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i.

Going by the look on the dean's face, Veronica's pretty sure she's aced her interview. Hearst isn't that prestigious a school, but she has killer references and an LSAT score of 176, as well as real-world experience as an investigator. And Columbia is three thousand miles away from home, which she needs more than she could possibly admit. She loves her father more than anything, and she's terrified of poisoning that relationship the way she has so many others. A little distance--or a lot, in this case--will be good for both of them.

So she's feeling pretty pleased with herself as she heads back towards the subway. She could get used to living in a place that has seasons, she thinks. And there might still be dicks on the beach (once she discovers where exactly the beach is) but none of them will be Dick Casablancas.

She's still well aware of her surroundings though, and she hears the click of high heels on concrete the moment before a woman calls her name.

"Ms. Mars? Veronica Mars?"

Veronica turns and finds herself facing a tall brunette in a sharply cut blue suit--it's not cheap but it's not bespoke either. Macy's, maybe, or Nordstrom. "Can I help you?"

"I think we can help each other," the woman says, and offers her a business card. "Maria Hill, Deputy Director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."

"That's quite a mouthful," Veronica says, accepting the card.

"May I buy you a cup of coffee?"

Veronica nods. She's got her taser in her bag if she needs it.

There's a Starbucks half a block away, which is both familiar and generic enough for meetings with random women in black. Ms. Hill leads her there, making inconsequential small talk about whether this is Veronica's first time in New York and how she's liking it so far.

"Columbia is amazing," Veronica gushes, leaning forward, waiting to see Ms. Hill's reaction to this display.

"It is," Ms. Hill agrees, leaning back. "I went to Princeton." She looks down at her coffee cup. She ordered a grande dark roast and drank it black. Because Hill was paying, Veronica had ordered a mocha frappuccino that left a disgusting aftertaste after the first sip. It sits on the table between them, melting forlornly. "Columbia's also very expensive."

"Yes," Veronica says.

"Let me get right to the point."

"Finally," Veronica mutters. Hill's mouth tightens but she pretends not to hear.

"SHIELD recruits from top schools around the world, and we think that you have what it takes to be successful at the Agency."

Veronica swallows down the first thing that comes to mind, because of course some government agency she's never heard of has kept track of her so-called career. She'd been internet famous during the Aaron Echolls trial. She's not sure what any of that has to do with homeland security, but she hopes no one at SHIELD saw her sex tape.

"The FBI--"

"Doesn't require a graduate degree," Hill interrupts. "Though it does make your application more attractive to them. At SHIELD, we prefer to train people right out of school. It avoids the formation of bad habits, and minimizes the amount of debt our agents are in." Her mouth quirks wryly. "Lower debt load means our agents are less likely to turn traitor for money."

"Makes sense," Veronica says, mouth dry. Now she's wishing she'd ordered a beverage she could actually drink, instead of the most expensive one on the menu.

"Your experience working for your father would also count in your favor with SHIELD, despite much of it being before you were eighteen."

The pitch goes on for a couple more minutes, a gung-ho spiel about serving her country and seeing the world that tells Veronica they haven't profiled her as well as they think (though they'll probably dig deeper if she accepts, and she's not sure if she or they would regret that more), and then Hill's phone buzzes, and she says, "Think about it for the next few days. You have my number if you have any questions. Otherwise, we'll be in touch soon."

Hill has a firm handshake, and calluses from handling a gun that would unnerve Veronica more if her father hadn't been a sheriff.

A week later, after consulting with her father and a financial planner, and asking Mac to do some digging around online, she signs a non-disclosure agreement with SHIELD and goes to work in their Times Square office. From her window she can see thousands of tourists a day, swarming like they believe there's safety in numbers.

*

ii.

Veronica's never worked with Agent Romanoff (or Captain America), much to her own (and her dad's and Wallace's) disappointment. She's backed up Clint Barton a few times, when Romanoff is busy elsewhere, but for the most part, most of her work has been here in the States, in places where her surveillance and investigative abilities are most useful. And also because her language skills are not that great. She can play a lost American with the best of them, and back in the day she could engage in a little trash-talking in slangy Spanish, but she can't really sound like a local anywhere but home.

The day SHIELD is exposed as a front for HYDRA, Veronica is in DC, staking out the condo of a Senator on the Armed Services Committee who may be accepting bribes in exchange for his vote. Her phone lights up with alarms and texts from a scant few co-workers like Hill and Carter (including one from Cameron, who she later learns was actually in the control room while the helicarriers were being launched), all of whom are warning her to get the hell out.

Only the text from Mac contains a link to the leaked files, and an airline ticket out of BWI.

Her father is waiting at LAX when she arrives eight hours later, and she lets herself fall into his arms, but doesn't cry. She's more angry than sad, and the more she reads--she spends the next eighteen hours sifting through the information Romanoff made public, and that's barely scratching the surface--the angrier she gets.

"I thought I was doing something good," she says when her father pries her away from the new computer Mac brought over when she got home, one guaranteed to be free of any kind of spyware by Mac herself. "I knew there were compromises--it's the government, for god's sake--but HYDRA." She shakes her head and swallows another mouthful of coffee from the mug he'd pressed into her hands.

Dad puts a hand on her shoulder and gives her a comforting squeeze. "I know, honey."

She smiles at him. She hasn't been home for more than a flying visit in ten years. He looks good, though there are more lines around his eyes than she remembers.

"I know you do." She sighs. "It's good to be home."

"It's good to have you home," he answers, and presses a kiss to her temple. "I'm going into the office, but I'll see you for lunch?"

"Sounds good," she says, and she means it, even if his cholesterol numbers mean she can't just swing by with burgers and onion rings these days.

She takes a quick shower once he's gone, and then calls Mac, who's burning up one of her precious vacation days to perform best friend duties. Together, they spend another few hours sorting data into three main categories: pressing, important but can wait, and irrelevant to their interests.

"What's up?" Wallace says when he stops by after dinner.

"We're taking down HYDRA," Mac says brightly, and Wallace laughs until he doesn't.

"Of course you are," he says, shaking his head. "Well, you know I'm on your side, though I'm not sure what I can do to help."

"You still make delicious smoothies?" Veronica asks with a smile, cocking her head as she asks for the favor. He nods. "Then fire up the blender and keep 'em coming. We've got Nazis to destroy."

 

*

iii.

Veronica's always had trust issues, and discovering that the agency she'd chosen to dedicate her work (her life) to turned out to be a front for Nazis hasn't helped. Now she only trusts herself and her old friends. Still, when on the fifth day of data analysis she uncovers what looks like a torture chamber in a bank vault in DC, she forwards it to Sharon Carter, who, rumor has it, has been scooped up by the CIA. Veronica figures Peggy Carter's niece or whatever should be safe. She cc's Maria Hill, who reached out to her within the first eight hours of the Triskelion's fall, but Veronica's been too angry to call her back. She's not sure exactly what the vault was used for but she figures it's as good an apology as any. If Hill is HYDRA--and Veronica honestly doesn't think she is--she already knows about it and it's worthless anyway.

She doesn't expect a call from the Black Widow herself, thanking her for the tip and leaving a voicemail number if she comes up with anything similar, or anything to do with the Winter Soldier. It had been a shock to all the analysts when that ghost story had turned out to be real, and to have a cybernetic arm. Veronica's just barely accepted the appearance of aliens; super cyborg assassins should be easier than that and yet somehow her mind is still boggled.

Still, she gives Mac the heads up as well, and they add it to their list of things to watch out for.

Life's not all data analysis and doxxing HYDRA members for Veronica. She renews her California private investigator's license and joins her father at the office. There's something comforting about the small-scale skeeviness of Neptune's sordid scandals: there's a ring of Hearst sophomores selling term papers to high school students and she's been hired by Principal Clemmons to shut them down; there's a revenge porn website being run out of a basement not too far from the Kane house; and the sheriff's office is still corrupt and incompetent, but in a way that feels hapless and petty instead of evil, though maybe that's just due to her recent brushes with HYDRA.

Then, after a few months of smalltime detective work and data analysis in her off hours, she and Mac discover a HYDRA scientist living at the Camelot Motel. Right here in Neptune.

"I'd say hiding but he's checked in under the most totally obvious fake name," Mac scoffs. "Rudy Wells."

Veronica takes a second to ponder that and comes up blank. "Totally obviously fake?" she asks.

"He's the guy who created the Six Million Dollar Man," Mac says. "The fictional scientist, I mean, not the guy who wrote the book the show was based on." Veronica gives her a baffled look. "It was my dad's favorite show as a kid."

"Clearly I need to brush up on my Seventies TV trivia," Veronica says.

"Priorities," Mac intones solemnly. She manages a straight face for a moment before breaking down into giggles.

*

Veronica stakes out the Camelot for the next few nights. She's got a cheating husband to surveil anyway, so she figures she might as well make the most out of it. (It's not like exposing HYDRA scientists pays the bills.)

On the fourth night, she gets the pictures she needs for the soon-to-be-divorced client, and when she turns put her camera on the passenger seat, the Winter Soldier is already sitting there.

Even with all her training and experience, Veronica freezes. The fight-or-flight portion of her brain is screaming at her to get the hell out of the car, but she can't move.

"You know," he says conversationally, "when I first heard about a tiny blonde ex-SHIELD agent who was passing on information about HYDRA to the Black Widow, I thought I knew who I'd find." He cocks his head and gives her a quick once-over. "You're not him." He laughs softly. She has to admit she wasn't expecting an assassin to laugh. "Of course, he's not so tiny anymore either." He waves his metal hand at the side of his head. "I still get a little confused sometimes."

That makes two of them. "Not confused enough to kill me, though, right?" she asks. Her taser is in her bag, which is in the footwell he's taking up with his big boots, but she's still shocked into immobility.

"To be perfectly honest, doll, if I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead."

"Yeah, okay," she says, exhaling shakily, fingers tightening on the steering wheel. "I believe that." She closes her eyes and gets her breathing under control quickly, then asks, "Wells?"

"That's not his name, but yeah, he's HYDRA." He holds up the metal arm. "He did the most recent upgrades on this."

"Lovely," Veronica mutters, and the Winter Soldier huffs in what might be laughter.

He finally looks away from her, though, when he says, "I paid him a visit, he pissed himself; it was like the opposite of old times." The jocularity in his tone is obviously forced, which makes her feel better.

Still, she has to ask. "How much of him is left?"

"Enough to lock up for a really long time." He sounds grimly satisfied and Veronica can't blame him. "I already called the Widow in to clean up."

"Okay," Veronica says, blowing out another relieved breath. "You want a drink?"

"I could eat," he admits, shifting in his seat. "Let's go."

Veronica pulls on her seatbelt and waits for him to do the same. When he doesn't, she says, "I realize that you're a badass cyborg assassin--"

"'M not a cyborg," he says petulantly, then pauses like he has to think about it. "Whatever that is."

"But when you're in my car, mister, you better wear a seatbelt. Click it or ticket."

"What?"

"I can't afford a ticket if we get stopped by the sheriff's office, and believe me, we will be stopped."

"Why's that?"

She gives him a wry half-grin. "They just can't get enough of my sparkling personality."

This time the sound he makes is definitely a laugh. "I like you," he says. "You got a smart mouth." And he buckles his seatbelt, so Veronica doesn't complain.

Of course, they get pulled over about three blocks from the apartment complex. It's the new Sheriff Lamb, and he's just as awful, and possibly even more corrupt, than his dead brother. He shines the flashlight in their eyes and though Veronica has never been religious, she sends up a brief silent prayer out to whatever gods might exist that the deadly assassin in her passenger seat doesn't decide to kill the idiot who's making their life difficult at the moment. Not that the world in general, and Neptune in particular, wouldn't be better off without Lamb (either version) at the helm, but it would raise too many questions.

"I heard you were down for anything, Veronica Mars, but I didn't think you picked up homeless dudes for sex."

The Winter Soldier lets out a low growl that is almost subvocal, and it makes the hair on the back of Veronica's neck stand up. Luckily, it seems to have the same effect on Lamb, who (much like his brother) has a bully's tendency to back down when confronted, because he straightens up and knocks his fist against the roof of the car twice.

"I'm letting you off with a warning this time, Veronica Mars."

She wants to ask for what, exactly, but instead presses her lips together and gives him a tight nod before she pulls away, deliberately going two miles under the town speed limit.

She glances over at the man sitting next to her. "Thanks."

"I hope that guy turns out to be HYDRA," he replies, and she laughs. "I don't like bullies."

"Me neither," Veronica says, wondering if she should be concerned that their minds had run along similar tracks.

*

iv.

Dad is in New Mexico picking up a bail jumper, but Mac and Wallace are waiting for Veronica when she gets home. "Mac, Wallace, this is--" She pauses, because he must have a name, even though she's seen nothing in the files to indicate it. He's simply the asset in the files she's read so far, and the rest of the intelligence community had called him the Winter Soldier before they realized he actually existed.

"Barnes," he says, waving in a way Veronica would call dorky if he weren't doing it with a metal hand. "There somewhere I could wash up?" He's got a duffel bag slung over his shoulder; it clanks quietly when he moves.

Veronica probably shouldn't feel safe with an exorbitantly armed Winter Soldier in her apartment, but she does. She doesn't trust him, not the way she trusts Mac and Wallace, but she doesn't think he's going to snap and kill them all, either.

"Bathroom's down the hall on the left," she says. "There are towels in the cabinet if you want to take a shower." No use warning him about the fact that the hot water will run out in three minutes flat; he looks desperate to get clean and she doesn't think cold water would stop him.

"Thanks."

He clanks off down the hall and it's not until after they hear the bathroom door click shut that Mac and Wallace explode into whispered conversation.

"You brought home the Winter Soldier?" Mac says, eyes wide.

"Does that guy really have a metal arm?" Wallace asks.

"The answer to both questions is yes," Veronica says. She pulls out a tray of leftover lasagna from Mama Leone's and starts preheating the oven. "You were right," she tells Mac. "Wells--or whatever his name really is--is HYDRA. Barnes called the Black Widow in to deal with him."

"Why didn't you bring her home?" Wallace says.

"I'll try to get her to send an autographed eight-by-ten glossy the next time we exchange voicemails," Veronica answers, and he laughs.

Half an hour later, Barnes rejoins them, dressed in a navy blue sweatshirt with Georgetown across the chest, and a pair of matching navy blue sweatpants. His wet hair is twisted up into a man bun that Veronica has to bite her lip to keep from mocking. It's nice to know she still has some survival instincts intact.

She takes the lasagna out of the oven while Mac details the various trails they're following based on the leaked files.

"You guys are doing pretty well without any SHIELD resources," Barnes comments, digging into his plate of food, even though it's still steaming hot.

"I have friends in low places," Mac answers. Barnes looks at her, curious, and she shrugs. "They may or may not be affiliated with Anonymous." Barnes looks confused but he doesn't press, and the lasagna is too good to ignore in favor of complicated conversation anyway.

Mac and Wallace both have jobs that require them to show up in the morning, so when they leave, Veronica sets Barnes up on the couch with a blanket and a couple of pillows.

She falls asleep to the sound of him watching the late edition of Baseball Tonight, and it's almost like having her father home.

In the morning she makes scrambled eggs and Barnes plays the voicemail the Black Widow left for him, thanking him for turning Wells in instead of killing him, and asking if he has a message to pass on to their mutual friend.

He looks stricken at that and Veronica's about to ask what's wrong when the front door opens and Dad walks in.

"We're gonna be having a better brand of cheap beer tonight," he says, holding up a check. Then he stops and gives Barnes a long, puzzled look. "Honey, why is Bucky Barnes sitting in my kitchen and eating my eggs?"

"What?" Veronica still hasn't come up with a good explanation for why she's brought an assassin home, and she's thrown for a loop by the question. Not to mention the fact that the Winter Soldier's name is Bucky. Who the hell names their kid Bucky?

"Didn't you die in 1945?" Dad asks, while Veronica's still trying to place the name Bucky Barnes.

"Rumors of my death," Barnes says, gesturing with his metal hand, "greatly exaggerated, yada yada."

Veronica and her dad both stare at him. "I don't think you get to yada yada that," she finally says. And then it clicks. "Your mutual friend is Captain America."

The look he gives her is scornful. "Duh."

"Okay," Keith says, sitting down at the table. "I'm gonna need some explanations here." He looks at Veronica. "And maybe some of those eggs. They smell delicious."

"Cooked in real butter," she says, going to the coffeemaker and pouring him a cup. "Even though we're watching your cholesterol."

"You're watching it," he mutters. "The doctor said it was perfectly fine." He takes a sip of coffee and sighs. "So, when is Captain America going to show up at my door?"

Veronica glances over at Barnes. Bucky, apparently. It's not the worst nickname she's ever heard. His face is doing a complicated thing where his mouth starts to crumple like he's Kermit the Frog, and then he wills it smooth, like he's not in the grip of some strong emotion Veronica can't even begin to identify, because if she felt betrayed by SHIELD, how much worse must he feel?

"He's not," she says, jumping in before she even can say why. "Or, well, not until Barnes here says it's okay. Right?"

"Yeah," he says. "I--Yeah." His mouth finally decides to curve in a smile but it looks fake. "So you wanted an explanation." He takes a deep breath and speaks quickly, his voice slightly higher than it's been before. "I don't remember everything, but when I fell off the train in 1945, the Russian faction of HYDRA found me and made me their prisoner. They amputated what was left of my arm and experimented--"

"You don't have to tell us," Keith interrupts. Veronica catches his gaze and he looks like she feels. "I'm sorry. It wasn't my place to ask." He takes another sip of coffee. "You can autograph my comics, though. I have a collection."

"Oh god," Barnes says weakly, and maybe he really is praying, Veronica doesn't know. But he rallies quickly. "Not the ones where I'm a little kid running around in short pants and tights."

"The very ones," Keith replies. "They were my dad's."

"Deal," Barnes says, and none of them bring up his past again.

Veronica decides she doesn't need to know and later, when she and Dad are in the office, she says, "I didn't know."

"How could you have?" He leans a hip against the edge of her desk.

She frowns at the game of solitaire up on the screen in front of her. "I should have. I should have known SHIELD wasn't all it was cracked up to be, but it just felt so nice to believe I was making a difference."

"You were making a difference, Veronica," he says. "And you weren't the only one taken in. I mean, Captain America was, for god's sake."

"Was he?" she asks darkly.

"Oh no, no, Veronica. Focus on bringing down HYDRA. Bring home metal-armed assassins who turn out to be American war heroes, but please, for the love of god, do not go after Captain America." He swivels her chair so she's facing him. "Promise your old man."

"I promise," she says grudgingly, and she'll stick to it. According to everything Mac's been able to find, Captain America is somewhere in Europe, doing pretty much the same thing Veronica's doing in Neptune, except with more explosions. When it comes to taking down HYDRA, Veronica sometimes wishes for the ordnance she'd had access to at SHIELD. She wonders if he's looking for Bucky, but isn't going to ask. And it's not like she can call Romanoff up for girly chats and intel. "I don't want to piss off the metal-armed assassin anyway."

"That's my girl," Dad says, and presses a kiss to her forehead. "Now, I have to go see a man about a horse."

She raises an eyebrow.

"No, I mean it. It's for a case. This woman thinks her husband is poisoning their horse." He stands and pulls his jacket on. "Why don't we grill tonight? See how our new friend likes his burgers."

"Your crush is adorable."

"I was never really the Captain America type, but I was good at being a sidekick," he replies with a shrug and a wistful smile.

"With the tights and shorts?" Veronica asks, grinning.

"Never happened," he says. "You can't prove anything."

"Uh huh." Her grin turns sly. "Captain America does fit the bill of 'foxy, stacked blond.'" She's seen the pictures.

He chooses not to grace that with a response. He's all wounded dignity when he says, "I'll see you at home."

"Yeah, okay. And Dad? Be careful."

"You too, honey."

She kisses his cheek and shoos him out the door. She has her own work to do.

*

v.

It's weird being back in her old room in the old apartment. She's lived alone for most of the past ten years (a few months of cohabiting during a second try with Piz don't count), and she thinks about getting her own place, but she and her dad still have the best working relationship she's ever had, and now there's Bucky to consider.

She's not sure why he stays with them. Maybe it's because they didn't ask too many questions after that first morning, or it's because of the information about HYDRA she and Mac keep picking out of the SHIELD files, or maybe it's because he has nowhere else to go. But he does stay for a few weeks, not counting the nights he sets off for Tijuana or Vegas or LA to take out HYDRA agents or cells in hiding. Veronica hadn't honestly thought the west coast would be riddled with neo-Nazis, but it's not the first time she's been wrong about the seedy underbelly of places she thought were safe.

Then he comes back one morning pale and bloodstained and with a weird whirring noise in his bionic arm. She can stitch him up and feed him and provide clean towels and clothes, but Veronica's at a loss over how to fix the arm.

Mac backs away quickly. "I'm a software-only person these days," she says with a rueful smile that Bucky returns.

Dad shakes his head. "I can change the oil in my car, but that's about it," he says. "But maybe Eli could help?"

"Eli?" Bucky asks, curious. She hasn't introduced him to many people in town.

"Saddle up, Buckaroo," Veronica says, smirking when he frowns at the nickname, "let's have a blast from my past." She hasn't done too much poking at old wounds since she's been home. She knows Logan is deployed, but not where, and she hasn't tried to find out, though sometimes on lonely nights in DC, she'd checked in on his career. She's learned that there are a lot worse things she could have in her rearview than a painful breakup with a famous ex-boyfriend.

Navarro Auto Repair looks like it's doing brisk--and honest (Veronica checked)--business when they arrive. One of the mechanics gives her a curious look but doesn't offer any commentary. Maybe it's because Bucky is standing behind her, looking menacing. Or maybe Weevil runs a tight ship. She doesn't know yet.

"Can we speak with the boss man?" she asks. "Tell him it's an old friend dropping by to visit."

Weevil comes out a couple minutes later, wiping his hands on a grease-stained towel. "Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in," he says with a broad smile. "Looking good, secret agent lady." She ignores the various stains on his clothes and goes in for the hug. He's older and thicker, but he still smells the same. It's dizzyingly familiar, and yet so strange to see him looking like an adult. He was as damaged as the rest of them, during high school, but he eventually learned to walk away. It's one lesson Veronica's never quite grasped.

"Weevil, this is Bucky."

Weevil squints up at him. "Bucky, huh?"

"Weevil?" Bucky replies with a half-grin, and they both laugh.

"I haven't gone by that name for a long time," he says, leading them back into his office.

"Neither have I," Bucky answers, "but I'm trying it on for size again. Thinking it might make a comeback."

"Yeah," Weevil says. "I hear you." He settles himself behind his desk and they sit in the visitors' chairs. "What can I do for you?"

"I couldn't just be stopping by for a visit?" Veronica asks. He levels a flat look at her and she laughs softly. "Yeah, okay, Bucky has a bit of a mechanical problem."

Bucky shucks his hoodie and lays his arm out on the desk.

Weevil lets out a long, low whistle. "I'll check it out," he says, "but that looks like it's a little above my pay grade."

"There's a little hatch just above the elbow," Bucky says. He sounds calm but he's gone pale and squirrelly.

"You got any beer in this place?" Veronica asks.

Weevil points to the fridge in the corner with a screwdriver. "Help yourself."

"I'm driving," she replies, taking out a can of Coors Light and popping the top. She takes a sip--it's cold, anyway--and then hands the can to Bucky, who gives her a small, tight smile and a muttered, "Thanks."

Veronica looks at the pictures on the file cabinet--Weevil and his wife on their wedding day, Weevil and his wife and daughter at her christening, Weevil and a couple of guys in coveralls raising the gate on the garage.

Veronica doesn't have any pictures documenting the years she spent at SHIELD. SHIELD agents tended to be camera-shy, even after a few rounds during happy hour, and she'd never become close with any of them. She hadn't had a team; she'd worked regularly with some analysts but that was mostly over conference calls and email. She'd been sociable, not friendly, and she thinks most of them were the same. No use getting too close to someone who might disappear on the next mission. Maybe there'd been people having barbecues and softball games, but Veronica hadn't known any of them. She's glad in a way, because it would have meant even more loss and betrayal, and she's not sure she could have taken it if it was personal.

"I'm sorry I didn't come to the wedding," is what she says, though. "How's your abuela?"

"She had a double bypass last year, but she didn't let it slow her down," he replies, though his attention is still on the internal workings of Bucky's arm. "Yeah, I see the problem," he says, more to Bucky than to her. "Couple of wires are disconnected. Let me get my soldering iron and I think I can do a quick fix, though you should probably have someone who knows what's going on in there take a look at it when you can."

Bucky shoots Veronica a pleading look over the rim of his beer, and she doesn't know how to take that.

"Yeah, of course," she says. "Next time I see Tony Stark, I'll mention it to him."

"You know Tony Stark?" Weevil asks, lighting up like a kid on Christmas morning. He's poking around with alcohol wipes inside Bucky's arm.

"No. Duh. Talk about above my pay grade." She can see the tension ease out of Bucky's shoulders even as Weevil starts soldering his wiring.

"Lemme know if anything hurts, okay?" Weevil says.

Bucky looks puzzled by this request but says, "Okay?"

Veronica grins at him and gives him a thumbs-up behind Weevil's back.

It doesn't take very long at all, and soon, Weevil's walking them back outside. "Thanks," she says, hugging him again.

"No problem," he answers. "You should come by for dinner some night, meet my wife and kid." He shakes Bucky's hand. "You come too. Jade makes a mean roast beef and mashed potatoes."

"Sounds good," Veronica says, playfully punching Weevil's shoulder.

"Thanks," Bucky says, his smile small but genuine.

Once they're back in the car he says, "Do you know Tony Stark?"

"No," she says. "Why?"

"I think I killed his parents."

"Oh. Well. I can see how that'd put a damper on things."

"Yeah." He shifts, fiddling with his seatbelt. "Howard was in the war with us. He never had much time for me, but he and Steve were pretty friendly. He made the shield, you know."

"I didn't know that. But he founded SHIELD, him and that colonel and Peggy Carter. You knew her too, right?" Veronica had been more interested in Director Carter than the men when she'd first checked SHIELD out, and nothing after she started working there really changed that.

"Yeah." He smiles again, fondly this time. "You remind me a little of her. She didn't take any shit from anyone either. She was so gone on Steve, and he looked at her like she hung the moon." He sighs. "It was good that someone finally realized how great he was. Dames never gave him the time of day before the serum, and then after, they were throwing themselves at him, but all they saw were the pretty face and the muscles. But he'd already found her, and she knew him before so. Yeah. It was good."

It's the longest thing he's said about his past, and more open than she'd expected. Veronica hums in encouragement, but he lapses into silence again and stares out the window for the rest of the ride home.

That night, he doesn't go out hunting, but around three a.m., he wakes up yelling. It's not the first time, but it's the loudest. Veronica and Keith both stumble into the living room, where he's knocked over a lamp and punched a hole in the wall. His chest is heaving and when Veronica hits the lights, she can see his face is tracked with tears. She and her father exchange a glance, and then she goes to the fridge.

"I think we've got some ice cream," she says.

"Sounds great, honey."

Bucky just stares at them for a long moment before he lets out a long, gusty breath. "Yeah," he says, scrubbing self-consciously at his tear-stained cheeks. "I could eat."

*

vi.

Dad is behind closed doors with the woman who thinks her husband is poisoning their horse (he's not--the horse just has fungal saliva syndrome--but he is sleeping with the trainer), when Bucky shows up with tacos. Veronica would say she can't believe one human being could love tacos as much as Bucky seems to (the messier the better), but they are excellent tacos and she's watched him eat his way through half a dozen without stopping more than once in the time he's been with them. (He can also inhale a burrito with the best of them, but seems to prefer tacos when given the choice.)

They've finished eating and are playing "meth lab or HYDRA cell" about various suspicious hotspots along the PCH when Cliff bursts into the office.

"Veronica Mars. Just the dubiously ethical private detective I was looking for."

Bucky tenses and then eases at the words. He still looks like he could throw down in a heartbeat, but he's not going to go off without a reason.

"Hey, Cliff. What can I do for you?" Cliff cuts his eyes at Bucky and Veronica says, "He's okay. He's my hot intern."

Cliff shrugs and rolls with it. "Okay, then. The county is holding my client responsible for a hit and run at the intersection of Eighth and Balboa--they say she was drunk--but she reported the car stolen two days prior to the incident."

"And the traffic cameras?"

Cliff rolls his eyes. "Allegedly no video exists."

"That's where I come in."

"Yup. I know you'll give it your all for Ms. Candy Sugarlips."

Bucky's eyes widen at the name but he doesn't say anything.

"Of course," Veronica replies cheerfully. "Have I ever let you down?"

"No," Cliff says, a little too seriously for her liking. But then he turns jovial again as he heads out the door. "And I don't know who told you that abandoned barn five miles out of town is a meth lab but they're wrong. It hasn't been a meth lab since the Mexicans muscled the Fitzpatricks out and burned the place down."

"When did that happen?" Bucky asks.

Cliff looks surprised, but answers, "Three, four years ago." He gestures with his hand to indicate he's approximating.

"Thanks," Veronica says. "And I'll be in touch about Ms. Sugarlips."

Cliff tosses them a jaunty salute and leaves.

"Do you really think it's HYDRA?" she asks once she's sure Cliff is gone.

Bucky points at the pages of data analysis scattered on her desk. "There's something going on out there, and they do like tunneling under abandoned buildings."

Veronica nods. "We can check it out."

"Okay." He pauses, forehead furrowed in confusion, then asks, "Who was that guy?"

"Cliff? He works in the Neptune Public Defender's office. He basically is the Neptune Public Defender's office."

"A lawyer?"

"Yeah."

Bucky's gaze flicks away and back. "Will I--"

Veronica shakes her head. "If the government comes after you, the court will appoint you a lawyer if you can't afford one, but that'll probably be federal court in DC, or some sort of Congressional hearing. But I don't think you need to worry too much. At that point, I bet Captain America will have something to say about it."

Bucky's gaze shifts away again; he's looking anywhere but at her when he says, "Yeah?"

She shrugs a shoulder. "I never met the guy, but if he's anything like what people say about him, and you're really his BFF from World War II, then yeah, I think so."

"He's a shit-stirrer, is what he is," Bucky says. "Or he used to be anyway. I may not have all my memories back, but there are enough of them to corroborate that."

Veronica huffs a laugh. "Given that the reason I'm here instead of in DC is that he brought down a global organization that was riddled with Nazis, I'm inclined to believe you."

"Why'd you join SHIELD?"

She accepts the deflection and answers, "They didn't require me to get a Master's, so I could get started on saving the world right out of college. Maria Hill herself recruited me."

"And that's what you wanted? To save the world?"

She laughs again, but this time it's got an edge to it. "You've seen what the sheriff's department is like in this town." He nods. "I should have known better than to trust any institution, but I wanted to believe."

"Wanted to be part of something bigger," he murmurs.

"Exactly." She sighs. "And look where that got us."

"Looks pretty good to me." He finally meets her gaze again, and this time he smiles. "You wanna go kick some HYDRA ass?"

Veronica gets to her feet and returns his smile. "Hell, yeah!" She makes sure to pack her gun and her taser, just in case. It's times like these that she misses Backup the most.

*

vii.

Veronica is something of a photography snob--since SHIELD imploded, sometimes she thinks she should get out of the family business altogether and become a photographer--so she doesn't really take a lot of selfies. Sitting in the car with Bucky, though, before they drive off to investigate a HYDRA base (or meth lab), she pulls out her phone, leans over, and says, "Smile!"

The phone makes that clicking-whirring noise, like it's an old-fashioned camera, the flash blinds them both for a few seconds, and then there's a picture of her and Bucky grinning maniacally on her phone.

"I think I'll make it my lock screen," she says.

She doesn't expect him to reply, "Could you send me a copy?"

"Of course." Her smile now is smaller and less cheesy.

He's more paranoid than even she is about his phone--in the time she's known him, he's had three or four different burner phones, never for more than five or six days at a time, and never for longer than it takes to destroy whatever HYDRA asshole they're after at the time. Since so far it's kept HYDRA from finding them (not that she thinks she's a blip on their radar, but she figures they've got to be looking for him), she hasn't said anything on the mornings when she comes into the kitchen to find him breaking another phone out of its plastic packaging.

And then he ruins the moment by saying, "I can drive myself, you know. Been doing it since 1933."

"You already lost that argument. Do you really want to relive that epic defeat?"

He gives her a sour look and a noncommittal grunt. She lets him control the radio, to prove she can be gracious in victory, even if it means being stuck listening to big band music for the next half hour.

He turns off the music as they pull up about a hundred yards from their burned out barn and says, "I'd prefer it if you stayed in the car."

"You asked if I wanted to kick HYDRA ass, not if I wanted to chauffeur you to your next ass-whooping," she grumbles.

He opens his mouth to reply and then stops to roll down his window and cock his head as if he's listening. She doesn't have to wonder for long about what's caught his attention, because the ground shakes and bursts open and a stream of people come boiling out.

Bucky shoves her to the footwell with a metal hand on her head. "Stay down," he barks, unholstering his sidearm and glaring at the sudden onslaught of people. He throws open the car door and stalks towards the chaos.

Veronica's not letting him go alone. She finds her gun and follows, crouching low to avoid being seen as much as possible. Sometimes being short is a blessing. She lets out a short whistle to let him know she's behind him and he gives her another sour, unsurprised look before turning back to the fight. The night is chilly for Neptune, even in what passes for winter, but it doesn't take long until Veronica's skin is prickling with sweat.

"No glowsticks, so I'm guessing this is HYDRA and not just a rave we've busted up," she says.

His reply is a terse, "Yes."

"I have to say, this whole lethal and laconic thing you've got going really works for you." She doesn't typically dig men with guns, but Bucky's an exception.

"Less talking, more shooting."

"I think you've already shot them all," Veronica says, but the words are barely out of her mouth when a second wave arrives. "I spoke too soon."

Another explosion rocks the ground and after a few minutes of confused shooting, during which Bucky uses up all his ammunition, something comes whistling through the air at him. He catches it with his metal hand just in time to deflect a couple of bullets and then pinballs it off two thugs before Veronica can fully process that she's just watched him catch and throw Captain America's shield like it was a Frisbee. In the distance, Captain America catches it and snaps off a quick salute in Bucky's direction before turning back to the fight.

The Black Widow takes down another thug and flips over his falling body. "Mars," she says with a nod.

"Romanoff," Veronica answers automatically, because she might be in shock but that's never stopped her mouth from working.

A guy with wings--Sam Wilson, aka, Falcon, former pararescue and current known associate of Steve Rogers, Veronica remembers from the Congressional hearings--buzzes them before taking out a line of HYDRA agents with his guns. Captain America is rounding up stragglers, and Veronica takes a moment to notice that most of them are kids, neo-Nazi skinheads who wouldn't have looked out of place if it had been a meth lab, except most of the drug dealers she's met don't have cyanide capsules and certainly don't use them.

"What a waste," she mutters.

Captain America and Falcon have a brief conversation, and then Captain America comes running over, tearing his helmet off as he goes.

"Bucky?" His voice is hoarse, disbelieving. "I've been looking all over for you."

Veronica glances over at Romanoff, who gives her a tiny one-shoulder shrug. Bucky must have asked her not to tell.

"Yeah," Bucky answers with a rueful half-smile. "Hi, Steve."

Captain America reaches out, pulls back, and then reaches out again, his gloved hands cupping Bucky's cheeks, squeezing his shoulders, touching his metal arm, his right wrist before they move up to frame his face again.

Veronica has to look away from the raw emotion on his face. That right there is what epic looks like.

"Thanks," Romanoff says, though her attention is focused on the reunion going on over Veronica's shoulder. "You've provided some good intel."

"No problem."

"They're hugging," Wilson tells her. "You can look now."

Veronica lets out a little laugh. "My dad is never going to believe this."

"I hear you," Wilson says. "I'd say you get used to it, but I haven't yet."

"Falcon, right?"

"Yeah. Sam Wilson." He shakes her hand. "The wings are kind of a giveaway, right?"

She laughs. "Little bit, yeah."

"Never thought you'd drag a civilian along on a mission," Captain America is saying as they walk over.

"Not a civilian," Veronica says, holding out a hand. "Veronica Mars, former SHIELD agent, current private investigator."

"Thank you," Captain America says, taking her hand between his and giving it a heartfelt squeeze. She tries hard not to shiver.

"And I didn't drag her," Bucky says. "I tried to get her to sit this one out, but she didn't listen."

Captain America gives her a once-over. "Yeah, I can see why that'd be a problem for you, Buck."

"Idiot," Bucky says, putting a hand on Captain America's shoulder. "Steve."

"Takes one to know one," Captain America replies mildly, with a what are you gonna do? expression on his face. It's so human and unexpected that Veronica laughs again.

"I can see there's some things the history books didn't tell us," she says.

"You don't know the half of it," Bucky says dryly.

Steve gives him a startled look. "You remember?"

"I remember you were a dumb punk who was always getting me into fights." He glances at the carnage around them. "I can see you haven't changed."

"You either," Steve says. "Not in the ways that matter," he continues when Bucky opens his mouth, probably to protest.

"As touching as this is," Romanoff says, "we've got to call in local law enforcement."

"I'd go straight to the FBI office in San Diego," Bucky says. "The Balboa County sheriff is useless and corrupt."

"HYDRA?" Steve asks eagerly, as if this fight weren't enough.

"Asshole," Veronica replies. "No political affiliation known, though I bet he votes Republican."

"I know the type," Steve commiserates with an eyeroll.

Veronica's kind of glad now that Dad talked her out of going after him.

Her thermos doesn't hold more than four cups of coffee, but she shares it around and the others seem grateful. Steve and Bucky go off by themselves and Veronica calls her father to let him know she's all right.

She ends the call and says, "My dad wants you all to come back to the apartment for waffles."

Sam's eyes light up. "Homemade waffles?"

"He's a fan," she says, gesturing at the super soldiers still huddled close together. "Me, his only daughter, I'm lucky if I get frozen waffles. But for Cap and Bucky, he's willing to break out the waffle iron."

"I hear you. My mother baked her special birthday chocolate cake for him the first time she met him. And it wasn't even his birthday!"

"It was really great cake, though," Steve says and as corny as it sounds, he's sincere. She might be breaking out in hives from standing so close to so much sincerity. "And we'll be happy to have waffles with your dad, Veronica." He beams at her and it makes her want to stand a little taller. Well, as tall as she can, anyway.

The FBI sends a whole team of folks, and Steve speaks with them briefly--nobody is going to argue jurisdiction when Captain America hands them a giant HYDRA bust--before joining Veronica and Bucky in the car. Bucky's ensconced in the passenger seat and Steve gives him a wide-eyed, pleading look.

Bucky huffs. "I'll choose you for it."

"Odds," Steve says, holding out a fist.

"Evens," Bucky replies. "No penny tax." And they go two out of three with Bucky coming out on top with a smug smile.

Steve folds himself into the backseat with a sigh.

"Seatbelt," Veronica says.

"Click it or ticket," Bucky adds.

Steve buckles up without complaint, and Veronica's glad he did, because of course, halfway home, there's a black-and-white flashing them to pull over.

"Well, well, well, Veronica Mars."

Veronica doesn't recognize this particular deputy, but then, she's only been back a couple of months. His nameplate says "Graham," and she's got a good one-liner about crackers ready to go when Steve rolls down his window and asks, "Excuse me, officer, what's the problem?"

Deputy Graham shines his flashlight in the backseat, where it gleams off the shield. He looks at Veronica and Bucky, and then again at Steve in the backseat. "I'm a real big fan, sir," he says, his voice gone soft and respectful. "Can I have your autograph?" He holds out his logbook and pen.

"Sure." Steve signs the book and hands it back. "Now we have a debriefing to get to, Deputy Graham, so please excuse us."

"You have a nice night now, sir," Graham says, and goes back to his car.

Veronica pulls out nice and slow and waits until they're a few hundred feet down the road to start laughing. "Oh my god, that was amazing. I wish I had a picture of his face when he recognized you."

"What was that all about?"

"That's a really long story, but my dad used to be sheriff and now he's the best private investigator in town, and he does a lot of their job for them, better than them, and they don't like that."

Steve nods and Veronica's glad he doesn't press for answers, because she's starting to come down off the adrenaline high of watching Captain America and his friends take out a HYDRA base, and right now, she doesn't think she can tell the tale of her sordid past without her voice trembling.

Wallace's car is in the parking lot when she pulls in, so she's not surprised to find him and Mac in the kitchen with Dad when she opens the door.

"Smells great, Dad," she says, and he rushes the short distance from the waffle iron to the door to gather her into a hug.

"You okay, Veronica?"

"Yeah," she says, smiling. "I brought friends."

He keeps an arm around her but holds out his hand to Steve. "It's an honor, sir."

Steve shakes his hand enthusiastically. "Thank you so much for everything you've done for Bucky."

Bucky, standing just behind him, rolls his eyes and makes a talky gesture with his hand. Veronica bites back a giggle.

She turns towards Mac and Wallace, who are lounging fake-casually on the couch. "Couldn't sleep, guys?"

Wallace bounces up. "I can sleep every night," he says. "How often do I get to meet Captain America and the Falcon?"

"And Black Widow," Mac adds.

Bucky pushes through the meeting and greeting and yanks open the waffle iron with his metal hand. "Waffles were burning," he says when they all turn to look at him. "Can't be having that."

Veronica laughs. After a moment, everyone else joins in.

The kitchen is too small to hold all of them, but Steve and Bucky sit at the table with Veronica and her dad, and before they dig into the large pile of waffles in front of them, Dad insists on a picture. He's grinning like a kid in a candy store, Bucky's smiling brighter than she's ever seen him, and Steve's beaming so bright that she's surprised the flash is necessary.

She sends them all a copy, and makes it the home screen on her phone.

After devouring a ridiculously large number of waffles, Mac and Wallace leave (Veronica's pretty sure Wallace got his Black Widow photo). Romanoff and Wilson have a brief chat with Steve, who asks, "Is it all right if I stay here for the night?"

"Of course," Dad answers before Veronica can say anything. Not that she'd have said no. She likes seeing how excited he is to meet Captain America.

"Then let us clean this mess up," Steve says, and neither Veronica nor her father are so overcome with hero-worship that they turn that offer down.

Veronica sinks down onto the couch and lets herself tip against Dad's side while she tells him about her night.

"I'm glad you're home safe," he says, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "That's all I ever want at the end of the day."

"Me, too," she says softly.

Once the dishes are done, Veronica finds her old sleeping bag and some extra pillows, and they set Steve up on the floor.

Veronica waits until her father's in his bedroom and Steve is in the bathroom to ask Bucky, "Are you okay with this?"

"Yeah," he says. He pushes a hand through his hair and has to retie it in its ponytail. "Yeah," he says more confidently. "I am. And I know Steve said it already, but thanks, Veronica. For everything."

"I'm glad I was able to help," she answers, and gives him a hug before he can stop her. The door to the bathroom opens and she steps back, grinning. "Have a good night, boys. Make sure you leave room for the Holy Spirit."

Bucky barks out a laugh and Steve gives her a puzzled look as she heads to bed. All in a good night's work, she thinks, and when her head hits the pillow, she's out like a light.

end