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All the Things You Prayed For

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They never ask Lup about her brother. They ask “How are you liking the future?” and “What was it like during the war?” and she smiles her widest grin and says “I think it’s fuckin’ excellent” or “Pretty shit, honestly” because even when she’s lying through her teeth, she’s never been one for self-censorship.

But nobody asks her about Taako.

Captain America was always two people, she wants to scream. They’ve only got half her heart here in the future. The other half is frozen, his corpse somewhere at the bottom of a crevasse in the Alps.

They’re probably trying to be considerate. She has good hearing — she’s heard SHIELD agents and secretaries whispering about only a few months from the war, for her, and the poor dear, and she hates it. She’s a few months from the front, sure. A few months and she’s spitting mad. She gambled everything she had for everything she ever cared about (except for her brother) and the cost was the rest of her life. Loss of control over the story that got told after she was gone. Nobody expected her to be back. Neither did she.

Now she’s the face of Captain America and her brother is a sidekick. It doesn’t sit right with her.

Kravitz, of all people, is the first to ask. They’re at the Smithsonian a week before the Captain America exhibit opens. It’s sort of embarrassing. The curators came to her, hat in hand, and said they’d been planning the exhibit for nearly a year, now, but since she’s back back it seems rather gauche, and if she wants, they’ll tear the whole thing down. But, they said sheepishly, if she wouldn’t mind, they could switch out “CAPTAIN AMERICA’S HEROIC DEATH” for “REBIRTH, AND THE BATTLE OF NEW YORK.”

The curators had looked so sad. so she gave them the green-light. Honestly, her new team needed all the good press it could get. But she still wanted a chance to give the last sign-off before the exhibit opened. So, here she is, a week before the CAPTAIN AMERICA: REBIRTH exhibit opens at the Air and Space Museum, Kravitz trailing her like a shadow.

He’d shown up out of nowhere while she was killing her bike’s ignition. “Protection detail,” he’d said, and the set of his mouth looked maybe like he was joking. Maybe he just wanted her to have some company.

Kravitz is hard to read. Lup thinks maybe spies are just like that — she remembers talking with members of the S.S.R. during the war, thinks about the way she can’t read the Director’s expressions half the time, the way the SHIELD agents talk through hushed tones and meaningful glances around her. She’s getting awfully tired of the slippery bastards after the last couple years. Kravitz is okay, though. His sense of humor reminds her of Taako’s — and that’s a train of thought she doesn’t want to examine too closely.

Taako has been dead for two years. Taako has been dead for seven decades. It really depends how you count it.

Her brother is dead and Lup’s a whole lifetime into the future. It’s a brave new world out there and she’s trying not to think about it too hard. She gets the feeling that if she starts thinking, she won’t ever stop, and she’s the only Captain America the new century’s got so she can’t afford to be out of commission.

Lup and Kravitz wander through the exhibition. It’s really tasteful, all nicely spot-lit with little blurbs pasted on next to the stuff on display. She’s gotta hand it to the Smithsonian folks, but it’s still weird seeing her history dissected. She stares at the ephemera of her life, laid out on display, and it makes her feel some sort of something. They’ve got all the stuff from when the brass had her working as a showgirl, selling war bonds with the USO. And that’s the jacket she thought she lost in England. She wonders where they got it from — maybe Sildar found it. Wonders if they’ll mind her stealing it back. It was a nice jacket.

Kravitz is quiet. He stays a few steps behind her as they move through exhibit after exhibit — past neatly detailing the serum and the war and the fight to end it. As if her life was linear.

There’s a dark room set up with rows of benches and a projector. Kravitz sits next to her to watch a five-minute film reel, played on loop. One of the short films the army’s propaganda machine made about her and the Howlies for the folks back home. The footage is jittery black-and-white — converted from the original reels to digital because stuff that was high tech six months ago for Lup is a delicate archival record now.

In this film, Taako and her are cheesing for the camera, as pre-written lines that flash at the bottom of the screen, something about “freedom!” and “justice!” and “we’re gonna beat those Nazi bastards!” The movie itself is silent, but Lup remembers what they were talking about — it was the first film reel they did. On screen, Lup points down the camera lens, then she and Taako double over laughing.

It was early in the war.

“The two of you look close,” Kravitz says. A diplomatic understatement. On screen Taako and her have identical gap-toothed smiles, the casual intimacy of an arm thrown over a shoulder.

“We were,” Lup says. “It was just the two of us for a long time, you know? He’s like, the only fucking family I had, especially after our aunt died. God, he was like — shit, this is gonna sound cheesy — but he’s the only reason the whole Captain America thing even worked.”

It’s surprisingly nice to be able to talk about him. On screen, Taako sticks his tongue out. Lup’s heart aches.

“What was he like?” Kravitz asks, not looking away from the film. It must be weird for him, seeing her there. Lup is grateful for the lack of scrutiny.

She has to think a moment. How to describe Taako? It’s like describing the back of her hand. She knows everything about him — knows him too well to narrow him down to a sound bite.

On screen, Taako elbows her. She elbows him back. They glance at something beyond the camera.

“He was smart,” Lup says. “Like, real smart? He woulda loved the future. We went to the Hallwinter Expo the night before he shipped out to the front, and he tried to convince me to steal Sildar’s flying car. He was kind of an asshole, and like, real dramatic all the time. Christ, the amount of times I came home to him whining about something dumb. Soft spot for kids, which was stupid, cause first we had absolutely zip in the way of cash, and then we were in a warzone. He was — he cared a lot? He’d give you shit if you called him on it, though. He was... fuck, I don’t know. He was just Taako, you know?”

They watch Lup and Taako on screen double over in laughter again, the loop repeating.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kravitz says carefully, and it sounds practiced — but he’s trying. She appreciates that.

Lup snorts. “You know? You’re the first person to say that to me in the future.” She stands, brushes invisible dirt off of her jeans. “Well, c’mon, we don’t have all day. I wanna go rip the curators a new one. The one and only Captain America, my ass.”

#

Somewhere in Europe, 1944

“Hey T, got a minute?” Lup leans over Taako’s chair, sticking her pointy chin on his head and her arms on his shoulders.

He glances up and sticks his tongue out at his sister. “I’m busy,” he says, gesturing at his hand of cards, the guys huddled around the table at the back of the bar, the bottle of whiskey that came from who-knows-where. “I’m bonding.”

“You’re cheating,” Lup says.

Taako gives her a longsuffering look. “Yeah, alright, I’m cheating,” he admits, folding his hand. “Game’s over kids. When Cap calls, you gotta answer.”

The guys — she has no idea who these soldiers are, though they’re wearing U.S. Army uniforms — look torn between genuine irritation at getting fleeced and starry-eyed wonder at seeing Captain America in all her glory. She’s even carrying the shield.

“Like you ever listen,” she says, flicking his braid. It’s ragged at the ends, crispy from being too close to the conflagration that destroyed the Hunger base. She’s surprised his hair is even long enough to braid, even if it is a stubby thing that only extends an inch or two off his scalp. “C’mon, walk with me.”

He sighs theatrically and scoops his winnings — a chocolate bar, three cigarettes, a woman’s bracelet — into his hands before standing. “Thanks for the game, boyos.”

“Oh, get outta here.” One of the guys waves a hand angrily. Lup wonders if he’s the one who lost the bracelet. The man across from him turns to his friend and murmurs: “Did we just get had by Cap’s brother?

“Ch’yeah you did, don’t tell me you don’t see the family resemblance,” Taako says, turning back, looking ready to get in a pointless argument. He likes to hear himself talk too much.

The man startles. Lup suspects he thought he was talking too quietly for anyone to hear. She suspects that if she weren’t enhanced, she wouldn’t have picked up his words.

Taako also heard him.

Lup flicks his ear to head off the scuffle. “C’mon, T. I was bein’ serious.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, alright Lulu,” he says, and throws an arm around her shoulder, finally consenting to leave now that he can pretend to be the one making the decision.

She lets him. Taako’s touchy that way. Before the war, she’d have probably called him on it, shoved him off of her shoulder, but two weeks ago she hauled him out of a Hunger war camp, off of an operating table. So. That deserves a little consideration.

Lup’s glad to see him pulling a con on some hapless victims. He’s acting like himself again.

As they walk, Taako offers her the bracelet and Lup shakes her head. He fastens it around his own wrist instead. It glints in the moonlight as he jangles it, a sharp contrast to the ragged uniform he's wearing and the badly patched jacket he scrounged up somewhere. Back home, he always took meticulous care of his clothing.

Taako shoves the cigarettes in a pocket and partially unwraps the chocolate. “You want some?” he asks, offering it to her.

“Yeah, thanks babe,” Lup says, accepting the chocolate and taking an unladylike bite before handing it back. “Sorry to pull you away.”

“S’fine,” Taako says through his own mouthful of chocolate. “I have no fuckin’ idea who those fools are, anyway. What's up?”

She shrugs. “I'll tell you back in our room.” He gives her a sideways glance and she shrugs again.

Half an hour ago, she was in a basement with a half-dozen assorted brass. It was tense as fuck. Lup’s real annoying for them — a showgirl turned soldier who, two weeks ago, single handedly destroyed a Hunger facility and rescued an entire POW camp without permission from her commanding officer. Hell, she didn’t even have a commanding officer. As soon as she’d stepped back on base, accompanied by the prisoners she’d freed, the journalists had been all over the story. Now the army can’t sweep her under the rug anymore. Captain America’s on her way to becoming a legend. There's talk of comic books.

She's still hanging around base, the show tour canceled, the brass trying to figure out what to do with her, with the prisoners she rescued, the remnants of the 107th. Taako.

They're making her a real captain, backdating an order sending her into Azzano. They've told her that if she steps out of line one more time, she's facing a court martial. She should be facing a court martial now for what she did, but instead Hallwinter and Davenport are gunning for her to get her own unit — a small team for highly specialized missions, specifically designed to counter the Hunger, or the Nazi “weird science” division, as Hallwinter likes to call it.

"I made you a supersoldier!” Hallwinter had shouted, slamming his hands against the desk so that all their cups rattled. "The least you could do is use her!"

"I made myself, thank you very much," Lup said, annoyed. "But he's right. I can lift a fucking tank, babes.. I just destroyed a Hunger base pretty much all on my own, thanks very much."

"And we're well aware of that," one of the higher-ups who got all shirty about the concept of a super soldier said. "But you disobeyed the chain of command." His tone of voice implied that was the highest anathema possible.

In the military, it is. Lup doesn't know how Taako didn't get thrown out on his ear for insubordination during his first week of training.

"Give her a team," Davenport said, rubbing his eyes. The meeting had gone hours longer than it was supposed to. "This isn't — this isn't a normal war. We're going to have to resort to some unorthodox tactics."

Lup liked the sound of that. And she liked the sound of a team — but she can see the looks in the officers' eyes, the expectation of control.

"I get to decide who joins up," she said, standing so everyone could see the star on her chest, the firm set of her shoulders. "Or else I'm letting everyone know exactly how you created Captain America."

Then she turned and left, frustrated. Determined. They're going to give her what she wants. She knows it. But Lup never thought fighting a war would be so much bureaucracy. She knows that if she complained to Taako, he'd laugh at her.

Maybe she will. He's quieter than he used to be.

Lup worries about Taako. How could she not? He's been fighting for months. She’d received the "MISSING, PRESUMED DEAD" report when the U.S.O. arrived to entertain the camp. She’d pulled him off a Nazi operating table and he’d looked at her like she wasn't real. He had said, voice hoarse: "Shit, of course they'd send me an angel that looked like my sister. Thought I told the big guy I wanted Cary Grant."

"Dumbass," she’d laugh-sobbed, hauling his arm over her shoulder. "We're both alive, alright? I'm gonna get us outta here."

A couple of steps later, he was no longer stumblin. He looked at her, blood dripping off a cut on his forehead, and said, "Oh fuck! Lup! Lup what the fuck are you doing here? You're supposed to be in Brooklyn." The last sentence was spoken in the most outraged tone she’d ever heard from her brother.

"Less talkin', more walkin," she said, and grabbed him by his elbow and then the whole facility was on fire and Red Skull had peeled the skin off his skull and they didn't have any more time to talk.

On the way back to camp, Taako was subdued, but he stuck to her like a shadow — gave her discrete advice on how to command her rescued troops. His hands shook, the first few days, and he scowled when he caught her watching him.

She didn't stop. She just stopped letting him notice.

"Why were you on an operating table?" she asked on the second day of their march back to the Allied camp, as she watched him hotwire a truck they stole off the side of the road.

"I don't wanna talk about it. Get off my ass, Lu, because you can't say shit, Cap." Taako scowled at her and she’d let it go for the moment.

Lup suspects he's going to lay into her as soon as he's feeling up to it. He’s real mad about the Cap thing.

She let the subject of “what happened in the prison camp” lapse, but Lup's been cataloguing Taako’s differences. Andrews was German. Andrews was forced to work on the project that created Red Skull. Lup can’t help wondering what happened to all that research.

There were puncture marks in Taako's neck when she rescued him — healed over now — and he won't tell her what he was injected with. Maybe he doesn't know.

Taako doesn't look any different, 'cept for the differences that drills and marches and combat and shitty rations make to everyone. A far cry from the man who spent every spare moment at the movies or listening to the radio or hustlin' pool. But Lup doesn't look any different either. Maybe a bit more fit.

She asked Dr. Andrews whether she'd change, back in Brooklyn, the night before they injected her body with serum and showered her in gamma rays. The higher-ups talked about making the perfect soldier. All the other recruits had been men and they’d talked about the serum as something that would turn them into thick-necked meatheads who could pick up a train with their bare hands.

When Lup was born, everyone thought she was a boy. Identical twin boys — her and Taako, like peas in a pod. Lup disabused everyone of that notion pretty quickly. Not that her and Taako stopped being identical. While she'd been perfectly willing to do whatever it took to get to the front faster, she... liked how she looked, the way she filled out her clothes.

It would’ve been a waste of her wardrobe, is all she's saying.

Andrews had told her he didn't know what would change. They'd never tried the serum on a human subject. "It amplifies everything about you, both good and bad," he said. "It turns you into what you have the potential to be, your most inner self."

Then he’d laughed ruefully and admitted he was maybe waxing a little too eloquent. Lup’d laughed too and thanked him anyway, feeling more reassured. She's always known who she is.

But she was still relieved to step out of the machine in her same-old body. The scientists had seemed disappointed at first, but they leaned in real quick once she showed them she could still pick up an entire train car without much effort.

#

Taako falls onto Lup's bed as soon as they return to her quarters. She's got nice digs because she's Cap, and Taako technically doesn't have a place to stay because there's the entire 107th to be rehoused. Not that it matters, because she'd grabbed Taako the second he got out of medical and bullied the quartermaster into getting her a cot for her brother.

She and Taako have been sleeping on Lup's narrow plank of a bed together anyway, just like when they were kids.

Right now, the cot is covered in their clothing, a spare helmet, and a bunch of guns Taako’s somehow managed to collect and keep hold of. Lup has no idea where he got them from. She tosses her shield on to the cot, along with the rest of their mess.

"At least take your fuckin' boots off," she says, sitting on the edge of her bed. "Shove over."

"You take your boots off," Taako mumbles into the pillow, but obliges, scooting up a little, and she lounges against his back.

He turns his head so he's looking vaguely in her direction. "So. What's up?"

"D’you wanna be Captain America?" she asks. Might as well get right into it.

Taako scrambles upright, dislodging Lup, the pillow falling onto the floor in his haste. "What?" he says. "What?"

"Do you wanna be Cap?" Lup repeats, moving so he can re-adjust himself. This might not have been the best way to introduce the idea.

"No!" he says. "No, of course I don't wanna be Cap, you're Cap. I have zero interest in bein' Cap, nuh-uh. Why do you want me to be Captain America?" Taako's drawn his knees up to his chest and he's staring at Lup like she said the sky was falling.

"Because they're giving me a team," Lup says.

Taako frowns. "Wait, a team? Okay, back up. Start at the beginning, yeah?"

She sighs, and recounts the meeting, the way the brass looked at her like a piece of meat and how Hallwinter looked at her like a science experiment. The way that Davenport advocated for her to get her own team. The way she felt boxed in by all their expectations, her fear of being controlled.

She tells him about her ultimatum and then she shrugs. "I kinda blackmailed them."

"Up top," Taako says, and she high fives him. "You didn't wrangle an honorable discharge or, like, a pass back to the spangle circuit outta them?"

"I didn't ask," Lup says. "I didn't want to. T, leaving... It wouldn't be the right thing to do. Captain America's more useful — I'm more useful here than back at home."

"Who the fuck cares about being useful?" Taako asks. "I'm useful as shit and I still got captured by Nazis. You don't see me trying to stick around."

It’s the opening Lup’s been waiting for.

"They experimented on you, didn't they?"

"What are you even talking about," Taako says, his voice spiraling all high. He’s a terrible liar. “They didn’t — I’m not —” He swings his feet off the bed and starts getting up, but Lup grabs him around the waist, throwing them both back onto the covers. “Hey!”

“You were on an operating table, Taako,” she says, as he tries to wriggle out of her grasp. “And I’ve been thinkin’. There’s no way you coulda made that jump across the broken bridge if you weren’t some sorta enhanced, you recovered awful quick, and you’ve been avoiding the medics, haven’t you?”

“That’s none of your business!” He’s putting up a struggle that even she’s having trouble dealing with, and that’s more proof that he’s also enhanced, because she’s Captain America.

“You’re my brother, dumbass! Of course it’s my business! What! Happened!” She nearly shouts the last two words, she hadn’t realized she was so mad about all of this, not even at him, just at the whole situation — that she had to rescue him from a Nazi war camp, that he was caught by Nazis, that he enlisted before she did because “one of us had to, Lup, might as well be cha’boy.”

The thing about Taako that everyone forgets — that she forgets, except when she’s confronted with it — is that he’s sneaky. He had organized everything meticulously. First he had gotten himself 4-F’ed, somehow, and she’d been fine with that because if her little brother was going to stay safe in Brooklyn then good. But then he’d enlisted under her name — skipped his shift at the restaurant to sign up before she could. And so Lup was the one stuck in Brooklyn, trying to untangle all the red tape and bureaucracy, while Taako was sent to training, and then overseas.

She still hasn’t forgiven him for it.

“You don’t just get to hide that sorta shit from me,” she says. “You’re all the family I’ve got; what the fuck did they do to you?”

He stops moving. He taps her arm. “Geddoff, you’re heavy.”

“I mean it,” she says. “Tell me what happened. I’m not letting you go until you do.”

“Cha’boy doesn’t really wanna talk about how he got experimented on by Nazis,” Taako says, and his whining doesn’t cover up the kernel of genuine distress in his voice.

Lup lifts an arm, shifting them so she’s got him more in a hug than in a chokehold. “I know. S’just me though, okay?”

Taako is silent for a long moment. “I think it was the super-soldier serum,” he says. “I think they were tryin’ to replicate whatever Andrews did to you.”

Lup frowns. “Yeah,” she says. “That’s what I thought.”

“S’that why you asked if I wanted to be Captain America?”

“Sort of. Mostly I asked cause you’re my twin brother and the smartest guy I know, and I hear you’re apparently some sorta crazy sniper. And — and I know this is real fuckin selfish, but I want you on my team. And if there’s two Caps, well, that’s gonna be real confusin’ for the Nazis and the Hunger.”

Taako sighs.

“Why couldn’t you just have blackmailed the officers into sending you home?” Taako asks, and keeps talking before she can answer. “Yeah, fuck, like it’s even a question. I mean, if you put it like that... I’ll do it, but I want you to know that I hate this, and I hate you, and you’re a stupid self-sacrificial dork, Lulu. Why couldn’t you be a lil’ more pragmatic?”

“Sorry,” Lup says. She is, genuinely contrite, the anger she’s been carrying around with her having banked itself. Now she just feels bad for Taako. Her practical brother stuck with her and her idealism. She knows that being Cap isn’t the most self-preserving of decisions, but she can’t not be Cap now that she’s been given the responsibility. Now that Andrews is dead and she’s the last known supersoldier the world’s going to get. And if her being Cap — if her being on the front lines — stops the war even a day sooner, then it will all have been worth it. “I can’t help it.”

“S’all right,” Taako says, and then wriggles a hand free of her hold to pat her a little condescendingly, a little comfortingly on her head. “Someone’s gotta watch your six.”

#

Taako has a few regrets in life. Not telling his aunt he loved her before she died. Getting caught stealing cigarettes and losing his cushy grocery job, couple of years back. Being a little too good at shooting and getting tapped for special training during basic. Right now, he mostly regrets telling Lup that he'd watch her back, because that's led to his current situation.

It's raining — cold sleet falling like a thousand pinpricks against his exposed skin and soaking his coat and pants and underwear — and he's stuck in a tree, staring at a Nazi — maybe Hunger — base, waiting for one of the assholes inside to come out on patrol. He's been here for hours. Since before dawn. He's going to be here until after dusk.

He sneezes. He hopes the rain lets up soon, but at least it's good cover. It's going to make any shots he needs to take harder, too, but that's no problem.

Taako is a killer sniper. Pun entirely intended. He knows it surprised Lup, when she learned long range sniping was what they’d tapped him for, was the thing he wasn't allowed to write home about.

"Don't they know you can't sit still?" she asked, when he told her, amusement dancing on her face.

"Shut up! I'm real good at this crap," he’d said, and she’d nodded and said, "I trust you." What was he supposed to do with that except show her his chops on the shooting range back at camp? He’d shot a whole clip of bullseyes, which was kind of a waste of ammunition. Lup's in good with Hallwinter, Taako figures he can waste some lead.

He’d turned to Lup after, and she’d looked impressed. She’d walked up to him, clapped a hand on his shoulder, and said, "Shit, T."

"Told you," Taako said, all smug, and he’d stood there for a moment, letting the stillness evaporate off his skin, until he felt like himself again.

That was two weeks ago, give or take. They've been out here, in the cold, miserable weather, scoping out the suspected Hunger base, for four days. It's Lup's first mission — not counting the backdating of her dramatic prisoner rescue. A trial run. Can't fuck it up. So Taako's lying on a tree branch with his rifle, waiting for a good moment to strike, to sow the seeds of panic in the assholes working for the Hunger, or — if he can’t get a good shot — a decent approximation of their guard schedule.

It's boring work. Taako gets why Lup was surprised by his aptitude for it. He’s either entertained or he’s looking for his next entertainment. But shooting suits him. There's a trick to it. A sort of floating focus. You send your mind two layers above your body and you can stay there forever. Then you breathe in, and you exhale, and you pull the trigger.

Still nice when things happen though — a new guard replaces the old one. Taako watches him through his scope. This guy looks… young. Younger than Taako. Probably can't even grow a beard. Taako snorts softly. Guess the Nazis are doing the same shit that the Americans are — recruiting everyone they can and letting anyone who wants to take a crack at serving their country. And drafting those who don’t.

Taako watches the kid on his lone patrol and lets his mind hover up above everything else in the relative silence of the dreary late-November evening. It’s kinda peaceful. Kinda zen. The patter of the rain on leaves around him would be soothing if he wasn’t up a tree staring down the scope of a sniper rifle.

And then things go wrong, and it's not even Taako's fault.

That’s the annoying part. It's a squirrel — fattened up for the winter and jumping onto a too-thin branch which snaps with a sharp crack — a sound that echoes through the otherwise silent tableau and draws the kid's gaze straight to Taako, to the glint of his scope in the trees.

The kid yelps, draws his gun, and Jesus that thing looks like nothing Taako's ever seen — all sleek lines like something from the Hallwinter Expo. The kid might be a kid, but he's still armed, and armed with something weird.

The kid shoots. The kid gets lucky.

The bullet rips through the meat of Taako's left thigh like a hot coal, prompting Taako's arms to lock up, and Taako's eyes to water — pushes a curse from his mouth. By the grace of drilled-in instinct, he pulls the trigger and in an instant, he's killed the kid. He sees the small “O” that the kid's mouth makes, the bulging eyes, the quiet slump of his body falling over, and then he's not paying any attention to the kid anymore because his leg feels like it's on fire.

Taako tries to move it and it sends involuntary tears down his cheeks, so that's out of the question. He tries to twist around to look at his leg, and that's more successful. The wound isn't as bad as he had thought — there's a deep red line down his thigh where the cloth is ripped away, but it's a graze, just cutting through skin and muscle, he thinks. Though if it’s nicked an artery then he's really fucked.

Taako twists back to look at the Hunger base. No one’s come to relieve the kid. They're not going to find his body for ages, probably. Nobody’s coming for the Hitler Youth. He laughs a little at his own joke. He’s maybe going into shock? Going into shock would be bad.

It's just a graze, though. He's fine. Taako's good. Nothing to be fuckin’ shocked about here.

He should probably do something about the bleeding.

Taako grimaces, steeling himself and shifting his gun, making sure it’s secure in the little nest he’s made for himself before letting go. "Fuck," he says quietly, and then: "Arghhh, Jesus fuck," as he maneuvers himself into a sitting position, tears streaming silently down his face because motherfucker.

It's not as bad as the Hunger experiments, but it's still pretty bad. Still burns like someone dragged a red-hot poker down his thigh. He wriggles out of his jacket. Too bad it's going to get all bloody, he liked this one.

He presses the fabric against the wound and bites down hard on his bottom lip to stifle a cry. His entire thigh is red. Some of the branch is red. He's not sure how much wounds are supposed to bleed, but maybe this is normal. The jacket does a pretty alright job of soaking up the blood.

Taako really hopes this works. He wonders if he should try and head back to base. But either it's a graze and it'll stop bleeding soon, or it hit an artery and he'll bleed out before he even gets down the tree. So he'll stay, and hope the bullet went through muscle and nothing else.

He presses a little harder. Chokes down a sob. Fuck. He's gotta be quiet.

The evening creeps onward. Taako reaches for the focus he keeps when he’s sniping and spends most of the day in a bit of a hazy fugue. He fails to die. The rain keeps falling and nobody comes to relieve the dead guard — the only spot of luck on this miserable fucking mission.

Taako stares at the kid’s corpse through his scope. They keep each other company, Taako light-headed from pain and blood loss, feeling morbid as he looks at this kid who could’ve been him, could be Lup if Taako doesn’t stick around to watch out for her. And night finally comes.

Slowly, painstakingly, Taako climbs down the tree, his rifle slung across his back. His leg hurts a lot less, now. He wouldn’t have been able to move this much a few hours ago. Maybe thanks to the serum. It's too dark for him to tell whether it's healed, but he can move if he goes slow and he doesn't want to risk poking the wound and setting a fresh round of pain off again.

By the time he returns to camp, Taako's barely limping at all, though he's real fucking dizzy — camp being a few miles from the Hunger base. It's still drizzling and he's shrugged his jacket back on to guard against the chill. It’s ineffective as fuck because he's already completely soaked and his jacket is wet too, from rain and blood. He wants a hot bath. Ha, and a flying car, too.

The smallest of fires is burning, set up with a bit of oilcloth over it to keep the water from putting it out and to shield it from enemy aircraft. It's down to the embers. A smattering of half-shelters constructed in a ring around the fire, one the larger than the others because him and Lup stuck two sad little oil cloth tents together to make one full-size.

Troth is on guard duty, sitting with her rain jacket securely zipped, the only concession she's making to the weather. She's a trooper. He doesn't think he's ever heard her complain, and when he approaches she nods at him.

"Learn anything interesting?" she asks in her crisp, quiet voice.

"Had to kill a kraut," he says, and doesn't mention the bullet graze. It's dark enough that she can't distinguish blood-wet from water-wet. "Lup around?"

"In your tent," she says. "Good work. You're soaked."

"Yeah, least the rain gave me some cover," he says. He waves at Troth and does his best to walk in a straight line to his tent, which is hard, because everything is wavering.

#

Lup’s squinting down at some maps of the local terrain in the dim light of her lamp when Taako staggers in looking like drowned death.

"Jesus fuck!" she says, dropping her papers at the sight of him. He grins, but he looks really pale. It reminds her unsettlingly of when she hauled him out of the lab. "Christ, T, are you alright?"

Lup stands, and starts rummaging in her pack for her towel. He sits heavily on the ground. "Just got a little bit shot at, is all. S'all good, cha'boy shot him back. They might know we're here now, maybe. Sorry. Think I got the guard schedule though. Place is pretty deserted."

There's a lot for her to unpack there, but first: "You got shot?" She whirls back around to give him a long, panicked look over. He mostly looks tired, drawn, extremely wet. She'd expected the wet — it's been raining all day — but shot?

"M'fine," he says. "Just my leg."

"And you walked back on it?"

"It was just a graze! What else was I supposed to do?"

He has a point, Lup guesses. Taako looks annoyed, pulling stuff out of his pack to find some dry clothing. "You're right," she says, turning back to her stuff so he won't see the worried expression on her face. She knows he's been through worse. She's seen the aftermath of it. But it feels different that his time as a POW. She sent him out today. He got hurt and it's partially because of her.

A bullet to the leg. A graze. If it had been a few inches to the right, he could have died.

She pulls out a towel and her first aid pouch. "At least lemme patch you up, alright?"

"Ain't gonna say no to Captain America," he says, but obligingly peels his wet pants off. His left thigh isn't exactly a bloody mess, but it sure is a bloody something. "It looks worse than it is. I think the serum kicked in."

"You're Captain America too, dingus," she says, “Thank god for the serum.” She passes him the towel for his hair before digging out a spare shirt to wipe the blood off his skin. Her hands are maybe a little shaky. It's the most blood she's seen on Taako at once. At the POW camp he was punctured and bruised, but not bloody. The wound looks clean, at least. Further in the healing process than she would have expected. More proof that he's got a similar serum variant to hers. The Hunger scientist who experimented on him must have worked with Dr. Andrews before — must have been partially responsible for the thing that consumed Red Skull.

"Hey. I'm fine. Cha'boy's alright," he says, and he's using his nice voice, the one he uses when he's trying not to be an asshat — the one he used when he was holding a handkerchief to her bloody nose after all the fights she got in when they were kids, the one he used after she broke up with her last girlfriend. She scowls.

"I know, T," she says. "I just — I dunno. I sent you out there, and you got shot. This was — this was supposed to be fucking reconnaissance."

"Shit happens," he says, wincing when she pulls a little at the ragged edge of his wound. "It's fine. It's just bad cause I lost a buncha blood. I think it didn't clot for a while ‘cause of the rain."

She doesn't say anything. Focuses on cleaning everything up. She'll bandage the graze and it'll be gone in a week, if Taako's lucky. Assuming the serum works the same for him. It's not a large wound. But it could have been. If it had hit an artery... if he had bled out, she never would have known even though she was only three miles away.

"I shouldn't have asked you to stay," Lup says. "I should have gotten you a discharge or something. A cushy desk job with ops in London or some shit. You'd have been good at that."

He kicks her with his good leg.

"Don't be an idiot. I know you might not have noticed," he says, puffing his chest out, looking all indignant. "Cause you're real unobservant and all that. But, me, hi, I'm Captain America, hello, I'm hella good at what I do. Shit's gonna be fine. I'm gonna be fine, Lulu. You're not getting rid of me that easy."