Never let it be said that Steve Rogers didn’t know how to behave properly, especially in front of a lady. Of course, even a living icon and legend needed a little warning before being summoned to talk with a lady, especially one such as Pepper Potts.
But if anyone caught a glimpse of the good captain as he marched down yet another glass-enclosed corridor, they would’ve thought he was going to face off General Ross. Again. And this time, there would be blood; on the floor, walls, ceiling, perhaps through the walls, even.
“Fuck,” Bucky hissed as he matched his friend’s angry stride. “Not even a goddamn two-minute shower?! Hope she likes sweat and stink along with her Starbucks.”
Steve tried to shrug but the movement was swiftly aborted when he felt the slap of wet fabric hit the dip between his trapezius muscles. He looked down at his sweat-soaked t-shirt and pulled it away from his skin, wincing at the moist sound the t-shirt made. Steve also had to wage a continuous war against himself in order not to further mess up his equally sweaty hair by running his fingers through it.
Bucky fared no better. If anything he was worse off since he didn’t even have a shirt, and his hair was a bird’s nest because of the makeshift bun he’d fashioned right after he rolled out of bed.
Their combined state was due to their regularly scheduled sparring match that ended with a call from Friday, ordering them to meet with Pepper. Right. This. Minute. Thus, forcing the men to scramble out of the gym and into the myriad of hallways in the facility.
For a moment Steve indulged in the idea of just letting Pepper wait while he did take a shower and put on fresh clothes. He had little doubt she’d be the messenger of more bad news: that once again Bucky would not be able to join the Avengers in their next mission. The tally then would be up to five rejections in a six-month campaign Steve had waged on behalf of his friend.
This thought only made Steve’s rotten mood even worse. And from the way the support personnel dove out of their path, his anger was obviously scrawled across his face. But Steve was frankly too riled up to care.
So, by the time they reached the conference room he had a good head of steam going.
The walls of glass revealed Pepper Potts looking like her elegant self, even if her hair had been shorn so close to the scalp that calling it a pixie cut was being generous. It took everything Steve had not to wince when he noticed it, and suddenly he felt like a class-A idiot because Pepper did nothing to deserve his ire.
The Avengers were prepared for violence, for attacks from enemies both global and beyond. What they were woefully unprepared for was a single, unhinged individual who managed to make their way into a charity gala in order to kill the woman he thought responsible for the downfall of his career. The would-be murderer, later identified as Dr. Mueller from Fresno, was methodical and had earned an actual invitation to the party. So, he had little problem approaching Pepper who was hosting the fête.
After an hour of patiently waiting, the chance had come for him to shake her hand in a show of camaraderie and thanks. Instead, he grabbed Pepper by her hair in order to cut her throat open.
At the last moment she managed to wrench her head forward and sideways as he swung his surgical scalpel. The desperate movement had saved her life but not her hair.
Steve had to actually peel Tony off from Dr. Mueller, who was well on his way to la-la land thanks to Tony repeatedly slamming the man’s head to the marble floor.
The moment Tony stood up, pale and wild-eyed, he whirled to face Pepper who was mutely staring at her locks now decorating the floor. Without warning, Ton grabbed hold of her, initiated his suit, and flew off.
The party quickly and mercifully ended minutes after. The violence was so shocking that no attendant posted pictures of the attack on social media. Steve knew there was more than one camera on Pepper as she was the hostess. But not a soul would volunteer any information, and the papers were forced to print a dry recount of the attempted murder of Stark’s fiancée and CEO of Stark Industries.
“Good morning, Steve, Bucky,” Pepper said as she stood up to shake their hands.
Bucky gave a small nod in reply, unaccountably turning bashful in front of her and retreating to a chair located farthest from Pepper.
“Is there an emergency?” Steve asked, silently hoping for such if only to have Bucky back where he belonged.
She smiled and shook her head, “Not as such. But we do need your help. Dr. Foster and her assistant, Darcy Lewis, are ready to come in.”
Despite the initial disappointment, the news was surprising enough to tickle Steve’s curiosity. “Really? Do you want us to show them around, then? Make sure they get settled in properly?”
“No, we need you to be their … I hate to say it but it’s true: Protection detail.”
No matter what the historians claimed, Steve was no saint. He had a temper and when it came to Bucky, that temper had a short fuse.
“We have security for that, Pepper,” Steve curtly reminded her. “Any of the men on the grounds can shadow them without a problem.”
Pepper’s gaze immediately turned flinty. “Let me speak to you plainly, then. I am well aware of your petition to the UN to have Bucky formally join the Avenger Initiative. I am also well aware that as long as your petition’s language and reasoning remains martial, Dr. Ripley will not give it the green light. Which means your petition will never see the voting floor of the UN. Please, remember, Dr. Ripley was a proponent of the Avengers Initiative and a vocal critic of the Sokovia Accords. So, when the American Representative with that kind of history says ‘no’, you won’t find any other ally on First Avenue.
“When the UN voted to vacate all charges against Sergeant Barnes, the votes were 95 to 92 in favor with Russia, China, and four other countries abstaining in protest. And though that sounds like a solid victory, the truth is the representatives for Belgium, Canada, and New Zealand are incapable of holding grudges. They also happen to be fans of clean, renewable energy that Stark Industries is currently pioneering.
“So, if you think Bucky’s formal introduction to the world as a member of the Avengers will be on a battlefield, you are sorely mistaken. The public needs to see him as a protector, not a killer, which Russia and China will be eager to parade on every social media the moment he returns to the public eye.”
Steve’s aggravation quickly died as he digested Pepper’s statement.
“And if you pair me up with Thor’s … ex, the one who helped to bring half of the universe back, then people will see me as trustworthy?” Bucky offered helpfully.
“We can hope. But the truth is your image will always be darker than that of Steve’s. There’s no getting around that so we won’t even waste our time trying.” Pepper raised a hand to stymie Steve’s protest before he even began. “However, there is a lot of wiggle room with what’s left, specifically, the classic reformed bad boy image. Which, from your history, you’ve done quite a bit to cultivate before 1945.”
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “Pepper… C’mon, that’s not fair.”
Bucky narrowed his eyes as he studied the woman in front of him. Then his lips curved into a sly grin. “But not untrue. So, more Lothario than Lex Luthor?”
“Exactly,” Pepper said. “I don’t know what Thor had said about Doctor Foster or Ms Lewis, but trust me when I say they need protection. And not just because of their relationship with Thor.”
Steve noticed the tension in Pepper’s voice. “Is there a viable threat?”
“They were kidnapped six weeks ago,” Pepper answered, her gaze falling to her hands. “And nobody noticed.”
“What the fuck,” Bucky hissed. “How is that possible?”
“Thor wasn’t here,” Pepper answered. “And the agents assigned to protect them were newly-trained. They thought the two had given them the slip and went gallivanting off to study some atmospheric phenomenon in Finland. In their defense, Jane had done exactly that once before.”
“How long did it take for the idiots to notice their charges were in danger?” Steve grounded out.
“They didn’t. The women escaped their captors three days after the kidnapping and contacted Dr. Selvig, who picked them up in Hallstatt. It was a mess.”
“How are they?” Steve asked, his stomach roiling as all sorts of horrible scenarios paraded in his head.
“Better than the agents,” Pepper said. “Their captors didn’t abuse them too much. From what I’ve gathered, it was AIM and they were more interested in Doctor Foster’s knowledge of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Of course, they tried to use Ms. Lewis as leverage to force the doctor into cooperating, and had little problem carrying out their threats when she refused. This, more than anything, turned Doctor Foster’s attention to an escape. And when a woman of that intellect focuses on something, she usually succeeds.”
Steve paled at the thought of the doctor failing and paying the price of her failure with her life and Lewis’. Thor, even though no longer romantically attached to Doctor Foster, would have torn the planet apart looking for the ones responsible for their murders.
“And when they arrive, we may finally figure out how they managed to undo what Thanos had done,” Pepper added. “I will admit, I am very curious as to how two human beings opened all the dimensional portals, allowing the Missing to return to their proper worlds.”
“And then there is that,” Steve agreed. “Apologies, Pepper. We’ll be more than happy to make sure they’re safe.”
“Thank you,” Pepper replied softly, relief evident in her tone. “I don’t know them well enough to count them as friends, but I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say I owe them some peace of mind.”
“The world owes them,” Bucky added.
The meeting adjourned quickly thereafter and the two men hightailed it to their shared quarters for a shower and a much-needed meal.
It was only after a hefty lunch that Steve was ready to deal with Bucky. His friend was practically vibrating with curiosity since the meeting and had visibly stopped himself from asking more than a few questions since.
“I got bits and pieces from the others, but those of us who stayed behind, none of them wants to really talk about it. And I can’t blame them,” Bucky said as he poured coffee for Steve and himself. “But exactly what happened after Thanos won?”
“You’d think there be riots, blood on the streets,” Steve slowly explained. “But the truth was the entire world was in catatonic shock. Nobody knew what to do. There wasn’t a family that didn’t get hit. Even the military couldn’t do anything because they didn’t know what to do.”
Steve had to finish his coffee, as his hands began shaking. “It was god awful, Bucky. Everything was quiet: no traffic, no people on the streets. And Tony, Jesus, Tony … when he showed up … the first thing he did was to call Pepper.”
“And he found out Pepper was gone.”
“Yeah, he snapped then. He couldn’t deal anymore and neither could I if you want to know the truth. Three days after that Thor got a call from Foster. She told him nobody was dead, only … hidden is the word Thor used. I never got the full gist of it, but it was enough for Thor to go to her. Two days later, he called and told us what to do.”
“I know Nat and Rhodey went globe-trotting to set those markers up for her, and Barton went MIA.”
“Yeah, he and Coulson were busy finding any remaining SHIELD agents because they realized things were going to get very busy.”
The actual event was brief but cataclysmic. Thor had appeared on international TV, telling everyone that the Avengers were going to try to bring the Missing back to their proper worlds, but that they needed help. People were told to get off the streets and wait, while any military force that could help would be more than welcomed in Wakanda. The horrifying truth was, if the Avengers succeeded, Thanos and his army would return along with the victims.
And Foster did succeed. Steve remembered seeing Bucky materialize only few yards from where he’d disintegrated, and for a moment allowed tears to fall. Then, it was back to battle for both Super Soldiers.
The sky was swathed in streaks of black and grey with air support. From F-16 and F-22s, to Lockheads and Sukhois, not to mention land forces, all used to ensure that Thanos’ invading army couldn’t escape.
Soldiers from countries that would be usually at odds cooperated, snipers and other Specialists tore through Thano’s land force, and though many were killed or wounded, the sheer number of human fighters quickly overwhelmed the enemy, and had given Romanov a chance to end the Titan’s reign of terror.
As it turned out, a chance was all she needed.
“I honestly thought I’d be the one to kill Thanos,” Steve confessed, still a bit sore that Nat was the one who managed to decapitate the bastard. “I still don’t get how she got out of there alive. Even Dr. Cho was shocked by her condition.”
Bucky’s smile was grim but proud. “That’s Nat for you.”
Steve shook his head. “Three days, Bucky. Three fucking days and nobody noticed that a global terrorist group kidnapped the women responsible for our planet being in one piece. What the actual fucking hell?
“If those agents were under my command? They’d be spit shining shoes with their tongues every single day until the end of the goddamn year.”
Bucky huffed out a rusty laugh. “And people think you’re made of apple pie and sunshine. Christ, that never gets old.”
“Not my fault that nobody bothered to realize what it actually meant to be in the army during the War. And a Howling Commando, to boot. I swear, whoever did the paint job over my reputation deserves a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize, even, for creating such fantastic fiction.”
“And a bottle of vodka, ‘cause that had to have been hell of a workload.”
Steve side-eyed his friend. “You’re not insulted that a babysitting duty is what gets you the stamp?”
Bucky shook his head. “Nah, look – when it comes to political shit like this, Pepper is way smarter than both of us. And if she thinks this plan will work? I’m all in.”
Steve sighed in relief and systematically flipped open the folders Pepper had given him. “Let’s get to work then,” he said, shoving Bucky’s copies across the kitchen counter.
Bucky gave a low whistle as he studied the pictures. “Wow, that’s a whole lot of pretty with the smarts.”
Steve couldn’t help but smile at Bucky’s estimation. The two years in Wakanda did wonders for Bucky’s psyche, and Steve would be forever grateful to T’Challa and his people for all the help and support they had given.
In a way, Pepper was right in her estimation of Bucky. His friend would never again be the carefree soul before the War. But this man, sitting across from him, even painted in blood and darkness, was the best friend Steve needed right now. Because the truth was that Steve was not the same man before the plane crash. And the two, both with jagged edges in their souls as their former lives were ripped away, could depend on each other because of that shared loss.
They dedicated an entire week to studying the dossiers on the two women and their contributions to Science, in the hopes of getting ready for their arrival. More importantly, trying to plan out ways of curtailing any risky behavior before everything spiraled out of control.
All in all, Steve felt confident in his preparation for Doctor Foster and Ms. Lewis as he waited for their arrival. But as he watched the newest members of the Initiative disembark from the Quinjet, Steve belatedly realized he was nowhere near prepared.
Not even close, Steve thought in quiet panic as he watched Foster wrestle with the huge backpack dangling on her right arm while trying to keep herself from toppling out of the Quinjet.
As he rushed towards her to help, Steve idly wondered when the Universe would stop fucking with his life so thoroughly. Still, seeing her smile up at him as he shouldered her bag, maybe the Universe had a long game that would benefit him in the end.
“Holy shit, is that shoulder to waist ratio real?” Lewis barked out, eyes wide as she studied her childhood hero. “Also, is that your natural hair color? I thought you were a blond.”
No, the Universe was laughing. Goddamn it.