Chapter 1: Everything Has Changed
The last thing Sharon Carter remembered was an overall feeling of lightheadedness.
She reasoned that explained why she was laying on the hardwood floor. She had passed out. That was surely the reason. As she pressed herself into a seating position, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was incredibly wrong.
It’s dusty, she thought as she surveyed the floor and counters. Before she had fallen, the counters had been pristine. She knew this because she had been the one to clean them, choosing to take out her anger at Steve and world by scrubbing down the counters and the hardwood floors. The television that had been on was now off, and when she walked to flip the light switch on the closest wall, nothing happened. She tried to listen for the familiar hum of electricity, but heard nothing.
He hands drifted down to her belly, the still small bump that only those who knew about her pregnancy would notice. It had become something of an unconscious move, a dangerous tell for someone in her profession.
“Everyone is going to figure out your secret if you keep doing that,” Sam had once told her, more in jest than an actual serious warning. He, not Steve, had been the first to know, if only because he had been the one to discover her having a panic attack in the bathroom, positive test in hand.
Sharon walked around the cabin, taking note of everything that was missing. There was no food in the refrigerator. The bedroom was sparse, and her clothing was gone. She looked under the food, for the small box that contained the few baby items Steve had ferreted away — a onesie, a stuffed bear. Like everything else, it was missing.
Panic coursed through her veins, and she settled on the dust-covered bed to calm herself. Her first hysterical, irrational thought was that she was a ghost. Realizing that was silly, she decided that whatever was going on had to do with the monster that Steve and the others had gone to fight, the same battle that had prompted Steve to beg her to stay behind.
“You’re not going.”
“Like hell I’m not!”
“I can’t be Captain America if you’re there,” Steve had told her, voice pleading. His hands had ghosted under her shirt, warm over her belly. Sharon had thought he was playing dirty. “I won’t be able to concentrate if you’re nearby. I won’t be able to be Captain America. And the world needs me to be Captain America. Please, Sharon, please.”
So she had relented. Not for Steve, no, but for everyone else. She had never been the girl to stay behind, but there was something in Steve’s voice that had been a little bit afraid, and she knew better than anyone that Captain America needed to be on top of his game.
As she curled on the cold bed, alone and confused, she regretted that decision. She allowed herself a moment to cry, attributing the reaction to hormones and not the overwhelming sense of loss. She had no idea what had become of Steve and the others. Were they even alive?
Wiping her eyes, Sharon weighed her options. She could stay and hope someone came for her, but it was clear the cabin had been cleared out some time ago. The only people who would even know she was here were Steve, Sam, Natasha, and Wanda, and since Sharon didn’t know of their statuses, she couldn’t count on them. In most crises, finding shelter and clean drinking water were a priority. Although she had shelter, the quality of the water was dubious.
That left only one option: she needed to leave.
The safe house she had been crashing in was a little over a two mile hike from the road. As she hiked, she took note of the overgrown forest. The area around the cabin had been cleared somewhat, but now the grass was up to her knees. She reached the main road and walked in the direction of the nearest town holding out her thumb when a car passed by. Five vehicles and one hour passed before someone cared enough to slow down.
“Can you give me a lift to the hospital?” Sharon asked. A hospital would have access to television and phones, not to mention medical care. Her hand drifted over her belly if she wondered if the baby growing inside her was affected by whatever had happened.
She thanked the driver when he agreed with her request. She wasn’t afraid of climbing into a truck with a stranger. She had enough training that she could determine six different ways to kill him if need be. As she buckled her seatbelt, Sharon assessed her would-be rescuer — no older than fifty, clearly hiding a head of balding hair under a knitted cap, Catholic, if she were to judge the rosary hanging from the mirror.
“Why are you here by yourself?” the man asked in thickly accented English and a tone that hinted concern more than accusation.
“I woke up and it was like I was in the middle of The Walking Dead . The electricity in my house was off and all my clothes were gone,” Sharon answered, opting to go with honesty. The truth would be the best way to get a clear answer for everything that had happened.
The man jerked his head to look at her, really look at her, before turning back to the road. His knuckles tightened on the wheel. “It’s— it’s true then. You’re one of them. The Disappeared. They’re back.”
“I don’t understand. The Disappeared?”
The man informed her of what the Avengers had apparently told the world five years ago: an alien being named Thanos did something that wiped away half the population of every living entity. His answer was worse than anything Sharon could have imagined.
“The Avengers. Which ones survived?” Sharon knew she must have sounded crazy to the stranger to ask about the Avengers out of everyone, but she needed to know about Steve. Had he been like her, apparently disappeared from existence? Or has he been living these past five years knowing what he lost?
“Um...well, there was Iron Man, of course. And Captain America came back too. The Americans forgave him for whatever…”
Everything the man said faded to static after that. Five years. Steve hadn’t seen her in five years, and the last time they were together, they had fought. Sharon quickly pushed the window down button, and expelled the contents of her stomach.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. She had made a mess of the side of his truck. “I’m, uh, pregnant.”
“That’s why we’re going to the hospital, huh?”
She hugged her belly. “Yeah. That’s why.”
“You got anyone you want me to call? I can try.”
Touched as she was by his kindness, Sharon couldn’t comprehend even attempting to explain how she needed to get into contact with Steve Rogers; instead, she shook her head and replied, “It’s been five years. I don’t even know where to begin.”
She would figure it out at the hospital.
The ER was a mess when she arrived. People suddenly appearing out of nowhere and getting themselves hurt in a variety of ways. Sharon got herself checked in, and settled in a place where she could watch the news. There appeared to be wall-to-wall coverage about the return of the previously-dead population. There were also reports of a massive battle in upstate New York.
Whatever was happening there, Steve was surely in the thick of it. She couldn’t even contact him if she tried. Trying her best to push the worry for his safety to the back of her mind, she strategized. She was not sure who disappeared, making her wary to rely on cell phone communication. Would they even be working? Email was an option, one which required her gaining access to a computer.
She was called back before she could coax someone into lending her their laptop. Playing the pregnancy card had bumped her up the list, and she flinched when the tech placed the cool gel on her belly for the ultrasound.
“Not bad for five years of gestation, huh?” Sharon joked through the unexpected tears of relief when she heard the rapidfire heartbeat of her baby.
“No, not bad at all,” the other woman replied with a soft smile. “It must be such a shock to you, waking up five years later. Have you been in contact with your friends or loved ones?”
“Not yet. They’re in the States. And I...I wanted to make sure everything was okay with me first.” It wasn’t a lie, but not the complete truth either. Sharon then proceeded to concoct a tale to explain why she was here: that she had been traveling for work, and decided to extend her stay to explore the countryside.
Sharon was sent on her way with numerous sandwiches from the cafeteria, bottles of water, and a canvas bag emblazoned with the hospital’s logo. She wandered around the town, taking in the scenes of family and friends reuniting on the street. With everyone so distracted, she was able to jimmy open a car and began her working on getting it started. Long ago, Sam had commented on how absurd it was that she and Steve both knew how to hotwire a car.
“Oh, Sammy, we can teach you if you want.”
“Yeah, no. If you two get caught, you go to jail. If I am, I get shot. Bad trade.”
However, once Sharon was in the car, she found herself at a loss for the next steps. She had food and water, as well as a half-full tank of gas. Sharon had always prided herself on her skills in a crisis, on how adept she was at handling herself on her own. But as she sat in the stolen car, five years in the future in a country that was not her own, she wished for nothing more than the embrace of the man she loved and the reassuring smiles of her friends.
Tears burned at the corner of her eyes. This time, she didn’t blame them on her hormones, but instead the uncertainty of this path before her. An entire five years had passed. Steve had lived, but she didn’t know the person that he’d become. There was an entire war being fought in New York, and she was a continent away incapable of assisting and with no way of knowing that she’ll see him again.
Sharon found herself driving back in the direction of the cabin. Despite its state, it was a comfort. She could go there again and regroup, do a more thorough check of the place to see what was left over. In the morning, she could set out for a larger city or airport, find a more concrete way to getting to America. Knowing that Steve was alive, she could also leave a note for him if he decided to seek her out if she was already gone. She hadn’t done that the first time.
She noticed more cars on the road as she drove back to the forest, likely people trying to reunite with their families. Her own parents had died years ago. Peggy had been her closest relative, resembling of a grandmother than a distant aunt, but she was also gone. Her family for the past two years — or seven, she thought hysterically — had been her boyfriend and the rest of the Secret Avengers.
Wanda had given them that nickname, the Secret Avengers. Steve hadn’t liked the name. Wanda had worried, but Sharon told her that Steve was a big boy and could get over it. Everyone else had liked it, so the moniker had stuck. Now, the Secret Avengers appeared to be no more, once again a united front with the Avengers Prime. Sharon wondered how Tony and Steve had made peace.
She pulled the car to the side of the road, belatedly realizing that she would have to leave it behind. She hoped that no one else would think to steal it. She didn’t want to hitchhike again. She took a deep breath, forehead falling against the steering wheel. She was frazzled and not thinking options through to the best of her ability, operating on emotion instead of logic.
The fact of the matter was that she was undeniably afraid of what she would discover when she investigated the past five years. She realized that this was, on a small scale, what Steve had suffered when he awoke from the ice. Five years was small potatoes compared to more than sixty, and yet some struggles would be harder. The number of changes had forced him to move on because there was no use lingering in the past. Too much was different, too many loved one gone. But if everything was similar, just a tiny bit off, how easy would that be?
As she hiked through the woods and back to the cabin, she tried not to dwell on her relationship with Steve. He could have moved on from her, and if he thought she was dead, she would want that. At least, that was what she wanted from him in abstract. The reality was that she hoped desperately nothing changed — a naive desire, for even if he were unattached things would still be different — for their child’s sake more than hers.
Her original plan had been to terminate the pregnancy. Their situation was tenuous and not a good environment for raising a child. But then told Steve and God , his smile had been beautiful. He’d listed a number of reasons why they could do this. They’d stop their Secret Avenging, create fake IDs and settle down somewhere. They could talk T’Challa into letting them stay in Wakanda.
“If anyone can pull this off, it’s us.”
As she climbed over a downed log, she wondered why she was fool enough to believe him. It was still early enough in the pregnancy for her to terminate, but she had grown...attached, sang to it and pretended to talk to it while she went on her cleaning spree before everything turned to hell.
Night was fast approaching as she worked her way through the woods. She traversed this spot often enough that she knew her way around, but Sharon had no desire to do the task at night. Without electricity, the cabin would be pitch black. That didn’t bother her too much. Her plan for the night was to eat and perhaps collapse into the bed from exhaustion. Despite her anxiety, her body and mind both felt heavy. The pregnancy was already pulling a number on her body.
As she approached the location of the cabin, Sharon fell on alert when she heard the unmistakable noise of a distant shout. Not many people knew about the cabin’s location, and her heart surged. Her first thought was that the battle had ended and Steve had come to find her. Her second thought was, despite the secrecy, someone else had found her.
Indecision warred inside of her. She wanted nothing more than to run straight in the direction of yelling, but caution held her back. Her decision was taken away from her when Sharon heard a snap behind her. She flung her fist back, aiming for a punch. Her arm was immediately grabbed, the metal cool on her bare skin.
“Bucky?” Leave it to the Winter Soldier to catch her by surprise. Sharon took in his appearance. He was covered in dirt and blood. Who the blood belonged to, Sharon didn’t know, and she was afraid to ask.
“He’s alive,” Bucky said, almost as if he could read her mind. He released her arm and gave her a crooked grin that didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Who do you think is the one doing all of the yelling?”
“Oh thank God.” Whether it was a desire for human connection or overwhelming joy, Sharon could not say, but she launched herself at Barnes pulling him into a tight hug. They were never particularly close, he had gone under ice before she had reunited with Steve, which explained why he momentarily froze before awkwardly wrapping his arms around her and squeezing back with surprising ferocity. When she pulled away, she smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. “We should probably go find him. Stop the yelling.”
“I’m sure the wildlife would appreciate the favor.”
Despite their mutual agreement, both stayed rooted in their spots. Sharon crossed her arms. The tears were back, born out of relief, but she still couldn’t shake the worry knotted in her chest. “Were you like me or him?”
“You. Wilson, too.”
“So you’re saying none of us can really say how he’s doing.” And that he’s spent the past five years without his lover and two best friends. She wondered who really suffered the most, those who disappeared or the one left to survive the aftermath.
Bucky shook his head. “No, but we’re not going to find out if we stay here.”
They made their way through the woods, heading in the direction of the yelling. Their gaits were faster, though Sharon knew Bucky was still holding back in order to stay close to her. As they got closer, Sharon could make out her name among the cries, and something inside her chest knotted. Steve’s voice, loud and booming, sounded so incredibly broken...and afraid.
They picked up their pace.
Bucky was the first to bust through the treeline, shouting Steve’s name and waving his right hand to gain his attention. Through the trees, Sharon could see him standing near the cabin with Sam and a man she didn’t recognize who appeared to be wearing a cape.
“I found her!” Bucky called out just as Sharon emerged.
Their eyes met. Her first thought, however absurd, was that he shaved and cut his hair. Her second was how terribly broken he looked. He was grimier than Bucky, covered in mud and sporting an impression abrasion on his cheek. She could see where his mask had been, one side of his face cleaner than the other.
He said something that might have been her name, and she was sure she said his before they bounded to one another. Steve ran to her with superhuman speed, catching her in an embrace that pushed the air from her lungs. She didn’t care.
“You’re alive. You’re alive. You’re alive,” was all he seemed capable of saying as he tangled his fingers in her hair and peppered her head, cheeks, and lips with kisses. He pulled away to look at her with glassy eyes that Sharon was sure matched her own. His thumb traced the apple of her cheek in an attempt to wipe away the tears, but surely only dirtying her face with mud and blood and ash. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you.”
She kissed him once more, soft and sweet and with none of the intensity she longed to pour into the moment. Not with an audience. For a brief moment, she was taken back to that first kiss in Leipzig, Sam and Bucky watching on with twin smiles. They were currently commiserating among themselves having eventually learned to appreciate privacy. The man in the cape was looking pointedly at the ground.
“Now that we know that Agent Carter is safe and accounted for, we should be returning.”
Steve’s fingers flexed in her hair, but he made no effort to completely disentangle himself. “This is Dr. Strange. He brought us here.”
“Thank you,” Sharon said.
The man nodded before moving his hands and opening a portal to her new world.
Sharon awoke in an unfamiliar bed.
She flexed her fingers against the soft sheets before rolling to her side, away from the sun and the open curtains that allowed the sun to fragment through. When she opened her eyes, Steve was still asleep next to her. The scrape on his cheek was healing, but his bare chest was still marred with ugly, purple bruises. So it wasn’t a dream, Sharon thought with disappointment. She had foolishly hoped that the previous day been an elaborate dream, and that she would awaken in the cabin, not a house in Brooklyn. Sharon had been missing — nonexistent, if she wanted to be technical — for the past five years. The monster who had done this to her and everyone else was dead. Killed first by Thor in a fit of rage, and finally by Tony in a sacrifice meant to protect them all.
When Sharon had stepped through the portal to the ravaged wasteland of what had been the Avengers compound, she had vomited from the shock and horror of the devastation. She had stayed by Steve’s side as he played field commander, checking on the others. He had asked if she wanted to sit down, but Sharon sensed that he was afraid to let her go, so she chose to stay.
She was dead on her feet by the time Strange had opened a portal to Steve’s home. “I found a place in Brooklyn. I’ve been living there most of the time,” Steve had explained to her as they crossed the crackling threshold into the house. She had been both too tired and too overwhelmed to investigate, and she allowed Steve to lead her to the upstairs bathroom. There they shed her clothing and the remains of his tattered uniform before they climbed into the shower to wash away the horrors of the day. There was nothing sexual behind their intentions as hands slid on the other’s skin. They did not make love then nor when they crawled into bed. Doing so would have felt like too much, and Sharon was sure neither of them had the wherewithal to do it and do it well.
Because of this, Sharon allowed Steve to continue sleeping as she slid from the bed. She winced when he bare feet touched the cold floor. Steve had given her a t-shirt and sweatpants to sleep in the night prior, but had forgotten to hand her socks. She didn’t know in which dresser drawer he kept them, and she had no desire to risk waking him, so instead she settled on dealing with cold toes as she crept from the bedroom.
She wandered down the hallway, taking note of a spare bedroom and another room that had been rehabilitated into a studio. Despite the clear indication that he did some art, the upstairs was spartantly decorated. She wondered why. The downstairs wasn’t much better. There were, at least, bookshelves. She wandered into the main room, her attention caught by shelf topped with books and picture frames. The stuffed bear they had purchased together was sitting on the topmost shelf. She gingerly reached to grab it and hugged it close to her chest as she studied the photographs he’d chosen to display: a picture of him and Bucky from the war, one from him and Sam at a ballpark, a portrait of Peggy, and finally, a picture of Sharon and Steve on the beach, his arms wrapped around her waist with both of them grinning at the camera.
Sharon remembered that day clearly: they were on a mission in Thailand. They had been too keyed up from the Hydra base they had crashed to sleep well that night, so a group of them had wandered out to the beach to watch the sunrise. Wanda had taken a photo of them, and Sharon recalled her apprehension at having a physical trail. Steve had told her not to worry so much, and that he wanted a memento of them. To Sharon, that had been six months ago.
Still holding the stuffed bear, she wandered from the living room to the kitchen. She was hungry, and knew Steve would be once he woke. She puttered around the kitchen, looking through the cabinets in search of something they could eat. They were mostly bare.
Sharon debated if she should run out for bagels. She would need to liberate some additional clothes from Steve’s closet and his wallet for cash. That thought alone caused a shot of dread to pump through her veins. In many ways, while the world sorted out how to handle the return of billions, Sharon remained almost entirely dependent on Steve. Her clothes were gone. She her money had to be all tied up, and the cash she had taken on the run long since spent. She gripped the counter top to stabilize herself.
She was too distracted mentally attempting to ward off a panic attack that sense when Steve entered the room, not until she felt a large hand tentatively touch her shoulder. Taking a deep breath, she turned to look over at him, struck by the fear and love in his eyes.
“You’re not a dream this time.”
“Not a dream,” Sharon echoed as he pulled her into his embrace.
His kiss tasted of desperation, like this could be the last and he was trying to drink her in, like he was still convinced he was dreaming. His hands skimmed under her shirt, warm against her skin. His thumb moved over her nipples, and she pulled away with a wince. She had a reminder on the tip of her tongue, hadn’t she warned him about the extra sensitivity days ago? But no, to him too much time had passed to remember such a trivial detail, so she swallowed her annoyance and moved in for another kiss.
The sex they had delayed the previous night was now fully in motion. Steve stripped her of her shirt and shuffled her back against the counter. His lips moved from her mouth to her neck as his hands held her hips almost painfully, holding her against him as his arousal pressed firmly against her belly. Steve was firmly in control, and she was just along for the ride.
When he dropped to his knees, she found that she didn’t really mind.
He tugged at her borrowed sweats, and from there he was single-minded in his pursuit. Sharon blindly reached back to brace herself against the counter as his tongue swirled over her clit and pleasure spiked through her veins. Sharon gasped his name when he left go of her ass, and curled a finger inside of her. Once, in Wakanda, he’d laid her out on the bed and eaten her out until she couldn’t see straight. This reminded her of night — his determination to get her off and pleasure he was creating.
When Sharon came, she was sure she saw stairs. Steve carried her through, let her ride it out until she slumped against the counter. She ran a free hand through her hair.
“You’re amazing at that, you know?”
He didn’t say anything in return, only smiled, still looking a bit too awestruck for a normal session. He stood, wincing at the movement. Instantly, Sharon felt guilty. He was still healing. He didn’t need to be crouched on the tile floor.
As if sensing her concern, he shook his head. “Don’t worry. Trust me when I say I enjoyed that.”
He kissed her again, making a show of pushing his hips against hers, presenting his erection as if it were proof enough. Sharon snaked her hand down to touch him, and reveled in the way he hissed when she wrapped her hand around his length.
“How do you want me?” she asked as she pumped him.
“So many ways.” His head fell to her shoulder, clearly enjoying her ministrations. Steve took a shuddering breath. “Turn around. Please?”
She did as she was instructed, bending and bracing her hands once again against the counter. He entered her in one quick thrust, and Sharon cried out. She was suddenly worried about alerting others, careful as she normally was about staying quiet during sex. Then she remembered no one else was around. She could be as loud as she wanted.
Rare were the occasions when they could do this, so openly fuck. Their previous sessions were mostly hurried affairs, both of them trying to remain quiet lest they wake the others. They both loathed the knowing glances from Sam or the playful taunts from Natasha if they stumbled upon one or the other in the aftermath. She was beginning to understand the merits to the house.
He fucked her with an intensity that surprised her, hard and fast that had her gasping with each press of her hips. Normally, he didn’t push her this hard, keeping a cool control over her his strength. Weeks ago, she’d have done anything to see him like this — unrestrained and lost in her body. Be careful what you wish for. It only took her disappearing for five years to get it.
In the end, they both ended up on the tile floor in a tangle of limbs, panting, smiling, and spent. His hand reached for hers and threaded their fingers.
“I like your kitchen,” Sharon said as she looked up at the ceiling. She was an uncomfortable mix of sticky and sweaty, but the cool tile felt nice against her skin.
“It wasn’t like this when I bought the place. I remodeled. It was therapeutic,” Steve answered, perfectly nonchalant. Like he didn’t just fuck her senseless. Like they weren’t suddenly discussing how he worked through devastating tragedy.
Deciding to match his nonchalance, she commented, “It would be better if you actually kept the pantry stocked.”
She nudged his shin with a foot.
“I’ve been a little busy.” He rolled and pushed himself up. “There’s a diner I like a few blocks away. We can get breakfast.”
Suddenly, she was ravenous. He pulled her up in a graceful motion, and he led her back to the bathroom. He let her take the lead on the shower. “If I join you, we’ll never leave.”
Sharon washed quickly. She realized now that she was no longer on the run, she could purchase her favorite soaps and shampoos. She mentally added that on the list of items she would need to buy. When she extracted herself from the shower, Steve had just finished making the bed. He smiled when she saw her.
“I checked the guest bedroom. Natasha kept some clothes here for the odd times she’d stay over. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you…” Steve’s voice caught, and Sharon could pinpoint the exact moment he remembered. Natasha was dead. He had told her yesterday after she had inquired after her on the battlefield. She hadn’t allowed herself to cry then. She wouldn’t now. She wouldn’t break before Steve. “Okay, well, I’m going to take a shower and we can get breakfast, yeah?”
“I’ll be fine, Sharon.”
He wasn’t fine, but Sharon learned a long time ago that she couldn’t force him to open up. Instead, she silently watched him walk into the bathroom before exiting to the guest room. Knowing Natasha had occasionally slept here cast a pall over the room. Sharon could picture her in every corner.
She didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.
In their line of work, death was always a possibility. Dying on the job, at times, seemed more likely than at home in their beds. They all knew the risks, and still signed up for the task. That knowledge didn’t make the losses hurt any less.
Her hands were shaking when she opened the dresser drawers to a small array of clothing. Sharon grabbed the first pair of pants and a shirt she could find, not wanting to spend time digging through her dead friend’s clothing. The clothes fit more snugly than she would prefer, and without a bra Sharon was sure she was doing her best Jennifer Anniston circa Friends impression, but it worked until she could figure out how to expand her own closet. One of the first items on the list would have to be an outfit for the funerals she would have to attend.
Perhaps that was why he found her sitting on the edge of the bed, face buried in her hands as she cried. He said nothing, but took a seat next to her, rubbing a hand up and down her back.
“I’m sorry.” She wiped the tears from the corner of her eyes. She could count the number of times she had cried in front of him on her hands. “I think it’s just hitting me and hormones and — ”
“There’s nothing to apologize about,” Steve assured her. He pressed a kiss to her shoulder. “She was our friend.”
“And she gone.”
“Yeah. She’s gone.” Steve’s arms tightened around Sharon, pulling her in a full-blown hug. “She would have been happy to know it wasn’t in vain. That’s what I’m trying to remind myself. Out of all of us, she was the one trying the hardest to find a way to bring everyone back. And, in a way, she did.”
That didn’t make her death sound any more fair. In fact, it made it all the more worse. Sharon was sure Steve felt the same way. They stayed holding one another until Sharon was sure she could cry no more.
Sharon was stunningly pretty.
He hadn’t forgotten, per se, but his memory had shifted in such a way that seeing her sit across from him in the diner was an near ethereal experience. Steve had studied her picture countless times over the past five years, but a photograph didn’t capture how her expressions shifted or the bounce of her hair when she moved or the sound of her voice when she laughed. Memories and fantasy were pale comparisons to the real thing.
God, he’d missed her.
She sat across from him at the diner, her nose adorably scrunched as she prodded her mug with a spoon. She had ordered her drink decaffeinated, something she’d called a travesty in previous days, because she worried about how it could affect the baby. Science said that she could have one cup of caffeinated coffee, that it should be fine, but she told him she’d put her body through too much already.
“Maybe you should talk to a doctor,” Steve suggested. He took a drink of his own coffee, also ordered decaf as an act of solidarity. It struck him then that they hadn’t even visited a doctor. They had been in the process of figuring that out when Thanos’ minions had attacked. “We need to find you a doctor. We don’t even know for sure how far along you are. Or if...”
He trailed off. Steve had been so caught up in finally seeing Sharon again, the knowledge that she was alive and that he could once again touch her, that he hadn’t had time to worry about the pregnancy. Sharon was back, so surely the baby had to be safe. But that wasn’t a guarantee, was it? He knew the statistics even without the intense stress and trauma she’d suffered. He was suddenly afraid.
Sharon remained nonplussed. “I’m fine. So is the baby. We’re at about ten weeks, by the way, which I think would have put conception around the Argentina mission.”
He watched something resembling understanding settle in her eyes. She gave him a gentle smile, and reached across the table to grab his hand. Her hands were cold, and he wondered if she needed gloves. He should get her gloves. “I went to the hospital to make sure things were mostly okay and did the ultrasound thing. That’s why I wasn’t at the cabin.”
“Oh.” This was good information. He had been too overwhelmed the night prior to ask her why she’d been in the forest, settling for the elation of seeing her again. She’d been to a doctor. She checked things out. “So everything’s fine then?”
“I guess. I heard the heartbeat. It sounded weirdly fast to me, but that’s apparently normal. I don’t know if it has three eyes or seven toes yet, the picture was kind of blurry and it wasn’t fully formed yet anyway.” Sharon paused for a moment. “I got a printout. It’s in my jeans pocket, if it didn’t fall out.”
A small knot was forming in his gut, one that Steve had become familiar with over the years. Envy. He’d felt it at Tony’s wedding, and later when Natasha had passed along the news that Pepper was pregnant. He would feel it every time he saw a father and son at the park or a young couple on a date or even when he noticed two friends shooting the breeze at a bar. That feeling had become second nature to him. He now found himself jealous of the mother of his child because she’d had the opportunity to first hear the heartbeat and to see its blurry form on a screen.
When she had been showering that morning, Steve had thrown her clothes into the laundry basket. He hadn’t bothered to sort through her pockets. That was a task normally reserved for before he threw everything into the washing machine. If anything had fallen out of her pockets, he would have noticed. That meant that the ultrasound photo might still be there, nestled amongst their dirty clothes. He glanced over his shoulder, wondering if Sharon would agree to ask for their food to be boxed up so they could race home and find that ultrasound photo. He decided that would be an excessive course of action.
“We should still find a doctor,” Steve said. Regardless of need, he’d be able to hear the heartbeat for himself and see the amorphous image of their baby. He’d have further proof that his family was alive, intact, and safe. “Strange was a surgeon before he became a sorcerer. I know that’s not the kind of doctor we need, but maybe he knows people. People we can trust and that would ensure you get the best care.”
After breakfast they were due in Manhattan to regroup with the others figure out how to move on from there. Strange had opened up his Sanctum for those didn’t necessarily have a place to go. Bucky and Sam had taken him up on the offer, rejecting Steve’s suggestion that they crash at the house. “You need to spend some time with Sharon. We can catch up soon. Go be with your girl.” He was with her now. That had to count for something.
Sharon was studying him carefully, head cocked to the side. Did she always tilt her head when she assessing him? How could he have forgotten that? “We can find a way to get to a doctor as soon as possible.”
Their waitress brought them their food before he could properly reply. The number of plates forced them to disentangle their hands. He instantly missed her touch. He considered moving to the same side of the booth as her, if only so they could sit with their hips pressed side-by-side. He stayed rooted in spot, however, knowing moving would be too needy. She was back now. He had plenty of time to touch her. You thought that before, and you lost her.
“I love you,” he blurted out, because Steve wasn’t sure if he’d said it to her since she’d returned. He’d always regretted how he’d never told her enough, and swore to himself that if he saw her again, he would tell her every day. “I love you so much.”
“I love you too. More than this breakfast even.” Sharon gave him a soft sort of smile as she smothered her french toast in syrup.
“We could get cheeseburgers for dinner. Do you love me more than those?”
“Stop fishing for compliments, Rogers,” Sharon replied. She took a bite of her breakfast and made an inhuman noise of appreciation that went straight to his groin. “You have to try this.”
“I’ve had their french toast before.” He still complied when she thrust the fork into his mouth. It really was good. “You happy?”
Her smile really was something.
He tucked into his own breakfast — extra helpings of eggs, sausage, and hashbrowns. It was a more boring order than her french toast, but it was a reliable favorite.
It struck him then that this was one of the first normal dates. Most of their outings had involved them going undercover. Even during the few times their friends had insisted they go out without ulterior motives, they had both had spent most of the time looking over their shoulders. There had been one night in Wakanda when they had walked the city’s streets and tasted the different foods, but this was one of their first times being on safe soil in their own country. This was the type of date Steve had daydreamed about when they’d been hiding. It only took an extra five years to get here.
“So tell me about the house,” Sharon said between mouthfuls of french toast.
“The house?” He pushed some of his eggs around the plate. The house was a complicated subject. Then again, discussing anything about the past five years would be inherently complicated. “What about it?”
“Tell me about it?” She reached over to liberate a forkful of hash brown from his plate. “It’s a big deal. I know you always wanted to settle in Brooklyn again and the neighborhood seems nice.”
They had walked to the diner together, Sharon tucked close to his side. He had mostly stopped believing he would get the chance to do that. He pointed her in the direction of Prospect Park and smiled at a small child riding his bike.
“I needed someplace to be that wasn’t just the compound.” Too many ghosts. “Brooklyn seemed like the natural choice. I’ve always considered it home.”
“What made you decide to do renovations? Is the kitchen the only room you fixed up?”
Sharon was asking so many questions. He couldn’t blame her. So much time had passed for him and no time at all for her. She was only trying to catch up. Still, he couldn’t help but feel a surge of irritation. He wanted to focus on the future, not the past.
“I fixed up both bathrooms. I also picked up woodworking. I don’t know if you ventured in there, but I made the dining room table.” He sighed, remembering the long, solitary nights as he worked on his home. “As for why I did the renovations, like I said earlier, it was mostly a therapeutic thing. It gave me something to do that didn’t feel like a Sisyphean task. I had an end goal. Nicer kitchen. New tub. A table. Building things...it cleared my head kind of like how drawing does. It was...useful.”
“Useful is an odd choice of words.”
He shrugged. “I can’t say it entirely helped. As Nat would remind me, I had ulterior motives. I bought a massive house in hopes that I’d have a home for you if we ever figured out how to reverse the Snap. Guess I wasn’t entirely wrong,” Steve gestured lamely to Sharon, “but I doubt it was the healthiest motivation at the time.”
“Still...I don’t think I’ve told you yet, but thanks for not giving up on everyone,” Sharon said as she finished off her breakfast. The coffee sat cooling and untouched.
Her words broke something in him, but due to their public location, he held it together. Reigning in emotions in the face of the public was a skill he had perfected over the years. First during the War, second when he’d woken from the ice, and again when he’d needed to be the strong pillar in the wake of devastation.
The fact of the matter was, he waffled significantly between believing they would succeed in returning everyone and giving up. How many nights had he curled in on himself and sobbed until he wasn’t sure he could feel anymore? He’d tried to go through the motions. He’d gone on dates, invited women into his bed. Hated himself in the morning. Rinse. Repeat.
Natasha had been the only one not to completely give up, fighting and believing until her very last day. She had been the best of them. She had surprised him at the house once, just as one the women — Rachel, he thought that was her name — had been leaving. He had never seen Natasha so angry. She had yelled at him until her voice was raw, terrible things about how he’d lost faith, how Sharon had been her friend too, how could he even think of attempting to move on. She didn’t speak to him for a week after that. He sometimes wondered if the reason she ever did again was because he was one of the few friends she had left.
He would have to tell Sharon about all of that. Now wasn’t the time. He hoped she could forgive him.
Sharon seemed to sense his shift in mood, and she turned the conversation to something more light. “You know, the whole builder-man thing is kind of hot.”
“Is it now?”
“Yes, I love a man who knows how to use his hands.” She winked and her foot nudged his calf.
He once again considered suggesting they head back home. He could forget the horrors of the past in her embrace. But they were not the people who could shutter themselves away from the world. The others would be waiting in Manhattan.
He didn’t want to go. Even before Sharon started flirting and he had learned about the ultrasound pictures, a part of him was dreading falling back into ‘Cap’ mode. His shield had become a heavier weight, more so now that both Tony and Natasha were gone. But that was why he needed to carry on, why he was dragging him and Sharon from the comforts of Brooklyn. His friends, and ostensibly the world, still needed Captain America. So Captain America he had to be.
When they finished breakfast, Steve paid in cash and left a sizable tip. As they walked the subway station, Steve explained to Sharon how cash was more common now. Use had been waning prior to the Decimation, everyone hurtling toward digital and plastic. The aftermath of Decimation saw major electrical shutdowns and technological issues across the board.
“The world was a mess. Fewer people to support, but also fewer people to watch out for issues in infrastructure. A significant amount of institutional knowledge was lost in a matter of seconds,” he said as they swiped their MetroCards to enter the station. Those had, unfortunately, stayed.
Sharon had needed to purchase a card. He couldn’t miss her look of frustration when she asked him for money. He didn’t mind supporting her as he had grown up in an environment where that was the expectation; however, she had always prided herself on her independence. Steve knew that in order to ensure her happiness, that Sharon would need to find something to do with her life to feel like she was contributing. Doing what, he didn’t know. The pregnancy would complicate anything requiring her to go out into the field.
“What about governments?” Sharon asked as they skirted around people. The train platform was more crowded than he’d seen in years. It made him smile.
“Foreign or domestic?”
“Either. Or. Both. I don’t know.” Sharon frowned. “I feel like I woke up to a new world order.”
“The President was dusted. Thankfully, the Secretary of State was about as far down the succession line, which probably came in handy when dealing with foreign entities. She was elected for a second term,” Steve told her. Steve was fond of President Camilla Cortez. She was a no-nonsense sort of woman, the type of person who had been shaped by shattering the ceilings that tried to keep her down. Steve had been on the run during the nomination fight in the Senate. They had called her too young and too inexperienced. She’d proven them wrong. At times, Steve had wondered if the country would have survived without her leadership. “As for all things foreign, Brexit was cancelled. The EU still nearly fractured apart more than once. Israel continues to hold steady, and tension in Gaza have eased. China annexed the Koreas.”
Steve refrained from mentioning the various bombings across the world, the terrorists attacks that had occurred as the governments tried to re-establish themselves. Another conversation for another day. It was still enough to have Sharon swearing under her breath.
“I can’t imagine what the return of three billion people will do,” she said grimly.
“You don’t have to imagine. We’ll live it.”
For the rest of the long train ride into Manhattan, they shifted the conversation away from the horrors of the past five years to the more mundane tasks that they would need to accomplish to get Sharon reestablished into the world. A cell phone plan, meetings with the bank, new clothes.
“We can maybe also look at home decor stuff, put your spin on the house,” Steve mentioned when they disembarked from the train and exited the station. The house was now her place as much as it was his, and he felt a jolt of excitement at the thought of her putting personal touches on the space.
She hummed. “I think you bank account can only handle so much at once.”
“It’s not really a problem. I swear.” He had an absurd amount of money, in part due to the government’s insistence that he take Social Security combined with lengthy backpay despite his protests. It was something that made him feel incredibly self conscious, the only way he imagined anyone who grew up in the midst of the Great Depression could. He donated most of it, but was more than willing to spend some on her. If she’d let him.
“At any rate, we should take note of what I should pay you back.”
“You’re going to be carrying my baby for the next however many long months. The least I could do is buy you nice things.”
“That sounds almost...transactional,” Sharon replied. If it wasn’t for the gleam in her eyes, Steve wouldn’t have been able to tell that she’d been teasing him. He hadn’t forgotten how she liked to keep him on his toes.
“That’s me, paying you off to carry my super soldier offspring.” He made a mental note to question anyone about the inheritability of the serum.
“Blonde-haired and potentially blue-eyed. The aryan dream, are you sure you’re not Hydra in disguise?”
“Abraham Erskine was German,” Steve noted, earning a laugh from Sharon. He enjoyed making her laugh, despite the dark humor of their jokes.
They teased each other all of the way Sanctum, and for a second Steve forgot the horror of what had happened, too focused on the sound of her laugh and the flush of her cheeks. Reality hit hard too soon once they were ushered into their location. Sharon gasped when she entered the Sanctum. Steve was also suitably impressed as he gazed around at the artifacts and woodwork.
“Maybe I should have signed up for Sorcerer School instead of going to the Academy,” Sharon mused, bumping her hip against Steve as they walked through the building to meet the others. “Do you think they have houses like Hogwarts?”
“No, and if you make a ‘Ten points to Gryffindor joke’, I will send you to another dimension,” Strange interjected when they rounded the corner. Sharon colored, obviously not intending for him to hear her joke. His tone was even enough that Steve was unable to determine if the man was making a threat or a joke of his own. He tightened his hold on Sharon’s hand and wondered if he would ever stop feeling terrified at the thought of her disappearing again.
Strange led them to a large room. Already, it was full of other heroes. Both Sam and Bucky stood up immediately, and Steve blinked to remind himself that he wasn’t hallucinating. His friends were alive. Sam crossed the room in a few quick strides and patted him on his shoulder in a sort of half-hug.
“We weren’t actually expecting you to be here.”
“Why? I said I would be.”
“We thought you’d need more family time, that’s all.” He turned to better face Sharon. “Then again, you brought the family along.”
“You know I hate sitting on the sidelines,” Sharon replied as they walked toward the inner circle, ribbing Sam. He laughed, and Steve felt something in his heart twist. Their exchange reminded him of years, and how for them, little time had passed.
There were fewer people than Steve expected. Carol Danvers was casually leaning against the wall, studying their interaction. In the five years Steve had been interacting with her, he still couldn’t get a good read on her. She was certainly impressive, living up to her moniker of Captain Marvel, but they hadn’t especially bonded. Thor and Bruce had been talking in the corner. Bruce’s arm was in a much better sling. He waved in their direction with his unharmed hand. If Sharon was shocked by his new appearance, it didn’t show.
The rest of the people in attendance had been taken in the Decimation. Outside of Bucky, Sam, and Strange, there weren’t many other people in attendance. Wanda stood in the furthest corner. Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne, who he only knew via picture, were huddled around a sofa.
“The Guardians are doing their own thing. Team Wakanda is working out issues there. Rhodey is with Pepper, helping her with whatever needs to be done. Clint is reconnecting with Laura and the kids. Scott and his girlfriend are with Scott’s daughter,” Sam explained. Steve was beginning to understand why Sam had questioned whether he would show. Many of their fellow heroes had ensconced themselves from the world with their loved ones or were otherwise helping them through the tragedy. “Fury was here earlier, but he left to go do a search on remaining agents.”
“Sounds like Nick,” Sharon commented.
“He was asking about you, by the way. Now that we’re apparently no longer enemies of the state, he wants you back in an official capacity.” This did not come as a surprise to Steve. Nick had been feeding them information during their time underground and Sharon was a capable agent.
“What did you tell him?” Sharon asked.
“That I wasn’t your secretary and that he should be reaching out to you. So be prepared and probably don’t walk around Steve’s house in the nude, because you know how he likes to do the hiding in the shadows thing.”
Sharon laughed. Steve was sure he blushed scarlet. To his surprise, however, Carol Danvers even sniggered. “Your perception of Nick is so incredibly different than mine.”
“And yet you are still not telling us any of your stories,” Sam teased back. Steve could tell this was a continuation of an earlier conversation that had started prior to him and Sharon arriving.
“We have more important matters to discuss at the moment,” Carol replied. There was the serious Captain Marvel that Steve knew. “For example, how we’re going to return the stones.”
The answer was, of course, time travel. Bruce has sworn to the Ancient One that their team would return the stones in some capacity. The question for them to answer was if they had the ability to do just that. Their time machine had been busted in Thanos’ attack on the compound. Hank Pym seemed assured that between him and Bruce’s intellect, and with the help of Tony’s notes, they could repair the machine. Steve’s stomach tightened when he thought of undertaking this endeavor without Tony. Despite their differences, Steve considered him a friend. Now he was gone.
As the conversation continued on, a sense of dread settled over Steve. He knew the natural conclusion of their plan, what he would be asked to do. Someone would need to return the stones, and that person would need to be one of the original few who traveled back in time. Bruce and most of the Guardians would look too conspicuous. The Stark family needed the support of Rhodes too much for Steve to feel comfortable calling him. The others wouldn’t trust Scott with the task, and Steve doubted Thor would trust himself. Which only left one option.
Steve surprised himself with how little he wanted to go. He would agree to do it, if only to put a close on the fight and not inadvertently cause some sort of cosmic calamity. It was the right choice to make, but it was not the one he wanted. What Steve Rogers wanted was to be holding Sharon’s hand and hearing their child’s heartbeat for the first time. He wanted to be working side-by-side with Bucky and Sam. He wanted Tony and Natasha back.
Steve rarely got everything he wanted.
“I’ll do it,” he volunteered when the group finally got around to discussing who would go. Beside him, Sharon tensed. This was probably something he should have run by her first, but he didn’t exactly have the opportunity to pull her away since arriving at the Sanctum. “I’m the only one of us who went to two sites.”
“How are you going to get around Asgard?” Sharon asked, an edge to her voice. She wasn’t happy with his choice, but she wasn’t going to fight him on it. Steve was sure that she would press him on it later.
“He’ll take the hammer. That should prove to my people that he is not a villain,” Thor interjected. The Asgardian was infinitely pleased that Steve could wield Mjölnir. Steve turned to catch Sharon’s eye. He could tell by the set of her jaw that she was still unhappy, but her worry had somewhat abated.
Bruce was standing next to Thor, his expression dark. “What do we know about returning the Soul Stone?”
“Are you asking if Steve has to kill himself to give it back?” Bucky asked grimly. If Sharon wasn’t worried already, now that that thought was out there, Steve was sure she was doubly so. Bucky had been a better wingman before the War.
“No, I’m asking if...if we return the stone, do we get the soul back?”
The thought of potentially bringing Natasha back was a hopeful one, but not something he could dwell on or else he would go mad. “I don’t know.”
“You could try.” Bruce had tried to bring Natasha back along with everyone else. He’d failed.
Carol stepped in. Her perspective was usually more utilitarian. Steve both appreciated and hated her viewpoint. He knew whatever she said next would leave him equally conflicted. “His priority needs to be returning the stones. He can’t risk everything for one life.”
“She died for us, unless you’ve forgotten,” Bruce snapped. In this moment, he sounded more like the Hulk than Bruce Banner.
“So did Vision, but I don’t see you advocating for helping him.” Multiple people flinched at Wanda’s interjection. She had been quiet for much of the meeting. Steve had almost forgotten she was present. “Why do you have to return them all?”
Bruce’s expression softened, but he did not relent. “This is different.”
“Hey, Shuri was looking into how to save him without the stone, remember?” Leave it to Sam to be the reassuring one. Steve mentally chided himself for not recalling that immediately. He had replayed that day so many times, studying it from every angle and torturing himself wondering what he could have done differently. But for Sam, that had been yesterday.
“You don’t know...you don’t know what happened to their files in the past five years.”
“If anyone has good IT practices, it’s Wakanda,” Sharon added. “We can start with that, but Steve has to return the stones.”
Grateful as he was to have Sharon back him up in this, Steve loathed to see the look of betrayal on Wanda’s face before she turned on heel and exited the room. In many ways, he had always sympathized with the young woman. “ What kind of monster would let a German scientist experiment on them in order to protect their country?” After what had occurred at the Raft, he’d grown protective of her. That was why, unsettled as he’d been, he hadn’t tried to put a stop to her forays out with Vision, even when Natasha and Sharon had wanted to.
“Perhaps we should take a break. Clear our heads.” Strange proposed. Steve agreed, but couldn’t help but wonder if it would make a difference.
Steve had been right.
The break had hardly made a difference. Wanda hadn’t returned, and Bruce spent the better part of the meeting in a petty dispute with Carol. Not much was else decided, other than agreeing that Steve would also be the best person to carry out the public relations for the Avengers. In the absence of Tony Stark, he was the most trusted public face of the team, and he had the added benefit of living through the five year gap. The task reminded him of the War — some ways necessary, but overall grim. He had left the Sanctum feeling somewhat defeated.
“Can we please just talk about anything else other than what happened in there?” Steve had asked when they were far enough way. He didn’t want to fight or dwell on everything they had lost. Sharon had looked at him with heartbreaking sympathy in her eyes before she pressed up to kiss him.
“I am in desperate need of new underwear and bras,” she said when she pulled away. He appreciated her shallow attempt at distraction, and allowed her to tug him to the nearest familiar store. Knowing how much she didn’t want him to buy her things made him cherish her efforts even more.
They ended up buying more than just underwear. Enough clothes for a few outfits and a dress that could be worn to funerals. She had fretted over what would look best, and exited the dressing room more than once with her eyes looking red. They came home with bags under their arms. While Sharon napped — the pregnancy was causing her to feel particularly fatigued — Steve made room in the closet and rearranged the drawers to better make room for her stuff.
It wasn’t until later that night, long after dinner and after they had left each other spent and panting in bed that he finally opened up about everything he was feeling. He hadn’t even intended to, but his tossing and turning had aggravated Sharon.
“Are you ready to talk, because if you’re going to keep doing this, I’m going to sleep in the guest room.” The threat of sleeping another night without her by his side was terrifying enough to set himself up for what could be another argument. He wondered when he would have the strength to move past that fear.
“I don’t know if I can bring Natasha back,” Steve admitted softly. His chest ached at the thought. Strange had pulled them aside during the break and reminded him just what he was up against.
“Are you going to try?”
“I can’t not try.” She would try for him. She died for them all.
“Then I think that’s everything anyone can ask.”
“I hate all of this,” he said finally. He rolled so that he could better face her. The moonlight filtering through his blinds made her look almost ethereal. “I don’t want to be the one to carry this burden and I know you don’t want me to either.”
“I never said that,” Sharon argued. She reached forward and touched his cheek. He nuzzled into and kissed her palm. “Do I want you rushing off on a one-man mission to right the timeline? Part of me doesn’t, but that’s coming from someone who really doesn’t want to be a single parent if we can help it. All of me would prefer for you to talk about major risks first. If you were sensing any frustrating from me, it would have been that.”
“I know. I should have mentioned it was a possibility earlier, but…” Steve’s voice trailed off as he attempted to explain his emotions. He took a deep breath. “I spent so much time missing you, that when I got you back, I didn’t want to think of everything that we had to sacrifice to get to this point. I wanted you. I wanted to be us.”
“It’s going to be awhile for that, I think. Even before everything that happened with Thanos, we never really had the opportunity to be just us.”
She was right. No one could describe their courtship as normal. He had first invited her on a date when she had been undercover spying on him, their first kiss had taken place shortly after she had committed treason to assist him. They had conceived their baby while on the run and hiding out in a foreign country. That was why he wanted so much to wrap themselves away from the world, if only so they could just be.
“A man can but hope.”
Sharon was quiet for a long time. In the dark, he could see her tracing the lines of his face her eyes. “You know you don’t have to stay Captain America forever, right?”
It was a pretty idea. A fantasy, one he thought about more than once over the years. “I’ve been Captain America for a very long time. I barely know where the mantle begins and I end.”
It was the first time he admitted that to anyone. A long time ago, the delineation was easy. He’d just put on a USO smile and punch Hitler for the umpteenth time. The lines had since blurred.
“Oh, Steve,” Sharon side. She trailed her hand down his chest and placed it over the heart. “You, Steve Rogers, are what’s in here. Captain America, that’s a mantle. A symbol. Anyone can be a symbol. I fell for you, not a symbol.”
“Something also tells me you didn’t fall for a quitter.”
She laughed, soft and pretty. “Who says giving up the shield means you’re a quitter? Yeah, if you sat around the couch all day and watched TV, I might be bothered. But, at your core, you’re someone who wants to do good. You don’t have to punch people to do that.”
“I don’t disagree, but...I can’t even think about that right now. Not with everything.”
“No one is asking you to decide your future tonight.” But everyone had been asking him so much more earlier in the day, but bringing that up would only drag out the conversation longer. Despite her earlier nap, Steve could hear the exhaustion creeping in Sharon’s voice. Her next statement only drove that point home. “But what I am asking you to do is rest. You can’t save the world on no sleep.”
“Okay, okay.” Steve pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “I love you.”
Sharon curled away from him, adjusting herself on the pillow. She never could sleep tangled together. He waited to hear the even breathing that indicated she was asleep. He envied her, knowing he would be laying awake staring at the ceiling for hours to come.
Thank you for reading!
Next Chapter: Sharon and Bucky bond over a series of funerals/wakes.
Sharon studied herself in the mirror.
Her makeup was minimal, her hair twisted in a chignon. She had given up on taming the few errant whisps that refused to stay put. Natasha would have to understand. She’s gone. She won’t know.
She wished desperately for the string of pearls Aunt Peggy had gifted her, the ones that were located in a safe deposit box somewhere in Virginia alongside a few other valuables she hadn’t taken to Berlin. They served as a source of strength for her, a physical representation of the strong women that came before her. Pearls had never been Natasha’s style, but Sharon thought she would have appreciated the gesture.
She watched in the mirror as Steve approached her from behind. He placed his hands on her hips and pressed a quick kiss to her neck. “You look lovely.”
He didn’t look so bad himself. He always cut a fine figure in a suit and the abrasion on his face was almost completely healed. She wished, not for the first time, that they were dressing up for a nice dinner and not a wake to honor their fallen friend. She grabbed his hands and pulled until he understood what she needed, adjusting so he could fully embrace her in a hug. He buried his face into her shoulder, and she felt him take a deep exhale.
“People will be here soon,” he said with deep resignation. They had offered to host the wake for Natasha.There was no point in delaying the inevitable. That would not be what brought her back.
They stayed in their embrace for a moment longer before righting themselves and walking downstairs. Bucky and Sam were already there helping set up. Bucky was lighting a candle when she padded into the living room.
“She liked candles,” he said in response to her unasked question. Sharon could tell that there was more to the story, but didn’t press. Steve patted him on the shoulder before going to assist Sam with seating.
Sharon busied herself with rearranging the bottles of booze and glasses she and Steve had gone out to purchase earlier. Because he couldn’t get drunk, his liquor cabinet was lacking. Same went for his selection of wine glasses. “Might as well get stuff now. Besides, it will save us time when we want to entertain in the future,” she had told him. That last addition seemed to lightened his spirits a bit. She had noticed that he liked when she referenced the future as opposed to their present and past.
At present, however, Sharon was envious of those who had the ability to drink tonight, just as she knew Steve was envious of those who could get drunk. She wished for something that could better ease the pain in addition to the comfort of pain. What a pair they made. Glancing over the Bucky, she realized that he was probably also in the same boat.
“The rules have changed since the forties,” Bucky commented as he watched her mess around with the drinks, but not pour anything for herself. “I remember my neighbor drinking whiskey with the best of them when she was as wide as a whale.”
“If I ever catch you referring to me being ‘wide as a whale’, I will shoot you,” Sharon promised. She was already feeling vaguely self-conscious about the changes her body would undergo. No amount of psyching herself up that she was growing a human could change the fact that all of her closest friends were in peak human condition, her lover chief among them. Bucky, to his credit, looked visibly chastened. “As for the drinking thing, medical science marches on, I guess. On all things. I remember Aunt Peggy saying that she would rub bourbon on her kids gums when they were teething. That wouldn’t necessarily fly now. Or people don’t talk about it if they do.”
“What happened to her children? Neither you nor Steve really talk about them.”
That question was a dark topic in her family history, but there was no better place to discuss this sort of thing than at a wake. “She had two kids, Edwin and Lily. Eddie died in a drunk driving accident before I was born. Peggy and Lily had a very fraught relationship. Different personalities and Lily often thought that Peggy put the job before her and Eddie. Eddie’s death was, in many ways, the final straw. The last I heard she was living in Cambridge with her children and grandchildren.”
Bucky frowned. This was clearly not the answer he had hoped to hear. She understood. Finding out about a friend’s family problems was never pleasant. “I’m sorry.”
“It is what it is.” Sharon wondered idly if it was her family’s lot in life to have complicated relationships with their parents. Her own mother had hated her life choices. Would her own child resent her and Steve? “Families are complicated.”
“They are,” Bucky agreed. She wondered about his backstory, or if he was just saying something because he felt like he ought to. She appreciated the gesture either way. “I never offered you congratulations, by the way.” He gestured gamely in her direction with his metal arm. “Steve is very excited. He was showing us blurry pictures.”
Steve had cried when she fished the ultrasound photo from her dirty jeans. They had appointment scheduled tomorrow with a doctor that Strange had recommended, an old friend from medical school that he apparently trusted. They had name-dropped considerably to score an appointment on such short notice, but Sharon didn’t mind. It was worth it to see some of the weight lift from Steve’s shoulders.
“Thanks, it’s exciting and terrifying and...yeah.” She looked back at the drinks. “Listen, it’s something we’re not really wanting to broadcast tonight if we can get away with it. So if you wouldn’t mind keeping it on the downlow.”
She wanted to wait until after they had gone to this upcoming appointment before broadcasting the news. A few people already knew from before the Decimation, and Sharon couldn’t begrudge Steve telling Bucky, but everyone else could wait.
Steve told her that he shared the news with Natasha not long after the Decimation had occurred. Sharon doubted if she could forgive herself for not being the one to tell her. in hindsight, her reasoning had been remarkably stupid. Sharon had kept her secret because she knew about Natasha’s complicated feelings surrounding motherhood. Now she wished she had been less of a coward.
“It’s not me you have to worry about, it’s Steve.”
“Why does she have to worry about me?” Steve asked, chairs in hand. He situated them around the room before settling next to Sharon’s side.
“Your inability to stop bragging about how you were incapable of wrapping it up,” Bucky replied dryly. Sam guffawed. Steve glowered. “Mrs. Ferris from down the street did always warn that it was the nice ones you had to worry about.”
Sharon stifled a giggle behind her hand as Steve flushed scarlet. She was beginning to appreciate Bucky Barnes and the new element her providing in teasing Steve.
Any response Steve might have been able to formulate was cut off by the sound of a tentative knock at the door, a sobering reminder for why they were all here. Steve squeezed her thigh before taking a deep breath and walking to the front door. Sharon busied herself with opening a bottle of wine. Though she had no intentions to drink, she planned to carry around glass for show. The more astute agents in attendance might notice the glass never emptied, but it would be an overall serviceable cover. Bucky raised a brow, but said nothing.
Clint and his wife were the first to arrive. Sharon hadn’t honestly expected him to come. As close as he and Natasha had been, and knowing the circumstances of her death, she had assumed he would sit this one out to privately mourn.
“Nice house,” Clint commented. He looked around as he helped Laura shed her coat. Steve took their coats and dutifully hung them in the closet. “Wanda is with the kids. These sort of situations stress her out, and I didn’t want to push.”
Wanda had always spoken highly of Clint, and it was no wonder he opened his home to her. She felt a pang of sympathy for the other woman. Clint led his wife into the sitting area and nodded in greeting.
“Everyone, this is Laura,” he said. Over the years, he had tried his damndest to keep his family a secret. Sharon hadn’t even known until she was on the run and overheard Natasha and Steve mention them. “Laura, this is Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, and Sharon Carter. Sharon and I go way back to the SHIELD days.”
“It’s wonderful to meet you. I’m sorry it wasn’t under better circumstances.” Sharon said. She gestured to the table of drinks. “Can I get you anything to drink?”
“Wine would be fantastic. Cab Sav, if you’ve got it.”
Sharon poured her a glass. Clint and Steve disappeared further into the house. She could overhear the archer asking Steve about renovations, both past and future plans.
“Whenever he’s stressed or upset, he does something to the house. I think we’ve gone through three different backsplashes in the kitchen,” Laura explained. Sharon wondered if this was where Steve drew inspiration for his projects. “Don’t be surprised if he pulls your man into another project.”
“Steve finds it therapeutic apparently.” He had already started to make offhand comments regarding what he’d like to do the eventual nursery. He did, at the very least, draw a line at not building a crib, although he mentioned wanting to craft her a rocking chair. He said something about how his mother would rock him, and wouldn’t that be nice to do the same with their baby. Sharon could only agree.
Laura looked down at her glass and spun her wine. “Were you like me and the kids?”
“Yeah, we all were. Everyone here except Steve and Clint.” Sharon waved over to Sam and Bucky who raised their own glasses in salute.
Laura took a deep breath. “With this many people, I guess Nat would say it was worth it.”
Eventually others began filtering through. Scott Lang and his girlfriend. Carol Danvers. Thor and Bruce. Okoye arrived with apologies from Wakanda. T’Challa was still handling matters of state, but had sent her as an emissary. A number of former SHIELD agents arrived. Phil Coulson gave both her and Steve a hug. Maria Hill and Nick Fury strolled in together, still looking every bit the secret agent duo. Fury didn’t take off his duster.
While all of this happened, Sharon played hostess. She ensured everyone had drinks and ferried an assortment of canapes from the kitchen. Steve and Clint had renovations when they wanted a distraction. Sharon channeled her Southern grandmother. Steve found her after one such run back to the kitchen. He grabbed her hands and threaded their fingers in an attempt to keep her in one place.
“You don’t need to be doing all that,” he said softly. “Why don’t you sit down? Please?”
Nicky Fury was less kind. She heard his voice loud and clear from the other. “Carter, get your ass back in here.”
She rolled her eyes, but acquiesced as Steve pulled her back into the sitting room with the others. “You aren’t my boss anymore, Fury. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Yeah, well, you and I need to have a conversation about that. Later.” He shook his beer bottle at her as he spoke. Sharon could only shake her head. She hoped that he would be fine with her taking desk duty in the later months.
She settled next to Steve on the sofa, and listened as Okoye picked up a story from the missing five years. Steve, unsurprisingly, wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to him as the story went on.
Occasionally he and Carol would interject with a few asides about Natasha’s work. She was the most focused them all, almost to the point of paranoia. She visited orphanages and good banks. She made them remember what they were fighting for, even when everyone else wanted to forget.
“And to think that woman was the same slip of a thing you brought home from Russia, Barton,” Fury commented before taking a long pull from his drink. “Remember when she tried to stab Hill?”
“Tried being the operative word,” Maria said. She and Natasha used to tease one another about that.
Sharon had been a rookie then, and she remembered clearly the rumors swirling around the Red Room assassin who had turned to the side of the red, white, and blue. Like many others, Sharon had sought out the information. Unlike many others, she’d skirted around the rules in search of the assassin herself. Natasha had asked her to spar. Sharon had agreed. She liked to think she put up a good fight, but Natasha had laid her flat on her ass. Then again, that sparring match was also apparently what made Natasha like her. She recounted that story.
“Leave it to you two to strike up a friendship over punching one another in the face. Freaks, the two of you,” Sam commented. He teased out of love. Sam played the ‘in over his head’ part well, but Sharon new it was mostly a game. “Nat and I became friends the old fashioned way, by saving The world and taking down SHIELD.”
“Hear, hear.” Steve raised his glass.
“And making most of us unemployed,” Maria teased, acting as if she hadn’t also been complicit in tearing SHIELD down.
“She also did help a fair few of us commit treason,” Sharon added. She clinked her glass against Steve’s.
“She was always a bit of a troublemaker,” Bucky said from his spot in the corner. He had been mostly quiet the entire night. Beside her, Steve stiffened. “Even in the Red Room days.”
Scott Lang’s expression could only be described as looking like a kid in a candy shop. “Wait, are you saying that the Avenger Russian spy assassins both knew one another? That’s so cool.”
His girlfriend elbowed him roughly in the ribs. Sharon watched as Clint readjusted himself, clearly interested what Bucky had to say. A part of her always wondered if the Black Widow and Winter Soldier had ever crossed paths. The answer was apparently yes.
Bucky appeared uncomfortable with the sudden attention, almost as if he was regretting saying anything at all. She knew it had to be incredibly difficult talking about his past, especially the darker parts. Natasha had been the same way.
“I was one of her trainers. She was exceptional. That was why she was able to skirt away with breaking the rules so much,” Bucky explained. Sharon knew there was more to the story than what he was telling them. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “That life...the things we did...it was all terrible. Natalia was the only good thing in it.”
He loved her, Sharon realized. Maybe not now, but once upon a time they he had loved her, and she him. Suddenly, so much fell into place. Natasha had always taken a keen interest in Bucky, and there were so many things that she had said when they were on the run that she had brushed off as being a concerned friend to Steve. Sharon wondered how much Steve had known, if anything.
“She said the same thing about you, Buck,” Steve said, his voice thick. That answered the question of whether or not Steve knew of their history. Sharon reached for his hand and squeezed. He squeezed back.
The group fell quiet. Whether he intended to or not, Bucky’s words had brought sobriety to the group, reminding them of the preciousness of life and just how unfair it could be. Natasha was gone. Steve idly ran his hand up her arm. Laura Barton brushed away tears.
Maria Hill came to the rescue. “Okay, if we’re going to get to the weepy, emotional part of the night, I need more alcohol. Carter, it’s tradition time. Any other ladies who wish to join in are welcome.”
It had been a tradition between the three of them — Natasha, Sharon, and Maria — to take shots together after particularly successful mission. Sharon didn’t exactly remember how that tradition had started, but it had forged a sisterhood between the three of them. Sharon explained this as Maria arranged shot glasses and grabbed the bottle of vodka.
“Why does it have to be just the ladies?” Thor asked right as Carol announced that she was game.
“Because not everything is about you men,” Maria snapped, earning a few laughs. “Like Carter said, this was our tradition. Laura, Hope, Okoye, join in.”
Sharon sat rooted in her spot even as Maria passed around the glasses. There was no way she could participate in this tradition, not now. She cast a sideways glance to Steve, who only shrugged.
“You know I hate doing liquor after wine,” Sharon protested weakly.
“That is a lie. I spent too many nights watching Natasha drink your sorry ass under the table. You have to do better than that,” Maria insisted, shoving the vodka in her direction. For a moment, Sharon was taken back to simpler times, back when they hadn’t known about the cancer within SHIELD and they were women eager to achieve their goals. “Drink in honor of your dead friend.”
“Wilson, shut up.”
“C’mon, Sharon said she didn’t want to do it.”
“Sharon doesn’t need her boyfriend stepping in, Cap.”
“Maria, I can’t,” she emphasized, more than a little annoyed that her secret was going to come out. She didn’t want her pregnancy to be a thing tonight, not when they were supposed to be honoring Natasha, but it looked like she didn’t have a say in the matter.
“What do you mean you can’t? What, are you pregnant or — oh shit .” She watched the moment Maria pieced together the information. She felt Steve press a kiss to the back of her head, hiding his smile. He hadn’t minded the others finding out, reasoning the half the people invited already knew one way or the other. She supposed he got his wish.
Nick frowned. “Jesus, Carter, I assigned you to spy on Rogers, not get knocked up by him.”
“Technically, sleeping with him was in the purview of the mission. It was a risk.”
“And none of that happened when she was on assignment,” Steve added, before registering what she said. “Wait, what do you mean sleeping with me was within the purview of the mission?”
Clint decided to chime in, smiling despite the clear tears in his eyes. “Why do you think Nat kept trying to get you to ask Thirteen out? She was trying to test her and get you laid.”
“Wait, test me?” Her first thought was what would have have come to mind if Natasha had been alive. That bitch. “Why did I need to get tested? I thought I was her friend!”
“You were. It’s just that Steve was kind of a sad golden retriever back then, remember?”
“I’m right here,” Steve said, clearly annoyed with analogy. Sharon thought it was particularly apt. He had resembled a sad golden retriever back in the day.
“I know. Anyway, she wanted to make sure who he ended up with next didn’t crush his heart into a million little pieces. Since, you know, it was in a hundred tiny little pieces already,” Clint explained as if Natasha’s reasoning had been the most the most obvious thing in the world. Laura nodded along with her husband. It was clear she had heard this before. A few others were sniggering. “And you, Thirteen, had just broke up with Tapper, so Nat wasn’t sure if Steve would be a particularly pretty rebound or not or someone worth investing in.”
“So she tried to set me up with the woman who was spying on me?”
“I don’t understand why you’re complaining. Seemed to work out from where I’m standing. Congratulations, by the way,” Carol commented. “Are we doing shots or what?”
That was the moment Sharon decided that she liked Carol Danvers. The shots led to a discussion about all the times Natasha had drank some schmuck under the table. It made for a good tactic when doing undercover work. Natasha was more capable than many when inebriated, and though it wasn’t a recommended course of action, she still succeeded.
“Was that part of Red Room training program, Barnes?” Coulson asked, sounding a bit too serious and earnest. His celebrity crush on Steve extending beyond him to the other Commandos, as well. It was endearing, though Sharon doubted Bucky appreciated it.
“Not precisely, no.”
As the night wore on, they traded stories and shed tears. Sharon hoped desperately that Natasha would have felt honored by wake, by the stories they told and how and everyone remembered her. She had touched so many lives. She was loved and admired and appreciated and so terribly missed. Had she known? She asked Steve that night as they prepared for bed. He had been closest to her over the past five years.
“If she did, she wouldn’t have believed it.”
Honoring Natasha’s life was an intense exercise in grief for Sharon. By contrast, Tony Stark’s funeral proved to be a complex affair.
There were two events. A larger funeral, more public and less personal, for the world to honor their larger-than-life hero. A smaller, second one was held at his home for people who held him dear.
Sharon attended both, although if it weren’t for Steve, she might not have gone to either. She barely knew Stark, more in reputation than anything else. Her feelings regarding him were complicated, fueled more from a non-small level of resentment for his role of sending anyone who allied themselves with Steve on the run. At the end of the day, however, he died a hero. He’d sacrificed his life for the rest of them, leaving his wife a widow and his daughter without a father. She couldn’t discount that.
Neither could Steve, who was genuinely mourning. They had been friends once, and no matter had happened between them, that sort of bond didn’t go completely unforged. Because of this, Sharon sat her own feelings aside and played the role of supportive girlfriend. She listened and made notes as he practiced his eulogy, and held his hand throughout the funeral up until he needed to ready himself to make the remarks.
That night she laid in bed and stroked his hair as he worked through his feelings. His relationship with Tony had been fraught, and she knew all too well the difficult emotions that followed, all overshadowed by a cloud of regret.
“There was a point in the aftermath of the Snap where I hated him, I think. Not because of anything he said, but because of what he had. His best friend survived. His girl. They were able to get married and have a family. And I’d lost everything. Again,” Steve told her, his voice breaking. He kept one hand over her stomach as he spoke. “ Now he’s the one who is dead, and I have everything I wanted. Everything he had. Is that fair?”
“Oh Steve,” she sighed. Survivor’s Guilt was a hell of a condition, and Steve had always carried it on those broad shoulders of his for as long as she’d known him. She tightened her hold on him, and pressed a kiss to the crown of his head. “Tony knew what the risks were going into that fight, just like you did. You can’t honestly say that you weren’t prepared to die to save everyone.” Steve was quiet, confirming her assumption. “That’s what the difference was between this fight and the first one. All of you were prepared to die fighting. You weren’t prepared to lose everyone else.”
“I still don’t know how I pulled through that,” he admitted. She could feel his wet tears against her skin. “I really don’t know.”
“You pulled through because you’re Steve Rogers. You’re the strongest person I know.” She moved her hand to stroke over the planes of his back. He shuddered against her. “When you get knocked down, you stand back up again. Always.”
“My mother told me that.”
“Your mother was quite the woman.”
Steve so rarely talked about his mother, but it was obvious her impact was indelible. In her too short life, Sarah Rogers had instilled in her son incredible values and resiliency. Knowing how much she impacted his life made Sharon regret choosing to take the cover of a nurse. Her false profession might have led him to be trust her more easily, but now she felt like she had stepped on his mother’s memory. He didn’t seem to hold that against her, not anymore, but she still wished she hadn’t chosen the lie.
Steve’s memories of Sarah Rogers were so beautiful, that Sharon found herself envious of their relationship. As much as she wished she could, Sharon couldn’t bring herself to feel the same way about her own mother. She loved her, in the common sort of way that any child would love her mom, but she would never consider her a role model. Sharon sometimes wondered why Amanda Carter even became a parent, other than the fact that it was the thing women of her generation did. As a child, Sharon felt more like a trophy to be trotted around than someone cherished. Not like the way Sarah cherished Steve.
“If it’s...if it’s a girl, would you want the baby to be named after her?” Sharon asked. She could never envision naming her child Amanda. Out of all her female relatives, the person who had the greatest influence on her life had been Peggy. For obvious reasons, Margaret was out of consideration.
“Maybe? I don’t know.” He shifted off of her so that he could get a better look at her face. “I have such a clear picture in my head of my mother. She meant so much to me that I don’t want the baby to feel compared to her or anyone in our lives. The baby will already have so much to live up to already.”
It was unstated, but the implication that he was wary about naming their child after any of their fallen friends was clear. She tried to imagine the life and pressure of a small Anthony or Natasha Carter or Rogers. Too much. Having the surname Carter had been difficult enough for Sharon, despite how much she desired to follow in her aunt’s footsteps. She’d heard the whispers about nepotism throughout her Academy days. It would be even worse for her child.
They fell quiet, and Steve adjusted himself on the pillows. Briefly, Sharon wondered if he was signalling a need for sleep. She adjusted herself so that she could lay on her side and better look at him. In the pale moonlight, she could see that he was still awake, staring up at the ceiling.
“I keep thinking about Morgan Stark,” he admitted. Sharon had yet to have the opportunity to interact with the little girl, but she’d seen her running about the funeral and tucked into her mother’s side. It was clear that she didn’t fully grasp that her father was dead or what that even meant.
“What about her?”
“So many things. That’s she’s not even five and she lost her father. That even though she’ll hear so many stories about him, that it won’t be enough.” He was speaking from experience. His father had died in the first World War, and never had the opportunity to meet him. “Tony originally didn’t want to help us, you know? He made us promise that we wouldn’t change things so that the Snap never happened. He wanted to make sure that she would be protected.”
“Sounds like a dad thing to do.”
“It does.” Steve agreed, voice soft. “He and I got into it about that. About protecting our families, and he said I couldn’t understand what it felt like, not really.”
She felt a surge of indignancy toward Stark, even if logically he knew that he had a point. To many, not all, there was a difference in the risk of losing a pregnancy and a living, breathing child. But she knew Steve, and even though she was back and safe, she could still see how the heartbreak and pain of losing his potential family had broken something inside of him. She moved so that she could lay on his chest. His arms wrapped around her instantly.
“He ended up apologizing in the end. We had a good talk. He promised to look after you if something happened to me.” Taking help from Tony Stark was the last thing Sharon would have ever accepted, but Steve didn’t need to know that.
“If anything did happen, we’d be fine. I want you to know that. It’d hurt, but we’d be okay.”
He flexed his fingers against her skin. “I know. I just...I don’t want to leave you or the baby behind. I don’t want to imagine our kid sitting in that pew dressed in black with no idea what’s going on other than the fact that their daddy is gone and everyone says he isn’t coming back.”
“No one is making you, honey.” That is, if they ignored his upcoming mission to return the stones. He had volunteered for that one, but it was obvious that Steve was the only one who could do it.
Steve was set to travel shortly after the second memorial for Tony, the one being held at his home. She tried not to think about the risks, absolutely did not want to deal with the “what-ifs?” and questions that would surely arise. She didn’t want him to go, put on a brave face because she knew Steve was worried.
He slept fitfully that night, which meant she did as well. Not even her tried and true method of riding him until neither of them could seem straight seemed to be particularly effective. He remained distracted and unsettled until they hauled themselves to the middle of nowhere to Stark’s lakeside home.
There she tried to keep a watchful eye on Steve, but her attention kept being diverted to Morgan Stark. Both Happy and Pepper hovered around her, and Peter Parker tried his hardest to entertain her even though it was clear he was falling apart. She was a little mad at Steve for putting the thought in her head about a little blonde boy or girl, fatherless and afraid, in her head. At one point, when Steve was in deep conversation with Pepper, she had to go outside and breathe the fresh air. The inside had become too suffocating.
“Are you sick?” She turned to see Bucky approaching her. She noted that he was coming from a direction that wasn’t the front door, but instead from the lake.
“No. Just...overwhelmed.” This was the best way that she could describe it.
“I understand the feeling.”
If Sharon felt out of place at any point during Stark’s funerals, Bucky had to have the same emotions only multiplied tenfold. She had initially been shocked that he came, but like Steve, he had a sense of honor that compelled him to attend regardless of his own discomfort. Perhaps this was his own form of penance.
“You know, we can stand out for awhile, pretend I have morning sickness and you’re being a good friend if anyone asks,” Sharon suggested. If it were the two of them together, maybe they would appear less odd. It would be a lie, of course, but a believable one. Everyone connected morning sickness with pregnancy, and now the news of her condition was out in the open.
“I’m am an excellent friend. Ask Steve,” Bucky commented with a sly smile. She was starting to see less of the Winter Soldier and more of the wry Bucky Barnes from Steve’s stories. “And considering I am such a good friend, it would be worth warning you that should he hear that you’re sick, he’ll be running outside in ten seconds flat to make sure you’re resting and hydrated.”
“That he does,” Bucky agreed. He sighed deeply and crossed his arms. He was wearing a jacket, so she was unable to see the gleam of his metal arm in the sun. “It can be a bit suffocating.”
She considered disagreeing, but this was the first time she had heard someone admit to how they felt to the subject of Steve Rogers’ worry. The fact of the matter was that it could be suffocating. “It can be, yeah. It comes from a place of love, but…”
“But sometimes you want to punch that damn earnest face of his if only to get a few seconds to breathe,” Bucky finished for her. Although she wouldn’t use those exact words, she knew the sentiment all too well. She tried to be understanding. After what he’d experienced, worry and fear were a natural reaction; however, Sharon also wished she could be out of sight for longer than an hour without him going out in search of her. “You’re good at hiding it, for what it’s worth.”
“Thank you. I keep telling myself once he accepts that I’m not going to disappear into ash again, he’ll lighten up.” Of course, she had no way of knowing when that would be.
“Maybe something else will happen, and he’ll find someone to fixate on,” Bucky replied. He gently nudged her. “Worked for me. He’s been so busy fretting over you, I have flown relatively under the radar.”
He flashed her a disarming smile. It didn’t quite meet his eyes, a reflection of the person he’d been forced to become, but Sharon could still see the man he used to be underneath.
“You know, as much as I would like him to chill, another crisis wouldn’t really be a good thing. For him or me. My doctor seems to think too much stress is bad for me and the baby.”
“You picked the wrong partner for that.”
He wasn’t wrong. Dating someone who routinely flung himself into danger meant she felt a baseline level of stress. Steve, Sharon supposed, probably felt the same way in regards to her. Thus his begging her to stay out of the fight.
Bucky frowned and shoved his hands into his pockets. “You worried about this time travel thing?”
“A little,” Sharon admitted. “I know this is Round 2 for him, but it seems risky. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve watched enough sci-fi to be naturally wary of time travel plots.”
“You can rest assured that no matter what happens, he’ll fight like a wildcat to get back to you. Look at what he did for me, and I’m not every carrying his baby.”
“Oh, Bucky, this is the twenty first century. Don’t you know, it’s bros before hoes nowadays?” Her teasing had the intended effect. His face scrunched in such a way that resembled Steve when he didn’t quite catch a reference. Not as adorable, of course, but enough to have her giggling.
“What’s so funny?”
Bucky raised his brows as if to say ‘I told you so’ when Steve suddenly appeared, rounding the corner and looking concerned. His face softened a bit when he saw the two of them together, and he slowed his pace when he approached them.
“Your girl is being mean.”
“It’s not my fault you’re not up to the modern lingo.”
Steve cast a wary gaze between the two of them before deciding that their cheeky smiles were enough proof that they had been teasing one another.
“I still have that list of ‘Can’t Miss Pop Culture’ if you ever want to borrow it,” Steve offered. He put his arm around Sharon’s shoulders, pulling her close against his side. “I can even put stars by the recommendations that were actually good.”
“Sounds like a plan, buddy.”
Steve kept glancing between the two of them, as if he couldn’t quite believe that Sharon and Bucky were in the same space and conversing, postivitely at that. Sharon knew this was something he’d always wanted, a sliver of life he’d fantasized about but never believed he’d actually get.
“How are you doing?” Sharon asked. His arm was still firmly wrapped around her shoulders.
“About as well as could be expected. I had a nice chat with Pepper. She’s...managing,” Steve said. He frowned and ducked his head. “Bruce and Hank seem to think everything is ready. In a little bit I’m going to change and prep to head out.”
Sharon couldn’t stop the sudden surge of anxiety at his announcement. Sensing her worry, Steve pressed a kiss to her temple out of assurance. “Make sure Bucky doesn’t get into trouble while I’m gone, okay?”
“Wait, why is she babysitting me?” Bucky asked in mock-offense.
“Because he knows I’d shoot him if he suggested you do the same to me,” Sharon answered.
By her side, Steve nodded. He stopped to look down at her. “You gonna send me off when I go?”
He said it in such a way that Sharon couldn’t help but the picture the scenes in old movies with the woman crying on the train platform and sending her lover off to war. That was probably Steve’s intention. He didn’t have anyone to say goodbye to the first time around. This time would be different. She pressed up on her toes and kissed him.
“Of course I will.”
Her answer appeared to please him. He pulled away, albeit reluctantly, and nodded before excusing himself to go get ready. Sharon wrapped her arms around herself, feeling suddenly chilled without his warmth.
“He’s going to be okay,” Bucky said from behind her. Sharon couldn’t tell if he was stating a fact or asking a question.
“Of course he will be. He’s Steve Rogers.”
If she said it enough times, surely she would believe it.
Thanks for reading.
Next Chapter: Steve goes back in time and Sharon gets a hug.
Chapter 4: Back to December
A few things!
First, y'all are getting this chapter a bit early because my Sunday is crazy is busy. So surprise! I can't promise every chapter will come early.
Secondly, since I've received a few questions here and elsewhere, I'm going to make a big spoiler: no matter what happens, everything is going to ultimately be fine with the baby. This isn't the type of story where there's a twist miscarriage. I'm not about doing that without warning to my readers from the very first day. And, frankly, I still hold some resentment toward Ed Brubaker for introducing a pregnancy plot in his run only for it to end traumatically. I'm very big on using that content warning.
Third, I still fully don't understand how time travel works in the MCU, so my running explanation is that any interference in the past creates an alternate timeline.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shortly after Steve had made his first public appearance after the alien attack in New York, the Daily Bugle had given him the nickname “The Man Out of Time.” Had the nickname belonged to anyone but him, Steve might have found it charming and a touch scifi, but instead he found himself almost longing to be called “The Star-Spangled Man with a Plan.” As Steve bounced through time for the second time in as many weeks, he now found that nickname oddly amusing. He was, even more literally, a Man Out of Time.
Had he thought of that connection sooner, he would have told Sharon in an effort to get her to smile or to wring out one last laugh before he bounced back to deliver the stones to their rightful places. Knowing her, she would have rolled her eyes at the pun, but even that reaction would have been preferable to her solemn gaze as she watched him go. She would smile when he returned. Steve would make sure of that.
He would be coming home. There could be no other option.
Oh but there is, doubt reminded him. Seared in his mind was Natasha’s smile as she tell him that she would see him in a minute and way Tony had clung to Morgan saying that he’d be home soon. Neither were able to keep their promises. It was that fearful part of him that had pulled Sam aside and made him promise that he would look after Sharon and Bucky should his mission go sideways.
It wouldn’t go sideways.
“Focusing on this morbid ‘if I die’ thing won’t put you in the best headspace for this. You’re gonna be fine, and I’m going to be spending the next year watching you lose your head over the new dad thing.”
“Fine. I promise you I will look out for them, but I’m not going to need to. You’ll see.”
Sam had then muttered something about how the baby needed to be named after him for dealing with both Steve and Sharon’s histrionics.
Steve didn’t know what he did to deserve a friend as loyal as Sam, but he thanked his lucky stars that he had him in his life. Steve had no doubt that if the impossible happened, Sam would step up to the plate and help guide Sharon and Bucky through the worst of it. Sam would grieve, of course, but he didn’t have the obstacles that Sharon and Bucky would have to overcome. Steve was terrified of being the source of a setback for his oldest friend. He was even more terrified of leaving the woman he loved to raise their child alone. But it wouldn’t come to that. He’d will himself safe and for the mission to go smooth.
Tony thought the same thing.
His first few stops went blessedly smooth. He was able to get through to Asgard in short order. Based on Rocket’s retelling, Jane Foster has been terrified to see him. She had acted confused by Steve, but he relied on his Captain America persona and general goodwill with Thor to put the aether back in place. She probably wouldn’t like him too much in whatever timeline spurned from his involvement, but that was a problem for Alternate Universe Steve.
He traveled to space, and then to the Battle of New York. There he was hit with an intense wave of melancholy knowing that Tony and Natasha were nearby. A part of him wanted to seek them out, to tell them everything he wished he could have said before he lost them. Reason, however, won out. The last time he’d directly encountered someone from the past, himself, had ended in a fight. He didn’t want to think what the more cynical Tony and Natasha would put him through. He returned the Time Stone to the Ancient One as his heart nearly shattered in two.
In retrospect, he should have realized that going back to the ‘70s would lead to a few hiccups. Nothing in his life could ever go quite according to plan. He crashed a plane in the arctic only to wake up decades later. He’d asked out a pretty nurse only to discover she was the spy next door. He assumed his best friend had died only to learn that Bucky had survived and been brainwashed into becoming a Russian assassin. The list went on and on.
Finding himself with his back to the wall as Peggy Carter held him at gunpoint shouldn’t have surprised him at all.
“Who are you?” she demanded. She was younger than when he’d last seen her alive, but older than when he had crashed into the ice. Her hair was more gray than brown, and her face showed the lines of a life well lived. She had that same familiar determined expression, and a fire in her eyes that spelled trouble.
He thought he had been cautious during his attempt to infiltrate the base, but Sharon had always teased him that he made for a shoddy spy. “Sometimes you stomp around like an elephant, Steve.” “Well, I guess that means you’re going to have to give me a few private lessons to improve my skills.” “Was that an attempt at sexual innuendo?” He had eventually learned how to be stealthier, but those skills had waned over the years as he acclimated himself once again to public life. Sharon would be so disappointed in him if she found out.
Steve wasn’t sure how he had gotten so out of sorts that he’d mistaken where she’d be enough to cross paths. Sharon would probably attribute it to him being distracted and worried. “You have a big heart, Steve. That’s what I like about you, but thinking with your heart can get you killed.” That was what he had been doing, thinking about getting home to Sharon, the baby, and their friends while simultaneously mourning Tony and Natasha...leading him to running directly into a ghost from his past.
He had loved Peggy once upon a time, the only way anyone could under the threat of war with bombs dropping on their heads. They hadn’t been romantically involved, but the hope had been there. A kiss and a promise of what could be had been as far as they progressed. Sam called her his great “What Might Have Been.” It was one of the most apt descriptions Steve had heard.
He felt irrationally hurt when he’s awoken from the ice and learned she had moved on and had a family of her own. Jealous, too. It hadn’t been fair to her, but emotions rarely were. He’d gotten over it with time. Learned to stop resenting Daniel Sousa. Both he could attribute to spending more time around Sharon and hearing about the Peggy she knew.
“I repeat. Who are you? I’m not afraid to shoot.”
Steve didn’t doubt that she was telling the truth. Peggy was tough as nails and unafraid of getting her hands dirty to protect her cause. She would have never become Director of SHIELD if she were anything but. She’d taught Sharon to be the same way.
The only way to get himself out of this situation was to convince her of his identity, something far easier said than done. As far as she knew, he had been dead for three decades. Still, if he was going to get home, he needed to try.
“I’m taking off my sunglasses,” he announced as he moved his hands. He had stolen a pair to obscure his face. Her face briefly contorted into a look of surprise, before she schooled it into something serious. “Peggy, you have to believe it’s me. It’s Steve.”
“You’re lying.” He was actually surprised she didn’t shoot him. He attributed to the fact that even if she didn’t believe him, there was a small part of her that held out hope. Even if she had moved on and found the love of her life, Peggy still cared for him. They had been first and foremost friends.
“You shot at me once, remember? When we were testing the shield? I know, I know, that part got out in the history books, but they didn’t say it was because you were pissed you caught me in a closet kissing someone else.” He thought he saw the flicker of recognition cross her face. He pressed further. “Which, let me clarify, wasn’t initiated by me. I was into you back then. Remember when I thought you and Howard were fooling around? The fondue thing? I was an asshole about that. I’m sorry. My friend, Sam, said we really didn’t handle our jealousy in a healthy manner.”
He began to ramble about anything he remembered about her. How she’d talked him through his grief with Bucky. How she’d decked that jerk who made a sexist comment about her. Really, how she’d laid out flat many sexist men. Various conversations and inside jokes. Anything to get her to lower the gun. He knew the moment he got through to her, saw the realization flash across her face and the tremble of her arms.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said. He missed her, missed having someone outside of Bucky with memories from the war, missed their inside jokes. The last time he had seen him, she had no idea who he was. That hurt. It was nice to see her recognizing him again.
Peggy lowered the gun and walked carefully up to him, still not quite believing what she was seeing. “How?” she asked. Her eyes flicked over his face. Steve knew he didn’t look much older than when he went into the ice.
“It’s a very long story.”
“I have time.”
“I don’t, but I can make an exception for an old friend.” he said, thinking his task. “But want to help me hide this in a lab while we talk?”
Steve found it much easier to get around with Peggy escorted him. As they weaved around the campus, he explained to her in a low voice about time travel and Thanos. She took it all incredibly in stride.
“I work with Howard Stark and Hank Pym,” she replied when he expressed surprise. She said it in a tone that indicated that he really ought to not have been surprised. Sharon used the same tone on occasion. He referred to it as the Don’t Doubt Me voice. “The things I’ve seen, time travel isn’t out of the realm of possibility.”
“Then you’re ahead of me, because it still kind of blows my mind.” For example, he thought he’d never have the opportunity to speak to her again. He had not intended for this conversation to happen, but fate found a way.
Once they returned Space Stone, he and Peggy lingered awkwardly in the lab. This would be goodbye for them. She would see him again in a few decades, but this was it for him. Steve swallowed the lump in his throat. Although saying goodbye this time was easier than last, it still hurt.
“Well, I suppose this is Mission Accomplished,” Peggy said regretfully. She looked up at him with caring eyes. “As happy as I am to see you again, I’m sorry this weight was placed on your shoulders.”
“Yeah, well, story of my life,” he said disdainfully. He paused for a moment, the thought of his budding family flashing through his mind, and he smiled. “Although, it’s not all terrible. I’m going to be a dad.”
Her responding smile was beatific. “That’s so wonderful. You and your wife must be so ecstatic.”
“I think I was happier than her at first, but she’s happy now too,” he confessed. “She’s starting to collect children’s books.”
He refrained from telling Peggy the status of his and Sharon’s relationship. Peggy was progressive in many ways for a woman of her era, but he couldn’t imagine her being entirely too keen on his and Sharon’s arrangement. Steve wasn’t entirely a fan of it, himself, but Sharon had explicitly told him that she didn’t want to get married because of the pregnancy. She hadn’t been ready when she found out, a baby didn’t change that. Her admission had stung. It took sitting across from her in the diner that first morning to really understand her perspective. While on the run, they never had the chance to be just them, something that she valued before agreeing to wed.
“How about you walk me to my office, and you tell me about the good things like your soon-to-be family. I can’t bear sending you off hearing only about the bad,” Peggy told him in a way that brooked no argument. Steve acquiesced, because even now he was unable to tell her no.
“I finally moved back to Brooklyn. It’s changed...significantly since I was younger, but it still feels like home. I’m happy to raise my kid there, but I know when they get old enough, they’ll be rolling their eyes at the ‘back in my day comments’. Sharon and Sam did. Do,” he said before correcting himself. He had grown accustomed to referring to them in past tense. He didn’t need to do that anymore, but every now and then he slipped.
“Is Sharon the name of you wife?” Peggy asked. Steve only nodded. Someday, he hoped. “How does she feel about this mission?”
“She has mixed feelings. She’s fine with what I do as long as I’m happy, but part of her is worried about how dangerous it is. Which I get, I do the same thing with her,” Steve admitted, knowing Peggy was referring to more than just him traveling back in time. “We met on the job. She was a SHIELD agent. So it’s not as if she doesn’t understand the mission. She actually liked that about being with me. She could do the work she wanted to do without the pressure of a partner wanting her to step down. Sort of like you and Daniel. She always admired you two.”
The words came out before he could think through the implications. Peggy raised a brow. “She knew me and Daniel enough to admire our marriage?”
Steve winced and considered lying. Telling Peggy that she mentored Sharon would be within the realm of truth. But then he thought of Sharon, who admired her aunt and missed her even more desperately than he did.
Thankfully, they reached Peggy’s office and he waited for her to unlock the door before responding. If she reacted poorly, and he hoped she wouldn’t, he didn’t want an audience.
“Please don’t be mad,” Steve said when she ushered him inside. She arched her brow again. “Sharon, well, she’s your niece. Michael’s granddaughter. She’s obviously not born yet, and won’t be for awhile. But, um, she’s the love of my life.”
Peggy looked back at him with an unreadable expression. He and Sharon used to talk about if they thought Peggy would have approved of their relationship. They had hoped she would. Steve held onto that fantasy for such a long time, that he realized he had accepted it as fact, which was far from the actual case. Now he was about to get confirmation one way or the other. If she disapproved, he would absolutely not tell Sharon.
“I know, it’s a little weird,” he admitted when Peggy didn’t say anything. “My friends say I have a very specific type, which might be on brand for me, considering two of the people I consider close friends are Russian assassins. But that’s beside the point. Sharon is great. She’s smart and capable, and she’s one of the few people who look at me and see me, not the shield. She’s actually one of the few people who actually call me on my shit when no one else does. Which you’ll remember, I need every now and then.”
That had actually been what made him want to pursue a serious relationship with Sharon outside of their kiss in Leipzig. He’d been attracted to her for such a long time, but it wasn’t until after she’d chewed him out for idolizing Peggy that he’d really thought she was something amazing. It had been shortly after her death, and he’d been morose and taking it out on everyone. “Christ, Steve, can you for one second stop to think that you don’t have the monopoly on mourning her? She meant something to you, but she meant something for me too. You knew her for a couple of years. I knew her my entire life!” He’d been angry. Then he felt like a complete idiot. Then he’d realized she had called him out when his friends had not. He respected that.
“She’d make you proud, you know? That’s all she’d ever wanted to do. You were her hero, and I can attest that means she has good taste. She saved my life in more ways that I can count, and that was before we were ever a couple.She helped me because it was the right thing to do, even if she knew it would blow up in her face. It was worth it to her. She’s...amazing.”
Peggy stared back at him with a smile. “Oh, you don’t need to justify my niece to me. I have little doubt she’s wonderful. She is a Carter, after all.” She winked. “It’s clear she makes you happy, and I can only hope you do the same to her, or else I’d have to find a way for my ghost to haunt you.”
“Was that an attempt at a shovel talk?” Steve asked. He was grinning. He couldn’t wait to get back to Sharon and tell her what happened.
“Oh, no, Steve. If you were to hurt her in a way that would require me getting a shovel, I’m fairly certain based on your description alone, Sharon would have beat me to it,” Peggy replied. She was correct. Not that he intended for her to be proven so. “How did the family act to news of your affair?”
He paused. Based on the way she was talking, it was clear Peggy knew that she had passed in the timeline. She was practical enough to know she wouldn’t live to be over one hundred. But everyone else? She must have read the hesitation on his face, everyone said he had a horrible poker face, because her face fell.
“Steve, what aren’t you telling me about my family?”
He could lie. It would be so easy. But after everything he went through with Peggy, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not about this. “Her parents and grandparents had already died before I came into the picture. Sharon and I weren’t even together the last time I talked to Lily.”
Nothing he told Peggy would affect his timeline, but he could change hers for the better. Suddenly, he found himself regretting how terribly selfish he had been early on. He hadn’t pressed Peggy to talk about her children back then, still too raw from losing everything and hurt by her moving on. “He dies in a car accident in the summer of ‘87. He was hit by a drunk driver. I’m sorry, I don’t know more.”
She didn’t cry. Her expression took a far away quality that he recognized as shock. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Can you honestly stand there and tell me my son dies in an accident, and all you know is the season and the year?”
“You and I never talked about it. Not deeply.” Not a lie. Not the truth. “Sharon never mentioned all of the details. I never asked.”
“Then why did you tell me? So I could spend the better part of the next two decades dreading the day my son will die?”
“You could change it. Just because it happened in my timeline, doesn’t mean that you can’t change it in yours,” he argued. He didn’t want their last conversation to be this, Peggy angry and hurt because of him.
“Do you know where it happened?”
He hung his head low. “No.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll figure it out. I always do. I’ll keep him safe. I will,” she said, more to herself than for his ears. She shook her head and pushed her fingers through her hair in a way to right herself. “Is there any more vague threats of horror you’d like to warn me of, or was my son’s death enough?”
She was being sarcastic. She didn’t want him to answer, but Steve knew she would hate him more if he didn’t. He took a deep breath. “Hydra infects SHIELD. You have sleeper agents now. Zola? He’s one of them still. It won’t come out until shortly after I wake up...but it does. We’re able to stop it, my friends and I. Sharon, too. A lot of people would have died without her interference.”
Peggy was clearly unhappy with the news. She hugged herself tightly. “Is this my legacy, Steve? My son dead, the organization I built from the ground eaten alive by the type of I sought to defend us from?”
“It’s more than that. You’re more than any of that,” he argued. He knew his words wouldn’t work, because he’d wondered the same thing about himself over the years
She brushed at invisible creases on her skirt. “Well, it looks as if I have an incredible amount of work before me. So do you. We both should be started on it.”
“I am happy you’re safe, Steve. Truly. And that you’ve found your family,” She gave him a hug and he returned it as fiercely as he could. When she pulled away, her eyes were glassy. Peggy meant it, but she was still pushing him out the door. “Take of them, won’t you? And tell Lily I love her so.”
“I’ll do everything in my power,” he promised. He stepped away.
And then he was gone.
Steve was still finding his bearings when he landed in Vormir. That was not how he intended for his last, unexpected conversation with Peggy to go. He wished he could go back and fix how things went. He was in the unique position to have the ability to bounce through time, but he knew it wouldn’t change what just happened.
Not for the first time, he regretted his decision to come back alone. He never would have actually brought Sharon with him, but he wished for her presence considerably. Sharon knew when Eddie had died, and she would have been able to connect with Peggy in a way that he failed. She would also know the words to say that would salve his emotional wounds, if only temporarily. Beyond that, she would have been able to hug her aunt again. That would have been something.
The Peggy he had just left had been Sharon’s Peggy more than his, the SHIELD Director and mother to a cousin that Sharon would never know. She had been mostly business, but clear about the love she carried for her family. That was the Peggy Sharon remembered, not the whip-smart and dangerous young woman with an endless future Steve had left behind in the ice, and certainly not the person he’d idealized in his head.
He wondered how he would tell her about how this surprise conversation with Peggy had gone. He couldn’t keep it from her. She did, at the very least, deserve to know that her aunt would have approved of them. She had worried about that. If she knew he talked to Peggy, she would ask how the rest of the conversation went. He couldn’t lie to her about it. Wouldn’t. At least he could tell her that Peggy smiled when he talked about her.
“If it isn’t Captain America.”
Steve jerked at the familiar voice.
“Steven Grant Rogers. Born on the Fourth of July. The Americans couldn’t have grown a better symbol even if they tried. And yet, still the Aryan Dream.”
Johann Schmidt hovered behind him. Clint had not warned him about this. He was supposed to be dead. Steve felt another crushing wave of defeat at one more example of a villain he couldn’t stop.
“Do not be shocked, Captain Rogers. Death does not always elude us all.”
“How?” Steve croaked. He could not understand, too caught up in wondering how one of his greatest enemies could be at the sight of the death of one of his closest friends. He took a few steps back, nearly tripping over the uneven ground. “You can’t have the stone.”
“Once upon a time, I tried in vain to make it mine,” he explained. He hovered closer, but made no move to attack. Steve wondered why. “Now I serve as its guardian. So many have come and failed, but some have succeeded. Oh yes.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Schmidt hovered around him. The ghost’s eyes were almost unseeing, not focused entirely on his presence. Steve longed for his shield.
“You, Captain Rogers, are the first I’ve seen return the stone.”
“Why would you be its guardian?” It had to be a trick. It needed to be.
“Fate has its ironies. Some would call it Shakespearean for us to meet this way, the pieces that would need to fall into place to get to this moment. You, a man doubly out of time. So much death has followed you, the Great Hero of America. And life, too. You are soon to be a father, and yet you are here on a quest to return the missing stone.”
He shouldn’t know that. It was impossible for him to know that.
“I see many things, Captain,” he said in a faraway tone. “Just as I see your hestiance to return it to its final place. You are to return it from which it came.”
“What is the catch?”
“To possess its power required a sacrifice, to return it does not.” Schmidt pointed upward. “Go. I will not follow.”
Steve didn’t quite believe him, but didn’t not either. He was afraid and overwhelmed, but more than anything he wanted to go away. He debated his possibilities, but knew he had to complete his mission. He wouldn’t fail at this. Maybe this is my test, he thought. Something to prevent him from returning the stone to prove him unworthy or drive him away. That line of thinking didn’t make the most sense, but he held onto it. It would be the only way he knew he could bring himself to finish the task with the specter of the Red Skull behind him.
He went on until he found a cliff.
He looked over the abyss. Natasha had been here, died here. This had been her final resting place. He had to honor her in some way, memorialize her sacrifice somehow. He went for rock, and then another. He arranged so many in such a way that he created a mound at least a food high. He had no way to mark her sacrifice, to write the words for everything she had done for them. It would still have to be enough.
“Thank you, Nat,” he said, looking outward. He threw the stone back from where it came, and the world around him became white.
When he opened his eyes, he was not alone. His throat caught, and his heart hammered, unbelieving of what he was seeing. It had to be a trick by the Skull. It had to be. But—
“Steve?” Natasha asked, staring at him in disbelief. “Steve, where’s Clint? What are you doing here? What’s happening. I—”
“You’re alive,” he croaked, the only two words he was able to manage. He reached out to grab her hand, she was solid. It took him a few seconds to regain his composure. “You died. For the stone, you sacrificed yourself...but returning the stone brought you back.”
She blinked, realization dawning on her. “Please tell me you used it first. I swear, if you—”
“They’re back. All of them. Sharon, Bucky, Laura and the kids. Everything we lost. Half of the universe. It’s whole. We did it. You did it,” he answered.
He was crying. He didn’t care.
Natasha clapped a hand over her mouth, like she didn’t quite believe what he was telling her. She had started to cry. Then she laughed, a happy delightful noise that was pure joy. “We did it? They’re back?”
She flung her arms around him and Steve hugged her back with the same ferocity. It was Natasha, more than anyone, with whom he had wanted to celebrate their victory. Natasha who had held him when he broke down about losing Sharon and the baby, who had promised him that they would all be together again. Natasha had traded him stories about Bucky. She’d gone to soup kitchens and studies charts and kept the faith. She deserved to see it all.
And now she would.
She pulled away and wiped away her tears. “Wait, is that Mjolnir?”
Steve laughed, feeling suddenly giddy. “Turns out I’m worthy.”
“I had no doubt.” She gave him a warm smile. She wiped away her tears again. Happy tears. That’s what mattered. “We did it. We actually did it. Clint must be ecstatic...Laura and the kids…”
“She and Sharon have apparently been texting.” Before leaving Natasha’s wake, Laura had demanded that she and Sharon swap phone numbers. “You’re going to need a Mom friend,” she had said. They had more in common than that, so Steve wasn’t surprised she had taken Clint’s wife up on the offer.
“How’s Sharon? And the baby?”
“They’re both doing great. I have ultrasound photos back home. I heard the heartbeat and...it’s everything, Natasha.” He could show her when they returned. His child would not have to grow up hearing stories about the woman who sacrificed everything to save them. They would know her.
Sharon was going to cry. She might not even blame it on the hormones this time.
“God, Tony must be acting so insufferable that he pulled it off.”
Steve had caught up with popular culture to know that if this were a certain type of movie, there would be a record scratch in the background, bringing their celebration to a halt. His face fell. Hers did too once she noticed.
“You know Tony, always having to one-up someone.” It was a bad joke, but one Tony might have made. “Someone had to make one final sacrifice play for everyone. Whatever it takes, isn’t that what we said?”
It was easier to say back then, and so much harder to live with the reality. Though they all knew it was unrealistic, he was sure each and every one of them had hoped they’d come out together on the other side. Prior to Thanos. They all had before.
They stood in silence as Natasha processed the loss until Steve decided to fill her in on the rest: why he was in the past, how much time had passed for them. He realized that as soon as they returned, that Natasha probably should lay low for a bit. There was no way to completely soften the blow of her return, but Pepper and Morgan didn’t need to find out on the day they memorialized Tony. Not when he wouldn’t be coming back.
“Are you ready to return to the land of the living?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
There was a pull, a flash, and then the brightness of light and the smell of grass and fresh air. Steve blinked, adjusting himself once again to the bright daylight before centering himself on Sharon. She looked confused, and he watched as that confusion morphed into elation as Natasha surged forward and they embraced.
Over Natasha’s shoulder, he saw Sharon smiling in his direction.
“Thank you,” she mouthed.
In that moment, he forgot his failure.
He felt like her hero.
Next Chapter: Sharon meets with Nick Fury, and then has dinner with friends.
Chapter 5: It's Nice to Have a Friend
It's someday somewhere. I guess the new posting schedule is going to be "sometime over the weekend." This chapter and the next one will be setting up the plot threads for the rest of the story, which is looking to be a vaguely long one.
Also, comics fans, there might be a few references you will enjoy.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Life on the run had been a transition for Sharon, one she had prepared for and accepted, but a transition nonetheless. She had lived abroad before, and had spent the better part of a year in Berlin before she threw everything away. But there she could work the bustling streets without looking over her shoulder at every turn. She could simply be, which was not the case when she bounced from safe house to safe house with the Secret Avengers, some who were better at undercover work than others.
Initially, she was reminded in many ways of her short stint spying on Steve Rogers. Her job back then required her to be hyper-aware of his comings and goings and required her to hone her skills at crafting lies on the fly. “In retrospect, I should have considered it suspect that you threw your phone into infected scrubs.” Sharon always considered every mission a preparation for the next, but she never considered it so directly.
Her two years underground had followed a similar formula: stay aware of Steve’s location, build a relationship, and lie, lie, lie . Of course, the context was different. She knew Steve’s position because if she didn’t, they could die or land themselves in jail. She built a relationship with him because she wanted to, because he was good and sweet and funny and ridiculously attractive. She lied not to him, but to others to buy them cover, get them food, and uncover intel. This was where she succeeded.
It was hard. She had taken missions with terrible conditions before, but this was her first one without an end in sight, and one that required her to stay in close quarters with so many other people, a few of whom she barely knew. They would split up every now and then and occasionally returned to Wakanda, but in an effort to keep the peace there as the country tumultuously tumbled into public awareness, the team stayed away more than they otherwise would have preferred. As such, her life became a series of different safe houses, tending to each other’s wounds away from hospitals, and solid stability of Steve Rogers by her side.
In many ways, the decision to pursue a relationship with him under those circumstances was monumentally stupid. They were in close quarters and pulling dangerous stunts. Should their relationship have gone south, which was incredibly likely when they started, Sharon would have likely been left without a strong support network and little way to rebuilding her life back home. Stupid. But when he asked and attempted to flirt, she went along with him. She had thrown her life away siding with him in his stupid war, she deserved to have something fun.
And it worked. They fought missions together and spent many late nights learning everything about one another. They argued, because that was the type of people they were, and then they made up with equal fervor. She would get hurt, he would hover, and then she’d get back in the field to prove to him that she could fight and battle and not stand down. Uncertainty became her new normal.
Until she busted up her arm in a knife fight earning a major slash that required numerous stitches and a checkup in Wakanda. Until she started to get sick and Steve openly fretted about infection while she internally did the same. Until she was late and she frantically searched her arm for the implant that was no longer there.
Suddenly her new normal became something else entirely, and she was left with a decision with what to do next. She was a woman without a country and with a baby on the way, if she so wanted. A part of her didn’t. A different part did. Then there was Steve with a stuffed bear and promises of faked identities in Wakanda and painting a pretty picture of running away from it all so that they could be a family.
Then aliens attacked and amnesty was given and somehow she died without even knowing it.
Three weeks later, or a little over five years depending on who you asked, Sharon found herself sitting on a bench in Prospect Park still trying to make sense of it all. She had been trying, and failing, to read a book about pregnancy that Laura Barton had recommended, but she spent most of her time still trying to take in that she was once again in the United States, living in a brownstone in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and not holed up in a hovel somewhere in Central America with a team of fellow runaways.
Her first week and a half back had been a series of meetings, funerals, and memorials. Everything since then became an exercise in learning how to be a citizen again. New York was both familiar and completely foreign. Sharon had forgotten how loud and crowded it could be. She was a city girl at heart, and preferred the bustle of the city to the quiet isolation of some places they had stayed, but it was still an adjustment. So was staying still. She slept in the same bed every night without any expectation of having to clear out at a moment’s notice. She and Steve went out to eat without fear of being hunted down. They made love without worry of getting caught.
It was nice.
Sharon was monumentally bored.
After years of excitement, the monotony was starting to get to her. The constant running had meant something different all the time. Now the most exciting thing she did was argue with the banks and social security office about re-establishing her identity. Thrilling stuff. Making matters worse was the fact that her life mostly revolved around Steve. She loved him. She really did, but she chafed at the idea of relying so heavily on someone else, especially a romantic partner. He had a life outside of her, doing public relations for the Avengers while also leading various support groups for new time displaced people. She had no job, just the vague promise of something from Fury. Were it not for Natasha and Laura, Sharon would go mad.
Laura Barton was a godsend in many ways, unique in her understanding of the life Sharon led and the transition in returning from non-existence. They leaned on one another heavily over text, as Sharon peppered her with questions about pregnancy and parenthood and they both commiserated about how their partners were managing and the strangeness of appearing five years later. Like Steve, Clint too occasionally veered into overbearing and it comforted Sharon that she wasn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed with attention.
It was nice to have a friend like that. It would be even nicer to also have a job along with those friendships, which was why she was sitting in Prospect Park trying and failing to read a book, waiting for Nick Fury to show his sorry ass. He had claimed that he didn’t want to meet in a restaurant, and Sharon absolutely refused to sit at home, so the park she went. It made for pleasant people watching. Even with the cool weather, there were enough people out and about. People on runs, mothers or nannies pushing strollers, children squealing as they ran through the grass. This is my future, she thought.
Picnics in the park with her family, morning runs with a stroller, Steve pushing the baby on the swings. Sharon could picture it easy, something that surprised her. Motherhood was not something she had particularly entertained when she was younger. She had never been outright opposed to the idea, just busy with work and racing around the world. Sharon was the sort of person who, if the man she decided to do her version of settle with was particularly into the idea, knew she could be swayed, but wouldn’t be crushed if it never happened.
What she did know was that she couldn’t envision being like Laura, a stay-at-home mother whose partner could disappear for weeks on end. Laura enjoyed that lifestyle, and Sharon couldn’t begrudge her that. But Sharon also knew she would go crazy if she didn’t have an outlet for life that wasn’t hers and hers only.
She heard steps behind her, but didn’t turn. She recognized that gait, and also knew that he intended for her to hear him. Instead, she took a sip of her hot chocolate before saying, “You’re late.”
“I arrived exactly when I wanted to.”
“Which is still late.”
Nick Fury slid into the open space next to her. He was dressed rather casually, dark pants and a hooded sweatshirt, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses.
“Rogers got you on military time? On time is late, early is on time?”
“He’s not as punctual as you think he is,” Sharon replied, thinking of that first kiss outside of Berlin, “but neither of us are here to talk to Steve. What do you want, Nick?”
He chuckled. “You were always quick to get it the point.”
“I’m a no nonsense kind of gal,” she replied dryly. More to the point, she was eager to hear his offer. She wanted either an end date to her listless meandering or a sign she should start applying anywhere and everywhere.
She dreaded the second option. She had what would now be a seven year skill gap. Five years due to non existence, and another two years of her being classified as an enemy of the state. She had been granted amnesty for that, but try explaining in an interview that the reason she left her last job was to commit light treason with Captain America. That was just what every hiring manager wanted to hear.
“Can you tell me what goes with a shield, Carter?” Apparently they were going with nonsense. Great.
“Something tells me that the answer isn’t a super soldier in star-spangled spandex.”
“A sword.” Sharon took another sip of her hot chocolate to keep from sighing. Nick Fury was well known for his flair for the dramatic. It somehow bolstered his hardass reputation.
“Is this your way of telling me that you’re trying to send me undercover at a Renaissance Faire? Because let me tell you, I’m not going to be fitting in a corset anytime soon for the next five or so months,” she chided, deciding if Nick was going to be absurd, so would she.
“What happened with being no nonsense?”
“What happened with getting to the point?”
“I am,” he said firmly. Sharon had her doubts, but held her tongue. “Prior to the Decimation, I was in talks with members of the administration about creating a counterterrorism and intelligence agency to monitor extraterrestrial threats.”
“Sounds like space-SHIELD.” She paused and thought for a moment. “Or the Men in Black.”
He cast her a withering look. “The Sentient World Observation and Response Department. SWORD. I was making major headway in this proposal prior to Thanos’ attack. Of course, once the world went to shit, there wasn’t enough infrastructure and care to make it a priority.”
“But now that everyone is back, the government is worried about what happens next time,” Sharon concluded.
It only made sense. Over three billion people had been wiped from existence due to a threat from space that even the combined efforts of the Avengers couldn’t even stop. After that, an organization dedicated solely to monitoring and combating that would be logical. Thanos and his crew hadn’t been the first extraterrestrials to attack Earth, and Sharon knew that they wouldn’t be the last.
“Especially since I get to say ‘I told you so.’”
Sharon thought of Steve how hard she knew he fought for everyone. Feeling that Nick was coming across as a little smug, she commented, “You don’t know if SWORD or whatever you plan to call it would have helped.”
“I don’t,” he admitted, “but they don’t need to know that.”
She hummed. His response was Classic Nick Fury. How long had she kept the secret that Coulson was alive from everyone? But she also knew him well enough to realize that he was talking to her about this new venture because he wanted her to join. “Are you going to tell me how I factor in?”
“I need people I can trust. We saw what happened with SHIELD. I want to prevent that,” Nick answered. If asked, Sharon would deny the bloom of warmth in her chest at being called trusted. “Besides, a Carter helped found SHIELD. Might as well continue the trend with SWORD.”
“Ah, so it all comes back to my aunt’s legacy,” Sharon replied. She tried to keep her tone teasing, but Nick was too good to ignore the undercurrent of bitterness. She loved Peggy and aspired to be her, but she wanted to be chosen based on her own merits. Not because of the legacy Peggy had left behind.
“You’ve got to get rid of that chip on your shoulder, Carter. Your aunt was an amazing woman. That’s why you followed in her footsteps. Own it. And you chose the wrong profession and romantic partner if you didn’t want those comparisons to be made, so own that too,” Nick chided. Sharon considered, briefly, punching him in the face. She kept her cool, only because she knew he was partly trying to get a rise out of her, and she wouldn’t fall for the bait. “Anyway, the way I see it. SHIELD was her legacy, and it was mighty fine one. You’re getting the chance to make something yours.”
“You sure know how to woo a girl, Nick.”
She thought of Peggy, and the legacy she left behind. SHIELD had been destroyed, but it was just an organization. Her life’s work, for sure, but what was more important — at least, in Sharon’s mind — were all of those who she inspired. Sharon had encountered many women over the years who looked to Peggy Carter as an icon for succeeding in the workplace, and in a male-dominated field, at that. Little girls would write letters to her saying that they wanted to be just like her when they grow up. Sharon had told her that to her face. She wished that Steve had thought to convey that to her during their encounter in the past, that her efforts hadn’t been completely for naught.
Nick also wasn’t wrong in attempting to entice her by bringing up her own legacy. Deep down, Sharon knew of history ever remembered her, that it would be in relation to Steve, even more now that she would be forever tied to him because of their child. Aiding in establishing a government agency like SWORD would go a long way in partially separating herself from him. It would also give her child something to point to and be proud of their mother for in comparison to their father’s heroics.
“So what would I be doing if I were to join you in this endeavor?”
“Deputy Director of something or the other,” he replied. At her expression, he explained, “We’re still fleshing out the org chart. I needed to know you were potentially on board before confirming anything. There’s a calculus to this sort of thing. You’d be under me and in the senior staff along with Hill.”
That didn’t sound terrible, and Sharon worked well with Maria. That was a benefit more than anything. Somewhere nearby a child squealed, bringing Sharon back to reality and reminding her just where she was.
“I take it that this will require me to move back down to DC?” Sharon asked, thinking forlornly of the Brooklyn house. Moving would require a conversation with Steve. DC wasn’t a bad place to live by any means. She had enjoyed it immensely, but she also knew Steve never considered it home. Not like Brooklyn.
“No, actually. We’re looking at headquarters being located in Manhattan. After all, New York has suffered the most from alien attacks.”
He wasn’t wrong, and this settled her some. Steve would be happy, at the very least, and Sharon was happy not to have that debate. She had already begun to envision her life here. Now she didn’t need to consider it anywhere else.
Nick continued, “Pepper Potts is amenable to letting Stark Tower serve as the headquarters.”
“Nick, please tell me you didn’t badger a mourning woman to get a fancy HQ.”
“She welcomed it. Norman Osborn was making moves to purchase the building, along with a few others. Pepper thought SWORD would better honor Tony’s legacy, making it an easier alternative to sell to the rest of the board.”
“Looks like you’ve thought of everything.”
“I wouldn’t be effective at what I do if I didn’t,” he answered. “So are you in?”
She pretended to consider. “When is this thing going to go live?”
“Expect an announcement next week.”
The sooner the better.
“Then consider me interested.”
“A toast to being alive and soon-to-be gainful employment.”
Three glasses clinked together, liquid nearly sloshing over the side. Sharon took a drink of her water, wishing for it to be beer to fit the mood, especially since Natasha and Maria had earlier kicked off the evening with their traditional shots. Pregnancy-induced sobriety, however, could not erase the happy warmth in her chest as she took in Natasha’s smile and Maria’s laugh. This was something she never thought she would have again, the three of them together in one place, alive and well.
They had agreed to all meet up for dinner and drinks after Sharon met with Nick. Maria had been practically vibrating with excitement to have Sharon on, but like any good agent held her tongue until Fury had presented the offer. Sharon was happy to feel wanted, especially since she had been so sure that she had lost all professional credibility the moment she broke Steve and Sam’s gear out of containment. Natasha had no interest in joining SWORD, but eagerly tagged along. “Space and I don’t mix,” was her explanation, which given her experiences, was an understatement.
“You have to admit, in terms of government reactions to alien invasion, SWORD isn’t the worst way to go,” Maria commented. “I still have nightmares of the security council trying to nuke Manhattan during the Chitauri invasion.”
Natasha made a face at the memory. Regardless of her friends’ ill-feelings, Sharon was still a little jealous that she hadn’t been in New York at the time. She’d been brought up for clean-up, but missed most of the action.
“Maybe they learned the virtue of a proportional response?” Sharon mused. “Not that I really know what a proportional response is when you wipe out half the life in the universe.”
“We can’t all be Latveria,” Natasha commented. She grabbed a cheese fry from the communal basket. They had ordered a number of particularly greasy appetizers, under the guise that was what Sharon was craving.
“Yeah, what the hell is going on over there?” Sharon asked. During her research about life post-Decimation, she learned that the Eastern European country of Latveria had claimed zero losses. This allowed its ruler to centralized power and establish himself as a dictator, not that the citizens of Latveria saw it that way. Sharon read more than one account of him being referred to as a God Emperor. “The reports can’t be accurate.”
Natasha shrugged. “Steve and I did some investigating after word came out that they lost no one. Everyone we interviewed claimed that they didn’t, and they appeared to be honest, which was the most shocking thing of all. Something weird is going on there, but that isn’t it.”
For Natasha to be saying that, Sharon knew she had to believe it. Natasha was excellent at reading people, and most people weren’t good actors.
“Random chance is random chance. Latveria is a small country. It could have very well happened,” Maria said, thought she didn’t sound fully convinced. “Guess none of that really matters, now that everyone is back.”
“Say that with a straighter face, Hill.”
“You know what? I am here to celebrate and now dwell on the utter mess that is the past five years. I’ve been dwelling on it for weeks. I just want to think happy thoughts or else my head will explode,” she argued. She took a drink before continuing. “I mean, look at from where I’m sitting. Natasha is alive, despite us having a fucking wake. Sharon and I are about to have nice jobs. Hell, Sharon, you’re having a baby!”
“Am I?” Sharon drawled, earning a snort from Natasha and a glare from Maria. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“You,” Maria pointed at her, “I’ve had enough of your smart mouth.”
“I’ve received a lot of compliments on this smart mouth.”
“Ew, gross, I don’t want to think about what you and Steve do in bed.”
Sharon feigned innocence. “I was talking about my skills in public speaking. It’s not my fault your mind is dirty.”
“Is public speaking what we’re calling it now?” Maria paused, and tilted her head as she studied Natasha. “Romanov, what is that expression on your face?”
“I believe it’s called a smile,” Nastaha replied. The Black Widow was not as emotionless as many liked to believe. Sharon and Maria both had seen her smile and laugh over the years. She wasn’t a soulless Russian automaton. But even Sharon had to admit Natasha’s expression was something new, wistful even. “You know, this is the first time we’ve all been together in more than seven years.”
“Seven years? There’s no way it’s been…”
Sharon trailed off as she mentally did the math. She was still struggling with thinking about her life on the run technically occurring more than five years ago, rather than just a month. She and Natasha had been on the run for two years prior to what Thanos had done. For Natasha, it really had been the better part of a decade since they had all been together, and she had spent most of that time thinking they were dead.
“We missed you too,” Sharon said, reaching out to squeeze Natasha’s hand.
She felt the sting of tears. She cried so much easier these days. She felt vaguely embarrassed, as she never before had been much of a public crier. At least she had the excuse of blaming it on her hormones. Did that make her a terrible mother? Blaming things on the kid before they even left the womb.
“This is what I wanted to avoid,” Maria sighed, however it was clear she wasn’t upset. “Are you proud of yourself, Romanov? You made a pregnant lady cry.”
“To be fair, a lot makes me cry these days,” Sharon said as she wiped away her tears. She had purposely chosen to go without mascara tonight, knowing how likely she was to cry. “The first time I had a diner burger a few weeks ago, total waterworks.”
“That just tracks with your baseline personality.”
Maria wasn’t wrong. Sharon’s quest to find the perfect burger was well-known in the circle. Her friend played along, and Steve took special pride in joining Sharon in her efforts. While at the aforementioned diner, he had even presented her with a notebook of local places that he thought she’d enjoy. The gesture had really made Sharon cry, though she didn’t tell Natasha and Maria about that — especially since they were too busy teasing her.
Maria continued, “I’m a little surprised you managed to fill the burger-sized void in your life while doing the expat thing. I half-expected you to short-circuit without a solid American diner burger nearby.”
“I think we know exactly how she spent her time filling the void. She honed her public speaking skills, that’s how,” Natasha said with a snigger.
“Are you suggesting I filled the burger-filled void in my life with sex?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting.” Sharon glared, betrayed. Her friend only shrugged. “What? You two weren’t particularly subtle about it.” At Sharon’s continued glare, she amended, “Okay, Steve wasn’t particularly subtle. He practically glowed after you two would sneak off to discuss ‘battle strategy’ or ‘spar’.”
“We actually did strategize and spar, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, without clothes.”
“You know, I’ve always wondered if everything sized up with the rest of him,” Maria added thoughtfully.
“For that question, I am laying claim to all of fried pickles. You two don’t deserve them.” Sharon was mostly kidding, but she did make a show of moving the fried pickles closer to where she was sitting. They were really good. “Besides, I thought you didn’t want to know about my sex life.”
“I don’t, but Natasha made me realize that I never actually got the chance to give you shit about hooking up with him. As such, I rescind my earlier statement.”
“I am not giving you the details about my boyfriend’s dick. Besides, if we’re ganging up on anyone about their hookups, it’s Nat,” Sharon pointed out. “When were you going to tell us about your history with Bucky Barnes?”
“It wasn’t relevant,” Natasha replied, nonplussed. She remained cool and calm, perfectly trained to handle any interrogation, even from friends. But because she was a friend, she said, “When he was sent to attack us, the James I knew was gone. Any intelligence I could provide would have been moot.”
That wasn’t true, Sharon knew, but she also knew Natasha would have been benched if she revealed her history. Steve was already emotionally compromised, and the field was still sexist enough to assume Natasha history as a former lover would have been worse. Natasha had been professional the entire way through, however, because she knew the importance of the job.
“It still couldn’t have been easy,” Sharon said. She tried to imagine a world in which Steve looked at her with nothing — no love, not even recognition — and pushed away the thought.
“It wasn’t. But such was life in the Red Room.”
“He said you were the only good part of it,” Maria informed her. Natasha blinked, but said nothing more, focusing instead on her drink. “I think he made Coulson cry. But not Sharon. She cries over burgers, but not your sappy love story.”
Sharon instantly recognized what Maria was doing — deflecting away from the sudden seriousness of the conversation, not because she was uncomfortable, but because Natasha was. Perhaps they had underestimated the history, and what feelings may or may not still be lingering. In some ways, everyone disappearing in the Decimation could be easier to focus on. That problem had been fixed, they were back and alive. What had occurred in the Red Room might be irreparable. Sharon suddenly regretted bringing up the affair. She decided to play along instead.
“Are you sure he was crying over what he said, or because he was talking to Bucky Barnes in Captain America’s house?” Everyone adored Phil Coulson. It was impossible not to be endeared by him; however, the way he became an utter fanboy whenever Steve was mentioned never failed to earn him a few lighthearted jabs. “Did I tell you all that he sent me an email with a dozen links to baby-themed Captain America paraphernalia?”
“Just a dozen?” Maria asked, arching a brow.
“I think that was him showing restraint.”
“Too bad we blew up SHIELD. Baby Captain 13 needs merch that isn’t star spangled.”
“Baby Captain 13?”
Maria shrugged. “I needed a portmanteau.”
“There will always be SWORD gear, I assume. Since you all are running it, make that a priority between alien attacks,” Natasha said. Sharon pictured a tiny baby in a onesie with the SWORD logo. The thought was enough to make her teary again, so she busier herself with polishing off the pickles. “Also I think Baby Natasha Carter Rogers would look great dressed like Black Widow.”
“Oh, they’re naming the baby after you?”
“I died to save everyone. The least they could do is name their baby after me.”
“I’m right here, you know.”
“Sharon, eat your pickles. We’re fighting over naming rights,” Maria teased. Sharon only shook her head.
They went on like this for some time, joking and snacking and draining their glasses. It was nice to once again spend together, a rare gift Sharon felt grateful to have received. There was a part of her that realized, however, that something had changed. Time and distance and trauma were pushing them in different ways, and the past was a topic not to be discussed, not in the ways it used to be. She hoped that with time, this wound would heal.
Once they left, they walked together to the subway station. Maria complained about her housing situation. Previously, she had owned her own Manhattan condo, but it had fallen into disrepair over the past five years and was no longer livable. She now stayed in a small apartment in Queens that did not compare. Prior to the Decimation, New York City was already suffering a housing crisis. The disappearance of millions helped create space, but as there were fewer people to maintain the spaces, many were now unlivable. The sudden of return of millions did nothing to help the matter, and the news reports were already discussing the shock.
“If it makes you feel better, my old place got blown up by Thanos,” Natasha replied goodnaturedly, bumping against Maria. Natasha had spent a week crashing in the spare bedroom of the house before finding a place of her own. Because she had been alive, she had a much easier time finding a place because of her established history.
Sharon remained quiet about her own situation. Nobody liked a braggart. She was extremely privileged, and not just because she had a very nice place to stay ready for her. She had support and friends and people who hadn’t moved on. She had a future.
When Sharon returned home, she took a few moments to stand on the front walk. She breathed in the night air and admired the facade of her house. Many of the lights were on, a warm glow on a cold night that signaled Steve was home. He was sprawled on the couch when she came in, and his smile was radiant when she snuggled up to join him.
“How was dinner with the ladies? Do you feel celebrated?”
“Yes, and it was nice. What did you do tonight?”
He yawned and pulled her closer to him. “Spent some time in the workshop. I’m considering making a few bookshelves for the nursery. Someone keeps buying books.”
“Literacy is important,” she argued. Steve wasn’t really complaining. He liked when she brought home stuff for the baby. It assured him that she was on board for their new mission. “I’m excited to see the finished product.”
This was not the direction she envisioned her life to go, but it was where she was meant to be. She was one of the lucky ones.
Next Chapter: Steve is happy. Steve is fine. Steve is an unreliable narrator.
His pencil skittered across the page as he drew, but Steve knew that he was doing his subjects no justice, not in the way they deserved. It was impossible to capture the beauty of Sharon’s smile as she held their baby in her arms or the gleam of her ring in the summer sun. A drawing couldn’t capture the sound of his child’s laugh, so he decided to put his pencils and paper to the side so that he could join them.
“You have the funniest expression on your face,” Sharon commented. Steve reached out to tangle his hand in her hair, and she turned to nuzzle his palm. Something in his chest twinged, a reminder that he had almost lost this forever.
“I’m just happy, that’s all.” He leaned over to kiss her. The baby whined as Sharon shifted her arms to better accommodate the way he drifted into their space. “Already complaining about Mom and Dad kissing, huh? I’m afraid you’re going to have to get used to seeing that, ‘cause I plan on kissing her every day for the rest of our lives.”
Sharon blushed a pretty shade of pink before turning her attention away from him and to the baby in her arms. “Your daddy has a silver tongue.”
The baby made a few noises, and Steve allowed a feeling of contentment to settle over him. This was everything he wanted — his family, peace. They sat like that for a few moments, talking and idly cooing at the baby. It was perfect.
Steve jerked to the source of the voice behind him, the color draining from his face. He got up to his feet at once, body shielding his family. Thanos stood in the middle of the park, armor nearly blinding in the sunlight. He watched in slow motion as the monster raised his gloved hand, his fingers snapping together.
He turned, powerless as Sharon gaped back at him in horror. She began to disintegrate before his eyes, golden hair turning to black ash. The last thing he heard was his baby’s cry and his own before he lost everything again.
Steve jerked up, blinking and flailing himself into awareness. His heart pounded wildly in his chest as he glanced around his bedroom, now illuminated with the morning light. He was not in the park with Sharon and the baby. He was home. He took a deep shuddering breath. He had been dreaming.
Sharon slept by his side, thankfully undisturbed by his movements. He focused his attention entirely on her — the apple of her cheek and the way her lips were parted. She had tied her hair into a braid before going to bed, but it was become disheveled in her sleep. She was wearing one of his t-shirts, and it dwarfed her frame. Sharon had refused to buy pajamas, telling him that she preferred his oversized shirts anyway. He didn’t mind, and teased it made it all the more easier to demand she lose her (his) shirt. “Oh no, you’re gonna have to pry it off of me, Rogers.”
He settled himself back down in the bed, and gingerly wrapped an arm around her middle, tucking himself close to her. Sharon made a small noise, but didn’t wake. Steve was fine with that, holding her was simply enough. Her belly was bigger now. Strangers still likely wouldn’t be able to tell she was pregnant yet, not at this time of the year with everyone bundled under sweaters and coats. He wasn’t sure when he would be able to feel the baby kick, but the books he’d been reading said within the next few weeks. It would be one more reminder that his family was safe and alive.
Steve was no stranger to nightmares. He had plenty after he woke up from the ice, repeated dreams of the plane going down and him freezing. He’d dream of Bucky falling from the train and of dancing with Peggy only to have her ripped away. Those dreams had lessened over the years, the nightmares fading once Bucky returned to his life and he re-established his new normal. They never completely went away, and Steve doubted they ever would. They just took a different shape. What was once dreams of the War had twisted into dreams of Thanos and Steve’s greatest failure. Since that horrific day, Steve been plagued by nightmares of losing Sharon similar the one he’d just experienced.
Sometimes he wondered why Sam or Bucky rarely starred in those nightmares. He reasoned it was because they had been with him on the battlefield as they and so many of their allies disappeared. He had known from that very moment that they were gone. It had been different with Sharon. She had not been in Wakanda, and not within range of his communicator. He’d taken a jet to the safe house, a knot of hope twisted tight in his belly that he would see her again.. The moment he landed, a part of him knew she was gone. She would have otherwise come out to meet him, but he still called out her name. But he didn’t want to believe it. Natasha found him hours later, still sitting on the kitchen floor, his back to the counters. She held him as he cried, and it was only then when he could admit Sharon was gone.
But she was home now. Their baby was safe, and per their last visit to the doctor, healthy. Bucky and Sam were back, and Natasha was now alive too. The future was bright and laid out ahead of him. He was fine, everything would be fine. But telling himself that didn’t stop the nightmares, nor the ball of worry in his gut every time Sharon was out of sight for much too long. Funny how long ago he once believed that keeping her far away would be what saved her and kept him sane.
Eventually, Sharon began to stir. She stretched against him before adjusting so that she could look him in the eyes and gave him a sleepy grin. “You’re like a koala.”
“Well, I have been told I’m pretty damn cute, a trait I share with koala bears,” he teased. She giggled, and it was the most delightful sound in the world.
Slowly, Steve leaned in to give her a kiss. She sighed against his lips, and Steve decided that no, this was the most delightful sound. They stayed tangled together kissing until impatience won over, both his and hers, and their hands began questing under clothing.
There was something nice about lazy morning sex, unrushed and warm in the early morning light. Impatient as he was to strip Sharon out of her clothing, he took his time with her once he had her bare. He left open mouthed kisses down the column of her throat, nipped at the juncture where neck met shoulder. He paid special attention to her breasts and kissed and licked every mark and scar on her skin. By the time he reached between her core, she was panting and grasping at the sheets.
They hadn’t had much time to go slow like this during their early courtship. The vast majority of their couplings had been rushed, almost frantic. Making matters worse was his relative inexperience in bed. Steve had spent their earliest days fumbling around as he learned his way around sex and her body. Their first time had been more than a little embarrassing on his part, but he liked to think he had learned to please since then. Sharon certainly seemed happy now, if the noise she was making was any indication to go by. Her fingers tightened in his hair as he worked his mouth against her. He knew her cries well by this point, and what signaled a job well done in her eyes. Her thighs tightened around his head and her heel dig into her back. If he could spend forever like this, he wouldn’t complain.
Like everything about her, he missed doing this. Steve had learned over the years that sex was something he enjoyed best when it was with someone he adored. When he first woke up from the ice, Natasha had told him the best way to get over someone was to get under someone. That was why she kept trying to hook him up with anyone before zeroing in on Sharon. He scoffed then. It wasn’t until the lonely, hopeless nights in the years after Thanos that he put her advice to the test. When Natasha had caught him that final time, he’d thrown that argument in her face, despite how hollow everything that felt. ‘Getting under someone’ might have once worked for her, but he had not found any fulfillment in trying the same. Not that he told her that.
None of that mattered now. Sharon was home. She was here. She was in his bed. She was falling apart under his lips. This was everything he needed. This would be what forced him to forget his nightmare — her and the warm embrace of her body.
She took charge after she came down from her high. Sharon pushed him up and over on his back, and then straddled his hips. She ground against him, making him groan and writhe under her. It was the best kind of torture. Then bliss once she finally took him in hand and guided him inside her. Everything narrowed to the point they were joined, the slick slide of her body as she rode him to oblivion. Foggy as his mind was with need, Steve was unable to focus on any one part of her, eyes roving over her body — from the way her eyes squeezed shut in pleasure, to the bounce of her breasts, to the way his cock disappeared inside of her. It was glorious.
Steve managed to hold out until she could reach her peak a second time, but it was a near thing. She collapsed onto him once it was over, panting but smiling.
“Now that’s a good way to start the morning,” she commended. She brushed her hair out of her face. “You know what would make it better?”
“What?” His mind ran through a number of options, each more daring than the last.
She cast him a wicked grin. “Breakfast.”
That was not the answer he expected, but her appetite had been more voracious as of late. Besides, they did just exercise in some ways, with her doing most of the work. “Will that make you happy?”
He wanted so desperately to make her happy. She smiled and nodded. “Absolutely.”
The breakfast she would have.
Later, over eggs and toast, Steve enquired about their plans for the day. SWORD would soon be fully operational, meaning that she would once again be working. For many people, this would signal dread; however, Sharon was the type of person who loathed complacency, and had been increasingly miserable as more and more days passed without direction.
Unfortunately, his question prompted a frown. “I need to get some shopping done eventually. I don’t really have any professional outfits.” She nibbled on her toast, before sighing. “Of course, I’m not sure what to get, as I will be growing out of it all every other month.”
“They have shops for that, right? You’re certainly not the only professional woman who has decided to become a mom.”
He took out his phone to search around. This, Steve felt, was something he could manage — find Sharon a place to shop, and one that catered to professional women. Her anxiety about her changing body was something that Steve was less certain about. He has caught her studying her belly in the mirror and heard her make a few comments about fit. He thought she was absolutely beautiful, and knew there were no changes her body could undergo during the pregnancy that could change his opinion. He also knew that his opinion didn’t matter. This was about Sharon and how she felt in her body, and the best he could do was provide support.
Which was why he followed her around various shops in Manhattan without complaint, telling her she was pretty and whether or not he thought a look would put the fear of God in whichever man or alien crossed her. His opinion might not have mattered, but it was always nice to get complimented. He wasn’t sure if it helped, but she rolled her eyes and blushed when he called her ‘Fear of God’ outfit “sexy.” He could only shrug.
“Do I find the fact that you can kick most people’s asses six ways from Sunday incredibly hot? Yes. Do I also find it hot you can do it not only physically, but also verbally? Yes, the answer is very much also yes.”
“Whatever you say, Captain Charming.” Your daddy has a silver tongue… He pushed the memory of his nightmare from his mind. It must have shown on his face, because she frowned and asked, “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, because it wasn’t a complete lie. He just had a nightmare. He was fine. Sharon was alive. Their family was safe. He had no reason not to be fine. “There’s a cafe around the corner. What do you say, once we finish here, we see if they have some cider or hot chocolate?”
Sharon drifted into his orbit, eyes sparkling, and leaned up to give him a simple kiss. “You’re speaking my language. Captain Charming, indeed.”
Steve smiled when she pulled away, feeling a little proud that he could elicit that as a response. This was something they had been missing while on the run, complete and unrestricted freedom to do whatever they wanted, to flirt and kiss in public without looking over their shoulders for enemies hunting them down. He could suggest stopping in cafes without first scouting.
They finished up Sharon’s shopping. She purchased a few nice blazers and dresses that could accommodate her growing belly.
“Hey,” she commented when they left the store, “with the job starting soon, I won’t need to be bugging you for anything.”
She smiled, clearly pleased with this realization. That happiness stung. Steve was glad she found something to be excited about, but he couldn’t deny feeling hurt at how gleeful see appeared to no longer need him.
Sharon also insisted on holding the bags — “I’m not an invalid, Steve.” — but he was able to instead hold her hand. That counted for something. Her hand was a pleasant weight in his, one he had desperately missed, and for a moment he allowed himself to forget his dream and the horror of the past few years. Even after Sharon started with SWORD, there would be many more days for this, walking around hand-in-hand and enjoying an afternoon out together. Soon enough, one of them would be pushing a stroller or have the baby strapped into a carrier and on their chest. Maybe by then she would have a ring on her finger. It would be everything he wanted.
Steve doubted he would ever get over the shock of running through Brooklyn in the modern era.
The borough had flourished significantly when compared to what he remembered from his youth, some parts better and others worse. Steve had complicated feelings on gentrification as a rule, and although the Decimation had curbed it effects, the shifts were still apparent. More than just Brooklyn, Steve had changed. For much of his early life, running a few blocks would have been a herculean effort that would have certainly triggered his asthma. Now he could run miles without breaking a sweat.
What hadn’t changed from his time growing up was the presence of Bucky Barnes by his side. Bucky didn’t have to slow his pace to keep up with him this time around; in fact, Steve was the one who had to remain somewhat cognizant of his speed, but nowhere near as much as when he went jogging with Sharon or Sam. Bucky was super soldier now, but Steve was still stronger and faster.
“Remember when this block used to be nothing but tenements?” Bucky asked as they rounded a corner onto a street full of storefronts and bougie restaurants. A few shoppers cast surprised looks when they noticed Steve and Bucky’s speed, but Steve did his best to ignore them.
“As if I could forget. I grew up in one.”
The exact place he grew up in had been converted into a series of nice condos. His old living quarters had not been living ideal conditions, but the condos that replaced them weren’t affordable to most now. At least, the ones that had been maintained. Not that Steve had a right to complain, as he’d purchased an expensive home himself. In an effort to make himself feel better, he told himself that he only did it because he wanted a space large enough for him, Sharon, and the baby.
Although Steve knew it was the goal of any parent to provide their child a better life, he was still vaguely uncomfortable with the wealth his child would grow up around. He worried deeply about the influence of privilege, and wanted to instill an understanding of the opportunities his child had that others might not. He wanted them to be sure to know that access to money or fame didn’t make them any better than anyone with less.
He told Bucky all of this as they ran. Neither of them were going at a pace that would strenuous — but still faster than the average man — which allowed them to converse.
“You’re kid will be fine. It’s going to be raised by you and Sharon, meaning it will have a good head on its shoulders.”
“I hope,” he admitted. Steve decided to focus on the inclusion of Sharon in Bucky’s statement. That was a happier train of thought. Year ago, he had the irrational worry that Sharon and Bucky wouldn’t get along. Bucky had tried to kill her at one point. Much to his utter relief, the two now seemed fond of one another. “I’m glad you like Sharon, by the way.”
“She loves you and she makes you happy,” Bucky replied simply. He paused before adding, “Any worries I might have had about her are assuaged by the fact that Natalia trusts her with her life. She’s not one to trust easily.”
There was a lot to unpack about that statement. Potential worries about Sharon. How he tended to refer to Natasha as ‘Natalia’. Mentioning Natasha at all. Steve went with the part that was less likely to cause his oldest friend to shut down.
“What worried you about Sharon?” Perhaps he was also feeling slightly protective.
“The normal worries any friend might have. Does she treat you right? Is she good enough for you?” Bucky answered. Steve remembered how protective Bucky had been back in the day. It was nice to see that hadn’t changed. “Then the stuff that comes along with notoriety. Keep in mind, I remember all the girls who would fawn over ‘new and improved’ Stevie back in the day. I assume that would only multiply tenfold in this era. As much as I trust your judgement, it’s easy to be blinded by love...or lust.”
Bucky wasn’t wrong. The way women treated Steve post-Project Rebirth had been both eye-opening and degrading. When he’d been sickly, women passed him over. If they gave him the time of day, it was often as a stepping stone to get to Bucky. After the serum had altered his body, Steve still didn’t feel like some people saw him as a person — just a rather attractive tool to get what they wanted. Attraction was important in any relationship, but personality also mattered. To a fair number of people, his personality was non-factor whether he was skinny or buff.
Instead of saying all of this, however, Steve decided to go for the lighthearted. “Yeah, I remember all of the stupid shit you got into back in the day when you wanted to impress a girl.”
“See? I speak from experience.”
Steve looked over his shoulder to see Bucky smiling. It was the familiar grin he remembered fondly from his youth, but one that had been all too rare in recent years as his friend wrestled with his demons. There were times when Steve wondered if he’d ever see that smile again. Apparently the answer was now. Bucky was even starting to look like his old self again, with his hair now cropped shorter.
“True, I still think you have beat me when it comes to absurd gestures of affection.” Bucky had once hung from a ferris wheel to garner a girl’s attention. It was absurd and dangerous, but it had scored a date. Idly, Steve wondered what had happened to that girl. Like almost everyone they knew from the past, she was likely dead. He pushed the thought from his mind. Focus on the happy thoughts.
“I don’t know about that. I still think half the shit you pulled during the War was you trying to impress Peggy.”
“Half is being hyperbolic.” There were times when he might have tried a little bit harder so that he would have a better story to tell her once he got back to the base. The thought of Peggy also made him realize something. “You know, you’re the only person who hasn’t given me shit about dating her niece.”
The others certainly did.
“I dated the Silveri twins back-to-back. I don’t think I can judge.” That had also ended with the twins’ older brother giving him a black eye. Steve could still remember Bucky’s shit-eating grin as he held a steak to his face saying the whole ordeal was still worth it. “If I’m going to give you shit about anything, it’s knocking her up and still not putting a ring on her finger. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of you for finally getting laid, but…” Bucky huffed out a breath. “It doesn’t seem like something you’d do.”
This was something the others had been silent about. Mores had changed over the decades, and it was no longer the expectation to marry a girl you got pregnant. You could just carry on as you were, the only change being that a baby would be in tow. He told Bucky this, but his friend shook his head.
“Times might have changed, but you haven’t.”
Steve considered picking up the pace, more than to just metaphorically running from the discussion, because continuing on the topic would mean saying aloud the reality of the situation. “She doesn’t want to marry me.”
“Sharon said that?” The surprise in a Bucky’s voice was evident. Steve wished that made him feel better. It only made him feel worse.
“Back before everything happened with Thanos, she said she didn’t want to get married just because of the baby. That we still had stuff we needed to figure out and time be together. And now that we have time to be together, she hasn’t mentioned anything. She has mentioned being happy to start her job so she doesn’t have to rely on me anymore. That’s not something you want to hear from the woman you want to spend your life with.”
He sounded whiny to his own ears, but this was the first time he actually voiced this aloud. He lied to Peggy about Sharon being his wife, and not talked about it with anyone else. He felt justified in venting.
Bucky was quiet while Steve spoke, the only sound her made his deep breathing and the slap of his shoes on the pavement as they ran. Finally, he said, “You talk to her about that?”
“No.” Talking about that could upset the balance of the relationship. They had acted happy when they’d gone shopping for work wear. It had been the perfect day, everything he’d dreamed about. Why potentially ruin what they had already?
“And you should talk to Natasha, but you don’t see me lecturing you about that.”
That was, perhaps, a low blow, a comment Steve would not have made with a cooler head. Frustration at his situation with Sharon and at Bucky for directing their conversation this way had won over. To his credit, Steve felt instantly guilty.
“I’m sorry. That crossed a line.”
Steve knew only the bare bones of Natasha and Bucky’s story, but enough for him to understand it had ended with pain. Painful enough for his remark to dig a bit.
“It did,” Bucky agreed. He didn’t shut down quite like Steve feared he would, which he supposed was a sign of progress. “I wasn’t trying to lecture. Just figure things out. I want you to be happy.” They picked up their pace and ran in silence, doing more than a little bit of their own stewing. Bucky finally broke the silence. “For what it’s worth, whatever Sharon’s hang-ups are, I don’t think it is a you thing. Not in the way you implied earlier. It’s obvious she loves you. She wouldn’t be living in the house or having your baby if she didn’t. That doesn’t seem like her style.”
“I know,” Steve replied, because that was what he held onto when he felt himself wallowing in the dark. She loved him. Just not enough to consider marrying him. It shouldn’t matter. “Hey, want to race back to my place?”
A fast run would do him some good.
Bucky only nodded then took off. Steve was grateful that his oldest friend understood and didn’t press him for more. Bucky let him run, let the adrenaline course through his veins until blood was pounding in his ears and Steve could think of nothing but pressing ahead.
Steve, unsurprisingly, won the race. He still rewarded Bucky by making a hearty lunch. It cleaned out a fair bit of the pantry, and Steve made a note that a grocery run was in the future. He was starting to consider the need for a car. It would make trips easier, and could be easier once they needed to take the baby around. He would pitch the idea to Sharon later.
She would be gone for awhile yet. She had gone out for a fancy haircut and some pre-job pampering, something she hadn’t done in years. She had been quite excited to make the appointment.
“Do you want to stay and watch a movie or something?” Steve asked as he finished loading the dishwasher with their dirty plates. He turned to see Bucky frowning at his phone. “Everything okay?”
Bucky jerked his head up. “Just getting used to this new tech. It doesn’t like me metal hand.” He looked down again. “A movie will be fine. Can’t promise I will understand a lot of it, but sure. It will be a nice way to kill time.”
There was something odd about the way Bucky spoke, but Steve reasoned it was maybe a new part of his personality. “We could watch Men in Black. Sharon compared her new job to that, and I honestly don’t know what that means. And I’d really like to understand any future jokes she and Hill make. You game?”
Bucky looked back down at his phone and typed out a reply. Apparently his hand wasn’t that much of a hindrance. “Sure. That sounds useful.”
Steve easily found a stream of the movie, and they settled in to watch. He rattled off a message to Sharon about finally watching it, and looked forward to her reply. The movie, itself, was amusing, a classic buddy cop romp that featured aliens and a wise-cracking Will Smith. Understanding the premise more made him understand why Sharon made the connection.
Bucky checked his phone often throughout, occasionally typing out a response. This was one modern habit Steve didn’t expect him to learn so quickly, and was a habit he preferred not to indulge in himself. Since Bucky was on his phone, however, Steve felt no guilt in check to see if Sharon had replied. She had not, and Steve tried not to let her silence worry him. She had said something about how she wouldn’t be very responsive while out. She was fine.
Whomever Bucky was texting was quite responsive. Steve let his curiosity get the better of him. “New friend?”
“Natalia.” Bucky sighed and tilted his head back of the sofa. “Don’t get excited. It’s not what you think.”
“I don’t know what to think, so there’s nothing to get excited about.”
Bucky’s expression remained grim. “When I tell you why I was texting her, you have to promise not to punch me.”
Steve blinked. “Why would I want to punch you?”
“Sharon is hurt...and she had been for awhile.”
Next Chapter: We find out why and how Sharon is in the hospital, but a solid 1300 words of this chapter is our favorite couple having an argument, so I'll let you decide how excited you are for next week's update.
“Keep telling me what happened.”
“A man arrived at the salon. He was angry and waving a gun around. He shot someone. I disarmed him, but fell and hit my head and busted up my wrist.”
This was perhaps the fifth time Natasha made her repeat the story of her fall. Sharon understood why — her friend was checking for memory loss and was trying to keep her awake. They were both certain she had a concussion, although they didn’t have a proper medical diagnosis. The doctors were taking their sweet time coming to assess her condition. This was incredibly frustrating, but her head hurt too much but do anything except lay in the bed.
What had been meant to be a relaxing solo outing had turned into a nightmare. The ex-husband of one of the salon’s hairdressers had unexpectedly arrived and demanded to see her. From what Sharon had gathered, she had moved on from him during the five years between the Decimation and everyone’s return. The conversation became heated, and then she’d heard a gunshot. Sharon acted on instinct, moving forward to disarm the man. She had done so, breaking a few of his bones in the process, but her center of gravity had been off and she lost balance. When he went down, so did she, whacking her head against a nearby table.
From there it became blurry. Someone had already called 911 and another person had grabbed the gun. The police arrived and then the ambulances. She briefly talked to the police and had been taken to the hospital. She didn’t know what happened to the woman who had been shot. Sharon had enough wherewithal to call Natasha, who would be able to best manage Steve once he inevitably learned the news, while Sharon could focus on not thinking. Natasha met her at the hospital, and after a bit of yelling, had even managed to secure her a private room. “I played the Avengers card, and mentioned more than a few would likely be showing up. Having you somewhere isolated would be to everyone’s best interest.” Now Natasha was perched on a seat at Sharon’s bedside, tapping out a series of text messages.
Her own phone had been noticeably silent, save for a text message from Steve saying he was watching Men in Black. She had yet to respond. Looking at the screen hurt and she didn’t know what to say. Sharon knew the moment he found out she was hurt, he would move heaven and earth to be by her side. She also had no patience to deal with his worry. He worried so much about her already, hovering at every turn, even when she was perfectly fine.
“Who are you talking to?” Sharon asked.
“I’m texting James.”
It took a second for Sharon to place the name James. “Bucky is with Steve.”
“He is, which means someone is there to mitigate Steve’s panic.”
“He won’t panic if he doesn’t know. Loose lips sink ships.”
“And having someone to distract Captain America when he inevitably wonders where you are is also beneficial. It also keeps him away from the news.” Natasha frowned and sat down her phone. “You’re not going to want to hear this, but the incident is starting to get picked up by various outlets. Your name hasn’t leaked yet, but a pregnant woman stopping an armed assailant is newsworthy.”
This only made Sharon’s headache worse. She had flown relatively under the radar since returning to the States. Although there had been some rumblings in political twitter when her name had come up in regards to the SWORD announcement, but that had focused entirely on her history of committing light treason. Her personal life had been left out of the discussion.
This news would draw attention to her pregnancy, something she had mostly been trying to avoid. Both she and Steve knew that they couldn’t hide it forever, but they wanted their growing family to remain a secret for a little while longer. The world at large knowing Captain America was going to be a father increased risk, paparazzi outside their door, and speculation. Steve claimed that the media’s interest in him had waned over the past few years, but Sharon was doubtful — especially now that he had flung himself back into the spotlight to handle Avengers PR.
“Looks like you’re no longer our little secret,” Sharon said, patting her belly.
While a doctor had yet to come speak to her about her head and potentially sprained wrist, someone did come and perform a few tests on the baby. Everything looked fine, but she was given a few notes on what to look out for. Sharon was thankful to have that anxiety somewhat abated, however, she also felt annoyed that her health wasn't a priority. She had hoped maternal care in the United States had shifted over the years. In many ways it had. In order to encourage an increase in the fertility rate, the government had passed a number of incentives — childcare credits, family leave, healthcare. But on this? Apparently not.
Natasha was watching her carefully, her expression an odd blend of wistful and sad. “I’m still a little mad at you for not letting me in on that secret.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I was planning to, but…” Sharon waved her non-injured hand. She was certain that if she wanted to punt on the conversation, Natasha would let her. A hospital room was not the proper venue and Sharon was hurt; however, because Natasha was cognizant of these things, Sharon recognized that this meant the topic was weighing heavily on her mind. “I was scared. And then you were gone.”
“Steve told me that you were worried about hurting me.”
“I was.” Sharon closed her eyes. It was easier than looking at Natasha’s face, and helped with her headache. The lights were very bright. “I know about you and the kids thing, and here was I sort of falling into it completely unplanned. It didn’t feel fair.”
“It’s taken some time, but I have mostly made my peace with it. There is more to me than my ability to procreate. And if I hadn’t, I could still get my shit together to be there for my friend. I want you to trust me on that.”
Complete trust was rare in the world of espionage, especially among people who could barely trust themselves. It was accepted that everyone kept their secrets, but even then, Sharon understood why Natasha was hurt.
“I know. I’m sorry. And I do trust you. I do, objectively, know you can get your shit together...but I was scared of everything back then that I began to doubt everything, judgment included.”
Telling Natasha would have been beneficial, and not just because it was what friends did. Natasha would have been able to help her and Steve come up with a well-rounded plan, at least better than the one they had been attempting to cobble together. Natasha would have been one extra shoulder to cry on, and a fellow woman who could understand her fears. She might have been more prepared to handle Steve in the aftermath of the devastation, and would have felt assured Sharon hadn’t died afraid to trust her.
“I haven’t thanked you, by the way, for taking care of Steve while I was gone.” Sharon opened her eyes to look over Natasha. Natasha hadn’t moved, but was once again studying her phone. Sharon thought her friend’s actions had more to do with hiding his emotions than anything actually on the screen.
“We took care of each other. It was not a pleasant time.”
“Everyone said you were the only person who never gave up, even when they did.”
Natasha snorted in disbelief. “If only you could have heard them all lecture me.”
“If they didn’t appreciate it at the time, they certainly do now.” Steve had told her many times he wouldn’t have made it through without Natasha’s support. “I am, at the very least, grateful for your faith...and, you know, everything else.”
Natasha cracked a smile. “You better. I died for your sorry ass.” She looked up from her phone and snorted. “I’m also fairly certain I put the fear of god into that woman Steve brought home, so you shouldn’t have to worry about you showing up at your house with a gun either. That being said, I’d pay good money to see what would happen if anyone showed up at the SWORD HQ.”
Sharon’s head was hurt, but not terribly enough that she was hallucinating what Natasha said.
“Steve brought someone home?”
Sharon was not naive. She had not actually expected Steve to remain a monk for half a decade, especially when as far as he knew, she was dead. In the abstract sense, she never wanted him to mourn him in perpetuity. He deserved to live his life. Knowing that didn’t make her feel any less sick. Especially since it seemed like he hid his history from her. He should have at least old her. Learning about his actions from someone else only made her feel worse.
Natasha’s face fell. Whatever she had said, she hadn’t expected Sharon to be surprised. “I’m sorry. I thought he would have told you. I can’t believe he didn’t tell you.” Sharon thought she heard Natasha mutter something in Russian that was surely a curse. “If it makes you feel better, I read him the riot act and I don’t think he did it again.”
“It doesn’t.” Not by a long shot. Sharon out her hand on her head. It was pounding. She wanted to curl up and sleep, to forget everything about today, but could not. Natasha wouldn’t let her even if she tried. “These doctors suck. Where are they? I could be bleeding from my brain.”
“Let me go check with nurses..” Natasha stood and tapped out another message on her phone. Looking up, she gave Sharon a severe stare. “Stay awake.”
She briskly walked out of the room, leaving Sharon alone. This did not make her feel any better. In fact, at the moment, she wanted nothing more than to have Steve there with her. She dug out her phone, but when her thumb hovered over his name, she hesitated. That woman Steve brought home. She instead opened up the news to see what was being reported about the incident. The knot in her chest loosened when it was reported the victim was still in critical condition, and not dead. Her name was also notably missing, but the internet appeared to be alight joking about the assailant being subdued by a pregnant woman.
“Hey, put down your phone. No screen time,” Natasha snapped when she returned. She was unfortunately without any doctors or nurses. At Sharon’s frown, she said, “Nurse Ratched seemed to think that the doctor would be here soon, but was otherwise unhelpful.”
Sharon groaned. Perhaps she should have argued with ambulance and made them take her to Strange. That, of course, would have raised more questions. She had a hard enough time answering the questions from the police. She had given them all the information she could, as well as her contact information knowing they would be back. She could only imagine their shock if they showed up at her front door at Steve answered.
She was still dwelling on that train of thought when Natasha cursed loudly. Sharon jerk to look at her. “What’s wrong?”
“James broke. The movie ended and her panicked. He used to be better at this,” Natasha said, frowning at the phone. Her fingers flew over the screen. “So, fair warning, Steve will be en route.”
Sharon’s stomach drop. Her hope had been for her to have a diagnosis and be home before he found out. Learning from Bucky was not ideal, and would only worry him more — something she was trying to prevent. Deciding dwelling on that would only make her headache worse, Sharon turned the conversation to Natasha. She had been the one to rope in Bucky Barnes, might as well make her squirm.
“You used to call him Bucky. What changed?” Sharon cast Natasha a sidelong glance. The last time she had pried, Natasha had shut down.
Natasha looked up at Sharon, calculating. She must have thought that any discomfort in discussing her past was outweighed by the benefit of keeping Sharon alert, so she began, “Like I said before, the person I knew — the James I knew — was gone. It was easier for me to compartmentalize and carry out our mission when I told myself I was looking for a Bucky Barnes and not the man I once loved.”
“There’s no longer a bounty on his head. His memories have mostly returned. He is becoming more like the James I remember than the Bucky I created in my mind.”
“And now you’re texting.”
“About you.” Natasha sent her a half-hearted glare. “If this is some convoluted plan to pay matchmaker, I may kill you in your sleep.”
Any reply Sharon might have said was interrupted when the doctor finally walking into the room. He was nice, albeit a bit detached, and kept casting glances to Natasha. Natasha had been one of the less famous Avengers, intentionally eschewing the level fame that Steve and Tony attracted. But five years had passed and things had changed. Natasha, for her part, was watching the doctor with eagle eyes as he took Sharon through the various tests. He confirmed that she had a concussion, and he also ordered a round of X-Rays for her wrist. Then a nurse came, and she was whisked away for testing with a speed that surprised her.
When she was being wheeled back to her room — they would not let her walk due to dizziness — she knew Steve and Bucky had arrived. Their voices, along with Natasha’s, carried down the hallway, clearly in the middle of an argument centered around her. He was not pleased with their subterfuge, it seemed. The orderly who had been pushing her to and from her destination stopped abruptly when they finally reached the room, not actually expecting to see a dressed down Captain America standing in her hospital room. That caught everyone’s attention, and Sharon was relieved when the anger in Steve’s expression faded when he saw her.
“You’re here,” he greeted, his voice soft. He walked over to Sharon and helping her from the chair and back onto the bed. The orderly made himself scarce. “I heard you were doing some heroics. Are you trying to put me out of a job?”
“Not intentionally.” Steve took the chair Natasha had been previously occupying, and pulled it closer to the bed. He sat down and held her hand. Sharon squeezed his in response. “There’s still a victim. I haven’t heard if she made it through or not. Last I read she was critical.”
There had been a lot of blood. When Sharon had gone for the assailant, someone had rushed behind her to aid the woman. Then someone had gone to her when she was down.
“You made sure there weren’t any more. That’s important,” Steve assured her. With his free hand he reached and gingerly touched her brow. Sharon was surprised at how comforting she found his presence. Even the touch of his hand calmed her spirits. Perhaps she should have called him all along. “I just wished you didn’t get so banged up.”
“Just a concussion. Maybe a broken wrist. Waiting on whomever to read the X-ray to know for sure. Baby is fine,” she rattled off. Although her report seemed to relax him somewhat, his body was still tense. It was clear he wouldn’t be totally calm until she was home and completely healed. “I think the baby won’t be a public secret much longer. Press is talking.”
“So Nat said.” Steve looked over his shoulder at Bucky and Natasha, who were huddled in a corner. Bucky looked somewhat apologetic, but Natasha held a poker face. “You two don’t have to hang around if you have other things to do. I’ve got things covered here now.”
It was a dismissal if Sharon ever heard one. Although Steve kept his voice light, it was clear he was still pissed that they kept the secret of her injury from him. If Sharon had been feeling better, she would have argued or called him out on being rude. Instead she went with the flow, if only because that was what felt easiest. She had already fought enough for one day, and didn’t feel like doing the same with Steve.
“I’ll text you in the morning. I promise,” she said, meeting Natasha’s eyes. Sharon hoped her friend caught her silent apology. Natasha and Bucky were both bearing the brunt of Steve’s frustration, despite the decision to keep him unaware being hers from the start. They were easier targets than her.
Their friends said their farewell, and then Sharon was left alone with Steve. He kept a solid hold on her hand, but was otherwise quiet. Tension hung heavy in the air, and Sharon did not need to be a telepath to sense the fraught emotions rolling off of him in waves.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you immediately.”
“What matters now is that you’re safe,” he replied. He did not accept her apology, however, or even acknowledge it. She couldn’t tell if that was a good or bad thing.
The doctor returned shortly thereafter. His brows raised in alarm once he realized that Natasha had left and was replaced by Steve. “I’m her partner” Steve said, his voice firm, as if it wasn’t obvious by the way he was holding her hand like a lifeline.
The doctor looked from her to Steve. “You weren’t kidding when you said you knew the Avengers,” he noted before telling her that he wrist was thankfully not broken, but sprained. He then repeated to both her and Steve proper concussion care. Steve listened intently, nodding along like he hadn’t dealt with concussion treatment over the course of his career.
“I’m surprised he didn’t ask for an autograph,” Sharon murmured later, after she had been given the ‘all clear’ to go. Steve tucked her carefully into a taxi. Her barely let go of her hand, as if the touch of skin-on-skin was enough to prove she was there, alive, and mostly fine.
“I wouldn’t have given him one, especially given how long they made you wait,” Steve said. He and Natasha had apparently been talking about her slow treatment. She wondered what else she told him. Did she say that Sharon now knew about the additional notches on the bedpost?
Don’t think about it, Sharon. It doesn’t matter.
Clearly nothing had come from his affairs. It wasn’t even really an affair. He thought she was dead, which was the truth, more or less. Now that she was back, his attention was focused entirely on her. He loved her.
Steve nudged her side. “You’ve gone quiet on me. You’ve gotta stay awake until we get home. And I want to make sure you eat some dinner.”
“Then sleep?” Sharon asked. Maybe that would push all of her negative feelings away. She knew it wouldn’t be a good rest. Steve was charged with waking her every few hours, but it would be something.
“Then you can relax,” he confirmed.
Sharon managed to hold down the soup Steve placed in front of her, before he shuffled her upstairs. He helped her out of her clothes and into one of his t-shirts that she had previously liberated. She was surprised that he climbed into the bed after her, wrapping his arm around her waist and holding her close. Her eyes grew heavy, and exhaustion took over. The last thing she heard before sleep won out was Steve’s soft whisper, “I thought I lost you.”
“They’re back.” Steve once again closed the curtains and shuffled away from the window, a frown on his face and brows knitted in consternation. “I have half a mind to take that camera of theirs and shove it up their—“
“Steve, baby, relax.”
“They’re staking out our home.”
As they both feared, once Sharon’s name had been leaked to the press, intrepid reporters had begun to piece together her identity and bits of her personal life. No longer was the story about the poor woman who had nearly been killed, but instead how she was saved by Captain America’s pregnant girlfriend. The tabloids and entertainment news stations had naturally gone wild. How could they not? Everyone's favorite WWII hero was going to be a dad, and out of wedlock at that.
The more conservative outlets didn’t know what to do with that information. Steve had served as a symbol to project any and all political opinions, regardless of how socialist he clearly leaned, so the news that he was living in sin with his pregnant girlfriend turned a few heads. A few argued that this was a win for the pro-life community, as they had chosen to keep their surprise pregnancy. Others pointed out the strangeness of Steve hooking up with his former love’s niece.
They’ve received some sympathy. A fair few sussed out that Sharon had been pregnant prior to the Decimation, and ‘ oh, how sad it was that he suffered without his family’ coupled with a few bits of ‘they’re just like us!’ Sharon was mostly left to the wayside, although one talk show referred to her as an ambitious, cape-chasing whore. Hearing that felt great.
The running thread was that the media was interested, resulting in a fair number of paparazzi trying to snap photos of Steve, Sharon, and the baby bump. Due to her injury, Sharon spent most of her time inside, which meant Steve spent most of his time hovering around her. Sam stopped by with groceries, and was able to coax Steve out for a run with a promise that he would stay by Sharon. Steve came back cursing up a storm. She was honestly a little surprised she didn’t see headlines such as ‘Captain America Punches Reporter’ and ‘Captain America Fights the First Amendment!’ Steve had not yet punched a reporter, but his patience was running thin.
“Bucky threatened to shoot them. He told me one word, and he’d snipe them.” After everything Bucky had been through, Sharon was sure the offer that would land him on the wanted list was empty, but made in an effort to act supportive to Steve. He felt guilty for what Natasha had pulled him into, and was playing the role of commiserating friend. Sharon couldn’t blame him. Steve needed to vent to someone that wasn’t her.
Sharon was also annoyed with the attention, and wasn’t fond of the press parking on the street; however, she intended to channel that frustration into other pursuits. The doctor had banned her from screen time for three days, and now that four had passed, she was delving into her email. Her first day in the office wouldn’t be for a week yet, but her email was already starting to blow up. Most were meeting invitations from Hill, others were media requests. There was one intriguing email from a scientist wanting to discuss cosmic storms, and Sharon filed that one away for later. He was probably someone looking for a job, but it could be interesting.
“Once the media gets something else to latch their teeth into, they’ll forget about us.”
“Then come back to us once the baby is born. I can see it now, everyone fawning over Captain America’s lovechild.” Steve folded his arms and paced in the bedroom like a caged lion. “Maybe Clint has the right idea, go off the grid and live in the middle of nowhere again. At least when we were on the run, we didn’t have to deal with these vultures.”
With the media stalking their front porch, Sharon could understand his ire; however, what was going on outside their front doors was still preferable to the mess they had previously been in. “Yeah, but think of how miserable we were during all of that.”
Her jerked toward her, his expression a hurt. “It wasn’t all that miserable. We were happy.”
Sharon realized now that she had said the wrong thing. Steve had been more sensitive regarding their relationship since her trip to the hospital, no doubt due to her silence regarding her injury. She sighed and sat her phone to the side. Emails could wait.
“I’m pretty sure we’re happier now, save the the paps.”
He crossed his arms and studied her carefully. After what felt like an eternity, he asked, “Are we?”
That was not the response she had been expecting. He was clearly pissed at her, but nothing in the past month or so indicated that he wasn’t happy. Sharon once prided herself in her ability to read people, but somehow this had slipped through the cracks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You tell me.”
Her headaches had mostly abated since that first day. Sharon was sure this argument would only bring them back. “Is this about the hospital? Steve, I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to freak out about me getting hurt until I had more information. I didn’t intend for you to find out secondhand.”
“Because that makes me feel better.” Little did most people know that Captain America had a sarcastic streak. It came out every now and then, but mostly when he was frustrated and upset. Like now. “You know, when we were on the run, you at least told me things. I knew when you got hurt, and you told me when you were pregnant. I’m not entirely sure you would have even told me if you’d gotten pregnant here.”
That was a low blow, and entirely unfair. “If I didn’t want you to know back then, I wouldn’t have told you. I would have just found clinic.” Steve stayed rooted in his spot, but his gaze was focused entirely on the floor. Livid, she continued, “And where do you get off telling me I don’t tell you anything? The hospital was a one time thing.”
“Okay, fine, you tell me things. You tell me all about how you can’t wait to stop needing me and how you don’t want to rely on me anymore. We’re supposed to be partners, Sharon. That’s what partners do. Support each other. Trust each other.”
“Like you trusted me by telling me about all your conquests over the past few years? Oh, wait, you didn’t trust me to understand. You kept it a goddamn secret, and I had to find out from someone else! So do not lecture me about trust.” Sharon had her own well of resentment that was bubbling over. She had been dwelling on the topic for days, trying and failing to convince herself that she wasn’t bothered. At least everything was out in the open now. Steve flinched, looking as if he had been slapped. “Don’t try to deny it. Nat told me.”
“She— what?” Sharon realized that she was quickly driving Nat to the top of Steve’s persona non grata list. She would have to apologize to her for that. Steve shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. None of that matters. You were dead. The moment you were back again, I’ve been nothing but loyal to you and I plan being nothing but loyal to you for as long as I live.”
“And silent. Was that going to be a secret you took to your grave?” Sharon gestured toward the windows and drawn curtains. “Do you know how stupid I felt when she told me? She expected me to know. I should have found out from you, not anyone else. How long until one of those vultures out there hunts one of those women down? You would have preferred me to find out from a tabloid?”
It was clear that he didn’t want her to know period, but that bubble had been burst. “They wouldn’t have found them.”
“Oh, really? Because most people would probably brag about screwing Captain America, payout or no.”
“And let me guess, you’re not most people.” What he meant by that, Sharon didn’t know. Nor did she care to follow up on whatever that meant. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “They didn’t know it was me. Forget to shave, go by my middle name. People see what they want to see, you taught me that.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” It didn’t. It made him sound like a jerk, especially since he was using whatever spy training she had given him against her.
“No, it’s supposed to explain why the tabloids won’t find them.” Every who knew Steve Rogers would say he was a stubborn sonuvabitch. They mostly meant his inability and unwillingness to back down from a battle, especially if he thought he was right. What they didn’t say was that his stubbornness extended to arguments as well. “All of that is beside the point. There’s a huge difference in me not telling you something irrelevant to our lives and you not telling me you landed yourself in the hospital. You’re not the only one to feel like an idiot.”
“I told you, I didn’t want you to worry,” Sharon explained. She felt the sting of tears, and oh no, she would not cry.
“It’s my job to worry.”
“But all you do is worry! I swear I can’t do anything without you hovering six steps behind me,” she snapped. This was her first time articulating that particular frustration with him, and it was probably to wrong time to do so; however, they were apparently airing their grievances. Might as well go big or go home. She had a stubborn streak herself. “I’m a functional adult, Steve. I’ll be fine.”
“The fact that you were in the hospital this week suggests otherwise.”
“Christ, Steve, it was just once.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Steve said quietly. Gone was the harsh edge to his voice, the one that reminded her of battle and the smell of gunpowder. He now just sounded sad. “You were gone. For five years. You were gone and I was left to pick up the pieces. So, yeah, I fucked other women. I did that because I was trying to move on from you . I bought this house, because there was a part of me that hoped that some day, we’d figure out how to reverse the Snap and that you would be coming home. And then we did, and the moment I came to find you, you weren’t there. And I wake up every morning hoping that this isn’t a dream and that you will still be there. So I apologize if I worry or want to look out for you, but that’s because I’ve spent the past five years wondering if I would ever see you again!”
“And I didn’t! It was five years for you, but five seconds to me. And suddenly, my life is upended again. I came back with nothing. Absolutely nothing. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? I’m trying to start over, and I have you hovering around me every turn and I can’t even say ‘fuck off’ because everything about my identity is tied to you! I need you for money, for clothes, for goddamn shelter,” Sharon snapped. This time the tears did flow. “This isn’t the forties, Steve. Women need fulfillment outside of the home. I need fulfillment and I need to feel like I’m in control and not spiraling waiting for some man to come save me. That’s why I didn’t tell you, because for once since coming back, I wanted to breathe without you there.”
There were other, less emotion-fueled ways in which Sharon could have gotten her point across. She did not choose any of those options. Steve flinched, then turned his back to her. She was a dirty fighter, physically and verbally, but now was the first time she really regretted it. He sighed deeply. “I think I’m going to go for a run.”
“What?” That had not been what she had expected him to say, nor was it what she wanted. She pushed herself up from where she had been sitting to reach out to him. He moved out of the way. “Steve…”
He shook his head. “I think we both need to clear our heads. So I am going to...what was the phrase you used? ‘Fuck off’. I’m going to go do that and you can enjoy your space.” Steve walked to the door and paused. “And, for what it’s worth, I do know how you’re feeling. Except instead of losing five years and all of my possessions, it was sixty-five and everything and everyone.”
The combative part of Sharon’s mind wanted to remind him that he absolutely loathed the way everyone would check up on him, and that he had a few choice words about the spy SHIELD had placed next door. Her cooler mind, the part of her that honestly craved nothing more than a hug from him, won and just let him go. She listened to the creak of the stairs as he walked down the stairs, and later the open and close of the door.
The house was too quiet without him gone. Normally she cherished the stillness of their home when he went on his runs, now it felt suffocating. In an effort to make the quiet stop, Sharon went downstairs and put on an old record. She had once made fun of Steve for his record player, despite him insisting they were once again in vogue. The hum of music was now a comfort, the older songs reminding her of Steve.
Sharon made an attempt to once again sort through emails, but her mind kept drifting back to her fight with Steve. She had said her piece, but so did he. It was clear the two of them had bottled their feelings significantly, with all of said feelings tumbling out in one argument. They had both been walking on eggshells around one another for weeks. And to what end? All that had resulted in was Steve storming out the door and Sharon stewing alone.
She knew why she was upset. She felt caged and limited, but most of the cause had been external. Her pregnancy was limiting what she could eat and drink, going as far to limit how she could fight. The Snap had led to the loss of everything material she owned. None of that had been Steve’s fault. Had she been in control of her body and life situation, would she have cared so much about his hovering? Yes, but she might not have snapped like she did. She probably would have contacted him before Natasha.
But Steve had been in the wrong, as well. She was still bothered by him hiding his romantic history, especially since he was trying to call her out on her secrets. But as she thought about his arguments, she realized that she needed to assess just how she was making him feel. He hinted that he didn’t think she was happy, nor did he appear to believe that she wanted a family or future with her. That hurt, especially since she had been trying to show him that she was excited for their future. Then again, if he was so convinced she didn’t trust him or rely on him, Sharon could understand why he might have let his mind run rampant with that train of thought. Of course, the likelihood of fixing any of that was slim to none with them in two completely different places.
At some point, Sharon must have fallen asleep, because the next thing she knew, she was stretched on the sofa, covered in a blanket that had not been there before. Music was no longer drifting through the room, and light was now filtering from upstairs. Steve was home. Apprehension seized her, but she summoned her courage and extricated herself from the blanket to make her way upstairs. She found him reclined on the bed, his sketchbook pressed to his knee. Steve glanced up at her when she entered the room, and set his pencil and pad of paper to the side.
“Thanks for the blanket,” she said by way of greeting. She crossed the room and sat on her side of the bed, but didn’t move any further. He didn’t make a motion to reach out to her either.
“I didn’t want you to be cold.”
Silence lapsed between them.
“We should probably talk more at some point,” she said finally.
“We should.” He looked down at his lap, then back to her. “I don’t really feel like it right now.”
“Neither do I.” The room was once again quiet. In order to break the silence, she asked, “What were you drawing?”
“You.” He reached over to grab his sketchbook, and showed her the page.
Sharon felt a flutter of warmth when she studied the drawing. It was her in profile, hair tucked away from her face. “You always draw me prettier than I really am.”
Steve shrugged. “I draw you how I see you.”
Sharon supposed she could take comfort that even after a fight, he still saw her like this. He still wanted to draw her. She handed the book back to him. “I guess I will let you finish that.”
Before she could get up to leave, Steve reached over to grab her hand. “Stay?” he pleaded, tugging her closer, “We don’t have to talk, but I’d like it if you stayed.”
She nodded in response, and crawled further onto the bed to press to his side. He didn’t go back to drawing, just wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close and tangled his fingers in he hair. She pressed her head against his chest, and listened to the steady beat of his heart.
...at least this chapter didn't end in a cliffhanger?
Questions I answer in the Next Chapter:
Where do the Avengers meet now that their headquarters was destroyed?
Why is Hank Pym in a salty mood?
What's Sam been up to?
How was Sharon's first day of work?
Turns out I can answer a lot of questions, and raise more, in a chapter that's mostly Steve being Dramatic (TM).
Steve had a complicated relationship with support groups.
In the years between losing everything and gaining it all back, he attempted to lead a few — a decision that was, in part, a tribute to Sam, and partly to feel like he was doing something. He carried the weight of his failure, the weight of the deaths of billions on his shoulders, and told himself that if he could maybe help innocent people move on, then he wasn’t completely floundering. That he could still help people.
Steve often questioned the success. People came and went, mourned and worked through their grief. Steve, too, shared examples — weaving a tale of losing his best friends and the woman he loved. He talked about Peggy and the importance of how she had assumed he died and moved on with her life, and how it made him happy to know she had been happy. He did all of these things because he felt like it was the right thing to do. The fact that he felt like a hypocrite day in and out didn’t factor. Not really. He was doing his job, serving as symbol just as he’d done since the war.
The newest group took a different tone. This one was focused on starting over again, something with which he was acutely and painfully familiar. He had the biggest time gap out of all of them, but knew all too well the pain of waking up and seeing the world move on. This, Steve felt, was something he was more successful at. He felt less like a liar, and he believed he connected with others.
Though not everyone, he thought bitterly, memories of his fight with Sharon invading his mind. He took comfort in the fact that they were not the only couple to have these sort of fights, although he had to admit their situation had unique factors. Or, rather, that was what he told himself. What was it that Tolstoy wrote? “ All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yeah. That.
He did not mention the hardships he faced in his relationship with Sharon in his most recent meeting. He supposed, once again, that made him a hypocrite; but ever since the news of their relationship and growing family hit the gossip columns, Steve found himself looking at all the vulnerabilities in the venue and the group. It was supposed to be a safe space, in theory, but he didn’t want to risk opening his heart in such a way, only to find whatever he said plastered on Page Six for everyone to read.
This was why, at the end of his latest meeting, Steve put on what he considered his best USO smile — years later, and he still hadn’t lost that skill — and bid everyone farewell, feeling increasingly like he was wearing an even more impenetrable mask than what he had on years earlier. He was beginning to think that his role in leading was soon coming to an end. He doubted he could carry on feeling this out of sorts with every meeting, and knew he wouldn’t be helping anyone. He would, of course, find someone else to lead it. Perhaps Sam would know someone…
Just as Steve was thinking about Sam and his role in support groups, the man appearing as if out of thin air, two carry-out cups of coffee in hand. Steve blinked in surprise, briefly wondering if he had somehow developed the ability to summon others at his whim, before pushing the thought from his mind. What was far more realistic was that Sam stopped by to catch up with him before they were set to meet at Strange’s Sanctum to discuss Avengers business.
“I thought we could head over to Strange’s together,” Sam explained as he handed Steve over cup, confirming his suspicions. Steve took a sip — simple, black, just how he liked it. Sam tilted his head in the direction of the now empty room. “How is that going?”
“It’s going,” Steve replied, knowing how miserable he sounded. He sighed, shrugging. “Let’s just say I’m not as good as you.”
“It’s about time you recognized my contributions,” Sam replied. Steve opened his mouth to argue that he did recognize his friend’s contributions to the team, and that he was sorry if he didn’t say so before, before realizing that Sam was joking. As if sensing his alarm, Sam said, “Hey, it was a joke.”
“Sorry,” he apologized, “I haven’t been in the best headspace.”
“That’s understandable. You have a lot going on in your life.”
“Some would say that’s an understatement.”
They pushed open the doors to the building to the cold air. For many reasons, winter was his least favorite season. Summer could occasionally feel unbearable, but he would take heat and humidity over the sting of ice any day. The weather, he realized, was only contributing more to his foul mood.
They weaved onto the sidewalk. Steve pulled a knit cap further over his ears. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and he hoped the look would make him virtually unrecognizable. Once upon a time, he hated the idea of wandering around with a beard. It made him feel unkempt. Now he considered it a good way to go incognito. “I envy how easily men can change their faces,” Sharon had told him once.
Watching him warily, Sam asked, “I take it the paps aren’t getting any better.”
“They are a little bit, but Sharon still took a car into work this morning.”
The car had been a gift from Pepper, something created by Tony when she had been pregnant with Morgan and traveling to various meetings while serving as Stark Industries CEO. Bulletproof and with a wide array of communications devices, she argued that with their public notoriety and likely target on Sharon’s back that it was beneficial. It had been an incredibly touching gift, one Sharon hadn’t initially wanted to accept, but did anyway to keep the peace.
“At least she has some first day excitement to keep her going. Have you heard how her day is going?”
“No, so she’s either busy with work or laying in a hospital bed somewhere.” That came out far more bitter than he intended it to, but now that it was out there, he could draw it back. He knew he shouldn’t expect to hear from her at work, she had things to do, but he still angry. Still hurt.
Sam sighed. “Well you just answered if you were still pissed over that. Do you want me to go anywhere near that landmine?”
“You’re getting as close as I have over the past week.” Not that he really tried to get nearer to anything. He and Sharon existed in a plane where their fight both did and did not occur. They spoke about everything but their fight, and if he could describe his home life as anything it would be ‘comfortably tense.’He drained his coffee and tossed the cup into a nearby trash can. Steve plunged his now free hands into his pockets. “We’re not in the happiest of places, Sharon and I.”
His chest ached simply admitting that out loud. He took comfort in the fact that she was still there, she still said she loved him, and slept curled beside him in bed; but, there a terrified part of him wondered for how much longer. He had been so scared of watching her physically slip away, that he hadn’t put much consideration into emotionally losing Sharon until recently. Now, it was all he could worry about.
“You two have had a lot on your plate for a very long time, and you’ve finally hit a calm down period. It only makes sense that some feelings will come out in the catharsis. You can expect all of them to be good.”
Steve highly suspected that he was getting the counselor side of Sam. He probably needed it more than the friend side. Probably. “I wanted them to be.”
“I know. I’m sure she did too, which is why the two of you let things fester,” Sam explained. Steve wondered just how much Sam knew about their argument. “Look, have you guys considered couples’ counseling? You would prime candidates.”
“It was just one fight.” And admitting they needed specific counseling felt a lot like giving up. “I don’t see why that makes us prime candidates for anything.”
“I think most normal couples could do with counseling under the best of circumstances, and the past couple of years have been more difficult than most,” Sam said. Steve held his tongue to keep from correcting that it had been more than a couple of years, at least for him. “The two of you have a lot to unpack, might not be the worst thing to do it in a safe space where you’re both in neutral territory with a neutral facilitator.”
“So not you.”
Sam was not subtle.
“In an official capacity, no. Believe it or not, it’s not a good time being between you two,” Sam said, which meant that Sharon had been talking to him about their relationship. “More to the point, it wouldn’t be fair. You and Sharon are two of my closest friends, but I’ve known you the longest, and as the youths used to say, we’re pretty ride-or-die. You both need someone who is less that.”
What Steve had done to earn Sam’s loyalty over the years, he didn’t know. “I can’t believe you just said ‘youths’. Clearly I’m rubbing off on you.”
“Hey, I’m now technically five years older. I’m nearer to forty than I thought. Soon enough, I’ll be an old fogey like you.”
Trying to change the direction of the conversation, and to be a better friend, Steve asked, “I’m sorry I haven’t specifically asked, but how are you doing with all of that?”
“My life before I apparently died involved me being on the run with few possessions, no home, and zero romantic prospects,” Sam explained, a reminder of just how much he’d sacrificed to follow Steve on his mission around the world. “Now I have an apartment, a job, and can have companionship of the female variety, if I so choose. Fewer people are trying to shoot me, which I also consider a win. Re-entry was hell, but it’s far from the first time I’ve done it.”
Steve supposed that made sense, although he knew all too well that Sam’s life now was still wildly different than the one he led before Steve ruined his life. Whereas Sam had long ago worked at the VA in counseling, he was not bartending to get back on his feet. He claimed he didn’t mind it, but Steve had his doubts.
What Sam was saying, or rather implying, also mirrored Sharon in many ways: that going on the run had been a miserable experience. Steve was beginning to understand that over the years, he had idealized that period of their lives. The situation, itself, had been far from pleasant, but they had been together. Sharon, Sam, and the others had been alive. But that was not their experience. Once second, they had been without a country, and the next they had a warm bed and relative security. There were problems, of course, as Sharon had so clearly articulated to him, but most elements were better than before.
Guilt poured through him, because that had been his fault. They had followed him into that mess. Although they all said they did it willingly, they wouldn’t have needed to do so if not for him. He had an apology on the tip of his tongue, but thought better of it. He recalled that both Sam and Sharon had gotten pissed off at him back then for his constant apologies.
“You have to trust us when we say we did this knowing the likely outcomes. We didn’t go in blind,” Sam had said.
Funny how it all came back to trust.
Did he trust them? Steve thought he did. He trusted his friends to do their jobs and try their hardest, but somewhere along the way something gave. Truthfully, Steve doubted it was even about them, but him. Because if something went wrong, it was all on his shoulders. It would be his failure. The person he didn’t trust was himself, not them, but they didn’t see it that way. Sharon certainly didn’t these days.
Sam’s voice pulled him from his brooding. “You know, you should come by the bar sometime. I’m not busy all of the time. Bring Bucky.” At Steve’s raised brow at the mention of Bucky, he said, “We might have had a rocky start, but everyone needs a night out every now and then. Might chill him out a bit. You too.”
That was something Sam had encouraged Steve to do when they were on the run. Relax. Take a night off. “It’s not good being in your head all of the time. Self care is important.” Steve was notoriously bad at that aspect of his life. Always had been. “You know, alcohol doesn’t work on either of us.”
“Don’t need alcohol to socialize.”
Sensing Sam really wanted him to stop by, Steve gave in. Sharon would probably like that he was getting out of her hair. “I’ll stop by sometime, I promise. How long are you expecting to be there? I’m sure we have enough strings to get you hired at SWORD, if you wanted.”
Sam laughed. “Ha, that’s the thing. I don’t want that. The past few years have soured me on government work. I don’t see how Sharon can do it.” He took a sip of his drink. “Nah, right now I’m happy doing it. Do Falcon stuff by day, if need be. Bartend by night. I’ve learned that it is a different kind of counseling. Less official, but folks still need someone to talk to. It’s kind of a break, but it’s not. I can live with that.”
“I bet you’d score some really great tips as a bartender.”
Steve shook his head. “Not of that.” He gestured vaguely. “Of a break. Peace.”
“Then take one,” Sam replied as it was the most obvious answer in the world. Perhaps to him, it was. For Steve, the answer was for complicated, if there was even an answer at all.
Steve bristled. “It’s not that easy. The world needs Captain America.”
Sam shrugged. “The world needs its heroes, sure. But we’ve got that covered. Hell, we’re going to a meeting of just that. And, I mean this is the best way, the world carried on while you were in the ice. The world can carry on again while you take your time to do what you need. It’s alright to take a step back and focus on you, especially if it’s something you need. You’re Steve Rogers as much as you are Captain America.”
Steve Rogers felt like a bit of a mess when compared to Captain America, but that probably meant that Sam was on the right track with his line of thinking. Sam also wasn’t alone in his advice.
“Sharon implied the same thing,” Steve recalled, thinking to a not-so-long ago conversation when Sharon had told him she fell for Steve Rogers, and not Captain America.
“See? Great minds.”
Steve only hummed in response.
He was relieved when they arrived at the Sanctum, grateful for the reprieve from discussing his unraveling personal life. A few others had already arrived, and they were greeted by a few nods and smiles. Natasha caught his eye, but Steve averted his gaze. He was still, it somewhat irrationally, angry at her. He didn’t quite understand why she could so easily keep Sharon’s secrets, but not his. Whatever she had told Sharon hadn’t been an accident, she was too good of a spy to let information slip without calculation. So why had she done it?Steve would forgive her, but for the moment he wanted to stew.
Scott Lang, however, made it a point to welcome Steve while Sam went to converse with Strange as they waited for the final few to arrive.
“I didn’t expect you to fly in,” Steve commented as a way of greeting Scott. He was not based in New York, and Steve had assumed he would holo-call in. That was what the Wakanda crew and Carol Danvers tended to do. Rhodey, as well, when he was traveling.
“And miss all of this? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Scott replied with his usual jovial smile that reminded Steve of a hyperactive puppy. Scott glanced over his shoulder, and Steve noticed for the first time a teenager lounging in one of the overstuffed chairs tapping away at her phone. He realized that the girl must have been Scott’s daughter. “Honestly, I figured we could turn this into a long weekend, see some sights. We even toured a college, just to get an excused absence from her school.”
“Just you two?” Steve asked. He looked around the room, realizing Hope was absent.
“Yeah. Hope wanted to come, but she’s busy dealing with her dad. Apparently, while everyone was...gone...some new scientist guy hopped on the scene talking about unstable molecules and alternate dimensions. Anyway, Hank feels like his work is being stepped on again, and so Hope and her mom are trying to reign him in. I don’t envy either of them right now.”
Steve only had the vaguest idea of what he was referencing, as he didn’t keep up with the latest scientific innovations. In the aftermath of the Snap, there were a few scientists that theorized they missing people had been sent to an alternate dimension. That did not seem to be the case.
Scott continued, “But, I can’t lie, it’s nice to have some time with just me and Cass, you know?” His expression turned a bit solemn, before he shook his head. Steve knew that, of all things, Scott’s love for his daughter was paramount, and he hated missing much of her life. “She seems to be having a good time, at least.”
She was still completely engrossed in her phone, but sitting in on a parents’ meeting didn’t compare to exploring a different city.
“She’s spending time with her dad, trust me when I say she’s happy.” Steve recalled all of the times he wished to have a conversation with his father, who had died before he was born. Cassie was probably living a dream come true.
Scott blushed, looking somewhat humbled. Natasha had compared Scott’s hero worship of Steve’s to Coulson. She wasn’t wrong, but perhaps that was why Steve was a little more forgiving to Scott. He hadn’t been entirely fair to Coulson the first time around, and didn’t want to make that mistake again. Beyond that, Scott had acted as a small, strange pillar of support when he learned that Sharon had been pregnant when she disappeared. Fatherhood, even impending fatherhood, seemed to bond people.
Scott eventually did inquire about the baby, and Steve didn’t mind the questions. Scott was a friend, and not one of the vultures who pestered him and Sharon. Steve chatted amicably, actually smiling as he thought of his child and the person they would someday become. No matter what else was going on with his life, he still had that to look forward to. He was ready to be a father, and to meet the tiny person he and Sharon had created.
Bruce was the last to arrive, and the meeting began. Cassie was asked to go to another room, one that had Strange’s approval. She didn’t seem to care. He supposed exploring a Sanctum of a mystical wizard could be cool. Natasha took the lead, as she had since her return. Steve was happy to take a step back. Regardless of whatever ill feelings he held at the moment, he recognized her as a strong leader and the natural choice after everything she had done. Carol Danvers holo-called in to give insight into how planets were in the aftermath of returning the population. Steve found her perspective fascinating.
“Which brings me to another point. Because of our numbers and how fractured the team was, the government considered us a non-factor over the past few years. But now that the situation is settling, we need to be aware of and expect possible government interference. The Accords were revoked, but that does not mean something similar can arise.”
“That’s exactly what I want to hear,” he heard Bucky grumble from across the room. “The last time that happened, it didn’t end too well for a lot of us.”
“For what it’s worth, things would have been fine if everyone had agreed to sign that damn thing,” Rhodey commented.
“If by fine you mean me being dead, we’ll go with that,” Bucky replied. Steve saw him tense, ready for a fight.
“Before anyone goes into a panic, is this speculation or are you hearing things?” Bruce hastily asked to calm the room, or perhaps himself. He was a celebrity now, and quite beloved once word got out that he had technically been the one to bring everyone back; however, he also had his own negative experiences with the government.
“Speculation, at the moment,” Natasha conceded. “Although, I don’t think it would do us any harm to have a plan or agreement amongst ourselves. Last time, we were blindsided. I don’t want the same thing to happen again.”
“I don’t disagree,” Steve replied. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I’d like to avoid the mess of the last go around, without us compromising both our morals or freedom. Did you have something in mind?”
“She does. Me.”
Much to the room’s surprise, Nicky Fury walked through the large doors. He strode to the front of the room to accompany Natasha. Steve heard Scott ask, “Were you just...waiting in the hallway for a dramatic entrance?” but the question was ignored. Over the years, he had grown accustomed to Nick’s dramatics. This was no different.
“I assume this has to do with the new agency you’ve created,” Rhodey commented from his position.
“SWORD,” Steve supplied.
“Yes, the Sentient World Observation and Response Department,” Nick explained. He crossed his arms and glared at the group. “Now, before you all get your panties in a bunch panicking about working alongside the US Government, hear me out. The plan is to have a liaison, much like before. If you’re shown to vaguely co-operate, then perhaps we can avoid our earlier mistakes.”
“Define co-operate,” Sam said.
“No signing anything. Do goodwill. Try not to create any international incidents. Don’t blow up any buildings if you can avoid it.” Steve could see Wanda wince. “You all already have gained a lot of goodwill. Don’t fuck it up.”
“I still don’t understand why would need to work with government,” Wanda said. Steve remembered freeing her from the Raft, the collar around her neck. “We might have goodwill with them, but they certainly don’t with us.”
“It won’t be real. It’s a symbol, although nothing official. It will be an agreement between us,” Natasha said. “I think everyone is well aware if something goes sideways, a fair number of people will blow the thing to hell.”
All eyes fell on Steve. He simply shrugged. Even Sharon expected him to step in if things went the way of SHIELD with its cosmic successor. She had also said she would be standing right beside him if it did. “So we’re dealing in backroom deals now?”
“That politics, Rogers.”
Winter meant the sky turning dark at ridiculously early hours. By the time Steve made it home, after the meeting had ended and he finished visiting with some of the others, the sky was pitch black and the air noticeably cooler. He was grateful to see that no one was staking out his house.
Although this would make for a decent picture , he thought. Steve carried with him a bouquet of flowers he had picked up from one of the local bodegas, a small token of appreciation on her first day at her job. Whatever friction was going on between them, she still deserved something special.
Steve was eager for her to get home, and not for the reason that seeing her proved she was safe. He wanted to hear about her day, to see that passionate spark that had been dulled since their argument. He also, selfishly, wanted to discuss the SWORD situation with her, and gain her perspective. He only hoped that bringing up that topic wouldn’t make things worse between them. It shouldn’t, but he was so unsure around her as of late.
They had been walking on eggshells around one another, since that fight and since he walked out the door. It was as if they had both become hyper-aware of the fragility of their relationship, but were unsure of how to fix it. They were both too stubborn to admit wrongdoing, which only compounded the problem. Maybe Sam was right and they did need a mediator.
Not that he necessarily wanted to bring another person in as a mediator. Steve felt more comfortable around their friends talking about the deep stuff between him and Sharon; however, he also recognized that drawing them in also meant making them choose. Natasha had picked a side, it seemed, and Sam admitted his doubts about being completely objective.
Forcing friends to pick sides meant people got hurt. They all had learned that all too well. Steve and Tony’s fight had pulled on a number on everyone’s lives. Years later, his friends were still repairing the damage and facing the consequences of the choices that Steve had asked them to make. He’d even seen it reflected in the team today, in slight tension between the people who had been on his side of the when interacting with Rhodey and in the way Natasha was already thinking up contingencies should something similar to the Accords start up again.
That line of thought was unpleasant, so much so that he clearly took out his frustration on the unsuspecting vegetables he was chopping. The Accords had been wrong, and he’d spoken out against them. If they were to come back again, he would do the same, but he also knew he couldn’t run off half-cocked like he had years ago. When Bucky had been in danger and Steve needed to fight back, he did so, government and his country be damned. He didn’t dwell on the ramifications for long, and he wasn’t in a situation that required that same level of forward thinking. He was now. He had Sharon to consider, and their child. He couldn’t do anything drastic without a plan in place to protect them.
Cooking dinner did little to distract Steve from his worries, but he felt an odd sense of calm when he heard the front door open and the knock of Sharon’s boots on the hardwood floor. “Steve,” she called out. He listed as she puttered around the main entrance, taking off her shoes and hanging up her coat.
“In the kitchen,” he yelled back. The food was almost ready, and Steve was pleased with his excellent timing.
“Smells amazing,” Sharon complimented when she entered the kitchen. She walked up behind him, and pressed against his back, giving him a hug. The action was not as easy to do with her growing belly, but it warmed his heart all of the same. “What’s on the menu?
“Ricotta gnocchi in a pork sausage ragu, some rolls, and a salad,” Steve answered. He had picked up some cooking skills over the years, but rarely did her like stretching that talent. Now that he had someone other than Natasha to cook for, spending time in the kitchen had a stronger appeal.
“Sounds perfect.” He felt her press a kiss to back. She was in a good mood. “I’m going to go upstairs and change into something more comfortable, and then I can come help you, okay?”
“Take your time.”
When she returned, he was plating their meal. She wore leggings and one his of sweatshirts, making feel Steve inordinately pleased. He was sure he was reading too much into her clothing choice, but he felt like it was a signal that she still considered herself ‘his’. She helped him carry the salad bowl and basket of rolls to the dining room. Every time they had a meal here, he was still blown away to see her at the table.
“Pretty flowers,” she commented, noting the vase and bouquet he had purchased earlier.
“For you.” Sharon smiled, and turned a pretty shade of pink. “It was your first day at a new job, the least I could do was get you flowers.”
“And fix me an amazing smelling dinner,” she added, settling into her seat. She reached out to grab a roll.
“Oh? The dinner was just for me. I’m only being kind by sharing,” Steve teased. He nudged his foot with hers. She snorted, and shook her head before tucking into the gnocchi. Whatever ice was between them was thawing. Still there, but there was a warmth there. “How was your first day?”
Sharon made an adorable face, her mouth still full of food. She chewed and swallowed before answering. Steve was smitten. He hated their fighting. “It was good. So much reading. We have access to a lot of NASA files, so I’ve been sorting through those and cross-referencing with some stuff Carol shared with us. There’s just so much out there.”
“She mentioned she was helping you all at the meeting today.”
“Did she mention when she would be back?” Sharon asked. She waved a forkful of gnocchi. “This is really good by the way.”
“Thank you, all credit goes to that whomever posted the recipe on the internet.” He was still pleased she enjoyed the dinner he made her. “And Carol didn’t say anything. I’m sure you can talk to her via holo-call.”
“I can, but it’s much easier to talk when I don’t have to worry about space time zones,” Sharon replied. Her expression took a conspiratorial look. “Honestly, I just want her to give me a lift on her spaceship. Not even far, we can orbit around Earth for awhile. Just being in space would be cool enough.” At his amused expression, she said, “What? It’s professional development.”
“Sure it is,” he said. He took a few bites of the pasta, and thought for a bit. “I never actually appreciated being in space when I was there. I was too distracted.” The first time he’d been too heartbroken, wanting nothing more than to find a way to return everyone they’d lost. The second time, getting back to Sharon and his friends had been the priority. “Maybe I can crash that space cruise of yours. Actually enjoy it this time.”
“How romantic. You, me, the stars, and Carol Danvers.”
It definitely had the potential to be romantic, him and Sharon and the vast expanse of space, but then Steve wondered how long it would be before Carol got fed up with them. “Regardless, it could be worth asking.”
“Maybe, although on second thought, we might want to put off any space flights for the time being. If I can’t ride a roller coaster, soaring through the stratosphere might be a no go until this kid is out,” she sighed deeply. The more he learned about the limitations of pregnancy, the more Steve appreciated the sacrifices she was making for their family. “How’d your day go?”
Any answer he could think of led to potential minefields. He braced himself. It might make him a coward, but he would let her decide which way to go. “Okay, I guess. Sam and I hung out for a bit, before the Avengers thing. I learned at the meeting that my people are working with your people, although it might not entirely be above board? I’m not sure.”
“How’s Sam?” Sharon asked. So they were going to end up talking about their relationship. Great.
“He’s good. He seems to be enjoying the bartending thing. Which is good for him. He wants me and Buck to come by sometime.” Steve pushed the food around his plate. “We talked about us too, for a little bit. He implied you’d been talking to him too.”
“I have,” Sharon confirmed carefully. “What did he have to say to you?”
The knot of anxiety that had become a near constant in his belly since he learned Sharon was in the hospital — and if he were honest with himself, he would probably say since she returned — tightened. He glanced up from his plate to her to assuage her reaction, to see her picking at her roll. Steve took a deep breath. “That we should go to a counselor or something, get a neutral party to mediate. I think that was more him refusing to take a side on anything, but I don’t like being on the outs like this.”
“I don’t like it either,” Sharon said softly, “but a counselor isn’t going to be a cure all. You have to be honest with them, and even then you have to do all the work at home.” He opened his mouth to argue, but she raised her hand. “Let me finish, okay? I’m not opposed to psychologists or counselors. I think we have every season to seek one out, and it’s not like they’re completely foreign to me. After every major mission, SHIELD used to make their agents set down and talk with someone. The CIA was a little different, but there were still psych evals.”
“They made me go through a number when I woke up from the ice,” he admitted. He hated it, feeling like he was being mentally poked and prodded by a stranger.
“And you were dishonest in every one,” Sharon pointed out. Steve thought to argue, but knew better, if only because she wasn’t wrong. He hadn’t been completely honest with his psychologists. He didn’t trust them. “It’s one of the reasons they had me watching you.”
He knew this. She’d explained it all to him years ago. SHIELD had been worried that the worst case scenario of his return would be that he’d off himself, so they sent a pretty girl to monitor him. And sleep with him if she thought that would perk him up, but Sharon had more ethics than that.
“If we thought that was what we needed, I’d act differently,” he said. He reached out to grab her hand. “I don’t want to lose you...and I don’t want to drive you away either.”
“Well, I don’t think we are at that point regardless. We had a fight, and it’s one that’s still on the backburner and something we’ve been dancing around discussing, but it’s a fight.” She squeezed his hand and her expression softened. After a moment, she said, “I keep forgetting that you haven’t really done any of this before.”
“Relationship stuff. Fights are normal, so is bottling things up, even if it’s not the healthiest way to go about things,” Sharon answered. She was, perhaps, onto something. Sharon was his first relationship that actually went anywhere beyond a promise of maybe someday. He’d loved Peggy in his own way, but they never truly what a romantic dynamic between would look like aside from that one kiss. Sharon was more or less it for him. Anyone between losing and reuniting with her couldn’t even be described as a relationship. “A fight like what we had...it’s not the end. We both made mistakes, that’s true. It’s also true that we’re both still a little mad, and maybe we’ve danced around it for far too long. I’ve been hurt and angry, but I’ve never once since coming back have I thought about leaving.” She paused as if a realization had just struck her. Quietly, she asked, “Have you?”
“No,” he assured her quickly. He’d been irrationally afraid that this would push her away, that any further probing would make her leave. “but this was the first time you and I have really had an argument like...that.”
They had argued in the past, but when they were on the run the situation had been different. It was about battle strategy and the strains of being undercover, not trust, not something he didn’t know how to fix.
“I’m going to be honest and tell you know it probably won’t be the last,” Sharon replied. She let go of his hand. “We never had fights like this when we were on the run, because we couldn’t. Not really. There were audiences, and the threat of our safety. I think there were times when we more or less forced ourselves to deal for the greater good. Even the past month or so, we’ve been reacting and not really processing. It’s just...we’re finally in a situation where it feels safe enough for it to all come to a head...which isn’t completely a bad thing.”
It was clear that she had been thinking a lot since their last argument. What she was saying made sense, and echoed what Sam had said. Steve also knew if he gave it more thought he would begin to second guess all of their past interactions, so he didn’t.
“This...this is why you didn’t want to get married,” he said after a beat. This was the first time he’d explicitly called her out on it. “You wanted to know how we worked without threats hanging over our heads.”
And the way they worked was walking around on eggshells and hiding their feelings until one or both of them exploded. That was not a happy realization.
“In part, yeah.” Sharon poked at her salad rather aggressively. Steve was sure their meal was starting to get cold, but he his appetite was waning as their conversation went on. “Another part is that I didn’t want to get married just because I’m pregnant.”
“It wouldn’t have been just because of that,” he said quietly. He’d thought about it more than once when they’d been on the run, daydreaming about better days when they could be happy and at peace. Perhaps that was why he’d latched on so hard when Sharon confessed she was pregnant. It was another way to have that dream with the woman he loved. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Sharon told him. Steve could tell by the way she said it, that she truly meant it. He could also tell that a ‘but’ was going to follow. He wasn’t wrong. “But we never talked about marriage back then. You can’t tell me you had a ring. The only time it came up was when you found out I was pregnant.”
He understood her point, but he had one of his own. He might as well lay all of his cards out on the table. “Then consider this me talking about it. I want to marry you. I’ve wanted to marry you for a very long time, and not just because you’re having my baby. And I know the answer right now is ‘no’, I understand that. But I want you to know that I’m all in, and that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help get you to that point.”
He waited for her to shoot him down, break his heart, reveal that the reason she talked about needing space was because she didn’t foresee a future with him.
“Those are strong words, Captain Rogers,” Sharon said instead. She was smiling, that was something. There were still topics they needed to address, but this was a start, an end goal.
“I mean it,” he stressed, because he felt like this was important. “I don’t want to be dancing around one another anymore, tip-toeing around what upsets us. I don’t want to do anything else that could put us in jeopardy. I want to prove to you that we can do this.”
“You know that’s a two-way street, right? It wasn’t just me who was holding things in,” Sharon pointed out. She wasn’t wrong, either.
“I know,” Steve admitted, “which is why I want to promise you that I’ll try to be better. And if that means going to a counselor or whatever Sam suggested, I’ll do it.”
“You’re really serious about this.”
“I am.” He hadn’t intended for their conversation to go this way. In fact, he’d spent most of the past week dreading sitting down and talking to her, but now that he had, he felt like a weight had been lifted. He had a mission, something to work toward.
“What happens after you convince me?”
“What?” She always knew how to keep him on his toes. It was one of the reasons why he loved her. Sharon challenged him.
“You convince me to marry you. We have the rest of our lives together, what then?” Sharon asked him. His heart momentarily swooped at her first sentence. Sharon took a sip of her drink before continuing. “The world doesn’t stop just because you put a ring on it.”
“Let me be the judge of that,” he replied with a smile. She wasn’t pushing away, she wasn’t backtracking. She was pushing for more, asking about a future for both of them. By God, he could work with that. “If you want an answer, it’s this: I know it won’t be perfect, and you’re probably right when you say we’ll fight some more, because we’re those kind of people. But I promise I will love you, and I will do everything in my power to the best kind of partner you deserve, and the kind of father our child deserves. That’s what happens next.”
And for the first time in a very long time, Steve didn’t have doubt.
Our babes still aren't the best at communicating, but they're getting there...!
Next Chapter: We get more insight into what Sharon is feeling. She has a fantastically absurd meeting, and a Thing happens. Also we find out the sex of Baby Captain 13, so that's something.
Sharon’s first few weeks at SWORD were full of meetings, briefings, and stacks of files that had yet to be digitized. She spent most of her free time in her office pouring over notes regarding the various alien species that existed, some with commentary from Carol Danvers and the various Guardians before they had all jettisoned off to outer space. The information dump was fascinating, but if Sharon spent too much time reading, she would go cross-eyed.
The downside of her organization was that it was just gearing up, and ostensibly existed only to combat extraterrestrial threats. Fortunately for the planet, and unfortunately for Sharon’s workflow, alien invasions were actually few and far between. The most fascinating thing on her radar was a cosmic storm that would be passing by Earth that would affect the planet at all. Her first week, she had met with a scientist named Reed Richards who tried to convince her that it was worth sending people up into the storm to study the cosmic radiation, but that sounded both insanely dangerous and not within SWORD’S purview. She let him down as gently as she could, and despite some protestations that meeting went smoothly. Still weird, though.
The meeting at least gave Sharon a story to tell to Maria at their weekly working lunch. This week they were holed up in her office eating takeout sushi. Sharon praised the sushi gods for the various tempura rolls, which the pregnancy books cleared as safe.
“So he wanted to go into a storm? A storm that has the high potential to kill him and everyone with him on the ship?” Maria asked, gesturing with her chopsticks. “Is he even an astronaut?”
“Nope.” Sharon shook her head. “Just a scientist doing science things.”
“Even Tony wasn’t that nuts.” Maria paused while she savored her roll. “Well, on second thought, he probably would have bankrolled it.”
Richards reminded Sharon of Tony Stark in some ways. He was both arrogant and incredibly intelligent, but he carried himself in a much quieter way. More nutty professor than Tony’s charismatic mad scientist. Sharon had looked him up before her meeting. He survived the Decimation, and was a scientist studying unstable molecules and the multiverse theory, am earnest in his endeavors, of impractical. It surprised her how not far off his mark he was in the end.
“I am envious of you getting the interesting meetings, though,” Maria said between bites. “I get policy wonks and the Avengers. Woohoo.”
Most people would consider serving as liaison to the Avengers both cool and worthy of far more than a sarcastic woohoo. Maria was not most people, and had spent years interacting with the team. They were familiar people she hung out with on the day-to-day, not the superstars most people considered them to be. If anything, they probably gave her more headaches than anything.
The relationship SWORD had with the team was complicated. It resembled the one SHIELD and the Avengers had shared, but many of the team still felt burned by the Hydra infiltration and the mess created by the Accords. This was an attempt to establish a status quo to prevent any of that from happening again, but Sharon understood why some of her friends, Steve included, were wary. Everyone now had relative safety, they did want to lose it again. That safety, however, was why Steve said he was willing to try.
“It could be like before the Accords. Things were fine then.”
That didn’t keep him from wanting to develop an exit strategy.
“I trust you. And I trust Fury and Hill, most of the time. But the rest of the government suits? Not so much. I want to avoid what happened last time, but if the situation goes pear-shaped, I want us to have a plan if we need to get you and the baby away and someplace safe.”
She told him that he was starting to think like a spy.
But until things went pear-shaped, Steve supported Natasha’s proposal to have an unofficial/official relationship with SWORD...assuming they didn’t infringe on their ability to do their jobs. Hill was assigned to the team to check in. She was the one with a history of working with them, and didn’t have any conflicts of interests. When Steve asked if that bothered Sharon, she was honest in saying that it didn’t. For the most part, she wanted to have her professional and personal life separate. He seemed more put out than she did, but it wasn’t like she wouldn’t get his opinion on anything. He was generally open about the goings-on of the team. He always had been.
At least with the work the team was now doing, it meant SWORD had little involvement. The Avengers had gone on a few peace-keeping and search-and-rescue missions, all Earth-based without cosmic threats. Earthquakes in South America, volcanoes in the Hawaii islands — if they were needed, some formation of the Avengers appeared. It made for a good mix of building goodwill and actually doing good, although Steve chafed under the PR implications. Steve had even been gone for a few nights. Sharon was surprised how much she missed sleeping beside him.
“You know, there’s something to be said about meeting with a known quantity. I never know what I’m getting with these new people,” Sharon pointed out, feeling the need to be supportive.
“Yes, but a known quantity is less...interesting. I want the interesting people to come calling me.”
“I think I have more notoriety than you. It brings out the crazies.” Sharon’s name being in the news meant that she had a higher profile than most — former enemy of the state, the pregnant woman who stopped an armed assailant, Captain America’s girlfriend. She didn’t love the attention. To his credit, Richards had only mentioned her salon heroics in passing. His girlfriend thought she was impressive.
“Fair. You do have the shit end of the stick there.” Maria Hill was not one to sugarcoat the truth. “I would not want to deal with the paps.”
No spy did.
“I can’t say I didn’t walk into it,” Sharon admitted. She knew better than anyone what the consequences of betraying the CIA would be, as well as the complications that came with dating Captain America.
Conversation tapered as they finished off their rolls. Sharon took a moment to scroll through her phone, noting that she had a couple of messages from Steve. He was trying to get better about no hovering so much, all part of his promise to prove that they could make their relationship work and show that he could respect her autonomy. He was getting better, she had to admit, so the deluge of texts surprised her. Once she read them, she understood why.
“So apparently Bucky adopted a cat.” She held out her phone so that Maria could see the photo of the white ball of fur Steve had sent. “His name is Alpine.”
“Huh. He would have struck me as a dog person,” Maria replied, studying the photo before handing the phone back to Sharon. Based on the tone of his messages, Steve was also perplexed. Happy, but perplexed, if only because this seemed like a random, sudden life choice. Sharon typed out a quick ‘ cute!’ before setting her phone back to the side. “I’m glad our newest former assassin friend seems to be handling re-entry well. Wakanda must have had quite the influence. Especially since he got a cat.” She paused, considering what she said, and laughed. “God, our lives.”
It was amusing. “Right? Even knowing some of the stuff SHIELD got into, if you told me when I signed up that this was where it all would lead, I would have thought you were testing me.”
“I wouldn’t blame you.”
Alien invasions and treason, Russain spies and Norse Gods, men from wars past waking up from decades on ice -- this had become her life. Sharon had never been one to crave a normal life -- the white picket fence and the soulless, office job. She wanted adventure and danger. She found it in spades.
“Does anything ping our weird-o-meters anymore?” Sharon asked. She tried to think of something recently that freaked her out. Even the element of time travel had been easy to roll with. She might have worried something would go wrong, but that was mostly because it had been her lover doing the time traveling. The concept, itself, was a surprisingly easy pill to swallow considering everything she and those around her had experienced.
“Honestly? I still think the weirdest thing now is that you’re going to be a mom. The only thing keeping me from thinking that you were a pod person is that I know that you didn’t plan it. Or Skrull, as the case may be.”
Sharon had learned that shapeshifting aliens were living among them. Apparently, they were good guys. What a subversion of the trope.
“It’s not like I think you’d be a bad mom. You’re going to be great,” Maria assured her. “But...you’re the first friend I still talk to that is having a kid. It’s literally the most normal of life changes. Waking up five years in the future feels more in line with my life than that.”
Maria gestured to Sharon’s belly.
She wasn’t wrong. It was surprisingly normal. Normal being something that most people could potentially do, if they so wanted and barring any health complications. As was Bucky adopting a cat, if she really thought about it. Those were the small life changes that reminded them that they were human. Having a baby. Adopting a pet. Relaxing with a friend and talking about those things, and not just fire falling from the skies.
“You know me, I like to keep things interesting.”
“It’s not just that. It reminds me that there can be more to life than the hijinks our super-powered friends and the people trying to kill them...and us. I don’t want a kid at all,” Maria was staunchly childfree, “but it’s nice to see people doing what they want with their lives, even the ones in the thick of it. It gives me hope that everything I’ve dedicated my life to isn’t for naught.”
“Well, I’m glad to have given you hope.” Sharon placed her hand on her belly and sighed. According to her books, she would start feeling the flutters and kicks soon.
There must have been something about her tone of voice, because Maria cocked her head and studied her carefully. “At this risk of turning lunch serious, everything okay?”
That was a loaded question, insomuch that it was a complicated one to answer. “Honestly? I am, but I’m not. I think I’ve come to the realization that my life, in many ways, has spun completely out of control and I’m working through trying to figure out how to get it on track.”
“That feeling of loss of control isn’t good for people like us,” Maria replied with a sense of understanding. After all, why else would one join various government organizations to work as a spy or fight the evils of the universe if you didn’t crave some sense knowledge or control over life. Almost everyone at SHIELD back in the day had extensive Type A tendencies.
“It’s not. And it’s weird because I’m happy. I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am to meet my baby and figure out what kind of person they’re going to be. We have our twenty week scan next week, and every time I check the date I’m thinking it’s one day closer to knowing what they’re sex is going to be because that will be one new thing I learn about my kid,” Sharon gushed. She started to feel her eyes sting like they did every time she found herself on an emotional tangent about the baby. She was finally accepting the tears as part of her new normal. “But at the same time, I didn’t plan this. It was purely an accident. My birth control got fucking cut out of my arm and even that wasn’t intentional. It just happened. I always thought that when I had it kid would be controlled. Something I planned for and talked about.”
Sharon took a long steadying breath. “And then there’s the house. I love that house. It’s a great house. If I had been in the market for houses in Brooklyn, it’s likely that I would have chosen that one or something like it. But that’s the thing. I didn’t choose that house. Steve did, and it pisses me off that I love this house so much, but am sometimes annoyed by it because I had no control in choosing it. I’m sure Steve would fine selling it if I said I wanted something different and without baggage, but I don’t want a new house. I want that one. I just wanted to be the one to also have a say.”
It was also why she was wary to agree to marrying Steve. She loved him. God, she loved him. As much as she wanted space from him, she also looked forward to walking through the front door and seeing his face. She enjoyed talking to him and holding his hand and the way they teased one another. She wanted to spend her life with him, but right now the concept of putting on a ring freaked her out. Was it just him being the one to propose? Of her legally tying her life to him? There would be a lot to unpack at their counseling session.
Maria had been quiet while she ranted. “I think everything you’re feeling makes sense considering what you’ve been through.”
“It just feels so hypocritical to be upset about it. So many people have it worse than I do, and I’m stressed about incredibly good things.”
“It’s not. Take your wrist for example. You’re allowed to be upset over spraining your wrist despite Bucky not having an arm. Yes, his situation is undoubtedly worse, but you still got hurt. From what I heard, even he was upset over you getting hurt, and he’s the one without an arm,” Maria said. “Likewise you’re allowed to feel weird about things in your life, even the good things. The entire world has suffered an intense amount of trauma.”
Maria was a wise friend.
“Is it weird that this job is helping me a bit?”
“I’m the absolute wrong person to ask that question, because I’m pretty sure I would have gone absolutely nuts if I didn’t know about Nick’s plans,” Maria replied. They were a lot of alike, in that sense. Knowing that Nick wanted to bring her into the SWORD fold had lifted a weight from her shoulders. “Look, you’re somebody who has never defined your worth by your relationships. In fact, I remember how pissed you were when anyone brought up your aunt. So having a space that’s completely yours outside of your personal life that gives you a sense of fulfillment or control is the logical next step.”
“Thank you for not making me feel crazy.”
“Oh, we’re all crazy here. You’re just no more crazy than the rest of us,” Maria replied with a grin. She stood up to throw away her trash.
Sharon laughed. “Our counselor won’t know what hit them.”
Dr. Rebecca Kaplan was a small, mousy-looking woman who hid her kind eyes behind wire-framed glasses. She wore plain clothes, and on her left hand, she wore gold wedding and engagement rings. Her appearance was both unassuming and comforting, and Sharon wondered if that was by design. Dr. Kaplan had come highly recommended when she and Steve had sent feelers around for someone to talk to, and the deep-dive Sharon had done into the woman’s history backed her up. She held degrees from Vassar and Columbia, was published, and had earned numerous awards and honors.
Knowing all of that did not prevent the bubble of anxiety from forming in her chest, nor did it stop Steve from nervously fidgeting by her side.
They were at their first counseling session. Weeks had passed before deciding they would seek an outside mediator to actually finding one and securing an appointment. A lot of people were seeking help, and they didn’t want to leapfrog anyone with their issues when other people had greater needs. They had given their real names when booking the appointment, but the appointment had been made for John and Abigail Grant. It was clear that the Dr. Kaplan’s practice had experience with famous clients.
“Can I get you anything? Water? Tea?” Dr. Kaplan asked. Her voice was warm and soothing, perfect for the job.
“I’m good, thank you,” Steve said. Sharon dug into her bag and pulled out a large water bottle.
“I’m covered,” Sharon said, brandishing the drink. She normally carried one around, but with the pregnancy she needed to drink even more. It was a wonder she didn’t live in the bathroom as it felt like she had the bladder of a small child. “I used to think I drank a lot of water before, but now it’s about all I consume. That and ginger ale.”
Dr. Kaplan smiled. “I’m a mother of three. I know how it goes.” Sharon’s expression must have looked as alarmed as she felt, because the other woman laughed. “That’s right, three. All boys, at that.”
“We’re having a girl,” Steve piped up by her side. As nervous as he seemed, he couldn’t hide the smile in his voice. Hewas ecstatic about the news. “We just found out today. She’s doing great too, growing like she’s supposed to and she’s healthy. At least, that’s what the tests say. We couldn’t find out half the information you can now back in the ‘40s. It’s amazing.” He paused, catching himself. “I’m sorry. I realize that probably sounded weird.”
“What it sounded like was a father excited to talk about his baby. There’s nothing weird about that at all.” Oh, Dr. Kaplan was good. “Yes, there’s no use in denying that your background is different than others, and I’m sure it has come with its own set of obstacles, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still human. I imagine if I found myself several decades in the future, I would be astounded by technology, as well.”
“I…thank you,” Steve said, clearly taken aback by the response. Sharon reached out to grab his hand and give him a comforting squeeze. Even knowing his feelings about strange therapists, she was still surprised by his anxiety. Then again, mental and emotional health was still very much an amorphous thing, and he was from a generation that barely considered ‘shellshock’ to be actual thing, let alone something worth pursuing. Had he not become friends with Sam, Steve might have never considered counseling in any form an avenue.
“No need to thank me,” Dr. Kaplan said. Her gaze drifted from Steve to Sharon and back. “I’m not going to pretend to not know who you are, either of you — but I think we all know that what I learned in history books and from the news barely scrapes the surface of who you are. So I’m hoping, if you’d let me, to learn a little bit about the real Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter, so I can help you achieve your goals for these sessions.”
They had only an hour, so they didn’t delve into much. They gave Dr. Kaplan the highlights of their goals, which could easily be summed up as “We don’t want to fuck this up,” and background on their relationship — how they met, what prompted them to start dating. Sharon was able to tell when the other woman had something she wanted to probe, she tended to ask a few questions here and there, inquiring how they felt about this and that. “How does what you feel about Sharon being assigned to spy on you differ than what you feel now?”, was one, and Sharon was comforted to know that he no longer was unhappy about it. At least not with her, but the revelation that SHIELD saw no issue with her sleeping with him while under disguise sat poorly with him.
Sharon had long since thought that Steve would benefit from individual therapy — something that both she and Sam agreed on. Steve was a walking ball of PTSD, and she knew the weight of the past five years hung heavily on him. If these next few sessions with Dr. Kaplan went well, Sharon hoped that she could perhaps coax him into seeking out one-on-one treatment. That was, however, a decision that had to be his choice. You couldn’t force someone into therapy. They had to want it for themselves. It was one of the reasons why SHIELD’s first go around had failed him.
They left Dr. Kaplan’s office having booked the next few appointments, making the caveat that world-ending disasters took precedence. Both she and Steve knew that would something that would come up in future sessions. Right now, she didn’t mind his disappearances, and knew she would have times when work would pull her away. She liked that they understood that about one another. However, they were soon going to be adding a third person to their family, and needed to plan how to work around their daughter’s needs.
“So...what do you think?” Sharon asked once they exited the building. She was grateful that she remembered to bring her scarf. Even though they had driven the insane Starkmobile to their various appointments, the walk from the building that housed Dr. Kaplan’s office to the underground parking garage would be chilly. She huddled closer to Steve, looping her arm around his outstretched elbow. She knew how he hated the cold.
“I think I am eager to learn what my love language is,” he replied. Dr. Kaplan had advised them to take a test to determine their love language, discuss it amongst themselves, and report back their findings.. “All in all, it wasn’t terrible. She seems considerate, and I felt comfortable talking with her.”
“I think that’s all you can ask for the first session.”
“I’m curious to see how she reacts to some of the weirder stuff we’ve been through. We really only covered our first meeting and everything wrapped up in that,” Steve said, like Sharon pretending to be a nurse as she spied on him didn’t rank high on the weirdness scale.
“I think she’s just trying to get a basis of the foundation of our relationship, helps better know where we come from,” Sharon explained. “You know how it goes. Boy meets girl, boy asks out girl not realizing she was secretly a spy, girl saves boy from being killed, boy and girl help bring down an evil organization...”
“Boy and girl meet up later and girl’s aunt’s-slash-boy’s former flame’s funeral, boy asks girl for help committing treason, boy finally works up the never to kiss the girl...ah yes, basic romance,” he teased. “At least it will be a good story to tell the kid.”
“I’m sure she’ll grow up idolizing it,” Sharon replied. It felt both weird and exciting referring to the baby inside of her as ‘she’. “When she would babysit, I’d ask for Aunt Peggy to tell me stories about her adventures with you...which I swear is not as weird as it sounds.”
“I mean, I’m sure they made for some great stories,” Steve laughed. “Honestly, Bucky helped me come to terms with some of that weirdness. He reminded me about the time he dated twins back-to-back...which ended in bruises, but that was normal for him. In comparison to that, we’re dealing with comparably little violence.” He paused and smiled. “Getting her blessing helped, too.”
Sharon returned his smile. “I’m still incredibly jealous you were able to speak with her.” She would give anything to talk to her aunt now, to give her one last hug and to say how much she meant to her, to ask for advice about the life path laid before her. “I want to make sure she lives on in our stories. I want our daughter to know her, to know the strong and inspiring women in her family.”
“There’s no doubt about that,” Steve assured her. “Although, she won’t want for female role models. I imagine she’s going to have a number of people fighting over who will be her favorite.”
He wasn’t wrong. Between Natasha and Maria, as well as the various other women they were friends with, their daughter had many women to emulate, if she so desired. That line of thought reminded Sharon to check her phone. They had turned both of theirs off shortly after texting their friends the baby’s sex, feeling somewhat rebellious as they shared an unplugged lunch before their appointment with Dr. Kaplan.
“So...how are the masses?” Steve asked when she powered her phone back on.
Sharon was unsurprised to multiple text notifications. The calls surprised her a little bit. Their friends knew she and Steve would be busy with appointments throughout the day. The color from her face drained when listened to her voicemails. “Babe, I’m going to need you to drive me to my office.”
“Are my people involved?” He was already pulling out his phone. She appreciated how quickly he lept into action, and didn’t protest that their day off together was coming to an abrupt end.
“No, just mine. Fuck.” Sharon fired off a text to Maria and Nick letting them know she was en route. “Remember that scientist I was telling you about? The one who wanted to go up to space to test something but both us and NASA said no? Well, guess who had a fucking spaceship and is in space right now.”
The drive to SWORD HQ was tense as Sharon fielded various calls. Steve was thankfully quiet, understanding her need for space, however whenever traffic was at a standstill, he placed a comforting hand on her thigh. She appreciated the gesture.
In another world, Sharon might have been amused that the first issue she encountered at SWORD was not extraterrestrial in nature, but rather someone from Earth. Since she had to deal with the issue, and was the last person to have met with Reed Richards, the reality was far less amusing. Nothing about their meeting had given her the sense that he would be the type of person to rocket themselves off into space half-cocked. As it turned out, Richards was the type of arrogant — or idiot — that rivaled the late Tony Stark.
“I love you. Let me know if you need anything,” Steve told her when he dropped her off. She gave him a quick kiss, before half-sprinting into the building.
The ride up the elevator was unbearably long.
“Where are we at?” Sharon asked once she entered the observation room. Fury and Hill were overlooking images of space and the storm passing by the planet, and on a different screen there was a headshot of Richards. In a different world, Sharon would find it funny how quickly she fell to referring to them as their last names in a crisis.
“We lost contact half an hour ago.” Hill’s voice was grim. Based on that alone, Sharon knew it hadn’t been intentional for either party.
“So you were talking to him?”
“We were. He was explaining that he couldn't lose the opportunity. It would be a decade before something like this happened,” Hill explained. In a more amused tone, she added, “I think he was worried that we would attempt to blow him out of the sky.”
“If Danvers had been here, I would have,” Fury interjected. “I thought I was finished dealing with idiotic, reckless, wannabe geniuses.”
“Well, chances are that this storm will kill him and everyone on board.”
“How many people are with him?” Sharon asked.
“He wouldn’t say. There has to be at least one other person to co-pilot the ship,” Hill replied.
Sharon thought back to her conversation with Richards. He hadn’t mentioned any associates, but she had shit him down pretty handily. When she’d done research on him, she’d read that he had attended MIT, Harvard, and Columbia, earning several degrees before age thirty, but nothing about close associates. Then she remembered. “He has a girlfriend. Maybe if we find her, we can figure out just what was happening.”
“You got a name, Carter?” Fury asked.
What was the name that he said? “Susan, I believe.”
Hill instructed someone to go search for any additional information her or her whereabouts. If anything, someone would likely need to inform Susan that her lover was dead. From her initial research, she learned that Richards had no living family. She might have been his only human connection.
“So what now?” Sharon asked. She stared back at the screen, at the floating ship that likely now served as a coffin. They had the capabilities of getting into space, but they wouldn’t risk the safety of anyone on their team to bring down the vessel.
“Wait. Come up with a communications plan when this inevitably makes it way to the public,” Hill replied with a dejected sigh.
“From what I gathered, Richards was making some noise in the scientific community. People will want an explanation for his death,” Sharon replied. She idly wondered how Hank Pym would react. If Steve’s secondhand report from Scott was correct, he was particularly unhappy with the discoveries Richards was making regarding unstable molecules. “And the people he brought up with them might have families.”
They summed the PR team to make plans and discuss the various ways this could turn into a communications crisis. Richards and his team making it to space without either SWORD or NASA knowing about the launch would play terribly with the press. She was thankful that he had also reached out to other government agencies, as it covered her own ass. She would find a way to resurrect and kill Richards if she lost her job because they needed someone to fall on the proverbial sword if it became a shitstorm.
“Sorry for ruining your day off,” Hill said after they’d discussed scenario after scenario with their Communications lead and the NASA team also assigned to the issue. Sharon was pretty sure her eyes were crossing.
“Hey, duty calls. Our plans for the rest of the day involved a shopping spree for baby things.” And sex, but she thought it best to not mention that. “We can do that any day.”
“That sounds like hell to me, but still get the vibe that you were excited for that.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I half-expect to get home and discover Steve has bought a mountain of things without me.”
Or he will have framed their most recent ultrasound photo. He was practically vibrating with excitement upon getting another one. His reactions were insanely cute. She couldn’t wait to see him with their baby in his arms.
Whatever Hill was about to respond was cut off when someone shouted for them to come over, and they followed the voice.
“The ship’s moving, and not just floating in space. It’s intentional. It’s being piloted back towards Earth,” Agent Santiago explained. “Someone is alive in there.”
“Can you determine trajectory?” Sharon asked. They would need to send their people out to meet the ship. Not just to apprehend Richards, but to also provide medical assistance.
As the team worked to determine just where the ship was likely to land, Sharon met with Hill and Fury to determine how many agents to send. SWORD had an incredibly small on-call medical unit, but they knew they would need to alert the local hospitals for broader care, assuming anyone was alive. For all they knew, although Santiago explain it would be very unlikely, the ship could be running on auto-pilot.
“Hill, I want you to go to the field. Carter, you stay and coordinate from here,” Fury instructed.
“Sir, I’m the one who has actually met with Richards. To him, I’m the best representative of SWORD. It would be a good idea to have me there,” Sharon argued. She knew why he was keeping her at HQ, despite all of the reasons why it would be ideal to have her present. “If you’re worried about radiation, put me in a suit.”
“Carter, do the job I told you to do.”
“Did I stutter?” Fury asked her.
Hill gave her an apologetic look before going off to gather the agents.
This was not the first time she had been benched due to her pregnancy. Steve had begged her not to go along to the mission in Wakanda, and she was clearly being left behind now because of it. Otherwise, Fury would have sent her to be the first person Richards and company saw. Objectively, she understood his reasoning. By the fifth month of pregnancy, women who worked with the police were often moved to light duty, and SHIELD had similar requirements. Subjectively, she was livid. She also wanted to cry, but was using every bit of strength to not to as it wouldn’t help her case at all.
She would not cry. That would make her look weak, and she absolutely couldn’t look weak at all. She might have made her peace with tears, but others had not.
Being “Mommy-tracked” was a well-known phenomenon in the professional world. Working mothers, whether they wanted to or not, were occasionally passed over for promotions or given less intense tasks. Sharon knew her life would change drastically when her daughter was born, but she was horrified that others could think her less capable because she was a mother. No one would think the same thing about Steve. Fury’s choices now weren’t exactly the same thing. She had physical considerations other did not, but she worried about the future.
Knowing she was having a daughter made her more concerned. Sharon had experienced many forms of sexism throughout her life, and heard stories from her Aunt Peggy. At times, the world felt demoralizing. She didn’t want her daughter to have the same worries. She wanted to model to her that she could succeed as a woman. Sharon wasn’t naive. She knew there was really no such thing as ‘having it all,’ but she wanted her child to dream.
While Hill and her team struck out once the crash site was confirmed — thankfully only a little over an hour away by jet — Sharon stewed and conducted research on her own. Nothing had sit the news or social media sites, thankfully. Not that she expected anything would until there was a body, but she was doing her due diligence. She also took her time to do a deeper dive into the life of Reed Richards.
He did not have much of a social media presence, which made finding his friends difficult. Her initial plan had been to learn more about Susan on her own, but she instead fell down the rabbit hole of learning more about his college career. It wasn’t intentional, but the name Victor Von Doom stood out.
“Nick, you said the ship took off from the states, right?”
“Because our guy has a history with Emperor Doom.” Fury peered over her shoulder. “I don’t know what exactly his past entailed, other than they were apparently in the same research lab around the time of Doom’s accident.”
The ruler of Latveria was reported as having significant facial scarring as a result of an experiment gone awry in college. He now wore a metal faceplate, which was both horrifying and absurd. Steve said it reminded him of the Red Skull. Considering how Doom essentially claimed himself as God Emperor of his home country, he wasn’t far off the mark.
“So you’re saying we could be dealing with an agent of Latveria.” Fury pressed a hand to his temple. In the past, Sharon had only seen this level of exhaustion directed toward Stark and Steve.
“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s weird, right?” Sharon leaned back in her seat. “It could explain why he was interested in joining up with either us or NASA...and why he emailed me almost immediately after the SWORD announcement. But at the same time, if he were working with Latveria, there are other avenues for getting in good with the government. He also just seemed entirely focused on the storm. He didn’t raise any flags, other than thinking he might be a little nuts.”
“But not enough flags to make you believe he would be doing this.” Fury gestured to the room around them. That stung, and meant he was pissed at her. Great. “Keep searching for any other connections. Apparently Brand is having issues tracking down the girlfriend.”
That wasn’t good.
“It can’t be as simple as him wanting to do science...right?” Sharon asked aloud. Her read on him said the answer would be yes, but years of experience told her that there had to be more to it. Then again, her boyfriend had signed up for a wild experiment for the sole purpose of wanting to help end the war. Ending the Second World War seemed a lot nobler than the simple pursuit of science.
“Not even Tony Stark cared solely about the pursuit of science,” Fury replied; however, Reed Richards was not Tony Stark.
Some time passed before Hill radioed into to inform them that they were approaching the ship. A fly-over confirmed that it had crash-landed. Meaning everyone on board was probably dead, Sharon thought grimly. When the SWORD team landed, she heard Hill give instructions to fan out and be careful. They had left with radiation suits, but burning fuel was dangerous no matter what.
“What are you seeing down there? Can you get into the ship?” Fury asked.
“I’m on it. Looking for a point of — what the fuck?” Rarely did Hill sound surprised when out on the field. It might have hit something coming down. There’s a huge chunk ripped out of the side. Definitely not a clean break.”
That didn’t make much sense, but Sharon didn’t say anything. At the speed at which the ship was returning, it would have needed something like a mountain to take out the exterior. They were not near any mountains.
“I’m going in.”
“Agent Hill! You need to get over here,” came a distinctly male voice. What was the agent’s name? Paxton? “There’s a man on fire.”
Sharon clapped her hand over her mouth, and Fury let out a light swear. She had smelt burning flesh before and watched as an enemy was burned alive by flames. It was a death she never wanted to witness again. Charred bodies were horrific sights. She only hoped the man had died before the fire overtook him.
“Make note of the casualty. Are there any other bodies?” Hill ordered.
“No, no. You don’t understand. He’s alive. He’s fucking alive and walking around.”
What the hell? Her day, Sharon realized, was going to become longer.
Next chapter: Steve plays the role of supportive boyfriend while Sharon deals with work.
AN: Okay. So I’ve been incredibly sick this past week, finished a current job, and will be traveling for the holidays. Because of my sickness, I feel behind in writing. As such, between now and Jan. 5 there might be one chapter instead of two. Sorry for the sad holiday news.
When Steve had gone AWOL, earning himself the title of enemy of the state, the security clearances that had been given to him had been revoked. He hadn’t been awarded them back when he had been given amnesty, and in the post-Snap world, he didn’t really care. When Natasha and Fury announced their plan to build a relationship between the Avengers and SWORD, he hadn’t given clearances much thought until Hill had given him a mountain of paperwork to complete, and it was only Sharon reminding him that his regained clearances would mean that she could talk to him about her work kept him from whining too much. He hated paperwork. He hated being in the dark even more, so he acquiesced. Steve was honestly a little surprised he could regain his clearances after the stunts he’d pulled, but helping saving the lives of half the universe held some sway.
As he sat in Sharon’s office and glanced over her files detailing the transformations a foursome of explorers had suffered in the name of science and adventure, he was glad he had completed the forms. The team had been brought on as consultants of sorts, if only because many of them had gained abilities and could serve as a frame of reference for what Richards and his friends had undergone. Bruce was the most useful as he could explain the science and had the most comparable experiences the four. Thankfully, no one seemed to have gained another personality. It still wasn’t pretty.
A human torch. A woman who flickered between visibility and invisibility. Bodily elasticity. A man whose entire body had been turned to stone. It all made Steve grateful that Erskine’s serum had given him the body it did. Hill has mentioned Steve could be useful in relating to them on the bodily changes. He thought she was being overly hopeful. The serum had given him a bodily upgrade. Steve wasn’t sure he could call any of the transformations that.
Besides, most of his concern was not focused on the foursome, but Sharon. Perhaps that made him selfish. Others were suffering, and he would do what he could to help with that. But that fact of the matter was that he wasn’t the most equipped to deal with that situation. What he could do was serve as a pillar of support for the woman he loved, even if that meant ensuring she ate and took breaks to sit. He’d do his best not to hover and let her do her job, but he couldn’t deny that he was worried.
Sharon had been the one to last meet with Reed Richards, and it weighed on her heavily. She’d called him late that first night, too tired and stressed to take the subway, and she’d fallen asleep in the car before they’d even crossed the bridge. He’d gotten a short version of what had happened over breakfast the next morning before she’d rushed back to work. She’d pulled early mornings and late night since — a habit he was sure wasn’t completely healthy for her or the baby. So when Hill has floated that the Avengers potentially help determine what exactly happened with the foursome, he’d jumped at the chance.
Natasha saw right through him, he was sure; but she also said nothing when he’d surreptitiously arrive with boxes of donuts or pizza or foodstuffs in an effort to coax Sharon into remembering to eat. Maybe not the healthiest food, but Steve was working on learning when and how to choose his battles. He, too, had noticed that Natasha appeared to suggest more sit down meetings to go over everything with her specifically, claiming Hill was busy, likely to get her out of the lab and sitting. Hill might have been the official Avenger liaison, but Sharon was still senior staff.
Although Steve and Natasha had not had a formal conversation about the rift between them, whatever occurred had started to mend. She was still one of his best friends, he couldn’t stay mad forever. Somewhere along the way, especially now, Steve had started to realize that the reason she had chosen Sharon’s side likely had to do with her prioritizing Sharon’s well-being and autonomy. And that maybe it was her way of dealing with the trauma of the past. Besides, now they appeared to be on the same side in trying to watch out for Sharon’s well-being. That matter significantly. If Sharon noticed anything of their subtle manipulations — and if she didn’t, it was because she was far too distracted with her own work — then she said nothing.
Did this fall under the umbrella of him hovering too much? Potentially, yes. However, Steve decided that “too much” hovering was reserved for situations where she would be ostensibly fine. He recognized he needed to get a reign on his fears when she left the house or was out of his sight for too long. That, he realized, was fear talking. But this? She was distracted and stressed, enough that others had noticed. He felt perfectly justified in stepping in, and if she called him out on it, he would say just that. Until then, he would continue with his current course of action.
“Mmmmm, those burgers smell amazing,” Sharon said as she worked on moving the giant piles of papers on her desk so they could both eat.
“Anything for my best girl.”
“I think I’m now going to have competition for that title.”
“I can have two. Best partner, best daughter.” He unwrapped and organized their food on the paper plates he had stolen from employee kitchen.
They could have eaten in the public seating area, but there was something nice about ferreting themselves away. They were still in her office, still at her work, but she could lower her walls and relax. Besides, he enjoyed spending one-on-one time with her away from her prying eyes. Like with SHIELD, some of the SWORD staff still looked up at him with starry eyes. Behind the closed doors of her office, they could be Steve and Sharon, not Captain America and Agent Carter.
“Speaking of girls, I heard through the grapevine that our friends apparently want to host us a baby shower.”
“That is a thing people do, I think.” He had vague memories of Natasha telling him that she had ordered something for baby Morgan. Steve had been too consumed with grief and envy to engage. Had things not gone the way they did, his baby and Morgan would have been born within a year of each other. “I assume that means we’ll have to make a list of things we want or need.”
He had already started a deep dive into researching different types of strollers and swings. There was a lot of information out there. It was vaguely mind-boggling, especially considering how the rules had apparently changed from his original time period. It was something he and Bucky had commiserated over. Steve was grateful to have someone who understood his initial frames of reference.
“I don’t even want to think about having the time to build a registry,” Sharon said with a frown. She poked a few fries into her ketchup, resignation apparent on her face.
“We’ll find time,” Steve insisted. They needed to find ways to prioritize their family when it came to their work. This could serve as practice. He paused to take a bite of his burger. “This mess won’t be going on forever.”
“I suppose not,” Sharon replied. They ate silently for a little while longer. “Oh, Hill has already warned Banner, but I thought it might be worth it to give you a heads up as well. Thunderbolt Ross is making his way to HQ.”
Steve coughed, nearly choking on his meal. Ross meant trouble. “You don’t need to tell me how bad that could be for them.”
There had been some fretting over what todo with the group. There technically weren’t any laws against what they did, but Steve knew that Ross would do anything possible to concoct a reason to trap and experiment upon the foursome if he had the chance. Their current state provided that opportunity.
“Why do you think we brought you in?” Sharon asked him. “‘It wasn’t just to provide insight on what weird powers a person could get. It was to also have witnesses. I’m pretty sure Hill is feeding information about his kids for Franklin Storm to leak to the press anytime now.”
Steve raised a brow. “You all thought about this.”
“We are good at our jobs,” Sharon replied dryly. “They’re an inane science experiment gone awry. Not pawns for government use.”
They had been able to mostly clear the foursome of being foreign agents. The former SHIELD agents brought into SWORD were particularly skilled in that regard. They had also brought Wanda in for help, but the overwhelming lot negative emotions meant that she couldn’t stay long.
“Whatever is going on, there is fear and guilt for each other. Failure, but not to a country or ideology, but the people he loves, ” Wanda said after a brief visit with Reed Richards.
Someone had called him a living Stretch Armstrong. Steve hadn’t caught the reference, but he understood the meaning when he witnessed the other man’s abilities. Steve was frustrated with the man’s arrogance, and how his actions had put Sharon in a bind, but he also felt a strange sense of empathy. Richards’ friends had followed him on an adventure only for their lives to be forever changed. Steve could relate.
“No one seems to be able to figure out what is happening with Ben Grimm. Bruce doesn’t know how to help him.” Or anyone, but at least the others looked human. “Letting him back into the world will be rough. As Sam likes to say, re-entry is hell. And that’s true for people who don’t look like rock monsters.”
“Well, maybe that’s how Bruce can help. He might understand his plight, and how it feels to look different. And Ben Grimm isn’t totally alone. He has people who love him.”
“Except his fiancé, apparently.” Ben Grimm had been engaged. His fiancé had taken on look at him when they brought her into HQ and promptly left. She hadn’t come back since, nor had she reached out for support. “For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t dump you if you got turned into a rock thing.”
“Right back atcha.”
She meant it, too. He often wondered how people would react to him if he had his old body. Mostly no one paid him any kind when he was small and spindly. That dichotomy was one of the many reasons why he’d been wary of initially dating anyone in general. Sharon was certainly attracted to him, but she saw more than just his physicality.
He watched as she finished her burger. Something about her expression told him she had something to say. She swallowed, and said, “It’s really going to make things worse that the guy who got him into the mess still has the woman he loves. At least, for now.”
“You think she’ll dump him?” Steve asked. They had learned that Susan Storm had followed along on the space joyride for fun. She wasn’t a scientist. She hadn’t even finished college, not that it mattered. She’d dropped out to raise her younger brother after their father had disappeared in the Snap. Steve found that to be incredibly admirable.
Both Susan and her brother’s presence also indicated that Reed’s trip hadn’t just been about science. He wanted to also impress the woman he loved, have her witness space and everything it offered, to also make history. The end result was not what he had in mind.
“Right now, I think they’re too consumed with worrying about each other to really think about relationship implications. They went through a lot, it’s what comes after that will make them or break them.”
“That sounds familiar.”
After taking a drink of water, Sharon asked, “Projecting?”
“A little,” he admitted. Steve finished off his fries. “At the end of the day, I still find myself rooting for love.”
Sharon raised her drink “To love then.”
“To love.” He tapped his water bottle against hers. The action felt incredibly silly, and he began to laugh. It wasn’t the funniest thing in the world, but she joined him nonetheless. It was the first time in days he’d actually heard the sound. Her laugh was very pretty. He’d missed it considerably.
“God, I needed that,” she said as her giggles subsided. “Thank you for that.”
“I aim to please.”
“You do.” She reached across the desk for him, and clasped his hand. “And you look out for me too.”
So she had noticed. And she hadn’t yelled at him for hovering. Maybe she was trying too. “I want you to be happy...and well fed.”
“You do a good job at it,” she told him, and a happy warmth settled in his chest.
“I was worried you’d be mad at me,” he admitted. Might as well communicate. That’s what they were supposed to do, right?
“It’s your job to worry about me, isn’t that what you said?” He was surprised to hear her parrot him without sarcasm. “Feeding me, giving me the option to step back while still allowing me to do my job, that’s the good kind of worrying.”
“I can work with that,” he replied with a smile. “Thank you for working with me.”
“We’re a team, you and me. It’s what we do.”
A tsunami brought some of the team to the Dominican Republic to help sort through the wreckage. Sam said it reminded him of an earlier tsunami that ravaged Indonesia. Steve had been in the ice for that, but he’d read about the tragedy when he’d been trying to catch up on everything that he’d missed. That tsunami had been a tragic loss of life. His only hope was that their presence could provide some relief.
He didn’t mind that the Avengers had essentially turned themselves into a specialized search and rescue team. Their abilities allowed them to perform feats that the first responders could not, meaning more lives saved. That’s all that mattered in the end. Besides, it built goodwill. Steve cared less about that. He didn’t need people to like him. He cared about doing the right thing. In this case, Fury’s desire for the Avengers to maintain a good reputation and his own desire help people coincided.
Not that he felt like he was helping people, wading through the water and the mess. He hadn’t found a living person yet. He’d pulled plenty of bodies out of the muck. It reminded him of the War, walking through battlefields and rarely stumbling upon a living soul. It was one of the most demoralizing jobs. His only solace was that this was helping families find closure. Closure was better than nothing.
“How’s everyone doing?” Steve asked into his comm-link.
“I’ve seen better days,” Bucky responded. A few others chimed in. They all sounded demoralized.
For the first time, Steve was glad Wanda couldn’t be here to help, but instead on some sort of non-Avengers related mission with Strange. It would be far too upsetting with the way she fed off others’ emotions. She had been having a rough go of her return. Shuri had apparently been struggling with bringing Vision back to life, pulling Wanda further into her depression. It didn’t help that so many others had reunions with their loved ones and lives were moving forward.
Steve understood that feeling all too well, but now he was on the other side of the coin. He had the woman he loved back and safe in his arms. Their baby — their daughter — was growing as she should, and there weren’t many more months left until he could hold her. He and Sharon were working through their problems. Bucky and Sam were back, and beginning to bond. Steve was as happy as he ever had been.
Perhaps that was why Wanda tended to avoid him, and he her. She didn’t want to reflect in his unbridled joy and he felt an immense wave of guilt whenever he was around her or anyone else that didn’t come out on the other side better.
Was this how Tony felt? Was the guilt that his life came out essentially for the better those years just one more reason for him and Pepper to ensconce themselves away from the world? He wished he knew. He had may regrets about the dissolution of his relationship with Tony. They had begun to patch things up toward the end. He hoped they had more time.
The people here knew that feeling better than everyone. They had their lives and their futures all planned out, and it was washed away in the moment. There were magical stones to fix their problems. They would be the ones left behind and rebuild. It would be a nightmare. He didn’t envy them.
“Hey everyone, we’ve got a problem,” Natasha’s voice fizzled over the comm link. “There are reports of a series of small earthquakes in New York City. A few of us are needed back in the city as soon as possible. Cap, Barnes, meet me back at the Quinjet. The rest of you, stay here.”
Natasha kept her tone professional. That, perhaps, made it worse when she summoned him to the jet. He wasn’t an idiot. Small earthquakes in the city didn’t require anyone to be pulled away from a situation of this magnitude unless they were really needed. If they were needed in New York, then Natasha knew that Steve would insist he go. She wouldn’t ask for Bucky specifically unless she thought he was needed. There was no use in taking two super soldiers when it would be most efficient to keep them split. The only reason she’d ask Bucky to help would be for emotional support.
Natasha already had the jet powered and ready to go when he arrived. They took off almost as soon as he sat down. “What’s the situation?”
“The initial reports indicated a series of small earthquakes in Manhattan, but,” Natasha took a deep breath, “there have been follow-up reports saying that a monster came up from under the ground.”
“Like Godzilla?” Bucky asked. At Steve and Natasha’s confused looks, he shrugged, “It was on the television. Seemed interesting.”
“It’s going to take hours to get to the city,” Steve noted. “That’s too long if a monster is tearing up the town. Have you been able to reach to Strange or Wanda?”
Strange could create a portal to transport themselves to wherever the monster was. It would be much faster than this. He felt caged. He needed to get to the city. To Sharon. She likely would be at the SWORD HQ in Midtown.
“No, but I’ve sent a message to Spider-Man. He’s en route, if not already there,” Natasha explained. “I’ve had some contact with SWORD. They’re being mobilized, alongside the National Guard. I have someone trying to locate Sharon so you can talk to her.”
“Thank you.” That didn’t change the fact that he would be on edge until he could hear her voice. Even then he wouldn’t truly feel like she was safe until the threat was dealt with and he had her in his arms.
He felt powerless in the jet, even going at top speed. She was in danger, and he was trapped in a flying tube of metal, unable to do anything to help her but wait. He couldn’t help but wonder what would happen when he got to the city. What would he find? He was taken back to the cabin in the woods, screaming her name and finding nothing but ash. His fingers thrummed impatiently against his shield — newly fashioned as a gift from Wakanda. Tony had refused to turn back the clock in order to save Morgan. One life against billions. Steve had made the same wager for Vision. He felt it even more so now as they barreled toward the city. Millions were at risk, but all he could think about was her. That did not make him an effective soldier. Quite the opposite, really.
“When we get there, just drop me overhead.” Natasha could land the jet at SWORD HQ. That would be the most ideal situation.
“I guess I’ll drop, too,” Bucky added, resigned to follow Steve into battle even if it meant dropping from a jet without a parachute. They would survive.
“Some people might call you two adrenaline junkies,” said from the front.
“And if that someone were you, I’d argue the the pot would be calling the kettle black.”
“Oh, I’m someone who owns who I am, thank you very much.”
“Is that so?”
Steve was not in the mood for banter, especially considering the flirty tone the conversation had taken. He wasn’t entirely sure what was going on between Natasha and Bucky. They kept that close to their chests, but Steve was certain that whatever they were was no longer platonic. Had he been in a better mood, it would be something he’d maybe chide Bucky about, or at least make a mental not to tell Sharon. They had a small joke about when their favorite former assassins might once again hook up. But Steve was stressed and worried, and their attitude grated on his nerves.
“Do you know when we will get status updates about the situation?” Steve asked, drawing the conversation back to the problem at hand.
“I don’t. They’ll get something to us when they’re able,” Natasha answered.
He didn’t like the sound of that. It meant the longer they had silence, the messier the situation was. Knowledge of Sharon’s whereabouts was a priority to Steve, but he wasn’t fool enough to think it was a priority to everyone. Someone might have been assigned to track her down, but if they were needed elsewhere, life or death problems would take precedence.
“She’ll be fine, Steve,” Bucky told him. “She’s tough and resourceful. Remember after she came back? She got herself to the hospital, found food and water, and made her way back to the cabin. Earthquakes and weird creatures? That’s nothing.”
He wanted to thank Bucky for his assurances, but all Steve could think of was ash, of begging her to stay away only to lose her in the end.
“She also stole your shit back from under the noses of the CIA.”
“I really should be recording this to show her when we get back. Title it, ‘Bucky Lists Sharon Carter’s Greatest Hits’,” Natasha teased.
Steve didn’t know if this was more unbearable than the flirting, but he still managed to say, “She’s amazing.”
This was something he needed to talk about with a therapist. The fact that he was admitting that about himself was probably progress.
They were a short distance from the city when they received a dispatch not about Sharon, but rather the situation as a whole: “It’s been resolved.”
“I guess that Spider-Kid is more effective than anyone gave him credit for,” Bucky mused.
It wasn’t until they reached the city and landed that they got the full story. Steve didn’t care about that. Instead his focus was entirely on the woman waiting for him. There was nothing professional about the way he raced to her, pulling her into a warm embrace. He tucked Sharon close against him, and pressed a kiss the crown of her head.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Her hair smelled of both her floral shampoo and smoke. They’d seen the wreckage as they flew over the city. It was far from the worst New York had suffered, but it was clear that many people had still been hurt.
“I’m fine. No worries.”
He didn’t ask twice, despite his first instinct being to ask more follow-up questions.That would only annoy her, and he needed to see her smile. He still held onto her when they entered the building to be debriefed. She had once complained about his need to keep touching her, but she seemed to tighten her hold on him this time, like she sensed how much he needed this.
“I love you,” he told her.
“I know,” she replied. “Sorry for pulling you all up this way when you’re needed elsewhere.”
“Just because the threat is stopped, doesn’t mean I’m not needed here,” Probably for the best that the team had dispersed themselves. “I’m glad Spider-Man was here to help.”
“It wasn’t him.” She led him to an empty room where multiple screens displayed various news stations. They were all covering the situation in Manhattan, and the individuals who stopped it. “It was them.”
“—four individuals with marvelous powers—”
“—per one of the members, calling themselves the Fantastic Four—”
“No relation to the Avengers, who were elsewhere during this crisis—”
“—a woman who could turn herself invisible—”
“—Reed Richards, noted scientist—”
“Looks like the Avengers have competition,” Bucky mused.
“Where are they now?” Steve asked.
“Meeting with the mayor,” Sharon replied. “He was very impressed with their display.”
He was surprised they had stopped the monster. They weren’t soldiers. They were civilians. But wasn’t that the goal? For people to step up in a time of crisis, everyone to their ability? Steve didn’t know what this meant, but he had the sinking feeling that everything was about to irrevocably change.
Thanks for reading :)
Next Chapter: The media now has new superhero darlings, and Sharon continues to prepare for Baby Captain 13.