Actions

Work Header

The Half of It - Part I

Chapter Text

10/2/43; Germany, near the Danish Border

“You sure about this?”

It’s not so much a question as it is a last stab at delaying the inevitable. Peggy bites her lip, and makes herself look Bucky in the eye.

“It’s from the office of Hedtoft himself.”

“And we’re sure it’s not a...it’s not a trap of some kind?” Bucky presses, fixing Steve with a hard look.

“I wasn’t inclined to trust it either,” Steve says, shifting backwards on his heels. “But apparently Duckwitz doesn’t follow the party line, in this regard.”

“In any case, the warning went out a couple days ago,” Howard cuts in. “Damn near everybody is in hiding already, and the Danish Resistance’s working on a way to smuggle them all into Sweden. You wanna get your Romy-girl out of an active war zone, this is your best shot.”

“How?” Bucky snaps. “We’re not just gonna...gonna plop her down somewhere in fucking Denmark and say good luck.”

“Christ, Barnes, no,” Agent Howlett mutters, with a fantastic roll of the eyes. “I’m going with her.”

Despite himself, Bucky feels some measure of comfort at the news. Colonel Phillips and Senator Brandt had fought over custody of Steve’s body until Peggy had swooped in to arrange a compromise: “Clemson can hardly be the only Hydra spy in this country. A national tour would be the perfect cover for moving our own agents around.” Steve’s blood samples would remain with the SSR, while Steve himself would go on tour, entertaining the masses by day, and completing his Advanced Training with the handful of agents they were able to plant in the cast and crew by night.

Kay Howlett was one of those agents, and while Steve can’t replicate the bone claws that spring forth from and retract into Howlett’s hands, he’d learned a thing or two about how to ride, how to fight, how to not get caught, and how to get away if he ever was.

“They want me in Sweden to…help enforce the neutrality, anyway,” Agent Howlett continues, brandishing a clawed hand. “So I’ll be around to check on Miss Roosevelt here every once in awhile; make sure she’s getting her three squares.”

“We’re only waiting on the Danes to confirm a rendezvous point,” Peggy says, as if she were giving any other mission status update, if only her face weren’t porcelain-white; her now starkly red lips trembling like her hands. “It could come at any minute, so it’s best we...say good-bye now, while we can.”

This is what they’ve been waiting for, after all. The mobile headquarters could be—has been—attacked at any time. It’s no place for a civilian, let alone a child. They’d only been waiting on a good or at least semi-decent chance to get the little girl to safety.

A chance to send their little girl off into a foreign country, hoping she makes it safely into another one.

Rosemarie’s been watching the conversation intently from her chair, trying to piece together a narrative from the few English words she recognizes being spoken at this speed. Good-bye is the one she’s most familiar with, and a sinking feeling opens up in her gut when she hears it. She clutches Pappy tighter and puts on an optimistic expression, until Peggy turns to look at her, and the ashen face on the older woman makes her own crumple and disappear behind her bear.

Peggy goes to her, murmuring the plan to her in German. Rosemarie doesn’t look up, and Peggy crouches in front of her, putting her arms around both girl and stuffed animal, and tries to not shed tears onto either of them. Bucky stretches his hand across his face and jams his thumb and middle finger in the corners of his eyes; Steve looks up at the ceiling abruptly, swallowing, breathing, and swallowing again, harder.

Peggy pulls away from Rosemarie, her face now a dark, blotchy pink, and flicks her gaze over towards Steve and Bucky. Bucky sinks to his knees, not having the strength to do anything else, and Rosemarie dashes towards him, jamming her face into his shoulder and not quite suppressing a wail.

“Hey, hey, hey...” Bucky croons, somehow gentle despite his sandpaper throat, as he strokes a hand over her hair. His fingers find a knot, and he tries to untangle it without causing her any more pain. “Romy-girl. Meine Königin. It’s, um...es ist okay, es ist in Ordnung.” He cringes; his German is so clumsy. She’s giggled at him so many times, and he’s tickled her in retaliation for every instance, but all she does now is whimper into his neck, and all he can do in return is hold her tighter. “Okay? Du wirst mit Agent Howlett Sicher...Sicherheit sein.”

“Ich will bei Ihnen bleiben!” Rosemarie yells into his shoulder, and though it’s fast and muffled Bucky gets the gist.

“Romy—”

“Bitte.” Rosemarie tightens her arms around his neck, dripping tears onto the back of his shoulder. “Bitte. Please.”

He’s got no words for that, in German or in English; he can only hold her tighter as he stands up. He shouldn’t be able to do this so easily; she’s eight years old, getting close to nine, but she’s so tiny, skin and bones and not much else. God, they have to get her away from here, so she can start to grow up, but—

There’s a crackling noise at Howlett’s hip, and the indistinct but unmistakable sound of Phillip’s voice.

“Looks like we got our rendezvous,” Howlett mutters, reaching for the walkie-talkie.

“Can you give us a minute?” Steve snaps. “Just...”

The face Howlett makes is unimpressed, but not—going by the half-hearted smile—wholly unsympathetic.

“Fifteen seconds, bub.”

Rosemarie’s always been a little apprehensive of Steve, like she would gladly enjoy his company if she weren’t so convinced that the Schutzstaffel could materialize behind him at any moment, to take them both away. She gathers herself enough to peek out at him as he approaches, though, and while she doesn’t quite meet his eyes, she doesn’t hide her face again either.

He can’t say anything to her without frightening her more, Steve realizes with a nauseous clench in his stomach. So he stays quiet when he places his hands atop her head and rests his forehead between them, instead praying silently that the Danes know what they’re doing, that there’s someone across the Sound waiting to take their little girl in.

“Time’s up,” Howlett says quietly, when the fifteen seconds have passed, and Steve jerks himself away roughly, like he can’t trust that he’ll be able to make himself move away in a calmer manner. Peggy holds herself so tightly that nothing but a high, shuddering breath makes it out of her, and Bucky doesn’t so much relinquish Rosemarie as force himself to not fight when Howlett pulls the girl out of his arms.

“Let you know when we make it,” Howlett mutters.

“Thanks, Howlett,” Howard says quietly, when none of the triad responds. “Appreciate that.”

Rosemarie looks between Steve and Peggy and Bucky as Howlett walks away, her eyes widening as she realizes that none of them are going to come forth and reclaim her. Her face grows progressively ruddier with every step Howlett takes, and once they cross the threshold she squalls like a scalded cat, pounding a futile little fist on Howlett’s shoulder.

Peggy turns away abruptly, shoving a knuckle between her teeth and biting down. Bucky’s knees give out, and Steve catches him by the arm before he can either collapse or run after her.

“Sweden,” Steve mumbles, like the words are someone else’s. “She’s going to Denmark, and then to Sweden. She’ll be safe. Howlett is going to keep her safe.”

Rosemarie wails again, and a litany of names fires through Bucky’s mind, Anja and Wetzel and Hanna and—

“Howlett!” Bucky screams. “Howlett, if anyone so much as looks at her wrong, you rip their fucking head off, you hear me? Howlett!”

Howlett gives no answer but to raise the hand not currently holding Rosemarie around the back, and brandish its claws.

“Ich hasse Ihnen!” Rosemarie shrieks, and Howlett has to catch her with both arms before she struggles free. “Ich hasse Ihnen! I hate you! I hate you! I—”

Howard rushes forward to slam the door shut, and a sob finally wrenches out of Peggy’s throat.

“Oh, Peg,” Howard says, starting towards his friend; Steve and Bucky are frozen in their spots, held fast by Rosemarie’s crying even as it fades the further away Howlett takes her. “Peg, come on, don’t do this to yourself. She’ll be fine. You know she’ll be fine. Howlett’s with her.”

Peggy opens her mouth to try to respond, but her gut seizes up and all she can do is shudder so hard that her head tilts backward. Howard grabs her by the arms to keep her steady on her feet, and bites back his frustration. He hadn’t enjoyed Rosemarie’s presence in the slightest—had resented having to call one of the Commandos to come get her away from his equipment what felt like every five minutes—but he hates seeing his friends like this even more.

“You’re doing the right thing. This is the right thing for her. You know that, right?” He chances to give Peggy a little shake; it pays off when she stays on her feet. “C’mon. Nod your head; lemme hear the rocks rattle.”

“Fuck, fuck you, Howard,” Peggy hiccups, pushing him away weakly. “Go to hell.”

Howard gives a small smile, stepping back further than she’s actually shoved him, just to be encouraging. If Peggy’s got enough presence to cuss him out, that means she’s recovering, and the other two won’t be far behind her. They’re irritatingly in sync like that.

“Howlett’s gonna make sure she gets across the Sound in one piece, all right?” Howard says, louder. “Three days, tops; Howlett’s gonna radio that the little queen is in a nice warm house with a nice warm Swedish family, I can guarantee you. She’s gonna eat real food, she’s gonna have a real bed, she’s gonna go to school, and she’s gonna ride out this war where the Nazis can’t even see her, all right? And then you three...”

He steps back, and turns slightly, so he has all three of them in his sights.

“When the war’s over you’re all gonna go home, and you’re gonna live to see her children’s children’s children.”

5/25/17; Malibu, CA

“Happy birthday to you...”

“Doo!” goes the refrain, up the octave.

“Happy birthday to you...”

“Doo!”

“Happy birthday dear Ursula / Happy birthday to you!”

Ursula Armel leans forward over the table, takes as big a breath as she can, and manages to blow out two of her three candles. A quick little puff of air takes out the third, and she grins up at the adults gathered around her as they clap.

“Yay, you did it!” Peggy cheers. “Good job!”

“Go, Ursula!” Bucky adds, offering his metal hand for a high-five, which she takes him up on just before Cindy enlists him and the other grown-ups in cutting, plating, and passing around pieces of ice cream cake. A minute or two later the fireworks start, and a herd of toddlers stampede into the living room for the massive windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, just in time to see Iron Man go flying by.

If the Avengers are hosting your birthday party, might as well go all out.

It hadn’t precisely been planned. The Avengers had scheduled a training session/vacation on La Isla Hulkita (“Oh come on, Avengers Isle is so lacking in creativity,” or so Tony says) for the last several days in May. Cindy and her daughter being on the way to the island, Steve, Peggy, and Bucky had merely planned to stop in for the little one’s birthday. But Natasha, upon learning of their plan, had invited herself (“I want cake”) and the Bartons along with her, and what with the Avengers grapevine working the way it does...

Well, Ursula sure isn’t complaining about turning three in the Iron Mansion.

Bucky glances down when the birthday girl tucks her hand into his and, even after seeing it multiple times in the past few hours, is still taken aback by how familiar her little face is. They’d stopped in, like they always do when they’re out this way, at the cemetery where Rosemarie is buried; at this point it’s rare for Bucky to remember anything from before 1945 that he hasn’t already—according to the neurologist, and the second opinion, what’s gone is pretty much gone—but he always seems to recall her a little better, a little more solidly, every time they visit.

“Will you come sit with me?”

He blinks the surprise away, replacing it with a smile. “Sure thing, Urs.”

She slides off her chair, her paper plate of ice cream cake held somewhat precariously in her other hand, and trots towards the living room, Bucky stumbling comically along behind her. Steve and Peggy watch them go, tittering at first before lapsing into quiet; Steve slipping his arm incrementally tighter around Peggy’s shoulders as Ursula pulls Bucky to the floor in front of the window, and sits herself in his cross-legged lap.

“You think it's...genetic memory, or something? That she likes him best?”

Peggy hums, bumping her head against Steve's shoulder. “Jealous?”

“What? Nah. Are you?” Peggy huffs, and does her best to look like she’s not dignifying the question with an answer. “Aw, Pegs.”

“What?” Peggy mutters, giving up. “I’m o-for-two. I’m allowed to feel a little pouty.”

“Gonna try again, you think?” Cindy asks, appearing suddenly at Peggy’s elbow and making them both jump back. “Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear from where I was eavesdropping.”

Peggy snorts, and then shifts her weight, making an ambiguous noise.

“...Not my business?” Cindy hazards, with a small grimace.

“More like...not the place to talk about it,” Steve says, squeezing Peggy’s shoulder. “Don’t wanna...bring the party down or anything.”

Cindy nods, and is distracted immediately anyway; Ursula steps up onto Bucky's leg and waves her arm frantically as he balances her with an arm flung around her back.

“Mommy! Mommy, come look! Mommy!

“I’m coming, I’m coming!”

They watch as Cindy rushes over to take her place next to Bucky and Ursula on the floor, and almost laugh after they heave two heavy breaths in tandem.

It’s not like Peggy can pop one out whenever she wants, after all. Or ever, for that matter. And who is going to send a child to live in a household where two of the three adults could disappear for days or weeks at a time, and come back bruised and bloody or maybe, one day, not at all? Who is going to let the world’s most famous triad adopt, when Fury had to bully and bribe the Kansas CPS into giving the Bartons back their kids after they found out about their relationship with Natasha?

How can they go out and try to replace the one they almost had?

What if they had to try it more than once?

Peggy stabs her piece of cake with her fork, and struggles with slicing off a piece without accidentally flinging the whole thing across the room. Steve reaches over with his free hand to hold the plate still for her, and after meeting eyes they mutually decide to not think about it.

It’s hard to do that, though, when Sofia starts to cry because of all the noise and Pepper ducks out of the room to soothe her, or once the fireworks are over and Cooper, surprisingly great with younger kids for a twelve-year-old, puts Little Nat on his shoulders and takes off across the room, Ursula and her friends running after him like ducklings.

Bucky is pensive when he comes back to them, too, and lets himself be drawn into their loose embrace.

Somewhat fortunately the end of the party comes pretty quickly, as the sun sets and it’s-almost-bedtimes roll around, but the coup de grace comes when Cindy approaches them, leaving last after thanking Tony and Pepper for hosting the party, with Ursula in her arms. Despite her pinched face and blurry eyes, the girl still twists herself around so she can hug each of them in turn.

“Be safe on the island,” Cindy says, with reason; they’re arriving early to batten down during the tropical storm that’s due to pass over the island sometime over the weekend. It’s why Pepper, Laura, and their kids will be staying the weekend in California, before joining their families on Monday or Tuesday. “And don’t give up, okay?” she says, quieter. “Let me know if I can help you in any way. I’ll do anything I can.”

Peggy almost asks if she’d be willing to lend them her uterus, but refrains. They’ve read far too many horror stories to purposely go that road.

Chapter Text

5/27/18; Upstate NY

It’s just started raining by the time Logan arrives, and there’s a family burying a relative in a grave close to Zora’s, so the best course of action seems to be taking shelter under a tree nearby, where he can sneak a swig without visiting discomfort upon those people, or inviting judgment upon himself.

It’s lower proof than it has been in the past, at least. And he even almost reached out to Maverick, to ask him to come this time. He even did invite Charles; the Professor would’ve been here with him had he not already scheduled himself to visit his brother. All in all, he’s in a better state this year than he ever has been.

He takes another swig anyway. This funeral is taking kinda long.

“Wolverine!”

He stops himself from unleashing his claws as he whips around, and once he sees who it is, he’s glad he did.

“Gabs?”

Several feet away from him, stepping out from the hedges surrounding the cemetery, stands Agent Gabriela Lopez. The official liaison between SHIELD and the Xavier Institute; the one who had successfully lobbied Fury to keep the mansion and its denizens off of SHIELD’s official books, so their identities had not been publicized upon the Triskelion’s collapse.

The woman who had suddenly vanished three years ago, and now stands before him, rain-soaked, panting, at least thirty pounds skinnier and—his eyes actually widen—clutching her baby bump with both hands.

“The fuck happened to you?”

She looks past him, towards the group of mourners, and assesses how likely it is that they any of them speak Spanish as she stumbles closer.

“Necesito que me lleves al Compound. Puede haber gente persiguiéndome.”

“¿Que gente?” Logan demands, clenching his fists. “¿Están con Hydra?”

“Más…” She grimaces; her fingers press harder against her stomach. “Más o menos.”

“Más o menos.”

“Explicaré todo en el camino hacia el Compound, pero tenemos que irnos. Ahora.” She keeps her eyes on him, but her feet take her towards his motorcycle, parked in the grass not far from the boundary of the cemetery. “Logan, ahora. Please.”

Logan hesitates just enough to spare a glance towards the grave he’d meant to visit, mouthing Raincheck, Z before going to Gabriela, catching her by the arm when her knee locks and her step falters.

He sits first, reaching up to plop his helmet on her head, and she straps it on with trembling fingers as he curses himself for rolling his eyes when Ororo suggested—however facetiously she meant it—that he get a sidecar for the bike.

He shifts his hips forward, making as much room for Gabriela and the child as possible, and peels out as carefully as anyone can.

5/27/17; Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters, Bayville, NY

With Hank and the students on a camping excursion, Charles visiting his brother, and Logan not yet returned, the mansion is enjoying a rare moment of peace and quiet. Mixed with the pleasant warmth of the day itself, the silence had lulled Storm into a nap inside the greenhouse; when something flashes on the other side of her closed eyelids, she wakes up thinking that she had accidentally tossed off a lightning bolt in her sleep.

When she sees that the flashing is actually coming from her bracelet, she sits up immediately, patting her hair out smooth before she taps one of the beads. Knowing who her caller is, it would be wise to appear presentable.

“Prove that you are one of us.”

Storm presses her fingers to her bottom lip, and flips it inside out. Her caller nods, and smiles faintly.

“Proof of identity accepted, Goddess.”

“General,” Storm bows her head for a moment, before glancing up into Okoye’s eyes. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“I’m afraid there is nothing honorable here,” Okoye says, her face calmly professional as always, but sadness colors in the corners of her eyes, and Storm feels feels an anxious tug in her gut. “Rather...”

Okoye draws a breath, straightening her spine.

“It is my great regret to report to you that the king has been assassinated.”

Storm’s hand flies to her mouth. She and her sister’s family had not seen King T’Chaka in person since receiving their assignments in America ten years ago—there had been no plans to go home until Evan had graduated college and accepted a “wonderful job opportunity” that would return him to Africa, his parents soon to follow; and even those plans were tentative—but like most everyone in the country they had revered him: a commanding, competent presence that had nonetheless ruled with a soft-spoken good humor and grace.

“The infiltrators were not content merely to murder our king,” Okoye continues, steadily but with rage clearly bubbling in her throat. “This was a multi-pronged attack. A small cache of vibranium was stolen as well. The Garden of the Heart-Shaped Herb was raided, and the priesthood was...”

Her breath catches, and Storm’s leaves her. Zuri, and Nerombo, and Lulama, and...and...

“Did they,” Storm chokes, only her training as a Hatut Zeraze keeping her tears held back. “Did they take—?”

“The mercenaries did not have a chance to find the First Gem of Cyttorak before we dispatched them,” Okoye says, composure coming back to her crisply. “But when the Garden was raided...the assassin took the Second.”

Storm shuts her eyes, breathing in deep; she sends up a quick, incoherent plea to Bast, and to Sobek, before opening her eyes again. “Who did this? Do we know who it was?”

You do.”

Storm’s blood immediately runs ice cold. Her foremost loyalty is always to her motherland and its people, a native Wakandan cannot escape that breeding, but her students and peers at the Institute comprise a very close second. “Okoye, I can promise you—"

“We do not, at this moment, suspect anyone you care for,” Okoye interrupts, brusque but not unkind. “I fought the assassin myself. He is not of the Institute. Though you have lent him your talent in the past.”

“When?”

“Two years ago, in Sokovia.”

“One of the Avengers did this?” Hank had not lived at the mansion yet, and Logan had been away, when Director Fury asked for their help two years ago, but Storm and Charles had taken off in the Blackbird as soon as they heard that Ultron planned to drop Sokovia onto the Earth: Charles to calm the minds of the island’s civilians, making their escape onto the helicarrier and lifeboats more orderly and far safer; Storm to contribute to Thor’s forcefield, and to strike down the Ultron proxies that managed to escape it.

Okoye’s face disappears, replaced by footage captured by security camera. Storm’s eyes narrow, and then widen.

“This...doesn’t make sense,” she says. “He has no reason to—”

“We would apprehend him to see if he acted of his own will or if he suffered manipulation,” Okoye interrupts, coming back into view. “In either case, we should be able to find out from him the names of his collaborators. And for this we need your help.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“You will be providing containment when we go to question him. Between you and the Dora Milaje, we should be able to handle the Avengers should they try to mount a defense.”

Storm nods. A ball of nerves that has nothing to do with the idea of facing off against the Avengers starts to roll in her intestines, up to her chest, and down her arms.

“A plane should be to you within ten minutes. His Highness is...impatient.”

“T’Challa?” Storm blinks. “He’s...?”

Okoye sends her a look that’s almost amused, tainted as it is with grief. “You should know him better, Goddess. The king may be dead—"

Storm returns the wry smile with abashed grace. “But the Black Panther lives.”

5/27/17; Avengers Isle

Avengers Isle, as everyone who isn’t an eccentric multibillionaire refers to it, lies roughly in between the Hawaiian and Marshall Islands, and enjoys much the same climate. Team America, Bucky in particular, appreciates this weather immensely, and it’s why he’s laying on a beach chair on the roof of the Resort, soaking in the tropical breeze while it’s still there, before the storm hits.

He’s up here alone—Steve’s currently in the shower, and Peggy is toweling off after her own—and he’s just hung up with Kim. It’s been a few weeks since he last spoke with the Proctor-Lloyds, and the now-eight-year-old Rikki had been eager to catch him up to speed with the little dramas of the second grade as the school year draws to a close. Once Rikki was finished, Kim filled him in on Jen’s current projects at the Center, and a new wolf that had been put in Kim’s care at the sanctuary, an albino whose amiable nature and blue-grey eyes she said reminded her of Bucky.

White Wolf does beat Winter Soldier as a codename.

The wind blows his hair into his face and he shoves it away, regarding the clouds as he twirls his phone absently between his fingers. Post-Ultron, since the Accords were re-drafted and the Avengers cleared for work again, he’s gone on a few missions with the team, namely those where it was necessary to land a quinjet near the target, and a guard was needed to ensure their method of escape remained undisturbed. The thought to participate in more missions, in a more active capacity, has entered his mind more than once, but it’s been combated with an equally insistent thought that he shouldn’t commit to that, when it’s possible that one day soon he’ll be needed at home full-time, when there’s finally a child to occupy that empty second bedroom.

It’s not gonna happen, a voice that sounds entirely too much like his own sounds off in his head. You know it’s not going to happen. You’re just too chickenshit to get back in the field.

Bucky sighs aloud, closing his eyes against the voice. According to Dr. Fields, he’s not supposed to fight these kinds of thoughts; it’s un-therapeutic to give any amount of credence to the ideas that he’s doomed to either cowardice or childlessness, or both, for the rest of his life. He should let them pass, observed but untouched, like the clouds miles above his reach.

Like the days in which he can call himself neither a parent nor an active-duty Avenger.

Tonight’s just determined to be a bad night.

Mentally, at least, Bucky realizes after his phone buzzes with a Coming in soon? from Steve, and a quick glance at the time tells him that he’s been up here, trying to let his brain chase its own tail without interfering, for a little over half an hour. Meteorologically, the sea and sky have stayed remarkably clear and calm, considering a storm is supposed to be coming this way.

It could have fizzled out miles away before it gained any momentum, he supposes. He probably ought to let his own mind try the same, and as pleasantly warm as it is out here, it’ll be a better air that surrounds him when he’s with Steve and Peggy and the other Avengers.

He blinks slowly, mightily, trying to redirect his brain towards movement, and while his eyes are closed a flash of light goes off above his head. Lightning, finally, his anticipation helpfully supplies, even as logic immediately frowns at the supposition. One last deep breath, and then he’ll get up.

He opens his eyes, and blinks again, much more rapidly this time; and jerks upright. Something like thunder claps, deafening, directly above his head, and he flinches under the sheet of rain that suddenly drives down viciously from the sky, until he realizes that not a single drop has landed on him. Instead, the rain circles the Resort like the bars of a cage, so thick as to be nearly opaque. He can tell just by looking that it’d be way too punishing to try to run through.

Lightning flashes again, accompanied by a gust of wind so strong that Bucky has to shield his eyes against it. His wits have caught up with him enough to tell him that the lightning had been tinted unnatural green.

The wind is only getting stronger, forcing him to crouch under it, like someone’s harnessed the gales and directed them solely at him. His flesh arm is forced down to his side, and even his metal arm struggles to type and send help back to Steve before the phone is blown out of his hand. But even with the wind bearing down on him, he can sense the presence of other humans approaching from above, so he’s not completely unprepared for a pair of hands to grab him by the arms and throw down him to the roof.

The wind lets up immediately, letting Bucky grab hold of his assailant’s wrists before their claws sink into his face. The light behind whoever’s attacking him is so blinding that Bucky can’t even tell when it cuts off; the person above him is a blurred black silhouette, the head vaguely cat-shaped.

A feminine, harsh voice yelps “T’Challa!” from…somewhere, somewhere close. The door to the roof bursts open, and Bucky’s focused enough to see the edge of the shield slamming against his assailant’s head. But what should have cracked a skull only makes the man flinch; Bucky tries to roll away while he’s got the chance, but the claws come down, penetrating the metal arm like the titanium is wet clay.

He can’t see it through the senses-numbing pain crawling from his arm up his neck to wrap around his head, but the shield bounces straight back into Steve’s hands as both he and Peggy rush forward. The wind returns suddenly, but instead of pinning Bucky again, it swoops over him and pushes Steve and Peggy back, like a snow plough clearing a road. Bucky yelps as the claws are ripped out of his arm—another gust of wind is pulling his attacker away from him—but before he can scramble to his feet he’s picked up by a transparent cyclone and pulled into the air, out of everyone’s reach. He’s not spinning around himself, but the wind is circling fast around him, creating a vacuum; holding him suspended and so tightly; he’s trapped and the air is freezing cold and his vision is starting to white out no no no no, please

He doesn’t hear the door to the roof slam back open again, but he’s dimly aware of being wrapped in red light and yanked out of the column of air, abruptly at first and then gentler as he’s brought back down to the roof and set on his feet. The wall of air blocking Steve and Peggy splinters into jagged chunks and rips apart as if it were demolished concrete, and the pair of them dash to Bucky’s side, crowding in front of him as he struggles to find his balance again.

Wanda hurries forward in front of her teammates, but jumps back when a spear, gold in color and crackling with electricity, penetrates the roof in front of her. Behind her the other Avengers are rushing onto the rooftop, in varying states of armed, as a blue forcefield shudders out of the spear and fans into life between them and the invaders.

“Your Highness!” a woman in red, who must have thrown the spear, hisses at the black-suited man as he struggles against whatever’s holding him back. More women, fitted with clothes and weapons identical to the first, are rappelling down from what Bucky, as full consciousness filters back to him, can see is some sort of aircraft hovering over the Resort. He blinks, and in the aircraft’s light he can barely make out a woman in green, floating independently of anything, white light shining out of her hands.

“Hey, so, would anyone care to enlighten us as to what the fuck is going on here?” Sam yells, hands ready to raise the gun clutched between them, as the women form a half-circle around who he supposes is their leader.

“I am Prince T’Challa!” the man yells back, pulling off his helmet. “The son of King T’Chaka, King of Wakanda! This man you dare to protect killed my father and our citizens in cold blood!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Steve hisses, shifting more fully in front of Bucky as Bucky’s mind races, trying to piece together the memory of a victim that might resemble his accuser.

The whole company startles as the man raises his hand, but instead of firing a weapon, he flips his arm so his inner wrist points skyward. Like the forcefield, another light flickers into semi-corporeal existence, but instead of a wall it fans out into a two-dimensional rectangle, and rather than remain translucent it colors into what looks like footage of a lush garden.

It’s just idyllic enough a scene to be foreboding. The garden is tended by a few people, both adults and children, bodies clad in purple robes and faces painted in yellow and white. At the furthest reach of the garden is a pit of bright red sand, and it's there that a man in his sixties lays down with his arms crossed, raising his head to accept an offered drink from a leaf-shaped cup, and then settling back down, allowing a few of the other people to pour shovelfuls of the red sand over him.

Against the Avengers' instincts, the burial is peaceful, clearly meant to be temporary. Then T'Challa raises a clawed finger and revolves it vertically, fast-forwarding to show a man in a sickeningly recognizable black tac suit stalking through the garden from the shadows.

Tony and Clint both look away instantly when the first to be killed is one of the children, her scream cut off when her tiny neck is snapped by an unceremonious silver fist. She’s tossed into one of the waterways that cut through the garden as her companions rush towards her scream like lambs to slaughter; the other Avengers, and the Dora Milaje, force themselves to keep watching as the rest of the company is easily dispatched, throats cut or crushed when they come too close, or shot through as they try to flee.

The coup de grace comes with a clean headshot to the man still buried, blissfully oblivious, under the sand. The assassin turns away from the massacre, as if he were a cat bored now that he’s successfully crushed a bothersome moth beneath his paw, allowing for the clearest glimpse of his face so far.

He looks a lot like Bucky.

“When was this?” creaks out of Bucky’s throat, as weak and unsteady as his legs underneath him.

“When did this happen?” Steve demands, even though everyone had heard Bucky speak; louder but no less shaken.

“Two days ago,” Okoye reports steely.

“Then, then it’s impossible,” Peggy says immediately, the relief flooding her failing to make her any less nauseated. “It can't have been Bucky. He was with us, at the Tower. He couldn’t possibly—”

“Do you think we would trust that?” T’Challa hisses, every inch the feline he emulates. “You are his family. Of course you would invent a cover for him.”

“We know your history, Sergeant Barnes,” Okoye says, with something of a pointed sideways glance at T’Challa. “We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of coercion.”

“I didn’t do this,” Bucky says, his feet and mind finally steady, leaving only his mouth to tremble. “I didn’t...Hydra hasn’t had a hold of me for three years, I’m—”

“We fought you as you tried to escape that garden,” Okoye interrupts, cool as a cucumber, her grip tightening around her spear. “I saw your face. The only thing that stopped me from piercing your heart was the gas you released from your hand.”

“Um,” Tony interrupts, finally looking back, trying to shake off the image of Sofia being murdered in the same way as that girl, and the vengeance he’d love to take on her parents’ behalf. “I, uh, I did not put any gases in that arm. Like that’s, what he’s got now is a 2.0 version. 100% less against the Geneva Conventions. I mean, feel free to check, but...”

“That’s...that’s not Bucky in the video.”

Natasha’s voice, quiet but carrying, draws all attention to her. Her eyes, for all they seem horrorstruck, are narrowed; her teammates recognize it as the look she and Bucky both wear when they’re trying to unearth a memory.

“Then who the hell is it?” T’Challa demands, snideness sharp enough to cut glass. “A twin?”

Clint’s hand brushes Natasha’s wrist as she steps forward, towards the projection off T’Challa’s wrist. He follows vigilantly after her when she doesn’t seem to notice his touch.

“A clone.”

Chapter Text

4/6/2014; Moscow, Russia

“Shit. Shit, shit shit shit shit fuck...”

“Your father is a fool,” Dr. Volkov says, remarkably mild for a man watching the Triskelion collapsing in real time, as the bullet reader on the bottom of the screen blasts news of the thousands of documents already proliferating online. “Well, was, I would assume at this point.”

“Yes, thank you, that’s a very helpful observation, Volkov,” Donald Pierce snarls as he rounds on Volkov, his mechanical fingers flexing menacingly. “Got any more gems you’d like to share?”

“How about Come with me if you want to live?

“Oh that’s cute. That’s real cute, doc. And where, pray tell, do you think we can go that has not been compromised?”

Volkov shrugs. “I know a place in Siberia.”

“That hasn’t been compromised, you ass.”

Volkov flicks his eyes briefly heavenward. Americans. “Siberia is a big place, Mr. Pierce. You shouldn’t presume to know about every bolthole hidden in the tundra.”

“Well maybe I should just google it, like the rest of the fuckin’ world can at this point. Siri, look up Hydra Siberia safehouse.

“I am not taking us to a Hydra safehouse,” Volkov says, like he’s talking to a child.

“Then where the fuck are you taking us?”

Volkov’s lips quirk in a smile that might be called reminiscent. “It’s a long journey, Mr. Pierce, and we really should be leaving now. I’ll explain on the way.”

4/6/2014; Washington, DC

“Guys, we gotta go,” Sam is calling from the doorway leading out to the landing pad; outside the helicarriers are sinking lower and lower in the sky, closer and closer to the Triskelion. “Guys, we gotta go now!

“All right! Hang on!” Natasha yelps, her eyes scanning the screen in front of her. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of files that she’s put into circulation by now, but there are millions more at her fingertips, about Hydra, about the Winter Soldier, about Leviathan and the Red Room.

Are you ready for the world to know who you really are?

Maria bursts through the door and makes a beeline for the Council, barking orders and herding them towards Sam. Peggy seems deaf to Sam’s voice and frozen where she is, watching the helicarriers destroy each other through the smashed window; Fury has to go to her, grab her arm, and pull to get her to move.

“Romanov,” Fury yells across the room, “if you’d like to not die—”

Natasha slams the Enter key four times, a tiny irrational part of her brain believing that doing so might help a few more files escape, and scuttles to the door, the last one to leave the room.

Not the last to get on the helicopter; that space is reserved for Peggy, who presses up against the door as soon as it’s closed, still transfixed, and Natasha inwardly grimaces.

She had decided against telling Steve and Peggy about her encounter with the Soldier five years ago. There was no point; they were adamant that their Bucky was salvageable, and Natasha supposes that if she had been granted a second chance, then she wasn’t in any position to deny one to anyone else. Really, it’s only with a mild twinge of resentment that she recalls him shooting out her tires in the middle of her extraction of an Iranian nuclear engineer, forcing the car over a short cliff, and—to ensure his mission was successful—shooting the engineer through Natasha’s stomach when she tried to cover him.

They’d locked eyes, him towering twenty feet above her, and he’d taken aim, and…he’d left.

Natasha furrows her brow. There had been no reason for the Winter Soldier to spare her that day. Surely she had been just as much of a target as the engineer. And she was nothing to him, after all; it wasn’t like how Steve and Peggy had made him hesitate last night in Shenandoah.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t shown Natasha any repeat leniency last night...

Peggy pulls open her door and jumps out of the helicopter, and there’s no more time to consider the question.

Afterwards, when Natasha’s seen Bucky, almost meekly, comply with every directive from hospital staffer and federal agent and Peggy alike, she chalks up her survival on the cliffside to an underlying lack of malice, and only thinks about those five seconds of eye contact when she doesn’t have something more pressing to consider...a rare occasion, in the months following the Triskelion collapse.

That the execution of the engineer had not been exposed as a Hydra op, she attributes to the bums rush from the Triskelion that the helicarriers had given her.

5/27/17; Avengers Isle

Now Natasha regards the image before her in a cold sweat; Clint feels how clammy her palm is when he passes the three middle fingers of his right hand over it.

She hasn’t informed Wanda yet—doesn’t want to spook her, now that she’s actively pursuing better control over her abilities—but the girl’s attack on Natasha’s mind two years ago, on that boat in Sudan, had opened up places that had, until then, been shuttered by injury and avoidance. She’s woken Clint and Laura up more than once, crawling out of bed in search of water and a well-lit bathroom to help her calm down; even in the middle of the day, when she has an unoccupied moment, she’s occasionally gone vacant on her feet. There’s hardly ever anything concrete that pops into her head, or a full narrative; just snippets of locations Natasha had battened down in; people she had trained with or—sometimes and—killed.

And now this.

“There was a male operative in the Red Room about the same age as my class of Widows,” Natasha says, fighting the urge to actively chase the memory, fill the gaps in, rather than just let it land. “They never gave him a name; any names. None that I remember, in any case. I don’t think he was trained to be like us, like the girls. He wasn’t meant to be a spy. Just an assassin.”

Steve and Peggy feel Bucky shift on his feet behind them, and they settle backwards, closing ranks.

“And you are saying this man is...this man is a clone of Sergeant Barnes?” Okoye asks.

“Well, it’d make sense,” Natasha says, coming back to the moment and slipping into operative mode. “He’s the right age. Identical body. Metal arm.” The corner of her mouth twitches. “Leviathan’s MO was creating people who don’t legally exist; cloning a presumed KIA American soldier fits the mould. And it’s not like Leviathan would have been above stealing resources from Hydra.”

“I mean, Ivchenko was right fucking there,” Bucky mutters, his fingers twitching; a step up from trembling, at least. “He could’ve passed whatever the hell between them. Or a successor could have, if not him.”

Okoye regards Natasha and Bucky both with a harsh but otherwise inscrutable expression. She hisses something that brings the women behind her immediately before her, their defensive stance unchanged, and then she ghosts sideways, towards T’Challa.

“Your Highness,” she says, in their own language, “this is not...inconceivable.”

“Is there any record of this man in our databases?” T’Challa asks.

One thing Okoye will say for her prince: as reactive as he can be, he listens to reason, or a plausible facsimile thereof, when it’s presented to him. Already the fire in T’Challa’s eyes has reduced from a rage to a smoulder, and he’s as focused on her as he can be, considering the circumstances.

“No, but it is my understanding that Leviathan could have managed cloning in the 80s.” War Dogs had been in the Soviet Union since the late 50s, and while cracking any inner sanctums, even in legitimate political spheres, had not been possible, enough had been overheard and uncovered for Okoye to speak with some confidence now. “And Barnes makes less sense as a suspect than an operative like one Romanova describes.”

There’s a soft tingling behind Okoye’s ear, and T’Challa’s as well, before they hear Asira report that “I’ve found nothing” and lift her detection device, so they can hear it squeak futilely.

“There’s no trace of vibranium or the Gem at the Compound, either,” Akili chimes in. “Though I haven’t yet been able to approach those two motorcyclists that appeared earlier, to see if they’re clean or not.”

“Shuri?” T’Challa asks.

“I didn’t see anything over remote access,” Shuri says. “At the Tower or the Compound. So the Gem and the vibranium have either already been sold, or…”

“They’re in a facility as yet unknown to us,” Akili offers.

“Or…” T’Challa glances back at the Avengers. “Barnes didn’t take them to begin with.”

“Sounds like we’re heading into the clear, if we’re not there yet,” Rhodey murmurs; the Avengers have also taken the opportunity to form a huddle on the other side of the barrier—loosely, as every flutter of an eyelid draws the spear-wielding women an inch closer to the barrier. The translators Tony had built into the Iron Man and War Machine suits are geared for isiXhosa, a close relative of Wakandan, so most of what’s been said has come through.

“Gonna have to up security at our sites,” Tony mutters. “And/or the vetting.”

“I assume we’re…involved, now, though,” Sam says, glancing around the group.

“Well if a fucking clone of me is going around murdering people,” Bucky mutters, unable to stop himself from shoving his hand in his face and then up into his hair. “Jesus, every time I...have the audacity to think that there’s an end to the horror show…”

“I’m sorry,” Natasha murmurs, as Peggy wraps her hands around Bucky’s arm, and Steve grasps his shoulder; Clint’s hand has been resting between Natasha’s shoulder blades for the past few minutes. “If I’d remembered him sooner, I would have told you.”

“Why would they clone you, Bucky?” Bruce asks. “Is there a...a specific reason, I mean. So we know what we’re up against with this guy.”

“Why me for anything?” Bucky spits, as if he had never remembered Zola’s piss-dripping smile hovering over his face, telling him that dark attracts dark.

“If I may hazard a guess…” Vision says, visibly hesitating after every eye in the group turns to him. “Your...mutation is probably a factor, if not the deciding one.”

“We still don’t know what his mutation even does,” Steve mutters, almost defensively.

We don’t,” Vision agrees, “but Hydra—or Leviathan—could have. Or at the very least figured out how to take advantage of it, whatever they thought it to be.”

A chirping sounds goes off near Tony’s ear, and on the comms of those Avengers who’d had the time and presence of mind to bring them to the roof, followed immediately by Maria’s voice.

“We’ve got a situation.”

“What a coincidence, we’ve one, as well,” Thor says, his voice raised just enough to be heard.

“What is it?” Maria demands.

“Someone’s framed Bucky for stealing Wakandan resources,” Peggy answers. “Vibranium, and a gem of some sort; I don’t know what it’s supposed to do.”

“Shi~t,” Maria exhales. “How do you know this?”

“Because Wakanda showed up at the Resort looking for him,” Sam answers.

“Jesus, is everyone still alive?”

“We are all accounted for,” Thor says. “We’re at a stalemate. No one was…” He glances at Bucky’s punctured metal arm, “...seriously injured. Maimed.”

Clint raises his hand, catching Okoye and T’Challa’s attention, and signs in ASL, “Are we okay with each other now?”

“That’s reassuring,” Maria says dryly.

“Why would we be okay with each other now?” T’Challa signs back, and Clint smirks to see his gambit pay off.

“It sounds like they’re starting to believe it was a frame job,” Bruce says, keeping his voice low lest he provoke.

“Because you know he didn’t do it…” Clint signs.

“So, Agent Hill,” Tony says, raising a finger even though Maria can’t see it. “I’m guessing your situation involves a guy who looks eerily like our own metal-armed man. ”

“...and because we could tell the Compound that you’ve got a spy stationed there, but we haven’t yet.”

“So our two situations are related, then,” Maria mutters, as Okoye and T’Challa don’t face each other directly, but still meet eyes.

“We’ll be on Video Conference in two minutes,” Clint says.

“You’re clear with the Wakandans?” Maria asks.

Okoye strides forward, her gaze narrowed on Clint but somehow still taking in other Avengers. The rest of the women don’t move even as she passes them, but more than one member of the Avengers flinches when she slaps her hand against her spear and wrenches it out of the rooftop, the forcefield fizzling out of existence.

She turns her head left to right, locking eyes with each of the Avengers in turn, before she raises her spear up six inches, and pounds it twice against the metal.

In one movement, each woman straightens her stance and lets the tip of her spear drift downwards, toward the rooftop.

“Yep.”

*

“Everyone, this is Agent Gabriela Lopez.”

Gabriela’s been afforded a change of clothes and a quick rinse and combing-out of her hair, but the attempt to clean her up somehow only seems to highlight the gauntness of her cheeks, the purple bruises under her eyes. She stands by the table in one of the Compound’s conference rooms, one hand still laying atop her pregnant belly, her fingers hooked almost into a claw shape.

Peggy spares a glance at the man standing behind Gabriela’s shoulder, a hint of something familiar laying on his facial features, but her attention is drawn back to Fury when he speaks again.

“Our former liaison to the Xavier Institute,” Fury continues, from the seat at the table Gabriela is standing by. “If you recall, she went missing while on vacation in 2014. At the time, we had no leads. That’s because our answers, as it turns out, were behind us, rather than around us.”

Fury pulls up a map on the monitor facing the camera, showing an image of Canada and the northern United States; the focus narrows until the image has zoomed in on Fort McKenna, Alberta.

“Evan Mueller,” Fury says, “if you don’t recall offhand, was my predecessor as the director of SHIELD. Also appears to have been one of Pierce’s unwitting pets. And one of the biggest contracts he snagged during his tenure was with a corporation called Alkali.”

The man behind Gabriela twitches, subdued but just enough to catch Steve’s eye. The familiarity Peggy had noticed presents itself to Steve, and he narrows his eyes at the man even as he continues to listen.

“Back in the 70s and 80s, mutants were all the rage in terms of their potential military application. Alkali was supposed to be a research facility and...a training ground, if you will, for prospective mutant SHIELD agents.”

“It was a fucking torture carnival, is what it was,” Gabriela’s companion snarls, low but loud enough, and there’s something in the cadence of his voice that pricks even Bucky’s ear.

“It seems someone agreed; someone well-armed,” Fury says, inclining his head diplomatically. “Because in ‘83 there was an insurrection at their compound in Fort McKenna. Damn near every living soul on site either died or disappeared. The Council ordered the base cleared away and the remaining resources destroyed, and Pierce saw to it. Or, as I’m sure you’re gathering, so we thought.”

“So what, what resources were preserved?” Bruce asks.

“Genetic material,” Gabriela says, her hand twitching even as she stays stone-faced. “Including...repro-, reproductive material. Sperm and egg samples.”

“Oh, I see where this is going,” Tony murmurs, sounding nauseated for all his surety.

“The resources, apparently, were moved from Fort McKenna to a facility on an island in the Niagara River,” Maria takes over, and Fury adjusts the map accordingly. “This is where Agent Lopez escaped from. We don’t know how many children were bred in that facility, and what happened to them if they do exist. We’re guessing they were either raised within Hydra, or...sold off.”

Jesus,” Rhodey mutters.

“We do know that the building was at least considered abandoned by 1990, according to public records. We think Hydra dumped it once the Internet started to take off, in favor of pushing ahead with Project Insight. We also know that an alleged medical research facility calling itself Transigen set up shop there two years ago.”

“So how many children are we talking about now?” Steve asks, briskly. “And how many…” He hesitates, trying not to look too blatantly at Gabriela as he searches for the right words. “How many abductees?”

“There are seven children, all under the age of two, and one surviving birthmother; a civilian, Julie Jackson,” Maria says, so Gabriela doesn’t have to. “We’ve already sent agents out to Niagara. The hope is that they won’t have had the time to move house yet.”

“If they did, where would they go? Back to Fort McKenna?”

“Unlikely. That facility was destroyed, even if the resources survived.”

“Deborah...Dr. Risman was a doctor they brought on board, but she turned; she got me out,” Gabriela says. “She said there’s a safehouse in North Dakota, in the Badlands, but she didn’t know exactly where.”

“Beyond that,” Fury says, “there’s also a related location somewhere in Russia.”

“And there’s the zinger,” Clint says, glancing nonetheless worriedly at Natasha. For her part, Natasha remains blank-faced, but her bottom lip is caught between her teeth.

“We have a few names per Dr. Risman,” Fury says. “We know the head of the project calls himself Martin Sutter. Got two associates going by Zander Rice and Arkadiy Vasilyev. We have no record anywhere of any of them, so we’re assuming they’re aliases.”

“Rice doesn’t stay at the Niagara location full-time,” Gabriela says. “Sutter does. And Vasilyev...I’ve seen him. They call their hired muscle Reavers, and he’s...he’s like a one-man STRIKE team version of them. They call him Omega Red.” She looks over at Bucky like she really doesn’t want to. “And for a long time, I was convinced that he was you. That Hydra or someone had…”

“I understand you have some problem with a guy who looks like Barnes,” Fury cuts in, addressing T’Challa and Okoye; the rest of the Dora Milaje and Ororo had trailed behind them, scattered in defense-ready positions between the roof and the hallways.

“I knew that Omega Red had left the premises,” Gabriela says, looking away from Bucky, to both of their reliefs. “Dr. Risman wouldn’t have risked smuggling me out if he were still there.”

“Left the premises for Wakanda,” T’Challa snarls.

“What was it they stole from you?” Maria asks.

“You don’t need to know that,” Okoye says stiffly.

“If it’s a weapon they’re planning to use against our agents or on civilians, we do,” Steve says, only the threat of an exacerbated international incident keeping him from swearing.

“They took vibranium,” Peggy says, slightly more diplomatic in tone. “And...and a gemstone?”

“Both are worth a lot of money,” Sam offers. “They might need something to fund this little child trafficking ring they got goin’ on.”

“But they could get funding easier elsewhere, without, without regicide,” Bruce says, before glancing over at T’Challa; the prince’s glare is frigid, and Bruce respectfully averts his eyes. “Does the gemstone...does it give off any sort of radiation?”

T’Challa’s glance warms slightly, into chilly, and he tilts his head back, buying himself a moment.

“Something…” He sees Okoye glare poisonously at him, and almost stops, “something of that sort.”

“And what does it do?” Thor asks.

“We use it in ritual. To speak with our dead.”

“What would Transigen want that for?” Rhodey asks.

“Figure that out while you’re on a quinjet,” Fury says. “We’ve got the Niagara Falls location covered just in case, but we think they’d’ve shipped out as soon as they noticed Agent Lopez was gone. We need half of you in the Badlands and the other half in Russia.”

“In Russia, as if that doesn’t narrow it down to seventeen million square kilometers,” Gabriela’s companion mutters.

“Siberia is the most likely candidate, geographically,” Maria says. “So that narrows it down to about fourteen million. And I assume that we can rule out any known Hydra or Leviathan bases.”

“If they have the vibranium with them,” T’Challa says, “we have...methods to detect it.”

“Long-range methods?”

T’Challa nods even as Okoye’s jaw sets.

“Do we know which location Omega Red was supposed to report to?” Wanda pipes up.

“The Russian one,” Gabriela says. “They have...a potential buyer, or something like that. Dr. Risman said they were going to take one of the children and the vibranium there.”

“What for?” Steve asks.

Gabriela’s face, until now carefully arranged to reflect the professionalism of a SHIELD agent, crumples, wet and red. “It was...Laura, they took Laura. She has, she can produce claws from her hands and feet. I think they’re going to...try to bond vibranium with her skeleton.”

“All right,” Steve says; the man behind Gabriela has balled his hands into fists, and his lips are drawn back in a snarl, and Steve knows that look like he knows that child’s powers, but he shoves curiosity roughly to the side for now. “Iron Man, War Machine, Hulk, Thor, Vision, I want you all in Siberia; you’re the best equipped to handle that weather. Bring Rice, Red, and whoever their buyer is in alive if you can. Whatever you can’t bring back yourselves, we’ll send a Recovery Team in to get after the fact. Extracting Laura takes precedence over everything else.”

“I’m officially requesting to go with them, Cap,” Natasha says, and paints a wry smile on her face when he looks at her. “I’m used to that weather, too. And if Red happens to remember me, I can possibly work that to our advantage.”

“Nat, you sure?” Clint asks, low, and Natasha nods.

“I will be going to Siberia as well,” T’Challa says. “I am taking Ororo, Ayo, and Aneka with me. General.” Okoye does her best to smooth her face out as he turns to address her. “Take the rest of the Dora Milaje and go with them to these Badlands.”

“Your Highness?”

“We are engaged in a larger conspiracy than we originally thought. It may be larger still. I will need all the information on Omega Red and the operation he is part of that can be acquired.”

Okoye’s gaze is piercing even as she nods, reading more sentiment in his expression than he’ll verbally admit to in front of strangers. “Understood.”

“Uh...if you guys would rather avoid legal trouble, we oughtta put you in as 72’s,” Rhodey says. “Anyone asks, we just won’t mention the whole…” he points up, circling the air with his finger, “rooftop thing.”

“72s?” T’Challa prompts.

“72-hour Emergency Recruit,” Rhodey elaborates, walking forward and holding a palm up; a small rectangle presses down and retracts, revealing a fingerprint scanner. “A skip-the-line sorta thing. So no one’ll give you guys any shit after the fact, for operating on foreign soil.”

Okoye’s face makes it abundantly clear how she feels about handing her fingerprints over, but she does so, after T’Challa provides his and beckons for her to do likewise.

“We’ll get the rest of them on the way up to the roof,” Rhodey says, bringing his hand down.

“Agent Lopez,” Steve says, turning back towards Gabriela, “what powers do these other children have?”

“They’re all being medicated to suppress their abilities,” Gabriela says, narrowing her eyes. “And they are babies, besides.”

“Just in case, Agent,” Steve says, trying to soften his tone. “We consider these kids to be hostages, but we have to know what we’d be dealing with, if...”

Her gaze, with obvious difficulty, tries to even itself out. “My…the two boys I gave, gave birth to...Julio is a geokinetic, and Tomas is a pyrogenetic. There’s another boy, Jonah; he’s a telekinetic. And the girls, there’s, there’s, there’s the twins, Jamaica and Erica, they’re phytokinetics. And Mira, she’s a pagogenetic.”

“Why so few?” Bruce asks, before he can think better of it.

“They’re the successful attempts at breeding mutants,” Gabriela says. “The others...the ones without active x-genes, or the ones with, with phenotypic mutations...they were...they were culled. In utero or...or after.”

Jesus,” Sam murmurs. “Well. Good to know the extent of what these people are willing to do.”

“Buck,” Steve says, his expression and voice as stone. “Your arm?”

“Fully operational,” Bucky says, raising and lowering it to demonstrate as much. “Even with the holes. I’m good to guard the jet. Or…”

There’s a look in his eye, a tenseness in his jaw, that Peggy remembers from an abandoned cabin somewhere in Schwarzwald. She can practically hear him saying Peggy, take Romy away from here. I don’t want her to see this.

She was sympathetic then. She’s just as sympathetic now.

“...anything else.”

Steve fights down the automatic twinge that tells him he should make Bucky stay put, rendering his “All right” in a tone that won’t betray him.

“We’ll be bringing these kids and Ms. Jackson back to PCM-NY?” Clint directs at the monitor.

“The MedEvac team will,” Fury says. “We’ll be sending them and a regular Recovery team to both locations.”

“Oughtn’t we to be gone by now?” Thor asks, Mjolnir shifting in his hand as his fingers twitch around it.

“Yeah, I think we ought,” Tony says, raising his hand and gesturing towards himself. “Autobots, transform and roll out.”

“...Autobots?” Okoye mouths to T’Challa. He gives the smallest of shrugs in return, and she sighs. “Americans.”

The monitor clicks off, and Fury glances up at Logan. “All I have to do is reactivate your—”

“Quinjet’s leaving for Siberia in ten minutes, Patch,” Logan says, claws unsheathing almost of their own accord. “Whoever’s not on it; I don’t need.”

“We appear to be going into this blind,” Okoye says, louder now. “We have no idea of the layout of these bases or how many people are staffing them. Or even where exactly they are located.”

“Not ideal, but we’ve done it before,” Steve says. “Transigen’s not gonna hunker down in an area that’s populated. We’ll go through Teddy Roosevelt park in Stealth Mode with heat-seeking, and if it’s not there we’ll sweep elsewhere.”

“Heat-seeking,” T’Challa says, not quite under his breath enough to avoid detection.

“Hey, if you got something better, feel free to share with the class,” Tony says.

T’Challa pauses, almost pursing his lips, purposely ignoring the warning look his General gives him.

Okoye turns her head with a scowl, as if bracing for a car accident she can’t prevent.

Chapter Text

5/27/17; En route to North Dakota

It takes almost three hours to get from the island to the Badlands, which they try not to get impatient with. It at least gives the Avengers, supervised by a woman who had identified herself as N’Diliswa, time to marvel over the table that T’Challa had directed a few members of the Dora Milaje to transfer from their aircraft to the Avengers’. A black, gravel-like substance rises up from the tabletop, shaping itself into a moving photograph of the changing landscape beneath them; Bucky is gobsmacked for several minutes over the little representation of a car that he had plucked from the scene when they pass over Hawaii, solid as you please in his fingertips. A wave of Peggy’s finger over the hood of the car had revealed small models of the inhabitants, right down to the cat housed in a carrier in the middle backseat.

“I can see why you’d scoff at heat-seeking,” Steve offers to Okoye.

She makes a noise in return that could be either derisive or amused, or both.

“Any way we can acquire one of these?” Sam says, plucking a bird out of the rendered sky and perching it on his finger; he notices N’Diliswa watching him, and raises the bird up, blowing on it. It doesn’t take flight—he half expected it would—but disintegrates back into the landscape.

She half-holds back a giggle anyway. “Perhaps you should invest in at least a long-sleeved shirt to wear into battle first.”

“I don’t know, it wouldn’t take long to whip one up for them,” Shuri murmurs, listening but no longer talking over Remote Access, as Sam clutches his chest like N’Diliswa has wounded him.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Qaqamba, one of the Dora who had been left to guard the royal family in Birin Zana, hisses back.

“Okoye?” Steve asks, before quickly amending. “General?”

Okoye acknowledges him with the slightest, sharpest tilt of her head.

“I’m...not familiar with your team’s style of combat.”

The wry smile she gives makes it clear that she’s pleased about that fact. “I am more familiar with yours, I think.”

It sounds like a critique, but Steve sets it aside. “So aside from stabbing and shielding, what else can your spears—”

“Are you planning to intersperse your team with mine?” Okoye interrupts.

Steve frowns a deliberate amount. “I won’t know exactly what we’re doing until we see what the layout of this base looks like.”

“Then it is too early to discuss weapons and strategy.”

“Well I don’t know about that,” Wanda pipes up, her tone careful even as it rankles to see a family member so dismissed. “We should compare our capabilities,” she continues, stepping close to Steve, spine straight. “To see which ones of us are, are complimentary.”

“Wan.” She flicks her gaze over to Clint, seated in the cabin, who makes a clicking noise with his tongue and a cutting gesture across his throat. While Wanda carries on a silent argument with Clint, she misses Steve locking eyes with Okoye, and then inclining his head.

“No matter what, Wanda, I’ll be counting on you to shield those hostages,” Steve says, putting his hand on Wanda’s shoulder and drawing her around so she faces him. “If anything happens with those kids and their powers, you’ll be the only one who could contain them.”

Wanda lifts her chin, nodding shortly, but Steve doesn’t miss the cloud that passes over her eyes, and he squeezes her shoulder.

“You and Vision haven’t been doing all this work with the Professor for nothing, have you?”

Wand ducks her head a little, and then shakes it. When she looks up again, her expression is thoughtful. “Speaking of. We know that man, the one who was standing behind Agent Lopez.”

“Oh, yeah?”

She nods. “He lives at the Institute. I haven’t spoken to him at all, but I’ve seen him once or twice. His name is Logan; I...actually don’t know his last name.”

“Did he look familiar to you guys, too?” Bucky aims at Steve and Peggy. “‘Cause he did to me, so I figure you have to know him.”

“He looked like Agent Howlett,” Peggy says. “Kay Howlett. D’you remember her at all, darling? She trained Steve when they were on tour, and she stayed at HQ with us for a few months, until…”

“She’s the one who, who took Romy to Sweden,” Steve says.

“She had a thing for Steve.”

“No she did not, Peggy.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, or maybe more accurately, croaks; the humor isn’t completely lost on him, but it’s not enough to soak in. “Yeah, I...thought that might be it.”

“That guy could be a grandson or something,” Clint offers.

“Do you know what ability he has?” Peggy asks Wanda.

“The same as that Laura girl,” Wanda says. “I saw him spear an apple on his claws once. Right in front of a, um, a prospective student’s family. I don’t think they left their kid at the Institute.”

“That sounds like something Kay would do,” Steve snorts. “She had those claws, as well.”

“Definitely a grandson, then,” Clint says.

“It doesn’t necessarily work like that,” Sam interjects, shaking his head. N’Diliswa is watching him, looking intrigued, and he decides to speak further. “Even if a parent and child both have x-genes, they don’t have to have the same powers. I mean, they can, it’s certainly possible, but they can be different, too.”

“Yeah,” Bucky confirms. “That’s...everything I’ve read about it says that’s the case.”

“Don’t mutant abilities generally show up when the person is a teenager?” N’Diliswa asks, like a teacher testing her student's knowledge.

“They do,” Sam nods at her, and she smiles back. “So Transigen’s definitely made some enhancements to these kids.”

The model car crumbles abruptly under Bucky’s fingers, the gravelly substance raining back down onto the table.

“Darling.” Peggy sets her hand over his, and glances at her husband. “Steve? Other darling?”

Steve only just remembers to wave himself off from Okoye and Wanda before he goes to their sides. Sam carefully taps N’Diliswa’s hand with his pinky, and gestures with his head for her to follow him away as well.

“How hard are you gunning for us to bring these Transigen assholes in alive?” Bucky asks, voice low. “Because I'm either gonna stay with the jet, or it’s gonna be a bloodbath.”

Steve inhales, deep. His hand starts at Bucky’s wrist, and trails up to his bicep.

“Your speciality is long-range,” Steve makes himself say. “You should stay out of the middle of the fray, in any case.”

“This may be a larger operation than even Agent Lopez knows,” Peggy says, with notable listlessness. “I suppose we ought to take some of them alive, for questioning.” She clears her throat, making Bucky look at her, and when he does she draws a strand of hair away from his face. “Some.”

Bucky nods like it’s something he’s supposed to do, but can’t stop himself from grimacing, and their grips on him tighten.

Sam manages to catch N’Diliswa’s eye, and raises an eyebrow at her. She blinks slowly, in a way that tells him her team is well aware that Allied soldiers weren’t the only prisoners of war kept at Kreischberg.

“So Wakanda,” Sam says, loud enough to wall Team America off. “I hear it’s pretty cool.”

N’Diliswa rolls her eyes, but when she smirks at him it’s with good humor. “We are fond of it.”

“Do you always travel with the king? Prince? Uh...royal family?”

“If we are ordered to. We are the kingsguard, after all.”

“Wow. So you ladies have to be the, um, the elite, huh?”

N’Diliswa notices Okoye glaring daggers at her from the corner of her eye, and shrugs. “I suppose you’ll see.”

“I’m sure I will,” Sam says, grinning broadly at her before looking away, excusing her from Okoye’s scrutiny.

“FRIDAY, play Trouble Man,” Steve mutters at the roof of the jet, and as the music starts to fill the cabin Sam discreetly flips Steve off. Steve grins back at him, before he carefully pushes against Bucky’s arm, catching both his and Peggy’s attention, so he can excuse himself and cross the floor back to Okoye.

“General?”

“Mmm?”

“Could I have a word with you? Please.”

“You may.”

Okoye glances at the other Dora, flicking her gaze hard to the left, and they move out of her way as she strolls to the rear of the jet. Steve follows her, and then directs to tuck into the furthest corner.

“Look, I...” Steve drops his voice. “I know your team, just by reputation, and I trust that you know what you’re doing.”

“Thank you,” Okoye says, a tad crisply.

“I just want to make sure that you’re willing to work with us on this, all right? I’m not saying we have to be buddy-buddy or anything, but if we can’t coordinate—”

“I have been directed by my king to assist you, and I will,” Okoye says. “I simply see no reason to discuss plans until we have a foundation on which to build them.”

“General, if it’s all the same to you—”

“It isn’t.” Okoye glances sharply down—T’Challa will be getting an earful later—and equally harshly back up. “My apologies for the inconvenience, Captain, but there are things that you don’t need to know.”

“Aksot?”

“Yes, Steve?”

“D’you mind if I teach Arnie some Oneida?”

“...Why would you want to do that?”

“‘Cause people’re always listenin’ in on us talking and then they make fun of us for what we say. I don’t want ‘em to know what we’re sayin’ anymore.”

“Oh, Steve. Darling, I would really rather you didn’t. I think that would make it worse.”

“But—”

“Steve, when you have money in your pocket, do you let people know about it?”

“No...”

“And why is that?”

A sigh. A squirm. “Because when people know what you have, they’ll try to take it from you.”

“Good boy. You’ve been paying attention. For once.”

“Aksot!

“I understand, General.”

His brain points out that Okoye hasn’t much room to complain, considering Wakanda had put a spy in the Compound and the Tower. But saying that aloud wouldn’t change her stance in the slightest, and mid-mission isn’t the time for it, anyway.

Okoye glances him over, and whether she reads his thoughts or not, her shoulders do relax.

“Be assured, Captain Rogers. I will do nothing, and fail to do nothing, that could put your team or those hostages in danger.”

He gives her a wry half-smile. “Well I appreciate that.”

He thinks he sees, before she turns to head back into the belly of the jet, the barest hint of a smirk in response.

“As you should.”

5/27/17; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Steve’s plan to locate the safehouse proves prescient; the quinjet passes over what looks like a ranger’s tower and cabin in the middle of the park, and the table picks up a suspicious concentration of people and trucks surrounding it. N’Diliswa hovers both her hands over the image, freezing it as the quinjet passes over the compound.

“They put one of the children up in the tower,” she says, gesturing to a figure of a lone baby, a few hundred feet above the ground when the image is taken to scale. “I would assume it’s the geokinetic. Jul-...Julio, I believe the name was? They would probably want to keep him away from the ground.”

“The other five are in the cabin,” another Dora, M’Thobeli, says, gesturing to them. “We would think that Dr. Risman and Ms. Jackson are two of these people with them, but obviously we can’t be sure.”

“There’s probably not a ton of heavy artillery,” Steve says. “Not for a safehouse they just ran to in the past few hours. Their advantage is gonna be in using human shields. So we’ll have to distract them before we get close to the hostages.”

“The flashiest of you ought to draw their attention,” Okoye says. “While they’re so engaged, the Scarlet Witch can shield the women and children.”

Wanda glances at Steve, who purses his lips thoughtfully before he nods, and then speaks. “I’ll need a cover. If I’m concentrating on shielding them, I can’t be distracted.”

“Designated snipers right here,” Clint says, gesturing between himself and Bucky, who nods shortly. “We got your back, kid.”

“And Sam,” Steve cuts back in, “I’m gonna need you up top...there are only two people in the tower; I think you can dispose of them yourself.”

“You got it, Cap.”

“Peg, you and I can come in and cause the distraction here.” Steve hovers his hand over the third point in an imaginary triangle between it, the tower, and the cabin.

“I know just the thing,” Peggy says, with a tiny but nonetheless shit-eating smile.

“And Sam can add to the fracas once he’s secured Julio. General.” Okoye glances over at Steve. “Your team?”

“Sim’Thandile and Thembeka will accompany Hawkeye and Sergeant Barnes and be prepared to advance alongside Scarlet Witch if necessary.” The two women in question straighten up; Clint gives them an awkward little wave of his hand. “Khetiwe, Zimkitha, N’Diliswa, M'Thobeli, and myself will flank you and Agent Carter as the distraction.”

“All right. Clint, circle us around.”

He brings them to a stretch of land that’s shielded by buttes a couple hundred yards away from the base; the cloaking tech covering the jet’s noise but not yet the release of air as it lands. A line is secured for Sam to radio the Compound with their coordinates; a Recovery Team already headed in this direction sets a course for their coordinates, ETA twenty minutes.

Okoye motions for N’Diliswa, Khetiwe, M'Thobeli, and Zimkitha to follow her out of the hatch first, and they fan out, for Steve and Peggy to come out in the middle of. Wanda follows, and then the remaining Dora; Clint, Bucky, and Sam bringing up the rear. A last check of their comms, and they split off from each other for their respective points.

There isn’t much foliage to hide them as they approach, so they take advantage of what they have; rolling terrain to crawl across, bushes and rock outcroppings to hide behind. There’s a wave of a hill that end about thirty feet away from the encampment, a stretch of completely dry, flat land between them, and it’s at this crest that Steve’s group presses themselves against the dirt.

“Group B, status?” Steve whispers.

“In position,” Bucky replies a few seconds later.

“Sam?”

“Ready for take-off, Cap.”

“You'll know when.” Steve glances at his wife, smirking. “Here, kitty-kitty.”

Peggy grins back, ignoring the bewildered looks of the other women, before pressing her tongue against her right-sided second molar, shoving the capsule out of her gum, and biting down.

There’s not much that can steal rationality from a human mind quite like the low growl of a tigress. The sound doesn’t even serve as a proper warning before Peggy sprints across the landscape, neutralizing the nearest threat by ripping the hand as well as the gun off of him with her teeth. By the time any of his colleagues can even think to start firing their guns, Peggy’s already charged at them and pinned another man to the ground with a massive paw, her claws digging into his face. Before anyone can get in a shot Steve’s thrown the shield so it ricochets from one man to another to another, denting noses and skulls at each point until it sails back into his hand.

Okoye scrambles to her feet, instantly followed by the other four Dora, spreading further out, to where covered trucks and jeeps have been parked. Almost fully in tandem, the women drive their spears into the sides of the vehicles; the tips glow blue a half-second before each releases a pulse of electricity that pushes the cars up off the ground several inches and over onto their sides, pinning men who had been on the other side underneath them.

“Phambili!” Okoye cries out.

“Phambili!” the other three respond, in a rippling harmony that sounds almost otherworldly to whichever terrified men hear it, as they dig their spears into the ground and use them to vault over the low sides of the vehicles.

Sam can see through his goggles that the men in the tower are at the structure’s two in-facing windows, preparing to aid their comrades from above; he flies up to the single window on the other side of the building, pulls guns out of the metal straps on his chest, and makes short work of them.

“Kiddo’s hooked up to an IV,” Sam relays into his comm, trying to keep a stone face as he takes in what looks like a plastic box, holding a now-screaming child who can’t be much older than two years old. “Gonna be hard to move…”

“I’ll get him when we’re done here,” Wanda mutters as she draws herself up on her hands and knees. Group B had stationed themselves behind a similar wave of land, with more bush cover and a rock outcropping for Clint to take advantage of, to the rear of the cabin.

Clint releases an arrow, piercing the spine of a Reaver who had backed up rather than advanced when the tigress appeared, and with that obstacle cleared Wanda darts forward, her hands already glowing.

Through the cabin window Bucky can see a man aiming a gun at labcoat-clad woman in the cabin. The man doesn’t even hear the glass shatter before he takes a sniper’s bullet to the temple.

Wanda does hear a woman scream as the man aiming at her crumples in a brained, bloody heap, and the IV pole clanging to the floor when he hits it on the way down, and the child who had been attached to it shrieking when the needle rips out of his hand. So do Thembeka and Sim’Thandile, and the two Dora dash forward in parallel lines: Sim’Thandile reaching under the flaps of her overdress to retrieve a throwing knife of three blades; Thembeka grabbing hold of the arrow sticking out of the back of Clint’s victim and ripping it out. As Wanda’s magic cuts a hole in the back wall of the cabin large enough for her to run through, Sim’Thandile’s knife buries itself in the back of some unfortunate’s neck, and a long, thin compartment opens up on the length of Thembeka’s spear, releasing an already taut string for her to place the arrow against and draw back.

“Aw come on,” Clint moans as Thembeka lets an arrow fly into the shoulder of someone taking aim at Steve. “That’s my thing.”

The screaming in the cabin is unintelligible when Wanda steps inside, her magic already flowing from her hands like ropes that wrap around the gun aimed at them, and constrict until it cracks in half. She whips around at the smell of cloth burning, her power smacking the gunman into the wall hard enough to knock him out as she does so, and lays a red band across the hands of the baby whose IV had been torn out, stilling them, stemming the blood flow, and extinguishing the flames that had begun to spark out of his fingertips.

“I can reattach it,” the woman Bucky had saved—Wanda guesses this must be Deborah Risman—yells over the noise, wide-eyed and panting. “The IV, I can—”

Bucky fires at someone coming around the side of the cabin, and the woman beside Deborah—Julie Jackson, Wanda realizes—shrieks almost as loudly as the gunshot.

“Do it! Quickly!” Wanda yelps at Deborah, opening up the palm that had disarmed the gunman, her power spreading out to coat the walls.

The door facing into the encampment rips open, and someone trying to flee inside instead bounces off the wall of transluscent red covering the doorway. Julie and Deborah both scream as Steve’s shield follows suite immediately afterward, launching into the neck of an approaching Reaver.

“Stop testing it!” Wanda yells into the melee, uselessly she thinks at first, until N’Diliswa slides in front of the door, slams it shut, and stabs a man running at her full tilt.

N’Diliswa doesn’t jump when someone behind her chokes on the pain from bullet that’s now lodged in the side of his ribcage, but she does glance up at Sam in the Tower long enough to see him salute at her. Beneath him, Peggy sprints after a pair of men trying to flee and cuts them off, slicing furious red lines across their heads when she bats them between her front paws like a kitten with a toy. When they fall she steps on them, paws to chest, and bellows in their faces loud enough for one of them to black out.

She’s the one flinching when she hears a bang, a screech, and then the crunch of metal, but she quickly realizes it’s just a vehicle falling over into the earth after two arrows to the front left tire, and a single sniper’s bullet to the driver, have stopped its escape.

Steve jumps atop the newly felled truck and doesn’t even bother to smash the passenger side window with the shield, choosing instead his foot. The driver is dead, if the blood pooling between his head and the broken window is any indication, but the passenger is only dazed, making it easy for Steve to refrain from grabbing the man by the neck, but not be especially gentle when he grabs his arm instead.

So ungentle, in fact, that the man’s metal bicep crunches under Steve’s grip.

It’s not Omega Red. The metal arm is on the wrong side, the hand peeking out from under the man’s sleeve looks more skeletal than could conceivably pass as a copy of Bucky’s, and the man himself is a blond, with features as sharp and oily as Steve imagines his personality must be. He bites down his annoyance as he drags the man out of the broken window, reminding himself that had this been Omega Red, a broken arm would mean an impromptu gas attack.

“We appear green from where I’m standing, Cap,” Steve hears Sam announce over the man’s strangled noises.

“Green from here,” Clint supplies.

“...Green,” Okoye says, figuring that it must mean the same as mhlophe.

Steve drags his captive to the same circle in the middle of the compound that Peggy is pulling one of her own; the other is being walked at spearpoint by Khetiwe. All three are herded, or thrown, into a small group of other survivors huddled together on the ground, encircled by Okoye, M’Thobeli, N’Diliswa, and Zimkitha, all aiming their own spears. When the last Reaver is thrown into the pile Khetiwe takes Okoye’s place; the four Dora drive their spears into the ground, and a translucent blue cage springs up around the captives, standing even taller than the block Okoye had created at the Isle.

“Well,” Okoye says, watching Peggy trot over to Steve’s side, “that is an interesting tactic.”

“The Pretty Kitty Protocol has its advantages,” Steve says; Peggy rubs the side of her face and body against his leg, smearing blood on his pants, and he reaches down to scratch her cheek. Peggy squints her eyes contentedly shut, and Steve thinks he sees Okoye bite a smile back.

“Wan?” Clint says into his comm, as he and Bucky pick their way down their hill and into the encampment. “Cabin all green?”

Deborah had reattached the IV several seconds ago, but she only now draws her hands away from the baby’s, when Wanda directs her to with a flick of her eyes.

“Cabin all green,” Wanda reports.

“Great. You got any trash in there; it’s time to take it out.”

Wanda’s magic peels off the walls and recedes into her hands, only to be sent back out again immediately: her left hand to push the door open, her right to wrap like a lasso around the ankle of the man she had felled, drag him across the floor, lift him in the air once he’s cleared the threshold, and drop him into the cage.

“Three points!” Clint pumps his fist in the air.

Peggy rubs her face against Steve again and then starts to walk off, towards the cabin; Steve glances at Okoye, who nods and turns her eyes back on the group of prisoners, and then he follows his wife. She goes to the corner where Clint and Bucky are coming around, taking the chance to sidle up alongside Bucky and allow him to pet her while Steve goes to the door of the cabin.

“Is anyone injured?” Steve asks, coming into the cabin inhabitants’ view slowly; all fice children are still shrieking, so he has to raise his voice. “We’ve got a medical evacuation team on the way, it should only be a couple minutes…”

They all look well-taken-care-of, at least; Steve supposes that multiple kidnappings aren’t a sustainable business practice, so Transigen has kept their assets healthy. That doesn’t stop the woman he surmises as being Julie Jackson from looking like she’s on the verge of collapse, her upper body held still by the wall she’s pressed against, but her knees visibly shaking.

“Here, Ms. Jackson?” He steps forward, offering his non-bloodied hand to her slowly. “Would you like to sit down? Do you need help?”

Her mouth is shaking as hard as her legs, but she manages to choke, “Outside. Outside, please.”

Deborah puts her hand on Julie’s elbow, helping her forward into taking Steve’s hand. Steve watches Julie avert her eyes from the row of children taking up the middle of the room, turning her head fully away from them once she’s able to do so, but he keeps the bad feeling in his gut and off his face as he helps her pick her way over the threshold.

Julie screams, ear-splitting, as soon as she’s standing on the dirt, and Steve whips around; Peggy’s already moved around to the other side of the cabin, heading towards the plane while she waits to transform back into a human, and no one in the cage is even moving to escape, which leaves…

“Ms. Jackson. Julie. Julie.” Her fingers are digging into Steve’s arm, hard enough to hurt even him. “Julie, it’s all right. This is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. It’s not Omega Red.”

“Look, he’s got drawings on him,” Clint butts in, grabbing Bucky’s metal arm and carefully drawing it up, into the artificial light shining down from the tower. “See?” Clint points at the gold stripe wrapped around Bucky’s ring finger. “Red’s not married, right? Well, a given degree of married, in any case. And there’s Cap’s shield, and...well, this was the Howling Commandos logo, and this one’s from his, like, great-great-niece...”

Julie tries to nod; it comes out as a convulsive jerk of her head, and her jaw is trembling hard enough that her teeth audibly clack together.

“I’ll go inside the cabin,” Bucky says, keeping his face straight and his tone light. “So she doesn’t have to...”

“Please,” Julie breathes, high and tremulous, her deep red face wet with sweat and pouring tears. “Please, I can’t...I can’t—”

Clint cuts in front of Bucky, carefully taking Julie’s arm and guiding her so she faces away from Bucky, and the Reavers in the cage as well. Bucky aims a weak smile at Steve—it’s been awhile since anyone who wasn’t a terrorist looked at him with such naked fear; it was a slap in the face, but nothing debilitating—and slips sideways behind Clint, into the cabin.

Wanda’s moved the man he shot, so he only has to step over the trail of blood and some pieces of brain that have been left on the floor. Deborah startles when she sees him, but she only needs to press her hand to her heart and breathe deeply before her nerves start to calm. She’s the one he saved—he imagines, correctly, that the Reaver had figured out Deborah was the snitch—and that, as much as a desire to reassure, makes him smile at her. Steve’s sworn to him over and over that Bucky signed up all those years ago to protect people; victories in that respect haven’t happened often enough for him to not make at least a tiny effort in appreciating them.

His gaze sweeps lower, down the curve of her arm to where her hands are resting on the side of the...he supposes it’s an incubator of sorts. At least Transigen has been seeing to these kids’ physical needs, at least they have a shot at living past this...

“Wanda," Bucky says loudly, before he lets his mind take that path too far, "can you...can you calm them down?”

Wanda parts her lips, then pauses. The mood-alteration Hydra had made her practice had never resulted in anyone sustaining permanent brain damage, but… “I can if it’s one at a time. Their brains are so...they’re delicate, when they’re this little. I have to be careful.”

Bucky nods.

“I’ll start with this one,” Wanda says, stepping closer to the pyrogenetic child. “He was...he’s fine, but he got a little hurt, when…”

She doesn’t want to tell Bucky how exactly, and luckily she doesn’t have to; Bucky only nods again and moves further out of her way.

“His name?” Wanda directs at Deborah. “Agent Lopez said they have names, but I don’t remember which…”

“That’s Tomás,” Deborah says, after she swallows. “And Jonah, Jonah’s next to him. And the others ar—”

“Jamaica and Erica,” Bucky says, distant, as he looks at the remaining three children. “And. And Mira.”

Transigen had, in their haste to leave Niagara, stuffed all of the children into containers of roughly the same size despite the differences in their ages. Tomás and Jonah look to both be around eighteen months old, and almost fill their own boxes out completely; the twins are probably a year old, maybe a little younger, and look a little more suited to the size of their environment, at least. Bucky has to turn away from Mira the instant he gets a good look at her; she can’t be any more than two weeks old, and she would look ridiculous in that comparatively huge container if the sight of it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

He glances up when Steve steps back into the building, asking Deborah if she wants to sit outside as well. She shakes her head, mumbling “No,” and Steve looks to Wanda; she’s concentrating on Tomás, providing him with an illusion of chickens taking a dirt bath as she works to settle his nerves. Despite the other children still wailing, his own tears have reduced to sniffles, and one of his hands reaches out to try to touch the imaginary birds.

“Us plebes gotta do it the old-fashioned way, I guess,” Steve murmurs, and Bucky manages a laugh.

“They’re all right to pick up,” Deborah mumbles, shifting over so she stands by Jonah’s incubator; her voice goes even quieter as she hauls the boy into her arms. “They should probably have the human, human contact right now...”

Mira’s IV is thankfully the only thing she’s attached to—rather thoroughly; her entire hand is practically mummified in medical tape, as are the other childrens’—so Bucky can reach in and lift her out of containment without issue. She squirms harshly away from the touch of his left hand—he doesn’t take it personally; Sofia hadn’t liked it either, until she started teething and found that a chilled titanium finger was her preferred method of pain relief—so he hastily tucks her into his right arm, making sure she has the protection of her clothes wherever he has to touch her with his metal fingers.

“That one's Erica,” he hears Deborah say, and he looks up to see one of the still-sobbing twins reaching out with both hands for Steve. “She’s...the needier one out of the two.”

For a split second Bucky thinks Steve won’t pick Erica up, since it had taken ages for Steve to be okay with holding Sofia, but Steve immediately pulls off both gloves and drops them, so he can oblige her with clean hands. Jamaica reaches up now, too, but her hands are searching for the edge of their box, so she can pull herself up to her feet. Steve transfers Erica to one arm, so he can reach down with the other; Jamaica doesn’t strain to be picked up, but she allows him to put his hand on the back of her head and stroke her hair with his thumb.

“They’re, they’re easy-going,” Bucky stammers; already Mira’s squirming has mitigated, and Erica is whimpering into Steve’s shoulder more than outright wailing anymore.

“They’re used to having lots of different people…handle them,” Deborah says. “Transigen wants them to be comfortable with, with strangers.”

Buyers goes unspoken but is heard loud and clear nonetheless. There’s a sharp noise from overhead, followed by another; the MedEvac and Recovery planes.

“I should go help Sam,” Wanda says, glancing out the window. “Help him get that last baby out of the Tower…”

“I got him,” Deborah says, transferring Jonah to one arm and stepping forward, so she can take Tomás with the other. “You go...you go get Julio.”

Wanda backs away slowly, so Tomas doesn’t lose the illusion all at once. He cries when she disappears nonetheless, and Deborah can’t think to do anything but take the two babies as close to the door as their IVs will allow, so he, and now Jonah, can watch his new friend.

“Everyone all right?” Peggy’s voice floats into the building from the hole Wanda had cut into the back of the building, and her head follows soon after.

“That was quick,” Steve says.

“Not a lot of potion to be stored in a false tooth,” Peggy mutters, pulling the sleeve of her (“aptly-named,” Tony had said once, earning himself a smack) catsuit to make it lay nicer. “I was lucky I made it back to the plane in time. Is everyone…well hello there, baby girl.”

Jamaica had turned her head upon hearing Peggy’s voice, and without her sister in the box with her, she has enough room to toddle to the other side and investigate the newcomer. Peggy quickly swipes her tongue around her lips, making sure she had wiped all the blood off, before she approaches in turn.

“All right for me to pick you up?” she asks Jamaica, and the room in general.

“Just don’t pull out the IV,” Debra says.

“Of course.” Peggy offers her hands, and then puts them on Jamaica’s sides; when the girl doesn’t protest, Peggy hoists her up, balancing the little one on her hip. “There we go. This is nice, isn’t it?" Peggy quickly runs a hand over Jamaica's hair, smoothing it out. "Much nicer than all that noise just now. So sorry about that, by the way. Did we frighten you, love?”

Jamaica noises something back that isn’t quite love but sounds a lot like it, and Peggy’s eyes go a little giddily wide.

“I think she likes you, Peg,” Steve says, with a half-smile.

“Look at yours,” Peggy returns with a nod, and indeed Erica appears quite mollified now, with one arm stretched across Steve’s collar so a small fist rests on the front of his other shoulder.

“Are we three for three?” Steve asks, turning his head towards Bucky. “Buck?”

Bucky doesn’t answer; he hardly registers the question. Something about Mira has captured his attention, and his eyes have narrowed as his brain tries to cut through a sudden fog in order to figure out, exactly, what.

“Buck?” Steve sidles sideways, and taps Bucky’s arm; Bucky blinks, and looks up. “All right there?”

“I...yeah, me and Miss Mira here, we’re...we're doin’ okay.”

“Cap?” a new voice enters the room, and they turn to see Georgia Jenkins leaning into the room. “Hey there. We should get these kids on the plane asap.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, not expecting it to come out as weakly as it does; he clears his throat. “How do you want us to work this?”

“Hmm…” Georga’s gaze sweeps over the room. “Well, we can ditch those plexiglass abominations; let Recovery take ‘em as evidence. There are proper medical cribs in the jet. I’ll have my guys lay down a track from the ramp so we can slide the IV poles over and up smoothly.” She quirks a smile. “If y’all are attached to those babies, I’ll letcha do the honors.”

“We’d...we’d appreciate that, I think; thank you, Georgia,” Peggy says. She doesn’t notice that she’s patting Jamaica’s back until she’s done speaking.

Georgia nods, and disappears back outside. Deborah turns inward in a way that allows Tomás, and now Jonah as well, to still watch Wanda, who’s torn away one of the walls of the Tower and enveloped Julio and his equipment in red so she can lower him to the ground. Sam descends at a slightly faster rate just behind him, so if anything goes wrong he can catch it.

“Gabby told you there’s..." Deborah starts, before thinking better of it. "I guess that’s where the rest of the Avengers are.”

“They’re on their way to Russia now," Peggy says. "Dr. Risman, do you have any idea where exactly they might be?”

“Oh..." Deborah shifts on her feet, adjusting Jonah and Tomás. "God, I'm not sure. Dr. Rice was the one coordinating this, and he didn't like me much. It started with a P...Pol-...I’m sorry, I don’t...Pol-, Polyarny? Something like that…”

“That narrows it down significantly,” Natasha says, from her spot by the radio in T’Challa’s airship. “It could be a couple places, but I’m pretty sure I know which one they're at.”

“Can you tell us anything else?" Steve asks. "Anything you can think of."

Okoye appears in the doorway and taps Deborah's arm. Once she has the woman's attention, she unceremoniously plucks Jonah out of the Deborah's arms and settles the boy on her hip.

"Dr. Risman, what can you tell us about the leadership of Transigen?" Okoye asks, her face straight and professional even as she bounces Jonah, who’s threatening to start crying again. "Do Sutter and Rice answer to anybody?"

Deborah nods. "I know someone is...someone is commissioning this. I have no idea who it is," she tacks on, feeling everyone in the room gear up to ask. "Sutter stayed tight-lipped about it, I'm guessing at the buyer's behest."

"There'll probably be something about it somewhere in their files," Okoye says. "At the Niagara location or here. Or perhaps someone in that group out there knows something."

"The Recovery team's gonna take the Reavers as well as their resources back to the Compound," Steve says. "And they'll be questioned on the way over."

“Where are you taking us?” Deborah asks, before Okoye can speak. "Me and the, the children."

“To the enhanced hospital in New York,” Steve says. “They’ll check you guys out; make sure there’s nothing wrong.”

“And what’ll happen to...to the kids, after that?”

That, we, we don’t know. It’s probably too early to figure that out. I don’t know who they..." He almost says belong to before he thinks better of it. "Who would have custody of them.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Bucky says, his flesh hand turned, so he can circle his thumb over Mira's clothed feet. “We’ll, we'll make sure they get someplace safe.”

"Captain," Okoye says, drawing Steve's gaze to her. "There are three planes out there, aside from our own. I assume one is for the prisoners, and another for the resources? And the third, of course, for the hostages." Steve nods, and Okoye sets her jaw. "Then I would go with the imprisonment vehicle, to be there when the Reavers are questioned. I plan to take at least Zimkitha and M'Thobeli with me."

"Understood. I'm gonna send Wanda along as well." Getting a coherent narrative from mind-reading is one of Wanda's weaker suits, even with the practice Xavier's been affording her, but the small flashes of images and emotions she's able to catch during interrogation have nonetheless proven helpful in the past.

"As for the resource vehicle..."

"As long as you don't mind the fact that Clint's going, too."

Okoye nods, and almost smiles; she had planned to send Thembeka and Sim'Thandile, most likely for the same eagle-eyed—or hawk-eyed, she supposes—reasons.

"The rest of us'll follow with the quinjet to the Compound," Steve continues. "Once the Siberia team is finished where they are, they'll meet us there, as well. Hopefully at that point, you and yours'll be able to wrap things up and go home."

Okoye hums an ambiguous note, but she nods. Jonah pulls on the shoulder strap of her chest armor, finally getting her full attention, and unlike anyone else so far Jonah is afforded an unabashed, nose-wrinkling grin.

"TempTarmac's all set up," Georgia says, appearing in the doorway once more. "Recovery is asking that we move the kids quick, so they can start packing up the rest of this base, so..."

"Right." Steve gestures towards Deborah and Okoye. "Here, since you're closest to the door..."

"An astute observation, Captain," Okoye says, and he almost snaps at her until he sees that her grin, though mitigated, is still on her face.

Georgia comes forward, helping Deborah and Okoye finagle the wheeled IV poles so the tubes don't tangle or catch. Peggy carefully inches her way through the narrow space between Jamaica and Jonah's containers, so she and Jamaica are on the same side of the room as Steve, and once the first set of babies and their carriers makes it out the door, she speaks.

"I don't want to put her down."

She laughs through her words, but there's a hollow ring to it. Steve transfers Erica to his left arm, so his right can slide behind Peggy's back and squeeze her waist.

"I don't really want to, either," Bucky says, with even less of an attempt to sound facetious, and for want of a third arm Steve can only shift himself, and Peggy and the twins along with him, towards Bucky and Mira.

"If we all go with them on the MedEvac plane that only leaves Sam in the quinjet with the last two Dora," Steve mutters. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that. Even if they don't go poking around, Sam might be too busy making eyes with N'Diliswa to fly the plane."

That does get a few genuine chuckles from his partners, and then they all take a somewhat deep breath at the same time, which gets another laugh.

"I'll go with Sam," Steve says, once they're done.

"You're sure, darling?" Peggy asks, tapping the side of her head against his shoulder. Jamaica squirms and twists, and before she can pull herself free of either Peggy's arms or her IV, Peggy sets her back down in her container.

"Yeah. I'm technically the leader of this outfit, which means I have to take the less fun jobs." Jamaica wanted freedom from Peggy's hold, but not from her attention; she reaches both hands up, fingers spread, and Peggy obliges her with dual high-fives, which seems to surprise her. "You two're better with kids than I am, anyway."

"Right, 'cause Erica looks so miserable right now," Bucky mutters; Mira has dozed off in his arms, and Erica looks about ready to do the same in Steve's. Steve can't find a proper counter-argument, so he makes a face.

Jamaica wants more high-fives, so she turns towards Steve; he half-crouches so he can give her one with his right hand. She sets her sights on Bucky next, and when he offers his metal hand, after the high-five, she grabs his fingers before he can pull away and begins inspecting them. The gold around his ring finger is especially fascinating to her, keeping her attention until Georgia comes back into the cabin.

"Time to go, Mom and Dads."

Peggy reaches down and plucks Jamaica up quickly, before she can protest too much over having her freedom rescinded so soon, but she takes a moment to kiss Steve's check once she straightens up, and to send the same feeling towards Bucky with her eyes.

"Soon," she says, under her breath, glancing back and forth between them. "Soon."

Chapter Text

Avengers + T'Challa and Dora on way to you. Too late for Badlands site. Get out asap

“Jesus fuck, he tells us now?

“What did I say? Did I not say? I said that we should wait until he was higher up the ladder to start the Hostel bullshit. This is a Hey Custer, stay where you are level of too late.”

“Christ, Volkov’s already cut her open. The hell are we supposed to do now? Shove the claws back in her hands?”

“Contact KM. Ask him what he wants us to do.”

“Yeah, ‘cause this operation of his has gone swimmingly so far.”

“Just fuckin’ do it!”

5/27/17; en route to Siberia

Natasha shifts on her heels away from the radio, turning inward to take in the rest of the airship’s inhabitants.

“I’d like to formally request a map of Russia.”

“You know, you don’t have to phrase it in that way,” T’Challa says, raising his eyebrows; nevertheless he waves his hand over the screen behind him, commanding “Russia.”

Natasha cocks a half-smile as she comes forward, scanning the map that shimmers into existence before her. “There’s more than one Polyarny, but Transigen’s most likely taken Laura here.” She points towards a spot near the northwestern tip of Siberia. “When the Soviet government started to fall apart, Leviathan moved their bases away from more highly populated areas.” She gestures towards the western half of Russia. “There was construction in Polyarny in the late 80s, which would have made it a smart enough spot to move into.”

“You weren’t there yourself?” Ayo asks.

Natasha almost-snorts. “No idea. The Comrades didn’t often tell us where exactly we were. Not that I’d definitely remember it now, even if I knew back then.” Ayo frowns at her, and Natasha taps the side of her head. “Don’t do drugs, kids. Or, rather, don’t get drugged multiple times.”

“There are...surely you have methods for memory recovery?” T’Challa says, frowning.

Natasha shrugs. “Pills.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing that doesn’t carry a lot of risk,” Bruce says. “Whether we’re talking surgical intervention or, or magic.” Dr. Strange had been consulted, but didn’t have anything in his repertoire for memory restoration; Wanda had offered to try, as had Vision, but her inexperience and the potential volatility of the Mind Stone had put the kibosh on that.

“And there aren’t any reputable healers on Asgard who are willing to attempt our methods on Midgardians,” Thor adds.

“Hm.” T’Challa’s frown deepens.

“Believe me, between Barnes and myself, we’ve done some exploring of the options,” Natasha says.

“Speaking of Barnes, I’ll be invoicing you for the repairs to his arm,” Tony says from halfway across the airship; under Aneka’s vigilant glare he’s been keeping as respectful a distance as he can from all the technological goodies on board, but that hasn’t stopped him from roaming the jet like a proverbial kid in a candy store. “You might owe CapCarter for the paint job, too.”

“It will be taken care of,” T’Challa says, affecting a laugh appropriate to Tony’s flippancy, but his mouth closes into a thoughtful line. “And I suppose I do owe you all an apology.”

“You could say you gave us a scare,” Rhodey deadpans.

“I am sorry for that,” T’Challa says, with the grace to look sheepish and somehow still regal. “And I’ll say as much to the other half of your team when we meet again. Barnes in particular.”

“Hey, you’re not the first to pull the Inigo Montoya act on him,” Tony says, coming back to the map of Russia. “Probably not gonna be the last, either. I’m sure he’ll forgive you. Hey, Storm?”

She raises an eyebrow.

“Damn, that’s your actual codename; it’s not even a cutesy one-off. Now that we know where we’re going, can you like...whoosh us there so we arrive quicker? Just kinda...push us along?” He makes the motion with this hands.

“I’m a weather witch, not a jet engine,” Storm says; she glances at T’Challa all the same, and he bobs his head to the side. “I’ll do the best I can.”

She raises her hand, curling her fingers; behind the airship a small wind tunnel forms, and everyone standing up stumbles as the ship shoots forward.

“I see you haven’t lost your touch, Goddess,” Aneka—one of the handful who had been sitting down—says, smirking.

“Goddess?” Thor repeats, glancing over at Storm. "I had my suspicions."

“It's just a nickname,” Storm says good-humoredly, resting her elbow on her knee. “I promise you, powers notwithstanding, I am of this earth.”

Thor tilts his head, looking thoughtful, but prepared to keep mum until Bruce notices.

“Something you wanna share with the class, Thor?”

“Oh, well.” He effects a bit of sheepishness. “There’s a theory on Asgard that your mutants are descendants of Asgardians that...well.”

Intermarried, you mean?” Rhodey provides diplomatically.

“Yes, that. I’m not so sure I believe that in particular, but plenty of other races have visited Earth over the centuries. Not just the Jotunn and Chitauri, but the Vanir, the Kree, the Skrull...”

“And us without a stitch of make-up on,” Tony mutters, miming fluffing a shoulder-length haircut.

“Thor, I would ask that you not spread that theory,” Storm says, her smile gone. “It is hard enough getting the general populace to accept mutants as fully-fledged members of society. If people think we are descended from aliens...”

“I’m sorry," Thor says, his brow knitting. "I did not mean to cause you distress.”

“You didn’t,” Storm says, waving her free hand. “Just...please keep your own counsel.”

“Thor, you are a white, blond, muscly Norse god with full control over your abilities, and you usually go back home when your job here is done,” Rhodey says, as gently as a sentence like that can be said, when Thor's confusion has obviously not mitigated. “Most mutants are just Joe Teenager who trip over a crack in the sidewalk and blow up a city block. That scares people.”

“And then when organizations like Transigen purposely set out to weaponize us...” Storm says. “It doesn’t do us any favors.”

Thor nods, in the way of one who understands intellectually but not viscerally.

“So this Laura girl and the other kids...you think Xavier is going to take them in, when all this is settled?” Bruce asks.

“Most likely,” Storm says. “For a little while, at least. Until we find out who actually has custody.”

“If your Director Fury doesn’t get ideas,” Ayo says slowly.

“He’s a lot of things,” Tony says. “We can only hope that Mutant Baby Harvester isn’t one of them.”

“Speaking of Fury,” Natasha says, touching her ear. "Getting hailed on a SHIELD frequency."

Ayo strides towards Natasha and waves a bangled wrist near her head. "Identify yourself."

"SHIELD Reserve Agent Logan Howlett," goes the response. "Look me up, I'm the one with the claws."

Ayo glances at Storm, who inhales and shifts in her seat. "And your objective?"

"Got about a dozen SHIELD agents with me ready to help you storm the fort. Need to know which Polyarny you're headed to."

"69 degrees North, 178 degrees East," Natasha reports, quickly glancing at the map.

"Thanks. ETA about an hour.”

“Same."

“If we get there first, we’ll save some bad guys for ya.”

T’Challa touches Storm’s wrist as Logan ends communication, and when she looks up, he raises his hands and signs to her in their own language. “I’m sorry I involved you. I was...” he searches for the right word, before settling on “...thoughtless.”

Storm smiles weakly at him. She had figured that taking this mission would spell the end of her tenure at the Xavier Institute; she'd been able to send warnings to Evan and her sister and brother-in-law, to be ready to leave immediately, after she’d first boarded the ship.

“Such is the life," Storm signs back. Mafungwashe—Storm could at least get used to thinking of her sister as having that name again, rather than Vivian—had said that earlier. War Dogs, like Dora Milaje, do as the monarchy says, and when. The suddenness of their departure would not be as remarkable as the length of the stay they had managed, at least in the eyes of their fellow Wakandans.

“No,” T’Challa signs back, and she’s surprised to see something like distress on his face. “You are not my...” His hands still, and then wring, before he continues. “Your lives are not mine to derail on a whim.”

“Getting justice for the king’s death is not a whim,” Storm signs, setting her face. “I knew I would have to leave there one day.” She pauses, and tries to soften her jaw, and her eyes. “It will be good to go home for a little while. So long as you send me out again in,” she taps her chin, “no more than two months.”

T’Challa cracks a grin. “We shall see,” he takes her hand, spelling slowly with a finger across her palm, “my Nakia.”

“Reunited and it feels so good?” Tony asks.

"A Wakandan matter, and none of your concern," T'Challa replies stiffly, dropping Storm’s hand.

Tony puts his hands up and takes a half-step back. "Whatever you say, your Highness. Though I gotta say, coming to rescue this baby with us doesn't sound like a Wakandan matter..."

Ayo drags the tip of her spear across the floor so that the screeching noise it makes fills up the cabin, and Bruce makes his eyes wide and his smile sardonic in Tony's direction, so Tony turns away to admire some piece of Wakandan technology some more, and the jet lapses into thoughtful quiet.

*

if they comin all this way, lets give em a little surprise

5/27/17; Polyarny, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Siberia

The construction in Polyarny had moved most of the residents out of their original homes in the northern half of the town. The original structures are where Natasha supposes that Leviathan had moved into, and it's probably still the center of operations even now that Transigen has taken over, so it's there that T'Challa directs Aneka to steer the airship, several miles above the old barracks.

"Tony and I have scanning equipment in our suits," Rhodey says, as T'Challa puts his helmet on. "We can head out first, get a feel for the layout, maybe find the operating theat—”

A chute opens up directly beneath T'Challa's feet, and the prince disappears.

"...o-...kay..."

"Damn, at least Cap usually gives us a warning," Tony mutters.

Storm rolls her eyes and hustles towards the back of the ship, waving her bracelet over a sensor that opens the hatch. She steps aside, gesturing for the others to move ahead of her; after exchanging a glance Tony and Rhodey go first, followed by Vision, carrying Natasha. Thor dashes out next, locking eyes with Storm before he steps off the ramp, and she catches him in a wind tunnel, lowering him quickly and safely to a rooftop below her.

"Dr. Banner?" she asks, after she's done the same for Ayo and Aneka.

He shakes his head. "I'm the reserve." And, when she tilts her head, "Believe me, if I jump, I'll land safely."

It only takes a second for her to catch his meaning, and she nods at him before turning back around.

On the ground Vision delicately cuts a hole into the ground floor of a two-story building, ushering Natasha inside; Ayo and Aneka had landed near her, and he aims a beam of power several feet behind him, fending off would-be attackers as they also rush inside. Natasha's already jumped a man, stabbing her gauntlets into both sides of his neck; before the two other Reavers with him can respond the Dora launch their spears with such ferocity that one man immediately falls to the floor, and the other is pinned to the wall behind him.

Inside the airship, a beeping noise in Bruce's ear signals the incoming SHIELD jet, and he responds that, "We got Avengers and Wakandans on the ground, and in the air; Transigen's engaged. The whole town's potentially manned; there's any number of hostiles."

"Roger; parachuting in," Logan responds, before looking back at the dozen or so SHIELD agents that had made it onto the jet with him. "You stay here unless we call you in," he says, striding towards the back of the jet and pulling a parachute off its hook. "Save your energy for cleaning up when we're done."

He lands seconds before a lightning storm starts brewing; enough Reavers have converged for Thor to raise Mjolnir. As Logan kicks in a door and dashes inside a building for cover, claws already unsheathed, he thinks he sees the storm increase in volume, and when he stabs a man into a wall beside a window, he’s almost momentarily blinded by the amount of light that flashes outside.

He has no time to consider his suspicions; a bullet pierces his shoulder and damn does it sting. A tiny part of him is glad that adamantium carries the risk of heavy metal poisoning, as three rows of it slash the shooter’s face.

Nonetheless, he hopes against hope that vibranium doesn’t pose the same danger.

*

and let's get rid of the competition while we at it

*

“Does anyone else find this place to be suspiciously quiet?" Thor asks.

“You too?” Natasha says, glancing at Ayo and Aneka. Neither woman answers Natasha verbally, but their silence is concordant. Taking the Badlands site so easily had been one thing. Polyarny is presumably an actual base, not merely a safehouse; it ought to be crawling with Reavers, but it's been several minutes since the initial onslaught, and the buildings they’ve explored are mostly bereft of opposing forces.

"Any luck finding the operating theatre?" Bruce asks over comms.

“That’s a negative, Mean Green Thing,” Tony responds.

“I don’t...one second.” The others hear several clanking noises, and a few crunching, before Rhodey speaks up again. “That was only two guys, neither of them of the Dr. Frankenstein persuasion.”

“Do you think they knew we were coming?” Vision asks. “Someone at the North Dakota location could have contacted them during the attack, and the higher-ups might have evacuated in the meantime...”

“It’s possible.”

“It seems likely, at this point,” Thor puts in. “And we can probably safely assume that they’ve taken the child with them.”

Logan slices through a door and, when there’s no Reaver to impale, rips open the back of the chair, instead.

“Fu~ck...” Tony breathes. “All right. Guess we can continue to sweep the area; they mighta left something more interesting than their B-Team behind.”

Aneka yelps suddenly, and both Natasha and Ayo whip around to see the tip of her spear impaled on Omega's Red mask, puncturing a hole in his protection from the gas he had been preparing to release upon them.

Ayo releases a fierce, distracting cry, and Natasha thinks she sees Aneka release a soundwave from the tip of her spear, blasting both her and Red away from each other. Ayo rushes forward, her own spear sending out a beam of blinding light before it stabs him in the shoulder. Red shrieks, but the strike has given away Ayo's position and he lashes out, catching her in the face with a metal fist and forcing her back.

Natasha hears Aneka saying something into her comm as she rushes forward, kneefirst into Red's stomach and sending him stumbling back; from the other side Ayo raises the blunt end of her spear and slams it into the back of his head, making him trip forward again, doubled over. Natasha uses the leverage to dig the spikes of her gauntlets into either side of his neck, but the electric charge they release only seems to serve to piss him off, and he pushed forward with a snarl, crashing them both to the floor with his hands around her neck.

She grabs his wrists with her hands and draws her legs up, digging one foot into the wound on his shoulder and the other into his throat; his mouth and nose are covered but his eyes are visible, and they're the same clouded-blue as the ones she stared into five years ago, before they disappeared over the cliff. She'd laugh if she didn’t need her breath to talk.

"You could at least recognize me."

Something in her voice, choked and rasping as it is, must do the trick; she feels his fingers twitch and then flex, relaxing like they want to let her go. She sees Bucky's face, bewildered as it was in Shenandoah three years ago, flash across Red's now, and then it's suddenly gone and her airway is free again.

T'Challa had been close by when Aneka called to him that Omega Red was here, linked tracking devices in their clothes calling him to burst through an already weak and rotting wall and kick Red away from Natasha. Ayo and Aneka flank Red on either side as T'Challa continues the onslaught, throwing down their spears so a shield springs up, fencing Red in from behind. Natasha rolls back onto her shoulders and kicks herself upright, stepping forward; just as quickly Ayo cuts across the floor and catches her by the arm.

"I'm not going to protect Red," Natasha mutters.

"That man murdered our people," Ayo hisses back, tightening her grip. "The prince will be the one to do him in."

Natasha opens her mouth to respond, but instead they all hear the sound of shots of energy being fired, and the buildings around them starting to collapse.

*

“What the fuck!” Rhodey yelps, drawing himself up and through the roof of the building he’s been exploring. “Hulk, why didn’t you catch that?”

“There’s nothing to catch!” Bruce yelps. “Not on radar, or—”

Rhodey, and Tony as he comes up, see what Bruce means immediately. There’s nothing to indicate who and how many are firing on them until the firing starts; no visual, and FRIDAY is babbling in both Tony and Rhodey’s ears that she can’t override their attackers’ stealth capabilities.

“Fuck, guys, we’re blind—” Tony starts.

Thor thrusts Mjolnir towards the sky again, brewing another storm cloud; Storm sees, and susses, and raises her own hand. The air fills with lightning, streaking downwards haphazardly, stopping short when it strikes an invisible airship.

"I knew we kept you around for a reason, Bodhi," Tony says, aiming a repulsor blast at a newly found target.

Vision looks up and grits his teeth. It’s only the Mind Stone’s destructive energy that he’s used in battle before, and even then only on inanimate objects, if Ultron is to be discounted; touching minds is something he’s left to Wanda, when she has the time to direct her power properly. But even with the lightning rods Storm and Thor are affecting, there’s no telling how many more attacking ships are coming. And if these are enemy agents, intent on harming children and killing those who would protect them...

It’s hard at first; he can feel and hear the panicked thoughts of his teammates and the Wakandans, closer to him than the attackers, first. He closes his eyes, trying to remember the control and precision that he and Wanda have been learning from the Professor and practicing with each other; he lets his focus drift upwards, searching for the unfamiliar.

An antagonistic impulse smacks the edge of his consciousness, and he opens his eyes, releasing a beam of energy from his forehead. A visual of a ship flickers into existence as the beam collides with it, what’s left of it smoking as it falls to the ground; Vision allows himself no time to think of it as he tries again.

“Dr. Banner, from the nor—!”

Something smashes into the plane from the side, knocking Bruce to the floor; thankfully Storm is able to move out of the way before being struck herself.

"Sorry. I didn't detect it quickly enough..."

"It's all right," Bruce mutters; more than being tossed, it had felt more like he had merely tripped over his own feet. "Whatever Wakandan shocks are made out of, it's a hell of a thing..." The plane is rammed into one more time; Storm turns to try to aim another bolt of lighting at it, and Bruce almost-sighs. "Storm! Move out of the way!"

Storm blinks, but floats backwards just in time for the Hulk to jump on the ramp leading outside, landing on just the right angle, spinning the plane around. She catches what he's doing and drops low, sending out a hopeful bolt of lighting.

It lands true, so he knows where to jump, and the airship flickers in and out of visibility as, under the weight of the Hulk, it plummets to the ground in a diagonal freefall.

*

Logan doesn’t have any psychic powers, but he can smell fear, so he knows that there are people trapped under one of the collapsed buildings nearby even as Vision is engaged with the attacking airships.

No building in this area is taller than two stories and the scents are above the surface, so Logan feels reasonably sure that they aren’t underground. Adamantium slices through old wood and weaker metal easily, breaking it up into chunks that he can toss aside. The material is moving underneath him, like the trapped people are trying to push their way out, and he retracts his claws a few inches, to guard against impaling anyone on accident.

He moves a plank of wood over and suddenly the haphazard pile underneath it flies up into his face, knocking him backwards. He cuts a piece of metal in half when it's mid-air, before it hits his head, clearing his field of vision to see who's unearthed themselves.

"Bar—" He stops himself just in time. Fury had told him they were dealing with an imposter, but fuck if it isn't a nearly perfect duplicate; he even smells like Barnes.

Logan only just manages to get back on his feet when Omega Red rushes him, shoving a hand in Logan's face, and Logan howls as a shrieking noise fills his ears and, now that Omega Red is upwind and unconfined, a horrible, familiar garlic-scented vapor condenses over his eyes and nose and mouth.

He lashes out, the adamantium slicing through Red's arm. The titanium has already had its top layer shredded by T'Challa's onslaught; the prince had, even in his rage, tried to not penetrate too deeply and risk puncturing the cylinders held inside the arm. But Logan's strike is blind, unrestrained; the bicep is ripped open and left hanging, the inner architecture sparking. Two of the five cylinders tumble out of the gap, thankfully not breaking when they hit the ground; the other four remain intact, but the mechanisms of release are dented into impracticability.

Logan strikes out again with his other arm, his eyes still closed and burning; the tips of the claws cut through tac gear to the skin underneath, but he can tell that Red is pulling away. He blows, hard, out of his nose, trying to clear the way; when the not-Barnes scent, already faint, only grows less substantial he realizes that Red is fleeing.

He forces his eyes open; his healing factor is already easing the pain and allowing for vision, even though the view is still blurry. The urge to chase after Red is immediately overridden by the thought of the people still buried under the rubble, and who probably don't have a mutation that will spare them the effects of mustard gas.

He can tell as he stumbles closer that the people are trying to push their way up now that Red has cleared a way; someone completely garbed in black is pulling a redhead to her feet, and several feet away two other people are pushing up against the sheets of wood laying atop them, holding what look like poles horizontally above their bodies.

He coughs out "Gas!" and, though he can't see it properly, T'Challa yanks his helmet off his head and fits it over Natasha's. "We need evac; Red set off mustard gas..."

"I'm on my way," Tony answers immediately; Vision hasn't given another attacking plane's position away for a handful of seconds, so he thinks he’s safe. "FRIDAY, lock in on Natasha."

"I'm gonna help Tony," Rhodey chimes in. “Vision, Thor, I don’t know but you might wanna get the hell out of here.”

“Right,” Visions answers, floating rapidly upwards; Thor drops Mjolnir to his side and begins spinning it.

Ayo kicks the last piece of rubble out of the way and turns on her side, pressing her spear against the torn-up material underneath her and tapping a button on the shaft as Aneka presses close to her side. She flips, dragging her spear horizontally through the air in an arch that covers both her and Aneka; the shield forms mid-air and then settles over them like a blanket. There's a harsh squealing sound and a rush of air, as the newly re-purposed shield filters out any toxins, leaving the two women with only fresh air.

FRIDAY has Tony to them in seconds; he scoops T'Challa and Natasha off the ground first and almost heads to Logan, but his arms are full and T'Challa, still clinging to Natasha, is coughing too violently to reach out and take Logan's hand. A beeping noise in his ear tells Tony that Rhodey is right behind him, and he gratefully moves out of the way; a quick glance back and a quicker logical mind tell him that the two Dora are safe under their shield for now, and he shoots forward, away from the highest concentration of gas.

"I'm no longer sensing any unfriendly presences," Vision says, and as if to punctuate his statement they hear the Hulk roar from at least a half mile away. The other enemy ships have gone the way of the original Sokovia: so much dust in the wind, a victim of the Mind Stone's power.

He'd apologized, mentally at least. He had wanted to leave survivors, but he couldn't let pieces of falling aircraft risk the lives of those on the ground.

"Great," Tony says, abruptly changing course to directly upwards. "Storm, move on out the way, if you don't mind. We've got gas exposure vics incoming."

Storm’s already moved out of the way, to allow for Thor’s ascent into the plane, and it’s all she can do to keep her watch, in case Vision is wrong and more attackers are coming, as Iron Man and then War Machine pass her on their way back into the airship with their passengers. Rhodey helps Logan stumble into a seat and then turns around immediately, to get Ayo and Aneka; Tony takes a little more time, having to disentangle Natasha from T'Challa before he can seat them.

"There," T'Challa rasps, before nearly doubling over in another coughing fit. "There, that cabinet." He manages to point to the correct cupboard. "Black basket." He gulps down a harsh breath. "Get it. Now."

Tony trips on his way there, his helmet drawing away so he can look with his eyes; he finds the basket, and when he pulls it out and removes the lid he sees that inside are small, mauve-colored pills. He brings the basket back to T'Challa, who grabs at it until he can make good purchase, and then shoves two of the pills into his mouth and swallows roughly.

"Give one to her," T'Challa says, his voice clearing as the medicine begins to work, and some of the panic leaves him.

"Love the new look," Tony manages to quip as he turns to Natasha. "Shame I gotta ruin it so quick."

Natasha raises a surprisingly calm middle finger as Tony pulls T'Challa's helmet off her head and offers her one of the pills.

“Give one to him as well, to be safe,” T’Challa says, pointing to Thor. “And three to that man,” he continues, gesturing towards Logan.

Thor accepts the medicine without issue, but Logan mutters “Save it," and bats Tony away when he approaches, and Tony gapes to see that the swelling that could—should—have been horrifying to see on Logan's face and throat is receding right before his eye. "Don't need it."

"Take it," T'Challa says; Tony's in the way, and he can't see how Logan is healing. "Please. At least one."

"First rule of getting rich: don't turn down free help," Tony says, shoving the basket towards Logan again.

"Ain't lookin' to get rich, Tin Can," Logan grumbles, but he shoves his hand into the basket and takes a pill anyway.

Rhodey stumbles into the jet again, a Dora tucked under each arm, and sets the women down; Tony turns towards them, and both of them stride forward calmly to take the medication. Ayo slams her hand against a button on the wall as she does so, and immediately a panel unfolds from the wall, covering the cockpit, as a shower of warm, good-smelling water rains down from the ceiling of the cabin.

“...Useful,” Thor says, glancing up at first, and then nodding. “Now. What happened down there?"

"His Highness broke the barrier," Ayo says, her expression deliberately professional.

"T'Ch...the prince had Red trapped against their shield," Natasha mutters, through the marvel of feeling the burning sensation on her skin and in her chest easing away. "But we heard the building starting to collapse, and..."

"He pulled the shield out of the floor and tossed it to us, to protect ourselves," Aneka cuts in. "And then he grabbed this one," she gestures widely to Natasha, "to cover her as the building fell in."

"I went to dig 'em out, and Red was the first to make it out of the rubble," Logan rounds off. "Shot some mustard gas in my face and ran off, and the rest is history."

"Jesus," Rhodey says; his helmet has pulled away, and he wipes the sweat off his face. "Thank you." He rounds on T'Challa. "Thank you, your Highness. For protecting Natasha like that."

"I owe you," Natasha says quietly.

"Which is a promulgation of eternal gratitude if there ever was one, coming from her," Tony says.

"Don't worry about it," T'Challa says, straightening up; he looks at the two Dora as if daring them to chastise him for any of what he did. Their expressions don't change, but they do look away from him.

"And this stuff." Tony raises the basket. "You seriously have mustard gas antidote? In pill form?"

"You don't?" Hell, Okoye had gotten hit in the face with chlorine gas when she fought Red, and the rest of the Dora had been exposed as well; recovery from that had required a day or so of bedrest in addition to the medication, which is why the attack on the Resort had been delayed.

"Is everyone all right?" Storm asks, gliding inside the jet before Tony can respond.

"We are now," T'Challa says, smiling weakly at her.

"I figured that was you, Storm," Logan says, as she follows T'Challa's direction to turn towards him. "Save it," he says, waving his hand dismissively, when she opens her mouth. "Fury already knows about you."

"He...he does?" Storm stammers, and T'Challa, Ayo, and Aneka all stiffen.

"Yeah, well. Goddesses are pretty useful to call upon, so long as they're not hostile. And I ain’t seen anything to indicate that you're here to do more'n teach kids to control their powers and fight killer robots, so..."

Storm raises her hand, and splashes Logan's face with some of the water raining in the cabin, both a little harder and exactly as hard as she means to. This revelation raises a new set of problems, but if Fury’s known about her all along, she might get to stay at the Xavier Institute after all.

Tony meanwhile has been struck with the thought that Fury might already also know about whoever's infiltrated the Compound and the Tower, as well. There's gonna be a long conversation that Fury will hopefully not enjoy when they get back.

"There's a Recovery plane not too far from here," Logan says, after wiping at his face. "Much as your wonder-drug is, in fact, a wonder-drug, I wouldn't want to unduly expose 'em to it.” He gestures upwards. "‘Specially without the benefit of an on-board shower."

"Iron Man and I can continue sweeping for any intel that got left behind," Rhodey says; he's of the same mind as Tony, and they can discuss the matter privately when they're on the ground. "Though I think it's safe to say that Laura is no longer here, if she was to begin with. Any leadership probably absconded along with her, as well."

"There might be another base that Risman and Lopez didn't know about," Natasha pipes up. "Risman doesn't seem like she was in the inner circle. We can safely assume that any of her intel could be faulty."

"And I do find it weird that they'd leave Red behind if they knew we were coming," Rhodey says. "Any personnel."

"Well, if there's another base, we'll probably find out about it soon enough," Tony says. "Between the three sites we know about, there'll be something. And we got six out of seven kids rescued. I give this little mission of ours a C+. B- if we're being graded on a curve."

"Your mission, maybe," Aneka mutters.

"Aneka," T'Challa says, ducking his head and raising his eyes meaningfully at her, and her hardset mouth twitches before she nods.

"Excuse me," Vision's voice pops up over comms; he had taken over Ororo’s post outside the plane upon seeing her distress, allowing her to go inside and check on her countrymen. "So sorry to interrupt, but I think we ought to fetch the Hulk before he changes back into Dr. Banner. I know that I...didn't leave anyone for us to question, but he only downed that one airship, not...obliterated it. There might be survivors."

"All right, Viz," Rhodey says. "Come inside and decontaminate yourself, just in case. I’ll sweep what's left of the grounds; Tony and the Recovery team’ll head over to Banner.” Bruce had triggered the change himself, so Hulk ought to be sentient enough to reason with. “The rest of us'll...sit tight, I guess. Continue decontamination and keep watch, until we know we can head back to the Compound.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Vision says, almost cheerily.

Storm moves closer to Logan as Tony and Rhodey leave the jet, taking a seat beside him. She lets her fingertips brush over the back of his fist, tapping and then resting.

"'Ro.” Storm knows him well enough to not flinch when his claws appear. “There anything on this jet I can shred?”

*

Bruce, when asked, usually describes himself as a car, with both Dr. Banner and the Hulk with one hand on the wheel. One or the other's grip grows more tenuous depending on the circumstances, though getting the Hulk to give anything up is like pulling teeth from a bilgesnipe (which Thor assures them is a Herculean task).

Case in point, as of right this moment, the Banner mind is coming back even as the Hulk body remains.

So the Hulk is able to see that the crash has, indeed, killed the men who were piloting this jet, and there's just enough Banner in him to cringe at that.

There's just enough Banner in him to realize, as he just barely restrains himself from flinging himself around the cabin as the last vestiges of rage play their swan songs, in favor of looking around like any curious person and investigating Avenger, that the airship he jumped onto looks a whole hell of a lot like the one he jumped out of, as well.

Chapter Text

From the transcript of the interview with Gabriela Lopez

GL: It was...it was October of 2014, October 14th. I was off-grid. I was using the Rebeca Rictor identity, which is probably why they took me; they didn’t know I was SHIELD. And it was just [laughs] it was, it was embarrassing. They spiked my drink. That’s what did it. I woke up somewhere. I think I was still in Mexico at the time, but it wasn’t for long. They wanted to get a move on.

From the transcript of the interview with Deborah Risman

DR: They brought me on when...they weren't exactly straight with me. I was told...you know, that this was a long-term study for in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, specifically for mutant offspring. They weren't...I guess they weren't exactly lying.

And you figured out that this place was sketchy when...?

DR: I...felt a little suspicious not very far into the project, because of Julie and Gabby. Men would come into the examination room with them every time. I was told the men were their husbands, which would make sense, but...there was always an uncomfortable feeling. They would get stiff when the men got too close; their eyes would...their eyes would look frightened. And the men wouldn't leave the room, ever. They never had to use the bathroom, or...there was just this...unnatural nearness. But there was another woman, Sarah Kinney; she never had an escort, she was, she said she was single. And there was Linda, too; Linda did have a man come in with her, but she acted much more natural with him. They said they weren't married, just good friends, and, and you would believe them, based on how they were together. So between Sarah and Linda, I just thought...I figured that maybe Julie and Gabriela are just shy around strangers. That they had reserved personalities. Some people are just...a little shy, you know?

Do you know the name of the men who would come in with them?

DR: I can't promise you they're the real names.

From the transcript of the interview with Julie Jackson

JJ: Linda was my friend. We were...I mean, I don’t have anyone else, y’know? She was like my sister. She’d come over a lot after her husband went overseas. Oh my God, does he know?

We’ll be informing the family members as soon as we can.

JJ: Oh God, he’ll be...oh God. They were so in love. Oh my God. He’ll be so devastated.

Can you tell us what happened to Linda, ma’am? From the beginning.

JJ: God. God. I don’t want to.

I understand, ma’am. But we need to get the information as soon as possible. It can help us—

JJ: No, no, I know. I know. I know. I...oh my God. It was, she came over to spend the night with me one night, I don’t remember when, and...the men...they came in the window. There were guns. And, and I think one of them had a knife. A few of them. They told us to; Linda told me to do as they said, so I did. We went with them.

DR: I started being unable to ignore it when...well I mean, between the four of them, how many miscarriages can you expect? And for all four of them to go right back to trying, immediately? It was...at that point it was too much for me to believe.

Why didn't you go to the authorities?

DR: I was...I was afraid. To have kidnapped four women, to be running this kind of operation...I overthought it, but I was thinking about how much money, how many people were at their disposal. What if Transigen had people in the police? What if they were watching me at home, to make sure I didn't go to the cops? What if they somehow convinced the cops nothing was going on, and then...

Retaliated.

DR: Yeah. Against me, or any of the women, or the kids. And...I think a part of me was still hoping I was wrong. That I was just being paranoid.

GL: They kept me and Julie together, and Sarah and Linda together, in a different cell. I think it was a Handmaid's Tale sort of reasoning, that we would keep each other in line. And look after each other while we were pregnant. They treated us rather...it was better than you’d expect. We ate well, they gave us all our meds, saw to all our needs. They weren't...they spoke to us nicely, most of the time. It would have been nice, if there weren't guns and cameras everywhere. And if...

DR: I didn't...participate, but I was told. I guess they figured I'd notice the physical, um, evidence. That some of the pregnancies were terminated. I figured for myself that it was the nonmutants who got the axe, since I'd been told these parents were specifically trying for mutant children. They told me it was for...well, for whatever reason. Congenital abnormalities or, or whatever.

GL: They didn't tell Julie and I anything directly, of course, but...well, it happens. People are indiscreet. Prisoners eavesdrop. We heard that Sarah died, giving birth to Laura. And we heard about when Linda...

JJ: I don't get it. I don't get it. I mean, I mean, they forced her to have the kid, right? And then when it comes out all...like one of those obvious mutants, the freakshow mutants, and they kill it...I don't get it. I don't know why she'd...[unintelligible]

GL: I think Gideon being, being killed, and Linda dying...I think that's what made Deborah start to turn more...in a more proactive manner.

DR: At one point I just started speaking to them like I knew what was going on. And that I was on board with it. I couldn't...it was too much. But I knew I had to be smart about it. If I was going to do something, I needed Transigen to not...not suspect me.

GL: They started to trust her. They would leave me alone with her more and more. Julie as well. And she'd tell me...Deborah would pass on news to me. She worked it out; she knew where the cameras were, and she could stand outside of their view for just a moment, enough to...she'd write things down on a piece of paper, or on her hand, and hold it up to me. She'd fingerspell to me sometimes, too. It took me a bit to actually trust her, myself...I thought at first that she was trying to trap me. So it took a few months. I only trusted her enough to tell her I was a SHIELD agent in the past...maybe two weeks or so. It's hard for me to remember timeframes, without...they weren't very interested in giving us sunlight. God, was it really almost three years?

DR: Like I told Cap-Captain America, Dr. Rice never really liked me, but he didn't...he was a surgeon and I was an OB; we didn't cross paths enough for him to mistrust me. So I heard that he was taking Laura to Siberia, and I heard...guys would talk about Alkali, the Weapon X program. You know, when they...

We're familiar, Dr. Risman.

DR: Right. So I figured they were gonna do to Laura what they did to, to Wolverine. That's what I told Gabby.

And did you know anything about Omega Red's excursion into Wakanda?

DR: No. Only that they were sending Vasilyev, Omega Red, that they were sending him off-site. And Gabby and I thought that it was now or never, to stage her escape.

JJ: They freaked out when Gabby disappeared. They packed us all up in, in an hour. I had no idea where we were going. And then they put me and Deborah in that cabin, with those, those...

DR: Did you find Laura? Is she okay?

GL: Can I see my sons?

JJ: Please, can I just...can I please go home?

5/28/17 (early morning); PCM-NY

"Fury? Nick Fury? N. Fury-ating? I got a bone to pick with you."

Fury's getting old, Tony thinks; the man had actually been dozing in one of the empty waiting rooms of the hospital, and is now blinking his good eye open. Though "lulling approachers into false sense of security" can't be ruled out as a reason for his appearance.

"How can I be of service, Mr. Stark?"

“So are you also a Wakandan spy, or are they just, like, your fetish or something?”

“Mind enlightening me as to what the hell you’re talking about, Stark?”

“Oh don’t bullshit me, Fury. I know you know about Storm.”

“I did, and I was not about to doom the continental US by trying to arrest a woman who can control the damn weather.”

“Which, all right, I can get that, and thank you, as an aside, but letting normies in the Compound? In the Tower?”

“If there’s a spy in the Tower that’s on your HR department. As far as spies in the Compound, I’m not aware of any.”

“Well. I’ve...I’ve made you aware, haven’t I.”

“Indeed you have. Would you be able to give me the names of these spies?”

Tony opens his mouth, breathing in deeply, and raises a finger. “No.” Fury gives him a deliberately blank look that Tony attempts to not wilt under. “So, uh...our plan? ‘Cause T’Challa knows I know, but he doesn’t know you know I know. Or that you know at all. Yet.”

“All right. Let’s keep it that way for right now.”

“Uh..." Tony's mouth hangs open for a second. "What?”

“Wakanda is currently undergoing a regime change. I would hate to come off as an antagonistic force during this delicate time in their history.”

Tony works his jaw. “In other words, you can let a few spies slide if it means getting Wakanda as an ally.”

“I always did think of you as the smart one.”

“That ‘s ridiculous; everyone knows I’m the cute one.”

“Either way you’re bright enough to keep in mind that Storm is not the only threat Wakanda poses.”

“Oh believe me, we know.”

“I imagine your first encounter was none too pleasant.”

“It’s more than that. The ships that attacked us in Polyarny? At least one of them was Wakandan in origin. In build, at least.”

"Huh." Nick tilts his head back. “Well. It looks like some people aren’t afraid to be an antagonistic force at this time. Even from in-house.”

“I assume this doesn’t change your stance in the slightest.”

“On the contrary." He straightens up in his chair. "Wakanda has a lot to offer, even if there's unrest. As does SHIELD. His spies and his enemies are now bargaining chips. And I’d like to give the heir incumbent a few hours to decide what he wants to do with them.”

*

"Shuri? Are you still there?"

Shuri had, in fact, drifted off into a nap while waiting in her lab, which T'Challa finds out when she yawns loudly in his ear.

“Of course I am, brother,” Shuri says nonetheless. “Don't you know I have put my entire life on hold to be at your beckon call?"

T'Challa glances around the hallway. He had dismissed the Dora and Storm for a few hours, ostensibly to let them rest after the battle and being seen for the minor injuries they had sustained; now he only had to worry about any staff members of this hospital, or SHIELD, taking him by surprise.

Even more worrying to him, though, is that he had felt compelled to ask the women who had accompanied him to Siberia keep their knowledge of the attacking ship private from the rest of the Dora.

"Shuri, are you with anyone?"

"No,” Shuri yawns again, sitting up slowly. “No, I’m alone.”

"Completely?"

"...Sandi?" Shuri directs at her AI.

"Your laboratory is sealed off from all communication lines except the one you are currently on, your Highness," Sandile reports.

"Good job, Sandi. T'Challa, what's wrong?"

T'Challa glances around again, and drops his voice. "I need you to check the status of every Talon Fighter in our arsenal. All of them, including the ones docked at home. And tell me if any of them have been reported missing or out of commission. Only me. No one else.”

T'Challa can practically hear Shuri's brow knit. "All right, that'll be easy enough, but why the secrecy? What's wrong?"

"I don't fully know yet," T'Challa says. "And I don't want to say anything and bias you."

"How dare," Shuri says, shooting for some cleared badly-wanted levity. "I am a scientist. I am completely rational at all times."

"Well, I am not," T'Challa says, with a soft laugh. "And I would, completely irrationally, like to keep my thoughts with me for now."

Shuri sighs to let him know exactly how put-upon she wants him to think he is making her. "As you wish, my king."

This draws another laugh, much harsher, out of T'Challa. "I am not king yet, Shuri."

"Oh, well then screw you. Do your own research."

"You. You are just lucky I am not there, you little brat."

"The Black Mamba will not be threatened, T'Challa."

"The who?"

"What? I'm not a Dora, I'm not a Hatut, but you still have me doing your work for you, lazy. That entitles me to a code name."

"...You know what, Shuri, I'll accept that. Whatever helps you cope with the fact that I am in every way your superior." T'Challa flinches at the sheer volume of the raspberry Shuri blows in his ear, but he finally has a touch of sincereness to his laugh. "Thank you for your help, Black Mamba."

"Hmph."

The sound of footfall reaches T’Challa’s ears, and he mutters “Kufuneka ndihambe” and drops his wrist, ending communication before glancing towards the source of the noise.

“Ah. Captain Rogers.”

“Your Highness,” Steve replies, bobbing his head. He and Sam, along with the two remaining Dora Milaje, had brought the quinjet back to the Compound before being shuttled over to PCM-NY and splitting up; Steve had meant to go find Bucky and Peggy immediately, but had gotten intercepted by Tony, filled in on what had happened in Siberia, and begged to play nice with T'Challa.

He'd had no plan to do otherwise to begin with.

“Your husband and wife are in the Pediatrics wing with the rescued children, if you're looking for them.”

“I figured as much,” Steve says, not bothering to correct the phrasing. Briefly he thinks to ask if group marriage is legal in Wakanda, but equally quickly decides not to hurt himself by learning the answer, whichever it might be. “I...well I am looking for them, but I was looking for you, too.”

“Oh?”

“Fury wants to question the man in charge in about thirty minutes. I thought we all should be there. You, at least, out of your contingent, if not the whole company.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you. Okoye and Ororo should probably be here for that, as well.” Steve watches T'Challa press two of the beads on his bracelet; they glows faintly under his touch. A beat later they glow again, lavender instead of white. "They’ll be here momentarily." Steve nods. "How did you like working with the General, Captain?"

"She's, um...she’s a force to be reckoned with." T'Challa snorts, and Steve smiles sheepishly. "They all are. In the beginning, right when the fight started, there was...five of them staged a coordinated attack that I didn't hear them actually plan. I mean, I could have missed it, but..."

"No, that's...there was probably nothing spoken."

"Don't tell me it's an entire group of mind-readers."

"No, but you'd be forgiven for thinking so." A very young T'Challa, watching the Dora Milaje in action for the first time, had thought the same. "They are trained extensively to anticipate their leader's thoughts, for when orders or signs cannot be given."

"That's amazing."

"Well. Cohesion is paramount, wouldn't you say?"

Steve nods, looking thoughtful. "We struggled with that, in the beginning. When the Avengers were first forming. And even now, we don't have that...quasi-telepathy. But we do work much better as a unit, at least," he laughs. "And...well, you've seen us. Our skillset varies pretty widely. It probably behooves us to...work more independently."

T'Challa shrugs. "Different is not lesser."

He says so as if reciting a lesson that he means but that he's yet to fully internalize. Steve's not sure how to respond to it, so he breathes, and shifts on his feet, and says, "Speaking of my team."

"Mm?"

"I heard about what you did for Nat in Siberia. And I wanted to thank you." T'Challa shifts, and waves his hand dismissively. "No, it's...not many people would have done that." Steve remembers, rather distinctly, being exposed to gas as part of basic training at Camp Lehigh. The consequent panic attack had been the most difficult one to suppress in his life, up to that point at least.

"It really wasn't anything, Captain. I knew we had antidote on board. All I did was spare her some initial pain."

"Then let me thank you for that, at least." T'Challa inclines his head, gracious enough to accept what Steve clearly wants to give him. "I...my father got hit with mustard gas in the Great War. Apparently the pain was...it was pretty unbearable."

"I'm sorry," T'Challa says, inwardly cringing over his previous flippancy. "Did he...?"

"Ah, no. Well, not right then, in any case. But it did ruin his lungs, and...well it did kill him, actually. It just took several years. He died when I was ten."

"I'm sorry," T'Challa says again, a little softer this time. Before he died, T'Chaka had made mention of lifting the ban on sharing traditional medicine, and the Elders had been scandalized. Vibranium had already been known to the surrounding areas when Wakanda decided to isolate itself from the world; that was bad enough. Sharing anything more advanced than old-technology tools and trinkets was inviting trouble.

Had they had the antidote a century ago? Could Captain Rogers’ father have been spared?

"Oh," Steve says, bringing T'Challa's focus back to him. "I...obviously I haven't gotten the chance to say as much, but I'm sorry about your father. It's...I know how it feels."

“Even more strongly, if you were that young when he passed,” T’Challa says, and Steve shuffles a bit, unsure of what to say. “Though I admit...I do feel as though I am ten years old, at the moment.”

“I don’t think there’s any other way to feel, when it happens. Especially if...well, I took the whole I'm the man of the house now thing upon myself when I was a kid, but you’ve actually gotta do it. For a whole country. I can’t imagine.”

“Sikhulu,” Okoye calls, and both men turn to see her approaching. “You called for me?”

“Yes, General," T'Challa says, both relieved and saddened to see the conversation turn. "Their Director Fury is planning to question the leader of Transigen. We should be present.”

“Kifuneka sibe ngabaqhuba uphando,” Okoye mutters. “Ngokwethu.”

“Nayiphi na indlela ilungile, Okoye,” T’Challa says, and Okoye huffs. “Ororo is not with you?”

“She went to get her friend,” Okoye answers, clearly miffed by the fact. “She believes the missing child is connected to him,” she directs at Steve, “and so she wants him to witness the interrogation as well.”

“Ororo’s a good woman,” Steve says. “This is the third time she’s helped us out.”

“She is very thoughtful, yes,” T’Challa says, a little slowly, with a somewhat dreamy gaze that Steve recognizes from the mirror, when his thoughts drift to Peggy or Bucky. He barely suppresses a smile.

“I feel that we shouldn’t miss any more of the interrogation than we have to,” Okoye says briskly, but Steve is pretty sure he sees her own little smirk. “If they know where to go, then they can meet us there.”

“Third Floor Iso-Interrogation,” Steve supplies. “Do you know the way?”

“Take the elevator and follow the signs, I would suppose?” Okoye says, quirking an eyebrow. She does mean it to be good-humored, and Steve takes it as such.

“Sounds about right. You’ll let them know where it is, I guess? I’ll, uh, go pick up my spouses,” he glances at T’Challa with a somewhat limp smile, “and we’ll meet you there.”

*

The children had been commandeered by the nurses as soon as their plane touched down on the roof of the hospital—as they well might, Bucky and Peggy had begrudgingly conceded—leaving the red and black stripes of the World War Three flag to cool their heels in one of the waiting rooms. The Siberia team had reported only minor injuries; they'd startled when they heard about the gas attack, but settled again when news of the antidote followed, and sharing the wonder of such a drug existing had killed the time until the children started to be medically cleared, and brought into the playroom adjacent to the lobby.

The IVs are gone. "They were quicker for running away," the nurse explains, when Peggy inquires. "That same power-suppressing medication can be given orally, which is what we did, and it'll be good for at least 24 hours. But they would've wasted a lot of time trying to force six little ones to swallow the medicine, hence..." She gestures around at the spectre of the IVs, and then flicks her eyebrows with righteous schadenfreude. "Fat lot of good it did them, though."

"Is Mira...?" Bucky asks. "Can she...I know she's so much younger than the rest of them, but..."

"Oh, um..." the nurse looks thoughtful, and then smiles. "Well, y'know, infants should be held. They're still checking her out, but I'll ask if it's all right for her to come out here with the rest of them, when we're done."

"All right. Thanks. Thank you."

"Have you got attached?" Peggy says when the nurse leaves the room, more sympathetic than teasing from her spot laying on her stomach on the floor. She's not sure if the twins have enough object permanence yet to recall her from the Badlands and the plane ride, after the time spent getting checked out, but in any case there are very few actual toys in the playroom—super-powered children, and children of the super-powered, are both rare breeds, so this area of the hospital is not as well-stocked as it might be—and because of that she's become their favored attraction.

"Pot? Kettle?"

Jamaica and Erica are very interested in this whole walking thing that Julio and Jonah are doing; Jamaica especially. Erica seems content to put her hand on Peggy's shoulder or the top of her head and take a few steps here and there, preferring to observe the boys with her large brown eyes from a standstill; Jamaica wants to move, even though she has to cling to the low chairs lined up along the wall in order to do it. She’s even quite good at landing safely on her bottom when she overbalances or tires out every few steps.

She seems to get even better at it after Peggy squeals every time it happens. In fact, after the third time, she becomes devoted to entertaining Peggy in this way.

“You’ve got an admirer,” Bucky teases, watching from the corner of his eye, as he’s mostly occupied with observing Julio and Jonah building and immediately knocking down small towers of blocks from the corner of his eye, even though another nurse has been assigned to watch the children for any sudden signs of distress.

“Are you jealous of me or her?” Peggy asks, with a cheeky smile.

Mira, and Tomás, are brought out alongside food, since no one knows the last time the children were fed; the blood loss, however minor, must have taken a toll on Tomás, because he immediately starts to chow down when the food is made available. Julio and Jonah are calmer, waiting for the chopped melon, broccoli, and hardboiled eggs to be brought to them. As the nurses explain it, they want them to eat as light as possible at first, so Jamaica and Erica can look forward to being bottle-fed as Mira will be, once the formula is ready.

"And speaking of," the nurse from earlier says brightly, lifting Mira up higher against her chest and smiling at Bucky, "you wanted to see her?"

"You look good like that," Peggy says quietly, a moment after that nurse leaves to go get the girls' food, and the other nurse is occupied with supervising the boys. "I can appreciate a man who can hold a baby."

"She seems to like me all right," Bucky mumbles back, with the ten percent of him that's not distracted by the small weight that once again takes up residence in his arms. It's probably because he maneuvered to not touch her with the metal arm at all this time, but it's nice to pretend that it's some sort of fate that makes her snuggle her face into his chest.

Erica fists some of Peggy's sleeve in her hand as she dispassionately watches the boys tear into their food. Jamaica, clinging to one of the chairs nearby, stomps her feet, left then right, several times in rapid succession, and shrieks with delight.

"All right, Agent Lopez," someone says outside the door, and both Peggy and Bucky turn their heads to see a tech leading Gabriela into the playroom. "Here you are."

For a moment they're as frozen as Gabriela is; Peggy, after a beat, musters up the dignity she wants to afford the occasion to crawl back on her elbows and sit up. Gabriela doesn't appear to notice, but she does move when Peggy does, striding across the room to where the boys are, Tomás with his fingers in his mouth, Julio playing with the spoon they had provided with his meal.

They watch her hit the floor on her knees, not graceless but hard enough to hurt vicariously. Her whole torso shudders, pinpricked with sharp pain because maybe her ribs are contracting and piercing her lungs; it certainly feels like they are. She opens her mouth and the first thing that comes out is a hoarse squeak, followed by an inhale that sounds almost croupy and for a brief, irrational moment she's worried that she might get them sick (she gets to worry about that now, she thinks; she gets to know if her children are ill and to take care of them if they are, for the rest of her life). No one else in the room can see it, but tears cascade down her face with utter effortlessness, a serene counterpoint to her trembling jaw and mouth.

She wants to pull them into her arms and run out of the building, away from anyone who knows they exist, anyone who might see them as tools or liabilities or anything but treasures, of which the joy of holding in her hands she'd screamed for night after night for over two years. But she knows that as of now she’s just one more stranger to them, no more special than any of the handlers at Tranisgen or medical staff here at the hospital. The knowledge lodges, burning hot, in her throat, and only the hope that it’s not too late to take them home and make them into a family lets her breathe.

“¿Me recuerdan, mijos?” she asks, throat sticky and tremulous and aching, as Julio looks at her blankly and Tomás continues chewing, oblivious; her own mother spoke to her in Spanish at home and she always thought, years ago when she imagined her someday-babies, that she’d do the same. “Soy tu mami. Pueden venir a casa conmigo. Conmi—”

She chokes, words dissolving into squeaking sobs, and Bucky is still frozen in place watching her, but Peggy turns her face away, rubbing her wrist at her eyes. When her vision clears she sees her husband, washed-out and heavy, leaning against the doorframe, obviously forgetting what he was supposed to be doing mid-errand.

“Steve?”

He breaks out of the spell almost with a shiver, looking away from Gabriela and towards his partners. Bucky looks at him now, too, unaware that he’s squeezing Mira closer to his chest.

“Fury,” Steve says, and only then gathers up some more words. “He’s going to interrogate the leader of...” It feels cruel to say Transigen where Gabriela might hear him. “I thought we should be there.”

“Yes, why don’t we give Agent Lopez and her boys some privacy, hm?” the supervising nurse says, quiet and bright and firm, bustling towards Team America with a no-nonsense look on her face. “We’ll make sure all the girls eat properly, don’t you worry about that. If they’re not in bed by the time you get back, maybe you can help us tuck them in.”

Bucky catches himself pulling away from the nurse when she approaches, and musters up just enough abashedness to let her take Mira away from him. Peggy puts an arm around Erica and squeezes her quickly, waving and mumbling a “bye-bye” in Jamaica’s direction. The more outgoing twin stares at Peggy as she gets to her feet, and all three members of the triad think that her expression is breaching crestfallen by the time they shuffle over the threshold into the hall, a few feet away from the doorway and angled out of sight.

There's a beat, and then another, and then Steve opens his mouth to ask how the past few hours have been, but Peggy gets there first.

"I think we should ask Pepper."

Natasha can't even be considered as a surrogate, having the same lack of a uterus that plagues Peggy; Laura's history of miscarriages precludes her, as well. Cindy, on the other side of the country and averse to the sort of fame she'd be subjected to should it be discovered that she was carrying their baby, isn’t terribly viable either. Pepper, while loving motherhood, had vocally not enjoyed her pregnancy, and there's the chance that Tony would get too attached to any child Pepper carried to willingly sign away his parental rights, but...

"It can't hurt to ask, can it?" Peggy says, wiping an errant tear away from her eye with her thumb. "To at least...at least have the conversation."

Steve glances at Bucky, whose arms are folded across his chest almost like he's still holding the baby, and then back at Peggy again.

"Once this is over," he says, and Peggy's smile is watery but strong, and Bucky's arms relax just the slightest. "Once this is over, we'll...see what they think."

*

“So. Martin Sutter. The artist formerly known as Donald Pierce.”

“Businessman,” Donald returns, evenly. “Scientist, if you’re being generous, though most of the actual sciencing was carried out by my associates.”

“I see you’ve learned the fine art of bullshittin’ from your dad,” Fury says, slipping into the chair opposite Donald. Isolation-Interrogation is built out of the same materials meant to contain the Hulk, but tinted, so that one can see in but not out, though Fury would be surprised if Donald didn't know that most of the Avengers, and T'Challa's people, have gathered outside to listen.

“Apples, trees,” Donald says, attempting to wave his hand dismissively, but the cuff shackling it to the table keeps him from doing so effectively. His other hand, attached to the skeletal metal arm that Steve had broken at the Badlands site, had been deemed a weapon and removed.

“That doesn’t appear to be the only thing you’ve learned from him.”

“Well, I don’t aim quite as high.”

“And what were you aiming for, Donny?” For the first time in three years Fury is grateful for his supposed friendship with Pierce the Elder, just for the pleasure of knowing and seeing how much the nickname would make Pierce the Younger scowl. “If not world domination.”

“What does any businessman want, Nicky?” Donald retorts, just shy of snappish.

“So who’s your buyer?”

Donald shrugs, leaning back in his chair; Fury sees with some satisfaction that the shackle is too short to make that move look smooth.

“No idea.”

“Let me make this perfectly clear, Don,” Fury says, leaning forward with his hands folded like the world's most intimidating elementary school teacher. “You’re facing multiple counts of kidnapping, trafficking, assault, murder, and conspiracy to commit them all. I'm sure once we go through your papers there'll be theft and embezzlement too, maybe some bribery thrown in. So if you’d like to die of old age rather than lethal injection, you’ll tell me who your buyer is.”

“I already told you: I don’t know. My hand to God. Hand to Allah, if you prefer. No clue.”

“So you just kidnapped and force-bred a bunch of women for some guy sight unseen,” Fury says, cocking an eyebrow.

“Well, money talks.”

“And dead men walk,” Fury says, making to stand up.

“Nick, I am well aware of what my situation is at the moment," Donald says, and Fury stills. "If I had a name to give you, I would. But, you know, if the initials KM mean anything to you, that’s what he signs off as.”

“KM,” Fury repeats, and Maria, standing outside Iso-Interrogation with the rest of them, pulls out a device and starts searching. “All right. And what does KM want?”

"Uh, mutants. That's what he was paying for."

“You really gunnin’ for GenPop, Donny? You know what they do to child killers there, don’t you?”

"If he didn't give me his name what makes you think he's gonna give me his motive?"

"And you didn't think to inquire, I take it."

"Whether he's got a hard-on for mutie booty or he wants to overthrow a government, the money's the same. It's not my business."

"Would anyone be opposed if I did GenPop's work for 'em?" Logan snarls, claws unsheathing.

"You want help?" Bucky mutters, scraping the fingertips of his left hand against the glass.

"Let's go back in time, then," Fury says, standing up fully now. "We know you were in Russia when the Triskelion fell. Take it you and some of your associates laid low there for a bit."

"Brilliant deduction, Director Fury."

"I'd wager you picked up Red in Russia, too," Fury continues. "Where'd you find him? 'Cause I doubt Hydra got him at Leviathan's Going Out of Business sale."

"Private cell'll get you the name of my close associate." Fury stares him down for a moment, and then gestures for him to continue. "Nikolai Konstantinovich Volkov. You'll see him listed in the papers as Zander Rice. Leviathan sent 'im to be a mole in Hydra back in the early 80s."

"Where he acquired James Barnes' DNA to send back to his employers."

"And that's why they pay you the big bucks, Nick."

"Buck," Steve says quietly, as Peggy takes their boyfriend's wrist, "are you sure you wanna hear this?"

Bucky just barely nods as Fury continues. "So. The Soviets fall down and break their crown, and Leviathan goes tumbling after. They put Red on ice."

"They give him to the FSB and Medvedev puts him on ice in '09, actually, but semantics."

"And Volkov stayed with Hydra."

Donald shrugs. "Guess he liked the food."

"And then when Hydra collapses three years ago, the pair of you run off to honeymoon in Siberia, where you find Red in I’m gonna say an old Leviathan base."

"Got it in one."

"And then, what, this KM person contacts you to start breeding mutants for him? How'd he know about you?"

"Little birdies told him, I guess. Little anonymous birdies."

"And the Niagara location? How'd he know about that?"

"Now that'll cost you a private bathroom."

"Done."

"Said he knew someone who knew someone who'd known about Niagara. Someone who was in SHIELD back then."

"Hydra."

"Nope. He said SHIELD." Fury raises an eyebrow. "Not every shady person in the world was part of Daddy's boys' club, Nick. And no, I don't know who those people were, either. Or any helpful initials this time."

"All right. So KM's got you raising up a little gaggle of mutants for him, and then he gets the bright idea to steal from Wakanda."

"For what it's worth, I told him not to."

"And why was that?"

"Well even with that healing factor activated, X-23's a baby. Got no idea if she'll survive that kind of operation."

“Logan,” Ororo says, as he turns and starts to walk unceremoniously away. "Logan!" she calls again, hurrying after him when he doesn't stop.

"And lost or damaged goods would hurt your bottom line," Fury says, his face the picture of unimpressed.

"Well, like you said, I learned from my Daddy."

"Excuse me?"

"...Oh. Oh, you don't know." Donald shakes his head. "I guess that wasn't in Romanov's leak, was it."

"What wasn't?"

Donald shrugs. "It's really not relevant to your current investigation."

"Unless you want your bathroom downgraded to soap-on-a-rope, Donny, you'll tell me what you meant by that."

Donald leans back in his chair again. His eyes flick over to the glass as if he can see through it, and the coldness of his stare begins to take root in the group assembled on the other side.

“Well you have to have figured by now that Alkali wasn’t the first time Hydra tried a breeding program, right? Not even close. It's so much easier to grow your own super soldiers than to try to recruit ‘em. But," he shrugs, and sighs, "Hydra turned up the heat too high too soon, and all them little snowflakes melted, so...”

Snowflakes,” Fury repeats, and he can almost feel the air that's abandoned Bucky's lungs breeze past the back of his neck.

Donald bobs his head to the side—“You use what assets you have on hand”—and this time Steve can’t catch Bucky quick enough to keep him from crumpling to the floor.

Chapter Text

All right, Ms. Jackson. We understand. Now, it's likely that your original apartment is no longer available, but we will arrange suitable housing for you and your children as soon as possible.

JJ: What are you talking about?

You wanted to go home?

JJ: No, yes, I wanna go home but...I'm not taking those kids with me. I didn't—

Ma'am...

JJ: I didn't want them. I didn't, I didn't, they forced me to have them; they're not my kids.

Ma'am.

JJ: I don't want them. Don't call them my kids.

Ma'am. Ms. Jackson. According to state—

JJ: They forced me. They forced me. I don't want, don't tell me they're mine; they're not.

Ms. Jackson, I'm sorry, but according to state law, you are the legal mother of those three girls.

JJ: No! No! That is bullshit. No. They forced me. I didn't want to have them. They forced me. Don't fucking tell me I have to—

Ms. Jackson. Ms. Jackson. We can provide a separate shelter for the children for the time being, until you've had a moment to breathe, and think.

JJ: I don't need to think. I don't, I don't want them. Gimme the papers, lemme sign my...fucking...rights away or whatever I have to do. I don't want them.

M—

JJ: I don't want them!

5/28/17; inside the Royal Talon Fighter, above PCM-NY

“T’Challa?...T’Challa. The Black Mamba reports.”

Shuri waits, holding her breath; she’s just about to whisper his name again when she hears him breathe, just loud enough to be purposeful. Someone must be in the room with him.

"I didn't find anything odd in the logs," she whispers. "Nothing's MIA, nothing's reported damaged. I checked, and there was nothing fishy about any of the Hatut themselves, either. No one was where they weren't supposed to be. According to the database, that is."

There's another beat of silence, and T'Challa inhales his gratitude for her efforts. Shuri carefully ends the communication on her end, so she can continue to hear but no longer speak, and she was right; if she strains her ears she can pick up the voices of other people in the room.

"If Asira and Akili both resign immediately it will draw suspicion," Okoye is saying. "The Avengers don't know who they are at the moment, just that we have people in those locations. But the longer we wait to evacuate them, the more we risk detection."

"Either way SHIELD will probably figure out who they are once they leave," Zimkitha says.

"If they can get out alive and unincarcerated, that may not matter," Khetiwe counters. "Unless SHIELD wants to go to war with Wakanda."

"Wouldn't they, though?" Aneka cuts in. "Isn't that why we disappeared in the first place?"

"I think the world has changed enough in the past hundred and fifty years that the old fears are...that they might need reassessing," N'Diliswa says, quiet but compelled, prepared for the array of horrified and flabbergasted looks sent her way.

"There are still Europeans in Africa to this day, there are colonizers even within our continent itself, and you think we should have no fears?"

"I did not say that," N'Diliswa says, maintaining an even tone. "I said that they might need to be reassessed. And I am not the only person in Wakanda who thinks so."

"Reassesed in what way, Dili?" Zimkitha asks, raising her eyebrows and inclining her head.

"In that..." N'Diliswa frowns, "in that we weren't a weak nation then, and we are even stronger now. And that continuing in the way we have been may no longer be necessary."

"And in what way do you propose we continue?" Thembeka demands.

Okoye pounds the base of her spear on the floor, and the Dora deflate, closing opened mouths and relaxing stiffened shoulders.

"If we can please focus," she says, with the light touch of a needlestick. "Sikhulu," she addresses T'Challa. "Your thoughts?"

T'Challa's thoughts, right now, comprise of the idea that absence of documentation did not mean that no Hatut or Talon Fighters had gone astray, and the impossible possibility that someone had been able to construct an imitation Talon Fighter outside of Wakanda.

"I do not know about your team," he says slowly, "but the Avengers I worked with did not seem eager to make enemies out of us."

"The Badlands team did not make such intimations within my hearing," Okoye says, almost reluctantly; she glances quickly at the women who had accompanied her, who give no indication of contradictory experiences, "but I don't know why they would. They were relying upon us for assistance."

"They did not have to," N'Diliswa says, drawing all eyes back to her. "Their director called them before he knew that we were there. They would have performed these missions without us."

"Then why share it?" Thembeka asks.

"To use us," Sim'Thandile says, and she can't help glaring at T'Challa; her fingertip tingling where it had been prompted to give up her prints. "To collect intel on us."

"In their defense," Storm pipes up. "The Avengers are not a...a colonizing force. Neither is SHIELD as a whole. They represent the United Nations, not America or any individual power."

"It was to prevent war amongst themselves that Europe carved our neighbors up," Sim'Thandile says stiffly. "Not even two centuries ago they were doing this. I wouldn't trust an even larger union of outsiders to not try the same trick again."

"They do know us as a force to be reckoned with," T'Challa says, thinking back to his conversation with Steve. "And we have not even shown them the full extent of our abilities, which I think they are aware of. That is leverage for us. We may be able to extract Akili and Asira without issue if there is a considerable...threat."

"Sikhulu, we don't know the extent of their abilities, either," Zimkitha says. "Agent Carter transformed into a tiger tonight. We had no idea that she was capable of a such a thing, and Asira has been stationed in that Tower since before Carter and her husbands moved in."

"But, again, we are not dealing with colonizers," Storm says.

"We also have a forest that no one else has," N'Diliswa says, gesturing to Storm.

"We might call her Goddess, but she is not immortal," Ayo counters. "What happens to us when all the forests are gone?"

"The rest of the world is catching up to us in every respect," Sim'Thandile says. "We did not even know about Project Insight. And if other countries cultivate even more of an alliance with Asgard than they already have..."

"Then perhaps we ought to be cultivating an alliance with Asgard, as well," Khetiwe pipes up, her loose fist tapping N'Diliswa's thigh.

"And allow an even more powerful entity to see our vulnerabilities?" Sim'Thandile demands.

"If Asgard were interested in conquering us they would have done so by now," N'Diliswa says.

"They don't see a difference between Wakandans and any other nationality," Storm says. "The Earth is all or nothing to them. And if Thor is to take over the throne, we could have a mediator in him between us and the rest of the world."

"And what will we have to give in exchange?" Sim'Thandile demands.

Okoye raises her spear once again, but doesn't even have to pound it for the chatter to cease.

"We are getting distracted," she says, steely. "Alliances and suchlike are the concerns of the King and the Elders. Right now our concern is extracting the two Hatut Zeraze, and acquiring Omega Red."

"General," T'Challa says suddenly, "are Akili and Asira in immediate danger of losing their lives?"

"Not...not as far as we know," Okoye says, somewhat taken aback by the question.

"Then I would like a few moments to consider our situation and the best course of action, in light of your concerns. All your concerns," he amends, glancing around the entire cluster of women. "And I thank you for sharing them with me, in lieu of the Council of Elders."

It's a relief to see their expressions, whether heated or worried, all ease slightly. T'Chaka had taught his son that expressing appreciation was a tried and true method of fostering diplomacy, and he cannot see the Dora Milaje fall to rancor, especially not on foreign soil.

And it's not as though he's lying to any of them, either.

"Please continue to monitor their situation, and notify me immediately of any changes," T'Challa says. "Nakia." Storm shifts, tilting her head. "Please bring me to the ground."

That he had not simply opened up the chute is telling. Storm notices that some of the Dora feel indulgent, others miffed, as she glides forward and opens the hatch. She gathers up a cushion of wind to wrap around T'Challa as he steps off the plane, and another around herself as she follows him.

She takes the moment to be playful, and toss him gently in the air, before she sets him on the ground, and despite everything she's delighted to hear him laugh. Their relationship had officially ended when she accepted her post in America, but the heart is not so easily commanded, and when communication over kimoyo bead is so easy...

"I thought you'd want to be alone?" she asks, landing softly on the grass surrounding the hospital.

"Well," T'Challa says slowly, "when Baba needed time to deliberate, he would ask Omama to walk with him. I never knew how they would discuss whatever was weighing on his mind, but it always seemed to work."

"T'Challa." Storm approaches him, and touches his arm, and when he leans into it she slides her hand down, to link with his. "I am so sorry, othandekayo."

T'Challa says nothing for a moment, just raises their hands so he can kiss the back of hers, and rub his thumb over the same spot when he drops their hand. "They think we should not have gotten involved. Okoye and Ayo, and the rest."

"...Most of them," Storm says, a little stiffly. "Dili wasn't opposed, obviously. Khetiwe could probably be swayed."

"It was stupid of me, wasn't it."

"No, it was not," Storm says, squeezing his hand as firmly as she speaks. "You saw more than one unacceptable situation happening right in front of you, and you acted. You abandoned neither those children nor your duty to Wakanda. It didn't turn out the way we wanted, but I would not have asked you to act any differently. You are such a good man, othandekayo."

"And it is hard for a good man to be king," T'Challa says, with his father's timbre; he studies the ground for a moment, before looking up at her again. "You would have us form an...a more official alliance with them? With anybody?"

Storm frowns, and bites her lip, and it's her turn to study the ground. It would be the first true alliance anyone in Wakanda made since...recorded history; the four tribes coming together could hardly be called an alliance, rather a unfication. Friendly relations with Jabariland had never been reached, and for decades now no king had really even tried. And even before closing the country, Wakanda had refrained from anything more than polite but guarded—exceedingly well-guarded—trade with the surrounding peoples.

"There is much of Wakanda in my students at the Institute," she finally says. "They...my students are breathtaking, T'Challa. You should see them. And they have no idea how powerful they are. Not just in terms of their gifts," she raises her free hand, conjuring up a miniature lightning storm, "but their spirits, as well." The storm dissipates as she presses a loose fist over her heart. "They are some of the strongest, most resilient people you'll ever meet. And their teamwork is only surpassed by that of the Dora. But they are so afraid, T'Challa. Afraid to be persecuted, afraid to be hurt. And it's not without merit. Things are...people can be...very cruel, still." T'Challa reaches up with his free hand, brushing his fingers through her hair. "So they hide at the Institute and don’t tell anyone who they are and what they can do, and every day I am struck dumb by how much they could change the world if they could just go out in it."

"Baba was talking a bit like you, towards the end," T'Challa manages to say, before the lump in his throat solidifies enough to cut off his air. T'Chaka had gone to the Garden to consult with the ancestors, to bring the same sort of ideas to them, when he had been murdered.

"I believe in my students. And I believe in Wakanda, too. We are strong enough to leave the forest, othandekayo. We can protect ourselves and reach out at the same time. We need to, T'Challa. Like Sim said, the rest of the world is catching up to us, and there are people out there," she gestures widely to the sky, "with capabilities that we can't even fathom. We're going to meet up with them someday. We should have as many friends as possible when we do."

T'Challa stumbles suddenly, tugging Storm back; the figure that had startled him steps properly into the moonlight, and they both relax at least slightly.

"Didn't expect to see you out here, Thor," Storm says, with a faint smile.

"Same to both of you," Thor says, returning the expression. "I am on my way back to Asgard."

"Oh?"

"Hopefully not for very long." He drops his voice conspiratorially, which is amusing, coming from someone who cuts the figure he does. "My aim is to have Heimdall tell me the current location of the remaining Reavers, and the missing child."

"You anticipate problems?" T'Challa asks.

"My father's stance is that the Asgardian government should not interfere in the affairs of Midgard," Thor grumbles.

"But you're...an Avenger?"

"A pastime, according to the throne. And one that I am not to use the throne's resources to indulge. But if I can escape Father's notice, and wheedle Heimdall enough to disobey..." The frown does not go away completely, but Thor does wink at the pair of them. The last time he tried this, with Ultron, he had been lucky; Heimdall had seen the direness of the situation and needed comparatively little convincing, and so Thor had been able to avoid the hassle of his father and his father's policies. "With any luck, it will only take a few days. And if I'm successful, I'll be sure the news of Omega Red's location makes it to you."

"You'll..." From the corner of his eye T'Challa sees Storm holding back a smirk. "Thank you. That is...more than greatly appreciated."

Thor smiles widely at them, clapping a hand on T'Challa's shoulder—it stuns T'Challa so much that he doesn't even think to be affronted—and then steps backwards, motioning for them to do the same in the opposite direction. T'Challa and Storm watch as Thor raises Mjolnir high, and then disappears in a deafening column of iridescent rainbow.

"See? Friends!" Storm says, a little loudly, once the column is gone and the ringing in their ears is faded enough to allow for speech. "A bird builds its nest with the feathers of another."

"They must be the right feathers, though," T'Challa says, not quite as loud but still mezzoforte. "And the nest must be built in the right way."

"Well you are wiser than a bird, T'Challa," Storms says, finally at normal volume, and grinning. "I am confident that you will figure it out."

5/31/18; Avengers Tower

The nest, it turns out, is built with the feathers of negotiation.

It plays out that Akili and Asira are rendered safe to leave, and Ororo and her sister's family safe to say, so long as Mafungwashe and her husband cease their activities as Hatut, though Ororo's role at the Institute and her relationship to SHIELD remains unaltered. (“If there are other Wakandan spies in the country, well, that’s the CIA’s problem,” Fury shrugs at one point.) In exchange T’Challa leaves a few weapon prototypes that Shuri had left on his own Talon Fighter in the hopes that he’d eventually use them, including another shield; unlike Steve’s, this one is elongated diamond-shaped, with retractable points meant for stabbing.

Wakanda is not a member state of the UN and thus cannot offer citizens as full-time, legitimate SHIELD agents. In lieu of that, both parties agree to an automatic renewal of the 72-hour Emergency Recruitment, until such time as the last of the Reavers are apprehended and Omega Red extradited to Wakanda, or a mutual decision to dissolve the pact is reached.

“And on our end, we’ll also be investigating how that Talon Fighter showed up at Polyarny,” Fury assures T'Challa. “Any information we gather that’s relevant to this case will be shared with you. We would...appreciate if the same courtesy was extended to us.”

Peggy hears about all this secondhand, and she’s trying to concentrate on it when there’s a knock on the door to the America Suite.

When Bucky was in PCM-DC for two or so weeks immediately following the Triskelion collapse, she and Steve had no idea what to do except keep the three of them together and read everything they could get their hands on; everything that had been in the leak. They manage the former—they leave the hospital as soon as Bucky finds it in himself to be able to walk—which is why it’s so disconcerting to her that she can’t do the latter this time.

Sharon comes in useful. She travels more now that Michael has passed, and got permission to come up from DC and join the investigation, wading through the documents that were taken from the Niagara site. She’s the one passing the information onto her great-aunt and -uncle, when they gather enough strength to ask for it.

How many? ("...too many.")
To what end? ("Homegrown soldiers for the most part. They were looking for...they wanted others who could survive the kind of things Zola was trying out, at first. And then, um, time went on, and they started letting them live for awhile before implementing the...the procedure. A couple they didn't give that, um, treatment to, but...they still didn't...")
Who were the mothers? (Hydra volunteers, mostly. Fertilization was in vitro; it was more efficient, and lowered the risk of emotional attachments forming)
What years were they born? How did they die? Are any of them still alive? Are you sure? Please keep looking, please Sharon, just in case... ("I will.")
How many were males, females, intersex? Did they have names?
Did Bucky ever interact with any of them? Did Bucky know he was their

Peggy jolts as whoever it is knocks again. She isn't crying, but she pats a line across her cheekbones with her fingertips anyway—her whole face has been sore for days now—and gets up from the kitchen table, clearing her throat before she calls out "Coming!"

She expects it to be Pepper, or Tony; both of them have popped in at least once a day over the past three days. Separately, as Tony can only bear to be away from Sofia when he knows Pepper is with her, and even then only for maybe a half hour maximum, but both he and Pepper don't want to bring a baby into the triad's collective sight. So she blinks mutely a few times when she opens the door to see Natasha, Clint, and Laura on the other side. She'd forgotten that they said they were going to be here.

"Oh, Peggy," Laura says, as Peggy vaguely remembers saying that they shouldn't feel obligated to come, only to be immediately overruled. Laura's hands come up, to frame Peggy's face, and she touches their foreheads together. "How are you holding up?"

"Oh..." Peggy shrugs. Somehow it's an exaggerated movement. "As well as can be expected, I...suppose."

"Where're Steve and Bucky?" Clint asks, careful.

Laura said We've lost children, too. That's why they all wanted to come. "Bedroom," wisps out of Peggy's mouth; she steps aside, allowing her visitors to come in. "Where are," she clears her throat again, "where are the kids?"

"Wanda and Vision have them downstairs," Natasha answers. "Wanda says she'll come up to see you all in a little bit."

Peggy nods, again soundless.

"Are they asleep?" Laura asks, glancing in the general direction of the bedroom.

"Oh...maybe. They're...they're laying down together, right now, in any case; I just stepped out to get some...some air. You know how Steve runs hot now that he's, well, he's Steve, he's like a furnace. But it's good, it's good, you know, because Bucky gets...Bucky can get so cold."

"...Should we come back later?" Clint asks.

"No, no, I'll...here, sit, I'll make some tea. Sit, sit."

"Is this what she was like after the Triskelion collapse?" Laura leans in to ask Natasha, as Peggy leaves them in the living room to go back to the kitchen.

"She had something to do with herself then," Natasha whispers back, shaking her head. "Something to work towards. Now..."

"This is closer to how she was when they first woke up, Laur," Clint confirms.

They hear a loud clicking noise and then the whoosh of the flame coming on the stove, the clinking of mugs as they're taken out of the cabinet. Maybe it's good they came, all three think; maybe they can at least provide a distraction for a few hours...

Fury's coming to talk to you. I'm coming with. It's important. He wants to do it in person.

Peggy stares at her phone for a moment, dread squeezing her guts, and manages to text back all right. thank you shar. It's never a good thing when Fury wants to talk to you in person. Hell, it's hardly a good thing when Sharon wants to talk in person; Peggy had felt awful about it, but for the first year or so after waking up from the ice she was relieved to be on the other side of the country from her great-niece, because Skype wasn't the medium for bad news. Sharon had been the one to tell her and Steve in person about what happened to all their friends; how at the time only Gabe and Michael were still alive (and they're both gone now). Sharon was the one to...not so much tell Peggy that her mother had committed suicide in '45, between the news of Peggy's disappearance and Michael's status being confirmed as alive, as not be able to do more than intimate it.

Well I can’t say that I blame her, Peggy had said of her mother to Steve, after Sharon left to give them some time to process. Honestly what else could she possibly be expected to do? What else can you do, when you think your children are de—

Her guests must hear how loud, how searing the breath she gulps down is, because within seconds there's a hand on her shoulder turning her around. Her eyes are screwed shut, but it feels like it was Clint's hand.

"They're not sleeping," Peggy says, her voice jumping from hoarse to squeaking to almost inaudible. "We can't sleep; none of us can. And he's back to not eating again; Bucky hasn't eaten anything for three days; he can't, he tries because we beg him to but he can't make himself; he’s too sick. All he does, he cried for two days, he cried so much he's thrown up bile; he's thrown up air because there's nothing else in his stomach, and today it's, it's, it's like he can't, like he hasn't the will to do anything but just...just lay there and think about them and..."

Clint pushes Peggy's hair, the foremost strands wet with sweat and tears, away from her face before settling his hands on her shoulders. To the right of him Laura turns off the burner and takes Peggy's hand.

"And Steve, Steve you know, he's always, he's always blamed himself for everything that happened, I have never been able to make him stop doing that, and now he, he thinks it's his fault that all those children were killed, and..." Natasha slips into the space opposite Laura, squeezing Peggy's arm. "And I can't do this again; I can't, I can't listen to them go through all this pain again and not be able to do anything to take it away from them, I can't, I can't do it, why won't this all stop—"

Clint pulls her forward, muffling her sobs against his shoulder, and runs his knuckles up and down her spine, kneading the space between her shoulder blades every few seconds.

"This okay?" he asks. "It helps Laura when I do that. It helps Nat when I rub her feet, but I think it'd be a little weird if I did that to you..."

Peggy chokes trying to laugh, and just barely nods.

"Do you want to sit down?" Laura asks.

"I'll finish making the tea, don't worry," Natasha adds.

Peggy's feet are feeling kinda heavy and that's a good enough reason to nod again; she tries to say yes, thank you, but her rib cage spasms and cuts off her air. True to her word, Natasha stays behind to turn the burner back on as Laura and Clint lead Peggy back to the living room, to one of the couches.

"I'm sorry," Peggy squeaks, as they help her sit down. "I'm sorry, I said all this to Pepper too, I'm..."

"It's fine," Laura says, dragging a blanket that had been thrown over the back of the couch onto Peggy's shoulders. "This is...everything you've all gone through in the past couple years, it's enormous, Peggy. It's not gonna come out and be over with all at once; it's just not. Hell, it's been years since the last time I miscarried, and sometimes I still..."

She trails off, not wanting to add to the grief pile or set up an opportunity for Peggy to compare their situations, and it's just as well; down the hall a door creaks open, and they can see that Steve's hovering in the threshold to the bedroom.

He looks about as well as they would have expected; his face, puffier than normal, has obviously been beet-red in the very recent past and is fading into a deep pink, darkest around his eyes, now that people are around. The rest of him is sheet-white, standing out against his dark clothes, but even the starkness of his coloration can't hide how watery his demeanor is, like he'll shudder upon being touched like the water in a glass being pushed across a tabletop.

"Peggy?" Steve asks, and his voice is rusty, and he's trying to focus on her as much as he's trying to keep an eye on the man in the bed behind him.

"Steve, here, come sit with your wife," Laura says, standing up without taking her hands from Peggy's shoulders just yet. Even if it's just moving from pain to pain, the change of air might do him, and Peggy and Bucky, at least a little good. "I'll go in with Bucky."

"I'll join her in a minute," Natasha says, appearing in the entrance to the kitchen.

Steve opens his mouth, and they're prepared for him to argue; he almost wants to, just instinctively, but what he ends up saying is, "You'll come get me, if he...?"

Steve is obviously afraid of the same thing as Peggy is, and it brings up a fresh wave of tears, a fresh tightening of her chest.

"Of course."

Laura squeezes Peggy's shoulder and pads down the hall, so Steve doesn't have to take his eyes off Bucky until she's there; he doesn't say anything, but the way he brushes past her is grateful enough. She watches him shuffle to the couch, and twist once he sits down so he can pull Peggy to his chest, and then she breathes, steeling herself to step inside the bedroom.

She remembers, with infuriating clarity, how she felt in the hours after her second miscarriage, when she'd been so far along that she'd needed a D&C and some time to recover in the hospital. She remembers the awful cramping that had made her writhe on the bed until she was robbed of the energy to do even that much and left to lay still in relentless agony, waiting for the painkillers to decide to work. She remembers how grey the whole world was, how she was when she chanced to see a mirror, even after she was discharged out into the sunlight; how muted it all seemed. Nothing about the world had changed its appearance that much, but the heart of everything had gone away, with no notice of when it would be back.

If a day like that could be put inside a person, made into a person, it's the man laying in the bed about seven feet in front of her.

She'd needed silence, so she gives it to him, tiptoeing across the room and not saying anything, just lifting her hand so he can react to it, to make sure he knows that she's there. She'd needed touch, so she gives it to him; she presses her hip against the mattress close to his head, and he lifts it up, so she can sit down in the space he left and let him rest his head on her lap. She'd laid on the grass outside the house, fingers digging into the soil, and imagined the earth telling her You've lost a few babies, and I lose babies every day; give this pain to me; I can help you, I can handle it, so she thinks the same thing, hoping he hears it from the hands that she rests on his arm and on the side of his head.

Natasha comes in just a minute or two later with two cups of tea, one for him and one for she and Laura to share. She sets them both on the nightstand and then sits on the floor, knees supporting her chin, watching Bucky's face.

After two, maybe three minutes, he shifts, knocking a few tears loose from where they'd been storing up.

"None of this was your fault, Bucky."

"I know it wasn't," he says back, with a matter-of-factness that Natasha is surprised to find that she believes. "Am I not allowed to...do I have to feel like it's my fault so I can—"

"Of course not."

"I mean, if none of the other stuff was my fault, why should this be? I wasn't in control of any of this. I didn't even know they existed. I couldn't..."

"That's the worst part," Laura says, after a half-note of silence. "The...the not being able to."

Bucky breathes, relieved to hear someone else vocalize it; still agonized to try to process it.

"And I keep thinking...Christ, what kind of lives they must've had, even if they only...even if they only got a couple days, or..." His stomach sucks in on itself. "And fuck, if any of them got to, got to grow up a bit before they di-...died; did I ever...did I ever see them, did Hydra make me work with them at all and I never..."

"It's wrong," Laura says, her throat swollen. "You know it's not your fault, that there's nothing you could have done, but it's wrong; it's...cosmically wrong. They're yours; they came from you. You should be able to...to see them, to know who they are. To..." she gulps, and hastily wipes away a tear, "to take care of them."

"It's so fucked up," Bucky forces himself to laugh out, wetly, "but fuck, you know, I keep thinking about Red, too. It's not the same, I know it's not, he's not...he's not my kid, but...he...he came from me, too, and he's...they fucked him up, too, and now..."

"Red is..." Natasha says, after Bucky goes silent, and it takes her a moment to find her words. "I don't think we can rule Omega Red out as a lost cause just yet."

"No?" Laura asks, when Bucky can't.

"He spared my life once, eight years ago," Natasha says. "And in Siberia, he...I think he might have done it again by himself, if T'Challa hadn't intervened first. He was at least tempted to let me go, I know that." She pauses, frowning at a spot on the wall, feeling the ghost of his hand twitching around her neck. "I don't quite remember, but I have the feeling that he and I were..."

"Lovers?" Laura supplies quietly.

Natasha shrugs. "Friends, at least. As much as we could be, within those particular confines."

"So he got to have some human experiences, at least," Bucky mumbles in one breath, and Natasha nods vaguely. "That's good, that's..." His eyes roll up, and they stare there for a beat longer than they might. "I don't think that actually makes me feel any better, just..."

"A less worse kind of awful." Bucky nods, only managing to mouth the word yeah, and Natasha reaches for one of the cups of tea. "You think you can have some now?"

Bucky shrugs, and obliges her; the slurping makes it sound like he got some, though Natasha doesn't notice an appreciable difference in the amount of liquid left in the cup when she puts it back.

"I should probably go out there," Bucky mumbles. "I should get up. See Steve 'n' Peggy, make sure they're...they're not as good at hiding it as they think they are. When they're hurting, I mean. Never were. It drives me fucking nuts that they keep trying to."

"When you're ready," Laura says.

He isn't, not until a half hour or so later, after he's managed to get down maybe a tablespoon's worth of tea and dripped a few saltwater splotches onto Laura's pants, and Clint comes to the bedroom door with the news that "Fury and Sharon're here."

*

"I'm truly sorry I can't bring you this news at a better time," Fury says. He and Sharon were situated in the living room; the latter accepting tea while the other was brewed a k-cup of coffee as they waited for Bucky to drag himself out of bed, splash soapy water on his face, and put on something a least a step above the pajamas he's been wearing ever since they came home from PCM-NY. "But it's something you need to know about immediately."

"All right," Steve says, gravelly; Bucky had sat down on the other side of Peggy, all of them pressed in close together; Laura, Natasha, and Clint have taken over another couch, Laura still holding a cup of tea, and Sharon stands behind her great-aunt, hand on her shoulder.

"Do you want us to stay?" Natasha asks.

"Should they?" Steve directs at Fury.

"Up to you."

Steve glances their guests over, allowing them to make the choice; they remain seated, and he looks back at Fury. Peggy shudders into his side, and across her lap, Bucky's hand is deadweight in his.

"First, because I think you'll want to know, we are going to be fostering the rescued children at the Xavier Institute for the time being. Agent Lopez will be staying there with the two boys she gave birth to for the foreseeable future, until she gets personal housing squared away. As for the other boy, Jonah; we've managed to find his birth mother's husband. He's Black Ops, stationed in Afghanistan at the moment, but he'll be coming to claim the kid as soon as his leave is approved and transport is available."

"That's...that's good, that's great," Steve says, nodding vaguely. "And what about...what's going on with, with the girls?"

"They're at the Institute currently, as well. But their situation is...complicated." Fury shifts, and take the last sip of his coffee before setting the cup down on an end table. "Julie Jackson plans to sign away her parental rights. She wants nothing to do with any of the children she gave birth to. Which I suppose is understandable, given the circumstances."

"And...and why do you want us to know about that, in particular?" Peggy asks.

"Because," Fury says, and Sharon shifts on her feet, fiddling with the manila folder she's been clutching to her chest since she came in, "after going through the documentation we were able to recover from Transigen, and after we ran a few DNA tests, we were able to determine that the youngest girl, Mira...was created using Sergeant Barnes' genetic material."

Laura drops her cup.

"Mira's my daughter?" Bucky croaks.

"You're sure she's not," Peggy cuts in quickly, "you're absolutely sure she's not, it wasn't Omega Red's, um, material?"

"We're as sure as anyone who wasn't there will be," Fury says. "Besides the DNA match, according to the Transigen files, some of Sergeant Barnes' sperm samples were recovered from the Fort McKenna coup and transfered to Niagara. Mira seems to be the only child that was ever successfully born from that cache, but so long as no one's wrong or lying, she did in fact come from it."

"I have it here," Sharon says, lifting the folder up. "All the proof."

"Oh my God," comes out of Steve's mouth, still searching for any defined emotion on the way.

"So," Fury continues, "I thought you ought to know as soon as possible, so you can figure out what it is you want to do."

"What are you talking about?" Bucky snaps, his expression still shock-blank even as his brow knits. "What it is we want to do? I am her father."

"Genetically, yes," Fury says. "Legally...not yet."

"I'm, I'm sorry?" Peggy stammers.

"New York law states that the legal mother of a child is the woman who gave birth," Sharon says, and everyone turns to face her. "And because of that, the legal mother's husband is the legal father. If there isn't a husband, and there isn't, in this case, then the genetic father has to sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity. So it's only after you did that, Uncle Bucky, that you'd have rights and responsibilities to Mira."

"And if he didn't?" Natasha asks, before Bucky can say anything.

"Well," Sharon clucks her tongue, "unless there's close family—and, again, there isn't; Julie doesn't have any living relatives—Mira will stay in the foster care system until she gets adopted."

"And who's going to do that for a mutant baby?" Bucky demands before anyone can say anything else, and no one has anything to say in response to him, either. "Jesus, I..." He passes his hand over his face, pressing his forehead as if it'll put his thoughts in order. "And what about the other two? Jamaica and, and Erica. What's gonna happen to them?"

"Well, they're in the same boat as Mira, currently. After Julie officially signs away her rights, all three will have no legal relatives aside from each other, and they'll just...wait to get adopted."

"But they'll...they'll stay together, won't they?" Peggy asks. "All the girls."

Sharon shrugs.

"But they're sisters,” Peggy gapes. “Legally, at least, you just said..."

"Siblings get split up all the time," Clint says, drawing all eyes to him. "The system doesn't want to, they want to keep the kids together, but most people don't want to take on more than one kid at a time. We specificially set out looking for siblings, because of that. But finding someone who's going to take in three mutant siblings, who already have their powers..."

"Now if you did claim Mira," Fury cuts in, "because they're her sisters, that'd give you an in for claiming the twins, as well. It'd be a whole other procedure, but like Barton said, the system does want them to stay together. Just so you know."

"What about..." Steve cuts in. "What about...they can't stay at the Xavier Institute?"

"Not for very long," Fury says. "You'd think they could, but the Institute is a school, for teenage mutants who are just learning to control their abilities. We're keeping them there for right now, but it's probably not gonna be long before the state checks in and realizes that it's not a fit environment for kids that young. And Xavier doesn't have the time or resources to permanently look after three babies when he's already in loco parentis to two dozen adolescents, in any case."

"So what happens when they leave?"

"My forecast? The best version of events is that there'll probably be a couple do-gooders who think they can handle at least one of the girls, until there's an incident with their powers and the kid gets shuffled off to the next home. The worst and more likely version of events is that they're stuck eating ramen twice a day in a group home run by Chester the Molester."

Bucky stands up abruptly and walks away, towards a corner, before he can send a misplaced metal fist at anyone or anything in the room.

"Or," Fury says slowly, ignoring the horrified look Peggy gives him, "I'm sure there's some government lab somewhere that—"

"We get it," Steve snaps, heat rising up his neck; he remembers the row of incubators and IVs and children screaming, and he can feel his face turning red. "That's, that's enough. We get it."

"How, how, how long do we have to...to discuss it?" Peggy asks.

"Don't know, exactly," Fury says. "Ms. Jackson is in the process of finding a lawyer. From there she'll get a court date, and then after that...until the state comes to inspect the school, which I know they do once a month, but nothing's to stop them from a surprise visit."

"So not long at all."

Fury nods.

"Then we should go," Natasha says, picking up the cup Laura had dropped. "We'll just...be in our suite downstairs, if you need us for anything."

"Us too," Sharon says, squeezing her great-aunt's shoulder. "We'll, um...I guess we’ll go say hello to Ms. Potts?" she aims at Fury, who doesn't dispute the suggestion. "If you want us, that's where we'll be."

"Thank, thank you, Sharon."

Fury excuses himself without further ado; and after that a flurry of good-bye kisses and hugs come to Peggy, and repeated offers of support to Steve. No one attempts to address Bucky, to do anything more than glance worriedly in his direction; Laura says "We'll talk soon" loud enough for him to hear, but that's all the interaction he has until Clint closes the door, leaving him with only Peggy and Steve and a long moment of terse silence.

"I am telling you right now that there is nothing to discuss."

"Bucky..." Peggy starts.

"Don't." He turns around just as suddenly as he had gone away, and there's no adequate way to describe the sight of him; pink and white splotches all over his face, eyes that are somehow clear even as they're filled. "Don't, don't say it, whatever it is you want me to, whatever you have doubts about, don't you dare fucking say it."

"Buck," Steve whispers.

"Jesus fucking Christ, I've got...God fucking knows how many kids whose ashes are scattered all over fucking Siberia, and you want me to—"

"Buck, stop. Stop."

Bucky hadn't really registered the fact that they had been crossing the room to him until Steve puts both his hands on Bucky's shoulders, and Peggy comes up beside him, taking his hand. But now that he can see them he can see their thoughts on their faces, the fear that he or any of them would look at the girls and only see Hydra; that he'll never eat again, never stop hurting, never be able to be trusted on a rooftop or near a window or with medication; that the girls will end up no safer, no happier, no more secure with them than with anyone else, maybe even less so.

"Those kids are mine. Mira is my daughter. The twins are her sisters. They are my kids and you are not going to fucking try, try to convince me that—"

"Bucky, please. Stop.”

Bucky shoves Steve away, rough enough to give him a few feet of distance but too weak for anything more. Steve grabs his arm before he can walk away, and Bucky turns on him with an expression that's almost inhuman with rage for a split second, before the past three days catch up to him like a car catches up to a telephone pole and a wail explodes out of his throat from somewhere deeper than bone, strong enough to shatter iron or bronze or souls. His hands scramble blindly for something to grab, to keep him on his feet, and Steve catches them, pulling Bucky into his chest and pinning him there with one arm. His other arm snakes clumsily, heavily around Peggy, already sobbing, already clinging to them both, and before they can fall to the floor he guides them to sink down together instead, on their knees, faces hidden in each other's shoulders, a living pyramid of rage, and fear, and screaming, shattering grief.

*

Later, when the sun has set enough for the apartment to be dark, when all of them have acknowledged that they should get off the floor but none of them have the will or even the desire to do so, when they're chilled and shivering and covered in dried tears and drying sweat, Bucky says "I remember it, y'know."

"Remember what?" Steve and Peggy ask at almost the same time, almost—but not quite, not by a long shot, actually—too wrung out to feel the dread that creeps into their bones at a statement like that, at a time like this.

"How I um...how I came to...be in this world. How I was born."

"Oh, God..." Steve murmurs, shifting.

"I mean...so the guy just...she said no, she said she didn't want to, but he went ahead, and then he paid off his guilt with...what, a couple dollars? He left her with maybe two dollars, and me." Bucky's been looking blankly into the middle of the room, like he can see himself as a child trying to process what he's just overheard his parents talking about; he turns his face in now, dragging it across Steve's collarbone until it comes to rest on Peggy's shoulder. "But my mother...she loved me. She did, right? That's what I remember."

"Yeah," Steve rasps. "Yeah, she did, Buck. So much."

"And my dad; he did, too," Bucky says, and Steve makes a noise, and Peggy slides her hands up both men's backs, to rest on their necks. "And I mean...what would've happened to me, if they hadn't? If she'd just left me somewhere and...and that was that? I probably wouldn't have met you, either of you. I wouldn't be here now."

"Bucky, please," Peggy whispers.

Bucky finally straightens up, sitting back on his haunches far enough to look into their faces.

"I know that you two are probably never going to let yourselves actually believe it, but I am exactly where I want to be. And I wish we could've gotten here differently. God, I wish we could have," they're nodding, and crying, but they're not telling him they won't keep trying to believe him, "but we're here, and we can actually be together and have a goddamn family, and...and we already do. Because these kids are mine and that means they're yours, too."

They don't stop crying. They don't stop nodding, either.

"'Cause I know you are never going to let me go, and you are never going to leave those girls in foster care, either. That's not something you'll be able to do and live with yourselves after. I know you. I know who I chose."

"No," Steve says, and he hadn't been sure how it'd feel when he said as much, but now that it's come, it doesn't feel at all like a defeat. "No, we wouldn't. Wouldn't do that."

If any of the children were still alive, they would have gone to find them; done what they could to help them. Steve and Peggy had agreed to that the same night they found out about the children's existence, and they had meant it, and they had asked Sharon to facilitate it. It was...it was just so much scarier, to say as much now that they knew one such child was only a couple dozen miles away. But as each of their therapists have told them over the past couple years, fear is not a promise of disaster. Just a sign that something is loved.

"Ever," Peggy says. "Either of them. Ever. We couldn't. They're so...” She manages a wobbly smile. “God, they're such sweet little girls, aren’t they. And they adored us, right off the bat. The one of them, Erica, she..." She nudges Steve with her elbow. "She just fell in love with you, didn't she, Steve. At first sight."

Steve nods in short, jerky movements, like Erica's head is still tucked under his chin, and he can feel the warmth of her little body resting against his chest, her arm stretched out across his collar like she had claimed him as her protector.

"And Jamaica certainly...she certainly was enamored of me, too," Peggy says, looking down at her hands and seeing the little girl's, reaching up to be held, or high-fived, or to cling to the chairs she determinedly used to help herself walk so she could keep Peggy's attention. As if she'd need to do anything other than exist for that.

"This is what we wanted, right? And they're right there waiting for us, so can we just..." Bucky stops, and breathes, and for the first time in three days feels something that might be happiness welling up inside him, "can we please just...sign whatever bullshit paperwork we have to, and go get our fucking kids?"

He watches them shake, bodies rattling with subdued hysterical laughter; Peggy buries her face in Steve's shoulder, and Steve closes his eyes, and Bucky waits, patiently; on secure and steadfast land now that the initial earthquake has passed.

"We're gonna have to get a...the right kind of lawyer, I think," Steve finally says, bottom lip visibly trembling. "I don't know if...New York isn't Kansas, so they might not give us so much shit for being a three-parent household, but...I'm not sure what we'd be to them, legally, me and Peggy; we'd have to figure that out."

"And that medication they were talking about, at the hospital," Peggy says. "We'll need to...they'll have to show us how to give it to them, at least until they have...God, what's it called...fine motor skills, or...just, just until they're old enough to control them."

"Mira's the pagogenetic, right?" Steve asks, and Peggy nods. "Of course our kid would have the fucking ice powers."

Bucky barks out his own semi-hysterical laugh. Steve is closer, so Bucky grabs him first, pressing the fiercest kiss of either of their lives on Steve's mouth, matched only by the one he gives to Peggy seconds later.

"So we're...right now we're gonna get off the floor," he says when he draws away from her, and they laugh, "and we're gonna find the fucking phone number for the Xavier Institute, and then...and then we're gonna go see our girls."

They look at each other, dumbstruck, awed; their hands meet in the space between them, a pile of shaking fingers and steady hands and gold rings that seal and signify the people that they chose to face their futures, presents, and pasts alongside; and when they start to cry again, this time they can smile through it.

Chapter Text

6/4/17; Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters, Bayville, NY

Getting their affairs in order is somewhat convoluted.

Mira is the easy part; signing and filing the Acknowledgement gives Bucky legal custody over her, and with Julie adamant that she doesn't want to so much as look at the children, he's technically if unofficially free to bring her back to the Tower immediately. The process that the lawyer lays out for finalizing Julie's termination of her rights, and for adopting the twins, is a lot more dizzying—hearings and homestudies they have to assure themselves that, if they can save the world multiple times, they can survive undergoing—but playing their cards right, and quickly, could net Bucky legal custody of all three girls by the end of the year.

Carolyn is a big help (the extra year that Bucky's been in therapy leaves him with a stronger rapport with his counselor than Steve and Peggy with theirs). She'd already given Bucky the names and numbers of specialists in family counseling once he mentioned their interest in having kids, and now she provides the same information for those specializing in toddlers, should the twins exhibit behavioral problems. She also assures him that if—most likely when—she's called upon to give it, her testimony would be in his favor. ("Your lawyer said that your time with Hydra can't be used against you, because you were exonerated, right? And since then you haven't had a history of violent outbursts, disappearing for days at a time, criminal behavior, substance abuse...even your memory loss is only in regards to things that happened before 1945. You have a support system, a stable home; your finances are good; you take your meds without issue and you haven't even ever missed a session with me. I've seen nothing in the past three years to indicate that you'd abuse or neglect the girls, which is what the court's mainly concerned about. I'll make sure they know that.")

Even with the ability to take Mira home right away, the second bedroom isn't ready for a baby, and if ("when") the twins come home they'll have to remodel the apartment anyway, to allow for the girls to have their own bedrooms. Tony lights up when they ask if he can help them in this regard; Pepper explains that he still has excess energy from when they'd been preparing for Sofia's birth, even having had two locations on opposite sides of the country to work on, and this is a convenient outlet.

There's no point in extensively babyproofing until the remodeling is completed, but there are other ways to prove to a judge that they're preparing for the arrival of three children, specifically three mutant children. Researching the drugs meant for power suppression—there will be no IVs in their home; they'll deal with syringing the oral medication into three young children's mouths every day—is one of them. Familiarizing themselves with a school specifically meant to train mutants in the control of their abilities is another.

And there's something nice about having a "real" first visit on what, according to the Transigen documentation, is the twins' first birthday.

Though it is disconcerting, after Storm meets them at the threshold and leads them inside, that the first thing they hear is a student yelling “You got attacked by a shark?!” into a cell phone.

“...Scott’s brother lives in Hawaii,” Storm says, seeing the triad gape after the student as he heads into a different room, seemingly oblivious to the guests. “He surfs. It’s a trade hazard.”

“Is he...?” Steve asks, and then gestures to his own eyes to indicate Scott’s glasses.

“Oh, no. Scott releases continuous beams of energy from his eyes. The glasses keep it contained.”

“He does,” Peggy says faintly.

“We have a few students with powers that can be...explosive,” Storm says evenly. “They occupy the top floor for that reason. They’re actually downstairs in the Danger Room with the Professor right now—”

“The Danger Room?” Bucky repeats.

“It sounds scarier than it is,” Storm smiles. “It’s pretty much a gym, but we switch out the equipment to keep things interesting. Anyway, I was going to say that your girls are on the second floor, with Gabriela and the other children. Just to be safe.”

Bucky nods, trying to relax; he glances at his partners and sees them doing the same.

“Wanda, Vision,” Storm addresses the two so named; they’d already been scheduled for a training session today and so had come in the same car, “Mr. McCoy is supervising a running of the obstacle course out back with most of the others, if you’d like to go join them.”

Wanda looks at Steve. Team America had asked that none of the other Avengers come with them for this first visit, and a determined wish for privacy is affirmed when he nods his permission for them to go.

“All right. Thank you, Ms. Munroe.”

Vision steps away, and Wanda starts to follow, but she hustles back to the group to hug Steve quickly, and then Bucky; she squeezes Peggy’s wrist before hurrying back towards Vision, taking his hand with one of hers, and waving a little hope into her goodbye with the other.

“Your...cousin...?” Storm starts, and Steve shrugs close enough, “...she’s very sweet. We adore her here.”

“We think she’s pretty cool, too,” Steve says, with a lopsided smile. Wanda’s been staying with them the past few days, just to keep their nerves from becoming too frayed, both with and without her mood-altering powers.

“We tried to arrange it so the students would be busy when you came, so you wouldn’t have to deal with—”

“Them?” Bucky says, pointing.

“Kitty. Danielle,” Storm scolds, and the triad doubletake as two girls holding hands sheepishly walk out of the wall.

“Sorry,” the taller of the two says, “but like...we had to, you know?”

“No, you did not,” Storm continues in the same vein. “Now you two are going—”

“Hey, Auntie O?”

Storm sighs, glancing up to the top of the stairs. “Yes, Evan?”

“It’s Mom; she wants to talk to us.” Evan also doubletakes, and awkwardly raises a hand to greet Steve, Peggy, and Bucky.

“Is it urgent?” Storm asks, her brow knitting.

“Sounded it,” Evan says, turning his head.

“Oh we can take them up to see the kids!” the shorter of the two girls says, her hand shooting up.

“It’s so not a problem,” her companion chimes in.

Storm frowns at them, and then sends a worried glance at Team America. Even with her sister’s family being decommissioned as Hatut Zeraze, there wasn’t really any knowing if she was still in any of the loops Wakanda had set up in the country. And even if this had nothing to do with Wakanda, it could still be an emergency of some other type.

“Take the call,” Peggy urges. “We don’t mind.”

Storm’s frown deepens, and she excuses herself with an apology to the triad, and a stern warning to behave themselves to the two girls, before harnessing a gust of wind from an open window to levitate her up the stairs.

“She’s such a showoff,” the taller girl says, but with enough fondness to not make her come off obnoxious, and she does still look sheepish when she faces Steve, Peggy, and Bucky. “Sorry. I know you, like, probably don’t want to deal with fangirls right now. We’ll take you right up, don’t worry. Here, um, follow us; we’ll take the elevator.”

“Thank you...are you Kitty or Danielle?” Peggy asks.

“Kitty Pryde at your service!” Kitty says brightly. “And this is my girlfriend Danielle Moonstar.” She puts her hands on Danielle’s shoulders and squeezes, nuzzling their cheeks together.

Danielle beams even as she ducks her head. “Sorry if this is obnoxious. You’re...it’s just that I’m Oneida too,” she addresses Steve, “Wolf Clan. So it’s just...y’know. It’s really cool to meet you.”

“Yeah, and, like, when I was a little kid I used to tell people that you were, like, the Jewish Santa and you brought me presents for Hannukah,” Kitty giggles. “So...thanks for the bike!”

“Always glad to oblige a fan,” Steve says, still slightly taken aback, but charmed by how excited and rehearsed their introductions obviously are.

“Well anyway, we are being obnoxious, so here, come this way,” Kitty says, taking Danielle’s hand again and stepping further into the foyer. “I think it’s really awesome that you’re gonna adopt the JEMs—”

“The JEMs?” Bucky repeats, even as he breathes an inward sigh of relief; it seems like Xavier hadn’t shared the whole story with his students.

“Oh, that’s what we call them, ‘cause of their initials,” Danielle says. “Jay-Ee-Em, JEM.”

“And it, like, really suits them too, because they are gems,” Kitty says. They’re at the elevator, and she pushes the button; the doors open immediately. “They’re the sweetest babies ever. Gabby let us help feed the twins yesterday and it was really fun. But just so you know, Erica doesn’t like...like anything."

"Yeah, Jamaica will eat anything you put in front of her, but Erica puts one little bit in her mouth and then makes this face."

Danielle pinches her face, sticks her tongue out, and tucks her head backwards. Kitty bursts out laughing, and Peggy wonders if it's okay to be this jealous of two fifteen-year-olds.

The pair of them babble cheerily throughout the decidedly quick elevator ride, about how they haven't been allowed to feed Mira because she's only three weeks old and isn't that ridiculous, because they think they can be trusted not to choke the baby. When the doors open, Kitty informs them that the room is two doors down on the left, and she and Danielle hustle ahead so they can open the door.

Their haste gives Steve, Peggy, and Bucky a second just outside the elevator, acutely aware of the doors closing behind him, of the irrevocability of the coming moments. Steve draws in a breath that comes out much more shivering than he expected it to be. Bucky to his left blindly searches out and grips his hand, and Peggy, to Bucky's left, leans the side of her head onto his shoulder, her hands occupied with the two wrapped boxes that Tony and Pepper had presented them with this morning before they left.

"This is it," Bucky says, psyching himself up as much as his partners, who both press in closer to him on either side. "Here we go."

Kitty yelps loudly, and the measured steps they had planned to take instantly speed up.

Their hearts stop when they see what looks like a blue...well, demon sitting on the floor, with five of the six rescued children scattered around him. Then, as the shock backs off just enough to allow for more than tunnel vision, they see that there's someone else, another teenage girl, sitting not five feet away from him, and the children all seem completely unperturbed by the not-demon's presence. Jamaica even crouches, and Erica sits, in the space between the two teens.

"Sorry, I was just surprised," Kitty says to Steve, Peggy, and Bucky, before rounding on the two. "What are you guys doing here?"

"Gabby wanted to take a shower," the blue not-demon says, in a strong German accent. "We said we'd watch the kids for her while she went."

"And how long has Amanda been here?" Danielle asks, waggling her eyebrows.

"Since this morning," Not-Demon counters, making a face at Danielle. "The Professor gave permission two weeks ago for her to come over today."

"So that's how you got out of the obstacle course."

"Hi, I'm Amanda," the sitting girl says, and waves, pointedly. "Not a mutant, just Kurt's girlfriend."

"I'm Kurt, very much so a mutant," Not-Demon says, also waving, and now that all the adrenaline has receded, Team America is able to laugh. "Don't mind us, we've just been entertaining the kids here."

"Oh, well, it's a wonder why they haven't fallen asleep," Kitty teases.

Kurt fixes Kitty with a glare, and then suddenly he's gone, replaced by a puff of smoke and the scent of sulfur. Before Steve, Peggy, and Bucky have the chance to fully register his disappearance, he's back in the same spot, and not only do most of the kids shriek with glee, Erica claps her hands as well.

"See?" Kurt says, pointing to his most ardent admirer. "Chicks dig the fuzzy dude!"

"Yes they do, sweetie, yes they do," Amanda says, nodding just as hugely as she smiles. "Oh!" Jamaica trips over her feet as she tries to stand up, and Amanda leans forward rather dramatically to catch her.

She looks up, having seen with her peripheral vision what everyone else saw directly: all three adults immediately start forward at the same time, and now, all of them looking almost sick.

"Hey, um, sweetie?" Amanda says, switching her focus to Kurt. "How 'bout us four take all the boys and...well how 'bout we take them outside and let them splash in the kiddie pool? I'll knock on the bathroom door, let Ms. Lopez know what we're doing. So they can..." She points to the triad, and then waves her finger to indicate the room. "Y'know, have some alone time with the JEMs."

"Aw, yeah, that's probably a good idea. Kitty, Dani, help us wrangle the little dudes?"

The wrangling takes maybe fifteen seconds; Kurt, Kitty, and Danielle each find themselves holding one of the three boys, and Amanda leads them out of the room, splitting off to head in the direction of the bathroom. Kitty brings up the rear as they exit, touching Steve's arm and informing him that she'll tell "Mr. Logan" that they're here, so he can come help them if need be.

Danielle, thoughtfully, doubles back and closes the door, and Team America barely have time to gather their thoughts before Jamaica's face scrunches up, ready to start wailing now that all her friends are suddenly gone.

"Oh no, baby no," Peggy coos immediately, setting the boxes down on her way to the floor. A sudden splash of shyness makes her keep about two feet of distance, which probably works out for the best, since a sudden nearness could well overwhelm the child. "It's all right, love; they'll come back later." Jamaica stamps her feet again, this time closer to throwing a tantrum than trying to amuse, and Peggy scoots closer, offering her hands. "D'you remember us, Miss Jams? I know it's been a few days..."

Whether it's the kid's natural temperament or Peggy interceded in just the right way, Jamaica still looks mildly miserable, but she refrains from crying. Peggy holds her hands out further, brushing Jamaica's tiny soft fingers; she hears Steve and Bucky breathe behind her, and before she can ask or look why she feels another little hand patting her leg. Erica is close enough to be curious about the somewhat familiar woman on the floor, and when Peggy turns to look at her Erica stares right back, tilting her head.

"Oh my God," Peggy whispers, her face suddenly very, very red.

Steve is maybe a couple inches further into the room than Bucky is, so he sits first, close to Peggy, and puts a hands on her back, gently squeezing the space between her shoulder blades. Erica looks at him now, still patting Peggy's leg; Jamaica takes a few, quick steps somewhat in his direction, staying just out of arm's reach but clearly intrigued by him. When he holds the back of his hand out to her she smacks it, and then laughs; his mouth twitches, and he offers the hand again, only to get the same smack and a much louder squeal of delight.

"She's going to be trouble, this one," Peggy says, voice thick.

And yet it's Erica who's noticed the packages they brought, and suddenly decides that now is a good time to start to enjoy walking; she's at the brightly multi-colored packaging much quicker than anyone would have expected from her.

"Oh, d'you want to open it, sweetheart?" Peggy asks, as Erica looks it over. "It's for you, for your birthday."

Steve is a little closer, and he can reach out to start tearing the wrapping paper on one of them. Erica lights up at once, scrambling to get a good hold so she can join in the fun. Jamaica makes a beeline for her twin, tripping and falling on the way but picking herself up immediately, before anyone has the chance to fuss over her, and hustling towards the chance to see how something works by destroying it.

"Bucky?" Peggy asks, having to raise her voice over the sound of tearing and one-year-olds laughing. "Do you want to join us, darling?"

He hears her. It just takes him a moment to be able to answer.

"We're missing one."

Picking out Mira is easy; there are a couple cribs in the room, but only one bassinet. Nonetheless, she's so little and easily missed yet that until he's practically on top of her, a primal part of him is afraid she's not actually there. The same part switches to a senses-numbing fear that she's dead, even though her eyes are open, until the rest of his brain catches up and sees that she's breathing.

Both his partners see him shudder, and scrub a hand harshly over his face; both of them whisper something to the effect of "All you all right?"

He tries to make himself laugh, though it comes out as more of a hiss. "Not really, but...not really."

"Is she awake?" Steve asks, the only thing that doesn't feel completely stupid and inadequate to say.

"Yeah. Yeah, she is, she's..." Looking in his direction, but whether she actually sees him is up in the air. Tony had turned Sofia's development in and out of utero into a new obsession, one that he would gladly talk the ears off of everyone in his vicinity about; Bucky remembers him saying something about how visual acuity doesn't have a very long range at this age. She definitely doesn't recognize him; even if she were capable of attaching faces to concepts, she's only been in his company for a total of a few hours. She's just too young to be afraid of strangers.

That doesn't stop him from reaching down with his right hand, to rub her clothed feet, and asking, "Hey, baby girl, d’you know me?” He ducks down, bunching her feet together, and peppering three quick kisses on her toes. “I'm your daddy."

He doesn't want to spend his first actual visit with his daughters crying all over him, so he somehow manages to hold it back. From the corner of his eye, he sees that Steve doesn't, and that while the twins are busy playing with the half-unwrapped, still-unopened boxes Peggy puts both hands around Steve's head and draws him sideways, so his face rests on her shoulder.

The door creaks open slowly, just a crack, and Gabriela peeks her head in, her hair still wet. "Everything okay in here?"

"...Sort of," Peggy is the only one capable of answering, and Gabriela opens the door a little further.

"Well, nothing's broken or bleeding, so it looks like you're on the right track," she says, and again, Peggy is the only one capable of responding, with a laugh. "Um, if Mira's awake she might be hungry soon? She's weird; she wakes up first and then she gets hungry. I'll...here, I can get a bottle for her ready, if you want to pick her up and get situated. You can stand, or sit on the floor, it doesn't matter. Be right back."

"Everyone knows them better than we do," Peggy mumbles, once Gabriela has disappeared from sight and Steve's gathered himself enough to sit up on his own. "I know why, it just..."

"It's okay, Pegs," Bucky says. "We got time to learn. We're going to have the time."

Me and time; we're not exactly friends, Steve remembers telling Tony...God, five years ago, now. A dark part of him wants to say it out loud, to keep them from getting their hopes up too high, but Jamaica picks up one of the boxes and immediately drops-throws it to the ground, and the creeping pessimism finds itself no match for her impatience.

"All right, all right, lemme get that."

"Here, Erica," Peggy says; the other twin is still pawing at the second box. "Why don't you bring that to Mummy, and she'll open it for you?"

It's at once as shocking as an electric pulse and as natural as breathing, to refer to herself that way, particularly when Erica puts the box back down, and then shoves it vaguely in Peggy's direction. She tries not to make it too obvious that she's leaking a few tears when she reaches over to pick it up.

"Why is this impossible?" she demands, after about twenty seconds of struggling to peel off the tape sealing the box shut.

This time both Steve and Bucky find it in themselves to laugh, and Bucky is bolstered enough to risk picking Mira up. He knows, from Tony's squawking, the right way to support a baby to minimize the risk of discomfort, and when Mira doesn't scream he's pretty sure he did it the right way.

Peggy finally gets the box open and the contents spilled out by the time Bucky shuffles over to them and carefully sits on the floor. They'd been able to give Tony and Pepper their impression of the twins' personalities, resulting in Pepper picking out a shape-sorter as one of the presents, and she chose wisely; Erica plops down on the ground to begin playing with the blocks. Jamaica is immediately distracted by the opened present, abandoning the one Steve is still in the process of freeing; as she starts smacking two of the blocks together, clearly relishing the sound they make, Steve finishes opening the other one and sets it aside, for when they start to crave novelty again.

The twins have just started actually fitting the blocks into the right holes when the door creaks again, but instead of Gabriela at the door it's Logan. The sight would almost be funny—he's the sort one would figure to be carrying a beer bottle rather than a baby bottle—but there's a greyness to his skin that keeps any of them from making any indication of mirth.

Laura is still missing.

"Told Gabs to go play with her boys," Logan mutters by way of explanation as he comes into the room. "Don't worry if it's cold by the time she wants it. Elsa here likes it on the cooler side."

It takes them a moment to realize which child he's talking about, and a beat longer to parse the reference, and in that space Logan comes further into the room, handing the bottle down to Bucky. He's not quite glaring as he drops a towel on Bucky’s shoulder, but the look is intense enough to make Bucky self-conscious; luckily Mira takes the bottle when it's offered, and Bucky's got enough training accurately assessing the proper angles for hitting a target that he can hold the bottle in a way that would win the approval of all the parents he knows.

Logan hangs back, leaning against the wall, and watches; Steve and Peggy try to offer him a polite amount of awareness of his presence for a moment, until the twins discover how much fun throwing the blocks is, and they have to go scrambling to pick up the plastic pieces. Both girls are enchanted by the sight of two adults crawling on the floor to fetch their toys, and throw the blocks again as soon as they get them back. Bucky scoots back, away from the melee, and Steve and Peggy quickly figure out how to draw the twins even further to the opposite side of the room, to continue minimizing the risk of accidentally hurting the infant; Peggy also sees that she can encourage Erica to stand by dangling a blue triangle above her head, brushing the base of it against her outstretched fingertips so she doesn't get discouraged.

“Guess it’s better late than never, huh.”

Steve looks up from where Jamaica has drawn him into the world’s gentlest tug-of-war with a red rectangle, taking in the way Logan’s arms are crossed, the angle of his spine as he leans against the wall, the hard set of his face and how it contrasts with the vague softness of his eyes.

“Kay?”

Logan shifts his weight, uncrossing his legs and then crossing them again, in the opposite direction. “It’s Logan now.”

“Oh my God...why didn’t you ever get hold of us?” Peggy gapes, as Erica successfully retrieves the blue triangle. “We thought...we thought everyone from the SSR had passed away.”

Logan shrugs, tighter than he means to. “Wasn’t sure how kindly you’d take to the appearance change.”

Steve almost says that if Logan could trust anyone to know what dysphoria felt like, it would be Steve, but Logan continues before Steve can decide whether or not to reveal that.

“And after that,” after the triad had come out in an interview conducted by an openly trans student, and Logan no longer had that excuse, “...didn’t think I oughtta.”

“Why not?” Peggy asks, noticing that Erica has put the triangle in her mouth and hastening to carefully extricate it.

“Ivchenko was my fault,” Logan says, after a beat. “I’m the one who brought him into SHIELD custody.”

“Ivchenko was his own fault,” Bucky says, eyes glued to Mira, but his voice firm. “No one made him...made him do what he did.”

“Sarge—”

“Believe me. As someone who can very much appreciate being able to make your own choices...Ivchenko’s shit is on Ivchenko. I don’t blame you for anything.” Words free, no longer weighing his face down, he’s able to look up. “In fact, I owe you a thank you.”

“...for...?”

“Rosemarie.” Logan lifts his chin, and nods slowly. “Did you keep up with her at all?”

“For awhile. Kept an eye on her in Sweden ‘til they sent me home. Last I saw her was at Stark’s wedding back in ‘65. She looked happy.”

“She had a few kids, a few grandkids. She’s got a great-granddaughter, too; we just saw ‘em actually.” Just a little over a week ago. It seems like years. “She died before I...before I came back, but it sounds like she had a...a good, long life.”

“That’s good. Glad to hear it.”

“We’re going to find her,” Peggy says, quietly, after another moment of silence. “Logan. We’re going to help you find Laura.”

Logan answers with a long stillness, so opaque that they’re unsure whether he’s welcoming or rejecting their help; despairing or daring to hope. Erica remains enamored of the shape-sorter, but Jamaica moves on to the other toy. It’s supposed to help her balance as she walks forward, but she makes Team America laugh by dragging it behind her, instead.

“Take care’a’ these sprogs,” Logan says, when Jamaica almost trips over Steve’s foot, and he catches her before she can tumble to the floor. “I knew their...what’d Fury call it. Their genetic mother. The twins’ mother, anyway.” And indeed the twins look markedly differently than their sister; brown-skinned and black-haired to Mira’s bald head and fair complexion.

“A friend?” Steve asks.

Logan nods, barely. “Her name was Zora. Zora Red Fox. Met her after the war, on the Piikani rez in Alberta. She, ah...she didn’t last too long after Fort McKenna.”

He’s told Fury everything he remembers about Alkali—it’s not much; Transigen learned effective isolation from its predecessor, and not much was clear about how the coup and escape had occurred—and to his relief they don’t press for information now.

“Well, that’s the plan,” Peggy says, settling Erica in her lap. “To take care of them.”

“How’s that workin’ out, by the way? With your living arrangements.”

“It’s either Peggy and I get a divorce, one of us marries Bucky, and that person gets stepparent rights,” Steve says, as Jamaica climbs over his lap, dragging her toy behind her, “or we stay as we are, and Bucky names us as the legal guardians for...if he dies. Haven’t decided yet what we wanna do.”

“Such a homewrecker Bucky is,” Peggy laughs; Erica leans forward, this time grabbing a purple circle, and sits back.

“Which reminds me,” Bucky says; Mira’s since finished the bottle and been burped, but the feel of her against his shoulder like this is so breathtaking that he’s letting her look at the world from that vantage point while he rubs her back. “Need you to settle a debate between Steve and Peggy.”

“Yeah?”

“Did you, or did you not, have a thing for Steve?”

Steve and Peggy groan, and despite everything, when Logan snorts it sounds genuinely amused.

“Sarge...who the hell didn’t?”

*

They do it stealthily.

It happens in a flurry of activity, that’s why; there’s meals to be eaten, and consequently diapers to be changed; students drop by to say hello to #TeamAmerica and to play with the babies (Steve does oblige both Danielle and Kitty with something signed, to send back to their respective grandfathers). People are in and out of the room at different times, exciting the kids, wearing them out, realizing they’re wearing the kids out, and disappearing apologetically. Someone hands Mira to Steve at one point, and ten minutes later Steve is the last person above the age of one left in the room.

(“Bucky and I both got to spend a couple hours with the girls by ourselves already,” Peggy had said to Gabriela. “We want Steve to have some one-on-one time with them.”)

After much deliberation Erica has decided she actually favors the green square over all the other shapes, and she clutches it to her chest even as her eyes begin to droop. Jamaica has gotten in a lot of walking practice today and is consequently quite tuckered out; Steve watches her stomp over to what must be her crib, because she reaches in through the bars and tugs on a blanket until she pulls it completely free.

She’s definitely going to be trouble.

Jamaica has just enough energy and grace left to drag herself and her blanket towards Steve. He figures that Transigen’s resources were pretty limited, and the kids are probably used to sleeping close to other bodies; his theory is given support when she lays down next to him on the floor and gracelessly tosses the blanket over top herself.

“You can’t be comfortable like that,” Steve informs her. She doesn’t move, leaving him to try to spread her blanket over her neatly and so it covers all of her one-handedly. Not an easy task, as she’s chosen to nap on the same side Mira’s head is resting.

While he’s so engaged, Erica fades into sleep sitting up for a split second, long enough to drop her square. The thump of it landing on her foot startles her back awake, and even though it doesn’t hurt in the slightest, her face scrunches up.

“Oh no, oh no...” Peggy and Bucky had invested way too much faith in him, and now he can’t move to take Erica out of the room, so she won’t disturb her sisters, without potentially disturbing her sisters. “Come on, Bug, please don’t.”

(“I’m the one who named them,” Gabriela had said. “I wanted them to be humans. Not numbers. So the baby, her full name is Mira Deliliah, and the other two are Jamaica April, and Erica Charlotte. So of course I nicknamed Erica Bug.”)

(They don’t get the reference, but nod anyway.)

He attempts to give the square back and she throws it away; the second attempt ends with her taking and holding the block, but looking no less displeased for her peace having been disrupted. Steve can lean forward just enough to hook his fingers around her arm without squishing Mira, and she pouts and stamps her feet but lets herself be pulled closer to him.

“All right, Bug, calm down,” Steve coaxes, as Erica continues to pout. “There we go, kid. Nice and easy. See, you got your square.” He taps it with a single finger carefully, so she doesn’t drop it again. “Everything’s good again.”

Not good enough, apparently, because Erica uses the last of her walking energy to march into Steve’s lap, heedless of the infant he has to move out of her way. She hunkers over her square like a chicken over an egg, still tense but obviously wanting to rest.

“Okay, I guess this works for now,” Steve says; he’s tall enough, and Erica is hunched over enough, that he can hold Mira up against his chest, if a little higher than comfortable. “See? Your life ain’t so hard, Bug. You got your square, you got your sisters, and Ta-...”

It catches, because he knows once it comes out it can never be revoked, no matter what. This will last through every crying jag, every night terror, every unwelcome memory and association that sits itself in their focus and refuses to budge for hours, sometimes days. This will last through his desperate fear that one day he'll fail again, like he always does, and it won't just be Bucky and Peggy that he lets down this time.

He glances down at Mira, getting a good look at her for the first time, and the cut of her face looks so ridiculously like Aunt Win’s. He tucks her tighter against her chest, to give him a better view of the twins, and it occurs to him that if he braided their hair, they would look an awful lot like his Aksot, even without a bloodline to connect them. He thinks about them, and about his mother; how they each had suffered and struggled against worlds that didn't care about them; how they each had told him, at one point or another, that he had brightened their existence by the mere fact of his.

He thinks that the babies draped around him are innocent, and beautiful; that they deserve the world and that he's frighteningly willing to give it to them, even as he’s terrified that he won’t be able to; that they need him and that they're here. They chose their parents in a cabin in the Badlands, and now, on the floor in a temporary nursery, they’re being chosen in turn.

He pats Erica’s head with his free hand, and moves it out of her way when she tries to settle down to her comfort. She ends up crawling out of his lap to curl up on the floor, her back curved into the v of his crossed legs, and Steve tries to remember the words to a song he hasn't heard in eighty-six years, but has never felt to be more relevant.

“Shukwaya-tisu..."

The Creator has sent you
Now is the time for you to breathe
Thank you, thank you for being alive

"Owila..." he murmurs, aware that Peggy and Bucky are waiting on the other side of the door, "tsi' nyu-we ohkunoluhkwake."

Little baby
I will love you forever

Erica nuzzles her cheek into his unshod foot; Jamaica sighs, short and heavy, in her sleep; Mira remains blisfully oblivious to the rest of the word, a cloud resting in his arms. Steve hums the rest of the tune, letting it trail off into gentle silence. The door doesn't make a noise as it ghosts open, but he sees it anyway, and he smiles into the faces looking down at him, at the gems decorating his existence; the five gifts that time has finally seen fit to bestow upon him.

"Tati's here."