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If someone had bothered to ask Peggy Carter, all of this could've been avoided. Or at least some of it.

Probably.

Point was, they hadn't, so there was no use losing oneself in probabilities and fractions. Instead, faced with a recently defrosted Captain America—worse, a recently defrosted Steve Rogers, fresh off the Western front, who had thought and accepted that he was going to die but hadn't, and had paid for it by losing everything and everyone he'd ever known—faced with that disaster of a situation, they'd concluded that the best way to deal with it was to isolate him even more. To leave him in a shack in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do and no company aside from his own thoughts. Somehow, they'd decided that this was what would best help restore his undoubtedly disturbed psyche.

As stated above, if someone had bothered to ask Peggy Carter, she would've—

Well, first she would've stared, because despite an entire lifetime of dealing with idiots even she would've had a hard time believing that such heights of stupidity could be achieved. Then she would've shared that thought, in words devoid of all ambiguity yet rife with swears that would've made the most seasoned of sailors pale.

But, once again, no one asked. They'd already relegated her to the category of old, useless coots, apparently.

So when what happened inevitably happened, it only served them well.

 

*

 

The worst thing was that they didn't see it coming—when really they could have, and therefore should have. Nick had Rogers monitored. Reports on his daily activities were regularly compiled and sent to him, based on the observations made by the numerous cameras they'd set up around the property and the agents placed as distant yet friendly neighbors. He trusted their accuracy: all information went through Phil, who might've been a tad too eager to take up that mission.

For the first week or so there had been nothing, no change. Then came a request, transmitted via the psychologist who visited Cap every other day, for books. More specifically, books on the history of the 20th century.

Good, Nick had thought, pleasantly surprised. They'd been toying with the idea of sending someone in, some sort of tutor to teach Rogers about life in the 21st century, about all that had happened in the 64 years he'd slept through. It wasn't yet a solid plan: they still had to decide which historian they'd entrust with the task, were still working on the hiring process and the confidentiality agreements that the person would have to sign, were still pondering over what exactly Cap would be told, how much of it, in what way. Plus, the psychologist urged them to exert caution so as to not overwhelm the man: one further reason for the delay. Yet here Rogers was, taking initiative, already showing a wish to try and catch up. This could only be construed as a good sign. What's more, it meant that there was no need for a third party to get involved, while S.H.I.E.L.D. would remain able to filter all content made available to him: a guarantee of both secrecy and control. Nick couldn't have asked for more.

There was, however, a small snag.

Cap read quickly. Very quickly. Nick wasn't surprised: S.H.I.E.L.D. had inherited all the data that had been gathered on the serum and its effects by the SSR, all the test results on Rogers' physical and mental abilities before and after the procedure. He'd had reports compiled on that too, had read all about Cap's eidetic memory, about his ability to process and remember vast quantities of information, about his deductive and analytical skills, about his enhanced gift for mathematics and physics, for languages, for strategy, about the field experience that had taught him how to mobilize all that talent at will. Nick tried not to be hasty, but even he couldn't help already reflecting on what exactly having an operative with such assets could mean for S.H.I.E.L.D., on all the possibilities it'd open.

On the other side of the coin though, that snag: Cap read quickly. Quicker than S.H.I.E.L.D. could provide books with content that had been double-checked and green-lighted. The dozen works they'd delivered when Rogers had first asked hadn't kept him busy for more than half a week. And he kept asking for more.

They had to adapt. They let Cap make specific requests, using titles he'd picked from the bibliographies of the books he'd read. They shortened the authorization procedure, made do with checking each book's recensions and briefly leafing through it to determine the gist of it—although they had to give up on the latter too when Rogers started asking for books in French, in German, even a couple in Russian. For those, they chose to pretend they hadn't been able to find it on such short notice.

The entire thing took time, and money, and resources that could be better used elsewhere—and still there was an irreducible lag between the time of the request and the moment Cap could hold a book between his hands, get the information he wished for. In the end, they gave in: they sent an agent to introduce him to the internet, to explain Wikipedia to him, to show him how to find data banks and electronic resources, e-books and online journals in collections with both public and restricted access. It was an implicit compromise: Rogers was granted more apparent liberty, but it made the contents he viewed even easier to trace. It was also a test, to see how he fared with modern technology.

The answer was: very well.

Too well, actually—but Nick didn't realize that until it was too late.

 

*

 

In Fury's defense, the more glaring warning signs didn't reach him. They were too subtle for anyone who didn't actually know Steve Rogers, who didn't have his trust, to properly decipher.

A simple example: the moment Steve found out about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was in the early days of his readings, the book maybe the second one he'd picked up, a general history of the Second World War. Three quarters of the way in, the agents monitoring the video feed to the cabin's main room reported Cap obviously pausing: the regular rhythm of the page turning every ten seconds or so, which made every single person reading about it secretly envious, stopped. On the screen Cap visibly tensed. His shoulders rose with a breath that caught, or was held in. Unfortunately, the angle of the camera did not allow for the agents to see his face, his expression. They had to focus on his hands instead: on how he flipped through the book, back a couple pages, forward a dozen more. How he paused again, breathed out. How he looked up, and reached for the pile on his right to grab another volume—a biography of Harry S. Truman, they were later able to determine—through which he started flipping at once, hastily, purposefully: looking for something. Obviously he found it: he paused again, breathed in again, tensed further. Then he snapped the book shut, stood up, and left the room—left the cabin altogether, going on an impromptu walk.

The monitoring agents hesitated, then sent someone to check on him: one of theirs, posing as a harmless woman in her fifties frequently walking her dog and always happy to stop for a quick chat whenever she bumped into the cabin's latest tenant. Mostly she was there to help evaluate how well Captain Rogers did while undercover, whether he was able to believably stick to the identity S.H.I.E.L.D. had presented him with. He was pretty good at it, it turned out, although the situation had extremely low stakes and most of Cap's talent seemed to reside in the scarcity of his words. They hadn't yet managed to determine whether that reserve was a deliberate choice on his part, the strategist choosing a taciturn, possibly shy persona to better observe without giving much away, or wether it stemmed from his true nature.

History, it turned out, hadn't kept any reliable record of the man's actual character.

The encounter hadn't yielded much. During their brief interaction, Agent Monroe wrote, Captain Rogers had behaved much as he always did, was as polite and distant as he always was. His smile, she admitted, had maybe been a bit more forced, his eyes quicker to look away from hers. But he hadn't cut the conversation short, and had crouched to pet the dog with as much unexpected warmth as usual.

That was all. After that, Cap returned to the cabin, where he sat back down and picked the book back up. They weren't able to determine exact part of it had upset him so. Was it the mention of an operation he'd been part of? A paragraph that had brought him back to the past, the front? A few lines trying to evaluate the amount of casualties, a couple of pages on the extermination camps, one sentence too many about the events on the Eastern front? A castaway mention of Peggy Carter, or maybe some words on Arnim Zola's collaboration? The possibilities were endless, and they had no way to ask.

 

*

 

Cap kept reading. By the time the psychologist deemed him as good and ready as he could be given the circumstances, he was probably better versed in the world's recent history, in the ins and outs of American home and foreign policy, than most US citizens were. He'd read about the Cold War from its beginning to the fall of the USSR, about the Space Race and the Vietnam War. He'd read about the Cultural Revolution in China, about the Marshall Plan, about the birth of NATO. He'd read about the development of the European Union and about the decolonization process. He'd read about the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, about 1968 and the Watergate scandal, about the Iran hostage crisis and the Gulf Wars—he'd focused a lot on those, and on Afghanistan, enough for the agents monitoring him to take note of it. He'd also shown a particular interest for medical history: the development and spread of new vaccines and antibiotics, the advances in medical imagery, in hygiene, in surgery and cancer treatment, the introduction of contraception and ART, the emergence of new viruses—especially AIDS.

It made sense, Nick thought. They didn't know much about Rogers' life before World War II, but they definitely had a complete list of the numerous ailments he'd suffered from before the serum. Of course he'd be interested in how medicine had evolved since then, in the way today's world could've helped him—or people like him—have a proper life, in ways the early 20th century couldn't.

However, he was soon to find out that it was a bit more complicated than that.

 

*

 

They were in D.C., holding a first meeting after Rogers had been brought back from the cabin. Nothing too elaborate, just a short presentation to let him know what would come next: what training he'd be going through and on what timeline, what unit he could be expected to join and what type of mission they were planning to send him on, plus some technical matters, such as that of his identity in the 20th century—he would not be hired as Steven G. Rogers, born July 4th, 1918—of the amenities they'd provide, of his salary.

The entire thing went smoothly until Rogers said, "Actually, I'm not joining S.H.I.E.L.D."

Nick had too much experience, self-control, and dignity to blurt out anything like Wait, what? or Come again? He didn't blink. He didn't gasp. He just stared at Rogers. Rogers stared right back.

Silence settled.

After a while, a couple of the agents present shifted awkwardly in their seats. Out of the corner of his eye, Nick could see Hill watching him. Rogers was still returning his gaze, showing no sign that he was unnerved, or anywhere near backing down.

"You're not joining S.H.I.E.L.D.," Nick finally repeated, flatly.

Rogers shrugged, entirely unbothered by a tone that would've made anyone else, even the most experimented of agents, quail internally. "War's over—war's been over, for a long time. I shouldn't have to ask to be demobilized."

"Some would argue," Nick said slowly, "that it isn't."

Rogers smiled thinly. "From where I'm standing, it is."

Nick narrowed his eyes. "You know about 9/11."

"I do," Rogers said. "I also know that we're still much more of a threat to the people over there than they are to us."

"The aim is to protect the people 'over there' from what threatens both them and us," Nick pointed out.

"I'm not convinced that military intervention is the best way to go about that," Rogers retorted.

"It is if we want to stabilize the region."

Rogers' smile never faltered. "Which we played a large part in destabilizing in the first place."

Nick breathed out slowly. He could've kept going—only he suddenly knew, with stark clarity, that Rogers would have an answer for any and all of his arguments. That he'd formed an opinion on US foreign policy, on the military, on all matters of national security—an opinion from which he wouldn't budge. Nick didn't know how he knew. Or maybe he did: there was something in Cap's expression, at the bottom of his eyes. Something like rage.

"So you're not joining."

"I'm not," Rogers said.

Nick pressed his lips together. "Fine."

 

*

 

The thing was, they couldn't deny Rogers his discharge. They couldn't refuse him the right, or the means to get back into the world.

They could, however, withhold everything else.

They provided him with an identity, that much at least they had to concede. But no lodgings, no lead for a job, no money—not even Captain America's backpay. Officially, the man was still dead in the Arctic, drowned or crushed or frozen, owed nothing but memorial stones and commemorations.

"Isn't that a bit harsh?" Hill asked at some point—a question that she'd bit back several times, but not for good. Nick didn't know whether he regarded her more or less for it.

"It is," he said. He was counting on it: let Rogers try and strike out on his own in this new world with nothing but an ID and the clothes on his back. Let him try and make it without properly knowing the codes, the ways, the people. Let him maybe, just maybe, realize that he couldn't—let him return to S.H.I.E.L.D. then, with his tail between his legs.

Unfortunately for Nick, Steve Rogers more than knew how to get by with nothing and no one. What's more, he knew how to do it even when deprived of things he now had in spades: good health, strength, and enough experience as an actor to appear reliable, trustworthy, likable—the type of person one would hire on the spot without asking any questions.

Within a week he'd found a job hauling crates off the books, paid in cash at the end of every day.

Within a month, he'd not only made his way to New York, but also gathered enough money to move into a room in the Bronx, in a flat he shared with five other people, two dogs, an indeterminate amount of cats, and a turtle.

Within two months, he'd moved up to a more stable job, the kind that required a fixed address—complete with a contract and a possible end of year bonus, albeit without health coverage.

"I see you're doing pretty well for yourself," Nick commented.

He was a bit disappointed when Rogers didn't startle, scarcely spared him an irritated glance before returning to what he'd been doing, heaving boxes and piling them up on a pallet. "You're not supposed to be back here," was all he said.

Nick wasn't sure the boxes were meant to be carried by hand; Rogers didn't seem to care. Neither did his colleagues: he was alone in the storage room, no colleagues sticking around in case of an accident.

"I'm just curious," Nick said after a couple minutes of silence. Rogers didn't prompt him with an About what?, nor even with a sarcastic Oh yeah?, but he continued all the same, "Is that it, then? Captain America, the greatest soldier in US history, the one and only genetically enhanced strategist in the whole world…sharing a cardboard box apartment with four women, a kid, and a whole menagerie, spending his days carting boxes of…" He looked closer at the last package Rogers had put down and almost blinked. "…diapers around for minimal wage?"

Rogers shrugged. "It's an honest job." He pumped the handle of the jack to lift the now fully loaded pallet, then drew it towards himself to turn, ready to bring it out of storage and into the aisles. He paused. "Also," he said. "Jay is non-binary. If you insist on having fucking reports written on my personal life, you might as well make sure they're actually accurate."

And he left, without a backwards glance, leaving Nick wrong-footed.

It wasn't a feeling Nick was familiar with.

He didn't like it.

 

*

 

That wasn't, however, it.

Nick couldn't care less about Rogers' delicate sensibilities when it came to his private life: S.H.I.E.L.D. could let Captain America run around unchecked about as much as they could allow Bruce Banner to roam free, which is to say not at all. So when Rogers enrolled in evening classes a couple months later, he was informed almost at once.

Purpose of the class: EMT-basic training program, the report stated—and kept stating, even as Nick glared at it.

He was starting to get fed up with being caught off-guard.

As a small upside, though, he knew exactly where to find Rogers when the situation made it necessary. The course took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 10 p.m. Nick waited in the shadows as the building emptied, as Rogers emerged and waved at a couple of his classmates, as he started walking in the direction of home, head bent as he dug through his pockets for—Nick refrained, again, from blinking—a cigarette pack.

"Those are actually bad for you," he said once Rogers had taken one out and lit it, "in case you didn't know."

Rogers, again, didn't startle. Worse, he rolled his eyes. "I'm aware," he said. "What do you want now?"

His tone was as biting as his gaze and Nick…would actually have given a lot for this interview to be nothing but a pesky reminder, a nagging little mind game to prevent Rogers from throwing S.H.I.E.L.D. entirely out of his mind.

Unfortunately, it wasn't.

 

*

 

"That enough of a threat for you?" he asked later, on the helicarrier, after Loki had been captured then had escaped again and they'd finally understood the full extent of his plan.

Rogers didn't reply—which might've been a victory, but certainly didn't feel like one.

 

*

 

It felt even less like one later on.

When the dust of the Chitauri attack settled, it was only to give way to such an uproar that a press conference became unavoidable. All the Avengers agreed to be present to answer for what had happened, even Banner—even Thor, who'd returned from Asgard to check on Earth and tell them how Loki had been imprisoned. As a consequence, a lot of questions were addressed at him: about as many as the journalists asked Stark, while they overlooked Natasha and Barton entirely.

Rogers, however, was the one to attract most of the attention. Everyone noticed. Natasha, Barton and Banner were more than fine with it, happy to fade into the background. Thor obviously didn't mind. Stark, however, ticked more and more visibly each time a journalist stood up and started by saying, "My question is for Captain America."

Rogers played along willingly enough—and a lot more graciously than Nick would've expected. He even followed some of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s instructions: when they asked when he'd been found, he replied gamely, Two months ago, sticking to the timeline they'd presented him with.

The questions kept coming. What had he been doing since he'd been retrieved? Finding his footing in the new century. What was he going to do now, was he going to go back to the army, was he going to get deployed? No, he'd actually already been discharged. What was the plan, then? Were the Avengers the new Howling Commandos, an elite squad linked to an intelligence agency? Was he their leader? Nick tensed as much as Stark did at that one, albeit for different reasons. Well, Rogers replied, he couldn't presume to know whether the Avengers were meant to be a permanent structure, or to what or whom they might or should be affiliated. Whatever they ended up being, he wouldn't be a part of it. What did he mean? He just wouldn't be returning to active duty. He was studying to try and get certified as an EMT, in the hopes of eventually becoming a paramedic. To work at a hospital? That, or with a humanitarian NGO. Anywhere he could go to best help and save people. But, the next journalist floundered, wasn't active duty a better way to achieve that? Rogers shook his head. His Ma had been a nurse. What's more, he knew how many soldiers and civilians nurses and army doctors had saved during the war, he'd seen how many people emergency responders had helped during and after the Chitauri attack: they were the real heroes. But surely, the journalist insisted, he couldn't downplay the role he and his teammates had played, he couldn't deny that the most important thing to do had been to stop the aliens? And if an event of the same magnitude occurred, and his country called for him like it had this time, then he'd be there, Rogers said, and smiled. But they'd forgive him for hoping that it wouldn't, or at least not for a long, long time—and for focusing on rebuilding instead.

And there went S.H.I.E.L.D.'s hopes that the public might sway him.

"Some forewarning would've been nice," Nick told him afterwards.

"You were forewarned," Rogers said, "months ago." He paused and…well, there was no other word for it: he smirked. "I'll take that backpay now, though."

 

*

 

So Rogers got his backpay—and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it. He didn't quit his shitty job. He didn't move into a better neighborhood, or at least into a place with a functional bathroom he didn't have to share with five other people. Apparently, he enjoyed his current living situation—and his being Captain America didn't change a thing as to how his roommates treated him.

Nick was tempted to force the matter by other means, except that the morning he decided to issue the order he arrived to find Natasha waiting for him in his office.

"Don't leak his address to the press," she said, without bothering to explain who she was talking about.

Nick narrowed his eyes at her. She returned his gaze coolly, undaunted.

Interesting.

See, he knew how battlefields worked, how such an intense experience could bind together the people thrown into it. But he hadn't expected Natasha to be subjected to it, not that strongly, not with her past, not towards Captain America.

An alien invasion wasn't quite your run-of-the-mill kind of fight, though, and Rogers had assumed leadership flawlessly on that one. It made sense for all the members of their impromptu team to feel a special connection to him in the wake of that, something like loyalty—even Natasha. Even Stark.

Nick had assumed that it'd fade, given that Rogers had publicly decided to beat it almost at once. Apparently not.

Worse, a couple of weeks later, he found out that Natasha had taken the initiative to relieve of their duty all the agents assigned to the surveillance of Rogers' flat and everyday life, and to replace their regular reports with her own. Given that she still went on missions of varying lengths, those came in sporadically at best. As such they would already have painted an extremely incomplete picture, but on top of that they were filled with the most inane information possible. Nick thus learned far more than he would've wanted about the culinary habits of Dora the Turtle, about all the types of plumbing issues a single apartment could accumulate (Rogers seriously should've moved), and about Jay's disaster of a love life. The latter accounts were accompanied by the only parts of the reports that were anywhere near professional: thorough presentations of the less-than-savory individuals who had dared jilt poor Jay (they seemed to have terrible taste in people as a whole) and often proved to be petty criminals to boot, complete with heaps of undeniable evidence and helpful suggestions as to how to deal with them. Nick forwarded the elements about drug trafficking and possible sequestration to the relevant authorities but had to jot down, Being mean to cats is not a criminal offense, Romanov, under the info on third one.
There was no sign that Natasha entered his office that night, but the following morning, he found an addendum in her writing stating, It should be.

It was a good thing that those reports came directly to him. He couldn't begin to imagine how any agent reading through them would've reacted. With a nervous breakdown, probably. They'd panic over how to interpret them, because they'd find themselves unable to decipher what they'd imagine had to be code—or, worse, because they would understand them correctly and so have to admit to themselves that Natasha Romanov, the oh-so-feared Black Widow, was…taking the piss out of her own boss, as the Brits would put it.

The reports were code, though, in a way. The more useless the data, the clearer the message went through: nothing to report, nothing relevant or of interest to you, SNAFO—Situation Normal And Fuck Off.

Who would've thought the Widow would be the protective kind of friend?

 

*

 

Nick still kept tabs on Rogers—couldn't not—although from a distance. He knew when the man easily obtained both his driving license and his certification, then started working as an EMT for the next few months, gaining the experience required for admission into paramedic training. From then on Nick actually stopped needing agents in order to get regular updates: accounts sprouted all over the internet from Rogers' first shift onwards. Local newspapers developed the quirk of always mentioning whether Captain America had been among the medics arriving on the scene after a fire or a car crash. There were posts on Facebook, on blogs, a whole thread on reddit, a #CapOnCall hashtag on twitter, all of it full of corny anecdotes. They told of a kid's birthday party that had almost been ruined by a broken arm, until Captain America—the boy's favorite superhero!—had shown up to drive him to the hospital. Of a young woman's fright when her grandmother had collapsed, only for Captain America to come in, and pause, and say, "… Janice?" because it turned out Grandma had been a USO girl—who this time had only fainted due to hypoglycemia. Of a veteran who'd been on his last leg, on the brink of ending it all, only for Captain America to jump off the ambulance and check him over and talk to him—and now the man had been referred to the VA and things were already looking up. And so on.

It got even worse once he was admitted at BMCC: he flew through both classes and rotation hours with rousing success, leaving classmates, professors, doctors, and patients entirely dazzled in his wake. Nick found that a bit…grating.

He was relieved when Rogers finally graduated—until he saw where he sent his applications.

 

*

 

Dr. Unni Krishnan Karunakara, international president of Doctors Without Borders as of June 2010, had just sat at his desk with a cup of coffee in one hand, ready to start the day. As usual, a signature book was already waiting for him, full of documents deemed important enough to warrant his personal review followed by his actual, physical signature rather than the electronic one.

However, when he flipped it open, he was met with a sheet of paper that was clearly not meant for signature.

"Sahana," he called. When his assistant appeared at the door to his office, he pointed down and asked, "What is this?"

"It's an application for hire, sir," she replied, as chill and to the point as always.

"I can see that," Dr. Karunakara said. "What is it doing on my desk?" Because the beauty of delegation meant that he most certainly was not the one who had to deal with that type of things.

"I believe no one in HR was ready to assume responsibility for the decision to hire the candidate or not, and thus preferred to refer to you."

Dr. Karunakara frowned, confused.

"I'd recommend you look at the applicant's personal information, sir," Sahana suggested helpfully.

Dr. Karunakara looked.

"Oh."

"Yeah," Sahana said. "Oh."

 

*

 

Months after S.H.I.E.L.D. had found out that Rogers had been hired by Doctors Without Borders, the NGO still had to issue an official statement about it.

Nick wondered what they were waiting for. When he'd heard the news, he'd expected the organization to boast about having snatched Captain America the way BMCC had. He'd expected interviews and donation drives with Rogers' name plastered all over them, countless pictures of Captain America vaccinating (preferably cute) kids in Yemen, counseling (preferably healthy looking) young mothers in Nigeria, distributing preventive treatments against malaria in Mali or food supplies in South Sudan…

Instead, nothing. Radio silence. As if Rogers' application had been rejected in the end—only Nick knew it hadn't been.

It made no sense. Unless—

Unless they'd decided to send him on a mission that required discretion, if not secrecy, in order to succeed.

Nick thought about that as he sat in yet another meeting where Phil reported on the whole lot of nothing they had on Rogers' current whereabouts. He tried to put himself in the shoes of the NGO's directors. Where would he assign a man who had some training in emergency medicine, but also, more importantly, a whole lot of experience in military interventions, who knew how to coordinate teams of various sizes and how to lead undercover missions in unstable, if not hostile territory? A man who was at ease in dangerous situations, who could process new information like no other and thus deal with the most unexpected events, who had the unparalleled ability to pick up any language within days? Where would all those qualifications be best put to use?

Nick thought about that, and breathed out slowly, and said, "Someone tell me that we have definite evidence that Doctors Without Borders did not, actually, send Captain America to spearhead their entirely unsanctioned and therefore illegal intervention in Syria."

The silence that followed was deafening.