Steve told Neal before heading off in the direction of Bruce's lab.

Observed through the window, Bruce was definitely showing strain. Never loose-limbed, even at his most off-duty version of relaxed, Bruce now was hunched over a laptop, his posture tight and tense and angry as he split his attention between what was on the screen and the files on the table top. Rage was Bruce's lifeblood, but most of the time he hid it very well. Less well the better you knew him, but it was very rare for it to be so readable even to the most casual gaze. His body language right now screamed 'leave me alone' and, yeah, Steve took a deep breath and a long pause before he took the last few steps that would bring him into Bruce's line of sight (should he look up) and close enough to the door to knock.

The furious glare turned into something a little softer once Bruce realized who his latest unwelcome interruption was.

"You just got back?" Bruce asked, gesturing with his pencil at the rucksack in Steve's left hand.

"Yeah," Steve confirmed, crossing the room to Bruce's table and putting his ruck down on the stool nearest to him and putting his book on top of the ruck. "If Fury's going to keep sending me back to the Army, I am going to have to ask about getting my commission back."

A half-smile from Bruce, but it quickly turned sour. "And the first thing they did was send you down to me? Who'd you piss off?"

"Nobody that I know of. The first thing I did was stop by and see the only teammate of mine currently aboard the Helicarrier," Steve replied. Among the Avengers, Tapper's least-strong relationships were with Tony and Bruce and ratting him out now would not help change that. "If you want to tell me to go away, you'll probably be nicer about it than Fury or Hill, whom I am fairly sure will tell me to do just that if I go anywhere near their offices right now and ask about HYDRA and why my Army visit just happened to coincide with a major discovery in Detroit."

Bruce rolled his neck and grimaced at the stiffness. "In this case, it really is just a coincidence," Bruce assured, taking off his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose. "They hit the jackpot after you'd already gone."

"I still think they should have recalled me," Steve pressed on, since he had already been pretty sure that the Army trip had not been a distraction. Not even Fury would pull a stunt like that so quickly after Steve's open protest of his exclusion from the mission particulars. "They yanked me back last time and this could mean more."

Bruce put his glasses back on. "Not to get into the habit of defending Fury, but there wasn't a whole lot for you to do. There wasn't a whole lot for me to do, either, or anyone else not involved in decrypting the files. And now that they're decrypted, they have to be decoded because what we have is incomplete, partially indecipherable, and totally horrifying. Which is why I was brought in and why they won't let me work on this remotely."

Bruce typed something on his laptop and then turned it around so that Steve could see. There was a photo and it took him a minute to realize that it was of a human being. Or what was left of a human being. The fingers - that's how he'd realized it was a human - were bloated and curled and the skin was mottled red and orange and white and yellowish, the surface more like something on top of a pizza than anything you'd imagine on a person and Steve had seen his fair share of incendiary and chemical burns during the war to know. And, more recently, during the NBC refresher lectures at Fort Leonard Wood.

"Is that a radiation burn?" he asked, not bothering to hide his disgust.

"Maybe," Bruce answered, turning the laptop back toward him and hitting more keys, presumably to get rid of the picture. "They're definitely irradiating subjects, but everything is too jumbled for us to know which photos go with which test."

Steve took an involuntary step back. "They're running tests on people?"

He shouldn't be surprised. God, he shouldn't be, not after everything he'd seen in Europe from the original HYDRA and not after seeing the present HYDRA's appalling lack of respect for human life. But he was surprised and he was maybe a little angry at himself for being so.

"On their own people, it looks like," Bruce confirmed with a frown. "Which is a terribly small blessing to be grateful for."

Steve couldn't help but think back to finding Bucky strapped to a gurney. "Yeah," he agreed weakly, then shook himself back to the present. "What do we have from Zola that can be compared to what you've got?"

He knew that there were crates and crates of papers from and on Zola. Interview transcripts, mostly, but also the files Zola had been captured with and what the Allies had found later on. Steve and the Commandos had brought some of it back themselves and he remembered being grateful at the time that Bucky hadn't lived long enough to see Zola's handiwork turned into a prize, treated by the receiving intelligence agents like the finest diamonds or the latest bestseller. And then he'd immediately felt horrible and guilty for such a thought.

Bucky had always insisted that he remembered almost nothing of his time as a guinea pig while in HYDRA captivity, that he'd been drugged out of his mind for almost all of it and what he did remember, he wasn't sure actually happened. The other Commandos' recollections made it clear that there definitely were large gaps in Bucky's memories, but none of them had really believed that Bucky didn't recall a thing that had happened in Zola's or Schmidt's labs. Not when he woke up screaming about things that had less to do with the horrors of war and more to do with his own personal horrors. But they'd always honored his fictions, out of respect and friendship. Steve, who'd known a little more than the others, had kept that promise even after Bucky had died. Even now. He had never gone looking in SHIELD's Zola archives to find out what had actually happened to Bucky. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"They're still scanning all of that in," Bruce replied with a slight edge to his voice, gesturing with his chin at his laptop. "I told them to just give me the hard copies, but I don't think they want to trust me with the originals right now."

"I'd help you if I could," Steve said, picking up his book and his ruck so he could use the stool. He put the former on the table and the latter on the floor and sat down heavily. "I just remember the effects, I never understood the actual technical details. Not when I was the subject, nor any point afterward."

Bruce made a dismissive noise. "They're going to make you tell the story from the beginning anyway," he said, picking up his pencil and tapping the eraser end on the table to an irregular beat and then stopping again. "You are the alpha and the omega on that front."

And therein lay the crux of why Steve continued to let Bucky's lie outlive the man who'd told it. Recreating Doctor Erskine's serum had been Schmidt's highest priority, but it hadn't been Zola's and it hadn't been his only project for which there had been extensive human testing. Nonetheless, knowing what Steve knew then and now about Zola's work history with HYDRA, it was extremely likely that Bucky's most lasting trauma had come in pursuit of what Steve had willingly embraced. He was fully aware that he bore no responsibility, that Bucky certainly had never considered blaming him or thinking less of him for volunteering for and benefiting from something that only had ever caused Bucky pain. But that didn't mean that Steve couldn't add a little extra weight to the guilt he felt for what Bucky had been through. There was nobody around save Peggy who could tell him otherwise and she had already tried that, back then and now.

"Do you think HYDRA is back to trying to recreate the serum?" Steve asked, afraid for the answer.

"It would make sense that that's what they're doing," Bruce allowed, his voice almost gentle, like he was worried he'd spook Steve instead of the other way around. "And I know Fury's got people tearing the sites apart looking for anything that might have your DNA on it. But I don't necessarily believe that you're the model they're using right now. You're the goal, absolutely, but I don't think your transformation is the one they're trying to recreate right now."

Steve leaned forward, resting his elbow on the table next to his book. "Whose is?"

An uneasy smile from Bruce. "Mine."

Steve sat up and back. "Yours? Why--"

Bruce's answering smile was wry. "Because if you stop thinking about the effort it takes to control the Other Guy, about the collateral damage, about the budget for Fruit of the Loom and Levis replacements... there's a lot to like if you're trying to take over the world. And it is very likely an easier result to reproduce - every genius with a pipette has been trying to recreate Erskine's formula and there hasn't been one success in seventy-something years. With the advances in radiation manipulation going on today? You could get an army of Hulks in pretty short order. And they've already got a subject pool: if you're picking from candidates who'd be ideal for the Super Soldier serum, they'd probably be halfway decent choices to try to hold the reins of the Other Guy. You'd do a much better job than I have."

Steve shook his head. "I'd be lost," he replied. "And I don't think HYDRA is looking for people like me."

He remembered those conversations with Doctor Erskine, about the differences between physical and spiritual weakness and strength. They knew enough about HYDRA's recruiting methods (from websites and chat rooms and other shadowed corners of the internet) to know that, on the surface, there were similarities. HYDRA had a strong draw among a certain subset of the disenfranchised youth of today, the ones whose aspirations overcame their resentments but could not be realized in their current environment. Like Steve and his perpetual 4F and his dreams of making a difference. Bob, the engineer from Lahore whom they'd captured in Poland, had been fairly typical: educated but unable to get by, let alone advance, either professionally or socially. HYDRA had offered him, and thousands more like him, a chance to escape his trapped circumstances and build a future where he'd have mobility and success - if he lived that long. Once upon a time, that had been the American dream. Now it was the advertising for a global terrorist organization.

"No," Bruce agreed. "They're looking for people like you who've either already lost or are willing to lose their moral compass."

Bob hadn't been amoral. Bob had been highly moral, faithful and willing to die for a cause he believed in. Steve didn't think Bob had been willing to sacrifice himself for evil for its own sake. There was a master plan, one that went beyond simple chaos or murder, and that's what Bob believed he would die to protect.

"I kind of suspect it's the opposite," Steve said. "They want the moral compass still embedded. They've just shifted the lodestone out of due north."

The real difference between him and Bob was that his own moral compass could not be so easily redirected - or so he'd like to believe. Hoped to believe. There had been so many tests during the war, chances to throw the extra punch - or the extra grenade, chances to pay back his own pain and frustration and outrage upon those who had inflicted it and those who had simply not stopped it from happening. And he'd never taken any of those chances. He'd like to think that these were tests passed, that these were proofs that Doctor Erskine had chosen the right man, but he'd always known that there would be another test. And if he ever failed one, then all of his previous passing grades would be washed away.

"The Fellowship of the Ring?" Bruce asked, leaning forward and plucking Steve's book out from under his left elbow. "You're reading Tolkien?"

Steve blinked at the sudden topic change, but it wasn't unwelcome. "Um, yes?"

His attempts to catch up on arts and literature and movies sometimes went a bit awry because he tended to make his own way rather than seek advice. (Although sometimes they went even more awry when he accepted suggestions.) He wondered if this was one of those times. But there had been copies at the Barnes & Nobles and he'd needed something not-electronic he could carry in the field when he went to go play with the sappers, none of whom had thought it an especially odd choice. And, so far, he was enjoying it.

Bruce smiled, flipping through the pages. "I haven't read this in forever. Did you watch the movies already?"

Steve frowned. "Who watches the movie and then reads the book?"

"Tony," Bruce answered, handing back the paperback. "Although I'm not sure he bothers to read the books anymore."

Steve was sure his expression perfectly conveyed that he knew they both knew that Tony did not count as a reasonable standard for anyone.

"Anyway, I wouldn't watch the movies right away," Bruce went on with a shrug because Steve wasn't wrong. "Some of the changes might disappoint you a little while the novels are so fresh in your mind. Although the battle scenes are pretty amazing."

Steve nodded. "Did they keep the musical numbers?"

Bruce gave him a look, like he'd said something that made no sense.

"The songs? Everyone's always breaking out into these ninety-stanza songs?" Steve prompted, since he was quite sure he hadn't confused this with another book. "And there's dancing. I just assumed that they'd be big numbers in the film, like some Busby Berkeley thing."

Bruce's confused look transformed into laughter. "Right, I'd forgotten about those. No, not much singing in the movies and no large-scale dance numbers. Remind me to introduce you to the wonderful world of Bollywood at some point."

Before Steve could ask what that was, his cell phone started ringing. It was Hsiang; Fury would like to see him.

"He's going to tell you at least part of what I've already told you," Bruce said. "Some of it might even be the truth. Try and look surprised."

"You're it?" Steve asked as Clint approached. "Nobody else dared venture into Queens?"

Steve had announced to his teammates that he was going to a baseball game and everyone was welcome to join him. Tony's interest, nebulous in the first place, had completely evaporated once he realized that Steve meant the Mets and not the Yankees and that he had little chance to change Steve's mind or change the location to Chavez Ravine by offering his private plane for the adventure. Steve had patiently explained that while he had bled Dodgers blue as a child and young man, he was from Brooklyn and the team in Los Angeles were not his Bums and he was not about to switch his affections to the much-hated Yankees. ("But they're the ones who have the good players and win!" Tony had retorted. "There are comets that come around more often than a good Mets team.")

Bruce had been in and out of New York for the last three weeks and had agreed to go if he were in and in the frame of mind to handle crowds, but it turned out that neither was the case and he'd left the Helicarrier earlier than planned on Saturday. Thor had been in last week to bring answers to more of SHIELD's questions about mystical artifacts, but was already back in Asgard. (Or at least that's what he was telling people; it would not be the first time he really meant that he was going back to Asgard but was visiting Doctor Foster first.) That had left Clint, who'd agreed, and Natasha, who'd been out of town until last night.

Clint shrugged. "Natasha said to call her and she'll meet us for dinner. She hates baseball."

"Does that mean she likes other sports?" Steve asked as they did their best to stay out of the way of the families taking pictures in front of the giant red apple in between the subway entrance and the parking lot. This had been Clint's choice of landmark and Steve, not having an alternate suggestion, had agreed without knowing quite what he was supposed to be looking for or how easy it would be to find. He hadn't been out here since the Stark Expo across the street in '43, which had used the leftover structures from the '39 World's Fair, which in turn had been Steve's first trip to Queens, and while he could still see remnants of both of those, not much else was the same except for the subway tracks elevated over Roosevelt Avenue. But the apple had been easy to spot, although it had been hard to actually approach because it was a talisman of sorts for Mets fans.

"She's kind of dangerous at hockey games," Clint answered, pulling out the tickets. He'd offered to buy them if Steve didn't mind sitting way up. It wasn't about the cost of the tickets; they both made good money. But the crowds were sparser up there and Steve couldn't even bother to be surprised that Clint liked the view from on high. In truth, he didn't mind - when he and Bucky been able to scrounge up enough money to get into Ebbets Field as kids, they'd been in the cheapest bleachers and, even when they had been older and had had a few more cents to play with, they'd still remained bleacher bums. Having someone to go with was more important than where he sat, anyway.

Citi Field looked an awful lot like Ebbets Field from the outside, so much so that it had to have been an intentional homage. The facades were the same and, as they got closer, he could see the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and the nostalgia was almost palpable. Inside, however, there was very little resemblance to the home of his childhood dreams, but it was still beautiful and it was still baseball.

The stadium wasn't anywhere close to full and he and Clint had empty seats around them even though it was nice weather and a day game. But the Mets were well out of the pennant race, they were selling players to avoid bankruptcy, and Pittsburgh was neither good enough nor close enough to bring extra fans or their own fans in for the game.

Steve had watched baseball on television and listened on the radio (sometimes both at once, although the timing was usually off), so he knew that the game had changed a lot even though the fundamentals were the same. In person, it was still familiar and fun, even with the giant gloves, almost nobody wearing stirrups, and the endless parade of relief pitchers. He and Clint kept up an irregular stream of conversation, mostly about the game (and The Game, including how the Designated Hitter was an abomination and interleague play was destroying the mystique of separate leagues), interrupting long stretches of companionable silence. They joined the crowd's heckling of the third base umpire who blew a call that led to a pair of Pirates runs and then ejected the Mets manager for having the temerity to point that out, but Clint's archery experience kept him from gasping at every long fly ball that looked like it was going out (and never did, except for the once that Clint muttered "gone" by the time it cleared the infield).

They had both been dumbstruck at the sheer amount of food options available on the concourses, everything from sushi to gourmet cuisine by name chefs to dozens of microbrews on tap, and so they stuck to the (differently) shockingly expensive hot dogs and bottled beers carried around by the vendors in the stands. Steve was a little worried that the vendor would ask him for his photo ID as proof of age, because she did that for everyone without gray hair, but Clint told her that the beers were both for him and only passed his own card down along with the money. Steve was grateful that Clint didn't say a word about it, not even to joke, enough so to hand over the Cracker Jack toy without hesitation.

Clint waited for the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and something else in Italian that had absolutely nothing to do with baseball judging by what Steve could make out (his Italian had never been much better than food and cusswords and occupational phrases like "drop your weapons") before calling Natasha, who made him give Steve the phone so that she could give him directions to the Mexican restaurant where she wanted them to meet her.

The Mets lost, although they teased a comeback in both the eighth and ninth, and Steve and Clint made their way down the stairs and ramps to where Steve had parked his bike. Clint climbed on behind him and Steve joined the bottleneck to exit the lot. He drove under the subway tracks on Roosevelt Avenue down to 108th Street and made a left, then a right on 47th Avenue and started looking for parking, which amounted to squeezing in behind a Nissan catty-corner from the restaurant. Which in turn was little more than a hole in the wall, but a very crowded one despite it being very early for dinner (by New York standards) and equally late for lunch.

Natasha was already there, already seated at one of the very few tables and being fawned over by someone who turned out to be either the owner or related to them.

"Have fun?" she asked once they sat down.

"It was good," Clint answered. "You should have come."

"There was paint to watch dry," Natasha retorted.

She did the ordering, in Spanish, heckled and interrupted by Clint in the same language, while Steve waited and hoped they weren't ordering too much offal.

"Foodie website," Natasha explained when Steve asked her how she'd known of this place. It was pretty far afield from, well, everything if you didn't live nearby. "Everyone says that there's no good Mexican food in New York. But there are more than a million Mexicans living in this city and they have to go somewhere to eat out. They just go closer to their homes, not closer to the homes of the people who think that New York City has two boroughs, Manhattan and Williamsburg."

There was no offal, although judging by the placards on the wall, there had been a fair bit of off-menu ordering. It was all tasty, though, the tacos almost completely unrelated to the sad attempt produced by the place near Steve's loft that at least produced a good pozole, and he already knew he liked cactus from their first trip to Mexico. They declined dessert, but a small flan was brought out to them anyway.

"Save room for the ices," Clint warned. Clint's other condition for going with Steve to the ballgame had been that they stop off at The Lemon Ice King of Corona (which offered other flavors than lemon, Clint had assured).

Natasha rolled her eyes and brought a spoonful of flan to her mouth, turning the act of eating it into something slightly pornographic and Steve looked away, even though he knew the performance was aimed at Clint and had nothing to do with sex. She gave him a girlish grin when he looked back.

The ices place was definitely a Clint kind of place, a simple metal storefront stand offering a wide variety of dessert in colors not found in nature. And candy apples, which Clint insisted were also mandatory despite Natasha's protest that it wasn't the right season for apples.

"It's always the right season for apples," Clint said with a shake of his head. "The only mandatory ice flavor is cantaloupe. You guys can pick the rest."

They stuck to fruit flavors and chocolate and mint and Clint, upon pain of death from Natasha, did not pick the candy apple flavor that was cherry red like a sports car. They went across the street to the park to eat. The ices were very good, but there was a place on Water Street that did really good ices and paletas, too, and so he'd probably not travel back to Queens for what he could walk to from home, although Steve did not say this to Clint, whose love for the place dated back to a circus stop in Flushing Meadows Park at some point in his pre-Army life. Clint was very parsimonious when it came to sharing details of his pre-Avengers life and Steve wasn't about to do anything (like try to trump nostalgia with logistics) to discourage that rare act.

There wasn't much discussion when it came time to go home. Clint and Natasha were going to make the walk back up to the 7 train and take than into Manhattan; Steve couldn't fit both of them on his bike without it looking like a circus stunt and he was going in the other direction, south to catch the LIE. He wished them a safe trip home - he got matching "oh, please" expressions from both of them for that - and thanked them for sharing their food intel.

The LIE was surprisingly fast-moving considering that it was rush hour (Steve's reverse commute being irrelevant to the fact that the LIE could be a parking lot at 3am on a Sunday), but the bumper-to-bumper once he hit the Kosciuszko made up for it and the rest of the run on the BQE was little better than jogging speed. He got off a few exits early and took local roads as soon as he was sure of where he was.

With the rest of his evening clear, Steve was still pondering how best to spend it when his doorbell rang. The video monitor showed Fury waiting in the downstairs vestibule. Of course, the SHIELD monitoring system would have told him that Steve had gotten home an hour ago, enough time for Fury to make the trip from the Helicarrier. But the fact that Fury had made the trip, hadn't called Steve or sent someone else to either retrieve him or give him whatever it was that needed to be done in person... there was no way that this was anything but bad.

"How was the game?" Fury asked when Steve opened the loft door to let him in.

"The Mets would have been fine if it hadn't been for the blind third base umpire and if they'd had a more competent outfield," he answered. "To what do I owe the visit?"

Fury walked to the kitchen and put his briefcase - chained to his wrist - on the island counter. Steve followed, moving around the island to the other side. Fury unlocked the cuff, opened the case, and took out a fat folder, placing it on the surface and sliding it toward Steve's hands.

"We need to talk about Sergeant Barnes."

Chapter Text

Steve looked at the folder in front of him, unlabeled and unassuming and an inch thick for the papers inside. He didn't open it, instead, he kept his eyes on Fury.

"What do you want to know?"

Fury made a face, one that was as close to an acknowledgement as Steve was going to get that Fury knew that he was treading on sensitive ground. "What do you know about what happened to Sergeant Barnes during his HYDRA captivity?"

Steve ran his right hand through his hair. "What I know is that I pulled Bucky off of a gurney in the middle of one of Zola's active labs."

Fury waited expectantly, then frowned when it Steve said nothing else.

"Bucky didn't want to talk about it," Steve said with a shrug that conveyed that he knew just how useless an answer that had been and that he was unrepentant about it. "I never pressed."

Fury accepted the answer without comment even though he must have known it was a lie. But not a big one; Steve had never asked precisely, just told Bucky that he would listen if Bucky had wanted to talk. But Bucky never had, had tried to forget about it altogether, and Steve had let him pretend that he had succeeded. "What do you suspect happened to Sergeant Barnes?"

Steve sighed, not wanting to say the words aloud. "He never showed any side effects," he said instead, turning around to get himself a glass of water from the sink. "He wasn't stronger or faster or any less muddleheaded first thing in the morning. Whatever Zola and Schmidt shot him up with, it didn't seem to do anything but give him nightmares."

Which is what he'd told himself and what he'd told Colonel Phillips and Peggy and anyone else who'd had the ability to ask the question and expect an answer. But the truth was that Steve didn't know what the real effects had been. He hadn't had any frame of reference; he'd never seen Bucky being a soldier until after they were reunited as Captain America and vengeful POW. He'd seen Bucky on leave swanning around in his olive drabs with girls on his arms, sure, but actual sustained physical activity? Not at all, not since stickball in the streets and the hell (for Steve) that had been high school gym class. By the time he'd gotten a real look at Sergeant Barnes, Bucky had been an experienced campaign soldier, had already risen from private to sergeant more through merit than attrition, and he'd been a very different person than the one Steve had known from childhood. For many reasons. And Steve, either out of ignorance or wishful thinking or simple gratitude that Bucky had survived at all, had accepted all of those changes as the products of war and not anything Zola could take credit for engineering. And if Bucky had noticed any changes in himself, he'd never confessed them or, like Steve, he'd attributed them to the war as well, whether he'd believed it or not.

Steve put his empty glass down on the kitchen island, aware that he was displayed poor manners by not offering Fury anything, but pushing the thought aside as irrelevant. If Fury had wanted a drink, he'd have asked for one and, right now, refreshments weren't on either of their minds. "Is there anything in this folder that will tell me differently than what I remember?"

Fury sat down on one of the stools on his side of the island. "After you rescued the POWs from HYDRA and brought them back, they were given physical exams. The ones who'd had any kind of contact with Zola or his people-"

"The ones who'd been experimented upon," Steve cut him off, not wanting Fury to start soft-pedaling here. Just because Steve didn't want to say the words didn't mean he couldn't hear them.

"The ones who'd been experimented upon," Fury acknowledged with a nod. "They were given a more thorough examination - mental and physical. They had blood taken and tested. And then re-tested back in the States by the men who'd once been Erskine's assistants."

Steve frowned, remembering the faces of the young and not-so-young men in white coats. Some of them had been kind, some of them had treated him like a lab rat, most of them had thought Doctor Erskine was wasting money and resources on a fool's errand, and all of them were jealous that he'd gotten the chance, however foolish it turned out to be.

"None of them knew the formula. If they had, I wouldn't have been the only one."

Lord knows, they'd tried to work from Doctor Erskine's notes. But the notebooks had been intentionally incomplete lest they fall into enemy hands, had been partially written in Yiddish to further complicate things, and while the project hadn't lacked for Jewish scientists who could both read and understand what had been written, there'd been no further successes.

Fury quirked his mouth in a quick, wry smile. "They knew the history of the quest and the biology of the past failed attempts and the attempts that failed after Erskine was killed," he pointed out. "They were the best ones to analyze Zola's work, at least out of those who were still alive and not working for the enemy."

Steve looked down at the folder.

"You didn't come out here to tell me that Bucky had gotten shot up with some failed version of the serum," Steve prompted, looking up at Fury. "You knew I suspected. What's in here that merited a personal visit with an unmarked file full of things I'm pretty sure my clearance doesn't cover?"

"It does now," Fury replied, a vague hand gesture waving away the point. As ever with Fury, the rules were a guideline for him, not a bible. "We found proof that HYDRA - today's HYDRA - is working on the serum."

Steve frowned, not shocked but a little surprised. "I thought Bruce said that it looked like they were trying to get themselves an army of Hulks."

"They're sophisticated enough to multitask," Fury responded dryly. "But that's also not why what's in that folder is sensitive. It looks like they're working on the same version of the serum that was in Sergeant Barnes's blood."

Steve stood up and took an involuntary half-step back, reaching out behind him so that he didn't wind up crashing into the sink. "You don't think this is a coincidence."

He already knew it wasn't, but the why and the how made all the difference.

"At the time of Sergeant Barnes's captivity, Zola was working on seven different variants of the serum," Fury began. "We know that from Zola and from his records, which were meticulous."

All of the worst Nazi bastards' files had been, Steve was well aware.

"Sergeant Barnes had been the only living subject for that variant," Fury went on, "And it was one that was not replicated when Zola re-started his work after he fled Italy. By the time we got him, he was testing only three variants."

Steve and the Commandos had found other testing sites; never active ones, but they'd found bodies, occasionally still strapped to gurneys (if the raid had been on a recently active facility) and usually decomposed and piled in charnel pits, and if Steve hadn't first recognized the signs of serum experimentation, the Commandos had. "These could have been you," Bucky had said to Steve once. They'd both understood that he'd really meant "this was very nearly me."

(The Commando tradition after finding one of these places had been to get drunk - very, very drunk, drunk enough for even Steve to feel it for a while - at the first opportunity, preferably that same day. They'd say it was to honor their lost comrades, everyone who hadn't made it out of that base in Italy alive, but it was really to keep Bucky from doing something rash and stupid by himself. The first time, the time before they'd coined this 'tradition,' Bucky had snuck off after dark and they'd found him the next day, still skunked and looking for a hide spot so that he could snipe at the German camp he'd stumbled upon and nearly stumbled into. They'd hidden until he was sober enough to walk, gone back to their own camp, called in the location, and told Bucky that the next time he wanted to take the Krauts on by himself, he should at least bring an extra grenade.)

"Zola came to us with his complete notes on the three variants," Fury continued, gesturing to the folder in front of Steve, "but he also confessed that he - and Schmidt - had regretted the loss of a fourth testing stream due to the chaos caused by your raid. It seems that the files were left behind by Zola by accident and were not recovered when HYDRA came back to clean out the place after you left. He actually asked his interrogator if we had them and, if we did, could he look at them."

They'd taken nothing with them when they'd left the facility; Steve's look at the map of HYDRA bases and the POW's stories of their capture and transport to the facility had been it as far as secrets revealed. Phillips had refused to let Steve go back on his own - and Peggy had backed him up. He'd considered asking Bucky, but Bucky had still been in with the Intelligence people and, by the time he'd been freed, there'd been a bombing raid on the site and the point had been moot.

"Did Zola know who had been sent back on their side to clean out the place?" Steve asked.

Fury nodded. "Strucker."

Steve rubbed his face with his hand. Strucker, the one HYDRA commander they'd never caught up to. If he'd taken Bucky's file and, seventy years later, a lost strain of the serum turns up in the new HYDRA's labs...

"So are we at the point where we are ready to christen the Supreme HYDRA 'Wolfgang von Strucker?'"

Oberstleutnant Strucker would be over a hundred if he were still alive. Which did not make it impossible - certainly not if they were talking about a serum that, even in its imperfect forms, could conceivably provide health benefits.

"Not yet," Fury replied, sitting back on the stool. "But we're putting a lot more resources into warming up a trail that went cold in 1951."

"These three geniuses call themselves the Wrecking Crew," Tapper began, pointing to the mugshots that had appeared on the drop-down screen behind his right shoulder. "Henry Camp, Dirk Garthwaite, and Brian Calusky. Up until last year, they were pretty much your average, run-of-the-mill, do-anything-for-money-yes-even-that, small-beer criminal entrepreneurs. Armed robbery, assault with intent, grand larceny, weapons possession, muscle and guns for hire, that kind of crap. The ten-buck rent boys of the underworld, never to rise any higher because they couldn't keep from getting arrested, which tended to scare away prospective employers."

Steve sat between Bruce and Clint on the starboard bench of the quinjet; Tony, in his armor, sat on Bruce's left and Thor to Clint's right. They faced Tapper, who looked relieved and energized to be in a field agent's uniform and not the service uniform he normally wore aboard the Helicarrier. He also looked a little annoyed, but that was probably because Tony was playing with some beeping gadget instead of paying attention to the briefing.

"Why us?" Tony asked, not looking up from whatever he was doing. "Their rap sheets scream 'call the mall cops' and not 'global-level threat.' So why is chasing down Larry, Curly, and Moe a job for the Avengers and not local law enforcement. Barney Fife would have no trouble with these guys."

Steve, a little pleased that he knew who Barney Fife was, thought Tony could have put it more nicely, but had been wondering the same thing since he'd been called in for an emergency and found out that the full team, Bruce and Thor included had been called in as well. (Natasha was already on the ground in Chicago.) Only to find out that they were being flown to intercept some low-level thugs?

"You will notice, Mister Stark, that I said 'up until last year,'" Tapper replied, keeping the irritation out of his voice.

"What happened last year?" Bruce asked dutifully, if resignedly. He hadn't been at all pleased to be told to head into the field, even if he'd been assured that there was a better than even chance that The Other Guy would not need to put in an appearance. (To which he'd muttered that neither he nor they were in control of those odds.) His irritation had slid into outright distress when he'd found out that they were heading to another major urban center; Bruce had already been near his limit of the Helicarrier's crush of humanity and The Other Guy was best kept far away from densely populated areas. With that in mind, Steve tried to keep close to Bruce, in his awareness without hovering, because Bruce handled stressors better when distracted and if Tony wasn't going to talk science at him, Steve was probably the next best option. He could at least carry on a conversation with relative ease and Bruce never really minded his stupid questions. Today, at least, there were no other options because Clint was never a chatterer and Thor, who could and would talk your ear off, was being curiously quiet. Quiet enough for Steve to maybe worry a little about him, too, because this was more than the usual 'ripped from Doctor Foster's side' blues. But only one of his teammates was at risk of causing collateral damage if he got too off-kilter, so Thor could be left to his own thoughts for now.

"They met two men who changed their lives," Tapper replied, thumbing the button that changed the picture on the screen. "This is the first."

The scruffy mugshots disappeared and were replaced by a composed photo portrait of a black man in a lab coat.

"Eliot," Bruce sighed, running his hand over his mouth. "Jesus."

Tapper gave Bruce an acknowledging nod. "Doctor Eliot Franklin, formerly of MIT and Richmond Enterprises."

At the mention of his alma mater, Tony looked up. "Franklin. I think I tried to hire him away from Richmond a few times."

"You did," Bruce assured. "Everyone did. He was the preeminent expert on gamma radiation in the world."

"Was?" Steve asked at the same time Clint asked "Better than you?"

"Yes and yes," Bruce replied wryly. "I even tried to get him to help with The Other Guy. Eliot was always a half-step ahead of me, which is why he got the grants and job offers first. I got them after he turned them down."

Steve had a hard time imagining someone smarter than Bruce -- or Tony. In theory, he was well aware that there should be many levels within the catch-all category of "genius," but, as with the category of "general," the gradations were fairly unimportant because all of them outranked the great majority of everyone else.

"Did I offer you the job after Franklin turned me down?" Tony asked, curious. Tony's inability to remember people from one context to another was somewhat legendary and, once you were aware of it, easier to not take personally. He'd apparently met Bruce half a dozen times before they'd come together to deal with Loki (or more; Bruce didn't even remember all of their prior encounters), but didn't recall a single one, even the ones when he'd been sober, which was why he'd introduced himself anew.

"No, you didn't," Bruce answered. "You hired Skogen without making any other offers."

Tony smiled at the reminder. "Could you blame me?"

"Was he smarter than Bruce?" Clint asked.

"No, she wasn't," Bruce answered. "But she is in possession of other assets that make her an attractive hire."

"Do they come in double-Ds?," Clint asked with an understanding smile, then sobered. "What happened to put Franklin in the past tense as a scientist?"

"He had a patent ownership dispute with Richmond and tried to settle it with a gamma bomb," Tapper answered, flipping ahead a few slides on his presentation to show a newspaper article. "Work Dispute Goes Nuclear," read the headline.

"The bomb's a brilliant design," Tony said and Bruce nodded. "Compact, stable, really elegant use of the casing materials to create second-order damage, cheap to produce -- good bang for the buck... Really made me rue not getting him from Richmond."

Steve cocked an eyebrow. "So he could have tried to nuke Stark Industries headquarters instead?"

Tony scoffed. "I wouldn't have been the kind of asshole he needed to detonate. I mean, I am an asshole, but not like that. We take proprietary rights, but I always offer points to the lead inventors. He'd have been a multimillionaire if he'd developed that bomb for me, not serving life at Sing-Sing."

"Well, he's not serving life at Sing-Sing anymore," Tapper said and waited for everyone to reorient themselves to face him. "Twenty-three months ago, he happened to be down in the city for a few days for a hearing and was staying at Rikers, where his cellmate, Garthwaite, just happened to be planning a jailbreak."

Steve had seen Rikers Island from the air and from the Triborough Bridge. "How do you bust out of there?"

"They didn't break out of Rikers," Tapper admitted. "They -- Garthwaite, Franklin, Camp, and Calusky were being held overnight at the Tombs. That's where they got loose from."

"The Tombs?" Thor asked, perking up for the first time. "They outmatched the guardians of your underworld?"

There was a noise that was part collective sigh and part stifled giggle.

"They're metaphorical tombs," Tapper explained apologetically. "It's a jail in downtown Manhattan that's been around for almost two hundred years and hasn't been cleaned much since."

"My quarters went far longer than that between cleanings when I was growing up," Thor scoffed with a smile. "And Loki's well into adulthood. But I understand that these Tombs are guarded by mortals and outmatching them is not beyond the capabilities of even the most unclever of fighters."

Steve blinked at Thor's casual reference to his brother, but pushed it aside. Thor had made it very clear that he viewed Loki's actions on Earth as reprehensible, but also as an aberration after a lifetime of faithful relations with family, friends, and realm. He respected that his Avengers teammates had had a rough first introduction to Loki, but considered their prejudices to be just that and not fully-informed opinions of someone he'd known -- and loved -- for millennia. Loki was neither evil nor crazy, just having a bad year.

"The Wrecking Crew, now a quartet, fled to Canada," Tapper went on. "They roamed around the prairies for a while, but came back down after they crossed the line from busting heads to outright killing."

The screen behind Tapper's shoulder showed some grisly crime scene photos of what looked like a honky-tonk bar after a bloody brawl.

"They came back to New York, of all places," Tapper continued, "where they met the other man who would change their lives."

A picture of Loki appeared. Next to Steve, Clint flinched, but Steve pretended he hadn't noticed.

This would explain Thor's taciturn morning, he thought. The god of thunder himself was, out of the corner of Steve's eye, looking sad and a little regretful, which Steve took to mean that he'd known already.

"They were apparently early recruits for Loki and were important to getting the portal device into and installed at Stark Tower," Tapper said, his tone not gentled out of consideration for his audience but also not with the usual tone of aggression that he tended to take when talking about 'bad guys.'

"Bastards," Tony muttered.

"And for some reason, maybe gratitude or whimsy or simply to make the job easier," Tapper went on, "Loki transformed the Wrecking Crew into, well, this."

The pictures on the screen were fantastical, Steve thought, in all the wrong ways. The quartet was now even more musclebound, but there were stranger changes as well. Calusky's hands were the size of ham hocks, Camp's face was hidden behind a steel helmet, Franklin was holding a construction wrecking ball with apparent ease, and Garthwaite... Garthwaite looked like a cruel parody of Thor, holding a giant crowbar the way Thor held Mjolnir, and that had to be intentional.

"They all have super-strength," Tapper said. "We don't know how strong or if there's any variation between them. Camp and Calusky seem to have some kind of invulnerability and we don't know all of what Garthwaite's crowbar does, but it does a lot. There's no evidence that Franklin's wrecking ball has any kind of magic to it, but the fact that he can swing it around like a yo-yo is bad enough because he's the only one with any brains."

They watched the slideshow of pictures, about a dozen of them, in silence.

"Am I the only one noticing that Loki's created a parody of the Avengers?" Tony asked. "Although I kind of shudder at the idea of Natasha having a funhouse mirror evil twin running around."

Tony wasn't the only one to notice, of course, but Steve sincerely hoped he didn't say another word about it because if he did, the next ones would be about Clint and there was no way Tony was not going to dig himself a hole that Steve was going to have to pull him out of by going there.

Thankfully, Tapper moved quickly.

"Somewhat surprisingly, the Wrecking Crew has been flying low since their empowerment," he began. "They're doing what they used to do - bust heads for people richer and smarter than they are - but more effectively. They've also been moving around a lot: Boston, New York, San Antonio, LA, and now Chicago, probably with some stops in between. Chicago, however, is where it starts getting weird.

"They've been there since February at least and by April they were taking jobs from the Outfit. Mostly out of state, but a couple of factories within city limits were unexpectedly demolished without either permits or the permission of the owners. Starting last month, best we can tell, they start working off a different playbook. They start going after Outfit concerns, but only the seedier ones -- the drugs, the human trafficking -- that didn't have widespread Council approval or weren't even known about by the important folks at all."

Bruce wrinkled his nose. "So they're doing some kind of housecleaning?"

"Looks like," Tapper agreed. "Which is both interesting and messy, both in the 'the Outfit doesn't usually outsource this kind of work' and 'buckets of blood' ways. And that's why the local LEOs and the Feebs in charge of keeping track of this stuff got in touch with us last week--"

"Which is why Natasha's already on the ground," Clint said, not making it a question.

"Among other reasons," Tapper confirmed. "But the reason you're all joining her is this--"

Video started playing on the screen of the Wrecking Crew in action. They were most definitely invulnerable to bullets -- gleefully so, taking shots to their bare skin with scornful disregard. Steve watched and mentally threw out his first few ideas for how to take them down; they might not be clever, but they were near godlike (for Thor's kind of god, not the Almighty) in power. He'd been expecting strength and advantages near his own level, but they clearly surpassed that. By a great deal.

"This is from last night," Tapper explained as the footage shifted locations to one of Chicago's bridges. It was evening, more like, with some light left in the sky, some street lighting, and a lot of illumination from circling helicopters. The Wrecking Crew was near one end and police cars formed a barricade at the other. The cops themselves were emptying their service weapons to no effect whatsoever and then were sent running as Franklin tossed his wrecking ball at the barricade. Two cruisers were sent airborne, the rest pushed back, and the men and women who'd been using the cars as shields were either fled, flung, or crushed because it happened so quickly.

The wrecking ball flew back to Franklin on a course that was a little too directed to be merely a boomerang effect.

"I think we just got proof that Franklin's yo-yo's got some charms on it," Clint muttered.

There was more shooting, but the confrontation was effectively ended when Calusky drove his oversized fists into the ground and the middle of the bridge dissolved into dust. The cracks in the street ran toward the remaining police like a lightning bolt and, moments later, brought down their half of the bridge with chunks of concrete and steel supports falling into the river below along with another cruiser and a few people, not all of whom might have been conscious - or alive - at the time.

"I can see how this might be considered an Avengers-sized problem," Tony said to no one in particular.

"That was last night," Steve prompted as the video played on. "But what about--"

The camera position abruptly changing focus from the chaos of the police side to the undamaged Wrecking Crew side, just in time to see the quartet disappear.

On the other side of Clint, Thor said something in his native tongue that did not sound like it had a polite translation.

"Yeah," Tapper agreed. "They turned up again this morning, which is both good and bad news because nobody could find them before then, but they didn't show up to have coffee, either."

Steve recognized the exterior of the Art Institute of Chicago before Tapper told them what it was. Again, they watched helicopter camera footage, timestamped two hours ago -- Steve assumed the time was local to Chicago -- as it flew above and around. Michigan Avenue was a parking lot for emergency vehicles and other LEO conveyances. Steve thought he spotted two separate FBI command-and-control trucks in addition to the CPD one parked more centrally. There was a veritable platoon of snipers set up on the roofs across the street and also lower down; Steve could see the barrel tips pointing out of windows.

"Hostages?" Clint asked.

"Yes," Tapper answered, frowning. "We don't know how many. The AIC has free admission on the first two Wednesdays of the month, which means it's more crowded than usual for a weekday and they can't ballpark population off of the cash register totals."

"How are four guys -- even with their powers and toys -- holding anyone hostage in a place that size, let alone everyone?" Bruce asked.

"The museum itself limits in-out access for its own security and control purposes," Tapper answered. "All the Wrecking Crew had to do was secure the only doors that were actually open."

The helicopter completed its northern circuit and Steve could see camera crews and makeshift broadcast sites in the park.

There was more to the briefing, but it wasn't really useful information. The FBI negotiators had established phone contact as of ten minutes ago and had been given the Wrecking Crew's demands - a hundred million dollars and a helicopter highlighting the list - but even that left as many questions as answers. They still didn't know how many hostages, what shape they were in, or what else was going on. The hostages had been able to send texts and video and photos on their cell phones for the first half-hour, but there'd been nothing since then. CPD's SWAT teams had gotten roof access and were trying to get audio and/or visual contact, but so far, they'd gotten nothing, either. They were also, at SHIELD urging, scanning for gamma radiation in case Franklin had prepared anything for the occasion.

"We'll be dropping you off on the Navy Pier in fifteen minutes," Tapper said. "I'm hoping to have some updated intel on demands or activity by then."

Steve asked if they had schematics for the building, which of course they did, and Tapper left them up on the screen. Steve stood in front of it, looking for some way in.

The priority had to be the hostages, getting them out or, alternatively, getting the Wrecking Crew out -- or at least away from where the hostages were being held. Assuming that they were being held together, but that had to be a pretty safe assumption. Four men could keep people from leaving the building with a little damage to a couple of doors, but they couldn't keep control of their captive population without centralizing them.

He sensed more than saw Clint and Thor behind him.

"I'd feel better if we had any idea of how many hostages or whether the Wrecking Crew got any inside help," he said. "Or what they were doing here in the first place. This is such a strange place for a standoff. There has to be more to the story than just money. They've never been anywhere close to this ambitious before."

"Could this be another quest for the objects of power that HYDRA seeks?" Thor asked and Steve turned sharply because he hadn't been thinking along those lines at all. And judging from Tapper's briefing, neither had anyone else.

"Shit, I hope not," Clint answered before Steve could.

"These guys don't seem to be HYDRA candidates," was what he did say instead. "They're low-level thugs who have suddenly become high-powered thugs, but they're still thugs. They haven't changed their life plans to reflect the new possibilities their powers afford them. They just want to do what they always did, except better."

Which Steve could sympathize with because that had been his original plan as well, but that wasn't how things had actually worked out and, with the experience of hindsight, he wondered how the Wrecking Crew could aim so low and not overshoot, if only by accident.

"Also, HYDRA's shown no real inclination to hire out and these guys haven't been spouting the company lines," Steve went on, tracing a possible ingress route with his finger. Clint murmured something that sounded disapproving and pointed to a spot on the south wall and flicked his finger southward still. "That won't work, either. There's no way to make a southern approach without being seen."

The three of them looked at the schematics in silence for a couple of minutes.

"What about coming down from the roof?" Thor asked. "There are three doorways and we have the ability to make our own."

He gestured with his head to where Mjolnir rested.

"We have to go in unseen by more than just the Wrecking Crew," Steve answered. "The news cameras will catch us if we hover with the jet or if Tony or you flew us up there. If there were a way up there without half the world able to watch us, then yeah, but none of us can turn invisible."

"What about from below?" Bruce asked and they turned. He was holding up Tony's Stark Mini tablet, which had blueprints of something on it.

"We can go through the sewers?" Clint asked, not hiding his disgust. "Yay."

"What is that?" Steve asked, because he couldn't see anything clearly from this distance even with his eyesight but it didn't look like a sewer grid. "The subway map?"

Tony did something with his gauntlet and the tablet and a freestanding projection of the blueprints appeared in the air between them.

"Even better," Tony answered. "The Pedway."

Steve approached the man-sized projection and gestured with his left hand for Tony to turn it around so that it oriented toward him and he didn't have to read backward. Steve took a step back, careful not to stomp on Thor's foot, so that he could get a better view of the giant map. "There's a segment right by the Institute, but it won't get us close enough."

Bruce did something on the tablet and it beeped angrily.

"That tickles," Tony announced. "Do it again."

The map, the Pedway colored in red, was overlaid with another map with blue segments. There was a blue segment that ran from the AIC Pedway segment all the way under the northern tip of the museum to the lake.

"There've been a lot of proposals to dig a railway tunnel under Lake Michigan," Bruce explained. "This was one of the only ones that got started. There's no direct access, but I think we can make ourselves an entrance and hope the City of Chicago doesn't bill us too much later."

Steve considered for a moment. "We're going to have to make our own exit, too, I'm guessing. And we're going to have to be very lucky there."

Between the risk of destroying art on exhibit or coming up where they could be seen or heard or, worse, attacked before they were ready, they'd need to plan it carefully.

Tony scoffed. "I have through-wall radar and laser cutting tools. I'm actually pretty good with that." He made a gesture with his wrist.

Steve hadn't really considered bringing Tony down into the tunnels, not when he was their only real flyer, but they might not have a choice.

In the end, they did not, so they did exactly that. Tony cut them a neat circular hole that led them to an empty administrative office before turning around and getting up into the sky, which was where he understood he needed to be. (At least after Steve had explained it to him.) Steve led Clint, Natasha, and Thor up the stairs to the first floor so they could get to the auditorium, which was where it had been determined that the hostages were being held. Bruce was sitting in the SWAT command truck, since that's where the NBC sensors were feeding data. Tapper was left to run bureaucratic interference; he hadn't been very subtle about hoping Steve would ask him to accompany them. In another situation Steve might have, but not against these super-powered bad guys.

If Steve had been holding a place like this against the kind of forces arrayed against the Wrecking Crew, he'd have sent out patrols because there was too much easily-penetrated real estate and too many people who wanted to get in, but Tony hadn't seen any such efforts. Nonetheless, while the breach was easy, they got as far as the sculpture court before things started to go wrong.

"I know that look," Clint said with patently false lightness, pretending to be unaffected at the sight of four stationary security guards at the far end of the hall holding AR-15s. "I wore that look."

The self-loathing was almost tangible and Steve spared a look over, but Clint kept his face blank and his eyes on the guards. Steve looked past him at Natasha, who gave him a tiny grimace to acknowledge that yeah, this was gonna need a drink or three later, but there was nothing to be done about it now.

In the meanwhile, they had some shockingly blue-eyed guards to deal with. Someone had mind-control powers, it seemed. Steve's guess was Garthwaite's crowbar, since it already had a few improbable tricks inside, but it could be anything. One of them could be a telepath, or else they could be working with one.

"It needs contact, right?" Natasha asked. "If it's the crowbar."

Nobody asked her for a clarification; none was needed.

"Anywhere on you," Clint confirmed through gritted teeth. "Loki went for center mass, but he didn't have to."

Which, in the after-action reporting of the Chitauri invasion, made it clear how close they'd come to having Iron Man suborned. Tony had blown it off, but not convincingly.

"So what are we doing about these guys?" Natasha asked, her tone of voice making it very clear what she wanted to do.

Steve was inclined to let her. He'd had enough time to study the angles of the large room, knew where he could throw the shield and expect it to wind up. "Which ones do you want?"

"I can't have all of them?" Natasha pouted.

"Sharing is good teamwork," Steve told her blandly. "If you have no preference, I'll take the one closest to the exit and you can have the others."

It would be the easiest throw as far as not having to worry about bad ricochets taking out any of the sculptures, but it also had the advantage of keeping the guards from running back to warn the Wrecking Crew.

"What am I, chopped liver?" Clint protested.

"Fine," Natasha sighed. "You can have the fat one."

"Gee, thanks," Clint groused, but pulled an arrow out of his quiver anyway.

"Do you want one, too?" Steve asked Thor with the same tone of voice his second-grade teacher had used to split up a box of colored pencils equitably among squabbling children.

Thor smiled, but shook his head no. "I shall wait for bigger game."

Steve counted down on his hand, then gestured for Natasha to go move into position, since both the arrow and the shield would move faster than she could.

The guards went down without too much noise and no broken sculptures; they still waited a minute to make sure nobody else was coming running. Steve had a real fear that the Wrecking Crew would send waves of hostages at the Avengers once they knew they were there.

Nobody came, which meant that they had to go to the Wrecking Crew. They ran through the Asian Shop - Natasha stopped to look at and then sniff dismissively at a beautiful silk scarf that turned out not to be silk - and, without drawing the attention of the guards facing the south galleries, then through Indian and Islamic art, a blur of colors and patterns as they jogged through. They stopped outside the entry to what was listed on the floorplan as "Chagall's American Windows" because this was very close to the auditorium entrances. Steve poked his head through and had a hard time pulling it back because he hadn't really imagined it to be so striking, although he probably should have because he'd seen Chagall's stained glass windows before and been transfixed every time. He really hoped they didn't wind up destroying these.

"Doesn't seem to be anyone there," Steve reported, then turned to Clint and Thor. "Head upstairs and squawk when you're in position."

The auditorium had a balcony and a second-floor entrance and Clint could do his eagle-eye thing from there while Thor could press a more straightforward attack from the top down. Thor could be useful down here, too, but the odds were that at least one of the Crew was up in the balcony and Steve felt a little better having someone with strength on par with the Wrecking Crew to go with Clint.

Steve and Natasha moved fully into the room with the windows and then past them because they had to find the projection booth so they could get some kind of look inside. It would have been better if the booth were upstairs, but it wasn't and they'd just have to make do.

Natasha had the booth lock picked in a heartbeat.

Steve raised Tapper on the radio as they moved to the front of the booth and told him about the Loki-like mind control; Tapper's response was precisely four letters long. Tony's was longer, but amounted to the same thing.

"We've got about four hundred hostages," Natasha said as she turned from the window. "Mostly senior citizens and day campers, the rest are tourists."

Steve edged past a projector to look for himself. Great. At least a hundred young children, all in brightly-colored t-shirts, fidgety and upset but contained for now. And the CPD sergeant had told them that they'd been lucky the Wrecking Crew had struck before lunch and before the crowds really hit.

Garthwaite was leaning on the podium up front and playing with the cell phone CPD had sent in, Calusky was sitting down on the stage nearby, Camp was stalking up and down the right-side wall, and Franklin wasn't visible.

"Hawkeye, be advised that Franklin may be up on the balcony," Steve warned into the radio.

"We're going to have to get the Crew outside of the auditorium," Steve said to Natasha. "There's no way we can take them on in there."

There were three adult men at each of the two rear entrances to the auditorium, a combination of docents and tourists judging by the clothing and all with the tell-tale blue glow to their eyes. The doors bracketed the projection booth and so Steve was only a couple of feet away from these 'guards,' just out of arm's reach but barely that. He wasn't worried about being seen by them, though, because of the height of the projection booth windows and the fact that the guards had their attention focused solely on the seated hostages. He had to be mindful that he didn't draw the attention of any of the Wrecking Crew, though, so he kept his motion slow as he stood back from the window.

Natasha came over to stand next to him. "They've probably got the other guards on the outside doors."

There were twenty-three guards among the hostages; they'd seen eight already and there were undoubtedly teams assigned to the Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park entrances and probably the student group entrance, especially today when there were going to be constant streams of camp visitors, and the loading dock and service entrances. The Avengers had made their own path through the subterranean levels precisely because Steve had had to give the Wrecking Crew the benefit of the doubt that they'd be performing basic perimeter defense up to and including having either a spotter across the street or someone watching the inevitable television news coverage. Which they seem not to be doing, but he had to give them credit for picking the auditorium; it was an easy place to hold a large number of hostages, made easier by the fact that tossing in tear gas or other crowd control notions would be less desirable when looking at a crowd full of tiny or compromised lungs.

"Do we just dare them to chase us?" Steve asked Natasha. "Are we that tempting?"

It depended on what the Wrecking Crew was hoping to accomplish by taking hostages.

"I am always that tempting," Natasha retorted, insulted that he'd intimated anything else. "You, I'm not sure about. But I think they'd like to take their whacks at Captain America."

On the assumption that he'd be in close quarters with one of the Crew, Clint was supposed to simply tap his radio button to indicate he and Thor were in position, but instead, they heard his voice.

"Guys, the door's open and nobody's home," Clint said. "Franklin's not up here. And yes, we checked the bathroom."

Steve looked over at Natasha, who shrugged.

"Could he be looking for a trophy?" Thor asked, his voice very low over the radio. They'd had a hard time explaining the throat microphone to him; Thor understood the remote communications concept just fine, but less so the user instructions - his normal speaking voice was so loud that they'd finally told him just to whisper.

"That or he's planting a bomb," Natasha replied.

"Doctor Banner?" Steve prompted, because Natasha was probably not wrong.

"We've got nothing so far," Bruce replied. "But our coverage and instrument sensitivity isn't good enough to pick up a gamma bomb-"

"Hey!" Tony cut in, since he was wearing some of the instruments and responsible for a portion of the readings. "I'll have you know I could pick up a stray-"

"The photon detectors on the Iron Man suit aren't powerful enough to pick up what comes out of one of Franklin's gamma bombs from the distances we're forced to maintain, let alone through the shielding produced by the building itself," Bruce powered through Tony's protest. "Those bombs are brilliant in part because they don't leak radiation the way almost every man-portable nuclear device has and would. They're the cleanest dirty bombs ever."

"Wonderful," Steve sighed. They already knew that they'd have no warning for most any kind of traditional explosive. "Iron Man, can you find him in the building, whatever he's carrying?"

"Someone's in Gallery 263," Tony replied immediately. "Which, if it's Franklin, supports both the 'trophy' and the 'bomb' theories."

"What's there?" Steve went over the museum's floorplan in his head and wondered how they hadn't come across each other already; the concourse outside that gallery looked down on to the sculpture court and they hadn't been that quiet.

"American Gothic," Tony answered. "Hopper's Nighthawks is a couple of feet away, but he's standing in front of the man with the pitchfork."

"That's one helluva trophy," Clint whistled. "Should we go take a look?"

"Yeah, but let Thor do it," Steve agreed. "I need you here. Thor, I don't think anyone would mind if you took the fight outside, one way or another."

Because Clint alone would take a look, but Thor, for better and for worse, didn't do "recon only." If Franklin was there, Thor was going after him and Steve didn't want the two of them crashing through canvases or down into the sculpture court below as they tussled. Better they go through a wall and fight on the front steps; the SWAT teams were already carrying SHIELD-designed sleeping-gas grenades and other 'knock-out bombs' (including one that functioned as a narcotic napalm, sans incendiary effect) to stop Wrecking Crew members where bullets and other projectile weapons meant to wound could not.

"I understand," Thor replied, the eagerness in his voice evident even at a whisper. "I shall go now."

"You know, there's no direct path from where Thor is to where Franklin is," Tony observed casually.

"I don't think that's going to stop either of them," Steve replied, turning back to the window. The other three Wrecking Crew members were still doing what they'd been doing when the Avengers had arrived, which made Steve suspect that they were waiting for Franklin to return. He was starting to wonder whether or not the painting theft was a goal or a side benefit, the real purpose of the activity was something else entirely.

"Agent Tapper, what's the law enforcement coverage of the rest of the city right now?"

Natasha looked sharply over at Steve, then smiled, her eyes lighting up like they did when she found something she liked. "Oh, that would be useful, would it not?"

The Wrecking Crew could teleport, which made turning an art heist into a hostage situation pointless because they could have just popped in and out without anyone being able to stop them. But they'd done so anyway, which could be attributed to the general lack of criminal cleverness they'd exhibited in their careers so far, but Steve didn't think so. They were playing someone else's game right now and that someone had a bigger picture in mind.

The answer, when Tapper got back to them was "thin but sufficient, at least according to the CPD," which Steve mentally translated as Tapper thinking it was anything but and that he'd had no success in convincing anyone otherwise.

"Doctor Franklin is taking a painting from its frame," Thor announced. "There is a large, flat container at his feet. He has no other storage or carrying gear with him."

Which was good news in that there was probably no bomb big enough to take out the city, but Franklin could still be toting a couple of pounds of something like semtex. Also, at least Franklin hadn't wanted to roll up the painting; it was a tiny, irrelevant relief.

"Get him before he packs it up," Steve told him. Once the painting was portable, it made it easier for it to disappear. "And try to mind the artwork."

"There is a window in the next room," Thor replied. "I shall aim for that."

"I'll be waiting," Tony chimed in.

Steve wasn't sure if the Wrecking Crew was using radios or any other kind of commo, nor was he sure that the noise of the impending clash between Franklin and Thor would be heard as far away as they were, but they were running out of time no matter what.

"If this is a diversion, our best chance is to figure out what the real play is is to mess with their timetable," Steve said. He looked at Natasha. "You ready to be tempting?"

"It's my default setting," Natasha replied, pulling out her pistols to (unnecessarily) check that nothing had happened since she'd last checked them.

They had two choices to get the three remaining Wrecking Crew members out of the auditorium: either get them to chase him and Natasha out of the rear entrances or to push them back through the wall behind the stage and into the galleries beyond. The rear entrances were preferable because they got everyone closer to the outside, which had the same advantages for Steve and Natasha and Clint as for Thor. Also, close quarters battle against these kinds of powered enemies inside a museum, let alone a museum built with stone and containing hundreds of hostages who could not easily self-evacuate, was nowhere near the ideal option.

"Let's go do this, then," Steve said.

Taking out three guards a piece was not a problem, the only complication being to do so with care and without lasting damage - these men had no blame for their actions. Natasha finished hers first, of course, and was already standing and waving at Camp, who had started a headfirst charge toward her by the time Steve stepped over his fallen opponents.

Clint fired an arrow at the charging Camp, but it bounced off harmlessly and he didn't seem to notice. Natasha moved to best position herself to avoid Camp's charge and Steve turned his attention to Garthwaite and Calusky, who were now standing on the stage together.

The hostages were now looking around and there were screams, of both joy and fear, from the children.

"Come on, come and get me," Steve murmured at Garthwaite, who had taken half a step closer to the edge of the stage. Calusky stayed where he was, flexing his fists. Clint had flash-bang arrows, but the problem with using them was that they had a good chance of terrifying the hostages into motion, which under the circumstances was not desired. Better to draw the Crew outside than cause a stampede.

To his right, Natasha was vaulting over the charging Camp, who went straight through the wall into the projection booth. Natasha followed him and Steve took the opportunity of the noisy distraction to throw his shield. He didn't want to hit either Garthwaite or Calusky - it wouldn't do any real damage and they both had a decent shot at just catching the thing - but he did want to prod them into motion, so he aimed his toss so that the shield ricocheted off the wall behind them, coming in a little too high for them to reach for but nonetheless close enough to matter.

More screaming from the hostages, although most of them followed their instincts to duck even as the shield passed several feet over their heads.

The ploy worked and Garthwaite laughed, hopping down off the stage and rolling the wrist of the hand that held his crowbar with the sort of looseness that bespoke comfort and ease with the power he held. Calusky followed behind, nonchalantly batting away a brave hostage who tried to jump him. The young woman was sent flying and hit the front of the stage with an audible thud. Steve winced and prayed that she was okay; few things distressed him more than bystanders and other civilians getting hurt trying to save him when he was made of sturdier stuff.

Steve held his ground as Garthwaite and Calusky continued their slow approach; he had to get them out of the auditorium without being too obvious about it and that probably meant starting the brawl where he was. The rear seats of the downstairs level were unoccupied, so it was just a matter of not stepping on the fallen guards.

Behind him, there was more crashing around and shouted words he couldn't make out; Natasha's goal was to get Camp, the bulldozer, to knock a path to the outside, and then get the hell out of the way so that the LEOs could take him down.

A pair of arrows arced down and bounced off of Garthwaite and Calusky.

"What the hell is that supposed to do?" Garthwaite sneered up at Clint. "You might as well be using beanbags."

Garthwaite idly knocked the crowbar against the half-wall next to him, crumbling it and sending the balcony seats that rested on top of it screeching into a slide. Clint hopped up to safety.

"Hawkeye, crowd control," Steve ordered as the hostages screamed again. This was a roller coaster of terror for them and each action by their captors and rescuers was another sheer drop. The children were mostly weeping at this point and while the adults were doing their best to manage them, someone needed to manage the adults.

Steve made like he was going to toss the shield again; he wasn't, for the same reasons as before, but it drew Garthwaite's and Calusky's attention back to him.

"You and your dinner plate are next," Calusky growled with a smile.

Steve put the shield in a defensive position and Calusky's smile broadened.

"Won't help you," Garthwaite assured, smacking the crowbar into his free hand twice. "You're about to fight out of your weight class, Cap."

"Bring it," Steve replied.

Garthwaite charged him then, crowbar raised in the same way that Thor held his hammer aloft. But as terrible as that crowbar was, and it was definitely more dangerous than Mjolnir, although Steve would never say such to Thor, it was a mistake on Garthwaite's part because Steve knew how to handle it. He'd sparred with Thor, knew how to brace himself for the hammer's blow - the shield would accept it without denting, although it could drive Steve back several feet - and he knew how someone armed with that kind of weapon fought. He knew that Garthwaite was nowhere as proficient in using that crowbar as a battering weapon as Thor was with Mjolnir; Thor had had millennia of wars to develop a style that was as efficient as it was brutal. Garthwaite had a couple of decades, maximum, and most of that with a comparably harmless hardware store version of the weapon he now carried.

He braced at the last minute, eyes on the crowbar but keeping Calusky in his peripheral vision, and rode the momentum back into what was left of the projection booth wall, relaxing before he hit it so that the wind wasn't knocked out of him on impact. He got up and in motion before Calusky's giant paw could grab his left ankle, diving into the hole made by Camp, and coming out of the roll with his shield up to deflect the next blow by Garthwaite. He pinballed off of the projector with his free hand and followed the path of destruction with a graceless scurry.

The projector came flying at his head and he ducked, sparing a look to see that the Chagall window closest to the entrance had escaped damage, but just barely. The supporting wall next to it was cracked and plaster dust filled the air in clouds.

He banked left once he got through the projection booth, still following the path Natasha had led Camp on, and, closer to the exterior walls, he could hear the sounds of fighting outside.

"Sitrep?" he barked as he picked up a chunk of wall and hurled it back at Calusky, who had the option - indeed, the obligation - to turn around and go back to the now-unguarded hostages but could be encouraged, hopefully, not to take it. Calusky caught it and threw it right back; Steve held up the shield and it bounced off harmlessly.

"It's a donnybrook," Tony reported cheerfully. "Property damage galore. Thor and Camp are tussling like stags fighting over a really hot doe and Natasha's playing jump-rope with Franklin. I'm sticking my two cents in here and there, but I could still give you change of a dollar if needed."

"I'll need it in a couple of seconds," Steve replied, turning to face Garthwaite, who'd closed distance enough to rear back to swing the crowbar again. Steve let Garthwaite's blow drive him outside the building, trying his best to avoid the worst of the glass shards as he flew through a plate glass window. "Make sure Calusky doesn't turn around and go back inside."

Tony engaged Calusky as soon as he came through the hole, driving him further outside and away from the building with a series of blasts. They were in a walled garden pavilion, which offered them enough space for ground fighting but limited Tony's angles of approach because of the decorative half-roof high above them. The roof wasn't solid, but it was at a height and angle to the wall that really hemmed Tony in.

It turned out not to matter too much. After some in-earnest brawling, during which the Avengers and Wrecking Crew did some partner swapping and Thor brought down a top section of the far garden wall by driving Camp into it at speed, Garthwaite called his teammates to him and, with a flash of light, they disappeared.

"Well, shit," Tony spat as he came down to land. "That's not good."

Steve shrugged. "That's not bad, either. Doctor Banner, do we have a fix?"

"Ahhh," Bruce hemmed for a long moment. "Yes, yes we do. I'm sending it to Iron Man now."

"Oh!" Tony exclaimed. "You clever, clever Capsicle you."

"Much better than beanbags," Clint announced as he walked up to them, reclaimed arrows still in his hand. "LEOs have the hostages."

Thor looked at Tony, then at Steve. "What has happened?"

"Our only-slightly-technophobic leader has planted trackers on three of the Wrecking Crew," Tony explained. Thor's raised eyebrows did not lower. "We know where they went."

Which turned out to be an otherwise unassuming two-story house off West 51st Street across from the rail yards.

Steve asked Bruce to go with them, something that was probably more awkward for Steve, who disliked asking Bruce to give up control to the Other Guy, than for Bruce, who probably didn't mind too much because he'd been on edge even before spending a few hours in an oversized tin can surrounded by the kind of inter-agency blame-shifting and bureaucracy that went on in the rear echelon. Bruce waved away Steve's attempts at apology, took off his glasses and his watch, and told Tapper that he wanted the lemon pepper tuna MRE but someone should find him a decent dessert because MRE pound cake did not qualify.

"I think this might be the highlight of Bruce's week," Natasha said as she and Steve were back-to-back as Franklin and his wrecking ball circled them slowly. Thirty feet away, The Hulk was roaring happily as he pounded Calusky into the ground over and over again, pleased to have a toy he couldn't easily break. "Piledriver! Piledriver!" he chanted in time to the beat.

"I'm happy if he's happy," Steve replied, holding up his shield as Franklin whirled the ball into motion. "Fury might not be so happy when he gets the bill from Rahm Emmanuel, but that's Tapper's problem."

The fight at the railyards was probably longer than it needed to be, but afterward Bruce was as relaxed as he'd been in a long while as he worked his way through his own pizza, Natasha having given Tapper the name of a place to order from before they'd set off after the Wrecking Crew. ("If we're going to drag him into a major city, we might as well reward him," she'd told Steve when he'd given her a look. "They're organic; he hates loading up on the chemicals in the MREs.")

Natasha did not stay long after the support services arrived. "I wasn't in Chicago just for this. I have things to do."

"Yeah," Clint scoffed, looking up from the pizza he was sharing with Tony. "Like eat a fancy dinner."

"I'm meeting an old contact," she retorted, but Steve knew the look on her face.

"At a fancy restaurant?" he prompted with a smile.

"Just because he has an eight-o'-clock reservation at Alinea doesn't change the fact that he has a lot of information we can use," Natasha sniffed.

"Enjoy," Steve exhorted.

"Oh, I will," she assured him, then went off to go charm a CPD patrolman into driving her back downtown.

By the time Natasha was presumably holding her aperitif, the rest of them were airborne back to New York. They already had the bare bones of the Wrecking Crew's story, which was almost charmingly old-school: they had been hired by a dying mafia don to clean up and clear out some of the "new and disgusting" branches of the Outfit tree. The shenanigans at the AIC had been part art theft - the don wanted to possess the American Gothic, which he loved, even for a short time - and part distraction, since Garthwaite and Calusky were supposed to have teleported out and commit other acts of mayhem while the city's police were tied up at the AIC. It was, they all decided, a plan on par with a bunch of low-level thugs given direction by an old-school master of directing low-level thugs.

It wasn't until two days later that they realized the true consequences of the action in Chicago.

"Thirteen CPD emergency services personnel have been found dead in their homes," Tapper announced to a room full of hastily-assembled Avengers, Fury and Hill sitting off to the side and glowering silently. "All of them were on-site at the AIC and part of the post-fight cleanup and securing of the building. The problem is that they've been dead for three days, so either we've got zombies or we've got a bigger problem."

"What's missing?" Steve asked, already knowing the answer, even if he didn't know the specifics.

Four pictures appeared on the projection screen. "All of these were from the list we prepared when we started tagging artifacts as possible HYDRA targets."

There were murmurs throughout the room.

"Was the Wrecking Crew working for HYDRA?" Natasha asked. "It didn't seem likely at the time and I can't say I'm any more convinced having spent time with them."

Tapper shook his head no, but shrugged. "They say no, although Franklin expressed a desire to be recruited, which did not go over well."

The Wrecking Crew was being held at The Raft, the first inmates since Loki. There was no chance of Franklin getting an invite while there, but SHIELD would be all the more careful anyway.

"So this was either pure opportunism or..." Tony trailed off. "Or what? Coincidence? It's not like HYDRA has particularly tried for subtlety in the past. Why would they care if we knew or not?"

Steve stared at the pictures on the screen. "Top left, what is that?"

Tapper looked at his notes. "It's from one of the Chinese galleries. It's a Buddhist thing. A... Sarvastivadic prayer card, I guess? It's got something to do with... getting souls out of limbo. It's a prayer for successful rebirth of a loved one."

Tony cocked an eye at Steve. "You're not thinking what I think you're thinking, are you?"

Steve couldn't even fake a smile, so he didn't.

"Ah, crap," Clint sighed. "They're not gonna try to raise dead Nazis, are they?"

Chapter Text

"I think we should see other people."

Steve blinked, then put his teacup down slowly. He opened up his mouth to speak, then closed it again.

"You know I will always love you, Steve. I always have loved you." Peggy leaned over to reach for his hand and he gave it to her, automatically, because that's what he always did. And she squeezed it, because that's what she always did. "But I think this would be best. For the both of us."

"... Are you breaking up with me?" It came out a bit more incredulous than he'd have liked.

Peggy narrowed her eyes at him. "You're not all that, Captain Rogers," she told him archly. "There are other fish in the sea. And some of them still have most of their own teeth."

Steve leaned back in his chair, his hand still in Peggy's and hers in his. "I don't want us to break up."

"And that's why we have to," Peggy replied, not unkindly. She gave his hand a final squeeze and sat back. "You were going to be a little young for me back then. Time has not made that gap any smaller."

He knew what their age difference had been back then, just as he knew that she hadn't meant his biological age. Now, however, she did.

"You cannot possibly know what kind of a thrill it was to be the girl Captain America was pining after," Peggy said with a smile. "You could have had any girl in Allied territory - and probably quite a few on the other side - but you wanted me."

"The one girl I could never have," Steve said wistfully. Those regrets had not faded with time.

"You had me," Peggy assured. "You just didn't know it yet."

Steve flicked the handle of his teacup with the tip of his index finger. They hadn't really talked about them much, about all of the things they'd wanted and wished for and thought back then. It was too depressing, maybe, too painful to reminisce about what they'd expected would happen but never had. Also, Peggy had moved on after his 'death,' had married and survived both her (ex-)husband and her daughter, and maybe Steve hadn't wanted to talk about his place in the Lives and Loves of Peggy Carter because what they'd had had been all potential but what she'd had afterward had been real.

"I want you to be happy," Peggy went on when he didn't say anything. "I want you to find someone who can make you happy. And that person can't be me, not any longer."

He looked up at her then because he heard that note in her voice; it hurt to hear it, as much as the words that caused it. This was not about breaking off a romance that had been sundered seventy years ago. This was about the other things that time ravaged and stole.

"I'm still enough of the woman you knew for me to be familiar and comfortable and comforting," she went on. "And I am glad for that, grateful for that, because there is so much in this new life of yours that isn't and because I didn't get much of a chance to be those things for you back then, even though I wanted to be. And it's a good feeling to know that time and circumstance haven't changed me so much that I'm no longer worthy of your affection. But I'm also old."

He made a noise of protest and she shushed him.

"I'm old, Steve," she chuckled. "I count my blessings with each sunrise. And sometime, sooner than later or than I'd like, there'll be a sunrise I won't be around to bless. And I don't want you waiting for that day before you start getting on with that part of your life."

"So you're breaking up with me?" he asked, more to say something than out of need for clarification. He understood what she was doing and why she was doing it. He even appreciated that it might be necessary because it wasn't something he was going to do on his own. "I don't think I'm ready to get over you yet, Miss Carter."

Peggy leaned forward again to touch his hand and he took it in his and held it.

"You never get over your first love," she said meaningfully and what he saw on her face made him smile. "But you find space in your heart for a new love, one that will grow and, hopefully, last."

There was probably more to say on the subject, but they didn't because Peggy, now as then, had never been one to waste words and she'd already said what she'd meant to and Steve certainly didn't want to draw the discussion out. So they packed up and headed to the Barnes Foundation, where he'd reserved tickets because the events in Chicago had made him want to see art without worrying that he was going to destroy it in the name of justice. He had borrowed a SHIELD car for the occasion rather than drive his bike down, offending Tony in the process because he hadn't asked him first (Tony being unmoved by Steve telling him that a Nissan would be more practical for Peggy's comfort and ease of use than a Lamborghini or a Porsche, the only cars Tony currently had in New York).

They had a good time, but it was a bittersweet one that unintentionally emphasized all of their earlier talking points. He was acutely aware that this is what they would have done after the war if they could have; he'd spoken often enough during his Commando days of coming back during peacetime to see all of the restored galleries once they'd stripped the Nazis of their loot. It had been a hope and then a promise, camouflaged as a running joke, that Steve would take Peggy to see the Mona Lisa once it was back in the Louvre (she'd remind him that she'd already seen it in situ before the war and he'd tell her it was only going to be her because Bucky didn't like the girls who only smiled ambiguously at him). It was so easy to imagine that this was one of those promises fulfilled. They talked easily about the art, about their complementary (and opposite) opinions about the exhibits and artists, Peggy with her European bias and proper lady's training and Steve with his more practical bent and affection for early Twentieth Century Americana.

It was almost enough to forget that Steve was pushing Peggy around in a wheelchair (she could walk just fine, but got tired quickly enough that this had been her suggestion) and that everyone who saw them thought they were a sharp old lady with her dutiful grandson or great-grandson. He had a sketchpad with him because he always did, but he hadn't planned on taking it out until Peggy had asked him where it was. So he ended up drawing Peggy sitting by the French doors underneath the Matisse mural. She complimented him on the technical aspects, but chastised him for the subject matter. "Driver picks the music," he told her, which made her laugh.

There was an email from Tapper waiting for him when he got back to New York telling him that there was a meeting aboard the Helicarrier for the following morning; it was about the artifacts taken from the museum in Chicago. SHIELD had been consulting experts - art experts, social science and humanities experts, religious figures, whoever else sounded like they might know what they were talking about - to see if there was anything to worry about with HYDRA amassing instruments of reincarnation and resurrection. The answer turned out to be "kind of, but not really" because the academics didn't actually believe in such things and the religious leaders didn't think that such tools could be misused for evil. But nobody was actually sure, either of their own beliefs or that the objects taken weren't actually vested with a far less occult and far more alien power. Or, why nobody had taken the tesseract myths seriously until they'd had to and the fact that Mjolnir existed and did everything the legends said it did and more.

After the meeting, Natasha caught up to Steve as he was exiting the Archives suites; he'd put in requests for some of the material discussed during the briefing. (The archivist assistants at the circulation desk always felt the need to remind him that he could submit these requests electronically - during the meeting, even - without making an extra trip and submitting a paper request. They did this slowly and carefully, as if they were sure that he didn't understand how this newfangled email thing worked.)

"What's bugging you?" she asked, elbowing his arm as she sidled up.

"Nothing, why?" He rubbed his bicep, only partially theatrically because Natasha had sharp elbows.

"You were something less than your usual star-spangled self in there," she replied. "Is Peggy okay?"

It had been no secret that he'd gone down to Philly the day before.

"She's fine," Steve assured quickly.

"But," Natasha prompted.

"She dumped me," he said with what he hoped was a wry expression because it certainly did not come out as bemused as he'd liked. As silly as the words sounded and as practical as the actual reasoning was, the fact of it was that he'd still just been told that his first great love affair - one he'd nurtured for years and that was still fresh in his heart and mind - was over. And that hurt, more the day after than it had at the time.

Judging by Natasha's expression, he hadn't sounded like it was at all funny to him.

"Let's go spar," she said, gesturing with her head toward the elevators.

"Why is your answer to all of life's ills to beat me up?" Steve sighed, but he was smiling as he did so.

"Thor, stand down," Steve called as he bounded across the lawn. "Thor!"

He skidded to a halt at the last moment, holding out his shield arm in case bright colors would help draw Thor's attention from where he was currently menacing a trio of SHIELD agents, all of whom looked like the last thing they needed after an already miserable afternoon was to be threatened by a posse of Asgardians. Thor had brought his friends, two of whom stood behind him now, glowering over his shoulder at the agents.

"Thor," Steve tried again, close enough to reach out and touch his teammate's arm, the one holding the closest agent by the collar of his uniform. "Hands off. They're on our side, remember?"

Thor did not let go, but he at least lowered Mjolnir and turned his attention to Steve. "They--"

"Kept Doctor Foster and her research team safe," Steve cut him off. He put more pressure on Thor's arm, pushing down so that Thor would let go. He did, so Steve did. "Nobody died, nothing can't be replaced, everyone gets to go home at the end of the day. That's a pretty good result considering the circumstances, don't you think?"

The alarm had gone off aboard the Helicarrier at 1526; HYDRA had launched a full assault on a (thought-to-be) clandestine SHIELD research facility near Cleveland. A direct action team had been airborne by 1535, followed quickly by additional teams because nobody was answering the Helicarrier's queries and the local emergency services had not received a single 911 call. Steve and Clint had been on one of the second wave flights out because, as Tapper put it, "there are going to be complications."

Steve was currently staring right back at one of the main complications, at least for the time being. Thor's blood was still up from the fighting, now long over, and so he'd switched his attentions from the HYDRA agents who'd attacked his lady love to the SHIELD agents who'd kept her alive and mostly undamaged, but not entirely. Doctor Foster was being treated for cuts and abrasions and the general symptoms of being the victim of an armed assault on her place of employ. It was nothing life-threatening, nothing that would leave a scar, probably, but she'd been bloodied and Thor had seen red.

"I think Doctor Foster would rather you accompany her to the hospital than threaten the men who saved her life," Steve said calmly. "Unless you're still scared of hospitals?"

That bit was maybe a calculated -- Doctor Foster had made a joke about Thor's prior experiences with doctors when the EMT had asked her if she wanted to call anyone to meet her there -- but right now, Steve would take what he could get. Thor had been stalking around menacing anyone and everyone who caught his eye, his four compatriots watching but not interfering, and he was starting to get in the way.

"I am not afraid of hospitals," Thor spat out. "My experiences came when I... You are goading me, Captain."

Steve shrugged. "I'm pointing out that your girl might like a hand to hold in the ambulance," he replied as artlessly as he could. Which was pretty artless; he'd perfected the innocent look long before he'd become Captain America.

"Jane Foster is not a girl," Thor retorted, but the vehemence of his words was undone by the faint edge of a smile creeping on to his face. "That does not mean that she should endure such an experience alone."

With a nod of either acknowledgement or apology or some combination of the two toward the agent he'd been so recently threatening, Thor stalked off in the general direction of the makeshift triage center.

"You guys did good," Steve told the SHIELD agents, meaning both for the afternoon and for not escalating things with Thor. "Go get checked out and then go get checked in -- they're running head-counts and setting up shifts."

The agents muttered thanks and departed. Steve turned to the two Asgardians, a striking woman and a giant bear of a man.

"You could have helped out there," he chided.

"We wouldn't have let him go too far," the man replied somewhat carelessly. "Best Thor get it out of his system now."

"Best for whom?" Steve asked sourly, raising his arm to wave back to Agent Stokes, who was trying to draw his attention from across the square that made up the building's front courtyard. "Excuse me."

The building, a U-shaped white-walled banality, housed three SHIELD laboratories and some support services (there'd been a lot of jokes on the plane about HYDRA doing them a favor by taking out HR), all surrounded by well-manicured lawns and sharply-cut hedgerows and set back a couple hundred yards from the road, from which it looked like just another office park in an area dotted with them. Little did anyone know.

"Hazmat's been through and has given the all-clear," Stokes, the second-in-command of the action teams began as Steve approached, Steve somewhat gracelessly dodging one of the body-bag-laden stretchers. Nobody from SHIELD had died, but there'd been several HYDRA casualties because, as usual, HYDRA valued quantity over quality in their stormtroopers. "But if you'd like to head in, let me know and I'll find you a buddy. We're not letting anyone in by themselves right now. Even you fancy-pants Avengers."

Steve smirked, but nodded. "How bad's the butcher's bill?"

He already knew there'd been at least two medevacs, a scientist and the SHIELD agent escorting him to safety had been caught in an explosion in one of the labs.

"Twenty casualties, four urgent," Stokes replied. "We're moving thirteen to area hospitals and the others got bandaged up on site."

Steve nodded, eyes scanning the scene for Clint, who'd disappeared from Steve's side shortly after they'd landed. He finally spotted his teammate at the edge of the copse of trees to the right of the building. "Can two fancy-pants Avengers go in together?"

Stokes looked around, finally seeing Clint, who'd started to walk toward them but was still a distance away. "Sure, take him. Take Thor and his buddies, too, if you can."

"I think they've made as much fuss as they're going to make," Steve assured, sparing a glance back at where he'd left the Asgardians. They weren't there, so they'd probably gone to find Thor.

"Don't get me wrong, they were a huge help during the fight," Stokes said. "Just, well, they're a little... exuberant. And then Thor saw Doctor Foster and..." he trailed off, waving his hand vaguely.

"Yeah," Steve agreed, understanding completely.

A pair of agents were standing a couple of feet away, waiting to talk to Stokes; Steve let him take care of his business and started walking across the square to meet Clint halfway.

"They cut the power and phone lines," Clint said as they headed toward the front doors. Or, rather, where the front doors would have been if they hadn't been blown off. The large glass shards were far enough away to indicate a pretty big blast radius; the glass stepped on and tracked around by boot treads was smaller and had its own path that stretched from halfway across the square to well inside the lobby. "They had a cell jammer, too, but they took that with them."

There was blood spattered across the beige and frosted-glass sign that backed the guard station; somehow, the two agents manning it had survived, although one had taken a bullet to the neck. There was more blood on the monitors and workspace, thankfully not arterial spray.

The security turnstiles, plexiglass saloon-door-type panels mounted on a waist-high base, were mostly destroyed, but the ones that had remained intact, on the far left and right, were set in the open position and those were the ones they used.

They went up the leftmost stairs, stopping on the second floor, which was occupied entirely by the support departments. The damage here was relatively minimal, the smell of flashbang grenades still lingered in the hallways, but the bulletholes were high up enough that they'd been intended to scare and not kill. HYDRA hadn't come for Accounting or HR, the former of which was a little bit of a surprise and the latter of which was a lot of joking disappointment (at least now, while there were no friendly fatalities). An attack on Payroll could have gotten them names and home addresses, allowing them to go after any SHIELD agent (or to sell the list to any of the many who had such desires), but HYDRA had been content to use a detachment to keep the personnel trapped at their desks while the main force headed upstairs to the labs.

On the flight over, there'd been suspiciously little information about what went on in the labs, which everyone took to mean that it was classified for more than just security reasons. Or maybe not. Steve didn't know what could be so unethical or otherwise unpleasant about Jane Foster's projects. Thor had spoken of her work before, occasionally in unintentionally elliptical phrases that had more to do with the lack of distinction between 'science' and 'magic' on Asgard than with any lack of understanding on his part. (Which did not mean that Thor understood the details, he was cheerfully honest about that, but he certainly grasped the bigger pictures.) She was trying to build a gateway to other worlds, Earth's version of a Bifrost, which might have appeal to HYDRA but for the fact that all of it was completely theoretical until she found an alternate source of energy to the tesseract. So while Thor viewed it her work as a kind of preliminary architecture sketch for a future bridge that was eminently buildable, Tony considered it a pleasant fairy tale and if Steve had to guess which side HYDRA was going to take, it would probably be Tony's.

The other labs, however, looked a little more ominous once they got up to the third floor. For reasons that had nothing to do with the blood and scorchmarks on the walls.

Doctor Foster's lab suite was to the left when they emerged from the stairwell, Lab B and Lab C (no further identifiers) in front of them and to the right. All three main doors had been blown off with high explosives and the vestibule still had that slightly charred smell.

"The lady or the tiger?" Clint mused. "The two with the 'hazardous materials' warnings or the one with the warning that you might get fried by random voltage?"

Steve smiled uneasily. "Stokes said that Hazmat has been through."

Clint snorted. "They were wearing rubber suits with their own air supplies," he pointed out. "They just know what their little computers told them."

"I don't think we can find a canary on such short notice," Steve said. "I do wish we'd gotten a hint about what was going on here, though."

"No you don't," a familiar voice said behind them. They turned to see Natasha.

"About time you got your ass out of bed," Clint said by way of greeting. Natasha flipped him off.

"Children," Steve warned. "Don't make me make you go play outside."

Natasha and Clint gave him matching looks of such innocence that none of the three were able to keep a straight face.

"What's going on here?" Steve asked Natasha once the giggles had run their course and they'd sobered. "Everyone knows it's 'nothing good,' but how bad is it, really?"

Clint picked up a piece of blackened debris and turned it over in his hands, rubbing a part of it with his thumb. "Keypad for the entry lock," he said, then put it back down.

"It's not bad," Natasha prevaricated, which usually meant that it was very bad indeed. "It's just... It's not going to make you love your job very much."

Steve frowned, annoyed as ever by attempts to protect him from the big, bad modern world. Especially by people who knew how much it did annoy him and how unnecessary it was. "I've already waded through the worst human beings could do to one another," he reminded her. "On both sides. I can handle it."

"It's not like that, Cap," Natasha replied ruefully. "It's... Come on."

She turned and started picking her way through the debris that littered the floor en route to Lab C. Steve had no choice but to follow, Clint trailing behind.

Lab C was a series of rooms with windows that faced on to a central hallway that showed signs of grenade use and gunfire; it still smelled of CS gas, not the more innocuous flashbangs they'd used downstairs, and most of the windows were shot out.

The first doors on the left and right were for a break room and the bathrooms; they were propped open but there was no reason to step in. HYDRA had cleared them as a matter of protocol, but had gone straight on toward the business end of the floor. As Steve, Natasha, and Clint retraced those steps, Steve observed the damage, which told its own story as much as the human witnesses had.

The entire area was a mess, the kind of mess that came with tornadoes and armies of search teams with orders to destroy what wasn't useful. This wasn't the careful search by professionals; this was a ransack. The stools weren't just overturned, they were broken and tossed into the hallway, the glass cases shattered even if the contents inside looked undisturbed. There was blood, but not in the kind of quantities or distributions that went along with a lot of shooting at people. Most of the injuries had come from cuts and physical assault, not gunshots; people hiding and trying to escape, people being ordered to do things, being 'encouraged' to comply, and then, only then, being punished for failure.

The rooms were all more or less identical as far as Steve's unscientific mind went: similar furniture, similar unreadable scribbles on the whiteboards, similar damage by HYDRA. But one room was apparently not the same as all of the others because it had yellow caution tape across it.

"Now this is just honeycomb to a bear," Clint sighed happily, rubbing his hands in anticipation. "What do we have in here that someone doesn't even want the other agents to see?"

He was about to reach for an end of the tape when Natasha made a noise. "Wait."

She pulled out what looked like a powder compact that turned out to actually be a powder compact. Steve watched, curious and a little fascinated, as Natasha walked over to the taped door, held up the compact as a regular woman might, swirled the puff around on the powder, dabbed at her nose, and then held the puff up in her hand and blew.

The cross-hatching of a laser tripwire appeared in the resulting cloud.

"Hunh," Clint chuffed, then turned back to Natasha, who was finished her touch-up and putting away the compact. "You knew this was there?"

"Not as such," Natasha replied, looping a lock of hair behind her ear. "I know what has to be here somewhere. Or what Fury's praying is still here."

Steve frowned. "You're being mysterious for its own sake again."

Natasha made an apologetic face. "I'm not trying to drag this out," she said. "I just don't know how to explain it without you seeing it for yourself."

Steve and Clint exchanged looks. "I think she's talking to you and not to us," Clint said.

Steve thought so, too, which meant nothing good. "Is that to keep us out as well?"

"Probably," Natasha replied airily. "But that's a completely ridiculous expectation."

Once upon a time, he'd have respected the clear warnings to keep out. But that time had long passed and Natasha was making it very clear that whatever was in this room was going to upset him on a personal level. There were very few things that happened in laboratories that could upset him personally in this day and age, which meant that it had to be related to the past. He wouldn't need three guesses to figure out what that was.

"Do you need anything to get us in or will you settle for just applause afterward?" Steve asked.

"Well, look who's volunteering to be an accessory to B&E," Clint commented mildly. He stepped next to Natasha and looked closely at the door frame, pointing out what were probably the laser projectors to Natasha, who nodded.

It took them two minutes, maybe, and that was only because Clint was being fussy about how he took down the caution tape.

The lab looked like every other room they'd seen so far, but only at first. Once they were in and past the floor-to-ceiling metal shelving that hid most of the room from the doorway, they could see that the room was actually two rooms, a smaller one carved out of the larger. The smaller had windows that let them look in from the larger room that surrounded it (with blinds that hung unevenly and in disarray), but none into the hallway and had metal panels blocking the windows to the outside.

"Lead, I bet," Clint said, gesturing toward the panels with his chin from where they stood at the smaller room's doorway. "Invisible from the outside because of the exterior glaze."

Natasha slipped gracefully between them to the far wall, bending down to pick up papers that had fallen on the floor. She came up with a poster that had curled up on itself and she unrolled it, pinning it back on to the wall with some tacks that were nearby but not intended for the purpose. And then she stood back so that they could see.

"Oh, shit," Clint spat.

Steve found himself with no reaction whatsoever to seeing a diagram of himself with arrows leading from observations crammed into neat boxes. Or, rather, he had a thousand reactions, but all of them together canceled each other out and he found himself numb.

"Cap?" Natasha prompted. "Steve?"

He looked around the room, at the papers strewn on the counters and tables and floor and what had stayed on the walls, at the models and equations and how some of them looked familiar even if he'd never really ever learned what they meant.

"I thought it would be Bucky," he finally said. "I thought that's why Fury'd been asking me about him. That they'd be trying to recreate whatever Zola did to him because HYDRA has it now."

They probably were, maybe even here. But this room wasn't about Bucky. It was about him.

He shouldn't be surprised that SHIELD was working on the super-soldier serum. It would have been foolish of them not to be, even without HYDRA to spur them on. And he'd more or less come to terms with his role as lab rat and lab goal before he'd fallen asleep in the sea; he'd let Erskine's assistants poke and prod at him when he'd come stateside because he knew what kind of advantage having a 'brother,' having an army of brothers, would do for the war effort. And he'd known that while he was harder to kill than the average soldier, he wasn't immortal. Even if he'd had no idea just how close to immortal he'd turn out to be.

And yet this still stung as only a betrayal could.

"I'm sorry," Natasha began with a sigh. "I've known from the start that they've been working on this, but I didn't realize until today that Fury had never told you."

He nodded; he didn't want her thinking that he thought she'd reneged on her promise in Detroit. But he wasn't really capable of saying more about this right now.

"So, what, they took DNA samples while you were sleeping?" Clint asked, then frowned. "Right, of course. That's exactly when they took samples. Before you were fully defrosted."

Steve hadn't really ever thought about what had gone on between when he'd been found in the ice and when he'd woken up in that fake room with the baseball game playing. It had been disturbing as a concept - he'd been defrosted like a fish being transported for sale and then people had come and watched him like a museum exhibit - and he'd never given a thought to that someone (SHIELD) might have taken advantage of him in any way. But, in his new reality with its cynicism masking itself as pragmatism, he probably should have expected as much.

He looked over at the metal fridge; the door was closed. He went over to it and opened it. It was empty. "Does this mean they have my blood?" he asked, showing them the empty interior. "My DNA?"

Natasha shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted. "From that fridge, probably not. Your samples get more security than the President does; he's more replaceable."

"All they have to do is take a popsicle stick out of his trash can," Clint pointed out. "Or a tissue after..." he trailed off, making a very vague hand gesture that the other two nonetheless understood and made Steve blush.

"Why do you think he has his own incinerator for his garbage?" Natasha replied, then looked over at Steve. "It's mostly for more standard security, but that, too."

"I don't think coming up with all of the ways that HYDRA could already have what they need from me is all that comforting," Steve told her wryly.

She gave him an 'I was only trying to help' shrug. "But the truth is that we don't know what they took from any of the labs yet and so, yes, they might have taken something that had originated with your samples. I can't tell you not to worry, but I can tell you that everyone else is worrying, so you don't have to if you don't want to."

Steve smirked; they all knew that he was not going to be able to pass up the opportunity to worry about this, even if he wanted to.

"What's in Lab B?" Clint asked. "Now that we've gotten the big mystery out of the way."

Natasha made a dismissive gesture in the general direction of Lab B. "Biological warfare."

Steve gave her a look. "I thought everyone agreed not to use that anymore."

"Terrorists don't sign conventions or treaties," Natasha replied with a shrug. "We're not developing it to use it. We're developing it to be able to cure it when someone else uses it. Next door's all the stuff that's too hot to keep at Fort Detrick."

In the distance, they heard voices - other agents were entering Lab C. They looked at each other, Natasha took the diagram off the wall and dropped it back to the floor, and then they headed back into the outer room. Steve went out into the hallway first, the distraction while Clint and Natasha put the security measures back in place.

"Hey, Cap, didn't realize you were here," Agent Jimenez greeted him as she came out of the breakroom by the doorway. Steve jogged over to her, feeling a little guilty of intentionally taking advantage of the mild startruck-ness SHIELD agents not based on the Helicarrier often got when meeting him for the first time. She had nothing to do with the subterfuge going on here, not Fury's hiding the research and not the Avengers' own break-in, and he felt bad that she had to be deceived at all. But the alternative was not attractive, so he asked her what was going on downstairs and whether she'd heard updates on anyone who'd been sent to the hospitals.

She and her partners were the first shift of the security patrol for Lab C; Vandermeer, the Senior Agent in Charge, had organized a rotation until a full complement of security agents could be airlifted in.

Natasha and Clint ostentatiously appeared out of the doorway of the room across from the one they'd broken into, arguing about the relative merits of semtex versus C-4. Steve gave Jimenez a shrug, joked about being stuck with them, and wished her well before calling over for his teammates and promising to get out of Jimenez's way.

"Let's go see what's up on the roof," Clint suggested once they were back in the vestibule between the three labs. The stairs led up to a fire door with a warning about an alarm on it, but the power was still out in the building and so nothing sounded when they pushed through.

The roof was covered in gray gravel, the odd cigarette butt mixed in for color and texture, and afforded a full view of the surrounding area with only the central air conditioning units in the middle to interrupt the vista. There'd been no apparent access to or from the roof by HYDRA, but the SHIELD forensics people would come up here anyway once they arrived. Which would probably be soon.

Steve crossed over to the front of the building and could see the scene below; the ambulances were gone but there were five new trucks and vans and all of them had come bearing SHIELD personnel and equipment.

"Why was Doctor Foster's lab here?" Steve asked, turning back to his teammates. "You've got two bio-warfare labs and, what, astrophysics?"

"And HR," Clint chimed in dutifully. "More deadly than anything too dirty for Detrick."

"Ironically, it was for security reasons," Natasha answered, her face clearly indicating that she thought the joke wasn't going to be any funnier later. "This was considered the safest place not on the Helicarrier and not in some remote outpost that we can turn into a fortress that looks like a fortress. I think she'd probably have preferred the remote outpost, but she lost that fight when she signed on to work for SHIELD."

Clint barked out a laugh. "It just hit me that Thor's been sneaking off for romantic getaways in Cleveland."

They were all still chuckling over that when Natasha suddenly cried out and pitched forward, a shocked look on her face and her hand over her heart as if she were about to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Steve had the shield unslung and on his arm even as he was able to catch Natasha before she fell. She landed hard on her knees, he landed harder on his own as he swiveled her so that her forehead was in the crook of his neck allowing the shield to cover her back and his body her front. Clint stood over them, arrow nocked and eyes scanning the horizon.

"I'm okay," Natasha gritted out, breath hot against Steve's throat.

"You're bleeding all over my nice, clean uniform," he retorted. "That makes you, by definition, not okay."

That she could talk at all, however, was a good sign.

"Get to the AC unit," Clint called over his shoulder. "On three."

On one, Steve scooped up Natasha in his arms, doing his best to ignore her gasp of pain. On two, he rose to his haunches. On three, he ran to the giant AC unit, Clint right with him. They stayed small and ready to move again in case there was more than one sniper.

After a minute came and went with nothing, Steve shifted Natasha carefully in his arms so that he could see the wound. It wasn't to the heart, that much he knew before looking, but he was relieved to see that it was far enough away that it might not have even gotten much of a lung. He gently pried her fingers away enough to see that it was by the collarbone, near the shoulder joint but not on it. With his free hand, he reached into the belt pouch that held field dressings and pulled one out. They were some funky SHIELD thing that Tony might have invented and while they were meant to be applied to bare skin, Steve didn't bother because help was a thirty foot drop away.

"I'm going to take her down," Steve told Clint. "You'll cover us?"

Clint spared a quick look over and Steve gestured to the nearest parapet.

"Landing's gonna hurt," Clint said.

Steve knew he meant for Natasha, not for him. They'd all seen him jump from higher.

"It's too far to the stairs and it'll take too long," Steve said. "She's a tough cookie."

"Go on three," Clint replied.

"Sorry in advance," Steve told Natasha as he rearranged her so that he could carry her and then brace for the impact of the landing. Tough cookie or not, she was going to be in a lot more pain once they did.

They shocked everyone on the ground; nobody had heard the shot and it took a minute for Steve's directions to be heard and understood over the chaos. But there were supplies in the still-standing triage tent and there was a car equipped with a policeman's lights and Natasha was soon being rushed off to a hospital.

Clint was by Steve's side as they watched the car speed out of the parking lot.

"That was a little random," Clint said. "By which I mean it was completely out of character for HYDRA, not that it was unintentional. I think whoever did this knew exactly what they were doing."

Steve nodded. HYDRA wasn't a sniper kind of operation. "Were they waiting for one of us or would anybody have done?"

Clint chuckled. "We're gonna have to wait for Natochka on that one."

Steve gave Clint a sharp look, wiping his now-clean hands on a towel. There was nothing to be done for his uniform. "You think she was the target?"

Clint shrugged. "I think that the nearest building is more than a kilometer away and that if you're going to park at that distance, when you are presented with three stationary targets, you either aim for center-mass of the largest one, especially when he's got a target on his chest-" Clint gestured with his thumb at the star on Steve's sternum "-or you have something specific in mind because you have the skills to pull it off. You don't wing the smallest target unless you're really fucking lucky or that's what you mean to do."

Steve rubbed his face with his empty hand. As if today didn't have enough mysteries, both unsolved and unintentionally revealed. "This day just gets better and better."

"Captain, sir?" A SHIELD agent was waving to him from the command post. "Director Fury's on the line. He wants to talk to you."

"I'm sure he does," Steve sighed.

Clint nodded. “Better and better.”

Chapter Text

Steve followed the hostess past the long banquette and through the field of tables, feeling a little bit like an elephant in a china shop even though he wasn't bumping into anything and, point of fact, nobody was paying him a whit of attention. Captain America might be on the covers of magazines and plastic-molded into action figures, but out of uniform, he was simply another guy in a suit in a room full of them.

Except none of them had Pepper Potts waving to him with a smile on her face.

Pepper had called him on Tuesday asking if he were free for a late Thursday lunch. He was supposed to be going down to DC to look through the hard copies of some of the original SHIELD files on HYDRA and the '51 raids, but that could wait and so he rescheduled his appointment at the archives and said that for her, he was always free. She'd laughed, of course, but there was a touch of something else there besides the 'I'm flattered' giggle (Pepper was one of the few women he knew who could pull off a giggle) that made him all the more determined to make the appointment.

Pepper made to stand as he approached, but as in favor as he was of equality in the workplace, chivalry had not changed in far longer than the seventy years he'd been sleeping, so he hurried past the hostess to intercept Pepper before she could rise.

"You look wonderful," he said, kissing her on the cheek. "Thank you for inviting me."

"Thank you for coming," she said with a smile that almost-but-not-quite reached her eyes. "I'm very glad to be rectifying what has been a shocking oversight on Tony's part. I can't believe he hasn't taken you here yet."

Steve hadn't even heard of the restaurant before Pepper's invitation, although he'd been across the street at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park (good, but not worth the waiting on line, not when he had his own half a cow and a Weber grill). He didn't go to many restaurants on his own, at least not the kind where he sat and ate instead of picking up an order for takeout. Certainly not to the kind of restaurants that required reservations weeks in advance and for which even lunch could run you hundreds of dollars; his sticker shock at how much things cost now versus how much they'd cost in the '40's had nothing to do with that.

"Neither could Natasha when I told her," he replied, accepting a drink menu from the waiter. Pepper already had something an intriguing shade of peach-blush in a martini glass. Tony liked to tease her about her taste in 'girly' drinks, but it was charming for the same reason her giggle was charming - these were traits at such odds with her ruthless intelligence and steel will. "I think I might get a tour of New York's fanciest restaurants out of that."

Natasha had actually been somewhere between appalled and amused when Steve had asked her if she'd heard of Eleven Madison Park; it had been a moment of levity and near-normality in what had been a very tense visit. She'd been released from the hospital in Cleveland the day after the shooting - miraculously, she'd suffered no long-term or serious damage and had nothing more to show for her injuries than a dressing that needed changing and an arm sling that she'd already stopped wearing by the time she'd returned to New York. She had stayed in Ohio to work on the investigation, at least officially, although Fury was quite open about his belief that she was avoiding a return to the Helicarrier because it would mean having to finally answer questions about the shooting. Nobody disagreed, least of all Steve, which was why when he'd finally sat down with her, he'd been prepared for her stonewalling. Although, it turned out, not to the point where he could keep his temper as she prevaricated and flat-out lied to him about how much she knew and what she suspected.

"Well, let me know when you get to Per Se," Pepper said, smiling up at the new waiter who'd appeared at their side. "We've got a regular table at The French Laundry and Tony owes it to you to offer a comparison of East Coast Keller versus West Coast Keller."

The new waiter was not, in fact, a waiter. He was a sommelier and wanted to know what Steve wanted to drink. Tony and Natasha might've neglected his epicurean education, but they'd done a pretty good job expanding his spirits horizon beyond the pretty thorough wine knowledge he'd picked up during his years in Europe, where even the most hard-living partisan resistance force could still produce a bottle of local plonk for a meal that sometimes was more sawdust than sausage. None of which prepared him for a variety of offerings that felt like an encyclopedia in his hand.

He might have looked a touch overwhelmed because Pepper gave him a gentle smile.

"Something clean," she told the sommelier, which Steve thought was a laughably vague instruction, except the sommelier did not laugh. He nodded, as if Pepper had given him precise instructions down to the measurements, and departed.

The menu, in contrast to the drinks offerings, was shockingly spare, a single sheet of thick paper with a four-by-four matrix of food words. The waiter (actually a waiter) went through the explanation for Steve's benefit, since Pepper clearly already knew what to do. Steve was to pick one box from each row, the first being the cold appetizer, the second being the hot appetizer, the third being the entrée, and the fourth being dessert, and then the chef would return him something featuring each ingredient he'd chosen as a spotlight. Steve wasn't sure what a couple of the options were (was a langoustine a meat or a vegetable?), so he went with foie gras, halibut, squab, and grapefruit.

The sommelier returned with a highball glass full of clear liquid with some green leaves at the bottom that turned out to be lemon verbena infusing gin. There was more of a story, but basically it was a fancy gin and tonic with nicer ingredients. It tasted good, he said so, and both Pepper and the sommelier smiled knowingly at each other.

A team of waiters brought them their first course, which turned out not to be the real first course, but instead a plate with a fancy teacup and delicate sheaths of what they were told was 'seaweed lavash.' The teacup had halibut tea in it, which Steve smiled politely at and mentally translated into 'fish broth,' although it was a far cry from what he'd occasionally had the misfortune of being served during the Depression. These were amuse bouches, Pepper told them as they were left alone, little extras that basically amounted to the chefs showing off.

There was a second one, after a decent interval from when the first had been cleared away and they'd had time to sip at their drinks, this one served in a hollowed-out eggshell. It was custardy and light and might have had egg in it, but all Steve caught from the recitation was 'smoked sturgeon' and 'chive oil' because it was all so beautifully laid out.

"How is Natasha doing?" Pepper asked as the second set of plates were cleared away. "I know she's up and about, but..."

Steve sighed. "She's fine, physically," he replied, taking extra care to cover the total surface of the bread with goat's milk butter because he liked it (Anne and Rubin made their own, which was grassier than this one) and because the attention to detail kept him from showing off his deep frustration. "More or less. She's still in pain, but she's not taking the pills and she's not wearing the sling and she's going to the range to shoot despite explicit instructions not to because the recoil jars her shoulder. However, on the list of things she's doing and done that I'd like to take issue with, that's not going to rank as worth fighting with her about. She's not going to do anything that's going to risk her combat effectiveness, so let her think that she's being a rebel if that's what she wants."

Pepper gave him a wry look that expressed very clearly both that he wasn't hiding his own frustration very well at all and also that she knew exactly how he felt. He was aware that Natasha had been Pepper's problem before she'd been his, but her knowledge of this sort of bone-deep frustration did not come from 'Natalie Rushman.' You didn't spend years cleaning up after Tony Stark without occasionally wanting to throw things at a wall.

Someone else might have rolled their eyes or said something to that effect. Pepper merely raised her glass in salute, winked, and took a healthy sip.

The first course - the actual first course - arrived right then. Steve was presented with a healthy log of foie gras with pineapple salsa and a brioche and then an egg cup with more foie gras under a pineapple froth. Again, it was all almost too pretty to disturb with a knife and fork. Almost.

"She knows who shot her," Steve went on after he'd sampled both of his foie gras variations and offered some to Pepper, who traded him a langoustine with celery cream and green apple 'snow' for a bit of brioche with foie gras and pineapple salsa. A langoustine was apparently a fancy name for lobster. "She won't tell anyone who or why."

Clint and Steve had asked, Hill had demanded, and Fury had ordered, but Natasha had remained mute in the face of both concerned imploring and shouted threats. The threats were idle - Fury wasn't going to actually remove Natasha from either the case or from SHIELD - and the presumptions on her friendships could be ignored, which meant that there was no actual leverage for anyone to force Natasha to say what she clearly knew.

She'd never do anything to hurt SHIELD's efforts to bring down HYDRA, she assured, which when coming on the heels of her refusal to disclose anything about the identity of her shooter was a little hard to swallow for everyone. But it had nothing to do with HYDRA, she insisted, which everyone took to be utter baloney because how else could a sniper know to set up on a roof with a view to a building about to be raided by HYDRA? Just because the shooter had known what was going down didn't mean that he'd been a part of the planning, she'd retorted - the underworld had known of HYDRA and its power long before the good guys had; it wasn't a bad bet to guess that the Avengers were going to show up after a HYDRA hit and it wasn't a bad bet to assume that if the Avengers were going to appear, Natasha would be one of them.

(Clint had gone over to the sniper's nest while Steve had been on the phone with Fury in the immediate aftermath; he'd come away with no evidence but instead with the opinion that the shooter had been a true pro because of where and how they'd set up. The roof had been the easiest shot, but Clint thought that he himself could have picked off someone on the ground in the front square if he'd had what to brace himself with.)

"She has a lot of enemies, not all of whom know or care about what you do as Avengers," Pepper offered, swirling a piece of langoustine around in the celery cream. She chuffed out a sharp laugh that had nothing to do with being amused. "You all do."

And this is why Steve had rearranged his schedule; it wasn't for the ridiculously fancy and delicious lunch with a beautiful woman he admired. It was because the beautiful woman he admired happened to be the CEO of a company currently making the front pages of the Wall Street Journal for all of the wrong reasons and her personal and professional lives were being run through the wringer because the chairman of that company's board had a self-destructive streak as broad as his intellect. Tony wasn't heartless or feckless, at least not intentionally, but neither was he able to keep his personal recklessness from impacting others.

"What can I do?" he asked, because they could skip the opening remarks of that particular conversation and get down to the details.

He hadn't seen Tony in weeks, hadn't heard from him in almost as long; Tony had been too preoccupied by business to attend any of the informal Avengers social gatherings and there hadn't been anything that Iron Man could do that some other SHIELD asset couldn't. There'd been the occasional email or text from a meeting or a plane flight en route to a meeting, but even those had come at a rate much less frequent than Steve had grown accustomed to. Steve had noticed, of course, but he hadn't been idle himself and if he'd considered why there hadn't been random photos of Stark Industries Board of Directors' nostrils or badly-translated text on soy sauce bottles, he'd just assumed that Tony was too busy to be bored. That Stark Industries was fighting for its future was news covered by the regular papers, too.

"I don't know," Pepper admitted as the crew of waiters descended upon them to remove their empty plates and sweep away their breadcrumbs and take away Pepper's empty glass. "I'm not even sure what I can do outside the boardroom."

The sommelier returned with a wine goblet full of something that looked like ginger ale but probably wasn't. Steve waited for him to go away - after Pepper took a sip and nodded approvingly - before leaning forward. He took a sip of his own drink and waited for Pepper to speak.

"It's like we're the wounded shark and everyone can smell the blood in the water," she began slowly, running an elegant fingertip around the rim of her goblet. "We were the most fearsome creature in the ocean, but we're not anymore. Now we're just another wounded animal and now everyone we've ever pissed on or pissed off - and by 'we,' I mean 'we' as the collective first person and not the royal 'we' that's just a polite euphemism for 'Tony' - is watching us swim on, looking for an opening to strike out and get back whatever it is they think we took from them or that they feel they deserve. And Trident is swimming right alongside and I don't know if they're going to join the feeding frenzy once it starts or just swim right on by to become the new big shark."

'If they weren't already' hung unspoken and completely understood.

"All of this would be... not okay, but at least acceptable as part of the life cycle of enterprise and capitalism if we weren't also fighting our own nasty civil war," Pepper went on. "There are always fires to be put out. I'm very good at putting out fires." She gave him a smile that was wry and smug and knowing and charming all at once.

He smiled back, not nearly as charmingly, he was sure. "But," he prompted, since Pepper was the best virtual firefighter he could imagine.

"There's always been a contingent on the Board who never approved of Stark Industries giving up weapons design and manufacture," Pepper continued. "Even after the purge after Obadiah Stane's.... mess, there were always a few who'd never been won over and refused to believe that we could make more money doing other things. They were easy to marginalize when SI was exceeding earnings estimates, but now that we're coming in well below market analyst expectations, they're not.

"Instead of being our token dissenters, they've cobbled together a coalition. One possibly strong enough to take down Tony."

Steve leaned back in surprise. Which the team of watching waitstaff mistook for a signal to bring out the next course, so Steve waited until he was presented with halibut poached in olive oil and dressed with fennel reduction and valencia orange sauce.

"Is that even possible?" he asked once the waitstaff had departed. "I thought Tony had enough shares to do what he wanted."

Pepper rolled her eyes, since her mouth was full of potato. "He's always acted like he has," she said after she'd swallowed. "But his majority isn't so great that he can't be challenged if the minority got sufficiently organized. Which they've never even been remotely able to do - shareholder meetings are like cat conventions and you'll never herd them all in the same direction."

And yet someone had, Steve nodded to himself.

"Trident scooping us on that energy contract in California was the catalyst," Pepper went on, carefully spooning a potato and its sauce onto a clean corner of his own plate and waving her knife to indicate that she did not want any halibut in return. "It's our home turf - the US, California -- and a field in which we've worked very hard and put a lot of money and resources into becoming a leader. And they underbid us by so much that they're never going to make a profit on this. Or, at least, not much of a profit because it's probably impossible to lose money on a government contract. They did this just to mess with us."

"And they succeeded," Steve finished for her.

"More than they could have imagined," Pepper agreed.

Steve swabbed a piece of shockingly succulent halibut through the stripe of orange sauce. "Do you think it's possible that they did imagine?"

Pepper took a sip of her drink. "Possible? Absolutely. But if they did, then they were planning on a different fall of the dice because Stark Industries going back into the weapons business makes us much more of a challenge to take down. Which is not what they wanted. They can play up the 'war and peace' angle, but nobody ever really minded buying Stark hospital equipment back when we were also making missiles."

Trident, of course, had 'promoting world peace' as one of the three prongs of their corporate credo. They'd used it in a veiled comparison with Stark Industries' past, but Tony had always laughed those advertisements off as ludicrous. "We're peacier than you are! Our daisy chains have only ever been made of flowers! Only the Europeans would think that the market would be frightened off by accusing an arms manufacturer of war profiteering. The root of the word 'profiteering' is 'profit' and the markets are never going to be scared of that."

But Tony had found that funny when Stark Industries was a former arms manufacturer. For all of his offers to send tons of granola to Trident's headquarters in Zurich and his childlike glee at outfitting the Iron Man suit with new bells and whistles, Tony was very serious about putting Stark Industries' history of weapons development in the past to stay.

"Can they force the issue?" Steve asked thoughtfully. "Can you stop them if they do?"

Pepper grimaced. "They can and I don't know if we can if they do," she admitted. "I don't know what happens if Tony has to choose between his company and his principles."

Tony talked about his company like it was a burden, an encumbrance he'd been saddled with upon Howard's death, but it was an act, an act Tony didn't try very hard to maintain. He absolutely hated the tiny details, the nitty-gritty of keeping a giant corporation in paper clips and in forward motion, but he loved what Stark Industries allowed him to do - have fun while changing the world. Iron Man had its uses and its adrenaline rush, but Stark Industries could save so many more than Iron Man could, in so many different ways. and Tony viewed the two as complementary parts of the whole that was Tony Stark, billionaire genius playboy philanthropist.

Pepper had spoken to Steve, sometimes directly and sometimes more obliquely, about how Tony had changed since his captivity in Afghanistan. He'd been nobody Steve would have wanted to know, Pepper had assured with solemn honesty, and someone Tony had a real fear of becoming once again.

(Pepper had been so straightforward at how unpleasant and unreliable Tony had been that Steve had asked her why she'd stayed with him as long as she had. "Because he paid me obscene amounts of money to travel the world and brush elbows with the great and the good and I got accustomed to the lifestyle. I had beautiful things and important people curried favor with me to get to Tony and I am not without ego. Somewhere along the line, I started noticing the human being behind the mask that is Tony Stark and I wanted to protect that ember and keep it from being extinguished. But that only came later. It really was the ego for an embarrassingly long time.")

"Will it really come down to one or the other?" Steve took the last bite of fish. "We both know that Tony doesn't actually believe that not making weapons will bring about world peace any faster. And he really likes blowing things up."

Pepper laid down her knife and fork and dabbed at her mouth delicately. "He loves blowing things up," she agreed. "A lot. But he also knows how impossible it is to keep the triggers out of the hands of the bad guys. Stane was selling munitions directly, but you and I both know that even the materiel that's sold legitimately to governments gets lost, goes missing, falls off the back of trucks, gets re-sold or flat-out handed over to allies of questionable quality... Tony's already fought bad guys using Stark Industries weapons. He can handle it as Iron Man, but most victims of bad guys can't and Tony can't save all of them.

"He doesn't want innocent blood on his hands as either Iron Man or Chairman of the Stark Industries Board of Directors."

The sommelier interrupted them then, asking Steve if he wanted another drink. Steve asked if they had aligoté, which they did not, and so he settled for another of the gin and tonics.

"You know squab is just a fancy name for pigeon," Pepper teased lightly as the next course arrived with the same ceremony and elegance as the previous.

"They're cuter when they come in their own confit," Steve replied with a smile. "And if it's one less pigeon hanging out on my kitchen window ledge, I'm okay with that, too."

The squab was tasty, gamier than chicken and reminding him of the 'I-don't-know-but-it-has-feathers' mystery poultry dinners with the Commandos. The first dessert amuse bouche, an egg cream prepared tableside, was even more of a nostalgia trip and he smiled happily even as the waiter gave a spiel that turned this most humble fountain favorite into something more appropriate for a three-star restaurant.

"Did you ask for this?" Steve asked Pepper as they sipped at their glasses. It was definitely an egg cream, but one doctored in ways that Steve wasn't sure improved it enough to merit the changes. He liked it, but he also felt a very strong urge to buy some chocolate syrup on the way home so he could make a proper one - no olive oil, no sea salt - in his kitchen.

"I did not," Pepper confessed. "But if I'd known how you'd light up, I'd have made the request."

The actual dessert, his grapefruit sorbet with a tarragon crème, more than made up for the wonky egg cream. And the tiny carrot cake macarons and house-made marshmallows were cute, too.

Steve felt a little embarrassed to watch Pepper hold out her hand to the waiter, who was presenting the bill to Steve. But Pepper had made it clear when she'd invited him that this was to be her treat and so he thanked her for a truly splendid meal.

"You're welcome," she said, "but I should thank you, too. I needed this more than I thought I did."

Steve didn't ask what 'this' was, but was glad to have been able to provide it, in whatever small part he did.

Happy was waiting with the car on Madison when they left the restaurant and Steve escorted her to it.

"Be good," she told him, kissing his cheek as she got in.

"Always am," he replied primly. "Everyone says so."

"Everyone doesn't hear tales of what you get up to during Avengers activities," Pepper said with an arched eyebrow undermined by a smile.

Steve ended up walking home, down Park to Fourth Avenue to the Bowery to the Brooklyn Bridge. He checked his email when he got home and weeded through the personal messages and the messages that had to do with allowing Natasha to get off the disabled list and back on to active duty and the messages that had to do with HYDRA, which could be subcategorized by the routine ones that tried to sound like they were important and the important ones that usually were low-key. It was one of these last that drew his attention - he could put off the ones having to do with Natasha and Tony's inquiries about what Steve got up to while out with his woman (Tony's choice of words), at least for now.

The email came with an attached document, an informal précis with the title "Whereabouts of Oberstleutnant Wolfgang von Strucker after April 1951."

"They found the bastard," Steve murmured, dragging a kitchen stool over with his toe and sitting down to read.  

If Steve had been hoping for an easy answer to the "where is Strucker and is he running HYDRA?" questions, he'd have been disappointed. Very disappointed. But he hadn't been either hoping or expecting anything like that, although he might have sort of been hoping for something that could charitably be called "straightforward." And toward that end, yes, he was disappointed.

He hid it well, however, and thanked Agent Denby for the briefing. Maria Hill dismissed the analyst after making sure that there were no further questions.

"That was a lot of man-hours to get to 'we're pretty sure he's been dead for years,'" Steve said once the door was closed.

Hill made a sour face to indicate that she did not disagree.

"If we can find any of the family, then we might have something," Natasha said as she leaned back in her chair, taking great care to look like she was not taking great care to avoid jostling her arm. "Of course, we've been looking for the twins for sixty years."

After the death of Johann Schmidt, during the reorganization of HYDRA taking place as the Third Reich stumbled and then fell, Wolfgang von Strucker had moved his young family - a wife and twin children - out of harm's way, first to the Netherlands and then to Argentina. Strucker himself had stayed in Europe until the end, marshaling HYDRA's resources and preparing the organization for whatever they'd thought would come next. He'd eventually joined his family in Argentina, where they'd been a visible part of the expat Nazi community until the SHIELD/OSS raid there in April 1951. This much SHIELD had known about all along.

"We haven't been looking very hard," Hill pointed out. "This could at least get us down from 'anywhere in the world.' Especially if the boy's been institutionalized. Parents might've stayed close and we could pick up the trail."

What was new to the story was proof that Strucker had in fact survived the raid and fled with his family to South Africa, where they'd lived in a far more modest fashion than in either the Reich or Argentina's tiny recreation of it. Wolfgang von Strucker, now Walter Gouws, had used his HYDRA expertise to set himself up as an antiquities dealer, probably getting rid of his own looted treasures in the process. The family might have stayed under the radar for good except that young Andreas, now Andres, had some sort of mental defect that required treatment first in Johannesburg and then, when that had apparently failed, further abroad. Strucker hadn't risked taking his son to the United States; three clinics in three European cities (Vienna, Lausanne, Hilversum) registered Andres Gouws, minor child of South African citizenship, as a patient.

"We don't know if he remained under care," Steve said, flipping back in his notes. "Denby said that we haven't found anything on the twins past 1957, when they were seventeen. If they locked Andreas up for good then, we'd have found him by now, one way or the other."

The recovered information from the clinics was not helpful in determining what exactly had been Andreas von Strucker's diagnosis. In the case of the sanitarium in Hilversum, it had closed fifty-five years ago and they'd been lucky just to get a list of patients. There were indications that he hadn't been deemed a danger to himself or others, but what that meant in the postwar Europe of the 1950s, especially when speaking of a teenaged boy who was hiding at least part of his history from his doctors, nobody knew.

"They might have locked him up, just under a different name and in a different place," Natasha said. "Depending on what was wrong with him, he could be in some prison or prison hospital. Or he could be fifty years dead in a pauper's grave."

"Or he could be the head of HYDRA," Hill added with a shrug. "Unless we get more than what we have, we'll never know."

Steve looked up from his notes to see Natasha and Hill watching him. "I'll admit the thought crossed my mind," he said. "But I'm not sold on it."

"Why not?" Hill asked, more curious than confrontational.

"For the same reason I'm not sold on Wolfgang just yet," Steve explained. "We've got a fair bit of documentation on what HYDRA looked like after Schmidt disappeared, when the commanders were duking it out and splitting up the empire into fiefdoms. We saw what Wolfgang von Strucker's 'area' looked like, enough to see how it differentiated from what had come before. Andreas would have learned about HYDRA from his father, so we'd expect any HYDRA he ran to look like Strucker's. But the one we are fighting doesn't. It looks like the original, like Schmidt's."

Which led them - or at least him - back to the original question: who was leading HYDRA?

"You were pretty convinced it was Strucker -- a Strucker - back the other month," Hill pointed out.

Back when he'd found out that HYDRA had a strain of the serum last used on Bucky and last seen, presumably, by Strucker.

Steve nodded, but grimaced. "I'm not convinced that there isn't a Strucker in there somewhere - and it could be the son; heck, it could be the daughter. I think there's a lot of evidence to support it, actually. But I don't think a Strucker is running the show. Of all of the princelings, Strucker was the one who completely changed how his fragment of HYDRA operated. And he was actually better at it than Schmidt was. He was on his way to modernizing HYDRA for the post-war years."

"They're doing okay as-is now," Natasha stuck in sourly.

"Not arguing," Steve replied. "But if any Strucker were running the show today, I'd expect it to look more like Wolfgang's slice of the pie did back then."

He tapped his notes at the point to which he'd wanted to return. "Which doesn't mean that I don't want to know what the heck happened to him after 1962."

If the story of Andres (and Annika) Gouws apparently ended in 1957, SHIELD had been able to track Walter for another five years, when the storefront he'd owned in Bryanston had burned down. He was still listed as the owner and proprietor at the time of the incident, according to the newspaper item, but that was the last mention of Walter Gouws in South Africa. Agent Denby had said that they were still searching for the name in other countries, but if the fire - official cause unknown - had been either opportunity or message, there was every likelihood that Strucker had left Walter Gouws behind as well.

That had been the end of the actual hard intelligence portion of the presentation, after which there was a lot of speculation and RUMINT being passed off as viable leads to pursue. Steve rather suspected that the briefing had been organized entirely to prove that the HYDRA historical section wasn't playing computer games all day - this was a 'get off our backs' briefing and not a 'we have useful information that will aid in your work' kind of briefing. Which he respected, but would prefer not to have his time wasted by it; this wasn't enough of an elaboration on the précis he'd been sent to justify a trip downstairs from the library, let alone a trip in from Brooklyn.

Hill asked him to stay behind after they broke up the meeting; Natasha gave him a questioning look and he gave her back a shrug. There were plenty of things Hill could want to talk about that had nothing to do with either the Avengers or Natasha. If she weren't hiding so much, she wouldn't be that worried about what was being said out of her earshot.

"Your teammates are starting to make people crazy," Hill began. "And I don't just mean Agent Romanova's Black Knight routine."

Steve must have made a face at the missed reference because Hill sighed and rolled her eyes. "Seriously? They haven't sat you down and made you watch Monty Python yet?"

Steve furrowed his brow. "Is that the game show?"

Hill's sigh was much deeper this time. "That's Monty Hall. They're contemporaries, but the Python stuff is classic. Get Stark or someone to fix that. This place gets a lot easier to work at after you've seen the 'Argument Sketch.'"

Steve still had his notebook open, so he wrote down the information. "I can rent this on my own; I have Netflix."

"It's much more fun with other people," Hill assured him. "Plus, you could kill two birds with one stone by getting all of your crazy teammates out of my hair."

"That bad?" Steve winced. He already knew Natasha had been lurking around the Helicarrier for too long; Tapper had already complained that she was starting to discomfit other agents 'just for shits and giggles.' But Clint hadn't been around all week, Tony hadn't been around in even longer, Thor was invariably the most popular guy on the Helicarrier when he was around, and Bruce was hardly ever noticed when he was in because he never left his lab.

"Worse," Hill replied sourly. "Doctor Banner's been high-maintenance and is terrifying his assistants, Stark's ignoring important messages in favor of sending scans of blueprints written on napkins to Physical Plant and demanding updates on their implementation, Thor disrupted two different mandatory HR sessions on pensions on Tuesday, and Agent Barton is due back tomorrow, which is going to make Agent Romanova that much more pleasant to be around. Agent Tapper is threatening to quit to write parking tickets in Guam. Fix this."

Which was how, after a quick check with Pepper, the Avengers had a dinner-and-a-movie night (featuring Monty Python and the Holy Grail) at Tony's Manhattan apartment. The first viewing was chaotic, between everyone explaining things to both Thor and Steve, so they watched it again right after.

It didn't quite solve the problems the Avengers were separately causing aboard the Helicarrier, especially since Natasha still wasn't cleared for duty (Clint's fault; he'd agreed that she was still favoring her shoulder too much after watching her take apart some probationary agents in the gym). But Steve got Hill to crack up by wondering if Ordnance could dig him up some holy hand grenades, so it counted as progress made.

Chapter Text

Walter Burns was ordering Earl Williams back into the desk when Steve's phone started vibrating itself across the coffee table. Steve kept one eye on it and one eye on Cary Grant on the television, but finally gave in and picked up the phone when it had vibrated into a position where he could see who was calling.

He reached over for the remote and hit pause.

"Sorry to bother you so late," Tapper began, "but I thought you might want to know that there's been a... disturbance at your crash site."

Steve needed a minute to unpack that sentence because his first reaction was 'what crash site?' and then he realized. Oh. "I take it this disturbance wasn't a curious penguin," he said, since Tapper's silence indicated that Steve was supposed to say something.

"Not unless these are penguins with demolition training, no," Tapper sighed. "The alarms went off a couple of hours ago and we sent a team up there to make sure it wasn't ice shifting or whatever. They reported signs of activity that definitely required opposable thumbs."

Steve had a vague understanding of where he had been found, what it had taken to get him out of the ice, and what had happened to the rest of the plane, mostly through second-hand explanations from SHIELD people and then Tony, since Stark Industries still had some kind of proprietary rights to it despite the plane (and Steve) being US Government property and that SHIELD currently provided security for it. He'd never looked at the pictures, never watched the video footage, and had, with as much grace as he was able to muster, changed the subject when he'd finally met the men who'd found him. (He'd shaken their hands and thanked them, of course, but thankfully they'd been too nervous to say much before Steve had interrupted them.) He hadn't wanted to know. He didn't want to know now. Someone else, unfortunately, did.

"Were they looking for something or just there for the thrill of it?" Steve asked, already knowing the answer but hoping otherwise. "Is there any reasonable explanation that doesn't make us nervous?"

Another sigh from Tapper. "Reasonable? Sure. Plausible, no. They made it through three layers of security and blew off the locks on the door to get inside."

Steve looked at the scene frozen on his television, then looked away because his appetite for the familiar past was suddenly gone completely.

"We've booked you on a flight to London leaving JFK at 2355," Tapper said carefully, noncommittally. The 'don't distress the time-lost super-soldier' tone that Steve normally got pissed off at but couldn't muster it tonight. "You don't have to go. There's nothing that they need you on site for, at least not yet. But if you want to go, it's there."

Steve thanked Tapper, then hung up without giving an indication one way or the other whether he'd be on the flight. He didn't even know himself. He turned off the television and got up off the couch, standing for a long moment while deciding whether to turn left to go toward the kitchen or right to go to his gym and the heavy bag that hung there. He'd been traveling and at the Helicarrier so much over the past few weeks that he wouldn't even need to ration his heavy bags to get him through the month.

He ended up in his bedroom, grabbing his go bag and making sure there was nothing in it that the TSA would find objectionable.

He went over to Front Street to catch a cab; the cabbie, a Sikh who confused Steve for a comically long time by chattering on in his native tongue before Steve saw the earpiece, took local roads rather than brave the BQE-LIE-Van Wyck trifecta and between that and his lead foot, got them to the airport in twenty-five minutes. He was still on the phone chattering away while Steve tipped him and exited the cab.

The check-in clerk at the British Airways desk started giving him a dressing-down for not leaving enough time for security screening and for not printing out his boarding pass in advance if he knew he was going to be running so late, but it cut off sharply when she saw what her computer screen said once his details appeared. She looked at his passport closely, which Steve expected was the problem because it had his actual date of birth on it, but then she slipped his boarding pass inside it and handed it back.

"Here you go, Captain Rogers," she said bashfully. "Thank you for flying British Airways."

Steve gave her a tight smile - neither his rank nor his SHIELD affiliation were anywhere on his passport - and wished her a good evening. As he stood on the line before you got to the line for security screening, he looked at his boarding pass to see if there was anything that gave him away, but there wasn't, at least to his own eyes. There was a lot of gibberish on the thing, though, all of which must mean something to someone. Someone included the gatekeeper/hall monitor who directed people into the security lines and took one look at Steve's and sent him to the station with no line whatsoever. He wasn't sure if it was because there was less than fifteen minutes before departure or if it was one of the mysterious runes on the boarding pass. Either way, he was at the gate with five minutes to spare, smiling apologetically at the desk clerk who gave his papers a cursory look and told him he was very lucky.

He squeezed past the flight attendants at the door and found his seat, the last row of the first class section on the port side, and was not sure whether or not to be surprised by his seatmate.

"Oh, foo," Natasha pouted. "Now I won't be able to push up the armrest and stretch out."

"Move over," he told her, not bothering to hide his grin and gesturing with his chin to the window seat. "I'm not cramming in there if I don't have to."

They told the attendant, when he came by, that they'd prefer to skip dinner and just have breakfast later, although Natasha ordered a glass of wine for after takeoff.

"Did something happen at the site?" Steve asked once the safety lecture had been delivered and the plane was backing away from the gate.

"Not that I know of," Natasha replied, not looking away from the window. There wasn't really anything to see at this hour, just lights from the airport and, in the distance, from the Rockaways.

"So you're just bored," Steve suggested. Natasha had been upgraded to 'light duty activities,' which for her really meant that she was allowed to do low-risk intelligence work and nothing where there was a half-reasonable chance she'd have to draw a weapon. "Unless you're getting nostalgic for the ice and snow."

A sour look from Natasha as she finally did turn from the window. "Who the hell is nostalgic about permafrost?"

"Penguins," Steve replied with a grin. "I think the penguins at the Aquarium are pretty nostalgic after the summer we had."

The aquarium in Coney Island had outdoor pens for their sea mammals.

Natasha rolled her eyes and shook her head and returned her attention to the window, but she was smiling as she did it.

Steve closed his eyes while they waited in the line to taxi down the runway. Even at midnight, there was a queue. He didn't think he'd dozed off, but he might have because when he opened them again, they were at cruising altitude and Natasha had her glass of wine and a plate of what looked like either crackers or shortbread and was reading a book.

"There are ads for that on the sides of buses," Steve said, pointing at the cover. "I thought it was a TV show."

"It is a TV show," Natasha replied, inserting a bookmark and reaching for her wine. "But it was a book first. You should read it; it's good."

Steve wrinkled his nose. "I'm not really into the dragons and swords kind of storytelling. Well, dragons at least. I'm okay with swords, I suppose."

"Of course you are," Natasha said indulgently, taking a sip. "You're a boy. But the dragons are largely incidental. It's an old-fashioned political intrigue done right. The naïve get killed, the ruthless get ahead, and the good guys don't win because they're supposed to."

"A perfect story for a world-weary cynic like you," Steve said with a smile, raising his hand to flag down the attendant so that he could get a pillow and blanket and some water.

"You'd like it," Natasha assured him as the attendant returned with a bottle of water and some ice. "You don't think the good guys should win because they're supposed to, either."

Steve thought he was supposed to protest that, but didn't. "Why are you here?" he asked instead. It was entirely possible that Natasha really was just bored, but intuition said otherwise.

"Because our employer doesn't think we need to waste jet fuel when there are regularly scheduled flights to our destination," Natasha replied evenly, selecting one of the cracker-cookies on her plate and taking a dainty bite. "Also, this is much more comfortable than anything we have except for the Boss's Gulfstream."

Steve kept his gaze on her, willing and able to wait her out. Which did not mean that he was prepared when her look gentled and she gave him a tiny, sad smile.

"You're going to your own gravesite, Steve," she said softly. "Why on earth would I let you do that alone?"

There were a million ways to protest - he'd already been to his actual gravesite in DC, he wouldn't be alone at the crash site - but none of them were true in spirit even if they were true in fact. The crash site was where the life he'd had had ended, where he'd lost everything he'd ever hoped to have and thought he would get, and it troubled him deeply.

He nodded, acknowledging everything that he could say aloud but wouldn't. She nodded back.

"Thanks," he said.

These were the last words they spoke until they were woken up at the agreed-upon time for breakfast. Steve had a surprisingly good full English breakfast and fruit plate, Natasha had fruit and yogurt and a scone and they both went through two refills of coffee.

After breakfast, Steve finally gave up procrastinating and read the full report on Stark Research Site #349, from how it was discovered to how he was discovered to how it was maintained today. He skipped the parts about his own unearthing and its methods; it was distressing to read for its dust-dry academic tone in discussing the reclamation of a human body, let alone that that body was his. If the specifics proved relevant, he'd read them later.

They were met at the gate by a BA-jacketed woman who escorted them away from the herds being guided toward Customs and then outside through a service door, where they found a regular Heathrow runway jeep with an RAF corporal at the wheel. They were driven over to the heliport, where a USAF Pave Hawk awaited to take them to RAF Lakenheath.

Suffolk from the air looked unfamiliar and strange, although Steve had certainly spent enough time here during the war. On the ground, though, it lost its strangeness. The bases at Lakenheath and nearby Mildenhall had been full of American soldiers then, too, to the general horror of the nearby townspeople (or at least the men with daughters and those who would otherwise woo them). Now, decades into peace and partnership, this spot of America in the middle of the English countryside had the look and feel of a typical US Forces installation, save for some odd signage, right down to the slightly starstruck junior airmen who greeted them upon landing.

SHIELD had a modest footprint at Lakenheath, an out-of-the-way building and use of the runways, mostly; as with USAFE, the larger European presence was in Germany, at Ramstein. Steve and Natasha were taken to the out-of-the-way building, marked on the installation map as a storage facility, and offered the chance to shower and change before the briefing, an offer they both took up. Neither of them bothered putting on their costume uniforms, settling instead for the SHIELD utility uniform, although Steve wore a gray Army t-shirt instead of the standard black.

"We don't know much more than you've already been told," Agent Brouwer warned as she began. "At 2137 local time, the alarms at SRS349 were activated. We had a drone up already, so we sent it over there and the footage showed that it was definitely not a nature-related incident, so we mobilized a team to investigate and secure the site. We've completed the survey sweep and are running it against the last one to see what's changed; it won't be done for another couple of hours. That will be our best means of figuring out what was done and, if anything, what was taken."

The report had gone into detail about the video and sensor readings of the entire site that were taken weekly, mostly to make sure that the site was physically stable. The comparison could be done very quickly, but weeding out the irrelevant and minute environmental changes from the more important ones required human analysis and that could not be done at whatever thousand computations per second.

"What did the investigative team say?" Steve asked, since some things didn't need a computer to be obvious, even if the agents of today sometimes didn't remember that.

Brouwer shrugged. "They said it looked like the place hadn't been messed with too badly past the entrance."

Steve exchanged a frown with Natasha.

"Is 'messed with too badly' the technical term?" Natasha asked archly.

"No, Agent Romanova," Brouwer replied, doing a very good impression of someone who wasn't going to be cowed by the Black Widow. Not good enough to not look like an impression, but Steve gave her points for effort. "It means that to someone who hasn't been looking at comparative images demonstrating incremental change due to atmospheric conditions, it doesn't look like anything was missing or clearly out of place."

Brouwer snapped her fingers at one of the technicians at the laptops off to the side and two still photos appeared on the projector screen. "The left image is from last week's scan. The right image is from six hours ago. 'Not messed with too badly' is a reasonable descriptive term, at least until the people who do stare at these pictures all the time can tell us differently."

The images were functionally identical; they were photos of the cockpit, a view Steve knew well because he occasionally still woke up from it, covered in sweat and not sure if he'd been screaming aloud or in his nightmares. It was different, of course, damaged from the crash and from time and temperature and water and ice. But still identifiable in a visceral way.

"How is the site being secured now?" Natasha asked.

"We're running aerial surveillance and have a strike team on site and another on stand-by," Brouwer replied. "If this was a smash-and-grab, then it's barring the barn door after the cows have escaped. But if this wasn't, then we'll have time and space to get resources in place to prevent a return visit."

Nobody had to say the name, but the first and prime suspect, until proven otherwise, was HYDRA and everyone knew that HYDRA never showed up with ten when a hundred could be brought.

"Stark Industries is sending over some personnel," Brouwer went on. "People who were involved in the original excavation, I think. They're flying straight to Iceland. Our team will meet them and proceed to the site from there."

There was an old US air station in Iceland - it had been Meeks Field when Steve had been there in '44 - that had been given to the Navy in the sixties and then closed a few years ago, with some of the personnel and equipment transferred to Lakenheath. The Icelandic armed forces had it now, although NATO forces could and did borrow the runways if needed. In order to keep a low profile, SHIELD personnel were hitching rides on USAF flights to Keflavik rather than announce to every spy with an eye on Lakenheath that they were doing something important in the North Atlantic.

"What time are we heading out?" Steve asked, realizing that his watch was still set for New York time.

Brouwer looked at the clock on the wall. "Supposed to be wheels-up at 1530, but given the civilian-heavy manifest, I'd probably say closer to 1600."

Steve and Natasha spent the wait picking up cold weather gear and packing for the Arctic and then checking in with Tapper. Steve was aware that Natasha was being unusually social (for her) and why she was doing it, but didn't really mind. He wasn't really up to gladhanding and chitchat and the rest of what went into Captain America visiting a new place, but he didn't really want to be left alone with his thoughts right now, either. Natasha kept both the fans and the brooding at bay, which he appreciated.

The flight from Lakenheath to Keflavik was long enough to be uncomfortable but not long enough to get into that numb zone where you didn't care about the discomfort. As Steve trundled down the ramp to the tarmac, he could see the Stark Industries corporate jet parked off to one side. It was not surprising to see that Tony had sent his people on his plane instead of just putting them on a commercial flight to Reykjavik (Steve had no doubts that Tony had made this decision himself; there was no way he wasn't following this story no matter what kind of tumult was going on in the Stark Industries boardroom).

It was maybe a little surprising to see Tony himself descend the ladder along with the four scientists SHIELD had requested.

"Don't you have work to do in New York?" Steve asked after Tony had made his typical Stark-like entrance, tap-dancing on that line between brilliantly charming and completely obnoxious. He'd shaken hands, demanded updates on his worksite, and made jokes about looking forward to being able to leave his vodka out once they got there.

"The best part of the twenty-first century, Twentieth Century Boy, is that I don't have to be anywhere in person anymore," Tony replied loftily. "I've been working since we were wheels-up from Teterboro until five minutes ago. I have three designs ready to go to prototype, which I explained to the Board over video conferencing, and which I have now sent electronically to the people who will start making that happen. The future is a wonderful place, Cap. You should try it sometime."

Steve rolled his eyes at both the words and the tone; he knew that Tony very well meant the former, but the latter was all bluster and bravado. Especially because, up close, Tony still looked a little fragile and metaphorically bruised if you knew him at all well. After a fight that had seen Tony come very close to losing both his company and Pepper - more through his behavior than for his decision - he had ultimately agreed to allow Stark Industries to return to the defense sector, the announcement of which had sent the company's stock to a five-year high while also causing great upheaval in the philanthropy world. Tony was trying to keep both on his side and in his sights; he had announced that Stark Industries would become 'boutique armorers,' producing small quantities of specialized weapons that would be too expensive and too rare to go unmissed if stolen or lost or palmed off to shady associates or tin-pot dictators. Nobody thought that that sort of thing wouldn't happen anyway, but it would be more difficult, easier to trace when it did happen, and both Clint and Natasha were sure that Tony wasn't going to be selling anything that he hadn't already designed the countermeasure for and added into Iron Man's capabilities.

"Hey, I beat Clint at Pong last week," Steve said, entirely to watch Tony go speechless for a whole five seconds, jaw working but no words coming out. Clint's nostalgia at the video game had been much more entertaining than the game itself.

Tony recovered, of course, barking out a laugh. "Your intentional humor is getting better," he congratulated.

The trip to the crash site - everyone could call it SRS349 all they wanted, but it was still 'the place I died' in Steve's head - wasn't as long as the flight from Lakenheath, although it was arguably as uncomfortable with the crowding and the chatter. Tony dropped the showman act and led a technical discussion that Steve could partially follow and mostly not and the parts that were understandable were making him uncomfortable, which in turn was making him moody. It sounded like they were talking about Tut's Tomb with arguments about humidity and external pressure and environmental degradation and Steve really didn't think he could fake the objectivity required to accept that these were necessary discussions between professionals and nothing more. Especially when he was the mummy whose tomb had been raided. But there was nowhere he could go to get away, nothing he could do to not overhear and listen, and he could only hope that they arrived before he said something or did something to draw attention to himself.

Natasha, sitting across from him with her book out, kicked his ankle. When he looked up at her, she stuck her tongue out at him. He smiled back.

They landed on a runway of hard-packed ice and snow delineated from the rest of the ice and snow by lines of red chem flares. There was a temporary building set up, large enough to use as a hangar for the small plane, and full of parka-clad SHIELD personnel and their computers and equipment. It was still cold enough for a coat inside, but it wasn't bitter, never mind the dangerously cold temperatures outside.

Dressed like everyone else and without much in the way of distinguishing features readily recognizable without his mask on, nobody seemed to realize that Steve was Captain America, the body dug out of the ice not two years ago. Which meant that any care anyone might have taken to keep from making jokes in his presence was absent, which in turn did nothing for his mood even as he tried to be gracious - it's not like he'd never exhibited bad taste or made inappropriate remarks - and bit his tongue. Tony would regularly called him Capsicle and he'd largely ignored it; he could extend that courtesy to these folks who at least were speaking while unaware that their subject was in earshot, unlike Tony.

Which was easier said than done when it came to the penis joke, although that happened to be one that Tony overheard and, it seemed, made him aware that Steve was not finding all of this hilarious.

Tony gestured for Steve to join him at one of the whiteboards covered in maps and ground x-rays.

"I've never been up here before," Tony said once Steve complied, finger tracing the outline of the plane wreckage on the x-ray. "Even after we found out that you were here, I didn't. I took a lot of heat for it and then a lot more once they realized that you were alive. Pepper was pissed at me, Rhodey was pissed at me, Jarvis was pissed at me and do you know how impossible that should have been and how difficult it is to function when both the human and artificial intelligences that run your life are displeased enough to show it?"

Steve smiled because Tony always sounded so baffled when people (and things, although Jarvis was almost a person) Tony had previously judged to be worthy of respect didn't do what he expected and wanted them to do.

"I didn't want to come up here because the search for Captain America had been my father's thing and I just didn't... I resented him and I resented it and I wanted no part of it. You were the Moby-Dick to his Ahab and I had no desire to see - or oversee - the completion of that quest. Everyone wanted me to do it for him and I was done doing anything for him. But..."

"But what?" Steve asked with a shrug. If Tony was trying to apologize for not coming up to the Arctic circle to see Steve get cut out of the ice like a science sample, there was no need. Steve was actually happy that Tony had never seen him that way, vulnerable and exposed. "There wasn't anything you could have or should have done. They weren't going to let you hold the blow torch or the hair dryer or whatever they used to..." he waved his hand vaguely, unwilling to complete the sentence aloud.

"Computer-programmed precision laser cutters, then the hair dryer," Tony corrected wryly. "No blow torches."

Steve made a face because that wasn't the point and Tony knew it.

"I was already heading up the company when we developed the through-wall x-rays and ground radar that would have made resuming the search for you not only possible, but also possibly worthwhile," Tony went on, eyes back on the whiteboard. "And I was asked to do so. And I said no. More than once. I might have found you years before the Russians did."

Ah. So this is what Tony was apologizing for. It was more understandable, but just as unnecessary.

"It wouldn't have made a difference," Steve said, putting his hand on Tony's shoulder so that he'd look at him and not at the board. "I would have woken up just as lost. The years I missed... the number is so big that cutting off five, ten, twenty would not have changed all that much. I'd have gotten a chance to see a few more people before they died, but not that many. Otherwise, I'd have gotten a different set of clothes, gotten an apartment in a different neighborhood, and would probably be doing much the same as I'm doing now, except without an Avengers to do it with. It wouldn't have been any easier in 1991 or 2005 than it was in 2011."

Steve rather suspected it would have been harder. Not that it hadn't been hard enough.

"Do you even want to be here?" Tony asked suddenly. "I mean, this has got to be the most miserable place on Earth for you and everyone's walking around like it's a construction site for a new Applebee's."

Steve chuffed a laugh. "I don't really want to be here," he admitted. "I thought I did, or at least I thought I should. But I don't. I really don't. The Applebee's stuff isn't helping, but even if it were just you and me and Natasha, I don't think I'd want to be here. It hurts a lot more than I thought it would."

Tony started to gesture behind him, in the direction of the plane, possibly to offer to force them to fly Steve home.

Steve shook his head. "But I also don't think I could stand sitting at home waiting for someone to call me and tell me what's going on here. Or, worse, what they think I should know about what is going on here. This wasn't some thrill-seeker or Captain America fan. This was for a reason and I'm sick to my stomach wondering what that reason could be."

HYDRA had broken into a secret facility that was using his DNA to try to recreate the super-soldier serum; there was no point in pretending that he was coincidental to whatever it was that they had planned.

Tony took a deep breath, exhaled loudly, then nodded. "Be right back."

Steve watched him stride to the middle of the workspace, clapping his hands loudly to draw everyone's attention. "People, we are here for a reason and it's not to sip cocoa with mini-marshmallows and get high on JP-8 fumes. Fun though those activities might be." Tony smirked and waited for the chuckles to die down. "Parties unknown - but probably answering to HYDRA - have desecrated a place that would be a shrine if it had regular commercial air service. We can make all of the jokes we want - and believe you me, I've come up with all of the good ones, so you might as well stop trying - but this spot is where Captain America willingly sacrificed his life to save everyone in New York's. Some of you are only alive because of what he gave up not far from where you are standing today. And more of you are alive because he survived that sacrifice and was around to help me save New York again."

Tony looked over at Steve, as if daring him to challenge that version of the story, but not waiting long enough for Steve to react before turning back to his waiting audience.

"Whoever did this did not do it out of idle curiosity or a fetish for 1940s aviation. They did this for a reason and the sooner we find out that reason, the sooner we can make sure it doesn't amount to anything. So let's stop making jokes about what did or did not happen when Captain America was found and start figuring out who else was here and why. Your grandkids may end up being grateful for it."

With that, he strode off in the direction of the banks of tables covered in laptops and other computer parts, issuing orders and making demands and snapping his fingers to get people to do things for him the way he did in his labs at both Stark Tower and when he was at the Helicarrier with Bruce. And, like in those places, people obeyed because Tony had his own gravitational field and you sometimes ended up in his orbit whether you wanted to or not.

"I sometimes forget how good he is at this," Natasha said from Steve's side, having materialized from wherever she'd been. "And then I wonder how I could have forgotten. But then he does something impossibly stupid and self-defeating and I stop wondering."

Steve grinned; such was the life cycle of esteem of Tony Stark.

Tony's speech galvanized the workforce, as he had intended, and it was less than twenty minutes before they were bundling themselves up in preparation of going out to the wreckage itself. Steve was able to distract himself by the preparations, mostly, and soon they were underway in the back of a tracked vehicle that looked like a garbage truck and lurched like a tank with a drunk driver and Tony told him to add Star Wars to his list of movies to watch so he could get the AT-AT and Hoth jokes the others were making.

Steve blinked at the lights reflecting off of the snow when he stepped out of the transport's rear. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, but whatever that was, this wasn't it. It was nothing, a benign space on the tundra notable only for the light stanchions and path markers linked by rope. He felt apprehension because he knew that he was close, but there were no physical signs of the plane, of this being where he'd crashed, apart from what SHIELD had put up to guide the way.

"They iced over the wing-tip," Natasha said, pointing to a snow mound he had previously dismissed as natural landscape. "They watered it and packed it with snow and watered it again so that no amount of wind would reveal it. It was the only part above the surface."

Steve looked at the mound carefully, as if he could stare at it and see the plane's markings underneath the camouflage. He couldn't, of course, but he might have taken a half-step toward it anyway. Even the frozen-over wing-tip of Schmidt's plane, the bearer of so much potential tragedy and horror, had the ability to affect him. This was a part of his old life, the life he'd been born into and meant for, and he wanted to touch it. To ground himself with it.

"Come on," Natasha urged, not unkindly. "Let's get down below before the wind picks up again."

Steve knew that there were pressure and motion sensors on the path to the opening, but they were invisible to the naked eye, by intent. They were also turned off, he was pretty sure, but that was neither here nor there.

The only way into the wreckage was to fast-rope down. There was a basket for the equipment and a foothold for those who didn't have the skill to slide down themselves and had to rely on the winch and pulley, but Steve just grabbed the rope and pushed off. He landed like he was trained to do and cleared out from underneath so that the next person could come down, but that was pretty much where his useful function ended because this... this was it.

The pilot's chair wasn't more than twenty feet away, broken from either age or the impact because it hadn't reclined that far back when he'd sat in it. The console was damaged and covered with a dusting of snow; the windows shattered but with nothing but hard-packed snow on the other side of the empty frames, it didn't matter.

The rest of the bridge was a mix of bent girders and snowdrifts and damaged equipment thrown out of position by the crash. Nonetheless, Steve knew exactly where he was standing, exactly what everything was and where it had been and could appreciate the force of the impact because he could see the scale of the damage and knew that almost none of it had come from time. He knew where he was from memory and that feeling was incredibly powerful because he didn't have to adjust for time's changes, didn't have to superimpose what he knew from his own life onto what it had become in the time he'd slept. It didn't feel foreign or off-kilter or weird in the way almost every single thing in his life now did.

"This is where I died."

He knew Tony and Natasha were standing close enough to hear him, but he hadn't really been speaking to them. He started walking, almost without thinking about it, to the console, but stopped by the chair because the ice here was neatly cut away in sharp angles and perfect slices. He reached down to touch the sheer ice left behind.

"Computer-programmed precision laser cutters," Steve said, looking up at Tony, who was watching him examine the man-sized hole in the ice where he'd come to rest after falling from the chair after the crash. "And a hair dryer."

There wasn't any blood in the ice or on the chair, although Steve didn't know if that was because it had been cleaned up by the field teams or because the sea water had washed it away. He'd been cut up in the crash; his uniform had shown tears and burns, but he had actually started healing before the ice had locked him in.

Sometimes he dreamt of the crash, sometimes he dreamt of waking up still encased in ice, unable to move or breathe or call for help. He didn't know how much of the former was memory - he'd seen the medical file that said that he'd suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash, that there was no way he could have been conscious past that moment of impact, but still he wondered. He prayed that the second nightmare was purely his imagination.

He stood up from his crouch and, one gloved hand trailing along the back of the broken chair, moved around to the console. He reached out and touched the place where he'd put the watch with Peggy's picture on it. The watch had never been found, nor the photo, and Steve didn't know if they were still here in the wreckage, thrown somewhere by the impact, or if they'd been washed away by the water that had come in and were now resting at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.

"They cleared the ice away from right here but nowhere else," Natasha said, gesturing with a wave over the console. "To clean up or to see what was here?"

To clean up blood, she didn't need to elaborate.

"Both, maybe," Tony replied with a shrug. "But the latter was unnecessary. We have the schematics for the plane; got them in '51. I gave them to the Smithsonian in the Eighties. My father built a mock-up with Howard Hughes, right down to the markings. The two of them were nearly shot down for flying over Nellis Air Force Base with a HYDRA plane. Eisenhower was not amused, but he pardoned them anyway because Dad said it was part of the search for Captain America."

Tony was about to say something else, but one of the SHIELD agents who'd followed them down started calling to him, waving a tablet.

"From Agent Brouwer, Mister Stark," the agent said as he held the tablet out to Tony, who looked at it with distaste before accepting it. "The comparative analysis is almost done."

Tony skimmed the screen, scrolling with finger flicks as he did so. "Well that's not good."

Steve pushed aside his own melancholy. "What?"

"Two things so far," Tony replied, not looking up. "First, that console was not cleared off by us and second, and possibly more importantly, there's slight radioactivity... right where we're standing, actually."

Natasha pushed off the console where she'd been leaning against the ice and looked around. Steve, who hadn't moved from where he'd been standing, did the same.

"Not enough to affect anyone's reproductive abilities, relax," Tony assured. "Also, not really explainable unless Bruce was here. It's gamma radiation, at a level consistent with the environment of someone who's been exposed to it like Bruce was, albeit much more recently. Or someones, since this is a little too much for one person unless he peed on the floor."

Steve shook his head clear of that last image. "Wait, so you're saying the team that broke in here was a team of Hulks?"

They'd known that HYDRA was working on trying to recreate Bruce's accident; Steve had spoken to Bruce himself about it more than once. But there'd never been any further evidence, which they'd all agreed was most likely to come in the form of an unpleasant surprise during a battle with HYDRA. That instead it should come in a highly sophisticated break-in here, with so little damage done that they needed a computer to pick out the minutiae... Steve wasn't sure what to think.

"It's not where we thought they'd turn up," Tony admitted, "but it might have been a trial run. Or simply the failures -- they might have irradiated subjects who didn't do anything except set off exposure alarms. Might as well put them to use before they die of cancer. If we had actual video..."

The live video feed had been the first security measure disarmed.

"What about the console?" Steve asked, since the possibility of a HYDRA Hulk team was not going to be a brief discussion. "Why did they clear it off? What else did they do?"

Next to him, Natasha took a step back so that she could see the entire console at once, careful not to put her back foot into the hole that had been Steve's grave. She looked down. "Did they enlarge the hole?"

Steve fought not to physically react to the implications of that; he'd have either knocked Natasha over or himself into the broken pilot's chair or both.

"Did they come here looking for blood?" Steve asked when Tony didn't answer.

Tony shrugged. "They wouldn't have gotten any." He gestured with his free hand at the vaulted ceiling of the cockpit. "There are signs of salt corrosion pretty far up on these walls and there's still a good layer of ice underneath our feet. There was once a lot of water sloshing around in here. You were on the floor, washed clean, when you were found. There might be a microscopic amount of your blood in this ice--" he stamped his foot once "--but not enough to be useful for their purposes. Certainly not in the amount of ice missing."

Which was a relief, but not enough of one for Steve to relax. He shimmied around Natasha and the chair and past Tony, who was focusing again on the tablet in his hand. The rest of the field team was mostly already descended and gear was being lowered down in the basket; they'd apparently needed to wait on the comparative analysis to know what to unload off the 'AT-AT' and, now that it was complete, they could move around productively. Or at least apparently productively; Steve knew from his previous interactions with SHIELD's science division that they tended to scurry around looking like they were doing important things when they were really looking for bathrooms and an extra bar on their cell phones to update Facebook.

Avoiding the growing pile of trunks in the center of the open space and Natasha, who was holding a conversation in Russian about the various uses for car batteries, Steve wandered around the rest of the cockpit. With his back to the pilot's chair and console, it felt less like a mausoleum for his hopes and dreams. He traced the paths of the catwalks, now partially collapsed, and walked over to where Schmidt had disappeared, whatever that actually meant now that they knew that he might not have simply vaporized in an explosion.

The floor plates were covered in ice thick enough that even with the bright floodlights, the hole the tesseract had made in them wasn't visible. But Steve knew it would be there and wondered why SHIELD hadn't dug it up -- they'd commandeered almost everything that had come into the most incidental contact with the tesseract, right down to asking for Clint's clothes and quiver, a request denied most strenuously and eventually sending Clint on a hastily-scheduled mission. Which made Steve think now that nobody knew where the hole was, since he had most certainly told them that it existed.

"Excuse me," he asked one of the passing SHIELD scientists. "Do we have something to melt this away?"

He pointed to the ice at his feet.

The scientist gave him an annoyed look in return. "Why do you want to do that?"

Steve frowned at the man's retreating back. Nobody here save for Tony and Natasha knew who he 'really' was and it bothered him that this was how 'regular' SHIELD field agents would be treated. He went over to one of the Stark Industries scientists and made the same request.

"Did you see a penny or something?" was the response. "You're not allowed to take souvenirs. Your team leader's gonna strip-search you right on the ice if they see you messing around with anything."

Twice foiled, Steve gave up and reached around for his shield, tucked away in its padded bag meant for civilian camouflage (TSA had thought it was a sketchpad and pencils). He pulled it out and, crouching down, started hacking away at the ice.

"Woah there, tiger!" Tony jogged up to him and Steve looked up, then around because Tony was making a face that meant 'I'm not the one making an unnecessary spectacle of myself this time.' Everyone had stopped what they were doing and was watching him, a few with looks of shocked horror on their faces and, this time, Steve didn't feel badly for them coming up hard against the legend of Captain America.

"We brought a truckload of tools that will do that with much less noise and chance of breaking the permafrost," Tony said in a quieter voice no less full of bemused reproach. "Why aren't you using any of it?"

Steve adjusted the watch cap creeping down his forehead. "Because nobody would give me any," he replied, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

Tony chuckled. "Well, I think everyone will be a little happier to help you now, Pretty Woman," he said. "Vibranium is what the AmEx Black wishes it were."

It took moments for the scientists, working in chastened silence, to clear the ice away from where Steve had remembered the hole to be.

"Oh," one of them breathed in something close to awe when the water had been sluiced away. "We've been looking for this."

From there, Steve had to deflect hopeful looks and not-so-thinly-veiled suggestions that he find other parts of the plane that were scientifically useful or at least of some curiosity to SHIELD. He'd gone from anonymous SHIELD muscle to Gandalf, from nobody knowing that this place was so important to him to nobody caring.

He was rescued by Natasha, who was now holding the tablet Tony had been waving around earlier. She shooed them off with imperious gestures and sharp words and then turned to Steve with a smile of 'wasn't that fun?' that he knew was more than that.

"How much longer do you want to stay here?" she asked. "The truck is going back to the base to pick up some things and swap out the security team. We can go back on it, if you want, and come out here later, when there's less of an audience."

Steve looked at his watch, as if the time were any factor in his decision. "I'm ready to go," he said. "We can leave now."

Natasha patted his arm as she left him to go tell the SHIELD agent organizing the return trip.

Tony didn't want to leave, but he had to - Pepper had threatened to send War Machine up to the Arctic to fly him home in his civvies; she apparently hadn't even known that Tony'd left New York (she was in DC) and was furious despite Tony's assurances that he'd gotten plenty of work done. Tony, unable to appease her, had snapped and whistled at Steve until he'd come over to him and then handed over the phone without word or warning.

"Good evening, Miss Potts," Steve said, cutting off a pretty impressive tirade.

"Steve?" Pepper sounded startled, then she sighed. "Tell Tony that I don't care what time it is, I expect a phone call once he's airborne from Iceland."

The ride back in the truck was quiet, at least in the sense of nobody talking; the ride itself was loud because tracked vehicles on rough terrain always were. It was him and Tony and Natasha, two of the Stark scientists, and one SHIELD agent, and there wasn't much interest in idle conversation.

The base camp was a hive of activity and there was an undercurrent of something having gone wrong that hit them as soon as they entered the hangar.

"HYDRA attacked two of our research facilities," Agent Chu, the agent-in-charge for the base reported as soon as Steve, followed by Natasha and Tony, got close enough to Chu's station. "One outside Portland and the other near Mobile. No word on casualties or what's been taken; we haven't been able to establish contact with Mobile yet and Portland's still a shooting fight."

Steve exchanged a look with Natasha. They were both thinking the same thing: this break-in had been a distraction. And it had worked.

"How soon can we get airborne?" Steve asked Chu, gesturing toward the side of the hangar where the ski-equipped plane waited. He pulled out his phone to see if he'd missed a call from Tapper and was surprised to see that he hadn't.

"Twenty minutes," Chu replied. "We're still refueling. Here--" he turned his laptop around to face them, "-if you want to log in on your access level and see what's going on."

Tony leaned in next to Steve's right elbow and took over the laptop, typing faster than Steve could follow. What came up was not on either of their access menus; it looked like video from one of the facilities. Another window popped up and text scrolled quickly; it was the live transcript of SHIELD assault team radio transmissions in Portland. Steve looked at that instead of the video, which was dark and grainy and impossible to make heads or tails of except for the muzzle flashes. The radio transmissions were a clearer picture for him, telling him plenty about the scene, what had gone on and what was still going on

"Portland'll be secure inside an hour," Steve said, reading along as one stick of infantry cleared out a series of rooms inside a lab, finding two casualties among the civilians. "There's not a lot of shooting left."

Natasha was already on her phone arguing with Tapper; from what Steve could hear over the noise of the video and the business in the hangar, she was trying to convince Tapper to send a jet to meet them. Steve was frustrated, deeply so, but he understood why Tapper wouldn't. Natasha knew, too, but she never handled helplessness well at all and if the only thing she could do was to yell at Tapper, then she would. Tapper would understand.

By the time the three of them boarded Tony's plane to go back to New York - there was no point in Steve and Natasha returning to Lakenheath - Portland was deep into the triage phase of cleanup, Mobile had established contact, and SHIELD had what they thought were reasonable theories for why the facilities had been attacked: Bruce had worked in Mobile while he'd been deciphering HYDRA's own gamma radiation experiments (it had been his refuge laboratory when the Helicarrier got to be too much) and Portland had been the previous home of the super-soldier serum lab that had been attacked in Cleveland.

"They're toying with us," Steve said to Natasha as they huddled over a late meal aboard the plane. Tony had called Pepper and promptly passed out; he was stretched out and snoring on one of the plane's ridiculously opulent recliner chairs. "They get us up here and tease us with the gamma radiation and the possibility of them coming after my DNA, but they're doing it for real once we're halfway across the globe."

He was more angry by this point than frustrated. By disturbing the plane wreck, HYDRA was coming after him personally, hoping to get him not only out of the way, but also off his game enough to matter. And it was working and he hated that it was even as he was unable to shake it off and focus on what was coming once they landed. He knew that he was going to dream of the crash tonight (or whenever he got to sleep; they would probably end up going straight to the Helicarrier) and he was feeling manipulated and a little violated for that manipulation.

"They've been toying with us all along," Natasha said as she moved a lump of half-melted raclette around in her bowl of tomato soup. "We've been raiding their bases and coming up with nothing since the start. They've been ahead all along. They're just not being shy about it anymore."

Steve got most of the way through his roast beef sandwich before they spoke again.

"I don't want them to take this from me," he said as he tapped the pickle spear against the plate. "The crash. For all that HYDRA was the reason it happened in the first place, I don't think about it in those terms. I think about it as being the unfortunate result of a choice I had to make, one that I made willingly and that I'm at peace with even if I struggle with it sometimes. Going up there today, that's what it was about. But now…"

Now it was about HYDRA, once again, taking Captain America off the board when he was needed.

When I was in the Red Room," Natasha began, focusing intently on mopping up dregs of soup with her bread, "I had to lock away every tiny piece of myself that I didn't want them touching or remaking or destroying. I did what they wanted me to do, learned what they needed me to learn, and I did it brilliantly not because it would please them or would get me advancement, but so that I could keep those pieces safe. So that they could be for me and for whomever I chose to share them with.

"You've had to go about it a different way than I did, but maybe for the same reasons. You've kept what's good about you safe for so long now. You'll protect this, too."

Chapter Text

To everyone's relief, the next update on Wolfgang von Strucker came via email and did not require the expending of either patience or energy to get to the Helicarrier only to be told that no, there was still no proof that he was the Supreme HYDRA or that he'd even been alive in the last fifty years. This was not to say that the update was useless, just that it was presented in a medium commensurate with its importance: smack dab between an email from Clint about the virtues of Taco Bell's Dorito tacos and a notice from NYPL that he had two electronic books available for download.

Steve was able to read the entire brief from the comfort of his couch, glass of beer to hand, without having to mask his frustration as attentiveness.

The bottom line, presented up front, was that Wolfgang von Strucker turned Walter Gouws had turned into Albert Berger, Swiss national, in 1962, a few months after the destruction of his storefront in a Johannesburg suburb. Berger, based in Luxembourg City, continued Gouws's profession as an antiquities dealer, but with a much more international client base and with a much more selective and particular focus. If Gouws's inventory had been of the local generalist whose clients were looking for end tables and display pottery, then Berger's wares were for the specialists with insured collections and properly recorded provenances (that nonetheless managed to avoid the unpleasantness that some of their treasures had come to the market after their previous owners had perished in extermination camps). Insurance inventories and travel itineraries and customs records had shown Berger to primarily be a purveyor of items of religious and spiritual importance, from Buddhist to Celtic to Greek to Manichean, which he'd traveled extensively to find. Almost a generation after the war, Strucker had gone back to what he truly was master of and held interest in: objects of power.

This seemed to excite the analysts, but Steve was less willing to see this as proof of any kind of relationship between Strucker in the 1960s and HYDRA today. HYDRA today was very clearly a spiritual and practical continuation of its wartime origins; of course they'd still be interested in the same things, regardless of who was in the driver's seat. That Albert Berger had shown a marked interest in items relating to reincarnation and the soul as a controllable force, well, that could be anything, from a desire to reanimate Hitler or Schmidt to simply what Strucker had been fascinated by during the war but had been unable to fully pursue because he hadn't been his own man.

For the record - and because he had been asked more than a few times - Steve really didn't think anyone was interested in bringing back Hitler, who'd been difficult to work for and, ultimately, had not been the strategist he'd believed himself to be. Schmidt, of course, was a different story, but Steve wondered how much Strucker would want to bring back his old boss when he'd managed quite well on his own. Especially since there was still no evidence that Strucker, under any alias, had any contacts with the various HYDRA successor groups after 1951. At this rate, it would be hard to prove that there was any relationship between Strucker and HYDRA at all, let alone that he had been running it.

Steve was typing out a response to that effect when his phone rang.

"When did you blow back into town?" Steve asked Natasha as he reached over to hit mute on the television remote. He hadn't been listening anyway; baseball announcers talked too much on television and rarely about anything related to the game. "You good?"

He didn't know where or what and knew better than to ask.

"Yesterday," she replied, sounding fine-but-off. Not wounded, but not okay, either. "And more or less, although the jet lag is going to be killing me all week. Are you tucked in for the night or are you up for a drink?"

If Natasha had wanted someone to go hit the town with, she would not have asked him. But she hadn't asked to come over, which was her normal 'I just want to let my guard down around people I trust' post-mission routine, either. Which meant that she had a reason to ask to see him, but wasn't comfortable doing it on his turf, which probably meant that it was something she didn't think he'd react well to hearing.

"As long as it's not one of those places with the $20 grilled cheese again," he warned.

The directions she gave him were to a bar on Rivington Street. He changed his shirt, put on his shoes, and took the F up to Delancey and then walked. The Lower East Side was completely unrecognizable from what he'd known it to be during his own time; instead of a Jewish ghetto with Yiddish storefront signs, it was a trendy destination surrounded by the ever-encroaching Chinatown, which had already more or less eaten Little Italy alive. The pedestrians on Rivington weren't Garment District workers returning home after a long day, they were revelers enjoying the solid block of bars and clubs and hotspots.

Steve went into one of the bars that looked like it had missed out on whatever magic had blessed its neighbors with loud music, bright lights, and a steady stream of customers. It looked nondescript, but not in the intentional, self-conscious way that many of the watering holes in DUMBO did, with each carefully 'distressed' touch and attempt to recreate a past age they'd never have wanted to be a part of.

He was not surprised to see Clint nursing a beer at the bar. Clint gestured with his head that Steve should follow him toward the rear. Natasha was sitting in a corner booth, but she was not alone. Which also didn't surprise him, until he saw who it was. Instead of Tony, it was Nick Fury.

"Okay, this is maybe not what I expected," Steve said as he sat down next to Fury after Clint slid in next to Natasha. Across from him, Clint raised his eyebrows in agreement.

They waited for the waitress to take Steve's drink order and return with his beer before saying anything. Steve recognized the anti-surveillance device on the table between Fury's beer and Natasha's gin-and-tonic, although it wouldn't do anything against someone coming up to them. Steve didn't think the waitress was a likely candidate for a secret agent with her electric pink hair and body covered in tattoos, however.

"HYDRA's claws into Russia go about as deep as we thought they did," Natasha began. "Between the economy and the government, it's a target-rich environment for a pitch that's all about being part of the winning team. They're in bed with many of the oligarchs and a few of the mafiya families, a few through genuine belief and mostly through the kind of temporary alliance that they mean to hold by until they have no more use for it and I am pretty sure they don't realize that HYDRA intends to make permanent. There's more and I'll go over everything in detail when I make the official brief, but the bottom line up top there is that everyone's willing to sleep with the devil to get their way, but none of them truly understand the cost."

Fury nodded and took a sip of his beer. "So what else are we here for that you don't want half of SHIELD speculating about? That is why you dragged us here, correct?"

Natasha took a sip of her drink. "HYDRA's not in Russia just for the natural resources and the weapons and the endless supply of cannon fodder," she said, looking straight at Fury. "They want access to the scientific research sites, the nasty ones that have been around since Uncle Joe and nobody will ever admit are still running. First and foremost, Minyar."

This meant nothing to Steve, but it clearly meant something to Fury, who leaned back. "Stands to reason," he said evenly. "If it's at all what it's rumored to be."

"It is," Natasha assured darkly, almost but not quite completely suppressing a shudder. "And more."

"Okay," Clint sighed when neither Fury nor Natasha said anything else. "For those of us who were still in basic training when the Wall came down and for those of us who slept through the Cold War, what are you two being enigmatic about? What happened at Minyar - and where the hell is Minyar - and why is it on the top of HYDRA's to-do list?"

"It's in the Urals, a few hours out of Chelyabinsk, the ass end of nowhere in a country full of them," Natasha said, waving to the waitress to draw her attention and then asking for a charcuterie plate and some vegetables once she'd gotten it. She waited until the tattooed girl left before going on. "It's a tiny town in a valley next to a river, very poor, very scenic, and the last hiding spot of the Russian version of the Super Soldier Project."

Steve took a sip of his beer, not bothering to react. He'd known since the '40's that the Russians had been working on building their own army of super-soldiers - the list of precautions he had been expected to take when interacting with any Russians or any place where there might be Russians had been laughable in its completeness, from reasonable warnings like being wary of honey traps to more obscure ones like not using trench urinals in men's rooms. There had certainly been attempts to get genetic material out of him one way or another, almost all extremely entertaining to the other Commandos, but either they'd never succeeded or they'd never been able to do anything with what they'd gotten because there hadn't ever been any reports of progress at the research facility that had then been in Ufa.

"The Soviets had spies in all of our programs, from Los Alamos to Brooklyn," Fury began. "They didn't get the good stuff first and, in the case of the super soldier serum, didn't get it at all. Entirely because Erskine's death stunted the program before they could emplace anyone. The closest they got was to get Meyer Lubinsky, one of Erskine's assistants, to come back home after the war."

Steve remembered Lubinsky, a small, mousy man - Steve had been hardy compared to him even before the serum - with a slight limp, a thick accent, and a penchant for chopped liver sandwiches that Doctor Erskine had always complained about because they came with raw onions. Erskine hadn't thought much of Lubinsky's innovative abilities, but he had apparently been good with the calculations. Doctor Erskine had always liked to say that in a room full of geniuses, you could never have too many people who could add and subtract reliably. Which Steve hadn't really understood until seventy-three years later, when he watched Bruce and Tony stare at each other in horrified realization that neither of them could multiply eight and seven without having to think about it for a second and perform some subtle hand gestures that were totally not them counting on their fingers.

"Lubinsky ended up in a gulag within five years of his repatriation," Fury went on, "but before he was purged, his attempts to recreate Erskine's formula became the basis for the Soviet program. Which never got anywhere, although the Soviets spun it otherwise. Their favorite myth was something called the Infinity Formula, a fountain of youth type deal, and while we never got proof that it actually existed, we never got proof that it didn't, either."

Steve had read about the Infinity Formula; his brief on it had placed it firmly in the 'fantastical' category of the real and imagined effects of seventy years of attempts to recreate Doctor Erskine's work. It was supposed to stop the aging process, but only temporarily and, once the effects wore off, the affected body tried to catch up, aging rapidly to regain the lost time.  

The waitress returned with a tray holding plates, a platter of crudités with a couple of dips, a wooden block covered in thinly sliced meats with a cutout for a bowl of mustard, and a basket of bread. She offered to replace Clint's beer, which he accepted, and Fury's, which he did not.

"The Infinity Project existed," Natasha assured once they were alone again. "But it never worked quite as well as the propaganda said it did. The side effects were unpalatable at best and it still had a high mortality rate among test subjects. They hid it well, though, and none of us knew it was just more lies. There was a rumor that one of the trainers in the Red Room was living on it, that he had been serving since the Leningrad Blockade, and that there were photos to prove it. I didn't learn that the formula was a failure until after I was long gone."

"Does HYDRA's interest in the site mean that the Russians have finally gotten it right?" Steve asked, reaching for a carrot.

The waitress returned with Clint's beer and gave him a smile that might have meant that more was on offer and Clint might have returned because Natasha reached over and yanked on Clint's ear like a pissed-off girlfriend might. The waitress scurried away.

"You are the biggest cockblock ever, you know that?" Clint groused, rubbing his ear. But he wasn't that annoyed because he understood, as they all did, that Natasha was more interested in keeping the waitress from hovering than she was in Clint's possible interest in a woman half his age.

"I don't know if they've gotten it right," Natasha admitted as she slathered a slice of bread with mustard and then arranged slices of meat on top of it. "But, right or not, they're working on it at Minyar, along with a few other human 'improvement' projects that line up rather nicely with what HYDRA has been developing."

SHIELD was spending a lot of time and resources both securing their own facilities and working through what HYDRA was up to; having scraps of notes from Detroit was one thing, but physical evidence that some of those projects had advanced far enough to be deployed was another. The gamma radiation traces at the crash site had caused a bigger reaction than the fact that HYDRA had gone after it in the first place, diversion or not.

Fury made a noise and frowned. "So they're going to buy from the Russians what they've been trying to steal from us."

"Money doesn't seem to be an object for them," Natasha said with a shrug, wiping a bit of mustard off of the side of the bread with her thumb and then sucking it off. "And Moscow is just as careless with their human resources as HYDRA; might as well go the route with less property damage. But it's going to be very expensive - it's the most precious thing Russia has that HYDRA wants and everyone knows it."

There was more to the conversation, but the bottom line was that they now had to assume that it was only a matter of time before HYDRA had access to all of the Russians' serum research and, possibly, the Infinity Formula. Fury left them to finish their drinks, already issuing orders on his phone as he left the bar.

"How much does this change the game?" Steve asked after it was just the three of them. "HYDRA's got to have been doing their own work for years, maybe even decades. How much will they gain once they can access Minyar?"

Fury had sidestepped those kinds of questions and answers, which could have meant that he didn't know and didn't want to speculate, but Steve didn't think so. Fury tended to say when he didn't have a full picture, since it happened so rarely.

"The Soviets were brutal," Clint said, attention on fully saturating a broccoli floret with the wasabi-based dip. "I mean, really brutal. They ran through test subjects like toilet paper for generations, trying whatever they came up with without even knowing what it would do. You can get a lot done that way."

Steve had seen the Russian version of nihilism during the war, had read about Stalin's purges and gulags and the complete control the Soviet Union had over its citizenry and how that had warped the national culture during the twentieth century. But there was still an almost academic distance for him from that, the way the true evil of the Nazi death camps were still a little fantastical to him even after years of fighting them, after going through the Holocaust Memorial, even after having visited Sobibor himself. War brought out the savages in everyone, but he hadn't been prepared for the scale of that savagery or how it could spread into all facets of society, in peace as well as in war. He'd come of age in a time and place where poverty still killed, but where the government was starting to act as a benevolent force to protect its own people from privation as well as invasion. He was of the last generation to be so naïve about the potential for governments to actively destroy their own populations not through indifference or ineffectiveness or war, but instead out of hatred or simply to secure their own power.

"The Soviets didn't get the super-soldier serum," Natasha picked up, "but they got a lot of other things, both good and bad. Getting the Cold War-era research alone would be a treasure trove for HYDRA because the scope is tremendous. What's happened since, especially with the resurgence of hatred and paranoia about the west? Whatever they pay, it'll be a bargain."


For a moment, Steve wasn't sure where - or when -- he was, but then he opened his eyes to see Clint leaning over him in the gloom of the curtained room.

SHIELD offices, Naval Air Station Rota, now and not then.

"Mission's a go?" he asked as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes and shifted to sit up, Clint backing up to allow him to do so.

Clint nodded. "Wheels up in-" he checked his watch, "-twenty-five. Thoreson's got coffee and sandwiches in the other room. I'll meet you on board."

Steve grunted acknowledgment and rubbed his face with his hands, trying to wake himself up. Civilian life was making him soft; he'd never had trouble waking up after too little sleep back during the war. When he tilted his head back to roll his neck, he could see that Clint was already gone.

Five minutes of calisthenics and a change into uniform later, Steve emerged from the darkened 'bedroom' to find Agent Thoreson sitting at the conference table with three different tablets and a map in front of her, which was pretty much where he'd left her when he'd gone to crash.

"Coffee's fresh, sir," she said without looking up. "But it was made by a sailor, so you might need a knife and fork to drink it."

The sailor in question, Senior Chief Murphy, sat at his end of the conference table with his own set of maps and a stack of binders and a smug grin. "She's just upset I didn't get her hazelnut creamer from the NEX."

"No, she's upset that the stainless steel spoon she stirred her Splenda in with melted in that acidic tar," Thoreson corrected, finally looking up. Thoreson and Murphy had been insulting each other constantly in the brief time he'd spent with them earlier, but they did it out of amusement and not animosity. "Have you even opened your precious dead tree collection to find where the hell we're sending these people?"

Steve smiled as he turned to the spread on the side table. He poured himself a mug of coffee, appreciating just how much milk it took to get it to change even to chocolate, let alone his preferred caramel brown, and then balanced a plate on top of the mug, upon which he put a pair of wrapped PB&J and one each of the salami and tuna sandwiches stacked up on the other side of the coffee service from the mugs.

"Listen, Sweetcheeks, you're the only one in this room who learned how to read by texting your nursery school buddies during Sesame Street," Murphy retorted. "These dead trees have been a whole lot more useful than your Wikipedia so far and don't think Captain America, of all people, is going to side with the leet-speaker."

Steve brought his food to the table, finding a place in the middle that was out of range of both sets of maps. Once he had unwrapped the first of his sandwiches and sipped at his coffee, Murphy shoved a binder along the table top toward him.

"Briefing on a bun," Murphy said. "Sat images, latest intel, et cetera."

"Thanks, Senior," Steve replied, opening up the binder with the hand not holding tuna sandwich and started to read.

Not much had changed in the three hours he'd been asleep except for the most important thing: the rescue beacon for the agent known only as Codename: Baker had gone active half an hour ago and Baker had sent the secondary signal fifteen minutes ago, which meant that it hadn't been an accident. And so instead it was an emergency.

That SHIELD had immediately tried to penetrate HYDRA by any and all means had not been a great secret; it had been an assumption. But with fear still running high that HYDRA had already managed to place a mole within either SHIELD or one of the groups or personages the agency dealt with, the methods and names and missions of the operatives had been kept with a secrecy that was normally impossible in a large government bureaucracy. As far as anyone knew, only Fury and Hill knew the whole list and any intelligence those operatives produced was scrubbed heavily before even the analysts got their hands on it.

But with the activation of the rescue beacon had come rescue mission planning, which required the veils of secrecy to be parted for a few more souls. And so there were now ten people who knew that Operative Baker was Miranda (Mingmei) Tung, 23, born in Shaanxi Province, China, but raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, and that not only was she not part of SHIELD's clandestine service, but that she also hadn't even heard of SHIELD before her recruitment for this mission. Her civilian status had proven to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome in planning her rescue - Clint, in particular, had been furious, all the more so when he found out that Natasha had been the recruiter.

(Natasha wasn't available for this mission, something Steve hadn't thought much about until finding out how she'd been involved. He and Clint knew that she was off in Russia following up on the Infinity Project, but Clint had been spitting mad that she hadn't made her way to Spain to join them, especially once they were in the hold-and-wait phase.)

Clint was a little mad at Steve, too, for not being mad. But Steve wasn't; during his war, he'd seen civilians do many incredibly brave things, incredibly dangerous things, when the easier and safer course would have been to let others take care of it and keep their head down until the worst was over. This fight against HYDRA was a war and Miss Tung had made a courageous choice to join it, even more so because it would have been so easy to not get involved. She could have been safe and comfortable at home, living a life totally untouched by HYDRA. Or, at least, almost untouched; her cover story had her joining HYDRA with her cousins from Shaanxi, her lack of mobility within the American dream (unemployed recent college grad with huge loans and no job prospects) an echo of her cousins' more existential economic crises. Regardless, Steve wasn't mad at Natasha for choosing a civilian for the mission, which in turn meant that Clint was mad at Steve. Which was why Clint was off doing whatever instead of eating and prepping for the mission in SHIELD's tiny offices.

Moving on to the salami sandwich and the latest satellite images, Steve sipped at his coffee and tried to orient himself on the map. He hadn't had much cause to look at a map of Africa since he'd woken up in the twenty-first century, but he'd quickly realized that nothing he'd learned in school would do him the least bit of good because he'd slept through the end of colonialism and about fifty violent revolutions. The names had changed, the borders had changed, and, as Thoreson and Murphy had joked earlier, the internet was about the only medium capable of keeping track of who was in charge of any particular spot of land at any given time. Especially where they were headed, Guinea-Bissau, which was impoverished and volatile even by African standards. HYDRA had kicked some drug lords off Unhocomo, one of the islands off of the coast, and set up a base there. Baker had reported that HYDRA had appropriated the methods and means of the evicted drug traffickers, changing only the cargo. HYDRA recruited heavily in Africa, although they had larger recruiting depots elsewhere on the continent; Unhocomo was a waypoint, not a destination.

Except tonight.

"Did the boat leave Senegal on time?" Steve asked as he closed the binder. Not much had changed since he'd last been updated and all of it was dependent upon what the situation on the ground looked like once they actually got there. The plan remained to fly to Bubaque, another island off the coast that had an airstrip, and then use fast boats to get to Baker. SHIELD was getting help from the DGSE in the form of a disguised cargo ship normally used in anti-piracy and drug interdiction operations; it would allow them to have extra men and materiel at hand should things go haywire. When things went haywire.

"Not only is it on time and on course," Murphy replied wryly, "But the Frogs are so excited to be helping out Captain America that they've also loaded some extra goodies, including, apparently, the entirety of the Commando Jaubert. They are offering to clear the airport at Bubaque of HYDRA spotters, but we told 'em not to bother. It'll probably be some old guy with a pipe and a walkie-talkie and we're already going to be jamming all comms."

Steve smiled and stood up, rolling his neck once more. He brought his plate and mug over to the basin on the sideboard, hit the latrine, and returned to pick up his shield and accept well wishes from Thoreson and Murphy, who volunteered to drive Steve to the airstrip, at which point Thoreson issued an extra warning because "the Chief really does have a lead foot."

"I've told you a thousand times that it's carbon-fiber," Murphy replied with as much mock aggravation as he could muster while grinning and pulling up his left pants leg for Steve to admire the prosthetic. "Your buddy Stark designed it."

The drive to the plane was uneventful, if quick. Clint was pacing in front of the ramp when they pulled up, which Steve did not take personally because it was entirely based on Clint's dislike of being cooped up in the back of the quinjets with other people and not because Steve was late (he wasn't).

The sun was still bright in the sky as they took off, although it was late enough in the afternoon that it would be twilight by the time they got where they were going. The ideal would have been to wait a couple of more hours to gain whatever advantage the cover of full darkness could provide, but they weren't operating on their own schedule and, in an ideal situation, they wouldn't have needed to mount an emergency exfiltration in the first place.

They were probably still over Morocco when they got word that Baker had moved -- or been moved -- to the island of Unhocomozinho, due east and closer to Bubaque. It didn't change their plans, such as they were. More important was that the boats would be ready and there was no way to check on that -- the French were assuring them that, bien sur, they would be there, which everyone took with the appropriately sized grain of salt.

The good news was that Baker's beacon was still active, sending out its signal at intentionally irregular intervals. She was in motion, it seemed, and there was hope on Thoreson's part because the path her beacon's coordinates drew was erratic and that could be interpreted as signs of evasive tactics. Baker had not been trained in the finer points of running for her life and there was always the chance that she'd do something like stick to the roads or to the beach or head for a populated area, which in this case would do her no good because they couldn't protect her from HYDRA and, point of fact, were probably either loyal or at least in collaboration with their new neighbors.

Getting direct communications set up between the jet and the DGSE vessel took a while; there was confusion over the frequency and the encryption and whether SHIELD had turned on the jamming devices too early or whether the French were leaning on the wrong switch. Finally, however, they were through and Steve was in contact with the Commando Jaubert leader, Mathiot, and discussing how best to utilize their newly expanded resources.

(Best plan, arrived at in French and English, was to split four SHIELD agents and eight commandos between two RIBs, leaving the balance of both units as a reserve that both men expected would end up being needed if there was any contact whatsoever with HYDRA.)

Mathiot passed on information from the ship's regular crew that there was a spit of land on the western end of the island of Orango that could be used as a drop zone if they wanted to avoid using the airport at Bubaque. There would be enough time to move the boats there, it would be a shorter trip to Unhocomozinho, and there was probably no way to use the airstrip at Bubaque without HYDRA knowing about it, even if they killed comms.

Steve checked with the pilot before agreeing.

Mathiot, in person, was a tall, burly, southern Frenchman with a ready smile and a vicious, puckered scar on his right cheek that went from the corner of his mouth to his right ear, which was missing part of the lobe. He greeted Steve warmly and with a pleasantly minimal amount of fuss over him, and managed to get on Clint's good side with a prudent combination of charm, efficiency, and awesomely foul vocabulary in two languages (three, if the Arabic was as salty as the French and English, which judging by Clint's grin, it was).

Steve had already broken up the six-man SHIELD team into its component parts before they'd entered local airspace, so Rakely and Perez weren't surprised to be told to go off with the reserve squad. Braun would go with Steve on Alpha boat, Frietas with Clint on Bravo, and the French would do what Mathiot wanted. Mathiot put himself on the reserve team, which Steve thought was a smart and generous move because it allowed them to have an experienced commander in case things went pear-shaped and because it also took away an inter-service rivalry component of what was still a SHIELD mission with French support despite the unequal numbers and the fact that the mission parameters were squarely in Commando Jaubert's specialty.

The three boats sped off into the darkening sea, two heading straight for the eastern coast of Unhocomizinho and the third throttling back and taking up position to watch and wait and still be close enough to be useful.

Baker's rescue beacon had been designed to avoid discovery, both from plain-sight and electronic searching, allowing her to keep it with her at all times before it was needed and then to minimize HYDRA's chance of using it against her once she activated it. The irregular squawks that had hopefully made her harder to find by HYDRA, however, would now present the same difficulty for SHIELD. Steve had already asked and been told that no, there was no way to force the beacon to stay on; it did not receive any signal, which made it harder to detect. They were going to have to find her the old-fashioned way, with the beacon providing erratic updates on how warm or cold they were.

As such, with Baker's last known position being near the southern end of the island heading north-east, they chose to split up so that Bravo would take the northern end and move south while Alpha would come north from the southern coast. Both teams had the code words to use when they found her (and Steve had always used "when" and not "if" during the final instructions) because while she'd probably buy Captain America as a friendly without verification, everyone else would be rightly suspect and nobody knew if she was armed or alone. Or even, as had been reluctantly brought up as a possible outcome, if she'd been turned by HYDRA.

In the deepening gloom of a world largely without electricity, the white beaches were easily negotiated as they ran the boat ashore and hid it as best they could against some rocks - it wouldn't fool anyone up close, but even in the near distance, it would do. The mangroves just inland, however, were not nearly as easy to master. Night vision goggles amplified the available light, but they completely ruined depth perception and the tangle of roots would have been hard to get through even in bright sunshine. They all tripped and stumbled and bit off curses as they pushed through the thickest areas with none of the grace or silence or economy of movement that had gotten them into elite military units in the first place.

Finally, they were far enough inland that the tree roots became less of a nuisance and, with wry grins that needed no translation, they collected themselves and their dignity and got ready to search for Baker. Three teams of two, spreading far enough to make it worthwhile and hoping that they would be close enough in case they ran into trouble. In theory, they should have some warning if there was trouble; the quinjet was on station high above them, armed with a heat sensor that would be able to tell them if there was a large group was anywhere on approach, but could not, apparently, tell them where Baker was.

Over the radio, Steve got confirmation from Clint that Bravo team was in roughly the same state; their longer boat ride had been overcome by the mangroves not being nearly as impenetrable on the north side of the island.

The search itself was stressful and frustrating and it took Steve a good fifteen minutes to get comfortable enough with the goggles and the sounds of the place so that he wasn't stopping at every noise or motion out of the corner of his vision. The island was populated, but extremely sparsely and they shouldn't be expecting too much pedestrian traffic after dark. They weren't very close to the largest villages, but there were still animals and birds and there was a breeze that ruffled the leaves enough to be a distraction until he acclimated. Agent Braun, a former Recon Marine, kept up easily and they had to consciously slow their progress because the odds were that they were moving a lot faster than Baker was.

They had been moving for not quite half an hour when Steve got good news from Thoreson that the latest squawk from Baker's beacon was less than half a klick from his position… followed by bad news from the quinjet that three boatloads of HYDRA troops were coming over from Unhocomo. It was too early to tell where on Unhocomozinho they would land, but it meant that the rescuers were on a deadline to find Baker and that there was a very good chance that they'd need rescuing themselves. Mathiot assured Steve that he would move his team to support whichever team got to Baker first, since she was the priority.

("Can you tell how many are on each boat?" "That's a negative, Cap, but it's a lot. If you guys were fireflies when you were all together, they're a supernova. Best estimate is that you've got at least a hundred headed toward you.")

Steve ordered Bravo and the rest of Alpha to converge on his position in such a fashion that they would effectively form a line that Baker, still moving east, would not be able to cross without notice. He also asked Thoreson to find the places on the island closest to their position where the quinjet could come in low enough to board and asked the pilot, Agent Grosset, what the maximum weight capacity of the jet really was.

Grosset understood why Steve was asking. "We've burned off enough fuel that I can get back in the air with everyone on board," she answered, "but we'll have to find an alternate landing site because I won't be able to make it back to Rota with the extra weight."

Steve told Thoreson to get on that after she came up with the rally points. He was more worried about needing to use the jet for a medevac than to spirit the entire rescue mission out of danger, but he saw no reason to state that aloud.

The HYDRA boats were splitting up, Grosset reported, one landing on the western coast of the island and the other two heading north and south, but at an angle that indicated that they were going to be landing soon. They were not acting as if they knew SHIELD had teams not two kilometers away, which was good, but only if the good guys found Baker quickly.

They had no idea if HYDRA had air elements available to them. Satellite imagery said no, but they all knew about HYDRA's penchant for busy basements and it didn't have to be so close to be a real threat. A couple of jets could launch from a dozen points on the mainland and still be close enough quickly enough to make being in the quinjet extremely dangerous.

In the meanwhile, they had to find Baker. Half a kilometer over rough terrain, in the dark, pursuing a target who didn't know that she was a target - by the good guys as well as the bad guys - was not going to be easy. And they had to hope that Baker wouldn't accidentally double-back straight into the army of HYDRA troops coming after her. They really had no insight into Baker's actions at all apart from the fact that she was trying to put as much distance between herself and the base on Unhocomo as possible. But if she'd taken a boat across, why did she stop here instead of going on to the mainland or even trying for Senegal or Guinea?

One of the commando teams reported that they thought they saw movement to their left. Clint, nearby, moved over close enough to confirm.

"I think you should be the one to approach her, Cap," Clint said over the radio. "She's probably terrified and exhausted and you're the only one who won't look like HYDRA in the dark."

Clint helped him shift their perimeter so that they had four commandos and two shield agents between Baker and the approaching wave of HYDRA troops and then he guided Steve over the radio toward where Baker was picking her way slowly through the woods.

Steve kept his goggles on until he was only a couple of yards away and could get one last look at the terrain between them; it would do no good to fall flat on his face before he could even say hello.

"Operative Baker," he said quietly, holding up his hands in a 'mean no harm' gesture. "Duke sucks. Go Spartans?"

Baker froze and then inhaled sharply, letting it out with a gasp that collapsed into a sob. "Oh my god, thank you."

Steve took a step closer and Baker watched him, eyes wide and still breathing hard. "Oh, hey, you're Captain America. I'm getting saved by Captain America. Yay."

Baker - Miranda - was much tinier in person than he'd been visualizing. He'd seen her photo and her biography sheet, but he hadn't quite realized how small she was physically in comparison to the size of her courage.

Steve smiled and spoke the magic words into the radio microphone. "Baker is secure."

Grosset, over the radio, warned that the other two HYDRA boats had made landfall.

"We're going to have to get going," he said to Miranda. "They've sent a search party. Are you okay to walk? Are you injured?"

Miranda looked panicked at the mention of pursuers. It was one thing to know that it was possible, even likely. It was another to know for sure.

"We're not going to let anyone take you anywhere you don't want to go," Steve told her, holding out his hand. She extended hers by instinct and he took it and squeezed it. "You are going to be fine and back home in the States before you know it. But right now, we have to get off this island paradise as quickly as we can. How are your feet holding up?"

Miranda smiled awkwardly, taking back her hand to push hair out of her face. "I'm footsore and cut up, but if it gets me out of here, I can go for miles."

Steve grinned at her and dug into his pack for the extra pair of night vision goggles. "They'll take a couple of minutes to get used to, but they should help."

With Miranda sufficiently reassured that she was safe, the rest of the team emerged from the shadows, which still startled her but Steve drew her attention back to him and she calmed. They started moving east, back toward where they'd come, at a good clip considering the difficult terrain and the exhausted civilian with them. They'd break back up into Alpha and Bravo teams to get back to their respective boats, but for the time being Bravo watched their rear as Alpha led the way.

From on high, Grosset warned that the wave of HYDRA troops looked like just that - a tidal wave moving quickly toward them from the west. Steve thought they had enough time to get to the boats, however.

And then Miranda tripped and fell hard on one of the mangrove roots. Her goggles went flying, but more importantly, she cried out in pain when she tried to get back up.

"My ankle," she breathed out, unable to hide the pain and fear. "It's my ankle."

Frietas, a former Army medic, worked as quickly as he could, but they had to free her foot from a tangle of roots first, all while Miranda breathed heavily through her nose and bit lip.

"It's broken," Frietas reported as he splinted and wrapped.

When he stepped back and stood up, Steve moved in and scooped Miranda up, carrying her easily. "Let's get going."

Clint offered to have Bravo serve as a rear guard for Alpha all the way to the water, but Steve refused; there would be no way for Bravo to get all the way back to the north side of the island before the HYDRA troops closed in if they had to come from the southern coast. "Meet you on Orango," he said and Clint nodded once, then signaled for his team to turn north and make a run for it.

Alpha couldn't really increase their pace that much; even if Steve were able to ignore Miranda's stifled whimpers in his ear with every stumble and hard step, the mangrove clusters wouldn't allow for outright flight.

When they finally saw the white of the beach, three of the commandos ran ahead to pull the boat out of hiding and prep it for launch. Over the radio, Grosset was exhorting everyone to hurry because HYDRA's leading edge was less than four hundred yards away and they were fanning out.

Steve heard more than felt the plunk of bullets off of his shield as he ran into the surf, Miranda looking in terror behind them as HYDRA agents broke through the mangrove forest en masse. He pushed her head to his chest with his free hand as he ran so that she couldn't see and wouldn't get hit in the forehead. He was wearing a bulletproof uniform and was protected by the shield banging against his back, she was not.

"Go, go, go!" Steve shouted as he all but tossed Miranda to Braun and jumped in to the boat after her.

They were quickly out of range of the HYDRA rifles, but the shooting didn't stop right away and the receding coast was lit up by muzzle flashes. It looked almost pretty, a little prettier after Clint reported that Bravo boat was launched and underway.

Steve would have liked to have spent a few more minutes thanking Mathiot and Commando Jaubert for their help and for bringing good luck along with the boats, but they had to get airborne before HYDRA scrambled any air support they might or might not have in the area. If they had a helicopter, it would have been airborne by now, but they could have fixed-wing equipment en route. Steve did promise to call Mathiot when he finally got to make his visit to the memorials at Normandy.

Grosset flew them below radar level, a few feet over the ocean, as they swung wide and stayed over the water before swinging back north east toward Spain.

"So my day sucked, how was yours?" was how Tony greeted Steve when he opened the door, large scotch in one hand.

"Got one of those for me?" Steve asked by way of reply, gesturing with his chin toward the tumbler. "Evening, Jarvis."

"Good evening, Captain Rogers," Jarvis replied. "Welcome."

Tony handed over the tumbler and stood back so that Steve could enter the penthouse. "This is for you," Tony said. "I'm drinking straight out of the bottle."

The dinner invitation had come from Pepper framed as a hopeful suggestion that Steve might be able to keep Tony company on what was undoubtedly going to be a rough day - the official return of Stark Industries to the defense sector with its first live demonstrations at the proving grounds at Yuma. She was going to be serving as shield, handling the press and the Pentagon and the Board, but keeping all of that away from Tony would also keep her away from Tony and, well, it probably wouldn't be a good idea for him to be alone and Steve could handle Tony when Tony couldn't handle himself.

Steve had agreed, both for Pepper's sake and for Tony's. It had only been later on, after a couple of scheduling changes had moved the demo first up three weeks and then back two weeks that everyone realized that Tony might not be the only one who really wasn't going to be up to dealing with people that day.

"Veteran's Day is a federal holiday," Tony had groused when the schedule had finally been locked. "Why are we working - with the government - on a federal holiday?"

Pepper had called Steve and told him that it was perfectly okay if he changed his mind, that she understood if being around Tony at his most self-pitying and self-loathing on what would be a 'challenging' day for Steve was not what he wanted to do. Steve assured her that he would be fine and Jarvis was kind of eager to show off his new Big Band playlist and he'd hate to disappoint any entity with the power to mess with his bank account. Pepper had assured him that Jarvis would do no such thing and thanked him.

He'd maybe underestimated how 'challenging' the day was going to be. This year, for the first time since 1944, Captain America had marched down Fifth Avenue as part of New York City's Veterans Day Parade.

Steve hadn't even blinked when he'd been asked. Of course he'd participate, he'd be honored to serve as Grand Marshal, just tell him where and when and what he had to do besides wave.

Peggy had been the first person to question the wisdom of that quick agreement. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" she'd asked in that way she had that made it clear that she knew what the answer was and it wasn't 'yes.' He'd assured her that it would be a good thing - Gabe's grandson (an Army lieutenant colonel) and Jim's granddaughter (an Air Force major) would be there and he was eager to meet them.

"And that's why I'm asking," Peggy had replied and he swore he could see her rolling her eyes even though they were talking on the phone. "Grandchildren. The… passage of time… is never going to be more evident to you than on that day, Steve. Are you sure that confronting all of that, all at once, is what you want to do?"

He had maybe a little pointedly reminded her that it was always she who emphasized the passage of time and never seemed to allow for the fact that maybe he was adapting to it better than she thought he was. She'd sighed, told him to do what he wanted, and then informed him that she'd seen an advert for his latest action figure.

Tomorrow, he was going to have to call Peggy and apologize and admit that maybe, just maybe, she'd been right all along. Better yet, he'd drive down to Philly.

Tonight, however, he accepted the tumbler from Tony and knocked back all of its contents at once, then handed it back to him. "You have another bottle, right?"

"I have cases," Tony assured, turning to go back into the living room. "But I promised Pepper that we would actually eat the dinner she lovingly ordered for us, so let's get that out of the way first because while you could probably eat after a bottle of scotch, I can't."

Dinner turned out to be a pretty impressive affair because when you're Tony Stark (or Pepper Potts on behalf of Tony Stark), the finest restaurants in New York not only do takeout, but they also send along one of the line cooks to finish the partially prepared meal in your kitchen and then a waiter to serve it.

"So how bad was the parade?" Tony asked as they worked their way through a duck terrine with wine-poached pears and a mâche salad.

"The parade was fine," Steve replied, sipping on the paired wine, a red that could stand up to the ginger-onion jam. "The parade was really nice. It was great to see so many people there to cheer on the soldiers, especially now that it's a volunteer force and not everyone knows someone who serves. And I've read a lot about how poorly the Vietnam veterans were treated, so it was good to see them get just as much applause as the kids from Iraq."

"But," Tony prompted.

"But there were so few veterans from my war," Steve went on, arranging duck confit on a lettuce leaf. "And the ones who were there were in wheelchairs, mostly, looking frail and old."

"They are frail and old," Tony pointed out, not unkindly, as he took a bite.

"I know," Steve sighed. "But I made a point to talk to all of them, shake their hands and ask where they'd served and with whom, and they'd all been kids back then, younger than I was, the last of the draftees. I think that's part of it - that they were younger than I was."

He'd held each pair of leathery, shaking hands in his own, thanked them for their service and marveled with them at how the world had changed since they'd all gone off to war. And each one had looked wistful, at seeing Steve still hale and young and vital and also at the memories of the friends they'd had 'over there' and how all of them had at least one buddy who'd met Captain America and had a story to tell about it and that none of them were still around to tell them so that Steve could say whether or not they were true. Steve had replied each time that if it was a good story, then it absolutely must have been true.

"They're still younger than you," Tony said.

Steve rolled his eyes. "They were born after I was," he replied. "I don't necessarily consider myself to be ninety."

He'd divorced himself from the calendar almost as soon as he'd gotten a hold of one. What were his birthdays now, when his chronological age had laughably little to do with his biological one? He'd been aware back in the Forties that it was very possible that he would age more slowly than he would have without the serum, but they'd all been in their twenties back then and any retardation on that front wouldn't have been noticeable or cared about. Now, of course, all signposts on what would have been his life's trajectory were long ago rendered moot; he'd never know if he'd still have been looking thirty to Bucky's forty. Bucky hadn't even lived to see thirty.

They finished the course, which was removed and replaced by, in Tony's case, a small plate of ravioli surrounded by tiny bits of seafood and in Steve's case a slow-baked jade tiger abalone with cauliflower with juniper berries and caviar.

"But that wasn't what really bothered you, was it?" Tony asked as the waiter poured them both this course's pairings, a white. "I mean, you are constantly battered from all sides with reminders that you're missing seventy years. You generally deal with it with a certain star-spangled aplomb and a charming inability to understand Twitter. So what was it?"

Steve poked cautiously at the abalone with his fork; Pepper had chosen it for him and she had put far too much effort into the evening for the meal selections to be an afterthought. But it was still a giant sea thing and he'd not been uniformly happy with his sea creature adventures thus far. But it was delicately sweet and the texture wasn't too weird and he wouldn't have to lie to Pepper about it being a good choice.

"It wasn't the quality or the condition," he finally said, because Tony, when you had his attention, did not let things drop easily. "It was the quantity. I'm not ninety in my head or in my bones, but my memories are still largely from back then and the things I find familiar to me, the people I have certain fundamental experiences in common with… they're dying off, Tony. They're all ninety in their heads and in their bones and they won't be around much longer. And I'll have nobody left who remembers what I remember. Or who doesn't see the defrosted icon before they see the man underneath."

He wondered if maybe scotch and three-plus glasses of wine was enough to make even him say too much. But he took a sip from his glass anyway and loaded up his fork with abalone and cauliflower and hoped Tony let the matter drop.

"I have the Maybach in the city," Tony said as he speared a shrimp. "Take it tomorrow when you drive down to see Peggy. She'll appreciate it more than the Datsun you used last time."

Steve hadn't mentioned Peggy at all, of course, but Tony was, on occasion, not unperceptive and this was his way of saying that he understood what Steve had said, right down to him wishing he might not have said it.

"It was a Nissan," is what Steve said out loud, though.

Tony rolled his eyes. "Of course you wouldn't get the joke," he sighed, sounding very put-upon.

The next course for Steve was venison with something called crosnes that Jarvis had to explain, complete with photographs, and for Tony was suckling pig three ways "because years ago Pepper told Boulud that I have a very short attention span."

They spoke of SHIELD business while they ate, mostly because it was something that wasn't Steve's already-explained misery or Tony's yet-to-be-elaborated-upon own, but also because Tony had been so busy with the weapons demo that he'd barely remembered that there had been a rescue of a mole within HYDRA, let alone that she'd been debriefing for weeks, and he was feeling a little out of the loop.

"She's an impressive girl," Steve said, chasing a cocoa-bean shaving around his plate with a crosne. "Above and beyond everything she did while undercover, which was really just so much more than anyone had hoped - you should ask Tapper to show you some of what she brought out on a little drive in her pocket. And then she's been asked the same questions a million times and last week was the first time she was allowed off the Helicarrier with an escort, so it's cabin fever on top of everything else. I'm not sure I would have handled the experience as well."

Tony chuckled. "You were as docile as a lamb after your initial jailbreak," he reminded Steve. "You were seething on the inside, but you were unfailingly polite and kept apologizing for your temper."

Steve grinned, since Tony really wasn't wrong. "She had a lot on how they're building support around the world, the philosophical stuff."

"The part that SHIELD's analysts can't figure out," Tony said wryly. "You'd think none of them had ever seen an Occupy or an antiglobalization riot before. Oh, wait, they probably haven't because there aren't written reports for them to read and if there are no written reports, it doesn't exist."

Steve tried not to chew and laugh at the same time, but he still ended up coughing. SHIELD's analysts, like every other analysts, tended to a chronic case of tunnel vision. SHIELD classified HYDRA as a terrorist organization because they kept blowing things up and stealing things. But not everyone agreed that what HYDRA was doing - blowing up and stealing things from the powerful, especially from America - was such an awful thing. That occasionally got lost in the analysis generated aboard the Helicarrier because it was counterintuitive to accepted SHIELD wisdom, therefore it must be a minority view worth discounting.

"When I have an extra half an hour," Tony mused, "I am going to write a report on Santa Claus and dump it in the SHIELD archive and then, come Christmas, watch Fury's head explode when Intelligence prepares a Powerpoint brief for him about a fat man in a sleigh full of toys."

"Make sure you stick in that the sleigh's powered by alien reindeer," Steve suggested. The look on Tony's face made Steve think that there would, indeed, be such a file in Archives by December.

"So what's the skinny on HYDRA's actual dirty deeds as opposed to the Gnostic crap they barf up on Youtube?" Tony asked as the dishes were cleared. "Or are they depressingly consistent? Nobody likes a villain who's not also a hypocrite. They're much harder to defeat."

HYDRA's public doctrine was that it wasn't interested in world domination for its own sake, rather it sought to cleanse and correct a world gone sadly wrong, one that benefitted a few and forcibly kept down the many, and there was no other way to do so but with fire. HYDRA also didn't limit themselves to economic wealth, they spoke of knowledge and other kinds of power and how to spread those to the masses.

This was what appealed most to people like the late, lamented Bob and like Miranda's Shaanxi-reared cousins: young men and women who had will and capacity and education but no opportunity to benefit from those gifts because of circumstance, usually their government or local traditions or both. (HYDRA had a far greater female population than any other group of its bent and body count.) HYDRA didn't require forsaking all gods or cultural talismans, just the prioritizing of knowledge and recognition of its power over everything else and the willingness to die for the cause. Which still kept the devout of all faiths out of the picture, or so SHIELD had believed.

"They're setting themselves up in failed states as parallel local governments, more or less," Steve answered as a large plate with tiny pastries was brought out, followed by a coffee service. "Offering social services and protection and all of the things that the failed state can't."

"The Hezbollah approach," Tony said with a nod. "Effective because it's impossible to counter even if you replace the failed state leadership unless they're batshit like the Taliban. And even then..."

There was a particular darkness that passed over Tony's face when he thought about Afghanistan and Steve could see him try to push it aside.

"So that's why we're having so much trouble getting to their bases before they know we're coming," Steve went on, leaning forward and picking up a tiny mauve cake with black dots on it, then pushing the plate toward Tony, who startled for half a second before focusing on it. "Because nobody living near one wants to see it go away and return to what they had before."

Which had almost been good news in a way because it mostly gave a reason why none of the mole hunts within SHIELD had turned up anything, but it still presented the good guys with a difficult problem that had no straightforward solution.

"Does that mean we are officially classifying Detroit as a failed state, by the way?" Tony asked, picking up something with half a strawberry on top.

"I think we are staying far away from that one," Steve said primly.

With dinner finished, Tony tipped the chef and waiter and told Jarvis to order them a cab, then pointed imperiously for Steve to go into the living room. Steve went, going directly to the sliding glass door that led to the heated terrace and stepping outside. It had been a beautiful day and the sky was still clear at night and the view of the city was gorgeous. The terrace was open to the elements, but heated underneath the floor and with some other high-tech, no-carbon scheme that Steve had had explained to him but which still made no sense. But it did keep him pleasantly warm from about the sternum down when he was standing. Sitting down, it was like a summer evening without the sticky humidity.

The Empire State Building was red-white-and-blue for the holiday and Steve tried not to let himself get sucked back into that vortex of self-pity.

"I think I can see my apartment from here," he said as Tony came outside. He could tell by the sound that Tony had brought liquor and glasses.

"Why do you think the telescope is pointed southeast?" Tony replied blandly, setting down a decanter and two tumblers, each with a single ice cube. "It's so Pepper can watch you get dressed."

Steve smiled and sat down in one of the chairs that let him put his feet up on the wrought-iron table. Tony dropped down gracefully but bonelessly next to him, offering a full glass of what turned out to be very peaty scotch.

"Don't chug this one," Tony warned. "This is the good stuff. I'll get out the Laphroaig if you're still hoping to get shitfaced for all of a minute."

Steve did not miss that the appearance of 'the good stuff' meant that Tony was not planning on drinking himself to oblivion, either. At least not right away.

They watched the Manhattan skyline in companionable silence for a while, the noise of the streets below canyoning up to remind them that they were still part of a greater whole. Honking car horns, the particular wheeze of buses accelerating, the occasional squeal of brakes; it always amused Steve that Tony's bazillion-dollar penthouse wasn't much quieter than his own apartment-that-had-once-been-a-factory much closer to the ground.

"So Stark Industries probably made about eight hundred million dollars today," Tony said without enthusiasm. "I think we are going to end up going to contract on the laser guidance system for three, but procurement projects being what they are and the inter-service rivalries usually doubling the buy, we'll get at least nine and if the Air Force stops playing coy and joins the party, we'll clear a billion-five easy. The Board is almost overjoyed enough to forget that that won't pay for the repairs to the Tower, our stock is already shooting up like a rocket in Tokyo and the futures for New York are obscene, and all of that's before we even do the second demos on the other two systems."

Steve took a sip of his scotch. "So this means that the heart valve project lives to see another day?"

Tony had been prepared to give up his company for his principles, Pepper had told him, but she'd managed to keep him in the fold by reminding him of all of the ways Stark Industries saved lives, from designing lasers for brain surgery to the latest in prosthetics to body armor and replacement heart valves that could be given to younger patients who'd normally have to worry about the ones on the market now wearing down before they did. It was Tony's job to save all of that good work, the clean energy and the medical miracles, even if he had to do things he didn't want to in order to accomplish that. "I might have made an allusion to my own tenure as personal assistant to a dissolute billionaire with the potential for greatness," she'd admitted.

"The heart valve project lives to see another day," Tony agreed, but he didn't sound as though he was sure the cost had really been worth it.

The problem, as diagnosed by Pepper, was that Tony felt that he had a lot to atone for, both personally and professionally. And he did, she agreed, but he'd conflated that need for penance with the need to be and do good all of the time, which was impossible even if you weren't Tony Stark. And by breaking a promise to himself stay out of the weapons business, Tony was convinced that he'd stepped off that road of atonement and, now that he had, it was a very short and slippery slope back to where he'd been when he'd gotten mixed up with Vanko and Hammer and he didn't want to go into that darkness again.

Steve wasn't sure what to say to Tony to convince him that that wasn't a huge risk and that one disappointment, as great as it was, did not signify the upper bound of his 'goodness.' Tony tended not to take that sort of encouragement or advice from him either seriously or well; for reasons that Steve still could not for the life of him understand, Tony didn't think Steve knew weakness or sin well enough to pass comment on others, like him, who did. And by pass comment, he meant 'have anything useful to say whatsoever because you think jaywalking is the depth of depravity.' Granted, it had been a long time since Tony had actually said that and their relationship had progressed since then, but even if Tony didn't quite mean it when he called Steve a choir boy, that was not this.

"What does Pepper think?" Steve asked.

Tony sighed loudly. "She's relieved. She didn't want me to chuck it all and save the world on a full-time basis. Said it wouldn't earn enough keep her in the manner to which she had grown accustomed."

Steve grinned because while Pepper had undoubtedly said just that, there was no point in pretending she'd meant it like that.

"She doesn't want me to lose what's important to me," Tony went on, eyes on his scotch. "She thinks the company is important to me."

"It is important to you," Steve pointed out, taking a sip of his own scotch and watching the lights of the skyline twinkle and change. "It's not the most important thing, but it's up there. It's the tool that allows you to do the things that make you happy and let you sleep at night. And keep your far-too-good-for-you lady in the manner to which she has grown accustomed and deserves."

Tony smiled, but then the smile faded. "She deserves more than I can give her."

"That goes without saying," Steve replied.

They were quiet again for a while; Tony finished his scotch and poured himself a refill, topping Steve off in the process. Jarvis, without prompting, put on some Helen O'Connell, which made Steve smile and might possibly have put Tony to sleep. Steve figured he'd wait until he finished his drink before trying to move Tony inside, but Tony was apparently just resting his eyes.

"You would have been a stranger in a strange land then, too," Tony said quietly.

"I know," Steve agreed, because he'd thought about it already. "But not such a stranger and in a land that wasn't quite as strange."

And not so alone, he didn't add, because that would be unfair. Not necessarily untrue, but unfair nonetheless because it wasn't really anyone else's fault.

"I think the fact that we didn't know you when can be an advantage," Tony said, taking a sip of his drink without opening his eyes. "You should give us more of a chance."

Steve smiled. "I don't have a choice. Unless you can invent me a time machine, I'm sort of stuck with you guys."

Tony opened his eyes then. "And if I did, would you use it?"

This, too, was something Steve had thought a lot about. "I suppose it depends on when I'd get sent to, but... yeah. I think I would."

He'd gotten used to this time with its absurdities and its cruelties and its miracles, but that didn't mean he didn't miss what -- and who -- he'd left behind. He'd trade a lot (everything) to get that back. He'd miss a few people, absolutely, but he'd get some back, too, and purslane and iPhones were things he could live without. He'd fight World War Two again, go toe-to-toe with HYDRA and Schmidt again, see all of those miseries and moments again if it meant he got to live to the end this time, if he got to be the one kissing Peggy on VE Day instead of her kissing a photograph.

Tony took a deep breath and let it out loudly. "Pepper thought you would."

"And is that why you won't?" Steve asked, only half-joking.

"I can't," Tony assured. "Time is little complicated to master. I can't even figure out the whole 'waking up before noon' business."

Steve shook his head and looked at his watch. "I have to get up before noon. I should go," he said and made to rise.

Tony reached out and grabbed his wrist. "I mean it, you know. You should give us a chance. A real chance, not a stuck-until-there's-a-time-machine chance. We're not so bad. Thor loves us."

"Thor loves Jane," Steve corrected. "He finds the rest of us somewhere between quaintly charming and outright bonkers."

Tony waved away the distinction. "Take the Maybach home with you tonight so that you can drive it down tomorrow."

"I've been drinking," Steve pointed out.

"You'll be stone cold sober by the time you get to the garage," Tony snorted. "Keys are... Jarvis knows where the keys are. Give Peggy my best."

Chapter Text

"How solid is this?"

Agent Rosenblatt frowned at Maria Hill. "That there is a man named Andre Greilinger at the Sainte Odile nursing home in Metz? That we know without a doubt. That Andre Greilinger is Andreas Strucker... we think it's pretty solid."

She tapped her keyboard and the photos came back up on the projector screen. The photo on the top left was a school portrait of Andreas Strucker when he'd been going by Andres Gouws in Johannesburg. The photo on the top right was the last known portrait of Wolfgang Strucker, his passport photo for Albert Berger in 1962. The bottom left was a computer-generated photo of what Andreas would look like at age seventy based on his and his father's portraits, a result that distressed Steve more for the fact that it was possible to do this with any accuracy -- could they make him a picture of what he'd really have looked like at ninety? -- than the fact that it bore a striking resemblance to the picture on the bottom right, the portrait of Andre Greilinger obtained from France.

Agent Rosenblatt had explained how they'd connected a name in Albert Berger's tax ledgers with a name in one of the files Operative Baker had brought out of Guinea-Bissau, but Steve had gotten a little lost in how they'd gone from that to realizing that Andreas Strucker was alive and, if not well, then at least living in care facility in Lorraine. Agent Rosenblatt was from Financial Intelligence and everyone in FININT had the ability to make even the most basic details sound incomprehensible. These details, however, were not basic.

Miranda - still going by Operative Baker in all official and unofficial discussions - had managed to come away with a remarkable amount of intelligence, far more than even the most optimistic aspirations for her. Because of what she'd been doing for HYDRA, she had had access to financial and personnel records and she'd given SHIELD enough to keep FININT and a few other departments busy for months. They'd already found bank accounts - Steve hadn't wanted to interrupt to ask for an explanation for how they could 'track the money' when the money didn't even exist except inside a computer - and the personnel files had been put toward not only identifying possible leadership positions within HYDRA, but also how and where they were recruiting. Miranda and her cousins had made their connections through the internet, but that wasn't going to work for large parts of the world.

Here and now, however, the focus was not on the rank and file, but instead on the very top of the HYDRA pyramid. Steve didn't feel either relieved or vindicated to be told that Andreas Strucker was probably not the Supreme HYDRA; it simply meant that someone else was and that they had no idea who that someone else could be. Agent Rosenblatt's presentation had made no suggestions whatsoever on that front, just stated the case for why they should believe that Andre Greilinger was Andreas Strucker. The obvious step from there would be to track down Greilinger and see if he would talk to them, but SHIELD was too big a bureaucracy for such a simple idea to go from inception to execution without a few hurdles to clear.

Hill was trying, at least, to push aside the obstructions as they were thrown in the path of progress. Steve knew that there would be agents assigned to make the trip to France, that he would probably not be allowed to go by himself and would not be allowed to lead the questioning, but he also knew that there had to be negotiations to get to that point and that even standing up right now and proposing the terms that everyone already knew would be the final compromise would not help move things along.

Eventually, the dance to which everyone already knew the steps was over and Steve was told that he and Agent Romanova would be accompanying two agents to be determined to France to see what could be gotten from Andre Greilinger.

He got his itinerary and the names of the agents - Loehman and Perrault - by the time he'd finished making dinner for himself and Natasha. They were leaving the following evening, apparently, and Perrault, the senior agent, asked that he read over the briefing but did not feel that any meeting beforehand was necessary. "It's a long drive once we land," was the comment, which apart from being true made Steve inclined to think that Perrault would be easy to work with. Some senior SHIELD agents were not above lording it over any Avengers that they might be temporarily charged to command. Or, why both Clint and Natasha had lists of agents who were not allowed to be assigned the same missions.

"I think he's the one with the wandering eye," Natasha said when Steve told her who'd been assigned.

"He made a pass at you?" Steve tried not to sound scandalized. And probably failed if Natasha's look was any indication.

"Yes, but I mean that his eyes don't both look at whatever he's looking at," she explained, tearing off a piece of focaccia. "It's really weird until you get used to it."

Dinner was simple - salad, fresh pasta with basil from the plant on his window sill, the focaccia from the market, and the gelato Natasha brought - and they talked of work, mostly. Natasha had taken Miranda out for lunch the day before and they'd discussed what the latter's options were now that she had completed the debriefing sessions. SHIELD wanted to keep an eye on her for her own safety - nobody was sure how much HYDRA knew about who Miranda had been working for and how vindictive they were feeling about it - and Natasha was trying to make this as painless as possible for her and to keep 'protection' from becoming 'protective custody.'

"I'm pretty sure the China desk would take her once she finishes the short course at Camp Carter," Natasha mused as she plucked a grape off of the bread. SHIELD's training center had a real name, a boringly explanatory name, but everyone called it Camp Carter, after Peggy, who'd set it up back in the post-war days. "They're pretty laid-back there, especially if we can get her sent out to the San Francisco office."

Steve chewed and swallowed before he spoke. "Why isn't she going to the HYDRA desk?"

Natasha rolled her eyes. "Because they want to maintain separation between Agent Tung and Operative Baker. She'll still be asked questions as needed as Operative Baker, but it will be filtered through channels so that nobody connects the two. She'll have her own secret identity."

"What does Hill want to do?" Steve held up the pasta bowl for Natasha to put more on her plate rather than pick out individual tortellini.

"Hill wants to give her some bullshit assignment in Archives," Natasha scoffed, picking a single tortellini out of the proffered bowl. Steve frowned at her and she grinned, so he put down the bowl. She picked it up and served herself with the spoon. "I told Hill that Miranda would voluntarily out herself to HYDRA out of boredom within two months."

Steve sipped his wine. "Does she even want to work for us?"

"She doesn't have a whole lot of options right now," Natasha replied with a frown. "She needs to be protected and we need to be protected. You don't get to just walk away from this life when you're done with it, Steve. It has a nasty habit of not letting you go."

They said nothing else until it was time to clear the dishes and dig out the gelato from the freezer.

Steve met Natasha, Loehman, and Perrault at Newark Airport the following afternoon; Agent Perrault was indeed cursed by a wonky eye but blessed with enough self-confidence that he didn't feel any need to assert any more authority than handing out boarding passes. Agent Loehman simply looked bored. They were sitting in pairs in different rows of business class for the flight to Frankfurt and Steve made Natasha switch with him so that he could get the aisle.

The flight was uneventful and everyone cleared customs without incident. As they made their way toward the meeting place where the local SHIELD agent would be waiting with the car, Steve stopped when he saw the morning paper in a pile at a kiosk and stopped long enough to read the headline above the fold. He pulled some Euro coins out of his pocket and paid for it, then ran to catch up with the other three.

He waved the copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at Natasha, who'd cocked an eyebrow at his sudden reappearance. She tilted her head to read the headline he'd seen, then frowned.

"Tony's going to be a ray of sunshine and joy," she said sourly. "Maybe I'll stick around Europe for a few days."

Steve didn't get a chance to actually read the article about Trident's latest big splash until they were already driving west, after which he wondered if he could maybe stick around Europe for a few days, too. Trident was announcing a new water storage and purification system that would, possibly even literally, make the deserts bloom. It would also make great strides in eliminating water-borne diseases and generally improve global access to clean water. All wonderful things even if that had been all Trident was announcing, but it was not. Through their charitable arm, the Trident Initiative, they were planning on making a dozen of these new systems available free to any community in any country that had need and would, in exchange, 'foreswear violence and embrace education.' There was more to the announcement, including the near-standard thinly-veiled reference to Stark Industries' Janus-faced approach to peace promotion, but all of it added up to a very sour Tony.

Steve genuinely wanted Tony - and Pepper - to be successful in their professional endeavors. But even as he knew how much Stark Industries meant to Tony and how difficult the last year and its choices had been for him there, Steve couldn't muster the resentment for Trident's good deeds, no matter what their ultimate motivation was. He was not, counter to Tony's more vicious attempts to lash out at convenient targets, so naïve that he didn't appreciate that Trident was buying goodwill by doing good deeds. He just didn't care. Trident wasn't evil; they were occasionally ruthless in their business practices, but so was Stark Industries and Tony didn't expect Steve to think less of him for wanting to make money as well as making the world a better place.

They were in France in time for a late breakfast at a café in Metz, a quietly busy spot that had just enough going on that their English conversation was neither audible nor remarkable.

During the drive, Perrault had explained the approach he wanted to take and why, letting Loehman, Natasha, and Steve express their opinions and make suggestions as needed. Steve hadn't really had any; Perrault wanted to go straight ahead with the assumption that Andre Greilinger was Andreas Strucker and see what happened. Loehman wasn't enthusiastic about the direct approach, but Natasha had backed Perrault's arguments and Loehman's objections hadn't stood up to the united front.

Steve thought it was the right idea because they'd gotten Greilinger's medical file, probably illegally. It indicated that in addition to being profoundly retarded (Steve had gotten so many dirty looks for using that word, but he refused to try to spit out the mouthful of euphemisms he'd been provided as replacements), Greilinger was suffering from some kind of disassociation and believed that someone else had been living his life for him, at least for a time, and if that didn't fit the scenario, Steve couldn't come up with a better one.

The facility had been told to expect four agents from Interpol seeking an interview with Greilinger in connection to crimes committed in the 1960s. He was not a suspect, the doctors were assured, and they would do their best not to distress him unduly.

Andre Greilinger was a hearty-looking man despite his wheelchair and seemed much younger than his seventy years because of the almost child-like expression on his face. He didn't look wary or cautious or careworn or concerned; he looked at four strangers showing up to interview him as a treat and greeted them with guileless curiosity.

Steve exchanged a look with Natasha; this might not be the most productive interview if they had to talk to a child about the darkest parts of the adult world.

"Good afternoon, Andre," Perrault began in flawless Berlin German. "Or would you prefer Andreas? That is your name, yes? Andreas von Strucker?"

The child's curious smile broadened into one of pure child's delight. "You know? You believe me? Nobody believes me," he sighed, crushed at his fate, then perking right back up again. "I would like to be Andreas again. I have not been Andreas in a very long time. Mother used to call me Andreas, but only when we were alone."

The look Steve and Natasha exchanged this time was far different.

The interview took time and patience, requiring repetition of questions and rephrasings and the occasional explanation. Andreas - and it was impossible to think of him as anything but Andreas Strucker - was eager to tell parts of his story, not all of which was relevant to what they were asking, but he was utterly terrified to speak of the rest of it. It wasn't the Nazi years that frightened him, what little he remembered of them - and his memories of those Nazi years lasted well into his time in Argentina, a mini-Reich with Juan Peron as patron that was full of privilege and plenty and happiness as far as young Andreas was concerned. The trouble began some time in South Africa, it seemed, which jibed with his father's attempts to seek medical treatment for him, and crescendoed during his college years.

"That's when Andrea found out that the man was real," Andreas got out between choking sobs, Natasha slipping out of the room to distract the nurses from their patient's distress. "And he killed her."

'The man' was the source of Andreas's terror. He wouldn't say the man's name, although he knew it and, it seemed, he had killed his sister to keep it secret. The man had been in his head for as long as Andreas could remember, but maybe not in Argentina (Andreas's answers weren't always consistent). He'd been good to Andreas at first, helping him out on tests in school and showing him how to sneak candies past the nanny, but then he grew "not good, evil!" and getting details from Andreas about that time proved almost impossible. They knew from elsewhere that he'd spent his teens dragged around to psychiatrists around Europe, but Andreas was hopelessly unclear about whether these treatments were to make 'the man' disappear or whether he'd hidden the existence of 'the man' from his parents, as he'd been bidden to do, and was being treated for something else.

After the death of Andrea, however, things had changed. His father hid his sister's body and sent Andreas back to the clinic in Hilversum, this time to stay. But 'the man' had had enough of this, it seemed. "Enough of me," Andreas emphasized. "And so he became me and I watched him live as he had once watched me."

Andreas could not answer what happened next with any precision or detail. He remembered some of it, but either could not or would not speak of it beyond saying that he traveled a lot "looking for things."

Eventually his father found him and, Andreas reported, "he realized, too, that the man was real. The man didn't kill him, though. He wanted something from my Poppa, something he didn't have. Poppa didn't want him to have it, but Poppa offered to get it for him if he left me alone."

Andreas knew what that thing was, but, like the man's identity, he would not say it no matter how carefully or pleadingly Perrault and Loehman asked, no matter how many times they assured him that nobody could hurt him now and it was safe to speak of these things once more. Andreas, showing real fear, would not budge.

The elusive prize remained elusive, it seemed, but, for reasons Andreas seemed to genuinely not know, the man agreed to leave Andreas be and, with help from Wolfgang von Strucker, "moved to a different body, someone else."

Andreas was apparently left alone in his own head at last, but the cost had been tremendous. He had the mind of a child, still, never having developed much past where it had been when 'the man' had first made his presence felt. Andreas didn't mind the price paid, that much was clear. His joyful smile returned and he spoke freely and happily (and at length) about his life after 'the man' with his parents and then, finally, at the Sainte Odile home. He was happy, unable to recognize his own limitations, let alone be troubled by them. He was distressed about having to keep secrets from the nice people who cared for him, but his parents had made sure he understood that he could never tell a soul about what had really happened.

"But you already know the big secret," Andreas explained with a conspiratorial whisper and grin. "That was what I was never allowed to say, but you already knew it."

Perrault and Loehman and Natasha kept trying to get Andreas to reveal the name of 'the man' or any details of the object he sought, but pressing only increased Andreas's distress and got them no closer. He was afraid of the man and refused to believe any assurances that whoever he was, 'the man' must be too old to hurt Andreas now. His fear had that particular kind of dread that came with such absolute certainty that pat assurances weren't going to work.

Steve had kept quiet through the interview, presenting himself as just a bland smiling face there to listen and encourage. But now he leaned forward in his seat, drawing Andreas's attention with the motion. He reached out, stilling Andreas's hands where they were twisting his lap blanket into nervous knots.

"I know who the man is," Steve said gently. "And I know what he wanted from your father. He never got it. He can't get it. You don't have to worry about that anymore."

He had Andreas's complete attention. And the SHIELD contingent's, too, but he was only focused on Andreas.

"But..." Andreas whispered anxiously.

"He can't get it," Steve repeated. "It's far away, farther away than he could ever go. But we still want to stop him. Would you help us do that, Andreas? We want to make sure he never hurts anyone else ever again. Never hurts you again."

The look Andreas gave him was heartbreaking, the look of a child aware that he's being asked a truly important question and not having anyone to help him answer.

"He hurt me, too," Steve confided to Andreas. "He took away everything I wanted, everyone I loved. I don't want anyone else to feel like that. Do you?"

Andreas shook his head no, but said nothing and started worrying the blanket fold again.


He turned in his seat to look at Natasha, his left hand still over Andreas's nervously moving ones. She raised her eyebrows in a silent prompt to let the rest of them - or at least her - in on what he was talking about.

"Johann Schmidt," Steve said and Andreas gasped. Natasha sat back in surprise and Steve gave a tiny shrug of apology. He hadn't really been all the way sure until Andreas had reacted as he had, but the thought had come to him as he'd listened to Andreas's stories. It made sense and nothing Andreas had said after that point had contradicted it. And so he'd played a hunch and it had paid out. "Johann Schmidt is still looking for the cube."

Andreas started to cry again, but it wasn't as it was before. These were tears of relief - adults knew the problem and they would fix it.

"Oh my god," Natasha breathed out. Next to her, Perrault rubbed his mouth with his hand. Loehman simply shook her head.

This time, Steve directed most of the questions. There were still inconsistencies and large gaps in what Andreas told them, but they were mostly from lack of understanding and not evasion. They stayed until the nurses broke in and insisted it was time for Andreas to eat and rest and no amount of pleading would change their decision.

Andreas waved to them as he was wheeled away and Steve waved back.

"Well," Perrault sighed as they left the facility, "that turned out to be slightly more revelatory than I was expecting."

Chapter Text

"Is it wrong that the part of this that terrifies me most is the idea of being trapped in the mind of a young child for years?" Bruce asked, leaning back and lifting up his glasses so that he could rub the bridge of his nose.

"Yes," Steve answered, not looking up from his own copy of the report on the visit to Andreas von Strucker. It had been written by Perrault, but Steve had had to write his own version of events that was included as well because, as Perrault had put it, Steve "had to take ownership of the crazy." By which he meant not only the wild story of Andreas and Johann Schmidt, but also the uproar that had overtaken the Helicarrier like a rogue wave by the time they'd returned to Frankfurt to fly back home.

There were still large pockets of skeptics within SHIELD, but those pockets had shrunk from 'great seas' to 'large islands within great seas' after the analysts and specialists brought in from outside had drawn up a timeline (as best as could be done) from Andreas's story and matched it alongside the still-skeletal history of post-1951 HYDRA. And the result was that while it still sounded completely fantastical, there was enough correspondence to push the limits of what could be considered coincidence.

Especially after Thor showed up and didn't even hesitate when asked if it were possible that the tesseract could have thrown Schmidt's mind and/or soul into the body of a young Andreas.

"Of course it could have," he'd replied, a wry look on his face, the one he got when he was clearly thinking that Midgard produced small minds as well as small bodies. "Your focus on its possibilities as an energy source has long blinded you to the true nature of its power."

The tesseract could do anything, Thor had reminded them. Anything.

"Schmidt has the most powerful device on the planet in his hand," Bruce began, letting his glasses fall back into place. "He can do whatever he wants with it, go anywhere, anywhen, and instead of killing you or fixing the mess he's in or, I don't know, going back to Berlin and telling Hitler that he's taking over, he zaps himself into the mind of a kindergartener. How does that happen?"

The last was a rhetorical question - the answer was in the briefing packet, too - so Steve didn't answer it.

It had taken longer than it should have to make both sides understand, but Thor had eventually agreed that the tesseract could be reasonably imagined as a kind of Aladdin's lamp. But instead of a genie who would or would not follow the spirit of the wish when granting it, the tesseract was guided by a far more nebulous force, one that Thor could not ultimately explain and would not accept anyone else's suggestions as viable definitions.

According to Thor, Schmidt probably had been thinking of escape or revenge or putting himself in a position where he could do it all over again except correctly this time. But his thoughts probably hadn't been specific enough or clear enough in intent and he probably hadn't understood the true power he held in his hand while he was thinking those thoughts. Schmidt hadn't exactly been a model of mental health and the tesseract wasn't a tool designed for human use.

Tony in particular had been delighted by the idea of Schmidt ending up in Andreas's head as a result of a translation error.

"This is going to be a mess, you know," Bruce said conversationally as he flipped pages on the 3-D display he was using; the colors flashed distractingly in the corner of Steve's eye and he looked up. Bruce made a face at him through the wall of illuminated text and diagrams. "We haven't even figured out how Loki's mind-control staff worked - or Garthwaite's crowbar and we actually have access to that - and that's essentially a fancy hypnosis. This? That there are apparently multiple objects that facilitate transfer of a consciousness and might or might not work by different mechanisms, none of which we even have the basic understandings of? Figuring it out might take more time than we have."

Which was not an acceptable outcome, however possible - or probable - it was. Toward that end, Fury had allocated the bulk of SHIELD's resources not toward figuring out the how, or even the what, but instead the who and the where. If they could find, capture, and neutralize Johann Schmidt in whatever form he was currently taking, then it might not matter how he'd gotten into or out of Andreas's head.

(Andreas had proven willing but unable to help identify either means or method; he remembered there being water and a vessel, like a baptism, but nothing specific enough to provide useful follow-up. "We've got enough to do without looking for the Holy Grail, too," Hill had said when she'd back-burnered that particular line of inquiry.)

They hadn't abandoned the search completely, however. Thor was currently spending most of his time surrounded by a posse of analysts and researchers and academics parsing mythology and history - and, in the case of HYDRA and the Ahnenerbe, where they intersected - to come up with a list of objects that could have possibly been what was used.

Thor's working group was large, peculiar, and noisy - Thor neither read nor wrote any Earth language, so he needed both a reader and an amanuensis to fully participate in the research. Steve was one of the few who knew that Thor was learning to read English, but half-heartedly and only because Jane Foster had insisted and, anyway, his stumbling slowly through If You Give a Mouse a Cookie was not sufficient training for the task of unaided reviews of obscure academic texts or SHIELD briefings, which were their own kind of incomprehensible that had nothing to do with literacy. There'd been some not-unreasonable concerns that Thor, a proud man, would resent this straightforward addressing of his handicap, but he had not. In fact, Thor didn't view his lack of Earth literacy as any kind of handicap and treated the agents assigned to read and write for him as he probably did his servants in Asgard: with decency, but without much consideration as to their function. He was a prince and, even if the culture of his realm was not one that leaned heavily on the written word, he had long ago gotten used to having attendants doing for him what others normally did for themselves.

"Figuring out whose face Schmidt is wearing is more important than figuring out how he put it on," Steve said, finger-flicking past the pages that covered the research that had gone into finding Andreas in the first place; it was no more readable for having listened to the presentation and then experiencing the details firsthand. Also, Steve still found it more difficult to grasp complex concepts when they were presented to him electronically. The hard copies of the report were back home in Brooklyn, where he could spread them out and organize them by how his mind worked and not by how some SHIELD analyst had stitched together a PDF file. "If we're lucky, he's still in the body Strucker put him into."

Andreas didn't know the name of the unfortunate man, but he did say that the body Schmidt had moved to had been about his own age, which would put Schmidt at about seventy as well. Old enough to matter, but young enough to still be hale, hearty, active, and dangerous.

"Figuring out how he put it on doesn't not matter," Bruce objected. He gestured to the file currently up on his display, which Steve could identify, even backward. "If he's looking to move into a serum-enhanced body, how he does it influences how we try to prevent him getting what he needs - and how we try to stop him if he pulls it off."

This was one of SHIELD's working theories, that all of the HYDRA break-ins at SHIELD facilities were not for the purpose of building themselves an army of super soldiers, but instead for the purpose of building themselves one super-soldier leader. Schmidt had known the joys of enhanced physical prowess and would want them again, especially because the serum would provide other advantages and, as one of the sub-theories went, if he could not shift bodies indefinitely, then Captain America's body was a good choice to ride out the years in.

"We don't know that that's what he's trying to do," Steve pointed out, mostly because Bruce, like most of the other science analysts, invariably favored the hypotheses that involved more science, no matter how otherwise impractical or how straightforward other hypotheses looked by comparison. "The attacks simply could have been about the tesseract, which we do know that Schmidt is still looking for."

One of the first consequences of the trip to Metz had been to re-assess all of HYDRA's activities in light of who was now probably running them. And one of the first results of those re-evaluations had been to realize that every single SHIELD facility HYDRA had broken into had had some history with the tesseract. In Cleveland, the connection had been Jane Foster, whose lab had been ransacked despite it having nothing to do with the serum project in the lab next door. The crash site had not been a distraction - or at least not just a distraction because it was also the last place Schmidt knew the tesseract had been and might have been looking for clues as to where it had gone next. (Which he hadn't found because the cube had never been trapped in the ice; it had been recovered by Howard Stark months after the incident and Tony had verified that none of the facilities where it had been stored after that point had been visited by HYDRA.) Mobile had been where Erik Selvig had been leading a team working on the tesseract before it had been moved to the base in New Mexico. Portland was where the theoretical work on the tesseract had been run after Loki had destroyed that base. All of this was circumstantial, granted, but Steve was willing to believe that Schmidt was more interested in the tesseract than he was in the serum. It was a belief that too-often got reduced to "he's looking for the cube and not for the serum," which Steve didn't believe - HYDRA was big enough to multitask - but one he held firmly. Getting the cube would solve all of Schmidt's problems and give him everything he wanted and it seemed obvious to Steve that that's where Schmidt would put the bulk of his resources. It was not, however, nearly as obvious to others and Steve fought this battle at least twice a week because of that.

Bruce looked like he might want to make it the third time, but then the door to the lab hissed open and they both looked over.

Peggy, look of wry disapproval on her face, stood in the doorway. "This is not a laboratory in any normal sense of the word, Doctor Banner."

Bruce smiled. "They limit the reagents and equipment I'm allowed," he explained as he got up to drag the one non-stool seat in the room away from the desk behind which it stayed. "I've got an explosive personality."

Steve stood up and crossed the room to greet Peggy with a kiss on the cheek, which she turned to accept. He knew better than to offer his arm to lean on; even if she was tired enough to actually be using her cane instead of waving it around like a prop, she'd still knock him across the head with it. "And how did your day go?"

Another effect of Metz was to re-restart the evaluation of post-war HYDRA now that they had a clearer idea of what had gone on both before the 1951 raids and afterward. Which meant that Peggy Carter, who'd been such an integral part of that history, was making her first-ever visit to the Helicarrier. (She'd cheerfully admitted to Steve that she'd finagled that invite entirely because she could; SHIELD would have sent whoever was required down to Philadelphia, but all they'd ended up needing was a driver and a car.)

Peggy sighed elaborately. "I am not sure I like what Fury's done with the place, but it was productive. I was only treated like a doddering old woman once and I am quite sure that the young lady will never be making that mistake again."

Steve grinned. "Are you picking on agents not your size again, Miss Carter?"

Peggy dropped gracefully into the chair Bruce had provided and smiled up at him in thanks before returning her attention to Steve. "Agent Hill is of ample size to know better."

Bruce might have giggled as he returned to his stool. Steve simply shook his head.

"I was released from the prison that is Nick Fury's conference table on the condition that I be escorted off of the premises for meal not provided by the lowest bidder on the SHIELD commissary account," Peggy said, poking at Steve's foot with her cane. "Lunch was dreadful and I'm speaking as someone who lived through British war rationing, the Jello mold revolution, and everything that came out of the Seventies."

This time, Bruce definitely giggled.

"Why don't I make you dinner?" Steve offered. Peggy was staying at a hotel in Manhattan tonight, but it wouldn't be hard to get a car and driver to get them to his place and then to drop her off. "You want to join us, Doctor Banner?"

Bruce shook his head. "I'd love to, but I'm out of here in two days and I've got way too much to do before then."

Bruce's flights were on-demand charters, so the scheduling was both completely up to him and completely not the problem. His time aboard the Helicarrier was limited by other, more demanding constraints than who flew to New Mexico, where he was currently living.

Steve's normal trip home from the Helicarrier was the shuttle ferry to the Navy Yard, but the distance from there to his apartment was too far for Peggy to walk after a long day and so he flagged down one of the cabs and raised an eyebrow in a silent dare for her to protest the treatment. And then took extra care to steer clear of her cane.

Peggy wandered around the apartment with clear interest and a critical eye as Steve pulled ingredients out of the fridge and pantry.

"I rather think it suits you," she pronounced as he found her by the mantle in the living room once he'd put up the chicken and vegetables to roast. "The things you don't care about have clearly been chosen for you by others, she said meaning the SHIELD-issued furniture and the oh-so-manly giant television. But for a fellow who isn't even sure he wants to stay, you've still put in thought and energy to the parts that are important."

Steve smiled as he followed her gaze to the row of photographs in simple frames. Peggy in uniform, smiling as she leaned against a table covered in maps held down by pistols.  Bucky grinning like an idiot as he held a rifle in one hand and a stuffed rabbit doll in the other. The Commandos, Steve included, arms around each other as they posed for a photo taken by a young Polish resistance fighter who'd be killed two days later. A promotional photo of the girls from his USO days. The box of his war trophies and trinkets, which had been added to by the surviving Commandos and sent to Steve through SHIELD by Dum Dum's granddaughter, who'd inherited it. A baseball signed by Billy Herman and two ticket stubs from a Dodgers game against the Braves in 1943. And above it all, a large photo of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1935, in which all of the pedestrians wore hats and none of the cars looked like candy-colored toys.

"I still think you need a drafting table," Peggy went on. "Doodling on the couch while watching baseball is all well and good, but you need a proper working environment."

Steve frowned. "I don't really have the kind of time to do proper work."

"You should make time," Peggy replied. "You've chosen a life without much natural beauty, so you'll have to make your own."

Dinner was pleasant - Peggy teased him for putting water in wine glasses, but complimented him on the chicken - and they sat afterward with tea and the remainder of the poppy seed cake he'd gotten yesterday at the Polish bakery. They spoke of other things, but eventually the conversation turned back to why Peggy was in New York in the first place.

"At the risk of sounding like the fogey that they all not-so-secretly think I am," Peggy began, "Fury and his minions seem to have an unwarranted faith in their technology and its ability to find Johann Schmidt. It took us years to do it the first time for far more reasons than that we lacked GPS and the internet and they don't want to be reminded of that fact. They don't think it applies to them. I might have brought up how long it took the US Government to track down one distinctive-looking fellow to a villa in Abbottabad."

Steve grimaced. He'd often thought the same thing himself - that SHIELD as a whole was entirely too reliant on technology, that they were possibly already at the point that they could not function effectively either in the field or simply doing research in-house without it. The young agents today needed navigational satellite data where Steve had been taught to figure out where he was by stars and sun and surroundings. But it also carried upward - Fury undoubtedly had perfect land nav skills, but he was also surrounded by people who were sure that finding HYDRA's base of operations was just one intercepted email away.

"HYDRA has access to the same technology SHIELD does and, it seems, has been making better use of it," Peggy went on with a frown. "SHIELD can build all of the ray guns and dig up all of the magic beans they can get their hands on, but in the end it comes down to something far more pedestrian and far older than microchips or magic cubes. It comes down to faith, which is a naughty word aboard that flying ship.  

"Schmidt was always dangerous not because he commanded armies," Peggy continued, "but instead because he commanded armies that believed in his mission with a completeness that we could never match. We stopped him because he came up against the one man who could."

Steve gave her a wry smile because they both knew that that was a gross oversimplification. Peggy gave him a flat stare.

"Your modesty becomes you, Captain Rogers, but it is occasionally irritating."

"You up for a round later?" Steve asked Natasha as they passed each other in the hallway outside of Fury's suite. He was heading in and she was on her way out.

Natasha gave him a thoughtful look. "Bad day or are you exploring your masochism kink?"

Steve frowned. "I've spent the morning with Doctors Banner and Stark, am now about to enjoy some quality time with our Director, and then get to spend the afternoon reading yet another version of the history of HYDRA -- no, really, they've gotten it right this time. I don't think my masochism kink will have any undiscovered country left by sundown."

Natasha's look turned decidedly wicked. "Oh, honey, your masochism kink hasn't even been tickled yet." She smiled knowingly at him. "Seventeen hundred at the usual place. Bring your safe word."

Steve was still grinning as he greeted Hsiang, who waved him through without losing her hold on the three phone calls she was currently managing, but the good humor didn't last long once the door closed behind him.

"Do you have some good news for me, Captain?" Fury asked before Steve could even reach a seat, let alone seek permission to occupy it. "Because otherwise, we are going to begin with the complaints lodged against you by the CDAS."

Steve did not sigh aloud; he'd been half-suspecting that this was the reason for the summons. The direct action units, still smarting from the series of surprises HYDRA had delivered, starting with Detroit -- or possibly even Poland -- were eager to turn the tables and wanted to stage their own ambush by setting up a fake serum lab and staffing it with commandos. Steve had, as respectfully as he was able, told them that it was a waste of time and resources when they'd come to him for operational design assistance. He'd given them other suggestions and offered his expertise if any of them were accepted, but not only had they not been, instead the head of the Direct Action Service had apparently gone running to Fury to complain.

"Bruce and Tony haven't blown anything up this morning?" he offered weakly, then frowned. "I told Agent Kintner that I would help them out with whatever I could if they had something that was a little less of a shot in the dark. I'm not going to apologize for not wanting to play Elmer Fudd to HYDRA's Bugs Bunny. Sir."

Fury gave him a look for the Looney Tunes reference, but gestured for him to sit down. The wall of monitors to Fury's right and Steve's left, showing everything from news networks to the view of New York harbor from the stern camera (a Staten Island ferry was making its way from the left to the top of the screen) to CSPAN and its foreign equivalents, was not turned off, which Steve took as a good sign. Fury didn't like you having distractions if he was going to ream you a new one.

"There are half a dozen research sites that have some connection to the tesseract, the serum, or both," Steve went on, sitting down in the leather chair opposite Fury's desk. "And that's probably not even a complete list because I'm pretty sure you're holding out on a couple of places, all due respect. Whatever the total number, I think our resources would be put to better use protecting what really exists instead of trying to set up a mousetrap. We don't know how they're figuring out where to go as it is, what's to say that they won't know it's a set-up from the start?"

Fury held up a hand to stop him from continuing, so he said nothing more.

"I don't disagree with you," Fury began mildly. "Let me state that up front. However, if it were as easy as that, you wouldn't be sitting in my office. The problem is this: the general assumption around here is that if Captain America doesn't like an idea, nobody higher up will, either. So when you told Kintner that you thought it was a bad plan, it earned the official stamp of an unofficial rejection. And that does a number on the chain of command."

Steve shook his head in disbelief. "Lots of stuff goes on here that I don't like. I get orders to do things I don't like. I fought against the Detroit raids and lost that one. Badly. I can't even get the commissary to stop putting water chestnuts in the Waldorf salad. How could anyone..."

Fury chuckled to himself and waved away a tiny pop-up solid light window emerging from his telephone, pushing it down like bread into a toaster. "You operate on a very high level here. All of the Avengers do. Most of the details don't filter down to the regular agents, at least not as true facts. They don't see your losses or hear you get reprimanded. They see you running off on the important missions, going to meetings with top-level agents, winding up on the news. They know that the Avengers have privileges and responsibilities and influence beyond all other agents and that gets translated into 'power.'

"Nobody has more of that kind of power than you do, Cap. Nobody's word and deed carries more weight than yours does. Unlike everyone else, your authority does not come from your security clearance or an oath you swore to SHIELD or a commission granted you by the President. It comes from seventy-plus years of history and legend and a little bit of myth amplifying what was always there that made you who you are before the serum touched you.

"And that's why when you say 'I don't like this,' it sounds to other people like 'don't even bother.' You may know that you don't have the authority to kibosh Kintner's stupid plan and I certainly know that you don't have the authority to kibosh Kintner's stupid plan, but Kintner is not alone in his ignorance. And for the sake of this organization, I need you to realize this."

Steve exhaled loudly and nodded. This wasn't the first time he'd gotten the 'Captain America has to look where he walks lest he tread on the little people' lecture - Peggy had delivered the first one, Bucky the next few, Colonel Phillips had gotten a couple in... he'd maybe not quite absorbed it as well as they'd have wanted. Mostly because it seemed a little preposterous - yes, he was aware of how he could light up a little boy's eyes with a handwave or a hello, but he'd never been able to really understand that awe in adults, then or now. Let alone adults trained to kill enemies or discern evil hiding in the darkness, who'd seen the worst on offer and who'd seen him falter and fail.

"What would you have me do, sir?" he asked plaintively. "Go along with Kintner's next plan, regardless of quality?"

"Hell no," Fury retorted, eyes flicking over to the wall of screens for a beat and then back. "Kintner's only got a couple of good ideas a month and he's already filled the quota. What I want you to do is be mindful of how 'no' sounds coming from you and remember that there are benefits of working out bad ideas, even Kintner's bad ideas. View them as teaching moments, learning experiences, whatever. You spend a lot of time working with the Direct Action Service and it would be good for them and for you - and for the Avengers - if everyone played nicely together.  

"And if you still feel strongly about it afterward, speak to me or to Agent Hill and if we agree, we will kill the bad ideas dead."

Steve nodded, aware there was no other choice but obedience and that Fury wasn't wrong, at least about needing to keep a good relationship with the DAS, to which Natasha and Clint were still nominally assigned. "Yes, sir."

"Before you go," Fury went on, which was Steve's cue to stand because the lecture was over, "what are Heckyl and Jeckyl doing downstairs?"

Steve smiled wryly. "I can't properly explain any of it with any detail, but I think it can be boiled down to trying to figure out how to perform a brain transplant."

Tony and Bruce, despite frequent reminders that there were other areas in which their expertise was needed and required, had become more and more obsessed with figuring out how Johann Schmidt had gotten into and out of Andreas von Strucker's head. They'd come up with a new excuse every time someone told them to do other things, usually Steve because he had the greatest success rate in corralling the guy who liked to remind everyone that he wasn't SHIELD and didn't have to take orders from anyone including Fury and the guy nobody wanted to piss off because it had meant no HVAC in large parts of the Helicarrier for weeks after the last time he'd gotten cranky while aboard. But they really weren't fooling anyone as to their true motivations. How could they? The man who needed a bomb in his chest to keep him alive and the man trapped sharing an existence with a rage monster, of course they were desperate to figure out how someone could shed their miserable body and move their mind to another, undamaged one.

Fury raised his visible eyebrow. "Please tell me that this does not involve any kind of actual surgery."

Steve shrugged because he'd spent the better part of two hours with them and Thor - this project had the side effect of having those three spend more time together than at any point since the flight to Chicago the other month. "I've reminded them half a dozen times that SHIELD has strict policies about involuntary lobotomies and trepanning, just in case. I was bluffing, but I assume we've got something to cover them not being allowed to snatch probationary agents to use as lab rats."

The problem was that in addition to being geniuses, Bruce and Tony were both extremely magnetic men when they put their attention to it and Tony in particular could whisk a person off to do something they'd never in a million years agree to if they'd had half a second to think about it, which of course Tony would not allow. Bruce's routine was subtler than Tony's tsunami charm attack, a sly and gentle mischief that people went for because it made you forget the Other Guy existed at all. Which was how it ended up that Tony was responsible for the most ostentatious Avengers shenanigans, but Bruce was the one who led the team in being responsible for others winding up explaining themselves to Fury, Hill, Tapper, or local authorities.

That history was clearly on Fury's mind as he frowned. "Just keep them from seeking forgiveness instead of permission."

Steve went to the commissary after leaving Fury's office, deciding that this was entirely the kind of day that justified pie for lunch, until he took a look at the pies, after which it became a great day for tuna fish. He debated going to check up on Tony and Bruce, but admitted to himself that it was really just procrastinating going to sit and read HYDRA files, so he packed up some cookies and milk and marched steadfastly to his doom. Which was located in the back corner of the aft library in a stack of secure document crates that seemed to grow in number every time he returned to them.

The post-war history of HYDRA, version seven, wasn't really all that more interesting than the first six, although Steve held out a little bit of hope that it contained less speculative fiction and more actual fact and maybe even a little insight. Andreas's memories from the period after Schmidt became the dominant personality were muddled by time and his reduced mental capacity, but SHIELD had no choice but to work off of each one until it led to a dead end or a contradiction. There had actually been progress on that front, mostly to do with the revivification of HYDRA after the 1951 raids. Andreas/Schmidt had gone back to Argentina and Brazil and Paraguay, rebuilding connections Schmidt and Wolfgang von Strucker had had and sparking the renewal of HYDRA as a formal organization with goals and resources to pursue those goals and not a loose confederation of fugitives, some of whom had money and most of whom just had experience and knowledge.

SHIELD's latest theory was that the evolution of HYDRA from Aryan military think tank to an organization populated overwhelmingly by those who would have been considered nothing more than subhuman chattel by the Nazi hierarchy was intentional and not nearly as ironic as it had first sounded. Neither Schmidt nor Wolfgang von Strucker had been all that interested in racial purity back in the day - they were fine with Jews and Poles and anyone with too-dark skin dying for a useful purpose, including being worked to death - but neither went out of their way to kill undesirables for pleasure or sport or vitriol. (Some of the other HYDRA commanders, however, had been among the worst of the worst and Schmidt hadn't cared how many they killed or how cruelly so long as they did their jobs.)

The HYDRA Andreas/Schmidt and Wolfgang had worked to solidify in the early 1960s had initially been staffed by German expats and their children, but eventually it grew too big to keep it in the Aryan family and, a generation removed from the rhetoric and historically ridiculous genealogies of pale blond peoples, it expanded. Some of the expansions were counter-intuitive when looked at from the HYDRA of the past's perspective, which SHIELD had been guilty of doing, but made a lot more sense when HYDRA was reframed from being Hitler's mystical/science militia to Schmidt's independent tool for world domination. Which was where it had been going when he'd disappeared over the North Sea and where he was determined to return it upon his re-ascension to the position of Supreme HYDRA.

(This seems to have taken place by 1965. Andreas was very clear on when his father had died and his belief that Schmidt had killed him.)

Unmoored from the racial demagoguery, Schmidt's HYDRA was free to pursue talismans from all cultures, not just those who could trace their roots to an Aryan forebear. Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica were full of myths and legends and artifacts of great power. And, in the 1960s and 1970s, most of these places were also full of political and religious conflicts and thus full of soldiers, revolutionaries, rebels, and refugees. HYDRA had fertile recruiting grounds and, with some well-greased palms that never realized what sort of nightmare they were inviting inside their borders, safe havens that turned into the kinds of states-within-states that could never be found without luck or good intelligence. And SHIELD, busy fighting the Cold War in all its many forms, had had neither because they hadn't even been looking.

"We're facing the possibility of people who could be third or fourth generation HYDRA," Steve said to Clint, who'd materialized at some point, occupied the chair across the low table from Steve's, pulled out a book with the name Joe Queenan on the cover, and not said a word. "That's a terrifying thought. Also, when did you get back?"

Observed from more than peripheral vision, Clint looked awful. Pale, drawn, dark circles under his eyes, and he was draped listlessly over the armchair without even the faintest spark of the live current that normally ran through him even when he was perfectly still.

Clint screwed up his face. "What's today? Thursday? Then Monday night."

Steve nodded, since Clint absolutely did not want him pointing out that he looked like crap or asking how he was. "You get done what you needed to get done?"

Clint had been gone for weeks with only a pit-stop or two at the Helicarrier, during which he hadn't contacted anyone. Steve didn't know why and knew better than to ask.

Clint leaned forward to rest his forearms on his thighs and exhaled loudly. "Yeah, although it's one of those I kind of wish I hadn't."

Steve grimaced in sympathy and Clint gave him an outrageously false grin in reply before letting his head drop and groaning as he rolled his neck. "I need coffee," he announced, putting down the book and pushing off his knees with his hands.

"Why don't you go home and sleep?" Steve asked. "I won't tell anyone you're in bed before 2AM if you don't."

Clint's grin was much more real this time before it faded into something more familiarly wry. "I am waiting for a summons from on high. Fury's got all of us in the house and seems to be scheduling us for bitching-outs every hour on the half-hour. I ran into Thor and he has an appointment with Fury today."

Steve reached down to keep the top page of the open folder from flying off as the ventilation kicked in and started blowing warm air into the cool room. "I think that's just to do with stuff to ask people in Asgard. His group of SHIELD people know how to frame questions, but the rest of the analysts are still giving him fancily-phrased nonsense."

Steve suspected that it was actually to quietly discuss Thor's insistence that Loki would be a valued resource in their research, both historical and scientific. And that Fury was not going to repeat to Thor the "no, not ever, absolutely not" mantra that the rest of the project personnel, especially Bruce and Tony, repeated every time it came up. But this was not a suspicion to be shared with Clint, certainly not on a day like today when he was already feeling low. That news, should it ever come, would have to come from Fury and Steve, the platoon sergeant of their little unit, would have to pick up the pieces afterward.

Clint grunted something that might be agreement or could simply be body soreness. "Do you want me to get you anything? More chocolate milk?"

"It does a body good," Steve replied mildly, which made Clint cackle gleefully. Bruce and Tony had shown him the youtube clips earlier. "Actually, you could do me a favor and go over to Bruce and Tony's lair and tell them that I said no and don't."

Clint tilted his head warily. "What are you telling them not to do?"

Steve shrugged. "I have no idea, but they've been left unattended for..." he trailed off to look at his watch, "five hours. I'm sure they're up to something that they know they're not supposed to be."

Clint's expression turned speculative. "It could be fun."

"It could involve putting your mind inside a monkey body," Steve countered. "Can you dance to an organ?"

He mimed picking a fez up off his head and holding it out for coins.

"I'm going to tell Natasha to beat you up," Clint warned as he picked up his book and headed out.

"She's going to do that anyway," Steve called after him.

Chapter Text

Steve was valiantly losing a battle against three armed swordsmen when he got distracted by a familiar face appearing on his right flank. The distraction, momentary as it was, proved fatal and one of the swordsmen struck true at the star on his uniform and cried out in victory as Steve stumbled back and collapsed dramatically, flinging his arm out as he fell to the floor to die a mournful death. His final words were drowned out by the giggling of his assassins.

“I think I should have used my shield,” he said to the nearest pirate as he sat back up again and eyed the death-dealing balloon sword, which had a pronounced bend to it that it hadn’t had earlier. His audience – three pirates and a handful of patients, nurses, doctors, parents, and the recently arrived Neal Tapper – laughed appreciatively.

Steve stood up and bowed, sweeping the tricorn hat off his head with a flourish before dropping it on the head of one of the pirates, who protested this change of status for all of a second before smiling happily. “Amy’s it. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Tapper took the hint and moved a little down the hall as Amy embraced her new role with a shout and a charge at the other two pirates.

“What happened?” Steve asked without preamble. This had been an unaccompanied ‘mission,’ a visit to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to cheer up the patients, and Steve had checked in before he’d left New York to be told that there was nothing on the docket and to have fun and please, please, give away the rest of those green Avengers caps because they made Doctor Banner growl when he saw them and Agent Hill wouldn’t let them order new ones in a different color until these were gone.

“The fecal matter has hit the rotating air circulator in a major way,” Tapper said with a tight grimace, eyes on the ground to Steve’s right and so he turned and there was a small toddler girl standing there, the younger sister of one of the patients, probably. She looked up at Steve and he looked down and waved at her and she waved back with a smile and then she ran away laughing back toward the party in the lounge of the oncology ward. Steve returned his attention to Tapper.

“Eleven days ago, an agent of ours stationed in Russia was approached by a former intelligence operative of that fine nation and told that Black Widow was selling SHIELD secrets for profit,” Tapper went on and Steve stared, hearing the words but not understanding them. Or, rather, understanding them too well because Tapper held up his hand to tell Steve to hold on to his protests. “This operative also provided a flash drive that was supposed to provide proof. That proof – some of which would be impossible to fake – has been verified. Widow escaped SHIELD custody this morning – hell, she was never in SHIELD custody – with the help of Hawkeye. Who is in SHIELD custody.”

Steve rubbed his face with his hands, not even sure how to react. “So I’ve got one teammate on the lam and another in the brig,” he summarized, exhaling loudly. “When do we leave?”

This had been his last stop at the hospital, having spent the morning visiting patients unable to get out of their beds and then a pizza party lunch in the cardiac ward during which he’d played video games with some of the older kids and lost spectacularly. He’d planned on taking Peggy out to dinner after finishing up here, but she, of all people, would understand if he postponed.

Tapper shrugged. “When you’re done here. There’s absolutely nothing you can do that can’t be done in a couple of hours. I’m here entirely because the Helicarrier is an unpleasant place to be right now when you’ve got anything to do with the Avengers and this isn’t the sort of news that should be delivered over the phone.”

Steve could only imagine what was going on aboard the Helicarrier. He looked at his watch. “Give me an hour?”

Ninety minutes and five wheelchair races later, Steve and Tapper were boarding the SHIELD helicopter waiting for them on the roof. Tapper handed him a tablet as soon as they were airborne and Steve started to read.

The details were neither here nor there – damning, but probably easily faked – right up until they weren’t. SHIELD, which in this case meant a team led by Maria Hill, was sure that anyone with enough resources to find Natasha’s various bank accounts was sharp enough to forge the large deposits that corresponded to the narrative of deceit and betrayal that had been related by the former FSB agent calling himself Igor. But what was not as easily faked, and what had ultimately convinced SHIELD that this was not a set-up, was how Natasha had collected some of what she’d sold to the highest bidders.

“Welcome to the Twenty-first Century,” Tapper said over the headset radio as Steve looked at an x-ray of Natasha’s abdomen. He reached over and pointed at the spots over her intestines and parallel with the right iliac crest. “Those are hard drives.”

According to Igor’s files, Natasha had been collecting intelligence on US interests from the moment she’d been recruited into SHIELD and she’d been storing them on data devices that could not be either lost or found because they were inside of her.

“These pictures were in her medical file from the start,” Tapper went on, gesturing again. “Those are our films. She told us that they were shrapnel and there was never any reason for us to doubt that – they’re small, irregularly-shaped, and in what seemed to be a random distribution. They weren’t moving and weren’t big enough to cause trouble where they were, so we left them there. The surgery to remove them would have taken her offline for a month and given her difficulty for four to six months and neither she nor we wanted her out of commission for that long.”

The next slide was of an identical constellation of spots, this time as schematics with Russian and Hebrew text with English translations added later. The technology itself was Israeli, the following pages explained, but the design itself was Soviet and dated back to the end of the Cold War. The inventor had been part of the exodus of Russian Jewish scientists, so he’d been at his own firm in Haifa when capability had caught up to concept. It had never been offered to the Israeli government – or any other – which was why the idea had remained largely hypothetical until proven otherwise by Natasha.

“Tony’s flipping his shit,” Tapper continued ruefully and Steve looked over to him. Tapper made a sour face that had nothing to do with the occasionally tense relationship he had with Tony. “And nobody can really blame him this time. Fury sent Natasha into Stark Industries and she had access to everything while she was there. The corporate espionage possibilities are endless and now that Stark Industries is fighting for its life because its competitors are suddenly near-peers? It puts him – and us – in awful positions. We sent an agent in because of him and if that agent stole proprietary tech and then later sold it to, say, Trident, then we’re vulnerable and he’s probably toast as far as the Board goes.”

Steve knew very well how short the leash was with Tony and the Board of Directors at Stark Industries really was, even after their return to the defense sector. Tony and Pepper had separately confessed to him how disappointed they were with how little slack that move had earned him when it had come at such a huge cost. Tony had broken his most important promise to himself for the sake of his company and he’d never quite recovered on the personal level even as Stark Industries had soared to old heights. Steve had noticed the changes, the way Tony was just that little bit less in control of himself and how that had manifested in so many ways, and had hoped it was temporary. It had, in fact, been getting better over the last few weeks – working with Bruce and their team to research how Schmidt had used Andreas von Strucker had seemingly channeled all of that restless energy into something productive. But this... this would not be anything productive, no matter how much of Tony’s energy it absorbed. And Steve knew that it would be all of it.

“He’s already on it?” Steve asked, already knowing the answer. Even without the threat to Stark Industries, before the Avengers Initiative got activated, Tony had been consulting with SHIELD on espionage and counter-espionage technology and he’d be the first person they would have gone to – especially if they’d wanted to keep it secret.

In the window behind Tapper’s shoulder, the New York City skyline was visible. Late afternoon in winter was already dusk, so the lights of Manhattan were shining bright and, for a moment, Steve thought of the spectacular view from Tony’s penthouse.

“He was the first person we told,” Tapper confirmed.

As a general rule, Steve didn’t pull rank within the Avengers because loose reins were the only ones capable of steering such a group. He accepted the burdens of responsibility of that leadership, both from above and from below, and in exchange for that he had been gifted with the respect of both sets of parties necessary to get the job done. Except now, it seemed, when both command and subordinate elements had cut him out of a situation in which he was going to be needed.

“Not to be all high and mighty here,” he said, “but why wasn’t I the first person you told? I’m the one who gets the call for all the petty annoyances and failures to comply with regulations, but when someone on my team is being accused of espionage, of a betrayal that could very well destroy the Avengers, if not SHIELD itself, I’m, what, in the top three hundred of people to be informed?”

Steve hadn’t spoken to Tony – or Pepper – in person or over the phone in the last couple of weeks, which was unusual but not so much as to draw special attention. Certainly not when everyone had been so busy with the HYDRA investigations and, in Tony’s case, prepping another demonstration for a sale to the Pentagon. There’d been the odd email about dinner plans and a party, but nothing even vaguely hinting at what must have been already going on. Steve wasn’t sure how angry he was about that right now – the decision to not say anything would necessarily have had to have been Tony’s – but it was something he could think about later.

“Initially, there was nothing worth bothering you about,” Tapper began and Steve did not miss the defensiveness in his tone. “We get these kinds of warnings all the time, accusations against everyone from low-level agents to Nick Fury himself, and Natasha probably laps the field in terms of quantity because she’s just that kind of girl and has that kind of history. The Russians in particular are always trying to discredit her, for obvious reasons. When we went to Tony, it wasn’t to warn him – it was to ask him if it was possible he could develop those schematics into a working device because it seemed like a cool idea. He was the one who told us it was already in existence. Up until then, we’d thought the schematics’ resemblance to Natasha’s x-rays were just an especially clever ginning-up.”

The helicopter began its descent to the Helicarrier’s landing pad.

“And after that?” Steve asked. “After you realized that there was a real chance that this time it was legit? When it went from cursory verification to assessing the potential damage, why not then? Why am I finding out after you tried to arrest her? Which, by the way, you should have known better than to try in Manhattan. I’d have told you that if you’d have asked.”

He took off his headset then, not waiting for Tapper’s reply, and jumped out of the helicopter when it landed a few moments later. He made his way to Fury’s suite with angry strides and didn’t miss how wide of a berth he was being given en route, although he took no pleasure in it. Hsiang didn’t try to stop him as he marched into the office of the one person who could answer his questions. Tapper was the messenger, the liaison, the middleman; Nick Fury was the one who’d decided that Steve hadn’t needed to know about Natasha before things had gone off the rails.

But Steve didn’t storm into Fury’s office to demand soothing of his ego; the damage was done and would keep while there was more important business at hand. “How bad?” was what he actually asked, although he ignored Fury’s gesture that he should take a seat in the chair across from his desk not occupied by Hill. Instead, he went to the area by the conference table where the files from Igor’s flash drive were projected on to the wall like one of the installations at MoMA, text and pictures intersected in an abstract impression of profound betrayal.

Looking over the details of sensitive reports and damaging photographs, Steve’s frustrated anger at Fury was dwarfed by the burning hurt of what Natasha had done. He was furious at the national (and international) security threats she’d unleashed by handing off intelligence to people and organizations and governments who should never have seen it, but it was also personal. Natasha, who’d been such a good friend to him when he didn’t have many, had been playing him the entire time.

“Bad,” Fury answered. “We’ve apparently pissed off our allies by unintentionally sharing intelligence product we didn’t officially have and we’re about to piss them off some more by showing them proof that they purchased what we denied existed when they asked. And that’s not even touching the secrets she sold to unfriendlies. This is a clusterfuck of the highest order.”

They spent the next hour-plus going over the details of just how bad things could get, from diplomatic incidents to what happened when everything eventually got to the terrorists, which was a ‘when’ and not an ‘if.’ Natasha hadn’t sold anything directly to HYDRA or al-Qaeda or the Iranians, but she had sold files to people who would.

There was also a discussion about where Natasha might be now, but it was brief and entirely speculative. Even if she hadn’t left the island of Manhattan, she’d be next to impossible to trace. They were looking, they were using other agencies to look, but none of them had a real belief that she would be found right away. If at all.

Steve followed the discussion easily and contributed where he could, but there was a constant sharpness to each reminder that the latest problem that had Steve sitting in Fury’s office plotting a course of action had been caused by a teammate. By a friend. He’d seen Natasha as a mentor in a lot of ways, worldly on levels that had nothing to do with her professional existence, and he’d admired her even as he’d never forgotten what she’d done and what she was capable of doing. But he’d always counted on that capability being harnessed only for good, on all of her vast experiences being put to making the world a better and safer place, and now he felt all the more naïve and out-of-place for those assumptions. He felt gullible for falling for her act – for thinking himself smart enough and thoughtful enough to see past the sex-pot routines and on to what lay beneath the vamping and the cool and not realizing that what he’d thought was the real Natasha was, in fact, just the next smallest doll in the matryoshka set. He’d never forgotten that she could lie with the best of them, but he’d started believing that she wouldn’t lie to him.

Fury kept getting pulled out of the conversation by phone calls from the Pentagon, the White House, Langley, and other august locations before he finally told Hsiang to take messages. Hill’s earpiece was constantly chirping judging by her reaction; she was going to brief the section commanders after this and was supervising the internal damage control.

“What’s going to happen to Clint?” Steve asked during an especially disjointed juncture.

Hill looked over at Fury, who was turned ninety degrees from them as he spoke to the President. “Still up for debate,” she answered. “He’s probably going to end up in a cell in Leavenworth because of the national security complications and the Army’s staking a claim, but whether he gets a court martial or a civilian trial is not yet decided.”

Clint had done his twenty and was out... kind of. Apparently there’d been some overlap between the end of his Army career and the start of his SHIELD billet (“Told Fury I wanted my pension.”) and, because of the machinations required to pull that off, Clint was somehow not yet in possession of a DD-214, which had come up when Steve had been given his.

Nonetheless, it was Agent Barton and not Master Sergeant Barton who was sitting on his bed with a deck of cards playing solitaire when Steve went down to the detention level. Clint was wearing SHIELD-issue PT gear, t-shirt and track pants, and gave Steve a wry look when he appeared. But Steve could still see the edge of darker concern; this wasn’t the first time Clint had betrayed SHIELD and while there had been forgiveness for what he’d done under Loki’s control, nobody had confused that with forgetfulness. Especially not now, when he didn’t even have the excuse of not being in control of himself. Which was why Steve had asked Fury for this opportunity and used the full force of his own indignation at not being told from the start to get Fury to agree.

“So how was your day?” Clint asked cheerfully as the guards buzzed opened the door to the cell.

“I was killed by pirates, out-driven by racers too young to have licenses, and lived through the great and horrible tragedy that is what Philadelphia thinks is pizza,” Steve replied. He tossed Clint a bag containing street clothes, which he’d retrieved from Clint’s locker – they were his back-up civvies. “And then I found out that one of my friends betrayed me and everything I stand for. Get dressed.”

Clint accepted the bag. “Is this a test?”

“Of what?” Steve asked sourly. “You’ve been a world-class idiot today, but I’m pretty sure you remember how to tie your shoes.”

Clint got dressed without a word. At Steve’s gesture, he exited the cell and followed Steve to the elevator down to the level from which the ferries departed. At this, Clint gave Steve a sharp look, like he was still asking if this was a test, but Steve simply pointed at the small speedboat that had been manned and readied for them.

“Is this a brig break?” Clint finally asked as they sped toward Battery Park.

“No,” Steve answered. “This is us finding a quiet place to talk.”

They docked at the slip for the Governor’s Island ferry, which didn’t run in the winter. The two SHIELD agents who’d served as crew stayed aboard as Steve and then Clint disembarked.

“Come on,” Steve prompted, gesturing toward the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

Clint started to walk, but gestured over his shoulder at the boat they’d left behind. “They’re not coming-with?”

“No,” Steve replied. “They’re just here to drive the boat.”

Clint made a noise and Steve could see him eyeing both the ferry terminal to their left and the subway station to their right.

“They don’t have to come because there isn’t any move you can make that I can’t stop,” Steve told him, putting no emphasis on the words and not needing to. He could see Clint process what Steve hadn’t said as well as what he had.

They navigated the still-considerable crowds of commuters making their way to the ferry, two men dressed casually for winter in New York, hands in pockets. Clint probably realized where they were going as soon as they crossed the plaza and adjusted his pace accordingly.

The East Coast War Memorial was simple and elegant in its simplicity. Four granite pillars covered in names and an eagle sculpture, all oriented toward the Statue of Liberty. It was a testament to the almost five thousand men who’d died in the East Atlantic during World War II, far from the bloody battlefields but not far from the war.

“She’s being framed,” Clint said once they’d come to a stop by the eagle. At this hour, in this weather made worse for the proximity to the water, there was no one to overhear. “I helped her because if they caught her, they wouldn’t care enough to find out why or who or how.”

Clint hadn’t said a word since he’d been tackled and shackled by the SHIELD field teams who’d been sent to bring in Natasha and who’d been kept from doing so by Clint. He’d kept his silence through his return to the Helicarrier, his booking into the detention level and assignment of a cell, and the brief visit of Fury, who’d apparently barely said a word himself. Nonetheless, Fury and Hill hadn’t needed a confession or an explanation to divine the most likely courses of Clint’s thinking. Which was that he’d either been a part of the espionage plan or he hadn’t realized it existed. Those were the only two options that made any sense and, after a thorough going-over of Clint’s known assets (and the discovery of some previously unknown assets), they had winnowed those options down to one: Clint had no idea that Natasha was guilty as charged. There was a chance that he did and his share of the profits was still hidden from the FININT agents assigned to digging up every penny Clint had ever made, but it wasn’t likely. He had spent almost all of his adult life drawing paychecks from the only branch of the government that didn’t pay well – hence his insistence on not losing his Army pension – and nothing in his spending or saving habits indicated that he’d been making money on the side.

(Natasha, on the other hand, had socked away a nest egg that Steve had found almost staggering – almost because he’d spent a lot of time with Tony Stark over the past year – and that was just the cash in the banks. What she must have lying around in bolt-holes and what she must have spent securing and supplying those bolt-holes could not be measured.)

“There’s an awful lot of evidence that says she’s not being framed,” Steve said with his eyes on Lady Liberty, her torch illuminated in what passed for darkness in New York City night. “A lot of evidence that’s very hard to disprove and even harder to come up with another explanation than that she was playing us all for fools.”

That was the crux of it, Steve thought. For him and for Fury and Hill both. The large deposits could have another origin, the intelligence she’d sold could have been manufactured – it wasn’t impossible for the Russians to have gotten it from other sources – but the hard drives in her abdomen, what possible other reason could there be for those than what Igor’s testimonials provided?

“I’m not a total rube,” Clint said after a long silence during which he’d traced the names of the fallen with his gloved fingertips. “I don’t believe that she’d never turn on us. Turn on me. For the right reason, she would. I’ve trusted her with my life anyway because I know – absolutely, without a doubt – that that right reason would never be money. There’s no cash price anyone could pay her to betray a friend.”

Steve had thought that, too. He’d like to believe that now, but that constellation of dots on an x-ray made it impossible. “Then why did she have half a terabyte of data storage an inch and a half from her belly button?”

Clint gave him a look of non-comprehension and so Steve explained the hard drives and the Soviet-Israeli schematics. Clint shook his head. “You don’t come out of what she came out of and not be a little fucked in the head,” he sighed, rubbing his hand over his hair, making it stick out at even stranger angles than usual. “She has been betrayed so many times, left for dead so many times, that she has, as the saying goes, major trust issues. Are you really that surprised that she’s been stockpiling material for when it happens again?

“She’s all grown up, Cap, but she’s still got that abused little girl inside of her. Instead of hording food, she’s hording something else that will keep her alive when it all goes to hell again,” Clint spit out, turning away from the pillar sharply. “And if you didn’t recognize the behavior, then Fury should have.”

The reasoning made sense, Steve admitted, but Clint had had all day in his silent cell to polish a justification for a terrible act into something that could be understood. Could be forgiven. Steve felt for him for that, even as he wished he could feel for Natasha and her very real pain. She’d always smiled just a little too tightly when talking about her youth, a childhood that had been nothing about being a child, and, even now, Steve was sure that those experiences had harmed her greatly even as they’d formed her into a weapon that had somehow also mastered compassion and joy. But Steve had come out of a time and place where struggle and privation and suffering had been near-universal, where hardship struck indiscriminately and with unyielding force. Before the war in Europe, with its ghastly novelties, had been the tenements of Brooklyn, which hadn’t needed the Depression to be ripe for tragedy. And yet there had been goodness and grace and bravery and kindness in such supply, even in the greatest darkness, that he couldn’t grant Natasha – or anyone else – a free pass because their lot in life hadn’t been a happy one.

“I don’t know that Fury hasn’t,” Steve said. “But it may not be enough. What’s on those hard drives? What has she been putting on those things to save for a rainy day? It’s not the commissary menu, Clint. It’s valuable intel that would do great harm were it to get out. And that’s what she’d have to do, isn’t it? Otherwise, it’s just a bluff and it doesn’t protect her. She’d have to use it or else it’s worthless. So no matter why she took it, no matter if she sincerely hoped she’d never have to use it, the fact is that she did take it. Even if the rest of the story is fake – and I’d love to believe that you’re right about that – then there has to be a reckoning for the part that is real.”

In the light from the lamppost, Clint looked angry and defiant and a little lost, like he was comprehending the enormity of what Natasha might have done for the first time. Steve let him be and watched the lights of the Staten Island Ferry as it moved across the harbor instead.

“I can’t speak to what she might have on those drives,” Clint finally said. “We never discussed that kind of thing, not even in hypotheticals. I know, like I know my own name, that she didn’t sell anything for spending money. Either something else is going on or this whole thing is a pack of lies. I’m going with the lies and I’ll pay the price for my folly if I’m wrong.”

The walk back to the boat was quick and quiet.

Life aboard the Helicarrier had finally started to settle down in the wake of the Black Widow Affair, at least in the sense that the security overhauls that had turned into part witch-hunt and part massive software and hardware upgrades had largely wound down to a quiet roar instead of the all-encompassing fog of stunned disbelief and very real concern for the fallout. There was, at least, actual work getting done these days. But it was harder to work – everyone’s security clearances had been reviewed and refined and, in most cases, reduced down. Getting classified materials, which had in turn been upgraded, required signatures and counter-signatures and extra steps that Steve was not alone in thinking was the very definition of locking the barn door after the cows had fled.

On the desk – Steve was no longer allowed to have crates of documents delivered to the aft library, he would now have to work in one of the secure carrels like everyone else – his cell phone started buzzing.

“Uh, Cap?” Bruce’s voice came over the line with that tone of voice that meant that Steve was not going to like what came next. “We have a problem.”

He winced and kept his fingertip on the place where he’d been reading -- a document that had come from a file that had required Hill’s personal approval for him to request from Archives, despite the fact that he’d requested it five times before without so much as a raised eyebrow. “We have many problems. What’s this one?”

There had been deep cover agents to pull out and bring in, awkward meetings to set up with allies and not-quite-allies alike, protocols to change and missions to scrub and redo no matter how close they were to launch date. It wasn’t even a joke to say that it didn’t matter anymore whether Natasha had actually sold the intel to anyone; she’d effectively set both SHIELD and US international relations back by years simply by being accused.

“The Danes gave us a fake soup tureen,” Tony chimed in. “It’s not even close to being the real thing.”

On a whole separate level from the logistics of getting work done in an environment still reeling from a mole and then the mole-hunt, there was the personal. The six Avengers were now down to four with Natasha in the wind and Clint in Leavenworth pending a court martial (he’d been sent to a maximum security facility for his pre-trial confinement in light of his career as a flight risk and the nature of his – Natasha’s – crimes). Although with Thor popping in and out of the galaxy and Bruce’s complicated lifestyle, most of the time the roster of available Avengers came down to Steve and Tony, which carried its own baggage.

They’d fought, loudly and a little cruelly, accusing each other of things they didn’t really believe anymore but once had. And it had ended, with sharp finality, when Pepper had shouted at them to stop, just stop, in a voice that was choking back a sob. There had been no actual resolution, no apologies or taking-backs of too-well-aimed verbal daggers, but neither of them were very good at holding grudges against people they liked, so they were both on an unacknowledged slow slide back to friendship. They weren’t socializing yet, but they weren’t snarling, either.

The same of which could not be said for Steve and Fury, whose argument had ended when Fury pulled rank and after Steve had scoffed at Fury’s reasons for secrecy and retorted that Natasha was not the first Russian spy to complicate his mission nor the first mole in his own house he’d have had to bring down. They didn’t have to make up, either, because rank hath its privileges and one of them is not having to say “I misjudged the situation.”

Steve put his pencil down. “What do you mean that the Danes gave us a fake cauldron?” he asked. “Are you sure you’re not testing the Irish one?”

In between all of the damage control and chaos and reordering of SHIELD’s house of secrets, Thor and his working group had apparently solved the puzzle of how Johann Schmidt had gotten into and out of Andreas von Strucker’s head. It had been a triumphant day, insistently so because Thor, bless him, was neither ignorant of the tension within SHIELD’s corridors nor the slightest bit interested in repressing his pride in his success. There’d been mead on offer in the commissary and spit-roasted meat on the flight deck and the Helicarrier had been a much easier place to breathe in since that impromptu celebration.

“You’re not seriously asking me that, are you?” Tony sounded more disbelieving than resentful.

“It’s all one vintage and that vintage is not 250 BC,” Bruce added. “Either the Danes pulled a fast one or they’ve been robbed and don’t even know it.”

With the only clue being Andreas’s talk of water and baptism, Thor and his team had collected legends and myths and sifted them through the filters of history and archeology and literature to come up with the Gundestrup cauldron, a large silver vessel with ties to Celtic and Welsh lore (and possibly Hindu and Bactrian as well) and tinkered with over hundreds of years by very different artisans. With possible links to everything from spells of all knowledge to the Holy Grail, it had been on HYDRA’s lists of items to pillage from Denmark, where it had been on display, but the Danes had hidden it too well and it survived the war without falling into Nazi hands. The vessel had stayed in a museum in Copenhagen since then, with a replica on display in Dublin. The Irish government had been thrilled to lend SHIELD their copy – anything that would boost its status as an artifact of legend – but the Danes had been firm in their resistance until Steve had gone to Copenhagen to ask nicely and promise its safe return. He’d signed autographs, made a brief appearance at the culture minister’s grandson’s birthday party, and overseen the loading of the cauldron into a padded box that had in turn been packed inside a padded crate.

“Oh, man,” Steve sighed, rubbing his face with his hand. “This is going to be a mess.”

Even odds the Danes accused SHIELD of stealing the cauldron and replacing it with a fake themselves so that they could use it for longer than the agreed-upon week.

“On the bright side, if we’ve got only fakes, it adds to the likelihood that Prince Valiant was right about it being the magic bowl,” Tony offered. “On the not-so-bright side, even if we figure out what got mixed in it to allow Schmidt to play mental musical chairs, we’ll never be able to test it. Unless it also works in tupperware.”

Thor was waiting for Bruce and Tony to run their tests and analyses of the cauldron before going back to Asgard to find out what Schmidt might have put in it to do what he did. Steve was sure he didn’t understand what the two of them were up to and he wasn’t sure Thor understood what the two of them were up to, either, but Thor seemed to believe that the Asgardian magicians and wise men would understand Bruce and Tony’s results and had been easily convinced to wait. Steve wasn’t sure if Fury had agreed to let Thor take the cauldron itself up to Asgard, but it was a moot point now if they didn’t have the cauldron.

“Have you told Fury yet?” Steve asked, knowing the answer.

“Was hoping you’d do that,” Tony replied easily and Steve did not roll his eyes.

“Since you known darned well I’m not going to understand whatever scientific explanation you two come up with, one of you is going to have to with me,” he pointed out. “And in such a scenario, I would have no useful function besides confirming that yes, I watched them take the cauldron out of its case and be packed up. Which I have now done, so you really don’t need me at all for that conversation.”

It had nothing to do with the lingering enmity between himself and Fury and everything to do with practicality, at least that’s what he told himself. He was on the other end of the Helicarrier from both their lab and Fury’s suite, he wasn’t going to be needed either to explain the problem or gameplan a solution, and he had his own work to get done. These files had to be returned by 1645 and he was less than halfway through the packet.

“That argument would work a lot better from someone who is shyer about how much art history they have crammed into their head,” Tony replied in a tone that meant that he knew you were ducking out and really didn’t mind. “You can go on about the manufacturing discrepancies and elemental composition just fine.”

But Tony let the matter drop and instead told Steve that Thor was stopping by later to discuss magical elixirs and Steve should come down because that was just going to be awesome. By which he meant unspeakably rude and disrespectful and Steve considered showing up just to keep Thor from using Mjolnir on Tony’s cranium.

In the meanwhile, however, there were the files on HYDRA’s serum development program to read. There’d been questions about how Bucky’s strain of the serum had ended up in modern HYDRA’s hands when it had been missing for more than half a century, but the revealed connections between Schmidt and the von Struckers meant that this, too, could be reevaluated. Steve wanted to know what the current theories were and how close HYDRA was getting – and how close SHIELD was to getting HYDRA’s research, since they’d made precious little inroads on that front in the last several months.

Steve was still deep in that well of confusion when the Helicarrier’s alarm started blaring and the red warning light started flashing. He locked the files away in their secure box and then went out into the main room of the archive library. Nobody else seemed to know what was going on, but everyone did know that they had battle stations to get to and so there was an orderly, if hurried, exit from Archives. The librarians were waiting for everyone to exit before they secured the fireproof/waterproof gates so that they, too, could go to their battle stations. The Helicarrier, like any other warship, routinely practiced emergency drills, from fires to assaults to falling out of the sky and, depending on the exact nature of the emergency, everyone had a job to play. Almost everyone. Steve, like the others not permanently assigned to the Helicarrier, was to report to the commissary to be assigned a task.

En route, the shipwide comms announced that this was a Hulk incident and this was not a drill.

Steve was unsurprised to find a probationary agent waiting for him at the commissary entrance, sent by Fury to find Captain America. Steve turned down the probie’s offer to stop somewhere to change into his costume – he had his shield and he could chase down the Other Guy in jeans as well as in the suit. He did accept the radio earpiece, though, and checked in to be told by Hill that the Hulk had last been seen down on the lab levels and their focus was going to be to first see if calming him down would work and, if that failed, to try to minimize the damage done below the water line.

“Do we know what set him off?” Steve asked as he half-slid, half-jumped down the next set of stairs by holding on to the handrails and pushing off with his legs. He really hoped the answer wasn’t Tony. Who was actually really good with Bruce’s moods when it was just the two of them, but whose barometer tended to break when there were other people in the room.

“Seems to have been an argument with Stark and Thor,” Hill replied, sounding like she was running, too. “But Stark’s unconscious and Thor’s not on radio, so the exact reason’s going to have to wait. Either way, it’s not good news.”

For more than just the obvious reasons. Bruce was at a loss to explain how or why, but dealing with the Other Guy was made easier or harder by the reason he’d shown up in the first place and frustration was generally the worst cause.

Steve ran down the corridor that led to Bruce’s lab; sometimes the Other Guy didn’t travel too far right away, instead barricading himself behind the debris he’d created until someone came to either talk him down or set him off. Right now, for better or for worse, that person was going to have to be Steve. Especially if Thor was part of the reason Bruce had lost control in the first place.

The Hulk wasn’t by the labs, but it wasn’t that hard to pick up the trail of destruction and follow it up one level to where the nest of debris was and Steve found himself face to face with a rage monster.

This was the part that never stopped scaring him because as biddable as the Hulk could be under the right circumstances, most of the time he was contrary and unpredictable and clever and perverse in his delight at causing destruction – to things as well as people. The Hulk liked the feeling of squeezing things until they broke.

“Hey, Big Guy,” Steve greeted him gently and with a half-smile, shield slung and hands up in a gesture of peace. “Bad day, huh?”

There were, he knew, countless theses on the hows and whys and whats of the relationship between the personalities of Bruce and the Hulk. It wasn’t hard to see the physical resemblance and, once you knew Bruce for longer than a week, it wasn’t even that hard to see the other resemblances. But the Hulk wasn’t simply Bruce “off the leash,” as Tony had put it. There were many sharp differences, starting with the fact that both personalities loathed the other and actively sought the other’s destruction – and they both knew about it. It was not, as Bruce himself had wryly put it, a great starting point for a negotiated peace settlement.

Today, for whatever reason, the Other Guy didn’t seem too interested in causing maximum damage. He wasn’t interested in talking to Steve, either, but he was staying in one place, he wasn’t throwing too much around, and Steve was more than happy to wait him out. He sat down on a rolling desk chair that had survived its journey intact, shield at the ready just in case the Hulk tossed something heavy at him, and kept Hill and everyone else updated in quick, quiet reports because the Hulk didn’t want him making too much noise.

After an hour became two and Steve thought he could see some of the early tells that the Other Guy’s day was drawing to a close, he asked if the Hulk wanted food because they’d both missed dinner by now. There was a grunted agreement and Steve passed on the request and an agent brought two large paper bags full of ham and cheese sandwiches (one of which was for Steve, the rest for the Other Guy).

Which was exactly the moment when everything went to hell.

“LIAR!!” the Hulk shouted, standing up and coming toward where Steve and the agent – a young woman wearing a unit designator that said she was a sniper – stood.

Steve pushed Agent O’Brian behind him and held up his hands. “Nobody’s lying. It’s just sandwiches.”

“LIAR!” the Hulk shouted again, pushing the wall of his debris nest aside, sending hundreds of pounds of material flying without a glance. “Traitor. Liar. Sold us all for money!”

And then it clicked. Agent O’Brian had auburn hair. It wasn’t nearly as bright or as artificially red as Natasha’s and the cut was all wrong, but under the circumstances, it was close enough.

“This isn’t Natasha,” Steve said loudly, repeating it as a shout when the Hulk didn’t stop. He slowed for a moment, enough for Steve to angle himself and O’Brian so that they had a clear shot at what was passing for the doorway.

Without turning to face O’Brian, who seemed to be keeping cool as a sniper should, Steve began speaking to her. “On my mark, you’re going to run. He’s faster than he looks and he will go through what he doesn’t feel like going around, so don’t waste time hiding or being sneaky. Get yourself behind the firewall and out of sight. Or at least put on a hat.”

The firewall was a perimeter ring of heavy machine guns loaded with tranquilizer rounds meant to funnel the Hulk toward a path of least damage – down to the well deck, probably, considering where they were on the ship. The tranquilizers would hopefully put him down first, but they had a mediocre success rate and if they didn’t work, then he just got even angrier and so providing him with an easy route to open ground was the second option. It was a complicated set-up to emplace because it required determining interlocking fields of fire without hitting friendlies or anything important, but Steve’s quiet time with the Other Guy had allowed it to be deployed.

When the Hulk crossed the invisible line that separated Steve’s comfort zone from the Other Guy’s domain, Steve gave the word and O’Brian ran. Steve put himself in the Hulk’s path, knowing that this would get him swatted into the wall at a speed that could very easily break his neck, but it would also buy O’Brian a few seconds.

He tried to relax as he flew through the air, but there wasn’t enough time to push mind over matter and he hit the bulkhead hard, hard enough to draw blood and make him see double and wonder if his shoulder hadn’t been dislocated as he stumbled back to his feet (shoulder: probably) and gave chase.

An hour later, he was in one of the Helicarrier’s medical facilities getting an x-ray mostly so that they could see how fast the damage from the popped-back-in shoulder was healing. He’d gotten his wounds bandaged, passed the neurological exam to show that he was not concussed, and was released to spend the next two hours in Fury’s suite listening to the litany of damage to the Helicarrier and its personnel and watching the television news coverage of the Hulk’s progress from the Helicarrier to Staten Island to New Jersey to points west. There wasn’t a constant eye on him, at least not from the news channels, but the computer people were tracking him on social media websites as people posted their pictures and videos, at least as far as West Virginia, after which it was assumed that he’d either gone to ground or passed out and they could now wait for a phone call from Bruce at some point in the next twelve to twenty-four hours.

Tony was still lying on a gurney in the emergency clinic; he’d woken up, thrown up, and then passed out again. Pepper had been called, but she was in Doha and wouldn’t be back any time soon, so Tony wasn’t going anywhere for a while since he needed supervision. Thor was already back in Asgard; he’d stayed until the Hulk had fled, but then he’d had sharp words for Fury, none of which Steve caught, and disappeared.

All of which was why Steve was worried at how truthful it might be when he walked into Fury’s suite and Hill greeted him with “the first Avenger and, quite possibly, the last.”

Chapter Text

"... no, it's not necessary at all, but I haven't been out here in months and I'm tired of needed prior written authorization to read the latest updates," Steve explained as he walked down the hallway, one eye on the tablet in his hand that functioned as a map of the subterranean city that was HYDRA's Detroit facility. He was the little blue dot moving between a set of yellow lines that instantly updated to reflect his current position.

"And I'm sure it has nothing to do with the current difficulties of life aboard the Helicarrier," Peggy said dryly into his earpiece. "Brooklyn's not far enough away, is it?"

Steve frowned at her, even though she was hundreds of miles away. "I'm not running away. I'm..."

A warning beep-beep from one of the tiny pick-up trucks they used down here -- the things sounded like the Road Runner and looked like a kiddie ride at the fun park -- as it sped down the corridor toward him. They had three wheels and a top speed of twelve miles per hour and were the transport of choice in a network of tunnels that was expansive enough to cross county and country lines. But he couldn't easily ride in one with anyone else (they were supposed to seat two) and there weren't many to spare for him to take solo, so he'd assured the supervising agents that he'd be fine on foot.

"In the way," he continued once the truck had passed, beep-beeping again in thanks as he moved to the side. "Here, not there."

A chuckle from Peggy. "I assumed. There, I'm quite sure that they're happy for you to be a stationary target to hit."

He grunted something that was as close to agreement as he was willing to make aloud, even to Peggy, without fearing that he was sounding like he was complaining. He wasn't enjoying being a bullet sponge for Fury and SHIELD, but that was an unofficial part of his job description and he accepted that because he was, officially, the leader of the Avengers and it was his responsibility to take the blame for their actions. Fury wasn't deploying him in that capacity for his own ease, at least, and was generally mindful that Steve showing up with a firm handshake and an earnest promise that yes, they were doing all they could to manage the utter shambles that the Avengers Initiative had become was not a panacea that could cure all ills. But that didn't mean that Fury wasn't as guilty of the same misguided belief most other people had about his strength and armor: just because he could survive the experience intact didn't mean that it didn't hurt plenty at the time.

"They've assigned more people to the project," Steve said as he consulted the tablet in his hand, which told him he had two hundred yards before a right turn which would take him to his destination. "But I don't know how much is getting done yet with everyone new needing to get caught up and everyone else trying to figure out what on earth Tony and Bruce had gotten up to and what got lost in the... incident."

Two weeks was enough time to repair all of the damage the Hulk had done to the Helicarrier, but not the damage the Avengers had done to each other and to SHIELD. The work on both the cauldron and the potion that had been mixed in it were both on hold because Thor hadn't come back at all -- to Earth, although there was the chance that Jane Foster was neglecting to mention a visit -- while Tony had been recovering from a concussion (not his first; the symptoms had lingered) and Bruce was gone. At first, Steve had wondered if it was actually gone, or just the sort-of gone that went with SHIELD knowing exactly where he was and just letting him be for a while. But after a week passing with no mention of Bruce, Steve had asked because even if Bruce hadn't called in, someone should have noticed a naked man wandering around and would have either called it in to the police or, more likely (according to Hill), posted about it on Twitter or Facebook the way they had when it had been the Hulk. But Hill had admitted that no, they didn't know where he was and Bruce, for all of his quirks, was very resourceful and the most likely option was that he was fine and intentionally avoiding contact and not that he was dead in a gutter somewhere.

(There had been a discussion about whether Bruce could have been captured by HYDRA or some other malevolent entity, but the general consensus was that were that true, SHIELD would have known by now. Either because HYDRA would have announced it or because SHIELD finally had a respectable level of coverage of HYDRA signals traffic and that kind of news would've traveled.)
"And how are the Danes?" Peggy asked as Steve paused to marvel at a snack vending machine standing in a recess along the corridor, next to a triptych garbage can split up to accept glass recycling, paper, and regular trash. These were not SHIELD imports; HYDRA was apparently both environmentally conscious and a believer in junk food.

"The Danes are displeased," he replied with what he hoped was dry understatement. "It took us the better part of three hours to get them to believe that we hadn't made the whole story up just to cover for the original falling into New York Harbor when the Hulk made his departure."

The accusations had flown, from the pedestrian to the outrageous and then beyond. SHIELD was covering up for the Hulk, SHIELD was covering up for Natasha (who'd been gone for weeks by the time the cauldron had left Copenhagen), SHIELD was backdating and fabricating the test results Bruce and Tony and their team had run, SHIELD had made a deal with the government of Ireland to secretly swap their fake for the original in return for unknown future benefits or favors. There were threats of a diplomatic incident, of going to the International Court of Justice, of somehow securing the revocation of SHIELD's charter (Fury had simply raised his eyebrow there). But in the end, the Danes were forced to back down because SHIELD's analysts had been able to use the Nationalmuseet's own printed material against them: a photograph of the cauldron from a 2012 publication did not quite match a photograph from a 1998 catalog and there was no way that could be blamed on SHIELD or any of its personnel.

"They're conducting their own internal investigation into how and when," he added. "We offered to help them because of the HYDRA connection, but they said no and I don't think we care enough about the answer to browbeat them into agreeing."

He made the right turn, which put him in another corridor illuminated with fluorescent track lighting and regularly-spaced single colored lights to indicate exits, emergency equipment, and other accouterments. It was remarkably like the subterranean bunkers he'd visited during the war in many ways, but the biggest difference was not the lights or the signage, rather that the entire place didn't smell like stale cigarette smoke and even staler body odor. Hooray for modern ventilation systems.

"Hey, do remember when we came back from France with the cognac?" he asked as he pushed open a stuck door and looked inside. The map said what he wanted was through another door on the far side of this room, which was apparently a storage closet, although it hadn't been while HYDRA had had run of the place. "Colonel Phillips was ready to break the bottles over my head because we brought booze instead of HYDRA weapons?"

It had been a misbegotten mission from the start, a meeting with a resistance group previously unknown to any of them and vouched for only by one of the Communist cells that spent half of its time sabotaging the nationalists' work, had gotten them supposedly first-hand testimony of a weapons depot that contained some of the HYDRA blue-laser blasters. But when the Commandos raided the place, it had turned out to be a regular old storehouse full of grain and booze and tinned meat and cheese wheels. Not even Nazi cheese, although the goods belonged to a collaborator who'd been making a tidy profit supplying the Boche and they'd had no qualms about filling themselves and then making sure the rest was given over to (more trusted) resistance cells. They'd trudged home well-fed but empty-handed save for a couple of bottles of cognac and a few other edible rarities.

"How could I forget?" Peggy laughed. "Poor Jacques nearly had a breakdown at the idea of wasting ninety-year-old Chabanneau on your thick skull."

Steve smiled as he stepped carefully around a stack of crates that were not piled straight. Jacques had been the reason they'd taken the booze in the first place; he'd nearly fainted at seeing such a large supply of what had apparently been very expensive liquor.

"What brought that up?" Peggy asked, amused but more thoughtful. "Have you stumbled upon a cache of luxury goods in the tunnels?"

"Nah," he replied, pausing to figure out the best way around the rest of the piles of boxes and crates that littered the floor. SHIELD had been though everything already, so they were all labeled with their contents, but the placement was haphazard and the organization nonexistent. "I found a vending machine with a surprising variety of M&Ms, though. I didn't know they came with pretzels in them."

"Those are the best kind," Peggy replied. "And to answer the question you aren't going to ask, we drank that last bottle at yours and Sergeant Barnes's gravesites after the opening of the memorial. The two of you got sips only; it was decided that any more would be wasted on the both of you, for different reasons."

Peggy was right, of course, he wasn't going to ask. Which was different from not wondering, but it had seemed needy to ask. After the Colonel had calmed down, they'd given him one of the bottles of 1850 Chabanneau and drunk another between them (and Peggy and whoever else had been around at the time). There'd been a third bottle that they'd set aside, in the romantic gesture of the slightly tipsy, for the end of the war. It had been given to Peggy for safe keeping, although that had been a relative term because even if she wasn't spending weeks at a time behind enemy lines like they were, she had usually still been far from safe.

"Bucky was better with beer and wine," Steve said, since he had to say something.

"You say that out of loyalty and I respect that," Peggy retorted. "But Sergeant Barnes couldn't tell a good vintage from a poor one from grape juice with antifreeze in it. He made his judgments purely on the size of the container."

Steve might have giggled, but then stopped to push a stack of crates marked to indicate that they held stone vessels and glassware - why had the SHIELD agents piled these together? - out of the way of the door he wished to reach.

"Finally," he murmured as he opened the door. As with most of the underground network, the lights were rigged to motion sensors, so they flickered on as he entered.

"Have you found the Holy Grail?" Peggy asked. Steve thought he could hear the click of knitting needles. It amused him to no end that Peggy, ferocious Peggy, had taken up knitting. She'd told him tartly that she'd mastered these domestic skills before the war - did he think she'd managed to keep her uniforms in one piece with help of some magical tailor who'd followed her into warzones? - but she'd had to admit that knitting now was a hobby, although not one he could mock her for without consequences. ("Another word and I unravel your scarf and turn it into a sweater for the dog next door.")

"No Holy Grail," he answered, looking around. "The Danes lost that sometime in the last fifteen years."

The room looked more or less like the photographs had indicated that it would: black stone countertops around the perimeter with shelves above and cabinets below and the lab equipment exactly where it had been left when HYDRA had vacated. Only the reagents had been stoppered and some glassware rinsed out, but even with the modern ventilation, there was still a slight chemical odor in the air that no SHIELD photographs or video could capture. It was the reason he'd come to Detroit in the first place, above and beyond any wish to get out of range of the bureaucratic shooting war aboard the Helicarrier.

SHIELD science teams had been permanently stationed in the Detroit complex since it had been secured, descending like locusts upon each room with so much as a test tube in it. HYDRA had been exceptionally careful about removing any kind of evidence that could be useful in figuring out what they'd been up to or what their future plans were, but they hadn't completely sterilized the place - how could they when it was almost as vast as the city above it? - and the longer SHIELD had to go over the place, the more clues they'd found. This had been especially true with the labs, from which the science teams could look at the inventories on the shelves and put together likely projects. It was how they'd ultimately stopped the suicide-by-poison-capsule problem - they'd found the lab where the formula had been designed and, from there, developed a simple antidote with minimal side effects and maximum ease of use.

Some mysteries, however, remained mysteries. They'd never found any hint to where HYDRA's main serum development lab was, since it hadn't been in Detroit. Which was not to say that there'd been no serum work done in Detroit - it's how they'd found out that HYDRA was working off of the strain that Bucky had been shot up with - but instead that it hadn't been the most important place. Everyone at SHIELD believed that the actual testing facility would be in one of their bases in the third world, where disappearing people and appearing piles of failed test subjects could go without notice after the right arrangements were made. But where the lab work would take place, that had been and remained a source of disagreement. Some had believed it would be near the testing site, since modern transportation options meant that getting ingredients and equipment into and out of remote locations was no longer a problem. But there was an equally strong argument to be made that while twenty-first century logistics made more things possible, it was no replacement for the kind of resource access that came with first-world accommodations. Which had been rebutted, as much it could without anyone having the actual answer, by the fact that Detroit would have been the ideal location for such a facility and, to this point, they'd found no evidence that it had been. Around and around it went, an argument Steve had faithfully followed up until the recent document access protocols overhaul had made it an effort not worth putting in more than occasionally.

Until he'd walked into one of the labs aboard the Helicarrier last week and been hit with a smell that he'd last encountered a long time ago and in a place far, far away.

SHIELD was recreating most of HYDRA's experiments, or at least mixing together solutions found in proximity to each other in HYDRA labs; Steve got the impression that the distinction between the two was a little fuzzier than the scientists liked to admit. He'd been walking past one such project en route to the lab where Doctor Peng was waiting for him. Doctor Peng was still waiting for him because Steve had never made it past where a biochemistry team was working on what they had thought was some kind of energy booster, like caffeine or amphetamines but with a longer effect.

Steve had stopped short, nearly choking on the memories of the last time he'd gotten a whiff of that particular odor, and had started asking questions with an urgency that the scientists had confused with menace and Tapper had been summoned by some kind of secret alarm. Once it became clear that Steve was neither on a rampage nor affected by some sort of contact high from the fumes, the questions and answers flowed more freely - although no less sharply - and Fury himself had needed to be called in.

Yes, Steve was absolutely one-hundred percent sure, this was exactly what he'd smelled in the room where he'd found Sergeant Barnes.

The scientists hadn't quite believed him at first. ("With all due respect to Captain America here, he's talking about getting a nose full of something for a few minutes in the middle of a gunfight that took place seventy years ago." "It's more like five years to me and those few minutes correspond to me finding my best friend strapped onto a gurney in a HYDRA lab. It's a distinct memory.") Most of them still hadn't quite believed him at the end, either, but Fury had and, ultimately, that's what was important. That's what had gotten him permission to fly to Detroit and wander around the tunnels unfettered and with all resources at his disposal.

"I've gotten through three rows and recovered from one dropped purl," Peggy began. "Do you feel like sharing what you've found or are we to continue this companionable silence that drains your cell phone battery?"

Steve sighed as he made a slow tour of the room. "I didn't come out here because I was feeling cooped up."

"You don't say," Peggy replied dryly. Steve could imagine her rolling her eyes. "Did you find what you did go out there for?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "But I think so."

He explained about that afternoon in the biochemistry lab. "They're still not sure if it was part of the serum formula or not," he went on. "What they've been able to piece together from the blood they took from Bucky once we got back and what they've been able to take from here, none of it is very clear. They're all incomplete and not entirely compatible and so while yes, everyone agrees that an enhancer like that one would be necessary, nobody will go out on a limb to say that it's this one."

It was all ass-covering and while he could accept the kind of reservations that went along with not wanting to commit too many resources to a dubious idea, this wasn't that and it annoyed him. Annoyed Fury, too, although not enough to force them to change their tunes without more evidence. Which he'd allowed Steve to go get. So Steve had gone back to the files to see where in the Detroit tunnel city the inspiration for the experiment had come from and there, in a room that hadn't been found until four months ago and hadn't been given a whole lot of thought since then, he'd found what he had been waiting to find since Andreas von Strucker had wept with relief at someone finally believing him.

"Are you standing in HYDRA's serum lab after all?" Peggy asked.

"Not the main one," Steve replied as he stopped in front of shelves that were meticulously and particularly organized. "They're right about that, at least until we find some other secret room somewhere."

"But," Peggy prompted.

"But remember when I was telling you about the HYDRA Mona Lisa, back before we knew that Schmidt was still alive?" Steve asked by way of reply. "This lab isn't just part of the School of Johann Schmidt. This is the master's studio."

"Are you threatening me, Captain?" Fury asked, raising neither voice nor eyebrow.

"No, sir, I'm not," Steve replied. "I'm informing you."

Fury gave him a sour look. "You are informing me that if the most serious charges against Clint Barton are not dropped, then you will be volunteering yourself as a character witness for the defense. Explain to me how that differs from a threat."

The charges against Clint were many, varied, and more than one came with the possibility of a firing squad if a guilty verdict were rendered. Steve had been troubled by the breadth of the charges and the vehemence with which the prosecution was pursuing them from the get-go, but the talk in certain areas had been that a few would be withdrawn as the trial date drew closer, so he'd kept his discomfort to himself. Or almost to himself - he'd talked to both Peggy and Tony about it, the former of whom put him through a rigorous test of logic and loyalty and the latter whose unabated fury at Natasha's betrayal still blinded him to the true nature of Clint's crimes.

But now they were less than a month from the trial start and there'd been no dropping of charges and Steve, for all that he was still angry at and disappointed by Clint, could not allow him to risk the death penalty.

"I'm not asking you to do anything," Steve replied, looking straight at Fury and fighting the urge to either improve his posture or look away. "I'm not making any demands of anyone, not even the JAG office. I'm stating my intentions now, so that if and when the situation arises, you aren't blindsided. That's it."

The phone on Fury's desk rang again and he picked it up and then slammed it back down without taking his eye off Steve.

"That's not it and you know that's not it," Fury said, voice full of frustration and anger even if it kept the same civil tone. "You are telling me that Captain America, icon and legend to every single man and woman who has put on a uniform, is going to march into that court martial and swear on a bible that your direct subordinate, Master Sergeant Barton, is an honorable man with a lifetime of faithful service and has not betrayed your unit, this agency, or this country for which you have fought and died and now fight again.

"You are self-aware enough to know exactly what this is and it's not you being considerate."

Fury wasn't wrong; Steve was not so naïve about his power and influence to not have a very clear idea of what this decision would do to the prosecution's case. He was also aware of what it could cost him personally here at SHIELD and elsewhere and that, by extension, it could and would hurt others. But what it would cost him - and Clint - if he did nothing was the far greater penalty and one he had no desire to pay.

He breathed deeply before replying. "I can't stand by and watch Clint be tried for treason when his true crime is being loyal to a fault."

Whether nor not Natasha had been a spy - and Steve was very carefully not bringing up that thus far all of the evidence against Natasha was circumstantial and based on her reputation - Clint had never knowingly aided and abetted treason. He would have brought Natasha down himself if he'd thought she'd betrayed them, this Steve believed when Clint had sworn it to him. The question was whether either his ignorance of Natasha's crimes - or his faith in her innocence - was enough for him to escape punishment.

"Are you not guilty of the exact same offense?" Fury asked, sounding almost curious. "You are trying to do for him what he did for the Widow. Except you'll succeed where he failed."

Steve smiled, a rueful, sad smile. "Then I'll be hoisted on the petard of my own folly in his place. But it's the only choice I can live with and I'm prepared for the consequences. I don't mean to make a martyr of myself over this. I won't enjoy it. But I can't let this happen and still be able to look myself in the mirror. I'm sorry."

Fury shook his head sadly. "The pain in the ass part of this is that I know you are."

The phone on the desk rang again and just when Fury was about to pick it up and slam it back down again, Hsiang's voice came over the intercom saying that it was the SACEUR and this was the third time he'd called back.

"I'll let you get on with things," Steve said, gesturing over his shoulder toward the door and Fury nodded.

Steve turned and started walking to the door as Fury greeted the US Navy Admiral who currently had one of the most important and most frustrating military postings in the world.

"Cap," Fury called as Steve was about to put his hand on the door knob. "You can't save them all."

He looked back and shook his head. "I can't stop trying, either."

He closed the door gently behind him, nodding to Hsiang as he passed her desk.

This morning, when he'd left home with the full knowledge that he was showing up to publicly commit to a course that would rattle his chain of command, his determination and his acceptance of what would come after had given him a familiar peace. One that had little to do with ease of either task or mind, but instead that he was doing all he could do to make the right outcome happen. During the war, it had usually struck him while he was walking into places that he very well knew he might not walk out of (but that almost anyone else certainly would not). Here, it was a different kind of battlefield with different kinds of wounds that left different kinds of scars and his serum-granted healing factor would not make these go away so quickly, if at all.

That said, the metaphorical wounds, like their physical cousins, still hurt in the acquisition and he'd maybe underestimated that a little when planning his day. He'd -- in hindsight foolishly -- thought he'd go straight from Fury's office down to Archives and spend the day there. But on the long walk from Fury's suite to the elevator, Steve realized that that was going to be a wasted effort and by the time the elevator came, he was pushing the button for the gym level.

Not for the first time since Natasha's departure, he wished she were here to fight with him. Sometimes he wanted to take out his frustration and stress from the mess she'd caused on the person most directly responsible -- for destroying the Avengers, for everything happening to Clint (who was neither blameless nor passive in his own story), for setting back important work and destroying crucial relationships on the international diplomacy level as well as in the odd little community of spies who lied to each other but also shared more truths with each other than with the people on their own sides. The rare time, he wanted to pay her back, blow for blow, for how her betrayal had hurt him, Steve Rogers, and for making him hate her and hate the memories of their time together. Mostly, though, he just missed her, missed having someone he didn't have to worry about holding back against even if he always did, at least at the start.

Taking out waves of probationary agents wasn't nearly as satisfying, although eventually it did prove as tiring.

There was a text waiting for him on his phone after he'd showered and changed back into civvies. Two texts, both from Tapper, who presumably had been summoned by Fury once the call from the SACEUR was complete. The first asked simply what Tony had done, since even with just two Avengers, Steve was not the leading candidate to cause the official team wrangler to have his leash yanked. The second, timed an hour later, simply said "wow."

Neither really required a reply, so Steve went up to the commissary and took advantage of the recent realization by the food services staff that they'd get fewer complaints if they offered breakfast foods for the entire day. Pancakes and eggs and sausages, all covered in butter and syrup, was neither an epicurean nor a particularly healthy meal, but it was a comforting one.

After that, it was finally down to Archives, where he spent the remainder of the day in a mostly useless (but not completely so) pattern of reading, realizing he wasn't absorbing, rereading, and then having to take more detailed notes than usual because he knew he wouldn't be able to quite remember what he'd been writing if he looked back on it later.

Eventually, though, the effort far outstripped the reward and so he packed up his things, returned the files to the clerk, and made his way down to the well deck to pick up the ferry back to Brooklyn.

"Got a minute?"

Steve looked over to where Maria Hill, in civvies, was waiting to board the Manhattan ferry, which was in the final stages of docking, the crew preparing the boarding ramp to be extended. The Brooklyn ferry was already accepting passengers.

Like many in the SHIELD hierarchy, Hill had an apartment in Battery Park City, a short walk from where the boat that ferried personnel to and from Manhattan docked, but she rarely left this early in the day. Sometimes she never left at all -- scuttlebutt was that the cot in her office saw more use than her apartment did.

Without a word, he joined her on the queue for the Manhattan ferry. They didn't speak for the five-minute ride to Manhattan; even if many people affiliated with SHIELD didn't recognize him out of uniform, everyone knew who Hill was and her rank alone made the trip near-silent for everyone.

Hill didn't say anything until they'd gotten clear of the dock.

"General consensus is that everyone liked you better when you didn't know your own strength," she said as they walked. She was leading them toward State Street and he followed. It was after trading hours on the Exchange, but it wasn't late enough for the offices to be emptying out, so the pedestrians were mostly tourists. "But between you, me, and the Somali guy selling knockoff tourist crap over there, I don't think Fury minds too much that you've chosen now to remind everyone that you're Captain America and there's more to you than the goofy grin and the shield."

Steve gave her a half-smile because this was her delivering good news; he wasn't sure how goofy his smile was, but she returned it with a wry frown. For all of his time at SHIELD, he didn't know her very well. They worked together without difficulty, but also without any kind of strong personal rapport. Fury let moments of humanity slip through, but Hill either couldn't or didn't want to. Steve didn't know if it was because of her personality or because she was a woman in a male-dominated environment or because she felt she had to play straight man to Fury's oversized presence. As an XO to someone like Fury, she could have played it a few ways, but had chosen the all-business, no-nonsense route and Steve wondered, not for the first time, if that choice had made the road she traveled harder -- or if it had made it possible in the first place.

"Fact is, we've got no positive proof that Natasha sold what Igor said she'd sold," Hill continued, adjusting her scarf against the strong breeze from the strong breeze of the harbor. "We've got no proof that she didn't, either, and we're not nearly far enough through that list to be able to say if any of it's bullshit, let alone if all of it is. But because we don't know anything about she did, we can't really stand up in court and accuse Barton of being complicit in it. There's enough reasonable doubt to choke a whale."

Which had been one of Steve's reasons for standing up for Clint -- there was a chance he hadn't been wrong, that Natasha was being set up. It was not likely, Steve would admit to anyone who asked. But it was possible. And Steve didn't want to see Clint's life and career destroyed either because Natasha had betrayed them or, even worse, because she hadn't and nobody could prove it.

"You know how this works," Hill went on. "Egos have to be catered to, hurt feelings assuaged, asses kissed. Someone has to pay for a lot of ruffled feathers and national and agency embarrassment. If it's not going to be the Widow or Barton, it's going to be you. You can expect some top cover, but don't take it for granted."

She was about to say something else, but a chorus of bleats from cabs and buses as a pedicab made an ill-timed stop and turn caused her to pause.

"I'll be on my best behavior," Steve promised, which got him a sour look in return, but she couldn't quite hold it and ended up shaking her head and smiling.

By unspoken agreement -- and Steve had had very little chance or reason to say anything during this 'conversation,' they parted ways at the intersection of State and Bridge. Hill continued northward while Steve waited for the light to turn so he could walk east.

Right before the walk sign appeared, Hill called back to him. "Ancora -- Stone Street between Whitehall and Broad." She pointed in the general direction of the Customs House. "Saltimbocca alla romano."

Stone turned out to be the next block north from Bridge -- like every other New Yorker who didn't work in finance, the Wall Street area was a few streets he could easily place surrounded and crossed by a lot of others he couldn't. It was the oldest part of New York City, the part that had once been New Amsterdam, and it was still old and beautiful in more spots than it wasn't with its crooked cobblestone streets and narrow lanes and buildings that had been standing since before the Civil War, let alone before his own. It didn't make him forget he'd lost so much time, but it did remind him that there were many things here older than him still and far more relevant.

Ancora did not look like it had been here before him, at least not from the outside. From the inside, there was more of an old-world vibe and a menu largely to match. He got baked clams before the saltimbocca, which was spectacular, and sat with his wine afterward, able to relax a little for the first time all day.

"It's a raid, Tony, not a date," Steve sighed as he put his beer glass down. Stark Industries' in-house microbrewery was starting to produce some really good bitters.

Tony, mouth full of burger, gave him a dirty look as he chewed and swallowed. "Then quit talking about what I should wear and whether I should put out."

"You're the wrong kind of saucy for me," Steve said, gesturing that Tony should wipe the ketchupy trail of grease rapidly working its way to his chin. "Also, I can't say that Elizabeth, New Jersey is my idea of how to show a girl a good time."

The raid in Jersey was a direct consequence of Steve having returned from Detroit announcing that they'd found Johann Schmidt's personal lab space. There'd been some initial disbelief and push-back from that, but it hadn't lasted long because Koys, the agent in charge of keeping track of HYDRA science facilities and what they were used for, had come on board. From there, things had progressed quickly because now that they had proof that Schmidt had indeed used Detroit as a working base of operations, they could re-analyze everything they had in and from Detroit with an eye toward what they'd learned about the cauldron. Which in turn had led them to reliable chatter about HYDRA planning to attack a petrochemicals plant in Jersey.

"You took your girl to a war zone," Tony pointed out as he replaced his napkin in his lap. "You have no idea what constitutes a good date spot."

"She took me to a war zone," Steve corrected, picking up one of his fries. "And I have great ideas for date spots. But instead, I'm asking if you want to come to Jersey."

The SHIELD interception of HYDRA's raid was going to be carried out by the direct action teams; had the Avengers existed on more than just paper, they would have played a key role, possibly even led the operation. But the Avengers off the page were still really just Steve and Tony and Tony hadn't done anything other than recreational flying in the suit since he'd been medically cleared to resume Iron Man activities.

(Clint's charges had been reduced, but he had not yet been tried for what remained. Thor was still in Asgard - something had come up there and it wasn't a case of his royal ego being still bruised. Bruce was still nowhere anybody could find him, although Steve privately thought that either Tony or SHIELD or both knew exactly where that was by now.)

"I suppose I could see if the new non-lethal weapons system is working," Tony mused, tucking pickle slices back under the bun of his burger. "I'm working on a barf cannon."

Steve had been about to pick up his own burger -- juicy, rare inside with a crust of char outside, and Steve had been both unsurprised and a little horrified to be told that it was a specialty blend costing more than $20 a pound -- but put it back down. "Do I really want to hear about this now?"

Tony beamed at him and swirled a fry in aioli. "It doesn't project vomit. If I ever choose that as a battle tactic, it will be completely spur of the moment and not something I pack in advance."

Steve gave him a flat look and picked up his burger again. "As someone who is likely to be on the ground beneath you, I'd prefer you never choose that as a battle tactic."

Tony popped the fry into his mouth. "I'm still working on directing the sonic waves in a tight enough band so that it can be used as an individual take-down option and not just as crowd control."

Steve chewed for a moment, letting himself appreciate the experience despite the topic of conversation, before swallowing. "A crowd control weapon against a HYDRA army isn't the worst option. But I don't want our guys to be retching up last week's lunches, too."

Tony looked thoughtful for half a second and mischievous for much longer than that. "Is Kintner running the mission?"

"No, Corrales," Steve answered, then added firmly. "And we like Corrales."

Corrales had equal rank to Kintner within the Direct Action Service, but was much easier to work with and never seemed to resent having Avengers along. Steve appreciated what kind of a burden and an annoyance having a team of semi-autonomous special agents around really was, how it required far more than just extra planning to make sure nobody accidentally shot someone on their own side. Keeping the interactions smooth and making sure everyone was working together and not undermining the regular force's command (or morale) had been the most important command lessons he'd learned while leading the Commandos.

"No making Corrales revisit last week's pupusas," Tony promised. "But I'm still going to load the platform. If HYDRA's going to be swarming like ants -- like they usually do -- then I don't think Corrales will mind too much if his boys have to wade through some unpleasantness if it means they don't have to fire a shot. I could use the live testing."

Steve shrugged, attention back on his burger. "You could always ask the Marines again."

Tony grinned. "They do love it when I do that, don't they?"

A week later, Tony got his live test of what officially went by an alphanumeric Stark Industries project number followed by a parenthetical explanation that it was a non-lethal crowd control instrument. But everyone knew it was "the barf cannon" because even if Tony hadn't been gleefully telling anyone who would listen over comms, the results were obvious. And possibly legendary.

The second-order effects, in hindsight, should perhaps have been anticipated, something Steve suggested to Tony as they waited for the fire trucks to finish putting out the half-dozen small blazes that were a necessary consequence of having a pitched battle around a petrochemicals factory. That the fire hoses were washing away something far more unpleasant than charred plastics and blood was even more eagerly anticipated.

"I didn't think the sympathetic reaction would be so strong," Tony said, a note of defensiveness creeping into his voice, which was raised to be heard over the circling helicopters. "SHIELD badass commandos, right? They've seen everything, done everything, most of 'em got SOCOM coins the hard way. And this is Elizabeth, the place stinks even on a good day."

Steve eyed the decon stations being set up by SHIELD's mission support staff. They'd been brought because of the risk of chemical spillage, of which there hadn't been that much, but the showers would be heavily used anyway. He planned on making use of them before heading back to the transport, although the boots might have to be a loss regardless.

"I thought the purpose of the device was to induce vertigo," he said blandly, watching the beams of the floodlights from the helos as they searched the area for any HYDRA troops that might have slipped past the cordon. "Not to render Ipecac obsolete."

"Ipecac's been obsolete for generations," Tony replied, rallying for a moment before fading again. "But yeah, no. This wasn't a great success. The goal would have been to render the HYDRA guys woozy and disoriented, not recreate Caligula's vomitorium after a particularly good party."

As if on cue, more ambulances showed up.

By the time the fire department and HAZMAT teams cleared the building for re-entry, Steve had had his fully-dressed stroll through the decon shower and most of the SHIELD commandos had been checked out, cleaned off, and given bottles of water dosed with electrolyte solution. The actual hospital-worthy casualties were mercifully low on both sides -- something Tony could and would use to his defense later on -- and they'd had to radio for more prisoner transports to accommodate the higher than anticipated survival rate of HYDRA troops.

Corrales gave Steve a wry look as he approached, holding up his water bottle in mock salute. He'd changed uniforms by necessity and was now wearing the standard SHIELD field uniform instead of the more tactical DAS duds. He'd had to change his body armor, too. "So that was an experience for the memoires."

Steve frowned. He could explain that he'd made Tony aware of the dangers of friendly-fire incidents beforehand, but that would be shifting blame and it wasn't what he was here for. "I'm sorry."

Corrales waved the apology away with his free hand. "I've got four kids," he scoffed. "This was not the first time I've been covered in puke from multiple sources. I may be a little cross if I have to break in new boots and body armor, but none of my people got shot tonight and that's more important than any irritation from chafing."

Steve nodded, grateful for the understanding even if it wasn't completely unexpected. Corrales was a good man as well as a good field commander.

"But don't tell Mister Stark right away, if you don't mind," Corrales added with a grin and a wink. "If he's feeling guilty, we might get some toys out of him as make-up presents."

Tony had left with Steve's blessing fifteen minutes ago; he had an international video conference call later this morning and needed time to prep (which he didn't even pretend meant 'sleep') before that happened.

"My lips are sealed," Steve assured, then gestured toward the still-smoking building. "You got enough people ready to head in and take a look?"

Behind them, raised voices that turned out to by HYDRA prisoners resenting the fire hose being used to clean them off before loading into the transport vans.

"I don't think you could pay me enough to be the guards riding in the back of those rolling monkey carts tonight," Corrales said. "Amphibious egress in the middle of winter's gonna turn out to be the more pleasant trip home. But to answer your question, yeah. We're ready to go. Only a couple of guys are down for the night and they'd be available if really needed. One of 'em slipped and the other's a little dehydrated."

Steve wasn't sure what they were going to find, if anything, inside. But HYDRA had come here for a reason and that reason was very likely tied into Schmidt's work in Detroit. So while the better odds lay with learning something from the prisoner interrogations that would continue into the coming dawn, there was every reason to get into the building as soon as possible.

An unmarked black SUV drove slowly past the barricades and came to a stop a few feet away from them. Two SHIELD agents emerged from the front and rear passenger doors, followed by a rumpled and bewildered-looking man in his fifties, looking exactly as one might expect someone to if a party of federal agents showed up at your door in the middle of the night and told you to come with them. He looked around in bleary disbelief of what had become of his quiet little factory, startling and staring when he saw Captain America standing in his parking lot.

"Company owner," Corrales explained. "Lewis F. Zubkhovsky. We've had him under surveillance for the last forty-eight, in case he's more than a victim here. SIGINT says no, but SIGINT's not perfect and HYDRA's smarter than the average bear when it comes to these sorts of things. At the worst, he can tell us if anything's missing and maybe what a global terrorist organization wants with the ingredients and byproducts of adipic acid. At best, he can tell us why HYDRA chose to raid this place when they don't produce anything that can't be bought on the open market."

Without either the cauldron or any real notion of the elixir that went into it, plus missing a couple of key (Avengers) players on the scientific field, the best anyone could do to figure out why SHIELD had chosen this place was guess. Adipic acid, according to the very basic primer they'd all been given, had medical uses that might play in to serum development. But it was also used in plastics and there was an equally likely chance that there was something here that had nothing to do with the serum or Schmidt at all and was just of a more general use to HYDRA.

"If he can, will he want to?" Steve asked, mostly rhetorically. It depended entirely on whether HYDRA's interest was either cause or effect of whatever Z-Chem Corp was doing. Up until HYDRA actually showed up on company property with the intent to do damage, even SHIELD had been limited by what sort of invasive research they could do on the business and its personnel. They had no evidence that Zubkhovsky was a HYDRA supporter, but all that meant right now was that he hadn't had a HYDRA flag up in his front window.

Corrales made a face to indicate that he knew exactly where Steve's thoughts were right now and agreed with them.

"We better pack him a barf bag before we take him in," he said, starting to walk toward where his XO was organizing the teams.

By the time they finished the tour of the factory, it was past dawn and sunlight was streaming into soot-darkened windows. SHIELD's presence had been reduced to the mobile command post and a site security team, aided by the local police, whose tasks included not only keeping the curious out, but also making sure that Z-Chem Corp employees who showed up for work were checked out and kept onsite and separate from their cell phones.

By 1030, Steve also knew that Zubkhovsky wasn't the link to HYDRA and had been genuinely shocked to find equipment that had no use to Z-Chem's legitimate business, although it had been bought with company funds, and even more shocked to realize that the culprits were his second-shift foreman, two chemists, and two orderlies (company terminology for the unskilled manual laborers). The accountant was going to be in trouble as well, but only internally because her crimes had more to do with careless work and nothing (as yet) to do with directly supporting terrorism.

Steve left with the rest of Corrales's team once the forensic units showed up; he hadn't understood most of what Zubkhovsky had been talking about when he'd explained what was amiss and what could have been produced in the contraptions that had been built on casters so that they could be rolled in and out of hiding.

They were a couple of blocks from the water and, with wry looks that needed no translating, refused the offers of a ride back to the boats. They joked about swimming back to the Helicarrier, but instead rode the zodiacs and headed straight for the showers without stripping off first.

Dressed in his civvies, Steve checked in with Tapper, who informed him that there was a serious high-level debate about what to call Tony's weapon ("leading candidate is Puke Nukem") and probably no real news until later in the day.

"Go home and crash," Tapper advised. "You can sleep through all of the wild speculation and wake up in time for the real news."

Steve cocked an eyebrow; they both knew that the wild speculation wasn't going to be over in a few hours.

Tapper shrugged. "Get out of here before you get dragged into meetings," he exhorted. "I'll tell them you left half an hour ago. Take the Manhattan ferry."

The ferry to Brooklyn ran hourly, so while there was a ferry to Battery Park leaving momentarily, he'd have to wait to go directly to the Navy Yard.

Steve did as suggested, taking the subway back to Brooklyn and stopping at the green market on the way home. Ruben the cheesemonger wanted him to try some new arrivals, but Steve had to turn him down because even after two showers and a complete change of clothes, everything still smelled faintly of vomit and the experience would be wasted. He did buy two wedges of cheeses he knew would be fine once his senses were back to normal; he didn't realize until he got home that Ruben had packed him a small sample "for later."

Rather than sleep as much as he wanted, which would screw up his cycle for days, Steve set his alarm for 4:30, which would be enough to take the edge of exhaustion off and still let him sleep through the night. Which meant that he was already awake when Tapper sent him a text telling him to check his email because there had been updates.

The updates were mostly procedural until they weren't. There was a list of company names, all based in Silicon Valley (according to the introductory paragraph; Steve had to pause to google where that was). One of the HYDRA-sympathizing orderlies had broken and confessed that the illicit products, as yet undetermined by SHIELD, were to be sent to San Jose, California. The list that followed was of businesses in greater San Jose that met criteria established by what they'd gotten out of the HYDRA prisoners (not much yet) and filtered through SHIELD intelligence.

Tony had been copied on the original email, but Steve knew how Tony prioritized things, so he forwarded it to him himself with a head note asking if he knew anything about any of the companies, since Stark Industries had offices in the area, and if any of them seemed like likely candidates to be doing business with HYDRA.

A half-hour later, Tony replied, copied to Tapper, with the name of one company on the list: Advanced Idea Mechanics.

Chapter Text

"Didn't expect to see you here."

Steve looked up from the base newspaper he'd been reading. "Tapper had a dentist's appointment," he said as he folded up the pages. "And nobody else felt like coming all the way out to Kansas."

Clint, a little paler than usual after months of indoor confinement and much more tightly coiled, gave him a quick ghost of a smile. He transferred his duffel from his right hand to his left and held out his right for Steve to shake, which he did. Up close, the other changes that time and circumstance had made were more obvious, but they weren't for Steve to mention, so he didn't.

"Does this mean that Tapper wanted to come out to Kansas if he hadn't had his dentist's appointment?" Clint asked as he followed Steve away from the entrance of the Disciplinary Barracks. "Or that he scheduled the appointment because he was the only person who couldn't say that he didn't feel like flying out to Kansas?"

Clint's hearing had been a mere molehill compared to the mountain that had originally been designed to be dropped on him. It hadn't been pretty, Steve had been told, but Fury had made his presence felt and had made it clear that he still had need and use of Agent Barton. Without much ground to stand on if SHIELD was not going to be an ally, the Army decided that Fury could have him, so Clint had emerged with his honor intact and no reduction in rank or pension. A pension that he could now start collecting because he'd also emerged with the long-overdue DD-214.

"Tapper probably rates you over a root canal," Steve replied. "He hasn't seen you in a few months, so absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that."

He had no idea where Tapper was, let alone the state of his dental health or his plans for the day. Although if he were to guess, he'd say that Tapper was looking for a good place to watch the SHIELD raid on the San Jose headquarters of Advanced Idea Mechanics, which was scheduled for tonight. If this hadn't been Clint's release date, Steve would have been part of it, but Corrales had assured him that "taking care of your people" was an equally important job and one that could only be done by him, unlike the raid. But Corrales would not be free of Avengers. After much debate, Tony would be joining Corrales's teams; the joke was that the debate was about the barf cannon, but the actual debate had not involved SHIELD at all - this would be an assault on a high-tech firm with suspected links to HYDRA but also one with definite competitive links to Stark Industries. The distinction between Iron Man going after possible terrorist supporters and Tony Stark taking out the competition was very easy to blur if you had the desire to do so and Tony was not lacking for enemies. But once the assessment of AIM had gone from possible dupe, as Z-Chem had been, to probable active participant, the concern had faded. Not even Trident could get much traction going after Tony for taking down terrorists in his own backyard.

"Woah." Clint stopped when he saw the bike. "Is that your new ride?"

Steve smiled because, yeah, she was a beauty. She wasn't custom-built like his bike back in Brooklyn, but a straight-off-the-line Harley Road King was still a joy to behold. "For the next couple of days," he answered. "I'm just taking this one on a quick trip before I give her up to get painted and auctioned off for charity. There's a second one back at the shop in KC, so if you want, you can come with me or do your own thing."

Clint tilted his head in question.

"I figured you might want a little time to yourself before you resume your duties," Steve explained as he reached over to unhook the helmets.

"I've had nothing but time to myself," Clint replied ruefully. "Twenty-three hours a day."

Steve stood back up and handed him the other helmet with a frown, since they both knew that that wasn't what Steve had meant. The weight of the gaze that Clint would bear upon his return to the Helicarrier was of a far different nature than the one Steve had been carrying for so long, but Steve still understood the feeling of freedom that came with escaping out from under it for a little while. Clint had spent the last several months being watched and monitored and judged, silently and not, in ways he hadn't been used to and had largely spent his adult life trying to avoid. Steve was pretty sure he understood Clint well enough to know that a little time between that and what would come next would be a relief.

"Where are you going?" Clint asked, fiddling with the helmet straps.


"What's in Shreveport?" Clint pointed at one of the saddlebags and Steve nodded that it was empty, so Clint crouched down to open it up and cram his duffel into it. "Or are you just going south to get warm?"

"Bruce is in Shreveport," Steve answered. Tony had let that slip the other week - that he'd found Bruce a while ago. "Now that you're out, I think it's time we put the band back together."

Clint started laughing, a rusty sound because it wasn't ironic or bitter. He was genuinely amused. "Holy shit. I'm Joliet Jake and you're Elwood."

It was Steve's turn to wait for an explanation.

"We are watching The Blues Brothers at the earliest available opportunity," Clint sighed as he climbed on the back of the bike.

They drove back to Kansas City and picked up the other bike, an all-black copy of the blue-and-black one Steve was driving, and spent a little time at the shop talking bikes with the staff. The trip was best done as a two-day ride, especially since they weren't starting first thing, so they grabbed a meal - at a place Steve had read about in a food magazine - before heading off.

The ride down 71 was peaceful and occasionally scenic, but it was mostly quiet despite all of the car noise around them. They had radios and could talk to each other through their helmets, but they barely spoke except to pass on information. It was a companionable silence and Steve thought it did both of them some good; Clint looked a little less shell-shocked and moved a bit more easily when they stopped in Fayetteville, Arkansas for the night.

When they got up the next morning, there was a text from Tony on Steve's phone: Raid barftastic! See you in LA.

The raid had happened too late to make deadlines for the early editions and it was too early in California to call Tony, so rather than try to find something on the national news channels on the television, Steve pocketed his phone and packed his bag. If something had gone very wrong, there would have been a call. Same if there'd been some major breakthrough. He had no desire to call New York for any other details, which someone aboard the Helicarrier had already decided would keep, because that opened him up to all other sorts of requests and demands on his time.

Finding Bruce's house in Shreveport wasn't difficult, but they were both maybe a little surprised that it was, in fact, a house. With a lush green lawn and a driveway that led up to the house with its wrap-around porch, which is where they found Bruce, sitting bundled up under blankets on a reclining chair with a cup of tea on the table next to him and a book on his lap.

Maybe they shouldn't have been so surprised, though, because Bruce looked so calm, so content, that for a moment, Steve wondered if he'd made a mistake in interrupting whatever peace Bruce had found for himself. Especially because for all of a half a heartbeat, he saw something in Bruce's eyes that was much more The Other Guy, but then it was gone and Bruce was there, fully and completely, and happy to see them even if he must have known why.

"My name is Jake Blues," Clint began as he climbed the porch steps, heavy boots thumping on the wood, "this is my brother Elwood. We're on a mission from God."

Bruce laughed as he closed his book and got up to greet them. He'd apparently spoken to Tony a few hours ago; Tony was expected in Shreveport around five.

"Seems to have been a good night," Bruce said, picking up his mug and leading them inside. "Didn't even make the national news."

Clint cocked an eyebrow at Steve in question.

"HYDRA raid last night," Steve explained with a shrug as he followed Bruce, ignoring Clint's frown of realization. "Following up a lead from an op last month."

Steve knew that he should probably check his email because even if there hadn't been a call or a text, by now there would be updates he'd need to see at some point. Also, he was curious. He was comfortable with his decision not to go, a decision he suspected he'd have to justify to Clint at some point soon, but that didn't mean he didn't wish he'd been a part of it.

As Bruce made a pot of coffee (earning a look from Clint when he apologized for only having decaf), Steve pulled out his tablet and logged in to SHIELD's servers. He found the cache of photographs from the raid and, since everyone around Bruce's kitchen table was cleared to see them, he propped the tablet up on its stand let the others look on as he flipped through them.

"What the hell is that?" Clint asked from over Steve's right shoulder. "There a new Transformers movie when I was in the clink?"

The photo on the screen was of a giant robot -- it had to be at least a dozen feet tall, maybe fifteen -- with all sorts of nodes and wires and lights and armaments attached to its surface. In the picture, sparks were coming off its left forearm, probably from deflecting bullets that were being shot at it by the SHIELD DAS troops in the lower right part of the frame.

Bruce, kettle in one hand, came over to see. "Robots? HYDRA has robots now?"

"Apparently," Steve said, tilting his head to see if the picture looked any less fantastical from a different angle. "But it's not officially HYDRA, at least not yet. AIM is just a tech firm with suspected ties to HYDRA, although the robots might end up removing all doubt there."

As the coffee brewed and the water boiled, they flipped through the rest of the pictures, which were all of various robots -- none, thankfully, as big as the first but all looking dangerous -- and weapons that looked vaguely alien. Steve hoped that they weren't actually alien, since Thor had sent word that he would be visiting the Helicarrier next week and greeting him with questions about whether Loki might've left some more presents behind would not be conducive to getting him to stay for a while.

The last few pictures were a little alien, too, but in a more horror-movie theatrical way. In a familiar way, too. At least to Steve.

"Is that what I think it is?" Clint asked warily. "All over everything?"

"Yeah," Steve sighed. He couldn't come up with a good reason why Tony would use the barf cannon again, especially with poor Corrales's people on the scene. He'd been hoping that the text from Tony had not been meant literally.

"Corrales asked me to use it," Tony explained later on, when they'd met up in a corner shop restaurant closer to the city's downtown. Actually, those were his first words upon seeing the three of them sitting in the booth. "I have it recorded, I can play you back the audio file."

Steve held up his hand to forestall any more conversation about vomit before it got started. "We are in a public eating establishment," he said, emphasizing the words to remind Tony that not only good taste was at risk of being violated here. "This is a conversation that can wait."

The meal was interesting and tasty, despite starting off with some confusion after Clint began the ordering by telling the waitress that Steve wanted some white bread, toasted, and he'd have four fried chickens and a coke, which set both Bruce and Tony to laughing and left Steve and the waitress wondering what was so funny. When the food arrived, there were shrimps pounded flat and deep-fried for the po boys. There was also gumbo and onion rings the size of bracelets, frog's legs and catfish and, when none of them thought they could eat any more, coffee and beignets.

Knowing that he would be flying back to New York, Steve had arranged for the bikes to be turned over two local members of the Patriot Guard Riders, who'd take the bikes to Dallas, where they'd be painted and prepped for auction. That done, he joined the others for the ride to Tony's plane at the Shreveport airport.

They watched The Blues Brothers on the flight home. Steve thought it was funny - hilarious - in spots, but he missed almost all of the references, including the cameos, and could only really enjoy it on the slapstick level. He also thought that if he was going to be Elwood and Clint Jake, then that probably made Natasha the crazy Carrie Fisher character. But Natasha's name had pointedly not come up at all in the two days he'd spent with Clint and Steve wasn't about to undo all of the good that this time had done for him - and for the rebuilding of the Avengers - by bringing her up now. What she'd done - or might not have done - would remain, a shadow that would follow them, and it could keep.

"You are going to drive me to drink," Tony sighed despondently as he slouched in his chair. Across from him, Bruce was hiding his amusement behind his hand, so Steve couldn't tell if he was laughing at Tony's histrionics or Steve's question. Clint's giggle from somewhere behind them - Clint being no more inclined to actually sit at the conference table now than before his 'leave of absence' - probably indicated the latter.

"I'm not going to drive you to drink because it would be a waste of gas for such a short trip," Steve replied sourly because Corrales, too, was fighting back a smile and Steve was feeling a little short of patience and good humor after struggling for the better part of an hour to keep up in a discussion of technology that was well beyond his ken. He felt old and stupid and didn't want to be mocked for what everyone knew he had no good reason to understand in the first place. "And I don't see why it's such a ridiculous question."

"It's not a ridiculous question," Bruce assured, although there was still enough of a smile on his face for the sincere look he was going for to fall flat. "It's just... You fell asleep listening to transistor radios and woke up to an iPod. We're never going to be able to appreciate how much science and science fiction blur for you. And we probably shouldn't find it as funny as we do, but that's on us."

"It's not you, it's me," Tony piped up from his slouch.

"That's what you tell all the girls," Clint chirped. Back at work for more than a week, Clint was still keeping a low profile aboard the Helicarrier. Which made him near-invisible to most because he'd hardly been a social butterfly before everything with Natasha had gone down. Even among his teammates, Clint had taken his time thawing out, but the last day or so had brought with it a little more engagement. At least Clint had started emailing Steve awful jokes again.

"No, that's what Pepper used to tell all the girls," Tony replied easily, pushing himself back up in his seat so he could reach for the laptop's remote. "And she was usually right. But back to the matter at hand, which is AIM's supply of mechas and why HYDRA's not mass-producing them yet."

The robots and giant mechanical insects -- the "mechas," a term that had needed to be explained to Steve -- had made what should have been a straightforward raid of a corporate headquarters anything but. The AIM employees hadn't been experienced HYDRA troops or even the ready-to-die cannon fodder fresh recruits; they'd been scientists and lab technicians and had depressingly similar backgrounds and histories to their SHIELD counterparts. None of whom were allowed out into the field -- let alone into a hot zone -- without armed protection. Corrales's teams of veteran direct action troops should have swooped in and swept through without so much as a token resistance and with a real chance of no shots being fired.

Instead, there'd been a fierce battle that could have been much uglier than it had been if not for Corrales's choice to use the barf cannon. Corrales's wry explanation for why he'd ever choose to repeat his first experience had made it into all versions of the official after-action reports: dangerously outgunned by the unexpected mechanical marvels, which were proving impervious to quick damage by SHIELD weapons, he'd hoped that the barf cannon would disable the human controllers. Which it had, to a similarly striking effect as it had in New Jersey. Which was why, in turn, it had taken extra time before SHIELD could send its own science teams to investigate the facility.

"HYDRA's not fielding an army of mechas for the same reason I have to sit here with you guys and not send my life model decoy to take my place," Tapper said from his corner of the conference table, apart from everyone else by mutual decision. "I don't have an LMD because it's expensive. Whatever the relationship between HYDRA and AIM, right now it's cheaper for HYDRA to use people. After all, they've based their business model on disposable human capital."

One of the purposes to the raid on AIM had been to determine exactly what that relationship was. Although he'd been loath to say it aloud, Steve had been hoping that it would have been a direct one, a path that led straight from an office park in San Jose to Johann Schmidt. But they hadn't been that lucky; AIM was not a subsidiary of HYDRA. It was definitely funded by them, at least in part, but they had other sources of income -- and a legitimate computer-related business currently getting a full working over by the US Government (the IRS and FTC to start with). So while AIM took orders from HYDRA, those orders were not commands and their fulfillment shipped out with packing slips and manifests and occasionally required bills of lading.

"My question is if AIM is to HYDRA what RAND is to the US Government," Bruce mused, "then who else are they working for?"

"Trident," Tony offered, prompting a round of groans and rolled eyes. Steve included, because he'd heard enough of Tony's occasionally ridiculous conspiracy theories about how Trident was really a front for HYDRA (or al-Qaeda or whichever terrorist group was in the news that week) over the past year. "No, really. It actually makes solid business sense even if it's totally legitimate business. I'd be disappointed if it were only legitimate business, but I wouldn't be surprised."

"Would you be surprised if Stark Industries had a couple of bills from them?" Corrales asked.

"Yes," Tony replied, tapping the remote's buttons so that the picture on the wall changed from a human-shaped robot with laser cannons for hands to a giant spider robot. "They don't produce anything for sale that we can't do in-house. Well, not on their legitimate end. These creepy-crawlies, I will reluctantly admit, are really quite clever and I would love to see what they do on the weight-bearing front if you swapped out some of the firepower for structural support. The Pentagon's been trying to get robot pack mules out of us for years."

The spiders in question were about a meter tall and each leg could shoot energy blasts as well as flip open to reveal a razor-sharp blade. There had been dozens of smaller ones, about a foot high, and those had been responsible for most of the SHIELD casualties (everyone had already returned to duty, although a few were not yet cleared for field action). According to the reports and what video footage there was, these spiders could climb walls and reverse direction without turning around -- the body had full 360-degree rotation. The larger robots, including mammoth ones they'd seen pictures of in Shreveport, would have been far more dangerous had they been fully armed and controlled by less frightened operators, but it was the swarms of spiders that had ultimately forced Corrales to consider the barf cannon.

"We're going to need a better method of dealing with those things than how we handled them in California," Steve said, fighting back a grin at the expression on Corrales's face. "Those little spiders can't be that expensive to produce, not compared to everything else in that robot menagerie, and taking out the human controllers might not be an option next time."

The idea of being swarmed by those smaller spiders had been the stuff of nightmares for many at SHIELD, judging by the tone of the reports, and nobody had questioned Corrales's choice to use unapproved ordnance (the barf cannon lacking both official standing as well as an official name) as a means to disengage from them. Steve was disturbed by them as well; they were too sturdy to crush by stepping on them - hence Tony's wondering at their weight-bearing capacity - and too dangerous in close to kick or pick up and handle, even to throw. The blades cut through flesh like warm butter and it was only the efficacy of the special armor the direct action teams wore that had kept the damage as manageable as it had been.

"The designers aren't doing much talking," Tapper said with a frown. "The tech teams have taken the mechas apart and are doing whatever it is they do to the pieces to figure out how to render them less of a threat, but so far, nobody's got a better idea than an EMP, which is still a cure worse than the disease in most scenarios. I'm sure when Mister Stark comes up with something from what he stole out of storage, he'll let us know."

Tony didn't look the least bit abashed or ashamed and, truth be told, nobody else at the table was all that surprised.

"Just tell me that you had plans for more than corporate espionage," Steve said, mostly because someone should at least pretend to be morally outraged.

That did get Tony to react. "I'd never bogart someone else's design for profit," he said indignantly. "I've already completely redesigned the joints to improve the articulation without exposing the wires - and no, that's not a viable weakness."

"Depends on your aim," Clint said. Next to Steve, Corrales chuckled.

"Well, our AIM is still a problem," Steve replied, getting groans around the table for the bad pun. "We still don't have a real sense of what else non-roboty they've sold to HYDRA. Not everything HYDRA got out of the factory in Jersey would have been needed for the mechas, so either AIM is building something else for HYDRA or it was some sort of in-kind payment and we still don't know which or what, if it's the latter."

Steve looked over at Tapper, since the part of his job as Avengers liaison that wasn't soothing ruffled feathers was logistics and resource access. Tapper nodded and frowned and typed away on his tablet; they both knew that Steve was asking for things that were necessary and important, but also beyond Tapper's power to make magically appear. It wasn't as if SHIELD hadn't been spending months by this point trying to untangle the secret world of AIM's place in HYDRA's web, including all sorts of not-quite-legal investigations of some Chinese factories.

"And they're almost certainly not HYDRA's only supplier, which means we have to try to find the others," Steve went on. "Especially because there's no sign yet that AIM's involved in the one project we know for certain Schmidt is focusing on."

The serum.

"I'd be willing to wager that we'll find a connection," Bruce said, reaching over to his teacup, examining the contents, and putting it back down. "The spider mechas are one thing, but the bigger ones, the ones the controller rides in, those have some pretty elegant biofeedback interfaces. You don't get that kind of design without some soft-sciences types on your payroll."

Tony grunted agreement. "Our medical research team's expensive, but worth it. Most engineers -- and almost all programmers -- have a poor grasp of human physiology. You'd be amazed at what can go to prototype without that kind of check in place and it's gotten worse with 3D printers because it all looks reasonable when it's made of thermoplastics. The other year, we had a fifteen pound HUD that was supposed to be mounted on a kevlar helmet get all the way to the testing phase before it got stopped."

"But there's a big distance between the mechas and, well, me, right?" Steve prompted, suppressing a shudder. The three pound M1 steel pot he (and everyone else) had worn had been too heavy as it was. "Getting robot arms to move because you're thinking about moving your arms isn't in the same ballpark."

"It depends on what else turns up," Bruce replied with a shrug. "Nanotechnology may end up providing the solutions that seventy years of biology did not."

"Oh, great," Clint sighed. "Just what we want to think about: an army of HYDRA terminators."

Steve frowned at Tony, who was eying him sidelong. "Yes, I saw that movie."

Corrales's watch started beeping, followed a moment later by Tapper's, and both men started collecting their things.

"Go," Steve assured them when they looked back at him for permission. "I think we're past the important and useful parts of the briefing."

Tony stood up, too. "In that case..."

Stark Industries had been busy since the AIM raid, mostly in good ways. Tony's involvement had somehow managed to be kept secret - the public details of the raid were sparse and mostly restricted to the financial sections of newspapers - and so he'd been able to swim like a shark through the churned-up waters of the high-tech pool both AIM and Stark Industries swam in. And Tony was rarely happier than when he was a shark in a sea full of chum.

"Could HYDRA be using nanotechnology to recreate the serum's effects?" Steve asked Bruce after Tony and Corrales followed Tapper out of the room. "Is it possible that they're doing so already?"

Nanotechnology was a vague concept to him beyond "tiny little computers." He had no idea what existed already or what it was used for or whether it was all still theoretical and, especially in light of the earlier discussion, he was hesitant to ask. But if AIM - or HYDRA - could create a reasonable facsimile of the serum with technology... he really dreaded what Schmidt would do with that kind of power.

Bruce rubbed his face and sighed. "Could they? Probably. Are they? Probably not. We're years away from having the ability to use nanotech to repair human tissue, let alone improve it. We can't use it to fix bad heart valves or failing kidneys or replace damaged optic nerves. We're probably closer with traditional gene therapy, which isn't saying much because we've been stuck there for seventy years in one notable case."

"So Cap doesn't have any bionic brothers running around in HYDRA uniforms," Clint said, coming to stand behind the chair Corrales had vacated and putting his hands on the back. "I suppose that's good. One of him is enough."

Steve looked up at him and frowned. Clint grinned back.

"I'm gonna head off," Clint said, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb. "I want to go eat real food before I get where I'm going."

Steve smiled to himself; of course Clint's improved mood would coincide with his return to active mission-ready status.

"Is this what other people would consider real food?" Steve asked, since if Clint had been deemed ready to be deployed, then he was more than ready to be mocked. "Or is this in relation to MREs and you're just going to the commissary for french fries?"

Clint's frown was as much a reward as Bruce's giggle; Bruce had been in New York for longer than usual and Steve wasn't the only one on watch for signs that he was ready to go back to Shreveport now, please.

They ended up on East Broadway, right off the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, in a place Steve had passed a few times on his bike when he drove it into Manhattan but had never thought to stop in because eating in public with chopsticks by himself was not something he was sure he was up for just yet. According to Clint, it was a recommendation from Miranda, the erstwhile Agent Baker, who swore by the authenticity of the Shaanxi food on offer and the prices. The three of them grossly underestimated the size of the portions -- who would have thought you could bathe an elephant in a $5 bowl of soup? -- and ordered too much. It was just as well that they were capable of eating far more than it looked like they should. The spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles were worth a little public humiliation, Steve thought, although next time he'd maybe wear a darker colored shirt if he was going to splatter himself with the hot chili-oil-laden broth.

They parted ways outside the restaurant, since it was just a long walk over a windy bridge for Steve to get home and Clint had mission prep and Bruce, despite clearly enjoying the outing, had been quick to assure them that he'd be happy walking alone back to the ferry terminal for the ride back to the Helicarrier. Nonetheless, Steve felt good about how things were going. The Avengers weren't back, but they were getting there and he no longer worried about being an Army of One.

"... ingress point for Alpha is the Wall Street station on the 2/3, cross is William Street. You will be proceeding via Con Ed tunnels to the Federal Hall building for final staging and your LD will be there. Ingress point for Bravo is the Wall Street Station on the 4/5, cross is Broadway. You will be proceeding via the basement of 66 Broadway to New Street, which is your LD. Alpha and Bravo teams will be mobilizing from the Borough Hall station in Brooklyn; we've got diesel engines to lead trains through the Clark and Joralemon Street tunnels, so we can keep the power off down there.

"OEM is working with the MTA to see if we can't bull our way through whatever the hell's left of the Broad Street station and establish that as a bridgehead inside HYDRA's controlled zone. For now, though, our priorities remain getting the civilians out and getting an accurate picture of what the fuck is going on there. Not necessarily in that order."

Steve heard Maria Hill speaking before he entered the room, trying to slip in as unobtrusively as he could and taking a spot along the back wall. Which was a mixed success because while Captain America couldn't really walk into a crowded room without heads turning, what was going on at the front of the room was important enough that heads swiveled back to Hill almost instantly.

It had started at 0930, although in truth that had merely been when the bombs had gone off. The start of the day for the New York Stock Exchange normally began with a bell rung by someone to commemorate some event, their smiling faces broadcast on a giant screen in Times Square. This morning, it had been a Brazilian agricultural firm president in honor of the company's joining the exchange. Early indications were that he had had no idea that he'd be setting off ninety-nine bombs in three cities: New York, London, and Tokyo.

A little more than four hours later, smoke and rubble still filled the streets of the financial districts of the three most important cities to the global economy.

HYDRA had just declared war on capitalism.

The casualty count was unknown, although everyone assumed that the lowest totals would be in Tokyo, where bombs going off in the middle of the night in the Kabutocho district threatened the lives of those who stayed up to watch the London and New York markets and not the swell of humanity that worked there during the day. London and New York were both still in the wild rumor phase of reportage and Steve had stopped listening to the passed-along updates because they were all hearsay at best and made up at worst.

The televisions and radios carried HYDRA spokesmen delivering quiet-voiced lectures about the evils of wealth and the cruel and selfish one percent, all couched in the regretful tones of a parent disciplining a favorite child because even HYDRA couldn't avoid the necessary truth that you couldn't soak the rich without getting the middle and working classes wet, too. Man-on-the-street reporters talked to distraught and frustrated New Yorkers whose anger at yet another attack on their city was amplified by the fear that their life savings and pensions were now casualties of terrorism. The same questions and answers were being given in London and Tokyo and also Paris and Chicago and Dayton and Berlin. Stock exchanges around the world had been shut down hours ago to minimize the financial damage, but even Steve, with his very loose understanding of how the markets worked, knew that that was just postponing the crisis and not averting it.

At the front of the room, Hill met his eyes but otherwise didn't react, continuing on in her briefing.

Steve had spent the last three-hours-plus leading movement-to-contact sorties in Lower Manhattan, finding the borders of HYDRA's area of control and pushing against them while the police and emergency services units dealt with the civilians. He'd led a combination of military personnel - choppered up from Fort Dix, mostly - and SHIELD troops, doing on Water Street what he'd once been doing in Occupied Europe. All of the men he'd been leading had been doing it in Iraq and Afghanistan, too, and, when this was all over, he could organize his thoughts about the differences between leading experienced professional soldiers versus the experienced conscripts from 'his' war. But right now, there were more important matters to focus on.

The ground fighting thus far had been aimed at containment and rescue and what reconnaissance they could accomplish at a distance and with AIM's supply of robots and mechas running rampant throughout the financial district. The small spiders were everywhere, perched on street signs and the sides of buildings, and the larger ones were skittering across the street, having torn apart police cruisers and civilian vehicles and one city bus along with whoever'd been unlucky enough to get in their way. There were no flying mechas, a small mercy, but those spiders were a force multiplier that HYDRA, never short of personnel, didn't need.

Steve drained his second -- third? -- bottle of water as Hill finished the briefing. SHIELD's movements had been initially constricted by the fact that they were operating in full view of HYDRA, aided and abetted by the news helos that had broadcast live the first waves of boats heading toward Manhattan from the Helicarrier before they'd been chased off by SHIELD's own helos -- the kinds with .50-cals mounted by the side doors. (Clint had gone up in one of them.) The airspace was now patrolled by Apache gunships up from Dix, but there were a million other ways to view New York Harbor and SHIELD had been forced to shift the bulk of its forces off toward Jersey and Brooklyn and have them double back over land rather than take the risk of a direct amphibious assault on the South Street Seaport that would be telegraphed from a mile away.

SHIELD's submersibles, cramped and dark and slow, had taken as many as they could, but there weren't enough and they weren't fast enough to move the main combat element. Steve had ridden over on the second trip, clambering out with assistance and climbing up the tressle for a sign on the overhead FDR Drive to get to street level. A spider had found them almost immediately.

Now, however, with staging areas set up in Downtown Brooklyn and Jersey City, SHIELD, bolstered by the arriving military personnel and organized local first responders, could mount a significant counter-attack. There would be air and ground support -- and sea support, if it went on long enough for the Navy's contributions to steam up from Norfolk -- and sufficient personnel to do more than contain.

"... I'm not going to tell you that the first guys through those subway stations aren't going to be looking at trouble. There's going to be fighting and it's going to be hard. But we will overcome them and overcome this and we will have our beachhead and we will take back our city," Hill said, calmly and forcefully. "And then we are going to shut those bastards down for good. Good luck, Godspeed, and happy hunting."

Steve, positioned so that more than half the room had to file past him to exit, nodded and clapped shoulders and wished the men streaming past him well. He knew that some of them would not be returning, but this was part of the job, part of the obligation, and not one man who'd been in this room hadn't been in this position before and come to terms with it.

He wasn't so sure about Hill, though, who now that she was no longer required to be the confident communicator, had sagged a little as she moved out of the spotlight. He knew she'd seen much in her time at SHIELD, but this was the closest thing to traditional war that the organization had seen during Steve's time with them and, from what he'd been told by others during his morning of drawing fire to see who was shooting, this was the first time SHIELD had been on a real combat footing.

"Pretty gung-ho," he said mildly when it was just the two of them. There were others around, Hill's subordinates, but they were hanging back. "I think you sold it pretty well."

A rare unironic smile from Hill. "If I'd known last night that I was supposed to rally the troops today, I would have watched Patton and not Sleepless in Seattle."

There was something that might've been gratitude in her voice, but she'd not want him to acknowledge it, so he didn't. "Patton was a vile person," he said instead. "You'd happily die for him on the field, but you'd just as happily kill him in garrison."

Hill's smile turned a little wry, like maybe she'd caught him deflecting. "You ready to go debrief Fury and the combat commanders? We're sending these fellows off with only a tiny idea of what's going on over there except for what the drones give us."

He gestured for her to precede him and she nodded and did.

The war room was in a small prefab building across from the warehouse where the main staging was taking place, all part of the shipping terminals and docks that had been a part of his everyday panorama as a child growing up in Red Hook. He and Bucky used to sneak down here all the time when they were kids, climb up on to a shipping container, and dream of a world bigger and better than the one they currently occupied.

"I got my first kiss over there," he said, pointing toward a corrugated steel wall catty-corner to the building they'd left. The steel wall was not the same one he'd been pushed up against by Kate Mullin, of course. "She was twelve, I was eleven. Her Pop owned the sweets shop on Conover and I think she might've done it on a dare, but I really didn't care then."

It had been the first and last time he'd been ahead of Bucky on that particular scorecard and, for a moment, he missed Bucky with a raw pain that he hadn't felt in years. What would Buck say about standing on Sullivan Street and plotting the invasion of Manhattan via the subway tunnels? He'd laugh, Steve knew, but the kind of laugh that didn't mean that he thought anything was funny at all. Because once they'd found that bigger world than they'd dreamed of, Bucky had been the first to admit that Brooklyn, even Red Hook, wasn't so bad by comparison.

"Is it weird fighting so close to home?" Hill asked. "I mean, I'm horrified at the idea of there being AIM creepy-crawlies sitting on my bedroom window ledge, but I didn't grow up here and I've had more than a decade to get used to New York City being a successful target."

Steve made a noncommittal noise. "It's weird," he admitted as they waited for the guards to move the makeshift barricade. "But not so completely strange that it's unfamiliar. During the war, we had neighborhood watches giving the stink-eye to strangers and block wardens who made sure that the entire area was blacked out at night because we're on the water. It wasn't this, but it was its own preparation."

He'd also had experiences 'over there' that made him perhaps a little better prepared for what happened when the war came home than today's soldiers. They'd all spent their military careers fighting in distant lands where the locals weren't necessarily happy to see them or interested in keeping them alive and the world never felt less than foreign. But he'd spent so much time among the partisans and resistance fighters during his war, men and women who'd welcomed him and made him part of their communities for however short a time, that while he'd never really felt that visceral, primal urge that came with defending native soil, he'd seen it up close enough to understand what it must be like and he'd certainly seen what it could drive people to do. Now that he was fighting on his own homefront, the difference was notable, but not so much so that it distracted him from the mission at hand. Which did not mean that he couldn't appreciate, for better or worse, the collision of his old life and his new.

A collision that struck anew when they entered the rear office of the building to find the windows covered with what might have been kevlar panels and Fury standing over a table with three Army light birds and a handful of SHIELD higher-ups whose names and faces Steve recognized and some others he did not. Instead of a map table, though, it was a holographic projection of lower Manhattan, from Houston south, with the buildings in dull gold and SHIELD (blue) and HYDRA (red) forces being tracked in real time.

"Sir," Hill prompted and Fury looked over at her, then at Steve.

"What's the word, Captain?" he asked.

"As long as those spiders are running around, sir, we're going to have no element of surprise," Steve answered. "It's easy enough to reposition the human HYDRA troops with as much advance warning as those spiders are giving whoever's commanding."

Fury nodded, but didn't speak; that the spiders were causing trouble was not news.

"But if we can control the subway stations, I think we'll gain back some of that lost advantage," Steve went on. "Is there any way we can keep them out of the stations and tunnels?"

Fury gestured for Steve to approach the holographic projector table and snapped his fingers at one of the agents holding what was probably the controller. "Give me the subway-level image."

The familiar skyline of lower Manhattan melted into a golden sea with tunnels and cables and tracks and street access points highlighted by different colors. Power lines, steam tunnels, phone lines, gas lines, subway tunnels, all in close proximity and interweaving. Steve couldn't orient himself at all until he realized that above the network of tubes and wires was the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Hall Building and then the stairs going down in front of the Stock Exchange became the Broad Street subway station (as it had been before 0930, not in its current destroyed state) and, now comfortable, Steve looked up at Fury, who'd been watching him, and nodded.

"The spiders work off of satellite communications the same way cell phones do," Fury explained, "so, like cell phones, they have a hard time calling anyone once they're underground. Especially because the tunnels this far down in Manhattan are deep and there's just too much interference with everything going on above them. We sent teams in to set up both remote surveillance and the means to knock it - and the spiders --- out."

"From what we've been able to tell from our experiments with the spiders picked up from San Jose," one of the younger SHIELD agents began nervously, "simple jammers, like the military uses in Iraq and Afganistan to keep the bad guys from detonating cell phone bombs, should do the trick. We know what frequencies they're capable of using, so we can lock those down hard and fast."

"But it will also announce our presence like a flare in the night sky," Steve mused with a frown, eyes tracking the path that went underneath William Street and into the East River as the Clark Street Tunnel. "So it's not anything we want to use before we have to, if at all. And if they're not much use in the tunnels, then we'll just be blowing out our own comms for a pretty limited gain. Unless they can be positioned outside, which you probably would have done if you could."

Two of the Army colonels were grinning slightly, which Steve took to mean that they'd already pointed this out and been told they weren't seeing the whole picture, or whatever it was that happened when combat commanders questioned the bright ideas of desk jockeys. Steve had worn that look a lot back in his war.

"It won't necessarily kill all of our communications," the young woman insisted. "Not if we-"

Fury cut her off with a raised hand.

"Those jammers will take out the repeaters and the sat-links, which reduces our very expensive-to-develop comms to line-of-sight walkie-talkies," he said sourly. "Weren't we supposed to have a working plan to turn those spiders and have them work for us?"

The young woman grimaced. "We're on it, sir, but we haven't-"

"Work on it," Fury told her. "And come back to me when it's ready to be implemented."

The young woman turned to look at Speyer, one of the sub-commanders in charge of SHIELD's SIGINT section, who nodded minutely, and she left with a murmured "yes, sir."

A frown on his face, Fury turned back to Steve. "Do you have any suggestions, Captain?"

Before he'd willingly joined the twenty-first century, Steve had read copiously and thoroughly and probably a little obsessively about the end of the war he'd spent so much time fighting. He'd read about the successes, the failures, the horrors, and the mistakes on all sides. It had been cathartic in places, frustrating in others, and illuminating in the way that hindsight could be. He'd read about the conclusions of stories he'd been a part of, but also the fuller versions of those tales that had been impossible to know or figure out at the time. Some of it had been shocking and made him wonder how he'd not seen it at the time - Kim Philby - but mostly it had made him ache with longing and loss.

"Operation Fortitude, sir," Steve answered, eyes back on the surface part of the hologram. He gestured downward with his flattened-out hand. "Can we?"

The subterranean part of the hologram disappeared and Manhattan appeared in her sky-reaching glory.

"It sounds like we can take and hold the stations just fine so long as nobody knows we're coming," Steve began. "Like Normandy, we just need some time, which we'll have if we can convince HYDRA that we're coming from somewhere else."

Normandy had been the obvious point of invasion as far as the Allies were concerned - and the Germans knew it. They knew the Allies were planning an invasion, knew the only likely landing points of that invasion, but they weren't quite sure which place and when. The Allies managed to convince them that Norway and Pas de Calais were the intended targets, a sleight of hand so successful that it held even days after the actual landing at Normandy because of the belief that a much larger force would be arriving imminently elsewhere.

"We don't have time to build a mock army of inflatable tanks and plywood fighters, Cap," Fury said, sounding more curious than dismissive.

"We don't need to," Steve replied with a smile. "We've still got Globemasters landing at Newark and JFK and convoy traffic jams on the approaches to the Holland Tunnel and Manhattan Bridge. And I'm sure we've got computer people who can do something to make it seem to everyone watching on TV like we're going to come down from Canal Street instead of up from underneath Wall."

Fury's wary look slid into something that might've been glee if Steve thought Fury were capable of it. The three Army officers were definitely capable of it.

"Epstein, get over here!" Speyer called.

Steve turned to Hill, who'd been watching silently, while they waited. "Feel like playing Patton again?"

The wargaming, when it began in earnest, lasted more than two hours. Which was not enough time to come up with a plan that could easily survive the inevitable breakdowns in communications and unexpected events and distractions and the simple fact that the enemy always got a vote and didn't always cooperate. But it was enough time to come up with an easily digestible set of basic tenets that comprised the commander's intent and, with those, they could trust the junior officers and NCOs to get things done however they saw fit and by whatever means possible. And it was enough time for the Signals people to start flooding their most easily-tapped channels with traffic that clearly indicated that the combined SHIELD-Task Force Amsterdam main element, led by Hill and one of the Army light birds, was opting for a pincer movement that would come south from Canal and north from Battery Park via the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which the mapping software steadfastly refused to call by its recent renaming.

Steve hadn't taken part in large-scale operational planning often during his war, but often enough that he felt he was useful here and not talking for the sake of talking. Nonetheless, he left most of the way through so he could travel back up to the Borough Hall station, which was going to be the staging area for the Avengers as well as the massed troops waiting to be ferried in on the special subways. Steve hadn't been involved in the assembling, although he'd been updated on everyone's whereabouts during the day. Clint and Tony, in a helo and in a suit respectively, had been doing aerial recon and target elimination, since ground forces were using lasers and homing devices to identify HYDRA's weapons for those in the air and at the remote artillery sites. Bruce had also been in the air, but sitting in a quinjet flying back from Shreveport with full knowledge that it was The Other Guy who'd be wanted. Thor, meanwhile, had been part of the containment element on the west side of the HYDRA-controlled area, using Mjolnir to swat away whatever mechas tried to cross Church Street and calling down lightning upon those out of his reach. Steve had seen the flashes from the FDR Drive when he'd been fighting his way west.

By the time Steve found his teammates, there were reports from the units Hill had sent out earlier. They'd been as much test cases for the viability of using the subway tunnels as they would be now that they were in positions with an eye on the Stock Exchange and the nexus of HYDRA's holdings. Alpha Team reported that HYDRA was using human troops to patrol, which had made the SHIELD teams' exit from the subway stations easier to accomplish undetected, and was a change in circumstances from the last overhead pictures taken by the drones flying high above the city, which had shown the robots handling the tasks effectively.

"Battery life," Tony explained to his teammates and to the larger network listening in over the comms. "They don't have very much of it. AIM chose weight over duration, so their toys are lighter and more flexible, but they run down faster. And the mechas have all been running nonstop since this morning, which would be enough of a drain, but the constant use of their weapons and shielding systems will cut that use time considerably. I think we timed the little spiders at twelve hours before they started slowing down and that was with them just climbing the walls at a meandering pace."

"How fast can they charge?" Steve asked, thinking about his cell phone or his tablet. "Will it give us a window of opportunity to get people inside the perimeter?"

Tony shook his head. "ConEd took out the power, so if they're going to charge anything, it's going to be off a portable generator, which is going to be slow. They can swap out the batteries, which is time-consuming, but not time-consuming enough to allow us to invade Wall Street before they're back in action."

It was decided, at levels far above Steve's paygrade, that they would proceed as planned and hope that HYDRA took its time with the batteries. They didn't, of course, and by the time Steve was boarding one of the diesel-led subways in Brooklyn, the spiders had been back out for fifteen minutes and the larger mechas had emerged and were heading north slowly on Nassau. Because while they'd had no luck with the hope that the mechas would be out of the fight for a while, if not for good, their recreation of Operation Fortitude seemed to be working. Thousands of HYDRA troops had started movements north and south, fortifying intersections on Worth Street and John Street to the north and on Broadway heading south toward the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Steve wasn't ready to accept congratulations on a successful ruse just yet. Even if it worked, it might not be enough. Communications were too good and they were fighting over too small a piece of land for any deception to be more than a delay. And, immediately, before they even left the station, Steve had more pressing concerns: Bruce was looking a little green around the edges. The noise, the close quarters, the jostling, the sight of so many men with rifles and body armor, the smells, the frustrations of a day spent traveling from his place of respite to a miniature hell on earth so that he could turn himself over to a creature that hated him and wished he were dead... Bruce was moving slowly and carefully because he knew just how close he was to not being able to last until they got to Manhattan.

Clint went ahead of them and cleared out the front section of the car so that Bruce could sit down and put his head between his knees and just breathe until they were underway. Steve and Thor used their size to maintain a perimeter and shield Bruce from curious eyes. Normally, Steve would have been moving among the soldiers they were traveling with, talking to them and shaking hands and just trying to be a positive force for everyone right before they put their lives on the line. But he couldn't, not with Bruce clinging so fiercely to the rapidly disintegrating shreds of his self-control. So, instead, Clint took up the duty, despite his own predilections to do as Bruce was doing and pretend his was alone. Clint's version of bonhomie was not Steve's; it was sarcastic and lewd and full of the little jokes about modern Army life that Steve would never be able to get, let alone initiate. It was still successful and Steve heard outbursts of laughter as he kept his eyes on Bruce.

"Is this a good beer?" Thor asked, gesturing with his chin at the advertisement behind Bruce. "Jane has introduced me to the work of Brewmaster Adams, but I know that there are others."

"It's not very good," Steve replied, amused. "It's popular, but not because of its taste. Also, this is the diet version."

Thor looked appropriately horrified.

"It's sex in a canoe," Clint added as he appeared at Steve's left shoulder, leaning against the door directly underneath the sign that said that you should not lean against the door.

"At great risk of capsizing at an inopportune time?" Thor asked, confused.

"Fucking close to water," Clint replied, deeply satisfied at his own joke even before Thor belted out a laugh that shocked the entire car to silence for a moment and caused Bruce to look up.

They pulled into the Wall Street station's downtown track at a crawl so that the application of air brakes was gentle and silent. Dim portable lights glowed blue at their feet to guide them toward the stairs. The Avengers went first entirely because Bruce needed to go first or risk flinging soldiers around like so many bowling pins once the Other Guy decided to take the stairs.

The Hulk still took out the turnstiles, which under the circumstances, wasn't the worst thing in the world.

Steve left the command of the troops and SHIELD units to their actual leaders and kept his attention on his own team, sending Clint to look for high ground closer to the Exchange and trying to figure out why Tony wasn't answering on the radio when he could clearly be seen hovering over by Liberty Street. Thor pointed Mjolnir west and Steve nodded as he tried to raise Tony and swiveled in place to find the Hulk, who'd barreled out of the station at speed going south and must've turned a corner because there were no flashes of green anywhere in Steve's peripheral vision.

He found both at once, hearing Tony's report of major action by City Hall just when he saw a NYPD cruiser go flying at a HYDRA barricade.

"Keep them from coming back south," Steve told Tony. "We're going to need at least another ten to get everyone out of the stations and into a position where they can fight on offense and not defense."

Two small spiders started climbing the buildings across from where Steve stood with SHIELD and Task Force troops around him as they formed up to take back the Exchange. The spiders were already high on the edifices and were moving laterally and Steve threw his shield so that it bounced off of the first, letting the SHIELD trooper with the EMP pulse gun take out the second.

"Start moving now," Steve told the Army captain who might've been in charge of the element. "Those things are only going to come faster and thicker."

The ruse worked in Manhattan as it once had in France, against all odds and despite the mounting evidence that the intelligence HYDRA had been receiving was false, but in the end it would not be enough to save the day. It did save lives, that Steve was sure of, and he could take some small comfort in that even as he found himself among those being squeezed between two enemy forces as HYDRA had once believed that they would be.

HYDRA's main elements had indeed moved to fight off the SHIELD and Task Force troops under Hill's command, but the distance between the false front and the real one was so small that when, finally, the truth was both seen and believed, the reorientation of the battlefield took place quickly and with great devastation. HYDRA had spent hours commandeering every media platform available to them explaining how they were the protectors of the common man, that today's global violence had been a strike for justice and equality and a brighter future for all those oppressed by the lions of capitalism and kept down in poverty and ignorance by those with the power and desire to exploit them. But here in Lower Manhattan, HYDRA's concern for the oppressed masses was entirely theoretical and they'd just as soon shoot their weapons at a terrified coffee cart owner as at someone wearing SHIELD colors. The mechas, moving faster and with greater ease than the human HYDRA force, tore through buildings and buses and whatever obstructions blocked their way to where the SHIELD and Task Force troops still poured out of the subway stations. Steve was not the only 'good guy' spending more time protecting the bystanders -- some of which were proving exceptionally stupid and foolish by trying to take pictures with their cell phones instead of hiding in safety -- than taking the fight directly to HYDRA.

And he had the wounds to prove it. He'd been briefly caught by one of the mechas, a version not seen in San Jose and for which they'd thus been unprepared. It was a six-limbed robot able to stand ten feet tall on its hind legs and use the remaining four arms independently, albeit with more force than skill, but also drop down and scurry like a cockroach at incredible speed. Which was how Steve had been caught by surprise, tackled from behind when he'd briefly turned his back on the upright mecha, judging (wrongly) that he'd have enough time to reach the young woman in the Starbucks uniform before having to bodily engage either the mecha behind him or the phalanx of HYDRA troops in front of him. He'd thrown the shield at the lead HYDRA troop, predicting that the force would be enough to drop the ones behind him like dominos and scatter the rest for long enough for him to recover the shield, grab the girl, and turn and face the mechanical monster approaching from behind.

But he'd no sooner checked the shield's momentum upon its return than he'd felt something sharp and bright down his back and heard the girl scream as the terror registered on her face. He'd told her to run into the ATM vestibule, then turned with as much force as he could muster, leading with the shield, to face his attacker. His first swings did nothing because they were battering blows and while vibranium was tougher than whatever the mecha was made out of, he was relying on the force of his super-strength, which was definitely not up to par, certainly not when he could feel the tear in his back with every move. So he'd switched his grip to the edge, using it to hack away at the appendage holding him down on the ground with half of a plastic magazine dispenser underneath him. He'd managed to hack one mechanical paw off and was working on the second while fighting off the third and fourth with increasing ineffectiveness, when the entire creature suddenly flew off of him at the same moment he registered a loud metal clang.

"Your wounds are shallow but extensive," Thor reported as he helped Steve up with the hand not holding the reclaimed Mjolnir. "There is a medic station that can staunch the bleeding so that you may continue."

Thor would have taken him to it straightaway, but Steve stopped him, telling him to instead see to the Starbucks girl hiding behind the faux-wood table in the ATM vestibule. Thor looked like he was possibly willing to leave her be, safe where she was at the moment since he'd already dispatched the previously oncoming HYDRA troops, but Steve cocked an eyebrow and the matter was settled a moment later when three soldiers ran up to them and volunteered to take him to the casualty collection point for treatment.

Aware of what dragging a badly bloodied Captain America into the aid station would do to morale, Steve insisted on walking the last half-block with minimal assistance. He'd already started feeling less weak, but he was aware that that was still not to be confused with ready to go. His uniform top had been sliced neatly through down the lower two-thirds of his back, but it had slowed the mecha's blade just enough that the slice into flesh was, as Thor had said, shallow but extensive. He'd held the damaged shirt in a white-knuckled grip as the medic, a corporal who looked twelve but insisted he was twenty-four, sutured him up as quickly and as delicately as was possible with no anaesthesia and skin that was harder to puncture than usual and the unavoidable awe that he was attending to Captain America. Steve had assured Corporal Santiago that neatness would not matter and the wound would heal without a scar no matter how inelegant, so please work quickly because it still did hurt.

When it was over, Steve laughed along with everyone else when someone suggested duct tape to repair his uniform shirt, which was unwearable as it was. Suture thread might've worked if they'd had a needle that could get through the cloth, but in the end Steve accepted body armor from an about-to-be-evacuated heavy machine gunner to put over his shirt, which was in fact duct taped closed. He didn't like the idea of wearing the vest with the SAPI plates -- it was constricting and made him harder to identify from a distance -- but he was outvoted, both by the aid station staff ("sir, you really do need the extra protection right now") and by Tony, who came in for a landing because Steve had lost his radio earpiece in the fight with the mecha and hadn't been answering anyone's hails.

"I can try to fuse it closed with a laser," Tony offered, holding up a gauntleted hand, "but I might end up fusing it to your spine and Pepper'd never let me hear the end of it."

They returned to the fight as dusk began to fall. A fight that had become a more localized battle centered south of Fulton Street and north of Beaver and running east-west between Broadway and Water Street. It was a small enough area, but there were so many people crammed into it, so many weapons, and the robots and mechas were more numerous than ever. It was chaotic, even by combat standards, with the fog of war having descended to street level as the shadows lengthened and darkness started to steal over the city. There were no lights, the power was still out, and while there would be a three-quarter moon later, it would be hours of darkness before that could be used.

Steve, fighting down Maiden Lane toward the Federal Reserve building, still felt weak, although how much of it was now exhaustion as opposed to the blood loss was probably debatable. He was leading a unit of soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division up at Fort Drum, one of the many units that had deployed to the city as quickly as possible. They'd been part of the information deception, SHIELD electronically tracking their movements from the plane landing at JFK to their APCs driving through Queens and Brooklyn to join the convoys queuing up for the Manhattan Bridge crossing but conveniently leaving out the part where those vehicles stopped at a subway station and let everyone out so they could join the subterranean force before continuing on. They'd suffered casualties in a fight on Gold Street earlier and were eager to pay back those scores, but not so eager that Steve worried about them acting rashly. That was still mostly the provenance of the Avengers, judging by the locations of the Thor sightings since he'd rescued Steve from the giant cockroach.

The fighting was going well in spots and badly in others; from what Steve could tell, it was like San Jose writ large: SHIELD and the Task Force could probably have handled the HYDRA troops without devastating loss, but the mechas and those spiders were providing an edge that discipline and experience and skill could not overcome. Steve's unit found itself surrounded by the little triangular plaza just east of the Federal Reserve, mechas to the west and south in the near distance and human troops on all sides up close and the large spiders clacking toward them from Liberty Street.

Steve and the 10th Mountain boys formed up in an irregularly-shaped infantry square, which hadn't been an effective combat strategy in centuries, but it allowed them to cover each other's backs as they fired outward in all directions. And then the large spiders came, smashing through HYDRA's own lines before approaching theirs. Steve threw his shield, hoping that an edge could catch where maybe there was some important electronics and he could slow one down, since past experience had shown that taking out one leg was not enough to give it pause. It caused a momentary pause, but nothing more.

The human HYDRA troops were thinning out, some by flight and mostly because the 10th Mountain had been producing very good infantry for a very long time, and the soldiers were able to bring increasing amounts of firepower against the mechas. One rifle did nothing, but a half-dozen would cause some kind of evasive maneuvers and more than that could, eventually, bring one down. But the HYDRA troops were getting replenished and the good guys were running low on ammo and Steve told the lieutenant leading the soldiers to pick up their casualties and start withdrawing toward Gold Street on his mark. An order that was not happily received.

"Son, I'm about to do something of questionable judgment and I need you to assure me that you'll make the most of it," he said and the protest died on young Lieutenant Burns's lips.

There was a single metal garbage pail on the far side of the plaza and, on his mark, Steve ran for it, using first the step of the raised part of the plaza and then the can as a springboard to go airborne, hiding his body in a crouch behind the shield as he flew toward the giant spider closest to him and landing, awkwardly, on the top of its body and scrambling to keep his grip. He used the shield to hack away at the top of the body's shell, pausing to use it again as a shield when the other spider started shooting at him. Between the two assaults, the spider beneath Steve finally stumbled and started to collapse and he tried to dismount gracefully, but he couldn't quite, getting tangled up in spider legs and getting grazed on the cheek and ear with a blast from the other spider as he tried to roll out from underneath the heavy and hot and smoking metal carcass.

The other spider came for him as he lay on his back trying to push spider parts off of himself so that he could get up. He blocked a couple of blasts with his shield, but his relative immobility meant that when he blocked a shot aimed at his face, he couldn't see until too late that another leg's blade was coming for his belly. The body armor plates cracked under the force, but they didn't shatter completely and so his innards stayed inside and intact and Steve was able to hack off the end of the blade with the shield before the spider could withdraw it.

But it still had seven left and Steve still hadn't cleared himself from the debris and Thor, at last check, was still over on New Street and not close enough for rescue. Clint had gone back up in a helicopter at some point, but Steve hadn't noticed it in his distraction by what was on the ground.

"Tony, you nearby?" Steve asked, not even sure if his new radio still worked or if the unit had been smashed in the fight. SHIELD was going to start docking him for equipment if he lived through this.

He didn't hear an answer, then stopped listening for one because another blade was coming at him and he needed to get himself free because otherwise, it wouldn't matter how close Iron Man was.

Squirming to get free of limbs holding him down as he dodged vicious blows from above, Steve took a half-second to marvel at how life really had come full circle and how it really didn't feel so long ago that he was curled up in the corner of an alley in Red Hook, dodging fists and feet until his attackers got bored or Bucky or someone else came to rescue him. This spider, however, scared him a lot more than the Bauer brothers ever did.

Vision obscured by the spider parts around him and the shield he held over himself and the gloom of dusk in an unlit neighborhood of tall buildings and narrow streets, Steve could hear bullets ricocheting off of metal and stone and asphalt and some of them were close and he wanted to tell whoever it was to stop shooting in this direction because it didn't bother the spider and Captain America was not, actually, impervious to bullets. But nobody would hear him and so he saved his dwindling strength for fighting off the spider, which was still trying to disembowel him through the shield.

Until suddenly it wasn't. Without warning, the spider stopped its attack and froze. Steve wondered if one of the SHIELD troopers with the EMP pulse weapons was nearby, but when he finally scrambled free of the spiders, he saw that the only friendlies in the vicinity were soldiers catty-corner firing at HYDRA troops and using the marble wall of the raised flower bed as a defensive position. Those must've been the bullets he heard. Except they, too, stopped firing because the HYDRA troops had stopped firing back.

By the time Steve got over to the groups, the soldiers had the HYDRA troops face-down and zip-tied.

"What the hell just happened, sir?" a sergeant asked him as he approached. "All of a sudden, their blasters stopped firing and our radios died."

"Did we just get nuked?" a private first class asked and Steve stifled a grin because, seventy years later, PFCs were still asking dumb questions.

"We wouldn't be here if we got nuked, Waszinski," someone else pointed out. "It must've been an EMP. Ours or theirs, though?"

"Probably ours," Steve answered, scanning the darkening sky for anything that should have been flying above, like Clint's helicopter or the drones or Tony. "We weren't the ones with the mechanical army."

They walked the prisoners down William two blocks to Pine to where SHIELD and the Task Force had set up and maintained a secure perimeter. There they found chaos, but not the sort of confused chaos that would have been trouble, but instead the busy chaos of a whole lot of people who knew what they were doing completing their tasks in a confined space. There were lights on stanchions here and, Steve was surprised to see, a couple of working radios. There was also water and MREs and energy bars and fresh fruit and Steve made sure his traveling companions were all fed and watered before he took for himself.

"We shielded them," Major Frietas explained to Steve. "Your people gave us funny blankets and told us to keep some of our radios and toys wrapped up."

Steve wondered which people and if they included Fury or Hill. "Was our air support up there when it hit?" he asked instead.

"The helos weren't, but I'm pretty sure the Hueys are so old that they've got nothing in 'em that an EMP could kill," Frietas said wryly. "Damned things are powered by a hamster on a wheel and their speedometer is in roman numerals."

Steve smiled, used to the familiar disparagement of one of the oldest models of rotor aviation still flying the US flag. "Any word on Iron Man?"

Frietas's smile dropped. "He might've been up there. I wasn't listening for him, but I'd seen him around and about up in the air. But he's Tony Stark, he must've had some countermeasures for as dull a weapon as an EMP. That's probably the first thing someone would think of to take him out."

Steve nodded, hoping that was the case. He'd never quite mastered what was part of the Iron Man suit's suite of weapons or what got added or taken off depending on the mission; Tony only really liked to brag to people who could understand what he was saying and Steve, generally, was not one of them.

He asked for and was given one of the working radios, which he used to call the war room in Red Hook and find out what happened, where was he needed, and where were the rest of the Avengers.

Clint was in Jersey City, having flown back there with the helicopter he'd been traveling in. The Hulk's and Thor's precise locations were unknown; they had 'last sighted's on both of them, but that was now a half-hour past useless. Tony was probably in an Iron Man-shaped crater somewhere in Lower Manhattan because the EMPs that had been used had not been brought in to be used against HYDRA - they'd already been in place as a counter-measure in case Iron Man went rogue or Tony took off on an especially ill-advised flight. ("He's an alcoholic egomaniac with the most advanced battle armor on the planet, Captain, and he's gone off the reservation before. I'd be worse than you currently think I am if I didn't have plans to neutralize him.")

Steve had plenty more to say to Fury about countermeasures - the tesseract had not been the first such idea to go pear-shaped - but these were arguments that would keep. Right now, there were still fights raging around Lower Manhattan and he needed to be there for them. The Stock Exchange and Federal Hall buildings were already moving toward secure, but the streets were another story. Frietas gave him an earpiece and base transmitter and a change of body armor and Steve rounded up the healthy and combat-ready to march back up William and Nassau and Gold toward Fulton and clear and hold the intersections; already-dispatched units were covering Broadway to the west and Water to the east, but the middle north-south streets still needed coverage.

As full dark fell, Con Ed put the lights back on. It wasn't a full restoration, but a surprising amount had survived, possibly, Steve thought, because there'd been no power to surge. (His understanding of what an EMP did was a little unclear; Bruce had explained it to him once as a radiation blast that caused a massive power surge, but Tony had whined at the answer and thought it inaccurate and oversimplified. But Steve hadn't understood Tony's own offering, so Bruce's stood.) There were street lamps working at frequent-enough intervals that the lack of night vision gear was not a problem and many storefronts and offices were lit up as if they were occupied.

Once it was clear that there were more than enough bodies to handle the clearing and holding program - there were units coming in from the north to help out and box in anyone trying to hide - Steve broke off and went looking for his teammates. Frietas had promised to radio Steve if he'd heard word of anyone, but that didn't mean he couldn't look himself and put out any fires he found en route. There were some, but not many because, after hours of fighting, HYDRA troops were now exhausted and many were effectively weaponless because they had been carrying blasters and not old-fashioned firearms. That didn't dim their enthusiasm any, of course, but without robots or spider spies or giant mechas bearing down on them, the SHIELD and Task Force troops were more than a match for even the most fire-eyed HYDRA minion. Especially because now, almost twelve hours after the opening salvo, there were thousands of additional soldiers and marines to relieve and support those who'd been fighting since breakfast. Helicopters were flying low overhead and it wasn't long before Steve saw vehicles moving on the streets, humvees and the odd APC and NYPD and FDNY and ambulances, too, plus some city buses being used to transport civilians out of the area.

It didn't look exactly like midtown had after the Chitauri had been dealt with, but close. Especially when Steve came across the deactivated carcasses of mechas lying in the streets.

Thor found him around 2215, flying in and landing with minimal grace. Thor took a close and careful look at Steve, noticing the new marks and fresh blood and dirt and grease and whatever else he was coated in, and nodded. "You have fought well, I see," he said approvingly. "Have you word of our teammates?"

Steve didn't, so they went looking together. Thor could have flown all the way, but he kept himself to occasionally launching straight up and looking around before coming back down. "Truth be told, the flying machines disturb me," he admitted to Steve with a wry frown.

"You and Clint have that in common," Steve assured.

They found the Iron Man-sized crater a little after midnight, after first getting into a ludicrous firefight with a couple dozen HYDRA troops. (Neither Steve nor Thor were carrying firearms, but the shield and hammer were enough to disarm and discourage their opponents.) Bruce - and he was most definitely Bruce - was sitting next to a supine Iron Man and he waved when he saw Steve and Thor, which in turn let Steve exhale a breath he hadn't realized he was holding because Tony was lying still under a space blanket that looked an awful lot like a shroud from down the block. Bruce was wrapped up in his own space blanket, but he'd put on the sneakers and pants and shirts from the Hulk Recovery Kit - early spring in New York City was still bitterly cold at night - and was sipping on a drink pouch when they drew up.

"I need to stop doing that falling-from-flight-altitude thing," Tony said, still not moving or opening his eyes as Steve knelt next to him. "Also, this bastard has ratfucked all of the MREs and I refuse to touch a burrito made by the lowest bidder. And I can't get my phone to work, so I can't get Vongerichten or Humm or Boulud to deliver."

Bruce shrugged. "I was hungry. Long day."

They ended up having to wait for transport to get Tony up, since while Steve and Thor could lift the armor together (Thor could probably do it himself) and they weren't worried too much about internal damage if Tony was complaining about what to eat, the armor still didn't work and they couldn't get Tony out of it without destroying it. Steve decided to keep the news that the EMPs had been meant for Tony until later - despite Fury's calm assurance that Tony would know that such countermeasures existed, Steve knew that this was an explosion waiting to happen and he wasn't all that sure that he would blame Tony for whatever he said or did.

A pick-up truck met them and Steve was unsurprised to see Clint riding in the back. "Found a hooptie for you," he announced cheerfully. "Figured the Little Prince would like to ride in style for once."

Clint and Tony were the only ones who knew what a hooptie was, but it seemed that was all that mattered.

The plan was to drive Tony up to Stark Tower so that he could get the armor off and placate a terrified Pepper and then the other four would return back downtown to do what they could. Steve had considered asking Bruce if he wanted to stay behind, but they all ended up doing so after Tapper loudly and repeatedly insisted that Fury had deemed the Avengers off-duty - the situation was under control and everyone who'd been part of the first wave had long since been relieved - and that if any of them chose to disregard that order, they'd be shot by the first SHIELD or Task Force patrol that found them. "And don't think he won't give that order," Tapper warned. "Especially because the ones most likely to try it would survive it."

Everyone looked at Steve, who tried to look offended, but while he could hold out against his teammates, Pepper was a harder sell.

"Go call Peggy," she told him kindly. "I gave her my word that I'd pass on this request."

Steve looked at his watch. "She's been asleep for hours."

Pepper gave him a look usually reserved for Tony when he was being obtuse. "You can use the phone in the study."

Peggy might have been dozing, but she was clearly waiting for him to call. They kept the conversation brief - it was late, they were both tired, and she knew well how little he liked to rehash the details of a firefight - with a promise to speak later the next day.

When he got back to the living room, Pepper had dispatched various Avengers toward the showers and Tony's personal chef was tying on his apron in preparation to serve a late dinner. Tony was reclining in one of the chairs, feet up on the ottoman and tumbler in hand.

"So that was fun," he announced cheerfully when he saw Steve, the exhausted blank look he'd worn while he stared out into the night sky becoming animated once more. "For very warped values of fun."

"We only deal in warped values of fun," Steve replied, dropping heavily on to the part of the ottoman not taken up by Tony's socked feet. He realized he was still wearing body armor and a duct-taped uniform that was covered in his own blood and whatever else, so he made to stand back up, but Tony reached out and grabbed his forearm and pulled him back down.

"These couches have seen worse," Tony assured.

Chapter Text

The HYDRA soldiers came out of nowhere, materializing out of the forest like wraiths, the blue glow of their blaster weapons destroying Steve's night vision as he reached around to free the shield by muscle memory alone. His teammates unshouldered their weapons as well, but they had to find cover and Steve had to find a way to get that for them.

"Buck, your ten!" he called as he passed by who he could tell by size and smell was Dum Dum (who'd enjoyed a rare cigar earlier in the evening), a quick double-pat on the right shoulder indicating that he was friend and not foe. Bucky starting firing where he'd been directed, giving Steve a chance to get close enough to the HYDRA soldiers that a wide sweep of his shield arm could take out two at once. The act drew the rest of the HYDRA troop's attention to him, as intended, and he made the most of it. This close in, they couldn't use their strange rifles and were forced to either swing the rifle stocks at him like clubs or draw the distinctive daggers each member of Schmidt's personal army carried and knew how to use. He let them come at him, knowing that the knives could penetrate his uniform but not easily, not when there wasn't much time or space to rear back and apply the necessary force.

"Cap!" Gabe called out from somewhere beyond the wall of attackers. "Behind you!"

Steve turned and there was a giant metal spider with giant blades for legs, one of which was aimed straight at the star on his chest. He tried to pull the shield in front of him, but one of the HYDRA soldiers grabbed it and wouldn't be shaken free and Steve watched helplessly as the blade descended while he was held in place like a sacrifice by the HYDRA men. It tore through the reinforced leather like tissue paper and then his chest was on fire and he screamed-

-and woke up in a bed not his own. It took Steve frantic long moments to remember where he was, when he was, and that the noise was not something coming out of the mechanical spider, but the new cell phone Tony had given him last night because his old one had died in the EMP explosion. It was making a dreadful noise that passed for ringing on the nightstand on the far side of the bed. He reached gracelessly across, feeling the sharp pain along his back for the effort and then pushing himself the rest of the way with his leg, to retrieve it.

"There'll be a boat waiting for you in the park in ten," Tapper said without preamble.

"I'm not at home," Steve replied, looking around for a clock and not finding one. It was still dark in the room, but he wasn't sure if it was the windows or if it was still before dawn. "I'm at Stark Tower."

With a brisk efficiency that did little to hide the fear and concern she'd worn all day, Pepper had made sure the Avengers were fed, re-clothed in civvies, and given rooms for the night on the personal guest accommodation floor (there was a corporate guest accommodation floor lower down). Only Thor declined -- choosing to fly off to wherever Jane Foster was working these days -- because Clint's apartment was within the restricted area, Bruce stayed aboard the Helicarrier when he was in New York, and it would have taken hours for Steve to get back to Brooklyn with the subways still not running south of 34th and the East River bridges either closed or subject to occupancy restrictions and wait times to discourage all but the most determined.

"Then we'll send a chopper," Tapper replied.

Steve dropped the phone on the bed and went into the bathroom to take a shower and wash the memories of his nightmare away, then remembered as he pulled off his shirt that his back was still bandaged and taped. He'd showered before they'd eaten and Bruce had re-done the dressing after deeming the wounds healing but still in need of protection. Steve reached behind him and pulled at the lower edge of the tape at the small of his back. The motion still felt wrong, like he was pulling on sutured skin, which he was, so he stopped. He'd get someone at the Helicarrier to look at it later. He washed his face and armpits in the sink instead.

Forty-five minutes later, he was sitting at Fury's conference table with Hill and various SHIELD bigwigs looking at the wall of monitors to see the true level of damage that had been wrought by HYDRA over the last not-yet-twenty-four hours.

Tokyo, which had indeed fared best out of the three, was well into its cleanup. Their markets, like everyone else's, would stay closed today, but the video on the screens showed glass and metal being swept away and the first steps toward resumption of normal life peeking out from behind makeshift walls and sheet-covered plate glass stanchions.

London had had the largest casualty count among civilians -- the bombs had gone off in the middle of the afternoon, so tourists and school children and Londoners who'd had nothing to do with the financial world had been caught in the blasts, which had taken out a Tube station and brought down buildings that had survived the Blitz. The resulting standoff between HYDRA and the military and security services had also produced the greatest casualty rate despite more personnel being involved (on both sides) in New York; how much that had to do with greatly differing tactics and the fact that there were no equivalents to the Avengers would be a story for another day.

(That there should have been at least one Avenger in London by the end of the fighting was a theme picking up momentum, apparently. SHIELD's mandate versus the liberties they so often took with it made them targets for what they could or should have done in any situation.)

New York was just waking up to another first day after a terrible horror, something that would never become familiar but at least was growing more manageable from the past experiences. The casualty count was unknown because there were still door-to-door searches underway; trucks had been driving through the streets picking up the dead -- civilian, military, SHIELD, HYDRA -- all night. The final numbers would be bad, though; the excavation of the Broad Street subway station had brought confirmation of almost two hundred dead all by itself.

That was, however, not the end of it.

"These are satellite images of five factories in China that we've been tracking because of possible ties to AIM," the briefer, an agent named Singh explained as five pictures appeared on the projection wall. "These images are less than two hours old."

The factories looked quiet, only a few people visible, no trucks, no activity of any real sort. Singh changed the pictures with a click of the remote.

"These are the same factories thirty-six hours ago."

The images were now teeming with life and activity, the loading bays full of trucks and the visible population greatly expanded.

"And this is just the tip of the iceberg," Singh went on. "We've got identical situations at at least five known HYDRA bases. We're running every time-elapse filter we can to see what else has emptied out since 0930 yesterday and where it all went to."

Which Steve and everyone else at the table translated into "we don't have any idea yet."

"The bombings were an elaborate distraction?" Hill asked sourly. She looked none too worse for wear after her activities yesterday. Tired, but they all were.

Singh made a face. "It's starting to look like that, ma'am," she agreed. "I won't say what they did downtown or in London or Tokyo was without its own purpose, but it may not have been their primary one."

There was a discussion about what the factories were supposed to be producing versus what they could have actually been producing - AIM certainly hadn't promoted the killer robots department of their San Jose facility - and what had been going on in the HYDRA bases that had been suddenly vacated. There were no answers to be found, not the useful ones weighed down by truth; for those, they would have to wait for those. But now, with the city's medical examiner's office once again putting their mass fatality planning into action and running out of places to store the bodies of the victims and the perpetrators, it was understandable to Steve that the powerful men and women sitting around this table wanted to do something besides sit and drink coffee and hear bad news and see horrifying pictures.

HYDRA's rhetoric had been examined and parsed and taken apart word by word, but to what end, Steve didn't know. To him, it had sounded a lot like the communist propaganda he'd heard in his own time, the inchoate rage against the wealthy and the privileged regardless of whether that wealth had come through hard work or inheritance, the demands for the rich to give what they had for the good of the many simply because, by someone's reckoning, it was better for all that way. To Steve that had always sounded like faulty math. He'd been to Russia, seen the collectivist worker's paradise, and come away believing that taking wealth from the wealthy just ended up spreading poverty even further because it was never that simple. Yesterday HYDRA's spokesmen had stood in front of screens showing the devastation in New York, London, and Tokyo, explaining that this was the unfortunate necessary response to the wealthy who would not share. The money that could have gone to spreading literacy or eradicating hunger, two constant planks in HYDRA's public platform, would be destroyed along with those who kept it out of the hands of those who needed it. The world was broken and HYDRA was doing a controlled burn to fix it.

Around him, the discussions went on, the allocating of personnel and resources and what should be focused on and what should be told to the public. Steve understood why he'd been called in, but this really wasn't his department and these weren't problems he could solve. So he excused himself and left, feeling only the tiniest bit guilty that everyone thought he'd gone off to the head and would be back momentarily. But there were things he could do, people he could help, and Fury really didn't need him to be there for hand-holding purposes.

He went down to the Helicarrier's non-urgent clinic to see if it were possible to have someone look at his back. He knew it would heal eventually, but it was starting to itch furiously and they had some goo for that, even if it meant he had to wear the bandages for another day. There was a triage nurse with a sign-up sheet and, once he explained what he wanted and once the nurse lifted up the back of his t-shirt to see the gauze and tape that snaked down his back to his belt from his shoulder blades, Steve was given an appointment for an hour from then and told to go get coffee in the interim.

He got coffee and pancakes and sausages and fruit because he hadn't eaten since last night's dinner and that had been the first real meal of that very long day. The commissary was crowded, full of the weary and the worn-down and the bleary just-coming-on-shift, and Steve found himself a small table just as two agents got up with their trays. He settled in to eat, aware of other eyes on him and grateful that he'd long since gained the ability to tune out that prickle of being watched.

"Do you mind?" Steve looked up from his food to see Miranda, aka Operative Baker, standing with a tray of her own over the other chair. "Space is at a premium and I'm pretty sure I'm the only one here who's not afraid to crash Captain America's private party."

Steve smiled in spite of himself. "Please," he said, gesturing with the hand not holding his fork toward the chair.

Miranda - Agent Tung of the China Desk, these days - had a lowfat yogurt, a cellophane packet of light granola, and a giant coffee on her tray.

"That's your early morning snack, right?" Steve asked warily. He understood that the ideal of feminine beauty had changed while he'd slept, not for the better, but it still didn't seem healthy to him to need to be so skinny. And Miranda wasn't very big to begin with. "You're going to come back for a real breakfast later?"

Miranda laughed ruefully. "Not all of us have enhanced metabolism and a chance to burn off three thousand calories before lunch. Some of us sit at our desks all day."

There was a bitter note under the false cheer and Steve wondered if he was supposed to ask her about it or let it slide. A quick look around the commissary showed both watchful eyes - who was the junior agent who'd parked herself at Captain America's table? - and enough empty seats that while Miranda had plausible deniability for her stated reason for joining him, he had just as much for thinking that she'd sought him out for a reason.

"You miss the action?" he asked lightly, knowing that that was not the case, as he speared pancake and sausage together.

"Once in a while, in a very great while," she answered as she focused on tearing open the granola packet. It looked like birdseed. "The rest of the time, I'm too busy getting spooked by shadows and thinking random strangers on the street are HYDRA spies and I'm about to be kidnapped and tortured when I'm not even wearing my good underwear."

Steve looked at her then, but she was still focused on the granola, pointedly so.

"I spent a solid half-hour yesterday morning too terrified to move because I thought HYDRA had come for me," she went on quietly. "Which is possibly the most arrogant and self-absorbed thing ever, but there I was, my computer screensaver up, because I couldn't do anything more than breathe - and that not very well."

She looked up, finally, and gave him a wry smile.

"Everyone in the East Asia Section thought I was just having a freak-out because this was the first time something not the Hulk had happened near the Helicarrier since I'd joined," she went on, dropping her gaze to her yogurt cup. "They're all being very 'been there, done that, got the t-shirt when Loki was here' and thinking I'm a coward because I'm terrified by something happening a couple of miles away. And then when all of the able-bodied got called up to do logistical and medical support, I got very ostentatiously left behind with the non-deployables."

Because while there was no good reason for Agent Tung to stay behind, there was no way that SHIELD was going to let Operative Baker anywhere near an open battlefield with HYDRA as the opponent.

"I wanted to go, too," she continued, wiping her fingers on her napkin. "I did what I did because I hate the idea of HYDRA doing what it does anywhere, let alone where I live. I am so angry at them all of the time. But I was so relieved when I got told to stay on the 'Carrier and help out here instead. And I hate myself for that."

"Don't," Steve said firmly, waiting for her to meet his eyes. "You didn't use up your lifetime supply of courage back then. There's plenty more where that came from and when it's needed, you'll find it's exactly where it's supposed to be."

She gave him a weak smile.

"You did something amazing, Miranda, but it was also something that came with a terrible price and you're still paying it. It'll get easier, but not if you put it on a timer. You have nothing to be ashamed of and no reason to let yourself think that your colleagues see some kind of truth about you when all they're really seeing is a tiny part of a story they'll never hear."

A crash of dishes falling to the floor and shattering on the other side of the room startled them both.

"I'm sorry to have unloaded on you," Miranda said when the commotion over the crockery ended. "It's just been building and building and you were the first person who's cleared for the whole story... I know you must have had a helluva day yesterday - did you even sleep?"

"A little?" Steve offered, shoveling in more pancake because he was still hungry and had to make his clinic appointment. "And don't apologize. I'm honored you considered me a viable candidate."

Miranda's smile was much less rueful.

"Are you sure you don't want a sausage?" he asked, pointing with his fork to the one untouched link on his plate. "They're not bad."

"Of course I want a sausage," Miranda sighed with what might have been genuine despair. "But I can't have a sausage for the same reason I can't have pancakes except on Sunday mornings and special occasions. I have a sedentary job and, judging by the craziness in the China office when I logged in, I'm probably not budging from my desk all day."

Steve wondered if she'd had any idea of what was coming down the pike from Fury's office to the China Desk after the AIM factory news. He used his knife to spear the sausage and hold it out to her. "Then all the more reason to treat yourself early. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

She gave him a dubious look, but accepted the sausage, plucking it off the knife with her fingers. "Gah, fat and salt and pork bits and preservatives," she purred happily after chewing and swallowing.

Steve smiled and then looked at his watch. "I gotta go. You be good and don't be afraid to invade any future private parties."

"I'll consider it," Miranda replied, then stopped short. "Crap, what do I say when someone asks me why I'm talking to you? Because this conversation has been observed by many."

Steve looked around as he took his last bites of fruit salad. "While I have been informed that I am reasonably attractive when I'm not wearing 'old man clothing,' you could go the safe route and just say it has to do with the China Desk. In another few hours, it might not even be untrue."

"That you're ridiculously hot in a t-shirt or that my supervisor's head spinning around like in Poltergeist is not unwarranted?"

Steve coughed and needed to drink his lukewarm coffee to stop. "You are a little bit of a menace, Agent Tung," he chided, wiping his mouth and throwing his napkin on his plate.

Miranda smiled at him and Steve thought, for the first time since she'd sat down, that she didn't look haunted.

The nurse practitioner at the clinic made thoughtful noises as he looked over Steve's back, then told him that removing the stitches a little early in this case would be acceptable. After the sutures were pulled out, a process made slightly less distressing (it didn't hurt per se, just felt icky) by the constant application of an aerosol spray that numbed the spots with cold, the wound was slathered with some kind of cutting-edge goo that would serve as waterproof protection because it stiffened up to a kind of soft rubbery solid, like the inserts Steve had found to put in his uniform boots.

"Normally we tell people to leave it on until it breaks down and melts away, but in your case, you can probably pull it off in two days. Three if you're patient."

From the clinic, Steve went down to the Avengers team room, a modestly-appointed space with comfortable chairs and storage lockers that Steve was pretty sure the entire team had never been in simultaneously. He changed into his spare uniform, leaving the clothes Pepper had given to him alongside the civvies he'd worn to the Helicarrier yesterday morning.

"You might be on the longest pee break in history, Cap," Tapper said from the doorway. "You're over sixty-five. It could be prostate trouble."

Steve, still naked from the waist up as he bent down to adjust his boots, looked up and frowned. "There was nothing for me to do there except cheerlead."

Tapper, a blaster burn trailing up his left forearm and disappearing under his pushed-up uniform sleeve, shrugged. "Not saying it was the wrong decision, just that Fury sent me to make sure you hadn't fallen and couldn't get up."

Steve suspected that there was a reference he wasn't getting, but ignored it. He turned back to his locker to get his shirt.

"You really got filleted there, didn't you," Tapper mused once he saw Steve's back. "I'm gonna go ahead and guess we need to order you a couple more shirts."

Steve heard Tapper doing just that, judging by the beep from his little tablet as Steve pulled his shirt over his head and carefully worked the back down without rubbing against the protective gel.  

"Fury really doesn't care that you're not in the meeting," Tapper went on, "but he does want to know where you are and where you'll be because there's going to be a point when the talking stops and the doing begins and he'd like you there for that."

Steve sighed. "Back to Manhattan," he said, fiddling with the cowl. "There are a lot of really miserable jobs to be done and if I'm doing one of them, then someone else doesn't have to."

He'd done those jobs once upon a time, too - the digging for corpses, the collecting of personal effects and body parts, the washing away of blood and vomit and feces and all the other ugly realities of the collision between delicate human bodies and the tools of war and cruelty. It had been soul-crushing in ways the combat itself wasn't and, in Steve's case, the effects had lingered far longer.

"You have your phone?" Tapper asked. Steve pulled it out of the utility pocked and held it up, declining to confess that he wasn't sure how it worked beyond dialing and, even then, it might be tricky because this was a new Stark phone and Tony was far too proud of it for it to be easy to use. "Keep it on."

By the time Steve got back to Manhattan, he'd found out that the search for the dead was nearing completion (the search for the missing was nowhere near done) and efforts were being shifted toward recovery. The commander of the Task Force told Steve that while he was welcome to help document power outages caused by the EMPs and HYDRA, what would really be helpful would be an appearance at the evacuation centers.

"We saw this after the Towers and after the Chitauri," Colonel Waldman explained, "there are a lot of scared people, some of them looking for someone who didn't come home last night and some of them wondering if they still have a home to return to and we just don't have the resources to give everyone an answer right away and some of them, we can't answer at all. It can get ugly and it's not usually anyone's fault that it does."

Waldman wasn't asking Steve to be a USO girl and gladhand with pep and vim; he was asking him to be a bullet magnet when every shot fired went straight to someone's heart and the shield wouldn't even slow them down.

"Of course," Steve agreed, ignoring the tiny voice (that still sounded like Bucky) telling him that this was going to hurt for far longer than the gouge in his back.

With all of Manhattan evacuated south of Houston (and no civilian vehicles allowed south of 34th), there were tens of thousands of refugees, all joined by the families and friends of those looking for missing loved ones. School gyms, Ys, and Madison Square Garden itself were converted into processing centers and temporary shelters. They were teeming, some loud, most the sort of shocked quiet that came in the aftermath of such trauma, and all full of people who were desperate for good news that Steve was no more capable of providing than the OEM and Task Force members already there.

He was yelled at (many times), wept on (even more), and, just when he thought he'd need to step outside to collect himself, there was always a guileless child who'd come up to him in awe or a kind-souled adult who'd quietly thank him - sometimes for something else totally unrelated to the previous day's events - and he'd be able to recover enough to continue on.

In between the evacuation centers, Steve stopped at two hospitals, three if he counted the visit to Downtown before beginning this duty. He mostly visited the wounded Task Force and SHIELD personnel because they'd been kept together, but stopped to talk to anyone who approached.

He was standing outside MSG with a few soldiers and cops when his phone rang. Pepper and Peggy had both called him earlier to make sure he was okay - Pepper to chide him for stealing out in the dark of night without so much as a note - but this was not a concerned friend.

"Get back down to the ferry," Tapper said. "HYDRA's left us a little present."

Steve got a ride downtown from a couple of cops and he looked out the window as they moved south on Seventh. "I guess Lower Manhattan's going to be a cash-only economy until the power and internet's back up," he said as they drove by yet another bank with long lines.

"I don't know what's going on," Sergeant Halligan admitted. "It wasn't like this after the aliens trashed midtown or after 9/11. All you gotta do to use your credit card or your smartphone is go uptown or into the outer boroughs. Can't even tell anything's wrong north of 72nd, for better or for worse."

By the time they dropped Steve off on State Street by the ferry terminals, they had a good idea that this was something more than just concern about having to pay cash. There had been three calls from the dispatcher for units to show up to banks to stop disturbances.

"What's everyone so worked up about?" Officer Jackson asked, shaking his head as he pulled in next to the curb. "Government insures the banks, right?"

But that wouldn't matter if people lost faith in the government's ability to backstop. Steve remembered the fight to get to the Federal Reserve yesterday and wondered if this, in fact, might have been HYDRA's other goal. He thanked the officers and headed down to the SHIELD ferry slip, where there was a small boat waiting for him.

"I haven't seen a run on a bank since I was a kid," Steve said to Hill as he joined her and three others as they waited in Fury's outer office. Behind them, Hsiang was juggling at least three phone calls while typing, using the kind of take-no-prisoners voice that assistants to powerful people developed. Pepper's was fearsome, even more so now that she held the CEO's chair. "It's scarier now."

Hill exhaled loudly and shook her head. "HYDRA released a video on the internet at noon declaring that they'd hacked the Federal Reserve and taken precisely one dollar from the US Treasury, to show that they could. The White House denied that Treasury had been compromised, which was just a fucking stupid thing to do considering who we're dealing with. So HYDRA put up the screenshots to not only prove what they'd done, but also to prove that they'd gone back in after the White House said it hadn't happened. So in a matter of hours, the US dollar has gone from the world's reserve currency to about as stable as whatever toilet paper Mugabe is printing in Zimbabwe these days. If we don't fix this fast, we're going to end up having to go back on the gold standard."

Fury, when they got in to see him, was still cursing the White House, from the President on down to the Press Secretary and the "tax cheat over at Treasury."

Washington, after apparently seriously considering some truly terrible ideas - Steve had enough of a sense of world economics to understand just how awful an idea it was to peg the US dollar to the euro - had realized that the only solution available to them was to shore up faith in the dollar and reassure the country and the world that neither hackers nor terrorists nor terrorist hackers could take down the world's largest economy with a keystroke. The US Treasury had been the dominant force in world monetary policy since long before the computer age and, even if it had to pull out the paper and pencils to write everything longhand, it would remain so.

"It's going to be a shitty few months all over," Fury said. "We've got to deal with the panic now, but we're looking at long-term unrest and it's very likely Captain America here is going to be living through his second Great Depression."

Ensuring continued faith in the dollar was not SHIELD's domain - although Fury sounded like he firmly believed he had better ideas for that than anyone whose job it actually was - and nor, for that matter, was keeping the peace in the streets until that faith was restored. But figuring out HYDRA's end game and stopping that, that was SHIELD's responsibility.

"We have been watching these bastards for more than a year," Fury said, glaring at all of them. "Why are they constantly surprising us? Why are we still behind on their pitches? They are not being subtle. They are not being coy. Why are we still failing - and this, ladies and gentlemen, was a failure of such epic proportion that there are no words to describe it - to find solutions to this problem?

"We are done playing catch-up. We should have been done after they handed our pants to us in Poland and sure as hell after Detroit. And in case I did not make myself abundantly clear: We. Are. Done. Failing.

"These will not be the last bodies we have to bury because of HYDRA, but these will damned sure be the last ones we bury because of our own incompetence."

There was more, but it was all variations on the same theme: HYDRA had just committed the largest act of domestic terrorism since 9/11 and it had happened, not unintentionally, on SHIELD's back porch. Fury assured them that many jobs would be lost because of this, but his primary interest was in stopping HYDRA's forward momentum and not giving in to his very deep need to exact his pounds of flesh from the staff he relied upon to hold the line between good people and the evil that surrounded them.

Steve took Fury's frustration and anger to heart, even though he knew that it had not been directed against him per se. He still considered himself part of the institutional failure; he'd spent all this time focusing on Schmidt and what he wanted personally - the serum and what he'd do with it - and had lost sight of the fact that Schmidt wanted the serum so that he could rule the world in a body fit for an emperor. Schmidt had to conquer the lands that would comprise his empire and for that he needed HYDRA - today's HYDRA, which was turning out to be more soldier than scientist than it had been during Steve's time. He wondered how much he'd influenced SHIELD's perceptions by letting his own memories guide his reactions, underplaying the threat they presented because he still didn't always remember that the current iteration didn't need the Wehrmacht to do the heavy lifting anymore. And then he reminded himself that SHIELD was bigger than him, this was bigger than him, and to stow the ego because there was work to be done.

Fury asked him to stay back with Hill after he dismissed the others.

"What's the status on the HYDRA and AIM personnel shifts?" Fury asked Hill.

"They're still running the filters to find other locations that might fit our parameters," Hill began, still poking away at her tablet. "But we're also now running tracking programs on the ones we've identified. We're getting additional satellite footage to see if we can't chase down where everyone went - or where they're still going. We won't find all of them, but we should find a few. I'm bringing up the maps now."

While they waited, Fury turned to Steve. "The Avengers are going HYDRA hunting. The Direct Action Service took a mighty wallop yesterday and they'll be at reduced capacity for the near term, so you'll be tasked with some operations that would have originally been given to them. You'll have some personnel support, but I need you to manage that."

"Will do, sir." Steve understood what Fury was really saying: he was going to be responsible for making sure the Avengers were as close to a full complement as possible. Tapper was the official Avengers wrangler, but Steve was going to be needed to keep Tony and Thor from disappearing back into their (legitimate) other lives and leaving the heavy lifting to him and Clint and whatever they could get out of Bruce.

Hill got her maps, which she transferred to the giant plasma screen on Fury's wall, and they proceeded to watch the animated progression of convoys of trucks moving west across China. It took them a few minutes to figure out which color trails meant that SHIELD had actual evidence and which ones meant that it was a guess based on evidence and which ones were just entirely speculative. Most of the lines fell into the latter two categories.

"Are they staying in China or are they crossing over into the 'stans?" Hill wondered aloud. "There are good reasons to do both, with or without aid from the PRC."

"Or Russia," Steve added. "We know HYDRA's set up shop there."

He took a moment to wonder what Natasha -- still more guilty by reputation than actual evidence -- was up to and where she was. He had no doubt that she was safe, wherever she was, but he did wonder why there'd never been updates on where that could be. It wasn't as if everyone didn't know that SHIELD was looking for her, which in turn made him wonder if this fell under the rubric of information Fury thought it better that Steve not know. Clint was asking around, although Steve did not know that because Clint had told him, but Natasha was very good at her job and, it seemed, disinclined to contact anyone from the life she'd been forced to leave behind.

"They could be in North Korea or Wyoming for all we know," Fury spat out. "These are no better than weather forecasts."

They were still going over the possibility of the Avengers making visits to the emptied-out HYDRA bases without prior approval of the host nations when Hsiang broke in over the intercom with the news that General Saxby from NORTHCOM was on the line and yes, it was that urgent. NORTHCOM had been essential yesterday with the immediate deployment of the forces that made up Task Force Amsterdam and still had several high-up representatives floating around the Helicarrier and the Task Force headquarters in Manhattan.

"What the hell does he want now," Fury groused as he left the conference table to return to the phone at his desk. "If he's gonna try to bill SHIELD..."

He wasn't calling to stick Fury with the check, but he apparently had enough important things to say that after a few minutes Fury snapped his fingers and pointed to the door and Steve and Hill packed up and left.

Steve waited half a beat to see if Hill wanted or needed him for anything, but she was on her earpiece giving orders the minute they cleared the doorway, so he waved to Hsiang and left. He had turned his phone off before the meeting, after much effort, and turning it back on now, he saw several missed calls and even more texts. Most of both were from Tony, which could be for one of many possible reasons ranging from Tony being bored to Tony having discovered something important to, Steve realized checking his watch, Tony being drunk.

The tone of the text messages seemed to indicate it was neither boredom nor drunkenness. They were simply requests to be called, which in Tony's case was slightly worrying because there were very few things Tony didn't feel couldn't be discussed in a condensed format like a text.

"Did you know about the Iron Man countermeasures?" Tony asked without preamble when Steve called him back.

"Not before the fact," Steve answered.

Tony exhaled loudly. "If this were something other than what it is, I would tell Fury to go fuck himself and set about working very hard to prove to him that he was right to pass me over when he came up with his Initiative."

Steve edged carefully past some agents congregated around a notice posted on the bulkhead and he took a glance at it as he went by. It was a list of the dead and wounded SHIELD agents, with two names crossed out on the latter list and two names written in on the former.

"But this is what it is and you can't," Steve finished for him. "Because there's a very long list of people we have to avenge."

Tony sighed. "Yeah."

Steve asked what Clint and Bruce had been up to during the day; Bruce was still at Stark Tower, having spent the day in quiet seclusion - not unusual for the day after a major Hulk adventure - and Clint had left after breakfast to return to Lower Manhattan and had not been heard from since. Steve already knew where Thor was; the Task Force command post had been pleasantly abuzz at his antics, Thor being even more popular among soldiers than he was among the SHIELD agents who adored him.

"You should see what's trending on Twitter today," Tony said. "There's a proxy war between everyone who's pissed off at what happened and HYDRA's apologists."

Steve did not roll his eyes, but wanted to. He'd long been aware of HYDRA's activity on social media, but social media as a concept was all very distant and abstract to him. He didn't participate in it at all, much to the dismay of SHIELD's public relations department - he'd even gotten Fury to shut down the ghost-written pages - and while he knew that Tony and, of all people, Clint loved it, he hadn't bothered to learn more about it than that it involved the sharing of boring and personal details nobody needed to know. As such, he couldn't take it seriously and tended to tune out as soon as the words "Facebook" or "Twitter" appeared in the conversation.

"You don't really think this matters, do you?"

"Of course it does," Tony replied with the fervent tone of the true believer. "No matter how much you wish otherwise, people pay attention to this."

"It's just yakking on the internet," Steve replied with a frown. They'd had this argument too many times to count and they both knew each other's parts as well as their own by now. "Nobody's taking up arms or going down to the Red Cross to give money or blood."

Steve hit the elevator button. He'd head back to Manhattan before he could get dragged into any more meetings or presentations and see what he could do, although this time he'd take his civvies back with him so that he didn't have to come back here before going home. He told Tony that he was going to use Stark Tower as a storage locker and that he'd see him later.

It was evening as he rode across New York Harbor on the SHIELD ferry and cold wind blew in his face no matter what direction he stood toward. He went straight back up to Stark Tower, dropped off his rucksack, assured Pepper (via Jarvis) that yes, he'd come back for dinner if he were free, and went back downtown to the command post at City Hall.

"We're maintaining the evacuation zone until noon tomorrow," Steve was told, "but we're letting people go back to their places to pick up changes of clothes and do whatever they need to do. Patrols are running, don't think you want to join any of those… Honestly, most of what we're doing now is 'just in case.' I think we've got everyone we need to get in terms of bad guys and we've got an alphabet soup of agencies stepping on each other's toes trying to take credit and shift blame for everything else."

Steve did join a patrol, mostly to be seen by the civilians and see what the soldiers were up to and how they were handling themselves and to at least give the impression that the Avengers didn't always leave the messes for lesser beings to clean up. The patrols were watchful but not tense and the troops seemed to enjoy Steve's company as they walked down Pearl Street, asking him questions about the Chitauri invasion - general consensus being that they'd have loved to have been a part of that fight - and his own war and what Thor and Tony were really like. Steve assured them that both were pretty much exactly as they presented themselves and answered the rest of the questions as best he was able and asked his own in return. The NCOs were his age - his real age, not counting his years asleep - and he was acutely aware of how different they were from him.

After the patrol was over, during which they saw no HYDRA threats and escorted three families to their apartments and Steve signed a dozen autographs, he turned down an offer of dinner with the troops - the local restaurants were being paid by the Task Force to feed personnel rather than let the food go to waste because of the evacuation zone - and went back up to Stark Tower.

Tony was reclining on the couch, drink in one hand and giant HUD displaying all kinds of social media business in front of him, when Steve arrived and in the same position after he'd showered and changed into civvies and accepted his own drink from Pepper, who had been ignoring Tony's ignoring her by taking care of Stark Industries business on her own set-up but now closed it down to focus her attention on Steve. But when Tony didn't even register the change, she asked Jarvis to lock Tony's entertainment down. Tony's screen disappeared and he looked over in annoyance.

"I can multi-task, you know," he said. "Big brain, lots of small compartments."

Pepper gave him a look that was both fond and frankly disbelieving.

During their late dinner - a vegetable frittata with shaved truffles on top and some fresh baguette and white wine - Steve learned about how the business and financial worlds had handled HYDRA's busy few days. (Answer: badly, very badly.) Both Pepper and Tony had spent the day strategizing with the rest of the Board to position Stark Industries to take as small a hit as possible. That they were going to take a hit of any size, however, could not be avoided. Not with the dollar predicted to open drastically down against every currency when trading resumed the day after tomorrow.

"There isn't any sector that's going to emerge unscathed," Tony said with a shrug as he ate. "You mess with the dollar, the world trembles. Everyone's got greenbacks, so even the Eurozone's going to have trouble once we start hitting the crazy inflation part of the program. And all of this is before we know what the Chinese are going to do."

China, the holder of so much US debt, Pepper explained, was in a position to do a lot of damage if they chose to do anything other than sit tight. It made the most sense that they would - why would they devalue the money they're owed? - but there was a lot of talk about China's desperation to become the second world superpower and there would be no easier way to accomplish that than bringing the US economy to its knees.

Steve wondered if this had anything to do with the possibly-AIM factories in China vacating suddenly yesterday.

"I'm betting the house - kind of literally - on China being content to get their jollies just from the speculation," Tony said. "They're getting a lot of respect tonight because the spotlight is on the sword they're holding over the US Treasury's head and I think that will be enough for them."

Steve spared a thought for Miranda; it sounded like she and everyone else at the China Desk would be having a long night.

Pepper was adding Frangelico to her coffee and pointedly ignoring Tony's comments about it when Jarvis interrupted to say that Director Fury was calling. Tony sharply told Jarvis to tell Fury something Steve knew very well that Jarvis would not pass on, but he never found out because his own phone started vibrating in his pocket. It was Tapper and Steve suspected that his own night was about to get as long as Miranda's.

"Can you call Stark?" Tapper asked.

"I'm at Tony's," Steve replied. "I can kick him in the shin."

"Do it and tell Stark to answer his goddamned phone so Fury can talk to both of you."

Steve told Jarvis to please put Director Fury through. To Tony's surprise, Jarvis agreed.

"You are so fired," Tony warned.

"Captain America just possibly saved your fortune, Stark," Fury said sourly. "Because if you hadn't put the call through, you would have found out tomorrow - along with the rest of the world - that HYDRA was using Stark Industries technology when it attacked New York, London, and Tokyo."

Tony froze. "Say that again?"

"You heard me," Fury replied. "The bombs that went off. All ninety-nine were set off with the help of an ingenious little device not even on the market. Part number G325FX-"

"-323," Tony finished, the sullen posture gone along with any semblance of an expression on his face. Tony was blank, like a clean canvas, but where a canvas had many possibilities, Tony's had only one: grief. "How the hell did they get a hold of it? We've made twenty-four of them, sold nine, and I can tell you off the top of my head the destination of every single one."

Silently, Pepper slid out from her seat at the table and started walking toward the living room, picking up her phone en route. Steve couldn't hear her, but he could see her start to make calls and her body language echoed Tony's despair and disbelief.

"We're still trying to track down if it's any of the existing product," Fury answered, the bite from his voice gone, aware as he must be how Tony would react to the news. "It's not any of the ones you sold to the Pentagon, all of them have been accounted for firsthand. But you sold them overseas and we're still checking with the Brits and Aussies."

Steve took the napkin off his lap and put it on the table, pushing back. "Any chance it's not genuine?"

It wasn't the financial hit that was draining the life out of Tony, Steve knew. It was that this was his nightmare come to life: he'd inadvertently become a facilitator of terrorism once more. He'd never wanted to return to weapons design, never wanted to risk putting gifts in the hands of the wrong people ever again, and this is what had come of it.

"A very good chance considering the small number in the wild," Fury admitted. "But it won't-"

"Nobody would believe me," Tony cut in bleakly. "I can swear on a stack of bibles, throw PDFs of the order slips online, and I am still the man who helped HYDRA kill six thousand people."

Chapter Text

"The two of you had better be fucking with me," Clint warned wearily as he opened another bottle of water. "I am not prepared to deal with it if you're not."

Steve and Thor exchanged matching looks of guilelessness. Clint hissed.

"I did not say that they would be good sport on their own," Thor said in a mollifying tone. "Rodents, of unusual size or not, never are. But in combination with the fire pits, it would perhaps prove enough of a challenge to make it worth the undertaking. On a slow afternoon."

Clint did not look mollified. He looked like he was considering going up to the cockpit to see if the pilots couldn't find another HYDRA base to let him jump out over. But it was an idle thought; after almost forty hours of action - two raids in two different countries in two time zones separated only by a nap on a plane ride - and Clint, like everyone else not Thor, was not seriously considering a third. Even Steve was feeling it, although not to the extent the others were - most of the SHIELD troops, including Corrales on the other side of Steve from Thor, were fast asleep.

"How's the shoulder?" Steve asked because Clint had winced as he'd raised the water bottle to drink. "Besides sore."

Clint made a face. "Just sore," he assured, re-capping the empty bottle and tossing it - offhand - into the makeshift garbage can a few feet away. He'd fallen from a second-story roof, although the degree to which he'd broken his fall was a matter of some debate between what Clint had offered and what witnesses had seen, which is why Steve was prepared to keep on him until there was either a confession or an x-ray. "Nothing structural."

Steve did nothing to hide his own skepticism and Clint pretended not to notice, closing his eyes and settling back - gingerly - in his seat to doze. They had another seven hours - and an in-air refueling - to go before they got back to New York and Steve wanted to sleep, too, but he was still a little too keyed up to do so and instead pulled out his tablet and started reviewing the reports and intelligence that were already being uploaded. The first raid, in Venezuela, had been over long enough that there was a coherent, if not complete, narrative of events available to go along with the photographs and video of the massive compound they'd stormed as dawn had broken the day before. It had also been over long enough for the government in Caracas to start raising a fuss about being invaded by a US-led coalition force and how the time when this sort of outrage could go unpunished was over, but Steve was unconcerned about that. They'd secured proof that Caracas had known exactly what was going on in Delta Amacuro and, no matter how much Chavez tried to protest, he still sounded like Claude Rains in that he was shocked, shocked! that such things were going on inside his nation's borders. That he'd spent the past three weeks praising HYDRA for its actions in New York, London, and Tokyo made his threats of retribution less than menacing and his protests of innocence easily ignorable. That the second raid had taken place in Bolivia, a client state of Venezuela, was almost beside the point.

"Will these actions matter?" Thor asked after a companionable silence. "HYDRA promises that for every man to fall, two more will come to take his place. Is this not true as well for their fortifications?"

Steve sighed. "I think that all we can hope for is that it's not," he admitted, understanding that Thor was really suggesting that the past days' activities had been more entertaining than productive. Steve couldn't let himself agree out loud, not when they didn't have a better play to make. "We're not going on these raids to stamp out HYDRA like a brushfire. It wouldn't work. But we can learn from what we find, maybe stop something else before it happens."

Thor's expression maybe showed how naïve he thought Steve's words were and how little he was fooled by them into believing that Steve meant them fully. For all that Thor was cheerfully and perpetually befuddled by Earth's little details, he was a successful warrior of an untold number of campaigns and understood combat and war on levels that none of the rest of them could match. He'd lived for millennia and Steve didn't think any of them could quite appreciate how tiny, in every sense, their lives and plans and priorities must seem to him. Thor was usually gracious about it, but sometimes it slipped out, like now, and, for an instant, Steve felt very callow and young indeed.

"And maybe we shall find your Red Skull," Thor mused. A peace offering, Steve realized, for an unintended offense that hadn't really offended. Being made to feel childish by Thor was a different kind of foolish than when he was publicly confounded by the mysteries of twenty-first century life.

He smiled wryly. "That, too."

By the time they landed on the Helicarrier, Steve had been asleep for almost six hours, his tablet closed and resting at his feet (courtesy of Thor, he suspected, because he didn't even remember falling asleep). While Corrales rousted his men, Steve kicked Clint in the foot to wake him, watching him startle and then move freely for the half-second before the pain in his shoulder kicked in, at which point he froze.

"Are you going to go down to Medical by yourself or is Thor going to carry you like a sack of potatoes?" Steve asked as he picked up his shield and ruck. Next to Steve, Thor put on a bright smile at the possibility and Clint glowered at him, but it was lost in the stream of troops passing by and through them.  

"If I go down to Medical, they are going to find all of the other things that are wrong and I'm never going to get cleared for field ops again," Clint grumbled.

"They won't do a psych eval," Steve promised. "Everything else is more or less fixable with duct tape and aspirin."

Clint picked up his pack with his good(-ish) arm. "I liked you better before you'd mastered sarcasm."

"I mastered sarcasm in the 1920's," Steve replied mildly, nodding to Corrales, who was standing on the ramp and indicating by gesture that he was going. "You shouldn't trust everything you see on the newsreels."

Thor walked alongside Clint as they left the plane, the latter complaining about not actually needing an armed escort, and Steve followed behind. Unsurprisingly, Tapper was waiting for them and Steve went over to him. Tapper's news, however, was not what he expected.

"Peggy Carter's in the hospital," Tapper said. "Respiratory infection."

Steve swallowed past the panic rising in his chest. "Is she-"

He hadn't spoken to Peggy since early last week; he'd been increasingly absorbed in the final mission prep and then they'd left to join the Kearsarge and while he'd had downtime once aboard, he'd been distracted by the sailors eager to show him their ship and the marines happy to have a new playmate and he just hadn't thought about it because, even now, despite their history and Peggy's constant reminders, he still assumed she'd always be there.

"She's fine, more or less," Tapper assured gently. "She's out of ICU as of this morning."

Steve nodded sharply. He looked at his watch; he'd gotten off the plane knowing that he had hours of debriefing and discussions ahead of him and while he certainly hadn't been looking forward to it, he'd accepted it as part of the process and as something he'd have to get through before going home and eating in his own kitchen and sleeping in his own bed for the first time in a week. But even a blazingly fast debrief would make it too late for him to get down to Philadelphia today and then tomorrow would bring a whole new set of problems and intelligence and the possibility, Clint's fears notwithstanding, that the Avengers were going out again.

"We're in contact with the hospital," Tapper went on. "They know you're coming."


Tapper gave him a tiny smile. "But Fury's still in DC scaring the crap out of people and not-so-secretly running the world, Hill's been in London since Wednesday, and everyone here still has plenty to do before we absolutely, positively, need to get stuck in a conference room for six hours right now. Corrales can handle the primary debrief; he doesn't get sent along with you guys just because nobody else wants to go. Fury will be back in his office tomorrow first thing, so just be back for that."

Steve took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I will be."

Tapper patted him on the shoulder and stepped away, putting his hand to his earpiece. "Jesus, what now?" he asked the unknown caller as Steve started walking toward the stairs that led from the flight deck.

He showered and changed and checked in on Clint - getting an MRI while a fascinated Thor watched - before going down to the well deck to wait for the ferry to Brooklyn. There was a SHIELD boat service crewman waiting for him when he got there, though, with orders to take him directly to the slip closest to his apartment and Steve made a mental note to thank Tapper later.

The drive down on his bike was complicated by the New York and Philly rush hours, but it was just volume and he made good time considering, although he was still arriving near the end of what he suspected were regular visiting hours.

Peggy was lying in bed looking pale and frail and old in a way he'd never really appreciated. Her eyes were closed and she was peaceful and still and he found himself rooted to the spot where he stood at the end of her bed in fear because he wasn't ready to lose her and could not imagine what he'd do without her. He felt pinpricks of tears in his eyes and a thousand-ton weight on his chest.

"You could at least sit down if you're going to be my creepy watcher for the evening," Peggy said in a whispery voice as her eyes fluttered open.

Steve smiled weakly and he knew Peggy could see everything on his face that he'd have wanted to hide from her. "Have you been getting regular creepy watchers?" he asked with a terribly fake lightness. "Is this something I have to take care of?"

Peggy smiled and held out her hand to him as he dragged the chair over to her bedside and sat down. He took her hand and squeezed it as firmly as he dared and she squeezed back before freeing herself from his grip and reaching out to caress his cheek. He turned into the motion automatically, closing his eyes to keep the returning pinpricks from turning into real tears.

"You're better looking than last evening's creepy watcher," Peggy told him, voice still breathy but a little stronger now that she was fully awake. She kept her hand on his cheek and he made no motion but to open his eyes lest she remove it. She wiped the tear forming in the corner of his eye with her thumb. "He sat in the half-shadows, talking endlessly on his cell phone despite the very clear rules about that in the ICU, and using words that you would never use in front of a lady. If it weren't for the fact that he was cursing out the President, I might have protested."

Steve smiled then, a real one. He was surprised but not shocked that Fury would come to keep Peggy company.

"A respite between the idiots in Washington and the chaos in New York," Peggy said, then started to cough, a bronchial cough that brought Steve to his feet to summon a nurse because he knew that sound and the struggle for breath that came with it; not all of the years in his current body could erase those visceral memories. Peggy glared at him and he stilled, although he still remained poised to run for help. But she stopped coughing and gestured for him to give her the plastic cup with a straw coming out of it and he did, holding it for her as she sipped at the water inside.

"You should have heard me on Monday," Peggy said once she had finished drinking and Steve had replaced the water cup on the little table.

He gave her a look that said loudly how much he wished he'd been there and how much he'd wished that it hadn't been necessary and how little he was impressed by her current bravado for his sake.

"Tell me about your adventures in South America," she commanded. "Fury's swashbuckling is all with metaphorical swords."

Fury, who had probably singlehandedly avoided a worldwide financial collapse by blackmailing the Chinese government with the details of the AIM factories (some actual fact, a lot of well-played bluffing) into not only not further destabilizing the dollar, but instead propping it up by buying more, had given Peggy an overview of what was going on. So Steve told her about the assaults on the compounds in Venezuela, taking time to digress into the tale of Thor's introduction to coconuts and his delight in their multipurpose function as food, drink, and weapon - a story that nearly became unfunny as Peggy laughed hard enough to start coughing again - and the strangeness of fighting in tropical climates. The actual details of the fighting were skippable; Peggy knew he didn't like rehashing it and they'd both seen enough bloodshed during their war that there was no relish in it now.

Bolivia had been a different kind of battle; they'd chosen to go in after finding evidence of the site's existence in the administrative offices of the main Venezuelan compound. Without accurate maps of the place or real surveillance to know how many people were there and what kind of defenses they had, it had been a more dangerous entrance with their main advantage being surprise because they'd had to leave so many behind to secure the vast Venezuelan network of sites and the geography put them beyond the reach of their primary supply chains until the FAB could mobilize. But with all of that, it hadn't been so bad - they'd had surprise, a Norse god spoiling for a good fight, and the Bolivian compound had been a training camp of sorts and so the majority of the fighters were still learning how to hold their weapons, let alone aim them. Clint's falling off a roof had been about par for the level of casualty SHIELD had taken.

"Even if he's cleared right away, which he probably won't be because he never went in for his standard physical after getting reinstated the other month and Human Resources cares about that even if Fury doesn't, we're going to be shorthanded for a while," Steve told Peggy. "Thor was supposed to go back to Asgard last week, Bruce is off-limits until the end of the month, and I've got a promotional itinerary that makes my USO days look relaxing."

Fury might have stopped a global collapse, but it had still been a miserable few weeks for the world's economy because panic, once begun, was hard to slow down, let alone stop. The runs on banks had finally been headed off with emergency interventions by central banks around the world and the Chinese show of faith had stopped the dollar's freefall, but HYDRA had not stopped once they'd been cleared out of the world's largest financial centers. They'd been doing relentless press, using the internet and calling up media outlets to promote their agenda and offer the world its alternative to the status quo. Steve had been asked to serve as the public affairs antidote, to make appearances (which he didn't mind) and speeches (which he didn't like) reminding people that the world as it was, as flawed as it was, was still mostly comprised of democracies and republics and giving all of that up in favor of HYDRA's promises was not going to make it a better place. HYDRA's rebranding itself as a populist, progressive movement that promoted meritocracy and dedicated itself to eradicating hunger and illiteracy did not change the fact that they were still fascists, still openly desirous of world domination, and still willing to kill everyone who stood in their way even if they no longer wore Nazi insignia alongside the HYDRA emblems.

Steve couldn't understand how HYDRA could be so effective doing this, how they could actually be gaining in popularity after what they'd done last month, but they were. Their offer to supply candidates for local elections - HYDRA becoming a political party as a transitional step to becoming the only political power and rendering parties obsolete - had been taken up by nine countries already. He understood that the last several years had been hard financially for many people around the world, that after years in rough seas any port in a storm would do. He'd watched Hitler's rise to power after the Weimar Republic and if he hadn't understood it all then, he'd read enough about it now to appreciate that charismatic strength and an appeal to the personal indignities of the public was a powerful combination and that someone saying "we will make you stop feeling powerless" had immense appeal. But Hitler hadn't been Hitler when he'd used those promises in his rise to power; HYDRA was already established in history books as the fomenters of genocide and Steve had never felt so horrified and miserable in this strange future he'd woken up in than when he'd contemplated the fact that HYDRA was gaining ground because people didn't care about what they'd done.

"You aren't a bad song-and-dance man when you try," Peggy said lightly, although he could see in her expression that she knew exactly how serious this was and how much more important this was than selling war bonds. "You must remember to smile more, though."

He gave her a weak smile, although it possibly came across as more of a grimace. "Haven't really had a lot to smile about lately."

Peggy gestured for the water cup again. "And speaking of the teammate who didn't even make your list..." she prompted once she'd finished drinking.

Steve replaced the cup with a sigh. "Tony's... Tony's in awful shape."

The public fallout from the news that HYDRA had used Stark Industries technology had been massive. Tony had been right - it hadn't mattered that the device used hadn't actually been produced by Stark Industries, had instead been a pirated copy from a source still undetermined. Because not only did everyone know that it had been Stark tech, they also knew that Stark Industries' New York concerns - Stark Tower, their outposts in the Meatpacking District - had been left undamaged by both HYDRA's attacks and the EMPs that stopped it. Which wasn't actually that remarkable - the far west side of Lower Manhattan had escaped the worst damage and Stark Tower was too far north to be within the impact zone - but had nonetheless been cleverly and very intentionally turned into a sinister tale of corporate greed and the immense power of the super-rich, the main villains of HYDRA's narrative of corruption. Without any evidence whatsoever, despite the fact that Tony-as-Iron-Man had been saving people and had plummeted sixty stories to the ground after the EMP had gone off, there was now a working theory that Tony had sold the technology to HYDRA itself so that he could profit from the after-effects by selling weapons to a government about to put itself on a war footing against both HYDRA and, possibly, against its own people in the wake of the financial panic and the possibility of a populist revolution. It was ridiculous, but it was also irrefutable and there was enough taint and rumor that New York City's mayor had refused Stark Industries' offer of free clean-energy generators for downtown - generators that could have been driven down Broadway and set up within hours - and chosen to instead accept Trident's offer of the same even if the parts had to be flown in from factories in Europe and that couldn't happen until the local airports had been reopened to civilian traffic.

The private fallout was even worse. Steve had been in daily contact with Pepper up until he'd gotten swallowed up by the Venezuela mission prep, as much to be a friend to her as to keep tabs on Tony, who was spiraling downward at a pace nobody could check. That the drinking was completely out of hand was a given, but it had taken a combination of Steve, Pepper, Colonel Rhodes, Bruce, and a discreet team of SHIELD's cyber division and Stark Industries programmers to prevent Tony from either donning Iron Man armor or forcing Jarvis to enable his self-destructive behavior. The truth, however, was that Tony didn't need Jarvis to be a danger to himself or others and all of them understood that. The best that any of them could do was to catch him during the periods when his mania - there was no other word for it - was at a low ebb and try to direct him toward less harmful activities than building himself new armor or a new weapons system or trying to override the locks that had been placed on Jarvis's available-to-Tony actions or whatever so-clever idea (and they all were, which was part of the tragedy) that Tony'd come up with as a way to clear his name and stop the damage he'd caused. Because that's how he saw it, no matter how many times anyone reminded him that HYDRA had pushed the button and if it hadn't been Stark tech, it would have been someone else's. Tony didn't care about that detail. "Without me, they're doing it the old-fashioned way and out of hundred bombs, there'd have been failures. Every failure would have been lives saved. Every. Single. One."

"Like father, like son that one," Peggy sighed sadly. "Ecstatic highs and unfathomable lows."

Once upon a time, Steve might have been jealous of Peggy's reminiscences of Howard, but Peggy's outright incredulity every time he'd so much as react had cured him of it and now, watching Tony tear himself apart at the seams, he could admit that yes, Peggy was right. Which he would not have told Tony even if he'd been in a good frame of mind.

Peggy reached out and took his hand again. "Tell me something good."

It took Steve an honest few moments to come up with anything that would qualify - his life in the past month had hardly been joyful - but he eventually settled on relaying his adventures at Pearl Paint, where he'd spent a shocking amount of money furnishing the corner of his living room he'd cleared aside to turn into an art studio. He'd bought a drafting table and an easel and paints and markers and pencils and then canvases and paper to use them on. "It felt ridiculously decadent," he admitted. "In ways that spending money on silly foods at the farmer's market doesn't. I didn't make myself put anything down because I couldn't afford it, didn't make myself choose between regular watercolors or gouache, got more brushes than I strictly needed and new pencils even though I already have a good supply. And then I got Thor to help me carry all of it on the subway home. Actually, he was pretty eager to help once he found out what I was doing and I didn't need to bribe him with dinner, unlike everyone else I work with."

"Even he thinks you need a hobby," Peggy said smugly.

Steve frowned at her, but kind of suspected that she was not wrong.

It wasn't long after that the nurses came to check on Peggy and chase Steve out - it was long past visiting hours and even though Peggy was in the VIP area of the hospital and the rules were flexible to an extent, Steve could tell that Peggy was fading a bit and did not protest. He kissed her cheek, promised he'd call her tomorrow and visit as soon as he could - he did not think he'd be getting off the Helicarrier at a decent hour - and wished her goodnight.

Once outside her room, he stopped the nurse and asked how Peggy was really doing.

"She's doing extremely well for her age," he was told. "But her age is almost ninety-five and there are limits to how resilient anyone is at that point."

Steve drove back to New York in the cold bite of an early spring night and tried to focus on how Peggy was on schedule for an end-of-the-week discharge from the hospital and not how the nurse had hinted that some kind of at-home care might become necessary sooner than later. It felt selfish to ask Peggy, of all people, to be the steady rock when everything else in his life was in unpredictable motion, to defy time and nature without the same gifts he'd been given simply because he was lonely and a little scared to be without her. He already knew what she'd say to that.

Clint called while he was still on the Turnpike, asking about Peggy and then informing him that (a) it was just a sprain and (b) Thor thought MRIs were the coolest thing ever and had wanted Clint to go back in to the tube to get something else scanned.

"I told him you'd model for him," Clint reported. "Expect Medical to schedule the appointment for next week because they love him just as much as everyone else does."

Steve had a bunch of rainbow chard in one hand and was debating whether to buy any of the squashes when the woman with the cat-eared hat looking through the bin next to him took a half-step into his personal space, drawing his attention.

"Do you even know what to do with that?" Natasha asked, gesturing at the squash in his hand.

"When all else fails, bake it," he answered, entirely to cover his surprise. Under the hat Natasha had dyed her hair a mousy brown and cut it short and straight, almost like a boy's, and she was dressed so differently from her usual style that he hadn't even given her a second glance when she'd appeared in his peripheral vision. She'd looked like every other DUMBOite sorting through the farm produce at the curbside stand. "Ranging a little close to the castle, aren't you?"

Natasha picked up one of the other squashes, a long, thin, reddish-orange pimply thing that looked like what they used to warn about in the old wartime VD movies. "You're kind of hard to track down otherwise," she said as she looked the squash over critically. "Can't ring your doorbell, can't call you at the office, and you're always traveling on business these days."

Steve selected another of the squashes identical to the one in his hand, a green-and-purple version that looked like a zucchini that had eaten too much. "It's been that kind of year," he replied, trying to find another squash that was about the same size so that they'd cook evenly. "Please put that down, you're going to make me paranoid about the clap."

Natasha bit back a laugh and put the ugly squash back among its cousins.

"What do you want?" he asked, not unkindly. Natasha wouldn't risk coming to the green market everyone at SHIELD knew he frequented just to say hello after all these months.

"To talk," she replied, reaching in to the bin that he'd been rooting through. She picked up a round green Japanese squash and added it to the pile in the crook of her arm. "Check your pockets when you get home."

Steve looked down by reflex. He was coming back from his morning run and wearing track pants with pockets, but the pants weren't so loose that he wouldn't have felt a hand going in or out. Except he apparently hadn't. When he looked up again, Natasha was gone. He finished with the squashes, went on to the greens, and ended up at the radishes before going to pay. He stopped off at Ruben and Anne's cheese stall, bought a wedge of tilsit flavored with caraway seeds, and tried goat's milk yogurt, which was actually pretty tasty and so bought a container of that, too. Anne told him to eat it with honey.

When he got home, he put his purchases on the counter and dug into his pants pocket to find a slip of paper with a time, date, and address. Google said it was the location of an Italian restaurant in Ozone Park, a far corner of Queens by JFK, favored by locals for generations and with no menu or reservations or credit cards. It sounded exactly like the kind of place that Natasha would know and reminded him of the culinary adventures they'd once had and he took a moment to acknowledge the loss of all that.

The search for proof of Natasha's guilt or innocence had taken a backseat to dealing with HYDRA; it was generally acknowledged aboard the Helicarrier that Natasha had probably stolen everything she was accused of taking, if not more, but that she seemed not to have sold any of it. How much of a criminal that made her depended on the individual doing the judging; Steve went back and forth - he wanted, desperately, to believe that she'd never do anything to hurt him or SHIELD, but he knew better. And so he'd go and eat and see what she had to say because he was curious and because, in her own way, she'd been as true a friend to him as she was capable of being and he owed her that much in return.

In the meanwhile, there was actual work to be done, around the house and when he got to the Helicarrier. He still had to do a proper supermarket trip because he'd been in Nicaragua for half the week after yet another raid - there were other HYDRA bases outside of Monroe Doctrine territory that other teams were chasing down, but the Direct Action Service had split its teams into geographic foci and Steve (and Corrales) were part of the Americas unit. He'd come home from that to sour milk, a tub of oatmeal, and the resolute red cabbage that had been sitting on the shelf since Christmas because between regular trips down to Philly (Peggy was home, recovering, and scaring off the visiting nurses), semi-regular meals with Pepper (who was looking as wan and strained and determined as he'd ever seen her), and eating during mission planning aboard the Helicarrier, he hadn't been home to cook much even before they'd flown south. His art supplies were getting about as much use as his kitchen; he hadn't even bothered to open up the paints yet, although he'd been experimenting with the markers, something he'd never really used before for art purposes, because those could travel.

Hours later, he was in a video teleconference with Corrales - who was still in Nicaragua - and the SOUTHCOM headquarters in Miami and Plesack, who was down a few decks at the Central America Desk but just couldn't come upstairs for whatever reason when a head popped in the door. It was Marnie, Tapper's overworked assistant, and Steve remembered that he'd turned his phone off before the VTC had begun.

Marnie, out of view of the camera, held up a piece of white paper with "Thor's back w/ recipe for cauldron" on it and gave him a thumbs-up before disappearing again.

After the VTC finished, Steve turned on his phone to find a text from Tapper with the same information and one from Pepper that simply said "stop by?", which he interpreted to mean a request to help deal with Tony. He texted back a positive reply to Pepper and then called Tapper, since he had no idea where anyone was and while he could probably get close by asking people if they'd seen Thor, this was more direct.

The answer was one of the biochemistry labs, where Thor and Tapper and Bruce and half a dozen other people Steve didn't recognize but were clearly important enough to steal seats from junior scientists were sitting around a lab table with a couple of white-coated senior types talking at the group about the history of arcane ingredients and reverse engineering. Because Thor had not brought back a piece of paper with ingredients and measurements that needed translating into a language and units that could be understood; he'd brought back a beautiful glass flagon stoppered with what looked like silver and filled most of the way with a viscous amber fluid.

Steve leaned against the rear wall next to Bruce. "Are they going to be able to figure out what's in that bottle?"

Bruce shrugged. "On the one hand, we've got the tech to break down almost anything to its molecular components," he said. "On the other, that doesn't always solve the mystery because it's not like we can't figure out what's flowing through your veins and look how far that's gotten us."

Steve stayed for the balance of the discussion, although he couldn't follow any of it. He let the words wash over him and watched his teammates - Thor's pride in producing a solution to a problem, Bruce's skepticism that it was going to be as easy as everyone seemed to think - and thought about his meeting with Natasha and what the two of them would say if he told them. The Helicarrier had needed months of repairs to recover from The Other Guy's reaction, which Steve had always taken as more truthful than Bruce's resigned acceptance and recitation of Aesop's fable about the frog and the scorpion. Thor's reaction to the initial incident had also been muted, but for different reasons. He had very clearly been thinking of Loki, but while Loki was his brother and had earned whatever grace Thor chose to extend to him, Natasha was an ally of a much more recent vintage and did not have the same wellspring of forgiveness upon which to draw. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thor's greatest concern had been for Clint, who'd taken the fall for Natasha's deeds, and the two men were actually on much better terms now than they once had been.

Clint was off doing something for Fury this week and Steve had no idea when he'd be back or if Natasha had been in contact with him. He didn't think Clint would volunteer the information, but he'd probably answer honestly if asked. Steve was in no hurry to ask, though, and not just because it would be over email.

The rest of the workday involved paperwork -- Steve had promised Corrales that he'd handle most of it so that when Corrales got back to New York, he could spend time with his kids and not filing in triplicate -- and a short conversation with Hill about why she'd promised the Austrian government that Captain America would be nowhere near the takedown of a HYDRA base near the Slovenian border. (A conversation that would have been shorter still if Hill hadn't needed to explain the Fawlty Towers reference she'd made; Steve added it to his to-watch queue.)

Pepper also thought Fawlty Towers worth watching; his explaining the context turned out to be the high point of the visit. It grieved Steve that everyone's best hope on any given day was that Tony would pass out from some combination of alcohol and exhaustion and sleep for a while. There were good days, days when Steve or Colonel Rhodes showing up would get Tony to stop what he was doing and eat, maybe even carry on a conversation that had nothing to do with whatever was on the bench in his workroom, and give just enough of an impression that he was close to turning the corner and regaining control of his life. But most of the time, going to see Tony was simply an up-close view of a tragedy and all Steve was doing was giving Pepper a few hours when she could focus on all of the other problems.

Tony was in an ugly mood, frustration with his progress on his latest project and, Steve suspected, despair at his own out-of-control behavior making him vicious and cruel. It happened every once in a while and when it did Pepper always exhorted Steve to go and not become the focus of Tony's abuse. But Steve never accepted the easy out, not when it would leave Pepper as the sole remaining target. Instead he stayed, letting Tony accuse him of everything from carrying on an affair with Pepper to wishing Howard were here now instead of his son to whatever else crossed Tony's pickled-but-still-sharp mind. Tony knew how to wound, knew where to aim his darts so that they'd penetrate even Steve's serum-toughened hide, and he'd use their friendship as an arsenal of regrets and aspirations and observations to cause maximum damage. Steve thought it was cleansing, in a way, to hear all of his fears and shortcomings and weaknesses aired out like laundry on the line, but it mostly just hurt. He could hide the pain, at least from Tony (Pepper being another matter), and simply told Tony to stop being such a cad.

He left Stark Tower late because both he and Pepper had needed a little bit of calm after Tony had finally quieted and so they'd sat with cocoa and cookies and watched two episodes of Fawlty Towers, the first one for context and then the one that Hill had referenced earlier. Steve thought they were hilarious.

The rest of the week was not nearly as funny, at least not intentionally. Although there was a little after-the-fact amusement to be had after an accident in one of the munitions labs left the entire fourth deck smelling like bananas all day Thursday. Friday brought Corrales back from Nicaragua and they spent a few hours going over the final report before Corrales left early to go surprise his kids by picking them up from school.

Saturday was miserably raw and rainy and cold and, when it didn't let up by mid-afternoon, Steve was resigned to renting a car -- he couldn't exactly borrow a SHIELD vehicle to go meet Natasha -- when Clint called and said he'd pick him up at eight.

Clint drove a silver Toyota sedan that was completely at odds with his personality, but it blended in everywhere perfectly -- too much so, Clint admitted, because he was always losing it in parking lots -- and that had been its point. They rode in silence save for the noise of the windshield wipers and Clint's occasional muttering at the other drivers and parked a block away from the restaurant.

Once in the restaurant, Don Peppe's, there was a line of families and groups of friends huddled together trying to stay warm and stay out of the way. Steve and Clint got looks for bypassing the queue, but only a few and that because they were unfamiliar to what were very obviously regulars. The restaurant itself looked like it should have been used in the Godfather movies, something out of another era, something maybe closer to Steve's than the current day. The waiters might very well have been there in his day.

Natasha, looking a little bit more like herself but still very different, was sitting in a quiet corner that had a round table pressed into it that allowed for all three of them to sit with their backs to walls. This was not unintentional and had not been done for the occasion and was not, Steve realized, the only such well-protected location in the dining room. Between that and the tables comprised solely of older Italian gentlemen of means, he revised his estimation from Godfather movie set to possible Godfather inspiration.

Natasha did the ordering in brisk Italian, not even looking at what passed for the menu, a handwritten board on the wall.  They started off with baked clams, which arrived covered in breadcrumbs and swimming in butter and were very, very delicious.

"Man, I've forgotten how good these were," Clint sighed as he tossed the last shell from his share onto the serving platter. "Go all around the world and the best clams are in a mafia joint in the ass end of Queens."

Steve smiled and took a sip of his wine.

"At least this mafia's not out to get me," Natasha said quietly and Steve put down his wine glass. He'd been prepared to wait until the end of the meal to press Natasha for answers, but he was happy to start listening now.

"Do you know who or why?" he asked carefully.

"Yes and no," she answered, swirling a piece of bread around in the butter pooled at the bottom of the serving platter and popping it into her mouth. "If the shooter was who I think it was, then yes, I know who he works for these days and I know who they are working with these days."

The shooter. Cleveland. Which Natasha had always refused to speak about, no matter how hard anyone pressed or pleaded.

"So it comes down to HYDRA," Steve said. "Were they trying to kill you?"

Natasha shook her head no. "Not then. The shot was a warning. I don't know if it was a sanctioned warning so that they could watch me squirm or if it was an old favor from an old friend."

The waiter returned to clear away the clam platter and replace it with the pasta course, a veritable mountain of linguine in a garlicky white clam sauce, and replenish their wine glasses from the carafe of house white on the table.

"Why didn't you say something?" Steve asked, more curious than accusatory. In the wake of everything else that had happened to all of them and in Natasha's part of all of them, he'd long since given up his grip on that frustration.

Clint served out the pasta, carefully portioning out the garlic cloves and clams on top of the linguine. Steve wasn't sure if he'd known the whole story all along and he was here to eat clams and facilitate Steve and Natasha's reunion or if he was hearing all of this for the first time and was simply taking it in silently, as was his wont.

"I didn't realize what I was being warned about," Natasha replied with a heavy touch of bitterness. She took a long sip of wine. "I thought it was a warning that all of you were in danger, not that I was. And not like how it turned out."

Steve finished his mouthful before speaking. "I know you probably thought you had a good reason at the time, but why on earth would you not say anything if we were in danger?"

Natasha twisted linguine neatly around her fork. "Because it wouldn't have saved anyone and, if the warning hadn't been sanctioned, it would have tipped off the wrong people that there had been a warning." She ate her linguine. "The only chance was to stop the order at the source."

Steve shook his head. "So, what, you were going to take on the entire Russian mafiya and HYDRA all by yourself?"

It was a rhetorical question, of course, because clearly the answer had been yes.

They ate in silence for a bit, at least as long as it took to clean their plates. Clint had been generous with the portions but the serving platter still looked like it hadn't been touched. It was a good thing the meal was so tasty because they were all going to be eating leftovers for at least tomorrow. Especially because the Veal Don Peppe, a herd of schnitzels covered in diced tomatoes and onions, arrived while Clint was serving out a second helping of the linguine.

"The part about the selling of intelligence was them getting to you, not the acquisition," Steve prompted once they'd all acquired veal. "Is there a good-idea-at-the-time reason for that, too?"

Natasha paused in her cutting and put her knife and fork down on her plate and turned to him. He didn't do the same, but he let his hands rest on the table and waited.

"I didn't come to work for SHIELD because Fury asked me to," she began slowly, a slight emphasis on Fury's name to give away that someone had asked her and Steve wouldn't even have bothered betting on who that was. "He didn't want me there. He said I'd done so many dark things that I could never work in the light, that I'd be mimicking what I didn't understand when I tried to do good. He got overruled - back when people could still do that and expect him to listen - because I was deemed such a valuable asset that it didn't matter. The chance to have a Red Room operative working for SHIELD, let alone one of their star pupils... It was a gift they couldn't pass up even if I was the Trojan Horse half of them thought I was. But I wasn't. I knew that Fury was wrong--"

She broke off, paused, and began again. "I was hoping that Fury was wrong. But I wasn't sure that he was. And if he wasn't, or if he decided that he wasn't, then I was sure that he'd do everything and anything to destroy me and I needed to protect myself. He's not an enemy you want to have and not one you can run from forever."

She took a sip of wine, then looked back up at Steve and meeting his eyes.

"I never took anything with the intention of selling it for profit. Most of what I took isn't even relevant anymore. None of it is recent; I stopped updating the files years ago because both Fury and I realized that he was wrong, that I am capable of working on the side of the angels even if I can't ever be one of them. You have to believe me, Steve, please. I never set out to destroy SHIELD or America or you or anything you fought for or hold dear.

"Years ago, someone told me that I could fly without wings if I just believed that I could. But I had lost that kind of belief a long, long time ago and so I packed a parachute anyway. And I should have unpacked it once I realized I didn't need it, but I never did. And years later, it ended up dragging me down instead of holding me up."

"Not just you," Steve added, not unkindly because Natasha was looking at Clint with an expression that clearly stated that she already knew. Clint, who was using his knife to carefully position bits of tomato and onion on top of the veal on his fork, looked up.

"What?" he asked with asperity. "I have told the both of you that I am not the fucking victim here. Big boy, makes own choices, lives with them, blah blah blah. Coulda done without the vacation in Kansas, but on the depressingly long list of places where I've been cooped up, it wasn't too bad."

A raucous family dinner a few tables away drew everyone's attention as their celebration crescendoed. Natasha picked up her utensils again and they ate in silence with their own thoughts.

Steve thought Natasha was being honest with him - as honest as she was capable of being, which sometimes still left enough space for the Holy Ghost between her and the truth, but here, at least, he was willing to accept what she said. There was no evidence to the contrary - there was no evidence in support, either, but Clint's testimony and the growing sense within the part of SHIELD that had to do with the Avengers that maybe, just maybe, Natasha had been framed... Steve was willing to accept Natasha's version of the truth as close enough to count. He'd had months to consider things, to separate what he knew to be true from what he wished to be true and what was just pure speculation on all fronts, and he'd come to his decision a while ago. Coming here tonight was about verification and making his own peace with that decision, not discovery.

"I won't pretend to like what you did," he said finally. "And I won't pretend to agree with it. But I understand why you thought you had to and I'm willing to accept that you've never used what you should never have taken in the first place."

He waited for her to look up from her plate and at him.

"I'm not Fury," he told her. "I won't do what he will and that makes me someone you probably don't worry too much about as an enemy. But--"

"But you're you," Natasha cut him off with a sad smile. "And I am not the only one who fears your disappointment almost as much as Fury's wrath. More, sometimes. It's quite an amazing feeling for someone who has spent their entire life living as I have.

"I'm too old and too jaded to crave anyone's good opinion and yet here I am, hoping that you'll be willing to put your faith in me again. I miss being your friend, Steve, and I'm sorry that what I did and who I am had to destroy that."

Steve shook his head. "I never based our friendship on your job history," he said, since he wasn't sure how to respond to the rest of it. He'd never understood why others wanted to use him as a measuring stick for character because he'd never considered himself to be acting in any particularly noble or noteworthy way. He tried to do the right thing and succeeded more than he failed, but so did most other people and his failures tended to be spectacular. "I am probably guilty of forgetting it too often for my own good."

"As for the rest, you shouldn't be proving yourself to me. Or to Clint or to Fury or anyone else. You should be doing good for its own sake and seeing if that brings you back to being the person you want to be. Because right now, you're not. You're the person you think you need to be. And that person, frankly, is a little harder to know and to trust."

Natasha, looking down at her plate, nodded once.

"That person is also not getting any more of this very tasty veal if she doesn't get her mopey head out of the way," Clint announced, balancing a tomato-covered schnitzel on the serving pieces. Steve and Natasha both looked up at him and he raised his eyebrows in challenge.

"Hold up your plate, Lancelot," Clint ordered once Natasha had been served. "I'm done reaching across the table."

The serving platters were somehow still almost half full, but when the waiter came by to ask about dessert, Natasha told him she wanted lemon sorbetto and three cannolis and coffees and to split the leftovers between two containers "for the boys."

They spent dessert talking about hockey, with Clint complaining that Steve was thinking of throwing in with the Islanders despite them being terrible and nobody wanting to play for them.

"They're moving to Brooklyn in a few years," Steve told him. "And you can't expect me to root for the Rangers after what they did to the Amerks."

He'd started rooting for the Americans as soon as they'd come into existence because they were the underdogs, the weak sibling playing in the shadow of the powerful Rangers, and he'd understood the feeling. Bucky, of course, had pulled for the Rangers all along, insisting that he wasn't going to shift his loyalties once they'd been earned just because something new came along. They'd agreed to disagree, which worked out well enough except when the teams met in the playoffs in '38.

"I think the Rangers paid for that one in full," Clint retorted sourly. "Fifty-four years is a long time to wait."

"You're complaining to the wrong person about that one," Steve replied mildly. Natasha coughed on her cannoli.

When the check came, Natasha pulled out a money clip and paid with large bills, assuring the waiter that no change was required. They parted in front of the restaurant, with Natasha kissing his cheek and telling him it was good to see him. Steve, hands full of leftovers, didn't check his pants pocket until after he was already home.

There was a slip of paper with a Gmail username and password and an explanation that if he needed to get in touch with her, he should start an email from that account and save it to the drafts folder.

Sunday was a day off -- an actual day off, not the kind of day off that came with Steve spending half the day working from home -- and that was paid for on Monday with getting drafted into the mission planning for the raid on the HYDRA base in Austria.

"I told them you wouldn't go," Hill explained with a shrug. "I didn't say you wouldn't help air out all their dirty laundry."

The site of the Austrian base was very obviously a reason for Vienna to be nervous; it had been a HYDRA base seventy years ago and it was supposed to have been razed after the war and the earth salted. But it hadn't been and HYDRA had reoccupied the place by the late 1960's under a different name, probably by Schmidt himself, either as Andreas or as the man he became afterward. They'd been flushed out again in '83 and Vienna warned about recidivism because HYDRA even under a pseudonym still sung the same tune, but then Austria elected Waldheim and so SHIELD and everyone else threw up their hands. The Slovenians, tired of the HYDRA traffic across their northern border, had been the ones to contact SHIELD this time.

Despite it all, Steve enjoyed the mission prep. His history with the base itself was actually mostly pleasant -- the Commandos had gone in there twice, the first on a recon-and-sabotage mission, the second with the intent of blowing it sky-high, both successful in the sense that they did what they had come to do and ended up running for their lives laughing all the way. HYDRA kept rebuilding the place from the exact same blueprints, so Steve's memories of the layout and tactical landscape were still relevant and he found himself telling stories to a surprisingly interested group of agents.

When he wasn't helping the European Team relive his past glories, Steve still had to work with Corrales on their own teams' next adventure.

"We are going back to Venezuela, mi capitan," Corrales greeted him one afternoon as he walked into the conference room. Corrales had maps and a laptop to one side of him and his lunch on the other. "Until the bastard finally kicks off from cancer, Chavez is going to be the gift that keeps on giving."

Up close, Steve could see that Corrales was eating a sandwich and drinking a juice box that came from a purple and pink lunch bag with ponies and rainbows on it. He looked completely unfazed when Steve picked it up to examine it more closely.

"My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic?" Steve read aloud. "I hadn't really considered you to be a horse guy."

Corrales shrugged. "Somewhere in Midwood, my daughter is the envy of her fourth-grade class with a container of leftover sole florentine and rice. At least this isn't the picky one's lunch. She'd toss the fish and I'd be stuck with peanut-butter-and-apple-on-white-bread sandwiches and celery sticks."

The newest base in Venezuela was inland and would require arrival via parachute. Both Steve and Corrales tried to argue that a day of practice jumps was absolutely required, but Hill was having none of it and told them they'd have to step up their game if they wanted SHIELD to pay for their play dates.

"Aruba's right next door," Corrales reassured Clint, whose hatred of helicopters did not extend to fixed-wing aircraft and the exiting from perfectly good examples thereof. "We'll just move some of the late prep there."

Hill might have tried to stop that, too, but Steve had it on very good authority that one of the European teams had just spent a week doing mission prep within sight of the Matterhorn and for a mission that did not necessarily require skis.

The morning before they left for Aruba, however, there was a breakthrough in the biochemistry unit, the kind that did not come with activation of the fire suppressants or the chemical exposure vents.

"We haven't got Thor's formula all worked out," Doctor Chiang warned, "but we have solved some other mysteries that certainly indicate that we're on the right track and that this is, in fact, what HYDRA is trying to reproduce for themselves."

It turned out that the chemical breakdown of Thor's Asgardian potion revealed both a derivative of a chemical that had been produced illicitly by Z-Chem Corporation in Elizabeth, New Jersey and, perhaps more interestingly, matched the profile of what had been stolen from St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow.

"We thought they took the reliquary because of the mystical properties of the saint's bones inside," Chiang explained. "But it wasn't the bones. It was the ossuary, which has its own very interesting provenance-" he cut himself off at Fury's glare, "-that I'll explain in full at a later date. But the short version is that it was produced for a nobleman at Rudolf II's court by a goldsmith who was a regular recipient of the Emperor's alchemical patronage. This goldsmith was legendarily the crafter of a chalice that could bring about eternal youth to anyone who drank from it."

There was a murmur around the room and Steve looked over at Bruce, who cocked an eyebrow in return.

"The chalice has been considered a myth for centuries," Chiang went on. "It's tied up in the same Holy Grail stories that the Gundestrup Cauldron's wrapped up in and because of that it was on the Ahnenerbe's to-find list despite any evidence that it actually existed. As was the ossuary, but we know that existed and where it has been the past centuries, which was never in Nazi or HYDRA hands because it had been spirited out of Poland during the war by the good guys."

There was more, but it boiled down to it now being official that SHIELD and HYDRA were racing to the same finish line, albeit from different sides. HYDRA knew what they wanted to create, but had to acquire the component parts. SHIELD had the finished product, but still hadn't figured out what it was made up of so that they could stop HYDRA from completing their quest.

Steve left for Aruba wondering what he could do to hamper one race and speed up the other and what role the bombings of New York, London, and Tokyo had in them both beyond 'distraction.' Because Schmidt was neater than that and would not have created such a spectacular mess just to throw SHIELD off his trail. Steve's fear, expressed to Fury and Hill, was that HYDRA had already won the race and was moving on to something bigger, something for which SHIELD had no preparation for whatsoever.

Chapter Text

Steve finished copying the letter and signed his name at the bottom, then folded the paper in neat thirds and slipped it into the envelope. He picked up his rough draft and crumpled into a ball, squeezing it tight.

Writing letters to the next of kin of the men who’d died under his command never got easier. Alvin Hopper hadn’t been a conscript drafted into a fight far from home; he’d been a decorated Army specialist before he’d become a SHIELD agent and he’d volunteered many times over to be put into harm’s way. And into harm’s way he’d gone, many a time, always to return. Save this time. Steve hadn’t been there when Hopper had been shot, had been on the other side of the compound holding off three HYDRA troopers while Veracruz tried to figure out why the electronic lock pick wasn’t working, but he’d led his team into the compound and the responsibility for what happened to them there fell squarely on him.

Task complete, he turned his phone back on see half a dozen texts and three missed calls. Most of them were from Tapper informing him that there was going to be a briefing on new discoveries about AIM at 1500 in Fury’s office, which because of the location and the repetition Steve could safely assume was not attendance-optional. He texted Tapper to say that he’d be there, then packed his things and went down to the commissary to get coffee or tea or something that would keep him occupied during the meeting.

“Do you ever actually eat?” Steve asked Miranda when he ran into her at the coffee station, where she was filling a giant lidded mug that she needed both hands to carry once full. There was a granola bar – with bright markings announcing that it was only 100 calories – balanced on top. “Because I’m beginning to think that you don’t.”

Miranda stuck her tongue out at him. “That’s a snack,” she said defensively. “I ate my lunch – in front of my computer, because Director Fury has made life so much fun at the China Desk – and now I am treating myself to a snack because I want to get away from my office and the crazy that hangs over it like a cloud.”

Steve held up the blueberry strudel he’d picked up. “Wouldn’t this be a better treat?”

He got a look back that he normally associated with Natasha when he’d said something unintentionally funny. “You are so awesomely male it’s hard to contemplate.”

“Thank you?”

“Don’t mention it,” she replied as she elbowed him lightly in the arm as she moved past him to get on line. He got on line behind her and insisted on paying, which would have been a more magnanimous gesture if had cost him more than two dollars.

“Is this actual new information,” he asked as he sat down next to Tapper at Fury’s conference table, “or one of those defensive meetings that get scheduled out of fear and shame?”

He’d been slow to pick up on how things worked aboard the Helicarrier when it came to informational meetings, but eventually he’d realized that it was just an updated version of what he’d had to deal with back during the war – officers who ran briefings because their superior officer thought there should be a briefing, not because they had anything to say. He strongly suspected that Fury resented the waste of his time as much as everyone else did, but sometimes he wasn’t sure. Fury was no less immune to the trappings of power than anyone else who had so much of it.

Tapper did not stop playing a game on his tablet that involved connecting dots with colored lines. “Captain America is not allowed to be a cynic. Of course it’s a real briefing. We have been promised brand new intelligence product and that is what we shall receive. It does not matter that the working group has not yet gotten us hard data we can act upon. We take them at their word. At least until they show up and tell us the same shit we already knew. But Fury gets to toss the first tomato, so until then, we are beacons of shining hope and optimism.”

“You can’t even look me in the eye and give me that baloney,” Steve sighed as he leaned back in his chair and dug into his bag for his own tablet, since the handouts and whatnot would have been emailed. He missed the days of mimeos and dittos, of having paper in his hand that he’d smell just because the faintest whiff of ink would remind him of school and home and the simplicity of life before he was sitting in briefings with pale-skinned officers with delicate hands and clean olive-drabs who were quite sure they knew how the war was really going, Captain Rogers. He missed the feel of the paper, how it would take time to decipher what was on them because the thick purple writing was always a little blurred and faint from too many copies and too-poor paper quality, how it felt different to have papers in his hands instead of the shield or the laminated maps or his tin coffee cup or any of the other tools of what had then been his daily existence and how that difference mattered. Here, he could be pulling out his tablet for any of a hundred reasons, from playing a game to reading a book to doing his taxes to getting the latest intelligence and it was all the same motion, whether he was sitting in a padded chair in Fury’s office or on a bullet-riddled packing crate in Venezuela.

“You’re in a mood,” Tapper said finally looking over.

Steve had tucked the envelope with Hopper’s letter into his tablet case and it faced him as he opened it now. He plucked it off the screen and handed it to Tapper. “Can you see that this gets where it’s supposed to go?”

“What’s this?” Tapper asked, although he could see that it said “to the family of Agent Alvin Hopper” on the envelope.

“The price of a salute,” Steve replied simply, turning on his tablet.

The prep material for the briefing was an outline of what would be discussed and then a one-page biography of a man named George Tarleton, who was apparently the head of AIM – the real head, not the floppy-haired figurehead CEO with the inspiring tale of immigrant success who appeared on their website and government documents. And one look at his tale made Steve sit up out of his slouch because there were some very familiar names on his job history: Stark Industries and Trident Corporation.

“Hunh,” he murmured. “This might end up being a useful afternoon after all.”

Tapper smiled. “See, that’s better. Groundless optimism that Kolnbach, given the football and thirty yards of open field, won’t trip over his own shoelaces en route to the end zone. Much more your speed.”

Kolnbach did not trip over his shoelaces, but there might have been a case or two of anxiety-spiking butterfingers before the touchdown was recorded. Overall, though, the working group had unarguably made real progress and set up the possibility of even more progress. Tarleton was an artificial intelligence specialist who’d worked for Stark Industries for five years before leaving in what Kolnbach termed a “mutually agreed-upon termination of employment.” The details of both his work and his departure were still unknown because Kolnbach had sent the request for information to Tony without copying Pepper and Tony, even if he’d been in top shape, would have ignored the email because he ignored everything that came from SHIELD on the first attempt unless someone (historically Pepper) intervened.

“I’ll talk to him when he gets back from Hong Kong,” Steve told the assembled after some awkward silences that came after the wondering aloud how to get answers from Tony, whose breakdown was very public knowledge even if his correspondence habits still completely eluded everyone at the table not Steve and Tapper.

“Is that a euphemism for something?” Steve heard someone stage-whisper to his seatmate.

“And when will that be?” Fury asked, sounding like he might also be thinking the same.

Steve looked at his watch. “If they’re not in the air now, they will be soon.”

Tony and Pepper were part of the Stark Industries contingent making the final in-person inspection before SI bought a company there. It had been difficult getting Tony to agree to leave his lab for so long, but Pepper was confident things would go fine once she got him on the plane because, she assured, she was far cleverer than he was when it came to the secreting of alcohol stashes and it would be a long, dry flight. “The longer we’re on the ground, the harder it will be, but the most important meetings are right after we land – by design – and he’ll wait because he knows how the celebratory dinners go.”

The rest of Tarleton’s biography was rich enough for the Stark Industries lacuna to be a venal sin and not a mortal one. Tarleton had taught at University of Washington’s engineering school while waiting out the duration of his non-compete agreement and produced two articles on cybernetics that were part of the briefing package but might as well have been in Urdu for all that Steve could understand a word. He wasn’t the only one, however, and the “for dummies” explanation was that they had to do with refining how computers learned, specifically how they learned how to interpret human physical actions. The day after the non-compete agreement lapsed, Tarleton was hired by a small start-up in the Silicon Valley that worked on prosthetic limbs. That company was bought by Trident in 2005 and Tarleton transferred to a different Trident subsidiary in 2007 after the company was refocused toward production and away from research and development. Tarleton moved to Stuttgart and was there until November 2010, at which point he was released from his contract with Trident at his request. He had no further job history and had filed no taxes in any locale since 2011.

Tarleton’s connection to AIM – the real AIM – had been discovered through the electronic data investigation that had been begun after the raid on the warehouse in San Jose; this was what Kolnbach’s group had been charged with doing and what they’d thus far failed to do in a productive fashion. Tarleton was all over the back-channel email communications and in a fashion that made it explicit that he was giving direction and was in a position to expect compliance. He was heavily involved in the design of the mechas and Kolnbach’s team had even come up with the designs for a few varieties that had not been encountered in either San Jose or New York.

“Yay,” Tapper leaned over to say to Steve. “Even more metal cockroaches.”

This was as far as Kolnbach’s group had gotten thus far. They did not know where Tarleton was now, nor where he’d been since leaving Stuttgart. They were working on it, of course, but for all that they’d been able to “crack AIM’s servers like a walnut,” they could not determine the physical origin of years-old electronic documents. They also did not know how much, if anything, Trident knew about Tarleton’s career shift from research scientist to terrorist armorer.

“There’s definitely an overlap between Tarleton’s work with AIM and his Trident employment,” Kolnbach said. “But we can’t prove that Trident knew anything about it.”

“Prove as in a court of law or circumstantially?” Hill asked before Steve could. Being able to make that connection would draw Tony’s attention like a magnet.

“Either,” Kolnbach admitted sadly. “Trident says that they were extremely happy with his work and only reluctantly granted him an unconditional release because he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s; he was apparently no longer capable of lab work and had no desire to move over to the administrative side or stay on as a consultant. There’s no way we can even suggest that they knowingly let him retire so that he could go develop killer robots.”

Steve emailed Pepper while the meeting was still in progress; the questions were important, but not so time-sensitive that he needed to interrupt whatever she was doing, which might include sleeping because of the time difference. Her reply was in his inbox when he woke up the following morning: Tarleton had been part of the AI team at Stark Industries’ Milpitas complex and they’d not-quite-fired him because he’d been pushing for research into areas Stark Industries was unwilling to go and he’d started to work on unauthorized projects in those fields. “I’ll have to wait for Tony to wake up to get you specifics,” she wrote. “All I’m doing is reading from the personnel files. Tony was involved the whole way on this and he’ll have the juicy details.”

Tony called him that evening, while he was making dinner.

“Tarleton was the creepy uncle we didn’t want to leave alone with the baby,” he began right after Steve answered. “He was on the team that developed the embryo of what became Jarvis’s grandfather, but all of his contributions tended to push the envelope of how invasive we wanted the technology to be. We ‘fired’ him because he was working on a new neural interface without telling his supervisor, let alone making a playdate with the IRB.”

“What’s the IRB?”

“Ethics oversight,” Tony answered. “Human experimentation, no matter how benign-seeming, has to get prior approval.”

Steve coughed. “Since when do you ever get prior approval from any board before you do things? You don’t even ask Pepper most of the time.”

“Because Pepper invariably says no,” Tony replied with the verbal equivalent of an eye roll. He sounded good, Steve thought. Hung over, but in good humor. “And I experiment on myself on my own time, in my own lab in my own home. If I were doing it on company time or on company grounds, I’d need to go before the IRB. The only part of the government that functions efficiently is the part that brings the hammer down when you blow off that step. Which is why Tarleton got put on the high tech version of KP duty until we figured out what to do with him – we would have been looking at millions in fines if he’d gotten much further than he did.”

Steve turned the heat down on the coq au vin he was simmering. “Do you know what happened to him after he left your employ?”

A dismissive snort from Tony, jaunty like it used to be and not sneering how it so often was now. “Nothing for fifteen months,” was the answer. “We made him sign a new CNC that kept him out of the private sector. Why? Do you know?”

Steve realized that the reason he couldn’t find the olive container was it was under the potholders. “He taught at UWashington during your ban, then went back to Silicon Valley to join a start-up that was eventually bought up by Trident.”

A beat, then two. “This isn’t one of those ‘tempt Tony back into the land everyone wishes he was in’ things, is it?”

Because Tony was not oblivious to everyone’s fears and concerns and attempts to coax him into giving up his decision to focus on making sure Stark Industries technology was never again used for evil. He just didn’t care.

“If we thought it would be that easy, we would have tried it a long time ago,” Steve replied as he decorated his salad with olives. “I just thought you might like to know.”

“I only want to know if this means that we have proof that Trident is part of HYDRA,” Tony said, the last word cut off by a hiss of pain.

“Are you working?” Steve asked. Once upon a time, he’d have asked if Tony were goofing off or playing around, would have reserved ‘working’ for actual work. But Tony didn’t do that anymore, was very firm about not doing that anymore, and so everyone’s vocabulary had to adjust to the new reality if they wanted to continue the conversation. “Shouldn’t you be, I don’t know, getting your body clock back on Eastern time or eating or something less risky after flying all day and all night?” He left out the part where Tony had been effectively poured into his plane seat; even Pepper admitted that she’d had too much to drink after an especially good farewell dinner.

“Probably,” Tony admitted, “but the idea came to me and I have poor impulse control.”

“Is that so?” Steve asked, trying to sound surprised. “I’d never realized. Try not to cut off any fingers.”

They ended the conversation there because Tony had to go get a band-aid and Steve wanted to eat his dinner. While he was preparing his plate, his phone nearly vibrated itself off the kitchen island and he wondered what Tony had forgotten he’d wanted to say, but it wasn’t Tony. It was a picture of a small bowl of rice with chopsticks balanced on the rim, a larger bowl of something green that was probably vegetal, and a bowl of something brown that was possibly chicken but the resolution was poor and it was covered in sauce. It was from Miranda, who’d had his phone number since Africa but had thus far declined to use it, and it came with the message: dinner. So Steve took a picture of his own dinner, despite coq au vin always tasting much better than it looked, and sent it back.

“I think I should be a little more resentful than I am that I’m the obvious second choice,” Bruce mused as he typed. They were sitting in his kitchen in Shreveport, Steve having driven up after a three-day visit to Fort Polk to both teach and learn, mugs of green tea and cream crackers in front of them as Bruce pulled up what he’d been working on for SHIELD. “This is possibly the very epicenter of Tony’s wheelhouse.”

Once they’d identified George Tarleton, Kolnbach’s team had done the sort of thorough research that made everyone but Steve uncomfortable because the concepts of privacy had changed during the twentieth century. He was no more a fan of how easy it was to acquire all of the information than anyone else was, but it was less of a change for him because he’d lived in a time and in places where there hadn’t been any true privacy beyond what social custom dictated you pretended you didn’t see. Thin apartment walls that muffled no noises, shared bedrooms, communal bathrooms, the phone in the hallway where everyone could hear you talk and the operator could listen to both sides of the conversation, everyone’s underwear hanging on the clothes lines that ran between buildings with stains and holes visible for all to see, the old ladies who kept track of everyone’s lives and shared the details, all of which meant that there hadn’t been an aspect of his life that someone else couldn’t describe as well as the reverse. And that was all before the Army, where every waking and sleeping moment of his life had been dictated and then observed and then both to a degree that by the time he was off with the Commandos, living out of each other’s pockets for weeks on end without even being able to go behind a tree to take care of business by yourself had seemed like freedom.

But in the twenty-first century, people had expectations of real privacy, the kind that didn’t come with politely averted gazes and selectively poor hearing. And so Bruce’s reaction to being handed George Tarleton’s entire internet life, which was apparently quite active, had been a sigh of resigned disappointment and muted outrage, although not the kind of outrage that sent anyone to check the supply of Hulk Recovery Kits.

Tarleton, who went by the online name of “modoc,” was extremely active in online communities that dealt with body modification, but not, as was explained to a thoroughly confused and increasingly horrified Steve, the kind that involved forked tongues and heavy piercing. It was a small subgroup, comprised entirely of scientists and technicians and doctors who had the technical and anatomical knowledge to experiment on themselves. Which was why Tony had been the obvious first choice to investigate.

“Tony’s not having a very good week,” Steve said carefully. He wasn’t even sure what the actual reason was, although whatever it was was being complicated by an unfixable problem with whatever was on Tony’s workbench, and Tony had been surly and mean to the point that Pepper had been down in DC for the last few days after choosing to travel on business for the previous week-plus. Steve had gone over a couple of times to check in on him when Jarvis had reported to Pepper that Tony had been living on a liquid diet for more than a day. He'd stayed only as long as necessary as it took to put solid food down in front of Tony and see that he’d eat it and not fling it across the room because he’d eat when he was hungry, damn it, and he didn’t need a fucking nursemaid.

“Tony’s bad week has been going on a few months now,” Bruce replied as he continued to type. “And I’m the absolute last person to throw stones at that glass house, but I’m ready to toss pebbles.”

Every quack on television and the internet had already given their diagnosis and cure for what ailed Tony Stark, but the ones Pepper had paid had not disagreed completely: like every other addict, and there was more than one addiction at play here, Tony had to want help before he’d accept it. And right now, Tony did not want help with anything but the doodad on his workbench and the fact that nobody could provide it was only exacerbating things.

“I’d toss boulders if I thought it would work,” Steve said. “But you’re not such a bad fall-back plan, Doctor Banner, and you shouldn’t sell yourself short.”

Bruce looked over at him and he smiled and Bruce smiled back, shaking his head.

“Okay,” Bruce began with a sigh, “here goes. Stop me if I start talking over your head. Almost everyone in this little corner of the internet has an actual interest in improving the human condition and less with the... aesthetical aspect of the larger body mod community as a whole. Biomedical engineering at its most benevolent and humane, at least in theory. Most of the talked-about research focuses on improving the lives of people with neurological impairments and physical infirmities: multiple sclerosis, ALS, muscular dystrophy, spinal injuries, amputees and birth defects, that sort of thing. If the nervous system is just a fancy electrical circuit, then we are close enough to where we can fix the parts that don’t work or replace them with artificial equivalents like we do with limbs and organs.

“All of which makes Tarleton’s – modoc’s – interest especially relevant if he’s got Parkinson’s, but his professional life has been in this area all along and you’d expect to find him here. Especially because he also has a history of blowing past the boundaries of accepted research methodology. Modoc’s main project is copacetic with Parkinson’s research, although, again, going well past where anyone operating with institutional backing would be with human testing. Deep brain stimulation – kind of a pacemaker for the brain – is approved for a few conditions, including Parkinson’s, but modoc’s taking it and running with it in directions that are, to be putting it mildly, untraveled. Instead of using it as a palliative treatment, he’s looking to use it as a restorative one. Which may not be possible with Parkinson’s because of the nature of the disease, but it could end up being a difference-maker for MS or spinal injuries, where a bypass of damaged areas could provide long-term solutions.”

And thus went Steve’s education in the various ways some very smart people were doing some very dangerous and strange things to themselves. He accepted his own internal contradictions between being appalled at what Tarleton and his cohort were willing to do to themselves and others and what he’d allowed Doctor Erskine to do to him. He had turned it over in his head a few times and could mostly ascribe it to his own discomfort and unfamiliarity with modern technology (let alone the futuristic stuff Tarleton and his group were creating), but accepted that some of it was just hypocrisy and that Tarleton was also using this supposedly benevolent research to design killer robots and giant spiders.

He stayed with Bruce for three days, only the first day and a half of which were dedicated to work, and enjoyed the break immensely. Bruce had a comfortable, relaxed life in Shreveport, which had been the purpose entirely, and Steve felt soothed by it as well. Bruce took him over to Cross Lake for fishing, something Steve hadn’t actually ever done before – the Commandos had caught fish for food a couple of times, but Steve and Bucky had been summarily disqualified for lack of competence because speed had been of the essence – and the occasional wildlife viewing. Seventy-plus years on and Steve was no more competent with the fishing, but on a sunny day in a rowboat with a picnic lunch waiting, it mattered less.

On the morning of the fourth day, Steve drove over to Barksdale Air Force Base for a day of training and handshakes before flying back to New York and his standing obligations there. Corrales hadn’t been wrong; Venezuela was indeed the gift that kept on giving and they were going back early the following week.

Three days after returning from Delta Amacuro, HYDRA’s local agents having apparently thought that once done with the place, SHIELD would not be monitoring it any further, Steve got a call from Peggy that was cryptic without being at all hard to understand.

Natasha wanted a meeting.

Steve waited until he was in Manhattan on other business to go into a public library branch and use one of their computers to log in to the email Natasha had given him. In it was a date and coordinates and he confirmed that he’d be there.

“I’m going to go see the Delaware Water Gap this weekend,” Steve told Clint as they picked over what the commissary insisted was beef lo mein but wasn’t. “Wanna come?”

Clint gave him a cock-eyed look, Steve gave him one right back, and Clint returned his attention to his lunch and shrugged. “Only if it doesn’t involve getting into a canoe.”

Sunday morning was bright and sunny and unseasonably warm, so they took bikes rather than Clint’s car. It still surprised Steve a little that once you got past the urban corridor that lined the Hudson River, New Jersey quickly became rural and agrarian and beautiful; it was a really lovely drive once they cleared the metropolitan buildup.

Natasha was wearing jeans and hiking boots and a Rutgers sweatshirt and Yankees ballcap, the last of which Steve snarled at on instinct, and carrying a small blue backpack. She fit right in with everyone else as she led them down toward the hiking path.

“HYDRA’s taking over the site at Minyar,” Natasha began once they were sufficiently away from the nearest hikers. They had opted for the more challenging trails that didn’t require gear at every fork in the road, which allowed them a bit more privacy to speak and a gorgeous view of the water down below and the countryside beyond the hills. The green that stretched almost all the way to the horizon was transfixing in its own way, but Natasha’s words shattered the soothing calm.

“Didn’t they do that already?” Clint asked.

“They’ve been trying to,” Natasha agreed. “But Putin and company know what they have and priced it accordingly. I don’t know if the upcoming elections are forcing a price drop or if HYDRA’s just finally met the original one, but the transaction’s been completed.”

Russia was one of the countries where HYDRA’s offer to put forward candidates for local elections had been taken up; the initial response of the government had been to ban the parties doing so, but HYDRA had foreseen such responses and had chosen candidates that were more or less immune from all but the most blatant attempts to circumvent the democratic process as it existed in Russia. Which was its own irony, of course, because HYDRA made no bones about its candidates being a kind of transitional point between the democratic process that elected them and the totalitarian conclusion that would be HYDRA’s world rule. But in the meantime, the Russian HYDRA candidates were standing for election and were galvanizing all of the resentment and anger toward Putin’s pseudo-tsarism and even the most Kremlin-friendly estimates put HYDRA representatives in the Duma once the votes were tallied.

“I’m guessing the place is going to come fully furnished,” Steve said. He’d never sought out the full story of what was at Minyar beyond what Fury had told them that night, but between the Infinity Formula and the Soviet attempts at the super-soldier serum, this would be a coup of unparalleled success for Schmidt and HYDRA.

Natasha laughed bitterly. “I’m sure the sellers will be packing up a few things for later use or sale, but yes.”

The rest of the hike was a strategy discussion, more or less. What they needed to do to verify what was going on at Minyar and how best to stop it and, not least, how to involve SHIELD because this wasn’t something to be done without support and even Fury was going to have to dance carefully to get around the fact that they would be invading another sovereign nation and Russia, unlike Venezuela, was strong enough to fight back.

“If I send you and Hawkeye, does this become a trio once you cross the border with Finland?” Fury asked Monday afternoon, which was the earliest Steve could get in to see him. Steve hadn’t even bothered to pretend that the intel hadn’t come from Natasha, although he did not mention her by name. Fury, in turn, did not pretend that this wasn’t news of the highest importance.

Steve shrugged slightly. “I can lie to you and say absolutely not,” he offered.

“Don’t lie to me,” Fury commanded sourly. “I’ll lie to Operations, but you speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when you tell me you want to walk into the coldest of the Cold War secret bases with nothing more than your shield, a sniper, and a disgraced spy.”

“We’ll need the local assistance,” Steve pointed out. “And it’s not like we haven’t used more disreputable sources in the past.”

Fury frowned at him. “Skip the justifications. I’m not prepared to reinstate Black Widow, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think she’s damned good at her job and still very interested in taking down HYDRA, whatever other game she’s playing.”

Steve didn’t think she was playing any game but proving herself faithful and he didn’t think Fury personally thought any differently, but professionally, he was paid to think the worst of everyone.

The meeting ended with Steve gaining permission to start planning a reconnaissance mission to Minyar with the understanding that it might end up being scrubbed if satellite imagery and other-source intelligence turned the proposition of a large-scale incursion into Russia from an “if” to a “when.”

Clint was doing a poor job of hiding that he had been waiting for Steve to finish with Fury.

“It’s a go,” Steve told him. “He knows the bicycle we’re selling him will be a tricycle once it’s put together, but he’s fine with that.”

Clint gave him a look. “Fine with it.”

“He accepts that it’s going to happen whether he agrees or not, so he is agreeing now in order that he can control more later on,” Steve elaborated as they walked down the corridor. “He’s conceding the battle to win the war.”

That morning, Bruce had sent him notes and files and other electronic data that he had already sent to Tony, whose help was becoming closer to ‘necessary’ than ‘would be helpful,’ but Tony had either not looked at it (probable) or decided it wasn’t important (possible, but less likely). So when Tony himself called him to ask why he hadn’t been by in a couple of weeks, he accepted the invitation to dinner in exchange for Tony looking over Bruce’s packet.

Tarleton is modoc?” Tony put his drink down and sat forward in his chair, taking his feet off the ottoman. “Holy shit.”

“You know who that is?” Steve was surprised, but he supposed he shouldn’t have been.

“Jarvis, pull up all of my chat logs and correspondence with username: modoc,” Tony ordered, pushing his sleeves up to his elbows and looking around for the wireless keyboard, which was next to Steve on the couch and he passed it over to Tony, who was making grabby hand gestures.

SHIELD’s computer people were building a database of who was involved in Tarleton’s community of genius scientist body modifiers, trying to find out who was where and whether anyone else might be working, intentionally or not, for HYDRA. Tony’s name had never come up, but it seemed from the volume of documents scrolling down the HUD screens that that had been because Tony had been clever, not that he hadn’t been a participant.

Tony had Jarvis sort the files by date and filter out the innocuous ones, then pushed the pages to a side-screen so that he could look at what Bruce had sent him. He fired questions at Steve, most of which he could not answer and some of which he could answer poorly and a few that he actually could explain fully. Tony eventually started sliding documents over to the HUD screen in front of Steve and Pepper so that they could try to follow the half-muttered commentary.

“You want to implant what into your brain?” Pepper asked with some alarm, seeing something Steve either hadn’t noticed or hadn’t understood. She put down her own glass and sat forward. “Tony, stop for a moment and explain this to me.”

To both of their surprise, he did.

“The next evolution of the Iron Man armor,” Tony said. “I can’t carry the suit around with me as-is and I need assistance getting into and out of it. It’s not practical. Bad things don’t happen with advance notice or a strategic pause for me to go find the nearest place I’ve stowed a suit and the gear to get into it. I need a way to make the change faster and unassisted.”

These were all well-known and understood drawbacks of the Iron Man armor, factors that Steve had long ago worked into his strategic and tactical planning. Tony had been the slowest Avenger to assemble, but he’d been the most adaptable and, on days when Thor wasn’t around, the most powerful and those advantages were more than worth the drawbacks.

“There’s a little bit of a conceptual gap between wanting a better pit crew and sticking a remote control in your brain,” Pepper cried out, exasperated. “What happened to the magnetic prototype you were working on?”

“Nick Fury’s multiphase EMP happened to that,” Tony replied sourly. “If I’d been wearing that when Fury hit the switch, it would have fallen from the sky in pieces and I would have followed in my underoos. No, the next version of the suit’s going to skip a few generations. I’m thinking nanotech, something flexible and portable that can be put on without a torque wrench and rebooted before I fall sixty stories.”

Steve was utterly failing to conceptualize any of this. “You want the next Iron Man armor to be made out of something like kevlar?”

A deep sigh. “Not like kevlar. It would look like the current armor, from what I remember it from when I was allowed near it, but instead of it being pieces of metal held together by nuts and bolts, it would be tiny little bits of material that, on command, would organize themselves into impenetrable armor.”

“You don’t need that command to come at the speed of thought, Tony,” Pepper said, a note of pleading in her voice. “The bracelets would be quick enough.”

If Tony in his current state were seriously considering surgery on his own brain, Steve would do whatever it took to keep that from happening.

Tony smiled fondly at her. “I’m not planning on trepanning myself next week, Pep. This is a future plan, for when the neural interface technology catches up with all of the things we want to do with it.”

Steve didn’t think he was the only one who’d caught Tony’s “we.”

“Is this what you talked to Tarleton about?”

“First off, I didn’t know it was Tarleton, although in hindsight I can see how it might have been obvious,” Tony replied. "And I'm damned sure he didn't know it was me."

"Are you really sure?" Steve asked. "A lot of what's in these files is stuff everyone was damned sure nobody would see."

Tony waved away the suggestion with his hand. "Everyone is not me. If you can get picked up by the herds of domesticated hackers and unemployed comp sci majors that make up SHIELD's cyber division, then you deserve what you get."

Steve was not convinced. Nor, for that matter, was Pepper. "Tarleton might not have recognized your screen name or your IP, but he knows what you are interested in and he knows what you sound like," she pointed out, gesturing at the screen in front of her and Steve. "You aren't really masking your voice in these posts, Tony. They sound like you -- the real you, granted, and not the one designed for the camera. But that's a you that Tarleton has seen and would remember."

Tony smiled at her, a smug, happy smile that was so rare from him these last months. "First, he probably remembers a much angrier and foul-mouthed version of me from when we caught him and not what came out in project memos or on demo days. Second, and this is the more important part, modoc shared with me design ideas that are present in the AIM robot designs -- the humanoids, not the bugs. Which means that they were the best ideas, since you never go to prototype on your backup plan, and George Tarleton hates me far too much to give me something of value like that. Not when he'd know I'd use them to upgrade the armor."

Dinner was announced then and it required Pepper using her override on Jarvis to turn off the HUD screens so that Tony would follow. The meal -- venison, celeriac gratin, dandelion salad -- was pleasant, almost achingly so because it was so normal. Tony was in a form he hadn't been able to muster or maintain for months -- hungry, animated, jovial, and alternately genuinely interested in what was going on in Steve's and Pepper's worlds and completely distracted by the work that awaited him once dinner was finished and he could get back to it. At several points, Steve and Pepper exchanged glances that carried identical thoughts: what do we have to do to get this back?

Pepper let Tony go after the main meal was complete; he scurried off like a kid being allowed to go play outside, calling over his shoulder that he was going down to his workroom but when they got around to dessert, he wanted those chocolate sables that he knew Pepper had ordered from Balthazar and some coffee with brandy in it.

Steve and Pepper, still sitting at the table, watched him go in silence.

"I miss this," Pepper said in a half-whisper after the door to the lower level had closed. "I miss worrying only about his insane ideas and not whether tonight's going to be an alcohol poisoning night or just him getting banged up when he passes out. I miss the distracted affection and not the curdled resentment that I get most of the time. I miss having a friend over and having to apologize only for Tony being Tony and not for his being monstrous or absent or a mess.

Steve reached across the table to take Pepper's hand and squeezed.

"And these little reminders are sometimes the worst part because this version of him, the man I fell in love with despite years of damning evidence and against all better judgment, isn't the real Tony anymore. He's the exception and not the rule. And yet every time he shows up, I find myself hoping that this may be it, this is where he comes back to me for real. But he never does and, every time, the disappointment is more crushing than the last."

Steve could only nod. He understood it all, right down to the bitter self-reminders that Tony was not fixable in an afternoon, that he didn't want to be fixed, and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. He also knew why they both stayed around anyway.

"You got chocolate sables?" he asked instead.

Pepper gave him a fond smile and took back her hand, using it to brush hair behind her ear. "You are easy to please and I mean that it the best way possible."

Pepper tried to get Tony to come back upstairs for coffee, but Steve ended up bringing both his and Tony's downstairs with a plate of cookies. They sat in the less-cluttered part of the giant workroom, the part with more computers and fewer bits and bobs and tools, and talked about Tarleton and AIM and no, there was no direct link between HYDRA and Trident. Steve encouraged Tony to call Bruce -- it wasn't too late, Bruce was more night owl than early bird. He stayed long enough to ensure that Bruce knew that Tony was going to be okay to talk to, but ended up going back upstairs when the two of them started speaking in a language that only had a passing relationship to English. He spent a little time with Pepper, but she was still so busy with her own work that he didn't want to keep her from it and went home, heart warm despite the knowledge, ignored for the evening, that this could all be gone tomorrow.

His phone rang at half-past three in the morning.

"Maya Hansen," Tony said without preamble, sounding very alert and sober. "That's who we have to talk to if we want to know where modoc is."

Steve blinked stupidly in the darkness of his bedroom. Maya Hansen was a name on the list of identified members of the cohort in which Tarleton -- and, apparently, Tony -- belonged. A biomedical engineering researcher in Texas, he thought. "Fine, but not at 0300. Go to sleep, Tony."

"I can't sleep," Tony replied. "There's so much in my head right now and it's all so clear."

Steve rubbed at his face. "Those effects are easily reproducible during daylight hours when you lay off the booze and sleep at night," he said. "Like I want to do. Goodnight, Tony."

He terminated the call, tossed the phone on the other side of the bed, and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

"You look surprisingly hale and hearty for someone two bottles from liver failure."

Tony took the greeting from Maya Hansen - and it was a greeting, accompanied by an outstretched hand to shake - without blinking. Steve, on the other hand, had to work to keep his jaw from dropping because she'd met him and Bruce with professionalism and a charming smile and praise for Bruce's last published article.  

Tony waved away her words airily as he shook her hand. "Rumors of my death have always been greatly exaggerated."

Doctor Hansen - "Maya, please" - gave Tony a look that clearly stated that she expected a better comeback. "Rumors that you're putting away a gallon of Balvenie a week have historically not been that much of an exaggeration. But you don't look nearly as bad as the National Enquirer covers make you appear, so there's that. I lost the death pool anyway - I had you carking by St. Patty's."

Next to Steve, Bruce was fighting back a smile and, recovered, Steve could admit that seeing someone talk to Tony without any varnish whatsoever was actually pretty entertaining.

They'd come to Austin to visit Maya at her place of employ, FuturePharm, because Tony's brilliant middle-of-the-night idea had still been brilliant by light of day. Maya, a former Stark Industries scientist who'd left to form her own company, had been part of the body modification cohort - although with no apparent interest in self-experimenting - and had not only heard of modoc, but had carried on an extensive correspondence with him. All of this could have been handled by phone from New York, but once Maya had started explaining what she was working on now and that modoc had been very interested in it, an in-person interview had been scheduled.

"You had me going on Amateur Night," Tony said, appalled. "God, Hansen, did all those poker nights teach you nothing about gambling? No wonder your company went tits-up as fast as it did if that's how you read odds."

Tony had shown a self-discipline not seen in months in order to be deemed fit for the trip. Fury still wasn't thrilled, but Tony had shown up at the Helicarrier and spent a morning in Fury's office and emerged with permission, if not necessarily a blessing. Tony's suitability for the task was without peer, except for the fact that he hadn't been sober or functional in months. Steve had promised Fury that he'd be able to handle Tony  and so far he'd been right, although it was still early. But Steve firmly believed that Tony was the absolute best person for this task, not only for all of the obvious technological and business ones, but for historical ones as well. Tony was quick to dissuade any discussion of Howard and his accomplishments, but Steve knew that Tony had all of them memorized in great detail - including the grandest gamble of them all, the one that had created Captain America.

"Amateur Night just means the pros drink at home," Maya retorted. "And you are a pro's pro, so pulling a Bon Scott on Amateur Night? Totally plausible."

Maya Hansen was the latest in a long, distinguished line of scientists trying to recreate the Super Soldier serum, but she was one of the first to come at it from the perspective of computers and robotics. Bruce's prophecy about technology doing what biology could not had already come true, at least in the attempt. Maya's project, codenamed Extremis, was attempting to create a nanotech version of the serum, a concept Steve only partially understood. Bruce had explained it as taking advantage of the brain's programmability to get it to change a person's body the way Doctor Erskine's serum had changed Steve's. Except it would be better, Bruce said, because the nanotech could be programmed so specifically for each person and could do so much more than the original serum did. "You want wings, you can have wings. You want super-strength, you can have that, too. Want purple hair? Go for it."

In Steve's head, the people who went through the Extremis process would be part robots, pumped full of little tiny machines that could be programmed even after they were flowing through the recipient's bloodstream, and he found the entire concept - people who could choose to be or look like anything they imagined but were also at the mercy or whim of the programmers - to be profoundly disturbing.

Right now, though, something else was disturbing him. He cleared his throat and both Maya and Tony looked over at him with innocent curiosity; as far as they went, this might have been regular conversation. "Do you think we could move out of the lobby?"

They were still standing in the spare, white-walls-and-vaguely-blue-glass entrance to FuturePharm's main building, a futuristic décor for a company that promised to redefine the future of pharmaceuticals. If Maya's project worked, however, they would not be lying in the slightest.

"Of course," Maya said with a smile, as if noticing for the first time that they were drawing stares from everyone walking by. Entirely focused on Tony; Steve was pretty sure nobody would have noticed him or Bruce if he'd been in uniform and Bruce had let the Other Guy out. Once upon a time, this might have been because of Tony's celebrity, especially here among "his people," as he liked to say. But that was then and this was now and Tony's public appearances had been extremely limited in the last several months, which meant that this was everyone at FuturePharm's first chance to see what a breakdown and months of rampant alcoholism had done to one of the world's most famous men.

The answer, which continuously surprised Steve, was 'not as much as you would think.'

Tony had lost weight, but he was not unhealthily thin - Pepper having learned years ago that Tony responded better to simple, easy-to-eat meals delivered to his workshop than requests to sit down at the dining room table and had made sure that Marcel, their personal chef, got over his innate loathing of smoothies and his disgust at adding dietary supplements to otherwise gourmet meals. As for the rest - the bloodshot eyes, the sallow skin, the haggard look, the twitches and tremors - these Tony hid with sunglasses, what Steve guessed was a trip to a tanning bed, and the force of his personality. Tony, when he was on, made you forget about the last months. But Steve and Bruce had seen Tony dozing in his seat on the plane and there, in that unguarded moment, all of the ravages had been evident to see, from the hands scarred from operating tools after too much to drink to the deep purple circles under his eyes that made him look like he'd lost a round to Thor and not to his own demons.

"He's going to kill himself," Bruce had said quietly. "I hadn't quite believed it before now, but he's going to kill himself."

But at this moment, that Tony was well-hidden, strutting through FuturePharm's corridors like he owned the place - maybe he would in the future. He greeted a few faces he recognized, schmoozed his way through gathering crowds lining the hallways, and Steve and Bruce followed behind like an invisible wake.

Steve had been expecting Maya's lab to look like Bruce's aboard the Helicarrier or like Tony's workshop, but it was nothing of the sort. First of all, it was massive, with computers and screens and displays all along the walls and then a reinforced bunker of a room in the middle, like a hub. There were at least a dozen white-coated scientists at work, plus several more in what looked like blue surgical scrubs with goggles that looked more light night vision optics and less like safety gear, and they all took a moment to stare at the newcomers before returning to their tasks. Steve felt like he'd stepped even further into the future and he wasn't sure he liked the feeling.

"This way," Maya directed, stalking purposely toward one of the enclosed glass boxes that probably passed for offices here.

"Sucking on the government teat has treated you well," Tony observed blandly as he followed Maya into the office and sat down on one of the chairs. Steve gestured for Bruce to take the other visitor's chair, since there wasn't seating for all of them. He took up a position leaning carefully against a file cabinet, unsure it would bear his weight unless it was full. "Clearly you're not regretting that vow to never, ever, ever work for The Man."

FuturePharm was a privately held company, but Maya's project Extremis was being funded by the Department of Defense.

"Fuck you, Tony," Maya sighed tiredly, as if this were an old argument she was too tired to rehash but still too angry to let lie. "If I could have gotten this up and running through any other means, I would have."

Tony crossed one ankle over the other knee. "You could have come to me."

Maya frowned. "I did come to you. Or, rather, the first of the fifty layers of gatekeepers Stark Industries has that bar the gates between proposal and funding."

"We turned you down?"

"Of course you turned me down," Maya retorted. "Because I was asking for millions of dollars in support for a project that was years away from viability - if it ever will be - and would have been a permanent high-grade lawsuit magnet the minute it hit the testing phase."

Tony made a noise that Steve interpreted to mean 'well, I suppose I'm not that surprised, then.' Maya did as well, since she grimaced at him as if to confirm the apparent undesirability of her project.

"So you partnered with FuturePharm?" Bruce piped up. "They've got no real history with DoD contracts."

Maya shrugged. "I was already putting my firm up for sale and they were one of the bidders - they were looking to get into nanopharm and were willing to give me everything I wanted in terms of independence and they were willing to help support Extremis if I got the contract. So I submitted a bid to the DoD, FuturePharm got its nano division, and everyone's doing okay."

"I'm a little confused," Steve confessed, ignoring Tony's look that expressed skepticism that it was only a little. "Did you come up with Extremis on your own or in response to a DoD call for ideas?"

Maya nodded. "Extremis was originally my idea as a project with purely curative medical aims. But I wasn't getting it off the ground without a lot of money and so when the DoD put out a call for submissions for a nanotech alternative to the Super Soldier serum, I made the compromise. Plenty of inventions with military origins have a much more fulfilling and lasting life in the civilian world. I figured that the progression path for Extremis would be to first create the next wave of super-soldiers, then move into the private sector and become what it was meant to be all along: a life saver."

According to how Steve understood Bruce's explanation, Extremis would mimic Doctor Erskine's serum by first telling the brain that it had the wrong blueprints for the body and give it a new and improved set, then have the brain force a complete and accelerated overhaul of the body to match the new blueprints. Just that it would be tiny robots and computers giving the orders and not the gene therapy that Steve had gone through. There wouldn't be any wings or purple hair necessarily; the initial goal was to replicate Steve's own augmented physiology. But along with the strength and endurance came a whole host of other changes, changes that could benefit millions: the brain being told to stop producing cancer cells or to never produce them in the first place, or being told to produce the necessary cells to repair a failing kidney or a damaged heart or whatever it was that caused Alzheimer's or Lou Gehrig's Disease.

"How quickly could that happen?" Steve asked. "To go from super-soldier to the cure for cancer?"

Doctor Erskine hadn't talked a lot about his past or his hopes for the future, but Steve had known that the serum had had those benevolent origins, too. Underneath the wry banter and mad-scientist exterior, Abraham Erskine had been a gentle, thoughtful, and generous soul and he had never set out to create an ubermensch, even as he'd been powerless (for a while) to stop his work from being co-opted by those who would. Which was why for however much the nanotechnology angle disturbed him, Steve hoped for its success because it would mean that, eventually, Doctor Erskine's dream of saving those currently beyond hope would be realized. And that, he firmly believed, would be a more suitable legacy for a good man than a single man who could lift heavy things.  

Maya smiled sadly. "The getting-it-to-work part is going to be the longest and that, I'm afraid, I can't put a time frame on. Some days I think we're so close I can reach out and grab it if I just stay up late enough to follow the threads a little bit longer. Some days I think I'm years away. A few days I think I should go work at McDonalds because it would be more productive," she admitted, then perked up a little. "But when that day comes, the actual progress from creating your... distant cousins to being able to tear up the transplant lists and make sure no babies are ever born with genetic defects actually will be pretty quick. The first phase will probably end up being restricted to the super-wealthy, people who can afford an outrageously expensive treatment, like billionaires who need a new liver-"

"Hey, now," Tony objected, but without heat. Tony's interest in - fascination with - Extremis was personal as well as philanthropic, it went without saying. Bruce's too, although his interest was less hungry than Tony's, or at least better-hidden. "I'm not really an early adopter of this kind of technology," he'd demurred.

"And there'll be vanity treatments, like the way plastic surgery gets used now," Maya continued. "But eventually, it will become a subsidized procedure available to everyone because the government will realize that it's cheaper to spend a whole lot of money using Extremis to give someone a new kidney than to provide years - decades - of care for someone with a faulty one or even someone with a transplanted one. And with widespread use comes lower production and operating costs, which in turn makes it cheaper to fund, which makes it more accessible, and thus the cycle will begin."

"And then we'll be in a Brave New World," Tony chirped with false cheer. "So how much of this does modoc know about and why hasn't HYDRA stormed this place yet?"

"A portion of the DoD funding goes to security, cyber and real-world." Maya replied, her entire body posture changing from a relaxed eagerness to a more alert attention, a shift to more serious and less pleasant business. "HYDRA tries for a cyber attack pretty much weekly, as do the Chinese. We don't keep anything related to Extremis on any computer that's even capable of connecting to the internet, but I guess they're hoping we'll make a mistake there or they'll get something from context in other files. We employ our own hackers to play defense and counter-attack - best MMORPG ever, according to them.

"As for the physical space, Extremis is kept in the vault-" she gestured in the direction of the bunker, "-and it's got very good protection. Multiple simultaneous key entries, irregularly changed security codes, the walls are proofed against everything from bombs and lasers to radio and radiation, and, if all else fails, there are five different ways to destroy the contents from outside the vault in under three minutes. I'm not confident enough to get complacent, but a HYDRA assault isn't really at the top of my list of terrors for this project."

There'd been a SHIELD brief on FuturePharm's security protocols; Hill had shrugged and explained to Steve that Fury, for obvious reasons, had required updated reports on any and all super-soldier projects after the HYDRA raid in Cleveland. FuturePharm's efforts had been deemed sufficient enough to avoid SHIELD interference.

"What about modoc?" Steve asked. "How much does he know about Extremis and your protection of it?"

Maya looked bemused. "I still can't believe modoc's a national security threat," she said. "A real one, at least, not the kind that Homeland Security dreams up when it's hyperventilating after getting caught with its pants down again. He's never struck me as especially off by the standards of our little Shelley Society group of freaks and weirdos. He's got some kind of neurodegenerative disease and, of course, Extremis would be of interest to him and he's a little overeager because of it. But I'm not naïve and I'm not sharing any kind of specific detail with anyone, including modoc. He's never threatened me because of it or acted out in any way beyond expressing disappointment. He wished me well, hoped I'd work quickly, and offered to help me if he could - and he probably understood that I would never ask."

Which was more or less what she'd said over the phone last week.

"Do you know who he is?" Bruce asked. "In real life."

Maya shook her head. "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog," she said with an easy shrug. "I've never asked and, to be honest, I didn't really care until you guys freaked out that I'd been in contact with him. Is he like on the FBI's most wanted list or something?"

"Among others," Tony answered. "It's George Tarleton."

Maya didn't bother to hide her shock. "George, George, George of the Jungle George? You have got to be kidding me." She looked around at the three of them and then her eyes settled on Steve, who was not smiling like he was in on a joke because there was no joke. "Holy shit. Okay, I'm not that shocked at the criminal part because, let's face it, he had the ethics of a starving shark. But the mastermind thing kind of blows me away. Although, man, I should have maybe seen it coming with the work on the neural bypass tech."

Tony grunted something that could have been agreement. Failing to make that connection still grated at him, Steve knew, although he couldn't imagine how anyone would have been able to do so.

"So what did Tarleton actually do?" Maya asked, curious. "Is he doing human testing on homeless people or something?"

Tarleton's identity had been kept out of the public record thus far in the hopes that SHIELD would be more able to find him if he didn't know they were looking for him. But it hadn't been a strategy that had borne fruit thus far and there was discussion of just putting out whatever passed for wanted posters in this computer age and hoping that someone, somewhere would recognize the face and be compelled to act. If Tarleton were suffering from advanced Parkinson's, he'd be fairly easy to identify; the question was whether anyone who did would want to turn him in. The people who lived around HYDRA bases certainly knew what sort of neighbors they had and they weren't burning up the tip lines.

"Or something," Bruce answered. "He's working with HYDRA."

Maya nodded. "See, this? This I can go with. He's an idiot savant and isn't clever enough outside of the lab to do anything large-scale kind of wrong. But in concert with someone who can? He could be terrifying. Oh, man," she said, shivering, "I feel all icky for having been his little e-pal. But, wait, is this what you're asking me to do? Because I'll take extra showers if it'll help stop HYDRA. We did a matching-funds donation plan for the American Red Cross after the Triple Bombings. Ended up giving almost eight thousand combined."

"We don't want you doing anything," Steve said emphatically. "Don't cut off contact, don't bait him, don't do anything that might put yourself at risk."

A sharp look from Maya. "I'm a big girl, Captain. I had to play plenty rough to get as far as I have in this field. Talk to your bourbon-soaked buddy over there."

"This isn't about you not being up to it, Maya," Tony said with earnest seriousness that brought Maya's protest up short because she understood how rare it was. "This is about it being too big for anyone. They took me down like a clay pigeon and I'm a helluva lot harder to hurt than you are."

Steve didn't think he'd ever heard Tony admit out loud what had happened, or at least admit that there'd been an external agent at play. Tony's narcissism rarely allowed for him to confess that there were forces out there greater than he was or that he'd changed his mind or his course of action for any reason but that he wanted to or to humor someone else. The last several months had been all about Tony and his pain, for better or for worse and without regard to anyone else's reasoned explanations. HYDRA hadn't done this to him by using Stark Industries technology, he'd done it to himself by breaking his promise never to return to weapons making. There'd been so many arguments, so many tears from Pepper, so much frustration on everyone's part that Steve hated himself a little for wondering if Tony's words now were a public admission of what everyone else knew to be true or if he was just saying it because it was useful.

"You are doing something incredible here and you are already on HYDRA's radar because of it," Tony continued in the same tone. "They think you're more valuable to them alive right now, which is why you are and why you're roaming free - that bulletproof lab over there is all well and good, but the most important Extremis work isn't being done in there. It's being done up here." He tapped his own forehead. "And that isn't bulletproof. If HYDRA wanted to take you or kill you, they could and all of the tradecraft your security people have taught you wouldn't matter. Right now, HYDRA is content to leave you in place. Don't give them a reason to change their minds."

Maya and Tony engaged in a brief staring match, the kind that came with a silent conversation impenetrable to others, before she nodded once, curtly.

"Then why are you really here?" she asked. "You could have told me modoc was Tarleton from New York."

What they wanted was the kind of detailed explanation of Extremis that she'd refused Tarleton and all other requesters. The DoD's file on the project had been vague to the point that they would have wondered if it had been an intentional security measure if any of them had had that kind of faith in the Pentagon's ingenuity. Extremis dovetailed perfectly into HYDRA's - and Schmidt's - plans for a superior being, even if that being ended up just Johann Schmidt. HYDRA had come after other super-soldier serum projects, had been trying to refine and replicate the conditions that had created the Hulk, and there'd been evidence of other kinds of human experimentation discovered during the post Triple Bombings raids around the world. The early reports had provided no evidence that HYDRA was trying their own version of Extremis, but the fact that they were keeping an eye on Maya's project was a good indication that they were thinking about it. Which was why Tony and Bruce (Steve being the first to admit that he was there as social lubricant and, if necessary, patriotic arm-twister) were in Austin to get specifics so that SHIELD could refine their research and investigatory parameters.

All of which meant that once the three of them got down to talking, a stop-start process that danced uneasily between Maya's proprietary concerns and what would be necessary for global security as deemed by Tony and Bruce, who in turn were not disinterested or incapable parties, Steve could let his mind wander a little. He didn't completely stop paying attention, but it was like every other super-sciencey conversation he'd been present for and nobody really expected him to contribute, so he didn't.  

Instead, he ran through his schedule for the week: a visit to Peggy, a mandatory training session for the new radios SHIELD was handing out to the Direct Action Service units, a children's hospital visit in Iowa, and two separate team leader meetings for the DAS units assigned to the hunt for HYDRA because SHIELD loved its bureaucracy, too. In between would have to be chores like laundry and food-shopping, the former of which was more important because he could get takeout or eat aboard the Helicarrier if he absolutely had to, but clean underwear did not have alternative sources than his dresser drawer.

His attention was brought back to his immediate surroundings by a rubber band that bounced off of his chest.

"You could at least fake it," Tony said sourly. Beyond him, Bruce grinned and Steve rather suspected that he'd been the rubber band archer.

"Why?" Steve asked, pushing off the cabinet. "Who would I be fooling?"

The conversation lasted another half-hour, with the only notes being taken by Bruce on a pad with a pencil - Maya's security concerns about electronic devices necessitating that concession - and wound up with handshakes all around.

"It's an honor to finally meet you," Maya said to Steve as they parted by the doorway. "I spend my life obsessing about how to replicate what you are and I maybe lose sight of who you are and how none of this-" she gestured with a jerk of her head back toward the bunker "-will be even close to replicating that, which is the part that's really important. I need to remember that."

Steve smiled, since there was nothing he could really say in reply. "For the record, I think Doctor Erskine would think this was amazing and he'd be very proud of what you want it to be," was what he said instead. "It's what he wanted, too, and never lived to see."

Maya bit her lip and smiled, the words clearly meaning something to her. He nodded once and turned to go.

Tony poured himself a large scotch once they were airborne and drank it all at once like it was water, but neither Steve nor Bruce said anything because Tony's thirst had the edge of ragged desperation about it - physical need, not desire or weak will - and because while he refilled the glass immediately, that second glass lasted him the rest of the flight back to New York, which would have counted as very light drinking even 'before.' Tony, once again offstage, let his mask drop, but there were still signs of the old Tony underneath. He was energized by the Extremis project, intellectually stimulated by it in a way that he rarely was these days, and he wanted to share this excitement because whatever thrilled him must, by necessity, thrill everyone else. Steve suggested that they push forward the necessary debrief with SHIELD to now, saving themselves (or, rather, Bruce and Steve) the time spent in Fury's office later, and Tony put on a show worthy of Broadway for the New York audience.

The dynamism and good behavior did not last, of course, but Steve didn't find out about it until days later, after he'd gotten back from Iowa. But Pepper did say that Tony was generally having a good week, a positive week of paying attention to the world at large and showing interest in his company and its fortunes.

"And you?" Steve asked hopefully.

"I got an apology," Pepper answered with a complicated sigh that he knew how to interpret. "Which he means with every fiber of his being every time he gives me one and so I choose to take it on that level."

"You are a woman of great grace and strength, Miss Potts," Steve could only say in reply.

"I am," she agreed. "And one of these days, it'll do me some good."

"I'm just saying, Big Bird's a little creepy."

Corrales gave Clint a sad shake of the head. "You need kids, man. Someone to remind you that there is such a thing as joy and innocence in this world."

Clint gestured at Steve. "That's what I've got him for."

Steve ignored the dig. "Who is Big Bird?"

The three of them were standing together in the heated command yurt, enjoying the warmth after the last couple of hours outside in the bracing cold wind of a Canadian prairie spring, which came complete with driving snow, rousting HYDRA out of the comforts of their northern Saskatchewan base. (After half a dozen missions to Central and South America and a week 'training' in Aruba, there had been absolutely no sympathy whatsoever from Ops & Logistics when the weather report came back with temperature numbers so far into the negative that it didn't even matter if it was in celcius or fahrenheit.) They were in the blissful pause between declaring the compound secure and figuring out what to do next, a task that would be complicated by the fact that this had been a joint mission of the sort where the host nation's forces were part of the solution and not part of the problem and thus had to be listened to and, at times, obeyed. Steve and Corrales, the two team leaders, had tried to be courteous and respectful guests, but while the Canadian Forces commander had been a generous host, the RCMP inspector would have clearly preferred that his be the only agency from any nation on the ground. Which was why most of the SHIELD troops were hanging out in either the command yurt or the (equally well-heated) chow hall with the Canadian soldiers while the RCMP swanned around outside in their balaclavas and puffy coats.

Corrales looked surprised. "You do all of those children's hospital visits and you haven't seen Sesame Street yet? What about the Muppets?"

Steve shook his head no. He'd seen countless murals and stuffed animals on his visits, of course, but he had no idea which ones were famous and which ones were simply the inspiration of the artist or mass-produced for toy stores.

Corrales gave Clint a dirty look. "This is on you, hermano."

Clint nodded, accepting the blame. "We'll do some corrective work once we get home."

Standish, the CF commander, walked up to them with a wry look on his face. He'd just been in conference with Desjardins, the preening RCMP CO. "His highness wants me to tell you that everything is being taken care of and you can begin to collect your men so that you can go home. He'll have Ottawa send on the reports when they're complete."

Steve, Clint, and Corrales gave him matching looks of frank disbelief. Standish shrugged. "I told him that you were Americans and used to going wherever you wanted to and the last time we'd told you folks to leave and you'd listened was 1812. Also, the PM is more scared of Nick Fury than he is of the commissioner of the SEC."

"So can we bum rush him and stick him headfirst in a snowdrift and get on with our jobs?" Corrales asked.

Standish beamed. "Works for me. We've got numbers and weapons on our side, although I'm pretty sure a couple of battle-hardened glares will be sufficient to make these guys take a knee."

They did not need to dump Desjardins in a snow drift, settling instead for giving their men permission to ignore the RCMP while seeing to their tasks. "Be polite," Standish told the assembled in the chow hall. "But be American polite, not the Canadian kind."

Steve let Corrales and Standish handle Desjardins, who reacted predictably to his authority being ignored. He overheard part of it as he helped move what looked like a cross between a howitzer and a telescope from the barn where it had been stored to where they were piling up weapons and technology to be airlifted out; it boiled down to increasingly loud reminders that Desjardins and his men were on their first HYDRA raid and everyone else, including the CF troops, were more experienced.

"Do you want to be immortalized as the asshole treating Captain America like a backwards child?" Standish shouted at Desjardins in French, the peculiar accent of Canadian French making it simultaneously much easier and much harder to understand for Steve, who'd gotten used to the dialects in France only after much exposure. "You think that's going to get you out of the prairies and into a place with more people than moose?"

The HYDRA base had been well-populated considering the harsh conditions and seemed to be a training facility. Not the basic training that they'd seen in Bolivia, but more for the array of heavy weapons found in the barns and in cold-weather battle tactics. It also might have been a logistics waypoint; there was no other explanation for crates full of mountaineering gear in a place, as one of the CF corporals joked, you could watch your dog run away for three days before he disappeared off the horizon. Securing the materiel was all well and good because it kept the items out of the hands of villains and it allowed SHIELD to see what HYDRA was using or intending to use, but after a few months of regular raids, SHIELD had learned that the less glamorous captured bounty was the more important. Invoices, old shipping crates with half-visible labels, crumpled up newspapers used for packing, these were as valuable, if not more, than plasma cannon parts or key rings. HYDRA had gotten no less scrupulous about their computer security than they'd been in Detroit, but most of what they needed could not be sent in an email or encrypted with thousand-character keys or passed on via disposable cell phones and that was how they would be tracked and mapped and, Steve knew, eventually stopped. The future was a magical and sometimes mystifying place, but some things never fell out of style.

As the sun set, a rapprochement had been grudgingly forged between Desjardins and everyone else; the RCMP had taken over prisoner processing and SHIELD and the CF poked around looking for evidence, which in turn they let the RCMP photographers document. Fingerprinting and photographing all HYDRA prisoners had been a standard procedure since the beginning, but it had grown in importance once police agencies around the world had realized that they could solve crimes by running their prints and sketches through the SHIELD database, to which Fury had granted access in exchange for the right to go after HYDRA regardless of international borders and without seeking local assistance or permission. Most HYDRA recruits were ideological or looking for a way out of privation and want, but a solid percentage were simply criminals who'd found in HYDRA a way to satisfy their antisocial urges and be rewarded for it. Out of the hundred-plus prisoners taken today, half a dozen or more would end up being extradited to their native countries to stand trial on outstanding charges and the identification of a few of the dead would close old cases somewhere else.

"Jesus, it's getting cold," Standish grumbled as he stomped his feet next to Steve; they were in one of the unheated storage barns waiting for some plastic crates to be moved aside so that the door they were blocking could be opened. Standish, like all good commanders, did not spare himself the hard work as a privilege of rank. After finishing up with Desjardins, he'd attached himself to the bucket brigade moving files and paper trash from the various yurts and small buildings to the heated chow hall where anything to do with paper was being stored. There were some tasks that would require staying outside in the floodlit courtyards as night fell and the temperature dropped dangerously, but anything that could be done indoors was being prepared to be moved there.

"Aren't all of you Canadians bred for this?" Steve asked mischievously. He'd given in to Mother Nature hours ago and was wearing SHIELD cold-weather gear over his uniform because the fancy fibers could stop a bullet, but they weren't much good against a deep freeze like this one.

"I'm from Victoria," Standish replied easily. "We start to cry piteously when it goes below freezing. Which is better than Toronto needing to call in the army when it snows, but what do you expect from Leafs fans?"

The crates were moved and the door prized open with crowbars and a quick blast of what felt like deliciously warm heat (but wasn't really all that warm in any other context) hit them before quickly dissipating. The inside of the door was lined with insulation and foil and the room beyond was, once a light was turned on, decorated in the same fashion as it was meant to protect computer servers in this inhospitable climate.

"Why is this here?" Casimir, one of Steve's team, asked rhetorically. "Why run a separate generator when you can keep it climate controlled in one of the heated buildings?"

One of the advantages of being so relatively close to home was that SHIELD had brought computer people, who were collected from the main building where they had been operating out of the various administrative offices, and set to work. Because Casimir's question would have had only one answer: for no reason they'd be happy to hear.

With the menial labor duties on hold in this barn until the computer people gave the okay, Steve bid Standish a temporary farewell and went off to find something else to do. And Clint, since he hadn't been spotted in the last hour or so. After a tour of the compound, checking up on his team and chatting with the Canadians and seeing how the preparedness for a night defense were progressing, he found both in the chow hall, where Clint and three other members of Steve's team were seated at one end of a long cafeteria table putting together what looked like a jigsaw puzzle until he got closer.

"They've got you on trash detail?" he asked, somewhat surprised. Sifting through paper trash and recycling bins was usually something the Direct Action teams went to great lengths to avoid, preferring to leave it to junior support personnel if there were any available or tossing everything in plastic bags to take back to the Helicarrier and hand to probationary agents if there weren't. But there were other groups at other tables also comprised of DAS agents - and CF troops - and Steve wondered if this wasn't a case of press ganging.

"Commander Corrales is a martinet who announced that if we wanted to stay in here and warm up, we had to work for it," Pahk answered with as much righteous indignation as he could muster, which wasn't an awful lot. "After a shift on perimeter guard, I couldn't feel anything below my thighs, so here I am."

Clint, who had his balaclava still on halfway so that the folded-up bottom served bisected his head at his nose, shrugged when he met Steve's glance. "I think he's still mad at me for the Big Bird thing and for not having shown you The Great Muppet Caper."

"Muppets?" Ramos perked up from where he was sorting through barcodes and partial barcodes. Postal and delivery service tracking numbers were worth their weight in gold, having led directly to several successful raids. "You're going to watch Muppet movies, sir? The Christmas Carol one is the best. You should see that one first."

"We are starting at the beginning," Clint said firmly, hand smacking down on the pile of paper slips in front of him in emphasis, a move somewhat undone by the fact that he and Kiplinger then had to reach out to grab the paper bits that had blown out of their stacks. "We will proceed in an orderly fashion through several key episodes of the original series, especially the one with Glenda Jackson, and then on to The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. And then we will stop because the nineties were just not pretty for House of Henson."

Ramos made a noise of disagreement. "A Muppet Christmas Carol is a very good movie and deserves to be seen even when it's not Christmas. Muppet Treasure Island is not as good, but it has merit. Nobody needs to see Muppets from Space, though. That was a bridge too far."

"What is this malingering?" Corrales asked as he walked up to the group. He had clearly just come from outside, his cheeks red and his eyes watering. "You willingly indentured yourselves in exchange for feeling in all extremities and unlimited green tea. Work, or back out into the cold for you. This isn't a charity."

"We're discussing Muppet movies," Steve explained.

"Well, in that case," Corrales allowed, with a magnanimous gesture of his still-gloved hand. "Carry on. Them, not you, Cap. I need to borrow you for a second."

Steve followed Corrales into an unoccupied corner of the chow all, which they quickly realized was unoccupied because there was a draft, a jet stream of icy air at waist height. They frowned at each other and moved in the direction of the kitchen, which the CF troops had started manning, keeping the tea and coffee urns full and heating up what food they found and putting together trays for the HYDRA prisoners being fed in shifts under heavy guard.

"Got news during the last check-in at the 'Carrier," Corrales began. "Belgian elections are over: HYDRA's going to be part of the coalition government."

Steve took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and nodded. This wouldn't be the first time HYDRA had won a place in a nation's government through legitimate means (or what passed for them in local context), but it was the first time it would happen in first-world country. Belgian politics were ridiculously complicated, as everyone who'd tried to follow HYDRA's advance through the process had learned, and HYDRA had taken advantage of the fierce tension between Walloon and Flemish communities to brilliant effect. They had been forecast to win a few seats, mostly in the Flemish districts, but the general belief had been that they would not be able to carry enough to do more than make a statement. But, apparently, they had.

He'd made two trips to Brussels, meeting with leaders from both the French and Dutch-speaking parties and attending a jointly sponsored rally against HYDRA that had been very well-attended but not, it seemed, very well received as far as its message. His presence had been meant to serve as a reminder of what HYDRA had once done to Belgium back when it had been occupied by the Nazis, but that had been so long ago that it was a living memory to almost no one and a history tale, glossed over and whitewashed, to many. Especially those with more modern concerns such as the still-recovering world economy and the just-authorized third bailout of Greece by the EU. HYDRA's candidates, preaching meritocracy and the myriad rewards of hard work and knowledge, had set itself up as the antidote to that.  

"What's DC going to do?" Steve asked. Washington had announced early on that they would not maintain diplomatic ties with any nation that had HYDRA in its government. There was a lot of talk about whether or not this was an idle threat - the President not being known for the strength of his foreign policy - or if they'd follow through and, if they did, whether London and Tokyo would follow. London, tethered to the EU, would have the most trouble, which was why, in part, they had not made any official comment one way or the other. Japan, currently in an election cycle after their latest government had fallen, would depend on who won - HYDRA had no traction there as far as candidates went, for obvious reasons, but the parties were in disagreement over whether China or HYDRA presented a greater threat to the nation. "What's SHIELD going to do?"

Corrales shrugged. "I'm not the one who's got a permanent chair at Fury's conference table," he pointed out. "But if I were a betting man, I'd say that you have a trip to Barcelona in your near future. And if you do, then I have a shopping list - you can't find good fuet in the States."

Spain also had elections coming up and HYDRA was again playing divide-and-conquer, this time with Catalan independence and a version of anti-EU rhetoric that somehow managed to not contradict the righteous indignation they were fostering in countries that weren't in need of loans.

"I don't really have any history in Spain," Steve pointed out. "I was there three times, I think, and once was an accident."

The Spanish experience in his war had been a rather different one than most of the rest of Europe and he somewhat doubted that he'd be able to influence voters in any way. He'd go if asked, of course, but to what effect, he wasn't sure.

Corrales looked like he might have been about to ask Steve how one could accidentally visit Spain (answer: very bad navigation in foul weather before a jump), but never got the chance because a loud explosion outside shocked them all.

"Stay here," Corrales barked at the men inside the chow hall. "Secure your stations and then wait for orders."

Steve followed Corrales outside, where they could immediately see that the explosion had come from the barn with the computer servers in it. The building was completely engulfed in flames and troops and agents and RCMP personnel were already pulling the wounded to safety and looking for means to put out the fire. They ran toward the blaze.

"We're going to have to let it burn itself out," he shouted to Corrales over the noise as they drew up at the perimeter; the heat was welcome, but at the same time a problem that they would not be able to conquer. "It's isolated and there's nothing downwind and we're not close to water."

They'd taken out some of the generators and water tanks - unintentionally - during the initial assault. The water tank closest to the burning barn had been the first to go.

Corrales nodded. "Let's casevac into the DFAC; I'll set that up and you do triage here. See if someone can find Standish and Desjardins."

Steve nodded and started to pull off his snivel gear; it was fireproof up to a point, but his uniform was better protection for running into a burning building. His first step, however, was organizing the chaos of the rescue effort. Everyone was willing to risk their lives to save colleagues, but it was loud and hard to see between the pitch blackness of the night and the bright flames and there was confusion as the same areas were being searched by multiple parties while other areas went unchecked. Steve shouted orders, grabbed shoulders and pushed men in the direction he needed them to go, used hand-signals, and kept moving until there was, if not order, then at least some semblance of logical action. Corrales sent men from the chow hall with stretchers and Steve left Casimir in charge of making sure the wounded were carried off. When Clint appeared, Steve handed off triage detail to him so he could go into the burning barn himself because it had gotten too hot and the flames too high for the others. There were rumors that the building had been unoccupied at the moment of explosion, but it was not something that could go unverified.

"Cap," someone called to him. One of the CF troops, holding a fire extinguisher, which he tossed to Steve.

Once inside, he realized his time here was going to have to be very short - it was near impossible to breathe and the flames were eating away at what was left of the reinforced roof. He kept his eyes on the ground, going as quickly as he could without tripping to look for any human forms. He used the extinguisher to clear a path where he could and got close enough to where the server room had been that bits of foil and burning insulation were at his feet, but then he started coughing and knew he'd have to turn around. He found no survivors - the blast radius was large and that was not a surprise, but he hoped that was because the rumor of the building's vacancy was true and not for the other most likely reason.

Clint had a bottle of water waiting for him when he emerged; he used half of it to pour over his face and drank the rest. Then Clint handed him another one.

The fire burned itself out in a few hours, although they started going through the smoldering ruins before then. They'd sent the seriously wounded off to Prince Albert and Saskatoon by air, but most of the lightly wounded had chosen to stay behind and a few were already RTD. There had been several serious injuries, but no deaths and, once the adrenaline rush and pace of response and recovery had slowed a little, they could appreciate just how lucky they'd been.

The reason for their good fortune had been their efficiency. The barn had been emptied of equipment, at least what SHIELD was interested in examining, and the computer people had done whatever it was that they'd wanted to do to the servers and moved on to the next task, so there'd been nobody inside and only a small guard outside the barn doors at the other end of the building.

"Did we lose whatever was on those servers?" Standish asked. He'd been helping clear out the yurt being used as an armory when the bomb had gone off.

"Geek squad says no," Corrales answered as he sat down at the table that had become the de facto command center. Steve was next to Standish and so Corrales dropped down heavily next to Desjardins, who'd had the unenviable job of keeping the prisoners under control during the chaos. "They'd already copied everything and sent it on and had put some kind of wire tap on the things so that they'd be able to tell who, what, and where the requests for data were coming from. We'll probably be able to get who sent the detonation command from that."

"You'll forgive me if I say that I hope I'm not still in Saskatchewan when they do get that," Standish said.

The planes that were supposed to carry reinforcement in and the assault team and prisoners out had been delayed in Edmonton first by bad weather and then by the unstable situation on the ground, so Standish's wish was not granted. Steve and the others weren't airborne until after dawn, by which point they knew that the detonation command had come from Nevada, although that had turned out to be just a relay station and not an actual HYDRA base.

Steve got back to his apartment late that night, having spent most of the day flying back from Canada and then a 'quick' meeting about Belgium and Spain that somehow still took more than two hours. He'd picked up takeout Chinese on the way and took out a fork to eat it with because he didn't have the energy to fight with his chopsticks.

His phone started vibrating in his pants pocket, which startled him more than it probably should have. Especially because now that he remembered it was there, he also remembered that he hadn't turned it back on after finally escaping Fury's office. Only one person in his immediate circle considered being sent directly to voicemail to be an insufferable insult worth acting against, so Steve was utterly unsurprised to see Tony's name at the top of his text inbox. Which was pretty full because he had accidentally left his phone in his locker aboard the Helicarrier when changing for the mission and so there were two days of messages and missed calls to be looked through while he warmed up the wonton soup.

Most of which were from Tony, who'd been showing enough signs of life after the trip to Austin that Steve had started to hope a little, despite knowing better. He replied to the last one only, saying that he'd been on a mission and wasn't ignoring Tony intentionally. Tony replied immediately resenting the unintentional aspect even more.

A few texts were from Bruce, including one musing that he supposed he should be grateful for this glimpse of the old, hyperactive Tony. There was a picture of a bowl of tortellini from Miranda, to which he replied with a picture of the fork in the container of General Tso's chicken entirely because she'd be appalled. There was also a reminder that he had a dentist's appointment on Friday.

He ate his dinner while reading Sports Illustrated and ignoring the phone vibrating in the bowl he'd put it in (under a dish towel) because Tony was apparently feeling chatty and turning it off again would just encourage him.

Steve called Tony back after he'd put the leftovers in the fridge, at which point he found out that Tony not only could turn his phone on remotely, he could activate the video camera and had spent five minutes trying to figure out where the phone was before recognizing the dish towel.

"Once upon a time, you helped remove all of the remote surveillance in my apartment," Steve reminded him. The answering cackle was surprisingly good to hear.

"Is this an intervention?"

Steve sighed. "No, Tony." He slouched down and crossed his legs at the ankles underneath the conference table. The three of them -- him, Tony, and Pepper -- were in Fury's office, waiting for Hill and Fury and whoever else was supposed to be here, and until they showed up and the meeting began in earnest, he didn't have to exhibit any kind of proper posture. "I don't think that would serve much purpose at this point."

He knew the actual reason for the meeting, knew why Tony didn't know and Pepper did -- they were part and parcel -- and understood why Fury had wanted them both there. Although he didn't necessarily agree with the staging, he did agree with the purpose behind it and so here he was when otherwise he'd be back in Brooklyn, changed into running gear and trying to sweat out the emotionally charged morning he'd had.

Captain America had helped ring the Opening Bell at the New York Stock Exchange, the first day the repaired building had been used for trading since the Triple Bombing (temporary quarters had been used since the markets had reopened four days after the attacks). He'd stood among a party of survivors and the bereaved, holding the baby brother of Graciela Flores, the third-grader from the Bronx who'd been the youngest victim of the bombings and whose smiling school picture had become the iconic image of who had really been hurt when HYDRA had waged its war on "capitalism and its mercenary army."

The opening of the Stock Exchange at 9:30 had come after a moving ceremony out front on Broad Street that had revealed the memorial to the victims. Mindful of the still-incomplete work going on a few blocks away at the World Trade Center site, there had been pressure to have something done quickly. The memorial, a simple inscribed plinth supporting a cube of video screens that rotated through pictures of the victims submitted by their families and friends, was probably not what Steve would have gone with, but it seemed to be very well-received by the families and the newspapers hadn't savaged it too badly, so it would do. The Broad Street subway station would get its own memorial, but the station wasn't anywhere near ready yet. It would be sooner than the Cortlandt Street station destroyed on 9/11, however, so nobody had so much as complained.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Steve rolled his neck slowly, waiting for the pop, before looking over at Tony, who in turn looked like he wasn't sure if he should be preparing for a fight but suspected he should be. Pepper had been reading something on her tablet and looked up at Tony's words and then back down at what was on her screen. She'd witnessed these scenes often enough that she didn't need to watch.

"It means that you already know what everyone thinks and you don't care and everyone knows that you don't care," Steve said evenly. "Your pain is still more important to you than the pain you're causing others and until that changes, there's nothing worth intervening in."

Tony recoiled, but recovered quickly, glancing over at Pepper before returning his attention to Steve. "Wow. Been saving that one for a while?"

The words were supposed to have been waspish and snarky, but Tony couldn't hide the wounded undertone and seemed to realize it, so he stopped talking.

Steve closed his eyes and tilted his head back. He hadn't said anything that he hadn't already both discussed with Pepper and said to Tony, although this was undoubtedly the soberest Tony had been while hearing it. Maybe this time it would matter. As much as he hurt for Tony and understood that there were parts of what had been going on that Tony couldn't control, there were parts that he could but would not and that had frayed Steve's patience, another thread snapping every time he saw tears in Pepper's eyes or went on a mission where Iron Man could have been useful or could have saved a life.

The glimpses of the old Tony, infrequent but less rare than they'd been a month ago, probably made things worse. Tony's improvement since Austin -- still checked by backsliding -- sometimes seemed like it was for the wrong reasons. Tony had been inspired by Maya Hansen and Extremis because it tied in to his aspirations for Iron Man, not because he wanted to repair the damage and hurt he'd done to himself and to others over the last several months. He was replacing one false balm with another.

The door to the outer office whispered open and Fury, Hill, Tapper, and someone who was introduced as Yeowell from FININT came in. Steve suspected the last two had been waiting in the chairs Hsiang had positioned so that she could sit in judgment of those who'd approach the throne. He pushed up into a semblance of attentiveness. Hill gave him a quick look and her eyes flicked over to Tony, who was still sulking, and then back and he shook his head minutely; everything was fine. This was Tony being reflective, not Tony about to have a tantrum.

Once everyone was seated, Fury told Yeowell to begin, but to keep it brief and to only use words that everyone would understand.

Yeowell, a young, earringed man with heavily gelled hair, smiled. "Bottom line up top: after sifting through the evidence recovered during the last six months of HYDRA raid, we have added almost sixty names to the list of companies with ties to HYDRA. Last week, we added the biggest one yet: Trident Corporation."

Tony dropped his crossed arms and pushed back from table slightly, exchanging a look with Pepper that Steve could not decipher. He had known about the Trident connection almost since FININT had come up with it, but had sat on it until Fury had made up his mind on when or if Tony should be told. Steve watched him now, a tiny bit wary but mostly feeling like he was watching a friend open the best Christmas present ever. Tony's eyes were alight with something between glee and validation.

"Really, now," Tony said conversationally. "Please go on."

Yeowell smiled happily and, without waiting for Fury, started to explain: SHIELD's focus on the paper trails had finally paid off. Partial tracking numbers -- and the occasional complete one -- were harvested from the shipping labels and receipts and whatnot found at all of the sites raided throughout the world. Each one was searched against the shipping companies' databases -- Fury had gotten access to those through arm-twisting and unveiled threats -- and the resulting list of possible origin points and destinations, necessarily large because tracking numbers had so many permutations, was cross-referenced with its siblings.

"It's really easy to get a false positive off one or two or even five partials," Yeowell warned, pre-empting questions about why it had taken so long to find Trident's name on that list. "We didn't want to jump the gun. It's how you end up with newborn babies on the No Fly List. Google and Apple and Stark Industries, just to name a few, popped up all the time because they just ship so much stuff. We initially put Trident in the same category of likely exceptions, but eventually we were forced to give them a closer look after they popped up in a couple of other categories of accumulated physical evidence.

"On this closer look, we were able to show that over a hundred packages were being shipped to HYDRA or HYDRA-affiliated destinations on one of Trident's account numbers. There's plausible deniability here -- shipping accounts get misused all the time -- but the volume is high enough and the tonnage heavy enough that if Trident's accountants haven't noticed, they're either incompetent or complicit."

There was more to the story -- and Yeowell was willing to tell it until Fury told him to shut up and sit down -- but the main point was that Trident very likely was working with the enemy. Whether they were doing it for their own gain -- at Stark Industries' expense -- or out of genuine belief in HYDRA's cause, SHIELD did not know. And, not unimportantly at all, they also did not have the kind of hard evidence that could be used to make Trident pay in any court in any land.

"We're sharing this with you now, Stark, because it's very likely that you, through your company, are their target," Fury said. "And as such, we'll need your assistance to further the investigation. We will need this done quietly and without a whisper within Stark Industries' walls or into the ear of a useful reporter to goose the market."

Tony looked to protest, but Fury's expression made him reconsider. Everyone knew that Tony and Pepper had a stable of sympathetic media types that they'd use for all sorts of reasons, personal and corporate. Steve had benefited from it himself, getting the bloggers who were convinced that Captain America lived in DUMBO to reconsider the logic of their assertions.

"You'll have whatever you need, Director," Pepper assured. "From both of us."

After more details were discussed, the meeting ended and Steve followed Tony and Pepper out of the office. They had flown to the Helicarrier by helicopter and Pepper had offered Steve a ride back to Stark Tower, which he'd accepted before they'd gone in to Fury's office and now was wondering how awkward it would be. He tried to take his cue off of Tony, but Tony was quiet, lost in thought. He looked over at Pepper, who gave him a tiny shrug.

"Why did you bring me in on this?" Tony asked as they rode the elevator up to the flight deck. "We both know that Pepper's going to be the one doing all of the snooping around the company files for Fury. Who would have been happy to deal just with Pepper. Who did not fake her surprise very well at all at these revelations, by the way."

Pepper looked completely unrepentant.

"Because you deserved to know, Tony," Steve said simply. "Evil people have been methodically destroying your life and if you wouldn't believe me or Pepper when we told you, maybe you'd believe it from people who don't like you nearly as much."

The elevator doors opened to a glorious sunset over New Jersey, orange and rose melting seamlessly into cerulean and lavender. And then the noise of the carrier deck hit them.

"I knew this was an intervention," Tony said smugly as he stepped outside. He turned back to Steve. "You staying for dinner? Marcel's doing a spring lamb."

Chapter Text

“Well that wasn’t so bad for East Oakland,” Ramos announced as he took a long draught from his water bottle. “Kind of ugly for anywhere else, but you gotta grade ‘em on a curve here.”

Steve grimaced agreement. A fair bit of the pre-mission prep work always focused on the environmental concerns, which in this case boiled down to having to stage a raid on a heavily-guarded warehouse in the middle of a crime-riddled neighborhood. The building, rented by one of Trident’s subsidiaries as both storage and a locus of their charitable efforts, was in an area the police had described in uniformly unflattering terms and had been the subject of several break-in attempts early on in its current incarnation, but upgraded security had made it a less promising target and it had been largely left alone since. This had been viewed by the police as a reasonable response at the time, but SHIELD interest in the building as a possible HYDRA location put a whole new spin on the tale.

“I don’t think this was what OPD had in mind when they warned us about the quantity of firearms in the area,” Steve said as he slipped the shield’s straps through his arms and shouldered it, shifting his own water bottle between hands to do so. Even with the doors open and the few windows blown out, the air was close and reeked of gunpowder with underlying notes of ozone and something chemical that made his throat burn. “They probably thought a few would be outside.”

They had been spotted on approach – it was impossible to do any kind of urban assault without witnesses, even in the dark of night – but there hadn’t been so much as a bottle broken in warning, let alone any kind of confrontation.

Ramos chuckled darkly. “Nah, they understood that the local criminal element would be so happy to see us take out this place that they’d grease our path. It’s bad for their business as cockroaches to have a bright light on all the time.”

Steve took another sip of water. “Speaking of the lights, where are ours?”

The problem with cutting the power to a raid target prior to the assault, of course, was getting power back on. Especially, in this case, when the actual lines had been cut.

“It’s a little early for rolling blackout season,” Ramos mused. “Five gets you ten Riccardi hooked the generator up backward again. Someone with an extra brain cell should go help him out.”

With that, he left Steve to survey the aftermath in a room lit only by the building’s emergency generator and the portable floodlights SHIELD had brought. The space he was in was the loading dock, complete with rolling corrugated steel doors and concrete trailer bays. Steve and three others had spent the first part of the fight pinned in the leftmost one because the blueprints they’d been working off of had been outdated, something there’d been no way to verify beforehand. Once the power was restored, they’d be able to roll up the gates and get some more fresh air inside, but for the time being, the only ventilation were the fire doors and a pizza-sized hole in the far wall from one of the blaster cannons.

The warehouse was supposed to be split between offices and storage; the former was for the charity and the latter split between the charity and VCTI’s business concern. How much of that was true and how much, like the blueprints, was just what VCTI and Trident had told the City of Oakland was yet undetermined. Nobody had gone through the building yet except to do a sweep for hostiles and then, with Saskatchewan very much on their minds, a bomb-sniffing dog. They’d found nothing, thankfully, but SHIELD was still using cell phone jammers just in case, with the added advantage that none of the growing crowd outside could take pictures or shoot video or, if one of the bad guys had escaped, report back what was going on.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Corrales coming up the ramp closest to him, two waters bottles in hand.

“How’s the wing?” he asked, accepting the bottle from Corrales, who’d been grazed by one of the plasma weapons. His right upper arm was bandaged underneath the flap of his body armor, which in turn was melted and singed.

“A lot better than the armor, thank God,” Corrales replied with a shudder. “I don’t think I’m going to be eating pork for a bit, though.”

A loud click that had Corrales reaching for his rifle and Steve for his shield, but then came the flicker of overhead lights. A few strobes later and they could finally see the room in full light, which made it both less spooky and far scarier than the shadows cast by the portable lights.

“Welp, you may not know when we’re coming, but you certainly know where we’ve been,” Corrales sighed happily as they surveyed the mess. With the overhead lights on, the overturned crates and blood spatter and smashed shelving told its own story. A good story as far as the good guys went, but not necessarily the one that they were most eager to hear.

“You ready to take a tour?” Steve asked. Corrales nodded, then radioed his XO, Pincus, to let him know that they were going to be moving toward him and not to shoot. Steve’s team had taken the rear and Corrales’s the front and they were mostly still local to those areas.

Casimir had just figured out how to activate the motor on the bay doors and so they waited for the noise to die down before telling Jablonsky, who was more or less Steve’s XO, where they were going and to radio Steve when Clint, who’d been up on the roof across the street, arrived.

Steve drained his first water bottle and tossed it in a somehow-still-upright recycling bin as they passed it.

The blocked-off path that had ruined Steve’s easy ingress into the loading dock turned out to be far from the only unreported structural change to the building. More than a year into chasing HYDRA, their secrets were far easier to reveal and so it was with the stairwell to a subterranean level that was absolutely not supposed to be there.

“Fuck,” Corrales spit out as they stood outside the doorway that led downstairs. “I’d have lost the arm entirely if that had been the payment needed to keep this from turning into another Detroit.”

Corrales had been in Detroit the night of the raids; he’d been with a combined unit of SHIELD and Detroit SWAT and they’d lost half their number in a single explosion and then five more on the exfil under fire.

Steve was pretty sure that there would be no one downstairs – they’d have come up during the initial assault – but he accepted a flashbang grenade from Corrales anyway and tossed it down the stairs to see if it provoked any kind of response. It didn’t.

He radioed Jablonsky and told him to send two men to their position to guard the entrance just in case; they’d explore in full later once they had more men free. The rest of the tour was mercifully anticlimactic, showing offices and storage space separated by temporary walls. The contents were mostly pedestrian stuff – office supplies, school notebooks and reading and math primers and tied-up stacks of pamphlets about medical care and free lunch programs, wire crates full of basketballs, boxes of baby formula that actually were boxes of baby formula.

And then they found the room full of boxes of Saplings, which were Trident’s smallest green-energy generators. (“From tiny beginnings, great things can grow.”) On the face of it, there was nothing wrong with this – Trident had been pushing into California’s energy market for a long time and had been using Stark Industries’ post-Triple Bombings fall to establish themselves even further. But these were still packed in their shrink-wrapped loading pallets and tucked into the bottom of one was a bill of lading with the port of origination being Shenzhen and the port of destination being Conakry, Guinea and no information whatsoever about being offloaded anywhere in North America, let alone the Port of Oakland.

Steve thought of Miranda, who’d made an extremely similar passage during her time as Operative Baker, from Shaanxi to Guinea-Bissau. She hadn’t stopped in California, had gone the other way around the world, on a cargo ship. But the coincidence was almost too strong and the lack of any way to build a connection frustrated him.

Clint found them there, whistling when he saw the Trident logo on the sides of the boxes. “Any chance they’re full of HYDRA tech?”

Steve tore the plastic wrapping on one pallet and opened one of the boxes. It was full of leaf-green parts, which was the hallmark of the Sapling, but Steve would be the first to admit that he wouldn’t know past that. Corrales and Clint readily confessed that they had no more of a clue.

“Still don’t know how they’re here,” Corrales pointed out. “Even if Trident or VCTI wanted to reroute them totally legally, you just can’t saunter into a US port and offload goods meant for somewhere else without paperwork.” He held up the paper. “This is not the packing slip that gets tucked inside, this is what you have to show Customs and there’s nothing on here for a North American offloading.”

In the end, it just became something else to report to Ops back aboard the Helicarrier, along with the discovery of the basement that they still hadn’t searched and the general state of the affair, which was that the building was secure and local LEOs were taking over perimeter security, allowing SHIELD to focus on the interior. The distant, tinny voice at Ops – Steve could hear bits of the conversation through Corrales’s fancy jammer-proof communicator – had nothing useful to say about the bill of lading except that they’d forward the details to the China and West Africa Desks and to the department that served as intermediaries between the rest of SHIELD and Operatives Able, Baker, and Dog, the three HYDRA moles who’d lived long enough to be safely extracted. (Charlie and Easy had been killed; there were at least three others still active but nobody knew how many or where.)

“You know, we can cut at least a dozen people out of that loop with a single call,” Clint said while Corrales was still over on the far side of the room, which had had better reception, talking with Pincus over the radio to organize the expedition downstairs. He gestured with his chin to the utility pocket where Steve kept his phone.

Steve shook his head. “It’s nothing that won’t keep for a few hours and I’m not going to put her at risk of exposure – or of Fury finding out if she gives us something actionable.” He’d have to get outside the jammer radius to make the call and there was way to do that or to make the call itself without witnesses. “They still want her very dead, preferably slowly and painfully.”

Clint nodded, accepting the answer. “But maybe next time you send her a picture of your beefsteak, you slip in a little something...” he trailed off, making a vague hand gesture.

“Do I want to pretend that I didn’t hear that?” Corrales asked, eyes wide and innocent. “Please tell me yes. I’m not sure I’m ready for Captain America sexting.”

Clint exploded into laughter and Steve turned away, blushing in embarrassment. When he turned back to explain, Corrales was smiling and held up a hand to stop him.

“I know there is a context that makes it all innocent and possibly even professionally relevant,” he told Steve. “But I don’t want to know what it is because this is much better.”

They left the room to return to the entrance to the basement, by which point Pincus had organized a detachment of troops to join them. They were mostly Steve’s team and he didn’t think this was the luck of the draw, not when Corrales gestured for Steve to lead the way. He’d been favoring his arm a little and had taken nothing stronger than an aspirin for what were probably some non-trivial burns.

The basement, thankfully, turned out to be just a basement and not the entrance into an underground city of tunnels and trouble. They found rooms that served as barracks and armory and chow hall and gym, but mostly the place was lab space, modern and well-lit and clean – and cleaned-out.

“Someone knew we were coming,” Jablonsky said from a crouch by Steve’s feet, holding up a latex glove with a pen before dropping it into an evidence envelope. “They cleaned out in a hurry, but they cleaned out.”

SHIELD’s forensics team would be going through the place anyway, so once they determined that there was nothing there that would lead them directly to another site either inside the city or close enough that they could get there right away, Steve and Corrales started the process of transitioning from active secure assault site to leaving it to the techs and the platoons of regular field agents who’d watch over them.

They made it back to the airport by mid-morning. As they were boarding the plane, Steve found Corrales, who was no longer able to hide how much pain he was in. “Why don’t you take whatever they gave you to knock you out,” he suggested, since while Corrales had stuck to the over-the-counter medication, he’d also undoubtedly been handed something much stronger. “Pincus’ll make sure we behave.”

Corrales smiled. “Pincus will asleep before we fold up the landing gear.” Steve cocked an eyebrow and Corrales gave him a one-shouldered shrug. “But you’ll do in a pinch. Thanks.”

“It’s awesome and I won’t hear a bad word said against it.”

Bruce shook his head at Clint. “You hate helicopters because you think they’re going to kill you, but you’re not only willing to jump out of a perfectly good aircraft, you’re eager to do so from an altitude that requires an oxygen mask and carries the real risk of freezing your balls off. How does that work?”

“I am a man of many facets,” Clint replied loftily. Next to him, Tapper snorted.

“Jumping out of perfectly good aircraft is actually a lot of fun,” Steve piped up. Across from him, Clint nodded at the wisdom displayed. “It’s the closest some of us get to flying.”

“If you want to fly, I’ll make a baby bjorn for the suit,” Tony offered, not looking up from the tablet he was doing whatever he was doing on. “You can be strapped in back or front, although you should probably ride in the back. Robin Hood over there can ride up front, I can see over his head no problem.”

“Who are you calling short?” Clint asked incredulously.

Steve smiled. It felt normal, this bickering around a SHIELD conference table. Something that hadn’t happened in a very long time in this configuration – still short a full complement with Natasha still not cleared and Thor back in Asgard – but it was better than it had been. Even if, Steve knew, they had not been brought together for any kind of good news.

Tapper had called all of them in turn to tell them that Fury wanted a meeting; Steve’s version had been ameliorated by a rundown of who’d been contacted and, ominously, how Steve thought Tony might take another chop in his still-rough seas. The answer was that it depended on how big the wave, but Tony had actually been out in the Iron Man suit twice in the last few days – Pepper’s suggestion – and while he wasn’t not drinking, he was drinking a lot less and interacting with the world a lot more. “Is this going to undo all that?” Steve had asked. “Because if it will, then I don’t care what Fury wants, I’ll make sure Tony’s unavailable.”

Tony had leveled out lately after a few weeks of extremes – the revelation of Trident’s duplicity had brought a high, Stark Industries being named in another lawsuit related to the Triple Bombings had brought an episode of deep despair and an ER trip, the official public connection of VCTI and Trident to a HYDRA base in Oakland had brought another high, a fight with Pepper had threatened another low – and Steve was determined to make sure that this steady (steadier) path continued. Fury’s primary concern wasn’t Tony’s health, which was unpleasant to think about but as it should be. That didn’t mean that it shouldn’t be a consideration.

Tapper, who kept abreast of Tony’s status surprisingly well, assured Steve that while this would not go down easy for any of them, he didn’t think it would cause a lasting problem. “And if I’m wrong, then know that this wasn’t a decision made lightly: this is that important.”

Hill showed up, yawning as she sat down next to Tapper, and kept her attention on her coffee mug and tablet. The briefer, an analyst introduced as Spiegelman, came in next and did not sit down, instead setting up his laptop and the projector and then standing awkwardly at the front of the room. Spiegelman wasn’t a young man, but Steve supposed that even senior analysts got a little jumpy before briefing the top two people in SHIELD and then most of the Avengers.

Fury stormed in five minutes after the meeting was supposed to have begun, one of his assistants – he had a varying pool of aides who reported to Hsiang – in tow carrying a sheaf of papers.

“Let’s get on with this,” Fury growled.

“We finished processing the forensic evidence from Oakland last week,” Spiegelman began, nervousness gone. “HYDRA’s sanitizing efforts minimized the quantity and quality of what we were able to recover, but they did leave us enough to work with.”

What followed was a swift and understandable overview of what had been found and why it mattered or did not. There were a couple of theories about why the Saplings had been present, one of which was the more benign black marketing scenario and the other had SHIELD liaising with several federal agencies to investigate the Port of Oakland.

“We also know how they knew to clear out in the first place,” Spiegelman went on, since he could tell, as could Steve, that Fury was about to ask. “We told them.”

The screen changed from a schematic of the Oakland site – a real one, not the faulty ones that had been used to plan the raids – to a photo of Maya Hansen.

“Doctor Maya Hansen, head of FuturePharm’s nanotechnology unit, for those of you who did not already know,” Spiegelman said. “Her fingerprints and DNA were found onsite, in the basement laboratories.”

Steve took a moment to let the shock roll through him before looking over at Tony, who was still frozen, and then over at Bruce, who looked back at him with wide, surprised eyes. Steve didn’t know what his own face showed; he felt it in the pit of his stomach that Maya, sarcastic, brilliant, so eager to help improve life for people Maya, was working for HYDRA. How could she justify that? The same way the professors and scientists and celebrities on the petitions did, with their ends-justify-the-means, can’t-make-an-omelet-without-cracking-a-few-eggs false chagrin that their beautiful utopia would come at a brutal and expensive cost? Maya wouldn’t be the first or the hundredth otherwise smart person who’d accepted HYDRA’s false promises despite evidence and history showing them otherwise, but he’d almost have preferred it if she hadn’t lied to them about it.

“Are you sure?” Bruce asked, rubbing his jaw with his hand. “This wasn’t a plant or a lab error?”

Spiegelman, to his credit, recognized the critical tone for what it was and did not get defensive. “We’re sure. I’ll be happy to provide all supporting documentation for—“

“She gave them Extremis,” Tony said, still sounding dazed. “She gave HYDRA Extremis.”

There was a silent pause then, a collective moment to appreciate the impact of what this meant – and what it could mean.

“Very probably,” Spiegelman agreed. “We’re still reconstructing her true history, but involvement with HYDRA seems to predate the Extremis project – at least the government contract. So, yes.”

Tony leaned forward and addressed himself to Fury. “I need to see everything on this, everything the DoD has, everything FuturePharm has, everything she has socked away on flash drives hidden in her lingerie drawer. I need to know how close she is. Please.”

Fury, sitting impassively, didn’t give anything away, but Tony didn’t give him a chance to refuse.

“Extremis will work,” he pressed on. “And it will work a lot faster without the safety straps of ethics and regulations holding it back. HYDRA will kill thousands making this work. And then we’ll be screwed because it will work brilliantly. It’s the perfect cheat code for this game of empires Schmidt is playing. They won’t need the killer robots or giant spiders or mecha cockroaches. They’ll have an army of endlessly customizable cannon fodder, led by the Red Skull, back and better than ever and effectively immortal.

“I need to see how it works so that I can figure out how break it. You don’t have anything in your arsenal that can stop this. Other than me.”

Everyone’s eyes were on Fury and Tony.

“The DoD has already given us all of the project files,” Fury said. “We’ll get the rest when we apprehend Hansen. You’ll have access to whatever you need. On the condition that you work here.”

Tony shook his head as he sat back. “I’d rather—“

“You have been on restricted clearance since the week after the Triple Bombings,” Fury cut him off, voice calm. “Which you have not even noticed because you’ve been in an alcoholic stupor for almost all of that time. You will work here precisely because it’s less convenient and less comfortable and because it guarantees me at least a few hours of sobriety. Which you cannot offer me in any other environment. Our understanding still holds, Stark: you’re here because I need you, not because I trust you.”

Tony looked like he wasn’t sure whether to storm off or escalate the argument, hurt and angry both. Steve felt for him, but he understood Fury’s reasoning. Tony worked best at home, but that usually involved a tumbler full of something at his elbow and sometimes a whole bottle. Sometimes more, especially when he was upset or frustrated by his lack of progress and he would be both with this. Tony had been trying to reverse-engineer what little Maya had shown him of the Extremis project since they’d gotten back from Austin and he’d been stymied, alternately impressed and outraged at being outsmarted (“don’t say it like that”) by a colleague he’d always respected but never considered quite his peer. Tony didn’t think he had true peers.

Steve caught motion out of the corner of his eye and looked over at Bruce, who was shifting in his seat; he wasn’t sure if Bruce was uncomfortable and upset or preparing to enter the fray and, if it was the former, whether someone needed to intercede before the Other Guy showed up. Fury’s words had been aimed at Tony, but they’d long applied to Bruce and while Bruce would occasionally joke about it, nobody would ever confuse that with his actually being amused.

“We’ll work here,” Bruce finally said and Steve relaxed minutely. “We’ll need a couple of analysts for grunt work and some more processing power than what I’ve got in my lab.”

“You already have enough to take over most governments,” Fury replied, but not in a challenging way. “Make up a list.”

Tony wasn’t quite ready to concede, his eyes still burning with the need to defend himself – or at least get the last word in.

“Throw in a couple of real chairs,” Steve told Bruce. Tony’s attention flicked over to him and Steve could see that Tony knew exactly what Steve was doing, didn’t particularly care for it, but wasn’t going to challenge him, too. “Ones with backs and padding that aren’t those weird kneeling things you like.”

“You’re not going to be sitting around much, Cap,” Hill warned. “You’re leading the mission to bring in Hansen and you’re still going to Venezuela next week.”

Steve nodded, relieved. He’d have asked to be in on it if he hadn’t been assigned the mission; he didn’t need to lead it, but he needed to be there. To look her in the eye and take back in anger what he’d offered in gratitude.

“I’d like to go, too,” Tony said, making it sound like less of a demand than it could have been. Tony Stark didn’t beg or plead, but he could drop the imperious tone and the effect, if he chose, could be almost the same. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do to clear Iron Man for active duty.”

Fury shook his head no. “I understand the personal stakes, Stark, but you can’t go for the same reason you can’t be close to any of the other Trident-related ops. Everything you touch in public becomes tainted by the insinuation that SHIELD is acting as a proxy in the war between Trident and Stark Industries. I will not have our effectiveness hampered because we are fighting rumors as well as enemies. I will not allow our integrity to be questioned.”

Tony exhaled slowly, accepting the reasoning, as he had before, but not liking it. “Can I talk to her once she’s in-house?”

Fury gave him a smile that Steve thought wicked. “Absolutely.”

Spiegelman, forgotten during the confrontation between Fury and Tony, continued his briefing after a ‘get on with it’ gesture from Hill. The rest of the details were somewhat anticlimactic and mostly were a list of the various ways Maya Hansen’s life was being deconstructed. It was over in twenty minutes because Fury had somewhere else to be and swept out again, aide in his wake, and Hill told Spiegelman to wrap it up.

“Apparently she’s not as creeped out by Tarleton as she said she was,” Bruce mused once it was the four of them again, Tapper racing off because his phone had sixteen messages on it in the half-hour it had been off during the meeting. (“This had better not be something you guys did,” he’d warned as he’d fled.)

“Apparently she’s not a lot of things she said she was,” Clint retorted. He’d been the only one not to have met Maya before; he’d been aware of Tony’s joining the trip to Austin, but hadn’t been too interested in the details beyond what Maya was like once Steve had told him it was a science thing where everyone had talked funny but somehow it was all still English.

“I didn’t think I’d ever know someone who fell for this crap,” Tony said, still sounding a little shocky and distracted.

“You know lots of people who have fallen for this crap,” Bruce pointed out. “You’ve met almost every single name on every single petition that circulates in the academic and corporate worlds. You’ve fired people for signing those petitions.”

Tony shook his head. “I haven’t fired anyone personally in years,” he said. “And the people who sign those petitions are morons not worth my time remembering who they are. But Maya was worth knowing. She was someone I was happy to know and you cannot imagine how small that category is. Pepper is going to be crushed.”

“Pepper liked her?” Steve prompted, because after the last several months, he’d developed a very good sense of what Tony’s edge of true despair looked like. And today, of all days, when Tony had sworn good behavior for the right reasons, Steve didn’t want Tony dancing close enough to that edge to fall in.

Tony lost the unfocused look and beamed. “Pepper loved her. She used to write down and commit to memory all of the different ways Maya used to shoot down my attempts to get her back into bed.”

Steve didn’t think Tony saw Bruce indicate to Clint that Clint owed him five dollars.

“You’ll be okay with this?” he asked instead, since this was going to be coming up.

“I’m going to have a small wake for the death of a friendship,” Tony replied, not misinterpreting the question but choosing not to make anything of it, which was its own (good enough) answer. “And you are all welcome to join me. But then I am going to start working on destroying Maya Hansen and everything she thinks she stands for because I refuse to allow such a brilliant, brilliant idea as Extremis to be lost.”

He looked Steve straight in the eye. “I’m done being a victim. It’s boring. Maya Hansen could have changed the world for good. I’m going to make sure she doesn’t change it for evil and then I’m going to do with Extremis what she should have done in the first place.”

Steve nodded once, acknowledging the spoken answer and the unspoken one.

“Is there going to be food at this wake?” Clint asked. “Because I could eat.”

“In great quantity and variety,” Tony assured. “And we can even lay in a six-pack of that tooth-cracker of an IPA that you insist on drinking.”

Pepper, vivacious in a way she hadn’t been in a long time and without the tiny bit of tension by her eyes that used to accompany the smile she had for Tony’s impromptu parties, cornered Steve during cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before dinner, dismayed still by the news about Maya. “I respected her greatly as a strong, bright woman in a field that fears strong, bright women and tries to destroy them. She had great aplomb – has, I suppose, I shouldn’t use the past tense – and great wit and humor. And she respected me, which wasn’t very common among either Tony’s colleagues or the women he interacted with.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, meaning it.

“Me, too,” Pepper said, then clapped