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The Miskatonic Project

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Steve came out of the Vita-Ray machine...different.

Of course he looked different -- taller, thickly muscled, skin gleaming. But it wasn't the change in his appearance so much as the...sensation people felt around him. Howard claimed not to feel it, and Erskine died before he could weigh in. Peggy felt it, but not in the way others did. To her, he seemed otherworldly, but like an angel or a religious vision -- comforting under a layer of unreality. She even liked the strange black irises he'd developed, so big and dark you could hardly see the whites of his eyes at all.

Others, however....

She didn't see him pull the Hydra agent out of the submarine after Erskine's assassination. Only three people did -- a cab driver, a little boy, and the boy's mother. The cab driver wouldn't say a word, and the boy's mother stuttered and stammered so badly they finally gave up. The little boy just said, "Well, he got him," and looked admiringly at Steve.

Steve wasn't wet, but the submarine lay on the deck of the pier, and the man next to it was dead, a rictus of horror on his face.

***

Even with his uncanny eyes, Steve was awfully handsome, and there had been talk of putting him in a stage show to sell bonds. But he made people uneasy, and he wasn't going to sell many bonds if audiences didn't like to look directly at him. Phillips said Steve gave him the feeling he was about to eat someone, and Phillips didn't want it to be him. Steve didn't seem bothered by it, too pleased by his new body and too eager to get overseas.

Peggy, thinking on her feet, brought Steve with her to the next meeting of the higher-ups, where they were meant to discuss her going overseas. She convinced the suddenly very edgy, uncomfortable officers of the SSR to clear Steve for duty (and approve her own transfer, as well) just so he would leave the room.

"Maybe it's my air of natural command," Steve joked to her. His teeth looked sharp -- not pointy, just as though the edges would cut you if you touched them. His smile glittered.

"What about my air of natural command?" she asked.

His smile widened. "Well, you know I'd go anywhere you tell me," he told her, "even if I do outrank you now."

I bet you would, she thought, but didn't say.

***

"What do you suppose Erskine put in that serum of his, anyway?" she asked Howard once. "What would change a man's eyes like that?"

"Well, he said he'd tried a lot of things," Howard replied. "He was cagey, but once in a while he'd let something slip. He was trying blood tests with various people -- people who'd healed from unusual wounds, one fella who he said was a mutant of some kind. And right after he got to America he did get a shipment from Antarctica."

"Antarctica! What could possibly be down there?"

"Dunno. He was at Miskatonic University then, he'd been doing some reading in their religious library, of all places. That's why Rebirth was originally called the Miskatonic Project."

Peggy considered this. "Do you suppose it was some kind of animal extract?"

"If it was, it ain't like any animal I ever laid eyes on, Peg," Howard said frankly.

"I thought he didn't bother you."

"He doesn't, but he bothers everyone else. There's something new about him. Or maybe it's something very, very old."

***

The first time she saw it, really saw it, was on the mission to liberate the 107th from Hydra. The skies were eerily quiet as Howard flew them over the factory, and he managed to land the little aircraft in a field just beyond it, silent and dark. Steve hopped out, told her not to follow, rolled his eyes when she did anyway, and told Howard to stay with the plane.

"Cheerio, monster," Howard said. "Be back by sunrise."

"I got a feeling we'll be done before then," Steve replied, and the pair of them crept into the factory, along darkened corridors, towards the sound of men yelling and banging on bars.

"There," he pointed, and she looked down at a walkway with a guard on it, prisoners in round cages underneath. She barely managed to look back at his face before it was changing -- eyes widening, mouth opening. His straight-razor teeth gleamed.

Out from his shoulders, sprouting like wings, came strange, billowing plumes of black smoke. They looked unsubstantial, but they twisted and writhed like a sea creature's, like a cuttlefish she'd seen at a zoo as a child. One long, thick tendril caught the guard around the throat and snapped his neck; another lifted him by the ankles once he was dead, plucking a key out of his pockets, and throwing him aside, into a dark corner.

The men below had fallen silent, and the stink of terror wafted off them in waves.

Steve glanced back at Peggy, tipped her a wink of his deep black eye, and jumped down to the walkway.

"Relax, fellas," he said, the slim smoky tentacles retracting, one of them dropping the keys into his outstretched palm before coiling back into his shoulders. "I'm on your side."

There was a long silence and then one of them said, "Well, thank God, or Satan. Which one're you?"

Steve chuckled and dropped the keys through the grate to him. "I'm just a kid from Brooklyn. Any of you fellas seen Sergeant James Barnes recently?"

"I shoulda known Barnes had the devil at his call," another one of them said.

***

There were too many men to evacuate in Howard's plane, and the factory was primed to blow; Peggy helped the men load the most seriously wounded in with Howard, and then slapped the window to tell him to take off.

"Gotta take you and Cap with me!" Howard called.

There was an explosion behind her and a whoop as Dum Dum Dugan vaporized Nazis left and right.

"I'll be fine," she told him. "Go!"

The plane was no sooner in the sky than the factory began to fall in on itself, and she worried briefly for Steve; they'd split up, him to find Barnes while she marshalled the troops. Still, Steve could look after himself. She tried very hard to believe it.

A gout of flame and an enormous explosion split the sky, and even the 107th stopped to stare at it. If Steve had still been in there --

Then, suddenly, it was as if someone had thrown a film into reverse. The fire rippled upwards and vanished as sheets of darkness, deep roiling black, came flying up along the fire's path. Thin tendrils like vines slunk over rubble and those same strange, smokelike tentacles, now as thick as tree trunks, crept behind them. Anywhere the tendrils brushed against the boots or sleeves of Hydra's soldiers, there were very brief screams.

The 107th, to a man, pivoted, weapons pointed at the factory. Soon it was a seething mass of darkness, with just a pinprick of light at its center.

Then the light coalesced into a white star, flickering on the chest of a Captain's uniform, and Steve Rogers came strolling out of the coiled monstrosity, James Barnes' arm slung over one burly shoulder.

"Jesus wept," Gabriel Jones managed. Dernier said something in French.

"What'd he say?" Peggy asked.

"Saying he's gonna live a clean life and get him a rosary just as soon as we get out of this pit of hell," Gabriel translated.

The star on Steve's chest, which did look like the open heart of the Madonna on a saint's medal, faded as Peggy came forward. She reached out to help him with Barnes, which was when Barnes lifted his head, and she immediately jerked back. He took her in with dark, full-black eyes, and then smiled, teeth glittering in his mouth.

"Well," Peggy said, as the 107th held its breath. It would be a lie to say any of them relaxed. "They certainly breed them different in Brooklyn."

Later Bucky swore he'd said, "Yeah," but to Peggy's ears it had sounded older, foreign, eldritch, maybe like a prayer: Ia.

***

On the first night they made camp, Peggy found herself surrounded by men -- not in the sense that she was the only woman, but in the sense that they actively, intently surrounded her. They weren't impolite, exactly, but they had just come from a place of desperation and fear, and were happy to be alive, and all that...entailed. Their presence, their willingness to bring her tins of food or start a fire for her, the warring exhaustion and relief and want, all pressed in on her insistently.

And then suddenly it was like the sun rose and the air cleared -- and she saw why.

"Gentlemen," Steve Rogers said, appearing from the darkness, lit by the fire and with Sergeant Barnes at one elbow, Sergeant Dugan at the other. The men all took a sort of spiritual step back. "How about you tired soldiers find places to bed down for the night."

They cleared out fast. Steve looked at her, a question in his bright face, and she nodded. He settled in, others joining him -- Dugan, Jones, Morita, Dernier and Falsworth, names she'd learn later. Steve sat on a fallen log one of the men had dragged over earlier; James Barnes sat at his feet. These men were calmer, and she sensed that they, like her, saw angels rather than devils when they looked at Steve and Barnes. They were here with her, not because of her.

"I was capable of looking after myself," Peggy still felt obliged to point out.

"Sure, but why should you have to?" Barnes said. Steve's eyes still looked, at least in some lights, mostly normal, if you didn't know they'd once been blue. Barnes, you couldn't see the whites at all.

"It'll be a three-day march back to base," Steve said, as the men passed around bites of food taken from the wreckage of the factory, bottles of wine liberated from an abandoned farmhouse nearby. "I'll spread the word that the first man bothers you answers to me, unless you'd prefer I didn't."

He looked so eager and so adoring that it was difficult to resist. "Just be gentle," she said, and the men all laughed. "You don't know your own strength, Captain Rogers."

Steve and Barnes exchanged a look.

"Fair," Steve agreed.

***

Barnes didn't seem any more fussed by his transformation than Steve had been, at least at first, but Steve insisted he get examined by a base medic. When the medics kept flinching and scurrying away in fear, they finally gave up and went to Howard. After all, Howard had dealt with the Serum before, and claimed he had "most of an MD" through association with Erskine. He was utterly serene as he gave Barnes the once-over.

"We've found the...remains of men Zola worked on, before now," he finally said, and this time, Barnes flinched. "Nobody ever survived it before. I used to joke that there's something in the Brooklyn water but I'm beginning to seriously wonder."

"I woulda died," Barnes said. Steve hissed, an ungodly noise, and even Peggy and Howard looked away from his face. "No, we gotta tell him, Steve." He turned to Peggy, as if it were easier to talk to her. "Whatever Schmidt did, it messed me up. Bad. I was dying when Steve found me. He..."

Barnes gestured to his own shoulders. Howard looked at Peggy, who held up a hand to forestall his questions.

"I've seen it," she said.

"Well, they sorta...." Barnes gestured at his eyes, then at his mouth. Peggy wondered if the teeth were as sharp as they looked.

"So Zola wasn't using whatever it was Erskine used," Peggy said to Steve, who shook his head. "You passed it on, instead."

"We always used to share everything," Steve said.

"Most things," Barnes corrected, gaze on Peggy (probably).

"Well, I can't find anything visible to take a microscope to," Howard said. "Steve, why don't you and I find a bite to eat? Peg, you'll take Barnes here back to the barracks, won't you?"

"Of course," Peggy said briskly, as Howard led Steve off, though Steve kept looking over his shoulder.

"He's givin' us a chance to talk," Barnes said.

"I'm not sure what we have to talk about," Peggy replied.

Barnes looked down at his hands. "You know what's happened to me?" he asked, voice small. "You know what Steve is now?"

She could have lied blithely, like everyone else seemed to be doing to themselves. She sensed terrible things might happen if she did.

"You are something beyond knowing," she said. "Even to yourself."

He looked horrified.

"Mind your temper," she added lightly. "When Steve loses his, men go mad."

He blinked, and it sounded like wood against glass in the silence. Then he started to laugh. It wasn't meant to be unpleasant, she could tell, but under the laughter was a deep, growling noise that she knew shouldn't be heard by mortals.

"You're all right, Carter," he said, and thankfully the growling ended. "I'll take that to heart."

***

But it was true.

The war ended in seven months. It would probably have taken longer, except that Hydra had found or made -- probably a combination of the two -- a terrible weapon. Harnessing the power of the same strange blue glowing material from Hydra's weapons, and destructive even beyond it. They heard rumors of it before they encountered it.

The Godhammer.

And they murdered Bucky Barnes with it.

(At least, so they thought at the time.)

Three months after the 107th was rescued, Steve, Bucky, and the Commandos were lured into a trap with the promise of access to the Godhammer. Instead, it turned out to be a test of the weapon, which wasn't meant to kill humans -- it was meant only for whatever Steve and Bucky were now.

Peggy heard fragments later of what happened. When the Red Skull turned the Godhammer on Bucky, there wasn't even a body left. They whispered that he went screaming, smoke-black limbs writhing, and that right before he vanished, the air ripped open. He left nothing behind.

There weren't any Hydra bodies left later, either. Steve tore them apart like rags. The Commandos said when Bucky died, Steve screamed and the earth shook, and when his rage was done the only body he left behind was the Skull's.

"Was he like them? Schmidt?" she asked Dugan. She'd had to get him very drunk first.

"Like them?" Dugan asked.

"Like Steve and Bucky. You know."

"No," Dugan said, and then, very softly, "he had sixteen eyes. I counted 'em once Steve had him down."

"Sixteen?"

"And tentacles," Dugan said. He held his hand up to his face, fingers drooping in front of his mouth. "Whole bottom of his face. And -- he had terrible wings -- "

That was all she ever got out of him. Whatever deviance of a serum Skull had tested on himself, it hadn't given him the awe-striking glory it had bestowed on Steve. She found herself thinking of the book of Revelations, and remembering that her parents had thought, when the Great War was declared, that it was the herald of armageddon.

The skies were red for four days after Bucky died. Anyone who came near Steve encountered a low, disquieting hum; one man had an eardrum burst. It wasn't until she arrived to find him trying to drink himself unconscious, and tried to help balm his grief, that the skies began to clear.

After all, they still had a war to fight.

"What's been done with the Godhammer?" he asked her, when the sky was blue again and they were on their way to a new front. "Howard?"

"No," she said. "Morita has it. We agreed Howard...shouldn't."

"Good," he said. "Keep it safe."

"We could destroy it."

"No," he answered, and she saw a flicker of the star, for just a moment. "No, you might need it."

***

Steve was different after that -- intense, driven, very quiet. But if she had ever doubted he was still the same man underneath, the end of the war put paid to those doubts.

With Steve at the front of the army, they tore through Europe. By the time they reached Germany, men would see the star and throw down their arms; some would kill themselves, though Steve never again destroyed soldiers the way he had after the Godhammer. Europe fell to the Allies and then America turned east, meeting the Russians in wary truce over the bodies of the vanquished German and Italian forces there.

After V-E day, they gave Steve a week's leave in the States, mostly to get from New York to California, and then launched him at the Pacific Theatre, which fell quickly. Oppenheimer, out in Los Alamos, was still years from becoming Death, the destroyer of worlds, when V-J day was declared.

All over the world, people were celebrating peace. But in a little room on a carrier off the coast of Japan, Peggy sat with Phillips and listened with mounting horror as the "peace" process began.

"What we have here, gentlemen," one of the generals said, "is an opportunity not just to ensure peace, but to usher in something new. We've drawn up treaties with the Soviets -- "

" -- but we haven't signed all of them yet," another one said.

"Are you talking about pushing Russia back from Europe?" Phillips asked, eyebrows raised.

"No," one of them laughed. "We're talking about invading."

"Put a stop to this Communism nonsense before it spreads any further. With troops in the Pacific, with the Red Army weakened, and with Rogers back in Europe, coming from the west, we could take something much bigger than Japan."

"Russia," someone said with relish.

"Get her before she gets us."

"The Global United States."

"Or the United Western World."

"We could bring Democracy to millions."

"With the emperor in the White House," Phillips remarked neutrally.

"With the duly elected President in the White House," one man corrected. "We'd give the Russians a vote, eventually. Of course, their electoral count would have to be low, to maintain mainland political superiority."

"And we'd have to deal with the Commies first."

"Like we dealt with the Japanese in the states?" Phillips asked. Everyone looked faintly uncomfortable.

"The point is, we have a use for Captain Rogers," a general said.

"Huh. Didn't think you'd talked much to him about that."

"He's a soldier. He'll go where he's told."

"Is that so?" Phillips asked, and gestured with one hand. One of the doors to the conference room opened, and Steve stepped inside. "You hear okay out there, Rogers?"

"My hearing's pretty good, sir," Steve said. When he spoke, his teeth clicked, in a way that even to Peggy said predator.

"You got any thoughts for this august assembly?"

Steve nodded. Peggy watched, pleased, as the other men in the room shifted uneasily in their seats.

"It's been in my mind for a while that I have power people shouldn't have," Steve said. "With all due respect, you all definitely aren't the men who oughta have it. Maybe even I shouldn't, but I'm stuck with it. And in peacetime that'll go hard for me, but I'm not gonna wage a war I don't believe in. I came to the Army to fight for folks who couldn't, not to lead a conquest."

He glanced at Peggy, licking his lips, and she realized that Steve was as scared of them as they were of him.

"I can't shake it off, the power I have. But I can take it away from you," he said, reaching into his jacket. Everyone tensed. He laid a sheet of folded paper on the table. "So this is my resignation, effective immediately."

"You can't just resign from the Army, son," said a man who looked like he was about to piss himself. "There are rules, procedures -- "

"Sir, you really think you can stop me when the entire Japanese Navy couldn't?" Steve asked mildly. His eyes widened, mocking innocence, and the combination of the blameless face and those dark, ageless eyes made at least two of the generals shudder. A single night-black tendril crept out from under Steve's collar, curving up his throat and around the back of his head, through his golden hair.

"If I were you gentlemen," Steve continued, "I'd thank my lucky stars the war is over, and go home to the States, and leave off world domination for a while. 'Cause I think you know I hate a bully. And these days I got a lot of misery to spread around, if I care to."

When he turned to go, Phillips got up and followed him. Peggy did too.

***

"Are you sure about this?" Peggy asked him, two months later. The air had grown cold, and her breath puffed as she stood on the deck.

"Well," Steve said, leaning on the railing, looking out at the approaching coast of Antarctica. "It's either this or the Godhammer, Peggy."

"Steve, no."

"Doesn't matter anyway -- you say you got it locked up?"

"Yes, it's safe," she said, for the hundredth time. "Thank goodness, too, the way you're talking."

"Sorry. It's just...the world doesn't need me," he said. "And I'm tired of men killing men. And if I don't fight, I get..." He twitched, skin juddering over his muscles, and she knew what he meant -- she'd seen how anxious he got, how the pent up energy inside him wanted loose.

"You can't just wander the snow dunes, wailing in anguish like a gothic hero," she teased. He gave her a small smile, no teeth.

"No. I won't do that. I just -- I know I have to come here," he said. "Whatever I am came from here. And I'll find it. I need to know what it is."

"How?"

"I can feel it. I'll know where to go."

"And once you find it?"

"I'll sleep," he said, voice full of longing. She noticed that unlike hers, his breath didn't freeze in the air. "At least..." His brow screwed up in thought. "Until I'm needed again."

"There are people who need you now."

"Yeah, but not -- the way you're thinking, Peggy. I'm going to wait until the biggest threat to mankind isn't mankind itself anymore. That day'll come one day. And if it doesn't, well, the world'll be good and safe, and I'll see Bucky again, maybe."

She nodded. It would hurt -- terribly, and for a long time -- but she could see the wisdom of what he was saying. And she knew trying to tether him to the world of humanity would hurt more.

"I'd like to give you something, before I go, though," he said. "I -- wanted to, but I'm not sure if you want it. If you don't, I won't mind."

"Try me," she said, and he smiled.

"Let's talk below," he invited, and she followed him down.

***

Steve had a little stateroom, really more of a cubby, partly because of his rank and partly because nobody wanted to sleep when he was near. He led the way in, and she closed the door behind them so that he wouldn't have to. Steve was like that; he knew what he did to people, and he tried never to be the one who trapped someone anywhere.

He generally, she thought, left that up to her. As if he trusted her to use him as a weapon, knowing she would be more subtle than he would.

"You gotta know," he said, when the door was closed. "How I feel about you. More'n anyone else except Buck, maybe, and that's different."

"But you'll still leave," she said softly. He nodded.

"In part because of how I feel," he said. "I couldn't -- if I hurt someone, an innocent, that'd be awful, Peg, but if I hurt you..."

"Would you?"

"Don't know. But I can't risk it. I'm too..." He made a frustrated noise. "Young isn't the word, but it's the best I got."

"So you have to give us all up. And I have to give up you," she said. She hoped she didn't sound angry; she wasn't angry, only sad.

"Mostly," he said. "But if you wanted. I could give you part of me."

"Not like James," she said hastily.

"Jesus, no," he replied, just as horrified.

"Then what?"

He rubbed his hand over his face, and his dark eyes seemed like endless voids.

"A child," he said. "I could give you a child. I can't give you the house and the picket fence, and it'd be a hell of a way to come home, pregnant by some fella out of wedlock, but I could -- "

"Yes," she said. He paused.

"Yes?"

"A part of you. I want a child, anyway, and a good man..." She shrugged, helplessly. "You are good, Steve. The best man I've ever known, maybe."

"It wouldn't be easy."

"I don't care about easy."

"And he wouldn't be...normal. Well." Steve cocked his head. "He could be. A child of two names."

"Two names?" she asked, ignoring how they both knew it would be a son.

"A normal child. A beautiful little boy," Steve said, thoughtfully. "And a secret name. Not to be spoken until, unless, more is needed. Do you understand that?"

She nodded.

"Of course you would. Why even ask." He gave her a bright smile. "Are you sure, Peggy?"

"I'm sure," she said, and reached for the buttons on her blouse, but he shook his head.

She let her hands fall, held still as he approached. There was a smell like burning leaves, and she could feel herself shaking, but she didn't break and run -- and in another second she didn't want to. Looking into his black eyes, she felt warm, for a second as if the burning leaves were all around, and then in another second, and for an eternity after, as if she were plunged into warm water. No need to breathe, like in a dream; no need to do anything but drift in the darkness.

Her body opened, not in the way she had, fumblingly, with a boy or two before the war, before Steve, but as if a door to her entire being was unlocking. She was conscious of his hands holding her head, big warm palms cupping up through her hair; she could feel her nipples tighten against her brassiere, her pulse pounding with arousal. He kissed her and she didn't know where she was anymore, blinded by the smoke billowing around them, paralyzed by thousands of black tendrils pulling them together. It felt like an earthquake, like being too close to a dropping bomb, the sudden jerk of lost breath, and then an ecstasy washed over her that she would only feel once more in her life.

She laughed, and she heard him laugh, and then it deepened into a roar that she couldn't fear, still caught up in the dizzy pleasure of their coupling.

The fog around them cleared, dissipating away into nothingness, and the tendrils caressed her skin as they withdrew. Her feet touched the floor, and she caught her breath like the wind had been knocked out of her. She felt her shoes, her uniform, the earrings in her ears, all still intact, and saw him still dressed, not even a hair out of place.

And she could feel, low in her abdomen, a weight like she already carried a fully-grown child. She lowered her hands to press against the flatness of her belly, to be sure, but there was no swelling, not yet. Still she could feel it, a comforting presence, the growing unborn child.

Steve whispered one name in her right ear, and then a second in her left. She repeated the first only. The second felt as though it was branded on her skin.

"I can feel him," she said. He put a hand over hers, and her whole body jolted with dual pleasures, one sensual, the other comforting, like finding an unexpected home.

"Goodbye," he said to both of them, and then there was a yell abovedecks. The ship began to slow; they'd reached port.

***

The Great Dark Rh'Tat, called It Who Sees by Abdul Alhazred, known to a small fishing village that once encountered It as The Maker Of Knots, had been grievously wounded. When Atlantis fell, It had suffered the loss of several...limbs, for lack of a better word. It had crawled along the seafloor, over the bones of whales and through the withering embraces of the giant squid, until It had reached darker waters. Eventually, It had pulled Itself out of the icy water into a vast cavern, and there It had lain for centuries, millennia, slowly healing, surrounded by the ice.

The little wound It had suffered several years before, when a party of explorers had tried to take a sample and mostly been driven mad, that was nothing. A mere slice along ghastly bubbling flesh. It thought maybe one man had escaped, but It didn't really think much about it at all. Its single black eye, twenty feet across, pulsated and winked in the darkness, even when nothing moved.

But It could feel something drawing closer, now, and long before It heard a man's boots crunching over the bones, It knew Its child was coming home.

Why do you disturb us now? It asked. Why did you walk so long amongst mortals?

"I didn't know what or where you were," the thing replied, in human language. Rh'Tat's eye twitched and jerked back and forth, displeased.

You are too mortal, It said.

Not so mortal, the thing answered, a little humbler now.

You are a new thing made from us, but not of us. You take the side of mortals, like a mortal.

The thing had teeth, terrible teeth, human teeth. Rh'Tat had never had teeth; Its maw was barbed with thorns. The thing showed its teeth now and Rh'Tat could tell it was...amused. Appalling.

Yes. I take the side of mortals, the thing said.

We are not mortals. This planet is ours. And one day we will claim it, and your mortals will bow to us or be devoured.

The thing considered this. Maybe. Maybe I'll destroy you, maybe you'll destroy me. Does it matter, right now?

Rh'Tat squirmed. We suppose not.

May I sleep here, then, honored parent? I'm tired, and cold, and one I love is dead, and the world doesn't need me, the thing said, and in its sad little voice Rh'Tat could hear the plaintive whine of an egg-child, even if it was only a pale imitation of a monster.

Mercy is a whim of gods. Yes. Of course. Until we destroy you, or you destroy us.

The thing showed its teeth again. Thank you.

It arranged its tiny body up against one wall of the cavern, in a place mostly clear of bones, and Rh'Tat's eye glistened as black tendrils crept over the thing's limbs, blanketing it like bound prey waiting to be devoured. Oh, once there had been such sacrifices....

Slowly, unconsciously, The Maker of Knots, It Who Sees, the Dark Eye Of Madness Rh'Tat, let one of Its tentacles slither over until it was wrapped around the thing protectively. An egg-child was fragile, after all, at least until it had consumed the souls of millions, which seemed unlikely for this one in the near future.

***

Nine months later, Peggy Carter gave birth to a boy. The pregnancy had been easy, almost too easy, and the birth painful but brief.

"You'll call him Steve, I suppose?" Howard asked, holding the little one as if he might break. He seemed ordinary, human, no black eyes or eerie teeth (though he did already have three normal human teeth, which the nurses said wasn't unheard of).

"Good lord, no," Peggy replied.

"Really? It's not like people don't know where he came from, Peg," he said.

"How rude," she replied, though it was true -- the only reason she'd been spared most of the social pressures of having a baby out of wedlock was that everyone knew it was Steve's.

"Then what's his name?" Howard asked.

"Steve left a name for him," she said.

"Traditional. Conservative. How very Steve," Howard said, when she told him what it was.

She didn't mention the second name, the name that was also traditional, if only in the sense that it predated human memory. She knew she mustn't speak it aloud, nor write it down. He looked ordinary, but he wasn't, and she knew that if he heard his true name called, the godhead would overtake him too soon, long before he was ready.

Howard put the boy in her arms, and she stroked his little nose; he screwed up his face and squeaked. She thought of black-eyed Bucky, and Steve's razor teeth, and the Godhammer, in an SSR storage depot, locked in a trunk that even Howard didn't know about. Someday, she'd tell her son about it, just in case Steve ever woke -- or something worse than him did.