“Er,” Falsworth says.
“Jesus fucking fuck,” Dugan says, better encapsulating the group’s reaction at large.
“This is the best mission we’ve ever had,” Bucky says, as the one and only outlier. He has never sounded so delighted to be surrounded.
“I really don’t . . . think . . . um,” Steve trails off uselessly, just staring at him. And the . . . and the children. The very small and annoyed-looking children who are clustered up like ducklings around Bucky’s everywhere, more or less. He has a toddler on each hip, a pair of six year-olds hanging off his back, two four year-olds clutching at his pant legs, and two very disapproving eight year-olds on either side glaring bloody murder at everyone else who tries to get close.
It’d be adorable, if they weren’t all identically blond-haired and blue-eyed, alarmingly strong for their respective sizes, and wearing HYDRA-issue lab scrubs.
“What the hell,” Steve says finally, for lack of literally any other option.
“I’m gonna call you Joey, and you can be Abe, and you can be Steve Junior--”
“Jesus, Barnes, stop naming them,” Jones says. “Where are we gonna keep eight pocket-sized super-soldiers, huh?”
“Who said you were keeping us, old man?” the newly-dubbed Steve Junior demands with an indignant scowl, eight years old if he’s a day and looking ready to fight any one of them. Bucky makes a noise of indescribable delight and juggles both toddlers into one arm so he can lean over and hug him. The kid does not look impressed, but suffers the attention.
“We’re adopting you,” Bucky swears. “All eight of you. Always wanted enough kids for a baseball team, this gets me pretty close.”
“Well, if you wanna count Cap . . .” Morita says, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh God.” Steve covers his face with a hand, seriously considering turtling underneath his shield until this just . . . stops. Stops entirely and forever.
They take the kids back to camp, because obviously they take the kids back to camp. Even if they were going to leave them with HYDRA--which, no, not even close to an option--Dernier’d already blown up three-quarters of the base by the time they’d found them anyway. There’s not exactly any roof left to leave over their heads.
Steve tries to discourage it on principle but by the time they get there Bucky’s recruited the Commandos to the effort and all eight kids have names. The eight year-olds are Joey and Steve Junior, the six year-olds are Abe and Phil, the four year-olds are--after two hours’ argument--Jack and Jimmy, and the two year-olds are Howie and Carter, because Bucky is a force of nature and cannot be stopped, Jesus Christ.
“I am so sorry,” Steve tells Peggy despairingly, and then spends the rest of the evening loudly defending his men’s decisions to Phillips like they were his own and also like he thinks they were remotely sane or rational.
By the time he gets out of debriefing, Stark’s already built a crib and a mechanized mobile, Peggy’s gotten some of the grunts to throw up an extra tent next to Steve’s, and someone’s found all eight kids their own Bucky Bear and a good two dozen Captain America comics to split between them, which just . . . how, Steve wonders, staring in disbelief. The SSR’s had more trouble finding weapons in a war zone than they did putting together an eight-kid nursery in less than four hours.
“Uh,” he says. “Well. Phillips says if we want to keep them at camp they need a minder, so--”
“Dibs!” Bucky blurts immediately, throwing a hand in the air like he actually thinks someone is going to argue with him for the right. Steve almost says so, then notices the dirty looks Peggy and Howard are giving him, so . . . alright then. It’s not like that’s even the weirdest thing that’s happened today anyway.
“There’s eight of them, Buck, Christ,” he says instead. “Maybe taking on a bit much there?”
“Look who’s talking, pal,” Bucky snorts, pointedly looking him up and down. Which, okay, fair enough. Still.
“That’s really not relevant,” he says.
“I left you alone for literally five minute and you volunteered to be a dubiously ethical science experiment for the government,” Bucky says. “Literally five minutes.”
Steve kind of runs out of arguments after that.
The kids are . . . cute, Steve guesses, if admittedly a little traumatic to the part of him that would’ve given just about anything to be healthy and strong at any single one of their collective ages. He’s terrible with them, to his own complete lack of surprise; Bucky’s fantastic with them, to everyone else’s bemusement.
“What the hell,” Howard says, clearly baffled.
“Three younger siblings,” Steve explains, watching moodily as Bucky--true to his word--teaches the kids how to play baseball, or at least the best approximation of it they can manage under the circumstances. The six and eight year-olds are about to come to blows and one of the toddlers is waddling off with the ball. Steve would be concerned, but Bucky is obviously having the time of his life dragging them off each other and corralling the group at large like the world’s happiest sheepdog. He’s also doing a surprisingly good job of it, considering how thoroughly he’s outnumbered.
Then again, it’s not like Steve’s gotten him in many fights where he wasn’t, so maybe that has something to do with it.
“Jesus Christ, Rogers,” Howard says. “At this rate all of eight of them are going to decide he’s their favorite babysitter. Supervisor. Adult-like . . . person.”
“I’m still pretty sure the United States government is going to have something to say about one of its best snipers keeping a gaggle of Nazi-brand super-soldiers,” Steve says, and Howard snorts.
“And they’ll be saying it to your shield, won’t they,” he says. Which is true, of course, but not the point. Somehow.
“Nrgh,” Steve groans, burying his face in his hands. Howard ignores him, still watching Bucky and the kids speculatively. The four year-olds just ganged up on the sixes and eights. There’s screaming and possibly some blood, although it’s hard to tell under all the mud. Bucky is in the middle of it all, most likely the one doing the bleeding, and looks thrilled.
“I’m going to have to build bigger toys, aren’t I,” Howard says with an unconvincingly resigned sigh, shaking his head.
“No,” Steve says, alarmed. “No, you are definitely not.”
Howard builds bigger toys.
“Fondue,” Steve mutters under his breath as he climbs up a radio tower to rescue Abe and Phil from where they crashed their tiny flying car. They wait until he gets to the top and then honk the horn directly in his ear.
“You stupid little punks, I oughta box your ears for scarin’ me like that, take you by your ankles and shake you ‘til some sense falls out,” Bucky gushes affectionately when they get back to the ground, hugging Abe and Phil hard enough to lift them off their feet and then sneaking them both chocolate before dinner.
Steve does not get any chocolate. Or a hug.
“Down!” Steve barks as he throws himself over Private Lorraine just in time to shield her from the ink-filled water balloon Steve Junior just dropped from the ceiling. Steve Junior runs away cackling, a few of the other boys dashing out behind him in a mad rush.
“Does Sergeant Barnes need help babysitting?” Private Lorraine asks hopefully, peering after the retreating stampede from underneath the dripping shield.
“I pray to God not, ma’am,” Steve replies grimly.
Private Lorraine is a terrible and completely untrustworthy babysitter and all eight boys adore her. Bucky lets her and Howard watch them for an afternoon while the Commandos are having a strategy session with Colonel Phillips and Peggy, which is in Steve’s opinion the worst mistake anyone in the entire army has ever made that did not directly result in a loss of life.
Howard lets them play with his soldering iron, then while they’re waiting for the super-soldier healing factors to take care of the inevitable burns Private Lorraine teaches them the lyrics to “Star-Spangled Man With A Plan”. Every damn one of the kids latches onto the song like it’s their damn job and Steve spends a week with every minute of his downtime spent trying to find earplugs that work for super-soldier hearing. Howard says his findings are promising but also thinks he’s ridiculous because apparently it’s adorable. Steve was not previously aware Howard Stark even knew the meaning of the word adorable, but here they are, this is happening, this is what their lives have become.
“Argh,” he says. Dernier pats his shoulder sympathetically, then goes off to show Joey and Steve Junior how to set off blasting caps. Steve doesn’t even have the willpower to give him a disapproving look.
“I don’t see why you’re so fussed,” Peggy says, gingerly bouncing Howie on her knee with the look of a woman clearly very fond of but also clearly not very used to children. On the opposite side of the lab, Bucky is lugging Carter around on one hip and teaching him the names of the various tools Howard’s left out while Joey and Steve Junior are staring holes into the back of Howard’s head as he does something likely-inadvisable to a HYDRA weapon. Steve is genuinely afraid to ask where the rest of the kids are, but assumes all the yelling and screaming on the edge of his hearing would probably answer that question.
“Really?” he asks glumly.
“Fair,” Peggy allows, eyeing Howie thoughtfully. “I must admit, precious as they are I’d be a bit alarmed to find myself a mother with no warning.”
“I’m not their father,” Steve says, immediately alarmed himself. Peggy gives him an odd look.
“I should think you are, biologically,” she says. “Not in the usual fashion, of course, but what else would you call it?”
“No!” Howie shouts, scowling up at her and swatting at her arm with a chubby little palm. “Peggy no!”
“Proper sentences please, Howie,” Peggy says firmly, giving him a curious look. Her stubborn refusal to use baby talk with the littler clones makes Steve’s chest feel irrationally overheated. “No what?”
“No Steeb daddy!” Howie shouts louder, smacking her again. Peggy glances over to Steve cautiously, like she thinks he’s going to be upset, but honestly he’s a lot more relieved than anything else.
Well, until Howie bursts into tears, anyway.
“No Steeb daddy! No Steeb daddy!”
“Help,” Peggy says to the room at large, eyeing Howie with some concern as Steve seriously considers retreating in panic. Bucky drops Carter into Howard’s much-too-dangerous-for-children lap and sweeps over, scooping up Howie and cuddling him with ruthless efficiency.
“Daaaaddy,” Howie sobs barely coherently, clinging to Bucky’s neck so tight his tiny super-strong arms are probably strangling him. And by “probably” Steve means “definitely” because Bucky’s breathing is clearly labored, although when he makes a move to save him by reaching out to pry Howie off Bucky gives him a dubious look and moves out of range.
“Howieeeee,” Bucky croons back sweetly, which is when Steve actually properly registers for the first time--
“Oh,” Peggy says, her eyebrows flicking up as they watch Bucky expertly soothe Howie’s tears. “Oh.”
Steve doesn’t know why he didn’t think about it before, really. Bucky even said it before, and it’s not like he or anyone else was queuing up for the opportunity to be anything more than a temporary sitter. And what’re they gonna do, just leave the kids with the SSR after the war? They sure as hell can’t go to an orphanage or a home.
“Maybe I’ll go back to Indiana and start a farm ‘til they’re old enough to go out for the Dodgers,” Bucky jokes over dinner as Steve watches him put aside his ration of chocolate to save for the kids. “Buncha driven little brats with too much energy to spare, bet they’d love it. Lord knows they’d be the terrors of any city block they lived on.”
“Probably would be,” Steve agrees, which might be the first time he’s thought too closely about what anyone else would be doing after the war. Peggy, a little, but some days he doesn’t even know if he likes thinking about what he’s going to be doing. “Indiana, Buck? Really? You think your ma’s ever gonna forgive you when she finds out you’re takin’ all her grandkids to Indiana?”
“You got a point, pal,” Bucky agrees with a snigger.
“What happens if we die?” Steve asks.
“Steve,” Bucky says, giving him a wry, humorless smile. “You think I ain’t ready for that?”
He finishes his coffee and gets up to go check on the kids. Steve stays in the mess tent, and thinks about after the war.
He remembers that conversation in the bombed-out bar.
He doesn’t see the kids again before he gets on the plane.
“I gotta say, it’s an honor to meet you, officially,” one of the SHIELD agents says either a few months or sixty-five years later, depending on the observer’s point of view. His hair’s dyed brown, posture deliberately small, and his suit’s cut to make him look smaller still. It works on most people, Steve suspects. There’s something a little off about him, but not in any way that’s more distracting than the footage of the Hulk he’s looking at.
Well. Not much more, anyway.
“Or again, I guess I mean,” the agent continues, and Steve frowns and looks up from the footage.
“‘Again’?” he asks.
“That’s right,” the agent says with a wry, humorless smile. “I’ve aged pretty well, I know, but back in ‘44 you climbed a radio tower to get me and my brother down when we got stuck.”
“Oh,” Steve says as he stares at a near-perfect copy of his own face with a few more wars on it, something crushing painfully in his chest. “You’re--oh.”
“Yeah,” Phillips Coulson confirms with a nod, taking the tablet back. “I’m one of Bucky Barnes’s kids.”