Another Place, Another Time
I agreed to meet him.
For drinks, coffee what have you, after my meetings had concluded for the day.
I wanted to say I had no clue how he had managed this... but I knew exactly how he had managed this. The Quantum Tunnel. That could be the only answer to the question of how he had gone from human antique to young and vital again. During our short conversation on the street, he'd dropped enough hints for me to guess he wasn't some younger time-traveling version of himself, attempting to correct the error of not raising his... our daughter, which oddly enough could also have been possible.
No, this was Steve. My Steve. Or not my Steve these days, I supposed. Peggy's Steve who had taken the long way 'round to get back to here, after the defeat of Thanos.
And then like the eternal dumbass he could be, he played with powers he had no true understanding of, or the potential hazards. No one did and that included me. You know the one who had taken Dr. Banner's efforts at creating a time machine and refined them into a theoretical -- or maybe not so theoretical now -- immortality machine.
Yes, Fury had asked me to work on the math, for research purposes only he said.
I should have known better.
What the hell was I going to say to Steve?
"Would you care to weigh in on this conversation, Commander?"
The sardonic tone Fury used clued me in to the fact that he'd noticed I'd been off in my own little world for the majority of the current discussion. Not that it mattered, I'd still heard every word even if I hadn't been focused upon it. A quick review that took mere seconds and I responded, "The programming is solid so if there are power fluctuations it's most likely from a bad coupling." I pulled up the schematics on my tablet and sent them to the main screen projected over the table. "You'll need to test all the connections from here," I tapped an area on the tablet, "to here."
Hill snorted, tried to cover it up with a cough, gave it up as a bad job quickly, and simply turned away from the glare Fury shot at her. Her lips twitching as she desperately attempted to not let the grin actually show.
He sighed softly. "Thank you for reminding me exactly how smart you are."
I did not point out that it had never been about smart or not just smart, in my case, it was all about memory and processing power. Even Tony had been impressed by how fast I could learn. "I told you they were rushing the install."
"Yes, you did, but we need to get this base online sooner rather than later."
"All the more reason to do it right the first time. It is going to take them days to go through all the wiring to find the bad section," I pointed out earning a scowl from my ostensible boss for my trouble.
"She's right," Hill said, coming to my defense.
His head snapped about to aim the irritation at her instead. "I know she's right," he grouched. "We need more manpower."
I shook my head. "You need the right manpower."
Fury thought for a moment then tipped his head in acknowledgment.
"What do you suggest?" Hill asked, saving her boss the trouble.
"I have some people who helped with the power conversions during the Snap years, let me reach out and see if they're willing to subcontract."
"How many will pass a security clearance?" Hill tapped her tablet, most likely scrolling through the names of those currently on the payroll.
I answered with a half-truth, "Some, not all, but if you compartmentalize the work, it shouldn't be an issue."
"You trust them?" Fury asked.
"Enough to let them work on buildings the Expendables lived in."
Fury and Hill exchanged a meaningful look.
"Get me a list, we'll go from there." Hill swiped across her tablet. "Next on the agenda is quinjet production. I understand you have some new designs?"
I nodded and pulled them up on my tablet.
I met him at a bar, using that term extremely loosely. Done in the current trend of industrial style with all concrete and metal and repurposed wood complete with the mandatory faux Edison lights. The drinks high end and specialty. There were no tables or booths, just groupings of couches, loveseats, and chairs, designed for comfort and intimate, if potentially drunken, conversation. Bookcases had been filled with various board games from Trivial Pursuit to Cards Against Humanity. One table I had passed by had a modified DnD adventure in full swing, superheroes replacing the more traditional roles. A trend that had begun way back when the Avengers had first made their appearance in New York.
He'd taken the time to choose the setting with care. An out of the way corner where the music coming through the speakers would not overpower any normal conversation and shifted the chairs about in an effort to make it clear to others passing by we'd prefer to not have any other company.
Of course, it would be hours before the regulars rolled in, the sun not quite down when I had walked through the doors. I'd already let my people know I would be delayed and spoken to Sara, who didn't seem to overly mind spending more time with her grandparents as they tended to spoil her rotten. And they got along with the Expendables who were always nearby. My parents had adapted shockingly well to the new world order, even if they had lost a building or two during the Blip. Okay, maybe not lost so much as had them repurposed. My dad had taken one look at my operational models, pointed out a few flaws complete with suggestions on how to improve them and I let him at it.
He needed something to do and I had no problems letting him take it over given my schedule had become more than a tad full.
Full enough that I really shouldn't have permitted Steve to distract me. And he most certainly had.
I set my bag and tablet on the side table, removed my jacket, and tossed it over the back of the deeply cushioned chair before settling into it. He handed me a drink that I hoped included vast amounts of high-test alcohol since I had the feeling I would be in dire need of it to get through this.
I sipped at it while watching him warily. He'd lost the hat and shed the jacket, but no one looked at him sideways. The beard adorning his features apparently enough to keep people from recognizing him, especially when the world hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since the battle against Thanos. Still, if he planned to be part of the current society he would be in need of a much better disguise.
"Back in the forties, after the war, this place was the L & L Automat. Peggy..." He ducked his head for a moment as if feeling guilty for mentioning her name, but then lifted it and met my eyes before soldiering on. "Peggy hung out here a lot when she worked for the SSR. One of the waitresses was her friend."
"And now it's the Urban Sprawl. Home to hipsters and wannabe startup gurus."
He snorted. "Not your scene I take it?"
I kind of wanted to slap the smug smirk off his face. Instead, I said, "Well, you have been gone for a while, not surprised you've forgotten."
The smile faded instantly, and while part of me twinged at the drive-by backstabbing, the rest of me knew he deserved it if only a little. "I haven't forgotten," he reminded softly, "but you might have picked up a few new preferences in the last few years. I'm trying to not be presumptuous."
Oof. He had a point. I downed an overgenerous mouthful of the alcohol and decided to rein in my irritation until I understood why he wanted me here. "What do you need, Steve?" The ever so slight narrowing of his eyes gave the lie to my efforts to remain calm and patient with him. "Aside from the obvious, that is."
He blinked. "The obvious?"
"That Fury clearly needs to up the security around the Quantum Tunnel," I explained with a vague wave at his current countenance.
"Why would you assume that?"
I tipped my head slightly. "Do you really want to have that discussion here and now, because I promise it will end with you in custody."
He frowned slightly then shook his head. "Let me just concede the point for the time being without admitting to anything."
I chuckled and downed the rest of my drink wondering if I would need to put up smoke signals to get a refill. I'd known when I had agreed to this it had no chance of going smoothly, but so far it had been downright awful. I admittedly still harbored some deep-seated unhappiness over how our lives had played out but had found a way to deal with the antique version of Steve Rogers mostly because there hadn't been an option.
As usual, he had thought outside the box and proceeded to manage the impossible yet again.
"I need your help, Myls."
I sighed heavily. "For what? You have more than enough money to buy whatever you want, including a mid-sized country, what could I possibly do for you?"
He settled back into the cushion, his eyes glancing about the bar as if wanting to be certain our discussion would not be overheard. "As I'm certain you've realized just growing out a beard will not work as a disguise for long."
I nodded. "But the baseball cap and glasses, they should be more than enough. I mean they worked when you were on the run, right?" I managed to keep my voice utterly devoid of inflection but could feel my lip twitching as amusement tried to make an appearance.
He sighed. "Without having to resort to major reconstructive surgery there's a limit to what I can do... Smartass."
I let the grin escape for a moment. He had a good point though, he had a distinctive look that could not be easily disguised and because of the serum, he probably wouldn't be able to change his body mass all that much. Of course, I had thought the same thing about Thor and yet he somehow managed to get himself an impressive beer belly while waiting for the opportunity to get revenge on Thanos. "Hair dye would help some, hide those classic blonde locks everyone knows. Still, it won't alter your facial structure..." I trailed off thinking hard, working the problem, and wondering how he had managed to keep everyone, except Peggy of course, in the dark all those years. Even makeup with contouring to change the angles of his features would only go so far especially when literally everyone knew who Captain America was and hailed him as a hero for his sacrifice in the war that had ended just a few years before his reappearance.
I mean, we had tech now that easily let you change your face with... "You little shit. You took a veil with you when you left." That explained so much, especially the conundrum that had been gnawing at me since his return. Peggy had said in several interviews that Steve had saved her husband at the Azzano factory, that he'd been one of the captured soldiers there, but she carefully never mentioned his name. "Who? Which MIA soldier did you take the place of?"
He twitched as if he hadn't expected me to figure it out so quickly."
"Someone who had no family to claim otherwise," he responded sourly. "I'm sure that hint is more than enough for you to figure it out on your own. You already know the nom de plume I used for my art."
I did and had purchased quite a few of the originals over the years. I still wanted to slap myself silly for not realizing why. Of course, at that younger age, I didn't have the context to understand. "I'm still not sure why you need me if you already have a veil."
He tipped his head slightly the look one I recognized.
"You broke it."
"No. Nothing like that, just... it got old and I didn't exactly have the means to maintain it, by the time I did I no longer needed it. My looks had altered enough via aging that no one recognized me."
"I did. From behind, no less."
"Yes, you did," he agreed tone solemn.
"So you want me to steal you a new veil?" I mean, I could, fairly easily at that, but Fury might not appreciate it or the fact that when I got caught that I'd refuse to tell him why. He might think me a traitor or something. Hydra, somehow, still existed, plus the Skrull not all of whom were as altruistic as the few I had met and that he considered friends.
"Or build one. I imagine you can with your resources." He made it sound as if he knew some great secret or something, but I had no interest in poking that potential hornet's nest right now.
"And? Given you could probably steal one yourself with minimal effort."
"Fair, but I am trying to stay under the radar here."
I remained stoically silent, willing to wait him out this time.
"Papers, Myla. A new identity that we can tie to my... resources in a seemingly legit manner. I'm sure I could find someone, but then I risk outing myself..."
I waved him to silence. "And what makes you think I can make you an identity, hmmm?"
He snorted. "I've followed your exploits, the Expendables that is. You've created personas that fool government databases for one day jobs. I think you can manage this."
Damn it. He'd clearly done his homework. "Okay, say I do this for you, then what? You ride off into the sunset, park your ass on a beach, and teach Zen meditation techniques?"
He blinked. Twice. "Well, I was planning on raising our daughter with you."
Oh. Duh. "Weren't you already doing that?" He visited, often. Came for special events, like her birthday. I actively sought out his advice on some aspects, simply because he would always be the best and most reliable source on his enhancements. The fact that she'd been the only one of his children to seriously benefit from the serum still baffled me, but given she shouldn't have happened anyway I managed the best I could. Thankfully, aside from intelligence, there was little chance she could develop my ability to see the various changes to the time streams. Something I had only mentioned in passing to Steve and he hadn't yet requested details on.
"Not how I want to. Myla I want... need to be her father. Not your older friend who visits now and again. You made it clear I could never be more than that."
I scrubbed my face in my hands to hide the sigh of frustration. Yes, I had said that, and I still believed that I was right to take that stance but now... "How is this better? It's been difficult enough trying to explain why you aren't here, now I have to figure out why you are and hope she doesn't tell everyone who you really are. Yes, she's smart, but she's also a young child. They don't often think before they speak."
"Myls..." He leaned forward and set a hand atop my knee. Somehow I managed to not flinch away. "I know this won't be easy, but I want to try."
I sat stock-still until he removed his hand then sat up straighter and waved at the bartender for more drinks. I stayed silent, my mind whirling with questions that I refused to say aloud. He'd abandoned us, unknowingly admittedly, gone back to his true love, lived what I could only assume had been a wonderful life with her as he'd told me little and I, truthfully, hadn't asked, and now... now this.
When the drinks came and mine was, thank god, a double I quickly downed half. It wouldn't do much, a slight buzz maybe since it had been hours since I'd eaten anything of value, but my tolerance had become exceedingly high thanks to the surprise serum related enhancements I'd been gifted with. "What will you do? Playboy philanthropist?"
He damn near choked on his swallow. He'd been the one to tell me that story and how he and Tony had not gotten along all that well at first. I'd been totally shocked by that revelation. "Uh, no. I hadn't thought about it in detail. Maybe open a gym for underprivileged youth or the like. Train with the Expendables on the side."
"You do realize we're contracting to the Avengers for the foreseeable future."
"Ah, but I won't be me, remember. Though I suppose a few will need to know. Those who watch Sara and such."
Christ. "And this is not thinking about it?"
He shrugged. "I won't go back. I won't be a soldier anymore, but if it'll save a few lives, including yours, I'll help all I can."
Hard to argue with that. "Where will you stay?"
"Well, I was thinking I'd move into the condo we bought. You still have ownership of it last I checked and use it as lodging for visiting Expendable members and such."
"How could you... Fucking Wilson. That man has no skill at subterfuge when around you."
"He has no skill at subterfuge at all. He can keep a secret when needed, but he clearly didn't think this qualified."
It stung. It really did. I should have given the place up years ago, I'd never spent more than a few minutes inside, especially post-Snap, but I also hadn't been able to sell it either. The hopes and dreams of that other life still tied to a converted warehouse in Brooklyn. All but growling in frustration. "Sure, I'll rent it to whoever you decide you're going to be." I tossed back the last of the drink and damn near broke the glass when I set it far too violently on the table before me.
He appeared taken aback by my reaction to what he must have thought was a logical solution. "My, I can make other arrangements."
I shook my head. "No, it was the place you wanted, you're welcome to it." I picked my tech up from the table and pushed to my feet. "I have arrangements to make."
He swiftly stood, reached out, and curved his hand about my biceps. I glared at the offending appendage until he removed it. "Let me buy you dinner at least. There's a place around the corner--"
"No. I need to get home. To my daughter." I chose my words intentionally.
He went stiff as a board. "Of course," his response just as stiff. "I'll text you about..."
I stepped away, grabbing my coat as I did so, attempting to make as clean an exit as possible. "Give me a couple of days. I need to do some research before I can begin."
He nodded. "Okay, I'll attempt to be patient."
I ground my teeth together. "And pick a name. I'll need it for the paperwork."
"I already have some ideas. I'll email them to you?" His tone remained formal, clearly as upset with me as I had become with him.
How the hell did we end up here?
"That works. Goodnight, Steve." I could see that he wanted to walk me out, but a slight narrowing of my eyes got him to back down from the usually welcome gentlemanly gesture.
And with that, I turned on my heel and walked out into the bitter wind and blowing snow of a late March evening.
Myla makes a trip to the Compound.
I found them on the training field.
The upstate NY Compound covered hundreds of acres, so even though the main campus had been demolished in the battle, other areas had not. The new buildings obviously temporary but no less high tech for all of that. I knew Fury had plans, huge motherfucking plans, but he had not revealed many of the details to me. The questions he had asked, however, had led me to conclusions that I dared not believe. Not yet anyway.
The destroyed buildings were being gone through with care to remove anything and everything of value, the rest would be atomized then plowed over. It had not yet been officially decided if the Avenger's home base would be rebuilt here or elsewhere, though I suspected the latter. There'd been muttered talk of a memorial to the fallen here, though I had no real clue how much interest there was in building it. We all knew who had died here, some of us didn't need or want the reminder.
The world governments, more specifically the American government, had just begun to flex their power in the direction of the Avengers though Fury, so far, had shrugged off their attempts to retake control under the Accords. Quite literally laughing in the poor fool's face Ross had tagged with the duty of informing us of our place in the grand scheme of things. The Expendables, while technically Avengers, were subcontracted which permitted me to thumb my nose at any request or demand that came down the pipe as they tried to bypass Fury.
I always forwarded the request to him and we'd had some interesting discussions and laughter over them.
That said, I did not look forward to the day Ross or someone like him tried to take control of my team. I knew it would be coming and had prepared accordingly. Our official base of operations remained out of a lovely town in the mountains of Austria who more than welcomed our presence and assistance when needed, which meant the grand old U. S. of A. had no power over us.
I could and would just pick up and leave lock, stock, and smoking barrels.
Oh, we wouldn't abandon Fury and Hill, but we would remove our physical presence.
I had decided a long time ago the Expendables would remain a separate entity. Especially, after being a direct target of the stupidity the Accords had caused.
I stepped out onto the open area, the glade a natural one that they'd simply leveled and to which they had added training equipment and targets. I'd used it a time or two when I'd been up here for assignments, especially during the early weeks of the cleanup. Large portions of my team had been here to protect the tech and data buried under the rubble.
"Which one of you idiots gave Steve Rogers access to the Quantum Tunnel," I barked out in my best you royally fucked up drill sergeant voice.
Both men twitched. Barnes snapping about, gun coming up and pointing at me for a headshot. Sam, however, had been in the process of flinging the shield Steve had gifted him that day at the lake and my appearance and Sam's reaction caused it to miss its target and ricochet off into the trees surrounding the area. An ominous thud could be heard followed moments later by the clear sound of a tree crashing into the ground.
I bit my lip to force the burst of amusement to remain inside, I had to remember my anger at them. Barnes didn't have my compassion, however, and broke out into gales of laughter, his hand holding the gun lowering slowly, which I had to admit had been worrying me more than a bit. We'd only met a few times so it remained within the realm of possibility that he wouldn't recognize me.
"Girl," Sam muttered about a sigh then trudged off in the direction the shield had disappeared from view.
Barnes still chuckling softly strode over to me. "Thank you for that. I only wish we'd gotten it on camera."
"Oh, Ares is always watching. I'll send you a copy shall I?"
He cracked a grin, something I knew to be a rarity for the comparatively somber man. "If you would. I'll save it for a rainy day."
I glanced up at the sky, today cloudless, but with the forecast calling for more blustery weather soon. "So... tomorrow."
He ducked his head while shaking it. The amusement still there, but he no longer wished to show it.
"You designed Ares, yes?"
"I did," I confirmed, wondering why he had asked. It had never been something top secret within the Avengers, but then again until recently, he hadn't been one. He'd spent the years pre-Snap on sabbatical in Wakanda, about which I refused to express any envy. Oh, I had my in, of course, but I never took advantage of it and wouldn't unless another end of the world situation made itself known.
One of my personal rainy day items you could say.
Speaking with Barnes could be awkward as I could see in my mind the different possibilities of his life thanks to those frickin' time loops they'd created. At least the bits that crossed my personal timeline, which in some cases turned out to be quite substantial. I tried to push them away, to stop the flip card of images flicking through my overcharged brain. I should have known better than to focus on a single person, especially one with as long a past as his.
I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead in an attempt to ease the discomfort of having multiple versions of a life invade mine in a matter of seconds.
"Still getting headaches?"
I opened my eyes to see Sam approaching, the shield in his hand, and a slight frown on his face. "You know it." I hooked a thumb in Barnes's direction. "His fault this time."
Barnes blinked. "What? Oh, I triggered your memories."
I nodded, actually appreciating the fact that he understood and I wouldn't have to try to explain it. Though I did have to wonder who told him, though I suspected it to be the blabbermouth with the shield. "So, to repeat, which one of you idiots let an older than god himself Steve Rogers near the Quantum Tunnel?"
They exchanged a glance.
"Both of you?" I wanted to knock their heads together so badly I tensed up and had to resist the temptation to actually do so. "For fuck's sake, why? It could have been as likely to kill him as, you know, work."
They did that annoying glance again. Barnes shrugged. "He seemed to think it was worth the risk."
"Well, he'd be wrong," I snapped right back, my hands balling into fists hard enough that I could feel my nails biting into the flesh of my palms. I hadn't been this unreasoningly angry in an extremely long time. "My work was theoretical only, and should never have been used."
"Not even to save the universe?" Sam questioned, his look saying he knew exactly what my answer would be.
"Don't," I warned, my tone dark and dangerous. "This was not a Ragnarok reason, this was... selfish."
"Doesn't mean it wasn't a good reason," Barnes argued with a casual shrug of his shoulders. "For the record, I tried to talk him out of it."
"I didn't," Sam added with a grin.
"Why? Why would either of you risk losing him completely just so he could be fucking young again?" Yes, I knew it was about more than that, but I had been wondering what he'd told them to suck them into his plan.
"You wouldn't let him be there for Sara, not as a father anyway," Sam finally answered.
I looked over at Barnes who hadn't reacted at all to that bombshell which meant he'd already known. "That info is considered beyond Top Secret at this point so, of course, he spilled it to the two of you without once thinking of the consequences."
"So you can't trust us now?" Sam questioned clearly taken aback by my commentary.
"This is not about trust. The more people who know the more people who could potentially be told, or made to tell to the wrong people. This is about protecting my fucking daughter, no more no less."
Sam readied a response, but Barnes cut it off by setting a hand on his forearm. "She's got a point. No one thought he could have children, at least not with someone not serum enhanced and now he has Sara."
I blinked. "You do recall he had two children with Peggy, right?"
Sam's mouth dropped open, but Barnes didn't react at all, which meant, much as I suspected Steve had talked to him before making the decision to stay in the past. And that meant he'd never intended to come back when returning the Stones. And his best damn friend on the planet had known all along.
Sam realized this the instant after I did. "Barnes- Of course, he fucking told you and left me hanging."
"He had his reasons," Barnes rumbled, just a hint of irritation in his tone.
These two had never gotten along all that well, even though they'd fought side by side several times. Though I guess saying they'd each fought alongside Steve would be more accurate. Fury had vented to me on a few occasions about how they only seemed to be able to get along when shooting at someone else. They had yet to figure out how to work together.
"Oh, he always does," Sam groused.
"You got the damn shield, ain't that enough for you?"
Sam rounded on his partner. "You want it you can have the fucking thing." He shoved it at Barnes, who permitted it to clang into his arm and then fall to the ground. The looks on their faces boded ill for the disagreement not upping to punches being thrown in the next few moments and, while I kind of wanted to see it, I had come here for other reasons.
I stepped between them, picked up the shield, took two steps, and flung it at the nearest target. I put in enough effort that instead of ricocheting away it slammed into the wood so hard that a fair quarter of the shield lodged firmly into it, wood splinters exploding from the far side and across the training field.
Both men stared at it for long seconds before turning to me.
"Do I have your attention now?" I somehow managed to inject tired and cranky mom into my voice, which made both men subtly stand up straighter eyes locked on mine. "Good. Now, who the fuck told you about Sara?"
Barnes snorted, then somehow managed to look contrite about it. "Steve."
Sam nodded in agreement. "He wanted advice and tried to talk in hypotheticals, but you know how he sucks at lying."
"Even after hanging out with Peggy for decades, he didn't last more than five sentences."
And Peggy had been known for her undercover work when with the SSR post-war. "Fuck me sideways," I muttered. "Why? Why now?"
"The birthday party," Sam answered. "Made him realize how much he had missed."
"And that he didn't want to miss any more," Barnes added.
"He's had an entire life of birthdays and holidays with his family, and now he wants all of mine?"
"Man, you really are angry at him," Sam observed in a soft voice.
"Don't I have a right to be?" I snapped.
"Yes, you do. But he also has a right to be with his daughter."
I laughed bitterly. "I think he gave up that right when he ghosted me then time-traveled to be with Miss Carter. Put our entire relationship into the proper perspective. He made his choice, he gets to goddamn live with it."
"Myls, that's not really fair. You could have told him at any time, instead you gave up." Sam pointed out and not incorrectly.
That argument was not one I wanted to have right now, and truthfully, none of their damn business so I threw up my hands and stalked away. "So, as always, he makes his own rules, and forces things to go his way." I snapped a hand out at the two men as I spun about. "Why didn't he just go back and show up in Wakanda, play daddy from the get-go?"
I shouldn't have asked that question as the answer came in the form of other realities, where that actually happened, appearing in my head. I locked my knees and refused to fall to the grass as the images accompanied by agonizing pain that radiated through my skull.
So blinded by the information that all unawares I failed in my one appointed task and returned to myself with a concerned Avenger at either elbow, attempting to keep me from collapsing any further. My ass ached, which meant I'd gone down hard and probably startled both of the men now talking to me in calm tones in an effort to get me to reconnect to this reality. Ares probably coaching them on what to say as he had become my emergency savior when the attacks came unexpectedly. Human contact worked best, but both Ares and FRIDAY had learned to deal with my mental hiccups.
"I'm okay," I told them and damn near laughed at the matching sighs of relief from them.
Sam shifted from his squat to sit next to me. "And that's why he didn't take that option. He figured another time loop would probably fuck with your head and he kinda likes you alive and healthy."
I flopped back onto the grass, thankful we were near the edge where the trees provided some cover from the mid-morning sun as the headache I currently sported felt like it could blossom easily into a migraine with little provocation. "And he told you about that too, I suppose." Not that I had told him much of anything since our unexpected reunion over the holidays. Doesn't mean he couldn't have found out for himself once he'd decided to reinsert himself into my life.
"Actually, Fury filled us in." Barnes stood, glancing over the training field as if looking for something.
"I hope you didn't waste your time calling a medic. There's nothing they can do for me." Learned that when the other memories manifested in Wakanda. I'd been given some suggestions on controlling the influx of information, but ever since the battle at the Compound and past-Thanos showing up years before he should have ever come to Earth it had only gotten progressively worse. I could only be thankful it remained ever-different pasts that I saw and not the future as I had during the fight. It had been useful at the time but had, I believed, damaged something in my brain. Twisting my ability in some unknowable way that my fragile human body couldn't quite handle.
Thus my dropping like a poleaxed steer when an unexpected landslide of new data became available.
"Just a ride. Figured you wouldn't want to walk back to the base... and no we won't let you however much you argue about it," Sam set an insistent hand on my shoulder to keep me in place until the Avenger uber, most likely a golf cart on steroids, arrived.
I could have easily moved his hand, but just relaxed on the grass, using the pause to force the newest set of alternate memories away. I really needed to contact Doc Strange to see if he could assist, but he'd been otherwise occupied the last few months. The Kamar-Taj just as disconnected as the rest of us in this post-Blip world.
"Fine," I grumbled, wanting to yell at them some more, but fully aware it would do nothing other than up my headache and turn it from annoying to debilitating. "I'm still mad at the two of you."
"We know," Barnes responded, "but we agreed with Steve's reasons."
"He had more than one?" I mumbled, letting my eyes drift shut, to block out the beam of sunlight that had found me through the pine branches. I swear I heard them glance at each other again, feeling safe since I couldn't actually see them.
"Yeah, Myls, he most certainly did." Any expansion of that reply would have to wait until the three of us could be alone again as the hum of an electric motor signaled the arrival of the cavalry, so to speak.
I groaned as I permitted them to assist me in sitting up and drank water loaded with electrolytes to make them think they were actually doing something of value. The boys didn't say much of anything on the ride back to the temporary buildings, no way we could continue either of our discussions in front of the men who'd arrived.
But I wanted to. I very much wanted to impress upon them my unhappiness of permitting one Steve Rogers to get away with whatever he wanted no matter the reasoning. Far as I was concerned, he'd had his chance and blown it completely. He'd made his choice and should have been left to suffer the consequences.
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from screaming my frustration out loud. If not for the pair driving the cart I might have vented the emotions to the bucolic nature setting we trundled through, but they were some of the new recruits and I needed to make an impression on them, especially since my training model was the one they currently lived under. Everyone knew I'd been severely injured during the Battle of Wakanda, so my going down whilst chatting with the boys wouldn't be looked at sideways, though if it got back to Fury he might just wonder why I'd been here visiting them.
"Fuck," I muttered, hating the games I had to play to try and keep the different aspects of my life safe and protected.
"You all right?" Barnes asked though it seemed far more a Sam thing to say.
"Yeah, just hoping I can improve my juggling skills."
Sam snorted. "You always had too much on your plate. You still going out on missions?"
"There haven't been any, really. We're still in the organizational phase. Have my Expendables been playing guard dogs in certain potentially explosive areas of the world? Yes. Have I been on site now and then? Also yes, but Fury likes me here to bounce ideas off of. Is my workload any lighter? Oh hell no."
That earned me a snort from the driver, who also glanced back at me, his lips twitching as he tried to not grin. "Ma'am, I see you more than my direct superior. You're here more often than Fury."
That was because Fury had plans that went beyond this Compound, but he didn't need to know that. "That's because Fury is The Boss and has other things on his plate than the big damn hole we're digging up here."
This time Sam snorted. "Big damn hole is right. Still, the more we salvage the more we start with when we get the official okay to rebuild the Avengers."
I realized at that moment he had no idea what had been going on behind the scenes. The push to reinstate the Accords. The backroom talks about Sam being the next Captain America versus other less controversial options. The potential of prosecuting one James Barnes for his crimes as The Winter Soldier. Oh, it would never happen, but Ross had definitely expressed the possibility. With Steve Rogers out of the picture, Barnes's best line of defense had vanished no matter how many others backed him. Ross may have lost five years to the Blip but he fully intended to pick up right where he'd left off come hell or high water.
We arrived back at the temporary Compound. "Where to sirs?"
"Mess hall, if you would. This one needs sustenance." Sam attempted to glare at me so that I'd capitulate. I simply didn't care. We had a conversation to finish, anywhere would do.
"Ah, yes, K rations. Just the thing to fix a girl up," I snarked, which made Barnes snicker much to my surprise.
"Ma'am?" the driver deferred to me, much to my amusement, as if I ranked the two men next to me.
"Works. Though you can drop the ma'am, I'm a grunt like you."
His partner shook his head. "Sorry, Commander, but we can't. Fury has made it quite clear that Avenger or not we are to treat you as a superior officer... and we agree with it."
"Oh." I hadn't thought about it, but technically I outranked both Barnes and Sam by simple virtue of having lived through the Blip so I definitely outranked the two newbies.
Sam chuckled. "Why am I not surprised you didn't know about that?"
"Because I'm just a glorified consultant at this point?" I grouched, pinching the bridge of my nose and wondering just when I'd become the person in charge. That had always been them. Steve, Tony, hell Sam. I'd been the support staff. Important support, but no more than that.
The expendable one.
The jerk in the passenger seat barked in laughter. "Ma'am, last I checked you were in charge of the entire training program for the new recruits, including us. Your Expendables hold all the senior positions and are running all the current ops until we're up to speed. Of all the official Avengers we've only seen these two and War Machine in months."
I stared at him reasonably certain my jaw had dropped if only figuratively. I turned to Barnes who shrugged. "It's the truth."
I tipped forward, head in my hands, just wondering when the hell that had happened. Sam patted me on the back in what I hoped was sympathy but might have just been his efforts at not laughing at me. Thankfully, the ride didn't last much longer and I was escorted by the pair of actual Avengers inside the semipermanent structure and to the mess.
Sam insisted on grabbing me something to eat and filled mugs with the ever-present and ubiquitous coffee that got churned out constantly. Don't get me wrong, the coffee was decent, but some variety would be nice once in a while. Iced tea maybe. Then again, winter still had its hold at the Compound and with highs only in the sixties most days, it made sense to keep the hot drinks flowing.
Once parked in a corner with no one else willing to sit nearby thanks to some stern looks from one former Winter Soldier, I returned to the discussion that needed to happen. I made an effort to eat the plate of actually good food - no we did not serve K ratios here - so that Sam wouldn't keep mother-henning me. The two men sat back in their chairs socially drinking their coffee while waiting on me to begin feeling like a human being again.
It took about fifteen minutes for the headache to back down enough for me to want to return to the actual discussion we needed to have. "You two have to stop enabling his crimes."
"Crimes? What-" Sam cut off his words instantly when the realization struck him. "Okay, I guess we did do that," he admitted without looking the least bit guilty over it.
"It was help him or stand by and let him do it by himself." Barnes shook his head. "He was not going to be talked out of it. Least this way he didn't..." He paused, clearly thinking hard. "What could have happened if it had gone wrong?"
"You mean besides death?" I groused. "It could have not worked at all, of course. The age change could have gone in any direction, too young, too old, who the hell knows." Actually, I did, a whole slew of possible consequences, but they didn't need all the gory details. "Reversed the serum effects."
"Huh. He might not have minded that last one," Barnes said softly.
"Yeah, 'cause his original body would survive being exposed to all the modern versions of viruses so well." I didn't even bother trying to keep the snippy tone out of my voice. "You have no idea what the math looks like for that program. I had to merge Stark's time travel formula with the one Banner came up with that accidentally created the age shifting. It looks fine on paper, but while good, I am far from perfect."
"But he's fine, Myls," Sam argued.
"He appears to be fine," I corrected. "Even Lang has no clue what the potential long-term effects might be and he got age shifted four times in quick succession."
"No, Sam. He could have died and I would much rather have him alive no matter how old than to be the one to bury him." I'd always known he'd outlive me by decades at the very least, the serum's effects all but guaranteed that. I'd known I would always be a short-term relationship even if we lasted years, as I would age normally and he wouldn't. I'd prepared myself for that from the beginning. But the situation was one I could never have predicted back when we first got together.
"And now you won't have to worry about that for a long time." Barnes didn't sound as happy about the situation any longer.
Sam frowned slightly, perhaps finally understanding how truly serious this matter had become. "Myla. I get what you're saying, but I still believe his intentions were good."
I huffed out a breath of irritation. "His intentions are always good, doesn't mean they aren't also stupid."
Barnes chuckled. "You're not wrong there." Then he sobered quickly. "So what now?"
"You don't let a soul know what happened. He wants out, but if anyone catches wind of him not being older than dirt, they'll drag him right back in."
"Last we heard Fury is adding him to the list of the dead. Far as anyone knows he went MIA while returning the Stones." Barnes still had creases of concern on his forehead, clearly uncertain about who exactly knew what.
Sam filled in the little he knew. "There's some government red tape involved, but the official line is that they're still compiling those lists, which isn't so much a lie as a prevarication. The world's a mess, Myls."
"No shit," I agreed. I had more of a clue than them simply due to the contacts I had built during the Blip. Which is partly why Fury wanted me here, I had access to a ton of information that he didn't. Yeah, you could say he was using me, but since the using had become mutually beneficial I didn't mind so much. I didn't know everything he had planned, and he had no clue what I did. "Which is why if anyone learns the truth he'll be dragged right back in no matter how much he wants to tell them no." And he would go, heart heavy but his need to take the hit that would save someone else still far too strong. "You two are not to encourage him in any way. I'm not saying you can't contact him, but no work chit chat. Strictly non-Avenger related subjects. All of that is my job now."
"Fuck," Barnes muttered, "you weren't kidding were you?"
Sam nodded vigorously. "Nope. This is why I think she should be the new Cap and not me."
"What? Oh, hell no." To say I felt completely flummoxed by his words didn't come close to describing my emotions at that moment.
"Really, miss 'O Captain, My Captain'?"
I dropped my head and covered my face in my hands. "It seemed like a good idea at the time?" I offered as an explanation. Hell, that day had set me on my current path, which ultimately led me right back here to the Avengers.
"It was a most inspiring speech," Barnes stated and I could hear the humor in his voice, which meant he knew exactly where I'd borrowed the words from. "You just seem to have a bit more common sense and a bit less rush into danger in you. Probably why you're still alive after hanging out with this crowd for so long."
I managed to lift my head and laugh softly. "Having a good team helps some. That said, I have no interest in that shield. All it does is paint a big ol' target on your back. I'm trying to avoid that these days."
"Then you need to get out too," Barnes pointed out, tone dead serious.
I shrugged. "It's on the to-do list, but right now I'm needed."
"Glutton for punishment," Sam stated.
"Obviously." I rubbed my forehead. "I need you two to promise me you won't help him with stupid shit like this again."
"Why not order us?" Barnes questioned, tone completely bland and even with a headache I knew this had become a test of sorts.
"Because I can't- won't order you to not be his friend. I just... If he really wants to start over, again, I want him to do so with a clean slate and that means walking away completely from the Avengers. Just like he did after returning the Stones."
The two men traded looks and nods. "We have no way of stopping him once he sets his mind to something, but we'll try to discourage any more rampant stupidity. Okay, kiddo?" Sam, as always, managed to find the middle ground, which was exactly what I wanted from the two men.
"That'll work." I stood, both of them jumping up, prepared to catch me if I decided to go down again. "I have a meeting or three to get to, I'll see you two next week."
"Of course, Commander," Sam didn't salute, which I probably would have smacked him for, and grinned. "You should do a training session with us, I imagine you could teach me a few tricks with the shield."
I could, actually. Steve had taught me more skills than just throwing the damn thing, many of which I'd integrated into the training program over the years. "Or you could just take the training course."
Barnes snorted. "I don't think he'd survive it. Take your Avenger title and run with it, Wilson."
Sam sighed heavily. "I want to complain, but you're probably right."
I patted Sam on the shoulder and leaned in. "Practice throwing it while flying, you'll increase the power of the impact."
"Don't give him any ideas," Barnes grumbled. "Death by metal frisbee is not how I want to go."
Sam just rolled his eyes, but otherwise refused to rise to the bait. "Escape while you can, Myls, we have work to go pretend to do anyway. After I manage to get the shield unstuck, that is."
I gave them both a grin that I didn't feel, but they chose not to call me on it. By the time I'd made it to the entrance, their bickering had commenced yet again. While I kind of hated doing it I would be mentioning the issues to Fury. If they couldn't work together off op there would be no point in pairing them on one. And they needed to work together, which they both most certainly knew, but neither of them seemed to be able to back down from their current stance. Given what it had taken to get the original Avengers to work together, I hated to think about what might be required to resolve their tension.
I really didn't want to have to save the world again just for the two of them to find some common ground.
Though, the gods only knew Fury may have planned for it already.
I headed to my ride deciding my personal issues might just be easier to deal with.
Time for Steve Rogers to "die".
I picked the meeting location this time, just another apartment in the building we lived in when staying in the city, Sara played literally a few stories above us. The most recent tenant had moved on, reuniting with his family after spending five long and lonely years without them. He'd been a teen when he'd shown up on my ostensible doorstep in dire need of food and shelter. I'd given him both and put him to work when he'd been ready and had felt the need to do more than just survive. He'd been a smart one, good with computers and numbers and I'd encouraged him to become better. When he'd left he had secured a job with a tech company rebuilding itself in this brand new world.
I'd sent him off knowing he could handle whatever life may throw at him in the future and the assurance that if he ever required my assistance he need only ask. He had offered the same in return.
The place had been cleaned and refurbished with the basics awaiting the next tenant.
"The Emperor has arrived." Ares intruded on my moment of peace before Steve's arrival. I glanced at my watch noting that, as always the man had chosen to be insufferably early. Then again, his current life was probably a tad restricted given the chances of being recognized went up the longer he spent time in public.
"Stop calling him that, he's not an Avenger any longer, and he was never an Expendable."
"That does not change who he is to you," Ares countered much to my annoyance.
Goddamned pain in the ass computer.
"But, as always, I will do as you request. Awaiting code name reassignment of Steven Rogers."
I had no clue where Ares learned to be such an asshole and usually, I found it amusing, but not today. No, today I just found it irritating. I didn't need his reminders of our past, I had them all stuck in my head already. I just wanted this over with and to move on even though I knew damn well that moving on wouldn't be happening.
Sadly, it had all been a bit easier when he'd just ignored me.
"Ares, privacy mode, please. Record only."
"Yes ma'am," he responded with a huff. Obviously, he had planned a full commentary track to this meeting and now would sulk for a couple of hours, giving me nothing but the basics for the next day or two most likely. I'd suffer the consequences, but would not be yelling at the air while dealing with Steve.
I strode over to the door and opened it just as he'd been in motion to knock on the wooden surface. His hand hung in the air for a moment then lowered, his brows knitting together in what might have been confusion.
"Ares, let me know you were here. He's tied into the building security."
"Oh," Steve mumbled as he stepped through the threshold and into the apartment. I waved towards the kitchen island and the barstools set up there, the surface covered in all the items needed to create an entirely new persona in this day and age. "Isn't Ares a bit overkill for an apartment building?"
I shut and locked the door before following him. "These days yes, the system is self-contained, but since I live here part-time, he babysits. He doesn't have full access to any level other than the penthouse." I tapped next to the earpiece behind my left ear. I didn't want to accidentally invite Ares to this party.
"You spun off the security parts of the system for your buildings?"
I nodded. "I thought the machine gun emplacements were a bit much."
His eyes went wide until he realized I had been kidding. "Was it really that bad here?"
"Some days, yes, but we made certain the tenants could handle themselves. This building is as off the grid as possible."
"Just water, right?"
"Potable water, yes. But the filtration system has been heavily modified and we have backups should the mains fail."
He settled into one of the chairs, lifting a folder at seemingly random his eyes wandering over all the items on the counter. "So, how is this going to work?"
"Well, first we have to kill you," I informed him in a droll tone as I pulled open the fridge to get drinks for both of us. I half expected him to balk at the statement, but he remained silent for long moments.
"Which me?" he finally asked.
"Peggy's husband." I intentionally didn't use the name he'd been living under all those years, which, yes, I had figured out. "All my Grant Steven's artwork is about to suddenly increase in value," I added with a forced grin. "Someone is bound to notice you've vanished off the map."
He nodded slowly, his face a carefully neutral mask and not giving me a clue as to what was going on under those now dark brown locks. He'd taken my advice to change his hair color and it made a remarkable difference in his looks. To most, he might look familiar but they probably would not recognize him outright.
"It must have been strange watching your younger self visit her and not be able to warn him what was coming." I had mostly avoided asking him questions about his life with Peggy as it really was none of my business, but for this change in identity to work I had to do my due diligence and make certain there'd be no complications that could cause his former life to connect to his new one.
"You have no idea," he muttered under his breath. "Peggy and I had many a discussion about that and we came up with a plan to make it work." He shrugged. "Seems to have since we still won in the end."
I forced my brain to not review those other options where we didn't. After that trip to the Compound, I had finally gotten off my ass and contacted Doctor Strange who had supplied me with options for controlling the memories. Sadly it wasn't a one and done type thing which meant yet more of my time being eaten away by unexpected necessity. Worth it though, as the headaches had already lessened dramatically, but I now had a weekly appointment with a member of the Kamar-Taj assigned to specifically train me on how to deal with being able to see a small slice of the multiverse.
The upside that I no longer got knocked on my ass when new data intruded on the present.
"And that's a good thing, Steve." I didn't enjoy being angry with him, but I couldn't seem to help myself lately.
"So, how are you gonna kill me off?"
"Already done." I picked up a specific folder and handed it to him.
He opened it up and thumbed through the contents. "Quietly in my sleep. How boring."
"But appropriate, I think. And not unexpected given your advanced age and living through the Snap and Blip." Something I had confirmed just in case. Yes, old Steve could have vanished during the Snap, but hadn't, which made sense given he'd known exactly when to make his grand entrance at the Compound and seal the time loop. Everything after that point would be new and unknowable to him.
"Funeral?" he questioned. "I do have quite a bit of family."
"With the travel restrictions, it will have been handled by the local government as per current regulations. I do believe a wake is being planned as soon as the travel ban is lifted, the rest will be handled via phone and skype I imagine." I'd timed his death with him de-aging himself, which meant it had been a few weeks and the body would have been discovered and the death certificate issued shortly after he'd been identified. Contacting the family sometimes took months these days as other situations took priority. A one hundred-plus-year-old man dying peacefully in his sleep, not a great concern in the grand scheme of things. He'd be missed and mourned, but his family would move on. According to all my sources he'd kept mostly to himself the last year or so, which made sense given he knew what would be coming.
"It would appear you have everything covered then." He sounded disappointed in the fact that I had actually done my job. "Though you could have discussed the details with me first."
The anger and irritation at him snuck back in though I did what I could to not let it show on my face. "Well, you never once mentioned it and since having the other you just fall off the face of the planet might look suspicious I handled it. You could have dealt with it prior to your little stunt," I waved dramatically in his direction, "but I suspect you weren't thinking that far ahead."
He glowered at me, shut the folder, and set it on the counter. "What I was or wasn't thinking isn't really any of your business, now is it?"
"If it could impact our daughter it is."
"So now she's our daughter."
This sounded so familiar to me, same song, different verse. Arguments involving our different perspectives had plagued our first few months together. Part of the blame mine, always assuming he would quickly tire of me when it had always been the opposite. I wanted no part of repeating our past errors so I literally took a step back, putting physical distance between the two of us as I pondered the revelation. We were not on opposite sides here, therefore we should be working together, and yet my ongoing resentment of his past choices colored every moment, and antagonizing him had become the easiest way to display my unhappiness with him.
His lips pressed into a thin line, whatever hurtful commentary loaded and ready to be fired in my direction.
I attempted to defuse it. "So, what's next? You sue for custody?"
He froze, his mind changing tracks visible on his countenance. "What? No. I would never do that to you, Myla." A rueful expression crossed his face. "Couldn't anyway, without admitting that I'm Steve Rogers."
"Exactly," I said, stance softening. "I should not have said that but… it hurt to know you wanted to move into the apartment and I lashed out in the easiest way possible." It had always been hard to stay mad at him and I had to acknowledge the fact that I wanted to be angry at him so that I wouldn't feel anything else. Mostly because anything else just left me sad in the end.
"I can find another place."
I shook my head. "No, it makes the most sense for everyone. Right now I'm splitting my time between NY and the Hilton Head house so…"
"I'll be nearby at least some of the time." He rubbed on hand across his face. "I think I just realized how complicated this is going to be. Are you… we going to tell her the truth?"
"That's the plan. Officially Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, is her biological father of record. Will your name be on her transcripts when she starts school in the fall? No. She will have my family name."
"Which isn't the name you use for the Expendables."
"Or the Avengers," I added. "You understand why?" I needed him on board with this. While few of the Avengers used a secret identity, I preferred keeping my real name and family separate from my job. It had always been to protect those I cared about. Being wealthy always came with risks, and while abduction and blackmail had been fairly low for me personally given my job, there had been others. I didn't want to think about what might have happened if Hydra had figured out who I really was or how they might have tried to use it against my parents.
"Yes. Though using your family name has its own set of dangers that come with it."
"But by using it the personal security won't look out of place."
He chuckled softly. "Fair enough. Who knows the truth? About her, not me."
A fair question. "About a dozen outside direct family and The Expendables. Fury and Hill, of course. Plus assorted doctors and such in Wakanda."
He nodded slowly as he absorbed the ramifications of my answer.
"Oh, and apparently Wilson and Barnes."
Steve ducked his head, refusing to meet my eyes for a long moment. "I didn't give them all the details. I trust them to keep it a secret and they'll be another layer of protection for Sara."
"While I'm not complaining that they know I would have preferred to choose the timing as to when."
"Yeah, I understand that. I just needed someone to talk to and didn't have a whole lot of options that could be trusted with that information."
"It's fine. Like I said they'd have found out at some point anyway."
"She might even want to be an Avenger someday," he said in hushed tones as if just realizing this for the first time.
"Or be the bad guy. She'd have an entire army to back her and her nefarious schemes."
Steve snorted. "Not if we raise her right."
"I'm certain that's what Zemo's parents thought when he was a wee lad." I shrugged. "Shit happens that we can't predict, Steve. We'll do the best we can, it's all any parent can do."
"But will we do it together?" He sounded oddly hopeful, which made no sense to me.
"Unless you're planning on taking off or something, yes," I answered in no little confusion. "If there's something you need to tell me-"
He shook his head. "Now that I'm dead, who am I?"
I slid a much thicker folder towards him.
Inside were copies of his birth certificate, driver's license, passport, various credit cards, anything and everything a thirty-something might need in this day and age. What your average millennial wouldn't need, however, included a full breakdown of his new persona. A more detailed version would be in digital files I had placed in a ghost drive on his laptop. His new/old laptop. Any equipment he'd been using the last few weeks would need to be wiped completely to prevent anyone from putting the pieces together. I had been presuming he'd been taking some level of precautions to keep from being caught out, but planned for the worst-case scenario just in case.
Plus it just made it simpler. Bury the old so deep it could never be found and integrate the new.
"Steven Joseph Gallagher. Born August eighteenth, 1984." He lifted his head. "So I didn't survive the Snap."
"Nope, but you still get to be a cranky Millennial if you wish."
He snorted. "Wrong millennium, but it'll work." He set the various kibbles and bits on the counter as he dug deeper. "UFC fighter, huh?"
"Had to figure out how to incorporate your fighting skills without military experience. I can alter those records if you wish, but given they're calling up anyone with experience post-Blip I figured it would be safer."
His persona had never been famous, just known in the industry, and had parlayed his decent but unremarkable skill into sparring jobs with those better known. Good sparring partners were hard to come by, but none of the pros would remember his face or name. And fewer would care. It had been loosely based on an actual person who had gone missing during the Snap and simply never reappeared. The real Steven Gallagher had a similar build to the man sitting across for me, no living relatives, and a group of friends that had been scattered to the winds, which made it near perfect for this.
Could one of them show up and potentially throw a wrench into this plan. Well, yes, but given Steve had managed to pretend to be a different person for some seventy years he could manage it for a few more.
"No, this is good and works with my gym plans."
"Almost like I know what I'm doing or something."
"There's a reason I came to you first," he responded in all due sincerity. He closed the folder and set it aside. "
Next, I shifted and opened the case that had been sitting there looking important. Inside lay the modified nano veil, or veils rather. Different versions with slightly different uses. One full face in case he decided to shave off the beard and mustache, which he might decide to do come the summer heat. The world climate may have recovered somewhat in the last five years, but it still got fucking hot in downtown with all the concrete and metal.
"Partial?" he questioned picking up one of the smaller pieces to examine it.
"Yes. While the full version will technically work over the face fuzz, it seemed too cumbersome. The sections will change your visible features enough to keep people from recognizing Steve Rogers." From another file, I pulled out several shots of the real Gallagher. "Here's what you'll look like."
He looked over the images, including several of the man in his fighting garb. "I'm not a heavyweight any longer, but that can be explained by a lack of serious training since the Blip."
I nodded in agreement. "I managed to dig up a few recordings of him, so this piece," I tapped one of the odder-shaped sections of the veil, "includes a voice changer."
"I wondered how we were going to handle that."
I hand waved it. "You knew how, you just wondered how bulky the equipment was going to be. We can even manage a subdermal version if you get tired of wearing the veil."
"I'll keep that option in reserve for now. Are they sturdy enough to take a hit? I don't need a section failing after a decent punch."
"Of course. I'm constantly modifying the tech so let me know if there are any issues, but so long as it's not Bucky or Banner hitting you full force you should be fine. Most vanilla humans won't have enough impact force to make it blink."
"You've been busy. Does Pepper know you've been stealing Stark tech?" The tone may have been joking admonishment, but I answered it seriously.
"Stark promised me to teach me everything and he did his best to fulfill that over the last few years. Plus, I have contacts in Wakanda who've shared a few things with me. I've been designing new quinjets for Fury the last few months."
Steve stared at me. "You and Tony were friends during the Snap years?"
"You were the only person I didn't have contact with. I wasn't directly involved with the Avengers work Nat did, but I consulted, and I and the Expendables assisted when needed."
"Oh." His eyes dropped down to the floor for a long moment. "But how did you reconnect with Tony?"
"Pepper found out about Sara from Nat and playdates commenced. They hang out regularly." Weekly when I could manage it. Hell, the sleepovers had begun. I trusted both Happy and Pepper to protect both girls, and they had the same trust with me and the Expendables when Morgan visited us. School would be coming for both of them come fall, so anytime they wished to get together I permitted it, encouraging the friendship as much as possible. I had the feeling they would need each other in the future.
I could see the hurt in his body language, thinking I'd gone out of my way to keep her from him and while true, it was far from the whole truth. If he had found out back then I would have dealt with the situation the best I could, but given he'd never expressed any interest in me or mine through Nat or anyone else I figured the point was nothing more than a moot one.
I could see him thinking hard about the choices he'd made during those five years, then he sat up and straightened his shoulders, letting it all go. It had been nearly a century for him, while only five years for me. He could quite literally change nothing without time-traveling yet again and he'd thankfully decided to forgo that option.
"When can I meet her? As me that is?" He failed to keep the eagerness out of his voice, but I'd prepared for the question.
"Tomorrow, if that works for you."
He twitched as if he'd been expecting me to prevaricate and argue for an indefinite amount of time.
"My parents are out of town, so it'll just be us and her bodyguards. And it gives us until the fall to make it clear she cannot tell anyone you, meaning Steve Rogers, is alive. Get her used to the make-believe of Steve Gallagher."
"Why not today?"
"Figured we'd get you set up in the apartment today, as you have much studying to do for your new role. Teach you the ins and outs of the veil tech, that kind of stuff. Gallagher is going to be friends prior to the Snap with certain members of the Expendables so as to explain why you hang out here and vice versa. Which is in the detailed info."
"That makes sense." He roved his eyes over the various files as it sank in that this was actually happening. "Are you… will you help? Today I mean."
I nodded. "The apartment has the basics, including connection to Ares - passively - just in case. The place is set-up as a smart home, but you can disable it if you want. I've provided new computers and a phone that are encrypted all to hell though they look normal on the surface. Any other tech you need, come to me please as there are security issues across the board to consider."
"Are you intending on dictating every aspect of my life?" His question came out in a light tone but the hard line to his jaw suggested an unhappiness I could relate to.
"Only the parts where they intersect mine. If we're to communicate via text or email about Sara, I'd rather not have others being able to access it. That's all."
He took a few moments to actually think about it. "Okay, that seems reasonable. Were you able to connect Gallagher to the various accounts I sent you?"
"Done, you should have full access to all of it. Let me know if there are any issues, but you should be good to go with whatever endeavors you decide upon." Granted I now had access to all of it as well, but I wouldn't abuse the knowledge. He had a new life to live, aside from our needed involvement for Sara I would stay far out of his business.
He sipped his water perusing all the items laid out before us. "Start with the veil, I suppose. This version appears to be modified from the one I'm familiar with." He lifted a section marked in the case as 'right cheek', the thin material sliding easily through his fingers. "I don't see any contacts."
"That's because there aren't any."
"Okay, but won't I need to match his eyes?"
"It was part of the plan, but decided against it." True enough as far as it went.
He fiddled with the piece for another moment before setting it down. "Why?"
I debated about a dozen answers before I told him the truth, "Because I like your eyes the way they are."
"Oh," his response unexpectedly soft. "What about retinal scanners?"
"Our research determined that Gallagher never had one done for any reason, so unless he was a spook buried so deep it's been forgotten, you should be in the clear. We can fake up contacts that'll be close, but without an actual scan on file that'll be the best we can do."
"Right. But if I run into one it'll kind of give the game away won't it?"
A valid concern, but one we had at least mostly handled. "If, and I stress if, you are stuck having one done, Ares will take care of it. With some minor exceptions, he can take any data associated with Steve Rogers, fake a new template, whether retinal or fingerprint, and associate it with your Gallagher. His prints were on file, so we have veils set up for that, but it should not be a major concern unless you do something stupid in a foreign country or the like. Facial rec will see Gallagher, not Rogers. And since the energy output is minimal the veil does not show up on IR or thermals."
"No way you can guarantee that." He set the veil down in clear discouragement.
"I can, my Coins are still in play. I have links to government and private databases all over the world and my people are still exceedingly good at their jobs." The comms behind my ear vibrated ever so slightly. "Ares is far more than just a battle library these days."
"I imagine he is. And you're a lot more than just the Commander of the Expendables aren't you?"
"Well, there is the whole mom thing so, yeah."
He shook his head. "Not what I meant." He leaned back slightly, squaring his shoulders. "Ever think you're being groomed to replace Fury as head of the Avengers?"
That question hit me like a bucket of ice water right through my veins. "Oh hell no. I have no interest in herding a bunch of superpowered cats around."
Steve snorted at my chosen phrasing. "Doesn't mean he isn't planning it."
My shoulders sagged and I buried my face in my hands for a long moment. Now that he'd said it aloud I couldn't help but notice everything that pointed right in that exact direction. The big meetings that always included me and Hill. His deference to me, especially involving anything that had occurred during the Blip. His dropping of information, as bait admittedly, a lot of which I'd chosen to not follow up on because I didn't want to know.
He'd been testing me, the shit.
And he certainly knew damn well I'd been fighting him tooth and nail to not learn more. I'd seen the looks he'd give me sometimes when he'd left the conversation open for about a thousand questions that I then failed to ask. Not out of stupidity or blindness as I damn well knew the questions were there, I just hadn't been ready to ask them. Which meant…
Which meant I knew the answers if only subconsciously and I'd been intentionally not finding them.
Steve saw the moment I realized the truth. "You could retire, it's not like you need the money."
True enough. I had a half dozen other ventures outside the Expendables that would keep me more than busy enough if I were to step away. But… "They're not ready. Fury's not ready. There's a fight coming, over the Avengers and the Accords and I need to be there if we want to win."
"Ross shaking trees is he?"
"Even after being dead for five years, he wants the Avengers under his thumb," I explained without going into the backroom maneuvering details. "Even getting dusted to prove him wrong didn't take."
"And you want the Avengers to remain independent and self-controlling."
I shook my head. "I'm hoping to find a happy medium. Plus there's the whole it's not just about our world any more thing." I knew my opinions on the matter had not been well-received overall, but it made the most sense. There was more than just one tiny blue planet hanging in the balance these days. Between Thor, Thanos, Carol, and the Guardians we now knew about thousands of other planets who could benefit from a team willing to assist when the local authorities weren't enough. Thanos and his forces might be gone, but those like the Kree still existed. Who the hell knew what corner of the universe the next big bad might come from.
It suddenly became all too much and the constant dull headache I often suffered from blossomed into a full-blown one, the throbbing ache making me groan aloud and stagger back a couple of steps. I could feel the press of memories behind the pounding in time to my heartbeat and I fought to keep them locked in their cages even as they rattled the bars violently enough to cause the locks to creak and deform.
I sucked in a slow breath to a count of ten and desperately tried to perform the meditation routine my Kamar-Taj trainer had taught me. It took longer than I liked but the memories, with some unhappy grumbling, stopped their efforts to escape. I exhaled just as slowly, my awareness of the real world returning.
There were hands cupping my face and voice in my ear that I hadn't expected.
"Myls. Come on, doll. Come back to me."
My hands had wrapped about his wrists without my consciously willing them to do so and I opened my eyes to find him right in front of me, close enough to kiss, worry in those baby-blues mere inches away from mine. "I'm okay."
He didn't move an inch. "No, you're not. You went dead pale and started muttering to yourself about… I'm not sure what about, but it's not what people who are fine do."
"Steve… It's a long story."
"And? I have time. Do you have anywhere you need to be?"
"No. I cleared my schedule for this, which we should be getting back to." I tried to get him to shift his hands away again, but he refused, his hold gentle, but firm. He'd really and truly been concerned, which startled me.
"Any reason we can't do both?"
I sighed softly. "No, I suppose not. Now can you let me go, please?"
"Oh. Yeah. Of course." He hastily released me and stepped back. "Are you sure you're okay, Myls?"
"As I can be. How about pizza and beer?"
"Depends on where." He squatted down to pick up the, thankfully closed, water bottle I'd dropped when my brain had decided to go on the fritz.
"Sal and Carmine's," I suggested. They were close by and had been one of his favorites back before everything had gone to hell.
HIs look brightened. "They survived the Snap?"
"They did. Though I gotta say John's over on Bleecker is pretty good too."
He huffed. "You've been spending too much time with Strange, it's warped your tastebuds."
I laughed softly. Maybe, just maybe we could pull this off.
Time for some harsh truths to come out.
We spent the Fourth of July weekend in Hilton Head. That we included my parents and Steve in his guise as Gallagher, plus the usual collection of Expendable bodyguards. Steve didn't stay at the house, though, that would just be a bit too weird even though Sara really wanted him to. She'd proven to be far smarter than any of us could have anticipated. Though why I hadn't expected it given she'd seen any number of Expendables play different roles over the years, beyond me. Hell, within five minutes of meeting Steve sans disguise she'd asked him "why aren't you old?" thus proving she'd known all along that Grant had been her father and had kept it a secret just she'd seen the adults around her do.
So we'd given up on the carefully planned speech and explanation and just told her the truth and why. She vehemently disagreed about keeping the secret from Pops and Grans, but we convinced her it was the right thing to do. To protect them not Steve. If she had been raised on nothing else it was the purpose of this family was to protect others, those who could not protect themselves. She'd become solemn at that moment and asked if that made her an Expendable. With little reluctance, I told her yes, but as a trainee with a lot of work yet to go.
She'd clapped her hands in glee and demanded a uniform.
Carson had given me the biggest 'you walked right into that one' look and I'd just sighed and told my little Expendable wannabe we'd get to work on it presently, which had been enough to satisfy her at the time.
Still, it had made the whole hellishly complicated situation at least somewhat easier.
I sat with my parents sipping sweet tea in the early July heat, the sound of breaking waves usually just within the range of perception being drowned out in equal parts by the screaming of cicadas and the squealing of a happy child in the pool below us. Steve permitted himself to be used as a diving board by his daughter who swam like a fish and could literally do this for hours before demanding food so that she could continue for a few more.
Since this was a true long weekend off I had no work and she had no schooling, so spending the day in the pool was fine. Or until the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in, anyway. Then we'd head inside for a while.
My mom had been critiquing Sara's dives complete with suggestions for improvements when she suddenly said, "That's Steve Rogers, Sara's father."
Not a question at all, but a certainty.
I did my best to keep the surprise at her proclamation all internal and responded with, "Steve Rogers is dead, mom. It's why they're doing all those special celebrations on his birthday, remember?"
"Technically he's MIA, presumed dead," my father corrected, not even looking up from his tablet on which he most likely read the financial times and the like.
"Dear, you would not let a complete stranger, no matter how handsome that close to your daughter." My mother just had to point out a truth as part of her defense. There were times I forgot she had graduated from law school.
"He's not a stranger, he's-" I tried to argue, but she cut me off at the knees.
"I see the way you look at him, that is her father and you still care about him."
I ignored the second half of her comment to focus on the first. "Steve Rogers is dead, mom," I told her, my tone indicating she best get with the program no matter what the actual state of reality might be.
In a bland tone, she responded, "Of course he is, dear, good thing you found this nice young man to replace him."
My dad snickered.
"Dad, for fuck's sake."
He set down the tablet. "Myla, we figured it out the second time he visited. And no, none of your people or Sara gave it away, it's just… obvious. He cares about her more than some newly met stranger ever could and he just as clearly cares about you."
"We just want to make it easier on him when he visits, so he doesn't have to wear the gadgets that change his looks." Mom leaned forward to pat my hand as I sat there frozen. "We know how to keep a secret."
I shook my head. "I know that, and it isn't that I don't trust you, but…"
"You need to protect Sara. We understand. But he's family, Myla, we'd like to be able to treat him as such. If only in private." My dad lifted his drink and sipped it through the straw his eyes locked on mine the entire time.
"You care about him, still," my mother stated, much to my annoyance, obviously not about to let that go. "You should really tell him."
I shook my head. "Not an option, mom. He made his choice. It wasn't me." Then I noticed the silence. Oh, the buzz of the cicadas still permeated the air about us, but the squealing and splashing had stopped. I turned my head to see Steve staring up at us from the shallow end of the pool, Sara sitting on the steps also watching us, the discussion between my parents and I having plainly been heard thanks to the enhanced hearing of the two troublemakers below us.
I had never wanted to run away so much in my life and could feel my cheeks reddening even beyond what the heat of the day had caused.
Sara kicked her feet and stated in her usual direct manner to her father. "I told you it'd be okay to take the mask off."
Steve's shoulders sagged and I could see the sigh. "Later, I'm not going to track water all over the house and have your mother mad at me."
Sara nodded in all seriousness. "Good plan, she's never fun when grumpy."
I growled under my breath at my smart-assed offspring.
Steve lifted his head a hint of a grin on his lips. "Now that is the truth," he agreed, hands on his hips in a challenging manner.
Never one to back down from a challenge, I stood and ran around the deck towards the pool, not caring I wore a tank top and shorts instead of a swimsuit. I leaped for the deep end in an effort to produce the most spectacular cannonball possible.
I popped back up to the surface to find Sara swimming right towards me. Her hands landed on my shoulders shoving me back under momentarily. I got away easily and she chased me about the pool for a few minutes, the laughter returning to fill the air, eventually, I dove deep and swam towards the shallow end until forced to come up due to the lack of depth. I sat on the bottom, the water just brushing my chin as Sara made a beeline for me. As she passed Steve he caught her and scooped her out of the water.
"Let's give her a chance to breathe," he suggested as he tucked her easily under his arm and carried her towards me, and set her down.
I glanced up at the deck, where my parents now stood, making it clear they planned to vacate the area so that Steve and I could talk. Carson cleared his throat and I turned to see him and two others also stand, a questioning look on his face. I gave him a nod and without a word, they also left. They wouldn't be going inside, but shifting outward to the next perimeter for the next thirty minutes, which should be more than enough time for Steve and I to sort through a few things.
"Do you want me to go get a snack?" Sara asked.
I shook my head. Her presence would force both of us to remain polite.
"Actually, I think she should."
Steve's words surprised me, I figured he'd want the same buffer zone that I did.
Before I got the chance to say a word, Sara made her way to the stairs with a sprightly step. "Okay. No fighting though. It's not allowed." She grabbed her towel, wrapped it about herself, and trotted off towards the house. I saw movement and knew Carson would follow her just in case.
I scooted backward until sitting on the steps, my wet clothes sticking to my skin. "I guess we should have done the reveal sooner, huh?"
"I'm just glad they're not mad at me," he responded holding his place a fair six feet away.
"Oh, I wouldn't go that far and I'm sure they'll have all kinds of questions, but that'll wait till later when the children are in bed." I had memories of those kinds of discussions over the years. My parents could be ruthless when needed, they wouldn't have succeeded in their business ventures over the years otherwise, but I had never had that particular ire directed at me, only heard it when getting up during the night for a drink of water or the like. I'd never been afraid of my parents but had learned to respect them and their values from those late-night eavesdropping sessions. "I'm certain I will get an earful for not introducing you to them when we were dating."
"I want to ask why you didn't, but I understand. You wanted to protect them."
I nodded. "Still want to, which is why I wanted to wait a while longer before telling them the truth about this." I waved a wet hand at him. "They don't know about you being Grant, I think." I tipped my head back to stare at the hazy blue sky overhead. "I have no clue what they know." That realization could only be described as a worrisome one.
I felt the water shift and lap gently against my legs as he moved towards me. "Then we ask them and go from there."
"How is it I can predict the opposition's battle strategy but never saw this coming?" I complained rhetorically to the sky above and whatever gods might be listening. They'd given me this mind capable of so much and yet I'd been blinded by what, in retrospect, should have been obvious.
"Might have something to do with me not being around for a few years," he said with a casual shrug of his shoulders. "Plus, we were out of direct contact for a couple prior to that so…"
I frowned not wanting to dwell on the past, but he had a point. "So, you're suggesting your patterns changed enough for my ability to predict to be off?"
"Makes sense, especially when you take into consideration that while it had been five years for you it has been… a lot more for me."
I so wanted to ask exactly how many more, knowing that his timeline included the returning of the Stones and all that entailed. I had an estimate in my head, but had no idea how accurate it might be. His years with Peggy to his return in 2023 the only actual known factor. "Took more than a couple of days to return the Stones, I'm guessing."
He snorted. "You'd been guessing right." He sighed softly. "Not today, okay?"
"Okay," I agreed without hesitation. His phrasing suggested that eventually he would tell the story and I had enough patience left in me to give him that it could wait until he felt ready. "So what now? My parents knowing does make it easier from one perspective, but unless you've decided to come out as Steve Rogers again, you'll need to keep being Gallagher in public."
"Which means I still won't be able to do anything with Sara. Outside of a group, that is."
We still hadn't quite figured out how to integrate Gallagher into Sara's life without people, like my parents, questioning who he was. If we wanted this to work, we had to keep up the pretense that he was no more than he appeared. "I'm afraid not. It's not like I don't think you can protect her, it's-"
"Me. This is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. You sure you don't want to retire?"
Although it would solve a lot of our problems the answer had to be no for now. "I'm sure," I said with a wan smile. "It's only been a few months, I'm sure we'll get this sorted."
"And every day brings you closer to the Avengers being official again, which means you'll be even busier than you are now."
I shook my head. "No. The sooner they're up and running the sooner I can step away. The Expendables will not be staying in toto. Some members might, but not me. I've done my time and have more important things to focus on once they're back up and running."
His eyebrows bounced up in surprise. "Still, that's not going to be tomorrow, is it?"
"Nope. Estimates are two years right now. However, once I get the new AI up to speed, I'll be able to step back some." The intent was to essentially clone Ares to give the Avengers their own version, but where Ares had been designed for war, the new one would be aimed at protection and early warning, the battle aspects still there but not the primary function. Tony had started work on one, before his death, and it would be the basis of the new one. Using Ares's code as a base simply made it easier.
"And how long will that take?"
"Six months or so. My team's focus is still the Compound and training, once that's complete-"
"You'll move onto other projects."
"Yes, I will. I have employees who like getting paid, getting paid means working. And, in case you've forgotten, we're damn good at our jobs."
"No, I haven't forgotten. I'm just trying to make this work for everyone."
"I know that. I'm just not certain how given we had to shoehorn Gallagher into the narrative."
"Well, we could date. That would explain me hanging out with you and Sara."
I froze for a long moment then burst out into only slightly hysterical laughter.
He watched me and waited till I'd gotten ahold of myself before asking, "Why not?"
"Because I don't date," I answered.
He shifted, turning to sit sideways on the stairs to look directly at me. "What do you mean?"
I met his eyes with irritation surely buried in mine. "Not that it's any of your business, but I just haven't met anyone I wanted to, okay?"
"It's been years, Myls why wouldn't you?"
I huffed out a breath of pure discontent at his inability to take a hint. "Because Steve Rogers is a hard man to follow in the relationship game. Have I been celibate? No. But I have not cared for anyone else enough to want to have that kind of relationship."
His eyes brightened, clearly enjoying my discomfiture. "So why not date me? I mean Gallagher?"
I tensed, that anger I'd done everything to let go of rushing to the forefront. "Why do you think, Steve?" Giving him an out that I suspected he'd be too stubborn to take.
"You still… care about me. Even your parents can see it, so why not? A real reason."
I twisted about, and let the words spill from my lips as coldly as possible. "Because you chose Peggy. Because in that moment when you went back to her I knew I'd never really meant anything to you beyond being a poor substitute for the woman you really wanted to be with. That no matter how many times you said you loved me, it wasn't real." I stood up, the shallow water rippling violently away from me in my ire. "And that hurts more than you can possibly imagine."
I climbed the steps out of the pool, heading away from the house and towards the wooden walkway that led to the beach. A run seemed like a fantastic idea right about now, barefoot or not.
I hadn't made it far before a strong hand wrapped about my biceps. I pulled my arm free, and rounded on him, ignoring the look of surprise on his face. "Don't," I warned, shifting into a defensive stance.
He immediately relaxed his posture and took a step back. "I won't fight you, Myla, but I can't just let you walk away until we clear the air."
"What can you possibly say that will fix this?"
He sighed heavily. "I know I've said this before, but you obviously refuse to believe it, I loved you with everything I had."
"Ah, yes, just remind me that I was the one you settled for, your second choice. That'll fix everything."
"That's not… What the hell, Myls, you were never a second choice. Another choice maybe, but never second." His hands on his hips he ducked his head. "I can't change what I've done, the choices I made… Would you have done anything differently between us?"
I didn't want to answer that. I'd what iffed my choices any number of times, even going back to when he'd split from the Avengers. I could have tracked him and Sam down easily and joined him but had chosen not to, figuring if he wanted to talk to me he'd find me. Just as I had after the Battle of Wakanda with the news of our impending parenthood. "Of course, but that's not where we are now." Nevermind that because of my mental connection to the multiverse I knew how many of those other lives had played out, at least to this point.
Most had endings not nearly as happy as this one.
"Ever think I've done the same?"
I answered honestly. "Only after you found out about Sara."
He looked like I'd punched him in the gut.
Part of me kind of wished I had.
I could see the muscle in his jaw tense up as he readied his rebuttal, but instead of the shouted reply I expected, his shoulders sagged and he tipped his head down to stare at the sandy wood between his feet. "I swear you want to make this into a fight."
Not entirely true, but easier than admitting to the reality of the situation.
I still loved him.
I didn't want to, so I did everything in my power to shove him away. The less I had to see him, the less my heart ached, so, of course, bringing up the mistakes came easier than remembering the good times. "You taught me to not expect an after. Don't make promises to me that you're going to break," I warned, my throat tight and the need to make him hurt stronger than any of the other emotions tearing through me.
He winced at that.
He chose in that moment to twist the knife already deeply embedded in my back. "I kept my promise to Peggy. A few years late, but-"
"Get out," I snarled more than ready to make him do so if he refused.
He seemed shocked at my order. "Myls-"
"You went too far, Steve. Leave before I say something we'll both regret."
He raised his hands in surrender. "No. I was just trying to make a point."
"You did," I spat. As if the whole I'd been second to Peggy our whole relationship discussion from a few minutes previous had plainly flown right over his head.
"Not that one. That I keep promises. I want that after with you, My, I'm just a few years late is all."
My anger eased. Marginally. I couldn't help but remember any number of conversations we'd had where he'd completely fucked up what he'd meant to say. "You still can't fucking talk to women, can you?"
"Apparently not." He took a hesitant step closer to me, treating me as if I were a skittish animal that could bolt or attack at any moment, which I had to admit to being. "Peggy's been gone a long time, and while I had never planned on running into you again, I'm thankful I did. We have unfinished business."
"We are finished, Steve. We can't go back to what we were."
"I'm not suggesting that. I'm-" He stood up straight and stuck out his hand. "Hi, I'm Steve Gallagher, would you like to get drinks sometime?"
I burst out laughing. "God, you are such an idiot." The emotional whiplash of the last few minutes left me feeling wrung out and exhausted. "I'll think about it."
He lowered his hand, which I had pointedly not taken. "Fair enough. Now, how about we head back before Carson decides to show up with weapons."
He had a point, though Ares had probably been keeping an eye on the sitch for them. Even if I had gone for a run, their duty remained to Sara first, me second. Not that they wouldn't rush in to save me should I need it, they simply knew the likelihood of me needing it remained fairly small. "Fine. We can get cleaned up and I'll introduce you to my parents."
He twitched. "Oh. Uh. Does your dad own a shotgun?"
"What?" I questioned as we began walking back to the house side by side. "Why would you ask that?"
"He seems to be the shotgun wedding type and since I clearly have already had my way with you…"
I snapped my head about to stare at him. "If you say something like that he might."
Steve just grinned at me. "Truce?"
I took a moment to think about it. Fighting hadn't gotten us much of anywhere, might as well try working together. "Truce," I agreed. We had a lot of issues to work through, but for Sara's sake, I had to try.
Time to meet the parents.
"Mom, Dad, I'd like you to meet Steve Rogers."
Due to how the afternoon had played out the formal introduction had been pushed back until the evening. Video games had been employed to distract Sara while the grown-ups had what could potentially be a volatile discussion, no matter how much my father proclaimed wanting to welcome Steve into the family or how blase my mother appeared to be about the whole situation.
The veil had been packed away for the time being, though he would need to put it on before he left for his hotel. I had the suspicion that they would invite him to stay after this discussion, and while Sara would be thrilled, I knew I'd be far less sanguine about it. I hated the fact that I knew I'd permit myself to be talked into it. It would only be for a few days so what harm could possibly come from it, right?
My father grasped Steve's hand firmly, in that well-practiced handshake of his, and said, "So you're the one who got my little girl into trouble."
"Dad," I growled, not overly surprised my father had taken that particular tack.
"Says the man who most certainly didn't wait for marriage with me," my Mom stated blandly causing my dad to chuckle and Steve to turn pink.
I buried my face in my hands. "I'm so sorry, Steve, if I had known they were going to play the immaturity card I would have had Sara out here to make them behave."
Steve, cheeks still high with color, shook his head. "No, he has a point."
My mother gestured towards the lounge area off to one side, the fire pit already lit and crackling merrily in the evening air. "Sit, please."
Steve and I sat in separate chairs, which both my parents took note of, even as they took over the loveseat. "What more could you have done?" my father asked once we all had settled.
Steve glanced over at me and I shook my head even though I had no idea what he had planned to say. "After Wakanda, I thought it would be safer for her to not be involved with me. I never gave her the chance to tell me she was pregnant."
"And I chose not to force the issue," I added hastily. "I wasn't alone, I had my team and the best doctors on the planet to get me through it." I did not mention how difficult the pregnancy had been, no reason to make him feel any guiltier and besides even if he had been there it would have changed nothing in that respect. Not in this version of reality anyway.
"And you've become even stronger because of it," my dad stated, more than just a hint of pride in his voice. "I assume you met when working for SHIELD?"
"Actually, no," Steve answered. "She was one of those we recruited when we formally began the Avengers. I met her there."
"And by met, he means singled me out for extra training as an excuse to see me. Imagine my shock when it turned out he actually liked me." A fond smile curled my lips upwards as I recalled those early days of our relationship.
Steve ducked his head, looking at me through his eyelashes. "Hey, I beat up a bunch of Hydra agents to prove how I felt."
My parents exchanged a confused look. "Explain, if you can that is. We understand that a lot of those missions were Top Secret."
I endeavored to sum up the whole situation quickly. "Mission went slightly FUBAR and led to me being captured in his stead."
"Her fault, she mimicked my voice," Steve added.
"He was the original target. So after a few days of torture, Steve led the cavalry charge to rescue me."
"You didn't just send a team in? If Hydra wanted you wouldn't that make more sense?" my dad questioned.
Mom nudged him. "Her being abducted made him realize how he felt about her, Xavier."
Steve sighed and nodded in agreement. "And the rest is history, I suppose."
"How long were you together?"
"A couple of years, until the Avengers broke up and he had to go on the run." At the time it had seemed so much longer, but we'd packed a lot of living into that time, once we'd figured out how to live with each other. "We didn't see each other again until just before the Battle of Wakanda."
"Apparently that was more than enough," my Dad stated drily.
Steve barked in laughter even as I wanted to hang my head in embarrassment.
"So, if you still cared about each other then, why is it a problem now? Why the disguises and… animosity?" The last directed at me.
"He already said it was to protect her, dear," my Dad reiterated.
"But you won. The fight is over, so there's no reason for you to protect her from that Thanos person anymore." Mom hit the nail on the head with that one. However, I had no idea how to explain that decades had gone by for Steve in the few months between said win and him learning about Sara.
"There are extenuating circumstances," I began, not sure how I planned to finish the sentence.
"And how did you manage to get young again? I'm guessing some Stark tech my daughter gave you access to."
Steve sat up straight, lips in a tight line. "Yes, and no. Myls knew nothing about my plans." He shook his head ever so slightly. "Would you believe me if I said the same tech that makes me look like Gallagher is what made me old?"
My mother chuckled. "If that is what you need us to believe then we will."
My parents had been huge socialites pre-Snap and knew how to tell a lie with a straight face.
"Much like how we both know the Steve Rogers who had been Captain America did not survive the battle at the Avenger's Compound."
Steve got that dead serious look on his face. "You understand how important it is that no one knows I'm alive or that I'm Sara's father."
They both nodded. "Myla has impressed upon us the necessity of keeping the latter a secret," my father assured Steve. "She is a special child and we want nothing but the best for her. That includes cutting you out of Sara's life should my daughter deem it the best course of action."
I hadn't expected that, especially after my dad's proclamation of Steve being family.
"If it came to that I'd step away on my own. However, I would prefer to not have to do that. I have no intention of going back to the Avengers, which is why it's of the utmost importance to the world at large that I am Steve Gallagher, former small-time UFC fighter and no more."
"Of course," my dad agreed, both of them nodding. "We will both do what is necessary to make certain the truth doesn't come out." He tipped his head slightly. "Sara will come first, though."
"Always." Steve glanced over at me. "There's certain details Myls and I need to work out, but for now the cover story of me being friends with members of the Expendables prior to the Snap should hold up."
"Are you certain of that?"
"No, Dad, we're not, but it was the best we could do given the various issues involved. Between me and Ares, the cover is reasonably solid, but all it takes is one mistake-"
"And everyone will know the truth," my mother finished.
I nodded. "Which is why we've told only those who absolutely need to know."
"And you trust them?" my Dad asked, all serious and business-like.
"With Sara's life."
Steve muttered something under his breath.
"What?" my mother asked.
He cleared his throat before answering. "You're not expendable, Myls."
For Sara, we all are," my father responded summing up my own answer perfectly.
"This is why we lost Tony," Steve groused, the reminder a painful but not inaccurate one.
"Yes, it is. To save his daughter, his family, and have all that he gained during those five years remain alive and safe, he sacrificed himself. I understand that completely."
"Wait? Are you saying it could have happened differently?" How could I forget even for an instant how smart my mother was? I could practically see the cogs spinning behind her eyes as she pieced together the little she knew about the Snap and the Blip. "Are you suggesting those five years could have been erased?"
I sighed softly but nodded. "I will not explain how, as the info could put you in danger. No one disagreed with Tony's wishes. I certainly don't no matter how much I miss him."
My dad leaned forward and patted me on the knee. "We are not going to argue with you about how it played out, we're just trying to understand why after all the two of you have been through you spend more time arguing than…" He looked to my mother to supply the end of that question.
"Hooking up?" she suggested.
"Mom, seriously? Let's go with he met someone in the interim and I didn't, okay? I can't go into details, but that is what it comes down to." As far I was concerned my parents would never know about the time travel aspect of our relationship. Only a select few of my Expendables knew. They simply knew about the reversal of the Snap and the battle at the Compound, not how it had come about. I only knew because of my cross-wired brain prior to Fury filling me in. There I got the details I had only guessed at prior.
"Oh," my mom said, sounding disappointed. "Still, I imagine you two can work it out if you really want to."
"Not an option, Mom." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Steve frown ever so slightly, but I refused adamantly to ask why.
"He's a good man, Myla. You should give him a chance." And with that my mom stood up, my dad following after. "We'll leave you two alone to talk."
Before I had a chance to say a word the two of them escaped leaving me alone with Steve. "Well, that was decidedly uncomfortable."
Steve watched them walk into the brightly lit house. "They just want you happy."
"I am happy," I argued. "Or I was until you showed up wanting to be back in my life."
"Sara's life," he argued right back. Reconsidered. Then corrected himself. "No, both your lives."
I wanted to get up and pace, but forced myself to remain seated and simply leaned back into the chair. "I know. Sara is thrilled to have you around, but it does seriously complicate our lives."
"Our relationship has always been complicated," Steve reminded me. "But we always made the effort to work it out." He sighed softly, leaning forwards with his forearms resting on his thighs, the light of the fire tinting his face gold and picking up red highlights in his darkened hair. "The last time I was here was the Fourth of July."
"You weren't that thrilled to be here last time."
"Well, I had been abducted after all."
I shook my head. He'd been pissed until he'd realized I'd saved him from Tony's over the top birthday celebration. "I had the best of intentions."
"Yes, you did," he agreed. "I don't regret going back to Peggy, but there are times I wonder how our lives would have been had I returned to Wakanda after we killed Thanos."
His words struck with more force than he could imagine. "Don't, Steve. Don't ask about that."
"Why not? It's not like you can know… Shit." It dawned on him that I could know. "Tell me. Please."
I surged to my feet, debating the merits of running away again, which I hated myself for. I didn't run. I stood strong and took the hit. I faced whatever might be coming head-on, and yet for the second time today, Steve had made me want to flee.
"Because in every version where you came back you died in the final battle with Thanos. Yes, we got five years, you got to raise your daughter, but then you were gone."
He sat there silent for long minutes as he absorbed my words. "Did we still win?"
"In a lot of them. In some, you died Snapping Thanos away. In some it was you and Tony, sharing the burden and we lost both of you." My voice trembled on the words, those other memories just as real in some ways to those I had actually lived through and watched play out with my own eyes. "In a few, I did my job so that the rest of you could keep fighting."
Hands settled on my shoulders. "Look at me, Myls."
I opened eyes I hadn't even realized I'd closed to deep dive into that particular set of memories. "We had to go on without you." I completely failed to keep the emotions out of my voice.
"Hey, it's okay. I'm right here." One of his hands shifted to cup my cheek and I had to resist the temptation to lean into it. "You're shaking. Come on, sit down."
Instead of the chair I'd been in he got me settled on the loveseat with him right beside me.
"No. My control is much improved. I rarely get knocked on my ass these days." True enough. Plus, those memories hadn't been new data, so I could generally review them without it affecting me over much. These particular memories had more emotional impact than many others since I had been right there at the Snap. Strange wondered if me being at ground zero of two major uses of the Infinity Stones had affected me. I suspected the answer to be yes, we simply had no idea in what manner.
"I have questions if you think you'll be okay." He sounded uncertain, which he should be, given I barely understood how all this worked.
"Go for it."
"If you knew how it would end why not warn us?"
I laughed darkly. "Because I only see the past. And only where it intersects with my life. I couldn't know how it would end five years in the future."
Steve sighed softly. "Right. Sorry. Guess for you hindsight is twenty-twenty."
My eyes widened. "Did you just make a dad joke?"
"If I say yes, will you hit me?"
"Someone should," I muttered under my breath. "Now that you've gotten that out of your system, what else do you want to know?"
He shifted back, putting some distance between the two of us even though we were seated close enough for our legs to touch. "It just… it seems like you're mad at me for not dying."
I blinked. "What? No. Given the options, I'd rather have you alive than to have died defeating Thanos. Not that I wanted Tony to fall on that sword either, but I am a touch biased on the matter."
Steve looked both sad at the reminder of Tony's sacrifice and confused at my answer. "Then why are you mad?"
I slowly took and released a long, deep breath before responding. I wanted to remain calm when I told him why. "Because, thanks to Sam poking me with sticks, I had decided when you got back after returning the Stones to talk to you."
Steve turned away for a long moment. "And I didn't return."
"And you didn't return. Least, not the way any of us expected," I confirmed.
"And you thought I chose Peggy over you," he summed up.
"Well, you did."
"Except, at that time there was no us," he reminded me and I really couldn't argue the point.
No, there hadn't been an us at that time, but I had had hope there could be once again. "Don't ask that question I can see on your face. I've avoided that question for a reason."
"Are you saying new sets of alternate memories can be triggered?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Focusing on someone, or a situation can bring them to the forefront. I don't always get a lot of information simply because no part of it involved me in any manner, but if it's about you, about us?"
"You get more than you need. I will remember that in the future." He stared into the flames for a few minutes, the quiet between us peaceful for a change. "It's the past Myls, neither of us can change it. And… and we need to focus on the future, our future, for Sara's sake."
I huffed out a breath. "I agreed to the truce, didn't I?"
"But it seems like you didn't really want to."
True enough. And I knew exactly why. "Because if we're going to co-parent Sara we're going to have to deal with each other in a civil manner at least in front of her."
"Well, yeah. Haven't we been doing just that? Mostly anyway." He sounded honestly confused at my ongoing irritation with him.
I'd clearly forgotten exactly how dense he could sometimes be. I glared at him, my eyes narrowing as I endeavored to remain calm as I answered. "Steve, being around you is uncomfortable for me. I do it for Sara's sake only."
His face fell. "Oh. How can I make it easier?"
I gave him a sad smile. "You can't, Steve, not without walking away from both of us on a permanent basis."
His back stiffened. "That's not an option."
"I know that, which is why I'm trying to deal with my feelings and ending up grouchy a lot of the time. There's a reason the three of us rarely do activities together."
"So this weekend…"
"Is for you and Sara."
"Which is why you've been hanging back so much," he summed up with a nod as if making certain he'd set the new paradigm into place. "So, no to the dating?"
"I said I'll think about it," I groused, never intending to actually answer that question.
"I've raised two kids, I know what 'I'll think about it' means."
I tipped my head slightly. "Then you have your answer, don't you." Irritation began to build again, mostly because it hurt to say no. To watch his brow knit together as if he truly couldn't understand why I'd keep him at arm's length knowing I still cared about him. "I can't, Steve, I still hurt too much where we are concerned. You may have had years, but for me, it's been months. It was easier when you were ignoring me."
"Okay." He sounded thoroughly unhappy with my reasoning, but he seemed to understand that pushing me right now would be counterproductive. "Your parents invited me to stay here for the rest of the weekend."
"I figured they would."
"Do you have an opinion on the matter?"
"Not a one. You're a big boy, Steve, and last I checked you excelled at doing the right thing." I stood, and stretched, my back popping softly. "I'm going to take a walk, you should go hang out with Sara before she heads to bed." It might be vacation, but she still had a semi-strict bedtime. Tomorrow night she'd get to stay up late to watch the fireworks.
"We'll figure this out, we always do."
I had my doubts. We used to be in sync with each other, but now everything was off-kilter and I had serious doubts we'd be able to find that sympatico ever again. "Good night, Steve." Before he had the chance to say another word, I walked away, heading towards the sound of the surf and the smell of the sea.
Thanks for taking the urchin for another night."
"No problem. Is everything all right?"
"No. It isn't." I took a breath and asked something I had no right to. "Can I stop by when I'm done? It'll probably be late. Not to get Sara, though. I just… I need to talk to you."
"Sure. You know I don't sleep all that much. You have the codes, just let yourself in."
I punched in my keycode for the door - we'd set it up so each person had their own code to better restrict access, especially when Sara was in residence - and shut it as quietly as I could manage. I had the feeling Steve would regret inviting me to stop by, but I desperately needed to speak to someone outside of my usual circle about the last few days, and, in truth, out or not he needed to be aware of what had happened as it could potentially affect him personally.
The place dim, the only light coming in through the big windows overlooking the river and a nightlight in the kitchen so Sara wouldn't have to stumble around in the dark if she should wake up in the middle of the night. Not that she'd had any issues sleeping here. From day one she'd felt safe and secure with her father even on weekends alone. Her Expendable bodyguards on-call only as none of us doubted Steve would protect her with his life if necessary. Ares babysat silently, of course, with permission just in case, as both of them could be potential targets simply because they knew me.
And now… now it had become even more of a necessity.
"Steve," I called out softly, not wanting to wake Sara, who while inheriting her father's enhancements to a degree still required massive amounts of sleep to power her growing body. One day she might be able to go weeks without her body requiring her to crash, but not yet. Our best guess as to when that might happen was post-puberty, late teens, or early twenties. So she still had time to be normal, for want of a better term. Though in truth we had no real clue. She, as far as we knew, was the first serum-enhanced child as Steve and Peggy's children did not overtly benefit from that part of his genetics.
I debated checking the bedroom when I heard breathing from straight ahead. Confused, I followed the sound to discover him out cold on the sofa. A tablet had fallen to the floor and gone into snooze mode suggesting he'd been reading or the like when Nod had descended and encouraged him to slumber.
I snickered softly, it had been a rare thing for his boundless energy to peter out, which caused a tinge of worry to shiver through me. While he'd visibly erased years turning back the clock with his Immortality Machine stunt, that didn't mean the years weren't still present in his bones. He might look all of thirty-five but could in actuality be five-hundred years old; tired and worn from all he had seen and done.
I really needed to speak to Lang, see if he had any insights into the possible side-effects. Hell, just to check in and see how he was doing.
Steve… twitched was not the right word, but definitely became aware that someone had joined him in the room.
"It's just me," I told him, a wave of deja vu washing across me at the words. Not that it took any real effort to remember another occasion where a similar situation had occurred. Though the last time we'd been in bed together and I'd been convinced he'd decided to break up with me. I sighed at the memory.
He shifted, squinting at me in the darkened room. "What time is it?"
"Late. After oh-two-hundred. I didn't expect you to be asleep." I picked up the tablet then set it on the coffee table. "Herding a five-year-old too much for you, old man?"
"Apparently," he muttered as he endeavored to sit up a bit more.
I really needed to talk to him, but knew it could wait until the morning, or after the sun had come up anyway. "I'll go."
I started to turn when his hand on my leg froze me in place. "No. You said you needed to talk and I'll be fine."
"Steve…" I wanted to argue against it. Wanted to not burden him with the potentially troubling information, but… but he needed to know. More deserved to know.
He twisted about until his bare feet thudded onto the floor, the blanket draped across his lap, his hair amusingly tousled. "Do I need to make it an order?" he offered, his tone taking on a hint of the Captain I had known so well.
I snickered. "No. And you're not my Captain anymore."
"Well, not in a military sense anyway."
I intentionally ignored his implied meaning and stumbled verbally forward into my real reason for being here. "You remember, a couple weeks ago, the whole Elementals and Mysterio incidents?"
He nodded. "Quentin Beck. I never met him, but remember hearing about him back in the day. And Queens. No way in hell that kid killed anyone. I hope Fury is working on clearing his name. And why in heaven's name would Fury call Parker in to help instead of The Expendables? You guys have far more experience with such things. And you probably would have seen through the whole charade long before London was demolished."
When he paused to catch his breath he caught the look on my face. "Uh, maybe I should just shut up and let you tell me what's going on?"
"Maybe," I agreed, not the least bit surprised he'd rushed to the defense of the youngest member of the Avengers, no matter how it had come about. "I have already spoken to Fury about his decision and all I can say is that there were extenuating circumstances."
"Ones you don't agree with," he observed and not wrongly.
"You'd be correct, but Fury is… Fury and he always has more than one reason for doing anything. That said, this backfired horribly and mostly on Mr. Parker."
"Sit, please." Steve shifted sideways to make room for me, but I settled onto the coffee table instead, not wanting to be that close and needing to face him for this discussion.
"I can't tell you everything and even what I can is considered classified so-"
"I can keep a secret, Myls. You need to talk. Talk."
I nodded curtly. "I've been in DC at semi-official meetings about that incident and the Avengers' involvement. Meetings headed by Ross."
A frown creased Steve's features, but he remained silent for now.
"Fury and Hill were there, but had no idea I'd been called in as well."
"Oh, that's not good." His observation frighteningly accurate and exactly how I'd reacted to the situation. Hell, until they'd announced the purpose of the meeting I had no idea why my presence had been requested. Not that I had much more clue after as I hadn't been in any way involved with the situation either during or after the events.
"Not a bit. Fury had asked me to find the proof that Parker was indeed innocent of Beck's accusation of murder and I'd provided it to him within days. Ares had been able to easily distinguish reality from projection. Fury had presented it and as far as the committee is concerned Parker is in the clear. However, this Jameson apparently has a hard-on for Spiderman and will not let it go. So the poor kid has been outed and has a major newspaper demanding his arrest even though we've got proof otherwise."
"Any of Beck's people come forward yet?" An astute question.
"Being rounded up as we speak. Ares has been hunting them and while smart they can't hide from him for long. We fully expect the ones in custody to give up the rest in short order. They did a massive amount of destruction and several countries are calling for their heads, some more literally than others." Some of them would certainly cut deals and be repurposed on one project or another, but a few would be the scapegoats and receive highly visible trials and convictions. Someone had to pay.
"But none of it involved you or The Expendables until after, so why did Ross want you there?"
"Ah, I see you've picked up on that too. Not having been present for Hill's or Fury's turn in the hot seat I presumed they'd explained their reasoning as to using Parker instead of The Expendables, but in essence, for Ross, it comes down to we are not Avengers."
"And Ross didn't like that answer I take it." Not a question at all as Steve had never been an idiot and had a fair handle on how Ross worked.
"Not one little bit. I had to explain we were subcontracted for two specific purposes: the dig site and training. Technically, Fury would have had to renegotiate our deal to use us against the Elementals."
"Loophole. You would have sent people had he asked."
"Of course I would have," I agreed.
"Which is why he didn't ask. Maybe he knew this confrontation with Ross was coming and did it to protect you and yours?"
Given Fury had told me exactly that I shrugged. "Possibly. I can't say." And I couldn't at Fury's personal request. We both could see the writing on the wall, but we each had to protect our own and I could not fault him for his decisions once I understood the entire situation. Ross thought he knew what Fury had planned, but in reality, he had no clue and now that I did, I would protect that knowledge with my life.
Steve's lip twitched, but he resisted asking the question I could see in his eyes. "So why did Ross want you there? Aside from proving Parker innocent, which didn't require your presence, why you?"
"Ah, you have seen it too." I rubbed a hand across my face, suddenly feeling exhausted. I permitted various moments of those meetings to flicker through my mind. All the subtleties that suggested he knew far more than he should. His disturbing insistence that we, meaning the Expendables, should be counted as Avengers and act accordingly. "Ross wants me, through The Expendables, under his thumb. I had to make it extraordinarily clear that we were hired for a specific purpose and no more."
"And what does he think you are there for?"
"He seems to think we're Avengers in all but name."
"Aren't you?" he asked, voice soft and serious.
"If you had asked me before this trip I would have said yes, but now…" I shook my head. "I have to draw a line in the sand. I will not sign some new version of the Accords. I will not have my company, my people, under that man's thumb. I walked away for a reason and that… that man has the gall-"
Steve wrapped his hands about mine cutting my words off cold. "Easy there, Myls, you don't want to wake Sara."
I sucked in a harsh breath. "Right. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry, you're clearly upset for a reason. Tell me, please."
"I think he knows about Sara," I told him at a hoarse whisper. "That Steve Rogers is her father. And he's trying to get control of her through The Expendables."
Steve's hands around mine tightened painfully, his knuckles popping in the sudden rush of emotions. His face had gone blank, but his eyes… I'd seen that look in his eyes before. Anger. True, violent anger, the likes of which all reasonable men should fear.
And all for Sara. Our Sara.
God, I'd forgotten how much I loved the man and his righteous wrath.
"How?" he questioned through grit teeth.
"I don't know, but I swear I will find out." I did not say that when I did the person would pay, and pay dearly. "He may have simply put two and two together."
"He's not that smart," Steve growled.
I choked on a laugh, harsh and brittle in my mouth. "What am I going to do?"
His hands shifted to my shoulders, lending his strength to me. "Whatever you need to do. If you want to run… Can you run? Do you have someplace safe to go?"
I nodded. "Our main base is in Europe and we can always go to ground at the Sanctuary if it comes to that." I really didn't want it to come to that. "I just don't know how far Ross's reach extends. Last time he had the backing of the UN. If they come for us…"
"Then we leave. Together."
"I can't ask you to do that, Steve, you just got settled in here. You just opened the gym-"
"I can do that anywhere." One hand cupped my cheek and I had to not lean into it. "Where you go, I go."
"You don't mean that. You want out of this business, this would drag you right back in." I would never ask him to return to this messy business. We might not be at war, but me and mine did still get shot at even when doing nothing more than escorting some dignitary who could afford our exorbitant prices.
"And I will stay out, but you have people to care for, can you afford to walk away from the Avengers?"
What a question. "I've been turning away work that pays far more than what Fury can afford."
"Why then? A real reason," he requested, the hard edge still in his voice though his tone remained soft.
"Because the world needs the Avengers. Because by stopping Thanos we've announced to the universe we are a power to be reckoned with and feel threatened by. You went to the past, Steve, without once considering what might be coming in our future. Hell, you were out there when you returned the Stones. Can you tell me with absolute certainty that we… that this planet is ready to face what's really out there?"
He frowned, head tipping down for a long moment. "I can't tell you that. I saw things you can't even imagine out there, but that doesn't mean it has to be your fight."
"If the world is at stake it's everyone's fight," I argued, my back stiffening defensively.
"Of course," he agreed hastily. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that during our lifetime."
I huffed out a breath. "You mean your next couple hundred years?"
His eyes narrowed warningly. "And I'd protect you and Sara for all of them if possible."
I shook my head. "I know that. I'm saying you don't have to. You wanted a fresh start, but tying yourself to me… No point in repeating history."
"No point-" He stood up, the blanket falling to the floor. "I need to show you something."
I stared up at him, the look of determination on his face surprising me. "Steve-"
"C'mon, up." He grasped my hands and urged me to stand.
I said nothing as I followed him across the apartment to the nook he'd taken over for his artwork. Yes, he still drew and painted but he, as of now, had no intentions to sell any of them. He would need to come up with a new style, which he'd been working on, and a new nom de plume, before allowing the world to see his works. So far, he'd mostly painted the view beyond the windows. "These are good," I told him.
He headed off to a cabinet and opened it up. "Practice. I actually haven't painted in decades." He pulled out a huge portfolio. He set it on the drawing table and opened it up. "Look." He gestured at the pictures within.
I sidled over and did as he had requested, my breath trapped within my lungs for long moments. The image on top of me, but not one I recalled him drawing when we'd been together. I sat curled up in a chair, bare toes peeking out from under a blanket, book in hand. The background only vaguely described so I could not immediately place the location. It could have been his place at the Compound, the house in Hilton Head, a random hotel we'd stayed at when on an op. Hell, it could have simply been something his imagination had conjured up. I turned the page to find me again. I flipped through to discover nearly two dozen drawings and paintings of me, none of which I had been present for.
"Steve?" The confusion in my voice must have registered on him as he appeared at my side an instant later. "What is this?"
"This is what I've been trying to tell you for weeks, Myls. I didn't forget you when I went back to Peggy. Hell, you're a huge part of why I was able to make that decision. You always wanted me to be happy even if it meant walking away from the Avengers." He set a hand on my shoulder and encouraged me to face him. "My decision was never about you, it was about me and finally having something for myself."
"You had me, in case you've forgotten."
"No, I haven't and I've already told you numerous times I have regrets about those decisions. But it changes nothing in the here and now."
"Then why show me this?" I waved at the portfolio not even trying to understand what might be happening right now. It hurt. So fucking much.
Both hands settled on my shoulders. "Because…" I could see on his face when he changed whatever he had planned to say. "Because I'm trying to have a relationship with Myla Stormcloud and the fool keeps getting in the way."
My jaw fell open at his words, words that were an eerie reflection of those I had thrown at him in anger a lifetime ago. Then, much to my surprise and horror, I burst into tears.
"Myls? You okay?"
"I hate you so much right now."
He chuckled. "I hate you too." He leaned in and rested his forehead against mine. "Can we date now, please?"
Through the tears, I managed, "I'll think about it."
He snorted then did the unexpected and kissed me.
I whimpered, my hands had a mind of their own, found his hips and pulled him close for several unending seconds before my brain regained control and I stepped back. He hadn't let go and used his thumbs to wipe away the tears. I don't know what he saw, but he asked, "When did you last sleep?"
I honestly had to think about it. "Uh, four days. Ish."
He shook his head. "Let's get you to bed."
"I still have stuff to tell you."
He kissed me on the forehead. "Tomorrow, doll, you need some sleep first."
I took a moment to rub my eyes, not about to admit that he could be right. "Fine. I'll be back to pick up the munchkin before lunch."
"You misunderstand. You can crash here. We can all have breakfast together and you can tell me the rest of your news then."
"Steve, I'm not sure that's a good idea. I don't want Sara to think-"
"That we're friends? I know it's going to take time, Myls, just… be willing to give us some, okay?"
I wanted to cry again, which pretty much convinced me I needed sleep. "Okay," I conceded. "Lead, the way, Captain."
Morning arrives and Myls fills in Steve with the rest of her news over breakfast.
Better than I had in ages.
The light coming in the windows informed me that it must be well after dawn, which had become my usual time to rise simply because that's what us military types did. That and having an energetic five-year-old running about. I typically slept most nights, three, four hours had generally been more than enough to recharge my batteries, but when needed I could go days without. Four days about my limit unless the need had become dire. And while stressful the last few days had not been life or death. Little wonder I'd taken a sidestep into an emotional wreck while talking to Steve.
I rolled over, mashed my face into the pillow, and breathed in deep. A wave of peace and comfort washed through me making certain portions of my anatomy wish I hadn't been left alone to sleep in his huge bed.
The sheets, pillowcases, even the blanket had become imbedded with his scent, which my hindbrain clearly recalled and enjoyed.
I kind of hated myself for taking pleasure in it. I fully realized that I had tentatively agreed to dating during the wee hours of the morning and only somewhat regretted it come the bright light of day.
I heard childish laughter from the out in the apartment, which meant the munchkin had not only awoken but was most likely up to mischief. With a soft sigh, I threw off the covers and headed to the en suite to freshen up before joining my daughter and her father.
I'd tamed my hair back into something a mostly normal person would go out in public with but left the t-shirt and shorts Steve had provided for sleeping in on, not able to even bear the sight of the clothes I'd worn the day before. I'd change once I grabbed my bags from the car. I'd worn official Expendable uniforms to the meetings mostly because it clearly irritated Ross, but had some civvies with me in the event I'd had time to play tourist. I hadn't been able to, of course, my free time had been taken up with meetings with Hill and Fury, once they realized I'd been called to testify, as well as contacting my people to give them a heads up. Never mind the general work that never actually stopped. I might be able to delegate quite a bit of it, but more than enough still fell on my shoulders to keep my busy.
I opened the bedroom door to see Steve and Sara working together on a massive breakfast of waffles, bacon, and eggs all of which smelled wonderful and reminded my stomach that I had failed to input any calories for an extended period of time.
Two heads snapped about, big smiles lighting up both their faces when they saw me. The measuring scoop clattered into the bowl with a goopy splash as my daughter's focus switched from pouring the next batch of waffle batter to greeting me. She thudded across the hardwood to tackle-hug me with enough force to pull a surprise 'oof' from me.
"Morning, mom," she said as she attempted to squeeze the stuffing out of me.
"We both know it is not morning until after I've had my first cup of caffeine."
She shifted to tip her head up at me with narrowed eyes. "You slept more than two hours, you'll be fine."
"No, she won't," Steve stated, holding up a full mug that I could only hope had been poured for me.
I shuffled forward, Sara dragging her feet for a few steps, then adroitly placing her feet atop my own so that I walked the two of us back to the kitchen. Once close enough I took the proffered mug with one hand while the other remained curled about my daughter. I drank it, noting he'd gotten it just the way I preferred. "Thank you."
He nodded. "I hope you're hungry, someone insisted on cooking enough for an army."
Sara tipped her head up, her chin digging into my stomach. "That would be me."
"Really? I never would have guessed."
Steve snickered. "We usually don't go all out like this, but she insisted it was a special occasion."
"Well, it's an occasion anyway," I grumbled, not wanting Sara to think anything might be going on between me and her father.
She stuck her tongue out at me, blew an impressive raspberry, and then bounded away, returning to the stool she'd been standing on whilst pouring the batter. "We don't have to leave right away do we?" she asked without even glancing my way and I could see she had prepared herself for that disappointment.
"No, sweetie, we can hang around for a bit."
She did her best to contain the glee and simply nodded. "Cool. Maybe we can all go to the park later?" she asked, so hopeful and clearly wanting the three of us to spend time together.
I glanced over at Steve who made a point to keep a completely neutral expression on his face. I answered in just as neutral a tone. "Maybe. I do still have work to do, it's just not urgent. Understand?"
She nodded vigorously. "Yes. Work comes first."
I shivered from head to toe at her response. I did not like the fact that she found that normal or that I had taught her that, even by accident. I set my cup down on the counter and her eyes came up to meet mine. "Sara, work is never first. You are. My family is. If I'm away it's because the work is what I need to do to protect you."
She scrunched up her face and I could see was thinking hard about what I'd just said. "Protecting the world protects me," she stated softly with a nod as if satisfied with her reasoning.
"That too," I agreed. "But if it comes down to it, I'll always choose my family."
"Does that include dad?" she asked tentatively, purposely not looking at him.
"Yes," I told her and meaning it.
"Yay," she responded with glee. "So does that mean more sleepovers?"
I snorted. "We'll see. Now finish making the waffles, I'm hungry."
"Yes, ma'am," she responded, complete with a proper salute. Then promptly went back to scooping batter and pouring it into the waffle iron. I watched as she closed it with care and shifted away as it hissed steam out the side.
Steve, who had not spoken through the entire exchange sidled over next to me. I lifted my cup back up in an effort to not talk to him right now. Even if we'd been completely at odds I would have said yes about including him as family, simply because he was Sara's father.
"She's very careful and I never leave her alone when we cook," he informed me in a soft voice.
"Well, given you burn water I should hope so."
He sighed softly. "I got better. Had no choice in that given I stayed home with the kids for the most part."
I had wondered about that since I knew Peggy had been involved with SHIELD for the majority of her adult life and knew with certainty that had been a full-time job. I had never asked and probably never would. What he'd done during those years were none of business.
Made me wonder yet again why he would tie himself to me as it seemed to be nothing more than a repeat of the same situation. Our relationship an odd echo of the one he'd had with Peggy including the interruption in the middle of it all. And that in no way made me want to continue the trend no matter how much my heart thought it to be a good idea.
Repeating history yet again.
This time I did sigh.
"What?" he asked, his voice still soft in an effort to keep the discussion between us alone.
I shook my head and drank my coffee, not about to answer him ever, if I could get away with it. Thankfully the waffle maker chimed signaling it had completed its task and Steve moved over to remove the finished product and add it to the warming plate. "I think we have enough for now."
Sara pouted and pointed at the half-filled bowl of batter still remaining. "But we can make more."
"And we can save the rest for later. Or use it for waffle cones and ice cream after lunch."
Sara's eyes got huge at that idea. "Deal," she agreed instantly. "Hot dogs for lunch."
"I think we can arrange that," Steve told her with a sweet smile on his face.
He seemed completely different from the man I'd gone into battle with. Which made a ton of sense given he'd lived an entire lifetime as a civilian. Not having to think about battle plans, or wars, or riding herd over a bunch of jarhead wannabes. Perhaps for the first time since his return, I realized that the man before me was not Captain America, but simply Steve Rogers, of whom I'd only gotten glimpses when we'd been together.
I may have not changed all that much in the years we'd been apart, but he most certainly had. In truth, I barely knew the man before me which made something within me crack. The realization a painful one. I loved a ghost, an echo, a what might have been, and not the man attempting to keep our daughter from overloading her plate with breakfast goodies.
Little wonder I'd wanted to run away every time we started to butt heads, my hindbrain trying to prevent me from seeing this paradigm shift.
"God, I need a drink," I muttered under my breath.
Steve's eyebrows shot up. "Uh, I have some whiskey if you want to make that an Irish coffee."
"No point. She can't get drunk," Sara stated about a mouthful of waffle.
"Doesn't mean I can't try," I pointed out, then took a dramatic sip of coffee.
"What do you mean you can't get drunk?" Steve asked, confusion coloring his words.
"Okay, so she can, but she's got to… to... What's it again? Something about a fish?" She waved her fork about somehow not flinging the piece of egg off as she did so.
"Drink like a fish out of water," I responded without thinking.
"That's not an answer," Steve groused, his brows wrinkling as he tried to understand what we weren't saying directly.
"Mom's like us, enhanced," Sara finally said.
The thunderous look on Steve's face actually frightened me for a second. "What?"
"Uh oh," Sara mumbled. "Was I not supposed to tell him?"
I ignored the glare being leveled at me and turned to reassure my daughter. "It's fine, munchkin. It just hasn't come up before."
"Oh. Then I guess I should tell him it was my fault so he won't be mad at you."
"I'm not mad," Steve growled between clenched teeth.
Sara's head swung between me and him for a moment. "You're right mom, he can't lie at all."
I endeavored to not snort into my mug even as he glowered at me. "Honey-"
"I'll go eat in the nook. Maybe color for a while when I'm done." With that, she carefully scooted off the stool, grabbed her plate still piled precariously high with food, and left the two of us alone. Well, as alone as we could be in an oversized studio apartment.
As soon as she was out of sight Steve hissed, "You had to go and inject yourself with some untested serum just because she was born enhanced?"
"What? No. I'm not an idiot, Steve." That he even considered that I'd been dumb enough to do this to myself just proved how much we no longer knew each other.
"Then how?" he growled, voice soft, but full of so much anger that it shocked me.
"What she said," I answered flippantly, hooking a thumb in the direction our daughter had gone.
He swiped a hand across his face in a failing effort to rein in his anger. "Myla."
"I said the pregnancy was difficult. There were side-effects no one could predict."
The anger eased back a bit. "Explain, please."
I sighed softly. "Babies are essentially parasites, relying on the host for nourishment. An enhanced one even more so. There were issues going into my third trimester that left me severely underweight and on bed rest." I paused trying to gauge his response, but he'd put up that neutral mask, not willing to respond until I'd explained in full. "There was a small, but no less dangerous placental abruption, among other issues. Somewhere in there, the fetal/host blood barrier was crossed."
He nodded slowly. "And you responded to the serum in her blood."
"Yes. I'm not as strong as either of you but have the same type of enhancements. Useful in a fight, but nothing extraordinary." I set my mug down and looked him straight in the eye. "I never intended this to happen, but I-"
"No, I overreacted," he told me, tense shoulders relaxing finally. "How strong."
"If you're a ten then I'm a five." I gave him a lopsided grin. "You might even feel it if I punched you now."
He snorted. "Just… why didn't you tell me?" he asked in a hurt tone.
I shrugged. "Like I said, it hadn't come up is all."
He stared down at the counter as he thought everything through. "You almost lost her."
"Yes," I agreed. "But I didn't and it was worth every moment of terror to have the privilege to raise her." I didn't bother telling him that I'd damn near died a couple of times along the way. Pregnancy and a major head injury don't really mix all that well.
"I want to say 'I wish I'd been there' but we've already discussed that scenario to death haven't we?"
"And it would have changed very little other than you being worried and scared too."
He heaved a huge sigh. "Fair enough." He fixed up a plate and slid it in front of me. "You had other news for me?"
I snagged a chair and settled into it, taking the fork he handed me. "Not good news, I'm afraid."
"I figured." He shifted to see around into the nook to check on Sara.
"The reason I took an extra day was so I could go to the Compound to talk to Wilson and Barnes. The news affects them most of all." I took a moment to inhale a couple of forkfuls of waffle covered liberally in maple syrup before continuing. "Ross, or his toady most likely, plan to announce their choice for the new Captain America."
"Sam is Captain America."
"Sam was your choice, yes, but as I said Ross is firming up his grip on the Avengers."
A frown crossed his features. "Who and why?"
I decided to tackle the why first. "They want someone… less controversial."
"You mean white."
I shook my head. "I don't believe so. When I accused Ross of that very thing he explained it was due to Sam going rogue with you and Natasha over the Accords."
"They want someone who will follow orders no matter what."
I completely agreed with his assessment. "They've chosen a man named John Walker to take on the mantle."
Steve sucked in a breath. "Christ. He got rejected by both SHIELD and the Avengers due to his attitude."
"So he'll be just perfect for Ross and his revamped Avengers," I grumbled. I'd done some research on him, but aside from his military record, a lot seemed to be missing. Most of it recently removed.
"Is he enhanced?"
"I do not know with any certainty, but I suspect so."
"The last thing this world needs is another Schmidt."
"Since I doubt they've duplicated Erskine's formula that shouldn't be a concern. They may have just tweaked SHIELD's version that they used on Director Mace to make it permanent." I poked at the remaining waffle, set down the fork, and picked up a strip of bacon to nibble on. "I'm just glad I turned out to be the good person I thought I was."
"What do you mean?" Steve questioned shifting over to stand next to me, his eyes on Sara in the other room for a moment before settling on me.
"I mean, the serum in me is the same as yours, technically, which enhances a person across the board."
"'Good becomes great. Bad becomes worse,'" Steve quoted.
"That's my understanding anyway," I agreed. We'd all heard the stories, all knew the theories, but no other formula had the same effects as the original. Barnes had remained Barnes, just better. The other Winter Soldiers had still been a Hydra hit squad, just meaner. No one else had the side-effects Schmidt had suffered. I glanced over at my daughter once again wondering what the future might hold for her.
Steve leaned down to whisper directly in my ear in an effort to keep Sara from overhearing. "She'll be fine."
"You can't know that."
"Sure I can. She's got us."
"Tell me that again when she's a moody teenager," I grumbled.
Steve snickered. "I've survived two, I think we can handle her."
The her in question cleared her throat loudly behind us. In unison, we turned to see Sara standing there, empty plate in hand, and a sock-covered foot tapping impatiently on the floor.
"Yes?" I inquired, wondering why the sudden attack of attention-seeking when she'd volunteered to leave so that we could talk.
She aimed her look at Steve and pointedly cleared her throat again. When he didn't react she said, through clenched teeth, "You said you'd ask her at breakfast."
Sara sighed and rolled her eyes. "About next weekend," she added, once again moving her lips as little as possible.
Thank god she hadn't yet figured out my mimicking trick or how to throw her voice.
I turned to Steve expectantly to find his brows knit together as he tried to figure out just what the hell his daughter was referring to.
She huffed out a breath. "Morgan," she added.
"Oh. Oh." He turned to me and in an overly formal tone said, "Miss Morgan has requested a sleepover for next weekend."
I glanced over at Sara who looked at me with the full power puppy dog eyes in place. "Please? It'll be our last chance before school starts."
"Well, not your last chance, though it does depend on how busy Pepper is."
Sara nodded in agreement. "'Zactly. You an' Miss Pepper have been busy a lot lately."
Given I hadn't planned on saying no and had intended to contact Pepper this week for that exact reason I nodded. "I'll need to speak to Pepper to make the arrangements but it shouldn't be a problem."
Sara tried to clap her hands, realized she still carried the plate in them, and hastily set it on the counter so she could give both me and her father a moderately sticky hug.
"Can I have juice now?"
"Sure, kiddo, apple, or orange?"
Steve glanced at me and I nodded.
"Weirdo," I said sotto voce to her, making her smile.
"Miss Pepper was really confused about who dad was."
I damn near choked on my bacon. "What? You spoke to Pepper?"
Steve's shoulder's hunched forward slightly in reaction as he poured first orange then apple juice into a cup for Sara. "I had the mask on, but yeah, she is remarkably protective of Sara."
I rubbed the scar on the right side of my head which had begun to throb in time to my heartbeat. "Shit," I muttered. "I can imagine. What was your cover?"
"I said he was your special friend," Sara explained as she took the cup without sloshing a single drop, drank half while watching me over the rim of the glass for my response.
"She probably assumes we're dating, though I've said nothing of the sort." Steve somehow managed to look chagrinned over this development even though he'd been angling for exactly that for weeks now.
"I am so going to get an earful when I drop the urchin off."
Sara's face lit up. "Does that mean yes?"
I nodded without telling her I'd been planning a weekend for her and Morgan anyway. "Yes. I'll call Pepper later to make all the arrangements."
"Yay," she cheered bouncing on her toes. "I like the lakehouse."
"Me too, sweetie. What other adventures were there while I was gone?"
"I got to talk to Uncle Sam," she told me with a grin.
This time instead of choking I damn near did a spit take and I broke out into laughter. "Oh god. If the whole Walker thing happens he could always take on that moniker. Picture the outfit."
Steve went dead still then began to chuckle. "Now that I might just draw."
"Yes. Christmas present."
"Why is this funny?" Sara asked.
"When you get a moment google World War II, Uncle Sam, okay?"
"Why didn't I think of that," she complained at herself. "Will it explain why Uncle Buck started laughing?"
I snorted. "Yes, it will. Uncle Buck is almost as bad a moniker."
One of Steve's eyebrows shot upwards in lieu of a verbalized question.
"A movie that I will show you eventually. It is not small ear approved."
"Ah. A Netflix and chill kind of deal, huh?"
"No. Dear god no." I forced myself to not react to his proper use of the Milllenial term for a date night. "Though why was she having a chat with the boys?"
"Well, I was having a chat with the boys and she was here so..."
"I kinda butted in. Sorry, mom."
"Sara, it's fine, they already knew about you, I just..." I took a moment to phrase my sentence with care. "It's a potential security issue is all. Just because our end is secure, doesn't mean theirs is. And it's as much about protecting them as it is the two of you."
"Even though the whole world knows who they are and where they are?" she asked, sounding both confused and concerned.
"Depends, was Steve wearing the mask or being himself?"
Next to me, Steve sighed, which answered that question, but I still waited on Sara.
"No mask," she said, "which means if someone could access the video call they'd know he wasn't Mr. Gallagher."
I nodded in agreement. "I know it's not fun, or simple, or easy, but-"
"There's people out there who would..." she scrunched up her face as she searched for the right words, "do bad things with me. You too." She gestured at both me and her father.
"Exactly. I don't set the rules just to be mean ol' mom. I have reasons, good ones I'd like to believe, that will, hopefully, protect all of us in the long run."
"Like the rules for the Expendables even when they're not on duty, right?" she asked, more of herself than me."'Cause those rules protect the whole team."
I nodded. "Some of them I borrowed from when I worked for SHIELD and the Avengers, the rest we worked out when we went solo." I reached out to tweak her nose. "We made some adjustments when you came along and I realized exactly how important family is." I glanced over at Steve. "And we're making more to account for your return."
Steve sighed softly. "And I should know better. Sorry, Myls. Maybe it's time you made me aware of these rules."
"If you wish, But it seems an odd way of keeping you out of the business."
"There were rules I had to follow with Peggy while she worked for the SSR and SHIELD. We had to take precautions." He gave me a rueful smile. "I guess I've been out of the game a little too long."
"I'll forgive you... eventually."
With a solemn demeanor, Sara walked over to Steve and patted him on the arm. "Don't worry I'll teach you everything you need to know."
I managed to contain my laughter to a mere snort.
Steve took the offer as seriously as it had been given. "Thank you. I'll do my best to learn it all."
"You better," she warned, "Mom, doesn't let just anyone be Expendable."
His gaze shifted from her to me. "No, she doesn't."
I didn't argue the point because for maybe the first time since he'd come back into my life he was right.
Once the weekend sleepover plans for Sara had been set, Steve made his move, suggesting we take advantage of the urchin-less time and spend it together. Given I had already given my various teams their assignments for the week and had fully intended to avoid the Compound mostly because I knew Ross expected me to be there, I had no excuses to not say yes.
I made it clear that it be nothing too fancy. Mostly because I had no interest in wearing a dress. We agreed to upscale casual, which meant no military boots, and me needing to see if I even had any other shoes in the house. When he showed up at my door, as Gallagher, he took a good look at me and nodded.
I did not roll my eyes in response. "You clean up pretty well too." Which he did. He'd always been one of those men who could pull off a jeans and tee combo as well as tux with tails. Granted I hadn't seen him with the tails but in a tux? Several times.
And he always looked fantastic.
So, of course, even though he wore the aforementioned jeans and tee with the addition of a sport coat he looked as if he could have just stepped away from a photoshoot, his blue eyes bright with amusement.
I'd gone full girl for this date, as full girl as I ever got these days, an outfit from some event I'd done pre-Snap that fit the criteria of upscale casual and tailored to make even a tank look good. I double-checked to make certain I had my phone and keys in the purse with the fancy name then stepped through the door. "Where are we going?"
He set a light hand on my back, not too forward, not pushing my current uncertain boundaries too far, not doing more than being gentlemanly as always. "It's a surprise."
I huffed out a breath and fought the urge to balk. I remained unsure of this course of action.
Try, I reminded myself. That's all I had to do.
I shook my head. "Surprises for me often seem to involve unexploded IEDs so..."
He chuckled even as his brows drew together as the meaning of my words sank in. "Even though I know your job can be dangerous I seem to keep forgetting that your job can be dangerous."
I snorted, finding his phrasing amusing.
"I will endeavor to keep the surprises to a minimum in the future."
"That's not..." I frowned slightly. "I'm not certain I'm in the right headspace for this," I could feel him tense as we reached the elevator, "however, I'm going to try, okay?"
He relaxed marginally. "Okay. Maybe no work talk unless necessary?"
"I can do that," I agreed easily, not that there was much I could tell him. The only reason I'd gotten him involved at all was because of Sara, Sam, and Bucky, the latter two would probably spill at least some of the beans to him anyway, so it didn't really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. We all wanted to protect him, which, in this case, sometimes meant not keeping him in the dark as to what might be coming in the future, near or not.
Still, while the main focus of my life right now outside of family happened to be the Avengers, it was thankfully not the entirety of it. I had an easy dozen projects going on right now. Many of which were ongoing from during the years of the Snap. Those lost to Thanos's plan may have returned, but the world had changed dramatically during those years, in a lot of positive ways, keeping said positives in place and functioning took effort and I had chosen to be a part of that. Thankfully, so had my parents and siblings, and I'd been able to spin off some of the work to them, but they still came to me with questions since I'd been the one to design the systems they used to run those endeavors.
I figured I could find another topic or two to discuss while on this ostensible date.
I'd offered him the use of my family's driving service so we wouldn't have to worry about parking and he'd accepted with good grace. The city hadn't changed that much over the last few years and parking still came at a premium and while taxis and ubers were a common sight, those means of transport still somewhat relied on luck and the willingness to wait until they actually arrived.
I knew the driver by name and greeted Davis with a smile as always. Steve chatted with him during the drive, his hand resting on my thigh as if to remind me of his presence, not that I could forget for an instant, as I stared out the window at the passing scenery without really being aware of exactly where it was we were going.
He eventually squeezed my leg to get my attention. "Myls, you okay?"
I met his eyes, his brows drawn together it what could only be described as concerned.
"Yep," I assured him, not about to answer otherwise and ruin the evening for him.
I could tell he didn't quite believe me but clearly decided to wait on calling me on it. "Well, then, dinner awaits."
The door swung open and Davis held his hand out to me. He knew I didn't need it, but now was not the time to remind him of my preferences. His actions appropriate in the situation, as always. I stepped out onto the sidewalk right in front of La Sirene. I glanced back at Steve as he exited the car. "You picked this?"
He smiled wanly. "Surprise?"
I patted him on the arm in an effort to reassure him. "Excellent choice," I said and managed to not laugh when he sighed in relief. "You do realize I'd've been content with a slice at the local pizza joint, right?"
He shook his head. "I seem to recall you insisting that would not ever constitute a real date."
I snorted knowing damn well when I'd told him exactly that. "Fair enough. Davis, you'll be in the usual spot?"
"Of course ma'am, sir. Just let me know when you are ready and I'll be here within five minutes."
Steve thanked him then escorted me to the restaurant door. He gave his name for the reservation, a smile lighting up the hostess's face when she checked the notation on the tablet. Steve had obviously planned something more than just an intimate dinner at one of the best French restaurants in town. We were seated at a table in a corner that would give us some semblance of privacy. She set the menus down across from each other but I chose the seat against the wall, kitty-corner from Steve, so I'd have a view of the room and that would allow any conversation between Steve and me to be a bit more private.
"I doubt you need to be paranoid here." Steve glanced about the room, large portions of it blocked from our view due to the half-walls separating sections proving he knew exactly why I'd chosen my seat.
"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you," I quipped as I lifted the menu even though I damn well knew I'd be choosing either the duck or the rabbit. Possibly both. I decided on an appetizer then moved on to the wine menu. "You want to split a bottle?"
He frowned ever so slightly. "You've eaten here before."
I wanted to lie but knew he'd be more upset if I did. "Yes, but not in years. The chef was one of those dusted, so he just recently reopened. By all accounts, the food is even better than before."
"And here I was trying to be original," he muttered.
"Steve, I'm thrilled to be here, I honestly would have kept finding reasons to not go out, so thank you for this."
"Still, I was hoping to find something unique."
I shook my head to hide the smile. "'Fraid that's going to be a challenge. I grew up here, I've eaten at pretty much every high-end place in town thanks to my parents and their need to instill some sort of hoity-toity skills in me."
"Even though it was obvious you were never going to run in those circles?"
"And who says I don't?" I argued. "I might have taken a different career path ultimately, but I still have all sorts of contacts and, yes, friends, who run in those rich and famous circles. I still get calls from Samantha about those charity showings you did. She keeps trying to get me to donate the few pieces I kept."
He opened his mouth to say something, then paused, his mind switching tracks. I was saved from his commentary by the arrival of our waitress who greeted each of us by name. Which meant someone had recognized me at the very least and had been told to give us the full special guest treatment. That also explained us not being seated with the rabble in the main dining area. Steve ordered appetizers and deferred to me for the wine choice.
Once she had stepped away I settled back into my seat. "And?"
"You were going to say something before we got interrupted. I'm curious as to what it was."
"I just sometimes forget you are more than an Avenger. I only ever knew you in a military-esque context, there's this whole other side to you that you never really showed except on very rare occasions."
I shrugged. "Because it didn't matter. I could have gone into the family business, hell, I have a business degree, among others, it was never what I wanted to do is all. My parents were fine with it what with three siblings perfectly content to take over the reins when the time came. My brother was working for the company back in high school and loved it. I wanted something more is all."
"But you ended up running it anyway," he pointed out.
"I did and I think I did pretty well, considering."
"Your dad seems to think you did more than pretty well. You adapted to the changing times and kept the company profitable."
"I swear to god you talk to my parents more than I do," I groused, but I truly found it amusing. They wanted to make certain Steve felt like part of this family and for them, that meant involving him in their lives. He, as Gallagher only, had met my siblings and been introduced as Sara's father without telling them about Steve Rogers. I didn't like the white lie, but it was a necessity for the time being.
He chuckled. "I'm in town more and they're curious. Plus, they want to make certain Sara is happy. For being suprise grandparents, they've gone into full doting mode without batting an eye."
"You notice they don't go crazy with the gifts, right?"
He thought about it for a moment. "Huh. You're right they don't. How did you end up with such normal parents? I mean you could have been raised by the nanny, but I suspect they were involved every step of the way."
"They were. I was lucky compared to a lot of my peers. We, me and my siblings, weren't the trophy children. We were a family and my parents showed up in person to events and recitals and science fairs. It was kinda awesome."
"And embarrassing I bet."
"More for the other parents that couldn't be bothered. My parents failed to set a proper example among the stupidly rich, but I loved them all the more for it."
"Which is why you are such a down to earth parent yourself. Your family is just a bit larger given the number of Expendables to take care of."
"Hey, no work talk, we agreed."
He snorted. "It's not work if they are family and I know that's what you consider them. How many total right now?"
"Active duty?" he nodded. "Just under two hundred now that we've gotten back those we lost to the Snap. Some retired, some are organizational only, but I've still got well over a hundred field ops available."
"Which is why you've been able to handle the Avenger training and babysit the world at the same time. Your small teams can do more than some battalions of the regular military."
I waved at hand at him. "Enough. I know I'm good, no need to stroke my ego."
He laughed softly.
Our server returned, bearing goodies. Once the wine had been poured and sampled, the appetizers approved of, she took our main course orders - yes, I chose the duck - and left us to our own devices for the time being. I dug into the pate, while Steve tried his French Onion soup. His first taste meeting his approval given the closed eyes and softening of his features. "You should try the wine with it," I suggested.
He cracked open an eye to glare at me. "Don't ruin the moment."
"Not the plan, want to make it better."
He set down the spoon and sipped the wine, his face showing his appreciation for the combination of flavors now on his tongue.
"Almost like I know what I'm doing, huh?"
He grinned. "Knew I brought you along for a reason."
I laughed. "Okay, since we have some time before the main course, there's something I need to discuss with you."
"Not work. Pepper."
His hand twitched as if he'd been about to reach for the pepper shaker before he realized I meant the person. "Ah, what happened when you dropped off Sara?"
As loaded a question as there could ever be. "I thought Nat was good at interrogation, I think Pepper is better."
"I'm not surprised. Nat was just a spy, Pepper runs Stark Industries." He set his spoon aside and used the napkin to dab at his mouth even though I could see it to be unneeded. Even with the face fur, he'd never been a slob. "She has concerns about me."
"About Gallagher, yes. She is aware that I... never really moved beyond you and wondered how this new man in my life could have happened so quickly."
"Is this going to be a problem?"
"Possibly. She insinuated that she'd run a background check on you - which held up, by the way - but-"
"She didn't like that you left Sara with me with no Expendables nearby."
I nodded in agreement. "I used the agreed-upon story and told her we'd just clicked and that Sara really likes you, but I don't think she's done digging into your past, my seal of approval or not."
"So what are the options?" he asked, astutely as always.
"I shore up your cover identity, not that it needs it, and hope she doesn't dig as deep as I know she can. Though I scrubbed the data as thoroughly as I could, there could still be a dusty, forgotten trail or two leading to the fact that one Steven Gallagher is actually dead." I paused and with only a hint of hesitation asked him, "If necessary would you be open to me telling her the truth about who you are?"
Steve drank down a fair portion of his wine while he contemplated my suggestion. Eventually, he set the glass down and nodded. "If that is the only way to allay her concerns, yes. I'd like to leave that as the last resort though, no matter how much I trust her."
"Agreed." He'd pretty much come to the same endpoint I had. "You're going to have to prove your worth in her eyes, so don't screw it up."
"I suppose I could ask Thor to swing by with Stormbreaker, even though it doesn't have the same magical restrictions it might convince her."
I'd missed him picking up Mjolnir for the first time during the Endgame Battle, but had the distinct pleasure of knowing he'd always been worthy in my eyes, at the very least. "God, that moment. I wish I'd been there to see it. Thor's story can in no way do it justice."
"I'm glad you weren't. I wish I could have saved you from that battle."
I reached out and set a hand on his arm. "No, that is where I needed to be. Where we needed to be. We paid a heavy toll, but it was done willingly. That's the key point. We volunteered to be there, we weren't forced into that fight, but there was no way we were going to lose it."
Steve dropped his head halfway through my impromptu speech hiding his reaction from me. "You really mean that don't you."
"I do." I shifted my hand to his chin, encouraging him to raise his head and look me in the eye. "One day we will talk about it, but I can see you're not ready..."
"So, how's the soft opening for the gym going?" Not that I didn't know the answer, but he needed the subject changed and since he wouldn't do it, I did it for him.
He huffed out a breath that was half irritation and half laugh. "It's going just fine. I took your suggestion to offer free self-defense classes for those in the neighborhood and even after they see it's a white dude running the place they stick around."
"You hiring locals too?"
He nodded. "Since I'm not in it for the money I pay them more than I should and charge those who sign up for classes only what they can afford. Anyone who works for me gets the classes comped."
"And you train them correctly which gives them skills they can use later."
"Exactly. A lot of them seemed confused at first, especially with your guys showing up to train."
"The local gangs and dealers probably thought you were some white boy trying to move in on their territory and sent the kids in to scope you out."
"That's the same conclusion I've come to. So far they seem to think I'm just some do-gooder trying to save the kids from the gangs."
"Which you are, of course. Make sure to offer classes to women exclusively. A lot of them won't be comfortable in a mixed group. If you need some female trainers I have people who would be willing." As in they had come to me and offered their assistance without any prompting on my part. Most of us did what we could to give back on the local level especially since we'd done a lot of just that during the Snap years.
"I have classes planned, and I just might take you up on the trainer offer, though I'm trying to find someone local as well."
"If you don't we can always teach them. The basics, especially boxing, are fairly simple and easy to learn. You'll know the ones who'll make good leaders."
He smirked at me. "I do rather have a knack for that."
No way I could miss the implication he'd snuck into his simple-seeming statement. "Are you suggesting you fast-tracked me for command?" In hindsight, it became pretty obvious I'd been set on a specific path once I'd joined the Avengers, but at the time I'd just done the work and learned all I could.
"Not suggesting anything at all, stating it."
"When?" I asked seriously curious as to when the decision had been made to put me in charge of a group of idiots willing to throw themselves in the path of certain death to save someone else.
I shook my head in honest disbelief. "I damn near got thrown out on my ass on my first day for striking a 'superior officer'." I made certain the air quotes could be heard around the relevant words given the attitude of that man still left my blood boiling.
"Yes, you did. But why did you hit him?"
I tipped my head slightly. He'd mentioned on other occasions that I'd caught his eye that day, but he'd never told me exactly why. "He was an asshole. Yeah, we were technically new recruits but not a single one of us didn't have experience of one stripe or another, including actual boot camp for some of them. He was supposed to be giving us an overview and tour, and instead decided to get in all of our faces." He'd clearly read all our files and went for the kill with every single one of us. We'd exchanged glances and confused looks and the anger and irritation level had risen moment by moment until I'd made a decision. One of us or all of us. "He went too far and I punched him."
"Did you put him down with the punch?"
"Yes, but he got back up and started in on me again."
"And almost the entire group came to your defense. How many of them ended up on your team?"
"Most of them, even ones who weren't originally going to tactical units." I sipped at the wine remaining in the glass. "Huh. I never made that connection before. Still, it doesn't explain why you picked me." And I meant both sides of that question.
"Why did you hit him?"
I didn't stop to think about my answer this time. "'Cause he was being a bully and I've had more than enough experience with the type to know how to handle them. Quickly and with no misunderstanding as to my position on the matter."
Steve simply smiled at me.
And I got it then. "All this because I took out a bully?"
"You gonna be upset if I say yes?"
I shook my head. "I could have simply been a bigger bully and wanted to assert my dominance."
He snorted. "Not a chance. Every single person there came to your defense during the interviews. We knew exactly why you hit him and that you got there first by a matter of inches. You, knowing you could get booted out, still stood up to your superior-"
"Hardly superior," I interjected making him grin.
"- and chose to fall on the sword to protect the rest of them."
"Yes. I did," I commented, making it clear I would do so again should it be needed.
He reached out and tapped me on the nose. "And that's why I picked you."
"How did you manage to permit such a piece shit make it through the door to be an Avenger? There's no way any of you, especially Fury, would have missed his Hydra-like tendencies." Steve ducked his head, but I caught the edges of his crooked grin in his profile. "Wait. Are you telling me he was a plant? A fucking test?"
He laughed softly. "You are the first person to figure it out. Even if it did take you a decade."
In hindsight it became obvious, but at the time I'd just done what I deemed right. "I feel like an idiot to not see it sooner."
"Well, Nat and Fury did the planning, so..."
"Yep. That explains it, and I was still a fresh-faced newbie, so I can forgive myself for missing it."
"Almost like we knew what we were doing."
I snorted. "How many others decked him?"
"None. A few shoves, but mostly they just got in his face to make him back down. You made your statement concise and clear."
"And yet it was enough."
"It was. And here comes our main course."
The food was delivered with little ceremony, I'd ordered a different bottle of wine to go with our main courses and then settled in to eat. I mostly watched Steve, who quite plainly enjoyed every single bite of his rack of lamb. I'd been honestly surprised when he hadn't ordered the steak, which seemed more within his comfort zone. The one I recalled anyway. Not that he didn't like variety in his food, but given his cooking skills he tended towards the tried and true comfort foods he knew well it was unexpected. I could remember teaching him to use chopsticks for the Chinese takeout we'd gotten one time.
Seeing the changes in him just reminded me of my reluctance to be here, to even try to rekindle the more personal side of our relationship. I didn't know this man. And I loved this man with every bit of my heart and soul.
And yet, my stupid hindbrain thought this was the best idea ever. Thank god I couldn't get drunk on wine or said stupid hindbrain would end up in bed with the disgustingly handsome man sitting next to me who smelled tasty enough to eat for dessert.
I sat back and sighed softly wanting to hide my discomfiture behind the glass of wine.
Steve set down his fork and turned to look at me. "Everything okay?"
"Cognitive dissonance," I told him and it was an accurate enough response.
"Over the whole first day test?"
I shook my head. "No. About you."
"What about me? I'm the same person I always was."
I leaned forward to grab my glass of wine, but he stopped me, wrapping his warm fingers about mine.
"Talk to me, Myls."
"You've changed more than you realize. Your core self is the same, but all those years not fighting..." I trailed off not certain how to explain what I saw in him. "When we were together, the next fight was always on our minds, even when we were not part of it. Even on our dates, part of you, of us, had always been preparing for that next battle. I think the closest either of us got to shedding that particular skin was your birthday when I abducted you." I squeezed his hand, resisting the need to kiss it instead. "That is how you feel to me now, even more so. There's this peace to you that you never really had back then. And I did not put it there."
He sat there staring at me for a long moment. Gathering his thoughts, perhaps. "You are not wrong, I guess I didn't really think about how I had changed. I never wanted to fight-"
I snorted. He'd told me any number of tales involving him facing down bullies twice his size.
He smirked. "Okay, I was always a fighter, but war? Not something I planned on."
"Then you shouldn't have been so damn good at it," I commented and I knew I wasn't wrong. Granted he could have used that same tactical analytical skill in a sport, but that's not how his life had played out. "So when your chance came you reverted to what your younger and smaller self had wanted out of life. Wife, two point five kids, picket fence and to be able to create your art in relative peace."
He tipped his head slightly as if waiting on the punch line. "I guess. Granted I would never have had the opportunities I did without the army and Project Rebirth..."
"Never would have met Peggy," I pointed out.
"True. And probably would have died of TB within a couple of years. My name not even a footnote in history. I've lived a very long time, Myls, and have learned what I value most. Moments like this are worth more to me than anything."
I ducked my head, hating that I couldn't just let the past go to see what future we might have. No matter what I said, how I acted, I still found it hard to believe he wanted any part of me after getting his happy ending with Peggy. He needed to be part of my life for Sara's sake, but I failed to understand why he wanted to be with me. "Steve, I don't think I can do this."
"Why not?" he asked, trying desperately to hide his disappointment.
"Because I can't be a replacement for Peggy."
"You're not. Why can't you understand that?"
I just shook my head, not able to meet his eyes. I didn't want the heartache anymore. Didn't want to want him the way I did.
"Myls, look at me."
With great reluctance I did.
Instead of trying to convince me with words, he leaned forward and kissed me, freezing me in place. His lips were soft against mine as I whimpered in a visceral response I could in no way prevent. When I didn't pull away his hands curved about my face, fingers brushing lightly through my hair. His mouth opened slightly and I gave in and let myself fall into him for the moment.
When he finally released me, kissed me on the tip of the nose, hands still warm on my cheeks he chuckled softly. "That's why."
I opened eyes I hadn't realized I closed to see him mere inches away, eyes bright, pupils dilated, skin flushed, and a smirk on his lips.
"I'm going to need to buy more batteries," I muttered, irritated at how easily he'd completely undone what little resolve I'd managed to gather about myself in regards to him, to us.
"What?" he questioned, quickly followed by, "Oh," and a snort of amusement. "I can relate. I've given up on the effectiveness of cold showers."
I wanted to laugh, but all I could think about doing was kissing him again. "Steve..."
"Want to get out of here?"
He kissed me lightly and released me, leaving me wishing he hadn't. That he'd kissed me harder, longer. With fewer clothes on.
Steve waved for our server. "Check please."
Time for a walk in the park... and maybe something more.
By the time we made it outside not only second but third thoughts had intruded on the impending pleasure that had been sure to unfold and had no appreciable time passed.
"How about a walk in the park?"
I failed utterly to contain the sigh of relief. Central Park was only a couple city blocks away and I had no fear of muggers or the like no matter the hour. "That sounds lovely."
He pulled out his phone to text Davis the change in plans. When done, he tucked it away in the pocket of his jacket then wrapped his hand about mine and led the way towards the park.
We didn't say much on the way there, him seeming to realize that I once again had slipped down the conflicted side of the slope we currently stood upon. I completely failed to understand why he didn't have the same issues. He'd been married, for fuck's sake, to a woman I knew he completely and fully loved, and yet, the moment he got back he seemed to gravitate right back towards me. The person he'd all but ignored for the five years previous.
It made no sense and left me, mentally at least, dragging my heels when we had time together alone.
We cut through the area around the Natural History Museum, Steve nudging me now and then to look at something that had caught his eye, but my heart clearly was not in sync with his. Still, I gave him credit for not giving up. Making certain to keep his presence known and felt, even if said feelings were greatly confused at the moment. My heart and head having one hell of a disagreement as to what they wanted.
Central Park at night always had a completely different feel than during the day, even if the crowds were rarely thinner. Fewer families, maybe, given the zoo and carousel were both closed. The carriage drivers calling out to us as we neared to offer a romantic ride about the park, which he thankfully waved off. Whatever would be happening next between us, I had no interest in it having an audience.
We made our way past the castle, ending up on the south lawn across the Turtle pond from the impressive edifice. It had been restored during the Blip, because, why not. It had served as a shelter for some of those displaced when the world had gone to hell and instead of adding to the decades of wear they'd improved it. Made it into a point of pride for those who had survived the years here in New York.
A few people currently congregated on the well-lit rampart that overlooked the water as it remained a popular spot for photos both professional and candid.
Where we stood you could barely hear the hiss of tires on the pavement or the honk of horns that could be ever-present in a city this size. Central Park had always been an island of calm within the sea of glass, iron, and concrete.
Steve gave me about five minutes to settle before he shifted to face me.
"Nothing-" He frowned at me. "-and everything, I suppose."
He huffed out a breath. "I don't understand, Myls."
I chuckled, dark and pained. "That much is quite obvious."
He looked troubled at that response and a sliver of guilt stabbed through me for saying the words aloud instead of keeping them locked tightly inside.
"Why this? Why pretend to want me so much?"
"Pretend?" he sounded offended at my choice of words. "I thought you understood after I showed you those drawings?"
I shook my head and tried to step away, but he quickly grasped my hands to prevent me and I didn't put in the effort to pull away. Try, remember? And I just wanted to understand. Co-parenting Sara did not require anything more than being polite in front of her, and yet he kept insisting on more. No actual relationship required. Yes, he made it clear that he hadn't forgotten me all those years he'd been with Peggy, but all that had done was leave me even more perplexed.
When he spoke, it had to have been the last words I expected.
I blinked, then laughed, not believing him for a second. He didn't react to my probably inappropriate response, but his question had been right out of left field and even more inapplicable given our current barely tenable situation.
"You know in another timeline we and a couple of Expendables were the ones who went to Vormir."
He seemed disconcerted at my comment. "So?"
"So, you asked me to marry you then too."
He brightened at that. "And what did you say?"
"Yes, of course. Seemed to be the only viable response given the situation."
"Given the sit..." He trailed off as he processed the true meaning of the scenario. "Oh. Did we still win?"
I shrugged. "I have no idea. The memory ends shortly after I answered your question." Thankfully the instant of pain did not hit me with the same impact as it did with my other self.
"I wonder if I still went back to Peggy in that reality?" he mused aloud, wincing only slightly when he realized I'd heard him.
"Probably, given I was out of the way and you had access to time travel, if of a slightly different stripe than in this reality." I made certain to keep my tone neutral when responding to his hypothetical question. "She's always been your true north." A definite reference to his keeping the compass that held her picture all those years.
"How many times do I have to explain-" He shook his head in dismay. "You don't trust me."
I wanted to instantly insist that I did, but he had hit on the truth of it. When it came to us I didn't, not any longer. "In most things, yes. About us, not so much. And I damn well know it's an emotional reaction. I am permitted those."
He sighed softly. "Yes, you are. So is that a no to the question?"
"I'll think about it," I snapped out far more harshly than I intended.
He grinned. "You said that about dating, yet here we are."
I went stock-still while internally I threw up my hands and stalked away. I hated being angry with him, hated that he was right, that I'd stupidly backed down on my position to keep him at arm's length, that I'd let him in enough for me to almost overwhelmingly feel him again.
"Why do this, Steve? You'd made it clear we were done and we had both moved on and now this?"
He ducked his head slightly, feet shifting awkwardly on the green grass. "I hadn't planned it, that's for sure, but..."
"But what," he forced me to prompt after several long seconds of silence.
"I hadn't expected you to be there that day. Though in hindsight I should have, I suppose." He lifted his head slightly so I could see his eyes through his lashes. "I had planned to go back to my life, living quietly for the rest of my days as someone else, but then you were there in front of me, asking me the only question that mattered."
"Happy," I quoted. At the time it had been the only question of importance.
"Yeah, that. And it forced me to remember, again, why I'd always liked you so damn much. You never cared about me being Captain America. You had always cared about me, Steve Rogers, and what I wanted, or needed. As a person, not as an icon." He smiled crookedly. "You always managed to keep the Captain and Steve separate when needed, had always seen the man, not the hero. It meant more to me than you could possibly understand." He twined our hands together. "You kissed me on the cheek and walked away and I utterly failed to come up with words to make you stop. I realized in that instant that I could never be happy with you out of my life again."
I wanted to call bullshit on him, wanted to remind him with harsh words, and a harsher tone, that he'd left me in Wakanda and not once looked back, but... but he already expressed his regrets about that mistake numerous times so I remained silent. Besides, I also remembered our little tete a tete prior to the battle. Our connection instantaneous and instinctive. We hadn't been near each other in a couple of years and yet we'd been drawn to each like those proverbial moths to the flame. At that time we'd never wanted to be apart but had done so due to the exigencies of the situation. We'd changed, but not enough to change us.
It was only after we'd lost that things had really changed.
"Okay," I finally responded, accepting his words as truth. "I'm not sure it makes this situation any less complicated, though."
He tipped his head slightly in acknowledgment of my opinion of the matter. He seemed to fully comprehend the particulars of my lack of trust. Watch my back in a fight? Yes. Protect Sara? Yes. Do the right thing in a given situation? Mostly yes.
"So, why not marry me? I keep my commitments."
I didn't doubt that for a second. "Because you are still you and part of you would marry me even if you hated me just because you knocked me up."
I could seem him ready a swift retort that he just as quickly swallowed down. "Okay, you're not wrong there. So how do I prove to you that I want this relationship, and not just because of Sara?"
"I don't know, Steve. You seem like you're using marriage as proof of your commitment and not because you really want to get married. What if you get bored in five years?"
He snorted. "Not likely. But... you've made your point." He took a moment to look away from me, his eyes traveling about the park behind me while he contemplated his next words. "Close your eyes."
"Steve, if you have a ring in your pocket you can just leave it there," I all but growled.
He shook his head. "No. Nothing like that. Just... trust me for right now, please."
I grumbled under my breath but did as he asked and closed my eyes. This of course heightened my sense of smell and hearing, background noises coming alive in the flora around me. I could hear owls and bats and other nocturnal animals moving out there in the darkness. I could smell the grass being crushed under our feet, the almost bitter scent of the water the turtles thrived in, the acrid scent of car exhaust, and almost overwhelmingly him.
Not fair. I'd been fighting what my body wanted all evening long, trying to keep its demands in check and realizing that if the slightest change were to happen the balance would shift and I'd find myself falling down a slippery slope and blundering into a neverending pit from which I would probably never climb out from.
He released my hand leaving me oddly disappointed, until a moment later both of his curved about my cheeks, cupping them delicately. His lips brushed across mine drawing a breath of surprise from me. "What do you want, right now, right this instant?" his voice barely there, not even whisper loud next to my ear.
I tensed and clued him into how I would most certainly respond, so he added. "Think about just tonight. Not the future. Not what might have beens or might bes. Just right now."
Refusing to think about what I should say in favor of what I wanted to say, I answered, "You. In my bed." What I had wanted to say since he had intentionally bumped into me on the sidewalk that morning back in March.
He kissed me hungrily, his tongue finding its way inside my mouth, one of his hands slipping down my back to pull me close against him. My hands found their way under his sport coat to roam across his chest and back, fingers digging into the cloth of his shirt as my desperate need of him rose to the surface to float atop the waves of emotion that threatened to drown me.
When he finally pulled away I let out a whimper of disappointment as I had apparently been more than willing to let him have me right there on the grass in full view of a dozen souls who thankfully hadn't yet noticed us across the pond. "Good. Your place or mine."
"Mine is closer," I reminded him, not letting that door in my mind that would lead to indecision crack open even slightly. Now mattered and nothing else.
He pulled out his phone, texted Davis for a pickup, then kissed me again as soon as he'd put it away. "Myls-"
I shook my head. If he asked, I would change my mind and part of me knew it would be a tipping point. If I walked away now, that would be it. So I kissed him, preventing him from giving me that out I would take and convincing him that, at least for the moment, I would do more than just try.
Grayed-out light filtered its way into the room when I opened my eyes. The weight of an arm draped across my hip, warmth against my back, the soft susurrus of breath between my shoulder blades made me want to fall back into the arms of Nod so that this moment could continue on for an indefinite time instead of having to face the reality that I'd fucked up in the most literal sense possible.
Steve mumbled something and tightened his arm, pulling me closer against his naked warmth.
We'd fallen down the rabbit hole when we'd gotten here Friday evening and hadn't come up for air since. Oh, there'd been lulls, the need to pay attention to other bodily functions like the intake of calories drawing us out from under the blanket of sensuality we'd drawn over ourselves.
It had been all but impossible to keep our hands off one another when conscious even when doing something as simple as cooking eggs. That had led to sex on my kitchen island and we'd burned the first batch of eggs.
Obviously, we remained eminently compatible when it came to sex.
But now in the cold light of day, the day our daughter would be returning home from a weekend away, I permitted that door in my mind that I'd shut and barred a day and a half ago to creak open spilling all those doubts and concerns back into the forefront of my mind.
This may have been needed, wanted even, but it had also been the dumbest thing ever to do.
Fully awake now and with a bad case of day after regret I slithered out from under Steve and the covers heading for the en suite to clean up and return to the status of being a responsible adult.
When I came out, dressed in workout wear that had been relegated to the secondary duty of hanging around the house doing chores clothes, Steve had rolled over and watched me through half-closed eyes. I gave him a wan smile but didn't stop, leaving him alone in the room to do as he saw fit.
I heard the shower start as I prepped a pot of coffee; an imported blend Tony had turned me on to. Once I had a cup in hand I grabbed my phone and plugged it into the charger while I checked to see if I'd missed anything important while in my blissed-out haze.
It turned out I'd missed nothing much at all. Normally Sara texted me every exciting moment of her visits with Morgan and the last two days had been radio silence from my enthusiastic urchin. It didn't worry me unduly, as I trusted Pepper and Happy completely, but also I suspected she knew about the date and had wanted to give me and her father time alone to figure out exactly where we stood with one another.
Not that we'd spent all that much time standing.
I sighed softly and sipped at the warm liquid that failed utterly to touch the cold spot deep within me. I heard the water shut off and moved to make a cup for him and refresh my own. I left his in clear view and moved around the counter to hopefully keep some space between us.
I shouldn't have bothered.
He strode out, hair still damp and messy from the rushed toweling he'd given it. He wore sweats and a tee with the Expendable logo on them that I think belonged to Carson and that Steve must have swiped at some point the last thirty-six hours. He ignored the cup of coffee, and instead strode about the counter, wrapped his arms about me, and kissed me on the neck.
"Morning," he mumbled, lips hot against my skin.
The heat that rushed through my body made me want to melt into his hold and permit him to have his way with me, but I shoved it back into its corner and did my level best to disregard it.
He noticed. "Everything all right, My?" He lifted his head and loosened his hold, but that was all, not about to let me off easily this time.
"Yeah," I assured him. "Just time to get back to reality is all. Happy will be dropping off Sara later today."
He shifted to the side and leaned across the island to reach for his cup of coffee. After he'd taken a taste he asked. "How is this a problem? I imagine she'd be thrilled to learn we're together."
I sighed softly, hating that I had to be the realistic one today. "Are we though? Together that is?"
His brows knit together as if in confusion. "Well, I thought so given the last couple of days, but clearly, I was mistaken."
He sounded so hurt that I wanted to apologize for leading him on even though I had in no way done that. "Steve, you asked me to think about right now, not the future, so that's what I did. Time to move beyond that is all."
"So, that's it then. One weekend and it's over?" He set the mug down with a touch too much force, the ceramic popping ominously against the granite countertop.
"What? No. For fuck's sake, Steve. A weekend of amazing sex doesn't fix everything between us. Just means we're still compatible in one specific area. That's all."
He appeared to want to make some snippy reply, but kept it inside, shaking his head in a manner that suggested he really didn't understand. "So, what now, we go back to being unfriendly at one another except in front of Sara?"
I set my cup down and buried my face in my hands in frustration for a long moment. "Why is it all or nothing with you these days?"
"It's... it's not," he argued but sounded unsure of his own motives. "I just want a chance with you, with us, but you always seem to shoot it down."
The fact that he wanted something for himself, without putting others, and by that, I meant those greater good others, first it just proved to me exactly how much he had changed and I found it oddly nice. I'd always pushed for him to be independent of his duty when we'd both been Avengers, he'd just never been able to step away from Captain America enough to do so. "When in the last few minutes did I even suggest that I was ending this, us?"
I could see him rewinding the virtual tape and going over our discussion prior to responding, "Uh..."
"I didn't," I told him. "I simply reminded you we both have a life to get back to and I have a house to clean so the entirety of the universe doesn't know we've spent the whole weekend banging each other senseless."
He snorted and ducked his head even as his cheeks pinked over.
I shifted closer. "How cute, you still blush when talking about sex."
"I'm just... It's not..." He gave up and huffed out a breath of laughter.
I grabbed my coffee and sipped at it while he got a hold of himself.
"Now what? About us, I mean?"
"Well, I thought we were going to date. Figure out if we still liked each other outside of the bedroom."
"We liked each other just fine in several rooms," he stated, an amused twinkle in his eyes.
I laughed. "Yes, we did. Quite vigorously in fact." Without permitting myself to think, I moved over to him and kissed him with every bit of hunger and enthusiasm that I had the previous day.
He groaned and wrapped me in an iron grip and let me do as I wished for several minutes before finally stepping away. "You sure you don't want to get married?" he asked voice low and rough.
"No, I'm not sure," I answered truthfully. "However, there's a lot of reasons why now is not a good time."
He seemed surprised at my response. Not a no, but not a yes either.
"Like what?" he picked up his mug and drank, the bottom clearly cracked but not yet leaking. That one would have to go.
"Oh, the Avengers, Ross, running not one but," I had to pause to count up the number accurately, "five businesses to one degree or another. "And..." I hesitated on the last reason, one that went back to when we'd been together the first time.
"And?" he prompted, knowing I wouldn't have started the sentence if I hadn't planned on finishing it.
"And I don't want you to have to watch me grow old and die."
An instant later he was at my side, fingers on my chin to make certain I could see his eyes when he spoke. "That shouldn't be a problem given you're not a regular human any longer."
I tried to argue, to explain that even though I'd been enhanced we were not equal. Thanks to him resetting his body clock, he might outlive me by centuries. Might be forced to watch our daughter grow old and die before he once again felt the effects of age defeat the changes the serum had locked into his DNA.
"And even if our lives turn out that way it will be an honor to spend those years with you."
I stared at him in utter shock as realization slowly sank in. "You mean that."
He nodded. "Every word." His fingers trailed lightly across my cheeks, neck, then settled on my shoulders. "The one thing I've learned is to treasure every moment with the ones I love. Yes, I loved Peggy and yes it was hard to watch her grow old and knowing the exact day she would leave me. Know the fight still to come and those we'd lose. Know so much and stand back and let it all play out exactly the same for fear of losing all that I had gained." He closed his eyes for a long moment forehead coming to rest against mine. "I finally understood why Tony asked us to not take back those years. I wouldn't give up a single day and I want that with you. I love you, Myla Stormcloud. That will never change."
There could only be one response to that. "I love you, Steve Rogers, and that will never change."
He sighed softly as if in relief. "Glad we got that settled, finally."
I chuckled. "Doesn't really fix anything though."
He pulled back and watched me. "No, I don't suppose it does. So, we're not setting a wedding date yet, I take it."
"Ask me again when this is all over," I told him, and for that moment meaning it.
"When do you think this will be all over?"
I shrugged as I looked at all the pieces and how they could potentially fall out in the near future. "Let's reevaluate in six months. There are factors I can't yet predict with any certainty."
"I can live with that. We will keep dating, yes?" He sounded so earnest and needy I was hard-pressed not to laugh.
"Yes. What little free time I have will be yours."
He grinned. "Breakfast on the balcony and then we'll clean up before Sara arrives."
The balcony in question being almost as large as the living room. There were advantages to living in the penthouse. "Sounds like a plan."
Just a simple gathering of friends.
I told him I wouldn't be able to get there until after I'd stopped at home to check in with Sara, who turned out to be just as bright as we expected and had been making it an interesting experience for her teachers and classmates. Thankfully, the private school I'd chosen would be able to cater her curriculum to her needs. The main point of having her attend more about getting her used to dealing with her peers not how smart she might yet turn out to be. Aside from Morgan, she'd spent little time with other children of her age group.
She'd quite literally been raised by mercenaries and an extended family unit and therefore had a decidedly different perspective on... well, on just about everything. We were two weeks in and so far she seemed to be adjusting well. She always had an adventure to tell me about so I had made a point to be there for dinner every night. Fury hadn't been thrilled but seemed to be taking it well as I was currently ahead on all the projects he had me working on.
So that meant I didn't arrive at the gym until well after twenty-one hundred, which was technically after Steve had closed the gym for the night. On weekends he tended to stay open a bit later in an effort to encourage some of the kids to stay off the streets, but so far there hadn't been much success. Steve planned to arrange matches between students once they'd gotten far enough along in their training, but for the time being, it had mostly been him and a few Expendables hanging around relaxing and making certain the equipment was in tiptop condition.
I had been given a key since every other weekend he had Sara at his place which meant she came to the gym and I often picked her up there Sunday evenings. For her age, she was quite skilled, given she'd been learning since just out of diapers. We hadn't forced her or anything, she'd simply started copying the moves and we'd taken the time to train her right when she had expressed interest.
I'd caught her showing other kids how to do some of the moves - supervised by one of my volunteer trainers - and doing it well. She had an aptitude for teaching that I knew would benefit her as she got older.
I let myself in the rear door, expecting them to be in the backroom, but the voices I heard clearly came from upfront which meant he'd closed early. Not that surprising as Wednesday tended to be slower, all the classes happening between two and six for the most part. He had a couple of women-only classes in the mornings, right after the kids went to school, but a lot of the locals had to work, so students still numbered less than a dozen in each of them.
Not a horrible thing as it left him plenty of time to paint and he'd been doing lots of that the last month or so. It wasn't like he needed the money, the gym more something to do that he enjoyed and that let him give back to the community he'd been part of for the better part of a century.
As I got closer I recognized the additional voices I heard as Wilson and Barnes. I couldn't say I was surprised, I knew they'd remained in contact with Steve, I just hadn't expected to see them here is all.
I paused in the back hallway as I heard Wilson ask, "C'mon man, you were crazy about her, so why'd you leave her in Wakanda after? A real reason."
I had my theories as to why, and Steve had admitted to it being at least part of his reasoning - to keep me out of any fight that might eventually happen. Not unreasonable from a certain perspective, but plainly not the entire truth, given Wilson, who clearly had his counselor hat on, hadn't bought it.
"I'd kind of like to know that myself," I said as I stepped out into view.
All three men's heads snapped about at my voice suggesting not a single one of them had heard me enter. The conversation must have been a serious one if not one but two supersoldiers failed utterly to hear that squeaky-ass back door open. I grabbed a folding chair and set it between Wilson and Barnes, right across from Steve, whose eyes hadn't left me since the moment I'd announced myself.
"No getting out of it now, Rogers," Wilson told him, not about to let the subject be changed even though it appeared clear Steve wanted no part of me hearing his answer.
He shook his head, dropping it so that he stared at the floor between his feet.
Barnes handed me a beer, the top already off and I gave him a nod of thanks. "It must be big if he ain't talking."
"It's... We'd lost so much," Steve began with no obvious plan for what he wanted to say next.
"Not saying you didn't, but you still had her," Wilson hooked a thumb in my direction. "From what I gather you pretty much walked away from everyone and everything Avenger-related."
"Not entirely true, I stayed in contact with Nat and Rhodey where I could. I just... I saw no point in pretending there was anything to fight anymore. We'd lost. The Stones were gone with no chance to get them back and fix things." He lifted his head slightly, look pleading. "We'd failed. I'd failed. How was supposed to give you that after when I felt like there couldn't be one?"
"So you gave up?" Barnes asked. "That's not like you."
"He lost hope," I stated softly "and he didn't want me to feel the same way." And he wasn't all that wrong. I'd've been just as crushed to learn we'd missed our only chance to fix things, but in my condition at that time, the head injury, not the pregnancy, I would not have been able to do much to console him, no matter how I might have wanted to.
"What did I have besides fighting? I knew you would have the best care on the planet, but I felt you'd be better off without me. You deserved better." Steve met my eyes for an instant before dropping them again. He quickly finished the bottle of beer in his hands, set it down, and reached for another. An attempt to drown sorrows that could never be.
"You left her high and dry because you felt unworthy of her?" Wilson reiterated with more than a dash of outrage in his voice.
I could see it. See him doing exactly that simply because he no longer felt worthy of being Captain America. That even though the outside had changed he was still, in reality, nothing more than the ninety-eight-pound weakling Steve Rogers who no girl would look at once, much less twice.
"For the record, you were always worthy, and I'm betting Thor would agree with me. Captain American wasn't the one who lifted Mjolnir on that battlefield, no, that was all Steve Rogers."
"Yeah, well, Thor didn't handle losing that fight any better than I did," Steve reminded all of us.
"And yet, he was still worthy as well." Wilson this time. "Still, you maybe could have told Myls your reason why and then I wouldn't have to be walking you through how to get back in her good graces."
"Shut up, Wilson. He's buying the beer and pizza. If you fix him he'll stop." Barnes managed to keep his tone dry as dust, but I could see the humor around his eyes.
"Like you boys need a reason to get together." I grinned then met Steve's eyes. "But, yeah, you could have told me."
"Would it have made a difference?" he questioned.
"Yes," I answered knowing it would have.
"He says you don't trust him when it comes to the two of you." Wilson's head was on a swivel watching both our reactions with care.
I shrugged. "Not when it comes to us."
"Why not?" That came from Barnes much to my surprise.
I huffed out a breath wondering when this had turned into an intervention for our relationship or lack thereof. "Because what's to stop him from changing his mind again?" I groused.
Once again Barnes cut in with the unexpected. "The two of you need to just have sex and get it over with."
"We already did. Didn't really change much of anything," Steve explained, somehow managing to not turn even the tiniest bit pink as he did so.
Barnes snorted then turned to me. "Let me guess, pheromones."
I nodded, while Steve's brows knit together as he tried to figure out the meaning of Barnes's statement. "It's been driving me nuts since he de-aged himself."
Barnes nodded. "It takes a while to get used to. Add in the fact that you were already primed to react to him and it's impressive that you held out as long as you did."
Wilson's head did the swivel thing again. "You saying he smells good to her?"
"That's an extremely poor way of describing it but in essence correct," I responded. Steve had caught up with the class finally, a rueful grin adorning his face.
"Ah, that explains a few things," Steve muttered causing Barnes to snicker.
"So the hormones won over your reluctance," Wilson summed up succinctly. "You're worried he'll leave again."
"That would be accurate."
"Hey, I proposed to prove I meant it," Steve countered with, a touch indignant.
"And I told you I'd think about it," I growled, too tired to deal with his all or nothing rational right now. I wanted a goddamned relationship, not a commitment made just to prove a point.
Wilson shook his head in utter dismay. "And you didn't hit him?"
"We were in public," I explained.
"Better with witnesses," Barnes said. "Look, I don't care if the two of you are fuck buddies or love everlasting, but you need to figure it out soon. Somethings coming and we're gonna need you," He looked directly at me, "thinking straight."
"Ross made his move?" I asked. I had known it would be happening soon but had thought I'd be telling them, not the other way around.
"This week, according to Fury," Wilson confirmed. "Ross plans to announce Walker as the government's choice as the new Captain America."
"Fury is not a happy camper," Wilson added.
"Damn it," I groused. "I've been focused on the new AI the last few weeks, the programming is a bitch, to put it mildly, and haven't been keeping up on that particular situation. Just keep in mind that Walker is not and never will be an Avenger. Ross wants the Avengers, Fury isn't about to let him have them, so... stalemate."
"Of sorts," Steve added.
"Of sorts," I agreed. "Since I had to pull back the Expendables to just training Ross has been pushing for a team to handle Avenger level issues without us."
"What are we? Chopped liver?" Barnes groused.
"Not under Ross's control," Wilson stated. "We don't answer to him."
"Exactly." I didn't like the situation any better than them, but there was only so much I could do right now. I had teams in hotspots all over the planet. Not at Fury's request, but hired by local governments to assist in keeping order in a world that was still adjusting to the changes the last five years had wrought. Power vacuums had been created, only to get filled, and now those who had originally had said power wanted it back. I always tried to choose the right side, even if that meant defending the innocent against all of those attempting the power grab.
I had a lot on my plate at the moment.
"What do we do?" Steve asked, clearly worried for his friends and the precarious situation they found themselves in.
They tossed about ideas while I turned my gaze inward, flipping through realities to see how the situation had been handled in the most similar other timelines. I could only see up until this moment-ish. I saw the past, and while five minutes ago was indeed the past, I couldn't always see that close. Days ago had been easier, weeks even more so, but the changes sometimes became too great for my needs that far out. "Wait, for now, let the situation play out a bit more. Conflict now will create a tipping point and I don't think it would end well for team Avenger."
I opened my eyes to find all three men staring at me.
"I take it training with Strange has been helpful?" Wilson questioned obviously rhetorically.
Barnes tipped his head, eyes narrowed, that brilliant mind of his processing all the data he'd just been given. "That's how you're keeping ahead of..." he waved his left hand about, the overhead lights glinting off the dark Wakandan metal, "You've been looking into the other realities to see how they handled the situation and using it to make your decisions in this one."
Wilson chuckled. "You cheat."
"No, she uses all available resources," Barnes countered and I nodded in agreement.
"I thought you only saw the past?" Steve asked, only a touch confused.
"Yes, thank god, but I can see what moves those other mes made, and how they turned out so that I can make the best possible choice. There's more than a few that ended abruptly."
"Which means?" Wilson prompted.
"It means she died," Steve answered, appearing to have paled a touch in the dim lighting of the gym.
"Let's try and keep that from happening here, shall we?" Sam suggested. "Christ. How bad does it get."
I flipped through the virtual pages in my mind. "Bad, Sam. And I can't say that my choices will lead to a happier ending here, but..." I spread my hands wide in supplication.
"You have to try," Sam stated with a single nod.
"She has hope," Barnes observed causing Steve's head to snap up.
"That's never a bad thing." The muscle in Steve's jaw tensed visibly for a moment. "Does any of this concern Ross's interest in Sara?"
"Yes, Steve. And I know you want to be aware of everything, but..." I paused taking the time to choose my words with care. "I have to pick my choices with caution. I promise when the time is right I will tell you everything you need to know."
"But now is not the time," he said.
"No, it's not. Sometimes you need to compartmentalize the tasks to protect other aspects of the bigger picture. You know this."
"And you're running the show now?"
Barnes snorted. "You wanted out, Steve, you're out. So, yeah, she's running the show."
"And you think she can pull this off?"
Wilson grinned broadly, "You trained her, you tell us."
Steve sighed. "I guess we'll be finding out exactly how good you are."
"I am awesome," I told him with a surety I didn't one hundred percent feel. This could go sideways quickly with just one tiny mistake on my part. I hadn't been kidding about the chance that the moves I made based on my other selves could turn out worse than the fates they'd suffered.
Sam snickered. "Yes, you are." His phone buzzed and he pulled it out of his pocket. "Food's here. Help me bring it back, Myls?"
I blinked. "Uh, sure?" I set my beer on the floor next to my chair and stood. "How much food did you order that you need an extra set of hands?"
"Enough for three supersoldiers and me, of course." He glanced over his shoulder at me with a smirk.
I trailed after him as we made our way through the equipment and rings to the front entrance. "Three supersoldiers? You find some stash of Tony's I don't know about?"
He stopped dead and spun about. "You, Myla, you're the third."
"But I'm not-" I cut myself off as I realized that technically I was another supersoldier. Just not quite as much super as the other two."
Sam unlocked the door and stuck his head out to see the pizza delivery car double-parked right out front. I started grabbing bags while Sam added a tip that I could be reasonably certain was in addition to the one already added to the order when they'd paid online. I would've tossed in a few more bucks as well, but my hands were well and truly full of food.
Sam's hands just as loaded we made our way back inside where he suddenly felt no hurry to get back to our companions with the bounty.
"What?" he asked in patently false innocence.
"You wanted to talk to me alone, let's get it done before we start hearing their stomachs growl from across the building."
"Why are you still so mad at him?"
I sighed softly. I wanted to say I didn't know, but that would be a lie. "I don't want to be his replacement for Peggy, okay?"
"That's not- Have you lost it completely?"
"Not at all. We both damn well know that if I hadn't been there that day he would never have even thought about me again." True enough, especially given there were other timelines where that had indeed happened.
"Until Nat's message anyway."
"Bloody Natasha. She never wanted to keep it from him, she did it for me." I closed my eyes for a long moment. "God I miss her."
"Me too, Myls, but no changing the subject. Why do you think you're a replacement for Peggy..."
"...when he chose you long before he knew there was a chance he could go back to her."
My mouth snapped shut as I pondered his words. "He still loved her, even then," I argued, weakly even I had to admit.
"And he still loved you when with her. People are capable of loving more than one person at a time, you know."
"I know that," I groused.
"Then what is the problem?" Wilson questioned, wanting a real answer this time around. he shifted his grip on the food, the plastic handles of the take out bags, probably cutting into his fingers at this point.
"I don't..." But part of me did, though it had taken till now to see it. "Last time, it took me getting taken by Hydra before he made his interest known."
"Okay, but once he did he didn't exactly hold back..." Sam trailed off thinking back to those early days of our relationship. Him perhaps the one person who'd followed along as if it had been the most intriguing soap opera storyline ever. "Took you two a while to take that next step didn't it."
"I understood, don't get me wrong. His mindset was totally different than that of my generation. I'd've gone blithely on without a clue if I hadn't been awake enough to hear you two arguing that day in the hospital."
"Rumlow. You two didn't hook up until that one fubared mission."
I snorted. "Apparently it requires a near-death experience to get Steve Rogers to make a move."
"It did anyway."
And there it was, the reason this whole situation had me confused. "Steve Rogers isn't direct about emotional stuff - unless he's angry, of course. Kind of like the Hulk that way. And now it's 'date me', 'marry me' right off the bat. He tells me exactly how he feels and to put it mildly, it's confusing as fuck."
"Which you've also done," Wilson managed that without a grin. He tipped his head towards the back and we began walking that way. "He's different from the Steve you remember."
"Very. And it's causing a conflict that keeps showing up as anger when I fail to reconcile the now with the then I have in my head."
"You love him?"
I gave Sam a sad smile. "Never stopped, but that doesn't change the fact that the man standing before me is not the one I lived with almost a half dozen years ago."
"You need time."
"Yes, and Mister I now go for what I want doesn't seem willing to give me any."
"Maybe because he doesn't want to take the chance he might lose you again," Steve said, more than loud enough to be heard.
I glared at Wilson who appeared to be unrepentant. "I hate you, Sam."
Now he grinned. "No, you don't." He nudged my arm then strode away. "Dinner is served." He set the bags on the table that had been dragged over near the circle of chairs.
I followed suit and set the quartet of pizza boxes next to them and stepped back. A moment later Steve appeared beside me, a pile of paper plates and napkins in hand which he set down so that hungry hands could grab them.
"We'll figure this out," he told me, voice so soft I doubted the other supersoldier in the room could hear.
I met his gaze for an instant then gave him a quick nod. We both loaded up plates with food then returned to our seats. I'd already had dinner, but had to admit that more food wouldn't hurt. My metabolism had increased, just not all that much. I could get by on a fairly typical intake of food for a professional athlete.
The conversation light and mostly about the food for the next several minutes as we ate and drank and just simply enjoyed each other's company. Still, they had asked me here for a reason and I seriously doubted that my and Steve's relationship woes were it.
"All right boys, why am I here really. Not that I don't mind hanging out with you lot, but I got the impression that you needed something from me."
Barnes and Wilson exchanged a glance, with the former apparently losing the invisible round of rock paper scissors.
"What do we do next?"
"What do you mean?" Steve asked, setting the empty plate aside in favor of a fresh bottle of beer from the bucket filled with them and ice. A spit bucket of all things.
"Tell me you cleaned that thing first?"
Steve laughed. "Yes, ma'am. Spit shined it too."
"Gross, so gross," I commented, trying hard not to smile. Not like I had never used one. I'd done plenty of competitive fighting in my time, just not of the professional sort.
Barnes rolled his shoulders and sat up straighter for the moment. "I mean, we don't exactly have any world-ending events that need Avengers, so what do we do? We can't train all the time, though with how it's going Wilson might need years before he's ready for that shield."
"Man," Wilson grouched waving a garlic knot in the other man's direction.
"You do your jobs," I stated, thinking that to be obvious.
"What is that, exactly?" Barnes added, his look damn serious. "I was never an Avenger. Hell, I would have been hunted by them had you known I existed."
"Technically, you were hunted by the Avengers," Steve reminded, though not harshly.
Barnes's hand shot out. "That's what I'm talking about. I'm not the good guy."
"Yeah, you are," Wilson told him in no uncertain terms. "What Hydra did to you..." He shook his head. "This is where you belong. With the Avengers. Though he's got a point, it's not like you or Fury have been handing down missions for us."
I gaped for a second. "First off you will never receive orders from me. I might, and I stress might, ask for assistance now and then, but I will never order the two of you or any of the other Avengers around. Fury... well, he has more expansive plans and they are keeping him very busy."
"Ross hasn't given you orders?" Steve queried, his look intense.
Barnes shrugged. "If he has it hasn't made it down to us. We train. We've begun overseeing the trainees, making certain they're integrating well, but aside from Rhodey, we don't see the others much."
"Bruce does more research than fighting these days. Lang's still in San Fran. Clint has officially retired. T'Challa is running a country. Danvers is off wherever in the universe she's needed. Wanda..."
"Wanda still needs time," I finished. She'd been broken by the loss of Vision. A lot of us had gone our separate ways after that final battle, but we all had made ourselves available at need. We all just hoped there wouldn't be a need again in our lifetimes. "So, do you want to retire? Because that is an option."
Both men shook their heads.
"Then you do your jobs."
I got matching looks of confusion. "While the new AI isn't up and running yet, you still have FRIDAY who is working just fine."
"What about Ares?" That came from Steve, who I had only been keeping loop adjacent since Ross had begun putting pressure on me.
"Ares is off-limits to the Avengers right now," Wilson explained.
Steve looked at me. "That bad already?"
"Yes. He's being used for the training and monitoring the dig only."
"Kid, you needed to draw that line in the sand. It just puts us at a disadvantage."
"Oh, bullshit," Steve snapped. "The Avengers managed just fine without her program, you don't need it now."
"What? He's right. Ares belongs to The Expendables. We were never going to be permanently attached to the Avengers anyway. Time to take the training wheels off." I leaned forward and waved for another spit bucket beer, which Steve handed to me. "Look, the Snap created massive power vacuums across the planet. Others moved in and consolidated power, some for the better some, not so much. Then five years later a lot of those not so nice people reappeared. Can you guess how many of them wanted their power back by any means necessary?"
"Let me guess," Wilson pondered, one finger tapping his chin thoughtfully, "all of 'em?"
"Bingo. You win the kewpie doll. The Expendables have been babysitting hotspots for months, Some on our own, others at the behest of the current ruling party. And before you ask, no we don't work for just anyone. The vetting process is shall we say extreme."
"Plus, I imagine you consult with your contacts in Wakanda to verify your info."
"I can neither confirm nor deny that mostly because I don't want to get blackballed by said contacts."
Barnes snorted. "Shuri's cute when she's angry."
"Yes, she is," I agreed. "My point is, you have all the resources you need to discover Avenger worthy trouble. My people are good, but we're strung thin at the moment."
Barnes nodded slowly. "And we haven't taken the time to look on our own." His head came up to lock eyes with Wilson whose lips pressed into a thin line.
"We've been waiting for orders," he said mostly to himself it seemed.
"And you don't need to. Call Hill, she might have a lead or three for you," Steve suggested. "I know the chain of command is broken at the moment, but maybe it's time for someone to step up."
"Other than Walker," Barnes growled under his breath.
"Not a fan I take it?"
"I'm a fucking choir boy next to him," Barnes groused. "And I've only seen his redacted file."
"If we need assistance can we call on you?" Sam asked of me.
I shook my head. "That would not be a good idea."
"Why not?" That came from Steve who seemed surprised by my answer.
"Ross," Barnes stated. "He's already putting pressure on your teams, that's why you've stepped back."
"I'm meeting the terms of my contract," I reminded, surely needlessly.
"And no more," Wilson added, and he wasn't wrong.
"And no more," I agreed. "If it were just me, I'd be there in a heartbeat, you all know this, but I have to think about the big picture. Ross thinks he can take control of my business, I have to make it clear he can't."
"Not complaining, kiddo, just realizing I miss the old days when we were all on the same team."
I shrugged. "You are welcome to join me... us. I imagine I could find a use for you as Expendables."
Steve snorted. "But first you have to be willing to be."
Barnes blinked. "Be what?"
"Expendable," Wilson answered. He waved a finger at me. "You took that too literally."
"That's why I'm the Fool, remember?"
Sam laughed while Barnes looked befuddled.
"Does any of this help you? The trainees are good, I promise you. Give them a task and they'll do everything in their power to accomplish it. There's dozens and dozens of possible troublemakers out there who we've been watching. So long as they've behaved I've let them be, it shouldn't take you much effort to find one or two who've decided to take advantage of the current situation."
"You have a list," Sam observed and not wrongly.
"But my hands are currently tied." I gestured at Steve. "Hell, half of what we've said tonight he shouldn't have heard. Oh, I know he'll keep it to himself but..."
"But he has a hard time walking away from a situation that looks to be going south," Barnes said for all of us.
Steve shook his head. "Someone has to keep a level head in all this."
Barnes's eyebrows went high on his forehead. "And that's been you since when?"
"Since I realized fighting bullies doesn't mean I have to run out and find them."
I tipped my head slightly, watching him with care. "Let the fight come to you," I said softly.
"Something like that, yes." He sagged slightly, shoulders bowing inward for a moment. "I've spent years knowing what would be coming for this world, but not anymore. If a fight comes to me, I'll be prepared to face it, but I'm not going to borrow trouble. No more back-alley fist fights for me. I have too damn much to live for." His gaze roved over all of us, his meaning clear.
He would back any or all of us in a fight should it be required of him, but no more than that. He truly had found some sort of peace with that anger and righteous wrath he used to carry about in his soul.
"Huh. Steve Rogers not looking for that next fight. I never thought I'd live to see the day," Barnes stated, tone dry as dust.
Steve reached across the intervening space and gave him a shove that was hard enough to rock the chair back while Sam burst out into laughter.
I sipped my beer, watching the antics that ensued between the two friends while Sam egged them on.
I took advantage of the moment and once again flipped through the near-realities just to be certain the path I had chosen to wend my way through still seemed passable. That no thorny branches had suddenly appeared to impede my way. I had to make this work for not just me. but all of us. Trouble was the choices, the options different to those other mes had taken were becoming more and more limited and I feared the way would soon be blocked, and like on many of the others the path I followed would end abruptly.
An intimate dinner and some serious talk.
*sigh* So the chapter that had been posted here was out of order much to my dismay. I have no clue what went wrong with the original posting, but I'm attempting to get it straightened out.
Sorry for the extra-large case of stoopits.
As I'd promised, any extra free moment I had I spent with Steve. I had to admit I needed it, work had been stressful as of late and he had become one of the few distractions outside of my various jobs. Fury had become pretty much the only person not trying to pull my attention in one direction or another. Today had been one of those days when I seriously regretted volunteering my Expendables into this whole mess. So when I had mentioned to Sara that Steve had invited me over for dinner she'd insisted I go, reminding me that even moms needed some time off now and then. Not that she'd be alone of course, her usual team of four would be watching over her and assisting with the project she had for school.
We'd survived the first month of school handily, my new work schedule giving me more time with her in the mornings and evenings. More of my time spent in an office building not all that far from the apartment instead of on-site at the Compound. I made a weekly trip, to make certain everything continued to run smoothly, not that I expected issues, but they did happen now and then, instead of living there for weeks at a time as had happened at first.
Plus, I needed to remind Ross that I still worked there, and more precisely not for him.
I opened the door, a pair of wine bottles in one hand, carried them into the kitchen, and set them on the counter. "Steve?" He'd invited me for dinner and yet I couldn't smell anything cooking. He could have forgotten I supposed but that wasn't like him.
"Steve?" I called out again wondering where he'd disappeared to.
"Myla?" he questioned, coming out of the front room, paintbrush in one hand, and paint on his pants, and shirt, and somehow in his hair. "You're early."
I snickered. "I'm actually twenty minutes late." His clothes were liberally splashed with a least a dozen colors of paint, though red, white and blue were predominant. His hand went to his back pocket, hunting for his phone, most likely to confirm my statement. He grumbled something under his breath which I didn't catch. "Where did I leave the damn thing?"
"Ares, call Steve, please."
It took a second, but the distinctive hum of a vibrating phone could be heard from somewhere that was most definitely not this room, nor the one he had clearly spent the afternoon in. "Bedroom, I believe."
He nodded and tromped away to retrieve the piece of technology. He returned with it in hand, a frown on his face. "I set an alarm and everything." He sighed. "Sorry, Myls, guess I lost track of time."
I gave him a smile to assure him I didn't mind. Him having time to get lost in painting had always been hard to come by when we'd been together and I'd always found it a pleasure to just sit quietly nearby working on whatever while he did so. "It's fine Steve, I can have take-out here within the hour. How about Lowman's? Keep it local and all."
"But I wanted to cook for you," he damn near whined, which I found oddly sweet and so unlike him, I had to hide a grin of surprise.
"We still can. You know like we used to." Because we'd been living at the Compound back then, date nights usually meant turning off our phones, so to speak, and cooking dinner together. Mostly me as his skills hadn't been up to par. Prepping he excelled at, and he could follow directions well enough, but the great Captain America had been a terrible cook when left to his own devices.
He brightened at that suggestion. "Yeah. Just need a couple to clean up. Don't think oil-based paint and steak make for a tasty meal."
"Well, if you have a cast-iron stomach, which you do, it should be okay."
He snickered. "No. Not an option. Want to see what I was working on?"
"Sure." I had been planning to ask, but as it could have been for me as likely as of me, I had decided to be patient and wait for the invite. I followed after him into the well-lit room he'd turned into his studio. I could see why he hadn't noticed the time just by the darkness revealed via the massive windows, he'd been painting with his back to them. The lights in the room had been designed to come on automatically to counter the encroaching darkness, and he had them set to a pure white to better get the mix of colors to his sometimes exacting standards.
"Wow." The only word I could manage as my first response. The image not of me, but Sam in his somewhat joking, if iconic, Uncle Sam guise. The style completely different from Steve's usual and seemed to be taken from the trend of splatter or watercolor tattoos. The brush strokes strong and defined, the paint allowed to drip and smear about the edges. Yet Sam's face remained clearly defined, as did the majority of his torso, the further from the center the more distortion intruded, but none of it took away from the glory of the overall imagery. Sam wore the traditional suit, though it had the distinctive look of body armor. The stars and stripes on his clothes, the top hat tipped rakishly to one side with his Falcon goggles secured above the brim. The shield, braced across his left forearm, right where it should be.
"Is it okay? The style is new to me, but I'm liking it."
"Okay? If it wouldn't ruin his Christmas present, I would suggest using it in promotional material for him as Captain America. It's perfect."
Steve squinted his eyes and tipped his head slightly. "Well, I wouldn't go that far..."
"I would." I gestured at myself. "Remember I'm the one who's spent time learning what's worth the money and what isn't at gallery showings."
He chuckled. "On this occasion, I haven't forgotten. I just think you might be a touch biased."
"Okay, maybe a little, but I promise you this will go for upwards of ten thousand if you wanted to sell it." I turned to face him. "Tell me you're going to do more of these?"
He nodded. "I'm going to do one for Bucky next, then I thought I might do a series of them, the whole team maybe."
"The whole team, definitely. After Bucky, do Natasha. Then Tony. You'll put the originals on display - under a pseudonym - and sell prints. You'll make a small fortune off them."
"I don't need a fortune. Small or otherwise." He paused thinking. "Maybe set it aside for Sara. I realize your family is more than well off, but..."
"Shit happens. It's a good idea. But first, you have to paint them all and I need to find you a new agent."
"No, first I need to shower. Then we need to cook dinner. Do you mind getting the stuff out and getting set up?"
"Not at all. I'll pop open the wine so it can breathe and I'll have a glass ready for you when you come out."
"Perfect." Then he set his hands on my shoulders to kiss me on the forehead. "Fifteen minutes."
"Whatever shall I do without you nearby?" I snarked in a sickly sweet tone that caused him to chuckle as he walked away.
I admired the painting for a couple more minutes before heading to the kitchen. I opened both bottles of wine and set them aside for the moment. I did grab a couple of wine glasses and arranged them next to the bottles in anticipation of pouring the drinks when he came out. Then I headed for the fridge to see if I could track down the ingredients of the meal he'd planned. Turned out to be stupidly simple as he had everything neatly together. A nice thick-cut steak, and a pair of bundles of asparagus, sitting side by side on the middle shelf. His stove had a fancy grill inlay so we'd probably be using it for the steak.
Digging deeper I also discovered mushrooms, which would sautee nicely with the steak. I added them to the pile on the counter. I dug out the various pans we'd need to accomplish the actual cooking process and poured a tiny taste of the wine to see if it was ready. I swirled it about the glass and sampled it only to decide it needed a few more minutes much to my disappointment.
I pondered what else we could add to the meal and discovered a bag of frozen, but decent, rolls and dug out a cookie sheet to get them started.
I damn near had a heart attack when I popped up from putting them in the oven to see Steve standing across the island from me, a small pink box in his hand.
"You found the rolls, I take it?"
"Yep." He knew I had bread mouse tendencies and could eat an entire loaf of fresh-baked French bread without even realizing it. And knowing him he had real butter for me to schmear all over the warm rolls. "And what's that?" I waved at the box in his hand.
"I... Uh..." He sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, his posture shifting as his shoulders came up and back. "I don't mean to be presumptuous, but near as I can figure you're late."
I blinked at him. "I know I'm late. I told you that when I got here."
He shook his head. "Not late tonight. Late, late." He showed me the box in full revealing a pregnancy test. "We didn't exactly think about protection that weekend, and I noticed you no longer have an implant so I picked this up just in case."
"Oh, Steve." I wanted to laugh but knew it would, at the very least, confuse him, if not outright hurt his feelings, which I really did not want to do. The fact that he had taken the time to think about the potential consequences and act upon them was touching actually and truly appreciated. Not many men out there would really give a damn about the possibility they'd fucked up and take responsibility at the first sign of impending trouble. "While I appreciate your...concern, more than you could possibly realize, it's unnecessary."
His brows knit together and he set the small pink box down on the counter like it had the potential to turn into an IED unexpectedly. "And why is that?"
He had this hard bite to his words that suggested he had worries I'd done something well within my rights admittedly, but still seriously drastic without consulting him.
"Sara was a rough pregnancy, remember?" I realized instantly I should have probably elaborated on that.
"I am aware, what does that have to do with the possibility of you being pregnant now?"
I sighed softly and poured two glasses of wine, handing one to him before continuing. "Because there was a lot of damage and certain parts were unsalvageable," I responded, apparently unable to speak directly on the matter. And yes, I fully understood why I didn't want to be direct and just tell him.
He sipped the wine, realized how good it was, and drank more before reiterating, "I'm still not certain what that means, Myls."
Time to just say it. "They had to remove my uterus and one ovary. I can't have any more children."
I watched as his confused look turned into one of disappointment. "Oh."
I turned away, taking my wine along with me and downing more than half of it before responding. "I'll understand if this is a deal-breaker. I don't mind going back to being just friends and co-parenting Sara."
That got his attention. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Are you telling me you didn't have visions of siblings for Sara dancing in that head?" I nodded towards the pink box of doom still sitting there on the counter.
"Visions, no. I figured it would be something we would discuss eventually if we moved forward with the relationship." He sipped the wine. "No, it is not a dealbreaker." He shook his head. "I just... I know how busy you are and thought you might not have realized how much time had passed since we..."
"Spent the weekend naked and in bed together?"
He managed a lopsided grin. "Yeah, that." He picked up the offending box and threw it away. "We could always adopt."
"Steve, yes we could, but maybe we need to figure us out before we start planning siblings for Sara."
He sidled over next to me. "Maybe we could occasionally figure us out naked and in bed?" he asked with this dopey hopeful shy smile on his face.
I snickered and attempted to appear annoyed by his question. "I'll think about it."
He shifted even closer, the length of his body pressed against my side. "Think fast, please." He set a finger under my chin and encouraged me to turn my head. His beautiful blue eyes full of teasing anticipation, he leaned down to kiss me lightly. With his scent wrapped about me like a weighted blanket, I responded with a hunger I hadn't expected.
We came up for air a few minutes later, our clothes, surprisingly still in their proper places. "Dinner," I squeaked, forcing me to clear my throat before repeating, "You promised me dinner."
He laughed. "Fair enough." He reached around me to turn on the griddle top. "Get the olive oil if you would."
"Sir, yes, sir." I shifted to the side. "Okay, show me what you got."
He glanced at me sideways but didn't hesitate in grabbing the saute pan I'd set out and place it on a burner. He melted some butter then added the mushrooms, seasoned them with some salt and pepper. He poured some wine from his glass over them then left them to cook down.
He then turned his attention to the asparagus, snapping off the inedible ends of the stalks.
"Did you always know when Peggy was pregnant?" I asked, seemingly out of the blue.
I gave him points for neither flinching nor cutting himself at my question.
"Would you be surprised if I said yes?"
"Not really. When you can smell the difference between fear and happiness I imagine a major hormonal change like that would be quite noticeable." Even more so for him than me.
"Huh. I never thought about it like that." He set the vegetable in yet another saute pan with a couple of pats of butter and turned the heat to a medium-low. He then turned his attention to the steak. It was thick enough that it would need more than just a quick sear to be cooked anything other than blue. While I did like a good steak, I preferred rare to medium-rare over raw depending on the cut. Real Kobe beef had been one of my exceptions, but I hadn't had that pleasure since well before the Snap.
"I imagine there are quite a few things your enhancements altered without you being aware of it. I know it's taken some adjustment for me and I'm nowhere near as super-soldier as you."
"And they wanted an entire army like me," he muttered as he rubbed the beef with some crushed garlic.
"There's no one like you, Steve," I told him, meaning the words. I'd known a lot of good people in my life, but none quite like Steve Rogers.
"I'm not special," he groused, as he added some salt and pepper to the outside of the steak before setting it aside to rest for a few minutes.
"Yeah, you are. Not just anyone can lift, Mjolnir, remember?"
He huffed out a breath. "You can't use that as a defense for me every single time."
"I can and will since I was there and got to see it in person." I grinned at him even though he seemed to be borderline upset about something. "What's up? You look like you need to tell me something I won't like. You breaking up with me already?"
"What? No. Nothing like that. It's just..." He took a moment to grab the bottle of wine and pour more for both of us before continuing. "You still seem uncertain about us."
I didn't argue the point since it was at least tangentially true. "I guess I'm still a bit gun shy, I won't deny it, but I'm here aren't I?"
"Yes, you are, but..." His lips twisted into not quite a frown per se, more that he was trying to find the right words to say instead of blurting it out wrong as he had a bad habit of doing. I had to admit that as of late I often reacted poorly when he misphrased a sentence or three. Hell, one of our first fights ever had involved me assuming he was breaking up with me when the exact opposite turned out to be the truth. So on this occasion, I waited patiently for him to organize his words.
"You still seem mad that I went back to be with Peggy even after I've done my best to explain my side of it."
I took a moment to gather my thoughts before responding, covering it by drinking the wine. Steve stirred the mushrooms and rotated the asparagus while he waited on me. "I'm not mad that you went back to Peggy. That... that was inevitable. I knew from the moment we got serious that if the opportunity arose you would gravitate right back to her. I wish I'd had the chance to meet her, but she'd retired from SHIELD long before I joined."
"Then what are you mad at?"
"I guess I'm mad that you didn't want to be with me that way." The truth articulated in a way that made sense to him for perhaps the first time. "I hadn't left you. I was still there, waiting for you to come back for me when it was obvious to everyone you hadn't really moved on. It just took me a while to figure out it was really Peggy you hadn't moved on from, and not me."
His face got all scrunched up like it always did when he was thinking harder than necessary. "I won't say you're wrong, but it wasn't until we beat Thanos that I even considered that I could actually do that. Go back and be with her. Both Nat and Tony told me to get a life and I did."
I made a face at him and I saw the lightbulb go off behind his eyes.
"Oh god, they meant with you. Tony knew Sara was mine?"
"I never told him, but he wasn't an idiot, and given the blonde hair, which isn't exactly common in my family bush, never mind the superstrength, probably put two and two together."
He snorted softly. "Or Pepper told him."
"Or Pepper told him, though I doubt it, we didn't really discuss the specifics of her creation." I finished off the glass of wine and held my glass out for more. "Tony playing matchmaker for us," I mused, shaking my head.
"He wanted me to find some of that peace he had with Pepper and Morgan." He flicked some of his wine at the skillet, the liquid beading up and dancing across the surface indicating it to be more than hot enough to cook the slab of beef. He picked up the steak and put it down on the griddle, that lovely hiss as the heat seared the exterior and trapped the moisture inside.
"Probably. And you did."
"With Peggy," I agreed. "I just have to wonder why come back to me now. I get the needing to be there for Sara, but that does not require anything other than a cordial relationship with me and yet you clearly want more."
"I don't just want more, I need more." He wiped his hand off on the towel and set a timer for flipping the meat. "You're right, Peggy was my first love, but I never had a relationship of a personal nature with her during the war." He paused, obviously intending to say more, but permitting the tension to build on the words as if they would be of the greatest import. "My first real relationship was with you."
I froze for a long moment. I mean, I knew he'd been living a fairly sheltered life since coming out of the ice, but I honestly hadn't considered that he hadn't met anyone even on a somewhat casual basis in the years prior to our meeting. I wanted to smack myself for being so blindly stupid.
He'd literally stepped right out of the moral climate of the forties, where premarital sex had been damn near taboo, and into an era where fuckbuddies of any combination existed. Even had he been interested he would have practically been unable to function with modern women. It had taken him nearly losing me to a Hydra cell for him to face his feelings for me.
"You cheated on Peggy with me?" I asked, sounding as aghast as I could manage.
Thankfully he took the question in the way I intended and burst out laughing. The timer went off and he flipped the steak over so the other side could get a nice sear on it. He stirred the mushrooms, added a bit more wine and butter then turned them on low to simmer. I reached over to steal a spear of asparagus and he raised an eyebrow in lieu of an actual question. "Not quite, still chewy."
He nodded, rotated them again, and adjusted the heat a smidge.
"I guess I never thought about it that way. You cared for me-"
"I loved you. Still do."
"Loved me," I conceded, "enough to act upon it. And while I would never take away your time with Peggy..."
"You wonder how it might have gone with us. You know you could change it. Go back and tell yourself to not go on that mission. Be there at the Compound when the shit hit the fan. Pick your side then and there. Hold my hand at Peggy's funeral. Change all of it."
And I could. I had access to both a nano suit and the Quantum Tunnel. Do the deed in a mere blink of an eye subjectively. No one would question me accessing them and, I had to admit, that option had been there in the back of my mind for a while. A what-if that would change the course of all the years that followed. I could feel pressure from that group of realities, wanting to show me exactly how it would have played out, all the good, the bad, the wins, the losses, all the possibilities that one small alteration could make.
"Another place, another time. That's all it is."
"Another version of you did exactly that."
"Several. If I did it, this version of me, all it would really do is create yet another split of the timeline. The loop beginning here and now instead of yesterday, or last week, or-"
He set a delicate finger on my lips to silence me. "I get it. We're here now and changing the past won't change the now. Not really."
I nodded in agreement. "I'm sorry, Steve. I've been carrying around all this resentment because of you doing the right thing for you, and forgetting that you choosing to be with me was just as big a step for you. It just never registered that you picking me was..." I couldn't find the word I wanted, the one that would encompass all that step meant to him at that moment.
"The right thing to do for me. At that time." The timer went off then and he quickly removed the steak from the griddle setting atop the plate I grabbed for him. "You have no idea how much you coming into my life changed me. If you hadn't I don't know that I would have had the courage to go back and see if what I and Peggy had was real, or just a crush of epic proportions." The bread timer went off just then and he quickly rescued them from the oven, shutting it off once he'd placed the cookie sheet on the hot pads waiting for it.
"Grab the butter, will you?"
I did so, retrieving it from its spot on the counter, the old school butter dish doing its job as effectively today as it had a hundred years ago. He tossed me a roll and I had it slathered in the softened butter in record time. Forks and a steak knife appeared as if by magic and we dug in.
No, we didn't really use plates, a weird quirk we'd developed when cooking a meal together. We didn't sit at a table, we simply ate from the pans, staying near each other, bumping hips and shoulders as we reached through each other's personal space for the next tasty tidbit.
"Peggy would have hated this," Steve stated as he set down his fork for a moment as he retrieved the other bottle of wine.
"She preferred the traditional sit down at the table meal?"
He nodded. "When she could be home for dinner she wanted a routine. Something normal she could come home to. Don't get me wrong we were a family when around that table, but..."
"But it lacks the intimacy of this." I gestured at our version of a dinner date.
"Yeah," he agreed. "Once a month we did the big family breakfast that looked a lot like this, but ultimately we still sat down to eat even it was in the breakfast nook and not the formal dining room." He smiled fondly at the memories I could practically see behind his eyes.
"Steve, if I've given you the impression that I don't want you talking about her or your life all those years, I'm sorry. I want to hear all of it. I want to know you were happy." I grabbed another roll, eschewed the butter in favor of dragging it through the sauce the wine and mushrooms had created.
"You've always wanted to hear about my life, but I'm not certain I'm ready to give you all the details. I still miss her every day." He seemed to instantly realize that admission might not go over all that well and hastily added. "Just like I missed you when with her. Both of you are... were... are important to me." He blew out a breath, clearly irritated with himself. "Shit."
I sidled up next to him. "I understand. When you are ready, I'll be here to listen and remember." A sudden inspiration struck. "Huh."
"Huh what?" he asked, slicing off another piece of steak and popping it into his mouth.
"Well, I was thinking someone should write down all your adventures, for posterity, and maybe a little so that people understand the man behind Captain America."
"Why not me."
He raised a single eyebrow. "I don't know, why not you." He set his fork down and looked at me in all seriousness. "I'd trust you to do it right. Everyone has written about Captain America, and while the world knows Steve Rogers is the same person, no one has written a damn thing about him."
"Not enough, anyway." I sipped my wine, debating what I wanted to munch on next. "Maybe one day when I'm not swamped with rebuilding the world's defenses... which reminds me I need to schedule a trip to New Asgard."
Steve blinked, the confusion obvious given Thor was currently off-world. "Oh, you need to speak to Valkyrie. She does know how to use a phone."
I snickered. Brunhilde knew how to do a lot more than just use a cell phone. "Need to do this one in person. Luckily for me, it's just a day trip, but I need to squeeze it into my calendar soon." I drained my glass. "Now if I can get Danvers to do a drive-by, I'd be set. Contacting her can be a bit of a bitch."
"Well, it is a seriously long-distance call."
I snorted. "You have no idea." I reached for the bottle of wine, intending to pour more for both of us, but he intercepted my hand, twining our fingers together. "What?" I asked, only slightly confused.
"I was wondering if you were interested in dessert."
I hadn't noticed anything in his fridge, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. "What did you have in mind?"
He shifted in closer, the heat from his body warming my own, and causing me to swallow hard given just how tasty he smelled. Stupid pheromones did little to hide his current intent. "You." He went to his knees, fingers going to my belt.
"Oh," I said in a hoarse whisper. "Yes, that sounds good." His fingers tracing across the bare skin of my hips drove all coherent thought from my mind and I could only hope it would stay that way for a while.
Ross makes his next move.
*can we meet?*
*sure. I can be at your place in a bit, extra class tonight*
*the hours feel like days so I was thinking meet at the urban sprawl. I'm buying*
*uh, sure I'll be there after I finish and clean up*
Steve accidentally flung open the door to the bar, making it clear he'd literally forgotten his own strength in his rush to get here. His hair still looked damp which meant he'd taken a quick shower at the gym before heading out to meet me. He most certainly wasn't dressed for the ostensible date my text should have hinted at, no he'd just thrown on the spare jeans and tee I knew he kept stashed in his office then over that his leather jacket as a defense against the cold weather. He generally wore workout clothes of one stripe or another when he had classes even if he didn't expend all that much effort himself.
I stood so that he could see me and he came over, giving me a quick kiss before setting hands on my shoulders and giving me the once over. "What's wrong?"
"Not here." He nodded then set a hand on my back to escort me back out the door and onto the still bustling sidewalk. It might have been a weeknight, but there were plenty who still went out drinking and dancing as a release from the day's work. This place would start really hopping within the hour. Had to admit a drink or three sounded wonderful right about now and made me long for the days when I could actually get drunk.
We played the couple, twining hands together until I felt relatively certain we hadn't been followed. I knew there was a small park a block or so over and headed for it. I wanted some privacy for this discussion but didn't trust any of the places I usually frequented right now.
"Not yet," I told him, keeping my tone light and plastering a smile on my face. "We're just a couple of lovebirds on a stroll, understood?"
"Well, it has been days since I've seen you, so I want to make the most of the hours I have." He might have been out of the game, but he'd forgotten none of the tricks even though it had been Nat who did most of the spycraft. She'd made certain to teach him what she could. Steve would never be a good spy, mostly due to his inability to lie worth a damn, but his acting skills had improved over the years and he could manage to not fuck up an op that required subtlety when needed.
I could only thank god he'd understood my not so much obscure as decidedly nerd heavy code phrase reference and acted accordingly.
The tenseness in his shoulders and back drained away instantly and he shifted in closer, playing the role needed. Not that it was much of a stretch for us given we really were dating and had gone for strolls of this nature any number of times in the last few months.
Damn it. I knew things had been too quiet, but even my Coins hadn't seen this coming. Ross had clearly been keeping this move close to the vest.
When we reached the edge of the park I stopped and turned so that Steve and I faced each other. I shifted in close as if to whisper sweet nothings to my one true love, thankful once again that I wasn't that much shorter than him. "Ross was in my home when I arrived today."
That tension returned, his body taking on the strength of a concrete barrier, heavy, strong, and immovable. "Is everyone all right?"
"Physically, yes. Emotionally... not so much."
He took a second to wrap his arms about me, using his great strength to support me for a moment as I permitted the onslaught of emotions a momentary release. Then I dropped the real bombshell. "Sara was home."
A deep growl emanated from his chest, which had pretty much been my reaction when I'd arrived at the penthouse to find Ross having a cup of coffee with my parents. There had been two Expendables right there in the room, neither of them looking happy about the situation, and Sara at the dining table doing homework with Carson standing guard over her. The fourth member of their team probably watched the monitors in case Ross had brought company with him.
Thankfully, Sara had seemingly been oblivious to the tension from her bodyguards and had simply gone about her work as any five-year-old might. "She is fine. My parents had no idea that it would be an issue. They'd been thrilled that he'd come to see me, of course."
"And Carson just let him in?"
"You've met my parents, do you really think he had a choice?"
Steve ground his teeth together. "I didn't know your parents were in town."
"Neither did I."
He sighed heavily. "Surprise visit."
I shrugged. "They're in town for some meetings and decided to stop by the apartment. They'll be staying in one of the other buildings they... we own. I'm going to read them in tomorrow, once I've calmed down a bit. They really couldn't understand why I was upset." And I really didn't want to yell at them about an issue they had no inkling of.
"But now he's seen Sara."
"I am aware." I glanced around the area not specifically noticing anything suspicious, but not entirely trusting my instincts at the moment either.
Steve caught what I was doing and urged me to move into the park itself. Our view would be partially blocked by the various trees and flora, but anyone following us would also become evident quickly. "What did he want?"
"You mean besides seeing the daughter of Steve Rogers in person and probably bugging my home?"
Steve's eyes narrowed, not liking that one bit. "Yeah, besides that."
"He wanted to give me my marching orders," I answered, the anger bubbling up again. I don't know how I had managed to keep my cool at that moment, but the man had walked away unbloodied and with a smirk of confidence on his face.
"Marching orders. I thought you had made it clear the Expendables are a separate entity from the Avengers."
"So had I," I snarled. "There's an emergency clause I permitted Fury so that if he needed assistance in certain specific areas we would be available to do so. Fury has never used it." I had to give Ross credit, he damn well knew I wouldn't show up even if he summoned me to appear before him so he came to me, in a place and time where I'd be forced to be on my best behavior.
"And Ross has decided, thanks to the Accords, of course, that he can use it to make you do what he wants."
I nodded in agreement. "I should have just shoved my knife between his third and fourth rib."
"Too messy," Steve commented offhandedly causing a surprised chuckle to escape from my throat which had gone tight in anger and no little fear. "And what does he think you're going to do for him?"
"He wants the Expendables to be the backup for Walker, much as we were for you and the other Avengers once upon a time."
"I hope you told him 'no'."
"I laughed in his damn face." I spun about and thudded my forehead into his chest. "What the hell are we going to do?"
He wrapped me in his embrace and held on tight. "We get Sara someplace safe and go from there."
"Or we just get rid of the problem," I suggested, mostly facetiously. Mostly. "Clint owes me a favor."
"If you're going to go that route just ask Bucky, I'm sure he'd do it for nothing."
I snorted. "Can't, he and Sam are off in Europe investigating a... situation." They'd taken my suggestion and found something that needed an Avenger-level intervention.
Steve frowned. "I thought you weren't handling ops for the Avengers because of Ross."
"I can't help it if my friends trust me and happen to mention their travel destinations, can I?" While neither Wilson nor Barnes had asked for my help, they had wanted me aware that something odd was going down in case it ended up being bigger than they could handle.
"And they didn't tell me?"
I cocked my head to the side. "Because they both know damn well that to stop you from running to assist they must keep you in the dark. Or am I wrong?"
Steve sighed softly. "No, you're not wrong. This staying out thing is harder than I thought it would be this time around."
"Especially with me clearly in over my head at this point. I should have known better than to let Fury talk me into hanging around after the Stones were returned."
"You had no way of knowing this would happen."
"No, I didn't know, but it was one of the possibilities. Maybe if I'd gotten control over my ability sooner, I'd been able to predict this."
"But you didn't so we need to figure out what we're going to do next. What are our options, aside from removing Ross from the playing board that is."
I pouted. "But I kind of like that one."
"Me too," Steve admitted. "He cannot have Sara."
I rubbed my face with my hands. "He offered to arrange special schooling for her."
"Fuck. At the very least he must suspect she's inherited my enhancements."
"That's my assessment as well." I took a moment to review what my other selves had done when they arrived at this same cusp. Steve waited patiently as I stared off at nothing, watching other moments in time flicker by. "Running won't work. He'll just keep hounding us until he forces the situation."
"I take it those variations don't end all that well?"
I blinked rapidly to reconnect with my here and now. "Given I'm no longer around in more than a few of them I would say not."
"You can shore up the defenses. Talk to Fury, he'll be able to slow Ross down for a while anyway."
"But only for a while." And in most of the other timelines, it had been an extremely short while. "There's such a delicate balance right now that I just do not know what to do," I groused, not thrilled that I seemed to have backed myself into a corner, much like many of the alternate versions of myself had.
"You could try punching your way out," Steve suggested an odd hint of humor in his voice. He had often been accused of doing just that to handle any given situation, and while sometimes it had been more than enough, others had ended... badly.
I managed a smile for him but didn't really feel it. Punching my way out had never been my style unless that of the last resort. No, I had always planned ahead. And while no plan survives the first meeting with the enemy, I tried to anticipate that too. Tried to predict the moves the opposition would make and have scenarios ready to implement depending on how they reacted.
"I stayed with Fury and the Avengers after the battle because it was the right thing to do."
"But was it what you really wanted to do? You and the Expendables altered your focus during the Snap years, right?"
I nodded in agreement. Yes, we'd still played guard dogs here and there, but overall we'd stepped back our offensive roles and taken a more defensive tack. Nat had taken on the role of Director for the remaining Avengers and direct allies, doing what she could to keep track of problems not just on Earth but across the universe thanks to Danvers and Rocket. I'd been involved only tangentially, her mostly using me as a sounding board and asking for advice or help now and then.
Just as she'd been involved with the work I and the Expendables had done. While our efforts had ended up being global, it had started local, right here in New York City. Helping those who had been left behind, giving them homes, and purpose, and perhaps most important of all, hope.
Hope that we'd get through this and come out the other side even stronger than before. No, we couldn't get back what had been lost, but we could make certain we kept going, that we didn't let Thanos win again. Humans were stubbornly resilient. Over the course of our history, we'd survived disasters just as violent and come back even stronger. If supervolcanoes and ice ages couldn't stop us, Thanos most certainly wouldn't.
"What would you have done had Fury not asked for your help?"
I stared up at him for a long moment before kissing him hard. For some reason, the memory of my first day as an Avenger came to mind, and with it an idea as bold as it might be crazy. Something none of the other versions of me had tried.
He looked at me in no little shock and confusion as I stepped away. "I take it you have a plan?"
I nodded vigorously. "I do now. I need to make a statement." I hadn't really considered acting on those plans until Fury and the Avengers had been set, which would not be for another year or so yet, but... But I had already stepped back thanks to Ross, intentionally slowing my side of the work to make a point, and Fury, through Hill or not, hadn't complained once.
We both knew the situation with Ross would come to a head before the work at the Compound could be completed, so I had focused on making certain the Avengers would have a solid base to build upon. The training system had been put in place and functioned within optimal parameters. If a recruit couldn't handle the training they got weeded out quickly, which ensured Fury would only have the best working with the remaining Avengers both new and old. Yes, he had some serious heavy hitters including Captain Danvers, but they needed support staff and tactical teams, and researchers and tech staff, and dozens of other positions to just keep the day to day operations running.
And I had been preparing them to do that without the Expendables for the last few months.
The time had come to leave.
And I would be able to use the move to deal with Ross as well.
"What kind of statement?"
"A decisive one," I answered, then added, "And we need to do it quickly and with no misunderstanding as to our position on the matter.
Steve looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes went wide as exactly what I meant sunk in. "Oh. I like that plan. How though?"
I tapped the comms behind my ear, waking Ares up, not that he hadn't been following along, watching over us silently just in case. Steve and I were good, but a sniper bullet from a thousand yards away would still kill us quite effectively with either a head or heart shot. "Call a Conclave. Recall the Coins, and send my resignation to Hill and Fury."
"We're using the out clause?" Ares asked to confirm my plan of action.
"When for the Conclave?"
"One week. I want everyone in person or their designated proxies. Make certain they know I would prefer in person but will understand if the situation is dire enough to require a proxy." Some of my people would not easily be able to break away from the jobs they were currently on. Some might be able to rush completion, but others not. Some of my Coins were buried so deep, they might not be able to leave without risking their covers being blown. "Politely remind them I need a minimum of eighty percent for any decisions made to be official."
"I will do so. Locked with your seal?"
"Veritate educet," I told Ares, getting a look of surprise from Steve, who knew more than enough Latin to understand the words.
"Message prepared and sent. The area is clear. Though there are watchers at the apartment building. Shall I warn Carson and his team?"
"They probably already know, but use a coded transmission anyway."
I tapped the comms twice again, putting Ares back into standby mode for the time being. If there were anything I needed to know he could break in and warn me.
"A conclave? At your main base, I assume."
I nodded. "Things are going to move fast from here on out."
"I can watch Sara while you're gone."
I shook my head. "You and Sara are coming with us, I hope your employees are up to running Gallagher's for a few days by themselves."
"But I'm not an Expendable."
"But you are my ostensible boyfriend, and Ross might go after you to get to me once he finds out about me walking away from the Avengers. And you," I tapped him on the nose, "might just give yourself away if forced to punch him."
Steve snickered. "You may have a point there." He kissed me on the forehead and I sighed softly. "So now what?"
"I have to assume my place is now bugged as well as being watched, so you cannot be there without your mask. Presume you're being watched at all times, but otherwise, act as if you know nothing."
"I'll make certain she's wearing a tracking device, but I don't dare even up her security dramatically. I need Ross to think there will be a window of opportunity at some point. It'll have to be all systems normal on the home front, at least on the surface."
"You think he's going to come after her." Steve frowned, those worry lines appearing between his brows, his jaw clenching tight enough to be seen even with the beard disguising his features.
I didn't just think it, I knew it. Based on those other realities it would be inevitable, I simply wanted to control the when and where it happened. "I think he's going to come after both of us. Though, to him, Sara will probably be more useful. More malleable."
"She's a five-year-old child for fuck's sake." The anger in his voice was a living breathing dragon within him and I didn't fear it one bit. No, I just had to do what I did best and aim it, give it a target and then sit back and watch.
"Yes, but she's our child and she's been training with mercenaries from the time she could walk. I promise you, she's been taught what to do if taken against her will. We made it seem like play, but she, much like myself at her age, has been made well aware of the dangers being part of this family can put you in." A weird way to live, but my parents had been rich enough and had made enough enemies to realize the kidnapping of their children could be an extremely real possibility. I personally knew of two in my peer group that had had near misses.
Steve sagged, not liking my words one bit, but understanding the necessity. "This is why you work so hard to give her a normal-seeming life."
"Yes. She's a special child in many ways, but she's still just a child trying to maneuver her way through the vagaries of the first grade. She wants to go to sleepovers and birthday parties. and make cheesy Valentine's Day cards for her classmates. It doesn't matter that she's smarter than all of them, or faster, or can assemble an FN90 blindfolded."
Steve snorted in surprise at the last one.
"She's a kid and I will do everything in my power to let her be one."
"Just for the record, me too."
I nudged him. "I kind of figured." I tipped my head up to watch the clouds drift by through the trees. "Steve..."
"We can do this. Hey, we survived Christmas morning, didn't we?"
"Yeah, we did, as joyously chaotic as it was. Who knew that would be our last moment of peace?"
"C'mon, let's go get a drink and start planning."
I nodded and let him lead me back to the warmth and relative comfort of the former L & L Automat."
Time for decisions to be made.
I only stood on the raised dais so that everyone could see me easily, not because I thought myself better than them in any way shape or form. Just below and slightly to the right sat Steve, Sara, and her coterie of bodyguards. She had a tablet in hand, legs swinging slightly as she excitedly waited for me to take the stage. She didn't often get to be at HQ these days, but then again neither had I. Working from here had been necessary after the breakup of the Avengers, but after the Snap I moved back to New York and handled most of the work from there or the beach house. All the teams considered the Deck home base and functioned out of the sprawling complex of buildings. Yes, I'd stolen more than a few ideas from my time at The Avengers, but this had once upon a time been a planned hub for some big up and coming Amazon-style company that had ultimately crashed and burned. We'd taken over and modified the existing buildings and added a half-dozen more.
We might only total a couple of hundred souls, but housing, gear, and research took up a fair chunk of floor space. I even had a small manufacturing facility that permitted me to build proprietary designs and kept them from being stolen. The set-up relatively small compared to the Compound many of us had lived at, but intended for planned expansions. We were currently in the largest of the hangars, the only space expansive enough to fit the entire group out of the weather. Winter's were cold here, and I'd eaten the expense to keep the echoing building heated to a reasonable temperature.
Hard to fix a quinjet with numb fingers.
But thanks to one of Tony's gifts to me, power would never be an issue as a modified Arc Reactor ran the entire facility, with more than enough left over to support the nearby town if needed.
I stepped up onto the podium and walked to the center causing the murmuring of the crowd to go silent without my needing to ask. Turnout had been almost ninety-eight percent, only a few deciding to appoint proxies in their stead. I'd received messages from each of them detailing the whys of their decision and had to agree with their choices to stay in place. If this meeting hadn't been of the utmost importance I would have not called any of them away from their work.
"So, I imagine you're all wondering why I called you here today..." Ares, via the comms, broadcast my words through the speaker system in the building so there would be no need to yell or misunderstandings. That received chuckles and head shakes as I expected. I admit to not being a comedian by any stretch of the imagination. Sarcasm, sure. Being sardonic now and then, of course. But funny? Not so much.
"We presumed you didn't call a Conclave for funsies, Myla," a verifiable smartass named Fredricks called out from the back.
"Maybe she just missed your face," Myers responded, getting laughs from pretty much everyone.
Admittedly, I hadn't seen Fredricks since the battle at the Compound, but I also hadn't needed to. He had always been a solid recruit and had worked his ass off during the Snap years even after losing his best friend. He'd handled distribution and worked out of HQ the majority of the time. He'd been fantastic at it and I trusted him to get our people anything they needed when they needed it.
"Maybe I did," I agreed. "Maybe I missed all your faces. It's been a while since we've been all together."
"Someone in the front row said, just loud enough to be heard, but not identified. "The battle at the Compound."
"Exactly," I nodded in agreement. "And I feel I should apologize for not being here anywhere near as often as I should."
"You are putting the Avengers back together, Commander, that takes precedence."
"It did take precedence," I corrected. "We're here because the situation has changed. Thaddeus Ross, former Secretary of State, and now government bully in charge of creating his own personal version of the Avengers has decided we are his to order around."
This was quickly followed by a round of vocal boos and descriptive sexual acts the man could perform on himself. I glanced down at Sara, but Steve had managed to get his hands over her ears in an effort to keep her from hearing the more scatological descriptions. Not that she hadn't heard similar before. Mercs of any stripe generally aren't PG rated and we were no exception.
Once they settled down a bit I continued. "Mr. Ross, in his great wisdom, has decided to use the assistance clause in our contract with the Avengers, citing the Accords as the justification." Unhappy murmuring rolled through the crowd below me, expressing their discontent with the information I'd given them. As they should. "We all know why I chose to leave the Avengers."
"Because of Captain Rogers," someone stated just loud enough to be heard.
I shook my head in amusement. "Yes, that was part of the reason, I will admit to that. But those of you who were there with me know I... we had others as well."
"O Captain, my Captain," echoed up from the back of the room, to be picked up row by row until the entire group chanted the words together. I permitted it to continue for a couple of minutes, glancing down at Steve who wore a rueful expression on his face. I gave him a smile then raised my hands to encourage my enthusiastic Expendables to quiet down.
"One of the better speeches I've made, even if it was stolen." I winked down at Steve. "I refused to sign the Accords, refused to let them label me as enhanced, which I suppose is a moot point now."
That got chuckles throughout the room.
"I won't let us get dragged back into that mess. So, and a few of you are already aware of this, I've enacted the out clause and as of three days ago we are officially no longer working on the Avenger's project."
I gave them a few moments to talk amongst themselves, voices soft, some concerned, some worried, but none of them questioning my decision. "I will not permit us to be forced under the heel of Ross. He has learned nothing during his time dusted. It is no longer a planet we need to defend, but a universe. I firmly believe he does not understand this and I will not subject us to his foolish whims."
I paused again so that my statements could sink in. "I've made many decisions on behalf of the Expendables, but this next one I cannot... will not do without your input. During the Snap years, we changed our focus, we still did what others could not; provided help for those in need, we created infrastructure and jobs and resources, and, most important of all, hope. Even though many of us had lost everything we held dear we came back together for the good of everyone and did all that we could to hold as much of this world together as we could handle."
"And we'd do it again." Followed by cheers from the rest.
"We made plans during those years, plans that we set aside when we were called upon to aid in the defeat of Thanos. I ask you now, shall we retire from the art of war in toto and instead use our skills to build and defend those who most need it?" I looked over my people, my friends, my family absolutely certain how they would respond. They were tired of war, of fighting, losing more people that they loved. "All in favor of moving ahead with the decision to officially Split the Deck say 'aye'."
The rafters rang with the force of their response.
"All against, say 'nay'."
An echoing silence followed my words.
"Jeez, mom, did you really need to ask that?" Sara commented, obviously understanding everything that had been happening to one degree or another.
"It's protocol," Steve reminded her in a soft tone.
From his spot on the other side of Sara, Carson spoke loud enough to be easily heard by everyone in the room, "I propose we induct Gallagher."
"Seconded," came instantly from several throats, most vocally from my XO Jacobson. Not that the other one, MacKenzie, hadn't also added her second to the cacophony. The chant then began, powerful voices rising louder and louder on the two simple syllables, "Induct." over and over again.
I met Steve's eyes. "Your choice," I mouthed to him as I doubted he'd be able to hear me over the rest of my idiots.
Sara didn't give him an option, hopping down from her seat, grabbing his hand, and dragging him towards the dais. He followed along willingly enough, a somewhat bemused expression on his face. When he stopped next to me he leaned in and asked, "Did you plan this?"
"No. I wouldn't put you in this position. You want out, I've done everything I can to make that happen." I wanted Steve happy, if that meant I had to keep work and love separate I would do so. "I'm not the kind of person to choose love over duty. Until you. Until Sara. So, I will leave this up to you, you can join this family fully, or you can remain as it is now, my friend and Sara's father, and not have to deal with the craziness that is about to unfold for all of us."
He took a step back, and I could see that he had taken my words seriously and that he needed a moment to think, to decide how much part of my life he wanted to be. Once upon a time his life, our lives, revolved around the Avengers, and then our lives had changed. Over and over again they had changed, and what we wanted, who we were had changed as well.
And yet we still found ourselves together, regardless of what other duties might fall upon our shoulders.
"Ares, patch me in if you would." Much like all of us Steve had taken to wearing a comms pretty much all the time. It was deucedly convenient and acted as a tracking device should Ross or his stooges make the foolish decision to try to use Steve as a bargaining chip.
Steve cleared his throat, and it sounded like a jet engine rumbling to life through the overhead speakers, but it did the job and got the horde below to quiet down for a moment. "Let me start by saying I am honored you think I am worthy of becoming part of this family, but in all good conscience, I cannot accept."
Sara gaped at him, a look of utter disappointment adorning her face as she tugged at Steve's hand, quite clearly wanting him to change his mind. I suspected she'd been the one who had put Carson up to making the nomination given she could not as she was only considered a probationary member of the team. "Why not?" she asked him, sounding so unhappy that I wanted to give her a hug and assure her it would be all right.
Steve glanced down at her for an instant, giving her hand a squeeze of reassurance before turning back to the crowd below us. "I cannot accept it because I'm not Steve Gallagher." Then he reached up and began peeling off the sections of the nano veil until his real face could be seen.
For long breathless seconds, the room went dead quiet before exploding once again into the demand of "Induct."
"Uh, I think they still want you to join," I told Steve, trying not to laugh in joy. I can't say I hadn't considered asking him any number of times, including back when the Avengers had originally broken up, because I had, often. Life simply hadn't played out that way for us. Not this one, anyway. In others... well, different decisions create different paths which lead to different endings.
I had no complaints about how this particular one had come to fruition.
"I kind of get that feeling too."
"Then maybe you should answer them," Sara told him. She'd seen enough inductions to know what should be coming next. Steve would be skipping more than a few of the usual steps, but given his experience, I doubted anyone would challenge his qualifications.
Steve straightened, coming to his full height, that commanding presence he'd tried so hard to shuck sliding right back into place and causing the room to go quiet in anticipation. "I would be honored to join you if you'll have me," he told them.
"All those in favor of inducting Steven Joseph Gallagher, AKA Steven Grant Rogers, into the ranks of the Expendables, say 'aye'."
The room once again rang with their response.
Carson quickly followed it with. "Don't ask for nays, Commander, there won't be any."
I shook my head, trying not to grin but conceded the point. I turned to Sara, "Would you like to do the honors?"
She bounced up and down for an instant then her demeanor turned solemn. In as loud a voice as she could manage, which was impressively loud, she said, "Repeat after me, 'Where they bring fear we will show mercy.'"
Steve nodded to her. "Where they bring fear we will show mercy."
"Where they choose to attack we will always defend," Sara said, then glanced out at the Expendables below, and, as if it had been a signal, they joined in as Steve finished the credo I'd created so that those who even thought about joining us understood what we were. We didn't just say these words, we endeavored to live them every day of our lives, and if any of us lost our lives in the effort of saving others...
Well, then it had been a life well spent.
"Where they create chaos we will stand true."
"Where they demand followers we will create leaders."
"Where they choose to conceal we will bring the truth."
"Who are we?" I asked, my voice hushed and so damn proud of the people before me.
"We are Expendable."
"Damn straight," Sara stated, causing laughter to ripple through the group.
"You are nothing but trouble," I informed her, making her grin. "All right, now that you all have gotten your Emperor, I have a personal favor to ask."
Steve sidled over next to me. "We have a favor to ask," he corrected.
"Ask," Jacobson got out before a half dozen others managed it. I swear to god they kept tallies on who got the questions out first.
"Ross knows about Sara, who her father is."
That got shocked mutters and smattering of sudden drawn-in breaths.
"Doesn't Barton owe you a favor?" Fredricks queried, which caused Steve to snort.
"Yes, but I have a better use for it. No, we are not going to hurt Ross, but we are going to make it exceedingly clear that touching me or mine will end with him pulling a bloody stump away." I had to take a moment to calm myself, still furiously angry at what he was trying to do. "As most of you know, Steve Rogers is her father and she inherited more than his stubbornness."
That earned me a "Hey," and irritated stomp of a foot from the child in question.
"With Steve Rogers dead that means the only remaining sources of Erskine's supersoldier formula are Sara and me. I believe this is Ross's real reason for trying to take control of the Expendables, to get his hands on the two of us."
"Well, he can't have either of you," MacKenzie responded at a growl.
"Which is why we are asking for a favor from you. This is not your fight, this is perso-"
"Your fight is our fight, always." That from Tristan, who had been sitting off to the left, his new rank pins shiny on his collar.
"Thank you, Tris, I feel exactly the same," I assured him, to them all.
"What do you need, boss?" Jacobson asked, for everyone in the room.
I'd barely gotten the word out before every single person stood up to offer their services.
I kind of wanted to cry out sheer pride. "Sit, please."
They glanced about at each other before slowly doing so.
"Thank you. All of you for your willingness to assist without even knowing what it is I'll be requiring of you. This is a small team op, team leads pick four willing victims. Yes, that includes tech, I have some special needs on this one."
"What's the job?"
I looked over at Steve who nodded. "We are going to punch Hitler."
We had adjourned to the cafeteria where the onsite teams had worked hard to supply enough food and drink for the whole team and any of their significant others who had joined us today. While a fair amount of them lived out of the Deck it had become rare for so many of us to be here at the same time. While my news had been of a serious nature between the decision to go forth with Splitting the Deck and the induction the mood had turned spirited.
"So, what happens now?" Steve asked as he leaned forward to pour some of the beer from the pitcher and into his glass.
"We have the world's biggest tea party," Sara answered with a giggle and a smile. "I like it when we all get together, mom."
"Not that they're drinking tea," Steve muttered over the rim of his glass.
I snorted. "Me too sweetie. It should happen more often now," I told her.
"Are we going to move here?"
I shook my head. "No. New York will still work best for the time being. Though I will be spending more time here to keep an eye on these knuckleheads."
"But..." she scrunched up her face. "I want to start training for real."
I looked over at Steve. "Sara, do you know how old the youngest Expendable was?"
She shook her head. "No."
Steve nodded in my direction. "Your mom was the first Expendable and she was twenty-six years old and had been training for," he glanced over at me to supply the answer.
"Almost a decade," I told her. "Grams and Gramps had me taking martial arts from about your age on and I did ROTC in high school and college with the intent of becoming a marine when I graduated." I reached out to tap her on the nose. "The deal was school before the military. I was just able to finish the school part really fast because of my weird brain."
"SHIELD recruited you right out of college?" Steve asked.
"They first approached me during my sophomore year. I stayed in contact. They made some suggestions for classes and such and I followed through." I shrugged. "I could handle the extra classes and added another degree because of it." Steve actually appeared to be surprised by that information. "It should have been in my file, I just presumed you had read it."
He shook his head. "I learned all I needed to know that first day. The rest... I... the files don't show who a person truly is, working with them, training them, talking to them does."
"Does that mean I can't join till I'm twenty-six?" Sara whined and wore the most pitiful face imaginable.
Steve answered, "It means you can continue training so long as you stay in school, and I..." I cleared my throat. "... we will reevaluate when you turn eighteen."
"And you also might decide you want to do something else," I suggested. "Become a doctor, perhaps."
"Or an Avenger," Jacobson muttered as he walked by with yet another plate overflowing with food.
"Do you think I could be? Mom? Dad?" Her whole body lit up with excitement as if it had never crossed her mind that she could even consider joining those illustrious ranks.
"Only if you complete your training," I reiterated.
This time she nodded solemnly. "I'll do my best."
"You always do," I assured her. Then I turned back to Steve. "As to your question. Once we've dealt with Ross and complete any extant contracts, we begin the reorganization."
"And that entails?" he prompted.
"The four suits split off and become fully independent units. The Trumps are split into leadership for the four units. They can expand via new recruits, take contracts, set up training, etc. Each unit has a specialty, but all are also generalists."
"Just like how you trained the Avengers tac teams. Anyone could lead if needed, but all had their specific role."
I nodded. "Add in Ares and we're practically unstoppable."
"And who oversees them all?"
Jacobson from the next table over pointed his fork at me. "She does. Or, I guess the two of you do. Huh. You need a new title. The Fool just doesn't seem appropriate for your new position."
"Well, am I still the Emperor?" Steve questioned.
"I want to say yes, but I don't think she'd," He gestured at me with the fork again, "be willing to take on the Empress title."
I shook my head. "No. That's Natasha's title. It has been permanently retired as has the Magician."
"There's always Director."
I hung my head in my hands. "No, I will not take on Fury's moniker, no matter that I had somehow managed to become his equal in some ways." Maybe he hadn't been planning to have me replace him, but preparing me for the inevitability of the Expendables returning to the path we'd gone wandering down during the Snap years. He had to have known exactly what we'd been doing and, more, what we were capable of. This last year working with him had been as useful for me as him.
Yeah, he probably would prefer I'd bring my people back into the Avenger fold to handle the ground troops while he dealt with that SWORD he'd been working on, but he'd be more than satisfied with us being free-range and willing to contract out as needed.
Having someone on the same page and that he could trust to watch his back of more importance in many ways.
And I… we would do that.
Once we'd dealt with Ross.
"Lord and Lady?" MacKenzie offered up dragging me back to the here and now.
"Nah, then the Kings would rank them," Sara pointed out.
"Isn't Commander good enough?" I complained, I hadn't thought about having to change my rank. "Might as well call me God, then."
"Well, there's always Chief," Fredricks suggested with a smirk and a nod.
I sighed softly. "Cute. Inappropriate, but cute."
He laughed and settled down at a nearby table. "Do you really need a title? With this plan, you won't be going out on ops unless absolutely necessary. Even though you are the strongest of us."
"Was," Carson argued. "Gallagher is now, technically."
"Technically, he's a new recruit and has a lot of work to do before he does anything in the field," Jacobson pointed out and not incorrectly.
Steve shook his head. "I will not be going out on ops. Training, tactical organization, anything behind the scenes, yes. I will not risk anyone outside this group discovering who I really am. Understood?"
That got nods from everyone within hearing distance. "Of course, Captain," Jacobson stated for all of them. "You can trust us to keep your secrets."
"I know," Steve nodded, "I would not have revealed myself otherwise." Then he turned back to me. "God isn't that bad an idea actually."
"Steve, I know an actual God, I will not claim that title just because of some minor enhancements."
He popped a meatball in his mouth and took a moment to chew and swallow it down before continuing. "Well, how about the Director of Information and Operations."
"Oh, that'd be DIO, which is Italian for God," Sara said, figuring it out before me.
"How many languages are you teaching her?" Steve questioned in obvious amusement.
"None. I just gave her permission to use Duolingo."
Sara grinned. "There's an app for that, dad."
I snickered. "While I was trying to avoid the term director, I don't hate that idea." And it would be reasonably accurate for what I would be doing. I would be the one making the assignments, finding those in need of our services, especially those who could not contact us directly. Ares would still be our God of War, but much like during the Snap years, would alter his focus to less potentially deadly endeavors. And... and I knew about Fury's plans, his real plans, and the groundwork my Expendables would lay on this world, would ultimately be of benefit when the next battle came to this planet.
Splitting the Deck was only the beginning of my plans. Provided we got through this mess with Ross reasonably unscathed. Truthfully if everything went even close to plan, the man would never be able to touch us again, leaving my people free to dually join the Avengers, or subcontract out to Fury personally.
I knew for a fact a fair portion of the Coins would go straight back to the jobs they'd put on pause for this meeting, for a while anyway. Ares had access to databases all over the planet and with the next upgrade I had planned the Coins would no longer be needed in person. Mere months from now they would be free of living the deception.
I sighed softly. "I think I'd rather just retain my title of Fool. I've led them this far."
"Ooo, that's something you could draw, dad. The team leads as their trump cards." Sara bounced in her seat, quite plainly liking the idea and I kind of had to agree with her. Team portraits didn't sound like a half-bad idea.
"Maybe," Steve agreed. He looked over at me with a grin. "Guess I'll need to start looking into upgrading my studio."
I leaned over a bit and said in a soft voice, "Steve, you can open a studio if you want. Gallagher's Gallery. Right next to the gym if you like. You do not have to be involved with the Expendables any more than you wish."
He reached out and took my hand. "I know. You sure you don't want to retire?"
I shook my head. "This is me, Steve. Who I've always wanted to be. What I always hoped I'd be able to do. I'm not ready to walk away yet. If you can't understand that..." I shook my head wondering just why he had agreed to become one of us, an Expendable if he wanted no true part of it. That he had perhaps only done it to appease me. Not that I had even suggested anything of the sort. Hell, when he'd offered to train with my people I'd been surprised, even though his reasons were sound. Keeping them safe meant keeping me safe ultimately. And that meant his daughter stayed safe.
After all the steps forward we'd made in the last few months this to me was a massive one backward. Even after the Snap I never once thought to stop doing this. To stop leading an amazing group of people who had the same undeniable need to do this thankless job. It had become far more than being willing to take orders and do the things that few others were willing or able to. We also made the decisions. We chose to stand our ground, to be that immovable object that stood between the light and the darkness.
No, we didn't always win, hell we didn't always choose the correct side, but we tried, and in some ways, that had become far more important.
Steve Rogers used to act upon those same instincts. Do the right thing for the sake of doing it and no other reason. Even if he had been a touch hotheaded about it when younger.
I pulled my hand away from his and stood suddenly, my chair scraping backward across the floor with a squeal loud enough to silence the room as all eyes focused on me. I turned to Carson, who did nothing more than give me a sharp nod to acknowledge my unstated order. He'd keep an eye on Sara while I took a moment away from the crowd.
I didn't even bother to react to Steve's confused, "Myls?" as I walked away, heading I had no clue where, but not there, not next to the man who had made an error in judgment that I didn't have the energy to explain the whys of.
I ended up outside, grabbing one of the heavier winter jackets always hung by the doors for those who just needed to run from one building to the other as I'd rushed by. Yes, there were underground tunnels connecting the complexes, but the routes to and from had always been rather roundabout and took longer than just tossing on a coat and jogging the hundred yards. Granted, during a snowstorm it probably behooved one to suck it up and take the extra time, but I simply needed to be outside. The sun filtering through the thin layer of clouds and windblown snow.
I utterly failed to be surprised when Steve found me about ten minutes later. Unfortunately for him, my temper hadn't cooled down in the least no matter the current air temperature. "Remember the trainee incident at the lake?"
He had stopped a few feet away and appeared to be unsure enough that even though I'd spoken he seemed reluctant to move closer. "You scared me half to death. Jumping into that lake in the dead of winter."
"And if the roles had been reversed? If you'd been the one to overhear their idiot plan?" Oh, I knew the answer, but I wanted him to say the words aloud.
He sighed, a plume of fog forming only to be swept away by the steady wind. "I would have gone after them, of course. But I was-"
"Yes, enhanced. Wouldn't risk becoming hypothermic and dying, as decades of being frozen had already proved." I wanted to be angry, wanted to yell at him, but couldn't seem to drum up the energy through my disappointment. "While I was a mere mortal."
"Well, yes," he responded, irritation in his voice.
With as much sarcasm as I could pour into my tone, I said, "Oh, how did we ever survive without your special brand of heroism to save us from even ourselves?"
He grunted as if kicked. "That's not what I meant. Then or now. You didn't build any of this with the assistance of my specialness." He took a moment to absorb what he'd just said. "Oh. Damn it."
"This world managed just fine without you for decades. No, it was far from perfect, but neither are you, no matter how hard you try to be."
"And you are?" he snapped right back.
I laughed, as I turned to finally face him and the dour unhappy look he wore. "Oh fuck no. I have never claimed to be perfect. I simply do the best I can. Granted most days that's enough, but some..." I shrugged one shoulder. "You have literally all the time in the world, can reset yourself over and over again if you wish, why are you trying to rush to the end?"
He stared at me for long, slow minutes, the emotions building behind his eyes into what I expected to be an explosion of movement and words. Instead, he shut his eyes and tipped his head down, and answered in a surprisingly soft voice. "Because I don't know when it might end. We have the potential to live an extremely long time, hell, I've already lived more years than anyone should have to, but we can still die. I want the chance to have a life with you before that happens."
"Well, then you need to make a choice because this one involves the Expendables and attempting to put this sorry excuse of a planet back together," I informed him, hurt and disappointment in my voice. I could and would do this without him.
His head snapped up. "I know that. Why do you think I became one?"
"I have no idea since you immediately afterward asked me to retire."
"That's not-" My eyes narrowed warningly and he caught it for a change. "Yes, I admit part of me wants you home and safe, being a normal family."
"This is not the fifties, Steve, grow the fuck up." Now the frustration made an appearance. "I'm not some pearl-wearing black and white housewife and never will be. Hell, Peggy wasn't so why are you doing this?"
"I don't know," he suddenly shouted. "I can't sit at home with our daughter hoping you come home from an op safe and sound." He spread his hands wide in seeming supplication. "Being out means you have to keep me in the dark for a lot of things, becoming an Expendable, no matter how little I'm actually involved in the day-to-day operations, means you can tell me. It means I can use the knowledge and experience I have to help you, keep all of your people just a little bit safer." His shoulders sagged. "It lets me be involved with your life. This," he gestured at the buildings we stood amongst, "is your life. And I didn't like being one comparatively tiny part of it."
"God damn it, Steve, you could have just told me."
"I thought I did when I agreed to be an Expendable."
Shades of lifetimes past.
"You can't just pretend this job, they won't let you get away with that."
"I have no intention of doing so." He took a cautious step forward as if still unsure of my mood. "Sara hasn't just been teaching me the off-duty rules, Myls."
"Was this her idea?"
Steve nodded. "I think so. I suspect she went to Carson about the induction protocol, though she did a damn good job hiding it from me." He gave me a wry grin. "Clearly she failed to inherit my inability to lie."
I snorted. "She didn't lie. She just failed to inform you of her plans. Aunt Natasha may have been of some influence as well."
"Nat teaching Sara is a frightening thought."
"Nat taught me, I will pass on everything I can. It might save Sara's life one day."
Steve shook his head. "Not disagreeing at all, just want to make certain she's taught at the proper time. We are not the Red Room."
"Agreed. Working up a training program for the kids is ongoing. Not a whole lot of babies for the team members yet." In fact, last I checked Sara remained the only child for any of us. Which made sense even with five comparatively quiet years where those couples could have chosen to have children. No one had really wanted to during those long dark years when we'd had no certainty that humanity would even pull through on this planet.
Then we'd gone straight back to battle conditions even with spouses and loved ones returned, no one wanted to risk it. But now, now that we were moving on to less dangerous pursuits I could see my people settling down and living for more than just the moment. We could look towards the future and be relatively confident that all would be well.
Or so we hoped.
"Sara's the beta test," Steve said with some amusement that I echoed.
"I think I'm doing pretty good so far."
"You are." He stepped close enough to set a hand on my shoulder. "You have. I..."
"What, Steve? What complaint do you have now?"
"Complaint? Nothing like that. I just..." He tipped his head up to gaze at the sky overhead and asked of the universe itself, "How is it I managed to find the right partner twice in one lifetime, and in both cases I did my best to screw it up without intending to?"
"Mad skills," I proposed, the humor not as forced as it probably should have been.
He chuckled and rested his forehead against mine. "No more suggestions to retire, promise. The next time it gets brought up will be by you, okay?"
I sighed softly, disliking fighting with him. "Fair enough." I permitted him to kiss me, then rubbed my face in my hands when he shifted slightly putting some space between us as if sensing I still had doubts about his sincerity. "Gods, so much work to do. If you are really in, I'm going to abuse your brain for quite a bit of it."
"Thought all this was planned out."
"And how well do most battle plans go once you've engaged with the enemy," I countered.
He frowned slightly. "Good point. What do we deal with first? How long for the teams to wind down their current contracts and resettle into the new ones?"
"Six weeks or so. And somewhere in there, Ross is going to have to make his move."
"You have a plan?"
I nodded. "I have a plan, however, I need you to be aware that I fully intend to stack the deck in our favor."
"You're going to cheat?" He questioned sounding aghast at the very thought of it.
Luckily I knew him well enough. "No, we are going to cheat. Should we not use every tool at our disposal to protect our daughter?"
He grinned. "I think borrowing a helicarrier might be a bit much."
"Borrow?" I'd damn well steal one if I thought it necessary. "A dozen of us should be more than enough to handle what Ross will throw at us. We just need to control the narrative."
"And how are we going to do that?"
"By having the home-field advantage of course."
His brows drew together for a few seconds as he contemplated my response. "Damn, you don't think small do you."
I shrugged. "The only way to get Ross off our backs is to make certain his plans are brought into the light of day. With the least amount of exposure to our side as possible."
"Are you prepared to let the world know Steve Rogers is her father?"
"If that's what it takes to get Ross to back down? Yes." Steve did not look the least bit happy with my response. "Steve, you are a hero. You died saving the fucking universe from Thanos. How do you think the world, in a general sense, is going to react to knowing you have a daughter. And more how do you think they'll react to learning that Ross tried to kidnap her?"
It didn't take him long at all to process that scenario. "They'd probably do anything to protect her. Including burying Ross in some undisclosed location to keep him away from her."
"We don't dare touch him directly, but turn public opinion against him?" I had taken the time to not only think this through but see if any of those other mes had taken a more direct tact with Ross and what the result had been. As expected it hadn't ended well for me and mine.
Steve gave a slow nod of agreement. "Character assassination instead of a real one. I like that option."
I smirked. "I thought you might. His government backers might just take their support away when it comes out."
"That means we have to have evidence," he pointed out.
"Why? He doesn't. Someone out there knows exactly what he's doing and when it comes out, proof or not, they are going to disavow him and his plans. He'll be left swinging in the wind and if he's lucky he'll be allowed to scuttle off with his tail tucked firmly between his legs."
"Along with your boot?"
"I wish," I mused, thinking about that possibility with more enjoyment than I probably should have.
"Will you two kiss and make up already."
Both our heads snapped about to see Jacobson standing in his shirtsleeves just outside the door that led back to the mess, fisted hands on his hips and annoyance on his features. "Not yet. We still have fifteen or so minutes of arguing to do," Steve retorted, making me snicker.
"That's not what Ares told me. He seemed to think you'd forgotten there's a Conclave going on."
"Traitor," I muttered at the computer whose response was to vibrate the comms with a subsonic tone that caused a weird sensation between tickling and itching. "Meeting's done."
"Like hell, boss. We have an entire reorganization to put into motion, plus your special mission to plan." He began to shiver. He might have gotten more used to the winters here than most of the team, it didn't mean he should be standing out here in a t-shirt for an extended length of time.
"I think he plans to stand there until we go back in," Steve said sotto voce.
"Yep, the idiot."
Steve nudged me into motion and we walked over to where my number two number two stood there shivering. "Steve Rogers reporting as ordered, sir."
Jacobson's jaw dropped for an instant before he found his tongue. "Christ, do I rank you?" He turned to me in hopes of an answer to that question.
"Urf, yes, and no?"
"Can you decide inside? There's weather coming in and we need to lock down some of the equipment before it gets here."
Steve instantly volunteered. "How can I help?"
Jacobson closed the door behind us. "Umm, you don't have to."
Steve glanced at me then gave the best response possible to the rank question that had been posed. "Given I'm the newest recruit it's appropriate. Plus, seems to be a good time to learn the layout of this place."
Jacobson took that in then nodded. "Okay, grab the cold weather gear and meet us by the south entrance in five."
"Well, doll, looks like I've got to go to work." He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek while I laughed. "Uh, which way to the south entrance?" he asked.
"South." I waved in the proper direction.
"Right." He glanced about for the cold weather gear then shrugged as he probably wouldn't need it then trotted off to join the team Jacobson had put together.
I hung up my jacket and headed back to the mess and Sara.
I could only pray the incoming storm was not a portent signaling how our lives would unfold over the next few weeks.
Once more unto the breach...
I had decided to handle the prep work by myself just because it had been quite some time since I'd done anything so basic on an op of any kind. These days I had people for that and it had suddenly struck me with an odder than usual case of deja vu.
I'd laid out full armor for all those who would be working out of the apartment and had chosen to risk their lives helping me and my daughter. Those inside with me would not be wearing nearly as much, since we had to presume spies I had been forced to keep the armor options far more subtle. I wanted to keep injuries to a minimum and those inside the apartment would be at the greatest risk for them, since we were the ones who would be taking the brunt of the attack.
I surveyed my choices once again, reminding myself that I actually knew what I was doing, and had prepared as best I could for the fight to come. With Ares having infiltrated dozens of systems if only indirectly - we had access to the data but could not affect or change it - I had their entire plan laid out for me more than far enough ahead of time to be certain we'd be prepared.
And get Sara well clear without those coming for her the wiser.
I'd had handed her off to one of the few people on the planet that I trusted to keep her safe while we dealt with those Ross would be sending after her. I made certain to follow my usual daily routine since I'd walked away from the Avengers, which pretty much followed the routine I'd kept prior to the final defeat of Thanos.
I had more than enough on my plate with the reorganization of the Expendables to keep me busy for weeks, but it had been put on pause for a few days until the current mess could be handled with finality.
If this went awry I might very well find myself in a cell for the next slice of eternity or until my team and Steve came and broke me out. If that occurred I'd take Sara and head to the Sanctuary until the smoke cleared.
I didn't want that to happen. Didn't want to run and hide to protect me and mine. Oh, I'd do it, but only once I'd exhausted all other options.
I took a moment, hands on the table as support, closed my eyes, and focused as I'd been taught, permitting the most recent other timelines to filter through my mind in an effort to better predict how my plan compared to what other versions of me had tried. Sadly, much as it had been for the majority of the week, none of their paths had been even vaguely similar to the one I'd taken.
I had fallen off the edge of the map and here there be monsters.
I could only do my best, but to be honest, my best had always been pretty damn good.
Ross wanted a fight.
I would give him one, the likes of which he'd never come close to imagining.
However, I could not yet see if I would be the one to come out on top.
I believed so but had no way to know for certain. I simply did all I could to stack the odds in my favor. And since he wanted a confrontation, I had personally prepared for such. Not just the lightweight armor I'd be wearing under my clothes, but had made certain my hair, which I had let grow out the last few years, had been put up and out of the way. I'd shaved the sides of my head, a strip a few inches wide above my ears to a short fuzz, the right inevitably showing off the lightning bolt-shaped scar I'd earned in Wakanda, then I'd Dutch braided my hair, giving it a faux mohawk look. And then, just because, I had abused a couple of cans of colored hair spray leftover from Halloween and added red and blue stripes to the sides. The color showed up rather well on my black hair, and in truth, this was far from the first time I'd done my hair this way.
Though I did seem to have a habit of doing it right before a big battle, should I know it to be occurring ahead of time.
The team started to filter in, giving me nods as I went over everything one last time before the meeting actually began. Last to arrive were Steve and the three Expendables who had been at the gym with him. The last morning classes ended right before one pm, the late afternoon only having a couple of private sessions scheduled, which would be handled by the trainers he'd hired. Regular classes would start up again at five pm when people began returning home from their daily grind and headed out for a workout before dinner, and he would be back in plenty of time for them.
I got a round of 'hey, boss' and 'Commander' from my team, but Steve froze dead still when I turned to greet him. His jaw literally dropping open when he saw me. I glanced down at myself in the ordinary tee and jeans I wore then back at him in some confusion. Only then did I remember that when he'd seen me last - yesterday evening - my hair hadn't looked as it did now.
"You hate it," I presumed, based on his continued immobility. To the point Carson had to shift him to close the door he still stood in front of. I wanted to raise my hands to hide what I'd done because I hadn't really thought about his reaction until this moment.
Hell, I hadn't even considered he might not like it when I'd made my decision. Not as if I'd had to answer to anyone concerning my looks for the last half dozen years, and I wasn't entirely certain I needed to do so now. So I stood up straight, arms crossed somewhat defensively across my chest, and waited for his displeasure to break upon me.
"What? No. You look amazing." He pulled out his cell and snapped a couple of pictures. "I have got to paint this," he muttered mostly to himself as he tucked his phone away and then managed to move forward finally, eyes still locked on mine. "It suits you."
"Told you we should call you Chief," Fredricks snarked.
I sighed in exasperation. "Still inappropriate," I cautioned him, but not as harshly as I probably should have. I might never have laid claim to that side of my heritage, but it didn't make me any less proud of it.
"I know what your Avengers name should be," Steve stated as he sidled up close enough to kiss me on the cheek.
"I'm not an Avenger," I reminded him.
He shook his head. "Not today, maybe, but there may come a time when the world needs you. A code name is pretty standard as you are well aware."
I huffed out a breath. "Point taken. And what brilliant name have you come up with?" I asked, actually rather curious to know what my newish look had inspired in him.
He gave me a once-over that caused me to shiver at the intensity of his gaze then said, "Warpath."
I opened my mouth to argue his choice, but I knew exactly how I looked and couldn't find the words to disagree.
"Oooo, I like that one," Fredricks stated. There were nods of agreement from everyone in the room.
"Fine. If, and we all know it's a huge ass if, I ever end up as an Avenger, even temporarily, I'll be sure to inform Fury of my name choice. Are you all happy now?"
"You heard her, Ares, put it on record," Carson ordered as he looked over the specs for the plan.
"Code name 'Warpath' added to the database," Ares responded instantly, sounding far too smug about it.
"- dare," I finished, far too late for it to do any good. "What have I gotten myself into," I muttered. Hating the lot of them at the moment.
"Is Sara gone already?" Steve asked as he pretended to look over the plan specs, on the tablet he'd picked up.
"As planned," I said with a nod.
"You're sure she's safe?" Steve asked yet again, worry eating at his features when his focus needed to be on the upcoming confrontation.
"Steve," I growled out in irritation. "Would you have preferred that we'd kept her here to use as bait?"
His back stiffened. "What? No, of course not."
"So you don't trust me any longer?" I questioned. I got that he was worried about her. Concerned for her safety and all, but he should have understood that revealing her location would put that safety at risk, not only for her but for those protecting her.
"It's not that..." he trailed off, a frown appearing on his face. "Her bodyguards are here, she's-"
"She is neither alone nor unprotected," Carson cut in. "I do not take my duty to her lightly, she is in the best of hands, I can promise you that, Rogers."
Steve did not look overly satisfied with that answer, but it was the only one he would be getting until after. "Do you really think I'd put her at risk?" he asked, seemingly unhappy at my decision to keep this particular bit of intel from him.
"No, of course not, but we had to assume Ross has bugged the gym and your place as well." I reminded him yet again. "She's only been gone twelve hours, what has made you so damn antsy?"
"I don't know," he groused.
"He doesn't like the idea of letting them in the front door when we know they're coming," DeSantos pointed out, which rang true.
I sighed and turned back to Steve who had ducked his head slightly which confirmed that. "The play's the thing here, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember, but I've always been better with more direct tactics. Like punching stuff."
I snorted. "You'll have every opportunity to do exactly that, I'm sure. However, we still have to perform our roles until they arrive." I let my gaze rove over the group of men and women standing with me. We had gathered in the same empty apartment in my building where I'd gone over Steve's new identity with him. We had every reason to believe other than the lobby and my apartment that the building itself remained secure. And given I had a dozen empty apartments to choose from there should have been no way for them to predict which one I might use, if any.
I was certain no one currently living here spied for Ross simply because there'd been no new tenants since the missing half of the population had returned. Other buildings had gained a few, but not this one. Even the Expendables who had volunteered for this job were staying elsewhere so as to not bring any undue attention to them.
And... and they hadn't come in the front door to get to this apartment. The building may have been modernized, but in actuality, it dated back to the early days of Manhattan and had all sorts of fun tunnels and entrances on the sub-levels. Made it simple to get them in and out when I wanted to meet to prepare for the upcoming confrontation.
"All right, listen up."
Everyone stopped what they were doing to focus on me. "All of you volunteered, so I am giving you one last opportunity to change your minds. This is not your fight-"
"Yes, it is. Your fight is our fight," Donal responded getting nods of agreement from all the rest of them.
And I was their Fool.
I huffed out a breath. Not that I could even pretend to be surprised at their response.
I glanced over at Steve, who stood with the rest of the Expendables who had quite literally vied for the opportunity to defend me and mine. I'd only needed a dozen total and yet every single one of them had volunteered when I'd asked.
"We know they are coming. We know why. They want my daughter, and me, if they can manage it. Though I suspect if I were killed they wouldn't be overly upset. The new government wants what we have and think they can take it by force."
"Idiots," Carson muttered, echoing my thoughts about them from just a few moments prior. "They can't."
"No, they can't," Steve agreed, tone dangerously dark.
"When I stood up that day so long ago now in the mess hall in complete defiance of Ross's orders I didn't expect a single person to stand with me and yet my entire team did. We were all Avengers, but somehow we had also become more. And it showed in everything we did. During those years every lesson we'd learned led to that moment when we made the decision to say 'no' and stand our ground on what we believed to be right.
"That decision had less to do with the Captain's choice than you might think." I nodded to the former Captain in question in his guise of Gallagher. "I have always endeavored to do the right thing, no matter the cost, and tried to teach all of you the same values. I think I succeeded pretty well, but somewhere along the way what the Avengers stood for had changed.
"Tony wanted to wrap a shield about the world to protect it. He discovered the hard way that you can't. But in the end, he figured out what it is you can do. You can be willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good. That putting your life on the line to save even one other person will always be worth it.
"None of us wants to die, I'll be the first to admit that. But if it'll save someone else? I'll jump atop that grenade every. Single. Time. In the end, even Tony understood what we have always known, we are expendable when it comes to the most important elements of life."
A long moment of silence followed, broken by Fredricks saying, "Did you get Captain America to write that speech for you?" He might be an ass but had always been damn good at his job.
"All right, ya noobs, anyone not in the penthouse I want in full tactical nano-armor. Including the headgear. We don't need a random headshot taking one of you out. Make absolutely certain your weapons are non-lethal. We are better than them by light-years and we are going to prove it."
"Embarrassment to the enemy," Donal shouted, getting cheers from the rest.
Carson patted me on the arm as he and his team headed out the door to sneak back out of the building to follow the normal afternoon routine by picking up "Sara" from school.
Steve sidled over to me. He too would be heading out and back to the gym for his afternoon classes. Everything, and I meant everything, had to appear normal. On the surface at least.
"That was impressive. How long did it take you to write?"
"That was off the top of my head. Had a good teacher, remember?" I'd been one of the few he'd told that the speech at the Triskelion had been unrehearsed. He had simply spoken from his heart much as I had just now.
He chuckled and kissed me on the temple. "I'll see you later."
I nodded. He'd taken to coming over in the evenings to spend some time with me and Sara before she went to bed. We'd needed the routine to look normal as part of the set up for the main event. Didn't want to spook Ross's bully-boys with unusual activity. They needed to believe that they had the upper hand and that we had no clue what might be coming for us.
I heard the door open. "Steve."
He stopped and turned around. "I'm sorry about earlier, My. I trust you. I trust them. And I know we're better than anything Ross can throw at us."
"Barring a helicarrier."
He chuckled. "Barring a helicarrier. Though that would be a tad too blatant for what he needs. You're right, he wants quick and quiet."
"Then we need to be certain to ruin his plans."
"Yippee-ki-yay," Steve said with a grin.
"Gods, why did I ever let you watch that movie?"
"To give me a goal to aspire to?" he suggested somewhat facetiously.
I strode over to him still laughing softly and gave him a shove towards the open doorway. "Get out of here, you have work to do."
"Yes, ma'am." He gave me a salute then another kiss before finally disappearing through the door.
"Ares," I called out to the room.
"Are the pieces still moving as predicted?"
"Scenarios are currently running at better than ninety-five percent accuracy."
I frowned. "That will have to be good enough for now." I went to the table and pulled up the information that Ares and other systems I had access to still gathered. "Let's see what we can do to get it closer to one hundred, shall we?"
I had the laptop resting atop my thighs, Steve's arm draped over my shoulders, and Netflix on the TV showing a cooking series he'd recently discovered and had been mainlining every chance got. While his skills in the kitchen had gotten better, they could still be improved upon, so I didn't discourage him when he tried to expand on them.
I had to admit I was paying more attention to the show and the random designs his fingers had been tracing on my upper arm than the report I'd been avoiding for two days now. While the Expendables may no longer be working for Fury or the Avengers, I still needed to summarize exactly how far I had gotten in the work, so Hill could know exactly what remained to be done. The report, part of the contract out clause, would complete any obligation I had to them, which meant the sooner I wrote the damn thing the sooner I could close that door permanently.
Sara had gone to bed about thirty minutes earlier, homework complete and not one but two chapters of her current book, having been read to her. Storytime had always been part of the routine no matter that she could easily read the book all on her own now. Being together was the important part. She might devour another chapter or two once the lights had been turned off and she'd been left to her own devices, but that was the right of every child who'd discovered the joys of being transported to other realms via the medium of ink and paper.
I grumbled under my breath, Steve shifting without his eyes ever leaving the screen across from us to kiss me on the temple in an effort at commiseration. Granted he had hated writing reports back in the day as I had often been requested to encourage him to do so even though it had not been my task. Playing the girlfriend card, he'd called it.
I had committed to doing so only once per request, after that it became Hill's problem as I most certainly had no power to give Captain America orders when it came to his job duties. I pulled up a chart so that I could quote the exact numbers in the report when the power in the room went out, the only light from the laptop for the first few seconds until flashlights magically came on.
"Mom?" Sara called out from her room.
"It's okay, honey, someone probably hit a pole." I set the laptop on the nearest horizontal surface and got to my feet.
Clementine shifted over towards the hallway that led to the bedrooms, head on a swivel, while Carson moved to the big glass doors that led to the balcony that overlooked the park. "We're the only building affected, all our neighbors are lit up."
A loud thud shook the walls of the entire apartment.
"Myls, that's the front door," Steve stated as he got to his feet, hands balling into fists.
A second massive thud came, followed by a crash as my expensive front doors gave way and slammed violently onto the even more expensive wood floors. Three tiny discs slid across the floor and into the room.
"Eyes," I barked, closing my own and turning away. The flashbangs went off, the concussion leaving my ears ringing, but my sight mostly unaffected. Still, by the time I'd opened them, smoke had begun to fill the room, obscuring the view almost as effectively as the actinic flash of light would have.
Bright beams of red cut through the haze, giving us targets to aim for as those laser sights were most certainly being held by people who could be injured. "Weapons," I shouted. We kept them stashed all over the place for potential situations just like this. Even Sara had been trained in their use should it become necessary. Most were non-lethal, but there were a few knives including kitchen, plus fireplace pokers that would do in a pinch if our usual weaponry ran out of rounds.
I got the gun from under the mantle and tossed it to Steve who checked it and powered it up. He took aim, taking a best guess down one of the bright beams of light, and fired, a yelp of surprise proving his ability to hit a target mostly blind to still be excellent.
Devons and Garrison charged into the fray from the opposite side of the room. The bodyguards had their own suite of apartments off the main one that had once upon a time been for the servants for the family that had built the place back in the twenties. Sara's bodyguards lived there so there could always be two on duty minimum.
They had had just enough time to pull on the basic armor, which was resistant to pretty much any standard weaponry including bullets and knives as proved once again when three of those beams trained on his chest with impacts that quickly followed. He went down from the concussive force but managed to return fire causing one of the beams to suddenly find the ceiling. "Non-lethal, but hurt like hell," he called out.
Then the glass doors that led out to the balcony shattered and another four swung in from above. It gave them a slight advantage of numbers, but the icy cold late evening wind whipped in and cleared out the worst of the smoke, revealing exactly where those who had breached my home first stood... and their targets.
They'd split forces, some heading for me the rest towards Clementine, who had stood his ground at the entrance to the hallway which led back to the bedrooms, only one of which was occupied at the moment.
I heard, "Target two acquired," from the one not more than four feet in front of me. He stood there in the best the US government could provide in tactical gear, while I had bare feet, sweats, and a tee-shirt. He smiled when he realized I watched him. "Team two, move in on target one."
I knew he meant Sara. "Form up," I called out and Carson got his team moving to block their way into the private areas of the apartment. Then I faced the quartet before me. "Let's dance."
The men flanking him raised their weapons and fired, going for the torso. I dove forward into a roll and came up right under one of them, grabbed the muzzle of his weapon which looked like a modified HK416, and wrenched it down from his shoulder then shoved it straight upwards, catching him on the chin with a solid hit that knocked his head back. His body followed along, completely limp as he hit the floor with the solid thud of an unconscious body. "One."
I shifted and swung my leg about, catching the second one in the shins, causing him to grunt and tip forward. His partner was fast though and managed to get a hand on his vest and kept him from going down altogether. Of course, that left both of them vulnerable and I popped back up and planted my foot into the back of the rescuer's knee, not hard enough to break it, but he dropped down, losing his grip on the way and causing both men to land on their faces on the floor. "Two and three."
I spun about to find their team lead standing there with that smirk and a red dot dead center of my chest. I had barely enough time to shift so that instead of the chest the round caught me in the upper arm. There was a zing of pain followed by my entire arm going numb. I ripped the small device off, the feeling returning unpleasantly as if I had fallen asleep on it and all the nerves had started firing as the blood flow returned to normal.
"Taser rounds," I warned everyone. I had become somewhat resistant to them. Steve would barely slow down, but they didn't know that, thinking he was a vanilla human named Gallagher.
My people, however, would find them wholly unpleasant to deal with. Yes, we trained with them, but when electricity was applied to the human body the response was often beyond one's control. So, I designed the armor they wore to negate the effects as much as possible. Now, Shuri hadn't given me all her secrets, but once I knew something to be possible I could often ferret out the hows of it with little trouble.
And I had.
Granted, no one in the apartment currently wore the full nano armor, but they all wore partials when on duty, torso, comms, and headgear they could pull up with a special earpiece they had the option of wearing. Peter Quill's gear, which Rocket had given me access to through Nat, had given me all kinds of nifty ideas and I'd spent a fair amount of time adapting Terran tech to behave in a similar manner.
It had paid off in spades.
Realizing the taser rounds would be less than effective upon me, Mr. Smartass barked, "Hard rounds for target two."
I found out exactly what that meant a moment later when the rounds impacted me in several locations. "Fuck," I groused diving for cover behind a chair that would only momentarily protect me from the two angles of attack they had aimed at me.
The rounds were something I knew about but had never experienced before. Harder than a paintball, but less damaging than an actual bullet. They were made of a polymer that had been deemed safe in riot situations where they simply wished to discourage rather than kill. The weapons firing them did so at a lower FPS, which made them useful only in relatively close quarter situations like this one.
Based on the pain I'd experienced, I'd be walking away with some serious bruises, I didn't want to think about what they'd do to a normal human. A misaimed impact could easily kill at close quarters, never mind break noses or damage eyes.
I had hoped they'd go more for tranquilizers than rubber fucking bullets, but even I couldn't predict everything apparently.
Over the chaos of noise I heard boots approaching my location and prepared to defend myself until the sounds of a struggle got my attention. I poked my head around to see Steve finish off the second of the pair who had been making their way toward my position. A third aimed his gun at Steve's back from mere feet away so I used the only weapon at my ready disposal; the chair I'd been hiding behind.
"Duck," I shouted then from a crouch I got my hands beneath it and heaved. Sending it flying through the air over Steve, who had dropped to the ground at my command, to impact the goon in the torso and take him down to the floor with a shout of surprise.
It seemed that, while they'd been ordered to take me hostage, they had not been apprised of my abilities.
A half dozen others had appeared from nowhere, though probably through my broken front door, and all turned their focus on me, their intent obvious. Overwhelm and capture.
Together Steve and I ran for the dining room, an unspoken agreement to use the table for defensive purposes while we came up with a plan of attack. He flipped the table over while I bowled a couple chairs at them in an effort to slow them down a bit.
We hunkered down as those not-bullets impacted the thick wood of the tabletop and the wall behind us. Their plan to force us to remain in place until they could maneuver close enough to surround and secure us. We would not be making it easy for them.
"Nearest weapons?" Steve asked.
"Kitchen or library," I answered. 'I'd rather not lead them into the library if we can avoid it. Mom's gonna be angry enough that they damaged this table. It's older than you."
Steve snorted. "Kitchen it is. Just the butcher block or is there some real weaponry in there?"
"Batons under the edge of the island," I told him. "Charged batons, that is."
He grinned. "I knew I kept you around for a reason." He poked his head over the edge of the table to gauge how difficult the attempt to get to the kitchen would be. There wasn't a whole lot of cover between here and there.
Without taking the time to think about my words I said with more than a touch of wistfulness, "I've missed this."
His eyes widened. "You miss being shot at?"
I snickered. "No, you dummy, working with you. We always made a pretty good team."
A full gamut of emotions flickered across his face. "Yes, we did. And we still will after this." He leaned over to give me a quick kiss. "I've missed it too." He reached for one of the chairs that had fallen nearby. "I'll apologize to your mom." He stood, threw the chair, which based on the thud and grunt had hit its intended target, and then bolted for the kitchen.
Wanting to give him every chance to get to the weapons, I shifted, and shoved the table straight forward with both feet. It plowed forward through the overturned chairs and into the three men who had taken it upon themselves to keep their focus on me. One managed to dodge while the other two went down messily as the heavy table impacted them, weapons going off and leaving a trail of holes in the thick plaster up the wall and across the ceiling until they hit the floor and managed to release the triggers.
I stood intending to play distraction so Steve could complete his appointed task when I heard a grunt from his direction. I turned to see him go down hard, not one, but two of those damn taser things attached to him, one at his temple the other his upper chest far too close to his heart. His shirt, much like mine had vibranium woven into it, effective in stopping bullets and knives, it would even distribute the charge in the tasers being shot at us, but both had hit dead on to the skin and while normally he'd be able to fight through the pain, I doubt he'd ever taken one to the head before.
"Steve," I shrieked, completely forgetting that I was in the middle of a battle and rushed to where he lay on the floor in the throes of an ostensible seizure. My heart in my throat as I dropped to my knees and slid the last foot or so to him where he'd gone down near the kitchen island taking out a pair of barstools with him. I untangled him from the now broken beyond easy repair stools and hovered over him. "Steve, god damn it. Don't you dare do this to me."
He had clearly stopped breathing and his entire body had gone stiff as a board in reaction to the two currents of electricity surging through him. I grabbed the one attached to his temple and ripped it away, my fingers going numb as the power shifted from him to me. For an instant a visible arc formed between the two taser units, a situation I had never seen happen before, then I flung it away. The second one still pulsed with power until I ripped it too off his skin, the smell of burning flesh and hair acrid in my nostrils.
Blood ran from both wounds, the head wound appearing far worse than the reality simply because head wounds always tended to bleed like crazy. I checked for a pulse, relieved to find a steady one then brushed his hair off his forehead, trying to ignore the blood dripping down the side of his head and onto the floor.
"Come on, Steve. Open your eyes."
He didn't move, his skin a nasty pasty white, between my hands.
He wasn't breathing.
I hadn't seen this. Hadn't predicted either of us being hurt unduly during this fight we had to pretend to let them win.
I couldn't lose him.
I had already gone too many years without half my heart and I absolutely refused to do it again. I wanted... no I fucking needed Steve Rogers not just in my life, but by my side for as long as we both shall live. Longer maybe given we had access to a machine that could permit us to start over any time we wanted.
In all the time I'd known him I'd never once feared for his safety, never feared losing him to Death. Oh, I'd experienced that loss thanks to being able to see my other lives, but none of it had been me. And this now, this moment had become the only one that mattered.
"Please, Steve. I can't do this without you." I hated the broken tone in my voice, but the abject terror that tightened like a fist about my heart found its inexorable way into my words.
He coughed, the muscles in his chest that had seized up suddenly relaxing and allowing him to suck in a deep breath of air. "Ow," he grumbled, voice hoarse.
I could not help but sigh in relief. "You scared me there." I leaned down to rest my forehead against his.
"Scared me too," he admitted. "Are they using widow stings on us?"
I nodded. "Something similar anyway."
"I forgot how much they hurt. This pretending to be incompetent is harder than I thought it would be."
I laughed, the fear that had damn near taken my breath away releasing me now that he seemed to be okay.
A voice with more than a modicum of anger in it said from above us, "Don't move."
My eyes went from Steve to the underside of the bar ledge where the hidden batons waited for one of us to use to get out of the current situation. He shook his head, perhaps realizing thanks to his unexpected takedown the time had come to let the remainder of this play out.
I'd waited just long enough for the decision to be made for me and I yelped in surprise as strong hands grabbed me from behind and jerked me up and away from Steve, who was also hauled unceremoniously to his feet. My captor had locked his arms securely about mine right at the elbow. I continued to play my part, and permitted myself to be dragged away, thrashing and screaming and fighting like a hellcat, and yet somehow not managing to escape.
He forcefully shoved me down to my knees in my daughter's bedroom, zip tie cuffs quickly and securely fastened about my wrists. Steve, after receiving similar treatment thudded to the floor beside me. Carson knelt nearby, one eye swelling shut and a trickle of blood coming from his nose to run down across his lips to fall from his chin to stain his shirt.
"You did all you could, Carson."
The mook in charge of keeping me in line cuffed me a good one with the back of his hand, the armored knuckles of the glove impacting the scar on the side of my head and causing sparks to appear behind my eyes. I hissed in actual pain. Even enhanced that scar remained sensitive as all fuck. My skull had healed, but the nerves in the tissue had been left permanently raw and it had become an Achilles heel of sorts for me.
"Myls," Steve asked in obvious concern then got a cuff upside the head for himself which caused the blood flowing from his temple to increase dramatically. For an instant I could have sworn I saw his real face, but once the stars behind my eyes eased an irate Gallagher is who faced our captors.
"Target two secure, send the extraction team."
I proceeded to struggle violently. I burst out into hysterical tears. "No. Leave her alone. Don't take my girl." It took two of them to force me to stay in place, their efforts included standing on my calves to prevent me from getting to my feet.
My waterworks instantly cut off. "Too much?"
"Just a skosh," Carson informed me.
"Your acting skills are usually better," Steve agreed, especially since knew exactly who had taught me said skills.
"Shut up, all of you." This time when the idiot in charge of the tac team went to cuff me I dodged, spinning about on my knees and shoving the top of my head as hard as possible into his groin. When he folded I snapped my head back to catch him on the chin, then rolled, breaking the plastic cuffs as I did so, and got to my feet. "Do you really think my daughter is dumb enough to just stay in her bed waiting for your goons to come grab her?"
A half dozen little red dots wavered on my torso from three different directions. Another one went to the bed and pulled the covers down to reveal the blow-up doll that had been placed there when 'Sara' had gone to bed. I glanced over at Carson. "Let me guess, Fredricks?"
"He volunteered to pick up the dummy," Carson told me and I couldn't even pretend to be surprised at the choice he'd made. Hell, there was a fifty-fifty chance he personally owned the damn thing.
"What the hell is this?"
"A sex doll, duh." I glanced over at Steve who shrugged, also not impressed with their level of intelligence. "In case you haven't figured it out yet, Sara isn't here."
I swear I could hear teeth grinding from the one who'd been holding me. He had managed to regain his composure, but I'd split his lip a good one when I'd given him that reverse headbutt. "We still have you," he pointed out, raising a potentially more lethal weapon at me.
I tipped my head to the side and narrowed my eyes. "Do you?"
He pressed the gun at the back of Steve's head. "You tell me?" he asked about a dangerous smile.
I looked at Steve. "Trust me?"
"Ares, if you would."
The lights came up. My team had been prepared for it, but those who had broken into my house and been wearing IR goggles were suddenly blinded. In but a moment all my people were free and had easily turned the tables on our supposed captors. The only one left untouched held a gun to the back of Steve's head who had snapped the ties about his wrists, but otherwise hadn't moved.
"You should be wondering about now where your extraction team is," I said all casual as I sat down on the end of the bed.
I had to give him credit, he didn't move, but I could hear the increase of his heartbeat as the reality of his situation began to sink in. "Extraction team sit-rep."
"They're not coming," Steve explained, his voice a low growl as he slowly stood up and turned about. The weapon hadn't tracked him so was now aimed at his abdomen. He reached out and took it from the man's nerveless fingers.
"Fredricks, sit-rep," Carson requested as he wiped some of the blood away with his shirt hem.
"Four-man extraction team had been detained. Wish you'd let us stop the others, those doors were nice."
I snorted. "How is Plan Nakatomi going?"
"Perfectly," Fredricks answered. "Based on the crowds and sirens we should be trending any moment now. Chatter on the emergency bands suggests we have NYPD, SWAT, and DHS either en route or on scene."
"What's your name, soldier?" I requested politely of the poor man who'd led this fiasco.
"Collins," he responded without even thinking about it.
"Collins, any moment now there are going to be any combination of police and federal agents knocking on my now nonexistent front door wanting to know just what the fuck is going on here. Do you understand?"
He swallowed with some difficulty and nodded.
"So, you have a choice, you can be the scapegoat, or..."
"Or?" Collins asked, knowing his choices would be limited.
"Or you can tell them who exactly ordered this op," I informed him.
"I can't do that," Collins responded, shaking his head.
"Of course you can. Granted he'll deny it, but it might actually save your career because as of right now it's over. You broke into a private home, the home of a former Avenger mind you, and tried to kidnap a child. If that's not a career killer I don't know what could be. Or you can tell the world Ross ordered you to do this."
Collins twitched. "How the hell do you know that? Hell, how did you know we were coming?"
"Because she's better than you," Steve answered.
"Boss, we have incoming," Clementine called from the hallway.
"Last chance," I warned Collins. "I promise you, Ross will throw you under the bus and never think twice about it.
"I told him this was a bad idea," Collins groused.
"Boss, Agent Miner from the DHS, and a couple of NYPD detectives are out here arguing over jurisdiction."
I waved for Collins and his men to precede us out of the bedroom and into the main apartment. He hung his head for a moment then nodded and made his way out to face the proverbial music with Carson trailing after.
"Fredricks, you can bring them down now. Sergeant Powell has arrived."
Fredricks snickered. "We have got to use movies for code more often, this is fun."
"Yippee ki-yay," I responded. Then I moved over to Steve, who still looked a bit green around the gills from his encounter with the tasers. "You good?"
"Good enough. What now?"
"We play the innocent victims, and file reports like we're supposed to. It'll probably be a few hours before we can get away unnoticed."
He sighed softly. "Yeah. Okay. Are they going to buy us as innocent victims?"
"Given I know a lot of the local cops, yes and no. I mean we are the victims in this case, but they also know who I am and what I do for a living. The fact that this tac team bit off far more than they could chew is not my fault."
"I don't imagine DHS is going to be too thrilled about a spec-ops team being sent to kidnap a child," Steve said more to himself than me it seemed.
"Steve, it'll be fine. We just tell them what happened, no more no less. I doubt it would even matter if we explained we knew it was coming. It doesn't change the facts one tiny bit."
"I know, I just... I want to be able to live in peace is all."
I nodded in agreement. "That was the point of letting this play out. I still can't see the future."
He shifted and kissed me on the temple. "Ignore me. This went better than we could have hoped for."
"Miss MacMillion?" a stranger's voice called out.
"I'll be right there. Oh, and send up EMTs if there are any onsite. We have injuries."
"They're on the way up now," came the quick response.
I looked at Steve. "Ready?"
"Once more unto the breach," Steve quoted, causing me to snicker as we left the bedroom.
I want to complain that WandaVision (no spoilers) has utterly screwed up my story -- especially given I've tried incorporate TFTWS into it if only peripherally -- but I've reminded myself that while canon-based it's still an AU and don't have any need to stress about 'fixing it'.
Oh, I had to work out a frickin timeline thanks to Endgame's time-jump. This story covers well over a year from March of 2024 through June(ish) of 2025 when all is said and done. You know, just in case any of you were wondering or confused as to when events are taking place.
We were escorted to the nearest station house to give our statements. I'd been highly amused, though careful not to show it as we were walked through the crowd of onlookers that had gathered around the building. Every news station, both local and national, had some sort of representation on site. We ignored the questions thrown our way as we were taken to the waiting unmarked SUVs provided by DHS while the tactical teams were placed in a police van cuffed and weapons confiscated.
Neither of us being the trusting sort, we insisted on being there in person when they were processed. I had no interest in having them magically disappear en route. Agent Miner did us one better and we literally followed the paddy wagon to the station and stood there as they were marched in and placed in a holding cell for processing.
"Well, this was fun."
Steve snorted. "Your version of fun leaves much to be desired."
"Says the man who used to fight in back alleys to make a point."
"Ouch," he faux winced. "Low blow."
I sidled over to him in the busy room. "How's the head?" I gently ran my fingers over the bandage the EMT had put on the wound the damn taser had caused.
"Been better, been worse. Not an experience I want to repeat, I can say that for certain."
"Whoever designed those things..." I shook my head.
"Miss MacMillian, Mr. Gallagher."
We both turned to see Agent Miner and Detective Fowler, the latter of which I knew, standing nearby. Fowler appeared reluctant to interrupt my conversation with Steve. "You ready for us?" Steve asked.
Fowler nodded. "In the conference room if you would."
Steve set a hand on my back as we followed the two men into the conference room. I glanced over at my team, who were giving statements with other officers, getting nods from them. They knew what needed to be done and we could only hope it would do any good.
"Sit, please," Fowler told us as Miner closed the door.
"So, what do you need to know?" I took a seat, Steve settling in the one next to me.
The two men looked at each other before Fowler ceded the initial questioning to Miner.
I had to wonder what deal the two of them had come to for DHS to not take control of the whole investigation. Not that I would have allowed it, I wanted this out in the public eye, I wanted that spotlight aimed directly on Ross and that meant getting the ops team to rat him out. Pass that buck up the food chain rather than risk being made scapegoats.
"You knew they were coming." A statement.
I glanced at Steve. "I'm good at my job?"
"You sound uncertain," Miner stated.
Fowler coughed, covering a laugh. "She's not uncertain. She's trying to be polite."
Miner sighed softly. "So, you let them destroy your home just to make a point?"
"Something like that," I responded, getting a frown for my seeming flippant response. "Look just ask. I'll answer." Steve nudged me. "Within reason, that is."
Miner narrowed his eyes but nodded. "What did they want?"
"Who," I corrected. "And that would be my daughter and me."
"Because of who her father is."
"And who might that be?" The curiosity almost outweighed the need for understanding why a highly skilled black ops team had invaded a home in New York City.
Miner blinked. Twice. "As in-"
"As in Captain America," I elaborated, "yes."
Fowler whistled. "I take not that many people know."
"That would be correct," I agreed. "And I hope to keep it that way."
Miner's lips pressed into a thin line. "So who found out that shouldn't have?"
I didn't bother beating around the bush and simply told him, "Thaddeus Ross."
"Do you have proof?" Miner asked, his look intensely curious.
"Circumstantial, but yes," Steve responded.
"And who, precisely, are you." Miner turned that focus on Steve who didn't flinch the least little bit.
Miner huffed out a breath of irritation. "I know that. Who are you to her? To them?"
"My boyfriend," I responded, making sure to sound confused as to the relevance of the question. "Why?"
"Just trying to understand why he happened to be at your home for this invasion," Miner explained, and while valid, it clearly was not what he really wanted to know. "The father of your child is Steve Rogers and you're dating him, why?"
Fowler cleared his throat delicately. "Steve Rogers is dead."
"And," I put in before Miner could make some snarky commentary, "he knew nothing about her. We'd gone our separate ways before either of us knew I was pregnant."
Miner's eyes looked off into the distance for a few seconds as he processed what he knew about me and my life. "Battle of Wakanda?"
I nodded. "We ran into each other there, so to speak, and surprise."
"I find it hard to believe you never told him."
I shrugged. "Circumstances, including my injury, led to us not coming back into contact with each other." The truth, if not all of it.
"You didn't see him at the big battle last year? I heard you and your team were there." I wanted to glare at Fowler, but if he hadn't asked Miner would have.
"Did I see him? Yes. Did we speak to each other? No. I don't think either of you truly understands the utter chaos of that battle. We all had our roles to play, mine happened to be a more minor one until after the dust settled."
"Ah yes, when your Expendables were hired to deal with the salvage," Miner stated with a nod that seemed to be more to himself than me.
"Exactly," I agreed. "We expanded that role when we contracted temporarily to the Avengers. That role did not include anything militant. We supervised the dig and set up the training parameters for the new recruits."
"A contract you recently broke, from what I have heard." Miner wore an oddly smug smile.
"I enacted our out clause, yes."
I saw the virtual light bulb go off behind his eyes. "Can I assume Ross was the reason you did so?"
Again I shrugged. "Yes."
Miner shook his head. "What an idiot."
Steve snickered. "You have no idea."
"Oh, I have more of an idea than you might imagine," Miner responded. "Your daughter is safe?"
"Yes." I had no intention of giving him even the slightest hint of where I had hidden her on the off chance he might be one of Ross's pawns.
"Good. Keep her that way." He paced the length of the room. "Ross is going to try to sweep this under the rug."
I glanced over at Steve who nodded. "He won't be able to."
"Why do you say that?" Fowler asked.
I smiled. "Because right about now any and everyone of importance in the government is receiving a high-quality video of the incursion which includes an implied admission of who ordered it. Never mind all the news outlets worldwide receiving the same. Ares?"
"Sent upon your arrival at the police station as requested."
Miner's cell vibrated just then much to his dismay. He pulled it out, eyes going wide at whomever the caller ID revealed. "I have to take this."
I gave him a magnanimous nod as he stepped from the room.
Fowler chuckled. "How did they kill the power to your building? You've been off the main grid for a couple of years, haven't you?"
I grinned. "Timing is all. When you know they're coming and their playbook..." I spread my hands. "It's not like they even tried to hide their staging area very hard. Did they get the extraction chopper off the ground?"
Fowler shook his head. "It's still sitting atop the building where your people found it. The team there were encouraged to leave, tails tucked firmly between their legs. Thanks for the heads up, by the way. I don't want to think about the panic this stunt of yours could have caused."
"Least I could do. You routed the 911 calls from the building to a separate switchboard I take it?"
He nodded. "Didn't want the real emergency system flooded with... they weren't really fake calls were they?"
"Nope," Steve responded. "How many additional ones did you get?"
"Over a hundred at last count. People notice when a building goes dark these days, add in the obvious muzzle flashes... We take care of our own. Especially our heroes."
"I'm just me, Max, I don't expect special treatment here."
He hand-waved my argument. "And you won't be getting any. You are not in trouble. You kept the damage to both property and physical to a minimum just as you said you would. Hell, you did what you always do, painted a big ol' target on yourself, and kept the trouble away from the rest of us."
"Learned from the best," I reminded him with a smile.
Miner came back into the room then pocketing his cell phone. "You weren't kidding were you?"
"No. He went after my daughter, what was I supposed to do, roll over and show my belly?"
Steve choked on a laugh at the mere suggestion. "Myls, you don't know how to do that."
Not entirely true, as I had a backup plan that involved getting her someplace secure and out of the purview of the US government. "How much trouble am I in?"
Miner shook his head. "They don't want to touch this. There's a half dozen agencies already readying statements to disavow any knowledge of this op."
"No one's gonna point a finger at Ross?" Fowler asked.
"Officially, probably not. Behind closed doors though..." Miner met my eyes. "Your family should be safe for now."
I did not sigh in relief since I didn't yet have a good reason to. "Now is a start. Next time I won't be so polite about how I push back."
"I'll let my superiors know." He turned to Fowler. "Once they file the formal paperwork they are free to go." Then to me. "If I have any other questions I'll go through proper channels to contact you."
"That works," I told him.
He stepped forward, hand out. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss MacMillion."
I stood and shook his hand. "Agent Miner." He gave me a last once over and then left the room. "Huh."
"Huh?" Steve asked.
"I suspect that man was on a fishing expedition, but I don't know if it was about Ross, or me."
Steve frowned not liking that bit of information. "I guess we'll have to wait and see."
I nodded. "And plan accordingly."
Fowler cleared his throat. "I'll need official statements, which shouldn't take more than an hour, and then you can get out of here."
Now I did sigh. "Yay, more paperwork."
Once freed we permitted ourselves to be stopped by the media that had gathered outside the police station to answer a few questions. We gave them the bare facts only and straight out accused Ross of being the one to orchestrate the attack and attempted kidnapping of my daughter. When they pressed for more info I suggested they ask Ross and ended the impromptu interview. We all headed to the pair of SUVs I'd arranged with the service my family used and who had no problems picking us up any time of day or night. They were professional and discreet.
The majority of the crowd had left the area surrounding my building, but a few stubborn ones had stuck around and called out questions which we pointedly ignored. The penthouse remained a crime scene and we weren't allowed inside, but we'd planned for this. The various team members would be staying in other apartments in the building. Steve and I would be cleaning up and leaving to join Sara. I refused to arrive still bloodied. Not that I had more than bruises, but Steve's shirt had been liberally stained with his blood from the pair of injuries. The head wound had bled profusely and discolored the entire left side of his t-shirt.
We each grabbed a quick shower, I rebandaged his head wound, which had begun to bleed again, and then we snagged the go bags we'd packed and headed out. The team had their orders and would keep us updated while we were gone. After getting some well-deserved rest.
The car service drove us to where I'd parked the quinjet, which I had arranged with Fowler prior to the events of the evening. The police line tape and cones had kept people at a distance. It had been a few years since the Avengers had been based in New York so the sight of a quinjet had become less common, though during the Snap years we'd often used this very spot as a staging area.
Ares opened the rear door for us and Steve stored our bags while I headed to the pilot's seat to get us off the ground. Once in the air, I said, "Ares, same as the last trip, stealth protocol and avoid any modified radar."
"Yes, ma'am. Flight time is just over three hours," Ares informed us.
"Is that the best we can do, Myls?" Steve complained, and while I also wanted to get to Sara soonest, I refused to risk being tracked and accidentally revealing where she'd been staying.
"Yes. Need to obfuscate the trail to protect not only her but those helping us." I spun the seat around and got up. "I want to be there now too, but I want to do it the right way." I set my fingers under his chin and encouraged him to look up at me. "She's safe, and I need to keep the people she's with safe too."
He leaned into me, burying his face in my abdomen and wrapping his hands tightly about me. "I know. I just don't understand why you won't tell me where she is."
"Because I'm mean?" I suggested.
He grunted and tipped his head up to look at me with a frown. "Apparently I don't like not being the one in charge."
I held his face in my hands, running my thumbs across his cheekbones. "Compartmentalization was required this time. Next time-"
"You think there will be a next time?"
"I hope not, but never say never." I leaned down to rest my forehead against his. "This will work. It has to work. Otherwise..." I trailed off, not wanting to admit the possibility that even this bold move could also fail the same as many of the plans in those other timelines had.
Steve's lips pressed against mine for a moment. "If Ross comes after her again I'll call Bucky myself."
"Hopefully it won't come to that." I kissed him then shifted to sit on this lap just wanting to be held for a little while. At this moment I just wanted to be Myla and Steve, worried parents, not Expendables, not ex-Avengers, not two people who regularly carried the weight of the world on their shoulders. My cell, which I had been ignoring for hours, vibrated just then and I pulled it out of my pocket to see what I'd missed now.
The most recent text made me snicker causing Steve's brow to knit in confusion so I showed it to him. "Fury seems to approve of our efforts."
It was a short text with the words 'good work' followed by a crying with laughter emoji.
"If Nick approves then Ross is probably feeling the heat right about now." Steve reached out and took the phone from me, turned it off, and set it aside. "Later. We can deal with the fallout later."
"Of course," I agreed. "What shall we do instead?"
He kissed me again, but it seemed to be more for closeness than to start something. He smelled of distress and worry and oddly enough relief. He needed comfort, not sex. "Honestly, a nap. You've been going for at least two days straight."
"Ares is a fine pilot, he'll warn us of any trouble. There's not a lot of room, but we've got pull-down bunks for the injured, we could curl up together on one."
"That'll work." He shifted his hold and stood up with me in his arms.
"Steve," I squawked, "I'm fine. You were the one that got hurt, remember?"
He set me down in the back of the 'jet and hit the switch for the makeshift bed. "Considering the headache I still have I won't forget anytime soon."
"Damn," I muttered, fingers going to his temple and running lightly over the bandage stained with blood. "Naptime it is." I urged him onto the bunk and followed after. We shifted for a few moments until we'd both achieved a reasonably comfortable position on the bunk built for one, but rated for the weight of the Hulk. "Ares. Knock twice please."
"Understood. Shall I contact you an hour out?"
"That works. Fly safe, Ares."
"Of course, ma'am."
Steve turned his head slightly to kiss me on the temple. "Sleep, Myls, it'll get us closer to our daughter that much faster."
Hard to argue with that logic.
False dawn had not yet touched the sky when I settled the quinjet behind the screen of snow-laden trees. Steve stood behind me, watching out the window, recognition and no little surprise on his face.
"I told you Clint owed me a favor."
He snorted. "Yes, you did." He kissed me on the cheek. "Sorry I doubted you."
"Well, I might forgive you eventually," I grumbled, not that it mattered any longer. He'd had every right to be concerned about my plan, but he should have trusted me.
"You already have, doll." He held out a hand for me to take, which I did far more graciously than my irritated tone implied. "Let's go see our girl."
Clint sat on a rocking chair on his expansive porch next to a portable heater sipping a cup of what I presumed to be coffee when we arrived after slogging our way through the knee-deep snow. "Morning, Myla, Cap."
Surprised, I twisted about to look at Steve and confirm that his Gallagher disguise remained intact. It mostly did. Since in my mind I always saw my Steve I hadn't noticed that both the right cheek piece and the forehead section had stopped working at some point in time. "Well, shit."
"Myls?" Steve questioned.
"Sections failed. I thought I saw it back at the penthouse, but I logged it off to being smacked upside the head." I rubbed at the scar, where the hit had connected and winced. I had a bruise under the hair that would serve as a reminder of the adventure for a few days anyway.
"Oh, you guys don't know," Clint stated in that droll tone of his.
"Don't know what?" I asked in exasperation wondering when else the veil parts might have failed.
Clint shook his head. "It can wait. Go see your girl. Lila insisted she bunk with her. Upstairs down the hall."
We endeavored to be quiet given it was insanely early, but still rushed up the stairs and to the bedroom. We cracked open the door to see the two girls on the bed, Lila facing the door, putting herself between Sara and anyone who might enter.
Lila's body tensed and her eyes slit open even as her hand slid unobtrusively under her pillow, probably going for the weapon she'd stashed there. I'd only met her the one time when dropping Sara off, but I seriously doubted she'd forgotten who I was in the interim. I put a finger to my lips. "It's okay Lila, we just want to check on Sara."
Lila nodded, pulled her empty hand back into view, and relaxed enough to yawn. Steve and I entered the room and circled around the bed to see our unconscious child, her blonde hair a tousled mess on the pillow. I leaned over to kiss her on the cheek causing her to mutter something unintelligible and rollover.
Beside me, Steve sighed in obvious relief then urged me away from the room so Lila could go back to sleep. We went back downstairs and outside to settle into chairs next to Clint who had fresh cups of coffee waiting for us. I sipped at mine as I leaned back into the cold wood of the chair and let it rock back. "Clint, I owe you one."
"Nah. Happy to help. She's a good kid." His chair creaked as he slowly rocked. He wore a heavy sweater and had a blanket draped across his lap in defense against the cold. "Lila took it upon herself to play protector. Looks like you might have a babysitter should you need one."
"She wasn't too much trouble?" Steve asked, knowing Sara could be a handful when she wanted to be.
"Nah, fit right in with the crowd. I hope you don't mind, but Lila pulled out some of her old archery gear and was teaching Sara. She's a decent shot for a first-timer... and why are you laughing."
"Oh, she played you but good, Clint. She's been shooting for a couple of years. I caught hell from Tony when she taught Morgan without either of us knowing about it." I glanced over at Steve as I realized there were entire aspects of our child's life he had no inkling of. "I never did figure out how she snuck the gear into her suitcase, no way it should have fit."
Clint smiled. "I should have known something was up when she learned as quick as she did." He leaned his head back against the upper part of the chair. "Then again both of her parents learn damn fast, so..." He shrugged. "Cap, take that damn mask off, you won't need it here."
Steve muttered something I didn't quite catch and did so, placing the nano-veil bits atop the table where the oversized mugs of coffee rested steam rising from them in the wintery air. "You knew it was me even before we realized the damn thing was on the fritz, how?"
Clint nodded then tipped the chair precariously forward to pick up the tablet lying upon the wood flooring of the oversized porch. He tapped it to life, scrolled a bit then handed it over. "You are trending."
I leaned over to take a look while Steve read the commentary next to the hashtag #steverogerslives with a frown that deepened with every new one that appeared. "Shit."
"Take a look at the video. Looks like the veil crapped out a couple of times while you were on camera." Clint casually waved his free hand at the tablet while he sipped the coffee with the other.
"Ares," I said to the air, knowing even this deep in the middle of nowhere, the AI would hear me.
"Let's get to work on making this appear to be a deep fake video, I want it discredited by the evening news. Put Hamlin and Corsair on it, with your able assistance of course."
"Of course. Anything else?"
"Hourly updates if you would. I can't wait to hear how Ross et al are reacting to this going international."
"Sent to your phone?"
"That'll work. Thanks, Ares."
"At your services as always, ma'am."
I snorted at the sarcasm in his tone. Clint gave me a confused look. "Ares is being a smartass as usual."
"Well, you programmed him that way, you can't be that surprised by it."
While not wholly wrong, the computer had changed quite a bit since the early days of the Expendables. No longer used solely for war, he ran a vast portion of our infrastructure, much as JARVIS or FRIDAY had done for Tony once upon a time. Hell, I'd spun off two separate versions of him in the last few years to run different aspects of the businesses I oversaw.
"Fuck," Steve grumbled.
"Language," Clint responded with, getting a surprised chuckle from Steve.
"How bad?" I asked, leaning over again.
"Bad enough." He turned the tablet so I could see the video for myself. Or should I say videos as the failure of the veil had been caught by several different cameras and angles, some even showing the shimmer of the veil as it tried to do its job and failed spectacularly.
"Huh. I'll have to modify the veil to account for power surges," I observed.
"That's all you get out of this? That you need to fix the nano-veil?"
"Cap, do I still call you Cap?" Clint asked mostly of himself, then shook his head as he realized it really wasn't that important right now. "She's got her team working on it. Even I know if they discredit it too quickly it'll look suspicious. Hell, if she spins it right, she can blame it on Ross, using it as a justification for trying to steal her daughter."
Steve bristled for a moment and I could see him wanting to change the 'her' to 'our', but he caught himself. "Because the world thinks I'm Gallagher and he is not Sara's biological father, right." He let the tablet flop down onto his lap and rubbed his face with the now free hand. "Damn it. The world needs to believe I'm dead, Clint. That's the only way this works."
Clint nodded slowly, but it was a voice from behind us that responded.
"Not everyone wants to, Steve."
We snapped about to see Laura standing in the doorway, the squeaky screen door still closed, which is probably how she managed to sneak up on us all unawares. She held a carafe that most likely held fresh coffee in one hand and a mug in the other.
"Sorry to wake you, Laura." I stood up and opened the door so she could join us.
"Not a problem, I kind of figured the two of you would be here as soon as you could get free." She set the carafe down, leaving us to serve ourselves then settled into the rocking chair next to Clint. She wrapped her oversized sweater closer and added the blanket. "You give people hope if believing you might still be alive gives them that, where's the harm?"
"I just want my daughter left alone, if they even think I'm still alive they'll go after her forever." Steve sounded oddly wistful, plainly appreciating Laura's far different perspective of the situation.
"And why is that?" Laura asked, truly curious.
Steve and I exchanged a look, before he answered, "She inherited more than my blonde hair, she's serum enhanced."
Laura made a soft oh as understanding dawned. Clint didn't seem the least bit surprised. "So? Isn't that to be expected, the changes are part of your genetics now, right?"
Steve nodded. "It wasn't expected at all."
"And why wouldn't you expect-" Clint's words cut off as his mind processed everything. "How did you get home? Last I heard you never came back from your trip to return the Stones." Clint's eyes tracked from me to Steve and back again. "Myls."
I put my hands up in surrender. "Not my story to tell."
"Yet," Steve added.
"Yet," I acknowledged.
"Man, if you think you can't trust us..."
Steve shook his head. "It's not that. It's..."
"Personal," Laura observed and not incorrectly.
Steve sighed heavily, took a few moments to refresh his coffee then said, "Instead of coming back here I went home and married Peggy Carter. Lived my life with her."
Clint's chair stopped moving, the sudden silence almost louder than the creak of the trees in the predawn night. "Wait, and you're not old?"
"I was. Looked like a man in his nineties or thereabouts."
I pulled out my phone and scrolled through to pictures from Sara's birthday almost a year ago and held it out for them to see.
"Jeez, how old were you really?" Clint asked, having a clue or two about how Steve aged.
"Very. Returning the Stones took a bit longer than planned."
"But you're not old now?" Laura sounded rightfully confused.
Clint snickered. "Nat told me about what happened to Lang." He narrowed his eyes. "And you did it voluntarily?"
Steve hooked a thumb in my direction. "She did the math," He said as if that would explain it all.
"Theoretical," I argued. "Theoretical," I repeated, emphasizing each syllable. "It was never supposed to actually get used." Granted there had been days I thanked any listening deity that he'd done it, but the risks had still been horrendous. "He somehow convinced Barnes and Wilson to give him access and," I gestured at him dramatically, "the rest is history."
"Well, that's one way to prove how he feels about you," Clint commented offhandedly.
"Flowers might have been a bit safer," Laura pointed out causing me to snicker in reaction.
"I'll remember that next time," Steve noted with a sly grin.
"Next time?" I squeaked. Yes, we could do it, but I remained unsure if we should.
Clint rocked forward and stood placing the blanket on the seat. "You guys are welcome to stay till the excitement dies down."
"We can't put you out like that," I argued. "We'll head to Hilton Head after breakfast."
"First, you're not putting us out, and second, you don't want to be anywhere near any of your regular haunts, either of you."
"Why not?" Steve asked.
"Fuck," I groused, and reached for my phone which I'd set on the table. Steve had turned it off on the flight here, not wanting to have the phone buzzing every few minutes with the fallout until necessary, our only care in the world getting to our daughter. I'd known we'd be out of the apartment for a few days at the very least as it was an active crime scene, never mind in need of major repairs, but the failure of the nano-veil had been a factor I'd been unable to account for. When the phone lit up, there were dozens and dozens of missed texts and calls. "Shit. Shit. Shit. Ares."
"Let the team know we're fine." I glanced over at Steve then stood and trotted down the porch steps and off into the darkness away from the lights being thrown across the snow, suspecting my voice might end up a tad raised at some point in the near future and not wanting to disturb the still sleeping children inside the house.
Behind me I heard Laura say, "We'll go start some breakfast, join us when you're hungry." A few seconds later the sound of the screen door squeaking open and thudding shut echoed across the field.
"What's gone wrong?" I asked in irritation of the night air, my breath creating a fog in the cold air.
"A whole lot," Steve stated, I hadn't heard him follow after me my dander was so up but there he was holding the tablet out to me.
"The press has discovered who Sara's father of record is," Ares informed me. "And due to the suspicion that Mr. Gallagher is in actuality Captain Rogers, the press and others are looking for him as well."
I scrolled down the page, the headlines more than enough to make me angry as all hell. "Who leaked the info?"
"Probably Ross," Steve suggested.
Ares did the same. "Agreed, but not directly, backtracing the info from the recipients most assuredly leads to government-sanctioned communication."
"Does he really think that by telling the world who she is that they'll forgive him for trying to kidnap her?" I snarled.
Steve grabbed the tablet from me before I could accidentally fling it across the field. "Take a breath. She's fine."
"For now. Damn it. Ares, send a team to wherever my parents currently are. I know they're good at wrangling the press, but let's create a buffer zone for them shall we?"
"Jacobson has already done so in your stead since he knew you would be incommunicado for a time afterward."
"Thank god for small favors," I muttered. "What a fucking mess."
"Myls, most of the reactions are decidedly in our favor. Even the few who think Sara should be overseen by the government - via the Accords most suggest - completely disagree with the method used. She's a child and can't make a decision on the Accords anyway."
I huffed out a breath of indignation. "Last I checked the Accords were in a giant limbo thanks to Thanos, using them for a justification is asinine."
He stepped up to me and set his free hand on my shoulder. "I'm not disagreeing, just telling you what's being said." He glanced down at the tablet for a long moment then shut it off. "Ares, I think a media blackout is in order. Unless it's of actual importance, meaning life or death, consider us off the grid for the next forty-eight hours. Let Jacobson and MacKenzie know."
Ares did this odd hum then asked, "Ma'am?"
I watched Steve and considered his idea, fully realizing that all I would do was stress and worry and try to control a situation that ultimately couldn't be. "Do it, Ares."
"Yes, ma'am. Knock three times?"
"That works," I agreed. Then to Steve. "Now what?"
"Now we relax for a few days and figure out where we're going to go from here."
I rubbed my face with my hands, pressing the heels of them against my eyes harder than necessary, but in an effort to release the aggravation and worry still churning in my gut. "Bold assumption that I know how to relax these days."
He snorted and encouraged me back towards the house, but instead of mounting the steps to return to the rocking chairs, he sat down on them. He stretched out his full length, heels planted in the thin layer of snow that had blown across the pathway and leaning over on one elbow. I was too damn wired to settle and therefore paced back and forth in front of him, his eyes tracking my every movement in a way that was oddly disconcerting.
Good thing neither of us were affected by the cold overmuch. The jackets we had put on before exiting the quinjet would be more than enough for a while.
"I was thinking..."
"Well, when we get back your place is going to need some serious work before it's livable again."
"I am aware. I was planning to stay at the house in Hilton Head, but that's not gonna happen if the press and who knows who else will be hounding me." I had known this would draw attention to me, giant spotlights of attention, but I hadn't planned for Steve to end up in the crosshairs as well. At least not as anything other than the poor schmuck of a boyfriend who happened to be there when the shit hit the fan. "I'll probably just move into one of the other buildings in New York for the time being. I've been wanting to make some changes, anyway, might as well do the renovations now as later."
"Or you, the both of you that is, could stay with me for a while."
I stopped dead and turned to face him, but he had turned away, finding the grain of the step far more interesting. "What?"
He shrugged one shoulder. "I am quite certain between Ares and your techs no one will believe that I'm Steve Rogers, video evidence or not."
"Someone will always believe," I reminded him.
He nodded slowly. "True enough, but the spotlight on me will be much dimmer. Especially once your team starts turning ours on Ross."
I wanted to argue the point, but he wasn't wrong. If someone didn't demand a congressional committee over the incident, I personally would. "It may be weeks before the interest dies down though."
"So? We can travel during the interim. Start the process of the Expendables next phase in earnest. I can guarantee Sara's school will let her do the work virtually considering the issues."
And with that my one valid argument melted away. Given I'd planned on doing precisely that from South Carolina, I couldn't really argue the point. "You don't exactly have room, though."
His eyes flicked up to meet mine for an instant. "There's plenty of room. Sara feels safe there, and since I don't sleep as much you can have the bed. You'll need to share the closet, though."
"But her bodyguards?" I tried, in a last-ditch effort to justify my staying elsewhere.
"None of the other apartments have tenants... In fact, I recently purchased the other one on the top floor to use as a studio. I can always just expand the apartment, take over the entire top floor."
I chuckled. "You made that purchase?"
His head came up, eyes narrowed. "Wait? How do you know about it?"
"I own the building." I laughed harder. "Dear god, if I had known it was you... I'll give you credit, you did a damn good job making certain the purchase was not connected to you in any way."
"Then why did you sell it?"
"My dad is handling the business for the buildings in New York and he assured me that the buyer had an impeccable reputation and I believed him. I just had to sign some papers. The sneaky shit."
Steve chuckled softly. "That explains why the price dropped after I expressed my initial interest, he must have figured out who put in the offer."
I nodded in agreement. "My dad is a shrewd businessman. As to your offer, I'll consider it."
Steve frowned at me and I took a moment to understand why.
"Not like that. Really consider it. There are some logistics issues I'll need to work out."
"Transport to school for one. We'll be almost an hour away by car."
"Oh. Still, we can work it out. Maybe reinforce the roof of the building so we can park a quinjet up there."
I blinked in surprise at the audacity of that not so horrible plan. "Are we really thinking about doing this?" I questioned of the stars high over our heads.
"I believe we are." He shifted, digging a hand into one pocket. "Remember when you told me that we went to Vormir in another timeline?"
"Of course. What about it?"
"Well, I wanted you to know that it wasn't the only time I wanted to ask you to marry me."
"You have asked me to marry you. In Central Park. A few weeks ago. Or have you forgotten already?" Even I could hear the snippiness sliding into my tone.
"I almost did once before."
I shook my head, not really believing him. I wanted to call him a liar, but nothing about him suggested he was. I went for full snark. "Oh really? When?"
"The day we signed the papers for the apartment." He met my eyes for a second then looked away. "But you had to leave for the op right after so I'd decided to wait until the day we moved in."
"Only we never moved in."
He nodded and pulled his hand out of his pocket holding a ring.
"You did not go out and buy me that just to make a point."
"No. By some miracle it was still in the place I'd hid it." He got to his feet and walked over to where I stood unmoving in my stunned realization of the truth. "I'm not asking you right now, we agreed to reevaluate in six months and there's still a couple left, but I needed you to understand that it wasn't something out of the blue, or out of a sense of obligation." He hung his head, fingers wiggling the ring back and forth so that the stones glinted in the light coming from the house behind him. It was not a traditional engagement ring, the stones inset into the band instead of sticking out, which would have been detrimental to wear in my then-current line of work. Hell, my current-current line of work. Even if I did nothing but train for the rest of my life - right, like that could ever happen - a prominent stone could easily get caught on things, and would not fit under the tac gloves I often wore. As always he'd thought ahead and took into consideration the reality of our lives.
I wanted to yell at him. If he had told me this months ago, I might have very well forgiven him for everything, let the pain and hurt go in the face of the realization that he'd had his plans burned beyond recognition much as my own had been.
Neither one of us had wanted to end up here and yet... yet, this had been the only path left to us thanks to all the obstacles that had been placed in our way. Somehow, after everything we'd ended up here. Together.
And I'd damn near lost him to a whim of happenstance just a few hours ago.
Apparently, it took a near-death experience for me to act on my feelings as well.
I came to a decision. One that I would not permit myself to run away from.
His eyebrows shot upwards, but he didn't hesitate beyond that reaction. "Marry me, Myla."
I couldn't help myself. "I'll think about it."
"For fuck's sake," he complained, laughter bubbling up behind the words. He slipped the ring onto my finger then kissed me most thoroughly.
"About damn time," Clint groused.
We both turned to see him standing at the screen door, an ear-to-ear grin adorning his features for all his voice had been full of aggrieved irritation. "Breakfast is ready if you think you can drag yourselves away from each other for a few minutes."
"I think we can manage that," Steve answered, "we've got the rest of our lives, after all."
We climbed the stairs and grabbed the various coffee mugs and accouterments and carried them inside. We handed them over to Laura and shed our coats, the interior of the home noticeably warmer than the outside had been. Granted, neither of us were bothered by the cold or heat over much, our temperature regulation as improved as the rest of our systems. But why wear the bulky coats if we didn't need to.
"So, guess who just got engaged," Clint chirped as soon as we had settled in the massive kitchen with fresh cups of coffee.
"About damn time," Laura said as she flipped the pancake out of the pan and onto the pile on the plate. "Bacon or sausage?"
I glanced over at Steve who shrugged. "Both."
Clint snorted. "Super Soldiers have super appetites," Clint explained at Laura's slightly astonished reaction. "Myls has been too busy playing guard dog for Fury to deal with her feelings."
I huffed in irritation."Thanks for reminding me why I don't hang out with you more than necessary, Barton."
Laura handed me a plate loaded with pancakes slathered in syrup which smelled like the real thing and a couple pats of softened butter. "I admit he is an acquired taste."
Steve snickered while Clint squawked, "Hey."
"Well, they didn't keep you around for your winning personality," Laura pointed out as she handed Steve his own plate.
I grabbed a fork and napkin from the pile on the counter and dug in.
"I was a SHIELD agent long before the Avengers," Clint groused, pouting until Laura kissed him on the cheek and handed him his own plate of breakfast.
"Yeah, you were," Steve agreed, "and you're damn good at what you do."
I nodded in agreement. "Speaking of which, if you ever get bored give me a call, I'm certain I can find something for you to do." Laura froze for an instant, the smile fading before being replaced by a clearly fake one.
"And by that she means training," Steve stated, completing my offer with what I thought to be obvious and had clearly been misinterpreted by both of them.
"Training only," I reiterated. "You can come to us or vice versa, we could use a neutral third party location. Whatever you needed to make certain your home remains safe."
Laura sighed softly. "Well, it would keep him from renovating yet again."
Clint glowered at her. "The kids are getting older, we need to update for them. Nate is gonna grow out of that bed sooner rather than later. And having them all share a bathroom… that's an explosion just waiting to happen."
"Now you see what I'm dealing with." Laura waved the pancake whisk in Clint's direction leaving a trail of batter across the counter and floor.
"Clint, no one is holding you accountable for what you did those years," Steve told him and I knew he meant it.
Clint had lost everything in the Snap and it had changed him. Far deeper than just the tattoos he now hid with long sleeves. If Steve had been broken, Clint had been shattered, and, even over a year after he'd gotten his family back, the cracks in him remained easily visible. If it hadn't been for the fact that he and his family had probably been the safest place on the planet to hide Sara I would never have called in my favor.
Clint ducked his head unable to meet anyone's eyes. "I do."
Laura shifted over to his side and set her hands on his arm. "Don't do this. We agreed to move forward and not look back."
"She's right, Clint," I said softly needing to voice my opinion on the matter. I and my Expendables could have easily fallen down the same rabbit hole he had during those years. Hell, we were a fucking army and could have staked our claim on the whole of Manhattan had we wished to do so. "We had something you didn't."
Clint's head came up slightly, body tense, sharp eyes boring into mine. "Oh yeah? And what was that?"
"Hope," I responded and watched as the tightness flowed out of him.
"You don't understand," he shook his head. "You can't understand."
"Yes, I can. Nat and I talked, a lot, so I can say with relative certainty that, aside from some details, I do understand." My turn to look down. "If Lang hadn't shown up when he did…" I lifted my head to look Clint right in the eyes.
"What?" he questioned.
"Nat was ready to give up," Steve answered.
Clint's gaze wavered between the two of us until I nodded in agreement. "Fuck," he muttered. "No wonder she-" His words choked off and he didn't need to finish the sentence. We all knew how it had ended and why.
"Which means you shouldn't waste this second chance she gave you. Gave us." Laura had clearly made this argument before and it had also just as clearly fallen upon deaf ears. Maybe hearing it from us, from those who could potentially cast the most blame, offering instead forgiveness, maybe it would permit him to finally forgive himself.
His head swung over to his wife. "Yeah, maybe."
"Clint, I'm sorry we fell out of touch," I told him, realizing I should have done better across the board no matter how busy I might have been.
He shook his head. "I wanted out and you didn't. Plus Fury has kept you… distracted."
"Well, not any longer. If you need anything, and I mean anything call me, damn it. Hell, if you want to be off the grid, and I mean off, I can arrange that."
Clint and Laura looked at Steve. "She's not kidding. She apparently spent the last several years designing alternative power systems," he confirmed.
I nodded in agreement. "Wind, solar, arc reactor, even Ares is available to you if you want it." The couple looked at me with somewhat dumbfounded expressions. "Just think about it."
"I'm not an Avenger any longer, Myls," Clint reiterated.
"Neither am I, but we both know if they need us…"
"You'll go. All three of you," Laura finished, knowing it would happen. "Because that's who you all are."
"I smell bacon."
All of our heads whipped about at that sleepy voice to see my daughter standing in the doorway rubbing one eye.
"That would be because there is bacon," I told her as I walked over, picked her up, and gave her a hug. "Sorry, to wake you, munchkin."
"S'okay," she yawned, "I was hungry anyway."
"Your kid eats like a horse, Myla," Clint stated even as Laura shifted to prepare a plate of food for her.
"I eat like a superhero in training," Sara responded as I set her down on the bench in the eating nook. I attempted to tame the blonde hair that had gone every which way as she slept until she batted my hands away.
Clint actually snorted at her comeback and carried the plate of food over and set it in front of her. "I'll remember that in the future."
"As you should," she preened then snagged the nearest piece of bacon and bit down with intent.
Clint laughed softly. "Your kid is going to be trouble."
"She already is," Steve noted with a smile.
I met Clint's eyes and he gave me a nod, confirming we'd talk more at some point in the future.
"All right, let's get settled and dig in before the rest of the kids wake up." Laura had grabbed a couple of the plates and urged us to sit down, then joined us herself. "You two get to cook for the rest of them."
"Can I help?" Sara asked.
"Of course," Steve answered. "Seems fair, since we'll be staying a couple of days."
"Yay," Sara cheered without raising her voice much. "I like it here. They're like us."
"Yeah, I suppose we are," Clint acknowledged.
He gave me a long look then dug into his food. I had hope that our visit here would help him to finally heal.
Chapter 16: postscript primus
"Thanks for doing this, Pepper," I told her with all due sincerity as we both watched our girls building a massive pillow fort in the living room in preparation for spending the afternoon watching movies, eating cake, and opening presents.
"Thanks for what? Morgan has been hounding me to invite Sara over, especially with her posting all those travel videos since you had to…" She paused as if searching for the correct word. "I want to say go on the run, but you didn't exactly hide where you were."
I sipped my glass of wine before speaking. "It seemed as good a time as any to get to work on the next step for the Expendables."
"Well, yes, but you also made certain to keep the situation in the eyes of the public. Ross is pissed."
"Poor baby," I stated blandly. "Maybe next time he'll think twice before trying to kidnap a minor, enhanced or not."
Steve, who assisted with the fort construction, grunted and shot me a look. The reworked Gallagher mask firmly in place, but the frown and concerned look in his eyes one I recognized.
I sighed softly, as it remained insanely easy to stir up my anger over Ross and his supposed good intentions. That congressional committee had been convened, and I'd been informed I would be called to testify at some point, probably within the next couple of weeks, thus our return to the US. But overall the questioning had been moving far too slowly for my taste. The Accords being waved about as a justification for what he had done much to my irritation.
Pepper shifted further away from the girls and I followed along, leaning against a counter when we ended up in the kitchen as I tried to get my temper back under control.
"I'm guessing you were the one to leak the commentary from inside the hearing."
"I can neither confirm nor deny that," I responded. Technically it hadn't been me personally. In fact, I hadn't known they'd started, but Ares, via my Coins, had toes dipped in everywhere and had made certain select portions found their way onto the internet, which had then been conveniently discovered by various broadcasters and put on the evening news. Demands for the hearings to be made public forced their hand and now they were being aired on CSPAN every afternoon.
Pepper chuckled and raised her glass in a toast. "Good for you."
I shrugged but joined in the toast. My only goal had been to protect my daughter, but if the results benefited others with abilities, I would not complain. "I have news."
"Oh, you need my Rolodex again?" Pepper asked, if only facetiously.
I shook my head. "Not exactly. Steve and I are engaged."
Pepper straightened, set down her glass with a cautious deliberation, a dangerous look crossing her features. If it had been another situation I would have been terrified, the woman could be a force of nature when she wanted. "Are you insane?" she had lowered her voice so that the words came out at a deadly hiss. "You haven't even known that man a year and you think he's worthy to marry? I know Sara likes him, but how could-"
"-you even think about someone new when Steve, our Steve, is barely cold in his gr-"
Her head snapped about. "For heaven's sake, Steve, not now." She turned back to me, readying her next salvo when she froze for a long moment, eyes going scary wide as who stood behind her sank in. Her gaze swung about to focus on the man standing at the edge of the kitchen. He'd turned off the veil so that she could indeed see that Steve Rogers stood before her. "Steve?"
"Oh my god, Steve." She rushed to him and pulled him into a fierce hug, which he returned, holding onto her just as tightly. "You're alive." Then she whipped about to glare at me. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Steve released her and put some space between them. "Because I asked her not to, Pepper."
She frowned slightly. "So why tell me now?"
I snickered. "Did you or did you not just go off on me about getting engaged to Steve Gallagher?"
She sighed softly, one hand brushing her hair back behind her ear. "A point. This explains a lot, actually." She went to the fridge, rummaged about, and came up with a beer for Steve, which he took with a nod of thanks. "Your cover is excellent, by the way." She nodded at me.
"But not perfect," I added, "which is why you were always suspicious of him."
Pepper nodded in agreement. "Guess I can pull Happy off that project now."
"Up to you, but as of right now we'd rather Happy not know the truth," I told her. "We're not outing him," I gestured at Steve, "just allaying your concerns. I knew you'd be… unhappy with the engagement and would redouble your efforts to find something to justify your distrust."
She tried three times to respond before simply saying, "You're right. I would have." She grabbed the bottle of wine and refilled our glasses. "So is this going to be a big fairytale wedding?"
I choked on my wine, barely avoiding the classic spit take at her suggestion.
"Ah, no," Steve answered for me. "In fact, we could use your help if you're willing." He managed to sound pitifully hopeful knowing it would sucker her right in. Who on this earth, or any place in the universe for that matter, could find the power to refuse Steve Rogers when he went into sappily sweet mode? I know I had failed to resist any number of times.
"How? I will not wear a garish bridesmaid dress if that's what you're thinking."
"Not even if it's vibranium lined?" I suggested with a grin. "We want to get married."
A single eyebrow rose on her forehead. "Explain."
"On paper, she'll be married to Steve Gallagher, that'll be the official public ceremony. But privately we-" he gestured at the two of us "-want to be legally married as well."
"Well, I could argue the marriage to Gallagher will be a fake since he technically doesn't exist." Pepper turned to me. "He never returned from the Blip, right?"
"As far as we can tell. He's on the registers as one of the Snapped-"
"So wasn't Lang, though," Steve tossed in.
"-but he didn't return with the Blip. We think he's one of those who died due to secondary causes during the original Snap, as not all of them returned with Bruce's Snap. And, no, we haven't figured out why."
Pepper nodded slowly. "But there's still a chance the real Gallagher might reappear one day."
Steve nodded in agreement. "We have contingency plans in place in the event that happens."
Pepper's eyes narrowed for an instant. "That explains the different middle name."
"That's part of it, of course, the intention was not to steal the real Gallagher's identity, just use it as the base for his new one." I hooked a thumb over at Steve who ducked his head.
"Why not just be Steve Rogers? Why let the world think you're dead?"
"That is a long story, Pepper."
"You have somewhere else to be?"
He shook his head.
"So you don't trust me?" Pepper sounded rightfully upset about that realization, a good thing she was in the wrong.
Steve set down the beer and moved to stand directly in front of her. "Pepper, would I be asking you to help us get married on the sly if I… we didn't trust you?"
"Oh. Oh. How can I help?"
"Well, we're hoping you know someone who can marry us and keep it quiet that Steve Rogers is still alive," I explained, summing up our needs.
I could see her mind working on the problem. "I may know a couple of people who will fit the bill. Let me reach out to them. The Gallagher wedding will be public? Big and splashy as befitting your station?"
I shook my head violently. "You sound like my mother. No. Small and private, however, the party after will be… impressive."
"They might not let you back onto Hilton Head if your mother gets her way," Steve said with dismay in his voice. I knew he didn't do all that well in big public crowds.
"You will survive one day of her excessiveness," I told him sympathetically. "As will I."
Pepper snorted. "I keep forgetting you are not the limelight hog the way a lot of your family is."
I shrugged. "I did my time. The spotlights shining on me are just a bit different."
With a stately nod of her head, Pepper conceded the point.
Sara charged into the kitchen just then. "Lemonade please." She held up two glasses to be filled.
"Of course, anything for the birthday girl." I set the glasses on the counter then opened the fridge to find the lemonade stored within.
"Mom, am I going to be Sara Gallagher after you two get married?"
I did not spill the pink liquid at her startling question.
"Actually, I believe she's planning to keep MacMillion for the two of you," Steve answered.
I faced her. "Do you want to be a Gallagher?"
She shook her head. "Not really." She looked up at Steve. "No offense."
"None taken," he assured her. He must have seen something in her demeanor and asked, "What name do you want to take?"
She worried at her lip for a moment before answering, "I was thinking… when I'm older… I'd like to be Sara Rogers."
My eyebrows rose for an instant. "I'm not saying no, as you've obviously thought about this, but why?"
"Well, I mean he is my dad, even if the world thinks he's dead, but… His name gives people hope. Makes them want to be better and I think I'd like to do that too."
Pepper made this odd noise in the back of her throat that I couldn't quite interpret. I picked up the now filled glasses and squatted down before her. "I think that's a wonderful reason. What say we revisit this when you are older, say sixteen?"
She nodded vigorously. "Yay." She took the glasses from me. "When's cake time?"
I glanced over at the clock noting it was only just after ten am. "After lunch as you well know." I tapped her on the nose.
She sighed overdramatically. "Snacks?"
"I'll make popcorn," Pepper offered.
"Guess that means it's movie time," Steve informed her. "Did you two make a decision?"
"The Frozen trilogy," she informed him. "Will you watch it with us?"
Steve laughed softly. "Of course." He glanced over at me and then escorted the birthday girl from the room.
"He's not getting out of telling me what happened," Pepper muttered.
"He knows, I assure you." I returned the lemonade to the fridge and picked my wineglass back up, rolling it carefully between my hands. "Pepper, there's something else I wanted to discuss with you."
She looked at me over the top of her glass waiting on me to divulge the next bit of bombshell upon her.
"I think it's time."
She huffed out a breath as a pretense of irritation, but I could see in her eyes she knew exactly what I was referring to.
"I don't," she stated, trying to end the discussion then and there.
I'd let her on other occasions, but not this time. No, the time had come to take all that Tony had taught me and put it to use for more than just my family and the Expendables. "I miss him too, more than I thought possible." I shook my head, we'd all lost so much even as those who'd succumbed to the Snap had been returned. The price to achieve that win had been higher than any of us had liked.
But not higher than any of us had been willing to pay.
"We are not talking about this today." Pepper stood tall and turned to walk away, putting up that wall I'd seen on other occasions. Hell, I had my own version of that wall, but I'd learned that at some point you had to face the pain and move beyond it.
"Pepper, it's not getting any better out there, no matter what they say on the news. I know, I've seen it. It's why the Expendables are changing focus. And… and I need your help to make it happen."
And I did. Our traveling the last few weeks had shown me exactly how badly parts of the world needed the technological advances Tony and I had come up with during those couple of years we'd actually been friends. "I only have so many people to throw at the problems out there. We need more. The world needs more."
My words may have encouraged her to stop, but I couldn't yet be certain they'd gotten her to listen. "Myla… I can't."
"You can. Tony left you... left the whole world an incredible legacy, it would be a great disservice to his memory to let it go to waste. Morgan might want to follow in his footsteps one day, what paths do you want to be available to her?"
Pepper spun about, anger written upon every inch of her body. "No," she hissed, "you do not get to drag Morgan into this discussion. You have no idea what he wanted for her."
"Don't I?" I argued, keeping my voice down so that the girls in the next room would not hear their mothers fighting. "After Sara was born there was a time when I considered not telling her the truth, who her father was, especially when he refused to talk to me." I dropped my head to gaze at the wood of the floor. "Harsh, I know, but he had left me, left us after assuring me we'd be together." I shook my head mostly at myself. There were days the hurt from those years still flared up, but the happiness I had gained since we'd gotten back together now overshadowed it and simply served as a reminder of what I could have lost if I'd continued with my stubborn refusal to admit I still loved Steve Rogers.
"But you got him back," she sneered.
"In this timeline, yes I did. If it hadn't been for Nat leaving him a message about Sara, I'd've never seen him again." And my life would have been so different. I knew because I had looked at them; in several, I had died, a victim of those who wanted to control my daughter. It wasn't always Ross, but the running theme had been the same. Take her and use her for their supposed greater good purposes. "But even if I hadn't I would have told Sara all about him."
"What does any of this have to do with releasing that tech?" she asked, tone bitter.
I took a moment to frame my words to have the most impact. "Tony wanted to make certain what he left behind would make the world a better place… for Morgan."
"You can't know that. You have no way of knowing what he wanted about… about anything," she argued, tone harsh and hurtful.
"He told me, Pepper. Many times. The world is backsliding into what it was, I want to help make it what it could be. He had a plan, Pepper, one I assisted with, all I want to do is see it through." I turned away from her, gazing out the window at the lake. "For him."
The silence between us became a living thing. Yes, nearby Anna sang about building a snowman, but in the kitchen, the world had narrowed between us, sounds seemingly blunted and dulled as she finally heard me.
"You two really became friends even after everything he put you through." She sounded so disconsolate, but in the depths of her sadness, I could hear the sound of a near desperate hope in her voice.
"I guess we did. I learned a lot from him."
"Me too. I'll authorize the transfer tomorrow."
"You know the tech, Myls, not me. I'll still be a partner in this venture and handle the business aspects, but I want you to handle the tech disbursement."
I hadn't expected that even though that's exactly what she'd done in a few other timelines. "Okay. You realize I only plan to charge those who can afford it, right?"
She nodded. "I've read the prospectus. We'll make up the cost in government contracts."
"I'm going to be picky about who gets what," I informed her knowing damn well a lot of the tech could potentially be used as weapons with little modification.
"I'm going to be pickier," she assured me. "We are going to use this to help people, not subjugate them."
I nodded in agreement. "Defense not offense."
"As it should be," Steve stated as he entered the room. "Someone is complaining about the lack of popcorn."
"Shit," Pepper swore. "I completely forgot. Tell them ten minutes."
"Everything okay in here?" He'd clearly overhead at least some of our tense discussion and had probably worried it would either come to blows or get us thrown out on our asses.
"Yes," she told him, "everything is good." She waved him away. "We'll bring the goodies shortly."
He glanced over at me and I gave him a quick nod before he sidled away.
"Are we good?" I asked her, not wanting her to agree and resent me at the same time.
"Yes, Myla, we're good. I'll be angry for a while, but I'll get over it. There are more important things and our friendship is one of them."
I gave her a quick hug. "Okay, where's the popcorn stashed."
She gave me a watery smile then opened the cabinet the snacks had been hidden in.
Chapter 17: postscript secundus
Let me preface this by saying I don't do happy endings. Like ever. The closest I've ever gotten before, in an I-Man fic, had the couple get married then forced to live apart from one another. This story refused, and I mean absolutely refused, to be written any other way. I tried to break them up any number of times - they fought against it. I tried to kill off the OFC - she refused to be killed. So, in the end, I gave in. Let them resolve their differences and have what I suppose they wanted more than anything else: a chance.
I tried four times to write this damn chapter. Originally it was going to be from the OFC's POV, but it refused to work. It wasn't until I finally gave Steve his turn (the only chapter written from his POV) that I found success and even then it took two attempts.
It was at least partially inspired by a quote I'm certain most of you have seen floating around the 'net, so credit where credit is due, and thanks, nikka, for writing so much better than I ever could.
I'd never believed in a happily ever after. At least not for me.
Then I'd met Peggy.
The first woman who had looked at me and seen what I could be. Seen the man inside the sickly scrawny body.
Seen the potential.
Even after Rebirth, I doubted my life would include anything so profoundly normal as a happy ending, especially given the war consuming so much of the planet. No matter how good the Howlies were the chances of surviving the war became smaller each and every day it continued.
And then I'd lost Bucky.
With no end in sight to that endless war, I focused all my anger and loss on the one person I could possibly stop: Johan Schmidt.
So I jumped on that massive grenade and went down with the Valkyrie with only a few regrets.
The most impactful being the missed opportunity to dance with the right partner.
It had still been a fitting ending to my story.
Saving the world. Going out as a hero.
Only I failed to die.
Much like at Camp Lehigh, my sacrifice turned out to be more philosophical than real. Intent over actuality.
I woke up in a brand new world that I didn't understand and that, perhaps even worse, didn't understand me.
Oh, we'd won the war, but from my point of view, we had lost so much more.
I trusted my conscience as best I could in the years that followed only to discover I had been wearing blinders the entire time. I'd gone back to being a soldier and forgotten to be that good man.
Reconnecting with Peggy had forced me to take a hard look at who I had once been and reminded me that someone had to make the hard decisions. Make the choices that no one else ever could and act on them.
So I did.
Mere weeks after the fall of SHIELD, The Avengers officially formed, separate from any government agency, a mistake as it would turn out in some way, but it gave me a place in this wild world. While most of us still lived at the Tower in New York, others began work on the Compound in upstate New York.
And it was there I met her.
"Oh, this damned cat is going to die."
I looked up from the drawing I worked on while musing about how I had come to be here, a rough sketch of Myla in her guise as Warpath, to see her glaring at the laptop screen before her. It took me a moment but knowing she'd been doing some editing I understood what she had been referring to. "Did she not like the excerpts?"
Myla lifted her head, those pale blue eyes meeting mine with a look of almost guilt buried in them. "I haven't sent them yet. I'm beginning to think this was a terrible idea."
"For the record, I think what you've written so far is excellent, and while I admit to some bias because it's you, I've also read a lot in my years, you may be new to writing prose, but what you've done so far breathes life into what most have only read in history textbooks."
She frowned at me.
"Plus, the point of sending in the excerpts was to give her an idea of your writing skills so she could help you hone them. Or am I mistaken?"
She huffed out a breath at me. "Steve, I haven't written anything more than reports since high school. Creative writing was a lifetime ago."
And since she graduated high school frighteningly young she could get away with that particular phrase, though if comparing the length of time since high school I would inevitably win.
"Mom, isn't that why you read those books? To learn how to write?" Sara pointed out astutely.
"Honey, anyone can read a book, that doesn't automatically give them the skills to use the information in it."
"Maybe not for normal people, mom, but you're different, remember?"
"Not that different," Myla grumbled.
"No, not that different," I assured her. "Doll, you're not on a deadline and Carolina just wants some samples. Send her the ones we talked about and go from there. She'll tell you what needs to be done if anything. This is just the beginning of that particular journey for us and we're not in any rush."
"Plus, you have that trip and I don't want to miss my summer in Wakanda," Sara reminded, with no little self-interest I'm sure.
"Honeymoon," I corrected, ever thankful that not only had Myla agreed to marry me, but she'd followed through just a couple of weeks ago.
"Feh, I know it's gonna be a working trip, neither of you knows how to just have fun."
Myla snorted. "It won't be all work, munchkin, but it's part of the grand plan, and the sooner begun-"
"-the sooner done," Sara finished. "Then why aren't we leaving tomorrow?"
"Because you still have two weeks of school," I reminded her, "and you are not getting out of it."
She pouted. "Fine. I didn't want to miss the end of the year party anyway."
"Then you should be finishing your homework," Myla said with a nod towards the computer on the table in front of her daughter.
"I'll finish mine if you finish yours," she challenged.
Myla grinned and closed her laptop with a snap. "Done. Samples have been sent, now I just wait to hear how bad they are."
Sara rolled her eyes. "I'd've finished it anyway." She muttered under her breath about tricking her then turned back to her work.
Myla pulled her feet up to sit cross-legged on the couch, setting her laptop aside for the moment. "You need me to pose for a bit yet?"
I nodded before catching myself. She wasn't supposed to know what I'd been working on, not yet anyway. "How did you know?"
She shrugged. "You kept glancing over at me."
Whoops. Guess I hadn't been subtle enough. "You have anywhere you need to be?" I had enough for now, but it would be easier with her sitting for me.
"Nope. Okay if I read?"
"Yes. You could write too."
She shook her head. "I'm already stressing enough over that, time to switch gears and clear my head for a bit."
Hard to argue with that. "Not stressed is good." I shifted the sketchpad and rolled the pencil between my fingers as she opened and flipped the cover of the laptop over turning it into an oversized tablet. She leaned back into the cushions, gave me a smile then turned her focus to the screen in her hands.
I took the time to simply observe her. Still thankful she'd been willing to give me a chance when I came back into her life after turning my back on her.
After saving those who'd been taken from us and that battle at the Compound, I'd finally realized the time to move on had arrived. Only part of me never had and so I'd followed my heart back to Peggy and shared a lifetime of experiences with her. Ones that I would always treasure.
Then, after passing my legacy over to a good man, I saw Myla.
She hadn't been my first love, but she would be my last. I don't know how I had become worthy enough to earn the love of one amazing woman never mind two, but I would not waste the opportunity I'd been given.
No, I didn't want a happy ending with her. I wanted a happy life. Years and years together. I didn't have any interest in this ending for a long, long time.
So, no endings, but I hoped that maybe in the future there might be an epilogue.
"I think we deserve a soft epilogue, my love. We are good people and we've suffered enough." - "Seventy Years of Sleep" #4. nikka ursula
Chapter 18: alternate ending
What if Steve isn't Steve.
When fighting with the second postscript this crazy-ass idea came to me. I was sorely tempted to write it as the ending, but couldn't quite reconcile the two timelines.
Still, it kept poking and poking until I finally sat down to write it, and, of course, while doing so I managed to wend my way through the conflicts and resolve them.
So, just consider this a wild what-if that demanded I write it.
another place, another time
I had searched for so long that I had nearly given up hope of seeing her again. So many worlds, so many different timelines trying to find one where she still lived and remained the same person I had known.
No mean feat given the infinite options I had been granted access to.
When the time had come to return the Stones to their proper places in the past I volunteered much to the surprise of the rest of my team. Tony and Sam had been especially concerned considering I should still have been grieving over her loss.
And, I could admit now, I had still been in denial. No, she hadn't been the only loss that day, but for me, she had been the most personal.
She'd been with me through so much.
As an Avenger.
On the run when the Accords had been put in place.
Yes, she'd followed me... us into exile and while the day-to-day living had been hard, it had also been joyous. Living and fighting side-by-side and doing what the "official" Avengers seemingly could not and actually helping people and attempting to make the world a better place.
And then an alien ship had arrived in the skies over Manhattan.
The Battle of Wakanda had been horrific, but we'd both survived, more than a bit broken, but still together.
She had held onto hope better than I and, in the end, she'd been proven wise to have done so.
The remaining Avengers had come back together after five long years for one last attempt to fix the universe we'd helplessly watched be shattered.
Because of her and her willingness to do what needed to be done.
After Banner in his Hulk form had returned everyone who'd been Snapped away, Thanos had appeared. An earlier version of Nebula having returned first and acting as the cuckoo in the nest.
In the ensuing battle my girl, my ever so mortal Warpath, had rescued the Gauntlet during the fight between Thanos and Danvers, and instead of returning to the game of keep-away we would ultimately lose, she had used it.
Sacrificing herself for the good of everyone else.
Yes, she most certainly knew it would kill her.
She had always considered herself expendable if it meant saving us, the Avengers, so that we could fight another day.
Thanos and his troops, displaced in time, now became displaced in reality. The fate previously visited upon half the universe had become his own, leaving nothing but dust behind.
I had mere moments to tell her that she'd saved us all before she'd breathed her last, her body going limp and lifeless in my arms.
If Thanos hadn't already been removed from the playing field I would have killed him right then and there with my bare hands.
Instead, I howled my pain and loss into the depths of the universe.
That loss had struck my heart and soul with far more force than the one where we'd lost half of all life in the universe.
So, when the time came to return the stones to their proper places I came up with a plan.
When I had finished my task, instead of returning to a life without her I realized I could find another her.
The tech that had permitted us to time travel would also let me jump timelines, realities, alternate versions of this life.
In one of them, she had surely survived.
And I had died instead.
It turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. My first jump taking me too far away from my own timeline where she had never been an Avenger and only knew me through history books and the nightly news.
Keeping accurate track of time would prove to be nearly impossible while skipping through different timestreams, but I suspect it had taken years as opposed to mere months to even come close.
As I became more and more desperate to find a suitable reality, flipping through options like the pages of an extraordinary book, I began choosing at random and stumbled upon one where not only had she lived, but she had a child.
Or, rather, the child of the Steve Rogers who had lived here.
Had being far more accurate as, while he had survived the final battle at the Compound, he had apparently vanished while returning the Stones.
I could not only get my girl back but raise my child?
Then I discovered it to be a bit more complicated than that. Rogers had come back, but after going back to marry and live his life with Peggy Carter. He returned to the current moment by living through all of it. Staying on the sidelines and watching the inevitable events play out without interference.
His choice hadn't surprised me all that much as I'd once clung to her memory as well. Then I'd met Myla and while I occasionally missed the opportunity with Peggy, I had moved on and chosen to spend my life with my new love.
A love I had been unable to let go of and that had led me on this remarkable journey.
I took all due care and did my research before even considering approaching her. The elderly version of Rogers had learned of his child and endeavored to become part of their lives, with much resistance on her part as he had apparently not spoken to her since the events in Wakanda.
Her life here had been so different than the reality I knew, yet the more I learned the more I realized her heart remained the same and that maybe, just maybe, I could win her back.
Somehow I had to replace the older copy of me and justify my appearance being younger.
It all hinged on their Quantum Tunnel.
But first I had to deal with the other me.
All it took was a single conversation.
He took care of the access to the Tunnel, which I would not actually use, and then stepped back into his life of obscurity to live the remainder of his days in peace.
When I stepped out in front of Myla on that blustery March day I returned to the land of the living, my grief that I had tried so hard to lock deep inside of me, releasing its painful grip on my heart for the first time since she, that other she, had died in my arms.
I had another chance and I would risk anything to keep it.
My Myla. My Warpath.
My heart, my soul, my love.
Only to discover that while she still loved, anger had become her focus. At least with me.
In many ways we had to start from scratch, rebuild our relationship from the ground up, plus... plus I had to get to know my child.
This world both so different and so similar to my own. I had to learn who I had been here so I could react accordingly. I hated lying to her, but the deception had become absolutely necessary if I had any chance of winning her back.
I suspected she knew, if only subconsciously, that I seemed different because I had stepped into her Steve's life. Her ability to see those other versions of her life always presenting a risk, though the most significant one, the one I had come from, not able to give me away as her story had ended prior to my decision.
This Myla had noted the differences but logged them off to her Steve's time-traveling adventures.
I failed to disabuse her of that notion and attempted to do nothing to give nothing away. I refused to lose her a second time and wanted no part of wandering the realities in a potentially failing effort to find her again.
Plus, even though different in some ways from my Myla I quickly found myself falling just as head over heels in love with her.
Some days I still think about my Myla and the sacrifice she made, then I look at the woman seated near me, grumbling under her breath about the book she currently worked on, one about my life in this reality, and my mouth goes dry, my heart pounds with joy and happiness and all I want to do is sweep her up in my arms and hold her close for the rest of eternity.
Same people, two extremely different outcomes.
I had finally come home.