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An Early Thaw

Chapter Text

 Steve woke up slowly. There was no one moment when he regained consciousness... it was a drawn-out process of blurred lights, distant sounds, and a soft, gradual warming. He was vaguely aware of voices, but couldn't identify what they were saying or even what language they were speaking. At one point he thought he could see faces hovering over him, but although they were familiar, he couldn't put names to them.

He wondered if he were dead. He didn't think he was... if he were dead, surely the slow, steady thump of his heartbeat would not have been audible to him. But he couldn't be properly alive, either. Not when he was unable to move or speak.

The first thing that really got through was the voice of the radio announcer.

Just an absolutely gorgeous day here at Philly field! The Phillies have managed to tie it up, but the Dodgers have three men on...

Those words were familiar. Steve had heard them on a summer day, years ago, not distant and tinny over a radio but loud and close over the PA system at the ball park. For a moment he was transported back there, sitting in the bleachers with the sunshine on his face, waving a pennant while Bucky hurried back from buying them each a bottle of soda pop. The bases were loaded, and any moment now...

Then, suddenly, his eyes opened.

Steve was lying flat on his back on a bed in a strange room, staring up at a fan turning slowly against a white ceiling. When he sat up to look around, he found that the voice was coming from a little wireless set on a dressing table. He frowned – why was he listening to that? That game had been four years ago. There'd be no reason to re-broadcast it now. It was a recording, clearly, with the playback machine disguised as a radio. But why?

As he reached full, proper consciousness, Steve realized there were other sounds besides the game. He could hear the curtains rustling – the window was open. Outside there was the sound of traffic on the streets, both human and automobile, and the distant shouts of voices and barking of dogs. The room looked like a hospital room, with sea-green walls and plain, utilitarian furniture. There was a radiator under the window. A clock on the table beside the bed. It was all so familiar, and yet somewhere, deep down in his gut, Steve knew something was wrong.

The door opened, and a woman walked in, smiling. “Good morning,” she said. “Or should I say afternoon?”

Steve didn't answer right away. Instead, he looked her over, frowning. She was wearing a beige blouse and a brown skirt and tie... fair skin, blue eyes, auburn hair in spiral curls. Yet somehow even she wasn't right. Something about the way her clothes hung on her body, as if they weren't put together quite right... or was it the way she carried herself? Her makeup, perhaps? The length of her hair? It was wrong.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“You're in a recovery room in New York City,” the woman replied – but her voice was somehow wrong, too. Where was she from? It definitely wasn't New York. In the soft light slanting through the windows, Steve could see the edge of her bra through her blouse, and even that was wrong. Enough women had thrown themselves at Steve over the past couple of years for him to know what a bra looked like – it didn't look like that.

The Dodgers take the lead! the radio announcer gushed, delighted. Steve remembered jumping to his feet to cheer, only to be downed a moment later by an asthma attack...

He shook himself back to the present. “Where am I really?” he wanted to know. Germany? Japan? Mars?

The woman looked for a moment as if she would laugh, but then she controlled herself. “I'm afraid I don't understand,” she said.

“The game.” Steve latched onto the one thing he knew was at least somewhat authentic in this situation. The game had really happened. It just wasn't happening now. “It's from May 1941. I know 'cause I was there.”

He could see that this observation made the woman uncomfortable – her smile faltered, and her muscles tensed. Steve got to his feet slowly, keeping a firm control of himself so that he wouldn't start to tremble. He didn't like scaring people but right now, surrounded by unknowns, he would rather come across as threatening than terrified.

“Now.” He kept his voice as low and calm as he could. “I'm gonna ask you again: where am I?

The woman swallowed. “Captain Rogers...” she began.

But he could tell by her tone that whatever she said next would be another lie, and he was losing patience for it. “Who are you?” he demanded, balling his fists.

Behind her, the door opened again, and two men in black fatigues entered the room.

Steve's reaction was as much instinct as anything else. As the woman ducked out of the way, he grabbed the first intruder and swung him into the second. He'd intended to slam them both against the wall, but instead, they went right through it – the wall was fake, just painted plywood on thin struts. Beyond was a vast, dimly-lit space. The 'recovery room' was a tiny, flimsy set in the middle of it.

Panic twisted in Steve's chest. It was the smell, he realized. The room hadn't smelled like New York with a window open – the air was too clean, too indoor. If they'd gotten the smell right, and chosen a more recent baseball game, they might just have fooled him.

Wherever the hell he was, he had to escape. He had to know what was really going on. Steve jumped over the fallen bodies of the two agents, and ran.

“Captain Rogers!” the woman shouted after him. “Wait!”

He ignored her. The only thought in his head was get out.

On the far side of the big dark room was a door – he could see the light shining in around it. Steve threw himself at it, but it wasn't locked. He burst through into a hallway, broad and full of people, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the far wall through which he could glimpse buildings outside. There was no direct sun, but after the subdued light of the false room and the darkness around it, the windows here were blinding. Steve paused a moment, holding up a hand to shield his eyes, while all around him men and women in business suits stopped to stare.

All agents, code thirteen! The woman's voice was broadcast to the entire building. All agents, code thirteen!

There was nothing to tell Steve where he ought to go. He just picked the direction with the fewest people in it and ran, as more agents in black came running to apprehend him. Each had an eagle logo on the shoulder of their jackets, he noticed, and some wore caps with a matching one – it looked something like the SSR's, but more angular, more stylized. Steve didn't bother thinking as they came at him, he just reacted. People were elbowed out of the way, slammed into walls, pushed onto floors, thrown over railings. He had to get out! There was a street out there, if it wasn't just another set. If he could only get to it...

What he took at first for a flight of stairs turned out to be an escalator, moving up. There must be one going down somewhere, but Steve wasn't going to waste time looking for it. He pushed his way down, shoving people aside and taking the steps two or three at a time to counter their upward motion. There it was – the exit. A big revolving door, only a few steps away. Steve crossed the open lobby in a few long strides, and darted through.

But outside was no better. The people still didn't look right – the haircuts, the clothing, the way they walked, it was all wrong. The cars were wrong, all big and boxy and strange colours. The sounds were wrong. The smells were wrong. Steve turned in a circle to look around, and then began running again. There had to be a way out. There had to be something familiar.

He didn't know where he was going, and didn't bother trying to memorize the turns he made so he could find his way back. That would only have been necessary if he'd been going back, and he had no intention of that. People shouted at him to get out of the road, or cried out in surprise when he darted in front of them. It did register that they were speaking English, and that the signs in windows and on street corners were readable, but it didn't help. If he could only...

Steve rounded a corner and emerged into a big, open triangular space between buildings, and there he stopped dead.

All around him were tall buildings in glass, stone, and metal, many of them bearing huge, lit-up billboards advertising brands both familiar and strange: Sony, Coca-Cola, JVC. More people in odd clothing, some of the colours so bright they seemed to glow even in the daytime. Loud, thumping music playing from big portable radios. Boxlike cars with honking horns, many of them painted a recognizable taxi yellow but otherwise uncomfortably alien. Theater marquees advertised Poltergeist II and Running Scared and Back to School starring Rodney Dangerfield! All of it was still deeply, uncomfortably wrong... and yet just below that surface there was something familiar.

He knew this place.

Steve turned in a slow circle, staring up at the buildings. Some of them were new, but others were ones he recognized. The layout of the streets was right. There was no other place on Earth quite like this. This was, had to be, Times Square... but he'd been here only two or three months ago, shaking hands with a bunch of politicians. How could it possibly have changed so much?

The sound of sirens brought him out of it. Police cars were moving in – men piled out of them, carrying plastic shields with the letters NYPD on them. As they spread out to surround Steve, a big black car pulled up behind him, and a woman got out.

“Steve?” she asked.

He felt his jaw drop.

This was not the same woman who'd come into the fake recovery room to greet him – she was older, at least fifty, and dressed in a dark blue skirt suit with broad shoulders that made her look as if she'd been padded up like a football player underneath her jacket. Her shoulder-length dark hair was streaked with silver, but her face... for a moment it was weirdly out-of-focus, as if Steve's eyes refused to properly take her in. Then, suddenly, everything dropped into place.

He took a step towards her. “Peggy?” he asked.

The woman smiled softly, but as Steve came closer, he could see tears shining in her eyes. “Welcome back, Steve,” she said gently. “You're awake.”

“Am I?” he asked, uncertain. There was, after all, no reason why he couldn't be dreaming that she'd told him that. He stopped about a yard away from her and reached out. He felt like he needed to touch her in order to be sure she was real, but at the last moment he pulled his hand back, terrified. Part of him worried that his hand would pass right through her, that she was only an illusion... another part wasn't so sure that would be a bad thing.

Peggy swallowed and reached out to take his hands. Her fingers seemed smaller than he remembered, the knuckles more prominent, and when he closed his hand around hers, her skin seemed to slide loosely over her bones. But she was there, warm and solid and real, and yet like everything else, utterly changed.

That was when he realized that she hadn't said you're awake to reassure him he wasn't dreaming. She'd meant something else entirely.

“How long was I sleeping?” he asked.

She reached up as if to touch his cheek, then seemed to change her mind and rested her other hand on his arm instead. “It may be a shock,” she warned.

“More of a shock than this?” Steve looked around at Times Square, and tried to prepare himself for a large number. Ten years, maybe twelve... a long time, certainly.

“Forty years,” said Peggy.

“Fourteen years,” he echoed, licking his lips. “Okay, so that would make this... 1959.”

“No,” said Peggy. “Not fourteen. Forty.”

Steve's stomach turned inside out. “Forty?” he asked in disbelief. That couldn't possibly be right. How could he have slept for forty years?

“It's 1986,” said Peggy. “They found you... the Valkyrie went down off Ellesmere Island, hundreds of miles from your last transmission. We never thought to look so far away. A Canadian oil survey team found the wreckage four months ago, and you were inside, frozen. We brought you back to SHIELD hoping to extract the secret of the serum from your tissues, but then we realized that you were still alive.” She smiled again, even as the tears welled up. “Nobody believed you would come out of it. They were were there would be brain damage or... but I knew.” She squeezed his hand. “I knew you were still in there.”

Steve looked around again. They were still surrounded by the SWAT team, and police who were waving away the people who wanted to stop and stare. Beyond them were the buildings and the billboards and the taxis, familiar and yet strange. So this was the future. It was dirtier than Howard had always made it sound, and the cars seemed to have all four wheels on the ground. The colours were bright, but everything seemed to be coated in a layer of grime and garbage – and as Steve had already noticed, underneath the veneer the shape of the world was still hauntingly familiar. It was both reassuring and a bit disappointing.

He turned back to Peggy. “I missed our date,” he said softly.

“You couldn't all your ride,” she replied, and her tears spilled over.

Steve finally gave in, and pulled her close to him for a hug. Again, she seemed so small, so much more fragile than he remembered, but her grip as her arms encircled him was iron-tight, as if she never intended to let go of him again. God, if it were 1986... Peggy had been born in 1919. He'd thought she looked about fifty. She was nearly seventy.

“We wanted to break it to you slowly,” she said into his shoulder, then reluctantly stepped away and gestured towards the waiting car. “Come back to SHIELD. Howard's looking forward to seeing you again. He made a special trip, all the way back from Monaco, as soon as he heard.”

Steve followed her into the car. The interior was cool and smelled faintly of unknown chemicals, and the seats didn't feel like real leather. He watched her do up her seat belt, so he did the same. “What is SHIELD?” he wanted to know.

“A successor to the SSR,” she replied. “Howard and I are in charge of the place, by which I mean I do everything and Howard shows up when he feels like it.” She snorted, then paused a moment before adding, “I should warn you, Howard doesn't look like you remember him. He crashed one of his planes in 1972 and needed reconstructive surgery.”

The driver started the engine. As the car moved off, Steve could still see the glass towers and bright billboards through the tinted windows. He wasn't surprised at Peggy's statement – nothing else looked the way he remembered it, so why should Howard? “What about the others?” he asked. “The guys from the 107th?”

Peggy didn't look at him. “We can talk back at the building,” she said, which told him everything he needed to know: he was the only one left.

“I see,” he said.

“It's good to have you back, Steve,” Peggy said, and squeezed his hand. “The world needs you.”

“Does it?” Steve asked. What was the world of 1986 even like? Could it possibly still be at war after forty years – and if not, what need did it have for Captain America?

Peggy nodded. “More than ever, really. You'll see.”

Steve remembered as if it were yesterday the last time he'd ridden through the city in a car with Peggy – the two of them traveling anonymously to a tumble-down shop in Brooklyn in an unmarked car. Now here they were, pulling up in front of a shining skyscraper with a full police escort. Men and women in the black SHIELD uniforms, some of them armed, were waiting on the steps of the building when they pulled up. Steve looked around as he climbed out of the car, but traffic on the street and pedestrians on the other side of it were just passing by as if all of this were perfectly normal. SHIELD must not be the kind of closely-guarded secret the SSR had been, he decided. It had become one of those government departments that sat out in the open, ignored rather than covered up.

Peggy followed him out. “Stand down,” she ordered the agents.

At once, the group relaxed and lowered their weapons. They obeyed like soldiers, Steve observed, but they didn't move like soldiers. SHIELD wasn't a military organization, but it wasn't quite a civilian one, either.

He followed Peggy up the short flight of steps to the revolving door. The woman who'd come in to speak to Steve in the fake recovery room was waiting there, visibly nervous. She was still in most of her costume, but had removed her auburn wig – under it, her real hair was short and ash-blonde. She was smaller than Steve had thought, about five foot four, with delicate features and eyebrows so pale they were barely visible. As Steve approached, she stepped forward and held out a sheepish hand.

“Agent Fletcher,” she introduced herself. “I'm sorry, Captain Rogers. I panicked.”

Steve nodded and shook the hand. “No problem,” he said. “So did I.”

They left Fletcher on the step and headed into the lobby – the SHIELD building had a big atrium with potted palm trees reaching for the sloping glass ceiling, and beds of immaculately tended flowers. Word of Steve's awakening must have gotten around quickly, because men and men gathered to stare as if royalty were visiting. People were whispering to one another, hissing in excitement or giggling softly, as if he were visiting royalty or a movie idol. Many of the women had their hair in voluminous curls, while the men wore theirs longer at the back than the front. Trousers were tight, lapels narrow, and shoulders broad. It didn't look so much like anything Steve would have thought of as the future as it did like a foreign country – the surface veneer was different, but not too far under that, the people were exactly the same.

Peggy held her head high as she passed them, ignoring the whispers and stares, and headed for the space in between the two escalators. There stood a fountain with a geometric bronze sculpture in the middle and a few colourful fish swimming in the water, and three people. A white-haired man in a gray tweed blazer was standing with his back to Steve and Peggy, talking to a woman in a yellow and black jacket who was sitting on a bench in front of the fountain. In the woman's lap was a five or six year old girl holding a doll.

The woman was the first to notice Steve and Peggy coming. “Looks like I'd better go,” she said, putting her daughter on the floor. “I'll see you, Howard. Hope, you got your stuff?”

“Yeah,” said the girl, taking her mother's hand.

“See you, Jan,” said the man, turning to watch the two leave – and then he saw Steve and Peggy. His eyes widened, and then his astonished face split into a delighted grin. “Steve!” he said, and grabbed him by the shoulders.

Steve couldn't answer right away, because Peggy had been right – Howard did not look like Steve remembered him. Not only was he older, his famous mustache as white as his hair, he'd lost weight and his face was much narrower and pointier than the one in Steve's memory. If he'd met this man on the street, he would have noticed a resemblance to Howard Stark, but only a resemblance. The idea that this was Howard would never have occurred to him.

Howard noticed his hesitation, and nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said, letting go of Steve and stepping back. “They had to put my face back together after I crashed my Piper, and I don't think they found all the bits. Maria hasn't let me near a cockpit since.”

“Who's Maria?” asked Steve.

“My wife,” Howard replied with a chuckle. “You wont have heard of her. I think she would have been four when you left.”

“You're married?” Steve hoped he didn't look as shocked as he felt. Forty years was a long time, he reminded himself. Long enough for even Howard Stark to decide he wanted to settle down.

“Coming up on twenty years,” said Howard proudly. For a second time, he put his hands on Steve's shoulders, and looked him over. “I have to say, you look damned good for sixty-five. How do you feel?”

Steve had to think about that – how did he feel? He'd been so preoccupied with his surroundings, he hadn't had time to take in the state of his own body. It all seemed to be there, at least. “A little stiff,” he decided. “Kind of disoriented. And hungry – starving, actually.” Now that the initial panic had worn off, his stomach had noticed it was empty, and now it wanted everybody else to notice, too. As he spoke, it chimed in with an embarrassing gurgle.

“If I hadn't eaten in forty years, I'd be hungry, too,” Howard nodded. “Pegs, let's get our boy some lunch.”

An hour or so later, they were all sitting in a spacious office on a upper floor. Somebody had brought Steve some new clothing: a pair of faded-looking blue jeans and a white polo shirt with a broad royal blue stripe across the chest. They'd also served him a meal of steak and vegetables that he knew he should have savoured, but once the food was in front of him he was just too hungry to do anything but shovel it into his mouth as quickly as he could. After months of army rations, it was too delicious to describe.

While he ate, a couple of medics had checked him over as best they could without disturbing his lunch, and Peggy and Howard had given him a quick run-down of the end of the war. With the crash of the Valkyrie, Germany had lost its secret weapon and was forced to retreat. Mussolini had been executed by partisans and Hitler committed suicide to avoid the same fate. Japan had surrendered by the end of August, and the world had settled into an uneasy new order that seemed defined by the USA and the Soviet Union glaring at each other from either side of Canada.

“It's more complicated than that in real life, obviously,” Howard said, as Steve started on his third helping. “We've had some near misses, but mostly the cold war has stayed cold, and Peggy and her Soviet counterparts are doing their level best to keep it that way.”

“You can do some reading about it once you're properly settled in,” Peggy suggested. “We've got a suite prepared for you upstairs. Not another fake recovery room,” she added, “a proper set of living quarters.”

“Oh, come on, Peg,” Howard said. “You're not gonna keep him here, are you?”

“The doctors want to monitor his recovery,” she said firmly. “Besides, it's more secure than a hotel.”

“What recovery?” Howard asked. “He's recovered! Look at him, he's fit as a fiddle. You can't keep him locked up in SHIELD. He's not a prisoner.”

“Of course he's not!” Peggy shook her head. “I just think we ought to acclimate him slowly to the...”

Howard interrupted. “You tried that. It didn't work too well, did it? How are those two boys he threw through the wall, by the way?” he asked with an arched eyebrow. “They're gonna need more recovery than he does.”

There was quite a bit of tension in this conversation, as if it were just the tip of a much deeper ongoing disagreement between the two of them. Steve wasn't sure how comfortable he was with that – and he definitely didn't like that they were now talking about him as if he weren't in the room. People had done that to Steve before, of course: superiors who thought he was reckless and scientists who considered him a specimen did it all the time, but this was Peggy and Howard. Their attitudes, combined with the fact that they were suddenly so much older than him, made him feel like a child being discussed by his teachers. That wasn't something Steve would stand for from anybody, and certainly not from two of his closest friends.

“I'm right here,” he said around a mouthful.

They both turned and blinked at him for a moment, as if they had indeed forgotten he was present. Then Peggy sighed and reached over to pat his hand. “Of course you are,” she said. “I'm sorry, Steve. It's just that we've been trying to figure out what do with you for a couple of months now...”

“And now we're out of figuring time,” said Howard. “If you want to know what I think, Steve, I think you should come stay with me. We've got plenty of room, and you won't find a safer place in the city.” He glanced at Peggy. “And you' still within easy reach if Madame Director wants you baby-sat.”

Steve chewed thoughtfully. Experience told him that Peggy's ideas were almost always safer and more sensible than Howard's... but after his first rude awakening in the SHIELD building, he didn't think he wanted to stay there.

“Do you still live in that ridiculous house on 70th Street?” he asked Howard.

“Nah. That's the Stark Gallery now – it's an art museum,” Howard replied. “They've got a few of my inventions on display, too. I'll take you to see it sometime. But Maria and I have a penthouse on Park Avenue, near the train station. It's close to work for me, close to shopping for her. You'll love it,” he promised.

Steve looked at Peggy for her opinion.

“I'd rather you say here,” she said, “but it's your choice, Steve.”

“Then I'll go to Howard's for tonight,” he decided. “I want to meet the woman who convinced Howard Stark to marry her.”

Howard grinned and clapped him on the back. “It's a deal!”

The caterer who'd brought up Steve's lunch came to take his plate away. “Would you like some blueberry pie, Captain Rogers?” the woman asked. “Mr. Stark said it was your favourite.” She looked a bit dubious, probably doubting Steve could possibly eat any more.

“Sure,” said Steve.

The caterer set it down, complete with a scoop of ice cream, and Steve dug in while Howard beamed. “That's our Steve,” he said, delighted. “You haven't changed a bit.”

Chapter Text

Howard Stark's penthouse was only a few blocks from his old mansion – in fact, it would have been possible to walk between the two, but of course Howard didn't walk home from SHIELD. Instead, he had a sleek blue and white convertible, and he drove it himself, grinning as he roared in and out of traffic. Steve leaned out the window, watching the city go by through a pair of blue mirrored sunglasses.

Much of what he saw was actually very familiar. Few of the buildings had changed – there was still sandstone and brick everywhere, with brightly-coloured billboards to advertise whatever it was people bought in 1986. The trees planted on the median had grown, and the people dressed differently, but otherwise Steve would have recognized this as Park Avenue, just as he'd recognized Times Square. It was a bit of a strange thing to see, as if the future were only a surface layer and the whole thing could fade back to the New York Steve knew at any moment.

Two women in bright skintight clothes were jogging with their dogs. Steve couldn't help but stare a little, though he quickly averted his eyes when he realized they'd noticed. They didn't seem to mind, though – they smiled and waved at him, then looked at each other and giggled.

“Almost there,” Howard promised, as the light turned green.

They turned a corner and went down a ramp, into an underground parking garage – but rather than pull into a spot, Howard stopped outside the booth, where a uniformed valet came for the keys.

“Welcome home, Mr. Stark,” the man said, as Howard got out. “And your guest.”

“Thanks, Charlie,” Howard replied. “This is Steve. Do me a favour and don't tell Maria I've got company. I'm gonna surprise her!”

“I won't say a word,” Charlie promised, and turned to nod politely to Steve. “Will you be staying with the Stark family for long?” he asked.

“As long as he wants to,” Howard promised.

They took an elevator up to a private landing, and Howard put a finger to his lips, then stepped ahead of Steve to unlock the door and poke his head into the foyer beyond. “Maria!” he called out.

“Howard?” a woman's voice replied from within. “You're early!”

“I am!” Howard grinned. “I've got a surprise for you!”

“I have one for you, too,” Maria replied, but she didn't sound as if it were a good surprise.

Howard glanced over his shoulder at Steve. “I'll be right back,” he whispered, and then slipped through the door to talk to his wife, leaving it slightly ajar behind him.

Steve was now alone in the landing. It was not properly a part of the residence and had no furniture, but there was a row of ornamental coat hooks on one wall and a painting on the other. The painting was small and busy-looking, all bright colours and geometric shapes. Steve cocked his head, studying it. Maybe it was one of those things like a Picasso, where the picture was there but distorted beyond recognition, and if he looked at it long enough he'd start to be able to pick things out.

“So he's here ?” he heard Howard shout.

“Well, where do you expect him to go?” Maria demanded.

Steve glanced at the door, but then quickly looked away again. Whatever they were arguing over, it was none of his business – but it sounded like Steve wasn't going to be the only guest in the Stark household.

The voices calmed to a murmur again, and then Steve heard Howard say “just keep him out of the way , all right?” before returning to the door and opening it wide. He was smiling again now, but there was something forced about it. “Steve,” he said. “Come on in.”

The foyer of the apartment had a hardwood floor and walls painted a dusty rose colour, with another abstract painting hanging above a side table Next to the mirrored sliding doors of the closet were two framed photographs – a wedding picture, and one of Howard standing next to one of his planes. And waiting at the far end of the room, by a pair of French doors, was a woman who must have been Mrs. Stark.

“Steve,” Howard said, “this is my wife, Maria Collins Carbonell Stark. Maria, this is Captain Steve Rogers.”

Steve took Maria's hand and shook it once, firmly. Maria was quite small, perhaps five foot two at most, with smooth dark hair just starting to show gray, and big liquid brown eyes with long lashes. At forty-five she was lovely – twenty years ago, when Howard had married her, she must have been gorgeous. She was wearing a floral print blouse with padded shoulders, and subtle jewelry: a small pearl pendant and matching earrings.

“Delighted, Captain Rogers,” she said. “I remember hearing about you when I was a child, and of course Howard's told me all sorts of stories. I never thought I'd actually get to meet you one day.” Her posture and voice radiated class and good taste, very different from Howard. Howard had alwayss tried to appear the gentleman of leisure, but his attitude and carriage were always very working-class. It had to be a case of opposites attracting, Steve decided.

“Well, I can honestly say I never expected to meet Howard's wife, so this is a surprise for me, too,” Steve replied.

She laughed. “Please, make yourself at home.”

Steve took off his borrowed jacket, and a butler – a tall man with a long gaunt face and a fringe of white hair around the edges of his bald head – came to take it and Howard's. “Will you have a drink, Captain Rogers?” the butler asked, as Maria showed everybody down the hallway. He spoke with a British accent, and the voice was oddly familiar.

“Not before dinner, thanks,” Steve replied, and looked at Howard for an introduction.

“You haven't forgotten Ned Jarvis, have you, Steve?” asked Howard.

Steve had to do a double-take, but then he smiled. No wonder he thought he recognized the voice. “General Bullard's aide, right?” he asked. He did remember the man – Edwin Jarvis had nearly been hanged for trying to smuggle his Jewish girlfriend out of Hungary. This was not a place Steve would have expected to see him.

“The very same,” Jarvis replied pleasantly, “and a pleasure to see you again, Captain Rogers.”

Steve nodded. “How's... Miss Katz, wasn't it?” He'd never heard from the woman again after Howard had put her on a boat to the States. He hoped things had gone well for her.

“She's around here somewhere,” Howard replied. “You'll want to call her Mrs. Jarvis, though.”

“Congratulations!” Steve said.

“Forty years late, but accepted regardless,” Jarvis assured him.

Maria showed everybody into the dining room. This was in a corner of the penthouse, with two sets of windows looking out onto the garden terrace and the city beyond, facing downtown. As the sun set, the sky was changing colours and lights were starting to come on in the neighbouring buildings. Steve could see the Empire State Building lit up in red, white, and blue, just like it had been the last time he'd visited New York City, forty years ago – but he found his eye drawn not to the view but to the table, where another servant had begun clearing away a third place setting.

“No, no, leave it,” Howard ordered. “We've got company.”

The woman nodded and began putting the cutlery back.

“Were you expecting somebody else?” Steve asked.

“Not expecting, no,” Howard replied sourly. “Jarvis, what's for dinner?”

“Hazelnut-crusted scallops, Mr. Stark,” Jarvis replied, taking up the change of subject without batting an eye. “With acorn squash and roasted vegetables.”

“Lovely,” said Maria. “Bring up some of that Sauvignon Blanc, too, would you please?”

“Of course.”

While they ate, Jarvis regaled everybody with a tale about how he and Peggy had once saved New York City from a complicated plot involving a bitter German hypnotist, a gas canister, and one of Howard's ex-girlfriends. Steve suspected that the whole story had been cleaned up a lot and that Jarvis had exaggerated his own role in it – the bits where he had to save Peggy from peril seemed very unlikely – but it was a good time regardless.

So this was Howard's family, he thought: Maria, Jarvis, and Anna. It helped, somehow, to know that they'd had happy lives. That was what Steve had wanted in the end, after all: for the war to be over so that his friends could live happily ever after, even if he couldn't. That was what heroes did.

Logically, Steve probably shouldn't have felt sleepy. Peggy said he'd been asleep for forty years – surely that was long enough for anybody! But by the end of the dinner he was yawning, and he skipped dessert in favour of letting Jarvis show him to the guest bedroom. Maybe it was the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment, or the shakeup of the news that decades had passed for everybody else while he remained in limbo. Whatever the cause, Steve felt like he could have slept for another decade or so quite easily.

And that made it even less logical that at three AM, he found himself standing by the window looking out on the lights of the city, wide awake.

Forty years. It still didn't feel quite real. Sitting and having dinner with Howard and a pretty girl and sharing war stories had felt so familiar, it was almost like being back in Europe, celebrating the liberation of Rotterdam or Paris. But then he would look again and see how old Howard was, and his stomach would turn inside-out.

Forty years. Forty years in which Steve had apparently slept in an iceberg while the world he'd saved went on without him. The SSR had gone from an underfunded military appendage to a glossy bureaucracy in its own skyscraper near Times Square. Howard had gone from nouveau-riche playboy to married businessman. And Peggy... Steve realized he hadn't even asked Peggy what she'd been doing. Did she have a husband and children? Maybe he hadn't asked because he didn't want to know.

They'd been going to buy a farm. Peggy had told Steve once that when she was little she would go around picking up round stones, pretending she was a farmer's wife collecting eggs. Had she abandoned that dream because Steve was dead, or had there been some other reason?

Steve leaned his forehead on the window and sighed. From this high angle, in the darkness, the city spread out below Steve in lines of twinkling lights looked familiar, but up close it had seemed to have a new layer that sat uneasily on the old foundations. The bright colours and peppy music seemed almost as if the were covering up something dark and unpleasant – and he'd gotten that impression from Howard and Peggy as well. They'd used phrases like cold war and nuclear deterrent that sounded as if they had layers of meaning Steve was not yet privy to. What would he find out when he looked into them? What did Peggy mean when she'd said that the world needed Captain America more than ever?

These were distressing questions and if Steve were ever going to sleep, he'd need to distract himself from them. Fortunately, it was at about that point in his train of thought when he realized he was not the only one awake. He could hear voices coming from the room next door, and they didn't sound like Howard, Maria, or any of the servants he'd met. Curious, Steve opened the door and looked out into the hallway.

The door to the master bedroom, where Howard and Maria were sleeping, was across from Steve's, but there was another room on the right, with light showing around the door. Who was in there? The mysterious him that Howard had wanted out of the way? Very gently, so as not to wake anybody, Steve pushed the door open a crack to look in.

The first thing he saw was the source of the voices: a small colour television set on a dresser, which was playing some kind of news broadcast. Reporters were thrusting microphones at a dark-haired woman, who turned away from them as she tried to get into a car.

“Major Bhavana has refused to speak to reporters about the change of plans,” a voice said, “but NASA officials confirmed today that relief pilot Theodore Van Cleef will fly Odyssey in her place.”

The second thing Steve saw, when his eyes drifted away from the screen, was that this was a young person's room. It had colourful posters on the wall – one of them was a vintage war bonds ad, complete with the painting of Steve in that ridiculous outfit – and a line of action figures on a shelf, and there was an oddly-shaped but identifiable guitar propped in one corner. For the most part it was neat and tidy, with books lined up neatly in bookcases and no clutter on the floor. But the bedclothes were rumpled, and the third thing Steve noticed, after he'd taken in everything else, was that there was somebody sitting at the desk in the corner. Somebody who was definitely not any of the inhabitants he'd met so far.

Steve rapped on the door frame. “Hello?” he asked.

The boy at the desk yelped in surprise, knocking over a jar of rubber cement which he quickly righted again before scrambling to his feet. He looked as if he were around fourteen years old, dressed in blue striped pajamas and with his hair askew. In one hand, clutched close as if to protect it, was a half-assembled model of a squat black and white airplane.

“Sorry!” Steve said quickly.

The boy squinted at him, puzzled. “What, is this your hobby?” he asked. “Wandering around sneaking up on people in the middle of the night?”

Steve licked his lips. “Are you... are you Howard's son?” he asked. Neither Howard nor Maria had mentioned any children, and Steve hadn't seen pictures of any in the apartment – but this boy could hardly be anybody else. He had Howard's nose and chin – Howard's original nose and chin, from before his plastic surgery – and Maria's big brown eyes.

“Yeah,” the boy replied, wary and defensive. “Who are you?”

“Steve Rogers,” Steve said. He glanced at the war bonds poster.

The boy followed his gaze, and Steve saw the brown eyes get even bigger. “Shut up!” he exclaimed.

“What?” Steve asked, taken aback.

“No way!” the boy said, but he put his model plane down on the desk and came closer for a better look. “You're Captain America?” he asked eagerly.

“I used to be,” said Steve. “What's y...” he began, but was cut off mid-question by a third voice.

“What the hell is everybody doing awake at this hour?” Howard demanded.

Steve turned around to find his friend shuffling towards them in a patterned housecoat and slippers, grimacing in the light.

“Is he bothering you?” Howard asked, pointing into his son's room.

“No,” Steve said quickly. “I was kind of bothering him.” He was the one who'd gone and knocked on the boy's door, after all.

“You didn't tell me you'd brought Captain America home!” the boy said.

Howard just glared at him as he crossed the room to turn the television off. “Why are you still awake?” he asked.

“I couldn't sleep,” the boy replied sullenly.

“Could you try to not sleep quietly?” Howard said. “We've got company, in case you didn't notice!”

“Nobody told me company was Captain America!” the boy protested.

“Just go to bed like a normal person!” Howard snarled. “We're still going to have that talk in the morning,” he added in a threatening voice, then took Steve's arm to usher him away from the room. “Sorry about that,” he said, shutting the door. “He's supposed to be in school at this time of year, but apparently they had to send him home while they sorted something out. I'll make sure he stays out of your hair.”

Behind them, the lights went out in the boy's room.

At about the same time as Steve was returning to bed, two boys in Iowa were climbing onto the back of a train. They didn't much care where it was going to take them – anywhere would do, as long as it wasn't here.

It turned out to be a circus train, and they spent the night sleeping in the straw with two aging but gentle elephants, who kept a watchful eye over them until a trainer found them early the next morning. By then they were hundreds of miles from home, and weren't going to tell anybody anything that might lead to them being taken back.

In the morning, Steve woke to the sound of an argument in the room next door. He couldn't make out any of the words, but even after he pulled a pillow over his head he could still hear the voices of Howard and his son shouting at each other. This must be the 'talk' Howard had promised. Was this a normal occurrence in this household? It reminded Steve unpleasantly of lying curled up in bed as a child, listening to his parents fight in the kitchen.

He waited until the voices had died away before he got up and showered, then carefully checked out the hallway before leaving his room. The door of the master bedroom was open and the bed made, but nobody as inside. The boy's door was shut tight.

Somebody had left a button-down shirt and a pair of jeans out for Steve to wear. Dressed in those, and with his hair still damp, he went down the hallway to the dining room. Maria was smiling up at Jarvis while he poured her a cup of coffee. Across from her was her son, eating cereal in big mouthfuls while flipping through a fat softcover book. The boy glanced up as Steve entered the room, but then quickly lowered his head again.

“Good morning, Steve,” said Maria. Her voice was pleasant, but she looked tired. Steve supposed that was understandable – her day must have gotten off to a bad start. “You've met Tony,” she added, with a glance at her son.

Tony – so that was the kid's name. “Yeah, sort of,” said Steve.

Jarvis set a second coffee cup in front of Steve and filled it. “How do you like your eggs, Captain Rogers?” he asked.

“Over easy,” Steve replied. “Thanks.”

Jarvis returned to the kitchen, leaving an awkward silence to fill the dining room. Maria's mouth was full, and the boy – Tony – seemed unwilling to speak up. He was still turning pages in his magazine, but his eyes were fixed on Steve. This morning he was dressed in a black and white varsity jacket over a t-shirt bearing a cartoon of a pair of lips with a protruding tongue. Last night Steve had thought Tony must have bedhead, but apparently his hair just always looked that way – it was short on the sides but longer on top, and had bits of red and yellow dyed into it.

“Where's Howard?” asked Steve.

“He's on a phone call,” Maria said.

Steve nodded and glanced curiously at Tony again. It was obvious enough from the way his parents behaved that this boy was not supposed to be here. Steve wondered why. “Spring break?” he asked.

The question had been directed at Tony himself, but it was Maria who answered it. “No,” she sighed. “He's been suspended.”

“I blew up the athletic center,” said Tony, with his mouth full. He spoke so nonchalantly, as if the event weren't worth mentioning, that it took Steve a moment to realize what he'd actually said.

“Blew it up?” he asked.

“He didn't blow it up,” Maria said, giving Tony a disapproving frown. “He merely set it on fire.”

“An explosion was involved,” Jarvis' voice said from the kitchen.

Steve could have sworn he saw the ghost of a smile flit across Tony's lips before the boy quickly sobered himself again and took another mouthful of cereal.

How did you manage that?” Steve asked.

Tony shrugged. “They told me I could use the empty swimming pool to build my fusion reactor,” he said. “It just fused a little harder than I expected it to. Nobody got hurt. It was the middle of the night and nobody was in the building but me and Rhodey.”

Now it was Steve trying not to smile – Tony had, he realized, deliberately phrased his description to make the event sound worse than it was. A lot of people would have tried to downplay an accident like that, but Tony wanted to make it a better story – he wanted to brag about it. His attitude reminded Steve of several people he'd known, but one in particular. “You're Howard's kid, all right,” he said.

He expected a reply, but Tony just scowled and returned his attention to his book.

Jarvis brought Steve's eggs out a few minutes later, and Steve had just taken his first bite when Howard breezed into the room, looking terribly pleased with himself. “Guess who was on the phone!” he said, grinning, as he sat down. “Go on – guess!”

“The president,” said Tony, without enthusiasm.

“I wasn't talking to you,” Howard told him. Jarvis brought in another cup of coffee, and put it down in front of Howard without a word. “Are you going to guess?” Howard asked Steve.

Steve had no idea, so he just repeated Tony's suggestion. “Was it the president?”

“Yes!” Howard said, his smile returning. “He was a big fan of yours back in the day, and now he wants to meet you. We're gonna work something out with Peggy when we get to the office today.”

“Who is the president?” asked Steve, interested.

“Ronald Reagan,” Howard said.

The name sounded familiar. Steve spent a moment trying to put a face with it – one of the politicians he'd met during the war, perhaps? He couldn't recall a Reagan among them, though. It felt, somehow, more like a name he'd seen in print somewhere...

Tell me, Future Boy!” Tony said loudly. “Who's president of the United States in 1985?” Before anyone else could say anything, however, he answered himself in a very different voice: “Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan?” He switched back to the first voice. “The actor? So who's vice-president? Jerry Lewis?

“Tony,” said Howard, warning.

Tony was obviously quoting something, though Steve had no idea what – but he realized the kid was right. 'Ronald Reagan' wasn't a hand Steve had shaken, it was a name from a theatre marquee. “Ronald Reagan? Really?” he asked Howard. “Brass Bancroft is the president?” That seemed... quite fitting, really.

I suppose Jane Wyman is the first lady!” Tony went on. “And Jack Benny is the secretary of the treasury!”

“Tony, could you find something to do?” Howard asked. “Something useful, preferably?”

I've had enough practical jokes for one evening!” Tony grabbed his breakfast and his magazine and headed for the door. “Good night, Future Boy!”

“He watches too many movies,” said Howard disapprovingly. “Sorry, Steve. We'll find somewhere for him to stay.”

“Howard, it's all right,” said Steve. “Don't worry about it – let's get back to the part where the president wants to meet me,” he suggested.

“Right.” That seemed to bring Howard's good mood back. “We'll have to talk to Madame Director about it, of course, but I'm sure even she can't object to setting up an audience!”

“She may try,” Maria remarked. She took a small flask out of her purse, and poured some f its contents into her coffee. “Peggy doesn't like the Reagans,” she explained to Steve. “She says consulting an astrologer is not necessary to running a country.”

“What?” asked Steve.

“He's still the president,” Howard said firmly.

From somewhere down the hall, loud music began to play. Steve couldn't hear the melody, but there was plenty of bass.

After the strained atmosphere in the penthouse, it was a relief to return to the SHIELD building – especially when the feeling the air there was not one of tension, but one of celebration. Another crowd was there to meet Steve when Howard brought him in, but instead of keeping their distance and gawking, these people surged forward to greet the two men and shake their hands. Many of these people, men and women both, were wearing oversized white t-shirts with the image of his shield on the front, surrounded by the words WELCOME BACK CAP. People asked for photos or autographs.

One man, with dark hair in a military flat-top, had an old comic book wrapped in a plastic sleeve. “Hey, Captain!” he said. “Could you sign this for my kid?” He offered the book and a marker.

“Sure,” said Steve. He hadn't known what to expect here today, but he could handle handshakes and autographs – those were old, familiar territory. “Who should I dedicate it to?” he asked, pulling the book out of its protective cover.

“To Steve,” the man said with a grin. “That's my son's name. It's mine, too, by the way – Agent Steve Troy.”

“Steve Rogers,” Steve replied with a nod, and signed his name across the cover. “How's that?”

“Perfect!” Agent Troy took it back, beaming like a kid on Christmas. “So what are you planning to do now that you're back? Keep fighting the good fight?” he asked.

“I guess that's the plan,” Steve said. He really had no idea what he was going to do now – he didn't yet know what this world was like or where he would fit into it. Hopefully, Peggy had something in mind. She was the one who'd said they needed him more than ever, and when it came to plans, Peggy had always been best at it.

“Well, if you want to see the sights, give me a call,” Agent Troy offered, shouting to keep being heard as Steve moved down the line. “I know where all the girls hang out!”

“Steve's never needed help finding girls!” said Howard with a grin and a friendly – but perhaps slightly possessive – hand on Steve's back. “He's more likely to ask you to help him hide from them!”

“Howard!” a voice barked from the back of the crowd. “I need a word!”

Howard's smile melted away. “Be right there, Hank,” he replied. “Steve, think you can fight off your adoring public and find your way back to Peggy's office? This may take a while.”

“Sure,” said Steve.

“Great. See you there.” Howard stood up straight, tugged at his jacket, and went to confront the man who'd called him.

Steve signed a few more autographs and then, with his hand starting to cramp, apologized to the remaining people. “I've really got to go see Peggy,” he said. “I think the president's waiting for me.”

“We've been waiting forty years!” somebody protested.

“I'm planning on being around for a while,” Steve assured them. “Some other time, okay?”

The crowd began to disperse, but a few people continued to hang around as Steve pressed the elevator button, which made him feel terribly self-conscious. He did his best to ignore them, but couldn't help flinching as a woman with short blonde hair stepped up beside him – then he looked again and realized it was only Agent Fletcher. Today she was wearing white trousers and a salmon-coloured blazer.

“Captain Rogers,” she greeted him.

“Agent Fletcher,” he replied.

“I need to talk to you,” she said.

Steve shook his head. “You've already apologized, it's fine.” The elevator bell rang, and the doors opened. Steve stepped in.

“No,” said Fletcher, entering next to him. “I need to talk to you.” She hit the button for the top floor, then waited impatiently while the doors closed before turning to face him. “I am sorry,” she said. “I called for backup prematurely. They warned me you were potentially dangerous and told me not to pull any punches.”

“That's good advice,” said Steve warily. Where was she going with this?

“I have more,” said Fletcher. “Watch your back. You already have enemies here.”

“What?” Steve frowned at her. “I've been back for one day.”

“Yeah, but you're Captain America,” she said. “You stand for some ideas a lot of people here find a little outdated. People are wondering what's gonna happen to SHIELD when you're in charge.”

“I'm not in charge,” Steve protested.

“That doesn't matter – people are worried you will be,” Fletcher said. She licked her lips. “Did they tell you how the war ended?” she asked.

“They said we won,” Steve replied.

“I bet they did,” she nodded. “I also bet they didn't give you the details. HYDRA wasn't the only one who lost a secret weapon when you disappeared. You won us the war in Europe. We needed a little extra push to win in the Pacific. Ask Stark about it,” she said.

The elevator arrived on the floor where Peggy worked, and the doors opened. “I gotta go,” said Steve.

“Promise me you'll talk to Stark,” said Fletcher. “Ask him about Manhattan. Promise me.”

“Okay,” said Steve. “I promise.”

She nodded, and the doors shut between them.


Chapter Text

Peggy was in her office, calmly discussing something with one of her agents, and Steve paused in the doorway to watch her. It was a shock all over again, seeing how old she looked: her forehead was lined, her cheeks drooped, and the streaks of silver made her hair look fairer than the chocolate brown he remembered. At the same time, however, there was a solidity to her jaw and a set to her shoulders that was still fundamentally Peggy , all tempered steel in a silk glove.

Time had been kind, he thought with a bit of a smile, because even Time knew better than to cross Peggy Carter.

What did that mean , though? Could the two of them still have a future, even after Steve had skipped forty years? He didn't give a damn about her physical age, of course, not when she was still just as beautiful and proud and solid as she'd ever been. The question was what would she think of the idea? After living for four decades while Steve slept, could she possibly want to just pick up where they left off? Or had things changed too much, in ways Steve could not yet see?

There was only one way to find out. He opened the door all the way and went inside.

“Steve!” She looked up and smiled. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Steve replied. He sat down in one of the armchairs in front of her desk, nodding a greeting at the agent she'd been speaking with. This was a black man in his late twenties, with hair that stood up in a perfect cylinder. The man nodded back. He must have known who Steve was – he was was holding a copy of the Daily Bugle with the headline Captain America Back from the Dead ! – but he didn't say anything.

“Where's Howard?” asked Peggy.

“He's talking to somebody named Hank,” Steve replied.

Peggy grimaced, but only briefly. Control of her face resumed at once. “I see,” she said. “That'll be a while, then. I'm sorry, Nick,” she added, to the agent she'd been speaking with. “Can we continue this another time?”

“Of course, Madame Director,” the man replied. “Captain Rogers,” he added, to Steve, and then showed himself out.

Peggy glanced at a second copy of the Bugle which was sitting on her desk, then turned it over so she wouldn't have to look at the headline – or maybe so that Steve wouldn't see it. Then she leaned forward, hands clasped in front of her. “How was your evening?” she asked.

“Well, Howard's hospitality is as lavish as ever,” Steve said, as tactfully as he could. He wondered just how much Peggy knew about the Stark household. Was familial tension the real reason she'd objected to him staying there? “Can I ask you a couple of questions?”

“Of course,” said Peggy, spreading her hands. “Anything.”

Steve thought for a moment. What did he need to know? “Okay, first of all, what's today?”

“Friday,” Peggy replied. “The nineteenth of April, 1986.”

“Thanks,” said Steve. He then had to decide how to phrase his next question – after all, Peggy could have warned Steve about Howard's family, but she hadn't. Had she simply not had the opportunity? Or was it possible that she didn't know? “Did you know Howard has kids?” he asked.

Her forehead furrowed in a frown. “Only one, as far as I'm aware,” she said, though she clearly wouldn't have been surprised to learn there were more. “A boy. Tony. He's going to be sixteen this year.”

“Why didn't Howard mention him?” Steve asked. “Yesterday he told me about Maria, but he never said a word about having a kid.” Even if Howard hadn't expected Tony to be in the apartment, it seemed like a strange omission. He'd bragged about twenty years of marriage – surely a teenage son would be the icing on that cake.

“He wouldn't,” sighed Peggy. “Howard and Tony have never gotten on. They're far too much alike, I think.”

That made a bit more sense. One thing Howard had never liked was a rival: he'd enjoyed surrounding himself with other smart people, but seemed to prefer that none of them be quite in his own league. Who would be a better rival for Howard's intelligence than his own son? A kid who could even try building a fusion reactor in a swimming pool at the age of fifteen had to be pretty bright.

Steve nodded, then took a deep breath and forced out the question he really wanted to ask, the one that had been hovering in his head all night. “Peggy, are you married?”

There was a moment of silence in which Steve didn't dare look at her. Of course she would know why he was asking – even if it weren't obvious from the question itself, Peggy had always been able to read him like a book. And if she were married, or if something else had changed, then he'd just made a fool of himself.

“Yes,” she said finally. “I am. Twice, actually.”

Steve knew he should have expected it. Peggy was not the sort of person who would wait forty years for a dead man, but he could still feel himself deflate with disappointment. Twice. While he'd slept away the decades, she'd had two husbands, and now... what did he look like to her, from across that temporal divide? A sill student with a crush on his teacher, maybe?

“The first...” Peggy paused for a moment to collect her thoughts, or perhaps to collect herself. “The first was a co-worker. It... was not a success, and we parted ways in 1954. I remarried four years later. The second had a heart attack a little over a month ago, and he's still in hospital.” This information was delivered in a calm, measured tone that Steve remembered very well: it was the way Peggy talked when she refused to let her emotions get in the way of communication. “He's never woken up. The doctors have said he also has advanced liver disease, and he's not likely to recover.”

Steve nodded slowly. It seemed so miserably unfair. As the Valkyrie plunged towards the Arctic Sea, he'd hope that this would be it – that the war would be over and his friends could go home. Dum-Dum and Jim and Gabe and Frenchie... and Peggy. They would have the future that had been so cruelly snatched from Bucky: home and love and kids and grandkids and stability and life. Yet Peggy, from the sound of it, had seen only tragedy.

“I'm sorry,” he said.

Peggy reached across the desk to take his hand. “Don't be. Neither of them would ever have made it home from the war if not for you, so really, I ought to be thanking you.” She smiled weakly. “The first... you pulled him out from behind enemy lines in France. He was the only survivor of his unit. And the second...” She sighed. “The second was – is – Dugan.”

“Really?” Steve raised his head. That was the best thing he'd heard in this conversation so far. Dum-Dum had always adored Peggy, and she was tough enough to keep him in line. The two would make a good pair. A moment later, however, what she'd just said about her husband being in the hopsital hit him all over again. Dugan had loved his cigars and his bourbon, his sweets and his daredevil stunts. He'd always joked that he was destined for a short life with a fast end – how had he ended up lingering in a hospital bed?

“Steve.” Peggy squeezed his hand. “You have to understand. You were... as far as we knew, you were dead. We had to let you go.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. “Yeah. I understand.” They'd had to move on. So would he.

“What else?” Peggy asked. “I can tell there's more.”

She was right – but he didn't want to ask and he knew she wouldn't want to answer. As long as they were here, though, they might as well get it over with. Steve looked up at her again. “Bucky?”

Peggy let go of his hand and shook her head. “It was enemy territory. We couldn't even search until after the surrender, and by then...”

By then there'd been nothing to find. Steve leaned forward, head in his hands, and stared at the dark wood of Peggy's desk. Not even a body to bury. Not even a grave he could put flowers on and apologize to.

“I'm so sorry, Steve,” said Peggy. “This isn't the world you wanted to come back to.”

No, it wasn't – Steve hadn't wanted to come back to any world in which he had to live knowing he was responsible for his best friend's death. It was starting to sound, however, like his sacrifice hadn't helped anybody. It hadn't even ended the war. What was it Fletcher had said in the elevator, about needing an extra push?

Before he could follow that train of thought any further, however, the door opened and Howard Stark stalked in with a newspaper under his arm.

“Well, that was unpleasant,” he announced, dropping himself heavily into the chair next to Steve's. “Patent this, and intellectual property that! Next chance I get, I'm stepping on the little bastard!”

Peggy quickly sat up and blinked away her tears. “You need to stop antagonizing him, Howard.”

“I'll stop antagonizing him when he stops giving me a reason to,” Howard said. “So – what have I missed?”

“I was just catching Steve up on some of what's happened,” Peggy said calmly. Her mask was back on now, as if the preceding conversation had never happened.

“Good idea,” said Howard. “That's a lot of ground to cover. It's a very different world.”

A very different world – not the world Steve would have wanted to come back to. What was it they were hinting at. “What kind of world is it?” Steve asked. “What happened at the end of the war? You gave me the gist yesterday,” he said. “I'd like the full story.”

Howard and Peggy exchanged a glance, and in that moment Steve knew, down in the pit of his stomach, that something terrible had happened. Yesterday they'd implied that the fighting had basically been over with the crash of the Valkyrie, but he was sure now that couldn't be true. Whatever Fletcher's 'last push' had been, it was something both of them were ashamed of.

“I'm not entirely sure I could explain,” said Peggy. “It was a complicated time, and it's gotten more complicated since. We're all like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, running as fast as we can just to stay in the same place.”

“You might be better off finding a book on it or something,” Howard agreed, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Our experience of it was... well, we were both very much on the front lines of things. We didn't have the big picture.”

“After you... left,” Peggy said, “I took charge of the 107th and mopping up the last HYDRA holdouts. That was what you said you wanted, was all of HYDRA either dead or captured,” she added, almost apologetically. “While Howard went to work on the Manhattan Project.”

Ask him about Manhattan. “What's the Manhattan project?” Steve wanted to know.

“Atomic research,” said Howard. “That's where I met Vanko – you missed Vanko, didn't you? Shame about him. Brilliant man. Anyway,” he interrupted himself, and unfolded the newspaper he was holding to spread it out on his knees. “I was going to ask if you two had seen this mess, but seeing as the President called me this morning, I think the whole country's seen it by now.”

The paper in Howard's lap was the Times. It's headlines were somewhat more subdued than the Bugle's, but to the same effect – a crowd of people had seen a man escorted out of Times Square by government vehicles the previous afternoon, and rumor had it that Captain America, found in an ice floe a few months earlier, was now thawed out and back in action. There was something kind of reassuring, actually, about the fact that after forty years the Times was still New York's newspaper and the Bugle was still sensationalist trash.

“I saw it,” Peggy said dryly. “I had a fax from the White House this morning. They're hoping to arrange a meeting sometime next week. I'm afraid, Steve, you're going to have to have a public debut. There's no help for it.”

“How did everybody find out?” Steve asked.

“Damn Canadians can't keep a secret,” Howard said.

“It wouldn't have gone any differently on American soil, seeing as at the time it was viewed as the discovery of a body,” Peggy corrected. “It doesn't matter anyway. The secret's out, and President Reagan is only the first in a very long lineup of people who are going to want to meet you, Steve. We were...” she smiled awkwardly. “We were sort of thinking of arranging a tour.”

Steve cocked an eyebrow at her.

“I know,” she said, “but if we don't people will only ask what we're hiding. This isn't an era that trusts the government.”

“For the good name of SHIELD and Uncle Sam, Steve?” asked Howard.

They'd only brought it up to derail the conversation, Steve thought, and they'd done a very good job – but now a question had been asked and he had to answer it. “Do we start right away?” he asked warily.

“Oh, Lord, no!” Peggy laughed. “We'll give you some time to settle – and us some time to plan. We do want to get you out there, though, before the conspiracy buffs start hanging around on our doorstep.”

“I guess I'd better, then,” said Steve, and forced himself to smile.

“Wonderful,” said Peggy. “That means we have a lot of work to do.”

The topic of the past didn't come up again until Howard and Steve made their way back to the penthouse in the evening. Steve supposed he could have changed his mind and taken the room at SHIELD, but he didn't. Even if the Stark home wasn't exactly a haven of domestic tranquility, it was still a home. Even not counting the forty years he'd missed, it was a long time since Steve had been to a place anybody called home.

They were on their way up in the elevator when Howard suddenly asked, “did Peggy tell you she's married?”

“Huh?” Steve had been staring blankly at his image in the mirror on the opposite wall of the elevator car, his mind adrift. It took him half a second to remember what Howard had just said. “Yeah. She did. Dugan. She also told me he's dying.” How did Howard think that was going to work, he wondered – did he think Steve would swoop in like a vulture as soon as the corpse was cool? The thought made him shudder. Why did this have to be so difficult?

“That's what the doctor's say. Personally, I still think he's gonna coast through on sheer spite,” Howard snorted. “The man's just too stubborn to die.” The elevator stopped at the top, and he got out his keys. “Listen, Steve,” he added, as he undid the lock. “I'm sorry. If I'd known you were alive... we kept searching for days, but in the end...

“I was dead,” said Steve flatly. He tried to imitate Peggy's emotionless delivery, but he was pretty sure he failed. “There was still a war going on. I'm not angry.”

“It's just... you and Peggy,” Howard said. “You two had plans. I know you did.”

“We did,” Steve agreed. There would have been a small wedding somewhere private, because Captain America had already stood there awkwardly through enough big ceremonies in his honour. The farm. Children if they could have them – they didn't know yet whether that was possible or safe after Steve had been given the serum, but if they couldn't have their own then they would adopt. The war had left plenty of orphans. It had all hovered there in front of Steve like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, getting closer and closer as the fighting wound down... then Bucky had fallen from that train, and somehow it had all stopped being important.

“I'm sorry,” Howard repeated.

“There's nothing to apologize for,” Steve assured him. “Please, I... I don't want to talk about it,” he decided.

“Yeah. Neither do I,” said Howard.

Howard apparently meant that, too – because when Maria called Steve to come to supper an hour later, Howard wasn't there. Neither was Jarvis. Instead, Maria herself was putting bowls of red and white sauces on the table, next to a plate of what looked like very, very thin pancakes.

“Hello, Steve,” she said with a kind smile. “How are you enjoying the 80's?”

“I'm disappointed I haven't seen a flying car yet,” he said as he sat down. “They told us that by 1980 we'd have moon bases and flying cars.”

“I'm afraid Hollywood was just a little optimistic,” Maria agreed.

“Not Hollywood – Howard,” Steve said. “He told me that personally, in 1943.” He looked out the window, thinking perhaps Howard was on the terrace outside, but there was no sign of him. “Where is Howard?”

Maria's welcoming smile faltered for a moment. “He said he was going out,” she said, “so it's just us tonight. I hope you like burritos.” Behind her, Tony walked in from the kitchen with a bowl of shredded lettuce in one hand and a bowl of cheese in the other, and three cans of soda wedged under his arms.

“I've never had a burrito,” said Steve.

Tony put the bowls down on the table. “It's a soft tortilla with stuff inside. We've got beef.”

“I know what they are,” Steve told him.

“They're fast and easy,” Maria added, helping Tony get the sodas onto the table without dropping them. “Good to make when we want to give Jarvis the night off, and containing all four food groups!”

Tony had already started spooning stuff into the first tortilla. “The salsa with the green bits in it is the 'intense',” he said, adding it liberally to his dinner. “The other one is 'mild'.” He put the salsa spoon back in the bowl, then wrapped his pile of fillings up in the tortilla and folded it at the ends, before raising it to his mouth and taking the kind of giant bite only teenage boys and underfed soldiers were capable of.

“I'll consider myself warned,” Steve said. He put together one for himself, keeping to the 'mild' salsa for the time being. Tony had made folding it look easy, but Steve's was threatening to fall apart as he raised it to his mouth. He could imagine this sort of food being something Howard wouldn't approve of. Howard Stark had climbed the social ladder by blood, sweat, and bald-faced lying, and he'd never been interested in anything cheap or easy. Apparently that hadn't changed. He still thought he'd earned the best and saw no reason to have anything but.

If he didn't like burritos, though, he was missing out. The meat was spicy and the lettuce gave the whole thing a nice crunch. Steve hadn't had anything spicy in ages. Spicy food had been a treat when he was a child, something the Rogers family rarely had the money for. During the war, food had always been very basic except at special occasions, when it would be lavish but inoffensive. This was a nice change of pace.

While they ate, Maria asked him a few questions about the events of the day, and Steve gave her bland answers. He'd gotten a proper tour of the SHIELD building and met some of the more important people who worked there, and they're figured out a schedule for his meeting with the president as well as a tentative plan for a trip to the UN.

“Howard and Peggy seem to think we're gonna be traveling a lot,” he said. “I'm hoping I can do it in a better outfit this time.”

Maria smiled appreciatively, but Tony looked concerned. “What about Florida?” he asked.

“I'm sure Florida will be in there somewhere,” said Steve. He knew he'd been there once before, but couldn't remember anything about the place besides that it had been hot and muggy, and after a few hours of sweating in that his costume had been all but ruined.

“No, Florida!” Tony insisted, and Steve realized he was talking to Maria.

“I'm sorry?” she asked, blinking in puzzlement. “What's in Florida?”

“The space shuttle!” Tony said. “Dad was gonna take me to see Odyssey blast off. It's been on the calendar for six months.” He sagged back in his seat, unhappy. “I knew it. I knew something was going to come up.” He glared accusingly at Steve. “It always does!”

“This isn't something he could have predicted, Tonino,” Maria said gently. “Nobody knew when Captain Rogers would wake up, or if he'd wake up at all. I'm sure your father will work something out.”

“No, he won't,” grumbled Tony. “He doesn't want to go.”

“That's just not true,” Maria insisted. “He wants to spend time with you.”

“Well, he's really good at hiding it.” Tony began making himself another burrito, shaking gobs of salsa and sour cream off the spoons with rather more force than was strictly necessary.

“What's a space shuttle?” asked Steve, hoping to re-direct the conversation so that he wouldn't have to listen to another family argument. “It sounds like a bus that goes to the moon or something.”

“That's pretty close,” said Maria.

“It doesn't go to the moon,” Tony informed them, taking another bite of burrito.

“Mouth full,” Maria said, holding up a finger.

Tony rolled his eyes, but chewed and swallowed before he continued. “It's a re-usable spacecraft. They use it to take satellites and things up and do research in space. We got tickets because Odyssey is the first one to be fitted with the new StarkArm, so he promised to take me.”

“Tony was very excited about it,” Maria added. “Don't they just send another one up as soon as the first is back? Maybe you can get a rain cheque,” she suggested. Her choice of words sounded unpromising to Steve, but maybe that was just because of his own associations with the term rain cheque.

“If Dad's not busy again,” Tony complained. “Besides, the Odyssey launch was mine!”

“Wait, wait!” Steve held up a hand. “Back up. Are you telling me that there are spaceships just going up and down routinely now, one after the other?” If there were no flying cars or moon colonies, that was the first thing Steve had heard that actually sounded like the future.

“Yeah, totally!” Tony said, and his face brightened up. “Dude, if you've been frozen since the 40's, you missed everything, didn't you? You missed the Moon landing! We landed on the moon in 1969!”

“Nine months before Tony was born,” said Maria with a quiet smile.

Tony very deliberately ignored the comment. “The first shuttle flight was Columbia in 1981, and now they've got them going up and back every two or three weeks.”

“That's amazing,” said Steve. He remembered watching movies about space travel... all people in cardboard robot costumes and model spacecraft hanging from strings, and Bronson Canyon standing in for the surface of the Moon. “What about Mars? Have we been to Mars? Any Martians?” How amazing would it be if he could meet people from another world?

“Not Mars yet, and there aren't any Martians,” Tony replied. “Mars is just rust and rocks. But since around 1960 we've been listening for signals from civilizations outside the solar system – that's called SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. And we've sent probes to the other planets in the solar system. Voyager 2 just flew by Uranus earlier this year – I can show you some of the magazine articles about it.” He was smiling now, his eyes bright, his whole attitude different from the sulky teenager Steve had seen at breakfast that morning. “It's gonna hit Neptune in 1989, and then the only planet we haven't had a close look at yet will be Pluto!”

Steve shook his head. “That's incredible. And Howard makes parts for this space shuttle? Of course he does.” Howard wouldn't have wanted to miss out on something like that.

“I'm building a model,” Tony said. “You want to see it?”

“Sure,” Steve said.

“Not at the table,” Maria said.

“Of course not, Mom!” Tony replied. “I'm not gonna get salsa all over it. I'll show it to you after dinner,” he said to Steve. “I promise.”

Steve didn't know whether Howard was in the habit of keeping his promises anymore – but Tony kept that one. Once they'd finished eating, he washed his hands and showed Steve down the hallway to his room, where he proudly showed off the model Steve had taken for an airplane the previous night.

“I figured it would look more like a rocket,” said Steve.

“Well, it goes up on a rocket,” Tony said, “but it lands like a glider. That's why it's flat on the bottom with the delta wing shape – increases the surface area. The whole bottom surface is covered with tiles that help dissipate the heat of re-entry.”

Steve touched it, and was surprised by the texture. Yesterday he'd assumed the model was plastic, but that was mainly on account of the dull white finish of the unpainted parts. “Is this made of paper?”

“Card stock,” Tony said. “I couldn't find a commercial kit I liked, so I got a hold of some of the blueprints and made my own.” He turned it over to show Steve inside the cargo bay. “This part here,” he said, pointing to a tubular structure folded against one side, “is the StarkArm. I designed it myself.”

As when he'd talked about blowing up the building at school, Tony's voice was so nonchalant that Steve didn't realize what he'd said at first. When he did, he nearly choked.

You did?” he asked.

“He tweaked it,” said Maria, who was standing in the doorway. Her tone was stern correction, but her face was beaming.

“I redesigned it,” Tony amended. “The original version had some bugs that needed working out, and I'd been doing robotics at school, so I thought I'd take a shot at it. It was mostly programming problems, but I also came up with a new design for the joints. The idiots who built the first ones didn't understand how g-forces would affect the lubricants,” he added, rolling his eyes. “You can't just make something that works in free-fall and then go. Takeoff can force lubricant out of places that need it, and then there's nothing to get it back in.”

“Amazing,” Steve repeated, and he absolutely meant it. Peggy had said this kid was almost sixteen, and here he was designing parts for a spacecraft.

“So that's why they gave us tickets for the launch of Odyssey,” Tony said. “It's the first one with the refurbished StarkArm. Intrepid next month will have it, too... but Odyssey was gonna be the first. The arm's out on the patch and everything.”

Steve couldn't imagine Howard being willing to miss something like that. Maybe he could have a word with his friend. “Howard must be so proud of you.”

Tony blinked, then looked away, his sullen face returning.

“He is proud of you,” Maria said. “He just doesn't know how to show it.”

“I'd definitely be proud of that model,” Steve offered. “It's going to look great – I can't wait to see it finished.”

But Tony's mood had been ruined now. He shrugged and put the model down. “If you want to see the space shuttle,” he said, “they've got a life-sized mockup of the cockpit in the Hall of Science in Queen's. It's part of their grand re-opening thing about 'technological landmarks'. From the steam engine all the way to the moon landing and the Manhattan Project and stuff like that.”

“The Manhattan Project?” Steve frowned. “The one Howard worked on?” He would have thought anything Howard worked on to help end the war would have been a secret, much as Project Rebirth itself had been. That was why the ideas got names like Project Rebirth, to keep the details hidden. When Fletcher had told him to ask about it, he'd assumed he would have to get the information from Howard and Peggy themselves, or from other people at SHIELD. Could he really just go visit a museum?

“That's the only one I know of.” Tony sat down and spread out a cutting mat to start working on pieces for his shuttle again. He didn't want to talk about his father, and was trying to signal that the conversation was over.

Steve tried to salvage it. “Maybe you can show me. If you're not in school, and I can find an afternoon when Peggy and Howard won't have me running around shaking hands with people, we can go together.”

“I went already,” said Tony.

He thought Steve was only interested because of Howard's part in the Manhattan Project – and since that wasn't too far from the truth, Steve decided not to press it. “Good luck with your model,” he said. “I'll like to see how it turns out.”

“Uh-huh.” Tony was focused now, carefully cutting pieces with an x-acto knife.

“Good night.” Steve stepped out, and let Maria shut the door.

“I'm sorry about him,” said Maria with a sigh. “He's... he's fifteen. He and Howard have never gotten along very well and now with you here and Tony having this problem at school, they're both just stressed.”

“Don't apologize,” Steve told her. How many apologies had he heard that day? Peggy had apologized, Howard had, and now Maria, all for things that weren't their fault.

“They got along fine when Tony was little,” Maria added. “When Howard could still teach him things...”

“It's okay,” Steve told her. “Listen, tell me something, is there still the library at Bryant Park?” That would be a five or ten minute trip from SHIELD headquarters, but still within walking distance. He could slip out and do some research. If the Manhattan Project had a museum exhibit, surely he could find a book or two.

“Of course there is,” said Maria. “That's a historical landmark.”

“Great,” Steve said. “It's like Howard said – I've got a lot of catching up to do.”


Chapter Text

Howard got back very late that night. Steve was already in bed, but not asleep – instead, he'd sat up reading a copy of National Geographic he'd found in the study, with an article about the mission to Uranus Tony had mentioned. He heard the door bang when Howard came in, then Howard and Maria's voices, quiet at first but growing steadily louder until they were almost shouting. The words were indistinct, but Steve thought he heard Florida, and wondered if they were arguing about Tony.

It was tempting to get up and ask. This was none of Steve's business, of course, but Steve Rogers had never been very good at minding his own business. Take your damn kid to Florida like you promised, Howard, wouldn't even be the bluntest thing Steve had ever said to him.

Instead, however, he just marked his page, settled down in bed, and turned off the light. Steve was a guest here, an interloper in not only this household but this entire world. Until he found his feet, he was better off keeping his mouth shut.

As he lay there in the dark, Steve did wonder if that were just a rationalization. Maybe the truth was that he was scared – Steve's own father had died when he was very young, so he had only a few, hazy memories of the man. That was enough, though. Maybe he was scared of finding himself on the receiving end of that again.

Maybe he was scared of seeing Howard Stark, the friend he respected and loved, become that.

The argument didn't last very long, but the silence that closed in afterwards was somehow worse. It took Steve hours to fall asleep.

Tony was not at breakfast the next morning, and Maria looked pale and dark-eyed, as if she hadn't slept very well, either. Jarvis was stiffly silent as he served breakfast, and did not comment when Maria poured a bit of liquor into her mug. The only person who seemed at ease was Howard, who munched his toast and sipped his coffee as if nothing were wrong in the world.

“Good morning,” Steve said cautiously, hovering in the door. He didn't want to enter uninvited.

“Morning, Steve,” said Howard cheerfully. Jarvis set a plate down in front of him with a napkin, a glass of orange juice, and two aspirin. Howard ignored the juice, and washed the pills down with his coffee.

Steve seated himself. “I wouldn't mind some juice, Jarvis,” he said, for the sake of saying something.

“Have mine.” Howard pushed the plate and glass towards him.

“Thanks.” Steve picked it up, but didn't try a sip yet. He wanted to diffuse the tension in the room a bit before he ate. The unpleasant atmosphere was enough to give somebody indigestion. “Tony was showing me some of his work last night,” he offered. “He said he'd worked on a robot arm for the space shuttle.”

That was a mistake – Maria glanced up from her drink but didn't speak, and Howard visibly stiffened.

“Yeah?” Howard asked, around his mouthful of toast. “Damned obvious what was wrong with it, really. I don't know why I didn't think of it myself.” He didn't have Tony's talent for saying significant things as if they were trifles, and the bitter edge to his voice was obvious. Steve could imagine him poring over diagrams late at night, frustrated by his inability to find the problem – how had he reacted when Tony figured it out?

“He's a bright kid. Chip off the old block,” Steve said. When all else failed, compliments usually helped Howard's mood.

“He's brilliant,” Howard agreed. “Smarter than I ever was, that's for sure.” For a moment, his voice softened, and for the first time, he actually sounded as if he were fond of Tony.

Steve probably should have stopped there, but he couldn't resist poking just a little deeper. “You must be very proud of him.”

Howard's gentler expression immediately melted back into a bitter scowl. “Yeah. I am.”

“You should tell him sometime,” Maria observed dryly, sipping her spiked coffee.

“He knows,” Howard said, and stuffed the rest of his toast into his mouth. “Damn kid knows everything.”


It was actually not until several days later when Steve found the time to go to the library. The agent he'd seen in her office on his second day awake, the black man with the bizarrely cylindrical hair, came into her office to discuss something with her, and when it became plain that this conversation was going to take some time, Steve excused himself and slipped out of the room.

He wasn't sure why he felt he had to do this on the sly. Something in Steve's gut told him he couldn't quite trust anybody here, not even the people he thought he knew. He almost decided to go back upstairs when, on his way across the lobby, he happened to notice the man who'd asked him to sign a comic book for his son – Agent Troy. Troy saw him, too, and his eyes flicked over to the door as if he understood that Steve was sneaking out. Steve hesitated, not sure if Troy would try to stop him, but all the man did was wave briefly and then return to leafing through a folder. Steve waved back, relieved, and pushed through the revolving doors.

So far Steve had gotten only glimpses of the city. He saw the streets go by from the inside of Howard's car, and there'd been that brief look when he'd tried to flee SHIELD on the first day. In 1945, when he'd seen it last, Manhattan had been a crowded, chaotic, dirty place. Four decades later, it was still all those things, but on a different scale entirely. Traffic on the streets was so thick that in places it slowed to a crawl, with buses, taxis, cars, and bicycles all mired in the same jams. People of every possible size, colour, and social status elbowed past one another on the sidewalks. There was graffiti on the walls and garbage in the gutters. Signs made of illuminated tubes sizzled or blinked with the same garish messages of merchandise or events that Steve had once seen painted onto brick walls or pasted up on posters.

The impression Steve got was that New York had just kept barreling along, gathering up material like a snowball rolling down a hill until it was bigger, lumpier, and filthier than ever but still made of all the same things.

Peggy had told him it was the middle of spring, so Steve was not surprised to arrive in Bryant Park and find the trees putting out leaves or heavy with magnolia blossoms, and tulips blooming by the wrought-iron fences. People were walking their dogs and the ever-present pigeons were cooing underfoot or watching from ledges. Despite the veneer of this new decade, the place felt comfortably familiar. Steve went around to the front of the library, and found it looking exactly as he remembered it. The columns and arches of the old sandstone building gave it a timeless feel, as if it would have been equally at home in the 80's, the 40's, or the Roman Empire. He climbed the steps and headed in with a smile on his face.

A librarian – an elderly black woman with frizzy white hair in a bun and enormous owl-eyed glasses – was working at one of the circulation desks. Steve approached, clearing his throat politely.

“Hello,” he said. “Sorry if I'm interrupting you.”

“Oh, not at all,” she replied immediately. “That's why I'm here. What can I do for you?”

“I'm looking for... uh...” Steve swallowed. “I'm looking for information on the Manhattan Project.” He had no reason, based on what Tony had said, to expect there was anything wrong with the request, but something in him still expected everybody in the room to look up an gasp, or a gaggle of secret agents to come rushing out of nowhere to knock him to the ground.

“What kind of information?” the librarian asked. “Is this for college? Or just general interest?”

“General interest,” Steve decided. “I don't think I know as much history as I should.”

The librarian found him two books and two magazine articles, one of them also in National Geographic, and got him settled at a table in the big Rose Reading Room. There he sat for perhaps half an hour, reading about the history of American nuclear research, until he heard a voice say, “Captain?”

Steve blinked and raised his head. There were four men standing over him – one black and three white, all of them in dark sunglasses. He didn't recognize any of them, but the nearest one flashed a SHIELD badge at him.

“Captain,” the man repeated, his voice low in deference to the fact that they were in a library. “We're going to need you to come with us.”

Steve carefully put down the book he'd been reading, turning it upside down so that they wouldn't see what it was about. Even considering that he'd left the building without telling anyone, four hulking agents to retrieve him seemed like a bit of an overreaction. No matter what decade it was, Steve was a grown man. “Am I in trouble?” he wanted to know. Maybe he'd been right to worry.

“Madame Director is a little concerned,” the man replied.

Something about the choice of words made Steve want to laugh, but his escorts all looked as if Madame Director's concern was a very serious matter indeed, so he controlled himself and let them escort him back out to Fifth Avenue. There was another sleek black vehicle waiting for him there, with one police car in front and another behind for an escort. When Steve got into the back seat, he found Peggy herself there waiting for him. She didn't look angry – she looked scared.

“All you all right, Steve?” she asked, looking him over for signs of injury. One of the agents shut the door behind him, and he saw it lock automatically. He hadn't noticed that before.

“Am I all... of course I am.” Steve frowned. “Why wouldn't I be? Was all this,” he gestured out the window at their police escort, “really necessary?”

The car pulled away from the curb, but Peggy was not reassured. “Have you spoken to anyone?” she asked. “Did anybody follow you here, besides Agent Troy?”

So Troy had told on him. Steve would remember that. “I don't think so,” he said, but since he hadn't noticed Agent Troy he supposed he couldn't take that for granted. “I talked to a librarian. She helped me find some books. Other than that, nobody.” He felt like a naughty child being scolded... and maybe he ought to, since he had after all left the building without letting anybody know. It wasn't a feeling he was used to getting from Peggy, though. She'd always been the one to help him get in trouble – how had she become the authority he was in trouble with? Was it just the unfamiliarity of seeing her in that role that made it so difficult to trust her?

Peggy sat back a bit, relieved. “Steve, why didn't you tell anybody where you were going? I would have assigned you an escort. You can't just wander around on the streets!”

“What do you mean?” asked Steve. She was talking as if he were still five feet tall and had just wandered into a rough part of town looking for a fight. “I went to the library. Is this what Howard meant, about you wanting me baby-sat?”

“No!” Peggy replied at once, but then had to correct herself. “Not exactly. We're not worried about what you're going to do. We trust you. We're worried about what somebody else might do to you. You saw those headlines the day you got back, Steve,” she added, slightly reproachful. “You're not a secret.”

Steve had seen them... and he suddenly remembered the other thing Agent Fletcher had told him, when she'd suggested he looking into the Manhattan Project. She'd said he already had enemies here. “So you would have kept me a secret if you could?” he asked. What did that mean? That they would have locked him up for his own safety?

“We certainly wouldn't be planning a national tour for you,” Peggy sighed. “If we'd found you ourselves then no, nobody would know who you are, and we wouldn't have to give you publicity. Unfortunately, the news in Canada announced it when the prospectors found you, and now we're stuck with it. Congress is talking about you, the UN is talking about you...” she shook her head. “Captain America! Everybody's wondering if we have Erskine's formula and what we're going to do with it if we do. Even our allies are worried about what we might do with you. They're talking about countermeasures. You can't go out without a bodyguard.”

“And that's why you wanted me to stay in the building,” Steve said, remembering the argument she'd had with Howard that first afternoon. “Why didn't you just say so?”

“Because you'd only just woke up, and I didn't want to frighten you or put too much pressure on you,” Peggy replied. “Besides, you've never taken restrictions well, and I figured you were bloody-minded enough to sneak out on purpose to annoy me,” She met his eyes evenly, not saying but certainly conscious of the fact that she'd been right.

There it was again, as if she were a schoolteacher talking to a misbehaving student. Steve didn't like that, and couldn't quite believe he'd actually brought it upon himself. Besides, she'd said other things that were just as troubling, if not more so. “What do people think you're going to be doing with me?” he asked, but then decided the answer was obvious enough. “They think you brought me back as a weapon.”

“Yes, they do,” said Peggy. “It's a very tense world we're living in, Steve. It's been on a knife's edge for years. People think everything might be a weapon, and you... well, you have to admit, the way you were used during the war, it's hard to blame them.”

“I wasn't used,” Steve said stiffly. “I volunteered. I was doing what I wanted to do!”

“What you did during the war, then!” Peggy corrected herself. “You were a weapon. You were made to be the perfect soldier, and you were a propaganda piece. The newsreels, the comics, that's what everybody thinks we have. A superman. A weapon.”

Steve hadn't considered that – he hadn't thought he'd be terribly important in a world that wasn't at war. It hadn't occurred to him to think how the fictionalized representations of him would affect people's memories in a time when most of the people he'd actually known were dead. If that was all anybody knew, and they thought the US now had a weapon they didn't... Steve might well be the cause of the war, rather than a soldier in one.

Is that why you brought me back?” he asked. It was an awful question, but he had to know.

“Of course not!” said Peggy.

“Then why did you?” Steve asked. “After forty years, you didn't have to.”

“Yes, we did,” Peggy insisted. “You were alive! We could save you! How could we not, after we failed to save you all those years ago?”

“You didn't fail to save me, I ditched the plane myself,” Steve reminded her. “On purpose, to save people's lives! I wasn't planning on being saved. It might have been forty years ago for you,” he reminded her, “but for me that was last week. I told you, this is my choice.”

Peggy shut her eyes for a moment, then sat up a little straighter, making a visible effort to compose herself. “We can talk about this alter,” she said. “Right now we need you at SHIELD. That was the other reason I had to send somebody to collect you,” she added. “Don't you remember what today is?”

Steve had, in fact, totally forgotten – now, too late, it came rushing back, and this time he felt honest shame as he sagged in his seat. “I'm supposed to meet the president today, aren't I?”

“Yes,” Peggy said. “Yes, you are.”

Steve wasn't sure what had happened to the uniform he'd been wearing when he crashed the Valkyrie. He supposed that after forty years in ice, it might well have deteriorated far more than he had. That would be why they'd put him in a t-shirt and slacks to wake up in the recovery room. He expected them to have either a version of the old costume or an army dress uniform for him to wear to meet the president, but instead they dressed him up in a red button-down shirt and a white suit, with a stars-and-stripes patterned tie to add a patriotic note.

“No costume?” he asked, as Peggy knotted the tie for him.

“We hoped to have one,” she said, “but we ran into some legal difficulties. It seems a comic book company currently holds the rights to it, and we can't let you outside wearing it unless we want to pay them a truly absurd sum of money.”

“What about my shield?” Steve asked. He hadn't seen it yet... had they found that, too, or was it still in the ice somewhere?

“The same,” Peggy said. “It's trademarked – and now that you're back the value of your merchandise has skyrocketed, so we don't think they'll be letting go of it any time soon. We're going to take them to court, but our lawyers honestly aren't sure we have a case. A copyright is a copyright.”

“So you have it, then?” Steve asked.

“It's in storage,” Peggy said. She finished with his tie and stood back to look him over. “Yes, I think that will do,” she said.

They were the same words she'd used the day he'd chosen the shield out of the collection of prototypes Howard had presented with him – for a moment he was back there in the warehouse, cowering behind the metal disk she'd just shot five times, staring in infatuated awe as she walked away from him. Then he was back in the present, where this woman he'd adored was somebody placing restrictions on him and not telling him why, and he knew he needed to ask.

“Peggy,” he said, “where's my shield?”

“It's in the vault downstairs,” she replied. “You can't take it out with you today, Steve. I know it's stupid, but we could really get in legal trouble for it.”

“I don't want to take it out with me today,” he promised. “But I do want to take it home with me. Or back to Howard's. Whatever. It's mine, I want to hang onto it.”

It was probably a silly, childish request – just as sneaking out without telling anybody had been a silly, childish action. Peggy, however, seemed to understand the symbolic importance of it. Steve's shield had been almost more part of his body than part of his uniform.

“Gentlemen,” she said to the agents in the room, “will somebody bring Captain Rogers his shield, please?”

One of them returned a few minutes later with a cardboard box about three feet square and six inches deep. Peggy took this from him and, standing up straight and formal as if she were officiating some kind of ceremony, removed the lid. Inside, the shield was cushioned in layers and layers of bubble wrap. She cut the tape and pulled the shield itself out to present it to Steve.

It must have been cleaned since they'd taken him out of the ice, but it hadn't been repaired. When Steve took it from her, he found the strap that had broken in the fight with Schmidt was still there. So were the scrapes in the paint from the fight on the train. He ran his fingers around the edge, feeling the familiar texture and temperature. Howard had explained once that because Vibranium resisted vibration, it warmed up very slowly.

“Thank you,” he said to Peggy.

She nodded, biting her lip. “Just... keep it in the box until you get back to Howard's, please. The last thing we need right now is to be sued over this nonsense.”

Steve hated to do it. He hadn't realized how much he'd been missing the thing until she'd put it in his hands, but now that he had it he never wanted to put it down again. How many nights had he spent in the middle of nowhere, in trenches or forests or bombed-out building, sleeping with this shield for a pillow? How many times had it saved his and his followers' lives? Now, while he'd been sleeping, somebody had apparently decided that nobody even had the right to look at it without their consent, when they hadn't even been the ones who made it! What kind of world had he awakened to?

“Madame Director?” somebody asked from the doorway. “The president is waiting.”

“Of course,” Peggy nodded. “We're on our way.”

Reluctantly, Steve put the shield back in its box and wrapped it up again, and went out to the car with it under his arm. “Where exactly am I meeting the president?” he asked. Several locations had been discussed, but he couldn't remember them ever settling on one.

“The Maine Monument,” said Peggy. “We thought it would be best if it were somewhere public, someplace people don't automatically think of as high-security. We don't want anyone to think we're hiding you.”

Steve probably should have kept his mouth shut, but he couldn't help observing, “that's ironic.”

“It's public relations,” said Peggy. “It always is.” She sounded as if she were resigned to that.


Columbus Circle in 1945 had been a ring of little shops and hotels with dozens of painted billboards advertising everything from mattresses to toothpaste, with streetcar tracks in the road rather than automobile traffic. The Maine Monument had stood proud at the corner of the park amid young trees and open lawns.

In 1986 the streetcars were gone, the trees were taller, and many of the buildings had been replaced by new structures in harsh glass and metal rather than friendly sandstone and brick. The plazas around the obelisk and subway entrance were crowded with people and food carts, but the area near the monument itself had been cleared by the police and roped off with yellow caution tape. Cops were waving people out of the way as the SHIELD car pulled up. Half a dozen vans with the logos of various news channels or papers were gathered around, and flash bulbs were going off everywhere.

The four men who'd collected Steve from the library were there as bodyguards, waiting on the pavement around the monument with sour expressions on their faces. With them was a much shorter man with snow-white hair – Howard Stark. As the car pulled up, he came to meet them with a beaming smile on his face.

“Steve,” he said, as one of the guards opened the car door for them. “Fashionably late, as usual.”

“We had to take care of something,” Steve said, glancing at the box on the seat beside him as he swung his legs out of the car. He was kind of reluctant to leave... what if they took his shield away and put it in storage again? It wasn't just Howard who was waiting for him, though. The entire gathered crowd of reporters and citizens were craning their necks to see. With a sigh, Steve grabbed the edges of the door frame and got to his feet.

“Nice suit,” Howard observed. “Peggy sure can pick 'em.”

“She told me there was some difficulty about my uniform,” Steve said.

“We're working on it,” Howard promised. He led Steve over to the foot of the fountain, where a microphone had been set up. Two speakers had been mounted partway up the monument, so everybody would be able to hear what was said. “Ladies and gentlemen!” Howard said, then winced as the speakers made a loud, high-pitched ringing sound. It died out after a moment, and he tried again. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my immense honour to present to the world an American hero, and my own good friend. Back after forty years, Captain Stephen Grant Rogers – Captain America!”

The crowd applauded politely. Camera flashes popped. Steve did his best to smile and wave, with Howard's arm around his shoulders, but he felt like a fool. He was on display again, the performing monkey. Howard and Peggy knew first-hand how frustrated he'd been with that part of his job, and yet here he was. Maybe they didn't really know what they were going to be doing with him, either.

As the applause died away, the speakers began playing a brass band rendition of Hail to the Chief. It was just slightly off-key in a rather familiar way, and Steve wondered whether the original recording had been made at one of the events he'd attended during the war. Before he could follow that thought any further, however, another car pulled up – this one a white limousine. The bodyguards surrounded it, and one opened the door for the president to climb out.

When Steve had tried to imagine President Ronald Reagan, he had pictured the dashing young man from the Brass Bancroft movies he and Bucky had used to watch at the nickelodeons, but of course that wasn't who he saw now. Like Peggy and Howard, and indeed the entire world, Reagan had aged: the man who approached Steve was gray-haired and sunken-cheeked, his skin spotted with rust. With him was a tiny woman in a white coat, with short blonde hair standing out all around her face. She didn't look anything like Jane Wyman as Steve remembered her from You're in the Army Now. Both these people, however, had bright, energetic smiles on their faces.

“Ron!” Howard said cheerfully, with a glance at Steve to make sure he'd noticed that Howard was on a first-name basis with the president of the United States. “Good to see you.”

“Good to see you, too, Howard,” Reagan said, shaking Howard's hand.

“Mr. Stark, always a pleasure,” the woman in the white coat agreed.

“Steve,” Howard added – with the same glance at the president to make sure he knew Howard was on a first-name basis with Captain America. “This is President Ronald Reagan, and his wife, Nancy.”

“Mr. President,” said Steve, shaking their hands. “Mrs. Reagan.” So definitely not Jane Wyman. He wondered how old this woman was. Howard had said Maria had been four in 1945. There must be people, Steve realized with a slightly sick feeling, who'd lived short but complete lives in the last forty years. People who'd been born, grown up, married, had children, and died young. Thousands and thousands of them, all while Steve slept in the arctic ice.

“An honour,” the president said. “A real honour to meet you in person at last, Captain Rogers. You know, back in the day I always wanted to try playing a bad guy in one of your movies! My agent said nobody would buy me as a villain.”

That made Steve smile honestly. “Too bad nobody told me,” he said. “Bucky – Lieutenant Barnes – and I, we were big fans of Brass Bancroft. If we'd known he wanted to be in a movie with us, I'm sure we could have worked something out.”

“Too bad it's been so long since either of us were in any movies,” Reagan said. “Maybe you'd do me the honour of coming to an American production 1980's style, though.” He pulled an envelope out of his jacket. “The space shuttle Odyssey will be blasting off in Florida in a couple of weeks, and Nancy and I are planning on attending. There's two tickets, so you can bring a friend.”

That was the launch Tony wanted to see, wasn't it? Steve briefly entertained the thought of taking the kid himself if Howard refused to, but it was entirely possible that Tony wouldn't want to go with Steve. More likely he would end up just taking Peggy, if either of them had the time. It wasn' as if he really knew anybody else.

“Thank you, Mr. President, I'd be delighted,” said Steve.

“Wonderful!” Reagan shook his hand again. “I know Dr. Williams, the administrator of NASA, has always been a fan of yours, and I'm sure Commander Shipley will be thrilled, as well!” He turned to address the audience. “On behalf of the American people, Captain Rogers,” he said formally, “welcome to 1986! This country is very grateful for your services in the past, and we're happy you can join us in looking forward to the future!”

He looked at Steve, waiting, and Steve stepped up to the microphone. He'd been in situations like this before, and knew exactly what kind of platitudes were required. “Thank you, Mr. President,” he repeated. “It's good to be back.”

Once all the hands had been shaken and the last camera had run out of film, Steve climbed back into the car with Peggy and put a hand on the shield box – he was able to depress the cardboard a little, but then he met resistance. That was good. It was still in there.

He'd hoped Peggy wouldn't notice him checking, but she did. “I promise you,” she sighed. “We've got a veritable army of lawyers working on it, but lawyers don't do anything quickly. That's why they're paid by the day.”

Steve nodded and looked out the window as the car pulled away. People were still trying to get closer and peer through the tinted windows, and the police escort had to move the crowd back so that the car could get onto Broadway. If it might have been unsafe for him to go to the library that morning, Steve thought dismally, it would definitely be after today. Millions of people were going to see his face on the news that night and in the papers tomorrow. If he went out in public again, he might be mobbed.

“Are you sure you don't want to stay at SHIELD?” Peggy asked. “We can provide proper security.”

“I'm sure,” said Steve. The tighter the security was going to be, the less Steve wanted to subject himself to it. “Howard's place is fine. Can I make one request, though?” he asked.

“Certainly,” Peggy said. “Anything.”

He chose his excuse carefully. “This space shuttle thing seems to be a big deal. Tony mentioned working on it, and he said there's an exhibit at some museum in Queen's that includes it. May I have Madame Director's permission for a field trip?” Tony had said there'd be information about the Manhattan Project there, too – and Steve doubted he'd be welcome back at the library after those agents had dragged him out of it.

Peggy looked startled – it made him wonder what she'd been expecting him to ask for. “Of course,” she said. “I'll assign you a bodyguard. When would you like to go?”

Steve blinked. “Really?”

“Of course!” She stared at him a moment, then shook her head. “Steve, for heaven's sake, you are not a prisoner. It's a precaution, nothing more. Do you really think we'd bring you back only to keep you locked up?”

“No. I don't think so.” At least, the Peggy and Howard Steve had known wouldn't have done any such thing. But this Peggy and Howard – these older, more jaded, more secretive people – he really couldn't say.


Chapter Text

When Steve arrived at SHIELD on the morning of his 'field trip', Agent Troy was standing on the steps waiting for him. The man greeted him with a grin and a friendly handshake.

“Good to see you again, Captain Rogers,” he said. “I've been assigned as your buddy for the day.”

He certainly looked pleased with the job, bouncing on his toes like an excited child. Steve himself was somewhat less so. “Like you were at the library,” he said, keeping his voice even. “Did Peggy tell you to follow me there, too?”

“No, I did that on my own,” Troy admitted. “Madame Director figured I did a good job, so I might as well keep on doing it.”

Steve had a feeling that was a lie, but since he didn't know for sure, he didn't say anything about it. Almost everybody had small nervous habits they performed while lying, but Steve didn't know Agent Troy well enough to have identified his, and he didn't demonstrate any of the normal ones like looking off to the left or scratching his ear. That was probably to be expected of a man who worked for an organization like SHIELD, but it didn't make Steve want to trust the man – or SHIELD itself.

“You did a good job. I never noticed you there.” Steve hoped Troy would take the hint.

Troy nodded and held up both hands. “Just call me Claude Rains,” he said.

That was an unexpected but amusing choice of metaphor. “You've seen The Invisible Man ?” asked Steve. In 1986 that movie would be some fifty years old... did they still re-run it?

“No,” Troy said at once, grinning. “Of course I haven't. He's invisible!”

Steve realized from the word no what the punchline would be, but he laughed anyway. Troy might not be so bad, he decided – he was just doing his job, and thrilled to be doing it with somebody he clearly admired. He deserved a second chance. “At the library you followed me because you didn't know where I was going,” said Steve. “Today I better follow you , because I'm not sure of the way to the museum.”

“I've never been there, but I've got a map,” Troy said. “Stick close. If we got lost, I at least want to be able to tell Madame Director we got lost together. She'll skin me alive if I lose you.”

“Nah, Peggy's not that mean,” said Steve. “She'll knock you out first.”


Steve thought that if they got lost, Peggy would probably have just laughed at him. He and the Commandos had once gotten turned around in southern Alsace and had mistaken an abandoned village for the ruins of Strasbourg, and once she'd been sure they were all alive and in one piece, Peggy had teased them about it for weeks. Fortunately for Steve's dignity, Queens was a lot easier to navigate than the Vosges, and the Hall of Science was easy to find. It was a rounded, self-consciously futuristic building, painted a shade of brown that made it look from a distance as if it were made of corrugated cardboard. Outside were two giant mock-ups of rockets, and a big banner on the building announced its grand re-opening and the exhibit on 'Technological Landmarks'.

More advertising banners were hanging on either side of the main entrance, showing images to suggest what the exhibit explored. There was a spidery-looking machine that appeared to be covered in silver foil, an odd airplane with a delta wing design and a pointed nose, and a towering, mushroom-shaped cloud.

The same cloud had been on the cover of the magazine Steve had begun reading at the library the other day, and he knew what it meant – that was an atomic explosion. It struck him as a strange thing to put up on a banner like that, with the spider and the airplane. If he tried to imagine a similar exhibit existing in the 40's, it probably would have had rockets and airplanes, and probably things like the television and the iron lung, but he couldn't see it including bombs. A bomb just wasn't an accomplishment the way those other machines were. All a bomb did was blow up. A nuclear bomb blew up harder , but didn't seem fundamentally different than the millions of smaller explosives dropped on London during the Blitz.

He paused to take a look around, but Agent Troy was nowhere to be seen. That was good. If Steve had to have a babysitter, he'd rather not have the person hanging over his shoulder all day. It might be inconvenient if he had questions, though.

Steve paid his admission, and headed inside.

The interior of the building was airy and open, with lots of natural light. The metal rafters of the high ceiling supported several large models of airplanes and spacecraft. There was the Wright Brothers' first plane and an early helicopter, as well as a model of the white pointy aircraft, which turned out to be a supersonic passenger jet called a Concorde . Nearby and to the same scale was a space shuttle, complete with fuel take and booster rockets. Steve wandered through the mockup of the shuttle cockpit and noticed that parts of the instrument panels were awfully familiar – it looked a great deal like the console of the Valkyrie . The magazine article had mentioned German scientists being brought to America to work on technological projects. Maybe one of them had a hand in that.

The spidery craft turned out to be the lunar lander. Steve remembered Tony mentioning that: twelve men had walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972. That must have been an exciting time, and Steve regretted missing it – if he'd been around then, maybe he could even have been an astronaut himself. That thought didn't last long, though. When Steve looked at the display more closely, he saw that astronauts were required to be under six feet tall and less than a hundred and eighty pounds. His enhanced body would have been disqualified on both counts.

There was even a small exhibit, a single section of wall with a few photographs, about Steve himself. It described the serum as a substance that encouraged cell growth while the body was fed with nutrients, enabling human DNA to reach its full potential. Steve remembered Howard talking about it in those terms, too, but there was no mention of Erskine's own description of his formula: the serum amplifies everything that is inside, so that good becomes great, and bad becomes worse .

The plaques mounted next to the photos stated that after the war, the idea of a super-soldier had been declared unethical, and one hundred and three countries had signed a treaty promising not to perform human experiments of that type. No wonder Peggy had said the world was upset by Steve's return. Did bringing him back count as breaking the treaty? Even if it didn't... how long would everybody else continue to honour it when they knew Steve was out there?

Steve hated thinking of himself as a weapon. All he'd ever wanted to be was a good person, but then, what Steve wanted rarely had anything to do with what other people wanted to do with him.

Finally, there was a whole room devoted to the Manhattan Project. The names of the men who'd worked on it were familiar to Steve. He'd met some of them. Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer, Howard Stark, Armin Zola. The National Geographic article, entitled Road to Manhattan , had talked about the objectives and the early tests. It was supposed to be a superweapon, something to equal HYDRA's tesseract weapons. Steve understood that much. He still wasn't sure why it was so significant.

The room at the museum went a step further than the magazine article: it described the tests at White Sands, and Oppenheimer's reaction: I am become death, the destroyer of worlds . Then it went on to big black and white pictures of a wasteland covered with shattered wreckage. Only one building was still standing: a shell of something with a dome on top, walls crumbling and trees reduced to charred skeletons. Steve had never seen anything so utterly desolate , even in cities the Germans had already bombed nearly flat. It gave him chills looking at it. Maybe the difference in scale was difference enough.

The label in the corner of the picture said, Hiroshima . Next to it was a photo of a similar ruin, the only standing structure a single torii gate. That one was labeled Nagasaki .

It took a moment for Steve to figure out what felt wrong about that, then he realized: those weren't the names of military bases, they were cities . Bombing civilian centers in the hopes of demoralizing people into surrender... that was an axis tactic. The allies were better than that. Steve had always believed that the allies were better than that – they were the ones defending people against the bullies who would do such a thing. They wouldn't sink to that level, would they?

Maybe something had changed. Steve had been in Europe for most of the war and so he'd never been as up to date as he should have with what was happening in the Pacific theatre, but he'd gotten the impression that things were winding down there. Maybe after the Valkyrie crashed the remains of HYDRA had found the tesseract and taken it to Japan? But that didn't excuse using a superweapon on civilians.

Another picture showed the shadows of a man and a ladder on a wall. There was nobody there to cast them: the heat and light of the explosion had bleached the wall white except where the victim's shadow fell on it. The man himself had been vaporized a moment later, without ever having time to realize what was happening to him.

It was obvious now why the Manhattan Project was common knowledge – the bombings of two major cities were not something anybody could keep secret. Most likely nobody had ever tried. A bomb like that was a presentation piece, a way of saying that when the war ended, the United States intended to be at the top of the peacetime pecking order and would permit no challengers. It was also obvious why Peggy and Howard had avoided the question when he'd asked what the project was. They hadn't wanted to be the ones who told him about it.

How could Howard have been involved in something like that? Howard liked to keep a close eye on how his inventions were used – he'd once gotten into a fistfight with a general who'd 'borrowed' one for use at a battle near Brandenburg. Steve could see him developing something like this and dangling a successful test as a threat against an enemy who wouldn't surrender, but to actually use it?

As he left the museum, Steve promised himself that he wouldn't let Peggy and Howard squirm out of the conversation a second time. He needed to know what the hell the SSR had become after he left – or worse, what it had already been, without is knowledge, while he was still alive.

Agent Troy had not been in evidence the entire time Steve was in the building, but he reappeared in the parking lot, and fell into step beside Steve. “Did you have fun?” he asked.

“It was... educational,” said Steve. “I think I'm a little better caught up now.”

“That's good,” said Troy, casually unconcerned. “Madame Director said she needs you to get with the times.”

“Yeah. I'm looking forward to talking to her about it,” Steve lied.

At the time Steve left the museum, he was determined to broach the subject with Howard as soon as he caught him alone. It wasn't going to be a fun conversation, but that was all the more reason to bring it up right away – the longer he put if off, the less he was going to want to talk about it. When Steve arrived back at SHIELD, however, he found Howard with maria, who had come to meet them so they could all go to dinner at the Four Seasons. Steve wasn't going to have an awkward conversation like that with her present, so he kept a lid on his questions and tried to be agreeable.

At the hotel they ate seared salmon with white asparagus and a strawberry and beet salad, while Howard chatted about his plans for the next few weeks. He would be going on tour with Steve, he said, introducing him to important people – many of them personal friends – from all over the country and indeed all over the world. Despite his own disquiet, Steve couldn't help noticing that he made no mention of going to Florida with Tony.

“Where is Tony?” Steve asked out loud at one point. The only time he'd ever seen Tony eat with his family was at breakfast on Steve's second day awake.

“He's at home,” Maria replied. “Jarvis is looking after him.”

“Tony is on probation,” said Howard sourly. “The school hasn't yet given us a date for his expulsion hearing, and until we have some resolution on that I don't see why we should take him anywhere.”

“He said he was trying to build a fusion reactor,” Steve said. He knew he should change the subject – it was more than obvious that Howard and Tony didn't like talking about each other any more than they liked talking to each other. But Steve was in a bad mood, and he felt like spreading it around. “I would've thought you'd be proud of him.”

“It blew up,” said Howard. “That's nothing to be proud of.”

“Yeah, you can blow things up much better than that,” said Steve.

Howard looked startled, then glared at him. “When my stuff blows up, it's because I intended it to blow up,” he informed Steve. “If Tony can't even do that, then he's got a long way to go.”

Maria cleared her throat. “Are we going to get dessert, Caro?” she asked Howard. The sharp tone in which she spoke the endearment would have told Steve it meant darling even if he hadn't already known. It was the universal voice of annoyed wives. “Steve hasn't tried the hotel's excellent key lime pie,” she added, with a strained smile. “When I told my father I had agreed to marry Howard, he despaired because it meant I'd be eating American food the rest of my life. Key lime pie really is lovely, though.”

“I'll try it, yeah,” said Steve. “Thanks.”

After the meal Howard dropped Steve and Maria off at the apartment building, and then went out to wherever it was he went – Steve bringing up Tony had evidently ruined his mood. Maria retired to the living room to drink Rosatello and watch television, and Tony was in his bedroom working on his models. Steve went to the study and leafed through the Stark family's back issues of National Geographic, looking for the one he'd flipped through at the library, but it was missing. They'd kept every other issue for some twenty years, but not that one.

There was a map of the world above the study's fireplace, and Steve stood there for a while with his hands in his pockets, sometimes staring at it and sometimes right through it. Peggy and Howard had told him that the United States and the Soviet Union were the world's two superpowers, but that they preferred to harass each other under the table rather than actually go to war. The fact that the atomic bombs had actually been used made a sudden, terrible sense of that stalemate. Either side could destroy the other at any time, but neither would – nobody dared be the guy who started the end of the world.

That wasn't peace. Steve didn't know what it was, but it wasn't peace.

One of the worst parts was that this was all public knowledge. Anybody could find this information at a museum or library, which meant that ordinary people had to go about their lives knowing that this was how the world worked. All it would take was one madman to murder them all for no reason, and they were powerless to do anything about it. How could anybody live that way?

The clock on Steve's bedside table said 2:16 AM when he heard the sound of a phone ringing somewhere in the apartment. He wondered who would be calling Howard at that hour, then decided the caller was probably Howard himself, drunk and in need of a ride home. That wasn't Steve's responsibility. He lay down again.

A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. “Captain Rogers? Sei sveglio?” Maria asked in a whisper.

Steve turned on the bedside lamp and sat up, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah. What is it?”

Telefono.” Her Italian accent apparently became more prominent when she was sleepy – or was it because she was slightly drunk? “It's Peggy. She says she needs your help.”

Suddenly Steve was twice as awake. He knew this. This had been half the war. He'd be touring someplace, smiling at crowds and shaking hands with dignitaries, when a call would come in the middle of the night and suddenly they'd all be packing to go. The idea of saying 'no' didn't even occur to him. This was what Steve did.

“Tell her I'll be right there,” he said.

By the time he'd dressed and combed some water through his hair, a SHIELD car was waiting for him outside the apartment block. There were three people inside besides the driver: Peggy, the young black man with the strange-looking hair that she'd called Agent Fury, and a blond man in his late 30's or early 40's who looked like he, too, had been dragged out to bed. His shirt was untucked, and his tie looped around his neck with no knot in it.

“Are we going straight to HQ?” asked Steve, as he laid his shield on the seat and climbed in.

“No,” said Peggy. “We're going to an airstrip upstate. Thank you for coming, Steve,” she added sincerely. “You didn't have to.”

It was only at that moment Steve realized this was true. He didn't have to be here. He wasn't on call. He'd responded like a soldier, but this was a different world, and if it wasn't exactly at peace, it wasn't at war either For a moment he paused, re-evaluating his decision – but no, he wanted to be here. He would much rather be working than sitting around at Howard's, stewing in uncertainty.

“What happened?” he asked.

Agent Fury opened the briefcase in his lap and handed Steve a packet of photographs. “Ever heard of Mesto Dvenadstat, Captain Rogers?”

The name was obviously Russian, but not familiar. Steve shook his head and leafed through the pictures. They were black and white, taken from the air, and they showed a complex of low concrete buildings and two squat round towers in the middle of a snowy evergreen forest. The first few were just images of the facility at different times of year, as the snow came and went and a new parking lot was added – but the last couple were obscured by a cloud of smoke.

“It's a Soviet nuclear research station in the Caucasus, near the River Sochi,” said Peggy. “Our intelligence indicates that one of their reactors suffered a catastrophic failure a few hours ago. It's not public knowledge yet, but it will be.”

Steve didn't know much about nuclear energy. He vaguely remembered hearing about a project at the University of Chicago, but in the 1940's the whole field had been highly experimental. What he did know was that radioactive materials were dangerous if not handled properly. He'd been a child during the outcry over the affair of the Radium Girls, who had been exposed to so much radioactive paint in their factory jobs that their bones literally glowed in the dark. The word meltdown was new to Steve, but he could tell by the way Peggy said it that it was a very bad thing.

“What do you need me to do?” he asked.

Fury took the photos back, and gave Steve a manila file folder. “One of our people was visiting Dvenadstat when the accident happened. Dr. Felix Lupanko, physicist. He's been feeding us information about the state of Soviet nuclear science for years.”

Inside the folder were a few pages of biographical information, and a photo – this showed an elderly man with a silver mustache and hair that was graying at the sides but still dark on top. He wore large aviator sunglasses and a friendly smile, and more than anything else he made Steve think of the absent-minded scientist characters in movies he'd seen. Nobody would ever suspect this grandfatherly old man of giving state secrets to an enemy government.

“The Soviets have locked down the site,” Peggy went on. “They're evacuating the nearest towns, but they seem to have given the facility itself up for lost.”

“It's an extraction, then,” Steve said. “A rescue mission.”

“Exactly,” Peggy agreed.

“I still object,” the blond man said, speaking for the first time. “That whole area's gonna be radioactive as hell. Anybody who wasn't killed in the initial blast won't last long. It's not worth the expense and it's definitely not worth the risk to Captain Rogers. We can't bring him back from the dead just to send him on a suicide mission!”

Thank you, Agent Pearce, your objection is noted,” Peggy said sharply. She turned back to Steve, her eyes pleading. “Dr. Lupanko is seventy-four years old. He and his wife just celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. He has three grandchildren. One of the conditions of his working for us was that we get them out of Poland into Austria.”

Maybe Dr. Lupanko was a personal friend of hers, or maybe she was thinking of her own family and how they would feel if she went missing... maybe she was even thinking of how she'd felt when Steve disappeared. It didn't matter. He closed the file folder and handed it back to Agent Fury. “I've got a good record of surviving suicide missions, Agent Pearce,” he told the blond, and then looged and Peggy again. “But please tell me I don't have to do it in a suit and tie.”

“We'll be in radiation suits,” Fury promised, sliding the folder back into his briefcase.

“Agent Fury will go with you,” Peggy added, nodding at the man. “He's one of our top tacticians and has a gift for improvising. You may request other personnel, but I can't promise to provide them. In deference to Agent Pearce's concerns, this will be strictly a volunteer mission.”

Steve could understand that. The Commandos had all been volunteers. They were doing dangerous work with no backup, and Steve had emphasized to them over and over that they could ask for reassignment any time they liked. “Do you speak Russian?” he asked Fury. “I understand a little, but I wouldn't try to hold a conversation in it.”

“I speak nine languages,” Fury replied.

“All of them badly,” said Pearce, with a flicker of a smile.

“That happened once,” Fury told him.

Steve frowned, puzzled. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” said Fury.

“Let's just say Nicky's Russian isn't up to snuff,” Pearce said, and thought for a moment. “I don't know whether I should say this or not, but...” he shrugged awkwardly. “Connie Fletcher is fluent in Russian.”

“Is that the same Agent Fletcher who, uh... was present when I woke up?” Steve asked. He hadn't seen her since their brief conversation in the elevator, but he wasn't adverse to the idea of working with her. She would be the nearest thing to a familiar face he had.

“Oh, yes, she is, isn't she?” Peggy opened a panel in the armrest of her seat to reveal a telephone. “I'll call her now.”

“She's a good negotiator,” Pearce added. “If you guys find the Russian police or military already on site, she might be able to talk you out of it. She's saved my life a couple of times.”

Peggy's phone call with Fletcher was brief and to the point, and Steve heard her repeat several times that there was no obligation and no punishment for refusing. It almost sounded as if she were trying to convince Agent Fletcher not to go, but in the end, she said a quiet “thank you, Agent,” and hung up.

“She'll meet us there,” she said.

They left the island, passed through Hackensack, and headed north on Route 87 into a hilly, wooded area. There seemed to be nothing around for miles as far as Steve could tell – the road was utterly dark, and overhead the stars were brilliant. Steve hadn't seen the stars since he'd awoken. The city was far too bright for them to show, and now there was something very reassuring about seeing the familiar Big Dipper hanging in the sky ahead of them. Some things just didn't change: the universe was much bigger and older than any part of Steve's little world, and the stars would still look like that in another forty years, or another forty thousand.

The airstrip Peggy had mentioned turned out to be two short runways and a few small buildings in the middle of nowhere. It looked deserted when the car first pulled up, but when Steve got out with his shield on his arm, he found people waiting to show him inside for coffee and a meal. More vehicles began to arrive shortly, and Steve was able to watch out the window as a sleek black jet landed on one of the runways. A few minutes later, a truck pulled up to refuel it. The view became harder to see as lights came on inside and banks of computer screens lit up with green numbers. By the time Agent Fletcher arrived, about twenty minutes after Steve, the whole place was buzzing with activity.

Fletcher, too, must have been pulled out of bed in the middle of the night, but she didn't look it. She was dressed in tight jeans and a leather bomber jacket, her hair neat and her makeup fresh.

“Connie,” said Pearce. “You know you don't have to come. You know this is dangerous.”

“I'm fine, Alex,” she told him with just a hint of impatience, then turned to greet Steve. “Nice to see you again, Captain Rogers. I'm looking forward to working with you.”

Steve shook her hand. “Agent Pearce says you speak Russian.”

“Я говорю очень хорошем русском,” she replied withing missing a beat, although she spoke slowly to help Steve understand the reply. “Вы говорите по-русски, Captain Rogers?”

“Uh... Да, немного,” Steve managed – yeah, a little. During the war he'd managed to pick up bits and pieces of half a dozen languages, almost without trying. He just seemed to absorb what he heard based on context. Howard had suggested that the serum reactivated the brain pathways that helped children learn to talk.

Fletcher nodded. “I'll keep that in mind,” she promised, and glanced at Fury. “You I've heard about.”

“Did you tell everybody that story?” Fury asked Pearce.

“He didn't tell it to me,” said Steve.

“We'll have lunch,” Pearce promised with a smirk.

Fletcher put her arm through Steve's and guided him back over to the table where the coffee urn was set up. “Did you talk to Stark?” she asked quietly as she poured herself a cup.

“Not yet,” Steve replied. “I'm going to.”

“So you know, then,” she said.

“I went to the library.”

Peggy re-entered the room then, and Steve moved the urn so that she could lay out a topographic map of the Caucasus on the table. Steve, Fury, and Fletcher gathered around to look as she pointed out the location of the accident.

“Dvenadstat is here,” she said. “The area is mountainous. We've got a supersonic aircraft that'll take you to Cyprus, and from there a helicopter will cross the Black Sea and fly low up the Sochi river valley to stay in the ground clutter.”

“Helicopters are loud,” Steve protested. The Russians would hear them coming, and if there were one thing he'd absorbed about the current world situation, it was that the Russians were not friendly.

“We can't drop you from a stealth aircraft,” Peggy said. “Shape and speed are paramount – if we slow down and open a hatch to let you out, we're spotted and we're dead.” She put her hands behind her back and looked down at the map as if she could stare the landscape into submission by proxy. “We're going to give you each a briefing folder with everything we know about the layout, which admittedly isn't much. Lupanko was going to give us pictures and maps of the complex when he got back. Any of the staff who escaped the disaster may have locked themselves in a shielded room to be safe from the radiation, or tried to escape into the mountains on foot.”

“What if we find survivors besides Lupanko?” asked Fletcher.

“Bring them home if you can,” Peggy said. “They may be willing to offer information in exchange for the rescue – be careful, though. Even prisoners and disaster victims needn't always be what they seem.” Her eyes unfocused for a moment and her voice took on a note of regret. She sounded as if it were a lesson she'd learned the hard way. “Any questions?”

Steve looked at Fury and Fletcher in turn, but neither spoke. “None that won't be answered in the briefing materials,” he said.

The headed out to the jet, where another agent gave each member of the team a backpack with a binder of information and a radiation suit – a white plastic garment that zipped up the front, with the SHIELD eagle logo on the back. With these went gloves, boots, and a hood with a black visor and a breathing apparatus. The looked like things Steve had seen astronauts wear in old movies. He suspected he'd be drenched in sweat five minutes after getting into it. Fortunately, they weren't expected to put them on until they were in the helicopter, just before the drop.

“Study your binders carefully,” Peggy ordered as they did up their seat belts. “They're incomplete, but they're all we have.”

“Yes, Ma'am,” said Steve.

Peggy paused and looked down at him, licking her lips. “Stay safe, Steve.”

“You know me,” he replied with a shrug. He tried to keep a straight face as he spoke, but failed.

She tapped him on the head with the corner of a folder. “I mean it. I wouldn't even have suggested this mission if you weren't here,” she confessed. “I firmly believe you're the only person who can do it, so do it, and come home.”

“As long as my ride shows up when I call it,” said Steve.

“It'll be there,” Peggy promised.

For a moment the years dropped away all over again and the things she may or may not have done during them ceased to matter. In his mind's eye Steve took off his seat belt, stood up, and kissed her goodbye as if by doing so he could take all her courage and kindness and ferocity with him – an answer to that last kiss she'd given him before he boarded the Valkyrie all those missed decades ago.

But in reality, he just nodded to the sixty-seven year old woman looking down at him. “See you soon.”


Chapter Text

  The flight in the supersonic jet from New York to the base on Cyprus was short, smooth, and quiet. The helicopter ride from Cyprus to Dvenadstat was long, rough, and loud. As Steve had expected, his radiation suit didn't breathe at all, and he could feel the beads of sweat trickling down his back. He did his best to ignore it and focus on Agent Fury, who was explaining to him what the various parts of the complex represented.

“This structure, the one that's collapsed in the more recent pictures, that'll be the containment unit,” Fury said, putting his finger on a boxy structure in one of the photos. “As you can see, it's on fire and probably full of three-eyed mutants, so we'll want to avoid that.”

“Got it,” Steve nodded.

“These,” Fury indicated the pair of squat towers, “are the cooling towers. They'll be empty or full of water. If they've been drained, the thick concrete walls might make them a good place for survivors to hide, but to get there they'd have to cross this area.” He dragged his finger across an open spot, obscured by smoke. “We don't know what's in there right now. Might be a parking lot. Might be full of radioactive wreckage.”

Steve nodded. “So we're focusing our search in here.” He pointed out the relatively normal-looking building next to the containment unit. The older photos showed what could be a helipad on the roof. “We might be able to use this, if it's not blocked. Or... what's this?” He pointed out a large circular structure on the ground.

“Cooling reservoir,” said Fletcher.

“So that's a no to using it for a landing pad,” Steve said. The pond would be full of radioactive water.

“Especially when it looks like the cover's been ruptured,” Fury agreed. “Here and here,” he went on, pulling out a map to show two places further up and further down the river valley, “are our good friends, the anti-aircraft guns. They're there to shoot down spy planes that get too close. We're hoping nobody will be manning them anymore.”

“Be nice, wouldn't it?” Steve agreed. He repeated all this information to himself, wanting to be sure he would remember it – but then flipped back in his own briefing binder to the page on Lupanko, and the other scientists who'd been visiting Dvenadstat that day: Dr. Roman Murat, from the Almaty Technological University; Dr. Yegor Tychkin, from the Soviet Academy of Sciences; and Dr. Valentina Melnikova, who worked for an unnamed part of the Soviet space program – all of them the guests of facility director Dr. Leonid Koshkin. He wanted to remember those names and faces: this was a rescue mission, and he did not want to lose sight of that.

It would have been eight AM in New York City as the helicopter thundered up the river valley, having taken a detour to pass north of the city of Sochi. The mountains seemed dangerously close on both sides, the river itself snaking past steep banks and gurgling over jagged rocks. Watching through the window, Steve found himself planning for a crash landing. There'd be no help if they went down. Not only was this enemy territory, the area was being evacuated because of the meltdown. They'd be entirely on their own.

The helicopter turned up a tributary of the river and headed through a pass between two peaks. The trees below began to show a dusting of snow as they gained altitude. They crested a hill, and there in front of them was the smoking ruin of Mesto Dvenadstat.

The photographs in the briefing binders had been several hours old – in the mean time, the facility had continued to burn, and more damage had piled up. One of the two cooling towers was still standing, but the fallen one was sliding into the reservoir, and the cover that was supposed to keep wildlife from drinking or swimming in the water was cracked and steaming. The containment building was billowing dark smoke, and a wall had fallen down, crushing a row of cars in the parking lot. There was no sign of human activity, and the anti-aircraft guns were silent.

One of the first things Steve saw was that they weren't going to be able to use the helipad: there was another helicopter already on it. It must have been sitting there when the explosion happened, because it was half-crushed under a slab of concrete. As they hovered overhead, Steve could see that the pilot's body was still in its seat, partially hidden by the smear of blood across the windshield.

“They were trying to evacuate,” Fletcher observed.

“That means they may still be alive in there.” Steve pulled on his hood and fixed his breathing apparatus in place. Fury and Fletcher took their cue to do the same.

The helicopter door opened, letting in a blast of cold mountain air and stinking chemical smoke. Steve glanced over his shoulder to make sure his team was ready, and then one by one they slid down a rope to stand on the roof next to the wrecked Russian chopper. Fury waved the the pilot to let him know they were safely on the ground.

“Call me when you're ready for evac,” the pilot said over the radio link. “And let me know how many will be in your party.”

“Roger,” said Steve. “Over and out.” He turned towards the door that led in to the top floor of the building. It was time to go to work.

Fury kicked the door open, which turned out to be unnecessary – it was not locked – and they trooped down the stairs. Steve went first with his shield on his arm, checking around every corner. Anybody who was surprised in here might react with hostility before realizing that the Americans were here to rescue them. Fury brought up the rear, watching over his shoulder with a gun in his hand. Fletcher was in the middle, alternating between looking in each direction.

As they moved down to the ground floor, Steve found himself noticing that the inside of the facility was surprisingly dingy and old. The paint was yellowing, and the linoleum was curling up at the corners. It looked more like an old high school than a top-secret research facility, and Steve had to wonder just how much anybody in the United States really knew about the Soviet Union. It was hard to reconcile a place that didn't bother to repaint a stained wall with the terrible communist bogeyman of the popular imagination.

“Split up,” Steve ordered. “First person to find survivors, call the rest of us immediately.”

“Move fast,” Fury added. “The longer we're in here, the greater our radiation exposure.”

Steve nodded – he would have to keep that in mind, too.

Fury split off from the group first, making a right turn into the power plant itself to search the turbine halls and control rooms. Steve and Fletcher continued into the administrative wing. At a junction, she went left into the offices and laboratories, while he went right, towards the living quarters.

Smoke was still billowing past the windows, lending a weird yellow-gray tint to the sunlight coming in. Every so often Steve could hear the crackle and pop of something burning, or the groan of the damaged building shifting, and the sound of his own breathing hissed unnaturally loud in the oxygen mask. Other than that, however, the whole place was eerily silent. There was no sound of traffic, or background of humming power and human conversation that a place like this ought to have.

He moved methodically from door to door, checking dormitories, kitchens, and common rooms. There was nobody alive in any of them. As he got nearer to the part of the building that was on fire, he began to find bodies. Some were burned. Others died with cloths over their faces, apparently suffocated by the smoke. One man had simply fallen down the stairs and broken his neck in his rush to escape. What had happened to the people in the rest of the building? Maybe they'd managed to evacuate before the helipad was destroyed, or maybe they'd fled into the mountains.

At the far end of the complex was a small leisure area for the permanent employees, with a gymnasium and a set of racquetball courts. Steve checked these, too, and in the process noticed that the plaster on the wall between two of the courts had partially fallen away. Behind it was what looked like a bank vault door, opened slightly inward.

Steve came closer and gave the door a gentle push. Although it was over a foot thick and must've weighed over a ton, it swung easily on well-oiled hinges. With the power in the complex out, the flight of stairs beyond quickly vanished into complete darkness.

Steve took a couple of steps down. “Hello!” he called out. “I mean... звать? Is anybody down here?”

There as no reply, and Steve stopped on the sixth step. He'd never been a cautious person – much to Peggy's personal distress – but something here made him pause. Maybe it was the fact that this was a whole new world, and there might be things down there he couldn't prepare for. Maybe it was that his team was two agents, not a dozen soldiers. Either way, Steve had a strong feeling he should not go down there alone. He climbed back up a few steps, and touched his radio link.

“Fury, Fletcher,” he said. “I've found what might be a safe room. We should...”

Then he heard the gunshots. There were four of them, and a woman's voice shouted, “нет, не надо!”

The sounds were not over the radio, they were through the air – and they were close. Steve dashed back down the hallway to the corner where he'd separated from Fletcher, and through the first open door. The room beyond was a laboratory of some sort, and on the far side of it was a glass wall labeled ОБЕЗЗАРАЖИВАНИЕDECONTAMINATION. Steve couldn't see what was beyond it, because the glass had been struck by several bullets. It hadn't shattered, but the cloud of cracks hid everything beyond.

Steve ran up and hit the wall with the edge of his shield. The glass fell down in a shower of green-tinted cubes, and revealed the carnage beyond. The room had a tile floor and shower heads in the ceiling, but the water wasn't on, and the liquid trickling into the drains was thick and red. Agent Fletcher was struggling with a man in a white shirt and dark gray tie, trying to take a gun away from him. Four other people were dead on the floor – three men and a woman, all with gunshot wounds to the head. Two were face-down. The others, Steve recognized from the briefing materials: the woman was Dr. Melnikova, and the old man with the silver mustache – that was Felix Lupanko.

“Fletcher!” Steve said. He intended to run and help her, but when he called her name, both she and the man she was wrestling with turned to look at him. There was a brief moment in which he could see the man's face – dark eyes wide and terrified behind thick metal-rimmed eyeglasses, and teeth gritted under a thin black mustache. Steve just barely had time to recognize Dr. Koshkin. Then the gun went off, and Agent Fletcher found herself clinging to a headless corpse.

“Oh my god!” she shrieked, shoving the body away as the man's blood spattered her visor. Fletcher took two staggering steps backwards until she was up against the wall, then slid down to sit at the base of it. At the same time, Fury arrived – he hurried up behind Steve, and stopped dead.

“What the hell happened?” Fury demanded, more astonished than angry.

“I... I didn't... they were alive when I got here!” Fletcher's face was invisible behind her visor, but she was sitting very still, and Steve could hear the stunned tremor in her voice. “I told them we were Americans, and Koshkin said... he said he'd rather die than be taken prisoner. He shot the others, and...” she fell silent, unable to continue.

“Why didn't you call us?” Steve asked.

“I... I didn't...” Fletcher stammered, and Steve realized they weren't going to get a sensible answer from her right now. She was probably in shock. He was disappointed and a little annoyed: Pearce had made her sound far more competent than this.

Fury went and grabbed Fletcher's arm to help her up. “Let's go,” he decided. “I haven't seen anybody else alive.”

“No,” said Steve, “I've found what I think is a safety bunker. There may be more people down there.” He looked at his two colleagues for a moment: Fletcher needed to get out of here, but Steve still wanted backup to go down that dark hole. “We'll take Fletcher back to the roof,” he decided. “She can wait there while we check it out.”

But Fletcher shook her head. “No, I... I need to do my job,” she said. She shugged off Fury's hand and stood up on her own, although with some difficulty: she was still shaking, and the blood had made the floor slippery. “I'm all right. I'll be all right,” she repeated.

“We don't have time to argue about it,” Fury complained. “The longer we're here...”

“The more radiation we absorb,” Steve finished for him. His enhanced body could probably handle that better than the other two could, but he didn't know for sure and it wasn't really something he wanted to have to learn the hard way. “All right, I'll lead,” he said. “We'll make it quick.”

They made their way back down to the squash courts, and by flashlights descended the steps into the dark. The stairs went down for about thirty steps, and then there was a short, straight tunnel underground before another staircase ascended, this one in a spiral. At the top was a locked, armored door. Fury used a small charge to blast it open, and they stepped into the room beyond.

Steve had expected a bunker, or a simple emergency exit to the outside. Instead, as they moved their flashlights around they found themselves in a big, round space with cinder block walls. Around the sides of the circular room were consoles and keyboards, dials and switches, and banks and banks of computer screens. The floor was a ring between this outer wall and a central column of equipment, the latter badly burned and with bundles of wires spilling out of it. At least two dozen people had been in here when the explosion happened, and every one of them was now dead. Some were slumped in their chairs. Others were on the floor, still holding fire extinguishers.

These people hadn't burned, Steve thought. The power outage had left them in the dark, underground, with fires eating through their oxygen and no electricity for the ventilation system to deliver fresh air. They'd asphyxiated.

“Where are we?” asked Fletcher.

Fury pulled out a compass and turned around, orienting himself. “I think... I think we're in the intact cooling tower,” he said carefully. “It's not a cooling tower at all. It's... what is this?”

“It looks almost like a radar station,” said Fletcher.

On one table was a stack of metal canisters, like the type Steve remembered reels of film being kept in. He opened one and found a spool of magnetic tape in it, with a Russian label he couldn't read. “Maybe these can tell us,” he said, gathering up the entire pile. “Check for survivors, and then we go.”

Steve knew there was very little hope of finding anyone alive in this room, but they had to look anyway – it was disappointing, but hardly surprising, to find only bodies. He made his way around the room and met up with Fury again, and under his hood he saw the other man shake his head.

“Fletcher?” Steve asked.

They looked around and found her kneeling on the floor next to a woman's body, trying to take a pulse. Steve reached down to take her arm. Fletcher was unsteady as she got to her feet, and Steve wondered what was going through her head. Was she thinking about Koshkin's suicide? The scientists hiding in the decontamination room had been the only survivors, until Koshkin had decided he'd rather die than be taken. Steve knew it would be a long time before Fletcher stopped blaming herself, if indeed she ever did. It was hard to recover from things like that.

“Fury,” he said. “Call our ride.”

The sun was setting on the Caucasus when the helicopter returned for Steve and his team. Three hundred miles to the north, it was snowing in Volgograd as a tearful mother hugged her toddler goodbye on the steps of an orphanage. She smoothed the child's red curls and told her to be a good girl, then stood up and walked away with her hands in her coat pockets. She did not look back at her child, because she knew that if she did, she would not be able to leave.

The two would never meet again.

The first thing that happened when they returned to the SHIELD outpost on Cyprus was that everybody had to take a shower. Steve, Fury, and Fletcher handed all their clothes, both the radiation suits and the cotton jumpsuits they'd been wearing underneath them, over to be destroyed. Then they washed up, very thoroughly, in very hot water, with some kind of special soap. After that, they were each given a physical and some kind of dose of preventative medicine.

The process took most of the night, which gave Steve entirely too much time to think. They'd been inside Dvenadstat for no more than an hour or two, and now they were spending far longer than that being poked and prodded, washed and dosed and decontaminated. What about the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who'd had an even more powerful nuclear explosion dropped on their homes? Had there been anybody there to scrub them down, or give them medicine? Had anybody even known they'd need it? Had Groves and Vanko and Howard thought about any of this, or had they just wanted to make something go boom?

It was midnight in Cyprus when the doctors went over them one last time with Vita-Ray detectors – apparently the 1980s called these Geiger counters – and gave them a clean bill of health for the time being. They were sent back to the airstrip, where the black jet would take them home to New York.

Peggy and Agent Pearce were waiting for them at the foot of the jet's steps. As they approached, Pearce stepped forward and held out his arms – Fletcher hesitated for a moment, then accepted the embrace, and Pearce whispered something in her ear.

“How are you all feeling?” Peggy asked the group anxiously.

“A little nauseous,” Fury admitted. “Could be nerves.”

“I think I'm okay,” said Steve.

Peggy tried to hide her sigh of relief, but Steve could see the way her shoulders moved. “The doctors will want to keep an eye on you over the next few weeks,” she told Steve. “The serum was intended to improve a lot of things, but radiation exposure wasn't something they'd anticipated. They'll want to watch how your body responds to it.”

“Right,” Steve said. If she were going to have him be the Dancing Monkey, she might as well make a Lab Rat out of him, too.

As they buckled themselves in for the flight home, Steve asked, “has anybody had a look at those tapes yet?”

“Yes,” said Pearce, hefting a big black bag that evidently contained them. “As near as we can tell, they're just noise.”

“They may have been damaged by the fire or the radiation,” said Peggy. “We'll send them to the NTSB for a look.”

Steve wasn't familiar with the acronym. “Codebreakers?”

To his surprise, Peggy laughed. “No,” she said, and quickly calmed herself. “The National Transportation Safety Board. They've got a department that specializes in getting data off broken or damaged tapes from airplane and railway black boxes. If anyone can read the tapes, it's them.”

“I've taken charge of it personally,” Pearce added.

“Now,” said Peggy, leaning forward a bit. “Tell us what happened in there.”

Steve, Fury, and Fletcher took turns describing what they'd found inside Mesto Dvenadstat. Fury explained that the turbine rooms had been gutted by fire – there'd been nobody alive in them, only charred corpses. Steve told about the people who'd smothered in the living quarters.

“I think they were trying to evacuate,” he said. “They had bags and jackets with them. An alarm must've got off at some point, but it would have stopped when the power went out.”

He'd expected Fletcher to say very little, but she managed to give a surprisingly detailed account of what had transpired in the lab and decontamination room. It was as if the events had burned themselves into her memory, in photographic detail.

“I couldn't see them from the doorway,” she said, staring at her interlaced fingers as she spoke. “The glass was damaged. But I heard voices, so I went to take a look. There were five people. Dr. Koshkin, and the four visiting scientists. He was probably giving them a tour when the accident happened. I don't know why they were in there...”

“They probably had priority for evacuation,” Fury offered. “If they found the helipad destroyed, they might have gone back to the decontamination room because it would have outside air and water supplies. They could drink that water as well as wash with it, and be pretty sure it wasn't radioactive.”

Peggy nodded. “Please go on, Agent Fletcher.”

“I asked Koshkin whether anybody else were alive,” Fletcher said, “and he replied that he didn't know. Then he asked if I were from Moscow. He looked scared. I thought he expected to be punished for the accident, so I told him we were Americans. I said we had permission to be here and we would be taking them to a special hospital that treated radiation exposure. I just wanted to say whatever would make him come with us!” She hung her head further. “Some of the scientists looked like they thought it was a good idea. Lupanko started to stand up, but Koshkin told them they would all be taken prisoner and tortured. I told him we would take them to Sochi, but he said he'd heard promises like that before... and he... and...”

“Take a deep breath,” Pearce told her.

She did so, then shut her eyes and kept speaking as if watching the events replay themselves in slow motion behind her eyelids. “He took out a gun, and said he would rather die than be taken to America. The first one he shot was Dr. Murat, then Dr. Lupanko. Dr. Tychkin was third, and Dr. Melnikova shouted no, don't do it but he killed her, too. I don't know why I didn't do anything,” she added, a tremor creeping into her voice. “I just... I just stood there. I don't do that,” she added, opening her eyes to look at Peggy. “I don't freeze in a crisis!”

“What happened next?” Peggy asked, without acknowledging the protest.

“When Melnikova shouted, it... woke me up, a bit,” said Fletcher. “I went to try to take the gun from him, but he'd already shot her. Then Rogers and Fury came in. Rogers called for me, and I was about to ask him for help, but Koshkin pulled the trigger, and...” She reached up to rub at her cheek, as if afraid Koshkin's blood were on it. “And the rest you know.”

“Thank you, Agent Fletcher,” said Peggy, and the first note of tenderness crept into her businesslike demeanor. “Why don't you go lie down? We'll get you somebody to talk to when we reach New York.”

Agent Fletcher nodded and stood, without a word. There was a small room with bunks behind the seating area in the plane. She closed the door behind her.

“Now, you two,” said Peggy, sitting up straight again. “Tell me about the secret room.”

They described what they'd seen in the false cooling tower. Steve could tell that Peggy was frustrated by the incompleteness of their information, but he had nothing more to give her. “It looked like a radar station,” he said, “but there was no dish. At least, none that I could see,” he corrected himself. “It could have been destroyed by the explosion or the fire.”

“No, there was no dish in the older satellite photos, either,” said Fury. “So that means they were camouflaging it really well, or they were getting their input from someplace else.”

“Whatever it was,” Steve added, “my gut tells me Koshkin's suicide had way more to do with that than it did with anything in the nuclear part of the installation.”

“I think you're right,” said Peggy, but something about the idea clearly troubled her. “Why kill the scientists, though? They were all nuclear specialists, visiting from all over the country. They wouldn't have even known about the radar room.”

“Maybe they heard or saw something they shouldn't have,” said Steve. “Either way, he didn't want them talking to us.” He sighed heavily. “Peggy... what is this? You told me we weren't at war.”

“We're not,” she said. “Not officially. Nobody's declared war and nobody's shooting at each other. Nobody dares, because we all know the consequences if we do.”

Steve met her eyes for a moment, and as if a telepathic connection were made, he suddenly knew exactly what she was thinking. She must have seen those pictures of the bombings that were on display in the Hall of Science – the shattered dome, the one standing torii, and the shadow of the man and the ladder. She might well have seen them long before they were made public. Clearly they haunted her, too.

“This is a new kind of war. It's a war of secrets,” she explained. “This... you asked what kind of world we're living in. It's this kind. It's a world I helped to make, and as the saying goes, I made my bed and now I have to lie in it. I'm sorry you have to lie in it with me.”

Steve wished she'd chosen any other metaphor. “I'm gonna go get some sleep,” he decided.

When he entered the bunk room, he found Fletcher curled in the bottom starboard bed. Steve assumed she was sleeping, and did his best not to disturb her as he climbed into the bunk above her. Then, however, he heard her voice.

“I'm sorry, Captain Rogers,” she said.

Steve couldn't tell her it was okay, because it wasn't. She knew that. So he didn't reply at all as he wiggled under the covers and lay his head down.

She, however, kept talking: “I didn't call for help,” she said, “because I didn't want you to...” there was a pause. “When you woke up in the recovery room, I jumped the gun. I was scared of you, and I called for help before I even tried to talk you down. That's not what I do. I didn't...” her voice trailed off into a small choking sound. “I didn't want you to think all I ever do is stand around screaming for help.”

Steve winced. She hadn't wanted to disappoint Captain America. He'd seen several good men do needlessly self-sacrificing things during the war for the same reason. The ones who'd survived had realized in hindsight how foolish they'd been, but most of them had hurt only themselves. Agent Fletcher's attempt at heroism had led indirectly to the deaths of five other people. She'd wanted to impress him – and that made it his fault, too.

“Go to sleep, Agent Fletcher,” he said.

Steve had entirely lost track of what time it was where when he arrived back at Howard's apartment building in New York, but it must have been well past midnight. In he last twenty-four hours he'd been halfway around the world and back, on no more than three or four hours of sleep. Now that the adrenaline had drained from his body, exhaustion was setting in. Even so, Steve sat on the steps in the building lobby for a while, wondering if he really wanted to be there. It was coming clear to Steve that Howard was not the same person he remembered, that his old friend's mind was as unrecognizable as his face... but Steve couldn't think of anywhere else to go, so he dragged himself to his feet again and pressed the elevator button.

When he knocked on the apartment door, it was Jarvis who answered.

“Welcome back, Captain Rogers,” the butler said, taking Steve's jacket. “I hope your trip was productive.”

“Thanks,” said Steve. “Were you waiting up for me?” When he'd left, he hadn't been able to tell Maria when he would be back. Maybe she'd asked the butler to watch for him.

“No, Captain Rogers. I'm waiting for Mr. Stark,” said Jarvis. “I will stay until he returns.”

Steve nodded. “I'm just gonna go to bed,” he said. “I've had a long day.”

“Of course,” said Jarvis.

Steve stumbled, yawning, down the hall towards his room. He wouldn't be sore tomorrow – his body didn't work that way – but right now he felt like he ought to be. Before he opened his own door, however, he noticed that once again there was light and sound seeping out from around Tony's. After a moment's hesitation, he opened the door a crack to look.

Tony was lying on the bed, propping his head up with one arm and scribbling in a notebook with the other. The news was playing on his television set.

“President Gorbachev has declined all international offers of help,” the anchorwoman said, “and the official position of the Soviet government is that the situation at Mesto Dvenadstat is under control.” She turned a page over. “In other news, although rumors of a pregnancy have been put to rest, NASA today announced that Major Indira Bhavana will not be reinstated as pilot of the upcoming Odyssey mission. Their public statement said that relief pilot Theodore Van Cleef will...”

“Had they not invented knocking yet in 1945?” asked Tony.

Steve realized the young man was now sitting up and looking at him. “Sorry,” he said.

Tony cocked his head. “You look like shit,” he observed.

It was an insult... but when Steve had spent the last day surrounded by people he didn't think were telling him the whole truth, there was something oddly refreshing about the boy's blunt honesty. “Thanks,” he said sarcastically, and pointed to the television. “I missed most of that – what did they say about Dvenadstat?”

“Not much. They don't know anything except it blew up,” said Tony. He sat up a little, intrigued. “Is that where you went?”

Jarvis hadn't asked where Steve had gone, most likely because after a lifetime of working for Howard he would be used to not having answers to such questions. Peggy had been very firm that th trip was supposed to be an absolutely secret, but Tony had already guessed and didn't seem as if he would tell anybody when he rarely left his room – so Steve said, “yeah.”

“What was it like?” Tony asked. “Did you find any survivors?”

“No,” Steve replied with a heavy sigh. “Not a damned one.”

Chapter Text

Steve slept very late the next morning, but as he'd predicted, he wasn't sore. He felt well and refreshed, and got out of bed without even needing to stretched. There were times when that still didn't feel right. He could remember how he'd ached during boot camp, how he'd pushed himself to his limits day after day and woke up in the morning almost unable to move. Sometimes it felt like if that didn't happen anymore, it meant he wasn't trying hard enough.

His energy level ebbed almost immediately when he got a look outside. The day was gray and deary, with fat, wet snowflakes swirling down in clouds to melt where they landed rather than collecting. Drops were running down the windows, and on the streets below, New Yorkers were going about their daily business in a sea of colourful umbrellas. The bedside clock said it was nearly noon.

When he arrived in the kitchen, he found Tony there in his pajamas, eating cold tomato pie right out of the box.

“Breakfast?” asked Steve, going to the fridge.

“Too late for breakfast. Brunch,” said Tony firmly. He pushed the box across the table. “Want some?”

“Sure,” Steve said. That would be easier than cooking. He grabbed a slice and sat down, and then noticed this was significantly different from the tomato pie he and Bucky had used to share with friends in Little Italy. There was some kind of fruit on it. “What's in this?” he asked.

“It's pizza,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “Hawaiian.” Apparently that was an explanation.

Steve took a bite, and found that the fruit was pineapple. It wasn't something he would have expected to find in a tomato pie, but once he got over the momentary surprise, it tasted all right. Since his mouth was full, he just smiled and nodded at Tony to let him know he liked it and Tony raised his own slice as if in a toast and then took another bite.

“What are you up to today?” asked Steve.

“Sitting on my butt waiting for school to get their act together,” said Tony. “Might work on my models, or play some Nintendo.” He didn't sound terribly excited by either prospect.

“What's Nintendo?” asked Steve. It sounded vaguely Japanese, and must be an indoor game if Tony were planning to play it on a snowy day. Maybe some kind of dice or card game?

“It's a video game,” Tony said. “I could show you – I bet you'd be good at it.”

Steve had to think about it for a moment. Peggy was probably already wondering why he hadn't arrived at SHIELD yet – the doctors would want to go over him again and there would be a heap of other people with questions about who and what he'd seen at Dvenadstat. Staying in to eat leftovers and play games with Tony sounded like so much more fun, especially when Steve sometimes felt that Tony was the only person in 1986 who'd been honest with him yet. This young man didn't have any secrets to keep, he was just an angry kid who wasn't allowed to shout at anybody. Steve knew that feeling entirely too well.

“I could give it a try,” he said, and then asked, “is Howard back yet?”

Tony's body language changed at once: he sat up a little straighter, and chewed and swallowed rather than continuing to talk with his mouth full. “No. Mom sent Jarvis home.”

“I'll see if I can catch him today,” Steve offered. “Maybe remind him that he has a family.” Steve felt like Howard had deliberately been avoiding him after their awkward dinner out, but it was equally possible that he was avoiding Tony, which was worse. Steve just wanted one set of questions answered – Tony was Howard's son.

“It doesn't matter,” Tony said stiffly. “He never does anything even when he's here.” He stuffed more pizza in his mouth and chewed slowly, glaring at a point off Steve's left shoulder. As usual when the subject of Howard came up, it seemed that Tony just wanted the conversation to be over.

That wasn't what Steve had been trying to accomplish by asking the question, but there was nothing he could do about it now. “You won't tell anybody I went to Dvenadstat, will you?” he asked, grabbing another slice of pizza. “It's supposed to be a secret.”

“I can keep a secret,” said Tony, as if offended by the implication that he couldn't. “Who would I tell, anyway? All my friends are at school.”

“All right, thanks,” said Steve – and since he'd clearly ruined his chance to take a day off, he stood up and headed for the door. “I'll see you later.”

“Yeah,” Tony grumbled without looking up. “Can't wait.”

The snow had turned to rain by the time Steve arrived at the SHIELD building – he could have called a car, but his thwarted sense of rebellion led him to take the subway instead. Peggy had been afraid something horrible would happen to him if he went out in public, but apparently her fears were unfounded. Nobody on the train so much as looked at him. Maybe they didn't recognize him, or maybe they were all too wrapped up in their newspapers and paperback novels to make a note of who was sitting next to them. Either way, the result was the same.

The foyer of SHIELD was full of people in long coats and rubber boots, and maintenance had set up big fans to dry the floor and yellow pylons to warn people of where the puddles were. Steve half-expected Peggy to come hurrying up to him at once and take him to task for being late, but instead, the first familiar face he saw belonged to Agent Troy. He was dressed in a long coat and a silly-looking knitted hat with some sort of logo and the words Lake Placid 1980 on it, and was carrying a briefcase wrapped in plastic. He looked shocked to see Steve for a moment, and then his face broke into a beaming smile.

“Good morning, Captain Rogers!” he said.

Steve managed not to groan aloud. Part of him still wanted to give Agent Troy a chance, but he really didn't like the way the man simpered over him. “Morning, Agent Troy,” he replied, and kept walking as if in a hurry to get somewhere. Hopefully Troy would take the hint.

But Troy followed him. “Captain! Hey, Cap!” He fell into step beside Steve. “I wanted to ask you – me and some buddies are taking a ski trip this weekend, up to Whiteface Mountain. Do you ski?”

“I never got a chance to try it,” Steve said, stepping onto the escalator to the second floor. He'd done some cross-country skiing in Europe, when it had been the fastest and easiest way to get somewhere, but never the downhill type. It had always looked to him like a good way to break both legs.

“You could learn,” said Agent Troy, getting on thee step behind him. “Care to join us?”

“I don't think I have the time,” Steve said. “Thanks for asking, of course, but I've got a pretty busy couple of days coming up and I'm actually already late to the infirmary.”

“Oh, of course.” Agent Troy deflated. “I guess they wanna make sure you're not glowing in the dark after your trip to Russia.”

Steve blinked in surprise, then glanced back, frowning. “I thought that was a secret.”

“You'd be surprised what's not a secret around here,” said Troy with a shrug.

They reached the top of the escalator, and Steve stepped off. “I gotta get to my appointment,” he said pointedly. If Troy didn't figure it out in the next thirty seconds, Steve might just drop him off the mezzanine.

“Right. Sorry.” Troy looked around as if surprised to find he was on the second floor, then down at the briefcase he was carrying. “Actually, I've got somewhere to be, too. I'll see you on Monday, okay, Captain Rogers?”

Steve didn't say anything as Troy got on the other escalator, because he knew that if he did it would come out sounding exactly like Tony's can't wait. Next time he went somewhere, he thought, he was going to insist on somebody else as an escort. Maybe Agent Fletcher could do it. After what had happened at Dvenadstat she probably wouldn't be doing any field work any time soon, and it would keep her busy.

When he arrived at the infirmary, Steve found a lineup: the waiting room was full, and two doctors were going around checking everybody with Geiger counters. Maybe there'd been an accident. Steve found an empty seat and went to wait, but two nurses approached him.

“Captain Rogers, we've been waiting for you,” one said. “This way, please.”

“What about these people?” he gestured to the lineup.

“Oh, this is just a precaution,” the nurse said cheerfully. “We've got plenty of time to take care of you.”

Steve stripped down to his briefs, and the nurses sat him on a paper-wrapped infirmary table and started going over him inch by inch. He wished they wouldn't giggle so much as they did so. Over the past few years he'd begun to get used to the idea that women giggling at Steve the Super-Soldier were probably flustered, rather than mocking as they'd been with Steve the Skinny Asthmatic, but it didn't really help.

So it was a relief, really, when in the middle of a blood sample a man came into the room and said, “excuse me, but Captain Rogers has a phone call.”

“We're kind of in the middle of his checkup!” one of the nurses protested.

“Sorry,” the man said, “Madame Director needs to see him, urgently.”

“I'll come back when she's done with me,” Steve promised with a sigh. He waited while the nurse pulled the needle out of his arm and put a band-aid over the puncture, and then he grabbed his shirt and dragged it over his head. He'd been an object of worship to Troy, an object of lust to the nurses, and now he was about to sit and feel like a naughty schoolboy while Peggy lectured him. Why hadn't he just stayed home to play Nintendo with Tony?

When he arrived in Peggy's office, Steve found he wasn't her only guest – Howard and Pearce were both there. The former was on his feet, pacing back and forth in front of the windows like a caged bear while puffing anxiously on a cigarette. The latter was in one of the armchairs, head tilted back, rubbing his face with both hands. Peggy herself was at her desk, sitting up perfectly straight with a cup of tea in both hands. Her face was pale.

“Are you sure, Alex?” she was asking, as Steve entered the room.

“For the last time, yes!” Pearce groaned. “I gave them to the representative myself! Whatever happened, it happened before that, because once I had them I never took my eyes off them!”

“What's going on?” asked Steve.

Peggy set her tea down. It was whiteware china with an embossed fruit garland design and a gold lip and the cup rattled slightly against the saucer as she put it in place, betraying the trembling in her hands. “Steve,” she said, deliberately calm and enunciating, “you said you looked in those canisters you recovered. What did you see?”

“Reels of tape,” he replied, sitting down in the other armchair, across from Pearce. “Shiny black tape like the kind you see in those music players, but about this big.” He held his hands ten inches apart to indicate the diameter of the reels.

“We listened to them,” Pearce reminded Peggy. “It was static. All pops and whistles and squeals.”

Peggy nodded. “Agent Pearce gave the tapes tot he NTSB early this morning. When they opened the canisters, they found reels of unexposed eight millimeter film.”

Steve's mind flickered back to the events in Russia, trying to remember when he had and had not had the canisters in his own possession. He'd been carrying them the entire time, until putting them down on the seat beside him when they got in the helicopter.

“They were definitely tape,” he said. “I can tell the difference between that and film. I don't think I ever...” he paused as there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Peggy said.

A small woman with an immense cloud of blonde curls hurried into the room, carrying a stack of folders. Steve had seen her around – she was Peggy's secretary.

“Right here, Madame Director,” the woman said, opening the top folder for her.

“Thank you, Diane,” said Peggy. She took the folders one at a time and began signing and dating the paperwork inside. There was a thick, heavy silence in the room as she did this – Steve assumed that everybody else was waiting for him to keep talking, so he did.

“I must've put them down on the floor a couple of times to check on some of the bodies,” he said, “but I would have noticed if Fury or Fletcher tried to mess with them. I kept them next to me in the helicopter until we got the outpost on Cyprus, where I turned them over to the agents before we went to wash up. I definitely had them with me the entire time we were in Dvenadstat...”

Somebody gasped.

Steve stopped talking, and looked up to find everybody staring at him. Howard was frowning, his cigarette smoke forming a cloud around his head. Peggy was dead still with her pen still on the paper, eyes wide. Pearce still had a hand on his face, but how he was peering through his fingers at Steve with a puzzled expression. The blonde secretary was just standing there with her mouth open.

His stomach sank – Steve's trip to Dvenadstat might not have been a secret from Agent Troy, but it clearly had been a secret from Diane the Secretary, and now he'd carelessly blurted it out.

Peggy was the first to recover. “Yes, very good, Diane,” she said, pushing the folders back into the other woman's hands. “You can go now. You didn't hear anything in here today, did you?”

“Of course not, Madame Director!” said Diane, and backed out of the room, clearly terrified.

Once she was gone Peggy leaned forward on her desk, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Steve,” she said, “the Russian President has already refused all international help, and even if he'd accepted, you were in and out before we even asked!”

Steve shrugged, sheepish. “I figured since she's your personal secretary, she probably already knew.”

“Diane handles paperwork,” Peggy said. “She only has a level two clearance, and your mission yesterday was level nine, which means only me and anybody I think needs to know about it!” She rubbed her temples, angry and disappointed, and Steve looked at his feet. He should have known better – Steve had kept secrets for years during the war. How could he have failed so badly witht his one? Troy had implied it was an open secret within SHIELD, which might give Steve an excuse for blurting it out in front of Diane. There was no reason for having admitted it to Tony.

“Have you told anybody else about this?” asked Howard. He, too, looked puzzled and disappointed.

Steve was not going to admit he'd discussed it with Tony – Tony seemed to be constantly in trouble anyway, and Steve didn't want to get him in any more. Instead, he focused on the person who'd mentioned it to him. “Agent Troy said something to me this morning,” he said. “He invited me to go skiing with him, and when I said I was busy, he joked that you were making sure I didn't glow in the dark after my trip to Russia. He said things aren't really secrets within SHIELD.” Steve thought a moment longer, and remembered something else significant. “He was carrying a suitcase with a plastic cover on it.”

Peggy looked up sharply. “Pearce,” she said, “Troy's under your supervision – did he have anything to do with the mission to Dvenadstat?”

Pearce sat silent for a moment, deep in thought. Then he said, “no.”

“Was he ever anywhere near the tapes?” Peggy insisted.

“Never,” said Pearce. “Or he shouldn't have been, anyway.”

Peggy hit a button on her desk phone. “Diane!” she said.

“Yes, Madame Director?” the woman's voice on the phone asked.

“Have somebody find Agent Steven Troy,” Peggy ordered. “Right now.”

If anybody had been angry with Steve for being late, it was quickly forgotten – so was his mentioning Dvenadstat in front of Diane. Instead, Peggy sprang into action, giving orders on the phone and in person to dozens of people as she began the search for Troy and the tapes. She arranged to round up and question every single person who'd seen or spoken to Agent Troy that morning, including the clerk at the cart on the corner who'd sold him a cup of coffee. It was rather weird for Steve to sit in her office and watch as she made decisions and delivered instructions. He'd been involved in such things before, but always on the receiving end – even when he'd had input during the war, Steve had still been the guy who went and carried out the orders on the ground. Now he was merely a spectator.

It was especially strange that the person doing the organizing and planning was Peggy. She'd used to enjoy getting her hands dirty in the field, and had often expressed her frustration with the people who sat around tables trying to figure things out while lives and nations hung in the balance. It was a very different Peggy he was watching now. The woman Steve remembered would probably have hunted Troy down herself and then hit him with the nearest heavy object until he stopped moving. This Peggy delegated, moving people and resources around and following six trails at once, in a way that was hard to reconcile with the single-minded woman of action Steve had fallen in love with.

While searching for Agent Troy, Peggy was also having people follow any other lead she could get her hands on. The undeveloped film that replaced the tape had come from SHIELD's own stock – the warehouse had to be searched in case somebody had simply mixed up the canisters. Every room the tapes had been in had to be searched. Every person who'd been anywhere near them had to be spoken to. By suppertime she'd had a wheeled whiteboard brought into her office and was using it to mark off a timeline of where the objects had been, and when.

The picture that emerged from this was puzzling. As far as anybody could tell, no-one had handled the tapes without authorization. They'd been in a vault overnight, where Agent Pearce had put them to await the arrival of the NTSB agents in the morning. A security camera was trained on the vault door, but the tape in that had broken at about four o'clock in the morning, and had not been replaced until nearly nine. The people from the NSTB had arrived at seven thirty. With the camera out of order, there was a window of three and a half hours in which the tapes could have vanished.

Agent Troy was not supposed to have been at work during that time. He hadn't arrived in the building until just before nine. If he'd taken the tapes out in that plastic-covered briefcase, somebody else must have stolen them and hidden them until he arrived – or it was also possible that Troy himself was a red herring. The pool of possible suspects kept getting broader while it should have been narrowing down.

Peggy herself sat and questioned a pair of security guards who'd been on duty during the crucial three and a half hours. They insisted they'd never seen anyone go into or out of the vault, not even anybody authorized. Steve, Howard, and Pearce watched through a one-way mirror as they sweated, terrified of the elderly woman questioning them.

“She hasn't lost her touch,” Howard said admiringly. He was standing about a yard from the window, hands in his pockets and cigarette slowly smoldering down to a stub. Peggy's equal capacities for delicacy and destruction had always fascinated him.

“Neither have you,” said Steve, who was sitting at the nearby table with Pearce, drinking cold coffee.

Howard glanced back. “What's that supposed to mean?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said Steve.

“It's not nothing.” Howard turned around. “You've been hinting at something for days – you're like an angry girlfriend who thinks I ought to know what I've done wrong by reading her mind. That's one of the reasons I married Maria. She tells me when I'm being an idiot.”

“So are you avoiding me, or her?” asked Steve.

“I'm not avoiding anybody. I'm a busy man and I don't have time for this. Nobody accomplishes anything by passive-aggressively beating around the bush instead of getting to the point.”

“Seems to work for you and Tony,” said Steve.

Howard visibly stiffened at the mention of Tony – much as Tony himself had reacted to his father's name earlier. “Don't tell me how to raise my son,” he said sharply. “Tony's wasting his potential. He could have already changed the world if he wanted, but he's too busy setting fire to MIT and folding origami spaceships. When I was his age I'd accomplished twice as much with a fraction of the resources!”

“I think I'm gonna make a fresh pot,” Pearce said, a little louder than necessary. He tossed his styrofoam cup in the garbage and left the observation room, carefully closing the door behind him.

Steve and Howard both watched him go. Steve wondered if Howard would come up with an excuse to follow, but instead he just folded his arms across his chest and looked Steve in the eye.

“Well?” he said. “We're alone now. If you've got something to say, now's the time.”

They weren't actually alone, really. Peggy and the security guards were just on the other side of the window, but they couldn't see Steve and Howard through the mirror. Even if they could have, interrogating and being interrogated would keep them distracted enough not to notice – and Steve couldn't keep putting this off, he decided. He needed to know what had really happened.

“Why did you bomb Japan?” he asked.

Howard had already been standing still, but in the moment after the question was asked, he still somehow managed to freeze. The colour drained from his face. “Christ, Steve,” he said. “I thought you were going to ask me why we didn't find you sooner!”

Steve refused to let Howard distract him. “Why?” he insisted. “Those were cities full of civilians! That's not what did, Howard! That was what Germany did – bomb the civilians so the soldiers in the field will feel they're not accomplishing anything! What the hell happened?” He still hoped that there was an explanation, that something had changed.

“I'm not the one who pushed the button, Steve,” said Howard. “I just built the damned thing, okay? I advised against dropping it, if you want to know.” He raked his hands through his hair. “I was just one of the engineers. I don't make the decisions.”

“Who did, then?” Steve insisted.

“Truman,” said Howard. “He wanted to send a message to the Russians. They knew we were building the bomb, obviously – they were trying to develop their own version. He wanted them to know we weren't afraid to use it.”

“On civilians?” Steve asked. “Did we really spend four years fighting HYDRA so that we could become them?”

“I'm not the one who pushed the button!” Howard repeated. He dropped his cigarette into an ash tray, then immediately lit another one. “Groves made the initial list of targets. The Japanese knew we had the bomb, too – you can build something like that in secret, but once you've tested it, the whole world's gonna hear the boom. We told them, this is what we've got, here's the film of our tests, this is what will happen if you don't surrender. And they wouldn't. They wanted to talk about terms some more, or keep some territory in the Pacific... I think their reply was mistranslated or something, because there was never any agreement about the details. But Truman decided they'd had enough time to think about it, and the Russians needed to see that we weren't pussies, so they bombed Hiroshima.”

“So then what?” asked Steve. “Why did you do it again?” They'd waited three whole days. That was plenty of time to change their minds.

“We were expecting a message and we didn't get one.” Howard sat down at the table again and sucked deeply on his cigarette. “We thought they'd tell us right away, okay, we give up, but they didn't. So we dropped another bomb. Groves had us working on more,” he went on, utterly miserable. “Truman would have just kept dropping them until we heard what we wanted to hear or there was nothing left to bomb, but the emperor ordered a surrender after Nagasaki. I didn't press the button!” he said for a third time. “I wasn't flying the plane! I just built the thing!”

“Did they tell you how many died?” asked Steve. The museum exhibit hadn't mentioned any numbers... just the photograph of the shadows on the wall.

Howard hung his head. “There's no figures, really, because they're still dying. The ones who weren't vaporized burned, and the ones who didn't burn got radiation sickness... and the people who survived that, their children are dying of cancer.” He stared at the tabletop. “Everything I ever built turned into a weapon. It shouldn't surprise anybody that when I actually put my mind to building a weapon, I make the worst one ever.”

That was when Steve remembered that this couldn't be the first time Howard had been forced to think about this. Steve had first seen the picture of the ladder man's shadow in the museum, only a few days ago. Howard must have been looking at it for thirty years. He'd had this on his conscience the whole time Steve had been sleeping in the ice. Should Steve pity him for that, or did he deserve every single sleepless night and more?

“It was supposed to be a threat. Look what we can do if we don't get our way.” Howard's voice was strained and thin. “I didn't think they'd actually do it. I should have known better... god damn it!” He thumped the table with the flat of one hand. “Especially after Finow, I should have known better! I don't lie to myself like that anymore. I know now anything my company makes is going to be used, and people are going to die from it. I just have to make sure the wrong people don't get their hands on my stuff. I've learned my lesson, Steve,” he added, looking up at last. “We all did. We've never done it again.”

The way he said this, as if begging for forgiveness, made Steve angry all over again – because Steve wasn't the one he should be asking for it. “Is that what you told Jim?” he asked coldly. “His grandparents lived in Hiroshima.” Jim Morita had shown Steve a picture of them once: a craggy-faced man with a bushy mustache, and a petite woman in an elegant embroidered kimono holding a cage with a pet bird. Jim had been looking forward to writing to them again, once the war in the Pacific was over.

“I didn't tell Jim anything,” said Howard. “I haven't actually seen him in thirty years – he lives in Fresno with his wife and grandkids.” He sighed. “Look, if we hadn't bombed those cities, the war in the Pacific would have dragged out another few months. We would have had to invade the Japanese mainland to get a surrender, and after it was over we would have been at war with the Soviet Union within a few years. In the long run, it probably saved lives!”

“Is that what you would have told Jim?” Steve demanded.

Their voices had been rising steadily throughout this conversation, but Steve hadn't realize anyone could hear them until he noticed that the interrogation room next door had fallen silent. He turned, and found Peggy and the two guards both staring at them – or rather, at the mirror from behind which the angry voices were coming. Peggy held up a hand to tell the guards to wait, and opened the door.

“Is everything all right?” she asked.

“No,” said Howard. He put out his second cigarette, having not smoked it at all, and walked out.

Peggy looked at Steve.

“You left out some stuff,” he said, “when you told me about the end of the war.”

“We gave you the quick version,” Peggy replied. She stepped out of the interrogation room entirely and closed the door behind herself. “It was... it was necessary, Steve. Like Howard said – we would have ended up at war again. It wasn't my decision, either. We needed stability after the war, and we got it. Our job ever since has been to keep it.”

“This isn't stability,” Steve protested. “This is everybody too scared to make a move! The minute somebody feels their hand is being forced...”

“It's saved us more than once,” Peggy protested. “In 1962, Kruschev put missiles in Cuba. If he hadn't been too afraid to use them, and if we hadn't been too afraid to take action first, there would have been a war. Fear... fear can be useful.”

“That's a hell of a way to live,” Steve said.

“Better a hell of a way to live than a hell of a way to die,” Peggy replied.

“It's that, too,” said Steve.

“We can't change it now,” Peggy said. “It's done. This is the world we've made. It's not a nice world, but it works for now.”

“What happens when it stops working?” asked Steve.

“I suppose we'll just have to find out,” Peggy admitted.

A telephone rang, Peggy turned her back on Steve and went to answer it. “Hello? Yes, this is the director,” she said. After a pause, she nodded. “We're on our way.” After hanging up the phone, she gathered up her papers. “They've found Agent Troy,” she said. “You were right... the tapes were in his briefcase.”

Steve grabbed his jacket. “Has he said anything?” he wanted to know.

She swallowed hard. “Just two words.”


Chapter Text

An hour later, Agent Troy was brought back to the SHIELD building in handcuffs and leg irons. His plastic-wrapped briefcase was carefully checked to make sure it contained all the tapes brought back from Dvenadstat – Steve, Fury, and Fletcher were all called in personally to check. His car was put up on blocks so a forensics team could take it to pieces, and Troy himself was frog-marched into an interrogation room..

Steve stood watching while Peggy personally slipped the tapes into a padded bag. “Are you still going to give them to the NTSB?” he asked.

“I don't know,” she replied. “It's clear that somebody doesn't want us finding out what's on them, which means that we must find out as quickly as possible.” Peggy didn't end the statement with a hanging 'but', and she didn't need to – Steve could hear the conjunction dangling there anyway. She didn't know who could be trusted, any more than he did. “Do you have any recommendations?” she asked Steve.

He could only shrug. “I'm not exactly up to date on code breaking practices.”

Peggy nodded. “Of course. I apologize,” she sighed. “We need to figure something out, before our enemies can try again.”

Under the circumstances, our enemies was a tactfully chosen phrase. Peggy must have suspected Russian involvement from the start – she'd told Steve that she was aware of KGB agents in SHIELD and even knew who some of them were. The tapes had come from Russia and the information on them was clearly of great value to the Soviet government and scientific community, so much so that the facility which created them was hidden inside another high security outpost, like a set of top-secret matryoshka dolls. But ever since his capture, Agent Troy really had said only two words, and they weren't Russian.

By suppertime he was still in the interrogation room, with the fake tapes lying on the table in front of him. Steve and Peggy were watching through the false window while two burly agents tried to play good cop and bad cop, without results. Troy just stared at the tabletop, repeating the same phrase over and over again.

“Just take us through your day,” one of the interrogators suggested. “When did you arrive at the building this morning?”

Troy kept his head down. “ Hail HYDRA ,” he murmured.

“A guy at the corner said he sold you a cup of coffee around a quarter to nine,” the man added. “Do you remember that?”

Hail HYDRA ,” Troy repeated.

“That's really all he's said?” Steve asked Peggy. He kept his voice down, since he now knew that people inside could sometimes hear the observers' voices and he didn't want to make that mistake again – even if he were less likely to end up shouting at Peggy than he'd been at Howard.

She nodded. “We're not sure what he's trying to accomplish. Maybe he wants to divert suspicion, or make us think there are more people involved. Maybe it was just the first thing he thought of, and he figures he has to say something . Until we get some real answers out of him, we just won't know.”

Steve didn't miss the possibility she'd left out. “HYDRA's extinct, right?” he asked. “You said you hunted them down after I left.” The idea that she'd lied about that , of all things, made him feel as if he were falling into the frigid arctic water all over again. If HYDRA hadn't been destroyed, then what the hell had he even crashed that plane for?

Peggy didn't answer right away.

“Peggy!” Steve was horrified. “You told me...”

“They're extinct as an organization with any power,” she said firmly. “HYDRA and its insignia are illegal in Germany, along with all the other vestiges of Nazism, and we're pretty sure we rounded up the vast majority of their assets and scientists. If we hadn't, we'd have heard more from them since.”

It sounded so final, but there was another inaudible but hanging in the air at the end of that sentence. When she didn't continue, Steve felt obliged to give voice to it. “But?” he prompted.

“We couldn't get all the people ,” Peggy admitted. “Some of them went to Turkey, but we think most are in South America. We've got eyes on a dozen of them hiding in Argentina or Chile. Every so often we manage to extradite one for trial, but after forty years, for the most part we're just waiting to hear that they're dead.”

That was not a good plan, Steve thought. As long as the remaining HYDRA officials were alive and free they could still amass followers and resources. “Did on of them convince Troy to take those tapes?” he asked.

“It's possible,” Peggy said, “although Pearce says he doubts it. If we didn't know about the false tower until the other day, it's not likely anybody else outside the Iron Curtain did, either. Besides, Troy wasn't going south or east. They found him trying to cross the border into Canada. We're looking at nearby airports, trying to see if he had tickets.”

The implications of that seemed clear enough – the non-stop air routes between America and the USSR would go north, over the polar ice.

Inside the interrogation room, the agent playing bad cop was pacing back and forth with a scowl on his face, while the good cop leaned across the table, trying to look concerned. “Agent Troy,” he said seriously. “You could be facing charges of espionage here. You could be imprisoned or deported, or even executed. Do you really want to be the the first guy in the chair for treason since the Rosenbergs? Don't you want to say anything in your own defense?”

Hail HYDRA ,” said Troy, eyes still on the tabletop.

“He hasn't tried to kill himself,” Steve observed. Most of the HYDRA operatives they'd taken prisoner during the war had poisoned themselves before they could be questioned.

“We haven't given him a chance,” said Peggy. “He hardly needs to, anyway. Sitting there saying hail HYDRA is suicide enough.”

Steve thought about that. Agent Troy had been hanging around Steve since his second day back, when the agent had asked for an autograph on the cover of his comic book. He'd tried very hard to make friends with Steve the morning of the museum visit, and when caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he invoked the name of an organization Steve considered a personal enemy. Maybe what he really wanted was to talk to Steve .

“Can I talk to him?” he asked.

“You may as well try,” said Peggy. “You can hardly do worse than anybody else has.”

Peggy showed the two interrogators out, and Steve went in. The room was small and claustrophobic, with bare white walls and harsh fluorescent lights, to make the events within visible to the observers in the dimmer room on the other side of the false mirror. Agent Troy's wrists were cuffed to a ring in the middle of the table so that his hands would be visible at all times. In the cold glare of the lights, he looked tired and haunted, his eyes in deep shadow.

As Steve took a seat, in the folding metal chair opposite from him, Troy looked up in surprise. “Captain Rogers?” he asked.

It was the first thing he'd said all afternoon that wasn't hail HYDRA , so Steve took it as a good sign. “Yeah, it's me,” he said.

Agent Troy looked for a moment as if he would reply, but then he seemed to change his mind. He slumped in his seat again, head lowered.

Steve didn't say anything, either, at least not right away. Instead, he sat there thinking: if he just started asking questions, he probably wouldn't do any better than the interrogators who'd just left. So when he did speak, he started by talking about something else entirely.

“You know, I lied a bit when I said I'd never been skiing,” he said. “I did some cross-country skiing with my men, in the winter of 1944. We had a lot of open ground to cross, and it seemed like it would be easier to slide over the top of knee-deep snow than try to trudge through it.”

Agent Troy didn't say anything, but he raised his head again, as if interested.

“It was a miserable winter,” Steve went on. “ Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey , Falsworth kept saying. We all got snow caked in our whiskers and icicles on our noses, and Bucky got the fingers of his left hand frostbit so badly he was worried the doctors would want to amputate.” Just remembering it made Steve shiver – he'd always hated the cold. “It makes it kind of hard to think of skiing as something people do for fun. So yeah, sorry to disappoint, but I'd rather not go to Whiteface Mountain with you.”

“I don't think I'm going skiing this weekend, Captian Rogers,” said Troy.

That was a full sentence, which was definitely progress. “I know you want to be my friend,” Steve added, “and I appreciate that. I don't think I've got as many friends here as I thought.” It did make him wonder – if Steve had tried harder to be kind to Troy, instead of brushing him off as obnoxious after the library incident, would this still have happened? Was this how Troy reacted to his hero disappointing him?

There was no answer.

“Did your son like the comic?” Steve tried.

Troy's head bent again. “I don't have any kids,” he confessed. “That was for me. I kept seeing it in the window of the comic shop for months and months, and I told myself I couldn't afford it. It was a first edition. Collector's item. Then they thawed you out, and I couldn't resist anymore. I told my wife I was going to sell it at a profit.” He seemed far more ashamed of these small lies than he was of his theft.

“Were you always into Captain America comics?” asked Steve.

“Ever since I was a kid,” Troy nodded. “You were my hero. You won a war all by yourself! You just walked into this world full of chaos and fighting, and you brought order and peace!”

None of that was true – Steve's work had mostly been behind the scenes of the war, and as a propaganda tool in the films, and what he'd learned since his return made his own role look smaller than ever. For the moment, however, he decided to accept the statement. “So why do this ?” Steve asked. “Why are you sitting there saying hail HYDRA when HYDRA are the guys I was fighting?”

“Because they're not like that anymore,” Troy said. “This isn't the 1940's, Captain Rogers. We're not at war. HYDRA has changed. You've seen what a mess the world's in. You were there at Dvenadstat! That's what happens in a world obsessed with nukes! You of all people can't want to see the whole world living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. If we're ever going to have a real peace, we've got to get rid of all that. The US and the USSR both have to go.”

Steve wanted to glance over his shoulder at the mirror, but didn't dare – he couldn't afford to remind Troy that they were being watched. It was impossible not to wonder, though, how Peggy had reacted to hearing that. At this point, it was a sentiment Steve could almost agree with.

“What would we replace them with?” he asked.

“A world where the government is answerable to somebody,” Troy said. There was real earnestness, real sincerity, in both his voice and his wide hazel eyes. This was something he believed in with some passion. “That's what the US was supposed to be when it was formed, but nobody was willing to give it the power to enforce anything. That's all HYDRA wants – a world where people have a higher power to appeal to, where we don't have to keep peace by constant threat of war!”

“Who do they answer to?” asked Steve. “To you ?”

“To people who want peace and stability, rather than the supremacy of any one nation,” said Troy.

That answered that question. “To HYDRA,” said Steve. No, nothing had changed, he decided – HYDRA had simply found a new justification for their actions. The goal was the same: tell everybody want to do and watch them do it. “They're Nazis , Troy.”

“The Bayer corporation started off as Nazis, too,” the agent replied. “That doesn't mean aspirin is evil!”

Steve shook his head. “Is that why Leonid Koshkin killed himself?” he asked. “Because he was afraid we were HYDRA?”

Troy lowered his head again. “ Hail HYDRA ,” he said.

That sounded an awful lot like an affirmative to Steve. “What was on those tapes? Do you know?”

Hail HYDRA ,” Troy repeated. The conversation was over.

When Steve returned to the observation room, he found that Peggy was no longer there. He reached for the door handle, intending to go look for her, he heard her voice right outside.

“There you are!” she exclaimed. She was no more than a few feet from the door, and must have only just left the room herself, or perhaps had been only just on her way back in. “Howard, where the hell have you been? Do you understand that we're dealing with a serious security crisis? Do you know what this implies?”

Steve opened the door, and found her in the hall facing Howard, who was leaning on the opposite wall. His jacket was unbuttoned and his tie loose, but he was standing up straight. Howard Stark always preserved his poise.

“I needed to think,” Howard said. His voice was thick, just barely on the verge of drunk. “Peggy, do you think if I'd found Steve... would things have happened differently in Japan? Would he...” he glanced up, saw Steve, and swallowed. “Would you have made us find another way?”

Peggy glanced over her shoulder, but only for a moment. “I doubt he would have had the slightest say in the matter,” she said. “ We didn't. But that's in the past, Howard. I need you in the here and now. Here and now, and sober ,” she added sourly.

“I'm fine,” Howard said, running a hand through his hair. “I drove over here, didn't I?”

“I'm amazed you're still alive,” Peggy observed. “Now, listen to me, Howard, because I think Steve will agree – you're the smartest person we know...”

“That's not true,” Howard said bitterly.

“... and one of very few we can trust right now,” she went on, as if he hadn't spoken. “We need a code-breaker, and you're better at that than anyone else I'm willing to give those tapes to. If they had a secret weapon or project going on in Mesto Dvenadstat, we need to know about it because they might be working on it somewhere else, too. We need you, Howard. You're the only person who can figure this out.” She looked at Steve for confirmation.

Steve nodded. “I think she's right,” he said.

“I thought I was supposed to be taking Steve on tour,” said Howard. Though he was talking to Peggy, his eyes remained fixed on Steve.

“Consider it canceled,” Peggy said, her voice clipped. “He'll be needed elsewhere.” She turned to Steve. “Did Troy say anything to you?”

“Yes,” he said. “And you're not going to like it.”

“I didn't expect to,” she sighed.

That evening, Steve had to deliver the news to Maria and Tony that Howard wouldn't be home for dinner – again. “Peggy gave him a project,” he explained, “and he seemed pretty determined to shut himself in his office until he'd finished it.” The fact that he and Steve had argued was probably a contributing factor, but Steve didn't want to talk about that. Peggy had been right, as usual: they couldn't dwell on the past when they were facing a crisis in the present, and it was Steve's own fault for bringing it up.

Maria sighed. “That sounds about right,” she said. “Don't worry, Steve, it's not you. He does that from time to time, just goes off to work on something and comes back when he's done. We're used to it.” She glanced at Tony, who was eating dinner and reading a book about SETI. The boy glanced up and caught his mother's eye before looking back at the text, and that was all the acknowledgment he gave her.

Jarvis entered the room with a bottle, and Maria smiled as he poured her a glass of Pinot Blanco. “Thank you, Jarvis,” she said, appearing not to notice the butler's pinched, disapproving expression. “Steve would you like some?”

“I'll pass,” Steve said.

Maria nodded and stood. “I'll be in the living room if anyone needs me. Dallas is on.” Her glass was already at her lips by the time she reached the doorway.

Tony checked his watch, then closed his book and grabbed his plate. “Battlestar Galactica,” he said, and headed off to his own room, leaving Steve alone at the table.

Jarvis began to clear the plates away. “Do you need anything, Captain Rogers?” he asked.

It was a much more difficult question than it should have been. Howard's drugs of choice were cigarettes and alcohol. Maria's were fine wine and soap operas, and Tony took refuge in science fiction. When Steve had needed something to ease the general pain of life, he had always preferred company. The commandos, Peggy, Howard, and Bucky. Now Bucky and the men were dead or dying, and Howard and Peggy were changed beyond recognition, so where did that leave him?

“Nothing you can give me,” said Steve.

In the morning, it occurred to Steve that in all the confusion yesterday he'd entirely forgotten about Agent Fletcher. He'd seen her briefly, when she was brought in to identify the recovered tapes, but he hadn't had time to ask about her emotional state. When he inquired at the front desk, he was told she had checked in that morning, and a security guard volunteered that he'd seen her on her way to the cafeteria.

Sure enough, Steve found her there, sitting alone at a table and stirring distractedly at a bowl of dark red soup. When he sat down across from her, she glanced up at him, then down at her lunch.

“Comfort food,” she said, a bit embarrassed. “My grandparents were Ukrainian immigrants. Baba – my grandma – loved to cook. Borscht is probably a little un-American, but it reminds me of her.” Fletcher looked slightly uncomfortable about this, as if aware that Russian food was a strange place to seek solace from an incident that had happened on Russian soil, but Steve wasn't going to dwell on that.

“Don't worry, I won't report you to Madame Director,” he promised. “How are you holding up?”

“I'll live,” Fletcher said. “They didn't, but I will. I don't know if I'll ever be allowed to work again, though. My last two assignments, one threw a man through a wall and ran away, and the other one shot four civilians before committing suicide. That's not a good record.”

She sounded awfully matter-of-fact about it, but maybe that was just how she tried to cope. “Everybody has their off days,” Steve said. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” she replied, but then hesitated. “I mean, I can't promise I'll be allowed to answer, but you can ask.”

There was that, wasn't there? Steve scowled – if Fletcher had heard Troy mention Dvenadstat, she probably would have tackled him on the spot and saved everybody a lot of trouble. “My second day here, you told me I already had enemies,” he said. “That there were people who didn't like what they thought I stood for.” Was that the right way to phrase that? Troy had claimed he'd joined HYDRA because he admired Steve. “Tell me more about that.”

“Well, your image from back in the day is a little straight-laced for the world we're living in now,” said Fletcher. “There were people who figured you'd be assassinated within days of waking up. Others thought Madame Director would push you into retirement, or just keep you around as a – er – gigolo.” She smiled awkwardly . “That's like a...”

“I know what a gigolo is,” Steve said. Was that why Peggy had brought him back? No, she had a sick husband... a sick husband who was expected to die at any time...

“You said you went to a museum to learn about the Manhattan Project,” Fletcher went on, “so you've got some idea where we're at, politically, right now. Did anybody tell you about the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962?”

“I think Peggy mentioned it,” he said. Another thing he'd have to look into in more detail.

“The only thing keeping the world going right now is the nuclear deterrent,” Fletcher said. “The Soviets won't bomb us because they know we'd find out about it and get our own missiles launched before theirs could land. And vice-versa. If anybody moves, everybody dies.”

That was exactly what Troy had talked about – a world living under constant threat of nuclear annihilation. “And people assume I'd be opposed to that,” said Steve.

“Aren't you?” asked Fletcher, surprised.

“Of course I am,” Steve said. “The whole damned world shouldn't have to live in fear of two bullies rattling their sabers at each other! But this isn't about what I actually think, because I haven't been here long enough for anybody to know. It's about what people assume.”

“They do,” Fletcher said, “and there are interests in New York who don't like what they assume. Not just the politicians over at the UN, but the people who make the sabers. People like Stark.”

People like Stark. Steve should have been surprised by that accusation, and yet he wasn't, not at all. Howard Stark had always been in charge of making stuff go boom during the war, and after he'd made the biggest boom of all at the end of it, he must have decided he'd found his calling. It made his guilt over the bombings sound hollow indeed.

“Agent Fletcher,” Steve began.

“Call me Connie, Captain Rogers,” she replied.

“Steve,” he corrected.

“Steve.” She held out a hand, as if only just being introduced to him. “I think we got off on the wrong food, what with the whole lying to you and calling in guys to beat you up thing.”

“Connie.” He shook the hand. “I've made worst first impressions.” He thought of Peggy, frowning at him over his use of the word dame. “Is there a lot of this thinking at SHIELD? That the world's a mess and I'm a danger to the people who made a mess of it?” Really, Troy and Fl... Connie seemed to believe the same things, they'd just chosen different ways of applying that belief.

“I'm pretty sure there's a lot of it everywhere,” said Connie. “Everybody knows the world's a mess, but nobody's in a position to do anything about it, except maybe for you.”

“I'm just one guy,” Steve reminded her.

“Yeah, but you were a lot of people's hero,” Connie said. “If you wanted to start something, you'd be able to get anything you needed. Money, men, information... there'd be somebody to give it to you.”

Steve shook his head. “I've met people who think I'm their hero,” he said darkly. “I don't want their help.”

Connie frowned, concerned. “What happened?” she asked.

Then Steve realized he'd said too much. He'd said too much to Tony and then to Diane yesterday, and that wasn't a mistake he was going to repeat. “I can't talk about it.”

“Oh. Of course,” she said, and quickly went back to her soup. “I won't ask again.”

After lunchtime, an announcement on the PA called Steve to Peggy's office. She greeted him, polite businesslike, letting him know without words that this wouldn't be a social call, and then escorted him down to a room in the basement.

Howard had been working there. Tables and shelves were strewn with papers and equipment, much of the latter completely foreign to Steve. Several screens of various sizes displayed information in rows of green and amber numbers, and there was a weird setup which appeared to involve a video camera looking down a microscope, while tape spooled by underneath. Howard must have been there all night, because he hadn't changed his clothes – his shirt was untucked and his jacket and tie were hanging off a hook by the door, but he didn't look or sound tired.

“The tapes were in bad shape,” was the first thing he said, not even bothering with a greeting. “I had to use the garnet method to read each individual bit, but the whole thing seems to be the same message over and over in a loop, so it wasn't too hard to piece it together. You want the good news first, or the bad news?”

“Always start with the bad news,” Peggy said.

“The bad news,” Howard told her, “is it's in Albtraum Zwölf.

Steve's mouth went dry – he knew that name. Albtraum Zwölf was a HYDRA code from 1945, the one the organization had used to discuss the launch of the Valkyrie without the SSR listening in. It was designed to sound as much as possible like radio noise – like static, as Pearce had described the sound on the tapes. The SSR had hoped that the capture of Armin Zola would save them the trouble of deciphering it, but Steve hadn't stuck around to see what they found out.

“Can you read it?” he asked.

“Of course I can,” scoffed Howard. “But Peggy told me to start with the bad news.”

“All right,” Peggy said. “What's the good news?”

“That was the good news,” Howard said. “I can read it. Unfortunately, if it says what I think it says, it's all bad news from here.”

He unrolled a map on the table, and weighed the corners down with books. Five apparently random points, two in Asia and three in the oceans, had been marked with x's. Next to each was drawn a shape: a triangle in the middle of China, a hexagon in the southwestern USSR, a diamond in the Indian Ocean, and a circle and a pentagon in the Atlantic, off the bulge of Africa.

“The numbers are all geometric coordinates,” Howard explained. “Each one describes a regular polygon and a point of latitude and longitude, so I've mapped them out here. There was also a description of a square at the beginning of the sequence, and another mess of numbers at the end that I haven't quite figured out yet. I've got these, though, and I have an idea what they probably represent. Why would they show us a square and then not tell us where it is?” Howard asked. “Because we've already got the square one. We've had it for forty years.”

The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees in an instant as Steve realized what that meant. Peggy stepped toward and leaned on the table with both hands. “Are you saying, Howard, that these are the locations of other objects like the tesseract?”

“That's where my money is,” Howard agreed. “Each of these shapes can represent one of the platonic solids.” He grabbed paper bag off another table and began pulling out wooden models of shapes, describing each as he set it down on its map coordinate. “The tesseract would be the cube,” he said, placing it on New York. “Here we've got the tetrahedron – a four-dimensional tetrahedron is called a pentachoron, if you've ever wondered – in China, the octahedron near Australia, the icosahedron in Kazakhstan,and the dodecaherdon and the sphere, a platonic solid with infinitely many identical sides, off Africa.”

Peggy nodded slowly. “I'll send people out there at once,” she said. “I don't want to risk a mission to Kazakhstan so soon after Dvenadstat. The Russians must be watching us like hawks. But the Chinese site won't be too hard to investigate – it's in the middle of Yanchen. And we've got people based in the Canaries who can take a look at the spots in the Atlantic.”

“Do you want me to go along?” asked Steve.

“No,” Peggy replied. “This is just a search assignment, we don't need you for that. We might yet need you here, particularly if our enemies have already found some of these objects.” And if there were spies within SHIELD, although that remained unspoken.

“I understand,” said Steve. HYDRA had caused enough problems with the tesseract alone. He didn't want to imagine what they could do with five such things.

“Howard,” Peggy said, “you mentioned more numbers. I need to know what they mean.”

“Working on it,” Howard promised. “You'll know as soon as I do.”

Steve realized he was going to be the bearer of more bad news that night. The news report that morning had mentioned that the launch of the Odyssey was only a few days away, and nobody was going to be taking Tony to see it now.


Chapter Text

The next morning Steve was summoned to Peggy's office again. He arrived at her door and lifted a hand to knock, then paused, realizing he could hear voices within. Steve was not a habitual eavesdropper, and the polite thing to do would be to stand back and wait like a good soldier, not pry into things that probably weren't his business. But that was not what he did. Instead, as if drawn by a force as unstoppable as gravity, he found himself putting an ear to the door.

“You're in no shape to be drinking!” Peggy was in the middle of saying. “You're already drunk!”

“This is my first glass today!” Howard protested.

“Which means absolutely nothing when you haven't actually been sober in thirty years,” Peggy snarled. “Go home and get some sleep, and you can start again when you've rested.”

“I'm not wrong about this, Pegs! You think I can't read a forty-year-old HYDRA code?” Howard challenged.

“I think you may need a fresh perspective,” she replied. “You're upset...”

“Hell, yes, I'm upset!” Howard agreed, and there was the sound of an empty glass banged down on a table. When Howard kept talking a moment later, however, he did not sound angry. “I... I'm sorry, Peggy. If I'd known...”

“Don't start this again,” she warned him.

“If I'd known,” he repeated, “I could have brought him home years ago. You two could have...”

This is not about Steve!” Peggy shouted, bringing her own hands down hard enough on the desk that Steve heard the glass fall over and roll onto the floor. “Bloody hell, Howard, none of us knew! None of us could have ever dreamed we'd find him alive. I don't think even Dr. Erskine would have anticipated that! It's in the past. What do I always tell you about the past?”

“You're not my mother,” grumbled Howard.

“Sometimes I feel like it,” Peggy said sourly. “So as your surrogate parent and, more important, as your friend, I am telling you to go home and get some sleep. Reassure you're family that you're still alive, and come back to this when you're capable of thinking straight!”

Steve quickly stood back and pretended to have been waiting quietly as Howard left the room. Howard was in the middle of putting his blazer on as he stomped out. He glanced at Steve on the way by, but quickly turned his head when he caught the other man's eye, and said nothing. Neither did Steve himself.

As the elevator arrived to take Howard downstairs, Steve told himself that the breakdown of a friendship was not something that happened overnight. Howard and Peggy's relationship had probably been strained for years... and yet he still felt responsible. Steve's reappearance may not have started their arguments, but it had given them one more thing to argue about. It was yet another thing for Howard to hate himself for, one more lost chance for Peggy to regret. Maybe it would have been better for everyone to just leave him in the freezer.

Once Howard had vanished, Steve finally rapped on the office door. “Peggy? It's me.”

“Steve, there you are!” she said, forcing herself to sound pleasant. “Please, come in.”

Steve did so. She was waiting inside, gathering up papers on her desk as if nothing had happened. “Have they found anything yet?”

“Not so far,” said Peggy, rummaging through drawers looking for nothing. “We've had teams looking in both China and the Atlantic, but there's no sign of anything, or that anything was ever there and had been removed. It's hard to tell at the bottom of the ocean, of course, but the Chinese site is right at the base of a water tower by the Tongyu canal. If there'd been anything there, or if anybody had been there to dig it up, the local farmers would have known about it.”

“What about the others?” asked Steve.

“We haven't been able to look at the Indian Ocean site yet,” Peggy said. “The water there is very deep. We've got satellite pictures of the area in Kazakhstan, but all they show is shrubby desert. The place hasn't changed in years. Schmidt found the tesseract in an old stone shrine, but there's no sign of anything comparable in any of the places we've been able to search so far.”

She was worried, as she'd implied to Howard a moment ago, that the interpretation of the tapes must be incorrect. Steve's gut didn't believe that. He couldn't remember Howard Stark ever really being wrong about anything, not when he had all the relevant information. If he weren't right about this, then it must be because some part of the data were lacking. Once he'd had a rest, hopefully he'd be able to see what he'd missed.

“I promise, if we learn anything, you'll be one of the first to know,” Peggy said. “I know this must be very personal to you.”

“Thanks,” said Steve, relieved that she recognized that. Bucky had died for the tesseract, after all – in fact, a lot of people had died for the damned thing, whatever it really was, and the last thing Steve wanted was any more of them. “Peggy, where is the tesseract now?” he asked. “When Howard pulled out the shapes, he put the cube on New York.”

“It's hidden,” Peggy promised. “It's safe.”

But Steve didn't believe that – there was no such thing as a safe place to keep something so dangerous. “Why didn't you just leave it in the ocean?” he asked.

“Because there was no guarantee that other people would do the same,” Peggy said. She closed the desk drawer and picked up her purse. “I sent Howard home to clear his head, and I think I need to do the same, so I was going to go visit Tim today. Would you like to come?”

It took Steve a moment to figure out who Tim was – he couldn't remember anybody ever calling Dum-Dum Tim or Timothy. In fact, he couldn't even recall when or how he'd learned that was the man's real name. He supposed if anybody were going to call him that, it would be his wife.

Did he want to come? Steve's instinctive answer would have been no, he didn't want to see his old friend unconscious in a hospital bed. But he was sick and tired of both SHIELD and the Stark family apartment, and he hated having to ask permission to go anywhere else, as if he were a student requesting a hall pass so he could use the restroom. If he were being invited somewhere, even a hospital, with no supervision but Peggy... when was that ever likely to happen again? Especially now that they might need him on call to deal with whatever they'd discovered at Mesto Dvenadstat.

“All right,” he said. “Sure.”

“I hoped you would,” Peggy said, with an honest smile. “I don't like going alone. I have a girlfriend who usually comes with me, but she's visiting her daughter in Chicago.” She took her jacket off the rack by the door and put it on. “When she's back in town, I'll have to introduce you two. You'll like her.”

They were driven to St. Luke's hospital in SHIELD car, and the driver promised to wait for them in the parking garage. Peggy headed for the elevator, with Steve following her.

“I guess the farm thing didn't work out,” he observed.

She laughed. “I would have made a terrible farmer's wife, wouldn't I? Remember when you used to tease me about it?”

“Yeah,” said Steve. He'd joked that she'd go crazy from boredom within two weeks. “Bugger all this for a lark,” he said, imitating her accent, “I need to shoot something!”

“Exactly!” Peggy agreed. “You were right.”

Steve grinned, and remembered that day – crouched behind a hedge on a drizzly afternoon, waiting for a safe moment to continue on their way, and passing the time by talking about what they'd do when the war was over. When the war was over had seemed like a mythical time, so far in the future that it was barely worth dreaming about, so they'd let their imaginations run wild. He could almost smell the damp air.

the elevator doors opened, and the woman at the receptionist's desk stood up to greet Peggy with a smile on her face. “Mrs. Dugan!” she said. “It's so nice to see you again!”

Steve stopped short, staring. The idea that anybody would ever call Peggy Mrs. Dugan was even stranger than her calling Dum-Dum Tim. Certainly he'd never heard anyone at SHIELD call her that. She'd always been Peggy or Madame Director.

“Hello, Deb,” Peggy replied with a smile. “I tried to make it last week, but work has been utter madness. This is Steve,” she added, nodding to her guest.

“Oh!” said Deb, startled. “Oh, of course it is! Lovely to meet you, finally,” she offered him a hand. “I've heard so much about you.”

“Thanks,” Steve said awkwardly, shaking the woman's hand. He wasn't sure what to make of her statement – visiting her sick husband hardly seemed like an occasion for Peggy to start telling Captain America stories, especially when she'd once intended to marry him instead. He glanced at Peggy and found her reaching for his arm, about to cut in and say something. Before she could, however, Deb went on.

“It must've been a long trip, all the way from Los Angeles,” she added, “but it'll do him good, I know it will. I've had people who woke from comas tell me they knew exactly who was visiting them, even if they couldn't respond. It'll make your father feel so much better, just knowing you're here.”

Steve blinked.

“Oh,” said Peggy. “Oh, this is...”

But Deb looked so happy at the idea that Steve didn't want to disappoint her. He just squeezed the receptionist's hand and said, “I know he will.”

“Just head on up,” Deb waved them through. “Your mother knows the way.”

They climbed the stairs to the second floor in awkward silence. Half a flight up, Peggy cleared her throat in embarrassment and said, “it was Tim's idea. He told me, his name will be Stephen James, and nothing else.”

“I'm flattered,” said Steve. Try as he might, he couldn't picture Peggy as a mother – or what hers and Dum-Dum's kids might look like. “How old is he?”

“Twenty-seven,” Peggy replied. “He's serving at Edwards Air Force Base in California.” She stopped to open her wallet and pull out a small colour photograph of a family in matching red and white Christmas sweaters: a freckled young man with light brown hair, his blonde wife, and a baby in a tiny Santa Claus hat. “That's Caroline, and baby Amanda. And here...” she took out a second picture – a young woman with curly dark hair, dressed in a graduation gown and cap and holding a bouquet of roses. “This is Angela. She's doing her PhD in English literature in Boston. We have no idea which side of the family she gets that from.”

Steve nodded slowly. “They're beautiful,” he said, and he meant it. They were lovely, accomplished-looking young people, and he could see both Peggy and Dum-Dum in their faces. But god, he wondered... what would his and Peggy's kids have been like? Would they have his fair hair, or her dark? His blue eyes or her brown? Would they have inherited the effects of the serum, or would they have been small and sickly like he'd been as a child? Would they have been able to have children at all, or would they have had to adopt them?

He would never know now, he realized. All the things he'd been looking forward to finding out after the war... and now he would never, ever know.

Peggy seemed to know exactly where she was going – the door she chose was marked with two paper tags that said it was home to a Mr. Dugan and a Mr. Tyler. Steve at first assumed that the man in the bed nearer the door had to be Mr. Tyler, and Dum-Dum would be on the other side of the curtain, butt Peggy pulled up a chair and sat down beside the first bed, and Steve was forced to look again.

Even then, Steve barely recognized his friend: the man in the bed as thin and pale and unconscious, and while he still had a mustache and a thick head of hair, both had gone steel gray with age. Dum-Dum had not aged gracefully like Peggy or Howard had, and the fact that he'd been a decade older than them to begin with hadn't helped. He now looked every one of his eighty years.

Peggy reached out to take one of the man's frail, blue-veined hands. The skin was as thin as tissue paper, and slid over the arthritic bones beneath when she touched it. “Hello, Tim,” she said, with a tender smile. “I've a surprise for you today! Remember I told you, we found Steve? He's come to see you!” Her voice was steady, but forced. Dum-Dum had been in this condition for so long that she felt she shouldn't be upset by it anymore – but she was anyway.

Steve swallowed and stepped forward. He knew he should say something, and he could hear his own voice in the back of his head: hey, Dum-Dum. What happened to all those times you told us Bourbon was a preservative and you were gonna live forever? But physically he could not make a sound. His voice stuck in his throat and sat there in a lump, refusing to move.

Forty years, he thought. This was what forty years did. It reduced red-cheeked and laughing Dum-Dum into this fragile wreck, lingering in a hospital bed. It turned Howard into an arms dealer who couldn't talk to his son or forgive himself for his mistakes, and Peggy into a desk-bound manager who let others do the dirty work. It took a world at war into one that didn't dare start fighting again and yet could not bear the idea of peace. Forty years was a hell of a long time.

Peggy was watching him, Steve realized. He glanced at her, and could see in her face the moment when she realized she'd made a mistake by bringing him here. She had watched all this happen bit by bit, in pieces small enough to take. Steve was having this entire awful future shoved down his throat at once.

“You don't have to stay if you don't want to, Steve,” she said quietly.

“No, it's...” he began.

Peggy made herself smile. “Go,” she said. “We'll be fine. I need time to think, anyway.”

Steve turned and walked out.

In the hallway he shut the door behind him and then leaned on the wall, resting his forehead against it and shutting his eyes in shame. This was what he'd wanted for his friends, wasn't it? That they could die old and in their beds with loved ones beside them, instead of bleeding out on a battlefield. That was what he'd fought for, and what he'd tried to die for. Why the hell couldn't he look at the result? Was it jealousy, knowing that Peggy and Dum-Dum had lived those forty years Steve had skipped? Was it disappointment, realizing the lives he'd left them had not been happy ones? What was wrong with him?

He returned to the parking garage. Peggy would need a ride home later, but she could call another car. The driver was reading a newspaper with his feet up on the dashboard, but he sat up and quickly put it aside when Steve rapped on the window.

“Where to, Captain Rogers?” the man asked, as Steve climbed in.

That shouldn't have been a hard question, and yet Steve couldn't answer it at first. Where to? To Howard's apartment? Not if Howard himself was likely to be there. To Brooklyn? It, too, had probably aged beyond recognition and Steve would not feel welcome there. To Coney Island? To Radio City Music Hall? To the other side of the world where he wouldn't have to deal with any of this anymore?

“Back to SHIELD,” he said.

“Back to SHIELD it is,” the driver said. He started the car.

Steve buckled his seat belt. “Back to SHIELD,” he repeated to himself. He had nowhere else to go.

Steve had another appointment with the medics that afternoon, who checked him over and took samples of blood and a couple of other, even more unpleasant things, as part of their monitoring his radiation exposure. Fury was in there, too, getting his own checkup. Steve nodded to him, and received a gesture of acknowledgment, but the two men did not speak to each other. It made Steve wonder where Agent Fletcher was, but he did not find an opportunity to ask. He wondered if she'd left SHIELD, and then realized he didn't know if that were possible. It didn't seem like an organization one just resigned from.

Once that was over, Steve wandered down to Howard's little workroom and sat there for a while, studying the maps and numbers. He knew Howard Stark was smarter than he was, and doubted he'd be able to find anything the other man had missed, but trying would at least give him something to do.

Maybe they had the coordinate system wrong, he thought. The equator was a natural measuring point on the Earth's surface, but the Greenwich meridian was not – if the message were in a German code, maybe the positions were supposed to be measured from Berlin. Or if there were no location given for the tesseract, maybe it was the zero point. Maybe they ought to start from New York, where it was now, or Tønsberg, where Schmidt had first found the thing.

Even as he came up with each of these ideas, however, Steve could see by shuffling through Howard's notes that he'd already considered and discarded each in turn. Howard always thought of everything... but if they hadn't found any of the objects yet, clearly something was missing. What could it possibly be?

There was a telephone hanging on the wall beside the door. As Steve stood there with his hands behind his back, staring at the wooden shapes laid out on the table, it rang.

At first he didn't want to answer it. The caller would be asking for Howard, not for him, and Steve didn't know where Howard was. But on the third ring he picked it up anyway and said, “hello?”

“Sssshteve?” a voice asked.

He frowned. “Howard?”

“Shteve!” the voice on the phone said brightly. “I need you... I need you to be pal, okay? Be a khaver? I can't find the car, Shteve... d'ya know where I leff my car?”

“Howard, you're tanked,” said Steve. This was an understatement. Steve had heard Howard talk – and try to talk – in all states of sobriety, and this was serious even by Stark standards. Howard didn't start to slur until he was so drunk he could barely stand. “Where are you?”

“Phone boof,” said Howard.

“Where?” Steve asked. “Can you see a street sign?”

“Jussa minute.” There was a momentary silence, then a thump as the phone receiver banged against the glass. Howard must have dropped it – Steve hoped he'd be able to find it again. For a few seconds all Steve could hear was nearby traffic, then there was some fumbling and Howard was back on the line. “Forty... forty forf,” Howaaard managed. “Four four shtreet.”

“Stay where you are,” Steve ordered. “I'll come and get you.”

“Thanksh, Steve... yer a pal, man,” said Howard. “Yer a real... whatsis... a mentsh. Real gentleman. I don' desherve a frien' like you.”

“Stay right there in the phone booth,” Steve repeated. “Do you understand?”


“I'll be right there,” he promised.

As it turned out, the reason Howard couldn't find his car was because it was still parked under the SHIELD building. The keys weren't in it, but of all the things that had changed beyond recognition in the last forty years, the ignition system of an automobile was not one of them. Steve wired it up the way the double agent in Munich had shown him, and drove the length of 44th Street, looking for a phone booth with a drunken millionaire. The sun was setting and the streetlights and neon signs were coming on, and people of all sorts were spilling into the streets to take in the New York nightlife. These ranged from the rich in their furs and tuxedos, smoking outside the theatres and clubs, to the lowlifes waiting in alleys for customers, victims, and johns.

Steve found Howard in a bank of phone booths midway between 6 th and 7 th Avenue, outside a pub called Jimmy's Corner. He was leaning on the phone to keep himself upright, his eyes half-closed as if he were on the verge of falling asleep – or into a stupor. Steve was amazed he'd even been able to make the phone call.

“You're a pal, Steve,” Howard repeated, as Steve helped him out of the booth. “I never had another pal like you.”

“Uh-huh.” Steve didn't bother opening the car door. The top was down, so he just lifted Howard in. “Put your seat belt on.”

“See, tha's what I'm talkin' bout!” Howard poked Steve in the chest. “Here'sh me, lit like a candle, and yer still thinkin' bout me bein' safe!”

Steve did the belt up for him.

Howard continued to babble as Steve started the car again. It was getting dark, and Steve decided he would not take Howard back to the SHIELD building – Howard wasn't capable of working right now, but if he were in that environment he would probably try . Instead, Steve would take him home. There, Howard could sleep it off, and in the morning he could moan and groan about his hangover before going back to his task with a clear head, like Peggy had asked him to.

“Affer you... affer you went away,” Howard said, “you know I thought bout marryin' Peggy? I thought about it real hard. But then I said, nah, Peggy don't need lookin' after .” He grinned at Steve. “Now, if it'd been her got lost and froze up up there, I might had to marry you . 'Cause she always looked affer you , Shteve!” He grinned, proud of his joke.

“That's very sweet, Howard,” said Steve.

Howard was still babbling when they reached the apartment building. Steve handed the car over to the valet and dragged Howard out again. The valet himself did not make any move to help, and did not say a word. When Steve looked back over his shoulder while waiting for the elevator, he saw the man inspecting the inside of the car with a flashlight. Steve wondered if he were looking at the hotwire, or making sure Howard hadn't thrown up in the vehicle.

“I'm so shorry, Steve,” Howard said in the elevator. “I let you down, buddy. I let everybody down, sooner or later. It's what I do...” Even leaning on Steve, he swayed on his feet.

“Jarvis and Maria are gonna put you to bed,” Steve told him.

“I dishapp-appointed all of 'em,” Howard repeated. “My mother... Mami was so proud of me. Tati sold fruit to make his livin'... after he died, I had to earn the money. Mami was so proud...”

Steve gave up trying to say anything to him, and just let him ramble.

“She shaid I would change the world...” Howard mumbled. “Said I would help thousands of people... millions of 'em maybe. But I didn't. I killed 'em. She was sho proud of me... she never knew.”

The elevator doors opened. Steve dragged Howard into the hall and knocked on the door – he didn't have a key of his own, and doubted Howard could tell him which was the right one.

“Steve,” Howard tugged on his friend's shirt. “Promise me somethin', okay? Promise me you'll look after Tony. Everythin' I ever made turned outta be a bomb. I don't wanna do that to him, Shteve. Don't let Tony be like me. Promise me.”

“Okay,” said Steve, hoping to shut him up. “I promise.”

The door opened, and Jarvis looked out at them. “Oh, dear.” he said.

“Give me a hand?” asked Steve.

“Of course.” Jarvis helped him bundle Howard inside. “My goodness, he's in a state, isn't he? I don't think I've seen him like this since... since before he got married.”

“It's my fault,” Steve said. “I argued with him the other day.” Howard had fought with Peggy that morning, too – but Steve didn't think that would have happened if Steve himself hadn't brought up the Manhattan Project at the worst possible time.

“Mrs. Stark will be very grateful to you for bringing him home in one piece,” Jarvis said, ducking under Howard's arm to help keep the smaller man on his feet. “I will take it from here. Come with me, Sir. You're going to have a nice cold shower and some of Anna's lélé. Pickle juice,” he added, to Steve. “She swears by it as a remedy for drunkenness. Is there anything you need, Captain Rogers?”

“No,” Steve said, happy to let somebody else take over. “Good night, Jarvis.”

Steve spent another night sitting up late, reading. In the study he'd found some well-thumbed books on the space race and the moon landings, which he'd assumed at first must be Tony's. When he started leafing through them, however, he realized that Howard had been deeply involved wiwth the entire program. Twelve men had gone to the moon within the space of a few years, but then the public had lost interest and it seemed as if Howard had, too. Stark Industries was still a NASA contractor, but Howard himself was no longer a consultant.

Looking at a photograph of the tiny blue Earth rising over the desolate gray of the lunar desert, Steve found himself wondering whether the real reason they'd stopped going to the moon was because of the international agreement not to militarize it. Earth orbit seemed to be the new focus – a perfect place for spy satellites and space-based lasers that could shoot down incoming missiles. That was the world of the 1980's: a thing with no military use had no use at all.

A flicker of light outside caught Steve's eye, and he glanced up to see Howard, a little more sober now, standing on the balcony smoking a cigarette. He didn't look at Steve, so Steve did not get up. Instead, he leaned back against the pillows and let his book fall into his lap. He was starting to reach a decision, and that decision was that somehow, he had to get out of here.

Steve had no idea where he would go, but all he'd seen of 1986 in the weeks since he'd arrived was SHIELD, this apartment, and a nuclear accident site in the Soviet Union. It didn't matter if Peggy and Howard thought they needed him, or if he would be in danger if he left – he couldn't live like this. First he would have to get his own apartment, so he wouldn't have to sit and stew in the Stark family's tension anymore. Then he'd need a job, even if it were just driving a cab or selling coffee on a corner. Peggy and Howard had both told him he wasn't a prisoner, but he felt like one, and he didn't know how much longer he'd be able to stand it.

Something moved outside. Steve glanced over automatically – and then sat up straight and looked again, frowning. Where was Howard? He'd been right there.

When a few seconds went by and Howard did not reappear, Steve got up and pushed the sliding doors open to step out onto the terrace. There were plenty of places Howard could have gone, of course – the balcony went all the way around the top of the building, so he might just have turned a corner out of sight. Or he could have finished his smoke and gone indoors to bed. For some reason, however, Steve felt compelled to check. He walked the circuit, checking the shadows of potted trees and the various pieces of furniture, but he didn't see Howard anywhere.

“Howard!” he called out. “Howard, are you out here? Howard!”

A light came on, and the door of the master bedroom slid open as Maria stumbled outside in her nightgown. “Captain Rogers?” she asked. “What's wrong?”

“Did Howard come back inside?” Steve asked.

“I don't think so.” Maria looked around, as if expecting to see him. “Is he not out here?”

“I can't find him,” Steve said.

“I'll look indoors,” Maria told him. “You look out here.” She hurried back inside, and Steve could hear her calling for Jarvis and Tony.

Within minutes the whole household was awake, even Mrs. Jarvis, and searching. Every light in the apartment was on, and by that illumination Steve could see that Howard was definitely nowhere on the terrace. If he wasn't out here, and the others couldn't find him inside... that only left one terrible possibility.

The wail of sirens drifted up from the street below. Sirens were a near-constant background noise to the Manhattan of the 1980s, but these sounded much too close. Steve went to where he'd last seen Howard, at the railing across from the study, and with his heart in his mouth he leaned over to look down.

He couldn't make out the details at this distance, but he could see the flashing red and blue, and the headlights of other vehicles that had stopped to look.

It could be a coincidence. It could be a car accident, or a robbery, or somebody could simply have had a heart attack in the street... but the voice in Steve's head that offered those alternative possibilities was not a convincing one. In his heart, he knew.


Chapter Text

 They took the elevator down to street level. When the doors opened, Maria ran ahead, still in her nightgown, while Tony hung back, staying next to Steve as if he thought Captain America would be able to protect him from the terrible truth of the situation. Much of the time, Tony looked like a surly and unpleasant young man – but as they hurried across the lobby, his face was very much that of a frightened child.

Steve heard Maria shriek.

They stepped out the front door to find two policemen pushing people back while the paramedics brought a stretcher. Howard's body had landed on top of a taxi, caving the roof in and breaking the windshield. The taxi itself was between Steve and the body, but he could see a smear of red on the yellow paint. A policewoman had her arm around Maria as she wept, gently leading her away from the scene.

Tony went up to take his mother's arm. “Mama?” he asked softly. “Did...”

Maria threw her arms around her son and bawled on his shoulder. “È morto, mio Tonino!” she wailed. “Morto!”

While Tony rubbed Maria's back and spoke softly to her in Italian, another cop approached Steve. “Are you a member of the family, too?” he asked.

“No,” Steve replied. “I'm an old friend. I've been staying with them for a while.”

Maria dropped to her knees, pulling Tony down with her. For a moment, Steve was worried she would actually faint dead away, and was trying to remember if he'd ever seen a woman do that before. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flashbulb go off, and turned around to see a dark-haired young man in a burgundy pullover taking pictures.

Without a word or even a thought, Steve ripped the camera out of the kid's hands and crumpled it like paper.

“Hey!” the photographer protested.

“You!” Another cop rose from behind the taxi to point at him. “Get the hell out of here!”

“Who's gonna pay for my camera?” the man demanded. He tried to lunge at Steve, but the police grabbed him. “You can't do this!” he shouted. “I work for the Bugle! This is gonna be on the front page tomorrow – Police Silence Press in Death of Millionaire! Remember the name Jameson, because you're gonna be hearing it again!” he howled as they dragged him away.

One of the cops looked at Steve. “Did that man ever have a camera?” he asked, feigning innocence

“I never saw a camera,” Steve growled. Not for the first time, he wondered what kind of world this was. How had the 1980's sunk so low that people thought it was okay to photograph a grieving family without permission, mere minutes after the death of their patriarch?

He was glad the cops seemed to agree. “No camera here,” a red-haired policewoman agreed. With the toe of her shoe, she nudged the remains of it down an open manhole. Steve heard a thunk as it hit something on the way down.

Another female cop and one of the EMTs helped Maria and Tony up and escorted them over to a police van, where they could hide from watching eyes. Jarvis and his wife had now come outside to join them. Anna was holding a crocheted afghan, which she draped around Maria's shoulders as they all climbed into the vehicle.

“You said you were a friend of the family?” the red-haired cop asked.

“That's right,” Steve nodded.

“Would you mind answering some questions?” she wanted to know. The embroidery on her shirt pocket identified her as officer Murphy. “We need to talk to everybody who was there, and...” she glanced at the family and left the sentence unfinished.

Steve understood – Maria and Tony would need to calm down before they could answer any questions, and Jarvis and Anna were the best source of comfort for them. Talking to Steve first would give everybody else a chance to process what had just happened. When, or indeed whether, Steve would be able to process it himself... he didn't know.

“Sure,” he said. “I'd be glad to.”

At the police station on 67th Street, the Stark family was escorted into one room and given hot chocolate and a grief counselor, while Officer Murphy got Steve a cup of coffee and sat down with him. The little interrogation room was bare and sparsely furnished, and harshly lit by an unshaded bulb. Just being in it made Steve feel like a criminal.

“Sorry about the room,” said Murphy. “I'm afraid it's all we've got. So you're Captain America, huh?”

“I used to be,” Steve replied. When he'd said that to Tony, it had been an attempt at self-deprecating humour, at distancing himself as a person from the cartoonish icon in the poster on the boy's wall. Now he honestly wasn't sure anymore. Peggy had said that this world needed Captain America. Maybe it did, but Steve wasn't sure he was the kind of Captain America required.

“Well, this is one for the book of things I can tell my grandchildren about someday,” said Murphy. “Interrogating Captain America!” For a moment she smiled, but it didn't last very long – her face was already serious again as she placed a tape recorder in the middle of the table. “So here are the facts we have: Howard Stark fell from his apartment terrace onto the street at 1:13 this morning, and was dead when the ambulance arrived. We need to know what happened, and there are only three ways you can fall from a building: either he fell, he jumped, or somebody pushed him.”

Steve nodded slowly. He'd been avoiding thinking about the how and why of Howard's fall, but when she actually asked him... yeah. He knew how, and he knew why.

“How long have you been staying with the family?” Murphy asked.

“A couple of weeks,” said Steve. Part of him couldn't believe it had already been that long. Another part felt like it had been forever.

“Did anybody who lived there have a reason to want to kill him?”

Steve shook his head.

“Now's not the time to protect anybody,” Murphy warned him. “We need to know. Did the butler have any grievances? Was Mrs. Stark having an affair? Did anybody ever mention an insurance policy?”

“No,” said Steve. “It wasn't a happy household, but nobody in it was a murderer.”

“So you figure he either fell, or he jumped,” said Murphy.

Steve rubbed his face. Either was plausible, really – Howard had barely been able to walk when Steve brought him home, and even after a couple of hours to sober up, he probably should have stayed in bed. Deep down, however, Steve knew. “He jumped.”

“You think so?” asked Murphy, carefully neutral.

Did she think he'd killed Howard? The idea really should have bothered him – surely Steve would have felt some righteous anger, or a desire to defend himself against the accusation, yet he felt only resignation.

“When I brought him home from the bar earlier tonight,” he explained, “Howard asked me to look after his son for him. I thought he was just babbling, and he would sleep it off and be fine in the morning. I probably should have known better.” Steve closed his eyes as the pain of that admission washed over him. Howard had been upset almost since the moment Steve had awakened. How could he not have seen it? “He was... he had a lot of regrets.”

“What kind of regrets?” Murphy asked gently.

So Steve told her. He described their argument about the bombing of Japan, about the state of the world in the 1980's and Howard's role in creating it. He told her about the arguments with Peggy, both the one he'd been present for and the one he'd overheard, and how Howard kept apologizing for not finding Steve earlier. How he seemed to feel responsible for Peggy's marital problems and Steve's missed years. He told her about the lack of relationship between Howard and his son.

“I think when I showed up,” Steve said, “it just brought all these things up again when they'd been in the back of his mind for years, and he decided... he decided he just couldn't handle having me around.” Steve's presence was an unavoidable reminder of everything Howard had done wrong in the past four decades. Most likely he just couldn't bear the weight of all that guilt.

Steve had been there. He'd crashed the Valkyrie into the arctic ice because he hadn't wanted to live in a world where he was to blame for his friend falling to his death. Now they'd brought him back, just so that the same thing could happen all over again! Howard had said that everything he'd ever made had ended up killing people – and he'd always bragged that Steve was one of his greatest creations. He swallowed hard, and reached up to scrub at his eyes.

Officer Murphy turned off the tape recorder. “I have no further questions tonight, Captain Rogers,” she said. “Go home and get some sleep.”

It actually wasn't until nearly dawn when the entire family – and Steve – returned to the penthouse together. Jarvis drove with Anna next to him, and Steve and Tony sat in the back on either side of Maria, who had simply wept herself into exhaustion and was now bent over, holding her head. Tony had a hand on her back but did not speak to her, and mostly just stared out the window. Steve didn't say anything, either. What could he have said?

When they arrived, Anna took charge of getting Maria into bed. Jarvis asked Steve and Tony if they needed any help, but both refused. Tony went to his room, and Steve wandered into the study and sat down at Howard's desk. On it, in addition to an assortment of books, papers, and stationary supplies, was a crystal decanter of scotch and two glasses, and it was these that Steve sat there taring at, hands folded on the blotter in front of him. The alcohol wouldn't do him any good at all, or any bad – he'd learned that the hard way after Bucky fell. So he just looked at it, and thought about what he wished it could do.

He wished it could dumb him. He wished it could blur the edges of the word and make jokes seem funny again, so the pain of what had just happened wouldn't seem so close at hand. He wished he could have a magic potion that would, at least temporarily, make the entire goddamn world just go away. Other people got to have that. Why couldn't Steve?

He twisted the stopper in the bottle and watched the faint light from the window glint off the facets. The reason, he decided, was that people were only allowed one magic potion in their lives, and Steve had gotten his already. He'd wanted to go to war, to defend his country, prove his worth, make the world better. He'd asked for a magic potion that would give him the power to make things happen and he'd gotten it. The power to forget that things had happened – that was for other people now. Not for Captain America.

“Captain Rogers?”

Steve raised his head. Jarvis, in his dressing gown, was standing in the doorway.

“I was just about to go to bed,” he said. “It's past five. You ought to sleep as well. It's been a very long night for all of us.” His voice was thick with both exhaustion and repressed emotion. Steve remembered the tearful hug he'd watched Edwin Jarvis give to Howard Stark the day his forgery charges were dropped. Jarvis had promised to repay Howard for that someday, and had apparently spent a lifetime of service trying to do exactly that. Did he, too, feel that he'd failed his old friend?

Steve pulled the stopper halfway out of the bottle and let it drop back in with a clink. “Jarvis, do you think if I hadn't come back... would this still have happened?” he asked. “Was he... like that? Before I got here?” Steve didn't even know which answer he was hoping for. He hated the idea that he was responsible for this – but he hated the idea of Howard being that unhappy all his life, too.

“Mr. Stark has always been a trouble man.” Jarvis stepped into the room and shut the door, and pulled up a chair to sit down opposite Steve. “He has... he had a lot of guilt, both about the things he did do and the things he didn't. But even at his darkest I've never known him to be suicidal.”

“Right.” Steve lowered his head. “Not until I showed up.”

“You mistake my meaning,” said Jarvis. “I don't believe Mr. Stark killed himself. He did not jump. He fell.”

Steve dropped the stopper again, and then withdrew his hand. When he played with fragile things, he tended to break them.

Jarvis stood and gathered up the bottle and glasses. “Captain Rogers,” he said, setting them on a shelf, “Mr. Stark was so staggering drunk when you brought him home, he'd almost forgotten how to speak English. In forty years of working for him, I have only once before heard him use Yiddish and that was what he was in so much pain from a broken leg that he could hardly breathe. If he were calling me a klots and a shmendrik for force-feeding him pickle juice, he was easily drunk enough to fall off a balcony. That's what I told the police, and that is what I believe.” He closed the glass-fronted cabinet with a soft click.

Steve wanted to believe that, but deep down, he found he just couldn't. “I was thinking about leaving, he said. “Maybe I should have left sooner.”

“Whether you stay or whether you go, you are Mr. Stark's friend, and I am at your service,” said Jarvis.

“Thanks,” Steve replied quietly. He was silent for a moment, deep in thought. “I guess I'll have to go now, but not right away. I'll stay a few days more.” There was something he had to do before he left. Something Howard had asked him to.

Howard was buried two days later, in the Old Cavalry Cemetery in Queens. This seemed a little odd to Steve, being as it was a Catholic burial ground, but then Howard had never been particularly religious. Certainly, Steve couldn't remember ever seeing him in a Synagogue. Maria was Italian, so maybe the Catholic burial was in deference to her wishes or her family's. Whatever the reason, he was laid to rest there with a view of the Manhattan skyline, under a huge rectangle of black stone. It was not adorned with crosses or angels like the monuments around it, only a brief inscription:

Howard Anthony Walter Stark
1917 – 1986
Innovator, Entrepreneur, Hero

An astonishing number of people showed up for the service. Maria had been so distraught, Steve wouldn't have been surprised if she'd stayed away – but she came, wearing a veil that was long to her waist and leaning on Tony, who looked stiff and uncomfortable in his suit. She managed to remain mostly calm and collected during the service, but her eyes were shadowed, and Steve expected she would go home that evening and seek oblivion in alcohol again, just as she had last night and the night before.

Jarvis and Anna were there, of course, as were Peggy and Pearce and a crowd of other people from SHIELD. The woman Howard had been talking to the day Steve arrived came, with her husband and daughter. Steve even saw a man who might have been Mayor Koch, although he couldn't get close enough to be sure.

Looking out at the rows of gravestones, Steve wondered if Howard had ever visited the cemetery while he was alive. It didn't seem like a place he would have chosen for himself. Howard Stark had never been one to blend into a crowd, but here he was just one more headstone among thousands.

The women threw white roses into the grave, and the slab of black granite was lowered into place on top of it. Slowly, people began to disperse, moving off to talk in small groups or to go and get lunch. Tony had vanished at some point, so Steve stayed by Maria's side as people came up in ones and twos to offer her hugs and condolences.

Almost last in this grim lineup was a man in his late thirties, with salt-and-pepper hair worn a little long – perhaps to compensate for the fact that he was thinning on top. With him was a boy of about four or five. Maria hugged this man and kissed him on both cheeks, and then the man turned to introduce himself to Steve.

“So you're Steve Rogers,” he said, shaking Steve's hand. “Howard talked about you constantly. You look exactly like I pictured you. I'm Obadiah Stane – I run the Los Angeles office of Stark Industries.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Steve.

“This is my son, Ezekiel,” Stane added, and crouched a bid to talk to the boy. “Zeke,” he said, “this is Captain America.”

“The real one?” asked Zeke.

“The real one,” his father assured him.

“Hello, Zeke,” said Steve. “How are you doing?” A child that young probably didn't understand what was happening. He wouldn't know what had happened to his father's boss, or why all the grownups were dressed in black. Meeting Captain America might be the only thing he remembered about this day.

“You're really big,” Zeke observed, looking up at Steve.

Steve managed to smile. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he said. He hadn't been surprised by that since he awakened, he realized suddenly. Even after three years, every so often something had used to remind Steve how tall he was now, or how broad his shoulders were, and he would get the same sinking in his gut, the same unsettling feeling of not fitting in his own skin, as he'd had staring down at himself that day on the docks when he'd first gotten his dose of serum. That hadn't happened here yet. Were the 1980's built on a bigger scale than the 1940's? Or was it just that the world had changed so much he no longer had a reference point.

Stane straightened up again. “So,” he said. “Howard. Man, I thought he'd last forever. He went around like he was indestructible. When he walked away from that plane crash, I remember thinking he had to be made of titanium.” He shook his head. “I figured he'd be flying again inside of a month. Surprised the hell out of me when he let his license lapse.”

“I insisted,” Maria said softly. She clearly didn't want to talk about that.

“Do you need any help with the paperwork?” Stane asked her. “If the insurance refuses to pay for a suicide, I can recommend a couple of lawyers.” He reached into an inside pocket of his blazer for a business card.

“No, thank you,” said Maria, putting out a hand to stop him. “I can't possibly think about lawyers or money right now.”

“The sooner the better!” Stane protested. “I wouldn't want anybody to take advantage of you.” He put a supportive hand on Maria's shoulder. “Howard would want to know that you and Tony are being taken care of.”

“I know, and thank you,” Maria said. “Howard and I both appreciate everything you do for us, but I... not today, Mr. Stane.” Her voice, so far quiet and restrained, was on the verge of breaking.

“If you need me...” he began.

“I know where to find you,” said Maria, nodding. “Thank you.”

Once most of the people had gone, Steve stood among the tombstones and stared across the river at the city. The sky was overcast that day, and the wind off the ocean was cold. What he kept thinking about, however, was paperwork. When people did anything, it produced paperwork – even when they died. The death of Howard Stark had probably produced more than most. When doctors tried to prolong human life, did they do it because it was the humane thing, or just because people dying was a pain in the ass?

Steve hadn't wanted to see any more death. The war had been almost over – he'd been ready for it to be over. HYDRA would be defeated and the Japanese would surrender and everybody could go home. Steve and Peggy would get married and buy a farm and live happily ever after in their own personal fairy tale... but then Bucky had fallen, and all that had been snatched away. How could Steve and Peggy get their happy ending when Bucky would not? It had seemed so much easier to just crash the damn plane.

But it hadn't worked, and here he was. The war was over and yet it was still going on, and Steve had just watched another person he'd loved – or had used to love – fall to his death while he could do nothing about it. It was like waking from a nightmare only to discover that waking had been part of the dream, and the worst was yet to come.

“Steve,” said Peggy.

He opened his eyes. She was standing in front of him, her black coat held close around her against the day's chilly wind. Next to her was Fury, whom Steve hadn't recognize from a distance. Fury's most distinguishing feature had always been his tall and geometric hairstyle. Today, surprisingly, he had no hair at all.

“Yes?” Steve asked.

Peggy licked her lips. “I know this isn't a good time,” she said, “but... did Howard say anything to you before he fell?”

“He told me to look after Tony,” Steve replied, emotionless.

She nodded. “That's... not really what I meant. Did he say anything about the tapes?”

“Not a word,” said Steve. “It wasn't exactly on his mind.”

“Bugger,” Peggy said, but she was resigned rather than angry. “Our people abroad have completed searches of all the pinpointed areas we can access. There's no sign of anything in any of them, and no trace that anyone was there ahead of us. Either Howard was wrong, or our enemies are good at covering their tracks.”

Steve lowered his head again. This was so depressingly familiar: people died, but tehre was no time to grieve, because they had a war to fight. The fact that it was now, as Peggy had said, a war of secrets rather than a war of bombs and guns made no difference. It was still a looming, impersonal machine of destruction that rolled across the landscape without stopping for emotion, for unpredictability, for people. People got lost and crushed in the cogs, while the whole contraption lumbered on over top of them.

“I don't know what we're going to do now,” Peggy said.

“You'll figure it out,” Steve told her. “You're good at that.” She'd always been better at planning than he was. Steve tended to just charge into things like a moose without stopping to think about them. Peggy was the one who preferred to prepare for what was behind a door before she bashed it down. “I... there's something I have to do,” he said.

“What's that?” asked Peggy.

Steve straightened up. “I have to honour Howard's last request.”

Maria Stark was still talking with some friends just outside the cemetery chapel. Tony was sitting alone on the curb, just around the corner. When Steve found him, he was pulling at the grass, twisting the new spring blades around his fingers and ripping them out of the earth. Steve sat down beside him, and he quickly stopped, moving his hands to his lap to hide the green stains.

“How are you holding up?” asked Steve.

Tony hung his head. “They're gonna start talking about it again,” he said.

“About what?”

“About whether he was really my father,” Tony replied miserably. He leaned forward, hugging his knees to his chest. “It shows up in the tabloids every so often... who is Anthony Stark's real father? Some of them think it's Obi.”

Steve swallowed. At a time like this, people would speculate about that? Then again, in a world where reporters tried to take pictures of grieving families, anything was probably possible. “Howard Stark was your father,” he said to Tony.

“I don't look like him,” Tony observed.

“You look exactly like him, like he looked before he messed up his face,” Steve said. “And only Howard Stark's kid would be building parts for a space shuttle when he was fifteen. Howard never doubted for a moment that you were his flesh and blood.” Howard had probably doubted a lot of things, but Steve was sure he'd never doubted that.

There was a long, quiet moment. Buds were beginning to turn into leaves, but there was not yet enough foliage for a soothing rustle. Instead, there was only the uncomfortable whistle of the air moving around the chapel spires.

“I thought maybe that was why he hated me so much,” said Tony.

“He didn't hate you,” Steve said immediately. “I've met men who hated their children. Howard Stark wasn't one of them.” For a moment he wasn't sure whether he ought to tell Tony what his father had thought of him, but he supposed he might as well. Nobody else was going to. “Howard was afraid of you.”

Afraid of me?” Tony asked, disbelieving.

“He told me everything he ever built became a bomb,” Steve said. “He didn't want you to grow up to be like him.”

Tony blinked, staring in puzzlement as if this idea had never occurred to him before. This boy could figure out how spaceships worked, but not his own father.

“What did he want, then?” Tony asked.

“I figure he probably wanted you to be you,” said Steve. “The world doesn't need another Howard Stark. It needs a Tony, and only you...”

“Oh, shut up!” Tony interrupted. He turned away and hunched over, hugging his knees to his chest.

Steve realized that what he'd been about to say was stupidly corny, so he did. The two of them sat there for a second slow, quiet moment, each miserable in his own way. If Steve told Tony that Howard had wanted Steve to look after him, Tony would say he didn't need looking after. Steve knew that, because he could remember another sixteen-year-old kid who'd just lost his father and had insisted he was old enough to deal with it alone.

“Do you still want to go see the space shuttle take off?” Steve asked.

Tony sat up and looked at him cautiously. “Well, yeah,” he said, studying Steve's face as if looking for the evidence that it was a trick.

“The president gave me tickets,” said Steve. It was the day after tomorrow, but nowadays civilians could travel in jet aircraft, so time was not a problem. “I'll take you.” Howard would definitely have wanted him to do that much, at least.

“I thought you weren't allowed out,” said Tony.

“I'll have a word with Madame Director,” Steve promised. “Do you want to go?”

“Yeah,” said Tony, swallowing tears as he nodded. “Yeah, thanks.”

While Howard Stark's funeral was being held in New York, a much smaller one was going on in a little parish church in Ohio. The acne-faced teenage boy in the front row of pews kept his head down, trying not to listen as his father gave an impassioned speech to the congregation, saying how much he would miss his beloved wife. The boy wanted to jump to his feet, wanted to call the man a liar right there in the sight of God and all the neighbours – but he didn't dare. Instead, he sat there, fists clenched and teeth set, simmering with rage like a pot with a tight-fitting lid.

People were always telling him that it wasn't healthy to bottle things up. But oh, if they only knew what was inside him.

Chapter Text

Steve arrived at Peggy's office the morning after the funeral just as Agent Fury was leaving it. Steve nodded, expecting to simply pass the agent by, but Fury caught his arm on the way.

“Hey, Captain Rogers?” he asked. “I've been wondering. Have you been, uh, feeling okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” Steve replied, puzzled. He was about to ask why Fury wanted to know, but then he remembered – Fury had been with him in the radioactive environment of Dvenadstat. “How about you?”

Fury reached up to rub his newly shaved head. “I've been all right. I was a little sick for the first day or so, but that's passed now. It's just... my hair started falling out.”

Steve self-consciously ran a hand through his own hair. A few strands came away, but no more than might be considered normal. “I haven't noticed any hair loss,” he said, “but then, I didn't get sick, either. Did you ask the medics about it?”

“Yeah,” said Fury. “They said it's a symptom of radiation exposure and if it grows back, it grows back.” He rubbed at his scalp again. “Have you seen Agent Fletcher at all?”

“Not since the day after Dvenadstat,” said Steve. “Peggy says she's on psych leave.” He thought back to their brief conversation over her bowl of borscht. He'd had a lot on his mind at the time, and hadn't bothered to look at her hair – there'd been no reason to think it was important. “She didn't mention any physical problems, but I don't know what's happened since.” Steve might be immune to the radiation because of the serum, but there was no reason why Fletcher would be. Unless... “we didn't go into the power plant itself,” Steve remembered. “You did.”

Fury grimaced. “Yeah, that makes sense,” he sighed. “If you're looking for Madame Director, by the way, she's not in there. I think she's downstairs in Stark's workroom. Stark's old workroom,” he added, as if having to remind himself that Howard wasn't there anymore.

Steve winced, but said nothing about the slip. “Okay, thanks,” he said. “See you around.”

“I'm not going anywhere,” Fury promised him. “At least, not on purpose.”

Peggy was indeed in Howard's old workroom, along with a dozen other people who were poring over the maps and notes he'd left behind, trying to figure out what he'd missed in the message of the tapes. From what Steve could tell, which wasn't much, they were trying out different coordinate systems again: Berlin, New York, and one young woman with enormous plastic-rimmed glasses was earnestly arguing that the poles were just as good place to measure north and south from as was the equator.

“Oh, Steve,” Peggy said – he noticed that she did not say good morning. “How are Maria and Tony?”

“They're fine,” Steve said. It was a lie, of course, and Peggy would be able to tell it was a lie, but that didn't matter. The question, and its answer, were nothing but social niceties. The reality was that Maria had been in the kitchen when Steve left, with a bottle of wine already open, while Tony packed his things with the television in his bedroom turned up as loud as it would go, as if to drown out a silence that was more than physical. There was no room in SHIELD's world for them and their emotional difficulties. The war went on. “How about you?” he asked, looking around the room. “Any luck?”

“We don't know yet,” Peggy admitted. “Unless we can narrow down the possibilities somehow, we're still no closer than just knowing these objects are somewhere on Earth.”

Steve nodded. Decoding the tapes had been the last thing Peggy ever asked of Howard – now she felt like she had to finish the job for him, as well as for the sake of world security. Just as Steve felt he had to honour Howard's last request in whatever way he could. “That's better than somewhere in space,” he offered, but it was less an attempt at comfort than it was an excuse to segue into what he'd come here to tell her. “Speaking of space, I'm leaving town for a couple of days. I'm taking Tony to Florida to see the space shuttle.”

This statement was as much a challenge as it was information. Peggy wouldn't want him to go, or at least, would insist on having somebody go with him, and Steve wanted her to know that he wouldn't allow it. If he really wasn't her prisoner, then he could go where he wanted and do as he pleased without supervision. If the war were really over, then he was no longer a soldier and didn't have to follow orders. Not even Peggy's.

She looked startled, then confused. “Now?” she asked. “I mean... right after what happened?”

“Howard was supposed to take him,” Steve explained. “The president gave me tickets and said I could bring a friend, so I figured I might as well.” Howard must have had tickets of his own, but Steve didn't know where he would have kept them Or maybe he hadn't had them – maybe he'd been planning to just drive up and say I'm Howard Stark, let me in. It had worked for him before.

Maybe he'd never intended to go at all.

“Oh!” said Peggy. “Yes, then. Yes, that's a fine idea. I'll have Diane arrange for your flight.”

“We've already arranged one,” Steve said firmly. “We're boarding Howard's private plane in LaGuardia at noon.” He'd purposefully cut this visit as close as possible, so that Peggy wouldn't have time to intervene. “I can take care of Tony and myself. We don't need your protection.” Maria needed looking after right now, but she had Jarvis and Anna, and Stane was going to be in town for a few more days. Steve could manage for himself and for Tony.

“We can probably do something a little more discreet...” Peggy began.

“No, Peggy,” said Steve. “I punched Adolf Hitler over a hundred times. I think I can keep one teenage boy safe for a weekend.”

Peggy sighed. “All right, but I'd better not be hearing tomorrow that you somehow ended up being on the shuttle when it took off!”

Steve understood – the joke was her telling him she trusted him. “Hey, you know me,” he said with a smile.

“Oh, yes, I do,” Peggy agreed dryly. “Very well, at least wear a parachute before you jump from low earth orbit.”

“Parachute won't do me any good in orbit. There's no air,” Steve pointed out.

“Well, when you've burn up on re-entry, don't come crying to me!” Peggy said.

It almost worked. For a moment they were almost back in 1944 in their uniforms as he boarded a plane and she stayed behind in operations, but this time the image wasn't quite as clear or consuming, and the familiar emotions were frayed at the edges. The past was still there, the memories still fresh and vivid, but they were further away than they'd been. Forty years were finally starting to catch up with him.

Steve kept his eyes open during the drive to the airport, right up until they boarded the plane. He couldn't see anybody obviously following them, but he remembered how Agent Troy had managed to tail him to the library, and how he'd melted invisibly into the crowd at the museum, and remained wary.

Troy had been good at vanishing into crowds, he thought. One of the crowds he'd vanished into was SHIELD, and nobody had ever noticed.

The flight crew on the private jet all got a second and third look-over to make sure they weren't babysitters Peggy had somehow managed to sneak on board. They all seemed to be okay, and Tony greeted them by name, which at least meant none of them were last-minute additions to the crew. One flight attendant, a redhead named Tiffany who didn't look much older than Tony himself, he actually flirted with a little as he settled down.

“You guys must do a lot of flying,” Steve observed as he did up his seatbelt. Howard's plane had big leather seats, almost like armchairs, that could not have been more different from the bare metal benches in the troop aircraft Steve was used to flying it. He wondered whether Howard had ever flown this plane himself, or whether it post-dated his accident.

“Yeah, Mom and Dad go... they used to go a lot of places,” Tony said.

Again, Steve ignored the slip. “So you've been all over the world,” Steve said. That must be wonderful – Steve had always been fascinated by travel, and he'd hoped that once the war was over he could visit a few places without being there to blow something up. He'd wanted to see the Louvre, to visit London and the ruins in Rome. He could have sat and sketched the artwork and the buildings all day, as well as the endless variety of people who came to see them.

“Not really,” said Tony with a shrug. “They do most of their traveling while I'm at school.”

Of course they did, Steve thought. As Maria had said – the Stark family loved one another, but had no idea how to show it. “You'll get your turn,” he promised. “Maybe you'll even go to space someday.” Steve was too tall to be an astronaut, but Tony wasn't.

“Maybe.” Tony cheered up a little. “Mom would probably have a fit. If she wouldn't let Dad fly planes anymore, there's no way she'd let me go into space.”

“Do it anyway,” Steve suggested. “That was always my approach whenever Madame Director told me not to do something.”

Tony grinned. “Wow – I didn't think even the president said no to Madame Director!”

“As far as I know, the president never did,” said Steve. Peggy had met Roosevelt once – as far as Steve remembered, the man had been unable to meet her gaze for long. Peggy Carter was a formidable personality, and better men than Franklin Roosevelt had found themselves unequal to the challenge she presented.

The plane roared into the air, not as smooth or quiet as the SHIELD jet that had taken him to Dvenadstat but still much more easily than the ones Steve had flown on during the war, which had always felt as if they were moments from crashing in a fireball at the end of the runway. As he watched land and water shrink away below him, Steve realized this was the first time in his life he'd ever been on a plane that wasn't taking him into a war zone. He wasn't going to have to jump out of this aircraft, or go anywhere dangerous when they landed. He was simply getting from point a to point b. There was no briefing to read, no planning to do. Tony had even brought a magazine.

At least, at first glance it looked like a magazine. It was a fat white paperback volume with three holes through it so it could be placed in a binder, and a triangular logo on the front showing a space shuttle surrounded by the Northern Lights, with seven names in the border. Steve recognized a couple of them – the president had mentioned an astronaut named Shipley, and he thought he'd heard the name Van Cleef on the news. Stamped below the logo was a big black identification number.

“What are you reading?” Steve asked.

“Mission manifest.” Tony held it up. “It's about all the stuff Odyssey is gonna try to get done in space. They're gonna spend the first couple of days running tests of the StarkArm.” The list of these was a couple of pages long. “I wrote them a letter that they could cut most of these in half because I found a way to test a miniature version of the system in the neutral buoyancy chamber – that's the pool where the astronauts train – but they weren't interested. Gotta try it with the real thing, no matter if it's a waste of time.”

“I'm sure they have their reasons,” said Steve, smiling. That was Howard talking there, the complete faith in his own technology to work right the first time and every time after that. In Howard's case, that self-confidence had not always been justified – Steve could think of a few occasions when his work had blown up in his own face or in somebody else's. A robot arm, however, seemed like something a Stark ought to be able to do just fine. He knew better by now than to start comparing Tony to his father, though, so instead he asked, “what else are they planning to do?”

“They're gonna try to set an altitude record, to study the Van Allen radiation belts,” said Tony. “The highest a space shuttle has ever flown is about five hundred kilometers. If they go to seven, they'll scrape the bottom of the radiation belt and be able to sample the ionized particles trapped in it. It's very dangerous,” he added, “because of the radiation levels, so they won't stay there very long, but there's actually no problem in making the shuttle fly that high. It doesn't depend on the atmosphere for lift the way a plane does, so it can pretty much go wherever it wants. There's an article I read about patterns of energy in the radiation belts that look a lot like the firing of neurons in the brain.”

Tony was leaning forward in his seat now, talking in the same earnest, animated way as he had when showing Steve his model shuttle the night they'd had burritos for dinner. “See, that's the thing about alien life,” he went on. “It's probably not gonna look like us. It does on Star Trek because they have to be able to put an actor in the costume, but in the real world extraterrestrials will have a totally different origin and a totally different evolutionary path. There could be intelligent thoughts going on in the Earth's magnetosphere, or creatures based on nuclear reactions that live inside the sun, or all sorts of wild possibilities that we can't even imagine! There's this book called Solaris by a Russian writer, that's all about a planet covered in a living, intelligent ocean...”

Steve had lost track by now of what Tony was talking about, but he was glad to see the smile on the young man's face. So he just sat there nodding and trying to look like he understood as Tony talked about things like SETI and science fiction and something called the wow signal, until suddenly Tony cut himself off in mid-sentence.

“Sorry,” he said. “I'm probably boring you.” He leaned back in his seat again.

“No, no, it's fine,” said Steve. “You obviously know way more about this than I do... I've been gone for forty years, remember? I need to catch up on this stuff. Are they doing anything else on this mission?” He wanted Tony to keep talking. He wanted the kid to feel like he was allowed to talk about what he loved.

Tony flipped through the flight plan. “They're also gonna try to get some pictures of Mir. That's the new Russian space station – they launched it earlier this year. Everybody's paranoid about it being an orbital weapons platform or something.” He sounded like he found this very doubtful.

“You don't think so?” Steve asked.

“Even if it is, they only just got it up there,” Tony said with a shrug. “They haven't had time to weaponize it yet. They're probably still just making sure it works properly. Space people like to check everything five times, remember?”

“Right,” said Steve. “You know, I used to watch movies about space travel when I was young... it seems like the real thing is way more complicated than they made it look.”

“Oh, it is,” Tony agreed, and held out the mission plan. “Space is dangerous – if you get one hole in the side of your ship, everybody dies. Look at the list of things they've got to double-check before they even take off.”

Steve managed to keep Tony talking for most of the four-hour flight to Florida. He chattered about the various phases of a shuttle flight, about the tests they were going to do on the robotic arm, and about his favourite movies and books. It was very much like hearing Howard talk about airplanes, in that Steve understood very little of it but could hear the honest love behind the technical jargon. Howard had loved planes and automobiles and all the little moving parts that made machines go. Tony loved space and computers and robotics in exactly the same way.

Howard had said he didn't want Tony to turn out like him, but Tony was very much like the brilliant, optimistic young man Steve remembered his friend as being, the one who'd been so sure progress would make miracles. And that was all right, he thought, because the guy Howard didn't want his son to be was the one who'd jumped from the terrace balcony: the bitter, regretful, drunk old man who'd seen progress become an unstoppable war machine. Tony was only fifteen. He had decades ahead of him to not become his father, and Steve thought he was making a pretty good start.

They landed at the Meritt Island Airport around five in the evening, and found a white car there to meet them with two men: the first one to come greet them was a beefy, balding man in his sixties, wearing a stetson hat and a bushy mustache. He looked more like a cowboy than like anyone associated with the space program, but he had the red NASA logo embroidered on his shirt, and he hurried up and gave Steve a warm, hearty handshake.

“Captain America!” he said, delighted. “The president told me you'd be coming, but I wasn't sure you'd make it what with everything going on. I couldn't be more thrilled than I was to get Madame Director's phone call this morning!”

“It was kind of a last-minute decision,” Steve admitted. “I didn't know if I were gonna make it until yesterday.”

“I'm glad you did,” said the cowboy. “Gary Williams. I'm the Administrator at NASA.”

So Peggy had called this man to tell him Steve and Tony would be coming... had she also asked him to keep an eye on them? “Nice to meet you,” said Steve, accepting the handshake. “Steve Rogers, and this is Tony Stark.”

Williams glanced at Tony. “Sorry for your loss,” he said, and turned to introduce his companion. “This, of course, is Jay-Jay Shipley, mission commander of Odyssey. He wanted to meet you, as well.”

“Captain America,” said Shipley, also shaking Steve's hand. Shipley was shorter than Steve, and in his early fifties. His hair was steel-gray and his brown eyes were surrounded by crows feet, but he was in good physical shape and looked very much the handsome, square-jawed American hero that astronaut ought to be. “And Mr. Stark, I was sorry to hear about your Dad,” he said, moving on to Tony. “Your Dad was an acquaintance of mine – I used to look up to him when I started at NASA, back in the early 70's. We fell out of touch after he had his accident, but he was a big inspiration to me. He'll be missed. It's great to see you following in his footsteps.”

Steve knew this was the wrong thing to say to Tony, but Shipley did not, and Tony was polite enough not to get visibly upset about it. Instead, the young man forced a smile as he took Shipley's hand. “Thanks,” he said. “I've, uh, got this mission plan...” he offered it. “I was wondering if you'd sign it for me.”

“I'd be happy to.” Shipley got out a pen and signed his name next to where it appeared on the border of the mission logo.

“Where are the other astronauts?” asked Steve. He figured Tony would probably want autographs from all seven.

“They're busy getting final physicals,” Shipley said. “I'm supposed to be, as well, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to meet you two. Captain America and the whiz kid who designed the StarkArm!” He handed the mission plan back to Tony with a grin. “I'll let them know you guys wanted to meet them, and maybe we can arrange something after the mission, okay?” He put a friendly hand on Tony's shoulder.

“Thanks,” said Tony, though he was clearly putting every ounce of willpower he possessed into not shrugging away the touch. “That'd be great.”

“Do you two need a place to stay tonight?” asked Williams. “Because NASA would be happy to put you up. There's some lovely hotels down by the beach...”

“No thanks,” said Steve. “We've made our own arrangements.” Tony had found them a double room at a motel on the edge of town, and had seemed very excited by it. All of his previous trips away from home had been with his parents, who always stayed in the best resorts and ate in five-star restaurants. With that as his upbringing, the idea of spending a night in a Motel 6 across the street from a Waffle House seemed like an adventure. Besides, if Peggy had asked Williams to watch over them, any hotel NASA put them in would probably be full of SHIELD agents.

“At least let us give you a ride, then,” said Williams. “I'd hate to think we left Captain America to his own devices in the wilds of Florida!”

Steve laughed. “Sure,” he said. “We'll get our luggage.” He didn't even like the idea of a ride, really – it would give them an address they could spy on. Refusing would be rude, though, and taxis were expensive. The only people Steve really wanted to inconvenience right now were SHIELD, and he'd done some of that already.

Williams and Shipley dropped them off at their motel, and Williams promised to see them the next day. “I've gotta get Jay-Jay back to the cape to get his vitals checked, but I'll be there for launch,” he promised. “I'll look for you in the stands.”

“You won't have any trouble seeing where I am,” Shipley promised with a grin.

“Thanks,” said Steve. “I'm sure it'll be a hell of a show.”

“No better show on earth or off of it!” Williams promised him.

The two travelers didn't have a lot of things, only what was in Tony's backpack and a gym bag he'd loaned to Steve. As they carried those into their hotel room, Steve happened to notice a boy a few years older than Tony, staring at them through the window of the room across the way. He didn't seem to realize they'd noticed him, and continued to watch until his girlfriend dragged him away and pulled the curtain shut.

Steve and Tony had very greasy fried chicken for dinner, and afterward Tony found a shop that rented video tapes and got a copy of what he said was one of his favourite movies. It turned out to be a horror film, about an unpleasant-looking skeletal creature that burst out of an astronaut's chest and then stalked the dead man's crewmates all over their ship, killing them one by one. Steve wasn't sure he would have said he liked the movie but he was thoroughly entranced by it, especially by the industrial look of the spaceship sets. Spacecraft in the old movies he remembered had always been sleek silver rockets, but this one looked more like a factory, all steam and pipes and bits that stuck out at odd angles. It was as different from the fictional rockets as it was from the airplane-like space shuttle.

The 1940s had pictured a future that was streamlined and beautiful, with all the messy things that made stuff work hidden beneath clean white walls – and space as a frontier, a place people could explore and have adventures in. If this movie were any guide, the 1980s saw the future as bigger and more efficient but just as ugly and functional as the present, and space as a place of infinite danger, with man-eating monsters in every shadow. Was this an aberration, or was this just how people had come to think? In a world that had been on the brink of nuclear war for the past four decades, maybe this kind of pessimism was simply inevitable.

In the morning they had breakfast at the waffle place, and then a taxi took them to the launch viewing site at Kennedy Space Center. Steve had been picturing it as being right up at the base of the launch pad, but in fact the metal bleachers where the guests sat were nearly three miles away, across a body of water. The shuttle itself was visible in bright orange and white above a row of trees, next to a water tower almost as tall as the shuttle itself. On the near side of the water, a giant digital clock counted down the time until liftoff. Steve and Tony joined the assortment of contractors, politicians, and astronauts' families who'd come to watch, as well as a few apparently random people who'd either been invited or managed to buy their way in.

It was two of the latter who came to sit behind Steve and Tony – a couple in their late teens or early twenties. The girl was Asian, wearing a bright pink off-the-shoulder sweater and matching chucks. Her hair was in a spiral perm, with a big bow in it. This was also pink, as was her eyeshadow. Her boyfriend had sandy brown hair and was wearing enormous glasses and a green and white jacket, and at his second glance Steve realized it was the kid from the hotel room next door, the one who'd been staring at him.

These two young people whispered to each other for a few moments, and then the boy leaned forward and tapped Steve's shoulder.

“Uh, hey,” he said. “I just wondered. Are you, uh...” he looked around furtively, then dropped his voice to a whisper. “Are you Captain America?”

Steve thought about lying, but decided against it. “Yeah,” he said. “That's me.”

The girl grabbed the boy's arm, and the boy grinned. “Oh, man!” he exclaimed, and then clapped a hand over his mouth and went back to whispering. “Oh, man! It's... it's an honour, Sir! Captain. Mr. Rogers?”

Tony snickered.

“'Steve' is fine,” said Steve.

Steve!” The boy made a noise that was almost a giggle. “My name is Phil. People call me Cheese. This is Mel,” he added, with an arm around his companion.

The sound she made was definitely a giggle. “Hi!” she said, wiggling her fingers in a wave.

“Listen,” Cheese added, “I've got this set of trading cards. I don't have all of them, there's a few I just can't find and I swear, I have searched every comic shop in the state. But the ones I've got, do you think you could autograph them for me? They're right here.” He dug into an inside pocket of his jacket, and pulled out a plastic-wrapped package.

“You brought them with you?” asked Mel.

“They're good luck!” Cheese told her.

“You are so embarrassing!” Mel told him, giving him a shove.

“Here!” Cheese passed the cards forward, but before Steve could take them, a sudden murmur of excited conversation brought everybody's attention to a limousine pulling up. A security guard opened the door, and out stepped President Reagan, his wife, and a woman with curly dark hair to her shoulders, wearing a blue air force dress uniform. Steve thought she looked familiar, but couldn't think where he'd seen her.

Williams pulled up behind this trio in his own car, and got out to escort them to the stands. The president happened to catch Steve's eye, and held up a hand in greeting. Steve waved back, and the group came to sit down with him and Tony.

“Captain Rogers, glad you could make it,” said Reagan, seating himself next to Steve. Mrs. Reagan sat by her husband, and the woman in blue took the seat on the other side of Tony. “And young Mr. Stark. My condolences on your loss.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” said Tony formally.

“This is our other guest of honour today,” the president added, gesturing to the woman who'd sat next to Tony. “Major Indira Bhavana. She'll be piloting Intrepid when it goes up in two weeks.”

The name made Steve remember where he'd seen her before. She'd been the woman on the news program in Tony's room the night Steve arrived, fending off reporters who wanted to ask about her being cut from the crew of Odyssey. Inviting her here was probably intended as consolation, but judging from her stiff posture, she was taking it more as insult on top of injury.

“Major Bhavana,” he said.

“Captain Rogers,” she nodded, but like Shipley yesterday afternoon, she looked much more interested in Tony. “And Mr. Stark. You designed the new StarkArm, right?”

“Yes, I did,” said Tony proudly.

“He tweaked it,” Steve corrected. “So says his mother, anyway.”

“I was sorry to hear about your father, Mr. Stark,” Major Bhavana said.

Tony's face fell. “Thanks,” he repeated, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. The poor kid looked like he never wanted to hear the word 'sorry' again, Steve thought. After the past few days of hearing little else, he must be well and truly sick of everybody's condolences.

Fortunately for Tony, timing intervened. Ladies and gentlemen, a voice came over the loudspeaker. The time is now t minus two minutes.

“Two minutes until launch!” Tony said, sitting up straight. The crowd around them quieted at once. It was time for the show.


Chapter Text

With the countdown beginning, the murmur of conversation in the crowd died away and people settled into their seats. Some had brought binoculars, which had not occurred to Steve. Tony didn't appear to have thought of it, either, but nor did he seem to mind. He leaned forward, eyes fixed on the towering structure across the water.

“I saw the cockpit mockup at the museum,” Steve remarked. “I figured it would take off like an airplane. I didn't realize they launched it tipped back like that. Everybody must be lying on their backs in their seats.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tony agreed, although he didn't take his eyes off the shuttle. “They don't get to sit up until landing, because in space there isn't any up or down. They train astronauts to work in zero gravity in a big water tank, or in a special plane that flies a parabolic arc.” He showed the path with his hands. “There's a few seconds when everything inside is in free fall – according to Einstein's theory of special relativity, gravity and acceleration are the same thing, so if you're falling you feel weightless. The astronauts call it the Vomit Comet because most people get sick their first time up.”

“Have you ever been on it?” asked Steve. It sounded like something Tony might do for fun. Actually, it sounded like something Bucky would have wanted to do for fun – Bucky had always enjoyed all the wildest rides at Coney Island.

“Not yet,” Tony replied. “Dad said th... I mean.” He swallowed. “Someday.”

One minute, thirty seconds until launch! said the voice on the PA.

“You see how the shuttle's attached to the tank and boosters?” asked Tony, pointing. “The big orange one is the fuel tank, and the other two are boosters. Those don't go into space, they get dropped ten seconds after main engine shutdown and fall into the ocean.”

Although Tony was still talking, most other people were just sitting, squirming a bit in excitement as they gazed across the water. Nobody wanted to miss the big moment. Steve himself was torn – part of him wanted to look at Tony so the boy would know he was paying attention, but another part knew the launch itself would be over in seconds, and he might never get to experience another.

Sound suppression water system is ready for release, the announcer added. Confirmation that we now have three main engines ready for ignition.

“That's why there's a water tower next to the launch pad,” said Tony. Steve glanced at his face, and found him smiling again, so eager to share what he knew about this complicated topic that he just couldn't stop talking. “It's for noise, not for cooling. A space shuttle launch is so loud, if they didn't douse the pad in water they could actually damage it. The water brings it down to about a hundred and forty decibels, which is still like hearing a plane take off from thirty yards away but it won't break things.”

Steve had no intuitive sense of how loud a decibel was, but a hundred and forty of them did sound like a lot. No wonder the audience had to be miles away.

One minute until launch. Space shuttle now on internal power.

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve noticed that Cheese and Mel were holding hands. Even the president was sitting up straight to watch, with an arm around his wife. Major Bhavana was straight-backed and silent, her face wistful. Steve wondered what this was like for the crew of the shuttle itself. Yesterday they'd met Shipley, and today he was sitting in that vehicle, about to be shot into space. Maybe he would be willing to tell Tony about it when he got back.

Twenty seconds. Firing chain is armed. Sound suppression water system activated.

A faint vibration began in the metal bench Steve was sitting on. Even Tony had fallen silent now and leaned forward, his hands between his knees and his eyes fixed on the distant shuttle.

T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five...

On 'five' there was a tremendous roar. The vibration in the bleachers intensified, and people made hushed sounds as white smoke billowed up from behind the trees.

Four, three, two, one, zero!

The smoke changed from white to dark gray, and the crane holding the orange fuel tank in place swung aside. The roar of rocket engines got louder until it was almost unbearable, booming in Steve's ears and rattling his teeth in his jaw. Then, ever so slowly, the shuttle with its tank and boosters began to rise into the air.

And liftoff of the space shuttle Odyssey! the announcer declared as the vehicle, belching fire and smoke from the two booster rockets, cleared the top of the launch assembly.

Tony whooped for joy and jumped to his feet. Other people also rose, bursting into applause, and Steve joined them with a grin on his face. He'd needed this, he realized – since he'd awoken, Steve had heard about nothing but all the horrible things people had been doing to each other for the past forty years. He'd needed to know that they'd also made progress, that they could do things that were not horrible, but amazing.

Slowly the roar died away, and the shuttle shrank to a fiery point before vanishing into the blue sky, leaving only the column of white smoke to show where it had passed. Tony sat down again, beaming like a messy-haired little sun.

“What did you think?” he asked Steve eagerly.

“It was really something,” Steve replied. “I'm glad we came.
“Yeah.” Tony gave a sigh, although whether it was of happiness or relief Steve wasn't sure, and looked up at the contrail drifting across the blue sky. “Me, too.”

Behind Steve, there was the sound of somebody clearing their throat. He turned in his seat, and found Cheese smiling hopefully at him.

“So... my cards?” the boy asked hopefully.

While Steve autographed Cheese's trading cards – one by one – the rest of the crowd began to disperse. The president took a moment to thank Steve for coming, while Tony chatted happily with Major Bhavana, who also signed his mission plan for him. Gary Williams ambled over to say hello as well – today he was wearing a white suit with a matching stetson and a bolo tie. He looked like an oil tycoon, or like the man in the Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials Steve had seen on tv, so it was somewhat surprising when Nancy Reagan greeted him as 'doctor'.

“Dr. Williams,” she said, smiling.

“Mrs. Reagan,” he replied, with a nod.

“Gary.” The president shook the man's hand. “Hell of a show.”

“Thank you, Ron,” Williams said, but he was much more interested in talking to Steve. “How about you, Captain? Did you enjoy the show?”

“Very much,” Steve said, finally handing the cards back to Cheese and shaking out his cramping wrist. “Do you guys take passengers, by any chance?” It was a joke, of course – he could only imagine how Peggy would react if he told her that he hadn't made it onto Odyssey, but would be going into space regardless.

“We've got some ideas in the pipeline,” Williams told him, chuckling. “Are you volunteering, Captain?”

“If you'll have me,” Steve said. “I'm told I'm too tall.”

“For Captain America, I'm sure we could work something out,” said Williams. “How would you and young Mr. Stark like to swing by Headquarters before you go? I'd be happy to give you a tour,” he offered. “In fact, we've already got Intrepid being put together in the Vehicle Assembly Building. I'd love to show you around in there, too.”

Steve's first thought was that this was a great idea. Tony would love it, and that was why Steve had made this trip, after all – to honour Howard's request that he take care of the boy in ways Howard himself had been unable or unwilling to do.

But then a voice behind him said, “a tour?” and he looked over his shoulder to see Cheese and Mel still hanging around, apparently enthralled by the conversation. Williams had clearly meant the offer for Steve and Tony alone, but if they went and these young people were unable to, they'd be disappointed, and Steve didn't want to leave Williams feeling forced to let them in.

“Some other time,” Steve said. “I don't think this will be my last visit to Florida.”

“All right.” Williams nodded, although his voice betrayed his disappointment. “Odyssey will be back in two weeks and Intrepid goes up two days later, so you're welcome to come back then.”

“I'll keep that in mind. I don't know what my schedule is going to be like.” Steve had gotten away with running off this time, but he didn't doubt Peggy would have more work for him. In fact, despite his dislike of being babysat, Steve hoped SHIELD would have more for him to do. He wanted to be involved in whatever ended up happening when they finally figured out the tapes. Steve had fought a war over the tesseract; he didn't want to see a second one over any of its cousins.

He glanced at Tony to see if the boy had heard any of that conversation, but Tony was still busy talking to Major Bhavana. He had his left hand around his right wrist, trying to demonstrate some kind of mechanism.

“I actually wanted to use a sensor array rather than a joystick,” he was saying. “It's more intuitive, but Dad said NASA wouldn't pay for it.”

“It's not so much a matter of money,” the Major replied with a quiet smile. “NASA prefers proven technologies. They want to make space travel as safe as possible, and the best way to do that is to not experiment unless it's absolutely necessary. Everything on the shuttle has to be something they know will work.”

“It's Stark!” Tony huffed. “It would work!” Both the tone and the word choice made Steve think he must be quoting something Howard had said. “Anyway, if that's the case, why did they cut you from the crew? You've been in space twice before! That other guy's never been.”

“It's not the same with people,” Bhavana sighed. “Very few people ever get to go into space, so they want to give everybody a chance. I'll still be on the next flight,” she repeated, as if hanging on tight to that. “That'll be my third, and after that I retire.”

“Well, that'll be cool, too,” Tony said, but he looked as if he couldn't understand why anybody would choose to retire when their job was going into space. “And it means you'll actually be able to use the StarkArm instead of just testing it!” That seemed to cheer him up.

“That's true,” Bhavana agreed. “You want me to call you afterwards and tell you how it did.”

“Absolutely,” said Tony. “And if you've got any ideas how to improve it, I want to hear those, too. I tried to take as many things into account as I could, but since I can't actually test it myself in a zero-gravity environment, it's always possible there's stuff I missed.”

“I'll keep my eyes open,” Bhavana promised. “You know if you work too hard on this, they're gonna want you to do the testing yourself.” She smiled.

Tony grinned like a kid at Christmas. “That's what I'm hoping for,” he said.

In the evening Tony returned to the video store and came back with another horror movie: this one was about a group of men in the Antarctic who encountered a shapeshifting extraterrestrial that would devour a man and then assume his form in order to get to its next victim. It was a terribly depressing thing to watch, especially after the similar movie the previous evening. Apparently these weren't aberrations – apparently the 1980s really had come to believe that the outside universe was not a world of wonders to explore, but a darkness full of monsters. It made Steve wonder why they bothered sending shuttles up, if they were so frightened. Maybe that was why they stuck to Earth orbit, instead of going the moon and Mars.

“Hey, Captain?” Tony asked, while the movie rewound.

“Yeah?” Steve looked over from him – he'd been doodling on a pad of motel stationary, drawing astronauts and spaceships from older, more cheerful movies. “You know you can call me 'Steve', right? 'Captain' is way too formal.”

Tony nodded, but didn't say anything right away. Instead he sat silently a moment, staring at the wall.

“Did you need something?” asked Steve.

“Well... I just wondered,” said Tony. He licked his lips nervously. “What was Dad like? You know, when he was younger?”

The first word Steve thought of was, “optimistic. He used to say everything is achievable through technology and he really believed it.” Steve smiled, remembering his first sight of Howard on stage at the expo, promising a clean, efficient, beautiful future. “He figured the war would be over in a few months, and then we could all get on with building a better world.” Howard had been so full of plans. New medicines, new ways of farming, of building, of traveling... he hadn't been able to wait for the fighting to end so he could start.

“Huh,” said Tony, and then shrugged. “I... kind of always wanted to ask him what he thought about things like... you know, like the atom bomb and stuff. Everybody said those were his greatest achievements, but he didn't talk about it. When he did interviews and whatever he would always say how he was working on fusion power, or how in another ten years we were gonna have flying cars. He never talked about the bomb or the weapons manufacture or any of that. I never asked him.”

“I don't know if I can answer that,” said Steve. “I knew your father a long time ago, remember. Before he got into that stuff.”

“You knew him during the war,” Tony said. “That was when it all got started!”

Tony was right – in fact, Howard had almost certainly begun working on the Manhattan project while Steve knew him, he just hadn't spoken about it because he wasn't allowed to. Steve was just trying to avoid answering the question because he knew Howard wouldn't have wanted to answer it. He certainly hadn't wanted to when Steve had asked him. “That was a long...” he started to repeat, and then stopped himself. It hadn't been a long time ago, not to Steve. As far as he was concerned, Howard had been young only weeks ago – and yet it felt like that had all happened on a different planet.

“During the war,” Steve said, “that kind of stuff was necessary – or at least, it was easy to convince people it was necessary,” he added, remembering what Howard had said about their reasons for bombing Japan. “We didn't have a lot of time to think about it. It is a long way from unlimited energy and flying cars. I know he regrets it now. We talked about it.” Now it was Steve's turn to wet a dry throat and force himself to keep talking. “I thought that was one of the reasons he jumped.”

Tony's shoulders slumped. “So why did he keep doing it?” he asked.

That, Steve couldn't answer – the only person who could have was Howard, and Howard was in no position to say. What he had said to Steve contained possible clues, though. “I guess it was because he was good at it.” Everything I ever made became a weapon. “It made him money. Maybe he did it because he wanted you and your mother to be comfortable after he died.” Maria was so much younger than Howard, he must have been counting on her outliving him. “Howard wasn't always rich, you know. He told me once that his father was a grocer on the Lower East Side.”

“Yeah, he told me that, too,” said Tony. “When he thinks I'm... when he thought I was being lazy, he would go on and on about how I've had everything given to me while he worked his way up from nothing. I don't understand what he wants me to do when he says that!” he said, his frustration audible. “Am I supposed to go live in a cave and build my way out of it?”

“No,” said Steve. “My Dad used to tell me the same thing about life back in Ireland – he would say you don't know how good you have it. I think he just wants you to appreciate what you've got.”

“I do,” Tony protested. “Everybody tells me I'm about the luckiest kid in the world and I know I am, but I can't do anything about that.” The VCR made a clunk noise as the tape finished rewinding. Tony took it out of the machine and put it away in its box, then flopped backwards on the motel room bed and stared miserably at the ceiling. “Dad's will says Obadiah will run the company until I'm twenty-one, and then I have to take over.”

Steve could see how that would be a daunting idea. He had only the barest idea of the scale of Howard's corporate empire, but he knew it was vast. “That's six years away,” he said. “You probably don't need to worry about it just yet.”

“That's what Obadiah said,” Tony agreed. “I guess this is something that's always been out there in 'the future',” he held up his hands to make air quotes. “And now suddenly it's got a deadline. I don't know. Nobody ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.” He turned his head to look at Steve, sitting on the other bed. “Sorry, I'm just whining,” he said, and rolled over to face away from him.

Just whining. Steve's jaw tensed for a moment. Tony was confused, grieving, and terrified all at once, and he was lying there thinking aloud, trying to sort himself out. Over the decades Howard's optimism had eroded away into an act, and years of watching that posturing had taught Tony that anything less that perfect, stoic confidence was 'whining'.

“Hey.” Steve got up and went to shake Tony's shoulder gently, as if to wake him from sleep. “Don't worry about it. If you need to whine, go ahead.”

“I'm okay,” Tony replied, in a voice with all emotion forced out of it. It was about furthest thing from 'okay' Steve had ever heard off of a battlefield, but in spite of his obvious misery, Tony didn't say anything more, and Steve got up and went outside to leave the kid alone with his thoughts.

Take care of Tony. Of all the things Steve could have chosen to fixate on, he thought as he shuffled down the hall, it was take care of Tony. When Bucky fell, it had been take care of HYDRA. How could Tony, who was only one person, seem like so much more impossible a job?

Just after noon the next day, their return flight got in to LaGuardia airport, and they headed back to the Stark family penthouse. Steve spent their taxi ride back feeling like a dog who'd been briefly let out into the yard and was now being called back indoors – and by the way Tony looked wistfully up at the buildings, he suspected the kid felt the same thing. Steve was cooped up by SHIELD, and Tony had all the baggage of his family weighing him down. How were either of them ever going to escape?

Although it was only early afternoon, both were yawning as Jarvis let them inside. They'd had a series of late nights, and the travel had been physically tiring on top of the emotional exhaustion they were both already feeling. Steve planned to go straight to bed for a nap, and he doubted Tony was going to do any different.

“How was your trip?” Jarvis asked pleasantly.

“It was great!” Tony said, smiling even as he rubbed at the corners of his eyes. “I talked to a couple of astronauts. They signed my mission plan, and the head of NASA invited us back!”

“That's wonderful, piccolo,” said Maria's voice.

Steve swallowed hard. She didn't slur like Howard had, but there was nevertheless something definitely tipsy in her voice. When he looked up her found her standing in the doorway, sleepy-eyed and without makeup, swaying slightly on her feet. She was wearing a housecoat and slippers, but had black pearl earrings on and a string of them around her neck.

Bentornato, mi ragazzi,” she said, stumbling closer, and Steve flinched. She was so obviously drunk, and had been drinking for days. Between that and their unhappy conversation last night, Steve worried that ultimately the trip would have done Tony no good at all.

But Tony only said, “grazie, Mama,” and gave her a hug. She returned it, leaning against him with her full weight.

“Did you have a good time?” she asked.

“Yes, Mama,” Tony replied. He rubbed her back and then helped her straighten up, his youthful joy from remembering the shuttle launch replaced now by a surprisingly adult seriousness as he took charge of his mother. “You look really tired. Maybe you should lie down.”

“Oh, no, sweetheart, not when you just got home... we'll all have to have dinner tonight. Perhaps Le Bernardin... your father loved Le Bernardin.”

“We'll think about it,” said Tony, helping her down the hall. Jarvis watched them go. Perhaps making Maria go to bed ought to have been his job, but he didn't seem to want to interrupt.

“Was she like that the entire time we were gone?” asked Steve.

“More or less,” Jarvis sighed. “I thought she might sober up when Mr. Stane dropped by to help her with the insurance paperwork, but I'm afraid that unpleasant little job only made her worse. She'll come out of it eventually,” he added, in a firm tone that made Steve think he was trying to convince himself as much as anyone else. “She was the same way after her hysterectomy... couldn't bear the thought of not being able to have more children.”

Steve hoped he was right. Maybe Tony's presence would help her... he hadn't gotten the impression that Tony was particularly close to his mother, but he certainly seemed to have a better relationship with her than he had with Howard.

“Did Peggy call for me today?” Steve asked. She'd promised to leave him a message if they learned anything new.

“I'm afraid not,” Jarvis replied.

Steve nodded. “Let me know if she does. Otherwise... I'll be in my room.”

“Of course, Captain Rogers.”

When he returned to his room – the Stark family's guest room, really, not Steve's room in any meaningful sense – Steve dropped his duffle bag on the floor, kicked off his shoes, and fell into bed with his clothes on. He figured he'd probably just fall asleep right there, but instead he lay awake, unable to make his brain stop working.

Now that he was back in Howard's apartment, Steve found himself thinking again about how he was going to have to find another place to live. That wouldn't be easy, not in April. Everybody in New York moved in August, when students arrived and leases expired. Unless Steve wanted to stay at Howard's all summer – which he did not – he was going to have to take whatever he could get, no matter how tiny or roach-infested it might be.

Of course, to get an apartment of any sort he would need money. So far, Howard and SHIELD had taken turns paying for everything, from Steve's food and clothing to his transportation and entertainment. He would need a proper job, either at SHIELD or somewhere else. What useful skills did he have? He'd picked up some ability as a mechanic, but had no formal training. Could he teach art classes?

Before he could get a job, Steve would need a social security number. His own had doubtless been canceled decades ago, when everybody assumed he died in the crash of the Valkyrie. Maybe Peggy could do something about that, or knew somebody who could. Or Stane – he'd mentioned knowing lawyers, maybe he could recommend one. He could talk to Peggy tomorrow, and maybe Jarvis knew how to get in touch with Stane. If not, he'd have to wait until Maria was sober, which could take days...

“Captain Rogers?” a voice asked.

Steve opened his eyes, but did not sit up. When he glanced around the room, he realized he must have fallen asleep at some point, despite all his thinking, because it now appeared to be early evening – the sky outside the windows was deep blue, with orange peering through the buildings near the horizon. After a moment he decided he must have dreamed about hearing his name, and settled down again.

“Captain Rogers!” Footsteps approached. “Are you awake?”

This time, Steve actually rolled over, and when he did, he saw Tony standing at the foot of the bed. “Yeah,” Steve said, sitting up a little. “What's wrong?”

It wasn't actually dark in the room, but it was dim enough that Steve flinched when Tony turned on the light. “I need you to come see something,” the boy said.

Steve checked the bedside clock: 6:42 PM. “Is it dinnertime?” he asked. Was Maria really going to insist on dinner at Le Bernardin after all?

“I ordered out,” said Tony. “Come with me.”

Steve wanted to complain. He wanted to ask whether Tony wasn't tired, and what he'd been doing all afternoon that he was now dragging Steve out of bed to look at it. But instead, he just sat up and stretched and followed Tony out of the room, because he was quite sure that whatever it was the kid wanted him to look at, Howard would not have gotten up for it.

All the lights were on in Tony's room, though for once the television wasn't. Tony crossed to the corner beside the desk where he worked on his card paper models, and pointed down.

Steve crouched to look, but didn't see anything terribly significant. “It's glue,” he said. A bottle of rubber cement had broken, and there was a sticky mass of it in the carpet.

“No, look,” Tony insisted.

Steve knelt and reached to pick up the shards of the bottle. He couldn't, of course – it was stuck to the rug – but when he touched it, he realized it hadn't broken in a fall from the desk. There was a slug of metal stuck in the mess of dried glue and carpet fiber, and suddenly Steve was fully awake as he hadn't been since creeping into Dvenadstat.

“That's a bullet,” said Tony.

“Yes, it is,” Steve agreed. He had to rip up part of the carpet to lift it for a proper look, but Tony was absolutely right: the bullet had gone right through the bottle and gotten stuck in the cement leaking out. And Tony had been using this bottle of glue not long ago – Steve remembered seeing him brush rubber cement onto his shuttle parts, the day before Howard died. So this had happened recently.

Steve put the bottle down on the edge of the desk, and lay down on the carpet to see if he could find the hole it had come in by.

“Already got it,” Tony said. “Come outside.” He pushed open the sliding glass doors that led from his bedroom onto the terrace.

Outside, Tony had been busy – he'd tied a length of twine around a nail, which he'd inserted into the hole in the masonry, and the other end to the railing where Howard had fallen. Steve felt a chill looking at it. While he'd lain in bed falling asleep as he tried to figure out his future, Tony had been awake working this out, and had come to Steve only when he was sure he knew how somebody had murdered his father.

“Dad was standing here,” Tony said, pointing to where he'd tied the twine. “This is where the cops were looking around when they came up, and it's where you said you could see him smoking from your bedroom. If you make a line from head height here to where the bullet ended up, it would have to start over there, somewhere on the top of that building.” He indicated a high rise nearby. “If you were over there and you had a good sight on your gun, you'd have been able to see Dad in the lights from the apartment.”

“The light in the study was on,” Steve agreed. So were the lights in his room – he'd been awake reading that night. He came to look over the railing at the street below, where Howard had fallen. People had left flowers and cards in a makeshift memorial at the edge of the sidewalk. It had been a closed-casket funeral. Howard's body had been so badly broken by the fall that it would have been nearly impossible to identify a bullet wound.

“If you waited until he was lined up with a corner of the wall,” Tony added, “the bullet would get embedded in the masonry and nobody would ever find it.”

“Unless the shooter's aim was off by half an inch, and it ended up in a pot of glue,” Steve said. For a moment he thought about calling the police, but this probably wasn't the sort of thing they handled. This was not a murder – this was an assassination by a very skilled sniper. They were going to have to call SHIELD.

Part of Steve was selfish enough to be relieved. If Howard had not committed suicide, then his death was not Steve's fault. In fact, it didn't take much thinking about to to decide he had a very good idea whose fault it was, and why that organization had decided Howard Stark needed to die.

He stepped away from the edge of the terrace. “Get dressed,” he ordered Tony.

Tony nodded and turned to run back inside. “Should I get Mom and Jarvis?” he asked.

“No, they'll be fine,” Steve said. The people who'd killed Howard had killed him for his brain, not for his money or his family. “I'm pretty sure you will be, too, but I need you.”

“What for?” Before they'd left Cape Canaveral the previous afternoon, Dr. Graham had given them each a NASA t-shirt. Tony had left his draped over the back of his desk chair. Now he grabbed it to pull over his head.

“You need to finish your father's work,” said Steve.


Chapter Text

Steve knew by now that Peggy's habit was to arrive at SHIELD around six thirty in the morning and not to leave until well past suppertime. It made him wonder when she'd had the time to raise two children – maybe she'd worked while her husband had stayed home with Stephen and Angela. The mental picture of Dum-Dum in a frilly polka-dot apron managed to put a smile on Steve's face for a moment, but it was a very brief moment out of an otherwise very serious evening.

He and Tony arrived at SHIELD around eight o'clock, when Peggy should have already been gone for the night, but it seemed she'd decided to work late. At nearly ten, Steve heard the door of Howard's basement workroom open and turned to see her standing there with her mouth open.

“What is he doing here?” she demanded, pointing at Tony. “He hasn't got security clearance!”

Tony was sitting staring as if hypnotized at a computer screen while the mysterious message of the Dvenadstat tapes rolled by in an endless loop of green numerals. He jumped at Peggy's cry.

“He let me in!” Tony said quickly, pointing at Steve.

Steve had been manually going through handwritten notes, looking for errors in the decoding. He nodded. “Peggy, Howard was murdered.”

Peggy had already begun marching over to start gathering up classified materials, but that made her stop short. “What?”

“Tony found the bullet that killed him.” Steve pulled it out of a plastic Walgreen's bag, still stuck in rubber cement and carpet fibers, and put it in Peggy's hand.

She stared at it for a moment, then turned around and threw the door open again. “Forensics!” she shouted into the hallway. “Now!”

Peggy wasn't the only one who habitually worked late. SHIELD was a twenty-four hour institution, and people arrived within minutes to collect the evidence. They also had a series of questions for Tony, but Steve told them that would have to wait. Tony was still busy with the numbers. Everybody else maintained a ten-foot perimeter while he continued to watch the jumble of numbers, frowning intensely at the computer screen as if waiting for something to happen.

“Howard told me,” Steve said quietly to Peggy, “that he thought Tony was smarter than him. If there's anybody who can find something Howard Stark missed...”

She nodded. “I suppose he may as well try.” The words themselves were a bit dismissive – but the tone she spoke them in had a note of hope beneath it.

An agent arrived with a guest's security badge on a lanyard for Tony. Tony accepted it and hung it around his neck without looking away from the computer screen. A few more minutes crawled by in tense silence, then Tony got up and walked over to the table again to study Howard's big map. The original five positions and shapes were still marked on it in black, while the other experts Peggy had consulted had added their own suggestions in other colours. People moved back to maintain the boy's space. Tony stared a moment longer, and then his face lit up.

“Of course!” he said, smacking the side of his head with the heel of his hand. “Duh.”

Peggy stepped forward. “Are you telling me you know where the metashapes are?” she asked.

“I know where they're not,” Tony replied. He pushed the weights off the corners of the map and started rolling it up. “Somebody get me a star chart. Both hemispheres.”

The colour drained from Peggy's face. “Oh, my god,” she said.

It took a while for anybody to find one, but eventually a man arrived with two polar projection maps, one of the northern sky and one of the southern. Tony spread them out on the table, then ran his fingers down the lists of positions in Howard's notes. “Okay,” he said. “One hundred twenty degrees, fifteen minutes, nineteen point nine seconds east is equivalent to sixteen hours, one minute of right ascension... and thirty-three degrees north of the celestial equator...” His finger found a dot, and he pushed a thumbtack into it. “Rho Coronae Borealis! I knew it!”

Peggy grabbed Steve's arm, her eyes wide.

“Number two... looks like somewhere in Pisces.” Tony stuck in another pin. “We've got Alpha Arietis... something here in Ophiuchus... and the last one is in Lyra!” He stood back proudly.

“Only two of those have stars at them, though,” one of the forensics people protested.

“Two of them have bright stars at them,” Tony corrected. “I bet if we look them up in a catalog, we'll find stars at the other three, as well.” He considered the map. “Rho Coronae Borealis is a type G star and Alpha Arietis is a type K – I remember because they were both on a list of SETI targets. They're stars that could have planets like Earth.”

Steve licked his lips. “So the reason there was no coordinate for the tesseract... is because the tesseract is on Earth, and that's zero in this coordinate system.”

“Exactly!” Tony nodded.

Peggy was as white as paper. “So you're saying that aliens have sent us a message, offering us the locations of the other metashapes, in a HYDRA code from the 1940's?” She looked at Steve, as if he were supposed to know.

“HYDRA was into all kinds of things,” Steve reminded her. “Remember when they sent an expedition to Antarctica because they thought the Earth was hollow and there was an entrance there? Maybe they tried to contact somebody, and this is the reply.”

“What about that last number?” Peggy asked. “Seven million, one hundred twenty-one thousand?”

“I've got some ideas. Still working on it,” Tony said. “You said you found these in Mesto Dvenadstat? The Russians have a space station now,” he added. “Perfect launching-off point to go talk to some aliens.”

Peggy nodded slowly. “I'll get together what information I can on that... and I'll have somebody call Gary at Canaveral.” She went for the phone on the wall.


An hour later, when Agent Fury arrived, the workroom was bubbling with activity. People were running around like ants whose hill had been stepped on, and Tony was deep in calculations about the amount of energy contained in a four-dimensional object and the rather worrying fact that they gained more energy the closer together they came. Perhaps that was why they were scattered across the galaxy... maybe the message was a warning not to take the tesseract into space. If that were the case, the senders clearly didn't know very much about humans.

Fury came in with a manila envelope, which turned out to be full of black and white pictures faxed up from NASA. He spread these out on top of Tony's star map for Steve and Peggy to see.

“They aren't great,” he admitted. “Spy satellites are made to take pictures down, not sideways.”

The images showed an object Steve thought looked looked like a gigantic insect: three cylindrical segments, one narrow followed by two fat, with three solar panels arranged around one end like the vanes of a windmill. Steve had seen drawings of what people, including Howard Stark himself, had thought the space stations of the future would look like. They'd always seemed to be graceful wheel-shaped things, but this real one was ugly and awkward, clearly designed to be pleasing in function rather than form.

“The Soviets launched this in February,” Peggy explained to Steve. “Doing it all in a great hurry, which is how they've always done their space program. Their spies find out what we're doing and then they pull out all the stops to do it first and get the bragging rights. NASA is working on plans for space station Freedom, so the Russians simply must have Mir up first, even if people get killed in the process.”

“There's a lot of rumors about creepy stuff going on in the Russian space program,” Tony added, once again eager to share what he knew. “There's a story that some ham radio operators in the early 60's heard a woman's voice pleading for help in Russian, before they sent Valentina Tereshkova up in 1963.”

That sounded like a ghost story to Steve, but when he looked at Peggy he found her nodding sadly. “They only publicize the successful missions,” she said. “Everything else is swept under the rug. Whoever she was, they would have had no way to help her. As Walter Cronkite observed, there is no rescue possible in space flight.”

Steve didn't know who Walter Cronkite was, but the man's words made him shiver. On dozens omissions across enemy lines, he'd known without having to be told that there would be no rescue if anything went wrong – which was why he'd always made sure nobody got left behind. Until Bucky...

But they had to focus on the problem in front of them, so Steve swallowed the guilt as best he could and looked at the pictures again. “So when they started building this, you assumed they just wanted to have a working space station before we did,” he said.

“Pretty much,” Peggy agreed.

“I wonder...” Tony said. “What's its apogee?”

Fury leafed through papers and pulled one out. “Three hundred and seventy four kilometers.”

Tony shook his head. “Never mind.”

“What is it?” asked Peggy.

“Nothing. I was wrong,” said Tony. “I thought maybe the last number in the message was an altitude, but it's thousands of kilometers up, not just hundreds. So they're not going to meet the aliens on Mir. Still a good starting point for something to go higher, though.”

“Whoever sent that message isn't asking the Russians to meet them, though,” said Steve thoughtfully. “They're asking HYDRA.” The message had come in a HYDRA code, which meant it was intended for a very specific audience. Mesto Dvenadstat might have picked it up and tried to study it, but they were eavesdroppers.

“Speed-of-light time delay,” Tony suggested. “They were in touch with HYDRA during the war and they don't realize it's gone because the signal hasn't gotten to them yet.”

Steve glanced at Peggy. The group of people who knew about what Agent Troy had said and done – and the implications – was very small, and Tony Stark was not a part of it. If they were going to discuss this in more detail, Peggy wouldn't want to do it here. Steve had told Tony more than enough secrets already.

Sure enough, she nodded. “Tony, if you'd be so good as to finish looking up the details of those stars for us,” Peggy said. “You'll be compensated for your time, I promise. Steve, would you mind?” She opened the door, indicating that he should step out into the hall with her.

“Not at all.” He followed, and Peggy shut the door softly behind him. The hallway outside was cinder block walls painted ivory white, like the halls of a high school, and dim fluorescent lighting between the bundles of wires and pipes in the ceiling. It was a fairly well-used part of the building, so Peggy escorted Steve into a spot that was out of traffic – a stairwell. She stepped into the shadows behind the last flight, and waited for Steve to join her there.

“HYDRA,” she said softly, once he had.

Steve nodded. “HYDRA.”

Peggy sighed heavily, looking at the floor. “We don't know that HYDRA is really still an organized power. It might just be...”

Somebody gave those tapes to Troy,” Steve said. “So there's at least two of them here in SHIELD. Troy was going to give them to somebody else, so that's a third one somewhere else.”

“We have no reason to believe anything Troy says,” Peggy pointed out. “He might just be trying to frighten us.”

Maybe that sounded reasonable to her, after decades of believing that she'd stamped out the last of HYDRA after the war ended. It did not sound reasonable to Steve – to him, it sounded like denial. In any war, denial was not something anybody could afford. Especially not in what Peggy called a war of secrets.

“Let's ask him,” he suggested.

“He won't tell us,” Peggy sighed. “The only thing he keeps saying is hail HYDRA.”

“He talked to me,” Steve said. Troy had tried to convince Steve that HYDRA had become a force for good, or at least for a lesser evil than the ones currently infesting the world. Maybe if he came at it from that point of view, he could learn something more. “Let me try again.”

Agent Troy had been in lockup since his attempt to steal the tapes. He'd been officially charged with espionage and treason and the investigation was ongoing, but with no idea who his accomplices were or what country he worked for, progress was very slow. A lawyer had been assigned to him, but even to her Troy would say nothing but hail HYDRA.

The lawyer was waiting outside the interrogation room when Steve arrived. She was wearing a peach-coloured suit, with her permed hair held away from her face in a matching scrunchie.

“I've advised my client not to talk to you,” she said to Steve, without bothering for any other greeting.

“Is he taking your advice?” Steve asked.

She scowled. “I have no idea. He won't say a word to me.”

“Except hail HYDRA,” Steve nodded. “Do you want to be present?”

“I don't think it matters if I am or not,” the lawyer said. She opened the door and let Steve in.

Troy was sitting at the table, handcuffed to the metal ring in the middle. Steve pulled up a chair and sat down across from him, while the lawyer stood next to the door, arms folded across her chest, watching.

“I need to talk to you,” said Steve.

Troy looked up at him, then over at the lawyer, and then lowered his head. “Hail HYDRA,” he said.

Steve turned to the woman. “Would you mind?” he asked.

“I told you it didn't matter.” She turned and walked out, shutting the door behind her. It occurred to Steve that the door probably locked automatically – he was now trapped in this room with a man who might work for his worst enemies. Shackled to the table as he was, Troy didn't look very dangerous, and the police had surely made sure he didn't have any weapons... but it was still a worrying thought.

Steve faced Troy again. “Howard Stark is dead,” he said.

Troy looked up, startled – this was news to him.

“Did HYDRA kill him?” asked Steve.

“I don't know,” Troy said. “I've been in here all week – this is the first I've heard of it.”

He had a point there, Steve supposed. He tried something else. “In order to survive, HYDRA would have had to go underground after the war. They couldn't stay in Germany. Peggy told me Nazism is illegal there now...”

“HYDRA are not Nazis!” Troy protested. “We don't want to conquer the world, and we don't want to commit genocide. We want peace. Real peace, not everybody walking on eggshells.”

“Right,” Steve said. Most people would consider peace and genocide to be opposites, but in HYDRA's worldview they were two ends of a line that curved around to form a circle. Opposites could become synonyms if you looked at it from the wrong angle. “The point stands, though, you can't be HYDRA in Germany. Where did they go?” he asked. “Are they in the Soviet Union?”

“Troy, I want to know why my friend is dead,” said Steve. “He died for whatever was on those tapes. The tapes came from Russia. Was Dvenadstat a HYDRA base?”

“No,” Troy said firmly. “Look, the Soviet Union is part of what HYDRA opposes. It's a destabilizing influence, just like the United States. We've got these two powers trying to gather allies and pit them against each other on either side of the Iron Curtain. That can't go on forever. Have you ever read Thucydides, Captain Rogers?” he asked earnestly.

Steve had not – he shook his head. “It sounds Greek,” he ventured.

“It is Greek – The Peloponnesian War,” Troy said. “Athens and Sparta made everybody choose sides, until war was inevitable the moment somebody stepped out of line. That is what HYDRA doesn't want. Nuclear deterrent is not the answer. Breaking down the current power structure is!” His face, as he looked at Steve, was hopeful – he really wanted his hero to agree with him. Steven Troy was part of HYDRA because he really believed, with utter conviction, that this was the way to save the world.

“So what's on the tapes is a way to do that?” asked Steve. The kind of power that would be available from five more objects like the tesseract, especially if they gained power from being near to each other, would create either utopia or apocalypse. Maybe HYDRA couldn't tell the difference between those, either.

“I don't know,” Troy said. “I got my orders from a superior: deliver the package to a drop point in Canada. Nobody ever told me what the tapes said, just that we had to keep them away from both the Russians and the Americans. The balance between those two is the only thing holding the world together right now. We can't let either side gain an advantage.

Peggy had said the USA already had the tesseract – but they clearly weren't using it. Did HYDRA know about that? If they didn't, Steve wasn't going to be the guy who told them.

“Who gave you the tapes?” asked Steve.

Troy shook his head. “Hail HYDRA,” he said.

No direct questions, Steve reminded himself. Troy only talked when he thought he had a chance of bringing Steve over to his side. “Look, Agent Troy,” he said. “I'm gonna be honest with you. I don't like the mess the world is in, either. I would love to do something about that. But I also want to know why Howard Stark died, and if you can't tell me, I need to talk to somebody who can. I need to know what all this means. I need your help, Troy.”

Troy sat silently for a moment. His eyes would focus on Steve's face, then drift away again, and his mouth opened and closed again as he tried to decide what to say. Finally, he leaned forward. “If you want to know about the tapes,” he said, “I'll tell you who to ask. But you've gotta promise you'll hear them out.”

“I will,” Steve said. “I promise.” Whoever Troy sent him to, he would listen to every word.

When Steve left the police station, Peggy was waiting for him on the step. “What did he say?” she wanted to know.

“He gave me an appointment to keep,” Steve replied. He'd written down the date and location, but had given Troy a promise that he wouldn't share it with anybody, not even Peggy or Pearce. “I'll go see about it tomorrow night – and no,” he added, as she started to say something. “No bodyguards, no agents. Just me and my shield. We can take care of ourselves.” Steve had charged into HYDRA strongholds before with nothing but a gun on his hip and his shield on his arm. He could do it again.

Peggy sighed unhappily, but she gave a reluctant nod. “Did he say anything about the Soviets?” she asked. “About Mir?”

“He said HYDRA isn't with them, and I believe him,” Steve said. “The ideology he describes doesn't have room for them, any more than it has room for us. If I had to guess, I'd say HYDRA is operating underground in Moscow, just as it is here. He told me HYDRA's mission is to topple both the US and the USSR, because those countries are the greatest threat to peace.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Peggy said slowly as they descended the steps to the waiting car. As they climbed in, Steve realized she was shaking slightly, and he put out a hand to touch her shoulder. He hoped that doing so would bring on another of those moments of memory – of them taking care of each other during stressful times. But she flinched away, and the memory did not have time to appear. “God,” she groaned, rubbing her forehead. “What did I miss?”

“We'll find out,” Steve assured her.

“I tried so hard to be thorough,” she said. “But I clearly missed something, and now Howard is dead! I just know, whatever it is will turn out to be blindingly bloody obvious and...” Peggy shook her head. “I'm sorry, Steve.”

Now it was Steve's turn to flinch, because he realized she was taking her turn to feel responsible for all of this. Steve's vanishing had caused Peggy and Howard nothing but guilt, and now his reappearance had done the same. “I think if Howard were here, he'd remind you that you can't change the past,” Steve offered. “We can only learn from it.”

Peggy blinked at him, and then gave a nervous little laugh. “I suppose he would, at that, wouldn't he?” she asked. “And then he'd laugh at me and wink in that infuriating way he did. All right.” She took a deep breath. “If you're going to do this, then I want to have you briefed on a couple of concealable weapons SHIELD has been developing, just in case, and wear a wire so we can keep track of you.”

That sounded like a much more sensible precaution than a bodyguard. “There was something else I was hoping I could talk to you about, too,” Steve added. “I don't think it's a good idea for me to stay with the Starks any longer, but I don't want to live at SHIELD, either. Can you help me get some ID, and a bank account?”

“Of course,” Peggy said immediately. “We actually anticipated that. I'll give you the folder when we arrive.”

She made a phone call from the car, and Diane met them in her office with a filing folder that turned out to contain Steve's birth certificate, army discharge papers, and social security card. Tony was there, too, impatient to show them what he'd learned, but Steve spoke to Diane and Peggy first.

“You'll have to actually pest the test in order to get a driving license,” Peggy said apologetically, “and apply for credit cards and so forth yourself. This will get you started, though.”

Steve leafed through the papers and noticed that they all had his real name and date of birth – July 4, 1920 – on them. He wasn't sure if that were a good thing or not. Steve preferred honesty whenever possible, but he couldn't help thinking that certain aspects of building a new life for himself would be a lot easier if he could pretend to be somebody else. He wasn't looking forward to having to explain to complete strangers that yes, he was Captain America, and yes, he really was sixty-six years old.

“You said you anticipated this... how long have you had these?” asked Steve.

“I had them prepared when you first showed signs of reacting to outside stimuli,” she replied. “A few days before you regained full consciousness. I wanted to be ready.”

“Ready,” he echoed, closing the folder. She'd had these for weeks, and she had never told him. Steve had thought he had no choice but to live either with Howard or at SHIELD, and the whole time this had been sitting in Peggy's office. “When were you actually going to give them to me?”

“When you asked,” she replied, looking him squarely in the eye. She must know how he would take that, but she seemed determined not to apologize this time. “I didn't want you to feel like we were giving you a hint, forcing you out into the world before you were ready. I probably ought to have known better. You were never one to sit in place and behave yourself.”

No, he never had been – and neither was Peggy herself. Yet ever since Steve had awakened, this woman who hated to be protected had seemed so determined to protect him. The fake recovery room, having him followed whenever he went anywhere on his own, and now keeping back the things he would need to survive on his own in this altered world. She probably did have the best intentions, and yet the result was the same. Steve was, in a very real sense, a prisoner.

He locked eyes with Peggy for a moment, but this time she did not look away – and Steve didn't say anything, because he had no idea what to say. So he changed the subject. “I guess I should ask how people go househunting in the 80's,” he said. “Do you still use newspaper ads?”

“Yes, for the most part,” said Peggy. “Diane, if you would be so good as to bring in the classifieds section so that Captain Rogers can have a look?”

“Of course,” said Diane. She headed for the door.

“Why don't you just keep staying with us?” asked Tony, stepping up to give his dossier to Peggy. “We don't mind. This has everything I could find out about the five stars,” he added. “And my calculations about metashapes in proximity.”

“Thank you, Tony,” said Peggy.

“It's nice of you to offer,” Steve said to Tony, “but I'd rather not. I need to start figuring out how to look after myself, and that means having my own place to live. Besides, I think you and your Mom need your space right now.” Steve had been in the way at the Stark penthouse while Howard was alive. Now that the man who'd invited him to stay was dead, Steve was even more of an intruder.

“Right,” said Tony, clearly disappointed.

“Hey, I'm not going to the moon,” Steve said. “I'm not even planning on leaving the city.” Certainly not until they'd figured out what to do about HYDRA and the metashapes – probably not even then. New York had always been home to Steve. Besides, just because Howard hadn't known he was going to die didn't make it any less his last request.

Diane returned with a paper and Steve sat down on Peggy's desk to take a look at it. Peggy herself came and looked over his shoulder.

“Living on the island is very expensive,” Peggy said. “You might want to find something in one of the other boroughs.”

“Hey, how about our place in Brooklyn?” Tony asked, also joining them at the desk. “It's a little smaller than the apartment but it's a real house, and it's only a block and a half from the subway. You have to change trains once to get into the city, but the neighbourhood's okay and we haven't lived there in years. You could stay there!”

“Oh, that's an idea!” Peggy said brightly.

“No thanks,” said Steve. “I'm sure I can find something.”

“Suit yourself,” Peggy told him, “but if I were me, I'd take him up on it.”

He looked at her, startled. Peggy seemed a very unlikely person to accept an offer like that, but she looked sincere.

“It's a very nice house,” she said. “Howard let a friend and I live there for a while. I learned how to cook in that house! But you'll have to make him pay rent,” she added, now talking to Tony. “He'll never accept it as charity.”

“Sure.” Tony grinned. “I can even gouge you a little if it would make you feel better.”

“Now you're ganging up on me,” Steve protested, but he supposed he shouldn't say no out of hand. “I guess I could at least look at the place.”

“Awesome!” said Tony, which wasn't the word Steve would have used, but apparently it meant something different in the 1980's than it had in the 1940's. “When do you want to go?” he asked. “We can go tonight, if you want. I'm not doing anything, unless Madame Director needs me for something else. And actual spring break starts on Monday, so school won't be getting back to me about the hearing until at least next week.”

Peggy shook her head. “No patience,” she said. “Reminds me of somebody else I know.”

“Sure, why not?” Steve decided. He wasn't meeting Troy's contact until tomorrow night. This would give him something to do in the mean time.

“Great! Let me just call Jarvis and let him know,” Tony said.


Chapter Text

Peggy drove them over to Brooklyn that evening, which surprised Steve. He was pretty sure that was the first time he'd seen her behind the wheel of a car instead of letting somebody else do the driving. He sat next to her on the passenger's side, while Tony was in the back, leaning forward between the seats to talk to them.

“Jarvis said it'll be all dusty,” he warned. “Normally he'd go open the place up for us, but right now he has to take care of Mom.”

“I'll manage,” said Steve. He doubted he'd need anything like the whole house – just a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The last time he'd had a place to himself, all three had been the same room. Anywhere a Stark had ever lived would be a palace.

“Here!” Tony pointed. “Turn here!”

“I do know how to get there,” Peggy said, flipping on her signal before making the turn. “I lived there for over a year, remember?”

“Yeah, well I lived there for five years,” Tony replied.

“During which time you never had to find the place yourself,” Peggy pointed out. She pulled up in the alley behind the house and stopped, peering out the window in evident confusion. From here, all that could be seen was a chain link fence across the back of the property, with strips of gray plastic woven through it. This was covered with colourful graffiti which Steev actually quite liked the artistic impression of – until he realized that almost every word of it was obscene.

“Are you sure this is correct?” asked Peggy.

“I thought you know how to get here,” Tony said.

“I thought I did.” Peggy shut off the engine. “It just... doesn't look like I remember it.”

“Welcome to my life,” Steve observed.

There was an old padlock on the gate, but it was hanging open – the real lock required a code on a keypad. “The pass word is... it's 290570,” said Tony. He punched it in and, with a beep and a clunk, the gate opened.

Beyond the fence was a rather unkempt yard, with the grass grown ankle-high and big, old trees in need of pruning. One of these, Steve noticed, had the remains of a treehouse in it. “Was that yours?” he asked Tony, pointing.

“Yeah.” Tony climbed the steps to the back door. “We used to have a telescope up there. Mom and Dad would show me the planets or the Andromeda galaxy.” He smiled for a moment, but then it melted away and he lowered his head to open up the house.

What had happened, Steve wondered. He recognized the number Tony had recited as the lock's combination – it had been written in a photo album in the study, under a picture of Maria holding a baby in a hospital bed. May 29th, 1970 was Tony's birthday. And the telescope... it sounded like Howard had tried to be a father, for a while at least. Something had made him give up.

“Ta-da!” Tony opened the door, and turned on the light.

Steve had been expecting the interior of the house to look like the apartment, with elegant modern furnishings and paintings. Perhaps it would have, if Jarvis had been able to come ahead. When he walked in, however, it was empty and dusty, with the furniture covered in drop cloths and other items piled up in cardboard boxes. Tony had mentioned living here for five years, which meant it was quite possible that the Stark family hadn't used the place in a decade.

“What do you think?” Tony asked, arms spread wide to present the entire building.

“It's definitely big enough,” said Steve. This one room was larger than any apartment he'd ever lived in. “What's the furniture like?”

“Old,” said Tony. “That's why Mom wanted to move. She said the stuff here belongs in a museum.”

Peggy pulled a cloth off a wooden dining chair with a high, carved back. “She may be right. These are the same chairs we had when Angie and I lived here in 1947.”

“I feel at home already,” said Steve.

That was a joke – but as the three of them folded the cloths and took lamps and cushions out of the boxes, Steve decided this would make a good temporary home after all. Peggy had mentioned the idea of easing him into the 1980's, and these seemed like a much better way to do it than what she'd had in mind. He could go out and live in the real world during the day, and come back here at night. There was something about the old furniture that seemed very safe and comfortable, even if it was awfully ostentatious by Steve's standards.

He'd sort of expected Tony to help for a while and then lose interest and make an excuse to leave, the way spoiled rich kids had sometimes done at volunteer projects during the war, but he seemed determined to stay for as long as Peggy did. In fact, he seemed to be sincerely enjoying himself, and happily told stories about various things that had happened in this house. He'd once tried to build a robotic dog, he said, after Howard had refused to let him have a real one. And it seemed Howard had told him a story in which Peggy had smuggled in an extraterrestrial house guest, after the SSR sent her to New Mexico to investigate the crash of a spacecraft.

“Don't tell him that, Tony,” Peggy protested. “Howard made the whole thing up!”

“Dad told me you'd say that,” Tony replied with a wink.

After cleaning up a couple of rooms, they decided that would do for now and ordered Chinese food, which they ate while sitting in a row on the sofa watching The Cosby Show. Steve found himself paying more attention to Peggy and Tony than he was to the television, even though they really weren't doing anything. He wondered wistfully if this were were he'd have ended up in different circumstances – would he be in a house somewhere with Peggy and a teenage boy, enjoying a quiet evening in? That was what Howard had kept apologizing for, for Steve never being able to have the life he'd wanted after the war. But that had never been Howard's fault. Steve had crashed the Valkyrie himself.

When the sitcom was over, the news came on. Peggy would have turned it off, but Tony stopped her, and it was soon clear why: the top story for the evening was the space shuttle mission they'd watched launch. It included an interview with the pilot who'd replaced Major Bhavana, Theodore Van Cleef.

“What are the mission objectives you're working on?” a reporter asked.

“We've got several,” Van Cleef replied. He was older than Major Bhavana, with thinning dark hair and a narrow mustache. “As well as our hydroponic experiments and testing the StarkArm, we're hoping to set an altitude record. So far no shuttle has flown higher than six hundred kilometers, but there's no reason why we can't push the craft a little further. About seven hundred and fifty kilometers up you start to enter the radiation belts in the Earth's magnetosphere...”

Throughout this speech Tony was nodding, as everything Van Cleef said matched the text in his own copy of the mission plan. Then, however, he sat up sharply.

“Seven hundred fifty kilometers!” he said.

Peggy and Steve both stared at him.

“What about it?” asked Peggy.

“The other number in the message on the tapes was seven million, one hundred twenty-one thousand,” said Tony. “The radius of the Earth in meters is about six million, three hundred. The number is an orbit of about seven hundred fifty kilometers, measured from the center of the Earth!”

Steve's first thought was that was a coincidence... and then he thought maybe it wasn't. Maybe somebody had decided that orbit should be attained on this mission specifically to find out who or what was waiting for them up there. If the Russians were planning on trying from Mir, perhaps HYDRA had agents in NASA.

“Are you sure?” asked Peggy.

“No,” Tony admitted. “But if I am, and there's a spy on the shuttle, HYDRA might get whatever they want up there, and if I'm right and there isn't a spy on the shuttle, then they might still find whatever HYDRA's after and nobody will be prepared for it!”

“I'll call NASA.” Peggy stood up and ran to the table where they'd plugged in the telephone.

On the television, Van Cleef was still talking. “As you can see,” he said, “the shuttle has all the comforts of home.” He floated aside to let the camera take in the padded white walls of the crew compartment, with pieces of equipment and tools attached to them. “The middeck here is kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom in one...”

That sounded familiar, Steve thought.

“Gary!” Peggy said into the phone. “Thank heaven I reached you. I need you to cancel the altitude record attempt!” She was quiet a moment while Dr. Williams replied. From across the room, even Steve's enhanced hearing couldn't tell what the reply was. “I'm not entirely sure yet,” Peggy said, “but I've had...” she glanced at Tony. “Intelligence that there may be something waiting for us at about seven hundred and fifty kilometers, and until we know what it is, we can't risk anybody's life encountering it by accident.” Another pause. “I don't know. Think of something, but don't let them try it. Please, Gary, trust me on this.” She waited a moment, and Steve saw her shoulders relax a little – Williams must have acquiesced. “I will tell you as soon as I know,” she promised. “Hopefully within the next few days. You might still get to try it before the mission is over, but I just want to be sure. Thank you. I'll talk to you soon.” She heaved a sigh as she placed the phone back in the cradle.

“They're gonna cancel it?” Tony asked as she dropped, relieved, back onto the sofa.

“For now,” she replied. “But we have to find out what's waiting for us up there.”

“Maybe it's what that one SETI scientist said, about life forms in the energy patterns of the Van Allen belts,” Tony said in a hushed voice.

“God, I'd like to hope my grip on reality isn't that far gone,” groaned Peggy.

“It's got nothing to do with your grip on reality!” Tony protested. “Just because something's unlikely doesn't mean it can't exist!”

“Hopefully Troy's contact can tell me tomorrow,” said Steve.

Once the news segment on the shuttle was over, Tony stood up and stretched. “I guess I should go home before Mom notices I was gone,” he said.

“Me as well,” said Peggy. “Tomorrow's likely to be a very busy day for me... and I'll probably need your help again, Tony,” she added.

“Really?” Tony asked, smiling, but then quickly sobered himself. “Of course,” he said, standing up straight and trying to look professional. “Happy to. National security and everything.”

Peggy managed to maintain a straight face, but only with effort. “I'll see you in the morning, Agent Stark,” she said. “You too, Steve – get some sleep.”

“I'll try,” Steve said. “No promises.”

She held up a warning finger. “Don't make me try to drug you again.”

“That didn't even work,” Steve protested, before it occurred to him that maybe she wasn't talking about the incident he thought she was.  Instead of the time she'd tried to dose him with sleeping pills after he'd been awake for three straight days during the war, had she tried again since he'd awakened?

We have better drugs now,” Peggy told him. Her tone was dark, but her eyes were sparkling with humour - and somehow, Steve didn't find that reassuring.

It had been a long time, no matter how he measured it, since Steve had lived anywhere on his own. In 1943, before Bucky shipped out and Steve joined Project Rebirth, he'd had a single room on the fourth floor of a shabby building near the bridge. Ever since then, Steve had slept in a place with other people: a bunkroom, a ship's hold or airplane's belly, a tent, a hospital. At the Stark penthouse Howard and Maria had been just across the hall and Tony right next door. Now, for the first time in years – whether two or forty – Steve had a place to himself.

The bed was too big and too soft, feeling as if Steve would sink into it and smother, but that had been true at Howard's too – what was really different here was the quiet. Steve had almost forgotten what silence sounded like, away from vehicles and people and machines and the sound of battle. The apartment had been in the city, where traffic noise and sirens could drift up and provide a background. This house was in a quiet neighbourhood, far back from the street, and there was barely any sound besides the occasional creak of the pipes.

He wondered if that were why Peggy had recommended the place to him: she'd thought he would appreciate the silence. Or maybe she'd had some other motive: if she'd lived here for a year, she must know the place inside and out, and possibly had some way of keeping an eye on him. Maybe the reason she'd been so willing to come and help was in order to plant listening devices. For all the trust she seemed to have in Steve or in anybody else, it seemed like a real possibility.

It was one that saddened him, though, because the Peggy who'd helped out last night had been the closest Steve had seen so far to the one he remembered – and then, for the first time, it occurred to him to wonder if he were the Steve she remembered. He hadn't changed, of course, but her memories of him could have. After forty years of believing he was dead, how much of what Peggy recalled was who Steve really was, and how much was what she, or the world in general, imagined him to be?

“Captain Rogers!” hissed a voice.

Steve's eyes flew open. The sun was just below the horizon, with the clouds tinted pink and yellow out the window, and when Steve sat up a bit, he saw Tony Stark standing in the bedroom doorway. Steve frowned – hadn't this just happened a couple of days ago? Was he dreaming?

“Oh, good, you're awake.” Tony opened the door a little further and stepped into the room.

“Yeah, I'm awake.” Steve sat up, frowning. “Didn't you go home last night?” He was sure he remembered Tony leaving.

“I came back,” Tony replied. “You know how Madame Director told Dr. Williams not to let them try the altitude record?”

Before Steve could answer, a phone rang. Steve and Tony both turned their heads to look towards the door – the phone would be the same one Peggy had used last night to call Dr. Williams at NASA, and Steve doubted she'd given anybody the number. The caller now was most likely Peggy herself, and the fact that Tony had just mentioned the altitude record meant...

“They tried it anyway,” Steve guessed.

“Nobody knows,” Tony replied. “They lost contact with the shuttle around 3 AM local time.”

The phone rang again. Steve threw off the covers and ran to pick it up. “Rogers,” he said as he put it to his ear. That was how he'd used to answer the telephone during the war.

“Steve,” Peggy's voice said urgently. “We have a situation.”

“Yeah.” Steve glanced at Tony and nodded. “So I'm told.”

So far Peggy had been keeping the contents of the tapes secret even within SHIELD, but now it seemed she'd decided the time for disclosure had come. When the car she'd sent for Steve and Tony dropped them off outside the building, they found the organization buzzing with activity. Howard's workroom was full of people, poring over Tony's star maps or watching the news broadcasts playing on several televisions that had been brought in.

“One theory,” a reporter said, “is that communications were knocked out by a solar storm, but there has been no evidence of such an event...”

Another was playing an interview with Major Bhavana. “My colleagues on Odyssey have all been trained to deal with emergency situations,” she said. “If they are still alive, they are working to re-establish contact.” The statement sounded like a standardized response to such questions, but Bhavana's voice was shaking slightly, as if she were realizing how near she had come to disaster.

On a third, the anchorman was sitting in front of a graphic of a soviet flag. “The USSR has offered the astronauts the use of space station Mir as a lifeboat,” he said, “but President Reagan politely declined, saying NASA would ask for help if they needed it...”

Peggy flicked a switch, and the televisions shut down. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced, “he's here.” Steve stepped up, expecting her to introduce him, but she pushed Tony forward to present to the group. Of course, Steve realized – she'd told Tony last night she would need him today. “Anthony Stark finished decoding the Dvenadstat tapes, and was the first to identify a possible threat to the Odyssey mission,” Peggy said. “He's eager to see what you're working on.”

Tony grinned. “Let's see what you've got,” he said, rubbing his hands together.

“How old is he?” somebody asked. “Twelve?”

Tony stopped dead, and for a moment Steve thought he would turn around and slink out again. Then he caught Steve's eye. His back straightened, and he seemed to transform into his father as he looked the speaker full in the face.

“I'll be sixteen at the end of May,” he said. “You can ask my professors at MIT about it. I also know the space shuttle as well as anybody outside NASA or Rockwell. I had to, in order to revamp the StarkArm. So maybe instead of worrying about whether I can legally drink, you can tell me what you've accomplished today.”

There was a general straightening of ties and raising of heads as people re-evaluated this new arrival, and Steve smiled to himself. Howard had said don't let Tony be like me, because he didn't want his son to have the worst of him, but he needn't have worried – Tony was like Howard only in the best possible ways. He would be fine.

Peggy watched for a moment while the scientists and agents began to explain what they'd been working on, then she took Steve's arm and pulled him out into the hallway. “Come with me,” she said.

“Stairwell again?” Steve asked.

But she shook her head. “I don't know where the ears are.”

She took him out of the building by a side door that led through a little bookshop, and then flagged down a taxi.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“Nowhere,” Peggy replied. “Just drive around.” She and Steve climbed in, and the driver started on a meandering tour of downtown.

“So what really happened?” asked Steve, keeping his voice down.

“We have no idea,” Peggy replied. “Gary passed on my instructions about canceling the test to Commander Shipley, and shortly thereafter the shuttle simply stopped communicating with Earth. Its orbit doesn't take it near enough anything that can get a photograph, so we have no idea what kind of state it's in. The Russians might be able to help us, but after they turned down help with Dvenadstat...”

That made it a matter of national pride, Steve realized. If the USSR could handle the disaster at Dvenadstat without American help, then the US could take on whatever had become of Odyssey without Russia. “Maybe they can send somebody in secretly like you did,” Steve suggested. “As long as the survivors don't choose suicide over capture.” That probably sounded more bitter than he'd intended, but it also reminded him of something. “How's Fletcher?”

“Her therapist has diagnosed post-traumatic stress,” said Peggy. “I keep meaning to visit her but events keep intervening. Are you still planning to meet Troy's contact?”

“Of course I am,” Steve said. It was now their best lead, both to Howard's murder and to what had become of the Odyssey.

“Good,” Peggy nodded. “I'm still not sending anybody with you, but we've got to get you wired up and I didn't want to do it where anybody was watching. We'll need to record everything that's said so we can review it later... I'll want you to listen to the tape as soon as you get back and give me a written transcript.” She opened her purse and pulled out a plastic sandwich bag with a variety of cords and tiny electronics inside it.

“What if I'm searched?” Steve asked.

“Don't worry,” she replied. “I'm very good at this. Shirt off, please.”

He pulled it off and shut his eyes, desperately grabbing for another fragment of memory as she wound the wire around him. Peggy'd had her arms around him so many times, sometimes tickling, sometimes teasing, sometimes holding tight as if she never wanted to let go. But this touch wasn't like any of those. Was it the circumstances, or was he just forgetting?

The appointed time, according to Agent Troy, had been 7:13 PM. Most people would have found it a strange number, but like loud surroundings and hard beds, it was a thing Steve was used to. Spies, soldiers, and superheroes couldn't afford to miss each other, even by seconds. Troy's contact might not have arrived yet at 7:12, or could be gone by 7:14.

At 7:11 and thirty seconds, Steve dropped lightly from a roof onto the fire escape of a ramshackle brownstone building on 181st Street. Holding up a hand to block the glare of reflections from the lit windows across the road, he squinted through the window at a sparsely-furnished room with a wooden floor. It had probably been a sitting room once, but now it was mostly given over to boxes of paperwork and a wall covered in newspaper clippings. The doorway that led to the dining area on the left had been filled in, leaving both open only onto the hall.

Steve quietly slid the window open and ducked inside. There was definitely nobody in the room. When he paused to look at the articles stapled to the wall, he found they dealt with a variety of items – there were some about Dvenadstat, others about SETI and UFO sightings. Some had yellow post-it notes stuck to them, with scrawled observations and questions, and Steve was a little disappointed that there were no strings connecting the various bits of information, the way he'd seen in movies. The room stank of cigarette smoke.

Steve crossed to the hall door and peeked through – the passage beyond was long, narrow, and since it had no windows, almost entirely black. Peggy had offered to loan Steve a set of night vision goggles, but they were big and cumbersome, and he was afraid they'd make him look more threatening. Steve wanted to meet this person as Steve Rogers, willing to listen – not as Captain America, looking for a fight.

He checked the dining room next. It had been transformed into a makeshift bedroom, with an air mattress on the floor and an old cable spool for a night table, as well as a few other sticks of furniture. Nobody there. He backed out and turned around to check the kitchen – and then he heard the gunshot.

It was so loud and so close that Steve instinctively dropped, curling up behind his shield, in preparation for more. A few seconds went by, however, and no more came. Heart pounding, Steve got up and checked the kitchen. It too, was empty, and didn't even have a stove – just a big, dusty space next to the fridge where the appliance had once been. Steve felt his way a little further down the hall, and came to the bathroom.

A faint light was visible under the door.

Steve held up his shield in case of more gunfire and tried to the door. It wasn't locked. He took a deep breath and pulled it open.

A utility flashlight on the floor beside the sink lit the room just enough to see by without being bright enough to notice from neighbouring buildings. By its light, Steve could see a ham radio setup on the counter, with a small stool for the operator to sit on. A decoding machine, similar to the one Howard had used to extract the message from the apparent noise of the tapes, was sitting on the lid of the toilet. Whoever had been using this had gone to some effort to make sure anyone outside the building would think nobody was home.

But he'd clearly failed. The corpse of a man in his late forties was sprawled on the floor, legs in the bathtub and head beside the toilet, bleeding from a bullet wound between the eyes. Steve checked the man's pulse anyway, but wasn't surprised by what he found.

The window was open. Something moved outside.

“Stop!” Steve ordered. He wiggled out through the narrow gap between the panes and swung himself off the sill to drop three storeys, landing on a pile of garbage bags which turned out to be full of discarded soda cans. These split when he landed on them, scattering their contents with a cacophony of hollow metal sounds. Steve dug himself out of the mess and looked up.

Somebody was looking back at him. A figure was clinging to a windowsill, one floor down from where Steve had climbed out. He couldn't tell if it were a man or a woman, only that it was wearing a black leather jacket and appeared to have shoulder-length brown hair.

Realizing it had been seen, this apparition started climbing down the wall.

Steve ran to intercept, hoping to grab the other at the bottom. The figure anticipated him, however, and did a backwards somersault off the decorative ledge in the brickwork at the top of the ground floor, landing on its feet behind him. Steve spun and brought up his shield in time to stop a punch, and for a moment he was looking his opponent right in the eyes. Blue eyes, above a black scarf tied over the lower half of the face. Then the person rolled under Steve's shield arm, and ran.

He didn't think – he just gave chase.

They flew down the street, past a florist's, a Spanish baker, a laundromat. The building on the corner s under repair – the lower floors were surrounded by a green-painted scaffold. The fleeing assassin grabbed this and began to climb, but Steve caught up and grabbed the person around the waist, intending to drag them down.

This was much more difficult than he'd expected it to be. The other person, although smaller and slighter than Steve, was formidably strong. Strong enough, as they dragged Steve off the ground using only their legs, that there had to be something artificial about it. How many countries had signed that no-super-soldiers treaty? Was this person from somewhere not on the list, or had somebody been cheating?

The other person let go of the scaffold, dropping them both onto the ground, then kicked Steve in the teeth and went to run again, but Steve grabbed them around the legs and they fell flat on their face. Playground tactics, really, but effective. Steve rolled the person over and drove his elbow into their gut, below the diaphragm, forcing the air out of their lungs. They let out a high-pitched cry of pain. Good.

If somebody had punched Steve in the stomach it would have hurt, but he would have recovered quickly. If this assassin had similar abilities, he would have to press his advantage while he had it. He dragged the person to their feet and forced them through the nearest open door – it led to a shop that sold carpet and drapery.

Buena noch...” the proprietor began, then cried in alarm out as she saw what was happening. “¿Que es esto?

Steve held up his shield to let her know who he was. “¡Cierra la puerta!” he ordered.

The woman hurried to do so, while Steve shoved his opponent into a corner. The assassin was already getting their wind back, and it was a struggle every step of the way – but finally Steve managed to rip the scarf away, and see the face underneath.


Chapter Text

For the first few moments, all Steve could do was stare. He got a handful of the brown hair and tugged, just to be sure – the wig slid off the wearer's head, revealing short, ash-blonde hair underneath.

Fletcher?” Steve asked.

She glared back at him, but said nothing.

It took Steve a couple more seconds to collect his thoughts. Connie Fletcher was supposed to be on psych leave, suffering from post-traumatic stress. Questions flashed through Steve's mind one after the other – was she Troy's mysterious contact? Was that why she was wearing a disguise? How was she so much stronger than she looked? Who was she really? As the questions, and the implications of them, sank in, Steve felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. No matter what the answers were, the simple fact of the matter was that he'd been played.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “Why did you kill that man?”

She didn't answer, and Steve's chest constricted as he realized this wasn't even the first time he'd caught her undermining SHIELD's work. He'd taken her word without question. He'd trusted her, and even felt sorry for her, when she'd been lying to him the whole time! Steve pushed her harder against the wall.

“Why did you kill Lupanko?” he demanded.

Still no reply.

Say something!” Steve roared, shaking her. “And And it had better not be hail HYDRA, because if it is, I'm gonna...”

“I am not HYDRA!” Feltcher snapped.

“Then who are you?” Steve asked.

She didn't answer right away. After a few seconds Steve took a deep breath, preparing to shout again, but then she said, “my name is Konstantina Fyodorova.”

That wasn't the answer Steve had been expecting, but at least it could have been worse. “You work for the KGB,” he said.

“No. I work for the people who keep the KGB in line,” she corrected him, lifting her chin proudly.

Steve had gotten answers out of Agent Troy by being careful how he asked them. He didn't have the time or the patience to do the same thing with Fyodorova. “Why did you kill Lupanko?” he asked again.

“He was a witness,” Fyodorova replied. “He would have seen me kill Koshkin.”

“So why did... because Koshkin would have been able to tell us about the false tower,” Steve said. Of course he'd had to die. “And you killed the man in the bathroom to keep him from talking to me.”

She shook her head. “I didn't know you were coming,” she said. “I killed him to get this.” With her eyes fixed on Steve, Fyodorova reached inside her jacket and pulled out a floppy disk in a paper sleeve.

“What's on it?” asked Steve.

“Hopefully, a translation of Van Cleef's communications from the space shuttle,” she said. “I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. We can read Albtraum Zwölf, but more recent HYDRA codes don't come with forty-year-old manuals.”

Steve's brain churned as facts began dropping into place. Theodore Van Cleef had been a last-minute replacement for Major Bhavana on a flight that was supposed to set an altitude record, right to where Tony claimed the sender of the message wanted to meet humans for something having to do with the metashapes – a few months after the Russians had launched a space station that would be a good starting point for a similar effort. “After Dr. Williams told him not to increase altitude, Van Cleef cut communications with the ground and did it anyway,” he guessed.

“That's our assumption, but until we can look at the data, we don't know,” Fyodorova agreed.

Steve very gently took the disk from her hand, and tucked it into his own shirt. “Why are you telling me all this?” he asked carefully. For all he knew, this was just another layer of deception. There seemed to be a lot of that around. It seemed more likely she was just telling him what she thought he wanted to hear.

“Because if I can't do this behind your back, then I need your help to do it in the open,” Fyodorova said. “We have to find out what happened to the Odyssey, and what we can do about it.”

“Why do you care?” Steve asked, but then realized he knew the answer already. “Because HYDRA hates the US and the USSR. They want to bring the whole thing down and replace it with their own government. The enemy of my enemy...”

“Is a useful ally, for now,” said Fyodorova.

Steve loosed his grip on her. He supposed he could deal with that in the name of finding out why Howard had been killed... but at that thought, something in him went hard again, and he shoved Fyodorova back against the wall.

“Why did you kill Howard Stark?” he asked.

Her eyes widened – she seemed honestly surprised by the question. “I didn't!”

“Then who did?” Steve demanded.

“I don't know.”

Tell me!”

“I don't know!” Fyodorova repeated, exasperated. “All I know is he's dead – most likely because he was too close to figuring out what we'd found. I didn't kill him. Why would they tell me who did it? I don't need to know!” She squirmed in his hands.

Reluctantly, Steve let go of her, but kept his body in the way of her only escape route. “It's a goddamn onion,” he said.

“You mean there's layers and it makes you want to cry?” she asked. “Welcome to the 1980's.”

For a moment Steve had no idea what to do with her. She'd said she couldn't do this behind his back, so she would do it in the open, with his help... fine, he decided. He'd see how much she meant that. He grabbed her arm again, and pushed her ahead of him. “Let's go.”

But Fyodorova hung back. “You first,” she said. “You're wearing a wire. Madame Director heard everything we just said, and there's a dozen SHIELD agents outside waiting to shoot me.”

Steve had forgotten about the wire. He glanced down, but it didn't seem to be showing anywhere. “How did you know?” he asked.

“I looked outside,” she tilted her head a bit to indicate the window behind him.

Keeping a grip on his prisoner, Steve turned and peered outside, but saw nobody. Nobody at all, in fact, not even normal traffic. When he looked up and down the street he saw that big black vans had parked in the intersection, blocking vehicles from turning onto the street, while police officers on the corner were redirecting pedestrians. They weren't going to risk shooting a civilian.

Inside the shop there was only the frightened owner and her family, watching in obvious terror of what Fyodorova – or Steve himself – might do next.

“Sorry,” Steve told them. “We're going now... anything we broke, we'll pay for it. Muchos gracias.”

De nada,” the woman replied, voice shaking.

When Steve and Fyodorova stepped out the door, they were surrounded at once. Armed agents ran around the corners and dropped from the scaffolding, shouting that their prisoners should kneel and put their hands behind their heads. Steve immediately did so, but then the leader stepped forward and pulled off his black cap. It was Agent Fury.

“You can get up, Captain Rogers,” he said. “We're here for the Russian.”

Steve began to stand, but then he changed his mind. If he let them cart Fyodorova away, they might throw her in a cell with Agent Troy, rather than listening to anything she had to say. SHIELD still thought the Soviets were the bad guys. “She's with me,” he said.

Fury looked appalled. “You trust her?”

Steve glanced at Fyodorova. He probably had even less reason to trust her than Fury did – she was the one who'd told him to look into the Manhattan project, which now looked like an attempt to turn him against Howard and Peggy. He'd offered her comfort and sympathy after Dvenadstat, and she'd lied to his face and played him like a violin. She might still be lying now, and he had to keep that in mind. The only way they'd know for sure was by looking at the contents of the disk.

“I don't trust her,” said Steve. “But I think we need her.”

Fury frowned, disapproving. All he said aloud, however, was, “get in the van.”

They climbed into the back of one of the vehicles, where two agents put Fyodorova in handcuffs and tested that they were secure behind her back before buckling her in. Steve sat next to her. As the van pulled away, she quite casually dropped the cuffs on the floor and put her hands in her lap, watching Steve out of the corner of her eye to make sure he saw her do it.

“Have you got a name?” Steve asked her.

“I already told you my name,” Fyodorova replied.

“No, I mean...” he tapped his chest. “Like I'm Captain America.”

“I'm not a propaganda piece,” said Fyodorova.

The person in the front passenger seat turned to look back, and Steve realized it was Peggy. “She,” she said, “is from the Red Room.”

Nobody elaborated on this enigmatic statement until they got back to SHIELD, where Peggy delivered a very brief explanation as she escorted Steve and Fyodorova into a meeting room. “The women we call Black Widows are Russian espionage agents trained from childhood to be perfect assassins and utterly loyal to the Soviet State. They chose women because a beautiful woman is often the best way to get information out of a foolish man,” she added. “Howard slept with three of them in the 40's and 50's and never suspected a thing.”

“Five,” Fyodorova corrected.

Peggy pushed the door of the room open without any comment on that.

It was clear that SHIELD's project to understand what had been going on behind the scenes at Dvenadstat had outgrown Howard's downstairs workroom. This new center of operations had almost fifty people working in it. Maps and information on the Russian space program were laid out on the table and pinned to the walls. Tony was discussing something with a white-haired scientist when Steve, Peggy, and Fyodorova came in – he looked up and greeted them with a smile.

“Hi!” he said.

“You're still here?” asked Peggy. “Do you know it's past eight PM?”

“I'm busy,” Tony protested. “It's not like it's a school night! Is she the spy you went to meet?” he pointed at Fyodorova.

“No, she's the spy who shot the spy I went to meet,” said Steve, and pulled out the disk to show him. “We need to know what's on this,” he said, moving to hand it over.

“Wait!” Fyodorova put out a hand to stop Tony from taking it. “There's hostile software on that. The program is designed to shut down your computer if you...”

“Way ahead of you,” Tony promised. He plucked the disk from Steve's hand and slipped it into a drive, but instead of letting the computer boot from it, he somehow went straight into the code itself. “Not bad,” he commented, examining what he'd found. “It's a program similar to ARF – if you're not using one of the machines it recognizes, it just deletes everything but itself. Leaves you with a hard drive containing only this one program that'll kill any other softward as soon as you try to install it.”

“And now it's on our computers?” asked Peggy dryly.

“Please, I've written viruses worse than this,” said Tony. “Anyway, if you trick it into thinking you're a computer it knows...” he stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth as he entered commands. “You can find this!”

The message was very short. Three words repeated six times, and then cut off in the middle of the seventh.


“A trap?” asked Peggy.

“Set by who?” Steve asked. “And for who?” The original message from space had been in Albtraum Zwölf, which suggested a trap for HYDRA – but the Americans hadn't known HYDRA still existed until a few days ago, and if Fyodorova could be believed, the Russians had been in competition with HYDRA to get to the rendezvous. Could there be a fourth power at play here? He looked at Fyodorova.

“If anybody in Russia knows the answer, they never told me,” said Fyodorova.

This was way beyond onions, Steve thought. This was on the scale of a hidden base within a hidden base at Dvenadstat. This was a god-damned matryoshka conspiracy.

“We need to know what happened up there,” Peggy decided. “I need to call Dr. Williams at NASA again.” She reached for the phone mounted on a nearby wall. “We managed to get pictures of Mir with the spy satellites...”

“If Odyssey went to the meeting orbit, they're at twice the altitude of Mir,” Tony reminded her. “How high up are the spy satellites?”

“I can't tell you that. You're a civilian,” said Peggy, but she took her hand off the phone and began pacing the room instead, thinking. Evidently the answer was not high enough, because she turned next to Fyodorova. “They've got cameras on Mir itself, right?”

“Of course,” Fyodorova replied.

“Reagan already turned down official help from Russia,” Peggy said. “Do you know any backdoors we could knock on?”

“They'll already have pictures if they can get them,” Fyodorova told her. “I'll just need to make a phone call, but I have to use one of four specially prepared phones within the city. The nearest one's in the subway station at 49th Street.”

Peggy gave one curt nod. “Go with her,” she ordered Steve.

“Excuse me,” said Agent Fury, as Steve reached for the jacket he'd only just hung on a hook by the door. “Am I the only person here who remembers that this woman is a Russian spy who has apparently been stringing us along for the last six years?”

“I trust Steve,” said Peggy. She met his eyes for a moment, and Steve understood – this one was on him, so he'd better be right. “Steve says we need her.”

Half an hour later, Steve and Fyodorova entered the subway station dressed as utility workers. Fury stood guard further up the station, pretending to smoke a cigarette, while Steve hung around next to the row of pay phones and Fyodorova got to work on the second-to-last one from the steps. She wedged the handset against her ear with her shoulder and unscrewed the microphone end. Steve wondered what he would say if people stopped to watch or asked questions, but the passing public seemed utterly uninterested. Just like in the 1940's, the people who kept the city running were practically invisible.

“You know,” Steve remarked, as Fyodorova did her work, “Peggy told me I was the only person she thought was capable of taking an expedition into Dvenadstat. If they hadn't found me, there wouldn't have been a mission. We would never have found those tapes, and Howard would still be alive.”

It was a depressing thought. Peggy would still have had a friend, Maria would have had a husband, and Tony would have a father who might someday realize that his son needed him. Fyodorova wasn't exactly the best person to share this with, but Steve wanted to talk to somebody about it and he didn't have a lot of options. The people he would have confided in during his former life were all either dead, dying, or too intimately involved with the situation.

Fyodorova snorted. “So you think you killed him?” she asked. “We've had an eye on him for years, and I'm honestly surprised HYDRA didn't decide he was a liability years ago.” She began wiggling something inside the phone. To a passerby it would look as if she were trying to reach a part, but the rhythm sounded a bit like Morse code, or possibly a Soviet variant. Steve didn't recognize it.

“That's very comforting,” said Steve, voice heavy with sarcasm.

“It's true,” Fyodorova said. “The only person responsible for a death is the one who pulled the trigger, and that wasn't you. You've killed a lot of people, but not Howard Stark.”

“That was during a war,” Steve said. “Howard was my friend. I don't want my friends to die because of me.” Yet somehow, in whatever time or place he ended up in, it just kept happening.

Fyodorova stopped tapping, and began listening. “You wanted a name,” she said. “I can't give you one. We've got a guy for high-profile assassinations, but he's just a code name, even to us. Zima. The CIA calls him the Winter Soldier.”

“I'll look into that,” Steve promised. He did want a face to put behind the gun, even if it were just some nameless Russian sniper. “Why did you tell me to look into the Manhattan Project?” he asked. What she'd said to him when she had was uncomfortably reminiscent of Troy's reasoning for joining HYDRA – the world was dangling by a thread and something had to change before it snapped. Were they really so sure HYDRA and the Soviets weren't in league?

“You don't like bullies,” said Fyodorova. She began tapping again, apparently perfectly capable of carrying on this conversation at the same time as she was having a normal one with Steve. “You're on record as having said that to several people who congratulated you on you patriotism. If you could be made to see the US as a bully, you might be a valuable asset.”

He had used to say that... he'd said to to Erskine the evening they'd met. I don't like bullies. I don't care where they come from. “Is that any different from the USSR?” he asked. “Troy said both of us have to go.”

“So HYDRA can be the biggest kid on the playground,” Fyodorova agreed. “Nobody wants a war right now, Captain Rogers. Not even HYDRA. A nuclear apocalypse won't leave anybody a world to rule, so we're all focused on maintaining the balance. I'm not here to undermine and conquer, I'm here to make sure SHIELD stays on their side of the bed. They've got people in the KGB for the same purpose. Right now, we both have a space program, and we both have nuclear weapons, but SHIELD has something else we don't.”

“The tesseract,” Steve agreed. “They won't use it, though.” Peggy in particular knew far too well what it was capable of.

“They dropped the bomb,” Fyodorova reminded him. “And then they did it again. Remember?”

Steve swallowed. A message to the Soviets, Howard had said. It seemed like they'd understood it.

Fyodorova listened a moment longer, then put the cover back on the microphone and set the handset back in its cradle. “You can call Madame Director now,” she said. “Tell her she'll be getting four photographs on her office fax machine within an hour.”

“What do we owe you for this?” Steve asked. He didn't doubt it would have a price tag.

“When HYDRA had the tesseract, they used it,” Fyodorova said. “SHIELD hasn't used it yet. On the basis of that, if somebody who isn't us finds another such object, the Soviet Union would much rather it be SHIELD.”

“HYDRA's not getting their hands on a metashape again. You have my word,” said Steve.

Steve, Fyodorova, and Fury climbed back into their borrowed utility truck to head back to SHIELD. If he'd survived the crash and the forty years in ice, Steve thought as they drove, there had to be a reason... maybe this was it. Maybe he'd come back just in time to make sure there could be no repeat of what HYDRA had done during the war. There was a horrible fatality about this idea, which implied that Steve's personal fate was forever tied to that of the metashapes – but at least it gave him a purpose. He had work to do.

It was around ten when they got back to the building, and the number of people in the conference room had dwindled from fifty to perhaps fifteen. By the time the fax was due, there were only six left, waiting impatiently in Peggy's office. Peggy herself was in her chair, watching the fax machine like a hawk, while Tony fidgeted, tearing post-it notes from a pad and folding them into little animals and flowers. Steve himself sat upright in an armchair, trying not to twiddle his fingers. Fyodorova stood in a corner leafing through a magazine, and Agent Fury hovered nearby. Pearce was sitting in the other armchair opposite Steve, where Howard had sat that first day Steve was awake. He was looking at the floor between his knees, except for when he intermittently raised his head a bit to glance at Fyodorova. Judging from their hug after the Dvenadstat mission, Pearce had trusted Fyodorova more than any of them. Steve wondered what he was thinking now.

All of them jumped a bit when the door opened, but it was only Diane. “Excuse me, Madame Director,” she said. “Dr. Williams is here.” She pushed the door open a bit further, and the NASA administrator walked in.

“Oh, Gary!” Peggy rose to greet him. “I'm glad you could make it!”

Dr. Williams was wearing a buff-coloured jacket and matching cowboy hat, over a white dress shirt with the red NASA logo embroidered on the pocket. His bolo tie had a replica of the Odyssey mission patch as its clasp. “They didn't want to let me leave right now,” he said. “I had to promise to be on the six AM back to Houston in the morning.”

Peggy shook his hand. “You've met Captain Rogers and Tony Stark,” she said, “and I think you remember Alex Pearce. Over here we have Agent Nicholas Fury, one of our most promising – and Miss Konstantina Fyodorova, a Soviet double agent.” Her eyes narrowed with this last introduction and the meaning was clear: Fyodorova would be given no chance to resume life undercover in the States. Steve didn't doubt that as soon as this was over, she would be imprisoned or deported.

“Um, hello,” said Dr. Williams, dropping his hat on the desk. He'd clearly never been introduced to a 'Soviet double agent' before.

Dobryy vecher,” said Fyodorova.

Everyone in the room jumped again as the fax machine suddenly started to ring like a phone, followed by a series of high-pitched squealing noises.

“They're here!” Peggy exclaimed.

“Incoming!” Tony said, and ran to watch.

Everybody except Fyodorova and Pearce crowded around as the machine buzzed, slowly putting out the first photo. Steve was terribly disappointed by the quality – it was black and white with no shades of gray, and while the pale shuttle showed up very well against the darkness of space, it was difficult to see what kind of condition it was in. Peggy pulled the page out of the machine and held it up, squinting as she tried to make out the details.

“Here, give it to me!” said Tony. Without waiting for a reply, he yanked it out of Peggy's hands, grabbed a red felt marker from the cup on her desk, and started drawing on it.

“Tony!” Peggy protested. “We may not get another copy of that!”

“Just gimme a sec here,” Tony said, and kept scribbling. “Here's the cockpit windows... the side hatch is here, and these will be the forward control thrusters...”

The fax machine began producing a second picture. Williams and Fury stayed there to wait for it, but Peggy joined Steve in watching over Tony's shoulder as he slowly pulled the outline of the craft out of the blobs of paper and toner.

“The shuttle is upside-down as we'd see it from Earth,” Tony said, “which is normal – they point the belly at space so the heat shield can protect the astronauts from cosmic rays. So we're essentially looking at it from above and in front. Here's the nose cone, cockpit, and this might be an open cargo bay door, but I can't see the tail.” He chewed on the end of the marker for a minute. “It's lit by reflected light from the Earth, so it shouldn't be in shadow. I think the tail fin is gone.”

“Struck by a meteor?” Peggy looked to see what Williams thought. “Collision with a piece of space junk?”

Steve could see the hope in her eyes. She desperately wanted this to be an ordinary accident, not part of a plot by an organization she'd blithely believed to be extinct for the last forty years. But that wouldn't explain Van Cleef's cut-off message.

“Could be,” said Williams, still watching the second photo come out. “The fuel cells are located in the tail. If they've lost one or more of those, they'd only have battery power. That could be why we've lost communications. They're saving the power for life support.”

“Why?” asked Steve. “Wouldn't the first thing you'd do be call for help?”

“No rescue in space,” said Peggy quietly.

“The message said trap, no re-entry,” said Fyodorova. “That's the opposite of a call for help. That's telling you to leave them alone.”

“Here's number two!” Williams held it up, only to have Tony snatch it and begin drawing on this one, too.

The second photo was at a different angle, with the shuttle closer to directly above the camera on Mir. From there, it was possible to see that something was very, very wrong indeed. A missing tail fin was the least of the damage. It looked as if the back half of the shuttle and most of the cargo hold had been torn out, and the nose was hanging on to the tattered wings only by thin struts. Something had ripped the craft in two, as if it were one of Tony's card paper models.

“Well, that's why he said no re-entry,” said Tony. “In that condition, passing through the atmosphere would tear it apart.”

“What would even cause damage like that?” asked Dr. Williams. “Maybe it's just the picture quality, but it looks like something took a bite out of it.”

The thing that Steve noticed, however, was that the crew compartment itself appeared to be intact. He remembered from his visit to the museum and the interview they'd watched with Van Cleef that the crew lived in the cockpit and the mid-deck underneath it, and that this was the only part of the shuttle that wasn't pressurized in space. “Look at that,” he said. “The hatch is still shut, and it looks like there might be light reflecting off the windows... if that's true, somebody might still be alive in there.”

“If they were, they'd have let us know,” said Williams.

“They did,” Peggy said. “They said trap, no re-entry.”

Fyodorova's analysis was not so optimistic. “If they survived the hit, they've probably committed suicide,” she said. “Better to get it over with than to it around and wait for it.”

“Unless there's something else keeping them from calling for help,” said Steve.

“There'd be no point in calling for help anyway,” Williams said morosely. “We can't do anything for them.”

“Why not?” asked Tony.

Williams blinked. “Why not?” he repeated, as if he didn't understand the question. “Because they're seven hundred kilometers over our heads! What are we going to do, throw them a life preserver?”

“Sure,” said Tony. He leaned forward, face earnest. “Look, you told me Intrepid was being prepped even before Odyssey actually took off. It's probably already on its way to the launch pad. You can launch Intrepid, they can meet Odyssey and find out what's happened and what it's got to do with the message from Russia, and if anybody's still alive they can bring them back!”

Steve thought this was a great idea – if people thought there was no rescue in space, maybe that was just because they'd never tried. Williams, however, looked horrified.

“Okay, first of all, launching a shuttle costs us about four hundred million dollars,” he said. “Second, whatever did this will have left debris that could damage Intrepid. And third, we don't even know what happened to Odyssey in the first place, so we might be exposing Intrepid to the same unknown hazard. And fourth,” he said, as if he'd only just thought of it, “there's probably not anybody up there to rescue! The overwhelming odds are that we'll just end up with two destroyed shuttles and dead crews instead of one!”

“Gary,” said Peggy. She took a deep breath, but he cut her off before she could speak.

“No,” he said firmly. “It's a terrible idea, proposed by a child who has no idea what the shuttle's limits are...”

“Hey!” Tony protested.

“... and I'm not going to be held responsible for it!” Williams went on. “This is not up for debate, I'm sorry. And don't you dare threaten to go over my head, Margaret,” he added, shaking a finger at Peggy. “You have no jurisdiction over NASA. We'll be lucky if we still have a space program after this!” he pointed to the photographs. “There definitely won't be if we pull a fool stunt like that! Say goodbye to Mars and to the Hubble program... I won't be held responsible!” he repeated.

“Gary!” Peggy said again.

“Excuse me.” Graham scooped up his cowboy hat and put it firmly back on his balding head. “I have to get back to Houston, where we're doing useful things like trying to figure out what the hell is going on up there!”

He slammed the door as he stormed out.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Steve woke to the sound of a phone ringing.

Steve didn't need as much sleep as a normal human being, but that didn't mean he could go without, and for the past several days it had been hard to come by. He staggered into the living room and tore the handset off the cradle with slightly more force than was strictly necessary. “Rogers,” he said, putting it to his ear.

“Captain Rogers!” The voice in his ear was Tony Stark's. “I need you to help me with something. I've put together kind of a presentation for Dr. Williams and Madame Director...”

Steve blinked. “A presentation?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Tony said. Steve could vaguely hear traffic noise in the background. “About the rescue mission with Intrepid and why it's an awesome idea. And how to minimize the risks involved in it.”

“And incidentally how you know exactly what the shuttle is capable of?” Steve guessed.

“Yes,” said Tony.

Steve nodded slowly. He'd seen Howard in Tony yesterday – now here he was again. Whenever anyone had so much as implied that Howard wasn't capable of something, Howard had made the person eat those words, and now Dr. Williams had told Tony he didn't know what he was talking about to his face. There was no way a Stark would let that go.

“What time is it?” Steve asked. He looked around. When they'd been cleaning up the house, they'd found some kind of video playback device to go with the TV, and Tony had set a clock on it to the correct time. It said 9:10 AM. “Have you been up all night?”

“I think better when it's dark,” said Tony. “Anyway, they won't let me in, so I need you to come and make them.”

“Let you...” Steve listened to the background traffic noise again for a few moments. “Where are you?”

“Phone booth across the street from SHIELD,” said Tony. “I kept asking people to tell you I was out here, and finally somebody said you hadn't arrived yet. I didn't believe it at first, because you and Dad always left early when he was...” there was a pause. “When he was taking you. But I figured I might as well phone. Come on, those astronauts are running out of air!”

Was Tony normally so demanding, Steve wondered, or was it just the sense of urgency imparted by the dire situation? Steve didn't know the boy well enough to tell – he'd always done his best to stay out of the way at home, but that seemed to have been because he didn't want to spend time with his parents. It was hard to blame Howard for wanting to avoid a child who would break into somebody's house in the small hours of the morning to make them watch a news broadcast, after Tony had scolded Steve for not remembering to knock! Steve was exhausted, and he wanted to hang up the phone and go back to bed.

But as when Tony had come to show him the bullet in the glue pot, he didn't. Part of it was Howard's request, and the increasingly obvious fact that Tony's neediness was the result of an attention-starved childhood. Another part remembered promising Fyodorova that HYDRA would not get their hands on another metashape while Steve was still alive. But perhaps the most important consideration was that the last two times Tony had pulled Steve out of bed, it had been to show or tell him something that was well worth getting up for.

“Give me a few minutes,” said Steve. “I need to get dressed.”

It was quite a bit more than a few minutes to get from Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan when the only transportation Steve had was the subway and his own two feet. At least he could eat on the way, and think about the fact that he was really going to have to get a driver's license. He'd moved out of Howard's apartment, but his ability to go anywhere much was still severely limited. Driving a car in the 1980's didn't look very different from one in the 1940's. He could probably past the test easily. The problem might be finding the time to take it.

When he arrived at SHIELD, Steve found Tony sitting impatiently on the steps of the building, with Howard's briefcase on his knees and a big cardboard tube propped up next to him. He'd taken unusual trouble to look professional today, in a dark blue suit and with his hair combed to hide the coloured parts. It didn't really help him look older – he still looked like a teenager, but he looked like a teenager who was determined to be taken seriously.

The effect was somewhat ruined by his bright red sneakers.

“What took you so long?” Tony asked, scrambling to his feet as Steve approached. “I calculated they've probably got less than a day of oxygen left without the fuel cells.”

“I had to take the train,” Steve told him.

“I will buy you a car,” Tony promised. “Mom will never notice.”

The security guards at the front door hadn't wanted to let Tony in alone, but apparently they couldn't say no when he was with Steve. They issued him a guest badge again and waved them through. On their way across the lobby, Steve realized that nobody really bothered to greet him anymore – he'd been big news at SHIELD for a week or so, but now everybody had settled back into a routine that just so happened to include Captain America. Maybe people in the 80's got bored with things faster than people in the 40's had.

They found Peggy at a meeting in her office with three people. One of them was Pearce; the others Steve didn't know, and didn't care about. He and Tony barged in without knocking, and Tony thumped his stuff down on Peggy's desk while she stood up and stared at them, uncomprehending.

Now what's going on?” she asked. She looked more frightened than anything else – she probably thought they were there with more bad news.

“Tony wants to show you something,” said Steve.

“I'm in a meeting!” Peggy protested, gesturing to her guests.

“It's important,” said Steve.

Tony opened the briefcase. “They're running out of air,” he repeated.

Peggy's shoulders slumped a little as she realized it was just this again. “Boys...” she began with a sigh.

But Tony was already pulling a hastily-made presentation poster out of his cardboard tube, which he spread out on the coffee table in front of Peggy's desk. It was full of orbital diagrams and calculations, and photocopies of the pictures of Odyssey they'd gotten from the Russians. The Bugle had somehow gotten a hold of one of these, and Steve had seen it at newsstands on the short walk from the subway to the building. The headlines had read SHUTTLE DESTROYED: NASA Fears Soviet Plot.

Tony stood up straight as if talking to a thesis committee, and not a small group of surprised officials. “Yesterday, Dr. Gary Williams of NASA raised several objections to the idea of a rescue mission,” he began. “The first was cost, which is obviously irrelevant when the lives of seven astronauts are at stake. The second was the debris field the explosion on Odyssey will have created. I believe some of the white specks in the background of these photographs, which I can't match with any known bright stars or solar system objects, may be such fragments. However!” He pulled his paper shuttle model out of the briefcase. He'd given this a quick coat of paint and a few decals from a commercial model kit to make it look more complete. “We can minimize the debris problem by flying into the wind, so to speak. Anything that fell off Odyssey will tend to continue orbiting in tandem with it, so going in nose-first from behind will mean presenting the least possible area for objects to impact!”

Peggy stared at him, speechless. The other people in the meeting exchanged glances that communicated only utter confusion. Pearce would know what this was all about, but the other two must have been here for some other reason entirely and clearly had no idea why they'd just been interrupted like this.

“Now,” Tony went on, “the really dangerous part would be having to say in orbit alongside Odyssey. The longer we stay in the debris field, the more likely something would hit us, and any mistake in navigation would risk a collision between the two shuttles. So rather than trying to keep them together, I propose we make use of an orbital resonance!” He pointed to one of his diagrams. “We put Intrepid in an elliptical orbit with its apogee near Odyssey. On the first rendezvous, we send one or two astronauts over with batteries, water, and a transmitter. They can determine the state of the other shuttle, board, and help survivors if there are any! Then after a specified number of orbits – I worked it out for eight, but it's flexible – the two shuttles pass one another again, having given plenty of time in the interim to determine who and what can be saved and prepare for the return spacewalk!”

One of the men pointed at Tony. “How old is he?” he asked.

“I'll be sixteen in a couple of days,” said Tony. “Moving on.” He seemed determined to get through the whole speech as quickly as possible, interruptions or no. “Dr. Williams' third objection was that we don't know what happened to Odyssey and we're risking exposing more people and equipment to the same fate. But the fact that we don't know what happened or whether anybody's alive is the whole point. If we launch our rescue mission we might still not find out, but we definitely won't learn anything just sitting down here waiting for things to happen instead of going up there and making them happen. Doing this may be a big risk, but I'd argue that the potential benefits, in terms of knowledge, safety, and the crew of the Odyssey, are worth it!” he finished proudly. Tony folded his arms across his chest, and waited for a reaction.

The man who'd asked Tony's age began to applaud, then realized nobody else was going to, and awkwardly stopped.

Peggy rubbed her forehead. “Thank you, Tony, that was very informative. But as Dr. Williams said yesterday, I have no jurisdiction over NASA. I can't make him change his mind.”

“Yes, you can!” Tony insisted. “You can tell him what I just told you! Or better yet, you can tell the president!”

For a moment Steve wondered what would have happened if Howard had still been alive. Howard had made a point of letting Steve know he was President Reagan's personal friend. Would he have been able to make this happen? Or would Tony have simply kept his mouth shut in his father's shadow.

“The President is busy arranging for the astronauts' public funeral,” said Peggy. “You heard Dr. Williams yesterday – those people are most likely dead. Some of the brightest minds in this country work at NASA,” she added, putting a hand on Tony's shoulder in the attempt to reassure. “I'm sure they're brainstorming right now, devising a strategy...”

The words were terribly familiar. Steve's breath rushed out of him as if he'd just been punched – suddenly he was back in time once again. He was in a muddy, rain-soaked tent somewhere in... he wasn't sure, because he'd been so many places that week he'd lost track. But he'd known, as he threw a few essentials into a backpack, exactly where he was going.

What do you plan to do, walk to Austria? Peggy demanded.

If that's what it takes, Steve said, not even bothering to look up at her. Rations, ammunition, radio... what else would he need?

You heard the Colonel, she insisted. Your friend is most likely dead.

You don't know that.

Even so, he's devising a strategy...

“By the time they've done that, it'll be too late!”

It was a moment before Steve realized he'd spoken the last line of the memory aloud. He saw Peggy's expression change from insistence to horror as she, too, realized that history was repeating itself. She ducked her head for a moment, then raised it again, nibbling her lower lip.

“I'm sorry, Steve,” she said. “I know what the tesseract took from you.”

“Do you?” he asked. “Do you really?” It wasn't just Bucky he'd lost for that damned thing. It was forty years. It was an entire lifetime and everything he'd hoped to accomplish in it.

“I can't get you a flight into space,” Peggy told him. “I'm sorry, Steve.” She turned away. “Now, please, we're trying to handle this as best we can under the circumstances, and I don't have time for distractions. Tony, would you kindly take your toys off my desk?”

Tony breathed in sharply through his nose at the word toys, but then he simply started gathering up his things. The poster was rolled up and shoved back into its tube with some violence, but the model space shuttle was placed lovingly back in between the foam blocks he'd cut to keep it from bouncing around inside the briefcase.

“Was Gray's Papaya around in the 40's?” he asked Steve loudly.

“What's a papaya?” asked Steve.

“Not a hot dog,” Tony replied cryptically. “Let's blow this popsicle stand.”

The words may have been bizarre, but their meaning was clear enough. Steve followed Tony out, fuming.

He probably had no reason to be angry. In strictly logical terms, Peggy and Williams had a good point. Tony's idea for a rescue mission was expensive and dangerous and unlikely to succeed – far riskier even than venturing into the radioactive mess at Dvenadstat. But Dr. Williams had never experienced the tesseract, and Peggy had clearly forgotten just how terrifying it had been in the hands of HYDRA. Steve had not. What was forty years ago for her had been only weeks for him. The idea that HYDRA stood to gain five more of the things, or that something even worse was waiting for humanity out there in space, wasn't one he was willing to tolerate.

And that was aside from the actual astronauts. The only one Steve had actually met was Commander Shipley, but that was beside the point – they were all people who must have families and friends and lovers, people who would have been as willing to walk into danger to save them as Steve had been for Bucky. They couldn't do that, not when their loved ones were in space... so who would?

It was a thought Steve had found himself having far too many times during the war: why had they made him, if not to help people? And if they wouldn't let him do that, then what the hell were superheroes for?

Tony held his head proudly high as he pressed the elevator button, but once they'd actually stepped into the car and the doors slid closed, he sagged.

“Thanks,” he said quietly to Steve. “For letting me in. And stuff.”

“You're welcome,” said Steve.

The elevator descended smoothly, floor by floor.

“I know it's not really my responsibility,” Tony lamented. “But Odyssey was... it was mine. This was the first flight with the new StarkArm and it was the one Dad was supposed to take me to watch and now it's just gonna be remembered as the one that went all wrong.”

Steve wondered how he would have been remembered if his one-man mission to Austria had failed. Probably not at all. He thought about reminding Tony that people couldn't always have what they wanted, but then he remembered what had happened when he'd tried to talk to Tony at Howard's funeral – the kid didn't respond well to platitudes. If he couldn't think of anything that wasn't a cliché, it was best to just keep his mouth shut.

“They were listening to me yesterday,” Tony grumbled.

“Yeah,” said Steve with a heavy sigh, as the elevator doors opened again. “They used to listen to me, too.”

A papaya turned out to be a type of tropical fruit. Gray's Papaya was a hot dog restaurant on Broadway and 72nd. It was a cheerful-looking little place, with big windows and colourful paper lanterns shaped like fruits hanging from the ceilings above the tables. Steve wasn't sure what the connection was between papayas and hot dogs, but the hot dogs themselves were pretty good. He and Tony sat at the side counter eating under a cloud of self-imposed gloom.

“Madame Director was your girlfriend back in the day, wasn't she?” Tony asked, as if that should have made a difference. It probably shouldn't have, not to a professional – and yet, it still chafed that it didn't.

“She was, yeah,” said Steve. “She's changed a lot.” She'd gotten colder. More aloof. Less willing to get in there and dig trenches with the rest of the soldiers. The parts she'd lost were all the things Steve had loved best about her... what would have happened if he'd stayed around, instead of going into the ice? Would they have drifted apart as they aged? Would he have changed with her? Or would she have become somebody else, instead?

“So what now?” asked Tony.

He didn't say what the question was in reference to. Maybe it was what to do about the plight of Odyssey, or the future of Steve's relationship with Peggy – but he chose to answer it as if it were about the direction of his life in general. “I've got to get out of here,” he said firmly.

“Huh? Out of where?” Tony asked, mouth full. “New York?”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “There's nothing for me to do here. When Peggy said the world still needed me, I was ready to get back out there and follow orders, but so far besides the one trip to Dvenadstat all anybody's asked me to do is stay put and don't touch anything.” Steve was terrible at staying put and not touching anything. Bucky could have attested to that, if he'd still been alive. Dum-Dum could have done so if he were conscious. And Peggy herself ought to have known perfectly well.

“Where will you go?” Tony asked.

Steve hadn't thought about it. “Maybe California,” he said. California sounded nice. “The only time I ever went to the west coast I was dragged from city to city doing war bonds ads with no time to breathe.”

“California's great,” Tony said. “Did they have Disneyland yet in the 40's?”

“No. What's that?” Steve took another bite of hot dog.

“It's an amusement park based on Disney stuff,” Tony explained. “Sort of like Coney Island crossed with a toy store.”

“Disney Stuff? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck?” Steve thought that seemed like an odd thing to build a park around.

“Exactly.” Tony nodded. “I've never been, either. We were supposed to go for my eighth birthday, but it never happened. You know what?” he asked, putting his hot dog down. “I think I wanna leave the city, too. We should take a road trip! I've never done it but I know guys who have. We'll drive across the country and eat fast food and sleep in the back of the car and end up at Disneyland!”

Steve started to smile. Out of all the people he'd met in this strange future, he wouldn't have thought Howard's fifteen-year-old son would be the one who seemed to understand him. Tony was angry and restless, and seeing that in him rekindled Steve's own rebellious spirit. It made him feel like the skinny kid who picked fights in back alleys again, and if he were going to go back to something in his past, Steve would rather have been that than Captain America. “We won't tell anybody where we're going,” he said. “Peggy will probably have a heart attack.”

“We'll tell Jarvis,” Tony said. “If I disappear, Mom will wanna know where I went, so he can tell her. But he won't tell Madame Director if I ask him not to!”

“Perfect.” Steve nodded. “Now one of us just needs a driver's license.” He moved his chair over a little as somebody came to sit in the vacant seat next to him.

It was Tony who did a double-take as he realized the new arrival wasn't a stranger. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

Steve looked again. The man who'd just joined them was Agent Fury.

“I'm supposed to tell you guys something,” Fury replied, sipping one of the restaurant's fruit drinks through a straw. “Madame Director couldn't talk about it with other people in the room, but she thought you'd want to know: there is somebody still alive on Odyssey.”

Steve's immediate reaction was to sit up and briefly look around the room, but nobody was listening in on them. A dozen conversations were going on in the restaurant. No-one was likely to take any special notice of this one. He settled back down again, trying to stay casual.

“How do you know?” asked Tony, leaning forward to talk past Steve.

“Agent Fyodorova's friends on Mir have told us the shuttle is making course corrections using the fuel that's left in its forward thrusters,” Fury explained. “It's losing altitude and appears to be heading for a rendezvous with the space station. When she got in touch last night she must have let them know about Van Cleef's last message, because they're worried about who or what might be on board and they're hoping to evacuate the station before it gets there.”

Steve digested that for a moment. Peggy had known, the whole time Tony had been giving his impromptu presentation, and she'd still told him that the astronauts were probably dead? What was she thinking? “So why isn't she doing anything?” he asked.

“Because she can't,” said Fury. “There's no money for it, and the space program is already under heavy criticism. You won't have heard that from Stark the Second,” he added with a glance at Tony, “but a lot of people think space travel is a waste of money and an unnecessary risk. The Odyssey accident just seems to confirm that, and nobody wants to see another expensive piece of hardware destroyed and more lives lost. Reagan already turned down help from the Soviets, and Williams won't send Intrepid, so her hands are tied.”

Steve thumped on the countertop, making other customers jump and look up in surprise. Then he grabbed his jacket and stood. “We've gotta go talk to her again,” he said to Tony.

Tony stuffed the last of his hot dog into his mouth and gathered up his things.

“Hey! Weren't you listening to me?” Fury demanded, following them out into Verdi Square. “She can't do anything to help them!”

“Then why did she send you to tell us?” Steve asked.

“I told you – she thought you'd want to know,” said Fury. “And she told me to tell you that you're not allowed to run off and do something stupid!'

Steve paused halfway across the street. She'd thought he would want to know... but feared he'd do something stupid. Peggy didn't do or say things for no reason. If she wanted Steve to know, maybe it was because she couldn't do anything, but thought he could. Especially when she acknowledged that 'running off and doing something stupid' was how Steve normally reacted to emergencies.

“Tony?” he said.

“Yeah?” the boy asked.

“Can you fly a plane?”

“No.” Tony shook his head. “When I was little, Dad said he would teach me someday, but then he had his accident and Mom wouldn't let him fly anymore.”

Steve looked at Fury.

“I can fly SHIELD's jets,” the agent replied suspiciously, “but something tells me that's not what you had in mind.”

“No, it...” Steve began, but then a car honked at them and he remembered they were still in the middle of the street. The light had changed, and people were impatient to go. With Tony and Fury behind him, he hurried to the median where the 72nd Street subway station was, and stopped there to think. He was coming up with a plan. It was a bad plan, but parachuting into Austria had been a bad plan. Boarding the Valkyrie had been a bad plan. Steve specialized in bad plans. When somebody needed to do something and nobody else wanted to step up, bad plans were better than no plans at all. Peggy knew that.

“Tony,” he said, “you mentioned that Intrepid was already on the launch pad.”

“Motherfucker,” groaned Fury, as he realized what Steve was thinking of.

“Yeah,” said Tony. “They set it up and then do about a million safety checks to make sure it won't blow up on ignition. If they wanted they could launch it tomorrow, but apparently they don't want to.” He was starting to smile. “Are you thinking what I think you're thinking.”

“What do you think I'm thinking?” Steve asked.

“I think you're going to try to hijack a space shuttle,” Tony said. “Which is simultaneously the worst and best idea in the history of the world!” His smile widened all the way into a grin. “What do you need me to do?”

“I need you to take me to Florida,” said Steve.

Tony stepped onto the street and held up a hand. “Taxi!” he shouted.

“Wait, wait, wait right there!” Fury protested, grabbing Steve's arm. “You can't just take a space shuttle. They're not gonna let you anywhere near it, for starters!”

“Actually, Williams promised me a tour of the launch facilities,” said Steve. “He gave me a card to show them when I wanted to see him.” The card was, in fact, still in Steve's jacket pocket. He pulled it out to show.

“And you think he's gonna give you a tour after you tried to talk him into the rescue mission?” Fury asked. “I don't think you're gonna be getting a Christmas card from him this year, man.”

“It's worth a try,” said Steve. “If it doesn't work, we'll have to improvise.”

A taxi pulled up. The driver rolled down the window and looked out at them. “Where to?”

“JFK,” said Tony. “Domestic departures.” He opened the door and started tossing his things into the back seat.

“Who's gonna fly the damn thing?” asked Fury. “I can't, and Stark sure can't. Are you gonna do it?”

“I saw the cockpit mockup in the museum.” Steve put his seat belt on as Fury climbed in next to him. “It looks an awful lot like a German craft I've flown before.”

“Yeah, we all know what happened when you tried to fly a German craft,” said Fury sourly. “You can't just get in a space shuttle and fly it like you would a plane. Space is a completely different environment, you're working in zero gravity. Astronauts train for years.”

“He's right,” Tony said. The taxi pulled away from the curb. “Besides, a space shuttle has a minimum crew of four. We need one more guy.”

One more? Who said you're coming?” asked Steve.

“Who said I'm coming?” Fury asked.

“Of course I'm coming,” said Tony. “I'm the only guy here who knows how everything on the space shuttle works.” Tony beamed. “I had to in order to make the StarkArm fit with the rest of it. And don't worry, I know exactly who number four should be, and who's going to be our pilot!”

The only person Steve could think of who was also party to these events and might be willing to take such a risk was Fyodorova, but she was locked up somewhere – and while he was willing to trust her information, he wasn't about to trust her to go into space with him. Nor did she seem likely to qualify as a shuttle pilot. “Who?” he asked.

“Major Bhavana!” said Tony.

“Oh!” said Steve. That made perfect sense. Bhavana had been scheduled for the Odyssey mission and was upset at being left out of it. If there were anyone qualified who might do this with them, it would be her.

“Can we go back to the part where I'm apparently coming?” asked Fury.

“Isn't that why Peggy sent you?” asked Steve. “To baby-sit me while I run off and do something stupid?”

“No! She sent me to make sure you don't do anything stupid!” Fury protested.

“And you're doing a stellar job,” Tony observed.

“Peggy knows me better than that,” Steve promised. Or at least, she should have. If she really thought that telling him not to do something rash was going to keep him from doing it, she'd forgotten him entirely.


Chapter Text

Major Bhavana lived in a block of condos in Port St. John, about a ten minute drive from the local airport and half an hour from Cape Canaveral itself. They arrived at about eight in the evening, and Tony rang the bell. He was still dressed in the suit and sneakers he'd been wearing for his impromptu presentation at SHIELD that morning. Fury, on his left, was in a black turtleneck and matching jeans, and Steve wondered how either of them could be comfortable. Steve himself had taken off the fleece pullover he'd been wearing in New York and was now in jeans and a dark red t-shirt, which still seemed too warm in the muggy Florida air.

“How did you get this woman's address?” Fury asked suspiciously.

“She gave it to me,” Tony replied, rolling his eyes. “She said we could be pen pals. She was gonna write to me after the Intrepid mission and tell me how the StarkArm did, since she couldn't do it for Odyssey.”

Fury's eyebrows rose. “You into older women, Stark?”

“I'm into astronauts,” said Tony. “Don't get excited. Bhavana's married.”

It was, in fact, the major's husband who answered the door a moment later. He was a tall, imposing man with a full beard and a dark turban, incongruously paired with a button-down shirt in an eye-watering paisley pattern. “Can I help you?” he asked the three men on his step. His voice was cautious, and Steve nodded to himself as he realized what an odd bunch they must look like.

But Tony was all confidence as he offered a hand and a bright smile. “Ranjeet Bhavana? I'm Tony Stark, owner and CEO of Stark Industries, NASA contractor, and designer of the new StarkArm. Indira and I met at the launch of Odyssey.”

This list of credentials sounded so much like something Howard might have said that Steve had to look twice to make sure it was in fact Tony who had spoken. It was a bit of an odd thought, but Tony was now in charge of his father's company, even if somebody else would be doing the practical parts of the job until he came of age. Who would that be? Maria, perhaps? Or Stane?

“Yeah, she mentioned you,” Ranjeet replied, warily shaking Tony's hand.

“These are my associates,” Tony went on smoothly. “Agent Nicholas Fury of SHIELD, and Captain Stephen Rogers, Captain America. We'd like to speak with your wife, Mr. Bhavana. We have a project she might be interested in.”

Ranjeet frowned at the visitors, then turned to look over his shoulder. “Indira!” he called, and followed it with something in the couple's native tongue, which Steve could not have begun to understand even with his enhanced aptitude for languages. Bhavana shouted back a reply, and Ranjeet sighed and opened the door all the way. “Come in,” he said.

Major Bhavana herself was already ready for bed, in a bright blue and yellow kaftan and a pair of Care Bear slippers. She must have been startled to have guests, but she got them settled in the apartment's small living room and offered them spiced tea. Steve noticed that one wall of this room, across from the window and above a low bookshelf, was decorated with framed photographs and newspaper articles about Bhavana's space missions. Below them, on top of the shelf, was a model of the space shuttle and a little toy elephant made of felt, decorated with painted designs.

“I have to say, this is an unusual setting for a job interview,” she observed, sitting down across from Steve.

“It's not exactly a job interview,” Tony said, “although when you're tired of NASA I'd be happy to find you a position at Stark Industries.” That was prudent of him, Steve thought, since it wasn't likely Bhavana would keep her current job if they pulled this off. “This is just a project we'd like you to play a role in. I don't know if you're aware of this, but SHIELD has evidence that there is at least one person still alive on Odyssey, and Captain Rogers, Agent Fury, and I have devised a plan to resuce them.”

Bhavana's eyes widened, and she leaned forward in her seat. “I'm listening,” she said.

“First of all,” Tony said, “I need you to understand why you were really cut from the Odyssey flight.” He gave her a brief description of the tapes from Dvenadstat, and Steve's theory about how Van Cleef had been placed on the crew in order to meet with whoever – or whatever – had sent the message. The details about HYDRA got left by the wayside, making it sound as if this were just a competition between the US and the USSR. Steve didn't like that, but supposed it was simpler.

“Van Cleef's final message before we lost contact was trap, no re-entry,” Tony explained, “but we have to find out what went on up there. It's a matter not just of national but of world security.”

“Why couldn't they send me?” Bhavana lamented. “I would love to meet an alien!”

“I'm guessing you complexion had something to do with it,” Ranjeet muttered. Steve supposed with HYDRA involved, he probably wasn't far wrong.

“Anyway, so here's what we're going to do about it,” said Tony, and unrolled his poster. “You can ignore this bit. We were originally planning on a couple of flybys, but it seems like Odyssey may try to dock with Mi. That means we'll have to improvise, so we definitely need a skilled shuttle pilot, one who's been in space before and knows how to handle the unexpected.” He gave Bhavana a winning smile that needed only a mustache to be a carbon copy of Howard's.

She studied the poster, fascinated. “I shouldn't be surprised that you did all this yourself, not when I know you designed the StarkArm. It does look feasible.”

“Indira,” Ranjeet said, “I don't know if...”

“If there's anything that can be done for them, I want to be involved,” Bhavana told him firmly. “Who else is on the crew?” she asked her guests.

There was a moment of awkward silence. Steve, Tony, and Fury exchanged nervous glances, trying to figure out if there were a tactful way to break this to her. There was not. They were just going to have to go for it.

“Um,” said Steve.

“Us,” Fury said.

“I put the idea to NASA yesterday and SHIELD this morning, and they both turned it down,” Tony said, simultaneously admitting defeat while making the whole enterprise sound far more impressive than it had actually been. “So we're gonna do it on our own. Intrepid's already on the launch pad. We just need somebody who can fly it.”

Both Bhavanas stared at them, looking for evidence of a joke

“You're insane!” Ranjeet protested.

“You're idiots!” Major Bhavana agreed. “You really think you could do this with no ground support? Do you have any idea how a shuttle mission works?”

“Actually,” Tony began.

Ranjeet, however, had clearly heard enough. “Absolutely not,” he said, standing up. “Get out of my home.”

Bhavana stood, too. “Ranjeet,” she said.

“Ranjeet, what?” her husband demanded. “Are you really going to try to argue about this?” He looked at their guests, and switched to his native language to finish whatever he'd been going to say before turning and marching to the front door. “You three,” he told Steve, Tony, and Fury. “Leave, or I will call the police!”

He didn't look like a man who told people twice. Steve grabbed his jacket, Tony gathered up his visual aids, and the three men hurried out. As they left, Steve happened to glance up the stairs and saw a little girl sitting on he top step, clutching a toy monkey and staring at the strangers with wide eyes. They'd never had a chance, Steve realized – there was no way Bhavana would take this kind of risk when she had a small child to care for.

Ranjeet slammed the door behind them, and Steve could hear Bhavana shouting at him. He shouted a reply, and the argument remained audible all the way to their rented car, which was in gust parking a good thirty feet from the front door.

“If that keeps up, you may have a chance with her after all,” Fury said, climbing into the driver's seat.

“I see they don't hire SHIELD agents based on their sense of humour,” Tony grumbled.

“So what do we do now?” Steve asked, doing up his own seat belt. It sounded as if he were going to have to try flying the shuttle himself after all, in the same seat-of-his-pants way he'd had to fly the Valkyrie. He could probably do it, he thought It was true that he'd crashed the Valkyrie, but it was also true that he'd done that on purpose, and this time he'd have Tony there to make sure he knew what all the instruments were.

“I know a couple of gals who can fly damned near anything,” Fury said. “I don't think either of them have ever been on a space shuttle, but they'd probably give it a shot. At least one of them, actually, would probably kill a man for the opportunity.” He started the car. “Word to the wise: the best pilots are women. Always have been, ever since Amelia Earhart. I don't know why, but I don't question it. You need a pilot, you ask a woman.”

“Howard would object to that,” said Steve.

“You mean the man who crashed his Piper and needed his face put back together?” Fury asked.

“Point taken,” Steve said with a nod. Fury started to back out of their parking space.

Wait!” shrieked a female voice.

The three men looked up in unison to see Major Bhavana standing behind the car, waving her arms. She was still in her kaftan, having apparently stopped only to put sneakers on. Steve rolled down his window and looked out, and she hurried up to talk to him face-to-face.

“Wait,” she panted. “I'll do it! I'll do it!”

“You will?” asked Steve. He glanced over his shoulder towards her condo unit and was in time to see the door shut again, but not the expression on the face of the man closing it.

“Yes!” She opened the back passenger-side door, and climbed in next to Tony. “The people on Odyssey are my crew. They're my friends. I've known some of them longer than I've known Ranjeet, and you guys are doing one thousand percent more to help them than anybody else is! Besides,” she added. “I don't care what kind of prodigies or superheroes or whatever you guys are, you're inexperienced and you're gonna get yourselves killed if you try to do this alone. I can't promise you you'll survive, but I can help.”

Steve nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

“I mean, you're still idiots,” Bhavana added. “But I'd rather die with the idiots than live with the cowards.”

“That's very reassuring, Major,” said Fury.

“We'll take it,” Tony told her, grinning in relief.

Fury began to back out again. “Is your husband gonna let you back in when we return?” he asked.

“That depends on whether or not we do return,” Bhavana replied matter-of-factly. “I'm not going to sugarcoat that for you – we're probably all going to die.” She sighed. “After Manisha was born, Ranjeet wanted me to leave NASA. I just wanted to do this one last flight.” She looked down at what she was wearing as they turned out of the parking lot and onto the road. “Are we going straight to the Cape? Because that's a bad idea – there were a few things I don't think you quite thought through.”

“We're going to a motel,” Steve said. “You can tell us about it there.”

They'd gotten a room at a Red Carpet Inn just down the highway from the airport. There, Tony ordered food and put on another movie – this one was about a group of astronauts stranded in a space capsule and the efforts the ground crew was making to rescue them. It was certainly far more realistic than his previous choices, but perhaps a little too appropriate given the situation. Bhavana rather pointedly ignored it as she went through Tony's plan, making suggestions and notes.

When the pizza arrived, Steve accepted at the door and watched the delivery guy's face for any sign that he knew who Steve was. He didn't seem to recognize any of them. What would this young man have thought, Steve wondered, if he'd realized he'd just brought supper to an astronaut, a secret agent, a boy genius, and Captain America?

“Of course, the biggest problem is how we're going to take off at all,” Bhavana said, as Steve put the box on the table. “We need launch control to transfer control of the shuttle to us before we can fly it. How are you going to get that?”

“How do you normally get it?” asked Steve.

Bhavana sighed. “Somebody at a control panel presses the little button and gives it to us,” she said, as if explaining to a child.

“So we need somebody on the inside.” Steve looked at Fury for suggestions.

Fury shrugged. “I know some people in NASA, but they'll take one look at this and resign on the spot.” He looked as if he would have loved to do the same, but had decided he was already in too deep. “I do know a couple of people who can probably get in, though – if they can't do it by stealth they'll do it by violence. You've met them,” he added, to Steve.

“I have?”

“Phillip Coulson and Melinda May,” Fury said, apparently expecting Steve to know who they were. “They're young, but talented, and they're in town this week. Sort of a working vacation.”

There was something familiar about the names, but Steve couldn't connect them with faces. Maybe they'd been among the people he'd signed autographs for, his first days at SHIELD. “Call them,” he said. “We're gonna need all the help we can get.”

In the morning, they ate a quick breakfast and then stopped in a Salvation Army shop for some clothes that hadn't been slept in, before meeting Fury's two friends outside a bookshop. They were a boy and a girl, dressed in slacks and shirts which, by 80's standards, were carefully calculated to blend in almost anywhere: not too bright, not too bland, not too casual, not too dressy.

“Coulson!” Fury called as they approached.

The boy, a sandy-haired kid in his early twenties, looked up from the newspaper he'd been reading and stepped forward with a smile, grabbing Fury's hand and shoulder in a greeting that was almost, but not quite, a hug. Both he and his female companion, an Asian girl with a tremendous spiral perm, did indeed look familiar to Steve. He didn't recognize them properly, however, until Coulson spoke to him directly.

“Captain America!” he said, beaming. “Thanks again for signing my cards!”

Steve stared – and realized that despite the very different clothing, these were in fact Cheese and Mel from the Odyssey launch. “You two are SHIELD?” he asked.

“This is Agent Phil Coulson,” said Fury, “and Agent Melinda May.”

“Madame Director asked us to keep an eye on you,” May explained. “She told us to keep it as low-key as possible, but apparently Phil just couldn't stop himself.” She rolled her eyes.

“I didn't know if I'd ever get another opportunity!” Coulson protested.

“Do people really call you Cheese?” asked Steve.

“I do,” said Fury, and then addressed his friends with a more serious expression. “You two understand that this is off the books, right? We haven't decided how to handle it yet, and Madame Director needs plausible deniability.”

“Understood and acknowledged,” Coulson said.

“What's the plan?” asked May.

“That's my department,” said Tony proudly, holding up his poster tube.

May looked at Fury. “Really?” she asked, skeptical.

“Really,” Fury said with a sigh.

Shortly before noon, the six of them drove up to the gate of Kennedy Space Center in a rented van, chosen for being painted a shade of navy blue that would make it look almost like an Air Force vehicle if there weren't any real ones around to compare it to. Bhavana was at the wheel, in a blue pants suit that really didn't look very much like her uniform but would have to do under the circumstances. It must have been good enough for the guard at the gate, because when she rolled down the window, he saluted.

“Morning, Major,” he said. “Who are your guests?”

“Captain Steve Rogers, Mr. Anthony Stark, and a few of Stark's friends from MIT.” Bhavana glanced over her shoulder. “Cheese, Mel, and Nicky, wasn't it?” The three agents nodded obligingly. “Dr. Williams promised the Captain and Stark a tour of the facility,” Bhavana went on, “but he's very busy for the foreseeable future and I'm... well, not. So he asked me to the honour.”

“We've got an invitation,” said Steve, pulling out the business card Williams had given him.

The guard glanced at it, but didn't seem to consider it necessary for people in the company of a distinguished astronaut – or maybe he was just too busy staring in awe once he'd realized who Steve was. “Come on in,” he said, raising the gate. “And, uh, Captain Rogers? I got one of those frisbees for my kid for his birthday... I don't suppose you'd mind stopping by to sign it for him? Maybe tomorrow?”

Steve had no idea what a Frisbee was. “I don't think I can make it tomorrow, but I'll see what I can do,” he promised. Tomorrow he would be either in space or in prison. One or the other.

The guard lifted the gate and let them in. There was a similar exchange at the front door of the Space Center, but with similar results: Major Bhavana was well-known, and I seemed that a lot of people at NASA felt sorry for her having been so suddenly scrubbed from the Odyssey mission. Maybe that was why she and her guests were not once properly challenged as she showed them around the launch facilities, even though Steve was plainly walking around with his shield on his back. The closest thing was a brief conversation as they entered an observation room next to Launch Control.

“I heard you were trying to get in touch with Gary,” the woman who let them in remarked. “He's been ignoring his phone messages all night. Some lady in New York's been calling him at all hours and he's through with her. Even his wife can't reach him.”

Bhavana frowned. “When did I call him?” she asked.

“Last I heard, we had about six messages from your husband, asking him to call,” the woman said.

Major Bhavana stiffened, then forced herself to react. “Oh, crumb,” she said.

“Crumb?” asked Tony.

“He probably wants me,” Bhavana said. “He thinks I forgot about his parents coming for dinner. I'll call him back in a minute.” She laughed, high-pitched and false. “Come on in, gentlemen – and lady,” she said, and ushered the group into the observation room.

The woman smiled at them and said no more, hanging at the back of the group as Bhavana showed them how Launch Control operated.

“This is where reporters observe from,” Bhavana explained, facing away from her guests and towards the room where there were rows and rows of desks, readouts, and computer terminals. “You can see the various workstations – the equipment is pretty up-to-date, but the actual layout hasn't changed much in the last ten or twelve years. There's capcom, there, and biometrics monitors the astronauts' health. There's nobody much in here because we're not pepping for a launch right now, but when we're ready for Intrepid this place will be buzzing.”

“If we ever do launch Intrepid,” sighed the woman who'd let them in.

When,” said Bhavana firmly, and went on. “Everything in this room is redundant, just like the systems on the shuttle. That way, if something fails, there's always a backup to take over. For example,” she pointed. “There are three different stations you can abort launch from. If any one of those buttons is pushed, the mission is over before it leaves the launch pad.”

Coulson and May nodded – that had been meant for them. They now knew they would need the room entirely empty in order to make sure Intrepid got off the ground.

“Now I'll show you where the astronauts get dressed before a mission,” she went on, leading them out of the observation room again. “If we can find a technician who feels friendly, maybe you can even try on a spacesuit!”

“Righteous!” said Fury. It was probably meant to sound hip, but it just made Steve stare and Tony roll his eyes.

“This way, everybody,” said Bhavana cheerfully.

May stopped. “Sorry, Major,” she said, “but is there a washroom I could use?”

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea,” Coulson agreed. They sounded so casual about it that they very nearly fooled Steve, before he realized that of course, this was the moment when they needed to split from the group.

“It's just up ahead, actually,” Bhavana said. “A pit stop might be a good idea. Space suits don't exactly have a fly you can zip.”

They rounded a corner, and then Bhavana suddenly stopped dead and pushed them all back behind the wall. “Sugar!” she hissed.

“I'm not twelve,” Tony complained. “You can say shit if you...” but he was cut off as Fury clapped a hand over his mouth.

Steve edged forward to peek around the corner. There were, indeed, washrooms in the hall up ahead – and coming out of the men's room on the right was Dr. Gary Williams, easily identified even at this distance by his distinctive cowboy attire. He hadn't seen them yet, but as he came closer, Steve could see Him: his bolo tie was loose around his neck, he hadn't shaved, and his eyes were deeply shadowed. The poor man probably hadn't slept since they'd lost contact with Odyssey, and having to travel to New York and back in the mean time couldn't have helped.

Sugar!” Bhavana repeated, grabbing Steve's shirt to drag him backwards. “Here he comes.” She stood up straight and forced a smile, preparing to try to explain this to a man who would see Steve, Tony, and Fury together and immediately know something was up.

But before Dr. Williams saw them, a voice called out his name. Steve tensed, still listening carefully.

“Yes, Larry?” Williams asked.

Bhavana pointed at Coulson and May. You two, she mouthed. Go back. They nodded andcrept back towards Launch Control.

“You've got about eight phone messages here,” the man named Larry said.

“If it's SHIELD again, tell her I'm dead,” said Graham flatly.

“It's not SHIELD,” said Larry. “It's Major Bhavana's husband. He's been calling all morning. He says it's urgent. He wants to know if she's contacted you.”

Sugar,” Bhavana hissed. “He's going to warn them! Fudge!”

“Why do you swear in cake?” whispered Tony, but Fury put a hand over his mouth again.

“I'll call him back from the suite,” Williams sighed. “My wife has informed me that if I don't get some sleep she's going to drive down here and hit me over the head herself.”

Bhavana began backing up. There was an open office door a few yards back up the hall – she slipped into that, and the men went with her, Steve pulling it softly closed behind them. They all ducked down as Dr. Williams walked by the glass panel in the door. Then, as soon as he was gone, Bhavana grabbed the phone off the desk. “Operator!” she said. “I need an outside line!”

Ranjeet must have pounced on the phone the moment it rang, because it seemed that Bhavana had barely finished dialing when she called out his name. The argument that followed was in their mother tongue, and Steve could not follow it. Bhavana struggled to keep her voice at a whisper, but Ranjeet had no motive to stay quiet and Steve's enhanced hearing could clearly hear his shouting even from the other side of the room. The couple tried to talk over each other for a minute or so, and then both fell suddenly silent. Tears sprang to Bhavana's eyes.

“Hello, Manisha,” she said softly, sinking to her knees on the floor.

There was a brief silence while her daughter replied. Steve saw Bhavana shut her eyes and cover her mouth with one hand, and he realized she was going to change her mind. He wouldn't be angry at her for it, either, he thought. Hopefully, she could at least give them some advice how to pull this off without her.

“Manisha, puttar,” she whispered, “I love you so much. I promise you, I'll do my best to come back, but...” Bhavana swallowed. “I have to rescue my friends. They need me, sweetheart, do you understand?”

In the utter silence in the room, Steve could just hear the toddler reply, okay.

“Now, I need you to do something very important,” said Bhavana, wiping ineffectually with her fingers at the tears streaming down her face. “I need you to tell Daddy that I'm coming home, and then I need you to go up to the spare bedroom where there's that old phone we never use. The yellow one. I need you to take it off the hook. Don't tell Daddy you did it, and don't let him see, just leave it there. Can you do that for me, baby?”

Okay, said Manisha again.

“All right.” Bhavana nodded, eyes closed. “Hang up the phone now. Remember that I love you, and I'll always love you, even if I have to find you again the next time around.” After a long moment of hesitation, she set the phone back in its cradle, and covered her face with both hands.

The three men just sat there in a line in front of the door, none of them sure what to do. After a moment, Steve realized Fury and Tony were both looking at him, as if they expected him to deal with this. He took a deep breath and stood up.

“Indira,” he said, offering her a hand. “You don't have to do this. You can go home. It's up to you.”

But she sat up again, and shook her head. “If I don't come back, her father will take care of her,” she said heavily. “Nobody's going to take care of my crew if I don't.” Bhavana gave a shuddering sigh and wiped her eyes again. “That sounds awful, doesn't it? I love my daughter, but...”

“You want to do the right thing, and you understand that just because something is personal doesn't make it the most important thing in the world,” said Steve. “That's... a distinction I always had trouble making, honestly.” It had paid off once, when he'd gotten Bucky alive out of the HYDRA prison camp. And it had backfired terribly once, when it had led him to crash the Valkyrie into the ice and miss forty years of what could have been his god-damned life.

Bhavana stood up. “Williams won't be able to call as long as the phone's off the hook. Hopefully Ranjeet won't find it right away, but we have to hurry. I can't turn around now, so let's just go.”


Chapter Text

Having left Coulson and May behind, Bhavana hustled Steve, Tony, and Fury through the maze of hallways into another observation room. This one looked in on a large chamber with a gray linoleum floor and a row of surprisingly comfortable-looking arm chairs positioned between u-shaped tables. Laid out on each table was a variety of equipment and tools, as well as helmets, boots, gloves, and baggy orange jumpsuits with a variety of wires and hoses attached to them. These didn't look a whole lot like spacesuits to Steve – neither the ones he'd seen in old movies, nor the ones in the pictures of astronauts in the museum.

“Like I said,” Bhavana reminded them, “we can't risk calling anybody to let us in here, because even if we can come up with an excuse, they'll want to hang around and watch. So I hope you gentlemen have some secret agent tricks up your sleeves.”

The door locked not with a key, but with a number pad. Steve had seen similar ones in HYDRA bases, and had gotten pretty good at figuring out combinations based on the dirt and wear on the buttons – but this one looked squeaky-clean and brand-new. He looked at Fury for help, but it was Tony who stepped forward.

“Allow me,” Tony said He got down on one knee in front of the door, and unfolded a blade from a Swiss Army knife.

“If you break it, that'll set off an alarm,” Bhavana warned him.

“Don't worry,” Tony assured her. “This is the same kind of lock as on the room where they keep the heavy water at MIT. I got this.” He slid the blade under the cover, prying it back a tiny bit, then inserted a pair of tweezers into the gap he'd created and began fiddling around inside.

“Do I want to ask why you were breaking into a room where they keep heavy water?” asked Fury.

“Because I was building a fusion reactor. Obviously,” said Tony, rolling his eyes. He wiggled the tweezers, pushing them in a little further, then hissed through his teeth and snatched his hand back. There was an electrical smell, and a clunk. Tony quickly grabbed the handle and turned, and the door opened. “Done!” he said proudly, collecting his tools.

“Will it lock again?” asked Bhavana, ushering them inside.

“Of course,” said Tony. “I just shorted it for a moment.”

Bhavana shut the door gently behind them, and sure enough the lock clicked immediately back into place. Satisfied, she turned and gestured towards the row of tables and chairs. “Find a suit that fits, or comes as close as possible,” she ordered. “They're only partially pressurized, so it doesn't have to be perfect. These ones are only for takeoff and landing anyway.” She looked the group over critically. “You two aren't going to find good ones,” she told Steve and Fury. “So take the last two, those are for the tall guys. You, on the other hand...” she considered Tony. “You're about as tall as Seong. His is number four, there, next to mine.”

“Right height for an astronaut! Score!” said Tony with a grin. He ran to grab the suit.

They split up to get started. Bhavana tossed her blazer onto the seat of a rolling office chair and unbuttoned her blouse, leaving her in only a sports bra. It was in that and her panties that she began to climb into the orange jumpsuit, not at all self-conscious about it. “Usually we've got technicians to help us get into these,” she said, twisting her hair into a bun. “We'll have to help each other. The EVA suits on the shuttle do have to fit properly, by the way, so if there's any spacewalking to do, I'll have to be the one doing it.”

“Or maybe me!” said Tony, bright-eyed. He'd discarded his own clothes on the floor and was halfway into Astronaut Lee's suit already.

“You are not trained,” said Bhavana, doing up a zipper.

Steve was rather self-conscious as he set his own t-shirt and jeans aside, and lifted what looked like the biggest of the spacesuits. It was much heavier than he'd expected, and somehow it was that which began to bring home to him what they were taking on. If even dressing to go to space were going to be complicated, what would working there be like? Clearly this was far, far more difficult than any of the movies or museum exhibits had made it look. There were normally rooms full of support staff behind every astronaut... and they were going to go it alone.

He glanced at Bhavana, double-checking the buckles on her suit, and reminded himself that she, an experienced astronaut, had agreed to go with them. It couldn't be that crazy an idea if she were on board, could it? Then again, she'd warned them repeatedly that they were all probably going to die, and didn't seem to place much value on her own life. Maybe this was just her last, desperate bid for one more trip into space, in defiance of her husband and employers.

“Make sure you connect your oxygen tank!” Bhavana hefted a set of canisters, each about the size of a litre soda bottle. “We've got a small emergency oxygen supply in case something goes wrong halfway into orbit. We might need that. Here.” She offered the canisters to Steve. “Do mine, and then I'll help you.”

Steve connected the hoses and tested them for her, and then she helped him into his own suit. It seemed to fit all right when he was just standing there, but as soon as he tried to talk, he felt the fabric tugging. He shuffled a bit, trying to make it better.

“Careful,” Bhavana said. “A tear in that could kill you.”

“Is there anything in this that can't kill us?” Steve demanded, getting tired of the constant warnings.

“There's nothing in your bathroom that can't kill you if you mess up badly enough,” she replied calmly. “This is just much easier to mess up.”

Tony and Fury, meanwhile, were helping each other with their own suits. Steve had imagined changing would be a quick process, but everything had to be checked and double-checked. There were helmets, gloves, and seals, heavy equipment and complicated safety features. It all took nearly an hour, while at any moment Bhavana's husband might discover that the phone was off the hook and try to call Williams again. Or somebody might walk into the observation room and see them. Or Coulson and May might be found and made to leave the property. Or any of a million other things he couldn't even imagine. What were they doing?

Fury got the radios tuned to a particular frequency, and made their first call. “Coulson, May,” he said. “You reading me?”

“Affirmative!” May's voice crackled in Steve's ears. “We're in the observation lounge outside launch control. Somebody came in about twenty minutes ago and told us they're ordering pizza for everybody who's worked through the night, but otherwise nobody bothered us.”

“Are you ready?” asked Coulson.

“Not yet,” Bhavana said. “We'll tell you when.” Moving stiffly in the heavy suit, she approached another door. This one had a small window in it showing daylight, and when Steve joined her he could see a view across the compound to Intrepid on the launch pad, miles away. “This one's only locked from the outside,” said Bhavana. “Or at least, it was last time I went up... they might have changed it but I hope not. There's a van parked outside, but I don't see anybody in or around it so hopefully we can drive that to the pad. Anybody who sees us now will know we're up to something, so we have to hurry.”

Steve picked up his shield. With the launch suit on he couldn't get his arm through the straps, which made it an awkward thing to carry, but he wasn't going without it.

Once she was sure everybody was behind her and properly dressed, Bhavana eased the door open. There was a short metal staircase, and at the bottom was a white van with the red NASA logo painted on the side. No people were visible.

“Go,” she ordered.

Steve went down first. If he'd been in his own clothes he would have just charged down, leaping over most of the steps on the way – with the too-small suit restricting his motion, he had to take them awkwardly one at a time. He made it to the back of the van, threw the doors open, and was greeted by a startled scream. In the back were a man and a woman, both in their underwear, staring at him in shock.

“Oh, for pity's sake!” Bhavana exclaimed.

Steve was the first to recover. “You two,” he ordered. “Out. We won't tell them were we caught you if you don't tell them where you caught us.”

The woman, a graying blonde in her mid-forties, stared at him. “What?”

The man, at least ten years younger with enormous glasses and a beard, gave his girlfriend a shake. “Do what he says, Bonnie!”

The lovers climbed out of the van, clutching their clothes to their chests, while Tony and Fury piled in. Steve waited for last, while Bhavana went around to open the driver's door. “Who has the keys?” she demanded.

“I do,” said the man. He shook them out of his bundle of clothing and scooped them up, then hesitated before handing them over. “Major Bhavana?” he asked. “Is that you?”

“Thank you.” Bhavana snatched the keys without answering the question, and began struggling to wedge her takeoff suit into the driver's seat.

“What are you doing?” Bonnie asked. “Are you stealing NASA property? Vance,” she said to the man, “we can't allow...”

That was enough for Fury. “Hands up, please,” he said, and there was a click. Steve, buckling himself into the passenger seat, looked over his shoulder as best he could with his helmet on, and could just barely make out the gun in Fury's hands. Where had he stashed that in his spacesuit? Why hadn't Steve realized he had it?

Vance and Bonnie looked at each other. “Bonnie can't put her hands up!” Vance protested. “She doesn't have a shirt on!”

“Hands up!” Fury insisted. “Drop the clothes!”

Both obeyed. With their shirts, trousers, and jackets on the ground at their feet, Vance was in nothing but his briefs and Bonnie in a pair of pink lace panties with thigh-high stockings. Steve politely looked away. He suspected that Fury did not.

“Leave your clothes and get in the van,” Fury ordered. “I'm a federal agent. You two will not be the first people I've shot in the line of duty.”

“You're not really gonna...” Tony began.

“Shut up,” Fury told him.

The lovers climbed into the back of the van and sat down. Fury yanked the doors shut.

“Oh, good. Hostages. That's helpful,” said Bhavana. “Before we go, has everybody been to the bathroom? Because there are no gas stations in space, and this is not the time for a crash course in inserting a catheter. Everybody good? Wonderful. We're off.” She started the engine.

“Coulson,” Fury said into his radio. “We've secured transportation and we're on our way to the launch pad.”

“Roger,” Coulson said. “Let us know when you need us. We'll shave it as we can.”

It was about a five minute drive to the pad. Ten more minutes in which Ranjeet Bhavana could call, or somebody could notice Coulson and May and think of something other than pizza, or realize that the van – and the hostages – were missing. Somebody could spot the van itself on the way to the pad. Somebody could pass the room where the space suits were kept and notice that four were missing. So many things could go wrong...

“Oh, sugar,” said Bhavana. “I forgot about the fence.”

Steve looked up. The launch pad itself was surrounded at some distance by a tall chain link fence, with barbed wire across the top to keep anybody from climbing over it, and a gate locked with a bar arrangement that was far more secure than an ordinary chain and padlock.

“If you guys have any more secret agent or reactor fuel thief skills, now's the time!” Bhavana said.

Fury shook his head. “You'll just have to floor it!”

Vance and Bonnie grabbed each other, Vance whimpering into his girlfriend's shoulder.

“Sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar!” Bhavana said through her teeth.

“Just swear!” snapped Tony.

Bhavana shut her eyes and accelerated. They smashed through the gate, but could not break the bar. Instead, the impact tore the entire gate off its hinges and took most of it with them. Part of the chain link got caught under one of the front tires and pulled into the wheel well, and Bhavana shouted more bakery-themed substitutes for bad words as she realized she could no longer steer. The van began to spin around the locked wheel, out of control. Steve struggled over his seat, kicked the back door open, and pushed first Tony, then the hostages, out onto the grass. He and Fury bailed out last, ust moments before the vehicle smashed into an outbuilding.

When his ears stopped ringing, Steve realized he could now hear alarms.

He picked himself up, groaning. Fury appeared to have landed all right – he'd probably been trained in how to hit the ground from a moving vehicle. Tony was a few yards away, lying flat on his back with his spacesuit covered in dirt and grass stains. Bonnie was face-down nearby, with Vance shaking her and calling her name – both were bruised and scraped, but didn't appear to be seriously injured. After a moment, Bonnie managed to sit up. Her nose was bleeding, but she hadn't broken anything.

“Get Bhavana,” Steve said to Fury. He dragged Tony to his feet and pointed to the hostages. “You two, get the hell out of here. We're launching and you need to reach a safe distance.”

Vance helped Bonnie stand and the two of them ran for the broken gate, as fast as their bare feet could take them.

Fury opened the driver's door of the van and helped Bhavana out. Amazingly, she was all right – the van had hit the building with its back end first, and she'd been wearing her seat belt. She was winded, and walked as if she were in some pain, but she assured Fury that she was all right. “Elevator's this way,” she said.

Fury nodded. “Guys,” he said into his radio, “you might wanna get started now.”

“We noticed,” said May. “We're going on.”

Steve had seen a lot of amazingly high-tech things that day, so it was a surprise just how basic the elevator to the shuttle was: little more than a cage on a cable. Bhavana pulled the rolling metal door shut and pushed the button to take them to the top. Machinery creaked and grumbled, and Steve wondered what would happen if they got stuck. Wouldn't it be ironic if they made it this far, only to be stopped by a broken cable or a rusty flywheel?

“You two cleared out launch control yet?” Fury asked as they rose.

“We're on it,” Coulson promised. Over the radio, Steve heard a series of popping sounds.

Bhavana must have heard them, too. “Is that gunfire?” she asked.

“No, that's nepenthyl crackers,” Fury said. “The gas eats up all the oxygen in the room and everybody passes out. They'll wake up in half an hour and feel like they've got terrible hangovers, but unless somebody's allergic they'll be fine.”

“Half an hour's not long,” said Steve. Every part of this so far had taken longer than he'd hoped. Vance and Bonnie were probably raising the alarm right now. Their lack of clothes would make them reluctant to approach people, but if they thought the emergency were serious enough, it wouldn't actually stop them.

“Almost there,” Bhavana promised.

The elevator rattled to a halt at the top, and she opened the door again so they could cross the gantry to the shuttle. This was about two hundred feet above the ground: there was a brisk wind, and the view back towards the space center buildings was spectacular, but Steve couldn't stop to admire it. Directly across from them was the main hatch of Intrepid.

The door was shaped something like a cross-section of a cupcake, with the word RESCUE painted in a yellow box along with a diagram illustrating how to open it. After a moment of confusion Steve realized this was in case some untrained person needed to free trapped astronauts. It was the first convenient and helpful thing he'd seen today.

“Dibs on opening the hatch!” Tony ran ahead and didn't even bother to look at the instructions. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. He pulled a lever, something inside made a scraping sound, and the hatch swung open. “All aboard!” he said, and scrambled through.

Fury followed, but Bhavana hung back and looked at Steve. Do we really have to bring the kid? she mouthed, so that Tony himself wouldn't hear it over the radio.

Steve sighed heavily. He knew she was right – as the enterprise had gotten more complicated and dangerous, he'd realized more and more that this was no place for a teenager, even one who'd designed part of the craft. His instinct was to try to trick Tony into going back for something and then lock him out. Howard had asked Steve to take care of his son, and letting him ride shotgun into space was not taking care of him.

But he couldn't do that. “He knows more about the shuttle than me and Fury combined,” Steve said. “He's our number two expect here, after you, and the whole plan was his idea. Besides, he might not be able to get far enough away.” There was also the fact that Tony seemed to want this so badly, whether it was the actual trip into orbit or just to be a part of something important. Steve had a feeling Tony had spent a lot of his childhood wanting to be a part of things that Howard wouldn't let him into.

“I guess I'm not one to tell other people what they can risk,” Bhavana sighed. “I'll tell you now, though – if he dies and you live, you'll never forgive yourself.”

“I have a bit of experience with that,” Steve said grimly.

He followed Fury through the hatch, into a room with white walls sectioned off into areas for anchoring instruments and equipment. Some of these were empty holes, others were labeled as sleeping areas or supply storage. There was a big cart-wheel shape in the floor that must be the airlock into the cargo hold, and a round hatch in the right wall as well. Bhavana climbed in last, and pulled the hatch into place to lock it behind them.

“Seal's good.” She peered through a little window that allowed astronauts to inspect the locking mechanisms. “We're good.”

“You guys?” Coulson asked on the radio. “Just thought you oughtta know – you'd better get strapped in and go. Apparently Dr. Williams has called the state police.”

“Oh, fud...” Bhavana began, then glanced at Tony and decided she just wouldn't say anything at all. “Follow me.”

She got down on her hands and knees and crawled through the wall hatch, which Steve thought seemed like a very strange place for the entrance to the flight deck until he followed her. At first, what he found there looked nothing like the cockpit mockup he'd seen in the Hall of Science in Queens. Rather than a windshield in front of him, there were two small windows behind, and a big curved one overhead looking at the sky. Rather than seats, there were wall-mounted benches, and he couldn't figure out how the pilot was supposed to reach the overhead instruments.

Then the whole thing swam in his vision for a moment before suddenly righting itself. Of course, the shuttle was stood up on its tail for launch! They were standing on the back wall of the cockpit, with the windshield and control panel above them. They would have to climb into their seats from below and lie down on their backs.

Bhavana hauled herself up into the pilot's seat, which was on the right. Steve took the Commander's, on the left. If he'd had room to maneuver, the climb would have been easy, but the cramped quarters made it awkward and difficult and the ill-fitting launch suit restricted his movement. He secured his shield by wedging it between his feet and the bottom of the seat, and checked to make sure Tony and Fury were doing all right strapping themselves into the mission specialists' seats behind.

Bhavana talked them through buckling and tightening the complicated safety harnesses. Then, before doing up her own, she reached up and tied something to a small wire loop just above the windows, in the place where a car might have had an air freshener or a set of fuzzy dice. It was the little elephant toy he'd see on the shelf in her home.

“Is that your daughter's?” asked Steve.

“He's a good luck charm,” said Bhavana. “Ganesh is the protector of travelers.” She looped her arms into the harness. “Communications,” she said – that morning they'd divided up the tasks, and talking to the ground was Fury's job. “Are we go for launch?”

“Absolutely,” Coulson said. “We're gonna skip all the fancy stuff if you don't mind. Gotta get you up there before the SWAT team makes it to us. Let's consider this t-minus one minute.”

The SWAT team?” asked Bhavana.

“We've got a TV in here so we're watching the local news feed,” Coulson explained. “It's quite a thing. Looks like four army helicopters on their way to...” he cut himself off in a cry of surprise, and Steve heard what was definitely a gunshot, and not any gas cracker.

“What was that?” Fury asked.

“A guy just... oh never mind, May's got him.” Coulson didn't sound at all perturbed about it. “Forty-five seconds to launch.”

Bhavana's fingers flew as she turned on computers, checked dials and gauges. “I've never done this in a hurry before... all we can do is hope nothing is catastrophically wrong and just go.”

“Holy shit, we're actually doing it,” said Tony. His voice was barely above a whisper, as if he'd realized only moments ago that this was not a dream. “We're actually going to space! I might pee.”

“I thought I told you to use the bathroom,” said Bhavana sourly. “Keep your eye on the pressure gauges.”

A shudder ran through the shuttle, accompanied by a terrific roar from below, and the craft began to vibrate. The shaking was mild at first, but got more and more violent until Steve's teeth were rattling in his mouth. He didn't realize how hard he was gripping the arms of his seat until he felt one of them go crunch when he put a bit too much pressure on it. The roaring sound grew in volume until it was almost physically painful, then dimmed a bit in the midst of a wet hissing noise.

“There's the sound suppression water system!” said Tony gleefully.

“Ten more seconds, Melinda!” Coulson called. “Six! Five! Four!”

The shuttle suddenly lurched backwards. Steve let out a cry of surprise and crushed the other arm of his seat. “Everybody brace!” he ordered, reaching for his shield. “We're going over!”

“No! This is normal! It does that! It twangs!” Bhavana said. Even with their radios on, she had to yell to be heard over the engines. “Just sit still!”

“You should have complete flight control as soon as you're off the ground,” Coulson promised. “And... one!”

The roar and the vibration became overwhelming. Steve couldn't see what was happening – the only view out was through the front windows, which showed only sky – but he was suddenly pressed back into his seat so hard he was worried he would go right through it. It was as if he suddenly weighed a ton, and the muscles in his chest could barely raise his leaden ribs to breath. He shut his eyes as his entire skeleton shook. Somewhere among the din somebody might have said liftoff, but he could equally well have imagined it.

Stark!” barked Bhavana. “Side instrument panel! Gimme a countdown for roll program!”

“Yes, Ma'am!” said Tony from the back. “Four seconds. Aaaaaaaand... now!”

Bhavana pulled a joystick, taking the craft into a roll. How she could do anything in the crush of acceleration, Steve had no idea. He'd thought flying the Valkyrie had been a physical struggle, but it didn't even compare to this. The sun was suddenly blinding in his eyes, and then just as quickly it vanished from the windows again as the shuttle turned over.

“We're not dead yet! That's good!” Bhavana shouted. “You boys in the back, look up at the top windows! You'll see the ground in a moment!”

“I see it!” Tony was delighted. “I see it! I see it! There's the launch pad and all the smoke, and the helicopters stirring it up... this is awesome! Oh, man!” He laughed out loud in delight.

Steve wasn't laughing. “How long does this last?” he demanded, the words rattling out of him as his seat shook.

“Seven minutes!” she said. “We're almost halfway there!”

The vibration slowly began to die away, although the crushing weight remained on Steve's chest. Bucky would have loved this, he thought. Bucky was the one who'd taken Steve on all the horrible spinning and upside down rides at Coney Island. Steve was the one who'd complained and thrown up. What would Bucky say, he wondered, if he could see Steve now?

“Watch the time!” Bhavana ordered. “Gimme a countdown to booster jettison! Fury, how are your friends in launch control?”

“They've gone silent,” said Fury. “They're good – they'll find a way out.”

Tony counted down the last ten seconds, and then there was an awful metallic screech and a terrible jolt, and the noise and the shaking both ceased.

“Boosters gone!” said Tony.

Steve unclenched his fists and jaw. Without the extra rockets, the ride was much smoother, and as the acceleration eased, the pressure did too. Bhavana pulled up the visor on her helmet and breathed a sigh of relief. Steve almost did the same, but then he felt a rising wave of both nausea and panic as his stomach informed him that they were no longer racing headlong into the sky – they were falling out of it.

He'd felt this once before, in a stalled airplane. One minute, they'd been flying along above the Juras, and the next the plane had dropped like a stone. Only some quick action by their pilot had stopped them from slamming into Lake Geneva. What had gone wrong? Could you make an emergency landing in a space shuttle?

“Oh, my god,” groaned Fury. “I need a bag or something. I'm gonna puke and it's gonna float around.”

“I'd ask about guidance but since we're not getting any I won't bother,” Bhavana said dryly. She was flicking switches as if nothing were wrong in the world. “Everybody stay put for a couple more minutes. We've got another course correction to stabilize our orbit.”

“Make it quick,” Steve told her. Couldn't she feel it? He tried to keep his own voice calm. “In case you haven't noticed, we're falling.”

“Yep. Get used to it,” said Bhavana with a nod.

“We're not falling!” Tony said, still sounding overjoyed. “We're floating! Zero gravity – it feels like falling because gravity and acceleration are equivalent according to the law of general relativity! But we're in space!” He checked his instrument panel. “Orbital insertion should begin... now!”

They lurched again. For a second time, Steve felt pressed back into his seat, but it was not nearly so crushing this time, and went on for only a few seconds before it stopped. Bhavana consulted the computer screens in front of her, and then nodded, satisfied.

“How do we look, Stark?” she asked.

“Orbit stable!” he said.

Bhavana nodded and unlocked the rim of her helmet so she could take it off. “Gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. We are cruising at one million, eighty-two thousand feet. I am trying off the fasten seat belt sign and you are now free to move about the cabin.” With the helmet off, she let go of it, and it simply stayed there in front of her, turning gently in midair. “Washrooms can be found in the mid deck, there is no meal service because you're all big boys who can do your own cooking, and the event of an emergency you'd better hope you can get your oxygen hooked up in less than ten seconds. Thank you for choosing NASA for all your space travel needs!”

Chapter Text

Having made her announcement, Bhavana undid her buckles and grabbed the back of her seat, pulling herself over it to float back to the hatch in the floor. “There are lockers in the mid-deck,” she explained as she drifted by. “We can put our launch suit away in those, and if we're lucky the crew's jumpsuits will already be on board. If not, we're gonna be in our underwear, because you can't wear these things around. They trap too much heat.” She vanished through the hatch.

Steve swallowed a bit of bile. His gut still wasn't happy with zero-gravity. Every instinct he had insisted that he was falling and that at any moment he was going to hit the ground hard. Steve could walk away from a fall of several hundred feet – he knew because he'd done so on more than one terrifying occasion – but it was never a fun experience. Being in a fall that never stopped was stomach-churning and hair-raising.

Literally hair-raising, in fact – Steve could feel his hair drifting as if he were underwater, and when he caught his reflection in one of the computer screens, he saw that each strand was going in its own direction, standing out around his head like a halo. He ran a hand through it, and smiled as he watched it wave like grass in the wind.

But that was only a momentary distraction. Steve had to get out of his seat. Unbuckling the harness was easy enough, although he had to be careful of the arm rests he'd crushed in the tension of the launch. One of these broke free as he moved now, and went spinning into the air. Steve caught it and tried to set it on top of the dashboard, but there was nothing to keep it there. It immediately started floating away again, drifting gently in the still air. Steve decided to leave it for now, and pushed himself away from his seat.

He used a little too much force, and kept moving forward and up until he had to catch himself by grabbing a control panel. It was going to be impossible to slow down or change direction unless he was holding on to something, he realized. That was why Bhavana had kept hanging onto the seats while she'd moved across the flight deck. Steve made a mental note of that and pushed himself – much more gently – off the panel to float between the seats, making sure to catch hold of them on the way by.

It was a strange and disorienting way to move around, and yet it was oddly familiar. When Steve had first gotten his dose of super-soldier serum, he'd found it very difficult to control his own motion. Everything was too fast, too hard, too far, and he'd had to learn how to be careful and not hurt himself or damage anything around him. A similar adaptation would be necessary now.

Tony and Fury were already out of their seats. The free fall was affecting Steve's hair, but Fury didn't have any and Tony's didn't seem to notice the absence of gravity any more than it had noticed the presence of it on Earth. Both young men were hanging on to a handle next to the two small windows in the ceiling, gazing outside.

“Sorry, coming through,” said Steve, trying to maneuver towards the floor hatch. Bhaana had made this look so easy.

As he passed, however, Tony grabbed his sleeve. “Cap,” he said, still staring out the window. “You gotta see this!”

Steve wanted to get on with things, to shorten their sojourn in this disconcerting environment, but there was something in Tony's voice that made him stop. He put one foot against the nearest sale to push himself closer to the window and bent his head back to look – and immediately forgot all about the lack of gravity.

He hadn't stopped to think about what the Earth was likely to look like from space. Steve had looked down from airplanes before, on a world of tiny cars and trains, little trees and faraway buildings, and that view no longer impressed him. He had assumed that the view from orbit would be very similar. What he saw out the window, however, was on an entirely different scale.

There was water rolling by below him, with the sun glinting off the waves at a low angle. Up ahead was a sandy shore that rose into hills, trailing little puffs of white cloud in their wake. Everything was picked out in sharp relief, every gully and rock brightly lit by the sunset or sunrise – not knowing what part of the world they were looking at, Steve couldn't tell which – and set against its own coal-black shadow. It all looked so far away, so tiny.

At the same time, however, it was also so breathtakingly, incomprehensibly big, and the more Steve looked at it, the bigger it seemed. What he'd called gullies a moment ago were actually canyons, the rocks were mountain peaks, and the puffy little clouds were towering thunderheads. And as striking as what he could see, was what was missing: there was not a single man-made structure in sight. No roads, no buildings, nothing humanity had ever built was big enough to be visible from space. If there were aliens waiting for them on Odyssey, it was amazing they'd managed to find the Earth at all. How could they tell from orbit that there was any life on this planet beyond the tracks of forest? At this scale, humans were not meaningfully bigger than ants.

Where did that leave Steve himself? He liked to think he was significant, somebody who could make a difference in the world. When he looked down from here, however... what was a difference in the human world worth? Ants doubtless had urgent problems of their own that meant nothing at all to the creatures around them. The biggest, strongest, most significant ant in the hill was still just an ant.

“Will you look at that?” asked Tony in a whisper.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Makes you feel really small, doesn't it?” He hoped it had the same effect on Tony and Fury... he didn't want to be the only one.

“It does,” Tony agreed.

Fury nodded. “And crawling on the planet's face,” he quoted, “some insects called the human race, lost in time and lost in space and meaning.”

Steve could not identify this bit of poetry, but apparently Tony could. He turned to frown at the other man. “Did you seriously just quote The Rocky Horror Picture Show?”

“How did you know that's from The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” Fury asked suspiciously.

“I go to college!” Tony said.

This exchange broke the spell, and Steve was able to push himself away from the window. He had to get changed. They had to get to work. “What is The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” he asked, carefully moving towards the hatch, hand-over-hand along the seats. If it were anything like the other movies Tony had gotten him to watch, it was probably depressing – that quote certainly made it sound so.

“I'll show you some time,” Tony promised. “You have to be Rocky. No argument. You were born to be Rocky.”

Fury patted Steve's shoulder. “Run very fast,” he told him, “and never look back.”


There were a couple of jumpsuits in the lockers below. Bhavana's was her own, and fit her fine. Tony took the one that had belonged to astronaut Seong Kim, whose orange takeoff suit he'd already worn. Steve and Fury once again ended up in suits that were a bit too small. Like the launch suits, the bagginess of the garment meant it seemed to fit fine until Steve tried to move, and the greater freedom of motion in zero gravity meant the restriction seemed worse than it had on the ground. It was still better, however, than floating around in space in their underwear.

On Earth they would have sat down around a table, as they had when working out their hijack plans the previous night – but there were no tables on the space shuttle, and the concept of sitting was meaningless without gravity. Instead, they just floated around the mid-deck while they talked. Bhavana was happy to float free, her ponytail waving in the air like seaweed behind her. Steve wedged one foot in a drawer handle, preferring to at least pretend he was standing on something. Fury hung up on the edge of a hatch to keep himself upright, or at least upright with respect to the others, while Tony restlessly bounced between floor and ceiling, sometimes doing midair somersaults, thoroughly enjoying the entire experience.

Bhavana attempted to ignore Tony's antics as she explained what would have to be done next. “Normally if we wanted to try to dock with Mir, we would... well, we would have gotten proper instructions from the Russians beforehand, and months of training in the neutral buoyancy tank, but we'd also be getting guidance from Earth. They'd tell us where the station is and help us correct our course to get there. But we can't talk to Earth – although I'm sure they would have plenty to say if we turned the radio on – so we're going to have to find it ourselves.”

“Have we got radar?” asked Steve.

“Yes. It helps us avoid space junk,” Bhavana said. “But it can't show us something that's out of our direct line of sight.”

“Well, that's easy,” said Tony, who had rotated himself to upside-down with respect to the others, apparently just for the novelty of it. “Mir's orbit is at 51.6 degrees, with a semimajor axis of 364 kilometres. We just need to get into a slightly lower orbit at the same angle, and we'll catch up with it. First pass, we just look out the window and see if Odyssey's there yet and what they're doing. Second pass, about ninety minutes later, we can try to rendezvous.”

“That could work,” Bhavana said, but her cautious tone told Steve she was already thinking of at least five ways it could also fail.

“I have a better idea,” said Fury. “They might not have finished evacuating Mir yet. If the Russian space agency is anything like NASA, they'll want to observe all those safety protocols we had to skip, so there might still be people on board. We should call them and explain what we're doing.”

Steve's first reaction was to wonder if the Soviets would believe them – they were Americans, after all, theoretically the enemy. But then he remembered the view out the windows. Any argument between two countries hardly seemed to matter when he thought about how tiny they all were. Maybe astronauts and cosmonauts got along better than their bosses did.

Bhavana seemed to think so. “That's actually the sanest thing I think we've said or done today,” she said. “Does anybody here speak Russian? Because the last time I talked to a cosmonaut, her English was awful.”

“I speak a little,” Steve offered. “What's the frequency?”

As he returned to the cockpit to try the radio, it occurred to Steve that they hadn't heard anything from Coulson and May since liftoff. If Williams had really called the state police, they were probably in jail now. Or maybe not – if they were talented enough to keep everyone out of launch control long enough for the shuttle to get off the ground, they might well be in Mexico by now. Either way, he would probably never speak to either of them again.

With the others gathered behind him, he turned the speaker on and moved the dial, passing by multiple frequencies with something on them: music, talk radio in a dozen languages, squealing static – and suddenly, Steve felt like an idiot. Of course, this was how the aliens had found Earth! The planet might not look inhabited, but it made noise of a sort only intelligent creatures could. Turning the dial he passed a horse race, French pop music, a shouting televangelist... and then, a familiar voice.


He stopped dead, heart in his mouth, and turned the dial back a bit. Was that... it was, he realized, as he found the signal again. It was the same frequency he'd used to speak to Peggy as the Valkyrie went down. Who but her would think to try to contact him there?

“Steve, please,” her voice begged. “If you're there, answer me!”

“Oh, no,” groaned Fury.

Peggy?” Steve asked.

There was silence. Maybe he'd imagined it. Or maybe he was too late, and she'd stopped transmitting.

“Peggy?” he asked again. “Is that you?”

“Steve!” she said. “Oh, thank heavens! Steve, what in god's name do you think you're doing?”

Why was she so upset? Hadn't she wanted him to do something? “We're going to go rendezvous with Mir,” he said. “I was just trying to contact them so we could...”

“Bloody hell, Steve!” Peggy interrupted. “You're in space! Steve, this is madness!”

“I thought you wanted me to go rescue the astronauts!” Steve protested. “Why did you send Fury to tell me not to do anything stupid if you didn't want me to do something?”

“I wanted you to do something, but I thought you'd bail Fyodorova out to get help from the Russians!” Peggy said. “I even reduced the guard on her to make it easier for you! Why didn't you do that?”

Steve didn't have an answer for her. “Um... I... well, really I never even thought of that,” he admitted. Why hadn't he? It was such an obvious answer.

“Of course you didn't!” Peggy said. “Why would you ever do something sensible when you could do something stupid and dangerous and...” she cut herself off in mid-sentence. “Bloody bugger, Steve, Howard was right. You haven't changed at all! What were you thinking?”

Steve didn't have an answer for her, only a sense of deja vu. This had happened before, a dozen times during the war: Steve would come up with a plan, and Peggy would counter with a much more reasonable one. Only this time, Peggy hadn't been there, and her representative, Fury, could only do his best to protest while Steve and Tony focused on the first, ridiculous idea. “Fury said...” he began.

“Fury's with you?” Peggy asked.

“Yeah, he's right here with Bhavana and...” Steve stopped there, but really, he didn't have to finish. He knew exactly what Peggy was going to say next.

“Bloody bugger, Steve,” she repeated. “Please... I beg you, please tell me Tony's not up there with you.”

Steve licked his lips and glanced back at the others. Bhavana was floating there nodding to herself, as if to say she'd told him this was a terrible idea. Fury looked as if he were watching a future of unemployment pass before his eyes. And Tony looked like he wanted to sink into the floor and disappear, except that there was no floor in space and one couldn't sink in zero gravity.

What could Steve say? If he lied, Peggy would know it – he was sure of that. Steve was a bad liar, and Peggy was a better than usual judge of truth. If he just said something like Tony's safe, she would continue to insist on knowing where the boy was. And if he told the truth...

He'd spent too much time thinking – the delay had already given her the answer. “Steve!” Peggy moaned. “What am I going to tell Maria? She's just lost her husband! She can't lose her son, too, Steve, that will destroy her!”

“I'm fine!” Tony protested.

“I'm not going to let Tony get killed,” said Steve firmly. “He's doing all the math and planning for us. Fury and I are the muscle, and Major Bhavana's flying the shuttle. If you want us to get back okay, then help us.” He couldn't let her scold him like a schoolboy again, not when they had lives to save. It didn't matter if she approved of him. It mattered whether they got this done. “Have they evacuated Mir yet?”

“Last I heard, they ought to be doing it now,” Peggy said.

“We need coordinates for the station, so we can get there before Odyssey,” Steve said. Based on what Tony and Williams had said, the damaged shuttle would have very limited fuel and would have to maneuver very carefully. “We'll be there ahead of time and wait for them.”

Her sigh rustled in the microphone. “I”ll have Houston send you the guidance data,” she said. “But in return, you have to work with them – get in touch with flight control, and let them monitor you. I lost you once, Steve,” Peggy said. “I can't lose you again.”

She had said she'd already let him go, Steve remembered... he wondered now how true that was. “All right,” he said. “Bhavana will be thrilled.”

Peggy gave him the frequency, and Steve tuned the radio as if expecting a fist to come out of the speaker and punch him. He was certain that Williams was going to give them a hell of a lecture before they could get on with things. Bhavana would lose her job and probably face a court-martial, and he had no idea what the rets of them would be threatened with but was sure there'd be something.

All he heard when he settled the dial, however, was a very calm attempt at contact. “Intrepid, this is Houston, do you copy? Intrepid, this is flight control Houston, do you copy?”

Steve didn't answer at first, so Bhavana leaned over his shoulder to do so. “We copy, Gary,” she said. “This is Indira Bhavana on Intrepid.”

For a moment the signal seemed to drown in static. Then Steve realized it was applause. NASA was so relieved to hear from them, the response had gotten a standing ovation.

“Good to hear from you, Intrepid,” said Williams. He could be heard taking a deep breath. “We've got a job to do, so I think it'd be best if we all let bygones be bygones, at least for now.”

“Probably a good idea,” Bhavana agreed.

“Does this mean we'll still get a real tour of NASA when we get back?” asked Tony.

“Sssh,” Fury told him.

“Water under the bridge,” Steve promised Williams.

“I'll fire up the transponders,” Bhavana said, and began flicking switches. “I'm afraid you won't be getting any biomed data from us. We left the sensors behind. Telemetry ought to show up any minute, though.”

“It's coming in,” Williams said. “It'll take it a moment to even out for us to analyze it, but we're getting a signal. And you probably should be worried about your vital signs, because unless Hauer's been smuggling hot pockets again, there's no food on board.” Even though he'd just said they would let bygones be bygones, his voice was smug. He was savouring the opportunity to let them know what a terrible plan this had been.

Steve hadn't thought of that, and when he looked at his companions it was clear that none of them had, either – Tony and Fury were exchanging a worried glance, and Bhavana was rubbing her forehead with a pained expression. Somehow, in all their attempts to figure out how they'd do this, the question of what they were going to eat and drink had never even come up. That was probably forgivable for the others. Tony had never had to worry about food in his life, Bhavana's duties didn't include requisitioning supplies, and Fury's probably didn't, either. But Steve himself should have known better. Food had been a constant logistical problem for him and his followers in Europe, and he was ashamed to have forgotten it. Even in a place where it was available in every fridge and vending machine, he shouldn't have become that complacent that quickly.

Intrepid, do you copy?” asked Williams, still sounding much too pleased about it.

“We copy, Houston,” said Bhavana. “What do you recommend?”

“Well, Madame Director has indicated that you're heading for a rendezvous with Mir,” said Williams. “I doubt they stopped to pack before they left. They ought to have something you can snack on. I hope you like porridge and pickled herring. In the mean time, we've got your positional data now. We'll send you some course corrections that should help you meet the space station sooner rather than later.”

“Thanks,” groaned Bhavana. “We'll get right on that.”

Steve hoped that Williams wouldn't spend all his time rubbing their noses in their bad decisions. If he did, Steve would have a hard time not turning the radio off again and letting Tony do the navigating with a pen and notebook.

Butt if Peggy had been here, he realized, she would have told him not to let it get to him. Rise above it, she would have said. You're better than that petty nonsense. She was right, too – Steve wasn't here to prove anything. He was here for Howard, and he was here for a world that would remain at peace, without HYDRA getting their hands on any more metashapes. And without aliens interfering, if that were indeed what was going on. For that, he could let go of his pride and be the bigger person. So, for that matter, could she – she'd finished lecturing him very quickly and tried to steer him onto a more reasonable course, the way she always had. Maybe, just maybe, there was something left in her of the Peggy he remembered after all.

Tony was a bit disappointed that they'd be getting their course corrections from Houston instead of him having to work them out for himself. He'd been looking forward to the challenge, but he was willing to accept that this was faster, and seemed to have a lot of fun helping Bhavana calibrate the thrusters and make the required burns.

“The space shuttle's fuel is really just hydrogen and oxygen,” he explained to Steve, still happy as always to share what he knew. “When they react, basically by setting the hydrogen on fire, it produces thrust, electricity, and water, which are all things the space shuttle and the astronauts need!”

“That's smart,” Steve said. He had returned to the window to watch the view roll by – there was nothing but ocean and clouds visible now, with a few scattered specks that might have been islands. Steve wished he knew exactly where he was looking at, just for the better sense of scale it would have given him. “I can see we've changed course now,” he said. “Is that north?”

“It's north-ish,” said Tony. “How's our trajectory, Houston?” he asked. The role of astronaut seemed to come so naturally to him – Steve wondered how many times Tony had watched flights like this on television and gone along in his imagination.

“Looking good, Stark,” the ground replied. This was no longer Williams himself, but a technician who'd identified himself merely as Capcom. “ETA at Mir one hour twelve minutes. Hey, did you guys know you made the news this evening?”

“I'll bet we did,” said Steve. He could only imagine the feeding frenzy the press would have had over the mess they'd made – both the legitimate press and the vultures, like the man from the Bugle who'd tried to take pictures of Maria and Tony.

“Do we want to know what they're saying about us?” asked Fury. “Break it to us gently if you can.”

“Actually, your bosses in Washington managed to spin it pretty well,” said Capcom. “I've got a paper here... Texas Observer.” There was a rustle, and he cleared his throat. “Tight security, including the Florida State Police, surrounded the unpublicized launch of the space shuttle Intrepid this morning,” he read. The shuttle blasted off at 10:10 AM on an improvised mission to investigate the cause of the Odyssey accident and rescue any survivors.”

“I like how they make it sound so well-planned,” said Fury.

The hand-picked crew,” Capcom went on, “is supposed to include Captain Stephen Rogers, whose return was announced to the world in New York last month; Major Indira Bhavana, who was supposed to be the pilot of Odyssey until being cut from the crew at the last minute; Anthony Stark, son of the late Howard Stark, NASA contractor and shuttle systems expert; and Agent Nicholas Fury, of the Strategic Homeland, uh... Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. What a mouthful.”

“Is that what SHIELD stands for?” asked Steve.

“The story goes that Howard Stark and Madame Director were really set on calling it SHIELD,” said Fury, “so they held a contest for who could come up with the best acronym.”

“Who won?” asked Steve.

“Mrs. Jarvis,” said Tony, smiling.

Details of the mission remain shrouded in secrecy,” Capcom read, “but the world is watching and waiting for news about the flight that will decide the fate of the shuttle program.

“No pressure!” Tony said cheerfully, but then he became honestly thoughtful for a moment. “I wonder what Mom's doing.”

“Probably planning the security regime to keep you grounded until you're forty,” was Fury's guess.

Meanwhile, Steve's stomach was starting to complain. He tried to ignore it. If he hadn't been aware that they had no supplies, he would probably have been able to go on for several hours without even thinking about it. It was knowing there was nothing there that was making his appetite act up. He was grateful when Bhavana offered a distraction.

“Keep your eye on our heading, Stark,” she said to Tony. “If Houston sends us minor course corrections, just make them. If we need a major one, call me.”

“Yes, Ma'am!” said Tony brightly, which Steve realized was a little odd. Tony had always seemed surly and uncooperative when Howard or Peggy had told him what to do – but then, he'd had this same changed attitude in the workroom at SHIELD, where he'd been given a task and allowed to decide how to use his brains and resources to complete it. When Howard had given orders, they were usually a subtle – or unsubtle – version of get out of the way. Now, when Steve, Bhavana, or Capcom told Tony to do something, it was because they trusted him to do the task competently. To a kid who felt like nobody listened to or respected him, that must make all the difference.

“You two,” Bhavana said to Steve and Fury. “I need some help suiting up.”

They followed her back to the mid-deck, where they had opened the big wheeled door Steve had noticed earlier. This revealed a smaller room with a tiny window looking out on the dark interior of the cargo hold. Hanging on the walls of this were two space suits.

This time, they were space suits Steve could recognize as such. They were made of hard metal and plastic rings, linked by very stiff fabric. The designers had clearly tried to allow as much flexibility in the joints as possible, but it still looked terribly heavy and cumbersome. Nobody would be able to wear anything like it in normal gravity. With its life support system and a backpack covered in small thrusters for moving around, it was practically a spacecraft unto itself.

“This is an extravehicular mobility unit,” Bhavana said, with a hand on the one that had her name printed on it: Bhavana, I. The other one said Kim, S. “We call them EMUs, which leads a lot of people who first hear the term to make bird jokes. No bird jokes. I've heard all of them.”

“How much does it weigh?” Steve asked. “You know, on Earth where it weighs something.”

“Three hundred and ten pounds,” Bhavana replied immediately. She was already getting out of her jumpsuit, and pulled on what looked to Steve like all the world like a set of flannel underwear, such as his mother would have sewn for him as a child. The next layer she needed more help with: it also looked like long underwear, but it was made of a plastic netting with dozens of tiny tubes fed through it. Once she had that in place, Fury tested it and confirmed that cooling water could run through it with no leaks.

Then there was a black and white cloth cap with her communications gear in it – that, too, had to be tested before she could put on the next layer, which looked almost like football padding. Since Bhavana, unlike Tony, wasn't in the habit of explaining everything she did as she did it, Steve could only guess that this was to help bear the weight of the suit. Then he remembered that there was no weight, and she would float inside the suit just as she did inside the shuttle. Perhaps it was to prevent chafing.

Finally, she was ready to put on the EMU itself. Steve and Fury held up the pants part of it while she slid in, and then helped her over to the wall where the top half hung so that she could get her head and arms through the appropriate apertures, and they could lock the two halves together.

“The gloves are in that drawer, there,” Bhavana said, pointing. Steve pulled them out. They looked big and bulky from the outside, but Steve realized as he fit the right one over the astronaut's hand that inside was a fairly tight fit. Otherwise it would have severely limited her dexterity.

“How are we doing for time?” asked Fury, shouting up to the flight deck.

“Eight minutes to rendezvous!” Tony called back.

“We're cutting it close,” said Bhavana. “Usually this only takes about half an hour – but you guys have never done it before. Helmet goes last.”

The helmet was a tinted glass bubble, with a white covering on the back to block out unnecessary glare. Steve started to slip it over Bhavana's head, but then he paused.

“I should warn you what you might find over there,” he said.

“I thought nobody knew what we might find over there,” Bhavana said. “There could be nothing, there could be little green men. That's why we're here to look.”

“Well, we don't know about that,” Steve admitted. “But whoever or whatever is on Odyssey, they may have a weapon based on one of those metashapes Tony mentioned last night. The Germans had one during the war. We don't know exactly what they are. Howard Stark thought they were manifestations in three-dimensions of higher-dimensional objects. That's why he called the one HYDRA had the tesseract. They're hugely powerful energy sources. If you see anything that glows blue, get out. Come back right away.” What they would do then, if whoever was over there did have something like the tesseract, Steve didn't know.

“So simple to say, so hard to do,” Bhavana reminded him. Everything was complicated in space. “I'll do what I can.”

Steve slipped the helmet over her head, and locked it into place. She tested the seal, and then gave him a thumbs-up. “Did we make it?” Steve heard her voice over the radio. “I think Stark would have said something if we'd already gotten there.”

“We're actually just coming up on Mir now,” Tony said from upstairs. His face appeared in the hatch, hair swirling as he moved. “Come and take a look at this, guys, I think we're just in time!”

After one more check to make sure all of Bhavana's wires and hoses were properly connected, Steve and Fury floated out of the airlock area and pushed the hatch door back into place.

“I didn't get to pre-breathe,” Bhavana said, apparently to herself. “Gonna regret that later.”

The door to the outside opened. Steve could see nothing beyond it but blackness – she floated through, and was lost in the dark.

Chapter Text

With Bhavana outside, Steve and Fury floated back up to rejoin Tony on the flight deck. As they arranged themselves around the control console where Tony was operating the machinery in the cargo bay, they heard Bhavana's voice on the radio.

“Okay, Stark,” she said. “You can open the cargo doors.”

Tony flicked some switches. “You couldn't say open the pod bay doors, HAL?” he pouted. “Just for me?”

“That one was old by the end of the first mission,” Bhavana said.

Tony was hanging upside-down above the control panel, using one arm to hang on to a handle and the other to manipulate the controls. Several display screens were mounted in the wall, all of them showing nothing but black – until a bright line suddenly appeared down the middle of the center one. Steve could hear machinery running, and the line widened. The doors were opening, and the blinding light that came through turned out to be the Earth below them. The cameras took a moment to adjust their contrast levels, and then resolved a brilliant expanse of blue ocean and fluffy white clouds. In front of that vast backdrop was the relatively tiny, insect-like shape of Mir.

Steve, who was starting to get the hang of weightlessness, pushed himself off the floor and floated up to the windows for a better look. Another module had been added to the space station since the pictures Peggy had shown them at SHIELD. It hung off the main cylinder at a weird right angle, making the structure look like it ought to be off-balance, but Steve supposed balance was irrelevant in space. From this distance, there was no sign of life. There might have still been people on board, or they might have abandoned the place hours ago.

“I see Odyssey,” said Bhavana.

“What?” Tony squinted at his screens. “Where?”

“It's probably not on the cargo bay cameras,” Bhavana said.

“I see it!” Steve announced. It had taken him a moment to pick it out – it was nothing but a speck, tinier and more distant even than Mir, against the panorama of blue. But there it was: a tiny cut-of triangle, floating gently towards them. As Steve watched, a momentary glow showed that the thrusters were firing. Somebody was still on board, controlling the motions of the craft.

“Lemme turn on the StarkArm cameras,” Tony said. Three more screens came on overhead, two showing almost identical views from the base of the arm as it began to move, and a third that must have been mounted in the manipulating claw on the end. Tony swung the arm around, and the other shuttle appeared in its view. “Now, let's see...”

The StarkArm camera was able to zoom in, showing detail Steve couldn't see with his eyes alone. Based on the poor-quality pictures faxed in from Moscow, it had looked as if something had taken a bite out of the back of the shuttle. Now, through the camera's eye, they could see that what was left looked like the bite itself. There seemed to be a nice smooth curve across the back where the wings and tail had been torn away, and what had looked in black and white like empty space in the cargo hold was an area that now appeared to have been burned.

“Looks like they had a fire,” said Steve.

“Can't be,” said Bhavana, at the same time as Tony used the exact same words.

“You can't have a fire in space,” Tony added. “Fire needs oxygen.”

“Something turned it black, though,” Steve said. “Fuel spill?” Maybe it was stained.

“No. Hydrogen and oxygen, remember?” asked Tony.

“I can't tell from here,” Bhavana said. “Though if I didn't know better I'd agree with Rogers – it looks burnt. I'm just gonna have to head over and see for myself.” She seemed to stop and think for a moment, and when Steve glanced at the video screens again, he saw her hanging on to a handle in the shuttle's cargo door, pulling down a visor to better see through the glare from Earth. “Usually when I'm spacewalking I have everything all mapped out for me, down to the second. I've never had to improvise before. I think what I'd better do is go to Mir first, like we planned. That's the environment with the fewest unknowns. I'll grab supplies to bring back, then have a bite and refill my oxygen tanks before trying Odyssey. Sound good to you guys?”

“Works for me,” said Steve, his stomach still rumbling.

“Are we sure there's still anybody on Odyssey?” asked Fury. “Maybe it's on autopilot. Somebody told it to go meet Mir before they died, and now it's flying itself. If we can see them, they can see us. You'd think they'd try to make contact.”

Steve looked out the window again. “I don't know. They're pretty tiny out there. If they're not looking for us, they might not see us. We already know they're up here,” he reminded the others, “but they've been out of contact with Earth for a couple of days. They don't know we're coming.”

“Or they can't make contact,” Tony said. “Or they don't want to. Trap, no re-entry, remember”

That was true, too. Van Cleef had apparently wanted Odyssey left in space. Maybe he'd even sabotaged it himself so they couldn't bring it back.

“We'll worry about that after we deal with the supply thing,” Bhavana decided. “Mir first. Somebody want to get me to the door?”

“Sorry, that's me, isn't it?” Fury took a seat, or tried to – sitting down didn't work very well in zero gravity, and he was obliged to put his seat harness on in order to use the controls with both hands. Steve braced himself against another seat, but the motion was all but imperceptible as Intrepid began inching closer to the silent Soviet space station.

At the same time, Odyssey moved in from the other direction, growing ever larger in the windows. Steve wanted to complain that they were moving awfully slowly, but then he looked at the sprawling vista below them and remembered again the scale this was all happening on. They were not driving cars in a parking lot. They were moving the length of Manhattan, all while orbiting two hundred miles up and seventeen thousand miles per hour. Speed was relative – and caution imperative.

“What happens if they get there before us?” Steve asked, watching the shape of Odyssey get ever-larger in the window. “You mentioned docking with the station.”

“Supposedly we've been communicating with the Russians so that Mir and the shuttles will be compatible,” Bhavana said. “The idea is that we'll be able to dock at the near end, there – that big tube can be used to connect the airlocks and we can crawl through. I did say supposedly,” she added. “Moscow's not big on keeping us up-to-date, and we're a little reluctant to share our own progress, so we have no idea if it's finished.”

“Right,” Steve said. “Let me guess: if it doesn't work, we all die.”

“Air,” Bhavana agreed. “Air is really, really important.”

“Any alternative ways of getting in?” Steve asked. “That don't involve suffocating?”

“Oh, you wouldn't suffocate.” Bhavana sounded downright cheerful. “Your lungs would rupture as the air was forced out of them by the vacuum, and your blood would boil and tear your circulatory system apart. The only other way is to spacewalk over, one by one, and none of you are qualified for that.”

Tony reached out and grabbed a notebook and pen he'd secured to a patch of velcro on the wall. There was already half a page of notes and quick drawings there. He scribbled a few words in some of the remaining space, and stuck it on the wall again.

“What's that?” asked Steve.

“Notes,” said Tony. “I've got about four pages of ways I think I can make the controls more user-friendly and improve the psychological environment up here. If she'll let me in the pilot's seat later, I might have some ideas for that, too.”

“Something's happening on Odyssey!” Fury said.

That brought both men back to the view from the StarkArm camera. The image, zoomed in as far as it would go, was not very clear – but they could definitely see some smaller, bright object floating gently away from the shuttle, while still attached to it by a tether.

“Is that a person?” asked Bhavana.

Steve couldn't imagine what else it might be. “We were right,” he said, reaching down to squeeze Tony's shoulder. “There's somebody still alive!”

“Or some thing,” said Tony darkly, but a moment later he grinned. “Sorry. Had to.”

“Do you still want to go straight to Mir?” Steve asked Bhavana. A living person to rescue was why they were here, and was probably a priority. Especially a living person who was apparently coming to meet them, and must be in need of the help badly enough to take that risk.

“I don't think I have a choice,” Bhavana replied. “whoever it is, they're waving at me. They've seen me, and they want to communicate.” There was a short pause. “Keep heading for Mir, Fury. If it comes down to something dangerous, we want to maintain our access to the space station.”

“And maybe deny them theirs,” said Tony.

Now things really were happening achingly slowly, but only because Fury was being very careful not to run into either the space station or the other shuttle as they drew closer to both. Steve wondered how long they'd been at this, but he wasn't wearing a watch and the only clock he'd noticed on the flight deck was the one counting the hours since liftoff. It didn't matter anyway, because he hadn't checked the time when they'd gotten Bhavana into her spacesuit. It felt like hours.

“It's definitely a person, or at least an EMU,” said Bhavana. “They're moving into the sun, so they've got their visor down. I can't see who's in there. It's Shipley's suit, although that doesn't help... he's the only one who's ever managed to bust one of those space pens in orbit, and they never got all the ink out. I can see the stain on the right side of his chest.”

Steve glanced down and noticed Tony's hand on one of the StarkArm joysticks. His fingers were just barely on it, maintaining the light touch necessary for fine control – but when Steve looked at his face, the young man's brow was furrowed in concentration and he was biting his lip so hard it looked like he might break the skin at any moment. He was ready to pluck Bhavana out of danger with his robotic arm the moment it was necessary.

At long last, the two astronauts were face-to-face outside. The mystery man in Shipley's suit held up a right hand in greeting, then made a series of gestures that left Fury scrambling to adjust the radio.

“What was that?” asked Steve.

“Sign language,” said Tony. “Astronauts can use it to communicate if their radios are down.”

“I don't think his is,” said Fury, “because he just gave us a frequency.”

Through the StarkArm camera, Steve watched the figure reach up to turn a knob, raising the gold-mirrored visor on the spacesuit. Inside was...

The entirely ordinary, human face of John Jeremiah Shipley. He looked abnormally pale and there were dark circles around his eyes, but those might have been a trick of the harsh light. Steve doubted he could be too badly-off, because the man was smiling as he reached out to take Bhavana's hand.

Bhavana grabbed his hand in both of hers. “Jay-Jay!” she said, and laughed out loud. “You look like shit, but I've never been happier to see you!”

“Ha!” Tony exclaimed, and turned to grin . “Did you hear that? She swore! She finally swore!”

“Shut up, Stark,” said Bhavana, but her voice was delighted, and Steve, too, chuckled at the sound.

Then everything changed. “No, Indira,” the other astronaut said. “I am not Jay-Jay.”

The mood on the flight deck, momentarily jubilant, dropped like a stone. On the camera, Steve saw Bhavana snatch her hand back, having to grab the StarkArm in order to get the necessary leverage. “What do you mean, you're not Jay-Jay?” she demanded.

“Don't be afraid,” the man held up both hands. “There are memories of you in his brain – he was very fond of you. He worried that he was more fond than was proper, you being a married woman. He found your dedication to space travel very admirable.” His English was good, his pronunciation for the most part standard American, but there was a hint of accent that hadn't been there when Steve and Tony had spoken to Shipley the day before launch. The R's were just slightly rolled, the S's a little harsher – it was rather unsettling to listen to, but not nearly as unsettling as the words themselves.

As when Tony spoke casually about his most incredible accomplishments, this being had used such a kindly, serene tone that the full impact of what he'd said took a moment to sink in. He claimed he wasn't Commander Shipley, but he somehow had access to Shipley's knowledge and memories and was now speaking through his mouth. That couldn't be good. Even if it weren't entirely bad news for everybody else, Steve doubted it was good for Shipley himself.

Steve couldn't see the expression on Bhavana's face, but she kept her voice calm and deliberate as she replied. “If you're not Jay-Jay Shipley, then who are you?”

“I left my name behind with my original body, many years ago,” the being said. Perhaps you can call me Salvador, like the artist. Jay-Jay enjoyed art. He has a clock on the wall of his office designed to look as if it's melting, like the ones in the paintings.”

“He does, yeah,” said Bhavana cautiously. If this being were trying to reassure her, it didn't seem to be doing a very good job. It wasn't reassuring Steve, either. Salvador was an extremely unsubtle choice of name. What kind of creature stole an astronaut's body, frightened a HYDRA operative into sending a message telling Earth not to let them return, and then named itself the Spanish word for savior?

“You're afraid of me,” said Salvador. “You don't have to be. I'm here to help.”

“To help with what?” Bhavana asked. Steve found himself glancing over at the half-destroyed shape of Odyssey.

“To begin with, to help you get those poor souls back to Earth,” said the being. “They need medical attention. And then, to help you save the Earth. Your people are rushing headlong into atomic destruction. You don't need to. I can show you a better way.”

Steve's jaw hardened – he'd heard that before, and he didn't like the sound of it. Tony and Fury clearly didn't, either.

“Holy shit,” said Tony softly. “This is... this is some George Adamski bullshit, man! Aliens come down from space in human form to teach us peace and brotherhood!”

“Who is George Adamski?” asked Steve.

“You missed him,” said Fury. “Lucky you. He was a crackpot who founded his very own church of the Flying Saucers cum moonshine operation. There were a bunch of nuts like him around in the sixties.” He paused a moment. “People did a lot of drugs in the sixties.”

They still couldn't see Bhavana's face, but her control over her voice was cracking, an Steve could easily imagine her terrified expression as she asked, “what did you do to Jay-Jay?”

“I haven't harmed him,” Salvador promised. “He's asleep. I thought his body would be the most suitable for my mission here. His is a face and a voice your people will listen to, and I will return control of his body to him when I'm finished. Hadn't you better begin moving the injured over to your own craft?”

“Yeah, I guess we'd better,” Bhavana said, her reluctance audible. “You'll be coming too, I'm guessing?”

“I've been waiting a long time for a vessel to take me to the surface of your planet,” Salvador said. The use of the word vessel made Steve shiver a little – was he talking about the shuttle, or Shipley's body? “Naturally I want to accompany you.”

“Yeah,” Bhavana said. “There are people who are gonna want to talk to you.”

“I understand that one of them is on board the Intrepid,” said Salvador. “I've heard about Captain Stephen Rogers. I'm eager to meet him as well.”

A creature who'd talked to Earth in an old HYDRA code wanted to meet him. Steve was liking this less and less.

“All right, guys,” Bhavana said. “Here's how I think we'll work this. I'll cut free, and let our new friend here take me over to Odyssey on his tether. We'll have to get the survivors over here somehow. Stark, you think you can come up with something?”

“Coming up with things is what I do,” Tony promised, cracking his knuckles.

“How many are there?” Bhavana asked Salvador.

“Five,” the being replied. “One is dead. The pilot, Theodore Van Cleef. He tried to sabotage the shuttle. I was able to surround the forward cabin in a force field in order to save myself and the others, but I could not save him when he detonated the engines.” There was a long paused. “I am sorry. I did not come here to kill.”

“Oh!” Tony said. “I get it.” He turned to Steve. “You were right – the cargo bay was burned. If he had a bubble-shaped force field around it, that would have trapped escaping air and the skin of the shuttle could burn. It would go out immediately when he turned it off again and the oxygen dispersed.”

Steve nodded. That made sense, and the apology was delivered in the same tranquil, sincere tone as everything else Salvador had said. But Van Cleef's last message had been trap. If he'd tried to sabotage Odyssey, it was to keep the shuttle from returning to Earth.

What did this all add up to? Steve knew that Van Cleef had been put on the shuttle by HYDRA. If he didn't want Salvador reaching Earth, did that mean this being was the good guy? The enemy of one's enemy was one's friend – or at least a useful ally, as Fyodorova had said. On the other hand, Salvador could equally well be something so terrible that even HYDRA didn't want him around.

Things had been so clear-cut during the war, Steve thought with a sigh. Back then they'd known who the good guys and the bad guys were. Now there was SHIELD, HYDRA, apparently multiple factions among the Soviets... and the universe had just dealt them this wild card.

“I'm hooking a tether line to Salvador now,” said Bhavana. On the screen she could be seen clipping something to the other suit. “There, it's in place. Now I gonna unhook my line to Intrepid. Once I'm on board, I'll need you guys to move away from Odyssey. If we run into each other...”

“We die,” Steve finished for her. “I'll add that to the list.”

He didn't turn off the radio, because that would have been foolish – Bhavana might need them, or Salvador might have more to say, or they might need advice at some point from the only experienced astronaut in their crew. But Steve didn't want Salvador to overhear the conversation in the cockpit, so he moved away from the control panel and gestured for Tony and Fury to follow him.

“All right,” he said quietly, “are we all on the same page here?”

“You mean the page where this smells fishier than Hunt's Point in the middle of July?” asked Fury.

“The one where we're starting to get an It Conquered the World vibe?” asked Tony. “Because that's the page I'm on.”

It Conquered the World?” Steve frowned. “Is that another movie?”

“Yeah.” Tony explained: “it's about an alien from Venus who comes to Earth and promises to save us from ourselves. Peter Graves gives this speech about how humans can't become perfect without giving up our humanity.”

“That sounds about right,” Steve decided. It also reminded him of something Johann Schmidt had once said to him: we have left humanity behind. Schmidt and his followers had believed that humans were inherently flawed and had to be ruled by somebody greater and wiser – namely Schmidt himself. Steve couldn't imagine what Salvador's better way was, if not something similar.

“We don't actually know that this guy's an alien, do we?” asked Fury. “I mean, maybe Commander Shipley just snapped in the emergency.”

The fact that this hadn't even occurred to Steve probably said a lot about the life he'd lived, he thought. “That's on the table too, I guess,” he said. “We're gonna have to find out. In the mean time, I think rule number one needs to be that we do not return to Earth until we know for sure who and what we're bringing with us. Van Cleef must have said no re-entry for a reason. We need to find out what that reason was, so we stay in space until we do. If Salvador won't tell us what happened on Odyssey and how this all relates to the tesseract, then he's not getting to the ground. Tony, coming up with things is what you do, so come up with reasons why we can't land yet.”

“That's gonna be hard,” said Tony. “When people go into space they usually want to get their work done and get back to the ground as fast as possible. And if he's got access to Shipley's brain, he can probably figure out an answer to any excuse I can make.”

“I have faith in you,” Steve told him. “We'll also need to prepare for getting the injured astronauts on board. That'll exacerbate the supplies probably, so we'll have to take care of that, too. Is there a first aid kit or something on board?” He didn't know why there wouldn't be, but if there were no food, there might be no medical supplies, either. They really should have looked into how and when astronauts packed. Steve would have called that a note for next time, except it was ridiculous to think he might ever do this again.

“I'll ask Houston.” Fury grabbed a seat to drag himself over to the main radio.

“I'll check out the lower decks,” Tony said, and headed for the floor hatch.

“I'll keep tabs on Bhavana and Salvador, then,” Steve decided. He returned to the side console, where the two astronauts outside had now drifted out of view of the StarkArm camera. Steve rotated it with the joystick, being very gentle – he couldn't imagine how angry Tony would be if he managed to break something – and found them drifting over the burned-out cargo bay of Odyssey as Salvador's tether reeled in.

“How are you doing, Bhavana?” he asked.

“We're almost there,” she replied. “We'll just head right in and re-pressurize. That'll take a few minutes. Out friend from another star here isn't very good at conserving his EMU propellant,” she added.

“I'm afraid that while Jay-Jay was an experienced spacewalker, I don't have the same access to his skills as I do to his sequential memory.” His tone, Steve realized, had never changed once. He didn't sound happy, or sad, or angry – Salvador's voice sounded serene, vaguely but unidentifiably foreign, and almost drugged. Steve had seen people questioned under sodium amytol, and they'd talked much the way Salvador did.

“So what planet are you from, Salvador?” Bhavana asked. Steve could hear bumping noises as she climbed through the airlock. She was trying to sound as if she were just making conversation, but it didn't fool Steve and he doubted very much whether it fooled Salvador, either. “Mars, maybe?” This was a joke, but Salvador did not laugh.

“I could not answer in any way that would be meaningful to you,” he replied. “I have been lurking in the energy fields that surround your planet for a long time, listening to your development as a culture. In fact, I would say I am an Earthling of longer standing than any of you, even Captain Rogers.”

One of Tony's SETI articles had talked about potentially intelligent activity in the Earth's radiation belts, hadn't it? Was that what Salvador was, and bringing the shuttle to the lower edge of those had allowed him to take over Shipley's body?

“Houston says there should be a medical kit on board!” Fury announced from the front.

“Tony, did you hear that?” Steve asked.

“Yeah! Actually, I found it!” A white box floated up through the hatch, and Tony came after it. The kit was bigger than Steve had expected, more the size of a carry-on suitcase than a regular first aid kit, but people who were isolated miles above the Earth had to be ready for absolutely anything. Tony opened it and looked at the contents. “What are we gonna need?”

“I don't know yet. We're closing the airlock now,” Bhavana said. “Through the window into the mid-deck I can see four people in sleeping bags on the walls. It looks like we've got some abrasions and burns, probably a few contusions. You get a lot of bruises in space because there's so many more directions you can bump into stuff in. Nobody seems to be conscious,” she added, worried. “There may be some head trauma.”

“No, none of that,” Salvador said quickly. “They are in suspended animation. When I realized we could not return to Earth in the Odyssey, I placed them in stasis to lower their food and oxygen requirements. That is how we have survived this long, until help could arrive. It will be easy to awaken them again. I am glad you came,” he said. “I would not have wanted to abandon my mission.”

Everything he said was calculated to sound so reassuring. Maybe that was why it wasn't. Or maybe Steve had just spent too much time since his awakening being reassured by people with ulterior motives. People he'd thought were his friends.

“Stark, have you come up with anything to get these people onto Aquarius?” asked Bhavana.

“Sort of,” said Tony. “I think the only thing we can really do is put them in EMUs one by one and then you guys carry them. We'll tether you all together and bring them over in one or two trips. That'll take hours,” he said, “but it doesn't require anything extra.”

“I was afraid of that,” said Bhavana. “That's incredibly dangerous. One slip and somebody goes spinning into the void. Not to mention the difficulty getting unconscious people into and out of spacesuits in zero gravity. Can you wake them up?” she asked Salvador.

“Doing so will require something to kick-start their metabolisms,” he replied. “Amphetamines would work, as would a direct injection of glucose into the bloodstream.”

“That's a no, then,” Bhavana said.

“The only other thing I can think of,” Tony said, “is that we both dock with Mir at opposite ends of the station and carry them through that way. That's got no risk of anybody floating away and no need for space suits, but the problem is that only one of their doors was designed to meet the space shuttle airlock. And since NASA and the Soviet Space Agency don't talk to each other as much as they should, we don't even know whether it's finished or if it would work if it was.”

That sounded like something they could rule out... until Steve got an idea. “But we do know somebody who can get us in contact with them,” he realized. “Hold that thought. Bhavana, do what you can do for them over there. I'm gonna see if I can get in touch with a... an ally. If she's not on her way back to Russia already. Fury, we're switching seats.”

Fury returned to the side console to keep talking to Bhavana and Salvador, while Steve got into the approximation location of the pilot's seat to speak to Houston. “Hello, Capcom?” he asked. “This is Rogers. I need to talk to Peggy Car... I mean,” he took a deep breath,but found he simply could not bring himself to call her Dugan. “I need to talk to Madame Director.”

“She's here,” Capcom said. “She flew in right away when she found out you were on board.”

Steve nodded. “Peggy, are you there? I need a favour.”

“Yes?” her voice asked. She wasn't going to promise him anything until she'd heard the request. That was fair – she'd learned that from experience.

“What did you do with Fyodorova?” he asked. “Is she still in the US?”

“Of course,” said Peggy. “Deporting Black Widows is often not worth the trouble. She's in lockup across from Troy”

“We need to talk to somebody in the Russian equivalent of NASA,” Steve said. “She seems to have a back door into the government over there that might get better answers than going through the official channels. Can we talk to her?”

“I'll see what I can do,” said Peggy. Steve could almost hear her hesitation before she asked, “what's going on up there, Steve? What are you doing? Gary's going absolutely mad down here. Usually shuttle astronauts keep ground control informed of absolutely everything.”

Williams himself spoke up. “From major maneuvers down to whether everybody's used the bathroom,” he said.

“You guys are so quiet, you're scaring them to death,” Peggy said.

Steve could see that... but he didn't want to tell them anything just yet. “When we have the answers, we'll give them to you,” he promised. “Right now, all we've got is more questions. Just trust us, okay?”

“Just trust you?” Williams asked, horrified. “Do you have...”

“Gary,” Peggy silenced him. “Just... as he said. Just trust him.”

Chapter Text

Of the people still on board Intrepid, Fury had the most first aid training. He sorted out their supplies, while Bhavana and Salvador described everybody's injuries and tried to figure out how to handle those and in what order. Tony, meanwhile, returned to the lower decks to look and what else was on board and try to figure out how they would dock with Mir.

Steve quickly got tired of waiting. He'd always hated sitting around and waiting for things to happen – he would much rather have made them happen, but right now he didn't have a choice. He floated there listening to Fury and the astronauts talk for a few minutes, then sighed and pushed himself away from the console.

“I'm gonna go check on Tony,” he said.

“Good idea,” Fury agreed. “He's probably building bombs down there.”

When Steve poked his head through the floor hatch, he found the mid-deck full of floating objects. Tony had pulled half a dozen things out of storage and was now flipping through laminated pages on a clipboard, getting a bit frustrated with their refusal to stay flipped in zero gravity. He'd inherited his father's baby face, Steve observed – Howard had always looked younger than he was, even before his plastic surgery. When Tony was angry he looked his age, but when he was sad, or quietly lost in thought as he was now, he looked about twelve or thirteen. It was a sharp reminder to Steve that one member of their party was not a soldier, or a spy, or an astronaut. Tony Stark was brilliant, but he was also a kid who'd just lost his father.

Take care of Tony, Howard had said.

Steve floated through the hatch and turned himself right side up, doing his best to avoid bumping into floating boxes and bags of gear. “How are you doing?” he asked.

“I'm working on it,” Tony said. He glanced up for a moment, but then his eyes went back to his clipboard, where he was scribbling notes in the margins with a dry-erase pen. “I figure the biggest problem will be creating a seal between our hatch and the door on Mir. If they don't match up the way they're supposed to, we'll have to line the join with something. The vacuum will tend to suck stuff out, so as long as it's something that doesn't fit through the gap we should be okay. The problem is figuring out what we have that's strong enough to hold up but which we can easily remove when we're ready to go.

“Okay,” said Steve, “but how are you doing? You're okay, right?” He could remember too many incidents during the war when he hadn't realized his friends were ill or hurt until hours after it happened. Gabe had once gone through half a firefight with a broken wrist – Steve should have noticed that, but he hadn't. Then there were Bucky's frostbitten fingers, which he'd found out about only after they'd finally made it back to civilization. The commandos had been grown men and soldiers, but that hadn't meant Steve could ignore their problems. With Tony, he had even less excuse.

“I'm fine,” said Tony. He looked up at Steve, a bit puzzled by the question, and it occurred to Steve that people probably didn't ask Tony if he were all right very often. “I'll figure it out. Even if I don't, this is the coolest thing I've ever done!” He grinned. “We're in space! We're meeting an alien, even if it's an evil one! If we get back alive, Mom's going to ground me until I'm forty-five and Dad will burn...” he paused, his smile faltering. “I mean, Dad would burn everything he owned to keep me from inheriting it.”

There it was. Steve waited.

Tony sighed. “Right,” he said. “I'm fine, okay? What do you want me to say? I'm fine.”

Steve waited a little more. He wasn't sure whether it was because he didn't want to pressure the kid, or because he simply had no idea what to say, himself, but waiting seemed like the thing to do.

“You know what?” Tony asked. “I'm upset. I'm sad. But I think that's just because I'm supposed to be. Part of me is almost... part of me is almost glad he's gone. That's terrible, isn't it?” he asked. For a moment he met Steve's eyes, but then he turned away, ashamed of himself.

“Well... it kind of is,” Steve agreed. He could hardly say otherwise. “We all do it, though. We all think terrible things sometimes.”

You don't,” said Tony.

“Of course I...” Steve began, then stopped short as he realized Tony meant that. Tony had grown up with the same image of Captain America as Agent Troy had – the hero who fought for the betterment of all no matter what the consequences. That was the Steve Rogers of the comic books, a paragon without a greedy or selfish or jealous thought in his head. Was that how Peggy and Howard remembered him, though the rosy fog of nostalgia? Was that the man they'd thought they were bringing back? The idea was so absurd, Steve laughed out loud.

Tony stared at him. “What the hell?” he asked.

Steve forced himself to stop. “Sorry,” he said. “It's just... of course I do. You know what I used to do?” he asked. “I used to deliberately sabotage my best friend's love life. Whenever Bucky had a date, I would make an excuse to tag along because I was afraid he'd run off with some girl and I'd never see him again. I know he hated it, but he didn't have the heart to tell me no, so there I'd be and the girls would show up and look at me as if they were thinking really? You brought Steve again?” He squirmed a little in embarrassment – it was only in hindsight that he'd ever realized how petty and childish this behaviour had been.

Tony looked stunned. “Really?”

“Really,” said Steve. “His solution was to start telling the girls to bring a friend so I could have a date, too, but I was five feet tall and could barely breathe, and not a lot of girls wanted to dance with a guy they could step on. So my date would wander off halfway through the evening, and that would just leave me and Bucky and Bucky's poor girl. I think he was relieved when they drafted him, because he thought he'd get the girls in Europe all to himself.”

“Really?” Tony repeated. He was trying hard not to smile, and failing.

“The night before I took the serum,” Steve said, “Dr. Erskine told me it would magnify everything about me – the good would become better and the bad would become worse. I lay awake that night staring at the ceiling and thinking about how I used to follow Bucky around on his dates, and wondering if all I would become was a jealous monster.” He'd never told anybody that before, not even Bucky or Peggy, and having said it now, it took him a moment to remember where he'd been going with it. “So we all think and feel terrible things, Tony,” he said. “My mother used to tell me that we can't help what we think, but we can help what we do.” That bit of wisdom seemed to have helped Howard when he'd complained he couldn't stop inventing things that blew up... maybe it would help Tony too.

You can't rub the tarnish from men's souls without taking away a little of the silver,” said Tony, and then he grinned. “That's also from It Conquered the World.”

“When we get back, I'll have to watch that movie,” Steve decided. It sounded much more optimistic than the ones Tony had shown him so far.

“Eh, it's not great. The alien looks kind of like a cucumber with a face.” The smile faded again as Tony gave an awkward shrug. “Dad always said I watched too many movies. I wonder what he would have done about the docking problem.” He looked at the clipboard in his hands. “He would probably have figured it out by now.”

“He's not here, so we'll never know,” Steve said, “but Howard told me that you were smarter than he ever was, so if he could have figured it out, you definitely can. You've done some amazing stuff already, Tony, and you're only fifteen. I can't imagine what you'll have done by the time you're thirty.”

Tony had probably heard lots of compliments in his life, but this one seemed to surprise him. Maybe he just wasn't used to being compared to his father in a positive way. Before he could say anything in reply, however, Fury called down from the flight deck.

“Hey, Rogers!” he said. “We've got the Russian on the line!”

“Coming!” Steve grabbed the edge of the hatch, then paused and looked at Tony. “Are you gonna be okay?” he asked for a third time.

“Yeah.” Tony wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I'm good.”

“You should come up and listen to this,” Steve told him. “You're the one who'll be handling the docking with Mir. You need to hear what Fyodorova has to say.”

“All right.” Tony looked around at his mess, then shrugged and stuck the clipboard to a patch of velcro on the wall. He followed Steve through the hatch to the flight deck.

“Fyodorova?” Steve asked, dragging himself back over to the console by holding on to a seat.

“Hello, Captain Rogers,” her voice replied on the radio. “I was surprised you asked for me again. You're very trusting.” It sounded like a warning.

“No, I'm not trusting,” said Steve. Trust was one emotion he'd been very short on the past few weeks. “But I know your information is accurate. You have contacts in the Soviet space program – they sent you those photographs. Can you tell us who we should call to find out whether we can dock with Mir, and how to do it if it's possible?”

“I can tell you that,” Fyodorova said immediately. “I've been there.”

“You've been there?” Steve repeated, astonished. “When?” Peggy's information said Mir had only been up for a few months, and surely during that time Fyodorova had been undercover at SHIELD.

“Come see me in Sing Sing sometime and I'll tell you about it,” she promised. “Get a notebook. I'll tell you how it's supposed to work, but I don't know if it actually will. This will be the first time we've tested it. And I'd better warn you, it's not nearly as nice over there as it is on a shuttle.”

“When were you on a space shuttle?” Steve demanded.

“Never,” she said, “but I've seen pictures and read reports. It's the Cadillac of space travel to our '74 Mustang. Now pay attention.”

Her instructions were worrying. Even when the Americans and Soviets went out of their way to cooperate with each other, they did so with an undercurrent of paranoia. Mir was designed to dock easily with a Soyuz capsule, but to reach Intrepid the station would have to deploy a sealing ring to fit onto the shuttle's slightly curved side, like the accordion folds in the connection between an airplane and a jetbridge. This could only be operated by somebody who was already on board the space station.

“I can talk you through getting in from outside,” said Fyodorova, “but it'll involve venting at least part of the atmosphere, and if there's anything on board that wasn't properly secured before evacuation, you might get smacked in the face. There should be enough reserve oxygen on board for a few hours, but it'll be low-pressure and the next mission up will have to bring their own.”

“We'll give the Russians a shopping list,” said Steve. “Tell them to bring more supplies, too, since we're going to be helping ourselves to whatever's in there.”

“You might be better off going hungry. Cosmonaut food is awful,” said Fyodorova.

“But we can dock the shuttle and then get if off without having to depressurize the station a second time?” Tony asked.

“As long as the seals work, yeah,” said Fyodorova.

“Great! Then I know what we're doing,” said Tony. He grabbed the notepad he'd been using to write down his ideas for improving the shuttle, and flipped to a new page. “We'll dock Odyssey first and get everybody off it, along with whatever supplies and equipment we can salvage. Then we disengage Odyssey and dock Intrepid to get everything and everybody on board. If the seal doesn't work properly, I've got an idea how to handle that. Once we're done, we set Odyssey on a re-entry course, and hang around up here until it burns up in the atmosphere to make sure we don't run into it.” He looked at Steve and winked.

Steve gave Tony a thumbs up – he'd come up with a plan that did not involve dangerous spacewalks, and a reason for them to wait in space until Salvador answered their questions. “Fury, call Bhavana.”

On the other shuttle, Bhavana and Salvador were still cleaning and sewing up the various injuries the unconscious astronauts had received when Van Cleef detonated the engines. Salvador's force field had managed to keep their section intact, but hadn't entirely protected them from being thrown around by the explosion. Despite the alien's insistence that the crew were only bruised, Bhavana had found a broken collarbone and suspected several cracked ribs.

“You could at least have tried to treat them,” she said, not bothering to hide how annoyed she was.

“I know very little about human physiology,” said Salvador, still quietly serene. “I would probably have caused more harm.”

“Well, if you're gonna be borrowing Jay-Jay's body, I suggest you study up fast!” Bhavana snapped.

“Bhavana,” said Steve, “we need you guys to head over to Mir. We've got a Russian Agent on the line who's gonna talk you through getting on board the station and helping Odyssey dock.”

“I have to be on the space station to do that?” asked Bhavana.

“That's what Fyodorova said,” Steve told her, but he could already tell from her voice that it was going to be a problem.

Sure enough: “I don't know how that's going to work,” Bhavana said. “We're coasting on fumes over here. It's gonna take a delicate touch to get us docked without running out, and our new friend doesn't have it. He burned almost all the remaining thruster fuel getting here.”

“I have no experience piloting this type of craft,” Salvador said. He wasn't defensive or apologetic. As before, he merely spoke.

“I can do it,” said Tony. “I can get on board Mir and connect the seals.”

“No, you won't,” said Bhavana.

“I can do it from here!” Tony insisted. “Based on her instructions I can get the door open with the StarkArm. Then we maneuver up really close, and I'll only need a spacesuit on just long enough to climb through the hatch, close it, and repressurize. I won't be outside longer than fifteen or twenty minutes. Then since Intrepid has extra fuel, they back off, you dock Odyssey, and I'll be here to help you and Salvador get people into Mir.”

“Not a chance,” Bhavana said.

“We don't have a choice,” Steve sighed. “Neither Fury nor myself will fit in an EMU – if you and Salvador have to stay on Odyssey, it's gotta be Tony.” He looked at the boy. “Are you sure you're gonna be okay?”

Tony smiled broadly. “I have never been more okay in my life!”

Tony buckled himself into the StarkArm operator's seat, while Fury took the pilot's and Steve watched nervously. The task at hand, Steve thought, was to go up to a door, open it, step inside, and shut it behind them. It was literally one of the simplest things in the world, but they were in space. Everything in space was a process. Their first step here was to get close to the space station without bumping into it.

This time it was not an illusion: maneuvering really was an achingly slow process, accomplished inch by inch with Tony watching the cameras and Steve looking out the top windows, while Fury steered. They knew they'd made it when Bhavana started yelling at them over the radio to stop.

“You're there! You're there! If you get any closer you'll ram into it and then we're all fudged!” she exclaimed.

“I'm stopping! I'm stopping!” Fury assured her. Without the friction of an atmosphere to stop them, he had to apply gentle thrust in the opposite direction. The earth continued to wheel slowly by below them, but their position relative to Mir stabilized. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief.

“I should never have let you guys talk me into this,” Bhavana lamented. “If we don't all blow up and die, I'll drop from a heart attack at any moment.”

“All right, my turn!” Tony rubbed his hands together, then took a headset out of a net on the wall and put it on over his eyes. This displayed the two images from the cameras at the base of the StarkArm, one to each eye, to simulate the view somebody would have had from standing at the point where the arm attached. It allowed Tony some depth perception as he guided the arm towards the door of Mir.

“This is one of the first things I came up with for the revamped arm,” he said as he worked. “Space is a three-dimensional environment, so you need a three-dimensional view. It's one thing to use the arm from out in the cargo hold where you can see what you're doing – you can do that, too,” he added. “It's another to have to work from in here with only video screens to show you what you're doing. So I figured this would be a good compromise.”

Under Tony's guidance, the robot claw reached out and delicately gripped a handle mounted next to the space station's airlock. This was designed for cosmonauts to have somewhere to hang on when opening and closing the door, and seeing the fingers close around it made Steve wince. There was no way that little bar could take the weight of the whole shuttle. Surely it would break off, and as fragile as all this technology seemed to be, that might ruin everything.

A moment later, however, he remembered that there was no weight in space. Shuttle and station were orbiting in tandem, and that meant no forces on the bar whatsoever. Tony let go of it again, and then had the arm grasp the emergency lever on the airlock itself. This served the same function as the one on the front hatch of the space shuttle, allowing an unqualified person to free trapped cosmonauts if Mir crashed somewhere, and it was just as easy to use.

“Be gentle, man,” said Fury, his knuckles pale as he gripped the arms of the pilot's seat. “If you rip the door off we're starting all over.”

“I got this,” Tony promised. He shifted the lever, and then pushed. Like the door of the space shuttle, the hatch opened inwards. Tony had explained that this was in case it came unsealed – the pressure inside the station would act to keep it closed, rather than to force it open. Unfortunately, that same pressure, combined with the awkwardness of the robot arm, stymied Tony's every attempt to get it open. All he ended up doing was pushing the shuttle further from the station, making Steve's heart pound and his stomach churn in terror.

“Damn it!” Tony thumped on the console, then had to grab it to keep himself from floating away. “You know what we really need up here? Another arm! If I had that I could hang on with one and open the door with the other. Just one has no leverage.” He grabbed the handle next to the airlock again, then took his visor off. “No good. I gotta do this myself.”

“Oh, no you don't!” Bhavana said on the radio.

Steve grabbed Tony's arm. “I thought we agreed you weren't going to be out there any longer than necessary,” he said. Bhavana hadn't wanted him out there at all, but they were improvising.

“This is necessary!” Tony insisted.

“Are you sure?” Steve said. “There's no other way to do it?” Tony was smart – he could come up with something that didn't involve placing himself in unreasonable danger. Steve was sure of that. He wasn't going to let Tony go get himself killed just because the kid wanted to spacewalk.

“Yes!” said Tony. “What, do you think you're Mom now?”

“No, I don't. I'm just...” Steve paused – what was he trying to do? “Your Dad asked me to take care of you, and I think I already let him down by taking you along at all.”

It was only after the words were out of his mouth that Steve remembered how Tony reacted to people talking about his father. He braced himself for anger, but what he saw instead when he looked at the young man's face was even worse – it was betrayal.

That's the reason you let me hang out?” he asked. “Because Dad asked you to?”

“No,” Steve said quickly. “It's part of the reason, but...” What could he follow that with? Tony hated platitudes. If he said I hang out with you because I like you Tony would tell him to shut up, just as he had in the graveyard.

“Gentlemen,” said Fury sharply. “We're saving the world, remember?”

Tony pushed the visor into Steve's hands, which shoved both of them backwards. “Somebody's gotta help me with my spacesuit,” he snarled on his way to the hatch.

Steve sighed and put the visor back in its net before following him. Tony had worn astronaut Kim's takeoff and flight suits, so now Steve and Fury helped him dress in the same man's EMU. Now that they knew what all the parts were and what order they went on it, this was a much faster process than it had been with Bhavana. Steve would have expected Tony to chatter about the parts as he dressed, but he was silent, sulking. Eventually, Steve resorted to asking him questions in order to break the awkwardness.

“What are the tubes for?” he asked, helping Tony zip up the vest.

“Cooling water,” Tony said. “People think space is cold, but it's easy to overheat because there's no air to carry it away. If you're cool, you also sweat less, which keeps you hydrated.”

“What about the padding?” Steve wanted to know, as he put the next layer overtop. That was the part he hadn't been able to figure our earlier.

“So you don't touch the metal parts of the suit,” said Tony. “You can get sores or bruises from that, or even cut yourself. Blood still clots in space, but if you bleed it floats around and it can get into the wiring and make a mess.”

“Bhavana wasn't kidding when she said everything was complicated up here,” Fury observed, and Steve nodded – that lesson had been driven home over and over again.

“Humans evolved on Earth,” said Tony. “Everything about our bodies works in Earths' gravity and atmosphere. When we go into space, all the adaptations that normally help us survive become useless, or even turn into problems.” Even when angry, he couldn't resist sharing knowledge. “Our shoes aren't gonna fit when we get back, for example.”

“Our shoes?” Steve helped Tony get his hand into a glove.

“Yeah. Fluid's collecting in our feet,” Tony explained. “Usually it gets pumped back out by the action of our leg muscles, but we don't use our legs in space, so it just puddles. On normal missions they have the astronauts exercise to help with that, but we're in kind of a hurry.”

As they had with Bhavana, Steve and Fury tested all the connections and hoses, and then despite Tony's impatience Steve insisted on checking some of them again. Bhavana knew what she was doing, and what she was doing was her job that she was trained for. Not only was Tony completely new to this, but he was Steve's responsibility and would have been even without that last request from Howard. Tony was still a kid, and he needed looking after – even if he didn't like that idea.

Everything appeared to be in working order as far as he could tell, but Steve still felt a bit sick as Tony put his helmet on. “Be careful, okay?” he said. “Your Mom's going to break my neck if anything happens to you.”

“Don't worry,” said Tony. “She couldn't reach your neck.”

This joke might have indicated that they were friends again, but Steve couldn't tell. Tony's back was turned to climb into the airlock. Steve shut the door behind him, and then watched through the little window as the outer door opened and Tony climbed outside. The sun was at a different angle now, so that the ocean below could reflect its light directly back up through the open cargo doors. This illumination meant that Tony remained visible, instead of vanishing in shadow as Bhavana had.

“Oh, man!” Steve heard the boy laugh. “This is so amazing! I can see New Zealand, and the clouds are all gathering up between the two islands... this is the greatest view in the world. No, wait, this is the greatest view out of this world!”

“Just get to Mir, Tony,” Steve said.

“I'm going, I'm going,” Tony said. “I just wanted to look. It's not like I'm ever going to get to see this again.” There was a rustle in the microphone as he took a deep breath. “All right, I'm gonna climb up the StarkArm.”

Steve pushed himself back up to the flight deck. There, through the outside camera, Steve could see Tony grab the robotic arm and start moving himself hand over hand along it. Again, the arm looked far too slender to take the weight of Tony and the heavy EMU, but there was no weight in space.

“Has he got his tether done up?” Bhavana asked over the radio. She was still working with Salvador on Odyssey, but must have been paying attention to the conversations on Intrepid as well.

“Yes, I have my tether done up.” Tony tugged on the nylon cord he'd hooked to a ring beside the shuttle airlock, demonstrating that it was secure. “I'm not an idiot.”

“Excuse me for not wanting you to float away and burn up on re-entry,” said Bhavana. “Nobody's going to catch you if you fall out of space, you know.”

“Gimme a break,” said Tony. “I'm almost there.”

Steve kept his eyes on the video monitor, hardly daring let himself blink, as Tony climbed. If something were to go horribly wrong, he thought, now would be the time for it to happen.

“This is harder than you'd think,” Tony observed. “How do you guys make hanging out in zero go look so easy all the time?”

“We train for months and months in the neutral buoyancy tanks,” Bhavana told him. “Stop talking and concentrate on what you're doing so you don't go hurtling into the void.”

“Has anybody ever told you that you're a very worst-case-scenario type of person?” Tony asked. “I'm not an expert but I'm pretty sure that's bad for crew morale.” He reached the end of the arm and grabbed the handle it was gripping on Mir. “Oooh, look at me! I'm re-tethering myself to the space station!” he announced, disconnecting and re-connecting the cord.

“I appreciate the update, but not the sarcasm,” said Bhavana. “Next time, fasten yourself to the station before you unhook from the shuttle. Make before break. You never, ever want to not be tied to something.”

“I was hanging on,” Tony protested. “I'm fine.” He started pushing at the door of Mir, but it still wouldn't budge. Grabbing the handle in both hands, he braced his feet against it and tried again, using the stronger muscles in his legs.

“You can't trust your hands to keep you anchored when...” Bhavana started to say, but she was cut off by Tony's startled shout. He'd managed to push the door open a crack, and the air inside the space station came flooding out, along with a cloud of loose paper and other small unsecured objects. Tony lost his grip on the handle and went flying, only to jerk to a halt about twenty yards away when his tether went taut. He stopped himself yelling, and floated there upside-down for a moment. Over the radio, Steve could hear him panting for hair.

“What did I just tell you?” Bhavana demanded.

“Bite me,” said Tony. He tugged on the tether to float himself back to the door.

The decompression had forced the hatch shut again, but this time Tony knew what to expect. He cracked it open and held on while the rest of the air escaped, and then the door opened easily. Tony crawled inside.

“I'm in!” he announced. He hadn't quite gotten his breath back, but he sounded pleased with himself. “Gonna unhook and close the door.”

Steve saw the airlock swing shut again, and the lever moved as Tony locked it from the inside. There was no longer any way to see what he was doing, but they could still hear his voice. “Wow,” he said. “Cap, your Soviet contact wasn't kidding... this place is a dump.”

“You have to find the recompression switch,” Steve reminded him. He knew he was being impatient, but the longer Tony was isolated, the greater the chance he would get hurt, and the more difficult it would be to help him. “It'll say renew atmosphere.” He swallowed s he realized something that really ought to have been obvious. “Can you read Russian?”

“No, but atmosphere is a Greek word and the Cyrillic alphabet is based on Greek, so I should be able to recognize it,” Tony said. “Geeze, there's places in here where I think they've fixed leaks with duct tape. Not even special space duct tape, either. This is the ordinary matte gray stuff you get at Ace Hardware.”

“I'm not surprised,” said Bhavana. “My last trip up we repaired part of Discovery's control panel the same way.”

“She said there'll be a pressure dial next to it,” Steve said, consulting Tony's notebook. He'd written down some of Fyodorova's instructions there.

“I think I found it,” said Tony. “Three-ameha atmok-feppy?”

Steve frowned in confusion, then realized Tony was trying to read out the label as if it were written in English: ЗАМЕНА АТМОСФЕРУ. “Zamenit' atmosferu,” he corrected, and checked his notes. “It'll take about twenty minutes to repressurize fully.”

“I can hear it working already,” said Tony. “There's something rattling, too, which doesn't sound very healthy. You guys should start moving back to make room for Odyssey.”

“All right,” said Steve. He stuck the notebook back to its velcro pad on the wall and rubbed his forehead. He couldn't remember the last time he'd done something this nerve-wracking. At least part of it was the fact that it was taking so long. Steve was used to doing stressful things, but most of the stressful things he did were over quickly – smash and grab, like when they'd stolen the shuttle. This was so drawn-out it was almost leisurely, and yet at the same time there was no chance to breathe. It was exhausting.

Worse was knowing that they were now leaving Tony completely alone. The next people who was in the same room with, if all went well, would be Bhavana and Salvador. Steve was confident that Indira Bhavana could take care of herself in space, but Tony was, as he'd already observed too many times that day, only a teenager, and for all his enthusiasm he barely knew what he was doing. Now he was going to be trapped in a small space with an extraterrestrial being who was almost certainly hostile, and Steve could do nothing to help him.


Chapter Text

“All clear?” asked Fury.

Steve nodded, reluctantly. “He's inside.”

Fury moved the joystick again to maneuver Odyssey away from the space station – and there was a sudden shudder and a jerk. Steve looked up with a start, instinctively trying to turn to the windows to see what had happened but unable to do so because he had nothing to push against. Had they hit Mir? Had they hurt Tony? He grabbed a seat back and turned himself around to look.

“What the hell was that?” Tony demanded.

Steve was glad to hear him ask – it meant he was still alive. He studied what he could see outside, but the station had drifted away to the rear when the shuttle began moving and was no longer visible. It was only when he looked at the bank of StarkArm displays that he realized what had happened. “Your robot arm was still holding on to Mir,” he said. “We tore the handle off.”

“Does the arm still work?” asked Tony.

That didn't seem like a priority to Steve. “What about the hull of the space station?” he asked.

“I'm taking a look.”

There was a moment of silence, in which Steve's stomach felt as if it had dropped into his guts with a splash, gravity or no gravity. Had they just ruined everything by forgetting the blindingly obvious?

“The dial says the pressure's still rising,” Tony said. “There's no alarms going off, so I'm gonna say we're probably okay.”

“Right.” Steve allowed himself to exhale. Of course, when he thought about it, all this technology was designed to take enormous stresses and to break safely if it broke at all – the engineers who'd created it must know ow dangerous space was. If they hadn't, people like Bhavana who'd actually been there would have been more than happy to tell them. Even so, he wasn't going to relax just yet. Not until they'd finished their mission without anybody else dying.

“You okay, Captain?” asked Fury.

Steve shook his head dismissively – whether he was okay wasn't important right now. “Let's get on with this,” he said.

Mir grew smaller and smaller in the windows, until Bhavana told them to hold their orbit there and let her go in. Steve continued to watch with his heart in his mouth as Odyssey inched towards the docking hatch. He'd been nervous when Fury was piloting Intrepid, but this was so much worse, because Steve was now watching from afar and in no position to do anything about what happened next. He certainly couldn't do anything for Tony if something went wrong – not even keep the kid company.

Whenever something dangerous was happening, Steve had always preferred to be in the middle of it rather than stuck on the sidelines. He'd always figured that if anyone got killed, he would rather it be himself than somebody he cared about. Funny how that kept going wrong.

Gasp by gasp of its remaining fuel, what was left of Odyssey moved alongside Mir and drifted gently to a halt. “I think I've got it,” Bhavana said finally. “How's everything lining up on your end?”

“I can see the hatch through the airlock window from in here,” Tony agreed. He sounded as if his mouth were full of something. “Looks good.”

“What are you eating?” Bhavana asked.

“Candy. Somebody had a bag of it in their locker,” Tony replied. “The label says... I dunno what it says. Tastes kinda like Dulce de Leche. They left all their food behind, like we figured, so between this and what's on Odyssey we'll have supplies to last us a while.”

That was good, Steve thought, if they ended up having to wait around in space until Salvador gave them the answers they needed.

Something inflated between Mir and Odyssey. It seemed to be working as far as Steve could tell, but he was over a kilometer from the action, squirting through a sunlit window or peering at a grainy video feed. He had to wait for somebody to speak up before he really knew what was going on, and apparently it didn't look so good to those who were close up.

“Talk to me, Stark. Communication is key,” Bhavana reminded him. “How's it look?”

“There's a leak somewhere,” Tony said. “It's tiny, but the pressure's not holding. When I shut off the switch it starts to drop again. I don't really want to waste the air.”

“We've got some, and we won't be using it for very long,” said Bhavana. “Shut it off. We'll use the atmosphere of Odyssey to get everybody onto the space station, and then we can let Mir depressurize when we move to Intrepid. The Russians will just have to pack some extra when they come back.”

“It's not very big,” Tony insisted. “If I can find it, I can patch it. All I'll need is probably more duct tape or something... they've got plenty of that. Wait! I know!” There were the sounds of objects being moved as Tony rummaged for supplies.

“No, Stark,” said Bhavana. “You've taken more than enough risks. I'm opening the airlock now.”

Steve couldn't help with that part, either. He stayed at the window as Fury hung over the radio, listening to the updates as Bhavana and Tony moved the six injured and unconscious astronauts through the inflated tunnel into Mir. The sounds Steve could hear suggested that stuff was being rearranged to make room for the people, and Bhavana had to tell Tony several times to secure loose objects that were floating around inside the cylinders.

By the time Salvador and Bhavana made their own crossing, Steve could hear people breathing heavily. The air in the tunnel was getting thin. It must have been Bhavana who closed the airlock, because while Steve and Fury listened to the sounds of her doing that, Tony eagerly greeted their visitor.

“Hi!” he said brightly. “I'm Tony Stark! I've been interested in SETI for ages but I never thought I'd actually get to meet an alien. This is so cool.”

“Thank you, Tony Stark,” Salvador replied. “I am pleased to finally be meeting humans, after watching you from afar for so many years.”

“Your eyes glow,” Tony observed. “Did they always do that?”

“Do they?” Salvador's voice remained controlled and neutral, so it was hard to tell how much this startled him. “I didn't know. I haven't seen them.”

“Did they do that in your original body?” Tony asked. “What did you used to look like?”

“It's been so long, I've forgotten,” Salvador replied.

That didn't sound right to Steve. It sounded like an excuse or a cop-out, a way of avoiding an unpleasant topic. Apparently it did to Tony, as well.

“How could you forget what you look like?” the young man asked, disappointed. “No matter how long I was a disembodied whatever, I don't think I'd ever forget stuff like I had two arms and two legs.”

“Have you ever been without a body?” Salvador asked.

“Not when I was awake,” Tony admitted.

“Then you would not know,” the alien said. “I think I did have two arms and two legs – but your language is designed to describe the input you receive from your senses. My senses were different. Sight was not important to me the way it is to you, so the question of what I looked like is difficult for me to answer. I don't think I could describe anything I experienced then to you in English. Not in a way that would be equally meaningful to both of us.”

That wasn't what he'd said a moment ago, but Tony seemed to accept it. “How did you learn English, anyway?” he asked. A muffling of his voice told Steve he'd popped another candy into his mouth.

“The elements of the language are stored in Commander Shipley's brain,” Salvador said.

“I read somewhere that Shipley spoke four languages,” said Tony. “English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Parla Italiano?”

Sì, parlo Italiano. Tua madre è Italiana, non è lei?,” Salvador said, without even stopping to think.

Tony didn't respond to that right away, but that might have been because he still had candy in his mouth. After a few seconds of silence, Bhavana broken in.

“Somebody want to disengage that tunnel and turn the air back on?” she asked.

“Oh, right, sorry! Got it!” said Tony. Sure enough, his mouth was full.

Bhavana had set the autopilot on Odyssey for a steep re-entry that would bring it down in the South Pacific, in an area where there were very few inhabited islands and little shipping. The wreckage would probably vaporize on the way down, but there was always a chance that some pieces might reach the surface and cause damage. Looking out the window at the Earth below, Steve thought that even if the entire shuttle made it down in one piece, the chances of it hitting anything important were almost nonexistent. The shuttle, like all man-made things, was just too tiny, the Earth too vast. But he was getting an idea by now of how uncomfortable people in the space program were with the word almost. They liked to be sure.

Once Odyssey had drifted away on the last fumes of its propellant, it was Intrepid's turn to dock. Fury was far more confident of his piloting skills on this second attempt – he seemed to have decided he'd gotten the hang of moving through this complicated environment. In fact, he was apparently getting a little too confident for Bhavana's comfort.

“Too close! Too close! Stop there!” she shouted over the radio. When Steve checked the little round window in the center of the main hatch, he could see her through the equivalent window on the space station, waving her arms in a panic.

“Do you yell at people like this on every mission?” Fury grumbled as he stabilized their position.

“No,” said Bhavana, “because normally I trust people to know what they're doing!”

“So did you actually come along on this trip to help your crew, or just so you could shriek at us when you think we're doing something wrong?” Fury complained.

“Let's just say that if I weren't here, you three would already be dead,” was Bhavana's blunt reply.

The docking tube hit the side of Intrepid with a jolt, even more bone-jarring than when they'd torn the handle free on Mir. This time, however, Steve knew it was coming, and was able to grab the seats and brace for it. Once the tunnel – a white plastic tube with lengthwise metal struts to help it keep its shape – was in place, he opened the hatch.

Bhavana was waiting for him on the other side. “Shut off the air flow,” she said, instead of greeting him. “We only want one of us constantly losing atmosphere to space.”

“Already done!” Fury called from the flight deck.

“Nice to see you, too,” Steve said to Bhavana.

She clearly wasn't in the mood for jokes or pleasantries – in fact, after hours of work first on her spacewalk and then on board Odyssey, Bhavana looked as if it had been days since she'd slept. Had it? Steve had no idea how much time had passed since launch. Sunlight and shadow were coming and going with every 90-minute orbit of Earth, so there was no intuitive reference for what time it was. When he thought back... it must have been at least a day since they'd taken off from Cape Canaveral, and in that time none of them had slept. They'd all been running on adrenaline, focused on the urgency of their mission.

So it wasn't surprising that Bhavana didn't acknowledge Steve's quip. “We've got more time with the air from Mir than we did from Odyssey,” she said, “but we'd still better hurry. We don't want to have to dip into Intrepid's tanks when we still have to get back to Earth with ten people on board.”

“Got it,” said Steve, and followed her through the inflated tunnel. It was a pretty tight fit – no wonder it had taken them so long and so much bumping around to get the unconscious survivors through. At the far end, Salvador was waiting to help first Bhavana and then Steve onto the Soviet space station.

Fyodorova had warned them that the inside of Mir wasn't pretty, and Tony had described it as a dump, but Steve was still startled by just how bad the place really looked. The interior of the space shuttle was nice and neat, lined with padded white boxes clearly labeled and panels to cover anything dangerous. Nothing on Intrepid was out of place or in the way. Mir looked like it had been put together in somebody's garage. There were tubes and exposed wires everywhere, some of them hastily repaired despite the fact that the station had only been in orbit for a couple of months. Controls and pieces of equipment were marked with felt-tip pen or label-making tape. The industrial-looking spacecraft in the movies Tony liked had still looked like they were solid. Mir looked ready to fall apart at a touch.

“Captain Rogers,” said Salvador. “I've heard a lot about you.”

Steve turned around, and for the first time he came face-to-face with Salvador. He knew what Commander Shipley looked like, and this was the same face – square-jawed, brown-eyed, and gray-haired. It was the kind of face governments liked to have as the spokesmen for their projects, as Steve knew from personal experience: the wholesome, all-American farm boy. For a moment Steve couldn't see the glow Tony had mentioned, but when Salvador moved a little, there was a glint of bright blue behind the pupils, like a dog's eyes in a dark room.

It was a familiar colour. That was tesseract blue, and Steve suddenly found himself entertaining a rather absurd idea. What if the force inhabiting Shipley's body didn't want to describe its previous form because it was, somehow, a metashape?

Part of Steve wanted to reject the idea outright as something ridiculous, but he couldn't think of any real reason why there couldn't have been an intelligence lurking in such an object. Howard had once told Steve that the tesseract existed in four dimensions, not three, and drew energy from someplace humans could not otherwise access because it lay in a direction they couldn't concieve of going. If the cube could contain that, why couldn't it have a mind?

“Captain Rogers?” Salvador repeated.

“Oh, sorry,” said Steve, and shook the being's hand. This was a very awkward thing to do in space. “You've, uh... you've heard about me, then,” he said.

“Yes, I've been minding Earth's radio and television broadcasts for many years,” Salvador said. “I enjoy your films. You'll have to tell me how much of the stories are true.”

“The stuff in the movies? It's all made up,” Steve assured him. “Some of it was based on true stories, but pretty loosely. Is that how you learned about the tesseract?” It had been used as a maguffin in one or two of the films, but the audience should have had no indication that it existed in the real world.

“No, I knew it was on your planet before that,” Salvador said. “My people had collected the other five objects, and we nearly destroyed ourselves by using them as weapons. They're locked away now, where nobody can ever get a hold of them again. We knew a sixth must exist, but it took us a long time to find it. That's why I came to this world. Your species must either make peace and become the tesseract's caretakers, or I must take it away for safekeeping.”

He'd said before that he was here to teach humanity to live peacefully, Steve remembered, but this new story made a bit more sense. If that were really what Salvador wanted, Steve was almost ready to agree with him: give the cube to the aliens, and make it their problem rather than Earth's. Before he could do that, though, there were more nagging questions in need of answers.

“Why did you use a HYDRA code to send us the message?” he asked.

“Because it was the one your people had used to describe and discuss the tesseract in previous transmissions,” Salvador replied smoothly. “I thought it would reach those who knew the object best.”

“If you saw my movies, you know who HYDRA are,” Steve pointed out.

“They were your enemies,” Salvador said. “It's not surprising if you don't see them as I do.”

“How do you see them?”

“They are human,” said Salvador.

Of course they were, Steve thought with a sigh. The only humans ever to use the tesseract had fuelled weapons with it, and in the process they'd inadvertently become the Earth's ambassadors to some alien culture. The irony would have been wonderful if Steve hadn't been literally looking its consequences in the face.

“Hey, Spock,” said Bhavana, interrupting the conversation, “we gotta move these people along before we run out of air in here, remember?”

Salvador nodded, his eyes still on Steve. “My apologies, Indira. I keep forgetting how high your oxygen requirements are.” He grabbed a handle to turn himself around. “I'm coming.”

The two of them headed into the next module of the space station, while Steve waited just inside the hatch – he figured they would pass the unconscious astronauts to him, and he could send them down the tunnel to where Fury was waiting at the other end. A moment later, one floated through the door towards him, but when he grabbed it Steve found that the blue jumpsuit didn't contain a person, but had been stuffed with plastic packages. Tony had filled it with supplies he'd gathered up from the space station, and was now handing it to Steve.

“Thanks,” said Steve, gathering up the flailing limbs of the jumpsuit into a more manageable package. Tony floated over to help, and Steve realized that Tony had hurt himself. His right eye was bruised, with blood in the sclera, and a number of scabbed-over scratches around the side of the socket, like the tread of a boot.

“What happened?” Steve asked. He pushed the supplies down the tunnel, and came closer for a better look.

Tony put a hand self-consciously over the damage. “I was helping Bhavana and Mork move people around and I got smacked in the face by an astronaut's foot,” he said. “Bhavana cleaned it up, but she said I should let you take a look at it.” There was something significant about this statement – he spoke it a little louder than normal, as if for unseen ears. “We're in the way here.”

Steve nodded. The two of them maneuvered the bundle down the tunnel and onto Intrepid, where they tied it to a net on the wall in the lower deck. Fury kept a watch on the hatch, while Tony lowered his voice and said, “Commander Shipley doesn't speak Italian.”

Steve was somehow unsurprised. “So he's getting information from someplace besides Shipley's brain.” That wasn't necessarily proof of the alien's evil intentions, of course – he could have learned human languages simply by monitoring their transmissions. If so, however, it was odd that he'd claim otherwise.

“He did speak four languages,” Tony added, “but the last one is Japanese – he's gone and been a consultant at their National Aerospace Laboratory, the equivalent of the JPL here. So yeah, if he really had access to Shipley's memories he would know that.” He fiddled with the drawstring on the storage net. “Bhavana's scared to death of him. I don't know if he's noticed it, but she jumps every time he says anything, like she's afraid his alien mouth is gonna shoot out and bite her.”

Images from that movie were not what Steve needed right now. He had to remain calm, he told himself – they had to be sure the astronauts were safe before they could confront Salvador with anything. Their mysterious visitor couldn't be allowed to take hostages. “All right,” he said. “Are you okay to go back up and help with the injured, so I can talk to Bhavana for a moment?”

“Yeah,” said Tony, though with a slight tremor in his voice.

“If you feel threatened, don't take any chances. Call for help right away,” Steve told him. Fyodorova had said she'd called for help prematurely when Steve woke in the recovery room, but he realized he no longer knew if this were true. Maybe she'd done it on purpose, for reasons of her own. But there could be no 'premature' in a situation with this many unknowns.

“Hey, Cap!” Fury said. “Incoming!”

Bhavana and Salvador were on their way through the tunnel, awkwardly handing along the body of a slender black woman who'd been wrapped up in a sleeping bag so that her limbs wouldn't drift around in the lack of gravity. Steve wondered if they'd done that after Tony got hit in the face, or if they hadn't had enough bags and one or two astronauts had still had their limbs free. Fury had to return to the fight deck to update Houston on their progress, so they would need help from either Tony or Steve. Steve saw Tony nod, so Steve nodded back and pushed himself up through the hatch to help.

“I got her,” Steve said, grabbing a corner of the bag. “Bhavana, help me get her to the wall.” There was an area in the mid-deck where the sleeping bags were meant to be tied down so that napping astronauts wouldn't float around in their colleagues' way. They could use that.

“I'm trying,” Bhavana said.

“I'll get the next guy!” Tony slipped past them and began scrambling up the tube, grabbing Salvador's clothes on the way past to drag him along.

“Fury,” Steve called up. “Tell them we've got supplies, and astronaut...” he checked the nametag. “Evelyn Mbotho is on board with a second on the way. This shouldn't take too long if we all pitch in.”

As soon as the sleeping bag was secured, Steve took Bhavana's arm and pulled her up to the flight deck so they could talk to Fury, also – and so that Salvador would be less likely to burst in on them.

“Are we done already?” asked Fury, mock-innocent. He knew perfectly well there was something else going on.

“Tony said Shipley doesn't speak Italian,” said Steve.

“He doesn't,” Bhavana agreed. “He didn't have a crush on me, either – not even one I didn't know about. People thought he did, because we were so close. Even Ranjeet worried about it. I figured part of the reason they kept me off the crew even when I proved I wasn't pregnant was because they didn't want the media suggesting that Jay-Jay and I were having an affair, but we weren't.” She took a deep breath. “He's gay. Almost nobody outside his closest friends and family knows about it.”

She looked wary of how Steve would respond to that, but he wasn't interested in anything but the most important point. “So he didn't get that from Shipley's memories, either. Sounds to me like he's watched a lot of television,, and he's working with the information he's gotten from there and some educated guesswork, trying to be convincing.”

“Do you know what gay means?” asked Fury suspiciously.

“Of course I do,” said Steve. “Why wouldn't I?”

“I'm worried Jay-Jay is dead,” said Bhavana. “I don't know if we can get Salvador out of his body, but I have a feeling that if we do, he'll die... or he'll just be empty. Nothing left in there.” She shivered.

That was an awful thought, one that made Steve's stomach twist, and he had to forcibly push it aside. There was probably nothing they could do about it in any event. “We're going to have to confront him,” he said. “We need to know where he really came from and what he's planning.” How could they subtly ask whether Salvador were what Steve increasingly feared he was: a metashape in human form?

“We have no idea what he's capable of,” Bhavana said. “Do you have any idea how scared I was, alone on that shuttle with him and knowing he's lying to me? I thought I was going to be sick the whole time.” She gripped her own upper arms as she shuddered again.

“You really do need puke bags on this ride,” said Fury.

“He incapacitated five people and I don't know how he did it,” Bhavana said. “He possessed a sixth and he acts like there's nothing wrong with that. Somehow he protected most of Odyssey from the explosion and he's apparently been out here for years listening in on Earth's radio communication. He's implied that he's some kind of disembodied spirit who can do all these things just by thinking them. We have no idea what he might do to us.”

Was she sorry she came? Steve couldn't tell. Maybe she just needed to let out the fear she'd been so carefully containing. Thus far, for all her talk about the dangers of space travel, Bhavana had never seemed really scared by it. She was familiar with all the hazards, and knew how to work around them. The fear in her face and voice now, however, was very real and very unsettling.

“He could be faking it,” said Fury. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. He could just want us to think he's got incredible mental powers...”

“What's the difference?” asked Bhavana. “Whether he's doing it with his mind or with a machine, he's incredibly dangerous!”

“So what's your plan?” asked Fury. “You just want to take him to Earth and let him do whatever he wants?”

“Of course not!” Bhavana snapped. She shook her head. “I hate to say it, but if he's a threat – and I'm pretty sure he is. If he's a threat, we might have to try to succeed where Van Cleef failed, if you know what I mean.”

Steve did know what she meant. She was proposing that they destroy Intrepid and hope it took Salvador with it. “Not with Tony on board,” he said.

“We might not have a choice,” said Bhavana.

Not with Tony on board,” Steve repeated. “His father asked me to look after him.” Steve had already lost Bucky because of his own bad decisions, and he'd lost Howard. He was not letting a fifteen-year-old boy end the same way.

“You're the one who took him into space!” Bhavana was understandably unimpressed.

“So I'm not letting this become a suicide mission,” Steve insisted. “As long as Tony's on board, and as long as the Odyssey astronauts are alive, our job is to get them back to Earth safely and I am not compromising that. There's got to be a better way.”

There had to have been a better way to end the war than with the atomic bomb. There had to have been a better way to ditch the Valkyrie than to go down with it. There was a better way now, too. Steve just had to find it.

“Where is everybody?” asked Salvador's voice from the middeck.

“Guys!” Tony called. “Down here!”

Fury turned his attention back to the radio. Steve rubbed Bhavana's back for a moment in the hope of reassuring her, then lowered himself through the hatch. After a moment, she took a deep breath, and followed him.

One by one, they got the remaining four astronauts off Mir and onto Intrepid, and hung them up around the middeck. Steve didn't like handling people as if they were sacks of apples – he never had because because any people as limp and unresponsive as these were usually dead. The astronauts' bodies were warm and each had a weak pulse, but they were utterly inert. Several times Steve tried shaking or even pinching them, but never got the slightest reaction.

“Don't shake them too hard,” Bhavana warned. “No muscle tone plus no gravity makes it really easy to hurt somebody by shaking them awake.”

Steve nodded and immediately stopped. He knew his own strength – if it were possible for an ordinary person to easily injure a sleeping astronaut, Steve Rogers could probably break somebody's neck.

“We're going to have to find something better to do with them during re-entry, when everybody's normally belted in,” Bhavana added, wiping her forehead on her sleeve. “The shuttle's not meant to re-enter with this many people... we've got seats for only seven.”

That would leave three with nowhere to sit. “I'll stay loose,” said Steve. If anybody were going to survive something like that, it would be him. “We'll have to figure something out for the other two.” He looked at Tony, who was closing the hatch.

“I'll think about it,” Tony promised. He locked the door, and checked again to make sure all the mechanisms were properly engaged. “All right,” he said. “We can turn on the air and leave now.”

“How do we undo the seal between Intrepid and the tunnel?” asked Bhavana. “I know there's a leak, but if we just fly away we'll tear the tunnel off and the Russians will be angry.”

“I've got it.” Tony headed up to the flight deck. “The StarkArm should just reach the hatch... I figured you might need to hand something off to it from there someday.”

“When would we do that?” asked Bhavana, following him with a puzzled frown on her face. “We never open that door in space. There's no airlock.”

“We're doing it now,” said Tony. He smiled smugly. “I'm an engineer. It's my job to think about when people might have to use things for tasks they weren't designed for.”

Sure enough, the arm just reached, and at some cost to the shuttle's paint job they were able to pry the tube off and leave it floating there as Fury navigated the ship away from Mir again. Even Bhavana was impressed.

“That's at least one thing we haven't broken on this trip,” she said, watching the space station shrink to a dot.

“We haven't broken Intrepid,” Tony pointed out.

“Yet,” she said. “I have more faith in you guys than I started out with, but I still wouldn't pick you for a crew I was in charge of.”

“Progress is progress,” said Steve firmly.

Salvador had settled himself in the Commander's seat, which made Steve uncomfortable for several reasons – one of which was that it had allowed him to pick up Steve's shield, which had still been wedged underneath it waiting for a time when it would be used. “This is vibranium,” he said. “I didn't think there were more than traces of it in this part of the galaxy.”

“It's rare,” said Steve. “Howard told me that was all we've got.”

“No, there's more,” Tony said. “Apparently they mine it on the ass end of Africa somewhere. It's ridiculously expensive. That's all that had found it's way to the west by 1942.”

“Interesting,” Salvador said. “I'd like to learn more, but that's not my primary goal.” He pushed the shield back under the seat. “How long will it take us to reach the ground?”

“Oh, we're not going anywhere for a while yet,” said Bhavana.

“We gotta wait until Odyssey's down,” Tony agreed. “Otherwise we risk running into it, or into the debris.”

Salvador turned to look at them. “Odyssey will be re-entering over the South Pacific,” he said. “You said we would be landing in California, well north of the meridian.”

“NASA regulations,” Bhavana said. “We just have to wait.”

“And while we wait,” Steve added, “we've got a lot to talk about.”

Chapter Text

Tony unzipped the jumpsuit he'd used as a sack to store the supplies salvaged from Mir, and began pulling items out to distribute. “Who wants something to eat?” he asked. “I'm not totally sure what all of this is, but there's definitely beef jerky and dried fruit.”

“I don't care if it's pig brains in vodka, I'm starving,” said Fury.

Tony sent a package floating across the middeck towards him, then handed out more to Steve, Bhavana, and Salvador. Inside there was indeed something that looked very much like beef jerky. The label said Джерки, which suggested a military ration to Steve – he remembered seeing the same letters on packets of dried meat in an abandoned Russian outpost during the war. It was very chewy and not particularly tasty, but after hours without food, he was too hungry to care.

There were also vacuum-sealed plastic bags of dried apples and peaches, and little sachets of orange juice to be drunk through straws. Steve squeezed his by accident, and drops of juice squirted out to float around the cabin.

“Catch those,” Bhavana ordered. “If they get into the wiring, we'll have a problem.”

Tony put his straw in his mouth and sucked the drops out of the air, smiling the whole time. “I've always wanted to try that,” he said. “That is the coolest thing.”

Bhavana shook her head, but Steve could see the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth and he wondered if she were seeing herself in Tony. Had she been enthusiastically obsessed with space when she was younger? Was she remembering the joy and wonder of it, before she'd begun working day-by-day in the dangerous reality?

Steve did notice, as Tony distributed food, that there was no trace of the bag of candy he'd been munching on while he was alone in the space station. Either he'd squirreled that away to keep for himself, or he'd already eaten it all.

For the first few minutes, everybody just ate in silence, including Salvador – for all he claimed to know little about human physiology, he certainly knew how to put food in his mouth. Then Steve noticed a side effect of stopping to eat that he really should have expected, but hadn't. After hours of running on undiluted adrenaline, stopping to eat was telling his body that it could slow down now, and his eyelids were starting to droop. He wanted nothing more than to finish his meal and then sleep for hours. The lack of gravity meant he wouldn't even have needed a bed. He could literally fall asleep upright, and it wouldn't matter a bit.

It wasn't yet time for that, though. Before anybody could let their guard down by falling asleep, they had to figure out what they were going to say to Salvador. They needed to point out the inconsistencies in his story and let him know that they were aware he couldn't really read Shipley's mind – but at the same time, Bhavana had made her point that this was a very dangerous entity. If they offended him, he might be able to harm or even kill them in ways they could not see coming, so they were going to have to tread very, very carefully.

Steve wasn't good at treading carefully. When he'd interrogated Agent Troy he'd had a place to start from, but Salvador was still a mystery. How could they do this without sounding confrontational? Fury was a spy by trade – perhaps he would know. Steve glanced at him, and Fury acknowledged with a nearly invisible nod.

“So,” Fury said, mouth full of fruit, “Salvador. When we get back to the ground, there's gonna be a list of people as long as my arm who want to meet you. The president, definitely, a bunch of foreign heads of state, all kinds of reporters, big business... although NASA will probably want you to sit in quarantine for a while, to make sure you're not carrying any weird space bugs.”

“That won't be necessary,” said Salvador. “There's nothing in this body that Commander Shipley didn't bring with him from Earth.”

Steve knew what Salvador meant by that, but he couldn't help thinking that on another level it was the barest-faced like the entity had yet told them.

“It doesn't matter if it's necessary,” Bhavana said. “They did the same thing when the first astronauts came back from the moon, even though we already knew there probably wasn't anything living there. NASA isn't an organization that takes half-measures. We like to be sure things are safe.”

“We'll probably have to sit in quarantine with you, because they'll be worried you gave us something,” Tony added, driving home the group's collective point: Salvador was going to be stuck with them for quite some time before he got to talk to anybody else. “All the astronauts, too. Are you sure we'll be able to wake them up again?”

“Of course,” said Salvador. “As I told you, you just need to restart their metabolisms. It won't take very long.”

Fury brought the conversation back to its point. “After that, they'll want to vet you pretty thoroughly before you start meeting people,” he said. “There's an awful lot of security around important officials on earth. Then again,” he added, “if you've been watching our broadcasts, you know that.”

Steve thought of the Brass Bancroft movies – the president surrounded by secret service men. “Reagan even had a guard when meeting me,” he put in.

“Not to mention,” Fury went on, “I don't know what kind of guarantees they're going to want from you before they'll let you anywhere near the tesseract.”

Salvador had been examining a piece of dried apple, but hadn't yet put it in his mouth. Now he looked up from it, frowning. “The tesseract has caused humanity nothing but problems,” he said – and for the first time, Steve thought he heard a note of urgency creep into the being's serene monotone. “You should be happy to see it taken away. Think of the suffering it caused during your war, Captain Rogers.”

“You said you were going to teach us how to be worthy guardians for it,” Bhavana reminded him, around a mouthful of jerky.

“Now you make it sound like that's not an option anymore,” Steve agreed. “Humans aren't really a very trusting species, Salvador. We don't trust each other, but I think we'd rather see a weapon like that in our hands than in anybody else's.” Fyodorova would have agreed. “Especially if you've already got the other five.”

“Nothing brings us together like a common enemy,” Fury said.

“How do we know you don't need all six to make some kind of weapon that you'll use to conquer the galaxy?” Tony asked.

Salvador looked around at the humans like a trapped animal, the blue shine behind his eyes suddenly more prominent than before. It made Steve wonder if they'd gone too far too fast. When Salvador spoke again, however, he still sounded calm, at least compared to the rest of them.

“This very conversation demonstrates why you can't be allowed to keep it,” he said, as if explaining something to a child. “You're all ruled by fear and anger. You're like sheep without a shepherd. What I've seen from my vantage point in space has told me you can't even agree on how to govern yourselves, how to divide up your resources. Your world may erupt into a war at any moment. The weapons you've already built are more than enough to destroy all other life in your keeping, but you continue to create more. You need...”

Something inside Steve went ice cold. Too far too fast be damned, he decided, and said, “HYDRA.”

Salvador turned to look at him, frowning. It was not a confused frown.

“We can't look after ourselves,” Steve said. “We need a leader who knows what's best for us. That's what you were going to say, or something like it, and that's HYDRA's philosophy. A flock of sheep who need a shepherd. We'd rather shepherd ourselves.”

There is hope, but it has to come from inside. From man himself!” Tony said, as if quoting something. Steve had a feeling it was one of his movies.

“Sheep are terrible shepherds,” said Salvador. “Look at your proxy wars, your nuclear stalemate. The world's being run by two bullies...”

“And you only want one,” said Steve. “Our system's not perfect, but we're working on it, and we don't need anybody handing down a replacement from on high. Especially not somebody who talks about shepherds and calls himself Salvador. There's only one visitor to Earth who was allowed to do that.”

Salvador moved a bit – in gravity he would have been drawing himself up to his full height, which seemed to confirm for Steve the idea that he hadn't spent thousands of years floating around as a disembodied force. That movement only made sense from somebody who was accustomed to a human, or at least human-like, body. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Bhavana cringe a little, preparing to be attacked, but Salvador did not lash out.

“You're a particularly suspicious specimen, yourself,” the alien said critically. “The serum used on you was supposed to magnify you... perhaps it magnified your human paranoia, as well.”

“Who told you that?” Steve demanded.

There was no answer – this time, Salvador did look puzzled.

“Tony,” said Steve, “I'm sure you've read about Project Rebirth. What did your textbooks say super-soldier serum did?”

Tony swallowed a mouthful of food. “It prompts a complete cell turnover at the same time as it feeds nutrients directly into the blood,” he said, “so your body more or less remakes itself from scratch in an idea form, as if any diseases or injuries you had never happened to you, or things like childhood malnutrition. That's the standard layman's explanation, anyway,” he added. Tony had heard the version Erskine had told to Steve earlier, but he was smart enough to know that wasn't what Steve was requesting here.

Steve nodded. That was what the exhibit in the Hall of Science had said, too, and Howard Stark's published papers on the subject. The idea that the serum magnified innate traits, including psychological ones, was one the army had kept very close to their chests, and as far as Steve knew, the only people who ought to be aware of it in the 1980's were himself, the Starks, a few military and SHIELD personnel – and HYDRA.

“You spoke to Earth in a HYDRA code,” he said to Salvador. “Looking for an object that was in HYDRA's hands during the war, and now you're using a description of the serum that would have been known to HYDRA.” He looked directly into Salvador's eyes, meeting the inhuman blue glow without blinking. “Who are you, really?”

Salvador looked around, seeking help. Steve saw him glance at Tony, Fury, and Bhavana in turn, but in each face he found only hostility. Then surprisingly, he chuckled. It was the most human sound he'd made so far, and perhaps for that very reason, also the most chilling.

“I should have known I couldn't fool you, Captain,” he said, and then clapped his hands.

Between his palms there appeared a point of blue energy that spread outward in slow motion. Steve saw it coming towards him, but the pulse was a perfect sphere – he couldn't get out of the way because there was no 'out of the way' to get to. All he could do was act on the soldier's instinct that told him to protect the women and children. He grabbed the nearest hand hold and thrust himself in front of Tony and Bhavana. The pulse engulfed Fury, who arched his back in obvious pain, and then it hit Steve himself.

It felt like being electrocuted. His muscles seized, feeling as if they would break his bones under their own power. There was a smell of electrical smoke, and a coppery taste in the back of his mouth. His breath stopped. His ears rang. The world dissolved into bright spots dancing in darkness – and then mercifully, everything went black.

Steve came to some undefined time late, floating in landscape of indistinct black and white shapes. A voice was whispering his name.

“Captain Rogers!” it hissed. “Hey, Captain Rogers! Wake up!”

“Huh?” Steve's eyes found something to focus on, and after a few confused moments he made out the worried, upside-down face of Tony Stark hanging over him. They were floating free in the lower deck of the shuttle, with Bhavana's unconscious body drifting by above – or perhaps below, Steve wasn't sure which way was up and supposed it didn't matter in space anyway. His throat felt as if it were full of cotton wool and his head was throbbing. Reflexively he tried to swallow, and nearly choked on some hard, sweet lump. After a moment of wheezing he managed to dislodge the thing and swallow, but he could feel it as it slid all the way down to his stomach, where it lodged.

“Are you okay?” whispered Tony.

“I'll live,” Steve croaked, wiping tears of effort out of the corners of his eyes. “What happened?” He looked around, trying to ignore his headache and get his bearings. It felt as if something had been wrapped around his brain and then pulled way too tight. Thinking hurt.

“Salvador knocked us all out,” said Tony, “same as he did the astronauts on Odyssey, I guess. When I woke up we were all shoved into a storage space.” He pointed to a panel in the floor that was open, showing a compartment Steve would barely have considered big enough for one person, let alone four. “I got the door open, and then I gave you a piece of candy.”

“Candy?” asked Steve. That was the hard thing must have been, but he didn't understand the significance.

Tony held up an empty bag with Russian lettering on it. “Glucose,” he said, with a proud smile.

The situation came suddenly clear. Whatever Salvador had done, first to the other astronauts and now to them, worked by slowing the body's processes into stasis – he'd said that concentrated sugar would kick-start the metabolism, and after eating an entire bag of Russian toffees, Tony's blood sugar must have been through the roof. He'd awoken on his own, and then force-fed another candy to Steve. Steve's body took up nutrients faster than normal, so that had been enough to bring him out of it.

“All right, let's wake up the others,” Steve said. Maybe if they dissolved the candy in saline and gave it intravenously...

But Tony's face fell, and he crumpled the bag to show that it was empty. “That was the last piece.”

Steve hadn't been supposed to swallow it, he realized – but he had, and they couldn't do anything about that now. He rolled up his sleeves.

“Then we'll just have to improvise,” he said. “Help me find something to use as a weapon.”

They searched the storage lockers, but there wasn't much on offer. The space shuttle, and everything that it took with it, was designed to be as safe as possible. Nothing on board was sharp or flammable, so they had to settle for something heavy. Even then, selection was limited, because the Intrepid mission hadn't intended to do any major repair work. The most promising thing was a socket wrench set, designed to be tethered to a spacesuit so the astronauts could use it if they had to make adjustments to the StarkArm. Steve hefted the handle experimentally. It weighed nothing, of course, but it still had a certain amount of inertia. It would have to do.

“You stay down here,” he told Tony.

“I can help!” Tony protested.

“You've already helped,” Steve said. “Right now, I need you to stay here so he doesn't know you're awake.” If Salvador thought only Steve had come to, he might blame it on the serum rather than the sugar, and perhaps not try the incapacitating energy pulse a second time.


“No,” Steve said firmly. “I promised your father I'd look after you.” Tony wouldn't want to hear that, but he wouldn't be able to argue with it, either.

Sure enough, the boy scowled, but he didn't say anything more.

“Try to get Fury and Bhavana back into the compartment,” Steve suggested, pointing at the open door. “Someplace they won't get hurt floating around.”

Tony nodded and grabbed Fury's jumpsuit to start stuffing him back in. He was probably not as gentle about this as he should have been.

Wrench in hand, Steve very carefully opened the hatch to the middeck and put his head through to look around. The Odyssey astronauts were still there, tied to walls and velcroed into sleeping bags, along with the supplies Tony had shuffled over from Mir. For a moment Steve wondered why the alien didn't simply kill them all, so it wouldn't have to worry about them – but if it did that, it couldn't be the hero who brought them all back to earth. That had probably been the plan for Odyssey to begin with, until Van Cleef had rendered it incapable of reentry.

Steve had hoped to find his shield stowed here, too, providing him with another weapon, but it wasn't. Nor was there any sign of Salvador. He must be up on the flight deck, preparing to land.

Steve didn't like the idea of having to hurt Salvador. Breaking the necks of HYDRA operatives was one thing – they'd chosen to be what they were. Salvador was different, because this being was apparently riding shotgun in the body of Jay-Jay Shipley, and they had no way of knowing whether Shipley himself was still in there or not. Hurting Salvador would necessarily involve hurting Shipley, and Shipley didn't deserve that. He'd seemed like a nice enough guy the one time Steve had met him, and Bhavana considered him a good man and a good friend.

Then again, Bhavana was also the one who'd suggested sacrificing all of them if that were the only way to keep Salvador from reaching the ground. She would probably forgive Steve if Shipley had to die. Steve might not be able to forgive himself, though.

He moved up to the flight deck.

Nothing was visible at a first look except the backs of the seats and the front windows, through which Steve could see only blackness – the lights inside the shuttle blotted out the external stars. So far the windows had mostly showed the glittering vistas of earth below them. Salvador must have turned the shuttle over in preparation for landing. He was probably in the pilot's seat.

If nothing else, zero gravity made it easy to move without making any noise. Steve handed himself silently along the tops of the the seats, heading for the front. Socket wrench at the ready, he leaned over the top of the pilot's chair.

There was nobody there.

A moment later, Steve felt a current of air on his neck. It was just barely enough warning – he pushed himself sideways, out of the way just in time as his own shield fell from behind and sliced the back of the pilot's seat in half. Steve caught himself against the ceiling, and watched from there as Salvador pulled the shield free again.

“You're prepared,” said Steve.

“I thought if anybody came out of it, it would be you,” Salvador replied.

Steve pushed himself off the ceiling, throwing his entire body at Salvador, then grabbed another seat to swing himself out of the way as the alien attacked him with the shield edge again. Salvador was clearly stronger than he looked, because he managed to wedge the shield so deeply into the floor that he had trouble pulling it out again. A chill passed across the back of Steve's neck as he realized he would have to be careful not to let his opponent slice through the ceiling or walls. Not only were these full of important equipment, a hole in them would let the air out. Salvador looked as if he didn't care, but Steve and the others certainly would.

Salvador was still struggling to pull the shield out of the floor, so Steve seized the opportunity to grab him by his clothing and throw him against the back wall. The motion set Steve himself spinning helplessly in the air as well. Fighting in zero gravity was going to be difficult – every time he pushed his opponent he was going to push himself in the opposite direction, and unless he were in contact with something solid he would have no leverage.

Still, he was now between Salvador and the shield. Steve tossed the wrench aside and braced his feet against the floor to pull the shield out. This worked, but he sent himself spinning again, and before he managed to grab something else and stop himself, Salvador had slammed him into the floor, knocking the wind out of him.

Steve was gasping for air as he pushed himself up again, but he knew he didn't have time to recover properly. He had to think. Throwing Steve around was going to make Salvador move uncontrollably, too – maybe he could take advantage of that. Steve took hold of a handle and braced himself against that to kick Salvador in the gut with both feet.

The alien bounced off the floor and came to rest against the back wall, where he caught himself, and then noticed the wrench Steve had dropped. Steve lunged for it, but Salvador plucked it out of the air. Instinctively, Steve raised his shield to protect his head.

Then a pair of hands in spacesuit gloves reached out of the hatch at Salvador's feet and grabbed his ankles, dragging him down through the opening while Salvador himself was too surprised to resist.

Steve scrambled to follow. When he looked into the middeck, he found Salvador pinned to the wall by a figure in an EMU, using the suit's thrusters to keep him pinned there. For a moment, Steve had no idea what was going on – then he realized that the person in the suit had to be Tony. He must have gotten into it while Steve and Salvador were trying to fight upstairs. Like the wrench, the suit had no weight but plenty of inertial, and with the thrusters on Tony had Salvador trapped behind both his own mass and the EMU's, totaling at least four hundred pounds.

Steve floated over and pried the wrench out of Salvador's fingers, then held up his shield as if to bring it down on the alien's head.

“Who are you really?” he demanded.

“I came here to save you,” Salvador said, “but clearly you are not worth saving!”

“You're lying,” Steve said. He didn't shout it. It was a statement of fact.

“I'm telling the truth! You just can't accept it – you never could,” Salvador said. His unnerving tranquil tone was slowly but surely evaporating, as were his attempts to disguise his accent. He was now talking in clipped vowels and strong consonants that sounded very little like American English. They sounded, Steve thought, almost German.

A stone seemed to drop into the pit of Steve's stomach as he realized at last just who he was really facing. It was almost a reflex that made him punch Salvador in the face – he forgot for the moment that doing so would push him backwards as well. He hit the opposite wall while Tony cursed in surprise, and when Steve looked up he found Tony floating upside-down in front of the airlock while Salvador clung to a bar on the ceiling, clutching at his face with his free hand. There was a rounded dent in the wall, as if Steve had nearly put the other man's head right through it.

“Shit!” Tony was exclaiming, eyes wide in horror. “Do you see that, Captain Rogers? Shit!”

Steve hadn't noticed anything unusual about Salvador's appearance, but when the alien turned to look at him, what he saw then made him feel a little ill. His punch appeared to have dislodged the man's face. It had slid sideways on his skull, so that his eyes no longer lined up properly and his nostrils were halfway up his nose.

Shit!” Tony repeated. “Look at that! He's wearing Shipley's skin!”

Salvador reached up and tried to maneuver his face back into position, then cursed – in German. “Scheiße!

Steve couldn't speak. He'd seen this before. His brain was racing, trying to figure out how it was possible.

“I didn't think that would carry over,” Salvador remarked, as if to himself. “Well, then. I suppose the game is up.” He grabbed the skin in a handful and ripped it away, revealing exactly what Steve was now expecting – and exactly what he hadn't wanted to believe.

“Son of a bitch,” said Steve. “Schmidt.”

The Red Skull grinned as only a skull could. “We meet again, Captain Rogers.”

The HYDRA code. The HYDRA rhetoric. The obsession with the tesseract. I'm a big fan of your films. Steve should have figured it out hours ago. He might have done so, if it hadn't been for one troubling fact: “you're dead,” said Steve. He'd seen it. He'd seen Schmidt torn apart by the tesseract. Of course, when dealing with something so unknown and powerful, torn apart needn't necessarily mean dead.

“So are you,” said Schmidt. “We've always had a lot in common.” He peeled a few last bits of skin away from his face, and Steve began to hope that Shipley's mind was no longer in there – he wouldn't want his body back with that done to it. “The tesseract did not destroy me, Captain Rogers, it only scattered me. My atoms might have been strewn across the universe, but they were trapped by the Earth's magnetic field, and in time I was able to collect my thoughts. There I figured out how to impress myself upon a human brain if I could just reach one. By the time I got myself together, I'd missed the moon missions, but I knew I could get humanity's attention if I tried.”

Everything was starting to make sense. The HYDRA code – because he had been trying to communicate with HYDRA in particular. The need for an altitude that brushed the lower edge of the radiation belts. And the message from Van Cleef: there never had been any metashapes. Only a trap devised by a mind with years of practice in manipulating others' power plays to suit its own ends.

“You, Captain, continue to pretend you are a human being,” said Schmidt proudly. “I, however, know my destiny. I am a god.”

“You are a fruitcake!” said Tony. “That is the craziest shit I have ever...”

Schmidt cuffed him. It was an offhand motion, as if he were shooing an insect, but it slammed Tony against the airlock, suit and all. There was no way the kid could have had the time to put on the padding that was supposed to go under an EMU. That impact must have hurt.

Steve threw himself at Schmidt again, shield-first. “Pick on somebody your own size!” he ordered. It wasn't exactly an inspired quip, but it was all he could think of for the moment. The two of them bounced off the wall and grappled in midair, shoving, shaking, and squeezing because it was pointless to punch. “You had to trick HYDRA into coming to get you!” Steve said. “Even they don't want you back!”

“HYDRA needs me back,” said Schmidt. “Without me they're leaderless and directionless, cowering in the shadows like rats. If they're going to cower, they'll cower before me.”

Somebody was singing... Tony was singing to himself as he did something with the airlock. “You opened heaven's portal here on earth for this poor mortal,” he was murmuring, “you are my lucky star...”

For a moment Steve was puzzled, and then he remembered one of the movies Tony had gotten him to watch – the main character had sung that song to keep her nerve up as she prepared to jettison her extraterrestrial stowaway into space. They couldn't let Schmidt see that Tony was opening the hatch, or he'd realize what was happening without needing that clue or any other. Steve had to keep him distracted, so he kicked him in the face even though he knew it would set him moving, too.

“You're out of date, Schmidt,” he said. “Even HYDRA's moved on!”

“At least I've been catching up with the world,” said Schmidt. “You've been in the ice this whole time while it passed you by!”

“But I still stand for something relevant!” Steve said.

“And what's that?” Schmidt sneered. “Truth, justice, and the American way? Where do those belong in this world of proxy war and nuclear stalemate! Your time is over – my time has just begun! And when I get the tesseract back...”

You're all my lucky charms... I'm lucky in your arms...” Tony got the airlock undone, and swung the door open. “Captain!”

Steve anchored himself against the wall and shoved Schmidt towards the little airlock room, but Schmidt realized what they were doing before he was even halfway there. He put his arms and legs out so that he wouldn't fit into the tiny space. Steve moved to try to force him, but Tony was already on it – he locked his helmet and fired the EMU thrusters again. That was more force than even Schmidt's enhanced strength could take. He and Tony fell together into the airlock, and Steve swung the door shut and locked it.

“Tether!” he shouted at Tony.

“Got it!” Tony clipped it to a hook on the wall, and punched the button to open the outer door. Since they hadn't depressurized the airlock properly, the atmosphere inside was sucked violently out into space. Tony and Schmidt went with it, the tether unreeling as they tumbled together into the void.

Chapter Text

The tether was about a hundred yards long – it unreeled, and then suddenly snapped taut, sending a mild jolt through the entire shuttle. For a moment Steve's insides turned to ice as he pictured the hook pulling free of the cargo wall and Tony and Schmidt spinning off into space, but that didn't happen. Instead, they swung at the end of it while Tony tried to shake Schmidt off and Schmidt tried to... Steve didn't even know what he was trying to do, and he didn't care. The only thing that mattered at that moment was that Tony was out there all alone with the most powerful and evil man in the world, and Steve was powerless to help him.

Or was he? Maybe he could use the StarkArm.

Steve kicked off the wall through the hatch to the flight deck, where he tore the headset off its velcro mounting and put it on. It took a moment for his eyes and brain to adjust to the display Tony had designed, but it operated on the same principle as the novelty film he and Bucky had watched at the Stark Expo in 1943: that had used red and green filters to show each eye a slightly different image, while this used two tiny screens. Either method produced an illusion of three dimensions.

Once he had it figured out, however, Steve realized that it wasn't going to work. The arm wasn't long enough to reach Tony and Schmidt.

But Steve wasn't stuck in one place, like he would have been in a building on Earth. The space shuttle was, itself, mobile. Steve put the headset back and climbed into the pilot's seat.

“Tony?” he asked into the radio. “Tony, can you hear me?”

There was no response – Tony evidently hadn't had time to put on the communications gear. He'd been thinking of the EMU only as a suit of armor. Well, he was a bright kid. When he saw Intrepid start to move, he'd be able to figure out what Steve was doing.

When Bhavana flew the shuttle it had looked like the easiest and most natural thing in the world, but she'd had countless hours of simulator training in addition to doing this twice before. When Fury had tried it for the first time, he'd found that it was very easy to apply too much thrust. Steve tried to be very, very gentle as he moved the joystick back.

Instead of moving backwards, however, the vehicle lurched to the front, away from Tony and Schmidt. Steve swore – he'd assumed the controls worked like those on the Valkyrie that they vaguely resembled, rather than actually watching what Bhavana and Fury had done. He quickly switched directions, looking up through the window for any sight of the pair.

They drifted into view above, and for the first time Steve saw that they were encased in a thin bubble of blue energy, about eight feet in diameter. Schmidt had implied that he needed less oxygen than normal people, but he must still require some, and had put up one of his force fields to keep it in. The tether was embedded in the wall of the bubble, but seemed to be intact. Once the bubble was gone, Steve would still be able to reel them in.

Schmidt was grabbing at the edge of Tony's helmet, trying to get it off him. Was the space suit the only thing keeping Schmidt from taking over Tony's body as he had Shipley's? Steve had to do something, fast. He floated back to the StarkArm console and put the headset back on. The shuttle was still moving gently backwards with respect to the bubble. If Steve wasn't quick enough, he would lose them entirely.

With shaking hands, he brought the arm's three fingers together into a point and poked at the force field, hoping it would pop like a soap bubble. It did not. Instead, it started drifting away, inert but impenetrable. Sweat beaded on Steve's face as he quickly tried to grab the tether to keep them from floating too far. Even with the three-dimensional display, his first two attempts failed. On the third try he got it, and pulled. The shuttle shuddered as the bubble bounced off the side of the cargo bay.

Inside the bubble, Tony fired the EMU's thrusters. One went off in Schmidt's face, pushing him off Tony and filling the space in the bubble with a mist of frozen nitrogen. It soon became impossible to see what was happening in there. Steve tried to pull the bubble closer to the shuttle, but as Tony had complained while trying to open the hatch on Mir, the StarkArm only had one hand. If there'd been two, Steve could have pulled Tony in hand-over-hand, but with one, he didn't dare let go for fear he'd never catch the tether again.

Then the bubble popped. The cloud of gases immediately expanded, condensing into fog all over the lenses of the StarkArm cameras. Steve removed the headset and tried the windows, but a layer of condensation had formed on that, too. For one of the longest minutes of Steve's life he could see nothing outside the cockpit. When the moisture finally vanished again, he made out the StarkArm, with the orange nylon tether tangled around it.

There was no sign of Tony or Schmidt.

Steve was not a person who panicked, but now his gut turned inside-out. They couldn't be gone, he told himself – he'd just lost sight of them. There was no way the tether had broken and allowed Tony to float away, that was ridiculous. He returned to the pilot's seat to rotate the shuttle and get a look all around, but he found nothing, and realized that Tony must have still had the thrusters on when the bubble burst. With the tether broken he could have gone flying away in any direction, and with his helmet fogged by the nitrogen he wouldn't have known where the shuttle was to try to get back. Intrepid was alone in space, with the glittering Pacific Ocean rolling silently by below.

Steve floated there perfectly still, staring at the view, until something drifted between himself and the shuttle windows. When he reached out to grab this, he realized it was a drop of water – he was crying. That brought him out of his moment of horrified shock. Bhavana had said that floating fluids could get into the wiring and cause problems. Steve wiped his eyes on his sleeve, then tightened his seat belt and reached for the radio.

Forty years ago, Steve had watched Bucky fall two hundred feet to his death and hadn't been able to do anything about it. He was not going to sit here and cry while Tony fell two hundred miles. Not when Howard had asked Steve to take care of the kid. Not when Tony Stark was the only person in this stupid mess of a future Steve really felt like he could trust. Bhavana had said over and over that NASA was all about safety. They had safety procedures for everything. They had to have one for this.

He kept his hands steady by sheer force of will as he adjusted the frequency on the radio. Schmidt had changed it, probably to communicate with somebody in HYDRA. Steve would have to look into that, but not now. “Houston,” he said, voice trembling, “this is Captain Rogers on Intrepid. Can you hear me?”

“We read you, Intrepid!” Capcom replied – a woman's voice this time. “What's going on up there? We've been trying to get in touch for over five hours!”

“What's the procedure when an astronaut floats away on a spacewalk?” asked Steve.

“When... what?” Capcom asked.

“When an astronaut's tether breaks,” Steve repeated. “What do you do?”

“Well... we go and pick her up,” said Capcom nervously. “There's enough fuel in her EMU that she should be able to navigate back to the shuttle. You just go meet her halfway. What happened?”

The use of feminine pronouns puzzled Steve for a moment, until he remembered Bhavana was supposed to be the only person on board allowed to go outside. Houston was assuming that if anybody had gone missing it must be her. He decided there wasn't time to correct them.

“What if you can't see him?” he asked.

“Can you make radio contact?” Capcom wanted to know.

“No,” said Steve. “he wasn't wearing his headset.”

“Then there's really not a whole lot we can do,” the woman said apologetically.

A variety of emotions passed through Steve's chest – fear, despair, and sheer deja vu all took a turn before his jaw hardened as he settled on rage. “What do you mean, not a lot you can do?” he demanded. “You people have a safety procedure for taking a dump, for crying out loud, and you don't have anything for this?”

There was a rustling sound in the radio, and the next voice that spoke was Peggy's. “Steve,” she said, “what's going on? What happened?”

Steve closed his eyes. His first through was that she was going to kill him when they got back to Earth – but his second was that she, of all people, would have to help him with this. “Peg,” he said, “I lost Tony.”

“What? What do you mean, you lost him?” she asked.

“He pushed Schmidt out the airlock,” Steve explained. “Like in that Alien movie.”


“He was wearing a spacesuit,” Steve went on, “so he's got air to breathe as long as he managed to get everything locked.” And as long as Schmidt hadn't unlocked it again behind the veil of fog. “But he's got no cooling system and no radio. He was tethered but I think I broke it trying to get to him, and now I can't see him. I've got to find him, Peggy. I can't just let him die out there!”

There was no immediate response. Over the radio, Steve could hear distant mutterings as people discussed the situation. Their voices were unclear but he could pick out a word here and there, and they weren't good words. Orbital decay was in there. So was hyperthermia, and the now familiar already dead.

“No!” Peggy barked, loud enough for Steve to hear clearly.

The other voices immediately stopped.

“No,” Peggy repeated, in a voice like steel. “Steve Rogers has never given anybody up for dead as long as I've known him. He went alone into an Austrian prison camp to rescue fifty men nobody else had any hope for, and he brought them home. He went into space to rescue the astronauts you gormless fools didn't think you could bring back, and he has them! If he says he is going to save that boy then he is damned well going to save him, and we're going to do absolutely everything in our power to help! Now, the lot of you, shut the bloody hell up with your doomsaying and get your arses to work!”

Steve's tears overflowed again, hot drops of brine that collected at the corners of his eyes until they broke away to drift. He had to grab them and rub them into the fabric of his jumpsuit to keep them from splattering against the controls.

“Thanks, Peg,” he managed.

“No, thank you,” she replied, “for reminding me why I had faith in you. Let's go get Howard's boy.”

“How do we find him?” asked Steve.

“We have radar to monitor foreign objects in space,” Peggy said. “The data is collected from outposts all over the world and compiled at a base in Groom Lake, Nevada. They've catalogued over ten thousand objects in Earth orbit, including a screwdriver dropped from Voskhod 2 in 1965. They can find Tony for you.”

“How long will that take?”

“Well, we've got your current position,” said Peggy. “We'll have them start from there and work their way out. If he started with a full tank, he's got about eight hours of oxygen...”

“He used an hour of it earlier, getting us into Mir,” said Steve. “What about water? He doesn't have the cooling thing on, so he'll be sweating, and he's had a lot of sugar.” That would increase all his metabolic processes.

“Then I'll tell them to look fast,” Peggy replied, all business.

“Madame Director?” another voice asked timidly. “I've looked through the military directory and I can't find anything under 'Groom Lake'. Are you sure that...”

“That's because it's a secret, you bloody knob!” snapped Peggy. “I have the number right here. And somebody get a line to SHIELD so we can have Agent Fyodorova call her friends at the KGB. We've got a big blind spot in Soviet territory, but she's got friends who had take a look for us.” After a pause of a few seconds in which Peggy must have been writing down phone numbers, she returned to the radio and said, “no, Steve... please tell me what happened.”

Intrepid's last update had been to tell Houston they'd disengaged from Mir and were waiting to hear that it was safe to re-enter. Steve explained what had come next, and Peggy listened in grim silence, occasionally putting in a word or two to let him know she was still there. When he'd finished, she declared that she was going to have to hold a proper inquiry into the whole affair.

“What a mess,” she sighed. “I can't believe this was happening under my nose... I knew I had a bad feeling about bringing in Zola, but he had so much valuable information for us...”

“Zola?” Steve interrupted. “Is he still around?”

“Oh, no, he died ten years ago,” Peggy said. She clearly considered this good riddance. “If he were in charge I have no idea who his successor was, and I don't know how to find out. Agent Troy seems to have been very low on the totem pole, he can't tell us anything. The Soviets seem to know more about it than we do, but I don't know if I'd trust Fyodorova to tell me the sky was blue.”

“Let me talk to her when I get back,” Steve said. He wasn't sure what he'd say, but he had a while to figure it out.

“Madame Director?” another voice asked. “Sorry to interrupt, but we've got a fax from Nevada. They're tracking two objects of the right size to be a human bo...”

A papery sound must have been that of Peggy ripping the fax out of the other's hands. “Look alive, everybody,” she said. “I need this turned into a course correction and sent to the shuttle at once!”


Steve tried hard not to get his hopes up as he guided Intrepid towards the path of the larger orbiting object. He had to remain calm and alert, so that he could do what needed to be done – but his hands were trembling with both emotion and exhaustion. When he got back to Earth, he thought, he was going to sleep for a week in the first place he found to lie down. He might not even bother getting off the shuttle... maybe he'd just stretch out on the middeck floor, and if NASA didn't like that, they could carry him off.

For the longest time, he couldn't see anything except the Earth below and blackness above, but finally he noticed a bright white spot in front of him and to the left, moving against the background of stars. With no way of making radio contact, he couldn't call out to it, but his heart began to beat faster. A dozen worst-case scenarios flitted through his mind, one after the other. Maybe it wasn't Tony, maybe it was some other piece of space junk. Maybe it was Tony, but he was already dead. Maybe it was Schmidt, having managed to get tony out of the spacesuit and himself in. Steve wouldn't know until he got closer.

Then it moved. Suddenly, Steve could make out arms and legs – and the arms were waving, trying to get his attention. Steve closed his eyes in relief, on the verge of tears all over again. With bleary eyes he brought the shuttle as close as he dared, and then extended the StarkArm for the figure to grab it. Once he knew it had a good hold, he crawled down to the middeck to meet Tony at the inner airlock door.

It was only as he peered through the window at the figure struggling with its helmet that he suddenly had the awful idea it might not be Tony at all. What if the spacesuit hadn't been an impediment to Schmidt? What if he'd taken over Tony's body and was now...

... but then the helmet came off and there was Tony's wild dark hair, and when the young man turned to look through the little window at Steve, there was no blue glow, only the huge brown puppy dog eyes he'd inherited from Maria. Steve couldn't wait a moment longer. He wrenched the inner door open, and dragged Tony into the mid-deck area to hug him.

“I can't breathe!” Tony protested, even as he hugged back.

“Sorry!” Steve eased his grip. Tony was pale and sweaty, his hair damp and his skin glistening, and he smelled – but he was alive and appeared to be all right other than that. “Are you okay?” Steve asked.

“Yeah,” Tony replied, shaking. Then he grabbed his discarded helmet as it floated past him, bent over it, and threw up.

Steve patted the boy's back while he vomited, feeling the frantic beating of his heart gradually slow. When he'd finished, Tony held up the helmet to look at the blobs of vomit inside it, and nearly retched again. “Oh, got, that looks awful,” he said, and stuffed the helmet inside a plastic bag before tossing it back into the airlock.

In the supplies from Mir were several packets of drinking water. Steve grabbed one of these for Tony, who muttered a thanks and then swished some of it around in his mouth before seeming to realize he couldn't spit it out and having to swallow it instead. It must have burned when his mouth was already full of stomach acid, and he immediately took another drink to try to wash it down. When the first packet was empty, Steve handed him another, which he downed just as quickly.

“He's gone,” Tony panted between gulps of water. “Skull. He's gone. I shook him off with the thrusters. He was turning kind of blue by then anyway. The Blue Skull!” He giggled a little, perhaps more out of hysterical relief than out of any real humour. “I guess he'll just float around until he burns up on re-entry. I wonder what happened to Shipley.”

“I don't know,” Steve said – he really didn't, and they probably never would. But that was one death, at least, that Steve wasn't going to blame himself for. Schmidt had murdered Shipley, and nobody else. “I'm sorry, Tony,” he said. “I'm sorry, okay? I don't know how the tether broke. I was trying to pull you in but I guess I pulled too hard...” It wasn't just Howard's last request. Steve had promised himself that he wouldn't let Tony get hurt on this trip, and he'd nearly blown it.

Tony, however, shook his head. “You didn't break it,” he said, voice hoarse. “I unclipped it.”

Steve stared at him. “What?” he asked. The statement made no sense – unclipping the tether was what Tony had been warned over and over never to do. “Why?”

“The Red Skull,” said Tony. I thought if I got enough gases into the bubble he wouldn't be able to breathe anymore, but he grabbed my foot and dropped the force field, and I figured he was gonna try to climb back down the tether to the shuttle. So I unclipped it, and flew away in the fog.”

Why?” Steve repeated. “You could have died!”

Tony looked at him with pleading eyes. “Because I figured it was what you would do.”

Steve didn't know what to say to that. During the war people had described him as a role model for young men, and he'd liked that. He'd wanted to be somebody worth emulating. He'd wanted to stand for serving one's country, for standing up for what was right, for honesty and integrity and never giving up... those were good qualities that children ought to learn. It had never occurred to him that the trait people would choose to emulate was what Peggy had once described as his obdurate desire to be a self-sacrificing wanker.

“Wasn't it?” asked Tony nervously.

Steve hung his head. “Yeah. It was,” he admitted, and hugged the kid again.

He had no idea how long they floated there while he let Tony cry into his shoulder – only that at some point he realized he could hear a voice from the flight deck. Of course, Intrepid was still on the line with Houston, and the people there would have no idea that Tony had been safely retrieved. Steve gave Tony another water packet, then squeezed his shoulder before floating back up to answer the frantic calls.

“Steve, it's me, can you hear me?” Peggy's voice was asking. “Please, Steve, don't do this to me again. Not again!”

“I'm here!” Steve said. “Peggy, we're okay. I found Tony. He's a little dehydrated but he seems to be okay. He says Schmidt's gone.”

“Oh, thank heavens!” Peggys' relieved sigh roared in her microphone. “I don't know what I would have told Maria and Jarvis. I don't know what I'm going to tell them anyway! Have you got the Odyssey astronauts?”

“Yes. Most of them,” said Steve. “Van Cleef didn't make it.” He should probably have been sorry about that, but he couldn't quite manage it. Theodore Van Cleef was the one who'd gotten them into this mess, by obeying HYDRA's orders instead of NASA's. “And wherever Schmidt went, he took Shipley with him.”

“McGinn, Chang, Mbotho, Poploski, and Goodman?” Peggy asked.

“All present and accounted for, along with Bhavana and Fury,” Steve assured her. “It'll just take a shot of sugar to wake them.”

“Then come home,” said Peggy. “I'll have them brief you on landing, and this time,” she added, mock-threatening, “your ride is going to be there whether you call it or not!”

“Good,” said Steve, and smiled as he let himself slip back in time again. “I owe you a dance, anyway. What'll it be? Next Saturday at the Stork Club?”

“I'm afraid not,” Peggy replied. “They tore that down years ago. I haven't been dancing in so long... I don't even know where to suggest.”

“We'll figure it out,” Steve promised, and shut his eyes so he could savour the moment, even if it were a sad one. When he'd spoken to Peggy from the bridge of the Valkyrie, Steve had been so determined to die that he hadn't realized how close he was to living. If he'd only given her his position when she'd asked for it, they would have realized he was further west than they'd thought and they could have found him. He could have had the post-war life he'd wanted, and given Peggy the happy ending she'd deserved. Maybe the two of them could have rooted out HYDRA and kept any of this from ever happening. Maybe he could have been there for Tony while the boy was growing up, instead of finding him as an angry, attention-starved teenager.

But he couldn't change any of that now. All Steve could do was make the best of the hand he'd been dealt, and this time he didn't have the option to cash in his chips prematurely. He had to get these astronauts back to Earth, and Tony back to his mother, and to do that, he had to live.

“Peggy?” he asked.

“Yes, Steve?”

“Let's have those landing instructions.”

Peggy moved over to make way for a technician who could teach Steve to land the shuttle, and while they went through that, Tony brought the crew of Odyssey up to the flight deck one by one. Each person had to be removed from their sleeping bags and be buckled into a seat so they could be safe during landing. This was clearly very difficult and awkward work for one teenage boy, and Steve kept glancing over his shoulder, wondering if he should intervene. Tony was still upset and dehydrated, and shouldn't be overexerting himself – but when Steve finally tried to intervene, he insisted he was fine.

“You have to do the flying,” he pointed out. “I've got this.”

“I just don't want you to pass out,” said Steve. If Tony fainted, there would be no sound of him hitting the floor. He would just float there, and in the time it took Steve to realize something was wrong, he could easily hurt himself or damage something.

“I've had way too much sugar for that,” said Tony.

Steve was pretty sure it didn't work that way. “If you do need me, call me,” he said.

“I will,” Tony promised. “Thanks.” His smile was weak, but grateful, and it made Steve wonder how often Tony had been offered help in his life. Howard Stark had prided himself on always being in charge, never needing help with anything. He'd probably expected the same of his son, whether it were in Tony's nature or not.

As Tony manhandled astronaut McGinn into one of the rear seats, Steve saw him glance up at the two little windows in the roof. These were now showing Earth again – Steve had put the shuttle back into its original orientation. Tony stared outside for a moment, then shivered and reached up to slide a shutter closed over each window.

“You okay?” Steve asked, for at least the fourth time.

“Yeah,” said Tony, then swallowed. “I just wanna go home.”

Steve knew how the boy felt. He'd had more than enough of space, himself.

Intrepid had seats for seven: there was the pilot's seat, where Steve was now sitting, and the Commander's, which Tony was going to need – he was the only other conscious person on board, and would have to help with the landing. That left room for five other crew members, and a problem. Tony had strapped the Odyssey astronauts into the remaining seats, and there was now nowhere to put Fury or Bhavana.

“What should we do with them?” Steve asked. Takeoff had been a very violent process and he figured landing might well be worse – it had always been his least favourite part of any trip by airplane. They were going to have to be put somewhere more secure than sleeping bags on the middeck, or they would almost certainly get badly hurt.

“Don't worry. I'm on it,” said Tony. He had unzipped the jumpsuit he'd filled with supplies on Mir, and was now pulling stuff out of it.

“Are you sure?” asked Steve.

“Yeah. I thought about this while I was on the space station,” Tony said, unfolding what appeared to be an inflatable life raft with Russian lettering on the side. “I knew we were gonna have more people than seats.” He left the raft to unfurl itself while it drifted in midair, and took two emergency oxygen masks out of the legs of the jumpsuit.

He slipped the first breathing mask over Bhavana's head and turned on the oxygen bottle, then did the same with Fury before wrapping both their heads up in cloth to cushion them. Then he had Steve help him roll them both up in the life raft, and maneuver them back into the compartment where Schmidt had stuffed all four of them.

“It's too big,” said Steve. On Earth it would have been considered a very tight fit, but on an aircraft about to land there was still plenty of room for them to bounce around.

“Hey, I told you – I got this,” Tony said. He pushed a button on the raft. The gas capsule inside it broke open and it inflated, wedging the two bodies firmly between the walls of the compartment. Tony and Steve together forced it shut and locked it.

“Good thinking,” said Steve.

Tony smiled as he brushed his hands off on his pants. “Of course it is. “If there's one thing I'm good at, it's thinking!”

As they settled down in their seats to prepare the shuttle for landing, Steve observed that Tony really was very much his father's son, whether he – or Howard – liked it or not. He rotated the shuttle to face belly-down, then looked up with a start as Tony spoke again.

“Thanks for looking for me,” he said quietly.

It wasn't the fact that Tony had spoken that startled Steve, it was what he'd said. “You didn't think I would look for you?” he asked.

Tony shrugged, which was a very awkward gesture in zero gravity.

“Howard looked for me,” Steve pointed out. Howard had said he'd looked for months.

“Yeah, but he never found you,” Tony said, tightening his harness. “And he was just looking in Canada. Space is a lot bigger than Canada.” He looked out the window, and then quickly down at his lap again.

Steve could picture Tony floating out there all by himself, with the incomprehensible vastness of the universe on one side of him and the rolling vista of Earth on the other. When Sreve had first seen that out the shuttle window, it had made him feel very small. How tiny had Tony felt, alone in the middle of it and certain he was going to die? Had he felt that at the end of the day, his life just didn't matter?

“I'm sorry,” Steve repeated.

“You didn't break the tether,” said Tony. “You really didn't. I unhooked it.”

That was exactly what Steve was sorry about. He was sorry he'd made this impressionable young man think that sacrificing himself was a good and noble thing to do. He didn't think Tony would believe him if he said that, however, so instead he said, “I'm proud of you.”

Tony stared at him a moment in utter confusion, as if the words just didn't make sense. Then he shut his eyes and nodded. “Thanks.”

“I mean it,” Steve said. “Does being fifteen make you the world's youngest astronaut?”

“Yeah,” said Tony quietly, then added, “but I'm sixteen. It's my birthday today.”

“Really?” Steve grinned. “Happy birthday, Tony.”

“Thanks,” Tony repeated.

Steve turned back to the radio. “Peggy,” he said, or whoever's down there now. We're ready to figure the, uh... what did you call it? The big rockets.”

“The OMS engines?” Capcop supplied helpfully. There were snickers in the background.

“Yeah, those,” said Steve.

“Give him a break,” Tony said, laughing. “It's his first time.”

Chapter Text

On another plane entirely, but one that was closer to space than to Earth, a young prince realized he was about to lose a game of chess. He responded by sweeping the pieces off the board, scattering them across the inlaid tile of the floor. As he turned to storm out of the room, he didn't realize that he'd broken the white king in half, nor notice the impression the act had on both his father and his younger brother. He thought only of his injured pride.

The people in Houston had given Steve and Tony a very long checklist of things that needed to be done before landing. It was a complicated process and required that both of them give it their full attention, so there was little time for conversation about anything else. It was only once all the tests and double-checks were complete, and the shuttle, now right-side up again, was skimming the top of the atmosphere, that Steve found a moment to breath.

“I'm looking forward to seeing things fall when I drop them again,” he remarked, plucking a pen out of the air to check off some items in his notes.

“Really?” asked Tony. He was testing buckles and belts again, and had rolled some spare plastic up into neck cushions for the unconscious astronauts. “Because that's the thing returning astronauts find weirdest to get used to when they're back on Earth. They just let go of stuff in midair and expect it to float.”

“I think I'll manage,” Steve said.

Tony made his way back to the front, and settled into the Commander's chair again. “MIT can't expel me now,” he said, buckling up his own harness. “I'll be the first person ever to become an astronaut while still a student and they won't wanna let me out of that.” He smiled and shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them again to look at Steve. “Thanks for bringing me, Captain. I was sure you were gonna find a way to make me stay behind.”

“You kept telling me I needed you,” said Steve. He didn't want to mention how close he'd come to doing exactly that.

“Yeah, but I didn't expect you to listen to me,” Tony said. “So thanks. This is the coolest thing I've ever done.”

He looked like he didn't expect anything to top it for a long time, and he was probably right – but this was Howard Stark's son. “You're only sixteen,” Steve reminded him. “You haven't peaked yet.” He paused, then added, “Tony, I know you don't want to hear this, but... for whatever it's worth, I really believe Howard would have been proud of you.” This entire adventure had been something Howard – the man Steve remembered from the 1940's – would have been thrilled to have been a part of, himself.

Tony looked away, then sat up straight. “You know what? It doesn't matter,” he decided. “He's not here, so I don't care if he would have or not.”

When Steve thought about it, he realized that was probably the best reaction he was going to get.

As they lost altitude, the curve of the horizon in the window broadened into something more like a line, and the velvet black of the sky began to turn a deep indigo blue, like the colour just before sunrise. Steve hadn't had a whole lot of time to appreciate the view since they'd first got up here, but now he was once again struck by the beauty of it. They were passing over the night side, with the moon hanging low ahead of them, and Steve realized there was another way any aliens watching would be able to tell Earth was inhabited. He could see the coast of China, and the shapes of Korea and Japan beyond, all picked out in brilliant city lights, like a glowing cobweb clinging to the edge of Asia.

It was strikingly different from the daylight view, which had seemed to show no evidence of humanity at all – suddenly, human civilization was a thing that could not be ignored, lighting up their planet for the entire universe to see. The biggest and strongest and most significant ant in the hill was still only an ant, but put enough ants together and they became a colony. A colony of ants could change a landscape beyond recognition.

Steve expected he was going to be doing a lot of painting when he got back to Earth.

Intrepid,” said CapCom, now crackly with interference, “we're expecting to lose radio contact in a few minutes.”

“Roger,” said Steve.

After that the ride started to get rough, and the dark sky outside began to glow pink from the friction of the thickening air. Sparks flew by, and the voices on the radio dissolved into static at the same time as the view outside was consumed in the fiery glow. The entire shuttle shook as if it would break apart, and Steve had to keep his hands in his lap so that his balled fists wouldn't break the arms of this seat, too.

He wanted to turn and check on Tony, or on the astronauts in the seats behind, but much like at takeoff he found himself pressed back into his seat so hard he could barely move. Instead, he kept his eyes on the little felt elephant still dangling from the loop above the front windshield. Bhavana had called it a god who protected travelers. Steve had been raised to believe in only one god, and he wasn't even sure about that anymore... but for this one last step in getting back on solid ground, maybe they needed all the help they could get.

Then suddenly they were out of it again, with the shining waters of the Pacific rolling by underneath them. It was vast and open and empty, but after several days of looking down from orbit, it was also alarmingly close. Steve's first instinct was to want to grab the controls and pull the nose up, terrified that they were going to crash into the water...

Steve had thought he was done with flashbacks, but apparently he still had one more in him. All of a sudden there he was, at the controls of the Valkyrie with alarms and warnings flashing all around, heading for the Arctic ice with all the irresistible inertia of a runaway freight train. He closed his eyes, hoping it would be quick – hoping he would burn instead of freezing, because god, he hated the cold. Growing up in his family's little apartment in Brooklyn, the winters had been cold and damp and miserable, and Steve's frail little body had barely held up. He hoped that whatever came next he would find his mother there, find Bucky there, and that both would forgive him for letting them down. Maybe someday Peggy would join them, and she could forgive him, too.

But it wasn't quick, and he didn't burn. Instead, the Valkyrie dove nose-first into the sea ice. The windshield shattered on impact, and water came flooding in. Steve was already out of his seat and heading for the bridge entrance, but even a super-soldier had no chance of making it. The water hit him like a wall of lead, and stopped him cold.

No Brooklyn winter, even when the radiator broke down and they were all gathered around the kitchen stove wrapped in blankets, had ever been this bad. The water was so cold it seared his flesh, and there was a moment of indescribable pain before he went numb, the air forced out of his lungs. But the worst thing of all was that it was in that moment, as the darkness closed in from all sides like a pack of hungry animals, that Steve realized he did not want to die.

His mother wouldn't have wanted him to die. Sarah Rogers had never hoped for anything for her son but that he lead as long and full a live as he was able. Bucky wouldn't have wanted him to die. Peggy didn't want him to die – her last transmission had been literally begging him not to. And Steve didn't want to die. He wanted to see the war end. He wanted to dance with Peggy at the Stork Club. He wanted to get married and raise a couple of kids, watch them grow up and have kids of their own. He wanted to have a drink with the commandos as the sun came up tomorrow, secure in the knowledge that HYDRA had lost and Steve Rogers had made a difference.

But it was too late now. His consciousness seemed to shrivel to a tiny white-hot dot in a sea of nothingness, and his last thought was that he wouldn't ever find Ma or Bucky or Peggy again, because there was nowhere to find them in. As far as he could tell from here, there was nothing on the other side but the dark.

Or was there? He could hear a voice...

Captain Rogers?

Steve blinked. For a moment the hallucination seemed to be starting over. He was once again at the controls of an aircraft, with water in front of him.

“Captain Rogers, this is Edwards Air Force Base. We have you on radar. Do you read, over?”

He was in the cockpit of Intrepid, with tears streaming down his cheeks – and Steve realized that they were in fact going down. There was gravity again, and after several days without it, that was a strange feeling. It was as if he were made of lead and his clothing were the skin of an elephant. He'd snapped the joystick by gripping it too hard, but the base was still attached and it still worked. The radio was hissing with static.

“This is Steve Rogers,” he said, voice shaking. “I read you.”

“We got him!” the voice on the radio exclaimed, and a cheer could be heard in the background. “Captain, this is Brigadier General Rupert Rhodes.”

“I know him!” Tony exclaimed. “That's Rhodey's uncle!”

“You are cleared for Runway 22,” Rhodes went on. “We've got emergency vehicles standing by.”

“Thanks,” Steve said. “We're coming in.”

This time, Steve was able to fight off the flashbacks as he lined up with the stretch of concrete shimmering in the desert heat. Although he'd never had a proper pilot's license, Steve knew how to land a plane. Howard had taught him, partly because he thought Steve might need to know someday, and partly because they'd both been bored that afternoon and it had been something to do. The landing gear settled into place with a clunk, and he raised the nose.

The shuttle was moving a lot faster than Howard's little Stark SA-4 had been, and hit the ground a lot harder. They bounced once, then twice, and just when Steve thought he might have to pull up and go around to try again, the change in vibration told him that they were on the runway and rolling. With his teeth rattling, he brought the nose down. The nose gear hit the ground with a second hard bounce, and then he applied the brakes.

Howard had told him several times that the brakes on an aircraft should be applied lightly, but to his horror Steve found that pressing the pedal seemed to do absolutely nothing. Runway 22 was over two miles long but it was flashing by incredibly fast, and they were heading for the lake bed beyond. He pushed the pedal harder. There was a horrible squeal and a burning smell, but they continued to barrel towards the runway's end.

Steve must have missed something. After all that, was he going to die after all? At least this time it would be in fire, instead of more ice, but Tony...

“Drag chute!” Tony shouted.

“What?” asked Steve.

Drag! Chute!” Tony leaned forward and smacked a button on the control panel, hitting it as hard as he could

For a moment nothing seemed to happen, and then the vehicle slowed with such a jerk that for a moment Steve thought they'd stopped right there. He was quickly disabused of that notion, however, as they slid off the end of the runway, raising a giant cloud of dust from the bed of the dried-up lake. Passing over sand and rock was even rougher than over concrete, and Steve lost any ability to steer as the stump of the joystick was literally shaken right out of his hand. They kept going and going, slower and slower, spinning around and around... and then, finally, they stopped.

Steve slumped back in his seat, breathing hard. He could still smell burning rubber, and his heartbeat was throbbing in every vein, pulsing in his ears – but aside from that, there was silence. No engine noise. No rumble of stressed metal and rubber on terrain it wasn't designed to cope with. Just his own heavy breathing, and Tony's.

Tony was also lying back in the commander's chair, eyes fixed on infinity. The two of them sat there for several very long minutes, just trying to grasp the idea that this was over at last, and then Tony turned his head towards Steve and grinned.

“High five,” he said, holding up a hand.

“What's that?” asked Steve.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Slap my hand with yours.”

“All right.” Steve did so. “What's that for?”

“It's because we're awesome,” said Tony, letting his head fall back against the seat again.

Steve was still a little mystified by how the 1980s used that word, but for the moment he wasn't going to worry about it. If Tony said they were awesome, then he was probably right.

Gradually, other sounds began to intrude on the quiet. The first was the thump of helicopter blades, which grew louder until the craft landed in front of them, disgorging soldiers and technicians. Then it was sirens, as a dozen emergency vehicles – police, fire, and ambulance all – pulled up. The third was the engines of trucks and vans, bringing cameras and reporters. Steve knew he should get up and be on his feet to greet all these people, but somehow he couldn't summon the energy. Instead he just sat there and waited, until the rescue workers opened the main hatch.

“Captain Rogers?” asked a voice – he looked back to see people climbing through the floor hatch. “Mr. Stark? Are you all right?”

“We're fine,” said Steve.

“Were great,” Tony agreed.

Steve would have liked to know that all the rescued astronauts were safely on the ground before anybody worried about him, but he and Tony were the first to be taken off. Moving in gravity after getting used to floating free was surprisingly difficult. Both had to hang on to their rescuers as they were helped down to the middeck and onto an inflatable slide that dumped them on the dusty ground next to one of the ambulances.

“Steve!” Peggy cried, and he dragged himself up off his hands and knees to see her hurrying towards him as fast as she could go in her high heeled shoes on the stony ground. Before he had proper time to prepare she'd already thrown her arms around him, and he barely managed to stay upright as she did her best to hug the air right out of him. He held her in return, running his fingers into her hair and feeling her frantic heartbeat, slightly out of sync with his own.

“Am I late?” he asked.

“No,” she replied, with tears in her eyes. “You're right on time!”

The first helicopter had held other passengers. Maria Stark was on board, and when Steve finally looked up from hugging Peggy, he found Maria embracing her son, covering him with kisses.

Mio bambino!” she wailed. “Mio piccolo, how could you do this to your mother?”

“Mom! We're on TV!” Tony protested, squirming in her arms as the news cameras rolled. Steve could have intervened again, but he would have had to let go of Peggy to do it... besides, this was a happy embrace, not the grief-stricken one of that night on the street in New York.

“You are grounded, mio tesoro!” Maria said, giving Tony a shake. “You are grounded forever! Oh, mio prezioso bambino, I was so scared! I lost your father, Tonino, I cannot lose you!”

Tony gave up, and let his mother weep on his shoulder.

Meanwhile, the medics were getting the other astronauts out of the shuttle, and starting to give them the glucose injections Schmidt had recommended to bring them around. More cars were on their way out with friends and family members. An elderly man arrived to see Fury wake up, and the Odyssey astronauts all had somebody waiting for them. Ranjeet Bhavana got out of a rented car and ran to kneel on the lake bed next to his unconscious wife, squeezing her hand and waiting for the injection to wake her.

Steve remembered feeling ill and hung-over when he'd woken from Schmidt's shock wave, so he wasn't surprised to see Bhavana groan and put a hand up to shade her eyes from the sun. “Gravity,” she murmured.

Gravity?” asked Ranjeet. “That's the first thing you notice? Really?”

“Of course it's the first thing I noticed – it means I'm back on Earth.” She began struggling to sit up, and Ranjeet moved to help her despite the objections of the medics. “My second clue was knowing you wouldn't be coming into space to get me!”

“I'm glad I figured in there somewhere,” he grumbled, bug he pulled her in for a hug, and she wrapped her arms around him and let him rub her back. “Why did I let my parents talk me into marrying you?” Ranjeet asked, weaving his fingers into his wife's hair. He looked around for a moment as if worried about the number of people who were watching, and then seemed to decide he didn't are.

“They thought we'd make a good pair,” Bhavana replied. “I think my parents thought you'd be able to ground me a little...”

Ranjeet snorted. “So much for that!” he said.

“Yeah.” She sighed. “I want a divorce.”

“Okay,” Ranjeet said, but his voice was gentle. “I want custody of Manisha.”

“That's probably the best idea,” Bhavana agreed. “I want to visit, though.”

“Of course. I want her to know who her mother is. I want her to know that her mother's a hero.”

Steve realized he was openly watching the two of them, and quickly turned away. It was, he thought, the most amicable end of a relationship he'd ever been witness to. Whenever Bucky had broken up with a girlfriend there'd always been considerably more shouting involved.

“I'm sorry,” he heard Bhavana say. “This just isn't who I am, Ranjeet. I'm not a housewife, I'm not anybody's mother... I'm an astronaut.”

“I know,” Ranjeet replied. “I'm sorry, too.”

The astronauts would require additional treatment – they were loaded on stretchers to be taken to the hospital at the base. Steve and Tony got to ride back in the helicopter with Peggy and Maria. They, too, would need a checkup and had some minor injuries that needed looking at, but everybody seemed to take the fact that they could stand and walk as a good start. Steve sat up straight, trying to look the part of the returning hero. Tony tried very hard to do the same, but his slumped posture and heavy-lidded eyes were those of a young man about to fall over. He was probably feeling the effects of the sugar finally leaving his system, as well as the sheer exhaustion. It wouldn't have surprised Steve at all if he'd nodded off during the short trip, but Tony seemed determined to keep himself awake, and did so mainly by talking.

“The view was great,” he said, but then, unexpectedly, he shuddered. “It's just... the earth is so huge and you constantly feel like you're falling, it's as if it's gonna drop on top of you and crush you. It makes you feel so small...” Tony licked his lips. “Like... now I know how an ant feels when it sees a boot coming. You feel like you're gonna die, and you're so insignificant it won't even matter.”

He wasn't talking about the view from the shuttle, Steve thought. He was talking about how he'd felt, floating away in orbit.

“Well, now that you know what it's like, maybe you'll never, ever have to do it again!” said Maria. “I couldn't bear to think of you not coming back, Tony. It would have killed me!” She kissed his cheek again. “I won't ask you to say you're sorry because I know you're not...”

“No, I am sorry,” said Tony. “I'm sorry I scared you, Mama. I didn't think about that. I just knew somebody had to help the astronauts and if me and Steve didn't do it, I didn't think anybody would.”

Maria put her hands on his cheeks. “You're probably right, bambino. And now that you're back I'm very, very proud of you. My little hero.”

The helicopter landed next to the base hospital, and Peggy stood up. “All right,” she said, “you two will need a thorough physical and then a debriefing, and both Gary and...”

Steve interrupted. “No,” he said firmly. “Before anything else happens, Tony and I are going to get some sleep. Neither of us slept at all while we were up there.” He looked at the young man, who smiled gratefully and then yawned.

“Really?” Peggy asked, but then she nodded. “Okay, yes, you're right. This time.”

“It's okay,” Steve told her. “I won't gloat.”

In the week that followed, everybody rested and healed, and told SHIELD everything they knew in a series of friendly but still very stressful interviews. Steve found that after being cooped up in the small space of the shuttle for however many days it had been, he wanted to be outside, breathing fresh air and looking at the friendly blue skies. He tried to get Tony to join him for walks around the hospital grounds and nearby golf course, but the boy always refused. He was too busy working on pages and pages of calculations and notes he'd made while in space.

“It'll do you good to see the sky,” Steve told him at one point.

“You sound like Mom,” Tony snorted, and then Steve saw his adam's apple bob as he swallowed. “Anyway, I've had enough of the sky for a while.”

Steve supposed he could understand that, although it made him a little worried. “Let me know if you change your mind,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” Tony replied, without looking up from his notebook.

Steve headed down to the front entrance by himself, and found Peggy standing there waiting for him. He began to smile, but then realized the expression on her face was entirely serious. She'd been here a couple of times on pleasure visits, but it didn't look as if this were going to be one of those.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Do you remember you wanted to talk to Fyodorova again?” Peggy sighed. “You're not going to be able to. She's gone.”

Steve paused. He hadn't had a lot of time to think about Fyodorova, but he hadn't thought he needed to. He'd assumed she would still be in her cell when he got back to New York. Now that he'd been told otherwise, however, his immediate reaction was to wonder why he was surprised. Konstantina Fyodorva was a spy who spied on other spies. If anybody needed to know every possible trick, it was her.

“Gone where?” he asked.

“Blow me over if I know,” Peggy replied. “This morning somebody went to take her breakfast and found her gone with the door still locked. She might have gone back to the Soviet Union – she might be on Mars for all she's left any trace.”

“You don't sound surprised, either,” Steve realized.

“I'm not,” said Peggy. “Only angry at myself that I really thought I was holding her, rather than her waiting around to see what happened. She'll be back,” she added. “Girls from the Red Room always turn up – even when you think you've already killed them twice!”

“I'm guessing there's a story there,” said Steve.

“Oh,” Peggy sighed. “There's a dozen. Someday when they're declassified I might even be able to tell them to you.”

Finally, at the end of the week, everyone had a clean bill of health and the Air Force threw a celebratory dinner. The astronauts' families were all invited, including spouses and children. Maria sat next to Tony, and Peggy with Steve. Fury had both his grandfather and a girlfriend present, Steve was pretty sure he saw Coulson and May in the crowd somewhere, and an older couple who were introduced to Steve as Shipley's sister Beverley and her friend Rich. The vagueness of this phrasing made Steve wonder if Rich had actually been Jay-Jay's lover, not Bev's, but he didn't ask. He didn't want to make anybody uncomfortable.

Those who'd gone into space on Intrepid and their guests had seats at the head table, with the other guests of honour. These included the Governor of California, Dr. Williams from NASA, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

“You must be getting tired of seeing me everywhere, Mr. President,” said Steve over dessert.

“Not at all!” Reagan replied, and stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, tapping his wine class for attention as if at a wedding reception. “May I have a moment of your attention, please?”

The hum of conversation in the room died away, and people sat up expectantly.

“Tonight,” said the president, “we are here to honour the crew of the space shuttle Odyssey. By good fortune and hard work, five of them are able to be here with us tonight.” This was greeted by scattered applause, but it quickly died away again as the speech continued. “Sadly we cannot say the same for pilot Theodore Van Cleef and Commander John Jeremiah Shipley, but our thoughts are with them and their families, and I would like to think they're here tonight in spirit even if they are no longer with us in the flesh.”

Nobody clapped for that. There was only polite silence and bowed heads.

“We are also here to congratulate the heroes who brought them home,” Reagan went on. “Major Indira Bhavana, one of America's finest, bravest, and most dedicated astronauts, who would like to announce that she will not be retiring after this flight, but hopes to continue at NASA to help the space program recover from this terrible setback. Let's give her a hand!”

This time the applause was loud and enthusiastic. Bhavana stood up straight-backed and proud, and Ranjeet and Manisha clapped on either side of her.

“Mr. Anthony Stark,” said Reagan, looking now at Tony. “Son of the late Howard Stark, MIT student, and owner and CEO of Stark Industries – at sixteen years old, history's youngest astronaut. We're expecting great things from you, Mr. Stark.”

“No pressure,” said Tony with a beaming smile, to another round of enthusiastic applause.

“Agent Nicholas Fury,” said Reagan. “Whom I'm told is considered one of SHIELD's most promising. I'd like to say we'll be following your career with great interest,” he added, “but given where you work I'm not entirely sure that'll be possible.”

“I was gonna say,” said Fury. “If you ever hear what I'm up to again, I'll know I'm not doing my job right!”

People laughed politely as they clapped.

“And of course, Captain Steve Rogers,” said Reagan, nodding at Steve. He opened this mouth to continue, but had to pause there – while the others had gotten applause, Steve received a standing ovation both from the guests and from his fellow honourees. He didn't stand up as the others had done but nodded and kept his eyes on infinity, rather embarrassed by the attention. This was how it always worked – people acting as if Steve had done everything, when really he'd needed all the help he'd gotten and could probably have done with more.

“It was my great honour to meet you in New York last month,” Reagan added when the cheering finally died down. “And it's an even greater honour to be standing here, congratulating you on a job well done.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” said Steve. “As I told you in New York, it's good to be back.” This time, he thought, he was at least a little closer to actually meaning it.

The audience began clapping all over again, and Steve realized that since they'd returned he hadn't heard a word about the unplanned nature of the mission. Then again, he supposed that when they were national heroes, charging them with vehicle theft for stealing the shuttle would have been a little awkward.

With the president's speech out of the way, the waiters poured wine and the band began to play. Tony dragged a three-inch-thick binder out from under the table and went to present it to Dr. Graham. Steve wished he could have heard what the two were saying. Tony seemed to be insisting that Graham accept the binder, while Graham was just as determined that he didn't want it.

Steve shook his head, drained his glass, and turned to Peggy.

“So,” he said, offering her a hand. “May I have this dance?”

She laughed. “Why, Captain Rogers! I thought you didn't know how to dance!”

“I don't,” said Steve. “You're just going to have to teach me.”

“I suppose we can't have this dashing young fellow on the market not knowing how to dance,” Peggy said. “It'll leave a lot of girls terribly disappointed. Very well, for the women of America!” She got to her feet and let Steve lead her out onto the dance floor.

Dancing in the 1940's had been an activity that required some skill and rhythm, but the couples dancing here didn't seem to be following any rules. They had their hands on each other's hips and shoulders and swayed a bit, but there were no actual steps. Maybe this would be easier than Steve had thought. Peggy, however, had always been a woman who insisted on doing things right. She arranged his arm's properly, and began to teach him the fox trot.

“About time, isn't it?” she asked in his ear.

“Yeah,” he whispered back. “About time.” For a moment Steve felt as if he would have another flashback, but he didn't – perhaps because there was nothing to flash back to. He and Peggy had never danced, and so he could remain in the moment as it was now. Early June of 1986, dancing with Peggy at Edwards Air Force Base. She had aged and changed and moved on, and he was starting to be able to understand that and let it go... but it was nice, after all that had happened, to finally get their dance.

Chapter Text

It was ten days after the dinner at Edwards that Steve, having declined Mayor Koch's offer of a tickertape parade, moved into his own apartment in Manhattan. He'd found a place uptown, nice for the neighbourhood it was in and still a bit bigger than Steve really needed despite being far more modest than the Starks' penthouse. Peggy complained that Steve didn't belong in a hole on the edge of Harlem, but she didn't insist. Steve could take anything New York City could dish out, and she might not have a lot of faith in humanity in general but she did have faith in him.

“I'm glad you'll be continuing at SHIELD,” Peggy said, as they maneuvered a bookshelf through the door. She and Tony had, once again, come along to help him move. “We need you, Steve.”

“No problem,” Steve replied. He wasn't sure he believed that SHIELD needed him – but he felt like what she'd said to him the day he woke up was true: the world of 1986 needed Captain America. SHIELD was probably a good judge of when and where it would need him, but Steve didn't intend to follow their orders blindly. He and Peggy would have to talk about that properly sooner or later – hopefully sooner – but Steve wasn't in the mood for that conversation right now.

Behind Peggy, the elevator doors opened to reveal Tony, who had brought over the TV from the house on Long Island to donate to Steve's new place. When he saw them struggling with the bookcase, he put the TV down in the hall and went to help.

“You know,” Peggy said. “There was an idea Janet and I had – you met Janet Van Dyne, right? She was at Howard's funeral. It was inspired partially by remembering you and the commandos. What the world needs in any war,” she said, “even a war of secrets, is somebody to fight the battles that can't be fought in public. Janet called it the Avenger Initiative. She's got a flair for the dramatic.”

They set down the shelf, and Steve opened a box to start putting books on it. “And you want me to head that up?” Who else would be on such a team? The first person he thought of was Indira Bhavana, but she'd been put in charge of revamping the shuttle program and was going to be very busy in the coming months.

“I'm thinking about it,” said Peggy. “I'll want you to talk to a few other people... Janet particularly, but there's also...”

There was a thump from the hallway, as somebody tried to open a door and found the television blocking their way. Tony hurried to retrieve it. “Sorry!” he said.

“That's all right, that's all right,” a woman's voice replied. Tony carried the tv into the apartment, and behind him came a heavily pregnant black woman in her late twenties, carrying a casserole dish with tinfoil over the top. “Hello!” she called out.

“Hi, there.” Steve brushed of his hands on his jeans. “What can I do for you?”

The woman stepped around Tony as he found a place for the television. “I'm Darlene Wilson from next door,” she said, offering Steve the casserole dish. “I saw you guys moving in, and I thought you might like some lasagna. It's leftovers, but nobody likes to cook on the day they move, and the Chinese place downstairs is awful.”

“Thanks.” Steve accepted the dish and peeled back the foil for a look. It might be a big enough helping for him, but he'd probably want a couple of peanut butter sandwiches as well, just to make sure his stomach was full before he went to bed.

Darlene saw his doubtful expression. “There should be plenty enough for three,” she said.

“Oh, no, we're not staying,” Peggy told her. “Tony and I are just helping Steve with his things.”

“It's just me,” Steve agreed.

“I'll eat some,” Tony raised a hand.

Somebody laughed. Steve looked up, and found another man, standing in the doorway shaking his head at Darlene. “Now you've done it!” this fellow said. “What have I told you about feeding bachelors, Darlene? They're like pigeons – once they know you've got food, you'll never get rid of them!”

Darlene sighed. “This is my husband, Paul,” she said.

“That's me,” the man agreed, and stepped in to shake Steve's hand.

“Steve Rogers,” Steve replied. He wasn't sure if Paul and Darlene would recognize the name, but they didn't seem to – they only nodded. How long, he wondered, could he put off telling them his other name? He liked the idea of somebody knowing him as just Steve Rogers. The only people he felt he could just be Steve Rogers with were Peggy and Tony themselves, and they still knew him first as Captain America.

Paul grinned and patted his wife's bulging abdomen. “And this is going to be baby Sam,” he said. “Although we don't know yet whether Samuel or Samara.”

“We'll be finding out sometime in the next two weeks, the sooner the better,” Darlene said.

“I'll look forward to meeting baby Sam, too, then,” said Steve. “This is Tony, he's the son of a friend of mine.” If the Wilsons hadn't recognized Steve's name, he wasn't going to tell them Tony's, either – anonymity was something Tony didn't have very much of. “And Peggy Carter. She's...” what should he call her? His friend? His boss?

“Madame Director!” a breathless voice shouted.

The Wilsons, startled, moved out of the way to let a sixth person enter Steve's new living room – and Steve's heart sank when he saw that it was Peggy's chauffeur. If somebody needed Captain America, Paul and Darlene were probably about to find out who Steve was before they had a chance to get to know him as anybody else.

But the man wasn't here for Steve. Having apparently just run up six flights of stairs, he panted in the doorway for a moment before addressing Peggy.

“Madame Director,” he repeated, “sorry to interrupt, but you've got a phone call. It's the hospital, about your husband...”

Peggy had been smiling at the Wilsons, but now her face fell sharply. “Oh, I see,” she said, and swallowed. “Well, I...”

“No, no,” the man said. “It's good news! He's awake!”

Her eyes went wide, and to Steve's amazement Peggy actually wobbled on her feet a bit and grabbed his arm for support, as if afraid of falling over. “He's awake?” she asked, and Steve realized she literally could not believe her ears.

The chauffeur nodded. “The people at the hospital said he's awake and asking for you. They've already called your children and they're on their way.”

“Oh... oh, my god...” Peggy put a hand over her mouth, then turned to Steve. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I'm sorry, Steve, I... I have to go. I'm sure you two can...” she gestured vaguely at the half-empty room, then turned to slip past the Wilsons on her way out. “Excuse me, I do apologize,” she murmured on the way past.

Steve hesitated, then handed the pan of lasagna to Tony. “Do you think you can bring up the rest of the stuff and lock up for me?” he asked.

“Sure,” Tony replied. Steve didn't doubt he would eat the lasagna, too.

“I can help if you need,” Paul offered.

“Thanks.” Steve was already grabbing his coat as he left the room. “I'll make it up to you, I promise!” he called, and hurried down the steps after Peggy.


When they arrived at the hospital, Deb the nurse was waiting for them in the lobby. She went up and grabbed Peggy's hands as soon as they entered the room, then pulled her in for a bear hug, not even bothering with a greeting.

“I'm so glad you came, Mrs. Dugan!” she said. “He's been asking for you. And you!” She turned to Steve to hug him next. “He'll be thrilled to see you. The first thing he asked for was his family.”

“I'm surprised the first thing he asked for wasn't a drink,” Steve said.

“Well... the first thing he asked for that he had a chance of getting,” Deb corrected herself. “Come with me, quickly!”

Steve followed the women up to Dum-Dum's room, but Deb's greeting had given him pause. Would his old friend be happy to see him? Dum-Dum had, after all, married the woman who'd once been Steve's own fiancee. Would he expect Steve to begrudge him that? Would he worry that Peggy would leave him, despite the forty-year age gap that now existed between herself and her former lover? Dum-Dum had never been the jealous type, but if time could turn Peggy into a hands-off bureaucrat and Howard Stark into a cold and standoffish father, there was no telling what else it might do.

When Deb opened the door of the room, they found Dum-Dum propped up in bed with a doctor listening to his chest. He still looked pale, tired, and feeble – old – but he was awake and his eyes were bright. His face lit up in a smile when Steve and Peggy entered the room.

“Hello, Tim,” Peggy said, with tears in her voice.

Dum-Dum's eyes, however, went right past her. “Would you look at that!” he exclaimed, his voice hoarse from long disuse. “They weren't joking! Here I thought I would give everybody a good shock with my coming-back-from-the-dead trick. Now they'll all just think I got the idea from you!”

“Don't worry,” Steve promised him. “I'll do my best to stay out of your spotlight.”

Dum-Dum snorted. “Yeah, we both know how well that always works.” Only then did he look at his wife. “Did you bring it?” he asked eagerly.

“Bring what?” Peggy frowned, then realized what he meant and threw her hands in the air. “Timothy Dugan!” she said. “You can't really have expected me to bring you Bourbon when you're in hospital!”

“I could hope,” he said.

“Oh, no.” Peggy shook a finger at him. “Have they told you they weren't expecting you to recover?”

“Yes. Several times.”

Peggy nodded firmly. “Then you ought to know that this is little short of a miracle, and you are not going to be putting any more poisons into your body. You are going to take care of yourself and get well, or so help me! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Ma'am,” said Dum-Dum meekly.

Satisfied, Peggy sat down by the bed and took his hands in both of hers, and he raised her knuckles to his lips and kissed them. It struck Steve as a very sweet, intimate gesture, and it made his heart ache for his own lost opportunities at the same time as he was glad to see Peggy get this moment. When she'd first told him about her life, it had sounded as if she'd been dogged by tragedy for much of it. She deserved a happy ending, even one Steve himself couldn't be a part of.

Dum-Dum looked up at Steve again. “Sorry, Cap,” he said, dropping his hand to his side again – Peggy, however, did not let go of it. “I swear, it was her idea...”

“It was not. It was mutually agreed upon,” said Peggy.

“She asked me,” Dum-Dum insisted. “And you know that a wise man will always do as Peggy says.”

“I'm not angry,” said Steve. He'd said that to Howard, when he'd apologized for not finding Steve sooner, and he'd meant it then, too – but even if he hadn't been angry with Howard, he'd definitely been hurt and disappointed. He wasn't anymore. After all, Steve had been dead as far as any of them knew. He'd told them all that he wanted to die, and by the time he'd changed his mind he'd been in no position to let anybody know about it. Steve could have gotten angry about it, but doing so wouldn't change anything now.

“You sure?” asked Dum-Dum.

“Of course I'm sure,” said Steve. “She's taken good care of you. I mean, I'm a little disappointed,” he added, theatrically wistful, “but I guess you and I were just never meant to be!”

Dum-Dum needed a moment to realize what Steve had just said, but then he laughed so hard he began to wheeze. Two nurses rushed into the room to make sure he wasn't dying, while Peggy just rolled her eyes and thumped him on the back.

Angela Dugan arrived around suppertime. She was taller than Steve had expected her to be, nearly as tall as her father, with Peggy's intelligent brown eyes and dazzling smile. She greeted Steve politely, but it was her father she really wanted to see – Dum-Dum hugged her tightly, kissed the top of her head and called her his little scholar.

An hour and a half later, Stephen Dugan came in with his wife and daughter. Carol was pregnant again, though not nearly so obviously as Darlene Wilson, and Amanda was now two and a half. The little girl ran to scramble into Peggy's lap and give her a hug, then climbed onto the bed to do the same for her grandfather. Then the entire Dugan family had dinner together in Dum-Dum's hospital room, while Steve said a quiet good night and slipped out to return to his new apartment. It would be a lonely place to spend the night, but he could handle that.

In fact, despite knowing nobody was waiting for him at home, Steve boarded the subway feeling more at peace with the world than he had in a very long time, indeed. He could see now that Peggy's life hadn't been a tragedy at all. Surrounded by her husband and children, she'd looked happier than he'd ever seen her, and Steve was finally able to be glad for her without grieving for himself.

Peggy really had moved on, and Steve knew now that he could, too – just as soon as he figured out what he'd be moving on to.

Even if he did have a lot of regrets, by the time the year was almost over Steve had decided that 1986 had left him with a lot to be grateful for, too. So perhaps it was fitting that in November he got no less than three thanksgiving dinners. On Thursday he had his first with the Dugan family: Peggy and Dum-Dum, Angela and her boyfriend, and Stephen and his family. The younger generations were absolutely astonished by how much Steve could eat, and afterwards Dum-Dum pulled out a hidden bottle of his favourite brew and he and Steve told war stories long into the night.

On Saturday he would be joining the Wilsons at the dinner they were hosting for the congregation at Paul's church, some of whom wouldn't get a thanksgiving dinner at all otherwise. As well as eating, Steve was looking forward to helping serve the meal and to entertaining baby Sam – who had turned out to be Samuel rather than Samara. At six months old he was an active and curious kid, already able to roll over and to wiggle along the floor even if he couldn't actually crawl. His parents adored him, and Steve took every opportunity to babysit.

In between, on Friday, Steve was due at the Starks'. When he rang the bell, it was answered not by Jarvis or Maria, as he'd expected, but by Obadiah Stane.

“Rogers!” the man said cheerfully. “Come in, come in! We're expecting you!”

“Thanks,” said Steve. “I brought a pie.” Peggy had given him an extra one.

“Wonderful!” Stane ushered him inside with a hand on his back. “Zeke! Take this to Maria in the kitchen, would, you?”

The little boy came to grab the pie and whisked it off, while Stane escorted Steve down the hall to the study. On the way by Steve took a peek into the kitchen, and found Jarvis and Anna busy finishing the meal preparations with Maria's help. Maria took the pie from Zeke and set it on the counter, then patted the boy on the head and said something to him in Italian. Steve would have gone in to help, but Stane took him into the study and got a decanter down from the shelf.

“Drink?” he asked.

“No, thank you,” Steve replied. “Not before dinner.” He looked over his shoulder. “Where's Tony?” He'd been told Tony would be there, but hadn't seen him in the kitchen.

“Spare bedroom,” Stane replied, pouring a drink for himself. “His cardboard rockets have outgrown his own.”

“I'm just gonna go talk to him for a moment,” Steve said.

Sure enough, Tony was sitting in the room that had been Steve's own for those few weeks. It was half-full of parts for a complex cardboard and matchstick model of something that looked almost like a suit of armor, but Tony wasn't working on that. Instead, he was sitting at the end of the bed, his shoulders hunched in a sulk.

“Tony?” Steve asked, rapping on the door frame.

Tony jumped and turned around as if ready to shout, but relaxed when he saw Steve. “Oh. It's just you.”

“What, did you mistake me for somebody important?” Steve came and sat down next to him. “Is something wrong?”

Tony sighed. “They didn't tell you?”

“I just got here,” said Steve. “The only thing anybody's told me is where to put the pie.” A dozen awful possibilities flickered through his head. Somebody else had died, or was dying. Tony was being threatened with expulsion again. It was amazing how many things he could imagine having happened in the month since he'd seen the boy last – and even then, he was still surprised by Tony's answer.

“Mom and Obi are getting married,” Tony said. “He asked her yesterday, and she said yes. Him and Zeke are moving in after Christmas.”

Steve sat silent for a moment, then said, “I see.” He could tell that Tony was upset, but for his own part Steve wasn't entirely convinced this was a bad thing. Steve didn't really like Obadiah Stane. There was something about the man that put him off, but in the past few months Stane had been nothing but attentive and kind towards Maria and Tony both. He would probably fill the roles of husband and father better than Howard had, even if Steve did suspect – as Tony doubtless did, too – that he was mostly after the Stark family's money.

“It's barely been six months,” Tony complained. “I feel like Hamlet.”

“Hamlet's mother only waited one month,” Steve said – and the play implied that Hamlet and his father had a better relationship than Howard and Tony had. Then again, maybe that was part of what Tony was upset about. Maybe he was afraid that a stepfather would be another Howard.

“Whatever, you get the idea,” said Tony.

Steve nodded, but he knew he couldn't help Tony with this. It would be something that was between Tony, Maria, and Stane, and the latter two wouldn't like Steve interfering. So for the time being, he changed the subject instead. “What is this?” he asked, pointing to the half-finished model. “I thought you were working on the space shuttle still.”

“I got bored,” said Tony. He seemed glad to have something else to talk about, too. “This is related, though – it's a self-contained spacesuit. It's got all the cooling and propulsion units built in so you don't have to put it on in layers, and should give the astronauts much better control over their own movement. There's an onboard computer, too,” he pulled a piece off the back and turned it over. “That always keeps track of where the astronaut and the shuttle are, so if a tether breaks the thrusters will automatically take you back to the airlock. I just have to figure out how to power it.” He put the piece down on his desk. “I got my reactor working, you might've read about that.”

“I did,” Steve agreed. It had been in the news – MIT's Boy Astronaut and the Future of Energy.

“If I could make it smaller...” Tony bit his lip, then shrugged. “If you want to see the stuff I'm doing for the shuttle, that's in my room. Come on.”

Steve followed him. While Tony was away at school, his model collection was carefully stored in padded boxes. Now it was out and arranged only every surface. There were vehicles, rockets, buildings, and things Steve couldn't begin to identify, all carefully made out of white card and glue.

“The new shuttle they're gonna be building to replace Odyssey is called Endurance,” said Tony. “Dr. Williams doesn't want to use my suggestions because he says they can't have a shuttle whose parts aren't interchangeable with the others, so I've been coming up with a five-year plan to upgrade the whole fleet.” He opened a drawer and started shuffling through notebooks.

“Doesn't it take forever to build all this?” Steve asked.

“I work better in three dimensions,” Tony replied. He chose a particular book and flipped through the pages to one marked with a post-it note. ““Translating from an idea for something that exists in space to a drawing and then having somebody else translate it back again wastes time and can make you miss things. Gotta build models.”

“Isn't there a better way to do it?” Steve asked. This seemed like an awful lot of paper.

“Probably,” Tony said. Having found what he was looking for, he turned around to face Steve again – then shouted in surprise at something behind him. Steve turned to look, and nearly cried out, himself. Behind Tony's bedroom door, whether neither of them had noticed her when they walked in, was a woman holding a toddler.

Not just any woman, either – she was wearing a long black wig, and a pair of cats-eye glassed, but it was definitely Konstantina Fyodorova.

“Is everything okay down there?” Maria's voice called.

“Everything's fine! Tony just stubbed his toe.” Steve shut the door and planted himself in front of Fyodorova, not sure if he wanted to threaten her or not. She must have a reason for being here, but it wouldn't necessarily be a reason he approved of. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Waiting for you,” she replied, as if this were obvious.

“Who is that?” Tony wanted to know, edging closer for a better look.

Fyodorova assumed he meant the child, and went and put the little girl down on Tony's bed. “This is Natalia. I have reason to believe she's the last surviving descendant of the last Tsar.” She turned away from the child to face Steve. “I need your help.”

“Why?” he asked immediately. “When you disappeared from lockup, we assumed you went back to the Soviet Union.”

“I did,” Fyodorova said, “but thanks to Madame Director, I'm the FBI's most wanted. My face is up in every post office in North America. When I arrived, my employers told me that I was of no further use to the Red Room.” She raised a hand to her temple with the index finger extended, and mimed firing a gun.

“So you escaped,” said Steve.

Fyodorova nodded once. “Anybody who thinks it's difficult to get into the Iron Curtain has never had to try to get out,” she told him.

“Hey!” Tony took one of his model parts away from the little girl. “Don't put that in your mouth!”

“How did you do it?” asked Steve.

“I walked,” she replied, as if it were the most obvious possible solution. “I waited for the sea ice to freeze, and then I walked from Lavrentiya to Tin City.”

Steve tried to picture the geography of the Bering Strait. “That's got to be a hundred miles,” he protested. “In the arctic? With a toddler?”

“Yes,” said Fyodorova. “Now I need your help. There's something going on under the ice up there that is potentially very destabilizing.”

Steve did not like the word destabilizing, but nor was he just going to trust her blindly. “And why should I help you rather than just turning you over to Peggy?”

Fyodorova smiled. “Two reasons.” She held up two fingers. “One – because you and I both agree that we need to keep the balance. Nobody wins if the world dissolves in a nuclear holocaust. And two,” she smiled. “Because I have information you want.” She looked at Tony, who was tossing his things into boxes where Natalia's greedy fingers couldn't get them. “Both of you?”

“Yeah?” Tony wrapped a bunch of shuttle parts up in a towel and tossed them in a drawer. “like what?”

Zimy,” said Fyodorova. “You boys help me save the world, and I can put a face behind the gun that killed Howard Stark.”

The model parts fell out of Tony's hands onto the floor. Steve bit his lip. He didn't trust Fyodorova, of course... not after she'd lied to and used him... but when he considered what she'd already helped him to do, he certainly couldn't afford to dismiss her, either. And there was no way he could turn down a chance to find his friend's murderer.

“I have some questions,” said Steve, holding up a finger.

“Captain Rogers!” Jarvis' voice called from down the hall. “Dinner is served!”

“I'm coming!” Steve replied, and turned back to Fyodorova. “If you're still here after we eat, we'll talk about this.”

“I'll wait,” she said.

“Don't let the kid eat my models!” Tony told her.

As they headed back down the hall to join the rest of the family in the dining room, Tony said, “you know, if I could get my new spacesuit to work... it could be a one-man submersible, too. I mean, there's some modifications I'd have to make, but...”

“Wait, who said you're coming?” asked Steve. This would be one for Peggy and Janet's Avengers Initiative, most likely.

Tony grinned. “She did. Let's eat, and then we can get on with it!”

At least Tony was smiling now – and as Steve sat down at the table for dinner, he realized that he was, too. Was this his place in the world? Working behind the scenes with an ex-spy and a child genius to prevent World War Three? If it were... well, then Peggy had been right the whole time, as usual. The world still needed Steve Rogers.

It was a good thing he was still around.