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Magnets for Trouble

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There was no faint whirring noise, no rattle and clank of machinery. No – Stark Industries did better work than that, and Tony Stark did the very best. His latest piece came alive with smooth, flawless silence, metal digits twitching to life and curling into a fist.

Triumphantly he lifted his hands in mock exultation. “It's alive.

“Ha ha.” The recipient of his present lifted the prosthetic, turning the mechanical hand and flexing the fingers experimentally. “He always this funny, Steve, or am I just special?”

Steve Rogers, sitting backwards on a swivel chair with his arms crossed loosely over the back-rest, snickered. “How's it feel, Buck?”

Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes shrugged. He repeated the motion more slowly, testing the feel of the metal joint. “Like an arm. Which, frankly, is a step up from my last one.”

“Ugh, don't even talk to me about that monstrosity.” Tony sniffed disdainfully. “I did better work on my eighth grade science project. That wasn't a prosthetic arm, it was a metal club welded to your shoulder.” He threw his hands up for emphasis. “For an underground organization that's secretly been infiltrating another underground organization for decades, they have absolutely no finesse.”

“I don't need finesse.” Barnes shrugged again, still inspecting his new limb. “I just need something that isn't theirs.”

Steve hummed in response. Tony stayed out of that one – he hadn't had an awful lot to do with Hydra before the discovery of its presence had all but dissolved SHIELD. And even then, that was just to yank his funding like a rug under their feet and liquidate all their Stark-affiliated assets, as well as a few non-Stark-affiliated ones he could get his hands on. There was no history there for him – maybe there had been for Dad, but Dad hadn't exactly been forthcoming about it. But Steve was Good People, same as Coulson had been Good People, so when Steve had wandered in with a freshly-rehabilitated ice fossil assassin and a request, Tony had been happy to oblige.

That, along with the upcoming Stark Expo and certain recent revelations on the other side of the country, had made for a rather busy few months.

There was a knock at the doorway, and Pepper walked in with a clipboard in her arms and strands of hair rapidly escaping her ponytail. “You have a minute, Tony?”

Tony whipped around. “For you, I have all the minutes. How's prep going for the Expo?”

Pepper sighed, brushing one of the flyaway strands behind her ear. “Exactly how it always goes – hectic and a nightmare.”

“Fair enough. By the way-” He turned back to the two ninety-year-olds in the room. “Both of you are invited. VIP and everything.”

“Really,” Barnes said flatly. “You're inviting me.

Tony spread his hands. “Hey, might as well bring you two relics into the twenty-first century, in style. Steve, what do you say? Got a space in your busy schedule?”

“I'll think about it,” Steve replied, in a tone of voice that suggested that he did, in fact, mean to think about it. “We're still rooting out Hydra hideouts.”

“I haven't a thing to wear,” Barnes said dryly.

“Tick-tock, Capsicle, it's happening in a couple months.” Steve turned back to Pepper not a moment too soon – she was beginning to look impatient. “You were saying?”

“It's about the special invitations, actually. I wanted to go over the list with you.” Pepper's face added, privately , and Tony followed her out of the lab with a quick wave to Steve and Barnes. Once they were outside, Pepper cut right to the chase. “So, first off, this is the first year we're not inviting Robert Callaghan.”

Tony winced inwardly. Robert Callaghan, once upon a time, had been Good People too. The man was a genius, a pioneer, and an absolute gift to the robotics field. If Robert had ever gone corporate, Tony would have had a proper rival on his hands. As it was he had gone the academic route, and instead of a competitor, Tony had an on-off drinking buddy and a pool named after him on the SFIT campus. Not the worst thing to bear the Stark name, to be sure.

Of course, then Robert had to go and commit arson and attempted murder.

Not that Tony blamed him much – Krei was a smarmy little upstart that warranted extra security detail at the Expo to make sure he didn't pinch anything. But the end result was one dead undergrad, one hell of a lot of property damage, and one robotics innovator behind bars for good.

Tony buried his discomfort under another quip. “Yup, can't invite him. The orange jumpsuit would clash with the overall aesthetic.” He crossed his arms, looking thoughtful. “Think it'd be in poor taste to invite Abigail without him?” If there was one good thing to come out of that whole mess on the west coast, then it was Abigail Callaghan's rescue. Nice girl, smart too – he had to wonder if she was back on Krei's payroll, though.

“I sent her invitation this morning. I did have someone else in mind, though.” From the clipboard she took a newspaper clipping and held it out to him. “One of SFIT's newest students.”

Tony glanced at the headline. It wasn't front-page material, but the article was substantial enough. College Robotics Prodigy Receives Grant . The kid in the photograph looked... hell, he looked twelve , if Tony was any judge. “Ooh. Up-and-comer, I like.”

“Youngest student to be accepted at SFIT yet,” Pepper said with a grin. “Might just make his day. And maybe we could make an impression on the little genius before Krei tries to snatch him up.”

Beaming, Tony kissed her on the cheek. “The only genius here is you, Pep. So, who else is coming?”


A half hour before lunch, Honey Lemon and Wasabi walked into Hiro’s lab station to find him hanging upside-down from the ceiling. His jacket was unzipped, dangling over (or rather under) his head like an upturned cape, and his shirt was riding up his stomach. The effect of gravity on his uncombed mop had Honey longing for her hairspray just so she could preserve it once he righted himself. His eyes were closed, brows knitted together in concentration. Below him, Baymax stood with both arms outstretched.

The robot turned his head and blinked. “I am spotting,” he announced.

Honey shook her head and smiled up at Hiro. “Hit a roadblock again?”

Hiro didn’t open his eyes. “I’ll get it eventually. I just need to rush all the blood to my brain first.”

“I’m no bio major, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” Wasabi pointed out.

“It is not,” Baymax affirmed.

“It’s part of my process.”

“What's part of your – whoa.” Gogo walked in with Fred at her heels, stopping short when she caught sight of Hiro's position.

“How long have you been like that?” Fred asked. “Because you're gonna regret it once it's time to flip over again. Try not to faint – I did that one time, and I ended up with a concussion.”

“What's the problem?” Honey asked. “From the looks of it they're working just fine.”

From the ankle down (or up, rather) Hiro's feet were encased in microbots and secured to the ceiling. The transmitter headset was firmly in place, miraculously not slipping off with gravity.

Hiro opened his eyes and shook his head. “I know they work – they've always worked. I'm trying to make them better .” Slowly, the microbots lowered him from the ceiling. Another mass of them gathered into a structure below him, building from the floor to turn him the right way up before he stepped down. He staggered for a moment, blinking as the blood rushed from his head, and sat down hard in the nearest chair with a sigh. The microbots returned to the large bin on the table. “Right now I'm focusing on the transmitter. See?” He lifted the device in question from his head, though not before detaching a couple of hair clips – evidently how he'd held it in place while upside down. “I'm trying to make it smaller, maybe as a smaller headset or an earpiece instead of this circlet thing.”

“Well, you're good at that,” Honey pointed out. “Taking things, making them more compact.”

“I know . How do you think I got it down to this size?” Hiro hefted the transmitter. “Most neurotransmitter units need these big clunky helmets to work, and I had a hard time shrinking it down to just the ring.” He shrugged. “I'm just not sure how to take more volume out of it without compromising the overall function. If-” His voice caught in his throat, and he frowned deeply. “There's a way. I know there is. But I'm trying to think of it, and it's just not coming.” Aimlessly he kicked at the floor, spinning the chair around.

“It hasn't been that long,” Wasabi pointed out. “You literally just got your grant, which is pretty impressive in itself.”

“Yeah, besides, I don't blame you for being weird about 'em,” Fred piped up. “I mean, it makes sense that you'd draw a blank here and there in the process of making them, well, better, considering we took down a supervillain who was trying to kill us with them.”

“He's right, you know,” Honey added. “We've seen what these can do in the wrong hands. No one would blame you for dropping a project like that.”

“I can't.” Hiro thumped his sneakers on the floor, halting the spinning. “I have to fix them.”

Gogo snapped her gum. “The transmitter-”

“It's not about the transmitter,” Hiro cut her off forcefully. He toyed with the device, avoiding their eyes. “Look, you're right. They can be used for bad things, but so what? So can everything else that's ever been invented.” He scowled down at his lap. “Callaghan... he misused them. He ruined them. I made them, he stole them, and he used them to try to murder someone.” Finally he raised his eyes to them again. “Sound familiar?”

The chair shook when Wasabi grabbed it and turned it to face him. “Hey, that is nothinglike what you did.”

Hiro glared up at him. “It's exactly like what I did. Don't you get it? Tadashi made Baymax to help people. And when I found out he was – when I found out there was someone to blame, you know what I saw when I looked at Baymax?” Leftover guilt rose up in his chest, and he shot a quick, shamefaced glance at the robot. “H-he might as well have been just another bot I was fixing up for a fight. I tried to make him a weapon because I was pissed off and out for revenge, so don't tell me I wasn't doing exactly what Callaghan did with my microbots.” He got up from the chair, slipped past Wasabi, and placed the transmitter on the table beside the bin. “I fixed what I did with Baymax. Callaghan's not around to fix what he broke, so it's up to me.” He scowled down at the bin. “Besides, I made them. He stole them, and now I'm taking them back. Making them mine again.” He turned back to the others, hoping he hadn't gone off on too much of a tangent. But Wasabi was nodding, Fred and Honey looked eager, and Gogo...

Gogo stood with one hand on her cocked hip, grinning at him. “Beats wangsting over them and swearing off microbots forever,” she said with a one-shouldered shrug. “I like your reasoning.”

“And they could always come in handy with our extracurriculars,” Honey pointed out, using their designated code word for “organized vigilantism.”

“Yeah!” Fred punched the air. “Plus, one more way to stick it to Callaghan.”

Hiro snorted. “Please. He's got way more to worry about than what I'm doing with my life. Besides, he's in prison, he's out of our lives, so... y'know.” He leaned his hip against the table, crossing his arms. “Screw him.”

“Speak for yourself,” Gogo said wryly. “I still see his face every time I turn on my damn TV.”

Wasabi shrugged helplessly. “Can't do much about it. Every news outlet's covering his trial.”

“Yeah, if by 'covering his trial,' you mean 'repeating month-old facts that I already know.'” Gogo pulled a face, disgusted. “It's not worth thinking about when no one's heard anything new, but it'll be a cold day in hell when the media finally loses interest.”

“Then can we stop talking about it?” Hiro said acidly. “It's hard enough to brainstorm without having to think about him, too.” His stomach gurgled sourly. “Also that.”

“I would suggest a well-balanced meal that includes whole grains and antioxidants,” Baymax intoned.

“I'll keep that in mind. What time is it?”

“Close enough to lunch,” Fred piped up. “That's why I'm here. You guys want to grab some takeout? I got coupons.”

Wasabi side-eyed him. “Why do you need coupons?”

“Oh, they're not for me. I just brought 'em in case you guys wanted to go Dutch.”

“What kind of takeout?” Honey asked.

Fred held up the coupons in question, flicking them into a neat fan. “Asian fusion.”

“Whoo!” Honey fist-pumped. “Count me in! I've been craving chow fun since this morning!”

“I can deactivate while you are gone,” Baymax offered.

“Sure, thanks, buddy.” Hiro patted the vinyl fondly. “We're satisfied with our care.”

As the robot returned to his docking station, the group trooped their way back out of the lab. Hiro stalled in following them, just long enough to lock up the bin of microbots and slip the headset into his backpack.

One could never be too careful.


An hour and a half into lunch was a moderately crowded time for the Lucky Cat Cafe. By then the lunch rush had died down and the wait was almost nonexistent, but there were still enough people to blend in. It was the perfect atmosphere for a quiet lunch on one's own.

Most importantly, the press hadn't found this place yet.

A young woman pushed open the door, trying not to flinch when the bell jangled loudly. She couldn't help but feel stares from everyone already in the cafe, even though a quick glance around told her that no one was actually looking at her. She pressed her bug-eye sunglasses into place, tugged at the scarf knotted loosely around her neck, and stepped closer to the counter.

“Usual table's open.” She glanced up at the sound of the owner's voice. Cass Hamada had a tray of dirty dishes balanced against her hip, but still took a moment to pause and smile at her.

“Thank you.” Sure enough, her favorite table was vacant. It was small, meant for only one or two diners, and tucked in the corner. Away from the doors and windows, out of the main path of traffic, it was the perfect place for privacy. She seated herself, ordered a latte that was more milk, foam, and syrup than coffee, and settled down for a few hours of quiet. Her stomach gurgled quietly, and she cast a longing eye toward the pastry display.

What the hell. It wasn't as if she couldn't afford it.

Her luck held. It was a quiet day for the cafe, and however much she watched the windows, she never spotted... well, him. If she did, she would leave – she knew where the back door was, and she could leave a fatter tip as an apology for using it. But at least today, the necessity never came up. She watched the other customers through dark amber-tinted lenses as they dwindled and business went into a lull. She was almost done with her current coffee. Maybe she would buy herself another strawberry-filled croissant. Three wasn't excessive, was it?

Cass Hamada noted the lull just as she did, and at a quarter to three the customer looked up to see the owner making her way over. Carefully arranging her face into a smile, she greeted her hostess.

“Hello, Miss Hamada. Business... good?” Her voice came out clipped and careful.

“Slow day, but no worse than usual. And I keep telling you, call me Cass.” Cass slid into a seat across from her and set down another latte before her. “So, how've you been doing, Abigail?”

Abigail Callaghan accepted the refill. “Good. Maybe... better?” She took a careful sip. “Therapy works. I... understand. Everything.” She paused, nerving herself for the next sentence. “Finally... got a solid answer on my.... um...” She frowned as the word escaped her. “My... when I talked to the... person. Chancellor.”

“Your appeal to re-register,” Cass said with a nod. “And?”

“And I've been– I'm going back. To SFIT. Graduate student,” Abigail said. “Spent last night going over my – my, um–” Talk around the word. “Classes, that I need. Class list. I start next semester.”

Cass's eyes widened, and her mouth curved in a smile. “That's wonderful news. You ready?”

“Hope so.” Abigail bit her lip. “Not sure if... letting me back, because of Dad's...” She couldn't remember the word legacy, and she couldn't think of a way to describe it, so she gave up and skipped it. “...or in spite of it.” She took another sip and met Cass's eyes. “What do you think?”

Cass shook her head, and flyaway strands of brown hair fell over her face. “I think you can't afford to dwell on it. You're in, and that's the important part. Their reasons shouldn't matter.”

“But they do.”

“Yeah.” Cass smiled sadly. “I guess they do.” She took a quick glance around, to make sure she wasn't neglecting anyone. “But all that aside, how do you feel about it?”

“Scared.” Abigail never forgot that word anymore. It was always on the tip of her tongue, in a veritable queue of words that meant the same. “Scared, terrified, nervous, appre... app... damn, lost it.”

“Well, look at it this way. No more GE credits, no more writing requirement.”

“Thank God,” Abigail said with a rueful little laugh. “Can't words good anymore. I mean, doctors said it's... there I go again. Starts with T. Not forever.” She rubbed her forehead. She'd spent months in hypersleep under conditions that barely qualified as optimal. Of course there would be consequences. “Still see a... speech... doctor. I see her later today. Getting better. My mind makes sense. My mouth can't... keep up. It trips.”

“It gets back up,” Cass pointed out. “That's the important part.” In spite of herself, Abigail smiled again.

“There's... two reasons. To be scared,” she admitted, after taking another long pull of coffee. Fragments were easier – she could eke out sentences piece by piece. Without elaborating, she watched Cass from behind the shield that her shades provided.

Cass either took it in stride or kept her face skillfully blank. “I see.” Of course she did. There was no reason for her to believe otherwise. “Abigail, if you need help – pick a time and date, I can make it happen. Once you're more comfortable with communicating, of course. He doesn't-”

“No,” The word shot from her stumbling lips at panic speeds. She recovered almost instantly, mentally kicking herself. “No, I – no.” Her fingers tightened around the handle of her mug. “I know it has to... happen. I have to – do it. I will. But – later. Can't yet. Don't... don't know how.” Her eyes stung, but she blinked the feeling back. She was good at that these days. “It's like... words, now. I try to think, but... just... won't come.”

Cass nodded, and didn't press the subject. She didn't press, and for that reason alone Abigail could have gotten out of her chair right then and there and hugged her. But that was too bold, too personal. She couldn't do that, she couldn't bring herself to touch this woman – it was all she could do to manage looking her in the eye, and even then she usually had sunglasses as scant shelter.

“Well, regardless,” Cass went on. “You're welcome here, you know that? For a cup of coffee, to talk... even if you just want to sit inside and daydream, that's all right.”

“Thank you.” These words slipped effortlessly from Abigail's mouth, a tired platitude that her tongue had formed so many times that at this point it was just a jumble of meaningless sounds. She flushed slightly. “Not everyone... is kind.”

Cass's hand folded over her own and gave a gentle little squeeze – not even a squeeze, really, so much as a slight pressure from her thumb. “Abigail.” Her tone of voice was odd, as if not even Cass herself know how she was supposed to sound. From behind the the shield of amber-tinted lenses, Abigail focused on warm brown eyes the same eyes as Tadashi Hamada's eyes. “None of this was your fault. You know that, right?”

Any hope for words was dashed when Abigail's throat closed like a camera iris and her breath hitched through it. She nodded, squeezing back in a moment of boldness. And she did know, she did know, even if teachers and reporters and a few old former friends did not. But sometimes it escaped her the same way words did, and it was nice to be reminded.

 

Chapter Text

Honey Lemon had Hiro cracking up in the backseat of Wasabi's van. Their conversation had begun the moment Wasabi had turned the key in the ignition, and it had continued as normal until they were halfway to Fred's house. As the designated smallest person in the group, Hiro was relegated to the lap-belt seat between the girls (Gogo was no longer allowed to ride shotgun) while Fred rode in the passenger seat. By the time they were almost to the manor, Hiro was doubled up clutching his stomach, laughing so hard he was almost sobbing.

Wasabi stared impassively at the road ahead. “I hate when they do that.”

“Same,” Fred sighed. “I don't know what I'm missing out on, but it's gotta be good.”

“Both of you shut up,” Gogo growled, as Hiro elbowed her accidentally for the nth time. “You don't have to sit next to them, you don't get to complain.”

Hiro's laughter died down in spurts, while Honey still snickered into her hand. “Hiro, you okay?”

The teen coughed, took a deep breath, and wiped his eyes. “Yeah. Fine. Wow my ribs hurt. And my face. Ow.”

Gogo raised an eyebrow at her seatmates. “So for those of us who aren't fluent in Japanese, care to share?”

“Not really,” Honey answered sweetly. “Sorry guys, that was for his ears only.”

“You do realize Fred's going to take that as 'try to guess,' right?” Gogo pointed out.

“Was it something dirty?” Fred asked suspiciously.

“You know what – no.” Wasabi's grip tightened on the wheel. “Honey, don't answer that. Hiro, definitely don't answer that. Not in my car, people. We're almost there anyway. Once we're in Fred's house you guys can talk about whatever, but not. In. My. Car.”

“Killjoy,” Hiro muttered. He glanced up at Honey, and they locked eyes for a moment before bursting into half-stifled snickers again. Beside them, Gogo groaned loudly.

Heathcliff met them at the door, as usual, just as Hiro was lugging Baymax's case out to activate him on the sidewalk. The six of them fist-bumped him on the way in (Gogo faked out at the last minute and snailed him instead) and the stoic butler's mouth twitched at Baymax's usual Bah-la-la-la chant.

Hiro still pulled a wry face at the barbarian painting hanging in Fred's room. He would have thought he'd be used to it by now, but... nope, still weird.

Fred noticed, not that Hiro put much effort into hiding it. “Oh come on, it's not that bad.”

“It's pretty bad,” Honey said lightly.

“Just think,” Gogo added dryly. “That thing watches you while you sleep.”

“Okay now you're making it weird.” Fred pouted a bit. “Look, I commissioned that when I was fifteen, okay?”

Hiro wrinkled his nose. “God, I hope that's not a phase I go through.”

“Adolescence is a period in which interests often fluctuate,” Baymax put in helpfully. “In fact, I am programmed with the appropriate response protocol for a 'scene phase.'”

Wasabi gaped. “You what.”

“Okay, this I gotta know.” Hiro poked the robot's belly. “What's scene phase protocol?”

“Equipment includes a high-definition digital camera,” the robot replied. “Programmed with an instant-send feature to the following e-mail address: tadhama@sfit.edu.”

Hiro's mouth fell open in shock. Wasabi turned away to disguise a stifled laugh as a cough – it didn't quite work.

For her part, Honey just looked impressed. “Tadashi thought of everything.”

“Hey.” Gogo tapped on Baymax's vinyl exterior. “Can I enter my e-mail address into that protocol?”

“Same!” Fred piped up.

Hiro looked horrified. “Gu-uys!”

“Hiro, don't worry.” Honey patted his shoulder. “I'm pretty sure you'll skip it – I mean, I went through mine when I was in middle school, and you're past that age already-” She looked up to see the others staring at her. “...What?”

“Please tell me you have pictures,” Gogo said bluntly.

“Oh, I do,” Honey chirped. “Ren faire pictures, too, which go on the SFIT Facebook page at three PM if you don't stop teasing him.”

Gogo's eyes bulged slightly. “Honey that's not fair, that was a special favor. To you.”

The chemist gave her a sunny smile, leaned close to Hiro, and whispered in Japanese, “Bit of advice, Hiro. Always have a camera on hand. Always.”

Hiro nodded vigorously. “Wakatta.” He dropped his voice and continued, also in Japanese. “I really wish I had a camera that time Fred was swing-dancing with his empty mascot costume.”

“What? What was that?” Fred poked his head in between them. “I heard my name. I know I definitely heard my name.”

“Nope,” Hiro lied glibly.

“Sorry, Freddy, you're mistaken,” Honey added.

“Guys come on, gossiping is rude and stuff!” Fred whined. “You're talking about me, I know you are!”

Hiro shrugged, one corner of his mouth pulled up in a cocky little smirk. “Hey, who's fluent in Japanese here, us or you?” In response, Fred promptly tackled Hiro and caught him in a headlock, fist clenched and poised to give the younger boy the noogie of his life.

Two blinks later and Fred was flat on his back and blinking dizzily, while Hiro perched several yards away on the edge of his bed, one hand out for balance. The smirk had widened.

Baymax blinked down at Fred. “You have fallen,” he observed. Wasabi let out a noise that was equal parts snort, squeak, and wheeze as the laugh he was holding in escaped him.

Gogo smirked. “Holy crap, that was awesome.” Honey gave the most unladylike snort of amusement.

“You okay?” Hiro asked, his voice shaking with held-back laughter.

“Hang on, my entire room flipped,” Fred wheezed. He coughed a bit. “Bleagh. Need to breathe.”

“Sorry.”

“Breathlessness after impact may be alarming,” Baymax told him. “Do not panic. Your breathing will normalize momentarily.”

Fred held up a thumbs-up in reply. Moments later he took a deep, noisy breath and sat bolt upright, eyes wide with utter delight. “That. Was. Awesome.

“I'm aware of that,” Hiro said casually.

Fred struggled to his feet. “No, seriously, you never said you knew how to fight!”

“Oh.” Hiro blinked, eyebrows coming together. “Tadashi never mentioned teaching me?”

Tadashi could fight too?” Honey and Wasabi exclaimed in unison.

Gogo raised an eyebrow at them. “You guys seriously didn't know that?”

“I did know that!” Fred piped up. “I wouldn't call it fighting, though. Like it's not like he went out looking for that kind of thing, that wasn't his style. But he definitely knew how.”

“Self-defense skills can increase safety in extreme interpersonal situations,” Baymax put in helpfully. “Furthermore, proper technique can prevent serious injury to either combatant.”

Too busy looking awestruck, Wasabi didn't respond. Honey's surprise was fading as she made the necessary connections in her mind.

“Makes sense,” she said at length. “What made him learn?”

“He never told me,” Gogo said with a shrug. “I just figured he did it to meet girls.” She briefly glanced to Fred, as if looking to him for a more solid answer.

Fred turned his head away, pursing his lips. “Dumpster made an impression...” he muttered.

“What?” Hiro cocked his head.

A strange look flashed across Fred's face, a sad sort of fondness that was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared. “I'll tell you later. So... he taught you stuff?”

Hiro let his feet slip off the edge of the bed and slid into a sitting position, fidgeting. “Well... yeah. I got beat up a lot at school.”

“I believe it,” Gogo remarked.

“Gogo!” Honey hissed.

“What?” The other girl shrugged. “He's tiny and smart, that's as good as a permanent 'kick-me' sign. I used to roll kids like that for lunch money in middle school. No offense,” she added.

“None... taken?” Hiro said hesitantly. “I mean it's true, though. I was nine years old and a child prodigy in junior high. Tadashi didn't let me leave the house without going over holds and blocks first.” He wrinkled his nose. “It's like Honey said, though – I didn't really fight, I just... escaped before it turned into a fight? I guess?” Further words were cut off when Honey Lemon seized him in a crushing hug.

“That's just awful that you had to go through that,” she said furiously.

“Meh. High school was worse.” Hiro's voice was muffled by the hug. “College is better, though. Lot less judgy.”

“Dude, tell me about it!” Fred bounded over to sit next to him. “Like there's this one guy on the SF State campus, he also rides my bus, and I've never seen him without a cloak on. Like, full on mysterious-stranger-in-a-tavern cloak. Don't know his name, but I always see him playing the tin whistle out on the south lawn. No clue what his deal is, but I've seen him out there ever since I was a freshman and I've never really questioned it before.”

“You don't question a lot of things,” Wasabi pointed out.

“It's fine, Honey Lemon,” Hiro mumbled, still trapped in Honey's protective embrace. “Seriously. You can let go now.”

“Honey, please stop crushing the child into your boobs,” Gogo added. Hiro let out a strangled noise.

“Sorry!”

Hiro would later assert that the flush of color in his face was from Honey hugging him so hard, and for no other reason. Absolutely none. “So anyway,” he went on, rubbing furiously at his cheek. “I had some ideas for individual transportation and mobility, but I wanted to run them by you guys before I put pen to paper...”

The day went on in that vein, until they all took a break at the promise of tea and Heathcliff's pastries. Gogo and Honey were the first out the door and racing each other down the hall when the figurative dinner bell rang, with Wasabi power-walking after them in disapproval. Hiro was about to dart after them when Fred sidled up to him.

“So, random question.”

Hiro paused to let him catch up, and they continued down the hallway at a more leisurely pace. “Yeah?”

“Think you could teach me?”

“Teach you wh- wait, you mean like, how to fight?” Hiro gaped at him as if he was crazy. “Me? Are you serious?”

“Why not?” Fred spread his hands. “You flipped me like a freakin' pancake, dude!”

Hiro pulled a wry face. “Don't know if you noticed, Fred, but I am not the best fighter on the team. I'm, like, the strategist and stuff.”

“You taught Baymax!”

“Great idea!” Hiro's voice dripped sarcasm. “I'll just make another chip, then. Where do you think your access port is, your gigantic nose?”

“Come ooon,” Fred whined, jostling him by the shoulder. “Please? At least show me how to flip someone, or get out of a headlock, I don't know, I don't even care, just give me something.” He tried for puppy eyes. “Super-jumps and flamethrowers can only get me so far.”

“I'm pretty sure Gogo could show you way more than I could,” Hiro pointed out.

“Yeah, well she...” Fred hesitated. “She could also kill me by accident. Same with Wasabi. Also he's super impatient.” He shrugged. “Frankly, you're also the one who's least likely to break me by accident. Please?”

Hiro let out a noisy breath and paused in the middle of the hallway, rubbing the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. Finally he looked up. “All right. Okay, fine. I'll do it.”

“Really?” Fred's eyes lit up.

“First lesson.” Hiro held out his hand. “Grab my wrist.”

Fred hesitated. “With which hand?”

“It's not gonna matter.” Hiro shrugged. “Hold tight.”

“Okay then.” Fred took hold of Hiro's wrist.

Hiro's free hand came down on the hand holding his wrist, trapping it in place. Before Fred had a chance to react, Hiro rotated his trapped hand so that it forced pressure directly on the joint of Fred's thumb.

“Ow – ow.” Fred let go immediately.

“Thumbs are delicate flowers,” Hiro said, and started walking again. “C'mon, let's go before they eat all the strudel sticks.”

Shaking his hand out, Fred beamed and followed him.


After an hour of language therapy, Abigail's mouth was dry and her jaw and tongue and brain felt slack and overworked. But it was the good kind of tired, kind of like euphoria at the end of a mile run or the drowsy self-satisfaction after a full day of studying.

The weeks following her rescue from the portal had been the most simultaneously terrifying and frustrating of her life. Early on she had understood perhaps a little over half of what was said to her, enough to get by, but only just. Speaking had been a daunting task – one halting, short, half-coherent word at a time from a sluggish, disobedient mouth. “Abigail” and “Dad” had been the only words she could call up with any amount of consistency.

She heard the phrases “damage to anterior regions” and “left posterior inferior frontal gyrus,” and even if her synapses had been firing at maximum capacity, she probably wouldn't have understood it. But eventually one phrase got through to her: expressive aphasia, which meant talking and writing would be monumental achievements from here on out.

Well over two weeks of treatment passed before anyone was able to fully articulate to her what her father had done in her absence, and why he hadn't come to visit her in the hospital. At the time she had stared listlessly at the doctor, starved for the words to properly express the tearing feeling in her chest.

Now, after three months of regular language therapy, she was steadily improving in comparison to those first difficult weeks. As far as she could tell, her comprehension was back to where it had once been. Her fluency was miles better – she could form full phrases and even short complete sentences. But more than that and she stumbled, and the names of things still escaped her. Another few months, the therapist assured her, and she would be back to where she was before. She would make a full recovery.

Abigail walked home.

Buses and trams were a no go. They were small, cramped, closed off from the rest of the world, carrying her from one place to the next without any of her own control. Besides that, it was too easy for her to get recognized, and then where would she be? How would she escape? Bystanders and passersby recognizing her was bad enough, but a reporter had once managed to hop aboard just in time to interrogate her for the ten minutes it took for the bus to reach the next stop. As it was, she had barely escaped. (The driver had taken pity and shut the door between her and the inquiring journalist.) When she walked, she never stayed in one place near the same people for long. She could recognize when she was being followed, rather than sitting in public transportation wondering if any of her fellow riders were about to whip out a notebook.

Plus, walking kept her awake.

Sitting in a bus or a tram, feeling the rumble and rhythm of the road, there was too much of a risk that it would lull her to sleep. Not even standing up was completely safe – she'd dozed off on her feet once already, leaning against a bus pole. But walking kept her awake. Moving her feet kept her safe.

Slipping her hand beneath her shades, she rubbed her eyes. She was probably smudging the makeup and concealer, but that was fine – the shades would be enough, and she was going home anyway. No need to keep up appearances in the privacy of her own apartment.

Abigail made it home without incident this time. Her stomach was still full from good coffee and baked goods – could she skip dinner tonight? Maybe an apple. Stifling a yawn, she stopped by the complex's mailboxes to unlock hers and grab the few envelopes inside before she went up to her apartment.

With a sigh of relief, she clicked on the light and dropped her keys on the table by the door. The sunglasses followed, then she stepped out of her shoes and shrugged her jacket from her shoulders. Preparing and turning on the coffeemaker was second nature. It would be a while before she went to bed, if she ended up doing so at all.

In her hand were three envelopes, a coupon book, and one laminated card-stock advertisement for a department store sale. She dropped the latter in the box for paper recyclables, placed the coupon book to one side – never know when that might come in handy – and examined the envelopes. One was her utility bill, which she put on the kitchen table to pay later. One was from SFIT, probably some kind of welcome-back formality that could have easily been done over e-mail without the waste of paper. She ripped it open and left it out just in case there was important information somewhere in all the official-sounding word fog.

The third had her sitting down – hard – on her couch.

Abigail's world shook a little as a half-forgotten, half-abandoned piece forcibly rejoined it. Stamped at the top left corner, on a very official-looking address sticker, was the name Pepper Potts and the address for Stark Tower in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, on the opposite side of the country. It was addressed to her, right there in the middle of the envelope. Abigail Callaghan. Not Robert, as it always had been, but Abigail. She opened it.

The paper was expensive, as always – Stark Industries letterhead, expertly designed and shiny on thick, glossy stock. A papercut on this stuff could probably take someone's head off.

Blinking with eyes that stung, Abigail read.

Dear Miss Callaghan,

I am delighted to inform you that you have been formally invited to attend this year's annual Stark Expo here in the heart of New York City. Stark Expo features the leading technology of the modern age, straight from the minds of the country's best and brightest engineers. As an old and valued acquaintance, we would like to extend a cordial invitation –

It went on in that way for a few sentences, thankfully more brief than what SFIT had sent her. About three lines down, the tone shifted.

But now that that's out of the way, I'm gonna cut the crap. There are no words for how sorry I am for what you're going through now, and you don't know how much it means to us to hear that you're all right.

Please don't think of this as a pity-invite. You're a promising young woman, I know you'll be a credit to your field, and I respect you far too much for that. And besides, we've been wanting an excuse to resume our friendship ever since we heard the news of your rescue.

Tony and I look forward to seeing you again. Send an RSVP through snail mail, or feel free to call.

Sincerely,

Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries

Abigail was smiling as she finished reading the invitation. For the first time since she'd woken up in the hospital, someone besides Cass Hamada was asking after her and only her. No mention of her father, not even a hint, not even as a “sorry your dad turned out to be a vengeful maniac.” To read the letter, you'd think that the only tragedy to befall her was the accident by itself.

And to think, she was afforded this small mercy by the girlfriend of her father's old drinking buddy.

She had joined her father on enough trips to New York to know that she liked Pepper Potts. Smart woman – business-smart, people-smart, absolutely lethal in the corporate sphere, fierce as hell and fearless. As for Anthony Stark... well, he had a good sense of humor. According to her father, he'd mellowed out somewhat – hostage situations tended to do that to you. And, of course, the whole Iron Man thing...

Hell, Krei could do with... what's the word... disappearing, getting stolen. Kidnapping, that's it. Maybe it was a mean thought – the man was more or less supporting her with compensation pay, after all – but after what she'd heard of his conduct during her absence she hadn't exactly been feeling charitable toward him. Charity was for the poor.

(Seriously, who the hell tries to steal from a fourteen-year-old kid)

She sniffed in disdain, got up from the couch, and went to pin the invitation on her bulletin board. Hiro Hamada deserved a hell of a lot better than what he'd been given. Her thumb slipped on the pushpin, and she nearly dropped both pin and paper. Her brow furrowed.

Frankly, he deserved better from her, too. She couldn't avoid him forever, especially if she was restarting her graduate studies come next semester. Even if she could, it didn't mean she should.

Abigail worried at her lip, staring at the invitation over the dark circles under her eyes. The concealer she'd put on that morning was smeared, exposing the darkness of exhaustion on her face.

One thing at a time, she thought.

Calling was out of the question. Just the thought of it made her feel like throwing up. Writing wasn't much better, but with writing she could practice. She could check it over again and again, show it to her therapist, flip through thesauri and glare at it until it was ready.

With a marking pen, she circled the RSVP address in red.

 

Chapter Text

  “Stark Expo,” Cass echoed. Her mouth formed a small 'o'. “You got invited to Stark Expo.”

“Well, it was... it was... every year,” Abigail explained. “My dad and me.” She paused. “Road trip, every.... since I was younger.”

A mishap with the java machine had forced the Lucky Cat Cafe into a two-to-three-hour coffee drought while Cass's most trusted repairman found space in his schedule. (Hiro hadn't been allowed to tinker with it since he'd tried to upgrade the dratted thing when he was ten – in four years, the stain on the ceiling hadn't faded, and if you tilted your head a certain way it was sort of shaped like Peru.) Most of the customers had trickled out, and many of the incoming ones turned away at the door when they heard what the wait time for caffeine would be.

For her part, Abigail had waited months to wake up from a hypersleep nap, so two to three hours wasn't much to whine over.

“My God, you know Tony Stark.” Cass sounded awestruck. “My boys used to commandeer the TV for the live coverage of the Expo every year. Huge production – popcorn, snacks, the whole nine yards. It was basically our Super Bowl. And you got to see it in person?”

“Dad and Stark would... talk shop.” Abigail smiled softly at her mug – hot chocolate, while coffee wasn't available. “Pepper and I. We'd talk about them. Share stories.” She took a sip. “Good times.”

“It sounds like it. So, you're going, then?”

Abigail nodded. “Old friends. It'll be nice. Good change from... here.” Her smile faltered slightly. “First time... without Dad,” she admitted.

Cass frowned, humming sympathetically. “Will it get in the way of your appointments?”

“Don't know.” Abigail shrugged. “I'll talk with her. Need to... R-S... say I'll go.”

“Well, I hope you have fun. I think-” Cass's face froze. With a fixed, blank smile, she stared over Abigail's shoulder and sucked in a breath that hissed through her teeth. “Oh. Oh, boy.”

Abigail's pulse jumped. Where she was seated, her back was to the windows and doors – across from her, Cass would have an excellent view of them. “What?”

“Don't look now, but I believe you may have attracted a shadow.”

Dread filled her, tying her tongue in knots. “Is – it...” She took another sip to compose herself. “Reporter?”

A look of mild, tired annoyance leaked into Cass's expression. “Oh, yes. That is a reporter. That is most definitely a reporter.”

“How do you know?”

“Nine years ago my five-year-old solved a mathematical theorem that had most college professors stumped.” Cass's chair scraped back as she stood. “I know a journalist when I see one. Back door's where it always is.” Her eyes flickered to the side, then downward at Abigail's hot chocolate. “Your way's clear, don't worry. And you can bring the mug back later.”

Abigail stood, scrambling to gather her wallet, jacket, and drink. “Thank you.”

“Oh don't mention it, Abigail.” Cass grabbed the dish tub and balanced it against her hip, winking at her. “It's kind of fun, you know? Makes me feel thirty-five again. I'll go bump into him when he comes in, should give you time to make your escape.”

Abigail took a full gulp of hot chocolate and darted for the back, unable to hold back a somewhat childish giggle. Once safely outside, she glanced through the window just in time to see Cass “accidentally” step on the back of the journalist's shoe. The flustered man's foot came all the way out, and that was the last Abigail saw before she took off again with half a mug of cocoa warm in her hand.


As it turned out, Fred's mansion included a fully-stocked gymnasium and ninety percent of the time didn't seem to contain Fred's parents. (“Business trip,” Fred said vaguely with a flap of his hand. “Or something. I dunno, most of the time they don't tell me anything and they don't ask me anything and it works out.”) Heathcliff was happy to show them where everything was and lend a hand dragging out padded gymnastics mats. At least, Hiro assumed he was happy – forget stiff upper lips or stiff upper anything, Heathcliff did everything ramrod-straight with the exact same facial expression. With help from Baymax, who had come along on the off-chance that they hurt themselves by accident, it didn't take long for Hiro and Fred to set everything up and get started.

Or at least try to.

“This isn't working,” Fred sighed.

“You think?” Hiro dropped his arms to his sides, frustrated. “Look, I'm trying to show you how to get out of a headlock, but I'm five-foot nothing and there's not a whole lot I can do if having you in a headlock means my feet aren't on the ground!”

“At least it means I can get out of it easy?”

“I could offer assistance,” Baymax said suddenly. “I am sufficiently humanoid to practice these maneuvers, and there is little risk of injury.”

“Oh, good idea. Hang on.” Hiro trotted over to open the robot's access port and pull his combat chip. “This is just for practice, so I don't want your programming to make you knock him over while he's figuring it out. Okay, Baymax, come over here, put your arm around. Fred, do it like I showed you.”

It went much more smoothly after that. After a few dozen tries with Baymax's docile cooperation, Fred started to get the hang of slipping out the hold. He was eager to move on after the thirty or fortieth repetition.

“Ooh! Take-downs! Show me some take-downs!”

Hiro sighed, mentally seeking patience. Had he been like this with Tadashi? For the life of him he couldn't remember. The moments that stuck in his mind were always the ones after he'd gotten past his initial clumsiness and found his rhythm, and it was really only Tadashi's gentle ribbing that reminded him that the clumsiness stage had actually happened. Sparring matches between them were always brief, only ever half-serious, and usually ended in fits of uncontrollable laughter when one of them inevitably faceplanted.

He stopped that line of thinking when he realized that his chest hurt and the pain was showing on his face. What would Tadashi do?

“All right, then,” he said at length. “Try and kick me.”

Fred didn't try to kick him so much as awkwardly lift his leg and swing it out, but that just made it simpler. With practiced ease, Hiro darted nimbly around the half-hearted blow, caught Fred's leg under his arm, and overbalanced him. Fred hit the mat flailing.

“Okay, so-” Hiro stood over him, hands on his hips. “If you stand up I can show you the motions.” Fred bobbed up like a cork in water, and Hiro got to work. “Okay, so stand like this – no, your other foot forward, you have to take a step to make this work. The step is very important–” Without warning, Fred whipped out a small notebook and a golf pencil. Hiro gaped at him. “Are you taking notes?”

“Don't wanna forget anything. 'Cause I will.”

All in all, walking Fred through what he knew was surprisingly easy. The only teaching experience Hiro had was that one tutoring session in high school when he tried to explain DNA replication to a bored senior five years older than him. One of the worst decisions he'd ever made.

Showing Fred how to knock someone over was absolutely nothing like it. There was certainly something awkward about teaching self-defense moves to someone with a full head of height on him, but it helped that Fred didn't seem to care much. He paid attention, didn't argue, asked questions, and was pretty much the most agreeable student ever.

“Wow,” Hiro remarked, after his back hit the mat gently for the umpteenth time. “Your professors must love you.”

“You're heavier than you look,” Fred replied. “I mean, you're still pretty light, but like – not as light as I thought you'd be?” He reached down to help him up again.

Hiro frowned up at him. “How light do I look?”

“You look eight pounds, dude. How much do you weigh?”

Oh hell no. Scowling, Hiro looked away and mumbled his answer.

Fred cupped an ear and leaned in, smirking. “I'm sorry, what was that?”

Hiro glared daggers at him briefly, then averted his eyes again. “Ninety-three point seven.”

“Is that wet or dry?”

Hiro's battlecry cracked as he knocked Fred's feet out from under him again. His pupil was laughing too hard to put up a proper defense, and Hiro took full advantage of that to send him tumbling unceremoniously to the floor.

Before Fred could recover himself, Hiro's phone chimed with a text from Honey. Hiro barely glanced over it before he was tossing the phone to Fred and shoving the combat chip back into Baymax's access port.

u guys need 2 suit up & get 2 hope hsptl now!!!!

Gear was always close at hand. Over the previous months Hiro had given up trying to ferry Baymax's armor from place to place, and simply built a copy – one for home and one for Fred's place, their two main bases of operations. Technically the Ishioka Lab counted as a third, but leaving crime-fighting gear around where some unsuspecting SFIT students might trip over it was way too risky.

In a matter of minutes, Baymax was rocketing over the city with both of them on his back, as Wasabi briefed them over the com.

“We don't know details of 'how' just yet,” Wasabi was saying. “But ten minutes ago the whole building started collapsing. We have the police radio on – apparently someone saw it coming early enough to start evacuating. The top floors should be empty, but there are still people inside and escape routes are starting to cave.”

“All right then,” Gogo replied. She was on her own somewhere in the city, skating through the streets to meet them there. “Focus on getting everyone out ASAP?”

“Pretty much.” Hiro's eyes narrowed. “Wasabi, careful with those blades. I know you're more applied physics than structural physics, but if I send you blueprints for the building, do you think you can judge which places are most likely to fall?”

“Uh, probably? Architecture's not really my thing.”

“Send 'em around,” Gogo advised. “We'll need to know our way around when we get there.”

“I'll shore up the damage best I can.” Honey's voice came in terse over the line. “Wasabi, so help me if you don't put your foot back on the gas, I'm climbing into your lap this time.”

“Keep your heads, guys,” Hiro interrupted. “There're a lot of people involved, and we can't afford to mess this up. Wasabi, time's critical here, okay?”

“Okay, okay, but I'm going thirty over the speed limit under protest.”

Honey actually growled.

Inwardly, Hiro held back a sigh. He had Baymax, Gogo had her skates, and even Fred could get around fairly quickly with his suit's super-jump feature. But Honey and Wasabi were still without solid modes of transportation. He was working to fix that, but between class, his microbots, and the odd disaster that cropped up for them to avert, he kept getting sidetracked.

“We're coming up on the hospital now,” he told them. Sure enough, the boxy white building was coming into view below them, its base suffused in a cloud of dust. Even from this distance, he could see the cracks in the structure and a few areas where ceilings were beginning to sag. His stomach twisted. “Aw, geez...” The parking lots and surrounding streets were a throng of emergency vehicles and frightened people.

“Almost there,” Gogo announced curtly. “Coming up on the east parking lot.”

Hiro nodded, though he knew Gogo couldn't see him. “Us too.”

“Police should give us more info.” Fred put his hood up. “Wasabi, Honey, we can pass it along to you.”

“Got it,” Honey replied. “Madre de Dios, Wasabi, there's no one in the intersection, just run it already!”

Baymax dove.


Abigail was only in this position because for once in all the months she had been visiting this place, she had decided to be brave.

Dr. Chaganti was a skilled speech therapist, endlessly patient and excellent at her job, and Abigail owed all of her current relative coherence to the woman. On the other hand, her office was on the top floor of Hope Hospital's east wing.

The elevator was worse than a bus or a tram. It was smaller, practically tiny, it was quiet and closed off from corner to corner, the walls were too close and people even closer. The shaking and rattling went straight to Abigail's gut, threatening to bring her lunch up every time she stood inside. And so, she had taken the stairs to the top floor of the hospital for three months. It gave her peace of mind and (she imagined) killer calves.

But today, she had walked in with an invitation to Stark Expo and a semester of graduate school in her future, and she'd glared at the elevator doors like they were challenging her. She had decided, then and there, that the elevator was not going to scare her off today. She was going to make that elevator her bitch.

Once inside, she had dithered for a while, wasting time until she finally pressed the appropriate button. The trip up had been a trial to hold down her lunch, but she had made it. She had made it all the way to the top, to find the floor emptying and an alarm light blinking. Chaganti's office had been empty, but her therapist had left her a note. If you're reading this, GET OUT. They said to evacuate. Use stairs. Abigail had sprinted for the stairwell and plunged down. Two floors down and she was joining a throng of other people milling down the steps like a herd of cattle. One more flight and the building started shaking. Earthquake?

A deafening rumble and tearing noise reached her ears, and the stairs beneath her feet shook. Her ears rang with panic and her vision went white for a split second. Some sixth sense slammed energy into her veins, and she grabbed the nearest person and flung both of them backward up the steps. A crack formed in the stairs where their feet had just been, and concrete began to fall away. Someone screamed, and it lit up in a chorus. The milling crowd picked up speed – some bulled forward into the backs of those in front of them, others sprang back, and a few unfortunate ones slipped through the crack. Abigail lost her balance, falling back to the steps as her breath heaved noisily through her throat. The stair beneath her feet shifted dangerously, and she scrambled back as more and more of the floor fell away. Someone fell through within her reach, and she grabbed the woman's arm before she could plummet to the steps below. Fighting back panic, she dragged the other woman onto firmer ground, farther and farther back, praying for the shaking to stop.

By the time it did, the gap was too far to jump without risking her neck. She was one of five people trapped – everyone else caught in it had either rushed forward (most of them) or fallen through to the lower stairs (an unlucky few).

The woman she had saved was sprawled beside her, shaking violently as she heaved with high-pitched gasps and sobs. Abigail reached for her shoulder but flinched her hand back before she made contact, not sure if touching her would help or make it worse.

“It's,” she managed to choke out. Words escaped her all over again, ducking in and out of the fog that swamped her brain colored pastel fog constantly shifting and changing, kaleidoscope clouds in purple and lavender and deep blue that lightened to blinding pink and blue like a sunset on clouds because there's the light there's the way out

Abigail shook her head violently.

“Are you okay?” one of the others asked her. Dumbly she nodded. Beyond them, the crowd was hurrying down the steps. Would any of them remember to let the police know they were trapped?

“We'll be fine.” Another of the trapped few, a portly woman in a hijab and scrubs, spoke calmly. “There's more than one stairwell. We can find another way down.”

The group made their way back up to the landing of the fifth floor, with the nurse (Karimi, according to her name tag) in the lead. “The other stairwell is across the hall,” she said, pulling the door open. “If we just – oh.” A breathless stream of Arabic cut off further explanation. Beside Abigail, the woman who had nearly fallen let out a choked sob.

Before them, the hallway of the fifth floor was in shambles. A long crack ran along the drooping ceiling, and more than half the floor was missing – just gone, fallen through to the lower hall. What was left was sagging visibly and cracking in several places. Abigail put her hand to the wall and cautiously leaned out, straining to see to the lower floor. Her stomach twisted at the sight – there were people down there, some of them half-buried in rubble. She struggled against the panic and fog in her brain – the words wouldn't come. She managed a strangled noise and pointed down.

Nurse Karimi seemed to recover herself. “Hello?” she called. Gingerly she inched out to where Abigail was, right at the edge of where the floor was still somewhat intact. “Can you hear me? Is anyone all right down there?”

“W-we're okay!” Someone called back. It was a teenage girl sitting up, clutching one shoulder. There was blood on her face.

Sitting nearly motionless with one leg trapped beneath a large fragment of the floor, a man in nurse's scrubs craned his neck upward and signaled with one hand. “Everyone's alive. But a lot of us can't move, and we aren't sure about the stairs.”

“Do they know we're still up here?” the girl asked, her voice wavering.

Nurse Karimi leaned farther out. “The stairs have fallen, but we're trying to find another way down. We can try the sixth-” Beneath her and Abigail's feet, a crack spread from the broken floor. Abigail felt it lurch, and on instinct she grabbed the nurse by the shoulder and shoved her back. But the stout woman had a more solid center of gravity than Abigail had anticipated – Karimi went stumbling back to firmer ground, but the force of Abigail's own push overbalanced her. She pitched forward, staggering out to the fragile, crumbling floor.

There were cries from behind her, and she felt the floor beneath her feet begin to give way. Adrenaline rushed through her, driving her onward a few more steps until another section of floor fell away and forced her farther. In a panic, Abigail cast about for a way to safety, and her eyes fell upon the thick horizontal handrail that rang along either wall. With a yell of alarm, she grabbed it just as the tile underneath her vanished, leaving her clinging to the wall for dear life.

Wide-eyed, she turned to see the group she was with, staring at her in alarm. Karimi had her hand to the wall, the other outstretched but well out of reach. “Come back – hurry.” The nurse eyed the floor fearfully. “You can do it – just move along the bar until you can reach me. Take my hand, come on!”

Abigail slid her hand along the bar, ready to obey. She stopped.

This bar – this lifesaving bar of metal and plastic – ran from one end of the hallway to the other, on both sides. The only places that lacked it were doorways, but there were no doorways across from each other, and the hallway could be narrow enough to make the jump...

She looked back to Nurse Karimi, eyes wide. “I-I... can...” she choked out. She planted her feet against the wall so that not all of her weight was on her arms.

“Miss, what are you doing?”

“Other – other side.” She briefly let go with one hand to point. “I can – go.”

“It's too far,” the nurse replied. “Don't – we can find another way–”

Somewhere else in the building, something rumbled and fell. The walls rattled, as did the damaged ceiling above them.

Mind made up, Abigail slid her hand down the bar and carefully worked her way down, toward the far end of the hall. She couldn't risk putting her weight on the floor – not when it was liable to break off and fall on the injured people below. Bile rose in her throat, but she forced it down. You can do this. It's easy. You've done it a hundred times in Assassin's Creed already, right? Super easy. Don't panic, all you have to do is get from one end of a hallway to another without touching the ground. It's the ultimate “Floor Is Lava.” She reached the first doorway and scowled. Now for the hard part – if only the group would stop calling to her to come back.

“Shh!” she hissed. The noise died down, and she twisted her head around to see the other side. Okay, well... that looked a lot farther than it had before. What was this move called again? Back eject, that was it. She'd reached one of the many areas where the floor was missing, so there was that, too. Abigail braced herself, hoped the bar was strong enough to take her weight, and jumped. She twisted in midair and grabbed the bar on the opposite side. Her feet slipped, scrabbling for purchase on the wall, but she had made it and the bar wasn't tearing out of its fastenings, so – success.

Don't wuss out now, she told herself, giddy with relief. You are Ezio Auditore and you can do this. No wait – screw Ezio. You're totally Aveline de Grandpre. She shook her head to clear the distraction. Luckily there weren't too many doorways.

As she made her way along, she noticed that any interjections from Karimi and the others had gone from begging her to come back to safety, to calling out encouragements. And while that was a welcome change, it was no less nerve-wracking and distracting. Gritting her teeth, she tuned them out and kept going.

Finally, with her arms screaming for relief, she stumbled to the floor on the other side of the hall. Stepping gingerly, she shoved open the door to the stairwell, and almost cried with relief when she found them intact. “They're – safe!” She tried to get a focus on her words. “I'll go – get help.”

She plunged down into the stairwell, and made it about halfway down the first flight before the ceiling caved in overhead. Abigail had time to shriek only once.

Something huge and heavy punched through the wall, snatched her out of the stairway, and carried her out into the open air. Abigail inhaled dust and drywall and coughed, blinking in the sudden sunlight. Her eyes flew open wide with shock.

Instead of falling to her death, she was tucked safely under a massive bright red arm, clinging to the smooth surface with as much traction as her bare hands could get. She craned her neck for a better view, and found herself staring at two helmeted faces – one belonging to the red hulk that held her, and a smaller purple one peeking over its shoulder.

She blinked, and for a split second she was surrounded in shifting Mandelbulb clouds again. She had always assumed she'd dreamed this, or she'd read about what happened later and allowed it to color her memory. But the sense of familiarity that gripped her now was too powerful for simple deja vu. She knew them.

“Are you in any pain?” the voice came from the larger armored figure. “I see no evidence of serious injury.”

Struck speechless, Abigail shook her head.

“That is good. It is going to be all right – there are paramedics on the ground who can offer further care.”

He descended at a careful speed. Alarm bells went off as the hole in the side of the building rose up and out of reach. “Wait!” she blurted. The single word returned to her, and she held onto it like a lifeline. “Waitwaitwaitwait!”

“What's the matter?” It was a second voice, muffled and distorted beyond recognition, either by the helmet or some kind of audio-altering device. The little one on the red one's back was leaning over his ride's shoulder again, watching her from behind a dark, reflective helmet.

“Back!” Wait, no, I don't want him to take me back. But she was running on adrenaline and leftover panic, the words were dancing out of her reach again, and she could only catch a few of them at a time. “Back – fourth floor! Fifth!”

“...What?”

Frustration boiled over, and she actually growled in irritation. It did absolutely nothing to help with her concentration. “Floor – broken–” She stopped. Deep breaths, calm down. Words. Nouns, verbs, don't worry about good grammar. “Fourth, fifth floor,” she repeated. “Trapped.” That was the word she was looking for. “Trapped – stairs – help. Floor, broke.”

The purple helmet nodded. “Got it. Thank you – Baymax, take her back down.” The descent resumed, and Abigail let herself relax at last when she heard the smaller hero relaying the information to someone over a radio.

Chapter Text

“No fatalities.” Wasabi sat down hard with a sigh. “Plenty of injuries, and Hope Hospital's set for a proper demolition – what's left of it, at least – but no one was killed.” The six of them were sprawled out in Hiro's garage, wherever was remotely comfortable. Wasabi and Honey were on the couch, and Baymax lay supine on the floor so that Fred and Gogo could lean comfortably against him. Hiro slouched in his swivel chair, lost in thought. Everyone was slightly bruised, battered, and – save for Wasabi – still shaking dust and debris out of their hair.

Gracias a Dios ,” Honey murmured. “It's lucky someone saw it coming.”

“It's a goddamn miracle.” No one bothered to check Gogo's language. “I mean, no one saw the sinkhole coming, did they?” A collective shudder ran through the group.

“So what caused it?” Honey asked cautiously.

“Talked with the cops,” Gogo replied. “Earthquake at three-forty-two, right before some security guard noticed cracks in the the lower walls and started raising hell to get everyone down. Four-point-two on the Richter scale.”

Wasabi raised his head. “Four-point-two? That's next to nothing . I didn't even feel it. Did any of you?” Honey shook her head.

“Nope.” Fred's wrist was splinted – sprained, not broken, from an ill-judged jump when the ground had started to sink.

“Might've,” Gogo murmured. “But I was biking past some road work, so I dunno.”

“I detected a tremor at about that time,” Baymax spoke up. “But I did not think it worthy of mention, as serious risk of damage and injury usually requires a greater magnitude.” The robot paused. “In the future, I will be more diligent in alerting you to potential causes of injury.”

Gogo patted the robot. “It's cool, Baymax, wasn't your fault.”

“It really isn't,” Honey said worriedly. “There's no reason that a tremor that small should have caused that much damage, especially to just one building. Hiro, what do you think?”

There was silence from the desk. Heads turned to see Hiro with his chin in his palm, staring at the wall through half-lidded eyes as if he hadn't heard a word.

“Hiro?” Gogo called over. “Hey. Earth to Boy Genius.”

Hiro blinked vaguely as if emerging from a daydream, and turned his head to look at her. “H-huh? Oh, sorry, could you repeat that?”

“What's on your mind?” Wasabi asked.

“Nothing major.” Hiro sat up, shifted his position, and slouched again.

Baymax turned his head. “Hiro is likely experiencing emotional fluctuations-”

“Puberty again?” Gogo said dryly. Fred snickered.

“While that may be a factor, it is more than likely a result of seeing Abigail Callaghan today.”

Surprise rippled through the group. Fred sat bolt upright, wincing when he jarred his wrist by accident. “Abigail? When did you run into her?”

“She was in the stairwell when part of it started to cave,” Hiro replied. “Dunno what she was doing there. But she pointed us in the direction of a bunch of people trapped on the fourth and fifth floors. I mean, Baymax could've found them without her, but she also warned us that the fifth floor was basically gone.” His eyebrows were knitted together thoughtfully.

“Huh.” Honey sat back again. “I wonder what she was doing at the hospital. I haven't heard from her at all, not even in the news.” She pulled a wry face. “Tabloid magazines don't count. They're garbage.”

“Good for her, staying out of that,” Wasabi muttered. “I know I would. She was okay though, wasn't she?”

“Miss Callaghan was unharmed, aside from severely elevated stress levels,” Baymax replied.

Fred watched Hiro's face carefully. “Are you okay, man? You look a little out of it.”

“It was just... weird, seeing her again.” Hiro slumped further down and rotated the chair back and forth with his foot. “Deja vu or something. I guess I expected to at least run into her at some point, I dunno why, I just thought it'd happen, but not like that. I don't even know if she recognized us.”

Fred tilted his head. “Recognized you as in remembered when you saved her from the portal, or recognized you as in recognized literally who you are?”

“Um...” Hiro ran his hand through his hair, frowning. “The first one, mainly, but... I guess both, now that you mention it? She wouldn't, though, would she? I mean, she was unconscious until the paramedics took her, and I've made all our helmet visors tinted and reflective since then, so I don't think she would...”

“I feel like we should talk to her,” Honey murmured, toying with her phone. “But I'm not sure that we can without giving ourselves away.”

“Moot point anyway, unless we could find her,” Gogo pointed out.

Heads turned to Hiro again.

“I don't think so,” Hiro said flatly. He avoided their eyes by staring at his lap. “I mean I could, I definitely could, but I don't think it's a good idea.”

“I kinda agree,” Fred admitted, gnawing a little at his lip. “Besides, she was an SFIT grad student, right? For all we know, she might re-register and we'll run into her there, problem solved. But if she's staying out of the news, then it means she's laying low, and we should probably, y'know, respect that instead of trying to get all up in her business after we got her dad sent to jail.”

“Is it bad that I think Fred's being sensible?” Wasabi wondered out loud.

“Probably,” Fred replied.

Finally, when it seemed impossible for Hiro to slouch any lower, he slid out of his chair entirely. “I'm gonna go grab the mail for Aunt Cass,” he announced, and slunk out of the room.

Once Hiro was out of hearing range, Gogo tapped Baymax lightly with her knuckles. “Wanna give us a diagnosis there, nursebot?”

“My sensors indicate elevated heart rate and blood pressure,” the robot replied. “However, by removing himself from the situation, Hiro is allowing himself quiet and solitude in order to calm himself and prevent an unnecessary outburst. It is a reasonable and healthy response to stress, though I do not believe that his emotional distress will be so easily solved in the long term. On the other hand, I also do not believe it to be nearly as severe as it was three months ago.”

Pobrecito,” Honey murmured.

“Furthermore,” Baymax went on. “There are times when the same can be said of most of you, as well.”

Honey's mouth snapped shut. An awkward silence fell, and more than one uncomfortable glance was exchanged.

“It is nothing to be ashamed of,” Baymax assured them. “Grief, like many emotional ailments, lacks a cure, and periods of increased severity are to be expected throughout the healing process. The important thing is to avoid denying or ignoring these periods, and to manage your grief in a healthy manner. Both crying and talking are legitimate methods. As are hugs.”

Fred twisted around and wrapped his arms around as much of the robot as he could. “Oh my God I'm so glad you're part of the team.”

Baymax's massive hand rose up to pat him comfortingly on the back. “It is going to be all right. There, there.” Gogo ducked her head to hide her face, for all the good that did when everyone already knew she only did that to hide her smiles.

Honey drew her knees up to her chest and rested her chin between them. “It's kind of like he's still looking out for us, isn't it?” she said softly.


Hiro sorted through the mail as he shouldered his way back through the front door of the cafe. Most of it was bills and ads and stuff, though lately he'd taken to checking through it a bit more closely on the off chance that there was something for him from the university. He checked the addressee on each one: Aunt Cass, Aunt Cass, Aunt Cass –

Tadashi.

Hiro's stomach clenched. It was nothing – junk mail, nothing more, but apparently someone hadn't gotten the memo. Somehow. After five months. With a dark scowl, he flipped it to the back so he wouldn't have to look at it anymore.

The one beneath that was addressed to him. Humming, he tucked the envelope under his arm, went through the rest, and left them on the kitchen counter for Aunt Cass to go through after closing time. He slipped the letter back out and glanced over it quickly on his way back to the garage.

His eyes fell upon the sender address, and he stopped in his tracks. His jaw dropped so hard that he felt it crack.

What were Pepper Potts and Anthony Stark's names doing on his mail?

With no conscious command from his brain, his feet continued to carry him back to the garage. Hiro's hands shook as he tore the envelope open and pulled the letter free. He was just stepping into the garage again when he read the first few lines and shrieked.

Dimly he heard Fred yelp, but all his attention was on the words in front of him. No way. No way. There's absolutely no way.

It wasn't until he felt a light swat to the back of his head that he wrenched back into reality. Startled, he looked up to see Gogo staring at him. He glanced around. Wasabi was still on the couch, looking confused; Honey seemed faintly alarmed. Across the room, Fred seemed... excited?

“Hiro, you wanna tell us why you just spiked our blood pressure?” Gogo raised an eyebrow. “Or are you gonna stand there catching flies all day?”

Rather than answering with his own words, Hiro turned back to the letter and read out loud.

“Dear Mr. Hamada, we are pleased to invite you to this year's annual Stark Expo.” Gogo almost swore, but bit down on a knuckle to cut herself off. Overwhelmed, Hiro smashed his face into the paper and went on, in a muffled voice, “Is this a prank? This has got to be a prank. I did not just get a letter invite to Stark Expo.”

An excited Honey vaulted over the back of the couch. Gogo recovered herself, seized one edge of the paper, and tugged at it to extricate it from Hiro's faceplant. “Hey, c'mon lemme see.” Hiro didn't move except to loosen his fingers, and Gogo gingerly slid the paper free so she could look at it. “God damn, this looks like the real deal.” Honey almost headbutted her ducking in for a closer look.

“Well?” Wasabi called over from the couch. He had gotten up and now stood with one hand on the back rest, but otherwise he wasn't moving closer. Fred was perched comfortably on top of Baymax, watching wordlessly and intently. “What else does it say?”

Gogo's eyes were almost perfectly round. “Okay okay – 'As you may know, Stark Expo features the leading technology of the modern age, straight from the minds of the country's best and brightest – okay blah blah blah, engineers, achievements, words words we here at Stark Industries would never hesitate to encourage the growth of such a promising student in technology' – holy crap, Hiro – more official stuff, 'We invite you to attend this year's Expo and see firsthand the very best in the industry,' holy crap, 'expenses will not be an issue, blahblah we await your response, Sincerely Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries.” Gogo let go of the letter, letting Honey take it and see for herself. “Christ on a bike, Hiro, who'd you sell your soul to for this?”

While Gogo was reading out loud, Hiro had slowly sunk to the floor. By the time Gogo addressed him, he was flat on his back with the hood of his jacket pulled over his face, muffling high-pitched noises of glee.

“I am... so jealous.” Wasabi said faintly. “Seriously. I think about thirty percent of me hates you right now.”

The noise that escaped Fred was very close to the sound of air escaping a balloon, or a teakettle boiling. In one bound, he leapt off of Baymax, landed on his feet, and punched the air with his good arm in irrepressible excitement. “Whoo! Your letter finally came in, dude! This is gonna be sick!

Wasabi glanced at him, bewildered. “...What do you mean 'finally'?”

If Fred's grin stretched any wider, it probably would have wrapped around his head. “Okay, well, I'm not saying I knew anything, like one hundred percent knew, buuuuut...” He twitched, tried to hold himself back, and finally burst out snickering. “Okay, I'm kidding, I totally knew and you have no idea how hard it was not to give it away.” His hands went to his face, dragging down until he pulled down his lower eyelids. “The answer is, so hard.

Hiro sat up, pushing his hood and his hair out of his face. “Wait, what? You knew about this? How did you know about this?”

“Long story, but like-” Fred paused again, snickering gleefully. “Okay so my dad's super rich and stuff, and he knows people, and there's this one family friend who's like an honorary uncle who's, um, well he's in pretty good with the Stark Industries CEO and he goes every year, and it maaaaay have wandered down the grapevine that they wanted to invite you.”

“I hate you,” Hiro said weakly.

Fred grinned wickedly. “I hope not, dude, 'cause I was hoping we could maybe go early so I could show you all the cool stuff to do in New York.”

With a yell of excitement, Hiro launched himself across the room and caught Fred in a perfect combination of a tackle and a headlock. “I'm gonna kill you eventually but holy crap!” He laughed wildly, hugging Fred around the shoulders. “I'm going to Stark Expo! I'm going to Stark Expo!

Honey descended into shrieking gales of laughter. Gogo almost spontaneously combusted from pure envy right then and there. Wasabi finally ventured over to have a closer look at the letter.

“Can I get a photocopy of this?” he asked at length, holding it with something close to reverence. “This is going in my scrapbook.”


Abigail kept her head down, focused on her coffee and newspaper, and tried not to hyperventilate.

It was unfair, really. It was quiet at the cafe, as it normally was around this time of day, so she had tucked herself into her usual corner with a latte and a sudoku puzzle to while away the time. It should have been a peaceful, completely unstressful day of being out of the apartment for fresh air and what little decent company she get these days. She had been planning to have a word with Cass, maybe during a lull, and ask her a favor.

And then, lo and behold, Hiro Hamada had come wandering through the cafe with a pile of envelopes in his hand. She'd almost inhaled her coffee through her nose at the sight of him. Her heart rate spiked, and for a few seconds she could feel it pound in her ears.

Hiro, of course, took no notice of her whatsoever.

And why would he? He only knew her face from the pictures of her that the newspapers had run in the weeks after her rescue. Luckily that little craze had died down, or she had just gotten better at hiding from journalists. The only more recent published photos were usually taken on the down-low by people writing for sources less reputable than the SF Chronicle.

But Cass didn't seem the type to let her nephew read tabloid magazines.

The risk was still there, though. Cass had certainly recognized her, and the boy was a genius, so why wouldn't he as well?

She breathed a sigh of relief when he left again, but the anxiety remained. If he was hanging around the cafe, could she still make her escape without being seen? Where exactly was he?

Her indecision stymied her long enough for him to make a second appearance. She shifted in her seat, trying not to fidget too much as she angled her head downward as if focused on her coffee and puzzle, but continued to watch from behind her shades.

When Hiro had first come in, his shoulders had been slumped, his feet shuffle-dragging on the floor, and if anything he looked even more dispirited when he walked out again. But now that he was back, he might as well have been a different person. One hand was at his head, pushing back that fluffy mess of hair; the other gripped an unfolded letter. He hop-skipped every other step – and man, was that cute. If Abigail's heart hadn't been beating in her throat,she would have d'awwed right then and there.

His voice reached her from halfway across the cafe. “Aunt Cass Aunt Cass Aunt Cass sorry if you're busy but holy crap!

Abigail watched as Cass took a quick cursory glance around (she always did that to check for ignored customers) before setting aside her tray of dishes and giving her nephew her full attention. Hiro's excitement must have been infectious; there was already a grin on Cass's face as she craned her neck to see what was on the paper. “Hiro, what is it? Show me, show me!”

Hiro practically shoved the letter into her hands. Cass took it, smoothing the creases as she turned it over, and passed her eyes over the first few lines. As Abigail watched, her eyes widened. One hand went to her mouth to stifle gasp.

Holy crap,” Cass breathed, words muffled behind her hand.

“I know, right?” From the grin on his face, Hiro had either handed his aunt a winning lottery ticket or an internship acceptance letter from Stark Industries. One of the two. Abigail sipped her coffee and smiled a little as nephew and aunt exchanged a single glance before hugging each other wildly. If any of the scant customers in the cafe found the display odd, none of them bothered to look up. Must have been a regular occurrence.

“Fred's going too,” Hiro whispered in a rush. “It's just – I'll tell you everything later, tonight after closing. I mean – I'm assuming I can go, right?”

“You are going to go and so help me you are taking pictures.” Cass stared at him for a moment longer, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Ohhh – come here, you!” She pulled him into another tight hug. “I'm so proud of you! This is amazing!”

At last when Hiro took the letter and left the cafe again, Abigail couldn't help but track him with her eyes as he darted out. A small part of her wanted to stand up and intercept him, but it was easily squashed by the nervousness that dominated the rest of her. The longer she put off talking to him, the worse it got. Add to that her harrowing experience at Hope Hospital, and she'd been a veritable ball of nerves all day (her second near-death experience, and her second rescue by those technologically-advanced vigilantes that had taken the public by storm). Shaking herself, Abigail found her nerve again and caught Cass's eye from across the room. Her friend held up one finger and went to top up all the coffee mugs in the cafe.

She came around to Abigail last, practically buzzing with excitement as she refilled her coffee. “So,” she murmured, too quietly for anyone but Abigail to hear. “Turns out you're not the only one with an invite to Stark Expo.”

Abigail almost knocked over her freshly refilled mug. “Wh – Hiro?”

“One of his friends, too.” Cass hummed happily. “He'll be walking on air until he's twenty.”

For a moment, all Abigail could do was blink at her in astonishment. The news struck her speechless, and it was a moment before she recovered from her surprise long enough to smile. “Good for him. He'll have fun.”

“Oh, I hope so.” Cass paused. “This does mean you'll both be going, though.” A look of concern crossed her face. “How likely is it that you'll run into each other?”

Abigail pursed her lips. “Very,” she admitted. “Little worried. I'll have to...” She paused, not because the words wouldn't come but because she honestly wasn't sure what to say. “...Do something. I guess.” She shrugged.

Cass set aside the coffeepot and lingered at her table under the pretense of wiping it. “My offer still stands, you know. I'm happy to sit him down and mediate.” At Abigail's noncommittal hum, she added, “I think it'd be good for him. For both of you. Whenever you're ready.”

Suppressing the urge to sigh, Abigail nodded. There was time, after all. She had well over a month to brace herself. She wouldn't bet money on being able to fix her words problem in that time frame, but she could improve and she could plan. “Can I... ask a favor?”

“Of course.”

“Need to RSVP,” she explained. “Can't call. Want to write. Could you... help me?”

“I'd be happy to.” Cass paused as she retrieved the pot. “Hiro and Fred will probably have their heads together planning things. I'll snatch up a free evening, so you can – oh, hell.”

That look was back – the smile frozen on Cass's face as she pretended to look at Abigail but was actually looking past her. Abigail felt her heart sink. “Again?” she whispered.

She watched Cass's eyes track something behind her. “Again.” The woman sighed lightly. “Have a look, it's the same one from last time.”

Cautiously, Abigail looked over her shoulder, keeping her head turned so that with her eyes hidden it was impossible to tell where she was looking. Sure enough, the man from the previous day was loitering outside, gradually making his way closer and closer to the door. Abigail pushed her chair back. “Back door?” she murmured.

“Yeah, just – ohhhh, crap.” Abigail glanced at her and followed her gaze to another man walking past outside. As Abigail watched, he paced toward the entrance to the alley behind the cafe, then back, then around again. Abigail's eyes narrowed. Son of a bitch was casing the back door. “What do you know,” Cass murmured. “He brought a friend.”

Abigail's heart jumped to the base of her throat again, and she tightened her grip on her coffee to ward off the tremors in her hand. “I wish-” The words stuck in her throat as she tried to force out a joke. “Should've – put on make-up. For pictures.”

“Feel up for this?” Cass asked, as the first reporter paused to glance over his shoulder. Was that a third journalist with him? Heaven help her, now everyone looked like a journalist to her. The Lucky Cat was supposed to be safe.

Abigail opened her mouth to put up a strong front. She wanted to be brave, she really did. But then, she remembered, the last time she'd tried to be brave, she had ended up in an elevator to the top floor of a crumbling building. “Not really,” she admitted.

“Got it.” Raising her voice, Cass turned her head toward the handful of other customers present. “Round of free desserts on the house, for the next four seconds,” she announced. An answering murmur of approval rippled through them. The nearest one, a tiny old Japanese woman in a maroon halter top and yoga pants, looked up from pouring bourbon into her coffee cup to smile knowingly and wink. “Alright, hop behind the counter.”

“What.”

“Go – the windows are tinted enough that he probably won't be able to see before he gets in. I'll handle the rest.”

The journalist was almost at the door. “Thank you,” Abigail blurted, and rushed to obey. Feeling stupid, she crouched to the floor behind the counter – hidden by pastries on display – and listened tensely as her friend came to her rescue.

 

Chapter Text

 Cass Hamada swept across the cafe as she heard the door open. That's Mrs. Matsuda at Table 7, better break out the higashi, Mr. and Mrs. Akanda at 12 always split a cinnamon roll together, I should heap on a little more icing, Pei-ling Forster at 4 loves cake pops more than life itself... If she was going to buy their silence for Abigail's sake, she might as well pay them handsomely.

She looked up with a cheery smile, laden with sweets, at the sight of the two – no, three journalists stepping into her cafe. The third was a dark-haired young woman, pretty enough despite her beak of a nose. The tallest of the trio had a full head of height on her. Carefully she checked their line of vision, and suppressed a sigh of relief when none of them were looking toward Abigail's hiding place. Her heart chilled a little at the sight of them – the last time she'd seen their ilk, it hadn't been Abigail hiding – it had been Hiro, fleeing upstairs to avoid another reporter wanting an interview with the grieving young prodigy.

“Feel free to seat yourselves,” she said cheerily, praying that they wouldn't. “There's plenty of room.”

“Actually... Mrs. Hamada, wasn't it?” It was the reporter from the other day, giving her a smarmy smile.

“Oh! Miss Hamada, please. I'm not married.” She threw in a wink for good measure.

The smile widened. “Miss Hamada, then. I was wondering if you've served Abigail Callaghan recently?”

“Depends on how you mean 'recently',” Cass replied blithely. “Goodness, that could mean yesterday for some people and last year for others. Time's relative, or something. I'm probably not quoting that right. Heaven knows I'm not the genius of the family.”

The taller man nudged him and murmured to him. Cass turned her head discreetly as she placed two bulging cake pops in front of a starry-eyed college sophomore who looked ready to hug her. With her ear angled just so, she caught the words. “Look around, Jun, she's not here. We got a bad tip, let's just go.” The first journalist, Jun, gave a slight shake of his head before turning back to Cass.

“Miss Hamada, if you aren't too busy, can we ask you a few questions?”

Well, that was another downside to a lull in business. But Cass was nothing if not well-practiced. It may have been eight or nine years since her heyday of giving journalists the runaround of their lives, but she was a patient woman. “I assume so – you just did,” she answered promptly, and kept walking. Pei-Ling Forster bit into a cake pop to hide a giggle.

Jun the reporter paused, blinking in confusion, before persisting. “Miss Hamada, considering recent events, what's your current position?”

Cass halted. “Recent events? Not sure which recent events you mean. As for my position, I'm standing with my feet together and facing forward, but I don't see how that's relevant.”

Gaping at her, Jun hesitated long enough for the hawk-nosed woman to jump in. “What are your thoughts on news reports of Robert Callaghan's ongoing trial?

“Good for paper-mache. What can I say, it's a hobby.” Cass placed a plate of higashi in front of Mrs. Matsuda. With none of Pei-ling's discretion, the old woman cackled loudly.

“Our sources tell us that Abigail Callaghan was recently reinstated in SFIT's graduate program,” the hulking journalist broke in. “How do you feel about the Institute granting a spot in the student body to the daughter of your nephew's murderer?”

“You must be mistaken.” Her tone was polite with an edge. “The courts are calling it manslaughter.” The temperature in the cafe seemed to drop a few degrees – Cass could feel eyes on her, not just the reporters, but several worried customers as well. Mr. Akanda looked seconds away from starting out of his chair, but he didn't need to. She had this. Green tea dango for Ethan Nakamura at Table 3.

Jun recovered first. “Do you consider Abigail Callaghan a customer or a friend?”

“Yes. Haven't considered hiring her.” Oh, this was getting tiresome.

The journalist persisted. “Ma'am, how does your family explain Abigail Callaghan's role in the recent attack against Alistair Krei?”

“Using words, I assume.” There he goes with “recent” again, she thought as she delivered her last gift, a warm cake donut with white frosting and sprinkles in front of the tall gentleman at Table 9.

“Seriously, Miss Hamada-”

“Oh, I'm always serious,” she replied. “I'm a single mother of two and an independent business owner, after all, so I have to be.” A blink and a slight faltering shake of her smile were the only signs that she realized her slight slip-up.

“You mean single guardian of one, correct?” Jun pressed.

Cass's eye twitched. “Yes. Yes, thank you ever so much for reminding me.”

“Are you worried for the safety of your remaining nephew in the event that his brother's killer is found innocent?”

“No,” she said coldly. “I am not.”

And then the woman shoved her beaky nose into the middle of things again. “Isn't it possible that Abigail Callaghan is ducking responsibility? How do you know that her patronage of your business isn't a thinly-veiled bid for sympathy, after she indirectly caused your nephew's murder?”

Somewhere in her tense, tightly wound brain, something snapped. Cass placed her empty tray on one of the vacant tables and turned to face the woman full-on. “Oh, the same way I know that your questions are a thinly-veiled bid for fast cash and a cheap story.” Her eyes flashed. “Because I'd have to be a complete empty-headed born-yesterday idiot to think otherwise.” Jun's mouth actually dropped, and she took advantage of their momentary shock to step closer. The woman – standing several inches taller than her – stepped back. “How old are you, miss? Or you – Jun, was it? Twenty-six? Twenty-seven, tops. You there, big guy – thirty, maybe? Well let me tell you – I've been dodging shameless bottom-feeding muckrakers like you since the biggest story you could pick up was the cheer squad's bikini car wash.”

Jun's eyes bulged with held-back temper. “I beg your-”

Her voice flew from her mouth, scalding with temper. “But I have my limits, children. And my limits are things like offering Snickers to a five-year-old with a nut allergy in the hopes of luring him into a photo op when his aunt's back is turned, and using my nephew's death to drag a few quotable lines out of me.” The hulking man was leaning toward her now, using his height for a proper looming effect, but it took more than copying LBJ tactics to tuck Cass Hamada's tail between her legs. Drawing herself up, she squared up to the man and met his eyes unflinchingly. “I won't bother asking you if you have no shame, because I already know that you don't. I don't let yellow sensationalist birdcage-liners like you touch my boys – and that goes for either of them – and I certainly wouldn't let you near that girl.”

“So you-” the woman made one last attempt to get a word in edgewise, but Cass wasn't having it.

“You want a quote? Quote this – if I see any of you skulking around my property again, I won't wait for your papers to come out. So help me the next thing lining my cat's litterbox will be the three of you.” Barely shaking with held-back rage, she pointed to the door. “Now get out of my cafe.”

The hulking reporter's face was purpling as he opened his mouth. Cass drew in her core tightly, squared her shoulders, and looked him straight in the eye, the way her sister had once taught her. “More scorn, Cassie – pretend he's the peasant who just got blood on your carriage wheel and had the nerve to complain you ran him over.”

She stepped forward. He stepped back, and then looked surprised that he'd done it. Without a word he turned to storm out of the cafe. Rattled, the two younger reporters rushed to follow him. Cass shot a glance toward the window nearest the alley, and saw the last journalist leave his post watching the back door to join them.

Cass held up one finger. “Everyone out. I'm sorry, just please step outside a moment if you have anything electronic. I'll wave when it's safe.” Pei-ling, the Akandas, and Ethan Nakamura hurriedly gathered their things and vacated their tables. Once they were out of range, Cass stalked over to the cash register and reached under the counter to hit a button. Every electrical device in the cafe went dead. She counted to seven Mississippi's before waving her customers back inside and turning on the backup lights.

“I apologize,” she said loudly. “Don't worry, your devices won't be affected now.”

Pei-ling looked faintly panicked as she checked her phone. “What'd you do?” she asked.

“Sometimes the bold ones like to try and bug the place,” Cass replied. “My nephew rigged up an EMP years ago.”

Mrs. Matsuda cackled again. “It's all clear, honey!” she called toward the counter. “Come on out!”

Shakily, Abigail emerged from her hiding place. “You didn't have to-”

“Don't worry about it.” Cass's voice was tight. “By the end, that was all for my own sake.” She took a deep breath and let it out.

“I should go,” Abigail said. “Sorry – about this.”

Cass felt the rest of her tension give way. “It's not your fault,” she assured the young woman. “I'll call you a cab and text you later, okay?”

The young woman nodded bleakly. The floor drew her eyes, but she seemed to force them up again.

“Hey.” Cass went forward to clasp her shoulder warmly. “It's okay to need help. And it's okay to ask for it when you do. You know that, right?” After a moment, Abigail managed another nod. “It's gonna be okay. Think of the Expo.” At this the young woman smiled, and Cass took a moment to smile back before she went for the phone.

Behind her, the customers within the cafe applauded.


By evening, Hiro was back at Fred's place, finally settling down his buzz of excitement as he focused on his tablet screen. After the earlier joy over the invitation, Aunt Cass had been only too happy to let him spend the evening there. Somehow he had resisted the temptation to rocket across the city on Baymax, and had waited with a tablet under his arm for Heathcliff to pick them up in one of Fred's swanky family cars.

They had all decided that the mansion was the best place for this kind of “homework”. For one thing, the internet speeds were through the roof, and for another, Fred's parents had invested in some very impressive VPN software. The IP address was virtually untraceable.

“So, got anything so far?” Fred asked. They were in the second floor library, sprawled out over comfy chairs around one of the tables. Fred had his own laptop out, looking up air travel times.

“Little bit.” Hiro lipped the gap in his teeth thoughtfully. “So Hope Hospital was built by a company called Tiamat Construction. They're based here in the Bay Area, pretty small company.”

“Have they built any other hospitals?”

“That's the thing.” Hiro frowned. “They haven't. I'm looking at their records and they usually do small offices and warehouses, that kind of stuff. But somehow, about eight years ago, they landed a contract with the city to build a major hospital. Maybe once Honey gets back to us we'll have more to go on.” He leaned over to look at Fred's screen, where Fred had moved on to a list of attractions and destinations in New York. “How're you doing on that?”

“This is gonna be so cool.” Fred burst out, spinning around in his chair. “Okay, so, the Expo's in less than two months, so I was thinking maybe we could go early so I could show you a bunch of the cool famous stuff in New York.”

About seventy-five percent of Hiro's brain screamed yes at this, and he forced himself to dial back a little. Setting aside his tablet, he scooted his chair closer for a better view of Fred's screen. “That really sounds awesome, but I'm not sure. I mean, the invite said they'd foot the bill for room and board and stuff, but I'm pretty sure they just meant for the Expo. And I don't want to ask Aunt Cass to pay out of pocket for a hotel and food just so I can sight-see.” Just the thought made him cringe.

“Dude, seriously?” Fred was staring at him as if he'd just sprouted a second head. “That's not even an issue. I can totally take care of it. I mean, remember where you are right now.”

As if he could forget he was sitting in a mansion. “Are you sure?” Hiro said hesitantly. “Look, I'm just not used to people throwing money around for me, and I don't want to get you in trouble with your parents or anything...”

“You won't,” Fred assured him. “They literally own a vacation island, they're not gonna care about me splurging a little on a trip to the Big Apple.”

Hiro made one last obligatory attempt. “Seriously, Fred, you don't have to go to all this trouble."

"Uh-uh-uh, trust me. It's my pleasure.” Grinning, he turned his laptop slightly to offer Hiro a better view. “No shelling out money for motels, Hiro, we're puttin' on the ritz. You and me, on me."

Hiro sat back, feeling a bit overwhelmed. "Well yeah, but I'm fine with Best Westerns, we don't have to-"

“I can do you one better – well, more like twenty better.” Fred leaned back in his chair and crossed one foot over the other. “Look, now that you guys know I'm super rich, I might as well. Seriously, as a trust fund baby this is how I get my kicks. Treating my friends, and... well, have you seen the faces Denny's servers make when you leave them a couple Benjamins under your coffee cup?"

"If you're super rich, why do you eat at Denny's?"

"Breakfast all day, dude! You have not lived until you've had a Grand Slamwich at three a.m. when it's finals week and you've lost control of your life."

Hiro snickered. “Okay, okay, you've made your point. So, what kind of cool stuff is there to see in New York?”

“Man, what isn't there?” Fred was already scrolling through the list. “I mean, Times Square is a must if you've never been. But then you've got the Natural History Museum, the Botanical Garden, the Empire State, ooh, ooh. I almost forgot, there's this one thing I've been wanting to see.”

Hiro leaned in to read over his shoulder. “What?”

“The Avengers Exhibition.” Fred beamed. Hiro's eyes widened eagerly. “They set it up pretty recently. It's got loads of stuff, like old Howling Commandos gear from the forties, some Asgardian junk that's apparently safe for the public to look at, and stuff that got picked up from the streets after the Battle of New York.”

Unable to contain his excitement, Hiro jostled him by the shoulder. “Oh my God we have to see that or I will lose my mind.

Fred shrugged him off, snickering. “Hang on hang on, lemme bring up Word so we can make a list of stuff we have to see.”

It was a pretty substantial list, in the end, especially when Hiro pushed his tablet aside to hover over Fred's shoulder and help him add to it. Times Square, the Natural History Museum, and the Statue of Liberty were the easiest picks, but the two of them squabbled over quite a few of the others.

“Seriously?” Hiro cast a jaundiced eye toward Fred as he added to the list. “Art museums? Do we really have to?”

“Okay, look, for one thing Honey's gonna bug us for pictures inside the Metropolitan,” Fred sighed. “Trust me, she will. For another? National landmarks, dude. I am dragging you to literally all the mainstream touristy crap I possibly can.”

Blehhhh.”

“So help me I will add the Modern Art Museum to this list,” Fred threatened.

“Don't you dare.” Hiro stared at him in horror.

“I will cram as much culture as I can between your ears, don't think I won't!”

It devolved into a brief slap-fight over the keyboard. By the time Heathcliff walked in with a tray of cookies and hot chocolate, they had compromised by agreeing on Coney Island and at least one zoo.

Biting into a snickerdoodle, Hiro tried not to drool too much. “So, this reminds me. What's the food like there?”

“Like some kind of American melting pot god threw up in your mouth.”

Hiro paused mid-chew. “Y'know, sometimes it's really hard to tell whether or not you're complimenting something.”

“The food's awesome,” Fred clarified. “And since the place is like a historical immigrationsplosion, it's from literally everywhere. But most of all? Pizza. Oh, quick rule – while we're in New York, no chain restaurants. None. We're eating local, got it?”

“Fine by me, I guess.” Hiro shrugged. “I mean, you're the expert, not me. Oh, hey.” He leaned forward suddenly. “Stop for a second. Scroll back up?” When Fred complied, he jabbed the screen with his finger. “BodyWorlds in Times Square, we might as well see that.”

Fred blinked at him in surprise. “Didn't know you were interested in that kind of thing.”

“Are you kidding? Preserved dead bodies and organs? It sounds awesome. Plus, it's good to know how muscles work for, like, robots and stuff.” Hiro was watching the screen, but he still felt Fred staring at him and couldn't help but fidget a little. “Also it was here months ago but I never went.” He hesitated. “Tadashi did, though.”

“Oh, really?” Fred's voice was cautious. “...What'd he say?”

“He said it was pretty cool,” Hiro answered, shrugging. “He seemed like he really had fun, but I didn't, um.” Awkwardly he paused again. “I didn't ask him about it, really. Maybe I should've, I dunno.”

Fred continued to stare at him as he fidgeted awkwardly and let his words trail off. Then, with a “hm” and a nod, Fred added it to the list. “We can definitely fit that in. Huh, wonder if they'll have the exploded dude, that one's neato.”

Rubbing at the corner of his eye, Hiro glanced at him. “You've been?”

“Oh, yeah. It's pretty cool. I mean–” Fred hesitated, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. “Probably better not tell your aunt. Let's just say they don't block out all the privates.”

Hiro paused to give him a deadpan look. “Fred. I graduated high school at what age?”

“Uh... thirteen, right?”

“Sex ed was part of life skills class,” Hiro went on patiently. “Aunt Cass put her foot down when it came up in seventh grade, but I took it as a freshman. I skipped sophomore year. I literally learned that junk when I was eleven. I think I can handle some plastinated... well, junk.”

It was Fred's turn to laugh, turning his head so he didn't spray crumbs all over the keyboard. “Right, right. Didn't think of that.” Fred settled back over their list. “I'll start organizing this stuff,” he offered. “I can sort 'em by what's closest and make us an itinerary, kay?”

“Cool.” Hiro scooted back. “I'm gonna get back to work. Maybe if I get this done, I'll have time to spruce up Megabot for this Saturday.”

Fred looked up from the screen. “Your fighting bot? What for?”

Hiro beamed at him, and went back to researching Tiamat Construction.


Honey's living room had not been a living room since the day she moved into her apartment. Instead of furnishing the main living room area with a sofa, a TV, and a cute rug, she had furnished it with a lab table, the best chemistry equipment that online boutique sales could afford her, and a cute rug. A fully-stocked chem lab would have been the bane of any interior designer, but somehow Honey made it work. She had even rigged up a sprinkler system herself – just in case – and regularly plied her landlady with good behavior and baked goods to keep her from objecting.

Sometimes there was chemistry that needed doing, and the Ishioka Lab just wasn't an option – like now, for example.

“This all of them?” Gogo asked, grunting a little as she lowered the last neatly-labeled cardboard box to the kitchen floor.

“Should be.” Honey Lemon finished braiding her hair, before coiling it into a bun and fastening the end in place with a pink metal hair clip. Slipping into a lab coat, she laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles. “So, what have we got?”

Wasabi gave his clipboard the umpteenth “quick once-over”. “We got samples of concrete, metal, and miscellaneous building materials from Hope Hospital, along with soil samples from the sinkhole.” He paused to nudge one of the boxes with his foot. “We even got our hands on one of the foundation blocks they recovered.”

“Excellent.” Honey ducked down to a cupboard and shifted a few things to uncover a pair of high-powered microscopes. “Help me set these up, will you?”

Gogo grabbed one side and helped her lift. “You got it. Where's closest to the outlet again?”

The two of them got the microscope on the table, plugged in, and situated, with Wasabi handling the second one. Once they were set up, Gogo dusted her hands off. “So, what's the game plan?”

“We have one of those, right?” Wasabi muttered.

“Oh hush, of course we do!” Honey scoffed, turning to Gogo. “We'll be doing tests. Microscopic examination to check the additives, see if we can find any evidence of damage or deterioration – and hopefully the damage from the collapse isn't too bad to mask all that.”

“Hopefully,” Gogo echoed. “I mean – an entire building fell down, Honey.”

“We'll do the best with what we have. From there we'll move on to test strength, density, permeability, bond strength, that kind of thing.” Honey placed one hand on her hip. “The basics, mainly. If we find anything interesting we can go from there.”

“It's your lab,” Wasabi said. “Where do we start?”

Honey tapped her nail against her chin “Let's have a look at some of this concrete.”

“I can check out some of those iron bars while you're on that,” Gogo offered. “Like a science version of 'Let's split up, gang'.”

Honey nodded. “Sounds good. Gloves and goggles are in the drawer on the lab table.”

The trio made themselves busy. There was a lot of material to go through, a lot of samples to make, and a lot of damage to inspect. There wasn't much of a shift from friend mode to work mode – years of college had taught them how to combine the two comfortably. Gogo and Wasabi chatted as they worked, with Honey splitting her attention between the conversation and the music blasting through her earbud. It wasn't until Gogo made a noise of disgust and swore out loud that Honey took it out.

“Gogo, what's wrong?”

Gogo made as if to toss the broken iron bar in her hand carelessly back into the box, but stopped herself. “It's this – crap. This iron. It was holding up a goddamn hospital, and it's worthless. It's brittle, the bits I checked under the microscope had graphite in them for God's sake. At first I thought it'd just be a few of them, but no, most of them are like this.” She placed the piece of iron back down. “How's your thing going?”

“The concrete's not much better,” Honey said worriedly. “From what we can tell, there must have been way too much water in the mix, so when it lost moisture, it shrank.”

“I'm thinking we should check the foundation,” Gogo said grimly. “I'm kinda scared now.”

“Probably more shoddy concrete.” Scoffing, Wasabi went over to the appropriate box. He opened it, ready to collect pieces for samples. “Oh hey, look, it cracked. There's a surprise – wait a minute.” He stopped. “Uh. Guys?”

At his urgent voice, Honey skirted the lab table. “What is it?”

The two girls gathered behind Wasabi as he pointed down at the crack in the concrete that exposed the block's interior. “That looks an awful lot like machinery, don't you think?”

Honey gaped, reaching down to prod at it with a gloved hand. “But... what's it doing in the foundation?”

Gogo sighed deeply and pushed her safety goggles back into place. “Let's poke it and find out.”


That night, a letter was sent from an apartment in SF, bearing the address to Stark Tower.

Dear Pepper,

It was wonderful to hear from you, and I would love to attend this year's Expo. Considering recent events, I think it'll do me good.

There is one small problem that I can foresee – since leaving the hospital, I've been attending therapy for Broca's aphasia. I hope to recover soon, but I'm not sure if this trip will affect my progress. I'm hoping for a way to compromise the two, because I look forward to seeing you.

With love, Abigail Callaghan

Chapter Text

Bot-fighting was not and had never been illegal.

Betting on bot-fighting was illegal.

One of the perks to attending SFIT, as Abigail remembered, was that it helped ease her out of that particular vice. SFIT was, of course, a school of technology. One of its (now former) key faculty members had been a pioneer in the field of robotics. And so, in keeping with this, SFIT hosted a number of school-regulated bot-fighting competitions throughout the year. No betting, of course, but there were prizes for winners who could place high enough.

Luckily, this particular area of study had grown beyond Robert Callaghan, so the end of his illustrious academic career was not the end of the SFIT robotics department. By extension, it was also not the end of the competitions.

And so, that Saturday, having sent in her RSVP to the invitation to Stark Expo, Abigail decided that she was ready to be brave again.

She was not going to compete. She couldn't have even if she felt brave enough; between therapy appointments and the struggle it was just to keep existing, there was never any time to tinker like she used to. But still, she could walk through familiar halls, and wander into a familiar auditorium where everyone was paying attention to cool robots and sick fights instead of one skinny young woman in bug-eye sunglasses. Just for old time's sake, to take her mind off of pastel clouds and cutthroat journalists and buildings crumbling beneath her feet.

The tournament was a morning-afternoon event. Abigail had been awake since seven that morning, but it began at nine and it wasn't until a quarter to ten that she finally ventured in armed to the teeth – sunglasses for a shield, a grande latte for a sword.

Her stomach was turning somersaults as she wandered in. The auditorium echoed with cheers, shouts, and announcements over a speaker. There was a crowd gathered around the center of the room, excited spectators grinning and jostling each other and yelling encouragement. Other areas were marked off for the auxiliary matches, usually for practices, rematches, and pairing placements – the crowds around those were smaller. The area along the length of one wall was devoted to battery charging stations, tools, and repair work. Two massive hanging projector screens took up a portion of the far wall of the auditorium – one was a video feed of the match at the center, the other showed the rounds, pairings, and the list of tournament rules.

  1. Robots must be remote-controlled; no AIs are allowed.

  2. During a match, competitors must remain within the designated areas of the arena.

  3. Robots must be within maximum volume and dimensions.

  4. Projectile and/or incendiary weaponry is prohibited.

  5. Monetary wagers will result in referral to Student Judicial Affairs, and immediate disqualification for any competitors involved.

  6. Injury to spectators or fellow competitors during a match, accidental or otherwise, will result in immediate disqualification.

  7. Competitors may only enter robots of their own original make and design. Plagiarizing blueprints, entering someone else's robot, or assembling a robot from parts of others will result in immediate disqualification.

  8. In the case of group entrants, no more than three individuals may contribute to a single robot.

  9. Any attempts at sabotage prior to a match will result in immediate disqualification.

  10. All matches are closely monitored by school officials. These officials reserve the right to end a match at any time, at their discretion.

Nostalgia tugged at her, and she took a sip of her drink to distract herself. With her mouth around the rim of the cup, she smiled. Her first tournament had caused three shouting matches with the officials, a near-miss with disqualification, and the establishment of Rule 4. (If a spectator's skirt caught fire, but they weren't injured from it, could she still get kicked out?) Good times.

The match pairs listed the robots' names – Thundertron, Big Red, Slipstream, Man o' War, Megabot... creative little titles. There was one called “Chainsaw,” how cute.

Hanging at the edge of the crowd, Abigail watched the match on the screen. The two bots going at it were a pair of mechanical hulks pushing the boundaries of the dimension limits, but they were sleek, polished, and well-oiled – nothing like the clunky monsters you might go up against in a back-alley botfight. Watching them was almost... pretty. Like metal robot dancers that were trying to smash each other to bits.

Abigail felt her spirits rise.

When one of the bots finally rose victorious above its badly-dented opponent, Abigail clapped heartily along with the rest of the crowd. People in the throng began to mill about, shifting to let each other pass, and Abigail pounced on her chance. Keeping her head down, she slipped into the crowd and made her way through. She was careful not to shove her way to the front row – too risky, that. She could get lost in the crowd, ignored by the other spectators, but if she was up front and in view of the supervising officials... well, you never know. With some careful placement, she managed to plant her feet in the third row just as the previous competitors were leaving the ring and the next pair was coming forward.

Her stomach twisted with dread.

Of course, she thought, trying to back away. Her first step took her straight into the chest of the person behind her – luckily everyone was jostling each other, so no harm done. Except the crowd was settling again, and she was sort of trapped anyway.

Wandering out to the taped line on the floor, with a tiny nothing of a robot tucked under his arm, Hiro Hamada ducked his head so that his mop of bangs fell over his face. He wasn't alone – Abigail recognized Fred Whitmore and Pamela Rosales flanking him. Was that Ethel Kim waving from the front row? Abigail glanced around, searching, and sure enough, there was Dave Tucker not far from where Ethel stood. She set her teeth in her lip. That was Tadashi's old crowd – she hadn't been friends with them during her run, but she could recognize them right off from all the times she'd ever happened to pass Tadashi on campus. Everyone knew Ethel from the Woker Hall Incident – hard to break four windows and your wrist without making some kind of impression. Dave and Pamela she'd once seen hold a rather heated argument in the hallway in English, Spanish, and at one point from Dave's end, Klingon. Fred she knew the best, since he was the school mascot and everyone knew him, and he and Tadashi had been joined at the hip more often than they weren't.

And here they all were, gathered around the little brother with the same ease and friendliness as she'd seen them treat the older. Did they know about the part she'd played in their friend's death? Hiro had to – his aunt certainly did, after all.

Abigail watched as Hiro crept out to the center of the ring, ducked his head shyly away from his grinning opponent, and placed his small robot down before darting back to his designated area. Pamela hugged him briefly, and Fred took a moment to mess his hair up even further before the two of them rejoined the crowd.

Laughter rippled through the spectators, and Abigail could see why – across from Hiro's little robot stood a hulking monstrosity that the intercom announced as Man o' War. A curved spike jutted from its front, like the prow of a battleship, and its weapons were miniature sledgehammers. Even the paint job was intimidating – nothing cheesy like flames, just colors that accentuated the solid, streamlined build. Hiro's robot was decorated with a small yellow happy face. It was just as small and cute as the one controlling it.

Abigail squinted at it. Is that – no, it couldn't be. Curiosity overcame her, and she shouldered her way a few inches forward. After a moment of nerving herself, she removed her shades for a clearer view. Sure enough, she'd been right – those were magnetic bearing servos, one of her father's little inventions recreated on a wimpy-looking fighting bot. Doe eyes and messy hair aside, this kid knew his stuff.

Wait a minute .

Man o' War's controller flashed his teeth at Hiro in wolfish grin. Hiro peeked back wide-eyed through tousled bangs and offered a hesitant smile in return.

Oh that little sneak . She knew that tactic. She'd used that tactic to death before she'd hit her last growth spurt at sixteen. The good old Beast of Caerbannog act – widen those eyes and look as small and cute and fluffy as you can, and don't let them see your teeth until you're already ripping their throats out. Disgustingly simple, but effective.

Or, she could be reading too much into this and he really was as nervous as he looked.

The match began, and Man o' War charged forward with more speed than Abigail would have thought, considering its bulk. One of the hammers swung, smacking head-on into Hiro's bot. It came apart like a falling block tower, segments scattering. There was a split second hush as shock ran through the crowd at the suddenness of it. The referee looked ready to call the match, but with a shake of his head Hiro opened out his controller. The segments rolled back together and reattached.

Abigail smiled wider.

Man o' War was attacking in earnest now. Hiro's eyes were still wide, and he was fidgeting where he sat as he manipulated the controls, but the little bot was dodging each and every attack that the larger bot threw at it. The shock had turned to excitement, and she heard more than a few yells of encouragement aimed at the baby-faced challenger before them.

He didn't have it in the bag, though – the cocky grin on the older competitor's face had turned to a scowl. Man o' War got in another bot-shattering hit, and this time instead of waiting for the segments to reassemble, it immediately turned and slammed its hammers on the separated pieces. The segments zipped out of the way, and Man o' War spun and swung like it was playing a deranged game of Whack-a-Mole.

Abigail could see Hiro's tongue poking from the corner of his mouth as he hurriedly brought his bot back together – directly behind Man o' War. Before the larger bot could pivot around, the little one jumped up and clung to its back.

“Go, Hiro!” Abigail surprised herself by shouting – she could count on one hand the number of times words had come so easily to her in the past few months.

And go Hiro did. The segments separated again to twist off one of the hammers. The other swung around to smash them off, but they came rolling right back. Abigail looked to Hiro again. The doe-eyed expression was gone – it was his turn to grin like a wolf.

The cheering hushed as the other hammer fell uselessly to the ground – this crowd knew what a victory looked like, apparently. Man o' War charged one last time, breaking Hiro's robot apart with one blow from its front spike, but it only delayed the inevitable. The next thing Hiro removed was Man o' War's head.

“We have a winner,” rang out over the speakers, and the crowd roared. Abigail clapped until her hands stung. The wide-eyed innocent look was back on Hiro's face as he shook hands with his grudging opponent. As soon as he'd retrieved his bot and stepped back out of the circle, his friends surrounded him.

As the crowd quieted to an excited chatter and the judges entered in the results of the match, Abigail slipped her shades back on.

“Hey.” At first she didn't realize she was being addressed, before she was nudged roughly. “Hey, I know you.”

Her insides froze, and she turned to see one of the spectators glaring at her. He must have shouldered his way through the crowd to approach her, because she didn't remember seeing him. Words fled from her, and all she could manage was blinking. Fight or flight instinct took over, and with people pressing in on all sides she could only choose flight, backing away and retreating to the back of the crowd.

He followed her, pitching his voice above the chatter. “Yeah, I know you! Aren't you Abigail Callaghan?”

No, no, no . She froze, facing the crowd again to find that those within earshot were either looking around or looking at her. The one who recognized her stood just a few feet away, arms crossed, glaring at her.

“You've got a lot of nerve, coming here.” His voice rang out accusingly, and a few more heads turned. “What, you think we'd throw you a party, after what your dad did?”

Abigail tensed, drawing her shoulders up as she glared wordlessly back at him. No one had spoke that way to her face – even reporters were subtle enough to dance around words and offer loaded questions. Barely a year ago she wouldn't have hesitated to spit a retort in his face – and maybe follow it up by actually spitting in his face – but her tongue might as well have been lead.

“What, nothing to say?”

Shut up shut up shut up . “Leave me – alone,” she managed.

“Leave you alone?” He got right up in her face, but she didn't take another step back. “How about you get the hell out of here, lady.”

“How about you leave her alone, jerkwad?”

Abigail nearly jumped out of her shoes as a very small and very angry-looking teenager clutching a segmented robot stormed over glaring daggers at the man getting in her face.

“Get lost, kid,” the man said dismissively, without looking away from Abigail. “The grown-ups are talking.” Immediately the aforementioned robot was attached to his face. He recoiled with a yelp. “Hey, what the fuck! You trying to get disqualified, you little shit?”

“For what? Rule six?” Hiro pressed a button on the half-open controller in his hand, and the segmented limbs tightened slightly. “It's not injuring you, and there's no match going on right now. But fine, you big baby.” The small robot leapt from the man's face and back into Hiro's arms. The man rounded on him, only to stop short when four much larger college students stepped in to convince him otherwise. Abigail watched them, wide-eyed. Ethel and Fred had the most impressive bitchfaces she'd ever seen, Dave's height was more than enough to make up for the nervous look on his face, and Pamela was somehow managing to make a cheery smile look absolutely terrifying.

The man excused himself hurriedly.

Abigail blinked, not quite ready to sigh with relief. The immediate threat was gone, but there were still people looking her way. People recognizing her. Her options were kind of limited at the moment – either she could flee and look guilty in the process, or she could attempt to explain herself and look stupid in the process, or she could suck it up and pretend they weren't staring at her.

Before she could go through her dismal options again, a hesitant “Um,” brought her attention back to Hiro. She glanced down and found him staring up at her cautiously. The wide-eyed look on his face was sincere now, not pasted on to fool her, and for a few moments they could only gape at each other uncertainly. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Dave awkwardly sidling away and Ethel turning to glare at the gawkers.

Finally, Hiro pushed his bangs back out of his face, and held out his hand to her. “Um, hi. I don't think we've really met. My name's Hiro Hamada.” He seemed to search her face hesitantly. “Um. I think you knew my brother?”

And oh, didn't that tug at her heartstrings. Her eyes stung a little, but she took his hand and shook it gently. “I'm Abigail,” she managed to say. “Nice to meet you.”

“Hiro Hamada?” someone called over the intercom.

Hiro jumped and let go. “Crap, gotta go. Um, nice to meet you too, see ya!” With that he dashed back into the crowd, with Fred trotting after him to help him struggle through the throng. Ethel gave her one of those acknowledging head-tosses and strode off after them.

By now only Pamela was left. “Are you okay?” she asked, gently resting her hand on Abigail's arm. “Sorry if you didn't want us to butt in, you just looked a little out of your depth, that's all.”

“No, um.” Abigail's throat bobbed. “Thank you. ...Pamela, right?”

“Oh, you remember me!” Pamela beamed at her. “It's really nice to see you again. Sorry about... well, that. Are you going to be okay from here?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Abigail said shortly. She needed a break, just a quick respite, a moment alone to gather herself back together. Maybe it was quieter by the restrooms. “Go on. I'm fine.”

Pamela flashed her a friendly, if worried, smile and waved before turning and returning to the crowd.

Abigail excused herself. The restrooms were in a small lobby through a door at the back of the auditorium. With everyone gathered around the fights, the lobby was empty. With a sigh of relief, Abigail settled down on the vacant bench and let her nerves settle.

She hoped word wouldn't get out. It might attract journalists – sometimes it felt like the slightest whisper would bring them running.

Judging by the noise out on the main floor, the next match was starting up. Abigail sat up, feeling better. She could wait for the end of the match, and use the cheering as cover to slip back in.

The door cracked open. Abigail looked up, ready for the worst, as a small tousle-haired head poked in to peer around. Upon seeing her, Hiro Hamada stepped out and let the door swing halfway shut behind him.

“Hi again,” he said hesitantly.

Abigail blinked, stomach twisting warily, and waved. This seemed to encourage him, and he let go of the door and slipped his hands into the front pocket of his SFIT sweatshirt.

“Mind if I sit?” he asked.

Her first instinct was no. Her first thought was I'm not ready for this. For a month she had been very nearly frightened of this boy, dreading seeing him, talking to him, looking him in the eye because how could she after what her father had done to him, to his family

But here he was, seeking her out just minutes after stepping between her and a heckler, looking at her with wide, earnest eyes.

“Got time?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I got a while before I get paired up for another match.”

Abigail took a deep breath. “Okay.” She shifted to the side – there was no need to, seeing as she was the only one on the bench, but with her brain bracing itself for a marathon of language, she didn't want to waste word-chasing on inviting him to sit down.

He plopped down next to her with all the carelessness of a boy his age. For one wild moment Abigail wondered if Cass had gone back on her word and put him up to this. She doubted it, but the thought still made her nervous.

“You're good,” she said on impulse. Hiro turned to look at her, slightly startled. Taking another sip of latte for courage, she continued. Short phrases and sentences – she was holding a conversation, not writing a term paper. It didn't have to be pretty, it just had to get her point across. “Botfighting. Saw the match.” She made herself look at his face and okay, this was fine, she could do this. He was a fourteen year old boy and he'd come up to sit with her – he wasn't going to bite. “You're good.”

“Thanks.” He grinned, and there was a little gap between his front teeth. “I, uh. I heard you used to be into botfighting, too.”

From Dad, Abigail thought. Dad was the only one who had ever found out, after he picked her up from the ER. That was how she'd spent prom night junior year. He must have talked to Dad, Dad must have told him. “I was,” she said at length. “Just, not...” The words escaped her again. “Less legal than this.”

His smile turned impish. “You too, huh? Ever go up against that guy Yama?”

Abigail gaped at him. In the space of a split second, her view of the boy sitting next to her shifted sharply to a new angle. This little gap-toothed, baby-faced sunshine child tangled with back-alley botfighters in the streets? With Yama? “You-” Her shock snatched words from between her teeth, forcing her mind to start over. “How are you alive?”

The impish grin faded a little, and Hiro turned his head to look at his feet. “Luck,” he admitted. “And... a really reliable getaway driver.”

It took the space of one breath for Abigail to realize what he was saying, and a sudden stab of shame forced her eyes away from him again. She ought to say something. It was only right. Her lips parted, but language danced back out of her reach.

“Also I stopped,” Hiro went on awkwardly. “That's... that's another reason.”

“Hiro,” she began, cutting him off before he could speak any further. She let herself stare at her feet rather than him – if she tried to look him in the eye, she would never get through this. It was bad enough that she could feel his eyes on her. “There's... I mean... your brother.” She half-expected him to interrupt her, but he simply sat quietly and waited for her to continue. “I read what happened. What – my dad – did.” Her eyes stung. Keep it simple, don't try to get flowery. “So I just – if I hadn't–” A painful lump formed in her throat, as if she didn't already have enough stumbling blocks when she tried to talk. “It was me. Because of me. I'm sorry.” She shut her eyes, burning with shame. What she said was nothing, absolutely nothing to what she meant. The words were locked in her head, blocked halfway to her mouth, fogged up like violet portal clouds and dead-silent like her brain in hypersleep. Her brain knew what she had to say, but her mouth wouldn't say it.

“I don't blame you,” was the first thing Hiro said, and that was the only reason she found it in herself to look at him again. He was facing forward, his feet swinging slightly. “I guess I should start there. I don't blame you for it and I never have. I mean, there was a really short time when I thought it wasn't fair, but I got past that, and I never thought it was your fault. Ever.”

Abigail nodded and pursed her lips, not trusting herself to speak. It was a relief to hear him say that, the same way it had been a relief to hear it from Cass. But at the same time it felt like a band-aid solution, like speed tape over a hole in a plane.

Beside her, Hiro turned to look at her again. “Hey. You – you wanna know the last thing my brother ever said to me?”

Goosebumps rippled up her arm as she turned to look at him again. Because even if she'd been close enough to Tadashi Hamada to shrug and call him a friend, she wasn't this boy's family; he hardly knew her from Adam, and here he was offering up something so private, so sacred. She couldn't even nod at him, just gape wordlessly.

“He said, 'Callaghan's still in there. Someone has to help.'” Abigail's eyes stung, but she kept them on Hiro's face as he went on. “And I've thought about it, and I don't think things would've played out like they did if he hadn't died, so, he sort of did, you know? He did what he meant to do. It just wasn't the Callaghan he thought.”

Abigail had to look away. Its effectiveness was up in the air, because it was impossible for him to not hear the sniffle. She took a moment to compose herself, wiping her stinging, watering eyes.

“I'm not okay with what happened,” Hiro went on quietly. “I'll never be okay with what happened. But I'm glad they got you out. At least something good came out of it.”

“Yeah,” she whispered. Once her voice was under control, she straightened a little and took a sip. “How are you?”

“Okay. I am definitely okay. I'm better than I was.” He paused. “Not being alone helps. You?”

“I've... been better,” Abigail admitted. She chewed her lip for a moment. “The portal, the hypersleep, there were... problems.” At his worried look, she shrugged. “Aphasia. Words are hard. Be patient with me?” She smiled ruefully at him.

“Of course.”

“I'm coming back, next semester,” she went on. “Here. Finishing my Master's.”

“That's cool. I'm on my second semester. Well, sort of second, anyway. I kind of started late. And I'll be missing a week or two. I... have a thing.”

She raised an eyebrow, even though she knew exactly what his “thing” was. “Oh?”

“Stark Expo,” he said proudly. “I totally got invited.”

“Hm.” Abigail drained the rest of her latte to hide a smile. “Me too.”

“Wait, seriously?”

Before she could reply, the door opened again, and Fred Whitmore lolloped out into the lobby. “Hey Hiro, they have your next pairing up–” His attention came to rest on Abigail, and his eyes lit up. “Abigail! Hey, what's up? Long time no see!”

Abigail smiled back. “Hi, Fred.”

Hiro, without wasting a moment, looked straight at him while jerking his thumb toward Abigail. “Did you know she's going to Stark Expo?”

Fred's mouth fell open. “You're going to Stark Expo?”

“Yep.” Bashfully, Abigail ducked her head to take another drink, only to remember that she'd finished her coffee already. Over the rim of her cup, she saw the two of them exchange a glance.

“So...” Hiro said casually.

“We were planning on going out a week early, hitting the town,” Fred continued, shrugging. “Wanna come sightsee with us?”

For a moment Abigail was struck speechless, gaping at them. “I, um,” she stammered once she found her voice.

“Only if you want to,” Hiro added.

“I do, but...” Abigail chewed her lip. It was jarring, too jarring – going from yearly father-daughter trips to tagging along with a couple of boys she knew through a third party – an absent third party, no less. She needed a transition, a year to get on the road herself, to have the time to sit in the quiet and think. “I was gonna... go by myself. Road trip it. Thank you,” she added emphatically. “But nah. I'll see you there?”

“Definitely.” Fred jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Match out there is getting pretty good, just so you know. If we go out now, nobody'll notice us sneaking in.”

“Awesome.” Hiro bounded up from the bench, pausing to glance back at Abigail. “You coming?”

Abigail hesitated for a moment, bracing herself for the rush of anxieties that she had grown accustomed to over the past few months. But with the sound of botfighting just beyond the doors, and Hiro Hamada looking to her with his older brother's earnest eyes, her fears battered half-heartedly at her mind, and she found herself shrugging them off. She turned and lobbed her empty coffee cup into the nearest trash can, then stood up and put on a smile. “Right behind you.”

 

Chapter Text

The group didn't often meet in Honey's apartment, but since the samples from Hope Hospital were already there, it was as good a place as any. They were all gathered around the central lab table, ready to share their findings. Honey was carrying a folder, Hiro had a stack of printouts, and a cardboard box sat nearest to Wasabi on the table top. Baymax's case was on the floor off to the side, the robot deactivated and charging inside.

“So.” Gogo rolled her gum against the roof of her mouth. “Who first? Team Internet or Team Chemistry Set?”

“You guys first,” Hiro offered.

“Fair enough.” Honey placed the folder down and opened it. “We put together a lab report of our findings. It's... well, it's frightening, to say the least. I mean, this was a hospital.”

Hiro nudged through the papers, glancing over notes and neatly marked out tables. “Wow, that's... yeah, that's a lot of graphite, for iron bars in a nine-floor building.” Fred read over his shoulder, understanding about half of what he was seeing.

“That's not all,” Wasabi went on. “Practically none of it was up to code. There was a lot of shrinkage and cracking in the concrete – whoever mixed it should've gotten all kinds of sued.”

“To say nothing of the ground underneath,” Honey added, pointing out one page. “There was a lot of garbage under the foundation. Gradual decomposition made it unstable.” She pursed her lips, frowning. “In fact, I have reason to believe – I can't prove this with what we had, but I'm at least eighty percent sure that the sinkhole wasn't naturally occurring.”

“How do you fake a sinkhole?” Fred broke in.

“That's what the last twenty percent is.” Honey crossed her arms and scowled. “I can't tell how they would've done it. There would've been so many factors involved.”

“Well-” Hiro began, rustling the printouts in his hands.

Gogo held up one finger, cutting him off. “One sec. One last thing. 'Cause, with all that, there's one more big question.”

“How'd it stay standing for so long?” Fred offered.

“Five points to Gryffindor. The answer's in the structural skeleton.” Gogo flipped through the report and pulled one page in particular. “See, that crappy iron and concrete, that was like – like the meat, right? But if you look at the bones – see, all this metal support stuff, the joints, the stuff actually holding it up – it's good. Like scary good.”

Hiro took the page. Reading it, his eyes widened. “Wow. Sophisticated titanium alloy good. And – yeesh, none of this stuff comes cheap. This is the kind of stuff you'd find in skyscrapers and high-rises, not an eight-floor hospital wing.”

“Ready for the grand finale?” Wasabi sighed. With gloved hands he opened up the box and pushed it toward them. “This was one of the foundation blocks. Concrete on the outside, and on the inside – well, have a look.”

Hiro stretched up on tiptoe for a better view. They had drilled and chipped away the outer layer of concrete, and at the heart of it was more metal – not the rusted brittle stuff that had fallen, but more shiny, well-made titanium. It wasn't just metal, either; there were wires, mechanisms, exposed machinery and circuitry.

“Whoa,” Fred breathed. “Did you guys open this machine stuff up?”

“Yeah.” Gogo leaned forward on her elbows. “It's made up of high-grade materials, including the same metal in the structural stuff that was keeping the place standing. I'm betting this machinery was hooked up to it. If we had some layout and building plans for this place, we might get a better idea. So on that note, it's your turn.”

Hiro grimaced. “About that.” He placed the printouts on the table and spread them around. “So. Tiamat Construction. Pretty much doesn't get any more small-time – if it wasn't for the fact that they've actually built stuff, I'd think it was a scam company. There's not a whole lot on them.”

“Yeah,” Fred added, sliding one page toward the others. “This one page here? All there was on them in, like, legit sources. As in, entering it into Google legit.”

“The rest I found illegally,” Hiro said with a shrug. “And even then, there wasn't a lot. I checked all the city records I could find, and there was a lot of stuff missing.”

“What kind of stuff?” Wasabi asked.

“Blueprints, clearly,” Gogo said dryly, sifting through the printouts.

“Not just blueprints,” Hiro went on. “I couldn't even find the original contract. Just – these documents referring to a contract. And then nothing on the actual construction – no budget sheets, no employee lists, no timetables, and you better believe I never found an inspection report. It's just gone, or it never existed in the first place.”

“So – was it a scam?” Wasabi asked. “It's starting to look like one.”

“You're forgetting one thing,” Gogo pointed out. “All the money they poured into everything that doesn't completely suck. The supports, the joints, and whatever the hell's going on in the foundation – which we never figured out, by the way. It was beat to hell in the collapse and we don't have enough of it.”

“Ooh, theory!” Fred's hand shot up.

“Here we go,” Wasabi muttered.

Fred cringed a little. “Okay, I know how my last theory turned out, but hear me out for a second. So, the concrete and iron and whatever was really terrible, like hilariously terrible, but the structural supports were insanely good, and there's clearly a cover-up of epic proportions going on. So clearly someone put a lot of time and money and effort and stuff into this.”

“Understatement,” Gogo broke in.

“Yeah!” Fred spread his arms wide. “And scams are all about not spending a lot of money and effort. So that must mean that everything was on purpose, both the good stuff and the bad stuff, and it must not have been just a cost-cutting thing if they spent so much on all that junk in the foundation. So what I think is, they wanted the building to fall easy, like at some point. But they put in all the expensive stuff so it would only fall when they wanted it to fall. And maybe that machine stuff was like, part of that. Like, push a button and the joints fall off, the whole thing comes falling down, my fair lady. See?”

“Well, that is possible,” Honey said cautiously.

Gogo nodded. “You can do a lot with a hospital that you can collapse on command, if you're crazy enough.”

“Whoa, hold up,” Wasabi broke in. “Gogo you're talking about, like, terrorism.”

“I'm just saying it's possible.”

“But why? Why collapse it now?”

“They didn't,” Hiro said, as realization struck. “It was an accident.”

Beside him, Fred came to the same conclusion. “The earthquake! That must've triggered it early!”

“But this is California!” Honey protested. “We're sitting right on a fault line! You'd think they'd know better!”

Fred raised one finger. “Not if it's literally the only thing they've built in California.”

“Wait,” Gogo interrupted him. “I thought you said they were small-time and they've worked on other buildings.”

“Tiamat Construction, yeah.” Hiro grinned. “But I found something interesting. And I had to do a lot of digging for this.” He pulled up one printout. “This must've been a mistake, because I went through the same process to find it again, and it was gone.”

“Good thing I made you print it out,” Fred muttered.

“Yeah yeah yeah shut up. Anyway-” Hiro tapped on one line of text. “Tiamat Construction is actually a branch of a larger construction company – Lerna Construction Inc. And as far as I could tell, their only branch in California.”

“Okay, cool.” Gogo leaned forward again. “What do we know about Lerna?”

“Next to nothing,” Hiro said matter-of-factly. “I dug around as much as I could.”

“They don't even show up in a Google search,” Fred added.

“Great!” Wasabi wrung his hands. “Dead end. Now what?”

“There are no dead ends,” Hiro said flatly. “I said next to nothing, not nothing. The company's got one office, and you'll never guess where.”

“New York City,” Fred said gleefully. “So I added it to our itinerary.”

“It's worth checking out. And I might be able to hack their systems if I'm in the building.”

“That sounds... really dangerous,” Honey said cautiously.

Hiro shrugged. “Yeah, well, so was diving into a collapsing portal.”

“Yeah, and remember how that turned out?” Gogo reminded him sharply. “In fact – hey Baymax, ow.”

Hiro sighed as the robot activated and waddled out of his case. “What seems to be the matter, Gogo?” Baymax asked, tilting his head quizzically.

“We haven't decided whether you're going with the Dynamic Dumbasses here to New York,” Gogo answered.

“Hiro is my patient,” Baymax replied. “I had assumed that I would be accompanying him.”

Honey nodded, looking relieved. “I'd certainly feel better if you did.”

“Might not be a good idea,” Fred said, and wilted under Honey's glare.

“Why not?” Gogo demanded.

“Well, for one thing, if you want us to bring him along just for the Lerna thing, that's right out,” Hiro said flatly. “That would be a stealth thing, and Baymax? Does not do stealth.”

“My specialties are health care, flight, and karate,” Baymax said helpfully.

“Also not sure you want him anywhere near Stark Expo,” Fred added, in a surprisingly acidic tone.

Even Hiro looked faintly taken aback by this. “Wait, what? That was the one reason I'd want to bring him.”

Fred pulled a face. “Not a good idea, dude. I mean, you remember what happened when you showed off your microbots at the SFIT showcase, don't you?” At Hiro's horrified look, he quickly backtracked. “Nonono, wait, that's not what I meant! I'm talking about Krei! Not... not the other thing.”

“What about Krei?” Gogo asked. “You mean when he tried to buy those things off Hiro?”

“No. Well, that's part of it. But you guys know what happened once Hiro turned him down – guy tried to swipe one, remember?”

Hiro felt his metaphorical hackles rise. “You think someone would try to steal Baymax?”

“Uh, I get where you're coming from, Fred,” Wasabi broke in, casting a glance toward Baymax. “But he's a little conspicuous, don't you think? It's not like someone can palm him into their pocket.”

“They wouldn't have to,” Fred said with a shrug. “Few pictures, maybe a scanner if they have a good one and they're fast. People can steal, like, designs and intellectual property without stealing the whole bot.” He paused, frowning. “My, um. Remember that honorary uncle I told you about? I've heard him complain about people like that. And, well, Baymax is an impressive piece of tech, you know? Last thing we want is some no-namer selling a line of knock-offs.”

Hiro ground his teeth, scowling. The only reason why Krei hadn't gotten away with his microbot was because Tadashi had been quick on the uptake.

He'd never forgive himself if he let someone steal Tadashi's creation.

“And beyond that,” Hiro went on, turning to Baymax once his temper was under control. “You're still needed here, buddy. You're the main muscle of the team.”

The robot was quiet for a moment, watching Hiro carefully. Finally, he spoke. “Are you certain that I will not be of assistance in New York?”

“Honestly? No,” Hiro admitted. “But I am certain you'll be of assistance here. Just in case more buildings fall.”

Baymax nodded, tilting his head again. “I would prefer to remain in close proximity with you. But if you are sure of this, then I can see why your judgment is sound.”

Hiro nodded, then glanced around at the others. “Baymax can fly on his own, but Honey, Gogo, either of you think you can fly him, if you need to?”

“Piece of cake.” Gogo shot a grin at the robot.

“Hiro, are you absolutely sure about this?” Honey asked, her face serious.

“Guys, I went two months without him when I was rebuilding him, remember?” Hiro suppressed the urge to sigh. “I think I can go a little over a week.”

“Besides!” Fred piped up. “He's got me, remember?”

Gogo opened her mouth to reply, then stopped, her eyes widening slightly in bewilderment. “That's... actually kind of comforting. Is it weird that I find that kind of comforting?”

“Yes,” Wasabi said bluntly.

“It's settled, then.” Hiro gathered up the printouts again. “We'll find out more about this in New York. Then Stark Expo, then we'll come back with what we find and we can deal with it from there.”

Fred bounced up and down gleefully. “Oh man, I can't wait! The next couple of months are gonna take forever!”


“You're looking... happy today,” Cass remarked.

The pause was there because this was Abigail's third cup of coffee. There was no denying it, especially since Cass was the one serving her. But still, the comment was genuine, and Abigail confirmed it with a smile. Maybe the news would distract her enough to keep from cutting Abigail off.

“Talked to Hiro,” she said.

Relief filled her when Cass did a double take, eyes flying open wide with shock. “You – really? When? How – how did it go?”

“SFIT botfight,” Abigail answered. “It went... well.” She let her mind wander back to earnest eyes and kind words, and another smile came to her unbidden. “It went really well.”

“Really? Oh.” Cass sighed and ran her hand through her hair, the very picture of relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I mean, I thought it would. I knew he wasn't angry with you, I'm just... I'm so glad.”
“Me, too.” Abigail sat back, reveling in the newly lessened weight on her chest. “Thank you,” she added, putting as much meaning as she could into those two words. She doubted she could have taken the hundred little meanings in her head and put them into words of their own.

“Oh, I didn't do anything,” Cass laughed. “You didn't need me to, in the end.”

“No,” Abigail said softly. “You've done a lot.”

You helped me.

You gave me a safe place.

You raised him.

You raised both of them.

Simple enough words. It wasn't so hard to find them at all. But when she tried to say them out loud, her tongue stuck.


Contrary to Fred's prediction, there was no eternity before the time to leave hovered closer. It was only two months, as they had known it would be. Time enough for them to get school affairs in order, to schedule and prepare and let their excitement build. By the beginning of March, Hiro found himself with a mighty task before him.

Packing.

Hiro had been on family trips before, when time and money allowed. But they had always been cost-efficient - road trips, camping weekends, that kind of thing. The kind of trips that Hiro was used to were the kind of trips that called for clothes and hiking boots stuffed into battered old duffel bags, sleeping bags aired out and rolled up, with tarps and camping chairs and coolers thrown into the back of Aunt Cass’s truck alongside them. But this? This was beyond him.

According to Wasabi’s advice, it was a good idea to have a carry-on bag with necessities like tissues, wet wipes, band-aids, and – well, he’d let himself forgo the suggestion of extra underwear. He’d never been on a plane before. Could he risk bringing books on a plane? Reading on the road was a surefire way to get carsick, but maybe an airplane was different. Shrugging, he threw in two of his design notebooks and a surplus of mechanical pencils. He had ample time to think of things to add.

For the rest of his luggage, Aunt Cass had dived to the back of her closet and dragged out a medium-sized rolling suitcase that he could use. She’d just done laundry as well, so he had plenty of clean clothes to set aside.

Once he had enough T-shirts and jeans to last him the week leading up to the Expo, Hiro dithered a little. The Expo itself was a big deal; he would be rubbing elbows with Tony freaking Stark, as well as the kind of people who rubbed elbows with Tony Stark. A hoodie and cargo shorts wasn't going to cut it – he should at least try to wear something nice.

His thoughts went to the suit hanging in his closet, and his throat closed up without warning. Breath hitching, he remembered that it had been half a year since he’d last looked at it. He’d worn it for Tadashi’s funeral.

Hiro tossed a pair of socks on top of the clothes stacked neatly in the suitcase, sat back, and drew in a sharp, shaky breath against the sudden stabbing pain in his chest. For a moment it felt as if his windpipe was tightening, cutting off his air. Eyes stinging, he pressed his clenched fist against his mouth and fought to breathe.

Warm vinyl arms wrapped around him, startling a sharp gasp of air into his lungs, and Baymax gently pulled Hiro back against his chest. Behind him, Hiro felt the vinyl slowly inflate and deflate in a steady simulation of breathing. Enfolded in Baymax’s hug, with one massive hand petting his hair, Hiro breathed along with him until he’d calmed down.

Are you all right?” Baymax asked.

F-fine, I’m fine.” He sighed shakily. “Thanks, Baymax, I just… had a moment, I guess.”

Would you like to talk about it?”

Hiro’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “There’s - not that much to talk about, I just… it just hit me again, that’s all.”

Talking about what sparked these emotions may be helpful in softening the effects of similar triggers in the future,” Baymax informed him.

Hiro bit his lip. “It’s just… the Expo. I thought about dressing nice for it, and then I remembered the last time I wore a suit was at the wake, and I just…” His throat tightened again. “It just hurts, thinking about that, and…” His voice trailed off.

Is there something more to it? Grief is often a complex and layered emotion.”

He should be there with me,” Hiro said quietly. “I wouldn’t - I would never have gotten into SFIT if it wasn’t for him. I would never have gotten into robotics if it wasn’t for him. We used to watch the Expo live coverage, every year, and we always swore one day we'd go. And now I'm going. And he's not.” He bit his lip against the pressure building in his chest and behind his eyes. “It's not right.” Chancing a glance at Baymax's face, he saw the robot blink. He used to think it was kind of silly that Baymax blinked – he didn't have tear ducts, or eyeballs that needed moistening, so it didn't serve a practical function.

He was glad for the blink now. It was expressive – it made it look like Baymax was listening, thinking about what he said.

“My grief counseling database does not have a clear solution to this problem,” Baymax admitted. “However, it can be helpful to engage in activities or place oneself in an environment associated with positive memories of lost loved ones, though this may be difficult in an unfamiliar place or situation. Furthermore, often material items can hold comforting sentimental value. Would it help to bring with you an item that you associate with Tadashi? It may not be the same, but it may alleviate the grief.”

Hiro stared at Baymax for a moment, wrestling with the ball of hurt that had taken up residence in his chest. Now more than ever he was regretting his decision to leave Baymax behind. But his mind was made up – Baymax was needed here, far more than they might need him for what they were doing in New York. Besides, this was something of a test – he'd gone without Baymax after bringing down Callaghan, and he needed to be sure that he still could.

One side of the room drew his attention away from the robot, and his breath hitched when his eyes fell upon the hat rack in the corner.

Carefully he disentangled himself from Baymax's hug and crossed the room. Stretching up on tiptoe, he reached up and took down the hat with a cautious sort of reverence.

It was soft and well-loved, battered from use and faded at the edges. The logo at the front wasn't nearly as bright as it had once been.

But it was Tadashi's. It was unmistakeably, undeniably Tadashi's.

Hiro returned to the flurry of packing at the center of the room, and tucked the hat into the suitcase.

“Thanks, Baymax.”

“You are welcome.”

Hopefully the rich and brilliant wouldn't mind if he wore a baseball cap to the Expo.

 

Chapter Text

“Last hug!”

They said it in unison before embracing each other tightly. Hiro had gotten taller – the top of his head reached his aunt's chin now. Still a ways to go yet.

“Be careful out there, you hear?” Aunt Cas murmured to him. “I'll call and check in on you every night.”

“Okay.” Hiro hesitated. “Well, maybe not every night.”

When she laughed, it sounded watery. “Sweetie just let me worry about you, okay? I can't even see you through the gate, just give me this.” Reluctantly she pulled back and made a cursory attempt to fix his hair. Looking past her, he could see Wasabi, Honey, and Gogo standing together, and Baymax sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the airport. Fred stood just behind him with a backpack and a grin that could have wrapped around his entire head.

They'd already checked their luggage through and obtained their boarding passes. All that lay before them was security – the others couldn't follow them any farther. From here, they were on their own.

Hiro felt his stomach flutter with something between nervousness and excitement. His first big trip away from home – and wasn't the first step a doozy. In a matter of hours he'd be on the opposite side of the country, away from home, away from Aunt Cass.

Thank God he wasn't alone.

In fact, Gogo was already socking Fred lightly on the arm. “Remember, doofus, you're the adult so technically you're responsible for him. Don't f- mess this up.”

“Try not to teach him any bad habits?” Wasabi said hopefully.

“Oh, you two are going to have so much fun!” Honey Lemon squealed. “Remember, take lots of pictures. And videos. We'll Skype you whenever we can, okay?”

One last Baymax hug, one last Honey Lemon group selfie, and he and Fred were waving to them and heading through security. Once they were through, they had time to wander before they had to be at the gate.

Fred was excitedly chatty as they strolled past airport stores and restaurants. “So, when we get there,” he was saying. “That family friend I told you about is gonna be there to pick us up and take us to where we're staying. I asked him if he was gonna do that cliché holding-up-a-sign-with-our-names thing, and he wouldn't give me a straight answer, so the answer's probably yes.”

“Where are we staying, by the way?” Hiro asked. “Hotel, or what?”

“Well, it's a building he owns, actually. But sometimes he treats it like a hotel, a little bit, y'know?”

Hiro did not know, but he shrugged and decided to find out for himself when he came to it. “Okay, cool. It's close to all the stuff we're seeing the first week, right? And our side trip?”

“Close enough, I guess,” Fred said with a shrug. “Trust me, by the end of the first day you will be a subway expert.”

“The subway.” Hiro paused for one step to stare at him. “See, this is why people forget you're rich.”

Fred sniffed, for a moment sounding close to snooty. “Look, if I want the full tourist experience then I'm gonna get it, and if I have to I'm gonna drag you along with me.”

Hiro laughed, feeling the ache of anxiety in his stomach ease, change, and turn into a buzzing sort of excitement. “This is gonna be fun. I mean, we'll have to do the side trip, but I'm... really excited about this.”

“Course you are!” Fred clapped him on the back. “You're gonna see Stark Expo up close and personal!”

“I know, right?” It was all he could do not to hop up and down with excitement, but he did still have his dignity. “It's something we've wanted to do since I was six years old!” He felt the words die off after the “we” slipped out, and his thoughts went to the hat tucked safely into one of the inner pockets of his carry-on backpack. Too many horror stories of luggage getting lost had driven him to move it there from his suitcase. “Just... thanks, Fred.”

“Hey, you're the one that got the invite,” Fred pointed out.

“Yeah, but... man. If it was just me by myself? I don't know if I could handle that.”

Some emotions couldn't be expressed through anything but a fist bump.


There was a smattering of applause from the passengers when the plane landed, but all Hiro could do was sigh with relief. There was a difference between sailing through the sky on Baymax's back, on something he'd made that he controlled, and being trapped in a long metal tube 30,000 feet in the air at the mercy of whoever was piloting the thing. And while he hadn't been necessarily scared or stressed out, it had made for a somewhat uncomfortable ride.

“Glad that's over,” he groaned as he unbuckled his seat belt. “Urgh. Not pleasant.”

“Never would've pegged you for a nervous flier,” Fred laughed. “Don't worry about it. If the plane ride was the best part of the trip, it'd be a pretty crappy trip.”

Hiro stretched his arms behind him, feeling his shoulders pop. “Yep. Stark Expo all the way.”

They gathered their things and stiffly made their way off the plane and into the jet bridge, and the first thing Hiro noticed was a slight drop in temperature. He zipped up his jacket and readjusted his backpack, hobbling a little until the stiffness was out of his legs.

“Alright, where do we go from here?”

“They'll be waiting for us in the terminal,” Fred explained.

“Cool. Wait. What do they look like? Or should I just follow you?”

Fred had a weird-looking grin on his face as he answered. “I think you'll know 'em when you see 'em.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Fred moved on wordlessly, still grinning, and Hiro trotted to keep up. “Fred! What do you mean by that?”

Frustrated, he followed his friend out into the terminal and scanned the area for anyone who might fit Fred's frustratingly minimal description. Know them when I see them? He thought. What is that even supposed to mean?

Luckily, Fred had apparently spotted them and was already moving off with a “C'mon, Hiro, lemme introduce you.” Annoyed, Hiro jogged after him and searched the faces of the people present for anyone looking up and recognizing Fred. What was with Fred and his sudden fear of straight answers? It was a simple question, and here he was dancing around like-

Hiro slammed on the breaks so abruptly that he rattled his own teeth. His jaw dropped. Fred trotted on ahead, apparently oblivious to his shock, and two of the people waiting in the terminal glanced up in their general direction. At first glance they were just another couple, some scruffy-looking guy in a baseball cap and jeans and a hooded jacket, and a neat-looking redhead in semi-casual dress and heels. But when their faces turned, they were unmistakeable.

“Heya, Tony.” A beaming Fred waved cheerfully as he approached them. “Hi, Pepper!”

The redhead stepped forward first with a smile to give Fred a friendly hug. “Hi, Fred! How was the trip?”

“It was all right. Thanks for picking us up.” Pulling back, Fred turned and waved. “C'mon over, Hiro!”

Hiro stood slack-jawed, feet locked to the ground beneath him, as he watched Fred get buddy-buddy with Pepper Potts and Tony Stark. At Fred's call, he somehow forced movement back to his legs and wandered forward in a daze.

He'd known this was coming. He'd known he'd be meeting them and shaking their hands at some point, but he hadn't expected to come face to face with them right after stepping off the plane. There was a soft click as Fred snapped a quick photo of his face, but he was too dumbfounded to react.

The moment he had reached Fred's side, he found himself presented with Pepper Potts' hand. “Hello.” Her smile was kind. “You must be Hiro. It's a pleasure to meet you.”

“Um.” Oh God oh God oh God what was he supposed to say to that? “Y-yeah, hi.” Hesitantly he shook her hand. “Nice to meet you too, um. Miss Potts.”

“You've got an impressive track record, kid.” And Hiro almost went into cardiac arrest right then and there because Anthony Howard Stark was talking to him.

“You're Iron Man,” he said faintly.

Stark nodded. “Last time I checked, yeah. Don't say that too loud if you don't want us to get mobbed, though.”

“Okay.”

Pepper Potts nudged Stark gently with her elbow, jerking her head. “Frankly, it's a miracle we've gone this long without getting recognized,” she murmured. “We should get going before we press our luck.”

“Fine by me. This way, kids.”

The famous pair started off, presumably in the direction of the exit, and it was all Hiro could do to stumble after them beside Fred. Without their eyes on him, he recovered himself enough to turn and sock Fred in the arm.

“Ow!” Fred flinched away, snickering.

While Stark and Potts had their backs turned, Hiro continued to wale on Fred as quietly as he could. “You – could – have – warned me!” he hissed, punctuating the words with punches.

Fred managed to deflect a few, but to be fair he was laughing too hard to really try. “And miss out on this? No way – ow, ow! How are you hitting me so hard? You're barely swinging!”

“I don't need to wind up like a doofus to hit you!”

“Can you teach me that?”

“I thought I was already!”

“Ow, not the ribs!”

Hiro considered taking off his backpack and whacking him a few times with that, but decided against it – it would draw attention without a doubt, and Tadashi's hat was inside. He settled for punching him one last time before shoving his hands in his pockets and pasting on a smile just in case their two hosts happened to turn around. Pummeling on Fred had worked off a bit of stress, but he still felt buzzy, like someone had filled his skull with bees.

Fred chattered in his ear on the way through baggage claim and out of the airport, distracting him until they reached the car. To Hiro's relief it wasn't a limo – which made sense, seeing as Stark seemed to be avoiding attention. Granted, it was a very nice car. Miss Potts was driving, which was a surprise – Hiro had expected a chauffeur, at least. I guess rich people still do their own driving, he thought absently as he shrugged out of his backpack and got in. If I owned a car this nice, I would.

“So. Kid genius.” Stark hailed him from the passenger seat. Hiro ducked his head and quietly wondered if this was what heart attacks felt like. “College at fourteen, not bad.”

“Uh. Th-thanks.”

“Any special projects?”

Hiro jumped a little. “Uh, well, not really special, per se, but-” Fred swatted him lightly. “Hey!”

“Dude just tell him about the microbots, they're awesome.”

“Microbots?” Stark echoed, and Hiro had a second not-heart-attack. “I've heard of nanobots, but microbots is a new one.”

“Uh, well, they're bigger than nanobots, d-definitely bigger,” Hiro stammered. “They're – um.”

His arms tightened around his backpack, and he fought the urge to hide his face in embarrassment. This was awful. It was worse than the first time he'd tried presenting the things, and he didn't even have the excuse of stage fright. His mind was blanking on him, his tongue was tying in knots, and he was half-convinced his heart was gonna burst out of his chest like one of those baby monsters in Alien.

Fred's hand came down on his shoulder, startling him into looking up. His friend gave him a lopsided grin and squeezed gently.

“Hey, Hamada.” Stark had twisted around in his seat and was looking back at him. “I'm not gonna bite. Superhero, remember? Besides, Pepper has me on a leash anyway.”

Hiro laughed, just to shake the ball of tension that had settled in the pit of his stomach. “Uh, right. Sorry. So, yeah, microbots. I made them to apply at SFIT. They're each about a centimeter and a half in length, but they link up and... well, I've been writing down all the possible applications but I keep thinking of new ones.”

“Magnetic bonds?” Stark guessed.

Hiro shifted in his seat to lean forward a little. “Yeah, I took the concept of magnetic bearing servos and basically shrunk it down.”

Stark's eyebrows shot upward. “To a centimeter and a half? Hell. I take it they're controlled remotely. What kind of signal do you use?”

“I was gonna go with radio waves at first, but I decided to use a neurocranial transmitter instead.”

“That's... ambitious.”

“It's simpler.” Hiro shrugged.

Pepper Potts broke in, sounding incredulous. “A device that uses brain waves to control robots is simpler.”

“Okay, I worded that wrong.” Hiro squirmed a little. “It's complicated, but... appropriately complicated. The more microbots you deal with, the more individual moving parts. Plus with manual controls there's a lot of translation involved, and I was sort of trying to make them more like an extension of the user's body, almost. The transmitter makes it easier to control more of them at the same time that way, since it translates thoughts... directly... into...” His voice trailed off. It translates thought directly into action. Into meaning.

“Aw, sweet, that's his idea face!” Fred cheered.

“Hey Pep, I think we're witnessing an epiphany,” Stark said dryly.

Hiro shook his head. “Sorry, just had an idea that could help a friend of mine. Anyway, yeah. Neuro-cranial transmitter. Works better.”

“Size is your main problem,” Stark commented. “With how transmitter units usually are, mobility will be an issue. It's been a backburner plan of mine, but... well, I've been busy.”

Fred snorted. “Are you kidding? This guy shrunk it down to about yay big-” He indicated the size of the headband with his hands. “And that's not even enough. He's trying to make it even smaller.”

“Huh. Color me impressed.”

Hiro wondered if he could actually glow with pleasure. “I, um, I brought some,” he said, with some caution. It may have been Anthony freaking Stark he was talking to, but he couldn't forget the last super-rich industrialist who had taken a shine to his microbots. “Not enough to really do much, but I was gonna keep working on them and the headset in my free time.”

“Nice. Let me know if you need any tips.”

Before Hiro could reply, Fred jostled him roughly. “Hey, look, we're almost there.”

“Where?” Hiro craned his neck to see out the window.

“Where we're staying, dude. See? Can't miss it.”

Hiro leaned over to follow Fred's pointing finger, and he could have died happy right then and there.

Between stepping off the plane to come face to face with Tony Stark, and this particular moment, there had been a lot of excitement and not a lot of time. It simply hadn't occurred to him where he would be staying, if Fred's much-talked-about “family friend” was Tony Stark himself.

Stark Tower hove into view, and Hiro kept his wide eyes locked on it as he reached over and punched Fred in the arm again. Fred responded by taking another picture of his face.

“I'm gonna make sure Wasabi scrapbooks all of this,” Fred informed him. “I hope you realize that.”

“Leave it on my grave,” Hiro said faintly. Fred reached over to mess up his hair, and he swatted half-heartedly at his hand.

“Wait til you see the inside,” Stark said casually. Hiro tried to respond, and could only manage a strangled noise.

He sneaked a glance at Fred, and caught him looking at him with a lopsided grin that was somewhere between wicked amusement and fondness. Hiro tried to punch him again, but this time Fred knocked his hand away.

The car pulled into a spacious garage – oh my God that is a lot of cars and they're really nice cars – and Hiro almost tripped twice on his way out.

Welcome home, Mr. Stark, Miss Potts.” A calm, British-sounding voice rang out in the room from no discernible direction. Hiro glanced around, searching for speakers. His first thought was must be a butler like Heathcliff, but if it was, it was weird that the guy was hailing them over an intercom rather than just coming in to meet them.

Fred waved to no one in particular. “Hi, Jarvis!”

“...And Master Whitmore,” the voice added. “And guest.” Hiro blinked suddenly, blinded by the light of a scanner. “You must be Hiro Hamada.”

Hiro rubbed his eyes as spots danced across his vision. “Uh.”

“Jarvis, it's rude to scan people before you say hello,” Stark said dryly.

Only a minor precaution, Mr. Stark.” There was a pause. “Hello.”

Stark rolled his eyes. “Precaution against what?”

You never know, sir. Look at the size of him.” Fred snickered.

“Are you an A.I.?” Hiro blurted, unable to contain himself.

Indeed.

“JARVIS serves as the central interface for all of the systems in Stark Tower,” Pepper Potts explained as she led them out of the garage and into the tower proper. “In many ways, he is Stark Tower.”

“He also helps run the Iron Man suit,” Stark added.

“Tony,” she said warningly. They were going through a lobby now, bright and polished and glistening with modernity.

“What? That's what the kids like to hear about.”

“What kind of AI?” Hiro asked, only half-listening to their banter. In his excitement he forgot to be nervous again. “Was he artificially constructed, or did you clone his personality from someone's brain?”

Stark's eyebrow rose. “What do you think?”

Hiro started a little. “W-well, I...” Great, he was stammering again. Calm down, bonehead, and answer the question. He ran his hand through his hair thoughtfully. “I mean, I just met him so I don't know for sure, but my immediate guess would be the first one. I mean, the brain-cloning thing is still experimental and super risky, and rampancy is pretty much a given, and... that's probably not something you want to hook up to your house. Tower. Um.” He disentangled his fingers from his hair. “He sounds pretty close to human, though. Like... um... there's a word for it. Starts with V?”

“Verisimilitude?” Fred suggested.

Says the guy who thought “mi casa” was French for “front door.” “Yeah, that.”

High praise, Master Hamada.”

“You're welcome.”

“Well, there's a reason for that,” Stark replied as they entered an elevator, if such an impressive – not to mention pretty – piece of modern tech could deign to be called a simple “elevator.”

My personality is indeed based on that of a person,” JARVIS spoke up inside the elevator. It began to rise. “But not through the experimental cloning process.

“How, then?” Hiro asked, addressing the AI directly.

Mine was shaped from Mr. Stark's memories during manual coding, as well as diary entries and videos,” JARVIS explained. “In this way, I gained it through indirect inspiration rather than a more direct upload.

Hiro blinked, and his eyes went briefly to Stark. “Wait, you can do that?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fred glance at him sharply.

“AI's are tricky,” the billionaire said with a shrug. “But yeah, I based him off my butler from when I was a kid. Good times.”

“That is so cool,” Fred whispered.

“Yeah, I'm pretty great,” Stark said with a grin.

“Also?” Fred added, to Hiro. “JARVIS does sarcasm way better than Baymax. Just saying.”

“Well you're not wrong,” Hiro admitted. “...We're working on it.”

This caught Stark's full attention. “Did you create an AI?”

Hiro almost winced. “Well... no,” he admitted, trying not to fidget where he stood. Beside him, Fred inched closer. “It's more like I inherited him, I guess?”

He was grateful for the distraction when the elevator came to a halt and opened to a wide hallway. “Here we are.” Potts led the way out of the elevator. “So, do you two want separate rooms, or-”

Fred almost strangled Hiro throwing an arm around his shoulders. “Wanna bunk together?” he said excitedly.

Squashed in a one-armed hug, Hiro grinned crookedly. “Yeah sure, that's cool.”

Potts laughed. “Thought so. Come on, I'll show you to the room Fred used last time. ...Tony?”

Hiro glanced back to see that Stark hadn't left the elevator. The famous genius billionaire superhero philanthropist was still standing there, popping blueberries into his mouth – when had he taken those out – and pointed vaguely downward. “I have a thing,” he said by way of explanation, right before the elevator door closed. Hiro gaped.

“Yes,” Potts said lightly, resting her hand on his shoulder. “He's always like that. Come on, then. Your luggage should be waiting for you.”

“Sweet,” Fred piped up. “Same one as last time, right?” Without waiting for an answer, Fred let go of Hiro and trotted on ahead. Potts shook her head, but it was a fond sort of shake.

In any case, Aunt Cass had raised her boys better than that. “Thank you, Miss Potts,” Hiro said, shouldering his backpack again as they followed Fred. “And I mean, for everything. Letting me stay here, inviting me...” His throat tightened, but he swallowed stubbornly against the feeling. “You don't know what this means to me.”

Her face creased in a warm smile. “Well, don't think for a second that you didn't earn it,” she said, with a little laugh. “You were the one who made the papers, after all. Like Tony said, your track record certainly caught our eye.”

Not to mention, you made a bit of an impression when you walked in,” JARVIS added.

“In a good way?” Hiro asked hopefully.

I should think so.

“Thanks, JARVIS, I can take it from here,” Potts spoke up. “Can you keep an eye on Tony?”

Most of the time, that's all I can do, Miss Potts. Good day.” The AI went quiet.

“Speaking of 'Miss Potts'...” She turned to Hiro again. “Don't be afraid to call me Pepper. I'm only insistent about formalities around our rivals and business partners.”

“Heh, right. Okay, then, thank you, Pepper.”

“You're very welcome, Hiro.” Pepper pointed out one of the rooms, and Hiro stepped in to find two beds waiting for them, along with his and Fred's suitcases. Fred was lying face-down and spread-eagle on one of the beds. At their approach, his head came up.

“Hey Hiro, wanna play 'the floor is lava'?”

Hiro blinked, then glanced up at Pepper. She shrugged, smirking slightly. “I won't judge.”

Snickering, Hiro picked the other bed and lightly swung his backpack down onto the bedspread. “Maybe later, Fred. Let's at least get our stuff set up first.”

Fred blinked at him, vaguely confused. “I already did,” he said, pointing to his suitcase on the floor with his own backpack sitting on it.

“Right...” Hiro shrugged. “Meh, I probably have more stuff anyway.”

“Well, my next couple of hours are cleared.” The CEO of Stark Industries leaned against the door frame, arms crossed. “It wasn't easy, but I managed it. I'd be happy to give you the nickel tour, once you're done.”

Perking up, Hiro pushed his backpack aside. “Well, I can always-”

Fred popped up and slid off the bed. “Oh hey, while you're unpacking and stuff – hey Pepper, can I talk to you for a second?”

“Sure, Fred, what is it?” Smoothly Pepper stood up straight again.

Hiro blinked up at him, mildly confused, but Fred shrugged. “Just get situated, I'll be right back, I just wanna catch up a little, y'know?”

“Oh, right, got it.” Hiro tried to hide his impatience – a tour of Stark Tower from none other than Pepper Potts... but that could wait for five minutes. Besides, he did have things to check on in his suitcase. “See you in a bit.”

As Fred and Pepper left the room, Hiro opened up his suitcase. Nothing seemed to be missing – tucked into the corner next to his clothes were a few of his tools, a bag of microbots – not that many, just a few handfuls or so – the transmitter headset, and the new prototype one he'd been working on. In another corner was Megabot – he'd thrown his fighting bot in on a whim, because hey, you never know when you might need one. Everything was there, and from the looks of it the plane trip hadn't done any damage.

With a sigh of relief, he took out the button-up he'd picked for the Expo and closed up the suitcase again. Might as well let it air out, instead of keeping it cramped and folded in there for a week.

Not for the first time, he opened his backpack and checked to make sure the hat was still there. He couldn't afford to lose that.

Hiro glanced back at the door, just to make sure no one was passing by, before pulling out the cap and looking at it for a moment. He traced his thumb over the faded logo.

You should be here.

 

Chapter Text

“So, how've you been?” Pepper asked. They had stopped down the hall from the guest room, hopefully out of earshot from Hiro. “We've hardly heard from you in the past few months. Busy with school, I take it?”

Fred tried not to wince. Pepper always cut right to the chase, didn't she – not that he hadn't been a little prepared. “Oh, well... I guess so.” He shrugged, putting on his “calm and collected” face. “And just... I've sort of been working through some stuff.” He'd meant for it to come out calm and nonchalant, but it sounded more melancholy than anything else.

She tilted her head, worried. “Everything all right?”

“Um...” Fred turned to her with a smile, ready to brush it off and get this over with in his usual easy, grinning way. He was met with Pepper's curious frown, the obvious concern on her face, and against that, the easy grin just wouldn't come. His shoulders slumped a little. “I've... been better,” He admitted. “I mean, I've been a lot worse, but, y'know. It's been uphill.”

Her hand was on his shoulder. “What happened?”

“Well... did you hear about that thing, months ago?” He felt his chest tighten, but he forced the name out. “About – Robert Callaghan?”

Pepper's face fell. “Yes. We heard about the attack on Alistair Krei, and the portal– Have you seen Abigail? We've been in contact, but-”

“She's fine,” Fred said quickly. “We saw her a little while ago – she'd doing okay. A little lonely, but she's fine. But I was talking about before that. The, uh, auditorium fire.”

“At SFIT?” Fred nodded, bracing himself just to talk again – a painful lump had formed in his throat. “And – oh God, you're the mascot there. I didn't even think of that.” The hand on his shoulder squeezed lightly. “You weren't hurt, were you?”

Fred smiled humorlessly. “Physically or emotionally?” Pepper looked faintly alarmed, and his smile faded. “It's just, the guy that died in that fire. Tadashi. He – um.”

“You knew him, didn't you.” She looked heartsick for him.

“Yeah, he was-” His throat seized. “He was a friend. We were close.” She hugged him, and he hugged back briefly before pulling away. “Look, that's not all, though. It's what I wanted to talk to you about, 'cause I don't know if you know, but Tadashi – his name was Tadashi Hamada.” Her eyes widened, and he nodded. “Hiro's big brother. It's been really tough for him.” Fred ran his hand through his hair, nearly dislodging his hat in the process. “I know he said thank you and stuff, but I just wanted to say it too. Seriously.” He looked her in the eye. “Thanks for doing this for him. I mean I can't speak for him or anything, but I know this'll mean the world to him.”

Pepper smiled ruefully at him. “I thought you seemed excited when Tony told you who we'd be inviting.”

“What can I say?” Fred shrugged. “He's a cool kid and I like looking out for him.”

“Well, I'd say he's lucky to have you.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “So, let's go get him for that tour I promised. Might as well show him a good time.”


Most self-respecting, bill-paying adults turn about thirteen the moment they set foot in Disneyland. Pepper Potts' nickel tour of the highlights of Stark Tower had a similar effect on Hiro, or it would have if he'd been old enough for thirteen to make a difference. Whenever they entered a new room he was off like a shot, poking into every nook he could find for a closer look. Every object of interest she pointed out ended up inspected closely or touched, or both. The most extraordinary part was that he never seemed to pick up speed – the way he was zipping around, you'd expect him to run, but he managed it at a leisurely, meandering pace. He fired off questions that she answered in quick succession, and Fred was fine with following them around and watching.

It was a little bittersweet, to watch Hiro dashing back and forth through the halls and rooms at Stark Tower as if he needed to take everything in all at once. Fred had been wanting to drag Tadashi here for months – and man, his face would have been priceless. Would he have been like this? Running around like a kid in an amusement park, asking questions, trying to see what every square inch had to offer before moving on to the next sight? Fred clenched his teeth a little, glad that neither Pepper nor Hiro were paying attention to him, and paused for a few beats to get his breath back.

Memories of his last visit came back easily. Walking around the place, splitting his attention between Pepper's words and his own thoughts, was a little like catching up with an old acquaintance. No, scratch that, he thought as he watched Hiro give a polished wall-mounted console an experimental poke. It was like catching up with an old acquaintance while also introducing your wide-eyed newbie little brother-

Fred halted mid-step, shaking his head vigorously. No, bad Fred, no getting ahead of yourself. While Hiro wandered off to fawn over more of Stark Tower's integrated systems, Fred took a moment to wrestle with the sudden cringe factor of his own thoughts. Geez, Fred, that's some arrogance you got there, kick it down a notch, he thought, disgusted. Averting his head so that neither of the others would see the wry look on his face, he mentally shook himself again.

“You okay, Fred?” Pepper called back.

He collected himself again, beaming. “You know those moments where your brain randomly decides to make you relive an embarrassing moment from when you were twelve? Just had one of those.” Pepper laughed, and Hiro was too distracted by shiny things to notice anything in the first place.

In his distraction, Fred lost track of what floor they were on as Pepper led them down to another. Was this one of the guest floors, or one of the lab ones? Maybe Tony had shifted the layout around since his last visit. “Hey, refresh my memory?” he piped up. “What's on this floor again? More guest rooms, or...?”

An odd look crossed Pepper's face, somewhere between mischievous and thoughtful. “Now that I think of it,” she mused. “I don't think you've missed them yet.”

“Missed who?” Fred was about to ask just as Hiro wandered off again. The words were barely out of his mouth when a door opened, someone stepped out, and Hiro ran smack into them.

Immediately Hiro jumped back, startled and embarrassed. “Sorry about that – Fred, c'mon, shut up.” He turned to glare, but Fred kept snickering anyway.

The man opened the door wider and stepped around him with a good-natured laugh. Something about him was vaguely familiar, though Fred was pretty sure he'd never met the guy before. He was black, about as tall as Honey Lemon sans heels, and had sort of a soldier vibe around him. “It's all right, kid, no harm done.” The guy gave Hiro a friendly grin before turning with a raised eyebrow to Pepper. “Hello, Miss Potts. You could've warned me you did school trips, I would've worn something respectable.” He was wearing a purple T-shirt with the words “Psychoanalysis for everyone!” in faded white letters. It was easily the most respectable thing Fred had seen all day.

Pepper laughed brightly. “Nothing so dramatic,” she said. “Fred, Hiro, this is Sam Wilson. He's... a friend of a friend.” Hiro caught Fred's eye as he moved to stand next to him, and they exchanged similar curious looks. Something about the way Pepper said that just loaded it with meaning. “Sam, this is Fred Whitmore and Hiro Hamada. They're in town for the Expo, actually. Have you and Steve decided to come?”

“You know, I was hoping to catch that,” the man said with a rueful smile. “But...” Fred was definitely not imagining the split-second look the guy gave both him and Hiro “Well, you know how things are. We've only got so much time on our hands. Busy week ahead of us. We were just talking about that, actually.”

Is this about Iron Man stuff? Fred wondered. They could totally be discussing Iron Man stuff.

But he was proven wrong in the next moment, when another man – tall, blond-haired, built like an Old Spice model, with a face that could resuscitate a drowned puppy – stepped hesitantly into the hallway with his arms crossed over his chest. “Everything all right, Sam? We're about to go.”

There was a faint thunk as Fred's lower jaw hit the floor. Beside him, Hiro said something in faint, slightly high-pitched Japanese.

“Hi, Steve,” Pepper said matter-of-factly. “I was just giving a couple of guests a tour, but – something tells me I don't need to introduce you.”

Oh, thought the part of Fred's brain that was still somewhat coherent. Not Iron Man stuff. Captain America stuff. His throat bobbed nervously. Wow he's taller in real life. What shirt am I wearing again?

“Hey, Pepper. Hello there.” Steve Rogers' smile turned briefly to Fred and Hiro, and Fred had to bite his tongue to keep from asking for an autograph. Play it cool, man, play it cool. “Sorry to bug you, Pepper, but do you know where Bucky went? We've got some – errands to run.” Oh my God he's doing superhero stuff. Captain America is right in front of me and he has superhero things to do.

Pepper gestured over her shoulder. “He'll be downstairs. Tony might've gone down to tinker a little.”

“Better hurry before someone starts swinging again,” Sam sighed. “Nice to meet you two.”

“You too,” Hiro said faintly.

Captain America flashed them another grin. “Excuse us.”

“Love your work,” Fred managed to say, shuffling to the side to let them through.

“Same,” Hiro added lamely.

Fred watched as the two men headed down the hall to the nearest elevator, still too starstruck to manage complete sentences. He'd just met Captain America. As he watched the superhero leave, his attention was drawn downward. About halfway downward, to be exact. Oh. Wow.

Hiro was talking to him. “What?” he asked vaguely, without turning his head.

A sharp elbow to his side broke him out of his reverie. “I said, is there even any point in seeing that exhibit thing now?” Hiro hissed.

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson had already rounded the corner before Fred fully registered what Hiro was saying. “Uh, heh, tell you what,” he replied sotto voce, blinking hard to clear his head. “If the mighty Thor comes crashing through the window, I say we can skip it.”

“I think we can move on.” Pepper sounded thoroughly amused. “Dr. Banner won't be here for a few days, but the next floor down has a lab or two that might interest you.”

The two of them fell in step to follow her again, bickering in hushed tones. “Smooth, back there,” Fred muttered. “I think both of us said about three words. You gonna be like that with every celebrity you meet come Stark Expo?”

Hiro sneakily punched him in the ribs. “I'm not the one who was staring at Captain America's butt.”

“I was not!” Fred hissed.

The little snot smirked at him, dropping his voice another couple of volume levels. “You hate to see him go, but you love to watch him leave, right?” That shocked a laugh out of Fred, who responded the only way he could, by flipping that ridiculous anime mop over Hiro's eyes. Hiro shoved him roughly, snickering as he pushed his hair out of his face again.

“Don't worry about it, Fred,” Pepper spoke up from about six paces in front of them. “It happens to the best of us.”

Oh my God.”


Hiro flopped backward on the bed he'd picked out, sighing with contentment. “That,” he said firmly, “was the best Chinese takeout I've ever eaten. Seriously good.”

“Tell me about it.” Sprawled out on his stomach on his own bed, Fred stretched luxuriously. “I'm pretty sure Tony just calls up banquet restaurants and has 'em deliver.”

“You can do that?”

“I dunno. But he's, like, Tony Stark, man.” Fred let his head fall forward, and the bedspread muffled his voice. “You can get away with a lot of stuff when you're Iron Man.”

Without changing his position on the bed, Hiro grabbed a pillow and tossed at him. It bounced lightly off Fred's back. “Still can't believe you didn't tell me.”

“Worth it,” Fred mumbled.

“Your face is worth it,” Hiro retorted lamely, too full of good food and dizzy with dreams coming true to put much effort into snappy comebacks.

Fred raised his head again. “No, your face was worth it. Worth it forever. I sent photo evidence to Honey already.”

Hiro groaned wordlessly and threw the other pillow, not bothering to care when Fred batted it aside. He was just considering embarrassing himself with another round of thank-yous when a blandly musical tone went off from Fred's tablet. Immediately Fred popped up and scrambled to grab it.

“Video call! C'mere, c'mere, it's the guys!”

With a grunt of effort, Hiro heaved himself up and padded over to sit by Fred. Once they were situated, Fred hit the “accept call” button, and they found themselves staring at not three, not even four, but five smiling faces. Well, sort of smiling – Baymax's head was squeezed into the top of the frame, and aside from blinking his expression never changed. Gogo was close to the bottom, elbowing Wasabi to stop him from pushing her out by accident. Honey Lemon and Aunt Cass were side by side, giggling when Wasabi squawked in protest.

Hiro waved. “Hey, guys.”

There was a ragged chorus of “Hi, Hiro!” and “Hey, Fred!” From the looks of it they were sitting at a table in the cafe, all of them squashed together on one side.

“So how's Stark Tower?” was the first thing out of Aunt Cass's mouth, and Hiro groaned loudly and flopped back on the bed to the sound of their laughter.

“Did everyone know but me?” he demanded.

Wasabi raised his hand. “I didn't.”

“'Cause you couldn't keep a secret to save your life,” Gogo muttered.

“Hey!”

“I was also unaware,” Baymax added.

“Oh, stop fighting,” Aunt Cass fussed at them. “And quit pushing, not everyone's in the frame!” Her excited smile turned back to the camera again. “Hiro, c'mon, you didn't answer my question.”

“What? Oh, it's... what do you want me to say?” Hiro ran his fingers through his hair. “It's Stark Tower. I met Tony Stark, and we saw Captain America today! Captain America! Can you believe that?”

Dios mio, I am so jealous!” Honey Lemon was a couple decibels away from full-on squealing.

“It was soooo cool!” Fred burst out. “It sucks that he's not gonna be at the Expo, but we totally got to meet him for like five seconds.”

“Remember when I said thirty percent of me hated you?” Wasabi said dryly. “Make that forty.”

“I'm so happy for you!” Aunt Cass was almost squealing, too.

Hiro paused to laugh. “So... wow, you guys all got together at the cafe just for us? You shouldn't have.”

“Well...” Aunt Cass grinned sheepishly. “It wasn't just for that reason. I... had to close up early.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Tab-loids,” Gogo said, in a sing-song deadpan.

“Oh man, I hate those guys,” Fred groaned.

“Wait, what?” Hiro's voice cracked. “I'm not even there, what are journalists doing hanging around the cafe?”

Before Aunt Cass could reply, a small voice piped up from somewhere behind the others. “Sorry.” Blinking, Baymax sidled away from the middle of the frame. Honey glanced over her shoulder and nudged Wasabi to the side, and there was Abigail Callaghan, sitting at the next table over, peeking over the rims of her sunglasses with a tentative smile and a wave.

“Hi there!” Fred waved back.

Hiro blinked, momentarily taken aback. “Hey, Abigail.” It was one thing for Aunt Cass to let him know that Abigail visited the Lucky Cat Cafe from time to time; it was another to actually see her sitting there with her fingers wrapped around one of Aunt Cass's mugs. Once the initial surprise wore off, his mind put two and two together. “Oh... oh, have journalists been hounding you?”

“A-a little,” Abigail answered. “Here's safe.” She shot a grateful look to Aunt Cass, who gave her a quick smile back.

“Didn't stop one from coming in earlier,” Honey Lemon said reproachfully. “I was here, and I thought Miss Hamada was going to grab a skillet or something.”

“I will not apologize.”

“Oh, I know. I would have helped!” Honey beamed. “But, he was nice enough to leave without a fuss.”

“Anyway, turns out the EMP's a little old,” Aunt Cass sighed. “Ended up knocking the power out completely for a few hours.”

“Oops,” Hiro said weakly.

“So she called me in to have a look,” Gogo broke in. “And – geez, Hiro, how old were you when you put this in?”

Hiro squinted thoughtfully. “Um... eight-ish? I had help, but...”

“It shows,” Gogo said with a flap of her hand. “Don't worry, I fixed it.”

“I helped,” Baymax added. “I have added basic electronics maintenance to my database.”

“So, anyway...” Aunt Cass moved to the front again. “We just wanted to check in, while we were all here. You two all settled in?”

“Yeah-” Hiro began.

“We're hitting the town tomorrow,” Fred announced eagerly, tousling Hiro's hair. “Don't worry, Miss H, I'll keep an eye on him.”

“I know you will, Fred.”

“Hey.” Gogo pushed forward again, glaring through the camera. “Both of you keep an eye on each other, all right? Hiro, don't be afraid to smack him on the back of the head to get him to shut up if you need to.”

Hiro threw her a mock-serious salute. “Yes ma'am.”

The sharp look shifted away from him.“And Fred, make sure the professor here doesn't wander into traffic.”

“Understood!” Fred copied Hiro's salute, while Hiro groaned loudly. It was mostly for show – maybe Abigail and Aunt Cass didn't know there were lines to read between, but they did. This trip wasn't all fun and games; they had a job to do.

Hiro tapped the screen. “Baymax, how're you doing, buddy?”

“I have been assisting in housework,” was the placid reply. “I have decreased the level of airborne allergens by fifty-four percent.”

“The living room still smells lemony fresh,” Aunt Cass laughed. “Well.” She reached out to rest a fingertip against her screen. “Have fun and hurry home. We miss you. Both of you,” she added with a smile. On her unspoken signal, the others reached out to imitate her gesture; even Baymax's thick white finger found room. Fred and Hiro returned it on their own screen.

At the next table, Abigail raised her mug in a toast. “See you soon,” she said.

Hiro grinned back at her. “Looking forward to it.”

The call ended soon after, and Hiro returned to his own bed and lay back with a sigh. “So. Where're we starting tomorrow?”

“Times Square,” Fred answered. “That's where BodyWorlds and that Avengers Exhibit will be. First few days we'll focus on Manhattan, and that's... three days if we take our sweet time, two if we rush, one if we really push our luck. Coney Island'll take up at least half a day... Then there's that thing in Brooklyn we wanted to do.” The last sentence hung heavy in the air.

Hiro's throat closed, with excitement or nervousness, he wasn't sure. “Yup. We can plan stuff on the fly, once we're hitting the streets and stuff.” Once they were out of Stark Tower, on their own, with no chance of being overheard. “Full week. Man, we're gonna see all of New York, aren't we?”

“If we don't, then I haven't done my job,” Fred laughed. “It's gonna be awesome, and we'll cap it off with Stark Expo. Get ready for the best week of your life, buddy.”

“I am so ready.” Hiro stared at the ceiling with a mad grin on his face.

Really, the only thing he had to worry about was whether or not he could make himself sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 “Wow.” Hiro's breath caught as they came out of the subway exit. At the top of the steps he turned in a small circle, eyes wide. “Nice.”

Fred stood by him, nudging him out of the way of other people coming up the stairs. “Isn't it awesome?”

Times Square lay before them, bright and deafening in broad daylight. Skyscrapers and highrises stretched upward until he had to squint to see the tops. Around the square, the sides of all the buildings were plastered with billboards and eye-catching advertisements and, above all, massive posters promoting movies, live shows, and Broadway productions. Crowds milled around, taking pictures or hailing taxis or otherwise going about their business. And speaking of taxis-

“Man, does anyone own their own car around here?” Hiro blurted, gaping at the river of yellow that took up the streets. Any vehicle that wasn't a taxi was either a bus or, on a rare occasion, a limo.

Fred snorted. “Look at this traffic. You think anyone's gonna want to?”

“So.” Hiro shoved his hands in his pockets. “Where to first?”

The first order of business turned out to be flooding Aunt Cass, Gogo, Wasabi, and Honey Lemon's inboxes with pictures. Laughing between themselves, Hiro and Fred plastered well over half of them with obnoxious selfie stickers before hitting the send button. Not much of a loss for Honey, of course – she would probably approve of the bright pink hearts and glittery OMGs decorating their shots of the square.

“Stand still, stand still!” Fred urged, holding up his tablet. “I'm taking a panorama.” Hiro promptly pulled a face and held it while his snickering friend took two tries to get the picture right. After sending out all the photos, the two of them braved the traffic to cross over to the Discovery building. Two birds with one stone – two of the exhibits they wanted to see were in here.

Priorities were priorities, of course, and they found themselves walking through rooms and halls of superhero gear in the Avengers exhibit. Fred was practically vibrating with excitement, and after the initial annoyance of having his arm yanked, Hiro resigned himself to getting dragged. At one point Fred accidentally dragged him into a collision with a scruffy-looking guy in a hoodie, but Fred was too excited to stick around and help Hiro hastily apologize.

“Just look at all this stuff!” Fred halted in one of the main rooms, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet.

“Considering where we're staying and where you sleep at night back home, I would've thought this would be old news to you,” Hiro said dryly, tugging his arm out of Fred's grip.

“Ohhh, dude, you have no idea. I got, what, action figures and comic books in plastic? This is the real deal. You at least gotta love the Iron Man and Hulk stuff! That's, like, science!”

Hiro followed him, taking in everything that Fred pointed out to him. He had to admit, he could feel his fingers itch just looking at the old Stark tech – gutted and useless for display purposes, of course. But if Alistair Krei was a big name, then Stark's was a monolith. Hell, if Tony Stark had walked up to him at the SFIT showcase and offered to buy his microbots, Hiro wasn't sure that any amount of shade from Callaghan would have convinced him not to go for it.

Bruce Banner's part of the exhibit wasn't as far up his alley. That was chemical and medical stuff – more Honey's thing than Hiro's. Still, Fred's “science bros” jokes got him laughing until the next point of interest.

“Look, look-look-look, they moved all the Howling Commando stuff here!” Fred towed him over to a set of seven mannequins displaying antique-looking army gear. “How much you know about the Commandos?”

“Ahhh...” Hiro caught a glance of Fred's poorly-contained enthusiasm. “Refresh my memory.”

“You're killing me, man. C'mon! Captain America, their awesome leader, we met him.” Fred dropped his voice briefly. “And then there's Bucky Barnes, the awesome sniper dude. Dernier, their explosions expert – love that guy – Morita their communications guy, James Montgomery Falsworth, Gabe Jones, he could speak like eight languages, then Dum Dum Dugan, he led the Commandos after the war ended-”

“Dum Dum?”

“Super long name, so they shortened it.” Fred grinned. “I can appreciate that.”

“Right.”

“C'mon, this is like national history right here.” Fred leaned closer, dropping his voice again to a conspiratorial whisper. “It's a history we're part of now.”

Hiro glanced around instinctively. To his relief, no one was close enough to overhear. The guy in the hoodie had wandered in, but he wasn't paying attention to them until he noticed Hiro looking at him. Embarrassed, Hiro offered a head-toss of acknowledgment and turned back to the display.

It was hard to suppress a shudder, just looking at all these objects and understanding just what they meant. Fred was right – for months now they had been living their lives with something in common with these men – and women, he thought when they passed by the more scant section on the woman they called the Black Widow. It was incredible – frightening, almost – to think of it, of sharing anything with people like Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov and Tony Stark.

Big shoes to fill.


“You feeling okay, man?” Hiro asked halfway through the BodyWorlds exhibit.

It took Fred a few seconds to register what he was saying. “Huh? What? Oh, yeah. Why?”

“You look even weirder than you did in the Avengers thing.” Hiro shook his head. He'd known Fred was interested in a lot of weird stuff, but he never would have pegged him as an anat-physio kind of guy.

Fred blinked owlishly at him, then broke out in a broad grin. “Can you blame me? This stuff's neat.” He pointed. “I mean, look at that. No eyelids or skin on that head. Is that not the most horrifying thing you've ever witnessed?”

“Yup. Can't argue with that.” Hiro snapped a quick photo and sent it to Aunt Cass, along with the message “Suggestions for dealing with journalists? :P”. “Still. You look... weird. I don't know the word for it.”

“I'm just bummed because I haven't seen the explodey guy yet.” Fred stuck his tongue out. “The explodey guy's the best part.”

“How many times have you seen this before, again?”

For a moment Hiro thought he'd lost Fred's attention yet again, and he was about to repeat himself when Fred answered him. “Twice, I think? Yeah, twice.”

Hiro raised an eyebrow. “Twice? Yeesh, you liked it that much?'

“First time was a high school trip,” Fred explained with a carefree shrug. “It was cool, but like, I had to fill out a worksheet.” He stuck out his tongue again. “Gross. Which, considering what we're looking at, is saying something.” Hiro snickered. “That time was in San Jose. I went again when it was at the Academy of Sciences, months ago.”

“Oh.” Hiro blinked and looked away, a question at the tip of his tongue.

Fred answered it, sounding cautious. “Me and Tadashi went to check it out. Just... y'know, killing time on a Saturday.” He didn't elaborate, but that was all right. Hiro knew better than to press on a button like that. He looked away again, chewing at his lower lip. Memories like that attached to this, and Fred had still agreed to put this on their schedule. Hiro would have thanked him if he knew how to word it without making it worse.

It can be helpful to engage in activities or place oneself in an environment associated with positive memories of lost loved ones, Baymax had told him. Maybe it was something like that.

The mood lightened once they moved on, as if clearing away that bit of history had cleaned out the metaphorical cobwebs. By the time they left the building in search of food, Hiro had half-forgotten it. There wasn't much time to dwell on it anyway – Fred was already pulling him toward the pedestrian mall and the smell of cooked food.

“Look, man,” he was saying. “You cannot come to New York without trying the street food. C'mon, let's get some dirty water dogs.”

“That sounds like something that would make Wasabi run screaming,” Hiro remarked past his watering mouth. “Gimme.”

Before long they were wandering down 42nd Street, their hands full with hot dogs and empanadas. They were two tourists blending in among hundreds more; in other words, it was optimal conditions for conspiring.

“So. Side trip,” Hiro said once his mouth wasn't too full of food. “I have the address on me – probably shouldn't leave that last minute.”

“Think we should case the joint first?” Fred suggested.

“Y'know, I am absolutely not surprised to hear you talk about joints,” Hiro said innocently.

“Oh, ha-ha. Answer the question, smartass.”

“Well yeah, of course we should check it out first. I don't want to go in blind.”

“It's over in Brooklyn,” Fred pointed out. “Just a hop over the East River. We could always get it over with today.”

“Maybe. But not yet.” Hiro shook his head. “Not a good idea.”

Fred took a bite out of his hot dog. “How come?”

Hiro chewed his lip. “Because I'm about seventy-five percent sure we're being followed – and before you start breaking out the Bruce Lee poses,” Hiro added quickly, catching Fred's arm with his free hand, “there's still twenty-five percent of a chance I'm wrong. So don't freak out or anything.”

“Why do you think we're being followed?” Fred asked, lowering his voice.

“Because less than seven months ago I was dodging tabloid journalists and it's made me horribly paranoid.”

Fred glanced over his shoulder. “What, you think maybe the media figured out Tony's got us as guests?” he muttered back.

“I dunno for sure, all I know is there was a car passing by when we went into the Discovery building, and it went by at least twice when we were getting food.” Hiro finished his hot dog and tossed the cardboard and foil in the next trash can they passed. “I only noticed because it wasn't a taxi. And there's a couple of guys following us for the past few blocks, since we left the plaza – Fred, no, don't turn around and look!” Too late. Hiro resisted the urge to swat him.

“Is that why you keep slowing down?” Fred asked, sheepishly facing forward again.

Hiro nodded. “Testing it. They never seem to catch up.”

“What do they look like?”

Hiro dropped a toothpick, stopped, and went back to pick it up and sneak a glance. “Dressed nice,” he said when they were walking again. “But not like, catch-your-eye nice. Pretty plain, just suits and ties like most of the people walking around here.”

“Keep sightseeing, then,” Fred said. “Maybe we can lose them, or at least give them something useless to watch us do. Or at least something they'd hate.” Fred hummed thoughtfully. “What's the best thing for that?”

A mischievous grin stole across Hiro's face. He lightly nudged Fred in the ribs, and nodded upward. In the distance, less than a mile away, a certain distinctive skyscraper stretched high above the rest. “Dare you to take the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building?”

Fred's face mirrored the smirk.


“Think they're still following us?” Hiro asked, lightly winded. They were a little over halfway up, having paused for brief breaks a few times, but other than that, one hundred and two floors was hardly the end of the world for an amateur martial artist and a dedicated athletic dancer, both of whom regularly fought crime.

“I saw them come in after us,” Fred answered, darting up to pause on the next landing. “I don't know if they bothered with this, they never caught up when we were taking a break. So... we could just be screwing ourselves over here. At least it's good exercise.”

Hiro huffed thoughtfully. “Got any bright ideas?”

“Let's try something,” Fred answered. “Try not to breathe so hard for a sec. When I say now, stop walking, just stop everything, be as quiet as you can.” He paused. “Okay, now.”

They halted. Behind them, maybe a floor down at most, the clatter of footsteps suddenly stopped. Fred and Hiro exchanged glances.

“I'm getting tired, I think,” Fred said out loud, so that his words echoed in the stairwell. “Let's just take the elevator the rest of the way up.” To Hiro, he motioned downward. Hiro's eyes widened in comprehension. They could shake off their shadows this way – maybe visit the tower later, without having to dodge... whoever these people were.

At the next floor, they left the stairwell and milled around a little before they found the elevator. Hiro was grinning from ear to ear, Fred trying not too laugh to hard, as they stepped in to go back to the ground floor.

But before the doors could close, two more passengers rushed to step in – a pair of men, both of them looking winded, dressed formally but dully in plain suits. One of them nodded respectfully, but other than that they appeared uninterested in either Fred or Hiro. The act might have worked if both of them hadn't already seen the pair following them down 42nd Street.

Mouth dry, Hiro met Fred's eyes for a moment and hit the button for the top floor. Instinct told him that it would be better to let these two keep thinking they hadn't been made. Fred stepped closer to him, and Hiro wondered for a moment if that might make them suspicious. One of the men glanced at him for a moment, and Hiro gave him a brief disinterested smile before pretending to stare off into space.

After a long, uncomfortable ride, the doors finally opened at the top floor. Fred grabbed his arm with an excited “C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!” and together they pushed past the two men and into the crowd. Together they power-walked away from the two men and squeezed their way between tourists, families, and at least one tour group.

“They still on us?” Hiro asked under his breath.

“Don't know. Maybe. Stay close.”

“Yeah yeah, I know.” Hiro glanced back, searching the sea of faces for their shadows, but it was too crowded for him to find them. Hopefully, the two men would have the same problem following them.

They quickly circled the entire observation deck, muttering to each other as they hashed out a quick escape plan. When they had gone around almost twice, they checked that the coast was clear and broke from the crowd. Together, they slipped back into the stairwell and plunged down the steps at a run. Hiro skipped the last three steps of each flight, and Fred took them two at a time. Four floors down, they left the stairwell and sought out the elevator. Fred had a hold of Hiro's sleeve, towing him along as he kept an eye out behind them. No one was following them this time, but Fred still held down the “door close” button. Once the doors were shut and they were headed back to the first floor, they both leaned against the back wall and sighed with relief.

“Who do you think that was?” Hiro asked, heart still pounding from running down four flights of stairs.

“Don't know,” Fred panted. “Don't wanna know. Let's just – let's just keep going, keep an eye out. We can get some museums out of the way. Natural History or Metropolitan art museum?”

Even in his breathless, shaken state, Hiro managed to raise a sarcastic eyebrow at him.

Fred rolled his eyes. “Right. Stupid question.”

“There are no stupid questions,” Hiro assured him. “Only stupid people.”

Fred laughed as he got his breath back. “Natural History it is. Man, just wait til you see their gem collection.”

“Sounds awesome. But seriously.” Hiro rubbed his nose. “Who do you think they were? What did they want?” If they had been journalists, then there would have been questions. Cameras. Not just... not just following them.

“I have no idea.” Fred shook his head, frowning worriedly. “But maybe...”

“What?”

“Maybe we should spar a little when we get back,” Fred said with a shrug. Before them, the elevator doors opened. “Stay sharp, keep on our toes, you know?”

Hiro worried at his bottom lip, but nodded in agreement.

They made it out of the Empire State Building free of their shadows. Even the car that Hiro had spotted in Times Square was nowhere to be found. They breathed more easily after that.


Up on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, it wasn't long before one of the men gave in to frustration. “Where the hell did they go?”

“I don't know! Why are you asking me?” The second man elbowed his younger cohort in irritation. “Damn it, you said you had your eye on them!” The observation deck at the top of the Empire State Building was thronged with people, and the two men had lost their quarry among them.

The younger man gave him a thoroughly unimpressed look. “We're both supposed to have our eyes on them, dumbass.” He shook his head, disgusted. “We've circled the damn deck twice now. They probably got bored and left.”

“What for? Hell, they just got here!”

“They're two stupid kids, what do you expect?” the other retorted, dropping his voice to a hiss. “The only ones really interested in staying up here are old ladies with cameras and couples looking to propose. Let's face it, they're gone.”

“They're not stupid,” his partner snapped. “The older one maybe, but the boss said the little one's some kind of savant.” He hesitated. “Think we were made?”

“Nah.” The younger man shook his head. “Did you see them in the elevator? That dopy smile the little kid gave me? They were too excited to notice a damn thing. And speaking of the boss, you do realize we're both hosed if we lose them, right? C'mon, maybe if we get to the elevator we can comb the streets and find them before we lose them for good.”

Grumbling, the two men left the observation deck and found their way to the elevator. The doors opened and there was already someone standing inside, some scruffy-looking guy in a hoodie. The men pushed inside, the younger one going for the ground floor button.

“You gonna get off?” the older one asked the solitary passenger impatiently. He received a head shake in response. He shrugged, and the doors closed.

The man in the hooded sweatshirt moved like lightning.

In an instant, both men were pinned against the back wall of the elevator, a gloved hand at either of their throats, thumbs pressing in on their windpipes. They could breathe – just. The younger man choked on a curse and kicked out at the man, but he might as well have tried to kick down a cement wall. The hand at his throat, even cushioned by the leather glove, was like the hand of a statue.

“Are you following those kids?” the man asked. Shaggy brown hair framed his face, falling over cold gray eyes.

“What kids?” the older man managed to gasp out. The thumbs pressed in, and for a few moments neither of them were able to breathe.

Their vision was going dark when the hands loosened enough to let oxygen through again.

“Are you following those kids?” he repeated.

“We're not-” the younger one choked. “We're not gonna hurt 'em or anything, I swear!”

“What if I don't believe you?”

Neither of the men replied, too busy focusing on breathing, staring with bulging eyes at their captor, and praying a little bit.

Without warning, he let them go. Gasping, the pair landed unsteadily and sank toward the floor of the elevator, scrabbling to put as much distance between them and their scruffy assailant as the elevator would allow.

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened to the first floor. “Stop following them,” the man said bluntly, and turned and left the elevator.

By the time either of them had regained their nerve enough to follow, the man had vanished.

Chapter Text

They kept an eye out the following day, but there was no sign of the car, or the two men, or anyone else tracking them. The first day had stirred up a healthy level of paranoia, and Hiro developed a crick in his neck from looking over his shoulder so many times.

Around noon they found a bench in Central Park to sit down and eat, Hiro with a foil-wrapped burrito, Fred with a styrofoam container of Italian pasta. So far, after only about two days in New York, Hiro had yet to find street food here that he didn't like. After half a day of walking, he was starving.

“So that was the art museum,” Fred said with his mouth full. “Was that so bad?”

“Meh.” Hiro shrugged. Some of the paintings had been cool, but after the fuss he'd put up over visiting the Metropolitan Museum, he certainly wasn't about to admit it to Fred. “It was so-so. Not a total loss, either. If anyone was following us, I'm pretty sure we just bored them to death.”

“Uncultured swine,” Fred said dryly. “At least Honey Lemon'll like the pictures.”

“Wasabi, too,” Hiro pointed out.

“Heck yeah, he's gonna scrapbook the heck out of this trip, and he's not even here.” Fred slurped back another mouthful of fettucine. “So, speaking of people following us, I don't think it's happening. Have you seen anyone?”

“Nope. And I've been extra-careful, too.” Hiro paused to wipe salsa from the corner of his mouth. “I'm thinking maybe we can go check out the thing in Brooklyn. Just a quick look so we can see how to tackle it.”

“Throw a game plan together and get it done another day,” Fred agreed, nodding. “Once we're done we'll get on the subway.”

“We should stay on the lookout.” Hiro gave their surroundings a quick cursory glance. “People had to have been following us like that for a reason, and I doubt they'd give up after just one day. Just because we lost them doesn't mean they can't find us again.”

“Right. How about we split jobs – I focus on finding the place, you keep an eye out for more, ah, company?”

“Sounds good to me.” Hiro finished his food as quickly as he could. The memory of Hope Hospital had not dulled over the past month or two, and now that the next step was close, he felt his patience thinning. Whatever Lerna was, and whoever was behind it, Hiro was eager to find out.

The subway took them to downtown Brooklyn, on the other side of the East River. From there the two of them took to the streets, with Fred focusing on a street map while Hiro kept an eye on their surroundings. Gradually the crowds thinned as the address for the Lerna building took them to a quieter part of the city. When Fred's pace quickened, Hiro knew they must be close.

They were halfway down the block when Fred stuck out his hand, stopping him. “That's the place, right there.”

Hiro looked up, following Fred's quick pointing finger. “Gray one or the brown one?”

“Gray one, right around the street corner there, with all the overgrown grass. We're coming up to the back of the building.”

“Doesn't look like much,” Hiro murmured as they drew nearer. “Just an office building.”

“If they're up to anything shady, then that's probably what they're going for, dude.” Fred paused mid-step. “Maybe we shouldn't get too close.”

Hiro frowned impatiently. “Relax, we're not gonna go in, we're just gonna check it out from the outside. We're even coming up from behind.”

“I'm just saying, this place is kinda off the tourist path,” Fred muttered.

Hiro glanced around the street – it wasn't exactly deserted, but there was a huge difference between this and the noisy throng on Brooklyn's main roads. “No, really? What was your first clue?” They were about twenty paces away from the building. It was almost entirely unmarked, and the windows looked dark. Only the presence of cars in the small parking lot and the absence of “For Lease” signs gave any indication that the building was in use at all. “We're extremely lost tourists.”

“We're super noticeable, man,” Fred pointed out. “Some stoner white dude and a tiny Japanese kid, wandering around alone in a boring part of Brooklyn, isn't that the kind of thing people remember?”

“Doubt it – uh oh.” Hiro stopped for a moment, but forced himself to keep walking. “Fred, look. Side door.” They were ten feet away from the nearest corner of the building. By the opposite corner, close to the front of the building, a rickety-looking side door swung shut behind two men emerging from inside. Both of them would have stood at least half a head above Wasabi; they looked more like bouncers than office or construction workers. They were headed around to the front, but one of them noticed Hiro and Fred wandering closer, and both of them stopped. Even from the distance, Hiro could see their ear pieces.

“Keep walking,” he heard Fred mutter.

The hairs on the back of Hiro's neck stood on end when the man who had first seen them called out. “You two lookin' for something?'

“Nah, brah, just some pizza place we heard about.” Wow, when Fred layered on the NorCal accent like that he really did sound stoned. “We prob'ly got turned around or something.”

“There's restaurants half a mile up that way.” The other man jerked his thumb over his shoulder, the same direction Hiro and Fred were already walking. “Little plaza, can't miss it. Or there's a Starbucks down the street. Either way, you're in the wrong place.” The words were helpful, but his eyes were unfriendly. There was an implied “Keep walking” in the look on his face. And Hiro didn't want to keep walking.

“Half a mile?” he whined at Fred. “No way, man, come on.” He grabbed Fred's arm and started tugging him back the way they had come. “If we don't get back soon, the chaperone's gonna notice we're gone, and if I get suspended again, I'm dead.” His voice cracked on the last word, which was unintentional but very helpful. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the men roll his eyes as he and his partner went around to the front of the building. Once they were out of sight, he slipped his phone from his pocket on the pretense of checking his messages, and snapped a few quick pictures as they left the Lerna building behind again.

Neither of them felt comfortable speaking until they were approaching the subway entrance that they had come out of. “That wasn't good,” Fred muttered finally. “Right? That probably wasn't what we wanted to have happen.”

Hiro frowned down at his phone. “Hrm.” Slipping it back into his pocket, he led the way down the stairs.

“Dude, they know what we look like now,” Fred hissed under his breath. “We can't get in there without them recognizing us, and I don't think 'dumb kids on a school trip' is gonna work a second time.” He paused, scowling a little. “I'm kinda pissed it worked this time. I'm twenty one, what gives? Do I look like a high school student?”

“You look like you repeated a few years,” Hiro said with a shrug and a quick glance over his shoulder. “And it was a bust anyway. Something tells me they wouldn't have let us wander in to use their bathroom. I mean did you see those guys? They had gang muscle written all over them.”

Fred shook his head as they went through the subway barrier. “It kinda scares me that you can look at a couple of guys and immediately know they're gangsters.”

Hiro cocked an eyebrow at him. “What, they didn't look like that to you?”

“Well yeah, they did, but...” Fred shook his head. “So what do we do now?”

“I sent you some pics,” Hiro replied. “I took them really quick before we left.” He saw Fred go for his phone to check. “Back of the building, kinda hard to see 'cause of all the grass, there's one of those glass windows close to the ground. Tight fit, but either of us could get in that way.”

“Oh.” Fred hesitated. “Okay, I know normally I'm all about this stuff, but this actually sounds like a bad idea to me.”

“It's a terrible idea,” Hiro agreed. “Which is why we need to come up with a better one.”

“Both of us?”

“Yeah, man, I'm gonna need your help.” Hiro ran his hand through his hair. “But first, I need to focus on not having a heart attack. What's the next thing on our list of stuff to see?”


Planning anything in Stark Tower was out of the question; Fred wasn't a hundred percent sure on exactly how many things JARVIS ran, but if there was the slightest risk they'd be overheard, it was better to avoid the possibility altogether.

Sure, Tony was a superhero – one of the superheroes, no less – but there would be far too many awkward questions to answer if he caught wind of it, especially with Hiro as young as he was. Too risky. And if it somehow got from Tony to Cass, well... Fred knew very well what his chances would be, and he didn't like them.

Around half past three the following day they were back in Central Park, settled on a fairly secluded picnic table. The nearest food vendor was well out of earshot, and beyond that no one else was around. It was as good a place as any for Hiro to set up with his tablet and put his mind back to the task ahead.

After a restroom break that ended up taking longer than he'd expected, Fred found his way back to the table just in time to catch the end of a stream of bilingual profanity. “Whoa, dude. I've watched enough anime to know your aunt wouldn't like hearing that.”

Hiro growled wordlessly into his hands.

Heaving a patient sigh, Fred plopped down next to him and looked over his shoulder at the screen. “So what's tripping you up?”

“Everything,” Hiro snapped. “My brain's tripping me up, this stupid problem's tripping me up, the records are tripping me up, just – urgh.”

“One thing at a time, man,” Fred advised. “It's easier if you only have to trip over one thing instead of everything.”

“Okay, okay.” Hiro ran both hands through his hair, letting his frustration out in a rush of breath. “If we're gonna have any hope of getting in there, we need blueprints, a floor layout, something so we're not going in blind. But guess what? I've been trying since yesterday and I'm coming up on the same problem we did trying to get the blueprints for Hope Hospital. The only way left to find it, that I can think of, is just comb through city records, and as you can probably figure it out it's taking forever.”

Fred hummed thoughtfully. “If it's hard to find building plans, how hard is it gonna be to find, y'know, other stuff we might need? Like employee lists and schedules and stuff.”

Hiro didn't turn away from the screen, but his eye twitched.

“That bad, huh.”

“You have no id- oh my god, I think I found it.”

Fred leaned closer. “Really?”

“I – I think – yes!” Hiro pulled up the file, and sure enough, there was the address and what looked to Fred like floor plans for the entire building. “Okay, okay, that's one thing down.”

Fred popped up from his seat. “Awesome, I'ma get us some snacks.”

“Wait, no!” Hiro protested. “I didn't find anything 'til you showed up. If you leave now, you'll jinx it.”

“Relax, I'll be right back.”

Maybe not right back, Fred conceded to himself. The food vendor took his own time, and there was no way Fred could have controlled that. Still, it wasn't too long before he returned, armed with garlic fries. As he approached the table again, his heart sank; Hiro sat hunched over in his seat, head buried in his arms.

“Wuh-oh, that didn't take long,” Fred remarked, scooting back into the seat next to Hiro.

“I told you.” Hiro's voice was muffled. “You jinxed it.”

“What happened?” Fred pushed a tray of fries closer.

Hiro raised his head to stare dejectedly up at him. “So I hacked a satellite.”

“I like where this is headed already.”

“Shut up for a second, will you?” Fred shut up; Hiro's fingers were tangled in his own hair, and the poor guy sounded so tired. “Look, I found the building on satellite images. We're talking images from maybe a couple hours ago, and – here it is next to the floor plan I found in city records. What's wrong with this picture?”

Looking at it, it certainly didn't take a child genius to figure it out. “The shape doesn't match.”

“Exactly!” Hiro threw his hands up. “So either these floor plans are bogus, or somehow the entire building got remodeled and somehow that didn't end up in city records.” Hiro paused, drumming his fingers on the table. “Or, somehow someone tampered with a live satellite feed for the sake of messing with the appearance of one measly building no on cares about in the middle of New York City.”

Fred blinked. “Can... can you do that?” Hiro raised an eyebrow at him, and Fred shrugged. “You're the only one who'd know.”

“I... guess? I mean, we're talking about changing the appearance of one building, on the live feed of a billion-dollar piece of equipment that takes similar photographs of every other part of the planet. In fact, if they want the best effect they'd have to do the same thing to every other active satellite.” Hiro shook his head, as if his brain hurt just thinking about it. “Let's just Occam's Razor this one, okay? The floor plan must be wrong.”

“Okay, then.” Fred nodded. “So what's our next move?”

Hiro muttered something under his breath, and Fred cocked his head to the side.

“Didn't quite catch that.”

“I don't know.” Hiro's voice was quiet and terse. “Okay? I don't know. After what happened yesterday, I am not having us go in there completely blind when – let's face it – we're not even sure what we're looking for. And this?” He flapped a hand at the floor plans he'd found. “Wrong information is even worse than none. But I'm trying to think of how else we can figure this out, and it's just not coming. There's just... nothing.”

With that said, Hiro seemed to shrink in his seat. His fists curled and uncurled in his lap, his teeth worried at his lip, and he wouldn't look Fred in the eye. The poor kid looked crushed, and just seeing him like that, Fred felt every instinct cry out in protest. If he were a cat, his hackles would be up.

Could anyone blame him? He hadn't seen Hiro look like this since...

Well... months ago.

(Or even before that – Tadashi had told him how Hiro had agonized over those microbots.)

“That's never stopped you before, has it?” Fred blurted. His hands were clenched in his lap – when had that happened? He freed up one of them to grip Hiro lightly by the shoulder. “Hey, Hiro, come on. It hasn't even been that long-”

“Who cares?” Hiro interrupted. He was still staring at the ground, and under his hand Fred could feel him shaking with frustration. “We've got less than a week left to think of what to do and pull it off. There's no time, and if I can't find a way, then we're boned.”

“Dude. Hey.” Fred shook him lightly. “C'mon, man, look at me.” After a moment, Hiro reluctantly complied. “You're smart – screw that, you're brilliant. You're like the smartest kid I know, and I knowyou can do this. But it's been literally one day, and we're on like our third day of this trip. Breathe, kiddo. It's not the end of the world just yet.” Hiro averted his eyes. “I mean it. Right now. Breathe.” Rolling his eyes, Hiro did so. “Thank you.”

Hiro shrugged his hand off. “Look, Fred, thanks and everything, but... this isn't something a pep talk can fix.”

Crossing his arms comfortably, Fred sat back and turned to stare off into the middle distance. “Says who?”

“It's not like – like the microbots, or like fixing the scanner to find Callaghan.” Hiro passed his hand over his eyes. “I can fix stuff. I can make stuff. That's what I do. But it's just – times like this I feel like I'm in over my head. And it's not just about me. Do you get it?” He shook his head, hair falling over his face again.

Fred shifted in his seat. “...Sorry.”

“Huh?”

“It's a lot of pressure. Way more pressure than a kid your age should have to put up with.” Fred paused. “But then, so's diving into a collapsing portal to save your archenemy's missing daughter, doncha think?”

“That wasn't the same, and you know it.” Fred could see Hiro glaring at him out of the corner of his eye. He waited, patiently, until Hiro turned away from him and spoke again. “What if I can't do it?”

Fred tilted his head thoughtfully and pondered the question for about as much time as it deserved. It wasn't much. “Mm, nope.”

“...Nope?”

“Nope.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Hiro asked flatly.

“It means you're the brains of this outfit, dude. If you can't figure this out, I don't think there's anybody who can.”

“You're literally on first-name basis with Iron Man.”

“And guess what he started off as.” Fred turned his head to arch an eyebrow at him. “Little kiddie genius, just like... who, again?”

Hiro scowled at him. “Fine. Great. And if I still can't?”

“Nope,” Fred said again.

Another strand of temper snapped. “Look, Fred, I'm fourteen and it's times like these that I remember I made a snap decision half a year ago because I was pissed off and what if I'm not cut out for this stuff after all?” Hiro drew in a quick breath, as if he was trying to suck the words back in.

Fred smiled. “Nope.”

Hiro slumped in his seat with what sounded like a defeated sigh. “You're impossible.”

“Aww, that means a lot, coming from you.” Fred poked him. “Look, bad news, Hiro. All four of us spent a lot of our time hanging out with Tadashi. And what that means, unfortunately, is that we all caught the believing-in-Hiro disease. It's super contagious, and Tadashi never covered his mouth when he gushed about you.” That startled a snort of laughter out of Hiro. “So what I'm trying to say is, you got this. You can do this. I know you can.” Fred poked him again, harder this time to make sure Hiro looked at him. “Like I don't know how Baymax's AI works or what magnetic bearing servos are, but I do know that. I know the answer's floating around somewhere in that big brain of yours-” He rapped his knuckles lightly against Hiro's temple. “-and I know you can find it. I know that.”

Hiro's eyes flickered to the side again before returning to look Fred straight on. The hopeless frustration from before, while not completely gone, was at least... less, for now, and Hiro was looking at him with something that Fred couldn't quite recognize.

Until, for a split second, he did.

It was quick. It was there for the space of a blink and gone when Fred had barely registered it. One moment Hiro was just watching him, listening, chewing over his words with an unreadable expression, and the next, Fred could read it.

He could recognize it. He'd seen it on Hiro's face before, a little over half a year ago. That look that screamed, I'll do it. I won't let you down.

For one microsecond of time, Hiro had looked at him the way he'd once looked at Tadashi.

It was Fred's turn to look away, quickly before Hiro could see the shame on his face. “Just think about it, y'know?”

“I think...” Hiro began thoughtfully, and Fred braved looking at him again to find, to his relief, that the look was gone. “I think you're right. I need to think about this more. Maybe sleep on it again.” Rising, he slipped his tablet back into his backpack and shouldered it. “C'mon. Think it's too late to check out the zoo?”

Fred put the grin back on his face and grabbed the fries as he got up. “Not if we hurry.”

They started off through the park, and Fred shoved and wrestled the rest of his discomfort down to the bottom where he didn't have to look at it.

I'm not him. I'll never be him. And it'd be an insult to him if I tried.


It was late evening when Tony Stark walked into one of Stark Tower's many rec rooms to find one of his guests hanging upside down from the ceiling. The top of Hiro Hamada's head was about level with his own, and gravity made his hair volume even more outrageous than before. Fred stood below him, arms outstretched.

“Um.”

“Hey, Tony,” Fred greeted him, without bothering to look over. “What's up?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“Maybe.” Fred paused. “I'm spotting,” he added.

“I can see that.” Tony nodded sagely. “Any specific reason, or...?”

“I have a problem,” Hiro answered calmly, as if he wasn't hanging upside down by his feet. “Tech problem. Got stuck. I'm looking from a new angle.”

“Y'know, I'm pretty sure that's not what people mean by that.”

The kid didn't even blink. “It's part of my process.”

Understanding dawned on him. “Ohhh. Got it.” He nodded again. “Have fun with that, then.” He turned on his heel and left.

To each their own, or whatever.

 

Chapter Text

Hiro accidentally scared the crap out of Fred in the elevator of the Empire State Building.

It was take two of their visit, after the disaster on the first day. Hiro was still deep in thought, leaving Fred to keep an eye out around them.

“Your paranoia's rubbing off on me,” Fred admitted, only half-sure that Hiro was even listening. “I almost freaked when I saw two guys looking at us in the lobby, but it turns out they were just security drones-”

“Drones!” Hiro yelled, and Fred almost smacked him in the head by flailing in shock. “That's it!”

“What?” Fred yelped, bewildered.

“What if we don't even have to go inside at all?” Hiro asked, dropping his voice when the elevator doors opened on the top floor. “What if we send in something else, like – like a drone?”

The two of them left the elevator with their heads together (figuratively, of course). “What, you mean like those little flying things?”

The gears turning in Hiro's mind were almost visible. “Not exactly a drone, just – functioning like one. Cameras. Remote hacking capabilities.” He grabbed Fred's arm. “If I rush I can replicate Baymax's scanner on a smaller scale, use that to detect people inside and avoid getting it noticed.”

“Can you really whip up an entire robot in less than a week?” Fred asked him.

Hiro grinned, eyes glinting eagerly. “I don't have to. Fred, I brought Megabot.”

A slow smile spread across Fred's face. “How fast can you get it ready?”

“Think Mr. Stark'll let us borrow some lab space?”

“Oh hell yes.”

The grin was turning into a smirk. “If we get back there before 6, I can have it ready by tonight.” Hiro paused thoughtfully. “Guy at the building said there was a Starbucks down the street, right?”

“Ha, more like a perfect excuse to sit around staring at a computer screen.” Fred tapped his chin thoughtfully.

Exactly.” Hiro rubbed his hands together as they headed for the observation deck. He lowered his voice again. “Okay. The one problem is that it's gonna be pretty much all improv once it's inside. We still don't have that floor plan, but maybe if I modify the scanner I can at least build one myself a piece at a time, as we go.” He scratched the side of his nose. “And I hate to do this, but maybe I can put in a kill switch, just in case someone catches Megabot and I can't get him out.”

“Megabot doesn't have an AI, does he?”

“Of course not,” Hiro said. “It'd be against tournament rules, remember? But still... y'know.”

“It's like the weighted companion cube.” Fred nodded sagely. “Or Solid Snake's cardboard box.”

“...What?”

“What do you mean 'what'?” Fred demanded.

“No, I got the first one, but who's Solid Snake and why does he have a cardboard box?”

“That's it, when all this is over, as soon as we get back home we're having game night.”

“Sweet.”


“Solved your problem, I take it,” Tony Stark remarked that night, nearly giving Hiro a heart attack. As Fred had suggested, they had borrowed some space in one of Stark Tower's many available labs – thankfully, not all of them were in use. The main downside was JARVIS's possible presence, but with Hiro doing the bulk of the work, there wasn't a lot of reason for them to discuss what they were doing. Fred was happy to play lab-assistant-slash-lookout, but neither of them were prepared for their host to stroll in out of nowhere.

“Yup,” Hiro answered as he tried to get his heart rate back under control.

“Cool. Whatcha workin' on?” Stark stepped in for a closer look. “Are those magnetic bearing servos? It looks like a bunny rabbit who's happy to see you.”

“That's the idea.” Hiro continued working on Megabot's chest segment. “People take one look at him and laugh, and then they stop laughing when he twists their bots' heads off.” He paused, smirking a little. “And then I start laughing.”

“Huh.” Stark continued to watch him work. “Your clippings never mentioned you were a botfighter. You do any tournaments?”

“Just school ones, once I started SFIT,” Hiro said with a shrug. “Before that, I uh... used to clean out pockets downtown.”

“...Back alley botfights.”

“Yup,” Fred snickered.

“In downtown SF.”

This segment was done – the scanner inserted, a small camera installed. “Pretty much,” Hiro answered.

“How are you alive?”

“Luck and a good getaway driver.” The answer came out automatically. He saw Fred look at him, but if Stark had any inkling of his meaning, he didn't show it.

“So what're you doing now?”

“Bio-scanner in the main segment, mainly,” Hiro answered, lying smoothly. “Had some close calls in my last fight, almost got an audience injury foul. So if Megabot here can detect people and avoid them automatically, that's one less thing for me to worry about.” It might have taken him longer to craft it, but for two reasons: first, he was making it considerably smaller with a narrower range, and second, he had built this device at least twice already. He had the practice.

“Smart move. What are the cameras for?”

Oh crap, he saw the cameras. What with their size, Hiro had hoped that they might go unnoticed.

“My idea,” Fred said smugly. “What's the point of trouncing scary bots if you don't have good POV footage?”

Hiro could have hugged him for throwing him the line. “Would it be rude to start a Youtube channel for 'em?”

“Definitely,” Stark answered. “You should do it-” His phone chimed, and he checked a text before striding back out of the lab, clapping Fred lightly on the shoulder as he passed him. “Fredzilla, shoot me a link once it's up.” With that he was gone.

Hiro raised an eyebrow at his friend. “'Fredzilla?'”

“He knows how much I like kaiju and monsters and stuff,” Fred said with a shrug.

“Not like you ever try to hide it.”

“Hey, I'm nothing special. He has nicknames for some of the Avengers, y'know.”

“Really,” Hiro said skeptically. “What's he call Captain America?”

“Capsicle,” Fred answered without missing a beat, and Hiro had to put the needlenose pliers down to laugh.


It was eleven o'clock the following day – the third day of their visit, not counting the first day the plane had landed. The Starbucks in downtown Brooklyn was out of the way, with a steady stream of business without ever really being “busy.” There, Hiro and Fred snagged the table at the farthest corner to set up their operation.

It wasn't a very big operation. It wasn't supposed to be – small and unnoticeable were key words here. It would be difficult with only two screens and and Megabot's handheld controls, but they worked with what they had. One tablet, propped up in laptop mode, was devoted to monitoring and direction – live feed from Megabot's multiple cameras and readouts from the scanner. The other would handle the remote hacking. Fred was his extra set of eyes, especially when they got to the latter part.

At the moment, Megabot was in position, tucked into the bushes down the street from the Lerna building – as close as the two of them had dared to venture. The paint had been removed from both faces for stealth and low visibility purposes, much to Hiro's chagrin. Each segment was padded to muffle the noise they made against hard surfaces.

Settling into his chair, Hiro picked up Megabot's modified controller and held them under the table. He knew them inside and out – he hardly needed to look at his hands to tell Megabot where to go.

“Ready?” Fred's voice barely reached his ears.

Hiro nodded. “Testing the scanner.” Moments later, a few icons appeared on the camera feed, each one accompanied with basic information picked up by the scan. The range was barely a fraction of what Baymax's was now – Hiro had been limited by size, and they only needed to scan one building at most. But in any case, for now, the coast was clear.

With a nod to Fred, Hiro started the mission. He kept Megabot close to the ground, rolling rather than walking, and close to any vegetation or fixtures that could offer cover. Even knowing when warm bodies were nearby, it was better to be cautious by default.

Megabot made it down the street without incident or any close calls, and Hiro could feel his previously tight shoulders relax. It was easier to think of this as just a very long, very complicated, and extremely high-stakes botfight. No charging in, no brute force – that was never the route Hiro took when it came to botfights. Deception, speed, ducking and weaving, seeking out weaknesses – that was his specialty. He tongued the gap in his teeth and sent Megabot rolling right up to the parking lot outside the building.

Still no one outside to see – Megabot was close enough for numerous people to ping his radar within the building, but they were all inside. With the grass as cover, Hiro moved his bot closer to the low rectangular window he had seen when first laying eyes on their target. It was held in place with old hinges, which Megabot made quick work of. Carefully, Hiro had the bot lift up the bottom of the window. Cautiously, keeping an eye out for more pings on the scanner, Hiro poked a camera into the opening and pointed it downward. The floor was below ground level, but with shelves lining the wall under the window, Hiro could see a way down.

“Here we go.” Fred's voice trembled with a mixture of excitement and nervousness.

“Keep an eye on the rear cameras,” Hiro reminded him, and sent Megabot leaping down to the safety of the building's basement floor. Once there, Hiro found a nook for the robot to hide in so he could breathe a moment and get his bearings. He chewed his lip thoughtfully. “Okay. From the looks of it, the basement's empty right now. Not sure I want to stay and poke around, but you never know...”

“What are we looking for?”

“A computer, ideally,” Hiro told him. “Some kind of information storage, preferably electronic so I can get in. Push comes to shove, we take footage of paper files.”

“Basement's a good place for storage,” Fred pointed out. “But then, the window was unlocked, so maybe it's not a room they care about.”

“I'll at least find the stairs.”

“Can Megabot do stairs?” Fred asked.

“He's probably gonna have to.”

Fred put his coffee cup down. “Hey, how about vents? He's small enough to fit, and I bet pretty much every room has a vent opening. If that padding you put on him keeps him from making too much noise, maybe that could lead us where we want to go.”

“A little Hollywood,” Hiro remarked. “And if going up is a bust, then we'll have to cross our fingers that there's something to find on the first floor, unless I can find a way into the elevator shaft.” But at this point it was as good an idea as any. After less than a minute of searching on bated breath, Hiro found a vent to jimmy open and slipped Megabot inside.

It was difficult, and a much slower process than Hiro would have liked. But visibility was poor, and the camera feeds were hard to follow in the darkness, especially when Megabot was rolling. Luckily, as Fred had predicted, most if not all of the rooms had openings to the shafts, and the slots were easy enough to see through without having to pry them open and risk being noticed. He avoided rooms in which the scanner showed the presence of people.

Finally, in a room on the south side of the building, Hiro squinted through the camera feed, frowned at the scanner, and finally judged the risk to be low enough to open the vent and let Megabot out into the room. The lights were dimmed, which suggested that people were not using the room at the moment, but most importantly was the presence of desktop computers. Hiro spent a few moments more studying the camera feeds before picking the one least likely to be spotted from the door way. Then, maneuvering the bot to the computer's system unit, he deployed one of the newest features. One of Megabot's segments opened up and plugged itself in.

“Okay,” Hiro breathed, and slid the second tablet screen in front of him. “Okay, Megabot's plugged in and I'm on the computer. Is anyone coming?”

Fred's eyes were still on the scanner's human-detector. “Nope, you're good.”

“Let's see what we've got.” Hiro set Megabot's controller aside.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Fred pouting at him. “You didn't say the thing.”

“Fred,” he said warningly, as he set about copying every file he could find. There hadn't been time to fit data storage onto Megabot along with everything else, so the modified robot simply directed the files straight to the tablet computer Hiro was working on, and the memory drive currently plugged into it.

“C'mon, Hiro,” Fred muttered to him. “You're supposed to say the thing. It's like a rule or something.”

Hiro rolled his eyes. “I'm in,” he said reluctantly, and Fred bounced excitedly in his seat. It didn't take much to please Fred.

They were not disappointed. The office computer was giving Hiro plenty to work with, and he could feel his own eagerness grow.

“So what are you getting?” Fred asked in a low voice.

“Some building plans, looks like,” Hiro muttered back. “A lot of locked files, but if I grab them now I can worry about getting them open later. I'm running a search for Hope Hospital, but even if we don't find anything solid on that, at least we can use some of this to tip off other cities and companies and stuff using Lerna-constructed buildings.” He shook his head. “Beyond that, there are some documents... letters, looks like? And... aha.”

“What is it?”

“Electronic messaging function. Looks like they're not trusting regular email, they're using their own special program.” Hiro grinned wolfishly. “Let's see if that has anything special for us.”

“Will they detect you if you go in?” Fred asked.

“If they do, I'm using their own computer to do it,” Hiro explained. “They won't see some stranger accessing their messages, they'll just assume it's... whoever's computer this is. Unless they look extremely closely or try to talk to me, I guess. Which is why I'm gonna try and be in and out. Keep an eye on the camera feed and the scanner.” His smile widened. There were chat logs – wonderful. Mentally he counted the seconds as he skimmed them. He might have time to download these. Or...

The messaging program consisted of multiple servers – for what purpose, Hiro wasn't sure. Maybe for different buildings? Different branches of the company? He checked the server titles – the one he was on right now was “STRGFAC”, but there were also “SRVLNCE”, “INFLTRN”, and “RETECDV”. That last one caught his attention. If these letters were supposed to mean something, that one had R, T, and D, in it – together that meant Research and Technological Development. Re Tec Dv. Was it a coincidence?

It took time, but he managed to get through to that server. If this really was a server for discussing R&D, then it might offer some clues about those devices they had found in the hospital foundation. If he could only –

There was a faint tone, and a small window popped up on the screen. Hiro went stock-still in his chair.

“What is it?” Fred murmured. “What happened?”

Hiro's mouth was dry. “I'm being messaged.”

“What's it say?” Dutifully, Fred was still watching the cameras to make sure the coast was clear.

Hiro's eyes were fixed on the words. Just two of them.

whos there

He relayed the message to Fred. “What do you want to do?” Fred asked. “Bail or try and fake it?”

“They're asking me who I am, Fred. I don't have a story prepared.”

“I thought you said they'd recognize the computer you're on.”

“I may have jumped servers,” Hiro gritted out.

Fred shook his head. “Bail, dude. Take what you can get, I'm still watching the cameras.”

Hiro was about to. He really was. But before he could cut his losses and retreat, another message appeared.

wait dont go

He should have left. His entire brain was screaming at him to get out. But he didn't. He waited, and eventually a third message appeared.

ur not with them r u

“Hiro?”

With shaking hands, Hiro typed a reply. with lerna?

“Hiro what are you doing?” Fred hissed.

“Taking a risk.”

His conversation partner came back to him. with anyone

Hiro swallowed. Last chance to bail.

He reached out and typed, no.

“Keep watching those cameras,” Hiro muttered to Fred. “Do not take your eyes off of them.” He turned back to the message window. who r u?

The answers were coming in faster. no time was the reply. can u help

Hiro bit his lip. yes.

[File transfer.]

Hiro's mouth dropped open in shock. Whoever was messaging him was giving him... something. Information, he hoped. Some whistleblower within the Lerna company, maybe?

good luck his mystery benefactor told him.

Oh, no, this was not the end of it. Hiro was not finished with this guy by a long shot. how can i contact you again?

No answer.

Hiro waited on bated breath, but there were no more messages forthcoming. “Come on, come on,” he muttered, but nothing else appeared.

“Uh, Hiro?” Fred said suddenly. “Scanner's picking up somebody coming closer. I think you should grab what you can and go.”

“Okay, okay.” Frustrated, Hiro logged out of the server and went back to the files that were on the computer itself. There wasn't time to pick and choose... Hiro selected as many files as he could, sent them to the storage space on the tablet, and finally unplugged Megabot from the computer. Then, sending Megabot vaulting lightly down from the desk, Hiro returned to the jimmied vent and slipped Megabot inside. The journey through the vent shafts was tense, with Hiro and Fred's eyes glued to the screens, but finally Hiro found himself back down below the ground floor. A quick scan told them the coast was clear, and Hiro sent Megabot leaping to freedom out the window through which it had entered. From there it was a quick rolling journey through the grass, then the parking lot, and away.

Hiro sat back in his chair and noticed for the first time that his heart was thundering. Wordlessly, Fred reached over and clapped him firmly on the shoulder, jostling him a little. Truth be told, Hiro couldn't quite make himself relax until he was out of the coffee shop, out in the fresh air and bending down to retrieve Megabot from beneath a shrub.

“We good?” Fred asked.

“Yeah.” Shakily Hiro let out the breath he had been holding. “We'll see.”

 

Chapter Text

Abigail clawed her way into wakefulness the way a drowning woman claws her way toward the surface – desperate, frenzied, mouth wide, throat open and raw as air scraped its way into her lungs.

At the last moment she slammed downward into her pillow, sinking her teeth into the clean white pillowcase, and let out a shaking scream. The makeshift gag muffled it, which was good – the first night of her trip, the family in the hotel room next door had called in to complain.

Finally, when her voice was spent, Abigail sat up and stared into the lamp by the bed. She had left it on the night before – in fact, she had left every light on the night before. After her recovery, it hadn't taken her long to learn that waking up in the dark was the worst way to finish the dreams.

They were always the same, on the rare occasion that she slept well enough to have dreams at all. It was just the way she remembered. Floating, weightless, eyes frozen shut. Surrounded by the cotton-wool muffle of imperfect hypersleep. No sound, no sight but the darkness behind her eyelids, the feeling of fabric and metal too far removed to be solid. She might as well have been a ghost, floating in a void of black silence with nothing to see or hear or smell or touch or taste. Just – nothing. An entire nightmare that was nothing.

Falling asleep was the worst. It was the closest she ever came to returning to the void.

Abigail glanced at the clock. It was 5:30 – that made it about five and a half solid hours of sleep. She was getting better – this road trip really had been good for her. Yawning, she got up and turned on the coffeepot.

It was a colossal drive from one coast to the other, but without the need for stops along the way, she had made it within the week. Just a couple more hours of driving today, and she'd be in Manhattan. It was almost a shame; she sort of liked being on the road, stopping to eat when she was hungry, listening to the radio at full blast and howling along until her voice was hoarse. Most of all, the driving – she had missed driving. There was a certain freedom in it. It came easily, not like words. No scrambling to translate her thoughts – just take the wheel, press the pedals, and go.

Maybe, one of these days, she might fly again.


Hiro woke up to Fred shaking him. “Dude. Dude, dude, dude. Wake up.”

“Mmfwha?” Hiro raised himself up on his elbows. “What time is it?”

“Eight AM sharp, man.”

Hiro groaned and let himself flop back onto his pillow, only for Fred to jostle him again. “Go 'way.”

“But Hirooo,” Fred whined dramatically. “Coney Island, Hiro. Coney Island. We said we'd spend the whole last day riding rides. C'mon, get up.”

Hiro mumbled wordlessly into his pillow.

Beside him, he heard Fred sigh. “Stayed up struggling with the files again?”

With a sigh, Hiro flopped over on his back. “A lot of what we got's encrypted,” he mumbled, his voice sounding far away to his own ears. “And the stuff we got from whatsisface. 'S locked. Like super locked. Ultra locked.”

“Ugghh,” Fred groaned. “I don't believe it. You get in, it's no problem, but then someone shoots you an email and you're stumped?”

Hiro glared at him. He was too sleepy to get into this now, especially with any risk of being overheard, but it was hardly that simple. For one thing, breaking into Lerna's systems had been one of the most nerve-wracking things he'd ever done, and the only reason it hadn't been harder was because he had accessed one of Lerna's own computers directly.

These encryptions were something else, though. If this was what their security was really like, then Hiro hated to think of how hard it would have been without using Megabot the way they had.

A pillow landing on his face broke through his thoughts. “You coming or not? C'mon, we have all-day passes to Luna Park, let's gooo.”

“Alright, alright, I'm up.” Hiro sat up, momentarily blinded by bedhead. “I need coffee.”

“Hiro no, don't make yourself any shorter.”

“Your face is short,” he mumbled.

Eventually, Hiro managed to crawl beneath his blankets and emerge in a fresh set of clothes, “like a butterfly with bedhead,” as Fred had put it the first morning. Still half-awake he stumbled out into the hallway to the nearest bathroom, where he dunked his head under cold water. He came up gasping, damp hair slopping over his forehead, feeling much more awake than he had been before. Theme park today, he reminded himself as he toweled his face dry. Expo tomorrow.

He stepped back out into the hall with renewed excitement, to the sound of Pepper Pott's voice further down. Hiro stopped, cocking his head slightly – was there someone with her?

The two women rounded the corner, one trailing behind the other with a suitcase clutched in her hand. At the sight of him, she stopped short.

Hiro recovered from his surprise to grin at her. “Hey, Abigail.” No sooner had he said it than Fred was poking his head out of the room.

“Hiya, Abigail, I didn't know you were staying here, too!”

Abigail Callaghan looked taken aback, but pleasantly surprised. “Hi,” she said. “Just... just got in.”

“She'll be staying down the hall from you two,” Pepper explained. “Sorry about that, I would've warned you, but-”

“Got here early,” Abigail broke in, smiling ruefully. “Made better time, than I thought.”

“These two have been running around New York for the past week,” Pepper explained. Turning to the two of them, she asked, “Anything special planned for your last day before the Expo?”

“Coney Island,” they said in unison.

“Luna Park,” Fred added.

“Roller coasters!”

Pepper laughed. “Well, don't let us stop you. Have fun, boys.”

“Aw, hey, Abigail,” Fred piped up. “If you're early and you've got nothing planned for today, you want to come with? We've got passes, if you want to get in on it.”

For a moment Abigail blinked owlishly at him, and Hiro was sure that she was going to turn down the offer – she had before, after all. This time, though, she seemed hesitant, like someone saying no more out of politeness than anything else.

“It's no trouble,” he added, shrugging.

Abigail blinked, for a moment looking wide-eyed and hopeful. “Well...” She glanced at Pepper.

“What, you think you need permission?” Pepper sounded amused. “Don't worry, you won't be rude if you run off now.”

Abigail laughed sheepishly, but her face lit up with – for the first time in the short period that Hiro had known her – excitement. Quickly she gestured over her shoulder. “Just let me – my stuff,” she said, before turning and darting back around the corner, presumably to the room she was staying in.

Once she was out of sight, Fred bounced on the balls of his feet with an excited, “Yes!

There was fondness in the way Pepper rolled her eyes. “Just bring her back in one piece, boys.”


By the time she was setting foot in Coney Island, Abigail was wondering if she had made a mistake by jumping the gun.

It wasn't because of Hiro or Fred. Though their awkwardness in addressing her did give her the impression that they weren't entirely sure what to do with her, she was fairly sure it was more because of not knowing her than because of her closed mouth or, as she had feared for months, because of her father.

Then again, her silence probably contributed. Less than a year ago she could have talked both their ears off – even Fred, who hadn't stopped talking since almost the moment they had left. But now, it tired her to do anything more than follow and tune in to their conversation.

She had taken two years of German as an undergrad, and she could remember, distantly, the feeling of conversing in a language that she had not grown up with. Every word was halting, every sentence was run through her mind two or three times before she felt confident enough to stumble it out on a clumsy tongue. She would be translating near constantly, from thoughts in English to spoken words in German. No matter how good she got at it, the effort left her dizzy and drowsy by the end of class.

And now, any speech at all had that effort on her.

But the real problem for her now, walking into Luna Park, was the realization that she could barely remember the last time she had set foot in an amusement park. Had it been that trip to Disneyland, or... no, maybe it was the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. Or had that been before Disneyland...?Wait, she had gone to Knotts' Berry Farm at some point, hadn't she? She honestly could not remember, and she had to wonder how much was the fault of her memory and how much was the fault of her time spent in hypersleep.

So many things in her brain had changed since she'd woken up. Did she even like roller coasters anymore? There was a difference between driving a car down the highway, and being whipped around at someone else's mercy.

Please, please at least let me tolerate them, she thought. The last thing I need is to have a panic attack in the middle of Brooklyn in front of Tadashi Hamada's baby brother.

“Cyclone first!” Fred whooped. “Cyclone first! Gotta do the Cyclone!” Judging by the direction of his flailing hand and the clearly-marked signs, the “Cyclone” was the sizable wooden monstrosity they were coming upon. “This thing's an original, I mean do you guys even know how long it's been around?”

“No, but I'm pretty sure you're gonna tell us,” Hiro said dryly as they got in line.

“Since the Roaring Twenties, dude! The Roaring Twenties! With, like, flappers and stuff!” Fred tilted his head, addressing Abigail. “Ever been here before?”

Abigail shook her head. No, she had been to Disneyland and Disney World, pretty much every major theme park that California had to offer, and there had been one trip to Silverwood in Idaho that one time, but Coney Island was new to her. Wonder why Dad never decided to take me here. She let the thought go almost as quickly as it had arrived.

The line was long enough for her nervousness to build, her stomach twisting and turning as if it had a life of its own. It only got worse the closer they moved to the front of the line. Nervousness made her ears feel thick and stuffed, as if filled with cotton, muffling the noises around her. Her hearing dulled, and she almost gave in to the temptation to claw at her ears. It was too much like falling asleep, too close to silence – too close to that nightmare of nothing. Feeling the beginnings of panic rise, she distracted herself by watching the clear excitement in the two boys in front of her. Hiro was grasping the bars of the line dividers and bracing himself against them to hop up and down with excess energy. She couldn't help smiling at that.

Before she knew it, they were next in line and boarding the empty cars. There was a large group just behind them, none of whom were willing to ride on their own, leaving Abigail to take a car by herself, just behind Hiro and Fred. The bar settled into place, and the boys turned to grin at her one last time.

The cars started forward faster than Abigail had expected, jolting her like a drumbeat to her core. Beneath her the cars rattled on the track, and her hearing came sharply into focus again. The noise, the rumbling, and the pit of excitement-dread in her stomach drove off the empty silence in her memory as the cars ascended the first hill. Before she had time to frighten herself, they were already cresting it.

For a moment Abigail turned her head this way and that, greedily drinking in the view of the park. She was at the top of the hill with sunlight behind her.

And then the world exploded.

She couldn't even scream. All she could do was sit with her silent mouth open, tasting the wind as it howled down her throat. The feeling of falling, the fear-excitement-shock-joy that came with it, the high-pitched howling of the other riders, the miniature thunderstorm of the rattling wooden track, all rushed into her brain in an eruption of light and sound and color. This was not the nightmare of nothing – this was so far from it that the first sound Abigail choked out was not a scream but a riotous laugh.

This was utterly, wildly something, and it filled her until she thought she would burst with it.

She may as well have been living in grayscale these past months, everything dull and darkened and muted from behind sunglasses that hid the lines and shadows that makeup could not conceal, hiding away quiet as a mouse to keep from drawing looks. In this moment, as the coaster slowed and whip-lashed at the top of another hill and the world outside of the noise in her head came back to her, she felt she was finally seeing in color again. Then the track fell away in another drop, and Abigail added her own joyful scream to the chorus in her ears.

She stopped feeling like Abigail Callaghan, the arsonist's daughter, the poor lost soul, bent and broken with a damaged brain and the kindness and guilt of her father's would-be victim keeping her eating. She felt thirteen years old. She wanted to blast music into her ears at the highest volume, sing along at the top of her lungs, roll down a grassy hill and land with the sun in her eyes.

The ride ended with a dark tunnel that passed too quickly to frighten her, and the cars braked to a stop. Abigail sat for a moment, still slightly dazed, as the bar rose again. She staggered a little while climbing out, legs shaking, and tried to suppress a giggle. She failed.

“So? What'd you think?” Fred sounded smug, and for a moment she considered swatting him playfully but decided not to press her luck with balance.

“Meh, I've been on better,” Hiro said with a shrug, in that way that teenagers have when they purposely hide their enthusiasm. “That's the thing with wooden ones, they're more fragile so they have to be tamer. Me, I need something with loops.”

Abigail's eyes lit up.

“How about you, Abbs?” Fred asked, turning to her. She blinked – Abbs? That was a new one. If people were going to shorten her name, then they went for Abby like Dad did, or maybe Gail if they wanted to be creative.

She liked Abbs, and it showed on her wide spreading grin. Her words still came out stilted and slow, but her mood would not be dampened – not after that. “I'm – gonna ride – everything.”

Fred laughed aloud, and in spite of herself, in spite of the months of training herself to keep quiet, keep low, and keep from being noticed, Abigail found herself laughing along with him.


Hiro had not ignored a prickle up his spine since he was little. It was a habit that he could not remember starting, but it was useful enough that he wasn't about to break it. And so, when standing in line for the Electro Spin brought him goosebumps along his arm, he simply stretched, yawned, and turned in a little circle to check his surroundings. He remembered the faces of the men who had followed them on the first day, but they were nowhere to be found. For a moment he considered writing it off, but decided he might as well take note anyway.

Later on, after two more secretive surroundings checks, he found what he was looking for. Three guys this time, just barely standing out from the rest of the crowd in Luna Park. For one thing, he had yet to see them get in line or get on a ride. For another, they were the only common faces that Hiro had seen. And none of them looked friendly or nearly happy enough to be there.

Hiro forced himself not to look at them. He stared down at his shoes instead, gritting his teeth until his jaw ached. Fear rose in his gut, but it was forced aside by something else. It was like a much smaller, more contained version of what he had felt with only a piece of rebar and a cable keeping him from falling upward to a collapsing portal while teeming microbots trapped his friends. Fight or flight combined with cold, protective anger, curling his hands into fists.

Who were these people? And what the hell did they think they were doing?

Abigail had said she was targeted by tabloid journalists. There was no way this was related to it; people wouldn't care as much all the way over here in New York, and it was more likely that they were connected to the two guys from the first day. But either way Hiro didn't like the thought of leaving things as they were.

The sudden need to take a chance filled him, and he made up his mind.

They were about halfway through the current line at this point. “Hey guys?” he spoke up. “I'm gonna sit this one out, I'll be out by the benches.”

“You feeling okay?” Fred asked. Abigail blinked, looking worried.

“Yeah, just, uh... still dizzy from the Tickler.” Hiro shrugged. “I'll be fine, I just need to sit down for a bit.”

“All right, suit yourself,” Fred said with a shrug. “Just don't wander off or anything.”

“I won't.” True to his word, Hiro went straight for the nearest empty bench once he had left the line. Here, he was out of sight of the other two, but he could watch the three men from the corner of his eye. They were close enough to be within hearing range of him, and he was fairly sure they were watching him right back. Scooting back on the bench so that his toes had to stretch to the ground, he swung his feet idly.

Once he was absolutely sure that their attention was on him, he jumped a little before diving for the phone in his pocket. It had not rung, nor had it vibrated. Hopefully none of the three men would realize that.

“Yeah, what is it?” he said into the phone. “...Oh. Oh, really? Aww, so soon? C'mon, man, we've been excited about this the whole time. ...Oh. Okay, I guess. If you can't help it. Fine.” Were they listening? Were they buying it? He raised his voice. “Look, if you two are just going straight to the parking lot after you get off, then I'll meet you there. There's something I want to do first. Nah, I'm not going on a ride. It's the other thing, remember? I'll go right now. No worries, I'll meet you there. Yeah. See ya.”

Pocketing his phone, he stood up and started walking away from the ride, toward the west side of the park. It was hard to keep track without being obvious, but Hiro waited until he was satisfied that all three men had taken the bait and were following him before cutting loose.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Hiro led them on a wild goose chase through the entire park. Most of the time he walked slowly, in a straight line, in full view of them. Other times he ducked into crowds until they lost sight of him, only to switch direction and double back on them. At one point he managed to maneuver around until he was behind them, following them instead of the other way around. But always, eventually, he let them see him again – he kept them on his trail, within his sight, and he kept them frustrated. Zigzagging through the rides and concessions and carnival games, he got them good and irritated before finally having mercy and leading them out of the park and into the parking lot.

He brought out his phone again and faked another call, this time raising his voice in a mock argument. “Where are you guys?” he demanded, loudly enough for the men following him to hear. “I said meet me in the parking lot – what do you mean you went straight back to the subway? Are you serious right now? I am fourteen and the size of a pea, douchebag, if my aunt finds out you left me in the middle of Brooklyn she'll kick your ass and never let me out of the house again! Look, just – where are you? I mean which stop, moron? Stillwell Avenue? Are you sure, the Stillwell Avenue stop? Okay. Ugh. I'm on my way.” He put away his phone again.

Then he led the way out of the parking lot, down perhaps one crowded block or so, and lost them again.

He knew he lost them, because he ended up behind them again. This time, instead of sticking around to pat himself on the back, he slipped off back the way he had come. He left them in his dust trail, tearing back down the street and through the parking lot and into the theme park again. Once there, he switched on his phone.

Hiro winced a little at how many missed calls, voicemails, and texts he had. Fred was not happy. “I'm by the teacups,” he texted quickly, and received a barrage of capital letters and misspelled words in return.

They found each other near the kiddie roller coaster, and Hiro sighed deeply at the look on Fred's face – the guy was freaking out thoroughly enough for his eye twitch to be visible from space. Abigail was beside him, looking equally anxious.

“Sorry abo-”

“Dude, where have you been?” Fred demanded.

“I'm really sorry about that,” Hiro said sheepishly. “I saw something cool on the map I thought I'd check out, and I got a little turned around on my way back.”

“A little turned around?” Fred echoed. “We've been looking for you for twenty minutes and your phone was off!”

Hiro smiled innocently. “Oops?” He looked Fred in the eye, staring hard and wishing he had telepathy or something. Either Fred bought it or was quicker on the uptake than Hiro had thought, because he let up almost immediately. Hiro offered another apologetic smile to Abigail, and she grinned back at him in relief. “I mean it, I'm sorry. Won't happen again.”

As it turned out, Fred was not gullible; he was simply patient. The moment Abigail stepped aside to take a bathroom break, Fred's hand closed on Hiro's shoulder. Sighing, Hiro let Fred tow him roughly to a quieter, more out-of-the-way corner.

“Hiro, what the hell is going on?” he hissed. “What were you doing?”

With a furtive glance around, Hiro answered him. “We were being followed again.”

What.” For a moment Fred looked like he was about to go into apoplexy right then and there, and Hiro hurriedly went on.

“No no, don't worry, don't worry,” he said quickly. “I took care of it, that's what I was doing all that time. I just led them through the park to get them to lose track of you, and then I sent all three of them off to the subway stop on Stillwell Avenue. It's fine. I took care of it.”

The hand on his shoulder tightened like a vice. “Are you insane?” Fred demanded. “Three guys were following us, and you decided to 'take care of it'? By yourself?

Hiro glared at him. “Oh, come on, Fred-”

“Don't just 'oh come on' me, I was freaking out for twenty minutes straight, Hiro!” For a moment Hiro was shocked into speechlessness – he had never seen Fred look this pissed before. “We had no idea where you were, and you'd turned your damn phone off!”

“Of course I turned my phone off!” Hiro snapped, bristling. “I was in the middle of something kind of delicate, Fred! More than that, I was pretending to use it to fool those guys into following me, I couldn't have it ringing on me while I was already supposedly in the middle of a call!” He shrugged roughly, knocking Fred's hand from his shoulder. “Besides, I had it handled!”

“That's not the point!” Fred's voice rose, and he paused to get it somewhat under control again. He didn't quite succeed. “Last time we were being followed, you let me know and we handled it together! Why didn't you tell me where you were going? You should've said something to me!”

“With Abigail there? Fat chance! What was I supposed to say?”

“Something that wasn't lying to me!” Fred retorted. “But no, you had to go for 'Oh, I'm dizzy, I'm gonna sit this one out, I'll meet you by the benches,' well so much for that, huh?”

“Fred, come on, I've done way more dangerous things than this and no one ever batted an eye!” Hiro reminded him, impatient for this conversation to be over. Why was Fred treating him like a baby all of a sudden? “Look, I know the others told you to look out for me, but I was fine! If I'm not fine, I'll be sure and let you know!”

“And if you hadn't been?” Fred demanded. “Can you at least try to understand where I'm coming from? For twenty minutes straight, I couldn't find you! What if something had gone wrong-”

“It didn't,” Hiro growled, feeling his patience wear thin.

“It could have, and if it had, the others would've killed me!” Fred ran his hand through his hair “A-and if your brother were here and found out I lost you, he'd-”

Hiro's temper flared red behind his eyes. “Well he's not here!” he snapped, feeling his fingernails bite into his palms. “He's not here to do anything, Fred. And I'd really appreciate it you stopped trying to act like him.”

He turned away with a growl of frustration, unwilling to look at Fred again. His hands shook with his receding temper, and he just – he needed a moment. Just a moment to look at something that wasn't Fred. The ground worked. The crowd, did too. No one was following them anymore – he'd done his job right.

Now if only he'd stop feeling like utter crap about it.


Abigail was thoroughly confused when she came out of the restroom to find Hiro scowling into the middle distance, and Fred staring at his back with a look on his face like he'd just been kicked in the stomach.

 

Chapter Text

 By the time he woke up, Fred couldn't remember what he had been dreaming about. All he knew was the whir of high stress that was with him from the moment he opened his eyes. He had slept – he must have – but he had barely gotten any rest out of it. Feeling both wired and exhausted, he sat up and glanced to the other side of the room.

Hiro was still asleep, of course. He had spent the previous evening facing the wall with his back to Fred, but at some time during the night he must have turned over in his sleep. Now he sprawled on his back, blankets half kicked off, with hair in his slightly-open mouth.

Just a day before, he would have stuck a pencil in it just to see if Hiro would sleep through it. Now, guilt ate at him until he shoved the covers back and got out of bed.

He had been scared, the day before – not just scared, but terrified. He and Abigail had left the ride to find empty benches and no sign of Hiro, and no amount of texting and calling had gotten through to him. Fred was pretty sure he'd scared Abigail, because at one point he'd been hyperventilating a little.

But that wasn't an excuse for what he'd done. It wasn't an excuse at all.

What had he been thinking? He'd sworn that he wouldn't. He'd made a promise to himself that he wouldn't start stepping into Tadashi's shoes where Hiro was concerned, and he hadn't just done that – he'd taken Tadashi's name and thrown it in Hiro's face.

For what? To make a point? What point?

Fred bit his lip, shooting Hiro another glance. Part of him – a big part of him – wanted to shake Hiro awake and apologize. He was still scared of what could have happened, and he still didn't want Hiro running off like that alone, ever again. But right now he had about a hundred “I'm sorry”s crowding behind his tongue, and if he could just–

No.

If he woke him up now, he'd just piss Hiro off again.

Fred grabbed his rumpled but clean change of clothes and silently fled the room. There's time for that later, he thought, and ignored the little voice in his mind reminding him what happened the last time he'd told himself that.


For the first time in a week, Hiro woke up on his own. No shaking, no jumping on the bed, no urgent yelling from across the room, not even a pillow to the face. His eyes opened, and that was all there was to it.

For a moment he fought off a wave of panic – had he overslept? Was he late? Fumbling, he grabbed the nearest time piece and squinted. No, he wasn't. It was eight in the morning, and besides – the Expo didn't start until evening. He could probably afford to go back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later, he gave up and heaved himself upright. His gums hurt – had he been grinding his teeth in his sleep?

Fred was already up.

Hiro's mouth twisted into a frown. The bed across from his was empty and unmade, and Fred was nowhere to be seen. Not that Hiro was surprised. Fred had barely looked at him since they'd yelled at each other in the middle of Coney Island.

All that kept him from biting the bullet was a mixture of pride and shame, which was a very odd and confusing combination. On the one hand, apologizing was annoying and hard and he hated doing it, especially when half a day and a good night's sleep to think about it forced him to the conclusion that Fred was right and he was wrong. The last thing he wanted to do was eat crow and admit it. And on the other, what he'd said about Tadashi had left a sour taste in his mouth.

Fred had brought him up first, of course, but that didn't make it any more okay for Hiro to throw his memory around like ammunition. It was out of line – a rule so bonehead-obvious among their group that none of them had ever thought to voice it out loud. You didn't talk about Tadashi that way – it wasn't done.

Was it really so bad, though, what Fred had said? Tadashi himself used to bring up their parents that way, and as annoying as it had been, it had hardly ever riled him into yelling, or throwing them back in Tadashi's face like that.

He knew he must have touched a nerve, because Fred hadn't met his eyes since. And this was Fred he was talking about. Fred bounced back like his brain was a trampoline. Nothing ever got him down. If anything upset him, it was skin-deep and shrugged off in the next minute. You had to work to get under his skin. You had to work twice as hard to shut him up, too.

And Hiro had gone and done both, in about two sentences.

What an accomplishment.

In any case, they had decided to leave this day free, either to cut down on the risk of being late to the Expo, or to leave it in case there was anywhere else they absolutely needed to visit that they couldn't cram into one of the other days. Something told Hiro they wouldn't be going for the second option, so that left him with over half a day to kill.

He waited, but Fred never returned to the room. After fidgeting a little, Hiro pulled out his phone and sent him a quick “Where are you?

A moment later he got “downstairs” in return, dithered over a reply, and finally pocketed his phone again.

Too restless and upset to eat, he went to his suitcase and pulled out the transmitter and microbots that he had brought along. Seeing as he had time to himself, and hanging out with Fred was no longer really an option, he might as well pass the time doing something useful.

A quick query to JARVIS led Hiro to a free lab, a different one from the one he had used to upgrade Megabot. But it was empty, quiet, and well-stocked with tools and a 3-D printer. A perfect place to lose himself in work.

He made use of the 3-D printer, building up his stock of microbots so that he had something substantial to work with. It still wasn't that many, maybe barely two buckets' worth. He made sure to mark each one of them – as cool as Mr. Stark was, he didn't feel like leaving even one behind.

Hiro was focused on the transmitter unit again when light footsteps broke his concentration. For a moment he braced himself for Fred to make an appearance, but the man who entered the room was a stranger to him. Hiro glanced up and pushed back his magnifying visor to take in the wavy dark hair, tired face, and rumpled appearance, until the man glanced up from the folder in his hands, noticed him, and stopped short.

“Oh – sorry, I didn't realize anyone was in here,” he said, looking faintly bewildered.

“Were you, uh.” Hiro hesitated. “Did you need to use this place?”

“No, it's all right,” the man said, holding up a hand. “I pretty much have free rein in here, I can go somewhere else.” He stepped back as if to leave.

“Oh, okay.” Hiro had to wonder who he was. He'd seen other people on Stark and Potts' payroll working around the labs, but... well, they seemed to have some semblance of dress code, at least. This guy was in pajama pants. “I mean, you don't have to. I don't take up much room.” He cracked a grin.

“It's fine.” The man's tired face creased in a smile.

“Sorry, man, I didn't mean to interrupt your system or anything,” Hiro went on, and lowered his visor as he turned back to his own task. “I'm just killing time 'til the Expo starts.”

The man had been about to walk out again, but out of the corner of his eye, Hiro saw him pause and looked back with renewed interest. “You're going to the Expo? Oh, you must be the prodigy Tony told me about.”

“Not really,” Hiro replied, squinting down at the transmitter. Maybe if he rewired it just so, he could shave some volume off the overall device. “A prodigy's someone who's good at learning what other people have already figured out. Technically I'm a genius.” He put his tools down and lifted the visor again, before leaning over to hold out his hand. “My name's Hiro Hamada.”

The man seemed to hesitate for a moment before shaking it. “I'm Bruce.” He tilted his head slightly. “Can I ask what you're working on?”

“Sure.” Hiro quickly switched the magnifying visor on his head for the transmitter, forming a mound of microbots into a neat cylinder. “Microbots. I control 'em telepathically, see?” The microbots rippled, and the cylinder became a rough replica of Stark Tower.

“That's – wow.” Bruce leaned in for a closer look, hand to his mouth. “Don't let Tony see that, he doesn't need another ego-stroking. Not much I can say about it, robotics isn't really my area, but that's impressive. I can see why he shot you an invite.”

There it was again, calling him Tony instead of Mr. Stark like most people did. “You friends with him?”

A look of faint surprise flitted across Bruce's face, at least Hiro thought it did – it was gone before he could be sure. “Pretty much, yeah.” The man straightened again with a smile. “Well, don't let me distract you. Maybe I'll see you later at the Expo.”

“Heh, maybe.” As the man strolled out of the room again, Hiro turned back to his work and let the encounter slip from his mind. He lost himself in work, staving off hunger with granola bars and an apple – years of being raised by Aunt Cass had taught him never to be without snacks.

Finally, the hour rolled around, though Hiro might have missed it if he hadn't set an alarm on his phone. When the beeping broke his concentration, Hiro shook himself out of his reverie and silenced it. Quickly he cleaned up after himself, finished the touches he had been making to the transmitter, and gathered up his own belongings. The microbots he poured into his backpack, using the transmitter to make absolutely sure that he missed none. Then, after triple-checking the lab, he left to take the elevator back up to the room.

Fred was there already, which he expected. It was still awkward to walk in and face him for the first time since the previous night. “Hey,” he said as he stepped through the door, and inwardly winced when it came out more quietly than he wanted.

“Hey.” Fred blinked at him over the tie he was knotting loosely around his neck. He looked hesitant, which was a weird look for Fred. “You, uh, ready to go?”

“In a sec.” Hiro shrugged, dropping the pack of microbots in his suitcase. He grabbed his slacks and button-up, but the tension in the room felt thick, so he darted out to the nearest bathroom to change. He came back fussing futilely with his hair. Fred was ready, looking strange with combed hair and a tie, but he was dawdling by the doorway waiting for him. Glancing at him, Hiro fought down a wave of self-consciousness about what he was about to do. Even without the argument, this would have felt weird to do in front of Fred, but after it... Hiro shrugged, as if he could throw off his misgivings with the motion, and crossed to his suitcase again. There was just one more thing he needed out of it before he closed it and zipped it up again.

After nudging the suitcase against the wall, Hiro turned and joined Fred by the door. It was too hard to look at Fred as he brushed his hair out of his face and put on Tadashi's baseball cap.

The cap felt strange on his head. Not bad, or wrong – just strange.

At Fred's bewildered stare, he shrugged. “He should be here,” he said simply, and forced himself to look up at him.

It was just in time to see a broad range of emotions pass over Fred's face. For a moment Fred looked like he was about to say something, and he raised a faltering hand to the cap as if he meant to straighten it. At the last second he pulled back, wrung the hand a little, and let it drop to his side. “Yeah,” was all he ended up saying.

Abigail met them in the hallway, looking prim and formal in a pencil skirt and matching jacket. Her heels boosted her height above Fred's, and she greeted them with a soft “Hi,” and a nervous but hopeful smile. Hiro could have sworn she paused a moment to glance at Tadashi's hat, but with her sunglasses on he couldn't be sure. Together they rode the elevator down in a thick, sort of unsteady silence, before stepping out to find their hosts waiting for them.

If either Tony Stark or Pepper Potts thought anything of him wearing a baseball cap to their nice event, neither of them mentioned it.


Sandwiched between Abigail and Fred at the front of the crowd, Hiro stared in rapt wonder as Tony Stark opened the Expo.

The event itself took place in a vast convention center that Hiro was half-convinced had been designed and constructed specifically for Stark Expo, but the opening ceremony unfolded right outside of it before a packed audience. The location was probably for the express purpose of having Iron Man dive-bomb the crowd, turning airborne stunts that made Hiro miss Baymax sharply enough to hurt. Stark had ended the display in a perfectly executed three-point landing, before standing and stepping out of the armor with his arms thrown wide.

Earlier troubles forgotten, Hiro had joined Fred in howling his approval along with the crowd. Abigail's voice had been among them.

Their “VIP” status meant that they were ushered into the Expo proper ahead of the rest, much to Hiro's relief. The idea of being trampled just outside of the biggest showcase of technological innovation in the country was not an appealing one. His presence drew a few stares from other, similarly honored guests, though they could have been aimed at Abigail from the way she shrank away from them. Hiro met the curious stares with a friendly grin, and the disdainful ones with a contemptuous smirk of his own. That's right, I'm a third your age and I've been hanging with Iron Man.

The show inside was objectively less impressive than the opening ceremony had been, but Hiro watched the demonstration of Stark's latest innovations with stars in his eyes. It was a strange feeling, watching all of this. On the one hand he was the proverbial kid on Christmas morning, immersed in the displays of tech and robotics the likes of which he had only dreamed of. On the other...

Even at the showcase he had once watched in the distant past, as a child sneaking through high windows with Tadashi, even in the presence of Robert Callaghan and Alistair Krei before everything had gone wrong, Hiro could not remember ever feeling so small. The first showcase had sparked his passion. Callaghan had put him at ease too quickly for him to shy away. Krei had inflated his ego, probably on purpose.

Tony Stark made him understand, as Callaghan once had, just how much he had yet to learn. He was a genius, always had been, but Tony Stark was a genius and a billionaire and Iron Man and the name of one of the biggest leaders in technology in the country – no, the biggest. He had genius, and he had decades of experience that Hiro did not. But Hiro found, as he watched Stark show off what he had to offer, that it didn't frighten him.

It excited him. This feeling of standing in the shadow of a mountain only made him more eager to climb it and see what the view was like from the peak.

Slowly, with a carefulness that bordered on reverence, Hiro touched the brim of his cap. He'd be careful not to forget where it started.

What he had lost along the way, getting this far.

A twinge of guilt dug at him when his fingertip brushed the cap, and he stole a glance to the side.

Fred was overflowing with joy, with none of the smallness and intimidation of seeing someone who was miles better at you when it came to what you were good at. All his attention was on Stark and the tech and the bright lights, and Hiro wondered if that was what he and Tadashi had looked like when they were kids sneaking into a showcase, before either of them had ever known anything about robotics. All bright eyes and excitement and Christmas-morning glee, and Hiro decided that even if Tadashi couldn't be here with him, living and breathing in this moment, it wasn't so bad with Fred.

Hiro leaned over to nudge him, and Fred returned the gesture with a light punch to the shoulder. Once it was quiet enough, Hiro decided, he would have to apologize for what he'd said.

Fred was not Tadashi. But now, in this moment, Hiro came to realize that he wasn't anything less.

Eventually, to Hiro's mild disappointment, the demonstration part ended. That had been the main event of the evening; everything from here on out was basically an extended after party, and the chance to have closer one-on-one looks at some of the things on display. As the crowd began to disperse, Hiro almost lost track of Fred when he zipped off to do the latter. Grinning, he shook his head and paused to see what Abigail was going to do.

“Fred's gonna geek out, I guess,” he said, having to raise his voice to be heard. “I'm gonna go raid the refreshment tables. Y'know, be classy.”

Abigail wrinkled her nose in amusement and motioned for him to lead the way. They were maybe halfway there when someone stepped forward to intercept them and Hiro looked up to see a familiar face.

“Good evening, Hiro,” Krei greeted him politely. “Abigail, you're looking well. I heard you were coming – it's good to see you both.” His eyes hovered a little on Hiro, but he quickly looked away again.

Awkward. Was there a protocol to talking to your superhero-secret-keeper in public? “You too, Mr. Krei,” he said with a mental shrug. “Anything, uh, interesting lately?”

“Nothing that my PR department has cleared me to talk about,” Krei replied with a smile. “And you?”

“Well, I'm here,” Hiro said simply.

Krei chuckled. “I suppose you are. How is school, by the way?”

“Busy. Pretty exciting. Nice to have a break, I guess. No regrets, though,” he added, somewhat pointedly.

“That's – that's good.” Krei looked a bit sheepish.

Before he could get another word in, a familiar voice hailed them, “Evening, Kid Genius, Abigail.” Tony Stark strolled in with Bruce from the lab tagging along and looking somewhat uncomfortable in formal wear. “Alistair. Dangling candy in front of the kids?”

“Says the man who already dangled a VIP invite,” Krei said dryly.

Stark rolled his eyes. “C'mon, Alistair. Now is partying time, not talent-scouting time.”

“Mr. Stark, in case you hadn't noticed, this party is the biggest gathering of scientific minds all year,” Krei replied. “A little scouting is par for the course.”

For a moment Hiro wished he was old enough to sip classily from a champagne flute. “Answer's still no, Mr. Krei.”

“You're young, Hiro,” Krei said politely. “Don't cut off your chances so soon.”

“I know that,” Hiro agreed. “Which is why the answer is no. I'm keeping my options open.”

Bruce made a noise like a stifled laugh. “You know each other?” Stark asked.

“We've met,” Krei replied, without losing his smile. “He made something of an impression.” Hiro returned the smile politely, and Krei turned his attention to Bruce. For a moment he looked confused, before recognition – and a bit of alarm – crossed his face. “Oh. Dr. Banner, I presume? A-a pleasure. Alistair Krei.” They shook hands.

Something clicked in Hiro's mind. “Banner – you're Bruce Banner?” At this point he might as well keep a checklist.

“The one and only,” Stark said with a grin. Bruce – Dr. Banner – looked embarrassed.

“I didn't realize you would be coming,” Krei remarked.

“Don't worry,” Bruce Banner assured him politely. “My dress pants are elastic.” Hiro saw Krei flush slightly, and he turned to share a quiet snicker with Abigail.

Krei waited for Stark and Banner to move off before looking to Abigail. “Forgive me, Miss Callaghan, I'm neglecting you. I've been meaning to ask – how are you?”

“Good,” Abigail replied. “Better – than I was. Thank you.”

Hiro watched the exchange closely. Krei practically dripped with guilt whenever he looked at Abigail – he was all sad faces and sympathy, though whether it was because of the portal accident or her father's current fate, Hiro couldn't tell. At least he had the grace to feel bad about all of it. Or, at least, to look like he felt bad about it.

To think so much could have been avoided if he'd just checked out one measly anomaly in an experimental device.

The floor drew Hiro's eyes briefly, and when he looked up again he spotted Fred close to the stage, chatting animatedly with someone. Well, pretty one-sided, anyway. Fred tended to do that.

He glanced back at Abigail, and saw her engaging Krei in conversation with a determined look on her face as she struggled a little over her words. To Krei's credit, he was being very patient with her. Hiro took the opportunity to slip away.

As he reached the stage, he saw Fred staring up at the tech on display with his arms crossed and the hugest grin on his face. The people closest to him had moved off. Hiro steeled himself silently – he hated having to apologize, but he hated leaving problems unsolved even more. Besides, Fred might be interested to know about the Hulk being in attendance.

“Hey, Fred.” He nudged his friend lightly in the back, and Fred glanced over his shoulder with a curious grin.

Later, Hiro would remember Fred's bright smile as the last thing he saw before the explosion rattled the high ceiling and knocked him off his feet, and all hell broke loose.

Chapter Text

Hiro's ears rang, and he blinked in vague confusion. His cheek was pressed to the floor, his head ached horribly, and for a moment the world had ceased to make sense. Something rattled and banged above him, and he raised his eyes to find himself crumpled on the floor, halfway under a table. The force of the blast had sent him hurtling back, slamming his head into the table leg hard enough to rattle his senses. Groggily he rolled, got his hands and knees under him, and pushed himself up off the ground. His head swam dangerously, and he froze for a moment to stave off the sudden urge to faint. Something trickled down the side of his face.

The ringing in his ears subsided, but the noise did not. There were more explosions, smaller than the first but still loud enough to feel in his teeth, and in between them people screamed. The noise drove some of the fog from Hiro's brain, and he raised his head and looked around.

Chaos. Everywhere, Expo-goers ran for the doors, pushing and shoving and trampling to escape. The displays were blown, the floor littered with broken glass, chairs, and tables that had been thrown about either in the blast or the stampede for the exits.

A few yards away, Fred was scrambling up from the floor, looking around wildly until he spotted Hiro and dashed over to him.

“Hiro! Christ, are you okay?” Fred's voice was almost lost in the clamor. Before Hiro could reply, his friend reached out and touched the side of his face. Hiro winced, and Fred's hand came away with blood on his fingers.

Hiro latched onto Fred's arm to ground himself, ignoring the feeling of warm liquid running past his ear – crap, I'm getting blood on his hat

Movement caught his eye, wrenching him back into focus. Not that there wasn't already a lot of movement; the mad rush for the door was a full blown stampede by now, with only Stark's security keeping the flow of bodies steady enough to prevent trampling. But the movement that had captured Hiro's attention was irregular – not the panicked fleeing of guests nor the calmer but hurried steps of security officers. There were people moving through the crowd, against the current like fish swimming upriver. One of the security officers apparently noticed, and stopped one man to stop him or redirect him.

Hiro's grip on Fred's arm tightened. Before his wide eyes, the man calmly turned around, pressed the muzzle of a handgun to the suited officer's stomach, and squeezed off two shots.

The screaming reached a fever pitch; as if on cue, more shots rang out.

“Hiro, let's go!” Fred yelled, pitching his voice over the uproar. “We have to get out of here now!”

Shaken, Hiro let Fred pull him to his feet, and moved to follow him. He made it two steps before some sixth sense made him stop and look back, and he turned just in time to see Alistair Krei take the butt of a gun to the face. Next to him, Abigail's mouth was wide open in a scream of alarm as two men grabbed her. She had lost one of her heels, and was kicking ferociously with the other at one of her captors until he let go.

Hiro dug his nails into Fred's arm, forcing him to follow his gaze. Beyond Abigail, more people were too dazed, trapped, or panicky to escape with the rest.

The two of them shared a single look before running back to help.

Fred grabbed a piece of rubble flung back by the explosion, a pole-shaped length of metal, and swung it forcefully into the man still holding Abigail. A blow to the stomach winded him. Abigail twisted out of his grip, but the other man staggered up to stop them. Still dazed and stumbling – blood on his face suggested that one of Abigail's kicks had caught him in the head – he went down again when Hiro took advantage to knock him off his feet. Another kick to the head kept him down. From there, Hiro steadied Abigail while Fred went to drag Krei back to his feet. The man who had pistol-whipped him was already down; Krei's personal assistant, the short, slight, bespectacled woman with the prim haircut, had appeared out of nowhere and was subduing him with relative ease.

“Get outside with the others!” Hiro had to shout to be heard. “Hurry!”

Abigail stared at him, wide-eyed. “But-”

“Just run!” Without waiting to argue with her, Hiro gave her a push toward Krei and the rest of the escaping crowd, turned on his heel, and ran for the nearest motionless guest. The man stared at him dumbly, round-eyed with borderline catatonia until Hiro yelled at him to get up and get moving. Fred arrived just seconds behind him, urging another Expo attendee to her feet. Hiro's heart was in his throat as they went back and forth, herding paralyzed guests in the direction of the exit. This was nothing like shielding and flying people out of danger from the safety of his suit and Baymax's back. Here he felt weak and exposed, constantly on the lookout for more men with guns. Thankfully, Stark's security was keeping them occupied.

Another explosion rocked the building, knocking both Hiro and the woman he was currently helping to the floor. A tremendous bellow galvanized the woman into action, sending her scurrying in terror for the exit with the rest.

Hiro rolled over, ears ringing. Something flashed above him, drawing his eyes upward. His heart lifted for a moment.

Iron Man hovered high over their heads near the stage, hands outstretched with his repulsers humming. Below him was the repulser's blast zone, where a small handful of people crouched or lay on the ground. For a moment Hiro wondered why Stark had attacked them, before he saw the few who were still upright recover and return fire. A few of them pointed their guns elsewhere, just as the Hulk came leaping clear over the fire. Dr. Banner roared again, swinging his massive hands like battering rams, and the bullets flying at him might as well have been flies. He stayed clear of the escaping attendees making for the door, focusing his rage on the armed attackers.

Hiro sat up, ready to scramble to his feet, when light from the ruined stage caught his eye. He turned his head, heart pounding –

The stage had caught fire. The first explosion had sparked a blaze, and it had spread.

Quickly.

The panic that Hiro had been suppressing since the beginning now flared up and flooded his brain, turning his vision white. All that remained clear to him was the blinding orange of fire. The ringing in his ears rose in pitch and volume, deafening him with the shrill tones of a siren or a fire alarm. Smoke burned down his nostrils and into his lungs, and he tasted ash. The ground felt cold and hard to him, his face hot.

He wasn't in the Stark Expo convention center in New York anymore. He was on the SFIT campus, watching the auditorium burn with Tadashi inside.

Panic suffocated him, and the taste of bile mingled with the memory of ashes on his tongue. Hiro sat frozen, transfixed by the sight and sound and smell of fire. Someone was shouting at him, jostling him, but he couldn't move – he couldn't hear –

A sharp sting across his face broke through the terror-fog, and sound rushed in as if his ears had popped. Hiro awoke from his daze to shouting, inches from his face.

“-really, really sorry, but we need to go!”

Hiro blinked slowly, almost drunkenly, and turned his head to find Fred staring at him with eyes so wide they were almost circular. “W-what?”

“They're drawing their fire!” Fred yelled. “Everyone's getting out while most of these guys are distracted but stuff's on fire and we gotta go now!

Hiro shook his head to clear it, still fighting off tunnel vision and rising bile. He grabbed for Fred's outstretched hand, letting his friend ground him again. “O-okay.” Fred pulled him up, and he almost panicked again when his friend started tugging him toward the fire – they would have to pass by it on their way out. Hiro turned his head away from the burning stage, cupping his hand by his eye like a blinder. Together they ran for the exit.

It was when they were closest to the fire, with only Fred's presence keeping Hiro from losing his nerve entirely, that it happened. Another explosion from close to the stage, either another bomb or an unfortunate side effect of the spreading fire, sent debris and shrapnel flying at them. Fred had placed himself between Hiro and the blaze – now, Hiro felt him lunge closer, shielding him.

This time it was not the explosion itself that sent Hiro tumbling to the floor, but Fred's abrupt fall. Dragged down by his friend's weight half on top of him, Hiro hit the ground face-first. His nose fountained blood as he shoved himself up with his hands and dragged himself out from under Fred.

Fred's eyes were closed, and blood ran down his face from a gash on his head where debris had struck him. There was blood on his shirt too, though in his half-panicked haze, Hiro couldn't tell where it was coming from.

Even as Hiro slipped his arms around his unconscious friend's chest, his eyes went blurry. Fred was limp, but the power of adrenaline and terror let Hiro heave him halfway up off the floor. His back and arms screamed, but he let the tears fall to clear his vision and set about dragging Fred the rest of the way to the door. Dimly he was aware of the sound of gunfire and roaring as Iron Man and the Hulk's half-aerial battle continued, but all that mattered to him was Fred, the fire, and the exit doors. Blood still ran from his head, making him dizzy and sick.

His foot caught on a bit of rubble on the floor, and his ankle twisted. Hiro stumbled, nearly falling, but an arm wrapped around his middle and kept him upright. Hiro cried out, struggling wildly in the strong grip as he felt Fred slip away from him. He shouted, maybe in English, maybe in Japanese, maybe without any words at all.

“It's okay! It's okay.” A voice made itself heard without shouting. “I've got you. I'm gonna get both of you out of here, okay?” Dazed, Hiro raised his bleary eyes.

Captain Steve Rogers stared back, one arm around Hiro's chest to keep him standing. His other arm slipped around Fred's limp form. Hiro gaped at him stupidly, only half-believing what he was seeing.

It was either exhaustion, blood loss, or the beginnings of a concussion that took him. The world slipped from his grasp, and everything melted into darkness.


The battle was over.

Iron Man's gauntlet hit the wall with a noise that made the nearest security guards jump and made Steve bat an eye. Outwardly, Tony Stark's face looked calm, but the crater and spreading hairline cracks in the wall around his fist told a different story.

It had been quite a while since Steve had seen Tony look so obviously pissed. Even Banner, standing by looking awkward and fidgety in a borrowed sweatshirt, was giving him a weird look.

“Thanks for showing up so fast,” Tony said with the same eerie calm that showed on his face.

“Welcome,” Steve replied, as if they were having this discussion over an office water cooler. “Don't thank just me, though. Natasha did a lot of the recon. Most of the recon. A lot of covert stuff, she's good at that.” He hesitated. “I'm just sorry we weren't faster.”

“Mark, Joaquin, Lorelei, and Jamie, I gotta send comp checks to their families,” Tony went on. “Ten more of my guys are in the ER, eight more after they hit Stark Tower, along with guests that I haven't been able to count yet. Including Stanley Whitmore's kid. I don't know how the hell I'm gonna explain that to him-” He lowered his hand, flexing his fist, and finally turned to face Steve fully. A jerk of his head sent the waiting security out of the room. “So. What do we know?”

Steve waited until the last man was out of hearing range before replying. “Hydra. No doubt about that. We don't know the why just yet – we were lucky to get the tip we got.”

“What exactly was the tip?” Bruce asked.

“That there was a very strong chance there'd be Hydra agents hitting Stark Expo,” Steve answered, crossing his arms with a slight grimace. He'd taken a good hit at some point, and an accelerated healing process could only do so much. “We were gonna go in plain clothes, just check it out and pad your security, but Happy rang us when we were en route. We had no hints that they'd be going for the Tower, too.” He paused, chewing over his words. “Any way you look at it, Tony, they're after you. I don't know why yet – we're working on it.”

“Damn.” The repulsers hummed. “Looks like it's not gonna be safe being around me for a while.”

“If I need to clear out, Nat can put me up,” Bruce said with a sigh.

“That leaves me with two kids stranded in New York – no, three kids counting Abigail.” Tony shook his head, disgusted. “All of whom are stuck right now or in the hospital – hell, we're still looking for Abigail. I can't send 'em home – Manhattan's practically on lockdown, and air space is shut down. You can't get a paper airplane off the ground without hanging yourself in red tape. And if I'm as big a target as I think I am, then there's no way in hell I'd put them anywhere near a private jet anyway. So what the hell am I supposed to do with them? Doc? Cap? Any suggestions would be welcome.”

“Nat's starting to organize shelters for stranded travelers throughout the island,” Bruce pointed out. “Might be a last resort, though. They're a little crowded and uncomfortable. And, if these agents know they're connected with you, they're not as secure as they should be.”

Steve's brow was furrowed as he took in Tony's anxiety-laden rant and Bruce's input without comment or interruption. Tony paused to catch his breath while Steve stood in thought, going through and weighing options.

“The Whitmore kid,” he said at length. “His parents have any friends in Manhattan? Anywhere in New York, for that matter?”

“As far as I know, no one close enough for them to trust their injured kid with,” Tony replied. Then, in a quieter voice, he added, “And that's if nothing goes wrong in the ER.”

“He'll be fine,” Steve said.

“Thank you, Dr. Rogers, I always look to the quick-healing supersoldier for sound medical advice.”

“I can get them somewhere secure,” Steve said finally. “Upper Manhattan. I have an apartment there – it's secure, I know every possible entrance and exit, and I can check on them regularly.”

“How secure?”

“Sharon's next door, Bucky drops in to refill the fridge, and Nat keeps reorganizing the tableware when I'm not there, so it's got eyes on it. Beyond that, half my neighbors are in Maria Hill's good books, and the rest keep their mouths shut. It's probably one of the safest place in New York City.”

“Where's Flappy Bird?” Tony asked suddenly.

“Sam's back in D.C., checking on some tips and making sure his safe house stays safe.” Steve shrugged. “He's not a household name like we are, so his place, far as we know, isn’t on any watch lists – Hydra's included. It's sort of a base for us.”

“How soon can you take in the kids?” Tony asked. “Fred's still... getting worked on, but the Hamada kid's just under observation 'til he wakes up from the anesthesia or someone comes to pick him up.”

“No time like the present.” Steve paused. “And I'll send word to Nat to keep an eye out for Abigail Callaghan.”

“Thanks, Capsicle, you're a peach.”


“Can I get you anything else?”

Honey glanced up from her textbook to smile brightly in response to Cass's question. “No thank you. I'll tell you if I need a refill.”

“Alrighty then.” Cass moved off to attend to other customers, and Honey sipped her latte and continued her calculus homework.

She couldn't quite remember exactly when the Lucky Cat had become part of her routine, but here she was. The atmosphere was great, it wasn't too loud, especially since Abigail had left for her trip and given those nosy tabloids one less reason to come poking around, and it was great to just sit in here with a cup of coffee and work on her assignments. Study lounges on campus couldn't compare. Here it was peaceful without being oppressively quiet, with more than just pages turning and pencils scratching to break the silence. There was quiet conversation, the TV turned low in the background, and Honey's phone ringing.

Okay, so maybe that last one wasn't so peaceful.

Placing her pencil down, Honey picked up her phone without checking the caller and answered. “Bueno?

“Tell me you're somewhere near a TV.” The latte was halfway to her mouth when Wasabi's tone chilled her over the phone. She put the cup down and sat up straighter.

“What? I'm at the-”

“Get to a TV. Now. Turn on the news, any news, because it's – it's blowing up.”

“I... okay.” Honey pushed her chair back and went to the corner where the cafe's TV was, showing a golf game on low volume. Without waiting for an okay from Cass, she flicked through the channels until she reached the first news station she could find. Biting her lip, she turned up the volume as much as she dared.

“...still not certain who is responsible for the attack on Stark Expo at this time, but we've been told that authorities are pursuing all possibilities.

Honey's blood ran cold. “Oh no. Oh no-no-no-no-no.”

“Honey?” Cass's voice behind her startled her, and her hands shook as she kept her phone to her ear. No, no, no, not again – “You okay? What's... going...?” She heard Cass's voice trail off, and her eyes burned with the threat of tears.

For those of you just tuning in,” the anchor went on, “We have received word that Stark Expo has been disrupted by what many fear to be a terrorist attack. Reports vary, but witnesses claim that several explosions went off, accompanied by armed men who attacked and menaced the attendees as they evacuated. This attack occurred after the main events of the Expo concluded, and as a result there were no media crews in the building to capture the incident. We do, however, have some footage from various witness's personal devices.

The screen switched to one of those videos, and the anchor's voice was cut off by the sound of screaming and gunfire. For a moment Honey was sure she would be sick, but Cass's hand closed tightly around her wrist and kept her grounded in reality. There wasn't much to be gleaned from the video; flashes, violent movement as people all around ran for their lives. It was too grainy and blurred to recognize anyone's faces.

“No.” Cass's voice shook. “No, no, please.

The attackers were stopped by the combined efforts of Stark himself and Dr. Bruce Banner, also known as 'Iron Man' and 'the Hulk,'” the anchor continued once the sickening video ended. “Reinforcements arrived in the form of Captain America and several allies, which put an end to the violence. Current reports say that eleven people have been killed and dozens more are injured, though numbers vary. Rumors that a second, unsuccessful attack was launched on Stark Tower remain unconfirmed. We'll report new information as it arrives.

“What are you calling me for?” Honey hissed into her phone. “Call Hiro and Fred.”

“Neither of them are picking up.”

Mierda,” Honey spat. Not again, not again, this can't be happening again. Her vision blurred with tears and she turned around, only to remember that Cass was still behind her.

The woman was frozen, staring up at the television screen with a blank face. She looked like she was barely breathing, and in that instant it scared Honey almost as much as the news report had. But in the next second, Cass blinked, seemed to shake herself, and looked at Honey with sharp, focused eyes.

“Have you contacted either of them?” Cass's voice came out dry and crackling, like old leaves or charred firewood.

The initial shock was fading, and Honey felt the familiar icy calm of battle creep over her. “Wasabi says they aren't picking up,” she replied evenly. No sugar-coating, no empty reassurance, no wishful thinking. They had no time for that; all they could afford now were facts.

The two women turned away from the TV, to find that the nearest customers were staring at them, and an eerie hush had fallen over the cafe. Honey stared back levelly. Beside her, Cass nearly faltered, but forced composure back into her stance, squared her shoulders, and cleared her throat.

“I apologize,” she announced, and Honey felt a pang as she was reminded of another evening, half a year before, when this woman had stood before her and her friends and delivered what she'd thought would be the worst news she would ever hear. “The cafe is closing in five minutes. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

The stunned silence continued a few moments more before one old woman – Mrs. Matsuda, judging by the cutoffs she was wearing – stood up and whacked her cane on the floor. “You heard her,” she snapped. “All of you, scram.” It was the cue they were all waiting for; every customer stood up to obey. Some were quicker than others, but every one of them got up, gathered their things, finished their pastries in a few impolite bites, and filed out the door. Honey noticed some of them going for their phones, and wondered if any of them had relatives and friends in New York.

Mrs. Matsuda waved off Cass's attempt to thank her on her way out of the cafe, and Cass went to lock the door and flip the sign to 'Closed'.

She turned away from the door and promptly burst into tears.

It was instinct for Honey. In the middle of the cafe, Cass Hamada folded like wet origami paper and buried her face in her hands to muffle her sobbing. Without even stopping to think, Honey hung up on Wasabi and closed the distance to wrap the woman in a hug.

“I can't do this,” Cass whispered into Honey's now damp shoulder. “No, no, I can't do this again, I can't go through this again.”

Honey didn't reply. There was no point in saying anything; there was nothing to say.

“He's all I have,” Cass's voice rose in pitch, hitching as her breath caught in her chest. “He's all I have left, I can't lose him too, I can't.

The twisting feeling in the pit of Honey's stomach kept her from speaking. Her eyes watered, and cold fear ground her teeth together as she hugged Cass Hamada and let the tears fall without a sound.

 

Chapter Text

Reality went from blackness to a disjointed haze, like a confused fever dream. Hiro woke up in a hospital bed, lost and confused, before memories slammed back into place, and he spent the next half-minute fighting off a panic attack. A nurse arrived to calm him down, and he fell asleep again until he could finally open his eyes and keep a firm hold of wakefulness. His clothes were waiting for him nearby, cleaned and sterilized, stacked and folded neatly so that he could groggily change out of the hospital gown. A few of this things were missing – his phone, for one.

He found himself shuffled out of the room before he was quite sobered up from whatever anesthesia he had been put on. If he'd had the energy for it, he might have protested. But instead, silently but warily, he got dressed and wandered out in a daze so that someone more desperately injured than he was could take the bed in his place. He found himself in a packed waiting room, and the only thought in his mind was finding Fred. Unfortunately, the reception desk was already crowded. There was shouting. There was crying. The people behind the desk were getting screamed and cursed at. If there was any kind of line or organization to waiting, Hiro couldn't see it. With nothing better to do, he approached the back of the throng and tried to force his way through. It was no use – people were packed tight, and someone pushed him back when he tried to squeeze between them. He staggered a little, dazed, and groped his way for the nearest free chair. There were none.

Dizziness hit him, forcing him to find a spot on the floor to sit. He put his head between his knees, praying that he wouldn't throw up. They might toss him out if he threw up.

Fred. Where was Fred? He raised his head again, looking around blearily. How many hospitals were there in the area? Would Fred even be at this one? With shaking his hands he ran his fingers through his hair, fingers catching in tangles, pulling the freshly-healing cuts until he winced and worked his hands free-

He froze, hands cradling his head, and he realized with a painful, gut-wrenching jolt what else was missing.

His hat – Tadashi's hat – where was Tadashi's hat?

Hiro sat bolt upright, staring around as if he would find it in this room. He struggled to his feet, pushed through the crowd in the waiting room, and stumbled back into the hallway. Which room had he been in, again? The numbers didn't ring any bells. Hurrying as best he could, Hiro searched the doorways for anything familiar – it hadn't been that long, after all. Maybe the room he'd been in was still empty.

Luck struck, or so he thought. He recognized the nurse that had attended him when he'd woken up. As she stepped into the hallway, she glanced up and appeared to recognize him. Her mouth opened, but Hiro opened his first.

“I-I had a hat,” he stammered. His words were sluggish and unsteady, as if he was trying to talk with someone else's mouth. “Where is it? I might have left it-”

She shook her head, placing her hand gently on his shoulder to steer him back out. “I'm sorry, but you can't be here – do you have parents you can call?”

W-wait.” Hiro shrugged against her hand, trying to dislodge it.

“If anyone you were with checked in, it'll be at the desk, okay? Maybe they have your things.” the nurse told him, and left him in the waiting room.

He felt the panic rising within him as if from a distance, and let it bubble up and die down again. Losing his composure wasn't going to help. He was smart, he could think his way out of this. He could find Fred, maybe find his hat–

A sob rose in his throat before he could cut it off. I lost his hat. I lost it. It must have fallen off and now it's gone. I should never have brought it.

Someone's hand descended on his shoulder, nearly startling a yelp out of him. He turned, every instinct screaming at him to bolt, only to recognize Pepper Potts standing there. That was fast – when had she shown up? How had she known?

“Hiro, oh thank goodness.” Her voice was hushed, and he noticed that she was wearing street clothes. Subdued, drab, unnoticeable. “Listen, we don't have much time. I'm going to take you somewhere safe, all right?”

“W-where's Fred?” His voice wouldn't obey him, creeping out of his throat barely louder than a whisper.

“What?”

Hiro stared up at her, exhausted and frustrated and trying not to panic or cry. He beckoned, and Pepper stooped so that he could repeat his question closer to her ear.

“Where's Fred?”

“Still recovering,” Pepper told him, pulling back. “But-”

“Where is he?” Hiro pressed, mouth dry. “Is he okay?”

“Hiro, there isn't much time-”

“Yes there is. Where's Fred?” Hiro pushed harder, seeing her hesitate. He caught her by the wrist just in case she decided to stop listening and stand up straight again. “You knew where I was, and I just got out but you knew to come find me. So where's Fred?”

He saw her relent, in the way her eyes softened and her shoulders sagged slightly. “Okay. I'm sorry, I should've realized – follow me.”

She checked something on her smartphone as she walked, and he tried to follow her without stepping on her heels, but he was filled to the brim with fear and the energy that came with it. His hands shook, his steps were quick, and he clenched his teeth hard to keep them from rattling together.

Pepper stopped at an elevator, and he wanted to scream with frustration. Why the hell did Fred have to be on a different floor, why wasn't anyone telling him anything, why was this happening, why, why, why? A sob rose in his throat, but he clenched his jaw harder to keep it in. His vision blurred, but he stayed behind Pepper as he wiped his eyes.

The elevator arrived, and Hiro ducked in before Pepper, tucked himself into one of the far corners, and pressed his back against the wall. He could feel Pepper's worried eyes on him, but he closed himself off and watched the closing doors, the elevator walls, anything that wasn't her face. She tried to talk to him, and he bit his lip and shook his head. Fred first. Once he could see with his own two eyes that Fred hadn't been killed, then he could worry about other things.

The elevator took them to the third floor, and Pepper didn't try to talk to him again except to tell him, “Room 331.” Hiro glanced at the nearest directional signs (301-320 this way, 321-340 that way) and hurried on ahead.

He reached the right room just as a nurse was emerging. The man stopped and opened his mouth as if to stop him, and Hiro was ready to either ignore him or knock him over. Before he could make a decision the nurse glanced past him, blinked, and stepped aside. High heels on the floor behind him told Hiro that Pepper was catching up – she must have given the nurse some kind of signal to let him pass. Hiro skirted the nurse and went in.

And there was Fred.

He was asleep – that was the first thing Hiro noted, seeing the steady rise and fall of his chest under the thin hospital blankets. Hiro crossed the room before he knew what he was doing, and stopped by the bedside to curl his hand in the edge of the blanket and brand the image in front of him in his brain.

Fred was alive. He was alive. The attack hadn't killed him, the explosion hadn't killed him, protecting Hiro hadn't killed him, he was hurt but he was alive and in a hospital.

(And Hiro tried to ignore the tiny voice in his head that reminded him that Tadashi hadn't made it as far as a hospital, Tadashi hadn't even made it as far as his own coffin because he was ashes mixed in with the rest of the ashes, burned so thoroughly that there wasn't even anything left to bury–)

Somehow his lip had found its way between his clenched teeth. He tasted blood.

Pepper's hand on his shoulder didn't make him jump, but when he looked up at her he was already crying. Crying is a natural response to pain, he remembered, and wished that he had brought Baymax.

“He's going to be all right, Hiro.”

Only “going to be”. He certainly wasn't all right now. Nothing was all right. “What happens now?” Hiro's voice was a raspy whisper, and Pepper's face was a blur through the tears.

“I take you somewhere safe,” Pepper replied. “We're having you moved from the tower – your things should already be there. As soon as Fred's okay to leave, he'll join you. I promise.”

Hiro searched her face, uncertain.

She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “We have eyes on this place. You're not unprotected, and neither is he.”

He let go of the blanket, glanced back at Fred one last time, and reluctantly followed Pepper out.

No one stopped them, or seemed to recognize Pepper, on their way out of the building. It stood to reason; everyone was too busy worrying about missing friends and loved ones. Hiro drew his shoulders in, ducked his head, and followed her.

She led him to a drab, nondescript car, the kind that could probably do ninety on the freeway and still avoid notice. It was comforting, in a way.

In the backseat, Hiro tried to stay awake; he really did. But exhaustion overtook him. Even as his head swam with fear for Fred and his heart twisted (he'd lost the hat, he'd lost Tadashi's hat), his eyes slid shut, and he slipped into warm, comforting darkness.


Abigail would not regret her decisions. She wouldn't. She could regret the outcome, but not the choice that had led to it.

She had escaped the Expo, scrambling away from the chaos and violence and out into the cooler night air alongside Alistair Krei. With explosions and gunfire ringing behind them they had fled, Abigail gripping his suit sleeve and Krei clutching at her arm, keeping each other upright while his assistant watched their backs. At a safe distance they had stopped and turned back, wide-eyed, hearts pounding, but both of them alive and standing. Abigail's shoulder had ached as if she'd wrenched a muscle, and Krei's face had been bloodied from the blow he'd taken. They had exchanged a single wide-eyed glance, and for a few seconds Abigail felt like they were on the same page for once.

Krei had left with one of the first ambulances, and presumably to go back to wherever he was staying, afterward. Wherever was safe. He had invited her. Abigail had declined. She couldn't leave, not yet – not without knowing.

Fred and Hiro were still inside, after all. She hadn't seen them come out.

She had waited and searched, but the general confusion had kept her second-guessing herself. Her phone was gone, so she couldn't call Tony or Pepper to ask if they knew where the boys were, not that she could have anyway. Iron Man had looked pretty damn busy inside.

Had she simply missed them in the confusion?

The possibility was at the forefront of her mind as she looked, asked around as best she could, and floundered through the crowds of frightened Expo guests. Finally, in a moment of desperate relief, she had spotted them. For about two seconds. Then the ambulance doors had swung shut and sped off, leaving Abigail struggling uselessly through the crowd, teary-eyed with frustration.

To make matters worse, her remaining heel had broken.

She'd done the only logical thing after that, of course, which had been to kick off her useless shoe, wipe her watering eyes, and walk to the hospital. She could hardly call a cab; she didn't have anything for fare on her, and the streets were choked anyway. She couldn't call anyone, and the ambulances probably wouldn't let her take up space that injured people needed. Walking was the only option at this point.

The streets had been crowded as Abigail made her way through them. That was good; she wouldn't have felt comfortable walking alone in them otherwise. Her sunglasses were cracked but she kept them on, shut her mouth, and kept her ears open. She couldn't keep abreast of social media, so word-of-mouth rumors would have to do.

Claims varied. Some said terrorists, others said a rival company was behind the attack. Quite a few people said that airspace was shut down. Some whispered, to Abigail's horror, that another attack had hit Stark Tower itself. A lot of people were asking around about missing friends. Abigail strained her ears to hear the conversations as she walked.

The first hospital she reached had sunk her spirits low. A crowded waiting room, full of scared people, had sent her to the first open seat that she had been able to find. Weary and footsore, she had sunk down, just for a moment or so she thought, and promptly dozed off.

She had snapped awake with a cry, as she always did, and for once no one looked at her sideways for it. Desperation and rising panic had driven her from the seat, chased any leftover politeness out of her heart, and sent her elbowing her way through the line.

“Hiro Hamada?” she had said tersely, once there was a receptionist to pay attention. “Japanese. Fourteen years old. From the Expo.”

Nothing. She'd given Fred's name. Nothing. “Check the other hospital,” was all they could give her. Abigail had stormed out into the night, teeth grinding like millstones, and she now found herself passing through crowds again.

She was tired. She was thirsty. She wanted something to drink, something to eat, somewhere to sit down and have a good cry. She wanted to find her friends. Her phone would have been nice, too.

“Are you all right?” a complete stranger asked her, and she shook her head until her dirty, sweat-stiffened ponytail swung.

“Do you have somewhere to stay?” the woman pressed.

Abigail hesitated. In that moment she remembered the rumors she had heard, that Stark Tower had been attacked as well, that Iron Man was under attack on all fronts. “Don't know,” she said at length.

“There's a shelter for stranded people being set up near the Manhattan Center,” the woman told her. “May not be the most comfortable, but it's somewhere to put your head down. Do you know where that is?”

Abigail did not, and forced the woman's directions to stay in her brain. Her feet hurt, but she set herself on the right path and put one in front of the other. There was a chance, a very very slim one, that Fred and Hiro hadn't been so injured after all and had ended up there. Or maybe, if nothing else, she could borrow a phone and contact Pepper.

Walking was a mindless task. It kept her awake, but aside from remembering simple directions it took next to no brainpower. Abigail's mind wandered, dredging up images and memories that she would have liked to keep buried. In her tired brain, they came back as disjointed as a dream. Hypersleep. The nightmare of nothing. Dead silence. That dream of colored clouds like geometrical cotton candy, pink and purple paling to orange and white, the way evening clouds look the closer they are to the setting sun. It was the kind of thing most people would write poetry about, while Abigail was haunted by it every time she tried to sleep.

And with it came the half-remembered dream that she wasn't sure was a real memory or an imagined one. There was a large figure in it, red and bulky and dwarfing the purple one that accompanied it. They were on her pod, blocking the sunlight that streamed from the outside world. There were no voices to them – her nightmares were always silent – but she could see them. She could trace their silhouettes in her mind's eye.

The memory was different, now. She had seen them in real life, when they had yanked her from the falling stairwell of Hope Hospital, and the memory of them was clearer, but now... now...

Now the little one had Hiro Hamada's face.

Abigail stopped in mid-step with a half-strangled sob. Was she there yet? Was she at the Center? How much time had passed? How long had she been in this memory?

It didn't matter. All that mattered was the changing memory, and Hiro's face framed in purple, brown eyes wide with fear and welling with tears and why was she thinking this, where had this come from–

Breathing became difficult. Abigail stopped, cast around for somewhere to hide, somewhere to ride this out. Her eyes fell on a welcome sign – Manhattan Center. Where was the shelter? Where could she go?

Sobbing for breath, Abigail tucked herself into a corner and sank down into a crouch, lowering her head to hide her face from passersby. Tears streamed down her face.

They'd saved her, back at the Expo. Hiro and Fred – they'd saved her life, just like those heroes on the news had saved her before, and now she couldn't tell one memory from another because they were bleeding together, what would Hiro be doing in there, in the portal, Tadashi wouldn't have wanted him anywhere near that place.

It came to her, then: a half-forgotten conversation. One broken, sad victim to another. “I've thought about it, and I don't think things would've played out like they did if he hadn't died.”

It had been an odd thing to say, but she hadn't thought about it at the time. She hadn't thought about it ever. But really, besides her father, what did Tadashi dying have to do with the attack on Krei? How had Tadashi's death led directly to her rescue, unless those “Big Heroes”, the news anchors' darlings, had followed his killer from the auditorium fire to the reactivated portal and her pod inside? Why would they have done that, unless they cared about Tadashi? Unless they loved him? Unless...?

And why would Hiro know about it, if they had?

Oh my God.” Her voice rasped out of her throat, and she opened her eyes and breathed.

There was a woman standing over her.

Abigail blinked, spots clearing from her vision as she looked up at the woman's face. It wasn't the woman who had helped her before, but a different woman, dressed plainly in an ordinary sweatshirt and jeans, with only her flash of red hair to point her out in a crowd. As Abigail stared up at her, the woman crouched by her and held out an unopened water bottle.

“Are you all right?”

After a moment's uncertainty, Abigail took the bottle. “Shelter?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yes. It's still being set up, but we're not turning anyone away.”

Abigail's hand trembled as she unscrewed the bottle and took a careful drink. Then, shakily, she let the woman help her up. “Um. Thank you.”

“What's your name?”

“A-abigail,” she answered.

“Abigail Callaghan?” At Abigail's alarmed look, the woman's mouth twitched. “Tony Stark said to keep an eye out for you.” She held out her hand again. “My name's Natasha.”

“I-I'm looking for – Hiro Hamada,” Abigail told her, her mouth and brain exhausted for speech. “Fred Whitmore. Does Tony... know? Where they are?”

“I can ask. Or, I can call Potts and have her pick you up. Either one. They'll have a safe place for you.”

“Wait.” The word slipped out before Abigail could stop it. She was on her feet, sore and tired, clutching a water bottle like a lifeline, and all she could think of was Hiro Hamada's face framed by that small purple helmet, clinging to her pod and pulling it to safety, and Hiro Hamada with blood running down his face as he pushed her toward the exit doors of the convention center and shouted at her to run.

Well maybe she didn't feel like running anymore.

Natasha's eyebrows rose, just slightly. “Yes?”

Abigail set her jaw. “How can I help?”


The phone rang, and Cass tripped twice on her way to answer it.

It was late. It had been hours since that news report, and Cass was exhausted from too many phone calls and not enough information. “Your nephew is in the hospital,” was the most she had gotten out of a Stark employee that had called her, and it was wonderful that he wasn't dead, it really was, but it was nothing. The shredding feeling in her chest had not faded, for all that time. Two-thirds of the time the lines were too busy for her calls to get through at all.

She picked up the phone and tried not to sound too raw and desperate when she answered it. “Hello?”

“Cass?”

It took all her self-control not to break down again, this time in relief. “A-Abigail.” Cass wiped her eyes, to no avail. She might as well have tired to hold back a waterfall with her bare hands. “I-I-I saw, on the news – th-they said Hiro was in the hospital, but I can't get through. Where are you? Is Hiro with you?” She waited on bated breath.

“No, but-” Abigail paused, and Cass covered the mouthpiece with her hand to take away the temptation to shout. She had to be patient. Abigail would talk, she just needed time to find the words. “He's okay. They're both – okay.”

This time, Cass did let herself break down in tears. It was Abigail's turn to wait patiently as Cass took the phone away from her ear and sobbed. “Where? Is he – are they hurt?”

“They were – in hospital,” Abigail replied. “But Hiro's out. He's safe. Fred's still... but they're okay. They're both okay. We're okay.”

Cass sat down hard, wiped her streaming eyes, and breathed.


Hiro woke with his head pressed to a pillow. The first thing he noted, with a blurry sleep-muddled mind, was that it was not a smooth, stiff hospital pillow with a sterilized pillowcase like the last one he had awoken on. This one was soft, cottony, and smelled faintly of shampoo and coffee, which was a weird combination but not an unpleasant one. The blanket he was under was sort of the same. Cozy. Hospitals were a lot of things, but cozy was not one of them.

It was a little like dragging himself out of quicksand, but Hiro forced his heavy eyelids open and raised his head groggily to look around. He was lying on a couch under a knitted afghan, in... well, that remained to be seen.

He wasn't sure if he should be alarmed or not, so he quickly sat up – and that was a mistake. Immediately the blood rushed from his head, leaving him dizzy and blind for a few seconds. He sat rubbing his eyes until the spots cleared, then shrugged the blanket off and got a better look at his surroundings.

There was a coffee table right in front of the couch, a couple of armchairs across the room, a bookshelf, and a cabinet. This was someone's living room, tastefully furnished but simple, and Hiro couldn't immediately tell whether it was a house or an apartment. If it was an apartment, then it kind of reminded him of Wasabi's. Very simple, tranquil even, with nothing out of place. More like a model room in a magazine photo than an actual person's home.

His first instinct was to call out for Pepper, but he bit his tongue and kept silent. After all, he had no idea where he was, and no memory of arriving. A little caution never killed anyone.

There was a note on the table. Hiro leaned over, sliding his legs from the couch to reach it, and his feet struck something on the floor. Startled, he looked down to find his suitcase lying directly between the sofa and the table. He grabbed the note, rubbed the rest of his grogginess from his eyes, and read it.

Hiro –

I'm sorry I had to leave so quickly. Stark Tower is no longer safe, so you'll be staying here in Steve Rogers' apartment until you can leave New York. (Yes, that Steve Rogers.) We've had your things moved to this apartment, including what we collected from the hospital.

DON'T WORRY. Fred will join you as soon as the hospital releases him. You'll both be well taken care of until you can go home. Steve says that anything in the fridge is free game, and he'll be in to check on you as soon as he can.

-Sincerely, Pepper.

PS: Abigail says thank you.

Hiro put the note back, curled in on himself until his knees were pressed against his chest, and tried not to shake. For one thing, holy crap he was sitting in Captain Steve Rogers' apartment. For another, reassurances were great, but he'd still woken up alone in a strange place, and after the previous day he was still trying to remember how to feel safe. First the Expo, then Fred at the hospital – his heart gave a painful twist.

The hospital.

He snatched the note back up and reread it. Including what we collected from the hospital.

Did that mean...?

Hiro stared around, searching, but besides his suitcase he couldn't see anything else of his lying around. Was it somewhere else in the apartment? Or...

Quickly he stooped down to reach his suitcase, clawing at the zipper until he managed to drag it all the way around. His heart was in his throat as he lifted the lid back and peered inside. Please... please...

And there it was, sitting on top of his rumpled clothes, a little dented from being inside the suitcase, but it was there. His brother's hat was right there, along with his microbots, the transmitter, and the modified Megabot.

He had to be sure, though. Hiro picked it up, hands shaking, and turned it over to check inside. Any blood he'd gotten on it had been cleaned off, and sure enough, faded but written neatly in the lining in black ink, was the name Tadashi Hamada.

His breath hitched. He was alone, so he didn't have to be embarrassed when he clutched the hat to his chest and let his relief pour out with the tears. He hadn't lost them. He hadn't lost Fred, and he hadn't lost the hat, and as far as he was concerned, everything else from there could be fixed.

 

Chapter Text

“So how are we on those leads?” Steve tapped his earpiece, watching the streets outside as he spoke. In the early morning, Manhattan seemed to be going on as normal, or as normal as it could after an unexplained attack on one of their most celebrated public figures. But New York was like that; it tended to bounce back from things like Chitauri attacks and underground neo-Nazi invasions. And as long as Steve had anything to say about it, it would continue to do so.

“Four of them came up empty.” Natasha's voice sounded gravelly from lack of sleep. He didn't blame her; none of them had gotten the chance to lie down after the previous night. “Clint's checking the next one. He's radio silent until he finds something or needs a getaway car. How's Barnes?”

“Checking out a couple old Hydra hideouts he remembers,” Steve replied. “They've been shut down since, but he's hoping to find something SHIELD missed.” He shook his head. “It's not just finding the Hydra cell that organized this. We're still working on 'why.'”

Natasha made a noncommittal noise. “Tony find anything?”

“He's been going through every inventory he has, at the Tower and at the Expo center. If anything's missing, either he hasn't found it or he hasn't gotten back to me yet. You?”

“I'm still keeping an eye on the shelters, and-” She dropped the volume of her voice. “Babysitting duty, too. One of Tony's guests is helping out here, so I'm keeping an eye on her for now.” Natasha coughed, returning to her earlier tone. “Agent Hill's coming by to touch bases. She'll want to talk to you.”

“I'll be there.” Steve paused, then amended, “I will later. I'm en route to the apartment in Upper Manhattan first. Shouldn't be long – fifteen, twenty minutes at most, then I'll be on my way back.” He sneaked a glance at the man behind the wheel. “One of Tony's guys is driving. It'll be quick. I just need to check on a guest.”

“Right. Babysitting duty?”

Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I volunteered.”

“You fool.” Natasha cut the call.

The car pulled up to the apartment building, and Steve nodded his thanks to the driver before getting out. He was in the dullest of civilian outfits he could throw together – sunglasses, a hooded sweatshirt, slightly loose, scuffed jeans, and old tennis shoes. As long as people didn't look too hard at his face, he could blend in with pretty much any crowd.

Being a celebrity back from the dead who needed to do things like buy underwear and go to the grocery store had done wonders for his stealth skills.

Steve slowed as he approached his door, reaching for his key. Quickly he unlocked the panel above the doorknob, which opened to reveal a keypad and thumbprint scanner. Housewarming gift from SHIELD – it was better than a padlock and a chain latch. The small screen flashed green as it recognized his code and thumb print, and Steve checked his six before flipping the panel shut, opening the door quietly, and slipping into his apartment. It was a little cold inside for his taste – the heating must be on the fritz again.

Noiselessly, he crept into his living room to find the couch empty and his guest nowhere in sight. He sighed, disappointed. He'd been hoping to get here before the kid woke up. Fourteen-year-old boy who just survived a terrorist attack, waking up alone in a strange place – at best he'd be skittish, at worst he'd be scared. Either way, it probably meant hide-and-seek for the next few minutes. Couldn't be helped.

Might as well not sneak up on him by accident. “Hiro?” he called. “It's all right.” Maybe he'd woken up hungry and found his way to the kitchen. Stepping carefully, Steve went into the hall and cast about for the missing teenager. “My name's Steve. We met... earlier...?”

He stopped short, listening. Was it his imagination, or was there a whirring noise coming from somewhere in the hall? Steve looked around, scanning all angles for the noise, but it had stopped, and there was nothing to be found.

“It's all right,” he repeated, then paused again to listen. “I'm just checking in.” Steve walked into the kitchen. It was empty, though there was a plate by the sink and a couple cabinets were still open. Exhaling quietly, he turned around to keep looking –

Just in time to see a small, dark shape dart away from the entrance to the kitchen. It had been at the bottom left corner of the doorway – not just small-human sized, but low to the ground and tiny. As soon as he'd turned, it had ducked back out of sight, further down the hall.

Steve peeked out in the direction it had taken, and his first thought was That better not have been a rat. His second thought was Rats don't whir.

His hand moved to the small of his back, where he could feel the handle of his gun beneath the folds of his sweatshirt. Padding lightly to keep his footfalls from making noise, he got to the first bend in the hall, braced himself, and peered around the corner.

A few yards farther down was another bend. Half-hidden by the far corner of the wall, staring back at him from the opposite end of the length of hallway, was his guest.

Steve relaxed, let his hands drop to his sides, and stepped out into full view. The boy was familiar; Steve had seen him very briefly up in Stark Tower, shoulder to shoulder with a friend, both of them staring slack-jawed like most people tended to do when they recognized him. Steve hadn't seen him for very long, but the boy had looked bright, star-struck, and bursting with excitement. It was a far cry from what he was seeing now.

Cautiously, Hiro Hamada crept further out into the hall, but stood with one hand against the corner of the wall as if he was ready to bolt at a moment's notice. There was a small robot tucked under his arm like a toy, and Steve quickly recognized the small shape that he'd seen in the kitchen doorway. Robots were a little outside of his area – he'd have to ask Tony about that one.

“It's all right,” he said a third time. “You're safe here, I promise.”

The boy eyed him, looking equal parts hopeful and wary. Every part of his body language was closed off; one foot was crossed behind the other, the robot was clutched against his chest under one arm, his hand curled white-knuckled around a dark baseball cap held tight and close to his body, and his head was half-bowed as he watched Steve from beneath a mess of dark hair. His face was still bruised from the attack, and he was silent.

Steve allowed himself a moment to despair a little. He didn't need fifteen minutes with this kid; he needed three hours, a carton of chocolate milk, and Sam Wilson.

“Here-” He moved forward, but not close enough to crowd the boy, and pulled a somewhat dented smartphone with a cracked screen from his pocket. He saw Hiro's eyes widen in recognition, and held it out. “Sorry it took so long – you must've dropped it at the Expo. We've been turning the place inside out, and we found that. In case you need to call anyone.”

Finally Hiro stepped out and reached forward to take it with his free hand. His mouth moved, and Steve barely caught the whispered “Thank you.”

“I can't stay long,” he said reluctantly. “It's been hectic since that attack. But I'll be back by tonight, if I can't make it sooner. Is there anything you need? Anything at all – food, supplies, favorite candy, doesn't matter.”

Hiro looked thoughtful for a moment before shaking his head. Steve could see his jaw flex as he clenched his teeth. Finally, Hiro met his eyes for a split second and asked, “Is Fred coming here, too?”

Steve could have kicked himself for forgetting. “Yes,” he said firmly. “Soon as he gets out of the hospital. He's not in any danger,” he added emphatically. If he said he was “out of danger,” then he'd only spook Hiro with the implication that he'd been in danger, and the last thing this kid needed right now was another fright. “He should be here tomorrow or the day after.”

“Okay.” Hiro took in this information without giving any hint whether he was happy about it or impatient. The floor seemed to be drawing his attention again.

“Hey, listen here.” Steve kept his voice gentle, stooping to see eye to eye with him. Hiro averted his eyes for a split second, but seemed to force himself to look up again. “The thing about this place – it doesn't look like much, but it's where I live. Not just a guest room at someone else's place, or a safe house. It's as close to home as I've ever gotten.” Steve held his eyes steadily. “Which makes it one of the safest places on this island. And as long as you're here, I am not going to let anything or anyone hurt you. If anyone wants to try, they would have to go through me. You're safe here. Okay?”

Hiro blinked, stared at him for a moment longer, and nodded. Steve stood up straight again.

“Let me see your phone for a second?” A split second's hesitation, and Hiro unlocked it and passed it over. Contrary to popular belief, Steve had absolutely no problem with modern technology. Smartphones were enormously useful, if a little addicting. “I'm adding myself as a contact,” he explained. “Anything happens, you call me. There are eight possible escape routes from this apartment. I can talk you through any one of them.” He passed the phone back. “I've got to leave now. Ms. Potts probably let you know, but you're welcome to anything in the fridge. This place is secure, so don't be afraid to call your family, let them hear your voice and know you're okay. I'll be back to check in again as soon as I can.”

“Okay.”

God, he was fourteen years old. Almost ninety years ago Steve had been fourteen years old, at least four inches shorter and fifteen pounds lighter, getting dragged out of hopelessly one-sided fights that he started. Seeing Hiro Hamada hiding behind his own hair and avoiding looking him in the eye for very long, Steve felt every instinct scream at him, protect. He swallowed the painful lump in his throat and let the feeling come and go. It wasn't like he wasn't used to it. Kids tended to have that effect on him.

He didn't want to leave this kid on his own all day. But Sharon was neck-deep in investigations, every member of the Avengers that was in New York City at the moment was busy with something, to say nothing of the SHIELD agents involved. And with Hydra fresh in his mind, the kneejerk wariness surrounding SHIELD was kind of inevitable. Not their fault, but inevitable.

“Hey.” He kept his voice gentle, and risked touching Hiro to lay his hand on his shoulder. “It's gonna be okay. Both of you will be on your way home before you know it – I'll make sure of it.”

Hiro met his eyes again, managing to hold eye contact a little longer. “I-I know,” he answered. “Thanks. I'll be fine by myself.”

“Good. I'll be back.”

He left reluctantly. If the driver of the car noticed him fuming in the passenger seat, he didn't comment on it.


Hiro took a deep breath and counted to five.

He promptly took several more and continued to twenty, then counted again in Japanese.

With the hand that wasn't holding on to his phone, he pushed his hair out of his face and tried to salvage his brain. The doe-eyed stammery fright had not been an act in the least; he was still shaky from the expo, the brief hospital visit, and the shock of waking up somewhere unfamiliar. He had indulged himself a bit, purposely putting off trying to pull himself together, but other than that his wariness had been genuine.

The only thing scarier than waking up somewhere unfamiliar was waking up somewhere unfamiliar and hearing the door unlock.

But at the very least, his heart rate was at a more manageable pace, mostly helped by the confirmation that Steve Freaking Rogers was going to be watching his back for the time being. He had his phone back, he had his brother's hat, and he had another trustworthy face telling him Fred was going to be okay. He could work with that.

Gradually, in the quiet and calm of Steve Rogers' apartment, Hiro felt himself come back together, as if the bombs and gunshots had scattered him and he was finally gathering up the pieces and putting them back in their proper place. Calming down was a bit like a puzzle, that way. Not the simple jigsaw ones, either; the weird three-dimensional ones that came in shapes like crystals and famous monuments.

Hiro went back to the couch where he had woken up, sat crosslegged, and tried to think. He didn't get very far, because he remembered the most pressing issue: the phone in his hand.

He had twenty new voicemails, and about seventy text messages.

Hiro, it's Wasabi. I-I'm watching TV, they're saying the Expo... um. Listen, when you get this, just call me back, okay? I'm gonna try Fred.

Hiro, it's me again. Pick up your phone, little man, I'm starting to freak out a little. Okay, a lot. Come on, don't... don't do this to me.

Hiro! Hiro, it's Honey Lemon, Wasabi said he can't reach you so I... I'm... oh who am I kidding, why would it work for just me...

It's Honey again. Hiro... please... just be safe.

Hey, squirt, pick up your fucking phone. Wasabi and Honey Lemon are wetting themselves and I swear to God I'm about to join them so, just... just pick up. For one of us. Doesn't have to be me, I don't care, just answer one of us. And if you see Fred, if you could... I dunno, pass it along... that'd be great.

S-sweetie... it's me. Um... I don't know when you'll get this, or... ahem. We're all waiting on you. And Fred. I closed up early, when I heard, and... it's hard to get through, so if you could just. Pick up the phone. When you can. Okay.

Hey, little man, it's me again, I'm just... just calling to tell you we've been trying contact numbers. For Stark, I mean. Nothing's getting through, I think they may have... I dunno. Disconnected temporarily or something. It's been... it's been like two hours since we heard. Just so you know. We're all... well. You know. I'll... try again later.

Hiro, i-it's Honey Lemon again, I-I'm sorry if I'm – kind of hard to hear, I just... I can't do this. I can't do this again, Hiro. Please be all right.

Hiro...? Please. Please answer, baby I can't... I can't lose you too. I can't lose you too, I never should've let you go, you're all I have-

A strangled sob escaped him, tears streamed down his face, and he had to stop. The sound of his aunt crying over the phone was too much, and if he listened to any more then he might throw up or start hyperventilating. The phone almost slipped from his hand, and he tried to ignore the little voice in his head that wondered if that was what Tadashi's voicemail would have sounded like, if his phone had survived the fire.

He composed himself – barely – then he wiped his eyes to clear the tears away, and called his aunt.

She picked up on the first ring. “Hello?” Her voice sounded tentative, faintly hopeful, and Hiro barely stopped himself from breaking down again before he answered.

“Aunt Cass, it's me.”

“Oh my God-”

“I'm okay,” Hiro went on. “I'm safe, I... I'm not hurt.” Technically that was a lie; there was gauze on his head where he'd struck the table after the first blast, and his nose was still tender, but what Aunt Cass didn't know wasn't going to hurt her.

“Yeah, I-I know,” Aunt Cass stammered, and Hiro could imagine her passing her hand over her eyes, trying to keep herself together. “Mr. Stark... I mean one of his people called, they said you were in the hospital, and then... um. Abigail called, and said you were out.”

“You talked to Abigail?” Hiro blurted. “She's okay?”

“Yeah, she's okay. She's okay. Have... have you called any of your friends yet?”

“No.” Slowly, Hiro uncurled from the tight ball he'd been in while listening to their messages. “I just got my phone back. You're the first one I called.”

“Oh... okay.” The gratitude in her tone was painful to listen to. “Do... um. Where are you, right now?”

For a moment Hiro paused, at a loss for how to answer. “Well I'm not in Stark Tower anymore,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It's not safe there anymore, it... got attacked. I dunno if the news caught that...”

“There were rumors, nothing certain,” Aunt Cass told him. “Are... are you okay? Are you safe?”

“Yes,” Hiro said sincerely. “I am... very safe.”

“Hiro...”

“I promise,” he added. “But, Fred's in the hospital still. He uh...” An explosion like a muted thud he could feel in his teeth, shrapnel flying, Fred springing closer, forcing him to keep his head down– Hiro took the phone away briefly, just long enough to shake his head vigorously. “He got hurt,” he finished weakly.

“It's going to be okay, honey,” Aunt Cass assured him. “Abigail said he's okay too, and... frankly I consider her a more reliable source than Mr. Stark's employees, no offense to them.” Hiro's laughter came out sounding watery. “Okay. It's... I'm glad to hear your voice. Stay safe, sweetie. Don't take any unnecessary risks, just... focus on getting home.”

“I'll try.” Hiro hesitated. “I don't know when I can get home, though. Manhattan's kind of on unofficial lockdown...” He swallowed hard. “I think everyone's thinking about the Battle of New York, and all the other things recently... I don't think anyone wants to take unnecessary risks.”

“All right. Don't worry. I'll... I'll think of something. Push comes to shove, I'll drive down there and pick you up myself.”

Hiro found himself smiling. “Okay. I'll – I'll talk to you later, but I have to call the guys first, okay?”

“Oh – do you still have your laptop with you? You could do a conference call.”

“Good idea.” Hiro nodded, even though his aunt couldn't see him. “Okay. I'm gonna... I love you, Aunt Cass.”

“I love you too, sweetheart. I'm glad you're okay.”

“Me too. Bye.”

“Talk to you later.”

Reluctantly Hiro hung up, rubbing his face tiredly. As quickly as he could, he typed out a text message to his friends –

Hey, guys. I'm okay and I'm somewhere safe. I'm sorry I scared you, I just got my phone back. Get to a computer, I'm gonna start a conference call.

He sent it as a mass text to all three of them. A few scant seconds later, as Hiro was pulling his laptop from his suitcase, his phone blew up with text message alerts. He booted the machine up as quickly as he could while scrambling for his phone with his free hand. His inbox was now filled with excited messages, capital letters, a few emoticons, and swearing. In spite of himself, Hiro let himself have a laugh as his laptop loaded.

In the end, he didn't have time to start a conference call, because Honey started one first. Bracing himself, Hiro joined the call and saw his screen fill up with familiar faces.

The knot in his chest had loosened after calling Aunt Cass, and now it fell away. His face broke out in a relieved smile. “Hey, guys.”

Honey's hand was on her screen, as if she was trying to reach through and touch him. “Hiro, I'm so glad you're okay.”

Are you okay?” Wasabi broke in, frowning. “What's with the gauze on your head?”

“Your nose is looking a little more purple than it usually does,” Gogo added.

“Guys!” Honey chided them quickly.

“It's fine. I'm fine.” Hiro's hand brushed the screen. He forced another smile. “I'm a little spooked, but I'm okay. Had a couple of falls. Trust me, it looks worse than it is.” I'm better off than Fred. His voice caught a little, but he forged ahead. “Fred's still in the hospital. He should be here in a day or two.”

“Where is here?” Gogo asked. “You're not still in Stark Tower, are you? Some people are saying it got hit, too.”

“It did, so no, I'm not there anymore.” Hiro hesitated, wondering how he could possibly say this. “I woke up on Steve Rogers' couch.”

“Bullshit you did,” Gogo blurted, ignoring Honey and Wasabi's disapproving noises. “There's no way.”

Hiro shrugged. “It is what it is. Looks like I'm gonna be alone most of the time anyway. I just have to focus on not going stir-crazy 'til Fred gets here.”

“Actually, you have to focus on not getting into anything else crazy,” Wasabi said pointedly. “Look, being a guest and a tourist by yourself is one thing, but this?” He shook his head.

“Just sit tight,” said Honey. “Don't do anything... silly.”

“I won't.” Hiro's throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Believe me, I won't. We, uh. We got what we were here for, and frankly I'm ready to come home.”

A hush settled over the call, and the group exchanged looks through their respective cameras. Hiro bit his lip, sensing what they were probably thinking. It wasn't like the thought hadn't crossed his mind already.

“Hiro,” Honey said softly. “You don't think...?”

“No reason to,” he said nervously. He glanced around – Steve said the place was secure, but even if it was bugged by the “good guys,” that could still cause him just as many problems. “Not yet.”

“So...” Gogo looked uncomfortable, and she spoke slowly. “Hiro... what exactly happened?”

His bottom lip found its way between his teeth, and Hiro met each of their eyes in turn. They all wanted to know, desperately, but if he decided he didn't want to talk about it, they would let him. They would respect that.

But the last time he'd kept silent around them, he had ended up regretting it. So, with a deep breath, he settled himself and told them about the Expo. They didn't interrupt or question him, even when he paused to gather himself together again. They simply listened.

“And then we were on our way out, and-” Hiro's voice caught in his throat, not for the first time, and his hands curled into fists in his lap. “And, um.” The stage blew up, Fred lunged closer, Fred shoved himself between Hiro and the explosion, Fred got hit and Hiro didn't – “There was another explosion, knocked us both down. I don't... I don't remember much after that.” He finished, silently hating himself. It wasn't a lie, not quite, but it was still less than the truth and they deserved to know the truth, Fred deserved to have them know the truth, but shame kept his tongue locked.

“Should've brought Baymax,” Gogo blurted.

“Gogo, cállate,” Honey hissed.

“Wouldn't have helped,” Wasabi added. “Would've risked blowing your cover in front of a bunch of terrorists. Gogo?”

“Yeah?” She gave a slight wince.

“Seriously, shut up.”

“Sorry,” Gogo mumbled, sounding truly contrite.

“It's cool, I kinda wish he was here anyway,” Hiro said quietly. “How is he?”

His three friends exchanged uncomfortable looks. “We... kind of haven't told him yet,” Honey admitted.

“Why not?”

“Weren't sure we could stop him from jetting out to find you two,” Wasabi sighed. “You know how he gets with the whole 'Hiro is my patient' thing... awww, no.”

Hiro leaned forward. “What's wrong?”

“I've had my eye on a news feed and... oh man, this isn't good.”


Abigail ran out of water bottles again. She had been handing them out all morning, since waking up. Natasha had more or less ordered her to stop helping, lie down and sleep for the love of God, and she had managed about five hours give-or-take before waking up and finding something to do again. At least someone – Pepper probably – had thought to send over her comfortable walking shoes. Brushing hair out of her face, she went back to the makeshift storage area of the makeshift shelter to see if there was anything else to fetch, carry, or set up.

Natasha was already there and on the phone when Abigail came near. Curious, Abigail dawdled over a mess and angled her ear to eavesdrop.

“...Yeah this'll be fun.” The woman's voice dripped sarcasm like an acid leak. “As usual, it's Clint's fault. Yeah, you know what I mean. Not his fault that lead was good. What'd they find on the guy?” A pause. “All of that. In an airport. Press is gonna eat that up. Who's on damage control?” Abigail dawdled further, her heart rate rising.

“A few shelters around Manhattan's not gonna cut it anymore,” Natasha went on grimly. “Tell Hill I'm gonna need to delegate. Talk to you later.” She hung up. “You get all that, Callaghan?”

Abigail jumped, sheepish at being caught. “Er.”

“Don't worry, nothing classified. They found one of the guys who hit the Expo, loitering in an airport with enough on him to knock out three planes and shut down the Wifi in the Pentagon. Looks like New York airspace is shut down 'until further notice,' however long that is.”

Abigail gaped at her.

“So... yeah.” Natasha sighed. “I hope you're not tired of New York yet, because it looks like you'll be sticking around for a while.”


Gogo slammed something down once Wasabi was finished relaying information. “Screw it. Screw all of it.”

Wasabi gave her a bewildered look. “Wait, what?”

“Listen, Hiro.” Gogo pointed at her screen, her face grim with determination. “There is no way in hell we're sitting around here with our thumbs up our collective as-”

“Gogo,” Honey broke in.

“Whatever,” she snapped. “We're not leaving you two stranded over there, and that's final. We're coming to get you.”

“You do realize that air traffic is completely closed, right?” Wasabi reminded her. “As in, no planes get out or in.”

Gogo let both hands thump down on the table she was sitting at. “Then fire up the van, Furiosa, 'cause we're going on a road trip. Hiro, sit tight, and tell Fred to do the same when you see him again.”

“We'll leave as soon as we can,” Honey promised. “And if possible, we'll bring your aunt along for the ride. Baymax is coming too. We're all coming.”

 

Chapter Text

By the time Steve Rogers returned to the apartment at around nine in the evening, Hiro was sitting on the couch, frowning at his laptop. He'd had enough time to angle the screen away from the door so that his host couldn't see it, but not enough to put it away. Just in case the captain had a mind to ask what he was doing, he threw out a quick distraction.

“Fixed your heater.”

There was a pause. “What?”

“Your heater was kinda faulty. It should be fine now.” Hiro glanced at him briefly before turning back to his screen. “I fiddled with your router, too. Should stop your Wifi from cutting out every time you use the microwave.”

“Thanks,” Captain Rogers said at length, faintly bewildered.

“No problem.” Hiro finished closing down his current task and replacing it with the Reddit homepage. “Thanks for... uh. Letting me stay, I guess.” What else was he supposed to say to a world-famous superhero who was letting him crash on his couch?

“It's not a problem.” As he spoke, Captain Rogers crossed the room from around the sofa and settled down in one of the armchairs. Hiro chanced another look at him. Apparently the captain wasn't above wearing shoes on the carpet. “You okay sleeping on the couch?” Rogers went on. “You're the guest here – I'm happy to switch with you.”

Hiro shook his head vigorously. “I'm fine. I can pretty much sleep anywhere, don't worry about it.” His throat felt dry all of a sudden, and he tried to gather enough moisture in his mouth to swallow.

“You talk to your family?”

“Yup.” Except Baymax, he remembered.

“Good.” And the weird thing was, he sounded like he meant it. It wasn't just a platitude, or a neutral acknowledgment of Hiro's answer. Captain Rogers didn't know Hiro, he didn't know Aunt Cass or Gogo or Wasabi or Honey, but he sounded like he was honestly glad that Hiro had called them.

A little more of Hiro's unease faded, and he shifted his legs underneath him to a more comfortable position. Emboldened, he glanced up from his computer screen again, swallowed his shyness, and opened his mouth again.

“So... how's the investigating going?” he asked. When Captain Rogers looked back at him, Hiro noticed for the first time how tired and haggard he looked. He wondered if the captain had slept at all the night of the attack. “That's what you're all doing, right?” he ventured further. “Looking for who attacked the Expo.”

“Yeah, that's about right,” the captain answered. “We're all working on it.”

Hiro nodded, keeping his thoughts in his head. He wasn't about to say that he kind of knew what that was like. He wasn't about to tell him that he wished all-nighters didn't have to be a thing for superheroes and an even worse thing for college-age superheroes. He certainly wasn't going to tell this man that he recognized the look on his face – that gray, baggy-eyed, half-desperate, headache-induced look that could only come from dragging your tired body far past its normal capacity in pursuit of answers – because he'd seen it on his friends and his own face in the mirror. He could think it, but he couldn't say that. Maybe one day. But not now. “Do you know who did it?”

“Yes.” There was no way Hiro could miss the note of caution in Captain Rogers' voice. There was a dark, thoughtful look on his face, as if he was mentally sorting his information between what he could and couldn't say.

Hiro let the silence stretch for a moment before pressing his luck again. “Can you tell me?”

Captain Rogers looked him in the eye, and it took a lot of nerve for Hiro to look back. “Are you sure you want to know?”

It was partially a pride thing, a small part of Hiro that wanted to glare at him resentfully and say yes I want to know, I'm a big boy and after tackling a supervillain to the ground and diving into a collapsing portal, I think I can handle knowing who tried to kill me this week. But he kept that in and shrugged instead, as if it was only an issue of idle curiosity. “Anybody I know?”

“If you've heard of Hydra.”

The chill that went up Hiro's spine was almost immediate. He had, in fact, heard of Hydra. He didn't know a whole lot of people who hadn't heard of Hydra, between World War 2 history lessons and the more recent, memorable total-exposure incident. “I downloaded the files that went up,” he admitted. “Still have 'em somewhere.” He hesitated. “That was you, right?”

“I did my part.”

Hiro nodded. “So... it's them, then,” he murmured after a pause. “They tried to attack an airport, didn't they?”

Captain Rogers sighed. “Yeah, they did. A lot of people are stranded – including you. But we're working to fix the problem, make it safe to fly home again.”

For a moment Hiro considered telling him that three of his friends, his aunt, and a robot were all set to hop into a van and motor across the country to un-strand him, but decided to put that off until he had a more solid plan from them. “I can wait,” he said. He considered bugging the man for more news about Fred's condition, but decided not to. Rogers loooked way too tired to deal with his nail-biting right now. If there was news, then he'd mention it, wouldn't he?

Captain Rogers got up carefully while Hiro was conferring with himself. “One more thing I should mention,” he added, breaking through Hiro's thoughts. “Friend of mine tends to come through sometimes. He's got a key – though, I'm not sure that's how he gets in. You can't miss him – he's about five-eleven, doesn't smile a lot, needs a haircut. That's, uh... that's James. He looks scary, but he won't hurt you.”

Hiro filed away the information. “I'll... keep that in mind.” Once he had left, Hiro closed down the browser window and brought his earlier project back up to glare at it.

Stupid mystery file. The thing was locked so solidly that getting into it was like trying to chop down a tree with a screwdriver and a nail file. With his luck, even when he did get it open, the contents would probably be buried under useless code. And encrypted.

To say nothing of the possibility that it was all a trap, and once he did get it open he'd be giving some faceless hacker a direct line into his own system. Not that he hadn't taken precautions; he'd made sure to empty his files onto an external hard drive before he even touched the locked file to try and open it. But still, it was definitely something to watch out for.

Hiro's scowl deepened. It was nice to have something to keep him busy, but at the same time, his progress was agonizingly slow. If you wanted me to see what was on this, why did you make it so damn hard to get into it?


Honey fidgeted nervously, wishing not for the first time that she hadn't been so quick to volunteer for this. At the time it had made sense. For one thing, she was the latest in line for “babysitting duty,” as the others had taken to calling it. For another, she was the best for the job from a practical point of view as well. Cass was the busiest when it came to preparations to leave. Gogo had the bedside manner of a particularly crusty drunk. And Wasabi...

Well, Wasabi seemed to have a lot on his mind lately, and already too little room in his schedule to sort it out. Why burden him with one more thing?

No, she still considered herself the best one for the job, even with the pile of clothes and necessities currently cluttering up her bedroom floor as she put off packing. But the fact that she was the best didn't mean she had to enjoy it. Bracing herself, Honey stood in her apartment's living room and eyed the bright red case in front of her.

“Ow.”

At the sound, Baymax activated and inflated in front of her. He was smoother and quicker about it than he once was; that was one of the many improvements that Hiro had made when rebuilding him. Maybe speed during activation and deactivation hadn't been so much of a priority for the robotic nurse that Tadashi had envisioned, but for a mechanical superhero, it was a much-needed upgrade.

“Hello, Honey Lemon.” Baymax offered a small circular wave in greeting. “Is there something that I may-” He stopped midsentence, blinking. “Your pulse is above its normal rate. Accompanying brain activity indicates that you are under a significant amount of stress. What is wrong?”

Honey considered her options. Backing out at this point was not one of them; she should have known that he would detect her mood as soon as he was powered on, and there was no way she could lie to him. Should she rip off the metaphorical band-aid? If not, how much time should she devote to dancing around the topic?

Finally, she sighed and tucked her hair behind her ears. “There's... really no easy way to do this. Not this late, anyway.” She tried not to wince. “I'm so sorry, Baymax, we should have told you sooner.”

The robot tilted his head to the side. “Told me what?”

Honey braced herself again and forced herself to look up into Baymax's eye cameras. “The Expo... didn't go the way we hoped. Hiro's okay,” she added emphatically. “He's okay, and he's safe, but... it's gotten complicated.”

Baymax blinked at her, and she wished desperately that she could read what was going on in... whatever the robotic equivalent of a brain was. CPU? Motherboard? Technology was not her forte. “What happened?”

“There was an attack,” Honey explained. “Hiro and Fred got caught up in it, because... well, they probably dawdled getting out and tried to help.”

“Were they injured?” Baymax broke in.

“Um.” Honey's throat bobbed. “Y-yes. Fred worse than Hiro, I-I don't know the details, but...”

“I see,” Baymax remarked when Honey's voice trailed off.

“A lot of people got hurt,” she went on quietly. “But we've heard from Hiro already, and he says he's... somewhere safe. He's okay, Baymax.”

Silence between them stretched the seconds into what felt more like minutes. Honey could feel her heartbeat in her throat, and noted that Baymax could probably detect that, to. “I would have preferred to accompany them,” Baymax said at length. “Though, admittedly, I am not certain that my presence would have prevented them from being harmed.”

“I know.” Honey nodded, trying to distract herself from the growing tightness in her throat. “I know. Me too, Baymax. But – that's not all. Air space in New York is shut down, so it's impossible for him to catch a plane home. So we're going to take the van and go get him.”

“That is good.” Baymax nodded approvingly, then paused for a moment. “When you say 'we', you are referring to-?”

A smile took over her face before she could stop it. “You're coming too,” she assured him. “Don't worry. That's not a mistake we're making again. We're all going.”

“I am glad.” It wasn't just words; Honey could hear the note of gratitude in the robot's voice, and wondered if he'd learned that or if Tadashi or Hiro had programmed it in. “I do not wish to be left behind. And...” He hesitated again. “Your assurance is trustworthy, however...”

“You want to make sure he's okay yourself,” Honey finished, nodding. “It's okay, I understand. I feel the same way.”

“My range is insufficient to scan him from this distance,” Baymax replied. “I would like to do so as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, good thinking.” Honey smiled at him again. “And – hey. It's a little late now, and he's three hours ahead so he's probably asleep, but... tomorrow morning maybe you can call him.” Honey tilted her head at him. “He has his phone with him. I think it'll do both of you good.”

Baymax nodded. “That is a good idea. I would like to remain active until then, if I may.”

“Sure.” Honey shot a glance over her shoulder, toward her bedroom and the haphazard pile on the floor. “In fact, why don't you help me pack? It's going to be a long trip for all of us.”

“Of course. Thank you for telling me this, Honey Lemon.” Baymax blinked at her. “I am concerned for Hiro and Fred. But I am glad that we will see them soon.”

“Me too, Baymax.”


Steve woke with a short gasp, clawing his way out of the fading gunshots in his memory, and into the mismatched softness of clean sheets and a springy mattress. The abrupt shift left him floundering for a moment as he reminded himself that he wasn't going to sink through his bed and end up on the floor underneath. That wasn't going to happen. It was a mattress, not a sinkhole.

Finally he found himself fully awake and breathing somewhat steadily. Sighing, he wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and pressed his head back against the pillow again.

Sam had been quick to pick up on his trouble, back when they'd first met. After sleeping on the ground at worst or military-issue cots and bedrolls at best, the transition back to proper mattresses – proper twenty-first century mattresses no less, had made sleep a very strange and difficult experience. Even now, after all his time spent in this century, it was hard to adjust. Lately he'd had too many naps on strange couches, cheap motel beds, and car seats to get used to sleeping in his own bed.

Could be worse, he thought. I could be on one of Tony's memory-foam things. Steve didn't care what century he was in, frankly; those things were weird.

Steve shut his eyes, rolled over, and was about to try to go back to sleep when something jerked him wide-awake again. His bed creaked as he raised his head, then lifted himself up on his elbows. He kept still, eyes open and ears pricked.

He heard it again, and could identify it now that he was listening for it. It wasn't just a late-night noise; in fact, it was too soft and high to be anything but a human voice. Steve slipped out of bed, hand straying to the drawer on the bedside table where his gun was. The sound came again, too quiet and far away to be intelligible. This time, though, Steve could recognize it.

Was Hiro talking to someone?

Steve deliberated, and left the gun where it was. If there was an intruder and push came to shove, then he could defend himself well enough by hand, especially when it was dark and he had the home-field advantage. Almost noiselessly, he slipped out of his room and crept down the hall, straining his ears.

Hiro's voice came again, and as Steve neared the living room he could recognize a sort of slurred stream of Japanese, and paused with the realization that his guest was probably talking in his sleep. After a moment he kept moving, until he was stepping out into the living room again.

The room was dark, mostly silent, and – aside from the huddled form under the blanket on the couch – empty. Steve had been holding his breath, and now let it out in a sigh of relief.

Cautiously he drew nearer, but Hiro was still and breathing steadily on the couch. Steve waited for another minute or two, but no more noises seemed to be forthcoming. There was nothing that would offer a clue as to what was the matter – if anything was the matter at all – and Steve wasn't about to wake him up and ask him. Certainly no late-night phone calls or unexpected visitors, which he had considered in the first place.

Finally, Steve turned and slipped back out of the room, feeling annoyingly wide-awake. The kitchen was separated from the living room by a wall, and far enough down the hallway that the light and noise wouldn't disturb the boy. Tea – he needed tea.

Massaging his temple, Steve stepped into the kitchen and reached for the light, only to stop short at the dark, almost wraithlike figure leaning back against the counter.

A sipping noise. Then - “Your houseguest has nightmares.”

Steve let the breath hiss out through his teeth. “Hey, Buck. When did you get in?”

“Half hour ago.” Steve clicked the light on, and found Bucky standing with his hands around a half-full glass – he'd found the lemonade. “I didn't wake him up.”

“Thanks.” Steve filled a mug with water and put it in the microwave. Peggy and Falsworth would have had a thing to say about making tea that way, but it was after two a.m. and he needed sleep as soon as possible. “What was that about Hiro?”

“The kid,” Bucky went on. “He has nightmares.”

“I just heard him talking in his sleep.” Steve shook his head. “Came in too late, though. He's pretty quiet now.”

“Mm.” Bucky went quiet for a while, sipping at his glass of lemonade, and the two of them stood in companionable silence. Steve stopped the microwave before it beeped, took out the mug, dropped a teabag in, and set it back on the counter. When Bucky spoke again, his tone was matter-of-fact. “It was a nightmare. He went quiet at the end, but he was almost yelling. And crying. I would have woken him up, but I probably would have made it worse.”

“Thanks, Buck.” Steve checked the color of his tea. “I'll try and talk to him later if I can.” He glanced at his old friend's face, knowing that Bucky probably wouldn't have arrived at this hour and stayed this long for a social call. “Find anything good?”

“I've been looking for records. Just looking for names.”

“You could have woken me up, you know.”

“One of us should sleep.” Bucky shrugged.

Steve checked his tea and tried not to sigh. “What did you find?”

“I've been looking for their contacts,” Bucky explained, setting aside his own glass. “Not agents. Just... people they use. People who owe them. Could use your help tomorrow.”

The tea was as good as he was going to get it. Steve picked it up and sipped, savoring the calming affect of warm liquid in his stomach. “You're better at finding people like that than I am.”

“It's not that.” Bucky shook his head. “They're not agents. They're just... people. They're scared. I'm scary. Trust me, you'll help.”

“Well, when you put it like that... all right.” Steve nodded. “How long's it been since you slept?”

His friend hesitated. “I'm not tired yet.”

“How long, Buck?”

Another moment of reluctance, and then – “Forty-seven hours.”

Steve sipped his tea. “Stop here before you go out again. Get some rest.”

His friend shook his head. “It's not what it sounds like, Steve. I'm different from what I was. I stayed awake for twice that when I was-”

“You're not.” It came out more sharply than Steve intended, and he paused to drink more tea and try again. “You're not. You're not what you were back then.”

The silence stretched between them, and Bucky would not meet his eyes. His brow was furrowed, eyebrows knitted together in thought, before he finally looked up briefly and spoke again. “I'm not... what I was before then, either. I'm not, Steve.”

More tea, this time to drive back the painful tightness in his throat. “I know that. You've changed. I've changed, too.”

“Not as much.”

“You're my friend,” Steve informed him calmly. “That hasn't changed at all. That won't change.” He got Bucky to meet his eyes again, if only briefly. “Vita rays or no vita rays, we're still human. You need to sleep.”

Bucky was silent again, long enough for Steve to wonder if he was still being obstinate. Finally, he nodded. “I take the floor,” he said firmly.

“You get a pillow,” Steve retorted. “If I have to suffer with modern luxuries, the least you can do is share it.”

Something like a smile crossed Bucky's face. It was close enough for Steve to mentally shrug and call it one.


Hiro was dreaming of deafening sirens and ashes in his lungs when something wrenched him from the depths of a nightmare. He floundered into wakefulness with a start, to find his pillow vibrating underneath him. It took a brief moment of confusion for him to remember that he'd left his phone there.

Groping in a half-awake fog, he manage to retrieve it and fumble it up to his ear. “H-hello?” he whispered.

“Hello, Hiro.” And that was all it took. Two words in that voice, and the teeth-rattling hum of panic died. In the dark of early morning, eyes still wet from dreaming, Hiro managed a smile before murmuring back.

“Hi, Baymax.”

“It is currently six-fifteen a.m. in New York,” the robot continued. “I apologize for waking you.”

“No,” Hiro said quickly. He lay back down again, wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Don't – don't be. Don't be sorry for that. Thank you.”

“We are coming, Hiro,” Baymax informed him. “We expect to leave later today, or tomorrow at the latest.”

“I miss you.” In his grogginess it simply slipped out, but Hiro wasn't about to take it back.

“I would like to see you as soon as possible,” Baymax replied. “It is not good that you are alone.”

“Yeah.” Hiro's voice, still at a whisper, rasped dryly out of his throat. “Yeah, I know.”

“Please be careful, Hiro,” Baymax went on. “We are coming to get you.”

His throat closed, cutting off more words. Leftover nightmare fear rose up within him, along with the desperate want to go home. It was all Hiro could do just to shut his eyes, take a deep breath, and let it out again.

Hurry, guys.

 

Chapter Text

Abigail was growing accustomed to the pit of anxiety that had settled in her chest. It had started on the night of the attack, and it had only grown heavier with each passing hour, regardless of whether or not she could snatch up any sleep. The moments when she did were rare; half the time all she could do was tuck herself into an out-of-the-way corner and shut her eyes for appearances' sake. She doubted that she was fooling Natasha Romanov. The woman held her own among aliens and physically enhanced superheroes, after all.

Another pang struck her as the thought crossed her mind, forcing her to take a break to pace and stop her mind from racing so frantically in her skull.

Superheroes.

She had been rescued from the portal by superheroes. That had never been a secret to her; it was all over the papers, it was all over the relevant internet message boards, and it was about two-thirds of what journalists tended to ask her about. The Big Heroes had burst into existence on the scene of her father's attempt at murder and domestic terrorism, and their first order of business had been to drag her snoring comatose body out of that portal and back into the world of the ambulatory. She had read enough interviews (and been subjected to countless more) to know who she had to thank.

But now...

Now she knew exactly who she had to thank. Right down to first and last names.

She'd put it out of her mind over the past day or two since her epiphany, driving it back by throwing herself into helping with relief efforts. But now her brain was struggling against her, exhausting itself trying to wrap itself around the possibility – no, probability – that she owed her life to Tadashi Hamada's little brother, three times over.

How could she have missed it before? Everyone knew that Big Hero number one was a hair over five feet. Everyone knew there were six of them – one little one, one robot, two girls, two guys – had she really thought it was a coincidence, that the latter two were the same distribution as Tadashi Hamada's closest friends?

He'd been working on a robot, too, she remembered, thinking back to half-forgotten conversations from a lifetime ago. Health care robot. He was so excited. He showed her the designs, asked for her input

Was it the same robot as the hulking red one that flew with the little one clinging to its back? At this point Abigail wasn't putting much stock in skepticism.

Though, it was possible that she was wrong. It was possible that coincidences were coincidences, and that she was allowing the stress and confusion from the Expo to influence her. Her mind could be playing tricks on her.

After all, she'd been so sure that she had slept through her rescue and had seen nothing, but that did not account for the flashes in the back of her mind of Hiro's face staring down at her through the cracked glass of her pod. But the human memory was notoriously unreliable, so easily influenced any which way. Hiro and Fred had come between her and a gunman before shoving her out the door to safety, so what if – what if she was only projecting them onto what she already knew?

The image stuck with her, never leaving, never changing, and...

Well, if she had to put a number on it, she'd say she was about eighty-seven percent sure she was right.

And even without the remaining thirteen, what was she supposed to do with this? Should she do more research? Try to confirm or deny her suspicions?

Should she talk to them about it?

How would a conversation like that even start?

“Miss Callaghan?”

“Abigail,” she said automatically, and then blinked in surprise when she recognized the voice. “Oh – Mr. Krei.”

The businessman looked neat and crisp in a fresh suit, as primped and polished as if the attack on the Expo hadn't happened. His assistant stood by a few feet away, either marking something down on her clipboard or doodling. Abigail eyed her suspiciously, wondering if there was a shiv hidden in that pen. Her jacket looked well-fitted, but that didn't mean she wasn't well-armed; after seeing her floor a man with one twist of her arm, Abigail wasn't sure what to think of her.

Either way, the pair of them stuck out like sore thumbs in a shelter full of people either living out of their suitcases or relying on donations for changes of clothes.

“What, er, brings you?” she asked, stumbling a little over words.

“Concern, mostly,” Krei replied. “Are you all right? I haven't heard from a lot of acquaintances since the attack. I'm just... following up.”

“I'm – keeping busy,” Abigail replied. She nodded to the shelter around her. “Short on hands and supplies.”

Krei blinked, looking concerned. “I was afraid of that. That was another ulterior motive of mine – I have resources at my disposal, and I was hoping to put them to good use. Whatever you're short on here, I'll see what I can do.”

Abigail nodded, then cast about for a moment before spotting Natasha picking her way through the building with a hand to her ear. “Her,” she said, pointing. “Talk to Romanov. She's in charge. Of the shelters – not just here.”

“Excellent.” Krei signaled his assistant, who nodded and calmly strode after Natasha with her pen twirling between his fingers. Abigail expected the man to go with her, but Krei lingered. “Oh, and Abigail, a few more things, if you aren't too busy?”

“Yes?” Her head didn't hurt from chasing after words yet. As people went, Krei was easy to talk to. Maybe it was the familiarity from months of working with him before the accident, maybe it was his guilt making him careful, or maybe it was her own stubborn determination to prove that she didn't need his guilt. It wasn't something she was eager to over-analyze.

“Were you able to find them?” he asked. “Hiro Hamada and Fred Whitmore? You said that was why you stayed behind.”

Just the mention of them was enough to bring back the storm of thoughts. “Yes,” she managed to say. “And... yes.”

“They're all right then.” Krei looked visibly relieved. “Good, good... though, I didn't see them when I came in.”

Abigail shrugged. “Just me,” she said. “I... picked here.”

“Stark's putting them up, then?”

She shrugged again. “Yup. Not the Tower. Got attacked.”

“Ah, right.” Krei grimaced, looking sympathetic. “Rumors are true, then.”

“Not rumors anymore,” Abigail said with a shrug.

“I hope it's somewhere safe.” Krei breathed a short sigh. “Poor kid – that's another tech showcase gone wrong for him.”

Swallowing against the lump in her throat, Abigail nodded her agreement. “He'll be safe,” she said.

“I hope you're right,” he replied, smiling ruefully. “Brave boy – or foolhardy. Well, I don't need to tell you that. You've seen it yourself.”

Abigail caught her breath. The Expo, he was talking about Hiro and Fred coming to their rescue at the Expo. “I... guess. Need to thank them. When I can.”

“Why can't you now?”

“I...” I'm not even sure I know how to speak to them anymore. “Don't know where.”

“I see.” Krei blinked. “That's... odd. You were one of Stark's personal guests too, weren't you? You could certainly ask.”

She shrugged, suddenly wishing that this line of questioning would end. “I picked here,” she repeated.

“I apologize, I'm pressing – I didn't mean to. Just...” Krei met her eyes again briefly. “You aren't the only one hoping to express thanks. That's... well, they have a habit of being helpful at their own expense. Haven't you noticed?”

Abigail looked back at him, suddenly aware of the prickling sensation at the back of her neck. There were too many thoughts in her head; she could barely pick them apart, much less tease one out and find a way to express it with spoken words. For once she was glad of that.

Did he know?

It would make sense if he did; the same battle that had saved her life had saved his, too. And unlike her, he hadn't been trapped in the portal or unconscious for most of it. If anyone knew who the Big Heroes were, he would. In interviews he always brushed off questions like that, claiming that they were masked, that things moved so quickly, that there were gaps in his memory due to trauma, but what if...?

Abigail blinked back, hemming and hawing as if struggling to find words. She had too little information, and not enough time to gauge Krei properly on sight alone. All she knew was that his small talk was beginning to feel like he was fishing for information, and Abigail didn't trust her words enough to try to fish back.

Assume he knows something, she decided. Let him assume you don't.

“I-I guess?” she said finally. “Wouldn't know. Just – just started talking to them. And Hiro – you've known him. Longer.”

“That's true,” Krei conceded with a grin. “Well, I won't bother you any longer. And if you hear from them, or find a way to hear from them, could you... I don't know, pass it along? I owe them something of a debt now, and I'd like to repay it.”

Abigail smiled disarmingly. “Yes. I'll try. Goodbye.”

She waited until both he and his assistant had left before letting herself slump. As if she needed one more thing weighing on her mind. Did Krei ever have this effect on her before the accident? He'd always been full of himself, but for the life of her she couldn't remember finding his idle small talk so tiring.


“Gogo's getting impatient.”

Objectively, Honey supposed, that statement was true. Just like statements like “Wasabi is organized,” and “mixing bleach and ammonia in a room without proper ventilation is inadvisable.” The only way to keep Gogo from getting impatient would have been to hop into the van the moment they got the call that Hiro and Fred were alive, and floor the gas pedal until they reached New York. And even then, she probably would have complained about traffic.

As it was, a car trip across the country was not the kind of thing you could throw together within an hour. There were supplies to pack, professors to alert, and – in Cass Hamada's case – a cafe to get in order. She had called in an old favor with some cousin or a college friend or other – Honey forgot which. In any case, she would be away for at least a week, maybe two, and had someone to fill in for her in a pinch. But getting all of that together took time, far more time than Gogo had given herself to pack and get her school affairs in order.

“We're almost ready,” Honey said, for at least the dozenth time that day. Wasabi was double checking the supplies loaded into the back of the van. There were duffel bags and suitcases, of course, as well as a medicine case, first aid kit, emergency food, and anything else that might be necessary for a road trip. But they had slipped in other things, as well.

Their super suits, for one thing.

Even with the collapsibility that Hiro had designed into their tech, they had to be careful with how much space it took up. Hopefully, with Cass riding in the front, there was less of a chance that she would notice how packed the back of the van was. As it was, most of those things had been stuffed in suitcases or buried under the more innocuous supplies. Wasabi's van had a very spacious compartment under the floor, which was an absolute lifesaver for stowing away Baymax's armor in particular. The robot himself would be in the back, safe and stowed away in his case. That, at least, they wouldn't have to hide.

For now, the van was parked at Fred's – his parents were still away, apparently, and Heathcliff was more than willing to oblige them for secrecy's sake. If the butler was worried for Fred's wellbeing, he did an excellent job of hiding it. (Honey still gave him a hug, just in case.) At the moment, Gogo was burning off excess stress by taking her skates through the mansion's extensive backyard, while Honey and Wasabi went over the gear they had already packed

Wasabi was fidgeting. But as usual, he was disguising the fidgeting as something productive – in this case, checking on his plasma blades for the umpteenth time.

“We're sure we need these?” he said suddenly.

Honey, lost in thought, was only half-listening. “Hm?”

“The gear,” Wasabi went on. “I mean... we are only going to pick them up, right?” Honey looked at him, struck by the tension in his voice, and found him staring at her with wide-eyed anxiety. “Right?” he repeated.

“Right,” Honey answered. “Best case scenario. But...”

“It's only supposed to be a 'roadtrip',” Wasabi went on. “It's New York, not SF. It's not our town. We're civilians there. And here we are, armed to the teeth.”

“We don't have enough information,” Honey reminded him cautiously. “Communications are down, more or less. We know a bare minimum about who attacked Fred and Hiro, we don't know why this happened or whether or not it's going to keep happening, so... We're going in blind. We have to be prepared for anything.”

Wasabi didn't answer with words, but activated one of his blades again. “I just don't know if...” His voice trailed off.

For a moment Honey frowned at him, before scooting closer and cautiously reaching over to deactivate the blade for him. “Hey. C'mon, talk to me.”

“Letting them go on their own was a mistake.”

Honey shook her head. “Wasabi, we couldn't have known.”

“I know. But I still wish they hadn't gone.”

“Me, too.” Honey waited while he put away the blades again, and hugged him. “Hey, listen to me. They're okay, remember? And we're doing what we can.” She felt him hug her back, and continued. “We can't trust air space, so we're going by roads. We don't know what we're getting into, so we're prepared. We're going to pick them up, and take them home, and... we'll figure out where to go from there, okay?”

“I hope we don't need any of it,” Wasabi told her quietly.

“Me, too, Wasabi.” She pulled back, and they sat together in the back of the van while they waited for Gogo to finish blowing off steam.

“Hey, Honey?” Wasabi broke the silence first. “Remember when we were first making this stuff, and testing it out?”

“Of course.”

“Well there was this moment, where...” He paused. “It was after a successful test, with my blades. I went in for a high-five with Hiro, but I'd almost forgotten to turn the blades off.” Wasabi broke off, shaking his head as if warding off a bad mental image. “We both noticed in time, but... in less time than it takes to blink, I could've taken his hand off without even trying. And that was when we were standing around trying to high-five. But... in a fight?”

“Wasabi...”

“Not everyone has hordes of microbots to throw around,” Wasabi said tersely. “They could just be people, with guns and bombs, but... really nothing to stop these things from hurting them. It's not just that I'm afraid of getting killed, Honey. I could kill someone.”

“So could I,” Honey reminded him softly. “You know that, right? Right sequence of chemicals, and I could... I could throw mustard gas at someone. I could make a bomb myself, come to that.”

“It's not the same, though,” Wasabi insisted. “It's not the same, because you... you'd have to try. You'd have to think up the sequence of chemicals, and then press the right buttons, and then throw and not miss. But me? I could twitch my hand and... and sever someone's spine.” He shook his head again. “I dunno, Honey... sometimes I just look back and wonder what the hell I'm doing.”

Honey worried at her lower lip. Finally, she reached over and clasped his hand warmly. “Hey. Then it's good that it's you, you know that?”

“What?”

She turned to smile at him. “I mean, could you imagine Gogo working with those, or Fred, or Hiro? Or worse, me? Those lasers are yours, Wasabi. You made them. You know them, you know their limits, and you know your limits. And we've all seen you around the lab – no one cares more about safety than you. I don't think you'll hurt someone by accident. You care too much.”

He still looked uncertain, so she scooted closer until she was elbowing him gently in the side.

“And hey, if you're still worried, just stick by me. I'll spot you. If it comes to that. But for now...” She glanced up at him hopefully. “Let's just get our friends back, okay?”

After a moment, Wasabi finally let out a short sigh. “Okay. One thing at a time.”

Honey squeezed his hand. “We'll just have to take things as they come.”


Hiro's second day passed more easily, for all that he hadn't slept well.

Once again he was left to his own devices. There was less to occupy him now that he had fixed the most pressing technological issues in the place, but he took the liberty of further improving the apartment's Wi-Fi. When boredom inevitably set in, he turned his attention to his laptop and busied himself over the locked file.

All in all, it could have gone a lot worse. Even the long hours of silence were softened by calls and texts from his friends, from Aunt Cass, and from Baymax. Hearing their voices drove back the loneliness while he had the apartment to himself. A particularly well-timed text message from Honey was enough to stop him from hurling his laptop across the room over another failed attempt. Finally, around nine in the evening, Aunt Cass called to tell him that they were in the van and leaving SF. It made him feel better, a little.

But the file remained locked, and Fred was still missing. His suitcase and backpack lay untouched on the other side of the living room. Even with his friends and family keeping him company from the other side of the country, there was a blank space and plenty of room in it for worry and fear to creep in.

Hiro tried waiting up for Captain Rogers to return, hoping for news of Fred's condition, but his previous poor night's sleep caught up with him. At the least, he had the presence of mind to turn off his laptop before he drifted off on the couch.

He dreamed about fire.

Memories ran together. The fire was there, but he was inside the building, and it couldn't have been the fire at the Expo because it was everywhere, climbing the walls and roaring over everything within reach. It couldn't have been the Expo fire, because it was Tadashi's arm he was clinging to, not Fred's.

They had to get out. Everyone else was out, and they were alone, and Hiro shouted until the fire had dried his throat, but Tadashi. Wouldn't. Come.

Something fell, or something exploded. Hiro couldn't tell which, but it didn't matter because Fred was lunging close – no, Tadashi was lunging close – shielding him from the fire and the blast, and then his weight hung heavy in Hiro's arms and blood ran down his face but there was no one to catch them and carry them out. Hiro's fingers slipped but he held on and dragged until flames licked at them and he tried to scream, tried to call his brother's name, but no sound would come out.

and then they were running

They were both running, and Hiro's fingers were wet with blood but he clung to Tadashi's coat and didn't let go. He'd never let go, never again, but then they were outside and Tadashi's eyes were on him and the blood was gone but

Callaghan's still in there

He's not. He's not in there. Tadashi's arm jerked in his grip but Hiro clung on savagely, screaming it like a magic spell that would bring Tadashi back. He's not there. Don't go in. You can't. But Tadashi's eyes were wide and afraid and desperate, and he didn't know, it wasn't his fault, he couldn't have known, but no matter how Hiro screamed, he wouldn't listen.

Hiro tried to hold on, but Tadashi shook him until his teeth clacked together and Tadashi's arm slipped from Hiro's grasp. Someone has to help. No, no one has to help, he doesn't need your help, he's not worth helping. The building was bright – the Expo center, the auditorium, Krei's building crumbling under the portal – and Tadashi was a dark shadow against it turning around. Hiro grabbed desperately for his brother's hand.

He woke up with the taste of bile in his mouth and tears still wet on his face, and “Nii-san” tumbling hoarsely from his throat.

The room was dark and his vision was blurry, but he could see Steve Rogers standing over him, hand outstretched. Hiro was gripping his wrist like a vice.

Tears spilled, clearing his vision enough for him to see the shock on Rogers' face, and Hiro let go as if touching him burned. Mortified, he threw himself backward against the couch pillow. “S-sorry!” His voice wobbled and cracked uncontrollably. Frantic, he sat up and rubbed at his wet face with the heel of his hand. “I'm sorry, I didn't- I didn't mean to-” The light clicked on. Rogers had moved away to turn on the nearest lamp, and Hiro stared up at him feeling even more exposed than before. He tried to find his voice again, to come up with some kind of explanation, but humiliation kept his tongue behind his teeth and dragged his eyes to the floor.

“Do you drink tea?”

The question startled him into looking up. “W-what?”

Rogers offered him a lopsided grin. “I'd offer you coffee or cocoa, but the idea is for you to go back to sleep at some point. Chamomile okay?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess.” Hiro crossed his legs under him, trying not to fidget. Nodding, Rogers moved off into the hall. Hiro could see the light on from the kitchen, and sat back as his mind woke up further. He checked the clock; it was three in the morning.

He felt stupid. Third night in Captain America's apartment, and he had to wake up screaming and crying and grabbing his arm. Angrily he wiped his eyes again and forced back the sick feeling in his stomach. He'd been humiliated enough already; the last thing he needed to do now was throw up, too.

When Captain Rogers returned with two mugs, Hiro avoided his eyes but took the mug that was offered. Rather than drink it immediately, he let it sit and toyed with the teabag string. Rogers carefully sat next to him. “Checked in with the hospital,” he said. “Your friend woke up a couple of times yesterday. Briefly, but it's a good sign. He'll be out soon.” He was dressed down, in jeans and a white sweatshirt with the words “World War 2 Veteran” and a little American flag on it. He couldn't have looked less like a superhero if he was wearing a sundress.

“That's good,” Hiro replied, not sure what else to say. Understatement of the year, right there. If Rogers noticed him sneaking glances, he didn't comment on it. He just blew gently on his mug and sipped. Hiro looked away and tasted his own tea. He was used to chamomile; Aunt Cass always made it when he was sick.

“Want to talk about it?”

Hiro didn't answer, but he couldn't help shrinking a little. Rogers would probably get the idea.

“That's all right,” Rogers assured him, and Hiro hoped his relief wasn't too obvious. “It is all right – you know that, don't you?” He waited briefly for an answer before going on. “I know it's embarrassing. But you don't have to apologize for it. I understand. Trust me, I do.”

His throat felt thick – the feeling that told Hiro that if he tried to speak, he would start crying. So instead, he nodded wordlessly.

“Especially after what you went through, back there,” Rogers went on quietly. “That's the kind of thing that sticks with you.”

Not for you, I bet. Hiro couldn't help looking up at him skeptically. Rather than be offended, the captain cracked a rueful grin.

“I know – you must be thinking, 'How's he know what it's like? That was probably an average Tuesday.' Well...” He hesitated, sitting back on the couch. “Yes and no. I may face things like this a lot, but I still have dreams about fights I was in seventy years ago.” He looked back, and Hiro finally managed to hold his gaze for more than two seconds. “They say it gets easier, and maybe it does, but that doesn't mean I don't remember what it was like before. Two days ago, you were in a dangerous and terrifying situation. You don't have to be ashamed when it bothers you.”

“That wasn't-” The words slipped out before Hiro could stop them, and by the time he thought to take them back, Captain Rogers was already looking at him expectantly. “- exactly what I was... um.” He let it trail off there. It wasn't like he had to go into detail or anything.

Rogers paused to drink his tea again, and Hiro was just beginning to think he was off the hook when the quiet question came.

“What's his name?”

Hiro jumped, almost spilling tea over the edge of the mug. He drank it down a little, partly to buy time and partly to avoid making that mistake again.

“Your brother,” Rogers went on. He was still being quiet and cautious, like Hiro was a bird he was trying not to startle.

“How'd you-” Hiro began, before remembering that the auditorium fire had been in the news, and even if it hadn't, this was Captain America who hung out with super-spies and government agents, so there were probably plenty of ways he could have found that out.

“You were calling for him,” Rogers answered, surprising him. “When you woke up. You said 'nii-san', right?” At Hiro's startled look, he grinned. “Jim Morita – friend of mine from the Commandos. Nisei, bilingual – I picked up a little from him.”

“Oh.” Hiro blinked, shifted in his seat again, and took another sip. “...Tadashi.” He could almost predict the awkward line of questions that would lead to the inevitable. “There was a fire, and... yeah.” He shook his head. “It was months ago, like six or seven months, and I just...”

“Still not that long,” Rogers replied.

“Sure feels like it,” Hiro muttered. When Rogers didn't press further or ask any of the usual awkward questions, Hiro suppressed another sigh of relief. It was... kind of nice, actually. Not getting showered with sympathy or anecdotal comparisons or people trying their best to understand. And maybe that was why Rogers was so calm about it – because he did understand.

He'd lost seventy years. The Commandos hadn't followed him through that time skip. Hydra had, though, and Hiro had to take a moment to marvel at how unfair that was.

“What was that like?” he asked, before he could chicken out.

“What was... what like?”

Hiro hesitated, regretting his outburst. For one thing, the question on the tip of his tongue was sort of a personal one, and for another, he wasn't sure if this was the kind of thing one would normally ask. But damn, did curiosity burn. “Finding Hydra again,” he said cautiously. “After you beat them once.”

Captain Rogers looked away, and Hiro almost took back the question right then and there. Before he could backtrack, though, Rogers was already clearing his throat. “Felt like a nightmare,” he admitted. “I made a lot of sacrifices, fighting them the first time, for the sake of – of bringing them down, permanently. Finding Hydra again was like... like being told that everything I lost was for nothing. The silver lining wasn't real.”

Hiro tried to wrap his head around that. What if Callaghan escaped prison and started wreaking havoc again? Would that be a nightmare like Rogers described?

No, he decided. For one thing, he hadn't lost anything bringing Callaghan down; Baymax didn't count because he'd kept the chip and rebuilt him. It would be awful to have to deal with Callaghan again, but Callaghan had never been anything more than one bitter, angry, vengeful man. He wanted revenge, not world domination. And besides, even if he did escape prison, he had no reason to hurt anyone anymore. Abigail was alive, and he had never meant to hurt anyone but Krei.

Not even Tadashi.

I haven't been in this long enough, he decided. I don't have anything like Hydra. I wouldn't know what to do with something like Hydra. His brow furrowed, and he thought of the Lerna company and the faceless whistleblower's locked file that he still couldn't hack.

“You'll get 'em,” he said finally. “You've still got people.”

Captain Rogers gave him a wan smile. “So do they.”

“Meh. You've got better people.” The sick feeling had gone, and Hiro sipped appreciatively from his mug. “Thanks for the tea.”

And you never know. Maybe, if Captain America's war with Hydra stretched long enough for Hiro to learn a little more about the hero business, the Big Heroes might join that fight themselves.

 

Chapter Text

When Fred woke up, the world returned to him slowly. Sterile white sheets. A white hospital gown. A white ceiling. Everything was white, except for a single splodge of darkness at his side. He blinked, focusing his eyes like turning knobs on a microscope, and found his father sitting at his bedside, crisply dressed as always, with a patient look on his face.

Not the face Fred had been expecting to see, that was for sure.

They regarded each other for a moment, Fred silent and vaguely confused, before his father broke the silence.

“Morning, kiddo.”

It took a few tries for his voice to come back to him. “Hey, dad.”

“Nice mess you got yourself in, huh.”

Fred blinked, spending one more split second in blissful dazed confusion before memories of the Expo came rushing back. Explosions, gunfire, actual fire – people screaming and running – Iron Man's there, the Hulk's there – this would be so cool if it wasn't so terrifying and Hiro wasn't bleeding–

“Where's Hiro?”

“Safe for now,” Stanley Whitmore told him. He didn't say it like a reassurance, just a stated fact. Fred was half sure that if Hiro had died, his father would have said so in the exact same tone of voice. “As are you. This room's secure on... several levels. So.” His expression barely changed – no worry, no anger, nothing but businesslike calm. “That surprise meant for you or for Iron Man?”

Fred blinked, struggling to get his brain back into focus. “You mean – those guys who hit the Expo? I-it'd be Tony, wouldn't it?” Unless...

“Are you asking me or answering me?”

“I'm... not a hundred percent sure yet.” Fred folded his hands. “They hit Stark Expo and focused on Iron Man and the Hulk, so probably Tony. But...” He swallowed nervously. “There is something we've been working on lately, they could be after us, or I could just be paranoid.”

“Don't write off paranoia, son. Paranoia's half the reason I'm still alive. And remember – Stark and Banner were the scariest things in the room at the time, so of course they'd be focusing on them. Think – when they attacked, were they after you?”
“I'm not sure. It was hard to say what they were after-” Fred stopped short.

“Yes?” his father prompted. “Whatever it is you just thought, don't write it off. Say it out loud.”

“Abigail. Alistair Krei too, sort of, but they definitely tried to grab Abigail.” He looked to his father again. “Is she okay?”

His father nodded. “I'll advise Stark to assign her the proper security detail. Anything else you'd like to add?”

Fred hesitated, mulling over the question. Should he brief Dad on the Big Heroes' current mission? Was it relevant? It might not be, but... “Hope Hospital,” he said at length. “That's what we're working on.” He could leave it at that.

Another nod, this one faintly approving. “Good.”

Silence stretched between them for a few moments, or maybe a few minutes – in his freshly wakened state, Fred wasn't sure about the passage of time. Finally, he bit the bullet and asked the second most pressing question. “Did you tell Tony about... uh, me? Us?”

“I did not.” His father's eyes softened a little. “That's not my business. You're the heroes here, not me.”

“But you are-”

“I was. I'm out of the game, kiddo.” His father shook his head. “There are good reasons that I'm out of the game. I had a good run, but when I retired I made the choice to step back. I play the consultant game, but no more than that. No meddling but handing out advice. I have too much of a life in the mundane world to force myself back, even if I wanted to.”

“You don't want to?”

The senior Whitmore looked surprised by the question, as if he hadn't considered it. “You know, I don't think I do. I know – that must be strange to you, not wanting to return to that life.”

Fred's mind forced him back to the Expo and the attack and Hiro's frozen face as he stared at the spreading fire. “Maybe... not so strange,” he murmured.

“But what I want doesn't matter,” his father went on. “It's not about the fun and glory of it, not like it used to be for me. It's about what's best. And what's best for me is to leave the world in the hands of the young, and protect them as much as I can. So no, I did not reveal you to Iron Man. That's for you to do, if you want. Besides-” A grim look crossed his face. “That would've weakened the best weapon you have. And something tells me you're going to need it.”

“But my suit's back in California-”

“Not the weapon I was talking about, kiddo.”

“Then what-” His father gave him a look, and Fred broke off as he realized what he meant. Right. The figurative kind of weapon, not the literal kind. “...Oh. Right. That.”

“Use it, Fred. You know it best.” With a grunt, his father lifted himself out of the chair.

“Okay. Uh, where are you going now?”

“I'm gonna go give Tony Stark another reaming,” his father said matter-of-factly.

“It wasn't his fault-” Fred started to protest.

“He's under the impression that you're a wide-eyed fanboy normal and I'm your paranoid retired-superhero dad,” Stanley Whitmore interrupted. “He might get suspicious if I don't tear him a few new ones. I know it's not his fault – you stuck around to help instead of evacuating, didn't you?”

Fred shrugged, embarrassed. “Someone had to.”

“I know. And it's how I know I'm leaving my job in good hands.” He rested his hand on Fred's shoulder, making him look up. “Close one this time, kiddo. Glad you came out in one piece.”

“Thanks, Dad.” Fred grinned. “Uh... is Mom okay?”

“Little frazzled, and stuck in California. She always was better at PR than me. She'll call.” He squeezed Fred's shoulder lightly. “Take good risks. Use what you have. Don't let your back go unwatched.”

Fred nodded once. “Got it.”

With one last look at him, his father turned and left the room.


Fred fell asleep again shortly afterward, and awoke three hours later to find that it was eight in the morning and, aside from a handful of minute-long snatches of wakefulness, he had been asleep for two days. The one who drew the short straw in the “who gets to break this to Fred” contest was Pepper, apparently. Or, since she was the one picking him up, she got saddled with that job automatically. Fred was impatient, which was a problem when the hospital was insistent that he stay in a wheelchair until he was out in the parking lot. He barely waited for permission from the nurse pushing the chair before climbing out. At least Pepper had brought him fresh clothes.

“It's a bit of a rush,” Pepper admitted as she saw him into the passenger seat of the car. “Normally the hospital would have kept you a little longer on observation, but... well, people are skittish. People including Tony, and your father. After what happened, we want you somewhere secure.” As she spoke, she got in and started the car.

“Uh, no offense, Pepper.” Fred buckled his seatbelt and fidgeted. “But I don't think you're rushing enough. Is Hiro okay?”

“He was out of the hospital the first night,” Pepper told him as she pulled out of the hospital parking lot. “He's safe.”

“That's uh... not what I asked. Is he okay?”

Pepper sighed a little – a sympathy sigh, not an annoyed or stressed one. She kept her eyes on the road for the most part, but glanced at him briefly as if to let him know that her mind was on what he was saying. “I haven't had the chance to check in on him since I dropped him off. Steve says he's settled in all right, though. Some trouble sleeping, but he's fixed half the appliances in the apartment, so apparently there's nothing wrong with that brain of his.”

Fred sat back, trying to calm down. It wasn't easy; he was stiff and uncomfortable, and his stitches itched. He was lucky; flying shrapnel could be deadly on the best of days, but he'd gotten off without anything life-threatening. The worst was the gash on his head, and the piece of glass in his shoulder that had missed an artery by that much... but he was okay. It could have been worse. He could have had a hole punched in one of his organs or something. People always talked about how things were deadlier in real life than they were on TV, but here he was getting out of a freaking terrorist attack with a few stitches and some prescribed pain meds.

He distracted himself by looking out the window, and let himself snicker a little at a car in the next lane. It was a lovely, very polished and glossy black Mercedes, with a large white dribble of bird crap down the driver's side window. Fred couldn't decide whether to laugh or feel sorry for the guy. Either way, it was a welcome distraction to the clutter in his brain right now. To think, not only did he owe his life to Captain America, he was going to stay in the guy's apartment for as long as he and Hiro were stuck in New York. It would have been so cool if he wasn't so retroactively terrified.

He really, really hoped Hiro was okay.

Restlessly he drummed an irregular rhythm in his lap and was about to slip into a daydream when he sat up. “Wait a sec,” he said quickly. “Hey Pepper, could we make a quick stop? Before we get there? Nothing fancy, just like a convenience store or something. I'll be in and out.”

She looked confused, until he told her what he wanted to pick up. Then, with a grin, she turned off to find a grocery store.

“In and out” still took time. The line at the register, however brief, didn't help. By the time they reached the apartment complex, Fred's impatience was boiling over. In the relative safety of the parking lot he opened the door before the car had stopped moving, prompting Pepper to gently hold on to his uninjured arm to keep him from jumping out. “Fred no – be careful.” She glared at him disapprovingly as she finished parking one-handed. “You're not quite healed all the way. You need to take it easy, all right?”

“Yeah, right, got it.” He shrugged. “Sorry. I just...”

Pepper gave him another sympathetic look as she released him. “I'll take you up to the door – come on.”

Restlessly he followed her from the parking lot. His father's advice came back to him, and he glanced over either shoulder. No one seemed to be following them. He thought he recognized a black car that went by on the street, but it didn't even slow as it passed the complex and moved on. With a shrug, Fred focused on following Pepper.

It took all his self control to keep from sighing audibly with relief when Pepper finally stopped at the right door. As he watched, mildly interested, she unlocked a panel above the doorknob and punched in a code and her thumb print before the lock clicked. He glanced around at the otherwise drab and uninteresting apartments. A lock like that here was like finding an iPhone in an old-west telegraph office.

“I'm all right from here,” he murmured. “All my stuff's already here, right?”

“Yeah.” She rested her hand briefly on his good shoulder. “Are you sure you don't want me to help you settle in?”

“Nah, I know you guys are busy.” Fred grinned. “I got this, Pepper, no worries.”

“Okay. You know my number – if you need anything, just call.” She opened the door for him. “It'll lock behind you on its own.”

With one last goodbye, Fred stepped into Steve Rogers' apartment and let the door click softly behind him.

Quietly Fred toed off his shoes and stepped into the carpeted living room. From here he had a view of the back of the couch, a couple of armchairs across from it, and a single large window at the far wall with the blinds drawn. There was no door between the living room and the entrance to the hall, which bent out of sight beyond a few yards and a couple more rooms. Not a bad place – bigger than Honey Lemon's apartment, that was for sure.

Fred frowned. The front door had opened and closed, and he hadn't thought to lower his voice, and yet the apartment was as quiet as if it was empty. All the noise he and Pepper had made, and no one was bothering to check. Hiro was here, wasn't he?

Carefully he stepped further into the living room, opened his mouth to call out –

–and snapped his mouth shut before he could get a sound out. His steps had taken him close enough to the couch to see over the back of it. A small form huddled under a rumpled blanket, curled up on the couch, with only a scruffy mess of black hair visible to the outside world. Aside from the steady rise and fall of breathing, the blanket barely moved.

In spite of himself, Fred grinned. The knot in his chest loosened. Of course the kid would still be asleep – it was barely nine a.m., and Fred could sleep in until three in the afternoon on lazy days.

Better not wake him up.

Silently Fred crept across the room to the window and nudged the blinds to chance a peek out. It probably wasn't a smart move – peeking out the windows was usually how they got you in spy movies. Still, Dad had said to take good risks and watch his back. Might as well see what kind of view the window had, just in case.

If Fred was any judge, the view was excellent. Not because it was breathtakingly pretty or anything; it was a pretty normal second-floor view of a sort of blah area of New York. On the other hand, said blah area happened to encompass the full parking lot, the street that ran along the apartment complex, and the avenue that crossed over said street at the corner. Fred shaded his eyes against the glare as he spotted a car pulling in.

Black again.

That wasn't a Mercedes, was it?

Fred's paranoid side wondered if there was dried bird poop on the driver's side window. He squinted, trying to see, but the distance made it impossible to tell even before the car turned to the wrong side. Before Fred could frustrate himself further waiting to see if it turned again, the couch behind him creaked and Hiro stirred. Startled, Fred glanced over his shoulder.

Hiro was on his side, half-raised on one elbow as he blinked blearily at Fred from beneath his bedhead. The urge to laugh arrived and left so abruptly that Fred had to suppress an awkward cough. The silence stretched between them as they stared at each other, Hiro gradually waking up with each passing second.

“Uh, h-hey,” Fred said finally, unable to take the silence any longer. He felt embarrassed and uneasy, as if he'd been caught somewhere he wasn't supposed to be. He'd been so focused on checking up on Hiro that he'd completely forgotten that they hadn't exactly been on the best of terms before the Expo. They'd had words, they'd pushed the one button that should never be touched, and they'd avoided each other for more than an entire day after that. It left Fred mentally flailing as he tried to figure out where that put them now.

Separation and a near-death experience didn't automatically mean a hard reset back to how things used to be.

Over the length of the awkward silence, Hiro had slowly sat up and slid his feet off the couch. He didn't look Fred in the eye for very long, which absolutely did not help Fred's growing anxiety. He was about fifteen seconds away from blurting out something along the lines of “Hey, remember that time I threw your brother in your face to make a point? That wasn't cool of me, can we pretend that never happened?” Fred fidgeted, before finally moving forward to the coffee table and tossing down the bag he had bought when Pepper stopped. “Brought gummy bears, by the way. So uh... how're you holding up?”

Without a word, Hiro got up from the couch, skirted the coffee table, and did not slow down or stop walking until he had crossed the room and hugged Fred around the middle.

Fred froze in place, briefly too bewildered to react. The moment passed; the relief, joy, and retroactive terror cascaded through him all at once, and his entire brain shrugged its metaphorical shoulders and screamed “whatever” to the heavens. If he had broken the sound barrier with his arms, he still couldn't have hugged back fast enough.

“Are you okay?” he asked. He felt Hiro nod against his shoulder, and tried to swallow the ache in his chest that threatened tears. His throat bobbed, and he forced himself to talk. “Look – that thing I said. A-about your brother – that was-”

“You're not him.”

At first it was almost too muffled for Fred to hear, until he mentally picked the sounds apart, put the meaning together, and gritted his teeth against the stabbing feeling in his gut that had nothing to do with shrapnel injuries. Like he needed Hiro to tell him that-

Hiro's voice shook, but he pressed on. “You're not him, okay? And you don't – you don't have to be, you're just as good, you-” He paused, and Fred tried to suck in a shaky breath quietly in the silence. Hiro pulled back, still hiding behind his bangs. “You're as good as, and I can't lose anyone else. So just...”

“You haven't.” Fred tried to wipe at his eyes quickly, but with Hiro's hair mostly hiding his eyes, it was impossible to tell if it was quick enough. “I mean – are we cool?”

Hiro looked up and managed a shaky grin. “Yeah. We're cool. Long as you don't tell the others about... uh, this.”

“Lips are sealed.”

“And...” Hiro frowned, eyes darting a little.

That wasn't worrying at all. “Uh... yeah?”

“At the Expo, you – how much do you remember?”

“Um... most of it,” Fred answered cautiously. “Up til I blacked out, I guess. Why?”

“That last explosion,” Hiro went on. “There was a lot going on, and we were running and stuff, but right when it happened, I thought...” He broke off again, not looking Fred in the eye. “You were between me and that explosion, and almost none of that shrapnel actually hit me. Did you – I mean was that on purpose?”

Fred's mouth went dry.

It hadn't been a conscious decision. It really hadn't been. He'd been running, and then the stage had exploded again, and he'd acted. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. No thought had crossed his mind, no command had gone from his brain to his body. Boom, dive for Hiro, and then nothing. Did it count as “on purpose” when his body had moved on its own?

“N-nah,” he said finally. “Freaked out at the big kaboom, must've tripped. Lucky accident, though. I'm glad nothing hit you-”

I'm not,” Hiro blurted, only to shake his head quickly. “I mean, yeah I'm glad I didn't get hurt worse than I did, but I wouldn't call it... lucky.” A look of distaste crossed his face for a moment, and he shook himself as if ridding his mind of an unpleasant image. “And just so we're clear, for future reference, if you ever thinking about doing something like that, don't.”

“S-sure thing.” Fred tried not to feel too guilty. He'd already told him one white lie. What was one more? He was afraid that it showed on his face, so he hurriedly changed the subject. “So uh... what've you been doing here lately?”

Hiro stepped back and heaved a sigh, dragging his hands down his face as if wiping his expression away to start fresh. “Trying to keep busy, but... mostly just sitting around trying not to go stir-crazy. C'mon, there's some stuff I need to fill you in on. You hungry?”

“Feels like I haven't eaten in days,” Fred said idly. “I mean, I haven't, but...”

Hiro snickered quietly and retrieved his laptop from the coffee table. It was strange – the last time Fred had heard him laugh had been at Coney Island – even the Expo's opening ceremony had been too loud for him to tell Hiro's voice from all the others. Either way, it felt like a lifetime ago. “C'mon, there's sandwich stuff in the kitchen. We can call the guys, too – they'll want to know you're okay.”

Fred surprised himself by balking. “Uh... how about not yet, huh?” For some reason the thought of talking to everyone made his brain feel all spinny. “Later. My head's in kind of a weird place, and I'm not sure I can take it just yet.”

“I get you, it's cool.”

As Fred followed Hiro into the kitchen, he felt himself relax at last. The two of them busied themselves with the contents of Steve Freaking Rogers' fridge. Fred built himself an impressive double-decker sandwich with as many fixings as he could find. Mustard, pickle relish, and spicy ranch dressing were involved, and Hiro was a third of the way through eating his own sandwich by the time Fred joined him at the table. He could feel Hiro watching him wide-eyed over his much more modest creation, and spent a moment studying his sandwich for the best place to start. Somehow, Fred managed to fit his mouth around it, and felt the rest of his troubles melt away. He was no Heathcliff, but the sandwich tasted like heaven.

When the first couple of bites were swallowed, Fred spoke. “So, what have I missed?”

With a sigh, Hiro nudged his open laptop to the side. “Captain Rogers told me who hit the Expo, I dunno if they told you. It was Hydra.” He frowned. “And we're stuck here, 'cause they also tried to hit an airport, so air space is closed until they sort this out. Abigail's safe – she's at one of the shelters they put up for travelers and airplane passengers stuck in New York. The guys are on their way, plus Aunt Cass – they don't want to wait around for the airplanes to get back up and running, so they're coming in the van. Beyond that it's pretty isolated in here, Rogers is in and out, and I still can't open this stupid file.” He glanced up at Fred. “How about you?”

Fred swallowed before answering carefully, “Saw my dad.”

Hiro's eyes widened. “At the hospital?”

He nodded. “I didn't even know he was in New York, but I guess if Hydra's getting uppity he would want to poke around.”

“Does he know anything about it?”

“For now, I'm not sure.” Fred shrugged. “I think he mainly wanted to make sure I was okay, which was pretty cool. But also - I was talking to him, and he made me realize something.” As quickly as he could, he gave Hiro a run-down of his conversation with his father before diving into his sandwich again.

“But... what would Hydra want with Abigail?” Hiro asked, half to himself like he was mulling the question over instead of inviting an answer from Fred.

Fred threw a few out anyway. “Well, she worked with Alistair Krei, who's basically a slightly-less-rich man's Tony Stark. And she survived in that portal for months, they might be interested in that. Her dad went on a pretty high-profile supervillain rampage.” He shrugged. “Plus she's a pretty good science geek on her own. Maybe Hydra wanted to kidnap her and force her to build superweapons or something.”

“Were they grabbing Krei, too?” Hiro frowned at his laptop screen. “Or were they knocking him aside for trying to stop them from taking Abigail?”

“Hard to say,” Fred said with a shrug. “We'd have to ask him, and I'm sure they've probably hit him up about that already. He is a witness.”

“Well, so am I,” Hiro pointed out. “So are you. No one's asked you anything aside from your dad, and everyone's been walking on eggshells with me.”

Fred hummed thoughtfully, remembering Dad's parting advice. “That's the thing, though,” he murmured. “Dad asked me because he knows where my head was at. No one else does. We're not superheroes to them – we're not even tech tycoons like Krei. We're just a couple college kids who scored front-row tickets and ran out of luck. Aside from keeping us safe, we're low on their lists. No one's looking at us.” He raised an eyebrow at Hiro. “I'd call that an advantage, wouldn't you?”

“Definitely.” Hiro flashed a grin at him. “How do you think I scored so high hustling botfighters? Glad you know that trick – you've always been more for being flashy.”

“Hey, I can embrace the low profile,” Fred said. “That's... pretty much how I survived high school with my sanity intact.”

“Well, it's something to keep in mind, anyway.” Hiro went on, his fingers clacking over his laptop keys. “I'm pretty sure Natasha freaking Romanov is overseeing those shelters, so Abigail's probably okay in terms of safety.”

“If she's not, Dad says he's gonna tell them to keep an extra-close eye on her,” Fred told him. “So for now we sit tight and take care of our own stuff.”

“Hm.” Hiro nodded agreement, and the two of them lapsed into silence, broken only by the sounds of chewing and the keyboard. Fred took a cursory glance around for anything resembling a napkin, and settled for tearing off a paper towel to wipe his mouth. He watched Hiro work in what he hoped was a tactful way, noting the little signs of frustration in his friend's face.

Finally, when his sandwich was gone, he spoke again. “So how's that coming?”

“Slow,” Hiro said tersely. “Really slow. I'm seriously getting pissed off.”

“That hard, huh.”

“If I had a way to contact the guy, I'd yell at him,” Hiro gritted out.

Fred made a noncommittal noise, not sure how to respond. This wasn't really his area.

“I wish Tadashi was here.”

Fred was glad he'd finished eating – he might have choked otherwise. “I know,” he said quietly. “Me too.”

Pausing, Hiro ran his hands through his hair as if calming himself down. “It's not just that I miss him,” he went on, his voice muffled. “But... he was really good at this. Coding and stuff. Computers. Programming. He put all of Baymax in a chip – no shortcuts like me, he put it all together, one close-parenthesis at a time.” He stared at the screen with something like desperation in his eyes. “He'd've had this open the day we got it.”

“You don't know that,” Fred said quietly. Hiro looked at him, and he hesitated, remembering what happened the last time he'd brought up Tadashi. Just the thought of it had him tiptoeing around the subject like a hobbit in a dragon cave. “I mean... you make it sound like he did everything right on the first try. He didn't. He made mistakes and got frustrated – you know that, you saw those recordings, didn't you? Well... I saw it up close. Tried to help, too, and he... well...” His voice trailed off. “Never mind.” Hiro was still watching him, frowning. Afraid he might press for more details, Fred shook his head. “But the point is-”

“I know. I know.” Hiro rubbed his nose. “I get what you're saying. But I'm still better at just... building. Mechanical stuff. Tadashi made an AI. He made a – a person. I don't know if I could do something like that. Not by myself.”

You're not by yourself, Fred wanted to say. You've got me, right? But he wasn't Tadashi; he was Fred, and this wasn't one of those problems that Fred could solve in Tadashi's place.

Something nagged at him, in the back of his mind, something small but important – something about a car. But he'd gone too long without thinking about it, and it danced out of his reach, just like the answers to all of Hiro's problems.

 

Chapter Text

“Are you two doing all right, all by yourselves?” Honey asked again. “When did you get in?”

“Little while ago,” Fred answered, which wasn't technically lying. If it was evening, then morning still counted as just a “little while”, didn't it? A “little while” was subjective.

“Are you sure you're okay?” Even over the phone Honey's tone sounded heavy, and Fred couldn't help but cringe. This was why he'd put off calling them, distracting himself with exploring the apartment and taking advantage of the surprisingly fast internet, until guilt had finally eaten its way through his funk, and his conscience had won out. And now here he was, crosslegged on the couch, getting passed from person to person and assuring each of them that he hadn't gone and died on them.

Hearing them sound so exhausted and worried over the phone brought back memories that he wished he could forget.

“Absitively posolutely,” he chirped back. “Just waiting on you guys. No rush, though - I just got here. Heck, I haven't even met Steve Rogers yet.”

“Yes you have,” Hiro said without looking up from the laptop.

“Saying three words and staring at his butt doesn't count,” Fred said matter-of-factly.

Honey piped up again in Fred's ear, her tired voice finally lifting with amused interest. “You never said you were staring at Steve Rogers'-”

Fred made a show of sniffing haughtily, hoping she could hear it over the phone.“Do not judge me, Rosales, I know you and I know you'd do the same.”

His friend giggled. “Well, you sound fine. I'm glad.”

“Wish I could say the same for you,” Fred admitted. “You sound exhausted.”

“Not everyone can sleep anywhere like you, Fred,” she said. “Takes some getting used to.”

“Motel beds aren't cutting it for you, huh.”

“Oh, well...” Honey's voice trailed off sheepishly.

“Well what?”

“We've... decided not to stop,” she went on. “We're sleeping in shifts. Taking turns driving. It's mostly Wasabi and Cass, but I'll probably take a turn at some point. Gogo's still banned.”

“Are you sure that's a good idea?” Fred frowned, his brow furrowing.

“We're careful,” Honey assured him. “Plus, Gogo did some tinkering, and we found a way to plug Baymax into the car's stereo. So, no one drives alone with everyone else asleep in the car. It's mainly useful because it would get so cramped if we activated him in here. I wish we could, though – he could monitor us and make sure no one's about to fall asleep at the wheel... well, I'm getting off track. Oh – and Gogo wants to talk to you. I'm going to hand you off, okay?”

“Sure. Bye, Honey.”

“Glad you're okay, Fred.”

Moments later, Gogo's gruff “Hey,” greeted him. “Still alive, then?”

“Too bad for you,” Fred teased. “Try not to sound too disappointed, you'll hurt my feelings.”

“Yeah-yeah-yeah listen. Got a question for you.” Gogo hesitated. “Uh... remember that time we video-called you like, over a week ago? After you first got there.”

“Uh, yeah? What about it?”

“Remember that thing thing I told you to do? About the traffic?”

For a few moments, Fred had no idea what she was talking about. He wracked his brain, trying to remember what was said during that call, what Gogo specifically had said. What had she told him to do?

All at once, it came to him: And Fred, make sure the professor here doesn't wander into traffic. She'd been in front of Cass at the time, so she hadn't been able to specify, but the message had gotten through – watch out for Hiro, make sure you guys don't die on each other's watch.

“Oh,” he said at length. “Yeah... that.”

“Is that what happened?”

He read between the lines. Gogo was being vague again while the others and Cass especially were in the car, but he got the gist of it. Did you get hurt protecting Hiro's back?

Instinctively Fred shot a split-second look at Hiro, remembering his earlier white lie. “It's a long story,” he said slowly, stepping cautiously around specifics while Hiro was in earshot. “But... yeah. Sorta yeah.”

Gogo was silent on the other end for too long.

“Look, before you get mad-”

“No, that's not it,” Gogo broke in. “It's not – I'm not. Don't worry. I just wanted confirmation, 'cause... well, I kind of figured.”

Fred pursed his lips into an almost-smile. “Really?”

“Pretty much,” Gogo said roughly. “I mean, I know...” Fred shut his eyes as Gogo faltered. “I know you, Fred,” she finished lamely. “I know.”

“Yeah.” Fred coughed, trying to cut off the painful pressure in his throat before it started. They were welling up again, all those little feelings from a little more than half a year ago, and if he didn't get a handle on them he was going to overflow. “Me too.”

“Be careful,” Gogo growled. “At the pace we're going, we'll get there in a couple of days. Be – be paranoid, if that's what it takes. Just let us get there, okay?”

“Of course.” The conversation was getting a little heavy for his taste. Fred tried grinning, even if Gogo couldn't see it. “I mean hey, we're staying with Captain America, remember? What's-”

“Fred so help me if you ask me what's the worst thing that can happen, I will find a way to reach through this phone and punch you in the face.”

“Noted. Sorry. Stupid of me.” Fred winced. Really, he should have known better without Gogo having to tell him. “We're not taking any chances, don't wor-”

Hiro shrieked.

It was a bizarre sound. Hiro's voice was still struggling through that weird puberty shift where it couldn't decide between soprano and tenor, so it vacillated between the two at inopportune moments. The result was a crackly, grating yell that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a baby Nazgul. The phone jumped from Fred's hands, and he juggled it for a few seconds before regaining his grip and putting it back to his ear.

“-the hell was that noise?” Gogo was asking. “What's going on?”

“I don't even-” Fred stared at Hiro. His friend wasn't paying attention, and apparently hadn't noticed the heart attack he'd nearly induced. All of his attention was on the laptop in front of him, and his eyes were so wide that they were almost circular. “He just screamed at his laptop, but I don't know-”

“I did it,” Hiro muttered.

Fred froze, gaping at him, the phone practically glued to his ear. “Hiro?”

Still wide-eyed, Hiro looked up at him. A slow, almost manic grin spread across his face. “I'm in.

“He just opened the file,” Fred said in a hushed voice. “He cracked it – Gogo, I gotta go. Stuff's happening.” He hung up. “Well?”

“I opened the file. It's open, I got past all the – the...” Hiro's voice trailed off. “Okay, there's a bunch of stuff on this, so whatever our guy wanted me to see, it's probably buried under a bunch of useless junk and code and stuff, but whatever. Whatever. I got in.”

“See? Toldja you could do it.” Fred reached over to mess up his hair, and Hiro was apparently in too good a mood to complain or slap his hand away. “You're halfway there already. Or more, depending on how much stuff you gotta dig through.”

Hiro huffed out a short breath, bringing his hands up to massage his forehead. “My brain hurts. My everything hurts. I can't take much more of this.”

“Can't be impossible, dude,” Fred reminded him. “I mean the whole point of Snowden sending you that file is so you could actually, y'know, read what's on it.”

“Snowden?” Hiro echoed, letting his hands drop to his lap again.

Fred shrugged. “Not like they gave us a name. We didn't even get a cool alias, so what else are we gonna call them?”

“Good point. Snowden until proven otherwise.” With a sigh, Hiro shoved the laptop away and sat back. “I need a break.”

“You deserve a break. You've been working on that all day.”

“Heh, yeah.” Hiro leaned his head back as far as it would go and stared up at the ceiling. “Still can't believe it took me that long.”

“Doesn't matter. You got there, didn't you?”

“Mrm.”

Mrm was worrying. Fred didn't know how to answer Mrm. Was Mrm good? Was it bad? Or was it neither, and Hiro was just tired? For a few seconds Fred sat blinking at him stupidly, wondering whether he should press the issue or leave Hiro to his own... whatever this was. It wasn't bad enough to call it wallowing, but it was something in that area.

“Well, uh,” he said finally, in an awkward maneuver to break the uncomfortable silence. He stood up stiffly, tossing his phone back to the couch. “I think I saw a down comforter in the hall closet, I might as well set up somewhere to sleep. Probably the floor.”

Hiro glanced up, frowning. “You sure? I'm pretty sure the captain wouldn't mind if-”

“What? I take his room? No way.” Fred counted off on his fingers. “One, sleeping in Captain America's bed would be like sitting on Poseidon's throne or something. Too intimidating to sleep. Two, let me remind you of that time we pulled like three all-nighters in a row at Honey's place over that stolen merchandise ring, and I slept – very comfortably – in her bathtub. And three-” He paused, searching for a more tactful way to say this, but quickly gave up. “Three, if you think after that Expo I'm letting you out of my sight for a second, I'm revoking your kiddie-genius license 'cause clearly your brain ain't working right.”

Hiro gaped at him for a few seconds, before shaking his head as if clearing it. “Compromise – I'll take the floor, you take the couch. You literally just got out of the hospital. If you fall asleep on the floor, you'll wake up needing help to get up again.”

Fred opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. “Good point.”

True to his word, he slept deeply on the sofa that night, the pain of his healing injuries dulled with prescription painkillers. He missed a few things, as dead to the world as he was.

He slept through Captain Rogers' return. It was a brief one – checking on them, lying down to catch an hour or two of sleep, and then the captain was off and running again.

He slept through another visit from a black Mercedes in the complex's parking lot.

He slept through Hiro waking up in a cold sweat with wet salty tracks down his face. And when Hiro lay awake for another hour, staring up at him and listening as if checking and double-checking that he was there and alive, Fred slept on unaware.


Steve's night vision was well above decent. It had to be, at half past three in the morning on an errand that did not require stealth but encouraged it. Bucky had taken point, walking in slow measured steps as if in a trance. Steve had done this kind of thing enough times to know better than to slow him down or interrupt him with questions.

On the outside it was just a one-story building on the very edge of a small Delaware town, the kind usually filled with dentist offices and the like, now standing abandoned and empty. Bucky's new arm made short work of the locks, and the two of them stepped inside.

The building's electrical wiring had been down for a while, probably months if not over a year, so flicking switches would have been useless. The pair moved through the dark, keeping an eye out for any hidden watchdogs that the building's previous tenants might have left. The place was derelict; there were desks, shelves, chairs, and other pieces of furniture left to moulder where they stood, all covered in a thick layer of dust.

Bucky said nothing as he led the way through the building, through a few doors that stuck when opening. He seemed to know where he was going – he usually did at times like these – so Steve hung back and kept an eye on the rear.

In one room Bucky made a beeline for a wide bookshelf that stood against most of the wall, and motioned for Steve to help him move it. Between the two of them they managed to shift it, uncovering the wall and the door that it had hidden. Beyond the door was a small, narrow stairwell that led down into deeper darkness, and at the bottom of the steps Bucky paused. Steve's eyes adjusted, and he took in a sizable basement space. He could hear Bucky breathing, muttering to himself as he struggled with stale memories that had slipped free of the mind wipes.

In the end he didn't see exactly what Bucky did – something by the wall, maybe a panel or a keypad – but the result was a faint whirring noise and a square-shaped hole sliding open in the floor. More tapping at the wall, the flick of a switch, and lights flickered on from within. Metal gleamed on the walls of the opening, in the room far below, and on the steel ladder rungs that led down into it.

“It's still here,” Bucky murmured. “They never destroyed it.”

“Must've had more on their minds.” Steve glanced to Bucky as he stepped closer, the light casting his face in odd shadows. “What's down there?”

Bucky blinked. “They spread their intel. Hydra – they don't keep all their files in one place. That way, if one base gets raided, they don't lose everything.”

“Think there're still files?”

Bucky shrugged, then, lowered himself into the opening to climb down the ladder. “This is a Hydra safe house. Would've been a front – office workers.” Steve followed him, listening as his friend's explanation continued to echo. “Rest stop for agents, if they're on the run or hiding. There'll be a directory – small one. Not the whole thing.” Steve reached the bottom, and found himself in a well-lit bunker. Shelves, safes, old medical supplies, even a cot. “More names. That's what we're here for.”

“Forget never destroying it.” Steve scanned the room steadily, taking in details great and small. Some of the shelves carried a light coating of dust, but not all of them. The cot was cold but rumpled, the dust scattered and disturbed. “I'm pretty sure this place is still in use.”

“Makes sense.” Bucky shrugged. “Never been disturbed until now. Why abandon it for no reason?”

Steve took in that tidbit of information and kept his ears pricked for any unfamiliar noises. “You were saying about names?”

“Useful people in their books,” Bucky explained. “Victims, mostly – people they threaten, people they exploit.” He wandered over to a shelf and picked up a small notebook. “Speaking of books...”

Steve read over Bucky's shoulder, each page revealing a name, a photograph, and a short outline of each person – skills, professions, contact information. Ex-cons, doctors, lawyers, politicians, cops. People in the right positions to be useful to a Hydra agent on the run.

One entry caught his eye. “Wait,” he said as Bucky flipped the page. “Go back.”

Bucky complied. “Someone you know?”

“No, but...” There was no mistaking it. “Tony does, and he's pretty high-profile and... a regular Expo attendee...” His voice trailed off. “C'mon, let's finish up here. We need to get back to New York.” He broke off, listening intently.

Footsteps above. Steve and Bucky exchanged a quick glance.

The saferoom was only safe when no one knew it was there. If these were Hydra agents, then they would undoubtedly know it was there. This chamber would be a rat trap; all it would take would be one grenade dropped inside, and vita-rays or no vita-rays, either one of them would be in serious trouble. Facing them head-on and taking them by surprise was a better chance by a mile. And, of course, if they weren't Hydra agents, then it was a moot point anyway.

Steve motioned for Bucky to let him climb up first, and scaled the ladder as quickly and silently as he could.

He had barely regained his balance at the top when two men reached the bottom of the steps, spotted him, and ground to a halt. One of them was already going for his gun, probably alerted by the fact that the lights were on.

Not cops, if Steve was any judge. Furthermore they seemed to recognize him, and that wasn't stopping the one from pulling his gun, so they weren't SHIELD either. Steve's body made the decision for him a split second before his brain caught up.

Without letting either of them fully recover from their surprise, Steve hurtled forward and knocked the would-be gunman's feet out from under him, sending him tumbling to the floor. Steve snatched the firearm from his grasp on the way down. On pure instinct he rushed to block a kick from the other man, and made a grab for the handgun from his belt. The second attacker was quick; even as he moved to protect his weapon, he was swinging out with a wicked-looking combat knife in his free hand. Steve dodged back, narrowly missing a nasty cut. Behind him, Bucky emerged from the saferoom at the top of the ladder.

The two men zeroed in on Bucky – and promptly screamed bloody murder and turned tail.

Steve barely caught sight of his friend's eyeroll before the two of them gave chase.


Fred dozed and woke through the early morning, not fully waking up until well after nine. Hiro was already up by then, scrounging for breakfast in the kitchen, when he heard Fred yawn loudly and rustle around on the couch. The sudden urge to go out and check on him rose up, and Hiro massaged his lightly aching forehead and pushed it back down.

He'd hoped he would sleep better once Fred was here, but no dice.

Moments later Fred meandered groggily into the kitchen. Hiro was already at his laptop, typing with one hand and spooning cold cereal into his mouth with the other.

“Don't get milk on your keyboard,” Fred warned. Hiro grunted noncommittally, and watched Fred fill a glass with water and take one of those pills from the little orange container he had brought.

That was the longest sentence either of them spoke that morning. Fred dithered over his choices before opting for cereal as well, and Hiro barely acknowledged him when he sat down to eat. Just looking at Fred dredged up memories of the Hitchcock-tier nightmare that woken him up the previous night. Eager for a distraction, Hiro checked his text messages and found a few from Gogo. Apparently Wasabi had managed a solid six and a half hours of sleep while Cass and Honey took turns driving, and now Wasabi was behind the wheel again while the other two were catching up on their own sleep.

He fretted at that, just a little. He was used to powering through an irregular sleep schedule, but he'd never had to drive on one before.

The silence was just as oppressive now as it had been after their argument on the day before the Expo. It wasn't fair, in Hiro's opinion, that they'd reunited and made nice and hugged it out, and yet the casual bantering still seemed just out of reach. Like if he tried, really tried, he could break the ice and everything would go back to normal, but worries and quiet frustrations and the shadow of bad dreams kept his words locked in his mouth.

After breakfast he took his computer back to the sofa, to continue sifting through the now-open file and separating wheat from chaff. Fred had apparently meant what he said about keeping Hiro in his sight, because he parked himself on the armchair just across the room. As the silence stretched between them, Fred threw out a few meek attempts at conversation that Hiro, feeling wretched, quietly bunted.

Finally another small breakthrough gave him an excuse to speak. “Got something,” Hiro said suddenly, around a half an hour before noon. Fred looked up drowsily, and the intent look on Hiro's face woke him further. Carefully he got up from the armchair and crossed the room to Hiro's side.

“What is it?”

“I think it's a list of passwords,” Hiro said, frowning at his screen. “I think Snowden's trying to give me access to something, but I can't figure out what. Must be hidden somewhere else on this file.”

“...Oh,” Fred replied. “Okay, then. Just... keep doing what you're doing I guess.”

Hiro tried not to wince as guilt gnawed at him with sharp little needle teeth. This wasn't normal. Nothing had been normal since they'd gone on this trip – no, nothing had been normal since the fire – but Fred meekly abstaining from talking his ear off was worse than abnormal.

Stupid, he thought. You've been brushing him off all day, no wonder he's giving up.

But how to fix this?

What was there to talk about?

Slowly, he slid the laptop off his lap and placed it on the coffee table. Fred glanced at him again, looking curious.

There was a lump in his throat, and he swallowed against it before speaking. “Hey, Fred?”

“Yeah?”

“I've got a dumb question.” Hiro paused, eyebrows knitted together as he mentally chewed over his words.

Out of the corner of his eye, Fred looked hopeful. “Ask away.”

“What was Tadashi like?” He hesitated again when he saw Fred's bewildered look. “I mean, duh, I grew up with him, I know what he was like, but I mean – with you. Just... you, being friends with him.”

Fred blinked at him, and for a frightening moment he looked tired – more tired than Hiro had ever seen him before. “That's not a dumb question at all.”

“I'm not saying it right.” Hiro shook his head. “It's just, we hardly ever talk about him – like all of us, our whole group. We do a little, I guess, but... not very often, and never... I dunno. It feels like paying lip service or something. And then you have that thing you do, once in a while.”

Startled, Fred turned to stare at him.

“It's just something I noticed,” Hiro said with a shrug. “Every now and then, it's like... like you drop vague hints or say things that make me think I'm missing a lot of context, and then you clam up when I ask you about it. Or you start to say something and then you stop.” He pursed his lips, frowning down at the floor. “I don't want to force you to talk or anything, because I know what that's like and it sucks. It just feels like there's this whole... I dunno. Something I'm missing. A whole bunch of things I'm missing.”

Fred looked guilty, and Hiro almost took it back and asked him to forget about it. But Fred sat back, looking almost relaxed for the first time that day. “I'm sorry,” he said finally. “I didn't know you were feeling like that. I didn't mean to do that to you, dude. Last thing I want to do is play keep-away with your brother, y'know?” Leaning forward again, Fred rubbed at the back of his neck.

“I asked Honey about it one time,” Hiro said quietly. “She said you knew him the longest.”

Fred pursed his lips. “Yeah, I guess I have. We were pretty tight. He, uh. He never mentioned me before you met me?”

“Nah. And it's nothing against you, either. I was kind of... closed off.” Hiro frowned. “I didn't trust people so much. Especially older kids. Reasons.”

“Yeah, that's pretty much why we never hung out at your place.”

“How long did you know him?”

“I met him freshman year,” Fred answered.

“Wait, you've been the SFIT mascot that long?” Hiro asked.

“No, uh...” Fred looked down sheepishly. “I mean freshman year of high school.”

Hiro's jaw dropped. “You're kidding. That long? You must've been my age back then.”

“Pretty much.” Fred's face brightened a little with a small grin. “Crazy first meeting, too. He landed on me.”

“Details, Fred.” Hiro leaned forward, listening raptly.

“Sorry if I'm breaking an illusion or something, but we were both complete losers,” Fred went on. “One day I got tossed into a dumpster during lunch, along with my Magic cards, and I was digging through the trash looking for them when a completely different set of jerks came along and threw him in, too.”

The knot in Hiro's chest loosened, and he smirked. “Start of a beautiful friendship?”

“You know what he did?” The smile on Fred's face turned fond. “He climbed out to pick up everything they'd pulled out of his backpack, and then he climbed back in to help me look.”

“Yeah, that sounds like him.”

“And we hung out ever since.” Fred shrugged. “All through high school. And when we went to different colleges, we still hung out. We found the time. Hell, he's part of the reason I went for the mascot thing in the first place.”

Hiro laughed suddenly.

“What?”

“Just – you and him, in high school. The mental image of him talking to you about girls.”

“Hey, I let him,” Fred said with a shrug. “Only fair. He let me talk to him about boys.”

Hiro laughed again. Fred joined in, and for the first time in too many days, things started feeling almost close to right.

 

Chapter Text

In the end it was common sense that saved Abigail.

Well, that and the superheroine with a lifetime of government spy training, but common sense definitely helped.

She had a security detail, if you could really call it that. “Security detail” made her think of suited men with earpieces and dark sunglasses, and the people who kept checking in on her were virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the people in the shelter. It was better that way; if they'd been more obvious about it, she doubted she could have gotten to sleep at all. As it was, she only managed to nap for a couple of hours before giving up on the endeavor. She hadn't had a supply of makeup in a while, and she kept her sunglasses off, because with everyone around her looking just as tired and stressed, there was no point in hiding the bags under her eyes.

Yawning, she left the cot and rubbed sleep out of her eyes as she went in search of some way to keep busy. Near the back of the building, a hand on her arm halted her.

“Miss Callaghan.” Still shaking off her weariness, Abigail blinked up at the man. She thought he looked familiar, as one of the guys keeping an eye on her. None of them had spoken to her, though, or even openly acknowledged her.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“We need to get you out of here,” the man murmured to her. “There's been a threat.”

Dread curdled the contents of her stomach. “What?”

“Come with me.” Gently he tugged at her, leading her toward one of the back doors. “Orders from Romanov to take you to a safe location.”

“Where?” she asked.

“I'll explain on the way, now hurry.”

“No,” the word slipped out, even as she took a step to follow him. “I mean – Natasha. Where's she?”

“Investigating the threat.” The man looked impatient. “Hurry, we don't have much time.”

He tugged her along again, but Abigail dug her heels in. If she had an entire security detail, then why was only one of them here to protect her from the threat now? Where were all the others? Had something happened to them? Was this threat so severe that all of them were needed to take care of it? There were a thousand different concerns that she wanted to express, but her tongue locked and kept her from badgering the man with questions.

Anxiously she glanced over her shoulder, and almost went limp with relief when she spotted Natasha walking in on the far end the crowded room. She opened her mouth to call to her.

Something hard and unmistakeable pressed against the small of her back, and the man's voice hissed tensely into her ear. “No sounds. No sudden movements. Follow me, or I put a bullet in your spine.” Even as he threatened her, Abigail could hear the fear in his voice. The gun barrel remained pressed against her back, but his hand left her arm; Abigail suspected that he wanted to keep it from looking like he was manhandling her. She couldn't tell if Natasha could see her, and she didn't want to risk waving or yelling. So, instead, she carefully curled her left hand into a fist, and placed her right palm flat under it as if she were preparing to play rock-paper-scissors. She kept her hands that way as the man took her arm again and lightly pulled her out the back door, trying to disguise the gesture as nervous hand-wringing.

Outside in the empty street behind the building, more men stood waiting for them with a car. The man brought her three steps away from the building when Abigail blinked and he was facedown on the ground with Natasha's knee to the back of his neck. Without waiting for a command Abigail ran, zigzagging in case someone started shooting, and ducked back inside. Once there, she darted along the back wall toward another door. Out of the corner of her eye she saw people giving chase, and she didn't stop to wonder if they were her security or her would-be kidnappers. She made it through the door and into a short hallway, then zigzagged through a few more corners to the designated “safe room” that Natasha had set up. She ducked inside with a pounding heart, did up all the locks, and slumped back in a chair before her shaking legs could give out under her.

Almost ten minutes passed before a rhythmic knock sounded against the door, and Natasha's gravelly voice hailed her from outside. “It's me.”

Abigail shakily let her in. The woman's hair was mussed, her jeans scuffed, and there were a few smudges of dirt on her face, but other than that she appeared unharmed.

“We're moving you,” Natasha said flatly. “Somewhere safer than here, and outside of New York. Come on.”

This time, Abigail wasted no time in following.


“It's been a long couple of days,” Steve sighed as he trudged up the steps toward the apartment.

“Coming up empty?” Even over the earpiece, Sam managed to convey more sympathy in three words than a lot of politicians could in a two-hour speech.

“Not quite,” Steve replied.. “We caught one of their agents before he could down a cyanide pill, got some intel out of him. Enough to protect one of their targets, but not enough to find who ordered the Expo attack or take out a major hideout.” Steve shook his head. “There's been too many red herrings, too many leads that go nowhere, too many dead ends.”

“Sounds like business as usual for anyone taking on Hydra,” Sam said acidly. His voice softened a moment later. “Need any help over there?”

“Tempting,” Steve admitted. “I'll give it another day or two, then call you if we keep coming up empty.”

“Hey now,” Sam broke in. “You call me if you find something too, you hear? 'Stay low and hold the fort' ain't my style, you know that.”

“Yeah, I know that.” Steve grinned.

“How's Barnes?”

“Holding up okay, all things considered.” He was at the door. Like always, he checked his surroundings before unlocking it. “Gotta go – checking in on the guests.”

“Stay safe, Steve.” Sam ended the call.

Quietly, Steve opened the door to the sound of voices. One was Hiro, but the other one wasn't quite so familiar – Frederick Whitmore, presumably. The living room was empty; they were in the kitchen. Careful not to startle them, Steve closed the door as quietly as he could and made his way nearer. He could hear the conversation clearly long before he got there.

“So then Tadashi turns to me,” Fred was saying, his voice shaking with held-back laughter. “And he's like, 'Fred, you don't actually have to be in pain,' and like, I didn't know that before? But there's a bunch of people watching and I'm already halfway there and I'm not about to admit that so I tell him, 'If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right. I'm method.' And then I just ripped the duct tape off.”

As Steve stepped closer, he heard Hiro Hamada laugh for the first time. It was no modest chuckle, either – the boy laughed until he ran out of air, then sucked in a quick gasp so that he could continue. He laughed until his voice was hoarse and he was almost crying, and in spite of himself Steve found himself grinning broadly.

Finally Hiro calmed down enough to go on. “I can't believe you flashed your chest at my brother.”

“Heh heh... yeah... crazy...”

Clearing his throat, Steve rapped lightly on the doorjamb and stepped inside.

Both of his guests were lounging at his kitchen table, sharing a half-finished plate of what looked like homemade nachos. The two of them looked up at his approach. Hiro, wiping his eyes, grinned, while Fred immediately adopted the usual starry-eyed awestruck face of people who happened to recognize him.

In Steve's experience, it was better to break the ice sooner than later. So, with a grin, he stepped forward and offered his hand. “You must be Fred. Sorry I didn't say hello earlier – it's been busy lately.”

“Uhhh,” Fred answered eloquently. He coughed, and his hand trembled as he shook Steve's. “Um. Thanks for... everything, I guess. Captain Rogers.”

“Steve's fine.”

Wow okay.

“Something going on?” Hiro asked.

Steve looked to him and considered easing into it, but the boy was looking at him steadily, as if he was fully prepared for Steve to tell him there were assassins on his tail. After seeing him in such high spirits after the past few days, Steve was reluctant to bring him down, especially if it wasn't particularly needful. After a moment, he compromised with himself and nodded. “A few things have come up. Nothing dangerous for you,” he added quickly. He nodded to Fred. “It was a good tip, about Abigail Callaghan being a target.” He hesitated. “Seems she still is. She's all right,” he added quickly when their mouths opened to ask the obvious question. “She's not hurt, and she's being moved somewhere safe. Just thought I'd check on you two. Can't be too careful.”

“Well, we're fine here,” Hiro told him. Fred added a faint squeaking noise that Steve assumed meant agreement. “But – someone attacked her?”

“They tried, I'll give them that,” Steve said dryly. “On Agent Romanov's watch.”

Fred snickered. “That wasn't very smart.”

“That's what I said.” Steve grinned ruefully at them. “But on that note, I wanted to give you two a heads up – you might end up sitting down in front of agents asking you awkward questions.”

“About the Expo?” Hiro asked.

“That's up to the agents. I'll make sure they go easy on you, though.” He paused. “And for what it's worth, I'm glad to meet both of you, you know. Sorry the circumstances weren't better.”

Fidgeting, Fred beamed at him. “Dude, you're Captain America. Beggars can't be choosers, so... pretty awesome anyway.”

“I appreciate that.” Slowly, Steve took a step back toward the door. “Anyway, I'll let you get back to it. And if either of you need anything, or something goes wrong...”

“We'll let you know,” Hiro said firmly. “I have your number. You going out again?”

“In a few hours.” Steve probably wasn't imagining the envious look that Fred shot in Hiro's direction. “I'm just back to sleep, but I'll be out again around 0300. Go ahead and, ah, continue whatever you were talking about, my door's closed and you won't bother me.”

Fred's glowing look of delight and admiration followed him all the way down the hall.


“You look awful,” Hiro remarked from behind his laptop as Fred stumbled into the living room the following day. “Dude, it's almost noon.”

“Didn't sleep much,” Fred mumbled.

“Got a call from my aunt,” Hiro told him, looking up. “They're still on the road, but they've been making good time. If they keep it up, they should be here by sometime today. We should probably let Steve know they're coming.”

“Steve,” Fred echoed. “Captain America told us to call him Steve.”

“I'm assuming that's what's up with you,” Hiro said. “Too excited to sleep?”

Fred rubbed his face with his palms, trying to massage the heaviness out of his forehead. “Too hard to calm my brain down when I know Steve Rogers is taking a nap just down the hall.”

“Well, that's bound to happen,” Hiro said dryly. “This is where he lives, after all.”

Fred collapsed into an armchair, pouring as much half-awake melodrama as he could into the single motion. “How can you be so calm?” he demanded. “We're literally couchsurfing at Captain America's place after surviving a Hydra attack. While also secretly being superheroes. This is like, several childhood fantasies coming true, all at the same time. I can barely function.”

“Try and function your way to the coffee machine, then,” Hiro advised. “Might wake you up so you can actually enjoy the feeling.”

“Excellent idea.” Fred struggled up from his makeshift fainting couch and tripped his way back to the kitchen. He slid a little on his socks, but his balance held. The coffee machine took a little experimental poking and prodding to figure out how it worked, but before long it was bubbling cheerfully and the smell of hazelnut-flavored coffee filled the kitchen. Fred leaned almost half his entire body over the counter and slipped into a light doze as he waited.

Finally, when the coffee was finished and Fred had roused himself again, he found a serviceable mug, poured it carefully, and took a few sips. A minute later the caffeine kicked in, and it stopped being such a chore just to keep his eyelids up.

And then-

Fred oh my God get in here I did it I found it holy crap.

By some miracle, Fred managed to avoid dropping his coffee mug, though a bit of coffee slopped over the side when he jumped. Wincing, he grabbed a dish towel to clean up the spill and the mug as best he could, before drinking more coffee and darting out to the living room again.

“What? What is it? What's going on?”

Across the room, Hiro's wide eyes were fixed on the screen in front of him. He was almost grinning. Without looking up, he beckoned. “C'mere, come look what I found.”

No second urging was necessary. Fred took another gulp that almost scalded his throat and hurried over to plunk himself down and look at the screen over Hiro's shoulder. “Whatcha got?”

“Physicsmajorredirect-dot-net,” Hiro replied. “Whatever that means. URL's not important, though. The important thing is that it's a website-”

“What kind of website?” Fred broke in before he could stop himself. “C'mon, c'mon, don't beat around the bush, dude.”

Hiro gestured at the screen, and Fred almost fell asleep just looking at it. The web design was the absolute driest mess of beige, gray, Helvetica, and blocky sidebars that he had ever witnessed, with drab blue links and a general design that wasn't so much an eyesore as an eye-numb. Fred could barely tell what the website was even supposed to be for. “It's a site for something-something-insurance-blah-security-blah but again, that's not important.” Hiro's teeth flashed in a grin. “It's the kind of website where I have full admin privileges thanks to the passwords Snowden left on the file.”

“And?”

“And that means I have access to the website's data and coding,” Hiro went on, demonstrating that fact on the screen in front of him. “Snowden hid messages in the code, Fred.” If Hiro grinned any wider, he was going to split his entire head. “Snowden didn't give me dirt on Lerna, Fred. He – or she, or they or whatever – gave me a way to communicate.”

Fred felt his heart quicken, and he leaned in so eagerly that he jostled Hiro by accident. “Dude. What kind of messages?”

“First one's a test run,” Hiro explained. “Took some time to find it, but it should get easier now that I know what I'm looking for.”

“What'd it say?”

“'Delete and reply if you see this.'”

Fidgeting with excitement, Fred snickered. “Did you put in a reply?”

Hiro nodded. “Used the same code. 'Honk honk Snowden' with a smiley face.”

“This is soooo cool!” Fred burst out. “We've got a lead on that company, finally!”

“I know!” Hiro shoved the laptop aside and got up to pace, working his excitement out with movement. “It's... I don't know, something's finally come out of this whole mess. It's been a nightmare ever since the actual Expo, but this makes it worth it, you know? One good thing to come out of it. I'll take it.”

“Heck yes, we earned this.” Fred took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh as he sat back. “Can't wait to get home, though. I miss the city. Our city.”

“I know what you mean,” Hiro said dryly. “I mean it's been fun and all, but I'd like to get back to our stuff and leave them to their stuff, you know?”

Fred hummed, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling. Something about how Hiro said it stirred up thoughts that had settled over the past day or so. Conversations with Dad weren't something he forgot easily, after all. “Yeah... about that. Are we sure?”

“Sure about what?”

“Are we sure that-” Fred paused, frowning. “That it's not 'our stuff'?”

This time Hiro looked up from the screen to Fred's face. “How do you mean?”

“I dunno, dude, I've just been thinking a lot about the attack, and Hydra, and like, other stuff.” Fred ran his hands through his hair. “It is hard. Way too much thinking, all the time, until my entire brain goes numb. How do you guys even do it?” He shook his head vigorously. “And then there's that stuff Steve said, remember? About how agents might be coming around to ask us stuff.”

“We are witnesses, Fred,” Hiro pointed out. “They've probably questioned everybody who was at the Expo – it doesn't have to mean anything.”

“I know! And maybe you're right! Maybe you're totally right!” Fred paused, biting his lip worriedly. “But right now my big question is, are we targets, too?”

Hiro's frown deepened. “They didn't come after us like they went after Abigail.”

“True but...”

“I don't think we've done anything big enough to attract Hydra's attention, have we?” Hiro's cheekbone shifted as his jaw clenched. “Even with 'our stuff.' Everyone we've taken on so far has been working alone – believe me, I checked. Thoroughly. And I'm pretty sure Hydra's got better things to do than sponsor bank robbers anyway. This thing with the Lerna company's the closest, and-”

Fred fell off the couch.

Looking back, he wasn't exactly sure how he managed it. The link between shock and sudden localized gravity reversal was usually only a thing in cartoons and anime, but that didn't explain how he went from a ton-of-bricks epiphany to flailing half-upside down on the floor. Not that he really stopped to question it. There were more important things to worry about, such as the aforementioned ton-of-bricks epiphany, and the sudden Lovecraftian feeling of standing next to something very large and very powerful and very likely to eat him.

“Fred?” Hiro said hesitantly.

“I am an idiot, I am the worst idiot.” It slipped out before he could stop it. “Lerna. I'm an English major, I swear.”

“...Fred?” Hiro sounded nervous now, and Fred could see him peeking over his laptop.

With a grunt of effort he struggled upright, pulled himself up on the couch, took Hiro's laptop, and placed it to the side. His heart was pounding, and he kind of regretted that he was going to have to share this revelation with Hiro, too. “Dude. Lerna. It was right in front of us the whole time.

“What was-?”

Wide-eyed, Fred took Hiro by both shoulders. “Lerna,” he repeated. “As in the place in Greece. As in the lair of the Lernaean Hydra until Heracles slew it as the second of his Twelve Labors.” He let go to flail a little. “It's all connected!”

“Wait, what?

“Greek mythology, dude! Seriously, you need to read different books!” Fred ran his hands through his hair again and looked Hiro in the eye. “Lerna's the name of the place where the Hydra's from. Get it? Theme naming. It can't be a coincidence.”

The bewildered look on Hiro's face was rapidly turning into comprehension, and then horror. “Oh. Oh, crap.

“Maybe you should call Steve,” Fred said weakly. He snickered, feeling slightly giddy. “Oh man. Oh, man. Dude, we broke into a Hydra base with a bunny robot.”

“Shut up, man, he's not a bunny.” But Hiro was already dialing. With several extra tons of nervous energy buzzing in him, Fred got up to pace it off. His feet took him to the window, and in a rush of paranoia he parted the blinds.

“Hey, Steve, it's Hiro,” Hiro was saying behind him, in basically the same tone of voice he used when calling up one of the guys. “No, we're good, it's just – Fred had an epiphany about something, and it may or may not have to do with this...”

A car went by on the road as Fred watched, slowing down when it passed the parking lot as if casing the place – a black Mercedes. Fred's mouth went dry. The car sped up and pulled out of sight, and almost as soon as it was gone, three more pulled into the parking lot.

Objectively, there was nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the hairs on the back of Fred's neck were telling him otherwise.

“It's kind of a long story, and I'm not sure I want to talk about it over the phone,” Hiro was saying. “I – yeah, if you could get here real quick, that'd be great.”

“Uh, Hiro?” Fred called back, without turning his eyes away from the window. Down below, the cars pulled into spots near the center of the parking lot. The doors opened. Four guys stepped out of each vehicle.

“Hang on a sec, Fred,” Hiro said distractedly.

“No seriously, I-” One of them, a man with dark cropped hair and glasses, scanned the upper-floor windows. Before Fred could stop to think, their eyes met. For a moment they stared at each other, and then the man on the ground broke into a run. “Ohhhh, shit.

“Wait, Fred just cursed. Hang on, Steve.” Hiro looked up. “What's going on, Fred?”

Fred let go of the blinds and spun around. “Did they send any SHIELD agents over here?”

“Did you get that?” Hiro said into the phone. After a moment he answered Fred. “He says no.”

“Three cars just pulled up,” Fred said, raising his voice so that Steve could hear over the phone. “Four guys got out, one of 'em looked at me, and I'm like ninety-five percent sure they're-”

Something thudded against the door.

“Oh, shit,” Hiro muttered. “Steve, there's guys. Front door's blocked. We need out. Help.” Even as he spoke, he was kicking his suitcase open and grabbing things. Fred dove for his backpack, dumped out everything that he didn't need, and retrieved Hiro's laptop from the couch and his tablet from his own things before shoving them all in. He opened it further so that Hiro could toss Megabot in after it. All their devices, all their electronics, went into the backpack. The door thudded again. “Bedroom at the end of the hall, Fred. Go quick, they're probably gonna blow the door.”

Shouldering the pack, Fred went down the hall at a dead run with Hiro at his heels. “What's in that room?” he asked under his breath.

“Hidden panel in the wall under the bed, behind the headboard,” Hiro said tersely, still with the phone to his ear. A heavy-looking bag dangled from his other hand. “Leads to the next door apartment, which is empty.” Once they were in the room Fred shut and locked the door behind them for good measure. Hiro brushed past him and dove under the bed. Moments later there was a whirring sound, followed by Hiro's muffled voice. “It's open – Fred, come on!”

Fred wasted no time in dropping flat and snake-crawling underneath. Sure enough, one section of the wall was a hidden panel which, now open, left a space just large enough for a man of Steve's size to crawl through. It was more than enough for either of them.

As Fred scrambled along after Hiro, with the weight of their devices resting on his back, he remembered that stupid black Mercedes and felt sick. How many times had he seen it? What else had he missed? How many red flags had he been ignoring?

Behind them, the door to Steve Rogers' apartment blew open.

 

Chapter Text

For a supposed upholder of justice, Steve had broken an awful lot of traffic laws in the space of about three minutes of driving. Technically it was also frowned upon to use distracting devices while behind the wheel, and Steve was multitasking between two. “Give me two seconds, Hiro,” he said, right before Agent Hill picked up.

“What is it, Steve?” she asked.

“The apartment,” Steve told her. “Everyone who's there, put them on alert if they aren't already – Hydra's after the kids. Make sure they get the other tenants out.”

“Got it.” Hill hung up. Steve split his attention between the road and his remaining phone conversation, sparing the lion's share for the latter. His foot hadn't touched the break pedal for the past five city blocks. “Hiro, you still there?”

“Okay.” Hiro's voice was slightly breathless over the line. “We're through – Fred help me close it – but I'm pretty sure they got through your front door. I think it exploded.”

“If the panel's closed firmly behind you, then that should buy you some time while they search the apartment.” He had to hand it to the kid for managing to keep his cool so far. He either had nerves of steel or was excellent at faking it. “Listen – do you know the layout of the complex? Not the whole thing, just the first floor of the block you're in.”

“The layout of the first floor?” Hiro's voice was hushed, and from the sound of it he was on the move. “Not really, I was asleep when I first got here and I haven't been outside-”

Fred's voice piped up somewhere in the background. “I saw it. There's like a lobby and a shared kitchen, a laundry room, a rec room I think, that kind of thing.

“Good,” Steve said, swerving around a cab parked too far from the curb. “Safest place in that block is in the laundry room. There's a door hidden behind one of the washing machines that leads to a panic room. Once you're in and it's locked behind you, a SWAT team couldn't get through that door. Believe me – it's been tested. But-”

“How do we get there?” Hiro asked.

“Let me finish.” He was getting closer every second, but it still felt too slow. His knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel. “Do you know how many Hydra agents are in the building?”

“Uhm – Fred, how many guys did you see?

Twelve,” was the muffled answer. “Three cars, four guys in each one. Could be more came after I stopped watching, th-” Muffled banging in the background sent Steve's pulse racing. “Holy crap that's guns. There are dudes with guns out in the – dude get away from the windows!

“There's more cars,” Hiro reported a moment later. “Plus some guys standing watch out in the parking lot.”

“Do what he says,” Steve told him urgently. “As long as they don't know you're in that apartment, you're safe. I'm on my way – if there's a shootout going on in the hall, then don't leave that apartment, do you understand me? Stay low, and stay quiet. I'm coming to get you.”

“Cool,” was Hiro's answer. “Seriously though, I'd like to know about that safe room. Y'know. Just in case. On the off-chance they find us or something.”

“It's on the ground floor, at the end of the L-shaped hallway.” Steve chanced about seven extra miles per hour of speed. “The room's hidden behind the second washing machine from the right. There's a button code on the change machine on the wall: one-one-two-nine-two-two-five. Repeat that.”

“One-one-two-nine-two-two-five, got it.”

“Then hold down the pound sign on the keypad for a count of four, and it'll open. Once you're inside, there's a button on the right side of the opening that will close it and lock it in place. It's the safest place in the complex. But for now, you need to lay low.”

Judging by the quiet from Hiro's end of the conversation, the two of them were doing just that. And then-

It's quiet out in the hall.” Fred was talking almost too softly for Steve to pick it up.

“Steve, you got any surveillance in here?” Hiro asked. “Cameras, heat sensors, that kind of thing? Asking for a friend.”

As Steve sped through a yellow light and swerved into a shortcut down an alley, he frowned. “There's a screen in one of the hall closets. Controls are a little hard to describe over the phone-”

“I'll figure it out,” Hiro assured him. A moment later, “Oh yeah, this is dead simple – Fred did you hear that?

“Hear what?' Steve asked.

Hiro's voice dropped again. “Knocking on the wall we came through,” he muttered. “Okay, hall cameras-”

I think they found the panel,” Fred muttered.

“I know they found the panel, Fred, which is why I'm checking that the coast is clear-”

Steve bit his lip until he could taste blood. “If the hall isn't clear, there's a balcony and fire escape out the window on the east side of the building.”

“No good,” Hiro said grimly. “They're watching the windows outside. Hallway's our only shot.”

“There are two stairwells-” But before Steve continue, the sound of a charge blowing almost deafened him. He heard Hiro yell, and feared the worst before Fred's voice came through again.

Go – go go go go go,” Fred hissed.

“One of the stairwells is clear-” Hiro began.

I know, I saw which one it is, now c'mon.

“Hiro, listen to me.” Steve could feel his pulse in his throat. He was a block away, and rocketing down the street with the gas pedal pressed to the floor. “I'm almost there. If they catch you, let them take you. Don't give them a reason to hurt you, do you understand me?”

“Little late for that,” Hiro said dryly. A door opened, and then his voice echoed. “We're in the stairs – west side of the building, I think. Which way do we turn to get to the laundry room?”

“Turn right – I'm in the parking lot,” Steve replied, just as he was swerving over the curb. He cannoned through two Hydra cars, loosening his tense muscles to prepare for the impact. The men standing by them dove out of his way or were knocked aside.

“Okay,” Hiro sounded relieved. “We're almost – fuck.”

Put the phone down.” That was not a voice that Steve recognized. He slammed the driver's side door open, just as one of the agents recovered and tried pointing a gun through the window. The man staggered back as Steve leapt out, grabbed his jacket front, and shoved his head forcefully into the hood of the nearest vehicle. The enemy agent went down like a sack of rocks, and Steve was already off and sprinting for the door while handgun shots splintered the asphalt behind him.

Two men, one woman,” Fred's voice came quietly over the line. “Assault rifles.

Five-eleven, five-nine, uh... five-seven,” Hiro added. Both of them sounded very far away from the speaker. “Give or take.

Another sound – a weapon cocking. “Stop talking, please,” the strange voice said flatly. “Go deal with him.

Steve, they're coming out-” Hiro began, but the call ended – someone must have shot the phone.

Steve was already inside, dashing through the lobby when he heard footsteps coming down the hall, from the direction of the laundry room. On instinct he grabbed a table as he passed it and flung it in front of him, just as a man and a woman rounded the corner and opened fire on him. For barely a second, the table obscured him from view. Barely a second was all he needed to take the man by surprise and wrest the weapon away. The woman recovered more quickly than he expected, took aim-

And dropped dead where she stood.

Steve punched his opponent in the jaw and threw a glance over his shoulder, just in time to see another woman ducking out of the nearest stairwell, gun out.

“Rogers,” she greeted him with a nod.

“Carter,” he replied.

“Got this?”

Steve slammed his opponent's head into the wall, cracking the drywall. “Yeah.”

“SHIELD says a car's waiting out back, dark blue sedan,” she told him. “Still got business upstairs.” A moment later, she was gone, and Steve finally ran flat out until he had reached the laundry room. The door stood half open, and banged like another gunshot when Steve flung it all the way back.

He stopped sort.

Fred stood by the opposite wall, a backpack on his shoulders and a bewildered expression on his face. Hiro stood in front of him, hands outstretched, eyes glinting with the light of battle. A metal circlet rested on his head like a crown. Across from them, just to Steve's right as he entered, was the line of washing machines.

A man lay across three of them, pinned there by... something. Technology of some sort. It looked segmented, almost like chain mail, and Steve realized that each piece was an individual device no bigger than an insect. They covered him from about halfway up his stomach to just beneath his chin, with more of them over his wrists and ankles like staples holding him in place. The man's eyes rolled with fury, and he struggled, but the metal covering held him fast. He was making an odd rattling, spitting noise, but other than that he wasn't doing or saying much.

Steve's eyes traced the tiny devices back to the metal headband.

“Hi,” Hiro said. Meekly, Fred waved.

“Can he breathe?” Steve asked, eying the devices that pressing across the Hydra agent's throat.

Hiro's eyes narrowed. “Probably,” he gritted out over the man's labored wheezing. “Could you knock him out or something? I kinda need those back.”

Steve usually wasn't in the habit of taking combat advice from fourteen-year-olds, but it seemed sound enough. A swift punch to the forehead knocked the agent cold, and he went limp. There was a holstered handgun at his side that he hadn't been able to draw with his hands restrained, and Steve neatly relieved him of it.

“Get to the back of the-” he began, but stopped short as the segmented trap moved seemingly on its own. With a metallic rattling, the devices shifted, converged into a single mass, and flowed down from the washing machines, across the floor, and into the backpack that Hiro held open for them. Without the devices to hold him in place, the unconscious Hydra agent slid limply from the top of the machines and flopped to the ground like a broken doll. Ignoring him, Hiro left the pack partially open and shouldered it.
“Where to now?” he asked.

“Back of the building,” Steve said brusquely. “Lobby's clear for now, but stay behind me.”

They obeyed without protest, falling in behind him as he checked that the lobby was still clear. Muffled gunfire told him that Hydra and SHIELD were still facing off upstairs, but all was quiet on the ground – for now.

Motioning for them to follow, Steve hurried down another hall – away from the front door and the parking lot where he'd barreled through Hydra cars and agents like bowling pins. Not all of them could be dead or out of commission, and sure enough, soon there were voices and running footsteps behind them.

When they reached the back exit, Steve made sure he went out first, and was glad that he did when a second-floor window shattered above him. He sprang back, and his arm shot out instinctively to keep both of his charges behind him. Bullets peppered the ground in front of him, and their pursuers from the parking lot were only getting closer.. He waited until a lull in the shots told him the agent was reloading, then sprang out again, found the window, and squeezed off three shots from his pilfered handgun. He was rewarded by a yell, and fired twice more before signaling for the boys to follow.

This time he pushed them in front of him, covering their backs in case the agents behind them decided to start shooting. True to Sharon Carter's word, a dark blue sedan sat waiting for them a short sprint away from the building.

“The blue one, there,” he said, pointing. Fred grabbed Hiro by the sleeve, and the two of them put on an extra burst of speed. They reached it barely two paces ahead of Steve, who threw himself into the driver's seat just as they were scrambling into the back. The doors were unlocked, and the keys were in the ignition. “Both of you stay down!” Bullets punched the reinforced glass of the rear window, and Steve hit the gas and left tire marks on his way out onto the road. For a tense minute he maneuvered the car through a winding, circuitous route of side streets and back alleys, barely blinking when his tight turns left scraped paint on the car's sides. Finally, when he judged that they weren't being followed anymore, he let himself breathe and check on his passengers in the rearview mirror.

Both of them were alive and unhurt, if a bit shaken. “Okay, that was pretty cool.” Fred was breathing as if he'd run a marathon. “I can't be the only one who thought that was cool.”

“On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a seven.” Hiro sat back and slipped off the headband.

Fred gave a nervous laugh. “Dude, don't be picky, that was at least an eight!”

“We're not out of the woods yet,” Steve reminded them, though he was relieved that they didn't seem too traumatized by the whole thing. Most rescued bystanders collapsed into tears and panic once the adrenaline wore off. Joking did happen a lot, though; it was a common coping mechanism.

He had to hand it to these kids – they'd handled themselves pretty well.

Still, guilt hung like a lead weight in the pit of his stomach. “Also, I'm sorry about that,” he went on. “I should have gotten to you a lot sooner.”

“No big,” Fred assured him. “I mean, I'm good. Hiro?”

“We're fine,” Hiro said tightly. Steve could see him scowling slightly in the rearview mirror. “I mean, whatever. We got out. Doesn't matter.”

He was toying with the headband, turning it over absently in his hands. Steve eyed it nervously, and also glanced to the pack Hiro was still wearing, squashed between his back and the seat. Whatever those things were, they were more up Tony's alley than his. No wonder Stark seemed to like this kid.

“Microbots,” Hiro said abruptly, answering the question that Steve hadn't asked. “They link up like magnets. I control 'em with this.” He tapped the headband. “Translates thoughts to commands.”

“That was quick thinking back there,” Steve remarked. In more ways than one, he added silently. If he hadn't been that quick, or if he hadn't been armed with them at the time... well, Steve had a feeling that particular what-if would be shaving off a few hours of sleep for the next few nights.

“Had to.” Hiro's glower only darkened. “He was gonna shoot Fred.” At that moment, Fred became strangely interested in what was going on outside his window.

In the meantime, Steve had slowed to a more reasonable speed. It would be easier to avoid attracting attention if he wasn't driving like a bat out of hell.

“What happens now?” Fred asked.

“Well... you two are officially targets,” Steve said grimly. At this point, sugarcoating didn't seem like such a good idea. “So now, I get you two out of New York so we can rethink our investigation. Find out why you're targets.” He was interrupted by a call, and switched on his earpiece. “One sec – this is Rogers.”

It's Hill. How're you doing, Steve?

“I got them out,” Steve replied. “I'm about to go through the Lincoln Tunnel – if you could smooth the way for me, that'd be great.”

Got it. Where are you headed?

“Out of state.”

Wilson?

“That's the idea.”

Good luck. Want me to stay on the line?

“I'll call if I need help again. Just keep the streets clear for me til I'm out of the city.” The call ended, and Steve settled as he drove to the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel. The boys in the back were quiet as Steve set his jaw firmly. “I'm taking you to a friend of mine – you met him before, back when you were staying with Tony. ”

“Okay,” Hiro said. “Can I use your phone?”

Steve frowned. “Why?”

“I need to call my aunt,” Hiro sighed. “She and our friends freaked out when they heard about the attack, and they've been driving cross-country for days to come get us. I need to let them know there's been a change in plans.” He paused. “I'd use mine but that guy kind of shot it.”


Cass was asleep when her phone went off. She came awake with a gasp and blinked groggily around in confusion before fumbling for it and answering it. “'Lo?”

“Heyyy, Aunt Cass,” Hiro's voice greeted her. She frowned, because she had set a specific ringtone for him, and that definitely wasn't what she had heard.

“Hiro? Sweetie, whose phone are you using?” Cass sat up, rubbing her eyes. “What's going on?”

“We're, uhm... we're on the move,” Hiro told her awkwardly. “Some stuff went down and...” There was a pause, broken only by indistinct voices and words she couldn't quite pick up, before he came back. “There's stuff I can't say but basically we'll be in DC.”

“D.C.? Hiro, what happened?” It was so hard to keep the honest fear out of her voice.

“We're fine, Aunt Cass,” he assured her. “We're not hurt. We're safe. This is just a precaution.”

Cass hummed fretfully. “It's for the best, I suppose,” she said. “After the attack I bet getting in and out of New York City would be a nightmare. Do you know exactly where you'll be going?”

“No, and I'm pretty sure I couldn't tell you even if I did.” Hiro sounded peevish.

She had a headache coming on. “I hope you realize,” she said, massaging her temples. “Once we get home, I'm not letting you leave the house until you're old enough to drink.” He laughed at her pitiful joke, and the sound lightened her heart. “Be careful, sweetie. I'm coming to get you, you hear? Both of you. We're going home, all of us, and no one's getting left behind, okay?”

“O-okay.” His voice sounded thick. “I, um... I gotta go. I'll try and call you later when we know more, okay?”

“Okay, sweetie. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

It wasn't until they'd both hung up that she realized she'd forgotten to ask him why he hadn't used his own phone.


“You left a lot out,” Steve remarked when a subdued Hiro passed back his phone.

“I can't tell her I got shot at,” Hiro said flatly. “It'll drive her crazy. What she doesn't know won't hurt her.”

Steve blinked, pursing his lips thoughtfully. The boy sounded way too tired and resigned for his age. Then again, it wasn't all that surprising – he'd probably had to shoulder a lot, losing family like that. He sighed, grip tightening on the steering wheel as he did a quick three-sixty-degree scan of the road around them. Was anyone following them? It was difficult to tell the difference between useless paranoia and legitimate instincts.

He let out a breath as he entered the Lincoln Tunnel. Once they were officially out of Manhattan – and then out of New York City – he would feel a lot better. He only hoped they'd stay safe in D.C. – the last thing he wanted to do was bring Hydra straight into Sam's home.

Another glance at the rearview mirror gave him pause.

The tunnel was dimmer than outside, but still well-lit. And wasn't that sedan creeping up on him one of the cars from the apartment parking lot?

Steve sped up. The other car did the same. Its windows were open.

“Get down!” Steve yelled, and the other car opened fire on them barely two seconds later.

Steve wove through the tunnel, trying to avoid staying in their line of fire. He had one handgun, both hands on the wheel, and two passengers to get to safety – escape was the only option, unless he called Hill back.

The rear windshield cracked ominously under the unsteady onslaught of bullets. Steve threw a glance over his shoulder and found that both of his passengers were bending down, as far as out of the line of fire as they could manage. Fred's arm was slung over Hiro's shoulder, keeping him steady.

Luckily, Hill was quick to pick up. “Hostiles in pursuit,” Steve said tensely. “I'm in the tunnel, there's one car that I can see.”

Try and keep ahead of them,” Hill told him. “I'll send – wait a minute.

Before Steve could ask her what was going on, he spotted it in one of his side mirrors. Another vehicle had joined the chase. It was smaller, with just one one headlight – a motorcycle–

Steve laughed.

Backup's on your way,” Hill told him, just as the other car began to inch closer and closer in the lane to Steve's left.

“Backup's here,” Steve corrected, and Bucky leaped from the back of the motorcycle to the back of the other car. As Steve watched through the side mirror, his friend clambered over the back, punched his metal arm straight through their windshield, and ripped the steering wheel out of the bewildered driver's hands. He grinned wryly – that was certainly a familiar move.

Steve took his foot off the gas, slowing just enough for Bucky to leap from the crippled car onto the back of his. Behind him, the boys gasped in alarm.

“It's all right,” Steve assured them, speeding up again. The hail of bullets had stopped, and the car was screeching to a wild halt behind them. Steve rolled down the passenger side window.

A windblown Bucky slid into the seat next to him without a word, closed the window behind him, and did up his seatbelt. Steve sped out of the Lincoln Tunnel, and turned the car toward the nearest highway out of the city.

“Sorry I'm late,” Bucky greeted him. “Got held up.”

“No, no, you're right on time,” Steve assured him. He twisted in his seat to look back at his passengers. “It's all right. He's with me, he's a friend of mine. You boys okay?”

Fred sat up again and offered a thumbs-up. “Peachy. I love car chases as much as the next guy.”

Hiro groaned quietly. “Don't tell my aunt, or she's not gonna let me outside until I'm thirty.”

 

Chapter Text

They changed cars, of course, not wanting to attract attention with a badly-dented, bullet-ridden one. Arrangements were made, and a drab gray Honda was waiting for them at a set meeting point. The drive to Washington DC from New York City was about four hours long, and Hiro fell asleep in the back not long after they left city limits. It wasn't that he drifted off out of exhaustion, either; he simply shut his eyes and powered down. For a while Fred stayed awake as if watching over him, but apparently the combination of coming down from an adrenaline high and the lull of the car ride caught up with him, and he drifted off as well.

Steve let them sleep, Bucky helped him watch the road, and they passed most of the trip in silence.

A few hours later Hiro awoke with a start, looking around as if he'd forgotten where he was. He groped at his pockets, then his bag, and finally slumped back, defeated, until he could wake up further.

“Something wrong?” Steve asked.

“Just... my phone,” Hiro said. “I had pictures and stuff – it's nothing. Never mind.”

Steve nodded.

By the time they were passing into the District of Columbia, Steve had called ahead to let Sam know they were coming, and Fred was finally waking up. It was only a matter of getting there, and with both of them awake Steve finally let his attention turn back to an issue that he had left behind hours earlier.

“You said over the phone that you information,” he said. “What was it?”

There was a pause. “About a month ago, Hope Hospital collapsed in SF,” Hiro began. “There was an earthquake, but it was way too small to knock down an entire building by itself – especially since literally every other building was completely fine. Turns out the hospital was shoddy – on purpose. We...” He hesitated.

“There was stuff in the foundations,” Fred continued for him. “Like, machinery and wiring and junk. Fancy-looking state-of-the-art stuff. Plus the stuff holding up the building was like, crazy good.”

“We think they might have wanted a building they could collapse on command,” Hiro added distastefully. “We looked into it, but we couldn't find anything on the hospital's construction, except that it was built by a company called Tiamat Construction. Apparently it's an extension of a larger company called Lerna Construction Inc. We could barely find anything on that company, and what we did find disappeared a little after we got it. We've been trying to find what else they've built, but then Fred realized...”

“Lerna's a place in Greek myths,” Fred said. “It's where the hydra was from. So we figured...”

“Probably isn't a coincidence,” Hiro finished.

Steve caught his breath as a red light forced him to stop. “No, it probably isn't,” he agreed. His hands tightened on the wheel. Hydra building hospitals that they could demolish at will was the stuff nightmares were made of. “Wait, what do you mean you were looking into it? Why were you investigating this?” Bucky shifted beside him, but otherwise gave no reaction.

“Uhh...” Both of them dithered. Steve was reminded for a moment of two kids sitting in the principal's office, trying to decide how to split the blame.

“Well... funny story...” Hiro answered reluctantly.

The light turned green, but the car in front of Steve did not move. He politely tapped the horn, but the car ahead of him didn't budge.

“Uh... Steve?” At Fred's worried tone, Steve glanced to the side windows and felt his heart plummet. Two cars had pulled up on either side of theirs, further boxing them in. He tried to reverse, but only succeeded in backing two feet into the car behind them.

The two cars next to them halted with their windows perfectly lined up with his.

“Get down!” Bucky shouted, and Steve ducked below the window just as bullets sprayed from both sides, shattering the front windows.


“Guys we're here!”

Honey Lemon didn't say it until the car was off the freeway and they were officially in D.C. Immediately Cass came awake in the passenger seat, blinking around as Honey sped along on the main road.

“Wha?” In the back, Wasabi sounded groggy as if he'd just woken up as well. “Did we get another call?”

“No,” Gogo said grimly. “Complete radio silence since New York. If anything's happened since then, we haven't heard about it. So far we don't even know exactly where we're going. We're pretty much playing it by ear at this point.”

“I'm calling Hiro.” Cass was wide-awake and already dialing. After a moment she grimaced. “It's not getting through to him. Can all of you try?”

Honey kept her eyes on the road as the others went for their phones. Traffic was as awful as anyone would expect traffic to be in Washington DC, and the streets were crowded, but she drove on doggedly. Once in a while she could see landmarks – the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, US Capitol – off in the distance, poking through gaps in other buildings, but with no idea where their friends were, they weren't helpful.

“I can't get Fred, either,” Wasabi said after a while.

“Me neither,” Gogo announced. “Alrighty then. Honey, open the sun roof, 'cause we're gonna need some room.”

Honey complied. “What's your idea, Gogo?”

Moments later Gogo leaned forward between the two front seats and unplugged Baymax from the van's stereo system. She leaned back again, and Honey could hear her rustling about. A quick glance over her shoulder told her Gogo was bending down to mess with Baymax's case. “Activating Baymax – hang on, let me put his chip back in. Baymax, ow.” Wasabi groaned, and the sound of inflating began to fill the car – as did Baymax himself. “Okay, stop there – just inflate halfway, it's kinda cramped in here.”

“Hello,” Baymax greeted. “How may I be of assistance?”

“Can you bring up that map of D.C.?” Gogo said. Honey could hear the reluctance in her voice, and a moment later she knew why.

“Why does Baymax have a map of Washington D.C. on his chest?” Cass asked, twisting around in her seat. “I knew he had one of the city back home, but Washington?”

Luckily Gogo was prepared, and the truth wasn't as awkward as it could have been. “I did that a few hours ago, just in case we needed to do this,” Gogo explained. “Okay, Baymax. Scan the city, find where Hiro and Fred are.”

“Scanning,” Baymax said dutifully. A moment later, he spoke again. “I have located them. They are approximately four miles from this location.”

“He can scan the whole city?” Cass asked wonderingly, staring back at the half-limp robot. “That's incredible. And... kind of unnecessary, for a nurse robot, don't you think?”

“On the contrary,” Baymax told her. “This feature has been useful on several occasions-”

“Hiro added that,” Honey broke in before the robot could give anything away. “He was thinking about applications in search-and-rescue, not just health care.” It was a decent lie, judging by Gogo's quiet, relieved sigh.

“Oh.” For a moment Cass sounded subdued, but fond. “Yeah... he would. So, where to from here?”

“I can also track our location, so that we way calculate the most optimal route,” Baymax said. “Though I cannot account for traffic.”

“It's cool, we'll take whatever you can give us,” Gogo assured him. “Honey, hang a right up here. We're not too far behind them.”

Gracias a Dios,” Honey murmured. The monotony of the long, nearly nonstop drive was finally breaking, and she sat up straight as energy came trickling back into her. They were almost there. In less than ten minutes they would see their friends again. In less than ten minutes they would clear all of this up and go home, and once they had half a chance, they were going to stop at the first available hotel for showers and sleep. After that, it would be a more leisurely roadtrip home, and everything back to normal again.

And that was where she went wrong, most likely. She hadn't even laid eyes on either Hiro or Fred, and yet in her mind they were already on their way home. Of course the universe couldn't let that slide.

Cass was messing with her phone again. “You know, I can't get through to Hiro at all.” Her voice was quiet, but pitched with anxiety. “Not even to his voicemail.”

“They are still moving rapidly,” Baymax went on.

“Take a left, Honey,” Gogo said.

“Oh no,” Wasabi groaned. “Please no car chase, please not a car chase anything but a car chase-

“It's not going to be a car chase,” Gogo said sharply. “We just want to see where they're taking them.”

“Is that really a good idea, though?” Wasabi pointed out. “Hiro already called, so maybe he'll call again later and let us know! What if they're being followed, and by going after them them we lead whoever's following them right to them?”

“Please don't talk like that,” Cass groaned. “Please.”

Honey silently resolved to apologize profusely to Wasabi later, and began to weave through traffic with a bit more speed and boldness than one would expect from a van. Other motorists honked at her furiously, but she tuned them out and focused on the road ahead of her and Gogo's directions. A shortcut took her through an empty side street before she was forced back out toward the main street.

“We're almost there!” Gogo called out. “Less than a block – left down this street, looks like the leftmost lane is the clearest, so take it while it lasts.”

Cass craned her neck anxiously, rolling down the window for a better view as Honey followed Gogo's directions. “He must be in one of these cars. But this doesn't make sense – ever since New York, it hasn't made sense. I thought they were laying low until they could go home. Why are they coming all this way? Did something happen?”

“Well we're about to find out,” Gogo muttered.

“Red light!” Wasabi yelped. “Stop at the red light!”

“I'm not an idiot,” Honey tried not to snap, but her metaphorical hackles were up. She couldn't have run the red anyway; she was several cars back and none of them were about to budge; she would have had to drive on the sidewalk to get around them. Luckily the light turned green, and gradually the line of cars began to pick up speed again.

“Hey – guys, look,” Wasabi spoke up. “Three lanes over to the right, look.”

Honey looked. Three lanes over, the first car in line had apparently stalled, forcing the one behind it to stop short to avoid rear-ending it. She squinted, trying to see through the windows of the second car, but another car pulled up next to it and stopped as well, obscuring her view. At the angle she was, she could still just barely see the driver, and two indistinct passengers through the dark glass of the rear windows. Another car was flanking it on the other side, boxing it in.

“Baymax, that gray sedan,” she gritted out. “Right there, second from the front.”

“Hiro and Fred are inside, as well as two others,” the robot confirmed.

The words were barely out when the two cars flanking the gray sedan suddenly opened fire on the driver. Cass screamed.

“Gogo!” Honey yelled, but her friend had already unlocked her seatbelt and was clambering to the front and into Honey's lap. Honey let go of the wheel. Gogo stashed her gum on the dashboard.

“Not again,” Wasabi sighed, but Gogo was already slamming down on the gas pedal.


Hiro was doubled up, covering his head with both hands as the hail of gunfire above nearly deafened him.

Above... but in front.

He opened his eyes a crack. The backseat windows were untouched – they were only aiming for the front. He lifted his head a fraction, feeling his heart pound in his throat. The car in front had not budged. Steve still had his hands on the wheel as he and Barnes struggled to see over the dash without getting shot in the head.

“Steve, what do we do!” Hiro yelled.

The words were barely out of his mouth when a distinctly familiar van cannoned into the car in front of them, plowing it out of the way like a freight train.

Go-go-go-go-go!” Hiro shrieked, and ducked down again as Steve slammed on the gas, the tires screeched, and they rocketed to freedom.

Part of Hiro wanted to laugh. A marginally smaller part of him wanted to cry a little. He ignored both urges and instead took stock of their situation.

Half the window next to him had been shot out, leaving broken glass on the seat. Steve was weaving the car through traffic, barely avoiding the other motorists in the street. Hiro couldn't tell if he'd been hit or not when they shot up the car. Fred seemed fine, though – excited, if anything, which wasn't surprising. Fred did like car chases.

“Stay low,” Steve ordered. “They might fire on us from behind, and I don't know how much the rear window can take.”

Dutifully Hiro ducked his head, but he still made a point of looking out the windows. When Steve suddenly swore, Hiro looked for the reason and found it – pursuers were creeping up on them. Behind them to their left was one of the cars that had blocked them from the side back at the stoplight. And to their right, a familiar van with a severely dented front.

Not as crunched as it could have been, though, Hiro noted with satisfaction. Those improvements that he and Gogo had put together were holding up pretty well.

A bullet hit the back windshield but didn't penetrate it. Hiro still ducked on instinct.

“Steve can I use your phone again?” he asked.

“What?” The car swerved violently around a corner, throwing Hiro head-first into Fred. The accidental headbutt must have driven the wind out of him, judging by the retch-gasp noise that Fred made.

“Sorry, Fred!” Hiro recovered himself. “The van's on our side, I need to call them.”

“How do you know they're on our side?”

Hiro threw a glance over his shoulder at the vehicle in question, and his heart dropped to his stomach when he saw through its cracked windshield. “Because my aunt's riding shotgun. I need your phone.

Wordlessly the man in the passenger seat grabbed it out of Steve's pocket and passed it over while Steve was busy driving. Hiro dialed Honey Lemon's number.

Moments later she picked up. “This is a bad time.”

“Honey, it's Hiro – don't give the phone to my aunt.”

“Oh. Yeah I-” She broke into a stream of angry Spanish. “Sorry, I'm trying to get to my purse.”

“Oh thank God, did everyone bring their stuff?” he asked.

“Yes! Yours too!” Honey answered. “But I think I'm the only one who can do anything right now – Wasabi's are close range, Baymax isn't ready, and Gogo's busy driving.” A pause. “Got it!”

“Give 'em hell,” Hiro said grimly. “Don't get shot.”

“I'm giving you to Wasabi.”

There was rustling and yelling, someone fumbled the phone, and finally Wasabi's long-suffering voice came through. “Everything is terrible.”

“Dude we will fix your van,” Hiro told him. “We're not sending it into the drink this time, I promise. Can you tell how many cars are after us?”

There was a pause, presumably for Wasabi to count. Hiro could hear his aunt's voice in the background, high and frantic, and almost wasn't ready when Wasabi finally answered. “There's four that I can see. Two are vans. There were five, but we took one out for you.”

Shakily Hiro relayed the information to their protectors. Steve exchanged a single glance with his partner, before the latter nodded, rolled down the window, and climbed out onto the top of the car. Hiro risked another look through the rear windshield and saw him leapfrog to the nearest pursuing van.

“Do I know him from somewhere?” he wondered out loud. “I think I know him from somewhere.”

“Maybe he has one of those faces?” Fred suggested.

“Hiro, what's the plan?” Wasabi demanded.

“Good question.” Hiro looked up. “Steve? Not to bug you or anything, but do you have a plan?”

“Sort of playing it by ear at the moment,” was the tense reply. “I can't get us where we're going without losing these guys.” He took another sharp turn. “It's not like before, though. Taking out one car is one thing, but... four of them...”

“Wasabi, get Honey to sabotage those cars,” Hiro said. “Slick up the streets, gum up the wheels, anything to get them off the road and off our backs. Hey – she likes chemical metal embrittlement, doesn't she? See if she can crumble one of those vans like a dry sand castle.” He paused. “Without getting shot.”

“Got it.” Moments later he heard Wasabi relaying his advice. Hiro peeked cautiously over the backseat again, just in time to see a brightly-colored ball sail out of one of the van's windows and strike the windshield of one of the pursuing cars. It exploded in a burst of pink foam, covering the glass entirely. And judging by the motionless wipers, it hardened, too. The driver began to roll down the window, only for a second foam ball to splatter over it as well. Moments later the car swerved, ran up on the sidewalk, and took out a mailbox before plowing into a small tree.

“She is good.” Hiro muttered. “Steve, we're down to three.”

“Keep your head down and out of the line of fire,” Steve warned.

“Got it.” Hiro ducked dutifully, though not before seeing Steve's friend drag the driver out of the pursuing van through the window and toss him to the side of the road.

“That was so cool,” Fred muttered. “I don't care how many times I see that, it will never stop being cool.”

He spoke too soon; moments later the van swerved, and the man seemed to lose his grip. Another swerve, and he slipped from his perch on the van and hit the asphalt. The van ran off the road and stopped when it collided with a parked car.

“Your friend fell,” Hiro called, alarmed. “He – the van. He stopped the van but he fell off, he's getting left behind!”

But Steve's jaw was set. “He'll be okay,” he said. “He'll catch up later.”

The man was on his feet again, but rapidly getting smaller with each passing second, and Hiro couldn't explain the sudden stabbing pain in his chest at the thought of driving on without him. “But-”

“Trust me.” Steve's knuckles were white around the wheel, but his voice was dissonantly calm. “It takes more than that to take him down. And he knows where we're going.”

There was still a sedan and a van after them. Hiro saw more chemical balls burst on the pavement, slicking up the road, but both vehicles simply skidded and recovered. The drivers must have been getting savvy; they were swerving to avoid Honey's projectiles, quicker to clean up the mess they made, or skillful enough to push through the sabotage and keep after them.

Hiro gritted his teeth in frustration. The men pursuing them had a distinct advantage that they didn't; they didn't have to worry about avoiding bullets whenever they leaned out to shoot a ball out of the air or wipe foam away before it could harden over their windows.

I have an idea,” he heard Honey say. “Wasabi, you're not gonna like it.

Over the phone, he heard Wasabi heave a sigh. “Gonna have to call you back, little man.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I'm pretty sure sure I'm about to do something incredibly stupid. Baymax I need you to spot me.” The call ended before Hiro could demand to know what he was trying to do.

“Hang on, they're doing something,” he said.

“What?” Fred was in that weird place between worry and excitement.

“I don't know.” Heart pounding, Hiro put the phone down and looked back again. Wasabi's van was steadying its speed, keeping its distance a couple car-lengths ahead of the other van. The two were in separate lanes, Wasabi's to the right and the other to the left and behind. As Hiro watched, the door adjacent to the enemy vehicle opened slightly, revealing Wasabi's wide-eyed but determined face, and Gogo slammed on the brakes. The enemy van shot past them, and Hiro just barely caught the flash of bright blue plasma close to the ground.

Momentum carried the enemy van forward before the damage took its toll. The vehicle tilted to the side with an earsplitting screech of metal on asphalt. Wasabi hadn't just flattened the tires – his plasma blade had cut through metal and rubber alike, bisecting both tires on its right side. Sparks flew between the van and the scraping road. Crippled, it slid forward until friction ground it to a halt.

One last sedan, and the others had lost significant ground when Gogo braked. Hiro saw a window open and a gun barrel poke out, aiming for their car for one more spray of bullets.

He was slow to duck, but that turned out to be a good thing. If he'd been faster, he would have missed what happened next.

Something dropped from the sky, swooping like some kind of prehistoric eagle. Hiro was reminded of old myths that described birds big enough to carry humans in flight, and could only stare in awe. A metallic wingspan spread and angled, and Hiro followed the magnificent machinery from the wingtips all the way back to the person wearing it. Steve's friend hung from his grip, metal arm gleaming, until the man with metal wings dropped him square on top of the remaining sedan.

If Hiro hadn't been prepared for that, then the men coming after them certainly hadn't been. Steve's partner simply stole their steering wheel as he'd done to the car back in the Lincoln Tunnel, and the man with wings plucked him back up before the car could crash with him on top.

“See?” Steve's voice drew Hiro's attention forward again. His voice was light, but he still sounded relieved. “We're all accounted for. You two good?”

Hiro glanced at Fred, who stared back at him with the stunned blankness of someone who has experienced way too much in too little time. “I think we're good,” Hiro said shakily. He glanced back, and sighed with relief when he saw Wasabi's van steadily catching up again. “Yeah. We're good.”

 

Chapter Text

 Steve pulled into a private parking garage, checking every now and then that the dented van was still with them. Aside from signaling out the window for the other driver to follow him, there had been no communication since their escape from their Hydra pursuers. Hiro and Fred were silent in the backseat, and Sam had flown off with Bucky earlier, leaving Steve to his thoughts.

He had come to the conclusion that their behavior throughout this entire ordeal – Hiro's behavior, at lest – bespoke far more than the simple natural ability to keep one's head in a crisis. There was no one piece of evidence that had convinced him, but a combination of many. There was the evidence they had offered them during the ride, the implication that they had been investigating a suspicious company that was most likely under Hydra's umbrella. They had remained calm and coherent back when Hydra was literally blowing through Steve's front door. They had found and used the resources available to them – the surveillance cameras in the apartment building, the strange technology that Hiro was carrying, the safe room in the laundry, and even Steve himself. They had followed his instructions while keeping alert and warning him of other dangers. And when help had arrived for them here in D.C., Hiro had gotten straight to the root of the danger and called out instructions to his friends, almost as easily and confidently as, well, giving orders.

That wasn't luck, and it wasn't a coincidence; that was experience, plain and simple.

And Steve would have been fine with that if he'd seen it coming from anywhere but a small, scrawny fourteen-year-old.

The garage was spacious but empty, and Steve pulled into a random spot before killing the engine. The van pulled to a stop at a respectful distance, and the doors opened before the vehicle had quite stopped moving. The first to touch the ground was a middle-aged brunette, presumably Hiro's aunt, stepping out of passenger's side. Then the two in the back emerged, and finally the driver, all of them around college age. As Hiro and Fred climbed out of the car, the latter three overtook the older woman and wordlessly pulled the boys into a huddled embrace. Steve stepped out, instinctively scanning the area, but there was nothing there to interrupt the reunion.

Then the aunt caught up, and Hiro slipped away from the others to run into her waiting arms. Silently she held him tightly, as if unwilling to let go.

Steve gave them another few moments before carefully clearing his throat. “This place is secure,” he said, trying not to wince when his voice echoed. “There's a house across the street from the exit – we'll be safe there.”

Hiro's aunt looked up, and her face was like stone as she clutched her nephew closer. “That's what I heard back when they were in New York.” Her voice was grim and steady as she challenged him.

“Aunt Cass-” Hiro muttered, but his voice trailed off. Even surrounded by friends, Fred took a sudden deep interest in his feet.

Guilt welled up, but Steve forced it back down. Getting weepy at this point would help no one. “I don't think any of us have much choice at this point,” he said simply.

Her brow furrowed in a deep frown, but she nodded.

Steve led them up to street level, casting a worried glance over his shoulder at them. They only had to cross one street to get there, but a group this size could stick out, especially with one of them rolling a bright red metal case behind him. He paused, frowning. “What's that?”

“Friend of ours,” the driver answered, teeth snapping against a wad of gum. “We'd rather not leave him in the car, it's rude.”

“Where we go, he goes,” Hiro said quietly. His aunt still had one arm around his shoulders, keeping him at her side instead of with the others, but she didn't protest or interrupt him. Steve hesitated, but Hiro caught his gaze and held it. “He's an AI. Like Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S. It's fine.”

Steve nodded, conceding, and continued toward the safety of Sam's home.
Luckily for them, the neighborhood was quiet at the moment. Even now, after the harrying chase through the streets, Steve had to remind himself to stay alert. Something about it made him feel watched – but not in a hostile way. The path felt safe to him.

If that was instinct talking, then he might as well trust it.

Finally, he made his way up a familiar walkway with the group at his back. He had barely lifted his hand to reach for the doorbell when it opened, and Sam stood in the doorway with an eyebrow raised at the group with him.

“Now, I don't know how they taught you 'rithmetic back in the forties, Steve,” Sam remarked. “But that's a few more than just two.”

Steve gave him a long-suffering look. “I have nowhere else to take them.”

His friend checked their surroundings, then stood back and let them all in.

Bucky was already sitting in the kitchen with a glass of orange juice when Steve walked in. He was only mildly surprised to see Agent Hill leaning on the counter and stirring a cup of coffee with a teaspoon. Eyebrows rose as the group filed into the room, and Steve heaved a sigh as he prepared himself for a considerably larger headache than he'd been expecting.

Introductions went back and forth, though Bucky stayed quiet and simply watched. Sam dragged in more chairs. Hiro ignored them, standing at his aunt's side with his arms crossed, looking for all the world like a kid getting dragged to the principal's office.

Hill was the first to get bored with avoiding the inevitable. “That was impressive out there, from what I hear,” she remarked, eying the three college students. “Some impressive driving, first off-” Ethel Kim smirked slightly. “-but beyond that you took out two cars of heavily-armed Hydra agents. Three, counting the first one you ran off the road. And some of your methods were pretty familiar.”

At this, Pamela Rosales and David Tucker followed Fred's example by studying their feet, but Ethel Kim simply rolled her gum in her mouth and stared levelly at Hill with a flat expression.

“We've been keeping... a very loose eye on the vigilante group in California,” Hill went on. “Not a whole lot of good Samaritans running around using handheld plasma blades and weaponized chemical reactions.”

David and Pamela winced. Cass Hamada's jaw was tight. Looking at her, Steve had to wonder how much she knew about all this.

“Hiro,” he said gently, trying to look the boy in the eye. “Do you know why Hydra is targeting you?”

Ethel's attention snapped to him, and she fixed him with a protective scowl. “Hey, we don't-”

Hiro elbowed her lightly, cutting her off. His aunt's hand tightened on his shoulder, but he set his jaw and finally returned Steve's steady gaze. “Yes.”

“Oh boy,” David muttered. “Here we go.”

“Y'know, that's three of you,” Hill remarked, looking at Pamela, David, and Ethel in turn. “Where's the other half of your team?”

A sheepish Fred raised his hand. Hiro raised his as well, glaring as if daring anyone to challenge him. Beside him, his aunt looked like she was about to be sick.

Resigned, Ethel jerked her thumb at the red case at David's feet. “Our last guy's the robot.”

Hill frowned. “How does a bunch of college kids get their hands on that kind of tech?”

“We make it,” Hiro said flatly. “Well. I make it, mostly.”

“Don't take all the credit,” Ethel muttered.

“How dare you.” Cass Hamada caught them all off guard – even Hiro jumped. She had been silent up to this point, but now her voice rang out coldly, and her eyes flashed with anger. Suddenly the four looked nervous. “What were you thinking?” she demanded. “It's not enough that you endanger your own lives, but you bring my nephew into it, too? How long has this been going on?”

“Miss Hamada,” Hill began.

“No, no, don't answer that.” She ignored Hill, her voice trembling angrily. “I know how long, I watch the news, I see what you do, what – what you throw yourselves into, and for you to drag Hiro into it, too?” Her voice rose in pitch, sharp with protective rage. “I trusted you with him! I trusted you to keep him safe, to be there for him when I can't be, and you drag him into this – this-” She broke off, shaking with suppressed fury. “He could have been killed because of-”

“Aunt Cass, stop!” Hiro pulled out of her grip and darted around to face her, standing between her and his friends. His fists clenched, and he faltered, unable to look her in the eye. “They didn't drag me into this, okay? It wasn't even their idea, it was mine – if anything I was the one that dragged them into it.” His aunt stared at him in abject horror, and he tried to look up again but quailed under her eyes. “Don't yell at them. They tried to stop me, but I talked them around. It was my idea.”

She looked caught between wanting to shout again and wanting to burst into tears, and finally Sam stepped forward for the first time since introducing himself. “Miss Hamada, if I may?” Her eyes shone wetly as she turned to him. “I know that this is a nightmare. And I can't imagine how terrifying this is for you. But our top priority is keeping everyone safe, right here, right now.” He glanced at each of their guests in turn, and his tone turned dry. “Believe me, I know the urge is strong, but yelling and pointing fingers is getting us nowhere. There's plenty of time for that later when you aren't on the run.” He dragged a chair over with his foot. “C'mon, people, I brought these out for a reason.”

Subdued, the six of them took seats. Hiro still wouldn't look his aunt in the eye, but he managed to look up at Sam.

Sam sat down as well, closer to eye level with Hiro, and nodded. “So. Maybe you should start from the beginning.” He glanced briefly at Cass again. “For everyone's sake.”

Sighing, Hiro pushed his bangs out of his eyes with one hand, and curled the other in his pant leg. “Um.” He hesitated, shooting a glance back at his friends. “I guess it started almost seven months ago. When the SFIT auditorium burned down...”

It was one hell of a story.

Even with the others chipping in whenever Hiro faltered, it took a while for them to get through the whole thing. It was an internal battle just to resist the urge to interrupt with questions, but Steve bit his tongue. Hill almost broke in a few times, but held herself back until Hiro finally fell silent and shrugged, indicating that he was finished. His aunt was almost curled up in her chair, covering her face with both hands. She breathed in and out steadily, and she may have been crying, but Steve couldn't be sure.

“Damn,” was Sam's immediate reaction.

With a touch of impatience, Hill finally stopped holding back. “This changes things.” Her eyes locked on Steve. “You do realize that, don't you?”

He nodded.

“What does it change?” Pamela asked cautiously, as if she wasn't sure she was allowed to speak.

“Well, for one thing it shifts our entire investigation.” Hill shook her head. “We've been operating under the assumption that Tony Stark was the target of this attack, but he wasn't. They were after you two-” She looked at Hiro and Fred. “-and Abigail Callaghan, the whole time.”

Cass Hamada gave a muffled sob. Beside her Hiro started and reached for her as if to comfort her, only to shy away at the last minute.

“You're sure?” Ethel asked.

“Captain Rogers and... Barnes-” She nodded to Bucky. “-brought us a piece of intel that might interest you.” She shook her head. “We only thought he was a lead because of his acquaintance with Stark, his prominence in the science community, and his attendance to the Expo in the past, but... if you have a history with him, that sheds a whole new light on things.”

Ethel's eyes narrowed. “What did you find?”

“Professor Robert Callaghan's name on a list of Hydra contacts,” Steve answered.

You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.

“Are you kidding me?” Fred whispered.

“Not as a member,” Steve went on. “Just a contact. Someone they could exploit. But-”

“They didn't help him,” Hiro gritted out. “He was working alone.”

“Why do you say that?” Hill asked.

“Because he – the fire,” Hiro explained. “The SFIT fire, he started that so he could steal them.” He broke off, shaking his head. “I mean m-my microbots, that's the only reason he started that fire, because he needed to steal my microbots, and he wouldn't have needed them if he was working with Hydra. Right?” He looked at Steve, and there was something close to desperation in his eyes.

Steve took this in. Hiro brought up a good point – why steal tech from a fourteen-year-old if he had connections to Hydra and, presumably, the resources that came with it?

“We should talk to him,” Bucky said suddenly. Most of the room's occupants jumped, as if they'd forgotten he was there. “To Callaghan. Find what he knows.”

Hill set her jaw grimly. “It'll take some wrestling with red tape, but that can be arranged.”

Hiro swiped at the corner of his eye with his palm. “We can help.”

No.” Cass Hamada's voice was almost savage, and Hiro winced.

“There's nothing to do for now,” Hill went on, shrugging off the interruption. “Either way, as long as Hydra is active in its mission, we need to keep its targets safe.” She looked apologetic as she glanced at Hiro and Fred. “I know you two were looking forward to going home, but... that's just not safe right now. And if there's anything we need your help with, you'll be the first to know.”

“Make yourselves at home, I guess,” Sam added.

Steve saw Hiro glance at his aunt, and then at his friends, with a pleading look in his eyes. Ever the quick study, Sam stood up and offered to show them around the place. Fred excused himself without a word and followed him out of the room. The other three joined in, though Honey Lemon hesitated and cast a worried glance back at them before she left. Bucky slunk out of the room silently, and Steve was about to follow him when Cass spoke again.

“What were you thinking.” She had dropped her hands to her lap and was looking at her nephew again. She seemed to have aged ten years in the past ten minutes, and the look on her face was thunderous.

The remaining SHIELD presence might as well have not existed, for all that the pair seemed to acknowledge them. “Aunt Cass-”

“No. Don't you 'Aunt Cass' me.” Her voice shook. “Hiro... were you thinking? At all?”

“I-I wasn't-” Hiro's voice cracked.

“Is this my fault? Should I have noticed something?” Her voice rose, and she shook her head. Tactfully Steve inched back toward the doorway. “Maybe I did notice something. All your odd hours, skipping meals, disappearing on the weekends – I-I thought it was just school, I thought – but it couldn't have been. I should have known it wasn't, because Tadashi never-” She broke off with a strangled sob. “Oh God, I've been cheering them on in the news, all this time, and it was you. It was always you, and you could've been-”

“Aunt Cass, I wouldn't have-”

“You're all I have left!” Steve jumped at the woman's sudden shout, averting his eyes when he saw the tears streaming down her face. “Don't you understand that? You are all I have left, and you're – what, fighting criminals? Flying through falling buildings? Why, Hiro? Why would you...?” Another sob choked off her words. “I can't, Hiro. I can't. I can't lose you too.”

“You won't-”

“Oh, this is all my fault.” Her fingers were running through her hair, catching in the tangles and dragging at her scalp until it must have hurt. “I didn't check on you, I didn't support you-”

“You have-”

“I can't even protect you from this. I don't even know where to begin with this. Drugs and girls and bad grades and getting arrested, I know how to have those conversations, but I don't understand this, and I don't understand why you would do this-”

Hiro slammed both hands down on the table, cutting off his aunt with a rattling bang and a cracked shout of his own. “Because nobody else died in that fire, Aunt Cass! Just Tadashi!”

The woman froze, staring at him with wide, wet eyes.

“He was the only one!” Hiro barely seemed to notice the wet streaks down his own face. “Nobody else was killed, nobody – nobody was even hurt.” His voice cracked again. “It would've taken one person, one person, to save him. Just one.” He lifted one shaking hand to wipe vainly at his face before planting it on the table again. “And I was there, he was right there and I could've – I should've been that person. I could've stopped him – I could've saved him. But I didn't. I-I wasn't.” The boy glared fiercely at her through his tears. “So this – this is me, being that person. I'm gonna keep being that person, and maybe – maybe if I save enough people, I'll-” He faltered. “I don't know.” His head hung heavily. “I don't know, Aunt Cass.” Slowly he sank back into his chair, shaking and crying quietly. “I'm sorry. I don't – I really don't know why either. I just know I have to.”

Steve caught the tired, dismayed look on Hill's face from across the room, and decided that they both had overstayed their welcome. Wordlessly he left, just as Cass Hamada reached over to pull her nephew into a tight hug.


Hiro felt limp with exhaustion when he finally pulled away from his aunt and went in search of his friends. The conversation with the agents had given him a lot to think about, and apparently he'd given Aunt Cass a lot to think about, too.

Sometimes Hamadas just did their thinking best by themselves.

He found four out of the five in one of the spare rooms. Gogo, Honey, and Wasabi sat around, looking faintly dazed – with Baymax freshly activated and sitting at the very center of the group. At Hiro's approach, they turned to look at him.

Hiro took in their worried faces and sighed. “I take it you heard all that.”

“You sounded upset,” Baymax remarked. “Are you all right?”

“Physically, yes,” Hiro answered. “Emotionally... maybe a little less.”

“Hiro...” Honey stared at him sorrowfully. “I didn't know you felt that way. Why didn't you say anything? You know it's not-”

“Not my fault, what happened? Sure, yeah, I know that.” It came out more bitter than he wanted, and he shook his head. “I mean... I know that, up here.” He tapped his temple. “The rest of me's still catching up. It's... whatever. It's a thing.” None of them looked convinced. Hiro wasn't sure he was convinced, either. “So, uh... yeah. All that. Hydra. Lerna – did Fred tell you about that?” He looked around. “Where's Fred?”

“He wandered off,” Wasabi said with a shrug. “He didn't really say much, either.”

“Okay.” Hiro massaged his forehead as best he could. “Um, so Lerna's probably part of Hydra. We've probably been investigating Hydra this whole time.”

Wasabi threw his hands up in the air. “Of course. Of course we were, of course.

“We brought all our gear,” Gogo said. “In case it comes to that. Which, let's face it, of course it's going to come to that.”

“Is your aunt okay?” Honey asked.

“She's... I don't know. I really don't know. I think she's letting it sink in, so I'm just... gonna let her do that.” Hiro's voice trailed off, and he fidgeted for a moment before letting his composure break and running to join them in Baymax's hug. “I missed you guys.” For a moment he was surrounded by friends – Baymax's warm vinyl, Wasabi's big, friendly arms, Honey's perfume, and Gogo's hand messing up his hair. For a moment, everything sucked just a little bit less than it had before.

“We missed you too,” Honey answered. “We're just glad you and Fred are okay.”

“Speaking of which, he's missing out,” Wasabi remarked.

“He is down the hall and to the right,” Baymax announced. “Currently he is alone. In his current emotional state, I do not believe that will be helpful.”

“I hate to ask this,” Gogo said. “But he didn't say much to any of us, so could you try talking to him?”

“You're right.” Reluctantly, Hiro pulled out of the group hug and struggled to his feet. “I better go talk to him. I'll be right back.”

“Want us to come with?” Wasabi offered.

“Maybe later, just... hang on a second.” Hiro darted out of the room, hanging a right like Baymax had said. As quickly as he could he peeked into the next few rooms, until finally spotting his friend in the one three doors down from the others. “Fred-?” He stopped short, shoulders dropping.

Fred sat against the wall, knees drawn up to his chest. Until Hiro walked in, he was staring wordlessly at the opposite wall with his hand tangled in his hair. He looked at least as exhausted as Hiro felt, which was saying something.

Inwardly Hiro steeled himself. Clearly he was dealing with Sad Fred right now, and... well, Sad Fred was a little hard to deal with if only because he didn't show up very often in someone who produced positive energy as easily as carbon dioxide. “Ho boy,” Hiro muttered, and crossed the room to sit down next to him. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“You've been quiet,” Hiro remarked.

“There hasn't been a whole lot to say.”

“Yeah, like that's stopped you before.” The dry comment brought a brief smile to Fred's face, which Hiro took as encouragement. “Seriously, though. Car chase, right? Two car chases in one day. I figured you'd be bouncing off the walls by now.” He paused. “You didn't say much earlier, either, when we were pretty much explaining our entire backstory to Captain America.”

“You had it handled.”

Hiro frowned. “Okay, this is the part where I cut the crap and just tell you I'm seriously worried about you.”

Fred blinked, glancing at him in surprise. “What? Why?”

“Because a few days ago it hadn't been a hundred percent confirmed for me that you weren't going to die.” Hiro counted off on his fingers. “Then there was that jerkwad that tried to shoot you back in New York. Plus both those car chases had way more bullets in them than the first one we were in. And now you're quiet and sitting by yourself and this isn't like you.” Hiro leaned forward, cocking his head, trying to look Fred in the eye. “If you don't want me around, I'll leave.”

“Black Mercedes,” Fred said.

“What?”

“There was a black Mercedes when Pepper was driving me from the hospital,” Fred went on. “I saw it a couple more times, maybe. The last time I saw it was right before those guys pulled into the parking lot and blew down the door.”

“Why didn't you-”

“I don't know!” Fred burst out. “I don't know, I mean the first time I didn't think anything about it. And then I kept getting distracted by stuff, and just-” He thumped the back of his head lightly against the wall. “It was so stupid.

“It wasn't that stupid, I mean it was one car and we had other stuff on our minds-”

“I should've said something!” Fred sat back with a frustrated sigh. “You know me, I never have a problem opening my mouth!”

“Hey, look, we're all okay,” Hiro pointed out. “We're fine, all of us. Nobody got hurt-” He paused, remembering the several wrecked cars they'd left in their wake. “I mean nobody who counts – and we got out of it okay, remember?”

“Yeah,” Fred said bitterly. “No thanks to me.”

Hiro blinked. “Is that what this is about? They had us on the run, dude. What, did you want to kung-fu your way through a load of Hydra agents or something?”

“Would've been nice if I did something.” Fred looked away for a moment. “I mean, besides running, ducking, and getting dragged around like a freaking loser NPC in an escort sidequest, you know?”

“...Oh.” Hiro could have smacked himself. Fred loved the hero part of being a superhero; of course getting damsel-rescued for an entire day would get to him. “I mean, to be fair, this whole things' been kind of out of our weight class.”

“Didn't stop you from being a little badass,” Fred pointed out, grinning wryly at him. “Seriously. You saved my sorry butt back in New York. Plus you've been going all commander-in-chief with the others since. And I'm just sort of... there.”

“You had an off day,” Hiro said. “Hey, the others brought our stuff with them. That means you too – you'll have your moment.”

“I hope so,” Fred sighed. “It just feels like I keep missing stuff and messing up, you know?” Hiro nodded, chest twisting with sympathy. “It's like, I can't even watch your back without ending up in the hospital, 'cause apparently throwing myself around like a meat shield's all I'm good for when I don't have my stuff-”

“Wait, what?” Hiro broke in. Fred blinked, eyes bugging a little.

“Uh, I mean-”

“Throwing yourself-” Hiro sat up straight. “Fred, you told me you didn't do that on purpose!”

“I didn't!” Fred said. “I mean... I don't think I did? It just... it just happened, dude, I just moved and then-”

A jumble of English and Japanese swear words spilled out of Hiro's mouth in a quiet rush. “Fred, for the love of-” He forced himself to stop. “Don't do that. Please don't ever do that again.” When Fred didn't answer, Hiro dug his elbow into his friend's side. “Hey. Promise me.”

“Nope.”

“What do you mean 'nope'?” Hiro hissed.

“I mean if you want me to promise I won't try, like my absolute hardest to keep you from getting killed, then... yeah, nope.” Fred shut his eyes and shook his head. “Sorry. Final answer, Meredith.”

“I'm not joking,” Hiro gritted out.

“Me neither. Except the Meredith thing, I know your name's not Meredith.”

“Why is this so important to you?” Hiro wished he'd closed the door when he came in, because if he wasn't careful he was going to broadcast this to everyone in the house.

Instead of answering, Fred just crossed his arms over his knees and stubbornly hid his face. Hiro elbowed him in the ribs again, to no avail.

“Fred, seriously,” he said. “If you're not gonna promise, then fine, but at least tell me why.” Fred drew his shoulders in. “I deserve to know, don't I?”

The question hung in the air without an answer, and Hiro could only stare in pained frustration at his silent friend. When Fred finally did speak, he kept his head down

“Everything's been going wrong.” Fred's voice was muffled. “Ever since we got to New York. First there's people following us, then I run my stupid mouth, then everything goes to hell and Callaghan was with Hydra the whole time and you almost burned to death too and-” He broke off.

Hiro blinked, struggling to speak through the tight pain in his throat. “Too – what, is this about Tadashi?” No answer. “...Fred?”

Fred was silent again, leaving Hiro to sit and wait and pick at loose carpet fibers. Finally he spoke again, his voice still faint and quiet. “I miss him,” he said. “Like not every day. Sometimes it goes away and I get a break. Sometimes I get a whole day where everything's normal and then I look up and it's like I forgot it happened, like I'll see you walk out of the lab and for one second I'm just disappointed it's not him. And then I feel terrible because you don't deserve that.” He paused. “I shouldn't have told you that.”

Hiro swallowed hard, trying to shake of the feeling like he'd just been kicked in the stomach. “Have you-”

“Lemme finish.” Fred was quite for a few more seconds, long enough for Hiro to start wondering if he was going to finish at all. “You said I'm not him,” he went on finally. “And I know that. I know I'm not him. But you're not him either, and you're just as good too. Has anybody ever told you that? I feel like someone should have told you that.”

He had to look away. If he kept looking at Fred, he was going to cry because looking at Fred hurt and crying was a natural response to pain. He caught his breath, fingers curling in the carpet. “Have you talked to the others?” he asked when he found his voice again.

Fred shook his head.

“Why not? They were his friends too, I'm sure they'll get it...” His voice trailed off when Fred didn't answer again. Hiro's mind was working, gears turning as a hundred tiny little clues and hints settled into place like puzzle pieces. When the full picture formed, he had to sit and catch his breath for a moment.

“Oh,” he whispered. He tried to think of something to say – he really did. But he'd run out of words, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't think of any he could use to translate the mess that was going on in his head. Was this how Abigail felt, all the time?

So he didn't say anything, in the end. He just sat in silence, and let the mess in his head lie.

Chapter Text

 “Okay,” Fred said at length, and Hiro almost jumped. They'd been sitting in silence for at least ten minutes, and Fred had barely stirred. Now he raised his head, untangling his hand from his hair as he took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay, I think I'm good. Sorry about that, I usually don't do that kind of thing in front of people, but since we're all stuck in the same place it's kind of-”

“Fred.” Hiro cut him off, because for one thing he was starting to babble, and for another Hiro had at least a dozen questions. “Did you-”

“Can we not?” Fred turned to him with a pleading look in his eyes. “I mean, just not now? Once all this stuff's over with and we're back home and all this Hydra junk's behind us, then yeah, we'll have that conversation, but just... not now.”

“Okay.” Reluctantly, Hiro backed off. “Okay – now remember you said that.” He nudged him gently. “'Cause I'm gonna hold you to that.”

“Yeah, that's fair.” Fred wiped his eyes. “Seriously, though, we got more important junk to worry about. Like Hydra. And – oh, man. Oh, man. I got this feeling, like – like I just picked up a snake, played around and took selfies with it, put it back, and then walked away and somebody was like 'dude that was a viper.'” He shuddered. “Like we legit could've died and we didn't even know it at the time and that's kind of horrifying.”

“Yeah, kind of.” Hiro groaned softly, running both hands through his hair.

“And it's totally crazy how it went down, too.” Fred leaned back with a thump, knocking the back of his head against the wall again. “Like, they were following us for a whole week, remember? Those two guys who followed us up the Empire State, and then those guys you led off at Coney Island.” Fred sat up, elbowing him. “Wait a sec – dude, they were following us back before we even went near that office building looking for Lerna. Why didn't they snatch us then? If they wanted us, they had loads of chances before the Expo even happened. Why'd they wait til they had to bust down Captain America's front door and have a shootout with SHIELD agents just to get near us?”

“That's...” Hiro's voice trailed off, and his eye twitched slightly as he worked through the problems. “Yeah. Good question. I mean questions. Why'd they wait, what were they waiting for, I mean it wasn't... it wasn't until...” The jolt of realization drove him to his feet.

Fred sat up again. “Until what?”

Hiro turned and locked eyes with him. “Snowden. Remember? I answered Snowden, and less than ten minutes later they were rolling up on us.”

Fred's eyes went round, and he smacked himself in the forehead. “Are you kidding me? All that buildup, all that time trying to get into that stupid file and dig through his code and figure out his dumb unflavored-oatmeal website, and it was just some douche in Hydra catfishing you?”

“With our luck lately, probably,” Hiro growled. “Urrgh, this is so embarrassing. Now I have to go tell Steve that Hydra breaking down his door is probably completely my fault.”

“We don't know that, dude,” Fred reminded him. “Could've been one thing in a whole bunch of things. I mean you're right though, first we should probably tell them about that. And about getting followed.”

Hiro groaned quietly. “Let's get this over with.”

They all reconvened in the kitchen, first Hiro and Fred, then the others. The kitchen was the best place for it, they decided, because Steve and Agent Maria Hill had wandered back in. Also, the kitchen was where Aunt Cass was, and the thought of sneaking around when the cat was already out of the bag gave Hiro the beginnings of a headache.

Aunt Cass turned in her chair at his approach, one hand braced against the edge of the table as if she was about to get up. But Hiro dragged out another chair with his foot and sat in it before she had the chance. The others took their own seats, silent but supportive.

“I'm sorry,” he began.

“Oh, Hiro.” His heart sank – she sounded so tired, like the world was on her shoulders and Hiro had put it there. “I wish you hadn't done this.”

“I know.” His voice cracked. “But I did. And – I don't know what's gonna happen when all this is over, if you're gonna make me stop, or...” His voice trailed off.

“I don't know.” She sighed, passing her hand over her eyes. “I want to. I think I should. But I just don't know anymore.” She let her hand drop, and met his eyes firmly. “But either way – no more lying to me. No more hiding, no more going behind my back. That has to stop.”

“Okay.” Hiro nodded, then looked past her to the two members of SHIELD, who were very deliberately not watching them. “We've got some stuff to say anyway. I think... me and Fred, we might know why Hydra attacked us when they did.” That had there attention instantly. As quickly as he could, he gave them a rundown of their discoveries concerning the Lerna company, including the instances of being followed through the city. Technically he was briefing all of them – he and Fred hadn't had the chance to talk to the others about it just yet. Finally, he got around to Snowden and the website.

“It's a way of communicating,” he explained. “Hidden messages in the website's data. I figured the first message was a test, making sure I could use the code, but I left a reply not even ten minutes before they busted in on us.” He wrung his hands in his lap, trying and failing to look Steve in the eye. “So... yeah, that was probably my fault. I'm sorry.”

“That is possible.” Hiro almost jumped at the voice from the entrance to the kitchen. At some point during the explanations, Sam Wilson and Steve's weird quiet friend had wandered back. Wilson was the one that had spoken. “Either way, you may have gotten a lead on Hydra that, frankly, we don't.”

“The timing could just be a coincidence,” Honey said cautiously.

Wasabi shook his head. “Or it could be a trap.”

“Why make it so hard for him to get into the damn thing, then?” Gogo pointed out.

“Do you...” Hill began. Hiro looked back at her just in time to see her shoot an apologetic glance at his aunt. “Do you think you could do it again? Contact them?”

“Does it have to be him?” Aunt Cass broke in. “I'm sure you have people capable of handling this.”

“Well...” Hill seemed to consider it, and Hiro ground his teeth against the urge to protest.

“I dunno,” Gogo said. “We know this guy's smart as hell, with all his secret codes and safeguards and hidden messages and stuff. If Snowden figures out he's talking to scary SHIELD agents instead of his original contact, he might jump ship on you.” Aunt Cass glared at her, and she gave an unapologetic shrug. “I'm just sayin'.”

“I... I could,” Hiro said. “I want to. I mean, I started this, and I want to help finish it. If this guy tricked me, I want to help you take him down. Or her, whatever. But...” He paused. “After today I don't want to try it without some serious safeguards to make sure they can't trace the IP. And a computer that's not mine.”

“That can be arranged...” Hill exchanged a glance with Steve.

Steve frowned back. “I'm not sure this is a good idea. It's a huge risk he'd be taking, and experience or not, he's still just a kid.”

“He can do it.”

Heads turned. It was the scary silent friend again – and Hiro knew his face, he knew he'd seen him somewhere, but he just couldn't figure out where. Hiro blinked, confused, because it was cool of this guy to speak up for him, but... why?

Hill chewed her lip. She looked uncertain, in spite of the fact that she was the first one to suggest the idea. “Barnes, let's not rush into this. The fact is, if he puts himself out there, we cannot one-hundred-percent guarantee his safety.”

The guy – Barnes, apparently – stared levelly at her. Hiro was reminded of the look Mochi always had whenever Hiro tried to shoo him off the keyboard. “I can,” he said bluntly.

“Can't argue with that,” Wasabi muttered. Hiro remembered the two Hydra cars missing their front steering wheels, and agreed.

“Can you, though?” Aunt Cass challenged him quietly. Hiro winced and opened his mouth to advise against it.

But Barnes simply shrugged. “Picked two corporate spies off those two,” he said, indicating Hiro and Fred. “Couple weeks ago.”

“Corporate spies?” Hill echoed.

“What I figured, at the time,” Barnes said. “Could've been Hydra getting a head start, but they were... clumsy.”

Hiro wracked his brain. He must have seen this guy, but where? “What do you mean, you picked spies off of us? When was this?”

Barnes raised an eyebrow at him. “You were being tailed, your second day in New York. Did a good job shaking them off, too. I just stepped in to make sure they didn't try again.”

“You were following us too, then?” Hiro asked.

“Making sure you weren't bothered on your first day,” Barnes explained. “Favor for Stark.”

“I... don't know if I saw you,” Hiro said hesitantly.

“You did.”

“That wasn't the only time, though,” Fred spoke up. “There were guys following us the day before the Expo – that was after we did the spying thing, though.”

Barnes frowned with displeasure. Wilson muttered something to himself, too indistinct to hear.

“Anything else?” Hill prompted.

“Uh, yeah.” Fred fidgeted slightly. “I saw this black Mercedes the day I first got to the apartment. Saw it a couple more times, and then the last time was right before those agents showed up today.”

By now, Aunt Cass's hand had settled on Hiro's shoulder and was gripping firmly, though not hard enough to be painful. “Aunt Cass?” he began.

She looked at him, but she didn't answer. Her mouth was a thin, tight line.

“We're in danger either way,” he said quietly. “The least we can do is do something about it.” He glanced around at the rest of his friends. Fred shrugged and gave him a thumbs-up. Honey looked determined. Gogo had a slight smirk going already. Wasabi was nervous, but gave him the tiniest nod. “I want these guys to get taken down,” he said, turning to the Steve and Hill, with a glance at Wilson and Barnes. “I think we can help you make it happen, if you let us.”

Steve sighed, reluctant but resigned. “Bucky, really?”

At first Hiro wasn't sure who he was talking to, before Barnes answered with a glint in his eye. “One volunteer's worth ten draftees, Stevie. You know that.”

“This isn't a war, Buck.”

“It isn't?”

Across the table, Hiro saw Fred sit up straight, staring at Barnes. “Wait a sec. You mean you're-?”

The phone rang in the other room. Wilson went to answer it while the rest of the gathering recovered from the unwelcome break to the tenuous balance in the room. Fred opened his mouth again, prepared to try again, but Steve spoke up before he could. His eyes were on Aunt Cass.

“I'm sorry about this,” he told her. “But we will do everything in our power to keep them safe. I give you my word.”

Hiro watched his aunt's face carefully. She met Steve's eyes for a few seconds, then sighed deeply and looked away again. Her jaw clenched, and she didn't answer.

“Are you kidding me?” Wilson's voice rang clearly from the next room, startling them (except Barnes, probably). “...What do you mean you're already outside? Turn around and go pick up some groceries first! Natasha – don't hang up on me!”

Moments later, there was a knock at the door.


Abigail stood one step in front of Natasha, arms laden with grocery bags. Her escort had been tight-lipped thus far, though that was nothing new – less than a week of interaction was enough to prove to Abigail that Natasha Romanov was many things, and “tight-lipped” was about forty percent of them. At this point it was all she could do to shrug and go along with it.

She ought to feel something, part of her realized. Natasha may have been tight-lipped, but she hadn't been silent for the whole trip. Apparently Abigail did deserve to know why she was being jumped by neo-fascist secret agents, and when she had gathered the nerve and the words to ask, Natasha had obliged her with a possible answer.

It all came back to Dad.

Of course it did.

Why had she expected any different?

She hadn't cried. She'd wanted to, but it just hadn't come. It wouldn't come.

Then word got to them that their intended destination had been compromised, so Natasha had swerved into a detour and brought her straight into Washington D.C.

Abigail would be lying if she said she wasn't just a tad bit gun-shy about large, politically significant east-coast cities at this point.

The door opened, and Abigail blinked as she came face to face with a somewhat frazzled-looking man – reasonably tall, African-American, and wearing a blue T-shirt that said “I am an Emotional Time Bomb” in white letters. At the sight of her he stopped, blinked, glanced over her shoulder at Natasha, and spoke. “Oh. You brought groceries.”

“Hello, Sam,” Natasha replied.

“Here, let me take those,” Sam murmured, carefully lifting the bags out of Abigail's arms. “Go ahead, go on in – Natasha, if we're not careful we'll attract attention.”

Abigail left the two of them hashing things out in the doorway and wandered inside, wringing her hands. The light was on in the kitchen and she could hear hushed voices – voices she recognized. Abigail paused around the corner from the kitchen and listened.

“Hiro, I just wish...” That was Cass Hamada talking. Cass was here – and so was Hiro? “I just wish you weren't so eager to throw yourself back into danger.”

“Aunt Cass, you don't understand-”

“I do understand,” Cass said firmly. “God help me, I understand why you started this... this hero thing. I just wish you hadn't.”

Her heart quickened. Bracing herself, Abigail stepped into the room and found herself surrounded by friendly faces. More or less – two of them were unfamiliar, and one of those two looked anything but friendly. But Captain America counted as a friendly face, and besides that Cass was there, as were Tadashi's friends, and Hiro.

Hiro.

Her ears dulled as if filled with cotton, and she felt sick as the fog in her brain approached nauseating silence. Her attention locked on Hiro, and she couldn't have torn it away if she tried. She hadn't seen him since the Expo – since before her realization. When he turned to look at her she almost faltered. What if she was wrong? What if she had misheard? What if she said something and made a fool of herself? What if her brain really was just scrambled, and her memory was playing tricks on her?

Someone was talking, saying her name maybe, but Abigail wasn't listening. Hiro was on his feet, Aunt Cass tentatively rising out of her chair behind him. She stared at his face, taking in every inch of it, half-expecting a pit in her chest and the realization that no, I was wrong, I heard wrong, he wasn't there, it wasn't him after all. She expected her heart to sink, her mind to go flat, her memory to change again.

But instead, she looked at his face and could see that memory as clear as day, Hiro wide-eyed as he wiped frost from the window of her pod.

He'd been there.

She was sure of it. She knew it, with every cell in her brain.

The world came sharply back into focus. The mists cleared, and she could hear again. Before she knew what she was doing, Abigail crossed the room in four steps and pulled him into a tight hug.

Hiro froze in shock. “Oh God what is happening.

“It was you.” The words slipped out before she could stop them, and Hiro tensed in her arms. “Wasn't it?” She didn't need to ask. She knew. “I-I... remember. You-” Speaking was difficult, and not just because words were difficult. Her throat closed painfully, the ache accompanied by the sting behind her eyes. Here were those tears she was missing, because all of this came back to Dad – and Dad stole from Hiro, hurt him, left his brother to die, he was the cause of all of this. And yet this boy that suffered so much at her father's hands had wiped the frost from her pod window and pulled her back into the world.

“Abigail?” Hiro's voice cracked, and so did whatever restraint Abigail had left. Her vision blurred, and she closed her eyes and hugged him tighter.

“It was you,” she repeated, small phrases at a time because it was difficult to talk already. “You were there – I remember you. You – got me – out. The window – there was fog, but you – you wiped it off. You were there. I remember. I remember.” She swallowed against the pain in her throat, in her chest. “You came for me.”

The next thing she knew, he was hugging her back. “Baymax said you were alive. We couldn't just leave you.”

She couldn't hold back the sob. “Thank you,” she whispered, and the tightness in her heart eased. She looked up at the other four, vision still blurry. “Thank you.


It was getting on to evening, but the day wasn't done yet. Not by a long shot, as long as Hiro had anything to say about it. Agent Hill and Natasha Romanov – the Natasha Romanov – slipped out, probably to arrange things – Hiro got the idea that Hill was a SHIELD higher-up with an emphasis on the “high.” With Abigail there, Aunt Cass's attention was finally divided, so Hiro managed to sidle away from her while they caught up. Still reeling from the knowledge that Abigail not only knew but had figured it out herself, Hiro turned his thoughts to other things. He weighed his options between the remaining three left watching over them, and decided to turn to Barnes.

“Hey, uh,” he began, but Fred had gotten there first.

“Are you Bucky Barnes?” Fred blurted. “As in, like, the Bucky Barnes?”

Barnes blinked slowly at him, and – yeah, Hiro was definitely reminded of a very large, very unimpressed cat. “Yes.”

“As in Sergeant James Buchanan-” Hiro cut him off with a light elbow to the side.

“That's me,” Barnes said, without a single inflection in his voice.

Fred's eyes went round. “Dude. Dude.” His throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Wait, but I thought-” Almost instantly Steve was there, hovering, and Fred quailed. “Uh... I mean... history books... kind of... um.”

“These things happen,” Barnes said dryly.

“I had a question,” Hiro spoke up. “It doesn't have anything to do with that. You know if there are any internet cafes or public libraries around here that are open?”

He spoke loudly enough for pretty much everyone in the room to hear his question. Aunt Cass broke off mid-conversation with Abigail to look over. Wilson took notice, too – maybe Hiro should have asked him in the first place, seeing as how he was the one who lived here. “I know a couple, why?” he said.

“Agent Hill said she'd work out cyber-security, right?” Hiro said. “Blocking the IP, that kind of thing.”

“That, and-” Wilson glanced to Abigail. “Arranging an interview for us with Professor Callaghan.” If the mention of her father bothered her, Abigail didn't show it. “Among other things.”

“Yeah, well, after today I kind of want to see if Snowden left me anything,” Hiro went on. “I want to find out for sure if I got conned.”

“How're you gonna find that out?” Wasabi asked.

Hiro shrugged. “Probably just ask.”

What.”

“Might not want to be wise, if he's guilty and we want to stay in touch,” Wilson pointed out. “Better to let him think you don't suspect him.”

“Look, if Snowden left me another message at all, it might mean I didn't get tricked,” Hiro pointed out. “But seeing as I got away, if Snowden's just a Hydra stooge then they'll probably be just as eager to keep the line open as we are. I think I can judge it if I get them talking, and I'll be careful either way, but if Snowden's with the guys who are after us, then it's just a matter of playing along and out-conning them.”

“You think you can judge it?” Steve sounded unsure.

Hiro shrugged again. “Takes a scammer to know another scammer.”

Wilson seemed to do a mental double take at that. “What's that supposed to mean?”

He considered going into detail, but chances were that his back-alley botfighting antics probably weren't relevant. “I plead the fifth,” he said finally. “So, can I do it?”

“We're in hiding,” Aunt Cass reminded him. “Not to mention I'm not letting you out of my sight as long as we're here.”

“You could go with him,” Barnes pointed out. Hiro wondered if he realized that he made people jump whenever he talked.

“Is that a good idea?” Wasabi asked. “Somehow I don't think that's a good idea.”

“I dunno,” Gogo mused. “He's got a point. It's not like Hiro can go by himself, and if he goes with just any of them, he's gonna stand out. I mean-” She pointed to Barnes. “He's terrifying.” Then to Steve. “He's a national celebrity.” And finally to Wilson. “And he's clearly not related to him. If he's with Cass, it'll just look like he's out with his mom or something.”

Hiro spared a sympathetic look for Abigail, who looked faintly bewildered about what was going on. Aunt Cass, on the other hand, looked thoughtful. “You can give me... ten minutes, tops,” he offered. “Enough to go in, check for a message, and maybe leave another one – the rest of the time to wait for a reply. What do you think?”

“As long as-” Aunt Cass broke in, faltering for a moment. “As long as you can make sure no one follows us back.”

Steve exchanged a glance with Barnes, then with Wilson. A moment later he let out a breath. “Sam, you know where it is. I'll hold the fort here, and give Natasha a call. She can watch for any tails. Bucky, you keep an eye on them.”

Barnes smiled. Out of the corner of his eye Hiro could see Fred practically vibrating with unasked questions. He didn't blame him – he had quite a few of his own.

But that could wait. First, he had a few questions for Snowden.

Chapter Text

“...So then, Steve got me and Hiro out of the apartment and out of New York – I mean there were a couple hiccups along the way but we got out of it,” Fred explained to an absolutely enraptured Abigail. “We got to D.C. in like four hours.”

“And that's where we came in!” Honey piped up. “We were in... another car chase.” Wasabi groaned loudly. “It was slightly less terrifying than our last one, though! Mostly because we were on the other side of it, but still.”

“And the van didn't end up in the drink this time,” Gogo added. Abigail giggled nervously.

“So this wasn't your first rodeo.” Heads turned, and Fred fought the urge to cringe. It had been quieter since Hiro, Cass, Sam Wilson, and Bucky Barnes (holy crap, holy crap) had left on their errand, and after teaming up to catch Abigail up on recent events, somehow they'd forgotten that Steve Rogers was still there. He was standing at the doorway, leaning one shoulder lightly against the wall. “I've read up on what's been going on in SF. After how you and Hiro handled yourselves under fire, I... guess I'm not surprised.”

Fred fidgeted guiltily. “Sorry we kept it from you.”

“No use worrying about that now.” Stepping forward, Steve pulled up a chair and sat with them. “Quite a story, though.”

“You're one to talk,” Gogo said, drawing a laugh from Steve.

“Got me there. I guess... I can't really fault any of you for jumping at the chance to be a hero.”

“I jumped in to look out for Hiro,” Wasabi said. “Well, so did everybody, pretty much. Someone has to. Actually, I'm pretty sure Fred's the only one who did it just for the hero thing.”

Honey giggled. “You should've seen him when Hiro first told us his plan. I thought Fred was going to get up and dance.”

“Hey, can you blame me?” Fred shrugged, grinning. “We saved the day, stopped a villain – saved Abbs here in the process.” He stopped himself short, glancing at her to make sure she wasn't bothered by it. But she was smiling, albeit sadly.

“Are you okay?” Gogo asked, looking straight at Abigail. “I mean, you've been through just as much as Fred and Hiro have – more, if you count before.”

“Been better,” Abigail admitted. “No thanks – to my dad.” Her smile turned bitter. “Figures.”

“I'm so sorry, Abigail,” Honey said softly.

“We had no idea he was... you know,” Fred said, turning back to Steve. “But... I guess it's not that surprising.” His eyes rolled. “I mean, come on, creepy threatening villains always end up connected somehow. Always.” Gogo punched him in the arm. “Ow!”

“No, it's fine.” Abigail patted Gogo's shoulder. “I saw pictures. Videos. He's right. Dad was creepy.”

“My point stands,” Fred muttered, rubbing at what was probably going to be a bruise in a few minutes. “Always happens.”

Steve raised an eyebrow at him. “Always?”

“Shyeah. How else do you get the cool crossover arcs where the different hero factions team up?”

“Do you always make your predictions based on comic books?” Steve asked. He sounded amused, which Fred took as a good sign.

“Is the sky blue?” Wasabi muttered.

“Dude. In case you haven't noticed, my life is a comic book now.” Fred spread his hands wide. “I'll stop making 'em when they stop coming true.” He paused, curiosity pushing his questions closer to the tip of his tongue. “Um... speaking of which... is it cool if I ask about-”

“Bucky?” Steve finished for him. Fred bit his lip and nodded vigorously. Steve sobered, and the look on his face was almost haunted. It passed after just a moment, but Fred almost took it back right then and there. “That's... a long story. Almost seventy years long, in fact.” He paused. “Y'know, when I woke up in the twenty-first century, I thought I was alone. I thought, y'know, nobody would've followed me into the future. And when I found out someone did, I ended up wishing he hadn't. What he went through...” Steve's voice trailed off, and Fred saw his jaw tighten. “There is a reason finding Hydra still running strong was my worst nightmare.”

“Hydra is-” Abigail faltered. “Why he's... still here?”

“I'll be sure to say thank you when I finish taking them down,” Steve said flatly. “...If I finish taking them down.”

“You'll do it,” Fred said hopefully. “You'll totally do it.”

“Yeah.” Steve avoided his eyes. “That's what people tell me.” He sat up, shifting in his chair. “I have to. For me this started back in the forties, and it's gone on too long. I have to end it, or no one's safe.” His jaw clenched for a second. “They don't care. Nothing's sacred. They don't care how many people they hurt, or who they hurt.”

“Even Krei,” Abigail muttered.

“Top to bottom,” Steve said ruefully. “Rich, poor, doesn't matter.”

“Speaking of Krei...” Fred glanced at Abigail. “Have you seen him lately? I haven't heard anything about him since the Expo.”

“Yes,” she answered. “At the shelter. He was there – talked to me. Asked about you. And Hiro.”

“Well that was nice of him,” Honey remarked. “I hope he's doing well, too.”

Gogo snorted. “He's a billionaire, of course he's doing well.”

“He was nice,” Abigail went on. “Asked stuff, but. He's... patient. With my...” She waved her hand vaguely.

Somewhere deep in Fred's mind, something clicked. “Wait, so he talked to you? What'd he ask you?”

“Just... stuff,” Abigail said. “If you were – okay. And where you were, um, staying. If it was safe. I didn't know. He wanted...” She paused, frowning. “Sorry, words. He wanted to talk. To you. Say thank you, for helping. At the Expo. When we ran out.” She shrugged. “Couldn't tell him much.”

“Oh. That's pretty cool of him.” Fred barely paid attention to what he was saying. An idea was forming in his head – well, not quite an idea, at this point. It was maybe forty percent of an idea. Barely a notion at this point. Almost a concept. Still, he held on to it.

“Does he know?” Abigail asked. “I thought - I was wondering. Does he – about you?”

“Yup,” Gogo said dryly.

“We couldn't avoid it,” Wasabi replied. “When we rescued him from... um... well, your dad, stuff came out and he was there to see it. He's been good about keeping it hushed, though.”

“Plus it's nice to have someone that rich who owes us,” Gogo added.

Honey glared at her. “Gogo, that's not why we saved him!”

“I know that, it's just a nice perk.”

“Gogo?” Steve echoed, and Fred could have smacked himself in the forehead.

“It's a nickname,” Gogo said with a shrug. “Fred's fault, like pretty much everything.”

“Hey!”

This brought the grin back to Steve's face, to Fred's quiet relief. “After seeing how you drive, I can see where it comes from.”

“Mine's Honey Lemon,” Honey said with a sweet smile. “Dave's is Wasabi.”

“Don't ask,” Wasabi groaned. “Just... don't ask.”

“Hey, I just make 'em up.” Fred shrugged. “Not my fault they stick. Right, Abbs?” Abigail giggled behind her hand.

“So far Hiro's been following the grand Hamada brother tradition of lucking out and getting called by his actual name,” Gogo went on.

Shows what you know. “I just haven't thought of one yet,” Fred said with a smirk. “One day, though. One day.”

Honey huffed fretfully. “I just hope he's okay right now.”


A local public library's network was good enough for Hiro's purposes, and the library's layout was good enough for Wilson, Barnes, and Romanov – who was apparently also present, though Hiro had yet to see her anywhere. He'd mentioned that to Wilson, whose only response had been, “Yeah, that's kind of the point.” At the moment, Wilson was sitting two computers over, idly browsing Reddit – or pretending to, in any case. Aunt Cass was sitting next to him, stiff and upright in her chair.

Carefully, Hiro entered in the website. It looked the same, but when he accessed the data, he spotted the changes almost immediately. Snowden had left something for him after all.

A piece of scratch paper was all he needed to decode the message – half of it he did in his head. Aunt Cass was leaning over his shoulder, watching; for her benefit, he wrote out the message as he translated it.

snowden works. you were spying on their comm. youre either very brave or very stupid. i have information.

His fingers hovered over the keys. The fact that there was a reply at all could be evidence that Snowden was on their side after all. Or, they could be playing innocent to keep the line of communication open. But which was it?

“What are you going to say?” Aunt Cass's whisper startled him. Under her breath she voiced the same concerns that he had. “How will you find out if they're lying to you?”

Hiro ground his teeth. “I'm going to ask.”

“Are you sure?”

Hiro doodled on the paper, lips moving as he worked out how to answer. Nodding, he took up the keyboard again.

funny story snowden. after I replied they came for me. they almost killed my friends. you asked me before but are you with them?

He left the message waiting in the code, checked the time – they would be here for twelve more minutes – and settled in to wait. Aunt Cass's hand closed around his, and he squeezed back on instinct.

“Are you still mad?” he asked, so softly that he wasn't sure whether or not she heard him at all.

“I'm scared,” she whispered back. “I've never been so scared.”

Hiro swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. “Me too.”

“But I'm so...” His aunt's voice caught, and her grip on his hand tightened. “Oh God, Hiro, I feel like I'm being torn in two. I don't want you anywhere you might get hurt, but... you saved Abigail. When I saw her earlier, thanking you, I didn't think about the danger you were in. I only thought about how happy she was, and – all I could think about was how many other people who are alive now because you've been risking your life.” Her hand passed over her eyes.

“Twenty-three,” Hiro whispered.

“What?”

“That's – I mean we've been at this for a few months, since Callaghan,” Hiro went on quietly. “And that's just me, there's more but the others saved them, like personally. I just - I didn't mean to count, it just sticks in my head.”

She squeezed his hand again. “I”m afraid for you. But I'm so, so proud of you. Okay? No matter what happens, I'm proud of you.”

Throat tight, he nodded.

There were less than four minutes on the clock when Hiro checked the code again and sat up straight in his chair. His hand slipped free of his aunt's grip, and he took up his pencil again.

“Did they answer?” Aunt Cass asked in a hushed voice.

“It was a long shot,” Hiro murmured back. “But yeah, they did.” Eyes narrowed, he set about decoding it.

i dont know anything about that. are you somewhere secure now.

“What now?” Aunt Cass leaned in.

“Hang on.” Hiro frowned at the screen. It wasn't a lot to go on. Kind of a blasé reaction, frankly. He needed more.

“What are you going to do?” Aunt Cass asked as he started scribbling again.

“I'm gonna press my luck,” he said grimly, and plugged his message into the mess of data.

safe now. if youre playing me i will walk away. why should i believe you.

“C'mon, c'mon,” he muttered. “Answer.” He shot a glance at Wilson, who was watching out of the corner of his eye. He wasn't signaling danger, but time was running short unless Hiro could convince them to let him stay longer.

The next message popped out at him – not only had Snowden not bothered to put it in code, but he had capitalized it. All of it.

DONT LEAVE. IM NOT WITH THEM. CANT PROVE IT. PLEASE LISTEN.

“Whoa,” he breathed. “Does that look desperate, or does that look desperate?”

“Looks pretty desperate,” Aunt Cass murmured.

Hiro grinned with all his teeth, equal parts eager and nervous as he worked out his next message. whats in it for you

His hands were sweating as he waited for another reply. On an impulse he deleted the previous frantic message – he wasn't sure why, it just seemed right. When the next one came, he almost scratched a hole in the paper writing it down.

theyll kill me if they find out. but theyre going to kill me anyway. maybe my family too. please.

Hiro stared at the piece of paper, hands shaking around his pencil. He tried to moisten his lips, but his tongue was just as dry.

Aunt Cass nudged him gently. “Hiro? Do you think they're telling the truth?”

“I don't know for sure.” Hiro's voice was hollow. “But they might be.” He settled his hands over the keyboard once more. “So I'm gonna try for twenty four.”

what information do you have?

His phone buzzed. He waited a few beats before checking it – a text from Wilson.

[Romanov saw the same car pass by more times than she likes. When I get up and leave, wait one minute and leave thru front entrance.]

His heart quickened. Not yet, he thought uselessly. Wilson got up and left. Luckily, there was a reply for him when he checked.

i can give you one of their active bases.

Hiro wanted to cry as he coded his answer. i have to leave. will be back tomorrow on secure network.

He stayed until his minute was up. At the last possible second, Snowden posted a reply. There was no time to decode it, much less answer, so he memorized it and slowly worked it out in his head as he and Aunt Cass made their way to the door.

ok. same time. please be back.


In spite of the minor alarm that Romanov had raised, they made it back safely. Steve was on the phone, and the Black Widow was already there waiting for them, sitting at the table with a mug of tea. The others sat around a pile of Chinese takeout boxes.

“Barnes is double-checking,” Romanov said by way of explanation. “He'll be back sooner or later, depending.”

“Depending on what?” Aunt Cass asked warily.

“Sooner if he finds something,” was the cool reply. “If he doesn't, he'll probably keep watch for the rest of the night.”

“So?” Wasabi prompted, looking to Hiro. “What's the verdict?”

Wordlessly, Hiro placed the scratch paper on the table, showing them his hastily-scrawled transcript of the conversation. The others leaned in for a closer look, including Wilson and Romanov.

“Well they sound desperate,” Gogo said distastefully. “Could be a play for sympathy, though.”

Still bent over the paper, Honey looked at Gogo through her eyelashes. “Do you want to take that chance?” she asked. Gogo's mouth tightened, and she didn't answer.

“Could be one of Hydra's countacts,” Wilson said. “Like Callaghan.” He shot a cautious look at Abigail. “Maybe they got fed up with being used, and now they're willing to sell them out for protection.”

“Do you grant requests like that?” Wasabi looked thoughtful. “And how's this have anything to do with the attack on Stark Expo?”

“We do,” Romanov said. “And there's a good chance they're unrelated, especially if your contact's telling the truth. If he's not, and he's playing you, then there's your answer. Either way he's keeping the line open.” She looked grim. “If he gives us intel about an active Hydra base, then good for us. If he leads us into a trap, well... at least that counts as a clue.”

Hiro felt his aunt step closer.

“That was Hill,” Steve spoke up as he hung up the phone. “We'll have a secure network set up here by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Good,” Hiro murmured.

“And we'll probably be able to talk to Callaghan the day after,” Steve went on. “It's gonna take some wrestling with red tape, but Fury's doing his best. They'll make it happen.”

“What's the 'probably'?” Gogo's eyes narrowed.

At this, Steve looked uncomfortable. “That's what I was getting to. Apparently when Callaghan heard we wanted to talk to him, and why he wanted to talk to him, he had a set of requests in return for his 'willing' cooperation.”

“What'd he want?” Hiro asked warily.

Steve sighed. “He'll only talk to the five of you.” He paused, with an apologetic look toward Abigail. “And he wants Abigail present.”

Hiro did not want to talk to Callaghan. He did not want to look at him, or listen to him, or even think about him if it wasn't absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately, it was starting to become absolutely necessary. He rubbed his temples, about to speak, but Abigail beat him to it. “Okay,” she said. “I can... I haven't seen him, or talked. I should. I'll do it.” She looked shamefaced.

“This'll be fun,” Gogo said sourly.

Hiro glanced at Abigail and swallowed the stinging anger that rose like bile from his chest. “He's not our enemy,” he reminded them, at the same time as he reminded himself. “Any fight there was between us ended when Abigail came out of that portal. It's gonna be awkward, but there's no reason it can't be civil.”

“He was with Hydra,” Fred pointed out.

“He was exploited by Hydra,” Hiro corrected him, glancing at Steve. “Right?”

“Far as we can tell.” There was something odd on Steve's face – approval? “I think we'll find out more details when we talk to him.”

“For now, it's getting late,” Wilson said before Hiro had the chance to press further. He glanced at each of them in turn. “Get some rest, all of you.”


It was five in the morning when Abigail abandoned sleep. She ducked into the bathroom for a quick shower and a change of clothes, and came out feeling less than refreshed. There was leftover Chinese from the previous evening, but food was the last thing on her mind at the moment.

The house was silent, except for the sounds of quiet breathing. The others were either asleep or gone. Abigail wandered out into the living room, running her fingers through her damp hair. She stumbled in the dark – someone had put Baymax's case at the foot of the sofa. Carefully she sat down on the couch next to it, humming softly to herself. The quiet loneliness of early morning settled over her, and she considered activating the robot, just for the sake of company.

Noises came from the kitchen, footsteps and a window sliding shut, startling her. Abigail rose, stepping forward to investigate, but the light came on and halted her in her tracks. It took her a moment to recognize the figure that came limping through.

Nervousness curdled the contents of her stomach. “Hello,” she said softly, once she was sure Barnes had seen her. He didn't seem like the kind of person who responded well to startling. “Are you – all right?”

“Fine,” he replied, grimacing. His hand was at his hip, and he stood awkwardly as if it pained him.

“Okay.” She wasn't sure what else she could say. To say that Barnes was intimidating was putting it lightly. It wasn't that she was afraid of him, per se – he was protecting them, after all. But the thought of making small talk with him was a bit much. “Did you – um. Find anything?”

“Nothing solid,” he said shortly. “I wasn't followed back.”

“Oh.” Any other words died before they reached her mouth.

Barnes settled into a chair with a grunt of pain. He lifted the hem of his shirt, just enough to check a gauze bandage taped in place at his hip. Abigail tried to be discreet, but her concern must have shown on her face. “I'm fine.”

“You weren't - I mean.” Abigail pursed her lips, piecing words and meanings together in her head. “You weren't limping, before.”

“Fell off a moving car yesterday,” Barnes said, grimacing again. “Steve fusses. So does Sam.” He shook his head. “It's nothing. I heal fast.”

Abigail tried a smile. “They care a lot.”

“They fuss.” Barnes shifted in his seat, wincing. “Ow.”

The red carrying case lit up with a faint whirring. Barnes froze, and Abigail's attention fixed completely on the robot as Baymax slowly inflated and stepped out of his charging station. Her heart lifted at the sight. She'd missed out on Tadashi's completion of his project, and she'd never had the occasion to meet Baymax properly. In spite of herself, she beamed.

Barnes watched warily as Baymax waddled up to him, tilted his head, and waved. “Hello. I am Baymax, your personal health care companion. I was alerted to the need for medical attention when you said, 'ow'.”

Barnes was staring at the robot as if he wasn't sure what to make of him. “I don't need-”

“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your pain?”

“Um... four?” Looking at Barnes, Abigail was reminded of a cat cornered by an overly friendly dog. “I'm fine.”

“I will scan you now.”

At this, Barnes bridled noticeably. “Scan me how-”

“Scan complete.”

Barnes relaxed, looking faintly bewildered. “...Oh.”

“You have a significant skin abrasion over your left hip,” Baymax informed him. “As well as extensive bruising. However, there is no infection, and your injuries appear to be healing well. No further treatment is required; however, would you like an Advil?”

“Um... no thanks.” By now Barnes was gaping openly.

“You are an excellent patient,” Baymax told him warmly. “Have a lollipop.”

Barnes eyed the candy that the robot held out to him the way most people eyed live grenades. “...Where did you get that?”

“I am programmed to avoid revealing that information.”

Why.

“My creator thought it would be funnier that way.” Baymax tilted his head again. “You do not appear to be laughing.”

“Um.”

Abigail burst out giggling – she couldn't help it. When she recovered herself, Barnes was holding the lollipop awkwardly while Baymax made his way over to her. “Hello, Abigail. It is good to see that you are well.”

“Y-you. Remember me?”

“Of course. I am programmed to scan all patients and retain the relevant data.” the robot blinked. “The damage to the Broca's area of your brain suggests expressive aphasia. Are you seeing a speech therapist?”

“I was.” Abigail smiled warmly. “I'm glad – to meet you. I-I remember.” Her voice caught in her throat in a way that had nothing to do with aphasia. “Um. Tadashi was – excited. He loved making you.”

“I am glad,” Baymax replied. “You appear to be in excellent physical health. However, your vitals also suggest insufficient sleep and heightened stress levels.”

“What do you – rec – reco–” She paused. “-suggest?”

“Calming tea has proven effective in similar situations with Hiro,” Baymax said. “Supplemented by physical reassurance. Would you like a hug?”

“Okay-” Consent was barely out when Baymax wrapped his vinyl arms around her. She felt her eyes water. Baymax had an internal heat regulation system. It felt just like hugging a real living person.

“You should try this,” she said out loud.

Baymax blocked her view of Barnes, but she could hear the bemusement in his voice as he answered her. “I'll... pass.”

Oh well, she thought. His loss.

 

Chapter Text

Hiro slept on his stomach nowadays. It was easier to muffle the noises he made in his sleep. People would worry if they heard – couldn't have that, especially since Aunt Cass was in on the secret and Fred was... well, whatever Fred was. As long as he woke up with his face pressed to the pillow, no one would see or hear him wake up crying.

He got up early in the morning, at least by his standards. Aunt Cass and the rest of the team were still asleep when he checked, but there were footsteps in the hallway. Venturing out, he found himself crossing paths with Sam Wilson.

“Oh, hey uh...” Hiro frowned, drawing a blank over the man's title. “...Agent Wilson? Is that right?”

“I don't even know anymore,” Wilson admitted. “Just call me Sam and save everybody the headache.”

Carefully, Hiro grinned. He still wasn't sure where he stood with the man, but that was encouraging. “Alright then, Sam it is.” Sam sidestepped so that they could walk side by side down the hall. “So, are you an Avenger, or a SHIELD agent, or... what?”

“At this point I like to think of myself as a babysitter,” Sam said wryly.

Hiro bristled. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Oh good lord, not you,” Sam said hastily. “You're fine. So far, anyway. I was talking about Steve.”

“Oh.” Hiro hoped he didn't sound too relieved. “Wait, really?”

“Enough to make me want to laugh, hearing him talk to you and your friends about staying out of trouble, as if 'reckless' isn't his middle name.”

Laughing under his breath, Hiro shrugged. “We rein each other in,” he said. “We've only been at this for three... going on four months by now.” He pulled a face. “I was hoping we'd have more time to, you know, establish ourselves, before we had to start the whole allied-forces thing. At least til I was old enough so that people didn't...” His voice trailed off, and he gestured vaguely and let it end there. A quick glance at Sam's face wasn't enough to clue Hiro in on how he felt about his choices. Steve Rogers had made his feelings on it pretty clear, and Barnes was pretty open-minded so far, but Sam was still a gray area when it came to support. “...What do you think?”

Sam halted. “You want my honest opinion?”

“Uh, sure.” Inwardly Hiro braced himself.

“I think you got dealt a bad hand, but instead of folding you're playing it anyway.” Sam paused, looking thoughtful. “I think keeping secrets from your family was wrong, but you're fixing it now. You're not alone, and that's already an advantage not everybody starts with.”

“Am... am I doing okay, then?” Hiro asked.

Sam shrugged. “Too early to say. I may not even be the right person to judge what counts as 'doing okay.'” He looked Hiro in the eye, considering him. “But you're doing. All you can do is see where that takes you.”

“Steve thinks I'm in over my head,” Hiro said quietly. “Doesn't he?”

“Of course you're in over your head. You're always gonna be in over your head.” Sam rolled his eyes. “Look at me – I'm getting dragged along by two supersoldiers who cut their eyeteeth on one of the bloodiest wars in human history. I'm in over my head. But I'm not alone, and I'm not dead, and neither are you. And that counts for something.”

Hiro nodded, ducking his head at Sam's answer. In an attempt to hide his own stupid bashfulness he started walking again – they were almost to the living room. “Y'know I don't think I've said this yet, but it's – it's unbelievably cool to meet you guys.”

Sam cleared his throat. “You're not so bad, yourse- what.”

They had reached the living room. Hiro followed Sam's dumbfounded stare to the source of his shock, and his face broke out in a grin. “Morning, Baymax.”

The robot was sitting on the floor, looking as placid as ever. Abigail was slumped against his side, cradled in one of his arms, apparently asleep. Over in the armchair, Barnes was sitting with his legs crossed under him. A lollipop stick protruded from his mouth.

“Good morning, Hiro,” the robot replied, his volume turned low to keep from disturbing Abigail. “Scans indicate that you did not experience the recommended nightly length of REM sleep. Are you feeling all right?”

“Too excited to sleep,” Hiro said.

“That was a lie.”

Hiro stopped short. “What?”

“After much comparative analysis, I have finally discerned the physiological signs that indicate when you are being purposefully deceptive,” Baymax informed him. “It took some time, because in many instances, your untrue statements are simply sarcasm.”

“So I was a little freaked out, sue me.” Hiro scowled. “Whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?”

“I am not a doctor,” Baymax said. “I am a robot.”

Sam turned to stare at Hiro, barely blinking.

“Oh, uh, right.” Hiro cleared his throat. “Baymax, this is Sam Wilson. Sam, Baymax. He's the sixth member of our team.”

“O... kay...” Sam seemed to recover himself. “Um, hello.”

Baymax nodded to him politely. “It is a pleasure to meet you. May I call you Sam, or would you prefer Mr. Wilson?”

“Sam's fine.” Sam goggled a little, and muttered out of the corner of his mouth to Hiro. “Why does he look like the Michelin man?”

“All the better to hug you with?” Hiro smiled brightly.

“Uh-huh.” Sam regarded the robot with a thoughtful frown. “And... he's a member of your little hero squad?”

“Yup.”

“Doesn't look very battle-ready,” Sam said, stepping carefully around to look at Baymax from another angle. “I mean, no offense.”

Baymax blinked at him. “I cannot be offended. I am a robot.”

“You mentioned that.”

“He, uh...” Hiro fidgeted, embarrassed. “He wasn't really made for superhero stuff. He's our medic.”

“I also know karate.”

A gradual smile spread across Sam's face, and he crossed his arms. “Nice.” He glanced at Barnes. “Where'd you get the lollipop?”

“I'd rather not question it.” Barnes' eyes slid over to look at Hiro. “You made it?”

Hiro shifted uncomfortably beneath Barnes' stony scrutiny. “Uh, no. My brother made him. I added some stuff, and I sort of had to rebuild his body, but... yeah. It was all Tadashi, pretty much.”

At that moment Abigail seemed to startle awake. “It is all right,” Baymax assured her as she looked around, faintly alarmed. “You are safe.”

“Did we wake you up?” Hiro asked, wincing at the small stab of guilt. “Sorry, we didn't-”

“'S fine,” Abigail mumbled. She rubbed her eyes, looking troubled. “Not you. Just me.”

Hiro frowned, suppressing a pang of sympathy. “Bad dreams?”

Abigail rubbed her eyes. “Sleeping. I don't like – it's weird. Everything's – dull. Quiet. Feels like the portal.”

“I believe the atmosphere of the portal, coupled with imperfect hypersleep, created a numbing effect,” Baymax explained. “Similar lack of sensory stimulation is now unpleasant because of the negative association.”

Struggling to her feet, Abigail rubbed her eyes again and nodded. “What he said.”

“Wow.” Now that there was no more danger of disturbing her, Sam stepped forward for a more thorough look at the robot. “So he does psych analysis, too?”

“I cannot prescribe medications,” Baymax explained. “But psychological wellness is just as important as physical. My programming was insufficient to help Hiro until I downloaded a database on grief counseling.” Hiro's attention went to his feet. “Speaking of which, Mr. Barnes reminds me that there are still gaps in my knowledge of psychological treatment.”

Barnes looked up. “Me? Why?”

“Heightened stress levels, especially in response to certain stimuli. Insufficient sleep. Consistent negative changes in thinking or mood. Sporadic and severe emotional distress. Irritability, constantly being on guard for danger, lack of interest in the future or enjoyable activities.” Baymax paused. “Diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“Ooookay, I think he's declining treatment, buddy,” Hiro said hastily, seeing the way Barnes tensed. “Maybe don't call out your diagnosis without their okay, huh?”

“Noted. I apologize, Mr. Barnes.”

Before Barnes could reply, Steve came strolling out into the living room with Gogo, Honey, Wasabi, and Aunt Cass close behind. Barnes looked relieved to see him, and slumped back into his original sober-faced silence. “Hill texted,” Steve announced. “She said the secure network will be set up by ten – is that a robot?”

“Good morning,” Baymax greeted.

“Morning, Baymax!” Honey answered, ever the morning person. Gogo mumbled something, and Aunt Cass smile warmly at the sight of him.

“So, what was he actually made for?” Sam asked Hiro, as if the others hadn't interrupted. “Health care, I take it?”

“That is correct,” the robot answered. “I am programmed with over ten thousand medical procedures.”

Sam whistled, impressed.

“He's the sixth member of your team?” Steve asked. “I can see how he'd be useful.” He looked sidelong at the robot, and Hiro could see powerful curiosity overcoming any misgivings he might still have had. “...So how's his mobility?”

“I made armor for him,” Hiro said, patting the robot fondly. “Makes him more mobile, keeps him from getting damaged or springing a leak.”

“Flying makes me a better health care companion,” Baymax added.

“Still... ten thousand.” Sam shook his head. “Does that include emergency procedures?”

“Actually, yeah.” Hiro rocked on his heels. “I thought I'd have to add some stuff, but... it was already pretty much covered.”

“Tadashi really thought of everything,” Aunt Cass said quietly. She seemed to shake herself. “Still... Hiro, do you think it's...” She hesitated. “Do you think it's right to use him for this? He's not one of your fighting bots.”

“I know.” Hiro's voice cracked, and he tried to pour as much sincerity into the words as he could. “Believe me, I know. He doesn't hurt anyone, Aunt Cass. His programming won't let him, and I am not changing that.” It bore repeating, so he did. “I'm not changing that.” From across the room, he met Gogo and Wasabi's eyes. They both nodded stiffly.

It wouldn't take a genius to pick up on the weight of meaning behind those words. But before anyone had time to question Hiro further, Steve's phone chimed, and he glanced down at it. “Agents are here,” he announced. “Sam, let's go watch the garage.”

Sam looked almost reluctant to leave without asking more about Baymax, but he nodded. “Right behind you.”

“Can we come too?” Honey piped up. She offered a wide-eyed, hopeful smile, and gestured to Gogo and Wasabi beside her. “Just the three of us – we left our gear in the van, and... maybe it's a good idea to have it close at hand. Just in case?” She tilted her head. “If you think Baymax is interesting, just wait til you see all our other stuff.”

It was hard to miss the eager look that Sam sent Steve's way.

“Should be safe,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “Buck, keep an eye on things while we're gone. Hill's people will be here soon.”

Barnes didn't answer out loud, but his teeth crunched down on the remains of the lollipop.


The setup was a solid one; even Hiro was impressed. He would have had one hell of a time getting in – maybe it would have stymied even Tadashi, at least for a while. Everything was top of the line, right down to the laptop that he would be using.

(He made a note to himself to see if the agents would let him have that laptop, or at least one like it, once all of this was over and done with.)

By the time Fred finally wandered out, the agents had finally left, Hiro was getting settled in, and Abigail was nursing her second cup of coffee. “Hey, what'd I miss?”

“A lot,” Aunt Cass said dryly.

“Steve and Sam took Gogo, Honey and Wasabi out to grab our gear from the van,” Hiro said, frowning at the screen. “Oh, and we introduced Baymax around. Sam likes him.”

“He would,” Barnes remarked. With both Sam and Steve momentarily absent, he looked sullen and restless. Hiro got the feeling that Barnes wasn't the sociable type. Which made sense, he supposed. The guy was supposed to be dead, after all – Abigail kept to herself too, didn't she? Add to that Baymax's PTSD diagnosis, and it was no wonder he looked perpetually uncomfortable.

Fred took a step toward Barnes, mouth opening to ask a question. Hiro nudged him lightly. “Don't bug him, dude,” he murmured. Fred shrugged and opened his mouth again anyway.

“Uh, quick question,” he said hesitantly. “Nothing to do with – um. You were out yesterday making sure they weren't followed, right?”

“Yes.”

“Did you, uh, find anything?” Fred asked. “Any... I dunno, black Mercedes?”

“Several.” Barnes' flat stare fixed on Fred – Hiro was getting secondhand nervousness just looking at it. “Lot of people own them.”

“Uh, haha, true.” Fred stammered a little. He dithered for a moment. “Any of 'em have a dribble of bird crap on the driver's side window?”

Barnes blinked, and his eyes narrowed. “...Yes,” he said. “One.”

“Oh.” Fred's nervousness broke, and a note of interest entered his voice. “Cool. I'd check that one out, the first Mercedes I saw had that, too.”

“They'd be more careful than that,” Aunt Cass pointed out. “Wouldn't they? What kind of secret agents leave a bright identifying mark like that?”

“Yeah,” Fred mused. “That's what I thought too.”

Barnes' eyebrows were knitted together in thought. At that moment the door opened, and Sam, Steve, Gogo, Wasabi, and Honey filed back in, all of them carrying duffel bags. Gogo plunked one of hers down on the table in front of Hiro. “There's yours. We decided to leave Baymax's – little too conspicuous carrying it in the street.”

Aunt Cass reached for the bag. “Can I see?”

“Sure.” Hiro shrugged. “There's no weaponry – just hacking and communications.” He knew he didn't imagine her relaxing when he said that.

Fred made grabby hands. “Gimme.” Honey tossed him one of the larger duffels, and he hugged it like a long-lost friend.

Hiro, in the meantime, turned his attention back to the screen. Between Fred pestering Barnes and the others showing up, he hadn't checked the website yet. There was only a slim chance that Snowden was online, but it never hurt to check.

Scrolling through the site's data, Hiro's eyes lit up. Sure enough, there was a new message in the code. By this point Hiro could practically decode it in his head, but he still wrote it down to make sure he didn't make a careless mistake.

His eyes widened at the message.

in case they kill me

Following it was a series of numbers, letters, and dots. As he carefully wrote them out, their purpose became clear.

Hiro felt his skin crawl as he left a reply. still alive? it asked. He wondered how long it would take Snowden to answer, if he was.

“He left coordinates,” he spoke up, cutting through the others' individual discussions. He slid the paper across so that the others could read.

“Your friend's on thin ice,” Sam said grimly. “That's if he's still alive.”

“And not lying for sympathy,” Barnes added.

“Once he answers, we can find out what these coordinates are for.” Gogo frowned at the numbers. “Sure you got this down right?”

“Positive,” Hiro answered. “I can double-check.”

“He said he'd give you an – an active Hydra base,” Wasabi said hesitantly. “That's probably what this is, right?”

“We can't know for sure,” Steve said. “And if that's what this is, then we can handle it.”

Gogo scoffed quietly.

Steve looked at her pointedly. “I can't in good conscience bring five college students into an active Hydra base.” With his teeth clenched like that, he sounded terse.

“I think he's right, guys,” Hiro said reluctantly. “A force like that is completely out of our league.”

“But...?” Wasabi prompted in a long-suffering voice.

Hiro gave him a flat look. “But nothing. There's no buts. Why do you think there's a but?”

“Oh thank God,” Wasabi muttered.

“To be fair to him, there's usually a 'but' somewhere,” Honey said tactfully. Her eyes turned to Gogo. “He's right, anyway. They know way more about fighting Hydra than we do, remember?'

“Drag,” Gogo muttered. “Fine.”

Fred risked giving her a comforting pat on the shoulder. “Maybe someday.”

“Don't patronize me.”

The day stretched from there, more or less uneventful. Barnes slipped out sometime around noon, and no one bothered questioning it. Hiro had long lost track of where Romanov was supposed to be. In the meantime he split his attention between the screen and his friends. On the one hand he was waiting on word from Snowden, but on the other, his friends were in their element. With time and space on their hands, they were showing off their gear to their hosts, and to an utterly enamored Abigail. Baymax stood by in case of injuries.

Gogo had grinned crookedly at Steve when she showed off her discs. There was no room to demonstrate the skates, but she had taken pleasure in sending a disc spinning into Steve's hands from across the room.

“Sorry to muscle in on your death-frisbee schtick,” she'd said as Steve inspected the electro-mag suspension.

Sam, on the other hand, was utterly fascinated with Honey's chem-purse. “-and this one's for shock-absorbing foam!” Honey chattered away, producing a purple ball. “Burst this over yourself, and you could take a semi to the face and come out more or less okay. Oh, but I also have formulas for anti-friction fluid, and for increasing viscosity – I'm still trying to simplify my metal embrittlement formula. I don't always have a blowtorch and an electrical current on hand.”

“Why do you need a blowtorch?” Fred called over. “You've got me!”

“I said a blowtorch, not a lighter and an aerosol can!” Honey retorted, and Gogo 'oooh'ed loudly in the background. “Oh, and I have flammable ones, too – just in case Fred needs an extra boost.”

“Which is never,” Fred bragged, hefting his own suit.

“In what universe?” Gogo said flatly.

“Shut up, Gogo, I am Smaug, the chiefest and greatest of calamities.”

Gogo smirked at him. “Yeah, we know you're a walking disaster, what else is new?”

“I'm still not sure how I managed to fit the flamethrower and the shock absorbers and the extra jumping power into that thing,” Hiro mused.

“What's the tail for?” Aunt Cass asked, with an experimental poke.

“The tail's a counterbalance,” Hiro replied. “Suit's a little front-heavy, 'cause of the flamethrower. But its main function was to get Fred to stop asking me if there would be a tail.”

Fred beamed.

“I'm still tossing ideas around,” Hiro went on. “I'm thinking of fitting it with a microbot spine once I'm done with them – that way he can use it as a weapon, too.”

“I bet if you changed the shape, you could make it like a rudder, too,” Gogo suggested. “So he can steer his jumps instead of wiping out whenever the scenery changes.”

“That happened once,” Fred grumbled.

“Twice,” Baymax corrected, and blinked politely at Fred's injured look.

“What – um.” Abigail hesitated. “Transportation? Just Baymax?”

“That's another work in progress,” Hiro said. “It's not always practical relying on just him. Sometimes we get caught by surprise – remember Hope Hospital? Honey and Wasabi got stuck in traffic on the way. I've been brainstorming ideas for them.”

Wasabi was – very cautiously – demonstrating his plasma blades when Steve stepped out to take a call. Sam was too busy dropping produce on the blades to take much notice. It wasn't until he was testing a radish on them that Steve came back in.

“That was Bucky and Natasha,” he announced. He looked grim.

Sam's entire demeanor did a one-eighty. “What's up?”

“He found the ones who've been shadowing them.” Steve's eyes flickered toward Hiro and Fred. “Possibly. We need confirmation.”

“Where are they now?” Sam asked.

“The office across town,” Steve grimaced slightly. “Hiro and Fred – and Miss Hamada, with me. Sam, stay with the others.”

“I'm coming,” Gogo said. “We're not splitting them off again by themselves – no offense, Cass.”

Aunt Cass's face was unreadable. “None taken.”

“Fine,” Steve conceded. “C'mon, Bucky's with them, so it's as safe as it's gonna get.”


They found Barnes in a drab one-story office building, waiting with three prisoners in a small room down the hall from the front door. According to Steve, it was one of many similar places SHIELD had in major US cities. Handy place for meetings and interrogations. Currently the unlucky trio were handcuffed to their respective chairs and, if Hiro was any judge, trying extremely hard not to look terrified.

He exchanged a glance with Fred. Some Hydra menace they seemed to be.

“Do you recognize them?” Steve asked.

Hiro looked from one face to another, considering. He was fairly certain, but one could never be too careful.

“Those guys, yes,” Fred said, pointing to two of them. “Not sure about the other guy.” The third man relaxed visibly, but his two cohorts made faintly panicked choking noise.

“Nah, I remember that guy,” Hiro said, wiping the relief off the third man's face. “He was one of the guys at Coney Island – I led 'em off, remember?”

“This is ridiculous,” The third man spluttered. “We haven't seen any badges, anything – if we're being arrested, I have yet to hear what we're being arrested for, not to mention I didn't see a warrant before you took our phones-” Barnes leaned closer, and his frantic blustering devolved into stammering for a moment. “Who are y-your superiors? We could report you! We could take you to-” A kick from one of the others silenced him.

“Will you shut up?” he hissed. “Do they look like cops to you?”

“Phones are no use anyway.” Barnes passed the three devices to Steve. “I was slow. They wiped 'em before I grabbed them.” He shrugged. “Not that it matters. I can get it out of them.” The three of them paled visibly.

Hiro averted his eyes on instinct, as if part of him expected Barnes to whip out the thumbscrews right then and there. He had no doubt Barnes meant what he said – he only hoped the three were smart enough to squeal on their bosses before then.

“Wait a minute,” the second man spoke up, eyes locking on Steve. “He's bluffing. I know you – you're Steve Rogers – you expect me to believe you'll stand by and let somebody imprison and torture American citizens? Some Captain America you'd be.” Barnes loomed, and the man quailed, but not without a defiant look toward Steve.

Fred nudged Hiro and leaned in. “Dude, dude,” he whispered, too quietly for the others to hear. “Phone's not totally useless. I got an idea, just get Steve to give me one of those phones.”

With a mental shrug, Hiro went along with it. “Hey, Steve, they might not have totally wiped those phones. Can I see one? I might be able to get something off it.”

Steve passed one of the phones over. As Hiro took it, Fred sidled up to Gogo and whispered something to her, then moved on to nudge Barnes. Hiro didn't hear what Fred told him, but it must have worked, because Barnes smoothly stepped around the prisoners and followed him back to Hiro. At the wordless jerk of Fred's head, Hiro followed.

The three of them ended up out in the hallway, away from any doors or windows to the outside, but also out of hearing range of the others.

“So what's your idea?” Hiro asked. “And what's he here for?”

Fred was excited. By some miracle he'd suppressed it in front of the prisoners, but now he bounced on the balls of his feet. “I figured it'd be more convincing to Moe, Larry, and Curly in there if he was with us – lemme see the phone.”

Hiro passed it over. “What're you going to do?”

“Simple,” Fred said, cheerfully thumb-typing on the screen. “I'm gonna text their boss.”

“They wiped their phones,” Hiro reminded him. “It's not like you can look him up on their contacts list.”

“Oh, I don't need to, I got the number memorized.”

Hiro frowned. “What are you talking abou-” He looked over Fred's shoulder, at the number he was messaging, and his mouth dropped open. “Wait a sec, is that-?”

“Yup.” Fred beamed.

“How do you figure?”

“Call it a hunch. Okayyy... 'Reporting in, sir.' That's convincing, right?”

Barnes stood by patiently. Hiro waited on bated breath, until a reply finally appeared.

[Have you found them?]

“Oh my God,” Hiro muttered. “Oh my God, what is he even doing?”

[Yes,] Fred replied. [But they made us. The kid wants to talk to you ASAP.]

A pause, and then – [I'll be there in a half hour.]

“Half hour, that's good,” Fred mused as he sent the address. “Enough time for them to stew.”

“So this whole time-” Hiro began.

“Yyyeah, I guess so.” Fred snickered. “Oh man, I was actually right this time.”

“I'm going to kill him,” Hiro said flatly. “Can't that moron get here any faster?”


Gogo was getting impatient. First Fred was all cryptic and obnoxious before whisking out with Hiro and Barnes, and now they'd been gone for close to thirty minutes, and Steve hadn't gotten anything useful out of these jerks. If she'd been in charge of this interrogation, she would have gone for Jack Bauer tactics by now. Her friends' lives were on the line, here.

She almost jumped when they came back in. Fred had the phone in his hand and was trading smug looks with Hiro, while Barnes had the most frightening smirk Gogo had ever seen on a human being.

“Sorry, guys,” Hiro drawled. “Jig's up. We found your boss's number.”

“He squealed on you like a doggy chew toy,” Fred added.

“Bullshit,” the third man broke in. “No way he told you. Why would he tell you?

“Of course he didn't tell us.” Hiro rolled his eyes, layering on the attitude as Gogo had hardly seen him do before. “He'd tell him, though, don't you think?” He jerked his thumb at Barnes, who had yet to let up with the cat-who-ate-the-canary smirk.

“He's also on his way to point the finger personally,” Fred chimed in. “Just as an extra covering-his-ass favor. Our friend here can be very persuasive.”

Gogo's eyes narrowed. Was their boss actually coming, or were Fred and Hiro just bluffing? It must have been the second one, because how could they possibly benefit from some Hydra bigshot walking in? Judging by Steve's expression he knew about as much as she did.

Well, they were about to find out. Unless she was mistaken, those were footsteps she was hearing down the hall.

Hiro, Fred, and Barnes sidestepped to let him through the door, and Gogo's mouth dropped open.

The former skeptic's pale face went red with fury. “Krei, you son of a bitch!” he yelled, and Alistair Krei jumped like a rabbit as he took in the scene before him with wide, bewildered eyes. “We were gonna stay quiet for you, you rat bastard!”

Krei looked utterly lost, and faintly scared. “W-what?”

One of the others joined in railing at him. “Look, we never bargained for this! When you paid us to keep an eye on those kids, you could've mentioned the goddamn black ops ninjas, and the fact that you were gonna turn us over!”

“I didn't-” Krei spluttered in protest. “I've been getting text messages from your number – you said to come here!”

The man went from purple-faced wrath to alarm. “...What?”

Krei held up the phone, wide-eyed at the edge of panic. “You texted me that you found them!”

“No I didn't!” The man pointed to Fred. “I couldn't, the stoner has my phone!”

Krei turned to look at Fred, then at the phone in his hand, then back at Steve, Cass, and his handcuffed employees. The panic on his face was steadily growing as he stared at Fred again.

Gogo sneaked a glance at the other two. Hiro looked smug. Barnes was grinning broadly.

At the sudden attention, Fred shrugged, wide-eyed with bland innocence. “Don't feel bad or anything,” he said. “I mean, I look so stupid.

 

Chapter Text

 Krei nursed a bright red handprint on his cheek. His employees were no longer handcuffed, but they were all sitting before the others, shamefaced and miserable.

“I didn't mean any harm,” Krei said with a meek look at Aunt Cass. She was standing next to Hiro, quietly livid. Hiro didn't blame her.

“Do you even realize how bad this looks?” Hiro asked. “Because right now it looks like you're in bed with Hydra. And... yeah, that looks pretty bad.”

Krei went a shade paler. “That's not – I'm not – you can't possibly believe that. I swear, I never meant-”

“Regardless of what you meant,” Steve broke in sharply. “Let's focus on what you did. What have you been doing, and why?”

“It was just – professional curiosity.” Krei shifted, clearly uncomfortable under Aunt Cass's silent fury. “When I heard that Stark personally invited Hiro, I just... wondered what his intentions were. If he had any, any business-related motives. I'm telling you, I don't know anything about Hydra, or the attack, or any of that.”

“Did it ever occur to you to ask me?” Hiro demanded, feeling more irritated than anything else. “Instead of having us stalked through New York?” Krei winced.

“What about now?” Steve asked. “Why have them followed after the attack on Stark Expo?”

“I swear to you, at this point it's just honest concern,” Krei said, looking from Hiro's face to Fred's and back again. For the life of him, in spite of his irritation, Hiro couldn't see any sign of deceit. Even Krei's usual easy confidence was utterly gone, and the look in his eyes was scared, tired, and approaching desperation. “Information has been short – they helped me, back at the Expo, but I didn't see hide or hair of them afterward. I give you my word, I had nothing to do with – with what you're talking about. I'd never hurt them, I owe them-” He stopped, clamping his mouth shut.

Hiro heaved a sigh. “It's fine, Krei. They know.”

“O-oh.” Krei ducked his head, and his normally well-combed hair flopped over his forehead. “Er, my point stands. I had nothing to do with it.”

“Might not be true,” Barnes cut in. “Even if you didn't mean it. You know, we've been wondering how Hydra found them in New York.” His eyes fixed balefully on Krei. “Hydra likes your type. Wealthy, powerful, good source of tech. If they were having you, and by extension your employees, monitored...”

The rest of the color drained from Krei's face. “Oh God...” His voice was choked, and open horror wafted off of him in waves as he turned back to Hiro. “I didn't know. How could I possibly–? I swear. I-I'm sorry, I never thought-”

“You should try it sometime,” Gogo snapped. “It could change your life.”

“Krei, buddy.” Fred shook his head pityingly. “Listen. We'll stop assuming you're a suspect when you stop being such a douche.

Krei cringed again. “What happens now?”

Steve heaved a sigh. “Our focus is keeping them safe – Agent Hill can handle you from here, though if Hydra followed you this far...” His eyes narrowed. “Did your men locate them in DC?”

“No,” one of the men in question answered.

“Are you sure?” Aunt Cass glared at Krei. Hiro was half-sure she was going to slap him again. “So help me, if you've led them to us-”

“They didn't,” Krei said meekly.

“Because if they did, we could be compromised,” Steve went on. “If not... I'll call Hill, and she'll handle this while we get back.”

Krei sat back with a sigh and covered his face with both hands.

Part of Hiro pitied him just a little, even as they finally left the building to return to the safe house. As sleazy and smug as Krei might be, he was no enemy, and the only things that made him look like one were poor decision-making and unfortunate coincidences. It was a huge screw-up, but it was still a screw-up, not malice.

Of course, the rest of him was still mad.

Luckily, there was plenty to distract him from it. Things like Baymax helping Sam make pancakes in the kitchen, or the new message that Snowden had sent while he'd been gone. While Fred, Gogo, and Aunt Cass filled the others in on what happened, Hiro scooted forward in his seat and scribbled down the message. For context's sake, he double-checked what his last message had been: still alive? Snowden had deleted it, as well as the rest of their previous communication.

somehow yes. hello again powell. coordinates are for active base.

Hiro blinked. Powell? Apparently mutual anonymity could only go so far before Snowden decided to give him a nickname of his own. He moistened his dry lips as he coded his own message. what can you tell me? also why powell? He only hoped Snowden was still online. How long had it been since they left the message? Had he missed them?

Luck was with him – within ten minutes he was translating another message. don't bomb it, Snowden had replied. there are innocent people here so try not to screw them over. also have u ever seen die hard? u r powell because idk what else to call you.

In spite of himself, Hiro grinned broadly. got it. also, this doesnt make you john mcclane btw ur still snowden.

He waited for a reply, and all he got was –

lol

He shook his head, grinning to himself. how many hostile agents? he asked.

This time there was no immediate reply. He waited again, as the day stretched on toward evening, but there was nothing more from his contact. A heavy pit of dread settled in his stomach, and he realized almost absently that he had no real way of knowing if his informant was alive or dead.

That, coupled with the prospect of seeing Callaghan the following day, and the nightmares that already plagued him, made for an uncomfortable night's sleep.


With the new possibility of Krei unwittingly leading Hydra after them, there was an element of risk to the following day's trip. A quick change of plans, and Steve informed them that Callaghan would not be setting foot in DC. The interview would instead take place in a small Maryland town outside of the district.

Sam and Baymax stayed to hold the fort. The rest took two cars – Steve drove one with Hiro, Aunt Cass, Fred, and Honey, and Natasha Romanov drove Abigail, Wasabi, and Gogo in another. It was a tense and uncomfortable ride for all involved.

Hiro sat with his knees together and his arms crossed against his chest, lost in thought as he stared out the window. The others were looking at him – he knew that, but he wasn't about to let himself notice. Of course they were looking. Of course they were worried. Aunt Cass probably hadn't stopped worrying since the Expo, and as for the other two...

Well, they both knew what had happened the last time he'd lost his temper around Callaghan.

Hiro forced himself not to fidget. He'd just have to avoid losing his temper again. Shouldn't be hard. The last time he'd seen Callaghan was when they were loading him in a police cruiser amid the wreckage of his attack on Krei.

He hadn't looked much like a supervillain then. He'd looked like a tired, broken man who had lost everything.

Hiro held on to the image of that man. It was hard to feel hatred for that man.


Abigail blinked when the car stopped, as if coming out of a dream. They were in a parking garage, not a parking lot – less exposed, she guessed. The two cars regrouped, and Abigail found herself walking in front, just behind Steve. Hiro walked beside her. He was silent, but there was a determined look on his face. He touched her arm lightly – their eyes met, and she offered a brave smile.

The garage led straight up into the building. Hill met them there, falling in step with Steve. Natasha was bringing up the rear, with Barnes close by, though Abigail wasn't sure how or when he'd arrived.

“Callaghan's ready for you,” Hill said. “Considering the history that most of you have with him... if anyone wants to back out, I won't hold it against you.” She was met by a wall of glares. “Right, thought so. This way.”

It was no police interrogation room. If there was a two-way mirror, Abigail couldn't see it. There was just a closed door, and she had no doubts about what – or who – was behind it. With everyone tense and silent around her, she could hear his voice, muffled but as familiar as ever, as if there hadn't been months since the last time she'd heard it.

-course you didn't,” Dad's voice was saying. “That was the whole point. Everyone has secrets. We can't all be as open as you.

Everyone has secrets,” another equally familiar voice echoed. Abigail's eyes widened – what was Tony Stark doing here? “See, most people keep secrets about... oh, weird hobbies, Vegas trips, the Cinnabun they sneak every Friday... maybe the odd gambling addiction...

I did what I had to do.” At her father's abrupt tone, Abigail winced.

Yyyeah... no.

Hill knocked.

Well, my time's up,” Stark sighed. “This is a godawful mess you're in, Robert.

Thanks for the courtesy call.

Hill opened the door, and Stark stepped out. “Thanks for that,” he murmured. Hill nodded, and he moved aside to let the others through.

Hiro was shaking – his elbow was close enough to brush Abigail's arm, and she could feel him shaking. Briefly she closed her hand around his wrist. Fred moved up to his other side, and his tension let up as they all walked into the room.

Her father was in orange. It looked wrong on him. Every one of Abigail's instincts protested strongly against the sight, but she couldn't have put those feelings into words if she wanted to. As she crept forward, he rose halfway out of his chair, eyes wide.

“Abby.” He sounded like he could scarcely believe his eyes. “You came. I haven't – are you all right?”

No. No, she wasn't all right. Her ears felt as if they'd been stuffed with cotton, and she was inches away from reeling. She couldn't manage words, much less phrases or sentences. All her progress might as well have been rewound four months back, when her vocabulary had been reduced to her own name and “Dad.”

She stared at him, her tongue tied in knots, and didn't answer. The floor drew her eyes again.

It's you it's you Tadashi's dead Hiro's hurt I can't talk can't think can't anything I'm scared scared scared of everyone everything and it's your fault all your fault.

Her words were tangled, clumped like a blood clot in the back of her throat.

Dad sat back down again, subdued. “I don't know what you must think of me,” he said. “But it's – it's good to see you.”

She managed a nod. She didn't manage a “You too,” mainly because she wasn't sure whether or not that was a lie.

Dad's eyes swept the room, taking in the rest. Abigail followed his gaze. Fred was still standing beside Hiro, Cass was right behind him, and the others were gathered around them. For a moment Abigail was reminded of the SFIT bot-fighting tournament, well over a month before. They'd gathered around Hiro then, too.

Tadashi should be here with them.

There were three chairs across from him. Abigail took one, Hiro took another, and it was Gogo who dragged the third out with her foot and plunked herself down in it. Steve Rogers stood over them all, a quiet wall of authority. Dad's face had changed – he looked guarded now.

“Well?' Hiro's voice was steady. “You wanted us here, so we're here.”

Gogo's gum snapped. “How buddy-buddy did you get with Hydra?” Abigail tried not to fidget. She didn't have to be nervous, because they weren't interrogating her. They weren't interrogating her.

“It's not what you think,” he said. Did he look at her when he said that?

“Don't you worry your pretty little head about what we think,” Gogo said flatly. “You. Hydra. What gives?”

A strange look flashed across his eyes, too quickly for Abigail to identify it. It was almost... obstinate? But after a moment, he seemed to settle in his chair. “I was approached,” Dad said, folding and wringing his hands in front of him. “Anonymously, of course – I never saw anyone. It was some time before the student showcase, at... at the school.” His eyes flickered toward Hiro, very briefly. “They had a proposal for me. I wanted Krei destroyed – bankrupt, or ruined, or... it didn't matter. But they were interested in his technology.” Abigail stared at him, sick to her stomach. His plans for Krei were nothing she didn't already know secondhand, but it was different, somehow, to hear that hatred straight from his mouth. “They offered to provide me with anything I might need to bring him down, as long as I made sure they could... well, help themselves, in the confusion that followed.”

“Were they helping you the whole time?” Hiro asked tersely.

“No.” Dad shook her head, and a pathetic drop of relief coursed through Abigail. “I – I knew it could all go wrong for me, if I made a deal with those people. But I didn't see any other options, until...”

“Until you saw the microbots,” Honey guessed.

Dad nodded. “It was – sloppy. I saw a chance and took it. There wasn't time for finer planning, so I...” His voice trailed off.

“So you set a building on fire,” Gogo said flatly.

His mouth tightened, but he offered no excuse. At least that was something, Abigail told herself. At least he knew there was no excuse.

It was here that Steve stepped in. “Has Hydra been in contact with you since then?”

“No,” Dad said. “I thought they might, but they haven't.” He grimaced slightly. “But they still could, if they find a use for me.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Abigail saw Barnes nod in agreement. “What?” she blurted. “But – would they?” There were eyes on her now, and she wanted nothing more than to hide.

“It's not impossible,” Steve murmured, and Abigail cringed.

“That's why you faked your death,” Wasabi spoke up, with dawning realization. Abigail tried not to sigh with relief when the attention turned away from her again. “Wasn't it. It wasn't just to cover your tracks. It was to get Hydra off your back.”

Dad nodded again. “It was another advantage to recovering the portal device, as well. If they weren't convinced of my death, even the ruins of that technology would have interested them – enough to consider my end of the agreement more than fulfilled. That was my hope, anyhow. I would complete my goals and ensure my own safety and freedom, and... they'd have an extra bonus on top of whatever they could salvage from the destruction of Krei Tech.” His mouth twisted bitterly. “Everyone wins. Well...” He paused. “Not... not everyone, I suppose.”

Abigail was close enough to Hiro to feel him tense. A glance at Cass told her his aunt was doing the same.

“In any case, I would like to offer some help,” Dad went on. “I was only in contact with them for a short while, but I had an idea of who I was dealing with – could I have a pen and paper?” One of the agents standing by obliged his request, and he wrote down a few short lines. “I'm sure they were thorough in their knowledge of me, but I found this location – it's one of their storage facilities, it has files and supplies and minimal human presence, so its main defense is that few people know where it is. I kept the address for my own insurance – here.” He pushed the slip across the table. “I don't know exactly what that place has, but you might find answers, or another step in the right direction.”

Hiro passed the paper to Steve. “What else?”

Dad looked away, shrugging. “I'm afraid there's nothing else. My association with these people was a very loose one. I can't name any names, or identify faces. I'm risking a lot just giving that to you.”

“That's very noble.” Abigail blinked in surprise at Fred. She'd never heard that much sarcasm from him in one sitting before.

“I sleep in a cell,” Dad pointed out. “What more do you think I can offer?”

“Why call us in?” Hiro asked, his voice blunt. “You could've passed this info off on any SHIELD agent with an extra pen. What'd you want us here for?”

“A chance to explain myself to you,” Dad replied. “And to see my daughter again. Is that reason enough?”

“Explain yourself?” Hiro's voice turned scathing. Abigail saw himself pause, struggling to leash his own temper. “You think my problem is you getting involved with Hydra? Because I don't care – I really, really don't care. And the only thing I do want explained, you never have. The last thing you said about what I want explained was telling me it was Tadashi's own fault he died.” Abigail's breath hitched. She stared, appalled. He'd said that? When had he said that? Why had he said that?

If her father was as horrified about it as she was, or if he even noticed her discomfort, he kept it hidden. She could only see the way his cheekbone moved as he ground his teeth.

“I haven't heard anything from you since we kicked your ass and let the cops take care of the paperwork,” Hiro went on. “Not an I'm-sorry or an I-wish-that-hadn't-happened or a Whoops-my-bad. Nothing.” He paused. “Are you sorry? I don't think I've ever heard one way or the other on that.”

Dad stayed silent, but his brow furrowed as he glared down at his cuffed hands.

“Hey!” Hiro's sharp voice made Abigail jump. Cass was gripping her nephew's shoulder, but she wasn't stopping him. “That wasn't rhetorical! Yes or no?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Dad asked him quietly.

Abigail stared at him. Why why why are you saying that why aren't you telling him yes?

“Did I stutter?” Hiro demanded.

“Every important accomplishment has a price. Sometimes sacrifices are necessary.”

Hiro bristled.“And that's all he was to you? A sacrifice? A – a setback?” Dad flinched as if Hiro had physically thrown something at him. “Don't you know who you sound like?”

A flash of temper showed on her father's face, the most feeling she'd seen since he first laid eyes on her when she walked in. “Careful, Mr. Hamada.”

“It was all for nothing anyway,” Hiro went on harshly. His aunt's hand was still on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off. “You got him killed trying to get payback for someone who wasn't even dead. There wasn't any point to it. What happened wasn't worth a damn.”

It shouldn't have gotten worse than that. It shouldn't have been possible for it to get worse than that.

Another flash of temper, and her father's head came up. “You're joking, right?”

For a moment Hiro seemed caught off guard. “What?”

“I apologize for my harshness, really I do.” His voice was cold and quiet. “But you're asking for honesty, so here it is: Tadashi Hamada's death was the best thing that could have happened.”

Hiro gaped at him, nearly speechless. “...What?”

“What do you want me to say?” he went on. “That no, it wasn't worth it to rescue my daughter? Because it was. Every minute of it. When I was only avenging her, it was worth it.” He raised his eyes, and they glinted. “But to have her back, and alive again? It's more than worth it. If that one death was the price of settling the score, I was willing to look the other way.” He flashed another split-second glance in her direction. “But to save her? I'd light that match a thousand times.”

Hiro lunged, and Abigail was half-convinced he was going for her father's throat and too shocked to stop him. She didn't have to, and neither did Steve, who stepped forward – Gogo caught him around the middle with one arm and yanked him back. For a few tense moments he stood, his breath hissing through his teeth, pale and shaking with fury.

“Hiro-” Steve began, and was ignored.

“I thought you were some kind of monster, you know that?” he spat at her father's impassive face. “I thought you had to be, because I couldn't think of any other reason you could just hurt him like that and not even care. So I wanted you to hurt, too. I wanted to kill you. And then...” He faltered for a moment, glancing back at her as if he was just remembering she was there. His voice softened as it wavered. “...and then I found out about Abigail, and I thought, well we're the same then. You were just sad and angry a-and you didn't have anyone to hold you back and stop you from going too far.” He seemed to shake himself, and the hard edge in his voice returned. “And maybe you were, I don't know, but now? Now there's just... nothing inside of you. Nothing. You're sad and pathetic and empty. And not worth my time.”

With that, he kicked his chair aside and stalked out of the room. Cass went with him, with one last icy look in Dad's direction. Her hand brushed Abigail's shoulder as she passed.

For a few moments no one spoke. Abigail gritted her teeth and focused on breathing in and out.

It was Gogo who broke the silence. “Hey.” She jabbed Fred lightly in the side, and Abigail was surprised to see him jump, as if his nerves were wound up like a tightly coiled spring. “Go check on them.”

Fred gave her a grateful look – too grateful for what Abigail was seeing at face value. Not for the first time, she wondered if she was missing something. Slumping a little, Fred hurried after the Hamadas.

Dad was staring at his hands again, not looking up at anyone, but Abigail saw his jaw clench as Fred moved closer to the door. “Mr. Whitmore.”

Fred halted, one hand on the doorjamb. “What.”

“For what it's worth... no one but Krei was meant to be harmed.” He paused. “And at the time, without the knowledge I have now... if I had seen him in that building, I would not have let him die.”

Fred didn't look at him, or even turn around. Abigail stared after him, wide-eyed and unblinking, waiting for him to shrug those shoulders, let it all wash over him, crack a joke.

But Fred simply answered, “That's nice,” and kept walking.

Abigail's chair scraped back as she stood. Her head swam. Part of her wondered if breathing still worked, if the oxygen rushing into her nostrils would actually take. This time her father did look up, and when he met her eyes she felt numb, as deaf and blind and numb as the portal and the pod and her hypersleep nap.

“Abby,” she thought he said. “Abby, I didn't mean-”

“I don't-” she managed before words failed her again. She fled then, out the door, down a hallway past Hiro and Cass and Fred, around a few corners until she found an empty restroom. She dove inside, desperate to hide, and had barely closed the door when the tears hit her.

And they did hit her – like a mule kick to the chest, one moment she was breathing and the next she was crying.

What was she crying for? Everything. She missed her father, she loved her father, she hated her father, she missed Tadashi, she wanted to go home, she wanted to talk, and it wasn't fair that she had this hopeless tangle locked inside her and not enough words to let it out. She was sad and angry and ashamed and scared, she was grateful to be alive but she wished she weren't because maybe if she'd stayed in the portal, maybe if she'd stayed dead, Tadashi would be alive and Hiro would be happy and her father wouldn't be this bent, broken, twisted man that she couldn't match up with her dad who raised her and taught her and made her dream of flying.

Ugly thoughts, all of them locked in her head. Hiro had freed her, had wiped frost from her pod window and pulled her back into the world, but she had never felt so trapped.


Callaghan's eyes were pained as he watched his daughter leave, but they hardened again when they turned to Gogo. “I will admit,” he said quietly. “I didn't think you of all people would be the one to stop him.”

“Well, yeah,” Gogo said flatly. “He was gonna hurt himself. His form goes down the toilet when you piss him off.” Before Callaghan had the chance to reply, she calmly stood up and punched the professor in the jaw, knocking him out of his chair

“Sorry,” Gogo said with a glance to Steve. She sounded about as sorry as Callaghan had.

“Understandable,” Barnes grunted. “Waited longer than I thought you would.”

“I just didn't want to do it while Abigail was in the room.” Gogo wrung her aching hand and nudged her chair aside. “Anyway, I think we're done here.”

Chapter Text

Outside of the interrogation room, it took Hiro a few minutes to stop seething. That was when the guilt hit him. He cringed, fingers tangling in his hair, nails digging into his scalp.

“I shouldn't have done that,” he whispered, furious with himself. “I shouldn't have done that – in front of Abigail, I'm such an idiot.” His eyes stung, threatening to water as he looked to Aunt Cass. “Where'd she go? Is she okay?” What a stupid question. Of course she isn't okay. What could possibly give you the idea that she's okay?

“She ran by just a minute ago.” Tony Stark came strolling up. He was in street clothes, with a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead for extra incognito. “I think your blonde friend went after her, so she's probably not by herself.” He cast a critical eye toward the closed door. “Pretty sure your interview's over, though.”

Hiro groaned. “I messed up. I messed up. I said I wouldn't, and then I did, and I messed everything up.”

“I wouldn't go that far,” Tony said offhand. “Robert's a stubborn bastard, always has been. If he said there was nothing else he was gonna give you, then he probably meant it.”

Next to Hiro, Fred cringed slightly. “You were listening to that?”

“Uh... yeah.” Tony's face sobered, and he looked to Hiro again. “Sorry, kid.”

Hiro shrugged, but couldn't find the words to answer. He'd been hearing “sorry” for long enough that he'd pretty much run out of them.

“By the way, what's this about you moonlighting as a science superhero?” One of Tony's eyebrows slid upward, and he glanced at Fred briefly. “You too?”

Shrugging, Fred put on a smile. “These things happen. You should see my dragon suit.”

Hiro ran his tongue over his lips, suddenly nervous. The last time he'd seen Tony was at the Expo, before the attack, and before their... recent revelations. “Yeah um...” Inwardly he winced – not a very eloquent way to start. “I'm sorry. About the Expo. I swear, we didn't know-”

“Not your fault,” Tony cut him off. “Hydra's a whole 'nother party, from what I hear. They're a little outside of my playbook, too. Nice to finally get some solid answers, though.”

Aunt Cass cleared her throat. “So what happens now, do you know?”

“Yeah,” Fred added. “You're here, does that mean there's gonna be some Avengers-assemble stuff happening?”

“Not quite. Sparky's still up in space, doing...” Tony shrugged. “Space god things, I dunno. But I'm on call, and so's the Jolly Green Giant. I get the feeling we're gonna need to break some stuff before this is over.”

Hiro squared his shoulders. “If we can help, we will.”

“We can work that out when we get back.” Hiro, Fred, and Aunt Cass jumped – none of them had heard the Black Widow approach. “We'll probably keep you from the main fighting, though.” She smiled wryly. “Steve fusses.”

“We still have that address, right?” Hiro asked.

“Of course,” Romanov replied. “Why?”

“I want to get in touch with Snowden again,” he said. “See what they say. Maybe they know more about this storage facility and what's in it than Callaghan does.”

“Risky,” the spy pointed out. “You ever get confirmation on whether or not your contact's trustworthy?”

“Well... no...” Hiro admitted. “But my gut says they are.”

“How good's your gut?” Her face was impassive. “Do you know what's trustworthy about him?” With her eyes boring into him, Hiro couldn't think of a good answer. “Is it because he has a sad story? Tells good jokes?”

“Um...”

“That's what people are like in this line of work,” Romanov told him gently. “They're likeable. But just because you feel sorry for them doesn't mean they're on your side.”

“Ease off, there, Red Scare,” Tony muttered.

She shrugged, unapologetic. “For all I know he's right and his contact is solid. But for all we know, he could give his contact that address, and suddenly Hydra has all the time and warning they need to strip it bare and leave us a useless building. And that's if they don't just rig it to explode once we're inside.”

Hiro ground his teeth. “I'll... I'll think about it.” Along with everything else on my mind right now.

“Think long and hard about it,” Romanov advised. “Now's not the time to get sloppy.”

“Yeah...” Hiro's eyes watered, and he silently choked on his own shame. “I think I already have.”


The return to Sam's home in DC was a solemn one.

No one spoke a word more than was absolutely necessary, and that wasn't a lot. Hiro made himself as small as he could, curling up in the backseat with his knees against his chest. Shame was at the forefront of his mind; he'd caught a glimpse of Abigail before they'd left. She'd been red-eyed and silent, staring at the ground, barely seeming to notice Honey Lemon's arm around her shoulders.

So much for being civil, he thought bitterly. After all his talk about not being enemies, he'd gone and let himself lose his head like that. Stupid. No matter what Tony said, maybe they could've gotten more out of Callaghan if he'd just kept his mouth shut.

And as if that wasn't enough, there was also the issue of his faceless contact.

He had no solid proof one way or the other. Logic and paranoia said that he couldn't afford to trust Snowden. His gut feelings said that he absolutely could. But his gut feelings were also what had made him lash out at Callaghan like that, so he wasn't exactly trusting them much at the moment. As far as he was concerned, the problems he was dealing with now were either caused or exacerbated by bad decisions and not enough caution.

And this was no back-alley botfight where the only neck he risked was his own. He had people to think about now – Fred, Wasabi, Honey, and Gogo, plus Aunt Cass and Abigail. If he messed up badly enough, he could ruin things for Steve and Tony again, or Sam, or Barnes, or anyone he'd met since this whole mess started. One wrong move and they'd all be screwed.

He sat up, decision made.

Being cautious couldn't hurt, but rashness could cost them dearly against an enemy like Hydra. Romanov was right. He couldn't risk one of the few advantages they had.

Especially if he might be part of the reason why they hadn't gotten more out of Callaghan in the first place.

When they got back, Abigail wordlessly brushed past the rest of them and went straight into a hug with Baymax. No one stopped her or commented, not even Aunt Cass. Hiro averted his eyes, stomach twisting with guilt, and went to the kitchen to check for a message.

Nothing yet.

He sat silently, stewing in his own thoughts until the others joined him. His friends, his aunt, and their SHIELD caretakers all gathered in the kitchen; the room had become something of a makeshift conference area since they'd arrived.

Steve was the first to break the silence. “Professor Callaghan will be on his way back to California later this evening,” he said, looking grim. “In the meantime, we have two possible avenues available. One – Callaghan gave us the location of a storage and information facility. It's not well-known, and if he's to be believed, not well guarded, either. Two – we have coordinates to, supposedly, an active Hydra base, courtesy of your contact.” He nodded to Hiro. “Anything else from them?”

Hiro checked again. “Not yet.”

“We've looked both of these up,” Romanov went on. “Both are east-coast. Address is in New Jersey, coordinates point to Long Island, so it's back to New York if we want to look into it. They're only an hour or so away from each other.” She crossed her arms. “Making a judgment call, I'd say the active base is the higher reward, and the higher risk. One, we don't know for sure if it's legitimate, and two, an active base usually means it's crawling with hostile agents, or at the very least it's heavily monitored. Storage and information facility means less activity, means it's more vulnerable. Either one's a risk, but if your contact's good then we have the most to gain or lose from taking that.”

Hiro nodded along as he listened.

“What do you think is the best strategy for them?” Honey asked. “We're, um... not much for stealth.”

“Probably opposites, both of them,” Sam said thoughtfully. “With a storage facility, once you're in position there's no more need for stealth – just go in, subdue hostiles, and take the place. The base is what's gonna take quiet infiltration.” He looked to Hiro. “If your contact can give us more details – numbers, layout, weak spots, anything like that – we'll have a good chance with a small team.”

“What if...” Hiro's voice trailed off. His brows knitted together in thought.

“What's your idea?” Gogo asked, nudging him.

“What if both of them got hit at the same time?” Hiro suggested. “Quiet infiltration on the base, straight raid on the storage facility?” He met Romanov's eyes from across the table. “You said yourself, an active base is the greatest risk and reward. And like Honey said, we're not so good on stealth.” He glanced at Fred, smirking slightly. “But we can do loud and flashy. If we hit one of their storage places, especially if it's as important as Callaghan thinks it is, we could shake them up enough that they'll be looking our way while somebody else sneaks into their base.”

Fred's eyes lit up. “The old battle-of-the-Black-Gate trick, huh? Draw out the armies of Mordor, give a couple hobbits the chance to sneak through the Gorgoroth Plains. I like it.”

“Think we got time to rustle up some deus ex machina eagles?” Wasabi muttered. He and Fred high-fived.

Romanov leaned in, murmuring with a nod toward Steve. “Watch what you say, he's only on book two.”

Fred's eyes went round. “Got it. Wait, does he know about Gandalf yet?”

“He cried like a baby at Khazad-dum.”

“Can we focus?” Steve asked. “And I didn't cry.”

“It's not a bad idea,” Barnes spoke up, forcing the topic back in place. “A diversion would make our job easier.”

Steve looked to him. “Getting ideas?”

“You, me, and the Widow,” Barnes said. “Maybe with a couple of Hill's best. If we have to.” His eyes slid around the room to each of the others. “You heard them. You've seen them, too. They took out three Hydra cars halfway armed.” He shrugged. “Don't have to send 'em alone, either. Stark's been champing at the bit – I bet he'd go with.” Hiro sneaked a glance at his aunt. Her face was close to unreadable, but she looked pensive.

“Question.” Gogo's gum snapped between her teeth. “What about Abigail? If she's with you and Wilson's with us, then the two people who've been looking out for her are off doing hero stuff. Where's that leave her? Or Ms. Hamada, for that matter.”

“With what you found out with Krei, it'll be too risky sticking around in DC,” Sam said. “If Hydra followed his people to the apartment in Manhattan, then we have to assume they know you're somewhere in this city.” He pulled a wry face. “Hopefully, now that Krei knows better than to poke around, it won't be so easy for them to follow us.”

“Where?” Hiro jumped at the sound of Abigail's voice. She stood at the doorway, hand braced against the wall as if she was nerving herself for a leap. She was dry-eyed and pale, her face carefully blank.

“Baltimore, probably,” Sam replied. “It's close by, and we have a place there. You'll have a small protective detail with you. We're gonna keep you well out of the way of the fighting, okay?”

Abigail nodded wordlessly, but she looked anything but relieved. Hiro ground his teeth quietly. With everyone else busy, Abigail was alone with a bunch of strangers. But what else could they do? She couldn't stay, and she couldn't come with them. Was there anywhere that wasn't dangerous?

“It'll be okay.” Hiro turned, faintly surprised, to Aunt Cass. Her face was set, half thoughtful and half determined as she stared into the middle distance, considering. She blinked, and her eyes turned to Abigail. “It'll be okay,” she repeated, and glanced around to the others. “I'll stay with her. We'll... we'll hold the fort.” Her hands were fists at her sides.

Hiro stared at her, astonished. “Aunt Cass-”

“You – Sam.” His aunt turned to Sam, and even from the side, Hiro could see that her eyes were as hard as stone. “You said you'll be with them, didn't you? If you go through with this plan?”

Sam nodded solemnly.

“Then you – you make damn sure they all come home, do you understand me?” Her voice rang out sternly, and Hiro tried to shrug away the prickle up the back of his neck. “That's my nephew and his friends. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal.” Sam inclined his head to her, and Aunt Cass stepped back, satisfied.

Hiro coughed awkwardly. “So what next?”

“For now, stay on the line for anything from your contact,” Romanov advised. “We can form a better plan if we know what we're up against.”

“Satellite imaging should give us a rough idea,” Steve said. “We can take care of that.”

“We'll, um,” Honey paused. “We can run maintenance checks on our gear while we wait.”

The group dispersed, tasks set. Focused on the laptop screen, Hiro missed where Abigail and Aunt Cass went, but within minutes he and Sam were the only ones left in the kitchen while the latter tidied up. Neither spoke – Hiro felt too awkward to talk to him after Aunt Cass had pretty much told him off.

In any case, he didn't have to – before an hour had passed, there was a new message for him nestled in the website's code.

are you still there powell? i have time to talk.

Eager to drag himself out of his current dreary headspace, Hiro welcomed the excitement coursing through him. He entered in his reply, barely bothering with pen and paper for anything but transcribing. still here snowden. what more can u tell me about that base?

The reply came shortly after – do you have a plan? – and from there it became a full-blown conversation. Hiro scribbled furiously on a notepad, copying the decoded dialogue as it happened.

P: we can make one once we have more info

S: whos we

P: good people. not like i can do it by myself.

S: im putting a lot of faith in you powell

P: likewise snowden. what can u tell me?

There was a pause, giving Hiro time to worry. What if Snowden got spooked and cut him off? They still had the coordinates and whatever satellite imaging could reveal, but information was worth its weight in gold. The more they knew, the less chance they had of everything going wrong.

Finally another message appeared, and Hiro wondered if the pause had been because of hesitance or length.

S: 1story building with 3 sublevels. every floor heavily monitored so watch out. usually at least 50 agents on site, the rest are under duress. less agents lately, more like 20

P: why

S: idk things r happening

P: anything else

S: make sure no one sees you. let me emphasize monitoring.

A wry smile spread across Hiro's face. Surveillance was only as good as the tech they were using. P: know what kind of cameras?

S: cameras arent the problem. every1 has surveillance devices. cant hack them. ive tried.

Hiro's eyes narrowed. P: does everyone include you

Another tense pause, then –

S: powell why the flying fuck do you think ive been coding everything

In spite of himself, Hiro snickered. P: good call. whats on each floor

S: 1st floor comm and weapons. -1 medical. -2 engineering and central control. -3 storage.

P: storage of what?

S: records. assets. stolen tech. toxic chemicals. extra toner. just office supplies.

P: anything else i should know?

S: inspections happen on the half hour. sometimes random. all agents carry glock 22 and taser and sometimes knives

P: nice. sounds like fun.

S: when are you coming?

Hiro hesitated. What should he say? For one thing they hadn't specified yet, and for another... it was Romanov's warning all over again.

“This sucks,” he said out loud.

Sam looked up. “What's up?”

“It's like... I'm bugging this guy for information,” Hiro said. “But I have to hold back stuff in case they're screwing with me. But if they're screwing with me, then everything they tell me is useless anyway.” He scowled at the screen. “I think they're telling the truth, but that's mainly because I really, really, really want them to be telling the truth. I have no way of knowing for sure.”

“That's pretty much how it usually is,” Sam said. “But you know your limits – that's good. Just keep your eyes open, and don't reveal any more than you need to.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” Barnes chipped in as he padded into the kitchen. “Think of it like this – you can't tell 'em too much even if they are on your side. If they are, and they get caught, then it doesn't matter how much they like you.” His eyes locked briefly with Hiro's. “Hydra has its ways.”

You look like you know from experience, Hiro didn't say. Instead, he nodded.

can't say yet he finally coded into the data, once Barnes had left. soon. be ready. keep your head down and don't get caught.

A few minutes later, Snowden left him an answer. no shit. ill do what i can. gotta go powell. im looking forward to shaking your hand.

As Hiro read the last line, a note of deja vu struck him. Had he heard that somewhere before? Maybe Snowden was quoting a movie or something. He seemed like the type.

anything else?

He left the message, but when fifteen minutes of waiting brought no answer, he concluded that Snowden had taken his advice and was laying low. The alternatives didn't bear thinking about.

Sighing, he closed the website and massaged his forehead with both palms. Footsteps made him look up, and his mouth went dry.

Abigail walked past him to the fridge. Sam nodded to her as she opened it and poured herself a glass of orange juice. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, but finally she sat across from Hiro.

Seeing her brought the guilt back full force. Hiro swallowed with a dry throat. “Abigail-”

“I'm sorry.”

He blinked, surprised. Her voice was soft, and her face barely changed, so for a few moments he wondered if she'd actually spoken at all. “What?”

“I'm – sorry.” She wouldn't look up at him. “He hurt you. He won't say it. So I will. I'm sorry.”

Hiro hated that he wanted to cry. “Abigail it's not-”

“My fault? I know. Don't care. Still sorry.” She paused, pursing her lips, and finally met his eyes. “He won't say it. Someone has to.” Her face twisted into a look of revulsion, and her eyes hardened. “He thinks – it was worth it. A fair trade. He's. Wrong. No one – has – to die – for me. I don't want that.” Her face softened again when she looked at him. “My choice. I say no. Okay?”

Throat tight, Hiro nodded.
“Told Cass the same,” she said. “She needs to hear it. She's – nice. Too nice, for all this. For what my dad said.”

“Understatement,” Hiro murmured as he stared at the unchanging code of Snowden's website. Nothing more was forthcoming. There might not be time to get more before they put their plan in action. This could be it.

She doesn't deserve this. She never asked for any of it.


The SHIELD agents weren't rough with him, but they certainly weren't friendly, either. They didn't need to be, when all they had to do was watch him for one night until they flew him back to California. But that suited Robert Callaghan just fine – he wasn't in the business of making friends anymore.

There was something strangely refreshing about burning bridges, such that he had; he hadn't had much of a bridge with Hiro Hamada in the first place. And yet, it was undeniable that there had been some sort of connection there. As small as the spark of interest at their first meeting, or as great as his gratitude that the boy had personally rescued Abby, it had simply existed. And that was enough to eat at him, night and day, over words unsaid and feelings unexpressed.

But now they were said. The thoughts were out in the world, and his face still throbbed but the pain of dread and twisting uncertainty and lingering guilt was gone. Nothing lifted weight off his chest quite like simple honesty.

He'd meant it. Every word. He knew they wouldn't like it, but he owed Hiro enough to tell him the truth. It was a painful one, but honesty had been asked for.

Oh how it had haunted him. For months, he had seen it on the backs of his eyelids every time he closed his eyes. His life had been an Edgar Allen Poe nightmare.

But Abby was alive.

His daughter, his little girl... she was alive. He would have set the world aflame to bring her back, before. The price that he had paid was small in comparison.

It had taken much thought, many sleepless nights, but finally, at long last, Robert Callaghan had come to terms with Tadashi Hamada's death.

Besides – he was dead, after all. His troubles were over.

Not everyone could be so lucky.

The sound of breaking glass was all the warning they had. A few feet away, the SHIELD agent had his hand at his gun when a sniper bullet put an end to his troubles, too. The other guard stood, but did not reach for his gun. Instead he stretched, almost lazily, and his face changed.

Not the expression. His entire face just changed, until a different man stood before him, calmly waiting with no trace of alarm or surprise.

Callaghan closed his eyes and sighed deeply as footsteps drew nearer. This was something of a relief, too – he'd known it was coming as soon as they'd arrested him and plastered his face over every media outlet available.

When he opened them, his handcuffs were being unlocked, and the assassin standing over him gave him a friendly, blood-flecked smile.

“You're looking pretty good for a dead guy, professor.”

Idly he wondered how long any Hydra agent had been waiting to say that to him. “What more do you want from me?” he asked tiredly, letting himself be pulled to his feet. The first man – the traitor with the shifting mask – padded out of the room.

“Just a few favors,” the Hydra man said cheerfully, smiling with a level of smarm that most reporters would have envied. “You never filled your end of the deal, and you've been racking up quite a bit of interest playing possum. We'll fill you in later.”

“And if I don't?” Callaghan kept his voice carefully neutral as he stepped over the dead SHIELD agent.

“Then we name the time, date, and place of your daughter's execution. We might let you keep a finger, but that's not really up to me.”

Callaghan stared at him, not hating him. Hating this man was as useless as hating a disease, or a devastating earthquake. He was being honest, and lately Callaghan was coming to appreciate honesty more and more. At least he knew what was expected of him.

He would have set the world aflame for Abby. Hopefully the price wouldn't be quite so high.

 

Chapter Text

Tony Stark was waiting for them when they arrived in New York. Now that it was clear that Tony had not been Hydra's intended target, Stark Tower was deemed safe again. Safe enough to serve as a temporary base of operations for both the Long Island stealth team and the New Jersey strike team.

Hiro and Fred were both happy to be back, though there were a few differences this time. For one thing, the whole team was there to enjoy it.

For another, the whole team included Baymax.

“Oh my God,” Tony said the moment he saw Baymax inflating out of his case in the garage. “Oh my God what is that it's adorable.”

Baymax waved, and rattled off his customary introduction. Tony circled him a few times, and Hiro heard him muttering about carbon fiber skeletons, actuators, and supercapacitors.

“Also, he can lift a thousand pounds, he knows over ten thousand medical procedures plus martial arts, and he has a bio-scanner with a range of almost fifty square miles,” Hiro added helpfully. “The karate was the only thing I added.”

“And he gives the best hugs,” Fred chipped in.

Tony stood considering the robot for a few seconds, while Baymax waddled around in a small circle to take in his new surroundings. “So this is that AI you mentioned before?”

It took Hiro a second to remember what he was talking about – his first visit felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. “Oh, uh, yeah.”

“Damn. If your brother was here, I'd buy him a round myself.”

In spite of himself, Hiro grinned.

Introductions were made all around. Gogo played it pretty cool, but Wasabi was clearly more than a little starstruck. Before long, introductions turned into showing off their equipment, while Steve, Barnes, Sam, and Natasha conferred with Agent Hill over Hiro's information. Pepper Potts, in the meantime, corralled Abigail and Aunt Cass to pass the time more quietly.

Tony examined their gear with an expert eye, and Hiro couldn't help fidgeting at the scrutiny. In fact, stealing glances at his friends, he noted that everyone (except maybe Fred) looked a little nervous at the process of being judged by Tony Stark. “It's, uh, still a work in progress,” Hiro said bashfully. “Sort of... we keep figuring out ways to improve on the original.”

“Not bad,” Tony remarked. “Not bad at all. Team effort?”

“Uh, yeah, basically,” Hiro answered. “Each set's their own, I just sorta... weaponized it. Shrank it down, made it mobile.” He paused. “Except Fred's. That was all me, he just handled the aesthetics.”

“Never would've guessed.”

“Gimme some credit, I helped with aesthetics for all of them,” Fred said proudly.

“Which is probably why we suck so much at stealth,” Gogo chipped in.

“I am loving the portable chemistry set,” Tony said. “Very tasteful. So you just plug in a formula and out it comes in bite-sized pieces?”

Honey stepped in, smiling sweetly. “May I?” With a flick of her wrist she typed in a chemical formula, caught the chem-ball that emerged, and spiked it on the ground. It burst, and pale orange foam expanded to the size of three couch cushions. “I use that one if I need a soft landing. I've got loads of others, but that one's the safest to do inside. And easiest to clean up.”

Tony looked at it thoughtfully. “Not exactly idiot-proof, though. Using that would require memorization of the entire periodic table, as well as every chemical formula you might ever need.”

“No, I only need to remember the table,” Honey said brightly. “I don't need to memorize formulas as long as I understand how each chemical reacts to one another.”

Tony gave her a long, slow blink. “Right.”

Honey beamed at him. “What, like it's hard?” She giggled. “It's nothing, I mean Wasabi and Hiro basically made hand-held lightsabers.”

“Ooh, yeah, those.” Tony gave them an appreciative but very careful look. “Heard you de-wheeled a van with those puppies. In the middle of a car chase.”

“Still can't believe I did that,” Wasabi muttered.

“They are handled with the utmost precision and care,” Baymax added. “The running count of plasma blade-related injuries is... zero, over the past six months.”

Wasabi shrugged modestly, glancing at the floor. “I handle knives for a living, I mean it's not like I'm not familiar with... heh.”

Gogo was the last to come under the microscope, and Hiro couldn't tell whether she was playing it cool to avoid looking nervous, or she really was that confident. When Tony turned to look at her, she – carefully – tossed him one of her discs.

“Electromag suspension,” she said simply. “Zero-resistance wheels and projectiles. Cuts down on wind resistance, ups the accuracy like whoa.”

The chatter carried on, and Hiro quietly marveled at where they were. Just weeks before they'd been slogging through class and dreading finals, but now? They were in Stark Tower. Talking shop with Tony Stark. For the second time, in his own case.

Tony was commenting on Fred's flamethrower when Romanov and Pepper stepped in. “Hey we've finalized the-” Romanov's rough voice trailed off when she realized that Tony wasn't paying her any attention.

Pepper cleared her throat. “Tony. Hey.”

Tony glanced up at them, still holding Fred's lizard suit by the face. “Pepper. They've been showing me their stuff.”

Her mouth twitched into a smile. “See anything you like?”

“Can we keep them? All of them? Is that a thing we can do?”

Ducking his head, Hiro flushed with pleasure.

“We've put together a working schedule,” Romanov said. “Finalized our time frame. We're making our move tomorrow.”

The lighthearted atmosphere evaporated like dew.

As everyone gathered in Tony's living room, Hiro's heart fluttered with anticipation. The others were already there, including Abigail and Aunt Cass. Steve stood with Barnes at his shoulder like a shadow, and Sam stood by them with Hill on his other side. There was someone else there to join them as well – Hiro's eyes widened when he recognized Dr. Bruce Banner.

“We're making our move tomorrow night,” Sam began, once last-minute introductions were made and everyone was fully acquainted with each other. “All of us – we're going through with the simultaneous attacks.”

Hiro shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Splitting into two groups, then?”

“Three groups,” Steve corrected. “Abigail and Cass, you'll be moving to another safe house – from there you'll have access to our communications channel. I figure that'd be preferable to sitting around wondering what's happening.” Aunt Cass nodded, looking reluctantly grateful. “In the meantime, Bucky, Natasha, and I will get in position on Long Island. We'll be waiting on word from Sam.”

“Third group will be me, Stark, Dr. Banner, and the five – 'scuse me, six of you,” Sam continued, with a glance at Baymax. “We'll be hitting the facility in Jersey. I will be taking point on it – we're not foreseeing a whole lot of resistance, but just in case, stay together, don't run off on your own, and above all – stay out of Dr. Banner's way.”

Hiro could sense his friends' nervousness at Sam's warning. On instinct he shot a glance at Banner, but if the Hulk was bothered by it, he didn't show it.

“Once your raid begins, we'll start ours,” Romanov told them. “And when that happens, we'll be going completely dark. No communication one way or the other. This is an extremely delicate operation, and we can't risk our ringtones going off when we're sneaking through the lion's den. Anything goes wrong for you, Hill will be on standby.” Her eyes roved the room, from one face to another. “Taking unnecessary risks is our part of the plan, not yours. You stay together. If you get hurt, you get out. Understood?” She looked to Hiro last, and he nodded solemnly.

Aunt Cass cleared her throat. “When do we leave? Abigail and I?”

Tonight,” Steve told her. “You'll be back with your nephew as soon as the operation's done.”

Tight-faced, Aunt Cass nodded.

“We'll restart communications as soon as possible,” Romanov went on. “No sooner than we can, but no later than we need to. The objective of our mission is to find the base's central control room and shut their operation down. Hiro, anything from your contact?”

Hiro shook his head. “No. I think they're laying low. Um...”

“Yes?”

“They said most of the people in that place are innocent,” he said, hesitantly. “So like... watch it, I guess.”

Romanov's eyes softened, and she nodded. “We'll keep that in mind.”

“We've run missions like this before,” Steve assured him. “Just focus on your end, okay? We'll all come out of this okay.”

A strange, icy calm settled over Hiro as he nodded. He didn't even notice the tight cord of in his shoulders until it loosened at Steve's assurance. He breathed in, then out. “Got it.”

His affirmation was echoed raggedly by his friends, quiet murmurs but no less sincere. Abigail nodded, wide-eyed but outwardly calm with Aunt Cass close by her side. Relief rose thickly in him, until it was almost a struggle to breathe through it. Whatever else happened, in either prong of their plan, at least they would be safe. Far away, hidden, and safe. If nothing else, it would take a huge amount of weight off his mind before the fight.

Considering what was at stake, he needed all the mental clarity he could get.

Tony stepped forward, clearing his throat. “For now, if there's any last-minute prep you guys need-” There was an eager glint in his eyes as he glanced around at them. “I'm all ears. We do need to make as big a bang as we can. And...” He squinted one eye at Hiro. “Between you and me, we can probably throw together something to deal with their surveillance cameras.”

An idea burst into Hiro's head, fully-formed. For a mission like this, it would pay to take some extra firepower, wouldn't it? Especially since he was the only one who was more or less unarmed so far. He nodded to himself. “Actually, if I could borrow some lab space and materials, that'd be cool.”

“What're you thinking, Hiro?” Gogo asked.

“The object is to get their attention, isn't it?” he said. His thoughts turned to the half-forgotten backpack he'd been dragging around since New York. “I think I have something that might do the trick.”


The good news was that Cass was not afraid. She had been drowning in fear before, though the feeling was not entirely unfamiliar to her. But rather than fighting to cope and pull herself out of it like she normally did, she had hit upon a solution that she had not considered before. Instead of treading her terror like water, or finding footholds to pull herself out, she had pushed through to find herself on the other side. She was not out of fear but past fear, and the place she now found herself in was new and unfamiliar territory. She felt... cold. Not uncomfortably so. In fact it was hardly like cold at all; cold made her shiver, and her mind would jump from place to place like a startled rabbit. But this feeling made her still, and it sharpened her thoughts instead of scrambling them, so that she viewed them with a detached, razor-sharp focus.

My nephew is a vigilante. Okay.

he and his friends are in danger. Okay.

I am in danger. Okay.

Tomorrow, I will be safe in hiding with Abigail while my nephew and his friends possibly risk their lives.

...Okay.

She took in a breath, let it out again, and focused on the world around her once more.

It was night, and they were leaving. Not in the future, not at some appointed hour to come. They were leaving now. She and Abigail would get in a car and be driven away, and the next day Hiro would be fighting. maybe for his life.

“Last hug?”

Her nephew's voice cut through her icy thoughts. She blinked, and the desire to burst into tears came over her and left her in the space of a breath. Her eyes met his, and he was smiling. Bright brown eyes and a gap in his teeth. He was getting bigger, ever so slowly, but his smile was the same at fourteen as it had been at three. It would always be the same in her eyes. There was little difference, in the end.

There had been little difference with Tadashi, too.

But he was gone, and her heart was all for Hiro now. If he was gone too, then what would be left? Maybe this cold feeling. Maybe that was what it was for.

She stepped into the hug and pulled him close, her cheek pressed to the top of his head. His arms were around her middle, tight and thin and alive. The cold receded, but it crept back again when Hiro stepped away.

“Aunt Cass-”

“Come back to me.” Her own voice sounded like a stranger's to her, raw and hollow – as hollow and empty as she would be if he didn't.

He nodded, and his face was set and determined. He was brave, and even though she was past the fear, she was terrified for him. Terrified and so, so proud.

“I will, I promise.” Another gap-toothed smile broke her heart. “I'll be back before you know it.”

She doubted that. If he was gone for five minutes, it would still be too long.

There was a chance, and Cass had little idea how great or small that chance was, that Hiro would not be coming back. She could lose him, and what would be left for her then?

The cafe, some reasonable, rational part of her remembered. Her cat. Abigail – Abigail might still want someone to talk to. And if someone took him from her – if someone killed her nephew, her child – wouldn't the world be a better place if they weren't in it?

She made the choice with the same calm detachment, the same ice-cold Okay as she had for all the rest. If Hiro did not come back to her, then the ones responsible would die. She would make sure of that, even if it meant pulling the trigger herself.

Cass went with Abigail and their small detail of SHIELD protectors with a leaden heart, while her instincts screamed at her to pull Hiro with her, to keep him close to her and far away from danger. Her eyes stung but stayed dry, as she left her child in the care of virtual strangers while she went to safety.

She could not lose any more family.


The car ride was long and uncomfortable. It wasn't that the atmosphere was awkward, or that Abigail felt particularly unwelcome. But Cass was silent beside her, and the agents weren't much for conversation. It was too quiet, with even the sound of the road and the car muffled. The numbness was spreading, tingling uncomfortably in her skin. Abigail endured it for a while, until it rose like liquid static from her feet upward. When her stomach churned with the threat of panic, she finally gave in. She dug her nails into her hands and hummed softly to herself, driving back the numbness with sound and touch.

Cass's hand came to rest on hers, stopping her from scratching herself again. Abigail jumped and tried to pull her hand away, embarrassed.

“Are you okay?' Cass's voice fell comfortingly on her ears, driving back the static the way her own voice couldn't quite manage.

“No,” she murmured. “I'm scared. And there's – not enough.”

“Not enough what?' Cass squeezed her hand, and she focused on that instead of the static.

“Everything,” Abigail whispered. “There's just – too much nothing.”

“Will it help if I talk to you?”

Abigail blinked gratefully at her. “Yes.”

For the rest of the ride, they conversed in low tones, and Abigail kept the numbness back with Cass's voice in her ear. The woman talked about seemingly whatever popped into her head – the cafe, her cat, Hiro's studies, incidents and gossip she'd picked up from her customers. The chatter calmed her, keeping her mind off of other things and – she suspected – keeping Cass's mind occupied as well.

It was late when they reached Baltimore and their destination. Cold night wind swept past Abigail as she opened the door, rippling her skin with goosebumps. The streets were quiet – for once a comfort rather than a menace.

“Quick, Ms. Callaghan,” one of the agents urged – Mallory, that was his name. “The sooner we get inside, the better.” Cass was already out, and the other two agents, Tanner and McCarthy, stood by with their hands at their guns. Wrapping her jacket more tightly around herself, Abigail scurried to Cass's side. The woman's arm settled around her shoulders. McCarthy and Tanner led the way up the walkway from the sidewalk, and Mallory took up the rear.

The safe house was small, suburban, and at least outwardly, it didn't look particularly safe. Though maybe the knowledge that Natasha Romanov wasn't close by made her biased.

Mallory halted with them, nodding to his partners before they went inside to check the house. Abigail lost track of the minutes before Mallory's hand went to his ear, and he nodded.

“It's clear,” he assured them. They walked inside.

Abigail stepped in out of the cold, and the hairs on the back of her neck only stood higher. She stumbled, instinct telling her to stop or bolt while reason told her to keep walking. Cass's arm kept her from falling completely.

Her heart was heavy with worry, but it lifted when she spotted McCarthy standing further in, turning on a light. Tanner was maybe two arms-lengths away from him. Abigail's eyes were still adjusting when she saw him raise his gun to McCarthy's head.

Silenced gunshots sounded different in real life than they did on TV.

McCarthy dropped without a sound. Beside him, Tanner's face was changing – not just his expression, but his entire face – muscles moved, bone structure shifted, into a face that Abigail almost recognized, though she wasn't sure why. Before she had the chance to cry out, Mallory dropped him with one shot.

“Get to the car. Now.”

Cass's arm left Abigail's shoulders, and she seized Abigail's hand and dragged her back toward the door. More shots rang out behind them – there was another gunman hidden somewhere inside.

The wind outside hit Abigail like a blow, and she sucked in a gasp of relief when she saw the car. Mallory was right behind her, his voice almost lost in the sound of gunshots.

“Agent Hill, the safehouse is compromised. Tanner was a mole, he had a hologram mask. McCarthy's dead, I'm moving them to-”

He was two steps outside the door when another figure stepped out and shot him in the head.

Abigail bit back a scream, even as she and Cass made a final desperate break for the car. She caught sight of the tires, and her heart sank like a stone. All four of them were limp, flat, and useless.

In less than a minute, their protectors were dead, and their one chance at escape was sabotaged. Abigail clamped her mouth shut, clung to Cass's arm, and tried not to hyperventilate or pass out.

“Hello, Miss Callaghan.” The hairs on her neck prickled further – she knew that voice. Where had she heard that voice? “And Ms. Hamada. I hope we can be civil this time.”

Slowly, Abigail turned back to the house. Cass did the same, stepping in front of her as she did so. Abigail's wide eyes fell upon Mallory's body, and the man standing over him with a white, shining smile. His mouth and teeth smiled, but his eyes did not.

It was a familiar smile.

“I remember you.” Cass found her voice before Abigail did. “...Jun, wasn't it?”

Abigail drew in a sharp breath. It was him – he was Hydra. Hydra had been following her as far back as the Lucky Cat. And “Tanner”, the traitor who was lying dead in that house, was his hulking friend, the one who'd tried to loom Cass into submission.

For months she'd been hounded by journalists, but how many of them-

How many of them had been Hydra agents, following her every step?

“I hope I made a good impression,” Jun said as he stepped over the corpse. Behind him, the gunman from inside slipped out – it was the hawk-nosed woman who had accompanied Jun into the cafe.

There was movement all around. In her half-panicked state, Abigail counted either four or five other agents besides Jun and the woman, slipping out of the shadows or staying half-hidden from view.

“Atkinson's dead,” the woman said.

Jun's smile never wavered. “Whoops. He shouldn't have been slow.” He raised his head, addressing the others. “Stiffy here radio'd for help. Let's bag 'em and clear out.”

“We're only hear for the girl,” the woman pointed out. “Should we leave Hamada for SHIELD to find?”

No, ” Abigail's voice cracked. Cass clasped her hand and shushed her.

“Nah.” Jun turned to Cass, and his smile turned thoughtful. “That's the aunt – we could get some use out of her.” He clapped sharply. “Let's bring 'em in, people. Before we're up to our necks in Avengers.”

Abigail stifled a sob as rough hands grabbed her.

“It's going to be okay,” Cass began, but a fist to her jaw silenced her. Her hand slipped from Abigail's, and Hydra vanished them off the streets, leaving only silence and corpses in their wake.


Fred woke himself up in the wee hours of the night. Usually he had no trouble getting to sleep, and this night was no different, but staying asleep was proving to be a bit more of a challenge. Nothing in particular was waking him up – the place was dark and quiet, nobody around him had a snoring problem, and he was bone-tired when his head hit the pillow. But every now and then, he would open his eyes, suddenly afraid that he had slept too long and missed something.

It was a little after three in the morning, and he was getting irritated with himself. They had a mission in less than a day, how was he supposed to function if he couldn't even sleep?

For a while he lay awake, waiting to drift off again, when a noise from somewhere else in the room made him open his eyes.

It was a muffled whimper, as if someone was making noise through a gag. Fred raised his head, half-sure he had imagined it, until the strange cry became muffled sobbing. It stopped after a few seconds, but Fred was already sitting up.

It had been over a week since the Expo, and enough had happened between then and now that it felt like months. But even then, even though they were technically safe for the moment, and even with everyone together under one roof, Fred was still leery about letting Hiro out of his sight for too long. If Hiro felt the same way, he didn't say anything and didn't need to. So for that reason, Fred knew that no one else was close enough for him to hear them that sharply.

Still shaking off grogginess, Fred quietly stumbled to Hiro's side. “Hiro?” he whispered.

Hiro twitched but lay motionless, as if faking sleep.

Fred tried again. “Hey. You okay?”

After a moment, Hiro shifted. Fred saw him hastily wipe his eyes before turning to look at him, and his chest clenched painfully when his friend's tired eyes fixed on him. “'M fine,” Hiro whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

“Little late for that.” Carefully Fred sat down beside him. “So... bad dreams?”

Hiro didn't answer out loud, but after a moment he nodded.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Not really.” Hiro avoided his eyes.

Fred heaved a sigh. It was either too late or too early for this, and he wasn't in the mood to argue with him. So instead, he massaged his slightly aching forehead with his palm and tried to line the words up in his head. “Look... so, news flash, I'm really bad at this,” he said awkwardly. “But like... I'm here for you? And I'm not gonna leave or anything, obviously, I'll stay here if that makes you feel better.”

Hiro stared wordlessly up at him, his lower lip gripped in his teeth. His eyes were wide and fully ringed with white, and Fred had to wonder if he was seeing more tears or he really was just tired enough to hallucinate.

Cautiously, he scooted forward and pulled Hiro into a hug. “Um. This okay?”

The only reply was thin arms around his middle and a damp face pressed to his shirt.

Lights came on, somewhere else in some other room. Voices followed, too far away to make out what they were saying. Hiro pulled back, suddenly tense and alert, and the two of them exchanged a look. In wordless agreement, they got up and crept out to investigate.

Moving down the hall toward the light, Fred strained his ears and slowly picked apart the voices. One was Steve, another was Sam, and a third was Romanov.

“-even tell the kid?” That was Sam. As they approached the door through which the light was showing, the words became clearer.

“Why wouldn't we?” Steve asked.

“We're up against Hydra. The last thing he needs is something like this on his mind.” Sam paused. “We're sure they were taken? And not just...”

“We'd have found them if they were,” Romanov said flatly. “Abigail's been a target since day one. And since Hiro is, too, it makes sense they'd keep his aunt for leverage.” An icy claw of fear clutched at Fred's heart, and he heard Hiro draw in a sharp gasp. “There's no doubt in my mind. Cass and Abigail are in Hydra custody.”

Fred looked to Hiro, just as his friend's hand closed like a vice around his arm. Hiro's other hand was clapped over his mouth, and in the dim light he looked sick with horror.

“They'll get them,” Fred murmured, even as bile rose in his throat. “They'll get them out. They have to.”

Hiro closed his eyes, and his nails dug into Fred's arm until Fred was blinking back tears of his own.

 

Chapter Text

When Fred dragged Gogo up at half past five in the morning, she was decidedly upset. When he told her why, she didn't stop being upset; she simply became upset that he hadn't woken her earlier.

“Jesus Christ,” Gogo growled, now wide-awake and dressed. Honey and Wasabi were a couple minutes behind her, but she wasn't in the mood to wait for them. “Jesus friggin' Christ. How is he?”

The look that Fred gave her was grim – not even he could find a joke in all this. Which was good for him, because if he had, and if he'd used it, Callaghan's punishment would have been a love-tap in comparison to her reaction. “How do you think he is?”

Point taken.

The two of them were stepping out into the hallway when Hiro's unmistakeable voice rang out angrily from another room. Gogo winced. To be fair, this entire situation had never not been a mess, but now? Gogo hadn't felt this sick to her stomach since they'd first found out Hiro and Fred were in trouble.

But this was different. Hiro and Fred were part of the team. They'd been neck-deep in this from the start. They'd been in bad scrapes before and lived, and Gogo could at least trust that they knew what they were getting into, knew how to react to danger, and therefore had a good chance of staying in one piece.

Fred and Hiro weren't the ones alone and in trouble anymore; Cass and Abigail were. These were people they were supposed to protect. And so far they weren't doing a very good job.

“How did this even happen?” Hiro demanded. “They were supposed to be safe – what is it with your 'safe' houses that everyone from Krei to Hydra seems to be able to find them?”

Upon reaching the open doorway, Gogo had about twenty percent of a heart attack. Hiro was on his feet, looking extra tiny the way he was squaring up to Steve Rogers – or at least trying to. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides, and his entire stance would have been aggressive and intimidating if he weren't less than half the size of the man he was yelling at. Gogo's brain knew full well that Steve would probably jump into another frozen ocean before he harmed Hiro, but her gut still twisted in protest at the sight. The urge to place herself between them was strong, but Hiro wouldn't thank her for doing something like that. Fred took a step forward, but Gogo stopped him.

“I don't have an excuse.” Steve looked tired – way more tired than Gogo had ever seen him. The look on his face made him look almost as old as he was. “There isn't one. I'm sorry, Hiro. I never meant for this to happen.”

“Yeah, that's – that's super helpful.” Hiro was seething again, apparently heedless of size difference, or of Barnes lurking in the background. “How sure are you that they're still alive?” Steve started to answer, only for Hiro to cut him off one last time. “And don't sugarcoat it, I want the truth!”

“Napoleon on the warpath already?” Gogo jumped. She'd been so distracted by Hiro and her own annoying mom-friend instincts that she hadn't noticed Stark come up behind her. Honey was with him, having dressed and shaken off sleep, with Wasabi close behind. “What's got him riled up now?”

“Hydra ambush in Baltimore.” Fred couldn't even say it without sounding sickened. Honey gasped quietly.

“Cass and Abigail are missing.” Gogo didn't blame him for talking like he was two minutes away from puking; the words themselves left a bad taste in her mouth.

“Jesus.” Tony exhaled, closing his eyes briefly in dismay. “Well, that explains the yelling. Missing – what exactly does that imply? Are we talking missing as in captured or missing as in...” He let it trail off there.

“Captured, probably,” Fred's whisper was tense. “Agent Romanov left hours ago to go find them.”

Gogo bit her lip. That was news to her. “Then that's one third of our base-infiltration team gone. I know it was a small team to start with, but...”

“Are we gonna have to call this off?” Wasabi asked, voicing Gogo's own question.

Tony answered it with a question of his own. “Do you think it's a good idea for him to go charging into a fight when he thinks his aunt might be dead?”

“I can hear all of you talking back there, you know,” Hiro gritted out, without turning around.

“They have a point,” Steve told him gently. “It might not be wise to launch an attack when they have two hostages.” He paused, looking troubled. “Besides that, both of them know what our plans are. If Hydra makes them talk-”

Hiro swore under his breath, turning away to claw his fingers through his hair. “I can't just sit here and do nothing.” Gogo could finally see the look on his face, and she had never seen him look so desperate before.

While Gogo was still trying to browbeat something remotely encouraging out of her own brain, Honey nudged her way forward. “Hiro?” she began, speaking slowly as though she was giving her own words a lot of thought even as she said them. “You said before... didn't Snowden tell you there had been fewer agents lately? That they might have been gearing up for something?” Her green eyes were sharp as they settled on Steve. “Add to that the distraction we'd provide by attacking their storage facility, and you might never get another opening like that. If we wait too long, it's gone.”

A grim smile spread across Gogo's face as Honey's meaning became clear. “We don't know that Cass or Abigail have talked,” she said. “But in case they do... maybe we should hit hard early.”

“If Hydra finds out what we want to do, the whole plan's a bust if we wait,” Fred added.

“Exactly,” Gogo agreed. “But if we pull this off as soon as possible, we'll either get 'em before they find out, or we give them as little chance to prepare as we can. Besides, if they get any information from Cass or Abigail, then they'd know we'd make our move later tonight, remember? What if we make it fourteen hours early?”

“We're not ready, though,” Wasabi said, cautioning her. “Not with Romanov gone, remember? I know it's just one person and it was only supposed to be a small team, but that's still a third of it gone.”

Gogo scowled, unwilling to give in. Halfway across the room, Hiro's desperate eyes met hers. He blinked, and her intentions seemed to dawn on him, cutting through his near-panic. With a nod, Gogo turned to look at Steve. “I can replace her.”

“I kinda doubt that,” Tony muttered.

“Okay, so not – it's not perfect,” Gogo admitted. “God knows I'm not a SHIELD she-ninja. But I am the fastest, and I'm good at blending in. I can keep up, and I can help you get out if things get hairy.” She shrugged, gesturing to the rest of her friends. “I'm not a huge powerhouse like the rest of them. Between the team, and Stark and Dr. Banner and the bird guy, they'll still have enough muscle to upset a few applecarts without my help.”

“Are you sure about this?” Wasabi sounded dubious. “We don't really do sneaky.”

“Maybe you don't.” Gogo shrugged. “I'll have to ditch the armor or do a speed-repaint. Eye-bleeding yellow doesn't really lend well to stealth.”

“What about my aunt?” Hiro broke in. “And Abigail? How good of a chance does Romanov have or rescuing them?”

“A better chance than most people on Earth.” Barnes' quiet voice seemed to cut through Hiro's tense fear. “Certainly better than most of the people in this room.”

“A better chance than we have, just sitting around and moping like a bunch of idiots,” Gogo broke in, more harshly than she'd intended. She coughed, pulling herself back. “Look, we either go or we don't. But we might not have a lot of time to decide.”

I'm going,” Hiro said firmly. “It's better than sitting here and doing nothing.”

There was a beat, and then Fred uncurled his spine and stood a little straighter. “Welp, guess that means we're going too,” he said with a shrug.

“Looks that way,” Wasabi sighed.

“Yup,” Honey agreed.

“You're sure about this?” Steve cautioned them, though from the look on his face he knew that arguing would be an uphill battle.

“Hey, we pretty much just do what he does,” Fred said, jerking his thumb at Hiro. “It's worked out for us so far.” Hiro's smile at that was almost too grim to be called a smile at all.

Tony cleared his throat. “Should I wake up Bruce, then?”

Steve nodded. “I'll get Sam and let him know we're going through with the plan.” His eyes fell on Gogo, and she swallowed nervously under his solemn scrutiny. “We can't guarantee your safety, if you come with us. We'll do our best, but infiltrating an enemy base is an extreme risk under the best of circumstances. And we're not under the best right now.”

“Well, I mean duh.” Gogo shrugged, because faking a little confidence did help tamp down her nervousness a little. “I think I stopped obsessing over my safety when I t-boned a car out of your face.” She paused, then added, “Captain sir.”

One of Steve's eyebrows rose.

“Hey, you're the pro here,” Gogo said. “If I go with you, like... you're in charge, right? What you say goes. I'm not about to prance off into enemy territory like an idiot. I'll follow you.”

Steve held her gaze for a moment longer, and Gogo managed to return it without flinching. Finally, the soldier's shoulders lowered, and he exhaled lightly. “I still don't think this is a good idea.”

Barnes made a noncommittal noise. “Neither is about half of what you do.”


Wind whipped past Hiro, but he barely felt it. His armor and helmet were on, protecting him from any flying debris – if there was any, this high up.

Honey crouched by him on Baymax's back, and Hiro knew from the steady quiet whimpering from over the commlink that Wasabi was still hanging safely from Baymax's right arm. Fred was at his left, and Honey and Hiro sat up top, each clinging to one of the magnetic handholds.

“Nice color scheme, by the way,” Tony drawled over the commlink. “The whole setup, really. Very Iron Giant.” His tone was light – almost carefully light. Hiro ground his teeth and didn't reply.

This should have been gloriously exciting – a dream come true, really. He was soaring ten feet above the cloud cover on equipment he'd built with his own two hands, about to fly into battle with Iron Man. If he turned his head, he could see Stark flying just ahead with Bruce Banner hanging from his grip. Sam was flying point, his mechanical wingspan spread to its fullest.

It should have been exciting, one of the proudest moments of his life. But all he felt was sick with worry.

“We'll be directly over the facility in about two minutes,” Sam announced. “Steve, Barnes, how're things on your end?”

“We're in position,” Steve replied. “Bucky's running recon, but he'll be back in a minute. Waiting on you, Sam.”

“I'm here too, or whatever,” Gogo added flatly. Hiro gritted his teeth against the stab of fear at her voice. Gogo was following them right into the lion's den. As if he didn't have enough to worry about already.

“Anything from Romanov?” he asked.

“She's following a lead,” Steve said.

“How good?”

“If she doesn't have them out by ten-fifteen, she owes me twenty bucks,” Barnes broke in. “Haven't won a bet with her yet.”

Hiro was torn. On the one hand, the fact that the Black Widow had a solid lead and a solid track record was reassuring. On the other, the fact that they were literally gambling on his aunt's life rankled him.

“Stay focused,” Sam said, his sharp voice snatching Hiro's attention back. “We have a job to do. So help me, if your head's not in it, I will have you sit this out.”

I'd like to see you try, Hiro thought rebelliously. He held his tongue. Up ahead, Sam halted in flight and hovered steadily.

“We there yet?' Fred piped up.

“We're there,” Sam replied. “In position, Steve.”

“Ready when you are.”

Hiro's heart sped up. His fingers tightened over the magnetic handhold. Beside him, Honey went still.

“Going in,” Sam said, and they dove in unison.


The moment Sam gave the word, Steve and Gogo switched off their commlinks. Barnes hadn't made it back yet, leaving them to watch the building. It didn't look like much, just a small one-story structure, neither warehouse nor office but something in between, blending plainly into the background.

Gogo felt a bit naked, and not in the fun way. She'd left most of her armor behind for stealth's sake, and the Kevlar vest she had on felt like a poor substitute. Her face was covered from the nose down, her hair tied back. They'd even insisted on darkening the purple streak to match the rest of her hair. They weren't leaving anything that could reliably be used to identify her.

Luckily she wasn't unarmed by any stretch. She still had her bracers with the discs attached, all of it recolored black for the purpose of the mission. Her skates were slung over her back, just in case she needed a quick getaway.

And she was under orders, at Steve's strong insistence, to abandon both of the others and get herself to safety if things went wrong.

She'd cross that bridge if or when she came to it.

Barnes crept back to them without a sound, at least until he spoke softly. “Found it.”

“Another entrance?” Steve asked.

“Public restroom.” Barnes nodded to the gas station across the street. “Supply closet has a trapdoor. That's our in.”

Steve nodded, and Barnes led the way. Gogo noticed, to her chagrin, that they were surrounding her – Barnes in front, Steve in back.

The closet that Barnes led them to was occupied by an unconscious guard – at least, she thought he was unconscious. She sincerely hoped he was unconscious. Barnes simply shifted him to the side, reached down, and wrenched a piece of the floor up. It swung on a hinge, revealing the top of a ladder leading down into the dark.

Taking a deep breath, Gogo followed Barnes down. It smelled musty, and the temperature dropped the lower they climbed. She suppressed a shudder when her feet hit solid ground, and Barnes tapped her shoulder to direct her down an unlit passage. Steve fell in step behind her again, and Gogo walked gingerly to avoid stumbling.

She counted forty-seven paces until the tunnel ended. A door stood there, plain and wooden and innocuous.

Which made sense, Gogo mused. For a secret escape hatch for emergencies, a big heavy bank vault door would be a little counterproductive.

Barnes paused with his ear pressed to the door, motionless and silent. Gogo waited, listening, hearing nothing, but she didn't dare make noise or bother him with questions.

Finally, when she had ample time to get nervous, Barnes spoke in a whisper that barely reached her ears.

“Clear.”

He opened the door.

Steve put his hand on Gogo's shoulder, holding her back as Barnes slipped through. After a few beats, he let go, and Gogo crept out of the tunnel.

The room was dim, but compared to the passage, Gogo could see perfectly clearly. Steve emerged a few seconds after her, shutting the door silently behind him with practiced ease.

Barnes was standing further in, looking self-satisfied. He pointed upward. A camera was mounted at one corner of the room, but a small device was already attached. Gogo recognized it; Tony and Hiro had been busy the night before, putting their heads together to piece together as many advantages for the stealth team as they could. If it worked properly, it would make the camera feed play a loop of the previous two minutes – a continuous video of an empty room. It should at least buy them time.

They moved on from the room, and out into a more well-lit hallway. The place was clean-looking, almost sterile, with white walls and florescent lighting. It was a bit like walking through a very quiet hospital. Gogo kept watch for cameras, staying close to Barnes' back as he padded silently down the hallway. She glanced to the side, noting the elevator as they passed. They were on floor -1. According to Snowden, the engineering stuff – and hopefully the base's central control room, would be one floor down, on -2.

The elevator dinged. Gogo's pulse went from tentatively calm to racing, and she sprinted after Barnes until they reached a bend in the hallway to duck for cover. Her heart pounded, and then sank when she heard voices and realized that Steve hadn't followed them.

“-going on?” someone demanded sharply.

“I don't know,” another, surlier voice grumbled. “Nobody told me-”

“Nobody told you!” a third voice rang out mockingly. “Nobody tells you anything! You're like the Ralph Wiggum of real life.” He raised his voice in a falsetto. “Hail Hydra!”

“Turn around for five seconds, catch you eating crayons and glue,” another chimed in.

“Oh fuck you,” the surly one retorted.

“It's whatever's going down in that one place – Jersey, right? Someplace out in the boonies.”

“Does New Jersey even have boonies?”

“I know your mom does.”

Gogo waited for the conversation to fade, or for one of them to find Steve and raise a stink, but neither happened. The Hydra agents were sticking around, and Steve must have escaped notice by backtracking.

A tap on her arm almost made her jump. She looked over to see Barnes wordlessly beckoning her down the hall, away from the elevator and the chatty agents.

“You hear that?” Gogo barely dared to whisper, once the chatter had faded. “Jersey. They heard already.”

Barnes nodded but didn't reply. Already Gogo was wishing she'd gotten stuck with Steve instead. Hanging around Barnes was like petsitting a cat that was thoroughly unimpressed with everything you did.

Gogo shut her mouth and let Barnes lead on.

They went from door to door, trusting Barnes' sense of hearing to keep them from getting caught. The floor wasn't empty by any means; personnel roamed the hallways, in plain clothes or in lab coats. Gogo remembered that this was the floor for “medical”, whatever that meant for a Hydra base.

Barnes wove through the light traffic of personnel with the ease of skill and experience, ducking around corners, stopping and going, timing his movements and hesitations to avoid notice by the skin of their teeth. It was all Gogo could do to keep up. If she'd been impressed and intimidated by Barnes before, she now held him in something close to awe. She could be sneaky if the situation called for it, but Barnes made it look effortless, as if he was walking to a rhythm that Gogo couldn't hear.

He's gotta teach me how to do that.

They were making their way to the middle of the building, as far as Gogo could tell. Being underground, there were no windows leading outside. There were, however, windows showing into the rooms from the hallway. The quick, split-second looks that Gogo chanced showed her employees – all of them dead-eyed, heads bowed, and wearing similar plain clothes.

“Prisoners,” Barnes said quietly, when the halls around them were empty enough to risk speaking. “They don't dare step out of line. Or talk. They'll be monitored.”

Gogo gritted her teeth, fingers itching to bust down the door and spring every one of them. She couldn't, of course – Snowden had warned them about surveillance devices, and the plan was to take the control room, then worry about freeing anyone. But the urge was strong.

Finally, after another near miss with one of the white-coats, they turned into another clear hallway and spotted, at the other end, a door unmarked by signs or numbers the way most of the others were. Could mean a stairwell. Or a supply closet. Barnes signaled Goo to follow, and they hurried silently to investigate it.

They were five yards away when Barnes slammed on the brakes, and the door opened.

The man who stepped out into the hallway was short, skinny, and utterly nonthreatening. He was dressed as plainly as the other prisoners, with a scruffy untrimmed beard and eyes that darted around constantly. They settled on Gogo and Barnes, and he stopped short with a confused frown.

“Who the hell are you people?”

Shit, Gogo thought. She opened her mouth to quiet him, maybe to reassure him that they were trying to bust him out. But before she could get a word out, the man flinched back as if someone had taken a swing at him. His eyes widened with growing horror.

“No, no-” he choked out, backing away. “Please - I won't tell them anything, please-” His words cut off as if he'd been strangled. Bucky yanked Gogo back, and she could only watch helplessly as the man's body seized, the sclera of his left eye filled with blood, and he dropped limply to the floor.

The sound of the prisoner's dead weight hitting the ground galvanized her into action. She leapt forward over the body, some childish part of her afraid that he would reach up and grab her as she passed. Somewhere else in the building, an alarm went off.

Well that went south fast.

Barnes was right behind her as she yanked the door open and raced through. “What just happened?” she demanded, not bothering to whisper while they were alone in the stairwell and someone had already raised the alarm.

“Surveillance chip,” Barnes replied. “Implanted in the left eye. Turned him into a walking surveillance camera. What they see, Hydra sees. Has a remote kill switch, too, in case they're captured, or...” He didn't finish that sentence. Gogo was fine with that.

“What's that mean for us?” she asked, hurrying down the steps two at a time.

“They know we're here. They know I'm here. The more people see us, the easier it'll be to track us through the building.” He paused. “But... they won't risk their prisoners talking if they do see us.”

Gogo stopped at the door to floor -2. “So basically, any innocent bystander who sees us dies.”

“Basically.” Barnes paused to listen at the door.

“Man, fuck Hydra,” she muttered. Barnes opened the door, and she followed him through.

She felt the bullet go by, narrowly missing her face. There were were agents on this floor, already firing at them. Gogo turned to her left and spotted three of them, heading in from the end of the hallway. Her body moved without a command from her mind, and she flung one of her discs. The man on the right had no time to dodge before it struck him in the face, knocking him out. The disc continued its flight, ricocheting off the opposite wall, and striking the second agent in the back of the head on the rebound until it sailed back into Gogo's waiting hand. Within that three second space, Barnes dropped the third with one bullet.

“Not bad,” Barnes grunted as they turned to hurry in the opposite direction. Footsteps from behind indicated that the three downed agents hadn't been the only ones waiting for them.

This floor looked different – the walls were darker steel gray than the hospital-white of the floor above. Small circular windows gave Gogo brief glimpses into the different rooms. Prisoners busied themselves at computers or operated machinery, keeping their heads down all the while. Gogo averted her head and put on an extra burst of speed – if any of them happened to look up and spot them out the window, who knew whether or not their Hydra watchdogs would consider that too big a “risk”?

“Might have to duck in,” Barnes murmured, apparently seeing the direction of her attention.

“Why?”

“Agents up ahead.” Sure enough, Gogo began to hear shouting from somewhere in front of them – which, coupled with the running footsteps from behind, did not bode well for either of them.

Gogo reached for her skates.

Up ahead, men and women in dark suits came running into view, and the florescent lighting glinted on handguns and knives. Gogo's skates were off her back, and weapons began to rise as the enemy agents took aim.

Before anyone could get a shot off, the lights went out.

In a normal building this might not have meant much. It was after sunrise, and windows would have given them plenty of light to shoot by. But down here, it meant instant pitch-darkness.

On instinct, Gogo flung herself to the side, toward the wall. Small flashes of light accompanied the sound of gunshots, and Gogo strapped her skates on with as much haste as she could manage.

Once the wheels were on the ground, her building panic froze, and she launched herself toward the agents that had cut them off from the front. They never saw her coming – even if she hadn't recolored them, eye-bleeding yellow wouldn't have meant much without any light. She could hear and feel people scattering around her like bowling pins until she cleared them, rounded a corner, and kept rolling.

When the lights came back on, she was alone, and a warm trickle down her arm told her there was a cut that adrenaline wasn't letting her feel just yet, but she was clear.


James Buchanan Barnes was hard-pressed not to sigh with relief when the lights went out. He slipped to the side, letting the two groups of Hydra agents fire blindly in each other's directions. Taking advantage of the general confusion, he backtracked and slipped past the agents until he was in the clear and the lights were coming back on.

The corner of his mouth quirked upward in satisfaction. Steve must have gotten his hands on a circuit breaker.

One problem – he seemed to have misplaced his charge. He paused, ready to turn back, but angry shouting and barked orders from that direction discouraged that choice. In less than a minute, any Hydra agent that was still alive and able to walk would be after him.

Gritting his teeth, Barnes bit back a curse and continued on his way. He'd just have to find the girl later. He could get to the command center – knock out the main problem before moving on to the next. With any luck, she would have the same idea, and she'd be alive and well enough to do it.

Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a security camera near the corner where the wall met the ceiling, and he hesitated on instinct. The alarm was already sounding; was it worth it to worry about surveillance that wasn't attached to a person?

A closer look revealed that the question was moot anyway. The camera's tiny red light had gone dark, and the camera itself was pointing downward. Deactivated.

Barnes cocked his head, interested. Either the power outage had affected more than just the lights, or there was an impressive bit of sabotage going on.

The next camera was the same, as was the next. He crept along, ears pricked for trouble. He could hear footsteps, voices, sometimes loud enough to make out words. He'd estimate about twenty to thirty active hostiles that he'd seen so far, at least on this floor. Not half the number he'd been expecting for an active base. The Hamada kid's intel must have been solid.

Another hallway intersected from the right, and he paused at the corner and checked to make sure the it was clear. He took another step forward, about to move on, when a light flickered in the corner of his eye. Barnes stopped and looked again.

Sure enough, one of the florescent ceiling lights was blinking, about ten yards down the intersecting hallway. It couldn't be a malfunction, or a bad bulb. Most faulty light bulbs didn't blink SOS in Morse code.

Hostiles were getting close. He was the Winter Soldier – if the previous seventy years hadn't killed him, a little leap of faith wouldn't, either.

He turned down the hallway and crept on.

No more lights flickered, but he found his way down the hall, past a squad of agents, to yet another intersection. The place was a goddamn maze. But there were no flickering lights indicating that he should turn, so he went on in the direction he had been going. The halls were clearer now than the floor above had been, with no employees or prisoners wandering around – probably to make room for the agents tracking them down. He almost ran smack into another squad of them before a madly flickering light made him pause, and finally he found his way to a set of double doors at the end of a hallway. He saw its knob turn even before it opened, and he braked and ducked back out of sight before anyone could spot him. A prisoner emerged, under the watchful eye of an armed agent, and the two of them walked quickly out of sight and let the door swing shut after them.

There were no windows to show him what might be going on beyond those doors, and that in itself was promising. Barnes waited until it was quiet again and crept up to the door. There, he glanced around, checking his surroundings, but there was no sign of either Ethel Kim or enemy agents. With his hand on his weapon, he tried the door.

Locked.

Five minutes later, he finished robbing an unconscious Hydra agent and returned to the door with a key card. He swiped it, the light blinked green, and he opened it.

A small anteroom lay beyond it, and he took in the space in a flash – small, ten by ten at most, with another door at the far wall and two nervous, probably trigger-happy agents. In two steps he closed the distance, slammed one man's head into the wall, and flung his half-conscious body into the other. Neither of them got a shot off, or even touched their guns. Barnes stepped over them and silently pushed through the next door. One short hallway later, it opened out into a larger room. Warily he paused and ducked back, taking in his new surroundings first. Workstations, computers, machinery that he couldn't be arsed to identify just yet. More important were the three people inside: two antsy-looking guards and one plain-clothes prisoner standing with his back to the entrance. The room was large enough that distance was against him. Even with his speed, he couldn't catch these guards by surprise.

Nothing for it.

Two agents, two bullets.

Barnes stepped out, tentatively putting his gun away. The prisoner was frozen in place, hands planted on the desk in front of him, still staring at the computer screen instead of turning to look at Barnes. His shoulders were tense, and even from the distance Barnes could see him shaking.

“Don't turn around,” he said.

The prisoner's shoulders slumped – not out of dismay, but clear, palpable relief. After a moment, he spoke. “Powell send you?”

The corner of Barnes' mouth twitched. “Yes. Nice touch with the lights.”

“They, uh.” Snowden's voice cracked. “They a-almost caught me. I think-” He swallowed audibly. “I think they were getting suspicious. If you hadn't...”

“Why risk it?”

“I really want out.” His voice cracked again. “We don't have a lot of time, s-sooner or later they'll figure out those two're d-dead, and if they figure out you're here with me, they'll cut their losses and k-kill me too. I need your help.”

“I didn't come alone,” Barnes told him, padding forward. “When you hit the lights-”

“Your f-friend's okay,” Snowden assured him. “I've been sneaking looks at s-security footage, they got out-”

Barnes was only a few yards away from him when footsteps preceded Ethel Kim's arrival behind him, and an instant relief to the low-key worry that he'd been ignoring since separating with her.

“There you are.” He didn't turn, but he could hear the relief in her voice. “I just followed the trail of unconscious-”

The prisoner whipped around, against all common sense, and his wide eyes fell upon Barnes. In a split second, with the realization of what he'd done, a look of dawning dismay and mortal terror crossed his face.

The Winter Soldier knew better than to doubt Hydra's cold efficiency. The man in front of him had maybe two seconds to live.

Barnes moved without thinking. His hand went from his gun to his knife, and he struck like a snake even as Kim screamed at him to stop.


When the prisoner crumpled to the ground, Gogo thought with a tearing feeling in her chest that Barnes had killed him. But instead of slumping limply to the floor, he stopped at his hands and knees, one hand clutching at the left side of his face. Breath hissed in and out between his teeth, wheezing with pain until he found it in himself to use words. His voice was muffled, shaking with agony, but the words were clear.

“D-did you get it?”

Barnes stood over him, nudging something small and round on the floor – and Gogo did not want to know what it was, she did not want to think about what it was – and nodded. “Yeah. I got it.”

Gogo was, by all accounts, tough. It was an image she had carefully cultivated since middle school with a tight core and squared shoulders and murder in her thoughts. She lived it, breathed it, walked the walk and talked the talk.

But a woman's got to know her limitations, and Gogo's were right in front of her, sitting in that room like he'd stepped out of a warm memory. She'd aimed too many spitballs at the back of that head not to recognize it. So maybe she wasn't to blame for standing frozen with her hand pressed over her mouth, for drawing in a slow, hitching, shuddering breath, for blinking her blurring eyes until the tears spilled over and she could see that he was real.

Her hand shifted, and when her voice returned, it was raw and hoarse from a sandpaper throat. “T-Tadashi?”

He raised his head, and his single remaining eye shifted to stare at her, wide and glassy with pain and confusion as blood leaked from between his fingers. “Gogo?” His voice was faint, as if he could barely believe she was real, either. “What are you doing here?”

 

Chapter Text

The storage facility was a looming brick of a building, more like a cement block with doors and a few scattered windows than anything else. On one side was a steel door meant for letting trucks through, and they picked that to be their entrance.

The team quite literally punched through it. Wasabi's plasma blades made short work of the bolts, with help from Baymax's rocket fists. Out of the corner of his eye, Hiro spotted Iron Man carefully releasing Dr. Banner from his grip. Banner was green and roaring even before he hit the ground.

The door didn't stand a chance.

Inside, the facility looked little different from the average warehouse. There was a chaotic sort of organization to it – trucks and vehicles lined up on one side, massive wooden crates stacked geometrically at another. Forklifts, filing cabinets, computer desks, scattered machinery – all of it scattered willy-nilly as if someone had made an earnest attempt to organize it, only to give up halfway and leave everything where it lay.

The Hulk's entrance made things quite a bit more chaotic.

There were about fifteen people working near the front, with more spread elsewhere throughout the place. They all scattered like startled roaches as soon as the team blew through the doors. They all put up what would have been a valiant effort if members of Hydra could really be called valiant, but in the end there wasn't much they could do against the onslaught of superheroes that poured in. Banner's presence alone probably turned the tide single-handed.

In the end, the strike team came out on top. the Hulk, Hiro, Baymax, and a very nervous Honey and Wasabi kept a close eye on the Hydra employees sitting quiet and disarmed on the floor, while Sam and Tony did several flyovers through the rest of the area to make sure there were no others hiding in the stacks and crates.

“It's clear,” Sam reported when they finally returned.

“Are we missing something?” Tony asked over their comm link. “I mean, I opened a few crates just for fun, and all I found were some lab supplies, a few blowtorches, and an industrial hairdryer.”

“Those exist?” Honey asked, but her light-hearted tone was tinged with nervousness.

Banner growled impatiently. The employee closest to him, a skinny young-looking guy with glasses, went a shade paler and shook visibly.

“This is a storage facility, fellas,” Tony went on, his voice ringing outside of his suit as if on a loudspeaker. Mechanical joints whirred as he took a step closer. “Care to share what you're storing?”

A few silent glares met his request, though most kept their eyes fixed to the floor. The shaky one sniffled a little but stayed silent.

The floor actually shook when the Hulk stepped down next to him, and the low impatient rumble grew to a thunderous snarl. The young man started so violently that he rose several inches from the floor. “D-d-down below, it's down below!” he spluttered, his pitch rising with terror.

“Shut up, Fairfield!” one of the others snarled.

“What was that?” Sam said sharply. “What's down below?”

Fairfield made a valiant attempt to clamp his mouth shut and say no more, but the next rumbling snarl that ripped from the Hulk proved to be his breaking point. “Th-the stuff! All the – the – everything!” The Hulk loomed closer, and Fairfield actually leaned into his coworkers in an effort to keep his distance. “Top's just a front, all the storage is at the bottom – ow!” One of the others elbowed him sharply.

Hiro looked to Baymax. “My scanner is blocked,” the robot reported. “There is most likely a layer of dense metal, such as lead, protecting the lower levels from similar sensors.”

“Find the elevator, let's have a peek,” Tony said.

The Hulk lifted Fairfield up by pinching the back of his shirt between his thumb and forefinger. He raised the terrified employee up until they were eye to eye, and growled again. Speechless with fear, Fairfield pointed with a trembling hand. The Hulk dropped him none too gently.

After some quick deliberation, they left the Hulk watching the prisoners with Honey Lemon, who accepted the job with only some reluctance. Hiro suspected that politeness was the only thing keeping Wasabi from voicing his concerns about leaving Honey alone with Banner out loud.

On the far wall in the direction Fairfield had pointed was the elevator. The first thing any of them noticed was that it was keypad-locked.

“Should we get Banner to ask for the code?” Sam asked.

Hiro huffed impatiently. “No, I got-”

“I could just-” Tony said at the same time, then glanced at him. Hiro stopped, embarrassed. He was good with hacking – Tony Stark could probably crack lock codes by tossing marbles at them. No point in arguing over the privilege of opening the elevator. But instead of pulling seniority, Iron Man simply gestured to the keypad. “Let's see what you got.”

Hiro hid his nervousness by cracking his knuckles, but as it turned out he had no need to be anxious.. He was through in about as much time as it would have taken to walk across to the prisoners and back again. For an evil shadowy super-spy organization, Hiro was decidedly unimpressed. Even Snowden had given him a harder puzzle to solve than Hydra, and that was kind of sad. Just a little bit.

The elevator was more spacious than the size of the doors suggested, but even then, Hiro was glad that Banner wasn't coming with them. Baymax was a tight enough fit. There were two other floors besides roof level – Wasabi pressed the lowest button as if he was half convinced it would set off a bomb.

As they descended, Hiro kept one hand braced on Baymax's side and fought to keep his nervousness contained. He and Baymax were at their strongest when flying. The ground level was spacious enough for it, but who knew how cramped it might be down below? If they came up against any resistance, how much use would he be even armed as he was?

He forced himself calm again. It's only storage, he reminded himself. It's only storage. “Scanner getting anything?” he murmured to the robot.

“Results are inconclusive,” Baymax replied. “I am still encountering interference.”

It's just the elevator, Hiro told himself. No news is good news.

The doors opened to near-total darkness.

“Uh-uh,” Wasabi murmured. “I'm not getting out of this elevator until we get the lights on.”

“I don't like this,” Hiro muttered back, as Baymax placed a restraining hand on Fred to keep him from rushing out.

“I'm just saying, I could light this place up,” Fred offered. “Ain't even a thing.”

“We need to find a light switch, not set this place on fire,” Sam said dryly.

“We could grab a guide,” Hiro suggested. “Go back up, get one of the ones upstairs. That Fairfield guy seemed pretty agreeable.”

“Yes,” Baymax spoke up. “We should go back up.” He paused. “We should definitely go back up. As soon as possible.”

Wasabi was only too happy to hit the button for the upper floor, before Sam had the chance to agree or disagree. But instead of shutting the doors and taking them back up, the elevator remained motionless. In the corner, the screen indicating the floor number flickered and went dark.

“Oh no,” Baymax said.

Hiro felt the robot pull him back, just as lights flickered on beyond the elevator. Even with Baymax stepping in front of him, he had a good view of the place.

It was at least as big as the floor upstairs. The ceilings were high enough for at least three stories, with metal catwalks lining the high walls and spanning across the warehouse-sized space.

Every walkway, staircase, and sufficient flat surface held Hydra agents.

For an absolutely magical two seconds, the two mismatched sides stared at each other.

Fred broke the silence with a muttered “Oh, balls.


Cass would have loved to stay awake and keep watch, but exhausting herself would help no one. She had come back to her senses in the back of a car, and had almost cried with relief to see Abigail next to her and unharmed. She hadn't; they were surrounded by dangerous men, and crying would only dehydrate and distract her.

She wasn't sure where they stopped; the garage was directly below the building, and their captors had hustled them along too quickly for her to get her bearings. She had tried to memorize the way through the hallways, but she couldn't be sure her memory would hold on to it.

But they had been held for hours, in a small empty room with blank walls and only a hard bench to sit on. They had one guard, who sat by the door and never spoke. Adrenaline had kept Cass alert at first, but the combination of exhaustion and monotony had taken its tole. She dozed and woke sporadically through the hours, one arm around Abigail's shoulders all the while. If Abigail slept at all, Cass wasn't sure. Their phones had been confiscated, and with no clocks or view of outside, they had no way of telling the passage of time. Nor had they any idea of where they were.

It was an awful position to be in.

Still, it could have been worse. Cass had envisioned threats and interrogation. She had expected to have to keep her mouth shut, keep their plans hidden, keep her nephew safe. But instead, she was locked in a room for hours, only let out to use the restroom, and watched by one scary-looking man with a gun and a tazer. It could have been worse. It could have been so much worse.

A knock came at the door. Cass sat up straight, wide awake. The guard opened the door, and her stomach twisted with dread when Jun stepped into the room. When Professor Callaghan followed him in, she was sure her heart would stop beating entirely.

“Dad?” Abigail's voice cracked on the way out.

Callaghan's eyes fell upon Abigail, and for a moment Cass caught a glimpse of deep, sharp pain. It was gone in the next instant, smoothed over by a carefully blank mask.

“There, see?” Jun said with an easy smile. “Your confirmation, in the flesh. That good enough for you?”

“I already-” Callaghan's mouth tightened. “What more do you want from me?”

“More?” Cass echoed softly. Her arm tightened around Abigail's shoulders. “Callaghan, what did you do?”

He looked away.

“Well, professor, you're our contingency.” Jun patted him on the shoulder. “That was some nice, juicy bait you gave them, thanks for that, now we just need you to wait outside and catch whatever slips through.”

Callaghan's eyes narrowed. “Get to the point.”

“The point is, Hiro Hamada's a slippery little bastard, and I like to plug as many leaks as I can. So, deal with him. If he slips through, bring him in.” A razor edge entered Jun's voice. “Or – see that wall behind your daughter's head? Nice place for a Jackson Pollock, don't you think?”

Abigail almost surged forward, but Cass held her back. “No-”

“Do us this one solid, and we'll wipe your debt clean,” Jun went on blithely. “We'll never look at that pretty little face again. All it's gonna cost you is that one kid. Sound good?”

“Don't!” Abigail blurted. She stayed seated, but her body tensed as if she was ready to leap forward. “Dad – don't. I don't - I don't want that. Leave him.”

“I don't expect you to understand,” Callaghan said quietly. His face hadn't changed.

“Dad, don't you dare.” Her voice cracked again. “Not – not Hiro. It's not right. It's not right.

The blank mask slipped. “Abby, I-”

Cass didn't even see Jun pull his gun. One moment he was standing calmly at Callaghan's side, and the next the gun was in his hand, Cass's ears were ringing from the shot, and Abigail was flinching against her with a cry of pain. With a flash of panic, Cass looked for where the bullet had gone. Abigail clutched the right side of her head, eyes wide, and Cass barely managed to pry her hand back and see her bleeding ear.

When she looked back, Callaghan's hand was at Jun's throat, but the door guard had a gun to his head. Desperation shone in the old man's eyes, but Jun's face was as calm and sunny as ever.

“Whoops, I was aiming for the wall,” he said lightly, as if Callaghan didn't have his fingers wrapped around his neck. “I guess I still technically hit it. Need I remind you, if you die here, or if you die anywhere, she inherits your debt. But if you do this, neither of you will ever hear from us again.”

Callaghan's eyes closed, and he seemed to sag. He took his hand away from Jun's neck.

“Dad,” Abigail said hoarsely. “Don't.”

“Shouldn't be hard,” Jun went on. “All you have to do is grab him. It's not like we're asking you to set the little bastard on fire or anything.”

Cass almost choked on the fury that rose within her. Only common sense and the stiffness in her legs kept her from flinging herself at the Hydra agent with her bare hands.

Callaghan was silent, blank, and resigned. He nodded. And in that moment, seeing his mask slipping back into place, with Abigail shaking in her arms, Cass understood him.

He didn't have the luxury of a cat, or a cafe, or friends, or anyone or anything that depended on him. All he had was Abigail's life. Hiro had been right – Callaghan was empty, or at least in danger of becoming so. He was standing at a precipice, and Cass understood. She understood exactly where he was and what it felt like.

And she understood, with perfect clarity, that there was nothing that he wouldn't do to keep his child safe and alive. It filled her with pity as much as it terrified her.
Wordlessly she fixed him with a challenging glare, even as he was led out of the room. The door shut, leaving the two of them alone again. Abigail stared after them, wide-eyed and unblinking, still clutching at the bullet graze on her ear. Her face was tense, forced straight, but tears trickled down her face, and her breath shuddered on its way in.

“C-Can't-” Abigail coughed, as if clearing something from her throat. “Can't let him. We can't.

“Yeah.” Cass swallowed against the growing lump in her throat. “I know – I know, don't worry.”

She stared at the closed door, and the expressionless guard still watching over them. Their two largest immediate obstacles.

We need to get out of here.


Barnes worked with businesslike quickness. Gogo hadn't seen a first aid kit on him before, but that hadn't stopped him from producing one and using it to patch up the wound that he'd just inflicted.

“It's been seven months,” Tadashi said, careful not to move too much of his face. “They've had me here s-seven months.”

“Doing what?” Barnes asked.

“T-tech stuff,” Tadashi answered. “IT stuff. Any-anything that needs doing th-that I can do. They f-found out I'm good with medical engineering, and – well.” His voice trailed off. “It's a fine line. Between n-not being too helpful, and being useful enough to st-stay alive. You know?”

“Yeah,” Barnes said roughly. “I know.”

Tadashi sat still, head tilted to give Barnes a better angle to work with. It must have hurt – his entire eye was gone – but he held still and unflinching, except for a tension in his face.

As for Gogo, her main priority was breathing without hyperventilating.

Tadashi was alive.

He was alive.

She could taste blood, she'd been biting her lip so hard. It was him, without a doubt. It couldn't be anyone else, but so much was eerily different. The way he spoke, the way he carried himself, his clothes, his –

His face.

She might not have recognized him immediately, if she had seen his face first. Most of the right side from jaw to brow was covered in rough, off-color skin. The scarring covered much of his neck, disappearing beneath the plain gray sweatshirt he was wearing. There were a few places that it crept over to the other side of his face – it stretched across his forehead and the bridge of his nose, and some of it crept up the left side of his jaw, not quite reaching his cheek. There might have been more there, but it was hard to see through the crust of dried blood.

Besides that, there was unkempt stubble growing patchily on his face, and he looked about ten pounds thinner than he had the last time she'd seen him.

“It wasn't until later I started, um, t-testing them,” Tadashi went on. “When I was sure I could t-try to escape. I mean, not r-really sure, just... what else c-could I do, right?” He licked his lips, smearing some of the blood that had trickled down to the corner of his mouth. “I'll be honest, I'm p-pretty sure they're just short on people right now. I p-probably wouldn't have l-lasted this long if they weren't.” His voice cracked, and he winced as Barnes tightened the bandage in place.

“You're not wrong,” Barnes said dryly.

“Well. It gave me a lot more l-leeway to figure out their blind spots.” The more he talked, the less Gogo could deny that his sporadic stutter wasn't just pain or nervousness; it was permanent.

She could no longer contain herself. “Figure out their – how? How did you just-”

“One eyeball-zap at a ti-time,” Tadashi answered. “It was a li-little like reverse d-dog training.”

“Jesus Christ,” Gogo breathed.

“You didn't answer my question,” he said. “I'm serious, Gogo. W-what are you doing here?'

“Long story,” Gogo managed to say. Barnes stepped back, Tadashi stood up, and Gogo's mess of feelings threatened to boil over. Her eyes stung.

“Um.” The floor drew Tadashi's eyes – eye, god damn it, he only has one – but he looked back at her uncertainly. “C-can I ask you something?”

“Yes?” Gogo struggled to speak clearly. Her throat felt too small for her voice.

“The f-fire.” A strange expression flitted across his face, almost too quickly for Gogo to identify it. “I ran in b-because... um.” His face tightened, and he took a deep breath as if to steady himself. “Did Professor Callaghan make it out? Is he okay?”

The words were a knife in her gut, and Gogo almost burst into tears right in front of the supersoldier and her not-quite-dead friend.

He didn't know. He didn't know. And how could he know? He'd been locked up in here for seven months, and why would Hydra bother telling him?

Before her eyes, Tadashi's face fell. “Oh,” he whispered. “O-okay.”

“No,” she blurted. “No, he's – Callaghan's alive. Sorry, I didn't mean to make you think-” Her throat closed again. “Callaghan's alive. H-he got out.” Lying by omission didn't help – the relief on his face only hurt her more.

His shoulders slumped with relief. “Good,” he breathed.

Gogo clenched her teeth, ready to scream and cry and break things. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go back to SF, back to school, back to the world he'd left when he ran into the fire. And here she was, a science superhero, teaming up with Captain Fucking America and the goddamn Winter Soldier, and she couldn't even give him that.

She couldn't even-

All she could do was-

Her breath hitched on the way in. “Hey. You hurt anywhere else? Ribs, anything like that?”

“N-no. Just the eye.”

“Oh thank God,” Gogo breathed, and tried not to trip on herself on her way to hug him.

She felt him tense for a few seconds, and wondered if she'd crossed a line. But then he relaxed, breathed in and out a few times, and shakily wrapped her arms around her. She could feel his ribs and shoulder blades sharply through his shirt, and that was it. For just a few seconds she forgot herself, forgot where she was, and she sobbed like a baby into his chest.

Tadashi kindly waited for her to get a hold of herself. “Thought you didn't d-do hugs.” His voice was oddly thick.

The tears stopped, but she didn't trust herself to look up just yet. “Wow, yeah, how about you shut up.”

Barnes' dry voice brought her abruptly back to the present. “We need to leave.”

“Oh shit, yeah.” Gogo pulled back, hastily wiping her eyes. “Dude, we need to get out, like yesterday.”

“Wait a minute.” Tadashi broke away and crossed the room to the corner of the wall. There was an air vent there, which he yanked out more easily than Gogo would have expected. “Wait a minute, I have a – I have a thing I need to do.” Reaching in, he pulled out a rough, clunky-looking device that Gogo couldn't immediately identify, the kind that bristled with loose wires.

“We don't have a lot of time,” Barnes told him as he lugged the mess back to the desk.

“I just need to get into one of the emp-empty engineering rooms, it's almost d-done, it won't take me two minutes.” Tadashi was talking at a mile a minute, grabbing loose parts with almost as much clumsy haste as he was speaking with. Gogo stepped in to help, frowning in confusion at the tangled mess he was gathering. “It's just – if-if I could-”

“Clock is ticking, and we're outnumbered,” Barnes said flatly.

“In t-two minutes you won't be,” Tadashi snapped. “Just g-get me into the room do-own the hall to the left, there's m-more sup-supplies there.”

Gogo caught her breath. From afar, and at first glance, the device look like a hopeless rat's nest of wire and metal. But a careful look, from several different angles, made the full picture clear.

“I got this,” she said abruptly.

Barnes raised an eyebrow.

“We'll meet you later,” she insisted. “If it's clear out in the hall. Go find Steve, I'll help him with this.”

“Help him do what?”

She flashed a razor-sharp smile at him. “Pull the plug. Tadashi, c'mon.” She raced back, skirting the dead agents, and stopped at the door that led back out to the hallway, unable to go farther. The coast had been clear when she first arrived. It wasn't anymore. Irritated and alarmed, she swore quietly.

Barnes caught up with her in the next breath. “Problem?”

“You can hear better than I can,” she answered.

“Hm.” Barnes cocked his head, listening. “Only four.”

“That's still one more than we have.”

Tadashi hung back, saying nothing. His face was tense and blank, and he clutched the device to his chest like a comfort item. His knuckles were white, and a faint rattling of metal was the only sign that he was shaking.

Heat and energy bubbled up in Gogo's chest like one of Honey's experiments. It felt like rage, but it wasn't, not quite. It wasn't rage yet. It would become rage, if she let Tadashi get any more hurt than he already was. The thought chilled her to the bone marrow. If he died on her watch, then she would have to face the others and tell them that she found him and lost him again.

Distracted, she only noticed that Barnes was calmly prying out the door hinges with his metal hand when he was already yanking the last one. Without pausing, Barnes undid the bolt.

“Stand back,” he said, and slammed shoulder-first into the door.

Gogo expected him to break the door in half. But instead, he body-slammed it out of its frame and sent it sailing out into the hallway.

Judging by the yells and the meaty thuds, it took out several people on its way.

Two of them were still standing, though not for long, judging by Barnes' current trajectory.

“Go,” he snarled, and Gogo didn't wait for him to go into detail. Her hand closed around Tadashi's arm, and together they hung a sharp left and raced down the hallway.

“Here-here-here,” Tadashi hissed, pulling her to a halt. He shouldered through another door, and Gogo shoved it closed behind them.

It was one of the many workrooms Gogo had already seen, only dark and unoccupied. In a dark sort of way, she was reminded of the workstations at the Ishioka Lab back home. If the rest of the tables, bins, and drawers were as well-stocked as the one Tadashi was digging through, Gogo could have parked herself in a place like this and occupied herself all day.

Hastily she joined her friend rummaging around for materials. “So. How in the hell did you manage to hide a half-finished EMP generator?' she asked.

“Didn't try anything unti-til I was sure of th-their blind spots,” Tadashi answered. He was working as if his hands had individual brains of their own, connecting wires and making liberal use of electrical tape. Gradually, the device in front of him began to look less like a particularly enterprising bird's nest, and more like an actual machine. “I t-tried to hack the chip, b-but it didn't work, so... I went for a b-battering ram instead of a lockp-pick. Gotta tell you, it is a lot easier to p-put this together now that I can actually l-look at what I'm doing. I'm gonna work b-blindf-folded from now on, just so I – what are you doing?”

Gogo nudged him aside as she threw in her own additions and adjustments. “Boosting the range. I want this thing to reach every corner of this damn place.”

“You're a genius,” he breathed.

In spite of herself, Gogo wrinkled her nose at him. “Says you, Snowden.” She tossed her screwdriver aside. “That should do it. You want to fire it up, or should I?”


Steve was in difficulties. He'd been on his toes ever since the alarm went off, careful to avoid the attention of both enemy agents and prisoners. But now he found himself cornered, by himself, and rapidly running out of options. He had little idea where Bucky and Gogo were, but he earnestly hoped their situation was marginally less perilous than his.

Then the lights went out.

It was a blessing, if a small one. His night vision was excellent, but he was still momentarily disoriented enough for a few of his attackers to stay on him when he gave the rest the slip in the dark. The lights apparently had a backup generator, however, because they flickered back on less than a minute later.

Steve could take two of them at the same time fairly well; it was the third and fourth that proved the sticking point. With the first two subdued, Steve narrowly missed dying under another's wicked-looking knife. The fourth took advantage of his preoccupation to take aim.

A split second before he might have pulled the trigger, he went down under a heavy blow from a wrench.

Steve finished slamming his remaining opponent's head into the wall, and found himself staring at a hollow-eyed woman with a wrench half-raised in both hands. He took in her plain prisoner clothes, and his immediate reaction was one of dismay. She'd saved his life, but if she could see him, then so could her Hydra handlers.

But the seconds ticked by, both of them waiting, and the woman didn't drop dead from a kill switch. Slowly, a disbelieving smile spread across her face, widening until it looked more like a bared snarl.

“Holy shit,” she breathed. “Holy shit.”

Almost dropping the wrench, she burst through the nearest door and bellowed to the prisoners inside. Steve followed her, dumbfounded.

“He did it!” the woman yelled. “He did it! That crazy bastard did it! We're unplugged!”

Steve stepped in beside her, and was rewarded by a roomful of faces shining with hope and, for more than a few, dawning recognition.

The woman waved her wrench like a banner. “So. We're still on Hydra turf. Who here feels like cutting off a few heads?”

There was a beat of silence. Then, a ragged cheer arose from the prisoners. Within minutes, Steve and his growing army of volunteers spread it to the rest of the floor.

 

Chapter Text

Honey was breathing through clenched teeth.

She didn't like this – not one bit. It was bad enough that she had been left behind while her friends went wandering down into the unknown. But not half a minute after the elevator doors had closed, the comm link in her helmet went dead. It made sense, her logical side acknowledged. If the lower levels of this place could scramble Baymax's scanner, then of course it would have the same effect on their communications. It didn't have to mean anything.

But Logical Honey's opinion wasn't much for comfort, especially when Dr. Banner didn't seem any more comfortable than she did. At least, she thought he didn't. It was probably impossible for an entity fueled by human rage and adrenaline to ever really be comfortable.

It was more than that, though – Fairfield had stopped sniveling.

He hadn't gotten tired. He hadn't moved away from Dr. Banner. His noise hadn't died down to whimpering and the occasional sniffle. As soon as the others were gone, he had simply stopped.

Almost as if he'd dropped an act once it was no longer needed.

Honey looked at each face. No one was moving, no one was showing any signs of making trouble. No one was showing – well, anything, really. Most of their faces were carefully, fixedly blank.

They were already captured, in a virtually unguarded storage facility.

What more did they have to hide?

Dr. Banner shifted from foot to foot and growled. On a hunch, Honey slipped away to the elevator door. She pressed the button, and it failed to light up in response. She listened, but there was no telltale clanking of machinery indicating that the elevator was responding. Upon returning, she had to steel herself against flinching when she saw the Hulk growl and shift again as if restless. Honey frowned, regarding him thoughtfully. She knew that his condition made him physically stronger and impervious to most forms of attack, but did it heighten his senses, as well?

One way to find out. Honey went to the nearest desk, dumped the pens out of a cup, and typed the formula for water into her purse. After filling the cup, she set it down on the floor.

The water stilled, then trembled again, as if something pounded powerfully far below.

Honey opened her comm link again, not to contact the rest of the team, but to contact the best option she had left.

“Agent Hill, this is Honey Lemon,” she said, forcing her tone to remain calm. Her voice wanted to shake, her chest wanted to heave. “The storage facility is a trap. I don't know how, I don't know details – Dr. Banner and I are watching prisoners on street level, but the others are down below. We need help.”

“Okay, sit tight,” Hill replied. “I'll have people there in six minutes.”

“Thank you.” Honey hung up, and her free hand was already at her purse.

Her aim was true. The prisoners didn't have the time to bat an eye before three of her chem-balls burst in their midst. In a twinkling they were stuck fast, struggling uselessly against the pastel foam enveloping them.

“Did you know?” she said brightly, producing yet another chem-ball. Casually she swiped a thumbtack from the desk. “With the right proportions, chemicals you could find in your kitchen can combine to form a highly corrosive acid.” She halted in front of one of them and pierced the ball with the tack. Then, in full view of the trapped man, she squeezed a few drops onto the floor. They sizzled audibly and threw up a few wisps of steam. With a sunny smile, she stepped closer and held the dented ball between two careful fingers. “This floor's, what, concrete, isn't it? Would you like to see how it interacts with the human retina?”

Less than a minute later she was relaying enemy numbers to Hill while the Hulk strained to get through the elevator doors. Ninety to a hundred hostiles, unless the prisoner was lying. Either way, she hadn't the time to wait for reinforcements, or to wait for the Hulk to get through those doors.

Her mind raced. It would take hours for her acid to eat through them, and hours more to get back out of the elevator shaft again. They didn't have any hours to spare. Her friends, both old and new, were in danger and hopelessly out of her reach, and here she was surrounded by crates and office supplies and empty flasks and...

Blowtorches.

Her heart just dared to lift. I can work with that.

She had to make a lot – at least enough for two uses, and she didn't have the luxury of an aerosol dispersal unit and an electromagnet. She filled two flasks – dash of perchloric acid, smidgen of cobalt, hint of hydrogen peroxide – she'd have to guess on temperature, couldn't be helped.

“Um – excuse me,” she said politely. The Hulk left off his efforts to look at her, and she minced carefully around him and uncorked her first flask. “I really need to simplify this formula,” she muttered to herself, and coated the bright pink solution over the doors as best she could. That done, she waited a few seconds before giving it a solid kick.

The elevator doors, previously impenetrable and thick, crumbled like dried mud. Any part she missed didn't matter, now that the Hulk had something weaker and easier to grip and pry apart. Within seconds the doors, frame, and much of the wall around them were gone, and a spacious elevator shaft lay torn open before them.

Honey peeked out to gauge the depth. “Long drop,” she murmured. A chemical foam cushion wouldn't be nearly enough to stop her from splatting herself at the bottom.

Beside her, Dr. Banner grunted, crouched, and offered her a shoulder.

The breath left her in a decisive huff, and she accepted his silent offer. Clinging to him, she braced herself and nodded. “I can get us through once we're at the bottom,” she said. “Let's go help our friends.”


“They can't switch the implants back on like the lights, can they?” Gogo asked. “Just checking.”

“Lights are c-connected to a backup generator.” Tadashi shook his head as he commandeered one of the computers. “Computers too. Imp-plants aren't connected to anything like that. H-harder to sabota-tage if there aren't a lot of ways in.”

“Cool,” Gogo remarked. “Cool cool cool. Why are we still here?”

“Hydra tech is t-t-top notch,” Tadashi said. His hands were planted on the desk in front of him, but his right index finger tapped vigorously, betraying his impatience as the computer rebooted.

“Yeah, I mean I figured.”

“They don't d-do old-f-fashioned anything,” he went on. The screen lit up, and he sighed with relief. Gogo watched it, curious. “I mean, except for their p-political views, I guess. A-a-and their disciplinary m-methods are p-pretty medieval, but-”

“Point, Tadashi,” she said patiently. He was bringing up files – employee files, from the looks of it, but he still wasn't opening up about what he meant to do with them. “Reach it.”

“All this f-facility's files are electronic,” Tadashi explained as he worked. “Including personnel. No p-point in springing all these people if they can just f-find them all over again. So I'm just gonna... mass replace the files.”

“With what?

Tadashi hit the enter key, and a full-color eight-by-ten photo of Nicholas Cage's face popped up on screen.

“Neat,” Gogo remarked. “Can you still get into their files? Not for this place, just – Hydra in general.”

“Uhh...” Tadashi dithered for a moment, tapping hesitantly at the keyboard. Apparently something worked, because the typing increased its speed. Windows popped up. Gogo wished desperately that she knew more about computer programming. “Yup. Why?”

Gogo grabbed a pen. “Look up this address and tell me what it is.” Scribbling down the storage facility that Callaghan had given them, she passed it to him.

“Um... okay.” Hesitantly Tadashi took the address and set about searching for it. “What do you n-need to know?”

“Anything,” Gogo replied. “What's in it, how big, what it's for...”

“Okay, got it.” Tadashi paused. “It comes up a lot in r-recent memos – okay, it's a st-storage facility in Jersey.”

“Anything else?” Gogo pressed.

“L-let's see... warehouse front, most of the important st-stuff's down below – ooh.”

“What?”

“There's a reason it's been sh-showing up in recent memos a-and orders.” Gogo leaned over his shoulder to look at the screen. “It – ergh, i-if I had more t-time I could find out more d-details, but it looks like they're e-expecting some kind of r-raid. They're using it to set a t-trap. Huge operation, th-they're mobilizing scores of agents.”

The blood froze in Gogo's veins. “Wh – fuck, how?”

“How what?'

“It's been less than a day since we made that plan,” Gogo hissed, forgetting herself. “How'd they throw this together so fast?”

“Some of these memos date back w-weeks,” Tadashi told her.

“What – we only found out this place existed yesterday!” Gogo spluttered.

Tadashi frowned at her, and the worry and helpless confusion on his face made her chest hurt. “You-” He shook his head. “Wherever you got th-that information, it m-must've been fed to you, b-because they've been pl-planning this for a while.”

“Son of a bitch.” The floor seemed to drop out from beneath Gogo's feet. “Son of a bitch, I'll kill him.”

“Kill who-”

The door burst open behind them. Gogo had placed herself between Tadashi and the door by the time it swung around and hit the wall, and she barely allowed herself to relax when she saw that the newcomer was another prisoner. Even then she sized him up on instinct – he was a tall, lanky, scruffy brunette, all points and angles, with uneven facial hair and deep, dark bags under his eyes.

“You did it,” he blurted, looking awestruck. His voice carried a noticeable Southern twang. “You actually did it, how in the hell-” Tadashi turned to face him fully. “Holy fucking shit, Hamada!

“Ran out of t-time,” Tadashi said. “How's y-your eyes?”

“Fine, just...” The guy gaped at him. “Christ. Does that hurt?

“No, Brody.” Tadashi's voice dripped sarcasm. “Th-there's a wad of c-cotton where my eye should be, but I feel f-fresh as the dickens.”

Gogo snorted.

“Did... did... did she stab it out for you?” Brody asked, glancing at Gogo.

Gogo glared at him. “Wanna find out?”

The man stared at her like he wasn't sure whether or not she was kidding, then seemed to shake himself. “A-anyway, you might wanna come out here – did you know Captain America's upstairs?”

“Captain-” Tadashi turned to stare at Gogo. “How in the h-hell did you get C-Captain America?”

Gogo bared her teeth in a tense smile. “Long story?”

“I'm gettin' the hell outta dodge,” Brody went on. “Wanna come with?”

Tadashi met Gogo's eyes briefly. “I'll catch up. Go on, don't w-worry about me.”

The man was already backing toward the door. “Listen – I owe you one,” Brody said on his way out. “Don't die, kid. Not after – all this.”

Tadashi nodded, and the next moment the man was gone.

“We should go.” Gogo's heart was in her throat. “We need to go, now.

“Wait – Gogo, what is going on?” Tadashi's hand closed around her wrist. “Why are you h-here? What's so imp-portant about this address?”

Dread made Gogo's stomach twist. 'I told you, it's-”

“A l-long story, yeah, I heard you.” Tadashi's voice was steely. “So s-summarize.”

And in her desperation, she did. It wasn't hard, after all. All she really needed was three words. “Hiro's in there.”

Tadashi froze.

Gogo stood motionless until her nerve failed her. Pulling free, she whipped around to head for the door. “So like I was saying, we need to go.” She didn't look back, but she could hear his footsteps as he followed her.

“Ethel.” At the sound of her name in his cold, quiet voice, Gogo suppressed a shudder. “Tell me everything. And d-don't you dare l-leave anything out.”

Gogo didn't turn, nor did she slow her pace. But she told him.


The only times that Cass and Abigail set foot outside of their small prison room was to go to the restroom. It had happened three times already, without prompting or requests from either of them – Cass guessed, in that case, that they were scheduled at their captors' convenience. The halls outside were bare, but Cass could hear voices and footsteps beyond. Their heavily-armed guard watched their every step, on the lookout for misbehavior, and she didn't doubt that there were plenty more where he came from, just waiting around the corner.

A week ago, it would have made her feel small and scared. But she had pressed past the fear already. They were in the fire now, and the only way out was through. She had to be strong for Abigail. The poor girl looked like she was a step away from being a nervous wreck – she was trembling violently in spite of her jacket, her breathing was shallow, and her wide eyes were fixed on the floor. Every now and then her hand strayed to the hasty bandage taped to her ear.

After their fourth trip to the bathroom, they were almost back to the door when Abigail stumbled beside her. Cass barely managed to catch her before she fell. Abigail's weight nearly dragged her along to the floor, forcing their guard to stop for them. Heart pounding, Cass struggled to lift Abigail and keep from losing her own balance. She wasn't making it easy – she had gone limp, barely supporting herself on her own two feet as Cass managed to drag her slowly closer to the door. Nerves made Cass's heart leap to her throat at the sight of Abigail's face – she was turning faintly blue, as if she couldn't breath. The girl whimpered audibly, and Cass almost overbalanced on the last few steps to the door.

Apparently their guard's patience ran out. With a grunt of irritation, he grabbed Abigail by her ponytail, hauling her up and off of Cass so abruptly that her whimpering became a cry of pain. A flash of hot anger lanced through Cass at his rough handling, and she might have flown at him with her fists if Abigail hadn't listed blindly into him. In the end he half-dragged, half-carried her the rest of the way, opened the door, and shoved both her and Cass back inside. Abigail apparently lost what was left of her balance and crumpled to the floor, half her ponytail yanked loose from its tie. Hurriedly Cass knelt by her and helped her to her feet as gently as she could. Together they faced their guard as he walked in, shut the door, and turned to lock it.

Cass felt the object that Abigail passed to her, and wasted no more time.

The taser came to life with a barely audible crackle, which might have tipped off the guard. But Cass moved too quickly for him to react even if it had. She jammed it into his lower back, and he seized with a choked cry before going down heavily.

For a moment Cass stood over the unconscious guard, barely breathing.

“That was a nice touch,” she whispered. “Holding your breath like that.”

“U-used to-” Abigail hesitated. “Used to. Um. Botfight, in the alleys. Met some interesting people. They gave – good advice. One taught me how to pick pockets.” She stepped forward under her own power, her eyes bright. “Get his stuff?”

Cass turned off the taser and passed it to her, along with the knife in his belt. She took the man's key card and gun for herself, trying to recall what she knew about the proper way to hold a firearm. Venture Scouts had been such a long time ago.

Then, with her finger to her lips, she opened the door, slipped out with Abigail, and locked it from the outside. Silently they crept down the hallway. Abigail pressed close. She wasn't quite holding on to Cass, but she pressed her hand to Cass's arm and never strayed an inch farther away.

They didn't get very far.

Hey!

The sharp voice behind them echoed off the walls like a bullet's ricochet. There was no need for words, no need for discussion. Their hands joined, the grip almost painful, and they ran. The Hydra agent's voice rang out after them, soon joined by others.

Stop them!

Cass sucked air into her lungs, squeezed Abigail's hand, and ran faster.


Hiro did good work. Excellent work. Phenomenal, even.

It wasn't arrogance talking, either. It was confidence, and complete faith in and understanding of his own abilities. If Hiro made something with his own two hands, if he poured his heart and soul into creating something new, then its quality was as good as guaranteed.

If that hadn't been the case, then he would probably be dead right now.

Baymax's flight pattern was seemingly erratic, but Hiro trusted that there was a purpose to the chaos. If the robot could navigate through a smashed building as it collapsed upward into an unstable portal, then reasonably he should be okay in a hail of bullets.

...Oh who was he kidding, they were all flying by the seat of their pants. Some more literally than others.

Something flashed in his peripherals, and Hiro looked upward. Baymax's path steadied just long enough for him to see Sam clear half a catwalk by clothes-lining the agents on it with one wing. The agents scattered like bowling pins, many of them pitching into empty air.

Baymax dove again, avoiding more gunfire – Hiro could hear a few bullets pinging as they glanced off Baymax's armor. “Wasabi, how're you holding up?”

“I am-” Wasabi left off speaking coherently to shriek. “I am – still alive! And I think that counts for something!”

“If you can, start taking out support beams on the upper walkways. Take away their high ground.”

“Got it! Fred, cover me!”

Down below, the area lit up orange. Hiro hummed appreciatively when he saw agents diving out of Fred's way. A glimpse of blue light told him that Wasabi was rushing to follow his advice.

They were... well, they weren't exactly okay, but they weren't doomed just yet either. They were outnumbered but not outgunned. Tony was taking the heaviest artillery, but his suit seemed to be holding up. Baymax was keeping Hiro safe. Sam's equipment left him more vulnerable than Hiro would have felt comfortable with, but he was a skillful flyer. They just had to hold out until help came.

If help came at all.

Hiro ground his teeth as Baymax rocket-punched a sniper's perch, rattling the gunman and sending his rifle and most of his equipment flying. Honey and the Hulk were the only backup they had, but their communications were jammed. His first order of business had been to have Baymax rocket-punch the ceiling a few times in the hopes of signaling them, but there was no way of knowing that they'd heard it. How long would it take them to decide that they were taking too long? And with the elevator out, how would help reach them in time?

Boom.

The walkways rattled, and a split second lull in the fighting gave Hiro the chance to look around for the source of the noise. His eyes fell upon the previously silent, dead elevator.

...Was he imagining it, or was there something pink leaking through the closed doors?

Boom. Boom. Boom.

He definitely wasn't imagining the way doors were shaking.

And warping.

And bowing outward.

Around him, most of the gunfire halted. As if to fill the silence, a deep, rumbling roar rang out from within the elevator.

“Fashionably late,” he heard Tony remark, only a moment before the Hulk ripped through the doors and sent at least four guys flying with his charge alone.

Honey Lemon clung to his back, bright pink and yellow against the green.

The comm link crackled to life, and Honey's chipper voice hailed them brightly from down below.

“Sorry we're late! I had to threaten a man with acid.” A chem-ball sailed through the air, trapping the downed Hydra agents in a pile of pastel foam.

The Hulk roared again, and the battle resumed with renewed fervor.

 

Chapter Text

The entire floor had been liberated, and Steve's impromptu volunteer army was meeting opposition with a vindictive kind of determination. For a hastily-assembled mob, they worked with marvelous efficiency – which made sense, if Steve took the time to think about it. Most of these people had spent months or even years working under Hydra's thumb, and Hydra was all about getting the job done as expeditiously as possible. There was probably something poetic about it, using that same efficiency in a facility-wide rebellion, but poetry was the last thing on Steve's mind when he was charging Hydra agents.

The former prisoners had numbers and purely desperate enthusiasm on their side. All Steve had to do was break through the agents' hastily formed lines and leave them as dazed and disorganized as possible.

If many of the former prisoners got a little overzealous with securing their freedom... well, Steve was willing to look the other way. He could definitely understand where they were coming from.

His instincts had long since kicked in, spreading his senses to their limits. With one half of his mind he focused on defending himself, while the other assessed the battle and made snap decisions. The wrench-wielding woman had stuck close to his side – Sawyer, that was her name. Mara Sawyer. Even with no more military training than any of the other prisoners, she made up for it with sheer ferocity. She was a woman on a warpath, and he barely had to slow up for her.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a noncombatant – one of the prisoners was unarmed and keeping to the edge of the fighting as he crept down the hallway. Agents spotted him and moved in to intercept him. Steve leapt high, using the shoulder of a doubled-up Hydra agent as a springboard, and flung the shield. It pinballed its way through the men who menaced the prisoner, before hitting the floor and sliding to a halt within the prisoner's reach. Without hesitation, he snatched it up and held it clumsily in front of him. Bullets ricocheted off of it, driving him back, but it kept him alive as Steve made his way over.

Sawyer's wrench took out the main gunman, and Steve reached the frightened man's side unimpeded. “Are you all right?”

Shaking, the prisoner passed the shield back. “F-fine. Thanks a bunch.”

“Morning, Brody,” Sawyer greeted. “Party already start downstairs?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Brody nodded vigorously. “Ran into Hamada. He's, uh... well, you'll see.”

“Hamada?” Steve echoed, too quietly for either of them to hear. It wasn't that uncommon a last name. He had to wonder – but no, it couldn't be.

“Hamada, huh? I figured.” Mara's grin was all teeth. “I'm looking forward to shaking his hand.”

“He's on his way up, I think,” Brody told her. “People're already rioting down there. Hell, there's a ninja with a metal arm leadin' 'em.”

Good to know Bucky was keeping busy.

At the end of the hallway, a small stampede of retreating Hydra agents scrambled in from around the corner. Some of them turned on the nearest prisoners, and Steve flung himself into the fray once more. He worked like a machine; muscle memory took him through familiar movements as he worked his way through. Sawyer watched his back, and he used his shield as a battering ram until they were within throwing range. Dead or incapacitated agents littered the floor by the time he reached the hallway's end. With his shield up, he could let the rest empty their guns and close the distance before they had time to reload.

Several Hydra agents cut their losses with firearms and rushed him at once. A punch to the jaw laid one out cold. Sawyer smashed another in the ribs with her wrench. And a third went down when a familiar disc sailed in and bounced off the back of his head.

A fourth, quicker than the rest, had backed off and reloaded his weapon. It was all for naught anyway; before he had the chance to fire, a prisoner leapt on him from behind and jammed a live stun gun into his back. The agent fell with a choked cry, and the prisoner landed lightly on top of him. Gogo appeared at his side, retrieving her disc to fend off any other agents.

But the battle was dying down as Hydra's former captives ran out of enemies to fight. It left Steve with space to stare at the newcomer as he rose to his feet again.

A single brown eye, ringed with exhaustion, stared back at him. The other eye was hidden under bloody bandages. Burn scars marred his face, his neck, and much of the exposed skin on his body. But there were hints of resemblance even then, and the way Gogo hung close to the young man's side confirmed it before she spoke.

“Hi Steve,” she said flatly. “This is–” Her voice caught. “This is Tadashi Hamada. The storage facility's a trap. Callaghan sent them into a trap.”

Tadashi clenched his jaw, his single eye boring into Steve. “I n-need to get to my br-brother.”

Steve nodded once. “We're heading up now. We can send SHIELD agents ahead and get you somewhere-”

“Y-you're not he-hearing me.” The scarred prisoner's voice brooked no argument. “I n-need to get to my brother.”

“I know, and I've met your brother,” Steve replied. “The best thing you can do for him is get somewhere safe and survive long enough to see him again.”

Tadashi's hand closed on Steve's forearm – the one not holding the shield. “C-Captain Rogers,” he said flatly. “I'll do it wi-with or without your h-help. And I'd like y-your help.”

In the space of a blink, Steve knew he was telling the truth. A glance at Gogo told him he was outvoted. Steeling himself, he nodded again. “Stay close to me. Do you understand?” It was his turn to hold Tadashi's attention with his eyes. “I will not tell your brother that we lost you right after finding you.”

“No, you w-won't,” Tadashi agreed.

Sawyer stepped in to greet him and swore fluently at the sight of his face. “Jesus Christ, Hamada, what the hell did you do?

“That's what I said,” Brody muttered.

“I d-didn't do anything,” Tadashi answered, hand straying to the bandage. “I was two se-seconds from getting zapped, and the guy d-downstairs just happened to be f-fast enough with a knife.”

“Bucky?” Steve asked quietly, looking to Gogo.

She nodded, hefting one of her discs. “Saved his life. Anyway, can we open radio communications again? I know we said silence, but I think warning them about a trap is more important. Especially since, y'know, everybody and their grandma knows we're here by now, and we need to get out.”

Steve took in Tadashi's appearance, from the extent of his injuries to his battered, underfed frame, and nodded. “We need to leave as soon as possible. I'll radio Hill to send her people here-”

Just down the hall, a door to the stairwell blew off its hinges and smashed into the opposite wall. Steve gripped his shield, ready for another fight, only for Bucky to emerge with at least three prisoners trailing behind him. In a matter of seconds it was clear that it was more than just a few; by the time Bucky was halfway down the hall, Steve could see a crowd of freed prisoners following him, with many more still to come.

“They tell you?” Bucky asked. Steve nodded, and was about to speak when Bucky turned, raised his handgun, and shot a lone Hydra agent that had crept out from around the corner at the end of the hall. The man crumpled, falling on his own rifle when he hit the floor.

“We need to leave,” Steve said, opening a radio channel to contact Hill. “Did you clear everyone out below this floor?”

Bucky nodded. “Everyone I could find. We meeting up with the others?”

“Yeah. I'll call Hill, have her people help clear the ground floor upstairs and pick up these prisoners.” Steve shouldered his shield and made the call.

It was a brief conversation. “We know about the trap,” Hill said in response to his news. “Rosales already called for help. Reinforcements are on the way, just sit tight.”

“I have to get to the storage facility ASAP,” Steve replied. “There are...” He glanced at Tadashi. “Extenuating circumstances.”

“Go,” Bucky told him, striding back from where he had retrieved the fallen agent's rifle. “I'll handle things here 'til Hill's people get here. Go.” His eyes flickered toward Tadashi and Gogo. “All of you. Our entryway should still be clear.”

Steve clasped Bucky's shoulder briefly, gave a quick nod to Sawyer, and beckoned to Gogo and Tadashi before heading back to their point of entry. He slowed his pace, expecting Tadashi to lag, only for the former prisoner to nearly overtake him. Shaking his head, Steve sped up and led both kids back out to the escape tunnel.

The way was still clear when they emerged, as Bucky had predicted, and Tadashi nearly pounced on the nearest car. He had it open in almost record time.

“I'll drive,” Steve said firmly, and was relieved when the boy didn't argue with him. With a wordless nod, Tadashi took the passenger seat while Gogo dove into the back.

“Guys coming out of the building,” she reported. “And they sure as hell don't look friendly. Must've had their eyes on that emergency exi – drive, drive, drive!

Steve slammed on the gas, peeling away as bullets struck the back of the car.


Steve Rogers, Tadashi Hamada, and Ethel Kim were not the only ones running.

Abigail's hand was almost numb from Cass gripping it, but she was past caring about the blood flow to her fingertips. She was limping slightly from a sprained ankle, and so far she had tased four people. Her ears were ringing from the gunfire, and she wasn't sure if Cass had actually shot anyone yet. She tried not to think about it.

The place felt like a maze. Abigail had lost track of the minutes, but it seemed as if all they could do was run away, but never quite escape. Where was the exit? They had been brought in blindfolded, there were no windows to the outside, and it was impossible to say which hallway would lead them out. Were they on an upper floor? Or maybe beneath the ground floor? She couldn't tell.

A Hydra agent managed to outstrip their frantic pace, latching onto Abigail's free arm with a yell of triumph. Her hand shot out without even a command from her brain, and the taser in her hand crackled. She struck, and the man released her and fell twitching with a choked cry.

That's number five, her mind announced dizzily. Cass tugged her along, and they kept running.

Before long, Abigail realized why they were going nowhere fast. For one thing there were no windows to the outside that would give them a clue to where they were going, and for another, there were agents waiting for them at any stairwell door they came across. No exit signs meant that they weren't on the ground floor, which meant that the stairwells were their only way out. Their captors were watching all escape routes. They didn't even have to catch them right away – all they had to do was keep them in and keep them running until they tired themselves out or gave up.

It was a good strategy, and it was working. They were getting nowhere fast.

Their luck, such as it was, eventually ran out. There were only two of them, and so many Hydra agents closing in. Eventually, with danger on all sides and not enough bullets and nerves between them to take them all on, they were boxed in and forced to retreat. Finally their pursuers forced them out of the open hallway and into one of the side rooms. Abigail's lungs burned, and her eyes stung, but she held her taser out in an empty threat as their captors closed in.

The face at the head of the pack was a familiar one, and Abigail's stomach churned.

“Well,” Jun said with a vague smile. “That was fun, wasn't it?”

Cass pointed the gun right at him, but everyone in the room could see the barrel shaking. Hot, angry tears threatened to spill, but Abigail stared down their smug tormentor for all it was worth.

“You've had your fun, ladies, and we're all veryimpressed,” Jun drawled, speaking as if addressing a pair of particularly stupid children. “But this is a needless waste of time and resources. It's true that you are both worth more to us alive, but I won't lose a wink of sleep over shooting you and being done with it.” He quirked an eyebrow at Abigail. “After all, your father probably won't realize you're dead until after he's finished with the job I gave him. Drop the gun and the taser, and we can be reasonable about this.”

Beside her, Cass trembled with poorly-suppressed fury. Abigail's heart twisted painfully as Cass's face crumpled, as if she were about to cry from anger. Finally, hands shaking, Cass lowered the gun, bent down, and placed it on the ground. Fighting back tears, Abigail did the same with her taser.

Jun rolled his eyes and reached up to tap his earpiece. “Rawlins, call off the alert. We have them.” He stood for a moment, listening, until his eyes narrowed. “...Rawlins? Rawlins, answer me, we don't have time for this.”

A heavy silence settled as he waited for a response. Finally Jun turned and nodded at two of his men, who left the room without a word. Sick with hopelessness, Abigail inched closer to Cass and shakily clasped her hand.

“No, none of that,” Jun said coldly, and motioned at two of the remaining agents. “Separate them. We'll keep them apart from hear on out. I don't want a repeat of this.”

“Wait-” Cass gripped her hand, but the two agents stepped in to force them apart. “Wait, please, let me just-”

“Shut up,” Jun ordered, his voice cold and dismissive. “I've coddled you two enough already-” He stopped short.

In the sudden silence, Abigail could have sworn she heard someone call out from somewhere nearby. There were no words that she could hear, just the sound of a human voice before something cut it short.

“What now?” Jun snarled, as one of the remaining agents drew his weapon and went out into the hallway to investigate. “No, you idiot, get back here-”

Suppressed gunshots rang out, and the agent fell back into view, dead before he could obey the order. Jun sprang back, his face twisted with anger and fear, and pointed his gun straight for the open doorway. The agent holding Abigail yanked her close, keeping her still as he followed Jun's example.

“Get out here!” Jun snapped.

A hunched shape moved into view, and Jun opened fire. Abigail bit back a scream as the newcomer slumped limply, only to realize that they had been limp and lifeless the whole time, and that she recognized them as the hawk-nosed woman who had been with Jun from the beginning. Without warning, the dead woman hurtled forward as if thrown. The body collided with Jun, knocking him off balance. Without missing a beat, the person who had tossed the corpse took advantage of the confusion to shoot first the man holding Abigail, and then the one holding Cass.

Abigail dove for the taser at her feet, clenched her teeth, and jammed it straight into Jun's calf. His body seized, and he dropped his gun and crumpled to the floor. Two more suppressed shots left him limp and bleeding out. The taser fell from Abigail's nerveless fingers.

Someone took hold of her arm, and she flinched instinctively before recognizing Cass. Murmuring comfortingly to her, Cass helped her to her feet.

Surrounded by dead and dying Hydra agents, Natasha Romanov calmly reloaded her gun. “I'm sorry it took so long,” she said. “Are either of you injured?”

Abigail found her voice. “Just – my ear.” She waved vaguely at the gauze bandage taped to the side of her head.

Stepping closer, Natasha gave both of them a quick once-over. “Let's get you two back upstairs,” she said. “Should be clear, but you never know if they'll send more.”

Cass's arm settled protectively around Abigail's shoulders. “The facility where Hiro is,” she said. “We need to get there now – it's a trap.”

“I'll pass it along.” Natasha led them through the hallways, and Abigail envied her sense of direction. How long had they been running around aimlessly before the agents had cornered them? “Did they tell you anything while you were here? Any information's useful at this point.”

The two of them filled her in on what had passed – mostly Cass. Abigail was too focused on relief and escape to string words together into coherent sentences, especially when Cass described how her father was following Hydra's orders. The thought made her physically ill – she needed some way to contact him quickly, to let him know that she was all right and out of danger and he didn't need to hurt Hiro to protect her.

As it turned out, they were one floor down from the ground level. Natasha took them up a flight of stairs and hurried them outside, where Abigail almost cried with relief at the first touch of a breeze. An unmarked sedan waited for them, and Abigail's legs were shaking by the time she clambered into the back with Cass beside her.

“Where are we headed?” Cass asked, as Natasha started the car. “We need to get to Hiro.”

“Hill's already sent people,” Natasha assured her. She sped down the street, probably trying to put as much distance between them and their former prison as possible.

“Wait,” Abigail broke in. “Wait – wait – wait. My father.”

Natasha briefly met her eyes in the rearview mirror, but said nothing.

“Please,” Abigail went on, throat aching with the threat of tears. “I'm safe. He doesn't know – won't believe, I'm safe. I have to find him. He'll be there. If – if he sees me, he'll stop.”

She knew, and Natasha knew, that he was more likely to get caught in the crossfire, or taken out by Hill's reinforcements if he tried to take Hiro. If she could only get to him before then-

“Hill, I'm en route to the storage facility,” Natasha said suddenly, touching her earpiece. “No, they're still with me. I'm bringing them. Well, there are extenuating circumstances...” Her voice trailed off, and she frowned. “The second? Who was the first? ...Put me through to him.” She broke off then, guiding the car onto the freeway. After a moment of waiting, she spoke again. “Steve, it's me. What's going on? We're on our way to the storage facility and Hill told me you were too-? ...Yes, I have them. They're both safe. Yes, they're both still with me, why are you-? O...kay?” Watching her reflection in the rearview mirror, Abigail saw her frown thoughtfully. Natasha pressed a few buttons on the steering wheel, and moments later she removed her earpiece. “Okay Steve, the call's going through the car, what is it?”

Ms. Hamada?” Steve Rogers' voice asked over the speakers. “Are you there?

“I'm here,” Cass replied. “What is it?”

Well-” Steve broke off. “I... think it's better if I just...” Something rustled over the speakers, the familiar sound of a phone or bluetooth being manhandled as it was passed from one hand to another. Abigail waited, confused and curious, before another voice came crackling hesitantly over the call.

Aunt Cass?

Beside her, Cass went still as stone.

Aunt C-Cass?” At the sound of the voice, Abigail froze. She knew that voice, and even if she didn't, she knew it wasn't Hiro's voice and she also knew that there was only one other person who had any business calling Cass their aunt. “I-it's me. It's – it's Tadashi. Aunt Cass? A-a-are you th-there?

Slowly, Cass drew in a breath. Her hand went to her mouth as the breath hitched and stuttered in her chest. Her face crumpled, and she closed her eyes and answered. “I-I'm. I'm here. Oh my God. Oh my God.”

There was a sharp intake of breath. Then- “Aunt Cass! I-I-I'm here! A-are you okay? W-where are you right n-now? Gogo said – Gogo said you-

“I'm here.” Cass's voice broke. “Oh my God – I'm here, baby, I'm okay, I'm – I'm – how? How is this – how are you-?”

L-long story.” Tadashi made a noise that might have been a laugh and might have been a sob, or it might have been both at the same time. “Aunt Cass, I... I'm s-sorry. I sh-shouldn't have run into the fire, I should've st-stayed with Hiro, I n-n-never should've l-left, I'm so sorry-

“It's okay.” Tears streamed down her face, but still Cass kept her voice steady. “It's okay, sweetheart, I know. It's okay. I'm not – I'm not mad, I'm... I missed you. Tadashi I missed you so much, but how are you here? How... where...?”

I'll t-tell you everything,” Tadashi promised. “L-listen, I'll see you later, okay? I promise. I j-just have to go pi-pick up Hiro first. But I'll see you later. Y-you'll see me, I pr-promise.

“We'll meet you there,” Cass replied, wiping uselessly at her eyes. “We'll all... we'll all meet there, and we'll go home together. Okay? Tadashi?”

Okay, Aunt Cass.

Abigail could no longer contain herself. “Tadashi!” she blurted. Her cheeks ached, and she realized then that she was smiling; she was smiling so hard that it hurt. “Tadashi do you – do you remember me? Abigail? It's – it's me!”

Abigail?” He sounded as if he could barely believe his own ears. “Of c-course I remember you! Y-you're alive! Gogo s-said you were, but I... y-you're alive!

“You too!” Abigail almost forgot the fear and the pain and frustration of the past week – of the past months, even – and her eyes stung with tears. “You are too!”

How was this possible? Did it even matter?

No, she decided. No it didn't.

L-listen, I gotta g-give this back to Steve,” Tadashi went on. “He has to m-make some c-c-calls. B-but I'll see you l-later. B-both of you. Okay?

“Later,” Cass repeated, nodding even though Tadashi couldn't see her. “Please, just – be okay, Tadashi. Don't... don't...” Don't die again before I get to see you, she didn't say.

I won't,” Tadashi promised. “I won't. I-I'll see you, I promise. I love you, Aunt Cass.

“I love you too, sweetheart, I love you so much, I love you with all my heart.”

The call took a while to end, as if Tadashi took his time giving the earpiece back. It was only when the car was silent again that Cass tucked her chin under, hid her face in her hands, and broke down weeping in earnest.

Abigail pulled her into a hug, unsure of what else she could possibly do. Her head swam with shock and relief, bringing tears welling up in her own eyes.

When Cass spoke, her voice was quiet with wonder even as she cried her heart out. “I'm going to bring them home,” she wept. “I'm going to bring them both home.” Silently, Abigail nodded.

Behind the wheel, Natasha said nothing. She simply drew in a deep breath, and let it out again.

There was still work to be done.

Chapter Text

Somewhere in New Jersey, unmarked vehicles packed with SHIELD agents were racing toward a warehouse on the outskirts of a city. Somewhere, a car containing two superheroes and a dead man walking was speeding through the streets, while another car driven by a former Russian spy with two civilians in the back was taking a different route to the very same destination.

But none of this entered into the mind of the man behind the wheel of a nondescript gray sedan as it pulled into the parking lot. He had orders. He had, perhaps, minutes to carry out those orders. For all he knew, he had years left to live or merely hours. None of that mattered to Robert Callaghan.

There was only one human being in his world now. There was one face in his mind. His daughter, his Abigail—his Abby, who had learned to ride a bike while he clutched the seat, who had grown and blossomed and learned to fly while he stood on the sidelines of her life and cheered until he wept. He had lost her for a time, but she was alive.

There was a price now, to keep her alive. It was a price that Callaghan was content to pay. He had already let one brother die for nothing. What was one more, in his long list of sins?

To pay for his Abby’s survival, her safety, her happiness, it was a pittance.

Callaghan walked into the warehouse barely armed. The gun in his hand was half empty. The device in his pocket was merely a handheld EMP device—hardly dangerous or even deadly by itself. He paused for a word with the Hydra employees restrained on the floor, and got the information he needed. A confirmation, and an alternate path to some of the lower floors. There was nothing more he needed from them.

Strangely, his heart was light as he descended. And why wouldn’t it be? His task was nearly complete.


Hiro had lost track of time.

How long had this battle been going on? Even with the dramatic arrival of Honey Lemon and the Incredible Hulk, there was no end in sight. It seemed like there was no end to the Hydra agents, either. He couldn’t tell whether they had been here for six minutes or an entire year.

Baymax sent a rocket fist into a closely-gathered Hydra squad, scattering them from the catwalk they stood on like ninepins. The fall was far from deadly—Baymax’s health care programming was still untouchable—but it stopped them shooting, at least until they could shake off the daze and go for their guns again.

The Hulk had made himself the center of the fight not too long after joining it. He was the sole reason why the two sides was evenly matched in spite of the vastly lopsided numbers; most of the Hydra agents were focusing their attention on him and Iron Man, leaving the rest of them to be pushed to the sidelines to take on everyone else.

Wasabi was probably the busiest of them. Plasma blades made quick work of catwalk supports. His precision was just as much a danger to the structural integrity of Hydra’s ground as the Hulk’s rampage was. Honey was kept busy covering him against gunfire; the agents could see what he was doing, and they were pissed.

Fred was making him nervous. His jumps were getting more and more reckless, even with Hiro trying to shout him down over their comms. It was hard to tell how much damage his suit had taken by this point; Hiro wondered if there would be enough of a costume left to repair, by the time this was all over. But fire burns, period, and Fred had enemy agents ducking for cover every time he unleashed a torrent.

That left Hiro and Baymax, Sam Wilson, and Iron Man to provide air support. It was tricky, dodging both enemy attacks and friendly fire. Both of his seniors seemed impossibly nimble in the air, and Hiro felt bulky and slow in comparison.

He held on, gritting his teeth, and Baymax shook another walkway to keep the agents on it from raining death down on Wasabi. Honey had promised backup, so where was it?

As if hearing his thoughts, Sam’s grim voice came over the comm. “At this rate, Hydra’ll have time to call some backup of their own,” he muttered, as if not wanting to admit it. “This place is a rat trap.”

“Hey Hamada,” Stark spoke up. “Your robot can still carry all you kids, right?”

“Yeah, we’re good—whoa!” Baymax banked sharply, nearly throwing Hiro off, but the magnetic handholds held.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Stark went on, blasting a Hydra sharpshooter off his perch. “You all get back up the shaft and see if you can get in contact with the other team. If you can, then we’ve done our job and we can get out of here.”

“We don’t need all of us to go up—” Hiro began.

“You kids need to get out of here, now.” There was something different about Sam’s voice. It had lost its levity, its note of humor, it’s… anything, really. When Sam talked like that, he sounded less like a human being and more like authority incarnate. It was the sort of tone you didn’t argue with. Not even a tone you couldn’t argue with; you just didn’t, regardless of what you could or couldn’t do.

But even still, Hiro opened his mouth to try to force out a protest—what if it hadn’t been long enough? What if Steve and Bucky and Gogo still needed time to find Snowden and get him out—

Hiro, watch out!

Someone screamed in his ear. He wasn’t sure who. He would never find out, and it didn’t matter anyway. Something exploded to his right, and he felt his limbs lock. The last time he had heard a noise like this—a dull, muted pressure that he felt in his teeth and skeleton rather than hearing with his ears—had been at that fateful Stark Expo. The sheer force of it turned the world sideways, flipping gravity on its head. Baymax rolled in the air, and the magnetic handholds finally failed. Hiro was tossed from the robot’s back as limply as a rag doll, and sent tumbling through the air with no way of knowing which end was up.

Strong arms snatched him out of the air. Hiro felt his stomach drop as he and his rescuer plummeted further, only to swerve before they reached the ground. The whir of hydraulics roared in his ears as he found himself rushed into the shelter provided by one of the fallen catwalks.

His comm link had been reduced to static, and when he opened his eyes he could see the large cracks spidering over the visor of his helmet. Another hit like that, and he’d be picking shards out of his face.

Willing hands helped him take the helmet off, and Hiro realized he was not the only one who had needed a rescue. “Are you two all right?” Sam’s voice was inches away. Both Hiro and Fred were squashed together in his arms, hidden in the shelter of his wings.

“I’m fine.” Hiro’s ears rang, but not badly enough to impair his hearing. Red and white filled the side of his vision, and he turned his head to find Baymax there. His armor had taken an even heavier beating than Hiro’s; the plating was cracked in several places, some fragments even missing.

“Same,” Fred replied. There was a note of melancholy in his voice. “Think my suit’s shot, though.” Hiro looked over, still blinking away the daze. Sure enough, Fred’s costume was ripped, battered, and punctured in several places. The metal around the flamethrower was dented and warped beyond use. “You sure you’re good, Hiro?”

“I’m okay, I’m okay.” Hiro rubbed his head, just to test things. “Baymax, buddy, what about you?”

“My systems are unharmed,” Baymax replied. “My flight mechanisms are also intact. However, my armor has been compromised, and my weight capacity is also affected. I do not believe I am capable of continuing, nor can I safely lift everyone out.”

“How about just two?” Sam asked.

“Two average-sized adult males are not quite within my capabilities.”

“Good thing I’m not an average-sized adult, then,” Hiro said dryly.

“Gimme a sec, I might as well… ditch the suit.” Fred sounded like it physically pained him to say that. “We can always make a new one, I guess.”

“Good.” Sam pushed Hiro toward the robot and helped him clamber back up again. “You three, get back up the shaft. Check the floors between this one and the ground floor for more people; this place might have prisoners on it. He’s got a scanner, right? Use that, and if there are more Hydra waiting in the wings, do not engage. Reinforcements should be showing up, so get up topside and let them know what happened. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” Hiro blurted. He put his helmet back on, because what protection it still provided was still better than nothing. Fred was already struggling out of his costume.

Sam turned back to the battle. “We’ll cover you so you can get back to the elevator shaft.”

Hiro fixed himself to the handholds once more. The one on Baymax’s left leg was no longer functioning, but he could still hold on. Once he was secure, Baymax gunned his rockets and scooped up Fred as well, sheltering him in the armor plating still intact on his arms.

“On three,” Sam said. “One, two—” Hiro barely heard the three as Baymax rocketed out from cover. Honey threw up a bright pastel smokescreen as Tony and Sam drew fire from the Hydra agents. Baymax reached the elevator shaft in the blink of an eye and barely paused before rocketing upward.


“Come on, c-come on—” Tadashi’s knuckles were white as he gripped the door handle.

“Wait,” Steve warned. “Something isn’t right—there are more cars here than there should be, and I don’t think those are SHIELD—”

Gogo and Tadashi ducked without needing a warning before bullets riddled the glass windshield.

“What the hell!” Gogo snarled. “Did Hydra get here first?!”

“Probably,” Tadashi said, and opened the door before the vehicle stopped moving—Steve had slammed on the brakes, but momentum was still carrying it forward.

“Tadashi!” Gogo shrieked, but he was already diving out.

Steve cursed and went for his gun at the same time as he kicked his own door open. Gogo already had her skates on, but Tadashi was as good as gone by the time she had her feet under her.

There was only a smattering of Hydra out in front of the building, and Captain America taking them down was a matter of when, not if. But Tadashi was fast, he was desperate, and he had faced death once and then continuously for seven straight months. By the time the dust cleared and another car with a redheaded superspy behind the wheel was pulling in, he was long gone.


There was one floor between the site of the ambush and the building above. Baymax came to a halt at the opening in the shaft. Hiro had the doors open in a twinkling, not that it did much good immediately. Beyond the first few feet nearest the elevator doors, it was too dark to see.

“Think we should head topside first?” Fred suggested.

“Sam said to check out this floor first.” Hiro checked a compartment on Baymax’s side—a last-minute addition he’d made before they had launched this attack. Luckily it was still intact. From it, he produced a familiar metallic circlet. “I didn’t even get the chance to break these out. Probably for the best, though. Some of ‘em might have gotten lost, and the last thing we need is Hydra reverse-engineering them or something.” He tapped Baymax’s helmet lightly. “Your scanner still work, bud?”

“Yes. Scanning now.” There was an ominous buzz of static from Baymax’s helmet. “Scanning mechanism has suffered damage. However, I can confirm that there is one living adult male on this floor. I cannot detect any information beyond that.”

“Well okay then,” said Fred. “Let’s check it out.”

“You sure?” Hiro asked, adjusting the headband. “Might be a better idea to head up and report this later.”

“It’s literally just one guy,” Fred pointed out. “Besides, would it be just one guy if it was another ambush?” He hesitated, hanging quietly in Baymax’s arms. “Maybe it’s a prisoner. Maybe somebody needs help.”

Hiro hesitated. Part of him wanted to continue upstairs, but Fred had a point. There could be someone trapped in here. There could be someone in trouble, and if they turned away now…

No. If this was a life that needed saving, then there was no way Hiro could look the other way, or ask Fred to do the same.

“Give me a second. I don’t want us going in there without some light.”

Baymax flew into the opening, and after a quick search, Hiro found a promising-looking panel on the wall not far from the elevator doors. Baymax switched on his nightlight feature, and within minutes Hiro had things in hand. Electricity sputtered to life, and lights flickered on further into the room.

It was similar to the lower floor, but considerably smaller. It looked to be a cramped warehouse space with a few scattered office cubicles and desks. Crates and containers filled the space at irregular intervals, and the whole place was poorly lit. Gaps of darkness interspersed throughout the room gave the place an eerie atmosphere.

“We’ll stay in the air,” Hiro muttered under his breath. “Just to be safe.” He tapped Baymax’s helmet. “Take us closer to the signal.”

Baymax obeyed. Hiro reached down to give Fred a hand up, boosting him onto Baymax’s back. Not for the first time, he wondered if this was really a good idea. Fred was a sitting duck without his suit, and Baymax wasn’t operating at a hundred percent.

Then again… with SHIELD reinforcements on the way, and Hydra reinforcements also possibly on the way, for all they knew there could be a firefight already going on upstairs. Maybe staying down here in an almost-empty storage room was safer.

He opened his mouth to call out, but closed it again. He couldn’t drum up the nerve. They would just have to trust Baymax.

Noises overhead made him stiffen and look up. Muffled thumping and distant voices just barely penetrated the walls and ceilings of the facility.

“Maybe it is a good thing that we didn’t go straight upstairs,” Fred remarked. His voice was quiet, with a sort of forced levity. Fred was just as nervous as he was.

“We really did get in over our heads on this one,” Hiro said softly.

“Heh.” Fred nudged him lightly. “So much for being on vacation. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised—stuff like this always happens when superheroes try to take a break.”

“Yeah, really. I’m never going to another tech expo agai—”

Baymax dropped out from under them.

It wasn’t that he vanished, or that he spilled them. At some point he simply went from flying to falling. Momentum still carried them forward in a downward arc.

It was over too quickly for either of them to make a sound. Luckily, the ceiling was low, and they weren’t flying high enough to make the fall deadly, so there wasn’t that far to go. Hiro landed with a pained grunt, helmet slamming into Baymax’s back plate, and tumbled off of the robot to the cold floor.

Broken glass tinkled against the floor—the face plate of his helmet had broken in the fall, and he could feel cuts stinging on his face. Warm liquid trickled down his nose, and he tasted blood. “O-ow.” On instinct he scrabbled up to his hands and knees so he wasn’t sprawled out like a landed fish. Sharp pain shot through his right arm, and it gave out beneath him. He couldn’t even scream; all that came out was a voiceless gasp as he hit the floor awkwardly. For a moment he lay frozen, speechless with shock. When the pain finally ebbed, and he managed to remove the broken helmet, his eyes widened as he came to a second realization—the lights had gone out. “F-Fred? Are you okay?”

His friend’s answering groan was nearly drowned out by the whir of a backup generator somewhere in the room. With a grunt of effort, Hiro levered himself up again on his good arm and felt his way frantically toward the voice. What if Fred had fallen on something? What if Baymax had fallen on him?

“Fred, talk to me, buddy.” The pitch of his voice rose with nervousness. His right arm was tucked against his side, still throbbing sharply. “Baymax? What happened? Baymax?”

His left hand touched the sleeve of Fred’s T-shirt right as the generator turned the lights back on. Hiro almost sobbed with relief; Fred wasn’t crushed, he was just lying dazed on top of Baymax. He was breathing. He was fine, and—

A shadow lay across them, dark and man-shaped.

Hiro whipped around with a cry, and stared up into Robert Callaghan’s cold, cold eyes.

“This isn’t personal,” Callaghan told him.

And wasn’t that a funny thing to say—as if having it be personal would have made his intentions any worse, or having them be impersonal made them any better. But Hiro had no time to think of this, much less articulate it, before Callaghan reached down, grabbed him by the arm—the left one—and pulled him away.

Survival instincts kicked in, and Hiro struggled. “Stop it!” He broke off with a yell of pain when he jarred his injured arm. By some miracle he managed to get his feet underneath him and stand up to aim punches and kicks wherever he could reach. But Callaghan was more than twice his size, and he moved with an implacable purpose that no amount of twisting could slow.

“Let go of me!” he yelled. “Baymax! Baymax! What did you do to Baymax?”

“EMP pulse,” Callaghan replied, without looking at him. “It merely shut down his functions. If it’s any consolation.”

“Let go!” Hiro fought desperately, digging his heels in and aiming punches at Callaghan’s stomach, but the man fended him off like he was a bothersome toddler. Out of desperation, he managed to get his teeth into the arm holding him, but Callaghan merely grabbed a handful of his hair and twisted until he let go.

“I have to do this,” Callaghan told him calmly. “They’ll kill Abigail if I don’t give you to them. You understand that, don’t you? As a self-proclaimed hero? I’m doing this for her.”

Hiro bit, kicked, and swore at him.

Callaghan was dragging him further away from the opening—there must have been another way up. Tears gathered in Hiro’s eyes, and he opened his mouth to yell for help—for Baymax, for Fred, for Honey and Wasabi and Sam and Tony.

Only one of them was there to answer.

Fred had twenty feet to build up momentum before he caught up, and slammed into Callaghan without a sound.

He hit Callaghan full force, one hundred and fifty pounds of bony elbows and silent protective rage. Callaghan’s grip loosened, and Hiro wrenched himself free with a yell. He pulled back, and saw Fred struggling with Callaghan. After the momentary surprise, it wasn’t a close fight anymore. Fred was quicker and stronger than he once was, but Callaghan had weight and muscle on him.

At Callaghan’s side, something glinted in the sparse light. Hiro recognized it, and opened his mouth to scream a warning.

Too little, too late.

Callaghan knocked Fred back with a vicious kick, sending him stumbling to the floor. When Fred moved to get to his feet again, Callaghan pulled the gun from his side, pointed and fired.

Hiro screamed until he thought his throat would bleed.

The shot sent Fred collapsing back into the side of a crate, propped up by a prayer. Hiro’s mind went blank, and he scrambled to Fred’s side with a strangled sob. Fred stared at him wide-eyed, speechless with shock as he pressed his hand to the blood blossoming from his shoulder.

“Fred—” The name slipped out, but Callaghan was on him again, dragging him away. “No!” Hiro caught hold of his friend’s hand and hung on desperately, fighting in vain against Callaghan’s strength. Fred surged forward, grabbing back, clinging to him in a desperate attempt to keep Callaghan from taking him.

Callaghan’s hand closed around his broken arm.

Hiro’s vision went gray, and he let go of Fred with a choked scream. Fred reached for him desperately, but Callaghan was already yanking him out of reach.

The microbots, Hiro thought, but Callaghan wrenched the circlet from his head and tossed it carelessly to the ground. The hand gripping his arm tightened, and Hiro sobbed with pain and tried not to throw up. He twisted in Callaghan’s grip, and all his captor did was press the barrel of the gun to the back of his neck. Recently fired, the metal burned on contact.

He raised his head with a cry of pain, searching for some last-ditch chance to escape, and saw someone run out of the darkness.

Hiro didn’t see the fist connect, but he heard it. It was a thick, meaty thud, accented with the crunch of bones breaking, though whether it was the fist or Callaghan’s nose, Hiro couldn’t be sure. Callaghan gave a grunt of pain, and his grip loosened again. Hiro twisted free with a broken cry of pain, and ran back to Fred’s side. Blood was leaking through Fred’s fingers as he pressed his hand to the bullet hole in his shoulder. Half-blind with tears, Hiro clung to the front of Fred’s shirt with a grip like a vice. If Callaghan wanted to drag him away again, then he’d have to kill him first.

“Hiro,” Fred rasped.

“I know,” he whispered. “I know, Fred, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, this is all my fault, I—”

Fred’s hand—the one not being used to slow the bleeding—found one of Hiro’s and squeezed it. “Hiro—” Something about his tone made Hiro look up at his face, and he found Fred staring past him with wide, shocked eyes.

He looked over his shoulder.

Callaghan stood ten feet away. Blood dripped from his face as he staggered back, toward where Hiro and Fred crouched by the crate. His back was to them, and he was staring at the one who had punched him, the one who was stepping slowly into the light.

He was thin. Painfully thin. What Hiro could see of his arms was patched and criss-crossed with scars. The marring stretched up his neck and onto patches of his face, half of which was swaddled in bloodstained bandaging. His chest heaved with every breath, and his right fist dripped with blood.

“No,” Hiro heard Callaghan whisper. “This isn’t—no. You can’t be—you—you’re dead.”

“You son of a bitch.” Tadashi’s voice shook. Every part of him shook. “I hoped sh-she was wrong. I h-hoped—but no. It was y-you. It was you th-this whole time.”

Callaghan took another step back. “I… I don’t understand—how is this possible?” The gun trembled in his grip. “Tadashi…”

“Professor.” His face was like stone, his voice like ice. “What were you doing to m-my brother?”

The gun came up again, shaking as it pointed at his brother. Bile rose in Hiro’s throat, and he could only manage a pained whimper.

“It’s okay, Hiro.” Tadashi’s voice was deathly calm. “It’s okay. I b-brought help. Aunt Cass is on her way. W-we’re all gonna go h-home, okay?”

Hiro tried to breathe in, and sobbed again instead. “T-Tadashi?”

This wasn’t possible. This couldn’t be possible. How, how, how?

“Your H-H-Hydra friends were watching you, Profe-fessor.” Tadashi said quietly. “The night of the f-fire. I didn’t know you started it, s-so I ran in to get you. They pulled me out.

There was a harsh gasp from Fred. Hiro looked up to see tears running down his friend’s face.

“They had me for s-seven months.” Tadashi’s voice cracked. “Seven muh-months, Prof-fessor.”

“Then you understand,” Callaghan said softly, desperately. “You see how dangerous they are. Tadashi, they will kill my daughter if I don’t—you remember her, don’t you? She’s alive. She’s alive now, but they have her and they’ll kill her—”

“I j-just talked to her,” Tadashi broke in. “On the way. Sh-she’s fine. She’s w-with my aunt. They got her out. St-stop this, Callaghan.”

Callaghan froze. For a split second, Hiro thought that maybe, just maybe, it would be fine. Callaghan would drop the gun, and they would all leave this place and get Fred to a hospital and get everyone out downstairs.

“No,” Callaghan said softly. “No, no, no. You’re lying to me, Tadashi.”

“I’m n-not!” Tadashi stepped forward, only to freeze again when Callaghan twitched the gun at him.

“I can’t take that risk, Mr. Hamada. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. But I can’t.”

“Callaghan.” Tadashi’s voice lowered. Only one of his eyes was visible, and it was locked on Callaghan’s face. “If you t-touch my brother again, you will regret it.”

“You can’t bluff me,” Callaghan shot back. “You aren’t capable of that—”

W-what do you know about what I’m capable of?” Tadashi demanded.

“You can’t stop me faster than I can shoot you,” Callaghan told him.

“You’ll h-have to shoot me,” Tadashi shot back. “If you w-want my brother. You’ll have to k-kill me, Callaghan. And you’ll h-have to look me in the eye when y-you do it.”

Hiro clung to Fred, heart in his throat.

“He won’t.” Another familiar voice rang out clear in the dark space. Gogo had appeared at a doorway in the farthest wall. She stepped through, and two more figures hurried out after her.

Aunt Cass stopped short with a gasp when she saw the scene before her. But Abigail kept running, until she stood by Tadashi and faced her father.

“Stop,” she said. “Dad, stop.”

“Abby.” Callaghan’s voice shook. “Abby, please.”

“I’m okay,” Abigail said, holding her hands out. “I’m okay. They got—me out. I’m free. They—Hydra—won’t. They can’t. Please.” Her voice broke. “Please, Dad. Stop.”

“I can’t!” Callaghan burst out. “Don’t you understand? Do you think it’s over, just because you’ve escaped them once?” The gun trembled in his grip. “It’s not. It’s never over. ‘Cut one head off, and two more will appear,’ that’s not just a slogan! They never stop! They’ll—they’ll never stop.” Hiro couldn’t see Callaghan’s face, but he could hear his tears. “They’ll never stop hunting you. You’ll never be safe unless I do this. Just let me do this for you.”

“I don’t want this!” Abigail pleaded. “This isn’t—what I want. Not him. Not Hiro. Not anybody, Dad. I’m not—worth that.”

“You’re worth the world, sweetheart,” Callaghan whispered. “There’s no price too high for you. Someday, you’ll understand. You don’t have to forgive me for this.”

The gun had stopped shaking. Callaghan leveled it on Tadashi, and—

“Oh God.” Aunt Cass sobbed. “Oh God, Abigail, I’m so sorry.”

There was a gun in her hand, too.

As the shot echoed in the dim room, Robert Callaghan dropped to the floor without a sound.

Silence fell like a shroud over the room, broken only by the clatter of the gun when it dropped from Cass’s nerveless hands. Abigail rushed to her father’s side.

But Tadashi stood still, swaying slightly as if dazed. He was staring over Callaghan, over Abigail, straight to Hiro with a look of disbelief stamped across his face. For a split second Hiro almost ran to him, but the sticky warmth of Fred’s blood on his hand kept him where he was.

“Hiro.” Tadashi’s voice cracked. “Fred, oh my God—” He reached them in a heart beat, and then Hiro was touching him—Tadashi’s hand on his head, on his shoulder, groping for his free hand and squeezing it tight, while the other reached past him to cup the side of Fred’s face.

“Tadashi?” Fred’s voice was thick with pain, crackling with held-back sobs.

“We’re g-gonna get out of here.” Tadashi’s breath hitched. “H-help’s here, th-there’s—they’re ju-just upstairs—”

And then Aunt Cass was there, gathering them in her arms. She said nothing, but her arm was tight around Hiro, enough to jar his injured arm, but he was past caring. He couldn’t even cry; there was no energy for sobbing as the tears ran unchecked down his face.

Distantly, he could hear the whirring of frictionless skates as Gogo moved closer to them. “Someone’s coming,” she said. “Might be help, might not be, but we need to move. There are stairs leading back up, but—”

Footsteps thundered down into the room. Guns cocked, and Hiro’s stomach turned. He twisted his head around and found seven Hydra agents advancing on them, fully armed.

“Lay down your weapons, now,” one of them ordered. To the others he said, “We’ll detain them and bring them back to base. This facility’s no longer of use—”

And then there came another sound.

This one was familiar to Hiro. He had heard it many times—in his own garage over the course of a month, in dark warehouses and docks and abandoned testing facilities as he and Baymax ran for their lives, and again in the SFIT labs as he fought to make them his again. In the quiet sublevel chamber, the rattle and click of microbots filled the air.

They were fast. Microbots never moved that fast when he was controlling them, or even when Callaghan had been weaponizing them against him. They rattled across the ground like thousands of metallic cockroaches, reaching the small Hydra squad before any of them had time to fire.

Muted, shortened yells rang out as the enemy agents were yanked off their feet and relieved of their weapons. Before Hiro or anyone else had the chance to react, the tiny devices—few in number, compared to the waves that Callaghan had once commanded—dragged the struggling men across the floor, back toward the light that still streamed in from the opening to the elevator shaft.

Abigail walked among them.

The transmitter headset sat firmly on her brow. She made no gestures with her hands, no sounds, nothing to give away what her commands might be. Her steps were measured, calm, and purposeful. Around her, Hydra agents shouted and cursed and clawed at the ground, fighting against the flow of microbots, but to no avail. Slowly, the voices faded into the distance, and went from ragged shouts to pitched, continuous screams.

They faded, and the room was quiet once more.

The rattle and click returned with Abigail’s calm, deliberate steps. She returned to them quietly, hands still smeared with her father’s blood.

“We should go,” she said. “I can—help. Clear the way.”

“Y-yeah.” Gogo looked shaken. “Uh.” She seemed to shake herself. “Can you guys help Fred?”

Tadashi was already sliding an arm behind Fred’s back, steadying him. “I’ve got him.”

“Wait.” Hiro remembered with a jolt that he and Fred had not been the only ones to come into the room. “Wait-wait-wait, I need to—” He scrambled out of his aunt’s arms, out of reach of Tadashi even though every instinct cried out against it. He raced back through the room, injured arm cradled gingerly, until he reached Baymax’s still form.

There wasn’t time to bring his body, but that was okay. They could come back for it later, or build a new one. All he needed was—

Hiro punched the access port open and pulled out his chip. Gripping it in a white-knuckled fist, he ran back to his family. Fred leaned heavily on Tadashi, silent in his shock, and Hiro went around to his other side, boxing him between himself and his brother.

Aunt Cass choked on a sob. “Abigail—”

“I know,” Abigail interrupted. “I know. I know. I know. I know.” Her face was smooth as glass but streaked with tears. “I know.”

She joined Gogo to lead the way back up and out, and the microbots followed her like a rattling shadow.

She looked back at her father’s body once, and then no more.

Chapter Text

Hiro knew he was being a nuisance, and he didn’t care.

“Are you done yet?” he asked the doctor setting his broken arm for at least the fiftieth time.

“Just about.” The woman had the patience of a saint. Hiro couldn’t stop fidgeting as she applied the cast to his arm. He was lucky, she’d told him—the way he’d been manhandled, he could have broken his arm badly enough to need minor surgery to set it right, but all this would take was a plaster cast.

She wasn’t wrong. He was lucky. He was the luckiest kid on the east coast right now. Just not for the reason she said.

“Is there any way to speed this up?” he asked. “I have to see my brother.”

“I promise you, your brother will still be there in five minutes or in twenty,” she informed him calmly. Hiro squirmed again, biting back a noise of frustration. She didn’t get it. Of course he’d still be there. SHIELD hadn’t taken any chances; they had all been shuffled off to a secure SHIELD base and were having their injuries tended to in a medical facility with the most state-of-the-art equipment. But no matter how many times he told himself that the danger had passed and they were safe, he couldn’t quite believe it.

He couldn’t quite convince himself that Tadashi wouldn’t disappear again if he waited too long.

And so, when the cast was set and finished, Hiro didn’t wait around for the doctor to say anything else. He was off like a shot, deaf to protests around him as he raced through the hallways to where he knew his brother was.


“So wh-what’s the verdict?” Tadashi Hamada asked.

Steve gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze, and tried not to wince when he felt how thin and bony he was.

The physician assigned to him stepped forward, checking over his chart. “Physically, you’re suffering from dehydration, vitamin D deficiency, and general malnourishment,” she said. “We’ll be giving you dietary recommendations to fully recover. And… there are a few other anomalies we’ve found that we’re still looking into.”

“What kind of anomalies?” Cass Hamada asked. She had stayed glued to Tadashi’s side for as long as they had been here. It was at Hiro’s insistence; upon arriving, they had been forced to split up, and Hiro had nearly ordered his aunt to stay by his brother’s side. The younger Hamada had been bundled off to have the lacerations on his face treated, before going to radiology to have his arm looked at. Once the emergency physicians had seen to the mess that was left in place of his eye, Tadashi had been given a general checkup, as well as blood work and a variety of other tests to make sure Hydra hadn’t tampered with him in any way. After everything they’d been through with Bucky, neither Steve nor the rest of SHIELD were willing to take chances.

“We don’t know yet,” the physician replied. “We’re still running tests. It’s nothing serious enough to raise any red flags, but we do want to be thorough.” She glanced up at Tadashi’s face. “The scarring on your face and torso is mostly superficial, but you have suffered some minor nerve damage in certain areas…”

“I’ve n-noticed,” Tadashi said softly.

“And as for your eye… well.” She gave him a sympathetic look. “There’s no sign of infection, and the injury should heal. Beyond that, you can look into options for prosthetics.”

Cass took a deep, slow breath that shook on the way in. Tadashi leaned over to press against her side. “It’s w-worth it,” he said softly.” He raised his head to look at Steve. “What about everyone else?” he asked. “Hiro? Is Fred okay?” He swallowed hard. “Wasa—um. D-David and Pamela were down b-below, weren’t they?”

“We got them out fine,” Steve assured him. “Minor injuries. Apparently their body armor took most of the damage. Hiro’s probably champing at the bit to get his cast on and catch up with us. And Fred’s still in surgery, but he’s not in any danger.” He gave the young man what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Your friends and your family are fine.”

Tadashi sagged with relief. His remaining eye shone wetly.

At that moment, there was shouting in the halls. A familiar voice yelled something rude back, before a set of running footsteps neared the doorway to the exam room.

Hiro skidded into view, grabbing the door frame to stop himself. He stood there, winded, dark hair falling into his face, and stared at his older brother as if the two of them were the only people in the entire world.

There was a sharp intake of breath as Tadashi pushed past Steve. Hiro shoved into the room with what sounded very much like a strangled sob, and took two running steps before throwing himself into his brother’s arms.

“You’re alive.” Hiro’s voice was muffled against Tadashi’s shoulder. “You’re alive, you’re alive—”

“Hiro, I’m sorry,” Tadashi choked out. “I’m s-suh-sorry I ran in. I should’ve st-stayed with you, I n-never should’ve left you, I never should’ve—”

“Doesn’t matter.” Hiro sniffled. “I don’t care. You’re here, and—Tadashi, you’re alive.”

There was a high-pitched squeal of delight that may or may not have ended in a sob, as Pamela “Honey Lemon” Rosales appeared in the doorway with David “Wasabi” Tucker at her heels. The hug between brothers became a bit more tangled as Honey and Wasabi joined in.

Beside Steve, Cass let out a watery chuckle as she took in the happy reunion before her. Steve allowed himself a little smile of his own.

“This is what you do, isn’t it,” she said softly, as Tadashi laughed and cried and let Wasabi wrap him in a bear hug. “This is what being a superhero means.”

“It doesn’t always end like this,” Steve admitted. “It’s… it’s a lonely job. Sometimes it’s a thankless one. And not every fight ends with a happy reunion.”

“I’m not sure this one did,” Cass replied. “Not… not for everyone.” She turned to meet his eyes, and for a moment she looked as if she had aged another fifteen years. “Captain… what about Abigail?”

“Natasha’s staying with her,” Steve told her. “She came out of it mostly unharmed.”

“You know what I did,” Cass whispered. “Is that… do you know if…” She hesitated, mouth tightening. “Do you think she’ll ever forgive me?”

Steve felt his breath catch in his chest, and he paused before replying. “I think that’s something you have to take up with her,” he said. “For what it’s worth… I think you had an impossible choice, and you picked the one where the least people got hurt. And it isn’t your fault that none of the options let no one get hurt.” Hesitantly, he reached out and rested his hand on her shoulder. “It’s something you learn to live with. But you don’t have to do it by yourself. There are people you can talk to.”

Cass took a deep breath, steadying herself. After a moment, she nodded.

“And Ms. Hamada?” Steve went on. “This?” He gestured in front of him, to where Wasabi was lifting Hiro clear off the ground while Honey Lemon pressed a squeaky kiss to Tadashi’s forehead. “It may not always happen, but it isn’t as rare as you’d think. Moments like these are why we do what we do.” He crossed his arms. “Whether it’s worth it, that’s up to you to decide.”

Cass nodded to him. She reached up to wipe at her eyes, then stepped forward to join the reunion in front of her.


The world came back to Fred in bits and pieces.

First came touch: the starched sheets, the carefully-maintained temperature of the air, the dull ache in his shoulder, and the heaviness of his eyelids. Then came sound: the whir of fluorescent lights, the softness of steady breathing, and the murmur of distant voices and footsteps.

This was familiar to him. He’d been through this once before, waking up after the disaster that was this year’s Stark Expo. His father had been there, Pepper had been there, and Fred had been hustled to a safe house to shelter him from more attacks by madmen with guns.

But maybe that had been a dream. Maybe everything between then and now had been a dream, and when he woke up he would find his father sitting by his bedside and learn that Stark Expo had only just happened, and the past weeks had been a vivid hallucination.

If that was the case, then it had been a cruel one, to end where it did.

And Fred thought, of course it was a dream. The bit at the end was what gave it away, because there was no way that had been real.

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.

His father was nowhere in sight. At his bedside, dozing in a plastic chair that looked thoroughly uncomfortable, was Hiro.

For a moment, Fred stared at him uncomprehending. He shifted, grunting with the effort. Hiro’s eyes flew open, and his face went from slack to grinning in a split second. “Fred!”

“I’m in a hospital gown again,” Fred said groggily. “Where are we?”

“Some SHIELD facility. Recovery room.” Hiro was still grinning.

His heart began to pick up the pace. What if—what if—? “What day is it?”

“You’ve only been asleep for a few hours,” Hiro told him. “Fred—”

“A few hours since when?”

“Fred.” Hiro leaned forward. If the past few weeks really hadn’t been a dream, then Fred hadn’t seen Hiro smile like this in far too long. “It was real. It wasn’t a dream. Fred, he’s back.” Hiro’s voice cracked. “He’s alive.”

Fred stared at him for a miniature eternity. “Please tell me there’s a clothes for me somewhere.”

“Relax, Fred, they’re running some tests but I told him I’d go get him when—”

“Nope.” Fred was already sitting up, wincing at the stiffness in his shoulder. Had he been shot? Yes, he’d been shot. He was probably on painkillers. “I’m going. Clothes now, or I run bare-assed through the hallway in a hospital gown.”

“Okay, okay, geez, here.”

Fred got dressed in record time, especially with his left shoulder essentially useless. His shoes were probably around somewhere, but he was too impatient to stop to look for them. With Hiro’s guidance, he managed an unsteady power-walk out of the recovery room and down the hall. If any of the passersby thought there was something strange about an injured twenty-something staggering through the facility in his socks, none of them said anything. There were probably other things that he ought to have worried about, questions that needed answers, but there was only one thing on his mind.

“He’s up ahead.” Hiro was excited. He was practically walking on air. And Fred—

Fred didn’t have the words for how he was feeling. Maybe they would come to him when—

They reached the doorway, and Fred stepped in.

All his friends were there. So was Ms. Hamada, and Steve, and Sam Wilson. A woman in a white coat stood by the examination table, storing away a blood sample. And there, sitting on the table, solid and real and alive and breathing, was…

He looked different. Thinner. Hunched. Mottled with burn scars, and one eye plastered with gauze. His hair had grown out enough to fall into his eyes.

But it was him. There was a miracle sitting on that table, looking up and meeting Fred’s eyes and sitting up straight like he’d felt an electric shock.

For a few seconds, they stared at each other. Fred searched his brain frantically for something to say. Something witty and eloquent, something that could take a slice of the madness that was going on in his head and release it out into the real world. He was the words guy, wasn’t he?

Tadashi beat him to it. “Y-you’re awake,” he said. His voice was soft. “Hiro said he’d c-come get me.”

“I kinda didn’t give him a chance,” Fred answered, before he could think of anything better to say.

Tadashi blinked, and his face nearly crumpled and something shiny and wet nearly fell from his eye. But instead, he swore, pushed himself off of the examination table, and crossed the room.

Fred met him halfway. He flung his good arm around Tadashi’s neck, wrapped the other around the small of his back, and buried his face in Tadashi’s neck before he could embarrass them both by bursting into tears.

He ended up bursting into tears anyway, but he was past caring and Tadashi had always been cool about stuff like getting snot on his shoulder. Nothing mattered because Tadashi was hugging him, and that wasn’t supposed to be possible anymore.

When he finally found his voice again, it was shaky and cracked all to hell as he sobbed into Tadashi’s shoulder.

“Hi, Tadpole.”

He was close enough to feel it when Tadashi laughed. “H-heya, Freddy.”

“Tadpole?” he heard Hiro echo. “Wait, so Tadashi had a nickname after all?”

“Nobody told me about this,” Wasabi added.

Tadashi was still laughing as he pulled back, which meant Fred had a view of that smile from inches away, and that was goddamn magical. “You n-never told them?”

“Never came up,” Fred admitted, still sniffling. He realized, then, how close they were. Their foreheads were nearly touching. “Um. That’s, uh. Not the only thing I never told them.”

Tadashi blinked (was it blinking or winking when you only had one eye?) and looked him in the eye, surprised. Surprise turned to confusion, and then understanding, and then sympathy, as Fred’s meaning reached him and he realized—

“Fred,” Tadashi sighed. “For fuck’s sake.”

“Dude, did you just cuss in front of your broth—” And then, because he had always been cool about stuff like this, Tadashi kissed him before he could embarrass himself any further.

Wasabi’s “What?” was almost operatic.

“Wait.” Hiro was staring at both of them, and then just at Fred. “You said—just a few days ago, you said—but you didn’t tell me--”

“I was gonna,” Fred admitted. “I was gonna come clean after all this was over and we had our lives back, but… well.” He shot a glance at Tadashi. And then, remembering where they were and who else was in the room, he looked to Ms. Hamada as well. She had her hand over her mouth, but more in a surprised way than an upset way.

“Fred,” Honey Lemon spoke up. Her eyes were so wide they were nearly circular. “You mean to tell me that this whole time… Dios mio, Fred, that must’ve been so lonely! Why didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“I dunno.” Fred shrugged. “It just never felt like the right time? I-I mean, we were gonna tell you guys after the showcase, and then… haha.” Words were getting harder. Fred attempted an escape by hugging Tadashi and pressing his face to his chest.

“I knew about it,” Gogo admitted, sounding sheepish. “But Fred asked me not to say anything, so… yeah.”

In the end, Ms. Hamada said nothing, but stepped forward to wrap them both in a brief, tight hug.

“Mr. Hamada?” The physician spoke up suddenly. Fred remembered abruptly that he’d interrupted what looked like a checkup, and stepped away sheepishly. The woman had a device in her hands that looked a bit like a tablet, but was probably several orders of magnitude more technologically advanced than a tablet. “The final test results are in.”

Tadashi turned around again. “Oh. I-Is there anything… b-bad?”

The woman shot a quick look toward Captain Rogers. “Not as such, but… well.” She tapped the screen in her hands. “It came out mostly normal, but… you tested positive for vita radiation.”

Fred wasn’t sure if it was possible to trip while standing still, but Steve managed something very close. “Vita—are you sure?”

“Wait, what’s vita radiation?” Ms. Hamada broke in. “Is that—it’s not harmful, is it?”

“Quite the opposite, really,” the physician replied. “This isn’t widely known, and you’ll probably have to sign a few papers so we can make sure it stays that way, but vita-rays are basically what make him—” She nodded to Steve “well… him.”

Silence fell in the examination room, as everyone turned to stare at Tadashi.

“Um,” said Tadashi. “What?”

“Of course, your levels aren’t nearly as high as his,” she went on. “So I wouldn’t advise jumping out of any buildings anytime soon. But they’re still present, and the effects may become clear as time goes on.”

Steve turned to Tadashi, frowning. “Do you remember them… doing anything?” he asked. “Anything out of the ordinary? Sedating you for any reason?”

“Uh. Y-yeah.” Tadashi’s throat bobbed. “Th-they’d, um. P-p-put me under s-sometimes. I th-thought they were j-just messing with… w-with the…” He gestured toward his face.

“This could also explain the malnutrition and undernourishment,” the physician went on. “We’ve done check-ups on all the other prisoners rescued from that facility, and while no one’s in picture-perfect health, they aren’t in as bad shape as you are, Mr. Hamada.” She set the screen aside. “When they absorb into the body properly, vita-rays cause an increase in energy consumption and energy efficiency. So, if you were getting fed the same as the rest of them, it wouldn’t have been enough to keep up with your increased metabolism.”

“But why?” Steve broke in. “Why would they be experimenting with vita-rays on him?”

The woman gave him a grim look. “Captain Rogers, can you think of anyone who’s gone through similar experiments at Hydra’s hands? Anyone, for example, who may have left their ranks recently?”

“Well, there’s…” Steve’s voice trailed off, and he blanched. “Bucky.”

“I don’t have solid evidence, so for now it’s just hypothesis,” the physician said. “Taking into account the fact that they went through a lot of trouble to get their hands on Hiro Hamada—and you, Ms. Hamada,” she added with a polite nod to the woman. “It’s possible that they planned to turn Tadashi into another asset similar to the Winter Soldier. And, considering how you were able to disrupt Barnes’ programming, it’s also possible that they decided on a different tactic for controlling him.”

“Me,” Hiro said softly. There was a haunted look in his eyes.

“Bit of a double whammy,” she said with a nod. “One brother as a physical asset, the other as a golden goose for new tech, and both of them can be used as leverage against each other.” She fell silent, and the pall that had fallen over the room was almost physically palpable. “Well. It’s just one possibility, anyway. Unless we get our hands on some of their files, we can’t know for sure.”

“But what does that mean for us?” Ms. Hamada spoke up. She looked to Steve, then to Sam. “Will it be safe for us to go home?”

“Yes,” Steve said firmly. “The Tower may be in New York, but we work globally.”

“Besides,” Sam added, “SHIELD has a presence in California, too. There are people we can put you in contact with.” He hesitated. “I can’t promise it’ll be a normal life, for you. But you won’t be alone, and you won’t be unprotected.” He raised an eyebrow at Hiro, then Fred, then Gogo, Honey, and Wasabi. “Though, I’m pretty sure most of you left ‘normal’ behind a while ago.”

“A-about that,” Tadashi said.

“It wasn’t their fault!” Hiro blurted. “They tried to stop me and I talked them around!” He hesitated, then continued in a small voice. “We kind of thought you were dead, and then I found out there was someone behind the fire, and then it sort of… snowballed.”

“No, I kn-know.” Tadashi sighed. “I got the whole st-story out of Gogo.”

“Are you mad?” Hiro asked.

Suddenly nervous, Fred shot another look at Tadashi’s face. It was hard to tell what he was thinking, with one of his eyes hidden (not just hiddengone, some part of him realized). The only thing Fred could translate off his face was that he was tired, more tired than Fred had ever seen him before.

But Tadashi reached out for his brother’s shoulder, and with his other hand he found one of Fred’s. “I don’t know how to feel about it,” he said. “Because I don’t know if I’d be standing here if you hadn’t. I know Abigail wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. But I still…”

“We can protect ourselves this way,” Hiro said obstinately. “Besides, if what she said is true, then maybe I’d still be in danger anyway. But… we made things happen, this way.” He looked to Steve and Sam. “Didn’t we?”

Steve took a deep breath, and let it out again. “Yeah,” he said, with a thoughtful look. “I’d say you did.”


The circlet was still on her head.

It wasn’t merely a matter of enjoying the control, or enjoying the power, nor was it the fact that having the microbots close at hand made her feel safer for no discernible reason. (Though all of those things were true—for the first time since the danger had begun, Abigail Callaghan felt well and truly armed.)

But more than anything, it was a matter of practicality. With the circlet on her head, she could keep control. She could keep track of every little individual ‘bot, to make sure none of them got lost and fell into the wrong hands again. The headset was on her brow, and microbots filled every pocket or interlocked beneath her jacket, pressed up against her like a second skin. She clicked when she walked.

Her father was dead.

He was dead, he was dead, he was dead. She had watched him fall, she had knelt by his side as his last breath left him, and she had been walked into the morgue to identify his body after SHIELD had retrieved him. Her father, who had held the seat while she learned to ride a bike, who had given her a reason to learn to fly, who had done great and terrible things in her name, was gone and never coming back. She could never hug him again or talk to him again, and he could never hurt anyone, ever again.

She should feel something. Part of her wanted desperately to feel something. Even loss and grief. Even sadness and anger. Even pain, tearing her open from the inside out. She wanted to feel, because she wanted to make sure that she was still human and still alive.

She didn’t want to be numb. Numbness was as bad as being in the portal again, floating and asleep in a world of nothing. Numbness was something she only felt in her nightmares anymore.

And she wasn’t numb—thank God, if nothing else, at least she wasn’t numb. She was still aware of things like sadness and anger and loss and pain. But they felt too soft, too far away to do more than brush her. It was as if someone had turned the volume down on her emotions, when all she wanted was to crank them up to full blast until they filled her to the brim.

She wasn’t empty. If she were empty, then she might not care, and at least (thank God, thank God) she still cared.

None of the others had joined her yet. They were still in the midst of their own reunions, and no one had come looking for her. Mr. Stark had stopped by, and Sam Wilson. Just to check on her. But Hiro had not come to her, even to ask for his microbots back. And Ms. Hamada—

Ms. Hamada.

The last time she had looked Ms. Hamada in the eye, there had still been a gunshot ringing in her ears, seconds before she heard the muted thud of her father’s body hitting the floor.

That was the main reason why she was pacing. She had found herself a quiet little vacant room in the SHIELD facility where she didn’t have to look at anyone, but the price was a thick silence that her head was happy to fill with the memory of those sounds. So she paced, this way and that, and listened to the click of the microbots instead of the bang and thud in her mind.

So focused was she on the rattle and click that she missed a different click—the door opening—and then the tap of footsteps, and then the voice calling her name. When the hand landed lightly on her shoulder, it took her by surprise.

Abigail spooked like a deer, and while words still failed her, thoughts did not.

“Mmf?”

She blinked. That was all it had taken, a blink, and suddenly she was facing the opposite direction, hand outstretched, and staring stupidly at Tadashi Hamada’s face. The lower half of it was covered in microbots.

“Sorry.” Hiro stood with him, so close to his brother’s side that they almost never stopped touching. “S-sorry, Abigail, we didn’t mean to—”

“No,” Abigail blurted, mortified. “It’s not—you don’t have to—” The microbots fell to the floor, then linked with one another and slithered back up her leg and into her sleeve. She felt the rest of them shift to make room. “I’m sorry, they just—”

“I get it,” Tadashi told her, now that his mouth was free. “R-really. I do.”

“It’s instant,” Abigail said, because she didn’t want to give any awkward silences the chance to form between them. She reached up to tap the ring on her head. “It, um. Trans… trans…” She frowned when the word didn’t come. “Words are hard,” she went on. “Because of my aphasia. I can think, but I can’t say. But with this, it goes from thought, to… to action. No trans…” Damn, what is that word?

“Translation?” Tadashi said.

She smiled. “Yes. It’s instant. It’s easy.”

“I thought it might,” Hiro said thoughtfully. “It was something I was thinking about, before all this happened. I’m thinking the neuro-cranial transmitter might have more applications than just controlling robots.”

Abigail touched the ring on her head. “Want it back?”

“It’s fine if you want to hold on to it,” Hiro replied. “I trust you.”

Abigail wasn’t sure why that did it. He was talking about the microbots. It didn’t have anything to do with anything. But for some reason, not two seconds after those words left his mouth, Abigail felt the dam break. Why there was a dam in the first place, she had no idea. She certainly hadn’t meant to build one—after God-knew-how-long in that damn portal, and months more of isolation in a prison of muteness, Abigail Callaghan was not interested in blocking things in or burying them deep. She was not interested in not feeling the things she was meant to feel.

And so it was a relief—like a breath of air for a drowning man, like a drop of water in the desert, like a cool, fresh breeze in the middle of a heat wave or a fire and a blanket in the midst of a blizzard—when the words I trust you brought the wrenching, tearing pain back into her chest, filling her throat until she choked on it. The tears came, or they had already been there and she just hadn’t noticed them spilling out on their own.

Dad’s dead. No family left.

Abigail broke down crying in the middle of the room, and then into her hands, and then into Tadashi Hamada’s shoulder.

It felt right, or as right as anything could feel when you found yourself newly orphaned. It felt clean.


SHIELD worked with a brisk, well-enforced efficiency. For all that lives had ended, changed, or restarted in response to the events, said events were nonetheless just one more incident reduced to words and statistics and data on paper, then filed away with the rest.

Whether it was evidence of this efficiency, or evidence of their allies’ successful attempt to finagle on their behalf was anyone’s guess, but either way the SF crowd were put through minimal debriefing before being released.

There was no more need for them to be shuffled from safehouse to safehouse. This plot from Hydra, at least, had been put down, the men and women spearheading it captured or dead. Furthermore, with two bases lost, countless unwilling assets liberated and wiped from their systems, and the full nature of their plans now exposed, Hydra would have no reason to continue this particular venture. They would, according to some very reliable sources, be far too preoccupied with cleaning up and licking their wounds.

And so, Stark Tower played host once more to visitors from the west coast—just more than there had been before.

The atmosphere was a quiet one. Comfortable, even cheerful, but certainly subdued. Baymax was up and about; his body had been salvaged from the wrecked Hydra base and delivered promptly to Stark Tower, where Hiro had tripped over himself getting the chip back in.

It had been three and a half hours since then, and Baymax showed no sign of letting Tadashi out of his arms anytime soon. Tadashi, for his part, seemed more or less content with the arrangement—he’d fallen asleep twice, and no one who noticed blamed him.

“So what happens now?”

The question was on everyone’s minds, but it was Hiro who voiced it out loud. He was slumped over on the couch, leaning up against Baymax while Tadashi dozed again a few feet away.

“Now,” said Gogo, “we go the hell home tomorrow, and then catch up with all the school days we’ve missed.”

Wasabi groaned aloud. “Midterms. We have midterms in two weeks.”

“I e-mailed my history professor on the car ride over,” Fred spoke up, sprawled against Baymax’s other side. “She was pretty cool about stuff, and I got an extension on my paper that’s due…” He let his head loll back against Tadashi’s shoulder. “Oh hey, it’s due the day after tomorrow. Well, it was. Now it’s due next week.”

“What’s it on?” Honey Lemon asked.

“Race relations during the Great Depression,” Fred answered. He turned his head to where Steve was sitting nearby with Sam on one side and Bucky on the other. “Is it cool if I ask you some stuff and cite you as a source?”

“Sure,” Steve said with a grin.

Abigail still had the transmitter headset on. She was sitting in an armchair, with enough microbots to fill a modestly-sized bin at her feet, shifting into a variety of three-dimensional shapes. She had started the night with geometrical polyhedrons, admiring the way the little bots switched and flipped as she made cubes and pyramids and stellated octahedrons. From there she had moved on to a sort of 3-D shadow puppetry, with trees and flowers and animals.

For the first time since waking up in the hospital after her rescue, she felt a little less trapped in her own head. Now, at least, in this small way, she could see her thoughts take form outside of her, without having to hunt for words to make it happen.

It put her in a good mood, and that was why, when she saw Cass moving off at the edge of the room, she got up to follow.

Cass was either distracted or didn’t care, because with a miniature posse of microbots following her, it must have been impossible not to hear Abigail coming. But as Abigail approached, it took Cass a while before she looked up, startled.

“Oh,” she said softly, and shot a glance into the other room to see if anyone else was liable to overhear. “Abigail, I didn’t see you there—”

There was one advantage to having trouble with words, Abigail supposed. It made it more inconvenient to beat around the bush. Huge time-saver.

So Abigail did not beat around the bush. Instead, she kept walking forward until she was close enough to pull Cass Hamada into a hug.

She felt the woman freeze up, but didn’t let go. “A-Abigail—?”

“I’m not mad,” she said. “I’m not, I’m not. I don’t—blame you. I u-un-under—” Her throat felt too small to squeeze the word through. “I understand. He didn’t—he wouldn’t listen.”

“I’m sorry,” Cass whispered. “I’m so sorry, Abigail, I wish I didn’t—”

“He wouldn’t listen,” Abigail repeated, eyes stinging as they leaked. “I thought—he’d listen. If he saw me. But he didn’t. He was going to—Tadashi, and—I don’t blame you.”

“But—”

“You were—there for me,” Abigail said. “The whole time. You helped me. You—talked. Listened. You always listened. And Dad—he didn’t listen. He didn’t care. What I want. But you—were there—for me. So, please.” She tightened her arms around Cass. “Don’t go.”

She heard a sniffle. And then—

“Do you have anywhere to go?”

“I have—an a-ap—a… rooms, a flat,” she answered. “But…” It’s not much of a home.

“You’re welcome in our home,” Cass whispered. “You’re always welcome, if you want it.”

With that, Abigail slipped out of one family and into another.


It took a while for the evening to wind down, but not as long as one might have expected.

Tadashi woke from his doze to find Fred curled up against his side, head resting in the crook of his neck. Hiro had climbed over Baymax and was almost in Tadashi’s lap. Both of them were fast asleep. Baymax was quiet as well; at some point, he had turned on his heating system to gently warm them. Beyond them, Wasabi was chatting quietly with Sam Wilson, while Honey Lemon had dozed off practically on top of Gogo, who was nonetheless valiantly keeping up a conversation with Steve Rogers.

Feeling his leg start to fall asleep, Tadashi shifted a little. Neither of the two who were sleeping on him stirred.

“Holdin’ up okay?”

Tadashi raised his head to find Tony Stark standing close by, leaning against the side of the couch as he poured himself something out of a glass decanter. And—that was one more thing ruined, thanks to Hydra. Seven months ago, he would have tripped over his own two feet, and maybe over his tongue as well, at the prospect of meeting Tony Stark face to face. But the way things were… there just wasn’t any room. After everything he’d been through, the only thing he could have gotten excited about was freedom, and now that he had it, the sheer relief of it took up all the space his body had for emotions.

“I g-guess I’ve been worse,” he said softly. Fred and Hiro slept on, unaware.

“Doesn’t mean it feels any less awful now,” Stark replied.

Tadashi hummed softly. There were other things inside him, other feelings straining to get free, and the relief could only squash them out for so long. “I guess… i-it’s a lot to p-pr-rocess. My brother’s a superhe-hero, my friends are superheroes, I’m… l-like a proto-superhero or something?”

“Yeah, it’s a dumpster fire.” Stark nodded understandingly and took a sip. “You drink?”

“Not really.” He was twenty-one, he realized with a jolt. At some point in the seven months he had been with Hydra, his twenty-first birthday had come and gone.

“That’s cool.” Stark put the decanter down with a light sigh.

“Honestly, I th-thought I’d be more upset about the f-fact that I’m p-permanently d-di-disfigured and missing an eye, but…”

“That situation might be temporary, just FYI,” Stark said.

Tadashi glanced at him. “Huh?”

“Your bro’s been poking me with ideas. He’s got his heart set on fixing your little problem.” Stark gestured toward his own eye.

Tadashi managed a smile. “I’m not s-surprised. At all.”

“He wants to make you look badass.”

“Still not surprised.” The smile faded. “That’s just… one of my p-problems, though. One of my m-many, many problems.”

“Yeah. But you gotta start somewhere, right?”

“And it’s not just—” Tadashi felt his breath catch. “I mean, I… it’s l-like I’ve been trapped in a b-bubble, this whole time, and the world w-went on without me. I r-r-ran into that fire, and now—everything’s d-different. I r-ran in to get my professor out.” His eye watered. “And I f-found out he was the one that started it, and—and he attacked my b-brother, and my friends, and…” He slid an arm around Fred, and rested his other hand on Hiro’s shoulder, squeezing both lightly. “And he almost sh-shot me, and n-now he’s dead. What—what do I even do with that?” Tears spilled over. “He was like a—I looked up to him. I w-wanted to be him. And he just…” He shook his head.

Stark was quiet for a moment. There was a quiet clink as he set his glass down, before he stepped closer and lowered himself carefully onto the couch by Tadashi. The silence between them stretched for a moment more, and then—

“Hey, kid?” Stark said. “Believe it or not, I do know where you’re coming from, in that respect.”

Tadashi tilted his head. “You do?”

Stark gave him a grin. It wasn’t a happy grin. It was wry, and a little bitter, but it was still a smile, as if Stark didn’t know what other face to make, so he might as well smile. Tadashi could relate.

“Let me tell you about this guy called Obadiah Stane…”


The evening wore on, the end of some things and the beginning of many others. Healing was not the sort of thing that was accomplished in a day, but at the very least it could have a solid start.

It came in many forms. It came in the form of a hug between Abigail Callaghan and her father’s killer, or a whispered conversation between two men betrayed by their teachers. It appeared as a white robot, built and rebuilt with love, steadfast and loyal for reasons that went beyond programming.

It appeared as the rattle and click of microbots and a thought in Abigail’s head when she looked at Hiro’s sleeping face and decided, when he woke, to ask him if there wasn’t room for one more on his team of heroes.

It crept up on Tadashi Hamada in the form of his first night of dreamless sleep in seven months, surrounded by friends and family, warmth and softness and love.

It wasn’t much, when you stacked it against the pain that had led to it, or if you happened to look up and see the thousand-mile journey that stretched before it.

But it was as good a first step as any.