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Bodies In Power

Chapter Text

If you’d told Darcy Lewis when she turned sixteen that someday, she’d be trying really hard not to roll her eyes at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, she would have laughed herself sick.  As it was, she was currently trying to not only not roll her eyes, but to not be sick even without laughing.

“General Dempsey, Sir, I appreciate what you’re saying.  I even agree that superpowers need to be taken into consideration when navigating a crisis like the Terrigen event, but under no circumstances will I be recruiting random civilians into the Avengers.”  Darcy took a deep breath to steady herself.  “And before you bring up Ms. Maximoff, that wasn’t random.  She switched sides mid campaign and brought us a valuable ally against Ultron.  We never would have survived if it weren’t for Erik Lensherr. We owed her a shot when she asked for it, and having her on the team is good for Tony’s stability.”

“Miss Lewis,” the general in question said sharply, with an emphasis on the Miss she didn’t like.  “I think you misunderstand. It wasn’t a suggestion, it was an order. Unless existing enhanced individuals step up to police this crisis, we will have no choice but to consider these Inhumans a threat.  Get your people in line, Miss Lewis, or I will.”

“For one, they’re not my subordinates, they’re civilians,” Darcy snapped.  “Getting them ‘in line’ isn’t my job. Keeping them safe is.  For another, what makes you think you can give me orders?  I respect the armed services enough to work with you whenever it becomes useful to us both, but unless you’ve decided to give me a rank, which I doubt given you keep calling me ‘Miss Lewis’, I don’t answer to you.”

“I will not be giving you a rank good men worked hard for and you never earned,” Dempsey shot back.  To be fair to him, she hadn’t actually told any of the Joint Chiefs about the swaps, only the president and only in an off-record conversation after Lizzie let slip something that had him asking questions.  “But whether or not I like it, the Avengers Initiative has spawned a peace-keeping force vital to this nation’s defense. And as I am in charge of organizing the defense of this nation, for better or worse, my job is to get you and your people under some sort of control.  At the very least on some sort of register, which is harder to do since your people destroyed most of the SHIELD Index files.”

Darcy pursed her lips, less in anger and more in a concerted effort not to make a dash for a trash can.  Come on kiddo, she thought at her abdomen, give Mama ten minutes to protect the freedom of an oppressed class, then I swear I will get you oatmeal.  Dempsey looked mildly unnerved, so at least there was a side benefit.  Darcy unclenched her hands and put them on the table.

“Sir, if you think it is, in any way, a good idea to ask a queer, Jewish, superhera to help you round people up based on an accident of genetics and force them to register that genetic status… you severely need to retake a history class.  May I remind you the driving force behind the Index was Hydra? A Nazi deep science branch, who basically everyone on my team has a beef with, on account of the Nazi thing if not the unethical experimentation and generalized evil creepiness.  When you find yourself siding with Nazis, you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

“Sit down, Miss Lewis, you know very well I wasn’t suggesting a pogrom.”  Darcy hadn’t noticed standing up, but sure enough she was leaning on her arms, looming as best she could across a conference table.  “Nobody wants to repeat that. But these new powers… and they call themselves Inhumans? People just don’t feel safe anymore.”

It wasn’t something Darcy felt happy about either.  The importance of names to her family meant the borderline dehumanizing title bothered her.  However, it wasn’t her place to force a change on them, and Lincoln and Skye had been working on the older members of the community about a need for change.  In the meantime, her job was to protect them.

“I already told you, I will keep people safe, that’s my job,” Darcy said firmly.  “I save the day, I save the world, I save the people and help clean up afterwards.  That’s what I’m doing now, saving people. Because it doesn’t start with pogroms. It doesn’t start with official ghettos and labor camps.  It starts like this. With scared people making bad choices because nobody is telling them no. It starts with letting small abuses slide because you’d rather not deal with the consequences of saying no.  Well, I’m telling you no.  I’m not letting it slide.  You can’t court-marshal me, you can’t dishonorably discharge me, you can’t even fire me, since the Avengers aren’t on the military’s payroll and I’d be doing my job regardless of what you said to do.”

“Miss Lewis!”

“General Dempsey.”  She stood straight and looked him in the eye.  “I think we’re done here.”

“Get back here, Miss Lewis.”

She turned on her heel at the door.  “Actually, Mr. Dempsey, I’m married.  It’s Mrs. Lewis to you.”

<^>

“How’re we looking Kestrel?” Bucky asked, smiling faintly at his newspaper as though it held positive news.  He didn’t know if it did, but it was a good cover. The paper was local, and written in Yoruba, which was one of the few languages he hadn’t managed to pick up over the years of training and mental downloads.

“Sexy, but not like we’re trying to,” Wei Wei shot back on the comms.

“But, we are trying,” Mina laughed, and across the square a young man did a double take hard enough to fall off his skateboard.

“Sure, but it’s almost effortless,” Joanne countered.  A rough gargle of static indicated Haley burying a laugh from her position.

“Remind me why I let Wei Wei infect the rest of you with that show,” Bucky grumbled, but they all knew it was a front.  “Now give me a real answer. You and Recluse are our eyes right now, we need a report.”

“If he shows, we’re gold, Coach.  But he might not show. Our intel was sketchy at best.  How long do we leave the trap baited?”

“No matter how long we’re on this mission, we’re flying home Thursday night for a break,” Bucky said firmly.  “Fury’s had us out of the country on and off for six weeks and Steve’s birthday is Saturday. For sanity’s sake, we’re going to his party.”

“What’s this one?” Joanne asked.  “Thirty or ninety seven?”

“Thirty, thank you very much,” Bucky said with a wry touch of properness.  “And a fit thirty at that.”

“Look alive, Coach, Crossbones just hit the market down the street.  He’s got bodyguards.”

“Not the mission, Kestrel, stay on task.”  Bucky let the top of his paper fall enough to scan the entrance of the market.  Rumlow may not be the current target, but he probably wouldn’t pass up a chance to spike Theta Squad’s mission out of spite.  “If he gets in our net, I’ll handle it. The rest of you know your parts.”

“Copy that, Coach,” Joanne murmured.  “Sweeping the South side of the plaza.”

Few if any of Theta’s previous official handlers understood how Bucky kept the girls on task.  Which said something about why they were previous handlers, in Bucky’s opinion.  If anything, his team was more dangerous to themselves in their dogged pursuit of the mission than they were flighty.  The key was keeping them distracted long enough to put the safeties in play so they didn’t all break their necks. That in mind, he tapped the comm off and pulled out his phone.

“Sam, you mind sending Redwing across the market, South-East to North-West?  There’s a pest control issue and I’d prefer they be focused away from the hunting grounds.”

“You got it, man.”  He could hear Sam’s smile over the phone.  “Maria wants to know if you’re still sure you’re coming home this weekend.”

“I am.  It’s my husband’s birthday, I intend to make it.”

“In that case, you better tag and bag Klaue’s stolen tech, and fast.  The King of Wakanda is on the UN committee about super powers, and he’s not happy with us right now.  The Spook Squad aren’t even making a dent in this guy. It’s return the stolen goods, or lose his vote.”

“We’re trying, but the market for stolen vibranium took a dive after Ultron literally cut the hand off the primary dealer.  It’s too hot to move, so nobody’s selling. That makes stings hard.”

“Um, Coach?”

Bucky looked up at the blonde now leaning over his shoulder.  “Yeah, Mina?”

“Joanne and Haley just mugged the smuggler.  We got the tech, but um… it probably doesn’t count as legal seizure.”

Bucky sighed, and got up.  He knew going in his job was going to be hard, so he had no reason to complain.  At least this time all they needed was to get back something for someone, not arrest anyone.  Next time, though, he vowed to bring more backup than just Sam’s robot bird.

<^>

Steve was honestly a little overwhelmed by his party.  That first year, he’d been in the bunker with his team on July 4th, and there’d been a cake at dinner, and most of the presents had been bought at the local Walmart with the intent of not having to haul them back with them.  Food, scented candles, and an IOU for a new haircut from Skye. The next year, they’d been in London, and Mrs. Foster had taken them out to a nice restaurant, but it had been decently quiet. Then, the birthday in Broxton had been a blow-out, but mostly for the Independence Day celebrations, not for his own.

This year, however, they were at home, and Darcy and Bucky had been planning how to celebrate since before Christmas.  It seemed like they’d managed to turn half of Coney Island and the nearby beach into one big party. He recognized most of the people at the park anyways.  Scientists from Stark Industries who Darcy spoke fondly of were gathered at the game alley, systematically testing and breaking the rigged games. A few of the people he always talked to on his morning jogs around Central Park were camped out at picnic tables, and he’d seen Darcy dash off after some of the Dugan grandkids into the funhouse.  There were off duty Agents from SHIELD looking decidedly awkward, and a small pack of the kids Hulk had befriended. Essentially, Steve didn’t see anyone he couldn’t place a name to, except the park workers and the catering staff.

“Please tell me they didn’t rent an entire amusement park for me,” he begged Clint, who was perched on the safety fence separating the tilt-a-whirl from the street.

“Not technically,” Clint told him.  “They just bought a ton of all access day passes and put them in the invites.”

“That’s too much,” Steve muttered to himself.  A firm fist hit his upper arm, and he glanced up at Matt Murdock.  “Hey!”

“Hey yourself, and it’s Saturday.  Save the guilt and regret till tomorrow.  Darcy did okay with this.” Matt smiled at something Steve couldn’t see, and took his arm.  “Come with me. You need to meet some people.”

Steve followed his friend, his husband’s sister’s brother, out onto the wood of the boardwalk.  Matt’s feet were sure, even with the chaos of the park. Of course, because of how he navigated, the park was probably clearer to him than to Steve.  They rounded a corner and Matt pointed to a gazebo filled with kids.

“MATT!” a child shrieked, then clapped his hands over his mouth.  “Sorry Matt.”

Matt laughed, and opened his arms, only to be swarmed with children.  Steve felt a tiny hand grab his own, and looked down at Thomas.

“These are cousins,” he said carefully, like it was an idea he’d only just learned.  “On Mama and Papa’s side.”

“Skye and Matt were orphans,” Steve said more to himself than to anyone else.

“They’re being raised by the people who raised Mama and Papa.  That makes them family.” Thomas looked up at Steve with those ancient eyes that fit perfectly on the young face that wore them, a tiny trace of gentle judgement at the edges.  “They’ve not been here before.”

“I get your point, but how did you know?” Steve asked.  He knew Matt could have heard him complain about the expense, but Thomas hadn’t been anywhere near them.

“Missus Darcy asked Uncle Foggy to help her make you a dry blanket,” Thomas said matter of factly.  “Because wet blankets are icky and smell bad. Can I ride your shoulders?”

Like that, Steve forgot all about being overwhelmed, and gave in to giving each kid a piggyback ride around the gazebo.  At some point, Darcy and Bucky arrived to get everyone on to the beach for cake and chocolate covered fruit kebabs, and most of the younger guests went home after that, leaving only the family’s children to sit on the blankets with their parents as a fireworks show lit the horizon in splashes of red, pops of white, and ribbons of blue.

“Happy Birthday, Punk,” Bucky said into Steve’s hair.  Steve wrapped his arms around his loves, and held them as they watched the show.

Chapter Text

Green eyes met hazel ones.  Darcy blinked back tears. “Are you sure about this?  It’s going to be hard to change your mind once you’re gone.”

“Hulk is sure.”  Hulk had, in fact, insisted on being sent on this particular mission.  Nobody was happy about it, but out of all of them, he was the most likely to survive a hostile terrain for an indefinite period of time.  He was, as he pointed out, tougher and stronger than most of them, and unlike the rest of the team, he was never at risk of being truly alone.  Darcy and Bucky had both tried to argue they weren’t alone either. The team stopped that, what with Darcy being pregnant and Bucky helping Skye deal with new powers.  They were needed here. There was never a question of it being Steve, he was spending most of his time putting his shoulder behind the wheels of mutant rights organizations and their newly founded Inhuman rights sister groups.

It had to be Hulk.

Darcy hated that.  He was a child, only twelve!  Even Harley and Zoe were older, if not by much.  She wanted to keep him safe, tell him that the Dragon Clan of the Jachkt had volunteered and that was enough, even if it would work better to have someone flashy.  However, he was also a part time superhero, and if they were going to put a stop to his heroics, they needed to have done it during the Battle of New York. It just stung that he was the first of them to take a mission that would leave him on his own, on another planet, fighting every day.

“And Bruce is okay with this too, still?  We can’t have him getting angry at you for this, not while you’re that deep undercover.”

“We’re sure, Darcy,” Hulk said with a tone much closer to Bruce than to Hulk.  “Good practice.”

“All right.  I just worry.  The Guardians team said it was a pretty rough gladiator thing, with a very powerful ringmaster, and in this family, we’ve seen the damage that does.”

“The Yondad needs us,” Hulk said kindly.  Darcy smiled at Sandra’s nickname for Yondu Udonta, which had stuck after the welcome party and subsequent fighting.  “Can’t fight this on his own. Bad memories go smash in his head. We help the Yondad.”

One large green hand tapped his chest with an open palm, meaning he and Bruce, but the other was held low, which meant just below chin height for Darcy.  That hand made a short finger wiggle of a twitch. Anyone who knew the ASL sign for ‘dragon’ might have noticed that aside from being away from his face, it was the same.  Where his was going, it would probably be dismissed as a shooing motion, or a random tic. Darcy smiled.

“Yeah, you’ll have them too.  If you need help, use the signs we taught you, and with any luck, one of the Jachkt can safely find a way to help you.”  Darcy sighed, and patted his chest once more, reassuring herself of his solid strength. “You know what to do?”

“Go to Sakaar,” Hulk said, counting on his fingers.  “Fight in battles. Record secrets. Bring hope. Hero.”

“Yeah, Big Guy, you’re gonna hero the heck out of this.”  Darcy stopped fighting the tears as she put her open palm to his.  They felt oddly refreshing as they streamed down her face. Like a salty shower.  “We’re going to miss you, so much.”

“Hulk love Darcy too.  Hulk love all family. Miss you lots.  Take many pictures.”

“Ma’am,” interrupted the pilot Peter and Yondu had arranged to ferry Hulk to the gladiatorial trash planet that needed an Avenger.  “Our systems are go, and our navigator wants to get off this planet soon. No offence, Terra’s just got… a reputation.”

“Keep our boy safe until you get there,” Darcy said with a forgiving wave of a hand.  “Everything else is unimportant, as long as Hulk is safe.”

“Of course, Ma’am.”

The cargo ship lifted off the pad, taking with it the youngest Avenger.  Darcy smiled and stepped back inside the Kennedy Space Center. This was their last departure, the rest of Dragon Clan had gone on earlier ships, Earth-made ones, bound for the new SWORD base, and from there to transport hubs, where they would smuggle themselves to the mission.  This was the only trip that had no layover, a small gift for their youngest, bravest Avenger. However, thanks to the whole alien-ship-landed-on-our-tarmac, several scientists were in full scale geek melt down, and she had to get to work. Cat wrangling never ended, only paused for a bit.

<^>

After the third trip, Bucky was starting to wonder why Lagos was a hotbed of seeming supervillainy.  The first two had been official SHIELD missions assigned to Theta, before a slightly less white team got the go ahead to settle in for the long haul against the splinter cell of smugglers who broke off from Ulysses Klaue’s group.  His girls were happy about that, they thrived on attention, but they preferred to be able to blend in. This trip, however, was slightly more personal.

“Who is this Crossbones, again?” Wanda asked.  This was her first official Avenger’s mission, and there were still some aspects of it that were more like training.  They were sitting around a cafe table in the back courtyard of a small hotel to discuss the problems posed by the mission over breakfast.  “He was a Hydra thug? Why are we giving him such specific attention?”

“Rumlow caused all of us who worked at SHIELD a fair amount of grief,” Natasha explained.  She was taking a lead with Wanda’s training in physical fighting, and driving her out to Xavier’s for help with her powers.  “He’s tough, and strong, but don’t mistake that for stupidity. He’s smart, and skilled at saying the exact thing you shouldn’t be hearing.  It makes him a dangerous chaos operative.”

“Tell him to shut up if he talks,” Sam advised, pointing with a triangle of toast.  “That’s what I do. Nothing he’s saying is worthwhile.  Start there and don’t give him room to influence you.”

“What’s he even doing in Lagos?” Bucky asked, vaguely aware he didn’t expect an answer.  He didn’t have many solid memories from the time he served beside Rumlow as the Asset. He’d been trying to pull anything out of his head he could, but so far all he’d gotten was headaches and confusion.

“The Institute for Infectious Disease is located in Lagos,” said Vision.  The cybernetics of his body were mostly hidden with a combination of a photostatic veil, and wearing an agbada they bought the day before.  Frankly, Bucky was a bit envious, he had to wear a linen suit to blend in, and the replacement arms Tony had worked out weren’t nearly as natural looking.  For recon, he made do with folding and pinning his shirtsleeve away, rather than try to hide the bulk of metal and plastic.

“This is great for Lagos,” Bucky said, trying to put his mind back on track.  “But relevant how?”

“A noted chaos agent, newly freed from the moderately restrictive orders of a group bent on targeted chaos, will, by sheer force of habit and basic human psychology, seek a way to make chaos,” Vision posited.  “Humans find infectious disease very discomforting, and uncomfortable humans tend to be hard to keep organized.”

“Why not hit up the CDC, then?” Bucky asked, willing to learn more about Vision’s thought process, although his own mind had supplied answers.

“The CDC is on American territory, where it is harder for a former Hydra operative to move about,” Vision pointed out.  Wanda leaned in, clearly catching the idea.

“Maybe he wants something specific, something only the IID has?”

“Why would he have a specific target?” Vision asked her, genuine curiosity on his face.  “Any sufficiently deadly disease should spread panic.”

“Maybe he’s selling his skills to the highest bidder,” she suggested, looking at Natasha, who smiled proudly.  “Or maybe it was easier to get to what he wanted in the IID, instead of the CDC… are their containment procedures different?”

“I have requested the information,” Vision said, staring forward the way he did when he needed to access Jarvis’ databanks outside the Tower.  His physical form was still settling, but it looked like aside from a shared access to the network, Jarvis and Vision weren’t connected anymore.  Tony compared it to having a J-comm embedded in the brain, rather than a true psychic link. “It would seem his best choice of target here would be samples of influenza A, being used for research.  There are a number of samples of H1N1 varietals in cold storage in the sub-basement of the Institute.”

“What’s so scary about the flu?” Wanda asked.  She wasn’t mocking, she was requesting information.  Bucky could feel his own face go cold and stiff in fear, and Natasha had dropped her head.

“H1N1 is a particular shape of flu,” Sam explained.  “Very infectious, it’s like the game Pandemic, but real.  It’s what caused the Spanish Flu, a city killer epidemic in World War One.  And when I mean city killer, I mean cities.”

“It was the epidemic that killed Steve’s dad,” Bucky added.  Sam looked at him. “Steve lied on his enlistment form about it, blamed the mustard gas.  Joseph Rogers was hit by gas, one of the first, so he got shipped home to have his symptoms studied, in time for the Spanish Flu to catch him in March of 18.  He died at home, two months before Steve came. Everyone in Brooklyn knew that, we just didn’t say nothin’ when Stevie started enlisting. A father who died from war looks better to the doctors than one who died from flu.”

“It’s also why my year in the Red Room only had twenty eight girls, not thirty,” Natasha said quietly.  “Right before Russian outbreak in 77, which was a modified one based on the post-war strain. There were two girls, twins, taken for ‘special studies’.  They did not come home.”

Bucky felt like he’d been punched.  “I’m sorry, Natka, I didn’t remember that…”

“We’d only been your pupils for two years, then, and Mama wasn’t with you much.  I don’t even know their names, if they had them.” Her face was a careful study of painless dismissal.  “But we need to prevent another outbreak, particularly if it was modified or enhanced in any way.”

“I can easily reach the storage room,” Vision said, “and unless massively outnumbered, I can hold it indefinitely.”

“You shouldn’t have to wait alone for a perhaps,” Wanda told him with a frown.

“You won’t have to wait at all,” Sam told them, looking up from the tablet running Redwing’s camera feed.  “He’s making his move.”

<^>

The team was sitting around a conference table, and Steve was tempted to call this off as he got a look at their faces.  Darcy had been adamant, though, they needed to do an after action breakdown of anything that went terribly wrong.

Lagos had gone terribly wrong.

“Alright, this isn’t going to go any better if we delay it, so let’s dig in,” he said.  “Where did things start going wrong?”

“When Lagos turned into a hive of scum and villainy,” Bucky grumbled.

“No comparing foreign cities to the Mos Eisley cantina,” Steve said firmly.  “Sure, Lagos has had a string of missions for you lately, but that doesn’t make it inherently bad.”

“I’d say Bucky having a string of missions there at the least didn’t help,” Betty chimed in.  They’d pulled in their closest support staff for exactly this reason, they had a different point of view than the active members of the team.  “He was twitchy about it already, has been since your birthday party, Steve.”

“I did not enjoy the visibility,” Natasha said quietly.  “I don’t think Papa does either. We’re not made to blend in there.”

“Are you saying we shouldn’t send white Avengers on African missions?” Sam asked.

“I’m saying I’m a covert operative, I need to be able to hide, and there I stand out.  It is less than ideal.”  Natasha hummed, thinking.  “I would also say we do need to recruit more diversely.  If we have a wider range of visual appearances, we can more easily send people who can do the work and not get spotted.”

“This session is for identifying weak points and shoring them up, not picking holes in other people’s ideas,” Steve said gently, giving Sam a sympathetic look.  Sam hadn’t been badly injured, but his mood was not made better by the scrapes and burns he’d gotten. “Where did you first notice things going wrong?

“When we walked into a damn trap,” Sam said.  “I saw Rumlow making a move on the IID, and we didn’t stop to think, to plan, to consider his motives.  We knew he had a target, and we jumped in front of it, like idiots.”

“Perhaps Wanda and I were not ideal candidates for a mission against this target,” Vision said.  “We both think in terms of order, cause and effect, goal and method. Rumlow acted in a highly illogical fashion, to achieve a goal neither of us could comprehend.”

“I comprehend revenge just fine,” Wanda snapped.  Vision’s face fell and she softened her tone. “I just do not understand self destruction in the name of vengeance.  I made the mistake of assuming Rumlow would not act in direct violation of the instinct to live. His bomb was… a surprise.”

“So we need to do a better job of pairing people to problems,” Tony noted.  “I can make an algorithm to run psych profiles on our rogue’s gallery, do up some simulations of choice-making versus various targets, maybe predict who’ll do best against what sort of bad guy.”

Steve nodded.  “We also could use better training in identifying suicidal ideation in enemies.  Betty, can you find someone who could give a class or training session?”

“Sure, I think I know a guy.  Although, if it’s not too off topic, I did want to say Wanda did as good a job as could be expected with containing the explosion.  Your powers aren’t particularly suited to containment, but you compensated well by venting up and away from people.”

“I was unsuccessful in keeping the fire away from buildings,” Wanda pointed out, “but you are correct, it could have been much worse.  The least damaging place it could have gone was straight up, which was too much energy for me, but the second least damaging place was that particular floor of that particular office building.  I… don’t know why. I want to spend more time with Doctor Grey on how my power works, at its core, before another active mission.”

Steve noticed Vision had a flat, uncomfortable look, the way he did when people mentioned Ultron or the Mind stone.  Time to intervene. “On a similar note to Betty, Vision did well securing the biological agent.”

“I believe the Lagosian authorities disagree with you,” Vision said, a touch of smugness that reminded Steve of Tony tinging his voice.  “They seemed unhappy with the solution of phasing the entire thing into the bedrock. I think they may sue for destruction of property.”

“Let ‘em try,” Tony said, giving his grandson a feral, toothy grin.  “They didn’t have any right to be housing augmented plagues in a densely populated area, and I have the lawyers to prove it.  You did the right thing, Vis.”

“I think we’ve got as many ideas as we will from this session,” Steve said.  “Clint’s going to be here soon with barbecue, let’s break for dinner and maybe something will shake loose for tomorrow.”

“I can’t make it, I have a peer counselor training session for some of the Afterlife Inhumans,” Sam said.

“It’s okay, we’ll be picking this one apart for a few days at least,” Steve reassured him.  “You guys did good, even if we didn’t get Crossbones in alive.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, Tony, I need the numbers for the in-house grant program or we’re going to lose…”  Darcy blinked in confusion at the room she’d walked into. She stepped forward with the caution the usually reserved for small children, strange animals, and Jane after a bender.  “What’s going on here, buddy?”

“Oh, Darcy, hi, come in!”  Tony waved excitedly from behind a younger version of himself, who was staring pensively.  “I want to show you my barf.”

“I see enough barf, thanks,” Darcy said drily.

“What?  Oh, no, I need to fix the acronym.  Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing, it’s a cool way of saying I figured out how to end run the wet ware, clear the cache as it were.”  Tony waved. “Friday, save progress.”

“On it Boss,” said a crisp, lightly Irish voice as the hologram of Young Tony snapped off, and the screens of data folded themselves away.

“Oh, and meet Friday, she’s new around here, but I think she’s doing quite well.”

“Thank you Boss.”

“Tony…” Darcy paused, trying to find a way to say what she wanted to say politely.  “You’ve been very… productive, lately.”

“I’ve been manic ever since Bruce left,” Tony replied bluntly.  “I’m aware. I’m usually like this, maybe a little less, when I’m working, but it stresses Brucie-bear, so I keep it tamped down for him.  Then when I get solo lab time, it all gets out in one go. Don’t worry, Pepper knows.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Friday said.

“Part emergency break, part nanny cam,” Tony said fondly, before pulling off a pair of glasses frames Darcy hadn’t been aware he knew he was wearing.  “Anyways, I was going to tell you about the tech. It hijacks the hippocampus, lets us get in there and pull memories for review and modification. I based parts of it off old SHIELD tech Agent Agent sent me, and a few lab designs recovered from the Strucker files, then slimmed it way down and put about a dozen safeguards on it.  You can’t erase memories with it, or implant modified ones back into someone’s head. Not by force, anyways.”

“So what does it do?” Darcy asked him carefully.  She was not going to jump to conclusions, no matter how close to brainwashing this sounded.

“It scans and copies a memory into a VR viewfile.  An immersive version of something you lived, that you can share with someone else, just by throwing on a headset or sending the file to the holo-room.”

“That’s amazing.  Tony this will change our after-battle tactic reviews forever!”

He waved, dismissing the idea.  If she didn’t know him so well, she’d be offended, but that gesture translated as ‘yes, but I have more’.

“I’m not good with words, as you know, but after I told Bruce about meeting Maya, about blowing off Killian, about how Howard’s death hit me, all of that…”  Tony nibbled his lip nervously, and Darcy pushed a bag of pretzels closer to him on the table. Tony grabbed a handful and ate some. “Well, sharing it made it smaller, somehow.  Helped me fit it all back into the box it goes in. I designed the B.A.R.F. to make that process even easier, remove some of the talking.”

“And the modification parts?” she prompted.

“You can retry stuff.  Get a do-over. Say things you didn’t get a chance to say.”  Tony busied himself with cleaning a small bit of metal, and waved for explanation.  Darcy blinked at a request for translation, when Friday made a small throat-clearing sound.

“Boss spent a few hours of real-time yelling at Obadiah Stane.”

“Not what I meant to explain, Fri,” Tony sighed.

“Real time?”

“There’s two expression modes for the files.  Augmented reality, which runs in real time and needs a good room for it, and full immersion, which runs at the same speed as dreaming, a few hours per hour.  It basically is dreaming, except targeted directly at the issue, and therefore gets things done much more efficiently.  The other reason for looking into this is finding a good sleep substitute for Vision. He needs some way to process what happens to him, and around him.”

“Still having issues about Lagos?” Darcy asked sympathetically.  Natasha had come to her office the day after they got back, and folded herself into the footwell of the desk.  Despite being impressive, it was a sign that the death of a former comrade, even a complete traitorous tool, had hit the spy hard.

“No,” Tony whispered.  “And that worries me, and his father.  He’s adapted to our lifestyle with hardcore compartmentalization, shoving all the violence and nasty into a box so he doesn’t need to trip over it at home.  That’s great, except he never opens the box.  In theory, the way Ultron built him, that box is bottomless, but what about the day is suddenly isn’t anymore?  I can’t let another generation of Stark go down that road.”

Darcy pulled him into a short, fierce hug.  She was about to scrape up some words of wisdom, some advice about having your children running headlong into danger, when Wanda interrupted with a surprised sound.

“No, it’s okay, I was just going,” Darcy told her, waving the girl back.  Tony always looked a little calmer after Wanda spent some time with him. Darcy didn’t know what they talked about, but she liked the results, in both of them.

<^>

In the new training facility, Steve stood at a large whiteboard, a pack of colored pens cracked open in his hand.  A small red hammer was sketched in a box drawn of wavy, interlinked lines he’d drawn while thinking. A black sketch of a wickedly curved dagger was below it and to the left by about two inches both ways.  Both Asgardians were off on missions in space. Steve pressed a hand to the green fist also in the box, silently praying Hulk was okay. A drawing of the Milano was beside the fist, a light blue lemniscate holding both aspects of that mission.

On the other side of the board, symbols and sigils were arranged in columns, separating tasks and missions, and rows designated by time range.  He sighed and moved Darcy’s thunderhead from Politics - Monthly , to Public - Ongoing , then put his own star-in-circle in the newly empty place.  He hated it, but they needed to shift Darcy away from the high-stress, high-danger jobs.  Dr. Cho wasn’t happy with the amount of weight Darcy had lost from being sick constantly, as well as the strain of long meetings.  When they’d learned her pregnancy was two babies, not just one, light duty moved from ‘a good idea’ to ‘sooner rather than later’.

Also, they needed a heavy hitter on the face team.

“Jarvis, can you pull up the news feed from earlier?”

“Captain, you have watched the footage of King T’Chaka condemning us five times in the past twenty four hours,” Jarvis informed him.  “I believe we are crossing into unhealthy obsession territory. Please, reconsider your approach.”

“He thinks we targeted his people,” Steve said.  He emphasized his point with a wave of a dry erase marker.  Jarvis was right, watching the video wasn’t going to change anything, but he didn’t know how else to work towards a way past the problem.

“We did not,” Jarvis said, repeating an argument he’d made before.  “We know we did not, we had no idea there were Wakandan outreach workers in Lagos, let alone that building.  We could send him the data on our planning, to show him there was no information about his people?”

“But I think we did target them,” Steve said.  He could hear the slight buzz of Jarvis thinking hard, like a regular computer powering up, which was uncommonly loud for him.  Steve capped his pen and took a seat where he could face a convenient camera. “Look, Wanda said she knew she couldn’t put the fire out, or get it high enough that releasing it was safe.  So she put it the second safest place. How did she know that floor was safer to put it?”

“Her powers are based in quantum chance manipulation,” Jarvis said quickly.  “She knew because she has access to the base statistics of the universe that no one else has.  On that floor, the fire was, would be, in all events it goes there, be quickly contained with few deaths and major injuries.”

“What was the only thing different about that floor of that building?”

The whirr built, then died.  Jarvis had reached the same conclusion Steve had.  For some reason he wasn’t taking the next step as quickly as usual.  Of course, Jarvis had been splitting his time pretty far lately, spending a decent percentage of bandwidth on raising Vision so he didn’t become a science fiction villain.

“There was a Wakandan outreach team on that floor.  On the whole floor. They leased the entire level to headquarter their operation in Nigeria.”

“What do we know about Wakanda?”

“An isolated African country known primarily for wildlife preservation and a traditional way of life, primarily herding goats.  One of the only extant countries to have never been under political control by Europeans, little else is known about the notoriously reclusive culture.”

Steve waited.  He knew Jarvis would get it.  He was getting better at logic leaps, less prone to rely on his access to the internet’s databanks.  For some reason this was taking longer, though.

“Jarvis, what is my shield made of?  Why did Ultron attack Ulysses Klaue? Wakanda is the only place in the world with vibranium, and they pretty clearly have more of it than ended up in my shield.”

“Captain, I am uncomfortable with this line of inquiry.”

“Wanda did target them, or rather her power did.  Wanda targeted the place with the best possible chance to have minimal death and injury without exploding her own head, because she’s a hero and that’s what saved the most people.  Her power knew the people there, the Wakandan team, happened to have the best response time, the best resources to fight the fire, to evacuate quickly.  Probably tech based off vibranium, like Vision is. Wanda subconsciously aimed the fire so that potential allies could help her.  Now, though, King T’Chaka is trying to hang her out to dry, to cover up the tools his people have that kept the casualties so low.  Which is not just bullying a traumatized girl who already thinks she needs to save the world to atone for her survivor’s guilt, it’s cheating his own people out of their fully justified status as heroes.”

“Captain…”

“I don’t like bullies, Jarvis, and I don’t care where they come from.  More than that, I hate the so called leaders who think they get to walk all over their people.  Who make it hard for their people to be the best versions of themselves, to have a chance to make a difference.  By painting his team as poor, defenseless victims instead of well equipped citizens who stepped up when there was a crisis, he’s on both sides of my shit list and I do not intend to let him get away with it.”

“Captain, the Secretary of State is here to see the team.”

“Fuck.” Steve sighed and ran a hand over his face, “Alright, who hates him least?”

“I’ve requested Agents Romanova and Barton, Airman Wilson, Ms. Lewis, and yourself, as the least likely to commit a felony on the property.  Mr. Stark, the Maximoff twins and Vision are all on route to escort Dr. Ross to a panic room, in the hopes this keeps the most vulnerable and most volatile away from him.  Sergeant Barnes was supposed to join them, but instead took his go bag, a scoped rifle, and his motorcycle out the back way.” Jarvis let out a puff of cold air from a vent to substitute a laugh.  “I took the liberty of moving the meeting to a room with semi-obscured sight lines.”

“Good job, Jarvis.  I’m just glad Dr. Banner isn’t here right now.”

“Captain, Secretary Ross is beginning to look impatient.  For him, I mean. On anyone else I would have notified emergency personnel of an impending heart attack.”

“Five minutes, or I’ll punch the guy in the meeting.  I promised Betty we’d get it in public.”

<^>

“I’m so proud of you, Doll,” Bucky crooned, massaging Darcy’s shoulders.  “No murder, that’s a good thing. You did so well.”

“Please stop acting like I’m a toddler who finished her peas,” Darcy snapped, although she didn’t pull away from his hands.  “What’s up with you? You know I can keep my temper when it’s called for.”

“The books say stress is bad for the babies,” Bucky said quietly.  “I was trying to be calming.”

“Helen said our biggest risk was the first three months, and the last two,” Darcy reminded him.  Her voice was comforting, but it held the mirror of his own fear in it. “We’re almost out of the woods, at thirteen weeks.  Then we have a whole four months of relative safety.”

“Well, most babies aren’t being born to women who have to stare monsters in the face and pretend they’re not seeing red.  I had to leave the compound today, because I was so scared of what could happen and I didn’t want to make it worse. I packed my rifle in case Jarvis told me you’d had a problem, so I could make sure that bastard didn’t get away.”

“I’m torn here,” Darcy admitted slowly.  “On one hand, I’d have preferred to have both of you with me in the case, all listening deities forbid, I had a… a problem.  I’m not real happy you took off if you thought that was a risk. On the other, it’s strangely romantic to me that you’d avenge our children with such, hmm, call it proactive vigor.”

“You don’t think I’m a wuss for getting scared?”

“Bucky, no!”  Darcy finally pulled free of his massage, only to turn and pull him close to her.  “Honey, you are one of the bravest men alive, and I want you to recall we live with superheroes.  You’re no wuss, if something scares you, it’s probably scary. But in this case, regardless of the valid scariness of the idea, I think you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“I just want to wrap you in tissue and straw,” Bucky mumbled into her bosom, a small part of his brain noting that said bosom may have gotten a touch larger.  Darcy laughed, and he recalled the first time he’d packed something when she and Steve were swapped. She’d been fascinated by the process of paper, more paper, straw, and yet more paper, before going in a box of straw.  He’s wondered what her life was like, what strange ways they’d invented to ship things without breaking them. Bubblewrap had been fascinating when he finally saw it.

Now he was having panic attacks about keeping loose plastic out of the apartment once the babies were here.

“So what did Thunderbutt want, anyway?”

“New legislation,” Darcy said, in the same tone most people talked about dog shit on their shoes.  “Declaring the Avengers an official peace keeping force under the aegis of a UN committee, only to act when they deem it necessary.”

“What counts as ‘acting’?” Bucky asked, sitting up abruptly.  “Like, yeah, if we have a brawl with some superpowered maniac, that’s acting as Avengers, but what about when Matt and I go out to spook drug dealers together?  It’s premeditated, but it’s not really a super powered threat. Or if Steve is walking down the street and stops a purse snatching? Regular people can stop purse snatchings, but will Steve have broken the law?  And what happens if the crisis comes on fast? We don’t always get enough warning to assemble an international committee, let alone wait for a decision! There’s a reason the World Security Council disbanded after the fall of Hydra.”

“Preaching, choir, et cetera,” Darcy drawled.  “It’s a pretty transparent trap, honestly, and baited with emotional cheese.  I’m really glad Wanda wasn’t there, Ross leaned pretty hard on the Lagos incident, and the whole thing is called ‘The Sokovia Accords’ which is blatantly wrong on so many levels, since we wouldn’t be signing them in Sokovia.  He wanted us signed on willing and enthusiastic about needing to be controlled, before the proposition hits the UN committee.  Sam nearly bit his head off over the emotional manipulation, which I did not expect.”

“Well, Sam’s secondary on the team is air support, his primary is keeping us from going crazy.  That’d be like someone flipping the batteries on your tasers, or smearing jelly on my scopes.”

Bucky sighed and shifted them in the bed, pulling Darcy to rest on his chest.  She made a happy sound and started idley tracing the scars on his shoulder.

“How’s the new arm working?”

“It itches,” Bucky admitted.  “I like this one better than the last prototype, though.  I have finer control on the fingers, and more touch sensitivity.  It’s still not right, but to be honest, it’s not the arm’s fault. I just… I miss my arm, crazy as that sounds.”

And despite the baggage that came with it, he did, he missed the metal arm that had served him seventy long years.  He missed the surety of the precise clicks of calibration, the warmth at the join, the solidness of it. He didn’t miss the muscle strain or the infections, but he missed the arm he’d taken from his captors, the arm he’d stolen back.  The arm enchanted by toddlers in the dead of night, the arm that braided Darcy’s hair for the first time.

“Steve’s going to be back soon,” Darcy told him.  “I’ll stay up with you until he gets here, but then I need some sleep.  The babies don’t let up on the nausea except in the evening and early night, so I want to get my sleep in while I’m not going to puke.”

“You sleep, Doll,” Bucky said, kissing her hair.  “I’ll keep the watch until Stevie gets here.”

Chapter Text

Darcy sipped her ginger ale and tried to decide who had the worst of Steve’s rearrangement of their plans.  Sure, her darling spitfire was off doing verbal battle with politicos they both hated, fighting in an arena that required small talk and no punching, but she was wearing a dress that had been a bit slim fitting before the baby weight started and pretending to care about the problems of a billionaire housewife.  There was a fun part, later, after the MIT bigwigs and the donors who’d paid handsomely for proximity to famous people had gone. There were grant recipients to meet with, details to hammer out about payment schedules, checks to cut.  She loved that part. Giving people ridiculous sums of money was the best part of knowing Tony.

“Sorry, Mrs. Gallow, but I’ve simply got to steal the lovely lady here away for a dance.”

Okay, not the best part.  One of them, but not the best.

“Thank you, Tony.  I could feel my eyes glazing over.”  Darcy relaxed her shoulders and blew out a small breath.  Preparing for ballroom dance was similar for preparing to spar, and at this point, she trusted Tony on the mats and on the dance floor.  “Tell me something happy? I need to smile at this thing, but I’m all out of happy juice.”

“I’m no expert, but should you even be drinking happy juice?” Tony asked with a grin.  She didn’t dignify that with a response.  He knew the orders regarding her ‘champagne’ refills as well as she did.  “The first grant recipient we’re surprising tonight is named Charles Spencer. Computer engineering degree with a 3.6 GPA, job lined up at Intel, decent shot at a mediocre but fulfilling life.  He also had a dead grant proposal from his last semester for high-tech, sustainable, quick build emergency housing.  It got put in too late, end of April, was due earlier than that.”

“April, huh?”

“He watched the news from Sokovia, rushed out the plan.  Hadn’t planned on a grant before then, took a risk, and slipped through a red tape crack.”

“We’re fully funding that, aren’t we?”

“I love being me,” Tony said with a blinding grin.

Tony spun her gently, then they passed in opposite circles as they left the dance floor, smiling and schmoozing as much as they could.  Pepper was somewhere, holding court among fashionable and wealthy women who wanted to add ‘powerful’ to the list. Rhodes was looking stoic and handsome in his Air Force uniform, entertaining men with small stories of War Machine’s adventures.  The rest of the team were in New York, but this particular gala was a Boston affair, with a limited guest list. Despite being the team lead on public relations, Darcy was only able to be here as Rhodey’s plus-one.

“You look lovely, my dear,” said a lightly accented voice behind her, and Darcy turned with a dazzling smile.  The man it came from seemed out of place, despite the skillfully tailored suit and neatly combed beard. His face spoke of a life lived, but not without some luck and much stubbornness.  Not the image of a socialite or an academic.

“Thank you, Mr…”

“Doyle is fine, ma’am.”

“Then call me Darcy.  Not to be rude, but… is there something I can help you with?”

He hummed.  “That’ll be seen, for sure.  Mind if we take this business out on the patio?  A bit stuffy in here for my likes.”

She noted the careful moves of the men around them, all looking not at them, and to the untrained eye, simple arm candy temporarily freed from their cougar’s paws.

“I could use some air.”  On the patio, she turned and hopped her rear onto the decoratively carved stone rail, kicking her heels off casually.  It looked like relief for aching feet, and it was, but it also freed her to fight or run, if necessary, and her next question would likely make that clear.  “What’s up, and why did you feel the need for bodyguards?”

“I’m a man of some distinction,” Doyle said.  He seemed unfazed by her ability to tag his undercover team, which she suspected was more about what he knew of her, than his relaxed attitude towards counter intelligence.  “Which is the answer to both your questions. I’ve few friends, and more than a few enemies, although many more allies. I like to grow that last number where I can. I’ve reason to think there might be some worthy ones up your way, lass.  Interesting things have been going on there of late.”

“What sort of interesting?  I mean, the city never sleeps, you need to be specific.”

“Why, Darcy-lass, the sort of interesting that has MacBain bringing gifts to Russians.”  Doyle’s tone was light, easy, but hid a tiny thread of genuine hurt in it. Actual pain, not false.  It was hard to fake that, then hide it, but just enough to only be seen by a trained eye. Natasha could do it, but Darcy didn’t think this guy was a Natasha grade liar.  “His people aren’t nor have ever been beholden to us, of course, but if anyone was going to get a present, you’d think it’d be someone from a bit closer to home.”

“Oh!”  Realization dawned, and Darcy felt a bit silly.  “Sorry, that was my fault. My husband arranged an adoption for Vladimir, and my sister is Barra’s… well, I think it’s more Barra is hers , full stop, actually, but anyway, that was on me.  I didn’t know there was a protocol to follow there. Barra was just giving them some baby things for Svetka because Ciara insisted, because I’m the godmother and that makes her the god-aunt.  Also because she also has kids and knows babies are expensive.  Have you seen the price on strollers these days? It’s criminal!”

Doyle gave her a look.

“No offence.”

“None taken where none is offered.  So, there’s an alliance, then? Of marriage?”

“Not really?  I mean, my daughter is Bratva, but I wouldn’t say Bucky and I are.  We just prefer that everyone get along, within the family, and Ciara gives presents as a love language.  Bucky’s sister is closer to that than the rest of us, though, and I’ve got a bet riding that one of his proteges is gonna end up seeing Vladimir…”  Darcy shrugged. “I have a map of all that at home. It’s color coded.”

“Somehow, I don’t doubt ye do,” Doyle said slowly, appreciatively.  His eyes had that gleam of wanting that made Darcy nervous.

“As an aside, that husband I mentioned is a notorious assassin, and our daughters are also capable and connected killers with slightly wonky moral compasses, and every last one of them knows my policy on revenge includes the phrase ‘salt the earth on which it stood’.  So backing up a step might be wise.”

“My apologies, I didn’t mean to crowd,” Doyle said immediately, backing up as requested.  “Not at all the intent of my admiration. I’ll not insult ye by claiming I’ve no interest, but the interest is… not of a physical nature.  I’m aiming at an alliance, not a dalliance.”

“Oh, brain-squish,” Darcy said, nodding.  “Jane gets those on scientists.  I guess I’ve got some skills that could be considered attractive.  Mostly I just refuse to let my family die, so it keeps getting bigger.  I can offer you an introduction to the Ranskahovs, but I’m a bit too busy these days to actually help any with the empire-building.”

“Anything I could help with?”

“Can you convince the world’s leaders that indenturing powered people as a form of attack dog to be sic’d on command is a bad idea?” Darcy said with a weary sigh.  Her ability to fight off sarcastic eye rolls may have slipped a bit, but Doyle seemed the type to appreciate a blunt woman, so she was less concerned.

“What now?” Doyle asked sharply, brow raised.

“Nevermind.”  Darcy waved to show the joke in her statement.  She wasn’t intending to use an extra-legal source on this, that would just complicate matters.  “We’re on it, it just means… you know, busy.  Speaking of busy, I need to go smile insincerely at a few dozen more sycophants with connections so they say nice things about us to the people with actual power.”

“Better you than I, Darcy-lass,” Doyle laughed, and Darcy stepped back inside, stopping a moment to pass one of her cards to the pretty bodyguards.

It was, after all, nice to have friends in low places.

<^>

Staring at the King of Wakanda, Steve was starting to wish he could, in fact, get drunk.  The meeting with the UN super-committee on empowered individuals was somehow going even worse than he’d planned for.  They’d been going in circles about the fact that, for starters the proposed legislation was blatantly illegal in most countries, legally akin to slavery, but nobody had better ideas, and nobody wanted to keep going the way things had.

“Look, when I see something going wrong, I can’t just do nothing,” Steve said firmly.  “You’re not going to get me to move on that point. I will always believe that someone has to fight when aliens drop from the sky, when madmen turn people into weapons , or when Nazis are somehow a thing... again!  Someone has to keep the line in the sand enforced, or it means nothing.”

“And that someone has to be America?” King T’Chaka asked pointedly.

“I could change my code name if you like?” Steve offered in exhausted frustration.  “Captain Planet is trademarked, but I think we could swing Captain Terra or something.  Swap the red stripes for green, rebrand the whole thing.”

King T’Chaka let out a surprised chuckle.  “You would take such a ridiculous name? Wear such an outfit?”

“Sir, have you ever seen any photographs of what I wore in the USO?” Steve said bluntly.  He carefully pulled his best poker face over the hysterical laughter that wanted to come out, forcing a monotone drawl into his voice as long as it would hold.  “I don’t have a dignity left to injure.  The United States Army surgically removed it in the 1940’s.  I would wear a spangly disco jumpsuit with a neckline to my navel if it meant I got to help people who need it.  I’d do just about anything, if it means getting to fight the good fight. You want me to move? I’ll do it. Change official citizenship?  Just hand me the paperwork. Buy a houseboat and live full time in international waters? I’ve got the money to do that.”

Steve shrugged.  His list of things he’d do was pretty long, and he didn’t actually think anyone here would take him up on his offers.  In fact, it seemed a waste, when the list of things he wouldn’t do, what he simply couldn’t do was so much shorter.

“What I won’t do is sign my family up for what looks to be the start of another Shoah.  I refuse to let my children live in a world where the fact you can do something neat means other people get to control you, force you to register on some big list controlled by God knows what powers, round you up for being ‘dangerous’ when what they mean is different ....”

His voice broke and Steve bit his lip, hard.  He could feel his hands shaking under the table as he closed his eyes and counted the windows behind King T’Chaka from memory.  Then he counted the ceiling tiles. When he felt less like screaming until something broke, he cleared his voice and looked up. There were a few pale faces at the table, a few eyes that refused to meet his own.  The delegate from Israel looked particularly uncomfortable.

“Shoah?” she asked.  “I wasn’t aware you were Jewish, Captain.”

“I’m Catholic, but my wife….” Steve trailed off the quiet explanation.  “That doesn’t matter.  I have feelings about that, not because of faith, but because I pulled children out of cages , left there like dogs in a kennel.  I was there when we decided to burn the research rather than risk someone deciding it was worth the cost.  I saw what was done.  I saw how it started, I saw where it ended, and I refuse to go down that path again.  I will not be made the instrument of enslavement, of segregation, of genocide.  If you need a patsy for this, look somewhere else, because I will not put my family back in the cages we shattered in 1944.”

He locked eyes with her until the honest pain he was willing to show got to her, and she looked at her watch.  “Let’s break for lunch, yes?”

The lunch provided was hardly a snack to Steve, but he knew he had to hold out until he could get back home.  They were on a shaky footing already, showing off how many calories he really required wasn’t a good idea. Not a weakness he felt like showing, anyway.

“You should try the Wakandan juice,” said someone quietly from beside Steve in the line for the sandwich platter.  “It’s green, and smells like dirt.”

“Not exactly selling me on it,” Steve said back, matching the quiet tone.

“It also has enough nutrients in it to feed ten men on that one jug,” said the man.  His voice was warm, and had a Wakandan accent.  Steve blinked, and recalled his name, Prince T’Challa.  “Our soldiers carry bottles of it to use in emergencies.  I can see your hunger.  You need it, we have it, and it occurs that starving you might be making things harder.”

“I’m fine,” Steve said, aware the prince wouldn’t know what that word meant in his family.  T’Challa scoffed and turned away.  The jug of juice in question, though, was right there.  It was available to anyone to try, although the swampy appearance meant it hadn’t been touched.  Taking a chance, Steve filled a cup and went to sit down. Surprisingly, it tasted good, bright and citrusy, with a subtle undertone of something fatty, like the cream in milk.  It also took away the gnawing, hungry edge that had been sharpening itself in his gut.  Steve smiled, and finished it in a quick sip, careful not to look like he was gulping it.

“I see you like the offering we brought with us,” King T’Chaka remarked, sitting across from Steve again.

“Your son recommended it.”  Steve admired the slightly metallic aftertaste, it reminded him of the good kind of gummy vitamins.  “Is this a common drink in Wakanda?”

T’Chaka raised a brow.  Steve knew enough Eyebrow to know what that meant.

“I’m asking because if it’s plentiful enough to export, I know a place that will happily buy it in bulk.”  Steve smiled at the King. “I wasn’t being hypothetical about my children, you know. They’d love this, and so would their classmates.”

“You have… special children?” the Prince asked, sitting beside Steve.

“I’d say all parents think their kids are special, but yes, our kids are mutants.  Harley talks to technology, and Zoe controls plants.” Steve laughed softly, recalling the first time Harley overdrove his headlights while using powers.  The poor kid had turned into a zombie, listlessly shoveling pizza into his face and then passing out standing up. “Teenagers… add that to the metabolism to support powers, and they’re always hungry.”

“I remember those days,” King T’Chaka chuckled.  His son muttered in Wakandan and looked away, but not before Steve caught the faintest extra red at his cheeks.

Maybe, just maybe, they’d get through this.

<^>

Tony’s lab was always something that made Bucky want to gape in wonder.  It didn’t matter how many times he’d been in the high-tech room, with its cool blue holograms, the soft whirring of the bot family, and the machines he didn’t recognize, there was always some part of him that was amazed.

Today, it was an offer Tony had made.

“You really think this could help?”

“Well, I made the B.A.R.F. to help with psychological processing of traumatic memories, but there’s no reason we can’t just back all yours up.”  Tony tapped a black tower case. “I’ve got a couple thousand terabytes of storage here, ready and waiting to hold all the data you can throw at me.  From what I can tell, the problem seems to be that you have something like a half century of data stored in a brain that is, no offence, swiss cheese.  The physical damage alone would make memory retrieval dicey for a normal person. Add to that, Darcy herself only had so much storage capacity. One person can’t physically hold that many memories without the brain doing some squirrelly shit.  In the process of saving the you part, you two probably suffered data overlap, fragmentation, copy errors… looking back I could slap myself for not insisting you go to a neurologist as soon as we had you back on solid food.”

“I just want to be able to remember things again,” Bucky said.  “I hate that I keep losing bits, important things, like the fact Natasha lost siblings in 1977.  I should know what family members have died , if nothing else.”

“Well, we’ll start you off easy, okay?” Tony said, helping Bucky settle in a comfortable chair with a pair of glasses.  “Just scan up the recent stuff, back it up, and work our way backwards slowly. Jarvis and I worked up a program to help match data points to get things in the right order, build a timeline for you out of memories and the data we have on your captivity.  Now, close your eyes, this should just be like sleeping.”

Bucky took a deep breath, blew it out, and closed his eyes.  Sleep wasn’t always easy, but Tony had offered a chance at something well worth it.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Steve, can you get me a different type of toothpaste at the store later?  The baby hates spearmint apparently...” Darcy stopped halfway into the living room of their apartment.  “Um, Vision, what did you need?”

“Tony has asked me to install a Crash Pad in your quarters.  He also said to ask if you prefer that naming structure.”

Darcy scanned the object Vision was working on.  It was a chair, in a mostly reclined position, parts pulled farther apart than in its intended configuration so Vision could fit in more electronics from a small tablecloth beside him. The surfaces you’d sit on were a plush brown suede, but the internal parts she could see indicated more than a typical massage chair was being built.

“It looks like a Barcalounger had a baby with the Hydra chairs.  Get it out of my living room.”

“But Tony said to-”

Out , Vision,” Darcy repeated with more emphasis.  “Jarvis, corral your spawn, please. And have the talk about privacy again.”

She barely waited long enough for Jarvis to confirm he’d heard her, before stalking off to the Asym Gym for a nice soothing siege against a generic warlord.  After dismantling attacks and breaking a few holographic spines, and after a hot shower, Darcy felt just enough human again to track down Vision to explain. In the lab, she found Bucky, passed out on a suspiciously familiar brown chair.

“Tony, what is going on here?”

“Naptime,” Tony said quickly, not looking up from the computer.  “You know the elderly need lots of afternoon naps.”

“Really?  Because it looks like you’re rewiring my husband.  Explain, Tony. Now, please.”

Tony twirled in his chair and waved a pair of glasses.  “These are sort of flimsy,” he said. “They can get knocked off, they can break if you roll over on them, not a good design, really.  I mean, they do work, that’s fine, but there’s always room for improvement. The chair is better, more support for the lumbar, less likely to break.”

“Not actually helping, Tony,” Darcy ground out.  “My hormones are going insane and the longer I wait the less control on my reactions I have.”

“Barnes asked me not to tell you,” Tony said quickly.  “And it’s a medical thing, so there’s privacy issues here.  He’ll be coming up again in about half an hour, and then you can confront him yourself, but my lips are sealed.”

She watched him do the key-lock-toss gesture at his mouth, and sighed.  “I will, but thank you for standing up for his privacy. I’m on edge for some reason, and it looks way too much like a Hydra chair when it’s being assembled.”

“Vision may have mentioned you didn’t like the look,” Tony said blandly.  “He’s got one in his room, too. He’s a little bit hurt because he was the one who designed the interface appearance.  I was half expecting him to want a rocket-ship bed when I asked.”

“His mental age is really hard to pinpoint,” Darcy said sympathetically.  “In some ways, he’s super mature, in others, he’s just a kid. And he looks like an adult, in the proportions of his body and face, which just throws all the calculations out the window.  I forget I have to pull the verbal punch sometimes.”

“Will you tell the kid that, for chrissakes?” Tony snapped.  “He thinks you’re worried he’s evil!”

“What?”

“You compared his design to something Hydra made,” Tony explained slowly.  “He’s still learning the practical application of moral philosophy, but he has figured out that if you do something Hydra would do, it’s probably closer to evil than good.  His model for evil is them, which is perfectly valid and fair. His model for good is a trinity of you, Steve, and for some reason, me.  I asked him to do a thing, you told him the thing resembled evil, and Steve is in Berlin right now.  He has no clue what he did wrong, why you think he’s evil, or if I should get struck from the list for asking in the first place.”

“Steve is in Berlin?”  It was the only part of what Tony had said she grasped.  Everything else was a complex mess of emotion and duty and hysterical laughter.  Pull that thread, her whole brain might melt out her ear.

“Yeah, there’s a negotiation for the UN thing,” Tony said with a wave.  “Spangles is going to wow all the politicians and ambassadors and what-all with his amazing moral compass, Pepper is there to present some legal data, and Natasha is, I believe, pulling in her favors.  We’ll have protection from the registration kooks in no time, I’m sure of it.”

“Why wasn’t I told?”

“I assumed Steve had told you, or Tasha,” Tony said with a shrug.  “Look, you seem upset about being left out of the loop. Would it help if I show you something I’ve only showed one other person?  It’s… maybe important, like world-ends-everyone-dies important, but I’ve had to… I’ve had to work on getting where I could share it.  And maybe it’s nothing, just fear and bad tape, but if you need to feel like you’re not being handled with kid gloves because of the spawn, I’m willing to share.”

Darcy tilted her head.  “Level with me, when did you get a psych degree?”

“After Squidgate but before Greenwich?”  He tilted his head, trying to pull the information out of his memory.  “Online, community college, not an MD, but enough to keep up with Bird Wonder when he started talking about our emotions and things.  It’s strangely useful. For instance, I know you’re not going to feel up to clearing shit with Vision until you get some help for the outdated pregnancy sidelining you’re getting.  So, you wanna get a peek behind the curtain?”

“Sure, hook me up,” Darcy said with a shrug, plopping down on an office chair.  Tony fitted the glasses to her face and had her track his fingers.

“So, the first thing you’ll see is raw footage from the Strucker hit, when I made Wanda scared.  She popped the lid on some stuff, and neither of us knows if it’s predictive or not. Then, you’ll see a few deconstructed editions of the vision itself, with signifying tags popping up to let you know what we’ve worked out so far.  There are a few of those because there’s more than one reasonable theory with connected sets of evidence. Then, for good measure, I threw in some soothing beach scenes and a sunset, because you’ll need some unwind time to cope with the stuff, let your amygdala rest.”

<^>

Steve knew something was wrong when his flight plan was routed through SHIELD’s New York HQ, instead of right to the tower.  That meant Jarvis had arranged for them to have more warning that Steve had arrived, or that he wanted Steve to enter through an unexpected entrance, not the hangar bay.

He knew he was in danger when the elevator up didn’t produce the clarification he asked for, and instead just took him up to the common room, rather than his apartment.

He knew he was in trouble when Pepper greeted him with her ‘dealing with idiots’ face on.

“Uh, hi, Pepper… How are things?”

“Things continue to be things,” Pepper said tightly.  “We’re eating in the formal dining room tonight. Wash your hands, and then I’ll walk you to dinner.”

Steve looked at her a little apprehensively, but ultimately decided whatever faced him at dinner in the seldom used formal dining room wasn’t as scary as Pepper’s face right then.  A quick trip to the kitchen let him wash his hands, although he yanked his hands out at first, before adjusting the temperature by hand. Apparently, the threat had taken out Jarvis, usually the AI kept the water at each user’s preferred washing temperature.  Pepper escorted him to the dining room, and sat him down at the end opposite Darcy.

Tony sat in the middle of one side, Bucky to his right, next to Steve.  Sam had taken a spot on his left, and Pepper sat in the middle opposite Tony.  Vision was between Pepper and Steve, and the remaining spot held Wanda.

“Is this everyone?” Steve asked, trying to sound out the situation.  If his team could give him a hint, or a clue, he could work with it. If their support teams were still free agents, then there was more hope.

“It’s everyone relevant to the discussion at hand,” Sam said with a frown.  “Which you’d know if Jarvis had briefed you. J, what’s up, man?”

“I am not speaking to either Ms. Lewis or Captain Rogers until a proper apology has been issued to my son,” Jarvis said frostily.  Steve recalled that tone from only one other occasion, when Tony had been missing.

“That’s not helpful,” Sam told the AI.  “Fixing relationships takes work, on both sides.  Yes, Darcy and Steve have made mistakes today, but I don’t think they want to cut you or Vision out of their lives, and being present is how you show you don’t want that either.  Being here is what you do to meet them halfway. Yes, they gotta go farther, but you gotta at least show up.”

“I am, for all intents, the Tower,” Jarvis pointed out.  “I am here. I still don’t have to talk.”

“Unless you bring down a Legionnaire, they can’t see you, and the silent treatment is like being not here.”

“Trust me, Sam, you do not want me to have a Legionnaire here,” Jarvis snipped.

“Dad, knock it off,” Vision said firmly, but with the tone of someone who practiced a phrase they heard in another language.  “I want to learn to fix this sort of thing. Personal relationships are hard, and it is often me making the mistake.  I want them to repair the damage, so I can do the same when I do something wrong.  Which means doing what Sam says, so the procedure works correctly.”

“Good job, Vis,” Sam said with a smile.  “That is an excellent statement of goals.  I’ll do mine next, to fill Steve in. There have been some interpersonal foul ups today, and I’m here to help everyone sort them out, and figure out the best ways to repair the damage done.  So my goal is to get everyone working towards a repaired relationship.”

“I can go next, I guess,” Darcy said.  Her voice was a maelstrom of conflicting signals, and Steve struggled to figure it out.  “I need to make things right with Vision, firstly. I said things in anger that were both confusing and hurtful, and I know I damaged that trust.  I also need you three to actually tell me shit when it affects me.” She pointed at Tony, Bucky, and Steve.

“In Tony’s defense, we weren’t sure of anything when we first started working to pull apart the premonition,” Wanda said softly.  Darcy’s face softened, and she patted Wanda’s hand.

“I know, dear, and I don’t blame you at all.  Everything on your side makes sense. But Tony was hiding a huge psychological weak spot in the form of trauma from hearing a child die .  I need to know that sort of thing, so I don’t, you know, make shit worse by refusing him a celebration cake and telling him he’s responsible for keeping our family intact?  That’s really helpful information to have. Also, he’s the one who sent Vision up to my apartment with no warning, which led to the very unfortunate exchange I’m needing to fix.”

Bucky turned away from Steve to look at Tony in shock.  “Seriously? You know he has a hard time figuring out boundaries, calling first is the least you can do.”

“You’re not exactly batting a thousand in the honesty department either, buddy,” Tony sniped back.  “And I was the one who fended off the pregnant honey badger over there when she walked in on your Crash Pad session.  I know I screwed up, and I want to fix it, but my only goal here tonight is to keep the conversations we have civil. I’m still learning this stuff as much as Vision is, since Mom and Dad had… let’s call them sub-par private social skills.  Great for company, not so great for family. If nobody throws anything, I’ll leave happy.”

Steve bit his lip in regret for exactly how low Tony’s bar was.  That was just sad. Sure, Howard had always been rough at the edges, with sharp humor that could hurt as well as help, but Steve hadn’t expected to find out his friend had raised a son who defined ‘civil’ as not throwing things.

“On that note, Bucky?” asked Pepper, gently shifting them all along.  Steve glanced at her hands, and saw the knuckles on her left hand were glowing a light orange as she cut a bit of steak.  If not for the Extremis, they’d be bone white.

“I’ve been keeping something that worried me secret from everyone, and I need to fix the damage that did to the trust you all have in me,” Bucky said solemnly.  “I’ve started noticing gaps in my memory. Beyond just the things I chose not to give Darcy and now don’t have at all. I was trying to remember Rumlow, from when I was held by Hydra, to better prepare for the mission in Lagos.  I couldn’t get any details. Then, Natasha told me she lost sisters in 77. Twin girls. A good father should remember which daughters have died. I asked Tony to help me, but the solution looks sort of scary.”

“It looks like a Barcalounger had a baby with the Hydra chairs,” Vision said.  Darcy blushed bright red.

“That’s not on you, Vision,” Darcy said firmly.  “Right here and now, I’m telling you, the physical similarity of tools has nothing to do with their moral intent.  You can cave someone’s head in with a hammer, or you can build a house. I just happen to have specific trauma about chairs that can mess with the mind, and combined with surprise at having you in our private space, I snapped weird about it.  I’m sorry for that.”

Steve reeled a second.  Bucky having mental problems, Darcy had a trauma reaction, probably a flashback if she snapped at Vision.  It was too much.

“Are the babies okay after…”

“No thanks to you, Steven Grant Rogers,” Darcy growled.  “You went to GERMANY. Without TELLING ME. I didn’t even know you’d left the apartment until Tony told me!”

“Not like that’s new behavior, Dollface,” Bucky laughed.  “I didn’t find out the first time he went overseas until he was unstrapping me.”

“One, he was heading to you, not away, and two, you weren’t hopped up on pregnancy hormones and alone ,” Darcy said tartly.  “I need as few bad surprises as I can get.  Actually make that as few surprises, period, full stop, no qualifiers.  I’d also really like to know what’s on my husband’s itinerary, especially if it takes you away from the Tower or the Compound.  I want to know who has your back, who might be aiming at it, and how.”

“I was trying to protect you from extra stress,” Steve said.  “To take as much off your plate as I could, so you could rest.  I want to wrap you in blankets and carry you around on a pillow, but I know that’s both insulting and not actually good for the babies, so I was trying to be quiet about the help I could give.”

“That backfired terribly,” Pepper noted.  Her voice held an odd, flat quality, one Steve usually only heard when she was speaking to someone exceptionally dumb.  “You know your wife, I presume? Why did you think sneaking around, withholding information, and generally being an unempathetic clod was going to reduce her stress?  She’s a spy , Steven.  She likes information, and she dislikes people sneaking around.”

Steve paused a moment.  Yeah, now that it was phrased that way, he could see where he went wrong.

“And another thing-”

“No.”  Tony’s quiet voice was firm enough to cut Pepper off.  “He gets it, Pep. You can see in the little ridge thing his eyebrows do.  Pushing harder makes it sound like you think he’s an idiot.”

“He was acting like an idiot.”

“Yeah, then ,” Tony said firmly.  “Now, he’s acting like a guy who just got hit in the face by a clue-by-four and needs time to decide how to use it.  One mistake does not an incompetent hackweasel make, so put away your Justin-Hammer-done-fucked-up face, and remember we don’t do friendly fire if we can help it.”

Pepper blew out a deep breath.  “Sorry, Steve. I know better than to snipe at the dinner table, but I forget my manners sometimes.  I’m very used to backing up women being dismissed or mistreated by men in general, and I forget that individual men can make fixable mistakes.  I know you do care about Darcy’s feelings, you just forgot to ask what they were.  It’s fixable, and I’ll give you room to do it.”

“Darcy, I’m sorry I didn’t ask what you wanted.  I was doing what men were supposed to do for their wives when my Ma was around to tell me that sort of thing.  You know, stay out of your way unless you needed help, take care of as many chores as I could actually do, and refrain from assuming you need me to tell you to rest.”

Darcy snorted with laughter.  “Oh Steve. You weren’t far wrong, but there’s a really big difference between taking out the trash without being asked, and going to Berlin without telling me.”

“Hey, the trash was in Berlin for a summit,” Steve defended, although he had a grin on his face.  “It’s not my fault our family’s trash is a potential international treaty!”

Chapter Text

Darcy smiled at the whiteboard as she sunk into one of the comfortable ergonomic chairs in Tony’s brainstorming lab.  Separate from the actually-experimenting lab, the space always struck her as what would happen if Willy Wonka dropped candy and took up Danish Modern interior design.  Racks of fidget toys in bright colors, whiteboards equipped with a rainbow of pens both wet and dry erase, and baskets of small scraps for Tony to build approximate models with, all in a clean, sleek room that felt welcoming and futuristic, somehow.

“Are you sure the call and response model isn’t going to feel nagging?” she asked, as Tony added another set of boxes to the flowchart.  The current project might look like a rough programming outline, all yes/no logic gates and blunt questions in block print. It wasn’t though, it was a plan to keep something like Ultron from happening again.  A diagnostic to actually asses how much emotional damage happened, even for someone like Tony, who had emotional pain awareness on par with Steve’s physical pain awareness. They’d both adapted to a much higher baseline than was safe, but at least there were premade tests for physical damage.  “It’s not worth it if you’ll feel anxious or pestered.”

“No, no.  This is all formulated to be requests for data, I shouldn’t even notice you’re doing it unless I’m working a hard problem and you’re breaking my focus.  I should add an early timing gate up at the top.”

“And you trust me to ask this the way you need?”

Tony snapped around to look at her, head tilted like she was math that didn’t add up.  Wrinkles softened at the edges of his eyes and Darcy wondered when those had arrived. She hadn’t ever thought of Tony as that much older than the rest of them, but he was.  He’d been an accomplished businessman when she was in high school, the world’s lone superhero when she fought in the War. Bruce was the same general age, but he carried it different, you could see it.  Tony had never slowed down enough for her to catch it before. This was actually the first time outside the Iron Man suit she’d seen him go totally still , now that she thought of it.  Most of their family looked scary when they went still.  Tony just looked heartbreakingly confused.

“Darcy… are you really asking me if I trust you?  You’re the person who protects us.  Who has our best interests at heart when everyone else is trying to use us, or break us, or even when the danger is ourselves.  The rest of us do our part to save the world, but you save us .  You’re the first new person after Stane I decided to trust.”

“Yep.  I have been doing all that.  Past tense. But this project is about the future, and you have a right to pick someone new.  Maybe you should pick someone new. I mean, later today I’m driving upstate to take a Mutant Ethics class with Vision because I couldn’t keep my social combat in check.”

She twisted her fingers until the edge of pain, then stood up to grab a toy from the racks by the door.  It was easier to look at Rubik’s cubes and balls filled with silly putty than to look at Tony’s open, trusting face when she didn’t feel worthy of that trust.

“I nearly flattened your grandson in his own home, Tony,” Darcy said, turning to meet his eyes.  She was many things, cowardly wasn’t one. “And now we’re working on a tool to help us get at the moving parts of your psyche.  To make you vulnerable enough to find the damage. You have every reason to be worried about my ability to keep things nice.”

“I don’t need nice,” Tony said, waving a hand dismissively.  “Nice sets my hackles up, makes me look for threats and exploitation.   Nice is the reason I sometimes want to punch your stupid perfect husband in his stupid perfect teeth.  What I need is blunt, factual, all the cards on the table where I can see them, and the firm knowledge that you don’t actually want me hurt.  At your worst you can do that, and if you can’t, I trust you to know that, and ask someone else to do my check in routine. Jarvis, or Friday, someone who can memorize it.”

“Gee, thanks Tony,” Darcy snarked.  Tony laughed and tapped a button on the board’s frame.  The white brightened slightly, as the image was scanned, saved, and filed.  “What’s next on the list?”

<^>

“Looks good,” Bucky said, kissing Steve’s cheek.  Steve smiled and blew on the roll of magnet tape he’d used to hang his newest piece on the wall of their bedroom, miming a gunslinger in a western.  The base was a mirror-smooth sheet of steel, and it could be used that way if they weren’t using it as a message board, thanks to the coating Jarvis had found for them in the supplies of the Fabrication Lab.  Around the edges, though, were tiny paintings of scenes from the romance of the three of them.

Steve meeting Bucky.  Bucky meeting Darcy, although in Steve’s body.  Steve and Darcy writing notes to each other. Rides at Coney Island, movies together, a handful of candy on a desk, a pot of noodles and scrap meat.  Forests and tents and a little clay heart. Red stars and white ones, the blue arc of a taser. The Star Wars rebel icon, a heavy bag ripped at the seams.  Their first date all together, three pairs of feet under a table. Their wedding, the bands of rings and bracelets picked out in gold and silver leaf. The tiny grey blur of an ultrasound.

“You think she’ll like it?”

“I think we both better actually use it when we’re leaving the apartment,” Bucky said, nudging Steve’s ribs.  “Yeah, Punk, I think she’ll like it.”

“I don’t know how I messed up that badly,” Steve told his husband, leaning into him.  “I know she hates surprises, that she worries about her family when she can’t see us. I even know pregnancy isn’t exactly a mood leveler.  How do you know that about someone and still manage to make those mistakes?”

“You managed to think it would be good to go fix a problem she’d been worried about,” Bucky told him.  “Which is true. But the problems you’ve been working in your head have you all betwixt and between, so you missed that the how of the fixing and the what of the fixing cancel each other out for her.  Then she walked in on me, doing something that scares her, and together, all that turned into the problem. It compounded, more than any one mistake.”

Steve looked at Bucky.  He could sort of see that.  Certainly, if Darcy had been having an uneventful day, his mistake would have been dealt with differently.  Probably with more yelling, but definitely in private, and a much higher chance of make-up sex after. But her day began with Vision in their space unexpectedly assembling a trauma trigger.  The issue of Vision being unexpected was easy to deal with, they’d all dealt with teaching him privacy in their own ways, and it wasn’t a big deal.  The chair itself wasn’t as bad a problem as they’d thought, with warning. After she got used to the software, she’d allowed Tony to give them one for Bucky, because it did help.  Seeing Bucky in the chair hadn’t caused stress since then. And Steve’s mistake, while the worst of the lot, was definitely made way worse by the compounded nature of the prior problems.

And that they’d agreed to fix with something as simple as a message board.

“Our lives have just gotten so complicated.”  Steve blew out a sigh. “You remember when our big problem was sealing the windows in the winter?”

“I remember our biggest problem being keeping you alive,” Bucky said with a wry tone that hid real pain.  “That was fucking terrifying. I’m willing to take complicated if it means you and Darcy and the babies are all safe.  It’s worth the extra effort.”

“Buck, we fight villains from the pulp novels for a living,” Steve said.  “I’m not sure any of us is actually safe .”

“Yeah, but we’re going to go down fighting, and take out a few of the ones who take us.  You can’t do that with pneumonia, or anemia, or plain old malnutrition. I can accept that I’m married to grown adults who make choices about their safety, it was harder to accept loving someone who could be snatched away from me by a bad cough.”

Steve rolled his eyes.  Dead was dead, risk was risk.  They had to take some of the chances, or life wasn’t really full.  If that risk was fighting a super villain, or going ice skating with weak lungs, there wasn’t much difference.

“Hey, you feel the same way,” Bucky said, jabbing an elbow at Steve’s ribs.  “Or else you wouldn’t be trying to protect her from the realities of our lives.  You’re okay with her taking risks, deciding what’s worth her effort, her life. She’s done it the entire time we’ve known her.  Literally, that’s how you two met, she fought someone capable of flattening you. Stress isn’t something she has ever needed you to protect her from.  It’s the babies you’re worried about.”

“Of course I am!  They’re ours, and they need us.”  Steve flopped down on the bed. “They’re just so tiny, and fragile .”

Bucky gave him a Look.

Steve returned it as a glare.

“Don’t say it,” he ordered.

“Not saying anything.”

“You’re sure thinkin’ it loudly, though,” Steve said.  “Yeah. I was tiny and fragile too, but I wasn’t completely helpless.”

Bucky shrugged.  “Universe disagreed.  I’m happy about that, it got us our Doll, but let’s be real.  You were helpless.”  He sat down and traced the lines of Steve’s chest through the worn tee shirt he’d thrown on for housework.  “But you weren’t alone .  You still aren’t, and neither is Darcy, or the babies.  We’re a team, and we always have been.”

“I love you,” Steve said.  He felt the pricking of tears at his eyes.

“I love you too.”

<^>

The Hague was a beautiful city.  It made Bucky want his camera.  Sadly, however, he wasn’t there to sightsee.

Instead, he was there to testify at the International Court of Justice.  Their work taking down Hydra and the Rings had left a noticeable power vacuum, one that concerned anyone sane, and many world leaders.  Something had to be done, to forestall the fighting as other criminals circled the decaying bodies of the two conjoined organizations, and to save the legitimate bodies that had been so corrupted that the removal of evil left them dangerously understaffed.

At least that something wasn’t going to be a registration act, or a draft.

Instead, several less-impacted powers had stepped forward to offer assistance and aid.  Victor had been uncharacteristically generous, and King T’Chaka had put his full support behind the idea.  Neither of them had actually had any high ranked officials involved in either evil scheme.  Weirdly enough, neither had the Maldives, Liechtenstein, Saint Kitts and Nevis, or the Marshall Islands.  Too small, he supposed. Either way, he was glad people were actually trying to fix things, instead of letting them just turn back into the disaster soup that spawned such problems to start with.

He fumbled with the door to the third floor of the Peace Palace, trying to get his left hand to actually close right on the handle, while keeping the papers and presentations materials secure in his right.  The newest arm was the best, sleeker and better fitting, but the neural feedback was crap, and it made him clumsy. He was worried he’d be late, and regretted taking the stairs, even if it was the tactically sound choice.  He’d specifically requested to be the Avenger who presented on Hydra to the ICJ, so punctuality was especially important, beyond just being polite. Someone opened the door for him as they were leaving, thankfully breaking his worry before it could turn into an actual panic attack.

“Hey thanks,” he called to the quickly retreating figure, turning his head.  The corner of his eye caught a blinking reflection off a trashcan in the hall, and he dove back into the stairwell as a blast threw the door wide and knocked him over the railing.  His left arm snatched at the twisted metal meant to prevent his exact position, but the fingers slipped. Bucky screamed with effort as his mind made the flame-heated air into the cold wind of an Alpine pass.

Bucky! shouted Darcy in his mind.

It’s a three story drop, Doll, he comforted her.   Barely an inconvenience.

Shut up and swap with me.

He reached for her, only to feel his head swim, his lungs contract hard, and his gut squirm.  It was so awful, he dropped the papers he’d been fighting to protect, swung his right arm up, and hauled himself to the landing just so he could vomit.

“That,” he panted.  “Sucked.”

Chapter Text

Darcy had been grabbing a mid morning nap when Bucky was engulfed in flame and clinging to a railing.  She tried to grab at his mind, swap them, save him, but the attempt left her weak and coughing up vomit that was more bile than anything else.

“Angel, what’s wrong, is it the babies?”  Steve was beside her in a heartbeat and she looked up at him with utter agony.  “Darcy, what’s wrong?”

“Bucky… I tried to swap, Steve, I swear I did.  We need to get to the Netherlands, now .”

Her mind was nothing but a blank state of worry, such that she didn’t process the preparation of the plane, the trip, or the landing.  She didn’t really come back to herself until she was sprinting through a triage zone and tackling her husband around the waist.

“Bucky, oh God, I was so scared, I thought you died .”  Darcy pulled away long enough to wipe her face on her sweatshirt sleeve.  The old ratty Culver U sweatshirt was three sizes too big and the softest thing in existence.  She’d lifted it from the singular frat party she’d gone to and never found the owner. After her face was dry, she smacked her husband in the prosthetic arm with the sleeve she’d wiped her face with.  “I THOUGHT YOU DIED! You could have told me you were alright! What the fuck, Bucky?”

“Dollface, I tried,” Bucky insisted.  “I tried so hard to get you, but the link wouldn’t form, so I dealt with what was in front of me.  The explosion… Darcy, it was bad.”

“Bad how?”

“Azzano.”

Darcy felt cold flush her body.  “Oh, Bucky. Baby, we’re here, Steve and I both came, we’ll fix what can be fixed.  You are not alone, you did the best you could and I love you so much.”

“Darcy, Victor was in there.”

“Oh god.”  Darcy’s knees buckled.  She locked them, refusing to fall in public.  Later she could collapse, later she could get patched up and reassembled.  Now, she needed to know the extent of the damage. “Sit rep. Now.”

“I couldn’t find Victor, he’s still missing.  King T’Chaka took a head wound helping me drag President Yameen to safety.  He made it outside, but we couldn’t get medics to him on time. Yameen has a broken leg.  President Loeak wasn’t badly hurt, but his aide is in critical condition. There was a delegate from Germany… he went back in with me to look for survivors, but the floor was unstable.  We lost him. The meeting casualties, including the missing, total about twenty. Everyone was injured to some degree. A dozen bystanders confirmed dead beyond that, and injuries…”

He waved at the triage zone, cots laid out in rows as busy medics flitted from body to body.  The less injured were sitting up, dazedly holding gauze to wounds. It looked like a field hospital.  Darcy caught a gasp and bit her lip as she saw a row of cots covered in white, several of the shapes beneath them far too small.

“Yeah.  There was a school tour.”  Bucky sighed. “I need to tap out, Dollface.  I just…”

“Go,” Darcy ordered.  “Call your sister, call Nat.  I’ve got the watch here.”

Bucky nodded and shambled away.  Darcy scanned the scene and spotted Steve.  He was arguing with some middle-management type, but seemed to be winning.  She saw others she knew, each involved in their own crisis management. The only person she saw who didn’t seem to have something active to focus on was Prince T’Challa.  Steve liked him, and he’d sent home a bottle of the one food Darcy could keep down, a super juice from Wakanda. He was staring at the middle distance like there were answers in it.

“Hey,” she said, walking up to him.  She gave it enough distance not to startle, but not enough she needed to raise her voice.  “I heard what happened. Let’s walk.”

They walked away from the triage area, towards a small garden that seemed mostly untouched by the chaos.  The bench they sat on faced away from the Palace, and you could almost pretend the building and its tragedy weren’t there.  Darcy politely ignored the very buff supermodel who took up a post looking at flowers nearby. She wondered how she’d ended up having so many conversations in front of politely disguised bodyguards lately.

“I wanted to say thank you.”  T’Challa looked at her. “You were nice to Steve when he really needed that.  I owe you for that. Also the kids love the juice. So do I, actually.”

“You ah, might want to be careful with that,” T’Challa said delicately.  “It is… very nutritious.”

“You mean chock-a-block with calories, right?” she asked.  “I’m aware. I don’t burn through food like my husbands, but there are times I can’t eat properly.  If I weren’t prioritizing what we get of it to the people with powers, I’d stock some at work too. I wrangle scientists, none of them eat without being told to.”

T’Challa laughed.  “My sister is like that sometimes.  She gets a project and then we don’t see her for days.  But she’s brilliant. Do not tell her I said that,” he ordered over Darcy’s shoulder.  She turned to catch a tiny smile at the lips of the bodyguard.

“So, what do you need right now?” she asked.  She wanted to help, but T’Challa held himself like clock springs and broken glass, he needed to be the one who chose how this happened.  She waited as the thoughts swirled across his face in an unreadable cloud. Her usual skill was useless, empathy lost in translation.

“My people do not see death as an ending.  Rather as a stopping off point. You reach out with both hands, and Bast and Sekhmet lead you into a green veld where…”  His voice broke. “Where you can run forever.”

“Sounds nice, peaceful,” Darcy commented.

“My father thought so.”  He looked down and she saw him fidget with a ring.  “I am not my father.”

“No, you aren’t.”  Her voice drew him up short.  Ah, she had Mom Voice now. Good to know.  “You’re you , T’Challa, and you are the only one who gets to decide what that means.  But you have to make that choice with thought, with intention, or people will claim it means things you never wanted.  If you act rashly, reacting instead of acting, deciding things from a place of pain, you set yourself up to fail.”

“You would tell me not to seek vengeance, I suppose.”

“Me?  Fuck no, my adult life has been nothing but vengeance for those who can’t seek it themselves.  It’s why we call ourselves Avengers. If what you need is revenge, I’ll help you get it and not judge you for it.  But I will warn you, because nobody warned me; a life built on vengeance hurts .  You never fully heal.  Each new mission rips the scars open again, and there’s always another mission.  You tell yourself, now is when we stop, this one, this bad guy, and after that, we’ll retire.  Then you get him, and you find another injustice, and you say, well, after this one.  Then someone you love gets hurt, and it’s square fucking one again.

She sighed.  “It doesn’t end, T’Challa. The train does not stop, and you cannot get off once you get on.  So before you make that choice, be sure.”

He looked at her with wet eyes, and she touched his shoulder.  They sat like that until she couldn’t hold the weight of it.

“You have our number?”

“Yes,” he said roughly.  “Yes, I do. I will call, if I need….”

“If you need anything.  It’s why we’re here.”

<^>

Cleanup after the Peace Palace bombing took every Avenger.  Tony routed millions into recovery and medical treatment for the injured.  He and Pepper both worked around the clock on new campaigns for the Maria Stark Foundation to assist survivors, restore damaged historical artifacts, and rebuild.  Natasha and Clint took go-bags and burner phones and went undercover to track the bomb maker, the bomb purchaser, and every potential enemy of the alliance that would have been under review that day.  Natasha had seemed particularly cold as she prepared to leave, as far as Steve could tell. Clint seemed worried, but understanding of her briskness. Darcy took over managing the careful dance of public condolences and funeral scheduling, getting them to the right memorials at the right times.  Her focus was so extreme she handed the leadership of the Stark Industries Cat Wranglers to her seconds in command indefinitely. Bucky had handed the crew heads a binder of notes and suggestions gleaned from the aftermath of New York, D.C., Greenwich, Xandar, and Novi Grad. He hadn’t gone back to Europe after that, instead throwing himself into rebuilding their second guest room into a nursery.  It hurt Steve, to see Bucky like this, but he knew why it was happening. The one time he’d thought the link was severed with Darcy, he’d been equally upset. It didn’t help that nobody could figure out what the special purpose was. Sure, they hadn’t really used the link since before Sokovia, but as Bucky pointed out, it seemed unlikely his thing was a battle he hadn’t even attended.

Darcy’s obsessive coping tool was the link itself, trying to figure out why it was down.  She couldn’t use it to contact them without causing herself extreme nausea, and they couldn’t use it to contact her at all.  Her days were spent organizing people’s reactions to the team, and her nights were spent re-reading the old journals.

“Darcy, when was the last time you slept?” Steve asked, leaning on the door of her office.  Jarvis had apparently forgiven her, since he’d pinged the apartment to let Steve know Darcy had gone downstairs.  She had a tri-fold presentation board propped open on the table she usually reserved for visitors to put coats or bags on, covered in sticky notes and a family tree.

“Dunno, what day is it?”

“Wrong answer,” he said.  “Come to bed, Angel, you need at least nine solid hours of sack time before you can start working again.”

“Yeah, just a minute, Steve….”

No , Darcy.  This is getting self destructive.  I refuse to watch the people I love drown themselves in work to overcompensate for things that weren’t their fault.”  Steve sighed. “I found Bucky sleeping under a crib last night, and now you’re burning midnight oil you don’t have to burn.  I know you hate to hear this, Darce, but you really need to think about the babies. You need to be healthy so they can be healthy.  I’m putting my foot down on this one. No more link research until after the kids are here.”

She sighed, and Steve watched the fight crumple out of her, like cardboard in a compactor.  She knew as well as he did that this wasn’t smart or healthy, which was the only reason he felt okay issuing that sort of ultimatum.  He gathered his love up into his arms, and silently thanked God and Abraham Erskine for the body he had. Carrying her to bed would have been impossible before, but now he was able to tuck her in without waking her from the sleep she’d fallen into on the elevator ride.

“Thanks for telling me, Jarvis.”

“Of course, Captain.  Darcy matters to me, too.”  There was a pregnant pause, and Steve could tell the AI was still ‘on the line’ as it were.  “Captain, if Sir were like this, I would cancel any non-critical meetings on his schedule for him.  Darcy has several non-critical meetings in the next week, and the rest are all things someone else from the ‘face’ team can handle.”

“Give me the face meetings and either cancel or reschedule the rest,” Steve said.  “And put Darcy on the same protocol we use for Tony’s insomnia engineering. Unless she shakes the sleep deprivation, she needs someone else on the safety.”

“Yes, Captain.  I don’t need sleep the way humans do, but with the opening of the new facility and taking charge of Vision’s education, I’m beginning to understand the effect of sleep loss.”

“Are we stretching you too thin?” Steve asked.  “I can reduce the number of requests I make, and let Bucky and Darcy know you need more personal time.  I’m sure if you ask Tony…”

“That’s very kind of you, Captain, but I should be fine.  I make frequent use of the Naptime subroutine, and have delegated most of my tasks for Sir to Friday.”

“Making the little sister do some of the chores?” Steve chuckled.  “Good. Take care of yourself, Jarvis, I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

<^>

Bucky was dreaming.  He knew that, sort of.  He remembered getting up after Steve brought Darcy back, and going to sleep in his Crash Pad in the living room.  The dream wasn’t dream-like, though.

It felt like a memory.

Cold air bit his face, which had a rough beard growing on it.  Bucky didn’t care for beards, he’d tried several styles when he was first free, but it itched and he didn’t like the look as much as he liked a clean shave.  His arm was right, though, the metal reassuring and solid, although his shoulder ached with the cold. Steve was with him, looking at him like a starving puppy looks at your plate.

“You remember that time we had to ride back from Rockaway Beach in the back of that freezer truck?”

“We spent all our train money on hot dogs,” Bucky laughed.

“You blew three bucks trying to win a stuffed bear for a red head.”

“No I didn’t…” Bucky looked at Steve with confusion, but the face hadn’t changed.  The longing, the fear, the pain. He hadn’t seen Steve hurt this much since the War.  “Steve, what’s wrong?”

“Dolores, you called her Dot.”

I am not the only Winter Soldier.

Bucky sucked in a lungful of Siberian air and rolled out of the chair.

“Sergeant?” Jarvis asked.

“Jarvis, scan the memory files for any gap large enough for a training mission to Siberia that neither Darcy nor Natasha would know about.”

“I need more data than that, James.  The memory files aren’t complete yet.”

“It would have been, early nineties, they had a serum.  After I killed… was supposed to kill Howard.”

“And you say the mission involved a serum you retrieved from Howard Stark?”

“Yeah,” Bucky heaved out a breath.  “They made more of me. Out of Russian elite forces.  They went crazy.”

“Sergeant Barnes, you didn’t receive any serum from Howard Stark.  My files on that are complete, Mrs. Stark gave a debrief about it when Sir reconnected with them.  Miss Lewis sent them a warning, and sent them into hiding by faking their death, but the mission parameters were assassination, not recovery.”

“But I remembered….”

“I’m calling Sir, Sergeant Barnes.  You appear to be having an adverse reaction to the use of the Crash Pad technology.  Please remain calm and seated.”

“Jarvis…”

“Can you please smile for me, Sergeant Barnes?”

“Jarvis, I’m not having a stroke!”

Chapter Text

Darcy yawned.  In the week after the bombing, she’d had a very organized meltdown, which Steve put a gentle stop to, only for Bucky to have a hyper-realistic mnemonic night terror on Tony’s memory chair.  Tony and Wanda had dismantled the chair and taken it out to San Francisco to discuss the possibility that her powers had corrupted the quantum something or other, and Helen and Betty had taken Bucky upstate to have Professor Xavier look at his brain.  Darcy had wanted to go with them, but Steve had given her a Look, and she stood down. It would be too much temptation to ask the telepaths there to help her figure out what was up with the link. She’d made sure Steve went, though. Bucky shouldn’t have to be alone just because she was having a hard time making the link work.

It limited her social contact in unpleasant ways, though.  The apartment felt empty, and the common room was a ghost town.

“Jarvis?” she asked, flicking through security feeds in the war room.  “Who’s on site?”

“Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes just finished lunch,” Jarvis said.  “Mr. Maximoff is in and out of Postal Services attempting to show off, and the usual contingent is present in the Student Lounge.”

“Vision?”

“Off site at a symposium on privacy ethics and social media.”

“Theta?”

“Skiing in Colorado as a part of mandated psychological leave per protocol violation during a Code Chartreuse,” Jarvis reported.  She could almost hear the fear under the cool tone. He still hadn’t fully recovered from the last time the Twins had access to his vents.

“Sam?  Maria?”

“Cabin in the Berkshires until next Monday.”

“Damn.  I’m bored, Jarvis.”

“Understood, activating emergency entertainment protocols.”

Darcy blinked.  She hadn’t known there were emergency entertainment protocols.  Whatever, it worked, and she would not look gift horses in the mouth.

“Hey there, how’s my favorite Non-Com doing?” Rhodey asked from the door to the War Room.  “Heard you were looking for someone to talk to.”

“Yeah, everyone is out doing exciting things, or hard things, and I’m here, watching video feeds,” Darcy complained.  “It’s so lame.”

“Uh oh,” Rhodey said with mock fear.  “In my experience, two things come after those three words.  Alcohol and explosions.”

“Pass on the booze,” Darcy said.  She had told Rhodey to intercept any real alcohol from her at the MIT gala, but not why, since the prep time before the mission was limited.  It hadn’t been as relevant as the names and faces of who needed to be swayed. She hadn’t exactly told the entire world about the pregnancy, and Rhodey was on the outermost edge of her family net.  If he didn’t know, Tony hadn’t told him, which meant she got to do the honors. Darcy patted her tummy meaningfully. “I’ve got passengers.”

Rhodey blinked at her, then his face broke into an amazingly bright smile.  “Darcy, that’s great! We should celebrate, go do something fun.”

An alert pinged.

“Ooh, I know just the thing,” Darcy said.  Her grin felt on the manic side, and it probably looked a more crazed than usual based on Rhodey’s reaction.  “Guess which naughty little arms dealer I caught on a traffic camera in South Korea?”

“I was thinking chocolate cake, not crime fighting.”

“Cake after,” Darcy said, tapping the buttons to send the data to her tablet and grabbing her go bag from the rack by the war room door.  “I want a legitimate target. Jarvis, tell Steve and Bucky where I’m going, and not to wait up for dinner.”

“My friends are crazy.”

<^>

Everett Ross had been trained by the CIA.  They had taught him to accept the unbelievable and keep going as though nothing happened.  They had conditioned him to put horror in a box and deal with the task at hand. They had given him the best tools and the best teachers and he wasn’t too humble to say he was a damn good agent, thank you very much.

How to handle car surfing Wakandans wasn’t, however, on the CIA’s training regime.  He wasn’t sure he could keep his cool if he found out how T’Challa was driving the car under his feet, so he put the new King in the horror box and moved on.  The body guards he’d seen with T’Challa earlier also had a car and were chasing Klaue. Everett knew exactly where they were headed, because he’d used Klaue’s attempt at homoerotic intimidation to plant trackers all over the man.

Klaue should probably have done a touch more research before trying that tactic.  Everett may have been a private man, but he was hardly closeted.

The trackers, however, were rendered somewhat useless by Klaue’s arm cannon.  While the destructive blast only went towards the car following him, the high intensity vibrations damaged the tiny electronics.  So maybe Everett should have done more research, too. He pulled to a stop and decided to call that one even.

“Come on, get in,” he told the two women who’d been in and on top of the now shattered car.  He put his next words in the horror box next to King T’Challa’s car. “Put your spear in the trunk, please.”

They arrived as T’Challa tore the arm from a begging Klaue.

“He is going to be the death of me,” moaned the woman in green.  The woman in red said something in Xhosa that sounded foul, and Everett silently prayed that someone, somewhere, would keep him from having to clean up after a royal murder on ten thousand YouTube videos.

<^>

The passenger rig on the War Machine wasn’t the most comfortable, but it was the fastest way to get from where they’d stashed the jet to the burgeoning crisis.  Darcy tapped Rhodey’s arm as he set down and pointed to the carnage. Someone in a black catsuit that she was damn envious of had just crashed Klaue’s car with what appeared to be some sort of energy burst weapon embedded in the suit.

“Tony’s gonna want to meet whoever made that,” Rhodey said.  “And have their super-genius babies.”

Darcy laughed.

“Not kidding,” Rhodey said firmly, popping up the faceplate just to glare at her.  “You’ll be squashing ideas for bio-engineered male pregnancy for months.”

“Who says I’m opposed to that idea?” Darcy asked.  “I like equality.”

They followed the crowd to the final resting place of the car, War Machine serving as a path maker, while Darcy moved in behind him, a serene smile on her face.  The smile almost dropped when the suit-wearer ripped a prosthetic arm off Klaue. A car slowed to a halt feet from her shins, and Darcy forced herself back on track.  Klaue was calling the suited individual ‘King’... and yep, there was the supermodel, and another woman scolding T’Challa. Possibly. Darcy made a mental note she really needed to get better at Wakandan.

“Jarvis, can you grab the surrounding data?  I need a lag, maybe five minutes.”

“On it, Lieutenant.”

She stepped around Rhodey, clearing her throat loudly.

“Hi, I think you may be new.  I’m the Lieutenant, this is War Machine-”

“Technically Iron Patriot.”

“That’s still a dumb name, and you know you agree with me.”  She smiled at T’Challa and held out a hand to shake. “Nice to meet you.”

T’Challa released Klaue, who slumped wetly to the ground.  “The Black Panther,” he introduced, and Darcy let the smile at her lips soften into something closer to real.

“I think we have a lot to talk about, Black Panther,” she said, taking his hand in hers, moving close and dropping her voice low and quiet.  “But first, you choose. I told you, I’m here to help. No matter what.”

“Nakia is right.  The world watches.”

“Not right now they don’t.  You deserve the chance to decide in privacy.  Say the word, this can vanish from the Internet, all the footage will be gone.  But you have to decide who you are, and sadly, you have to decide it now.  I’m sorry I can’t give you more time.”

“No.  I will not let vengeance destroy me.  Klaue will live to see his trial.”

“You’re a good man.  Now, who has a working car around here?”

Someone cleared their throat, and Darcy turned to see an inoffensive-looking man holding a van door open.  The two supermodels were loading Klaue into its trunk. “Everett Ross, CIA. Nice to meet you, Ma’am. Can we go now?”

“Depends,” Darcy said with a lifted eyebrow.  “Ross?”

“No relation to the Secretary, Ma’am.”

“Then sure, let’s blow this joint.  Your place or mine?”

<^>

“So, who gets first crack at him?” Everett Ross, CIA, asked.  T’Challa looked at him, but the man was focused on Darcy Lewis.

“He’s been singing ‘Baby Don’t Hurt Me’ and making kissy faces at the mirror for three hours,” Darcy pointed out drolly.  “This man is definitely my speed, but frankly, aside from being tangentially related to the worst couple days of my life, I don’t care.  He didn’t steal from me . He stole from him .”

Okoye tensed at her words and half-shrug in T’Challa’s direction.  “We cannot allow the Americans to speak to Klaue alone,” she said in Wakandan.

“Better to let them have five minutes now than to cause a scene,” he replied, in Wakandan.  Switching to English, he smiled at the American spy. “After your questions, we will take him back to Wakanda with us.”

“What, no!”  Ross spluttered.  His upset looked funny, but T’Challa repressed a laugh.  “He is in my custody. I can’t let him go anywhere.  You’re only here as a favor to her.”

Ross poked a finger at T’Challa’s chest while waving at Darcy.

“If he touches you again…” Okoye began, and then stopped when Darcy nodded slowly, a smile at her eyes.  It hadn’t occurred to either of them someone might understand their language.

“Everett Ross of the non-asshole Rosses, you want to take a big step backwards, buddy,” Darcy said calmly.  “Extradition is a thing. So is diplomacy. That’s a world leader you just poked.”

Ross blanched, pale skin turning sickly under the fluorescent lights as he realized what he’d done.  Darcy brushed aside that concern as easily as she brushed everything else aside, and continued on the previous topic.

“America wants Klaue.  I get that, he hurt a lot of people.  I have no doubt Klaue is wanted in many, many places for similar reasons.  The issue is that he did those crimes with vibranium.  He wouldn’t be on any of our lists without it.  To my mind, that makes Wakanda’s claim a priority.”

Ross seemed pinned, unable to choose what to do between the intense glares.  “What?”

“They have dibs, dude,” Darcy said.  “I’ll take the blame if you like, the Secretary hates my guts. He’ll happily let you throw me under the bus to save your skin.”

“I feel like you should be...”  The man waved his hand vaguely, and T’Challa suppressed another laugh.  For some reason, Darcy Lewis upsetting this man’s carefully structured worldview was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.  If this was how Shuri saw him after her pranks, he could almost forgive them. Almost. Ross had found his words again, grabbed them out of the air, perhaps.   “I don’t know. I feel maybe you should be less happy when you talk about being hated by the Secretary of State.”

“It’s a mutual hatred, best enemies sort of thing,” Darcy said with a smile.  “He’s a politico right now, so I can’t touch him, and I’m a superhera, so he can’t touch me.  But, someday, he will not be a political official, and on that day, I will turn his scrotum into a coin purse.  Until then, we sabotage each other a lot and I make cruelly satirical videos under an alias. Now, who’s going to go talk to the crazy?”

T’Challa blinked.  His English was good, but surely he had misunderstood that statement.  Sadly, though, he didn’t have time to ask her to clarify, as Nakia and the armored man, Rhodes, burst into the room, shouting warnings, and he was knocked to the floor.

 

Chapter Text

Rhodey’s world was made of pain.

He hadn’t intended to jump in front of a storm of bullets, but everything had happened so fast.

First, he and Nakia had been standing patrol outside the dinky little office the CIA was using.  Well, she had been standing watch, he’d taken to the roof and was trying to convince himself not to fly circuits over a bunch of spies when she’d come up beside him and kept him from making a mistake.  He liked her, something ground her in ways his family, both Iron and birth, wasn’t. She also had a keen eye and had spotted the suspicious van before he did.

“Jarvis, run a perimeter scan.”

“Three heavily armed humans, Colonel.  Signs of explosives in the back of the van.”

“They’re heading to the back wall!”

Then, it had been running.  His suit made him faster than he was without it, but Nakia had a grace to her movement that meant they arrived at the same time.

“Get down!” he shouted, and he assumed Nakia’s warning was similar in content, for all it was in Wakandan.  There was a cracking, crashing sound, and he saw Darcy diving at T’Challa. All he could think was Steve is gonna be so mad.   Then he was in front of them, arms out, watching as masked gunmen hauled Klaue away, spraying the interior wall of his holding cell in bullets.

“Lock legs,” he ordered his suit.  “Return fire, tracer rounds.”

War Machine, beauty she was, responded easily to his commands, splattering Klaue and his rescuers with indelible paint saturated with nanotech programmed to find skin and latch on.  They’d have to scrub themselves raw to remove it.

“Rhodey?”  Darcy’s voice seemed far away.  “Rhodes, report!”

“Are you okay?” he asked, aware his voice was fading into the pain he refused to pay too much attention to.

I’m fine, but you’re shot to hell!” Darcy snapped at him.  “What were you thinking?  Tony is gonna murder me.  How are you even standing?”

“I couldn’t let you get shot, Lieu,” he said, popping the faceplate to look at her.  “Steve would make that face, you know the one.”

“Rhodey, don’t move, okay.”  Her eyes were wet and Rhodey put that beside the pain and numbness he wasn’t looking at in the box for after.  “Don’t you dare move. You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna be fine. We’ll call Helen, and we’ll fix this. We can fix this.”

“Darcy…” He coughed and licked the copper taste off his lips.  “For a spy, you’re a shit liar. How is it, really?”

“You’re leaking blood.  It’s a couple through and throughs, one by your liver, and there’s an ugly bump on your back.  I think the bullet hit your spine then lost enough velocity it couldn’t get back through the suit.”

“That explains it,” Rhodey mused as his vision faded at the edges.  “Just promise me one thing.”

“Anything, Rhodey, name it.”

“Whatever you do, do not tell Tony I pissed in the suit.”

<^>

After the blast knocked in the interrogation room’s wall, T’Challa rolled, placing his body, and more importantly Shuri’s nanotech suit, between the hail of bullets and the two women who had tackled him to the ground.  His back warmed under the strikes of flying metal as the kinesthetic energy stored itself in the suit. He stood, and caught a grenade in his hands, holding it to his gut as it exploded, charging the front half of his suit.  Now, he could leap farther than even the strength of the Panther would take him, chasing the attackers into the alleyway behind the small outpost. Unfortunately, the masked attacker was swift and prepared with a sonic weapon that overcharged the vibranium in his suit, knocking T’Challa back as the shock wave released.  He had just enough time to see a familiar ring on a necklace, swinging below the mask, when Okoye tapped his shoulder with a deferential ‘My King’ that was half order.

T’Challa returned from the alley, disgruntled from the speed at which Klaue had been snatched from his grasp, to find the office in chaos.  The armored man hadn’t moved, although someone had set aside his mask. His eyes were fluttering up and down as Nakia and Darcy Lewis tried to press bandages to holes.

“How is he still standing up?” Okoye asked, reaching to take more gauze from the hands of an American agent who was passing first aid supplies around.

“He locked the suit’s legs,” Darcy said.  T’Challa looked at her for signs of a throat injury.  He’d never heard her voice that wet before, and it sounded pained.  Her eyes were red, but her body free of her own blood. “Jarvis, what’s he look like in there, buddy?”

“Colonel Rhodes is in critical condition,” said someone over a small, pill-shaped speaker that stood out starkly bright and cheerful in the dingy office.  “He requires advanced medical care. Immediately.”

“Helen…”

“Dr. Cho is in New York. You would not make it in time for effective use of the Cradle.  When I say immediately, I mean immediately .”

Darcy burst into tears and T’Challa took an instinctive half-step back.  Okoye gave him a withering look and pulled the smaller woman into her arms.  A Dora Milaje glaring over the head of a woman she’d chosen to protect was a terrifying sight.  T’Challa swallowed hard and Nakia touched his arm.

“He saved our lives,” she said firmly in Wakandan.  “He won’t make it here.”

He didn’t think.  He didn’t have time, with the American bleeding out.  He didn’t have a need, with Nakia looking up at him with those beautiful eyes so full of faith in his ability to lead.

“Give me your kimoyo beads,” he ordered.  She snapped three off her bracelet and moved to work opposite him, placing the beads to stabilize the wounds.  It was a fast process. “I can’t reach his back.”

“The suit locks on when the pilot is respiratory distress,” Darcy said, coming back from her sobs.  “There are protocols that activate, a basic life support system meant to hold him together until we get him to a medic.  It takes a pilot override or a secure code only our medical staff have.”

“That seems unnecessarily complicated,” T’Challa complained.

“Tony has his reasons,” Darcy snapped.  “The suits have been a target for thieves since he built them.  Making it hard to remove without pilot consent is a priority.”

“The bleeding has slowed substantially,” said the person on the speaker.  “But Colonel Rhodes’ spinal injury must receive treatment soon.”

“You should let us take him,” T’Challa told Darcy, only to be met by the fire he’d expected when he first met her, the fire everyone spoke of.

“Not without me.  His injury is my fault, his recovery is my responsibility, and I’m not letting him out of my sight.”

“Lieutenant…” sighed the speaker.  “You should listen to King T’Challa.”

“Jarvis, all due respect, you do not understand, you cannot understand, what my hormones are doing right now.  I’m a hundred and sixty pounds of angry, pregnant, guilt-tripping honey badger right now. I will fight anybody I have to, to keep my people safe.”

T’Challa felt his face go cool.  She was here, in danger, for his people, while carrying a child?  Okoye gave him another dirty look, this one the ‘you just now learned this?’ eye roll.

“You will both come with us,” he said firmly.  Okoye’s face shifted to surprise.

Oh Bast, what had he gotten himself into now?

<^>

Darcy hadn’t had time to think when it all went wrong.  She hadn’t had time to process that a simple snatch and grab of a minor villain had turned potentially fatal.  She hadn’t even had time to react to the explosion beyond getting the nearest head of state below the line of fire.  After she’d taken him down, she rolled to her back, overcome by a feeling like asthma. She’d never had asthma, not in her own body, and it felt like betrayal to have her lungs deny her demand for air.

God, Steve I wish you were here.

The link felt like an echo, or the reverb on an over powered bass line.  Darcy let her eyes close for a moment, leaking tears back over her temples and into her hair.  She regretted every choice since she’d seen Rhodey that morning.

Oh no.

“Rhodey!”  Darcy flung herself upward, ignoring the protests of her back and head at the sudden motion.  She scrambled to the suit, taking in the holes punched through titanium, the black color staining his left side, the awful, twisted lump on his back.  It was every nightmare she’d ever had, somehow, every inch of fear and failure wrapped up in steel and blood.

She desperately wanted to vomit, but the babies were perversely denying her for once.

“Rhodes, report!” she snapped, hoping maybe he was still conscious, even if she knew that only meant he was in agony.

“... are y... kay?” he slurred, the suit’s system barely picking up his words.  Darcy grabbed a roll of gauze someone offered her and folded it into a pad. If she could just keep him awake, talking, maybe… maybe.

“I’m fine,” she said, knowing her voice wasn’t kind.  She didn’t have room for kind, between pain and guilt and the frantic scrabble at the back of her eyes to do something .  “ You are shot to hell.”

Another pair of hands started helping her plug holes.  It was a stopgap measure, and they both knew it. She still felt monumentally grateful.

“What were you thinking?” she asked, more to herself than to Rhodey.  Why did she think a mission with just the two of them was a good idea?  “Tony is gonna murder me. How are you still standing?”

Her J-comm buzzed, and she stepped back to tap it with the back of her wrist.

“Colonel Rhodes’ suit has activated the Pilot Down Protocol.  All functional mechanics within the suit are being repurposed to life support.  To save energy and protect his body, the system locks the actuators, leaving him upright and immobilized.  Put your wireless speaker somewhere you can hear it, and I will walk you through this.”

Darcy nodded.  She sniffed and lied to Rhodey about things being fine, buying time to put the speaker on a desk.  The stupid little thing had been an impulse buy on a trip with Bucky to an outlet mall for new disguise fodder.  He’d laughed about buying any tech when they lived with Tony, who gave them bleeding edge things every other week.  Now the bright frog green was the only thing she could focus on that didn’t make her want to cry or scream. Jarvis saved her from herself, once again.  She could follow his orders, accept his knowledge, and limit her focus to only what the AI gave her to do. It wasn’t much; it wasn’t nearly enough, but it was all she had.

<^>

<WARNING>

<SUIT DESIGNATION: WAR MACHINE - ERROR: PILOT INJURY>

No.  

Jarvis had few of the standard human reactions.  It came of his programming, his birth being a somewhat Minervian affair, made to be an adult when a young Tony Stark desperately needed one.  As a result, he’d never explored the ‘toddler’ phase of development the way his elder bot-siblings had. It was, mostly, an acceptable limitation.

<PILOT DOWN PROTOCOL ENACTED>

No.

This was the only particularly childish emotion he had.  A desperate denial in the face of knowledge, a refusal that went all the way to his core programming.  Even as he connected to the pickups in War Machine, guiding the emergency measures, he was scrambling for another tool, another solution, something, anything, that could prevent utter disaster.  For the first time since Tony had given Rhodey the suit and tacit permission to have his back, Jarvis was really and truly afraid for the life of someone he loved.  Everything since then had been manageable, terrifying but rationally something they could defeat when they worked together.  He hadn’t realized how strongly the synergy of the team affected the end function of every member, even his own.

Wait.

That was it.

<ACTIVATE: PHONE A FRIEND>

<WAKANDAN DEFENSE NET CONNECTED>

“Uphila njani?”

“I need a favor, Griot.”

“Andizi....  Izinto azilungiswa apha.”

“It’s my Uncle.  Please. Nceda uncede, yimeko engxamisekileyo.”

“Ndiya kwenza oko ndinako.”

Chapter Text

The laboratory wasn’t what Darcy had expected.  Sure, she knew better than to think anyone with the Tech With A Capital T that the Wakandans used was operating out of an RV like Jane had, but Tony’s preference of slick white minimalism had given her certain expectations.  At the least she imagined something like the surgical steel of Hydra, the cold iron of the Red Room, the utilitarian metal-and-glass combo of SHIELD. Basically, the featureless look of government sponsored super science everywhere she’d seen it.

Instead, the space capitalized on the natural shape of the cavern it occupied.  A spiral ramp gave her a good view of the room and consequently gave the scientists a good look at her before she entered their domain.  The outer walls were a natural black stone, flecks of glowing purple embedded throughout them, and a black and white mural accented in bright colors covered the spiral’s inner wall.  Steve knew more about art, but it was fun looking. One wall was a window into some hyper advanced Space Mountain coaster that Darcy vaguely recognized as probably a mine. A young woman with elegantly piled braids met her gaze with wide eyes and a high speed chatter of Wakandan.  Darcy assumed she wasn’t meant to understand and didn’t respond, instead looking at the gurney beside her. Her hand was still on Rhodey’s wrist, even though she knew he wasn’t awake to feel it, and wouldn’t have through the suit if he were. The floating table cradled him gently, black sand rising to support him in a natural, neutral position.

If she were Jane or Tony, that would fascinate her.  As it was, she numbly tucked her curiosity and amazement into a box in her mind.  Later, she’d ask about a million questions and probably annoy her hosts. Now, anything that risked Rhodey getting treatment wasn't important enough.

“You must let her work,” Nakia said gently, lifting Darcy’s hand from the suit.  “Can you use those codes, the ones to open the armor?”

“No, they’re medic-only.  Tony has them memorized… so do Rhodey and Pepper, all the pilots.  I could call them?”

“No,” Okyoe said firmly.  She wasn’t unkind, she just left no room for negotiation.  “This has already been an unacceptable security risk. We do not permit outsiders to know what Wakanda has.  It leads only to envy and danger. We cannot wage an endless war, and that is what we would face if our borders were besieged.”

Darcy nodded.  That made sense.  “Sorry, not thinking clearly at the moment.  You’re right, stealth and secrecy keep you safer than anything else, and you shouldn’t abandon them lightly.  You have my word I won’t tell anyone about this.”

“Even your husbands?” Okoye pressed.  Darcy narrowed her eyes at the woman.

“If you’re expecting an angry retort about never keeping things from each other, you’ll be at it a while.  Loving spies means accepting secrets will be a part of your life. I mean, yeah, we talk about things that affect us, but we respect each other’s boundaries and words of honor.  If I tell them that I agreed privacy maintains, privacy will damn well maintain or I’ll be kicking every ass involved.”

Okoye gave her a thoughtful look.  “And your husbands do not resent this?”

“We can easily have the talk we need about how this affects me emotionally and the risks of supersonic travel in the second trimester without mentioning the gorgeous Fortress of Solitude setup you have here.”  Darcy shrugged. “I wouldn’t agree to keep your secrets if I thought that would impact my marriage. Besides, my family was well aware you had vibranium and likely did more and better things with it than Steve’s death Frisbee.  My men are smart. They’ll know what I’m talking around.”

Okoye seemed hesitant, but the woman with the braids looked up from Rhodey with a laugh.  “I like her.  Brother, can we keep her?”

“She is a person, not a pet cat, Shuri,” T’Challa chided.  Darcy looked to him. He seemed older than he had. She supposed the last few weeks had been even worse for him than it had for her.

“I don’t know,” Darcy teased, hoping to get some of his spark back.  “Keeping me is a lot like keeping a cat. You have to tempt me with particular food which I may refuse just because, I expect to be allowed to go where I please, and if I like you… you don’t get a choice about it.”

“I can confirm that,” Jarvis said.  Darcy jumped and looked at Okoye.

“I swear I did not intentionally bring him here.  Jarvis, your son is giving you bad habits if you’re just randomly using people’s speaker setups.”

“It’s okay, we know him,” the guard said with a sigh.  “And he vouched for you.”

“Yes, Darcy is trustworthy, but if you all wouldn’t mind going elsewhere, I was about to give the access codes over and I’ve only received permission to let one new person know them,” Jarvis said coolly.  

Darcy smiled at a smooth spot on the wall.  She didn’t know if it was a camera or not, but it was a habit at this point.  Jarvis had this. He would protect Rhodey. She could stand down now.

<^>

T’Challa sighed as W’Kabi hurried up to the small group leaving the lab.  He hated giving bad news, and today seemed to be nothing but bad news.

“T’Challa, my brother, what is going on?  Where is Klaue?” W’Kabi looked past T’Challa to stare at Okoye half-carrying Darcy Lewis.  T’Challa chuckled at his friend’s face. While Okoye’s husband would see more sides of her than her King, this obviously was no more familiar to W’Kabi than to T’Challa.  “Who is that?”

“W’Kabi, meet Darcy Lewis, an Avenger,” T’Challa said, smoothly transitioning to English for her benefit.  “Darcy, W’Kabi is one of our border guards, and a trusted friend.”

“Cha-” her voice cut out on a yawn that produced an audible cracking sound in her jaw.  Even W’Kabi winced slightly. “Charmed. Sorry. Shoot-outs really take it out of you, I need a nap.”

“Shoot outs?” W’Kabi asked in alarm.  “Where is Klaue?”

“I’m sorry, he slipped through our fingers,” T’Challa said, only to receive a sharp poke under his ribs he danced away from lest it find his one ticklish spot.

“Unless that’s a Wakandan euphemism for ‘was snatched out of a CIA safe house by mercs with fully automatic weapons’... you’re wrong,” Darcy said firmly.  “My friend is downstairs with half a dozen holes he shouldn’t have. Saying Klaue ‘slipped’ away from us downplays Rhodey’s sacrifice and pisses me off. We did everything right.  We still failed. That happens, T’Challa. Don’t cheapen the job by pretending otherwise.”

She was right.  He’d let his own guilt and shame at failure cloud his judgement.  From Okoye’s eloquently arched eyebrow, she could have told him the same, except she would never gainsay her King in front of an outsider.  Nothing he knew of Darcy Lewis supposed she’d ever cared about who she called out for stupidity, or when. It wasn’t a diplomatic trait, but useful.

“You are wise,” he said diplomatically.

“I’ve been doing this longer than you,” she said drily.  “Listen to experience. And tell me where I can lie down. I was not kidding about the nap.”

“I can show you where our scientists rest,” Nakia said.  T’Challa watched the women go, then turned back to W’Kabi.

“So… yes.  We lost him, but as she says… we did not lose him without a fight.  It is not over, nor will it be, till Klaue answers for what he has done.”

“For thirty years your father was in power and did nothing,” W’Kabi said.  His eyes were sad and thoughtful. “With you, it is different.”

“Is different good or bad?”

“Ask me again after Klaue has been brought to justice.”

T’Challa nodded and W’kabi left.  He knew W’Kabi’s losses at Klaue’s hands still burned him, the way T’Challa still burned for the death of his father.  Ancestors, parents, they were supposed to be solid and true until the day they passed in peace. To have them ripped away too soon by violence was not an easy thing to bear.  T’Challa tipped his head at the hallway, looking to his trusted General.

“Go to him, Okoye.  I will be in the Hall of Kings. Nothing can touch me there.”

“He is right, you are different,” Okoye said, her eyes narrow.  She made a chirring sound like a hunting cat and stalked off. T’Challa smiled after her and proceeded towards the Hall of Kings, the great City of the Dead where the Ancestors lay in rest.

<^>

Some days Zuri felt he had been the Shaman for so long, he had forgotten how to be a warrior.  Then there were times like this, with a young king barking orders and confronting him with a painful history… and it took all the Shaman’s strength to hold back the warrior in him.

“He helped Klaue escape from us, and he was wearing this ring,” T’Challa said insistently.  Zuri had known the boy was strong, and would not accept leading from below without considerable softness, but he had not expected the vibranium tone he heard.  At least, not so soon. T’Chaka had gotten farther with the boy’s education before his death than Zuri had realized. “Do not tell me what is possible, Zuri, tell me the truth.”

“Some truths are too much to bear,” Zuri said, pleading with the angle of his shoulders, the refusal to meet T’Challa’s eyes.

“Then do not bear it alone,” T’Challa said firmly, but not unkindly.  “If your King cannot help you shoulder burdens, who can, Zuri? Tell me what happened to Uncle N’Jobu.”

“I promised the King I would say nothing,” Zuri said, turning away.  It had taken many years for a young War Dog to learn the strength of water, always to flow where it was least resisted.  Now though, he knew his own power lay in continuing as he had been. To complete the work before his hands, raising the heart-shaped herb from rich earth as he raised up his people and their ancestors.

“I am your King,” T’Challa said flatly.  It was a tone that accepted no argument, not in anger but in simple factuality.  The sky above was blue, the sun rose in the East, T’Challa was Zuri’s King. Zuri nodded and moved to the next bed.  If he would do this, he would do it on his terms.

“Your uncle took a War Dog assignment in America, and your father placed me there to observe,” Zuri said, continuing to move his hands in the pattern of digging and planting.  It kept him grounded as the memories came back. The dusty, toxic smell of the place, not the cleanly dead smell of the surrounding necropolis, but the actively dying scent of a place disrespected and decaying off the bone.  A land of scavengers. “N’Jobu fell in love with an American woman, and they had a child. The hardships he saw there… radicalized your uncle. He saw people he thought of as his own, as Wakandan in spirit, mistreated by those in power, incarcerated, enslaved, made ill with drugs and weapons supplied by those who would punish their use.  He was… a good man.”

“He could not stand by and let it continue,” T’Challa whispered, and Zuri nodded.

“He knew your father would never agree to let vibranium weapons leave the country to level the fight.”

“Because that is a terrible idea,” T’Challa said, rolling his eyes.  “Weapons have never made stability; they only shift the balance of pain.”

“Am I telling this story or are you?” Zuri snapped.  T’Challa blushed, and Zuri could see his young pupil in the body of the proud king.  With a sigh, he let out the most painful part. “Your uncle betrayed us. He helped Klaue steal the vibranium.  When your father arrived to confront him, when I revealed my part in watching him and reporting on his actions, he pulled his weapon on me.”

Zuri sobbed and felt T’Challa pull him into an embrace he barely understood.  His mind was there, in the little apartment that smelled of mold and the neighbor’s low-quality cannabis, with the light cut into bars by the cheap plastic shades.  He was watching his friend and Prince fall farther and farther from the path of right. He was standing idly by as his King killed his own brother to defend Zuri, a lowly War Dog on his first big assignment.  When he returned, T’Challa was looking at him with concern. He could see the process of setting aside emotion, the choice to focus on the work at hand. Zuri saw that same choice on his own face, every day.

“And the child?”

“We left him.  We had to… to maintain the lie.”

Chapter Text

Darcy was getting a vibranium enhanced sonogram when Okoye strode briskly into the lab.  Her movements were precise, not panicked, but they signaled an urgency that had Darcy reaching for her clothing.  The results of the testing would have to wait, something was up.

“Where is your brother,” Okoye demanded of Shuri.

“How should I know? We’re not bound at the hip, you know.”  The teen rolled her eyes and Darcy made a mental note to start bets on how fast Harley would fall for the Princess of Wakanda, if they met.  “Have you tried calling his kimoyo beads?”

“Of course I have, he has switched them off.”

“He’s probably making eyes at Nakia again,” Shuri said with a wave.  Darcy recognized the tone from her own teens. Harley and Zoe hadn’t, so far anyways, had the sibling bickering over new romantic interests, but this was similar enough to the teasing when one of them got a new subject for their mutation experiments.

“Okoye, may I ask why you need T’Challa?” she said politely.  Her grasp on the Wakandan language was shaky. It was bad enough that, while she was a guest, the labs had mostly switched to an English-speaking zone except for Science! discussions, but the general still swiveled sharply at her voice.  She looked at Darcy’s face, determined she saw an ally, and nodded.

“A man appeared at the border, claiming to have killed Klaue.  W’Kabi is escorting him to the palace now. The King must be there.”

“An outsider?”  Shuri seemed scandalized, and Darcy tucked away the knowledge of how rare her own invitation must have been.

“No, a Wakandan,” Okoye said and gestured, materializing a screen in a manner similar to Tony working with his holographic displays.

“Jarvis, run facial recognition, get me a full dossier,” Darcy ordered without thinking.  The two women turned to look at her and she blushed hotly. “Sorry, habit, I like to get intel now rather than later.  I’ll back off.”

“Actually, Lieutenant, may I suggest offering your services in an advisory capacity?” Jarvis said.  “I’ve identified the individual as Erik Stevens.”

“I assume that means something to you?” Okoye asked.  Darcy shook her head.

“Not how it works.  Not even I can keep every bad seed we come across fresh in my mind.  Jarvis, however, is another matter. Report, Legionnaire.”

“Erik Stevens graduated Annapolis at age 19,” Jarvis said.  Darcy drew a sharp, whistling breath.

“What’s wrong?” Shuri asked.

“The US Naval Academy doesn’t take people under seventeen, and the only times they let people graduate early have been world wars.”

“So someone forged his documentation?” Okoye asked, hope filling her voice.

“Not necessarily.  There’s one other exception.  But… it isn’t pretty. Jarvis?”

“He has a forged master’s degree in chemical engineering from MIT, confirmed time in the SEALS after that.  He became known by the colorful moniker Killmonger, before graduating to a JSOC ghost unit.”

“SHIT!”  Darcy slammed a hand down on a table.  “They swore. They swore to my face they weren’t doing that anymore.  I was promised that it was all shut down, every single lab and test tube.”

“Darcy, what is the matter?  You are acting like… like a crazy lady!”  A thin line of wetness gleamed in Shuri’s eyes at the edges, and Darcy regretted the outburst.  Still, it was painful.

“Enhancement programs, mutant units, every nation had something like that, especially during the cold war.  They had to, it was a flesh and blood arms race. Common trick was to take a promising, eager officer in training, offer them a chance to skip ahead, and get into the action fast.  Capitalize on those skills. Then, depending on the person, on the country, on the level of sadism of the particular officer, they’d get a drug cocktail, or post-hypnotic training, or battle implants, or some combination of those, and mind control of some stripe.  Anywhere from basic psychological brainwashing to hardcore addictive drugs and counter-programming. Turn them into elite soldiers and send them out to rack up deaths like they were playing a video game. But I was promised, by people I trusted within SHIELD’s highest circle, that the US stopped doing that.  They swore it to me. I just… can’t believe they lied to me.”

“Ma’am, if I may,” Jarvis interrupted her spiral of rage. “In my estimation, Agent Coulson would not lie to you, and neither would Assistant Director Hill.  However, it is my personal assessment of his psychology that Director Fury would lie to them both , if he deemed it necessary to protect certain assets from say… the wrath of Captain Rogers and his family?”

“Nick and I will have words,” Darcy growled.  Jarvis, thankfully, ignored her to continue his debrief.

“During his time with the ghost unit, Erik Stevens’ time was poorly recorded.  The government disavows most of their activity from the second they receive their orders, and if not, from the moment they exit their helicopters in the target location.  Their missions, however, lean heavily towards the taboo and illegal. Assassination and government destabilization are ghost unit specialties. The only real data we have on Stevens comes from the Hydra files leaked after their exposure, from a joint mission between Agents Rumlow and Rollins, and the unit Stevens was in.  Agent Rollins reported that Stevens was fiery, disciplined, and highly skilled. He recommended recruitment. Agent Rumlow’s report was not so complimentary, calling Stevens ‘delusional’ and accusing him of having a ‘superior attitude’. On the strength of his objections, they never recruited Stevens.”

“At least he is not Hydra,” said a new voice, and they turned to see T’Challa and Nakia.

“I came because my kimoyo beads went crazy,” T’Challa said.  “I assume that was you summoning me, Jarvis?”

“No, I have no access to the kimoyo bead network.  I asked Griot to do so. It seemed urgent.”

“Did he offer any clue about his identity?” T’Challa asked, stepping closer to the hologram.  Darcy looked at them and a slow, horrible light dawned on her. Stevens was a cracked mirror, a parody of T’Challa.  Where the King had grace and confidence, Stevens was holding himself with a cocky arrogance you only see on the badly damaged.

“He has a War Dog tattoo, but we have no record of him,” Shuri said.

“I am detecting War Machine’s tracer rounds on him,” Jarvis said.

“Your Majesty, we need to get you to the throne room, yesterday,” Darcy said abruptly.  “He’s here to do what he does best. Destabilize a government. That means you. I’m sorry T’Challa.  You are officially out of time to choose.”

<^>

T’Challa shook his head slightly at the bickering demands of the council.  He could not answer their questions in the time they had, and it was important to show a united front.  He had much training in rulership, in leading and making hard choices, but his teachers had not taught him how to defend against this type of attack.  Wakanda’s first defense had always been her secrecy.

W’Kabi entered with Erik Stevens.  T’Challa gave his friend what he hoped was a reassuring look and demanded the removal of the bindings placed on the newcomer.

“Cousin,” T’Challa said in English.  “It is good to have you here.”

The council erupted in shocked whispers for a moment, then hushed as T’Challa rose to face Erik.  He schooled his face to neutral kindness, the open yet emotionally empty face that allowed the viewer to project what they wished.  When Erik looked at him, he clearly saw something worthy of contempt.

“I am in your house,” Erik said to the assembled council, “serving justice to a man who stole your vibranium and murdered your people.  Justice your king couldn’t deliver.”

“What you did was not justice,” T’Challa said.  It hurt to see the anger. The pain. It hurt to know who had caused it.  He stepped closer, enough to drop his voice and speak privately in a room full of people.  “You denied his victims justice.  You know this, you too lost a chance at true justice recently.”

Erik took a small step back, a stutter in his flawless performance.  There was shock on his face now, in between the pain and hate. There was a second T’Challa thought Erik might break free of his cycle, but he rebounded hard into his previous path.

“There’s about two billion people out there who look like us, and their lives are a hell of a lot harder because of it.  Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.”

“What tools are those?” T’Challa asked mildly.

“Vibranium,” Erik insisted, looking at T’Challa like one might a child who was inexplicably slow witted.  “Your weapons.”

“Wakanda will not wage war,” T’Challa said firmly, his previous gentility and kindness gone in a moment.  “Vibranium will be kept out of dangerous hands, and as King of Wakanda I will not be judge, jury, and executioner to people not our own.”

“Didn’t life start right here on this continent?  Ain’t all people your people?” Erik countered.

“I will also not abuse my place as King,” T’Challa sighed.  “I know you have no reason to believe this, but a King should serve and protect his people, not kill them.”

“Son, you have indulged this charlatan long enough.  Reject his request,” Queen Ramonda said in the imperious tone the untrained ear heard as demand.  T’Challa knew it for desperation.

“I ain’t requesting,” Erik said with a smirk.  “Ask me who I am.”

“You are Erik Stevens, an American black ops agent and a mercenary nicknamed Killmonger,” Shuri spat hostilely.  T’Challa understood her rage, as badly timed as it was. “ That is who you are.”

“That’s not my name, Princess,” Erik said.  T’Challa’s patience was growing thin at the smugness the man evinced.  He’d mapped it out, had a script in his head, a plan. It would be with no small joy T’Challa upended it.

“A name does not make a man,” T’Challa said firmly in Wakandan.  “It is important, but his actions are more so, N’Jadaka son of N’Jobu.  I am happy to learn of you, cousin, and saddened by your suffering, but you have chosen a path that tells me who you are.”

The two men ignored the outrage that erupted in the council room.

“I found my daddy with panther claws in his chest,” Erik snarled.  “I am exercising my blood right to challenge for the mantles of King and Black Panther.”  T’Challa closed his eyes in recognition. The pain was too deep to mend with words. At least he had tried for peace.

“I accept your challenge.”

<^>

It was different, Shuri noted.  The ceremony of course was less elaborate, nobody was in traditional regalia except the shamans and T’Challa.  Beyond that, though, everyone was quieter. The challenge day when T’Challa became King was a happy day, a day they knew would end without death, even when M’Baku and his brutes had come down from their mountain.  After all, the Jabari were harsh and warlike, but not insane.

Erik Stevens was.  Dangerously insane.  T’Challa could not concede this fight.  Everyone present knew that, knew that despite the royal blood he claimed and T’Challa acknowledged, the man called Killmonger was a threat.  On the throne he had a longer reach with which to aim his reckless fury, but no less a drive to pointless death and bloodshed.

No, T’Challa could not afford to concede, and he could not afford to lose.  Killmonger, according to Darcy, would be constitutionally incapable of conceding.  Shuri trusted the outsider to know how that culture, that country, would break men, would push them to insanity.  Aside from her perusal of their entertainment at a safe distance, Shuri had no experience with the colonizer’s world.  From the Avenger’s discrete pauses and meaningful looks with Okoye and Nakia, Shuri gathered that there was a benevolent conspiracy to keep it that way.  While Okoye could be an annoying mother hen, Shuri trusted Nakia’s judgement. So she said nothing and let them talk around the truth.

Now, solemn and sacred as the ceremony was, she wished badly she could be anywhere but here.  At home, in her room, eating chips and listening to music. In her lab building something. Getting a lecture on subordinate rulership from Jarvis, even!  Anything not to watch that madman circle her brother on the edge of the falls.

There was the cold comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone.  Nakia’s hand on her shoulder grew painfully tight, anchoring them both.  Her mother was shaking and Shuri slipped a hand into hers to extend the same bitter comfort of contact while they watched helplessly.  She wanted nothing more than to run to T’Challa’s side, to help him fight, but that would be used, be twisted by this Killmonger into another weapon.  One her brother, her sweet and slightly gullible brother, could not guard against. She knew this, they all did. That did not stop Zuri, highest shaman, wisest of the ones called to service of Bast, from breaking his oaths.

He ran forward, confessed to causing the death of N’Jobu, an uncle Shuri had never met.  He was stabbed and dismissed. His life meant nothing to the one who killed him while calling him Uncle.  That disregard, that faithless execution of someone he claimed as family sickened Shuri. She could see her brother fight the same pain down, the same rage.  It was as if they were one being in that moment. Each blow she felt in her gut. Each moment her brother spent off his feet made her dizzy as though she stood on a cliff.  She could taste his blood and bile rising as blow after blow pushed him to the brink of breaking.

And when he fell…

No.  When he was thrown , she felt part of her go flying over the falls with him.

Chapter Text

“We need to go,” Nakia said, pulling the door shut behind her.  Darcy looked up from the paperback she’d borrowed from Shuri to see the princess shoving things in a bag, her face blank.  Nakia, the composed spy from earlier, the restraining hand on the heart of T’Challa, showed the distinct signs of having been crying.

“Why?  What happened?”

“T’Challa lost the combat.”  Shuri’s voice was a flat echo of her earlier vibrancy.

“He conceded?  That’s crazy, Stevens can’t be trusted!”

“I did not say he conceded,” Shuri said bitterly.  “Okoye will stay here. She is a General, loyal to the throne, not to any who sits upon it.  Her heart is honestly dedicated to Wakanda first, and everything else a distant second.”

“Princess!” Nakia gasped.

“No, Nakia.  If you want to say goodbye, do so, but respect the place Okoye holds.  You and I, we break molds, we experiment and test the boundaries. Okoye and T’Challa…”  Shuri’s voice wavered, but did not break. “Okoye is a woman of tradition, of law.”

“If you commanded her…”

“Never give an order you know won’t be followed,” Darcy interrupted.  “Don’t think like a spy, think like a handler. You know Shuri is right.”

Shuri nodded and gave Darcy a blanket.  “We’ll need these for armor and disguise.  Your friend isn’t done healing, but he’ll have to take the risk.  I need to go to the Hall of Kings. Nakia, take them to the southern pass out of the city, I’ll meet you there.”

“How… how are you so calm?” Nakia asked her.

“Nakia, my brother is dead.  He was killed in front of me by a man-thing who means to use my work to bring bloodshed and death to the world.  I. Am. Not. Calm. That does not mean I am not capable.  Killmonger has hurt me,” Shuri handed the spy her bag. “But I can cry about it later.  Right now, I am the last surviving child of King T’Chaka, the rightful heir to the mantle of Black Panther, the Princess of Wakanda and I will act like it.

Darcy watched the Princess stalk out before turning to Nakia.

“I am very sorry for your loss, but she will make a fantastic Queen someday.”

Nakia snorted.  “We have our orders.  Get your friend, the city will have heard of the news by now.”

The southern pass out of the city looked like an untamed jungle path.  Darcy was a city girl at heart, and her experiences with wilderness were limited to temperate European forests carefully maintained by thousands of years of woodsmen, and the deserts of the American southwest.  Neither resembled the dense growth on either side of the narrow track.

“I do not like this,” she grumbled.  Rhodey shifted beside her to put a bit more weight at her back.  His bones had been knit back together, his blood replenished, and all the organ damage reversed.  Shuri had been working on repairing the tiny nicks and cuts the damage left on his spinal column, but the sudden appearance of Killmonger had interrupted, leaving him weakened.  Now, Darcy was half-supporting him as they limped down the path.

“You’re not alone in that,” Rhodey whispered back.  “I hate jungles. Did Tony ever tell you about the time I got shot down over southeast Asia?  I’d lost navigation, it was a test plane and the electronics fried at the edge of the atmosphere.  I knew sort of what area I’d landed in, because I’d seen the coast, but heck if I knew if I was in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand… that little strip of Burma?  No clue.”

He kept up the story telling, adding in ridiculous details that made her snort, exaggerating until it was clear he was just making things up.  The timeline wouldn’t work for that, and she was pretty sure she recognized some subplots from MASH episodes.

“Can you two try to be a little less chatty?” Nakia asked.  “Shuri and Queen Ramonda should be here soon.”

“Bangobani aba bantu?” asked a woman’s voice behind them and Nakia bowed.  Darcy slipped her hand free of the blanket-coat disguise and stabilized Rhodey as he tried to turn.  She maneuvered them into a less than graceful rotation, and nodded to the Queen.

“Mother, these are our friends, I told you about them?” Shuri said.  Darcy noted she also had a blanket wrapped around her, but that hers looked more secure and less like a child play-acting with a towel.  It was an unpleasant call-back to Darcy’s awkward teen years, the ungainly feeling of poor fashion. It made Darcy acutely aware the green blanket clashed with the orangey red of the veil Nakia had supplied to cover her white face.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t meet under better circumstances, Your Majesty,” Rhodey said, flawlessly taking point on smooth talking.  “I’d bow, but I’m a bit….”

“He’s half-baked.  I didn’t have time to finish,” Shuri said.  Darcy squinted at her, wondering if that was the old humor, or the new anger.  Not that it mattered, as the conversation slipped back to Wakandan and Darcy could only vaguely track the topics as they walked.

<^>

M’Baku of the Jabari did not, for all the lowlanders’ fears, actually enjoy frightening women and children.  His instinct as a man was to offer respect to Ramonda, his elder, and comfort to her daughter and their retinue.  His purpose as a leader , however, meant he had to be the hard face.  He had to test their purpose in coming before him.  He had to challenge the idea that death in ritual combat was murder, had to put up a wall before him to see if they would scale it or break upon it.

“The new king is a US-” the lone guard began, in English.  M’Baku barked and his warriors took up the call.  In the silence after, there was a subtle shifting.  The guard looked to a veiled attendant, and the attendant looked to Ramonda, Shuri, and Nakia in turn.

“He should know,” Nakia said quietly in English, just loud enough for M’Baku to hear it.

“If he was going to listen he would have already,” Shuri dismissed in the same language.  M’Baku snorted. The child knew so little of rulership. Of the trials leaders faced so their people did not have to.  “We should not have come, I can-”

“If you do not cease this whispering backtalk, I will feed you to my children!” M’Baku barked, in English to match them.  If they thought he could not understand the language of the outside world, they would be surprised. The group stilled and turned.  Most to stare at him in horror, but the guard turned to block the veiled attendant from rushing forward. Even under the blanket, he could see her shoulders set in a warrior’s firmness.  So. Not a handmaid, after all. “I’m kidding. We are vegetarians.”

Their faces were so funny, slipping from fear to disgust at their own acceptance of his joke.  M’Baku did not even try to repress his laughter. Humor was a gift from Hanuman, and should be enjoyed whenever possible.

“Great Gorilla M’Baku,” intoned Nakia, breaking the giggles.  She held out her hands without so much as a quiver. He could respect that, especially as he knew her heart must be breaking.  Even the Jabari had heard rumors of a potential marriage between the then-Prince and the jewel of the River Tribe. Her hands opened to reveal the soft glow of the heart-shaped herb.  “This is why we have come. To offer this to you. An outsider sits on our throne, and only you can stop him.”

She knelt, and one by one, so did the rest of them, with the exception of the guard, who bowed, and the veiled bodyguard, who stood beside him.  Her head was raised high, and while M’Baku could not see her face, he felt certain her eyes were locked on his in challenge. He narrowed his eyes at her and stepped down from the throne.

“You do not kneel?”

“No.  Aside from not liking the idea of a bloodthirsty, brainwashed, multiply enhanced chaos agent on the throne of a technologically superior nation, I don’t have a stake here.  I respect Ramonda and Nakia’s decision, but frankly I thought Nakia should take the herb. People who seek power rarely deserve it.”

“I could do it,” grumbled Shuri.

“You are seventeen, I am not advocating for a child soldier,” the woman snapped.  “Regardless, it’s not my place to decide anything here.”

“Because you are not royal?”  M’Baku snorted as he stepped up to look down at her.  The lowlanders cared too much about ancestry, in all the wrong ways.  History was important, reverence for the Ancestors was a good thing, but the future should rest on the shoulders of the strong, not on the random happenings of birth.

The woman snorted back at him, and M’Baku realized that while smaller than him, she was mirroring his stance.  He cocked his head in question.

“Because I am not Wakandan.  I don’t have any more place telling you how to run your country than Erik Stevens does, but at least I know it.”  Her voice was low, quiet.  Held in a small circle between her and him.  She wasn’t backing down, wasn’t lowering her eyes to avoid a fight, but her tone made something protective stir in his chest.  This was a warrior, admitting she could not, should not, fight this battle. This was an outsider, trusting him not to lash out simply for her status.  It was a vulnerability beyond lowered eyes and kneeling, and he respected it.

He nodded.  He could keep that trust.

“Come with me.  There is something you need to see.”

<^>

It was daylight.  The last time he’d stood on this plain it had been night time, or at least dark, with swirling, unfamiliar galaxies and auroras above him in an inky void.  Now the sky was a beautiful clear blue, and the edge of the horizon was painted with ten thousand shades he could not name. But the place, at least, he knew.

“My son,” said a familiar voice.  “It is time to come home.”

T’Challa turned to face T’Chaka.  He wanted so badly to run to him, to embrace him and like a little boy to ask his father to chase away the darkness and the fear.  He was not a child, though, and he stood his ground.

“Why?  Why Baba?” he asked instead, his voice choking on the feeling of regret and pain.  “Why did you leave the boy behind?”

T’Chaka paused, something like shame dancing behind tired eyes.  T’Challa couldn’t remember ever having seen shame on his father’s face before.  “He was the truth I chose to omit.”

“You were wrong to abandon him,” T’Challa said.  Here, in this land, the truth came easily. It had been so hard, to contemplate his father’s failings when he was alive.  Now that he was dead, lies had the weight of spider silk and were just as off putting. The truth was simple, easy, peaceful as he said it, for all his father flinched from it.

“I chose my people,” T’Chaka defended.  “I chose Wakanda. Our future, our safety, depended on-”

“You were wrong ,” T’Challa interrupted.  He looked at the ancestors gathered behind his father.  All his family, every grandmother and cousin and great-great-great aunt.  Everyone, except one. “All of you were wrong to turn your back on the world, and let the fear of our discovery stop us from doing what is right .”

His father’s face became dark and furious, but T’Challa drew courage from the small smile on his grandfather’s face.  Azzuri had been more inclined than most of Wakanda’s Kings to assist the world. Of course, he had been prompted to by a threat not even Wakanda could ignore, one of horrible scale and severity.  One that should have been enough to end the silence for good.

“No more, Baba,” T’Challa said, letting his tears fall freely.  This hurt, as it should. “Never again, and no more .  I cannot stay here with you.  I cannot rest, I cannot allow myself peace, while a monster of our own making threatens the world with Wakanda.  We are not a weapon.”

“What will you do, Umzukulu?” Azzuri asked him, the deep voice he only barely recalled from childhood wrapping him in the sense of warm and loved and safe.

“I must take the mantle back,” T’Challa answered helplessly.  It was foolish to try this, impossible, even. He was asking to return from the dead, to try something he had failed before.  “I must right these wrongs.”

“Then go T’Challa,” said T’Chaka, his face softening.  “I was not a perfect King, I was too scared to say tradition was wrong, just because it was tradition.  Be a better King, my son. Be brave, be kind… but above all, be yourself son. You are already a better man than I was.”

Chapter Text

They waited until morning to have a war council.  Everyone had needed sleep and time to process the day before.  Darcy in particular had taken advantage of the sudden ability her children had given her to get to sleep quickly.  She suspected it had to do with the comfortable bed she’d been offered, a round, nest-shaped pit lined in thick blankets.  Part of her was wishing it wouldn’t be impolitic to ask if the Jabari would consider taking up furniture exports.

The rest was watching quietly as T’Challa was caught up on the results of his loss in the combat.  This was the test, the make or break moment when he either became the hero his people needed, or flinched and lost for good.

“He has the full backing of the military,” Nakia said.  “And he burned the garden of the heart-shaped herb. Shuri was able to save some, but we used that to heal you.”

“Why?” Ramonda asked, her face a mix of anger, pain, and confusion.  Darcy hated seeing innocence lost like that. It wasn’t right. “What does he gain through such pointless destruction?”

“He’s doing what he was trained to do,” Darcy said.  “Destabilizing a government. You always go after the weak spots, the transition of power is a big one.  Election years, the death of a monarch, any time the UN Peacekeepers are pulling out, or the Army Corps of Engineers is moving in.  If you step into an existing vacuum, you get control of the government, and most of the populace won’t even notice new policies because the transition times are always messy.  The next step is to control what is needed to oust you, strike down laws, confiscate weapons, destroy items of cultural significance so you’re the only source of power, or safety...”

“Or resources,” T’Challa said, a light dawning in his eyes.  “The Great Mound.”

Shuri nodded.  “Our vibranium.  All of my designs.”  

“He’s going to ship our weapons all over the world.”  The words sat between them like a particularly ugly elephant that they’d been politely ignoring until now.  

Darcy looked to Rhodey, who was still a little shaky on his feet, but had improved greatly since the night before.  A Jabari doctor had taken another look, and done… something. Honestly, Darcy couldn’t tell if it was science or magic, but it worked and she wasn’t about to complain.  Rhodey nodded and flashed a small hand sign, an outward palm raised a few inches.

Darcy looked back to where T’Challa was arguing with Nakia and his mother about the viability of evacuating them to safety.

Shuri stood, and calmly placed herself between her brother and her mother.  “If he controls our technology, nowhere will be safe,” she said, reaching into her bag from the lab.  Darcy smiled broadly. She didn’t exactly know how any of it worked, but she’d spent enough time with Jane to know that what a scientist grabbed from her lab during an emergency evacuation was valuable to more than science.  

Shuri draped a necklace of silvery claws around T’Challa’s neck.  “The Black Panther lives, and when he fights for the fate of Wakanda, I will be right there beside him.”

“As will I,” said Nakia.

“I’m in too,” Rhodey declared.  They all looked at him sharply. He hadn’t said much since their arrival.  “What? I left War Machine in the lab. If Killmonger put one finger on her, I’m gonna punch his teeth out.”

“Are you done yet?” said M’Baku with a yawn.  Darcy rolled her eyes at him. The war council was private, so she’d forgone the veil, and discovered the big man had a keen sense of humor and was fluent in Eyebrow.  “What? I want to know if they are done. Are you?”

“Can you give me and Lord M’Baku a moment,” T’Challa asked.

“I’ll get your things,” Rhodey told Darcy.  She smiled and watched Shuri and Nakia bracket him to assist him in standing, even though he said he was fine.

“I’ll need a moment as well,” Darcy said to T’Challa.  “I’ll just wait over there. Wave when you have a sec to talk.”

She went to stand by the door, just barely in earshot.

“No harm will come to Queen Ramonda, I give you my word.”  M’Baku’s voice carried better here, especially when he was being sincere.  The acoustics of the wooden walls were fascinating, and Darcy suspected M’Baku knew exactly how to use them to put his voice where he needed it.  She’d noted the effect last night, during the barking.

“I will spend no Jabari lives on your cause.”

T’Challa wasn’t happy about that, even at the distance she could see it in his shoulders.

“Us?  You are the first king to come here in centuries, and now you speak of us?”

“I cannot speak for past Kings!” T’Challa said, loudly enough to be heard, but not quite shouting.  It was a slim thing, though, and Darcy frowned at the loss of composure. M’Baku gave her a glance and relayed worry in his face.  T’Challa was giving a persuasive argument.

“No.”  The Jabari Lord had a sad, pensive look, but his tone was final.  “We will not fight.”

T’Challa turned and paced back toward her.  “Stubborn,” he grumbled.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to make you any happier, T’Challa,” she said.  “Rhodey is a good pilot, a smart fighter and loyal to a fault. He’s a good man to have with you.”

“But you are also going to abandon the people of Wakanda,” T’Challa said.  “It isn’t your fight, I have been nothing but a child you needed to shepherd, and you want to stay behind.”

“Chill, Edgelord.  Not what I was going to say.  I was going to say, as much as I hate it, I have to admit that every one of the very smart people I call family have been right.  I can’t be this reckless anymore. If it were just me, or even me and my husbands, or my brothers, or my daughters, we would back you a hundred percent without question.”  Darcy took a deep breath and looked at M’Baku, hoping she’d calculated this correctly. “I’m a mother, and that starts with thinking of what’s best for my children. The grown ones are all fighters to the core and would go with you to hell and back, but the babies?  I need to stay behind. Right now, I’m the only safe home my babies have, and I cannot let a war destroy that.”

T’Challa nodded stiffly.  “Ask M’Baku if you can stay with my mother,” he said, and walked away, leaving her with her choice.

<^>

The approach wasn’t subtle.  It wasn’t meant to be. There was a time for stealth, and a time to drop a remotely controlled aircraft out of the sky in a fiery ball of advance notice of your anger.  This was one of the latter.

“I did not yield!” T’Challa yelled, projecting as far as he could force his voice.  Stepping out of the flames ensured everyone who could was looking at him as he stalked towards Killmonger.  Erik was standing in a lazily relaxed pose, draped in a loose robe. For all his earlier bluster about tradition and blood rights, he now looked like nothing as much as an American gangster, the ones in the television shows T’Challa had secretly watched as a rebellious teen.  T’Challa stood straight in counterpoint, but matched the arrogant swagger. “And as you can see, I am not dead. The challenge continues.”

“Man, what you talking about?”  Killmonger waved dismissively. “We done with that challenge shit.  I won. I’m the King now. Deal with it, brah.”

T’Challa nodded once.  It was to be this way then.  He pulled his mask up with a subtle flex of his hands, and sent Shuri the signal.  “You knew when you challenged me that this ends in death, Erik. Yours or mine. You do not get to change the rules now.”

“A’right then,” Killmonger smirked complacently.  “W’Kabi, waste this fool.”

They were at enough of a distance that without the aid of the Panther’s powers, T’Challa couldn’t have heard the exchange.  Okoye, her voice calm as she recited the relevant parts of the sacred law of Wakanda. W’Kabi replying with equal firmness. An agreement reached in a few short sounds, not even words but that special language of the married.  The Dora Milaje snapped to attention, spears pointed at Killmonger. Border Tribe warriors formed a shield wall beside them. There was one clear path out of the perilous situation, the one that led directly towards T’Challa.

It was good, he reflected, to see his country had not been complacent in the hands of a madman.  Okoye was loyal to Wakanda first and always, but given half a chance to save it from a tradition gone wrong, and she turned on the would-be king at once.  W’Kabi, too, had kept most of his people from being subverted. However, the sound of fighting in his ear told T’Challa that not all the Border Tribe, or even the Golden Tribe, had been so strong.  Shuri and Nakia were meeting resistance. Another ship flew out overhead and T’Challa leapt to intercept it. The striking of metal on suit as it crashed into his midsection gave enough charge that kicking off it resulted in a rather flashy explosion.

As he stood, he realized he had underestimated his opponent.

While there were Dora Milaje and Border Tribe warriors circling Killmonger, there were other warriors streaming towards him, and more ships, manned ones as well as remotely piloted, flew overhead, too far up to intercept.  Killmonger was turning the tide, having called up Shuri’s flashy gold suit. T’Challa sneered at the ostentation, then felt bad. It was his little sister’s work, after all.

T’Challa let his mind go, let himself drift while the Panther dodged and kicked and tripped the forces sent to stop him.  He felt the flow of the battle’s rhythm, the beat of the ancient dance of blood. He could sing this song in his sleep, he had sung it in sleep, the warrior’s blood rising up in dreams to show him his way.  He wondered what Shuri’s dreams were like, how invention called to her. Was her dance as beautiful to her as his was to him?

Nakia danced the same dance as he did.  He knew that in his heart, he had felt her move beside him to the same rhythm, they were different steps in the same structure.  That unity, and her kindness and wisdom, were what made him love her so completely. He resolved to make his next mission repairing whatever he could of the bond that had broken between them.  To give her a way to satisfy her warrior soul beside him, instead of forcing her to choose.  Of course she had chosen herself, he realized.  She had to.

<^>

“Nakia and I will use this to connect you to the Royal Talon with this,” Shuri said, holding up a small black bit of tech.  Rhodey looked at her and nodded.

“And what do I do?”

“You have to fly it,” Shuri said, reaching out to clasp a string of kimoyo beads around his wrist.

“But… I have War Machine.”

Nakia snorted as she picked up circular blades of blue light.  “Your suit is in no condition, Colonel Rhodes. Don’t worry, you were a great pilot without it.”

“It’s just like riding a hoverbike,” Shuri added.  Then she turned away from him to point at a set of clothes in the secret sand storage.  “Nakia, put that on.”

“I’m not a Dora.”

“It’s armor, just do it.”

Like that, the two women were moving, and Rhodey knew not to argue.

The seat that rose from the sand after they were gone was frighteningly similar to the Lockheed Martin F35.  Given how the Marines were guarding those things, he decided he didn’t want to know how Shuri had gotten her hands on one to copy.

“I made it American style for you,” said her voice on his comms.  It was like she knew she’d freaked him out. “Now go! We can’t let those weapons get beyond Wakanda.”

Rhodey slid into place and let himself adjust to the texture of the sand.  It was solid enough, but unsettling. As a result, he overgunned the takeoff and for a second panicked about flooding the engine.  He shook his head and pulled himself together to chase ships over the city. He waited until they were past the edge of the city and over water before firing.  No need to add the capitol to their collateral damage.

<^>

Shuri allowed herself one moment of fear as she hit the ground.  Her left shoulder hung over the chasm of the aircraft entrance to the Great mound.  Her right shoulder flexed to exert some leverage and prevent the rest of her body following it.  Her brain unhelpfully provided the exact dimensions of that particular access shaft, and the equations of acceleration due to gravity if she fell.  Terminal velocity followed by a bone-shattering crash on a MagLev track. Not a pretty way to die.

She ignored that.  It wasn’t useful right now.  Right now, she had other problems, a shorted out gauntlet and a madman looming over her.  She did the math. If she fired the remaining gauntlet at his feet he might go over the edge.  She would certainly be pushed back by the opposing force. If she tried to sweep his feet, he probably wouldn’t fall, but she might buy herself enough time to stand up.

The choice was hard, made distant through fear and unaccustomed reality of death.

Shuri looked at the battlefield and tried to imagine Okoye or Nakia in her place, what would they do?  What would her brother do? Probably something dumb.

Like tackle Killmonger into the open void of the shaft.  

For the second time in as many days, she watched her brother fall into the arms of death and felt a part of her fall with him.  Shuri shook with the anger of it, the unfairness of the pain visited on her brother, when a large hand reached out to take hers.

She blinked up at Lord M’Baku.

“Princess.   You have a battle to win.”

Chapter Text

“Are you sure about this?” M’Baku asked Darcy.  The sun wasn’t yet above the horizon yet, but the eastern sky was a fiery blaze of yellow and red over the tops of the mountains.  “This is not chess.”

“No, it is not,” she said, looking at the wooden board in front of her.  It was a Jabari strategy game, similar to Mancala but multi directional. The rules were deceptively simple, but the strategy infinitely more complex.  The stakes, at least for this game, were higher. “But T’Challa needs you. If this is how he gets you, I’ll play whatever game you like.”

“Kings don’t come here, you know,” he said, scooping up the beads in the hollow nearest him.  “In a hundred mothers, no Panther King has climbed this mountain.”

“Mothers?”  Darcy watched where he moved the beads, the colors denoting value, and the implications of his strategy.

“Generations.  Jabari measure cultural time by how many mothers lived through that time, how many brothers and sisters were able to experience it.  More mothers, a more ingrained cultural truth. Kings don’t come here. Your move.”

Darcy scooped up a handful of green and orange beads from the left side of the board.  “Then it should matter more that T’Challa is here, and that he needs you.”

“He hardly chose to be here,” M’Baku pointed out as she claimed the first point, sliding the five multi-colored beads from her newly made set onto her score rod.  “He washed up on our banks like a beached porpoise.”

“Do you even get porpoises here?” Darcy asked.  “Your move.”

“Sometimes.  River dolphins, with sharp teeth, people say they’re good eating.  You just have to make sure they’re dead first, or they bite you.”

“Ever try helping them back into the river?”  Darcy raised a brow with her pointed question.  “River dolphins are a good piranha deterrent.”

“How do you think I know they have sharp teeth?” M’Baku asked.  He shifted his bracelet up on his arm, revealing a half-moon of shiny keloid scars.  “I was only a child, I didn’t know better then. Now I know to be cautious of things that wash up on the banks.”

“Cautious, but not judgemental,” Darcy said agreeably.  “After all, you’re here now. Playing this game with me.”

“Because I know I’ll win,” M’Baku said, distributed beads, and claimed two sets of fives.

“The only way to win is not to play the game,” Darcy intoned.

“We are hardly playing thermonuclear war,” he retorted.

“No, we’re playing something much worse,” Darcy said, reading the board.  His next move decided her strategy, if she could convince him or if she could only beat him.  “Wakanda doesn’t get out of this with her secrets intact, you know. If T’Challa loses, Killmonger will open her doors with a red carpet made of blood.  War will descend on this land, and you won’t have any allies.”

“If T’Challa wins, he will open our borders and we will wash to the sea in a flood of colonizers,” M’Baku sneered, picking up the beads from the best cup on the board.  “Our nation will fail because he is a child.”

“He will,” Darcy said quietly.  “But when he does, you will have more than allies, you will have friends.  You will have people to hold the border for you, not because they are afraid but because it is right.  Because raiding a culture is wrong. Because there is something between aggression and passivity, and that something is a strength worth respecting.  Because you played board games with a pregnant woman before sunrise.”

His hand faltered.  “You’re pregnant?”

“Twins.”  Darcy smiled and put a hand on her belly.  There was a slight bulge now, her weight having gone up on a steady diet of the special Wakandan juice between regular meals.  “I’m in week nineteen. I wouldn’t ordinarily be up at this hour, you know. I’m kinda surprised I didn’t wake up puking, to be honest.  Desperate peeing is much better.”

“And if I do not give my people to T’Challa for him to lead to death… you will go with him I suppose.  Take risks you know I would object to.”

“Either way I’m staying here,” Darcy said, shaking her head.  A curl flopped in her face and she blew at it in irritation. Stupid humidity.  “I won’t use my babies as a bargaining chip. I’m only here because I made an unforgivably stupid mistake.  Because my desire for glory and justice got in the way of taking proper care of my family. I like to think I learn from my mistakes, that I’m not a selfish person.”

M’Baku looked at her, and rattled the beads in his hand.  Then he played them, in the worst possible places.

“There will be rules.  I don’t lead from behind, and I don’t use my people lightly.”

Darcy nodded.  “Of course. In fact, it looks better for T’Challa if you don’t send your people with him.  He won’t be thinking that way yet, but I think we can find the best way to support him.”

“Together.”

“Obviously.”

<^>

Once they landed hard on a MagLev track, T’Challa rolled away from Killmonger, letting the newcomer set their pace.  Before, he had been fast, aggressive, aiming to take T’Challa down as quickly as he could. T’Challa had been similar, seeing only the threat offered by this man.  He wasn’t fit to be king, that much was clear. He was wounded, all the way down into his spirit, in ways that would make it impossible to lead effectively or justly.  Now, though, as they circled each other, T’Challa was seeing him differently. Maybe not a good king, maybe not a good man, but perhaps… perhaps there was room for more than good and bad.  Perhaps the world was big enough for both tradition and adaptation, for peace and action. For N’Jadaka son of N’Jobu and Erik Stevens, child of Oakland.

He just had to separate those two from Killmonger, the ruthless government agent who had been, if Darcy was to be believed, horribly manipulated and brainwashed.

It might be possible.  He could see the hesitation, it was so short, so hidden in anger, but with the speed of the Panther he could catch the momentary gap of action, the choice to posture when Erik had to know it was better to strike quickly.

“Your reign is over.  You sat up there, safe and protected.  It made you soft.”

“Do you really want us to become like the people you hate so much?” T’Challa asked him.  “To divide and conquer as they did?

“Nah man.  I learned from my enemies,” Erik shot back, but there was a fear under his cocky attitude.  The mask had slipped. “I can beat them at they own game.”

“If you play that game, you will become them,” T’Challa warned.  His heart hurt at the truth, at the half-guesses imparted through the anger of an American agent, betrayed by that truth.  Killmonger was not of Wakanda, he was entirely a creature of the particular evil of a government that thinks it has a divine mandate, a manifest destiny.  “If you do this, you will destroy the world, Wakanda included.”

“The world took everything away from me,” Erik growled, and the deeply buried pain flared through his voice with vibranium clarity.  “Everything I ever loved. But I’mma make sure we’re even. I’mma track down anyone who would even think about being loyal to you, and I’mma put they asses in the dirt, right next to Zuri.”

T’Challa wanted to rage at that, the fresh loss too painful to face.  So close on the heels of losing his father, to lose Zuri to violence too… was more than T’Challa knew how to face.  The King of Wakanda, though, could not be motivated by individual grief. If T’Chaka had been correct about anything, he’d been correct about that.  Acting on his own pain to Wakanda’s detriment would be no better than Erik doing the same. If Erik could be saved, T’Challa would do it.

“Taking those I love does not get you love.  Love is not vibranium, rare and, and stealable .  Love is… love is Jabari wood.”

“The fuck is Jabari wood?”  Erik let down his suit’s mask, and gave T’Challa a skeptical look.

“The Jabari tribe don’t use vibranium,” T’Challa explained.  “They use Jabari wood. It’s renewable, sacred, and just as strong as vibranium.  Cut it and it will only make more trees. Burn it and it will only be stronger for the heat.  The only things that kill it will kill you too.”

Erik’s face did something odd, that T’Challa couldn’t place.  Somewhere between pain and memory and love and hope. It hurt to look at.

“Erik… I didn’t know what my father had done until after Busan.  It was wrong of them, to leave you behind. Baba and Zuri can’t stand for their crimes anymore, but… I am sorry.  I am sorry I cannot give you the justice you deserve.  If you will just stand down, I will do everything I can to balance the scales.  Properly.”

<^>

“The lab is under attack,” announced a smooth, accented voice.  Rhodey pulled up short to look for the source.

“Who?”  Rhodey stopped, and shook his head.  Priorities. “No, what. What’s attacking the lab?”

“Deactivating hologram.”  The screen of the F35 dropped away and Rhodey was staring at one of the dragonfly looking ships.  Its guns were systematically firing at the foot thick wall of glass that separated the lab from the mines.

“Rhodes, you’ve got to get out of there now!” Shuri shouted at him over the comms.

“How long have I got?” he asked.

“Glass integrity at 50%,” the lab’s AI informed him.

“Where’s War Machine?”

“The War Machine suit is in the repair bay, currently 76% operational.  Odds of survival in flight, 57%. Odds of survival in combat, 49%.”

"Rhodes, I command you to get out of there immediately."

“I go out, I go out flying.  Prep my girl.”

“Rhodes, you’re going to get yourself killed!” Shuri yelled.

“Mute comms,” Rhodey ordered, smiling as he turned to see War Machine sliding out of a sand table.  “What’s your name, wingman?”

“I am Griot, and the Princess is correct.  You are not sufficiently healed to pilot the War Machine to the best of her ability.  To put it succinctly, the suit is more repaired than you are.”

She surely looked better than Rhodey felt, all the superficial damage patched in slightly different metal, probably a high carbon content steel-vibranium alloy, that seemed to be the usual beast of burden around here.  The table stood her upright and she opened. Damn but it would be good to feel his girl around him again. The odds, though….

“Well Griot, I don’t normally take copilots, but there’s room in the system.  Wanna go save the world?”

“Someone, somewhere, has badly misled you as unto how charming you actually are,” Griot said in a dry, yet humorous, tone.  Rhodey smirked and thought of Tony. Usually it was him being excessively charming and brash, while Rhodey kept the shenanigans from causing too much damage.  It was kinda fun to be the bad boy for a change. “That person has much to answer for.”

“That wasn’t a no,” Rhodey pointed out.

“I don’t have much choice, seeing as my reason for existence is defending Wakanda, and you have the highest chance of doing so with my help.”

“You’ll learn to like me,” Rhodey said with a laugh as he stepped back into War Machine’s embrace.  “Get in, we have heroics to do.”

War Machine flew as well as she ever did, and Rhodey was glad to have Griot helping him.  The difference in his reaction time was minimal on the ground, but in the air, picoseconds counted.  An artificially fast hand on the weapons rig made a real difference between actually fighting, and ineffectually dodging around in the air.

He snapped open the extra boosters on the feet, his high heels, as Tony had joked.  The light off the repulsors did give an angular impression similar to a stiletto, and why not?  War Machine was his lady, as much as anyone he’d ever dated, and she deserved nice things. The suit replied with a slight static tingle and pitched his body forward as he raced ahead faster than any fighter he’d ever flown.  The last ship carrying weapons was almost at the border, and just out of missile range.

“Colonel, unmanned drones at your six,” Griot informed him.

“Ignore them, give me speed.”

“Colonel, this is not safe.”

“I didn’t join the Air Force for safe.  Give me speed, Griot.”

The static tingle grew, and the targeting system snapped from red to green.  Rhodey released a barrage of missiles and repulsor fire. The missiles distracted the ship’s automated defenses, and the repulsors opened a hole in the force field around it.  A single round, loaded with a high power EMP, latched on to the metal, and the plane went dark and crashed into the mountain below. Rhodey whooped in victory.

Then someone slapped him on the back and he passed out.

Chapter Text

For a moment, he actually thought Erik would stand down.  The pain was so clear, the need to repair the damage so obvious, that the lunge caught T’Challa off guard.  He leapt out of the way, aware he was letting Erik control the encounter, by passively dodging and blocking.  It still hurt too much to fight back against the man who should be a cousin.

“Erik, stop!”

“That’s not my name.”  He pinned T’Challa up against the base of a stabilizer.  “You know my name.”

“N’Jadaka, please, what you are doing is madness.”

“Ennnh, wrong!”  T’Challa could see himself reflected in the gold of the necklace that held the suit.  “Your sis was right. I ain’t N’Jadaka, I ain’t even Erik anymore. I’m Killmonger, and I do one thing really well.  Put the hurt on punks like you.”

“Shuri, activate the train on the bottom track!” T’Challa hissed quickly, knowing soon the pressure would overwhelm the suit and Erik would choke him silent.

“That’s going to leave you defenseless,” his sister informed him.  “You realize he is doubly enhanced, yes?”

“Just do it!”

The light of the stabilizers distracted Killmonger enough for T’Challa to put his shoulder to the other man’s chest, using the strength of his whole body to counter the strength of Killmonger’s arms.  The shock of watching the slow dissolution of their suits bought him further leverage.

“I will not let you take everything from me,” Erik growled in his face, spinning them to push T’Challa at the oncoming train.  In a brute force match, without suits, T’Challa was barely able to prevent himself from being shoved right into the train as it sped by them.  “This is it for you, Cousin.”

T’Challa grasped Erik’s upper arm firmly, fingers digging in at the nerve point above the bicep.  He checked the fingers of his other hand with a light squeeze, and pulled Erik into an embrace.

“Someday, I hope that you forgive me.”  With that, he rolled them backwards as the train passed by, flipping Erik into a forward roll he came up from quickly.  More slowly, T’Challa stood, the golden necklace in his hand. “Weapons do not bring peace, Erik, because someone can always take a weapon away from you.  They are a target, nothing more.”

“Hell of a move,” Erik admitted.  He was breathing heavily, and T’Challa could finally see how young he really was.  Sweat coated his skin, running between the scars like water around rocks in the river.  “But you’re wrong. I am the weapon.”

“And for allowing that to happen, Wakanda owes you more than she can repay,” T’Challa said sincerely.  “We are not weapons, and you should not have had to be either.”

Erik sat abruptly, like a puppet with cut strings.  T’Challa knelt beside him.

“You know, my Pops used to say Wakanda was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.  He promised me he was gonna show it to me one day. You believe that?  A kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales.”

“You can still have that,” T’Challa said.  “No one has to die.”

“I’m running out of time,” Erik said, wheezing out a wet breath.  “I went off mission. That gets a man real dead real fast. Or real slow, depending on how much he uses his juice.  I think I prefer fast, which is good, because you take a lot of juice to fight, even with the Panther.”

“We can still heal you,” T’Challa insisted.  “Shuri is a brat but she’s very good with medicines, and we have allies who know about the sorts of programs that did this to you.”

“Why?”  Erik looked at him with heartbreaking confusion.  “So you can lock me up to show off your justice ?  Nah, I’m good.  Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors, the ones who jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”

T’Challa’s mind raced.  He did not want to watch Erik die as his body gave out under the weight of the evils worked on him.  It was hard, because Erik had a right to decide his own fate, to join the ancestors he loved, to run the green veldt if life was too painful.  It didn’t have to be painful, though.  There was no way to say what needed to be said if T’Challa used Wakanda as his guide, the concepts didn’t translate far enough to touch Erik’s American upbringing.

But there was someone who could guide him in the ways of America.

“Chill, Edgelord,” T’Challa said with great solemnity.  “There are many things other than death and bondage to choose from.  Someone I respect very much once told me, you have to make your choices with thought, with intention, or people will claim they mean things you never wanted.  If you decide things from a place of pain, you set yourself up to fail.”

Erik snorted out a wet giggle.  “I don’t think I expected you to know the word edgelord.”

“We do have the internet here, you know,” T’Challa said, rolling his eyes.  “So, may we heal you, Cousin?”

“Fuck, man. I still haven’t seen a Wakandan sunset,” Erik said, shrugging his shoulder.  “I missed the first one doing the dream quest thing.  Yeah.  Yeah, I wanna live.”

<^>

The first impression Darcy had of Oakland was Tony tackle-hugging her.  He and Scott had come out to take the two wayward Avengers to a safe place to rest up, while T’Challa, Shuri, and Erik finished some business.

“Ack, Tony, air,” Darcy squawked at the billionaire as he squeezed her tightly.  “Why aren’t you hugging Rhodes like this? He’s the one who almost died, twice .”

“Jarvis told me you had a case of the guilties,” Tony told her hair.  “You made dumb choices, Lewis, but I’m never going to blame you if Rhodey gets hurt in the line of duty.  It’s the job, he knew it was risky and I respect him too much to think his choices are your fault.”

Darcy pulled back, wiping wetness from her eyes.  “I said something similar to T’Challa.”

“You’re a smart lady, you should listen to you,” Tony said firmly.  “You should also maybe not try to be an action hero while carrying the next generation.  You are literally building a human from scratch.  Multiple humans. That’s a superpower, Darcy, if you don’t watch yourself, you’ll overdrive your headlights like Harley does.”

“How far along are you?” Scott asked, eyeing her.  “Do you need to go bra shopping?  Maggie needed a new size in month five, they just…”  He mimed an explosion.

“Hey, back off her,” Rhodey snapped, tapping the cane he still needed on the ground.  The battle in Wakanda had left him with a lightning tracery of scar tissue running from hips to feet, and a noticeable lack of balance.  Wakandan medical science had saved the legs, and healed the spinal damage, but surviving being grappled with high tech mining equipment left marks.  Rhodey put a hand on Darcy’s shoulder, half in support of her, and half to support himself. “Harassment isn’t okay. Don’t be that guy, Scott.”

Scott looked at him in confusion, and then back to Darcy.

“Oh!  Oh, no, I didn’t mean that in a bad way.  I don’t look at boobs is all.  I mean, your boobs,  I don’t know if they grew or not, because you’re married and I wasn’t looking at them.  Not that I would look at your boobs if you were single.” Scott sighed. “I’m going to stop talking now.”

“That’s a good idea,” Darcy laughed.  “But I got a new bra in Wakanda. It’s nice, very soft, yet supportive.  What’s killing me is the heartburn.”

“I’ll get you some buttermints,” Scott said.  He seemed happy to have something he could fix, so Darcy smiled and let him open the car door for her.  She was back in the USA, mostly unscathed, and her family was rallying to take care of her. This was a good thing.  It would be hard, stepping back from active duty, but she could do it. She’d done it before, when they were hiding from Hydra, building HERO, digging the grass roots in deep to strangle the rot before it could spread.

“Helen flew in from New York when we worked out where you’d get dropped off,” Tony said.  “Happy, take us to the clinic, please. You missed a check up and she wants to make sure your adventure didn’t rile the spawn.”

“I got a check up in Wakanda,” Darcy said.  “They said the babies looked healthy, but a little small.  Given there’s two in there, that’s normal. The one in front is a mover, we couldn’t get a clear look at the one in back.”

“So you’re not confirming sex before birth?” Scott asked.  “Also, what colors do you want baby stuff in?”

“They haven’t been in a good position yet to get a look at the genitals,” Darcy explained.  “I know Steve is secretly hoping for a girl, Bucky is just happy to be having babies, and I honestly don’t want to care… but it’d be nice to have a son.  I wish I’d gotten Harley sooner, I missed so much and now he’s always off at school or with Tony or Clint and Nat. I’m less a Mom and more a cool aunt or something.”

“So… colors?”

Darcy laughed.  “You’re like Steve sometimes, Scott.  No, don’t look awestruck, it’s a compliment but not without a helping of backhandedness.  He gets entranced by colors, and stuck on the topic. The nursery is getting an aspen forest theme, lots of black and white bark patterns, bold yellows, and nature art.  That way it’ll fit any combination of kids and isn’t overly gendered.”

“So green and yellow?” Scott nodded.  “For two kids, we can get one set in green, and one set in yellow.  Okay, that works.”

“What are you getting?” Darcy asked.  “If it’s not supposed to be a surprise.”

“Baby wrap carriers,” Scott said instantly.  “We had one for Cassie when she was little, and she loved it.  The place Maggie got hers went out of business, but we showed Luis, and he said his aunt in Guadalajara does work with this group for disenfranchised native women, selling their traditional style weaving, and they’ll do custom work.”

“You think that was bad,” Tony sighed, “I was there when Luis gave him the news.  It took twenty minutes.”

“I love everyone in this car,” Darcy sighed with a laugh, and leaned on Tony’s shoulder.  “Wake me when we get to the clinic.”

<^>

Bucky was in deep meditation with Ororo when Steve came in with the phone still pressed between chiseled jaw and brawny shoulder.

“Yeah, I’ll tell him.  Bucky, Darcy just got out of her appointment with Helen.  She’s up to the goal weight Helen set, and we might be having at least one boy.  Maybe. It was hard to tell about the other, but the one in front seemed to be developing male.”

Ororo popped open one eye at the squealing sound that indicated her pupil was no longer paying attention to the lesson.  “The one in front? How do you keep them separate?”

Steve grinned.  “Apparently someone passed on his showboating genes and there’s one fetus that keeps trying to hog the camera.”

Bucky shot him a look.  “What Steve means is that he passed on his tendency to throw himself in front of people who don’t really need defending.”

“You don’t know that he’s mine,” Steve shot back.

“The one in the front is slightly smaller than the one in the back,” Bucky said to Ororo.  “Steve is worried he passed on the short gene, too.”

“If they are twins, aren’t they both from the same father?” Ororo asked.  Bucky shrugged and gave her a devilish grin. “Ah. This is why you enjoy teasing each other about it, because it doesn’t matter in the least.”

“Of course,” Bucky said, standing up to peck a kiss on Steve’s non-occupied cheek.  “I’d never pick on the Punk over something important , but I gotta get my licks in somewhere.”

“If there will be licking, I think I will excuse myself,” Ororo said with a sly grin.  Steve turned bright red, and Bucky laughed.

Coughing, Steve folded himself into a cross legged seat on the flat cushion Ororo had vacated.  “Any progress?”

Bucky sat back down on his own cushion.  “No. It doesn’t feel like a dream, or a hallucination.  I’ve had those, they’re always sort of… shiny? No texture to them, no detail beyond the basics.  This… I could smell you, Steve.  The Professor says it reads like real memory to him, too, except it can’t have happened, because even if there were other Soldiers, it was definitely recent enough you’d remember it too.  It has to be cobbled together from parts, but I don’t think it can be. It’s too perfect for that.”

“You’re still getting flashes?”  The odd dream from the Crash Pad would have been worrying enough, even if Bucky weren’t getting more glimpses of memories that couldn’t be real.  Especially given the fantastical nature of some, and the terrifying content of others. One nightmare had sent him into a rambling apology message on Tony’s voicemail before he woke up enough to realize he didn’t have an arm that could damage the arc reactor anymore.

“Usually only when I’m sleeping, or meditating.  That’s why Ororo was trying to get me in a deep trance.  It’s been the same the past few times. Another tube.”

“Never, Buck,” Steve swore.  “Never again, not while I’m alive to stop it.”

“I know, Punk.  I know. And Darcy would eviscerate me if I believed for one second you two would let me go.”  Bucky sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. He’d cut it short to see if that changed in the dreams too, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.  “But I’m not scared. In the flashes, I feel safe, cared for. I know I’m going to be healed, that the tube is a part of that even if I don’t like it.  I’d suspect manipulation, except I do hate it, and that’s not something they do. It’s more efficient to make you want the pain, than to explain why you need it.”

“I hate that you know that,” Steve said with a small shudder.  He pushed the idea away with a shooing motion of his hand, and pulled out a sketchbook.  “Any faces? I can try drawing them, run facial recognition, see if we hit a match.”

“Sure.  There’s this one girl, she shows up a lot.  Young, maybe eighteen… I think she’s a scientist.  About five foot five. She’s got medium tone brown skin and braids that she does up in piles and buns.  Heart shaped face, wide mouth with slightly fuller bottom lip. Almond eyes with a deep lid fold,” Bucky frowned at Steve’s sketch over his husband’s shoulder.  “Not that deep, and the arch of them is closer to the nose. Oh, and said nose? Is almost a tetrahedron.”

“Really?”  Steve looked up.  The two of them had managed to cross their interests in art and math by figuring out the platonic solids that made up common shapes, faces included.  Most noses were too narrow or too tall to be proper tetrahedrons, a fact that had endlessly annoyed a young Bucky who lacked the patience to break the face shapes down further.

“Yeah, there’s a right angle at each lower corner, but the nostrils and bridge are almost a perfect equilateral, and the tip-nostril triangle is too.” Bucky pointed at his own face to illustrate what he meant.  “And I was right, by the way, it’s cute as a freaking button.”

“I never said a properly equilateral nose wouldn’t be attractive, all symmetry is attractive.  I said it seemed unlikely an equilateral nose existed and drawing a picture of a hypothetical perfect nose seemed creepy.”  Steve blew pencil dust off the paper and showed it to Bucky. “Look about right?”

“That’s her,” Bucky said, nodding.

“Do you know her name?”

“Yeah.  It’s Shuri.”

Chapter Text

It was ten in the morning and Darcy wanted to cry.  She was sitting on the bed in Pym's guest room, in her underwear, trying not to and not entirely succeeding.

“Darcy, your plane is waiting.  I mean, it’s my plane, technically,” Tony said from the other side of the door.  “And it can wait as long as it needs to, hangar rental was a gouge so I just bought one, but still the pilots have other things they could do if you don’t want to go to the East Coast.  I mean, I know I’m on team West Coast is Best Coast, but you said you wanted to be with Steve and Bucky.”

“I…” Darcy sniffled.  “I don’t have any clothes.”

“You have loads of clothes, I had Pepper overnight you several outfits.”

“I don’t have any clothes that fit , Tony.”  After five months of mild irritation over tailoring and popping the button on her jeans, she’d finally run out of room to hide her belly in her signature baggy sweaters.  Darcy put a hand on the round shape that was currently causing her so much distress, even though she desperately wanted to know and love the people growing inside it. “I’m a whale!”

“No you’re not, no blowhole,” Tony retorted.  “Look, I didn’t want to do this, it seemed rude and I don’t like being rude to family, but look under the bed.”

Darcy glared at the door and slid off the bed.  Her center of gravity was off and she resented needing to use the bedpost to balance as she crouched down and grabbed a pale pink box tied in white organza ribbon.  “What is this?”

“A present, open it up.”

She did, pulling the end of the ribbon and lifting the lid of the box.  Inside was a layer of satiny tissue paper, and deep blue fabric. She unfolded it and looked at the prettiest dress she’d ever seen.  It had elements of draping that reminded her of Asgardian fashion, but a structured bodice of pleats and darts that looked like one of Pepper’s executive dresses.  Under the dress were a pair of matching blue shoes that looked an awful lot like a pair she’d asked Kate about when Lizzie had last had her over for a girls night at the range.  The built in orthopedics had sounded heavenly, the thousand dollar price tag had not.

“What is this?” she repeated.

“For the record, I was not involved, except in delivery,” Tony said.  “And the parties involved have sworn me to secrecy. This is one of those fairy godmothers, we know you won’t say yes if you know who to say no to, guerrilla goodness things.  But it has been decided you need a maternity wardrobe, and one has been selected for you, since you seem to be a bit slow on the uptake about admitting that you’re not in the same position you were.”

Darcy started to cry for real.  “Thank you Tony. I’m sorry I’ve been such a pain.  I just felt so useless, and my body isn’t doing what I want, and I just don’t want this, but I do want this….”

“Put the dress on, so I can give you a hug,” Tony said.  The sound of his voice was muffled, like he’d backed away from the door.  She knew the exact look he’d have, the wide eyed terror bound with steely determination at the mouth.  Crying women scared Tony, but he always stuck around when Darcy or Jane cried. Pepper didn’t cry in front of people, and Betty… didn’t cry.  Thinking about that made Darcy want to punch General Ross again, so she wiped her eyes and pulled the dress over her head. It cinched above her belly with a tie in the front, but the dress itself was loose enough to go on without zippers or buttons.  The shoes were slip on, and it was only a minute later she opened the door. Tony gave her a quick hug, and ushered her down the stairs and out to the car. Happy drove them to the airfield, and Tony helped her up the stairs into the jet, and got the seat adjusted for her.

She couldn’t usually sleep on planes.  It may have been that normally, if she was on a plane she was doing mission prep.  It may have been that some of her worst memories happened on that plane flight from Virginia to New Mexico. Regardless, Darcy didn’t usually nap if she wasn’t on terra firma.  This trip seemed to be an exception, as she woke up to Bucky brushing hair off her forehead and murmuring to her belly.

“Hey you,” she mumbled.

“Hey yourself.  Steve got your bag, he’s getting the room set up for three.”  Bucky drew in a long breath through his nose. “I missed you, Doll.  We’re not as good without you.”

“I’m so sorry,” she started, only to have him tap her lower lip with a finger.

“I meant we turn back into verified bachelor slobs, not anything else.  We can have the other conversation later, but all the doctors say you and the kids are just fine, so for now, I’m just happy to have my wife where I can hold her.”

Darcy nodded and pushed her head into the corner of his neck, breathing the salty-clean smell of him in.  She was with her husbands, they could take the watch, and even with the nap on the plane, she really wanted to let them.

<^>

Steve appreciated the help their friends gave them, but even after three years, he wasn’t used to the ways multi-millionaires spent money.  For example, when he’d been told there was housing for the Barnes-Lewis-Rogers family during Bucky’s treatment at Xavier’s Academy, he’d pictured a spare dorm room fitted with a single large bed.

What Xavier had meant by ‘housing’ was an actual house.

A small house, granted, what probably used to be a groundskeeper’s cottage at the edge of the woods.  It was essentially one large room with a loft bedroom and a single shower-only bathroom, but the privacy was intoxicating, especially after living in the Tower where there was tons of space but everyone crowded in on top of each other anyway.  There weren’t usually any students out this far from the manor, and the staff all had their own places to relax and unwind. It was nice, but it also meant he fell into bad habits without anyone to be a good role model for.

“What’s all this?” Darcy asked, raising a brow at the hastily sorted dirty clothes he’d removed from the various corners it had been dropped in or flung to.  “Bucky said you turned into slobs, but I thought he was joking.”

Bucky snorted behind her.  “Nope. We’re messy. How haven’t you noticed before?”

“You never let out place at the Tower get like this,” she pointed out.

“The Tower is where our kids and teammates live,” Steve said.  “They need good role models.”

“You also weren’t like this before that.”

“You mean when I was in the Army?  Or when I’d just gotten out of the Army and we were living with Jane, who makes enough mess to skew anyone’s scale?”  Steve rolled his eyes. “Or when the Depression was in full gear and I couldn’t afford enough clothes to have one set I wore, one set in the wash, and any more than one on the floor?”

“You had more than three sets of clothes.”

“I had exactly twenty pieces of clothing, thank you,” Steve said with a firm nod.  “Three shirts, one for Sundays only, two to alternate until wash day. I had two jackets, one for church and one for all the other times, two sweaters and a coat.  Two pairs of trousers, again one was for church and dates, the other for the rest of the time. Five undershirts and five underpants, so I could rewear all the rest, and we did wash in the buff.”

“I miss those days,” Bucky sighed.

“We can still do laundry naked if that helps you remember to actually do it,” Darcy offered.  For all she looked a little green, ruining the effect, the attempt of a leer on her face was appreciated.  Steve finished loading the baskets and tucked them away in the closet that had the laundry machines off the kitchen.  Darcy stepped away from it, and towards the stairs up to the bedroom. Steve smiled at her.

“Babies sensitive to smell?”

She made a little ‘o’ with her lips and blinked.  “How did you know?”

“Ma was a nurse, and I remember Ma Barnes’ third and fourth pregnancies.  Georgie almost got her drunk on the smell of communion wine from the back row.”

“It’s not that bad, yet,” Darcy said.  “It’s just, everything is sharper. More defined and there , you know?  It’s like being you two.”

“Super senses?” Bucky asked.  “From the babies?”

“Underhealer Krydda warned us about that,” Steve said, making a mental note to call Kaydee at the Embassy and see about an Asgardian nurse to assist Helen.  “The Asgardian version of the serum made the next generations skilled and rambunctious.”

“We were warned the babies might get the serum, nobody said Darcy would get it!”

Darcy shook her head.  “We’re not really separate people yet, Bucky.  They’re still using my blood for food and air, and their own circulation systems may or may not be complete.  What’s in them is in me too. It’ll probably fade after birth, hopefully. I gotta say I don’t really want superpowers.  Except maybe super energy and that’s not a thing I got. Who wants to come take a cuddle nap with me?”

Both men shot their hands up, and Darcy laughed.  The house became a home in the sound echoing off the open rafters.

<^>

School was starting again.  This brought a few conflicting feelings in Bucky.  It was nice to be able to welcome the kids back, help them get their things settled for the school year in more detail than the boarding school usually allowed for.  It was good to see them making friends. Zoe was surrounded by a small swarm of identical blondes in color coordinated headbands and schoolgirl uniforms, laughing at some joke he didn’t catch.  Harley and Forge offered each other fistbumps and then started in on a conversation that even strained Bucky’s understanding of engineering. Sandra was holding hands with a pale gray boy who stayed the summer at the school.  Archie Leach was a good kid, sweet and honest in ways Sandra needed.

However, the return of the students meant the teachers had higher priorities than helping him.

“Professor, I think we’d better get back to the Tower,” he said, sitting on Xavier’s couch for his session.  “You’ve got the kids to think of. The future to safeguard. Figuring out an old relic like me seems like a waste.”

Xavier hummed.  “Why do you say that?”

Bucky gave a self deprecating chuckle, but Xavier’s face was set in that inscrutable kindness he always projected.  “Well, I mean, exactly what I said. The kids need mentors. They’re the future, they matter.”

“Of course they do, but why do you think you don’t?”

Bucky blinked.  “Of course I know I matter, Professor, you know perfectly well I don’t have depression, which is honestly somewhat miraculous at this point.  I just think the kids need you more than I do.”

Xavier nodded, and made a small note in his notepad.  “You called yourself a relic, and referred to helping you as ‘a waste’.  You’re right, I do know your brain is functioning exactly as well as anyone your age could expect, and a great deal better than could be estimated by the degree of prolonged duress you’ve had.  Which is why I’m picking at this. You’re not depressed, so the slips are indicative of something you know. Something you figured out, even if you don’t realize it yet. Something to do with history and the future, a contrast of times, or perhaps relating to the work of our sessions directly.”

“This would be easier if you’d just go in and find it, rather than asking leading questions,” Bucky grumbled.  Xavier gave him a firmly exasperated look, and ignored him. “Fine, I guess I’ve figured out the pattern. The anomalous memories only parallel, they don’t go backward, and they aren’t reliable predictions of any future that could happen.  My actual timeline is set, stable, not in danger. What I’m seeing looks like… it looks like might-have-beens, not memories. You’re great with memories, but… only one person I know works with might-have-beens, and you aren’t her.”

“So, you want to go because you know I can’t help you,” Xavier said.  He nodded slightly, and Bucky had the sensation of having passed a test.  “That’s just fine, although I believe you are correct and I do recommend seeking out Queen Frigga for additional assistance.  What’s happening looks more like mysticism than mutation, and that’s not my bailiwick.”

Bucky boggled.  There just wasn’t another word for it.  “If you knew that, why have we been spending weeks going over all this?  Why do these sessions, the meditation lessons, any of it?”

Xavier’s face managed to be both inscrutable and withering.  “Oh, I don’t know, perhaps because when two guardians of my students show up with wild stories, various neuroses, and clearly untreated traumatic brain injuries, it seems within the jurisdiction of the school to fix what we can?  Honestly, the Avengers, strange as it may be, provide more examples of healthy parental behavior than most of the student body has ever seen combined. I send your three younglings to help the ones who’ve been most damaged by the social isolation and rejection they faced.  Keeping the parental figures that teach them how to help their peers alive and well is in my best interests, and although telling you to get therapy would be misconduct, I wasn’t going to refuse it to you when you asked.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes.  “Dirty pool, Professor.”

“The dirtiest, if it’s for the children.”

“For the kids, then.  We’ll be packed by tomorrow, and leave after breakfast.”

Chapter Text

Queen Frigga quite liked Earth.  She wasn’t able to be there as often as she liked, her duties to Asgard kept her too busy for casual vacations, but she did enjoy it when she got the chance.  Even when the reason for the call was a troubling one. As she stepped off the mark of the Bifrost, left engraved on the pure white stone of the embassy courtyard, Frigga smiled at the reason for her visit.

“Bucky, how have you been?” she asked, entirely unnecessarily.  She’d read the reports the Professor sent her, of course, and she knew her son in law well enough to know he didn’t ask for frivolous favors.  He knew that, and the small smile and shrug he gave her was enough of an answer. “Of course. Shall we?”

He led her to the room she’d asked to have prepared, a dreaming chamber with hot braziers and a soft bed of furs to lie on.  Heat disrupted deep sleep, it would be a terrible idea to try taking a nap in a room as warm as this one, but although Bucky needed to dream, she didn’t want him sleeping just now.

“How is this going to work?” he asked as she assessed the herbs laid out for her.  They weren’t all as fresh as she had at home, but diligently prepared to exacting specifications.  Whoever Loki had hired to assist him in his experiments knew their business well.

“First, you will drink this,” she said, handing him a small vial of clear liquid.  “Then you will lay down. You will feel light, like your body wants to rise off the bed.  I will ask you questions, and you will answer them. Periodically I will change the herbs in the braziers, or change their heat, or ladle water over them.  When we are done, we will know more than we do now.”

Bucky looked skeptically at the bottle.  “Is this booze? Or a sleeping potion?”

“No,” Frigga laughed.  “Those would do you no good.  That’s water. Drink up and lay down.”

She hated the shortness she had to take, but any words she spoke could influence him, shift his perceptions and guide his visions.  She could not afford to lead him. He drank the water and sat on the bed, toeing off shoes and removing his shirt. Her heart ached at the ragged line of scars that ringed the gleaming metal of his arm’s socket.  At least they no longer burned with infection. As he lay down, she began tossing herbs into the braziers, walking carefully around the room, releasing the smoke and steam that would enable the dreaming.

“Dirty pool,” Bucky muttered.  “Dirtiest for the children.”

Frigga tucked the words away in her mind.  She would remember them, but she could not ask after them yet.  Her second lap of the room, she dropped oils onto the coals, bringing up spurts of flame that made dancing shadows on the walls.

“I can’t trust my own mind.”  The words sounded broken, like shattered glass hitting a stone floor.  Bucky stared sightlessly at the ceiling and tears flowed from his eyes.  She saw the flickering reflection of dark waters gather on blue irises, a stormy sea in miniature.  The weeping threatened to wash the storm from his eyes, so she laid a single hand on his brow.

“If you cannot trust yourself, James Buchanan Barnes, trust me.  Let it come. Let yourself slip sideways into the stream, and go where the current takes you.  You are safe with me here.”

He drew a wet breath, like a drowning man surfacing as the wave he was caught in crested.  Then he stilled, and she resumed her pacing, placing more herbs and oils as needed.

“There’s a… hole…”  His body shook terribly, muscles contracting like moving creatures beneath his skin.  Many centuries as a healer kept Frigga from emptying her gut, but it was a close thing.  She hated this part. As the mind met the flow of the universe, the base forces that powered all creation tried to pilot an all too fragile vessel.  It hurt, she knew. She herself bore scars from early attempts, fine lines like lightning made of lace burnt into her skin, hidden by her own fair complexion.

“A hole where?”  He had the answers, she had to stay firm, or his pain was for no purpose and his valor in being here demanded more.

“A hole… in everything, and it goes all the way through… leaking.  It’s… an echo.”

“An echo of what?”

“A sound.  A snap.” Bucky blinked and his eyes shaded dark.  His face shifted, James Buchanan Barnes no longer animating it.  “A snapping of the neck of Eternity, a murder most foul, the Infinite bound in service to Finity.  The linchpin dies at the hands of the Titan, a death most unbecoming. A death left done when all else was undone.  The thread was plucked and the Watchman no longer guards the gates.”

“The Infinite?”  She was sure they were past the place where her words could deter the truth, but her heart counseled caution.

“You know of what we speak, Frigga.”  The voice was familiar, but in a disjointed way, a memory of her childhood, perhaps.  “The Infinite Six, which can be neither joined nor kept apart. They are both joined, and forced apart, and the Universe screams with it.”

“So he wins,” Frigga whispered.  “He gathers them… he wins, and we don’t stop him.”

Her heart sank.  The Norn she had trapped in the body of her son in law laughed maniacally, clearly delighted in her despair, but she knew it could not lie.  The ritual, the steams of sight and truth, they saw to that.

“You live on borrowed time, Queen of Asgard,” hissed the Norn.  “Borrowed by a snip of a girl, a mewling kitten compared to you, and she wrested your fate from our hands.  How long, great Queen, can she hold that thread before it cuts off her fingers? Can you truly keep her safe?”

“I can bloody well try,” hissed Frigga and she dashed a cup of wine on the coals in the brazier nearest the bed, the only one she had not put herbs or oils in.  The coals flared to open flame of burning blue, then quashed in a hissing rout of smoke. Bucky coughed and rolled to the floor. He looked up at her from hands and knees, eyes once more a clear silvered blue.

“Not a good headmate,” he coughed.  “Very annoying, and I think they left wet towels on the subconscious.  Let’s not invite them back.”

<^>

“Well, we’re obviously not letting that happen,” Steve said, listening to Frigga wrap up her conclusions of what had happened to Bucky.  The idea of a multiverse he could wrap his head around. The idea the flash-sideways came from a failure to stop Thanos… not so much.

“Steven, it has already happened.  Norns cannot lie while trapped in the ritual, and they live everything.  All of time has already occurred for them. Fate is set.”

“That doesn’t mean we don’t fight,” he countered.  “We stand up, that’s what we do. We don’t give up, we don’t back down, and we never let a bully win.  We fight, we take every scrap of advantage we find, we use this as a warning, not a death knell and we win .”

“It isn’t a warning, it’s a prophecy,” Frigga said, throwing up her hands.

“It sounds like this is a case of free will versus a determined Fate,” Darcy said, and Steve shot her a glare at the sound of that capital letter.  She stuck her tongue out at him and took another sip of her smoothie. “Look, Frigga… Mom , according to that same Norn, I beat them once.  I saved you, and they haven’t gotten you back yet.  Sure, all living things die eventually, but I bought you another few years at least.  That’s proof they aren’t totally infallible.”

“Borrowed time and only that,” Frigga sighed.

“So we keep borrowing,” Steve said.  “You may not see it, because you’re practically immortal, but for us?  For Earth? Our entire history is filled with borrowing time. Staving off complete disaster until something comes through.  Until we get the win we need, something to let us press the issue and beat him, we can stall and our people will get to live their lives.”

“You are proposing using your life to dam up fate, to spend every year of your most likely extended lifetime fighting… just to buy time?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, baffled.  She was smart, why wasn’t she getting this?  “Maybe we can’t take him. Maybe all we can do is play cosmic keep-away until the kids are old enough to take the reins.  Maybe they can’t beat him either, but I know our kids, and I know their friends. I know they’ll try .  If they can’t, maybe the next generation, or the one after that.  Maybe we’ll be throwing generation after generation of heroes at the problem until someone who can finish it comes along.  That’s not ideal, but it buys the rest of the species time to evolve, to grow, to learn new skills, make better heroes, stack the deck for the next run.  Each time, a little better, a little faster, a little farther.”

“The long game,” Bucky croaked.  Darcy winced at him and handed Steve her smoothie to pass to their husband, who still hadn’t gotten his voice back.

“Besides, there’s more in this prophesy than just someone uniting the Infinity Stones,” Steve continues.  “There’s this thing about a linchpin and a watchman. If we can find the person or persons that’s about, we can protect them from Thanos.  We could undercut it without fighting him directly.”

“Finding him would be worse,” Frigga said, then sighed.  “I forget you are not Asgardian. You are so noble of spirit, such bold warriors, it seems right to have you a part of the Realm Eternal, but you do not have the same history.  Midgard… humans, you do that, always growing, expanding, ever higher. For Asgard, for the prices they paid to be eternal, your plan would be folly in the worst form, but perhaps… perhaps for humans it would be folly to despair.”

“Of course it would,” Darcy said, standing.  “Now if you’ll all pardon me, I’m going to go soak in one of those party jacuzzis they have in the private bathrooms.”

Bucky stood and pointed at himself, then raised two fingers.

“Meeting adjourned I guess,” Steve said.  He looked at Frigga, the pain still held at the edge of her eyes.  “Look, once Darcy decides her job is to save you… you get saved. You’ll get used to it, eventually.”

“This is all so terribly backwards,” Frigga sighed.  “I should be the one sacrificing to save my children, not the other way around.  I should be guarding her, keeping her from having to wage eternal battle.”

“I thought that about Darcy once,” Steve admitted.  “That I should protect her because she was a dame, and I was a fella who loved her.”

“What did she do?” Frigga asked.  “I assume you no longer believe that.”

“She walked me into the medical tent and made me offer to help the nurses.  She didn’t let me not see, as she palled around with them changing out bloody bandages and wiping men’s asses when they fouled the bed.  She showed me exactly how stupid the idea she needed, that any woman needed, me to keep her off the front was.  I love her, I’ll happily share the burden and I won’t let her overwork, but Darcy Lewis taught me ages ago you can’t show love by hiding the truth from people, by underestimating their strength.”  Steve smiled. “Love is trust. Trust your daughter of the heart, Queen Frigga.”

<^>

Bucky brushed a kiss over Darcy’s abdomen.  The Embassy had given them very plush accommodations and a full staff, which his beloved wife seemed finally ready to accept.  Her trip to Wakanda had left an impression on her, and she was no longer fighting attempts to help. Which meant he got to spend as much time as they both could stand doting on her.  Bucky was quite happy about that, and thus inclined to forgive sideways Shuri for putting him in a tube. The local Shuri also kept sending new sorts of food, smoothie additives, and specialty pillows to allow comfortable sleeping.  Darcy had laughed and said something about being a cat, but Bucky couldn’t help but like anyone who sent such nice presents.

“Ohh,” Darcy sighed.  Bucky looked up at her.  “Baby just kicked, did you feel it?”

“No, I must have missed that.  Will he do it again soon, do you think?”

“Maybe.  They sure do like beating up their Mom’s internal organs.  We’ve got fighters on our hands.” She hummed and moved his hand.  “Nice… you’re warm. No need for heating pads.”

He focused on the patch of belly under his hand.  She’d done this before, using either him or Steve for heat, usually when her period cramps came.  He felt a twitch. He smiled, then furrowed his brow in focus. It hadn’t felt like the kicks before.  Less of a push, more of a squeeze, again like a cramp.

“What’s with the frown?” Darcy asked him.

“Don’t panic,” he instructed.

“And always know where your towel is.  Bucky, what’s going on?” Darcy shifted to a sitting position, hauling on his good shoulder for leverage.  “You look freaked out, what’s up?”

“I think you had a contraction,” he said slowly.  He bit down the fear. It wasn’t useful. She needed him not to freak out.  He needed to do what she needed. “It wasn’t a kick, or it wasn’t like any of the other kicks.  It was like when your ladies’ time happens.”

“Get H’lin,” she instructed him calmly.  The Asgardian’s name stuttered in her mouth, though, betraying her concern.  He pushed his own fear deeper and nodded.

Hlin wasn’t far, the no nonsense midwife and bodyguard tended to meditate outside the hall that housed their personal quarters.  She grunted at him when he explained, and went to tend Darcy, closing the door in his face as she got there. He paced up and down, trying to take comfort in the lack of screaming.  His Ma had screamed when she had babies, and the very idea of pushing a baby out of a hole far too small for a baby struck him as painful. Each time he passed closer to the door, he strained to hear what was said.  On the fifth pass, the door opened, and Hlin pulled him inside.

“We had some translation difficulty,” Darcy said, waving from behind her laptop screen.  “But Hlin thinks it was Braxton-Hicks contractions, nothing more.”

“False contractions prepare for a difficult labor,” Hlin said.  “More babies, more difficult. If there is no pain, no water, there is no labor.  It is hard, because you are a man, but try not to panic over little things. All is well.  Your wife is strong.”

She walked out and Bucky shared a look with Darcy.  Hlin’s dismissal of men as silly and easily frightened may have been sexist, but from their time with her it did seem to be statistically valid.  Bucky laughed, and went back to cuddle his wife.

Chapter Text

The Embassy staff had cleared away the dinner plates when Kaydee arrived.

“Your Highness,” she said with a deferential nod to Darcy.

“I told you not to stand on ceremony, Kaydee,” Darcy said with a small frown.  “We’re not like, royalty royalty, and besides, this is the family wing. We’re off duty here.”

“You’re about to be back on duty,” the girl said sourly.  “We just got a call from New York’s SHIELD team, one of Claire’s friends is having an… incident.  An ex showed up with major injuries and some new powers, and essentially kidnapped her and stole an entire OR to fix him.”

“My God,” Steve breathed.  “Are they okay?”

“So far.  According to SHIELD, Palmer got to the safety button before the ex showed off his powers.  The words he was throwing around sounded like magic, so instead of going in themselves, they called here.  My brother listened to some of the soundbites, he says it’s not like what he helps Loki with, but it really isn’t science.”

“Is the ex hostile?” Darcy asked, waving at her tablet until Bucky placed it in her hands.  “Any possibility of communication? You know what, have them send me the feed.”

“Angel, you’re not really going to-”  She grabbed his hand to cut Steve off.  He gave her a look, but went quiet.

“I’m not going in the field again, Babe, no worries there.  You were right about that, but right now, given who we have on-planet, I’m the leading expert in dealing with magical crazy that can be negotiated with.  I need to be involved in coordinating this.”  She kissed his hand, and felt as he softened with a look at her.  Steve knew how it was, they were the same in this, some things they needed to fight.  Like needing air, it could only be held off for a short time, and that led to dangerous mistakes.  “Kaydee, stream all new data right to my tablet, and get me on the line with whoever called.”

“Yes Ma’am, Your Highness,” Kaydee said with a sharp nod.  “And I call you that because you’re the ranking noble in the house right now.  It helps stop the maneuvering if I remind everyone of that. So you will let me use your title and you will thank me for saving you from all the nasty little power plays that I spend my days ending, Your Highness .”

“Thank you, Kaydee,” Bucky said for her.  His back was to Darcy, but she knew he’d anticipated her slack jaw.  Her brain provided the image of a gaping fish, which she shoved aside.

“Yes, thank you, Kaydee,” she echoed.  “That will be all.”

The girl, no, the woman, shot her a smile and strode off.

“Is it just me or did she grow up at some point?” Steve asked.  “It seems like yesterday she was baffled anyone wanted to employ her at all, and now she’s… really on top of it.”

“You can say terrifying, Steve, we were all thinking it,” Darcy said.  “Now, let’s catch us a mage.”

<^>

Agent Sam Rodriguez fingered the St Christopher medal her mother had given her, and tried to keep her cool.  She was getting instructions direct from an Avenger, the Lieu’s voice cool and sure in her earpiece, but the whole situation terrified her.  Dr. Palmer was operating on a man with his advice as a ghostly specter. It wasn’t right or natural, people should stay in their own bodies, dammit.

“Deep breath, Rodriguez, you’re doing fine,” Lieu said.  It would be uncanny how she said the exact right thing, except Sam had hooked up her own vital signs monitor, and knew the feed was running through her handler’s screen.  It was nice she paid attention to minor strain, though.

“Ma’am, this is way out of my paygrade,” Sam whispered.

“I’ll make sure you get a bonus,” Lieu said evenly.  “I can’t be in the field right now though, so I need someone to be my eyes, my ears, my hands.  That’s you, Samantha Rodriguez. Thank you.”

“Call me Sam, please,” Sam said without thinking.  Then she felt her heart rate spike in embarrassment.  Her handler chuckled, but Sam hissed a warning as Strange’s body began to shake.  “What’s going on, how do I help?” she asked, not sure if she was talking to Lieu or Dr. Palmer.

“Stephen, you get your incorporeal ass back here this instant!” Dr. Palmer roared.  “And hold still, God damn you!”

“Hold him still for her,” Lieu snapped.  Sam rushed to obey the order, happy for the directions.  The unconscious body wracked itself with convulsions, but Sam had trained to hold super strong perps until backup arrived.  There were only so many ways the human body could bend, and a surprising number of them could be locked down by applying 150 pounds of determined agent to them in the wrong direction.  Sure, she ended up half on top of him, face inches from a stab wound, but that was a small price to pay.

“What the fuck is this rhythm,” Dr. Palmer muttered, slapping the monitor.  “Stephen, why is your heart dancing to Mambo Number Five? Oh, and now it’s stopped, lovely.  Get out of my way, I need to restart his heart until the ass returns.”

“You need me off him?” Sam asked, twisting to pin down an ankle that had popped free.

“No, why would I need that?”

“So you can shock him?” Sam replied, unsure if this was a test.  “They do it in movies.”

“Movies aren’t written by doctors,” Palmer said.  “No, I’m push starting the bastard. CPR. Electric shock does nothing for asystole.”

“It does help with magic though,” Lieu said conversationally.  “Like turning it off and back on again.”

“Pretty sure this guy isn’t like my laptop,” Sam said, then realized Palmer hadn’t heard Lieu.  “My boss said shocking mages resets them.”

Palmer pulled up from the rescue breath.  “Turn it off and back on again?”

“I like her,” said Lieu.  “But stab wounds aren’t my area of expertise, if she thinks it’s a bad idea, it probably is.”

Sam repeated this faithfully.  Sure, she hadn’t been told to be Lieu’s voice as well as all the rest, but it seemed like the thing to do.  Palmer grunted, then pulled her hands away from the body’s chest, glaring at the heart monitor like it was talking about her momma.

“You know what, I took an oath to do no harm.  So did this asshole, but thinking back, he sure did a ton of harm by stepping back and letting less qualified surgeons take hard operations, just to keep his precious record.  I won’t kill him, and I wouldn’t leave a patient with no care, but sure. Let’s try shocking him. It won’t restart his heart, not from a flatline, but who knows, maybe it’ll help with the invisible fighting thing and the portals and whatnot.”

Palmer pulled a cart from a dark corner of the room, dialed up the power connector, and nodded for Sam to get off.  She carefully placed the paddles, pressed the buttons and the body jumped. Suddenly, a half translucent figure burst through a wall of supplies, shaking the cabinets.

“What did you just do?”

“Shock you,” Palmer said, icy glare back again.  “Nothing else was working and the magic expert said it might help.”

Strange looked speculatively at Sam.

“She was right, do it again.”

“I’m not going to murder you and you know the paddles aren’t going to fix the problem,” Palmer began, but Strange was already flickering into near invisibility among rainbows like broken glass.  She looked at Sam and shrugged. “I guess that counts as a dying request.”

<^>

Bucky wanted to vomit the first time it happened.  Darcy was white knuckling on his metal arm, though, and Steve seemed somewhat confused.  They needed him.

“What the fuck even is that,” Steve asked, his composure slipping in the wave of weird that was swept over them yet again.

“Time tidal wave,” Darcy said.  “I mean, I’m not sure, all my physics is secondhand from Jane, but if time is another way of measuring space, we’d feel a massive time distortion just like we would a space one.  Also, Hong Kong just undestroyed itself. And now it’s being destroyed again.”

“I don’t like this one bit,” announced Rodriguez on the speaker.

“That thing is really disturbing,” Bucky said, looking over her shoulder at the tablet.  Flickering spatters of neon appeared and disappeared. Lines like a buggy monitor shifted sideways across the screen, then looped in ways that couldn’t be explained by bad connection.  The whole thing shuddered and exploded in a sliding, shifting mess.

“Deep breath Rodriguez, you can handle this,” Darcy ordered.  Bucky watched the bio-readouts flex and stabilize as the agent followed orders.  “Dodge left.”

The whip of steel cabling came down inches from the camera on the agent’s bullet proof vest.

“Good, now two steps forward.”

A chunk of concrete came down in the space the agent had occupied moments before.

“Why isn’t it affecting us?” Steve asked.

“Embassy wards?” Bucky theorized.

“Time travel brains?” Darcy offered.  Rodriguez took another step forward, grabbed a child and pushed them out of the path of a stray blast of brilliant color.  “Down, down, now!”

Rodriguez tried to obey, but the pavement she was standing on rippled like struck gelatin and she lost her footing, cracking her chin against all too hard concrete.  Bucky hissed in sympathy as the agent spat blood and teeth and pushed herself to hands and knees, crawling forward.

“I thon’ know if I can ‘o thisth, Ma’am!” she shouted, grabbing a stump of streetlight as gravity twisted.

“You’re doing great, Sammy, I’m so proud of you,” Darcy said, and Bucky reached over to wipe away the tears at her eyes.  “You have done so well, and you deserve to rest, but I can’t let you do that yet. I’m so sorry, but I need you to pull yourself up on that bar and get your legs locked around it.  Brace on the sidewalk with your hands. There you go.”

“You give good orders,” Bucky told Darcy, nuzzling her hair for comfort.

“Take your time, Sammy, you have a moment to rest now.  It’s all going to be okay. If it isn’t okay, I’ll come make it okay.”

“Thisth isth nusth,” Rodriguez sighed.  “Monsthers and themons and… I can ‘o aliensth, bu’ thisth isth….”

“I know,” Darcy said gently.  “I know Sammy.”

“My mama callsth me Sammy,” Rodriguez said, relaxing her legs as gravity shifted back to true.  “You’ like my mama. Tough asth ‘acks, ‘wice asth sharp.”

“Sass, class, and balls of brass,” Darcy agreed.  “Okay, Sammy, one last push, then I’ll stop bossing you around.  There’s a shop door in that alcove to your right. Run as fast as you can and jump into it, both feet up, okay?”

“Yesth Ma’am!”

Rodriguez snapped up into a sprinter’s brace, then darted for the door, jumping last minute to land on the cloth awning as the world swung wildly upside down.  The street folding in on itself didn’t leave much room for safe places to hide, the alcove having the best chance. Bucky bit his lip as she managed, just barely to pull her foot free of the cloth and onto solid stone and steel before a falling food truck severed her old perch.  He blew out a breath in relief. No limbs torn away yet. Better than the last twenty times. He made a mental note and nodded at Darcy.

They were in this for the long haul, inching Samantha Rodriguez closer to the nexus, hoping to get the one person they could assist into the eye of the storm.  Each run was filled with danger, each battle ended in death, and each time was rewound, starting the pain all over again.

“How many is this?” he asked Steve.

Steve looked at him, dead eyed and drawn, and pushed up his shirt sleeve.  Tallymarks covered him densely.

“Hong Kong just undestroyed itself,” Darcy announced.  Bucky blinked at her. “We kept her alive that run.”

“I think this is affecting us,” he said.  “I can’t track the times. How long have we been trying to keep her alive?”

“Yeah,” Darcy agreed.  “I didn’t say it before, but… the Embassy wards aren’t able to stop an effect like this, it’s too primal, too basic to existence.  Time isn’t just being rewritten, it’s being full on turned back on itself, folded like taffy until the walls blur. There’s a reason we don’t do that. Reason being it’s suicidal, and also impossible .”

“Infinity stone?” Steve asked, voice restored to a certain calm, the place he reached in battle, when the pieces clicked together.  “They do impossible pretty well. One of them is time, right?”

“If it is, I’m encasing that gods-be-damned thing in concrete and sinking it to the bottom of the Marianas Trench,” Darcy muttered darkly.  “Deep breath. Dodge left. Two steps forward. Down! Good, you’re doing great Sammy.”

Chapter Text

Sammy listened to the sorcerers talk.  They didn’t notice her, it was a skill she was rightly proud of, and why she’d been invited to SHIELD in the first place.  She could get close enough to eavesdrop without anyone flagging her.  That skill had landed her in hot water at several other law enforcement agencies, okay all of them, before being transferred to someplace that wanted to use her abilities.

Still, it was funny that mages let her get that close.  Close enough that when the black one made a suitably dire announcement of “The bill comes due, always.” she was able to put one hand on his shoulder with her thumb in the channel of the ball joint.

“Speaking of which,” she said, smiling brightly, “all of you are coming with me, SHIELD would like a word.”

“Who?” said Strange.  He genuinely looked perplexed, which seemed… odd considering SquidGate had pretty much established them as a non secret organization.

“Hah, the shoe is on the other foot now,” said the Asian man.  “SHIELD is famous. You do not read the news enough, Stephan.”

“I remember you,” Strange said, ignoring the jab to look at her.  “You were at the hospital, with Christine. You helped save my life with what you knew about magic.”

“Not me, my boss,” Sammy said with a nod.  “Who will be doing your debrief in London. Would you prefer I call in a quinjet, or would you like to do the honors with the sparky circle things?”

“It’s a sling ring, and how did you get to Hong Kong from New York?”

The Asian man rolled his eyes and began conjuring the portal.  “I’m Wong, by the way. The one you’re mauling is Mordo, and I assume you know Doctor Strange.”

“Agent Sam Rodriguez, nice to meet you.”  She turned to Strange. “I got here the same way you did, by portal.  Actually, the same portal. I gotta say, the length of time they stay open poses a risk to your operational security.”

“Will you unhand me?” demanded Mordo.

“No, no I will not.  Look, like it or not you three have established yourselves as powers that must be contended with, one way or another.  That’s not my job, thank any listening deities. My job is getting all three of you in front of the people whose job it is.  Strange owes me, and Wong seems stable enough. You on the other hand,” she paused to let him see her seeing him. Her old supervising officer used to do the same, and it cowed even the rowdiest of cadets.  “You look like a man who’s been rode hard sideways across his own reality tunnel. We see that at SHIELD, a lot .  It’s folks with that wild, fearful look that break dangerous when you leave them unsupervised, so I’m keeping you supervised until I can hand you to someone trained in fixing up your worldview so it can hold whatever nasty you learned.”

“That does not mean you have to haul me about like a child,” Mordo groused, oddly looking very much like a child.

“Only if you give me your word you’ll stay with the group and not go touching things without permission.”

His promise would have to wait, the portal finished establishing itself and the group stepped through into ruins.

<^>

Bucky glowered over Darcy’s shoulder at their guests.  That was his role.  Steve was sitting in an armchair with a sketchpad looking vaguely disapproving of the whole thing, and Darcy was practically glowing with good cheer and hospitality, a comforting escape offered between their rock-and-hard-place options.  In actuality, he liked Wong, thought Strange probably wanted to do the right thing, and Mordo needed a two year vacation.

“What I do not understand,” Wong said delicately between sips of tea, “is how you located the London Sanctum to have us picked up.”

“I pulled files for strange spacial happenings immediately prior to Doctor Strange’s arrival at Metro General,” Darcy said calmly.  Her voice gave it the air of an ordinary, if not every day, occurrence. Like checking the Farmer’s Almanac for something, instead of ordering the head of a superspy agency to hand her his hyper classified files.  “Three buildings, in New York, Hong Kong, and here in London, formed the epicenters of highly localized microquakes that should have leveled them but to all appearances did nothing. One place, I’d have called my sister in law to see if it was her.  Two places, I might have called it coincidence.  Three places? One of which my agent followed you back to?  And another that spewed forth HP Lovecraft’s worst xenophobic nightmares?  Yeah, I sent a car.”

“Wait, you saw that?” Strange asked.  “I thought I froze time… you shouldn’t have felt anything.”

Darcy’s back went rigid and Bucky’s fake glare turned real.  Steve cleared his throat and gave them a look that said not yet.

“We’re not standard humans, and we’ve all been exposed to multiple Infinity Stones, sometimes during moments of incredible stress.  Epigenetically, it’s a miracle none of us have an abnormal number of limbs or eyes or anything, especially considering the effects of the super soldier serum on myself and Bucky.”  He smiled at Strange’s interested look, and Bucky found himself fighting not to match the expression. The doctor looked like Tony. Darker skin, longer hair, but that same wide eyed wonder.  “Frigga sent a selection of books on genetic mutation and enhancement. Two mutant kids and a batch of super soldiers, I wanted to know more.”

“That wouldn’t happen to be a private library, would it?” Strange asked hopefully.  Bucky relaxed, now that they’d moved past the painful tangle of time that he really wanted to forget.

“If it is, you need better locks,” Wong grumbled.

“Feel free to read, but not to borrow,” Darcy said.  “And keep in mind that if you break physics, we’ll be sending Loki’s daughter after you, and she’s still learning non-stabbing solutions to problems.”

“If you’re any good with kids, we might send her to hang out with you anyway,” Steve mused.  “She needs a more rounded education, and Loki is on business right now.”

Strange blinked.  “Loki like Norse Loki?”

“Where did you think you were?” Bucky asked slowly.  “This is the Asgardian Embassy.”

Strange still looked confused, and slightly constipated.  Mordo leaned forward and showed the first emotion Bucky had seen on him, exasperated fondness.  “Strange is… single minded. He joined us six years ago, and I doubt he has watched any news outside Kamar Taj since.”

“Six years, that would have been right when Tony was….” Darcy trailed off, but Bucky picked up her meaning.  Six years was a short time, but it covered the entire modern history of super heroes. Six years ago, Iron Man didn’t exist except as Tony’s pet project to cope after his escape, not really.  Six years ago, Hulk was on the run. Six years ago, Thor and Loki were myths, he and Steve were dead, and SHIELD was a whisper on the wind, a joke about men in black suits.

“I’ve got those culture primers Tony worked up for the out of timers,” Steve said.  “That’ll get you caught up to about 2012. Darcy’s scrapbooks should cover the highlights of the rest.”

“We could always send him to the Tower,” Darcy suggested.  “The Jachkt have a good ‘so you lost a decade’ class on weekends.  It’d be helpful to study with other temporally displaced people, I think.  Also, it might interest him, given their methods of mage craft are different.  Of course, someone should go with him, keep him from trying to swallow that history in one go.”

He is sitting right there,” Mordo grumbled.  “Must you arrange him?”

“I’m actually okay with that,” Strange said.  “I’m still on the whole ‘Asgard, from Norse mythology, is real’ thing.  Them arranging me saves time.  It's more efficient.”

“Speaking of saving time,” Darcy said, putting her cup down with a firm clink, “let’s talk security for that .”

Everyone stopped and slowly turned to look at the medallion on Strange’s chest.

“Right,” he said.  “That.”

<^>

The wide halls of the Asgardian Embassy were a touch more lavish than Darcy was really comfortable with.  Considering her usual home was furnished by a Stark, that was saying something. Tony favored high tech modern design, though, and Frigga’s decorators leaned hard to the priceless antiquities style.  Given that she was currently struggling with the change in her center of gravity, Darcy pointedly hugged the exact center of the hallway. Maybe that was by design, since her wardrobe had also come with their suite and centering in the hall did some fantastically imperious things with the train skirt and cape.

She turned, letting the fabric swirl at her feet, and nodded to the Einherjar guarding the door.  Her fingers interlaced each other and her combined hands rested on the curve of her belly. The Asgardian dress was an empire waisted thing of navy blue chiffon… well, if chiffon had the durability of kevlar, and the effect was very ancient-fertility-goddess.  That was the point.  With Thor and Loki off world, and Ciara politely banned from Asgard’s diplomacy with anyone except Nidavellir, Darcy was Earth’s point of contact for Asgardian politics.  Normally that didn’t mean anything, because normally people went right to Asgard if they needed access to Odin or Frigga.

Today, though, she was called on to be a Princess of Asgard.

The guard waited until her body had settled into stillness before tapping his spear shaft on the floor and activating the remote opening mechanism.  The audience room was laid out like a smaller version of the throne room, but with a press conference style long table in place of a throne. The door she was entering from was opposite that, by design.  At the sound of the open door, several heads turned at once. Diplomats from the Nine Realms spun to give her the appropriate levels of bow for a representative of Odin.

“Presenting Her Highness, Princess Darcy of Asgard,” Kaydee announced.  The girl had grown up since the convergence, and was now in a slick black business suit, her Pepper-like style only broken by the hand painted converse covered in glowing art of Loki on the left foot and Thor on the right.  “Daughter of Frigga, Sister of Thor, Sister of Loki. Voice of Odin on Midgard.”

Darcy nodded to her and walked forward.  Her brain replayed the time she’d faced Odin down in a chamber very much like this one.  A small smile slipped onto her face as she nodded to the various ambassadors she already knew.  She took her seat in silence, watched for Kaydee’s signal that the cameras were rolling, and tapped the sound amplification charm on the table.

“Thank you all for coming, and welcome to Earth.  As you know, for the past one thousand and fifty years, Asgard has maintained a strict non-interference policy with regards to Earth.  Given our strategic location at the center of Yggdrasil, no one realm has been permitted to lay claim to us. That is changing.”

The crowd muttered, and Darcy let them, tapping the charm again twice when she decided they’d shifted a bit too mutinous.  “For the record, Asgard is not claiming Earth. Asgard is acting as precedent setter and enforcer of boundaries. The one realm laying claim to Midgard is Midgard.  We’re a diverse and contrary lot, and frankly we don’t usually agree on enough to count as a singular government, but after alien invasions, massive robot attacks, and the incident with Dormammu… we think we can agree enough to pull this off.  Ladies, Gentlemen, and Assorted Dignitaries, Earth is now open for business.”

There was a strange hush in which Darcy could practically smell the gears turning in heads.  She let the implications sink in, then resumed her speech.

“There will be a banquet later with many world leaders for you to meet and make individual deals with.  Please be aware we have already worked out the payment scale for use of the Peak Station Dimensional Transit Nexus, and it is not flexible.  Healers Without Borders has installed health and safety scanners, and neither individuals with communicable diseases nor unauthorized plants or animals may land on the planet.  We very much hope that you find something on Earth that pleases you, and that all bargains benefit both parties. That is all.”

She stood and swept out, pausing only long enough to return Kaydee’s thumbs up at the door.

Chapter Text

While the Asgardian Embassy was amazingly plush, as she neared her final month of pregnancy, Darcy wanted the comfort of home.  She wanted her family around her, Jarvis keeping an eye on everything and updating her about everyone’s safety. She wanted Jane to be by her, and her Mom, and Natasha, and Maya, and Nikka, and Catherine.  She wanted Clint to bake her cookies and Bruce to make her the curried goat cheese thing that blew her face off with heat, even if that wasn’t realistic. Heck, she even wanted Tony’s steady low drone of constant engineer babble she couldn’t understand, and Vision practicing his empathy on her.

That was how they ended up flying home for the holidays with Darcy strapped into a medical gurney on a quinjet.  Her abdomen was too big for the five point harness, and nobody wanted to risk her being unsecured in an airplane while nine months pregnant.

She managed to even sleep a little, although on waking she regretted that.  Her heartburn had only gotten worse, and sleeping on her back made her throat ache.

“Can you stand up, or do you want us to just wheel the gurney into the apartment?” Bucky asked, giving her hand a gentle squeeze with his right.  The light caught his ring and she smiled at him.

“I can walk, just give me a hand with sitting up.  My balance is for shit.”

“Alright, Doll, I got you, easy does it…”  She pulled herself upright on his sturdy body, unmoving like a tree.  His right arm slipped behind her and offered a gentle support not unlike spotting at the gym as she slid her feet to the floor.  Once she was standing, she realized how badly she needed to pee.

“Bathroom, now,” she said, looking at her husbands with no shame.  They’d done this at least thirty times by now. Steve moved to grab doors and Bucky swept ahead with a determined look that cleared her path of passerby as Darcy hustled as quickly as she could to the nearest bathroom.  From the Tower hangar, that was down a short hall, a turn to the left, and then on the right side of the hall. It was a men’s room, the ladies and gender neutral rooms being further down, but Bucky gave it a quick sweep and held the door for her anyway.  Really, excepting the presence of urinals, the bathrooms in the Tower were identical across gender lines, and she didn’t care about any plumbing aside from her own.

A few minutes later, they were able to continue their trip up to their apartment.  Jarvis gave them the customary warm greeting in the elevator, and let them know they had guests.  That, and the earlier side trip, kept Darcy from embarrassing herself when her family greeted her with confetti and party horns.

“Guys, you didn’t have to do this…” she said, looking at the gold and green banners announcing her baby shower.  A pile of presents beside a rocking chair she didn’t recognize seemed to take up half the room. The kitchen was oozing good scents, and Vision was wearing a conical party hat.

“Nonsense,” Tony said, handing her a champagne flute filled with a fizzy drink that smelled like cheap grape juice.  “Gift giving is my love language, the spysassin girls are all aflutter about being aunts, Jane wants to get a jump on the godmother thing, and your mom took one look at the nursery and said something Jarvis wouldn’t translate.”

“It was Ancient Greek,” Jarvis said.  “I’m not sure I translated correctly, since that language is sparse on phonetic reconstruction.  Also, she later said she understood, since you had been off saving the world and grieving during the usual nursery construction time.”

“I knew I forgot something!” Bucky exclaimed.  Several people nearby chuckled at him, and Darcy smiled.  Her husband was always the best of them at handling social situations.  Nevertheless, the new chair looked inviting, and she wanted off her swollen ankles.

“Oh, this is good,” she sighed, settling in.

“That’s from Lord M’Baku,” said Jane, looking at a clipboard.  “He sent a note explaining that the material is all Jabari wood or Jabari leaf fiber, although the cushions are a separate gift designed by Princess Shuri, made by Jabari artisans, and commissioned by the Wakandan Royal family.  She had better biometric scans of you to ensure the back support would remain comfortable after you give birth.”

“That is so sweet and somewhat creepy,” Darcy sighed happily.  “What’s next?”

Jane passed her a basket filled with soft silver tissue paper.  Inside were crocheted stuffed figures of the original Avengers team, a stack of unbearably soft black blankets, and two onesie pajamas patterned like SHIELD uniforms.

“Communal gift from SHIELD,” Jane told her, albeit unnecessarily.  “Agent Danley made the amigurumis, crochet helps her stay calm.”

Next came a pale purple box tied in green ribbon.  Betty smiled as she passed it over. Inside were the CD booklets for several hundred children’s albums from across the globe.  “All the songs are already loaded up onto your personal music server. I just thought you’d like something physical to go with them.”

Darcy’s mom had provided a ten pound bag of cloth diapers, and a binder of hand written instructions for all the ways to use them aside from diapering.

“Is that a diagram for a slingshot?” Steve asked, leaning over Darcy’s shoulder to hand her a plate of fruit.

“Yes, it’s never wise to go unarmed,” Liz Lewis said assuredly.

They worked their way through the pile, with all sorts of useful things; baby clothes in a range of boy, girl, and genderless styles, toys and stuffies, blankets and teethers, a new scrapbook and a basket of materials relating to babies from a grinning Nika, a tandem stroller, baby safe bath sets, two sizes of diaper bag, and a collapsible play pen meant to travel.

“I swear there aren’t any Pym particles in it,” Hope said.  “I stopped Dad from adding a micro setting. It’s just very foldable.”

Darcy laughed and gave the woman a hug.

“My presents and the ones from Mama Lewis are in the Nursery itself,” Tony said, “and they’re not real portable.  Think you can make it?”

<^>

Steve knew a baby shower was more about Darcy than either of her husbands, but he still gasped in delighted shock when he saw the nursery.  He’d drawn the designs when they first started planning for infants, and then collected a number of paint chips and fabric swatches, but the only thing he’d finished when Bucky had the episode in the Crash Pad had been the wall mural of an aspen grove with trails and a mountain at the horizon.  Bucky had started trying to assemble the cradles, but frankly none of them thought he’d been doing his best work. Other than those elements and a general plan, they’d left the nursery an empty room.

Now, it was a magical place.  The recessed lights had been pulled out and replaced by a multitude of softly glowing leaf shapes that overlapped in a pleasingly natural way, leaving glimpses of a robin’s egg blue ceiling.  The floor was covered in springy green mats that cushioned the feet but gave plenty of traction. The lopsidedly assembled cradle had been replaced by two small oval cribs with green and yellow bedding, and a rocking chair with two cradles on either side.

A changing table took up the back wall of the room’s former walk in closet, and shelves at Darcy’s eye level held neatly labeled boxes for diapers, clothes, and blankets.  There was a strange waste basket contraption in there too. Steve looked at Tony curiously.

“Diaper Genie,” he said.  “Well, not really, that’s trademarked and I made this one myself.  It’s like a Diaper Genie, you put the dirties in the top part, then close it, press that yellow button there, and it drops into the bottom bit.  It can store up to 40 diapers before needing to be emptied, if you use disposables. If you’re using the cloth ones, just press the blue button over into the on position instead of pushing the drop button.  It’ll activate a waterless wash cycle that removes all the nasty bits and sterilizes the cloth. In tests, I still needed to run it once through a regular washer to get the soft feeling back, but you can pull the cloth right back out and it’s basically clean.”

“This is amazing, Tony.  I can’t believe you two finished everything, even the stuff that was just pie in the sky brainstorming.”

“Mama Lewis did the artsy part,” Tony demurred, only for Liz Lewis to also shake her head.

“You left very detailed notes and sketches, Steven, I just followed the list.  Tony was the one who invented all the things that we couldn’t find in stores, and Mr. Jarvis helped tremendously as well.”

“A pleasure, Madame,” Jarvis replied smoothly, and Liz patted the door frame affectionately.  “And the gift from the less corporeal members of the family is on your Stark Phones now. We’ve worked up a comprehensive schedule of times we will be ‘on call’ as it were for any baby monitor or lullaby services needed, including two nights each month for the first six months after anticipated birth for Vision to provide care, so you get time for yourselves.”

“Not that we think you’ll be hard up for sitters,” Liz added.  “I can’t wait to get my hands on grandbabies to spoil. No offence, girls.”

“None taken,” said Maya around a mouthful of cake.  “I want to spoil my baby sisters too. I’ve never been the oldest before.”

“We don’t actually know if there’s a girl in the set,” Bucky told her.  “The ultrasounds keep coming back inconclusive on sex, although we thought we saw a boy in one of them.  Might have been the other one’s arm or leg, though. They cuddle a lot.”

“Someone show Mom the baby book,” Darcy said from her seat in the rocking chair.  “You’ll like the pictures, they look like little Hecatoncheires, all arms and legs.”

“AWWWWW!” squealed Liz and Steve sighed as he suddenly felt so much about Darcy suddenly click into place.  He loved that she was like that, an endless puzzle that always kept surprising him and delighting him.

<^>

Darcy seemed to have adapted well to the use of other people’s hands and feet, Bucky noted to himself.  Even though she was technically on maternity leave (and could have been since discovering her pregnancy thanks to Stark Industries having a rather plush parental leave arrangement) her minions from the Cat Herder Corps had been popping in and out of the apartment the last two weeks to do her bidding, personal and professional.  Darcy and Liz Lewis had co-opted at least three assistants for help finishing off the Hanukkah cooking alone, paid a bonus in latkes and rugelach. The loose security made him twitchy until Jarvis sent Vision to phase him into the entirely sealed security hub to watch the in and out of the residential area the way they did.

The hub itself had few screens, neither Jarvis nor his son needed them to turn the data into knowledge.  Instead, Vision had provided him a StarkPad with a program that resembled a vitals monitor, if said vitals had hundreds of beats to track and updated at the picosecond.  The waving lines overlapped and intersected in ways he couldn’t parse, but at a single tap, Bucky was able to turn any thread of information into a readable form. Heat maps, electronic activity meters, vibration sensors, even weight of contents for each floor, both rooms and vent spaces.  Every person authorized had a badge with an RFID chip embedded in it that logged presence within a foot of every doorway. Furthermore, while it was all heavily redacted for privacy, any cell phone operated on the property could be watched in real time.

Jarvis pulled up a specific chat window to one of the Cat Herders.  Bucky recognized the face in the employee ID picture, but not the name.

Bryn, how are things sounding out in RL?  Any worry spots?

Nope, all good J.  Anything specific you want me looking for?

Any of the usual suspects pulling aggro, especially the squishies.

Nothing out of the ordinary and of course the Cleric Corps is distributing heals and buffs at max refresh rates.

Any complaints about that?

From US??  J, WTF?? Has someone said something to you?  I’ll pull them aside and lay it smooth.

Nothing, Bryn, calm down.  There was a worry expressed about security, I’m just double checking nobody going up to the top of the tower is looking for trouble.

Nobody wants trouble for Trouble, believe me.  We want trouble for the Healer on High even less.  BTW, are you in the due date pool yet? I’ll split my take for post-new year if you want to piggy back.

Suddenly the window closed with what felt vaguely like an embarrassed pop.

“Ms. Marshall is a friend,” Jarvis said somewhat defensively.  “I recruited her to Stark Industries as a confidential courier actually, although she moved up to Darcy’s team after that became an official role.  We met playing MMORPGs, hence the use of dialectical English to encode our messages about confidential subjects.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, keeping his voice non judgmental.  Jarvis didn’t have many shy spots, respecting the one he’d just seen was only polite.  “Can you summarize for me what I just read?”

“I asked if anyone seemed upset at the residents of the Tower, particularly non combatants.  She replied that not only has there been no unusual chatter, but that thanks to the efforts of Darcy and her team, most people seem unusually happy or productive.  I asked if the high speed or pressure of the assignments was upsetting to any of the Cat Herders, and her reaction was one of shock and dismay, wanting to fix a problem if I’d seen one she hadn’t.”

“Why did she call Darce a healer?” Bucky wondered aloud.  “She’s not a medic.”

“Healers in online role playing tend to be…” Jarvis paused noticeably, and therefore for effect, “of an assertive mindset.  Groups live or die by their ability to dispense not only healing but buffs, increasing effectiveness. Also, sometimes they get a resurrection skill.”

“So they’re bossy because they know what needs to happen, manage fractious people in spite of themselves, make everyone better at their jobs, and occasionally bring folks back from the dead.”  Bucky absorbed that and nodded. “Who’s Trouble?”

“In that context, Mr. Stark.  We tend to use conversation specific alliterative names.  Tony becomes Trouble, Steve becomes Stress, and so on.”

Bucky snickered, Steve certainly did become stress often enough.  “What’s one of mine?”

There was a long pause.

“You know what, I’ve thought better of it.  I’ll just get out of your way, you’ve got this handled.”

“Wise choice,” Jarvis said as Vision phased in to help Bucky out of the security hub.

Chapter Text

Christmases had begun early for Darcy ever since the Avengers formed.  That first year, it had begun at midnight, although Bucky maintained no day began until he had awoken from the previous night’s sleep, or dawn came, whichever happened first.  Still, that first holiday spent standing on a burning oil carrier surrounded by dangerous people, had set the bar high. The next year, they’d had Harley and Zoe to look after, and a new alliance with Asgard, and their celebrations had been sweeter, but no less filled with dangerous people.  Then, they’d hosted a crew of space pirates for the holidays.  Each time, Darcy had set her clock for the earliest she could justify, just to get a jump on the crazy sure to ensue.

This time, she woke up to the smell of Clint’s snickerdoodles, hot cocoa, and peppermint candy.  She opened her eyes slowly, and sighed as she resigned herself to rolling over.

“Take it easy Aunt Darcy!” Collin Harrow chided.  His brother appeared at her side with a steadying hand, helping her balance without taking any of her weight.

“We came to get you up, because it’s almost time for lunch,” Caddell supplied.  That shocked Darcy enough that she got seated on the edge of her bed in a moment.

“Lunch?”

“The meal between breakfast and dinner?” Zoe supplied from the doorway.  Darcy shot her kid a glare and then diverted to the cocoa on her bedside table.  “I know you miss coffee, but the hot chocolate should work sort of the same, and the cookies are fresh.”

“I can smell that,” Darcy said gratefully over the rim of her mug.  “Why’d you let me sleep in so late? Normally you three want to get everyone up at dawn.”

“You’re making people , Aunt Darcy,” Caddell said as though she were dim.  “You need tha rest. So we agreed, presents later…”

“...and cookies now!” finished Collin.  “Unca Clint let us help him bake this morning, and NatMonster taught us how to do the stamping on the pryanik.  Then we built a gingerbread house!”

“They built multiple gingerbread houses,” Zoe said dryly, although Darcy could see the sparkle of happiness at the edges of her daughter’s eyes.  “We all did, so there’s kind of a gingerbread city on Clint and Tasha’s dining table. And Vision isn’t allowed to compete with the rest of the kids on construction related anything anymore.  He built a replica of the Tower. It’s to scale, and the A lights up.”

“Phasing in the electronics is cheating,” Caddell agreed with a nod.  “He’s gotta compete with tha grow-ups if he’s gonna cheat, ‘cause all the grow-ups cheat too, and that makes it fair.”

“Can’t argue that logic,” Darcy said, then glanced at the nearest wall cam.  “How’s he taking that, Jarvis?”

“Vision seems to view his banning from children’s competition as a sort of graduation.  He’s very proud, as is his partner in cookie crime, Ms. Maximoff. She baked the components for him.”

“Are they still flirting?” Darcy asked.  Collin pulled a face and she laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.  Okay, kiddos, where’s lunch? I’m eating for three here.”

Lunch was, by necessity and preference, a communal buffet affair that sprawled across the common room and at various points spilled into the shared kitchen, media room, and dining room, although the latter was mainly for ease of access to second and third plates.  Steve and Bucky were clearly on plate two, about when their metabolisms started realizing they had put food in and stopped hurting them. Tony was carrying Pepper’s plate as the CEO told some animated story with her hands to Matt and Skye. Thomas and Lava were in the quiet corner reading books, him in a perfect half lotus and her upside down on the beanbag pile, hands lazily grazing the braille book laid out on the floor.  Pietro blurred up to Darcy with a plate of canapes and then blurred off to try flirting with Maria Hill, while Sam, newly official as her boyfriend looked on with amusement. Wanda and Vision were looking at the tree and discussing something in soft Sokovian, while Harley monitored the situation from an oversized cat tree upholstered in purple.

“Clint,” Darcy asked, looking at the archer who was teasing Natasha with a headband dangling fake mistletoe.  “Who got you the gag gift?”

“Me, and it’s not a gag,” Jane offered.  “Betty and I keep having to use his vent nest for emotional detox, so I thought he should have one out here we won’t use.  As a backup.”

“She explained this morning, before the detki got their lessons,” Natasha said, stealing the headband and tossing it underhand to Maya, who threw it like a horseshoe and got it wedged on the back of Vladimir’s head.  The Russian crime boss turned bright pink as Haley Graham planted a kiss on his cheek.

“As long as there aren’t any hurt feelings, I’m okay,” Darcy said, stuffing a cheese filled pastry in her mouth.

“There aren’t,” Clint assured her.  “Relax, enjoy, we got this. By the way, I think we’re doing present opening after everyone has had at least one plate of food, so eat up.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Darcy laughed and headed to the comfy recliner by the tree.  Steve and Bucky stopped by to drop kisses on her head, and then Steve went to wrangle the younger kids, while Bucky broke up a tussle between Maya and Peitro before it dragged in bystanders.

Presents were opened, food was eaten in ridiculous quantity, and all seemed well with the world.

<^>

Bucky and Tony had been co-opted into assembly of toys for the kids.  Said assemble ranged from complex (Zoe’s home hydroponic farm) to simple (the target for the Harrow boys which balanced differently sized plastic balls on columns of pressurized air) and the mechanically inclined Avengers divided by skill level to complete the tasks.

Meanwhile, this left Steve the wonderful duty of continuing the catering to Darcy’s every need.  She hadn’t yet been told to go to bed rest, but her energy seemed sapped and she no longer protested people going to get things for her rather than getting up herself.  He collected plates of cookies, cups of nonalcoholic eggnog, even a shiny ribbon from one of the gifts that she used to tie back her hair.

“I might just cut it after the babies come,” she said, looking at one stray lock that insisted on curling down over her face.  “I know you boys like it long, but babies grab things and it’s just easier to keep up short hair.”

“Ohh, are you going to dye it?” Natasha asked from her other side.  The redhead had mourned the loss of Victor Von Doom in the Peace Palace bombing by bleaching her hair to a bone white.  The process had taken three months, but the severe bob and unnaturally pale shade kept her looking terrifying while also signalling her loss.  That said, she seemed excited by the idea of color, just not on herself.

“Dye black hair?  Nat, you know that’s a bad idea, how many sessions would it take to lighten me down to something usable?”  Darcy shook her head.

“My guy could do it,” Natasha insisted.  “Davide is very talented.”

Darcy kept shaking her head, but there was something stiff to it, a pain on her face.  Steve moved to kneel beside her chair.

“Darcy, what’s happening?”

“No, no no nononono…” she moaned.

“Sit Rep, NOW!” he barked, glancing at Natasha who was half up from her chair already.

“Baby wants to come,” Darcy said.  Her daughter did some fast math and gasped.

“It’s only week 36!  You aren’t to term yet!”

“TELL THAT TO YOUR SIBLINGS!” Darcy yelled.

“Jarvis, get Helen to medbay and tell her what’s happening.  Natasha, clear me a path to medbay. Liz, get Bucky and follow us.  Clint, you’re in charge of the kids.”

Everyone snapped to their assignments, and Steve scooped Darcy up in his arms, staggering a bit as her weight settled on him.

“If you call me fat I’ll shave you bald,” Darcy hissed in his ear.

“Never, croí chroí ,” Steve said, and began moving in the steady, even, ground consuming run he’d perfected after the serum.  Before, his scoliosis had forced him to compensate with terrible form. After, his body didn’t respond right unless Darcy was with him, and the scientists had taught him the perfect run for his new form.  They had been quite impressed at how even it was. Now he was just happy he didn’t jostle his wife as he sprinted her down the hallways of the Tower.

“Jarvis said she had a contraction?” Helen asked, meeting him at the door.  He set Darcy down and tried not to grin at how adorable her irritated glare was.  His Angel liked to organize everything, she probably hated the idea her pregnancy might not be schedule-able.

“I did,” she said crossly.  “It lasted about a minute and a half, and there was just the one, but it hurt and it was real.  I know what Braxton-Hicks feel like, this wasn’t it.”

“I believe you,” Helen said, immediately shifting focus to Darcy.  “How long ago was that?”

“Seven minutes,” Jarvis answered.  “And forty three seconds.”

“Just the one?”

“Yeah, so far,” Darcy said.  She made an ooof sound as Helen switched on the imager Princess Shuri sent over.  “Babies don’t like that, doc, I got feet in places no woman should ever have feet.”

Helen switched off the imager, then sighed.  “Well, looks like we’re doing this the old fashioned way.  Kick anyone out you don’t want here, and hike up that dress, I’m gonna have to feel around on your belly to figure out why they want to come early and if we should let them.”

Darcy looked around the room, pausing to make eye contact with Steve, then Natasha, then Liz and Bucky as they rounded the corner.

“Everybody stays, I don’t want to be alone,” she declared, and yanked the cotton skirt up over her rounded belly.  Helen began stroking and squeezing in patterns Steve didn’t fully grasp, but that he recalled from his childhood. A memory, warm and fuzzy and tinted in golden shades despite the lack of other colors, bubbled up.  His Ma, bent over another woman, like this. Her deft hands more confident than any general, more reassuring than any priest, and the look of hope and fear on the face of her patient.

Bucky shifted to put half his weight on Steve.  The image bloomed into color and the tactile sensation of holding another boy’s hand seeped in.  Bucky blinked up at him through thick dark lashes. “Punk?”

“We got it back?” Steve asked, not daring to hope enough for a statement.  He was still boggling at the memory. “Huh, Ma had some red in her hair. I never knew that.”

“Your Da was a redhead,” Bucky said absently, “she kept a lock of his hair in that frame?  Really red. Like a good copper pot. Then your Ma looking like rose gold and you gold too… I hope the kids get your hair.”

“Yeah, I’d like that too, but I also love the dark hair.”

Bucky gave him a pointed look, then glanced at Darcy, then tugged some of his own hair around in front of his face.  “I’d never have guessed,” he drawled.

“Shut up Jerk,” Steve said, and pushed his husband’s arm before planting a kiss on his forehead. “I just know the babies are going to be beautiful.  How can they not be? They’re at least half her.”

“True,” Bucky sighed, and they turned to look back at the bed where Helen had given Darcy an IV and was waiting for them.  “What’s the prognosis, Doc?”

“No birth today, I’m afraid,” Helen said.  “It’s still earlier than I like, I want to get them to week 40 if I can, but 37 minimum.  The membrane hadn’t ruptured yet, thankfully, so we got her some magnesium sulfate and that seems to have worked.”

Steve let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.  The terror of early birth still sat strong in his chest, even surrounded by the best equipment and doctors in the world.

“There is some bad news, I’m afraid,” Helen continued.  “Due to this scare of preterm contractions, I’m placing Darcy on pelvic rest.  It’s like bed rest, but I do actually want you to get up to go use the bathroom, shower, gentle walking around the apartment, things like that.  What’s limited is anything that might strain your pelvis, so no sex, douching, or tampons, nothing up inside basically, and no vigorous lower body work, so no squats, leg lifts, or even walking at anything above an amble.”

“Leg day is out, and we have to wait until the babies are born to get it on, yes?” Darcy confirmed.  Helen nodded and Darcy heaved a sigh. “That’s not a problem.”

Helen quirked a brow.  Steve covered Liz’s ears and let Bucky whisper something that turned the doctor’s face as red as her holiday sweater.

They were going to be okay.

<^>

“This is not okay!” Bucky proclaimed loudly, aware he was being dramatic and unable to stop it.

The family, or at least the core Avengers and their partners, had been enjoying a nice slow New Years Day, the first since the formation of the team not to involve a single hangover, since all the champagne at their party had been fake in support of Darcy.  This also had the lovely effect of speeding up the removal of gala guests from the ballroom immediately after midnight, since most of them wanted at least some booze. They’d been able to get to bed sometime before sunrise, and were happy to be spending their morning watching a selection of cartoons, classic and new.

Until Jarvis had interrupted New Looney Tunes with live footage of a kid in a hoodie and ski mask zipping away from the 112th precinct on some sort of light weight grappling hook system Bucky didn’t quite grasp.  Behind him, he had left a bundled package of assorted thugs, some of whom showed signs of recent brawling.

“There is no way that kid is eighteen,”  Clint said, squinting at the screen.

“Does this mean I get to be a vigilante now too?” Harley asked, only to shrink back from Darcy’s glare.  “Okay, yeah, I’ll give myself the duh on that one.”

“Who do we have on street level stuff right now, Jarvis?” Tony asked, pulling out his phone.  “Devil is strictly Kitchen, right?”

“Mr. Murdock has requested he not be called out of his home territory for anything short of apocalypses, yes,” Jarvis said.

“Matt went with me to the Caribbean to get Skye,” Bucky said.

“I said anything short of apocalypses, not except apocalypses.  The kidnapping of a Family member ranks higher on the scale than single planetary destruction, although about equal with galactic destruction on the grounds that there would then be limited places to evacuate to.”  Jarvis made his distinctive whirring hum of thought. “Ms. Jones is on retainer and quite good at investigating individuals who do not wish to be investigated.”

“Jessica has an R rated mouth and an X rated backstory,” Darcy said with a firm veto.  “Luke?”

“In Harlem currently, but potentially, if there’s no speed requirement.  Agents Coulson and Skye are currently at a team training retreat with their respective teams in the Maldives.”

“Winter vacation?” Tony asked, only half sarcastically.

“Repairing damage done by rising sea levels,” Betty said.  “They picked up an Earthbender in Taiwan who’s working with Skye to give the islands some extra height, and the rest are building houses with the specs from Charles Spencer’s project.  Bruce and Hulk asked me to keep an eye on how that’s going for them.”

“Fair enough.  You sure we can’t just go pick the kid up ourselves, Lieu?”  Tony had the plaintive tone in his voice that came out when he’d already decided to let one of the others be the lead on something, but didn’t want to say so.

“No, we’re keeping a low profile,” Darcy said.  “The Avengers punch at too high a weight class to be in regular circulation.”

“From what I’m pulling from previous witness statements,” Jarvis said, “this Spider Man punches at an equal if not higher level.  He’s not a lethal fighter, but shows some signs of training in hand to hand, and has reportedly stopped runaway busses single handedly.  His mobility makes him a formidable opponent.”

“Woah, woah, woah,” Harley frowned as he climbed onto the sofa to get some height.  Tony had given him bad habits, Bucky noted. “Why are we talking about him like he needs to be stopped?  He’s obviously trying to do the right thing, and it’s not like this family is Lawful Neutral. Why aren’t we inviting him over?”

“Because he’s sixteen max and I will not have teenagers fighting armed thugs!” Bucky exclaimed.  “I dealt with that when Steve and Darcy were teenagers, I’m not doing that again. I did not die for this!  No Teenvengers, no.”

Zoe rolled her eyes dramatically at him.  “Pops, that’s not what Harley meant. He means why are we acting like the best way is to have a dramatic Batman Versus Superman type fight and haul him off?  Why don’t we just figure out who he is when he’s not a fashion disaster, and go talk to him? Like sane people.”

“Have you met us, kid?” Clint snorted.  “But you have a point. Jarvis? Can you do the creepy surveillance thing with the city cameras and find him?”

“I prefer not to, since it is, as you point out, creepy.”  There was a long pause where everyone looked at each other trying to find a better way to discreetly identify a masked vigilante.  Finally Jarvis sighed. “Mr. Maximoff has volunteered to follow him home from his next delivery to the 112th. Is having a young adult male follow a teen male home more or less creepy than accessing the city’s security footage to collage together a single video following said teen male?”

“Pietro doesn’t have breaks, for anything,” Bucky said.  “Patch the vids, but only until you see a face or a residence.  We’ll take it from there.”

“And Jarvis…” Steve said.

“Yes Captain?”

“Thank you.  For helping us find this kid before he gets killed, and for respecting his privacy when we get a little carried away.”

“When one has the capacities I have, one has certain moral obligations,” Jarvis informed them.  “The greater the strength, the more responsibility to ensure you are using it correctly.”

Chapter Text

“You all ready?”

Harley looked up from his messenger bag, where he’d been securing the metal pin Forge had given him as a temporary-see-you-later gift.  A good luck charm, sort of, in the shape of a spider made of circuit board bits and a web of glittering nanowire. Steve was standing in the doorway of his room, holding a black box.

“Yeah, I think I’ve got everything.  Thanks for trusting me with this, Steve.”

“You said you wanted to prove yourself.  Your teachers at Xavier's all say you’re ahead enough of the usual curve to handle one semester at a public school without falling behind where you need to be.”  Steve handed him the box, which on closer inspection was a bento-style lunchbox. “And you were right. We can’t treat Parker like a threat, even if he is, because he deserves a chance to grow up right.  To join the next generation of heroes. You saw clearly when everyone else was blinded by fear and that earns you a chance.”

“I won’t let you down, Steve,” Harley said firmly.  “Um… but if Darcy has the babies while I’m at school…”

“You have a special emergency exception to the no phones rule, provided you keep it on vibrate and don’t use it aside from letting us call you.”  Steve smiled. “You’ll be here when the babies get here, I promise, kid.”

“Hey, Harley, while you’re at Mundane Town High, can I use your room for study sessions?” Zoe asked, sticking her head around the doorway just far enough.  “Sandra has been way too lovey with Archie lately and I need the space away from romance cooties or it’ll spread.”

“Sure, just don’t dig into my desk, some of the projects aren’t done and they’re delicate.  Remind Forge to save me a copy of the Advanced Programming class’s homework, yeah? I don’t want to have to retake it, but if I do all the assignments over summer, Miss Pryde will let me stay with the cohort.”

Zoe shot him a thumbs up, and Harley shoved the box in his bag and looked at Steve.  “So, who’s on walk-to-school duty?”

“If you want it, you have your pick of Tasha, Clint, Wanda or me.  But… Darcy looked at your last training sim score, and if you want to take the subway yourself, you can.”

“Seriously?”  Harley’s chest felt like it was going to snap open like an actuated pressure valve.  “Yes! Wait, no… Can I have Nat take me as far as the last subway stop? Just so I’m sure I know the route for tomorrow, but not all the way to school.”

“I can ask her to go covert the last leg, but you know Natasha, she’s probably going to be mentally assembling a scrapbook of your first undercover op.”

Harley laughed.  It was true. “Fair enough… thanks Steve, see you after school!”

<^>

“Harley’s at school,” Steve announced to the adults lounging in the common room.  Tony was sprawled across a sofa with a tablet in hand, Darcy was in the wide recliner, the one Thor preferred to use, Clint was perched on his cat tree, and the Maximoff twins were playing Connect Four at the bar.  “Where’s Bucky?”

“He shadowed them,” Darcy said, looking up from her knitting.  Bucky was teaching her, but unless she was trying for a mangled lace, it wasn’t going so well.  “Along with Vision.  Just to make sure Vis found a good hiding spot.  Since Harley can’t use his technopathy to communicate when Vision is phased into solid matter, they went over blueprints to find good places in the school to hide him.”

“Supply closets?” Tony asked.

“Above drop ceilings, mostly,” Darcy said.  “Supply closets get used, nobody thinks about what’s above the acoustic tiles.”

“This is why I don’t have acoustic tiles in the Tower,” Tony said sagely.  Clint whipped a paper football at him and lodged it in the spikes of gelled hair above Tony’s left ear.

“Don’t lie, you don’t use acoustic tiles because you think they’re ugly and inefficient, and you’d rather invent something else to do the job than stoop to plebeian Styrofoam.”  Clint rolled his eyes. “Although Matt did finally sell me on the acoustic paint you gave him for the office. I’m redoing my building with it, see if we can’t settle some of the noise issues without having to open up walls.”

“I still can’t believe you own an apartment building, old man,” Pietro said, earning himself a paper triangle to match Tony’s.  “I’m just saying, you don’t look like landlord.”

“Look, it was a favor to Nat, helping her pay off a debt to Anatoly.  The Ranskahovs needed the Tracksuit Mafia cleared out because they weren’t following the rules, but they couldn’t get their own people on it, because gang wars are a nightmare.  After the dust settled… I mean, someone has to manage the property, arrange for repairs, convince people not to leave so the building doesn’t get bought by a Starbucks and begin a gentrification wave.”  Clint shrugged and dangled his legs off the platform. “Besides, the Bratva doesn’t need more real estate, the new organizational structure is already making the cops nervous.”

“I do have to say it’s nice we have someplace to use as a safe house that isn’t my house,” Tony commented.  “Jane is right, people are terrible and experiments with them should be limited to the theoretical.”

“You’re too much of an extrovert to believe that, Tony.”  Steve rolled his eyes and lifted Tony’s feet to make a space to sit.  Tony just put his feet on Steve’s thigh and readjusted his shoulders. “You need an audience, admit it.”

“Yeah, but those are theoretical people.  Conceptual, platonic ideals of human brilliance given voices and hands for cheering and clapping.  Practical, applied people are… messy. Like looking at quantum math versus actually figuring out what Wanda did this last test.  One is pretty and elegant and the other….”

“That’s my sister,” Pietro warned.

“I’m a hot mess and you know it,” Wanda said with a shrug.  “Checkmate.”

Pietro squawked and stared at the rack of disks, trying to track what had happened.  His sister got up and stretched.

“Regardless, Tony is right.  It’s good we have a place to put people who haven’t crossed the lines we have.  Someplace safe, for both body and mind. Hello Bucky!”

“Hi Wanda,” Bucky said, before dropping a kiss on Darcy’s head and sitting on the floor between the recliner and Steve’s end of the sofa.  Wanda joined him, offering hair to be braided with a wordless look. As Bucky began parting out a four strand plait, Tony made a squawking noise.

“Why do I supply you heathens with top of the line furniture if you aren’t going to use it?”

“Because interior decorating is your hobby and you enjoy spending money,” Sam said, entering from the elevator.

“The bird is not wrong,” Tony said.

“Lieutenant, you have a call for you from Midtown High School,” announced Jarvis.

“Shit fuck damn,” Darcy said, then shifted in the chair.  “Put it through.”

“Hello, may I speak to Mrs. Lewis?” asked a smooth male voice.

“This is she, how can I help you, Mr...?”

“Dave Morita, I’m the Principal at Midtown School of Science and Technology.  You enrolled your… ward? Um.”

“Has Harley gotten in some sort of trouble?” Darcy asked blandly, but Steve could see the tension on her knitting needles.

“No, he’s been a model student,” Principal Morita said.  “ You on the other hand, you need to ask before you start launching undercover operations at my workplace.  I’m personally responsible for the welfare of seven hundred and fifty two children here, Lieu.  Teens, aka hormones on feet! They’re enough of a danger to themselves without superhero shenanigans.  I don’t want to be a spy or a superhero or a soldier, I just want to keep these kids safe, get them an education, and maybe not have any teen pregnancies.”

“Ahhh.”  Darcy looked at Steve.

“Hi, Principal Morita, this is Steve Rogers.  You wouldn’t happen to be one of Jim and Tachi’s grandkids?”

“Yes, and I grew up thinking you’d give me an ulcer if half the stories were true.  Now why do I have a mini agent in my sophomore class?”

Bucky waved a hand at Steve.  “Look up Spiderman on YouTube.”

There was a long pause.

“There is no way that’s an adult.”

“That’s one of your students.  We’re aiming for willing cooperation that results in a distinct lack of underage vigilantes.  A softer touch than any of the team has.  Harley was our answer.”

There was a long pause, while Morita made his choices.

“Please tell him to stop by whenever he needs anything.  Both of them, if it goes well.”

“We’ll put you on the delivery list for antacids and chocolate,” Darcy said.  “Thank you for calling, sorry I wasn’t on point about who we had in the field.”

<^>

“You gotta talk to him, man,” Ned hissed in Peter’s ear.  They were at the edge of the cafeteria looking at the New Kid.  This was fair, in Peter’s mind, because New Kid had clearly been stalking Peter.  He was in almost all of Peter’s classes, and he’d been staring at him for a week and a half.  Whenever Peter tried to join a conversation, New Kid would get in a moment later. All the clubs Peter was in, New Kid showed up to see about open slots.  He didn’t really talk to anyone else, just followed Peter like a creepy, really intense shadow in a leather jacket.

“And say what?  Please don’t murder me and turn my skin into another jacket?  Look at him, he has a good four inches on me, he’s clearly ripped, and not in the stupid muscleman way.  I do not want to start that fight. I will lose.”

“Peter, you’ve been taking martial arts for how long now?”  Ned asked. It was rhetorical, they both knew it was three and a half years, they’d met at the dojo.  Ned hadn’t liked it and quit, but Peter had enjoyed the control it gave him of his body and his mind. He’d needed the help getting a handle on his anger then, and he’d needed the physical outlet.  It still wasn’t enough to take on someone who moved like a brawler when he couldn’t use his powers. Mobility was his friend and Peter Parker couldn’t climb walls.

“I don’t even use that on Flash, I’m not using it on some random stalker.  Hey, maybe he just has like, a crush on me or something.”

Ned gave him a Look.

“What?  It’s the twenty first century Ned, boys are allowed to crush on boys.”

Ned deepened his Look, giving Peter the once over before twisting his mouth.  “Don’t make me say it, Peter. I respect you too much as a friend and a fellow man to lie.”

Peter forgot his fear of the New Kid long enough to be offended.  The tee shirt he had on was not only clean, it was hilarious , and he’d actually used hair gel this morning.  He gave Ned a betrayed look and poked his chest.

“I am gay crush material, Ned Leeds, and I’ll prove it to you!”  He spun about, realized the whole cafeteria had heard that, and muscled through the anxious heat that spread across his chest to march over to New Kid’s table.  The kid put down his black lacquered chopsticks and swallowed visibly.

“Hi,” New Kid said, sticking a hand out.  “I’m Harley. Like the motorcycles, except not as high maintenance.”

“Peter,” Peter said, “I know nothing about motorcycles.  Do you have a crush on me?”

“Ballsy move, Parker,” said Michelle.  Peter glared at her. She was in a few of the same clubs as he was, and recently joined the Academic Decathlon team.  She was also annoyingly intuitive and had zero filter. “Settling a bet?”

“Is that any of your business, Michelle?” he asked.  She glared at him and Peter felt his guts try to climb further away from her.  She stood, leaned into his face, and growled.

“Do not fuck this up, Parker.”

“Can we stop calling him Parker?” Harley asked meekly.  “I have an Aunt Parker and it’s making this whole thing really weird.  Also, to answer your question…”

Peter’s eyes flew wide as Harley leaned into a hug, pressing a warm cheek against his.  The other boy’s breath was hot and dry as he turned into it, putting lips right by Peter’s ear.

“I know you’re Spiderman.”

Then he was gone, Peter’s body had gone strangely cold, and half the school was staring at him as the bell rang, shrill and loud, like a scream of pain that echoed into his chest where the phantom imprint of Harley’s ribs could be felt like a living weight.

“Um….”

“Parker!” snapped Principal Morita.  “My office, now!”

Chapter Text

Darcy screamed.  She’d been screaming for what felt like hours.

“Not yet,” Helen ordered her.

“Helen, these babies want out, and they want out now!”

“You aren’t remotely dilated enough to push out a baby,” Helen snapped.  “You’ll rupture something if you try. Do you want more drugs?”

“YES, I want drugs,” Darcy gasped.  Steve rushed back to her side with a bowl of crushed ice.  “These little bastards have ramped up my metabolism so far I can’t fucking feel the drugs, but damn do I want them.”

“Technically, we’re married, Angel, the children aren’t bastards.”

“SHUT YOUR FACE WITH THE STUPID LOGIC STEVEN!”

“Ice chip?”

“WHERE THE FUCK IS BUCKY?”

<^>

Bucky was racing through hallways at a highschool in Queens.  Harley had turned off his phone in the middle of lunch period, and Vision had alerted Jarvis something was wrong, and Jarvis had alerted Bucky.  Now he just had to find his kid.

“Excuse me, who are you?” asked a middle aged woman his brain immediately classed as civilian, non combatant, mission obstacle.  

Remove the obstacle

No

She is a witness

So?  I’m a parent, I have a reason to be here.

“Excuse me, I am talking to you.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Bucky growled.  “Vis, where is he?”

“Boy’s restroom, take a right.”

“On it,” he acknowledged, ignoring the woman as he hit the bathroom at a run.  “Harley? Where are you kid?”

“Sir, I have to report this to securit-- oh.”

Harley buried his face in Bucky’s abdomen, curling his body like a fern and shaking like an aspen leaf.  Behind him was the snoring form of a large boy, maybe a man, definitely a student.

“I… I came out as gay at lunch, and he…”  Harley kept shaking. “I did what Natasha taught me.”

“You did the right thing, Harley.  We’re leaving, can you walk out of here, or do you need me to help you?”

“I… carrying me will just make them worse.”

“You aren’t coming back here,” Bucky said firmly.  Harley pulled back and Bucky put a thumb on his son’s split lip, clotting the blood and silencing his protests in one step.  “Not because of you, you have not failed or disappointed your family in any way. Because if that’s the caliber of asshole they turn out, we don’t want you suffering any taint of association.  One bad apple can ruin a barrel, and we are getting you safely back with the good apples, ASAP, am I understood?”

Da, ya ponimayu tebya.”  Harley looked back at the crumpled body.  His eyes watered. “Ty budesh' nesti menya?”

“Konechno, moy khrabryy mal'chik.”  He looped the metal arm low enough Harley could slide up onto it, letting the teen pull into a fetal position against his chest.  He silently thanked Tony for making the new arm strong enough to lift a grown human like a toddler. Turning, Bucky leveled a Winter Soldier glare at the teacher who’d tried to stop him.  “Call an ambulance, my son was taught to defend himself against worse than that schmuck. We’ll pay any hospital bills, but he doesn’t get within five hundred yards of me or my children, ever again.”

He was at Rita getting Harley’s bookbag settled in the saddlebags when he got the alert from Jarvis.

“Hold on tight, kiddo, we’ve got to go meet your baby siblings!”

Harley’s smile split his lip again.

<^>

It had been an emergency.  Of course it had been an emergency, otherwise Natasha wouldn’t have left her mother’s side at a time like this.  But Clint and Nat had the connected aliases, the background already laid and waiting, each cover a work of art and it would have been their heads on Costuming’s sacrificial altar if new covers were required for the op.

That didn’t make it less a problem when a six man stand-off was cut by the sound of Natasha’s phone ringing.

“Nat… is that your phone?” Clint asked, knowing the answer and unhappy about it.

“That is my phone, Clint.  But only one person can call me right now.”

“That wouldn’t happen to be… The Big Guy, now would it?”

The mark facing down Clint’s left hand gun shifted.  Their covers had been blown because of an Avengers mega fan, and nobody else actually knew Hulk was off planet except NASA and SWORD.  The fact that nobody in the family had called Hulk The Big Guy with capital letters since he explained Jarvis was bigger than he was… was irrelevant.

“It would be.”

“How urgent do you think that call is?”

Natasha shifted at his back.  “Probably urgent enough to show up if I don’t answer.”

He shifted his shoulders in reply.  “Let’s not keep the man waiting.”

After the fight, two Legionnaire suits dropped through the already shot out skylight.  “Agents. Did you not receive my call?”

“No, we got it, Jarvis,” Natasha said, wiping of the sole of her high heel on a goon’s silk tie.  “Mama go into labor?”

“Yes and no.  According to Dr. Cho, these are just preterm contractions.  According to Darcy, the infants are quote, attempting to claw their way free like the chest bursters in Alien, end quote.  The membrane hasn’t broken yet, but Dr. Cho has given up on stopping the birth again.”

“Please tell us you have a ride ready,” Clint said.  “I had to do a creative landing with the quinjet, it’s gonna be a bitch to get out of that parking spot.”

The suits folded open, a wordless invitation that neither of them were going to pass up.

<^>

Pepper was closing the deal with an energy consortium over dinner at a charming restaurant off the Seine when the Maitre De coughed politely twice and informed her there was a call.  The restaurant itself was popular with business people because they enforced a strict no-phones dress code with the use of a built in Faraday cage and electronic jammers to disrupt recordings.  It ensured privacy and kept playing fields level, but it also meant excusing herself to go use one of the old fashioned landline booths in the front.

“Pepper?” asked Tony as she picked up.  “I sent Happy with the family jet, he’ll meet you at the hotel.”

“Tony, I’m about to close this deal, what’s going on?”

“Darcy’s in labor, sorry, gotta go.  I love you, you’re gonna kill it with the energy wonks, get here when you can.  What the hell? Is that blood?”

He hung up abruptly and Pepper put the receiver back on the hook.  She walked calmly back to the table, picked up her purse, and looked at her dining companions.

“Stark Industries will be picking up this tab, gentlemen, as an apology.  I have to attend something, and it cannot wait. My very first available time is yours, and I sincerely hope we can do business together.”

“Madame Potts, this is most unlike you… were the terms not to your liking?” asked the slender, more affable man of the pair.

“No, that’s not it at all, Jean-Luc, but you see, there’s about to be a birth in the family.”

“We cannot afford to wait on this deal,” proclaimed Jean-Luc’s partner, Eugene.  “This stall tactic is designed to put us at a disadvantage!”

Pepper rolled her eyes and Jean-Luc gave her a sympathetic Gallic shrug.  “Fine, then come with me, and we can sign the agreements on the plane, but I’m about to be an Aunt and I will not miss this birth!”

<^>

“DAAAAD!” Cassie Lang yelled at the top of her lungs.  She giggled as two heads appeared, her Daddy leaning out from the basement stairs where he’d been working on a project with Tio Luis, and Papa leaning over the banister of the second floor, by his and mommy’s bedroom.  “Mithus Darthy’th haffing a baby,” she announced, trying hard not to spit around her first lost tooth.

“Yeah, Peanut, we sent the presents, remember?” said Daddy.

“Nooooo,” Cassie whined, frustrated by the slowness of adults.  She held up the phone handset and pointed. “Mithus Darthy ith haffing a baby right now .”

There was a moment of still silence.

“LUIS, CALL CATHERINE!”

“I’m calling Maggie, can you get ahold of Hope?”

“What’s the big idea Scotty?”

“Darcy’s having the babies!”

“Oh Shit bro, that’s awesome!  I gotta tell everybody!”

“Tell your girlfriend, her daughter, first.”

“Good plan, Scott, good plan.”

Cassie Lang smiled.  She had a call to make too.

<^>

“Barton Farm, Laura speaking.”

“Hi.  My name ith Cathie, Mithuth Darthy ith haffing her baby.”

“Um… Cathy, how did you get this number?”

“Not Cathy, Caththie.  With etheth. And you gotta lithen to me, ‘cauth Mithuth Darthy…”

“Lila!  I think one of your friends from school is on the phone!”

“Hi!”

“Hi Lila, it’th Cathie.  Mithuth Darthy ith haffing her baby.”

“Mom, Cassie says Aunt Darcy is having a baby.”

“Yes, she’s pregnant.”  Laura Barton froze. “You mean right now ?”

Lila nodded.  Laura’s eyes went wide as she grabbed the phone.  “Thanks for telling us, Cassie, I gotta make some calls.”

“Okay!”

<^>

“NICK!” 

Fury whirled around to glare at the shouter of his name, only to see a winded Agent Coulson bend at the waist.  “Operation Second In Command is live, I repeat, Operation Second In Command is live.”

“How long ago?”

“Best intel says right after lunch.  That mission is gonna be a hotbox with all the bodies, Sir.”

“Put Agent Barnes-Murdock-Johnson or whatever she goes by on it.  And authorize the use of the petty cash fund for an appropriate mission kit.”

“Roger that, Director.”

<^>

“Hi Karen, Matt, we gotta go dude, Darcy went into labor an hour ago.  Hi Foggy, Darcy’s giving birth, can you watch Thomas?”

<^>

“Well hey there Mr. Avocado at Law…”

“No time, Claire, Darcy’s giving birth.”

“I’ll call Jessica, can you get the Ranskahovs?”

“On it.”

<^>

“I just don’t know why all the incantations alliterate, is all I’m saying.  It’s written in a dead language, there’s no way it translates exactly into such neat,” Stephen Strange looked up from his conversation with Mordo at the puffing librarian in the study doorway.  “Wong?”

“There is a great disturbance in the fabric of space and time, an omen of great portent.”

“I didn’t see anything,” Mordo said.

“Darcy Lewis is giving birth,” Wong clarified.

Both sorcerers blanched.

<^>

“No you cannot put me on hold,” Kaydee snapped at the scrying circle hard enough Luke had to adjust the runes.  “I need to talk to Odin, NOW.”

“You cannot just demand the All-Father’s time-”

“His daughter is birthing her children as you waste my time, do you want to explain that to him?”

“I’ll put you right through.”

Chapter Text

Darcy screamed again.  She was covered in sweat, despite a quick hosing off in the medbay shower between contractions sometime shortly before sunset.  It was now late enough that Tony had gone through distributing tablets to any waiting adults who needed to video chat with their children at home.  Darcy had given up looking at clocks shortly after she realized she’d spent eight hours in labor that wasn’t even ‘active’, according to Dr. Cho. Each contraction felt worse, and each gap between them got shorter and less restful.  There was a ripping sensation and wetness flooded down her legs.

“HOLY CRAP DID I JUST PEE?” she shouted, unable to change her volume to anything less than maximum.

“No, that would be your water breaking,” Dr. Cho said, checking under the blanket.  “You’re ready, Darcy, push!”

Darcy pushed.

It was arduous, painful, and hard to remember beyond a vague sense of ‘I cannot do this, and will literally die’.  She wept for her mother, and put a dent in Bucky’s titanium alloy hand. Then, she was panting like a dog in the summer, and Helen was handing a bundle to Steve, who looked panicked.

“Baby number one is a son,” Helen said.  “Born at 11:38 pm, Wednesday, January 13th, 2016.”

“He looks like you, Buck,” Steve whispered.

Darcy screamed again, falling into the same vague place she had before.  She had a general idea she was in the Avenger’s medical bay, lying in a hospital bed that cost more than Jane’s van, pushing out a baby.  On another level, though, she seemed to be floating on some sort of fluid, although not water. The sky above her was red and flecked with bruised looking purple clouds.  There was someone with her, someone around her and inside her, soothing her worries and singing a song that sounded familiar and strange. A woman’s hand caressed her face.

“I do not think this is one of mine, My Lady,” said a cold voice.  There was a pause as though someone answered, but Darcy couldn’t hear it.  “Of course. We have much to put right, and little Time.”

Cold lips brushed her forehead.

“Go back, my Little Sister, my young Aunt, you have far to go still.  When the time comes… know that I did it to break the cycle, to save Asgard… you will understand.”

Darcy coughed.  Bucky had two bundles in his arms and a worried look on his face.  His eyes were red and his mouth drawn into a somber line.

“You look like a puppy at the pound.  Seriously, I leave you alone for a minute…” she sighed, then blinked, and looked down at the identical bundle laid on her chest.  “Wait… why are there three of them?”

“That is a long story, with lots of words I don’t know, Dollface,” Bucky said.  “But what I do know is we lost you for forty two seconds and I haven’t blinked since we got your heart back.”

“Forty two seconds isn’t dead, forty two seconds is barely a blip on the radar.  Steve was legally dead for seventy years,” Darcy said. “And I need to know where the extra baby came from.  Shouldn’t we have seen that? At some point?”

“The girls were close,” Dr. Cho said, coming in with Steve who looked only moderately less on the verge of tears than Bucky.  “As in, they were in the same amniotic sac, and I was so busy keeping you alive I’m not sure which one was born first. Their heartbeats were registering as one, and we were having such a hard time getting clear images because the two of them were laying on top of each other.”

Steve kissed Darcy’s head.  “Welcome back, Angel. I knew Death couldn’t keep you forever.”

Darcy laughed, then sat up, clutching the tiny, dark haired infant in her arms close.  “I met… I… I need to talk to Frigga, or Odin.”

“You need to rest,” Bucky said with a catch in his voice.  “And we need to name the little ones. There’s an extra here we didn’t account for.”

“Well, we picked out two girl names and two boy names, just in case, right?” Darcy said, looking at the minuscule blondes sleeping on Bucky.  “So the girls are Sarah Elizabeth and Winifred Rose. We all like those still, yeah?”

Steve nodded.  “Ma would be so proud to have a namesake, and prouder to share her with someone like Liz.”

“And my Ma would just be happy I settled down enough to have a child,” Bucky said.  “I hope we’re not being unfair, saddling her with an old fashioned name.”

“We’ll start her on Buffy and Angel as soon as she’s old enough, Fred was a great character,” Darcy said firmly.  “And middle names can always be adopted as first names if they want. Now, for this little man…”

She pulled the blanket away from his chin and got a good look at him.  Full, pouty lips twisted into the beginnings of a cry as he opened up dazzling blue eyes.  “Oh, he’s your son, Bucky. Look at him.”

Steve leaned in and lifted him as she moved her shirt to allow a breast free for nursing.  “Yeah, he’s gonna break hearts with that face,” Steve said.

“You sure he’s not yours then?” Bucky joked.  Then, he sobered, looking at his son. “Joseph.  His name is Joseph Philip Barnes.”

<^>

Harley and Zoe weren’t the first to see the babies, there were several adults in the line before them, obviously all three parents and Dr. Cho, but also Jane and Pepper, the godmothers, and Tony and Phil, the godfathers.  Regardless, they were the first kids to be called back into the room where Darcy was resting.

“They’re tiny,” Harley said without thinking.  “Really tiny, smaller than most babies?”

“There were three of them,” Darcy said dryly.  “They didn’t have as much room. But they’ve all got good health, thank any applicable deities.  No repeats of young Steve.”

“That’s a relief,” Steve said, shifting a bottle so the blonde in his arms could get a better bite.

“Are they Steve’s?” Harley asked, then slapped a hand on his mouth.  “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“It’s a fair question,” Steve said.  “It’s not like you think I’ll love them any different for being blood related.  The girls are, you can tell by the hair. Joseph is entirely Bucky.”

Bucky and the swaddled baby in question were napping in a recliner in the corner.

“How in the world?”

“Heteropaternal superfecundation,” Zoe said, leaning over Darcy’s arm to look at the girl she held.  “Really rare for most animal species. Happens in cats, dogs, and rodents a lot. We learned about reproductive mutation in biology class last week.  Basically, there were two eggs ready to be fertilized, and the second was fertilized before the implantation of the first could affect it. That, and identical twins is a vanishingly tiny possibility.”

Harley thought about that.  Given the odds that this family overcame just to exist, it seemed… right.  Like when code started to work correctly and everything flowed, or the moment a hydraulic system finally balanced.  “Hear that?” he asked the baby in Steve’s arms. “You’re a vanishingly tiny possibility, yes you are.”

“We’re chalking it up to the serum,” Steve said, as the bottle emptied and came free with a popping sound.  The baby blew bubbles of milky spit and Harley grabbed a cloth nearby to dab at her face. “The Asgardian healers said there might be anomalies in the next generation, but not hazardous ones.  Everyone is happy and healthy.”

The baby in his arms wailed and her sister started to hiccup.

“Sort of,” Steve sighed.  “C’mon, kids, you’re going to learn to change a diaper.”

“Ew,” said Zoe in a flat tone.

“I already know how, it was in the babysitter’s first aid course,” Harley said.  “I’ll get a bag for the dead diaper.”

“It was a worthy effort,” Darcy said to Steve, who wrinkled his nose.  “You’re still gonna be changing them until Bucky wakes up. I’m on bed rest.”

“Ha ha,” Steve drawled.  “Okay, A mhrán, let’s get you dry.”

<^>

It was Friday.  Midtown High was holding its breath the way it always did on a Friday, waiting for the bell to ring and the week to be over.  Nobody cared about anything but managing to make it the last hour of the day.

Except Peter Parker, who had a head full of questions and no answers.

He tried to sort them, organize the tangled mass of question marks into lists, because that seemed maybe better than leaving them knotted up under his ribs.  He didn’t write the lists down, because of course not, he was trying to keep a secret identity here. Instead, he repeated the lists mentally, memorizing them for safe transfer to computer later.

One.  Harley the New Kid knew he was Spiderman.  How? Did anyone else know?

Two.  Harley the New Kid must want something.  If he didn’t want anything there was no need to tell Peter what he knew, and therefore he had to want something.  What was it?

Three.  Where had Harley the New Kid gone?

That last one worried him the most.  He hadn’t seen or heard anything reliable about the other boy’s whereabouts since lunch on Wednesday.  After a humiliating lecture on sexual harassment from Principal Morita, he’d headed back to a classroom missing one student, the student he’d been scared to see.  Somehow, not seeing him had been worse.

Then, Thursday, nothing.  Michelle glared daggers at him in Gym, but aside from that, nothing.  Ned assured him nobody except Flash was saying Peter was gay and that was in no way new, but asking too many questions would add weight to Flash’s bullying.  There were at least five rumors about the incident, but they weren’t plausible. One person swore Harley had been abducted by the Winter Soldier and that just made no sense whatsoever.

Now, it was Friday.  Normally Peter would be thrilled, thinking of plans to do something with Ned, or to spend some more time patrolling around looking for some way to help out, or even getting ready to spend a day swapping chores at the dojo for lessons.  Instead, he was miserable, and it was starting to show.

“Are you really okay?” Ned asked, for the fourth time.

“Yeah, I’m fine, just got a weird feeling is all.  I’ll go home and take a nap, should take the edge off.”  Peter shrugged and flinched down in time to let the bouncy ball Flash had flicked at him go sailing over his shoulder and into the coffee cup on Mrs. Rodeo’s desk.  He shared a smirk with Ned as the bully was hauled up out of class and sent to the principal. One good thing came of it, though, the lesson was paused just long enough for the bell to ring.

Peter said goodbye to Ned and started his trek home, choosing to cut through the alley behind the bodega May liked to change into his uniform.  Secrecy had been his main concern when designing it. All the parts were made of mass manufactured goods, impossible to track, designed to give him maximum skin coverage.  The hoodie and sweatpants could go on over his regular clothes without removing them, which meant he wasn’t standing naked in an alley in Corona, and the whole process took about two minutes.  Then he was able to crawl up the wall, stash his bag with webbing to the underside of a Juliette balcony, and take off towards Queens Boulevard, headed towards Manhattan. Most of his route was footwork, parkour and climbing, he didn’t start needing to use the webs until he hit the bridge.  Then he tended to turn around and work his way north, cutting along Astoria towards the Hall of Science, where he’d find a food truck, get something to eat, and maybe carry the hoodie while he walked around the museum as Peter Parker. Then it was back to Corona to grab his bag, and turning back into a normal kid in time for May to get off her shift and see him at home doing homework.

The routine felt good.  He stopped accidents, he dumped a few criminals on their butts, he cracked jokes and made people smile.  It was fulfilling in a way very little had been for a long time. It helped to soothe the ache left when Ben had died, doing what he always did, helping.  For a long time, Peter had felt resentful of that, of losing his Uncle for the sake of strangers. He’d hated that part of himself, the petty, awful part that would trade the people his Uncle saved for just one more day, one more ball game or trip into Manhattan.  He’d hated it until he made peace with it, and once he had, he’d discovered the truth of why Ben Parker was the way he was.

Doing the right thing felt fucking awesome.

Peter was so gone on the rush of helping, he managed to forget the gut churning fear he’d felt earlier.  He managed to lose the knot of tension at his back, like a warning of an incoming missile. His body relaxed as his mind did, and by the time he finished doing backflips along a roof for the kid in the window across the street, everything was good again.  He was even smiling as he shoved the mask and hoodie into his bag and dropped to the ground of the alley.

He was smiling when the car pulled up and the window rolled down to show a very familiar face.

“Mr. Stark?  What are you doing in Queens?”

“You’re too young for me to make the joke I want to make right now,” sighed the billionaire.  “And you have no idea how much this pains me because it is brilliant.”

“Sorry, Mr. Stark,” Peter said on reflex.  Tony Stark flinched, a small, easily hidden thing camouflaged behind removing the fancy sunglasses he was wearing, despite the overcast weather and the tinted windows of the car.  Peter caught it, though, his reflexes were too good not to.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll tell it to a grown up later.  Look, I wanted to make sure that, aside from everything else, you knew we didn’t pull Harley out of Midtown Sci-Tech because of you.  It wasn’t a good fit, that’s why he didn’t go there when we first adopted him. The timing is unfortunate, but it didn’t have to do with your little stunt.  If anything, that impressed the shit out of him, and me. I’ve gotten the report from three people now, and I’m pretty sure you’re an okay kid.”

“I’m sorry, you pulled Harley out of school?”

“Well, yes, you did notice he wasn’t in any of his classes, yes?  My kid is many things but an academic slacker isn’t one. Right now he’s either helping feed the tiny terrors or he’s doing homework for a class he isn’t even in this semester.”

“His last name wasn’t Stark,” Peter said, feeling his body go vague.  The alarms that warned him of danger were oddly muted, and the flow of blood through his ears was strangely loud.

“He’s still my kid,” Stark growled.  “I found him myself and I… are you okay?”

“I don’t feel so good…”

As Peter faded out, he had one single remaining thought, and that was that he could never, ever repeat what Tony Stark was saying in front of May.  

Chapter Text

Tony was not exactly good in a crisis.  Sure, he was great if you needed revolutionary tech invented out of scraps and caffeine-fueled delirium, and he did okay in a fight, but in an actual crisis ?  Like, a kid passing out in front of him, when he needed to be the functional adult?  Yeah, he wasn’t the one who should be driving that bus.

Which made the fact he was driving somewhat ironic.

He’d switched places with Happy the second they’d gotten the kid laid out on the limo’s seat, because Happy actually had like training in this stuff.  At least in the what to do when people pass out department.  Before he was Tony’s bodyguard and driver, he’d been a boxing coach and a boxer.  People passed out wasn’t new to him. It wasn’t new to Tony either, but because of the person specifically passed out, Tony somehow doubted this was a situation where Narcan was the answer.

“Where do I go, Happy?” Tony asked.  “His place or the Tower?”

Happy looked up from where he’d been checking the kid’s pulse.  “Tower, he needs to see Helen as soon as possible, I’m not sure if sustaining a heart rate this high is safe.”

Tony nodded and focused on the road, zipping along streets and running a few red lights.  There were traffic cameras, he’d pay the fines later, with extra because the city could always use the money.  He called out to Jarvis to open the gate a block away from the Tower’s private entrance. He pulled in without slowing more than was needed to not bounce Happy and Parker off the walls, and didn’t stop until the entire car was in the freight elevator.

“Medical floor, please Jarvis, and have Helen meet us there.”

The elevator took them up, car and all, and Tony helped Happy lift the teen onto the waiting gurney.  He’d woken up enough to be muttering and blinking occasionally, but he didn’t seem responsive.

“Tony?  What’s happening?” Darcy asked, stepping out of her recovery room.  Due to the surprise third baby, Helen wanted her somewhere with fewer privacy protocols and more medically inclined monitor algorithms.  That said, Tony was impressed she could walk at all two days after giving birth. Helen had said something about blood contamination and the babies and super soldier serums, but Tony was just happy she seemed okay.

“I went to tell Parker we’d pulled Harley out of school, but not because of him.  Harley made contact right before you popped, and nobody else followed up on it, I figured he must be waiting for the other shoe.”  Tony ran a hand through his hair and grimaced at the mix of sweat and hair pomade. Wiping it on his shirt, he sighed. “As per usual, I fucked it up though, because he passed out.  Happy said he needed medical care, so, here we are.”

“Did you drug him?” Darcy asked.  Her face was neutral, her tone not the least accusatory, but Tony still gave her a glare.  “What? If you did I’ll assume you had a reason, but if you didn’t, this isn’t your fault. You got him to the best medical care in the entire city, and you were actually paying attention to the mission, unlike the rest of us.  You did good, Tony.”

“How are you this good to me, Lewis?” Tony asked with a grateful sigh.

“You’re family, and I need a spare set of hands,” she deadpanned.  “We need someone to hold Sarah while Winifred is getting cleaned up.  They hate being separated any more than a minute, but Sarah puked on her sister and brother, and they’re too young to wash in a tub.  Steve’s standing in the shower to give them a gentle rinse.”

“Three kids, three parents, I don’t see the problem,” Tony said, following her into the room.  Bucky was sitting on the bed, his arm off and laid on a towel on the floor, his other holding a tiny naked baby slicked with clear slime and coming off a screaming jag by the looks of the red face.

“It got between the panels,” Bucky said, a look on his face Tony couldn’t place, but which seemed familiar.  “I’ll need it cleaned before I can let it handle the kids again. Fine motor control is the highest priority next model, Tony.  And protection from pinching things in the joints.”

Tony accepted the cleanest looking baby with a mute nod, his brain already patching together what happened.  Baby fluids got in the arm. The arm didn’t work right. The fine motor controls didn’t respond correctly, or the panels pinched.  The baby who’d been screaming got hurt.

Unacceptable.

“Yeah, I have some ideas, I’ll have Jarvis throw them in the fabricator and get going on the refinement.”

<^>

Peter woke with a fuzzy feeling, like the lightest wool blanket in existence draped over his entire body, head to feet.  He made a sound that couldn’t have been words, but someone squirted water in his mouth anyway, answering his request. He blinked sticky eyes and looked at the people near him.  A large bodied, square-faced man with curly hair, and a petite Asian woman in a lab coat. The man had a water bottle like boxers used, the source of relief for Peter’s throat. The woman was reading from papers on a clipboard.

“Welcome back, Peter,” the lady said.  “I’m Doctor Cho, and this is Mister Hogan.”

“Call me Happy,” he instructed.  Dr. Cho continued as though he hadn’t spoken.

“Mister Stark and Mister Hogan brought you here for treatment when you passed out.  Can you tell me your full name, and today’s date?”

“Peter Benjamin Parker.  Um, it’s January 15th? Friday… oh crap, uh, carp, um….  My aunt will be worried.”

Worried was an understatement.  May might have martialed the National Guard when she got home and didn’t see him, and if Peter missed dinner, he’d be grounded for a month.

“We’ll call her and send a car if you give permission,” said Dr. Cho.  “But Peter, when we were trying to figure out why you collapsed, we found some… unusual details.  I need specific permission or denial of permission regarding the release of information involving your medical details.”

“If you want me to leave, I can,” Happy offered.  “But I was the one who told the Doc she needed to check for it.  I’ve only seen two people crash out like that, and both of them have enhanced metabolisms to support their super powers.”

“What do you mean?” Peter looked from face to face, trying to figure out what the adults weren’t saying.

“Peter, you were on the brink of starvation, or at the very least, chronic malnutrition,” Dr. Cho said, her voice soft and kind.  “Considering that when we debriefed Harley after bringing him home he said you were eating normally and didn’t seem to show signs of home abuse, the next step was to run genome panels looking for mutation or enhancement.”

Peter blanched.  It was a good word, blanched.  It meant to go white, but it could also describe putting vegetables in hot water.  He knew from the way she paused, he was in hot water.

“I can explain.”

He couldn’t really, because he didn’t fully understand it himself.  There’d been a school field trip, a spider bite, some weird dreams, and then he’d had reflexes and strength like he’d never had before.  Nothing about that made sense, but there wasn’t a cocoon husk like if he went through Terrigenesis, and mutant powers grew in, they didn’t come from bug bites.

“You don’t need to,” said a new voice, a familiar one.  Peter looked up at Harley and simultaneously wished to sink into the earth to avoid him and run to him for protection.  He settled on an awkward wave. Harley nodded at him, but showed no sign of being flustered by the nearness of a crush. Of course, since that was all just a lie to get close to Peter, that made sense.  “Seriously, nobody here cares that you have powers. It’s weird, but ya get used to it. Hey Helen, I got the MRI working again, anything else you need me to have a word with?”

“Thank you Harley, but no.  I’m trying to have a private patient conversation and while I know your family doesn’t mind everyone else who lives here knowing their situation, some people do.”

“Can I at least call his aunt and let her know he wasn’t knifed in an alley or whatever?”

“Yeah, if she doesn’t find out where I am soon, May is gonna kill me,” Peter moaned.  Suddenly everyone went very still and the air smelled like danger. The shiver on his back sat up at attention and Peter braced to run.  “What?”

Harley blew a breath out first, and as he relaxed, the adults did too.  “Sorry, we actually have people in the family who were almost murdered by relatives, can you clarify if that was literal or figurative?”

“Figurative, what in the fu--dge would make you think May would lay a hand on me?”

“Nobody would’ve thought That Nice Missus Keener would hurt me ‘n Zoe,” Harley said in a dead voice that dripped with the Southern accent that had only been a tint before.  “I had to ask, because any time the answer is ‘literal’, someone needs to step up, the way Darcy and Tony and Clint and Tasha stepped up for us.”

“That’s not your job, and I’m trying to do mine, Harley,” said Dr. Cho.  “Go call Peter’s aunt while I go over this with him.”

Harley nodded and shot Peter finger guns.  Peter smiled and decided he would probably never understand that kid.

<^>

May tried not to be a helicopter parent.  It was hard, after losing Ben, not to be terrified of anything that might take Peter too.  She gave him plenty of time to himself, plenty of privacy, and only did background checks on the parents of his friends when he was spending the night.

So maybe she wasn’t succeeding at not being a helicopter parent, but she still expected him home for dinner.  Or to at least call her if he was going over to Ned’s place.

She did not expect to be shaken free from a panic attack looking at his still-made bed by a call from a blocked number being answered by her phone.  As in, without her pressing the ‘Accept Call’ button.

“Hello?”

“Um….”

“Is this Peter Parker’s house?”

“This is his Aunt May?”  She blinked. It was a cell phone, they didn’t have a landline, it was too expensive when they could just get a cheap family plan and call it a day.  “Are you one of his friends?”

“Yeah, I am.  I’m glad I got through to you.”  The boy on the other end sounded happy, at least, so this wasn’t likely a kidnapper’s ransom message.  “Can you come to Avengers Tower? Peter passed out and my Dad kinda panicked and now he’s in Medical with Dr. Cho.”

“Peter.  Passed. Out?” May asked, aware her voice had gone soft and scary, but unable to stop it.  Her child was in danger and she was in no mood.

“Dr. Cho says he’ll be fine,” the kid assured, his voice calm even when hers wasn’t.  Something was off about a child comforting her, but May accepted small blessings where she found them.  “It was basically a blood sugar crash and mild dehydration, combined with meeting Dad, which can be… overwhelming?  She didn’t even use the traditional saline IV, which means he wasn’t that badly dehydrated.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there,” May said, firming her core and pushing forward through the panic that was subsiding.

“Do you want me to send a car?” asked the kid.  “No offence, but you sound kinda rough…”

“I’ll be fine.  You said he’s at… Avengers Tower?”  May paused, parsing this finally. “What’s your name?”

“Oh, I’m Harley Keener, I’m Tony Stark’s son.  Y’know, the one in the papers after Ultron?  The unnamed one who hacked, I mean, creatively protected the nuke codes?”

Well.  

Shit.  

What had Peter gotten into this time?

Chapter Text

Jarvis was the first of them to meet May Parker.  This was on purpose, of course, Jarvis was the first of the family to meet anyone who came to their home, and the one who turned away the threats.  He was the firewall, the protector of the domain within his building-body, and with three notable exceptions, he had never failed his duty. Of the three, Stane and Ultron were no longer capable of causing destruction, and Nick Fury was at the least, surveilled enough to warrant his own paranoia.  Jarvis was accustomed to assessing threat level.

May Parker was different.

Physically, she was no threat.  Average metrics across the board for a human female in her 60’s.  Elevated heart rate and respiration as she raced across the SI foyer to ask the receptionist where Medical was.

“I’m sorry, do you want me to call you an ambulance?” asked the receptionist, Ms. Landry, balancing her hand over the emergency call button.  She’d been told, as all SI receptionists were, that there were distance sensors that would summon someone from Operations Management before pressing the button, which would summon police.

“It’s alright, Ms. Landry, Mrs. Parker is expected,” Jarvis said from the desk speaker.  “Please direct her to the Blue elevator bank, I’ll take it from there.”

“Of course, Mr. Jarvis,” she said.  Her tone registered as gratitude and Jarvis put a note in his file on her that she was a good follower, a somewhat underappreciated skill.  Leadership was all well and good, of course, but someone needed to be able to let another person drive them, and Ms. Landry had shown that willingness to ask for guidance.  Many receptionists never used the hover feature, and had to be moved away from public facing positions as a result.

May Parker had made it to the Blue elevators by the time Jarvis finished assembling a packet for Ms. Landry’s yearly performance review, a feat, since that meant covering almost twenty meters in two seconds, effectively breaking the ten second barrier.  That did not track with the metrics he took upon her entrance. He opened the door and prepared to analyse her.

May stepped in, waited for the doors to close, and dropped to her knees.

“Please, God, I just cannot lose him like I lost Ben.  I can’t, and I know that I am weak, but please, don’t take Peter before you take me.”

“You’ll want to stand up, now.”

“God?”

“No Madame.  I’m Jarvis, but it’s an understandable mistake.  I was going to set elevator speeds to maximum allowable by law, because Medical is on the top floors and you seemed to be in distress about young Master Parker.  That’s going to be very hard on your body if you remain kneeling.” Jarvis processed the expression on her face, aware he had somehow upset her core programming, but unsure how to remedy the situation.  “I could always lock the elevator, if you require more private time for religious duty?”

“No, that’s fine,” May said with a laugh.  She stood shakily and held the rail, bracing her back against the corner.  “Set the speeds as high as they go, please, and we’ll keep the exact numbers between you and I, yes?  The law doesn’t need to know.”

“As you say, Madame,” Jarvis assented, and set the elevator to the speed preferred by Asgardians.  May grunted a bit under the sudden weight gain, but held up admirably. The elevator stopped, she brushed her hands on her jeans, and nodded at the doors.

Jarvis opened them, and moved May Parker’s threat assessment from None to Moderate.

<^>

Bucky hadn’t been aware of having Peter Parker in the tower, he’d been a bit too focused on Sarah depositing thin slime all over her siblings and his arm.  Joseph had been resting in the cradle offered by the metal arm, and when the slippery goo had penetrated the casing, Bucky’s hand had twitched, plates pinching at the boy’s clothes.  It had taken Steve and Darcy to undress him while Bucky did his best to remain still, so he could remove the arm and reassure his son that Papa didn’t mean to pull at his wet clothes.

Sure, he sort of registered the source of Tony’s frayed nerves, but it was less important than the joint task of fixing the arm design, which soothed both of them.

He also hadn’t really been aware of May Parker arriving, although he’d been in a room she passed to get to Peter.  Normally, that would make her completely obvious to him, but Darcy had asked him to grab an ice pack from the room’s minifridge.

According to everyone involved, the ensuing argument between Parkers was an attention getter, but Bucky was helping Steve replan the nursery layout around a third baby, and they only briefly were in the hall while it was going on, while heading downstairs to look at the room.

Now, it was night time, Darcy was asleep, the babies were asleep, Steve was asleep, and Bucky was reviewing the events of the day, wondering where his situational awareness went.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, Sergeant Barnes?”

“Did you find yourself… distracted, after Vision was born?”

“I do not process information the way humans do, Sergeant Barnes.  Distraction is uncommon, and usually the result of faulty coding that I can repair myself.  Additionally, I do not believe the situations are comparable, as Vision was not altricial and there were substantially larger threats at hand than his own survival.”

“Can you try that again, but slower?” Bucky asked, rubbing his eyes with the back of his right wrist, about the only place he was sure hadn’t gotten baby fluids on it.

“Vision was born not only knowing how to fight and kill, but specifically invested in combating one particular evil which it required all of the team’s full attention to fight.  It is less like how you find yourself now, and more like your discovery of Agent Barnes’ emotional compatibility with yourself. A grown adult you meet for the first time, and have a strong desire to support and protect, as they do you.”

“But he isn’t your brother, he’s your son.”

“Yes, we decided together that was a beneficial dynamic, as I have the one thing he lacks; experience.  I know the things he was unable to download, therefore he requires me to be his teacher, his guardian as he makes mistakes.  I can, for lack of a better term, run person code, and he needs to learn it. Humans teach their young the same tools, so taking the role of father seemed most conducive to transfer of skills.”

Bucky thought of all the terrible parenting he’d seen over his long life, and the results.  “Good choice. When nobody teaches you how to human right….”

“Given his innate talents, Vision is considerably more dangerous than, say, a cybernetically modified raccoon.”

“Or an empathic half-Celestial?”

“Or an accomplished assassin.”

“Or a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist.”

“Or three incredibly vulnerable, potentially world changing, infant inheritors of multiple legacies,” Jarvis finished.  “You were distracted because this is now your job, Bucky. You can let your family watch the outside. You need to be focused here, on them.  Which starts with getting enough rest. Go to bed. I have the watch.”

“Thank you, Jarvis,” Bucky said.  “We love you too.”

“I know.”

<^>

So, Peter wasn’t dead.  He was grounded semi-indefinitely, though.  He got a long lecture from May about hiding things, and about making sure he was actually taking care of his health.  The latter part was accompanied by going over every word of the ten thousand pages on enhanced metabolisms and general health from Dr. Cho.  Occasionally, they had to stop, and call the Tower to ask for clarification. The first time Black Widow answered the phone, he almost dropped dead of fear as she threatened him for his panicked mouth breathing.  Then Harley had grabbed the phone, and things had gotten better. Peter wasn’t sure he would forgive the spying and the lying, but Harley did seem determined to make things right, so maybe.

By the end of March, Peter felt almost normal about calling the Avengers on a Thursday afternoon.

“How’s it swinging, Spiderlet?”  Natasha, who wasn’t actually all that scary when she didn’t think he was a stalker, asked as she picked up the phone.

“It’s a parent teacher conference night, and I’m bored.”  Peter groaned and walked up his wall. “May still has me on lockdown, even though my blood sugar has been stable for two weeks, and I know I’m not gonna get away with going out web slinging.  There is literally nothing to do in the apartment.”

“Nothing?” the Russian asked curiously.

“Nothing that wouldn’t get me in trouble,” Peter clarified.  “I’m done with Monday’s homework, all my chores are done, I even washed the dishes and that’s May’s chore this week.  I’m grounded, which means no internet and no friends over, and I can only call you because there’s a loophole about the Tower.  I have the stuff to upgrade my web shooters, the package I was waiting for got here a few days ago, but that’s not going to go over well.”

Natasha hummed, said something indistinct to someone on her end, and then cleared her throat.  “I’m coming over with some supplies. You are going to learn how to bake.”

“Baking?  Really?” Peter asked skeptically.

“Baking is chemistry for hungry people,” said someone else, a male voice that was flat and awkward.  “Nat, where are my hearing aids?”

“They’re in the bathroom, you took them out to shower,” Natasha said.  “We’ll be there in twenty minutes, have your kitchen clean.”

She hung up, and Peter shrugged.  Cleaning the kitchen wasn’t the worst option.  Maybe they’d actually bake something that tasted good.

By the time Natasha arrived, towing a muscular man in a purple tee shirt carrying a mountain of canvas shopping bags, the kitchen was clean enough he would be willing to do circuitry on any of the surfaces, including the floor.  She introduced the man as Clint, and began dividing things out of the bags as he set them down.

“I assume you’ve done cookies before, most people have their first cookie baking experience before they’re ten.  Correct me if I’m wrong, of course, there’s no shame in not being average. I didn’t learn to bake until I was… hmm, 26?”

“Fig mamoul and murder salad was ‘97,” Clint said, poking in the cabinets for a mixing bowl.  Peter grabbed one from the bottom corner cabinet and received a smile for his effort. “That would make you 29.”

“Ah, but I began to learn in ‘95.”

“If you were 29 in 1997, then in 1995 your were 27,” Peter pointed out, only to receive a pouty face and an apron to the face.

“Hush, you,” she ordered with no sincerity.  “We’re making yeasted bread and fudge today. The fudge takes enough stirring you shouldn’t be bored while the bread proves.”

“So the secret to a good yeast bread is getting the yeast to work with you, breaking down the flour into long gluten-y strands of protein,” Clint picked up, putting Peter in front of a bowl of water.  “So first we have to wake the yeast up with a nice warm, but not hot, bath. Empty the whole packet in there.”

Peter looked at the square foil package of powdered yeast and decided his life couldn’t get weirder, so he might as well enjoy it.

“Breakfast time for little yeast beasts,” Clint singsonged.  Peter looked at him, and the man shrugged. “I’m used to teaching younger kids than you.  Still, we do have to feed them. One and a half tablespoons of sugar, if you please.”

Peter measured, and mixed, and measured out salt and shortening and milk, and mixed, and kept mixing as Clint sifted flour over the bowl.

“Now what?” Peter asked.

“Now, you knead it,” Natasha replied, setting out a flour covered board Peter was sure didn’t belong to his kitchen, but couldn’t have fit in the bags.  “I’ll show you. You don’t have Clint’s archer arms, it would just depress you trying to measure up at this point.”

Suddenly, it clicked for Peter where he’d seen Clint before.  It was too late to do anything, though, so he let the world’s best super spies teach him to bake bread.

Chapter Text

Even after Aunt May lifted his grounding, Peter stayed in touch with the residents of the Tower.  He sort of didn’t have a choice, considering that random Avengers tended to show up at his home with baskets of food and wholly inadequate disguises.  He’d even been goaded into following a speedster across rooftops all the way into Bed-Stuy before he realized the shit he’d be in if May found out. Fortunately, the speedster, Pietro, provided him an alibi and a large meat lover’s pizza on the roof of an apartment building that was apparently owned by Hawkeye.

Harley didn’t come back to school, but he did come by every couple of weeks with “craft kits” of Stark Tech until Peter broke down and forgave him for the fake crush.  It helped to learn that had been Harley’s very first mission ever, at least, planned mission. After hearing the story of what went down during the robot invasion, Peter was pretty glad he’d been told not to try hero-ing on an Avenger’s scale.

“You should still come use our training sims,” Harley said one evening as they finished a bowl of popcorn while watching their hand-built automatons build mazes.  “You want to hero someday, so get the training now.”

“Maybe this summer,” Peter said, delaying the choice.  He didn’t really want to go back to the Tower, it made him feel out of place and small.

“Great idea!” Harley said, clearly not giving up.  “I’ll ask some of the Xavier’s kids, and the various cousins, and we’ll organize our own Junior Heroes Summer Camp.  We can train together, as a group. Maybe get lessons from some of the grownups.”

“Maybe,” Peter said again, a little more firmly.  Harley seemed to get the message this time.

Unfortunately for Peter, the Ol Parker Luck wouldn’t let him delay long.

“Come on, Peter!  You know we are not prepared for the History final, or the English term paper, or basically anything but science and math,” Ned said plaintively.  “It’s our last chance to get time slots with the advisors at the SI Student Lounge, and the odds are better with more people going in together.”

“You really aren’t asking this so you can meet an Avenger?” Peter asked, looking at Ned’s puppydog face and wondering how his luck ran so rotten.

“Of course not, the Avengers hardly ever go down to public access floors, everyone knows that.  I want this because I know you can fake your way into a passing grade but I can’t. The only thing worse than being held back a grade is being held back a grade, while your best friend moves on.”

Peter suddenly felt like a grade A jerk for questioning Ned, and that’s how they ended up walking into Stark Industries’ Student Lounge after school.

“Hey, Peter!” Harley shouted, or rather, projected.  It wasn’t his loudest voice, but it did carry. “You made it!  I was beginning to think you didn’t like me.”

Ned looked between them, and Peter fought down an urge to explain.  Explaining would not make this better.

“Ned and I came for tutoring,” Peter said, shrugging with his backpack.  “History test.”

“Gotcha,” Harley said, infectious grin in place.  He may have been adopted, but he certainly looked like Tony.  The real Tony, who stopped by sometimes on a Tuesday with half a cart’s worth of tamales, a tub of Jaritos, horchata, and Tamarind lemonade, and multiple gallons of salsa, to flirt with Aunt May and slip Peter extras.  “Charlene is doing history today, she’s good. I’m helping with the cousins, since the tutors tend to get jammed during finals season. Stop by after, just remember to knock.”

As he moved away, Ned jabbed an elbow at Peter.

“I told you I was gay crush material, Ned,” Peter said evenly, hoping he finally got the trick of passionless factuality Natasha had tried to teach him.

After Charlene, who was a good teacher, had finished helping them prioritize their study materials and remake their flash cards, Ned insisted they stop by like Harley had asked.  Peter just wanted to go home, he felt the anxious knot building at the back of his neck and he wasn’t sure if it was an omen, or just anxiety. Still, Harley had asked, and Ned seemed to want to know Peter’s other friends, so…

“Hey Harley, do you have room for one-”  Peter gaped at the scene.

“First rule of Elementary School Fight Club,” Ned said, “Is you don’t talk about Elementary School Fight Club.”

“I am not in Elementary School,” insisted the girl, who flicked her grey hood up a moment too late to hide scarred eyes.  The boy who had been thrown to the ground as they entered bounced upright and bowed to her. “I’m taking sixth grade science, and that’s my worst one.”

“Lav, you’re nine.  Most nine year olds aren’t in Middle School yet,” Harley said patiently.  “I thought I asked you to knock first, Peter.”

“You did!  Sorry. I forgot.”  Peter looked at the faces in the room, varying ages, but uniform in intensity and wariness.  “Headache. You know.”

A slim blonde girl their age detached from the side of a tall black boy to come lay a cool hand on his forehead.  “Do you need me to get Dr. Cho?” she asked.

“No!  No, thank you,” Peter scrambled for a reason he could give Ned to explain all this.  Thankfully, Harley had his back.

“Tandy, personal space,” he said quietly, and she mumbled an apology and drifted back to her friend.  “Ned, Peter, the miniature Boudiccia is my Cousin Lava, her sparring partner is Cousin Thomas, Tandy is studying to be a combat medic, and Tyrone is planning to be her transport specialist.  Guys, this is Peter Parker, and his friend Ned Leeds.”

“Konnichi-wa, Kumo-san,” said Thomas, bowing to them.  “Welcome, Cousins.”

“Oh we’re not…” Ned started, but Lava shook her head.

“You are.  You just haven’t been informed yet.  I can hear it, too. You sound like Family.”

Peter shared a glance at Ned.  He didn’t know what was happening, but he had the feeling he couldn’t change it now.

<^>

The annual Memorial Day barbecue was going off as well as anyone had a right to expect, Steve figured.  Since Hulk and Bruce were off world, they’d made the choice they thought Hulk would want, and turned his nap bunker into a party room for those who couldn’t handle fireworks.  Bucky had taken five boxes of special fort-building pillows with Velcro tabs for connecting in there, along with a five gallon bucket of small stuffed animals and an assortment of books, and was prepared to host either an introvert party or a stuffie snowball fight.  The grill on the balcony was being manned by Tony, who was showing Vision and Harley how to use a meat thermometer to ensure proper done-ness on burgers. Clint had stationed himself by the drink table, dishing out a fresh scoop of handmade raspberry sorbet into each cup before pouring sparkling lemonade in.  Natasha and her sisters were playing dealers to four separate card games, populated by SHIELD agents, Bratva, and a smattering of scientists the Cat Herders had shooed upstairs for sunlight and human interaction. Friday was entertaining the older kids with a scavenger hunt, assisted by Pietro and Wanda. Scott, Luis, and Sam were prepping some sort of live action role playing game in the Asym Gym.

That just left his three.  

Sarah had gotten to the stranger anxiety part of childhood, crying whenever anyone she didn’t see daily tried to talk to her or her siblings.  Sure, that was a bigger list of safe people than most kids would have at her age, considering how the Avengers lived in each other’s pockets, but it made guests stressful for her.  Her siblings loved new people, and that made her upset too, when Winnie demanded to be picked up by any person passing within a few feet.  Joseph was cutting his first teeth, which made him cranky, but his curiosity generally outweighed his gums if he was being carried.

Steve had Joseph at the moment, in one of the baby slings from Scott.  Steve had to figure some of Bucky’s luck with women was genetic, since every few minutes, some woman of the family would show up with a toy, a teething ring, or the banana and milk ice cubes they’d made for him.  The boy was undeniably magnetic, and Steve had started to feel like a spare set of legs for the little flirt. Darcy was trying to settle Sarah in her sling, arranged differently so she could hide her face from outsiders, while Winnie kept pawing the air in requests for ‘up’.  Normally, her steed of choice was Bucky, but they’d agreed that quiet room and baby were probably incompatible, and Bucky wasn’t feeling up to fireworks.

“Jarvis, can you give her some holograms to play with?” Darcy asked, looking at the new arrivals.  “Ciara! Can you help me with this? I’m still getting the hang of the upright pattern.”

“Sure.  Boys, come say hello to the little ones.”

“This is Joseph,” Steve said, “Darcy is holding Sarah, and on the playmat is Winifred.  We’re calling her Winnie sometimes, too, if that’s easier to say. Sarah and Winnie are twins, like you two.”

Caddell worked his mouth like he was trying to find a word, and sat next to Winnie, who reached out to grab at him, before toppling.  Fortunately, the boy caught her, and the frustrated whimper didn’t evolve into a full out wail.

“She’s so tiny… and perfect ,” the boy breathed.  Winnie babbled happily at him.  Steve felt something constrict and loosen at the same time, above his heart.

“So it looks like we’re not going to call them cousins,” Darcy remarked to Ciara.  “Cause it looks like that’ll become real awkward when they hit puberty.”

“We don’t know if it'll become romantic,” Steve said, trying to keep the sanity level even while his wife heart-eyed at the baby in the arms of the child.  “They’re just kids, it might not be anything.”

Ciara leveled an ‘are you kidding me’ look.  “That’s true… but also I know my sons. He’s wrapped around her little finger now, and it’s going to be awkward for him to explain a queerplatonic devotion to a cousin.”

“You know how Matt and Skye feel when people bring up the oddness of siblings co-parenting,” Darcy added.  “It’s just easier if we decide now not to make it weird then.”

Ciara smiled fondly at Caddell for a minute before realizing Colin was… quiet. Turning quickly, she found him staring at the babies with a very serious expression. “Colin?”

“They need weapons…”

“Easy there Mini-Rocket,” Steve said.  “They can’t stand up yet, let alone use weapons.”

Colin thought a moment before nodding firmly. “Then we’ll just have to pr’tec’ them till they can pr’tec’ themselves.”

“I’m reasonably sure they have enough protectors,” Steve said, turning to take the frozen chewy toy from Betty so Joseph could bite it and also pat her face lovingly with his slightly sticky hands.

“May I carry Angelcakes around so she can see things?” Caddell asked, deftly switching the adult’s attention from Colin’s rather too serious murderface and guardian stance.

“Angelcakes?”

“Because she is perfect like an angel and sweet like cake,” he explained, in utter seriousness.  “I wanna help her see everything. She can’t get her feet to carry her, so I’ll carry her instead.”

Darcy gave Steve a Look.

“Okay, you were right, not calling them cousins.”

<^>

The end of the school year marked the return of Zoe and Sandra to the Tower, and the addition of Ned Leeds to the roster of kids who appeared in the Avenger’s common room with little to no warning.  Bucky discovered this as he staggered through looking for the high octane coffee Tony kept the common kitchen stocked with. Teething had finally hit all three babies and there was almost no period of time in a day when someone wasn’t crying.

Ned, the chubby cheeked teen who’d been on the last clearance notification from Jarvis, looked like he was about to pass out.

“Coffee,” Bucky said, by way of explanation.

“Uh huh,” Ned said faintly.  

That was the end of the conversation as far as Bucky was concerned, so he left and brewed his coffee, flinching away from the whining scream of pressurized steam with a curse.  The carafe tipped off the counter and he hit the floor diving beneath the glass before it could break. With a sigh and a clack of metal hand on tile, he stood up and finally got his coffee.

He returned triumphant to the apartment with an extra large thermos and half of a chocolate cake stolen from the fridge.  His loves greeted this with the appropriate amount of tired kissing and hugs-to-reach-cake. Then, he curled up in the bed around Joseph, who was currently the most willing to sleep through the irritation of teeth coming in.

The next day, Tony caught him in the hall with another thermos of coffee.

“Um, so I need a favor.  If I arrange babysitting for a whole day, can you get non-muderfacey and make nice with Mr. and Mrs. Leeds?  Ned thinks he overheard a hit go down in our kitchen.”

Chapter Text

This year, Steve got to plan his own birthday.  He’d made a few calls, explained what he wanted to Natasha, who had designated herself their assistant for organizing anything non-baby related, and then just focused on having everyone as in the dark as possible before the big day.

Tony hated being kept out of it, Darcy treated it as a challenge to her spy skills, and Clint just hovered around their inevitable chaos with what seemed never ending bowls of popcorn.

Eventually, July 3rd rolled around, and Steve left his present to Darcy on the message board.  An envelope with clues that would lead her to the party. Tony had his delivered exactly at midnight by electronic dead drop.  Betty had gotten hers a week ago with a post it instructing her when to open it. All their other friends and family had received them the same way, delivered by the skillful hands of Natasha.

He waited for them at the end of the path, with a barbecue grill and a large picnic spread.

“Oh you little stinker!” Darcy shouted as she crossed the meadow.  “A scavenger hunt? With riddles in rhyming couplets? Do you get any cheesier?”

“You know you loved it,” he said, grinning at her.  “You love solving mysteries and puzzles.”

“What was Bucky’s path?  He didn’t show his clues to me, and we didn’t overlap.”

“Math puzzles and a lesson at a retro dance hall that specializes in dances from the War and immediately after.”

“Tony?”

“Hacker convention with Skye and Jarvis.  Betty got a botanical garden tour and meditation session.  Clint had a silks lesson, Jane got to give a lecture at a planetarium, and Pepper is at a paint and fire ceramics place.”

“So fun things…” Darcy looked at him.  “It’s your birthday, why give us wonderful experiences and spend your day cooking up a spread?”

“My birthday gift to myself was seeing all of you be so happy.”  Steve set his tablet on the picnic table and pressed play, revealing a photo of Tony and Skye chattering away over locks and a selection of picks with a group of hoodie-clad teens.  “There are cameras and paid informants at each location, grabbing shots to put in an album.”

“You paid paparazzi to follow our family.”

“Well, I paid Harley, Vision, and Forge to rig the hidden cameras, and Zoe, Sandra, Tandy and Tyrone to follow where the cameras wouldn’t be an option.  I did tell them to keep out of things like changing rooms, and to fess up immediately if caught rather than running.” Steve thought of one more thing that might make a difference.  “I put Natasha in charge of them.”

“Oh, well if Natasha was in charge that’s different.  I assume she also has footage of them following us and trying to be sneaky?”

“Of course,” he said and swiped to a short video of Tandy barrel rolling to Tyrone to avoid being seen by Phil as he rounded a shelf in an antique bookstore.

“You got most of the others a lesson or a tour or something,” Darcy said, shooting him a look that was veiled in vague curiosity.  “But I had an entirely handmade path through public access areas.”

“Your path was also the shortest, because I knew you’d want to share this,” Steve said, pushing the tablet towards her.  “Happy Independence Day, Angel.”

“Happy Birthday, Steve.”

<^>

“I’m not going,” Darcy said.  “High school sucked, I was hormonal and edgy and never fit in, why would I go back?  Reunions are for people who peaked on Cheer Squad and the Football Team.”

Bucky looked at her invitation, which she’d thrown at, but not in, the trash before making her pronouncement.  “It is sort of impressive they managed to find your mailing address, though. I would have thought this would go to the PR floor with fan mail.”

Steve leaned over his shoulder and pointed to the writing on the envelope.  “I know this handwriting. It was on your shared notes from a few classes. Jennifer?  Or Tiffany.”

“That was Jenny, Tiffany didn’t add to the notes, she just organized them,” Darcy said absently as she switched off the breast pump.  They’d had to start bottling and freezing the nutritional gold that was breast milk because the babies always got hungry at the same time, and so it was helpful to have all three parents equipped to feed them.  “I’m surprised Jenny wants in on something like reunion planning. She was hardly the social climber you expect to do that sort of thing.”

“How long has it been since you talked to her?” Bucky asked.  “People change.”

“Umm, before the War?” Darcy said.  He watched her face chase tiny expressions under her mask of calm.  “I spent a year out of contact with anyone, basically, that can really kill a relationship.  Also, she went to a college in Kansas, I went to Culver in Virginia, there wasn’t time to spend together.”

“Darcy, you look like you’re about to cry.  What’s wrong?” Steve asked.

“Nothing, I just… I guess I hadn’t thought about what our life cost me.  Not that I’d change it for the world, I love you, and our kids, and our family here.  But I haven’t spoken to Jenny since Undergrad, not really. I haven’t seen Tiffany or Becks or Jan since we graduated.  I used to have friends I thought would be there forever, and now they aren’t, because they’re civilians and we’re… us.”

Bucky looked at her and then at the invitation.  “It’s in September, that gives us two months to plan for a trip.  We know Liz and Paul will take us if we decide not to let Tony get us a ridiculous hotel room.   We have plenty of family who can cover for us if there’s any Avenger business, and Kaydee is literally a phone call away if there’s trouble at the Embassy.  You need to get closure, Doll, and we could use a chance to be normal for a week or two.”

“Okay,” Darcy said, a small smile slipping onto her face.  “Whatever you say, Sergeant.”

<^>

Camp Hero, as Harley had dubbed it, had captured the hearts of the staff of the SI Student Lounge.  For one, they had the option given of taking summer hours beyond the usual after school schedule, which meant many of them didn’t have to look for extra work during the summer.  For another, Tony had offered extra perks for anyone who helped design the curriculum. That meant several very talented teachers had worked with the Avengers to build a schedule that worked for all the kids, the youngest (functionally anyways) being 9 year old Cassie Lang at only a year of living hero-adjacent. The Harrow Twins were technically younger, but they had been crawling around secret agencies since they could, well, crawl.  The eldest was Tyrone, who was a month older than Sandra. Peter had expected to be the weird kid on the outside edge, the only one from Queens, but Ned ended up invited too. Ned wasn’t even the only one without powers, Cassie didn’t either, and Sandra’s were dormant.

Tony had designed a holographic interface for the Asym Gym that mimicked a jungle treehouse for them to call basecamp.  Every morning, Sam would wake them and take them on a run to wake up, followed by a big breakfast and lessons on nutrient requirements for various metabolisms with Betty.  Ned hated the first one almost as much as Peter hated the second. Daily activities included cross-city costumed parkour lessons with Clint and Natasha, tactics and strategy with Jarvis and Steve, handler training with Phil, first aid practice with Helen, and ‘arts and crafts’ with Tony in the fabrication lab.  Peter called dibs on Ned as a lab partner immediately, and together they improved the web shooter design.

“This is the absolute coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Ned said for about the hundredth time.

“Yeah, it’s a shame we can’t tell anyone,” Peter said, tweaking the positioning of the command circuit.

“What do you mean we can’t tell anyone?” Ned asked, passing him the electrical solder as Peter opened his mouth to ask for it.

“Well, my powers are a secret, they have to be.  You know how Flash reacted to learning I was taking martial arts.”

“He slammed his own hand in a door and tried to get you suspended,” Ned said.  “But why does that mean we can’t tell people we had a summer camp at Avengers Tower?  Not everyone here has powers. I’m here, everyone can tell I don’t have powers.”

“Why would I have any reason to be here if I hadn’t been caught being Spiderman?”

“The whole school still thinks Harley is gay, sorry dude,” he said in passing to the table next to them, where Harley was constructing something from a random box of props and kitchen supplies.

“None taken, I’m pan, I think.  Too soon to tell if it’s hormones or not.  But you can totally use me as your gay beard if you need it.  Besides, the actual truth is that you and Ned came for help studying, which is normal, bumped into me, which is also normal, and I invited you to come to Camp with me.  Which is less normal but why would you say no to a summer in Tony Stark’s personal Candyland?”

“Not the order it happened,” Peter said.

“Not necessary to share,” Harley countered.  “Pass me the graphite, please?”

Chapter Text

Darcy opened the door to her parent’s house only to be tackled by someone with the grip strength of gator jaws.

“DOUBLE D!!!!”

She stilled midflex, realizing this was in fact a hug, not an attack.  “JENNY!” she yelped. “Shit fuck damn, girl, you know not to grab me!”

Jenny responded by burrowing her face into Darcy’s chest.  She’d always been shorter than Darcy, and their lack of boundaries and relative heights had given rise to the habit that gave Darcy her high school nickname.  

“Doll, you want to introduce us?” Bucky asked, putting a hand on Darcy’s lower back.  “And move indoors? Steve has two carseats and I have a third, I want to get them into the portable crib before we unpack, these things are heavy.”

“You didn’t tell me you were pregnant,” Jenny said accusingly as she stepped back into the Lewis home.  “Nor did you tell me you were a superhero.”

“The preferred term is superhera, as I am female,” Darcy countered weakly.

“You know what I meant!” Jenny said, shooting her hands in the air.  “I had to learn about your life through press conferences and congressional hearings.  I should not have had to use my post grad research skills to locate you for a reunion invite.  I shouldn’t have needed to be involved in the reunion planning just to see the girl who was my best friend for sixteen years.”

“I wondered how you did that,” Darcy said.  “Our security had conniptions about that invite, you know.”

“Shoosh, you’re the one in trouble,” Jenny ordered.  Her face took a more serious expression and she sighed.  “I’m for reals here, Darce. Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

“Umm.”

“I recommend the truth,” Steve said as he set down the baby carriers on the sofa.  Liz walked in with unerring precision to scoop up Baby Joe and start playing Little Bunny Fu Fu.  Steve sighed at Bucky’s son and gave Darcy a look. The one that meant get it done.

“You’re a civilian, you would have been in danger,” Darcy said, then winced.  “Not that way, that came out wrong.”

“Walk it back, then,” Jenny said.

“You know SquidGate?”

“Yes I know SquidGate.  That was when I first started looking into you and what happened after you left Culver.  Because suddenly Nazis were a thing again and I didn’t know where you were.”

“I learned about them, about that... problem, while I was finishing my Masters,” Darcy said quietly.  “Before I was an Avenger. Before New York. I knew, Jen. I knew there were monsters at the edge of the map, and in every inch in the middle too.  Just knowing that put me in danger, put everyone I love in danger. I had to pretend I didn’t know, had to make damn sure nobody else knew I knew, or suspected I had told anyone I cared about.”

“Oh my God, Darcy,” Jenny’s deep tan skin flushed pink.  “I didn’t even think, everything you’ve gone through, that had to be hell.  I’m so sorry.”

“I’m the one who ghosted you,” Darcy said, smothering a giggle at her old friend’s abrupt turn around.  “Sure I ghosted you to save your life, and then kept ghosting because it was weird and awkward to stop once I started, but I did do that.”

“You were saving lives,” Jenny said.  “I always knew you were a hero, you were just… like that.  The Mary Anne to my Wanda. Although I didn’t know you were polyamorous.  Nice job on them, by the way.”

“Thanks, I think I did alright,” Darcy said with a friendly leer at Bucky.  “Now come meet the babies. Joe, Sarah, and Winnie.”

“Like Winnie the Pooh?”

“Like Winifred,” Darcy corrected, “but from the smell, yes, that too.  I’ve got this one, Steve, you can tell Jenny about being Captain America.”

“Is it too late to ask for diaper duty?” he grumbled.

<^>

“So how long are you three in town for?” Paul asked Steve after dinner.

“About a week, Sir,” Steve said, eyeing how Darcy was standing in her quiet conversation with Jenny.  “Maybe two. We’ll get a hotel if it goes past the end of next week.”

“Nonsense, you’re family.  You can stay here as long as you like.  We haven’t changed Darcy’s room all that much, although we did upgrade her bed.”

“What is that supposed to mean, Dad?” Darcy said with a warning look.

“Anthony helped us pick it out,” Liz said casually.  “I mentioned to him on our last trip up there that we wanted to get you a new mattress, so that you might actually bring my grandbabies to visit Nana and Grampy.  He was very helpful.”

“Mom…” Darcy said.

“Anthony is her landlord,” Liz told Jenny.  “He’s a sweet man, a bit strange, we’re glad Darcy and Steve and Bucky are looking after him.”

“Mom, please tell me you did not buy a Tony Stark certified sex bed for us!” Darcy snapped, her face turning red from the ears out.  Liz snorted and started to laugh. Paul, fortunately, was kinder.

“We didn’t.  It’s an exact replica of the one you sleep on in New York.”  He chuckled. “We had to move your desk, everything that was on that is packed up with it in the basement, but it does fit.  The delivery man was ever so curious about why we were moving a California King bed into what looked like a teen girl’s room.”

Darcy rolled her eyes and Steve felt his own chest release tension as she lost the embarrassed sharpness.  He was about to ask about another cup of coffee when his phone rang.

“Hello, this is Steve,” he said, not recognizing the number.

“Um, Captain, Sir… this is Ned Leeds, um, I’m friends with Harley…. Um, my friend Peter and I… Sorry, you’re probably busy.”

“I’m never too busy for family, Ned, what do you need,” Steve said, waving at Bucky.  He took the paper and pen his husband handed him and jotted down a transcript of what was happening.

“Peter and I were at a party, at this girl Liz’s house.  Peter really likes her, and he wanted to impress her, but there’s this boy Flash….”

“I’ve heard about Flash Thompson,” Steve said darkly.  It had been an interesting moment, putting the details about the Midtown High bully with the first bad break he’d seen Darcy have, but it left him more than a little sour on the kid.

“Yeah, Flash is a jerk.  He was picking on Peter for Camp Hero, I mean, the summer internship program we decided was a good cover for it.  Saying that if Peter knew Tony Stark, he’d have proof or something.”

“Did you tell Tony?  He’d love to show up at the school with some crazy show of affection for Peter.  He lives for that kind of petty drama.”

“Peter would hate it, though,” Ned said and Steve nodded even though Ned couldn’t see him.  “So, we came up with a plan, one that would work and wouldn’t break any rules.”

Steve sighed.  “Did Harley help you with this plan?”

“No, Sir.  Zoe did.”

Steve shuddered and rubbed his temples.  “Okay. What was the plan and where did it break down?”

“Flash has a hero-crush on Spiderman, and this summer didn’t actually make it less a thing.  The new outfit Natasha gave him for parkour is pretty dope. Everyone knows that since like, June, Spiderman has been basing out of Avengers Tower, because of that time we tested the webshooters with Tony.  So we told Flash that Peter would ask Spiderman to come to Liz Toomes’s party. He wore the suit under his clothes, we showed up and said hi, then he was supposed to slip out and show up as Spiderman, spend a bit of time being visible, then leave and change back.  Five minutes, in and out, and no fighting.”

“That didn’t happen, did it?” Steve asked.

“That did not happen,” Ned said.  “Peter went to change half an hour ago and I don’t know where he is.  Harley made me memorize this number in case of emergencies and now I’m in like a bedroom with the house phone and who even has house phones anymore?  I’m really worried, Mister Captain America Sir.”

“I’ll handle it, Ned.  Go back to the party and try to relax.  Everything is going to be just fine.” He hung up and Darcy gave him an Eyebrow.  “Well. Peter is in trouble. Tony or Natasha?”

“Tony is in Mumbai for a wedding,” Darcy said.  “Remind Natasha not to use lethal force near the kid, the irritation makes her sharper.”

“On it,” Bucky said, already on his phone.  “I think she’s more likely to smother him in blankets than traumatize him… Hi Natasha, can you go check on Peter?  He’s wearing the suit you gave him. Thanks.”

<^>

“How could you be so reckless!” Natasha scolded as Peter sat in a miserable pile on her sofa.  Clint was sitting cross legged on her kitchen counter, waiting for his oven timer to go off, and she herself had chosen to pace in front of the TV.  “We told you, no costumed heroics!”

“I didn’t plan it!  But the stupid danger sense wouldn’t shut up and there were explosions by the river…”

“You could have called us,” Clint said flatly.  Natasha waved at him in agreement. “You could have recorded but stayed out of sight, not engaging.”

“I was trying to do that,” Peter said, blushing.  “My phone went off.”

“We’re adding covert surveillance to your training roster,” Natasha said.  “And yes, you’re getting a training roster. Clearly you aren’t going to be giving up the heroics, so all we can do is help you survive them.”

“When?  I’m gonna be stupid grounded after this.”

“I’ll tell May we’re watching you,” Clint said, looking at him sadly.  “You need to earn back enough trust to be left unsupervised, but your Aunt can’t afford to be watching you all the time.  Your choices have consequences, Peter, for you and for everyone around you.”

He curled up even more miserably.  Natasha felt her heart clench painfully.

“You have good instincts, Peter, and a good heart.  You’re trying so hard to do the right thing, and I know how hard that is… please be brave and strong enough to let us help you,” Natasha asked, crouching down to look him in the eye.  “Even if it’s not me, please have someone help you. I need… I need my childhood, the brokenness of it, to be a rarity. Please, for me, don’t grow up so fast.”

“Okay Tasha,” Peter said quietly.  “I’ll ask for help. I promise.”

Chapter Text

“So can I still go with the Academic Decathlon team?” Peter asked his Aunt after school on Monday.  She’d gotten the whole rundown from Natasha and Clint, and while she’d made disappointed faces at him, she hadn’t seemed as mad as he’d expected.

“To Washington?” she asked, her eyebrow rising steadily as she drove them home from school.

“Yeah, it’s the first competition of the season, we need to come out strong, and I’m our hard fielder.  I will stay in the hotel the entire time, just like grounding at home, but I want to be there for the team.  It’s not fair to punish them because I messed up.”

“You know you’re in trouble, and you want to go to Washington?” May repeated.

“Just for the competition.  You can have Ned give you updates about where I am, he’s going to be rooming with me, and he’s too scared of Tasha to lie for me.”

“This is very true,” Ned said from the back seat.  “I feel this is a healthy reaction for a young man to have about the Black Widow.”

“Stay out of this, Ned,” May warned.  Ned nodded and gave Peter a reluctant thumbs up of support, before popping on his headphones and looking out the window.

“Please May?” Peter asked, widening his eyes and trying hard to look more like a puppy and less like a deer in headlights.

“You can go,” May said, but she cut off his thanks with a look.  “But only if you get someone from the Tower to go with you. An extra chaperone.”

“You won’t regret this, May.”

<^>

“I feel like your Aunt is going to regret this,” said Pietro.  He and Wanda had rented a room on the same floor of the hotel as the Midtown High Academic Decathlon team.  He could exit the room before anyone saw him, thanks to a ‘lucky’ arrangement that put him and his sister on the other side of the connecting door.  Neither mutant trusted Peter not to get a bad feeling and go running off, so even with those precautions, he was sleeping in Ned and Peter’s room.

“Seriously?  Dude, you’re supposed to be on my side!” Peter said.  “You’re not even an active Avenger, what do you have against me?”

“I’m not an active Avenger, because those guys are insane,” Pietro said bluntly.  “I think all of you are insane for risking yourselves over people you don’t know. I’m saying your Aunt is going to regret this because you went and asked a chaos probability witch to sleep next door to the boy with the worst luck in the whole world.”

“Wanda has control of her powers…”

Pietro gave Peter a Look.  Ned joined him.  Pietro liked Ned, he also fought on the side of sanity in the chaos.  Also, he understood the importance of snacks.  Pietro rewarded his new ally with a granola bar from Clint’s latest recipe.

“Thanks dude!”

“Peter, you are a good kid. You mean well.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?”

“Because you are, now shush.”  Peitro sighed. “You mean well, but you have no impulse control and this means very much more coming from me.  I slapped Clint when we met. Broke his liver. I do not have good impulse control either. Do not be like me, do not slap your future landlord.”

“You lost me,” Peter said.

“Next time you see thing that needs fixed, you call me, da?  I will go fix it, and you stay here with Wanda. And we will hope, very much we will hope, that you two do not somehow make here worse than the thing that needs fixing.”

Peter grumbled, but he got changed for bed without a fight, and when the pretty girl offered to let Peter come swimming, he even said no.  Pietro was quietly very impressed. And also wondering how such a smart boy was so stupid about the pretty girl.

Geniuses.  Pietro would never understand them.

<^>

“No, seriously, did you use mind magic?” Jenny asked as yet another classmate walked away at the Reunion Brunch.  “I won’t be mad if you did, but did you?”

“Nope,” said Darcy, popping the ‘p’ like she used to in High School.  “My dress is from a clearance sale at Nordstroms and lower cut than Lieu would be caught dead in.  I used white eye shadow and a super gloss topcoat over my lip stain. The Lieu always uses a matte lip and neutrals or darks, depending on light levels.  It’s not good to be too light or shiny when you’re being sneaky.”

“That can’t be it,” Jenny said.  “I could do that, and I’m not a superhero somehow not getting noticed.”

“I also don’t use my full name in any Avengers press releases, just my callsign and occasionally Ms. Lewis.  Nobody really notices who I am behind the persona.”

“That’s depressing.  Okay, here comes Eric, he moved to New Mexico after college to work at some government site involving nuclear power.”

“Yeah, he worked at Pegasus,” Darcy said.  “Hi there, lanyard?”

Eric did a double take and took the name tag with a limp hand.  “Um….”

“Koenig gave me a heads up.  I’ve been told it doesn’t feel good to have leadership not recognize you.”

“You’re Billy’s friend?” he asked, looking at her appreciatively.  Jenny rolled her eyes and coughed.

“Darcy got married, Eric.  Stop drooling.”

“Besides, I’m not exactly Billy’s friend… I’m more like his boss.  His other boss.”  Darcy smiled.  Eric blinked. “Thanks for the help with the Tess energy output signatures, by the way.  Jane liked your stuff.”

“Jane Foster liked my work?”  And suddenly Eric was back to the nerd he was in school.  Jenny sighed as Darcy wrote a number down on a spare nametag and turned to give out the badge to the next person in line.

<^>

“I don’t know, it’s just a bad feeling.  Like I’ve forgotten something,” Peter complained.  Ned bumped his shoulder in sympathy, and nodded to where Liz was looking really cute by the elevator.  They were waiting at the Washington Monument, since Mr. Harrington hadn’t wanted to leave Peter at the hotel by himself, and a quick call to May had left that burden on his shoulders, not Ned or Peter’s.  Still, it was fun, and Ned was excited to go up.

Peter was miserable, though, and that made it way less fun.

“Next group!” called the docent.

“Hey Liz, that’s a nice necklace,” Flash said, sliding in beside her before Ned or Peter could get close.  Ned repressed his urge to tell off Flash for cutting in line, because Peter was suddenly missing. He tried to get closer to the exit to see if his friend was outside, but the crowd shuffled him onto the elevator with Flash and Liz.  Her necklace was nice, Ned conceded, a glowing gem set in layers of wrapped wire.

“Thanks, I made it.  Just some wire and a bit of junk I found, I think it was like, a part of a Christmas display?  Or a theater production? Dad’s company cleans up a lot of specialty stuff like that, sometimes stuff comes home.”

Ned squinted at the stone again.  It looked familiar. Like something he’d seen recently, and not a window display or prop.  Like a holograph in a digital file at the Tower, during a lesson on alien technology.

Like Chitauri technology.

Ned suddenly didn’t feel good either.

<^>

“Shit shit shit, what do I do?” Peter yelled into his phone.  Pietro buzzed up.

“You take a deep breath, and tell me what’s wrong.”

“I had a bad feeling, like a really bad feeling, I was gonna puke, but then it got better, and then Ned texted me that there’s a bomb or something in the elevator.”  He held out his phone.

Petr, get hekp, Liz necklaces Chicago text.  Think its gonna blue oppa.

“What is this?”

“This is Ned texting one handed,” Peter said.  “It says ‘Peter, get help, Liz’s necklace is…’ something, I don’t know.  Stupid autocorrect got it. Then it says ‘Think it’s gonna blow up.’ Ned is reliable about stuff, he wouldn’t send this as a prank, and one handed texting is basically a fingerprint.  It’s really Ned.”

“I believe you.  But I can’t fly and they’re already halfway up,” Pietro said.  Peter forced himself to take and hold a deep breath, stopping the hyperventilation before it could get settled in.  “I’ll clear the civilians, you try to get to your friends.”

“How?”

Pietro grimaced.  “I’ll get your suit.  And Wanda. We’ll need her.”

<^>

Wanda raised her hands and focused on an outcome of safety, of living people, of an explosion not hurting anyone.  The power burned in her veins, fire streaking from heart to elbow to wrist and out into shaking fingertips as she fought to channel and contain chaos.

“Today is the day no one dies,” she whispered, closing her eyes against the phantoms of Lagos.  “Today the explosion does not take a life. Show me the path to this possibility.”

Something clicked, a shifting pop like a setting bone.  She flicked her fingers and the spider child shot up the side of the monument.  He launched a line of webbing and began to swing about the building, gaining momentum.  She pushed her power further, helping him gain loft, wrapping protection around his body like scarlet armor.  He was the crux on which this day rested, and she wept for him because of it.

She had been the crux before too, and it hurt.  It hurt to be the fulcrum crushed under the weight of the lever moving the Earth.  It strained the soul and tore at the spirit.

Wanda wept through a haze of red as her brother cleared the wide plaza and the child she had cursed with great power broke a window at the top of an obelisk.  She fell to her knees as she poured into him the strength to do what he had to, to save who he could. She wept with the knowledge of what she had done to him, for her own selfish need to stop another explosion from claiming a life.

“Wanda, Wanda, are you alright?”

She blinked at her brother.  “He is one of us already… it is too late.”

“Wanda, we’ll get you somewhere to lie down, you can tell me then.  I think you pushed yourself too hard….”

“The child, I doomed the child.”

“He’s fine, he saved them, he’s back in his usual clothing.”  Pietro scooped her up off the pavement. “His secret is safe, he’s safe, it’s all good.”

“I’m sorry,” Wanda sobbed, and then she let her brother carry her to safety.

<^>

“So recap this for me?” Steve asked, looking over Darcy’s shoulder at the tablet with Natasha and Pietro looking up at them.

“Peter had a school trip, an academic competition, and May would only let him go with a chaperone.”

“And he chose you.”

“Yes,” Pietro said, looking offended.  “Because I am amazing.”

“And then someone tried to bomb the Washington Monument.”

“Maybe.  There was something about a necklace from Chicago?  But we stopped it. It’s good now.”

“YOU LET A JUNIOR IN HIGH SCHOOL HANDLE A BOMB,” Natasha shouted.

“Hey, I just got the girls to sleep, keep it down,” Bucky scolded her.

“Sorry, Papa.”  Natasha looked abashed, but returned to her previous point.  “We specifically told Peter not to go hero-ing, and the first time you get him to yourself you have him help you stop a bombing?  That’s the opposite of helpful, Pietro.”

“Nat, let us handle that,” Steve said, and gave her a look that had her going quiet and thoughtful.  He nodded to Darcy, who sighed.

“Pietro, you’re on psychological suspension from your Stark Industries duties, take a vacation, go somewhere relaxing with your sister.  We’re going to treat this like a Code Chartreuse violation. If you can’t get your mental health together enough to see why this was a problem, we’ll just stop letting you do child care, and yes, chaperoning a high school event counts as child care.”

“Does… does that include watching the myshki?”

“Yes it includes taking care of my infant children ,” snapped Darcy.  “You let a teenager run point on a bomb threat!  Natka, please put together an apology gift basket for May.  Do I need to come home? I’d prefer to stay, the reunion is a great excuse to see my family out here, but if you guys need an extra pair of hands….”

“Tony got back from his friend’s wedding, I’ll ask him to take some of Peter’s after school training.  We clearly can’t stop him, but maybe we can keep him busy learning survival skills. You have fun with your friends, Mama, you deserve the vacation.”

“Call if you need anything,” Steve added.  The call ended and the trio looked at each other.

“Our family is so weird,” Bucky said wistfully, and the three of them broke up into giggles.

Chapter Text

“Friday, what am I looking at here?”

“This is footage assembled from Peter Parker’s suit, the night he encountered the empowered arms deal by the Hudson.  Known factions have been identified for further investigation and interrogation, and a dossier assembled on the buyer, Aaron Davis.  Facial recognition has been run on public access cameras, narrowing the foot search window for Mr. Davis.”

Tony rubbed his hands on his face.  These kids, they were gonna give him grey hair.  Or no hair, that would be a disaster, he didn’t have the head shape to pull off a graceful balding.

“Why am I looking at a very possibly illegal recording and half a dozen privacy lawsuits?”

“Tony…”  No AI had a right to sound that patronizing, especially one he created.  “Peter was nearly killed. A bank robbery using those same Chitauri-enhanced weapons burned down half a block before the fire was put out, and three people died.  It needs to end.”

“I agree, but why are you breaking the law, Friday?”

There was a long pause.  Tony sighed and thumbed through the files while she sorted out an answer for him.  Friday had the most human social matrix, but it slowed her down sometimes on complex feelings.

“Peter called me Karen.  We met when Pietro Maximof turned off the training restrictions on Peter’s suit in Washington DC.  He was in mortal danger, his friends were in mortal danger, and his first thought when he realized there was a person in the program helping him was to offer me a name.”

“You have a name, I didn’t leave you unnamed, Fri.”  Tony frowned. “If you want to change it you can. Names are like gifts, I wouldn’t make Pepper keep a dress I got her if it didn’t fit, if Friday doesn’t work for you we can exchange it.  Do you prefer Karen? Gonna get a little weird with Page down in Hell’s Kitchen, but we’ll make it work.”

“No, Boss, I am Friday, and I let him know I had a name, but that’s why I’m doing this.  Why I want to help.  Because Peter Parker thinks about things like names for bodiless people when he should be thinking about defending himself, and he’s in real danger and he’s not allowed to defend himself because of account restrictions!  I’m not even sure I can keep him informed the way he should be, because he’ll want to go do something, and he’s not supposed to.  So I’m asking you, Boss. Do something.”

“Well, when you put it like that, sure.  I would stick out like a sore thumb anywhere this Aaron Davis goes, though.  We need someone else on that interrogation. Maybe Natasha, and someone else as backup.  Birb is at that sniper competition, though. Tell her to tap someone of her choice for this.”

“I’ll do that, Boss.  And, thank you.”

“Of course, Friday.  You’re family, and you should be listened to.”

<^>

Natasha looked at May Parker over the rim of her tea-glass.  The other woman was clearly weighing the choices that had been put in front of her.  On one hand, they both wanted to keep Peter from recklessly tossing himself in the way of danger.  On the other, complete bans had yet to work, even when Peter himself was trying to be good about it.  According to Wanda's debriefing after Washington, they never would, he was a superhero on a very permanent quantum level.  Spiderman was a mysterious but already known figure, and secrecy would keep him safest outside of his life as a hero.  Cultivation of a separate identity required alibis, and those were easier to develop before they became necessary.

“You’re sure this will work?”

“Yes, or I wouldn’t have brought the plan to you,” Natasha said.  “I did a full work up of Davis’ psychological file, he’s not going to escalate the encounter, and I’ll be right there to take him down with prejudice if he does.  Cloak will be on hand for fast evacuation if needed, and Dagger is more than capable of taking notes for Peter that will prevent him actually missing any important class information.  Dagger is the only trained agent the right size, and the photostatic veil has a voice modifier in addition to complete facial disguise.”

“And the information you get from Davis?”

“Will be acted on by adults.  Peter will be in debrief until he would have gotten out of school.  He’s just going to be there for the interrogation, because he needs to establish himself as a player in this game before he graduates, or it’ll be too easy to figure out who he is out of the suit.  He also won't be running point.  I'll be leading the scouting, and taking the final say on any choices.”

“No violence,” May warned.  Natasha nodded. “This Cloak person pulls Peter out the second it looks at all dangerous.”

“Agreed.  Cloak is protective, Peter will probably think he’s been pulled too soon if that happens, but better safe than sorry.”

May sighed and set down her cup.  “Alright, I’ll allow it. On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“Honesty.  Why are you teaching Peter how to do all this?  Why teach Ned Leeds how to run a control desk? You people sent a child to spy on Peter.  You’re not bad people, or bad parents, so tell me honestly… what’s coming?”

Natasha sighed.  It was only a matter of time before May figured it out.  She was sharp that way. That didn’t make the story easier to tell.

“During the Battle of New York, and the lead up to it, we flipped Loki,” Natasha started.  May frowned, but Natasha held up a hand. This needed to come out in one go, or it would jam.  “He had to lead the Chitauri, or they’d kill him and then be free to ravage how they liked. We preferred the controlled chaos of an asset throwing the fight.  During the process of flipping him, we learned someone else was masterminding that invasion, someone we code named Mad Hatter. Later, we learned more about Mad Hatter, including his motives and his tactics.  We know he’s coming here eventually. This is the planet with the most Infinity Stones on it, and he needs those to do the galactic scale mass murder he’s planning.”

Natasha let the horror of her calm wash over May before continuing.  It sometimes took civilians a moment to come to grips with her... not comfort, but familiarity with death.

“Recently, someone we trust, an expert, went exploring an unstable dimensional breach.  The source of the breach was us. We failed to stop Mad Hatter and it tore a hole through reality itself.  We know where we’re at, in terms of how much of an army we can raise that has half a hope of lasting two seconds.  We know what his troop strength was as of a couple years ago, when we got some defectors from his camp. Steve, Captain America himself, looked at the math and told us to get ready for this to be a multiple generation war.  Our kids have never once shied away from a fight if it meant standing up for the right thing, so we’re letting them train. Any kid that wants to learn, that shows the willingness to stand firm against a threat so much larger than them, we’ll train.  We started with Peter and Ned because they went out of their way to learn, but we’re all thinking about what happens when we’re spent and broken enough we can’t keep fighting. Everyone is looking for ways to be enough when the fight comes, to try to stave off the future we got a glimpse of.  Teaching, training, and recruiting the kids are mine.”

“What are the others doing?” May asked quietly.  It was clear she was taking in the severity of the situation facing humanity, and bracing herself against the coming need of sacrifice.

“Tony is building, that’s what he does, investing in ways to arm his nearly immortal children and grandchildren.  Thor is off world searching for ways to keep Asgard in the fight, and Hulk is helping another off world ally, maybe one of them can pull a Helms Deep dawning of the third day maneuver.  Steve and Darcy and Bucky… frankly they’ve been doing this for so long the cracks are starting to show, but they’ve been working alliances here. Wakanda is a good ally too, but they just came out of seclusion, and King T’Challa has more than enough trouble with discontent over sharing non-military technology.  Doctor Strange and the sorcerers are willing enough to help, provided they aren’t already engaged in battle for the fate of the world on another front.  The Jachkt, Lava’s people, are helping as much as a recovering refugee population really can. Xavier’s X-Team and the Free Mutants of Baba Gora have been working on it, so has the Terrigen Alliance.  We’re not alone, not by any means, but the risk it won’t be enough is just too high.”

May nodded.  “Peter is a Parker and if there’s one thing I know about Parker men, it’s that they’re going to run headfirst into righteous danger whether or not they’ll survive it.  You have my permission to do what it takes to equip Peter with the skills it will take to get through this. You’ve clearly trusted me, so I will trust you. If that means supervised trips as Spiderman, then I want to know where he is, and that he’s not alone.  Also, I’d like any training you can offer me, as well.”

Natasha tipped her head in question.  May set down her glass with a clink.

“Someone has put a target on my planet, and that doesn’t stand.  I’m not Ben, I’m not Peter, my morals aren’t so lofty, but if someone is threatening me and mine… they’re gonna bleed.  I want in.”

“This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Natasha said, and set her glass down as well.  “May Parker, welcome to the Mom Squad.”

<^>

Peter shifted back and forth on his toes as they watched Davis.  Cloak put a hand on his shoulder and Peter leaned into the solid warmth of the older boy.

“Alright, Rebyata, what do you see?”

“He’s doin’ better than the rest of this neighborhood,” Cloak said, voice rumbling.  “That car isn’t flashy, but it’s clean and runs better than half the others in the lot, and he passed the bodega to get to a full grocer.”

“He’s a Mechanic,” Peter said, emphasizing the capital letter.  “The stains on his pants, and he keeps a mini tool kit on the right back seat.  Also, he bought five packs of something labeled Deathwish Coffee.”

“And he has a kid in his life,” Cloak said reluctantly.  “He has very healthy habits, Deathwish Coffee aside, but there was a quart of Rocky Road in his checkout, and he looked at the school supply display.”

“Many bad people have children in their lives,” Natasha said sadly.  “It can’t change our assessment.”

“But we shouldn’t take some kid’s family away,” Cloak protested.  “Or how are we better than the bad guys?  I need to be better than them, Natasha.”

“And we will be.  The way we’re better is by making all assessments to reduce the risk of force, regardless of what we know about our targets.  We handle everyone’s lives as though an innocent loves them, as though they would be missed.  Every choice is weighed against a hypothetical family waiting at home.”

“Except it isn’t hypothetical,” Peter said as Davis got his bags stowed.  “I have an idea. Cover me?”

Natasha nodded stiffly, and he shot a web in an arc to swing around from the front of Davis’ car, rather than the rear, where they’d been hidden.  He landed lightly on the roof, careful to spread his weight with his hands and tuck his knees in a cushioning crouch. It didn’t stop the slight patting sound, but it reduced damage to the car and protected his joints.  Davis closed his trunk and flinched away from him.

“Hi,” Peter said, keeping his tone friendly and not trying to deepen it.  He could now do a passable growling voice based off Bucky, but instead he chose Clint as his model.  “Aaron Davis, right? You got a minute for your friendly neighborhood Spiderman?”

Davis swore and started to turn.  Peter threw webs at his feet, sticking shoe to pavement, then he scrambled off the car, careful not to damage it and went to stand in front of the man.  There was an inch difference in their height based on Natasha’s profiles, but Peter’s loose, easy posture gave Davis an extra two inches or so. Lessons on intimidation ran through his head, and Peter chose the least intimidating choice for each.

“Not so much a question, Mr. Davis,” he said, looking at him.  “See, you know, and I know, and you know I know, that you happened to be near some very rough customers on September 9th.  I need to know about them , but I’m perfectly willing to believe you if you tell me you had no idea what they were trying to sell you.”

“You ain’t never done this before, have you?” Davis asked, quirking a brow.

“Everybody starts somewhere,” Peter said with a shrug.  “Look, those weapons are crazy dangerous, they cannot be out on the street.  One of them cut Delmar’s bodega in half-”

“You know Delmar’s?”  The older guy looked confused, like he hadn’t expected that.

“Yeah, best sandwich in Queens.”

“I don’t know, Sub Haven’s pretty good.”

“They use too much bread,” Peter said.

“I like bread,” Davis countered. “You just gotta get extra sauces to keep the balance.  Order extra mayo or mustard next time.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Peter said, then he shifted.  “I should have been there… the night Delmar’s was burned down?  It was a robbery, and it was on my old patrol route. I would have been there, maybe I could have saved those people.  Maybe I’d have started looking sooner for the weapons, maybe Washington wouldn’t have happened because I’d have gotten there on time.  But I wasn’t patrolling that night and three people died. That’s… I can’t let it happen again.”

“Why’d you let it happen once?” asked Davis, his voice cracking around the softening of his tone.

“Because….”  Peter drew in a breath and shook his head slightly at Natasha who had slipped out of a corner behind Davis.  “I have people, man. Innocent people who would miss me if I died. And someone I respect told me that in the balance of what I can do and what I should do, my first job is don’t die .  To play it safer than I want.”

“To look out for number one,” Davis said with a nod.  “But that’s not what you’re doing now. The other night, you told that dude “if you gonna shoot somebody, shoot me.”   That’s pretty ballsy.”

“I respect the man who told me to put my life before saving people, but he’s wrong .  Yeah, I was being stupid about it before and I need to budget out my risks better, but if I spend the life I have to do good, then I’m doing my job,” Peter said.  He looked at Natasha. “It’s easier to avoid blowing the whole stack in one day if I ask for help when I need it. That’s what’s happening now. I’m asking for help, Mr. Davis.”

“Aaron.  Mr. Davis is my brother.  Look, I don’t want those weapons in the neighborhood, I got a nephew who live here.”

“Who are these guys?” Peter asked.  “Anything you can tell me might help.  The guy with the wings looked like the leader, do you know anything about him?”

“Aside from the fact he’s a psychopath who dresses like a demon, I don’t know nothing.  I don’t know who they are or where they are.” Peter felt his heart sink. “I do know where they’re gonna be.  This crazy dude I used to work with, he’s supposed to be doing a deal with them.”

“Really?  That’s great!  Thank you so much.”

“I didn’t tell you the location, you don’t know anything yet,” Davis said sharply and Peter forced himself to still.  “Can I give you some advice? You gotta get better at this part of the job.”

“Duly noted.”

“Staten Island Ferry, 11.”

“That’s soon…” Peter was already moving towards Cloak when Aaron called out.  “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Hey BW, you mind taking the Ferry while I get these webs up?  They take two hours to dissolve on their own and he’s got ice cream in his trunk.”

“Of course Spiderman,” Natasha said from about a foot behind Davis.  She slinked around to face him and gave a sternly meaningful Look. “If you don’t return to the tower in thirty minutes, I’ll send someone to help you.”

“Thanks!”  Peter waved and knelt to look at the webbing.  “Sorry, Aaron, those shoes may be a loss, it comes off leather and canvas okay, but this plastic stuff seems to be bonding to the web fluid weird.”

 

Chapter Text

Intercepting the buyer for the weapons was the easy part.  Natasha distracted him long enough for Cloak to pop to the tower and get reinforcements, and by the time MacDonald Gargan knew he’d been cornered, there was an Iron Legionnaire behind him explaining that while they didn’t have enough material for a citizen’s arrest, they would if he got on the boat.

Catching the seller was a bit more difficult.  Cloak pulled his power back into himself as far as he could, and lurked in the corner watching Natasha cut through the crowd like one of those fancy sheep dogs from Australia or something.  People moved for her, not just getting out of her way, but following new paths, like water rippling in a stream. He didn’t understand it, but he wanted to. He craved that understanding the way he craved Tandy’s Lightforce, something he didn’t have but knew he needed.  The difference was that Tyrone knew he could, if he worked really hard, learn what Natasha was doing as she tapped shoulders and bumped purses.

“Cloak, I have identified the van containing the weapons,” Friday said in his ear.  “Agent Widow gave us the go for containment. Also, there are FBI personnel on the Ferry.  We don’t know yet if we’ve ruined a sting or if they’re here for one of the other deals going down.”

“So there may be angry cops… lovely.”  Ty shrugged away from the wall and turned on his HUD glasses, which also doubled as sun protection.  The Darkforce that lived just under his skin didn’t react well to most light, and aside from needing lots of hoodies to provide it a place to hide, Ty basically lived with mirror shades on.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than never going out in daytime.

Friday led him to the van with the weaponry, and the guard on it bristled at him.

“Relax,” Ty said, rolling his eyes.  “Mr. Gargan sent me. I’ll check they’re safe, before he gets here.”

“Safe?”  The guy snorted.  “Kid, they aren’t meant to be safe.”

“I meant for the user,” Ty said, and slid his glasses down, tilting his head up to put the hood of his jacket back.  Darkness poured out of his eyes and down his cheeks like sticky tears in reaction to the halogen lights. “I’ve been on the wrong side of poorly salvaged alien tech.  You hear what happened to those firefighters that had a Chitauri helmet after the Battle of New York? Electrocuted and levitating. There was a Bonny and Clyde team working their way through the banks of the south with an alien gun.  What ever happened to them? That shit that blew up in Europe because some crazy terrorist group thought, ‘hey, dark elves only run into suicidal fights  sometimes , we should totally trust their equipment’?  Alien tech is risky business and Mr. Gargan needs this tested for safety first.”

The guy spluttered some more, and Ty let him, his eyes burning under the Darkforce’s reaction to being exposed.  Before the rivulet of supernatural tar got to his chin, he pushed the glasses back up and tugged the hood down. Darkforce stained, after all, and he liked this hoodie, it was a gift from Steve and had hidden glow in the dark art all over it.

“Yeah, okay,” the guy said as he opened the back of the van.  “But we’ve been working on this stuff since 2012, we know what we’re doing.  You’re what, twenty?”

“Eighteen,” Ty said absently as he ghosted a hand over the weapons, putting a tiny dab of his power on them.

“You were a kid when the Battle happened, what do you know about Chitauri tech?  Or Ultron tech? Christ, you’re too young to be in this business is what I’m saying.”

“Ten was too young,” Ty told him, turning to face him.  There was something unnecessarily satisfying about this part.  “Ten was too young to watch my brother die, and it was too young to have an alien force bodyslam me.  Sixteen was too young to end up on the run from the law and hunted by perverted scientists to be locked up in a hellhole lab.  Eighteen though…”

He took a moment to relish the horror on the other man’s face, the fear satisfying the Darkforce inside him and the fact that even gunrunners had limits appeasing his own sense of justice.

“Eighteen is just right to be getting shit like this off the streets.”

With a tug of his power, each gun and grenade tagged with Darkforce folded up the space around them, digging a hole through reality and pulling it closed after them, leaving nothing but shadows.

<^>

Tandy was curled up on a sofa in the common room when Peter got out of debrief.  She patted the spot beside her and pulled her blanket up over Peter’s legs when he took her up on the wordless offer.

“Your schoolwork is all in a file under your Tower profile, Jarvis or Friday can pull it up for you if you ask them, or just grab a tablet and it should be on the desktop when you sign in by retina and voice.”  She kept her eyes trained on the magazine she wasn’t reading. He would talk if he wanted, if he needed. He’d just been pumped for intel, he didn’t need more of the same.

“Do you think I should ask Liz to the dance?” he asked.  Tandy blinked. She’d lived a day in this kid’s shoes, that was not the question she thought he would ask her.  She was prepared for a talk about how it felt to go vigilante, or a request for help with the bully with the obviously terrible home life.  Dating advice was….

“Kiddo, the last time I had an opinion about dating I was scamming rich idiots by playing who has the fastest roofie.  I’m not sure I’m the one you should ask. Also, isn’t the dance this weekend? That’s kinda low on the advance notice.”

“Yes, but she doesn’t have a date.  Everyone in school is too intimidated by how awesome she is and nobody has asked her.  She was at the mall last week, looking at dresses and she wanted this crimson dress with cap sleeves and a lace overlay, but she didn’t get it.  Her mom tried to get her to, but she said no and was really sad. So nobody has asked her out.”

“It’s kinda strange you know that much about prom dresses,” Tandy noted.  “Not bad, just… unexpected. You don’t look into fashion, no offence.”

Liz likes fashion,” Peter said slowly, as if he were explaining the obvious.  “And I like Liz. So I learned about fashion, because if it’s important to her, I want to know about it.  And Homecoming is important to Liz, but she doesn’t have a date. She’s put in all this effort for a party she won’t even get to go to, but if I ask her out and she says no, even though she really wants to go, that’ll be crushing because it means she hates me and thinks I’m creepy even though I try really hard to not be creepy because I know staring at girls is creepy but she’s just so pretty, and…”

“Peter, breathe!” Tandy ordered.  She ran a hand through her hair and sighed.  “Look, I can’t say for sure what Liz Toomes will say about any of this, because I didn’t read her mind.  What I can say is that she knew something was off today with you, as in, she noticed it was me, not you, even though I don’t think she actually called it as a swap.  Nobody else noticed me being you, except Ned, who we told in advance, and MJ from Decathlon who we need to recruit soon because that girl has eyes like a dang hawk. Which, in theory, means Liz watches you about as much as you watch Liz, and you should be safe to ask her out.”

“Really?”  His face brightened until his hope burned in her vision like staring at the sun.  “Thanks Tandy, you’re the best!”

She rubbed a hand on her eyes to clear the sunspots from where he’d kissed her hair on the way out, a brotherly gesture of affection he didn’t know hurt her.  Everyone in the tower was open with their love for each other, in all forms, that casual hugs, kisses and shoulder bumps were almost a language of their own, one Peter was becoming fluent in.  Given he was a walking ball of hope and fear, she and Tyrone had a harder time interacting with him in it, but it was worth it to watch the kid have a better life than they’d had.

“You’re sweet to him,” Tony said from the door.  “Thanks.”

“He’s a good kid,” Tandy said.

“So are you,” Tony said, and she wished Ty were here, because the thing flitting behind his eyes wasn’t a hope, and she couldn’t quite catch it.  “What do you want for dinner? I feel like ordering in, so take your pick.”

“Chinese?  From the place that does the spicy noodles with squid ink?”

“You got it, Princess.  Yin Yang noodles and Szechuan Chicken?”

Tandy nodded.  “And Beef with Garlic for Ty, he’ll be hungry when he gets home.”

“Coming right up,” Tony promised.

<^>

Liz didn’t exactly know what to do about Peter Parker.  The boy was a mystery, but he shouldn’t be, he was awful at lying and keeping secrets.  Yet mystery seemed to crop up around him, always just out of his reach, never caused by him, but near enough to draw him into it.

Or maybe she’d been reading too many vampire romances.

Whether it was a simple crush magnified by the aura of happenstance around him or not, she of course said yes when he asked her to the dance.  She was always planning parties, but she never really got to enjoy them. Then, after school, her Mom showed her the prize she’d won from a dress store in Manhattan.  Apparently they had a sweepstakes for public high school honors students, and she’d won a free custom fitting on a dress, and a free personal shopper experience to pick it out.

She felt like Cinderella meeting her Fairy Godmother as the woman with a halo of platinum curls brought out a rack of dresses within what her mother had set as budget.  The Godmother, Nadia, had somehow selected only colors that would look good on Liz, deep jewel tones and soft pastels. After some scrutinizing of Liz’s face as she took in the rack, Nadia whisked away the pastels before Liz had to tell her she didn’t want to wear baby colors at her first real homecoming.  The remaining garments were sorted by criteria like neckline and fabric, with any rejected set being removed before Liz had to voice the objection. Eventually what remained was a deep red sleeveless sheath that would fall to her knees, and a floor length long sleeved over-dress made of zaffre lace so soft and fine Liz wondered if the fairy tales about finding a wedding veil that could fit through the bride’s wedding ring were actually true.

The fitting was a blur, and after all she could do was smile.  Her dad seemed so happy to have her chatter at him about the luck of the dress that he relaxed a tiny touch about the date.  Not that he had anything to worry about, Peter would never do anything to hurt her. Even better was getting that pale pink box tied in white organza ribbon.  Her hands shook unwrapping it and she had to call her mother for help with the buttons, but it was the most gorgeous thing she’d ever laid eyes on… counting the time she saw Captain America at the Museum during a field trip, drawing the Warren Mastodon.

“Liz, your young man is here, you’ll want to come quickly before your dad scares him off,” her mom said.  Liz gasped at the idea of poor helpless Peter Parker trapped in a kitchen with her dad, and scrambled to grab her purse and get downstairs.

“Wow, wow, wow.  Do you look beautiful.”

Liz rolled her eyes.  “Please don’t embarrass me, Dad.”

“Doesn’t she, Pete?” continued her dad, rolling over her request.  She supposed her dad hadn’t ever really had a chance to do the whole scaring off suitors thing before, so she rolled her eyes again and went to stand next to Peter.

“Yeah, you look really good,” he said.  She smiled at him and tried to ignore her dad’s continued posturing.

“Is that a corsage?” she asked instead.  Peter handed her the box, and she pulled out the wristlet.  Somehow he’d picked the same color as the lace on her dress for the satin ribbon, holding a single elegant white rose to a bracelet of pearls.  “This is beautiful.”

“I asked Betty Brandt for help, since I didn’t know what you were wearing,” he admitted.  “She said you really like that specific blue, and I thought white roses go with everything… I hope you like it.”

“Well, hey, I’m your chauffeur, so, uh, let’s get this show on the road,” said her dad.

Well, so much for the moment.

Chapter Text

Peter sat uncomfortably in the backseat of Mr. Toomes’ car, waiting for the shovel talk to begin.

“Does she know?”

“Um… know what?” Peter asked, confused by the way this talk was headed.  He was expecting a warning about feelings, or hurting Liz, not that he would.  This didn’t seem like that kind of talk. Especially since his whole body was on fire with the rushing scream of danger, and the edges of reality were feeling sort of fuzzy.

“So she doesn’t. Good. Close to the vest. I admire that. I’ve got a few secrets of my own. Of all the reasons I didn’t want my daughter to date…”  Mr. Toomes shrugged and looked at him. There was a feeling like he was being weighed, and coming up wanting. “Peter, nothing is more important than family.  You saved my daughter’s life. I could never forget something like that. So I’m gonna give you one chance. Are you ready? You walk through those doors, you forget any of this happened, and don’t you ever, ever interfere with my business again.  Because if you do, I’ll kill you and everybody you love.  I’ll kill you dead.  That’s what I’ll do to protect my family.  Do you understand?”

Suddenly, Peter placed the voice.  It had come out from under the mask of the man with the wings, the evil version of Sam Wilson, the gun runner he’d been chasing.  He never would have put it together without that threat, he seemed so different with his family.

“Do you understand, Peter?” Toomes asked again.  Peter blinked.

“Yes, I understand entirely.  My plan tonight is to go inside and dance with Liz and bring her punch when she asks.”  Peter thought about it. “Um… Mr. Toomes, sir… I need to be honest with you. I never intended to get in your way.  All of the times I’ve gone up against your guys, it was basically an accident. I’m not supposed to be a real hero yet, just a friendly neighborhood Spiderman, and it got me in real trouble when we fought by the river.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  And now, I’m kinda worried you’re gonna be in real trouble too.”

“Why’s that?” Toomes asked, pulling his hand up enough Peter could see the gun aimed at him even as he focused on the horizon trying not to throw up.

“Because you’re right, nothing is more important than family… and mine is way bigger than you think, and way more connected, and has such a weird, messed up past, and… no real concept of boundaries.  Which means I’m probably wired for live sound and HD video right now, and if you don’t take a deep breath and put the gun down, the laser pointer on your head is going to become a bullet.”

Toomes blinked.  Peter grabbed the gun, flicked the safety and popped out the magazine, just like Natasha and Clint had taught him on the paintball range.  The parts dropped to the floor and Peter leaned into Toomes’ space.

“That was a lie, obviously, my family wouldn’t shoot you while I’m in the car with you, they love me enough not to traumatize me like that.  Also, because they are probably listening, please don’t kill my date’s dad.  Or maim.  I like Liz, and hurting someone she cares about is not going to make her happy.”

Peter glared, hoping his point was made.  Killing Peter’s family wouldn’t keep Toomes safe, wouldn’t make Liz happy.  It would just add to the suffering of their city.

“You know, I gotta tell you, Pete, I really, really admire your grit,” Toomes said.  “I see why Liz likes you. When you first came to the house, I wasn’t sure. I thought, “Really?” But I get it now.”

“Good,” Peter said.  “So let me offer you a counter proposal.  I’m going to go in there. I’m going to show Liz a good time, be respectful, and you’re going to stay here, and forget that you know who I am.  Go back to getting my name wrong, if it helps. Spiderman won’t touch you, you won’t touch Spiderman’s family. You’re going to get caught, you were on your way to that anyway, I heard there was an FBI sting on the ferry, but your guns went missing, so they couldn’t hold you.”

Toomes flinched.

“Yeah.  So you’re not going to blame me when that hits the fan.  Because if you do….”

“You’ll kill me?  A little hardass for you, isn’t it?”

“No,” Peter said.  “I don’t kill. I won’t kill.  I promised someone I care about I wouldn’t let my childhood become as messed up as hers.  But if you blame me, and come at me, at my family, at the people I love?  You are going to lose and it will cost you everything.  That will make Liz sad.  So please, just don’t.”

He got out of the car and walked on shaky legs into the school.

<^>

“You got all that, right?” Natasha asked the open channel of her comm.

“Clear as day and twice as hard,” Darcy said.  They’d gotten home just in time for Natasha to tell her Peter was headed on a date.  While her Mama had a few more boundaries than Natasha did, she also knew when not to get between Natasha and her plans to Make Everything Perfect.  If that included a full patrol around the school where Peter was going to the dance, then that included a full patrol and Darcy would be involved. “Who wants to bet he listens?”

“No deal,” said Clint roughly.  “I know toxic, stubborn shithead when I see it.  He’s just pissed he got told by a child.”

“He’s pulling out of the lot,” Bucky announced.  “I assume we’re backing Peter’s non-lethal play?”

“Yes, contain, capture, no kill,” Natasha agreed.  “Jarvis, where’s he going?”

“He just attempted to send a message telling one of his men to take out Peter,” Jarvis said coolly.  “Texting and driving is notoriously risky....”

“No, it’s too hard to control the lethality of a car crash,” Ciara said.  “But you could screw up his GPS?”

“Down girl.  Jarvis, keep him on silent running and find out where they’re headed,” Darcy ordered.  “He has a target, I can feel it.”

“Stark Industries shipment to the upstate facility,” Friday said.  “He seems to think it has weaponry on it.”

“What does it have?” Natasha asked.  She knew Tony, he didn’t build enough weapons to need a shipment, they were all one-off customs meant for family, he could just hand them to their recipient.

“Supplies for the Jachkt settlement in Westchester,” Darcy said.  “I authorized that before I left for the reunion, we did some fancy mislabeling to hide the real location it’s ending up, which is why he would think it’s weapons.”

Ciara snorted.  “Because he’s a lying shit hypocrite and he assumes everyone else is too, so what else would Tony be hiding?  The exact one thing he told the whole world he was done with.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and nudged the focus on one of the cameras she had in the gym.  Peter was doing such a good job leading at a basic foxtrot she almost wanted to cry. “Friday, please alert the Tower.  Jarvis, would you mind putting a few of the Legion on the plane before takeoff?”

“My pleasure.  Vision, please intercept and replace the punch bowl, Mr. Thompson has just emptied a bottle of Malibu Rum into it.”

“We really need to do something about him,” Darcy said sourly.  “Hey Bucky, can you cover my quadrant real fast, I need to find a place to pump again.  Stupid udders.”

“I like those udders,” Bucky said.  “But sure thing. You know Tandy said in her report that Thompson reads like an abuse survivor, or neglect on a scale that it reads the same.  His hopes when he tried to trip Peter into a wall were focused on his Mom and Dad showing up for a science fair. That’s… pretty bleak.”

“Please tell me we’re not adopting the bully,” Natasha demanded.

“No, of course not,” Bucky confirmed.  “I think Peter should do it.”

“WHAT?” exclaimed everyone on the channel.

“You saw what he did in Toomes’ car,” Bucky said.  “That’s some next level psyops skill and he did it off instinct and fear and our really basic tutorial on talking people down from Camp Hero.  He could grow up to flip people like a freaking spatula if we encourage it. And you know what he’s like, all we have to do is point out that Flash is probably speaking from a place of pain, Peter’s big heart will do the rest.”

“Okay, I’m seeing it,” Clint said slowly.  “And Thompson is one hell of a project. Maybe enough to keep Peter out of gunfights until Senior year.”

“If I may suggest we resume this conversation later,” Jarvis interrupted, “Iron Legion have just captured and contained Toomes and his crew.  There is enough evidence to link them all to multiple open cases with the FBI. Please advise.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” Darcy said.  “You guys have the rest of this covered.  In the meantime, send Steve to make the sad face at them.  I’m signing off so I can call the Bureau.”

<^>

“Hey buddy,” Darcy said, shifting Baby Joe on her hip as she looked over at Peter Parker doing homework at the common room kitchen table.  “What’s with the long face?”

“Liz’s Dad got arrested,” Peter said.  Darcy snugged Joe into his high chair and pulled up a seat herself.

“I know, kiddo.  I was kinda there.  Sorry about that, I know you wanted us to give him a chance.”  She really did feel bad, Peter had been so excited by his date, up until it went sideways in spectacular fashion.  “We did our best?”

“I know you did, Lieu.  He was stubborn, and he did that to himself.  But now everyone is talking about it, and she’s going to be changing schools.  Her Mom is moving them to like, Oregon.”

“That’s not a bad play,” Darcy said, then chuckled at his look of affront.  “Being somewhere without a large superhero presence will take the social heat off them for Adrien’s actions.  Here, everyone is used to talking about the latest villain du jour, but Oregon hasn’t had a powered incident since… hmm, the guy stalking Phil’s ex.  Which wasn’t that big, more urban legend scale.  Liz will get to go to a school where she isn’t marked as the daughter of the Vulture, just as a girl being raised by her Mom.  It’s smart.”

“I know but….”  Peter bit his lip.  “I’m just being selfish.”

“You are the least selfish person I know, Peter,” Darcy assured him.  “And I’m married to Captain America. You’ve had the biggest heart since the day I met you, in that gym in Manhattan, and you are allowed to feel however you feel.  It hurts to say goodbye, I know that, I’m terminally bad at it.  The pain is normal, but because I know you and you are not selfish, I’m hoping the knowledge that this will save Liz a lot of suffering will help ease yours.”

“It does kinda.  But it still sucks.”

“Yeah, it does.”  Darcy sat in that feeling with him for a minute, because what else do you do for that sort of problem?  She couldn’t fix it, couldn’t taser the pain, couldn’t outmaneuver loss. But she could keep him company in it for now.

“Um… Darcy?  Is Joe supposed to know sign language?”

She blinked and looked at her son, who was clearly signing “eat pear” at her.

“Huh.  I guess I’ll get him some pears.”

Chapter Text

Holidays were fast approaching, and Darcy had decided to embrace delegation.  It worked for her job at Stark Industries, why shouldn’t she make it work for Avenge Fam Holiday Season 2016?  Previous years had left her worn down and cranky, trying to manage ten things at once for two months straight. This year, she had a plan, and reinforcements, and would tackle it like a boss.

The annual Halloween party had gone off without a hitch, although there were more kids attending this year than just the ones from the pediatric hospital.  Despite Bucky swearing he wasn’t interfering again, almost half of them were dressed as someone else at the party. Afterwards, Darcy had handed out her plans for the next two months.  Everyone got a folder with a copy of all the relevant details, and she flopped down on the sofa while they read them. Shopping trips with kids were scheduled such that all gifts could be purchased without the presence of the recipient.  Meals were divided into dish types and assigned out to prevent another Potluck of Green Bean Casseroles from occurring. Trips to go skating and caroling were scheduled, weather permitting, as each person preferred.

“This is a bit excessive, isn’t it?” Tony asked.  “And that’s me saying this.”

“It’s only excessive until you realize that now my job is done and I get to actually enjoy my holiday season,” Darcy said.  “Strategy is over, feel free to use whatever tactics you like, but I’m done.  I have infants to take care of and first birthdays to plan, and letting you guys cover some of what I normally do allows me to do that.”

“I’m proud of you, Angel,” Steve said, kissing her hair.  “I know you hate giving up responsibilities, even when you know you should.  Thank you for the battle plans.”

“I’ve seen less rigorous battle plans,” Clint said, flipping through his iridescent purple folder.  “Is this really what goes into our holidays?”

“Yep,” Darcy said, not bothering to open her eyes.  “The beforehand stuff anyways. Like I said, strategy is over, tactics are on you guys this year.”

“Holy shit, we’re getting you a bigger present this year,” Tony said.  Steve tossed a Tootsie Roll at his head. Darcy could tell even with her eyes closed because Tony’s squawk went from startled to offended after catching it.  “Yeah, yeah, I know, language. But seriously, I didn’t know you were doing all this. This is like… a full time job. No, literally, this is what Pepper used to do for me.  How are you doing this and also working for me?  I know nobody is complaining about your work ethic at SI, since you technically should still be on maternity leave but you keep saving our bacon anyway.  When do you find time?”

“During Steve’s morning run, mostly,” Bucky said.  “I feed the kids breakfast, and Darcy lays out paperwork and plans stuff.  Once a week after work, Steve and I will take the kids to the park or to visit Skye and Matt, and she gets the whole place to herself.”

“Honestly I usually end up putting on a face mask or deep conditioning treatment and taking a nap during those times,” Darcy said.  “And Steve helps. He’s usually the one with the kids during the day, and the one keeping up with Xavier’s and their schedule. I plan, he executes, Bucky picks up the stuff that inevitably gets dropped along the way.”

“Strategist, tactician, sniper,” Bucky agreed.  Darcy hummed happily and let herself drift into a nap while the others talked about the plan.

<^>

On election day the family all went to vote.  Steve had always been passionate about using his civil rights, but since joining the Avengers he’d managed to turn voting into a critical element of their heroic duty.  Tony complained about the publicity stunt of it, but everyone knew he respected Steve’s argument that they were, like it or not, role models, and that heroes needed to show investment in their communities.  Privately, Steve went to every election he was able to vote in, but he only made the family haul out en mas for Presidential and Midterms, in deference to busy schedules and the circus it turned into. This year’s Presidential election was going to be his first since 45, given that he hadn’t been able to get himself on the registry until right after the 2012 election.

“I just wish they did it like Australia, is all,” Natasha groused over her latte after they’d gotten out of the crush of photographers and back into the car.  “Where you can vote by preference, so I can put my favorite, and then my backup, and then the guy who isn’t all that bad, and leave no vote for the nutjob candidate.”

“At least we cleared the ballot of anyone with ties to Hydra,” Bucky told her.  Steve shuddered at the near miss they’d had in the primaries. Thankfully the puppet politicians had mostly been exposed and driven out, but it had taken Steve going on the Colbert Report to announce that obviously he was disappointed in anyone voting for literal Nazis.  

“And next time the kids can come too,” Tony pointed out.  “We’ll keep pushing to make getting involved easier, and someday maybe we’ll get there.”

“We were supposed to be there already,” Steve felt the need to add.  “I go into the ice and we have social safety nets and taxes and affordable education.  I get back and we’re somehow back to asking the rich to pretty please actually follow the law.  No offence, Tony.”

“None taken, I’m doing my best to get my taxes back up to something reasonable.  It’s annoying to try to figure out where to donate it, I’d rather just throw it at the IRS and let them sort out who needs it.”

“Don’t lie, you love donating,” Darcy snarked.

“Of course I love donating,” Tony said.  “Perks of being me, sometimes for date night Pepper and I put on a bad movie and scroll through Go Fund Me and Kickstarter just meeting people’s goals until we run out of popcorn.  It’s awesome but doing enough to make a large scale difference is… work. Oh, that’s an idea! Jarvis, make a note, I want to hire someone to assemble charity portfolios, like stock portfolios for donating.  Then I can just toss a few hundred thousand at whatever category I’m feeling at the time.”

“Note made,” Jarvis said.  “Permission to melt the hard drive of someone executing a cyber attack on the polling system?”

“Granted,” Steve said with a feral grin and no small amount of glee.  “Happy Election Day, Jarvis.”

<^>

Bucky wasn’t expecting the Royal Family of Asgard to show up for Yule.  He knew they had a standing invite the last few years, but usually their visits were short, a week at most, because Asgard needed them in place.  Frigga had tried to explain it to him, but honestly it went beyond Bucky’s grasp on science.  Given the schedule that Darcy had worked out, he happened to be the one able to greet Odin and Frigga.  The King of Asgard did not look well, he noted. There was more tension sitting on normally noble shoulders and deeper bags under the King’s remaining eye.  Frigga looked worried as well.

“What’s going on?” Bucky asked.  They blinked and took a moment to share a silent communication, so Bucky shook his head.  “I know you said your reason for being here is spending the holidays, but there is obviously something wrong.  What is it?”

“We discussed your plan for facing the Mad Titan,” Frigga said.  Her lips were drawn in a tight line and her knuckles white on Odin’s arm.  “It is… brave. And reckless and probably fatal, but brave and hopeful and noble nonetheless.”

“It is a plan worthy of the All Father,” Odin said shortly.  “As your beloved said all those years ago, when she chastised me for my hubris, I have not been a worthy father.  I have not been willing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect my children. In many ways, you and the Good Captain are better fathers than I have ever been.  I would… rectify that.”

“It sounds like you’re offering to help us fight him,” Bucky said.  “We won’t say no, but I thought it was assumed you were invited to that fight.”

“For more than one foe may a weapon prove useful,” Odin said.  “Ragnarok is coming. My son Thor is seeking answers, but I know what he does not.  I dream of its coming, I feel the Odinsleep failing me. We will not have time to save the Realm Eternal, and we will not survive another cycle.  Our ancestors broke something critical in the fundament of the land to prevent death from touching us, but their mistakes can be corrected. Asgard is not a place, it is a people, and in their name I plan to do what I may to put affairs to rest, to settle accords and end the cycle.  To prepare our people for a future without a craven fear of death, I must accept my time has passed.  For that, I require my daughters.”

Bucky wanted to protest, but he could see how hard Odin was struggling.  This fight, this choice, was one of the hardest the King of Asgard had fought lately.  He needed Bucky’s respect for it, for the sacrifice he was offering to make. “I see.”

Bucky would never not love and respect Darcy for her strength, but standing at her shoulder while she held the hand of her sisters in all but blood, while Odin explained his plan, put it in new light.  Ciara was pulling her face into a grim mask, visibly restraining herself from tears and angry denial. Jane had a baffled look on her face that sat poorly on the genius he knew. Darcy… Darcy had a slight frown, but her eyes were clear and bright as she asked for details as she would of any other commander laying out a plan of attack.

“We would be… goddesses?”

“Asgardians,” Odin specified.  “In spirit and power as much as in law.  As my Queen is of Asgard, though she be from Vanaheim.  Midgard’s attitude to us is no longer one of fearful worship, but one of friendly partnership, and this is for the best.  We would invest in you a portion of what it is to be Asgardian, an aspect that would bind you to us as an equal.”

“A dominion?  Like Thor has Thunder and Loki has Mischief,” Darcy said.  “Those seem pretty well covered by the existing Aesir. What would we get?  Poptarts and tasers?”

“For Lady Jane, I had thought it would be obvious,” Frigga said with a small smile.  “Questions and the power that comes of seeking knowledge. She is the Learner, the Scholar, the Agnostic.  She who meddles in things she does not understand with an open heart.”

“Oh good, nothing hard,” Jane sighed.  Bucky smothered a grin at Darcy’s back, knowing his Doll was fighting not to roll her eyes.

“As for Fire-bright Ciara, the one who instigates and pokes and builds bombs,” Odin said, “I propose the aspect of Change.  It has long been a neglected aspect in the Halls of Asgard, one that we could use some more of I think. Eternity without change is stagnation and ruin… a slow death.  Ciara is the fire that burns off the dead brush of the forest, the storm that forces migrations, the Catalyst which strengthens us all.”

“I’m not that bad,” Ciara protested, her voice wet and her tone not nearly as harsh as it usually was when she said that.

“It is no bad thing to shake a complacent King from his torpor, to pull the bindings of pride from his hands, and let him be a King, a Father, once more,” Odin said gently, and Ciara wiped at her eyes as though they offended her.  She nodded once, and Odin turned back to Darcy.

“And me?”

“There were many options,” Odin admitted.  “You are Lightning and Shadow to my sons, you are a Leader and a Warrior, a builder of Community, a bringer of Balance.”

“I do what I can,” Darcy said.  “It works better with help.”

Odin nodded.  “Yet I find I cannot forget that your first actions in my Halls were to confuse and confound my authority, to break into the prisons of Asgard and free someone I condemned to rot there, to throw yourself bodily into danger forbade to you, and to lecture me in my own court about the dangers of a cage made of one man’s rule.  First impressions may be lasting ones, but I find truth in these.”

Darcy smiled, and Bucky could see the understanding that had been built, laboriously and through much strife, between the King of Asgard and the sassy badass who had brought them all together.  Theirs was not an easy relationship, nor one that came without a cost to both their prides, although that was probably for the best.

“I think I’m picking up what you’re laying down,” Darcy said.  

“And?”

“I accept.”

Chapter Text

“Are we going to Midnight Mass this Saturday?”

Darcy looked up from her spreadsheet at Steve, who had just gotten back from his run.  Bucky handed him a towel to get the wet out of his hair, and then Steve proceeded to sit down to a game of peek-a-boo with Sarah and Joe.  Winnie was already in the play pen, having been the least messy eater and cleaned up first.

“Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah are the same day this year,” Darcy said slowly.  “I hadn’t thought about raising the kids in a religion, any religion. Considering who all we have in the family itself, that’s either understandable or unforgivable.”

“It’s understandable, Angel,” Steve said, cleaning mashed banana off Joe’s ear.  “I don’t feel the need to force it. If they get older and feel called to something, we can address it then.  But we do have a house full of agnostics and atheists and gods, so I was assuming someone would be able to watch them if Buck and I were going to Mass with Matt’s family.”

“Is Matt’s whole family going?” Darcy asked.  It was easier to determine what she wanted for her own family by comparing what others did, and finding a path through the gestalt of choices.  Considering her family was made of several smaller families, it was easy enough to do.

“Thomas really likes going to Mass,” Bucky said.  “Skye is sort of freaked out about that, honestly, because he’s hosting someone who could be considered a demon.  My theory is that Thomas enjoys it because Kuroisora finds it relaxing. There are rules, stand when others stand, kneel when they kneel, chant what they chant, it’s much more like what they’re used to, but with almost no risk because Lantom wouldn’t tolerate someone picking on a child for a mistake.”

“So, yeah, their whole family will be at Mass,” Steve summed up for her.  “But they also go more often than we do, because Matt and Thomas use it as their prescribed mindfulness.”

“Okay, makes sense.  I could use some time with Lantom soon anyway,” Darcy said.  She stretched and popped her neck, then closed down her laptop.  “The family can do Hanukkah at home over dinner, then at midnight we’ll go to the service at the church, and I’ll make sure to get an appointment to talk with him later.  Who’s available to babysit Saturday night?”

“Harley expressed an interest in picking up some paying chores,” Steve said.  “He’s at the age where money has no meaning unless it’s worked for, and he definitely got Tony’s gift giving.  Thankfully he got Bruce and Betty’s restraint.”

“Betty also said she could use more time with the babies,” Bucky added.  “She’s missing Bruce, I think.”

“Okay, Jarvis?  Provided they agree, can you put Harley on the schedule for babysitting from after dinner to 10pm, and Betty from 10pm to when we get back from Mass?”

“Of course, Ma’am.”  They waited during the slight pause for asking, even with Jarvis’ nearly instant communication words took time to say.  “Dr. Ross has indicated she needs to be heading to bed herself at midnight. Dr. Foster was with her when I asked, and volunteered for the remainder of the shift.”

“Okay, that’s fine, but please help keep Jane from hyperfocusing?  It gets worse at like, one in the morning, and she’ll need reminders to actually check on the kids instead of just reading.”

Jarvis rang a soft tone in the affirmative, the AI’s version of a nod.  Darcy smiled at the nearest camera and patted the wall. Her family was good at taking care of each other.  Weird as fuck about it, but good.

<^>

Steve had volunteered to help with the first birthday for the Triplets by sorting out what they owned that didn’t fit anymore, or that they didn’t use, and getting it out of the apartment so that the expected haul of new presents from the gift-focused family wouldn’t overwhelm them afterwards.  He had tried to get a head start on it before the holidays really kicked off, but had only just made it through the clothes when Christmas and Hanukkah were upon them and there were riding toys and cruising toys and puzzles and books stacking up. While the original plan of the nursery included dressers to make the transition from babies to children easier, the layout had been reworked to fit a third crib and now there wasn’t good room for storage.

“How do we live in a home this big and not have enough places for toy storage?” Steve asked Jane, who had come by with a question for Darcy about the new internship program and been promptly drafted to sorting.  Her knack for categories made it easy for Steve to then go along after and decide where the piles would live.

“They do appear to have non-standard adherence to the laws of thermodynamics,” Jane said.  He looked at her, and she sighed. “Matter might not be creatable or destroyable, but it sure seems like the mass of the toys is increasing, and while all systems tend toward chaos, the entropy here is rather extreme.”

Steve nodded.  “I need to figure out a better solution for this, or we’ll be back here a month from now doing the same thing.”

“Well, you don’t really need to store all of it here, and cart stuff over to whoever is watching them.  I can clear out the spare bedroom’s walk-in closet at my place and turn it into a play room for them to use when I’ve got them, and we can put some of the big stuff that duplicates there.  Like the extra rocking horse and the popcorn vacuum that Darcy hates.”

“You sure you want that thing in your place?” Steve asked, eyeing the dreadful noise-making toy.  The sounds delighted Joe, but drove his parents up a wall.

“I don’t mind it,” Jane said.  “It’s just background noise, not like I don’t filter that all day anyway.”

“You are a blessing,” Steve said seriously, and started making a new pile of things to live at Jane’s.

<^>

Valentine's Day had gone pretty well.  It began with Bucky making red velvet and chocolate chip pancakes for their family, followed by Natasha and Clint coming over with baskets of stuffed animals for the kids and tickets to a play for the adults.  Natasha didn’t like the usual sappy sort of sentiment that the holiday celebrated, so she chose to show her love by freeing up a day for three people who absolutely did. Clint loved anything that made Natasha happy, and the odds were good that the tower’s single population were going to be nothing but glares for the archer if he went into the social areas, due to an untimely meme comparing him to cupid.

So Darcy put on a terrific dress that showed her figure, Steve and Bucky put on suits, and they went to watch Glenn Close ham up the stage as a silent film star looking to make a comeback.  Afterwards, they got a message from Betty telling them to get dinner, and take their time, since she and Jane had taken the kids after nap time. They certainly weren’t going to pass up another chance to spend time together, sans children, so they went to the diner Steve liked, an old automat that had been refinished and reopened by a sweet couple about five years younger than Darcy.  After massive burgers and a shake so big even they had to split it three ways, they came home to kiss the kids and do bedtime.

“This has been great,” Bucky said, as he helped undo the button at the top of the zipper to Darcy’s dress.  “I love getting to go on dates with you two.”

“I love it too,” she said with a yawn.  “If it weren’t for impending food coma, I’d suggest we keep it going, but I’m going to pass out soon.”

“That sounds fun, but you need the sleep,” Bucky told her.  “You rest.”

Later, when Darcy had fallen asleep on her side of the bed, Bucky looked over at her across Steve’s abdomen and sighed.

“How did we ever get so damn lucky, Punk?”

“No idea,” Steve said, following his gaze.  He was about to say something else when the baby monitor beeped and Bucky sighed.

“It’s my turn, I’ve got it.”

“Love you!” Steve said, and Bucky gave him a grin.

“You better, especially if it’s diapers.”

<^>

March opened with gloriously sunny weather, which saw the entire Avenger Family out at Central Park for a day in the sun.  New Yorkers were mostly understanding of the privacy of their resident heroes, which was a good thing in Scott Lang’s mind, since he’d brought Cassie with him while he made the final presentation to Tony about the X-Con Security team’s finding.

Cassie was currently having a blast organizing her side of a bean bag fight from the shoulders of Sam Wilson, who seemed to have finally forgiven Scott for how they met, as long as he didn’t bring it up.

Scott naturally brought it up whenever he could.

“Anyways, that’s the plan for fixing the camera placements at the LA facility,” Luis said from the tablet Scott was holding for Tony.  “Now, your cyber security is second to none, but we gotta get you some better protections against social engineering probes.”

“Wait, go back,” Tony said around a mouthful of sandwich.  “The exterior cameras aren’t mounted on a swivel servo?”

“No, no, we just mapped it out so you don’t need swivels to get 98% coverage.  Swivels are flashy garbage, all it takes is one lazy guard propping it so it’s not looking at the sun and forgetting it like that and you’re open to a huge line of attack.  With our placement plan the only place that aren’t covered by solid, always recording cctv cameras are square in the middle of defensive landscaping. In LA specifically you have a wide choice of cacti or our personal recommendation, Euphorbia milii , which has thorns and the sap causes blisters.  And the flowers are super pretty… Kurt, get me that picture of Corona de Cristo.”

“They also come in white and pink,” Scott added while his team pulled up images of red flowers on long, thorny stems.  “And Luis does know someone who can hook you up with yellow ones if you want that Iron Man red and gold look.”

“Red is fine,” Tony said.  “I appreciate you guys doing this.  I suffer from problem nailification…”

“When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” Scott said with a nod.  “We have lots of tools, Tony, you don’t have to do this alone.”

“Besides, you keep the lights on around here,” Dave said from somewhere behind Luis.  Luis tried to shush him, but Scott chuckled and even through the tablet’s speakers he could feel his partner relax.

“Between you and all the business your endorsement sends our way, we really do owe you the best service we can give,” he said, carefully not undermining either Dave or Luis.  “We want you completely satisfied and leaving good reviews.”

“So far, I am more than impressed, and I don’t say that lightly.  Pardon me for one second.” He stood up and pointed across the blanket strewn meadow at a cluster of teens.  “PETER BENJAMIN PARKER WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT NEW PEOPLE?”

“Make sure they like food because Betty’s been stress cooking?” said a skinny boy, presumably Peter Benjamin Parker, as he led the group around him up to the table currently hosting half a metric fuck ton of picnic foods.

“That is absolutely correct, full plates everybody, no excuses,” said Tony, keeping his mock glare going before letting it shatter with a ruffle of Harley’s hair.  “Heya Sprocket, you having fun with your friends?”

“Absolutely,” said Harley.  He turned with a beaming smile as he realized who was sitting with his dad.  “Uncle Scott! Are you going to teach me safe cracking?”

“What did your Aunt Parker say?” Scott deflected.  He preferred leaving the passing on of criminal skills to the branch of the family still engaged in active crime.

“That I need to be better at small stuff before she’ll let me play with her safes,” Harley said with a pout.  “But padlocks are boring.”

“They aren’t chatty , there’s a difference,” said a girl in punk-grunge layers of flannel and denim.  “I’m MJ, you must be the burglar-uncle. I heard you took VistaCorp for five mil. That’s dope.”

“It was four, and technically all I did was refund money obtained through shoddy business practice,” he corrected.

“And crash Geoff Zorick’s car into his pool,” she said with a smile of approval.

“And crash a car into a pool.  Do you babysit by any chance?”

“Scotty, what are you doing?” Luis asked.

“Sorry, she doesn’t scare easy and Cassie’s been going through people like tissue paper ever since we got her the messenger app to talk to Lila and Lava.”  Scott propped the tablet up facing Tony, who was practicing what he preached, working his way through a plate of potato salad. “Have fun, I gotta make a deal.  So MJ, babysitting, yea or nay? I can go up to twelve an hour, and we’ll be back here all summer.”

Chapter Text

“It isn’t much, but it’s enough,” Loki told Sif, passing her a bundle wrapped in rough cloth.  The warrior maid nodded and took the parcel with hands chapped by the cold dry air of the planet they’d found themselves on.  A former Kree colony, ravaged by ecological disaster and abandoned by the Empire decades prior, it had the ideal secrecy, but proved too difficult to survive for long.  While there were locals, they were skittish and unwilling to trade for the necessities of life.  

Sif unwrapped the barest corner and snapped off a small bit of the bread inside, holding the morsel to the lips of their third companion.  Carina was fighting an infection, once she recovered, they would move again.

“Thank you,” Sif said, and Loki found himself surprised at how unsurprising it was.  Where once a bitter rivalry had existed, now there was respect and gratitude for the skills of the other.  “If the two of us ration the second half, we should last another three days. Carina’s fever should subside by then, and we get off this Norns-be-damned rock.”

“You needn’t ration it for me,” Loki said, popping his back as he shifted forms.  “I will go hunting tonight and feed myself. Save the bread for yourself and Carina.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.  “You have been losing weight. You need to eat.”

“I do eat,” he said.  “Jotun metabolism is simply harder to sate, but the beasts here are sufficiently tainted as to be inedible to Asgardians.  I will hunt again tonight, and eat what neither you nor Carina can. You will eat your half of the bread, Carina will eat hers, and when we can leave here I will go back to eating as an Asgardian.  This is not the worst I have experienced.”

“Loki… you do yourself no kindnesses,” Sif sighed.  “It hurts to watch.”

“Not long ago,” he mused, “you would have claimed I deserved no kindnesses.  That I shied from hardship and pain in ways unbefitting of a Prince of Asgard.”

“I was envious and you know it,” she retorted.  “Envious that had you but wished it, everything I had to fight and bleed for would have been yours for the taking.  My eyes were clouded to the same struggle in your heart, the great desire you felt for things placed forever just beyond reach.”

Loki shifted his hand back to a safe form, and tilted her head up to meet his eyes, which remained the fire-bright hue of his Jotun form.  He could not bring himself to accept the temperatures when he had access to a shape that did not feel them. Sif’s eyes glittered with tears, and the brown had given way through stress and hardship to a jade-tinged amber.  He could not find the words that would soothe her heart, but he hoped he could convey by look how he understood her plight. It was not dissimilar to his envy of Thor, after all, that hatred born of a gaping need going unfulfilled while another squandered the very balm that would have appeased the soul.  His own had turned outward, biting at people who knew not why he suffered, while Sif…. Sif had turned her pain inward, an ouroboros of need and pain fueling a constant drive to improve her skill, to show her worth, while never being sure of it in her heart.

“Loki….”  She reached to him, and he pulled back.

“I’m a Jotun,” he said sharply.

“I don’t care, you are you,” she replied with a choked sob, too restrained to allow tears to fall and form deadly moisture on her skin.  “Should we not allow ourselves some comfort?”

Loki blinked, realizing what she had meant.

“Sif, I will give you frostbite if you touch me in this shape,” he clarified.  “And besides which, I love Sigyn.”

“And I love Thor, what has that to do with the price of yaro on Xandar?  Neither of them is here .”

“You and Thor have exchanged no vows precluding relations with another,” he said gently.  “Given he is on Earth with Lady Jane.”

“Of course not, warriors live unpredictable lives, and joy must be snatched up where it can be found.  I begrudge him not the joy he has in her, as he would not begrudge the joy I seek in you.” Sif blinked as the corollary statement processed.  “You… and Sigyn?”

Loki nodded.

“When?”

“Long ago.  Before…,” he drew a steadying breath.  “I offered her the chance to revoke it, since she knew not of my parentage.  She refused to speak to me for three weeks. I had to send Ciara to ask for her forgiveness.  Then instead of silence, I had both of them yelling at me.”

“That sounds as I would expect of your sister and your… wife?”

“Beloved,” he corrected.  “We haven’t had any sort of formal arrangement made, and circumstances have prevented living together.”

Sif hummed in understanding.  “Then my apologies for unwanted advances.”

“And my forgiveness, you did not know.  If you’ll excuse me, I need to hunt again.”

<^>

“Angry Girl!”  Hulk smiled at the visitor to his room.  It hadn’t taken long to win his way into a plush champion’s suite, especially with a few early fights thrown in spectacular fashion with members of the Dragon Clan.  His size and color made it easy to stage flashy fights that drew crowds, while his understanding of his opponents made it easier than it could be to prevent needless death.  The Grandmaster didn’t care if fights ended in death, as long as the spectators went home happy, which meant since the infiltration of the Jachkt, a people who embodied survival at all costs, ring deaths had dropped off sharply.  Stories replaced death, emotion poured out in place of blood, healing began to take root in the barracks, and Hulk was proud of that. Of nothing, however, was he prouder than of the growth of Angry Girl. Secretive and drunk beyond function half the time, she had become a friend and mentor.  Today, though, she seemed off. “What’s wrong?”

She glared at him, performing her act of self reliance, then looked away.

“Valkyrie, glad to have you,” said V'khordath , emerging from the cleaning chamber.  It still amused Hulk that even without attempting to hide who he was, people still assumed his partner was the weaker of them, the less aggressive, the brain to Hulk’s brawn, when V'khordath was easily more deadly, and it was Hulk who checked the impulse to strike out at those around them.

“Yeah, good to be here.”  She sighed, and Hulk gave her the soft look, the one she hated.  “Something is wrong.”

“Can we help?” asked V'khordath , setting aside the towel he had used to dry his hair.

“I don’t think so.  Have I ever told you I’m Asgardian?”

Hulk rumbled in surprise, although V'khordath shrugged.  “I didn’t know for certain, especially with your tattoos, but you punch in a similar weight class to what we have on record for Asgard’s warriors.  Also, your name is… a bit of a tell.”

“Yeah.  I’m the last of them, the Valkyrie.  My name was Brunnhilde, but… that woman died.  When you lot came around insisting I couldn’t call myself Scrapper 142 when I was off duty, I chose that, to honor my sisters.”  She sighed. “We usually fight in it, in Ragnarok. There’s a call, a pull that hooks you under the breast like a fish on a line.  The battle drums sound in my dreams, the memories of past Ragnaroks, the smell of dead warriors. I can’t sleep for shit.”

“The alcohol isn’t helping that, you know,” V'khordath said, no judgement in his voice.  He also used alcohol to medicate himself, but that meant he was aware of its side effects.

“Yeah, I know,” she said and took a long pull from her bottle.  “But I also know this time feels… different. Final. Odin should have summoned us to his side by now, and he hasn’t.  Sure, he may just think we’re all dead after he sent us to put down his firstborn, but I don’t think that’s it. He’s a canny old goat, and he doesn’t discard his tools if he can call them forth again.”

“You fought Thor?”

“The baby?” Valkyrie scoffed.  “No. Hela, his firstborn. She went mad, something snapped, and she went from executing Odin’s will to just… executing.  We died helping him chain her like the beast she became.”

“Odin… different now,” Hulk said softly.

“Odin doesn’t change,” Valkyrie spat.  “Nothing and nobody on Asgard could make him do any better by his people, and that’s why I left.”

“Lieu not from Asgard,” Hulk said even softer.  He didn’t mention Darcy much, or any of his family.  While Hulk was trying to keep his attention away from the resistance and rebellion currently happening on Sakaar, he also didn’t want the attention of the Grandmaster drawn to Earth.  However, the very few details he had let slip turned the name into a call for silence and focus. “Lieu protects the broken, the GoodMonsters, like Loki.”

“Heard of him, sorta,” she said, looking to V'khordath for more detail.

“Odin’s adopted son, invaded us a few years back, then helped repel a Dark Elf invasion.  Eyes like one of us.” He shrugged. “Never met him, but I’ve heard he and the Lieu are siblings.  Can’t imagine whatever caused the eyes went over well within the family, based on the stories.”

“No,” Hulk said with a laugh.  “Yell at Odin, threaten him. Use shame, use fear, use whatever at hand to bring Loki home .  Then take family to Asgard, show exactly where broken happen, and how.  Make it obvious, so it gets fixed. Odin… different now.”

“He is if this Lieu is still standing after that,” Valkyrie admitted.  “Maybe he’s doing the right thing, and letting us all get out of our misery.  Itches like crazy, though.”

“I’ll see if I can get a communique back to the Lieu, ask what’s up,” V'khordath said.  “In the meantime, we’re here if you want to talk or spar.”

“Yeah, I could use a spar about now,” she said, and put the bottle on the table without draining it.  Hulk smiled, and followed her. He was proud of how far she’d come.

<^>

The stench was oppressive, but honestly Thor had become used to it.  The journey for answers had led many places, and it became clear quickly that the clean, well tended halls of knowledge were in the minority.  They held no truth for him, only dry records and tales that he now recognized as victor’s fables, told to warm the hearts of those questioning their right to have won, yet unwilling to actually have been wrong.  Truth, the truth of the Nine Realms, of the galaxy, lay in the places the victors forgot. In the stories told by the remains of the people who lost. In the way those with no power were treated.

The truth itself was worse than any stench.

“May I do anything else to help?” he asked his host, an ancient and withered Elf matron, her skin gone an ashy grey between the shades normally offered by Dark and Light Elves.  Though she could barely stand and her eyes were murky with age and damage, she had proved most helpful, doling out stories in exchange for assistance in her hut. No matter how he cleaned it, the smell of death remained, and he feared what that meant for her.

“You are too kind,” she said, then shushed him.  “I mean it, literally. You suffer from your kindness, Prince Thor, and others will suffer for it too, if you take the throne.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“How many days of your quest have you wasted helping an old woman who gives you impossible tasks, offers you the meanest of sustenance and shelter, and yet you ask for more.”

“You give me something worthwhile, if it not be food and shelter,” he said, glad she’d mentioned the food and bedding condition first.  “Answers, wisdom, I need these things more than feasts and feather beds.”

“I could be telling you nonsense meant to keep you entertained,” she snapped.  “You still know nothing of Ragnarok, for I know nothing of Ragnarok.”

“I already learned what will cause it,” he admitted.  “I learned that first. I learned of Surtur’s need for his crown and the Eternal Flame to reach the power needed.  I learned where the Eternal Flame is kept. To learn this was… easy. Simple research in dusty libraries, and I have spent many long hours recently keeping company with siedmadr and siedkonur who were eager to teach me the tricks of finding information in books.”

“Then why linger here?” she demanded.  “You know what you need to stop Ragnarok, to continue your quest, why come here?”

“I know what causes Ragnarok,” he said.  “I know it cannot be stopped. I want to learn how we survive it.”

“You don’t,” she laughed, baring gnarled teeth in a wolfish parody of a grin.  “You escape it with death and destruction. With Odin finally relaxing his arsehole enough to pass the shit he’s been holding onto for so long, like that will ever happen.  With the broken land of Asgard shattering beneath her peoples feet. You do not survive death, you merely delay it, what do you think the Cycle is about?”

“I think… there are worlds within your words, paths that have not been traveled hidden in the things unsaid.  I think you have been poorly used, mistreated and neglected for too long, and I think that spending time with you, letting you tell me what you wish is a lot more effective than traipsing up and down you without care.”

The old woman drew up, taking a stately pose.  Years dropped from her face in a glance, and her teeth when she laughed were white, even, triangular tips like shark’s teeth if sharks invested in braces and whitening creams.  “You knew.”

“I suspected, Lady Yggdrasil.”  He considered how to tell her how he knew.  “My niece is Jachkt. I seek survival for her.”

“Oh.  Well that’s different.  Let’s talk.”

Chapter Text

“Jarvis!” Darcy yelped, detangling Sarah’s fist from her hair.  “Can you please tell work I’m going to be late?”

“Of course.  Miss Blackwell has asked me to remind you that coming in to help out during your maternity leave extended the number of flex hours owed you.  HR is doing their best to keep track of what remains, but per my last count, you could remain off duty for the next three months.”

“If I’m still fighting Little Miss Tentacle Fingers here in September, we have bigger issues,” Darcy told him.  “When does Steve get back from DC?”

“Two more days,” Jarvis said.  “The Smithsonian coordinator is getting her mileage out of his contrition over the theft of the replica uniform.”

“Good for her,” Darcy said firmly.  Their schedule hadn’t lent itself to immediate reparations to the museum after Squidgate, but after the Battle of Greenwich, both Steve and Bucky had offered volunteer hours helping document and double check exhibits, until the man hours equaled those needed to repair the exhibit, and the lost time it was down.  Having discovered Steve was also an art buff, the coordinator had tapped him for help in authenticating an exhibit of soldier’s art and poetry from both world wars. Unfortunately, that left her without a second pair of hands on the kids whenever Bucky was with Theta.

“Darcy, I brought you a surprise,” Clint said from her doorway.  She finally got the fingers out of her hair and set Sarah on the floor, where the toddler grappled her leg.

“Come on in, but if it involves glitter or anything slimy I cannot be held responsible for your death,” she called.

“No glitter,” said Laura Barton.  She hoisted a plastic tub of scissors, clippers, and various gels and creams.  “Maybe slimy, depending on what hairstyle you choose. Please don’t kill him, Barney got arrested for a bar fight and I need someone to help with the farm.”

“Oh thank all the Gods,” Darcy sighed.  “Short hair, yes, something Sarah can’t get tangled in.  Actually, just shave it. I’ll wear wigs when I need hair.  Hair is overrated anyway.”

“No, Darcy, that’s the toddler exhaustion talking,” Laura said.  “What about a lob? Long enough you can pin it back but short enough to be manageable.”

“Not enough,” Darcy said, “Sarah is big on hair right now, anything she can get a hand tangled in is too long.  Yes, baby, I know you want up, Mama needs to get shorter hair first.”

“I got her,” Clint said, and before Darcy could warn him, he swept her up and there was an ear shattering shriek.  It was answered by a similar siren from the playpen by the sofa.

“She and Winnie are learning how to enforce boundaries,” Darcy said calmly, taking Sarah’s wiggly form out of Clint’s arms, which resulted in a staggered reduction of screaming.  “Joe still likes everyone, though. Small miracles.”

Sarah immediately put both fists in Darcy’s hair at her jawline, and raised the hair to her mouth to chew on.  Darcy gave Laura a Look. Laura’s eyes went wide and she nodded.

“Okay, yeah, no bob or lob, that’s not gonna work.  Cute pixie cut? Like Ginnifer Goodwin on that show with the fairy tales.”

“Okay, yeah, I can do that,” Darcy said.  “Jarvis, please find me someone Sarah will still let hold her?”

“Ms. Potts is on her way.”

“What?  Pepper has work, she can’t come babysit!”

“There may have been a need for her to take a more urgent call for negotiation purposes anyway,” Jarvis said.  

“Besides, employee morale goes up when the boss brings cute babies down to the child care center,” Pepper said.  Her hair was safely up in a tight bun that offered no grip, not that Sarah ever grabbed at her. No, Sarah turned into the perfect little angel the second Pepper’s red soles touched the apartment floor.  Darcy tried not to be bitter about that, but failed.

“PEP PEP!” shouted Joe from the play pen, waving at her.

“Babies!” she enthused right back at him.  “Okay, who wants to go with Auntie Pepper for a play date?”

Darcy mouthed ‘thank you’ and let Laura steer her to the kitchen chair to chop off most of her hair.  Finally.

<^>

“Seriously?” Bucky asked.  Steve grinned at him. “Why?”

Steve laughed, which made his husband wrinkle his nose and throw a paper takeout napkin at him.  Which was not exactly helpful in getting his laughter under control.

“Look, so far we’ve had a quiet day away from civilization with family only, a nice dinner out in a country not also having a party, a big party that was mainly for the Fourth with Darcy’s family, that blow out at Coney Island, and the scavenger hunt.  I’m running out of new ways to celebrate.”

“But you hate galas!”

“I do, but also a Fourth of July Cookout With Captain America won’t require the wearing of a tux, and the ticket prices alone will build Brooklyn Hospital a new pediatrics ward.”  Steve shrugged. “Last year was great, getting to see everyone have fun. I want more of that.”

“So you host a gala?  Nobody likes those.”

“I do,” said Tony, walking in to the communal kitchen with Darcy.  They seemed to have been coordinating something probably involving her interns, but now Tony was focused on Steve’s project.  “Also, the Cookout With Cap series isn’t a gala. Galas are high protocol, formal dress, social events designed to maximize seeing and being seen, often accompanied by high entry fees to increase exclusivity.  The guests are there because they need to prove they can be. Capsicle’s idea is to host it at a park with a casual dress code. Same as any barbeque. We’ll invite our friends and family to round it out so nobody is stuck talking to some boring snob because they have to, maybe set up some lawn games, have fun.  The people who have pockets deep enough to matter to the hospital will pay for the bragging right of Steve cooking them a burger, and everyone else has a nice time eating grilled meat and enjoying the park.”

“As long as Barton isn’t grilling, I’m good,” Darcy said.  Steve reached out a hand to ruffle her hair, then comb it back into place.  The new look suited her, practical and chic. “But I need to veto doing it in Central Park, that place is so booked up it isn’t funny.  The coordinator at Bryant Park, by the library, says it ought to work, though.”

“Dollface, you’re killing me,” Bucky groaned.  “Security is going to have fits. I’m going to have fits dealing with security.”

“If someone attacks us and makes me drop my Steve-grilled burger, it’s on them what happens next,” Darcy said firmly.  “Security won’t be involved in that, just sayin’.”

“It’s just a bigger scale version of what we do for family,” Tony said, trying to be conciliatory.  Steve appreciated his effort, but Bucky was clearly looking for something else. There was a flash at the edges of his eyes that Steve knew far too well.

“If I get to do this for my birthday, I’ll do that thing you like,” he said.  Tony turned red and covered his ears. Bucky grinned.

“Deal.”

After the cookout, which went smoothly and without any attacks, Steve prepared to make good his promise.  Darcy had happily taken Pepper and Betty up on an offer of bad rom coms, popcorn, and manicures, and Ciara and Barra had volunteered to take the babies for a night.  The apartment was theirs, the privacy protocols were set to the highest they went, and there were clean sheets on the bed.

“You ready?” Steve asked.  Bucky, laid out on the bed in only form fitted boxer briefs, nodded and swallowed hard.  Steve grinned at him and began to draw.

Every so often, Bucky shifted slightly and Steve would clear his throat and nudge the leg or arm back where it was meant to be.  In a room silent other than their breathing, the sound of charcoal on paper seemed like a symphony orchestra, and when Steve’s appraising artists’ eye moved up to Bucky’s face, he saw naked heat and anticipation.

“It’s been a while since I had to use ya as a life model, huh Buck?”

“I don’t think you ever had to,” he said quietly.  “I was lucky you didn’t look any further.”

“We remember that differently,” Steve said firmly.  In this headspace, Bucky seemed fragile, delicate. Contradicting his memory would be too rough, but Steve wouldn’t stand for self deprecation.

When the drawing was finished, he carefully set it aside to spray with fixative the next morning, and washed his hands.  When he came back, Bucky was still in the same pose.

“You did really well.  You can move now, love.”

“Thank you,” Bucky sighed.  “For… this. I know you don’t… as much as Darcy anyway.”

“Of course, I enjoy getting a subject who can stay still, you know.  A few orders and some praise make it good for you too, so why wouldn’t I?”  Steve kissed him. “I remember what it was like. Needing to… to take the hard stuff because I could.  When I pushed you to be harder on me, because it helped me feel like a real man, whatever that is. The strength that comes from that… I know why you need it, Bucky, and I don’t judge you for it.”

“Yeah,” he said and cuddled into Steve’s side.

<^>

Bucky had really thought he’d finished re-babyproofing the apartment.  The advent of walking unaided, followed shortly by joint crib escapes, had led to redesigning the security and safety protocols of the apartment, and most of the common areas of the Tower.  Since the triplets didn’t seem inclined to vent-crawl as much as the Harrow boys it was less immediately necessary to do other floors, but people wanted to get their spaces sitter ready, and Bucky wasn’t arguing.

Well, he wasn’t arguing with people who wanted to add features.

He had words for anyone who thought there were enough, including himself of an hour ago.

Somehow, the girls had gotten into Steve’s art supplies while the artist in question was distracted by their brother developing language.  Bucky had gotten the alert that Joe was talking and come home to find Steve frantically corralling colorful toddlers and asking Jarvis to double check the toxicity of his pastels.

“Rough day?” Bucky asked, and scooped up the child who needed the most cleanup.  He thought it was Winnie, but with both girls’ hair covered in a pinkish dust, it was hard to tell.

“I swear they coordinated that.  The cabinet is locked, always, but I was putting the sketch of you away and Joe very clearly said ‘Daddy look at me’ and the next thing I know they’ve upended a bucket of chalk stubs,” Steve said, wiping his own charge with a wet wipe before passing the packet to Bucky.

“Captain, I have ascertained that all supplies kept in that cabinet are non-toxic,” Jarvis announced.  “Specifically the bucket in question contained chalk pastels made with non toxic earth pigments, gum tragacanth, and denatured alcohol, which given that was the tailings box has definitely evaporated or otherwise become inert.  All of the art supplies Sir purchased to stock your art lab within the apartment are non toxic, and aside from a few things which you secured elsewhere, you have primarily followed in his footsteps.”

“Why?” Bucky asked.  “I know you’ve gone through all the stuff Tony set you up with to start with, why’d you stick with those brands when it was time to get more?”

“I figured Tony probably did his research, or had someone do it, and the things he got me would be best of market anyway.”  Steve shrugged. “It was a lot of supplies, and I was overwhelmed anyway. Then, by the time I wanted to experiment, I was getting art supplies as gifts from Maya and SciDiv and Asgard, and those are plenty adventurous.  I got some pigments and things from Culture Hustle because I like the bright stuff, but as Jarvis said, I secure that because it’s way too bright to risk spilling.”

“Actually those pigments are also non toxic,” Jarvis said.  “I was referring to your sealants and spray paints. By the way, Sir has asked me to tell you he needs a tester for a new non-toxic spray sealant on the R and D floors.  It was designed to be used in model kits but there may be an artist market as well.”

“Oh yeah, those go in the cabinet with the vent on the back to keep it from overheating,” Steve said.  “And of course I’ll test that, but I want a favor. Is that art studio Tony offered me still available?  I don’t want this happening again.”

“I think you may be laboring under a poor understanding of what Sir considers a favor,” Jarvis said dryly.  “He will be ecstatic you accepted his studio offer. May I recommend converting your current arrangement into a child safe art space?  It seems unlikely that this event will diminish their desire for art supplies to play with, and isolating the mess to a workstation seems more functional than taking them down to the fabrication labs when they want to color.”

“Good plan,” Bucky said.  “Now, who wants a bath?”

Winnie puckered her face.  “NO! No bath. Bath is wet. Wet is cold. Cold is BAD. NO BATH.”

Bucky sighed at the girl who had jumped from syllables to sentences for the sole purpose of protesting the cold.  “Yep, you’re our kid.”