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we leave through the fire

Chapter Text

The soldier doesn’t remember his son’s birth or how he came to be. He doesn’t remember bedding a woman and watching her belly swell, but they said the boy was his.

The soldier first met him after being shoved into his cell and finding a tiny mat lying beside his cot. A small boy of two years sat atop it, playing with his toes. He looked up at the soldier, unafraid. His expression was filled solely with innocent curiosity.

“This is your son. Peter. His mother is dead,” The handler grumbled before slamming the metal door shut, leaving the child in the care of the soldier.

The boy’s curly brown hair, doe eyes, and rosy cheeks looked nothing like the soldier. The one similarity was the boy was unkept. Dirt splattered his face and clothing like he hadn’t been properly bathed in some time. They all smelled here; the guards, the girls, the air. Dirt, sweat, and gunpowder seeped into their skin, heavy musk coating the walls. This boy would fit in fine.

The solder was still clad in his mission wear, full of guns and leather and a face smeared with black paint. They usually dismember him, take apart the weapon before storing it away, but not today. Today he could kill the boy in a second if he wanted to, just as he had a prime minister some hours ago. He didn’t know of which country. He was following orders.

The guards stared at their cameras in stifled amusement to see when the soldier would react violently to a small pest invading his home like the rivals watched Daniel in the lions’ den. They covered their mouths and giggled like school girls, one shushing the other as they watched.

The lion never attacked. He observed the boy silently. Even though the solder looked like a monster, burly and tall and stone-faced, the little boy beamed at him.

The soldier approached him as carefully as he would a bomb. He sat down beside the mat, leaving three feet between them. It was to no avail. As soon as he was seated, knelt with his thighs resting on his ankles, the boy smiled and crawled into his lap.

The soldier tensed, all muscles cramping as the boy got comfortable and took the soldier’s face between his tiny palms. His little eyebrows scrunched down.

“Your face is dirty,” His words were mushed up Russian. Simple baby talk.

The soldier raised his eyebrows, “So is yours.”

Peter giggled like popping bubbles and cuddled against the holster strapped across the soldier’s chest. It held two guns and three grenades. The boy didn’t notice.

***

“Petya.” Papa murmured, crouching down to Peter’s level, “what are you doing?”

“Playing.” Peter smiled, casting another blanket off Papa’s bed and watching it float down. They didn’t let him have toys here and it looked beautiful like it was flying, like a plane or a bird maybe. He hadn’t seen outside in so long.

He had once tried to build a fort out of these blankets, but papa had tsked and put them back on the bed. The blankets were for sleeping, as the nightstand was for storing and the guns were for shooting. None of these were toys.

“You cannot do that,” Papa said, calmly picking up his blankets and folding them back up.

Peter whine softly, pouting as his toys were taken away until his father lifted him up and kissed his cheek. Peter tucked his face into his father’s shoulder and closed his eyes even though there was still ash across papa’s skin and he smelled like fire.

If Peter could not play in the room, maybe he will play in his dreams.

***

The cell was boring unless Papa was there, too.

There wasn’t much in it besides the mats for them to sleep upon, a corner with a toilet and a sink, and a small night stand with some children’s clothes for Peter. There was the box above the door with a blinking red light that sometimes talked, but the voices were always crackly, loud and mean. Papa said they had to be careful what they say around it. Someone was always listening, and someone was always watching.

There were bits of black charcoal left in the soldier’s pockets from a small fire he started in the middle of a Siberian winter. Peter used those to draw and practice the Cyrillic alphabet.

He was a smart boy for three. He already knew how to write his name, papa, home and Hydra. Though the soldier had to hold his hand and trace the words a few times before Peter mastered it, he was quite intelligent. Papa said he absorbed information like a sponge. Peter thought Papa was funny.

“He is too young to be learning such things,” An agent hissed to one of the handlers, but the soldier paid them no mind. They were upset his son knew things. It didn’t matter the age. Just as they were upset the soldier remembered enough to teach him.

They couldn’t play games, really. Papa told stories of walking across the Appalachian trail and flying in helicopters miles above the earth. How small the trees were, how green. He never said why he was there. Those were stories for when Peter was older. And when there weren’t stories to tell, there was food to eaten and sleep to be had.

There was once a grey mouse that scampered across the floor. Peter watched in awe, laying on his belly on top of the mat, head hoisted upon his hands.

He had some biscuit left from dinner. They always biscuits and mush. Papa said the mush was good and helped little boys grow strong. Peter was already too strong, and he thought it tasted awful.

He peered over his shoulder towards Papa, who was laying on his cot with his shiny arm lying over his eyes. He turned back towards the mouse and tore a corner of his biscuit.

“Petya,” Papa grumbled, startling Peter to twist back and look at him. His arm was still covering his eyes, “We do not feed pests.”

“I am not!” Peter protested. Papa lifted his arm to give Peter a look through the side of his eyes. Peter huffed and pouted.

“How did you know? Your eyes were closed.” Peter groaned, flopping his arms down so he rested completely on his bed. The mouse ran back through the tiny crack in the wall and Peter would probably never see it again.

The corner of Papa’s mouth quirked, “Papas see everything.”

The next day Peter asked Papa to teach him how to write “mouse” and Papa laughed enough the box over the door crackled with a voice ordering them to be quiet.

***

“Papa,” Peter started one morning as his father washed him with a sponge and bucket, “why do they put you in a chair? Is it like time out?”

Papa chuckled, scrubbing dirt out from under Peter’s fingernails, “No, Petya. It’s to heal me.”

“Then why do you scream?”

Papa sighed, dropping the sponge into the bucket to look Peter in the eyes, “There are some things that young boys aren’t meant to hear. You will not understand until you are much older. Until then, I want you to cover your ears.”

The next time the agents slammed open the door and dragged Papa out of the room, Peter climbed onto the cot and crawled deeply beneath the covers. He pressed his father’s pillow over his head, but the hoarse screams flooded into the room and seeped through the pillow.

Papa shrieked like a slaughtered pig, gasped like a dying man and shrieked again. The lights above Peter brightened and cracked like they would pop and shatter and the box above the door screamed. Peter pressed the pillow tighter against his ears.

Then, it stopped. The lights fell back to their normal brightness and muffled voices replaced the wretched screams. Eight words followed by three, in a garbled voice that sounded nothing like Papa, but Peter knew it was him.

The room buzzed in silence. Peter didn’t move for hours, two hands holding the pillow above his head until he couldn’t breathe. Until the guards threw in his tray of dinner, barking at him to come and eat it before they take it away.

***

They always send Papa somewhere far after the chair. Peter wouldn’t see him for days, weeks even.

When Papa was gone, the agents would sometimes bring Peter to the training room and let him run around on the mats and watch the girls who stayed in the rooms beside theirs train and fight.

There was four of them. Papa called them the new widows.

“There was a program very similar years back,” Papa explained once when Peter first saw them. They walked between guards, shoulders pulled back, hair tied up and faces very firm, “They aren’t here to play with you.”

It had been so long since Peter had seen children, but he didn’t remember them being so serious. He thought they were all fun like him. These girls did not have fun. They never talked, even though they could speak many languages, and they never smiled. Peter never learned their names.

One had hair so fine it looked white and a scar above her right eye. Another had spots on her skin and a crooked nose. The third had two different colored eyes and led with her left hand while the last, the least favorite, get yelled at a lot for standing with a slouch.

They seemed so much older, like teenagers. It was years later when Peter learned the eldest was then eight.

They fought with such fluidity and grace that it seemed too much like a dance, but they’d always end bleeding.

“One day, you will train like this,” A lean and bald agent, they called him the trainer, stated while Peter watched the fight in awe. He couldn’t wait. He had to until he was older, four years old perhaps.

They’d bring him back into his room at night when the girls were stored away as well and give him his tray of mush and biscuits. He’d dress himself for bed, lay in his father’s cot and retell himself the stories of papa’s adventures.

Papa would come back before long. Each time he was gone felt shorter and shorter. Peter was always excited to see him even though he came back cold.

He’d observe Peter like he had that first day, quiet and startled like he’d forgotten Peter would be there. Like he forgot who Peter was. He wouldn’t acknowledge Peter for some time; would move around the room like he was there alone and dart his eyes anywhere that wasn’t near his son.

Until something would click. His eyes would widen, his back would straighten like a coil wound tight, his breathing would get loud and quick and he’d suddenly look at Peter for the first time in days, but he wouldn’t move towards him.

He’d stare at Peter and Peter would stare at him, silently pleading that yes I am your son, yes you are my papa, please talk to me, I don’t want to be in the quiet anymore.

And Papa would deflate like a balloon.

“Petya.” Papa sighed, and Peter ran towards him, wrapping his arms around his father’s legs and pressing his face against his thigh.

Papa would run his fingers through Peter’s hair and pick him up.

He’d say it was the chair. He’d say it was the mission. But there was always something that made him forget.

“I don’t mean to, Petya,” Papa whispered frightened into Peter’s hair, “But I can’t help it.”

“It’s okay, Papa,” Peter said but it was muffled from his face smooshed into the leather of his father’s jacket, “You always remember.”

***

They did something to Peter’s hand while the soldier was killing politicians in Moscow. He was already strong, bending metal at three as if he were playing a game. Now at four, he could crawl up the walls like they were covered in sticky paper.

They called the soldier into a training room where he saw his son hanging upside down on the ceiling.

“Hi Papa!” He cheered, waving with a big smile even though the soldier never gave one back.

“Look, Soldat, your son is a miracle.” The trainer cackled, yellow teeth shining in the fluorescent lights, “crawling the walls like a little spider!”

That night, Peter sprinted across one side of the room to the other, crawling up the walls and hopping down before running again. The soldier observed while sat on the cot, hands over his mouth and eyes calculating.

“Papa, look!” Peter laughed, climbing up high on the wall and backflipping off, then ran to another wall, “Did you see me, papa? Did you see?”

The soldier slowly stood up and plucked Peter into his arms, holding him as gentle as a glass figurine, “That’s dangerous, Petya.”

Peter pushed his little hands against the soldier’s chest to look him in the eyes, “No, it isn’t! The guards had me do it all day! It’s fun and they all laughed!”

The soldier swallowed the bubbling sensation of rage down his throat. If he let himself get mad, he’d do something reckless and they would take Peter away. Make his son live in by himself with no one to care for him and Peter’s heart would be too soft to take it.

The soldier looked over at the box above the door; always listening, always waiting for the soldier to say something he shouldn’t have so they could beat him. They’d laugh then, too.

He pushed Peter’s head towards his, whispering close and carefully into his ear. Peter got very silent and still.

“Sometimes the guards make you do things for their own enjoyment. Sometimes their laughter isn’t nice at all.”

Peter twisted to look at his father, little face scrunched in confusion. He opened his mouth to ask a question and the soldier gently placed his hand over. His questions would be too loud, and they’d cause more questions to arise from the other end of the ever-listening box.

The soldier dropped his voice into a near silent hiss, “Do not trust the things they do. There is never kindness behind their smile. Only bad intentions. If they find out you’re having fun, they’ll put you in your own room.”

Peter looked at his father in horror. He didn’t want to be put in his own room. He wanted to stay here with Papa.

He nodded, too serious for a little boy, and didn’t climb the walls of their room again.

***

Papa was right when he said the guards weren’t kind. They had always been so nice to Peter, laughing at things he said, teaching him new tricks like how to throw a knife or tie a noose, ruffling his hair even though Papa would grip his shoulder very tight and pull him a little closer.

One morning, four guards woke Peter by crashing through the door and storming inside. He thought they were going to take Papa to the chair, but they grabbed him by the collar and dragged him out. He screamed and twisted and bit but they didn’t let go. A guard lifted him and tossed him over his shoulder as if he was a sack of rice. It knocked the wind out of him and hurt his ribs.

Papa tried to attack them, grabbing the nightstand and smashing it against the back of a guard’s head. He knocked the guard out before another grabbed him and a third shocked him in the gut for too long. His knees gave out and he fell garbling to the floor.

Peter screamed over the guard’s shoulder as he watched his father twitch on the ground and foam at the mouth. He was shocked again for Peter’s outburst. Peter pressed his hand against his mouth to stay quiet.

The guard threw Peter into the training room with the girls who stood in a line at attention. They barely glanced his way before snapping their gazes forward again. Peter's stomach churned like he had swallowed ice and suddenly he realized this time he wouldn’t be watching.

“It is time,” the trainer informed Peter with grin like a sneer with rotting teeth and bad breath. He grabbed Peter’s arm and shoved him onto the mat.

Peter was big now, four years old, and he had to start fighting. They made him train with the girls daily. And they were cruel.

They’d throw Peter to the ground, stomp on his feet, punch him in the eye. Peter would fight back, sometimes getting in a few good shots, but it was sloppy. He was stronger, but they knew how to fight.

He used to blame the girls until he realized the guards and trainer were always the ones laughing when he fell, cheering the girls on and screaming at them not to stop. They’d tell Peter he was their favorite because he had something the girls didn’t. He had the serum of the soldier. Veins pumped full of the same medicine the soldier had pulsing through his.

“Again,” The trainer demanded with a smirk, stood with arms folded and legs spread. He’d say it over and over even when Peter was bruised and sore and crying.

“I want papa!” He wailed on the ground and the guards would huff and shake their heads. Even the girls would cross their arms like they were disappointed.

“This is the only time, Soldat. He must learn,” The trainer said as the soldier sat with a sniffling Peter in his lap. The soldier nodded but kept smoothing his hand over his son’s hair until he stopped crying.

Peter looked up across the room towards the widow he had been fighting, the one with the slouch. She wiped her hand across her bleeding nose, smearing blood on her forearm before dropping it stiffly to her side. She watched Peter and the soldier coolly, not looking away even when Peter met her eye.

It occurred to him suddenly, like when he noticed his father’s arm was metal and a gun could kill him, that she had no one to wipe her tears or kiss her wounds. None of the girls had. Maybe that’s why they never cried.

Peter cuddled his papa a little closer.

***

Peter did not cry during training anymore. He was five and too big for tears. He could pin the girls to the ground and dodge their hits. He could jump and climb up the walls and attack them from the sides. He no longer felt bad when they bled.

The guards cheered, and the trainer stood proud, grinning and ruffling Peter’s hair after every fight.

“You are my favorite,” He would say, crouching down and looking Peter right in the face. Peter held his breath not to gag at the smell of the trainer’s tongue, but his chest swelled with pride.

They were so proud of the work he had done and the progress he had made. They gifted him a toy. His very own toy. One that Papa could not tell him not to play with because it was attached to his wrist.

“See papa? It shoots webs from my fingers!” Peter squealed in excitement as he blasted a string to the top of their cell.

Papa stood against the wall, staring hard at the mess on the ceiling.

“That’s great, Petya,” Papa said, though he looked quite angry.

“What’s wrong?” Peter asked, all excitement escaping his voice. His arms dropped to his sides and shoulders slumped. He thought Papa would be proud the way the trainer was.

“They’re mocking you.” Papa growled through gritted teeth, eyes still on the web, “The little spider.”

“No, they’re not!” Peter yelled, and Papa moved his glare to him. Peter ducked his head and twisted his feet. He knew better than to yell at Papa.

“I’m sorry,” He whispered, breath hitching like he might cry but he doesn’t do that anymore. He’s five. He’s too old for tears.

Papa sighed, and his face softened. He walked to Peter and gently lifted his hand into his, examining the toy attached to his wrist, “You cannot take it off?”

Peter shook his head. Only the trainer could take it off. Only he knew how.

Papa breathed deeply and nodded, releasing Peter’s hand and declaring it was time for bed.

The next time Peter was brought into the training room, three guards whistled the tune of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”. He stuttered in his step. They cackled with their yellow teeth and eyes staring down at Peter like he was a joke.

He held his chin up high. He held the serum of the soldier. He was the trainer’s favorite. He would not be mocked.

***

There was a man of great importance who came to the compound. He was American, old and only spoke English. Papa regarded him with high respect, but Peter saw that he was afraid of him. Peter was six now and very observant.

“When we meet him, you just stand still and be quiet. If he talks to you, don’t look him in the eye,” Papa warned quietly while they laid in the dark the night before the meeting.

“But papa, I don’t know English,” Peter whispered, voice frantically trickled with fear.

Papa turned over in his cot, blue eyes breaking the dark as he peered down at Peter, “He will know. And you will learn. Don’t worry so much, Petya. You just go to sleep.”

The guards collected them early in the morning. Peter was dressed in his finest training gear, one without rips, tears or blood stains. Papa wore his leather uniform without the weapons.

They were brought to the training room that was swept clean and polished to perfection in the days prior. They were pushed towards the wall and made to stand at attention for a long while. Until Peter had to stiffen his legs so they wouldn’t tremble and remind himself to push his shoulders back.

The girls weren’t there, but the man didn’t ask to see the girls. They were not important. He had seen them last time and was not impressed. The only reason they were still alive was to train the soldier’s son and weasel into missions that needed small bodies.

The man of great importance walked in with three American agents and his head held high like he knew of his title. He had a pressed suit, grey hair, and a sickly-sweet smile. All teeth and no lip.

“Alexander Pierce,” The trainer said, then gave him a smile of pressed lips, hiding his hideous teeth, “Project Beta 3 is making amazing progress.”

“Really? I’ll believe it when I see it.” Pierce said and looked at Peter with his beady eyes. Peter stopped himself from hiding behind his father’s legs. He was six now. He was brave. But he wished he understood what they were saying.

The trainer barked at Peter to run the course. He did so efficiently, having practiced every day leading to this. He snapped into action, disarming two agents, climbing up the far wall and jumping off to snap the neck of another. He swung from one concrete pillar that stood in the middle of the room towards the front wall, backflip, jump, climb again and shoot three hanging targets that looked like children. He finished in fifty-three seconds.

Papa observed, remaining at attention and face emotionless.

He had seen Peter complete the course the previous night. He watched the trainer grin and ruffle his boy’s hair. When Peter walked up to him, he smoothed his hand over his son’s head and brushed through the hair with his fingers to straighten what the trainer had mussed.

Peter tilted his head up and grinned, two gaps in his teeth from where they’d fallen out and asked if the soldier was proud of him.

The soldier bent at the waist, arms crossed and looked Peter in the eye. He spoke very slowly, “Petya, I am your papa. Do not call me soldier.”

Peter’s smile fell.

This time, he didn’t look at his father when he finished. Instead, he looked at the trainer who grinned closed mouthed with pride. His bald head gleamed in the light like a fluorescent bulb.

Pierce didn’t look impressed. His lips stuck out and downward, wrinkles worsening on his face.

“Fifty-three seconds? You think that’s impressive?” He mocked. The trainer’s smile fell, and he stood straighter, shifting on his legs.

Peter tried to silence his breathing. He can’t sound exerted or he will look weak. He can’t look weak or he’ll be shot.

Pierce looked at Peter, lips curled up like a rodent and walked over to him. He didn’t crouch to look at Peter’s face like Papa and the trainer would. He stood tall above him, peering down his nose like Peter was dirt. He felt very small.

Peter looked at the ground under his feet at the scuffed blue mat that couldn’t be buffed. Don’t look him in the eye. Stand still. Be quiet. Don’t look him in the eye.

“Do you think that’s impressive, Beta 3?”

Peter looked to the side, quickly bringing his frightened eyes up to stare at his father. Papa still stood at attention, his face void of emotion or care but his fingers twitched.

“Why isn’t he answering me?” Pierce snapped over his shoulder to the trainer.

“He doesn’t speak English, sir.” The trainer responded, looking like he wanted to swallow the words right back into his mouth. They were meant to get the boy fully prepared for the missions and that meant teaching him English.

“What does he speak?” Piece seethed, his mouth barely moving.

“Only Russian, sir.”

Pierce exhaled in angered annoyance, jerking his arm towards the boy, “Translate then!”

Peter caught the gasp in his throat before it spilled out, sucking in his lips. He didn’t understand why this man was so upset. He thought he had done well. The trainer was always impressed when he finished under a minute.

The trainer nodded frantically and spoke to Peter while looking at the back of Pierce’s head. It was the first time Peter saw fear in his eyes.

“Peter –”

Pierce scoffed in disgust, “You named it?”

The trainer cleared his throat and answer affirmatively in English, “It was his mother’s wish.”

“His mother is dead,” Pierce stated with venom and rolled his eyes. He gestured for the trainer to continue.

“Did you think that was impressive?”

It was the first time since coming into the room that they spoke a language Peter understood, but the question didn’t make sense. His heart slammed against his ribs and sharp tears bit the fronts of his eyes. He couldn’t cry. He was six. He was too big to cry.

He looked at Papa and his heart beat harder when he met his cold eyes. Did he not care? Was he not listening? Peter didn’t understand anything.

“For God’s sake.” Pierce mutter before marching up to Peter and slapping him across the face with the back of his hand. It stung like bees and knocked the tears out of his eyes. They spilled onto his flushed cheeks.

He’d never been hit by an adult unless they were training. Those never hurt as much. This burned his face and his stomach, embarrassment and confusion seeping like acid through his core.

Pierce barked something sharp, snapping off his tongue like a whip and the room was set into motion. A guard grabbed Peter’s bicep too rough, too tight, and dragged him out of the room. Papa was escorted out with a hand pushing at his back. He kept his face forward while Peter kept twisting his head up to look at him.

They were shoved one by one into their room and the door slammed shut with an echoing bang before the room fell into silence. Silence besides Peter’s heavy breathing. He would not cry. He would not cry. He would not –

“Why didn’t you do anything?!” Peter screeched, rounding on his father with hot tears spilling down his beat red face, “Why did you just stand there?”

The soldier stood at the corner of the room, face still set cold but eyes a little wild. He did not scold Peter for yelling. He didn’t do anything.

“Tell me!” Peter screamed but it fell on deaf ears for his father did not answer. His face felt like fire and was just as bright. His throat felt scrubbed raw and his chest achy as sobs fell through his mouth.

“I hate you!” Peter bellowed so loud it rang through the room like a gong. He twisted around, turning his back to his father. His arms folded tightly over his stomach like he was hugging himself or holding back vomit and he sobbed like a babe.

The soldier quietly stepped forward, one foot at a time walking as if he were on glass. He picked up the charcoal from their nightstand and sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor.

Peter’s shoulders shook as he cried, holding himself firmly and not turning even as he heard his father move around the room.

“Petya,” The soldier spoke, voice calm and smooth, “come here.”

Peter didn’t move except to hold himself tighter and push his head down lower.

“Listen to your papa. Look, I have something to show you.” The soldier said, voice firming just at the edge. Anymore and Peter wouldn’t turn around at all.

Peter unwrapped his arms to scrub a hand across his face, wiping off his tears. He turned around with his eyebrows pressed down like he was trying very hard to seem furious, but his lip was trembling.

He stomped forward and sat clumsily on the ground, kneeling beside the soldier. His muscles were tense, looking like taunt rope under his small arms.

Papa gently wrapped his hands around Peter’s stomach to lift him and place him on his lap. Peter went with a body like jelly and leaned his back against his father’s chest.

Papa grabbed the charcoal and began to scribble a word on the ground, “What does that say?”

Peter almost pushed away because he knew this word. He’d known it for a long time. He knew that Papa knew that he knew this word. He didn’t understand the point of reciting knowledge he’d absorbed long ago.

“да.” Peter answered, voice watery.

“That’s right,” Papa praised lightly. He drew an arrow next to да and beside the arrow wrote ‘yes’. He tapped it with his finger twice, speaking the word out loud for Peter to repeat.

“Yes.” Peter stated, English choked with Russian accent, but he pronounced it well.

“Good,” Papa said, then underneath wrote нет. Peter read it aloud and Papa drew an arrow, beside it writing ‘no’. Peter said it aloud and Papa nodded.

Beneath that, Papa wrote папа and then dad. He tapped his chest twice with his palm.

“Dad.” He said in a voice Peter hadn’t heard before. It sounded similar to Pierce’s tongue, the accent maybe. Peter would learn years later his father was American.

“Dad,” Peter repeated.

Papa tapped his hand against Peter’s chest twice, “сын.”

Peter knew this one well. He chewed his lip and repeated, “сын.”

“Son,” Papa said, tapping his hand again.

Peter couldn’t repeat it. Water flooded his eyes and he could no longer see his Papa’s writing. His lip wobbled, and sharp tears cut down his cheeks once more.

“Papochka,” He hiccupped, masking his eyes with his little hands as he cried.

“Petya?” Papa’s voice laced heavy with worry. He leaned down to look at Peter’s face, “What’s wrong?”

Peter twisted in his father’s lap and wrapped his arms around his neck, pressing his eyes into his father’s shoulder and wailed.

“I’m sorry, papa. I don’t hate you! I don’t!” His watery words clanked around the room while his hot tears pooled on papa’s neck.

Papa took a breath so deep it rocked Peter. He rubbed his hand on Peter’s back and let him cry. He never yelled at him for tears.

“I know, Petya. There is no room in your heart for hate,” He soothed, swaying the boy slightly from side to side. He kissed Peter’s injured cheek even though the wound had long since healed.

“It’s alright. Stop with these tears now. It’s alright.” He murmured as he rubbed his knuckles up and down Peter’s spine, but his tears did not cease. He shushed and rocked the boy until he was asleep.

Chapter Text

Peter went through the year as he would sludge and sharp rocks.

He was seven now and very serious. Much too serious for a young boy.

He trained each day until the skin beneath the web shooter dripped blood and his palms grew blisters and callouses the size of bullets. He stood in the middle of the girls, the best two on his right and the worst on his left, back so straight and muscles so taut it was as though the rest of the room oozed acid and he was only safe on the bit of ground beneath his feet.

He was the example, the pinnacle of perfection in a fight. Though the girls trained longer, they were ordered to follow his lead.

Peter hadn’t seen the bald trainer since Alexander Pierce stomped through the compound. He once heard two guards snickering behind the concrete wall splattered in died copper blood. They spoke of the trainer; how lucky he was to be shot so quickly. How merciful Pierce had been.

“Do you remember Pavel? He had them rip his fingernails out just for flinching. He shrieked like a cat!”

The new trainer was large, six and a half feet tall and nearly as wide. All muscle. He never smiled or ruffled Peter’s hair. He barked with a voice like smoke and rose his hand as if to hit whoever stood in front of him. Peter and the girls kept their eyes locked forward. They never looked into his.

Peter feared him, so he set his face in stone. He couldn’t smile or laugh because other emotions would then easily seep through his face. Emotions like fear. He didn’t want to get shot. He wiped expression from his face to survive the night. Never before had he looked so much like Papa.

He remained the favorite and while the new trainer never spoke such a thing, his lips twitched when Peter walked through the training room doors and he stood a little taller when he called Peter to fight. Peter always won. He was the strongest soldier. The one most like Soldat.

Besides training, learning was Peter’s most favorite thing. He had permission to learn now as some new practice created by Pierce was put into place.

“Imagine the perfect soldier; strong, efficient and the smartest human alive. People would cease to believe in a god if they saw a man with such power.”

Peter absorbed everything they put in front of him as a sponge would water as Papa had said years ago. There were whisperings of enhanced intelligence being a result of the serum. It was a fact. No seven-year-old should be so intelligent.

He’d lay awake in bed and think of the stories inside of constellations and the ways numbers danced through an equation. This was his secret happy place, a piece of childhood innocence no one could take away. He never spoke of it to anyone, not even Papa.

He had a grey, wiry man who spoke with a German accent and taught him many things. Math, science, English, French, German and Spanish. Peter called him the tutor. He taught Peter the best place to slice along the spine to paralyze a man, the best place to kill. Peter taught him the proper way to wield a knife.

“Your son is a smart boy,” The tutor told Papa while Peter scribbled algebra across a coarse strip of paper, “do not let it get to his head.”

He spoke in English, the language Pierce demanded be Peter’s most frequent tongue, though it didn’t sound as beautiful as Russian. They whisked the accent off his tongue and he spoke each language as well as a native.

Peter swallowed his pride like a dry pill and kept his eyes on his work, finishing the last problem before the timer buzzed. The tutor grinned weaselly and plucked the sheet away.

“A perfect score,” He commented, showing the paper to Papa, “You should be proud.”

Papa didn’t respond. He observed the paper coolly.

That night, while Peter was reading Crime and Punishment in Cyrillic (he hadn’t quite mastered the other languages as well as he had his first), Papa looked at him and asked, “When did you become so serious?”

Peter stopped reading and blinked once, twice, three times as he thought, head spinning. Had he become serious? He hadn’t noticed. Had it been last year when he believed fifty-three seconds to be an adequate time? Or perhaps when the new trainer had entered the compound. Maybe even when they pushed his first book in front of him and demand he read it all in a week’s time.

“I don’t know,” Peter answered, voice stern, “But I don’t believe it to be a bad thing.”

The next day after Peter had trained and washed off, he walked into the room to find Papa fiddling with the blankets.

“Ah, Petya,” He said when the door was closed as if he hadn’t known Peter was coming, “Come here and show papa how to make a fort.”

Peter huffed and walked to his mat, sitting down and grabbing the book from the nightstand, “I don’t want to.”

“No?” Papa asked in disappointment before sighing, “I suppose I’ll have to figure it out on my own.”

He lifted the blankets, twisting them this way and that to examine them, “Perhaps like this? No. Maybe this way? No, that’s not right.”

Peter watched in bright-eyed amusement, eyes crinkling and giggles escaping his mouth for this first time in almost a year.

“Papa, you’re doing it wrong!”

Papa turned around, eyes wide as if very shocked. He looked back down at the blankets twisted in his hands and then at Peter.

“Am I?” He asked in exaggerated bewilderment, scratching his head, “if only I had someone to help me, then.”

Peter scrambled off the bed and grabbed the blankets from his father’s hands, “I can help!”

He draped one over their lone bed stand, tucking it beneath Crime and Punishment and the other edge under the mattress. The soldier watched as his son bounded around the room as he had when he was smaller, organizing the three blankets and two pillows they owned into an extravagant fort.

“Good job, Petya,” Papa praised and smoothed a hand over Peter’s hair, looking prouder than he had upon seeing his math.

They spent the night tucked underneath and woke early to put it all away before the guards came in. If they asked, Papa would tell them it was good practice if Peter was stranded on a mission. How else would he survive the harsh winter if he had no knowledge of building a shelter?

Peter knew Papa was just having fun.

***

Peter acted more like himself when he was in the room. He smiled and told Papa stories of his studies and the thick books he read, only becoming serious when he had to leave.

He often wondered if the girls smiled in their rooms. If they ever played and built and wondered. There wasn’t a chance they were just hollow things, only knowing of the fight and the words Hail Hydra, even if that was all Peter saw from them.

He glanced at the favorite, the one with hair so fine it looked white, and her face was not serious, but empty. Much like Papa’s when he was facing the guards and the handlers.

The trainer barked at him to face forward, pay attention. Peter didn’t think of the girls’ smiles until he was laying on the mat, when he tried very hard to hear laughter or voices break through the black sheet of night. Nothing came, only stiff silence and Papa’s heavy breathing.

Perhaps they never smiled after all. Perhaps they never learned how.

***

Papa had been acting a little off. He’d tell stories of people Peter had never heard of before, and then act as if he hadn’t either.

There was still the stub of charcoal in their room, lying peacefully on the nightstand. Papa made Peter write and draw with it often. He’d speak sentences in English, with a voice a little too frantic, and ask Peter to copy them down on the floor.

“I already did my school work,” Peter groaned, but he wrote them none the less. He would huff and lay on his belly, ribs pinching into the concrete ground making it a little hard to breathe. He’d hold his head up with one fist and write with the other.

A blonde boy had newspapers in his shoes and a bad cough. A woman with big, brown hair had red lips. Nine men with guns howled like wolves in wartime.

Papa’s lip turned up only slightly, but his eyes looked pained as he watched Peter scribble, “It never hurts to practice.”

***

“Papa,” Peter whispered in the dark when he was supposed to be asleep, “have you heard of the thing called free will?”

Papa rolled over in his cot, forehead scrunched and eyebrows pushed down, “Now where did you hear about that?”

Peter pushed himself up on one arm and grinned, “Steinbeck. He wrote the book I’m reading.”

It was called East of Eden and was Peter’s favorite even though it was in English. They spoke of timshel; thou mayest, thou mayest not. As Cain had the decision to choose between good and evil before he slaughtered his brother, Peter had free will to choose not to kill.

Perhaps the trainer and the guards and Pierce and Papa had never heard of it. If they had, they’d let Peter learn all day and never train. There’d be no talk of where to send him on his first mission because Peter wouldn’t want to go on a mission.

Papa was very quiet, looking at Peter with eyes as wide as prey.

Peter looked at his hands, sheepishly explaining as to not look like a fool, “The tutor says it is something only the Americans believe in, but I think it may be true.”

Papa’s sharp eyes darted to the box above the door before returning to Peter. He always looked fretful when Peter spoke like this. Sometimes Papa feared Peter was too smart for his own good.

Papa put his hand on Peter’s shoulder, gently nudging him to lay back down on the mat, “Go to sleep Petya. it’s much too late to be worrying about nonsense like that.”

Sometimes Peter wished Papa would just listen.

***

They sent Peter on his first mission when he was eight.

“You will be fine,” Papa assured the night before while Peter paced the room and twisted his hands, “Nothing will happen to you.”

Peter wasn’t worried about what would happen to him. He feared the things they’d make him do. He wanted to tell them about free will, have them understand, allow him to stay in his room with Papa and read books until all he saw were sharp, black words on yellow pages.

They would never allow that. Just as they hadn’t allowed Papa to accompany him on this trip.

“You will shape the century,” Pierce beamed, a grainy face stretched across a projector screen, “If your father came, he’d take the spotlight. And you wouldn’t want that, would you Beta 3?”

Peter almost flinched back upon seeing this technology. He’d never seen such a thing, but he remembered those snickering guards behind the wall and Pavel and the fingernails. He set his feet firmly on the ground and squared his shoulders. He stayed silent until his handler elbowed him sharply in the side.

“No, sir,” Peter lied, chin up.

The next day, they woke him early, scrubbed him with harsh soap and dressed him in pressed trousers and a shirt with buttons. They put guns beneath his shirt and stuffed knives in his right pocket. In his left, a single flash drive. They made sure the sleeves were long enough to cover his wrist, the one that held the toy he was gifted so long ago. A special weapon. Designed just for him.

They informed him that he was a boy going with his father to visit the United States Embassy in Moscow. The father (an agent who had been working undercover in the Embassy for some time and looked nothing like Papa) would tell everyone he was showing his very smart son around. He’d bring Peter to a room where he would place the flash drive inside a special computer while the agent would create a divergence.

They didn’t tell Peter what to do if something went wrong. He was a smart boy. He could figure it out.

“And no one is suspicious of a child,” One of the agents guffawed loud enough to sting Peter’s ears.

One led him down the hallway with a strong grip on his shoulder, pushing him forward. As soon as they reached the great door that held the world, Peter’s heart felt like it may beat through his skin.

The door was pushed open and Peter’s eyes filled with the outside world he hadn’t seen in so many years. At first, he couldn’t see it at all for the sun was so bright he shielded his eyes. They burned with how clear everything was, how many colors were around him.

The grass looked long and soft and the trees were tall and lush. Peter finally understood why Papa gushed about how they held such green.

The air was so crisp he began to feel woozy. It smelled of fresh mud and bark. This was Earth. This was nature.

How long had Peter been inside those concrete walls where the air was stiff and full of copper?

He couldn’t appreciate the world for long. He was quickly pulled across the soft ground and shoved into a small, inconspicuous van. The back seats were ripped out to make room for more people, guns and ammo.

Peter stood, wondering how the agents would too since they were taller than him, and the top of his head brushed the ceiling. They climbed in, the handler in the driver’s seat and the two agents in the back.

The van lurched forward and suddenly Peter’s feet gave out and he was knocked to the ground. His knees hit the hard floor and his head banged against the back of the driver’s seat. The van filled with the mocking laughter of the two agents and one handler.

“For a genius, you really are stupid.” The handler cackled, and Peter felt his face grow very hot. He crossed his legs beneath him and looked at the ground.

They arrived in Moscow while Peter was resting his eyes. Someone with heavy boots kicked him sharply in the shin and snapped at him to get up.

The agent pretending to be his father gripped his arm very tightly and pulled him out of the van and into the buzzing city. The Embassy was tall before them, and the people were fast, and the air was thick with cigarette and car smoke.

People of all kinds buzzed around them; tall and short and young and old and have all different sorts of coats, some made of fur and some cotton. There were women with bright lips and colorful eyelids and men with hats and shiny shoes.

Peter had never seen so many colors. And the children – oh there were so many children! And they were smiling and laughing and running and playing and maybe this is what Peter was meant to be? No. No, he was meant for greatness, on a mission to achieve something very important. He hadn’t time to think of playing children’s games.

But the people were fast and plentiful and had different smelling strong perfumes that clogged Peter’s nose enough that he couldn’t breathe.

Some people looked at little light up blocks in their hands or were talking into them, laughing. Too loud. Too happy. Too close. They all were too close.

Peter kept bumping into them as he looked up at everything and everyone with a buzz in the back of his brain. He wished to be back in the room with Papa and the mat and the cot and the single nightstand because there he had space to breathe.

He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t –

“Ah, Evgeni!” a feminine voice caught Peter’s ear as he and the agent came to a swift halt. A thin woman with glasses so dark and wide they looked like bug eyes and lips very red smiled brightly at the agent. Her teeth were the whitest Peter had ever seen.

“Valentina,” The agent smiled, too soft and kind, before leaning forward and pressing a kiss to her cheek. Then, he waved a hand towards Peter, “This is my son, Vadim. I’ve promised to show him the Embassy.”

“How nice!” She beamed, turning her bright teeth and stretched red lips towards Peter, “Here to see your Papa’s work?”

Peter swallowed a dry mouthful of spit and nodded, quick and pained. How much he wanted to say that this was not his Papa. That his Papa was the greatest soldier alive and this man was not him.

The woman and the agent bid each other farewell before he and Peter started moving again.

They climbed the gleamy white steps. Peter kept his hands out of his pockets.

The agent had a hold on his shoulder, no longer painful but still firm, to remind Peter that he was there. That Peter couldn’t act up, step out of line, cause a scene unless he wanted something very bad to happen. They walked through a great wood door and along marble floors.

The Embassy wasn’t as crowded as the streets of Moscow. There were people checking passports and signing papers, but all was organized and calm. Peter let himself breathe.

The agent led him to an elevator where they were greeted by an old man in a wrinkled white shirt and dress pants standing by buttons with numbers on the outer wall.

The agent smiled tight with not teeth, “Top floor, please.”

“Top floor?” The guard asked, voice husky with age, “You must have special access to go there.”

The agent began to look very somber, “Of course, sir. But my son, he is so excited. You see, I promised to show him the entire building. I work here, as well.”

He flashed the guard his badge, who looked at it very carefully before sighing and swiping a card into a machine that pinged green, “Oh, very well. Only because the boy is so curious.”

The elevator doors opened, and the agent gave a nod thanks to the guard before guiding Peter inside. The doors slid closed very slowly and the elevator began to lift.

“Now you listen close, spider,” The agent hissed, standing straight and looking forward for there was a camera on the ceiling near a corner, “The room will be empty, but you will ensure all cameras are covered. Use that shit in your wrist. I will keep guard outside. You put the flash drive into the computer and put every file you see onto it. Then walk out calmly. If anyone asks, you stay silent. I’ll speak. Do you understand?”

Peter nodded, face stern.

The elevator doors glided open and the agent yanked Peter out, walking down a shallow hallway to a door. A shiny plaque reading “Deputy Chief of Mission” in English adorned it.

The agent pushed open the door froze, hand on Peter’s arm squeezing tight.

A finely dressed greying man, wearing a three-piece suit that looked freshly ironed sat at a large oak desk, typing on a computer. He glanced up upon hearing the door open and raised his eyebrow.

“Evgeni?” He asked, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

The agent smiled a sweet smile and clapped Peter on the shoulder, “I promised my son I’d show him the Embassy. He’s very intelligent. Top of his class.”

The finely dressed man nodded while looking at Peter. He had a smile, small and genuine, “I believe it.”

“I thought you would be gone today,” The agent stated casually, stepping inside the room and nudging Peter to follow.

“Oh, there’s always work to be done,” The man exhaled, pushing away from his computer. He waved his hand around the room, “Feel free to look around. I wouldn’t want your boy to miss out on anything.”

And they did for several minutes, the agent pretending to have interest in the plaques along the wall while Peter stared in awe at the shelves of books. He’d never seen so many books. His tutor only had so many at his disposal that Peter had yet to read.

There was one camera that sat above the desk. Peter wouldn’t have trouble taking care of it.

“Oh, I need to use the restroom,” The agent said, turning towards the finely dressed man, “Do you mind showing me where it is?”

The man lifted his brows while still typing and staring at his computer, “You don’t know where it is?”

“I haven’t spent much time on this floor,” The agent admitted, looking sheepish.

The man sighed and pushed away from his desk, “Very well. I could always use the extra time to wash my hands.”

On his way towards the door, he stopped and looked at Peter, “Are you not coming with us?”

Peter looked at the agent, who stood behind the man. He had a stern face and wide eyes, warning Peter to behave himself.

“I don’t have to use the restroom,” Peter mumbled.

“And what could he get into?” The agent laughed, “He is only a boy.”

The man shrugged then nodded in agreement, “I suppose you are right.” He turned towards Peter with a kind face, “Help yourself to the candy on my desk. Lord knows I’ve had enough.”

As soon as the door slammed shut, Peter hurried to a corner where the camera couldn’t see him before he began crawling up the wall. He pointed his wrist towards the camera, shooting it with sticky webbing to make it blind.

He jumped down, not mindful of the hard ground or his landing, and then stepped quickly to the computer. He stuck the flash drive into the slot and began to pull up every file he could find. The screen was very bright, almost as bright as the sun and he felt like his heart may stop if it beat any faster.

There were so many files and so little time and he didn’t even think about what could be on them.

“What are you doing?” A startled and angry voice bit, startling Peter to jump away from the computer.

The finely dressed man stood by the open door, mouth open and eyes fierce. He darted his head back down the hall where the agent still was before storming towards the desk. He pushed Peter aside to look at the computer screen, mouth moving like a fish as he tried to understand what was happening.

He shook his head to right himself back into action.

“I’m calling the guard,” He declared.

He turned his back to Peter and began to dial the phone.

***

Peter slaughtered his first man at eight years old. He cut a seam across the top of his spine, closest to the neck, to obtain something he didn’t know the purpose of.

The man fell slack on the desk, pooling blood down his back and on the spiral phone cord.

Peter slid the flash drive into his pocket and walked out of the room, chest very tight and legs shaky.

He hadn’t a choice in this at all.

***

“It’s alright, Petya,” Papa said that night as he sat on his cot, leaning over with elbows on his knees while Peter vomited into the toilet, “Some men are meant to die. It’s just their purpose.”

Papa’s words were very empty as if another man spoke through him.

“Then what is our purpose?” Peter asked, voice garbled with the bile left in his mouth. He rolled his head over towards Papa, whose face was as stern as Peter’s was pale.

“We maintain order.”

***

It wasn’t an important mission at all. They were only testing Peter.

He had passed.

Peter felt very stupid.

***

Papa started acting cold when Peter was nine. They said he was unstable, so they brought him to the chair often. It was important to upkeep the care of the asset.

There was talk of him being out of cryofreeze for too long. Peter didn’t know what that meant. He didn’t know why they spoke of his father like he was an object.

The tutor explained in a hushed voice that Papa was remembering too much but forgetting things just the same. Like all good weapons, he had to be stored away at some point before they could use him again. Use it too much and it wears out.

If Papa wasn’t in the chair or on a mission, he’d pace the room like a caged lion and mutter words in English, Russian, Spanish, Dutch and gibberish. Words mushing together so Peter couldn’t understand. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Sometimes he’d turn to Peter and grip his forearms very tight until they felt like they would burst. His right palm was damp and the one of metal whirred as if it were breaking.

“There are ears everywhere. Don’t trust anything that comes from your mouth. Someone will hear it. They won’t even hesitate when they kill you.”

Peter learned to be very quiet.

One night, Papa woke Peter with a start when he smashed on the door with his fists until the bones in his right knuckles splintered like plywood. The metal rang through the room like copper pots crashing on tile floor, but it wasn’t as loud as his screams.

“Just put me in! Put me back in! Freeze me like a fucking bag of peas! You sick fucks! You dirty pig! You fucking tire tracked shit on the goddamn freeway!”

Peter shot up on his bed and heaved like he’d never breathed before. His ears burned with his father’s screams and he was gripping his blanket too hard to bring his hands to cover his ears.

He wanted to yell at Papa to stop, to ask him what was wrong, to jump out of bed and drag him to his cot and cover his mouth so he wouldn’t make a sound, but Peter couldn’t move.

Before he thawed, four guards slammed open the door and grabbed Papa with rough hands.

He thrashed like a rabid dog and screamed and called them names until the door slammed shut and Peter was swallowed whole by nighttime darkness. Papa’s yells still oozed through the metal door and Peter wished he had the strength to crawl under his blanket and press his pillow over his ears, but he still couldn’t move.

The room buzzed with static as did the box above the door and suddenly Papa was screaming in the way Peter knew too well. They did it for longer this time until Peter was sure Papa was dying and he wanted to jump up and bang on the door too and scream for them to just stop! That’s my papa, you’re killing my papa!

But he couldn’t. They would only bring him to the chair, too.

Papa came back the next day hollow like the chair sucked the life out of him but left him breathing. He seemed so much like the girls, eyes like dull water and staring at the wall even though there was never anything there.

Perhaps Peter was the only one who could grasp timshel. Perhaps the rest truly had no choice. Perhaps Peter wasn’t any different.

Peter tried to talk to him, tell him stories from his books and explain the physics behind a hung man, but Papa’s eyes stayed on the wall. Glossy, inhuman.

“And Gatsby looked for the green light every night even though it was dim,” Peter explained, thumbing the last page of his book, “But I suppose you don’t care, do you Soldat?”

Papa kept his gaze forward and his eyes glossy and Peter began to question if he even spoke. He bit his lip very hard. He was nine, much too old to even sniffle. He couldn’t remember what it felt like to cry.

They’d turned his father into a thing after all, only moving when called to war. His movements were too stiff and coordinated.

Peter had never felt so empty. His chest and eyes burned, and his stomach twisted into a knot that would never be untangled, but the hope in his heart disintegrated like hollow burnt wood.

He brought his hollow to the training room where he and the girls fought like men. He didn’t pull his punches, never lightened his blows and always cheated because there were no rules here.

One day when the sharp cold seeped through the walls and bit into his bones, the trainer made Peter fight the girl with the slouch.

Before he walked onto the mat, the trainer grabbed his shoulder and spoke into his ear, “Don’t go easy on her.”

She wasn’t as strong as Peter, none of them were, but for the strength she lacked she made up with speed.

They started as they always do, at the blow of a whistle.

She went for Peter’s legs while he lunged for her neck. He jumped over her and she ducked and kicked his legs, so he fell and suddenly the hollow morphed into something that tore at his stomach and he was angry. Anger he had pushed back for so long because he hadn’t the time to realize he held it.

Angry at the finely dressed man for coming back into the room. Angry for being too smart but not enough to see his mind being prodded like a lab rat. Angry for the girls who never smiled. Angry for the serum pumping through his veins that he never asked to be put in.

Angry for his father who no longer spoke or smoothed Peter’s hair or listened to his stories or told ones of his own or wished him goodnight before the dark ate them alive.

Perhaps Peter was too old for that now. Nine years old. Old enough to kill. He didn’t need his father’s guiding hands or kind words. Or any words at all.

But did Peter really get no say? What if he wanted to be a child? For just a moment longer? He didn’t even get to tell his father goodbye.

He became so angry that he couldn’t see right, and his face felt like it was held above a flame and his limbs vibrated with the need to attack.

He twisted back around and cracked the girl in the jaw, making her stumble a step back. He attacked before she caught herself, knocking her to the ground.

He pinned her down as she toppled onto the mat and began to punch her face until his knuckles stung.

She twisted to knock him off, bringing her hands up to block his blows but it was to no avail.

He couldn’t see straight. He couldn’t stop. He didn’t want to stop.

Thou mayest. Thou mayest not. Thou mayest slaughter. Thou must slaughter. Thou must slaughter until the world is painted red.

The girl smacked her hand on the mat thrice, signaling forfeit but Peter didn’t cease. He was told to not go easy.

Two whistles blew to stop the fight, but Peter didn’t stop. The girl began to scream. There was red painting her face.

“Enough!” The trainer roared, but it wasn’t comparable to the rush of blood pounding in Peter’s ears to the beat of his rapid heart.

Suddenly, the back of his shirt collar was yanked so hard he choked. He was ripped off the girl and thrown onto the mat.

The trainer stood above them, looking like a concrete building with a beat red face and horrifyingly furious eyes.

The girl sat up and shook with heavy heaving. She sounded as though she were dying, and she didn’t yet have the strength to wipe the blood off her face.

“Get up.” The trainer barked at her, and she tried but her legs were too shaky, and she still couldn’t breathe right.

“Get up!”

Peter looked away, the bottomless feeling of horror consuming his gut. He did that to her. He didn’t even try to stop. He didn’t even want to stop. What was happening to him?

Suddenly, Peter was pulled to his feet and dragged out of the room. The trainer, large and terrifying, pulled him down the hall so harshly that Peter thought his arm was going to rip off.

As they approached the door to Peter’s room, the trainer gripped both of Peter’s arms and yanked his face very close until all he could see was the yellow in the trainer’s eyes and feel his hot breath on his face.

“Next time just kill her,” He growled before shoving Peter into the room, slamming the door hard enough that it rung his ears for an hour.

The soldier sat on the cot, a cut on his brow with blood dripping down his temple. He didn’t wipe it away. He sat as he always did now, with blank eyes and a slack jaw.

Peter breathed hard for a minute or so, looking at the door in fear that it would be ripped back open and he’d be taken to the chair, so they’d make him behave like Papa.

It stayed shut. Papa stayed seated. Peter got himself ready for bed.

In the cold night when he couldn’t see, Peter laid awake with his back pressing into the hard floor. The mat never provided much comfort, not that Peter deserved it.

“I’m becoming a monster.” Peter whispered, voice small and terrified.

Papa said nothing. He turned over in his cot until his back faced Peter. It was then Peter rolled onto his stomach and wept into his pillow.

He no longer thought of foolish things like free will.

***

Papa came to his senses for one night before they sent him on a mission far away. His eyes got wide like they would after the chair when he’d suddenly remember.

Peter ignored it, growing very tense as he continued to read his book. Papa remembering would mean Papa becoming angry again and pacing the room and if Peter got in his way he’d start screaming until the guards took him to the chair for proper upkeep.

He looked hard at his book and didn’t blink until the words became fuzzy and his eyes stung. Until he heard the heavy fall of boots on the concrete floor grow closer. Until his father was kneeling on his bed.

Peter looked up slowly with eyes as scared as Papa’s and both held their breath.

Papa waved his hand for Peter to sit up, which he did with caution. Papa never hit him, he would never even think of it, but Peter didn’t know how much of Papa was left in the eyes of the Soldat.

As soon as Peter was seated with thighs resting on his ankles, Papa gripped his shoulder and brought him close and hissed into his ear, “Do not let them kill your spirit. Do not let them make you forget.”

Peter clung onto every piece of him as if they were loose papers flapping in the wind.

Chapter Text

Peter was nine when they sent Papa away for a long time. Peter couldn’t keep track of the months. It was long enough that Peter was ten before he returned.

***

“You have the power to change the course of history,” the trainer stated with a tight grasp on Peter’s wrist, right over the weapon, “If all it takes is the death of a man, then what is stopping you?”

He had the power of history. He had the power of order. Inherited from Papa, enforced by the compound.

Peter killed two men in Estonia. He killed one in Ukraine. He killed a woman in Germany. After that, he decided to stop counting. At least he had the power to choose one thing.

***

“It is an important mission,” The tutor emphasized while introducing Peter to advanced calculus, “Not very often your father gets sent to America.”

It was one of the last things his tutor told him. They killed him in the morning for his jaw was unhinged and he spoke too often of things Peter was to know nothing about. They said he gave Peter books that were too liberal. That he made Peter think too much.

Peter felt a twinge in his chest, almost like he was sad. He missed him. He missed so many things. And Papa was in someplace called D.C. and Peter wondered if he’d ever see him again. Peter wondered if it even mattered.

He was never brought a new tutor. They never had the chance to find one.

***

An evening after training until his bones wept, Peter laid on the soldier’s cot. He rested on his stomach and wrote equations with his finger into the blanket. The indents of numbers would last for seconds before he drew a new one. It was no way to do math, especially calculus, but they no longer gave him paper.

When the door swung open and heavy boots scuffed the ground like someone was shoved inside before the door slammed closed, Peter didn’t look up. He ignored the click of his heart and warmth felt through his fingers.

If the soldier was back, Peter had long ago decided that it wouldn’t matter. He would still be alone.

That was until he heard a startled exhale.

“Petya?” A voice spoke, one that Peter thought he’d never truly hear again without it being empty.

Peter’s eyes snapped up and he met Papa’s, which were wide and wild and human. It was like he had forgotten of Peter until this very moment. Like he just remembered his son existed. Or like he believed he’d never see him again.

Papa looked uncertain. He looked relieved. He didn’t move. He was unstable. He’s been out of cryo for too long. He needed proper upkeep.

Peter stared at him and blinked. His brain stopped and buzzed and then slowly moved again like the kinks and coils were in syrup.

“Papa?” Peter whispered. If he spoke any louder Papa would probably go quiet again. Peter couldn’t stand the silence for a moment longer. He’d burst with insanity. He’d bang on the door until his knuckles shattered. He’d beg to go to the chair.

“Yes,” Papa exhaled, shoulders dropping like the weight of the world just vanished, “Yes.”

Peter had never run so fast in his life. He leaped from the bed and crashed against his father’s torso and wrapped his arms around him, squeezing tight. If he let go, Papa may vanish. Papa held tight, too.

Peter laughed like a madman into the leather of his father’s jacket. Papa laughed just the same and kissed the top of Peter’s head.

“You’re back,” Peter croaked, voice hoarse and his throat felt rubbed with sandpaper.

“You would not believe the adventure I just got back from,” He said into Peter’s hair. He was speaking strangely. In that weird accent and in English and he almost never spoke to Peter in English unless he was telling stories for the charcoal.

“The boy with blonde hair,” Papa breathed, “He exists.”

Peter almost didn’t understand until it clicked, hard and sudden like running straight into concrete.

The boy with the blonde hair. The one with a bad cough. Papa used to tell stories of him often, once laughing and saying he had such a wild imagination. He spent too much time cooped up that he let his mind wander far enough to create a man.

But he was real. Papa didn’t create him at all.

Perhaps this was the time for the charcoal.

“He wasn’t like I remembered him,” Papa rambled, words getting faster, “He was big and burly and – and he knew me, Petya. He knew me.”

Peter pushed away slightly to look up at his father’s face, “Papa?”

Papa was looking at the wall with that far away look but instead of blank eyes, they held too much. A thousand stories, all rushing to him at once. He stepped away and began to pace the room.

Peter quickly moved to his mat, sitting down to stay out of Papa’s way but he didn’t look caged. No, he looked like his mind was running too fast for him to keep up.

“His name was Steve. Steve Rogers,” Papa nodded to himself, spilling words like secrets, “Yeah, Captain America. The mission. The – what was the mission?”

His face crumbled as he tried to remember.

“Did you talk to him?” Peter asked and Papa jumped like he had forgotten Peter was there.

“Yeah,” He said breathlessly like the memory just crashed back into his brain, “He said my name was Bucky.”

Papa stopped pacing and started to laugh, “What the hell kinda name is Bucky? What asshole names their kid Bucky?”

Papa started laughing so hard he put his hands on his knees and wheezed. His crazed eyes began tearing up.

Peter tensed, gnawed his lip and stared at the door. Papa was going to alert the guards. They’d say he was unstable. They’d send him back to the chair.

“Papa, please be quiet,” Peter pleaded in a frantic whisper.

Papa ceased his laughter at once, the ring it once put in the room stopping instantly. He stood straight and wiped under his eyes, all traces of joy wiped clean.

“God, I wish we had more time,” Papa lamented. He still rubbed at his eye until the thin skin underneath turned into bright red.

“Time for what?” Peter asked, voice tight, small and panicked, “Where are you going?”

“They’re putting me back in,” Papa stated with such finality Peter felt his entire stomach swallow itself whole, “It’s been too long.”

Papa was unstable. He wasn’t thinking correctly. He wasn’t going to leave so soon. Peter just got him back. But then again, why else would Hydra rip him away?

The weapon had to be stored away. Use it too much and it will break.

“But…” Peter said, trembling hands gripping his blanket, “But you just got back.”

“I know,” Papa muttered, looking at the wall with a tight mouth that looked almost like he was trying to smile.

“When?” Peter croaked and everything was getting blurry and no he was not going to cry. He couldn’t do that. Ten years old. An adult. An agent. No more crying.

“Tomorrow,” Papa’s voice almost sounded empty and –

No. No this wasn’t happening again because Peter couldn’t take it a moment longer. He wouldn’t be teased with what life was before and then have it ripped away so quickly. He didn’t want this. Papa shouldn’t want this. Why didn’t they ever get a say?

“Tomorrow?” Peter cried, but thankfully nothing came from his eyes. He kept blinking, “I don’t understand. Why do you have to go? You just got back! You’re really back. Please don’t let them take you away.”

“Petya, calm down,” Papa said, voice a little stern as he knelt in front of Peter, “You’ll go into a panic if you keep with this breathing. Take a deep breath. Don’t stop until I say.”

He rubbed Peter’s back while he inhaled deeply and kept going until his lungs started to burn and Papa said he could stop. He then held it until Papa nodded that he could exhale.

“I’ll be back before you even know it. You won’t even miss me. Don’t cry now, Petya. You’re going to be alright.”

***

They never gathered Papa for freezing. They never had the chance.

The entire empire fell like crumbled concrete after a bomb.

***

The next morning, Peter woke to bird songs, hoarse screams and the stench of burnt rubber tickling his nose.

His brain, still clogged with sleep, was hazy as he sat up. He didn’t realize the state of the compound was at risk. Screams were normal, but not in the morning. Not this much. Never the screams of grown men besides Papa and disobedient guards.

He rubbed his hair out of his eyes and saw Papa standing and facing the door. His back was tense, and his trigger finger twitched. Something was wrong.

There were pops in the hallway, gunshots, followed by soft thuds. Peter knew the sound of stiff bodies hitting the ground.

This was a morning of massacre.

Peter opened his mouth to ask what was happening, but like Papa grew eyes on the back of his skull, he twisted towards Peter and pressed a finger to his lips. His eyes were sharp, a silent warning. Peter didn’t make a sound.

A loud crash erupted outside the door. Before Papa could stop him, Peter jumped and scrambled from the mat.

Papa put a hand on his chest before Peter could get any closer, his eyes still on the door. He stepped in front of Peter, blocking him.

The sharp whine of metal rung through the room as the door slowly peeled from its hinges.

Peter stepped into a defensive position, ready for whatever would burst through into their room. It had to be a monster, only a beast could hold such strength. The creature of Frankenstein or even the Cyclops from Odyssey coming inside to eat Peter and Papa alive and hoard their bones for stew.

Peter tensed, fist held steady as the door ripped away with a loud shriek.

It wasn’t a beast who tore off the door, but a man.

A tall man with large muscles and a helmet that covered almost the entire top of his head except for his eyes. He wore a costume decorated with the American flag and a large, circular shield with a star in the center like the one on Papa’s arm except it was white.

Captain America.

Peter wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was as if Papa’s words held magic and they made the man he remembered conjure up in front of them.

This couldn’t be real. What grown man runs into a fight with only a shield? One can only get so far in a war with just protection. To win, you must bring guns.

“Bucky?” Captain America asked in disbelief.

Papa didn’t say anything, but his shoulders dropped a fraction, so small only Peter would notice. Peter let his hands drop.

The man’s eyes dropped to the sliver of Peter he could see beside Papa’s metal arm. His mouth dropped and his eyes darted from Peter to Papa then back to Peter.

“Shit,” He breathed, rubbing a hand across his helmet, “Oh, shit.”

Another scream burst down the hall and the man jumped towards the noise.

It was then Peter noticed the soft swirls of smoke dancing in the hallway. The burning smell stung now, growing stronger the longer the door was off its hinges. The compound was on fire, not quite close enough yet to worry but it would be soon.

The man turned his face towards Papa and Peter could only see the white of his eyes. He didn’t say anything before he charged down the hall.

Papa was quick to follow, barking over his shoulder for Peter to stay in the room. The pounding of his boots and clouds of ashy smoke was left in his wake.

Peter stayed.

Peter waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It felt like hours and he was still waiting.

There were more pops of guns through the halls, ricocheting off the walls. Sometimes he’d hear yells of English, Russian, words so mushed and far he couldn’t tell.

He wrung his hands until they began to chafe. He twisted his feet, stepping on his tiptoes to try and peer out the door, but it was no use. He couldn’t see anything. The smoke was getting darker. Papa was taking too long.

Just as Peter thought of running out into the hallway and getting to safety himself, Papa reappeared in the doorway, Captain America by his side.

Papa had his large gun in his hands and more strapped to his chest. Captain America looked pale and clammy and Papa’s jaw kept clicking.

Four men in thick, padded wear and helmets that covered their faces ran behind them and down the hall, speaking to each other in fast English codes.

“Come on,” Papa ordered with a wave of his hand before turning towards the other end of the hallway and walking away briskly.

Peter jogged after him, staying close on his trial.

Papa walked with purpose, Captain America leading their way, as the men in padded wear sprinting past from this way and that, going in and out of rooms.

“Clear!”

“Two men wounded. Wilson and I have them detained.”

“Check the next hall over. There might be more.”

One bumped into Peter and apologized before he even saw that Peter was a boy. The man’s eyes grew wide and he looked at Bucky before shaking his head and following another man down the hall.

The smoke was getting darker and thicker and it was harder to breathe. Peter looked at his shoulder towards the man and saw each door in the hall ripped wide open. Each door except for the one with the girls. Their door was ripped, but put back in its place to block whatever was inside.

“Papa, the girls. Nobody got the girls,” Peter claimed, coughing as smoke flooded his mouth. He faced forward but Papa was still walking.

Captain America turned around, wide eyes at Papa and then at Peter. It was a good thing he was wearing that mask, or he’d look sick. He turned back around.

Peter strode towards Papa, taking long steps with his short legs to try to keep up. He grabbed his father’s arm to get his attention, but it was to no avail. Papa marched on.

Peter glanced behind him once more. Their door was closed. The smoke was darker. The men were gone.

“They’re forgetting the girls. The girls are in there. Papa, nobody is getting the girls.” Peter’s words became frantic and hoarse as ash tore up his throat and Papa still wasn’t listening.

Peter yanked on Papa’s arm and tugged backward. Papa stumbled slightly but didn’t turn.

“The girls are in there! They’re going to burn alive! We have to get them out!” Peter screamed, hoping to make his father listen and stop and help or at least turn around.

He did, but it was only to grab Peter around the torso and lift him as if he were three again to carry him through the building.

Peter kicked and wiggled to break the grip of the tight arms and clawed at his father’s back. He started to scream, “Papa, the girls! You’re forgetting the girls!”

How loud would he have to be for Papa to hear him? How long will he have to scream?

He didn’t have to shout for long. Papa stopped so suddenly he nearly jostled Peter out of his arms.

“They’re dead, Peter,” Papa snapped harshly, and it was rare he used Peter’s full name. So rare that Peter shut up and listened, “They shot them when they heard the door break down. They’re dead. They would’ve done the same to us if they had time.”

Dead.

Shot like rabid dogs. Like sick kittens. Like pigs meant for supper.

Dispensable. Worthless.

Peter suddenly understood why Captain America looked sickly.

Papa continued his march as Peter swallowed the bile that built in his mouth.

Captain America led them through the compound, occasionally listening to Papa’s orders to turn left here, go right there, don’t go that way, it’s a dead end. They reached their destination, where the entire front wall was breached, a giant smoking hole that opened to a view of army tanks, vans, men in uniforms, screaming sirens and rushing helicopters.

A giant rescue team. Probably the biggest Peter will ever see.

He felt flushed, like he may faint. He leaned his woozy head against Papa’s shoulder even though it thumped with every harsh step Papa took. Even on the soft ground, he walked like an unsteady freight train.

The guards and handlers Peter was once forced to respect were being piled into large trucks like cargo, each with their hands cuffed behind their backs. More men in heavily padded wear stood around them, pushing and herding them into the trucks.

There was so much noise; helicopter blades, angry strings of Russian curses, loud motors, the crunch of boots on muddy earth, muffled orders yelled through a rough megaphone, screaming sirens and the crackle of burning wood.

Peter forgot that the compound was on fire.

Captain America led them to a helicopter with still blades and seats lining the inner walls. He said something to the men sat inside, each had their protective helmets off and guns in their laps. The men glanced towards Peter and Papa and nodded.

Papa set Peter down inside the helicopter as Captain America walked off to find another thing that needed attending.

Peter quickly clamored into a seat before Papa hoisted himself inside. There were some odd straps attached to the chair that the other men in the van had strapped across their torsos.

Peter pulled on the strap to clip it the way the other men had but it was too tight and wasn’t moving where Peter wanted it to and kept getting twisted.

Papa knelt in front of him and tried to take the straps from Peter’s hands to do it for him, but Peter pulled them away.

“I can do it.” He snapped but they were still twisted and tight and weren’t moving how Peter wanted them to.

Papa reached for them again, hands firmer. Peter yanked them back, twisting his arms away from his father’s grasp.

“I can do it!”

“Peter!” Papa yelled and Peter froze instantly. Papa’s voice dropped low as he began to chide him, “Do not yell at me. You cannot do it. You don’t know how.”

He moved with quick hands to buckle Peter in, making it look easy even though Peter couldn’t figure it out.

There was never a need for straps in the vans Peter rode in for missions. There was never a point to ensure the safety of things cared so little for.

Papa sat in the seat beside him and strapped himself in. His leg pressed against Peter’s, his way of saying that it was okay. He wasn’t upset. They would be fine.

Peter didn’t feel fine.

“He okay?” A man across from them asked, voice thick with an east coast accent.

“Yes,” Papa grumbled and shifted closer to Peter.

But Peter’s straps were too tight and were getting pulled taunt the more he breathed, and Papa was upset with him and Peter knew better than to yell but he couldn’t help it. There was too much smoke in the air that he couldn’t even smell the sweet outside.

He looked back towards the compound, the only place he’d truly known. The room. The guards. The girls. He never minded the stench. He never noticed. But the pungent smell of burning corpses and gasoline and rubble was overbearing and he wanted to lie down but there was no mat to lie down on.

The compound was burning and taking everything he knew with it.

There was nothing to go back to. The girls were dead. Shot. Peter would be too. Papa would be frozen. Peter should feel grateful, but he couldn’t breathe.

He tugged at the straps to get them off, but they wouldn’t budge and he still couldn’t breathe. Why was it so hard to breathe?

“Petya, calm down,” Papa said, touching his fingers lightly over Peter’s hair like it was thin sugar glass.

“Tell them to bring us back,” Peter gasped, wheezing in air like an asthmatic, “I want to go back.”

He heard Papa sigh beside him, but Peter was too busy watching the horror of his everything turn to ash.

“I told you the girls –”

“Not the girls. I want to go to our room,” Peter tugged and tugged at the straps, but they weren’t coming off. He set his feet on the ground and pulled but it didn’t work, “I need to lay down! I don’t want to be outside. I want to stay in the room. Please. Please, I just want to lay down.”

He didn’t realize he was sobbing until his father turned Peter’s face into the leather of his shoulder and Peter wailed so loud, he was sure all of Russia could hear.

He clutched onto his father’s jacket and soaked the sleeve with his tears. Papa didn’t scold him for doing so, he never scolded him for tears. No, he just rubbed his hand over Peter’s hair and let him cry.

“What’s he saying?” The guard asked. Peter hadn’t even realized he was speaking Russian this whole time.

“Nothing,” Papa didn’t look at him when he answered. He just kept smoothing Peter’s hair, “He’s confused.”

***

Peter was very bright even when others were unaware. He could hear the men on the helicopter whispering about things that weren’t meant for Peter’s ears. Captain America sat across from them, remaining silent during the conversation. He watched Peter and Papa carefully. His eyes looked sad.

Peter’s face was pressed against his father’s arm and they either thought he was asleep or deaf to the English tongue.

He was neither. He was listening.

Hydra had been tearing apart at the seams.

There was something called SHIELD (the good guys) and then there was Hydra (Peter and Papa and the guards. Peter guessed that this made them the bad guys). Hydra infiltrated SHIELD as they had so many things, but they were foolish. They messed up. There was a flaw in the system.

All it took was a crash in D.C., an old friend and a flash drive and everything was done.

Papa was meant to be stored in cryofreeze for their mistakes. They could transport him and keep the operation going. Who knows what would have happened to Peter?

He had something called the Avengers and a super spy’s tracking device to thank for never knowing.

“That little spider,” Papa grumbled, and Peter thought he was talking about him until he realized Papa despised the guards who so much as muttered the name to Peter.

Peter spent the rest of the flight swirling in thoughts of what was to become of them now?

How interesting it is to hear your entire life has been created to serve a mountain of murders. How fascinating to find out you were the bad guy all along.

***

“So, you have a kid?” Captain America asked awkwardly, stirring Peter from a deep sleep. He hadn’t meant to slumber. He didn’t move. If he did, they might stop talking. Peter could see Captain America clouded through the slits of his eyelashes.

Papa grew stiff. Peter held his breath.

Please say yes. You remembered me yesterday. Just because everything is gone doesn’t mean I’m no longer yours. Please say yes.

“Who else would he be?” Papa responded and Peter let himself exhale. Papa must have felt it. He relaxed only slightly.

Captain America cleared his throat, “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry. What’s his name?”

“Peter,” Papa said, “I think after his grandfather.”

Captain America’s brows pinched down, “Your dad’s name was George.”

Papa grew stiff again. He didn’t speak for the rest of the flight.

***

They arrived in some place called New York in the early morning.

They were on the tallest building Peter had ever seen, though there were many taller ones around them. It had a giant English “A” on the side and was shaped in a way Peter didn’t find logical. Style over functionality. The worst type of architecture.

When they stepped off the plane, Peter had to hold his hands over his eyes to shield away from the bright sun. Papa walked right beside him, a hand on his back to remind him that he was there. No one would hurt him. And maybe Papa needed the reassurance, too.

Once the sun wasn’t so bright and Peter’s eyes didn’t burn so much, he wrapped a hand around Papa’s metal wrist like a vice.

There was a lot of people, all moving and talking along the hum of helicopter wings and the rush of being so high. Peter was afraid if he let go, he’d tumble off the tower and smash into a puddle on the ground below. Or maybe someone would pluck him away and he’d never see Papa again.

How he wished he could just go back to the room to lay down and wait for training. He didn’t like this tall building at all. He almost missed the stench of smoke and the sight of yellow teeth.

Captain America exited behind them, along with the rest of the men who were aboard the aircraft. Each of them scattered away like ants, busying themselves with this and that or filing into the tower.

Captain American kept walking behind them, suddenly sighing and mumbling, “Oh dear, God.”

A man with oddly shaded glasses and a nice suit greeted them on the landing pad. There was a woman beside him in medical wear. Papa tugged Peter closer.

The man stepped forward, waving his arms out like he was at a grand show and jeered, “Welcome to my humble abode.”

He held his hand out towards Papa, who cast it a hard glance before turning his face towards the man. He pushed Peter behind him and continued to stare the strange man down.

The man waited for longer than he should have, raising his eyebrows the longer Papa glared. Finally, he sighed and dropped his arm, turning on his heel to walk towards the door of the tower. The women quickly followed suit.

“I am Tony Stark, as you may know. This is Helen Cho, head medic here in Avengers Tower – Oh, this is Avengers Tower, by the way. You’ll be staying here for the time being. You’re welcome.”

The man continued talking, occasionally tilting his head towards them but never looking their way.

“Before we go any further – which, we have a lot of talking to do about a lot of things. The kid being one of a thousand – you both have to get checked by the lovely Dr. Cho to make sure everything’s in tip-top shape.”

Peter and Papa stayed put until Captain America cleared his throat, “It’s best if we follow him. He’ll just get louder if we don’t.”

Papa walked forward stiffly, gesturing for Captain America to take lead. Peter stumbled along, surveying everything his eyes caught with bewilderment.

“Papa,” Peter whispered while Tony kept jabbering and leading them down hallways filled with pictures of gadgets and awards.

Papa raised his eyebrow, “Petya.”

“Is that man Steve?”

Captain America’s steps faltered slightly, and Peter shrunk further towards Papa’s arm. He hadn’t meant to be heard. He decided then to only speak to his father in Russian. The people here seemed to only know English.

Papa breathed hard like a sharp wave, “Yes, Petya. That’s Steve.”

They were walked to an area with a red-light sign that read “Medical Unit”. It smelled of rubbing alcohol and dull bandages. There was a hum of ringing and chattering and Peter held onto Papa’s arm a little tighter.

The lights were too sharp, and everything was too white. Peter, though he’d read plenty about doctors and medicine in books, had never seen one in real life. He once thought they were a thing of fantasy before the tutor laughed and told him what a silly boy he could be.

The doctor said something to Tony and Steve, who both nodded before each giving their own version of forced smiles to Papa and Peter before going to sit in the stale blue chairs on the gleamy tile floor.

“We’re just going to run some quick tests before you guys get settled in,” Doctor Cho stated, grabbing a clipboard off a receptionists table before continuing down another hallway.

“Why?” Papa bit.

Peter felt very sick. He didn’t want to do tests, be mocked or made to run or write math equations until his wrist turned numb.

He wanted to lie down. He still hadn’t lied down.

“It’s a basic procedure. It’s only to ensure that you and your…” She trailed off suddenly, looking at Peter for a moment before back to Papa.

“My son.”

She cleared her throat and nodded, the rounds of her cheeks flushing, “Of course. It’s to ensure that you and your son are completely healthy. No underlying illnesses or signs of negligence – negligence towards either of you.”

She led them to a small area with different devices. She quickly explained that one was to take height and the other for weight.

“If you don’t mind stepping up here, Sergeant Barnes.” Dr. Cho asked while scrambling for a pen. She plucked one off the table and began to scribble across a new piece of paper.

Papa’s forehead scrunched like it always did when he was confused, “He said my name was Bucky.”

Dr. Cho gave that tight smile that meant she wasn’t really happy, “Of course.”

Papa stepped onto the scale and a voice from the walls called out his height and weight. Papa reared back, grabbing Peter’s hand before Dr. Cho raised both of hers.

“Woah, woah! It’s just Friday. She’s a computer, not a threat.” She tried to placate but Papa’s breathing was still heavy as he stared at the wall.

He finally calmed down enough to release Peter’s hand. Dr. Cho asked him to step on the scale where the voice spoke again, softer this time.

“I’m sorry there’s no, files or anything. What’s your son’s name?” Dr. Cho said, grabbing a new file and scribbling more things down in it.

“Peter,” Papa grumbled.

“Okay. And Peter is how old?”

Suddenly, Papa didn’t look so angry. He blinked a lot and tightened his grasp on the metal table.

“I’m ten,” Peter whispered, looking at his father’s hands and not the lady’s scribbling.

Her hand stopped for a second, almost like she jumped before she gave a harsh chuckle, “Sorry, I’m – that was inappropriate. They told me you didn’t speak English. I should’ve asked you the questions directly.”

Peter and Papa stayed quiet, so she kept writing.

“You said you’re ten?”

Peter nodded. It’s what Pierce had told him. And the trainer. Maybe some of the guards.

“He’s on the smaller side for ten, but nothing to worry about.” She said with a kind smile, looking at Papa. She glanced back over at Peter, eyes casting over his wrist and suddenly the smile dropped.

“What’s that?” She asked, voice dangerously curious. She pointed to Peter’s special weapon, fingers reaching out to touch it before Peter pulled it away.

“It’s mine.”

“Don’t touch him.”

Peter and Papa both snapped in sync. She pulled her fingers away like they grazed over a hot flame. She looked back at Peter’s face.

“Does it hurt?”

Peter looked at his wrist, the raw, red skin poking out from underneath. Sometimes it burned badly if he moved too much. Sometimes it would bleed. But it always healed eventually, even if it would take a long time and would rip again before it was fully cured.

He slowly brought his gaze back to hers and set it very serious. Hers remained soft.

“You can say if it does Peter. If it does, we can take it off.”

This had to be a test. Pain was good. Children grow from pain. Its how they become adults so quickly. Without pain, children are nothing but disappointments. That’s why Peter was such a success.

Dr. Cho gave another tight smile, “Why don’t you think about it and tell me later?”

Peter looked at Papa who was watching them both carefully. Papa nodded so Peter did, too.

Dr. Cho smiled then waved over a pudgy woman in peach scrubs who was chattering away at the front counter. The woman waved back, a grin spreading across her face as she walked over.

“Nicole, can you run the last few tests for me while I talk to Tony?” Dr. Cho asked, handing her their files.

The woman nodded as if it was the best thing she’d be asked to do all day. She plucked the files from Dr. Cho and turned on her heel towards Papa and Peter.

“Hi! I’m your nurse, Nicole. Let’s see what I can do for you both today…” She trailed off to look over the file, “Alrighty, we just need a little sample of blood and then you’re good to go!”

“What do you need with our blood?” Papa asked with a tone that left little room for wrong answers.

Her smile faltered slightly, “It’s just precautionary. Make sure you’re both healthy. I think Dr. Cho explained some of this?”

Papa nodded slowly, back and neck tense like an angry cobra about to strike.

She walked them both into a small room with a metal table covered in rough, thin paper. Peter stepped behind Papa. He didn’t like this at all.

Nicole walked to a cabinet and opened a drawer, putting on a pair of latex gloves and pulling out a very sharp and thin needle.

She looked a Peter, wide smile never shrinking. He’d never seen someone smile so much. He suddenly wondered how exhausted she must be at the end of the day when she’d returned to a room of her own.

“Do you want to go first?” She asked.

Peter bent his arm towards himself, staring at the needle. He stepped further behind Papa. He had never been so defiant. It almost felt like a release of pressure, a small escape, but it quickly built back up at the unknown consequences of this place.

“It’s only a pinch. You won’t even feel it,” The bubbly nurse assured with the wave of her hand, “Here, we’ll do your dad first and then you, alright? You’ll see there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

That wouldn’t help at all. Papa wouldn’t flinch anyway. That’s just Papa. Even if they ripped his right arm off, he wouldn’t so much as twitch. It only hurt him to be in the chair.

Papa’s face was blank as he rested his right arm on the table, watching emotionlessly as she stuck him with a needle and drained blood from the vein.

Peter’s head spun like a top and he had to stare at the floor. How strange that he could make someone bleed so much without a thought, but seeing it so carefully pulled from the body made him want to faint.

“See, Petya? No pain,” Papa murmured only for Peter’s ears. Nurse Nicole pretended not to hear him.

She capped off three vials of blood and put them through a small door that held a thin shoot. It sucked them up like a straw with a soft thunk.

She grabbed a new needle from the drawer and Papa nudged Peter towards the table. He didn’t want to know the consequences of disobeying in this new place, so he laid his arm out on the table.

When she pressed the needle against the crook of his elbow, he looked to the far wall. He wanted to squeeze his eyes shut, mask the world in darkness and forget that blood would be pulled from him so willingly. He didn’t want to seem weak already. Not when he worked so hard to be strong. Not in a brand-new place.

His eyes fogged and the spot on the wall became blurred and finally Papa touched his shoulder and said, “It’s done, Petya.”

His blood went thunk up the shoot and suddenly they were being led back out to the room with pale blue chairs and gleamy white floors.

Dr. Cho’s back faced them as she looked at Steve and Tony. Peter could tell she was speaking by the way she was moving her arms about. He could tell she was very upset.

Tony leaned back on his chair, legs crossed and one hand rubbing his chin while Steve leaned very forward and covered his mouth with his hands. Papa did the same thing when he was thinking of things that he wouldn’t tell Peter.

“– not quite sure what your plan was, Steve, but they can’t just stay here. They both need a considerable amount of therapy and professional evaluations before we do anything else. I know he’s your friend –”

“He’s more than a friend.”

“Alright, well, I know he’s your ‘more-than-a-friend’, but you also said all the files in the compound were burnt, so we know absolutely nothing about that kid. So even if they could help us find the rest of Hydra, that little boy –”

Steve caught Papa and Peter walking towards them, his eyes widening as he moved his hand slightly to cut Dr. Cho’s rant short.

She stopped suddenly and turned around towards the group of three. Her face became very red, so she turned back around.

The bubbly Nicole smiled and said, “They’re all good to go! Let me know if you need anything else.”

Dr. Cho nodded and Nicole walked away. She cleared her throat and suggested to Tony, “Why don’t you bring them somewhere more comfortable while we wait for the results?’

***

They walked into an elevator that smelt like stale air freshener and was cooler than the rest of the tower. It was a smooth glide up, but it took forever to make it to their destination.

“This,” Tony said as the elevator chimed and the doors slid open, “is the common room.”

He walked them into a room filled with smooth wood cabinets, granite counters, and carpet floors. Even the walls looked soft. So different than the rough concrete that flooded everywhere in the compound. Maybe the cold wouldn’t bleed through these walls so easily. Maybe the mats here were softer on his back.

There were shelves stacked full of books, more than Peter had ever seen. More than was in the Embassy, even. There were thick ones and tall ones and ones with worn spines and ones that looked brand new.

Papa leaned over and whispered, “You cannot steal them.”

Tony led Papa and Peter to a large table with padded chairs and told them to take a seat.

“Or don’t,” He shrugged when the two of them stood stiff behind the table. They awkwardly sat, squeezing into the space between the table and the chair and Tony rolled his eyes and muttered something about pulling the chairs out first.

“You want coffee, Buck?” Steve asked, moving towards fancy machines in a room full of odd appliances. They had some odd weapons in this place.

Papa kept his glazed look at the far part of the room until Steve spoke again, “Bucky?”

Papa jumped, twisting his head towards Steve who jumped at how fast Papa moved. He shrugged to Steve’s question, so Steve brewed him a cup as well.

A few moments later, Steve handed him a cup filled of black liquid that looked like tar. Papa held it in his right hand, letting the hot mug burn his skin.

Peter peered inside and scrunched his nose. It smelt strong and burnt and sickly and looked worse than the mush.

Papa glanced over at him and laughed, running a hand across his hair, “You want to try some?”

Peter shifted away. It looked like sewage and smelled so bitter. Papa took a large gulp and Peter twisted his face even more.

“Do you want something to drink, kid? Some hot chocolate or something?” Tony asked, opening and closing the cabinets to try to appear helpful. He had a cup of tar in one hand, occasionally bringing to his mouth to chug.

Peter didn’t understand the question. What else was there to drink besides water?

He looked over at Papa, and Papa spoke into his cup, “You can answer him, you know.”

Peter looked over at Tony who was looking at him while beside an open cabinet and nodded because he felt like he had to. Adults ask tricky questions and they give tricky answers. Peter was smart enough not to fall for them.

Tony switched the stove on over a kettle to let it boil. It didn’t take long to scream, and when it did it sounded a lot more like home than anything else since the compound burnt down.

Tony poured a package of powder into a mug that said I don’t give a sip and mixed it with the hot water.

Tony placed the mug on the table and Peter cautiously peeked inside. It was a lighter brown, more pleasant looking. A soft shade like the one blanket in their room that wasn’t scratchy.

Peter brought it to his mouth as he’d seen Papa do with the mug of tar and let the liquid brush his lips and spill into his mouth. Immediately, his face scrunched, and he pulled the mug away. The liquid was so sweet a sharp pain jabbed into his brain and the sugars felt like grains of sand on his teeth.

“You don’t like it?” Papa asked over his cup, masking his amused smirk.

Peter forcefully swallowed so he wouldn’t spit it into the cup and shook his head.

“That’s alright. You don’t have to.”

Peter didn’t realize until he was older that this was the first decision he ever expressed.

“You don’t like hot chocolate? Jesus, you’re probably the most serious kid I’ve ever met,” Tony grumbled, pouring himself another cup of tar.

Of course, Peter wanted to say. How else should he be? Being serious was a luxury. Being trained to be the greatest was a gift.

But he remembered that he was the bad guy and almost everyone who trained him was either dead or imprisoned. Maybe it wasn’t much of a gift after all.

Peter held the cup for warmth though he did not bring the sticky sweet to his lips.

The adults began to speak of adult things as Tony called them. They used words like therapy and legal proceedings and social worker that Peter had never heard of before. It was so frustrating. He could be so clever and yet remain so dim.

Papa stayed very quiet. He stared at his black tar coffee. Steve and Tony spoke and spoke and spoke. They need a plan of action. They need to find out what to do first. They need to find a therapist for the two of them.

Suddenly, the soft voice in the walls rang through the common floor.

“Boss, Sergeant James Barnes and Peter are being requested in the medical center.”

Tony quirked towards his mug, mumbling, “That was fast.”

He placed his cup on the table and gestured for Peter and Papa to stand up, “Guess they got something exciting to tell you.”

He led them back down to the medic. When they walked back into the sterile and bright room, they found Dr. Cho biting the nail of her thumb and staring at a file.

Her head jerked up when she saw them approaching and she pulled her thumb away from her mouth. She picked up the file and nodded towards a vacant exam room where Peter and Papa followed. Tony and Steve stayed in the front room.

She placed the file on the table, pressed her hands beside it and exhaled like a whistle.

She finally looked at them and spoke.

“Your blood results came back and, uh, you’re both fairly healthy. There are traces of an unidentifiable substance in both of your blood that’s being tested now, but that’s not the real issue here.”

She slid the file towards Papa and spoke with a strained voice, “Your blood type is O. And Peter’s is…” She looked at Peter, examining him for a second like she was debating how to vocalize her statement correctly. There was no correct way. She had to rip it off like a bandage wrapped around one’s forearm, “Peter’s is AB.”

Papa stared at the file, lips pressed in a hard line and Peter darted his eyes between them. He couldn’t understand the issue.

Suddenly, Papa breathed like the world just smashed into his chest and he pressed his palms over his eyes. Peter’s glances became more frantic. He wished someone would explain what was happening. He didn’t see what was wrong.

“It’s just – it’s impossible. For a father with that blood type to have a son with…” Dr. Cho waved her hand towards Peter, stammering out words that sounded an awful like an apology, “It’s not possible.”

Peter looked at Papa whose hands were still over his eyes and he pressed his palm on the metal arm, “What does that mean Papa?”

Papa didn’t move his hands. Peter began to shake his arm.

“What does that mean?” His words became higher and tight and Papa still wasn’t looking at him, “Papa, what does that mean?”

“I’m really sorry,” Dr. Cho stated as she exited the room, leaving to bring the news to Tony and Steve and suddenly it all crashed on Peter like a brick.

Every biology lesson the tutor ever gave him. Every Punnett square he had to study. Every link in the chromosomes. What genes a child is gifted by their parent.

A father with O blood cannot have a child with AB.

Peter thought the serum was that gift. It couldn’t be if Papa wasn’t his father.

Peter didn’t cry. Peter didn’t breathe. He held himself very still as his mind worked so fast, he was sure it would catch fire. And at that point, he didn’t care if it did.

He really wanted it to.

Chapter Text

There was an investigation to see where Peter had come from. They ran his DNA, but it came up empty. No one in the system matched his. There were no reports of a missing boy fitting Peter’s description and age the time he was placed in Hydra. His mother had most likely given an illegitimate child away willingly, for a pretty penny or as allegiance to her country. They’ll never know.

All they knew was Peter was not the child of the soldier.

***

They were swiftly led back to the common room, all silent and stiff. Tony excused himself because he needed to “get some work done”, but they could go ahead and make themselves at home.

Right now, Peter didn’t know if there’d ever be a real home to go to.

Steve stayed with them, awkwardly putzing around the kitchen and ignoring the obvious dilemma at hand.

Papa paced the front area around the firm couch Peter tried to sink into.

The tension in the room was pulled like a tight band.

Papa ground his teeth together so firmly that they must have turned to bone dust. His fists were clenched tight like he was ready to swing, and his shoulders were bunched up by his ears.

He was unstable. He was going to snap. He needed to go to the chair.

“You guys want anything for dinner?” Steve spoke into a cabinet. Papa kept his eyes on the ground. Peter sunk further into the couch.

Suddenly, the band snapped.

“I can’t do this,” Papa gasped wetly, bending in half to grasp his knees.

Steve abandoned the kitchen and rushed to Papa’s side, gripping his shoulders tightly to pull him upright.

“Yes, you can, Buck. You’ve been doing it for this long already. And we’re getting you guys help –”

“No, I can’t!” Papa yelled, slapping Steve’s hands off him, “I can’t. I swear to fucking God, don’t you make me try or I’ll kill myself. I’ll fucking kill myself and no one will stop me this time.”

Peter sunk deeper. He wished the couch would swallow him whole, hoping it would drop him back into the room when Papa was still Papa and didn’t need upkeep.

“You don’t mean that,” Steve whispered in a voice so broken that Peter squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hands over his ears.

Some things aren’t meant for young boys to hear. Maybe that’s why Papa kept yelling.

***

Peter rushed out of the room unnoticed while Papa screamed at Steve and Steve feebly tried to placate him.

Peter wanted to tell him that it was pointless. Papa had been out of cryo for too long. He needed the chair. But there were no chairs in this place that looked like the one in the compound, and that chair was burnt to ash. There was no fixing Papa now.

They’d probably think that was a crazy notion anyway. They didn’t seem like the type to shock others into subordination. They talked to Papa like he was a person.

He wandered down the halls, turning this way, walking that way and venturing down hidden stairwells. He was hoping to find some corner of familiarity to duck into, but nothing in this place looked like the compound. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe he should be thankful.

He walked and walked and walked down the stairs until he realized the bottom was fast approaching. He thought of turning around when suddenly the sound loud music that shook his stomach and the grinding of manipulated metal filled his ears.

He paused, halfway down the final staircase and stood on his toes to look past the jutted wall.

There was a glass door that held holograms and computers more advanced than Peter could have ever dreamed. The back wall was filled with robots, all standing stiff at attention.

In front of them was Tony, bending over a piece of metal, a welding tool in his hand and tiny sparks shooting around him like sharp rain. Sometimes, he’d look up to the ceiling and talk, but the glass made it impossible for Peter to hear what he was saying.

He stood there for maybe thirty seconds, watching in awe until the music stopped and the voice in the wall spoke.

”Boss, you have a visitor.”

Tony looked up so suddenly Peter almost dashed back up the stairs.

Tony waved his hand towards Peter and said something that Peter still couldn’t hear.

Suddenly, the glass door opened on its own.

“Come on in kid,” Tony said, putting his welding tool on the desk in front of him.

Peter slowly stepped through the doors, glancing around the room in wide-eyed curiosity. He’d never seen so many things. This was perhaps that best thing he’d seen since arriving at the tower. It was probably the best thing he’d seen ever.

“You and your…” Tony started, glancing up from the table for a split second, “dad settling in fine?”

“He’s unstable,” Peter stated. He walked towards the robots on the wall but kept a safe distance. His eyes had always been a wonder. He could see every nick and bolt in their armor.

“Unstable, huh?” Tony asked, eyebrow quirking up, “That’s quite a word for a kid.”

Peter turned towards Tony with his chin held high, “I’m ten.”

Tony rose his other brow and his forehead scrunched like rumbled paper. He put up his hands, “Oh, jeez my mistake. I guess the cut off age for childhood has regressed since I was a kid.”

Peter still stared, never dropping his chin.

Finally, Tony sighed and gestured around the room, “Feel free to look around. Try not to touch anything that looks like it could kill you.”

With that, Tony turned back to his work and Peter slowly moved about the room. He kept his hands at his sides. He looked over at Tony, mouth dropping in awe as Tony quickly worked out a physical engineering equation as if it were basic arithmetic.

Tony mumbled to himself about acceleration and turbulence while writing his equations in the air in front of him. The numbers appeared like magic on the hologram in front of him.

”You silly boy,” He could hear his tutor say through his weaselly grin, ”You know there is no such thing as magic. There is only science.”

Peter walked to Tony’s side, creeping up quietly enough to not be heard and staying far enough away to not be seen.

Tony noticed anyway.

“Try it Friday,” Tony ordered, stepping back and tugging Peter’s shoulder so he would move to. He tossed Peter a pair of goggles from one of his various desks and told him to put them on.

Peter fumbled with them for a second, glancing at Tony to see how he wore his before he stretched the band across his head and slid the protective plastic over his eyes. They were a little big and threatened to fall down his nose, so he kept them held up with his hands.

One of the robots came to life, stepping off the platform and raising its right hand towards a wall far away from Peter and Tony. Tony pulled Peter another step back.

The robot’s palm glowed blue and suddenly a burst of light exploded through the room with a clap like thunder, so forceful that Peter had to plant his feet to not be flung backward.

The robot immediately collapsed, falling apart in large sections into a pile of metal on the ground.

“Damnit,” Tony grumbled, stepping around Peter to go back to his desk and write down new parts to the equation. He mumbled to himself about tweaking this part and getting rid of that number.

Peter walked up slowly to observe the equation over Tony’s shoulder while Tony continued muttering. He found the problem at once but bit his tongue to refrain from explaining. Perhaps this was a test as well. Adults don’t make mistakes.

But the way Tony chewed on the skin of his thumb wasn’t like anything Peter had seen an adult do.

Peter stepped forward and pointed his finger to one of the epsilons in the equation, focusing on the number on top of it.

“You put a four there. Shouldn’t it be an eight?”

Tony stopped speaking. He looked over the problem once, twice, three times and then slowly turned his head towards Peter, “How did you know that?”

“Boss, we have a problem,” the robot in the walls spoke, taking Tony’s attention away from Peter.

“What’s up?”

“Sergeant Barnes is attempting to strangle Captain Rogers.”

***

They sent Peter to live with a lively Italian woman named May whose husband once worked for SHIELD.

A foster mom is what they called her. Meaning it’s only temporary. Meaning his father would heal and come back home but where was home when the room was ash? And how would Papa heal when there was no chair?

May lived in an apartment complex in Queens, which Peter thought was odd because it was the dirtiest place he’d ever seen. It had gum stained into tar on the sidewalk and men in thick, torn coats who hadn’t bathed in months. There was so much shouting and car honking that Peter couldn’t stand to be outside.

He could look at it through the window in the new room he was given, but only for a moment.

The room was small with pale green walls and a desk beneath the window. It had a bed just for Peter that was bigger than Papa’s cot. He sunk into the mattress like quicksand, so he spent his first three nights on the floor.

He couldn’t sleep without the sound of Papa’s snoring or the chill of Russian night air eating its way through the walls.

Eventually, Peter would become so exhausted that his eyelids felt like concrete and he’d fall dead asleep on the ground. After three times of May waking him up nearly in tears at the sight of him slumbering on the cold carpet, he decided to use the bed.

The room used to be May’s husband’s office. She told Peter his name was Ben with a smile so full of adoration it made Peter’s chest squeeze. She could never talk about him for long. Her voice would get thick and her eyes would tear up beneath her glasses and she’d excuse herself in a hurry.

Peter never asked how he died. He could never be so cruel.

Peter once asked about bringing his father to come to see the apartment.

“It’s like the ones he’d tell me in his stories,” Peter grinned, “And he loves the color green.”

May smiled kind and forced and told Peter that his father was too busy getting better to come to visit.

“It’s not my choice, Peter. I’d let him over if it was.”

Papa was getting better with Steve in some secluded island off the coast of Florida. May would get a fond look on her face and talk about how nice and warm Florida was. How the ocean was so clear, and the sand was so soft.

“Everyone always smiles there. Ben and I spent our –” May stopped, her throat becoming so full that she couldn’t speak.

Peter tried not to bring up Florida often.

May was big about schedules during the weekdays. She said it was to get Peter ready for school once he was cleared to attend.

She woke Peter up at seven. They had to be done with breakfast by eight. By eight-thirty he had to scrub his teeth with something called a toothbrush that May had to help him use the first time.

“How have your teeth not rotten out of your head?” She said while Peter grimaced at the incessant scratching sensation on his gums.

Then she’d comb his hair and use slimy stuff called gel to hold it in place. Peter would always scrunch up his face and bunch his shoulder by his neck as the cold stuff was rubbed into his hair. She insisted that it looked so nice this way.

After that, she’d let him watch this thing called T.V. that had all types of real and fake people acting absurdly. May loved reality television.

“It’s just hilarious that real people act like this!” She exclaimed during a particularly dramatic episode of Dance Moms.

They only watched it once. When the dance teacher started screaming at one of the children and Peter hid under a blanket, May switched it off. It took her thirty minutes to coax him back out, apologizing the entire time.

“I want my dad,” Peter whimpered, tiny and frail like speaking any louder would get him punished.

“I’m really sorry, Pete. Please come out. I’ll let you do whatever you want, just please come out.”

From then on, Peter chose what they watched. He liked to press the top button of the remote and watch pictures zoom across the screen, much to May’s distraught. She said it made her dizzy. Peter thought it was calming. It almost moved as fast as his brain.

One day, a colorful picture caught his eye and he stopped so abruptly May joked that she felt like she was on the Cyclops at Coney Island.

“That thing always stops like a teenager driving a sports car.”

The picture was a drawing that moved and talked like a human. May smiled and told him it was a cartoon. Peter made a vow to never watch real people on T.V. again.

At twelve they would eat lunch. In the afternoon, May would bake terrible tasting food and Peter would read the romance novels she had stacked on her shelves.

In the evening, May would drive Peter to Dr. Kafka who let him build puzzles and asked him about the compound and Papa and who taught him how to use a knife? How many times had he used a knife? How did he feel when he had to use a knife?

At night, May would serve burnt leftovers and then they’d get ready for bed. Peter would take a shower, which was something he had no knowledge of prior.

The first night he stayed there, May sent him to the bathroom without a thought. She was halfway through washing the dishes when a terrified and soaked fully-clothed Peter sprinted into the kitchen.

“There’s something wrong with that hose. It burns.”

May managed to borrow a pair of swim trunks from her cranky neighbors who had three boys in high school.

Peter stood in the shower, borrowed swim trunks on while May scrubbed his hair, jostling his head this way and that while mumbling, “Why the hell wouldn’t they let you shower? What the hell kind of people doesn’t teach someone how to shower? Who washes of a kid with a hose?”

They’d get ready for bed and Peter would shower himself and brush his own teeth, much to May’s delight. After that, they’d duck into their rooms and bid each other goodnight.

On the weekends, they had fun. They’d wake up as late as they wanted and read and watch T.V. and sometimes May would play her radio that had all kinds of loud music and she’d grab Peter’s hands, spin him around and dance in a way that was so silly and terrible that Peter’s stomach hurt from laughing.

One day, she brought him to a bright and smelly place that she called the supermarket.

It had shelves like the ones at the tower with books, but these held all types of food. Food that could be hot and food that could be cold. Food that was fresh and food that was full of chemicals. Peter had never seen so much food.

No mush was sold here even though the mush had everything he needed. Vitamins, minerals, sedatives for the night. But they had biscuits.

May tried to buy a tube of dough to make them.

“From scratch,” she said with a wink, tossing the tube into their basket.

Peter hid it behind a jar of mayonnaise in the next aisle over.

May let Peter try all kinds of food. He picked everything that caught his eye; bright cereal boxes with cartoons, fruit, and vegetables of different colors, cans of tuna and jars of pickles.

May scrunched her nose at most of the things Peter put in the cart but would shrug and say, “You’re the boss.”

That night when they were eating tuna and pickle sandwiches, Peter grinned through a mouthful of bread and said, “When Papa’s better, we need to make him dinner like this.”

May chuckled, “You’re darn right we do.”

***

They called some days “bad days”. The days when Peter felt like the world was too big, but his insides were squeezed tight until they felt like they’d pop. The days he would lock the door of his room and curl up into a ball and press his hands so hard over his ears to try and make his brain just stop.

These were the days Peter could only see blood on the girl’s face or watch a knife in his hand dig into a man’s back until he fell slack on the floor. The days he’d hear Papa scream and gurgle from the spit built in his mouth, but they wouldn’t stop shocking him. The day’s where he’d see gnawing, yellow teeth barking at him.

“Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping. Not until they’re dead. Not until you vomit into their gore and keep going.”

Peter wished very much on those days that he was dead. That Captain America was too late ripping off the door of their room. That he and Papa were shot, too.

May would sit outside his door on every bad day and talk about mundane things like the steps of doing a load of laundry and the color of her third-grade teacher’s hair.

“Bright purple, Pete. Can you believe it?”

She talked to him about what cartoons were on the T.V. and how the milk was about to reach its expiration date. When she couldn’t talk anymore, either because her mind was drawing a blank or her voice was raw, she’d start to hum. It was off tune and raucous, but at least it pushed the thoughts back until they were almost dim.

She wouldn’t leave even though Peter wouldn’t make a sound. She wouldn’t ask for him to come out.

She was, perhaps, the greatest foster mom alive. And sometimes Peter couldn’t garner the energy to feel grateful.

***

Dr. Kafka’s office had a soft carpet and shelves of books that hid secret nick-knacks in empty spaces. She’d let Peter take a book home once a week as long as he’d tell her his favorite part and exchange it for a newer, thicker one.

He laid on his belly, the soft carpet not digging into his stomach the way the floor of the room always had. Splayed in front of him was a new thousand-piece puzzle that built a picture of a gaudy cathedral.

Dr. Kafka sat cross-legged on the other side, her glasses pushed to the brim of her nose and hair pulled in a tight bun.

“Did you ever learn their names?” She asked, trying to put together two pieces that didn’t work.

Peter shook his head and pulled her pieces apart, moving one of them to its correct spot, “Papa just called them the new widows.”

“And what did you call them?”

“The girls,” Peter connected another piece, “Only in my head though. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other.”

“Even so, you sounded like you missed them.”

Peter shrugged, “Some people are meant to die. That’s just their purpose.”

Dr. Kafka stopped fiddling with her pile and focused her attention solely on the boy in front of her. She sat up tall and asked Peter to look at her.

He did, fingers still holding his piece as a child would, but his face was a serious as a soldier.

“Nobody’s purpose is to die,” She said, with a tone almost firm.

Peter shook his head, lip quirking up as if she had told a joke, “That’s not true. If it was, then what would my purpose be?”

Her face turned very solemn and she blinked her eyes a lot. She pushed her glasses back up her nose and looked Peter straight in the eye without a hint of breaking contact.

Peter shifted uncomfortably on his belly, wanting desperately to look away but he wasn’t weak. And, while her face was serious, she seemed so close to tears that looking away might cause them to spill.

“Peter, your purpose is to be a child.”

And that…

Peter had never thought of that.

She sounded so sure that Peter didn’t bother correcting her that he was not a child. In fact, he almost started to believe that he could be.

He got very quiet. He no longer wanted to finish the puzzle.

***

One afternoon, Peter looked up from reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma on the couch and turned towards May folding laundry beside him.

“May?”

“Yeah, Pete?”

“How long does it take for someone to get better?”

Her lip pursed out as she stacked another pair of jeans on the pants pile and moved to grab a matching pair of socks, “Well, there’s not really an exact timeframe. Sometimes it doesn’t take very long. Sometimes it takes forever. You can never really tell until it just happens.”

Peter looked back at his book, “Even in Florida?”

May chuckled, reaching over to ruffle Peter’s hair.

He liked how she did it. When the trainers touched his hair, it was harsh and made him feel like a prized pet. May always did it with a smile.

“Even in Florida.”

***

There were some weekends Tony let Peter come visit his lab to work with his equipment and on his own equations.

May always called him Mr. Stark when she brought Peter, so Peter assumed that meant he had to, as well.

Mr. Stark’s voice would get low and funny when he talked to May and she would blush and push her hair behind her ear, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

One Saturday, while Peter toyed with a screwdriver and a scrap piece of metal to make his own version of DUM-E, there was a hoard of adults in the corner of the room talking about him.

There was Tony and May and some man they called Fury. Peter thought they were teasing since the man always looked angry. His body language was very tight and closed. May laughed and insisted it was his real name.

“Well, you can’t just send him anywhere,” Tony exclaimed with a voice forced low, “If you pick the wrong school, you know what’ll happen to all that talent he has? It’s gone. Down the drain. And he’s not going to just get it back.”

“He’ll go wherever we damn well want to put him,” Fury bit, arms folded as he watched Peter create equations like they were doodles, “But where were you thinking?”

Tony smiled, big and mocking even with his mouth closed, “Midtown School of Science and Technology. And don’t worry, he already got in. No need to thank me.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

***

They put May’s last name on his school forms.

Peter didn’t understand the purpose of a last name. He never had one before. He thought Papa hadn’t either until someone informed him that it was Barnes.

“Why can’t I just be a Barnes, then?”

He received answers and he didn’t. It was just temporary. There were legal things to work through. They wouldn’t expect a young boy like him to understand.

He would have to be Peter Parker until further notice. Somehow this didn’t feel so temporary anymore.

***

When Peter finally let Dr. Cho take off the weapon on his wrist, he didn’t say a word. She poked it with this gadget and that, working on it for nearly an hour before it popped off.

The skin beneath was white and damp, bright red where parts of the weapon dug so deep it felt like it ripped the muscles.

She wiped it with cool antiseptic. He bit his tongue to wade off the sting.

“There you go,” Dr. Cho murmured, “Feels better right?”

Peter nodded.

He realized in May’s car on their way back home that his stomach didn’t fill with heavy leaded fear when he nodded. He didn’t worry about being punished.

Maybe he was getting better after all.

***

A month and a half after living with May, Peter was finally cleared to start going to school.

May’s car rolled up to the large school with children bustling in and out. Peter surveyed with his nose pressed against his window.

Kids poured inside, moving together like a school of fish. Some looked panicked and others walked beside friends. It was strange, seeing children talk so freely. None of them hid their smiles.

A round boy whose hair was cut in a perfect circle around his head beamed and waved towards their car overenthusiastically. He stood beside the weathered principle, who kept his hands behind his back but gave them a kind smile.

This was the boy they designated to be Peter’s one-on-one buddy for the day. He was supposed to show Peter the ropes, make sure he had a fun time, introduce him to all his friends.

He was still waving. Peter wondered when his arm would get tired.

“You ready?” May asked, leaning over the center console towards Peter in the back seat.

He didn’t move his face, “Yes.”

“You got your lunch?”

“Yes.”

“Your schedule?”

“Yes.”

“Your backpack?”

Peter pushed away from the window and nodded, grabbing his dark blue backpack with all his favorite constellations splashed across it.

When he saw it at the store, he stared up at it in complete awe until May snuck up behind him, arms full of marker and pen packs and whispered, “Is that the one?”

Peter nodded, his eyes and mouth opened wide with wonder.

She pulled it off the shelf and dropped it into the cart, “Then it's yours.”

In the car, he began to feel the nipping sensation of nerves work its way up his spine and through his stomach. He stilled. His grip on his backpack tightened.

“Pete, do you want me to walk in with you?”

It was enough to shake Peter from his stupor. He shook his head and shrugged on his backpack.

May looked concerned, lines between her eyebrows deepening with worry. Peter hadn’t meant to upset her. If he were smarter, he would have just left the car the second it pulled in front of the school.

He didn’t look at her when he opened the door.

“Bye May!” He called and stepped outside. He closed it before he could change his mind.

Maybe he wasn’t ready. Maybe he wanted to stay back at May’s apartment forever. Maybe he hadn’t healed as much as he thought.

“Mr. Parker!” A booming call made him stumble. The greying principle waved his hand. The round boy still hadn’t put his down, “Welcome to Midtown.”

Peter inhaled deeply, looking up the steps and holding the straps of his backpack tight. Kids buzzed past him like bees only none of them stung. The worst they did was bump and jostle him, all seeming too busy or hurried to notice.

Finally, he walked forward.

Once he reached the top of the stairs, the principle held out his hand, “I’m Mr. Johnson. I know Mr. Stark introduced us briefly on the phone, but I want you to know that if you have any problems at all, you can come to me.”

Peter stared at Mr. Johnson’s hand as he’d seen Papa do when Tony held out his.

Mr. Johnson eventually cleared his throat and lowered his hand a bit dejectedly, but his smile only faltered for a moment. He put his hand on the round boy’s shoulder and said, “This is Ned Leeds. He’ll be showing you around school today.”

“Hi!” Ned squealed, bringing his hand up to wave at the same insane velocity he had it at prior.

“You boys should start heading in before the bell rings,” Mr. Johnson barely finished saying before Ned was grabbing Peter’s hand and pulling him inside, “Ned Leeds, do not rip off Mr. Parker’s arm!”

“You’re going to have so much fun,” Ned claimed, still pulling Peter through the halls. Peter was too stunned to pull his arm back, letting himself be dragged, “Midtown is like, the coolest school ever.”

Peter was quick to learn that Ned was probably the most entertaining and exhausting person alive.

He bounded beside Peter the entire day. His mouth ran a mile a minute, which was fine because Peter didn’t have much to say. He’d bounce up to any and every group of students and introduce Peter as “his new friend.” He’d always say it like it was the absolute best thing that happened to him, even when the students would roll their eyes and turn their backs.

They had every class together, which Peter liked because the idea of being away from Ned’s constant yammering long enough to give his brain the chance to think was terrifying.

The final class of the day was physics. All their previous courses had been so easy Peter wanted to scream, but he stayed subordinate and finished his problems at the same pace as everyone else.

Physics wasn’t any different. The second the teacher started to explain linear acceleration, his eyelids began to feel like weighted blankets.

Ned nudged him a few times, panicked at the very idea of Peter getting in trouble. Peter knew better. The people here were soft. The worst they could do was send him to May’s. The worst she would do was take him to get fast food French fries and let him watch T.V.

She’d be proud of him just for giving it a try.

“So, how would we calculate linear acceleration towards point A and point B?”

The longer the teacher droned, the wearier Peter became. He leaned his head on his fist, despite Ned’s more frantic nudging.

A boy in front of him answered incorrectly. The teacher called for another volunteer. Eventually, she grew annoyed.

“Mr. Parker,” Her stern voice scolded. Ned slapped his arm and Peter dropped his fist and sat up straight, “I don’t know how they did things at your last school, but we don’t have nap time at Midtown.”

A chorus of giggles rang through the classroom. The boy who answered it wrong turned over his shoulder and smirked like he thought Peter was the most pathetic piece of scraped gum he’d ever seen.

Peter felt his face grow very hot.

“Maybe now that you’re awake to join us, would you mind giving us an answer?” The teacher continued, crossing her arms over her chest and raising an eyebrow impatiently. She was a foot tap away from being comically annoyed.

Peter looked up at the board, holding in an exhale. This is why he’d fallen asleep in the first place, “Mass cancels out so it’s just gravity times sine.”

The giggles stopped. The teacher’s eyes grew wide in surprise, “Correct. Maybe you should give Flash a lesson in physics.”

At that, the boy who had looked at him so cruelly turned back around. His eyes flashed with something so angry Peter would’ve been scared if it weren’t for the life he’d led before. This boy wasn’t intimidating. Peter rarely found anything intimidating.

“You’re dead,” he mouthed at the ring of the final bell.

***

“I can’t believe you outsmarted Flash like that! He’s like, the meanest and smartest kid in school and you beat him! It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! You have to be like, the smartest kid ever!” Ned gushed as they walked through the halls, stopping abruptly in front of his locker.

Peter watched as Ned propped his flimsy, frayed textbooks into his locker, using his hands an excessive amount to express just how cool he thought Peter was.

Peter had a locker as well, but the thought of being so vulnerable to let his back be exposed while a tiny, suffocating room waited in front of him was preposterous.

Suddenly, Ned spun around and asked, “You wanna come over to my house sometime?”

Peter paused, realizing that he would have to give the boisterous kid an answer before he’d actually vibrate with excitement.

“I don’t know. I’d have to ask my foster mom.”

“You live with a foster mom? That’s so cool!” Ned exclaimed, grabbing his paper bag lunch.

Peter was learning very quickly that Ned thought a lot of things were cool.

“It’s just like how Luke Skywalker lived with his uncle and aunt at the beginning of A New Hope.

Peter blinked. It was like he just heard another language.

“What’s Luke Skywalker?”

Ned turned much quicker than Peter would have expected. His mouth hung open in disbelief.

“You’ve never seen Star Wars?!” Ned practically screeched, drawing the attention of many passersby, “You need to come over to my house!”

Peter grinned. Ned’s excitement was as contagious as a cold.

“I’ll ask May.”

May was, of course, ecstatic. She squealed while serving up burnt meatloaf, gushing about how great it was that Peter had made friends already.

“I’m just so happy for you. When you first got here I –” She stopped suddenly, shaking her head like she decided her comment was a bad idea. She looked back at Peter, “I’m just happy you’ve been doing so well. Your dad’s gonna be so excited when he sees you.”

Peter nodded, biting his cheek to keep from grinning.

The first time he went to Ned’s, they didn’t watch Star Wars. Instead, Ned showed him his new Lego set.

“You can usually build whatever you want! But this one’s special. It’s the Millennium Falcon. I got it for Christmas!”

Peter wasn’t sure what any of those words meant. But he was quick to learn that he much preferred Legos over puzzles. And he didn’t think much could beat puzzles.

They spent three hours building half of it before Ned’s mom came in with a tray of snacks.

“This is so much fun,” Peter grinned, grabbing a corn chip of the tray.

“Right?” Ned laughed, “Just wait until you actually see the movies. We can watch episode four next time you come over!”

So, coming over to Ned’s became a weekly thing. Peter’s sessions with Dr. Kafka got shortened to only five days a week so he got to spend every Friday sleeping over at Ned’s.

Ned’s parents were just as jolly as he was. His mother always brought them food and his dad would play video games with them, teaching them all the best ways to win (and cheat).

Ned and his dad laughed the same. They’d nudge each other with their elbows and get excited just because they were together.

Sometimes Peter would catch himself staring. Sometimes he’d wonder if he and Papa could have been like that, too. But then he’d remember that Papa wasn’t his real father and without the room, he never would have met him, so he has to look away.

They’d fill his belly with so much sugar, he’d get dizzy. At first, he despised the residue it left on his teeth and the sharp way it jabbed into his head. It wasn’t so bad after a while. And after that, it was almost good.

Except for soda. Ned gave him some in a can while his dad warmed up the PS4.

Peter only took one sip before his face scrunched up like he bit something sour. He spat it back into the can, “It burns!”

Ned and his dad laughed so hard their faces turned the color of ripe tomatoes.

At nights, they’d fall asleep in sleeping bags in the living room, candy wrappers and video game controllers at their sides.

Some Saturdays, Peter could bring Ned to Mr. Stark’s lab. They’d run around, play with DUM-E and design contraptions on large scraps of paper. Sometimes, Mr. Stark would let them use Friday to turn their blueprints into holograms.

He’d grumble about the commotion they’d make and the number of expenses they were costing him, but Peter would catch him smiling behind his fist.

Peter and Ned were inseparable. At school, they were locked to each other’s sides. At home, Peter could message him on Minecraft using May’s laptop.

In an odd and unidentifiable way, Ned almost reminded Peter of Papa.

After only one month of knowing him, Peter felt like he’d known Ned his whole life.

“Are you awake?” Peter whispered through the dark living room far past the time they were supposed to be asleep.

Ned rolled over, “Yeah. Are you?”

“Yeah.”

They got quiet again, each thinking the other had fallen asleep until Peter said, “You’re my best friend.”

Ned’s giant grin was bright enough to see in the dark. He shouted in a whisper, “You’re my best friend, too!”

Peter felt like he went to sleep smiling.

***

When Ned finally got around to showing Peter Star Wars, it was the best thing he’d ever seen.

He stared at the white credits zooming through the screen, his brain still processing what he just watched.

When he could finally think clearly, his mouth spread into a large grin.

“That...was…awesome!!” Peter exclaimed, jumping towards Ned who was nodding with a grin just as wide.

“I know!”

“I can’t wait to show this to my dad!” Peter turned towards the screen, smile still large until the sudden shift in the room’s air made it drop.

It was like the walls became frosted over, and time right along with them. He turned back to Ned, whose smile disappeared as well.

“Hey, Peter. Where is your dad?” Ned asked in a small voice. He didn’t want to overstep his boundaries, but the question had been eating at him for some time.

Peter looked at the ground. Blush red crept up his neck. His twisted his hands.

“Florida,” Peter squeaked, then cleared his throat and shrugged, “He’ll be back soon.”

They fell into a brief lapse of silence again. The credits rolled to a stop and the menu for the movie popped up. The Star Wars theme filled the empty space.

Peter kept his eyes on the ground. He didn’t want to think about this. He didn’t want to talk about this. Thinking about it meant that Papa had been gone for so long that he didn’t even know Peter’s best friend. He didn’t know Peter had started school. He didn’t know Peter was getting better.

It hit him like a slap to the face, leaving his mind in a tingling sting, that he hadn’t seen Papa for two months.

“It’s okay,” Ned finally said, “Jamie Sampson from English has a dad in prison, too.”

Peter burned in a whole new way, red pouring from his neck onto his face in a hot rage. He twisted towards Ned almost violently.

“My dad’s not in prison!” Peter snapped.

Ned’s sudden flinch and startled face made Peter take a deep breath. Guilt swam in his stomach. He needed to calm down. Take ten deep breathes as Dr. Kafka told him to do if he ever got so angry that he couldn’t breathe.

The red slowly faded away. Ned’s shoulders relaxed.

“He’s not in prison. He’s…” Peter blinked and shook his head, scrambling his brain for the right word. There had to be a better word, “He’s in…”

Ned never found out.

Peter didn’t know.

***

On a Tuesday after school and before Dr. Kafka’s, Peter walked back to May’s apartment from riding the subway with Ned.

May reluctantly stopped picking him up from school with the promise of Peter coming straight home. And the reassurance that three SHIELD agents would be watching him at all times.

Peter unlocked the door and dropped his backpack on the ground, “I’m home!”

He expected May to be typing in the living room or flipping through the channels, but she was sitting at the dining room table. In front of her sat a steaming cup of coffee and a thin envelope with Cyrillic scribbling covering the front.

Peter froze, eyes zeroing in on the envelope.

“Is that for me?” Peter asked, raising his finger to point at the letter.

May nodded, a hint of a smile ghosting her face.

Peter grinned and scrambled towards the table, grabbing the envelope and ripping it open.

“Careful!” May laughed, but Peter was already pulling the letter out and tossing the torn envelope back on the table.

He ran to the living room and jumped on the couch, laying on his belly to read over the rushed font.

Petya,

How have you been? I hear you have started school. Have you already shown them that you are the smartest? I’m sure you didn’t even have to try.

I also heard that you’ve made a friend. What is this thing I’ve been hearing about you two watching Star Wars? What is that?

You would love Florida. The sun is almost too warm some days and the air might feel sticky, but everything is calm. Maybe we should move here when I get better. But nothing quite beats New York. I’m sure you can see that now. Only they’re having you stay in Queens which is an absolute tragedy. If it’s not Brooklyn, it’s garbage and if it’s Queens, it’s shit.

Yesterday, Steve and I were at the beach and a jellyfish nearly stung his whole leg. The damn punk didn’t think to move when he saw it coming. Good thing he can heal a hell of a lot quicker than I can. But the way he was laughing about the whole thing reminded me of you. Remember when you were small and tripped over your own feet and cut up your chin? You cried for about three seconds before you hysterical. You thought it was the funniest damn thing that ever happened.

I’m so proud of you, Petya. I can’t believe how grown up you’ve become in the time I’ve been gone.

I’ll be home soon. Try not to forget about me too quickly.

I love you,

Papa

And I’m sorry. For everything.

Peter read the letter three times, eyes drifting back to his favorite parts. He popped back up to his knees and hopped over the back of the couch. He ran back over to the kitchen and skidded to a stop, clutching the letter to his chest.

He bounced on the balls of his feet and May covered her mouth with her mug of coffee to hide her smile.

“Can I go visit him? Can I? He said he would be home soon, but can I go?”

May placed her mug back on the table and raised her hands, “Woooah, calm down Pete.”

Peter stopped bouncing but the excitement in his eyes didn’t fade.

“You still got school, so I don’t think you can just up and go to Florida. We might be able to ask Dr. Kafka, but if she says no, you’ll see him soon enough. He’ll be back before you know it.”

Peter nodded, but May could see everything she said went in one ear and out the other. He dashed to his room and called, “I’ll ask her tonight!”

Chapter Text

Dear Papa

I thought I knew everything before, but there are so many things I’ve learned since leaving the compound.

I’ve learned about showers and Legos and drawings on this thing called T.V. that talk like real people. Kids can smile whenever they want to. Even in class and they never get yelled at for it. Except for one time this girl Monica in my Spanish class started laughing during a test and got sent outside.

Mr. Stark says I’m probably the smartest kid alive, but sometimes I don’t know if that’s true. The kids at my school are so smart. There’s this boy Flash who thinks he’s smarter than everyone but he’s just cruel. He doesn’t scare me.

I love New York. I can do almost anything I want. I still have to ask before I see you, though. And I have to go to school. But other than that, they let me make decisions. I can choose what to have for dinner and what to watch on T.V. and what books I want to read.

Free will exists after all.

I love you, too and I hope you get better soon,

Petya

P.S. I hope you no longer want to die. I know how it feels sometimes, but please don’t do it. I would miss you so much.

***

Dear Petya,

Of course not. I was being foolish. I hope you know that I would never in my right mind speak like that near you.

I would miss you too much, too. I am feeling better. The doctor says it shouldn’t be too much longer if I keep making progress. Soon they might even let us talk on the phone. Well, if they can get cell service on this damn island.

I’ll be home before you know it,

Papa

***

Dr. Kafka said no to Peter’s request. She said Papa still needed time.

Peter deflated like a popped balloon. He hadn’t felt hatred towards someone in a long time but in that moment, he hated Dr. Kafka.

***

In the beginning, Florida’s air was filled with sticky moisture that clogged the soldier’s nose when he inhaled. The sun was far too bright to find any vantage points and make an escape plan. The soldier couldn’t –

Bucky.

His name was Bucky.

How many times would he have to tell himself that before it stuck?

***

The first month went by the slowest.

When Steve and Bucky first arrived at the island, Bucky needed to be put under 24-hour surveillance. He was a threat to himself. He was a threat to others. At least being under relentless scrutiny was something he was used to.

The island only held ten people; Steve, Bucky, the therapist, one doctor, one nurse, and five guards. They said it wasn’t so much to keep Bucky in as it was keeping people out. Oh, and to make sure Bucky didn’t kill anyone while he was there.

Bucky spent a lot of time in his room. It was big. The bed was too soft. The ground too clean. He spent his days pacing.

Dr. Garner, a stern man with a soft interior who never feared asking the hard questions, oversaw Bucky’s files. He was to come up with a rehabilitation plan, which included types of therapies, medications, and interactions with people on and off the island.

Right now, he and Steve were the only ones allowed within a twenty-foot radius of Bucky.

It’s not that Bucky liked either of them. In fact, he’d very much like it if fucked right off into the ocean. But Dr. Garner was supposed to get him better and Steve was the only person who could pry Bucky off someone if he tried to kill them.

Bucky had to leave his room once a day to speak with Dr. Garner. Therapy sessions are what they called them. As if talking about his feelings would make him better. Like it would excuse the hundreds of lives he ripped away. Like it would bring back the life taken from him. Like it would make Peter his.

For the first few meetings, Bucky didn’t say a word. He sat as straight as a wooden ruler and observed Dr. Garner so meticulously that the therapist grew uneasy. Most wouldn’t notice the subtle changes in his posture, the way he would click his pen, how his teeth slowly worked from side to side.

Bucky noticed. It’s what he was created to do.

It was the end of their seventh meeting when Bucky spoke for the first time.

Dr. Garner was just about to close his notebook when Bucky asked, “When can I see my son?”

Dr. Garner waited a beat.

“When you’re better.”

It wasn’t the answer Bucky was looking for. It was the same as hearing never.

***

A month and a half in, Dr. Garner realized that Bucky needed structure. Order. A schedule.

Steve was growing weary of Bucky hiding in his room and screaming at Steve to “fuck right off,” usually accompanied by a large something being thrown at his head.

Dr. Garner was becoming worried that if Bucky didn’t start to make a drastic improvement, he would never leave the island.

Dr. Garner, with Steve’s help, came up with a detailed daily schedule that he enforced Bucky to follow.

Eight a.m. wake up. Eight-fifteen, go to the bathroom, wash face, brush teeth. Eight-thirty eat breakfast. Steve will make it.

Nine, go outside. Work in the garden and then meditate. Stay outside until twelve.

Twelve, Bucky makes lunch. Twelve-thirty, go to the gym. Three, see Dr. Garner. Five, make dinner. Six, go back outside for the last bit of sun. Seven, relax. Eight, take a shower, brush your teeth again. Ten, go to bed.

When Bucky was first given the schedule, Steve had to hold his arm back before he decked Dr. Garner in the face. He wasn’t a child. He wasn’t a hippy. He just wanted to get cleared so he could leave.

He hated this island. He wanted to drown choking on polluted salt water. He wanted to go rogue. The only reason he was staying was the slight possibility he could have his son again.

***

They gave him soft clothes to wear and soap that smelt like nothing. Steve made him burnt eggs in the morning.

Bucky liked the garden. He enjoyed the whispering sound a rake made while scraping lines into the sand. He appreciated the structure of tugging weeds from the ground to make room for beauty to grow. Sometimes, he didn’t mind Steve’s low humming that vibrated through flower petals and tickled the sand and hairs on Bucky’s head.

Soon, the smell salt water choked air became pleasant. The crash of waves in the distance became nice.

The nurse, a non-conventional one apparently, taught Steve and Bucky how to meditate.

It wasn’t as bad as Bucky imagined it would be. It could almost silence the thrum that stung his brain with every breath. It could almost clear the hazy fog that circled his mind like smoke. Sometimes it made him think clearly. Sometimes it felt like he could get better.

The nurse had to keep her distance. Steve nearly pressed against his side.

“Why do you always gotta be here?” Bucky muttered through the corner of his mouth while keeping his eyes closed and legs crossed. He wished they had mats or something. Sand getting beneath his shorts was a goddamn nightmare.

“Gotta make sure you don’t drown yourself,” Steve whispered back.

The nurse hushed them, then ordered them to breathe deeper.

Lunch he’d always burn, and Steve couldn’t help because he was a shit cook, too. He’d burn the soup, the sandwiches, the meats, and the fries. Hell, he even managed to burn a damn salad. Steve laughed so hard his eyes started watering and Bucky really wanted to throw a pan at his head until he realized he was laughing, too.

The first time at the gym, Bucky beat punching bags until the flesh colored stuffing poured out like a fist squeezing sand. His knuckles only stung for a moment before he grabbed a new bag and kill it, too.

The only reason he stopped was the look on Steve’s face made it feel like he was the one being punched.

Dr. Garner was fine on the days Bucky didn’t hate him. On those days he’d just sit and stare at the wall right behind Dr. Garner’s left ear and wait for the two hours to be done.

Some days words spilled out of him like a faucet. Some days they started and stopped like an out of juice go-cart.

Dr. Garner wrote it all in his notebook.

Steve and Bucky would give up cooking by dinner and microwave massive amounts of frozen dinners. More often than not, they’d end up with melted plastic wrap inside grainy mashed potatoes.

They’d venture outside when the wind was picking up just enough that Bucky had to tie his hair up. They’d usually stand in silence, watching waves pour over the sand and form again. The sun would gently graze over the horizon and the sky would turn pink. Bucky never had the chance to appreciate the sunset in a sky that wasn’t covered in smog.

Sometimes Steve would suggest going for a swim. Bucky would pretend to not hear him.

Then, they’d go inside and start it again the next day.

***

Dr. Garner’s office didn’t have much for Bucky to look at. There were no book spines to read nor pictures to focus on. It left him with looking at Dr. Garner, the floor, or the plush mint green chairs.

That was probably the point. Bucky looked at the ground.

“Bucky?” Dr. Garner’s gruff voice, ever so slightly laced with frustration, broke the silence.

“Hm?”

“I asked what you meant by that.”

The corner of Bucky’s mouth quirked up, sly and mocking, “Meant by what?”

Dr. Garner bit his lip hard to not sigh, “By ‘we shouldn’t be wasting our time with you’.”

Bucky shrugged, “Exactly that. Why waste your time on something like me? I’m mindless. A monster, maybe. I never got to talk to no therapist before and I was fine.”

Dr. Garner clicked his pen. He wrote something in his notebook.

Bucky wanted to chuck that damn thing out the window, preferably into a wood chipper.

“Does your son think that?” Dr. Garner asked, drawing his eyes up from the notebook. He clicked the pen again.

Bucky’s smirk dropped. His words came hissed through clenched teeth, giving a clear warning to the therapist, “Does he think what?”

“That you’re a monster?”

Bucky scoffed, pretending to be unaffected as he slumped against his chair. Dr. Garner wrote another note.

“Well, he’s not mine so it really doesn’t matter.”

“And does that bother you?”

Silence filled the tense space between them. Dr. Garner stared right at Bucky’s face, slowly clicking his pen open and closed…open and closed.

He was a therapist for some time. He knew a defense mechanism when he saw one.

Bucky stared back, eyes narrow and defiant. He crossed his arms across his chest and tilted his chin up just so.

Dr. Garner was waiting him out. He was prepared to wait for a long time. Jokes on him because Bucky could sit quietly forever.

The pen clicks got quicker. The air got tenser. The muscles in Bucky’s back began to ache. He realized he was holding himself as tense as cattle lined up for slaughter.

The silence started grinding him down, rough as metal on concrete.

And maybe it did bother him that his son wasn’t his. Maybe he kind of cared that he was being manipulated like a damn lab rat.

Bucky’s façade shatter. He pushed his hands in his hair and tugged just enough to spark the familiarity of pain.

“Why the hell would they tell me he was my kid anyway? I just don’t fucking get it,” He clamored, words stringing together. His breath came out in puffs almost like he was laughing.

Dr. Garner stayed still, pretending to be very calm. He scribbled more notes when Bucky wasn’t looking. He shrugged with confidence as his mind scrambled for ways to answer that would diffuse the situation.

“Maybe they thought you’d be an example. It doesn’t really matter, though. They were a murderous Nazi group set on world domination. I’m not sure there was a reason behind anything they did.”

Bucky was actually laughing now. Laughing enough that his stomach nearly rested on his thighs and his eyes watered red. He covered his mouth with his hands, but his guffaws still shook the room, “They really were fucking crazy, huh? God, I’m surprised I didn’t kill that kid.”

“Then why did you take care of him?” Dr. Garner’s voice remained even though he had to raise it to be heard over Bucky’s incessant howling.

Bucky’s laughter was dying down, but his shoulders still shook. He sat back up and rubbed his eyes, harsh enough to rip out eyelashes. He dropped his hands roughly and shrugged, “Because they told me he was mine.”

Dr. Garner raised his eyebrow and leaned forward so now his elbows were resting on his knees, “But what benefit would that have for you? If you were just a machine or a monster, why would you care?”

Bucky grew very quiet. His face became stern, all traces of laughter completely vanished, “What are you trying to say?”

The edge of Dr. Garner’s right lip tugged upwards just so, “There was a person in you all along. They tried really hard to bury it, but one kid, your kid, was all it took for you to come out.”

Bucky didn’t move. Hell, he didn’t breathe. He moved his eyes to the wall behind Dr. Garner like he always did when he wanted to shut down.

Dr. Garner wasn’t having any of it.

“Do you miss him?” He asked, voice soft but insistent.

Bucky didn’t move his eyes from the wall. The silence stretched on for so long that Dr. Garner thought their session was done.

That was until Bucky, so quiet and broken, said, “More than you’ll ever know.”

***

Dr. Garner gave Bucky a task at the end of their session; write his son a letter.

It took him five times to get it right. But when he finally had it sealed, stamped and sent, it was like he had learned to breathe again.

He got even better when he received his first letter back.

***

Four months in and Bucky genuinely thought he was starting to heal.

He had started three different medications, for anxiety, depression and to patch the holes electricity had put in his brain. The meditations, while Bucky would never in a sober state admit it, were working. He had started a consistent pen pal exchange with Petya. He and Steve were…something. Getting along, so to say. He liked his company.

He felt a sense of calm that he never imagined he’d regain. His muscles were rarely bunched up and his fingers hardly twitched for a gun.

Sometimes he regressed. He wasn’t perfect. There were days he’d scream if someone suggested he’d come out of his room. There were times he’d tried to strangle Steve. There were moments where he’d sit so still for hours on end and feel his eyes get bleary and his stomach churn in hunger, but he wouldn’t move.

But now as he stood with his feet tucked beneath the damp sand with Steve to his left, those days seemed like a bad dream.

They had their pants, Bucky’s sweats and Steve’s jeans, rolled to their knees with the fabric at the bottom lightly brushed with water. They had decided to walk along the shore, Steve’s idea, while the sun began its journey to kiss the water.

They stopped somewhere along the way, watching the water sway back and forth. Somewhere far off, a dolphin broke the surface and grazed the sky before diving back in without a splash.

“It’s getting kinda late,” Steve commented, hands in his pockets. He faced the water. The orange sun casted a faint shadow from his forehead down the bridge of his nose, “We should start heading in.”

“I don’t know. The view is real pretty,” Bucky responded, looking at Steve from the corner of his eye, “But maybe if you made me a good offer, I’ll consider it.”

Steve’s hands bunched in his pockets. He schooled his expression by biting the inside of his cheek, “What kind of offer are we talking about?”

Bucky smiled, slow and predatory.

“The kind that could make a fella’s night.”

***

The first time Bucky bedded Steve in this new world, it was hard and fast with no love at all.

Steve woke on Bucky’s chest the next morning, blinked up at him and immediately started crying. He rolled away and covered his face with his hands, wailing about how sorry he was and how he was taking advantage.

Bucky rolled his eyes. He shut Steve up quick.

***

That morning after an awkward breakfast that they finished in a minute, they walked silently to the garden and began their routine.

Steve was halfway through picking weeds when Bucky leaned on his rake beside him and whistled to catch his attention.

Steve peered up. The vibrant morning sun sat directly behind Bucky, making him as dark as a shadow. Steve shielded his eyes with one hand.

“Maybe we should get to know each other a bit more,” Bucky said, mouth quirking up. He leaned closer to Steve, the handle of the rake digging into his armpit, “Maybe then you won’t cry next time we fuck.”

Steve’s dropped his hand in shock, sputtering as his mind fuzzed and Bucky began cracking up beside him. Blush ran from Steve’s cheeks to his neck and probably lower. He smiled up at Bucky, joining in his laughter and nodded fast enough to put a kink in his neck.

***

Turns out, Steve had been preparing for this moment since he found out Bucky was still kicking.

He had thousands of dollars’ worth of history books. American history books, specifically America in World War II. Specifically, Captain America’s role in World War II. Specifically, Captain America and the Howling Commando’s role in World War II. Specifically, Captain America and his long-time best friend and right-hand man Bucky Barnes’ role in World War II.

Steve sat him down on the couch and pulled out his two favorite textbooks along with newspaper clippings, journal entries, and old photos.

“This one’s my favorite,” Steve said, pressing his fingers to a yellowed passage.

Bucky read it. Then moved to Steve’s second favorite. Then to his third. Before he knew it, the room had grown dark and birds outside had flown to bed and he read almost everything.

The words on the page splashed scenes across his eyes. Things he’d repressed or had been made to forget. Things like his mother’s face and his favorite birthday and the sharp venom pumping through his veins as he laid strapped to a metal table and the best song to dance to with the ladies and the first time Steve crawled into his bed and the first time he shot a kid –

He gasped loud and high pitched and curled over so his knees pressed into his chest and the ends of his hair touched the floor and suddenly he was the one crying.

***

Peter had spent all Saturday cleaning his room.

Ned was coming to his house for a sleepover and was bringing The Empire Strikes Back. May was making them queso and ground beef for chips and Peter had vacuumed, dusted, straightened and swept every inch of the apartment.

A knock on the door rung promptly at six. Peter sprinted towards before May even registered it came from their door.

“I got it!” He called while pulling open the door and revealing a grinning Ned.

Ned held up his DVD, “I brought it!”

Peter pumped his fist and waved Ned inside and rushed straight towards his room.

“Hi Ned!” May called from the kitchen.

“Hi Miss Parker!” Ned called back as Peter pushed him into his room. They barely heard May’s response of “Call me May! You’re making me feel old!” before the door shut.

The first thing Ned spotted upon were the letters Peter had pinned to the wall next to his desk. Over time, the Cyrillic letters morphed into English and now they floated somewhere in between.

Peter suddenly felt very foolish for not putting them away when he was cleaning up. He didn’t want Ned to read them. They were his letters.

It was too late. Ned already made a beeline to them, mouth agape and eyes wide as they scanned over the foreign text.

“Dude, this is like that Dostoevsky stuff Mrs. Gomez told us about,” Ned gasped. He leaned closer towards a letter in English before Peter placed his hand atop of it, blocking Ned’s view.

“It’s Russian,” Peter shrugged, pressing his weight against his hand to appear casual, like he had randomly chosen that place on the wall to lean against, “My dad wrote them for me.”

Ned’s flabbergasted expressed morphed into something very excited as he turned to Peter, “You’re Russian? That’s so cool!”

His response shocked a smile onto Peter’s face, who was expecting a different reaction, “Yeah, that’s where my dad and I lived before I came to New York.”

“Awesome!” Ned grinned, turning back towards the letters. Then, as if something quickly dawned on him, his eyebrow’s furrowed and he turned back towards Peter, “Why’d you have to move to America?”

Peter opened his mouth to reply with “the compound burnt down” but snapped it closed on the quick realization that he wasn’t allowed to talk about it.

It was never explicitly said that he couldn’t, but the faces Dr. Kafka made, or the way May would get quiet when it was brought up made him feel dirty. It brought a queasy feeling to his stomach. He knew without having been told that this was his private business. No one, not even Ned, could hear about it.

Peter dropped his hand and said, “You wanna go start the movie? May’s gonna have dinner ready soon.”

His excitement from earlier had disintegrated. A tight feeling in his stomach replaced it.

Ned didn’t seem to notice. He just grinned and bounded out of the room towards the couches and T.V., taking the DVD with him.

The next day after Ned left, Peter took down the letters and stacked them carefully into his desk drawer.

***

Dear Papa,

Did you ask if you can call yet? I know you said you may not be able to, but I just wanted to know. It’s been a while and you haven’t said anything about it. Our number is (917) 334-2817 just in case.

Today Ned and I saw three rats in the subway station. Someone tried to kill them, but an old woman told them to leave the rats alone. I wouldn’t mind if rats die, though. I know people shouldn’t die even though they do but something like rats wouldn’t bother me.

How should I start to explain to Ned why we moved to America? Ned asked the other day and I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. I know it’s not good to lie but I can’t tell him about the compound. He has a soft heart. It would burst and ooze if I told him the truth.

Tell Steve and Dr. Garner I say hi.

Love you,

Petya

P.S. If May picks up the phone when you call, don’t panic. She’s really nice.

***

Dear Petya,

They weren’t able to put in a cell tower so I can’t call, but it shouldn’t be too much longer now.

I hate rats as well. Those things used to get inside mine and Steve’s apartment back in the day and I’d have to scare them out with a broom while Steve shrieked like a baby on the counter. Maybe when I come back, we could get a dog so it’d bark and scare those little demons out. Dr. Garner said I could use a therapy dog.

Stevie showed me some books yesterday. History books. About me. I guess it made me feel something I wasn’t expecting. Like sadness or anger. I’m not really sure. I know I wanted to burn the damn things, but I didn’t tell Steve that. It would break his heart.

I think it is okay to lie under the right circumstances. You should never lie to Papa, though. I would just find out.

I love you, too.

Papa

***

Dear Papa,

How much longer do you think it will actually be? You’ve been saying soon for a long time, but it feels like it’s taking longer and longer for you to get better. Dr. Kafka says that everyone heals differently but why would yours take so much longer than mine?

I’m not trying to rush you but I want you home.

-Petya

***

Five months in. Bucky was barely treading water.

Somedays, he could write his son letters and talk to people without figuring out the softest spot of their jugular to sink a knife into.

There were more days when Bucky couldn’t get up in the morning. Sometimes he couldn’t find the energy to breathe. Sometimes he’d think real hard and realize he hadn’t written his son in weeks. He couldn’t even walk down to check the mailbox. He always had enough energy to feel like shit.

Dr. Garner said it was called relapsing. That it was common for patients who suffered immense trauma. He’d just have to strengthen the dose of Prozac and Bucky would be fine.

But the biting salt water was rising, and he barely knew how to swim.

***

Dear Papa,

You haven’t responded to my last three letters and I was getting worried. I looked up the chance of a hurricane coming and washing away your island and the chances were very small. Also, Dr. Kafka said you’re still there and maybe you just need some time.

That’s fine that you need time. Somedays I can’t go to school because everything hurts too much. One time I forgot that I’m a lot stronger than people think and I got angry and slammed the door to my room so hard it splinted the wall. May said it was fine, but her voice was shaky so I knew it wasn’t. It’s just that sometimes my brain gets too loud and I remember the things that I don’t want to, and it takes a lot just to breathe.

I understand that you need time, but when you do can you have Steve write a letter so I know?

I love you. Feel better soon,

Petya

***

Dear Papa,

Did you know it’s been six months since we’ve seen each other? I miss you. I hope you are better enough to respond to this one.

I saw it’s supposed to rain where you are for the next few days. If you see sea life washed onto the shore and you can’t push them in, make sure to continuously wet them with salt water.

Nothing has changed much since the last letter I sent except I got my report card and I have one of the highest GPAs in the school. Mr. Stark says that’s really good. There’s an award ceremony at my school towards the end of the year and my math teacher said I’ll probably get an award. If I do get it, do you think you’ll be better enough to make it to the ceremony?

-Petya

***

Dear Petya

I am so sorry. You cannot believe how sorry I am. I just read all your letters and I’m glad you’ve managed to become such a thoughtful boy. Even with a terrible Papa.

It rained but not for long. Steve went for a run while it was still sunny and came back soaked. No need to worry, there were no fish or other aquatic creatures washed onto shore. There’s been a hell of a lot of birds lately. They caw all damn night and keep me up.

Of course, I will go to your ceremony. Even if I have to swim across the Atlantic, I’ll be there.

I’m so sorry and I hope one day you’ll understand why it's taking me so long,

Papa

***

Sometimes Peter felt very selfish. Why was he rushing his father? Why couldn’t he just wait until he was ready to come home?

But then Papa would take weeks and weeks to respond to Peter’s letters and Peter found it very hard to convince himself that Papa still cared.

Sometimes sorry just wasn’t enough.

But Papa sent him a card on his eleventh birthday that Peter didn’t even know about until May woke him up with a cake and candles. She placed Papa’s card on his nightstand when Peter froze up, staring at the cake like a grenade.

She explained birthdays to him later when she took him out for pizza. Most kids have a set one, the day they were born, but they had to make a guess for Peter. They chose April because spring was the season of blooming.

A month later when Peter received an official letter that he would be granted his school’s highest achievement award for the sixth grade, he still sent Papa an invitation.

Papa had made a promise. It wasn’t like him to not keep it.

***

Seven months. Bucky was resurfacing little by little.

Somedays it seemed like screwing Steve was about the only good he could do. Others, he could sprint miles along the beach and then stand very calm to listen to the waves and let fish dance between his calves.

Meditation helped. Therapy helped. Pills helped.

He was doing it for Peter. He would make it home.

***

Peter waited in a chair on the tall stage in Midtown’s multipurpose room in nice clothes that May bought for him from Marshalls.

There were six rows and five students in each row. Peter was in the second, right in the middle. Two students on his right. Two students on his left. None of the students were better than the other. The teachers made sure they knew that.

Peter peered his neck back and forth to peer over a tall boy who sat in front of him. The boy’s hair was puffy and fried and his long, thin neck was riddled with acne and blocked Peter’s view of the audience.

The room was packed, buzzing with excitement as parents conversed about their students’ achievements. Each seat filled with grinning proud parents and reluctant siblings playing on their iPads.

May and Tony sat in the first row, an empty seat in between them with a paper stating “Reserved for Bucky Barnes” in Peter’s handwriting.

It was still empty. The ceremony was about to start. Peter craned his neck towards the entrance but the floods of people filing in was trickling down. No Papa in sight.

May caught him looking and gave him a thumbs up and a big grin. Ned and his parents were there as well, beaming at Peter like he was part of their family.

“Welcome parents of Midtown to our annual achievement ceremony!” Mr. Johnson boomed into a microphone in the middle of the stage, whining feedback falling after each word. The noise petered down until there was nothing but occasional murmuring of adults.

Someone closed the entrance. Everyone had taken their seats. Papa’s seat was still empty.

Peter kept wiggling to check every face. Perhaps Papa didn’t see his seat. Perhaps he was sitting in the back. But even as the lights dimmed on the audience to emphasize the students on stage, masking most of the parents' faces, Peter knew his father wasn’t there.

Mr. Johnson began reading the names of the students on stage and giving a brief speech about their achievements. Peter’s searching became more frantic. So frantic that he didn’t hear his name called until the girl beside him elbowed him in the ribs.

He got up on wobbly legs and didn’t look at his principle as he grabbed his certificate. May and Tony and the Leeds all cheered the loudest, but Peter’s stomach turned to ice and his eyes became itchy wet when he saw Papa’s seat was still empty.

He barely mustered the energy to give them a smile before shuffling back to his seat.

He tried to wipe his eyes inconspicuously but the girl beside him noticed. She leaned over and whispered, “What’s wrong?”

Peter only shook his head. He stared at the certificate in his hands, words blurred through tears, “Nothing’s wrong,” he hissed back, “Nothing.”

They all took him out for ice cream when it was over. They gushed about how proud they were and how lovely the ceremony was. Peter nodded numbly and watched his ice cream ooze onto the table, leaving streaking colors from the m&ms in its wake.

Ned and Mr. Leeds elbowed and joked with each other while munching on their desert. Mrs. Leeds laughed, and May did, too. Peter watched and watched until Tony gently nudged his side. Peter raised his eyebrow in acknowledgment but didn’t turn towards him.

“My dad missed a lot of stuff, too. Awards. Graduations. A lot,” Tony whispered under the others’ laughter, “And it hurt the same every time. He’d try to make excuses, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. What I’m saying is…”

Peter looked over at him. Tony was staring hard at the table.

“Just because he’s your dad, doesn’t mean you always have to forgive him.”

***

Peter didn’t write Bucky after that.

***

Bucky didn’t know about the ceremony until after it happened. They said the invitation got lost in the mail.

The guard, the unfortunate bearer of bad news, left with a broken nose and blood on the collar of his shirt. Steve was quick enough to pull Bucky away before he could swing again.

Bucky wrote Peter letters. He tried to explain.

Peter never responded.

Bucky figured that was only fair. Fight fire with fire. Maybe Peter was his son after all.

Dr. Garner explained it away, saying Peter was “an eleven-year-old that just had the hardest year of his life”. Bucky would have to prepare for “a wave of prepubescent drama”. This was normal. He’d respond soon enough. He just needs time.

Bucky still checked the empty mailbox daily. Steve was always there to put a sympathetic hand on his back.

***

Ten months since seeing his father and during the tail end of summer vacation, Peter woke abruptly on a bright morning to May whisper scolding Tony Stark in the living room.

At first, he couldn’t make out anything. He shrugged on a Yankees sweatshirt over his pajamas and pushed his hair out of his face. He pressed his ear to the door that held onto its frame with the help of duct tape and listened carefully.

“I told you. Dr. Garner told Dr. Kafka that Bucky doesn’t want Peter to see it. And Dr. Kafka wasn’t sure that –”

“I think you’re forgetting that I was there, too, Ms. Parker. She said he could look at it if he wanted to. Emphasis on could. The kid’s got a right to know.”

“If he wants to! And what his dad wants –”

“His ‘dad’ is not his dad!”

Peter swung open the door as quickly as the adults swung their heads towards him, argument cut off abruptly. They both stood in the kitchen, Tony with a manila folder in his hand and May with a spatula for eggs.

Peter rubbed his fist over his right eye and blinked at them, waiting for an explanation.

“Hey, Pete,” Tony smiled, smoothing over the tension with a spoon.

“What’s that?” Peter asked, nodding towards the folder.

“You wanna read it and find –”

“Pete,” May cut Tony off, placing the spatula down and putting her hands on her hips, “In that file is something really big. Big like damaging big and it’s not something you need to know about.”

Peter rolled his attention from her towards Tony and stretched out his hand for the file. Tony casted May a look that perhaps was only for adults to understand before he gingerly set it in Peter’s palm.

Peter held it tight enough to crinkle before marching off towards the couch. He plopped down, staring at the folder in his lap. Tony watched him. May shook her head and scrabbled the eggs.

Peter took a deep breath and flicked it open.

***

There was a woman named Marya from the city of Chelyabinsk. She was impregnated by a Russian agent during a bitter winter. She had a father named Piotr. She was very ill when she offered her son to the country.

***

Dr. Kafka’s room was serious that day. The nick-knacks seemed dull and the couches were placed properly. There was no room for a puzzle on the carpet.

Peter hadn’t said a word since coming in and flopping down face first onto the couch. Dr. Kafka didn’t try to pull any from him.

Eventually, he sat up but kept his attention on the floor. He picked at his hands and his eyes were a little crinkled like he was crying only he wasn’t. His face was too pale for that.

“Why would someone give their child away to something so evil?” He asked in a strained voice.

Dr. Kafka exhaled quietly and took off her glasses. Rubbing them on her shirt, she stated, “You read the file.”

Peter nodded. He didn’t lift his eyes.

“And how did that make you feel?”

“I just don’t understand,” Peter gasped, putting a hand on his chest and digging his fingernails through his shirt to scrape his skin, “There are so many things I don’t understand, and people once thought I knew so much. Why would she give me up? Why would they want me? I don’t remember anything from before except they put something inside my blood and it hurt.”

The scratching got deeper. Peter’s face grew very hot. He brought his other hand up to wipe his eyes, but he still wasn’t crying. His harsh breathing made it feel like he was.

“It hurt so bad,” he hissed out, “They said it was to make me stronger but then they locked me in a room with Papa and only took me out to make me…”

He couldn’t finish it. He wouldn’t finish it. Dr. Kafka can’t know because then he’d get sent away to the prison where Ned thought his dad was kept.

“Made you what Peter?” Dr. Kafka asked in a tone so soft, it ripped him in half. He didn’t deserve this. He hadn’t deserved any of this.

His shoulders hunched forward, and the tears finally came. They came with harsh, knocking breath and snot and burning skin. He brought his hands to cover his eyes and they immediately filled with hot tears.

“If no one’s purpose is to die than what good does it do to kill them? What kind of order does that bring?” he wailed into his palms and Dr. Kafka was too quiet. Too quiet until –

“Peter. Are you trying to tell me –”

“I don’t know! I don’t want to be in trouble, but they wouldn’t let me stop. I killed so many that I couldn’t keep track and I wanted to stop but they wouldn’t let me!”

The session went past its scheduled time. Another man came in, a psychiatrist. There was a lot of hushed adult talk and paperwork.

Peter laid curled on the couch with his head tucked into his knees. May sat beside him and rubbed his arm.

***

At eleven months, Bucky was finally cleared to leave the island.

Steve came with him. They shared luggage and a private plane. Bucky didn’t even notice when it lifted off the ground. Steve was too loud for him to hear the engines firing up.

They brought him to New York and set him up with a job at a car shop right next to the Avenger’s tower. Bucky was fortunate enough to retain memory of repairing engines throughout decades of electricity pulsed into his brain. Apparently, auto repair was important to Hydra.

He was allowed to choose his apartment. He picked one in Queens that was walking distance from Peter’s school. He and Steve decided it was best not to move in together. That wasn’t fair to Peter.

But Bucky wouldn’t get Peter yet. He couldn’t even see him. There were still lots of evaluations to get through to see how he’d adjust to this life and then there was the question of did Peter even want to move in?

The apartment was quaint, paid for completely by a generous donor at Avengers tower. It had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a kitchen with modest furnishings. They bought a T.V. because Bucky knew Peter would like one. They painted the living room green and one bedroom blue. The last they left blank for Peter to decide.

While rolling on a paint titled 13 Green on the living room walls, Bucky paused and looked at Steve.

“Do you think Peter will like it?”

He gave Bucky a smile, “I’m sure he will, Buck.”

Chapter Text

After three evaluations, two different psychiatrists, countless extra therapy lessons and four SHIELD reports, Peter was cleared by the end of August.

Eleven months since the compound burnt down.

The reports were filed and investigated. No one blamed Peter for anything. They made that very clear.

The only person who thought Peter was at fault for it all was Peter. He wished they would stop lollygagging about it. If they were going to lock him up, they should do it now. He was too tired to go through another test.

But they allowed him to return to school in the fall. Seventh grade, at the top of his class and no one wanted him to miss out on any education.

He felt at ease in Midtown. They asked him to join the Academic Decathlon Team and it took him two days to say yes. Driving his focus into math equations and scientific facts put his mind to rest. And Ned was on the team, too, so they had even more time to spend together.

Things finally felt like they were easing back to normality, but the ever-present hole of loneliness ate its way through the back of his mind.

Peter never wanted to admit it, but he missed his father.

***

Bucky adjusted to New York civilization well.

He attended every therapy session on time and answered every question even when they made him uncomfortable. This therapist was softer than Garner. She had glasses that were perpetually smudged and a smile that was slight but real. She never pressed when Bucky became uncomfortable or snappish and she never wrote while he was speaking. She had a recorder. Bucky wasn’t sure which he hated more.

He made it to every shift at the auto shop and, all be it very quiet, the owner claimed he was the best damn worker he’d had in twenty-three years.

There was one set back, only one, and it spurred from an offhanded comment made by Dr. Kafka. Well, perhaps it wasn’t as offhanded as she made it seem. Therapists were too meticulous for casualness. Everything they did was planned.

But she let it slip that Dr. Garner reviewed all the letters Bucky sent to Peter. It’s not that he was nosy. Bucky was genuinely a flight risk. And one comment he made about swimming across the Atlantic to get to his son made Dr. Garner particularly uneasy.

He made sure Bucky didn’t know about the ceremony until it was done. It was too risky otherwise.

Bucky wanted to scream. He wanted to catch the next flight to the spit of land island and tear the entire thing apart. He wanted to make Dr. Garner hurt the way Bucky had when his son stopped writing.

But he couldn’t. He wasn’t that person anymore. He couldn’t be. And he didn’t even know where Dr. Garner was.

So, he just sat with his hands clenched to fist and teeth grinding together until his gums felt numb and the metallic taste of blood washed over his tongue.

Dr. Kafka assured him that he was making great progress. If he kept it up, he could see Peter in no time.

***

They brought Peter’s sessions back up to every day after his confession. On weekdays, he’d go to school, go to decathlon practice, go to Dr. Kafka’s, then make it back home in time for dinner, homework and maybe some T.V.

He didn’t have time to relax on the weekends. He’d have projects to catch up on and more therapy to go to. Sometimes decathlon even had practices on Saturdays. Sometimes they’d go to competitions spreading across New York, but Peter wasn’t cleared to attend those yet.

That was fine. The tight van they used for transportation made Peter weary because it looked a lot like…

Dr. Kafka said it’s alright to think about it, but Peter really, really didn’t want to. He wasn’t trying to bottle anything up but it just hurt. It hurt too much to even replay in his mind, to make connections to things that weren’t there anymore.

He didn’t mind not going. At least he could avoid those thoughts somehow.

***

Peter was in Dr. Kafka’s so often it felt like an extension of home. The couch he occupied while there was his living room and the carpet was a continuation of his bedroom floor. The knick-knacks and books were his as much as they were hers.

He walked in without so much of a cursory greeting and flopped belly first onto his couch.

“Long day?” Dr. Kafka chuckled, leaning forward to flick on the recorder between them.

Peter groaned and rolled over onto his back, “The longest. Mr. Harrington had us stay an extra hour to figure out the last math problem and no one let me say anything even though I knew the answer because I had ‘answered the rest already’,” He air quoted the last bit with a roll of his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Peter. That sounds exhausting,” Dr. Kafka said genuinely even though she was giving an amused smile.

Peter grumbled and rolled again so he was at least facing her. His right cheek was smooshed against the couch cushion.

Dr. Kafka faked a cough to cover her laugh.

“Have you written your father recently?”

Peter huffed and rolled his eyes, “No.”

“Has he written you?”

“I don’t know,” Peter grumbled while sitting up with a slouch and wrapped his arms loosely around his legs, “I don’t care.”

“You don’t?” Dr. Kafka asked, an eyebrow quirking up in disbelief, “Why not?”

Peter shrugged, “I’m pretty sure I hate him now.”

“You hate him?” She asked and perhaps it was just to clarify but it rubbed Peter the wrong way. It was like she was saying he couldn’t, asking why he would say such a thing. He twisted towards her fiercely.

“Can I not be angry with him? Am I not allowed to be upset?” He snapped and Dr. Kafka, to her benefit, didn’t flinch at his outburst. In fact, she looked like she was expecting it.

“You are,” She said, too calmly, “But, you know, he’s been healing, too. And Hydra was –”

“I don’t know all of Hydra!” Peter fumed, uncurling his arms until he sat straight like he was ready to lunge towards his therapist. A fighting position, “I don’t know what they all look like! The ones I remember are dead and the only one who was with me for everything is gone! I thought I had a father and he left!”

Dr. Kafka didn’t speak a word. She let Peter’s yells soak into the walls and mix with the click of the clock and his angry huffing.

“Okay, Peter,” She finally acknowledged, “That’s okay.”

Peter looked to the side with a hard expression and arms firmly crossed. His jaw ticked in a way that Dr. Kafka only saw old war veterans do.

Finally, she took a deep breath and leaned forward, turning off the recorder sitting up on the table between them, “Did you know your father’s in Queens?”

Peter tensed up, fingertips digging into his biceps and eyes widening just enough.

It was like the world had ill-oiled brakes and it came to a screeching stop, skidding over the line just before smashing into unknowing pedestrians.

When Peter finally remembered to breathe, he questioned, “He’s here?” Another quivering inhale before exhaling like a sputtering faucet, “He’s here and he hasn’t seen me?”

Dr. Kafka nodded slightly, like the least amount of movement would ease Peter’s anger.

“How long?”

“Two months.”

Peter huffed a scoff and his mouth hung open in utter disbelief. Betrayal ripped through his chest.

“Two months?” He exclaimed, “Why didn’t he come over?”

Papa had to be ashamed. He had to have forgotten Peter. Two months in the same place and he didn’t come to say hello? He didn’t write to explain where he was?

“There are somethings you might not understand until you’re –”

“Don’t tell me what I don't understand!” Peter yelled wetly, wiping his forearm across his eyes, “That isn’t fair. I understand plenty.”

When his throat became too thick to get any more words out, he turned to face away from her, nearly pressing his face into the back cushion and squeezing his eyes tight.

Dr. Kafka let him be for a moment, taking off her glasses to wipe them on her shirt before slowly putting them back on. She observed Peter and sighed almost silently.

“Peter, what I’m trying to tell you is your father is trying,” Dr. Kafka enunciated while giving Peter a pointed look that he couldn’t see, “He’s been trying for over a year and the only reason he is so he can see you.”

Peter didn’t look at her. His face didn’t relax. He squeezed his eyes tighter.

“It’s okay to be upset,” She continued, “After everything, you deserve to be upset. But don’t take it all out on Bucky. Don’t cut ties with the one person who has been with you almost your whole life.”

Peter was quiet for a moment before announcing very loudly that he wanted to go home. He had two tests in the morning. He didn’t have the energy to speak of nonsense.

But he felt that awful pinch of guilt deep in his stomach.

***

It was dusk on a Thursday night two hours after seeing Dr. Kafka. The sky was a murky blue, brown smog hazing over the bustle of the noisy New York streets. Car horns and pedestrians shouting for vacant taxis smoothed over in Peter’s mind until they were just white noise.

Noise didn’t frighten him the way it used to. In fact, it often kept him grounded.

Peter worked on his calculus homework at his desk beneath the window. He flicked on his lamp when the sun sunk beneath the skyscrapers.

The problems grew more difficult as he went down the sheet. His teacher gave him equations fit for college students and sometimes they were still too easy. She eventually found a good pace to keep him at, giving him more complicated calculus the second she noticed a lesson was too easy for him.

He had just begun chain rule. Sometimes it made his head spin. He scribbled out solutions with a dull wood pencil.

He didn’t notice a man standing frozen in the door frame, watching him intently for maybe five minutes.

May observed from her view in the living room with Steve Rogers awkwardly sipping tea on the couch beside her. She had to lean her entire torso over the arm of the couch and crane her neck to see him. She gripped the plaid, scratchy material firmly to keep herself from jumping up and shoving Bucky into the room.

Peter focused on his last equation.

h(x) = f(g(x))

He converted the problem to h’(x) = f’(g(x)) g’(x). He was about to split the problem in two when –

“Petya?”

His brain came to a screeching halt.

His pencil caught on the paper, his left hand bunching the smooth worksheet. A name – a name he thought he’d never hear again. Spoken in a voice that burrowed itself so deep in his brain he’d never forget it.

But he didn’t turn to greet him.

If Bucky could forget him for over a year, then Peter could forget him forever.

Peter’s face set into a glare and his grip didn’t lessen when he continued the problem. He pressed the lead of the pencil so firmly to the paper it bent from the stress.

h(x) = (1-x)2 on one side. f(u) = u2 on the other.

Soft footsteps approached him, “Petya, can you look at me?”

Peter blinked his eyes fast because they were getting blurry and he wouldn’t let him stop solving the problem. He pressed his pencil harder. His sharp ears caught the pitched whine it gave as it scraped the sheet.

h(x) = (1 – x)2 = f (g(x))

The footsteps got closer and closer until Peter could see a blue sweatshirt, grey sweats and dark hair blurring in the corner of his eyes.

Bucky sunk down to a crouch beside him. Peter’s eyes remained on his problem.

“You’ve gotten so big,” Bucky wheezed out like he just couldn’t believe it. He put his warm, calloused hand on Peter’s hair and Peter's shoulders grew so tense that Bucky dropped it immediately.

“Peter, look at me,” his voice was barely firm around the edges. It was soft enough to try to coax Peter from this stubborn state. It didn’t work. Peter continued the problem.

f(u) = u2

The lead was bending and bending, and the sheet was getting blurrier and Peter’s face was getting really hot. He sniffed loudly and continued scribbling.

“Peter, look at me. Look at your papa,” Bucky continued, voice becoming frantic and Peter’s bit his tongue so hard it started to bleed because he was not his papa. His father was some Russian agent who probably worked for Hydra. He probably chose to work for Hydra.

“I’m sorry, Petya. I’m so sorry. You won’t believe how sorry I am. If I could change this entire year I would. Hell, if I could change everything, I’d –”

f(u) = u2 = g(x) = 1 - x

“Can you look at me?” Bucky’s asked in a voice so broken and desperate that –

Peter scribbled harder until the pencil groaned and snapped in two –

“I’m so sorry, please –”

"You left me!" Peter’s scream, so hoarse and raw, seemed to freeze the world over. The cars outside, the moon’s path to the stars, Bucky’s apologizing, Steve and May in the living room.

It stopped everything except for the tears that began to cut their path down Peter’s face.

Peter stared at his paper, crumbled beyond repair and he didn’t know how he’d begin to explain this to his teacher.

He stared and he stared while a feeling ate its way through his gut. The yells of the trainers filled his head. He was weak. He was useless. He was nothing but shit scraped off someone’s shoe.

He used to kill people and now he couldn’t even look his father in the eye because he didn’t want to show his tears. Tears that he shouldn’t be shedding anyway because he was far, far too old for them.

“You left me,” He repeated, quieter now but so hard and so hurt.

“You left me and…” Peter stopped, voice breaking as a sob caught his throat, “you didn’t even say goodbye.”

He dropped the broken pencil and put his face into his palms and cried.

“Oh, Petrushka,” Papa whispered, curling his arm around Peter’s back.

Peter twisted and fell into his father’s lap, nearly knocking Bucky to the ground as he caught Peter with his right arm and stopped his fall with his left. He maneuvered so he sat with his legs crossed, wrapping both arms tightly around his son.

Peter sobbed into Papa’s shoulder as he would when he was a much younger boy. He hugged Papa tightly around the neck as if loosening his grip would make him disappear again.

Papa held him just as tight, rubbing Peter’s back and pressing a kiss to his hair.

“Why didn’t you want me anymore?” Peter cried, sounding so broken and defeated.

Bucky wheezed out an exhale that sounded just as shattered as Peter. Whoever, whatever, instilled that idea in Peter’s brain…

Well, Bucky would just have to have some strong words with them.

“You don’t think that, do you?” Papa asked, gently nudging Peter’s face away from his shoulder so he could look him in the eye. He brought up his right palm to rub the tears from Peter’s face, “I didn’t want to leave Petya, but I had to get better. And you got better, right?”

Peter nodded, knuckling his eyes to scrub out the tears. Bucky gently pushed Peter’s hands down before he cupped the sides of Peter’s head and held firmly.

“You are my son. I don’t care what the doctors say. You are mine and you’re the only reason I survived that place,” He stressed, pressing his hands a little firmer, slightly squishing Peter’s face, “Now, no more crying. And no more talk of me not wanting you. I told you I’d come back, didn’t I?”

Peter looked at his father, really looked. Papa had gotten older, the skin by his eyes looked like crinkled paper. But the skin of his lips wasn’t broken and chapped to pieces like it always was before. His eyes weren’t hollow. His face looked washed.

The compound almost felt like a fever dream. A staticky nightmare. How had he not known how to bathe? How had they lived in one tiny room?

Papa was right. They only lived because of each other. Yes, they would have fought and survived until they were mindless, empty things, but they wouldn’t have lived.

Papa smoothed his hand over Peter’s hair. Peter wiped his eyes with gentle hands now.

A wash of serenity poured over them completely for the first time since they left through the fire-ridden compound.

“I missed you,” Peter said thickly through his mucus-lined throat.

Papa smiled in a way that looked like it hurt more than anything else, “I missed you, too.”

He pulled Peter back into a tight hug and Peter let himself feel completely safe for the first time.

***

When their eyes had dried enough to go back to the front room, neither were surprised to see Steve and May leaning around the couch to try and see what was happening in the room. They both shot into faux casual postures when Bucky walked out, Peter shuffling behind him and rubbing one eye with his sweatshirt sleeve.

Bucky rolled his eyes at the two of them. May made a point to ignore Peter’s red ones.

“Sooo,” Steve dragged, wringing his hands awkwardly, “How about those Dodgers?”

May scoffed, “Jesus, you really are old. The Dodgers moved to LA in the ‘50s.”

The line between Steve’s brows pinched and his face turned red. He looked down out his hands, “Oh, yeah.”

“Can I show Papa my certificate?” Peter asked May, timidly stepping into the living room. He made a point not to look at Steve.

It’s funny how quickly he lost comfort in his home when a man he talked to once over a year ago could see that he had cried. From what he remembered, he liked Steve. He had no reason not to. Steve’s the reason they got out. But the atmosphere in the room felt like lukewarm water and Steve looked uncomfortable even though adults were supposed to be the confident ones.

“Of course!” May exclaimed, pushing up from the couch and waving them all into the dining room, “Why don’t you show him all the stuff you’ve made this year? I kept it in a box right…”

She spun on her heel and futzed around the kitchen and through the shelves in the living room before cheering and pulling out a large box, “Here it is.”

She hefted the big box up and struggled to carry it into the dining room. She shooed Steve away when he tried to help.

“You kept all this?” Peter asked, exasperated. Every time he completed a pointless math assignment, science project (usually with Ned) or book report, he’d simply toss it onto the dining table to show May his grade.

They weren’t important. What was he to do with a report on Tom Sawyer or a poster board that described the life cycle of fungi? Ned usually took their work home because his parents loved to ooh and awe, but sometimes he’d pestered Peter into bringing it home to May.

He thought she threw them away. Simply saw the good grade, ruffled Peter’s hair and tossed it somewhere to never be seen again.

But she hadn’t. She saved every little thing.

“Of course, I did,” May said in a huff while depositing the box on the table, “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know,” Peter shrugged, “I didn’t think they were that important.”

Bucky pulled the box close to him, craning his neck to look inside. He held his breath as he pulled out the first object; a history report on The Howling Commandos.

He scanned it over, never reading deeply for he didn’t want to get emotional under the eyes of a female stranger. She seemed like the huggee type and while that was great for Peter, Bucky wouldn’t be so loving.

He was always in awe at the state of his son’s intelligence. Even in the room. Even when he wasn’t all there, and he didn’t have a name. Peter was a constant wonder.

The vocabulary and analysis were at the level of a graduate student. Bucky remembered, very suddenly like a wash of ice water, how much Peter loved to read. The word timshel clanked around his brain.

Thou mayest. Thou hast a choice. They were given the chance to heal and hell, it seemed as though they did. At least, they were giving it an honest try.

Bucky slowly worked his way through everything in the box, pulling out each project and examining it meticulously. Sometimes Steve would grab one after Bucky was done and make a big deal about gasping and asking Peter if he really made these himself.

Peter would smile sheepishly, and nod and Steve would shake his head in amazement.

“You really are something, kid. You really are something.”

“He’s more than something,” May smiled, elbows on the table and chin resting on her laced fingers, “He’s a genius.”

Steve nodded, “That he is.”

Bucky finally reached the last thing in the box; Peter’s certificate for the highest achievement.

Suddenly, he started sniffling and twitching his nose.

“Wow, this is just,” Bucky rubbed the back of his neck with the hand that wasn’t holding Peter’s certificate, “Wow.”

“Papa?” Peter peered closer to Bucky’s face, “Are you okay?”

Bucky huffed a humorless laugh and turned his face away. He rubbed over his eyes with his right hand, “Yeah. I’m good. I just…”

He turned back towards Peter and stared at him like he was really seeing him again for the first time, “How the hell did you grow up so fast?”

***

Bucky didn’t get to take his son home. Not then.

There was still progress to be made.

***

They saw each other every Sunday until that progress was finished.

Peter brought Papa to his favorite bookstore and Papa taught Peter how to whistle for a taxi. Peter showed him the new movie theater and Papa took him to Brooklyn to a dingy diner him and Steve frequented back in the day that was shockingly still standing.

There was always a SHEILD agent watching, in the far corner, out of sight, just to make sure Bucky wouldn’t snap or the two of them would team up and take off.

Peter and Bucky could feel their eyes prickling against the back of their necks. They’d swat the feeling off like flies.

Peter showed him the corner store with the jovial owner, Delmar, who made great sandwiches. May brought him there sometimes after school to get candy or ice cream or dinner. Delmar loved to flirt, and May liked to roll her eyes and blush.

The first time Peter dragged Bucky through the ringing door, Delmar observed him suspiciously. He watched Peter push packets of gummies into Bucky’s hands, oddly covered in biker’s gloves, and dragged him through the overstuffed aisles to the grumpy cat Murph who occupied the front counter and held a strange affection for Peter.

Delmar once explained that Murph had a good sense of character, so he was surprised when he let the strange man gently caress his furry head. Murph even started to purr and lean into the man’s hand.

Peter hopped towards Delmar’s side of the counter, a grin spreading across his face like jelly. The man was still petting Murph but kept his razor-sharp attention on Peter.

Delmar raised a brow, staring at the man and speaking to Peter, “You good here, Mr. Parker?”

“Yup!” Peter nodded cheerfully, completely oblivious towards Delmar’s inconspicuous concern, “Can we have two number fives please?”

Delmar moved his eyes towards Peter before shouting over his shoulder for two number fives.

Peter twisted around and asked, “Papa, do you have money?”

In Russian.

Delmar’s blinked his eyes wide and almost took a step back in shock. The entire time he knew Parker, probably about a year give or take, he saw him talking bubbly with the pretty Italian woman he assumed was his aunt. They only spoke in English and Delmar had no reason to assume he knew anything else.

But here he was, calling some stranger dad and speaking to him in goddamn Russian. At least, Delmar assumed it was Russian because there were plenty of Soviet immigrants who occupied his store during its operating hours that spoke something identical.

The strange man nodded, dropping his hand from Murph to dig through his pocket, “Yeah, here.”

He passed Delmar a ten and looked at his face but not his eyes. Delmar grabbed it rougher than he should have.

“Oh, yeah, this is my dad!” Peter introduced, excitedly twisting towards the man beside him, “He just got back from Florida.”

“Florida, huh?” Delmar commented offhandedly, “There for business or something?”

Bucky’s mouth twisted into something too sour to be a smile, “Or something.” He forced the off-putting look away and stretched his hand over the counter, “Bucky Barnes.”

Delmar grasped it tightly, “Delmar. Thought Peter’s last name was Parker?”

Bucky dropped his hand, the smile twisting into something that looked like a warning, “Yeah, well. Not everything makes as much sense as it should.”

Delmar kept a careful eye on the two of them for the entirety of their meal, the hairs on the back of his neck sticking so straight it tickled. But the more he watched, the easier it was to see that they were father and son. The hairs eventually fell flat.

Bucky and Peter spent most of their time laughing through mouthfuls of bread and throwing gummies at invisible targets on each other’s foreheads. Bucky bought Peter ice cream and knocked Peter’s hand when he went to bite it, so it smooshed against his nose.

The two of them laughed hard behind their palms until the cone slipped from Peter’s grip and crunched against the floor in a sticky puddle. They stared at it in frozen shock until the shock melted and they were laughing all over again, this time with their hands pressed against the table.

There wasn’t a need to silence joy anymore. They’d probably have to keep reminding themselves that forever.

Delmar shook his head and waved Bucky away when he tried to mop it up with paper napkins.

***

After a month, Bucky was cleared to have Peter visit his apartment.

Bucky grinned as he rushed to show Peter around the tiny rooms. Everything was cleaned to perfection, scrubbed with Steve the day before. There wasn’t much to clean. Bucky didn’t keep much in the cupboards and the shelves and end tables in the living room were bare.

They’d be vacant for Peter to choose what to do when he moved in. If he wanted to move in.

Bucky made Peter burnt spaghetti with jarred sauce that wasn’t quite hot yet. They swallowed it down without chewing and filled themselves up mostly with the dollar French loaf Bucky picked up at the corner store.

Bucky asked Peter about his week, who answered in rambles about the new Lego set Ned’s parents got them and how they finished it in two days and how their decathlon team was about to make nationals and Peter didn’t mind not going and he passed his physics midterm with the highest grade in class even though that kid Flash was really mean about it.

Bucky listened to each minute detail, a soft smile on his face and a tight ache in his chest that was pride and mourning all at once. Mourning for the year he missed seeing Peter grow. Mourning for the childhood Peter lost and was only now trying to recover. Mourning for the woman who died so helpless that she surrendered her son to the motherland.

“Do you miss it?” Bucky asked an hour later while he washed the dishes.

Peter stood to his left drying with a torn piece of cloth, “Miss what?”

“The Motherland.”

Peter paused, mulling over the question for a minute or two. A wet plate was clutched in his right hand and the rag in his left. Finally, he resumed, wiping over the plate with care, “No. Do you?”

Bucky exhaled quickly through his nose in a way that could have sounded like a chuckle, “No, Petya. She was no mother to me.”

***

Peter went home to May. He stayed there for another month before Papa was cleared completely.

***

Moving in all of Peter’s stuff had taken the whole army; May, Steve, Bucky, Peter, and Tony, who grumbled and complained about it the whole time, insisting that he had robots who could do this a lot faster than they could.

They each helped put the place together piece by piece. They stacked Peter’s books on the shelves in the living room, hung up his report cards and decathlon certificates on the fridge, and placed his prescriptions alongside Bucky’s in the medicine cabinet.

Steve and Bucky were in charge of putting together Peter’s bed. They both snapped at Stark to get lost after he insisted for the twelfth time that the engineer could put it together more efficiently. He backed out with his hands up and spent the next three hours with May and Peter sitting at the kitchen table and giggling behind their hands while watching the two curse and yelp and yell at each other.

They both gave in eventually, reluctantly grumbling for Tony’s help.

Tony hopped up, not pushing in his chair as he swaggered over to the two, “God, I thought you would never ask. You put the headboard on backward.”

May and Peter nearly tipped over their chairs from laughing and Steve and Bucky’s faces were as red as fresh blood.

***

Peter chose to paint his room a soft forest green, the color of trees. He and Papa took three days to roll it on and let it dry correctly. Papa slept in the living room while Peter slept in Papa’s bed.

When it was dry and they moved his furniture back in, Peter color coordinated his clothes and organized his books in alphabetical order.

Papa laughed and rubbed Peter’s hair, “You always were a meticulous boy.”

***

They had a daily schedule they kept to. It told them what dinners to have on certain nights, what time Peter goes to bed, when Peter had free reading and when Bucky meditates in the living room.

They saw Dr. Kafka on weekdays after Peter’s done with his extracurricular and Bucky’s off work. Sometimes they talked with her together. Sometimes they talked alone. They were given the option on which style session they wanted before it started.

Fridays they always watched game shows on T.V. They learned to scream foolish answers during Family Feud and compete during Jeopardy.

Saturdays bounced between activities; Papa’s shifts at the shop, Peter’s practices and both of their time spent with Dr. Kafka. It took Peter a few weeks to convince Papa to bring him to Mr. Stark’s workshop so he could continue his work. Papa reluctantly agreed, having to practically be dragged to the Avenger’s Tower. Peter showed him all his inventions and Papa would smile but it was small and forced. Papa made a point not to talk to Tony.

Saturday nights, they have family dinner with May and Steve. It was primarily delivery pizza except for the times they’d invite the Leeds, which only happened after Papa met them because Mrs. Leeds would insist on bringing homemade dishes.

They’d extend the invite to the Leeds and Tony for bigger celebrations, but when it’s a night for peaceful conversations they’d extend it only to Steve and May.

Papa and Peter let some activities intertwine through the days, not needing a meticulous schedule for every moment of the day. Peter showed Papa Spongebob on a Thursday he stayed home because he woke that morning crying. Papa showed Peter how to patch holes in sweatshirts and jeans late on a Sunday.

Peter introduced Papa to soda the next time they were at Delmar’s corner store. Papa immediately grimaced so hard it was like he swallowed toxic before he pulled it away.

“What the fu – that burns.”

And Peter laughed so hard his soda came out his nose and felt like it took all the hair with it.

Bucky attended every PTA meeting, all be it in the back where no one could see him and helped Peter with every school project when he could.

He’d let Ned come over on Fridays if Peter had finished all his homework and completed his chores without complaining.

The first time Ned met Bucky, he was more excited than Peter could have guessed.

“Dude, if you’re dad’s half as awesome as you make him out to be, he’d be the coolest dad ever.”

They spent the night in the living room, building a fort out of Peter’s comforter and the throw blankets while Bucky tried to make them different snacks. He gave up eventually, tossing them a box of Chips Ahoy and asking them what kind of pizza they wanted.

Ned thought he was great. He’d spend the night looking at him in awe and whispering to Peter, “Dude, your dad looks like a superhero.”

Bucky hid his smile behind a cough and stayed in his room to give them space. They called him out at some point to help them piece together some part of their Lego set Ned brought because they couldn’t figure it out. He spent the rest of the night grumbling over the instructions and putting pieces in the wrong place while the boys would giggle and munch on cookies.

Ned and Peter alternated who’s house they’d spend Friday nights at after that even though Ned would insist on coming to Peter’s because his dad was really cool.

Bucky would flush and shake his head fondly, but could never say no.

***

Steve was over quite often. He’d knock on their front door even though he had a key and ruffle Peter’s hair when he opened it.

He and Papa loved to joke around and tell Peter stories of their youth; how they snuck into Ebbets field and got chased out by three security guards and how Steve started picking fights before he lost all his baby teeth and how Papa worked unloading ships until he could see the sunrise.

Steve would always fall asleep on the couch, but he’d come out of Papa’s room in the morning. Peter didn’t think too much into it because Steve would always make pancakes in the morning.

He’d burn them so bad and let Peter cover them in syrup to cover the ashy taste. Peter would pour nearly half the bottle despite Papa’s groaning complaint of how that’s “way too much sugar for the morning.”

Steve would laugh and tell Papa to, “Let the kid have fun. The pancakes taste like shit.”

And Papa would snap at him for swearing in front of Petya.

“Oh, shit, sorry! Oh wait –”

“What the fuck did I just say?”

Peter nearly faceplanted into his plate from how hard he laughed while the two continued to argue like an old married couple.

***

There were still setbacks. Neither were perfect and there was a lot of trauma to weed through before progress could truly blossom.

Once, Papa made roast so burnt it was charcoal. Peter complained about the taste and Papa scolded with, “Hey, no whining kid. Back in my day, we were given sandwiches with more bread than anything and cabbage soup.”

Peter relaxed his grimace and shrugged one shoulder, “I guess it’s better than mush.”

Papa felt guilt bite in his gut because he almost forgot that Peter’s early years were so much worse than his. How much Peter had to go through, how little childhood he was given.

They spent the rest of that meal in silence.

***

When Peter’s sessions got cut down to twice a week, Bucky begged Dr. Kafka to tell him what to do.

Peter was literally climbing the walls, biting his nails down to the bloody bud and was constantly tensed with anxiety when he came home from school.

She suggested gymnastics. It was similar to what Peter was good at before but now he could associate it with having fun.

Bucky was hesitant, but he signed him up after he came home late at night after a shift to Peter crawling alongside their fire escape.

Peter was ecstatic, picking up each new trick with the grace of a professional. It did him some good to get his energy out somewhere instead of driving it all into his studies. His nails were growing back, and his shoulders were relaxed.

Bucky almost regretted it when Peter would do cartwheels on the ceiling and front aerials across the living room.

But when Peter would grin and ask if Bucky had seen with such excitement it glowed, Bucky would smile back and nod.

“You’re looking good, Petya. Keep it up and you’ll be in the Olympics one day.”

He realized deep in his brain that there was a similar scene years back when Peter’s hands were first made to be magnets. Only now Bucky didn’t have to worry about him being taken away. He could good-naturedly roll his eyes and shake his head when Peter started his tricks again.

***

One night in the very quiet as The Last Jedi credits rolled, Papa and Peter sat awake on the couch. Steve was asleep in the armchair beside them, curled under a throw blanket and snoring something awful.

“Papa?” Peter asked softly.

“Hm?”

“Sometimes,” Peter said, “Sometimes I miss the room.”

He shouldn’t think it. The thought shouldn’t even flow through his mind. But there was almost an air in the night while laying on the mat that he couldn’t find in New York. He almost missed the bloodstained training room and the way the whistle would blow, and he was free to fight. He missed the tutor, the girls, the first trainer and the stories Papa told to get him to fall asleep.

Peter felt like a fool for even thinking it. Why be there when everything was so great here? Here where the food was plentiful and sweet. Here where he could laugh and learn all at once. Here where he had free will.

But Papa smoothed a hand over his hair, “Me too, Petya. Me too.”

***

It was a crisp January morning when the sky shed its first layer of snow across the ground below. Peter was bundled in the throw blanket and sipping tea on the couch while Papa had already gone to work.

A new episode of Looney Toons started rolling when Papa burst through their front door, shaking like a leaf and grasping a packet of documents in his right hand.

He kicked the snow off the bottom of his shoes and promptly shut the door, “Goddamn, it’s freezing.”

Peter sipped his tea while Papa pulled off his gloves, jacket, and boots.

“Did work get canceled?” Peter asked, still watching the T.V. as Bugs Bunny started a monologue about making a left turn at Albuquerque.

“I didn’t have work this morning. Went with Steve to pick up these,” He said while walking behind the couch towards the kitchen and tapping Peter’s head with the papers, “You finish your homework?”

Peter nodded. It was one of their rules. Peter had to finish all his work before he watched T.V. or he’d get too stressed and completely forget about doing it and end up in a panic Monday morning and both Papa and Peter would have to stay home.

Papa put the papers on the counter and dug around the cabinets. Peter wasn’t paying enough attention to see that he was just moving things back and forth with shaky hands. He kept watching his cartoon until Papa cleared his throat and said, “Petya, can you come here for a minute?”

His voice was trembly but not in the way that he was scared, but more of a shaky that could be nervous or excited and a little anxious.

Peter nodded, turning off the T.V., wrapping his blanket around his shoulder and shuffling into the kitchen.

He stopped next to the counter, leaning over it to wait for Papa to tell him what was up. Papa kept his back to him and left his hands digging through the cabinets. He spoke over his shoulder, “Why don’t you read those papers?”

Peter looked down at the papers next to him, folding his arms and resting his chest on them to read the documents.

ADOPT-215 Adoption Order

Below it was Papa’s chicken scratch filling out the information under adopting parent(s).

Peter’s eyes jolted wide as he shot them up to Papa, who no longer was looking at the cabinet but was watching Peter carefully. Their eyes were as wide as each other and both held their breath.

“Do you mean it?” Peter whispered, terrified that if he spoke any louder this dream would shatter, and he would wake back up.

Papa nodded and spoke with his voice tight, “Only if you want to.”

Peter looked back at the papers, his eyes welling up and his bottom lip trembling. He sniffed loudly and began to wipe his eyes with his palms as he nodded. He hiccupped a happy cry and his chest squeezed tight with disbelief. The blanket slipped off his shoulders and piled beside his feet, but Peter didn’t notice. The room didn’t feel cold anymore.

Papa rushed around the counter and pulled Peter into a tight hug. Peter laughed through his tears into Papa’s chest and Papa brought up one hand to wipe his own eyes. He breathed deeply and hugged Peter tighter.

And finally, finally, things felt like they were truly alright.

Chapter Text

It was a Saturday morning and Peter was working hard to grind down his father’s last nerve. He sat crisscross on the ceiling, face turning a little red and hair standing straight up. Bucky was below him on the couch, reading a book about the fall of the Soviet Union while Steve typed up a debrief beside him.

“Pleeease.”

“I don’t know Petya.”

“But I’ll have my phone on me at all times! It’s just the mall and Ned will be there and he’s the most responsible kid alive.”

Bucky glanced up at the ceiling, quirking an eyebrow, “I thought you were the most responsible kid alive?”

“Ned’s the second most!”

Steve chuckled, “He’s got you there, Buck.”

Bucky shot Steve a glare who just laughed. Bucky sighed, dropping his shoulders into the back of the couch and putting a bookmark on his page before shutting it.

“Get off the ceiling Petya – No, not like – Oh my God.”

Peter backflipped from the ceiling and landed perfectly between Steve and Bucky with the cheekiest grin. Bucky seriously started to regret letting him join that gymnastics team. They could claim it was “recreational” and “just for fun” all they wanted, but it didn’t stop the fact that Peter was picking up on too many skills too fast. And practicing them in their tiny apartment was going to get him hurt.

“Nice landing, Pete,” Steve praised.

“Don’t encourage him,” Bucky grumbled, picking up his book again. He tried to read the next paragraph but the feeling of a pair of eyes burning a hole in the side of his face made it hard to concentrate. He exhaled very slowly.

“Please, can I go?”

“Peter.”

“Please? I promise we won’t go far –”

“Peter.”

“And I’m twelve now and every other twelve-year-old can –”

“Peter.”

“It’s just not fair –”

“Okay!” Bucky snapped, putting his hands up, “Alright, fine, you won. We can go.”

“Yay!” Peter cheered, pumping his fist in the air before attacking Bucky in a hug, “Thank you! You’re the best dad ever and – wait, we can go?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, closing his book once more and heaving himself off the couch. Peter dropped his arms and fell back against the cushions, “You ready Steve?”

Steve huffed and closed his laptop, “No, but I guess it doesn’t matter.”

Bucky grinned at him while sitting at the kitchen table to pull on his shoes, “That’s the spirit.”

“Why can’t I go alone?” Peter whined, throwing his head back against the cushions.

Bucky raised his brows and folded his arms to ask, “That wouldn’t be whining, would it? Because we can just stay home.”

“No, but I don’t see why I can’t go alone,” Peter pouted, lifting his head up to look at his dad but keeping his body flat on the couch.

“Petya, if something happens, I’d rather be there than have to sprint across all New York to get to you,” He finished lacing his shoes then shot Peter a pointed look, “Right?”

Peter grumbled, throwing his arms over his head, “Fine.”

Bucky smiled, “Great. Now get your shoes. You too, Steve. We’re leaving in ten.”

Bucky let Peter and Ned wander on their own only with the promise that Peter would check in every fifteen minutes. He and Steve would be shopping, too, which meant they’d hide in the quietest area of the food court and wait for Peter to be done.

Peter and Ned dug through the comic store and hurried past the Victoria Secret. They ran around the home goods section of Macy’s until the manager asked them to leave.

Finally, they found themselves deep inside a Tilly’s, digging through the clearance section.

“Do you know what you’re going to wear on the first day yet?” Ned asked, examining a t-shirt of a holographic Bart Simpson before shoving it back onto the rack.

Peter shrugged, “Just clothes. I’ll figure it out that morning.”

“But I thought you wanted to impress Liz –”

“Shhhhh,” Peter hissed, looking around the nearly empty store in case she magically materialized behind them.

He had developed a slight infatuation with the girl who had moved to their school halfway through the seventh grade. Peter had talked to Ned about her nearly all summer.

She joined the decathlon team where Peter watched her silently instead of solving any of the problems. Mr. Harrington expressed his concern to Bucky, thinking that something was bothering Peter and distracting him from his studies.

When Bucky brought this up to Peter, Peter blushed and stammered so bad that Bucky deduced for himself what was going on. Which then led to a very long and awkward talk about puberty and all the gross that came with it that neither of them wanted to have.

Peter continued to dig through the clearance section, finding nearly nothing that fit his style or allowance budget of twenty dollars a month. Until a jacket with blue sleeves and a red vest listed as $12.98 caught his attention. He pulled it out and his lips turned up upon seeing a spider design stitched into the front.

The Little Spider. Maybe not so little anymore.

The days this summer where he wasn’t packed with summer curricular courses, gymnastics, decathlon and therapy, he spent his time in Tony’s lab.

He had nearly perfected a concoction for the ideal web mixture. It was stronger than they made at the compound and looked more like spider webs. He also tinkered with making his own weapon to go on his wrist, one that he could take off himself.

Of course, he did this all while Tony’s back was turned and Papa was at work. He wasn’t even quite sure what he would do with it yet, just that…

Just that…

He kind of had an idea.

“That’s so sick!” Ned exclaimed, touching the spider print on the front, “You should wear this when we get back!”

He smiled down at the hoodie and tucked it beneath his arm, “No, it’s for something different.”

“For what?”

Peter grinned, “You’ll see.”