There had always been talk, frankly ridiculous, completely speculative, that Sarah Rogers had had a secret to hide. Respectable historians relegated such musings to the footnotes. More sensational fabulists hand-stapled pamphlets of Captain America's mom as Communist harlot, Hydra madam, secret Masonic mistress. Some of the speculation abated when Steve Rogers himself was defrosted and deployed in all his chesty Captain American glory. But the internet bends to the absurd, and it carried on as usual through alien invasions, government conspiracies, and Tony Stark going through more nervous breakdowns than torrid affairs.
What most contemporary rumor mongers overlooked was this: the power in a tale told from mouth to ear, traveling as fast as a dark horse through a county lane, and no slower. There's a kernel of truth in there, if one digs for it. It's not the sort of thing which can be verified. A stream of gossip rolling downhill holds more tumbled pebbles than receipts.
What can be confirmed, writ in fading ink on a parish register, is that Sarah Rogers was from Ireland. She was Irish as Irish could be, given the British boots on their soil, all Gaelic washed from her tongue but none of the Irish from her blood.
Sarah Rogers arrived on American soil an Irish woman.
And she had herself an Irish son.
But oh, tales only thrive in the telling, and no one was thinking of Sarah Rogers when Crossbones raised his scarred forearm and swung his shotgun-barreled saw-chained bayonets to carve a second smile across Steve Rogers' unprotected neck.
The first to cry out was Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, so distracted by the apparent demise of her friend that she let Iron Maiden score a hit. Three arrows quickly shorted out the villainess' suit, allowing Natasha to lunge past, her Bites flying at Crossbones.
With the matching arm, Crossbones swung again. Bone shattered. The last strands of sinew were sliced clean off.
There was a wet thump not unlike an underripe melon cracking open. It was worn concrete they were fighting on, Steve Rogers' hard skull no match for it and gravity. Arterial blood sprayed like an '80s action anime. Which made sense, given the outsized heart pumping in Rogers' serum-enhanced body. Natasha got splattered in the face; Steve's body was lurching around like a unattended firehose. In her battle-haze she perceived the thick ropes of blood; the tinny, anguished yells of "Cap!" on her comms; and the crackle of her Widow's Bites embedded in Crossbones' shoulders.
Crossbones wasn't moving. Perhaps mesmerized by his improbable victory. Natasha slipped on the blood, ready to snap his homicidal spine, when she heard Crossbones emit a high-pitched caterwaul.
Or perhaps he was frozen in shock.
Because before Natasha could launch into her bone-breaking revenge, the vibranium shield shot up to clip Crossbones in the jaw and fracture the arm-mounted weapon, and some of the arm, besides.
"Son of a bitch!" Crossbones hollered around a mess of bleeding tongue and missing teeth.
The villain's invective seemed to anger the hapless body, which tottered uncertainly, then brought the shield down where Crossbones lay. Natasha had to raise her arm to avoid the now-weakening drizzle of blood from the ragged stump where once sat Steve's otherwise implacable head. He'd make a poor statue now, that much was certain.
"I'm gonna throw up, Friday, put me down, I'm gonna hurl, what the fuck!" Iron Man babbled over the comms.
"No inner ear for balance," Black Widow said. Absently she observed that she was in shock.
"No ears, how is he hearing Rumlow insult his mom?" Hawkeye said. "Oh god."
They watched Steve's body try its level best to batter Crossbones with the shield. What it lacked in precision, it made up for in upper body strength; Crossbones' crotch was missed in favor of his kneecap, earning an agonized howl.
"Is he dispensing justice from beyond the grave?" War Machine said. "We knew Steve was hardcore, but..."
Scarlet Witch was still trying to free Vision from a techno-magical trap. "That is not normal, no," she said breathlessly.
"Okay. Okay," Falcon's even tones cut through the horror. "Natasha, secure the head. I'll try to keep Steve from killing Rumlow."
"Is that really still Steve?" Hawkeye asked. "'Cause y'know, I can target two things at once. I've got some holy water in my utility belt."
"We're not shooting him!" With a thick squelch, Natasha backed up, never taking her eyes off the scene which would be engraved in her nightmares. And here she thought the Red Room had been bad as it could get. "In case this is a containment situation, I'm not experiencing any symptoms. Other than needing a really long bath."
If physics still functioned the way it ought, Black Widow knew roughly where the head had bounced. She had to ascertain how to carry it. Her tactical uniform had plenty of zippers but no homemaker's apron.
"The blood is lighting up my thermals along half the street," Iron Man said. "Viz, when you get out, make sure it's all cleaned up before the narcs get here. Fuck, is there somewhere I can sit down? Friday, what's my BP? Is my pulse thready?"
War Machine landed on top of Iron Maiden, who had shaken out of her horrified stupor and was trying to crawl away. "Are we sure Steve's even in there? I mean... is he dead?"
"He does keep coming back," Hawkeye said, then his breathing changed. "Incoming jet. Looks Wakandan."
Suddenly Iron Man landed in front of Natasha, cratering the concrete. "Warn them off! Barton! Make them turn around!" He waved his metal arms futilely.
"Shit," Natasha said. "Stark, I need something to carry it." She knelt, wiping away the debris from the mangled skull. Blood was already clotting in the matted blond hair. There was something wrong with it, she realized. It looked more like the cranium of a headshot victim which had subsequently been dropped in a blender. She tried to remember if she'd heard a secondary shot, or felt an energy blast. There had only been Crossbones' blades. She was sure.
Tony was flailing around in the suit. Laser grids flashed across the debris field, searching. "There's the shield, but we've got to get it away from him first. Typical, just typical. The old bastard's going to go down fighting, isn't he?"
Steve's body paused long enough for Sam to grab at its wrists. Moving like it was ready to drag Sam, it swung around to point itself at Tony.
"Tony!" Natasha hissed urgently. "Don't insult his mother!"
"It was a figure of speech!" Tony screeched. "Oh hol— Barton, fair point, how is he seeing me without eyes? Is he sniffing for me? Hey, uh, big guy, we're your friends, and I want to reiterate that we all think your mother was a saint."
Tony took a step forward.
Steve's body swayed, recoiling.
And crouched on the ground, trying to scoop Steve's brains into his helmet, Natasha felt the minute tremor of T'Challa's personal jet touching down.
For the first time Sam's voice betrayed his nerves. "He's going down, guys, help me out, I think this might be it," he said, trying to find purchase in more ways than one as Steve's body wobbled like a felled tree.
"I got him," Tony started.
Suddenly Steve's body jerked away from Tony, in its haste elbowing Sam in the sternum.
Sam stumbled back.
Steve's body fell to its knees, and began to feel around for the shield.
"No, no, no, this is bad," Rhodey said as he struggled with Iron Maiden.
Because the jet's hatch was open.
"Shit," said Tony. "Steve, c'mere, let's get you out of the sun, that's bad for you, right? Ugh, this is why I hated the soft sciences."
"Wanda...!" Clint called. If one could hear it, as Natasha could, he was huffing and puffing from double-timing it from his perch.
"I can't, not yet!" answered Wanda with a sob.
Steve grabbed the shield and scrabbled away from Iron Man.
Into the path of the Winter Soldier.