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Steve slams his locker shut and walks down the hallway. He flexes his fingers and sighs at the pops in his joints. 

 

He is excited to begin his junior year. 

 

Except for one thing. 

 

P.E. 

 

His freshman year, he’d had an automatic out because of his shoulder and his hip. No one had even given him a second glance for why he didn’t have to take PE. And the 1st week of sophomore year, he’d received a fist to the face that had cracked his jaw and required surgery. 

 

Howard had been pissed. 

 

Tony had been pissed. 

 

Actually… Everyone had been pissed, but Steve explained over and over that he hadn’t gone looking for that particular fight, it had found him. 

 

Some goon was trying to mug an old man and he had to help. So he’d tried. It ended with him unconscious, with another concussion, and a cracked jaw, but his description of the mugger had gotten him caught in the next few days, and the old man was okay, so Steve had been relatively happy with that. 

 

No one else had been. But hey, you live and you get hit in the face. That’s just the way Steve’s life seemed to go. 

 

But now. 

 

Yesterday was the first day of school, and it had been orientation in PE. The distribution of uniforms and the class syllabus describing the sports they were going to be playing and learning about. 

 

He could have asked the doctor for a note to be excused. 

 

He could have and he would have gotten it because of his heart and his asthma. 

 

And everyone will probably be furious at him for straining his heart more but… 

 

He hates being weak. He hates giving in and admitting that he can’t do something. 

 

So here he is, changing in the locker room and keeping his back firmly against the lockers as he slips his PE shirt on. 

 

No one seems to care or look or notice the scars on his back, or the giant burn on his elbow, or anything else. They’re all distracted by their own need to change and it makes him relax the smallest bit. 

 

The elastic of the shorts rests on his sharp hip bones. He’s been trying to eat as much as he can, trying to put on some weight to help his frame, but he can never seem to eat enough. He’s always so freaking skinny. 

 

He’s frustrated by that. 

 

And more frustrated to know that if he didn’t have Bucky and Natasha as his friends that he would be the butt of every joke. 

 

And he hates that. 

 

He hates that they’re the only reason he’s not picked on. He knows they know it too. 

 

That people nod and smile at him instead of shoving him against lockers like they used to. 

 

He remembers his first week as a freshman:

 

He’d been walking towards the cafeteria on his second day back when his hip had given out on him and he’d stumbled against a senior. The senior had shoved him away hard, making him crash against the lockers. 

 

“Watch where you’re going, Stick Bug.”

 

Steve had apologized and they’d laughed and kept going. But his hip had locked up and was still throbbing, so  he’d slid down the lockers until he was sitting on the linoleum floor. He’d tried to move a few times but couldn’t manage to get to his feet. When Bucky came looking for him, he’d found him still on the ground. 

 

“What happened?” 

 

“Just hurt too much to walk.” He’d lied. 

 

“Here.” 

 

Bucky had helped him up and supported his weak side until they got to the cafeteria doors and then Steve had insisted he could walk from there. 

 

Two days after that, Bucky was standing at his locker next to Steve’s and the senior boy walked by. Steve was standing beside Bucky, watching the hallway as Bucky grabbed his books. The senior spotted him and smirked. “Hey Stick Bug.” 

 

Steve didn’t respond, just pretended to be busy looking down the hallway. 

 

Bucky glanced up, turning to Steve, “what was that?” 

 

Steve blinked at him, “what was what?” 

 

“Did someone just call you ‘Stick Bug’?” Steve was grateful Bucky’s back had been to the guy.

 

“No.” 

 

Bucky had narrowed his eyes at him but Steve had held a calm innocent face. 

 

“He better not have.” 

 

“He didn’t.” 

 

Steve could tell Bucky didn’t believe him. But he’d let it go. 

 

Until the next week. 

 

Steve had been walking down the hallway, carrying his new sketchbook for his drawing class when the senior appeared in front of him. 

 

“Hey, Stick Bug likes to draw. How cute of her.” 

 

Steve had refused to respond, just continued walking and gripping his sketchbook tighter. 

 

“Hey.” 

 

Steve kept walking. 

 

“Hey Stick Bug I’m talking to you!” 

 

Steve kept walking, eyes pointed straight ahead, which ended up being his downfall. Literally. A foot snaked in front of him catching his ankle and he went sprawling. His glasses and his pencils clattering to the ground and his shoulder and hip sparking enough pain to make Steve cry out. 

 

“Oh, oopsies.” The senior had laughed. “Watch where you’re walking, Stick Bug.” He heard the senior take off as he laid there.

 

Steve’s eyes were clenched closed in pain. And he could feel people watching him but he couldn’t move. His hip was killing him. Sam was going to be so mad. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

He looked up to see Bucky striding towards him, “what the hell happened?” 

 

Steve had gritted his teeth. “Fell.” 

 

“BULLSHIT.” Bucky had shouted, “who did this?” He looked around and glared at the people who were staring. 

 

“Buck.” Steve had said, “need some help.” He extended his hand, and Bucky had grasped it immediately, hauling him up. Steve groaned and pressed his bad arm against his side. 

 

“You’re lying to me, Steve.” Bucky had accused. “I thought we agreed that wasn’t going to happen.” 

 

“Buck. Everything’s fine.” 

 

“You’re a terrible liar.” 

 

Steve had foolishly hoped that would be it. That the senior would get bored and leave him alone. But no such luck. Three days later, Steve was in a passing period, walking out of the library when he saw the senior. He tried to turn around, to avoid being seen but it was too late. 

 

“Hey Stick Bug.” 

 

Steve didn’t respond, just tried to walk faster. 

 

“Hey, I’m talking to you.” The senior said with a growl, “I thought I already taught you this lesson.” 

 

Steve didn’t respond, turning a corner and hoping the guy wasn’t going this way. A hand grabbed his bicep and yanked, shoving him against the concrete wall. 

 

“When I say ‘speak’, you speak, little freshie.” The senior snarled in his face. 

 

“What do you want me to say?” Steve had snapped back. “That you’re part of a tired cliche?” 

 

The senior had blinked at him, unsure if he’d just been insulted. 

 

“What did you just say to me?” The senior had growled, shoving him harder against the wall. He could feel the anger of the situation burning too hot. He needed to take a deep breath. He needed to calm down. He could feel his heart pounding. 

 

“Just leave me alone.” Steve hissed through gritted teeth. 

 

“You better watch who you’re threatening.” 

 

“I’m not the one threatening people!” Steve had shouted, “you’re the one picking on me!” 

 

“Aww, is the little Stick Bug afraid of a little teasing?” 

 

Something boiled in Steve’s blood and he heard words exploding from his lips before he could really process whether it was the best thing to say at the moment. “Did you know that bullies who pick on kids littler than themselves statistically suffer from fragile ego, and self-image issues? What are you taking out on me, huh? Low intelligence? The fragility of your masculine identity?” When the senior blinked at him again, Steve scoffed, temper still running hot. “What, too many words for you? Or does your vocabulary only extend to the words used on Sesame Street.” 

 

The color red on the senior’s face informed Steve that that was probably not what he should have said as he was being held by a kid twice his size. He felt his body yanked forward, and saw stars as he was slammed backwards again. 

 

He felt the first punch to the gut, and saw the second one coming, but it didn’t land. 

 

A flash of blue crossed his vision and suddenly the senior was sprawled on the ground, with something on top of him. 

 

Bucky. 

 

Steve was frozen for one second while he watched Bucky land a punch to the kids face. “Stop!” He shouted, bounding forward and yanking on Bucky’s collar. “Stop!” 

 

Bucky reeled back to land another punch on the stunned senior, but Steve yanked with all his strength, meager as it was. Bucky tumbled backwards, knocking Steve over as his weight shifted. They hit the ground hard and Steve held onto Bucky’s collar. 

 

The senior sat up, touching his lip that was split. “Who the hell are you.” The kid spat. “Stick Bug needs a guard dog, huh?” 

 

Steve winced as Bucky’s eyes widened in realization. He felt Bucky tense, coiled and ready to snap, but he didn’t let go. “He’s not worth it.” He could feel the waves of fury rolling of Bucky’s shoulders, “Bucky. Don’t.” 

 

The senior stood staring at them, when Bucky spoke, low and voice like flint, “if I ever hear that you’ve laid even a finger on him again, I will find you, and I will kick your ass. Do you understand me?” 

 

The senior started to laugh but Bucky was up, yanking himself out of Steve’s grasp, and landing another punch that sent the kid flying back, limbs sprawling as they hit the ground. Bucky walked over and glared down at the kid. “Leave. Him. Alone.” 

 

Bucky’s fists were clenched tightly and something about his facial expression had the senior nodding slowly. Bucky turned back to Steve, expression murderous and grabbed his arm, hauling him down the hallway. 

 

Steve felt his own fury rising as he could do nothing but be dragged around teh corner and into an empty classroom. 

 

He yanked his arm out of Bucky’s grip and crossed his arms tightly over his chest, pulling at his shoulder. 

 

“Do you have a death wish?” Bucky asks darkly. 

 

“No.” 

 

“Oh yeah? Because I heard what you said. I turned the corner, saw him holding you against the wall, and I heard you insult his intelligence. What the hell, Steve? Do you like getting punched?” 

 

“I don’t need a guard dog. I can handle myself.” 

 

“Says the boy I pulled half-dead out of a dumpster.” 

 

Steve had heard the crack in his own neck from whipping his head around to meet Bucky’s too fast. 

 

“I didn’t ask you to come looking.” Steve snapped, his heart pounding. Shame at being the one who always needed to be rescued welling to the surface. He pushed past Bucky, back into the hallway, trying not to hold his arm stiffly. 

 

“Wait—“ He heard Bucky call, “Steve! Steve, wait.” Bucky caught up to him and slowed his stride to match his. “I’m sorry.” 

 

Steve stayed silent. 

 

“Steve, I’m sorry I mentioned the dumpster thing. That was low.” 

 

Steve sighed. “No. It’s fine.” 

 

He heard Bucky groan, but he kept his eyes straight ahead, pushing up his glasses.

 

“No, Steve, listen.” Bucky stepped in front of him, forcing him to stop. “Ever since that godforsaken day with the dumpster, I—“ he looked at Steve and grimaced, “I can’t help but feel—“ he groaned, his hands scrubbed down his face, “I dunno, over protective, I guess.” He shook his head and looked back up at Steve. “Seeing idiots treat you that way, I won’t allow it. I don’t care if they call me your guard dog.” 

 

“I care.” Steve snapped. Eyes boring holes into the floor. “I’m not some weakling to be chaperoned to each class, “I don’t need your protection and I don’t want it.” 

 

Bucky had flinched at his words and he’d felt a stab of guilt. “I just... I’m tired of having to have other people look out for me. I wanna look after myself.” 

 

“You looked after all those kids for years.” 

 

“That’s different.” 

 

“No, Steve, it’s not. You took the brunt of her abuse so they didn’t have to. Let me do that for you, here, at school.” 

 

“No way.” Steve had ground out, “Not a chance.” 

 

“Fine.” Bucky had growled, resuming their walk, “You wanna be stubborn? FINE. Two can play that game. I’m telling Clint and Natasha what happened and good luck trying to stop us.” 

 

Surprise crossed Steve’s face. “Don’t you dare.” 

 

Bucky pulled out his phone and tapped a message and sent it. “Too late.” He glared at Steve and Steve glared back. 

 

And that had been that. The next year and a half had them basically at his side constantly. Even after the senior had graduated, they stuck to the habit. Steve had grumbled about it constantly but they refused to back down. 

 

But now Clint was graduated. Working at a rock climbing place as he went to night classes to earn his degree and Bucky and Natasha were starting their senior year. So everyone was pretty busy, and even with him being alone more often, Steve had noticed that now that people knew they were friends, they left him alone. 

 

And he was grateful. He was. 

 

But furious all the same. Why couldn’t people just respect him for him ? Why did they only respect him because of who his friends were?

 

He snapped his gym locker shut and walked out the swinging door into the main gymnasium. 

 

The coach was gathering them at the center and he joined the group. 

 

“Alright, we’re going to do some warm ups, take three laps and meet back here.” 

 

The kids started running and Steve grimaced, here goes nothing. 

 

———

 

He had asked to go get a drink of water after the laps but had really gone to get his inhaler from his locker. He wasn’t embarrassed about having asthma. But… he just didn’t want to announce it or anything. 

 

When he walks back out to the court and the coach is separating them into teams. 

 

“The scrimmage jerseys have not yet arrived from the suppliers.” The coach is explaining, “so it will be shirts vs. skins today.” He points to the few girls in the class, “don’t mean to be sexist but y’all will be on the shirts team. Any arguments?” 

 

The girls laugh and shake their heads. “Good. They should hopefully be here by tomorrow so we won’t have this problem.” He points to Steve, “okay, you’re the last one on the skins team and that makes it even. Everyone out to the soccer field.” 

 

Everyone starts walking. Boys are already stripping their shirts off as they walk out the big double doors to the soccer field. 

 

But Steve’s frozen. This can’t be happening. 

 

He grits his teeth and follows them out, heart pounding. The teams are separating on the field and the September sun beating down on them. He walks to the coach and clears his throat, “uh, sir?” 

 

The coach turns towards him, “yes.. uh—“ he looks down at his clipboard. 

 

“Steve.” 

 

“Right, Steve, what did you need?” 

 

“I was… I was wondering.” He hates this, he hates this, he hates this. “Is there a way I could possibly be on the othe—“

 

The coach waves a hand, silencing him. “Listen, Steve was it? I don’t pick shirts and skins normally. It’s just today. But I can’t have people switching willy nilly. If I let you switch then I gotta accommodate every Tom, Dick, and Harry who’s unhappy with their body and wants to switch. Let’s have some body positivity, huh? Isn’t that what’s all the rage nowadays with you kids?”

 

Steve feels his heart pound even harder. Anger flooding through him. But he grits his teeth and tries to talk calmly, “Sir, please, you don’t—“

 

“Kid. I was skinny too. But hey, maybe this class will help you bulk up and then you won't be so self-conscious. Starting today. Let’s go, we’re wasting daylight.”

 

The coach walks away and Steve is left standing in the middle of the field, shoulders tense and hands clenched.  

 

He’s avoided this. He’s avoided this for almost two years. He tries to keep his head on straight when he hears laughter behind him. They’re laughing at him. They’re laughing because they think he’s trying to avoid being skins because he’s scrawny or too thin. 

 

His temper flares through the roof and something in him snaps. He grabs the hem of his shirt, ripping it up and over his head and yanking it off in one smooth motion. He feels his body shaking, anger coursing through his wiry muscles as the breeze brushes past his bare skin. 

 

It’s instantaneous. He hears the silence fall over the kids behind him. He knows they can see it. On full display. The pink jagged scars. The words. The burns. Everything. 

 

He turns around and watches as his teammates almost jump at his movement. He feels their eyes follow him as he walks to the side of the field, dumps his shirt there, and strides back towards where they’ve gathered. 

 

He walks up, and he notices that they refuse to meet his eyes. 

 

Great. 

 

When no one speaks Steve raises an eyebrow, “what positions is everyone playing?” 

 

The assigned team captain manages to stutter out where everyone should go and they break, walking to their positions. Steve’s eyes follow the coach as he sets the ball in the middle of the circle. The whistle blows and the game begins. 

 

It only takes about 2 minutes before the coach notices. The coach is shouting tips and instructions to the players when Steve hears his voice cut off abruptly. It takes one blink for Steve to process that he’s maybe 7 feet in front of the coach with his back towards him. 

 

Steve turns and stares at the coach dead on. His eyes meeting the coaches impossibly wide ones. 

 

A ripple passes over the soccer field as the other team pauses, wondering why the game has stopped. He hears the gasps as his back is on full display, facing the majority of the players on the field. 

 

He hears a gentle “what the fuck” from far off to his left and he almost smiles. But he doesn’t. He stares at the coach until he knows everyone has seen. Then he turns around and looks at the field of players. All of which are staring at him. 

 

He hates this. He hates this. He hates this. 

 

He puts his hands on his hips and looks around, “are we gunna play soccer or what?” He says through gritted teeth.

 

“Steve.” He turns towards the coach who’s walking towards him. 

 

“What.” 

 

“Let’s get you a shirt. I’m sure someone is willing to switch.” 

 

Steve scoffs, waving an arm at the field of players, “I think it’s a little late for that now.” And then, he glares at the coach and says in a sarcastic tone, “wouldn’t want anybody to think I wasn’t body positive.” 

 

The coach winces, hearing his own words thrown back at him, but Steve just turns his back to the coach and stares at the players, “we gonna play or are you guys just going to stare at me all class.” 

 

They pause for one more second before the game resumes. 

 

———

 

He’s sweaty and wheezing and still shaking with adrenaline when the final whistle blows. He walks off the field, snatching his shirt off the grass and clutching it in his fist. 

 

He’s in the locker room, throwing his PE uniform into his locker when he hears footsteps approach. He turns to find one of the kids from his team looking at him nervously. The kids a sophomore he thinks, he’s not sure.

 

Steve waits but the kid doesn't say anything. Steve rolls his eyes and looks at him, “Can I help you?” 

 

“Uh…” 

 

“Yes?” 

 

“Are you okay?” 

 

The question surprises him. It’s surprising because the tone is genuine and the kid is looking at him like he’s actually concerned. Steve huffs out a laugh. “I’m great, why do you ask?” 

 

The joke lands and the kid smiles at him, “I just… that’s—“ he grimaces, “those are some gnarly scars, man. You sure you’re okay? You in an okay home?”

 

The specificity of the question makes Steve take a deeper look at the guy.  Steve would bet money he’s experienced trouble at home. 

 

“My home’s good. And they’re old. I’m fine.” 

 

The kid looks at him. “How old?” 

 

Steve blinks at him, “just over two years.” 

 

“Aren’t you a junior?” 

 

“Yep.” 

 

“So you got those from before you were a freshman?” 

 

Steve’s eyebrows furrow, “yeah, just before freshman year.” 

 

“I’m sorry. That must have really sucked.”  

 

Steve blinks again in surprise. “Thanks.” 

 

The guy starts to walk away and Steve takes a step forward, “what’s your name?” 

 

The kid turns around and smiles at him, “I’m Scott.” 

 

“Hey Scott, nice to meet you, I’m Steve. You’re a sophomore?”

 

“Yeah, should be a junior, but my credits didn’t transfer right when I moved here from San Francisco, so I’m stuck being an underclassman.”

 

“Oh, sorry about that.” 

 

“No biggie.” The kids pauses and leans in with a knowing smirk, “It’s no skin off my back.” Steve’s stares at him for a second, his mouth parts in surprise at the bluntness of the joke and the kid looks at him, eyes wide as if he’s worried he’s gone too far. But Steve feels a laugh bubble out of him and suddenly he’s bending over, clutching at his stomach as he laughs and laughs. 

 

He finally settles down, sinking onto the wooden bench in between the lockers. “Oh wow, that’s a good one. I’m gunna use that on my friends later.” 

 

Scott grins at him and looks relieved, “thought you might like that.” 

 

Steve looks at him curiously, “you knew I’d laugh?” 

 

The kid tilts his head back and forth, “well… I wouldn’t say that I knew for sure, but I had a feeling. Humor helps work through some bad stuff.” 

 

“Bad stuff?” Steve asks, “you speak from experience?” 

 

The kid bites the inside of his cheek, “let’s just say that I was glad when people allowed me to joke about the bad stuff that had happened to me instead of being doom and gloom all the time. I figured…” he looks at Steve, squinting one eye and pointing at his back, “that not many people try to find humor in something like that. Thought I’d give it a go.” 

 

Steve feels the tension ebb out of his shoulders, he looks at Scott and smiles. “Thanks. You’re right. It did help.” 

 

Scott grins at him and gives a salute, “anytime. You need some macabre humor? I’m your guy. Scott Lang at your service.” 

 

Steve stands and extends a hand. “Steve Rogers, I’ll keep you that in mind.” 

 

Scott disappears and Steve closes his locker, grabbing his backpack and shrugging it onto his shoulder. He leaves the locker room and runs almost smack dab into the coach. 

 

“Hey, Steve.” 

 

“Hey, Coach.” 

 

The man, who obviously has never been in this situation in his life, scrunches his ball cap between his large hands and looks at Steve seriously. “I just wanted to make sure I spoke with you about today.” 

 

Steve looks at him, “okay… what did you want to talk about?” 

 

“Just…” Another long pause.

 

“Yes?” 

 

“Good job out there today.” The coach says in a rush, clapping him on the shoulder and disappearing into his office. Steve rolls his eyes and walks down the hallway. 

 

———

 

It does not surprise Steve that Natasha walks into his history class and politely asks the teacher if she can borrow him.

 

 “His dad is calling from the office.” 

 

The teacher nods and the smile Natasha gives him as she’s watching him gather his stuff makes him dread the conversation to come. 

 

They make it out the hallway and past two classrooms before she rounds on him and is jabbing a finger in his face. “Steve! What the hell! Everyone’s talking about it! What were you thinking! I thought you weren’t even supposed to be in PE! And the next thing I know, one of the girls in my class is describing your scars in morbid detail!” 

 

“So Sam isn’t trying to call me.” He says flatly. 

 

“Steve, this is serious!”

 

He shoves his arms across his chest, “oh, is it?” 

 

She huffs at him, “what is going on with you? You’ve been in such a bad mood lately!” 

 

“Sorry.” He says through gritted teeth, “I’ll try to be more cheery for you.” The acid in his tone makes her recoil in surprise. He feels his phone buzz in his pocket. Then buzz again. Then again. He knows who it is without looking.

 

Natasha grabs her own phone and looks down. “He’s pissed.” 

 

Steve groans, throwing his hands out in an annoyed manner, “So freaking what! He’s always pissed. He’s always mad at what I do.” 

 

Natasha scowls, “you mean he’s mad about your lack of self-preservation. This isn't helping your case, Steve! Do you want to be a target? Think about Tony and Howard! How hard they worked to keep this a secret! So you could be a normal kid!” 

 

“I’m not a kid.” He seethes. 

 

She rolls her eyes, “touchy-touchy. You know what I meant.” 

 

“Is Sam on the phone or not?”

 

“No.” 

 

He turns and stomps away from her, walking back into his class. 

 

————

 

He tells the teacher he isn’t feeling well, and she looks at him with a knowing look that makes him want to vomit. She nods and he slips out of his last class a few minutes early. It’s not technically a lie. He feels like garbage. That and the fact that everyone is staring at him. 

 

Word had spread quick and for the last two classes he’s had eyes on his back everywhere he’s gone. 

 

He’s been able to avoid Bucky so far, taking hallways he doesn't usually take and keeping an eye out and ducking into the nearest room when he sees him. 

 

But he knows he’s going to hear it on the walk home. So he decides to be a coward and leave early. Avoid it all together.

 

He slips down the hallway, changes out his books from his locker and leaves the building just as the final bell is ringing.

 

———

 

He’s sitting on the subway, and he’s mad. 

 

He’s mad at the coach. 

 

He’s mad at his classmates. 

 

But mostly he’s mad at himself. 

 

It’s his own damn fault. 

 

And his stupid temper. 

 

Or what Natasha described as his bad mood. 

 

Something he’s never struggled with before. 

 

Not until three weeks ago. 

 

During his last check up with his doctor.

 

But they didn’t know about that. 

 

Only Howard and Sam did. 

 

And he’d told them he didn’t want them telling anyone. 

 

They’d given him concerned looks but he’d stood firm. Telling them that it was his business and they didn’t have the right to share it. 

 

They’d looked at him with such pity it had made him sick. 

 

But they’d kept their promise. 

 

And now Bucky and Natasha, and even Clint who he sees a lot less, keeps asking him what’s wrong. 

 

He kept shrugging them off. It’s nothing. It’s nothing. It’s nothing. 

 

I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. 

 

Liar. Liar. Liar. 

 

————-

 

Chapter Text

Steve wastes no time going upstairs, dropping off his things, leaving his phone on his bed, and disappearing back out the doors after telling Sam he’d be ‘back later’. 

 

Brown eyes follow him as he walks out the door but he ignores them.

 

He hates that he and Sam’s relationship has been strained the past couple weeks. 

 

Steve and Sam have grown incredibly close. The two have bonded over the course of the last few years and Steve thanks his lucky stars everyday that Sam came into his life. Into the house. 

 

The kids are all flourishing. Getting enough food, going to school with clothes that actually fit and protect them in the winter. They get medical care when they’re sick, and even toys at Christmas. 

 

Steve remembers the kids' faces (and his own) when they’d walked down the stairs that first day of Christmas break to find a tree and the house all decorated. The kids had stared at the twinkling lights all day, and Sam and Sarah had taken them to each pick out their own favorite ornament from a local shoppe. 

 

The pure joy on Christmas morning when not only delicious food was waiting for them, but presents. Actual presents. 

 

He watched as Peter opened a box that had a mini robot in the shape of a spider. It was programmed (by Tony) to follow Peter around and even climb up and around him. Peter had giggled as the spider had scurried up his legs around his stomach and onto his shoulder. 

 

Pietro had gotten a new skateboard, and Wanda had gotten a box set of I Love Lucy , which they spent all the next few days watching and laughing as a family. 

 

Steve’s throat constricts at the memory. He’d gotten a laptop and a new mattress. He’d tried to tell them that that was way too much, but Sam insisted on the laptop for school, and Howard had insisted that with his joints in the state that they’re in, that the mattress was more for Howard’s peace of mind than Steve’s comfort. Steve had never slept so well. 

 

The next Christmas had been even bigger. But Steve was proud of his siblings. They'd all opened their gifts and been quick to share, and play with others. Steve watched as the kids settled into a new routine of being loved and cared for. 

 

Everything had been going great. Amazing. No one at school had even made the connection about him, the kids were taken care of, he had friends who genuinely cared for him, and something of a future. 

 

Funny he should use the phrase Lucky Stars.

 

——

 

Steve wiggles through the slats in the fence. Entering the old abandoned Church yard and walking past the gravestones sinking into the ground. He’s careful to not step on any of the plots. He makes it to the scaffolding and hauls himself up. He’d been getting taller. A bit.  And the consistent nutrition from getting enough sleep, enough to eat, and not being abused had really started to help him. He’d been happy. 

 

He’d gotten his hopes up. 

 

Which… Following the trajectory of his life had been a foolish thing to do. 

 

He slips up the layers, avoiding the rusted spots and disintegrating boards. They’d been renovating this church and ran out of money. Now it sits on the plot, boarded up and half finished. Clint had showed him it one day, a place for a guy to think when things get tough. 

 

Things had been tough. 

 

So here he was. 

 

He gets to the top level, and carefully hauls himself over the thick stone wall into the bell tower. He clambers into it and then sits on the ledge, the bell behind him as he gazes out onto the city. 

 

——-

 

6 Months Prior

 

“What’s that?” Wanda asks, pointing at the underside of his arm. 

 

He looks down at where he’s scratching and shrugs. “I dunno. Appeared yesterday.”

 

“You should tell Sam.” 

 

He looks at it. “Yeah, maybe.” 

 

He doesn’t. It goes away. 

 

———

 

5 Months Prior

 

“Ugh.” Steve groans, “my stomach hurts.” 

 

Bucky laughs, “probably shouldn’t have eaten 6 pieces of french toast.” 

 

Steve huffs a laugh and groans again, “you’re probably right.” 

 

The stomach ache lasts for days. 

 

He’s about to tell Sam when it goes away. So he doesn’t.

 

————

 

4 Months Prior

 

Steve’s out at the park with the kids when his stomach rolls. He feels nauseous and light headed and barely makes it to a bush before he’s puking. 

 

He stares at the pile of throw up. 

 

It’s red. 

 

He tells himself that it’s because they had spaghetti for lunch. 

 

None of the kids have noticed his absence. He rejoins them to play. 

 

——-

 

3 Months Prior

 

Steve begins to notice that his stomach ache never truly goes away. He starts eating less. Feigning not being as hungry. He starts to shrink again. 

 

He’s over at Bucky’s when he knows he’s going to throw up. He excuses himself to the bathroom and turns on the sink. 

 

He vomits as quietly as he can. The toilet bowl fills red and he grimaces. He hadn’t had anything red today. 

 

He stares at the blood and the bile and tries not to let the growing knot of dread overtake him. 

 

He comes back home and Sam immediately asks if he’s okay.  Steve says he is. 

 

——-

 

2 Months Prior

 

The rash reappears but it’s on his back. No one ever expects him to have his shirt off. So he easily avoids questions. 

 

He googles his symptoms and feels bogged down by what it could be. The sheer fear of even the possibility of it being one of the listed diseases keeps him from mentioning anything. 

 

It goes away. 

 

——-

 

1 Month Prior

 

He’s tired. All the time. Feels like he’s not getting enough sleep even though he finds himself sleeping more. 

 

He falls asleep on the couch on his birthday. Bucky wakes him up a few times, then finally drags him off the couch for their now yearly tradition.

 

They sit on Bucky’s roof, watching the fireworks and listening to Steve’s favorite playlist. He takes a bite of peach pie and feels his stomach lurch. 

 

He gently rests the fork on the plate and just listens as Natasha and Clint argue about something. He can’t really focus on what they’re saying. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

He jolts awake and looks at them, “what?” 

 

Tony laughs, jabbing his own fork at him. “You’re such an old man, Steve, falling asleep before midnight?” 

 

Bucky looks at him, “you’ve been falling asleep all day. You need to sleep more.” 

 

Steve laughs weakly and nods. “Yeah, I think I do.” He desperately tries to keep his eyes open. When he makes it back to his bed, he sleeps like the dead. 

 

———-

 

Three Weeks and 4 Days Prior

 

Steve wakes up in the middle of the night. His stomach cramps and he clutches at it. He takes several deep breaths, trying to be quiet to not wake the others. 

 

Then it churns and he knows something’s wrong. He slips out of bed, pads to the bathroom and gets to the toilet just in time to vomit. 

 

It’s red again. 

 

He sits back and waits, experience tells him that the still present churning in his stomach means another round of—

 

Yep. He vomits more blood and then settles weakly against the bathtub. 

 

He falls asleep there. 

 

Pounding on the door wakes him up. 

 

He startles awake and looks around, confused and bleary eyed. The toilet full of blood catches his eyes and he flushes it quickly. 

 

“Steve? Steve! Open this door!” It’s Sam and he sounds panicked. Steve groggily gets to his feet and it’s a good thing he looks at the mirror because there’s dried blood on his chin. He scrubs at it quickly before unlocking the door. 

 

Sam looks at him, panic on his face, “Steve? What happened? Are you okay?” 

 

Steve blinks, trying to stay calm, “huh? Oh, yeah, I’m fine. Just using the bathroom. What’s up?” 

 

“Steve! I’ve been banging on the door for 5 minutes!” 

 

Steve winces, “sorry.” 

 

“Don’t ‘sorry’ me, Steve. You don’t need to apologize. I just want to know what happened?” 

 

“Just felt sick.” Steve admits. “I threw up and I got tired and accidentally fell asleep here.” 

 

“You felt sick?”

 

“Yeah.” Sam’s eyes shift, the panic lessening but concern growing. 

 

“How do you feel now?” 

 

“I feel fine.” 

 

Sam’s voice is slow as he inspects Steve, “Maybe it was something you ate?” 

 

Steve shrugs. “Maybe.” 

 

———



Three Weeks and 3 Days Prior

 

Steve and Peter are building legos when he feels a wave of exhaustion roll over him. 

 

He yawns and closes his eyes just for a second—

 

“Steve?” 

 

He blinks awake and looks at the face above him. Sam. 

 

“Steve, you with me?” 

 

“Uh-hmm. Yeah, what’s up?” 

 

“Peter said you fell asleep.” 

 

Steve looks around, he’s on the floor of the living room, back against the couch. “Huh. Yeah. I guess I did.” 

 

Sam is watching him. “You’ve been really tired the last couple months.” 

 

Steve says nothing. 

 

“You feeling okay?”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Just… I think the thing yesterday tired me out.” 

 

Sam looks at Peter who is sitting there watching Steve, a worried look on his face. 

 

“What thing?” Peter asks. 

 

Steve smiles, “just ate something bad. Made my stomach all gross.” He mimes throwing up all over Peter and it has the desired effect. The kid giggles and shrieks and Steve laughs with him. Steve looks up at Sam and smiles, “see? All good.” 

 

He catches Sam watching him throughout dinner and the next day.

 

——

 

Three Weeks and 1 Day Prior

 

They’re at the supermarket. Sam’s picking out stuff for the next couple days and Steve’s helping. He enjoys helping in the kitchen, so Sam and him plan a menu and he helps when he can. 

 

He’s debating between smoked Gouda or regular Gouda when he feels it again. It’s sudden and he lurches past Sam. “I’ll be right back.” He chokes out. 

 

He can feel Sam watching him as he dodges around a corner and pushes into the mens’ room. He’s not going to make it to the toilet. He groans and lurches for the sink. Blood and bile and chunks of whatever he ate for breakfast reappearing. 

 

The acid burns and his eyes water. 

 

“Shit.” He curses, looking at the mess. Blood drips down his chin, and he wipes it away with his hand. He looks at the sink. Most of it made it into the bowl of the sink, but maybe ⅕ cover the counter and the floor. 

 

He grabs a bunch of paper towels and is starting to clean it up when he hears the hinges of the door squeak. 

 

“Ste—“ 

 

He looks up to see Sam’s reflection in the mirror. Except Sam’s not looking at him. His eyes are focused on the bright red contrasting against the porcelain white. 

 

Steve winces and turns to face Sam. “Sam, I’ll be out in a minute, okay?” 

 

“What the hell.” Sam says, his voice only a rasp. 

 

“Sam, I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.” Steve steps a bit to the side, trying to block the sink from Sam’s view. 

 

“Steve, what the hell, man!” Sam steps forward, looking at the sink and holding a hand over his mouth. “You’re vomiting blood!?” He looks at Steve and his eyes widen, “since when!?” 

 

All Steve can manage is a weak, “huh?” 

 

Sam’s eyes clench closed. “Steve, how long have you been vomiting blood?” 

 

“I don’t know.” 

 

“Don’t bullshit me, Steve. How. Long.” 

 

Steve closes his eyes. His voice is small and quiet.“A few months.” The choked sound Sam makes causes Steve to wince. “Sorry, I’m sorry.” He feels his throat constrict and Sam’s eyes open back up. Furious and sad and agonized. 

 

“Steve, why didn’t you tell me?” 

 

Steve scrubs a hand through his hair and immediately regrets it. The wet foul-smelling blood marking him red. He looks up at Sam and everything he’s been hiding for the past 6 months overwhelms him. “I was scared.” He rasps. He shoves his head in his clean hand and starts to cry.

 

He feels Sam wrap his arms around him, not caring about the blood of the smell and he cries harder. 

 

———

 

Sam sneaks Steve into the house and into the shower before anyone can see him and ask why he looks like he’s been in a horror movie. 

 

——

 

Three Weeks Prior

 

Steve sits on the exam bed and his feet swing softly. He watches as Sam watches the door and he feels guilt. 

 

He should have told him. 

 

The door opens and Steve feels his back go ramrod straight. 

 

“What is it, Doc?” Sam asks.

 

The doctor looks at Sam, and then looks at Steve, and it’s the sheer volume of the silence that tells Steve that this isn’t going to be good. 

 

——-

 

AutoImmune Hepatitis.

 

“I thought…” Steve starts, “Hepatitis? I thought…” 

 

The doctor nods. “Maybe usually or most commonly, but with your medical history… I think it was triggered by measles, or…” he looks at Sam, then back at Steve. “Environmental factors… Stress… Malnutrition… infections, viruses, it can also be genetic.” The doctor sighs. “I’m very sorry.” 

 

Sam looks stunned, unable to speak or blink or do anything. So Steve takes a deep breath and asks what he needs to ask. “Is it terminal?” 

 

The doctor’s eyes get sad. “Well… When caught early there are plenty of treatments that can be done to help slow the disease.” 

 

Steve doesn’t miss the clarification. “Was mine caught early?” 

 

“You said you first started feeling symptoms 6 months ago?” 

 

Steve nods. 

 

“That is pretty early…” 

 

“But?” It’s Sam this time. He hears the pause in the doctor’s statement. “It’s pretty early… but?” 

 

The doctor winces. “All the treatments prescribed for this disease… Would negatively affect your heart. The medication we would prescribe would lower your immune system and probably bring up a whole host of problems considering your medical history. Not to mention with your joints in the state they are…” 

 

Steve tunes out— The doctor’s speaking about other reasons why the ways to help the disease would harm him in the long run. 

 

“What about a liver transplant?” Sam asks, bringing him out of his reverie. 

 

The doctor pushes his tongue against the side of his mouth. “You have to understand…” He looks at Steve and the sorrow in them is genuine and Steve feels his lungs constrict. “The board looks at the viability of each patient and decides whether they get a liver by priority.” His lips purse and he sighs deeply through his nose. “Your heart… and your lungs… and your joints… and everything else makes not only surgery difficult, it makes it dangerous.” He looks at Sam, “And the worst and most unfair part of this is… That because of your medical history, you’d be unlikely to be considered a ‘viable candidate’.” 

 

Steve closes his eyes. He wants to go. He wants to be out of here. He needs to leave. 

 

“You’re saying that this “board” of people would say Steve doesn’t deserve a liver?”

 

“This is not an issue of deserving. I know it sounds horrible, but they will look at two charts and pick the one they think will survive with the new liver the longest. Because of Steve’s exasperated heart condition, he simply wouldn’t be chosen. I know you have big connections… but getting him a new liver won’t solve the problem. He’ll still carry this disease, most likely for the rest of his life.”

 

“I’m right here.” Steve rasps out. “Rest of my life.” 

 

The doctor nods, “my apologies.  I don’t mean to sound uncaring. I can’t imagine how difficult this is to hear, I just want to be honest about your chances. I’m not in the business of giving false hope. I want you to be prepared—“ 

 

“Prepared for what?” Sam asks, cutting him off.

 

The doctor points his pen at Steve. “You’ll have to decide what direction you want to go. Medication to help this will most likely cause harm to your heart. Focusing on your heart, will allow these symptoms to continue, to worsen.” 

 

“This is some sort of sick joke.” Sam snaps. “Not after everything. Not now.” 

 

“Worsen how?” Steve asks. 

 

“Fatigue, chronic abdominal issues, cirrhosis of the liver, glaucoma, blindness, especially in your eyes that are already weak.” Steve’s fist clench. Weak. “Yellowing of the eyes and skin as the liver shuts down.” 

 

“Stop.” Sam says. “Please stop.” 

 

“How long?” 

 

Sam’s eyes whip to his but he doesn't look over. He stares at the doctor, waiting for an answer. 

 

“It’s difficult to say, a prognosis with this many variables is—“

 

“HOW LONG!” Steve shouts, jumping off the table and voice cracking. “With my heart it was 30, but now with this?! Just tell me. Just tell me so I know. I need to know.” 

 

The doctor looks down at his chart and sighs heavily. “I would estimate… If we find the right balance of medication… or if you are able to get a liver or…” he looks up at Steve and his eyes are tight as he tells Steve his guess. 

 

5 years. 

 

Five. 

 

  1.  

 

He’ll be 22 when he’s dead. 

 

The car ride home is silent. 

 

——-

 

Sam asks when he’s going to tell the others. Steve glares at him and tells him that he’s not.

 

“Steve—“

 

“Sam.” 

 

“Why?” 

 

“You know why.” 

 

“Steve—“

 

“NO.” Steve snaps. “You see the way they treat me already, like a toddler that has to be babysat constantly! I get it, they love me, they want to help, they did, they do. But how would they help this, huh? How would knowing this help them? It wouldn’t.” He grinds out. “It would just make all of them miserable like it’s already made you miserable.” 

 

“I’m not—“

 

“Sam. I get it. You got dealt the shitty cards of having to take care of me, the kid who has more issues than a magazine company, but I don’t have any control over that.“ Sam looks angry and about to protest but Steve keeps talking, something cold and calm and accepting falling over him. “I actually have very little control over my life in general, especially when it comes to my health.” He points at his heart, “you know how many tests Howard has run? How many vials of blood he’s drawn? I know he’s trying to help. I want his help. But… It makes me feel like I’m a lab rat running the same stupid maze over and over again and there’s no prize at the end. Just another trap. I had to beg him to take a break, to let me have a couple months where I didn’t have to be in that lab every week.” Sam’s jaw is tight and Steve sighs, “I’m really sorry, I hate that you have to know. I wish you didn’t. I wish I could just have no one know so that no one is miserable, but it’s too late for that. So please. Please. It’s my life. It’s my right to not want them to know this. When I don’t have a choice or if they find out… then fine. But until then… Let me live the next few…” He cuts off, his throat getting tight, but he pushes on, “however long I have without them treating me like I’m made of glass. Okay?” 

 

“Steve, man, you gotta—“

 

“Sam. It’s my choice. It’s not your business to tell. You’re really going to take that choice away from me?” It’s a low blow, and he sees Sam grimace at it. But it’s effective. 

 

“I won’t say.  But let the record state that I think you should.” 

 

“You promise?” 

 

“I promise, Steve.” 

 

“Thank you.”

 

——-

 

2 & ½ Weeks Prior



He and some of the other kids are sitting out on the steps of the house when a car comes peeling up to the front. 

 

Howard. 

 

Steve internally groans. Howard has been out of town for the last week. 

 

He watches as Howard steps out of his car and looks right at Steve. A wild expression in his eyes. 

 

“Get in the car now.” 

 

“Howard—“

 

“Steve, so help me god, if you do not get in this car right this minute I will—“

 

“Okay!” Steve snaps, standing up. He looks back at Pietro who is staring at him in confusion. “Can you go tell Sam that Howard picked me up?” Pietro nods and Steve walks slowly to the car, sliding into the front seat. 

 

——-

 

“Steve.” Howards voice is tight and angry. 

 

Steve says nothing. 

 

“Tell me why I get a ping from a doctor’s appointment that I had no knowledge of.“ he glares at Steve and then puts his eyes back on the road. 

 

Steve’s irritation shows through his voice, “because I went to the doctor’s.”

 

Howard slams on the brakes and they squeal to a stop. “Steve, you’ve been vomiting blood for four months!” His knuckles are white on the steering wheel. 

 

“So.” 

 

Realization dawns on Howard, “is that why you asked to take a break from doing tests?”  Steve winces and Howard sees. “SHIT.” He slams his palm against the steering wheel and glares out at the road. “WHY!” He sounds angry and sad. “Why keep this from us?” 

 

Steve’s voice is bitter, “because seeing Sam, and now you, react to it has been so much fun.” Wide eyes turn towards him and he can feel the concern at his attitude rolling off Howard in waves. “Sorry.” He snaps. 

 

“I’m starting the tests back up.” 

 

“Howard—“

 

“Steve. I’m not giving up. Why are you?” 

 

“I”m not.” Steve growls. “I’m not.”

 

“Good.” Howard starts driving again. “My house. Tomorrow afternoon.” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Steve.” 

 

“No, school’s going to start soon, and the bruising the needles cause is hard to hide.” 

 

“I won’t draw more blood.” Howard pleads, “I’ll do other tests.” 

 

“Howard—“ 

 

“Steve, please.” 

 

“Howard.” Steve says sharply, then he takes a deep breath and softens his voice. “I know you made that promise in the hospital. But it’s okay. I never held you to it, okay? Emotions were running high and we all said stuff we didn’t mean.” He remembers Bucky filling him in on his drug-addled speech from that night a year later. “You don’t owe anything to me. In fact, I owe a lot more to you, so don’t worry about it. Promise forgotten.” 

 

——

 

 

Howard has never been so silent. He doesn’t respond. Just drives the car in a square until he pulls back up in front of the house. 

 

Howard still hasn’t said anything and Steve makes a move to exit the car. 

 

A hand grabs his arm gently and he looks back to Howard whose face is pure agony. 

 

“Please, Steve. Please. Let me try. I have to try. I have to.” 

 

Steve looks out at the kids who are still sitting and talking and playing on the stairs. 

 

“Fine. I’ll do it for you. On one condition.” 

 

“Anything.” Howard says quickly. 

 

“You don’t tell anyone about this.” 

 

Howard’s eyes widen, “what? No. You—“ 

 

Steve glares at him, “that’s my condition. You want me as your lab rat? Fine.” Howard winces at his words, but Steve doesn't stop. “But if I do that, then you have no right to tell anyone else about this. Nothing. The minute you tell them? Tests over. I’m done. Got it?” 

 

Howards face is pinched and jaw tight as he looks at Steve. 

 

“Well?” Steve growls. “What’ll it be?” 

 

“Fine.” Howard hisses out. “I’ll see you at my house tomorrow. 3p.m. Sharp.” Steve nods firmly and exits the car. 

 

He steps back and Howard takes off. 

 

————-

 

Present

 

The afternoon breeze makes him shiver, and he tugs his coat around him tighter. 

 

He’s only been there for maybe 20 minutes when he hears a creak. 

 

He sighs. Crap. 

 

Not minutes later a hand reaches over the ledge and pulls itself up. 

 

Blonde hair and a calm face appear. 

 

“Hey Clint.” Steve says, turning back to look out at the city. 

 

“Hey Steve.” 

 

There’s silence as Clint settles next to him. He takes out a safety pin he has in his pocket and tosses it behind him. The bell makes a tiny ‘ding’ sound and Clint smiles. 

 

“So.” Clint starts. 

 

Steve is silent. 

 

“Tough day?” 

 

“Let’s not pretend Bucky hasn’t told everyone.” 

 

Clint nods, his head dipping up and down comically. “Haven’t heard him cuss this much in awhile.” He doesn’t respond. He imagines his phone buzzing so much it falls off the bed. 

 

“That why you left your phone at the house?” Clint asks as if sensing his thoughts. 

 

Steve glares at Clint. “Puh-lease. Let’s also not pretend that Tony can’t track me using that. Even if I had turned it off, he would have found me.” 

 

“And you don’t wanna be found?” 

 

“No.” 

 

Steve doesn’t miss the way the hurt flashes across Clint’s face. Guilt blooms in his chest and he apologizes. “No. I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t mind you.” 

 

Clint smiles, “oh yeah? Cuz, I’m more chill than them?” 

 

Steve smiles back, “no. Because you want to respect my privacy.” 

 

Clint flinches and Steve smirks. Gotcha.

 

“Oof. Low blow, Rogers.” 

 

He looks out and leans his head on his hands. “So. Whatcha need Clint?” 

 

The waves of concern roll off Clint. Steve can feel the question right on the tip of Clint’s tongue. But he doesn’t look. He just stares at the city that he’s grown up in as it prepares for the evening. 

 

“Nothin’.” Clint finally huffs out. “Just missed you. Haven't seen you in awhile.” 

 

“I saw you yesterday.” Steve snaps. 

 

“Yikes. Am I coming on too strong? You want some space? It’s you, not me?” 

 

“Shut the hell up, Clint.” 

 

“Make me, Steve.” 

 

“Go away.” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Did you tell Bucky and Natasha where I am? Are they going to climb up here too and ruin the one place that I can have some peace? Barring this moment obviously?” 

 

Clint’s eyes get sad. Guilt blooms again. There’s that bad mood Natasha’s talking about. 

 

“Sorry.” He says softly, “you know I didn’t mean that.” 

 

Clint looks at him, eyebrows furrowed. “Maybe you did.” 

 

Steve sets his face in the crook of his elbow and whispers, “maybe I did.” 

 

He whispers it quietly. But Clint must have heard because when he looks up a few minutes later. He’s gone. 

 

————-

 

Chapter Text

3 Months Prior

 

Bucky leans back against his roof, summer had just begun and they were hanging out at his house, enjoying the warmth of the sun. 

 

Clint was half asleep on one of the ratty beach chairs they’d hauled up here a year ago, and Natasha was tapping on her phone. 

 

Bucky closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Steve would be here shortly, and Tony couldn’t make it, some MIT internship. 

 

Bucky thinks about asking… he isn’t sure if it’s just been him who has noticed. 

 

“Guys?” 

 

He doesn't look at them, but he knows they’ve turned to listen, “you guys notice anything about Steve… recently?” 

 

“Like what?” 

 

“He’s tired a lot.” Bucky responds to Clint’s question. Natasha sighs, looking out over the edge of the roof towards Steve’s house. 

 

“He’s been kind of quiet in the house lately.” 

 

There’s a silence and Bucky can feel Clint staring at them, “what happened?” 

 

Bucky shrugs, “I dunno… maybe… Maybe he’s just going through a teenager phase.” 

 

“He’s entitled to it.” Clint says crisply. “He’s got a crap ton to deal with.” 

 

“You know he stopped going to Howard’s?”

 

Bucky and Clint immediately turn to Natasha, “What?” Bucky almost shouts.

 

Natasha grimaces, “I don’t think I’m supposed to know… I… I may have overheard him telling Sam that he was going to take a break like a month and a half ago…” 

 

“Why didn’t you tell us!” Clint huffs, “why did he stop?” 

 

Natasha sighs heavily, “I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure how long the break would last… and if I’d been a human pincushion like him, I’d ask for a break too… you guys saw the bruises and stuff on his arms.” 

 

They grow quiet and soon enough they hear Bucky’s back door creak open and the metal of the fire escape creak. 

 

The soft footfalls tell them who it is without having to look. 

 

“Hey guys,” Steve says to them softly, sitting in the chair next to Clint. “Can’t believe it’s finally summer!” 

 

They nod and the conversation continues on topics of how they plan to spend it. 

 

——-

 

1 Month Prior 

 

They stare as Steve falls asleep before their very eyes.

 

No one speaks. Just stare at the kid whose hand dangles off the arm of the chair, a fork held between bony fingers, a practically untouched peach pie perched precariously on his lap. 

 

The soft music of Steve’s favorite playlist fills the roof, since they just stare in silence. 

 

“He’s not eating much.” Natasha whispers. “Yelena and I watch him at dinner and he mostly shoves the food around on his plate.” 

 

“He fell asleep on me yesterday when we were playing video games.” Bucky adds softly. “Why is he so tired?” 

 

Tony looks at Steve and his eyes blink slowly, “my guess? And I’m no medical doctor… it’s gotta be his heart. Tires him out. Takes a lot of energy out of him. It’s working really hard to keep up with his body…”

 

“What body?” Clint hisses, “he’s a skeleton. He was gaining weight, looking more filled out and suddenly we’re back to this?” Clint points at the sharp angles at Steve’s wrist. 

 

Tony’s face is pinched as he speaks, “think about it. Kid is born with the defect right? So his body is already starting at a weaker point. Then you heard the doctor rattle off the list of ailments he had before witch lady got a hold of him. Scarlett Fever weakens the heart and so do a bunch of other viruses that he’s probably had. Add that on top of malnutrition, abuse, stress? I’m surprised he’s lasted this long. If the doctor says 30–“ His voice cuts off and his jaw is tightly clenched for minute, “technically, if he was in perfect health other than his heart… he’d make it to 30… but he isn’t and at this rate—“ he swallows thickly, “he won’t.” 

 

“Your dad’s going to fix him right?” Natasha asks quietly, desperation in her tone. 

 

“I wouldn’t bet against him.” Tony responds, his eyes on Steve, “but this isn’t a machine. Steve’s not a robot whose parts you can just replace…” 

 

Steve shifts and they go quiet. 



———

 

2&½ Weeks Ago

 

“Something’s happened.” 

 

Bucky and Clint stop what they’re doing and look up to find Natasha standing over them, hands wrapped for climbing. 

 

“What?” Clint asks, standing up and flexing his fingers. 

 

She frowns, “I dunno, not exactly. Steve’s—-“ 

 

Bucky looks at her, something constricting in his chest, “Steve’s what?”

 

She grimaces, “He’s… cranky. I know that sounds stupid. But when you have a kid as nice and polite as Steve… you notice a change.” 

 

“What changed?” Bucky let’s go of the carabiners he’d been inspecting. They shuffle to the wooden benches that line the fake turf on the ground. Natasha is staring at Clint’s T-shirt, designating him as an employee, screams CLIMB ON! In bright neon yellow against a black backdrop. 

 

“He…” she groans, rubbing at her eyes, “this sounds so stupid. I don’t know. It’s not like he’s done anything specific… he’s just… cranky .” 

 

“Not exactly a crime.” Clint says calmly, walking away to help someone who needs assistance. 

 

“What do you think?” Natasha asks Bucky, “you and he get along the best, you think he’s acting normal?” 

 

“What the hell is normal for Steve? He’s dealing with a lot. I’d be way more of a mess than he is. I think we can give him some leeway for being slightly cranky.” 

 

She doesn’t respond. 



———-

 

Present  

 

Bucky sits in the library during his study hall. His earphones in as he stares at the Pre-Calc book in front of him. He blinks and feels his eyes go a bit heavy. He’d been up late talking to—-

 

He feels a blush warm under his collar and he shakes his head. Focus.  

 

He feels eyes on him and he glances up, two pairs slide away from him quickly and he thinks nothing of it. 

 

Then it happens again. 

 

And again. 

 

He narrows his eyes and waits this time, staring in the direction of the two boys who are whispering heatedly. Finally they glance at him again and he catches them in the act. He glares at them, taking out his headphones, “you need something?” 

 

They gape at him and the teacher glances up, only to look back down at their computer. 

 

“Take a picture.” Bucky says crisply, “it’ll last longer.” 

 

Then one actually pipes up, “You’re uh— You’re friends with that junior right? Steve?” 

 

Bucky feels his mind go on alert, “yeah? Why?” 

 

They light up, faces in awe and they quickly shuffle over, sitting in the seats across from him. Bucky leans back, startled by their enthusiasm.

 

“Were you there? When he got ‘em?”

 

Bucky’s brow furrows, “huh?” 

 

“I googled his name, and he popped right up. Was it really Tony Stark who ordered the hit on him?” 

 

Blood is rushing through Bucky’s ears and he can’t remember how to breathe. 

 

“You okay dude??” One of them asks. 

 

Bucky leans forward and grabs one of the kid’s collars, pulling him closer, “tell me exactly what happened.” 

 

The kid’s eyes go wide but he just starts mumbling, “I-in soccer. We had to play soccer, coach made Steve be skins—“ Bucky feels his heart start to beat faster. He lets go of the kids collar, standing up, mind racing.

 

Oh no. 

 

“WHY.” Bucky shouts, “WHY DID THE COACH MAKE HIM?” 

 

“Mr. Barnes, please be quiet.” The teacher admonishes. 

 

Bucky practically vibrates with fury, why the hell was Steve in PE at all? But he leans down, “tell me everything. From the beginning.” 

 

The kid is shrinking in his chair but he still speaks. “The coach assigned shirts and skins because the scrimmage jerseys aren’t in yet. And Steve tried to request to switch to shirts, but the coach—“ The kid swallows thickly and looks sheepish, like he doesn’t want to continue. 

 

Keep talking.” Bucky snarls. 

 

“The coach told Steve that he should be more body positive and not be ashamed to be skinny basically.” 

 

Bucky’s hands grip the table so hard the wood protests and the kid flinches. 

 

And .” Bucky growls, knowing that’s not the end of the story. 

 

“So Steve was…” he glances at his friend, “he was standing in the middle of the field and just yanked his shirt off, and we played.” 

 

Bucky’s eyes close, “and you’re the only one who noticed?” He says it quietly, almost like a wish.

 

“Uh.” The kids says haltingly, “no. It was real noticeable. Our whole team noticed immediately cuz we were standing behind him when he ripped his shirt off. Then the coach noticed pretty quickly after that and the game stopped. The coach tried to get him a shirt and Steve refused, which was pretty badass in my—“

 

“Don’t.” Bucky snaps, “don’t have an opinion.” 

 

The kid winces, “uh- yeah, anyways, we kept playing and that’s it.” 

 

Bucky rips out his phone. 

 

——-

 

He’s texted Steve 40 times. No response. He catches Natasha in the hallway who is already fuming. “He’s not responding to me either.” Natasha says, “I’m going to pull him out of his next class and talk to him.” 

 

“I hate that I have that stupid placement level test today in pre-calc!” Bucky groans, “forget it, I’ll be with you. They can place me at the base level, I don’t care.“

 

“No.” Natasha says firmly, “go take your test, you want to get into a higher course. We talked about this, it will be better for your college applications. I’ll talk to him, get the story straight and then you can talk to him when you get a chance.” 

 

Bucky hates it, but he agrees.

 

——

 

Except that idiot gives both of them the slip. And when they get to his house, Sam just looks at them with sad eyes and says “he took off right when he got home.” 

 

“Where’d he go?” 

 

“I don’t know… What happened?” 

 

“Nothing.” Natasha says quickly, “we’ll be back.” They leave the house quickly and walk around the corner. 

 

“SON OF A BITCH.” Bucky shouts, slamming the back door of his house as they exit into the yard. 

 

“Bucky.” Natasha admonishes, “you’re lucky your folks and Becca aren’t home.”

 

“What was he thinking?” He growls, “on so many levels. Why was he in PE? Why did he agree to take his shirt off? Why was he playing soccer?! That can’t be good for his heart! The strain!”

 

“He’s not a glass doll.” Natasha says crisply. 

 

Bucky grabs at his hair. “Why would he leave his phone? Why doesn't he want to talk to us?” 

 

That she has no answer to.

 

———

 

Bucky and Natasha sit on the steps. Waiting. 

 

Clint had returned and told them that Steve was… not okay but not in danger at the moment. Just… upset. Or… 

 

“You’re right. He’s really not himself.” Clint says softly, looking at Natasha. 

 

She just nods. She’d asked Sam a few days ago what he thought and the look that had crossed Sam’s face had been unreadable. 

 

“Talk to him yourself.” He’d said, lips pursed. 

 

“I don’t know what’s changed.” She says. 

 

After a while Clint had to go to an evening class. They promise to keep him updated. 

 

The street lights have just started to come on when they spot him. Walking painfully slowly around the corner. Almost limping, but stiffly. His joints have not been improving. 

 

They watch his slow approach and Natasha puts a hand on Bucky’s arm, “stay calm. He’ll shut you out if you yell.” 

 

Bucky clenches his teeth but he nods. 

 

——-

 

Steve sees them and grimaces. He nods at them in greeting, “hey guys.” Before attempting to walk past them on the steps. 

 

A hand grabs his and he looks down to see Natasha’s hand grasping his. “Steve? Please, don’t—“ she looks at him, radiating concern, “please, talk to us.” 

 

Steve pulls his hand away, hating the thought of how his bony hands must feel against her soft ones, “talk about what?” 

 

“Steve. You know what.” Bucky says as he stands, and Steve can see that he’s practically shaking. Angry. 

 

Well that’s just freaking fantastic because he’s angry too.

 

“And what do you want to say?” Steve snaps, looking at them, “what? Huh?” It’s not the response they're expecting and they pull back in surprise. “You wanna tell me I shouldn’t have been in PE? Okay, I’ll quit. I’ll be the kid who got the doctor’s note and wimped out of PE. Especially after today. That’ll be just great. ” 

 

“Steve, no— We” 

 

“What?” Steve shouts, his temper flaring higher, “think I shouldn’t have taken off my shirt? That I should hide my body for the rest of my life? Not allowed to show it? That I made things harder for Tony and Howard?” Natasha winces at her words thrown back at her, “I didn’t ask for these scars, but I have them. They’re not going anywhere. And I’m sorry if the world doesn’t want to see them. If it makes life harder for you when people know about them. Feel free to leave me alone at school. Then you won’t have to deal with me and my choices at all.” He glares at them, takes in their stunned expressions and he hates himself. Hates the words and the way they make them feel. But he doesn’t relent. “I’ll see you guys later.” 

 

He turns and walks inside. Closing the door behind him. He’d done a lot of thinking after Clint had left him in that bell tower. Sam and Howard were miserable. They deny it, but it’s true. Everything they know about Steve weighs them down, and he absolutely refuses to do that to Bucky, and Natasha, and Tony, and Clint. 

 

So it’s better if he just creates some distance. Push them away. If he does a good enough job of it, then they won’t even be sad when he dies 8 years before they’re expecting him too. 

 

He gets up to his room and is about to lay down on his bed when Peter walks in from the bathroom. 

 

“Steve? You’re back? Where were you?” 

 

Peter.

 

Steve’s heart cracks. Peter’s eleven now and growing quickly. 

 

He realizes he may not even get to see Peter turn 16. 

 

He feels his chest constrict, “hey Peter. Sorry. I…” he doesn’t finish. He doesn’t know what he’d say. How does he even go about creating space between him and Peter? Or Wanda? Or Pietro? His siblings. 

 

Peter’s eyes stare back at him and he looks at Steve sadly, “why are you crying?” 

 

“Oh, buddy.” Steve says, wiping at his face roughly, “sorry. Just got a bit overwhelmed.” 

 

“By what?” 

 

“Just stuff.” They didn’t even know about his heart. He couldn’t bring himself to tell them. It was cowardice on his part. 

 

“You wanna… you wanna play legos?”  Steve feels exhaustion approaching and he shakes his head. 

 

“Maybe tomorrow, Peter. Okay?” 

 

The kid nods and Steve lays down on his bed. “Can you tell Sam I won’t need dinner? I ate already.” 

 

A lie. He’s doing that more. Lying. 

 

“Okay.” Comes Peter’s small voice as he leaves the room. 

 

And the answer is right there. Sam. Sure… He thinks they’ll be sad when he goes. But Sam and Sarah and Howard will be here to take care of all of them. So Steve can rest knowing they’ll never go hungry or without anything they need. 

 

No one needs him now that they’re around. But that’s good . Steve says, convincing himself. That’s good . Because he won’t be around for very long.

 

 —————

 

“Sir?” 

 

Howard looks up from his work bench and sees Jarvis standing at the glass door. 

 

“Yeah?” 

 

“Someone is trying to reach you from…” Jarvis hesitates, “I’m not exactly sure which site.” 

 

Howard nods, grabbing at the phone he has installed, “hello? This is Howard.” 

 

“Hello, Mr. Stark. We spoke a few years ago, and I wanted to call and give you an update?” 

 

Howard squints one eye, trying to remember, “Update?” 

 

“Yes, on the video.” 

 

“Video…?” 

 

“About Steve Rogers? The false news story that was spread.” 

 

“Oh.” Howard sits down on his stool, unease creeping in, “what’s the update?” 

 

“There was a large surge of views on the video today. Almost 300 in one day. It’s quite unusual. I wanted to let you know.” 

 

“Oh.” He says softly, “okay. Thanks.” 

 

“You’re very welcome.” 

 

The line goes dead and Howard sits there, unsure of what that could mean. He dials Tony’s number. 

 

—————

 

Steve hears his phone ring somewhere in the distance of his sleep-filled mind, but he can’t seem to pull himself out of the depths of half-consciousness. 

 

It vibrates again before falling silent. 

 

Steve pulls the covers tighter around him and falls back into sleep. 

 

———-

 

“Steve.” He grumbles and turns over, “Steve, buddy, you gotta get up.” 

 

He blinks awake and looks around, “what’s goin’ on?” 

 

Sam looks at him, eyes sad, “I was getting everyone else ready for school, thought you might have taken off early, but then I saw you didn’t grab your lunch or eat breakfast and I—“ Sam nods at the door, “Before he left, Peter told me you were still sleeping.” 

 

“Oh.” Steve sits up, rubbing at his eyes, “what time is it?” 

 

“7:25”

 

Steve stumbles out of bed, “oh my gosh” He rasps, “I’m going. I’m sorry.” His knee gives out and he feels himself wobble. 

 

“Don’t rush. It’s okay, don’t worry.” Sam says, grabbing his arm to steady him, “I don’t care if you’re late to school. I care that you’re taking care of yourself. Do you feel okay? Do you need to stay home?” 

 

Steve grimaces, “I can’t.” 

 

“Why not?” 

 

“People will think I’m hiding if I don’t go.” As if on cue, Steve’s phone buzzes and lights up. Sam glances at it and his eyes widen at the sheer amount of missed calls and texts.

 

“Steve…” He says, glancing back at him, “what is going on?” 

 

He knows he’ll have to tell him eventually. So he does. The shortened and less dramatic version. 

 

“Oh geez,” Sam says, wiping at his face. 

 

“You gunna yell at me to?” Steve says flatly. 

 

Sam looks up at him, eyes held tightly. “No.” 

 

“Why not?” 

 

“Because…” he looks at the wall where Steve has drawings pinned up, “you have to do what you think you have to do.” 

 

That’s not the response Steve thought he would get. But there’s something else in Sam’s eyes. “What?” 

 

“Maybe you should see a counselor.” 

 

Steve reels back, “I do, I talk to you all the time.” 

 

Sam nods, “I know, and I love that, but… Maybe I’m too close to the situation, maybe you should see someone else. Like a grief counselor.” 

 

Steve feels his fists tighten, “why?” 

 

“Because you got horrible, terrible, no-one-should-ever-have-to-hear news, and you won’t even tell anyone.” 

 

“I told you.” 

 

“No. I was there at the appointment.” 

 

“Howard—“

 

“Found out because he pays the bills.” 

 

“I— I’m not grieving.” 

 

Sam looks at him, not with pity, but with something that makes Steve equally as vulnerable and weak feeling. “You are though, and you have every right too—“ 

 

“I’m fine , Sam.” 

 

“No, Steve. You’re not! You’re barely awake half the day, you won’t eat. I’m watching you fade before my very eyes and you won’t even let me tell Sarah! She’ll hate me when—“ He closes his eyes and Steve feels his shoulders duck up around his ears, “That’s not the point. I’ll deal with that. I’m not trying to guilt you into telling people.” He clarifies, “I’m just worried because you’re not letting people in.” 

 

“Why let them in?” Steve responds quietly, “I’m just going to leave them anyway.” 

 

Sam’s eyes pop open and he grabs Steve’s shoulder, “so you don’t deserve a life or friends or happiness even if it’s for just a short time?” 

 

Oh he hates this conversation. Feels like he’s already one foot in. 

 

“I gotta go to school.” 

 

“Steve--“ 

 

He’s out the door and in the bathroom before Sam can stop him. 

 

———

 

He makes it to school not too late. He’s almost glad because the hallway are empty and he’s able to walk to his class without anyone looking at him. 

 

Of course when he enters the class every eye stares at him as if he has 3 heads. 

 

The teacher marks him tardy and he slips into his seat. 

 

Eyes dart to him throughout class. 

 

He rubs at his knee and sighs. 

 

———



“Hey.” Steve turns from his locker to see Scott standing there. 

 

“Hey, Scott.” 

 

“You’re like a celebrity now.” 

 

Steve grimaces, “huh?” 

 

“You’re the cool mysterious scarred kid with the messed up past. Being related to Howard Stark is cool too.” 

 

Steve groans and slams his locker shut, “I am not related to Howard.” 

 

Scott grins and Steve realizes he’s messing with him. “Right. Humor.” 

 

“Left your funny bone on the bedside table this morning?” 

 

Steve glares at the hallway of kids whose eyes watch him. “Something like that.” 

 

“Heard your pal hit a kid this morning already.” 

 

Steve’s neck cricks, “what!?’ 

 

Scott hesitates, “oh, you uh, didn’t know?” 

 

Steve grabs Scott’s shoulders, “what happened?” 

 

“Someone called you Howard’s bastard and your friend decked him.” 

 

“Oh—“ Steve looks around, now realizing that it was strange that Bucky and or Natasha hadn’t come to hound him. He’d almost thought that maybe his little speech had made them take a step back already… But this made more sense. Few people were as stubborn as Bucky. “You know where he is?” 

 

“Office, I guess. 

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Anytime G-man.” 

 

“G-Man?” 

 

“Hell yeah, scars like that are gangster.” 

 

“Please don’t call me that.” Steve groans. Scott laughs and waves goodbye as the bell rings. Steve walks towards the office, trying to hide the limp that the joint in his left knee is causing. 

 

——-

 

He steps through and sees him immediately. 

 

“What the hell, Bucky.” He growls, walking over and crossing his arms over his chest, “what were you thinking?” Bucky scowls at him. “You can’t go around hitting people.” 

 

Bucky stays silent. The door opens and the principal exits, walking out a red faced boy with a massive black eye. Oh geez. He looks at Bucky, who other than a tad rumpled looks uninjured. That mapped, Bucky was a natural fighter. He and Clint had taken to sparring on days they could get to the local boxing gym. Steve had asked to join, but he’d been informed by Howard that he should, could, and would not

 

“Barnes?” The principal says, annoyance clear in his tone. 

 

“That’s me.” Bucky says lithely, stepping past Steve into the office. The door shuts and the guy stares at Steve. 

 

Steve glares back. “You got something you wanna say?” 

 

“Yeah. Watch your back. And our buddy’s.” 

 

Okay. People threatening him? He’s used too. People threatening Bucky? No way. He growls and stabs a finger towards the kid. “You touch a hair on his head and you’ll regret it.” 

 

“Oh.” The kid fakes being scared, “what are you gonna do? Hell, what can you do? You look like a human twig.”

 

Steve’s not exactly sure how, but he manages to leap on a chair, leveling their heights, and throw his whole weight into a punch, landing it solidly on the other side of the kid’s face. 

 

Steve’s hand explodes in agony as the kid howls and stumbles back. 

 

The next thing he;’s aware of, he’s being dragged backwards, and the kid is being held by the principal. Steve looks down at the arms holding him. Bucky. 

 

“My office!” The principal shouts, “now!” He points to his door and all three file in silently. 

 

———

 

Suspended. For two days. One the third day of school. 

 

His mom was going to be pissed. 

 

Natasha was going to be pissed. 

 

He glances over at Steve who is cradling his (probably) broken hand against his chest. 

 

They haven’t spoken. The principal had just finished yelling at them and doling out their punishments. 

 

“I’m going to have to call your parents.” The principal sighs, “go sit out in those chairs out there and don’t even think about looking at each other. Don’t even breathe in the same direction. Do you understand me?” 

 

Three ‘’yes sirs” and here they are. Sitting silently. 

 

Until the door opens and the last person Steve and Bucky had expected to show walks through the door. 

 

He waltzes in, phone twirling in his hand and eyes set on the two of them. 

 

“You don’t call. You don’t write? Makes a guy feel like he’s being left out in the cold.” 

 

“Hey, Tony.” 

 

“Hey, Barnes.” 

 

Then silence.  Bucky watches as Tony looks over at the other kid to his left who is staring at Tony in shock. “Geez.” Tony whistles, looking at the matching black eyes the kid is sporting. Then he clocks Steve’s hand.

 

“Steve?” 

 

“Hey, Tony.” 

 

“Let’s get out of here.” 

 

The door to the principal’s office opens and the man comes walking out. He stops in his tracks at the sight before him. 

 

“Hey, Mr. Principal. I’m Tony. I need to borrow these two.” 

 

“They need to be picked up by their guardians.” 

 

“Yep. That’s me.” 

 

The man blinks. “I’m sorry what?” 

 

Tony smiles, a smile that Bucky knows means Tony’s ten steps ahead. “Check their files. I’m listed as one of their guardians.” 

 

The man, who Bucky admits is a good guy, not a crazy power hungry principal or anything, but he watches at the man sputters, “you’re telling me that Tony Stark—“ 

 

“Is right here in front of you telling you to check their damn files.” 

 

The man disappears behind his door and comes back a few minutes later. 

 

“You’re free to go.” He says in disbelief. 

 

Tony smiles, “Nice meeting you,” he directs to the principal. “Later Ranger Rick,” he says to the boy they had fought. “Come on, you two. Get your suspended rears in gear and let’s go.”

 

They only glance at each other briefly before scrambling after him. 

 

——————

 

Chapter Text

The car ride is quiet until Bucky looks over at him and says in a mocking voice, “you can’t just go around hitting people, Bucky.” Mimicking his words from the office. 

 

Steve glares at him and Bucky glares back. 

 

Tony watches them. “What the hell.” 

 

They look at him and almost in synchronicity cross their arms over their chests. 

 

“Oh wow.” Tony says flatly. “I’m seeing some real maturity here. What are you guys, like 8?” 

 

“No one asked you to come pick us up.” Bucky snaps. “And what the hell are you doing here anyways? Aren’t you supposed to be in college?” 

 

Tony looks at him and Steve feels his cheeks heat up. 

 

“I think Steve knows why I’m here.” 

 

“Sorry.” He grinds out. Even though… he doesn't really feel sorry at all. 

 

“Not here for an apology.” 

 

“Then why are you here?” 

 

“I get a call from my dad about the video blowing up again and I get nervous. I worry. I’m like a mother hen clucking after her stupid, reckless chicks.” 

 

Steve feels his eyes widen. “The video? The… hospital one?” 

 

“Yep.” Tony says flatly, “You thought ripping your shirt off in gym class wasn’t going to have long term consequences?” 

 

“How do you know about that?” Steve rasps out.

 

“Please—“ Tony says with an eye-roll, “I know everything.” 

 

Steve feels his heart seize, he can’t know…  

 

“But, the cat's outta the bag now. I hacked in, added myself to the guardians list, and my dad and my mom, and decided to take a quick trip down here. Didn’t expect to find you guys getting suspended, but hey, it’s funny how the universe aligns sometimes.”

 

“Natasha.” Bucky says, “what about—“

 

“Told her I was taking you two. She’s not suspended. She can’t skip school.” 

 

Bucky nods, looking relieved. They pull into Tony’s and Bucky sees Clint’s motorcycle.  A full on intervention then. Good. He stares at Steve who he can see is curling in on himself. They step outside of the car and he sees Clint leaning against the back stone wall. 

 

“Hey Clint.” 

 

“Hey Buck.” 

 

There’s a pause and Bucky watches Clint eye Steve. “Hey Steve.” 

 

A pause. “Hey.”

 

“Wow.” Tony says, “that was painful.” 

 

Steve just glares at the ground. They walk down into the lab and find Howard working. 

 

“Hey dad.” 

 

Howard looks up, and surprise crosses his face before it lands on Steve and something unreadable flashes. 

 

“Aren’t you all supposed to be in school? ‘Sides you?” He points at Clint then looks at his watch, “aren’t you supposed to be at work?” 

 

And something warm fills Bucky’s chest that Howard knows all their schedules by heart. He wasn’t lying when he said he’d be hard to get rid of. Bucky looks back at Steve who’s growing pale and looks queasy. 

 

“You okay?” 

 

“I’m fine.” He snaps. Tony’s head whips towards them and stares at Steve in surprise. 

 

“Woah, first fighting and then snappy answers? When did little Stevie become an actual grumpy teenager?” Bucky watches Howard’s face go flat, emotion removed. He looks at Steve whose face mirrors his, blank. Clint stands there awkwardly and Bucky doesn’t know what to say. When had Steve gone from the nicest, most polite kid to the one who they can barely get 5 words out of? Tony stands there, eyebrows furrowing, “hello? Anyone home?” 

 

“I need to go to the bathroom.” Steve says quickly, walking away and disappearing into the elevator. Tony’s eyes slide to his father’s. 

 

“Dad?” Howard doesn’t meet their eyes. He just turns back to his workbench. Tony’s voice drops. “Dad?” Still nothing. Tony walks over and stands in front of his dad’s bench. “I’m gunna need more than silence. What is going on? What happened to Steve?” Howard looks up, and the look on his face takes Bucky’s breath away. Tony’s too. “What? What is it?”

 

Clint steps forward, “Is it his heart? Did something happen?” 

 

Howard’s eyes close and his knuckles are pressed against the metal work table. “I promised him I wouldn’t say anything.” 

 

Bucky feels his heart skip a beat. He’s walking forward, standing next to Tony, “what!? Tell us about what?!” 

 

Howard shakes his head. 

 

“DAD!” Tony practically growls, “I don’t care what you promised! You have to tell us!” 

 

That makes Howard’s face pop back up. “No.” His voice gets flat. “No, I don’t. He was right. It’s not technically my information to share and I think he’s had enough of his life choices taken away without me adding something else.” 

 

That stuns them into silence. 

 

———

 

Steve barely makes it to Tony’s bathroom before he’s vomiting violently into the toilet. 

 

He crumples to his knees and heaves again. His meager breakfast making a re-appearance among the blood. He’s barely hungry to begin with and now he can’t even keep the tiny amount of food he eats down…

 

His hands are wobbly, but he digs under the sink and finds the cleaning spray. He wipes down the seat and carefully puts the bottle back. He feels dizzy and a bit light headed and he sits back against the cold stone shower wall. 

 

A knock on the door. Steve freezes and he looks down at his shirt. The collar has blood on it. He doesn’t respond but the knock comes again. “Tony?” 

 

Mrs. Stark. 

 

“No,” he rasps out, “it’s Steve.” 

 

There’s a silence. “I heard someone throwing up, are you okay?” 

 

Steve groans inwardly. He stands up and hopes she won’t notice his collar. 

 

He opens the door and smiles, “I’m good. Just felt a little sick.”

 

She looks at his smile and then her eyes find his collar immediately afterwards. He winces, and she steps forward, grabbing his jaw and gently pulling his face towards the mirror. He stares at their reflection and looks at her through the mirror in confusion. 

 

“Smile.” She says softly. He opens his mouth to ask why when he sees it. The inside of his mouth is bloody. He grimaces and it makes it worse. 

 

“Sorry.” He says quickly, “I’m sorry.” He steps forward, turning on the faucet and beginning to rinse out his mouth. 

 

She looks at him, and it’s a look that reminds him why Howard Stark picked her to be his wife, she misses nothing. 

 

“How long?” 

 

He blinks at her through the mirror. 

 

“How long what?” 

 

“You must be vomiting blood often enough to be able to ignore or be used to the metallic taste in your mouth.” He groans. Shutting off the faucet and spitting red saliva down the drain. She lays a cool hand on his cheek and looks at him. Not with pity. Just concern. “Steven? How long?” 

 

“Almost 5 months.” 

 

He watches her swallow thickly. “How often?” 

 

He looks at the floor. “Couple times a week. It’s worse when I’m stressed.” 

 

“Ulcers?” 

 

He shakes his head ‘no’. Her eyes soften. “Does Howard know?” 

 

Steve shakes his head ‘yes’.

 

“Does Sam?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“What can I do?” 

 

He looks up at her and the soft concern on his face makes his heart crack. He hasn’t cried since Sam found him in the bathroom in the grocery store. Even before he got the news. She doesn’t comment on the moisture growing in his eyes. She gently sits on the counter and runs her fingers through the front section of his hair. He’s watched her do this to Tony multiple times and it makes his throat constrict with emotion. 

 

“I had a sister, did you know that?” 

 

He doesn’t miss the past tense. He shakes his head no, eyes trained on hers. She sighs. “Maggie. People called us M&M. Maggie and Maria.” She cups his cheek before running her hand through his hair again. “She woke up one morning and said she felt sick. Two hospital visits later we discovered she had leukemia.” 

 

Steve feels his heart drop. But Mrs. Stark just keeps speaking. “It wasn’t pleasant. I’ll just say that. But I’ll never forget the early days when she wanted to pretend that it wasn’t happening at all. Didn’t want to talk about it or tell people.” She stands up and waves her hand for Steve to follow her into Tony’s room. He does and she keeps speaking as she opens Tony’s closet. “Then after she did tell people, she hated that everything in her life was about cancer. Cancer this and Leukemia that . No one seemed to remember that she was still just a 16 year old girl behind the bald head and the weak body.” 

 

Steve closes his eyes. Barely able to breath in a shaky breath.

 

He opens his eyes when hands gently rest on each side of his face. He looks up at her and her eyes are moist too. “You are so precious to this family, Steve. I know those rumors are false but I wouldn’t mind you being my son.” She smiles at him, at her joke, and Steve feels his mouth pull down as he tries to keep from crying. 

 

She gently pushes his hair back again and looks at him. “You’re not your heart condition. And you’re not whatever this is.” She points back at the bathroom. 

 

“Please don’t tell Tony, or anyone.” He rasps out, his head still between her hands. 

 

She tilts her head, her eyes sad at him. “Going alone isn’t the way.” She says softly, “You can’t do this alone.” 

 

“I can—“

 

“No.” She says, gentle but firm. “No, I know that you can. What I meant is you shouldn’t . Maggie may not have loved that everyone focused on her cancer, but I’d like to believe that having her family love and support her, made her time more special.” 

 

“I’ll tell them… When I’m ready.” She nods and unbidden the question falls from his lips. “So you don’t think Howard can fix me?” 

 

Steve watches as her eyes widen in surprise. He knows she knows about his heart condition and why he is here all the time, getting poked and prodded in Howard’s lab. “My husband..” she says with a smile, “is the most well-meaning and capable man. He sets his mind on something and he does it. Does he always do it on the time-table that’s needed? No. But he tries. And I’ll tell you that I know he never gives up.” 

 

Howard’s words from a few weeks ago echo in his mind. I’m not giving up, why are you?

 

“That’s not an answer.” Steve says quietly. 

 

Maria Stark steps back and looks at her son’s room. “Steve. Two years ago, my son and my husband were on the brink of… “ She sighs and she looks at Steve. “We were starting to fracture as a family. I’ll be honest. It was breaking my heart. But then… You came along.” She smiles at Steve and she points to him, “something about you. The deeply instilled goodness that you have… It healed this family. It healed the rift between them. Them, working together… I don’t even know how, and I don’t question a miracle when it’s handed to me.” Steve feels his chest tighten at her words, throat constricting again and chest pounding. “But I’m a firm believer that true goodness in the world is repaid. I don’t know how. Maybe it will be in Howard finding a way to help you. Maybe it will be in some other way. Just… promise me that you won’t give up.” 

 

He nods silently and she brushes his hair back again. She reaches onto the bed and holds up a shirt that doesn't match the one he’s wearing but it’s close enough in color. 

 

He thanks her quietly and slips his shirt off, changing quickly. He knows her eyes watch the scars on his skin but she says nothing. 

 

“Do you need a ride home?” 

 

“I came with Tony.” 

 

“That’s not what I asked.” 

 

She’s giving him an out. A way to leave. “Yes, please.” 

 

She nods. “I’ll get Jarvis.” 

 

She’s about to leave the room when Steve feels himself step forward, getting her attention, “I’m sorry… About your sister.” 

 

She smiles. “Thank you Steve…” She pauses and looks at him tenderly. “You know… You’re the first person I’ve told about her in a very long time. Thank you for listening. I’d love to hear about your mother if you’re ever feeling up to it.” 

 

Steve tries to ignore the way his nose burns as his eyes fill back up with moisture. “Anytime.” He croaks out. “I’ll talk about her anytime.” 

 

“Next time you’re here in the lab.” She says with a soft smile. “Come find me afterwards. I have a new cookie recipe I want someone to taste test anyway for the kids at your house. You’ll be mine and Howard’s guinea pig. How about that?” 

 

He lets out a weak chuckle at her joke. She nods and disappears. He grabs his shirt and waits until Jarvis comes to collect him.

 

————-

 

Clint hasn’t been ignorant to how long it’s been since Steve went to the bathroom. He sees Bucky getting antsy too. 

 

Tony is talking with his dad about Steve’s latest blood draw. And some machine that works with x-rays or microwaves or vitamin rays. He doesn’t know, sounds like techno babble to him. 

 

Suddenly Bucky stands up and says, “I’m going to go check on Steve.” 

 

Tony looks at his watch. “Geez. Guess it has been a while.” 

 

Bucky’s in the elevator but Clint slips in through the doors before they close. 

 

“He bailed.” Bucky says through gritted teeth. “I bet he bailed.” 

 

Clint wants to disagree. But he doesn’t. 

 

They walk into the kitchen when Mrs. Stark is talking to one of the housekeepers. 

 

“Mrs. Stark?” Clint asks, “Have you seen Steve?” 

 

She looks at them, “Steve went home with Jarvis. Do you boys also need a ride?” 

 

Clint shakes his head, “No I have my bike. Thank you though.” She nods and they go back down to the lab. 

 

——

 

“He what?” Tony asks, eyebrows furrowed. “He just left?”  

 

Clint nods, and Bucky feels his annoyance rising. Steve’s behavior has been so unlike Steve that he just can’t comprehend it. “Why.” Bucky growls out. “HOward, you know, please tell us.” 

 

But the man doesn't look up from his workbench as he solders something together. “I may disagree with Steve, but I won’t break his trust. You’ll have to ask him yourself.” 

 

Clint nods and Bucky feels himself hesitate. “You…” he glances at Howard, “do I need to be worried about this video? The one people are watching again? Steve…” he sighs, “He hasn’t been himself lately. I never would have thought he would have shown his scars, but… He just… ripped off his shirt. And now here we are.” 

 

“What happened?” Tony asks, sitting on a stool. I heard bits and pieces and knew about the video getting watched a bunch, but haven’t heard the whole story. 

 

“He was in gym class,” Bucky says sighing, “he was assigned Skins because the scrimmage jersey’s weren’t there yet. When he asked to switch, the coach basically told him not to be ashamed of his skinny body.” 

 

Howard’s lips purse and Tony curses. “And when Steve tried to say that wasn’t the reason, the coach waved him off. So… In front of literally everyone on the field, he ripped his shirt off and played soccer. When the coach saw, he tried to give Steve a shirt and Steve refused. The whole schools been abuzz since. And once kids saw the scars, they finally made the connection back to that garbage video. Hence the rise in watches.” 

 

“I’d like to kick that coach.” Clint says flatly. “What kind of bullshit.” 

 

Tony is frowning. “That’s such… UGH. But also, why was Steve in PE?” 

 

Howard glances up, as if he’s just realizing that fact. “He shouldn’t be.” He snaps. “I’ll get a doctor’s note asap.” 

 

Bucky winces. “I don’t think he wants that.” 

 

“And why the hell not?” 

 

“He just yelled at us yesterday that quitting now would make him look even worse. He hates looking weak.” 

 

“Everyone hates looking weak.” Tony states in exasperation, “but his heart is weak. He shouldn’t be straining it!”

 

Clint nods, “I mean, the doctor already says 30. We don’t need that number to go down.” 

 

Bucky watches as Howard looks away with a wince. “Are you close?” 

 

Howard shakes his head. “No. But I’m reaching out to colleagues in other fields for help. I have lots and lots of avenues to explore. I’m not anywhere close to running out of ideas.” 

 

“Okay.” 

 

They talk for a bit more before Tony says he has to get back to school.

 

“When will you be back next?” Bucky asks. 

 

Tony looks at his phone, “fall break. October.” 

 

“And.. Steve? Are he and you guys going to be okay with this whole video thing resurfacing?” 

 

Howard sighs. “Just keep an eye on him. He’ll probably get a lot of curious people, but he just needs to ignore them. It will calm down again.” 

 

Bucky nods and they walk out of the lab. 

 

———-

 

Steve shuts the door softly and walks towards the room Sam stays in. He knocks and hears him call “come in’. 

 

“Sam?” 

 

The man comes from around the corner and gives Steve a tired expression. “Suspended? On the third day of school?” 

 

“Sorry.” Steve sighs. “That kid threatened Bucky and I just snapped.” 

 

Sam looks at him seriously. “You wanna hide the whole immune system thing… Okay, that’s your choice. But…” he crosses his arms, “they’re going to figure it out if you keep acting like…” 

 

Steve feels himself go still, “like what?” 

 

Sam’s eyes go dark, “like a dead man walking.” 

 

“I’m not acting. I am a dead man walking.” 

 

And he can tell that Sam isn’t prepared for that response, because the silence is tinged with despair. “Not if there’s anything I can do about it.”

 

“There isn’t anything you can do about it.” 

 

“Steve.” Sam says with a brittle tone. 

 

“Sorry.” Steve says flatly, “I’ll hide it better.” 

 

“No.” Sam says sharply, “that’s not what I want. That’s not what anyone wants.” 

 

“Well what does everyone want?” 

 

“For you to be happy.” 

 

“I’ll try.” 

 

Sam sighs and he blinks at him. “What’s my punishment?” 

 

“Punishment?” 

 

“For getting suspended.” 

 

“I think I’ll let this one slide.” Sam says. “You’re already suspended—“ there’s a pause where Steve can almost hear the ghost of the words and dying in the air. “I think that and everyone talking about you behind your back is enough.” 

 

“The principal told you?” 

 

“About you ripping off your shirt in gym? Yeah. He filled me in.” 

 

“Great.” 

 

“You didn’t do anything wrong by that. It’s your back. But people will talk. You gotta deal with that now.” 

 

“I know.” 

 

“Okay. Then that’s your punishment. I’m going to the store in a bit, before the kids get home from school. You wanna join?” 

 

“I think I’m going to sleep. I’m tired.” 

 

“Okay.” 

 

Steve walks up the stairs. Rubbing at his joints as he changes into something more comfortable and slips under his covers.

 

———

 

Natasha waits for Yelena, Pietro, Wanda, and Rebecca at their subway stop. They’d all decided to go to Midtown High where Rebecca went. They were all freshmen this year and growing so quickly. Pietro dwarfed Steve now. 

 

She watches as they exit the train and see her. They bound over and she says hello as they begin the journey home. She hasn’t told them about Steve’s shirt debacle yesterday. But they’ve noticed his change in behavior. It was hard to miss. 

 

She listens as they talk about their classes and teachers and she can’t help but smile. These kids had gone from (barring Rebecca) struggling to survive to blossoming and really thriving under their new care. Sam and Sarah had been making a huge difference. Not only in the house but in the neighborhood around it. 

 

They walk into the house and Rebecca waves goodbye. Natasha’s not surprised to see Clint and Bucky in the kitchen at the house as Sam talks to them about something. 

 

“Hey guys.” She says, “can’t believe you punched someone.” She huffs at Bucky. 

 

“First of all, he deserved it.” Bucky says petulantly, “and so did Steve.” 

 

“Do you know?” Clint asks Sam. 

 

She glances at Sam. “Know what?” 

 

Sam just sighs and doesn't answer. 

 

Bucky chokes, “you do! You and Howard both know! And you won’t tell us! Is it about his heart?”

 

“Wait,” Natasha interjects, “I’m lost.” 

 

“You know how you said ‘something happened with Steve’?” Clint says, keeping his eyes on Sam. “Well, you were right. We just don’t know what it is. And Howard and Sam both know. And they refuse to tell us.” 

 

“It’s not my place to tell.” 

 

“You know Tony could find out. If it’s about his medical stuff, he could hack into his records.” 

 

But Sam and Howard must have already had this discussion because he looks at them very seriously. “If you want to break Steve’s trust and privacy, then that’s your choice. But you’d have to deal with the consequences of that choice. And I don’t think you’d like them.” 

 

“So it is his medical stuff about his heart.” Natasha breaths out. Sam neither confirms or denies and they leave the kitchen. 

 

The walk into the room where Steve lives, only to see a few kids milling about quietly as Steve sleeps in his bed. 

 

They creep back out quietly and sit on the wooden staircase, each on a different stair. 

 

“What do we do?” Clint asks. 

 

“You know how he is. We had to trick him into letting us help last time. But this is different. If it’s his heart then we can’t even help.” 

 

“Bucky’s right.” Natasha adds, “there’s nothing we can do besides be there for him. So, that’s what we do. No matter how hard he tries to push us away, we don’t go. We stay.” 

 

Bucky nods and Clint stares at the door to Steve’s room. 

 

———

 

Bucky hears his phone buzz. He groans in his sleep and pulls the pillow over his head. 

 

But it buzzes again. 

 

And again. 

 

He finally grabs it off his nightstand and squints at the bright light as it shines in his eyes. 

 

It takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust but he sees three texts from Clint. 

 

C: They caught them

 

C: The Fleming brothers.

 

C: THEY CAUGHT THEM. 



————-

 

Chapter Text

The alarm Steve had set for school rang. He never used to use an alarm. Besides the fact that he hadn’t owned one, he’d never really needed one. Always up to make the kids their daily oatmeal, or awake in case Mrs. Schmidt would come yelling. 

 

Even since Sam had taken over, he hadn’t needed one. But increasingly, Steve finds himself sleeping like the dead and not rising until Sam comes to get him. 

 

So he’d taken the phone Tony had given him years ago, and figured out how to set an alarm. 

 

He blinks awake, and struggles to sit up. His joints ache, his stomach is forever on edge, and he blinks. And blinks again. It's with a dropping realization, as he places his glasses on his nose that his eyesight is definitely worsening. He tries not to sigh. He’s noticed that Peter notices when he sighs and gets worried. So he just slowly breathes in and exhales quietly. 

 

He gets up and goes to the bathroom. Mrs. Stark had been right, he barely registered the constant metallic taste in his mouth anymore. So he had to be vigilant and check for bleeding around his gums, which thankfully today there isn’t any.  He quickly rinses his face before heading down stairs. 

 

He finds Sam in the kitchen, breakfast half made and the landline clutched in his hand. His shoulders are tense and he doesn't notice Steve’s entrance. 

 

“Sam?” Steve asks quietly, “You okay?” 

 

Without looking up, Sam speaks in a tense voice, “you want the good news or the bad news?” 

 

“Neither.” Steve says without thinking. He can’t take more bad news. But Sam’s baleful eyes find his and he sighs. Crap. He has got to stop sighing. “Fine. Bad news first.” 

 

“You’re going to have to get a new suit.” 

 

His eyebrows pucker in confusion. “Huh?” 

 

“The good news is, they caught the brothers.” 

 

His heart skips a beat, throat constricting as the mental image of them carving into his back threatens to overwhelm him. He hasn’t had that nightmare in a while. But this brings it back to the front of his mind. 

 

“You’re lying.” 

 

“I’m not. That was the police. They caught them a few weeks ago down in Georgia. They’ve been extradited here. They’re going to stand trial for their crimes.” 

 

“And…” He knows there’s an ‘and’, because Sam wouldn’t be looking at him like that if there wasn't something else. 

 

“They want you on the witness stand.” 

 

“Why?” His voice is barely a whisper, and they both fall silent as the kids start to wake and move around the house. 

 

“There was a lot of legal jargon being tossed my way, but… from what I could understand, they guy was hinting that the brothers lawyered up with some nasty prosecutor who tends to get guilty people off scott free. Your testimony would help seal their sentence.” 

 

“And if I don’t want to?” 

 

Surprise flickers over Sam’s face. “That’s your choice I suppose. But… It’s not like you to want dangerous people out on the street where they could hurt someone else like they hurt you.” 

 

Dread fills his chest as he realizes that his own selfishness of not wanting to be on the stand has clouded the fact that it would put them back on the street. “Sorry.” Steve says softly, “‘course I’ll do it.” 

 

Sam doesn't hesitate before hauling him into a hug. “Just one thing after another for you, isn’t it, man?” 

 

“Some guys get all the luck.” Steve says with a weak laugh. 

 

Sam stiffens, then pushes back out against Steve and holds him by the shoulders, “did you just make a joke? Oh—“ he clasps a hand over his chest, “I— I haven’t heard you joke in a month! You— You—“ Sam seems speechless as a relieved smile crosses his face and guilt builds in Steve’s stomach. 

 

“Sorry.” Steve grimaces, “guess I have been a bit down lately.” 

 

“A bit?” Sam asks in disbelief, then catches himself, “don’t apologize.” He says quickly taking a deep breath. “You have every right to feel as down as you do. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty for that feeling. It’s just… It’s good to hear you laugh again. Even under the circumstances.” 

 

“I’ll try to cheer up.” 

 

“No.” Sam says firmly. “That’s not what I want. You have to feel how you feel and deal with that the way you can. But I’d love to help more if you’d let me.” Steve swallows thickly and Sam graciously changes the subject, “I bet Howard will call any minute. He texted me this morning about the whole thing, but was in a meeting. You wanna talk to him?” 

 

Steve shakes his head, “no, you can. Let me know what he says.” 

 

“I will. What are you going to do today while you’re suspended?” 

 

The way Sam asks the question makes Steve feel like he’s on vacation instead of in trouble at school. “I dunno. What should I do? I don’t even really have homework yet.” 

 

Sam nods, going back to whisking pancake batter. But before he can answer, Wanda walks in the kitchen and smiles at Steve. He smiles back and she looks surprised, “Steve, you’re bleeding!” 

 

Sam looks up and they make eye contact. Steve nods slowly, “yeah, bit my tongue, is it still bad?” He makes a show of grinning wildly, which makes Wanda laugh and wrinkle her nose. 

 

“It’s gruesome.” She says with a laugh. Steve doesn't miss Sam’s grimace at her words. “You better get to the shower before the hot water is gone!” Steve nods as she grabs her already prepped lunch and stuffs it into her backpack. She grabs Yelena’s and is about to leave for school when Sam stops her, 

 

“What about breakfast?” 

 

Wanda gently puts the heel of her hand against her forehead, “I forgot to tell you! Yelena and I are meeting Becca at The Nook for breakfast. Is that okay?” 

 

Sam eyes the clock, “will you be late to school?” 

 

Wanda looks affronted, “I would never!” 

 

He laughs, “okay, have fun, is Pietro going?” 

 

“Nah, lazy bones wants to sleep in.” 

 

“Growing teenager.” 

 

“More like boring teenager!” Wanda says huffily, “see you guys after school!” She taps Steve’s nose, a habit he’s noticed she’s picked up from Becca and Bucky and leaves in a whirl. 

 

Before Steve can even think about how ironic his statement is, he finds himself whispering, “they grow up so fast.” 

 

A hand settles on his shoulder, “you sure do.” He meets Sam’s eyes and they grin softly at each other. 

 

———

 

Bucky waits until morning, even though he can’t sleep. 

 

B: Do we tell Steve?

 

N: He already knows. Sam told him this morning before I left for school.

 

C: How’d he take it?

 

N: I wasn’t in the room. Sam said he made a joke

 

C: HE JOKED?

 

B: ABOUT THE BROTHERS?

 

N: DOn’t know. Wasn’t there. But Steve seemed about the same before I left. Screw you guys for getting suspended. 

 

B: Sorry…

 

C: You two can come over and climb today if you want

 

N: What! NO! You’re suspended! You can’t have fun without me!

 

C: Aww, poor goody little Natasha has to go to school

 

N: Barton I will cram that climbing rope so far up your nose

 

C: Try it. 

 

B: GUYS

 

B: Stop. What are we gonna do about this? 

 

T: Hold up, I’m just getting up for class. What the hell’s going on now? 

 

C: YOu get my messages?

 

T: No… Hold up. Yes. Hold on. 

 

Bucky doesn't have to wait more than a second before Tony’s blowing up his phone

 

T:  WHAT

 

T: WHAT THE HELL

 

T: I JUST LEFT. I ca

 

T: I can’t get home till October! My professors would kill me if I missed another class!

 

T: THis is Garbage. This is Bullshit. 

 

T: I’ll kill them. What are we going to do?

 

T: Wait, Steve JOKED? ABOUT WHAT? I haven’t seen him smile since this summer!

 

T: GUYS ANSWER ME

 

C: We’re trying, you’re texting a mile a minute

 

T: I only have 15 minutes till my class, and I can’t use my phone in it. 

 

B: I’ll see what I can find out today. I’ll call Steve and see if he wants to come over. He hasn’t hung out here in a while. My mom has the day off, she’s always good with Steve too. 

 

N: Text us EVERYTHING

 

B: Will do

 

————

 

Steve’s phone buzzes and he looks at the text. 

 

B: You wanna come over? Been awhile since you came over and we played SSB. My mom would love to have you. 

 

Steve thinks a minute before responding, 

 

S: You’re not in trouble for being suspended?

 

B: I mean, my mom wasn’t thrilled, but I told her what happened and she understood. You in trouble with Sam?

 

S: Nah… He’s fine. Not like we’ve ever been suspended before. Don’t think it will happen again.

 

B: …. Soooo You wanna come over?

 

S: Sure. Be there after breakfast

 

B: cool

 

——-

 

Peter bounds into the kitchen, shoes untied and backpack half open with the contents hanging out precariously. “Steve!!” 

 

“Hey, Pete. You ready for school?” 

 

“Yeah! Today we’re learning about microbiomes and the stuff that makes ecosystems work!” 

 

Steve blinks. “Well, geez. I always forget what a smarty-pants you are. Learn something cool for me today, will you?” 

 

Peter nods, his head bobbing wildly as he sits down at the table and begins to shovel pancakes into his mouth. More kids file in and Steve says good morning to all of them before taking the back set of stairs up to the second floor. 

 

He makes his way to the bathroom, showers and gets dressed. Calming breaths are what he tries to focus on as his anxiety about being at Bucky’s house raises. He and Bucky have basically been inseparable since the summer before Steve’s freshman year. Steve’s never had a friend as close (literally and figuratively) as Bucky. But… He sees the way Sam looks at him. The way Howard’s eyes pinch everytime Steve’s in his presence. He doesn’t want Bucky looking at him like that. Or any of them. So he’s kept it to himself. But Bucky’s not an idiot. He’s noticed and asked and it makes Steve’s stomach roll. The last thing he wants to do is throw up at Bucky’s so he focuses on staying calm. 

 

He tries to eat something. Aftre the last kid has left for school, Sam hands him a plate with a piece of toast and a cut up apple. 

 

He manages to eat the apple, and half the toast before he can’t even stand to look at the food anymore. 

 

“Sorry.” He mumbles to Sam. “I’m going to Bucky’s. Is that okay?” 

 

“Yeah, Steve. Have fun.” 

 

Steve just nods absently as he walks towards the front door, sliding on his shoes and stepping out into the sun. 

 

———

 

“Steve!” Bucky’s mom shouts as she opens the door, her face a wide smile. Then Steve watches what always happens these days. The inspection. Her eyes rove his face and frame. “Steve, you’re—“ She catches herself, but the worry and concern are plainly etched across her features. He hasn’t seen her in almost two weeks. He’s shrunk considerably since then. 

 

“Hello, Mrs. Barnes, nice to see you.” 

 

“Come in, come in!” She chirps jovially, “Bucky’s on the couch.” Steve slips off his shoes, leaving them at the front door and following her deeper into the townhouse. 

 

She leads him to the family room and Bucky lounges there, in his pajama pants and hoodie. “Hey Steve.” He says lightly.

 

“Hey Buck.” 

 

“Take a seat. You want something to eat?” 

 

“Nah, had breakfast at home.” 

 

Bucky’s lips purse just slightly before he nods, “okay. If you get hungry let me know. We got plenty of food.” 

 

———

 

And that’s how the day goes. 

 

Steve and Bucky play Super Smash and Cruisin’ USA. And Mrs. Barnes appears randomly with food and snacks and drinks. Leaving them within arms reach of Steve. 

 

Bucky constantly offers other food and Steve politely declines. He does manage to chew and swallow down a few pretzels to get Bucky to lighten up, which does help. 

 

But they sit dry and like rocks in the pit of his stomach. 

 

At lunch time, Bucky suggests they go to Milo’s.

 

Steve wants to tell him the truth. That he’s not hungry. But he knows the questions he’ll get if he says that. So he nods, “okay.” 

 

After getting permission from his mom, and Sam for Steve, they walk in relative silence to the subway stop. 

 

“You worried about missing school?” Bucky asks, eyeing the group of college kids walking their way. 

 

“Nah. Not much to miss the first week of school.” 

 

“True.” 

 

“You excited for that art class?” 

 

“Hmm?” 

 

“The art class, the one you wanted to take from the local college?” 

 

Steve’s mouth parts in surprise and his eyes widen. He’d completely forgotten. He’d been talking about going to this class for the last two years. You had to be 18 to apply, but Howard had thought he could work something out with the professor. Except… He’d had the appointment… And everything else had gone out the window. The class had slipped his mind. He’d missed the deadline to apply. Hadn’t submitted his application portfolio… He sighs. Stop sighing, he commands internally. Bucky’s looking at him, confusion and concern at his lack of response. 

 

“Oh. Uh— yeah.” Steve finds himself lying. He winces. He hates that he’s lying. But what’s he going to say, that he just forgot? After talking specifically about this one class he’s wanted to take for years? Not gonna fly. Bucky would know something was up. “Yeah, I’m excited.” 

 

“When does it start?” 

 

Steve calculates in his mind. He remembers seeing it on the website. “I think September 30.” 

 

Bucky nods, still casting a curious glance at Steve. “Sucks you’ll be busy those days.” 

 

Steve internally groans. The class was supposed to be from 5-7p.m. on Tuesday and Thursdays. “Yeah…” Steve says softly. He’ll have to find somewhere to be… Natasha will know if he’s at home. He grits his teeth as his web of lies grows. 

 

“Can’t believe you’re a junior.” Bukcy says with a smile. 

 

“Says you big time senior.” Steve says with a smile back. Bucky looks at him, and grins, “yeah, it’s pretty cool.” 

 

“It will be weird to be all alone next year.” He says, voicing a line of thought he’d had multiple times. 

 

Bucky’s eyes snap to his, “you won’t be alone.” He says sharply. “I’m not going far, and Clint’s still around, and Natasha—-“ he chuckles, “well, I don’t know what Tasha is gunna do, but you won’t be alone.” 

 

Steve nods mildly, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I just mean at school.” 

 

“If anyone looks at you funny you better tell us.” 

 

Steve rolls his eyes, “Buck, you’re not my guard dog—“ he sighs and corrects himself, “well you shouldn’t be. I can handle myself one year, and I think everyone will be looking at me funny from now on,  just for a different reason.” 

 

“You do have the flair for the dramatic.” 

 

Steve doesn't respond and he hears Bucky take a deep breath, “So…” 

 

“So?”

 

“You heard…?” 

 

Steve knows what he’s talking about, “yep.” 

 

“And?” 

 

“And what?” 

 

That response is obviously not what Bucky was expecting because it halts him on the sidewalk. “What do you mean and what? Those guys are finally caught! Over two years later! Aren’t you happy?” 

 

Steve hasn’t felt happy in a while, so it’s hard to register that feeling, but he knows the answer expected of him. “Yeah.” He says numbly. 

 

“Steve.” 

 

“Bucky.”

 

“What’s going on, man? You’re not yourself. Please, just tell us! Is it your heart? Something happened. We know it did, don’t lie to us! Is it worse?” 

 

And when Bucky presents such an easy way out, a believable half-truth that isn’t technically a lie, Steve doesn’t let the opportunity disappear. “Yeah Buck. It’s worse.” 

 

“Shit!” Bucky curses, “don’t worry, Howard’s been working night and day to make sure he comes up with a solution.” 

 

“I’m not a broken toy that needs to be fixed.” Steve snaps.

 

“Steve, you know that’s not what I mean.” 

 

“Sure.” Steve says bitterly.

 

“Steve-“

 

“Can we just not talk about this anymore? I’m tired of this being the only thing people talk about.“

 

There’s a stretch of silence as they walk side by side from the subway stop. He sees Bucky try to start a sentence multiple times before he hears a deep sigh and the quiet words, “okay, Steve.” 

 

Steve looks at him in surprise, and Bucky shoves his hands in his pockets, shoulders drooped. “I’ll stop. I won’t talk about it. I won’t ask about it.” 

 

“You promise?” 

 

I promise. Can’t speak for the others.” 

 

They walk quietly for a while and then Steve takes a deep breath, letting the sun warm his skin as he looks up between the tall buildings. “You excited to start applying for college?” 

 

“Yeah,” Bucky says with a chuckle, “my ma’s losing her mind. I swear she’s already cried twice at the thought of me being out of the house and I haven’t even left yet!” 

 

Steve smiles, but his heart pangs. He misses his mom so much. He hasn’t had her for almost a decade. She’ll never get to see him go to college, or graduate high school—- his mind goes flat. She wouldn’t see much anyways. If she was alive he would have died before her... So maybe it is better that…. He swallows thickly. “She loves you, that’s a good thing.” 

 

Bucky huffs, “yeah, I know. I’m not complaining. I’m excited.” 

 

They finally reach Milo’s and the doorbell jingles as they enter. 

 

“Hey Ricky.” Bucky calls, getting the man’s attention. 

 

“Hey boys!” The man calls, glancing up at them, “I’ll be with you in a minute!” 

 

They sit at a booth and wait. Clint’s uncle makes his way over soon after and his greeting dies in his lips as his eyes land on Steve. 

 

Steve grimaces internally, waiting for the comment about his weight or the dark circles under his eyes, but he catches Bucky shaking his head “no” subtly and Ricky just blinks before looking down at the table, dropping off the cups of water. “Hey boys.” He says tightly, “what can I get you?” 

 

They place their orders and Ricky walks away. Steve glances at Bucky and looks down at his hands. “Thanks.” 

 

“For what?” 

 

Steve looks up to see Bucky looking at him with a sheepish smile. “Just thanks.” 

 

Bucky leans back against the booth, “so, what does this art class teach you?” 

 

Steve leans forward with excitement, and even though he won’t be attending, he’s studied this class enough to know what it’s about. “Well, it’s a study on human proportions…” he starts. 

 

————-

 

He manages to eat almost half of his sandwich without feeling queasy. And Bucky doesn’t seem to mention the leftovers. They pay and walk back home, talking about their classes and what to expect for the school year.

 

———-

 

B: okay. So it is his heart. It’s worse

 

C: shit

 

N: so, what do we do?

 

B: nothing. 

 

C: ….. huh?

 

N: ??

 

B: he’s tired of it being the only thing anyone ever talks about with him. So we just need to stop making it the focus. I swear, I started talking to him about art and he lit up almost like normal. 

 

Bucky doesn’t get a response for a minute. 

 

C: okay. 

 

N: ok

 

T: I’ll tell my dad to back off. Not to stop trying. But to stop being so overbearing about it. 

 

B: okay. Thanks. 

 

————

 

Steve hears his alarm go off and he groans. But he gets up and gets ready for school. It’s his first day back from his suspension and he can’t imagine the looks at the comments he’s going to get behind his back. But he has to get it over with. 

 

He grabs his lunch, waits for Natasha at the stairs, and they head off to meet up with Bucky. 

 

————

 

Natasha notices the difference in Steve. He still looks like a walking skeleton, but he’s in a more reasonable mood. She’s even seen him smile, which after the last month has been a big improvement. 

 

She catches Bucky’s eye and they smile at each other. 

 

Steve heads off to his home room and they head to theirs. But before they get to the door, Natasha pulls Bucky into an empty hallway and pulls his face down to hers by his backpack straps. 

 

He smiles as she kisses him and she smiles back. 

 

“Are we going to tell the others soon?” Bucky asks, tugging her out of the hallway and to their classroom.

 

“Maybe.” She says mischievously, “I just don’t want them all up in our business.” 

 

The bell rings and they enter their classroom. 

 

——

 

“You’re a badass you know.” 

 

Steve looks up from his textbook and sees Scott standing across the table from him. 

 

“Excuse me?” 

 

Scott slides into the seat directly across from Steve and smiles like a wildcat. “First with the gnarly scars and the soccer, then with the fighting and suspension. You’re like a walking Outsider .” 

 

“You lost me.” 

 

The kid laughs and scratches at his nose. “Did ya hear I’m a junior now?” 

 

Steve’s head pops up, “you are?” 

 

“Yep! Turns out the school I went to didn’t send them to the right district. Starting Monday I’ll be with you upperclassmen.” 

 

“That’s cool. I’m glad you got it worked out. Is that why you’re in this study hall right now?” 

 

“Nah, I needed a thing printed from the comp lab here and saw you sitting here.” 

 

“Ah.” 

 

“So, what was your punishment for getting suspended.” 

 

Steve feels a grin cross his face, “I played video games and slept in.” 

 

Scott gapes at him, “what! That’s no fair.” 

 

“You gotta meet my guardian, he’s a cool dude. He’d like your sense of humor.” 

 

“You think so?” 

 

“Yeah.” 

 

“Well, look forward to meeting him. You’re friends with those seniors right?” 

 

“Bucky and Nat? Yeah.” 

 

“How’d that happen?” 

 

“Ouch.” 

 

“That’s not what I meant-“ Scott says quickly, “I just meant— I was just saying — No, I mean, all I meant was—“ 

 

“Scott.” 

 

“Yeah?” The kid says miserably. 

 

“I was just messing with you.” 

 

“Oh…” 

 

Steve finds himself smiling again and he taps his textbook with his pencil. “The summer before my freshman year? I took this cool summer program, and me and a few other kids were placed in a group, Bucky and Nat were two of them.” Steve notices the calculating look on Scott’s face. “What?” 

 

“Nothing’”

 

“You’re a terrible liar.” 

 

“Just…” The kid squints at Steve, “just wonderin’”

 

Steve rolls his eyes and he suddenly has a really good idea where this is headed, “wondering what, Scott?” 

 

“Who else was in that group of yours.” 

 

Steve scoffs. “You watched the video.” 

 

“That was some grade F news reporting.” The kid says with a chuckle. 

 

“You’re telling me. Ever been bombarded in your own hospital room?” 

 

“Can’t say that I have.” 

 

“It sucks. So does having your worst trauma shared for the world to see without your permission.” 

 

“Sorry.” 

 

“Not your fault.” 

 

“I heard that Tony Stark came to pick you up that day you got suspended.” 

 

“Yep.” 

 

“So he’s not a vicious older half-brother?” 

 

“No.” Steve says softly, “he’s actually pretty cool.” 

 

“You say that so nonchalantly as if you’re not talking about one of the richest kids in the world.” 

 

“I didn’t even know who he was when we met.” Steve admits, “we all got along really well.” 

 

Scott nods and studies the wooden grain on the library table, “Any of it true?” 

 

“You actually wanna know? Or are you just prying?” 

 

Scott studies Steve, then glances around to make sure no one’s paying attention. He pulls down his shirt collar and small circular burns show up along his collarbone. Then he turns his head towards the side and uses both hands to split his hair, where a looping scar runs up the back of his ear and disappears further into his hairline. “Like I said in the locker room, I know what it's like for people to make a big deal out of things forever. Never knowing the real story or just telling their own version of it. So, whenever you want, if ever you want, If you ever need someone to listen. I’m here.” 

 

Steve finds his fingers going to the large burn scar on his elbow. “You know, I’d be an open ear for you too if you wanted.” 

 

Scott nods. “Trauma buddies. I like it.” Steve laughs at that and Scott lights up at the sound. 

 

“What’s going on?” 

 

Steve and Scott look up to find Bucky staring at them at the opposite end of the table. “Just talking.” Steve says lightly, “what’s up? I thought you had that placement results review?” 

 

“Finished early. Who’s this?” 

 

“This is Scott. Scott, this is Bucky.” 

 

“Nice to meet you!” Scott says eagerly, thrusting out his hand, “A friend of Steve’s is a friend of mine.” 

 

Bucky’s eyebrows pull down. “Okay…” he says slowly, shaking Scott’s hand. 

 

———-

 

Bucky walks into the library and sees Steve talking to a kid he doesn’t recognize. He’s about to interrupt when the kid says something that makes Steve laugh out loud. Louder and lighter than Bucky has heard in over a month. 

 

He tries to not let the feeling of annoyance that someone else was able to get Steve to laugh take over. 

 

Steve introduces him to the new kid, Scott. 

 

“Come one Steve, let’s go home.” 

 

Steve nods and packs up his stuff. “See you in class.” He says to the overeager kid.

 

“See ya Steve, nice meeting you Bucky!” 

 

Bucky nods tightly and half jogs out of the room dragging Steve with him. 



————

 

“Who’s that?” Bucky asks the minute they’re out of the building. They stop at the sidewalk, waiting for Natasha. 

 

Steve looks at him confused, “I just introduced you, that’s Scott.” 

 

“Yeah, but who is he? Like, he just appeared outta nowhere.” 

 

Steve rolls his eyes at him, “he approached me after the soccer field fiasco—“ 

 

“Oh, so he’s morbidly curious.” Bucky snaps. 

 

Steve recoils, “huh?” 

 

“He what? Wants the gory details of your scars? Access to the Starks? What?” 

 

Steve’s mouth parts in surprise and the Bucky watches as his features go dark, a frown and pulled down eyebrows adorn his face. 

 

“Yep. I’m sure that’s it. No other reason someone would want to be my friend.” 

 

Bucky curses himself for letting his mouth run before thinking, “Steve— I didn’t— I shouldn’t have said that.” 

 

“You know what, Bucky? I forgot I needed to talk to a teacher before I go home. I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

 

Steve starts to walk away from him but Bucky grabs his arm, “no wait, don’t—“ He watches as Steve winces at the tug on his arm. Bucky let’s go immediately, “what?” 

 

Steve pulls his arm to his side. “What.” 

 

“You winced, did I hurt you?” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Then why did you wince .” Bucky snaps, jabbing a finger towards his arm. 

 

Steve glares at him, “maybe I just don’t like being yanked around!” He snaps back. “Go home. I’ll see you later.” And he takes off, leaving Bucky left standing at the bottom of the stone stairs eyes wide in shock. 

 

———-

 

Natasha finds a brooding Bucky waiting for her at the entrance of the school.

 

“What happened?” 

 

“Steve has a new friend.” Bucky says grumpily, “and I…” he looks up at her and grimaces, “I reacted poorly.” 

 

“What?” Natasha asks, “why?” 

 

“I saw the kid make Steve laugh and… I got annoyed.” 

 

“Bucky. You just told us how not talking about Steve’s issues makes him happier. The kid probably just said something funny.” 

 

“I know.” Bucky groans, knocking his knuckles against his forehead, “I just… I was so caught off guard! I was a real jerk.” 

 

“What did you do?” 

 

“I said something stupid.” 

 

“Okaaaayy… but what exactly did you say .” 

 

Bucky squints a thousand yards away and then turns to her, looking guilty, “I may have insinuated that the kid was trying to be his friend because of the video thing.” 

 

Natasha feels her mouth gape open, “BUCKY! WHAT THE HELL!” She slaps his arm and he doesn’t even protest. “Why would you ever say that!”

 

“I know, I know!“ He groans, grabbing her backpack from her, “I was so… I was so—“ 

 

“Jealous.” Natasha snaps, glaring at him. “You were jealous.” 

 

Bucky glares at her for a moment before deflating, “yeah… I think so.” 

 

“He laughed at some kid’s joke, that doesn't mean Steve’s trying to replace you.” 

 

“I know. I just haven’t heard him laugh in so long that I got mad someone else could do it so easily.” 

 

“You know we’re gunna be gone next year. Don’t you want Steve to have friends when we’ve not here?” 

 

“Yeah…” 

 

“Okay. So put some effort into that. You won’t be there to watch out for those jerks like from his freshman year. And..” she glances back up to the school building, “he’s extra fragile right now, I swear I hear his joints creak when he moves, I don’t want him going up against any bullies, especially not alone.” Bucky nods. “So where is he?” 

 

“He left after I said that.” 

 

“No surprises there.” 

 

“I’ll go get him.” 

 

“No, let him be. Give him some space. Let’s take him to Clint’s work tonight, and see if we can get him to laugh so you can stop being a jealous old ninny.” 

 

Bucky rolls his eyes at her and she goes on her tiptoes to peck him on the lips. 

 

————-

 

Chapter Text

Steve goes to the bathroom and pulls up his sleeve. Bucky had grabbed right over a large portion of rash. No one really questions why he wears long sleeves most of the time. They assume it’s because of the bruises from Howard’s tests. Or the giant burn scar from Mrs. Schmidt. And that’s true… but lately it’s been to cover up the ever changing and shifting skin issues he’s been developing. It’s always red or irritated. He’d woken up a day ago scratching at it and it bugged him the rest of the day. 

 

Bucky grabbing it had hurt. But what Bucky had said today also hurt. Maybe the reason he’s friends with them is because of Tony. Maybe if they’d never been in that group they wouldn’t have become friends… Even Scott had insinuated it was weird that they were friends with him. 

 

Steve tries to think of something that would make people want to be friends with him. Just him. 

 

He stares at his sallow skeletal face, with deep circles around his eyes and hair that seemed to be losing color by the day.  Definitely not for looks. 

 

He’s fine in school. Not crazy smart like Tony, or good at sports like Clint and Bucky. 

 

He can’t fight or dance like Natasha. 

 

He does have art. He’s good at that. But… No one’s ever wanted to be his friend because of that. He usually just gets made fun of. 

 

He clenches his teeth and tries to ignore the way his heart aches at the thought. 

 

Well… he had been thinking that stepping back from being friends with them would be the best choice. So… maybe this works. 

 

He washes his hands and exits the bathroom, walking out the school doors and out to the subway. 

——-

 

He’s almost home when he gets a text. He looks at his phone and it’s Howard. 

 

H: You still coming today?

 

S: Yeah. 6 p.m. okay?

 

H: I’ll be here. Can you bring Bucky’s phone? Or Bring Bucky with you? Tony said it needed a software update. I’d rather do it here than over the internet

 

Steve groans, but he texts back: 

 

S: yeah, I’ll bring it.

 

H: Thanks, see you then

 

——

 

He knocks gently on Bucky’s door and Mrs. Barnes opens it. 

 

“Steve! How are you?” 

 

“I’m fine, is Bucky around?” 

 

“I think I heard him get home and go up to the roof. Trying to enjoy that weather while he can I assume!” 

 

“Okay thanks, Mr. Stark wants to update his phone.” 

 

“No problem, you can go find him.”

 

Steve nods and she lets him in. 

 

He walks quietly out into the backyard and climbs on the fire escape. Howard had paid to have it replaced after he’d climbed up on it on Steve’s 16th birthday and had deemed it more of a hazard than an actual fire. He even replaced the one at Steve’s house ‘just because’. 

 

Now instead of the usual squeaks and groans it’s silent as he climbs. His weight barely even registers on the steps. 

 

He can hear music softly playing. And something about it makes him hesitate.

 

He reaches the top and peers over the edge of the brick. 

 

He freezes. 

 

His eyes try to process the fact that Bucky is holding Natasha tightly and kissing her, her hand up his shirt. Steve immediately drops down, crouching back, eyes wide and mind racing. 

 

He scrambles back down as quietly as he can, Bucky’s phone forgotten, and even though he knows it’s rude, he slips out the front door without saying goodbye to Mrs. Barnes. 

 

He walks quickly, trying to ignore the thought that keeps trying to shove it’s way on. 

 

Not that they’d kept it from him. That’s… that’s fine. It’s their business. He knows what it’s like to not tell people stuff. 

 

But… 

 

Maybe Bucky had said that stuff to him today to get him to go away. Maybe he didn’t want Steve around as much because he wanted more alone time with Natasha. 

 

That’s… 

 

Steve breathes deeply and ignores the way his chest is tight. 

 

That’s fine too.

 

Steve blinks blindly as his feet carry him further away from Bucky’s. From his own home. 

 

———

 

Bucky lays in Natasha’s lap, eyes closed as she brushes fingers through his hair. She presses a kiss to his nose and he smiles. 

 

“We should go.” She says, “let’s pick up Steve, get dinner and bring some to Clint. We can have some fun together. It’s been too long.” 

 

Bucky nods, and they climb down. They walk through the house, it’s quiet, but Bucky can hear his mom upstairs humming and folding laundry like she always does on Monday nights. 

 

His dad and sister are at some event at church, so they walk out the front door and head to her home. 

 

Natasha unlocks the door and they walk in. Some kids are sitting in the living room, doing homework and playing, and they can hear Sam and Sarah arguing lightly in the kitchen. 

 

“I’m telling you, Sarah, like I tell you every time, it’s too spicy!” 

 

“It’s not spicy at all!” 

 

“Sarah. Need I remind you about the range of ages we have in this house.” 

 

“They need to experience all the different foods and flavors!” 

 

“Yeah, and I want them to be alive to do so. Tone it down.” 

 

Sarah rolls her eyes and starts adding cream to the giant crock pot. 

 

Sam looks up and smiles, “hey guys, how was school?” 

 

“Boring.” Bucky says truthfully. 

 

“Fine.” Natasha says with a shrug, “you seen Steve?” 

 

Sam thinks, “no actually. But I was out this afternoon. One of the kids had a dentist appointment. Sarah, you see him?” 

 

“No, but doesn't he have his thing with Howard today?” She points to the calendar that Sam has pinned high on the wall. 

 

Bucky watches as Sam winces, “oh yeah.” 

 

“He’s started going back to Howard?” Natasha asks, eyes widening, “since when?” 

 

Sam looks at the calendar, “not very long.” 

 

“Oh.”

 

Bucky stares at the calendar and Natasha nudges him. “Guess we can go tomorrow.”

 

‘Go where?” Sam asks.

 

“We were going to try to take Steve to Clint’s work and cheer him up. Apparently Bucky doesn't like when other people can make Steve laugh.” 

 

Sam perks up, “Steve laughed?” 

 

Bucky huffs and points at Sam, “see! It’s a big deal! Sam knows it’s a big deal! 

 

Natasha rolls her eyes, “exactly! Which is why we should be bringing everyone who can manage it into the fold, not acting like a jealous little boy and pushing them away.” 

 

Bucky groans as Sam looks at them in confusion, “huh?” 

 

“Some kid made Steve laugh today and Bucky got the green-eyed monster syndrome about it.” 

 

“Ah.” Sam says, nodding, “I get it man. First time you made Steve laugh after the dumpster incident? I’ll admit, I was jealous it hadn’t been me. I’ve always been known for my comedic chops.” 

 

Sarah snorts and Sam looks affronted, “What!?” 

 

“Oh nothin’, sir. Didn’t realize I was in a parallel universe.” 

 

“What! I am funny!” 

 

“Sure, Sammy. Sure.” 

 

Bucky and Natasha slip out the door as they continue to argue good-naturedly. 

 

———-

 

Steve walks without really aiming until he blinks up at his ma’s gravestone.

 

He wasn’t allowed when Mrs. Schmidt was in the house. He didn’t have the subway fare back then and it was too far to walk without her getting suspicious. So he hadn’t seen it since her funeral. 

 

Then, when Sam had taken over. It had taken him a few months to work up the courage. 

 

“Hey… uh… Sam?” 

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I was wondering… If not it’s okay. I was just wondering if I could get some extra subway fare this week?” 

 

“Oh ho ho, you got a hot date you wanna see?” 

 

Steve had laughed. Even though he was 15 he still had barely looked at a girl like that let alone gotten the courage to ask one out.

 

“No, just… I was wanting to go somewhere.” 

 

Sam had paused. “I mean, I’m probably gunna say yes. But.. I feel like as the guardian, I gotta know where.” 

 

Steve had looked down at his shoes, “just a church closer to the wharf.” 

 

Sam had stopped and looked at Steve, trying to guess, “any particular reason?” 

 

“To see my ma’s grave.” He’d whispered. 

 

Hands grabbed at his chin and lifted it up, so he could meet Sam’s eyes. “Steve, buddy, why didn’t you just start with that? Of course you can. Anytime. Any. Time.” 

 

Steve’s throat had constricted and he’d felt his nose burn as his eyes watered. 

 

Sam crushed him into a hug. “When was the last time you went to see it?” 

 

“The funeral. I wasn’t allowed.” 

 

“That—-“ Sam starts, then stops. Catching himself. “That was wrong of her, Steve. Wrong as hell.” 

 

Steve had just nodded. And he’d found extra money on his card enough for multiple trips each month after that. 

 

He goes often. 

 

But he hasn’t been since his latest diagnosis. 

 

He just stands there, looking at the granite stone of the person who loved him before and more than anyone else. 

 

And a tiny part of him is glad she’s not here to witness the mess he’s become. 

 

————-

 

Clint watches Steve stare at his mom’s grave. 

 

He’d seen him in the subway on his way to work, but something about the blank look on Steve’s face had made Clint nervous. So he’d called work telling them he’d be late. 

 

He’s quietly shadowed Steve on the way here. One of Clint’s talents is fading into the background. So he’d utilized that as Steve had sat on the hard plastic chairs of the subway car, staring out the window as the concrete walls of the tunnels flashed past. 

 

The walk here had been short and Clint knew Steve visited his mom’s grave sometimes but he’d never seen it himself. 

 

A tiny stone, a smaller inscription:

 

Sarah Rogers

A loving wife and mother

Caretaker of All 

 

Something smaller that he can’t read from this distance is underneath. He assumes it's a date or a verse. 

 

Eventually Steve steps away, pushing his glasses away to wipe at his face as he starts walking. 

 

It’s apparent to Clint that Steve has a destination in mind. So Clint decides he’s going to follow. He calls his job. “I’m really sorry, but I can’t come in tonight. Is there someone who can cover?” 

 

His manager pauses on the phone, “you never miss a shift, Clint. Everything okay?” 

 

“Yeah, yeah Phil, I’m fine. Just… something with one of my friends. Is that okay?” 

 

“Of course. We’ll be fine. Help your friend.” 

 

“I’ll try.” 

 

————

 

Natasha helps Yelena and Wanda and Pietro with their homework after Bucky walks back home. 

 

She tries to focus on her own but she can’t seem to get a certain pair of eyes and lips off her brain. 

 

“You’re blushing.” Yelena says flatly. 

 

“Huh?” 

 

“You. You’re blushing. Why?” 

 

“I am not.” 

 

“Your cheeks are red. Are you sick?” 

 

“No!”

 

“Then you’re blushing.” 

 

“Oooooo.” Wanda says with a conspiratorial laugh, “who is it?” 

 

“No one. You guys have your heads filled with all that boy crap.” Pietro snorts and Natasha takes that as an affirmative.

 

“Says you ms. Red Cheeks over here.” Yelena tosses back. 

 

“Shut up and do your history.” 

 

Yelena and Wanda giggle and go back to work. Natasha rolls over onto her back and smiles. 

 

———-

 

Steve doesn’t necessarily mean to walk here. 

 

But as he stares at it. He thinks that maybe he did. 

 

———-

 

Clint walks significantly behind Steve. It’s a far walk and after a while he wonders why Steve didn’t take the subway. He notices that Steve starts to get tired. Taking a puff from his inhaler and limping on his weaker side. The hip the brothers had broken. 

 

He’s almost about to go confront the kid when Steve turns left into an alley and Clint stops, suddenly knowing where he is. 

 

He feels sick. 

 

He drops back, leaning against the brick wall of Reynold’s Market. 

 

———-

 

It’s the same one. 

 

Steve idly wonders if some of his blood still sits at the bottom of the dumpster. Or maybe shards from his glasses. 

 

He’s come back here twice before. Each a year apart. The anniversary of the day he was put in there. 

 

Bucky, Clint, Natasha, and Tony always make sure he’s busy and distracted on the anniversary of the day he was found. That day in July 2 years ago. 

 

But they don’t realize that that’s not the worst day. 

 

The day he was found was the good day. 

 

It was the day he’d been tossed in there. Bag after bag tossed on top until he’d practically suffocated. He felt woozy and queasy from blood loss. The day when he couldn’t decide if the broken bones in his face, his hip, or the jagged cuts on his back hurt the worst. 

 

That was the bad day. And they didn’t know he came here. They’d probably be mad at him if they knew. But they didn’t and he intended to keep it that way. 

 

He’d just been here a couple weeks ago… But here he was again. 

 

He pretends it’s an accident that he walked here. 

 

Not because they just got caught. 

 

Not because he’ll have to see them again. 

 

Stare at them and tell a whole audience about some of the worst days of his life. 

 

Sentence them to an entire life in prison when he’ll die before he’s even lived. 

 

No. It’s just a coincidence he walked here. 

 

And he stands there. Staring at the thing that had almost been his grave. 

 

———-

 

Clint waits. 

 

It doesn't take long. 

 

Steve steps out of the alley nonchalantly. As if he hadn’t just stared, at the place he’d almost died, for 15 minutes. 

 

He turns left and heads towards the subway. 

 

Clint follows. 

 

———

 

Steve turns around on the subway. He looks left and right. Feeling like there are eyes on him. 

 

But he doesn't see anyone looking his way. 

 

He gets off one stop early and keeps his eyes out. 

 

———-

 

Clint watches as Steve rings the doorbell to Tony’s house. After he watches Jarvis let Steve in with a smile, he takes off. Anger and something like despair fueling his run. 

 

———

 

Clint knocks on the door. 

 

He tries to keep it from sounding like he’s pounding on the door. 

 

Sam opens it. 

 

“Hey Clint, what’s —- You okay?” 

 

“No. I’m not .” 

 

Sam’s eyebrows raise and he motions for him to come in. “You here for Natasha? She’s in her room. Steve’s at H—“

 

“The Starks. I know.” 

 

“Uh—“ 

 

“You wanna know how I know?” His voice gets a bit sharp at the edge and Sam frowns. 

 

“I’m assuming you’re going to tell me.” 

 

“Because I followed him there.” 

 

“Wh—“

 

“You wanna know where I followed him from?” 

 

“Clint—“ 

 

“The dumpster , Sam.” The man freezes, eyes going wide and somehow it makes Clint even more angry. “THE DUMPSTER, SAM ! THE DUMPSTER THAT BUCKY AND I PULLED HIS BODY FROM. Why is Steve going there? WHY! What’s going on! Something’s happening and you need to tell us! Screw whatever privacy you think this gives Steve! He’s went to his mom’s grave and then to that damn dumpster —” 

 

“Sam?” 

 

Both of them turn towards the stairs where Peter stands, a homework sheet dangling in one hand and a pen in the other. 

 

“Peter.” Sam says in a strained voice, “hey buddy, what’s up? You need help with homework?” 

 

Clint winces at the kid’s sharp eyes trained on them. 

 

“Clint just said—“

 

“I was angry, Pete.” Clint huffs out, waving a hand, “don’t listen to me.” 

 

But Peter’s face gets angry and he stomps down the stairs closing the gap. “No. No, I heard what you said about the dumpster.” 

 

“Pete—“ Sam starts. 

 

“You lied! You said he was sick back then, that he’d been in an accident!” 

 

“He—“ Sam starts.

 

“How did he get there?” 

 

“It’s not—“ Clint tries.

 

“Don’t lie!” The kid shouts. “You’ve already lied to me! Now tell me the truth!” 

 

“The brothers.” A new voice says. “It was the brothers, wasn’t it?” 

 

Wanda and Pietro stand quietly at the door to the living room. 

 

Sam sighs and sinks down onto a step, dragging Peter with him. The kid tries to stay angry but Sam’s face makes him soften and he just looks up with sad eyes. “The brothers put him into the dumpster?” 

 

“Don’t deny it.” Wanda says. “We have phones.” 

 

It hits Clint what she means. They’ve seen the video. The one accusing Tony of hiring the brothers. 

 

“How long have you guys known?” Sam asks tiredly. 

 

“I knew something was off back then. I asked Steve and he wouldn’t tell me. But I didn’t officially know until the thing at Steve’s school. Some kids at my school caught wind of it and it was shared with me.” Pietro stands quietly behind her, a somber expression on his face. 

 

The sigh that Sam lets out makes Clint’s chest bloom with guilt. Steve had tried so hard to keep this from them and he’d blown it in one angry rant. 

 

“He’s not having the easiest time. So you can understand why he doesn't want to share all of that. Can we respect his wishes?” 

 

“But…” Peter says softly, “Clint says he’s going back to that place. Why would he do that?” 

 

The pained looked in Sam’s eyes takes Clint’s breath away. Something is horribly wrong but Clint just doesn’t know what it is. 

 

“I don’t know.” Sam says with a strained smile, “but I’ll talk to him, okay? You guys just do your best to cheer him up, okay?” 

 

They nod quietly and Sam sends them back to finish their homework. 

 

He looks at Clint and Clint grimaces. “Sorry. I didn't mean to announce it. But… I can’t just sit here and ignore the fact that something else is going on.” 

 

Sam’s eyes are tired as he looks at Clint. “Did Steve tell you they’ve asked him to testify at the trial of the Fleming brothers?” 

 

“What!? No. No way. He can’t.” 

 

“Clint, he’s already said yes.” 

 

“NO.” He seethes, “I don’t want him within 100ft of that scum!” 

 

Sam shakes his head. “It’s his choice. And it’s the right thing to do.” 

 

“Sam—“ 

 

“Clint. I have watched Steve now for over two years. I have seen what a strong and resilient kid he is. I know he can do this. I know he should do this. Not only to make sure they end up behind bars. But…” his voice trails off and he looks older than his age,  “did you know we moved Steve to a different room for a few months after the dumpster thing?” 

 

“What? No…” 

 

“He accidentally woke the other kids up his second night back, freaking out, having a panic attack about still being in the dumpster.” Clint’s throat is dry, he stares in shock as Sam continues to speak. “He didn’t want to tell anyone the truth about it. He was ashamed even though I told him there was nothing to be ashamed about. But… he still requested to move. So I told the kids he needed extra care after the accident and he slept in the guest bedroom near my room. I changed those bandages on his back for almost two months. I watched them heal and I watched Steve start to heal along with them.” He scrubs his hand against his face and leans back against the step, “then... I get the call about the brothers. And I see the fear run right back into his eyes. He needs to face them. Put them behind bars and be done with them. I don’t ever want to think of them out on the same streets as him ever again.” 

 

“When’s the trial?” 

 

“November 1st.” 

 

“Are we going to be allowed to be there?” 

 

“I think you guys will be part of it. You interacted with them during it. So I would assume yes.” 

 

Clint feels his hands clench into fists. “Good. Because I have a lot to say.” 

 

Sam nods at him. “Good.” 

 

————

 

Howard hands him an ice pack and he accepts it numbly. 

 

“Sorry.” 

 

“‘S okay.” Steve mumbles. The blooming bruise in the crook of his elbow keeps his eyes entranced. “How’s Tony?” 

 

Howard looks up, “I think you might talk to him more than I do.” 

 

“Hmm..” Steve says, “probably not lately.” 

 

“It’s getting late, sir.” Jarvis says, his head poking out of the elevator. “I should be getting Steve home.” 

 

“Right, right, right.” Howard says, staring at the blood sample he’d taken. 

 

“Howard?” 

 

Steve watches as his eyes blink back to him. “Yeah?” 

 

“How hard would it be to get my lenses adjusted?” 

 

Howard steps closer, carefully removing Steve’s glasses, “not hard, why?” 

 

“Getting hard to see clearly.” 

 

The tense purse of Howard’s lips makes Steve look down at his shoes. 

 

“Let’s test your eyes real quick. Then I’ll get new prescriptions.” 

 

“Thanks. I’ll tell Sam. He’ll send mon—“ 

 

Steve.” Howard snaps, accidentally cracking the frames he’s holding. He looks down at the glasses and then back up at Steve. “I—“ 

 

Steve just shrugs, “it’s fine. I’ll be fine.” 

 

“I don’t want Sam to send me money. I’m happy to repair these and ge your new pair.” 

 

“Mr. Stark.” Steve says sharply, getting a surprised look from the man who he has called Howard since almost the first day. “I’m already your guinea pig. And I’ve been your charity case for two years. We have government funding now, thanks to you and Sam. We can pay for them.” 

 

“You’re not a charity case, Steven.” Howard says with annoyance in his tone, “But I wouldn’t mind if you—“

 

Howard doesn't have a chance to finish because Steve gets nauseous, standing up and eyes wide as he looks for the quickest place to throw up, a trash can or a sink—

 

He starts to run towards a trash can but in his rush he trips over his own feet, joints aching as he slams against the cold lab floor. 

 

“Steve!” 

 

But he can’t respond because his stomach rolls and suddenly he’s vomiting onto his hands and the floor. Blood and acid pour out and he chokes out a gasp at the sharp spike of pain in his side and eyes. 

 

Hands are on him, pulling him up and he pulls away. “Don’t—“ he chokes out. “I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up—“ 

 

“Be quiet Steve.” Howard snaps, “you’ll do no such thing.” Steve trembles, suddenly freezing cold and aching. Howard’s looking at the throw up, almost studying it, as if he could get answers. When he looks up, his eyes widen and he wipes a thumb under Steve’s eye. 

 

It comes away bloody. 

 

Steve feels his heart rate rise, “what—“ he looks up at Howard, fear racing through him as he tries to wipe at his eyes with the clean parts of his forearms. 

 

“Calm down.” Howard says, although his voice sounds far from calm, “harsh vomiting, the strain from it can cause this. I’m sure that’s what it is.” He pauses and raises his voice, “OPAA?” Steve looks at him confused, but Howard just waits. 

 

“Yes, Howie?” Says an automated voice. Steve feels his confusion rise, but Howard just rolls his eyes, and speaks. 

 

“Can you alert Maria that we need a maid down here? Tell them to bring sanitization gear and that we’re cleaning up bodily fluids.” 

 

Steve winces, and Howards hand rests on his shoulders with a soft squeeze. 

 

“Yes, sir.” 

 

The voice shuts off and Howard sighs. “My newest gift from Tony. An AI he’s been working on for a while. I had a few pointers, but he did great.” 

 

“Howie?” 

 

Howard laughs, “that’s Tony’s sense of humor. I’m Howie and my wife is Mrs. Mom. You hear what I call it?” 

 

“Uh, yeah.. Opah?” 

 

“O.P.A.A.” Howard sighs, with an amused smile. “Stands for “Old People’s Automated Assistant.” 

 

Steve hears himself chuckle lightly at that, “That sounds like Tony.” 

 

He nods, “he’s a goofball at heart that one.” 

 

“Sorry about the mess.” 

 

“Steve, I swear on my life if I hear you apologize for something like this one more time, I will ban those words from being said in my house.” 

 

“Sorry.” Steve whispers, out of habit, then he winces again. 

 

“Come on, I have a shower down here. Let’s get you cleaned up before I send you home. I’ll go grab some of Tony’s clothes.” 

 

Howard leaves him with a towel in the bathroom and Steve strips off his disgusting shirt and shimmies out of his jeans. He lets the hot water wash away all the remnants. Scrubbing harshly under his fingernails and rinsing out his mouth. 

 

A gentle knock, then the door slides open a crack, clothes get set on the floor and the door shuts with a click. 

 

Steve towel dries himself off and pulls on the soft clothes. A band t-shirt that hangs off him loosely and some old but extremely soft sweatpants. 

 

He walks out to the mess having disappeared and Howard working at one of the machines. 

 

“Tell Sam what happened okay? The eye thing too. It still looks red and I think you should go have a check up. I’m worried about the lining of your stomach and your esophagus.” 

 

Steve nods and Jarvis comes to collect him. 



————

 

Bucky’s walking into the kitchen, yawning and stretching his arms. 

 

“Hey baby.” His mom calls, working on her laptop at the kitchen table. 

 

“Hey mom. I’m gonna head to bed. Just wanted some water.” He goes to fill a glass and it’s quiet for a moment. 

 

“Oh, I forgot to ask, did you get your phone fixed?” 

 

“Hmm?” 

 

“Mr. Stark. Did he get it updated?” 

 

“No…” Bucky says a bit confused how his mom even knows that, “not yet.” 

 

“Oh, okay, are you going to be okay at school tomorrow without it?” 

 

“What do you mean?” 

 

“You okay tomorrow without your phone?” 

 

“What do you mean? I have my phone.” 

 

“Oh… But…” She looks puzzled, “Did he bring it back? I didn't see him come back.” 

 

“Mom, what are you even talking about right now?” 

 

“Steve.” She says in a huff, “Did Steve come and give you your phone back?” 

 

“Steve… huh? What are you talking about? Steve never took my phone.” 

 

Now she looks annoyed at him, “Then I’m lost. He told me it needed to be updated.” 

 

“It does.” 

 

“But you still have it?” 

 

“Yeah…” 

 

“So why didn’t Steve take it today?” 

 

“Mom, what the—- I’m confused, Why would Steve take my phone?” 

 

“Because he stopped by this afternoon to grab it!” She says, her hands resting on her hips. 

 

“I never saw Steve this afternoon!” 

 

“But I sent him up to the roof to find you!” 

 

“The ro—“ Bucky chokes, his voice cutting off. “When?” 

 

“What?” 

 

“What time. ” 

 

His mom purses her lips, thinking… “I was doing the cold water wash… and the news was on… so it had to be between 4-4:30p.m.” 

 

His stomach drops like a rock. He slumps into a kitchen chair.

 

“James? What’s wrong?” 

 

Bucky looks up at her miserably,“You know how me and Nat have been… talking?” 

 

She nods. 

 

“I think he saw me and Nat.” 

 

His mom’s eyes widen, “you had Natasha up there today? And you didn’t tell me?” She asks, her voice rising. 

 

“Yeah.” He admits miserably. “We just kissed. I swear. I mean… we were kissing.” 

 

“James Buchanan Barnes.” 

 

“I know. But ma, I swear nothing else happened. But…” 

 

“But what!” 

 

“We haven’t told the group yet.” 

 

“Oh…” 

 

“Yeah,” he groans, “oh…” 

 

His mom raises an eyebrow at him. “You’re grounded. For a week. And no more unsupervised rooftop dalliances.” 

 

“Mom—“ 

 

“That's final. I don’t care that you’re 17. It’s our house. I’m glad you’ve told me now. But you could have just told me she was here. Then I could have known and felt included and not like you were trying to keep it a secret!”

 

“I know, I just—“ 

 

“Just nothing. It won’t happen again.” 

 

“It won’t.” 

 

“Good. Now what are you going to do about Steve?” 

 

He groans, resting his head in his hands. “I don’t even know.” 

 

“You need to talk to him.” 

 

“I know. Should I try now?” 

 

She looks at the clock. “It’s getting late. You could see if he’s still awake.” 

 

Bucky nods and grabs his glass of water. 

 

“Don’t forget you’re grounded.” His mom calls after him. “I want you home by 3:45 tomorrow.” 

 

He nods and walks up to his room. 

 

———

 

Steve feels his phone buzz. He sits up groggily. Slightly tangled in the large t-shirt of Tony’s he finds what he thinks is one of the arm holes and snakes his hand out. 

 

He clicks on the text and it opens the message, keyboard up, waiting for him to respond. But without his glasses and in the dark he can’t read it. He can’t zoom in either. 

 

He feels a buzz and watches as another blue box appears. But he can’t read that one either. 

 

His tired and groggy mind tells him he can deal with whatever it is tomorrow. A third buzz goes ignored as he falls back into his ‘like the dead’ slumber. 



————

 

Bucky sends a text

 

B: Hey, I heard you stopped by today. Sorry I missed you… I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something. 

 

He waits a minute and the little thought bubble pops up to signal that Steve is typing. 

 

He feels a breath of relief escape him and he sends a second text. 

 

B: I’m grounded now haha but maybe you could stop by tomorrow? Even when I’m grounded I know my mom wouldn’t turn down a visit from you. What do you say? I can fill you in tomorrow when you come by? 

 

Bucky waits. 

 

But the thought bubble disappears and no response comes through. 

 

He texts one last time.

 

B: Steve? 

 

No response.

Chapter Text

Natasha isn’t sure what wakes her. Whether something made a noise, or it’s just instinct. But she’s sitting upright in bed and the back of her neck is tingling. 

 

Something’s wrong. 

 

She looks over and sees Wanda, Yelena, and Pietro fast asleep. 

 

To her other side, Peter and Daniel are lying in their beds, mouths open and dead asleep. 

 

And her eyes trail slowly to the bed by the door. 

 

It’s empty. 

 

She stumbles out of bed and walks quietly out to the hallway. 

 

She’s about to walk down the stairs when she hears a sound. 

 

She pauses and listens. 

 

It’s quiet. And just when she’s about to assume she’d imagined it, she hears it again. A small cough. 

 

She steps closer to the sound and it leads her to the bathroom, where she stands silently. Waiting. 

 

There’s a groan and then she hears the distinct sound of someone vomiting. 

 

Her heart starts to race and she steps closer, pressing her ear to the door. The sound of the toilet flushing and sink running are what she hears next. 

 

She backs up, quickly hiding behind a door and peeking out the edge as the bathroom door opens. Only the nightlight in the bathroom outlet reveals Steve, walking out of the bathroom, slipping on his pajama shirt and walking stiffly back to their room. 

 

She stands there, unsure if she should ask if he’s okay, or tell Sam. 

 

She waits a few minutes and slips back into their room and finds that he’s already asleep. 

 

————

 

Steve blinks awake to his alarm and reaches for the glass of water by his bed. He’s taken to keeping one there because he can’t seem to keep his mouth from getting dry. 

 

He downs the glass and wipes at his mouth. The other kids are stirring and he slides out of his bed and walks down to the kitchen. 

 

“Morning, sunshine.” Sam says, stirring a huge pot of oatmeal. 

 

It had taken him months to convince the kids to eat oatmeal again. But eventually they’d relented and his was a vast improvement over the sludge they’d had to eat from Mrs. Schmidt. 

 

Sam always has fresh fruit and other toppings available like sliced almonds and slivered coconut shreds and even mini chocolate chips. 

 

He places a small bowl in front of Steve and eyes him. “Something you need to tell me?” 

 

“Uh?”

 

“Howard called.”

 

“Oh…” 

 

“Don’t, ‘oh’ me, Steve. He called because he knew you weren’t going to say anything. You vomited again . It’s getting worse. The bouts are getting closer together.” 

 

“‘S fine.” Steve says, stirring and watching the strawberries leach their color into the oatmeal. 

 

“He said your eyesight is deteriorating too.” 

 

“Yep.” Steve says flatly, already tired of this conversation. 

 

“Steve, work with me here. You gotta tell us this stuff! As soon as it happens. I mean it. Don’t make me have to start being a hard ass on you. I know you want your space and privacy and I’ve kept that, but you can’t keep it from me.”

 

“I told Howard about my eyesight.” He responds dejectedly. “And I was going to tell you about the other thing. I was just distracted when I got home.” 

 

“No more ‘I forgot’ to tell you. No more. Do you understand, Steve? I won’t hear it anymore. You’re 17. You’re an intelligent kid, so stop acting like you’re not. You tell me when things go wrong. That’s why I’m here. Do you understand?” 

 

“Fine, Sam. Fine.” 

 

“Good.” They glare at each other and it’s the closest thing they’ve ever had to an argument. 

 

“Eat your oatmeal.” 

 

“I’m trying .” Steve snaps. 

 

“Try harder.” 

 

They continue to glare at each other until the other kids start to file in. Sam dishes out bowls and takes a deep breath, resting a hand on Steve’s shoulder. 

 

————

 

Natasha walks into the kitchen and grabs a bowl of oatmeal from Sam. She makes her favorite. Oatmeal with frozen blueberries, coconut shreds, sliced almonds and mini chocolate chips. 

 

She turns and sees Steve poking at his bowl. 

 

“You feeling better?” 

 

He looks up at her with tired eyes, “hmm?” 

 

“You feeling better after last night?” 

 

She feels Sam turn towards her, “what happened last night?” 

 

Natasha looks at him, and gestures to Steve. “I heard him throwing up last night… but—“ she turns to Steve, “you’re eating, so you must… be…” she’s trailing off at the incredulously angry look on Sam’s face and the absolute flat glare on Steve’s “…better?” 

 

Sam’s pinching the bridge of his nose, and taking deep breaths and Steve’s shoving his bowl into the sink and walking out of the kitchen and Natasha’s standing there feeling like she’s done something wrong, she just doesn’t know what it was. She looks at Sam, “what’d I do?” Sam doesn’t open his eyes, he leans against the kitchen island and she watches as his fingers grip the countertop. “Sam?”



“Nothin’, Nat. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m glad you mentioned it. If…” he looks up at her and she suddenly realizes how tired he looks, “if you hear or see anything like that will you tell me? You know how Steve can be.” And his voice gets brittle, “doesn’t want anyone to worry.” 

 

“Is he throwing up… often?” 

 

“He’s not feeling the greatest,” he says quickly, helping one of the younger kids rinse their bowl. “You’ll tell me?” 

 

“Yeah, Sam. I’ll tell you.” 

 

“Thanks.” 

 

She goes up to grab her backpack, braiding her hair, and saying goodbye to Yelena as she and Wanda and Pietro head down the stairs. 

 

She unplugs her phone and sees a text from Bucky. 

 

B: you talk to Steve today?

 

N: I wouldn’t describe it like that. He practically bolted from the room.

 

B: ah shit. 

 

N: what?

 

B: he saw us yesterday. On my roof. He didn’t respond to me yesterday

 

She feels her heart rate rise, 

 

N: WHAT! How?!

 

B: I don’t know. My ma said he came by and she sent him to the roof but we never saw or heard him. We were… occupied. 

 

N: he threw up last night and Sam got all mad about it

 

B: huh?? 

 

B: wait what??

 

N: hold on I’ll see you in a few I’ll explain then

 

B: omw 

 

She walks out the door and is unsurprised to see that Steve didn’t wait for them. He’s taken to leaving early for school, or sometimes late. 

 

She walks to the corner and sees Bucky half jogging towards her, backpack bouncing up and down on his shoulders. 

 

His dark hair is thick on top, and shorter on the sides, and his blue eyes are trained on her. 

 

“Morning.” She says softly. He kisses her quickly and pulls her along, his cool hand fitting her palm perfectly inside his. 

 

“Morning.” He responds, “Steve ditched?” 

 

“Mhmm. So what the hell is happening? Because two months ago I feel like everything was normal and somewhere along the way it all went to hell.” 

 

Bucky groans and grabs her hand. “I don’t know. Hanging out with you has been perfect, but we haven’t told anyone, and I hate that he found out like this.” 

 

“He’s keeping his own secrets.” Natasha says a bit crisply. 

 

“Yeah, tell me what happened.” 

 

“I woke up last night and heard something. I went out and heard Steve throwing up in the bathroom. I mean.. It's not super unusual. You know Steve, catches every cold and flu in a twelve mile radius, but it was weird because he’d taken off his shirt, and then was putting it on when he went back to bed.” 

 

“Why was his shirt off? Did he have any new bruises? Don’t tell me he got in a fight and didn’t tell me!” 

 

“No, I don’t know, it was too dark and I couldn’t see his skin well. He walked stiffly but that’s just his hip you know? Anyways, this morning I saw he was eating breakfast and I was like ‘oh that’s a good thing’ right? Because that meant his stomach felt okay enough to eat. So I ask him if he’s feeling better and he’s all confused and Sam gets all curious, and so I mention that Steve threw up, because I assumed Steve had already told him, but apparently not, because Sam looked pissed he didn’t know and Steve left the kitchen. Without washing his bowl.” 

 

“Hold up, WHAT?” 

 

“I know.” She says quickly, “Steve bolted out of the room like there was a fire. I’ve never seen him not clean his bowl right away.” 

 

“Why is Steve throwing up a big deal? I mean obviously it’s not a good thing. But… but why the big reaction?” 

 

They’re silent for a while and then Natasha looks up at the approaching subway entrance, “maybe it’s a side effect of the medicine Steve’s taking for his heart? And maybe he’s supposed to tell Sam if he experiences negative effects?” 

 

Bucky considers this. “It’s possible. Sounds just like Steve to not tell anyone.” 

 

Natasha nods and they settle into their seats. 

 

———-

 

Tony sits in his evening lab and taps his pencil against his work bench. He looks at his phone where a text from Clint sits. 

 

C: I’m telling you this. Not Bucky or Natasha because they’d freak the fuck out and I just can’t deal with that right now. 

 

C: I caught Steve at the dumpster. Staring at THE dumpster. He’d just been to his mom’s grave and he went there after. And I don’t know how to deal with this. He didn’t see me. Doesn’t know I know. 

 

C:  and he’s testifying against the brothers. Did you know? It’s bullshit. You’re gonna be here for that right? 

 

Tony sighs and leans back, staring at the other kids working around him. He’s further ahead than they are and he’s waiting for the fabricator to finish the piece he needs. 

 

He grabs his phone and begins typing back. 

 

T: I don’t know about the dumpster thing. Shit like that? Traumatizing as hell. I’m actually surprised he hasn’t been there more.

 

He stops. His mouth parting in realization. 

 

T: oh geez. You think he’s been there before????

 

T: like what if he goes often???

 

T: and hell yes I’ll be there for the trial. Can’t wait to watch those scum get flushed down the mess that is our prison system. My dad’s already got his lawyers on the case. They’re never seeing the light of day again. 

 

———-

 

Steve steps into the school building and heads to homeroom. 

 

Scott waves him over and points to the seat next to him. 

 

“See? I’m here, all Juniored up.” 

 

Steve lets out a wry chuckle. “You’re too excited for this. Junior year is the toughest academic year.” 

 

“Please. Who cares!” Scott says, yawning and leaning back, “just happy to be out of the baby class.” 

 

Steve doesn’t respond, just pulls out his notebook and pencil, looking at the journal question on the board. He has to squint to even read it. But thankfully it’s written in large block letters. 

 

If you could have any superpower what would it be and why? 

 

The class is still bustling and getting settled as he stares at the question, his throat tight and stomach nauseous. 

 

“Hey, man, you okay?” 

 

He doesn’t answer. Can’t answer. 

 

“Steve? You look like a ghost, you okay?” 

 

“‘M fine.” He manages to get out through gritted teeth. But his stomach rolls and he bolts out of his seat, the sudden motion making him sicker and he clamps a hand over his mouth as he runs, glad the hallways are basically empty. 

 

He slides into the bathroom and shoves into an empty stall and crashes to his knees, stomach rolling and vomiting everything he managed to eat for breakfast. 

 

He groans as the acid burns and the thrill of fear at what Howard had mentioned rolls through him again as he clutches his stomach and throws up again, blood and strawberries mixing in the toilet bowl. 

 

“Holy shit.” 

 

He stiffens. Turning weakly to the stall door to see Scott standing there, eyes wide. 

 

“Scott.” He rasps out, “get out of here.” 

 

“What? No! What the hell! I have to get the school nurse!” 

 

“No.” Steve wheezes. “No. I’m fine. It’s fine”. 

 

“Um, in case you think I’m an idiot, even I know puking up blood is a real bad sign!” 

 

“Scott, please leave.” He sinks against the wall divider and tries to steady his trembling hands. 

 

“You’re not freaking out.” Scott says, eyes wide and pacing back and forth, “why aren’t you freaking out? This is bad. Bad. Bad. And you’re calm. That means—“ he stops and turns to Steve and the horrified expression on his face makes Steve wince, “you’re used to it.” He frowns, “you got cancer?” 

 

And somehow that makes Steve laugh, an almost hysterical laughter that has him clutching his violently empty stomach. His heart pounds against his chest and his breath comes in wheezes and he hears the sound echoing against the tile walls and he sucks in a deep breath only to start laughing again. 

 

He finally manages to pull himself together and the terrified look on Scott’s face pulls him back to reality. 

 

“No, Scott. I don’t have cancer. Surprisingly, honestly.” He reaches over and grabs toilet paper, wiping off the seat and flushing it. “I gotta tell them to sanitize this stall.” 

 

“I’ll go tell them.” Scott says, “stay here. I’ll be right back.” He’s gone before Steve can protest. 

 

Steve weakly stands, using the metal bar to haul himself upright and walks slowly to the sink. He rinses his mouth multiple times and then washes his hands. Scott flies back into the bathroom and slides to a stop. “Okay I told the front office and they’ll send janitorial and no, I didn’t tell them who.” 

 

Steve nods gratefully. “Thanks.” 

 

He pulls out his phone and pulls up his recent contacts. He presses a name and waits as it rings. 

 

Steve?”

 

“Hey, Sam… sorry. Uh..” he looks at Scott who is pretending not to listen, “I think I need to come home.” 

 

What happened? You okay?” 

 

Third time in 24 hours is probably a bad sign right?” 

 

There’s a weighted pause and then Sam’s speaking in a rush. “Let me call Sarah. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Wait in the office.” 

 

“Okay.” 

 

Steve?” 

 

Yeah?” 

 

Thank you. Thank you for telling me.” 

 

Steve makes a soft sound in his throat and he hears Sam hang up. 

 

“I’m going to head to the office.” Steve says slowly, ignoring the ache in his throat. “Thanks for… helping.” 

 

Scott bounces on the balls of his feet, “you need me to grab your backpack from class?” 

 

“Oh…” he forgot about his stuff, “No, I can grab it.” 

 

They walk back towards class and Steve speaks quietly to the teacher, telling her he doesn’t feel well and is going home.  She takes in his disheveled appearance and gaunt face and nods, excusing him. 

 

He gathers his things and ignores the stares as he walks back out of class. 

 

———-

 

“Yeah?” 

 

Howard?” 

 

Sam?” 

 

Yeah, listen. I’m on my way to the school. Steve called. He threw up again. ” 

 

“What! Twice in 24 hours?” 

 

There’s a pause. “ Three times.”

 

Howard’s mind reels at the implication. “You’re taking him in right?” 

 

Yes. I called and scheduled an emergency appointment.” 

 

Howard sighs, “I have a meeting I can’t skip. You’ll call though? If you’re still there when I’m finished I’ll head your direction.” 

 

I’ll let you know.”  

 

“Okay.” 

 

Howard hangs up and looks at the metal pod he’s building. He groans and scrubs at his eyes. 

 

Something has to work. 

 

Anything. 



———



“Well.” The doctor says calmly. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” 

 

Neither Sam or Steve speak.

 

“Bad news is the increase in bleeding was caused by an ulcer that appears to have not quite burst but is close. Probably caused by wear and tear on your heart, and exasperated by stress which is registered in your limbic system which in turn affects your endocrine system, a.k.a. your hormones.” He tries a weak smile, “it’s a vicious cycle, especially in your body as it’s still trying to grow and develop. The good news is, we can cauterize it, and should be able to… lessen the instances of vomiting.” 

 

Sam looks sick to his stomach at the news, but Steve just sighs and lays back on the examining table. “Okay.” He says quietly. 

 

———-

 

It’s a few hours later and they’re getting home. Steve has been quiet, unable to think or say anything for hours. 

 

He stands in the entryway and just stares at the stairs. Too tired to even try to walk up them.

 

“Steve?”

 

His eyes find Sam’s and he just waits.

 

“Can I hug you?” 

 

Steve blinks at him in surprise. But Sam doesn’t wait for an answer. He steps forward and wraps Steve up in a hug. He can hear Sam’s heartbeat and he feels exhaustion wash over him. 

 

“I’m so tired, Sam.” 

 

Sam’s arms tighten around him. “I know,” his voice is tired too, “I’m sorry. What can I do?” 

 

“I threw up in front of a kid.” 

 

“Who?” 

 

“Scott. You don’t know him.” 

 

“You need me to talk to him?” 

 

“No. He’s fine. He probably won’t say anything.” 

 

“Okay. Tell me truthfully, how’s your vision?” 

 

Steve pauses… “I’ve been noticing it getting a lot blurrier. But now I’m getting headaches. That’s why I asked Howard for new lenses.” 

 

Sam’s grip starts to lessen and Steve isn’t ready. He tightens his arms around him and holds tight. He can tell that Sam is surprised he’s still hugging him, but he hugs back just as fiercely. 

 

“I’m sorry.” Steve says softly. 

 

“About what?” 

 

“For… being upset. For being a mess.” 

 

Sam tilts his head down so he can see Steve. “I already told you, I don’t want you apologizing.”

 

“I shouldn’t have been acting like…” 

 

“Like it’s you vs. the world?” 

 

Steve winces, “ouch.” 

 

“I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” Sam responds lightly, squeezing him a tad tighter.

 

“I’m going to try.” 

 

“Try…?” 

 

“To relax.” Steve whispers. “The doctor said stress caused this.” 

 

“Of course you’re stressed!” Sam urges, stepping back and holding Steve’s shoulders, “look at all the crap you’ve gone through! And you’re only 17! Hell, I was in the army and I feel like you’ve had more trauma.” Steve grimaces and Sam takes a deep breath, “okay, sorry, not helping. But I do hope you’ll let us help now. For real this time.” 

 

“I will.” Steve shrugs, “I’ll tell you. Promise.” 

 

“Good.” He points to the living room. “Now, go rest. Doctor said not to be on your feet too much. And remember. No PE.” 

 

Steve frowns. “I know.” 

 

Sam disappears into the kitchen and Steve promptly falls asleep on the couch. 

 

———

 

Bucky keeps his eyes peeled for Steve at lunch but he doesn’t appear. He looks at Natasha who shrugs helplessly at him. “I don’t usually see him till lunch, our hallways don’t intersect.” 

 

Bucky watches the doors and sighs. Then his eyes catch sight of that kid. 

 

“I’ll be right back.” 

 

He walks over and stands in front of him, “Scott, right?” 

 

The kid blinks up at him, “yeah, Bucky… right?” 

 

“Yeah, you seen Steve?” The kid blanches and Bucky feels the hairs on his arms rise, “what?” 

 

“Uh, Steve? Uh, yeah, he was in homeroom.” 

 

“Okay… and have you seen him after homeroom?” 

 

“No.” 

 

Bucky wants to yank this kid up by his collar and get him to spill whatever he’s hiding, but a glance back at Natasha as she watches with a raised eyebrow, makes him take a deep breath, “okay, you wanna sit with us? Steve’s friends are our friends.” 

 

The kid’s mouth parts in surprise but he nods, “oh, yeah, okay, great. Cool.” 

 

Bucky leads him back to the table where Natasha sits, a pleased smirk on her face that makes Bucky roll his eyes at her. She looks at her phone and sighs. “He’s at home. With Sam.” 

 

They share a weighted look, and then Natasha turns to the new addition. “So, Scott.” She says easily, “tell us about yourself?” 

 

He bites into his sandwich and chews thoughtfully, “I’m Scott Lang, 17, Junior. Good at computers and sleight of hand.” 

 

Natasha chuckles at that and the kid smiles. 

 

“Where do you live?” Bucky asks, “you going here senior year?” 

 

Scott nods, picking at his bag of chips, “moved her from San Fran. Live a few blocks from here in some apartments. I’m planning on going here, long as my mom stays at her job.” 

 

“How’d you meet Steve?” Natasha asks. 

 

“In PE. He was a total badass with his whole take down of the crap the coach had thrown at him. Had to introduce myself after. By the way, that kid you guys both punched, he’s been mouthing off about you two.” 

 

Bucky narrows his eyes, searching the cafeteria for the guy, “oh, has he? He’s welcome to air his complaints to me in person.” 

 

Scott just stares in surprise, “okay, you’re kinda scary. That’s cool. I’m cool with that.” 

 

Natasha laughs and leans forward, “we’re protective of Steve. If you haven’t noticed.” 

 

Scott looks down at the tables and picks at the cafeteria tray. “I’ve noticed. Whole school has noticed. After that video, I can see why.” 

 

“That video was a piece of garbage.” Bucky snaps, “half of it wasn’t even true.” 

 

Scott nods, “I know. I uh…” he looks guilty, “I hacked into the police files and read them.” 

 

Natasha gaped, “you what?” 

 

Scott winces, “I’m told I’m too curious for my own good.” Both Bucky and Natasha just stare at him in shock as he shrinks in his chair. “I promise I won’t say anything. I… I just wanted to know the truth. Seeing his scars… I had to make sure he was…” Bucky watches as he bites the inside at his cheek. “Had to make sure he was okay.” He looks at them and starts to ramble. “I asked him that day, if he was in an okay home, and he told me he was, but I’ve been there before right? Can’t let people know. Gotta hide so it doesn’t get worse. So I had to check. Had to know for myself. Then I saw the video and worked on that timeline to figure out when it happened and then used his name in the precinct’s files. You really…” he looks at Bucky and it’s not morbid curiosity in his eyes, it’s genuine concern, “can’t believe you pulled him out of a dumpster.” 

 

Bucky slams his eyes closed. Hands splayed on the table, fighting that image. He hates seeing it. Steve’s broken glasses. Bruised face. Limp and pale body in his arms. 

 

“Scott.” Natasha says sharply, her hand resting on Bucky’s. “We really don’t talk about it. Okay?” 

 

“But…” Scott starts, “he’s talked about it right? Steve? Someone’s talked to him? Therapist or something?” 

 

Both of them stare at him. And he scoffs, “y’all are just ignoring it? As someone who can personally vouch, that’s going to come back to bite you.” 

 

The rest of lunch is silent. 

 

—————

 

Bucky walks into the house with Natasha and they find him on the couch, curled up and squinting at the TV as some cartoon plays. There’s a few other kids about but they’re not close enough to listen. 

 

“Hey Steve.” 

 

“Hey Bucky. Nat.” 

 

They sit on the couch and he sits up, making room for them. 

 

“Where are your glasses?” Natasha asks. 

 

“Howard accidentally broke them. He’s getting me a new pair.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

It’s silent and Bucky groans, “Steve.” Tired eyes find his and he takes a deep breath. “About yesterday,” 

 

“It’s fine, Buck. I get it. You were just being careful. Scott’s—“

 

“Scott’s fine. I know.” Bucky says. “And I shouldn't've said what I said. But I’m not talking about that.” Bucky watches as Steve’s eyes go to the floor and the tops of his ears turn pink. “Why didn’t you answer my texts?” 

 

Steve’s brow furrows, “texts?” 

 

“Yeah I texted you last night. I saw you open them, but not respond.” 

 

Steve scrunches his nose. “Can’t read the tiny text, Buck. Haven’t texted anyone all day.” 

 

Oh. 

 

Okay. That makes him feel a bit better. 

 

“So.” Natasha says, looking uncomfortable, which is something they don’t see often. “We’re sorry you found out that way.” 

 

Steve starts rubbing at his eyes, “guys. It’s fine. I’m happy for you two. It’s none of my business anyways.” 

 

“Yeah, but we should have told you.” 

 

“Why?” Steve says looking up at Bucky, genuine confusion, “I don’t need to know. It’s none of my business.” 

 

And that throws both of them, “but…” Natasha starts, “you’re our friend. We don’t want to keep it from you.” 

 

And then Steve looks at them both with a raised eyebrow, “uh, obviously you did. Hence the secret. Hence me seeing you with your hand up his shirt.” Bucky feels his face flush and Natasha squirms in her seat. But Steve doesn’t seem to notice. “I’m happy for you guys. Really. No worries. I’ll stay out of your way.” 

 

That makes them pause, “uh, what?” 

 

Steve yawns, leaning back and squinting back at the TV. “I get it. I don’t want to be that annoying third-wheel. It’s all good.” 

 

“Steve, that’s not what we’re saying.” 

 

He doesn’t even look up from the tv. Just yawns again. “Then what are you saying?” 

 

“That we’re sorry you found out the way you did! Not that we don’t want you around.” 

 

Steve just blinks his eyes slowly and says, “okay.” 

 

————-

 

Natasha looks at Bucky who’s standing on the bottom of the steps outside the front door, having to go home before 3:45.

 

He looks miserable. 

 

“He’s not mad.” She reminds him. “That’s a good thing.” 

 

“Is it worse that he doesn’t even seem to care at all?” He asks morosely, standing on the pavement.

 

“I don’t know. But we should tell the others now.” 

 

“You’re the one who didn’t want to say anything in the first place.” He scowls. 

 

She just rolls her eyes at him. “Yes, well, seems like the cat’s out of the bag. And even though I’m sure Steve would keep it quiet if we asked, I don’t see a need anymore.” 

 

Bucky nods and they kiss goodbye. 

 

———- 

 

Clint looks at them with his eyebrow raised. “Yeah. I already knew.” 

 

Natasha scoffs, “you did not.” 

 

Clint hooks her to her pulley with the carabiner and flicks her braid. “Did so. You guys suck at hiding things.”

 

Bucky’s scowling again, “Steve and Tony don’t know.” 

 

Clint laughs, “Tony’s in another state, and I think we can agree Steve’s been more than a little preoccupied to notice you guys mooning at each other and holding hands when you think we can’t see.” 

 

Bucky’s cheeks burn red and Natasha starts climbing. Leaving a laughing Clint below her. 

 

———-

 

The only response they get, when they tell Tony over text is:

 

T: gross. 

 

T: imagine the kids you guys would have

 

T: adorable. And terrifying. 

 

Natasha groans and throws herself on her bed when Bucky texts her. 

 

B: okay, so no one is mad. 

 

He’s at home. A few more days of being grounded remaining. 

 

N: I’m glad it’s over with. 

 

B: I’m holding your hand tomorrow. 

 

N: you better. 

 

She smiles and looks at Wanda and Yelena. “You guys were right.” They look at her and raise their eyebrows. “There is someone.” They squeal and come scrambling over, laying on her bed as she braids their hair and tells them all about her and Bucky. 

 

————-

 

He gets his new glasses and groans at how thick the lenses are. 

 

He shows them to Sam and the guy grimaces. 

 

“Yikes.” Steve chuckles, “see! This is ridiculous!” 

 

“You’ve got eyes the size of dinner plates right now,” Sam says with a laugh, “just don’t look into the sun, I think you’d burn your eyes in seconds.” 

 

“Oof.” Steve says clutching at his heart, “you calling me an ant?” 

 

Sam ruffles his hair and taps at his chin. “You do have a vaguely similar body structure.” 

 

“Samuel Wilson, you take that back.” 

 

“Steven Rogers, I will not.” 

 

Steve laughs and slowly sips the smoothie Sam had made him. They’ve discovered that he’s able to get a lot of calories in without irritating his stomach too much if he drinks them instead. 

 

True to the doctor’s word, he’s stopped vomiting so often. Sometimes even going a week or two without. He’s able to keep more food down and he feels marginally better. 

 

He’s being honest with Sam about what symptoms appear and in return, Sam is able to let Steve joke about it and deal with the stress better than just internalizing it.  Steve looks at Sam and he can’t begin to express how grateful he is to the guy for sticking by him when he’d been acting like a punk. So, when September 30th rolls around, Steve tells Sam that he’s going to the college to pretend to take an art class he forgot to sign up for. 

 

“Steve, that’s ridiculous, just tell them you forgot.” 

 

“Can’t. I annoyed them about this class for two years. They’d never believe I forgot unless I told them why I actually forgot, and I’m not doing that. So if they ask, that’s where I am.” 

 

“Steve.” 

 

“Bye Sam, see you in 3 hours!” 

 

He walks out the door and heads towards the subway. 

 

———-

 

Steve enters the building and walks around, looking at the art pieces and amazing displays that line the hallways and foyers. 

 

He’s staring at a sketch of a couple dancing when he hears, “Steve?” 

 

He turns and sees the TA from the summer program two years ago, standing in the middle of the hallway, a stack of papers in his hands. 

 

“Oh, hey Mr. Banner.” 

 

“Steve, hey, how are you doing?” 

 

“I’m fine, you work here?” 

 

“Yeah. Well.  Not here . I work with Dr. Erskine in the science complex. But I needed these printed in color so I came over here… what are you doing here?” 

 

“It’s a long story.” Steve admits.

 

“Taking an art class?” 

 

“I was supposed to. But I missed the deadline.” 

 

Bruce looks at him with furrowed brows, “so you’re not taking a class?” 

 

“Nope.” 

 

“But you’re still here.” 

 

Steve grimaces, “yep, long story.” 

 

“You got time? I’m sure Erskine would love to say hi.” 

 

And since Steve has nothing but time, he agrees.

 

—-

 

“Steven!” Dr. Erskine exclaims, “what a surprise!” 

 

Steve shakes his hand and smiles, sitting down in the chair he points too. 

 

“What brings you to the school?” 

 

“Uh.” He says, glancing at Bruce, “it’s a long story.” 

 

“What class did you want to take?” Bruce asks, perched on the edge of Erskine's desk. 

 

“The Art of Drawing Life.” Steve responds, “I’ve wanted to take it for years, I’ve heard so many of Brooklyn’s best known artists have taken that class, but… I missed the deadline. It’s fine, I can try to fit it in next year.”

 

“Ah.” Dr. Erskine says with a smile, “I might be able to pull some strings if you’d like me to try?” 

 

“Oh no, I couldn’t ask you to do that. It’s my own fault I missed the deadline.” 

 

“I’d be happy to,” Erskine urges, “would you let me try?” 

 

Steve ducks his head, “I mean… if you’re willing. That would be amazing.” 

 

The man smiles and picks up his cell. “I’ll be back in a moment.” 

 

Steve nods and his eyes find the large windows. He steps closer and sees that it overlooks a huge lab, students moving around and working. 

 

Then someone looks up and his breath halts in his throat. 

 

Brown eyes stare into his blue ones and he feels his heart beat fast as perfect red lips smile at him. Then she looks back down and resumes her work. 

 

He steps back, steadying himself on a chair. 

 

“Steve? You okay?” 

 

He can’t speak. What do you say when you’ve just seen the most beautiful girl in the world and she smiled at you? 

 

He just nods and steps further away from the window. 

 

—————

 

Chapter Text

Erskine leads Steve through the hallways and back into the art building. They enter two large double doors and Steve suddenly feels nervous as 9 pairs of eyes flick up to look at him. 

 

“Dr. Erskine, welcome, is this who you called about?” 

 

Dr. Erskine turns to Steve and smiles, “yes, this is Steven. He was in my program two years ago, and I believe he’d be an excellent addition to your class.” 

 

The woman looks at Steve and raises her eyebrows. 

 

“Okay, three things. One: why did you miss the deadline? Two: how old are you? And Three: what’s your weapon of choice?” 

 

Steve feels stunned for one second before he swallows and takes a deep breath, “uh, I missed the deadline because I…” he looks around at the complete strangers around him, people he doesn’t want starting off knowing by their pity, “I received some not great news and forgot. I’m 17 years old, and are you asking what art tools I use or an actual weapon I would prefer?” 

 

She doesn’t blink, “both.” 

 

He takes a second to look around, “I’m best at oils.  But I prefer charcoal. And my weapon of choice would be a…” he looks up and sees the litany of old fashioned weapons hung up around the top of the room. The ceilings are high and he can see every sort of tool. And that’s what they are. Not just weapons, they’re tools. And he knows he’s not being asked a simple question. “Is this a test?” 

 

He sees Erskine smile at him, and the teacher looks at him seriously, “yes.” 

 

“I would use a shield.” 

 

The surprise on her face makes Steve smile. 

 

“Why?” 

 

“I don’t like fighting. But if someone needs defending then I’ll do what I can.” 

 

There’s a beat of silence before the teacher smiles and looks back at the students sitting at their art desks. 

 

“Okay. One last thing. You said you’re 17. You know you technically have to be 18 to take this class?” 

 

“I saw that in the requirements,” Steve responds, “but if it’s because it’s a heavy load or time consuming, I promise I won’t let you down. I can’t take this class next year with my senior year schedule, so I need to take it this year.” 

 

“Steve, right?” 

 

“Mhmm.” 

 

“You have to be 18 because this is the Art of Drawing Life. All parts of life. Including life models. Art always pushes the boundaries. And in this class we do that. Each student in the class is expected to model.” 

 

He’s processing her words and he can feel the blush creeping under his collar. 

 

“So, it would have to be unanimous with my students. That, as a minor, if you were here, we would have to… let’s say censor the models a bit. As the teacher I’m fine either way. But those who made the deadline would have to all agree. They deserve priority in choice. I would also need your guardian’s permission.” 

 

His eyes dart to the floor, “I don’t want to change your syllabus or plans. I didn’t realize—- I should have known about the minor thing. I’m sorry.” 

 

He’s about to back out when a girl sitting at one of the art stations speaks up. “Professor? I don’t mind.” Steve glances up and the girl smiles at him. “Truthfully, I was kind of intimidated to be naked anyways.” She laughs, “minorly censored works for me.” 

 

“I don’t mind either.” Another kid, further in the back says. “He seems cool. He should be here.” 

 

Steve feels his eyes widen in surprise as the rest of the class agree to have Steve and the variation to their life models. 

 

The teacher looks at him and smiles softly, “Okay, Steven, my name is Professor Sif. Welcome to the Art of Drawing Life.” 

 

He glances up at Erskine who nods and he looks back at her. “Thank you, Professor. I won’t let you down.” 

 

And she looks at him seriously, “I believe you.” 

 

And those words stick with him as he goes to take his seat. 

 

He ends up next to the girl who spoke up first. He looks at her and extends his hand, “I’m Steve, thanks by the way.” 

 

She takes his hand, shaking it firmly. “I’m Hope. Don’t mention it. You saved my skinny ass from being totally on display.” 

 

Steve feels a surprised laugh leave his chest and the girl smiles at him. 

 

“Okay.” The Professor says, clapping her hands, “we’ve gone over the syllabus, Steven you’ll receive yours after, and now, for the last hour and a half of class we’re going to start off with a classic. Self portraits. We will do one at the beginning of class, and at the end. See the progression or style changes. You may choose any medium you’d like. Begin.” 

 

Steve looks at the wide range of supplies, the hustle of the people around him, and the smell of acrylic and canvas. He smiles and gets to work. 

 

———-

 

Bruce waits outside the classroom door, and when Erskine exits alone, he smiles. “He made it in?” 

 

“Of course he did.” Erskine responds with a smile, “something about that kid makes people drop their defenses.” 

 

“Hmm.” Bruce responds. They enter back into the Science complex and walk to his office. “Dr. Erskine?” 

 

Bruce turns to see one of Erskine’s interns. 

 

“Yes, Ms. Carter?” 

 

“I’ve finished with the spinner and the Vertical Audit, is there anything else you need from me tonight?” 

 

“No, my dear, thank you. You’re free to go.” 

 

Bruce watches as she turns to leave but she stops at the doorway, turning her head, “Dr. Erskine?” 

 

“Yes?” 

 

“There was someone else up here, in your office, maybe 20 minutes ago… is he a new lab worker?” 

 

Bruce feels the beginning of a smile on his face, before he squashes it. Dr. Erskine is shuffling through papers when he responds, “Hmm? Oh, you mean Steven? Glasses and Blonde? No, no, he’s not a scientist. He’s in the Art class happening now. Mr. Banner and I knew him from the summer program he had just stopped by to say hello.” 

 

“Ah.” The girl responds before looking down the hallway, “good night.” 

 

Bruce lets out a chuckle and Dr. Erskine looks up, “what?” 

 

“Oh nothing.” Bruce says, “nothing at all.” 

 

————

 

Natasha waits, sitting on the wooden steps, chewing on a red vine when the front door opens. She looks up to see Steve walking in, carrying a large leather folio and… smiling

 

“Steve?” 

 

He looks up and smiles at her, “Hey Nat.” He takes off his jacket and hangs it by the door in his spot. Removes his shoes and picks back up the folio, “everyone upstairs already?” 

 

“Yeah, it’s late, weren’t you supposed to be back at like 7:40? It’s 9p.m.! We texted you!” 

 

Steve looks at her, eyes magnified behind the glasses. “I didn’t feel it vibrate…” he pats his pockets and then checks his jacket, “uh-oh.” He looks up sheepishly, “I think I left it there. I put it in a drawer so it wouldn’t get it covered in stuff.” 

 

“Steve.” Natasha sighs, “you have to be careful, I worry when you don’t answer.” 

 

He ducks his head, but he can’t keep the smile off his face, “don’t worry, I’ll grab it Thursday.” 

 

“Why are you late? Didn’t it end at 7?” 

 

“Mhmm.” Steve says, walking past her on the stairs, “but I needed to talk to the professor after class to make sure I understood everything on the syllabus.” 

 

“Okay, just… maybe let us know when you’re gonna be late.” 

 

And with that, he chuckles and looks at her, “I’m 17 Natasha. I’m not a kid, and you’re not my mom. I texted Sam I would be late.” He stands there, waiting for her response with his eyebrow raised. 

 

She rolls her eyes, “you know we worry about you.” 

 

“Why?” 

 

That throws her off guard, “why what?” 

 

“Why do you worry about me? What’s there to worry about?” 

 

And she sees the Steve she hasn’t in a while. Stubborn and willing to stand up for himself. 

 

“You know why.” She snaps back softly. 

 

“I don’t actually.” He says making his way up the stairs and forcing her to follow, “I was in an art class, not much heart strain there. I have my inhaler. The brothers are locked up right now. So what’s to worry about?” 

 

She doesn’t get to answer as he enters the room. 

 

“Steve!” 

 

“Hey Pete, how was school today?” 

 

“So good! I learned about—“ 

 

Natasha sits on her own bed, watching Steve smile and be relaxed and at ease. Something she doesn’t think she’s seen for months. 

 

Maybe there isn’t anything to worry about. 

 

————

 

And that’s how October goes. None of them say it out loud, but Steve is almost back to normal. He laughs and jokes with them and he eats a bit more. 

 

He comes home on Tuesday and Thursday nights practically beaming, with that huge leather folio in his hands. 

 

Clint comes over for dinner one night and comments to Natasha how much less stressed the house seems and Natasha nods, “I don’t think Steve really understands how big of an impact he has on everyone. He’s like our…” she tries to come up with a word. “I don’t know… But when he’s happy, so is everyone else. When he’s down, the other kids adjust. I think it was a coping mechanism from their time with Mrs. Schmidt. Like they trusted him to keep them safe. If he was quiet, they were quiet. If he was relaxed…” she trails off, realizing how much responsibility was on his shoulders during those years. “It’s been largely unnoticeable since Sam took over. But the younger kids aren’t dumb, they may not have known something was up with Steve recently but they knew something was up.” 

 

Clint nods and they eat and watch as Steve tells a story he heard in class the day before that has Wanda and Yelena giggling.

 

———-

 

Tony glances up at the clock for the thousandth time. He only has 20 minutes left of this class period before he gets to go home for Fall Break. 

 

The bell dismisses the class and he hops into his already packed car, driving the few hours home. 

 

“Jarvis!” He calls out as he enters through the back door, “anyone home?” 

 

“I’m in the kitchen.” He hears the familiar voice call back. 

 

“Eh, Jarvis, there you are! Happy to have me home?” 

 

“Ecstatic sir, your parents’ flight was delayed but they should be in before midnight. I’ll bring them home from the airport.” 

 

“Thanks, let me go drop my stuff off and I’ll be right back.” 

 

He walks to his room, dumping his duffle bag on the floor and slipping off his shoes. After yawning, he enters the bathroom and walks to the toilet, lifting the lid and the seat up so he can pee. 

 

But his hand freeze on his belt buckle. 

 

Why the hell is there dried blood under his toilet seat?

 

His need to pee forgotten, he practically bolts out of his room and to the kitchen. “Jarvis?” 

 

“Yes, sir?” 

 

“Who’s been in my bathroom?” 

 

The man looks at Tony with a fond eye roll, “your request to have the maids ‘stay the hell out of your room and stuff’ has been strictly enforced. No maid or housekeeper has entered, cleansed, or ‘moved’ your belongings since you left. I can assure you.” 

 

“No, no.” Tony says huffing, “someone had to have used my bathroom.” 

 

Jarvis blinks at him, true concern growing on his face, “I can assure you that your parents have no need or desire to use your bathroom instead of their own. Are you concerned that one of the staff is using your bathroom irresponsibly? Do I need to alert Mr. Stark?”

 

Something like dread settles in the pit of Tony’s stomach. The day he left was the day they were all here when Steve and Bucky got suspended. 

 

And Steve needed to use the bathroom. 

 

“No.” Tony chokes out. “No, it’s fine.” 

 

“You’re sure?” 

 

“Yeah.” 

 

———

 

Bucky looks at his outfit. “I mean, it’s cool.” He says to Natasha who’s on FaceTime. “But no one will get it unless we’re together.” 

 

She laughs, putting on mascara in the mirror, “we will be together, we’re gunna be trick or treating together.” 

 

“Are we sure going out the night before the trial is the best idea?” 

 

“Clint’s right. Keeping his mind off of it is the best idea.” 

 

“He still won’t tell you?” 

 

“Nope. He’s been in Sam’s room getting ready this whole time.” 

 

“That little sneak.” Bucky says ruefully, “he always manages to have the coolest costume.” 

 

“He is an artist.” Natasha says with a laugh. “He’s good at this stuff.” 

 

“Okay,” Bucky says, straightening his bow tie, “I’m heading over.” 

 

“See you soon.” She says before blinking off his screen. 

 

“I’ll be back around 1a.m. Mom!” He calls as he exits the door, “love you!” 

 

“Be safe!” She calls back, “Have fun! Tell everyone I said hi!” 

 

“Will do!” 

 

——-

 

Clint watches from the stone steps as Bucky rounds the corner in a tuxedo. He whistles and Bucky looks up and rolls his eyes, laughing. Then he sees Clint, “are you… Robin Hood?” 

 

Clint laughs, “yep! Thinking archery’s going to be my new thing. They’re opening a range at work and I’ve been practicing.” 

 

“Just don’t shoot me.” 

 

“You’re one to talk, James Bond.” 

 

“I’m Mr. Smith,” Bucky groans. “See, I told Natasha, we have to stick together.” At his words, the door opens and Natasha steps out in a sleek black dress, hair pin straight and makeup perfectly done. 

 

Both boys gape at her and she smirks, “do I look okay?” 

 

Clint whistles and Bucky nods, “you look amazing.” 

 

“Thank you. As do you. And… Robin Hood?” 

 

“Yep!” 

 

She laughs, “that’s a good one.” 

 

A car turns on the street and draws their eyes. It pulls up and squeezes into a spot. They watch as Tony exits, dressed like a 1940’s dapper gentleman. Complete with hat and cane. But he doesn’t look happy. 

 

“Hey, Tony!” Natasha calls, “you look great!” 

 

He nods, “where’s Steve?” 

 

“I’m here.” They look up to the front door where Steve stands, an apprehensive smile on his face. 

 

Four mouths drop open in shock. Steve has painted his face and arms and clothes to look like he’s stepped out of an old comic book. Dots and black outline cover him and gives him the coolest effect. 

 

“STEVE!” Bucky shouts bounding up the steps, “you look amazing!” He’s about to grab Steve’s shoulder but Steve yanks back.

 

“Don’t touch.” He snaps. “It took forever, don’t ruin it.” 

 

Bucky laughs, pulling his hands back, “roger that.” 

 

They each gush about each other’s costumes an appropriate amount before the conversation settles down. And Clint notices that Tony has been oddly silent. He looks over to find the man staring at Steve.

 

He gives a questioning look at Tony, who shakes his head imperceptibly. Later.  

 

Okay. That’s… that’s not a good sign. 

 

————

 

The night goes well, despite his misgivings about Steve. 

 

Tony watches like a hawk. But the kid seems in good spirits. He seems more healthy than he was almost two months ago when he saw him last, laughing and joking and not any teenage pouting. 

 

“How’s school been?” He asks Steve. 

 

“It’s good. Normal. I hate math, I don’t know how you do it.” 

 

Tony laughs and shrugs, “born a genius, what can you do.” 

 

Steve rolls his eyes and gets an excited look in his eyes that Tony can’t ignore, “what? What is it?” 

 

“The art class I’m taking? You know the one at the college?” 

 

“Yeah?” 

 

“It’s so cool. It’s really made up my mind about college. I’m definitely going to art school.” 

 

“Oh yeah? What’s so great about it?” 

 

“Just, the teacher’s really cool. She’s strict but like… good. She has expectations that are high, but attainable, you know? She knows what she’s talking about. And my classmates are cool. Super chill. College must be really cool, is it?” 

 

The eager eyes on Tony’s make him soften a touch, letting some of the concern go. “Yeah, Steve, college is cool. You’re gunna love it.” 

 

Steve nods as if he knew that was the truth and Tony reaches out, gently poking his ribs, “you seem happy, any particular reason?” 

 

Steve looks up, “huh?” 

 

“You seem happier, there a girl in that class I need to know about?” 

 

And even in the dark of the street lights Tony watches as Steve’s cheeks tint. “Oh you’re lying!” He crows, “Steve! There’s a girl!!??” 

 

His shout makes the other three whip around with eyes wide and Steve’s already magnified eyes grow wider, “No! Tony shut the hell up! There is not a girl!” 

 

“You blushed Stevie, the blood vessels don’t lie!” 

 

“There’s not!” Steve practically whines. “I’m not talking to anyone.” And the way he emphasizes that makes Tony smile. 

 

“Oh, ho, ho ho, so you guys aren’t talking, but you are definitely looking.” 

 

Bucky, Clint, and Natasha are closing in, listening to their conversation. He watches Steve shift tracks. 

 

“There’s this girl in my class, she’s super cool, her name is Hope Pym. She’s really nice, she’s taught me a lot about perspectives and sizing in art. And then this other guy, his name’s Gabe, he’s really good with clay and I made a bust the other day. It was really cool. I’ve really liked the experience.” 

 

Tony lets the conversation morph, but he keeps a pin in the ‘there’s a girl’ conversation. Because he’s never seen Steve blush in reference to a girl like that before. So she must be really something.

 

“Wait…” his brain short circuit. “Pym? Like… Hank Pym?” 

 

Steve looks up at him, “who’s that?” 

 

“Hank Pym! The famous scientist, my dad has worked with him.” 

 

“Oh really? That’s cool.” 

 

“Yeah, they don’t get along super well, but smart people usually don’t.” 

 

“That why we get along with you so well?” Clint jokes, “you’re dumb enough to be our friend?” 

 

They dissolve into bickering after that. 

 

————

 

Bucky notices Steve shiver before anyone else. He looks at the clock. 11p.m. 

 

“Hey, how about we go to that little cafe near the subway stop? Get something warm to drink?” 

 

They must catch on because they all agree to leave their trick or treating path. 

 

——-

 

They enter the 24 hour cafe. Tony orders an espresso. Clint and Bucky order coffees and Natasha orders a hot chocolate with extra marshmallows. 

 

They look at Steve who looks kind of pale. “Steve?” Bucky asks, “you want something?” 

 

He shakes his head and he looks down at his candy bag. “I think..” he whispers. “I think I ate too much candy.” He sets his bag down and they can see him try to stay calm, “I’ll be right back.” 

 

He disappears behind the bathroom doors and they look at each other. 

 

“I hope he doesn’t throw up.” Natasha says softly as they settle into their table. “I’ll have to call Sam.” 

 

Tony’s head pops up, something making his sense prick. “What are you talking about?”

 

Natasha glances up, “maybe mid-September, Steve was getting sick a lot, he had food poisoning or something or the stomach flu, and he wasn’t telling Sam and Sam got mad about it. So he asked me to let him know if I heard it happen again. It’s been awhile though. I guess it is getting colder. Steve always gets sick in the winter” 

 

Tony looks at the three of them. “And none of you thought to tell me about this?”

 

Clint’s brow pulls down, “what did you want us to say? Hey Tony, how’s college, oh by the way, Steve got the stomach bug? He gets sick all the time, why would we—“ 

 

Tony’s standing up, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. 

 

They all look up in surprise, “what?” Bucky asks. 

 

But he’s gone, striding towards the bathroom and slamming through the doors. He enters and sees Steve, washing his hands. 

 

“Tony? You okay? You look—“ 

 

“Steve? Did you throw up?” 

 

A look of sheer panic crosses Steve’s eyes before disappearing instantly, “huh? What? No, I- I, uh, just needed to go pee.” 

 

“You’re lying. You’re a terrible liar.” 

 

“Tony, what?” 

 

Bucky and Clint appear in the mirror and he can hear Natasha huffing outside the door. 

 

And he wants to press. But the kid in front of him looks like he’s prepared to face the firing squad instead of opening his mouth again. So Tony relents. “Never mind.” He pushes out of the bathroom and sits heavily on the booth seat. 

 

And the happy atmosphere is gone. 

 

They sip their drinks in relative silence. 

 

————-

 

Steve trudges tiredly up the stairs. He can barely keep his eyes open, but he has to wash all this paint off. 

 

He waits till Natasha’s finished getting cleaned off before he steps into the bathroom. A few smudges here and there, but he’d made it through the night relatively unscathed, his costume had held out really well. 

 

He turns on the shower and steps under the hot spray, letting the heat take off the top layer, but eventually he has to start scrubbing. 

 

He tries not to picture the suit that’s hanging next to his bed that he has to put on tomorrow. He just suds up his skin and hair, trying to get the paint off. 

 

He yawns and decides to fill the tub, let his skin soak. He closes the drain and settles back into the warm water as it starts to raise. 

 

He blinks, tiredness overtaking him. 

 

———

 

Natasha wakes to shouting. 

 

She jolts up and notices the other kids doing the same, she glances around tiredly until she hears the pounding and shouting coming from the hallway. 

 

She tumbles out of bed, sliding out the door to find Sam standing in a puddle and pounding on the bathroom door. 

 

“Steve!” His voice is hysterical, “Steve, open this door!” 

 

Natasha lets out a shriek of fear and Sam turns to her, “keep the kids in the rooms!” He orders before pounding on the door again. 

 

She nods and goes to shut the door where other curious eyes are starting to gather. 

 

“Get back inside.” She says softly but firmly. She feels a hand in hers and looks down to see Peter.

 

“Where’s Steve?” He asks, fear in his eyes. She doesn't have an answer, just the sound of Sam slamming his fists against the door. 

 

———

 

A resounding crack echoes through the house and Natasha points a threatening finger at the crowd of kids, “stay here!” She orders before running out of the room and finding the splintered door that Sam must have kicked through. 

 

She looks into the bathroom, her heart stopping, to find Sam dragging Steve’s body up from the bottom of the tub, water, paint, and soap swirling together around her feet as it trickles past her and down the stairs. 

 

She steps forward, her bare feet soaking in the cooling water. Sam already has Steve on the ground, administering CPR. He’s talking, a constant stream of reassurance. 

 

“Come on, Steve. Come on. Breathe with me. Wake up, buddy. Don’t you do this to me. Come on, you can do it, breathe for me.” He breathes twice into Steve’s mouth before resuming the compressions on his chest. 

 

Natasha’s standing there, face frozen and heart pounding, “Sam?” She squeaks, “what do I do? Should I call 9-1-1?” 

 

“I already did.” He says, breathing heavily, trying to keep his composure, “call Sarah. I need her here to watch the kids.” She nods, flying back to her room and grabbing her phone. 

 

“Natasha?” Yelena asks, “what’s going on?” 

 

“Stay here. Keep all the kids here.” She says, not answering. “Call Bucky, call Clint! Call Tony.” Her sister nods, grabbing her phone. 

 

“What do I tell them?” 

 

“To track my phone.” She says, “come to where I am.” 

 

Yelena looks surprised but doesn't question it. 

 

Natasha walks back into the bathroom and her hands shake at the sight of Steve’s unconscious form, memories, flashbacks of another time. But Sam isn’t doing compressions. He has a hand held under Steve’s nose. Speaking reassurances, 

 

“It’s okay, Steve. You’re breathing. It’s okay. Stay with me. You’re gunna be okay. Stick with me, they’re on their way.” 

 

“Is he breathing?” She asks shakily, as the line rings. Sam nods, and Natasha hands him her phone. 

 

“Sarah?” Sam says to the phone, eyes on Steve, his other hand resting on Steve’s chest, feeling as it rises and falls, “I need you to come over. Yeah, bring Cass and AJ, that’s fine. They can sleep in my bed. I don’t know. I — Steve— Okay, thank you. Thank you.” 

 

Natasha looks up as she hears sirens approach. 

 

Sam hauls Steve into his arms and carries him down the stairs.

 

————

 

Bucky wakes up to the fifth phone call. He groans and swipes it open. “‘Hullo?” He says with a yawn.

 

“Bucky?” 

 

He feels the fear through the phone, “Natasha?” 

 

“No, it’s Yelena. She asked me to call you.” 

 

He sits up, rubbing his eyes, looking at the clock, it’s only 1:45. He saw her maybe not even an hour ago.

 

“What?” He asks, swinging his legs over the bed, “what’s wrong?” 

 

“She just told me to tell you to track her phone but…” she pauses and Bucky can hear other kids whispering in the background, her voice turns to a whisper, “I think it’s about Steve, Ms. Wilson’s here and I heard a siren.” 

 

Bucky is out of his bed, throwing on a shirt and stumbling down the stairs to his parent’s room. 

 

————

 

Clint dashes through the door, hair sticking straight up and his hoodie on inside out. 

 

He spots her and runs over, Bucky’s beside her, holding her hand and Tony’s standing rigidly against the wall. 

 

“This is some shitty dejavu” he spouts, getting their attention. “What happened?” 

 

Natasha shakes her head, her throat tight, “he went to take a shower, he said he was gonna wash all the paint off, but then I went to bed… Next thing I know Sam’s breaking the door down and pulling Steve out of the bottom of the tub-“ her voice cracks and Bucky pulls her closer. 

 

Clint’s about to ask more questions when Sam walks out, “guys.” He says, “he’s awake.” 

 

———

 

Steve lays there, eyeing the door. Sam had said they were all there. He groaned and asked if he could wait to see them til morning and Sam had sighed, “that’s your choice.” 

 

And Steve had sighed and sunk back deeper against the pillow, “fine. They can come in.” 

 

Now he waits. The door creaks and he looks up. Four silent figures enter his room and stand close to his bed. 

 

He looks at them and they look at him and he ducks his head, “sorry.” 

 

“What happened, Steve?” Natasha asks him, “you told me you were going to take a shower?” 

 

He grimaces, “it started as a shower, but… I couldn’t get the paint off, and I was tired so I sat down and tried, but I decided to soak in a bath instead and I… I guess I fell asleep.” 

 

“Fell asleep and drowned?” Tony asks sharply, “most people would wake up the minute water passes through their nose.” 

 

His voice sounds weak even to him, “I was really tired. I’m sorry.” 

 

Sam walks in and looks at the rigid expressions on their faces. “Okay, Steve let’s get some rest and you guys can see him when he’s back home. Go get some sleep. The trial is still…” he looks at his watch, “today.”

 

The mention of the trial freezes the air and the dismissal is clear. 

 

The file out, with weighted looks and barely whispered ‘goodbyes’. 

 

Natasha gets into Bucky’s mom’s car and she looks out the window as they drive. 

 

“How are we going to leave next year?” She asks. 

 

Bucky doesn’t respond. 

 

————-

Chapter Text

Once the other kids leave, Steve looks out the window, “I still want to go to art class today. The trial doesn’t change anything.” He says with a frown. Sam looks at him meaningfully and he sighs. “I know, I know that this was bad.” 

 

“You passed out, Steve. You didn’t just fall asleep.” 

 

Steve groans, “I know, but how am I supposed to say that to them? They would have asked why.” 

 

Sam stares at him, “why did you?” 

 

He shakes his head, “I don’t know. I was really tired, and I’m wondering if I just… tired out my heart or something—“ 

 

“Steve? I’m Dr. Natsue.” They both look up to see a new doctor standing in the doorway. “Sorry, we’re getting to you so late. Mr. Wilson? Would you mind stepping out for a few minutes?” 

 

Sam looks at her, unsure, “why?” 

 

“Just some basic questions I need to ask Steve.” 

 

Sam looks at him and he just shrugs, “okay…” Sam says finally, then he looks meaningfully at Steve, “you call me if you need me, I’ll be right outside.” 

 

Steve nods and the doctor waits until the door is fully closed. 

 

“Steve. It’s very important that you’re honest with me. I’m your doctor and I want to ensure your health and safety.” Steve looks at her, unsure where she’s heading. “I need to know if you’re having suicidal thoughts, or ideas of harming yourself?” 

 

Steve feels his mouth part in shock, “what?” 

 

“After last night’s incident, I want to make sure that this was not an attempt to harm yourself.” 

 

“What? N-no.” Steve chokes out, “I didn’t- I wouldn’t—“ 

 

She holds up her hands, “I’m not trying to say you would.” She says calmly, “I didn’t mean to distress you, I just want to make sure you’re properly taken care of and receive the help you need.” 

 

The air drags slowly back to his lungs, and he leans back, “no, I swear, I just… was really tired. I passed out I think…” 

 

She looks at her clipboard, “after they made sure your lungs were clear, they ran a few tests on your heart and I’m concerned about the degradation I’m seeing compared to your last results.” Steve winces, the last doctor had mentioned this. Trying to heal one would hurt the other. “I’m going to need you to start taking it really easy.” The doctor says, “what were you doing before this incident?” 

 

“Just trick or treating.” Steve says softly, “just walking.” 

 

“For how long? How cold was it?” 

 

“A couple hours… It was pretty chilly.” He admits, “my costume only had a thin jacket…” 

 

The doctor smiles, “is that the traces of paint I see?” Steve nods. “Try to stay as warm as possible from now on, okay? Too intense on either side of the temperature scale makes your body and therefore your heart work harder. So try to keep that in mind. Also, if walking that long makes you too tired, make sure you take breaks often, okay?” 

 

Steve tries to ignore the growing despair in his stomach. More restrictions. More things he can’t or shouldn’t do. 

 

“Okay.” He agrees softly. 

 

————

 

Bucky stands next to Natasha, fidgeting and unable to stop picking at the hem of his suit. Clint stands like a statue at the edge of the room, eyes darting back and forth, half out the windows and half on the room. Watching everything like a hawk. 

 

Tony stands next to his dad, listening as the lawyers speak and confer. 

 

Bucky’s eyes find Steve, pale and rigid, standing beside Sam near Howard and Tony. 

 

He hates how drawn out this has to be. The jury’s already been selected and today is just the opening statements. It may take days or weeks or even months before there’s a decision, but Bucky hopes against all things that it won’t take that long. He doesn’t think he can take that. His eyes look over to Steve again who already looks exhausted just standing there. He doesn't think Steve can take it either. 

 

——-

 

Tony’s sitting rigidly on the edge of his seat and only his father’s hand on his arm keeps him from jumping up and screaming at the attorney. 

 

He looks at Steve who is sitting there looking like he’s seeing a ghost. 

 

———-

 

Clint’s fists are clenched and his knuckles are almost translucent. The absurdity of their opening statement makes him want to punch the wooden bench in front of him. 

 

He breathes through his nose and stares daggers at the back of the Fleming brothers’ heads. 

 

One of them turns around to him and winks. 

 

Only Natasha’s nails against his forearm keeps him from attacking them. 

 

————

 

The court dismisses and Sam comes and tells Natasha that they’re leaving. She follows him silently. 

 

She watches as Steve sits silently in the front seat, just staring at his hands. 

 

————-

 

Steve doesn't hear Sam ask him if he wants dinner. He can’t hear anything. Just the repeating words of the brothers’ attorney. 

 

Seeking attention. 

 

Fame chaser. 

 

Scam.

 

Collusion. 

 

Money hungry.

 

Trickster.

 

Actor.

 

15 seconds of fame. 

 

Dramatic.

 

Plotted.

 

He walks into the room, grabs his art folio and walks back out of the house without a second thought. 

 

————-

 

Steve steps into the art classroom and sits at his station. 

 

“What’s with the get-up?” 

 

He looks up to see Hope staring at him funny. He looks down and realizes he’s still in his suit.

 

Attention seeker. 

 

“Steve?” He looks back up, and her eyes are full of concern, “you okay?” 

 

And without thinking he just says, “not really.” 

 

She tilts her head, “you wanna talk about it?” 

 

“Not really.” 

 

She nods. “Okay. I’m here if you need to.” 

 

He takes a deep breath and nods, “thanks.” 

 

“Ladies and Gentleman! It’s our first day of life models!” He hears Professor Sif say, “and it’s on volunteer basis. Who wants to go first?” 

 

It’s dead silent and Steve feels himself suck in a deep breath and stare at the floor. He’s never felt more angry and numb and vulnerable and exposed and desperate than he does today. After the lies and the false accusations he heard today. Nothing could make this day worse. 

 

So he looks at the professor and raises his hand. “I will.” 

 

She looks at him in surprise. “Steve? You’re sure?” 

 

He nods, his jaw set tight. 

 

“Okay…” she looks at the class and gestures to the side wall where a range of seats are lined up. “Now. The object you choose to sit on says a lot about you. What will it be?” 

 

He stares at them. A chaise lounge, a stuffed wingback chair, a stool, a rolling office chair, a wooden bench, a rocking chair, a plastic folding chair, a bean bag, a director’s chair, an Adirondack, and a patio lounger. 

 

His feet carry him forward and he’s grabbing one before he can second-guess himself. 

 

If they think he’s dramatic? Then fine. He sets the small metal stool down in the middle of the circle of art stations filled by his classmates and looks at the professor. 

 

She looks at him, pursing her lips and tilting her head in thought. He ignores the minor look of concern on her face, just standing there. She nods slowly, “okay. Stool it is. There’s a bathroom there and a robe. Make sure you keep your undershorts on. Come out when you’re ready.” 

 

He nods and walks to the door marked “bathroom”. 

 

——

 

The fluorescent lights in the bathroom do nothing for him. He almost laughs at the thought. 

 

He stares at the muddled skin, thankful that he doesn’t have any rash or skin irritation at the moment. And he almost laughs again at the thought that they would be looking at anything but the words carved into his skin, or the giant burn scar, or the myriad other scars and marks on his skin from his years under Mrs. Schmidt. 

 

He tugs the robe on, not bothering to tie it as he takes a deep breath and steps back out the door. 

 

The lights are darker, the overheads turned off and some other smaller lights, set up at different heights around his stool. 

 

“The different angles in lights—“ Professor Sif is explaining, “ensures that each of you will have a different perspective and be able to capture a separate essence of Steve.” She waves him over and points to his glasses, “you want them on or off? It’s up to you.” 

 

He looks at the class and shrugs, “what do you guys want?” 

 

The guy in the back, Gabe, speaks up. “You have nice bone structure, really sharp, the glasses kind of hide it, so I say off.” 

 

“I don’t know.” Hope adds, “I love the way they magnify your really nice blue eyes.” 

 

“True,” Gabe adds, “but his eyes are still really nice without them on,” 

 

Hope nods, “you’re right. I guess no glasses.” 

 

Steve blinks at the compliment and ducks his head, pulling them off. “Okay.” He says softly. 

 

“Now, Steve, if at any point you want to shift or move, feel free. This is about learning to draw life not a statue. The artist will adjust according to you. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, let us know. You’re not forced to sit for hours.” 

 

Steve nods, suddenly feeling the weight of the robe on his shoulders. Taking this off means giving up everything. All traces of the anonymity he’s enjoyed here the last month or so. The class seems to wait patiently, waiting for him to be ready. 

 

But he’ll never be really ready. So there’s no point in putting it off. 

 

He steps up to the stool and gently shrugs off the robe, sitting on the stool and bringing one of his legs up, resting his chin on his arm on top of his knee. 

 

The students in front of him slowly start, grabbing whatever medium is their choice, surreptitiously glancing at the burn on his arm and maybe a few of the others that litter his chest and legs, but the students behind him are frozen in place. He can just feel it. Not even a breath. 

 

He wonders how the lights are making them look. 

 

He pretends not to notice the way Professor Sif, who is standing in front of him, tilts her head in confusion at what the reaction behind him must be. 

 

He wonders what she’s looking at. Is it faces of pity? Or disgust? Of shock? 

 

His eyes trail her movement as she slowly walks, trying to seem nonchalant. 

 

But as she rounds the circle, finally getting a view of his back, her steps falter, and he hears the sharp intake of breath. 

 

He wonders if she’ll make him cover up. 

 

But she doesn’t. No one speaks. 

 

And eventually, he hears them start. Pencils and pastels and paints slowly utilized to capture the horror that is his back. 

 

————-

 

He shifts a few times, switching legs or stretching or getting a drink of water when Professor Sif hands him a water bottle. 

 

He’s not ignorant that every single one of the students that is in front of him, happens to get up and go to the back of the classroom for some supply or whatever excuse they use to get a look at his back. 

 

He knows because the eyes that look at him before they see it and the eyes that look at him after are different. Their perspective of him changed. 

 

Eventually, Professor Sif says they have 10 minutes remaining and he shifts, nodding and switching his foot for balance. 

 

At 5 minutes, she tells him that they’ll be showing their drawings to him and he freezes. 

 

He grips his knees so he doesn’t topple over. 

 

She sends him to get dressed and he emerges in his suit, stopping in surprise at the row of easels displaying their work. 

 

He looks at each one, emotion constricting his throat and he feels his hands start to shake. 

 

He steps forward starting on the left, a watercolor of his face, not romanticized or harshened, just… a true aspect of it and he looks up at the girl who did it and smiles. She smiles back and he steps to the right. A charcoal sketch, his sharp elbow and side profile on full display. He reaches out, not touching but tracing the long lines of his legs. The next is a quick acrylic, almost blurry as if they painted him while he was stretching. He continues, each a unique and fascinating take of him. He steps up to Hope’s, who was directly behind him. Her eyes are soft and kind as she looks at him. The charcoal sketch traces the curve of his back, protruding shoulder blades and sharp spinal column. He sees the shadows she used to show the traces of his ribs and the angle of his face. He sees the words. They’re there, not ignored, but not prominent either. As if she was just capturing a particularly large birthmark on his skin. Sort of muddled but not erased. His throat gets tight and he can’t ever remember feeling handsome, but somehow, in that sketch, he feels… like maybe he’s something interesting to look at. 

 

He moves on before he can break down, stepping up to Gabe’s. It’s a pastel and it’s a partial side portrait, showcasing the bone structure and angles that Gabe had complimented him on earlier, Steve is fascinated with his use of colors to make it look like his hair is almost moving, hanging down over his forehead, blue eyes staring calmly out from behind. His shoulder is in view, and he is struck with how his collarbone, neck and shoulder make such an interesting shape from Gabe’s view. He stares at it for a minute before moving on and taking in the last few. 

 

At the end, the last one, he’s in shock to see an oil painting of just his back. An incredibly detailed painting of every scar, every word, almost like a picture. He looks up at the artist who is looking at him in trepidation. It’s not harsh, and the scars aren’t glorified, just captured. The way the light creates shadows that the paint captures make his back seem… strong…

 

Steve looks up, “it’s beautiful,” he whispers, unable to fully express why. 

 

The girl looks back at him, eyes sincere as she says, “so are you.” 

 

He stands there stunned, unable to move, the words rooting him to the linoleum floor. 

 

She smiles and steps forward, “you seem surprised.” He swallows thickly, unable to form words. “It’s true.” She says lightly, “believe me, I know beauty. I’m an artist.” She gives him an impish grin at her joke and he finally takes in a shaky breath. 

 

“Thanks…” he says softly, eyes falling to the ground. He steps back and looks at the row of artists, “thanks, to all of you. They’re all amazing.” 

 

That breaks the silence. They all start talking at once, pulling him this way and that, pointing out the aspects of their art that they like most, touching his nose, and jaw, and cheekbones, holding out his hands and explaining why they drew his fingers the way they did. Steve laughs as Gabe asks him to take off his suit coat so he can show someone else the way he captured the ‘essence of Steve’s elbow’ as he calls it. 

 

Another 20 minutes goes by and he is sitting next to one of the guys who is trying to get Steve's hair color ‘just right’ with watercolors. 

 

Eventually they start to peel off, heading their separate ways and Steve grabs his coat and folio, zipping it up. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

He looks up to see Professor Sif standing in front of him, “yes?” 

 

“I’ll not make any assumptions.” She says firmly, “but… are you safe at home?” 

 

His mind rings back to what Scott had asked and he smiles, nodding. “Yeah, I’m safe. These are old. And not from home.” 

 

She gently points to the elbow where his burn scar was. He winces, “Okay,” he rectifies, “that one was from home, but I don’t live with her anymore.” 

 

She takes a deep breath and looks at him. “You’re an amazingly brave guy, you know that?” 

 

He feels himself shrink, “you can’t know that.” He says, defensive. 

 

She shakes her head, not backing down. “Actually I can. Choosing the stool? Complete vulnerability. Nowhere to hide. And you could have chosen any chair with a back to hide those scars.” 

 

And the words from the lawyer rear in his mind, and his tone gets brittle as he responds, “maybe I just wanted attention.” 

 

The way her eyes search his face makes him almost feel more vulnerable than when he was on the stool. “Do you?” She asks. 

 

“Do I what?” He asks, frowning. 

 

She laughs, “do you want attention?” 

 

“Oh…” his shoulders drop and he looks at the ground, “no. I really don’t.” 

 

She nods. “I believe you.” 

 

And that makes him feel more relieved than he can explain. 

 

————

 

Bucky sits anxiously on the metal bench, staring at the sketch on the wall of the couple dancing. He hears footsteps and chatter and he turns, seeing a group of students walking out of the classroom. Natasha and Clint turn to look too and Tony hangs up his phone. They watch as the students pass, looking for Steve. 

 

A few minutes pass and they hear another quiet set of footsteps. He turns the corner, holding his suit coat and folio, looking calm. 

 

“Steve.” Clint says, causing the boy to look up and stop in his tracks. 

 

“What are you guys doing here?” He asks, confusion on his face. 

 

They glance between each other. “Steve. We were in the courtroom with you. We heard the shit they tried to toss around. Then you disappear from the house and you think we wouldn’t search for you?” 

 

Steve smiles at them. A genuine smile. “Sorry.” He says, “I should have left a note or something.” 

 

“Or.” Tony huffs, “you know, check that handy dandy phone you have there in your pocket, and I don’t know… answer us when we text you. I mean, whatever, it’s just a thought.” 

 

Steve winces, taking the criticism. “I know. I should be better about that. I’ll try, promise.” 

 

Natasha stands and closes the distance between them. “You okay?” 

 

Bucky watches as Steve looks down at the suit coat in his hand. “I don’t know.” 

 

“You know everything they said was a load of bullshit, right?” Bucky urges, “not a single ounce of truth in their statement.” 

 

Steve takes a deep breath. “I know… I just hope the jury knows too.” 

 

“They will.” Tony insists, “they’re not going to fall for that garbage. Wait till they hear the actual evidence. Their case won’t stand a chance.” 

 

“You hungry?” Clint asks, “My uncle said to stop by, no matter the hour.” 

 

Steve yawns, and rubs at his eyes with his wrist. “I—“ he pauses, looking almost surprised at himself, “I kinda am hungry.” 

 

Clint claps his hands, “great. Let’s go.” 

 

“Jarvis is waiting outside.” Tony says, dragging himself to his feet and hauling Steve forward. 

 

“You know Erskine and Mr. Banner work here?” Steve says suddenly, looking at Tony, “in the science department?” 

 

“Oh?” Tony asks, “you think they’re still here?” 

 

Steve shakes his head, “probably not.” 

 

Tony nods, “okay, we’ll stop by next time.” 

 

“How long are you here for?” Steve asks, “don’t you have classes?” 

 

“I’m on break till Monday. But…” he cracks his neck side to side, “I’m going to be coming back often for the trial. Not letting those slime balls get away with one freaking thing.” 

 

“Thanks, Tony.” 

 

“Hey, what are crazy half-brothers for?” 

 

Steve groans, “shut up.” Tony laughs as they head towards the car. 

 

————

 

The next two weeks are filled with school, art class, trips to the courtroom and Steve feeling nauseous almost every second of every day. 

 

Sam had taken him to the doctor the second day when it wouldn’t go away, but the doctor just looked at him and told him he needs to ‘stop stressing’. That he’s giving himself more ulcers. Sam had looked like he wanted to strangle the man but Steve had placed a calming hand on Sam’s arm. “Thanks, doc. I’ll try that.”

 

Sam had ranted in the car, “oh, yeah . Steve, no worries, just stop stressing .” He’d slammed a hand against the steering wheel, “what kind of doctor tells you to just CALM DOWN! Like it’s that easy! Just calm down as if you’re not—-“ he had clamped his mouth shut and Steve sighed, leaning back against his seat and looking out the window, still feeling sick. 

 

———

 

And that’s how it goes until the day he’d been dreading the most arrives. 

 

“The defense calls Steven G. Rogers to the witness stand.” 

 

He moves stiffly, swearing on the Bible and then sitting in the chair the officer points him to.

 

First his own lawyer asks him questions, leading him through his testimony and filling in any details the jury hasn’t gotten. He tries to ignore the churning in his gut as he tells the story from the beginning. Starting with their vendetta with him about turning them in for stealing from Reynold’s Market, to them grabbing him from the street, to their torture of him in the warehouse and finally his experience in the dumpster. His fingers are clamped on the small wooden ledge in front of him, and he ignores the gasps and shock from the jury and courtroom audience as he describes in explicit detail what they did to him. He does not look at his friends’ faces, he just stares at Sam’s reassuring face, the man who knows everything and has taken care of him since. He stays quiet as the prosecution shows the photos of his scars, the ones taken right after he was found and the set they’d asked to take only a few weeks ago. 

 

They talk about the graveled filled sock that was shoved in Steve’s mouth and the DNA that was found on it. The lawyer talks about the warehouse where they found Steve’s blood and bile. 

 

And Steve sits there, listening to his most vulnerable moments be dissected and put on display. He watches the courtroom typist capture every word, memorializing this horror from start to finish. 

 

He swallows another lump of nausea rising and tries to breath through his nose to keep them from hearing the wheeze he’s feeling in his lungs. 

 

He feels his pocket where his inhaler is, unsure whether he should take a puff to ease the tightness he’s beginning to feel, the panic rising as he knows the defense is about to start their cross examination. 

 

The lawyers have talked with him over and over about what he should say and how to remain calm under pressure. 

 

“Just stick to the truth.” They’d said over and over. “The truth.” 

 

Steve could do that. 

 

“The defense?” The judge asks, causing Steve’s heart rate to skyrocket.

 

The Fleming brothers’ lawyer stands, eyeing Steve like he’s a piece of meat. 

 

“Steve. You mind if I call you Steve?” 

 

Steve shakes his head ‘no’. 

 

“Can’t hear ya, little fellow, can I call you Steve?”

 

Steve notices Bucky bristling at the man’s dig and Steve takes a deep breath. He’s playing mind games, just like the lawyers said he would, he can’t let it work. 

 

“No.” Steve says, sounding more firm than he felt a second ago,”I don’t mind.” 

 

“Good, good.” The man says, nodding as if he’s gotten what he wanted, “so, Steve, tell me. How much money do you think Howard Stark has spent on you in the last almost two and a half years?” 

 

Steve feels his mouth part in surprise, not expecting this line of questioning. 

 

“Objection!” He hears his lawyer call, “relevance!” 

 

“Defense?” The judge asks. 

 

“I have a purpose.” 

 

“Overruled.” 

 

The lawyer turns back to him, and Steve can feel his stomach trying to climb up his throat. 

 

“You there, Steve? You look a little queasy. Let me ask you this, do you feel good taking people’s money?” 

 

“Objection!” 

 

“Withdrawn.” The defense lawyer says quickly, a grin on his face, “But Steve, you haven’t answered my question, how much money do you think Howard Stark has spent on you since he met you?” 

 

The courtroom is silent and he looks at Sam who he can see is clenching the bench in front of him. “I don’t know.” Steve whispers. 

 

“Can’t hear ya little dude, speak up.” 

 

“I don’t know.” Steve says louder, his voice brittle. 

 

“Hmm…” the defense lawyer says, looking at the jury like he expected that answer, “interesting, don’t you think?” He asks the jury, before turning back to Steve. “What does Howard Stark pay for now, for you?” 

 

He can see his lawyer about to stand again but the judge holds up a hand, “let him ask.” 

 

The defense lawyer looks at him, like he’s caught an animal in a trap. 

 

“He pays for my medical bills.” Steve rasps, unsure if he should mention how much Howard now pays for around the house that Steve lives in. 

 

“Not just that!” The defense attorney says with a grin, “he sponsors the orphanage you live in, he’s purchased companies under the guise of business but for the actual purpose of benefiting you , were you aware?” 

 

Steve feels the rug being pulled out beneath him, “what?” His eyes find Howard who winces. 

 

“Hmm… interesting reaction, so you’re pretending that you didn’t know.” 

 

“Know what?” Steve asks helplessly. 

 

“About him purchasing a dermatology company that is, at this moment, working on developing a revolutionary scar removal procedure.” Steve feels his chest constricting, and his heart racing. He can feel beads of sweat forming at his temples. “That he’s been making huge donations to the AHA to fund research helping patients with heart conditions such as yours. That there’s a security detail outside of the orphanage you live in, 24/7.” 

 

He sees Sam’s head whip towards Howard and Steve’s fingernails bite into the ledge. 

 

“What?” 

 

Howard’s looking on with wide eyes and face in shock. 

 

“Objection.” His lawyer calls again, “relevance!” 

 

The judge nods, “defense, get to your point quick.” 

 

The man nods, seeming unbothered, “your life has drastically improved since the moment you met Anthony Stark at that program that you happened to weasel your way into so coincidentally on the first year they allow scholarships or underprivileged students. Did you know you’d be placed in his group?” 

 

“What?” Steve asks, the word shaken from his mind, “what?” 

 

“Did you form a connection with Anthony Stark to gain a connection to the money and power his father has?” 

 

“I—“ Steve stutters, “I didn’t even know who Tony was when I met him.” 

 

The man scoffs, “you’re going to tell me you didn’t recognize one of the richest kids in the world?” 

 

“I didn’t.” Steve says, “I didn’t.” 

 

“Come on, I’m sure you have a phone, all you kids with your access to the internet.” 

 

“I didn’t have a phone.” Steve says quickly, “I didn’t have a phone back then.” 

 

The defense attorney smiles, “oh, but you do now? And who gave you that phone?” 

 

“OBJECTION!” His lawyer shouts, “we’ve heard nothing that is relevant to the actual case!” 

 

“I’m getting there, judge.” 

 

“Get there faster, defense.” 

 

“Steve. As I said in my opening statements. The coincidence of you being involved in both incidents with the Fleming brother’s is too much. I’d like to present the case that you used your sob story to wheedle your way into reach of the Stark fortune and fame. Using your contrived friendship with Anthony Stark to solidify your place in the long line of gold diggers after the Stark’s generosity. You initially goaded and paid the brothers to attack you, using your past with them as a jumping off point. This is further buoyed by the fact that Anthony Stark paid the brothers to reveal your location, after Clint Barton and James Barnes attacked the brothers on the roof. 

 

“They attacked us!” Bucky shouts from his seat. 

 

“Quiet!” The judge snaps, “prosecution keep your section quiet.” Steve watches Natasha grab Bucky’s hand and try to calm him. 

 

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Steve says in disbelief, “what money would I pay them with!? Why would I pay someone to torture me!” He feels his lungs fighting for every breath, his stomach a storm. 

 

“Why do people jump in front of cars? Insurance scams. For money . Money makes people do crazy things. Not to mention the amount of attention a nd fame you’ve received in the years since. You’ve gotten money, attention, and medical care out of this whole ordeal. I’d say you’re doing pretty well for yourself.” 

 

He can hear the courtroom abuzz and he feels himself tipping over an edge. “How could I pay them?” Steve asks almost frantically, “I don’t have any money.” 

 

The defense attorney points at him, like Steve had asked the question he couldn’t wait to answer. “Records indicate that a large deposit was made to the Fleming Brother’s personal bank account from an account under the name Sarah Rogers at Brooklyn City Bank. That’s the name of your mother, correct?” 

 

His lawyer is standing, saying something, but Steve’s vision is tunneling, barely able to suck in a breath. He can’t speak, his brain not working. 

 

He hears a question asked, “Steve, is your mother’s name Sarah Rogers?” 

 

He nods, and the defense attorney claps, “See! Jury, Steve used the money his mother left him in a risky but ultimately profitable gamble. Goading the brothers’ and paying them to keep silent about it until the Starks paid them an even greater amount to reveal Steve’s location! It was all a planned effort to gain Howard Stark’s sympathy, which, as I’ve expressed by the amount of money Howard Stark has been spending on this one singular boy, he’s obviously been incredibly successful! I’m almost impressed, Steve, if it wasn’t so sickening.” 

 

And something in him cracks, “my mother and I never had any money! She wouldn’t have had any to leave me!”

 

“Incorrect, Stevie-boy. Your mother had a life insurance policy set to deposit in your account when you turn 18.” 

 

“Then how would I access that!” He shouts, “I’m not even 18!” 

 

“Calm down.” The defense attorney says, looking at him like he’s wild, “you need to calm down, don’t want to wear out your little heart, there.” 

 

Steve’s shaking, he's so angry, he stands and points at the defense attorney, about ready to tell him what he can do with his heart when the defense attorney turns to Howard and points at him. 

 

“It’s relevant to my case to know what money you’re planning on spending on his new diagnosis.” 

 

And Steve feels the air get sucked from his lungs. 

 

His lawyer looks at him in confusion. They hadn’t told him. Still only Howard and Sam know. How—-

 

“Judge, is it acceptable to you for Howard Stark to speak?” 

 

The man looks at the courtroom sensing the tension, “I’ll allow it.” 

 

“So, Howard, tax reports and medical files pulled from your company's database and public records state your investigation into Steve’s newest autoimmune condition, what are your plans for that? And can you explain how one boy deserves so much of your time and money when there are other children dying all over the world? What has Steve used against you to ensure your financial support?” 

 

And that’s the tipping point. Steve’s stomach turns violent and he shrinks back, feeling the gag reflex activate. He tries to bring his hands up, to try to stop it, but it’s too late.

 

Burning acid and blood escape past his throat, burning as he vomits between his fingers and onto the wooden ledge and podium in front of him. 

 

Chaos erupts and he stumbles back, falling off his chair and scrambling out of the witness stand. Barreling through the door to his left that he has no idea where it leads. 

 

He stumbles down the hallway, hearing shouting and ignoring it.



Chapter Text

Bucky stands frozen in place as Sam vaults over the wooden bench in front of them and disappears down the hallway that Bucky’s pretty sure the prisoners usually come out of. He feels Natasha’s claw-like grip on his wrist and he can’t decide if the choking sound is coming from Clint or Tony, but his mind supplies Clint, because historically Clint has thrown up more often. 

 

Speaking of throw up. 

 

Bucky’s eyes watch the blood as it drips and trails down from the podium where Steve just was a second ago. 

 

Vomiting blood. 

 

And everything horrifying clicks into place. 

 

Sam’s agitation about how often Steve was vomiting. Him asking Natasha to keep him informed. 

 

The amount of times Steve had complained about his stomach before falling silent about the subject all together. Steve’s lack of appetite. 

 

New autoimmune condition  

 

The courtroom is still in chaos as he follows Sam’s path and blasts through the wooden swinging door. 

 

——



His eyes catch on the snippets of blood as it leaves a murderous trail for him to follow. 

 

Drops and smudges and even half a handprint as he rounds a corner and hears Sam talking. 

 

He freezes, seeing Steve curled into a tight ball against a trash can. Sam scoops him up and holds him close, sliding to the floor and talking. Holding Steve’s head to his chest and absently brushing at his hair as his other hands grips around Steve’s arms. Bucky can’t process his actions, but he haltingly walks forward, looking at his best friend who lookes like someone tried to murder him. Blood in his hair, and on his hands and down the front of his suit. 

 

He drops to his knees and reaches out, holding Steve’s slick hand. 

 

Steve’s eyes are closed and his breathing is too wheezy and Bucky reaches into his pockets, searching for the inhaler he knows is there. It’s autopilot. He’s not registering his actions, just doing them. He finds the inhaler, pops off the cap and lifts it to Steve’s lips. Forcing it between his teeth and mumbling some form of the instruction, breathe

 

A few puffs and Steve’s breathing starts to ease and Bucky can hear more feet and voices coming their way. But Sam just holds Steve to his chest tighter. 

 

Bucky turns, expecting Natasha or Tony but sees a red-face furious Howard Stark instead. The man crashes to his knees in front of Sam and gently pulls Steve’s chin away from Sam. 

 

“Steve.” The man’s voice is boiling furious, but he’s trying to remain calm for Steve, “Steve, look at me.” Bucky sags in relief at the blue eyes that appear behind the incredibly thick lenses. “They just made the biggest fucking mistake in their entire sad and worthless careers. You hear me? That scumbag farce of a lawyer just played the wrong fucking card. He’s not even at the right table, you hear me? That stunt he just pulled in there, will be the last one he ever makes. Do you understand?” 

 

Steve doesn’t move, or blink, or respond. Just listens. Howard sighs, “they’ve given us a recess until tomorrow. The so-called ‘evidence’ that piece of shit brought up was never entered into our case files and therefore cannot be included in the final decision. But we’re not letting that go. They’re trying to twist it to be your fault, that means they’ve got something to hide. Or they’re going for sensationalism in the courtroom instead of proper proceedings. But they just poked the wrong damn bear, you hear me? They better enjoy the sunshine while they have it, because when I’m done with them, they’ll never see the light of day again.” 

 

“What the hell was that?” Sam asks, his voice also at a level of fury that Bucky’s never heard. “How could they say such outlandish lies?” 

 

“That’s bullshit lawyering for you. State a piece of evidence that’s only 5% true and suddenly the court believes the other 95%. It’s bullshit and I’m not allowing it. The accusations they threw were only meant to unsettle us, but they won’t hold up under investigation in the slightest. That fucker just thought he’d try to pull a fast one and we’d crumble. He doesn’t know jack-shit about what I’m capable of. He’s going to wish he never even said the name Steve Rogers.” 

 

And suddenly, Bucky is more terrified of Howard Stark in that moment than he’s ever been or ever will be again. 

 

Steve just closes his eyes again and pulls his hand out of Bucky’s grasp and tucks his face into his knees. 

 

————

 

Tony’s still in shock. He tries to follow after Bucky but his dad had orders the three of them to “ stay there”. 

 

“What! No!” He tries to protest, but his father gives him such an intense and furious glare that Tony backs down. 

 

“Stay here, and keep that shitbag from saying anything else.” Howard hisses, before following after where Sam and Bucky had disappeared. 

 

Clint is staring daggers at the brothers who are sitting calm and collected in their chairs and the judge is talking to the lawyers. The defense attorney looking pleased as peaches at himself. 

 

Natasha is whispering in a language that Tony doesn’t speak, but he can tell just by the way she speaks that he would be impressed with the vitriol she is hissing towards them. 

 

———

 

The courtroom begins to clear and only when it’s empty do his father and the rest make an appearance. Only the judge remains. Steve immediately approaches the bench getting his attention. 

 

“Judge Phillips?” He hears Steve ask quietly. 

 

“Yes, Mr. Rogers?” 

 

“I’m sorry about the mess and then running out. Is there a janitor’s area where I can get cleaning supplies?” 

 

The room goes still as they wait for the judge to respond. 

 

Tony swears the man’s eyes soften just a smidge as he leans over his desk and peers down at Steve. “The professionals have been alerted and will clean it once we’ve cleared. As for the display today… I don’t enjoy theatrics in my courtroom,” he says gruffly, but raising an amused eyebrow at Steve, “I’m sure you’ve more to give us than that.” 

 

Steve looks at him seriously and nods, “yes, sir. I do.” 

 

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

 

The judge disappears behind his door and Steve stands there quietly until Sam shuffles him along to the car. 

 

————-

 

Steve showers with the door cracked. When he’d whispered he was going to get cleaned off, 6 pairs of worried eyes had turned to him and he had sighed. “I’m not taking a bath. Just a shower.” When they hadn’t relented their stares, he’d huffed again. “I’ll leave the door open.” He’d snapped before stomping off and up the stairs. 

 

Now he scrubs the blood out of his fingernails and off his face and chest. 

 

The suit had been thrown out. Howard promising a fresh one for tomorrow, which Steve, unable to shake the words from the lawyer this morning, had tried to protest against. 

 

But Howard had looked at him with such a glare that he’d sighed and given in. 

 

Now the hot water rinses the day's events from him and he steps out of the shower, toweling his sharp frame off, more calm than he’s felt in months. 

 

Now they know. No more secrets. 

 

He dresses and walks down the stairs to where he knows they’re waiting. Sam and Howard had held them off long enough. But he knew they wouldn’t wait forever. 

 

The other kids are with Sarah, out eating at some restaurant with games and prizes and here he was facing 2 pairs of knowing, and 4 pairs of unknowing eyes.

 

He settles into one of the bean bags, and looks at the four friends in front of him. 

 

“So.” He says, eyes on the coffee table, “I’m sure you’re curious about what that lawyer meant.” 

 

He expects them to explode at him, but they stay silent and as he looks up, a little bit of that fear of telling them pops up at the sheer amount of dread on their faces. 

 

“I wasn’t feeling so great the last couple months and…” he looks over at Sam who nods encouragingly, and he takes a deep breath, “when I started feeling worse… I went to the doctor and they did some tests and. it turns out…” he tries to stay clinical, detached, “that I have an autoimmune disorder, and it’s not a great one. But…” he looks up at them and they look like they’ve seen a ghost, so he cuts the details, “I’ve been working again with Howard, and going to the doctor with Sam, and we’re doing what we can.” He stops there. Not going into anymore detail, but Howard’s throat clears strangely and Tony’s eyes snap to his dad’s before coming back to Steve’s.

 

“So that’s why you’re vomiting blood?” 

 

“Stress has been a major factor,” Steve says simply, keeping his tone even, “but yes, it’s one of the symptoms.” 

 

“Which disorder?” Clint asks, his phone in his hands. And Steve knows with one google search he’d be toast. 

 

“Just one of them.” Steve says a tad bit hastily, “nothing to worry about. You know me, I’ve got everything in the books, this is just part of that.” So much for no more secrets. 

 

“You’re not trying to trivialize the shit show we just watched.” Tony snaps, “you’ve been vomiting blood for months haven’t you. That’s why I found blood under the toilet seat at my house, isn’t it?”

 

Bucky, Natasha, and Clint’s heads whip to Tony and Sam’s and Howard’s whip to Steve’s and he winces, “sorry, if I’d known it was there I would have cleaned it up. My apologies.” 

 

“You’re apologies? ” Tony snaps, “what the hell , Steve! How could you keep this from us! We’re your friends! We—“ He cuts off and glares at Steve, “you—“ he huffs and clenches his fists. 

 

“Why not tell us?” 

 

This Steve is prepared to answer. 

 

“If a single one of you, can look me in the eye, and truthfully tell me that having this knowledge isn’t going to change the way you think about me, or interact with me, or affect what you let me do or live my life, then I’ll apologize straight away for being mistaken.” He glares at them, waiting to see. But they stay silent. And he nods. “Just like I expected. I only have so many years left. I’m not going to waste them living in your guys’ opinions of what I should and shouldn’t do.” 

 

“What do you mean?” Bukcy asks harshly. 

 

“I mean, I’m not going to live in a bubble just because you guys are worr—“ 

 

“No.” Bucky hisses through gritted teeth, eyes pinned on him, “you said ‘I only have so many years left’. What the hell does that mean?” 

 

Sam and Howard stiffen and Steve wants to groan at his poor choice of words. 

 

“Bucky, you know about my heart. You know the doc said thirty was a—“ 

 

“No.” Bucky snaps. “No more lies—“ Steve opens his mouth to protest, but Bucky cuts him off, “or lies by omission.” 

 

He closes his mouth at that. 

 

“How long.” Clint asks flatly, his eyes dark and his words mirroring Steve’s in that appointment all those months ago. 

 

“Guys—“ Steve starts, trying to change the subject, but his non-answer puts them on edge. 

 

“How long, Steve!” Tony shouts, standing up, “it’s a simple fucking question.” 

 

And Steve shoves himself off the beanbag, glaring at Tony, “you want the truth?” 

 

“Yes.” Clint and Natasha chorus at the same time. 

 

“Okay, here’s the truth. But once I tell you, I better not hear a damn thing about it. You hear me? Once you know, that’s it. No talks, no plans, no sympathy or pity or anything. Deal?” 

 

They’re silent. And he throws his hands up in an okay, fine gesture. He takes a step towards the door, if they don’t want know, then fine . Better for him. 

 

“Steve—“ Bucky’s voice is brittle and it stops him in his tracks, “okay. Okay, Steve. Deal.” 

 

He looks at them and then hears the words that have been rattling around in his brain since the doctor said them. 

 

“Less than 5 years.” He says with no emotion. 

 

———

 

Bucky chokes, practically falling off the couch as Steve tells them his prognosis. 

 

Tony’s visibly vibrating in fury and Natasha’s fingers are clenching her knees so hard, he’s surprised he doesn't hear them crack. 

 

Clint is on his feet, about to shout something when the doorbell rings. 

 

It makes all of them freeze, and Sam stands slowly making his way out of the room and towards the front door. They hear him open it and the quiet exchange of words. 

 

“Howard, Steve?” Sam calls, “could you come here?” 

 

Steve walks out and hears Howard follow him, they walk to the front door where a man with red lens glasses and a walking cane stands at the doorway. 

 

Sam looks at them with an uncertain expression and gestures to the man. “This is Mr. Matthew Murdock. He’s a lawyer and he’d like to speak to us about the case?” 

 

Steve blinks in surprise and watches as the man tilts his head in a fashion that is weirdly familiar. And it hits him, he’s using his ears to compensate for his eyes. 

 

“Hello.” The man says with a smile, “like Mr. Wilson explained, my name is Matt Murdock and I’m a lawyer. I’ve been following your case for the duration and would like to offer my services after the debacle that was today.” He hands Steve a business card that says, Nelson and Murdock, Attorneys at Law

 

“We already have a lawyer.” Howard says with a hint of annoyance. 

 

“Not like me, you don’t.” The man says with utter confidence. “I’m a really good lawyer. Better than money can buy.” 

 

Howard scoffs but something about him draws Steve closer a step. “What do you mean?” He asks, curious.

 

“I can tell when people are lying.” The man says with a laugh, “and I care about my clients. Not the money.” 

 

Howard scoffs again, but Steve doesn’t hesitate to say, “prove the lying thing.” 

 

The man leans down, getting right into Steve’s eyeline, which Steve feels is already eerily strange. Maybe he’s not fully blind. “Tell me two truths and a lie. And I’ll tell you which one’s the lie.” 

 

Steve thinks about it for a second and then starts, “I broke my pinky when I was 13, and it healed wrong and I can’t feel it. Or, my mom and I were in a bus crash when I was 4, or my dad broke his leg while hanging Christmas lights when he was young.” 

 

Mr. Murdock looks at him and taps his chest. “You’re good. I’ll give you that. But you’ve never been in a bus crash.” 

 

Steve smiles, “you’re good, how’d you know?” 

 

The man taps his chest, “your heart tells me the truth.” 

 

“You can hear my heart?” Steve asks incredulously. 

 

“Not really.” The man says with a smile, “just figuratively. Everyone has a tell. I just read people really well. I’d like to take your case Steve, if you’re amiable.” 

 

Steve looks up at Howard who looks annoyed. “Oh yeah? And how much do you cost?” 

 

“Like I said. I don’t care about the money. Especially in cases like this. I’d work pro bono. I have a lot of things to say about how the courtroom was handled today. I won’t let those boys walk free. What do you say?” 

 

Steve looks at Sam who looks at Howard. 

 

“We can’t just hire some random guy off the street!” Howards huffs. “We don’t know who he is!” 

 

“I’m the guy who figured out what car has your security detail in it.” The man says with a raised eyebrow. “Blue Honda Civic. 6 cars back, man with black baseball cap. I’m the guy who has a connection at the bank the defense attorney mentioned Sarah Roger’s insurance policy is at. I’m the guy who knows how to circumvent so-called ‘stated evidence’ that needs to be retracted in front of the jury. I’m the guy who knows people at the clerk’s office who can prove their records are dirty.” 

 

“How?” Sam asks dumbfounded. 

 

“I’ve been following this case for the duration.” He says firmly, “and like I said, I’m a really good lawyer.” 

 

Howard looks at Steve. “It’s your case. It’s up to you. No more choices that I take away.” Steve looks at him and nods gratefully before turning back to the man at the door. 

 

Steve looks up at him. “You know all about me already, don’t you.” 

 

The man looks at Steve and extends his hand in a handshake, “Indeed I do, Steve Rogers. Which is exactly how I’m going to prove those scumbags are liars.” 

 

Without thinking, Steve accepts the handshake, returning it firmly. 

 

“Great.” The man says. “We resume tomorrow and we have a lot of prep work to do. So let’s get to it.” He reaches down to a briefcase that Steve hadn’t noticed until this moment. 

 

And something like confidence that this man means exactly what he says, settles in Steve’s chest. “Okay.” He responds. “Let’s do it.” 

 

—————

 

Chapter Text

Howard, Sam and Steve sit around the table, staring at Matt ( call me Matt, he’d insisted ) in awe. It’s almost 2am the next morning. They’re due in court at 8a.m.

 

“You’re kidding.” Sam says, “that easy?” 

 

Matt smiles, “I wouldn’t necessarily say easy . However, I would say solid.” He points to a few documents, “there was a lot of context that they chose to ignore when they were constructing the ‘story’ they wanted the jury to believe. And the sheer disaster in which Mrs. Schmidt left the legal documents regarding Steve, including the obvious corruption in the county offices her husband had contacts in, there’s a lot of loopholes they were trying to push Steve through, but I think we’ll be just fine.” 

 

Steve eyes the documents, “I can’t believe I didn’t know about this.” He looks at the paper citing the life insurance policy his mom had indeed gotten when he was a kid. 

 

“I can.” Sam huffs, “that witch who ran this house probably had every intention of getting ahold of your account and taking it for herself. Easier for her to do if you don’t know about it.” 

 

Steve doesn’t respond to that because he knows Sam’s right. “So you said some of the money is missing?” 

 

Matt nods, “Yes, someone forged your mom’s name. Some life insurance policies, like this one, can be partially liquidated if the policy holder needs cash. Your mom had a few withdrawals from before her death for medical expenses, for you, I believe.” 

 

His throat gets tight and he nods, “I was always sick.” 

 

Matt nods, “that’s perfectly fine, that’s why these types of policies exist, to help with the financial aspect of emergencies. Nothing wrong with that. But since her death, the money was sitting, just accruing interest, in an account waiting for you to reach the legal age to receive it. Until right before the incident when a large sum was withdrawn. Unfortunately I can’t pinpoint who had the access to withdraw, but I can show that it was forged. The signature matches Mrs. Schmidt’s, who was your legal guardian at the time, but it’s not a perfect match, it’s a great forgery. So I have my partner, Foggy, going down to the prison today to see if she has any idea of who would use her signature.” 

 

Steve shivers, hating the thought of anyone having to talk to her. “What about the jury?” 

 

Matt leans back, his white cane twisting between his thumb and forefinger, “they knew that getting that information to the jury would be a good way to try to unseat your case, and more importantly, your character. Every person I talked to, spoke very highly of who you were, how a deception like this could not have been in your character—“ 

 

Steve ducks his head, “I’m not—“ 

 

“Steve,” Matt cuts him off, “you’ve made quite the difference in this small community alone, and I don’t give compliments. So understand when I say, I took this case solely because of you. Now, we will obviously get the lies they spewed stricken from the record. Since it wasn’t evidence that was submitted to us, it doesn’t legally count anyways, But they knew that information would stick in the jury’s mind. It’s human nature. So we have to do some damage control. Easy enough. But I want you back on the stand. Can you do that?” 

 

Anxiety grips his stomach, but he nods, “yes. I can.” 

 

“Good.” Matt says with a crooked smile, “let’s give those bastards hell, huh?” 

 

Steve smiles, “yeah.” 

 

—————

 

Steve stands and walks to the podium where he swears on the Bible again. He straightens his tie and glasses as he sits down, noting the smell of cleaning solution. He looks at the judge who looks at him curiously. 

 

“I promise not to throw up again, sir.” Steve says with a grin. 

 

The judge nods sagely, “I’d appreciate it.” 

 

And then Matt stands up and they begin. 

 

Matt walks Steve through his background. How he grew up with just a mom, what his mom did, and when she took out the policy. Then Matt asks Steve to describe his home life with Mrs. Schmidt. 

 

When Steve is describing the times he was thrown in the basement as punishment, or starved, or abused mentally and physically, he can see Howard Stark gripping the edge of the wooden divider like he is going to tear it in half. It suddenly occurs to Steve that he’s never gone into great detail about what she’d done to him with Howard. 

 

Matt asks Steve to show his arm burn and explain how he received it. He asks about the other kids in the house at the time and Steve has a very easy time talking about them and what they mean to him. Matt seems completely at ease as he paces in front of the podium. His partner, Mr. Nelson, is a smiley guy who Steve had instantly liked for his kind demeanor. He sits in the chair at their table and listens as Matt begins to describe the paper trail at the county offices. 

 

“We’re going to examine the defense's wild and inaccurate accusation, even though they threw that into the jury’s faces without following proper courtroom procedure. But, that makes sense doesn’t it? Since everything they’ve done in this courtroom has been a big show to distract from the fact that—“ he points to the Fleming brothers, “these two—“ even behind his red lens glasses, Steve can see a sort of fury on his face, “ boys kidnapped and tortured Steve, causing undue pain, stress, and permanent damage to his body.” He points to Steve, “and you now know, as proven with the documents we’ve just discussed, that Steve in fact, did not pay to have this done to him. So you’re looking at a kid who has suffered immeasurable loss, heartache, abuse, and torture in his short 17 years of life.” He turns to Steve, “I don’t say that to elicit guilt or sympathy. I don’t say it so the jury will feel pity for you. I say it because it’s the truth. And the Fleming brothers were part of that. Justice must be served for their actions. Their previous record stands for itself. Multiple B&E’s, assaults, robberies, public disruption. What haven’t they been caught doing?” He points at Steve, “while Steve sits there, a clean record and a target on his back because he turned them in years ago. So, jury. Let me be clear. You’re not here to decide anything but the fact of whether they kidnapped Steve, carved letters into his back, tortured him, shoved him in a trash bag, dumped him into an industrial dumpster, and left him for dead.” 

 

Steve winces, but he knew this was the direction Matt was going to take. The direct and brutally honest shove the jury needed. 

 

“You’ve seen the scars. You’ve seen the DNA evidence. Hell, we have the police reports from the warehouse he was tortured in and the dumpster. It's an irrefutable fact that these brothers committed these crimes. Don’t let the defense try to tangle you up with lies and false accusations. Steve did not pay to have himself kidnapped. He did not pre-meditate his relationship with the Starks, and Steve did not want to be tortured for attention or money. Therefore you must vote guilty. It’s the truth. It’s the only option.” 

 

Matt turns back to Steve and gives him the barest of winks. For the first time since the opening statements, Steve feels the coil of anxiety in his chest start to unwind. 

 

“Defense?” The judge asks, a deep annoyance clear in his voice. “Any questions?” 

 

The man stands and tries to bluster back and forth about the validity of Matt’s research and documents, but the judge eyes him narrowly and in the end the man sits down in a huff, “no further questions.” 

 

The judge allows for closing statements, and dismisses the jury reminding them that they must have a unanimous vote. 

 

Steve is let out of the podium and he gets a hand on the shoulder from Matt and a fist bump from Foggy. 

 

He feels a hand on his hair and looks up at Howard who just raps his knuckles gently against Steve’s skull and says, “you did good up there kid.” 

 

“I didn’t do much.” He responds.

 

“You were you.” Sam says with a wide grin, “that’s all you needed to be.” 

 

He turns to where Bucky, Clint, Natasha, and Tony are standing and waiting. They just haul him over into a hug and then break apart. They’re trying to stay light, but Steve can see they’re all still preoccupied from the conversation last night. Steve knows he’ll be fielding questions and looks for a while. 

 

They’re packing up all their things about ready to leave when the security guard walks back in, the judge following. 

 

Everything goes silent as the judge addresses the now almost empty courtroom. 

 

“While it may not be a decision made in record time, it sure is one of the fastest I’ve ever experienced,” he says with a grumble. “The jury has deliberated and come to a unanimous decision.” 

 

The group looks at him in surprise and slowly sink back into their chairs. The brothers are walked back in, dark expressions on their faces and the jurors file in, one-by one. 

 

The appointed foreman stands and begins to speak, “we the jury, unanimously find Tyler and Ryan Fleming guilty of—“ 

 

Steve feels his heart stop beating as the verdict is read out. 

 

He’s not sure how it happens, but one of the brothers lunges from his seat. A pen in his handcuffed-together hands, heading for his face. Steve leans back, unable to move fast enough out of the way, but Matt is on his feet, his fist catching Tyler’s wrist, twisting it with incredible strength, and then kneeing him in the chest. When the brother doubles over, Matt grabs the scruff of his shirt and hauls him backwards, sending him sliding across the ground and against the judge’s desk. 

 

Steve looks up at Matt in shock, who’s not even breathing heavily and he looks over to Foggy who just smiles, “that’s Matt.” 

 

Sam’s behind him then, hauling him into his arms to ensure he’s safe as security pounces on to the two brother’s hauling them out the hallway. 

 

Steve’s eyes are still on Matt who is just grinning and Steve feels the prickle in the back of his neck that Matt is more than he appears, but then he’s distracted as hands grab him, hugging him, ruffling his hair, and shaking his shoulders to congratulate him. 

 

It’s a few minutes before it dies down and he looks back at Matt who is standing there with Foggy, smiles on their faces. 

 

“Thank you.” Steve says firmly, “thank you so much.” 

 

“Just doing what needs to be done.” Matt responds. 

 

“Stay safe kid.” Foggy adds, as they gather their stuff and are gone. 

 

Clint steps into the center and looks at them with a scrunched up face, “so we’re just gonna ignore the fact that the blind guy caught his hand like that?” 

 

“Maybe he’s not totally blind?” Sam offers. Natasha shrugs and Clint just rolls his eyes before shouting, “Milo’s! My uncle wanted us to come over after the verdict, let’s go!” 

 

Steve stops, and motions for Howard and Sam to wait. He shoos the other kids away, and when they stay close, trying to listen, he points to the door, face serious. They go, grumbling the whole way. And soon it’s just the three of them in the courtroom. 

 

Steve turns to Sam, “I just…” Steve starts, “I just wanted to say thanks. I know that…” he swallows thickly, his lips pursing as he tugs at the hem of the suit coat. “I know it’s a lot you’ve had to deal with, with me, and… I’m just grateful that you have stuck around.”

 

Sam looks at him, tilting his head, “that’s what family does, kid. We stick around.” 

 

Howard taps on his glasses, “didn’t I say you were going to have a hard time getting rid of me? You think a crummy court case and some teenage attitude was going to do it? Think again little soldier. You’re stuck with us for the long haul.” 

 

Steve looks at Howard and his face get serious, “ I think you should sell that skin company and get your money back.” 

 

Howard frowns, “why?” 

 

“Because I don’t think I’d do the scar thing even if you figured out a way—“ 

 

“What?” Sam cuts him off in surprise, “why not?” 

 

“They’re part of who I am now—“ 

 

“No.” Howard says firmly, “They’re not. You’re not what those words say.” 

 

“I know.” Steve says with an amused eye roll. “But pretending that part of my life didn’t happen… I don’t want to do that. But we’re getting off topic. You paid for a security detail outside our home and didn’t tell us.” 

 

“For your safety .” Howard insists. 

 

“I know,” Steve responds, hands up in surrender, “but don’t you think Sam should have known?” 

 

“Don’t you think your friends would have liked to know about your new—“ 

 

“That’s different.” Steve cuts in. “You doing the security detail and company stuff is for me or… because of me. Me not telling them doesn’t affect them—“ 

 

“Actually—“ Sam starts, “It does. They found out about it here, by that slimeball of a lawyer. Wouldn’t you have preferred for them to hear it from you?” 

 

“I’d have preferred for them to not hear it at all.” Steve sighs. 

 

“We’re going in circles.” Howard huffs, “you’re saying you want me to tell you when I spend money on you?” He asks.

 

“I’m saying I don’t want you spending any more money on me.”

 

It’s not what Howard expects him to say and he can tell by the way both Sam and Howard gape at him. 

 

“Steve—“ 

 

“No.” He cuts Howard off. “No matter what else that lawyer said, he’s right about this. I don’t deserve your dedicated time or money. If you’re going to spend money on medical research, then spend it on something that helps a lot of people, not just me.” 

 

Steve—

 

“Howard. I’m serious.” 

 

“I don’t accept.” Howard’s face is getting darker, “I’ll do it anyways. Your blessing or not.” 

 

“And then you’ll force me into treatment?” Steve asks, cutting him to the quick, “you’ll strap me down and force me into surgery or treatment or whatever your big solution is?” 

 

Howard’s voice goes from angry to desperate, “we already talked about this Steve, you promised you wouldn’t give up!” 

 

“I’m not giving up.” Steve says calmly, “I just…” he sighs and leans against the wooden table behind him, “I’m tired. I’d rather you find a cure for cancer or asthma, or hey, maybe you can figure out a solution to my heart problem, that will help a lot of other kids. But I don’t want you doing it just because of me.” 

 

“Because you think for some reason you don’t deserve it?” Howard seethes, “you’re just one kid, so who cares if you live or die? Huh? Who are you in the big grand scheme of things? Is that what you’re thinking? Well try again, because if you think I’m just going to sit on my hands when I could be doing something to help—” 

 

“Howard—” 

 

“NO.” Howard shouts, pointing at him. ”I care, Steve. I care whether you live or die. Sam cares. My son…” Howard pinches the bridge of his nose hard, “my son is many things. And many of those things he got from me, unfortunately. But we are not men who don’t care. We care fucking deeply okay? So you can get off your humble horse and deal with the fact that I’m not going to stop.” Steve opens his mouth but Howard keeps going, “if you refuse treatment—“ Howard whispers pointedly, “fine. That’s on you. But I’m going to do everything in my damn power to ensure there’s options. I’m going to figure out a way to help you. And then if you want to look me in the eyes and tell me you’d rather die…” he purses his lips and Steve feels locked in his gaze, “then that’s your choice. But it won’t be for my lack of trying.” He pokes Steve’s chest gently, “I think you’re so tired of the bad news that you’re trying to give up hope now so it won’t hurt so much later. But I’m not giving up hope. I will fix this. So stop trying to stop me from saving you.” 

 

“I don’t need saving.” Steve manages to rasp out. 

 

Howard looks at Steve, hauling him into a hug that makes Steve’s eyes prick. “Everyone needs saving sometime. Even you. Even me.” Steve feels a hand on his hair and he swallows thickly, hugging the stubborn man back and grabbing at Sam’s shirt and pulling him into the hug. 

 

Sam huffs a laugh and joins, and Steve laughs softly, “I never got to really have a dad. Now I have two.” He hears Howard’s breath catch and his hands wrap around Steve tighter. Sam rests his chin on Steve’s head and they stay there for a minute before Steve’s stomach grumbles. “I’m hungry.” He says with a wry grin, “let’s go.” 

 

—————

 

It’s getting too cold to be on the roof, but they bundle up and do it anyway. They’d eaten their fill at Milo’s, but Bucky’s mom had made cookies to celebrate the end of the trial and verdict. So there they were, wrapped under blankets and hoodies and beanies, eating warm chocolate chip cookies and looking out at the stars. 

 

They’ve been mostly silent and something about their willingness to wait until Steve’s ready to talk makes his heart warm. 

 

So he takes a deep breath and watches as his air puffs white and fades before speaking, “okay, what questions do you guys have?” Four pairs of eyes turn to him and he rolls his eyes, leaning back, his eyes staring up at the winter moon. “Come on, I know you have questions, and I’d rather get it over with.” 

 

“How long?” Bucky asks. Natasha and he are sitting close, his arm wrapped around her, “when did you know something was wrong?” 

 

The wind chills Steve’s cheeks and he sighs. “Maybe in March? I noticed my skin was being weird… Then my stomach started acting up.” 

 

“March?” Clint whispers.

 

“You know.” Tony says with teeth clenched, “I specifically remember making a rule when you were still in that hospital bed over two years ago that you weren’t allowed to hide this kind of crap from us.” 

 

Steve stays quiet. He had his reasons. 

 

“How do you feel right now?” Natasha asks, her intense green eyes on him. 

 

“I feel okay. Got my ulcers cauterized so that helped with the vomiting.” 

 

Clint’s eyes are scrunched closed. “That’s why you weren’t eating.”

 

Steve nods. “Not too much fun to eat when everything tastes like blood or will eventually be regurgitated.” 

 

“My dad knew everything?” 

 

“Yep.” Steve says. 

 

“Peter? Wanda? Pietro?” 

 

His voice gets quiet, “no.” 

 

Bucky’s voice gets annoyed. “That guy at school. Scott. He knows something.” 

 

“He caught me throwing up in the bathroom.” Steve admits, “helped me get it cleaned up. “ 

 

Natasha jumps in, “is it why you’re tired all the time?” 

 

“Yeah…” 

 

“What is their recommended treatment? Are you doing it?” Bucky asks. 

 

It takes Steve a few minutes to figure out how to say it, “the treatment to help the disorder would hurt my heart… and vice versa… So I’m kind of in limbo right now.” 

 

“Excuse me?” Tony whispers harshly, “you’re what?” 

 

“I’m taking the heart meds,” Steve explains, “but it makes the exhaustion worse. I think that’s why I passed out in the bathtub.” 

 

“And if you took the meds for the autoimmune thing?” 

 

“Wear out my heart faster.” 

 

Suddenly Clint’s standing, “should you even be out here in this cold?” 

 

Steve winces, his fingers and toes had started to feel a bit too stiff, “probably not.” 

 

“Shit!” Tony exclaims, hopping up and dragging Steve off his chair, “get inside.” 

 

They hustle him down the stairs and into the warm house and wait till he’s warmed up a bit before they all walk him across the street to his house. 

 

———



Natasha and him enter the house and are surprised by loud shouting and confetti popping in their faces. 

 

Shouts and giggles and hands ring around him as he gets dragged towards the living room. He gapes at the sight. Every blanket, pillow, and cushion the house possesses are arranged in a giant nest in the living room. 

 

“We’re having a sleepover!” Peter says excitedly, dragging him towards the middle. “Sam says you won your thing and that we should celebrate and we wanted to have a sleepover, are you excited!?” 

 

Steve looks around at all of the kids gathered around with excited faces. His family. He smiles, “of course I’m excited Peter. I love it.” He looks up to see Sam smiling at him from the doorway. 

 

Wanda and Pietro and Yelena know the real reason they’re celebrating, but the rest are just happy to be doing something fun. “The real question is,” Steve asks, “what movie are we going to put on?” 

 

Suggestions in clambering voices explode around him and they start making a list. 

 

—-

 

He’s lying in the middle. Peter’s curled against his right side and Yelena and Wanda are close by on his left. He yawns and listens to the soft breathing of the kids around him. 

 

He’s falling asleep when he hears Sam come into the room and settle on the couch. 

 

“Thanks, Sam.” He whispers, grateful for the celebratory gesture. 

 

“It’s just a sleepover.” Sam says with a laugh, “this was the easy part.” Steve blinks tiredly when he hears Sam whisper again, “Steve?” 

 

“Hmm?” 

 

“Everything I heard today I basically already knew… But hearing it again I just… I really want to make sure you’re okay. If there’s ever a time you wanna talk about what you’ve been through I’m here for that too. You know that right?” 

 

“You and I do talk.” 

 

“You promise you’d talk to me if you ever felt—“ the bright whites of Sam’s eyes reflect the moonlight, “like what Howard said?” 

 

“What did Howard say?” 

 

“That you were giving up hope.” 

 

Steve feels stunned, but he just shakes his head, making sure his voice is firm. “I’m not, and I haven’t. I’m realistic, sure, but that doesn’t mean I want to give up the ghost, literally—“ 

 

“Not funny.” 

 

“Kinda funny.” 

 

“Steve.” 

 

“Sam.” 

 

“So… if Howard did figure something out you would do it?” 

 

“Yeah Sam. Of course I would. 

 

“Okay. Good. Because I’m going to want you around in my life for a long time.” 

 

Steve laughs quietly, “to help wrangle all the kids?” 

 

Sam reaches down and rests a hand on Steve’s hair, “No kid, because I want you around. Not so you can serve any purpose or help me with the kids. Because I want to watch you grow up and live the life you’re meant to have. That you deserve to have.”

 

“I don’t—“ 

 

Sam cuts him off. “That you deserve to have, Steve.” 

 

Steve’s voice is a touch watery as he whispers, “thanks, Sam.” 

 

“Goodnight, Steve.” 

 

“Night.” 

 

———

 

Some of that hope Sam and Howard were making sure he didn’t let go of was manifesting itself physically, because he’d had a good couple of weeks of school (minus the cold he’d gotten after being out that night) and he’d been thriving in his art class. 

 

He’s walking there now, carrying his leather folio that is getting more full each week and as he turns the corner close to his classroom that he sees her. 

 

She’s walking towards him, looking down at a stack of papers in her hand. He can guess she’d needed the industrial color printer that the art building had. He’d seen glimpses of her here and there around campus, but never worked up the courage to say anything. 

 

He angles to the side, ensuring he’ll be out of her way and looks down at his own feet as they begin to pass each other. He feels her look up at the presence passing her and he glances up too. They trade brief smiles and then he’s looking back down at the floor as quickly as he can. He’s past her and his heart is beating rapidly when he hears a voice. 

 

“Wait, hello?” He freezes, unsure if she’s referring to him. “You know Dr. Erskine, don’t you?” 

 

He turns then, finding her staring at him with a smile on her face. “Yes,” he answers. 

 

She nods and steps forward, “thought I recognized you.” She shifts the papers and extends a hand, “Peggy Carter.” 

 

He slowly accepts her firm handshake and says “Steve Rogers. You’re English?” 

 

“Quite astute there.” She laughs, “Nice to officially meet you, Steve.” 

 

“You too.” 

 

“Are you an art student?” 

 

“I take a class here, but I’m still in highschool.” 

 

Her smile is so kind and gentle that Steve knows it will find its way into one of his drawings soon. “I’m a senior in highschool too,” she says, “I work for Erskine after school as an intern to earn study hours.” 

 

Steve ducks his head, “that’s really cool.” 

 

“Why are you taking a college level art class?” She asks with genuine curiosity, “are you earning your college credits early?” 

 

He nods, “yeah, but I just won’t have time to take this class next year, and I don’t know where I’m going to college. So it’s now or never.” 

 

“Always now.” She laughs, a clear pleasant sound that has his heart rate increasing. “Never never.” 

 

He smiles, his eyebrows puckering, “what?” 

 

“You said ‘it’s now or never’.” She smirks, “so, my motto is ‘always now, never never.’” 

 

“Wow… that’s…” he looks at her in awe, “that’s amazing. Honestly. What a cool motto.” 

 

Her eyes and smile soften at him, “you know what, Steve. I have to go—“ 

 

His eyes widen, “Oh! Yeah, of course. Sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you. I’m—“ 

 

She laughs, “no, no, that’s not what I was implying.” She steps closer, her lips in a teasing smirk, “I just meant I needed to get these things to Dr. Erskine now, but… what are you doing once your class gets out?” 

 

And that’s when his brain decides he must be dreaming because she can’t possibly be asking what he’s doing later. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

“Huh?” 

 

“Are you still there?” 

 

He blinks and looks around, “oh.. Sorry, what did you ask?” 

 

Her nose scrunches in a soft laugh, “I was asking what you were doing after your last class?” 

 

“Really?” He asks, unsure if he’s hallucinating. 

 

Her head tilts to the side and gets a bit more somber. “Really, Steve. But if you’re busy—“ 

 

“No.” He says quickly, “I’m just surprised.” 

 

“About what?” Her eyebrow quirks up, daring him to say something. He can’t seem to form an answer that doesn't make him sound pathetic or sad, so he just shrugs helplessly. Her eyebrows raise and she balances the paper on her hips, “what time does your class get out?” 

 

“7p.m.” he says quietly. 

 

“What room?” 

 

“108” 

 

“I’ll be outside, waiting for you if that’s okay?” He just nods and her eyes twinkle, “see you then.” And then she’s gone in a flash of red lips and deep brown eyes and Steve’s left with an empty mind and a quick beating heart.

 

————-

 

Chapter Text

Steve swears he’s never looked at a clock so many times in a row during an art class. Usually he’s hyper focused on whatever project he has in front of him. But he finds himself half dreading and half dying with anticipation for the clock to strike 7p.m. 

 

“Yo, what’s on your mind?” Hope asks, whispering quietly as Professor Sif talks about one of the artists they’ve been studying. 

 

He just shrugs, his eyes going back to the clock before looking down at the lips he’s been absently doodling. 

 

Hope eyes his drawing and smiles, “you got a hot date later?” She teases. Which is when he looks at her, shoulders sagging.

 

“Actually…” he says quietly, “I think I do.” 

 

She gapes at him before her mouth turns into a wide grin, “What? Steve what the hell! You weren’t going to tell me?” 

 

“I can’t believe it myself.” He whispers back a bit helplessly, “I’ve never—“ he pauses, swallowing thickly, “never hung out with a girl before who I didn’t know.” 

 

“You asked out a stranger?” She says, her voice getting louder and Professor Sif eyeing them making them duck down. 

 

Steve looks at hope and holds his hands palm up as if he can’t believe what he’s about to say, “actually… she asked me…” 

 

She looks at him, eyes bright with mirth and a huge grin, “dang, Steve. Get it.”

 

He flushes and waves her off, turning back to the professor. His eyes trail to the clock. 6:56p.m. He feels a thrill of anticipation and tries to take calm deep breaths. 

 

———-

 

At 7:03, he packs up his things and notices Hope waiting eagerly for him. 

 

“You can leave now.” He says with a frown. 

 

“Oh no, I gotta see what hottie picked you up!” 

 

Steve groans and zips up his folio, carrying it towards the door. “Maybe she won’t show.” He says, stopping before the door, “maybe she’ll change her mind.” 

 

“If she does I’ll track her down.” Hope says with her eyebrows furrowed. 

 

“You won’t.” Steve rolls his eyes. He reaches for the handle and pulls it open, not sure what to expect. 

 

He stands in the doorway, staring at the bench that’s directly across from the door. She’s there. 

 

Actually there. 

 

She’s sitting with one leg tucked under the other, a laptop perched on her leg and a pen tucked behind her ear. Her hair is falling in waves off her shoulders and her red lips are pursed in thought. 

 

And he wants to draw her immediately

 

“Holy shit.”

 

He looks behind him to see Hope staring at her with wide eyes. Peggy looks up at the comment and notices him there, smiling. 

 

“There you are.” She says, closing her laptop and leaning an elbow on it, “you ready to go?” 

 

Steve turns to Hope, almost unsure if she’s talking to him. 

 

Hope laughs, “she ain’t talking to me, Steve.” Hope steps forward, “hey, I’m Hope. You’re gorgeous by the way.” 

 

Peggy smiles and shakes Hope’s hand. “I’m Peggy, and thank you. I love your hair.” 

 

Hope nods, “just cut it. Anyways, have fun you two!” Hope walks around the corner and Steve stands there still feeling like the hallway is tilted at an angle. 

 

She gathers her things and turns to face him. “You ready?” 

 

He nods, unable to get his throat working. 

 

“Are you hungry?” 

 

Not really, but he’s not going to say that, so he nods again. 

 

“I know this great little cafe that’s open late, what do you say?” 

 

He nods again and she laughs, “have you lost your voice in the last two hours?” 

 

He shakes his head ‘no’. Then winces, “no.” He says softly. 

 

“Good.” She says firmly, “because I’m hoping to learn about you tonight from something other than nods.” 

 

He ducks his head and feels his cheeks heat, “why?” He asks before he can stop himself. 

 

She looks at him and once again raises one eyebrow, as if she knows exactly what he’s thinking and finds it mildly amusing and dead wrong. 

 

“Well,” she says with a crisp voice and a smile, “I suppose I shouldn’t lie on our first date—“ he practically stumbles at her use of the word, but manages to stay steady, “I’ll not shy about the topic. I saw you that day in Erskine’s office and thought you quite handsome. I’ll not admit to being vain, but I will admit that your looks are what initially attracted me to you. So now I hope that the personality is as dashing as the outside.” 

 

Her words are reverberating against his skull and it takes everything in him to not melt into a puddle of confusion on the floor. 

 

Somehow he hears himself choking out the question, “you think I’m attractive?” 

 

She turns, grabbing his arm gently and pulling him to a stop. Her eyebrow raises and he knows now it will forever be the signature look he associates with her. “Steve. Humility I think is a noble trait. Ignorance is not.” 

 

He just stares at her, unable to understand how he’s gotten to this moment. He watches in what seems like slow motion as she reaches out and gently brushes the backs of her fingers against his cheek, making his heart stutter, and flesh ignites in heat beneath it. She then leans closer, studying his eyes and smiling at him before leaning back, allowing him to start breathing again, “you’re an artist. You see beauty in so many things. Why can’t you see it in yourself?” 

 

“I’ve never looked.” He rasps out. 

 

She frowns at him but with a soft amusement, “well start. You’re dashing in a way that I usually only see in old 40’s romance movies. I’ll not have you misunderstanding my intentions simply because we don’t agree eye-to-eye on your appearance.” 

 

“Intentions?” He asks cluelessly. 

 

She laughs, a soft sound that fills the long hallway, “you’re impossible.” She says, nudging his shoulder, “come on.” She leads him down a set of stairs and he willingly follows.

 

—————-



He holds a glass of iced tea in his hands as she sips from a mug of hot tea. A plate of fries sits between them. 

 

So far he’s asked her about her life. The courage to ask her questions came from the dread of her having to ask about his home life, or previous home life, so he finds the words to ask about her home and her family and why they moved to the US.

 

“Work.” She says simply, “I’ve only lived here for three years, but I’ve grown accustomed to the way of America. I do miss home sometimes, but I’m happy here. And my father seems happy in his new job. Something that was rare before.” 

 

She has a brother who is in college and that Steve can tell she adores just by how she talks about him. A cat that she also loves, and a mother with whom she rarely agrees. 

 

She hopes to be a forensic detective one day and Steve has the impression that she’s very good at puzzling things out. 

 

“So—“ She says, setting her tea down, “now that you’ve learned about me, while trying to avoid talking about yourself—“ there’s that eyebrow raise again, “anything else you want to know before I get to ask you questions?” 

 

He swallows nervously and ducks into his shoulders at having been caught, “what do you want to know?”

 

She leans forward, “tell me about you? What are things you like or dislike?” 

 

“I love art.” He says easily, “and English and History. I don’t like math except geometry… and science has always been a bit above my head kinda.” 

 

“A humanities man, I like that.” She says cheekily, and he feels his collar flush, making her smile. “What about your family?” 

 

He glances down, tracing a finger over the rim of his glass, might as well be honest. “My dad died when I was little, don’t remember him much—“ Peggy’s face gets solemn, and she leans in, as if she truly cares what he’s about to say. “Then it was just me and my ma until I was 9.” 

 

“She remarried?” Peggy asks, and he can sense the tiniest bit of hope in her voice that that’s what happened. 

 

He shakes his head, “no, uh— no, she died when I was 9.” 

 

He watches as her hand reaches out, and he thinks she’s going to set it on top of his, but she surprises him by gently placing it along his cheek and lifting his face so their eyes meet. 

 

“I’m so sorry, Steve. That’s terrible. I can’t imagine.” 

 

“It’s okay,” he says softly, almost mesmerized by her gentle touch, “it’s been over 8 years now.” 

 

“Maybe,” she says, pulling her hand away and resting it near his, “but that’s a lot of grief for a young boy to go through and I’m sorry.” He keeps his face impassive. The grief had really just started at that point. “What did you do then?” She asks, “did you live with a relative?” 

 

He takes a sip of the cold sweetened tea and shakes his head, “no, I—“ he looks up at her, noting the earnest curiosity on her face, “no, I don’t have any relatives, so I was placed in a kid’s home. I live there now.” 

 

Her mouth makes a delicate ‘o’ shape and she tilts her head. “Are you happy there?” 

 

His chest relaxes, “yeah,” he says, glad it can be an honest answer, “I am.” 

 

She seems to sigh in relief at that and smiles, “so there are other kids there?” 

 

He nods, “yep, I’ve got a lot of siblings. They’re a great bunch—“ he’s about to start talking about Peter when he feels his phone vibrate. “One second.” He says, pulling it out and seeing Sam’s name, “it’s my—“ he pauses, then he laughs, “I guess you could say it’s my dad.” Peggy smiles and gestures for him to answer and he slides his thumb across the bottom. “Hey Sam.” 

 

Steve?” 

 

He sounds worried, and that makes Steve worry, “yeah? Everything okay?” 

 

Where are you?” 

 

“I’m—“ he looks over at the clock to see it read 9:33p.m. His eyes widen, “Oh, crap, I’m sorry Sam! I should have called.” 

 

Steve, I’m trying here man, but you can’t just not let me know if you’re gonna be late!” 

 

Steve winces, “I’m really sorry,” he can feel Peggy watching him, “I’m fine though, I promise.” 

 

You still at the school?” 

 

Steve scrunches his nose, unsure how to answer, “uh—“ 

 

Sam’s tone gets worried again, “Steve, are you at the school? ” 

 

“No.” 

 

A pause and Sam’s voice gets tight. “Where are you and do I need to come pick you up?” 

 

Steve’s shaking his head, still avoiding Peggy’s eyes, “no, I’m at a cafe. It’s close to the school. I’m fine.” 

 

You’re at a cafe… ” Sam says slowly, “ alone?” 

 

“No…” Steve says weakly. 

 

Steve. You’re 17, and I know that, but with everything we’ve been through man, I’ve gotta have more details here.” 

 

“I’m with a friend from school.” 

 

Sam goes quiet and he finally works up the courage to look at Peggy who has the raised eyebrow. 

 

Oh shoot, it’s a girl.” Sam breathes out, “you’re with a girl?” 

 

Steve prays that Peggy can’t hear Sam speaking, “yes.” He practically whispers.

 

Sam laughs, “oh, you are in so much trouble, Steve!” He’s laughing and Steve knows he doesn’t mean actual trouble, but he still winces at the interrogation he’s going to get.

 

“Sam…” he pleads, “I’ll be home soon.” 

 

“No later than 11. You hear me? It’s a school night.” 

 

“Yes, sir.” Steve says with an eye roll. 

 

Ew.” Sam huffs, “don’t ever call me that again.” 

 

Steve laughs, his chest loosening a bit, “yes, sir.” 

 

Steve.”

 

“Sam.” 

 

I’m hanging up now.” 

 

“Good.” 

 

Love you kid, get home safe.” 

 

Steve’s eyes close at the natural way Sam just casually says that. “Love you too” he says back, his throat tight. The line clicks off and Steve shoves his phone back in his pocket, “sorry about that.” 

 

“No need to apologize, I didn’t mean to take up your evening.” 

 

“You’re not.” Steve assures her, “Sam’s just—-“ 

 

Peggy smiles, “seems to care about you a lot?” 

 

Steve winces, “could you hear him?” 

 

“His shock that you’re out with a girl? Or the over protectiveness of where you are at the moment?” 

 

Steve groans, “sorry.” 

 

“It’s adorable actually.” 

 

“It’s really not.” 

 

Peggy surprises him by standing up and slipping next to him on his side of the booth. “Let me see your phone.” 

 

He looks at her questioningly but pulls it out and hands it over. She deftly swipes to the camera and holds it out in front of them, “smile.” She says easily, following her own directions. 

 

Steve looks at the phone, whose camera is facing them, and he feels incredibly self-conscious at the difference that he sees in their appearances. She’s beautiful and effortless and charming, and he’s just… Steve. All big eyed and narrow faced and… plain Steve. 

 

“Smile.” She reminds him softly, “I promise it doesn’t hurt.”

 

Her light teasing makes him laugh and she snaps a picture at that moment, capturing him with a soft smile and his eyes bright behind the lenses of his glasses. 

 

She then clicks the share button and sends it in a text message to a number he doesn't recognize. 

 

“There.” She says firmly, “now you can prove to your father that you were indeed with a girl and now you also have my number and we both have a picture of our first date.”

 

He looks over at her in surprise and says, “first?” 

 

She shakes her head at him, “you really are impossible, you know that?” 

 

“So I’ve been told.” He manages to joke. 

 

“Well, I’ve had a fun evening, and I’d like to do it again. Would you?” 

 

He nods, and she laughs, “oh, no, back to the nods are we?” 

 

He ducks his head and scratches at the back of his neck, “of course I’d like to see you again.” 

 

“Then it’s a second date.” 

 

He smiles and she smiles back. 

 

——-

 

They’ve paid and left the cafe, heading towards the subway and Steve swears she brushes her hand against his, but he doesn't have the courage to take it just yet. 

 

“So,” she starts, as they walk down the steps to the platform, “Sam’s overprotective of you… because?” 

 

Steve stiffens at the question, really such an innocent question with a thousand loaded answers. One of them being his muddied background at the house, and his life of unfortunate experiences, and he doesn’t know what answer to give her. 

 

“He’s just a good dad. Looks out for all of us.” 

 

She raises her eyebrow again in a way that tells him she knows he’s being evasive. But she doesn’t press. 

 

“I’ll see you on Thursday?” She asks, standing up when her station approaches. 

 

“Yeah,” he says with a small smile, “Thursday.” 

 

She leans over and places a soft kiss on his cheek, making his eyes widen in surprise and the blush rise up from his collar, “good night Steve.” She says softly, before stepping out the doors and disappearing from sight. 

 

He stands there frozen until his stop comes up and he manages to somehow exit the subway car. 

 

He walks to the house, slipping quietly into the door, hoping everyone’s asleep. But Sam is obviously awake, his door open and light on, so Steve knows he’s waiting for him. 

 

“Sam, I’m home.” He says softly, right outside the door. 

 

“Come in—“ Sam calls back. When he walks in, he sees Sam sitting at his computer, looking at something on the screen intensely. 

 

“Sorry about not calling. I really will make sure it doesn't happen again.” 

 

Sam looks up, about ready to say something when his voice dies in his throat and a wide grin takes its place. 

 

“Sam?” But Sam doesn’t say a word, just stands up, eyes pinned on Steve and suddenly he’s shoving him gently out the door and pushing him along the hallway, “Sam? What is it?” 

 

But Sam just opens the bathroom door and pushes Steve inside, turning on the light and twisting Steve to face the mirror. “Spill.” Sam says with a grin a mile wide, pointing at his face. 

 

Steve’s mouth parts in surprise at the prominent lipstick mark on his cheek in the perfect shape of Peggy’s lips. 

 

He watches as his face goes red from root to chin and Sam laughs and laughs, holding onto Steve’s shoulders to steady himself. 

 

“Your face!” Sam gasps, “she must be something! You’ve got to tell me all about her.” 

 

And that’s when Steve realizes why Peggy insisted they take a picture. He pulls out his phone, hesitating for only a moment before pulling the picture up and handing his phone to Sam. 

 

Sam looks at the picture, frozen in place as his thumb ghosts over the image of Steve’s laughing face. Sam looks up with wide eyes at Steve and he suddenly feels nervous and a bit embarrassed, maybe he shouldn’t have—

 

“She’s the one, isn’t she?” Sam says with no hint of uncertainty. 

 

Steve blinks at him, “what?” 

 

Sam looks down at the photo again and just stares at it, then he passes Steve’s phone back, “look at me and tell me you don’t like this girl.” Steve gapes at him and says nothing. “You do.” 

 

“I mean yeah, but I barely know her.” 

 

“And yet, you, a kid who overthinks everything, and doesn’t leap into anything, and who I’ve never seen show even the slightest interest in a girl ever at all, now is standing here before me with a kiss on your cheek, a picture of her on your phone and—“ Sam takes the phone back and looks at the messages, seeing the most recent one, to the unlabeled number that is Peggy’s “let me guess— this her?” Steve nods and Sam shakes his head in disbelief with a smile, “this is the one.” 

 

“You can’t know that.” Steve says, suddenly feeling defensive. 

 

But Sam doesn’t back down, “Okay, Steve. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t think she’s the one.” 

 

And Steve finds that he can’t. Because saying that would be a lie. He wants her to be. Even though he barely knows her. Even though it’s been one date. He just has that feeling. She’s right. She’s the right one. 

 

Sam shakes his head again and lays a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “She’s beautiful. She nice to you?” 

 

“Yeah,” Steve whispers, “she’s really nice. And really smart too.” 

 

“She know about you?” 

 

Steve grimaces, “which part?” 

 

Sam shrugs, “any of it.” 

 

Steve swallows and turns, leaning against the counter. “No. Just that my parents are dead and I live here.” 

 

“Steve.” He looks up at Sam who has a somber face. “You may not want to hear this but—“ he sighs, “if you want to date this girl, and let me be clear, I think you should, I think there’s some things you should tell her.” 

 

Steve closes his eyes, feeling dread. “Do I have to?” 

 

Sam sighs and leans against the counter with him. “I think it’s fair for her to know about some of the more delicate aspects of your medical history.” 

 

Oh. Like the ticking time bomb that is his health.

 

“What if that changes how she feels about me?” Steve hates how small his voice sounds. 

 

“Then you don’t want her around anyways.” Sam says firmly, “but, I don’t know, kid.” Sam taps on the photo on the screen, “Something about this girl gives me the impression that it wouldn’t change a thing.” 

 

“You can’t know that.” Steve repeats, looking down at the photo. 

 

“Only one way to find out.” Sam nudges his shoulder. 

 

“I know you’re right. I’ll tell her soon…” Then he pauses. “Sam?” 

 

“Yeah?” 

 

His throat gets tight and he closes his eyes to try to keep them from getting watery. “Should I even pursue this? Is it fair to get attached to her, and maybe even her get attached to me when my death is imminently on the horizon?” 

 

His voice cracks on the last word and Sam pulls him into a hug, holding him tightly and Steve wraps his arms around his in response.

 

“Steve.” Sam says, his chin resting on top of Steve’s head. “You deserve to live a full long life. And I hope you do. But there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that you should get to live a full life for as long as you’re able. That means living it to the fullest in every way. So, yeah. Date this girl, but tell her the truth so she gets to make an informed decision about being in your life.” 

 

They stay there for a minute before Sam takes the phone again and looks at the picture. “You look really happy in this photo. Can’t tell you how happy that makes me.” 

 

Steve swipes the phone from his hands and rolls his eyes. “I’m a generally happy kid, Sam.” 

 

Sam blinks at him, and there’s a second too long of a pause before Sam nods, “yeah, Steve. I know.” He says with a smile. But Steve watches as it doesn’t reach his eyes. 

 

“Sam.” Steve says in a rush, “I promise. I am.” 

 

Sam shakes his head, “Steve, the day after I met you, you got kidnapped.  And since then it’s been one thing after another, I—“ 

 

“I’m sorry.” Steve cuts in, voice cracking,  “I’m really sorry—“ 

 

“Steve!” Sam snaps, cutting him off, “I’m not— You don’t get it—“ he takes a deep breath, “I’m not saying that because I think it’s your fault. I’m saying that because I can’t wait for the day when there’s not something like the weight of the world weighing on your shoulders. I hate being unsure whether you’re happy or not. One day, it will just be you living your life, and when you say you’re happy, I’ll believe you.” 

 

“You don’t believe me now?” 

 

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s that I want it to be fully true.” 

 

“Meaning?” 

 

“When you say ‘I’m happy’ it sounds like you’re saying, ‘I’m as happy as I can be with the lot I’ve been given’.” He looks at Steve, “am I wrong?” 

 

Steve winces, “I guess not.” 

 

“Then that’s what I’m trying to say. I want your ‘I’m happy’ to be just that. No caveats.” 

 

“You’re using a lot of complicated words, Sam.” Steve jokes, trying to lighten the mood. 

 

“Then you better get to bed so you won’t be too tired to learn complicated things at school, huh?” 

 

“Yeah.” Steve says, wiping at his cheek, “night Sam.” 

 

“Night, Steve.”

 

——————

 

The next morning Sam catches him as he’s about to head to school. “You going to tell the others about her?” 

 

Steve chuckles, “how about I see whether she’s going to stay in my life or not first, huh?” 

 

Sam blinks and then scrunches his nose, “smart move.” 

 

“I thought so.” 

 

“Have a good day.” 

 

“I will.” He says with a genuine smile. 

 

———-

 

Bucky and him sit together at lunch with Natasha and Scott who is eager to fill almost any silence. 

 

“You got something on your mind?” Bucky asks him, nudging his side. 

 

Steve looks up and notices that they’re all staring at him. “Uh, what?” 

 

“Natasha asked if you were going to come with us to Clint’s work tonight and you were zoned out.”

 

Steve laughs, “sorry, yeah I was zoned out. Sure, yeah I’ll go, even just to watch.” 

 

“You don’t want to climb?” Natasha asks. 

 

“My joints probably wouldn’t appreciate it.” Steve says wryly, rubbing at the knuckles on both hands. “But I’ll watch.” 

 

They nod and Steve can’t help but go back to zoning out, remembering the way her hand brushed against his and the way her lips felt against his cheek. 

 

————

 

Thursday night comes and he receives a text from the number he now has saved as P. Carter.

 

Are we still on for tonight?

 

He responds before he can talk himself out of it

 

Yeah, I got something I want to talk to you about

 

She responds quickly,

 

Color me intrigued

 

See you at 7

 

See you then

 

————-

 

When Hope sees Peggy waiting for him again, she practically high fives him and Steve has to wave her away to avoid melting into a puddle of embarrassment. 

 

He walks over the the bench and gets her attention. “You ready?” He asks. 

 

“Quite.” She responds, gathering her things and smiling at him. She stands and they decide to go to the cafe again. 

 

Once they’re settled, he watches as she looks at him seriously, “what did you want to talk to me about?” 

 

He looks around, trying to decide how to word what he’s going to say… Wondering what her response will be. 

 

She’s patient, waits without pushing as he gathers his thoughts. 

 

“I’m—“ he starts, and his voice instantly trails off. He feels his heart beat increase and his lungs fight for air and he can’t say another word because admitting it out loud feels like defeat and a death sentence and everything he should be okay with right now but how do you ever feel okay about only getting to live 20-ish years. So he stops talking and just stares out the window. 

 

She reaches out and places her hand on his. “No rush, Steve.” She whispers. 

 

His hesitation must show on his face, and it makes him take a deep breath, willing himself to not need his inhaler. “I’m sick.” He pushes out, feeling his pulse quicken further at the words. 

 

She blinks at him and her face shifts, concern growing, “I assume since you’re telling me in such a way that we aren’t discussing the common cold?” 

 

He shakes his head and gently pulls his hand out from under hers, resting it in his lap instead.

 

“I’m not, uh— I’m not—” he looks anywhere but her face, “I won’t be—- uh, I didn’t want to…” he looks at the table, unable to finish that sentence. His eyes follow the grain of the wood, “I didn’t want to not tell you, in case it would change your mind.”

 

“Steve. What exactly would change my mind?” 

 

He winces and looks at her. Her eyes bore into his and he sighs, “I’m not expected to last very long.” 

 

“That’s an odd choice of words for something so serious.” She says in a clipped tone. “Explain.” 

 

And though he doesn’t want to, he does. “I was born with a heart condition. And some circumstances in my life aggravated it, and I just recently was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder—“ his voice is hoarse, but he doesn’t stop. If he stops now, he’ll have to try again and he doesn’t think he can say it twice, “— so, I just wanted to tell you, so you would know.” 

 

Her voice is hard, “know what, Steve?” 

 

“For you to know that I can’t be long term. In case you don’t want to waste your time.”

 

She looks at him in disbelief and anger. She stands up from her stool at the high top table and faces away from him, her shoulders tense. For one brief second he thinks she’s going to walk away. To leave him and that will be that. Instead she turns around and stabs a finger at him. 

 

“You think so little of me?” 

 

“What?” 

 

“You think you could frighten me away with that?” 

 

“What? Peggy, no, I—“ 

 

“How long.” 

 

“Peggy—“ 

 

“How long, Steve?” And the horrible deja vu that question gives him, shifts his gravity. 

 

“Four-ish years.” He says firmly, meeting her intense gaze. 

 

And it must be shorter than she expected because her mouth makes that delicate ‘o’ shape again and she steps closer to him. “Then we won’t waste a moment, shall we?” 

 

He’s not sure what she means by that, until she’s pulling at his coat and kissing him so fiercely that his mind goes haywire. 

 

Her warm hands touch his cool cheek and run through his hair and he can barely think to register what to do. 

 

He feels her smile against his lips and the urge to kiss her back takes only a second to kick into gear. The fear he’d felt that she might truly take him up on his offer to leave, dissipates and a new desire to know everything about her, including how she feels to kiss, builds in his chest. He wraps his arms around her back, pulling her close, and reveling in the way her body feels pressed up against his. 

 

A whistle from somewhere in the cafe has them breaking apart and she smiles at him with a wicked look in her eye. “You know, I’ve never kissed a boy in a cafe before.” 

 

Half disbelief and half adrenaline makes him smile dazedly, “I’ve never kissed a girl before.” 

 

She eyes him with what is now his favorite look, the raised eyebrow, “you’re joking?” 

 

He shakes his head ‘no’, feeling his cheeks heat at the fact that he’d just had his first kiss, very heatedly, in a very public place. She sits back across from him and smirks, “well,” she says, wiping at what must be lipstick on his lips, “you’re a very intuitive learner then.” 

 

“Huh?”

 

She just laughs and leans on her elbows towards him. “I don’t know what life has in store for us, but I don’t do anything in halves.” She looks at him very seriously. “I’d love to be a part of your life, for however long I’m able.” 

 

“Even—“ he starts to ask, because despite the kiss and the adrenaline pumping his heart too hard, he still can’t quite believe it, “even if it’s just a few years?” 

 

She leans forward and uses her gaze to invite him to meet her halfway where she places a much softer, more tender kiss on him, before leaning back and smiling at him. “For however long I’m able.” 

 

He looks at her, feeling this innate sense that what Sam said was right, that she is the one. He just doesn’t know how it makes sense for that to be. She must see the warring of his thoughts because her voice grows quiet, “Steve? What is it?” 

 

“You barely know me, but you’re willing—“ he pauses, unsure how to say it without sounding pathetic or crazy. 

 

“Willing to waste my time on you?” She asks, a bit of annoyance in her tone. “Steve, if I thought you were a waste of time, I wouldn’t bother. I don’t waste my time. Like I said, I’ve never done anything in halves.” He’s not quite sure how to respond but she looks at him and her eyes shift, and for the first time he sees a bit of hesitation on her face. “Can I admit something to you?” He nods and she looks at the table, tracing the thin white plate that had held a scone. “When I first saw you in Erskine’s office all those months ago, I felt like—“ she looks up at him, almost daring him to argue, “like I was supposed to see you then.” Her lips set firmly for a minute, but when he doesn’t interrupt, she continues, “then I saw you here and there and each time I felt a pull, as if… as if we were meant to speak or connect in some way. But that’s crazy isn’t it? That sort of set fate doesn't exist. Except… then I saw you in the hallway and I had to say something. I had to. And then we talked for hours and I just knew.” 

 

She pauses and his heart is pounding in his chest. “Knew what?” He asks, his voice hoarse. 

 

“I’m only 17,” she says, her eyes meeting his, “but I’ve never not known what I’ve wanted. And I’m sure every adult would have something to say about teenagers and permanence. But—“ she looks at him and he almost would describe the look as possessive, not that he minds, “I want you, or… at least a chance to get to know you and be with you. No matter for how long. But no matter whether it’s a week, or four-ish years, it won’t be a waste of my time.” 

 

“I knew it too.” He blurts out. “My dad called me out on it. Saying you must be the one, and I told him he’s crazy and he couldn’t know that. But he’s right. You’re right.” And they stare at each other in mutual surprise and disbelief and… excitement. And Steve says something he’d never imagined saying ever in his entire lifetime. “I want to kiss you again.” 

 

She smiles and leans forward, “by all means.” 

 

———-

 

He’s on cloud nine by the time he gets home that he almost misses Clint sitting on the front steps. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

He smiles, “hey Clint.” 

 

“What’s up with you?” 

 

“What do you mean?” 

 

Clint looks at him and stares “something’s different.” 

 

Steve looks down as if searching for something, “what?” 

 

“You,” Clint says, standing up and looking at him in the dim street light, “you look, I don’t know—“ Clint’s eyes widen, “who is she?” 

 

And Steve thinks about denying it, about playing it off, but if the way their conversation and the way she kissed him goodnight was any indication of the future, she was going to be around for the rest of his life, however short that may be. 

 

Steve nods, sinking to the ground, resting his folio on his lap. 

 

“Peggy,” he smiles, “her name is Peggy.” 

 

“She cute?” Clint asks in a joking tone, sitting next to Steve. 

 

He takes his phone out of his pocket and pulls up the picture, handing the phone to Clint. 

 

“Holy crap.” Clint huffs, “she’s not just cute, she’s hot!” 

 

“Hey!” Steve snaps, “be respectful.” 

 

Clint guffaws, clutching at his chest and laughing so hard that Steve thinks he might pass out. Which after that comment, fine. 

 

The door opens behind him and he looks back to see Natasha standing in the doorway. “Thought I heard the local hyenas out here.” 

 

Clint is still shaking his head, “you know about this?” And before Steve can stop him, he tosses his phone to Natasha, who gapes at the photo. 

 

“Ummm,” She huffs, “who the hell is this?”

 

Clint bats his eyelashes, “Peggy.” 

 

“Guys.” Steve groans, pretending to be annoyed and not actually being annoyed at all, “leave it be.” 

 

“Does Bucky know?” Natasha asks. 

 

“No.” Steve huffs, “I’ve only been on two dates with her.” 

 

“TWO!” Both Clint and Natasha shout. Natasha squeezes onto the step with them, her eyes alight.  

 

“Tell us!” 

 

Steve laughs and then leans back, his spine resting against the stone steps. 

 

“She—“ 

 

“Wait!” Natasha shouts holding up her hand, “hold on.” 

 

Clint and Steve look at her questioningly and she digs out her phone. “Bucky?” She says when someone answers, “come over to the house.” She laughs, “tell your mom that Steve had a date.” They hear a shout over the phone as Natasha holds it away from her ear and winces. They actually hear Bucky’s house door slam from all the way around the building and they’re laughing as they hear him sprint over. He slides to a stop in front of them, panting. 

 

“What!?” He shouts, hauling Steve up and shaking him, “WHAT!” 

 

Steve’s laughing and they ask him a million questions that he just sits and waits for them to stop so he can actually answer them. 

 

When they pause to take a breath, Steve looks at them, “hold on.” He pulls out his phone and dials a number. 

 

Hello? Steve?” 

 

“Hey Tony, you busy?” 

 

Steve hears something pop and then something clang against metal and a loud “ shit!” Before it falls silent and Tony says, “ nope, what’s up?”

 

“Well,” Steve says, with a grin on his face, “I”ve got Natasha, Clint, and Bucky here too and I didn’t want to tell this more than once.” 

 

Tony’s voice gets concerned, “ tell us what ?”

 

“About the girl.” 

 

There’s the sound of glass crashing and they all wince as Tony lets loose a round of expletives, “ A WHAT !” 

 

Steve laughs, “you were right you know. There was a girl.” 

 

Tony huffs and hollers and waxes long about how he knew it, but then quiets down, asking, “who is she?”

 

So Steve tells them. 

 

——

 

At the end of his story, which truth be told isn’t actually all that long considering the two dates they’ve been on, the three of them are staring at him and Tony is uncharacteristically silent. He looks at them, the concerned looks on their faces and sighs, “save yourselves the lecture.” 

 

“Steve—“ Natasha starts, “you can’t know something like that after two dates.” 

 

Steve just laughs, “maybe you can’t, but I can. Even Sam said so.” 

 

Bucky widens his eyes, “what? Sam knows about this?” 

 

Steve nods. “Yeah, he called it after the first date. When he told me to tell her about my life expectancy.” They start to protest but he puts his hands up, “listen, if I knew I had another 70 years to live, I’d maybe listen to you. But for all that I know, I have 4, maybe. And I can’t explain it, neither could she. And I get it, we’re teenagers, we’re young and maybe things will change, I don’t know. But that’s the point. I don’t know the future, but I know right now.” 

 

Clint shakes his head, “I’ve never seen you like this. Stubborn and bullheaded, yes, but… so sure about something in your future?” He holds up his hands, “I don’t know what this girl has brought out in you, but I like it. No more arguments from me.” 

 

Steve nods at him and looks at Bucky and Natasha, then holds the phone up to his mouth, “what about you Tony? Any arguments?” 

 

He hears Tony sigh. “ I’m not exactly the relationship aficionado, so I’m just happy to see you happy .” There’s a brief pause, “ even if you’re only a junior in highschool and it’s highly unlikely for her to be the actual one.” 

 

Steve huffs out a laugh, “thanks for the vote of confidence.” He looks at the other two, “and from you?” Bucky opens his mouth but Steve holds up a finger, “before you say anything, need I remind you, that unless you’re going to look at me and tell me that you guys think each other isn’t ‘the one’ that your argument is pointless.” They gape at him and Clint laughs, making Steve chuckle. “Exactly. Are you guys gonna get married? Maybe, maybe not. But you’re dating like you might someday, right?” Neither speak and Steve just waves at them as if that answers his question. Then he looks at them with a smirk and says, “I’m dying, let me have this one okay?” Bucky glares at him and so does Natasha. He looks over and Clint looks somber and the phone is silent. He sighs, “you all wanted me to cheer up, and this is how you act when I do?”

 

Joking about your death isn’t exactly cheery. ” Tony says over the phone, “ and for clarification. You’re not dying.” 

 

Steve nods, “maybe. But, now with the trial over, and the brothers caught, I feel like I can finally move on. Enjoy the last few years in peace—“ Bucky opens. his mouth and Steve cuts him off, “or however many years. Okay?” 

 

“When do we get to meet her?” Natasha asks, “this oh so perfect partner of yours.” 

 

Steve smiles, “whenever. Maybe this weekend?” 

 

They nod and Steve pulls out his phone.

 

S: How would you feel about meeting my family this weekend?

 

It takes a few minutes but he smiles at the response

 

P: I’d love to. When and where?

 

S: Sunday, at a sandwich shop called Milo’s, 1p.m.?

 

P: I’ll be there. 

 

Steve shows them the text and is caught off guard by the way Bucky’s looking at the messages. 

 

“What?” He asks defensively. 

 

Bucky looks up and smiles, “you called us your family?” 

 

And Steve furrows his brow, “of course.” 

 

He watches as all three of them look at each other and relax. “Okay, fine.” Bucky says, leaning against Natasha’s legs, “we’ll meet her.”” 

 

Steve laughs, “oh, now you’ll meet her?” 

 

“Don’t listen to grumpy pants.” Natasha says with a chuckle, “you know he just gets real jealous when it comes to other people spending time with you.” 

 

Bucky huffs, flipping them off and they all laugh. 

 

————

 

Chapter Text

The longer she thinks about it, the more suspicious she becomes. Not because Steve doesn’t deserve a gorgeous girl to fall in love with him, but the timing and everything seems too coincidental. So she texts Bucky and Clint the next morning.

 

N: get to Milo’s early, at least 15 minutes

 

C: why?

 

N: reconnaissance

 

B: ????

 

N: we’re going to spy on them. I’m going to text Steve that we will meet him there. 

 

C: Nat…

 

N: don’t Nat me, birdbrain. This is Steve we’re talking about. 

 

B: and you call me overprotective. 

 

N: You don’t think maybe she saw his face in the papers and thought she could get in on the action? She got Steve, who is tightly connected to the richest family in America and who is, to put it lightly, inexperienced in love, to fall for her in two days and basically admit he wants to marry her? Tell me it doesn’t smell fishy. 

 

C: I really hope not… he’ll be crushed 

 

B: I’ll be there at 12:45

 

N: good

 

————-

 

Clint finishes his early morning shift, checking the screws and climbing up to check the connections. He’s the quickest at it, and is able to do it without a partner, so his boss had given him a raise just to do it each Sunday. He ruminates over what Natasha had texted. 

 

He really really hopes she’s just being her usual skeptical self. He’s fine with them acting a little overprotective. After everything with Steve it’s warranted. But actually having to crush the kids' spirits even more? 

 

Clint couldn’t do it. 

 

They all knew something was wrong. But they didn’t know what. 

 

When Steve was in the hospital before his freshman year finding out he’d only live till 30, well… Clint’s ashamed to admit that had been 15 years of time. It had of course been awful and would be way too soon, but it had still seemed far off. 

 

But now he’s 17 and he’s down to 22? It’s bad enough what he’s gone through in his life outside of his health, but to add in the shortened life span? 

 

Just seems cruel. 

 

So he really really hopes she’s the real deal. 

 

He cleans up his tools and shimmies down, hanging up his work gear and waving goodbye to his boss. 

 

He runs home, showers, ignores the way his father rolls his eyes at him when he greets Melissa and tells her about his morning. 

 

He has no idea why she puts up with him. 

 

“Clint.” 

 

He looks towards his dad, “yeah?” 

 

“I’ve been thinking.” 

 

That’s not a phrase he likes to hear. “Yeah?” 

 

“I think, now that you’re 19, it’s time for you to move out.” 

 

Clint blinks in surprise, as Melissa does the same. 

 

He’s been saving every dollar so he can attend college. 

 

If he gets an apartment or rents a room… he won’t be able to afford it. 

 

“Could I…” he starts, hating having to ask his dad for anything, “could I have a bit more time? Or maybe… pay you rent for my room?” 

 

“Clint,” Melissa starts, “No way, you’re not paying to live here.” She turns to his dad, “you’re springing this up out of nowhere, why do you want him to move out?” 

 

“I just think it’s time he learns the responsibilities of the real world. Time to leave the nest. I’ll give you to the New Year. Then I want you out, you understand Clint?” 

 

The New Year? That’s barely three weeks away…

 

His jaw is clenched as he responds. “Yes, sir.” 



————

 

Bucky tries to work on his essay that’s due before Christmas break, he tries to focus but his mind drifts as he looks at the clock. 

 

At noon he closes his text book and takes a quick shower. Waving goodbye to his parents who he promises to give a full report to when he returns. They’d been overjoyed to hear Steve had found a girl, and he was trying to stay positive as well. But Natasha’s text did ring in his mind. 

 

He walks through Milo’s at 12:46 and is promptly pulled behind the counter. 

 

The yelp that leaves him as he’s shoved down is silenced by a hand over his mouth. Natasha is staring at him with a grin and those intense green eyes. 

 

“Shh.” She huffs, a smirk teasing her lips. 

 

“They’re not even here yet!” He grouses, shifting into a more comfortable position. 

 

“Um, hello?” 

 

Clint’s uncle, Ricky, looks at them questioningly as he exits from the fridge room. “Any particular reason you’re hiding behind my counter?” 

 

“Steve’s got a date and we’re meeting her for the first time. Wanna get some intel before we do.” 

 

“Woah, woah, woah.” Ricky says in a rush, “you’re telling me Steve has a date and no one told me??” 

 

“We just found out last night.” Natasha adds, peering barely over the counter. “If you see Clint tell him to come hide.” 

 

Ricky nods and gets back to business, prepping for the afternoon. 

 

Clint joins them not a few minutes later, and they talk quietly behind the counter. Bucky notices that Clint seems distracted, but he doesn’t have time to ask as the doorbell jingles. 

 

And there she is. The girl from the picture. And it’s almost hard to process that she’s even more beautiful than she was in the photo. 

 

“Geez.” He hears Natasha mutter, “try hard much?” And that makes Bucky smile. He chuckles softly, and Natasha gives her signature frown. But he just laughs again, “you’re more beautiful than her, don’t worry.” 

 

She scoffs at him, but her eyes soften and he knows he said the right thing. 

 

They watch as she looks briefly about before settling into a booth, facing the door. She’s quite early and he can’t decide if that’s a mark in her favor or a sign that she’s up to something. 

 

She pulls out her phone, sets it on the table, and then pulls a tablet from her bag and begins typing away. They look at each other and shrug. 

 

But it’s the next person through the door that gives them a real shock. 

 

Tony. 

 

“What the hell is he doing here!” Natasha seethes, at the same time that Clint laughs. 

 

“Guy can’t help himself. He heard we were meeting Steve’s girl and must have decided he didn’t want to be left out.” 

 

Bucky gets Ricky’s attention, “call Tony over!” 

 

“Hey, Tony!” Ricky says in a jovial voice, “good to see you again. I’ve got three specials all wrapped up and ready to go for you.” He waves him over and talks to him about mundane things until he’s maneuvered Tony around the counter and gotten him in eyesight of the three. Tony looks at them blankly before rolling his eyes and dropping silently. Peggy hadn’t looked up during the entire exchange. 

 

“Our ideas of ‘scoping out the girl’ are very different.” He says quietly with an eyebrow raise. 

 

They all glare at each other fondly and then Tony is tapping something on his phone and pulls a tiny device out of his jacket pocket. He sets it on the ground and begins controlling its movements on his phone. It’s a spider, similar to the one he gave to Peter a few Christmases ago. They watch as it scuttles between chairs and slides underneath the booth where she’s sitting. It settles against the table’s support, hidden from their eyes. He taps a final button and hands them each an earbud. Bucky doesn’t even question it. Tony always has something ridiculous up his sleeve. 

 

One o’clock passes and Bucky tries to stay calm. There’s a million non-threatening reasons for why Steve might be late. But at 1:11, Tony must feel the tension radiating off the group and starts tapping away on his phone. 

 

His voice is tight when he speaks, “why does it say Steve is in Queens?” He looks up, a bit panicked, and they’re all about to bolt from their positions when the doorbell rings again and they whip their heads towards who enters. 

 

Steve walks in slowly, he always walks slowly. But Bucky can already see the giant bruise blooming across his cheek and he feels his eyes widen in shock and he’s about to stand up and ask what the hell happened, but Natasha’s hand grabs his arms and stops him. He looks down, ready to argue but she gestures with her head, “trial by fire.” She whispers at him. 

 

He clenches his jaw but nods, settling back behind the counter and keeping his eyes peering over the edge. 

 

Steve approaches Peggy and she glances up, a smile is on her face but immediately shifting to displeased surprise, Tony’s device picks up her words. 

 

Steve? What the hell happened?” They all look at each other and gape, she’s British! Clint mouths. 



“I, uh-“ he starts, as she stands and stares at him, her fingers ghosting over the bruise, “I—“ he doesn’t seem to be able to finish his sentence and the girl looks at him briefly before walking towards the counter where Clint’s uncle is currently slicing deli meats. 

 

“Excuse me, sir?” She asks, approaching the counter and causing them all to duck behind it further, “do you possibly have a bag of ice or something cold I could use?” 

Ricky looks up and sees Steve who feebly waves at him. 

 

“Steve! What the hell happened!” He calls, “hold on.” He disappears and comes back with a baggy full of ice. Which he hands to her and looks at Steve. “You going to tell me what happened?” 

 

They watch as Steve grimaces, wincing at the way that stretches the bruise, “I think I got mugged, again...” 

 

All four of them freeze behind the counter as Ricky splutters in shock. But the girl's voice is loud and clear. 

 

“What! Where? You tell me what they looked like and where right this instant!” 

 

They stare in surprise at her protectiveness and Bucky mentally puts a tally in her box of wins. 

 

“Pegs,” Steve says with a soft laugh, “it doesn’t matter. It's just stuff.” 

 

“It does so matter. I’ll give those bastards a piece of my mind!” 

 

He laughs again and turns to Ricky, “hey, you mind not mentioning the mugging part to the other three when they get here?” 

 

Bucky can sense the way Ricky stiffens, “uh… why?” 

 

Steve scratches at the back of his head, “they jumped me cuz of the phone I was holding, so if you tell them, they’re going to call you-know-who and you know how he gets when he feels like something’s his fault when it isn’t.” Bucky looks over to Tony whose face is now translucent and eyes a thousand yards away. 

 

Uncle Ricky’s voice is a bit raw when he nods and responds, “uh, sure, Steve. I’ll let you tell them.” 

 

Steve blinks at him and just sighs, “I will at some point. It’s a little fresh right now.” 

 

“Steve,” the girl says, her voice still fueled with fury, “I need you to tell me where this happened.” 

 

“Peggy,” he smiles, leading her back to the booth, their voices going back through the earbuds, “ I’m fine! I promise. Everything’s replaceable.” 

 

“You’re not.” She snaps, eyebrows pulled down in annoyance. And the girl gets another tally in her win box. “ What if they’d really hurt you?” 

 

“I promise they didn’t. Just some bruises.” 

 

The girl goes quiet for a second before she’s turning to Steve and her voice getting very crisp, “ bruises. Plural?” She points to the one large bruise on his face and they all see him wince. 

 

Uh.” He says softly, “yeah. Bruise. Just the one.” 

 

“You’re a terrible liar, Steven, we’ve already been over this.” 

 

Steve changes the subject, “I’m surprised they’re not here yet.” 

 

Bucky watches as her eyes dart to the counter for a millisecond before turning back towards Steve. “I’m sure they have their reasons.” 

 

Steve nods and leans back, pressing the ice against his face and grimacing, “ I’m going to get so much crap for this. ” He says in a voice that attempts to be joking, but misses, “they’re going to yell at me because they think I go looking for this kind of thing, but I swear it just finds me.” 

 

What type of thing?” She asks.

 

Fights, or I dunno, anything that gets me beat up. People see my size and I’m like a magnet for their bullying fantasies.” 

 

All four of them turn towards each other, eyes wide at Steve’s candor. They wait silently for her response to his dig about his own size. 

 

“You know,” she responds blithely, “ I can’t quite recall the last time you kissed me. I think you’ll need to refresh my memory.” 

 

Steve laughs and shakes his head, “and you call me impossible.” 

 

“If you don’t kiss me this insta—“ 

 

Bucky practically chokes on his surprise at the way Steve pulls her close, closing the distance and cutting her sentence off. It’s not a lengthy kiss, or an overly affectionate display, but he'd be lying if he said the whole place didn’t charge with the electricity from it. 

 

There .” Steve says with a smirk on his face, “ remember now ?” 

 

Hmm .” She responds, her own eyes dancing at Steve, “ I suppose. But I’ll admit I need reminders often.” 

 

Steve laughs, “ I’d call them to see what’s taking so long but… ” he shrugs and laughs, then they pause and listen as he sucks in a sharp breath of air, “ ow— “ he starts, while replacing the ice onto his face, “ maybe they forgot. ” 

 

What was that ?” She asks, “ does your cheek hurt that badly? Could they have fractured it?” 

 

“No, no. ” Steve says in a rush, “ I’m sure it’s fine . I want you to meet them, I hope they’re on their way. ” 

 

Peggy puts her hand on Steve’s thigh and Bucky swears she glances back at the counter. “ I don’t think they forgot. I’m sure something’s holding them up. Tell me about them?” 

 

Steve’s grin widens, “ well you’re only meeting 3 today, one’s away at college. But then I’ll have to take you to meet my dad and siblings too—” 

 

Dad. 

 

He called Sam dad .

 

He looks over to the others to gauge their reaction. Natasha’s looking at him, and he knows she’s never heard him call Sam that. 

 

So first is Bucky, he and I met right before my freshman year and we clicked pretty quickly. He’s real cool, I don’t know why he’s friends with me, hell, I don’t know why any of them decided to be my friend but I’m lucky they did —“ 

 

Steve .” Peggy says firmly, “ humility is appreciated. Self-deprecation is not.” 

 

He chuckles, “ once you meet them you’ll see. You’ll fit right in, all cool and sleek and taller than a 6th grader.” 

 

Steve, I swear —“ 

 

He laughs, a truly relaxed laugh, “ okay, okay, I’m done, anyways, then there’s Natasha. She and Bucky are dating and she’s super cool. Way too smart and can dance and even fight like a pro. She’s got a little sister that lives with us, and they’re like sisters to me now too. I think you and her will get along well, both badass women.” 

 

Peggy laughs and Natasha’s hand finds his, squeezing it. 

 

Then Clint —“ Steve starts, “ I can’t even explain Clint. He’s hilarious. The dry humor of the group, and he always knows everything. This is his uncle's shop actually—“ 

 

Oh really ?” Another eye flick to the counter. 

 

Mhmm. And he works at this rock climbing place and I swear he’s like a monkey, it’s crazy. All in all, we’re a misfit group but we’ve been friends now for over 2 years.” he pauses and sighs, “ I hope you guys get along.” 

 

“If they care for you then I have no concerns that we’ll get along swimmingly.” 

 

“They care way too much actually.” Steve laughs, wincing again, “ we’re all pretty over the top for each other.” 

 

“Over the top how?” 

 

Steve’s quiet for a moment before sighing, “ hard to explain.” 

 

“A.k.a. you don’t want to explain.” 

 

Bucky raises an eyebrow at her willingness to call Steve out on his crap. 

 

Yeah, I really don’t.” Steve huffs, then smiles, “ I can’t wait for you to meet them.” 

 

“I can’t either.” 

 

As if that’s their cue, they slink off behind the counter, exit out the back side door to the alley and start walking around to the front. 

 

“Thoughts?” Clint asks. 

 

“I like her.” Tony says easily. “I don’t, however, like the fact that Steve is still keeping things from us.” 

 

“If you mention that we know, I’ll punch you.” Natasha says sharply, “Steve would be so mad that we listened in. So you keep your trap shut.” 

 

“We’re mad at him for keeping things under wraps and then we turn around and do the same thing. Interesting.” Clint says flatly as they turn onto the street. 

 

“Clint, I swear—“ 

 

“I know, I know. Lips are sealed, yadda yadda.” 

 

——

 

Tony watches Steve’s head pop up at the sound of the bell. His eyes land on Tony and they get wide in surprise. 

 

“What are you doing here?” He asks, panic flashing across his face. 

 

Tony raises an eyebrow at him, “why, you don’t want me here? What the hell happened to your face?” 

 

Steve’s throat bobs and his eyes tighten, “no I, uh, of course I want you here, just didn’t expect you.” 

 

Well Steve, when will you learn to expect the unexpected with me?” 

 

Steve just nods, and he turns to the girl, who is studying him. “I know you from somewhere.” 

 

“Name’s Tony.” 

 

She extends a hand, “Peggy Carter.” 

 

He shakes it and points to the rest. “This is Clint, Natasha, and Bucky.” 

 

They each shake her hand and sit down. It’s awkward for a moment of quiet until Peggy looks at Steve and smiles, “you haven’t told them what happened to your face.” 

 

He scrunches his nose at her, then turns to the group. “It was nothing. I promise. Just a mistake, a scuffle.” 

 

Bucky scoffs, “you’ve never used the word scuffle in your life.” 

 

“Well, I am today.” Steve says with a breathy laugh, “so this is Peggy, I’ve already warned her you’d have a thousand questions, so—“ he gestures for them and Tony looks to the girl who sits there calmly, completely at ease at Steve’s side. 

 

“Yes, I’m quite the capable interrogatee, so whenever you’d like.” 

 

And they do. 

 

“Where were you born?” 

 

“England. Hampstead, but lived in London mostly.” 

 

“When did you move to the US?” 

 

“I was 13.” 

 

“Why?” 

 

“My father’s job.” 

 

It’s mundane questions like that until Tony decides to take it up a notch, “so, Peggy, what is it about Steve that you like?” 

 

“Tony!” Steve admonishes leaning forward and wincing in pain, “stop—“

 

But Peggy holds up her hand, eyeing Steve with amusement. “Steve, if you think I’m unable or unwilling to answer the question then you’re mistaken.” 

 

Steve just glares at Tony and sits back in a huff. But Peggy looks at Tony with a sharp and intense stare, “I saw Steve months ago in Dr. Erskine’s office. I thought him to be most handsome but didn’t have a chance to speak to him. Later we bumped into one another in the hallway and I decided to ask him out. He seemed as surprised as you all do right now which I find displeasing as it implies something I find distasteful. After we talked that Tuesday and the Thursday after that, I knew Steve was someone I wanted in my life. As you all seem to agree.” 

 

Tony doesn’t look away from her challenging stare and he clears his throat. “Okay, sounds good to me.” 

 

She looks at Steve who smiles at her in a disbelieving way, and she laughs, “when will you believe me, huh?” 

 

He chuckles, “I’m trying! It’s all still very new.” She grabs his hand and holds it in her own. 

 

“Any other questions?” 

 

Bucky looks at her, “how old are you?” 

 

“17.” 

 

“So you’re a Junior like Steve?” 

 

Peggy turns towards Steve, “you’re a junior?” 

 

He looks at her with his brows pulled down, “yeah… you didn’t know that?” 

 

She laughs, “I could have sworn we were in the same grade.” She turns back to Bucky, “I’m a senior actually.” 

 

Tony looks at Steve with a sly grin, “dating a senior, that’s pretty cool.” 

 

Steve rolls his eyes and looks to Peggy, “don’t mind dating a younger guy?” 

 

“When’s your birthday?” 

 

“July.” 

 

“Mine’s in April, so I suppose I am older but only by mere months. I think I can manage.” 

 

Clint’s uncle comes over and takes their orders and when he leaves, Tony feels like they’re at a tipping point, either she fits in with the group, or she doesn’t, he’s just not sure which it will be. He feels like he needs to know what she knows to ensure her intentions are good. 

 

“So.” Tony starts, “you recognize me?” 

 

She glances at him and studies his face, “I feel like I do, should I recognize you?” 

 

“Most do.” 

 

“Specific.” She says with an amused eyebrow raise. 

 

“What kind of phone do you have?” 

 

She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a Stark phone, the model before last, she’s about to hand it over when her hand freezes, and she glances up at him, “Stark. Tony Stark.” She blinks at him and then frowns, turning towards Steve, “your phone is a Stark phone. Isn’t it.” He winces and nods. She briefly pinches the bridge of her nose and then rolls her eyes at Steve, “you’re something else you know that?” 

 

He shrugs his shoulders and Tony has to admit relief at the genuine surprise on her face. She hadn’t known who he was until just then, which means she didn’t know Steve and him were friends. She holds out her phone for him to grab and he waves it off. 

 

“Nah,” he says, “just asked cuz it usually helps jog people’s memories.” 

 

She shakes her head and tucks her phone back into her pocket. “So, how did you guys all become friends?”

 

“Well.” Natasha starts, speaking for the first time, “it started this one summer when we were all assigned the same group—“ 

 

She talks for a bit, and Tony’s thrown back in time to when Steve was still a mystery. 

 

“—then, before he even knew who I was, he stood up to this kid named Rumlow and defended the dance class, almost got pummeled right there—“ 

 

“Nat,” Steve grouses, “she doesn’t need every detail!” 

 

“I absolutely do.” Peggy corrects, tapping his nose, “now hush.” 

 

Natasha continues and it hits Tony just how much of that summer revolved around Steve. As the story starts to veer towards the softball game, he senses Natasha’s shift in tone, and she starts being unsure how or what to say. 

 

“Hey Nat.” Steve says softly, “I think that’s it for today.” 

 

Peggy looks between them curiously, “there’s something in this story I’m not going to like, isn’t there?” It’s a frigid type of silence and Peggy doesn’t miss it. “I’m assuming I’ll find out eventually?” 

 

“If you’re planning on sleeping with him then yes.” Tony says before he can stop himself.

 

“Tony!” And Steve’s voice is angry and hurt, “what the hell!” 

 

He grimaces, rubbing at his eyes to get the images of Steve’s bloody and carved back out of his mind, “sorry.” 

 

Peggy’s smart, but she doesn’t know and therefore can’t even begin to guess the horrors, so she tilts her head at Steve and her eyes soften, “if you think I care about your abili—“ 

 

Steve turns beet red and Tony winces in embarrassment for him, “no,” Tony cuts her off, “it’s not like that at all, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it like that, it’s got nothing to do with that.” 

 

“Tony.” Clint says in annoyance, “you’re losing the audience.” 

 

He sighs, “there’s just a lot to the story. So, I’m sure you’ll be filled in eventually.” 

 

Peggy’s eyes trail over each one and then land on Steve. “How can you, so terrible at lying, be keeping so many secrets?” She turns to the four of them and her eyes are bright, concerned, and slightly amused, “he was mugged today, because of the phone I assume you gave him. And I wouldn’t betray his choice in privacy if I wasn’t aware that you already know this from your previous sleuthing.” 

 

Steve sits up straight, “Peggy!” But she doesn’t back down or take her eyes off the four of them, and Steve turns, looking at them curiously. When they don’t react to the story he shakes his head.

 

“Wait, what previous sleuthing?” 

 

“Your friends have been hiding behind the counter since I assume before even my arrival.” 

 

They all gape at one another, and Steve stares in shock, “you what!” 

 

“We wanted to make sure—“ Bucky starts.

 

“Steve, you know why we do this crap—“ Clint huffs.

 

And Natasha is eyeing Peggy with a speculative stare, “how did you know?” 

 

“Other than the fact that I felt like I had eyes on me, I saw you when I asked for the ice.” 

 

Tony huffs out a laugh, “busted.” 

 

“This level of overprotectiveness is endearing and concerning because it informs me there are gaps in my knowledge and I don’t like that.” 

 

Steve grimaces, “if I promise to tell you, can I do it another time?” 

 

She gently runs the back of her hand against his cheek, so affectionate it almost makes Tony want to look away. “Okay, I’ll agree to that, on one condition.” 

 

“Which is?” 

 

“They get to be there when you tell me.” She points to them four. 

 

Steve blanches, “what? Why!” 

 

She laughs, “you’ve already proven I can’t trust you to include the details I’m sure I’ll need for context.” 

 

And Tony has to give her kudos because she’s already caught on to the convenient way Steve manages to downplay everything about himself.

 

“Fine.” Steve growls, leaning his head back and grabbing the bag of ice. “You guys are the worst.” 

 

“Hmm, so says you.” She says, not bothered by his annoyance in the least. “You’ve heard about me, and I’ve heard a bit about you, but I haven’t heard much about what you all think of Steve.” 

 

And it’s his groan that breaks the tension and Clint leans forward, “oh, let us just tell you—“ 

 

—————

 

Bucky looks over at Steve, expecting to see him looking annoyed or happy or any of the other emotions he’s expressed during their long and detailed descriptions of him, only to see Steve’s eyes tight and muscles in his throat taught. 

 

Natasha’s regaling the group about the time Steve managed to surprise all the kids and Sam with home baked muffins on their first day of school this year, waking up extra early to make them. Peggy’s eyes are bright with mirth and she looks over at Steve to smile at him, only to notice the same thing Bucky does. 

 

“Steve?” She asks, “are you alright?”

 

Instead of answering, he starts to pull in a deep breath, only for it to sound wheezy and cause him to fold over in pain. 

 

“Steve!” They all shout, hands reaching towards his shoulders. 

 

He shakes his head and pushes their hands away and then straightens, his face pale, “I think…” he says in a whisper, “I think that—“ he doesn’t look at them in the eye, “I thought it might have just been my joints or bones being stiff, you know how I get, but—“ he tries to suck in another breath and can’t, “I may have a broken rib, or two.” 

 

Chaos erupts as they exclaim and shout questions at him. 

 

“Have you been in pain this whole time!?” Bucky snarls, panic in his tone. 

 

“I think so?” Steve says, his eyes glazing and his voice a bit dazed, “I usually am all the time anyways.” 

 

And it's an admittance so far out of the norm that the four of them immediately know something is wrong. 

 

“Steve, what happened?” 

 

“Guys.” Steve says in a hoarse whisper, labored breathing and blinking too slowly, “mugged and kicked.” 

 

“And you didn’t think to mention this!” Peggy snaps in a tone so furious that it makes all of them blink in surprise, “you said bruises not broken bones!” 

 

He winces and shifts, trying to straighten, “I didn’t know, I didn’t think it was this ba—“ he sucks in a sharp stuttering breath and looks at Tony, “call—” 

 

He starts to lean forward and before Bucky realizes what’s happening, he passes out, his head hitting the table.

 

———-

 

Clint watches as Steve goes limp, head slamming too hard against the table. Tony has his phone out in seconds, “Sam? — Yeah it’s Tony, meet us at the hospital— No, I’m in Brooklyn, —- Yes, Steve— don’t know— Brooklyn Med—- Okay, okay, see you. There.” He’s hanging up and dialing another number, “Dad? Brooklyn Med— yes I’m here in town— I thou— dad— DAD—- Steve is passed out—- Brooklyn Med like I’’ve been trying—- fine!” He hangs up and they’ve already hauled Steve out of the booth and laid him flat on the floor. Natasha hangs up the 9-1-1 call she’d just been on and they kneel around him, fidgeting and worried but apparently too calm as Peggy looks at each of them. 

 

“Why do I get the distinct feeling this is not your first time waiting for an ambulance for him?” 

 

“Second.” Bucky, Tony, and Clint say. 

 

“Fourth.” Natasha adds quietly. 

 

Peggy’s eyes go wide but she doesn’t bolt or do anything dramatic. She sinks to her knees and gently lifts Steve’s head onto her lap. “Something I must get used to then.” She says softly, stroking Steve’s hair and looking at him with concern etched across her expression. She reaches down, gently pulling up his shirt on the side he’d been favoring. Clint’s about to protest when the violently black and purple bruising appears. Her fingers touch the area and liquid moves underneath the skin. 

 

“I’m going to kill them.” Tony says so calmly that Clint believes him for a second. “I’m tracing Steve’s phone. They’re in for one hell of a surprise. I’m calling Matt too. Assault charges up the wazoo.” 

 

“Who is Matt?” Peggy asks innocently. 

 

“Steve’s lawyer.” Bucky responds, eyes on the bruise. 

 

She blinks at them, “and why does Steve need his own lawyer?” 

 

That brings them back to reality. 

 

“It’s part of that long story.” Clint says with a grimace, “the one you wanted us there for.” 

 

Her lips purse and she’s gently stroking his unbruised cheekbone with her thumb. “It’s going to make me very angry isn’t it.” 

 

“Like you wouldn’t believe.” Bucky says darkly. 

 

————-

 

Steve comes too and feels very heavy. A feeling he’s becoming familiar with. 

 

Heavy medication. 

 

He sighs and then sighs again. 

 

And again. 

 

“You okay there, bud?” 

 

It takes effort but he rolls his head to the right to find Sam sitting there, watching him. 

 

“Sucks.” Is all Steve can manage to get out. 

 

“The internal bleeding you had? The broken ribs? Or the getting mugged in general?” 

 

Steve swallows thickly, his throat dry. “Life.” 

 

Sam blinks, and takes a deep breath, “Steve, in a few day’s you’ll be okay, I promise.” 

 

Steve looks at him and his eyebrows furrow. “Forgot.” 

 

“You forgot what?” 

 

“Nooo.” He draws out, the drugs making him loopy and annoyed,  “ You forgot.” 

 

“What did I forget, Steve?” 

 

“—‘M never okay.” 

 

“As in… you’re… unhappy?” Sam asks, trepidation in his voice.

 

“No.” Steve groans, limply tossing his arms and barely moving them, “sick. Sick. Hurt. Sick.”

 

“Oh.” Sam says softly, a bit of relief, “I know. We gotta break this cycle.” 

 

“Here?” 

 

“Hmm?” 

 

“Here?” 

 

“Yes, I’m here.” 

 

“Nooooo.” Steve drags out again, “them.” 

 

Sam chuckles, “of course they’re here.” Steve sighs heavily, making Sam chuckle. “You want me to send them in?” Steve just shrugs and Sam laughs again, “I’ll take that as a yes.” 

 

———

 

Tony leads the way into the room where Steve lays, eyes glazed from the medication he’s on. 

 

“Hey Steve, how you feeling?” 

 

“Hazy.” 

 

“Yeah, that level of morphine will do it to you.” 

 

Peggy stands beside the bed and grabs Steve’s hand, “you gave us quite the scare.” 

 

Steve looks at her, brows furrowing, “you’re not usually here—“ he says groggily, “how’d you get here?” 

 

She chuckles, “magic.” 

 

“Hmm.” He says, accepting this answer as truth, “magic.” 

 

“Are you alright with me being here?” 

 

He blinks at her and even through the medication his eyes get somber. “Told you.” 

 

Her face gets slightly pinched, as if she knows the answer to the question she’s about to ask. “Told me what?” 

 

He gestures weakly to himself, “time bomb.” 

 

Tony’s unsure of the word choice. He hasn’t heard Steve use it before and it makes his jaw clench to hear him refer to himself that way. 

 

“Hmm.” Peggy responds, unphased except the way her eyes are held tightly, “what an adventure then.” 

 

It’s not exactly the most eloquent response, but Tony will give it to her that she’s handling meeting them and Steve being hospitalized all in one day very well. 

 

Steve suddenly looks panicked, “help,” he says weakly before leaning over the side of his bed and looking queasy. 

 

Sam’s there in an instant, trash can in hand and laying a comforting hand on Steve’s back as he vomits violently into the trash can. He’s still dazed when he sits up, wiping at his face and smearing blood and bile along his chin and jaw. 

 

“Clint. Get a nurse.” Sam says, his voice calm but his eyes tight. Clint’s gone and the room is quiet. Tony watches Peggy’s reaction, which is shocked at first, then her eyes narrow and she takes a deep breath. She walks to the small adjoining bathroom and reappears a moment later with wet paper towels. She gingerly wipes his face, cleaning it as best she can. He slowly starts to push her hands away, “no.” He says in a voice that’s sounds exhausted, “don’t.” 

 

“Why not?” She asks calmly, not stopping. 

 

“I can do it myself.” And he grabs at the paper towels, but without his glasses on, he misses by a few inches and she laughs softly. 

 

“I beg to differ.” 

 

The nurse appears and takes over, ensuring to remove the trash can and make sure he’s cleaned up and sanitary. 

 

Tony watches Peggy make a call, and she seems at ease at first before looking frustrated on the phone. He pretends to be fiddling with his phone but instead he watches her argue with someone and then hang up. 

 

She walks back in to find Steve asleep. 

 

The four of them have gravitated to their usual positions when Steve is in a hospital.  Leaving Peggy to sit on the side of Steve’s bed and gently run her fingers through his hair. 

 

It’s quiet for awhile and she looks up at them, “should I just know the story now?” 

 

Sam looks up, “story?” 

 

She nods, “yes, I’ve been informed there’s quite the story about Steve that I don’t know. And Tony made a dubious comment and now I’ll admit I’m partly curious but mostly very concerned.” She glances around. “I’ll wait if you think he’d prefer to be awake when it’s told.” 

 

Tony glances up at her and sighs, “it’s a really long and very unpleasant story.” 

 

The calculating look in her eye matches the head tilt, “and do you think I should date and love Steve without knowing it?” 

 

She’s not asking sarcastically or with a hidden intention. She’s truly wondering if it’s possible to know and love Steve without knowing his full history. 

 

History in which she could google. But he’s glad she hasn’t. 

 

“Probably not.” Clint admits, eyes on the setting sun through the glass window. 

 

The way her hand grazes against his scalp makes him sigh and shift, pushing into her hand and a soft smile ghosting his lips. 

 

The tender and almost adoring way she looks at him erases all doubt from Tony’s mind that all the crap Steve had tried to sell him the night before was actually true. 

 

This girl is the real deal. 

 

And wasn’t it just like Steve to find her in one go. 

 

He looks up and notices Bucky and Natasha’s faces flitting through the same emotions he is. 

 

“Well.” Clint says, “it all started the day I watched this jackass named Brock Rumlow shove Steve against a door frame back the first day of that summer school program.” 

 

————-

 

Peggy listens intently as Clint describes the rise in Brock Rumlow’s hatred for Steve. The other’s add details as needed, or describe times when it was just Steve and them. Sam sits quietly, listening to their first hand accounts that he’s never actually heard before. 

 

“So then we found out he was living at the children’s home—“ Bucky says. 

 

“With Sam.” Peggy states, nodding as if she’d heard this. 

 

They blink at her. “No.” Bucky says slowly, “Sam wasn’t there yet.” 

 

She tilts her head, “oh…” 

 

“Mrs. Schmidt.” Tony says the name like it’s a curse. 

 

“And who was Mrs. Schmidt?” Peggy asks, eyes moving from each one of them. 

 

And they tell her. Starting with when they found out and the bruises around his neck. Her fingers ghost over the area, the bruises having been gone for years. But when they talk about the burn, she slowly moves the hospital gown that is covering it and her jaw gets tight as she sees the scar under his elbow. Her fingers gently trace it and she closes her eyes as they continue. Describing the horrible treatment of him at her hands, the scar along his sternum that none of them know the origin of. The little burns and scars. The way she starved them as punishment, and used the other kids as a way to threaten Steve to behave. 

 

When they get to the part of him being locked in the basement, she pulls her legs up, careful not to jostle him, and sits beside him, positioning herself to be against his side and lean on his shoulder. 

 

Tony ignores the tear tracks that go down her cheeks as they describe the way he lost his hearing and how they discovered he was colorblind and needed better glasses. They come to the part where they finally are able to catch her and how Sam took over the house and she breathes a sigh of relief. 

 

“How horrid, I understand why he probably hasn’t told me yet, that would be a lot for him to relive if he did—“ 

 

“Peggy.” Tony says cutting her off. “That’s not the worst part.” 

 

She looks at him eyebrows pulling down in the middle, “you’re telling me he was abused for over 5 years and that wasn’t the worst part?” 

 

Bucky takes over now. Talking about how Steve had told him to meet him at school, because he had a surprise. And then how Steve never arrived and they started to panic. 

 

Her eyes start with concern and then widen as each step happens. 

 

Them not being able to find Steve for hours, then a day, then the confrontation with Rumlow and then it being two days. Peggy’s eyes are nailed on Bucky as he describes the confrontation with the brothers. Clint cuts in, describing his past relationship with the brothers and how that fueled their hatred and willingness to kidnap Steve. 

 

When they tell her that they were told he was dead in the dumpster, she literally gasps and shoves her head down against the crook of Steve’s neck. But they don’t stop talking. They describe the Monday they found him, and what state he was in, having to pull him out of a trash bag. They even tell her about the injuries, his hip and arm, and then Natasha takes a deep breath and looks at Steve. “You know how Tony made that comment about you two you know…” 

 

Peggy nods and Sam is frowning, but Natasha continues. “He said that, because we didn’t know it right away, but the brothers had… they’d carved words into Steve’s back. And it left large scars… So Tony was just saying that if you guys ever did get to that point you’d probably wanna know before hand. It would be quite the shock.” 

 

“What are the words?” 

 

Bucky says them slowly, voice hoarse. “Traitor. Snitch.” 

 

Her eyes close and she leans against him again, holding him close and ghosting her fingers over his face and hair and chest. Anything to confirm that he’s here and safe. 

 

“That’s where the lawyer came in. When the brothers were caught, we used a lawyer to ensure they got put away. Which they did.” 

 

“And Rumlow?” Peggy asks, her voice murderously low. 

 

“Nope.” Bucky seethes. “That rat bastard got away scott free.” 

 

She narrows her eyes. “I’ll have to see about that.” 

 

And the tone of her voice left no room for argument. 

 

———-

 

Once the story is fully finished, and Peggy is completely up to date she leans back, twining Steve’s fingers in hers as he continues to sleep through his drug induced haze. “I’ll admit, I had no idea the depth of his story, but I can honestly say I would personally like to find this Brock Rumlow and have a polite discussion with him about manners and the proper way to treat human beings.” 

 

“Get in line.” Bucky says sharply, “if I ever see him again—“ 

 

“Alright,” Sam cuts them off, “now that the full story is known, I think it’s time for you guys to go home. Get some rest. Steve will be released in a day or so.” They start to protest but he waves him off, “No arguments. Steve is not going to want to wake up to all your nonsense. So go home.” 

 

They grumble and take their sweet time, but eventually they leave and the room falls quiet. 

 

———-

 

Yelena, Wanda, Pietro, and Peter sit around waiting for them to come back from the hospital. 

 

Natasha and Bucky inform them that Steve is okay and he’ll be home soon. But she can see the concern on their faces. 

 

“He’s been in the hospital so much.” Yelena says, “why does everything happen to him?” 

 

Peter, who’s starting to hit his growth spurt, pushes his glasses further up the bridge of his nose, “what if this happens again and no one is around?” 

 

Natasha tries to allay their fears, but she doesn't think she does a very good job when the same concern is laced through her own thoughts.

 

————

 

The pain is gone when Steve wakes up. He yawns and feels his lungs give a tiny twinge but nothing major. He turns and is surprised to find the room completely empty. A note catches his eye and he reaches for it and his glasses. 

 

Hey Steve, 

I hope Howard has gotten there before you wake up so you’re not alone, but just know someone will be there shortly! I had to run back to the house for Sarah to go to work, but I’ll be back as soon as possible. The gang filled me in on what happened and I’m so sorry. We’ll get you a new phone no problem. Not that you’re worried about that, I know you’re not. 

 

Anyways, rest as much as you can. Doc said you could probably be back in school on Wednesday or Thursday. You cracked two ribs and had a lot of internal swelling, but it should start to clear up pretty quick they said. 

 

They’ll probably tell all this to you before they discharge you, and hopefully I’m there anyways. 

 

Love you, 

Sam

 

Steve leans back, pulling off his glasses again and sighing. If it wasn’t his heart, it was his autoimmune disorder. If it wasn’t that, then it was his immune system being weak, and if it wasn’t that it was getting beat up. 

 

He swears Sam has probably been in the hospital more times in the last two years because of Steve than he has in the rest of his lifetime. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

He looks up to see Mrs. Stark. 

 

“Hi.” He says, his voice a bit dry. 

 

“Sorry, Howard got called to an emergency but we wanted to make sure someone was here, I hope you don’t mind me.” 

 

He smiles and shakes his head, “oh, no, of course I don’t mind at all. Thanks for coming. But if you’re busy—“ 

 

She cuts him off with a wave, “I’m really not. And I wanted to take you up on your offer.” 

 

“Offer?” 

 

“Uh Hmm. About talking about my sister.” 

 

Steve feels his heart clench and he nods, eagerly, “yeah,” he says in a rasp, “of course, I wanna know about her.” 

 

Mrs. Stark smiles and leans her elbows on the bed, “well, first off, she was as stubborn as you—“ 

 

Steve laughs and settles in as she starts to talk about her sister and their childhood.

 

———-

 

She eventually asks about his ma and he starts telling her all about their small and simple life. How she took care of him, and loved him, and how they did everything together. 

 

There’s a pause when he can’t remember a detail and he feels worried, is he already forgetting her? It has been over 8 years now.. And with a quiet voice he says, “I’ve almost lived as long without her as I lived with her.” 

 

“It’s a terrible moment.” Mrs. Stark says knowingly. “I remember that year. It’s not pleasant, but it does get better.” 

 

He nods and she starts asking him questions about his school and his art. 

 

————-

 

He hears the door open and looks up to see Peggy enter. He smiles at her and she returns it, but there’s something about it that doens’t reach her eyes. 

 

“Are you okay?” He asks, concern coloring his tone. 

 

“I’m not actually.” She says crisply. “I asked them to tell me the whole story and they did. Yesterday.” 

 

“Whole—“ he starts, then his brain catches up and he feels the color drain from his face, “oh..” 

 

“Mmm.” She clears her throat and steps closer, eyeing the room that is empty besides them. “I’ll be honest, I did not expect what I heard and I’ll be honest that I hated every second of it.” 

 

Steve winces, “I’m sorry—“ 

 

She covers his mouth with her hand. “No. No. That’s not what I’m asking for. I just wanted to come and ensure that you were aware that I’d been told, but also…” She gently places her hands on the sides of his face, avoiding the healing bruise, “what you went through is so horrible that I can’t even begin to imagine. And I’ll not pretend to have experienced anything even remotely similar. However, I cannot express to you the amazement I have, that even after all that, after everything, I find your spirit and general personality to be so enveloping and that I intend to spend every available moment discovering how you ended up so wonderful.” 

 

He blinks, and looks into her intense gaze, “um, what?” 

 

She laughs softly and leans forward, touching her nose to his before dipping lower and kissing him, soft pressure against his lips and causing his heart monitor to chirp. 

 

She pulls back and looks at the monitor, a smile on her lips that he wants to remember to draw. 

 

“Thank you.” He says, his brain finally catching up, “I’m sorry you had to hear all that. I should be mad that they told you without me, but honestly.. I’m relieved.” 

 

She nods and kisses him again. Then her hands trail towards the collar of his hospital gown and back to where the tie is at the base of his neck. “May I?” She asks. 

 

“You sure you wanna see them?” He responds softly, “they’re not pretty.” 

 

She doesn't respond verbally, just unties the string and pushes the sides of the gown down off his shoulders. He waits, wondering what her reaction will be. 

 

At first he feels her light touch as her fingertips trace along them. He’s leaning forward, allowing her acces to them. Her hands ghost down the side where the small word is, and her fingers are warm against his cool skin. 

 

He’s about to ask her thoughts when she surprises him. Soft pressure against his back has the nerves in his stomach firing. Her lips press against his scars, soft and gentle kisses against the deformed tissue and he feels his chest get tight with emotion. 

 

“Peggy—“ he says in a hoarse whisper. But she kisses down along his side and then kisses the back of his neck, before gently running her fingernails in gentle circles against the skin on his back. He knows she can see every rib, every marking, scar, burn but she doesn't seem to care, never pauses her ministrations. He can’t even find the words to express the gratitude of her not only nonchalance at his scars but her seeming acceptance of them. 

 

“The way you fought to survive against those brothers, against all this, and now, against your diagnosis. I’ll never meet another person like you. That’s why I won’t be going anywhere. Every cracked rib and hospital visit, I’ll be there.” 

 

“Don’t—“ he says with a grimace, slowly pushing his hospital gown back over his shoulders, “don’t. I already hate how often Sam has to be here with me. I don’t wnat you saddled with that too.” 

 

She helps tie it back together and he leans against his pillows. She studies him and her lips purse before she speaks, “why? Because eventually our goodwill will run out and you believe we’ll get tired of taking care of you? Because you think I have an exasperation limit to you being sick or in the hospital?” He doesn’t respond and she leans forward with her eyebrow raise. “Simply because that witch of a woman who was in charge of you didn’t care, does not mean that’s how the rest of us operate. Would you be saying this nonsense to your mum?” 

 

“I—“ 

 

“I have no intention of proving your doubtful expectations right. You’ll just have to believe me when I stick around forever. Now, what terrible hospital food do you want me to bring you?” 

 

———-

 

He’s released a day later and goes to school the next day where Scott spends the day following him around and asking what happened. He eventually gives him the short version which makes the guy ease up a bit, but Steve chuckles at the concern on his face every time Steve has to reach for something. 

 

A new phone is in his hand by Thursday when he heads to art class, but he keeps it in his pockets. 

 

——-

 

Tony tracks Steve’s phone, finds the culprits and sends his dad the info. He’s back at MIT and has a bit of makeup work to do before finals, but he couldn’t sleep without ensuring those bastards were caught. 

 

———

 

Clint stares at the pack of cigarettes in his hand. He’d forgotten about this pack. The one he’d stashed years ago and now that he’s starting to pack up his room, he’s discovered it. 

 

There’s a fire of temptation. The feeling he knows he’d get at the first puff. The calming sensation of holding it between two fingers and sitting on the fire escape. 

 

But he takes a deep breath, walks out to the fire escape and looks down, “hey Ms. Dawes, you there?” 

 

She pokes her head out her window and he smiles, she runs warm just like him, having her window open on a cold December night like this. “Got a present for you.” He drops the pack down and it lands with a smack on her tiny fire escape. She looks at it and then looks back at him.

 

“Thought you quit years ago?” 

 

“I did. But just found that one. Thought you might want to do the honors?” 

 

She grabs the pack and rips it open, crumbling the cigarettes easily. 

 

“Thanks.” He says, “that’s my going away present.” 

 

She blinks up at him, “you’re what?” 

 

“Moving out by New Years.” 

 

Her eyes tell him she understands more than he says, but she doesn’t comment. “You’ll visit?” 

 

“Course.” 

 

“Good.” She huffs, then squints up at him, “you’re a good kid. Always knew you were. Glad you’re sticking to the course.” 

 

He looks out to the narrow alley and down to the street, “me too.” He says softer than he means. “Me too.” 

 

———

 

T: Hey, we’re still gunna do Christmas Eve together right?” 

 

B: Yeah, my mom said it was fine. 

 

C: I’ll be there

 

S: yeah, Nat and I can be there, Sam says its fine. 

 

T: Steve bring Peggy.

 

S: You sure? She’s fine leaving it to just us. 

 

C: Nah, bring her. She’s cool. She calls you out on your crap. I like that

 

Steve rolls his eyes as every ‘likes’ Clint’s text message

 

S: Are you guys bringing anyone?

 

B: My date is built into the group

 

N: Hush. 

 

B: o.o

 

C: I actually met this girl, she’s a new hire at work. Her name’s Laura. I don’t think she’s ready for Christmas Eve with you hooligans yet, but maybe soon. 

 

T: Pepper can’t make it to NYC this Christmas, but I swear you guys gotta come visit MIT and I’ll introduce you to everyone, including Rhodey. 

 

Steve smiles as the others continue to talk about plans. But he texts Peggy. 

 

S: You wanna spend Christmas Eve with me and the others? If you don’t already have family plans of course. 

 

P: I’ll have to check with my mum, but I should be able to, it sounds fun. 

 

Steve lays back in his bed, sinking further into sleep. 

 

—————

 

Howard flings a wrench across the room and it lands with a crash against the wall, sliding down onto a workbench and rattling the tools there. 

 

He was so close. He could almost taste it. But something isn’t right. He’s not sure what. He stares at the weird looking metal pod and sighs. He’d gotten a call from Steve’s doctor after they’d discharged him from his cracked ribs. 

 

His platelet count is deteriorating rapidly under the medication. His body is no longer responding well to the heart medication.

 

And that had sent Howard spiraling back down to the lab. So here he was, trying to build a machine to help fabricate health and vitality into Steve’s body. 

 

But something’s missing, and he hasn’t figured out what. 

 

And according to the doctor, Steve’s running out of time.

 

 

Chapter Text

Steve stares at the watch that is nestled against the velvet. It looks very nice. 

 

And very expensive. 

 

His mind flashes to the two guys who mugged him just a few weeks ago and he tries not to openly grimace. This would be a magnet for thieves for sure. 

 

“Do you like it?” Howard asks, a hint of something almost manic in his tone.

 

“Yeah, Howard.” Steve replies honestly, “it’s really nice. Too nice, I—“ 

 

“Nope.’ Howard cuts him off, “no objections. I had it made specifically for you. Here, let me show you why.” 

 

He jumps into a long and convoluted explanation about heart and lung monitoring, about how he can receive messages on it and calls, and even send out an emergency alert. Easier than a phone he says with a small smile. 

 

Steve just nods and thanks him again. 

 

————

 

Clint packs the last of his boxes and stares at his empty room. New Years was in two days and he had found the tiniest, dumpiest apartment halfway across town. It was further than he’d like from work, but at the price, it couldn’t be beat. 

 

His step mom, Melissa, stands in the doorway with a frown on her face. 

 

“I guess this is it.” He says slowly, picking up the two small boxes and facing her. 

 

“I’m so sorry, Clint.” She whispered, “If my name was on the lease I’d fight for you to stay.” 

 

He shrugs and smiles at her. “It’s fine. I’ll be happy to be out from under his thumb anyways. You take care of yourself, right?” 

 

She nods, “you’ll visit?” 

 

He smiles, “I’ll visit you . We can meet at Milo’s.” 

 

She nods and moves out of his way. 

 

————

 

The new year starts off well and Bucky is relieved that school is relatively normal. They’re sitting at lunch when they hear a commotion. 

 

Bucky asks someone who passes by and the kid just shrugs, “dunno, some kid was yelling’.” 

 

“About what?” 

 

The student rolls his eyes, “what do I look like, an encyclopedia?” Then walks off. 

 

“Geez.” Scott huffs, “let me go see if I can figure it out.” 

 

He comes back a while later and wrinkles his nose, “apparently some kid was getting too close for comfort with a teacher and the teacher sent them to the principal’s office, but then the kid started yelling and throwing things.” 

 

“What?” Natasha asks, “what happened?” 

 

“They sent the kid home. People who saw it said he was missing a few marbles I guess.” 

 

They nod and continue eating. 

 

———

 

Natasha watches from up high as Bucky and Clint climb up towards her. She’d beat them because they’d been bickering about rope colors and she’d left them in the dust. 

 

Her eye catches on Steve who is sitting at the bottom on a bench. He has a book out on his lap, but he’s looking up at them climbing and smiling. 

 

They’d offered to help lift him and get him up but he’d refused. “Too much pressure on my joints.” He said causally, pulling out the book, “I like to watch anyways.” 

 

Now she watches as his eyes blink slower and slower until they close and she sees the way his shoulders drop in sleep just as Clint reaches her, beating Bucky by a few seconds.

 

She points down and they look. Bucky’s lips purse and he sighs. “I’ve been noticing the exhaustion creep back in.” 

 

Clint nods, “Tony mentioned that his dad said something about a change in medication that didn’t go so great. So now he’s weaning off one to be able to start another.” 

 

“He;s happy though.” Natasha says softly, “he’s actually pretty happy.” 

 

Bucky watches as the book slides off of Steve’s lap and onto the bench. Natasha was right, Steve is happy. Peggy is a big part of that, they know. She has a fire in her spirit that doesn't let you stay down for long. And Steve is infected by it, seeming more cheery and upbeat even through the days where the weird patches appear on his skin or he vomits. But Bucky can’t help but feel anxious. Everytime Steve got happy… something always went wrong. 

 

————-

 

Steve yawns as the subway rounds the bend back towards their stop. He, Bucky, and Nat get off and trudge towards the house, waving goodbye to Bucky as they walk up the steps. 

 

“Have fun?” Sam asks, as he washes dishes. 

 

“Uh-huh.” Steve says with another yawn. “But I’m beat. I’ll see you guys in the morning. 

 

He leaves and Sma looks at Natasha, “he doing okay?” 

 

She just shrugs, “I think so.” 

 

————

 

Steve hears the yelling and pops his head up from the quiz he is taking. 

 

The teacher stands, looking concerned and walks to the door. She sticks her head out the door and the class stops, watching her.

 

After a few seconds, she looks at the class and shrugs, “go back to your quizzes.” 

 

They do. 

 

———

 

Steve’s sitting on the living room floor, attempting to do his math homework, when the front door opens. 

 

He looks at the clock, 3:40p.m. So it’s either Daniel or Peter. 

 

He stands, stretching and walks out to the front entrance to see Peter half bolting up the stairs. 

 

“Peter?” He calls. 

 

The kid freezes, halfway up the stairs. 

 

“Yeah.” He calls back, his face angled weirdly away from Steve. Something about it makes his neck hairs stand up. 

 

“Peter, are you okay?” 

 

An even squeakier “yeah” makes Steve start walking towards the bottom of the staircase. 

 

“Come here, Peter.” He orders, voice getting serious, “What is wrong?” 

 

“Steve, don’t get mad!” Peter practically begs, keeping his face away from Steve. 

 

“What happened?”

 

Peter turns slowly, stopping Steve in his tracks at the large black eye Peter is sporting. 

 

His hand grips the railing tightly, making his fingers protest. 

 

“What happened ?” Steve growls, “who did this!” 

 

“Just some jerk at school. It’s fine I promise. It wasn’t a big—“

 

“Peter!” Steve snaps, “this is a big deal! He could have seriously hurt you! What caused the fight?” 

 

“Nothing.” Peter squeaked, stepping another step away from him. 

 

“Peter Parker, you tell me this instant.”

 

The kid winces at his full name and sags on the step, “the bully in my clash, his name is Flash and he was being mean to my friend Ned, calling him mean names, and I told him to knock it off, so he shoved me, and I shoved back and then he did this.” He gestures weakly at his face and sighs, “the teacher got there then and pulled us apart. Don’t be mad.” 

 

Steve walks slowly up to him and sits beside him. “I’m not mad, Peter.” He says softly, ruffling the kids hair, “I just don’t like seeing you hurt. But I am proud of you for standing up to the bully for your friend. That was a cool thing to do. Just be careful next time. Maybe get a teacher first.” 

 

Peter looks at him and frowns, “you never get a teacher first.” 

 

Steve winces, “you got me there kid.” He sighs and they sit quietly for a moment. “How about this, I promise to try to get a teacher first too, and we can both avoid black eyes. How does that sound?” 

 

Peter nods and Steve looks at the bruising. He’d like to walk over to Peter’s school and give that jerk kid a piece of his mind. “If that kid bothers you again though.” Steve says seriously, “you tell me and I’ll take care of it. Okay?”

 

Peter smiles at him, a trust filled smile that Steve returns. 

 

———

 

March is almost over and the Spring Banquet is quickly approaching. Steve spends painstaking hours painting a gift for Peggy to ask her to the dance.

 

He asks her that Tuesday night and she accepts happily, pulling him in for a kiss before gushing over the painting of their ‘spot’ at the cafe. She and Natasha go dress shopping while Tony sends Jarvis to take their measurements even though they insist they can just rent one. 

 

The date of the dance is 7 days away when Steve feels it. He takes a deep breath and can’t seem to get enough air. He tries again, sitting up in his bed, about to go to sleep. He walks quietly to the bathroom and turns on the light. He blinks at the parlor of his skin. Too pale and not what he remembered it looking like just a few hours ago. He sits on the edge of the tub and tries to take steady breaths, but they’re hard to pull in. 

 

He tips his head back and sighs. The new medicine had been working for his heart, but had been causing random issues elsewhere. He’d been warned it might interact with his asthma medication… So he assumes that must be what this is. 

 

He sighs and heads back to bed. He’ll tell Sam in the morning. 

 

————

 

Bucky taps his foot against the linoleum gym floor and watches as Natahsa talks to some of her friends. He looks at the empty chair next to him and frowns. 

 

Steve had been planning all along to go to the dance. Until yesterday when he woke up and could hardly breathe or keep his eyes open. 

 

Sam kept him home, following doctor’s orders. Peggy is there with him now too, and Steve had insisted that he and Natasha still go since it was their senior year. 

 

And it is fun, it is. He enjoys the social aspect of the dance, and he loves dancing with Natasha. He’s just annoyed that something is always keeping Steve out of the fun. 

 

The dance starts to wind down and he and Nat take one last twirl around the floor before interlacing fingers and walking home. He gives her his jacket and she walks close to him, his arm around her waist. The subway is quiet and so is the walk to the house. 

 

They walk into the door and see Peggy’s shoes still there. They head up to the room and see Steve, propped up and reading a book while Peggy lays beside him on the bed, fast asleep. 

 

Steve looks up and smiles, “you guys have fun?” 

 

“Yeah Steve.” Natasha says, sitting gently on the edge of his bed, “we missed you.” 

 

Bucky watches something sad cross his expression before he wipes it away with another smile. “I missed going to. I’ll go next year.” 

 

They nod and he gently brushes Peggy’s hair back, “I feel bad that I asked her and then couldn’t go.”

 

Natasha shakes her head, “I’m sure she understands, Steve.” 

 

He laughs softly, “she does, I just still feel bad.” 

 

Bucky pulls at his tie, loosening it and sinking to the ground, “what do you think about School on Monday? You think you’ll be up for it?” 

 

Steve shrugs, “I hope so. I’ve already missed a good bit. I hate being so behind already.” 

 

The flu had taken Steve out of school for almost two weeks at the beginning of March. 

 

“I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Natasha says with a smile. “Now you get some rest.” 

 

Steve yawns and goes to wake Peggy. 

 

———-

 

He ends up not being up to it on Monday, but does manage it on Tuesday. He turns in a lot of missed assignments and watches as the teachers study him with knowing eyes. He’s not sure what all they know, but they’re usually very accommodating to his late work and make-up tests. 

 

Steve walks to his art class that evening, his folio hanging heavily on his shoulder and he’s two hallways away when he needs to sit down. He wheezes over to a corner and pulls out his inhaler, taking a few puffs before leaning back against the wall and trying to still his fast beating heart. 

 

He feels a vibration and without looking, pulls out his phone and hits answer. 

 

“I’m fine.” 

 

Howard’s annoyed voice comes through, “ then why is your heart rate so high?” 

 

Steve shakes his head and glares at the tattle-tell watch. “Just went up a bunch of stairs, I promise I’m fine.” 

 

“This has been happening more often at mundane physical exhertions, Steve.” 

 

Steve frowns, “yeah, thanks for the reminder, Howard.” 

 

He can practically hear the wince Howard does, “ No, I— I, Steve, I didn’t mean to say it like that. You know I worry.” 

 

Steve lets out a wheezy chuckle and responds, “I’m nearing my expiration date, things are bound to go down hill.” 

 

“You know I hate when you joke like that.” 

 

“Gotta keep light-hearted somehow.” 

 

Fine, but just remember to take it easy. Okay?” 

 

“Will do, Howard.” 

 

—————

 

Clint catches Steve watching him at work one day. He blinks at the kid and raises an eyebrow. 

 

“What?” 

 

Steve just shakes his head, “Nothing.” 

 

————

 

May is half-way over and Natasha has a dance recital coming up. She twirls nervously in front of the mirror as Yelena and Wanda both ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the way the fabric flows. They hear the door pop open and Sarah’s head pops through the door. 

 

“Dinner is ready— Oh, my! Natasha, you look beautiful!” 

 

Natasha smiles and curtsies. “Why thank you.” 

 

“I can’t wait to see you in action.” The woman says, walking fully into the room, “I can’t believe it’s been over two years and I still haven’t seen you dance.” 

 

Yelena sits up and stretches, “she’s amazing. Our teacher says that she’s the top of her age group. No competition.” 

 

“Lena, hush!” Natasha admonishes, but she can’t help the grin that crosses her face, “I do love dancing.” Then she points to Yelena, “but this girl kicks butt in our martial arts classes, I can’t wait til your next belt ceremony.” 

 

Yelena squeals and shimmies in excitement, “me either!” 

 

Sarah, never one to overlook someone, turns to Wanda, “and what do you love to do?” 

 

Wanda ducks her head shyly, “I don’t know… Everyone seems to have ‘their thing’.” The girl sighs, “Natasha’s is dance, and Yelena’s is martial arts and Pietro’s track team captain and Steve has his art…” She looks down at her hands and shrugs, “I don’t know what I’m good at.” 

 

Sarah walks over and lifts her head up by her chin, “don’t go getting down on yourself now. You have plenty of time to figure out who you are and what you want to do. You hear? You are going to do something amazing in this world. I know it.” 

 

Wanda smiles and Sarah looks at the group, “now, dinner is ready and I’ll not have it be gettin’ cold. Let’s go.” 

 

The younger girls follow her out as Natasha takes off her dance outfit. She stares at herself in the mirror for just a second longer and then takes a deep breath. Heading out the door and down the stairs to dinner.

 

————

 

Clint’s walking to work on a Friday when he sees Steve standing outside the front door. 

 

He calculates in his head that Steve should still be at school, and starts feeling concerned that something has happened. He picks up the pace and jogs over. 

 

“Steve?” He calls, “Steve what’s wrong?” 

 

The kid looks up and studies him. “Clint.” 

 

Clint waves his hands, “what? What happened?”

 

Steve looks at him, studies him, and then starts speaking softly, “I, Uh… I have this feeling you’re hiding something from us.” 

 

He crosses his arms over his chest and glares at Steve, “oh, yeah? And what would that be?” 

 

Steve doesn’t respond or wither under his glare, not that Clint expects him too, because Steve has never cowed under pressure, but the calm way Steve looks back at him gets on his nerves. “What?” 

 

Steve tilts his head and sighs, “you can tell me, you know.” 

 

And that makes Clint mad. “Oh yeah? I can tell you ? Like you told us everything you were going through?” He feels annoyance but mostly embarrassment, not wanting to admit he’d been kicked out. “Don’t be such a hypocrite , Steve. It’s none of your business.” 

 

Steve is staring at him with wide eyes, mouth parted in surprise at Clint’s angry reaction since Clint’s never been one to let his anger get the best of him. 

 

He watches as Steve’s throat bobs and then his face settles into acceptance. “You’re right, Clint. I’m sorry.” 

 

And that just makes Clint feel like shit because their situations are nothing alike. “No, Steve, I—“ 

 

But Steve holds up his hands, “no, you were right. I shouldn’t have pried. I’m sorry.” He starts to back up, giving a small wave goodbye but Clint lurches forward, stopping him. Because the lesson he wants Steve to take away is not that he should hide stuff, because Clint desperately doesn't want that

 

“No. Steve. Listen, I’m not mad, I shouldn’t have snapped at you.” 

 

Steve shakes his head, “Clint, you’re right, it’s none of my business, I get it. I shouldn’t have assumed you would want to talk about it. I know what that feels like. To not want to talk about it.“

 

Clint’s fists push tightly against his jeans. It’s true, he doesn’t want to talk about it. But… if he wants Steve to talk about his problems, then he should too. 

 

“How about a deal?” 

 

Steve looks at him questioningly, “huh?” 

 

“A deal. I get to ask you a question and if you answer honestly, I will tell you what’s up.” 

 

Clint doesn’t miss the wary expression on Steve’s face, but Clint’s been dying to ask this question for almost 6 months. “Uh, okay?” 

 

“How many times have you been back to the dumpster?” 

 

The surprise and then the shift to a blank expression on Steve’s face makes Clint almost regret it. But he doesn’t look away, doesn’t give Steve an out. 

 

“Clint—“ 

 

“How many times, Steve.” Clint asks, “and why the hell are you going back there?” 

 

“I don’t—“ Steve starts, and Clint raises an eyebrow. Because he’s either about to say ‘I don’t go there’, which Clint knows is a lie, or ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ which would also prove Clint’s point. Steve swallows thickly and falls silent, eyes on the ground. 

 

“Exactly.” Clint says with a bit too much smugness. “Exactly.” He turns and starts to walk towards the entrance when he hears Steve’s brittle voice. 

 

“I’ve been there a lot.” 

 

Clint freezes, turning slowly to look at Steve who isn’t looking at him, but eyes trained somewhere far down the street. “What?” 

 

“I go there every year on the anniversary of the day they threw me in. I go there when I’m mad. I go there when I’m upset. I go there and a stare at that stupid hunk of metal and I wonder if it would have been easier for everyone else if I’d just died then instead of prolonging everyone’s suffering now. Including my own.”  Clint’s mouth is agape and Steve is still staring a thousand yards away. “I’m such a coward.” Steve says hoarsely, “I know that. I know that I shouldn’t wish that. I’m happy now. Honestly. I’ve got you guys, and Peggy, and Sam and my siblings. I have food to eat and a house that is safe and so many other things to be thankful for.” Clint watches as Steve’s chin trembles just slightly and then the kid has the palms of his hands screwing against his eye sockets, “But I hurt all the damn time, Clint—“ Steve rasps, “I can barely breathe or see, my chest has a constant ache, I feel nauseous or light headed or just gross all the time. I can’t even walk up a set of stairs without Howard calling me worried!” Steve growls in frustration, shaking the wrist of the watch Clint knows is monitoring him, and then he wipes angrily at the tears leaking out of his eyes, “I’m 17 and I can’t even plan for a future because I won’t get to have one! And here I am whining about something I can’t change when there’s other kids who have it so much worse—“ 

 

“Steve—“ 

 

“No!” Steve shouts, “I don’t want your platitudes or pity or reassurance that it’s fine that I feel this way! I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” 

 

“My dad kicked me out.” 

 

Steve’s eyes, red and shocked, find his. “What?” 

 

Clint nods, shifting his feet, “yep. Kicked me out.” 

 

And Clint watches as Steve completely switches gears, “but where are you living? Why did he kick you out?” 

 

“I got an apartment over on that side of town.” Clint says calmly, pointing in its direction, “and he just said it was time for me to be on my own.” 

 

Steve frowns, wiping at his face, “but what about school, weren’t you saving for that?” 

 

Clint nods, “yep.” 

 

“And now that money is going towards rent…” 

 

Clint sighs, “yep…” 

 

“I’m so sorry, Clint. Is there anything I can do to help?” 

 

“Stop going to that damn dumpster.” 

 

Steve grimaces and shakes his head, “Sorry, didn’t mean to get hysterical there.” 

 

“No,” Clint corrects, “that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying, when you feel like that, don’t go to the dumpster, come talk to me, or to Sam, or to whoever the hell you want. I’ll listen and I won’t try to solve your problems. I’ll just listen.”

 

Steve looks at him then to the ground, “how long have you known?” 

 

“I saw you go there after you visited your ma’s grave.” 

 

Steve’s mouth makes an ‘o’ shape and he scratches at the back of his neck. “That wasn’t a super great day.” 

 

“I coulda guessed that. Aren’t you supposed to be in school right now?” 

 

Steve shrugs, “yeah, but I told Sam I was coming here. He was fine with it.” 

 

“That man lets you get away with a lot.” 

 

Steve laughs weakly, “I think he just understands that school is important but it’s not the most important. Especially to me.” 

 

Clint frowns, “truancy is no joke mister. Think about your future.” 

 

Steve lets out a full laugh, clutching at his stomach and doubling over. Clint joins him, letting out some of the tension he’s been holding for the last couple months. 

 

Steve sucks in a lungful of air, almost gasping for breath. “That was a good one.” He wheezes, “Howard would be so mad if he heard you say that.” 

 

“Howard needs to lighten up.” Clint says fondly. Clint has noticed a large upswing in protectiveness and overbearing behavior from the rich tycoon in the last couple months. 

 

“Tell him that.” Steve groans in mock annoyance, “he’s like a monkey on my back.” 

 

“I’m not telling that guy anything. He’s rich and eccentric. I know that’s a combination for crazy.” 

 

Steve laughs again, and Clint watches as Steve’s face relaxes. “Thank you for telling me, Clint.” 

 

“Thanks for telling me.” The Clint gets serious, “but seriously. Stop going there.” 

 

Steve grimaces and nods, “I’ll stop.” 

 

“You promise?” 

 

And there is a second too long hesitation where Steve pauses, “I—“ he starts, swallowing heavily, “I promise.” 

 

“Good. Now I have to get to work.” 

 

“Will you show me your apartment sometime?” 

 

Clint laughs, “it barely fits me, but I guess a scrawny kid like you can fit too.” 

 

Steve rolls his eyes and lets out an annoyed sigh, “not everyone can be built like you and Buck.” 

 

“I’m way bigger than Bucky.” 

 

Steve chuckles, “uh-huh, sure you are.” 

 

“I rescind my invitation to my apartment.” 

 

“Clint!” Steve gapes, laughing, “it’s too late. I’m coming.” 

 

They talk for a few more minutes before Steve waves and leaves for school. 

 

Clint walks into work and waves hello to Mr. Coulson, his manager, before getting ready to clock in. 

 

—————

 

Chapter Text

Clint gets home from his job, walking up to his apartment to see a post it note on his door. 

 

No.

-H.S.

 

Is all it says. 

 

Clint’s brow furrows and he tries his key, only to find that the key cylinder has been changed. 

 

He looks at the note. 

 

H.S. 

 

He groans. Howard. 

 

———-

 

Clint’s knocking on the Stark’s door and he’s let in by Jarvis who welcomes him warmly. “It’s been too long, Mr. Barton.” 

 

“Hey, Jarvis, thanks.” He walks into the grand entryway and sighs, “Is Mr. Stark here?” 

 

“Indeed. He’s in his lab. Would you like me to lead you down there?” 

 

“No, I know the way. Thanks.” The man nods his head and is gone. Clint makes his way to the elevator and takes it down, stepping out and hearing the music that Howard always has playing. The glass partition lets him see in and he stops at the sight of Steve, sleeping on the med bay bed that Howard had brought for all his tests.

 

He’s shirtless. 

 

Clint has not seen Steve shirtless in months and it’s—

 

A rap on the glass has him looking up to see Howard waving him in. He steps inside and Howard speaks quietly, “I was hoping he’d be up and gone by now, but he’s so tired I didn’t want to wake him. 

 

“His skin…” Clint says softly, pointing at the yellow patches, “what’s that?” 

 

Howard frowns, following Clint’s eyeline. “His liver is in a constant state of distress. But the yellow is a bad sign. It’s starting to fail.” 

 

Clint shakes his head, “how long has he been here?” 

 

Howard looks at the clock, “he fell asleep maybe an hour ago, and he’d been here since 6ish. I assume you’re here about the note?” 

 

The post-it is in his pocket and he pulls it out, “this you?” 

 

Howard glares at him. “Damn right it is. You guys don’t get it. I find out you’re practically living in a slum, and you think I’m just going to let thta slide? Hell no.” 

 

“Mr. Stark—“

 

“Howard.”

 

“Okay, Howard, I don’t know what Steve told you, but—“ 

 

“Steve is the worst poker face on the planet, but he didn’t tell me a damn thing. I went to your parents’ place because I wanted to ask their permission for something. Only to be told by your mother-in-law that you had been asked to move out. I asked for your new address and when I saw that dump, I was livid. Clint. I’m literally made of money. Does no one understand this?” 

 

“I can’t take—“ 

 

“I’m not finished.” The man says crisply. “I have all your stuff here. It's in my garage. You have two options. You move in here, I’ve got a guest bedroom. Or you take the apartment I already picked out for you. It’s near your job and that school. In which you have been re-enrolled and tuition paid.” 

 

Clint feels his stomach drop, “I can’t—“

 

“You can. And you will. I’m tired of people turning me down for some stupid idea that it will damage their pride—“

 

“Ouch.” 

 

They both turn to Steve who is eyeing them blearily. 

 

“Steve.” Howard says calmly, “you’re awake.” 

 

“Yeah, how long was I out?” 

 

“A bit. Clint’s here.” 

 

“Hey Clint.”

 

Clint’s eyes flash to the yellow sallow skin stretched tight over everyone of Steve’s ribs. “Hey Steve.” 

 

Steve glances down and slowly crosses his arms over his chest. “What are you doing here?” 

 

Howard hands Steve his shirt and Clint watches as he puts it on, his face pinched in pain the whole time. 

 

“Howard’s trying to get me to move somewhere else. But I’m not going to.” 

 

Howard glares at him, “and why is that?” 

 

“I’m not some charity case. I’ll get by on my own.” 

 

Steve laughs, “you think that’s going to stop him?” He stretches, grimacing, “If telling him that worked, I wouldn’t be a human lab experiment right now.” 

 

Howard throws up his hands, “you’re both unbelievable. When did accepting help become a bad thing?” 

 

“I’m just saying,” Clint responds evenly, “I’m fine. I appreciate the gesture, but I’m all good.” 

 

“Yeah Howard.” Steve says with a smirk, “Me too. I appreciate all this but I’m good.” Clint gapes at him as Steve’s face turns towards him slowly and a knowing smirk crosses his lips. “So it’s a deal. Since you’re refusing Howard’s help, I can too.” 

 

Clint frowns, eyebrows pulling down, “It’s not the same.” 

 

“The hell it isn’t.” Steve snaps. He’s getting down off the bed, about to say something else,  when his knees buckle and he almost falls. He catches his balance on the edge of the bed and straightens his legs, “alright Clint. Let’s go. Independence here we come.” 

 

Steve takes a shaky step forward and wobbles again. “Steve—“ Clint starts, feeling panic rising. “Stop, okay, Stop, I’ll let Howard help.” 

 

Steve pauses, “you promise?” 

 

“I promise.” 

 

Steve nods, then straightens and walks normally towards the elevator. “Cool.” 

 

Howard laughs, a loud disbelieving laugh that makes Clint realize he’s just been played. 

 

“You’re a little shit, you know that?” 

 

But Steve just bows stiffly as he gets on the elevator. “Thank you, and good night!” With a theatrical wave, the doors close and he’s gone. 

 

Clint sighs and looks back at Howard who is fiddling with something on his lab table. 

 

“So what’ll it be kid?” Howard asks, “here or somewhere else?” 

 

And Clint considers the options. Thinking it might be cool to live with people who would maybe kind of be like a family… 

 

“Here.” He says softly. 

 

Howard looks up and smiles widely, “I hoped you’d pick here. Your stuff’s already in your room. Jarvis knows which one.” 

 

And that makes it feel already a bit like home.

 

—————

 

Natasha’s recital at the end of May goes so well, she’s approached by dance scouts after. She’s talking to them from different schools in the tri-state area and feeling elated that she might have an actual chance of being a dancer, for real

 

She can feel Bucky’s intense stare on her, and she flashes him a quick smile that she knows he returns. Peggy steps up and gives her a quick hug. “You were phenomenal!” The girl says with a grin, “you’re a literal star.” 

 

“Thanks Peggy, I’m so glad you could make it.” 

 

“I FaceTimed Steve during your part, he said you did amazing, he’s excited to see you when you get home.” 

 

Natasha‘s smile faded a bit at the slightly sad look on Peggy’s face at her words. 

 

“That’s so nice of you, thank you for doing that…” 

 

“He said he didn’t want to miss it.” 

 

They both fell silent for a moment at the thought of Steve, too tired and sick with pneumonia to get out of bed and come see the recital. 

 

“I’m going to go check up on him, is that alright?” Natasha nods and Peggy gives her one more quick hug before disappearing.

 

Clint and his mother-in-law say hello and ‘congrats’ before having to leave. 

 

Yelena pops up with Rebecca and Wanda close behind. They hug her and squeal about her performance. Sam and Sarah and the rest of the kids congratulate her and they all go out to eat to celebrate. 

 

Bucky sits beside her, his arm around her shoulder and they sip on a milkshake together, laughing and talking with everyone late into the night.

 

They get back to the house and both Sam and Natasha see Peggy’s shoes still at the front entrance. They lead the kids up the stairs, instructing them to go straight to bed. 

 

Natasha pushes into their room, seeing the lights mostly on. She takes in the scene. Steve is pale and wheezing slightly, laying flat on the bed, pillow on the floor. But he’s smiling and talking softly with Peggy who sits in a chair beside his bed. They both look up at the sound of their entrance and Steve gets on his elbows, “Nat, you did so well! You looked amazing up there!” 

 

Sam is close behind her as they approach. “Thanks Steve, how are you feeling?” 

 

Steve’s smile doesn't waver, “I’m doing fine. Just a bit tired.” 

 

“Well, it’s late. You should get some rest.” Sam says softly. Peggy easily picks up that cue. 

 

“I’ll come by soon to see you again, alright?” 

 

He nods and sags back, grabbing his pillow. 

 

Once she’s gone he looks at Natasha and sadness is present in his look, “I really am sorry I couldn’t be there.” 

 

“Steve, It’s fine, I’m just glad you’re feeling better.” 

 

Sam places a hand over his forehead and nods, “your fever seems less.” 

 

Steve bats his hand away. “Can we not focus on me for like 5 seconds? I want to hear about Natasha’s dance.” 

 

She smiles and launches into a dissection of each moment, and he listens intently. 

 

————-

 

Bucky stares at the letter in his hand. When Howard had handed him the college application to MIT, he’d laughed and tried to hand it back. But the man had frowned at him and pointed at the papers. 

 

“Apply.” He had said. 

 

“Why?” 

 

“Because I think you belong there. You’ve got skills, I’ve seen you fiddle with the stuff in the lab. And I don’t like wasted potential.” 

 

Now here he stood with their response. And it was a big envelope. 

 

His parents stare at him, wide eyes waiting for him to open it. And he finds he can’t. 

 

“What if it’s a no?” He asks hoarsely, “what if they don’t want me?” 

 

His dad laughs, “Bucky, no matter what it say we will be proud of you, but just open the dang thing!” 

 

He nods and rips into it. 

 

“Dear Mr. Barnes, 

 

We are pleased to inform you—“ 

 

He’s cut off by shouts and cheers and he joins them as he processes that he’s been accepted to one of the best schools in the country. 

 

————

 

B: Well, I’m headed Tony’s way.

 

He sends the message before he can chicken out. Announcing to everyone where he was going. 

 

T: OH NOOOOO WAAAYYYYYYYYY! Let’s GOOOOOOOOOO

 

C: What! That’s awesome, dude! Congrats!

 

His phone starts to ring and it’s Natasha. He picks it up and winces at the loud screaming and cheers and yelling in the background. 

 

“Hey guys.” He says with a laugh. He can hear Natasha and their whole room, Wanda, Pietro, Peter, Yelena, Daniel, and others cheering him on. 

 

We’re so proud of you !” Natasha says in a rush, “ you’re going to do amazing!” 

 

“Thanks.” He says quietly. They talk for a few more seconds before she steps out of the room. “I’m going to miss you.” He admits, “it will be weird not seeing each other every day.” 

 

She laughs softly, “ that’s true, but Tony’s here all the time, so I know I’ll see you as often as we can. And we haven’t even kept up on our bargain to go see him. So now we have even more reason to go.”

 

“You better visit.” 

 

“I will!” 

 

Bucky looks at his phone. “Is Steve there?” 

 

“No, he left early to prepare for his last day of his art class, remember? He probably hasn’t seen the text yet.” 

 

“Oh, right. Okay yeah.” 

 

“James, don’t worry, you know he’s going to be thrilled for you.” 

 

“I hope so.” 

 

“He will.” 

 

————-

 

Steve stands looking at the massive gallery they’ve been allowed to take over for the evening. Each student was allowed to select a few works for all their class assignments and display it in ‘their’ section. Professor Sif had also selected her favorites of their works and put them on display.

 

He wants to blush as more than half of the selections of his classmates include their art of him. 

 

“You’re an interesting subject matter as you can see.” Professor Sif comments, holding a small cup of lemonade. The dim gallery sets a cozy tone and the soft music permeates the air. 

 

“It’s strange.” He admits, looking at his face, shoulders, back, all on display, “I feel like I should be embarrassed.” 

 

“Of what?” 

 

“Being so exposed.” 

 

“A raw and beautiful moment for sure. A moment of true art that you didn’t have a medium for. Just you on that stool. That was art in and of itself. All life models are that way. Living statues of beauty. Don’t let your mind tell you otherwise.” 

 

He looks up, and she smiles a genuine smile at him. “It’s been a pleasure to have you in class Steve. I’m glad you joined us. And your artwork is—“ she glances around, smiling and looking at him with a raised eyebrow, “don’t tell the others, but it’s some of my favorite.” 

 

He laughs and she moves on, talking to other students. 

 

A soft hand covers his glasses and he stiffens. 

 

“You thought I wouldn’t find out?” 

 

He relaxes, “Peggy.” 

 

“Indeed.” 

 

“What are you doing here?” 

 

“You mean, why didn’t my boyfriend tell us about his art exhibit that his class was holding so that way we could come and appreciate all his hard work?” 

 

He narrows his eyes at her, “we?” 

 

She raises an eyebrow, “you thought I would be foolish enough to keep this to myself?” She turns him around to see a group of people standing at the entryway. 

 

Sam, Howard, Bucky, Natasha, Clint, Tony. 

 

“Oh.” He says blankly, suddenly feeling his heart rate skyrocket. 

 

She catches his tone and steps in front of him, “Steve? I—“ She looks back at the group who hasn’t spotted them yet, “I’m sorry, did you not want them here?” 

 

His voice is a rasp, “not really.”

 

Her eyes widen and her face contorts into worry, “whyever not?” 

 

“Because I—“ He looks around the wall. His own back and scars and face on display, exposing him. He hadn’t told them about the life model thing. And he hadn’t shown the work that he was going to display. For a very specific reason.

 

She follows his eyeline and sees the painting of his back. Her eyes go wide and she looks back at him, “I—“ she starts, but then he hears Howard’s voice, 

 

“Steve!” He winces and turns towards the man, “You rascal, why didn’t you tell us it was a gallery?” 

 

He tries to smile, “didn’t think you guys would want to come.” 

 

The rest of the group crowds around and he greets all of them. 

 

“So,” Tony starts, looking at him, shaking his head, “thought you could keep this a secret, huh? Well your girlfriend is smarter than you.” 

 

Steve laughs weakly, “yep. That’s true.” 

 

“Come on, show us around.” Natasha says eagerly, “I want to see your display.” 

 

“Oh, I don’t know.” Steve says quickly, trying to keep the panic out of his voice, “my stuffs just—“ he doesn't elaborate, waving his hand noncommittally, “you guys should check out the next gallery over.” 

 

They stare at him, suspicion creeping into their faces. He sighs, knowing there was no use. “Look around. You’ll know which display is mine.” 

 

“How?” Clint asks, looking at him warily. 

 

“You’ll know.” 

 

———-

 

Clint makes his way through the artwork. He’s not really an artsy guy, but he has to admit there are some cool pieces. 

 

But he keeps seeing Steve. Steve’s sharp face, shoulders, his back. The scars. Open and exposed and Steve just sitting on that stool calmly. 

 

Once he’d seen the first one, he’d turned to find Steve and ask what it was about only to find that he’d disappeared. 

 

“I am assuming none of us knew about this?” Tony asks in a flat voice as the four of them stare at the detailed oil painting of Steve’s back. 

 

“Nope.” Bucky snaps. 

 

“Not at all.” Natasha says a bit wearily. 

 

“Look at the date in the corner.” Clint says, pointing to the signature and date. “The day the lawyers first accused Steve of all that shit.” 

 

They sigh, talking quietly as they move from display to display. Finally they find Sam standing in front of a display, frozen with eyes wide. 

 

“What is it, Sam?” Natasha asks, turning towards the display. 

 

Clint’s brain freezes. 

 

The letters that title the display reverberate through his brain. 

 

Lost and Found Family

 

It’s them. 

 

The bottom pictures capture his eyesight first. 

 

Clint sees his own silhouette, sitting on the edge of the bell tower, looking out at the city. The charcoal sketch somehow capturing the sanctity of the place he’d taken Steve. 

 

Then he sees Natasha, a water color of her in her recital dress, capturing grace and movement as her leg is mid-lift. 

 

Tony and Howard share an image, an angular drawing in pen and paints, sharp points and graceful edges all somehow encompassing the unique relationship the two maintain. They’re sitting in the lab, arguing about something, but Tony is laughing. 

 

Then Clint sees Bucky, fists raised and face angry and fierce as he glares at someone that Clint can’t see. The shadow of Steve is off to the side and Clint remembers being told about this day. The day Bucky pummeled the senior who picked on Steve. 

 

He looks up, seeing Sam in the center, dark deep oils capturing Sam’s easy grin and lighthearted manner. He has an eyebrow raised and a hand outstretched towards the viewer as if asking, “you coming or what?” 

 

He sees Peggy’s portrait off to the side, and he does a double take. She’s in profile but even from here he can see the absolute care and precision that went into capturing her essence. She’s smiling, her sheer dimpling ever so softly and her hair is done in soft waves. Red lips and a brown eye stare so lovingly at someone that it makes Clint almost blush. He knows she’s looking at Steve. He’s seen that look before. 

 

Then his eyes go higher and he sees what Sam was staring at. 

 

—————

 

Bucky takes it all in, the portraits of them, the way Steve has created a family portrait gallery, but his eyes are on the same thing the rest of the group is looking at. 

 

The Lost section. 

 

5 portraits, all done in black and white hang in an arch above the colorful portraits. 

 

The first on the left is a little Steve, young and short, and scrawny, and he’s staring at a gravestone. His mothers. 

 

The next one is Steve staring up the basement stairs as two looming figures stand illuminated in the doorway, just figures silhouetted, but Bucky knows it’s Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt. 

 

Then there’s a portrait of hands. Little hands. All reaching towards the painter. Bucky recognizes the little scar on the palm as Peter’s, and the nails on the other as Wanda’s. These kids, his siblings, reaching out to Steve, needing him.

 

The fourth makes Bucky’s blood run cold. The dumpster. The dumpster with two identical male figures throwing a trash bag into it. A Steve shaped trash bag. No one would know except those who knew. But it still makes Bucky lightheaded to see it that way. 

 

The fifth is a person sleeping on a hospital bed. The back is to the audience, but the light hair is recognizable, as is the skeletal frame. 

 

“I recognize you all from the portraits.” Bucky turns to see a beautiful and imposing woman standing behind them. “You must be Steve’s family.” Sam’s still staring at the dumpster, but he nods. “I’m Professor Sif. I was Steve’s teacher these last two semesters.” 

 

“Nice to meet you,” Howard says quietly, his eyes on the portrait of the hospital bed. “He chose to display these works?” 

 

The professor points to the bottom ones, the one in color, “he chose these, he liked the liveliness of them and how they captured different aspects of life and the human form in different positions.” She studies the top ones, “I, however, chose the top ones. We had a long discussion about how to blend the two for his display and what he wanted to call it. I think the name is fitting.” 

 

“Where is he?” Natasha asks. 

 

“I believe he went to get some air.” The professor says softly, “I just wanted to say hello and let you all know how highly Steve spoke of all of you.” She steps forward and lightly lifts the portrait of Sam off the wall. She turns it around and holds it out to him. Bucky can clearly see the words scrawled in Steve’s handwriting on the back. 

 

Dad #1 

 

Sam looks ready to cry when she hangs it back up, slowly taking down the one of Tony and Howard. 

 

The same handwriting adorns the back 

 

Dad #2 and Selfless

 

For the first time in a very long time Tony is speechless. Staring at the words in disbelief. 

 

Natasha’s says Encourager

 

Clint’s says Confidant

 

Peggy’s says The Right Partner

 

And Bucky holds his breath as he’s shown his. Two words. 

 

Brother & Protector

 

He stares at the words, unable to look away. 

 

————

 

Steve slips away as they start to look around, unable to see the faces they’ll make at his display. 

 

He finds the door out to the stairwell and leans against the cold railing, trying to take deep breaths so his watch won’t alert Howard. 

 

He sinks to the step and rests his head in his hands. 

 

The door behind him opens and soft heels let him know who has joined him. She sits beside him, resting a hand on his knee. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

He doesn’t look up. “Yes?” 

 

“Please look at me.” 

 

He picks his head up, and he sees sorrow in her eyes. “I’m ever so sorry. I should have asked. I just thought you were being typical you, downplaying everything. I knew your family would want to see your work and I just thought—“ 

 

He shakes his head, “it’s fine Peggy. No need to apologize.” 

 

She grabs his chin, “maybe I don’t need to apologize, but I do want to thank you.” 

 

“For?” 

 

“For the words, on the back of my portrait.” 

 

He feels a heat rise from his chest at the intensity of her gaze, and she’s pulling him forward, kissing him so urgently he feels his heartbeat rise. Her hands wrap around his neck, pulling him closer and the emotion and panic and everything he’d been feeling wells up, releasing itself as energy into the kiss. He wraps his arms around her waist, practically pulling her onto his lap, being more bold than he ever has been. She gasps a bit at the motion but smiles and resumes kissing him, smiling and looking at him so softly in between each one. 

 

She tilts her head and kisses the space behind his ear, making his nerves fire. His fingers tighten around her waist and she laughs. 

 

“I shouldn’t be sitting on you.” She says softly, trying to slide off his lap. 

 

“Stay.” He says, ignoring the way his joints do protest at the extra weight. He doens’t care, he wants her here. “Please, just for a minute.” 

 

She looks at him and nods, resting against his chest, her head on one of his shoulders and nose pressed against his neck. 

 

“It’s all beautiful.” She whispers, “your work. It’s amazing.” 

 

“Thanks.” He responds, “I had some good inspiration.” 

 

She presses a kiss to his neck and he sighs, “they’re going to wonder about them though.” 

 

She nods. “Yes. But it’s an easy explanation. Those moments were life changing for you. And this class was all about life models and human form and all those things right?” 

 

He nods, and she continues, “exactly. Those humans impacted those moments. The way their bodies behaved affected yours. Does that make sense?” 

 

He laughs, “I think so, but I’m not sure they’ll buy it.” 

 

“Well, then I suppose the only other option is for you to stay here in this stairwell wil me forever.” 

 

The laughter from both of them echoes down and soon she’s kissing him again, long kisses that leave him breathless and tired. 

 

Her hand is sliding under his shirt, her warm skin touching his cool, making his chest ache with how fast his heart is beating. Her nails gently scrape against him and she continues to kiss him, as he holds her tightly. 

 

The door behind them flies open and Howard bursts through, looking panicked. 

 

His eyes land on the two of them, Peggy practically in Steve’s lap, Steve with her lipstick on his face and neck and the man reels back in surprise. 

 

But Steve doesn’t even have the energy to feel embarrassed, “Howard? What’s wrong?” 

 

Howard’s voice is amused and a little off-kilter as he speaks, “I got an alert, your heart rate was way way too high. I thought you were having a heart attack or something.” 

 

Peggy laughs and slides off his lap, wiping at his face, “that was my fault. I apologize.” 

 

Steve can hear the others following, probably got nervous if Howard took off out of nowhere. 

 

Howard steps back, holding up his hands, “sorry, uh— sorry to interrupt.” 

 

Peggy laughs, and Steve leans back, his heart rate calming down, “I promise it was merely kisses.” She looks at Steve with a loving smirk and then back to Howard, “gorgeous man or not, I would not be caught being untoward in a stairwell.” 

 

“Steve?” 

 

Steve sighs at the appearance of Sam’s voice. “I’m here and I’m fine .” 

 

Sam’s head peaks around the door and he instantly puts the pieces of the puzzle together. “Geez, Howard.” 

 

“How was I supposed to know!” Then he winces, “but seriously, Steve. Your heart rate was way too high. I don’t mean to be a buzzkill but you’re going to need to tone it down, if you get what I mean.” 

 

He can hear the others listening just out of sight and he groans and closing his eyes, and leaning back as Peggy laughs, resting a hand on his cheek. “I promise not to get him too excited.” 

 

“Stop.” Steve responds, “can we talk about something else please?” 

 

“Come on.” Peggy says, standing up and offering him her hand, “let’s go look at your classmate’s works.”

 

———-

 

Bucky and Steve are walking down the hallway, heading to their lockers when they hear the commotion. 

 

They quicken their pace and turn the corner, seeing a large crowd, outside one of the English classrooms. 

 

Closer inspection has them seeing a security guard talking to a teacher who looks visibly shaken. 

 

“What happened?” Bucky asks a nearby girl. 

 

“That guy, the one who yelled at a teacher a while ago? He’s not going to pass onto the next grade because he’s failing a few classes, but he came after the English teacher, threatening to harm her if she didn’t change his grade. Thankfully someone called campus security and got him away from her in time. He looked like he’d gone insane, like crazy dangerous. I think he’ll be expelled” 

 

“Good riddance.” Bucky says easily. The crowd disperses and Steve looks into the classroom, seeing her talk to another teacher, face drawn and shoulders shaking as she cries. 

 

“Poor lady.” Steve says, “no one deserves to be treated like that.” 

 

Bucky nods as they head back towards their classes. 

 

——————

 

Chapter Text

The crowd cheers as each graduate walks across the stage. Steve clutches the chair in front of him, holding himself up and steady. Sam, Sarah, Howard, the Barnes, Mrs. Stark and the other kids from the house cheer wildly as first Bucky and later Natasha each accept their diploma, turn their tassel, and walk off the stage. 

 

Steve cheers and shouts as loud as his cracked throat will allow. 

 

——————

 

Bucky tries not to laugh as Steve puts on his new glasses. They’re even thicker than before, and truthfully, the continual degradation of his eyes is a frightening aspect of his body giving out, but his eyes just look so massive. 

 

“You’re kidding.” Steve says to Howard, looking in the mirror.

 

“‘Fraid not, pal. This is what they sent after your tests.” 

 

“I look like you’ve glued magnifying lenses to my face.” 

 

Natasha’s voice is wobbly with a bit of humor as she tries not to giggle. “I think you look fine.” 

 

Steve glares at her, but the magnification of his blue eyes makes it difficult to take him seriously. 

 

Clint snorts, trying to muffle it with his hand. 

 

And something in Steve’s face shifts, till his voice gets sarcastic and he looks out the windows, “guess that kid my freshman year was right.” 

 

Bucky feels his blood run cold. Stick Bug.

 

“Steve.” Bucky says sharply, “shut up.” 

 

But Steve just laughs and waves his incredibly bony arms and wiggles his fingers at his enormous eyes. “I mean, it’s fitting though right?” He doesn’t let Bucky finish, just standing up, grabbing his cane and walking towards the elevator, “come on, Tony should be here soon, and then we can get going.” 

 

—————

 

Howard and Steve chat at the kitchen counter, while Clint stands there, eating something crunchy and just listening. 

 

“Are you excited?” She asks, nudging Bucky’s arm. 

 

He smiles, “I mean, yeah, who wouldn’t be. A free vacation?” 

 

“Graduation gift.” She corrects. 

 

He laughs, “whatever. I’m just stoked. I’ve never even been out of New York City before.” 

 

The door opens and they hear Tony before they see him. “Where’s the fam.” He calls out, “come meet, Pep!” 

 

Two figures round the corner and they all stand, ready to greet them. 

 

Natasha sees a tall, beautiful girl round the corner, looking a bit apprehensive but smiling as she comes into view. Tony, significantly shorter than her, leads the way, his hair a wild mess and his sunglasses perched on his nose. 

 

“Everyone’s here!” He says with a smirk, “everyone, this is Pepper, Pepper, this is—“ he starts pointing, “My dad, Clint, Steve, Natasha, and Bucky.” 

 

“Hello,” she says with a smile, “I’ve heard a lot about you all.” 

 

Tony starts to speak, making a joke about something, but Natasha watches as Pepper’s eyes land on Steve and stay there for just a moment too long, her eyes knowing. Then she’s looking at Tony and rolling her eyes at something he’s saying. 

 

“Steve,” Tony asks, dropping his bag on the ground by the wall, “where’s Carter?” 

 

“She’s finishing her internship with Erskine. But she’ll be there for the last half of the week.” 

 

“Okay good. Because I want Pep, Nat, and Peggy to become friends because I’m simultaneously intrigued and terrified of the possibility of them being a trio.”

 

The group laughs as Howard checks his watch. 

 

“Okay, time to head to the airp strip, let’s go.” 

 

Jarvis leads them to the large car parked out front and they get in, excitedly chatting about the upcoming trip. 

 

————-

 

Clint cracks his neck and yawns, leaning back against the seat in the car as they pull onto the private airstrip. 

 

This is what Howard had originally shown up to his dad’s apartment for. To ask permission to take him on a trip. 

 

They get out of the car and their bags are loaded into the storage. 

 

Now here he stands, waiting to be taken to some unknown location, Howard wanting it to be a surprise. Mrs. Stark was already wherever they were going and not even Tony knew. 

 

The jet takes off and they chat or sleep or watch movies to pass the time. 

 

He’s fallen asleep, night outside the windows and the cabin dim, when he feels something brush past him. He blinks, taking in his darkened surroundings. Bucky and Natasha are across from him, dead asleep. Tony is asleep and Pepper is reading something. She looks up as he looks her way and she smiles before returning to her book. 

 

He leans around to see Howard sitting on his heels next to Steve’s seat. He can hear soft talking and he leans forward to listen. 

 

“—be fine, Howard. I can walk.” 

 

“No, I brought a chair, it will be—“

 

“I’m not using a wheelchair, Howard. I can walk just fine.” 

 

“It’s a lot of walking, Steve. I’ve had this trip planned since your freshman year. If I’d known—“

 

“Known what?” Steve’s tired voice says, “that my joints would be like rusted bolts when I’m 17? It doesn’t matter. You’re already being really generous taking us on the vacation, I’m glad you didn’t change it for me.” 

 

“Please, just consider it, okay?” 

 

There’s a soft pause and then Steve’s voice has a smile, “I’ll consider it if you tell me where we’re going?” 

 

Howard laughs softly, “no dice, pal. You gotta find out like all the rest.” 

 

Clint leans back and feels his eyes growing heavy. Steve’s joints, especially the hip that was broken by the brothers and his knees, have been getting very weak and painful. 

 

They may have teased him for his glasses, but the minute Steve was handed a cane, no one said a word. Bucky had expressed to Clint in confidence how glad he was that school was over and Steve didn’t have to use it in front of all his classmates… yet

 

But his senior year was coming. And all of them would be lying if they said they weren’t terrified of Steve facing his senior year alone. 

 

The only one not worried, or at least was pretending not to be, was Steve.

 

—————-

 

They step off the jet, and stare at the large car in front of them. Mrs. Stark is there, holding a sign. 

 

Welcome to London!

 

They all just stand there in shock, except Tony, who is used to his parents' antics. 

 

“I’m in Europe?” Bucky says, glancing around. 

 

Howard laughs, “indeed. And yes, I have your passports. No need to worry.” 

 

Pepper is standing near Steve, her eyes wide in disbelief. While Steve looks pale and a bit overwhelmed. 

 

“Come on.” Howard says, opening the car door. “Lots to see, things to do. Get in.” 

 

—————

 

Steve’s in bed, dead asleep, wheezing slightly and face looking drawn and exhausted. After a long day of sightseeing, they were relaxing in their hotel rooms. 

 

His mom and dad are in the next room, and Pep, and Natasha are in the room across the hall. Bucky is sitting quietly on the bed he’s sharing with Steve, and Clint and he are sitting on the other king bed, talking softly. 

 

“He didn’t even eat dinner, he was so tired.” Bucky says, eyes glancing at Steve. 

 

“Your dad tried to convince him to use a wheelchair on the plane.” Clint mentions softly, gesturing to Tony. “Steve refused though.” 

 

Tony leans back, the soft pillows against the headboard behind his back. “He told me that he wanted to plan a big trip like this during Steve’s freshman year. As a graduation gift to all of us. But…” he grimaces, “he moved it up to this summer. Instead of next summer when Steve had graduated. He was too worried about Steve deteriorating further.” 

 

Clint shifts, “now that I live in your house, I see a lot more of Steve and your dad in the lab. It’s pretty brutal.” 

 

Bucky’s ears pique, “what do you mean?” 

 

“Just…” Clint gestures to Steve, “it’s a lot of blood being drawn, or a lot of tests, exercises to work or stimulate his muscles. Your dad puts him through the wringer.” 

 

Tony twirls the phone in his hands, “I know. He’s so freaked out that he won’t find a solution that he’s pushing Steve pretty hard. I told him to back off, but he doesn’t know how to quit.” Clint chuckles and they turn to him in surprise. “What?”

 

He points to Steve, “maybe your dad doesn’t listen to you, but he listens to Peggy.” 

 

“Carter?” Bucky asks, “what happened?” 

 

“She’s down there a lot with Steve.” Clint says, “she comes over often and one time I was down there and we were talking as your dad was doing tests on Steve’s liver. And you know, Steve’s on his stomach, looking at Peggy who’s sitting at his head, and I guess Peggy saw something she didn’t like and she snapped at your dad so firmly that we all just kind of pulled back in surprise. And Steve tried to say it was okay, but she glared at Steve who just went quiet. Then she sort of went on a rant to ask Howard if he even thought to ask Steve if what he was doing was causing him pain, which, of course, led to the fact that Steve hadn’t been mentioning how painful the tests were becoming to him and it was this whole argument between Peggy and Howard versus Steve about him telling them these things and at the end Peggy just looked at Howard and said, ‘do better’. And your dad just said, ‘okay’.” 

 

Tony blinks. “You’re kidding.”

 

“I’m very much not.” 

 

“Damn, Carter.” Bucky says with a soft whistle, “she really means business.” 

 

“I’m glad she’s going to NYU. At least Steve will have her close—“ Bucky gestures to Clint, “you and Natasha will keep an eye on him, right?”

 

Tony watches Clint nod, “of course. And the group chat will make sure we all stay in touch.” 

 

“You starting full time classes this year?” Bucky asks Clint. 

 

“Yeah, it’s weird, but I’ll still work the evening shifts.” 

 

“Nat is going to be so busy this year, her going to that prestigious dance school.” 

 

Bucky nods, a smile on his face, “yeah, she’s awesome.” 

 

The TV is on, playing quietly in the background as they discuss what they’re upcoming plans are. 

 

——————

 

Steve feels warm hands touch his face. 

 

He thinks someone calls his name, but it’s sort of muffled. Without opening his eyes, he reaches for where he put his hearing aid on the bedside stand. He fits it in his ear and hears again, “Steve, wake up.” 

 

He groans, shifting, feeling every ache in his body. Yawning, he stretches and tries to escape from the tangle of sheets. 

 

“Steve—“ a soft voice says in a laugh, “Happy Birthday.” 

 

“Peggy?” He asks, his voice still deep and gravelly with sleep. 

 

“It might be, if you could ever get out of this tornado you slept in.” 

 

He pops his head up, and takes her in. “You’re here?” He asks, tilting his head, “I thought you weren’t coming til Thursday?” 

 

She laughs, “I couldn’t miss your birthday. And I finished everything with Erskine early. He didn’t mind.” 

 

At that, he pushes himself up and grabs his glasses, putting them on so he can actually take her in. She’s smiling and fresh and vibrant as she sits on his bed, a cinnamon roll on a plate in her hands with two candles sticking out of it, a ‘1’ and an ‘8’ alight. She sets the plate on the bed stand, and grabs his hand, “happy birthday.” 

 

He smiles, “thanks.” Then he looks down at his rumpled pajamas, “I should get dressed.” 

 

He finally looks up to see that the room in empty but the door is cracked. “Did everyone know you were coming early?” 

 

“No, just Howard, but when I knocked and Clint answered he was happy to oblige.” 

 

Steve shakes his head, “you guys are all too much.” 

 

She brushes his bed hair back, “get ready, I can’t wait to show you London. My stomping grounds now.” At that she kisses his forehead and leaves, waving. The other boys file back in with grins on their faces and Steve flops back onto the pillows. 

 

“And you all didn’t believe me when I said she was the one.” 

 

“We were wrong, Steve.” Bucky says easily. “Now go get ready. We’ve got to show these Brits how Americans celebrate the fourth.” 

 

Steve laughs as he gets out of bed slowly and works his way to the bathroom, ignoring the cane leaning against the chair. 

 

————-

 

Steve enjoys Peggy pointing out things she knows or places she used to hang out. They take her advice on places to eat and what things are worth seeing. They spend the day celebrating Steve’s birthday and at the end of the night, they take the London Eye and watch the city lights as it circles slowly. 

 

His feet ache and his joints are protesting wildly, but he doesn’t say anything. He uses his cane because truthfully he wouldn’t be able to make it if he didn’t. Howard tries a couple more times to offer him a wheelchair, and his body is begging him to take it… but his mind and pride just won’t allow it. 

 

————

 

Howard doesn’t tell them where their next stop is. Clint thinks Peggy knows, just from the direction they are heading, but none of the rest of them have a clue. 

 

They get off the train and onto a boat and something must start to dawn on Steve and Tony’s minds because Tony smiles at his dad and Steve goes sheet white. 

 

Clint watches as Steve grips the railing of the boat staring off at the ocean. Peggy stands beside him and they’re silent. 

 

“Where are we going?” Bucky asks, “why does Steve—“

 

“Ireland.” Tony says quietly. “My dad’s taking us to Ireland. Steve’s Irish. Mom immigrated to New York when she was a little girl.” 

 

“Really?” Natasha asks. Clint recalls Steve mentioning something of the sort but it was never a thorough discussion. 

 

“You find out a lot during a trial.” Tony says softly. “I know Steve’s whole family history and so does my dad. And he said that once, during a lab session, Steve had admitted he’s always wanted to go to Ireland. His ma always talked about it and wanted to take him but she never got the chance.” 

 

“Your dad is unbelievable.” Bucky says softly, looking at the way Howard and Maria are talking at a table not too far from them. 

 

Tony chuckles, “you can say that again.” 

 

————-

 

Natasha does not mention the red rimmed eyes that Steve sports as he walks off the gangplank, his cane tapping on the metal. 

 

—————

 

After they settle into their hotel rooms, they freshen up and head out to dinner. Steve sits enraptured listening to the people around him as they speak what he claims as his first language. 

 

“—agus chuadar anonn go dtí a bráithre—“ 

 

“—Ní raibh sé i gceist don chóisir sin. Tá súil agam leat—“

 

“—A ligean ar dul chun cinn sula mbeidh sé ró-dhéanach. Is cuimhin leat nuair a muid—“ 

 

He can pick out snippets or words, some familiar phrases his ma had always used, but mostly he just listens. Taking in every sight and sound so that way he will never forget. He can remember being here for the both of them. 

 

—————

 

Bucky’s behind Steve as the doors to the elevator slide open. He expects Steve to move, and Steve tries to take a step, but Bucky hears a soft intake of breath and he sees Steve shiver. 

 

“Steve?”

 

Natasha, Tony, and Clint, who are already out of the elevator don’t hear the soft exchange and continue walking to their rooms. But Peggy, who is standing besides Steve, looks at him sharply and then to Steve. 

 

“I’m okay.” Steve says, his voice trying for lightness but wrapped in pain. 

 

Bucky, now towering over Steve in height and bulk, knows instantly that that’s a lie, and he steps to Steve’s side, sliding an arm under Steve’s shoulders and helping to prop him up taking some of the weight off his legs. 

 

They step out of the elevator and Steve tries to pull out of his grasp. “I’m fine. I’m okay, just—“ he cuts off and Peggy touches his cheek.  

 

“Just what Steve?” 

 

“Just felt my hip go stiff. I didn’t want to risk taking a step on it.” 

 

This is pretty normal occurrence, so they don’t argue for more information. They just get him back to his room, and onto the bed. Tony and Clint watch as Bucky helps him, and Peggy, without pity or condescension, ensures that he has what he needs at his bedside. 

 

Steve protests, “I need to shower, I’m fine you guys, thanks.” 

 

Peggy leaves to her own room, but her eyes trail on Steve the whole time she exits, concern etched on her features. 

 

“You sure you should be standing in the shower?” Clint asks, “maybe you should take a bath—“

 

“No.” Bucky says sharply. “No baths. You’re too tired.” 

 

Steve sags, “guys, I’m fine. Okay? Don’t ruin this trip by worrying.” 

 

Tony’s the only one who stays silent. 

 

Steve insists they all shower before him as he may take a while to move about and they only agree because they know that if he’s first he’ll feel pressured to move fast for them. So if he goes last then he can relax.

 

They hear the shower turn on and they start to finally take a breath to relax after the long days of travel and sightseeing. 

 

It’s maybe 15 minutes later that Bucky’s ears perk up. And he sees Clint’s do the same. 

 

Tony has headphones in, but he sees them sit up and he furrows his brow. “What?” 

 

“Shh.” Clint hisses. 

 

And there it was again, “g-guys?”

 

Bucky’s on his feet and opening the, thankfully, unlocked bathroom door. His eyes catch immediately on Steve, staring at him with an ashamed expression on his face.

 

It only takes Bucky a few seconds to realize what’s going on. Steve is sitting at the bottom of the glass cubicle shower, unable to get back up. 



He walks forward, feeling Clint and Tony behind him as he opens the glass door. He could care less that Steve’s naked. Bucky’s eyes stay on his face as Steve looks like he wants to sink through the floor. 

 

“Come on—“ Bucky says firmly, no hint of anything but trying to be helpful, “let’s get you—“ his hand passes through the water and he yanks it back in surprise, it’s ice cold.  “Why the hell are you in cold water!” Bucky says loudly, reaching back out and ignoring the cold as it needles at his skin and takes Steve’s shaking outstretched hand. 

 

He hauls him up, getting his pajama shirt relatively soaked as Steve’s shivering frame clutches his. A towel appears out of nowhere and wraps itself around Steve’s shoulders. Steve clutches it gratefully and that when Bucky notices his blue lips and the framework of blue veins running in strong contrast to his pale skin. 

 

They get Steve in front of the heater, someone grabs a sweater of his and shoves it over his head and Bucky grabs the hand towel and is scrubbing it over Steve’s wet hair. The towel covers Steve’s bottom half and socks get pulled from his small suitcase and yanked onto his feet. 

 

Clint looks at Steve who looks miserable and embarrassed and puts his hands on his hips, “what happened?” 

 

—————-

 

Steve starts the shower, and it’s hot pretty quickly as Clint had just finished minutes ago. He steps in, glad for the metal rail on the outside of the shower to help him stay steady. 

 

Once inside, the shelves and knobs are all up high on the wall and his shorter than average frame struggles to stay standing with his tired body protesting every second. 

 

He gets shampooed and washes his body, but when he tries to put conditioner in, his joints start to give out. He places a hand on the wall and slowly sinks to the ground. 

 

It’s not too bad, the hot water beating on his tired bones. He soaks it in for a few minutes, closing his eyes as the hot water trails the conditioner out of his hair and down his back. 

 

He doesn’t notice the shift at first but the water starts to cool, and he realizes too late that the hot water is running out. 

 

He tries to stand but his hip locks and he’s unable to move. 

 

There’s nothing to grip or get leverage with and the water is growing more freezing by the second. 

 

Only 1 minute into the water turning fully cold does he realize what he has to do. 

 

“B-bucky?” He calls out, hoping they aren’t already asleep or watching TV. 

 

When no one comes he feels a thrill of panic, but tamps it down, “g-guys?” He calls louder. 

 

Within seconds Bucky is there, helping him up and Clint has a towel and Tony’s grumbling about how organized his suitcase is as he picks up a large sweater to shove onto his body. 

 

“And that’s what happened.” Steve finishes, feeling the shivers subside. “Sorry…” 

 

Bucky looks at him and lays back on the bed. “You and bathrooms are not a great combination. First Rumlow, then the Halloween bathtub and now this?” 

 

Steve winces, “I am sorry…” 

 

Bucky waves a hand to silence him and he falls quiet. 

 

—— 

 

The lights are off and they are settling into sleep when Clint hears Steve texting. He lifts his head up and watches in concern as Steve has a deep seated frown on his face. 

 

Clint settles back and wonders who he is texting. 

 

———-

 

A knock on the front door startles Clint awake and he blearily stumbles to the door. He opens it to find a concierge worker with a wheelchair. “I was told to deliver this to this room?” 

 

“It’s mine.” Clint hears softly behind him. He turns to find Steve, sitting on the edge of the bed, face flat and unreadable. Bucky and Tony still asleep. 

 

“Oh.” Clint says, “yeah, thanks.” He accepts the wheelchair and brings it in. Rolling it closer to Steve. “Steve, you know there’s no shame in using this.” 

 

“Oh yeah?” Steve snaps, staring at the open window as the sun starts to rise, “then you use it.” 

 

But Clint doesn’t react, knowing the fact that Steve even admitted to Howard, that must have been who he was texting last night, that he needs this chair took a lot of guts and a whole lot of humility. 

 

Clint just sits beside Steve, careful not to jostle Bucky, as they watch the sun rise over Belfast. 

 

————-

 

Natasha is the first to see it, Steve’s new mode of travel. But she only feels surprised for a moment as she watches Peggy bend to meet Steve’s eyes and kiss him softly. Natasha hears her whisper, “I’m so proud of you.” Before running her fingers through his hair while he rolls his eyes and smiles fondly at her. 

 

They take turns pushing him all day, Clint and Tony fighting over it the most because it has a cup holder on the back. Natasha thinks that at the end of the day, when Steve is able to stay awake longer and enjoy the night in the city because he wasn’t so tired from walking all day, that maybe he opens up to the idea that it wasn’t so bad. 

 

————-

 

The rest of the summer passes in a haze of college prep for Natasha, Peggy, and Bucky. College Applications and signing up for the SAT’s and ACT’s for Steve. Tony almost misses his classes enrollment day but squeaks by. Clint buys books and starts getting excited to be back to school full time to get his degree. 



Pepper visits often, having become an easy addition to the group and letting them see a new side to Tony that they were not privy to before. 

 

Bucky looks around the table at Milo’s at the 8 of them. Laura, Clint’s girlfriend, is a lot quieter and more reserved, but she is kind and seems to genuinely enjoy their antics as a group. She’s not able to be around as often, but they enjoy when she can. 

 

Peggy whispers something to Steve that makes him blush and Bucky laughs. “What did she say?” 

 

Steve shakes his head and his eyes go to the table, “nothing.” 

 

Peggy laughs and raises an eyebrow at Bucky, “none of your concern, James.” 



————-

 

Natasha watches as Peter, Wanda, Pietro, and Steve play video games trying to get in the last bit of summer freedom as school starts next week. She’s basically all packed and ready to go. She looks out the door to the section of the stairs and sighs. Yelena was excited for her to go to school, but she wasn’t excited to be left behind. 

 

“I’m going to visit all the time.” Natasha had promised, “and you can come visit me, I’m only like 45 minutes away by train.” 

 

“I know, I just…” Yelena had looked at her hands and sighed, “I just don’t want to be left behind.” 

 

Natasha had held her tight, “I’m not leaving anything or anyone behind. So you can just stop thinking that right now.” 

 

—————



Everyone hugs their goodbyes as they load up the car Howard is letting them use to move all her stuff. Natasha hugs Yelena for long minutes as they cry and Wanda clings to Pietro’s hand, trying to withhold tears. 

 

“You guys are acting like I’m never coming back.” She says with a watery laugh. “I’ll be back in October for fall break, okay?” 

 

Sam claps his hands, “time to go.” 

 

They nod sadly and she stops at Steve and Bucky who are standing by the doors. She nudges Steve’s arms, “you’re back to being the oldest in the house.” 

 

Steve tries to smile, while he speaks softly, “yay.” It’s not very enthusiastic. 

 

“I’ll be back to visit.” 

 

He nods. “I know.” 

 

She hugs him and he walks back to the steps, Peter coming to stand beside him. 

 

She and Bucky get in and she tries not to cry at the way they wave at her as the car pulls away. 

 

—————

 

Bucky wakes as the plane lands. Tony still has his headphones in as they debark, and the car ride to MIT is relatively silent. 

 

But Tony shows him around campus, tells him where the good food and coffee is at, and then drops him and his things off at the freshman dorm. 

 

“Don’t be a stranger.” Tony says, “you need me? I’m always in the lab. If I’m not there, I’m with Pepper. And if I’m not with her, then I’m probably asleep.” 

 

Bucky laughs and nods, waving him away, “go do your junior college boy stuff.” 

 

Tony throws up a peace sign and walks off, leaving Bucky to stare up at the massive brick building. 

 

—————-

 

Steve says the 4th goodbye in too few days as Peggy puts her final bags into her parents’ car. 

 

He’s only had the opportunity to meet them twice, as they travel a lot for her dad’s work. They’ve been cordial if not a bit taken aback by his appearance. But Peggy’s never let him doubt her affection for him for a moment, so he doesn’t. 

 

She stares at him and he stares back, a fond smile for her on his lips. 

 

“I despise saying goodbye to people.” She says crisply, trying to keep a stiff upper lip. 

 

He sighs, “I don’t like it either. It’s all I’ve been doing this last week and a half.” 

 

She closes the trunk and leans on it. “I wish NYU wasn’t so far.” 

 

“Peggy, you’re a couple of trains away. That's not too far. I’m just glad you’re in the same state!” 

 

The distance is closed between them quickly and she wraps her hands around his waist, pulling him close. His arms go around her shoulders and back and they stand there for a few minutes, just hugging. 

 

Finally she pulls back and places a soft kiss on his lips. “I shall miss you, darling.” 

 

He smiles, loving when she calls him that, “not as much as I will miss you.” 

 

She kisses him again, this time less soft, more urgent as she pulls him closer, as if unwilling to let him go. 

 

He kisses her firmly back, holding her neck and feeling her soft hair between his fingers as his other hand presses her against him. 

 

He breaks them apart, needing air and she rests her head on his shoulders. “You promise to take care of yourself?” 

 

“As best as I can,” he responds honestly. 

 

They speak for a few more minutes before her father and mother inform them it’s time to go. She gets in the car and rolls the back window down, beckoning him closer. He obliges and she tugs his face down, kissing him soundly and making him blush as her parents try to pretend like they aren’t there. 

 

“I love you.” She says, confidentially and without hesitation. 

 

He smiles and holds her cheek gently, brushing his thumb along her cheekbone in a way he knows she likes. “I love you too.” 

 

She kisses him again and is gone, the car disappearing around the corner all too soon. 

 

Steve picks up his cane and starts the slow walk to the subway alone. 

 

——————



Chapter Text

Steve takes another grueling step forward. The pain in his hip is so splintered through his body that it is almost at the point of numbness. But he can feel Howard’s eyes on him and he refuses to stop. 

 

So he takes another step forward, ignoring the way his joints ache and protest. The little number on the treadmill screen taunts him. He has at least 35 more steps to go and he can’t lose this bet. 

 

It is the Friday before his first day of school and Howard had showed up with a wheelchair that morning, insisting Steve use it. But he’d flat out refused. 

 

“No way!” He said vehemently, “no way in hell!” 

 

“Steve—“ Sam tried to stay calm and light hearted, “it’s no big deal. It will be so much easier for you.” 

 

He had shaken his head, “I’m not starting off my senior year in a wheelchair. I’m going to walk on my own two feet until I can’t. Then we’ll talk about it.” 

 

Howard had pointed at the door, “Steve it’s almost half a mile to the subway stop, and another half mile from your stop to school. That’s without all the stairs and mess of the school hallways! You need to help your body reserve it’s strength to fight—“

 

“I appreciate your concern. And I’m not trying to be obnoxious. But no.” 

 

The men had stared at him and he could feel their determination pushing against his own. 

 

So after 30 more minutes of arguing, Steve had raised his hands. “I’ll prove it to you. We’ll make a bet. If I can walk on your treadmill for however long you think a school day will take, then I get to walk. If I can’t make it, I’ll relent and take the chair.” 

 

Howard’s lips had thinned. “Fine.” 

 

So here he was. 32 steps from proving to Howard that he could do it. 

 

  1.  

 

——

 

He finishes and the treadmill slides to a stop. It takes him a few seconds before he can turn around, but he does, a smile on his face even as he ignores the way his muscles are screaming and the sweat drips down his back. 

 

“See.” He says hoarsely, “I’m fine”. 

 

Howard’s jaw is tight, “you look like death warmed over.” 

 

“I am—“ Steve huffs, using the supportive handrails to step down onto the lab floor. “—death warmed over that. Just death warmed over that can walk to school.” 

 

“Steve, please, be reasonable—“

 

“Howard, we made a deal. I accomplished it. You can’t argue.” 

 

“Take five steps right now.” 

 

Steve knows if he lets go of the handrails he will hit the ground, muscles shaking. “That wasn’t the deal.” He insists, holding onto the rails. “I’m taking the cane. You guys are lucky I’m even taking that. But I’m not doing the chair.” Howard looks ready to still fight with him but he shakes his head, “not yet anyways. Maybe I’ll give in in a week, just…” Steve sighs and unbidden starts sinking to the floor, “please just let me have the first few days”. 

 

He’s on the ground and his ankles and feet are aching and his leg muscles are twitching and Howard is watching it all with a pained expression and pursed lips. 

 

“Fine.” Howard whispers harshly, “one week.” 

 

That’s not exactly what Steve had meant, but he doesn’t have the energy to fight. 

 

————-

 

T: Steve walked it. My dad says he’s refusing the wheelchair. 

 

Bucky grinds his teeth. Tony had told them about his dad and Steve’s bet and all of them were secretly hoping Steve would give in or not finish just so he could take the chair. But as per usual with Steve, he refused to give in, fighting for what he wanted.

 

Bucky’s hands ghost over the screen. He looks around his dorm room, and sighs. He’s happy with his choice, and the first week at MIT has been amazing. He likes his roommate, a nice guy named Falsworth that reminded him of Peggy. Albeit mostly because of the accent. But he worries constantly. He’s only been gone from Steve for just over a week and since he’s been gone he’s spent more time worrying about him then focusing on the welcome week they were having for Freshmen. 

 

He looks at his desk where a sketch resides of the group. Steve had drawn one up and gotten it copied and had somehow shyly and defiantly at the same time, handed one to each of them. 

 

“We’re going our separate ways but at least this way we’ll always have something to remember each other by.” He’d said. 

 

Steve’s scrawny face grinned widely as Peggy looked on with a fond eye roll, a hand firmly on her hip. Bucky was tickling Natasha who was trying to stay serious, and Tony was kissing Pepper’s cheek. Clint and Laura were making matching silly faces and everyone had shouted their acclamations of appreciation when he’d given it to them. 

 

C: I’m going to follow him on Monday. I’ll make sure he gets to school.

 

N: no Clint, you need to focus on your own classes, you can’t be his tail everyday. And he’d be pissed if he knew. 

 

B: who cares if he’s mad! He’s going to pass out on the sidewalk before he admits he needs a wheelchair! 

 

There’s a pause as he can imagine all four of them staring at their phones reading his text. 

 

Then Natasha’s text is like a punch to the gut. 

 

N: then so be it. He has to learn to accept help someway. Maybe the hard way is the only way he’ll learn. 

 

T: I hate that. But you’re right. 

 

Clint doesn’t respond and Bucky can’t seem to find words either. 

 

———

 

Natasha spends the first week feeling overwhelmed and incredibly excited. She’s glad she has to take regular classes along with her dance courses. It gives her a mental break from the taxing work of dancing. Not that she doesn’t love it. She does, she spends hours a day, stretching, practicing and ensuring that she’s staying in top form. 

 

Her teachers are amazing and she fits in well with her classmates. 

 

But when it’s late at night and she’s laying in bed. She looks over to her roommate, who is nice but extremely shy. And she wishes it was a room full of sleepy kids instead. She can picture Yelena to her left, pillow on the floor since the girl could never manage to keep it on the bed. She can imagine Pietro across the room. His soft snores keeping time with the ticking of the clock. Wanda’s music always played very quietly as the girl couldn’t sleep in silence. Peter, who slept in such a tight ball that his bed always looked like someone stuffed a beach ball under the comforter. And then there was Steve. In the bed by the door. He’d once admitted he chose that bed to make sure he could hear Mrs. Schmidt coming into the room and get her attention before she turned on any of the other kids. 

 

His soft wheezing while he breathed was somehow a soothing sound to the whole room. When Steve had slept down by Sam after the dumpster incident, she’d noticed how uneasy the other kids slept without his presence in the room. She hadn’t known what it was at the time, but when he’d come back to his bed, the rest of the kids had started sleeping deeply and fully relaxed and Natasha had felt a sense of grief that only his presence meant safety. He’d been their protector for so long they were practically co-dependent on him, even in their sleep. Sam had slowly and surely been working with each kid, trying to ensure they worked through the trauma that Mrs. Schmidt had put them through, and he was doing an amazing job. But still, the sound of Steve’s soft breathing made the room feel safe. 

 

And here she was, sleeping in silence, missing her home. 

 

She rolled over and stared at the sketch Steve had given them. She’d also requested a sketch of the rest of the kids and Steve had happily obliged. She looked at Wanda, Yelena, Peter, and Pietro’s happy faces as they grinned at her through the sketch. She smiled and her fingers ghosted over the frame it was in. 

 

She’d be home in less than two months. 

 

————

 

Tony adjusts the design of his newest device. He’d worked on a version for his parents, but now he wants to figure out a way to incorporate his AI into other devices. His eyes glance at the clock and it reads 2:23 a.m. 

 

He scrubs at his eyes and feels his phone buzz. 

 

He looks down at the text message and it’s from his dad. 

 

H: you think you can come home next weekend? 

 

T: I’ve got a project proposal next Friday, but I could probably manage it… why? 

 

H: I need someone else to look over these numbers. I’ve got calculations running for something and I need someone smarter than me to double check them. 

 

Tony feels his chest constrict. More and more, his dad has been slowly opening up, being more… fatherly. Complimenting him without it being backhanded, not pressuring him so much about his future. 

 

Tony knows he owes that partially to Steve. His dad is watching someone so young on the verge of losing everything, having to rush to “get everything in” before he can’t do anything. It has made his dad back off heavily. 

 

Tony had almost had a stroke when his dad had said goodbye at the airport and said “enjoy college” instead of “make me proud” or “don’t screw up”. 

 

T: yeah dad, I can be there on Friday night. Maybe Barnes will come home with me. I know he’s having a conniption not being in the same 300ft as Steve. 

 

And then, before he can chicken out he texts quickly. 

 

T: thanks for trusting me

 

But the answer is quicker. 

 

H: no one I trust more. Love you. Now Go to Bed.

 

Tony laughs, the sound reverberating through the lab. 

 

T: yeah yeah, you first old man. Love you. 

 

H: >:/

 

Tony cracks up at his use of old school emojis and shoves his phone in his pocket, heading out the door, taking his dad’s advice. 

 

————-

 

Clint looks around at the classmates in his class. They’re all younger than him but not by much. He checks his watch. In 30 minutes he is going to text Steve. If he didn’t get a response, then “learning the hard way” be damned. He was going to go find him. 

 

————

 

Steve feels his phone buzz. He looks up at the school building that was maybe 300ft away. He takes a minute to lean against a brick wall, pulling his phone out and looking at the text from Clint. 

 

C: you at school yet? 

 

Steve glances at the building. He’s close enough that it won’t be too much of a lie. 

 

S: yeah I’m here. Stop worrying. You’ll give yourself an ulcer. 

 

C: ha-ha. Hilarious. 

 

He shoves his phone back in his pocket and keeps walking. He slowly walks up the steps, his cane clacking on the linoleum floor as he enters the building. 

 

Everyone’s so excited and engaged with the fact that it’s the first day of school that most people don’t even notice the cane at first. He walks to his locker, putting the textbooks he won’t need til after lunch inside. 

 

“Hey Steve.” He looks up to see Scott, smiling at him. But his eyes flicker to the cane and back up. “Nice ride.” 

 

“Thanks.” Steve says with an eyebrow raise. But Scott doesn’t mention it again. Talking at him the whole way to their shared first period. He hears a few soft comments and a snicker or two, but for the most part he makes it his class without incident. 

 

Which should have been a sign that something was bound to go wrong. 

 

———-

 

He’s walking out of the cafeteria when he hears the shocked laughter of some group of kids. Scott bristles but Steve ignores it, walking forward and turning the corner. 

 

“Who the hell allowed the geriatric into school.” One of the boys of the group says out loud. 

 

He can feel Scott’s anger building and he reaches out, grabbing the guys arm before he can turn around. “Don’t. It’s not worth it.” 

 

“You can’t let them talk about you like that.” 

 

“What you want me to give them my whole sob story? So they can pity me instead of bully me?” Steve says with an easy laugh, “no thanks.” 

 

He keeps walking, forcing Scott to keep up. 

 

“Why are freshmen such assholes?” Scott says with annoyance.

 

“Bullies are bullies no matter their age.” Steve says flatly. “Don’t blame it only on freshmen.” 

 

————

 

Steve can feel the eyes on him wherever he goes. As the week continues, more people notice and point, and the teacher’s eyes follow him with pity and he finds himself glaring at the ground more. 

 

On Saturday morning, while the kids eat breakfast, he feels Sam’s hand on his shoulder. He looks up to see worried eyes. 

 

“You look tired.” 

 

“I am.” He admits, looking back at his huge stack of pancakes that he’s taken exactly one bite of. 

 

“How’s school?” 

 

“Same ol’ same ol’.” 

 

“Steve!” They both look up as Peter comes barreling into the kitchen. 

 

“Yeah Peter?” 

 

“Guess what!?” The 12 year old is bouncing beside Steve’s chair. 

 

“What?” Steve asks with a laugh at the kids enthusiasm. 

 

“We’re gonna go to the farther park today! Sam said we could and that I could bring my spider-bot and you’re going to come right?” 

 

Steve’s already so tired. And he knows he should stay home and rest and get his energy back for the next grueling week of school. But the kids excited eyes and hopeful expression makes that impossible. 

 

“Pete—“ Sam starts, “I think Steve’s gonna stay ho—“

 

“Of course I’m going.” Steve says quickly, “Of course. Wouldn’t miss seeing you be a pro on the monkey bars.” 

 

Peter laughs excitedly and starts back out the kitchen, shouting Pietro’s name.

 

“Steve—” Sam starts, a disapproving tone already present.

 

“Sam.” Steve snaps, eyes scrunched closed, “Just please don’t. Okay? I already know what you’re going to say and I get it. I do. But I may not have many more park afternoons left in me. But I can do it today. So just… don’t.” 

 

Yelena is walking in and she stops at the quiet intensity of the tension between the two. 

 

“Everything okay?” She asks a bit hesitant. 

 

“Yeah.” Steve says quickly, “everything’s fine. You coming to the park?” 

 

Yelena’s eyes flick to Sam and Steve looks up to see the man staring at the ground, jaw tight. 

 

“Yeah.” She responds slowly, “I’m coming.” 

 

“Great.” He says quickly, “I’ll go get ready.” He moves to stand up only to see the full plate of pancakes at the table. The pancakes he doesn’t really have an appetite for. But he doesn’t want to say that. “Maybe after I eat.” He says softly. Yelena nods and grabs something out the fridge, presumably whatever she’d come into the kitchen for in the first place. She walks out, eyes observing the two of them. 

 

“Eat up.” Sam says flatly, “we’ll go when you’re finished.” 

 

Steve nods and Sam walks out the door, his shoulders set tightly. Steve looks at the pancakes and takes another bite. But his stomach rolls and he quickly puts them into the trash, wincing at the waste, but covering them with other trash so no one would know he hadn’t eaten. He walks stiffly out the door, and walks up the back stairwell avoiding the kids who were getting ready and gathering whatever they wanted for the park. 

 

He pulls on his tennis shoes and grabs his cane and a hat. He grabs his glasses but leaves his hearing aid for his left ear on the bedside table and walks out the door. 

 

————-

 

Tony stares at the huge metal sarcophagus looking device in the back section of the lab he feels like he’s never seen. 

 

His dad is working on some computer to the side, starting the calculations and Tony is in shock as he tries to comprehend what his dad had just told him. 

 

A health enhancing chamber. A way to force life back into Steve’s body.

 

He hadn’t responded. Unsure what you could even say in response to that. 

 

“Dad.” He says hoarsely, “I—“ the crack in his throat stops him. This looks like a torture device. Not a… solution.” 

 

His dad’s shoulders tense, but then he takes a deep breath. “I understand how it might look to those who don’t know how it functions, but it’s not like that.”

 

“How is it like?” 

 

“The chamber has to completely encase his body to infuse his skin and muscles and everything with the healing solution.” 

 

“Which is what?” Tony asks dubiously, his finger sliding across the smooth metal surface.

 

“One problem at a time.” His dad huffs, clacking at the keys. 

 

————-

 

Bucky watches as Steve and Tony bicker over what movie to watch. 

 

“Steve!” Tony flails his arms, “you’re going to be asleep in like 20 minutes anyways!” 

 

Steve laughs, “So! I want to have 20 minutes of a decent movie! Not trash!” 

 

Tony gasps, “you take that back! Shrek is a classic!” 

 

The vigorous head shaking makes Bucky laugh. “No, it’s actually not.” Steve insists, “you just have childhood nostalgia to it.” 

 

“Yeah well what do you have childhood nostalgia to, huh?” Tony grouses. 

 

A soft smile crosses Steve’s face, “old movie musicals. Or the Disney movies that I got to watch as a kid. We didn’t have much but my ma loved Disney movies and she always took me to see the old ones at the discount theater.” 

 

“You’re a little shit you know that?” Tony huffs, “using your sad childhood to get what you want.” 

 

Bucky chokes out a laugh and Steve smirks, “I mean… is it working?” 

 

“Yes.” Tony snaps. “What will it be?” 

 

“Robin Hood.” Steve says softly, leaning back against the couch, the bowl of untouched popcorn on his lap. 

 

“Fine.” Tony says in annoyance, but there’s mirth in his eyes and Bucky knows he’s perfectly content to let Steve pick. 

 

It actually takes about 35 minutes for Steve to drift off, but when he does Bucky grabs the popcorn bowl and sets it on the coffee table. 

 

Tony looks over and sighs. “My dad’s working on this crazy machine.” He whispers, “trying to fix Steve’s body.”

 

Bucky’s quiet for a second, “you think it’s going to work?” 

 

Tony lets out a quiet huff, “I mean… I have no idea. Like I said after the dumpster thing, don’t count out my dad, but…” Tony reaches out and gently lifts up Steve’s wrist. He circles his fingers around it and shows Bucky the space left. Steve’s wrist is practically just skin and bone. “How do you fix so much? It’s not just one things, it’s all the things.” 

 

“So you think…” Bucky’s throat cuts off. It’s quiet for a moment before he works up the courage, “you think Steve’s going to die before he figures it out?” 

 

Tony gently rests Steve’s wrist back on his lap and looks at the screen. “I hope not.” 

 

——————

 

Steve waves off the two from the car as they enter the airport departure door. Howard and Jarvis walk around the car and slide into their seats. 

 

It’s a quiet drive back to the house and Steve struggles to get out. 

 

“You sure—“ Howard starts.

 

“No.” Steve snaps, then sighs and looks at the man with a fond annoyance. “I’m fine. It’s been two weeks and I haven’t been late to school except once and I don’t need the chair. Not yet.” 

 

Howard just nods and waves goodbye as the car pulls away. 

 

—————-

 

Clint is on the subway when he feels his phone start to buzz. He pulls it out, but the tunnel he enters in that moment blocks the call from coming through.  

 

He gets off at his stop and goes to his missed calls. His brow furrows at the fact that Steve had not only called him, but had left a voicemail. 

 

He clicks listen and his throat goes dry at the first sound. 

 

—“ Clint, I’m—“ A scuffle of some kind is in the background and a woman clearly in distress “—I promised Peter—“ The call keeps going as he hears Steve shout “Hey! Get away from her! ” He hears Steve start to breathe heavier, as if he was running, “ I’m pinging my location. Sorry to bother you but I gotta do something—“ 

 

The voicemail ends and Clint is frozen. 

 

Clint stares at his phone, blood running cold. The call was from less than five minutes ago. He clicks the notification for the location ping and almost growls at how far it is. Maybe a 7 minute walk. 

 

But he runs. 

Chapter Text

Clint is sprinting, flying past people who give him annoyed glances and scoffs but he doesn’t pay them any attention. He slides around a corner and hops over a slowing down taxi hood as he races across a street. 

 

He glances at his phone, getting closer to Steve’s last location ping when he hears the siren ‘whoop’ once. He’s bolting around a corner when a cop car goes past, someone in the backseat, and his heart stops in his chest. 

 

Then he hears Steve’s voice. 

 

“—glad it worked.” He hears Steve’s laugh, “lucky aim.” 

 

A woman is half babbling, emotion thick in her throat and Clint rounds the alleyway. A small crowd is gathered and Steve’s in the middle, leaning against something as he talks to a lady who’s maybe in her early 30’s. 

 

His brain is having a hard time catching up as he pushes gently through the crowd into the circle. Steve looks up and smiles, “hey Clint, sorry for the false alarm.” 

 

“What happened?” Clint asks hoarsely. 

 

The woman smiles and taps on Steve’s shoulder, “this young man saved me from some lowlife trying to steal my purse!” She holds up the now slight mangled looking leather bag. “I screamed for help and the next thing I knew the guy was falling over!” She laughs a bit hysterically, adrenaline probably still pumping hard through her veins. 

 

“Who knew this was a multipurpose tool, huh?” Steve asks with a smile as he holds up his cane. Clint can see the bend in the metal where it must have hit the guy. 

 

“You—“ Clint starts, “you’re okay?”

 

Steve laughs, “I am, bit tired, but I’m fine. He went down with one solid hit. I’m just lucky I hit the right spot.”

 

“You really saved the day, Steve.” The woman says, and Clint feels off-kilter as a police officer walks up and asks for them to come down-town and get their statements.

 

———

 

Clint sits a bit in shock as Steve finishes up his statement. The woman hugs Steve fiercely before her husband or boyfriend or whoever showed up to pick her up comes through the door. The man shakes Steve’s hand and tries to offer Steve money but Steve waves him off, “just doing what anyone else would do.” 

 

They say their goodbyes and Clint stands as the police officers inform Steve that he’s finished. 

 

Steve nods and stands, wobbling slightly on his now warped shape cane. Clint’s at his side in a second and they make it down the stairs and out the door into the now dying afternoon light. 

 

“Sorry for the crazy call.” Steve says with a wry smile, “I didn’t mean to freak you out.” 

 

Clint shakes his head as they make their way back to the subway line, “you gave me a heart attack, but I’m glad you called.” He pauses thinking back to the voicemail, “You said something about promising Peter?” 

 

Steve chuckles softly, “Yeah, he uh, came home with a black eye one day and I got after him for not going to a teacher and then he threw the fact that I never went to a teacher or asked for help in my face so I promised him I’d start trying to do that.” 

 

“Hell, if Peter asking you to do things is what works I might have to start funneling requests through him.” 

 

Steve shoves his shoulder and he moves sideways even though the strength behind the push was negligible. 

 

————-

 

They tell Sam who looks half impressed and half wary as Steve seems very calm and relaxed while telling the story. 

 

“I’ll need to grab a new cane.” Steve says with a tired yawn. “But I should be fine for the next day or so.” 

 

“Howard has more.” Sam says quickly, “I’ll text him.” 

 

Steve shrugs, “okay, I’m heading to bed.” 

 

Clint looks at the clock. It’s not even 8 yet. 

 

“Okay.” Sam says, “sleep well.” 

 

Steve gives a small salute as he slowly climbs the stairs.

 

“Should he be living upstairs still?” Clint asks. 

 

Sam snorts, throwing Clint an annoyed look, “you think I haven’t brought that up to him? You wanna try to convince him to move downstairs away from the other kids? Be my guest.” 

 

Clint grimaces, “gotcha.” 

 

Sam’s washing the dishes and Clint can tell something’s bothering him. 

 

“What is it, Sam?” 

 

The man is drying his hands with a dish towel. “I just…” he sighs, tossing the towel onto the kitchen counter, “I hope this doesn’t go to Steve’s head.” 

 

Clint’s brow furrows, “what do you mean?”

 

“We keep trying to convince him to take it easier, to stay out of high stress situations, to avoid things exactly like today to avoid getting hurt. And here he is, unharmed and having successfully protected someone.” Sam scrubs at his face, “it sounds horrible, but I’m worried it will give him overconfidence the next time. Not every mugger will go down like today. Maybe next time they fight back, maybe next time they hurt him.” 

 

Clint sits there quietly. Processing what Sam was saying. Steve being successful today makes him more likely to step in again next time. Maybe next time doesn’t go so great. 

 

He winces and Sam slides into a kitchen table. “There’s nothing I can say to convince him otherwise anyways.” 

 

And Clint knows that’s true.

 

————-

 

Steve hears the doorbell ring. 

 

“Hey Howard.” He hears Sam say. 

 

Steve grabs his backpack and slowly makes his way to the landing and then the stairs. Howard stands there with a new cane looking at him with a narrowed eyes. 

 

“Hey Howard.” Steve says, “thanks.” 

 

“You’re beating up muggers now?” 

 

Steve laughs, his brain tells him to take the first step down the stairs, but his hands grip the railing and his knees tell him that’s a bad idea. So he pauses. “Didn’t go looking for it.” 

 

“How does it always find you? I’m a billionaire and I’ve never been within one block of a mugging.” 

 

Steve pretends to be amused as he tries to convince his aching hip to move, “well, I guess I’m just lucky.” 

 

Sam snorts, “you and I describe luck very differently.” 

 

The two men share a laugh and then look up the stairs. Steve feels his heart beat faster as their looks go from amused to concerned. “Steve?” Howard asks, “you planning on coming down those stairs?” 

 

“Yep.” He responds quickly, “just enjoying the view.” 

 

Sam’s eyes go narrow and he crosses his arms over his chest, “having some trouble there?” 

 

Steve forces his left foot forward, ignoring the way his knee and hip protest. He sets it on the first step and then somehow manages to stay upright as he slowly makes his way down. He finally hits the landing and then the last few steps to the ground. “Nope.” He says a bit too breathlessly. “No trouble at all.” 

 

He snatches the cane softly from Howard’s hands and walks to the door. He can feel their eyes on his back as he opens the front door, but the cane steadies him and he doesn’t look back as he walks out, “see you guys later!” 

 

The door shuts before either of them respond.

 

———-

 

Natasha ices her feet, sighing at the coolness as she rests her head against the cold tile. “You good?” 

 

She looks up to see her roommate, a nice if not a bit off girl named Dottie, smiling at her from the bathroom doorway. 

 

“I’m fine.” Natasha groans, “just a rough day in ballet.” 

 

The girl nods, “I’m sure. I’ve heard her class is killer. Let me know if you need anything.” 

 

“Will do, thanks.” 

 

Her phone buzzes. 

 

She smiles at the text. 

 

B: I miss you. Tony is no substitute for your company.

 

N: I would hope not. What’s up in Boston?

 

B: Nothing much. Got this huge engineering midterm coming up.

 

N: You’ll do great. <3

 

B: Thanks. I hope so

 

B: Can’t wait to see you soon

 

Natasha flips to her phone’s calendar counting the days, 

 

N: just 12 more days. 

 

B: Can’t come soon enough

 

—————

 

Steve waits anxiously at the subway platform, his weight leaning heavily on the cane. He hears the telltale rattle of the tracks and movement of air. 

 

The cars blow past, brakes screeching as it slows down. The doors hiss open and the rush of the crowd starts to surround him. He looks, moving his eyes back and forth searching for her, hoping he won’t miss her. He’d wanted to be a surprise. 

 

Then she’s there, stepping off, a bag draped over her shoulder and a jacket draped over her arm. He walks forward, a bit stiffly, stepping around people as best he can till he reaches out from behind her and snags her wrist, pulling her towards him. 

 

“Hey-“ 

 

A fist to the nose is the last thing he knows before he hits the tile and things go fuzzy. 

 

————-

 

Not even 30 second later he blinks, coughing at the blood pooling in the back of his throat. 

 

Peggy is practically hysterical as she wipes at his face and is kneeling beside him on the tile. 

 

“—Steve, I’m so sorry! I didn’t even look, I’m so sorry-“ her hoodie sleeve wipes under his nose again and he winces at the contact. She yanks her arm away and is cupping his face again, “are you alright?”

 

A small crowd is gathered around as he attempts to sit up. She helps him, leaning him against the nearest pillar. 

 

“I’m okay.” He says a bit dazed, “I’m fine, I think.” 

 

She’s staring at him with such remorse and guilt that he tries to smile, but then the pain shoots through his face and he grimaces. “Ow.” He huffs, “you got me good.” 

 

“Oh for bloody—!” She starts, “I cannot believe I decked you, I’m so sorry—

 

“Peggy,” he starts, cutting her off, “I grabbed you on a New York City Subway. I should have thought about that ahead of time—“ 

 

“Yes, but I could have looked —“

 

“No.” He insists. “I’m glad you protected yourself. Lesson learned. I won’t surprise you by grabbing you.” He tries to chuckle but the action hurts and his eyes water from the stinging pain. 

 

“They’re going to be so cross at me.” She says softly, guilt saturating her face, “first day of fall break and I’ve given you a phenomenal pair of black eyes.” 

 

“They won't.” He insists, shifting against the pillar, “it’s my fault for grabbing you.” Then he pauses, “is it already bruising?” She winces and he huffs out a laugh, “that’s a great right hook you’ve got.” 

 

The weary smile is only there momentarily, “never dreamed I’d use it on you.” 

 

He reaches out, grabbing her hand. “Come on, help me up. Let’s get back so I can clean up before the others see.” 

 

She helps him up, getting his cane so he can stand. “Steve, I just really am sorry—“ 

 

“Peggy, stop apologizing.” 

 

They walk slowly out of the subway and to his house. 

 

————

 

Natasha’s just set her stuff in her room when she hears the door open. Sam had told her Steve had gone to pick up Peggy so she rushes out the door hoping it’s the two of them returning. 

 

It is.

 

She gapes from the middle of the staircase as Steve and Peggy walk through the door. Steve has blood covering his face and shirt and it’s on Peggy’s hoodie. 

 

“What the hell!” She shouts, dropping down the last stairs and coming to a halt in front of them. The blossoming bruises spreading from Steve’s nose to both of his eyes make her hands clench in anger, “who did this!” 

 

Steve’s holding up a placating hand but Peggy looks anguished as she speaks before Steve can. “I did, I’m so sorry! I didn't know it was him and I punched first and looked second—” Natasha can feel the guilt radiating off her.

 

“Peggy,” Steve says with a wry laugh, “it’s fine! It was my fault.” 

 

“No, Steve—“ 

 

“Guys.” Natasha snaps, “explain?” 

 

Steve starts, “I wanted to surprise Peggy at the subway and I accomplished that goal. I grabbed her wrist, and she slugged me, thinking I was some creep. Rightfully so, I don’t know what I was thinking.” 

 

Peggy looks ready to protest but the door opens again and Bucky and Tony walk in, “Hey party people!” Tony says loudly, Natasha watches as Steve winces, looking down at his blood covered self. 

 

Bucky comes over, hugging and spinning her around. She laughs as he sets her down and kisses her quickly before turning them towards the group. She can feel the intake of breath as he’s about to say something when it dies in his throat at the sight of Steve. 

 

“Buck—“ Steve says quickly, “It’s not what it looks like, I promise.” 

 

Bucky’s entire body tenses but Natasha holds him tightly, “calm down.” She says, “he’s telling the truth.” 

 

Peggy looks like she wants to sink into the floor. “It’s my fault.” 

 

“What’s your fault?” Tony asks, still behind where Steve is standing. 

 

Bucky’s eyes are trained on Steve and it’s quiet as Tony walks around the group and looks at Steve. His eyes bug out and then his hands go to his hips, “what the hell happened?” 

 

Steve sighs and gestures to himself, “it looks worse than it is. I was stupid and grabbed Peggy trying to surprise her on the platform and she thought I was some creep grabbing her so she punched me. Honestly I’m kind of impressed.” Natasha watches as Steve stares at Peggy practically with heart eyes and Peggy covers her face with her hands, shaking her head. 

 

“I’ve punched my boyfriend.” She bemoans. 

 

Tony’s hand goes under Steve’s chin, lifting it to the light, “geez Steve…” he pauses, “how long ago did this happen?” 

 

Steve’s head tilts, not even bothered by the hand grabbing his chin, “dunno, maybe less than 20?” 

 

Tony nods, pulling his hand back, but there’s a guarded look to his eyes that Natasha doesn’t like. 

 

“Hey, what’s the commotion?!” Sam’s voice carries from the kitchen as he walks closer. When he gets there, his eyes land on Steve and he stares at him like he’s been slapped. 

 

Steve sighs, “I need to send out a group text because telling this story is going to get old.” 

 

Peggy groans and Steve chuckles, pulling her closer. 

 

——————-

 

Clint receives a text and he has to read it 5 times to ensure he understood it correctly. 

 

It isn’t until a picture dings through, a group picture, that he believes it. Steve is smiling at the camera, eyes already dark and bruised. Peggy stands behind him, a hand covering her eyes in disbelief. Bucky and Tony and Natasha all surround Steve and are pointing to his face with disbelieving wry grins on their faces. 

 

Sam stands behind Peggy, a reassuring hand on her shoulder. 

 

“Geez-la-fucking-wheeze.” Clint huffs out quietly, staring at his phone. 

 

——————

 

Howard says nothing about the bruises. Only shakes his head and raises an eyebrow at Peggy who hasn’t let Steve out of her sight since the subway platform. 

 

——————-

 

The whole group is at Milo’s. Pepper, Peggy, and Laura had had to take off after the meal, but they’d promised to be at the movie theater that night after seeing their families. 

 

Bucky sits listening as Clint recounts some stories from his classes. Tony quips in his own stories and soon they’re laughing and talking and time passes faster then they realize. 

 

“Geez, it’s already 7:45.” Natasha says, “can’t believe how late it’s gotten.” 

 

Suddenly Steve leans forward and goes, “What!? It’s past 4:45!? I gotta go!” He looks at them expectantly, like he’s waiting for them to laugh. When they don’t he frowns, “come on, that’s funny.” 

 

Natasha rolls her eyes, “you joking about being abused is not funny.” 

 

Steev huffs leaning back, “I mean, I thought it was. But okay.” 

 

Clint snorts, crunching up a chip bag, “I can’t believe that was what four years ago? When Steve was somehow smaller than he is now?” 

 

That elicits a laugh from the group and Steve rolls his eyes, “Oh sure, you guys can laugh at my size but I can’t joke about Mrs. Schmidt.”

 

“Yep.” Natasha says, reaching over and ruffling his hair. 

 

Steve swipes at her hand but he laughs, “man…” his eyes grow soft and he looks at all of them, “you know…” his face goes earnest and he lays his hands, palm up on the table, “I don’t think I ever thanked you guys for everything you did. You guys saved me and I don’t think I ever said ‘thank you’.” He looks at each of them and even through the black and blue bruises his face lights up, “thank you guys, for everything. For rescuing the kids and me and getting Sam.” 

 

Natasha lays her hand in his and smiles, which he returns. Clint is quick to place his hand in Steve’s other palm and Bucky follows, placing his on top of Natasha’s. Tony reaches his hand out, hovering it over Clint’s. 

 

“First—“ he says matter of factly, “you don’t owe us a thank you. But second—“ he lays his hand down on Clint’s and stares at the group, “I think we can all agree the feeling of being saved is mutual.”

 

Steve looks at him, “what do you mean?” 

 

But Clint answers first. “I was a punk, a real waste of space, but meeting you guys, I started to see who I wanted to be. Quitting smoking, letting my stepmom in my life, reconnecting with my uncle—“ he gestures to the man helping behind the counter, “that all happened after you guys came into my life.” 

 

Steve’s eyes are wide but Natasha jumps in, “meeting you gave me the strength to take Yelena and leave our house. I saw what you did, trying to protect your siblings anyway you could, and I knew I wanted better for us. Now we’re in the best home ever.” 

 

Steve’s eyes look like they’re getting red when Tony speaks up, “me and my dad…” he sighs, “we were always at each other’s throats, but you brought us together. Gave us a common enemy and a goal to accomplish together. And ever since then we’ve been good. More than good. Hell, he’s asking for help on projects from me. I never thought he’d do that. But now we’re like a team. You started that.” 

 

Steve hangs his head, hiding his face and Bucky feels his heart clench, he rests his other hand on the back of Steve’s neck. 

 

“I don’t get to say anything?” 

 

Steve glances up at him, eyes wet, and he feels his own throat tighten. “Steve, as much as it pisses me off how often you get hurt, I’ve never doubted a second your strength or your intentions. Being friends with you has made me better. You hold yourself to such a high standard. Makes me wanna be like you.” 

 

It’s maybe a bit more sappy than the others, but he knows it’s true. And the firm grasp from Natasha tells him she agrees. Steve looks back down, his hands grasping theirs tightly and they sit there in companionable silence for awhile.

 

——————

 

“Move your arm!” Tony growls. 

 

“Nope.” Clint quips, “I sat down first, therefore the armrest is mine to claim.”

 

“Shh!” Natasha hisses, nudging Clint’s side. 

 

“Ow!” He yelps, leaning away from her sharp elbows. 

 

Steve rolls his eyes and focuses back on the screen where some commercial about dancing soda is playing. 

 

“How’s your nose?” Comes a soft voice. 

 

“Peggy, you asked me that like 20 minutes ago.” He responds with a huff, “I’m fine.” 

 

She squeezes his hand and lays her head on his shoulder, “I feel awful. I think Howard was going to take a group photo this fall break.” 

 

“He’s welcome to still.” Steve says with a laugh, “let’s not pretend I don’t look like this fairly often.” 

 

“Hush.” She sighs, “you’re impossible.” 

 

“I think I look cool.” He jokes.

 

“You don’t.” Tony says easily, passing him a box of skittles, “you look like that kid you and Bucky punched last year that first week.” 

 

Steve winces when Peggy looks at him sharply, “you what?” 

 

“He deserved it.” Bucky says from a few seats over. “Guy was an asshole.”

 

Steve shrugs and looks at the skittles in his hands. 

 

“You both punched him?” 

 

Clint speaks through a full mouth, “Bucky punched him first when he was being a jerk about Steve. Then Steve got on Bucky’s case for punching him and then the kid bad mouthed Bucky and Steve went berserk on him too.”

 

Steve scoffs as the movie theater dims, “I did not go berserk.” 

 

The group laughs and he shakes his head as the opening titles cross the screen.

 

—————

 

They’re sitting in the living room at Tony’s house. Tony’s helping Bucky with some engineering homework as Natasha lays next to him on the ground, a textbook on her lap as she seems to be counting out a beat, using her fingers. 

 

Clint is against a wall, his legs splayed out in front of him, head drooping as he tries to stay awake. 

 

Steve’s on his stomach, finishing up a paper he’d missed the deadline for when he was out with a bad fever last week. 

 

He looks up when he feels eyes on him. Howard stands at the doorway, leaning against the frame and smiling. Steve smiles back and the man clears his throat, “snacks anyone? Jarvis told me the cooks made some cinnamon muffins.” 

 

Everyone voices their assent and Steve shakes his head ‘yes’ even though his stomach is a bit nauseous at the moment. 

 

They hear a knock and soon Peggy is walking into the room, “hello,” she greets them, sitting by Steve’s side and running her hand through his hair. “Your face looks improved.” 

 

Bucky snorts at that comment and Steve pretends to be offended. The group laughs and gets back to work. 



——-

 

“Come on, Steve, if I do your session today then you don’t have to come the rest of the week.” 

 

Steve groans, “can’t I just skip this week altogether?” 

 

“No.” Bucky says firmly. “No skipping.” 

 

Steve grumbles, “easy for you to say. You’re not the one being poked and prodded by the crazy scientist here.” 

 

Howard scoffs, gesturing to himself, “I prefer eccentric, thank you.” 

 

Tony stands, “come on, we’ll all go down there and keep you company. Make sure my dad doesn't get carried away.” 

 

Steve looks up at Peggy who looks at him with a slightly raised eyebrow, not pushing him either way. He huffs. “Fine.” 

 

———-

 

Howard holds the vial of his blood and puts it in the small fridge that holds the other samples. 

 

“Drink up.” Tony urges, pushing the Gatorade bottle up to his face. Steve frowns but takes a small sip, feeling very tired. 

 

“Okay,” Howard says easily, “now I just need a—“ he looks over at the white board and flips it over, revealing a bunch of equations and writings that look foreign to Steve. He starts rambling and gesturing to the board and Bucky laughs, 

 

“Are we supposed to understand what you’re saying?” 

 

Howard waves him off, continuing to talk and work through his equation verbally. 

 

“Just ignore him.” Steve and Tony say at the same time. They look at each other and burst out laughing. Steve’s lungs wheeze at the exertion but he can’t stop. 

 

Tony wipes at his eyes, “that's how you know you’ve been around my dad for too long.” 

 

Steve chuckles, taking another sip of Gatorade when he looks at Peggy ready to ask her a question. 

 

But she’s staring intently at the board, a hand covering the bottom half of her face as she stares at it. 

 

“Peggy?” He asks, curiosity growing, “what is it?” 

 

She doesn’t answer, just stepping forward and without a thought, plucks the marker out of Howard’s hands and makes a notation on one of the equations. 

 

He sputters at her but then stops, staring at what she wrote. “What in the hell? I didn’t know you were scien—“

 

“I’ve seen these equations before.” She says softly, eyes still trained to the board. “They’re not exactly the same, there’s some differences, but…” she moves her fingers, ghosting over the numbers, “you’re working on a formula?” 

 

Howard’s eyes narrow, “what’s going on? How’d you know that?” 

 

She turns to him, eyes alight and excited, “Dr. Erskine was working on something similar!” She leans forward, resting a hand on the table besides her, “I didn’t work with it much, it wasn’t really my field, but he and Dr. Banner were working very diligently on some sort of serum or formula or something, for cancer I think, or I thought, I’m not sure I didn’t ask!” She turns to Howard, “you must call him.” 

 

Howard stares at her stunned, “Abraham? He’s working on a health formula?” 

 

“He must be!” She insists, pointing at the board, “I’ve seen these before!” 

 

Howard’s mind is racing and Peggy’s face is beaming and Steve feels a sense of hope rising wildly in his chest. 

 

—————-

Chapter Text

 

 

Bucky waves goodbye to the group as he and Tony drive back to the airport. There’s a lightness to the group now, a sense of hope that maybe things are about to change for the better. Steve, Natasha, and Clint wave vigorously back. He looks at them one more time to see Clint say something to the other two that has Steve laughing, clutching his stomach and Natasha smacking Clint’s arm so hard that Bucky can practically hear the sound from the car. 

 

He looks at Tony who’s looking at the other three too. 

 

“You ever think about leaving MIT?” Bucky asks, his eyes trained on their friends. 

 

Tony huffs out a laugh, “I hate being left out of stuff. So yeah, but I know that it will be worth it. I want my degree and then I’ll be back. Why, you thinking about it?” 

 

Bucky sighs, “I mean, I want to be here with them. But… Like you said, I want my degree. I can make a good life for myself as an engineer, and I want that. I want to be able to provide for—“ he stops, feeling his neck heat at the implication he plans to marry Natasha. “Well, I just want to make sure I do my best. And my parents would be bummed if I dropped. So I won’t. But it does suck being out of state from them.” 

 

They’re quiet the rest of the way to the airport.



———————-

 

Steve smiles ruefully as Peggy gently traces the shape of the bruise on his face. She’s leaving in less than an hour and he’s happy he gets to spend the last minutes with her. 

 

She leans forward and kisses his cheek gently, then his lips and rests her forehead on his. “I don’t want to leave you again. Not now.” 

 

“What do you mean not now?” He says with a laugh, “you’ve given me more hope than I’ve had since August!” 

 

She smiles, her eyes twinkling. “You know that thing we said at the beginning? That all this feels like fate? Meant to be?” 

 

He chuckles softly, “yeah, I do, why?” 

 

“This feels like part of that.” She says softly, “like meeting you… I’m meant to help save you—“ She wrinkles her nose, “not like—“ she frowns, “I don’t mean it like I’m your savior, I just mean…” she huffs, rolling her eyes at herself, “I just mean I’m glad that we met and that I was able to make that connection. I mean, you’re mine, and I want you around for the rest of my life.” He tries not to laugh, and she tilts her head, “you’re making fun of me.” 

 

His eyes widen, “what! No! I think you’re adorable when you get all jumbled with what you’re trying to say.” 

 

She lightly smacks his arm, “I am not .” 

 

Steve leans forward, kissing her once and then again. “I’m going to miss you too.” 

 

She frowns and she rests her head against his shoulder. “I’ll be back in just under a month for Thanksgiving.” 

 

Her father’s car pulls up and she stands, “I’ll see you soon, okay? I’ll call when I’m back in my dorm.” 

 

He starts to stand but she shakes her head, “don’t.” She leans down and kisses him goodbye. “I love you, Steve.” 

 

“I love you too, Peggy.” She sighed as she pulled away and got into her car.

 

———-



“Steven Rogers, wake up!” 

 

Steve drags his head up and blinks, thinking he’d overslept his alarm again, only to find Mrs. Hawkins looking at him. 

 

He rubs at his eyes and looks around, he’s in Trig and everyone is staring at him. “Uh—“ he starts, swallowing thickly, still feeling fuzzy with sleep, “I’m sorry—“ 

 

“Sleeping in class is disrespectful. Detention after school, Mr. Rogers.” 

 

He doesn’t know what to say so he just nods. 

 

———-

 

His phone buzzes. 

 

It’s from Sam

 

S: Why did I just get an email that you have detention?

 

Steve sighs, typing back.

 

S: I fell asleep in class. I don’t even know how. I’m sorry.

 

The three bubbles appear and then disappear. Then they appear. 

 

S: Did you tell her why? I mean it’s not like you were purposefully sleeping. 

 

He stops outside his next class, and looks at the text. Mrs. Hawkins wasn’t a new teacher. But she’d never taught him or any of his friends. And if she knew anything about Steve, she never let on. She didn’t treat him like he was made of glass. So either way… Steve didn’t want to pull that card. 

 

S: I mean, I could have, but then I’d look like I’m asking for special treatment. And I just don’t want that. I’ll just take detention and then I’ll be more careful. It’s fine, I promise.

 

There’s a few minutes before Sam responds.

 

S: I mean, if that’s what you want to do.

 

Steve doesn’t respond. He already is let off the hook for so many things, he doesn’t feel like using one more excuse. He’ll take his detention and then he can try to come up with ways to ensure he stays awake. 

 

—————

 

Scott looks at Steve in annoyance. 

 

“Listen, it’s just one detention. It’s nothing.” 

 

“You could fight it.” 

 

“I don’t want to.” 

 

“Why the hell not? Detention sucks!”

 

“I’m tired of people letting me get away with things because they know I’m sick.” 

 

“That’s the best reason to get away with things!” 

 

Steve laughs, “Scott, it’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Scott frowns at him, but lets him walk away. His cane making its soft ‘ thumps ’ on the linoleum. 

 

——————-

 

Except Steve should have known that everytime something good happens to him, it’s closely followed by a reminder of how the universe plays favorites. And he’s not one of them.  

 

He walks into detention and sits down. Only recognizing maybe two out of the 5 faces, and never having spoken to a single one of them. 

 

Until he walks in. 

 

Ranger Rick. 

 

Steve internally sighs. He’d never learned the kid’s name and here he was, the guy both he and Bucky had punched, looking at him like he was a piece of meat he intended to flatten. 

 

“Hey, it’s bastard boy.” The kid says, sliding into the seat next to Steve’s. 

 

Don’t respond. Don’t respond. Don’t respond. 

 

“Hey, I’m talking to you.” The kid hisses at him, “don’t pretend you’re too good to talk to me.” 

 

Steve turns to face him, “what do you want?” 

 

“Geez, your eyes are freaky man—“ the kid leans back as if grossed out, then he smirks, “so you’re a blind bastard boy.” 

 

Steve just rolls his eyes and goes back to facing the front. 

 

The kid flicks his arm, “why’d you get detention huh? Assault someone else who was innocent?” 

 

Steve stays quiet, hoping the teacher gets here soon. 

 

“You know. I’ve been waiting for a moment just like this to have a little discussion. Now that your guard dog is gone.” 

 

And something about that actually makes him sigh out loud because it’s actually a good point. He turns to the kid, “you know, I never apologized for punching you. I shouldn’t have done that. And Bucky shouldn’t have punched you either. We were both having a really bad week and we shouldn’t have reacted the way we did. So I’m sorry.” He says it honestly, hoping the kid believes him, because it’s true. They shouldn’t have punched him. No matter what he’d said. 

 

The kid blinks at him, studying him, obviously trying to decide if this was a ruse. 

 

But Steve stays calm, not backing away from the apology. The supervisor walks in, breaking the tension and Steve turns back to the front. The kid slinks out of the desk and picks a different one, further away. 

 

Steve just opens up his backpack and pulls out his Trig textbook, starting on his homework. 

 

—————

 

It’s 2 and a half long hours, but then it’s over and Steve is packing up. The supervisor is waiting for them all to clear out. He slings his backpack over his shoulder and picks up his cane, making his way to the door. 

 

And he’s waiting there. 

 

“Hey.” 

 

Steve looks up at the mean look on the kids face, “hey.” 

 

The kid looks down, noticing the cane for the first time. He laughs, “you’re that kid?!” He guffaws and points at Steve, “I heard we had an old man in our school, I didn’t know it was you .” He looks at Steve smugly, “sounds like Karma.” 

 

Steve grits his teeth and inhales a deep breath through his nose. This cannot end in a fight. Not only would he lose, but everyone would be pissed. And he’s already in enough pain that adding to it does not sound pleasant. 

 

“Listen,” Steve says calmly, “I’m sorry about what happened last year—“ 

 

The kid leans in, eyes narrowed and face angry, “yeah, I was thinking about your convenient little apology.” He stabs a finger into Steve’s chest, “nice attempt to try to save yourself from the beat down you deserve now that you don’t have that idiot to protect you.” 

 

Steve doesn’t curse often, but he wants to. 

 

Clint’s voice echoes in his head. Just walk away.

 

Peter’s is next. Get a teacher.

 

He looks at the kid, “sorry, you feel that way. I promise my apology is real.” Steve turns, hoping to be able to end the conversation there. The supervisor is still in the classroom, out of their sight, and the last kid is turning the corner down the hallway. 

 

No such luck. 

 

He feels the cane get snatched out of his grip and suddenly he’s teetering on unbalanced. He sets his bag down and takes a hobbling step back, steadying himself against the lockers. 

 

He turns to see the kid watching him with narrowed eyes. “What?” Steve asks, trying to keep his voice calm. “What now?” 

 

“Now I get to teach you a lesson for you and your pal hitting me.” 

 

Steve feels his anger rising, “okay.” He snaps, “fine.” He could call out to the teacher, he’s not too far from the classroom door. And if the teacher isn’t in his office then he might hear.

 

The kid glares at him, “admit your friend is a weak little bitch.” 

 

Oh no. Physical beatings Steve is used to. Talking about Bucky like that? That’s what got him into this mess to begin with. 

 

“You’re not very smart, are you?” Steve snaps, “I’m not saying anything to make you feel better. I already apologized for my actions, what more do you want? Comeuppance? Okay fine, punch me then. Don’t go trying to assert your meager power over me just because you’re physically stronger.” 

 

The kid is really glaring at him now, “if they’re such great friends, why did they leave you all alone?” 

 

Steve scoffs, in disbelief that he’s having this conversation, “they graduated.” He shakes his head, “do you know what that means?” 

 

The kid snarls at him and steps forward. Steve leans towards him, unafraid, waiting for the hit to come. 

 

“Go home, guys.” The voice of the teacher says, unamused annoyance in his tone. 

 

The kid glares at him and walks away. The teacher eyes him and then walks back into his classroom. 

 

Steve stands there, adrenaline crashing his system and his heart beating a bit too hard. He takes breaths, hoping it won’t alert Howard. 

 

He picks up his backpack, wincing at the tug on his sensitive skin. 

 

And then he realizes. 

 

The kid took his cane. 

 

The deep withering sigh that exits his mouth echoes through the hallway. He uses the lockers for support as he walks stiffly down the hallway. 

 

—————

 

It takes him forever to get home. 

 

He makes it to the front steps and sits down, his bones and joints and muscles and everything aching. 

 

A few minutes go by and he feels his phone buzz. He pulls it out and see it’s Sam. 

 

“Hey Sam.” 

 

“Hey, Steve. You getting home anytime soon?” 

 

“I’m here.” Steve says, trying to keep the wheeze out of his voice, “I’m outside.” 

 

He hears footsteps and the door creaks open. He looks up to see Sam looking at him in concern. “What happened?” 

 

“Tired.” 

 

“More than usual?” 

 

Steve nods.

 

“Okay, here let me help you inside.” 

 

Sam gets him on his feet and he sets him on the couch in the living room. 

 

“Thanks.” Steve says, shifting to get more comfortable, “all the rest of the kids back?” 

 

Sam nods, “yeah most are eating dinner, you hungry?” 

 

He’s not.

 

“Uh, sure.” 

 

Sam disappears and reappears with a tray. A small amount of pasta, bread, and salad are on the plate. “Thanks, Sam.” 

 

“Peter asked if you were home, apparently you promised to build legos?” 

 

Steve’s mouth parts in surprise, then he groans, “yeah, I did, he got that new set for his birthday and we never built it.” 

 

Sam nods, “you still up for it?” 

 

Steve rolls his shoulders, “I gotta be.” 

 

It’s a quiet “okay” that Sam gives him. 

 

————-

 

He’s doing okay, helping Peter put pieces together and laughing and talking with the kid. 

 

“There’s this new girl in my class.” Peter says, chatting at him, “she seems a bit shy, but I can tell she’s real smart.” He’s trying to undo two tiny pieces and struggling.

 

Steve chuckles, “here, let me see—“ he takes the pieces and pulls them apart, handing them back. 

 

“She’s definitely going to be on our mathletes team.” Peter says happily as he readjusts the pieces and clicks them to the bigger build. 

 

“That’s awesome, Pete.” Steve says yawning, “how’s Ned?” 

 

Peter starts to talk excitedly about the kid Steve’s met a few times who seems really nice. 

 

He looks up to see Sam standing in the doorway watching them. There’s a look on Sam’s face. 

 

“What?” Steve asks, looking around, trying to find out what he’s seeing. 

 

“Peter?” Sam calls, “probably time for you to start getting to bed.” 

 

The kid protests for a few moments but Sam doesn’t relent. Eventually the kid grumbles goodnaturedly as he heads out of the room. 

 

The look on Sam’s face outs Steve on edge. “What, Sam?” 

 

“Where’s your cane?” 

 

Steve winces. He’d been hoping no one would notice. He has two extra in his room from Howard just in case. He was hoping to get to one of those before anyone noticed. 

 

“I left it at school.”

 

“Steve?” 

 

He can’t meet his dad’s eyes, “yeah?” 

 

“Something you need to tell me?” 

 

“Nope.” 

 

He feels an arm grasp his, and Sam helps him up, “okay, then let’s get you upstairs.” 

 

When Sam doesn’t press about it anymore, Steve feels the guilt for not telling him grow deeper. 

 

——————



Natasha bows, sweeping her hand down and back up gracefully. She straightens and looks at the judges, hoping they liked her piece. 

 

Every dancer was required to choreograph and perform multiple pieces a year. And every one said the first one really told the teachers whether you belonged at the school or not. 

 

If she got a good score, she would be more likely to stay and complete the program. If she didn’t, it was. A good indication she wasn’t cut out for the program. 

 

She waits as the judges deliberate. The girls who had danced before her all stand nervously.

 

In the end she receives the highest marks out of the whole set of dancers. She smiles widely and accepts their cheers just as she cheers for them too. 

 

—————-

 

Bucky smiles at the video message Natasha had just sent. He knew she’d do well, but he was thrilled for her excitement all the same. 

 

Monty, his roommate, was just getting back in the room. 

 

“You finish the curvature assignment yet?” The guy asks. 

 

Bucky groans and shakes his head, “I started it, but I need to hit the library to finish it.”  

 

Monty nods and throws something at him. He picks it up and examines the envelope. 

 

“What’s this?” 

 

“Some guy with wild hair gave it to me for you.” 

 

“Who was it?” 

 

“I don’t know, he didn’t say.” 

 

Wild hair… He rolls his eyes, it was probably Tony. It’s not that Bucky kept it a secret that he was friends with Tony but he didn’t advertise it. Anyone who was public about their friendship with Tony was usually after something. “You didn’t recognize him?” 

 

Monty shrugs, “I mean, I suppose he looked familiar.” Bucky laughed softly, just like Peggy. 

 

“Okay, well thanks.” 

 

He rips into the envelope and looks at the fancy invitation. 

 

An invitation for him and his whole family to eat Thanksgiving lunch at the Starks. 

 

He smiles and shakes his head. 

 

—————

 

Yesterday, when he was in the living room and was working on homework, Mrs. Stark had walked in and asked if he needed anything. 

 

“No, I’m good, thanks.” 

 

She’d been about to walk away when she’d picked up the candy bar that he had out on the table as incentive to keep reading his textbook. 

 

“They still make these?” She asked in incredulity. 

 

He’d looked at the 100 Grand Bar that was in her hand. “Yeah, they’re my favorite.” 

 

Her eyes had gotten a bit misty, “I didn't realize they still made these.” 

 

Clint had been surprised at the emotional reaction, “were they your favorite?” 

 

She shook her head, “me and my sister loved these as kids.” 

 

“Sister?”

 

He had looked at her in surprise and the woman had smiled, “Steve hasn’t told you?” 

 

“Steve?” 

 

The woman had shaken her head, “Never mind.” She’d set the candy bar down and smiled, “you get on with your work, sorry to disturb you.” 

 

He’d picked up the candy bar and held it to her, “here, you have it.” 

 

She’d refused, “no, no, I’m okay, thank you though.” And she’d walked away quickly. 

 

Now Clint is standing in line at the little grocery mart. An extra large sized 100 Grand Bar in his hand. He’d text Steve later and try to get the story out of him, but for now he just wanted to do something nice for the lady who had taken him into their home and made him feel welcome. 

 

He pays and takes the change, heading out the door when a voice stops him. 

 

“Well if it isn’t Baby Barton.” 

 

Clint feels all his blood rush to his head as he spins slowly. 

 

A smug Brock Rumlow stares at him, holding a bottle of something in his hand. 

 

Brock’s eyes glance down at Clint’s fists, which have tightly balled up against his jeans. 

 

“Uh-oh, what’s wrong?” Brock asks mock innocently, “you look upset?” 

 

“He could have died .” Clint snaps, his voice a snarl. And the level of anger must surprise both of them because they both tilt back a little. 

 

Even over three years later it’s somehow still as fresh as the day Clint pulled him from that dumpster. 

 

Rumlow regains his composure and his face is back to a smirk, “who?” He asks, tilting his head. 

 

“You’re a piece of shit you know that.” Clint growls. 

 

Rumlow just shrugs, “How is Steve, huh?” He asks, stepping closer, “I heard about his trial and everything—“ 

 

“It wasn’t his trial—“ Clint snaps back, “and you know that. Your lackeys are in prison where you should be.” 

 

Rumlow makes a ‘tsk tsk’ noise, “my, my, the temper that runs through your group.” 

 

“Cut the crap, Rumlow, you’re a low-life piece of scum and someday I’ll figure out how to bring you down.” 

 

The guy's eyes darken considerably and his face turns angry, “big words for someone who can’t even help save his precious little dying boy.” Dread fills Clint’s gut. What does he know? Rumlow smiles at his silence, “that’s right. You think I don’t know?” 

 

“Know what?”

 

“My uncle was security at the trial. Steve’s got the big bad auto-immune disease. His days are numbered. Stark is a quack if he thinks he can save him.” 

 

Clint’s hand snakes forward, he almost grabs Rumlow’s collar, wants to slam his forehead against his face, but he stops. He can almost picture Steve standing behind Rumlow with a wry frown on his face. Don’t do it. Steve would say, it’s not worth it.

 

So he stops. Slowly retracting his hand and glaring at Rumlow, “watch your back.” Clint says tightly, “I know the Starks, they’ll figure out a way to nail you in court. And then you’ll be in prison where you belong too.” 

 

Rumlow laughs, “watch my back?” He guffaws and breezes past Clint, stopping at the door. The bell above jingles, a happy few notes as Rumlow’s last words send ice down Clint’s spine. “My back’s not the one hobbling to school with a cane everyday, now is it?” 

 

Clint’s frozen there for long minutes before he’s able to move. 

 

——————



Steve answers the phone “Clint?” 

 

A panting voice is on the other side of the line, “Clint?”

 

“Steve?” 

 

His brow furrows, “yeah, Clint, are you okay?” 

 

“Are you okay?” 

 

“Yeah…” he hears a car horn go off and he frowns, “Clint, what’s going on?” 

 

Clint’s voice comes through, slightly panicked, “you’re at home?” 

 

Steve looks around the living room. Wanda and Yelena are working on history homework and Pietro is on his phone. Peter and Daniel are finishing up his lego set. 

 

“Yeah, Clint. I’m at home.” 

 

Another sigh of relief. 

 

“Clint, care to fill me in?” 

 

“Just—“ Clint starts, his voice on edge, “just stay there, okay?” 

 

“It’s nighttime Clint, I always stay home.” He means it as a joke but Clint’s voice snaps at him. 

 

“I’m walking with you to school tomorrow.” 

 

“What?” Steve asks, confused as all get out. But then he hears the door open and all their heads pop up as Clint comes bolting into the room. He looks worn out and for some reason there’s a candy bar scrunched in his hand. “Clint, what’s happening?” 

 

The guy sinks to the floor, leaning his head back against the wall. “You’re safe.” 

 

Steve holds out his arms and shakes them, “safe from what?” 

 

But Clint doesn't answer. He snakes his hand out and grabs one of Steve’s, as if testing if he was really there. And that makes the concern ratchet up several levels. 

 

“Clint, you’re worrying me.” His eyes flick to the rest of the kids who are staring at the two in confusion and concern. 

 

“I gotta talk to Sam.” Clint says suddenly, jumping up and disappearing. Steve starts to stand but his joints protest and he sits back down. He looks at the kids and they’re still looking at him. 

 

“Don’t look at me.” He says in a huff, “I have no idea what that was about.” 

 

——————

 

Sam stares at him, his jaw flexed tight and eyes raging mad. 

 

“You’re kidding.” 

 

“I’m not. ” Clint seethes, stabbing a finger at the table, “Rumlow practically threatened Steve! We can’t let him go anywhere alone!” 

 

Sam’s rubbing at his eyes and he sinks into a seat. “He’s not going to like that.” 

 

“Well he can just get the hell used to it, because it’s happening.” 

 

“Have you told the others?” 

 

Clint scoffs, “you want them to quit college and come here and stand around Steve like he’s got private security?” He knows that’s exactly what Bucky and Natasha and probably Tony would do.  

 

Sam grimaces, “no.” 

 

“Then I’m not telling them.” 

 

“Maybe—“ Sam sighs and looks at the doorway, “maybe I have a better idea.” 

 

————-

 

Steve walks out the door and is surprised to see Happy there. With a car. 

 

“Hey Happy.” Steve says slowly, “Mr. Stark need something?” 

 

“Yep.” Happy says with a smile, “he needs you to get into this car and ride to school.” 

 

Steve stops, his can gripped tightly in his hand, “what?” 

 

“I’m here to drive you to school.” 

 

“Why?” 

 

“Because my boss asked me too.” 

 

Steve grits his teeth, “and why did he ask you too?” 

 

Even if the man knows, he pretends not to. Just shrugs. 

 

Steve digs in his pocket and pulls out his phone. He knows this has something to do with how Clint behaved yesterday. He just doesn’t know what that is. He clicks the contact and Howard answers before the first ring is finished. 

 

“Before you fight me, just listen, okay?” 

 

Steve’s mouth is open, ready to argue, but he snaps it shut. “Fine, you have 20 seconds.” 

 

“Your body is deteriorating. Eventually you will have to use a wheelchair. But the strain of you walking to and from school everyday is making that day approach even faster.” Howard’s speaking very fast, “so if we eliminate that stresser, it should help you body function better and be more rested and put off the days of you wheeling around, which is what you want right? And it puts Sam and me at peace knowing you’re not passed out somewhere.”

 

“Howard—“ 

 

“Come on, Steve!” Howard snaps, “you’re a smart kid, you’ve got common sense! You’re practical! Apply those skills here. You want to stay on your feet as long as possible right? So help yourself by taking the car to and from school. It will help!” 

 

Steve’s shoulders sag and he sighs, “okay, fine.” 

 

“Good.” Howard says crisply, “not get in the car.” 

 

Steve shoves his phone back in his pocket and walks to the car. Happy opens the door and he slides in. 

 

“Thanks.” Steve says once the man is in the driver’s seat. 

 

“Don’t mention it, kid.” 

 

———

 

Clint watches from around the corner as Steve hangs up his phone and walks to the car. Steve gets in and soon the car is gone. Clint walks around and waits until Sam pokes his head out the door, “he gone?” 

 

Clint nods, “yeah, Howard was right, it worked.” 

 

“Okay.” Sam says softly, “that’s good. One less place for him to be alone.” 

 

Clint sighs and Elena’s against the brick sides that line the stairs. “I hope Howard and Erskine work quickly.” 

 

Sam looks off into the distance, “yeah, me too.” His voice doesn't show any emotion. 

 

“What?” 

 

“What, what?” 

 

“You say that like you don’t have any hope for them to figure it out.”

 

Sam’s face gets sad, “figure out the magical formula to save Steve?” 

 

Clint feels his chest get tight, “you don’t think it’s possible.” 

 

Sam frowns and he steps out, closing the door behind him, “anything’s possible I suppose.” He says with no real conviction, “but…” he blinks a few times, “I just don’t know how they’re going to create some magical procedure to heal Steve. That sounds like science fiction.” 

 

“It’s Howard Stark. He’ll figure it out.” 

 

And this time Sam’s voice is honest when he shrugs, “I hope so.” 

 

Clint breathes out deeply and glares at Sam, “it’s possible .” 

 

Sam just nods and somehow that makes Clint even more angry. “You have to believe it’s going to work, Sam.” He says in an accusing tone, “why do you think Howard can do it?” 

 

Sam looks at him, pain in his expression, “this has nothing to do with my belief in Howard’s ability.” 

 

“Then what!” 

 

Sam’s eyes track the direction that the car left in, “I’ve just never met a kid with the amount of bad luck Steve has had. Everyday, I wait for a call or a text or the police to come knocking telling me there’s been an accident or a fight or something .” 

 

Clint’s throat is dry, because he relates to the feeling. 

 

“And—“ Sam’s voice gets brittle, “and I don’t know what I’ll do when that day comes.” He looks down and scrubs at his eyes, “you know I have this nightmare where I go up to Steve’s room to wake him up.” Sam looks a hundred years old as he looks back at Clint, “and I can’t. I can’t wake him up. You know why?” 

 

“Stop.” Clint says, closing his eyes against the image, “stop.” 

 

Suddenly Sam blinks and he sighs, “I’m sorry Clint, that’s—“ he looks guilty, “that’s not what… I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have put that on you. That’s not fair of me, I’m sorry. I know you care about Steve and it will all work out, okay?” 

 

He leaves Clint standing outside, feeling hollow.

 

—————

 

Clint wakes up, sweating and panting, he sucks in deep breaths, calming his heart rate. 

 

The blank lifeless look on Steve’s face when Clint had tried to shake him awake waits for him when he closes his eyes. 

 

So he opens them back up and sits on the edge of the bed. 

 

Ever since Sam had accidentally let slip what his worst fear was, Clint has been haunted by the same one. 

 

He texts Laura and she calls him immediately. 

 

“Clint?”

 

“You should be asleep.” He says softly. 

 

It’s 3:40a.m. So should you.” 

 

“Why are you up?” 

 

“I’ve got clinicals tomorrow. I’m up cramming.” 

 

Clint nods, “you’re such a beast.” 

 

She chuckles quietly, probably trying to not wake her roommate. And her voice is soft when she speaks, “ everything okay?” 

 

“No, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” 

 

That must be really frustrating.” She says, “ What do you need from me?”

 

He lays back down. “Just talk to me. Tell me about what you’re studying. Read to me all your clinical stuff.” 

 

She laughs and agrees, “Okay, you asked for this.” She starts reading to him from her text book and he listens as her quiet soft voice soothes him until he feels himself start to drift off to sleep. 

 

——————

 

Chapter Text

Steve steps out of the car and feels self conscious as he reaches back to grab his cane and backpack. Happy tries to help him but he waves him away. He can already feel the eyes on him. Some curious, some growing narrow. 

 

This is a Brooklyn public school. Not a private school. 

 

The number of kids getting dropped off in a car worth as much as the building itself is zero. 

 

Well. 

 

Now it’s one. 

 

Happy asks what time to pick him up and Steve gets a knot in his stomach when he says that he doesn’t know yet and that he’ll text him. 

 

Happy looks at him with a tilted head and a wary expression and Steve can feel the stares watching his back as he waves goodbye and walks as quickly as he can up the large stone steps and into the double doors. 

 

The pit in his stomach grows into dread as he hears the whispers follow him. 

 

—————

 

Natasha feels her phone buzz and she looks down to see two different group chats alerting her to new messages. 

 

The one with the guys was typical. They were arguing about whether to do something big over christmas break or to lay low and just chill. Clint wanted to chill, so did Bucky, but Tony was arguing for something big, no surprises there. But she hesitated. 

 

She kind of wanted to do something too. 

 

N: maybe we compromise? We do something cool, but only a day thing, or idk nothing too much

 

Steve hasn’t added his two cents in, but she looks at the clock and it’s past 11:30, which means he was probably asleep. 

 

She swipes over to the other group chat. A girls’ group with Pepper, Peggy, Laura, Yelena, Wanda, and Rebecca. She gets endless laughs and support from this chat. 

 

P: I’m just saying, Tony would whine about it, and also make sure it goes off without a hitch. I say we do it as a surprise gift. 

 

R: I don’t know, what if they hate it? Bucky thinks he’s so mature

 

Natasha snorts at that, though his sister isn’t wrong

 

L: I think it would be adorable, and Clint would be down, I just know.

 

P: I don’t think Steve would mind either, he’s love that it was everyone.

 

W: I think Sam and Mr. Stark and the rest of the parents would love it. We’d have to be okay with it hanging in our houses forever. 

 

Natasha smiles and begins tapping, 

 

N: Okay, we’ll do it. The first day off of Thanksgiving break. I’ll let the guys know and then maybe Steve, Wanda, and Yelena can work on getting the pj sizes for all the kiddos?

 

Y: For sure

 

W: Will do, Pietro will help too

 

P: Then it’s set! I get back November 16th, what about you guys?

 

Natasha gets back the 17th, Peggy and the boys at MIT get back the 15th,

 

N: Okay, we’ll plan on the 18th, but we will probably need to rush order it!

 

P: Tony will help with that. 

 

Natasha swipes open her other chat where the argument has somehow morphed into what New York Christmas tradition is the absolute worst. But she taps in her message, changing the subject. 

 

N: Okay, the girls decided. We’re going to all get matching christmas pajamas and take a picture at the old mall picture studio and get them printed and framed for each of our parents. 

 

Tony responds first. 

 

T: What the hell? 

 

Then there’s a pause and he’s typing again. 

 

T: Strike that, I love it. When, where?

 

C: I’m gunna need a copy too. Barnes in footie pajamas? Gotta hold that over him forever. 

 

B: you’ll be in them too dumbass. 

 

Natasha smiles at the fact that they were all on board without questioning it. Well, except Steve, but he probably wouldn’t mind either. 

 

Her throat gets dry for a moment at the thought of the conversation she’d had with Clint. 

 

A week ago, Laura had called her and had seemed very hesitant on the phone. But after some pressing and pushing, Laura had finally admitted she was really concerned for Clint because he wasn’t sleeping much at all. So Natasha had left one day after class, spending money and time on cab and train fare she really didn’t have to practically ambush Clint in his room at the Starks. 

 

“Nat?” He’d asked, his face confused and his body language screaming exhaustion. 

 

“What is going on?” She asked, “why do you look like a zombie?”

 

It had taken her the better part of 30 minutes to pry out of him the conversation he’d had with Sam and the reoccurring nightmare. He was still keeping something from her. Some detail. But he wouldn’t give in. Wouldn’t say it, and she’d dropped it eventually. 

 

But the conversation was enough. 

 

They’d talked well into the night and eventually she’d watched as he seemed to lighten considerably after having told someone. She’d gotten back to school at 3:30a.m. And hadn’t been able to sleep as she’d had an assignment to finish, but it had been worth it. The phone call from Laura two days later had told her he’d been doing better. 

 

Except… Now she is picturing Steve that way. And the dread of Wanda or Yelena or— Her eyes snap shut at the thought of Peter trying to wake Steve unsuccessfully. 

 

T: We need to take a big group one, but also some smaller group ones

 

B: Yeah, yeah, the OG group. The five of us

 

C: can we please pose like those terrible 90’s family portraits?

 

Natasha sighs and picks back up her headphones. 

 

—————



Bucky receives a package in the mail and he opens it. It's a care package from his family and he quickly opens the homemade cookie bag and shoves one in his mouth. He tosses one to Falsworth who then begs him for another immediately after. He laughs, passing two over. 

 

He smiles at the new socks his sister had picked out for him, and the crisp new notebook and pens he’s sure are from his ma. A smaller bag of cookies and a note that says: For Tony make him smile. He stands and stretches, “I’ll be back in a bit. Don’t eat more of my cookies or else.” 

 

Monty grins and nods, going back to studying before Bucky’s out the door. 

 

————-

 

Tony tosses a screwdriver in the air and catches it neatly. Repeating this motion over and over as the computer makes some final calculations that he’s too tired to run. He hears the door to the lab beep and he looks up to see Barnes walking in. 

 

“Hey,” Tony calls, trying to assess the kid's facial expression. Usually bad news came from his dad, but Bucky and Steve were in pretty constant contact, so it could be from him too. 

 

“Hey.” Tony notices that Barnes’ hair is getting a bit longer and the stubble pattern is starting to fill in around his face. He thinks back to over three years ago when they all were just kids. “My ma sent you something.” 

 

Surprise and excitement make his shoulders wriggle as a bag of cookies is dropped in front of him. “These her chocolate chip with butterscotch?” 

 

Barnes chuckles and ‘uh-hmms’ while Tony rips open the bag. “Your mom is an angel.”

 

Barnes laughs openly and looks around, “whatcha working on?”

 

Tony talks through chewing, “a suit.” The eyebrow raise makes him keep explaining, “my honor’s thesis is going to be about how to make the world a safer place with technology.  So I’m designing a prototype of a mechanical suit—” 

 

“Like a robot?” 

 

“No, a human controls it.” 

 

Barnes furrows his brow, “and that makes the world safer how?” 

 

Tony half scoffs and rolls his eyes,”the person in the suit would have the power to protect those around it.” 

 

At first it’s just a soft ‘oh’ that Barnes responds with, but then he tilts his head, “so… one suit for the whole world?” 

 

“No, a suit of armor everywhere around the world.” There’s a question in Barnes’ eyes. “What?”

 

“I don’t get it.” 

 

The eye roll he tosses Barnes is legendary. “Listen, let’s say I’m in one of my suits. And I hear about a robbery or a terrorist attack. I can put on the suit and stop it. The suit will protect me and the weapons on the suit will help me protect the innocents.” 

 

“But… you’re just one guy.” 

 

“Hence the reason for having a suit around the world.” 

 

And then Barnes’ next question does actually pull him to a stop, “yeah but you’re just one guy. You can’t be everywhere. Who’s controlling the other suits?” 

 

He pauses, “well… I guess there would have to be other people.” 

 

“Isn’t that a lot of power for someone to have?” 

 

Tony responds slowly, “yes.” 

 

“How do you ensure you have the right people in the suits? People who won't use the power your suit gives them to their advantage?”

 

“I guess…” he starts, “I guess you make sure you know who you’re giving that power to. Have to trust them.” 

 

Barnes nods and raps his knuckles on the lab table, and Tony can see he doesn’t want to argue, so he just shrugs, “I mean, sounds like a cool idea.” 

 

Tony sighs and leans back, thinking about what he’d asked. His fingers tap on his jeans, “what would you do to make the world a safer place?” 

 

The way Barnes eyes the computer screen and then the lab around them makes Tony realize that Barnes is more observant than he remembers. “I just think you have to have the right leaders. The right people with the right motives in power.” 

 

He nods, understanding the logic there, “yeah, but how do you go about getting those people in power?” 

 

“It starts with how we perceive things as a society,” Barnes laughs at a joke Tony doesn’t catch, “People want power and are greedy. And those are the exact people who shouldn’t be in power. So we need to change the way we structure our government. Stop idolizing idiots and stop pretending the market is actually still free. Because it’s not—” 

 

Tony blinks, “geez Barnes. Run for president, why don’t you?” 

 

He laughs and shakes his head, “nah, these aren’t even my thoughts, I’m just parroting them.” 

 

“And whose thoughts are they?” 

 

“Steve’s.” 

 

This again catches Tony off guard and he sets the screwdriver onto the metal table. “Since when does Steve talk about this stuff?” 

 

The rolling chair squeaks as Barnes sinks into it. He rolls back and forth, his feet rocking against the ground. “Apparently at Steve’s last check up, he overheard a mom in distress at the front desk talking about whether her insurance was going to cover her son’s procedure and it sent him into a research spiral.” 

 

Steve did tend to get hyper fixated on stuff he thought was a problem. 

 

Tony picked a cookie out of the bag and picked it apart with his fingers. He’s about to say something else when Barnes stands and shrugs his shoulders, “I’m just saying that technology won’t save the world.” He gives a wry grin to Tony and shakes his head, “it’s people like you and Steve. You guys will do that.” 

 

Tony’s left dumbfounded as the lab door swings shut.

 

—————-



Steve’s standing outside, waiting for the bus to pull around, when he hears a snicker. 

 

He does not turn around. 

 

The person gets closer and soon Ranger Rick is beside him. “Not getting dropped off by your fancy butler?” 

 

“He’s not my butler.” Steve wants to sigh out loud. He’d been getting looks and comments and glares since he started taking the car to school a few weeks ago. But so far nothing more than that. 

 

Until today. 

 

He hates admitting that he hopes Scott will get here soon. Not that Scott’s a fighter, or even intimidating really size wise, but the guy can make anyone laugh. He’s good at dissipating tension and Steve has been hauled out of some close-call situations with one or two of his quips before. But Scott tends to run on the late side. And today they were taking a field trip to the MOMA, so a bunch of kids were standing around on the sidewalk, not paying anyone any attention. A pair of teachers were standing on the stone steps talking.

 

The kid nudges Steve’s cane with the toe of his sneaker, “what’s your deal, anyway?” 

 

Steve looks at him, “do you actually want to know?” 

 

“Nah, I don’t care.” 

 

Steve rolls his eyes, “thought so.” 

 

The kid lifts his foot and before Steve can move out of the way, knocks his toe against the back of the knee Steve currently has most of his weight residing on. It bends under the force and Steve has nothing to steady onto as his weight shifts backward and he sits down hard. 

 

His hip explodes with pain and he actually can’t stop the hiss of pain that escapes between his gritted teeth. His cane clatters noisily to the sidewalk and his heart rate elevates at the pain now radiating from his hip and side. 

 

Ranger Rick is nowhere around. 

 

“Um, dude?” He hears a voice ask, “dude you okay?” 

 

“I’m fine.” He grits out, reaching for his cane and trying to think of a way he can pull himself up using it. He’s reminded of the shower and how Bucky or Tony or Clint would help him without a second thought. 

 

But they’re not here. And he has nothing to grab to help himself up. 

 

“Here.” He looks up and sees a girl, brown curly hair and an amused smile on her face, “come on—“ she reaches out and doesn't wait before grabbing under his arm and pulling. He doesn't protest, allowing himself to be hauled up and getting his feet and cane back under him. “There you go.” She puts her hands on her hips and looks around at the kids who are pretending not to stare, “you a clumsy one?” 

 

He looks around, seeing Ranger Rick now 20ft away smirking at him, “yeah, something like that.” Then he brushes himself off, “thanks.” 

 

“Don’t mention it.” She turns to go and is about to disappear when he hears himself ask, 

 

“Wait, you helped me and I don’t even know your name.” 

 

She glances back and winks, “I’m Angie. See you around, Steve.” 

 

He blinks at the fact that she knows his name and is about to ask how but the brakes of the bus rounding the corner cut him off and then she’s gone.

 

————-

 

Scott arrives minutes later and chats easily as the teachers direct them onto the bus. Steve has to keep his mouth closed or the sounds of pain at every bump in the road would escape. His hip is positively screaming at him and he knows the bruise there is going to be massive. 

 

The bus hisses to a stop and they file out. He never has to ask Scott to walk slower. The guy just matches his pace to Steve’s and fills the silence with anecdotes that Steve can hardly keep up with. 

 

They walk inside and head towards the information desk to get their little headsets. He looks up to see a face looking at him in surprise. He stops, in shock and she gasps, her eyes trailing up and down him before she speaks, loudly drawing the students’ attention, “Steve?!” 

 

He feels his shoulders duck, “oh, hey Hope.” 

 

She walks around the desk towards him and then stops halfway, “everyone, line up in a single file and we will get you your devices, please no running, horseplay, or touching any of the art!” She motions for one of her co-workers to start passing the headphones out and she makes her way towards him, “Steve, what are you doing here?” 

 

He laughs, “I’m in highschool Hope, remember?” 

 

She wrinkles her nose, “oh yeah,” then she glances up at the students, “that seems weird.” Then she smiles at him, “how are you and Peggy, still going strong?” 

 

He nods and smiles widely, “yeah, she’s the best.” 

 

Hope laughs and then Steve turns to Scott to introduce them. Only to find the boy staring at Hope with a slightly awed expression. Steve wants to laugh but he doesn’t, “Scott? This is my friend Hope, Hope, this is Scott.” 

 

“Hello,” Hope says easily, extending a hand. 

 

Scott reaches out and shakes it, “Hey, I’m Scott. I mean, he just said that. You know Steve? Steve’s cool. He’s a cool dude. You seem cool too—“ Scott looks down at the way he’s still shaking Hope’s hand, “oh, uh, sorry, I’m shaking your hand too long.” He drops it and scratches at his neck, “nice to meet you.” 

 

“Wait—“ Steve says, remembering a conversation he’d had with Hope, “aren’t you a San Fran native?” She nods and Scott’s eyes light up, 

 

“You are?! Me too!” 

 

Hope looks at him skeptically and then to Steve who nods. “That’s cool. I miss it sometimes.” 

 

“Yeah, the West Coast is awesome.” 

 

Hope nods in agreement and her eyes trail back to Steve and he can see the investigative once over she gives him. And the glance towards the cane. 

 

He glares at her in amused annoyance and she laughs, “you’re doing alright?” 

 

“I’m fine.” 

 

She looks about ready to protest when her name is called and she says her farewells, getting back to her job.

 

Steve looks back to his friend and rolls his eyes, “Scott, you’re drooling.” 

 

The boy snaps his mouth shut and chuckles with a dazed look on his face.

 

——————-

 

Scott tries to subtly ask questions about Hope the whole museum tour. Steve obliges, not minding at all. 

 

At the end, Hope gives him a hug before they leave and he can feel the confused looks from his peers as they walk out back towards the bus. 

 

The teachers eye him curiously too, but he just ignores it, too focused on walking without a limp. 

 

—————-

 

He’s in the bathroom, brushing his teeth when there’s a knock, “Steve? It’s me, I gotta pee.” 

 

Steve opens the door and lets Peter in, stepping out, “I’ll be quick.” The kid promises.

 

“No worries, I can go down stairs to the bathroom.” 

 

Peter’s look of concern is radiating, “no, no, I’ll be done in a minute!” 

 

He laughs, trying to keep the toothpaste from dripping as he waits outside the door, leaning against the wall. 

 

Peter is true to his word, and the door opens with a woosh. Steve goes back in, spits and reaches to stash his toothbrush where they all hang in a row when he hears a gasp and a quiet voice ask, “what is that?” 

 

Steve looks around, “what is what?” 

 

Peter points at him, “that?” 

 

Steve’s still confused until the kid reaches over and yanks up the bottom of Steve’s shirt, revealing the mottled bruise that must have shown when he reached across the sink. 

 

“It’s a bruise, Peter.” 

 

The kid's voice is mad, “from who.” 

 

“Not from who.” He says, “from what.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“I fell, hit my side hard.” Technically not a lie.

 

“And you were pushed?”

 

“No.” Again, not really a lie. 

 

Peter’s face lightens, “oh. Okay.” Then he looks up at Steve, “it looks painful.” 

 

“Nah, It’s fine. Doesn’t even hurt.” Definitely a lie.

 

“Okay,” Peter waits for him to walk back to the bedroom and they get ready for bed, “Steve?” 

 

“Yeah?” 

 

“Where do you think you’ll go to college?” 

 

Steve lays back on his bed. He’d been wondering if he even wanted to go to college. Not sure that was the best use of his dwindling time. 

 

“”I don’t know yet. Why?” 

 

“Do you think it will be far?” 

 

Steve props himself to see Peter sitting on his bed, trying to look brave. 

 

“I don’t know. But I’m not going anywhere, okay?” He tries to lighten the mood, “why, would you miss me?” 

 

Peter looks around at the other kids, some sleeping, some on their phones or doing homework. Yelena and Wanda are sleeping over at Rebecca’s tonight and Steve is pretty sure Pietro is doing math homework with Daniel downstairs. 

 

Peter stays silent and it makes Steve’s worry rise. “Peter?” The kid glances up for only a second before going back to his hands, “Peter what is it?” When he still doesn’t answer, Steve swings his legs over the bed and hobbles over to Peter’s bed, ignoring his cane. He sits down beside him and wraps his arm around Peter’s shoulders, “what is it? You can tell me.” 

 

“If you’re gone… at college…” the kid starts, and his voice gets soft and scared, “and Sam dies like my parents or my uncle and aunt… do I have to go back to Mrs. Schmidt?” 

 

The look of absolute desperate worry on Peter’s face makes Steve’s heart threaten to burst in anguish, “what!? No!” He pulls the boy against his chest, “first of all, Mrs. Schmidt is in jail . She can never get her hands on you again. Secondly—“ he stops, about to assure Peter that Sam wasn’t going to die. And the gravity of what Peter has been through cuts through him. The kid has lost his parents, his uncle, then his aunt and even though they were horrid, he lost the Schmidt’s too. Peter has never had more than a few years of permanence. And Steve’s about to join that number. 

 

He feels his chest constrict and his throat close and he’s dragging in air in rasps. Peter’s face goes sheet white, “Steve? What’s happening?” 

 

A panic attack. That’s what’s happening. But he sucks in air and forces every fiber of his being to stay calm. Peter needs reassurance, not someone else to worry about. 

 

“Peter—“ he says, suddenly feeling like an elephant is on his chest, “Peter, Sam is not going to die. He’s going to take care of you. And even if—“ he chokes at the thought of Sam’s death, but doesn't stop, needing to assure Peter, “Sarah would take you in, or Mr. Stark. There’s a never ending line of people who love you and would take care of you. I know the Barnes’ would, and Mr. Jarvis and—“ he feels his lungs straining for air, but he keeps talking, “you are never ever going to live with Mrs. Schmidt. Ever. You hear me?” 

 

Peter nods but he still looks sad. 

 

Steve shakes him gently, trying to hide the fact that all of his muscles are contracting and making him shaky. 

 

“You wouldn’t want to?” 

 

Steve’s eyebrows furrow, “wouldn’t want to what?”

 

Peter looks at him guiltily, “you said there would be people to take me in. But you never mentioned your name. You wouldn’t want me?” 

 

And it’s with that, that the realization of everything he’s going to lose by dying early really settles on his shoulders. He drags in another gasp of air and his hand tightens on Peter’s shoulder and he feels his lungs protest. “Peter—“ he wheezes, “Peter, of course,” he says shakily, trying to keep the absolute flood of grief and panic at bay, “I’m sorry I thought that was a given.” 

 

Another lie. 

 

He hadn’t said his own name because he assumes he’ll be dead. 

 

“If anything happens to Sam I’m first on the list to get you—“ he lies. His jaw is creaking from how tightly he’s holding it. He feels the roll of nausea in his stomach and the overwhelming crash of fight or flight making his body shiver and shake. 

 

“Steve?” Peter asks, looking at him worriedly, “are you okay?”

 

No. No, he’s not . He’s terrible .

 

“Yeah buddy, just cold. You go to bed and don’t you worry, Sam’s not going anywhere and neither am I.” 

 

Steve’s never told so many outright lies in such a short amount of time before. 

 

Peter nods and climbs tiredly into his bed, seeming to be a bit more mollified. 

 

Steve walks shakily, the panic and nausea making him want to shrivel up into a ball. But he somehow manages to put one foot in front of the other and make it out the door. He considers going to the bathroom. Hiding. But then he thinks of drowning in that very tub and he claps a hand over his mouth to keep from vomiting right there. 

 

His watch buzzes. 

 

His heart rate is too high. 

 

Steve claws at his wrist, trying to scratch it off in uncoordinated movements. He growls in frustration until he hears the satisfying thunk as it hits the ground. Then he’s gripping the railing and practically dragging himself down the stairs. His sock feet make less noise than his ragged breathing. 

 

He finally makes it down to the landing and basically crawls to the front door, chest still feeling like someone is squeezing his lungs too tight. 

 

When he makes it outside, he half collapses onto the steps in the cold November air. The panic doesn’t disappear but it does lessen. He focuses on the sound of the street. The few cars driving by at that time and the laughter or tv or something from the window open across the street. 

 

The slow pull of air into his wheezing lungs helps clear his head. 

 

For the second time that day he wishes Bucky or Natasha or Clint or Tony were here. The memory of Peggy’s hand on his cheek and her forehead against his. He wishes they were all here. 

 

They will be soon. His Thanksgiving break is already planned out. 

 

An appointment with Erskine and Howard. A day to take pictures in ridiculous Christmas pajamas, thanksgiving at the Starks. Sam plans on them going to the parade this year. He and the other four have a lunch planned at Milo’s. 

 

He lets the knowledge that he will see them soon calm him. 

 

—————



Chapter Text

Steve takes out his hearing aid and looks up in surprise. He can see Peter talking to Daniel. He can see it. He was just hearing it. 

 

But now he can’t.

 

He snaps his fingers by his right ear and when he only barely registers a soft sound, more by the fact that his brain knows he’s snapping more than actually hearing it. He lets out a deep sigh. He sits down on his bed and puts the hearing aid back in. Sound registers and annoyance rises up in his chest. His fingers clench on his pajama pants and he grinds his teeth. He hasn’t even had a fever or an infection! Why is he losing his other ear’s hearing?

 

He should tell Sam. But he lies back down on his bed, too exhausted to walk back down the stairs. He grabs his phone, sets the alarm to vibrate and puts it under his pillow. 

 

He’ll tell Sam later. 

 

Maybe. 

 

—————-

 

Bucky looks over to see Steve dozing on the couch. He’s wiped out after the extensive appointment with Erskine and Howard. Natasha’s sitting on the floor beside Steve on her phone. Bucky can tell she’s keeping an eye on Steve’s breathing even as she pretends to just be relaxing. 

 

Tony is still down there with Howard and Erskine and Dr. Banner. They’d done a thousand different tests and blood draws and poke tests or whatever the hell they were doing. 

 

Steve had stayed relatively quiet the whole time. But as the hours had worn on, the circles under Steve’s eyes had gotten darker, and his skin paler, and his mood had shifted to silent and withdrawn. 

 

Bucky had been watching trepidatiously, unsure whether it was his place to butt in, but then he remembered Clint’s story about Peggy and he’d stood up, “okay, I think Steve needs a break.” 

 

The older men had taken in Steve’s appearance and nodded. 

 

That was when Bucky and Clint had hauled Steve out of the lab and up to the couch where they made him drink an entire Gatorade bottle and eat a granola bar before they allowed him to lay down. Natasha had come over after he’d fallen asleep and she had been annoyed at how pale Steve had looked, but she relented when they told her how excited and hopeful the four men downstairs were. 

 

Natasha looks up from her phone and she gets a wicked smile, “Pepper says the pajamas arrived.” 

 

—————

 

Peter’s giggling and laughing at something Pietro is doing as he keeps the younger kids occupied. Natasha laughs at his antics. The boy has never seemed to run out of energy. 

 

Yelena, Rebecca, and Wanda are braiding each other’s hair so they match for the photos. Steve is sitting on one of the stools, patiently waiting to be told what to do and Pepper and Peggy orchestrate each photo. 

 

The big group photo is already taken. A large portrait that they know will be hung up immediately on the house’s picture wall. Natasha and Yelena have taken a sibling photo, as have Bucky and Rebecca and Wanda and Pietro. Then Steve took a photo with Peter, Wanda, Pietro, and Daniel. The kids who were together for Peter’s first year and have stayed since. 

 

Then they laughed as they did couple’s shoots. Steve smiles wryly as Peggy laughs. Tony and Pepper are arguing in their photo and it’s somehow appropriate and adorable. Bucky and Natasha are back to back raising an eyebrow at one another, and Clint has Laura wrapped up in his arms with his head resting on her shoulder as she laughs. 

 

Now it was time to do the five of them. Steve moves stiffly to stand and they all stand round him, Natasha and Tony on either side of him, with Clint and Bucky in the second row. They smile widely and the photographer coaches them through a few poses before nodding that they’d finished. 

 

“Wait!” Laura says, “We should do a group photo with the couples, so then we can recreate it at every big event or wedding!” 

 

The group goes silent, only the chattering of the house kids in the lobby making noise. Laura blinks in confusion at the silence, withdrawing into herself, “I mean, if you guys don’t want to—“

 

“Sounds like a great idea.” Natasha hears Steve say, his voice strained but a smile on his face, “that would be fun.”

 

And so they do. Each couple groups together and Natasha smiles genuinely, praying deep in her chest that the 8 of them can take pictures together forever. 

 

—————-

 

They manage to sneak the kids in the house and get them changed before Sam can catch them in their matching pajamas. 

 

“How was the mall?” Steve hears Sam call to him as he approaches the kitchen. 

 

“It was fun.” He sets his cane against the wall and settles onto a stool, “been a while since I’ve been, so that was good.” He yawns involuntarily. 

 

“Tired?” 

 

“Mh-hmm.” 

 

“You should take a nap.” 

 

“I think I might,” Steve admits, “been drained since Monday.” 

 

“You still haven’t told me about that.” 

 

“It went fine. Tiring, but fine.” 

 

Sam just nods. Steve can tell he wants to ask more questions but he doesn’t press. Steve is about to say something when some of the kids come in looking for a snack and Steve steps out of the kitchen up to his room. 

 

——————

 

Clint hasn’t laughed this hard in a long time. Howard and Tony are currently arguing over the exact specifications on how the turkey should be sliced to ensure everyone gets a good piece and Mrs. Stark is simply shaking her head in disbelief, but with a smile on her face. 

 

Clint was eventually able to bring home a non-crushed 100 Grand bar to her and she in turn shared a bit about her sister with him. He’d held it together while she’d told him the story, but he’d gone back to his room and cried. Somehow the grief that was still palpable in Mrs. Stark’s voice, hitting him deeply with his own fears for Steve and the memories of his mom. 

 

But thankfully today, he was able to put that to rest and just enjoy the company and enough food to feed a hundred. 

 

The multiple kids tables are filled with chattering kids and the sounds of utensils clinking against plates. Laura is next to him. After her comment at the photo studio, she’d begged to understand why they’d reacted the way they did. And he’d broken down and told her almost everything. 

 

She’d been horrified, but Clint had assured her everything was fine. It was good honestly to have someone be constantly positive about the future. 

 

And with Peggy leaning over and constantly whispering things that made Steve either blush to high heavens or laugh out loud, he thinks that maybe the future isn’t so bleak as his nightmares want him to think. 

 

—————-

 

Sleeping children are everywhere. Tony narrowly avoids stepping on a child’s arm as he slinks through the living room trying to get a bottle of water. He laughs at the myriad of odd angles they’ve all fallen asleep at. Sam is on the couch, hand on his stomach and knocked out as well. His parents are in the kitchen, talking quietly, helping the staff with where everything should go. 

 

Tony nods at them, grabs a few water bottles and heads back out to the group that is sitting in the pool area. It’s blessedly hot in the glass enclosed space and everyone has their feet dipped in the pool. 

 

He hands out the bottles to those who requested them and sits next to Pepper, who has her feet making lazy circles in the water. Her coppery red hair shines and he brushes his fingers through it, making her look at him and smile. 

 

He loves that smile. 

 

She’s been a good source of calm and reason when he goes on his antics. Which is more often than he’d like to admit. But she’s always there to tap him on the shoulder and reorganize his priorities. So he’s thankful. 

 

Suddenly a quiet voice pipes up, “crazy to think I smoked my last cigarette over four years ago, right here.” 

 

Tony’s mind fills with the memory of a gasping Steve and the look on Clint’s face. 

 

“Was it really?” Bucky asks, not unkindly, “I never knew if you were able to stick to that decision for the first bit.” 

 

Tony watches as Clint’s eyes trail to Steve who is very pointedly not joining this conversation. “Yeah.” Clint responds softly, “I wanted to a few times. Really wanted to, but never did. Plus everything that happened right after that kind of helped distract me.”

 

It’s the first time anyone has ever mentioned the ‘incident’ in a whole group. More than just the 5 of them and Peggy. 

 

Peggy, who looks up and tilts her head, “you smoked?”

 

“Yeah,” Clint responds, Laura nodding along as if she already knew, which Tony assumes she does, “I did for a couple years. But then I smoked here and S—“ 

 

“Clint.” Steve cuts in, sounding already tired, “can we not?”

 

“You know that’s not why I brought it up. It was an important day for me.” 

 

Steve looks guilty, “Of course. Sorry.” 

 

And Tony now realizes how many important turning points happened in their lives by seeing Steve almost die. 

 

Natasha left her abusive home when Steve was presumed dead. Clint quit smoking after causing Steve to almost suffocate. He and his dad had bonded and repaired their relationship through Steve’s whole ordeal. 

 

“Anyways,” Clint continues, “Steve hadn’t told us he was allergic to smoke and practically suffocated before we noticed.” Steve glares at Clint who smiles slyly at him. “Oops. Just slipped out.” 

 

Peggy looks at Steve and sighs, “always the dramatics with you, huh?” 

 

Steve sighs and lays back against the concrete, “I was a 14 year old kid in a home where no one older gave a shit about me, why would I tell anyone?” 

 

Natasha looks at Steve with an annoyed expression, “we cared, you knew that!” 

 

“I didn’t know anything.” Steve says a bit sharply, “I didn’t know anything .” 

 

His eyes are closed when Tony looks at him, and the frailty of his stature makes Tony sick. “Well,” he says quickly, needing to change the subject from Steve’s unending ordeals, “what’s our plan for tomorrow? Last weekday of break?” 

 

Tony’s eyes are drawn to Bucky who is looking at Steve unhappily. His last comment still hanging in the air. 

 

“What if we just relaxed, hmm?” Peggy offers, her voice calm but her mouth set a bit tightly, “I’m tired after this whole week.” 

 

Steve sighs loudly, and lets out a self deprecating chuckle, “am I that easy to read?” 

 

Peggy smirks at him, “maybe, or maybe it’s the truth.” 

 

“You guys can do whatever.” Steve insists, “if I can do it, great, if I can’t, it’s no big deal. I don’t want you guys making decisions based off of my abilities. It’s not fair to you guys and it’s insulting to me. I promise my pride can take it. It’s your break too and you should do what you want— ow!” 

 

Steve glares at Natasha who is glaring back at him. 

 

“Shut up, Steve.” She hisses. 

 

“What!” Steve scoffs, “it’s true!” 

 

“Why the hell would we pick something you can’t do?” Bucky grinds out. 

 

Steve rolls his eyes, “I don’t know, maybe you want to climb to the top of the Empire State Building—“

 

“That has an elevator.” Tony quips before he can stop himself. 

 

Clint laughs and shakes his head, “guys. It’s break. Why don’t we sleep in, get a big breakfast, and then decide. Why stress with plans now?” 

 

Pepper sighs, “why is everyone so against plans? It’s nice to be organized!” 

 

And that cuts the tension as the group bursts into laughter. 

 

—————-

 

“I’m up three pounds.” Steve says softly to Sam as he scoops out a bowl of oatmeal. 

 

Sam turns to him with wide eyes and a grin breaks out, “you are, for real?” 

 

He nods, “yeah, those protein shakes are really helping, I think. I feel less tired too.” 

 

He’s wrapped in a hug before he can process and he smiles, hugging Sam back. 

 

“I’m proud of you, kid.” Sam says, nudging his shoulders, “you’re a trooper.”

 

Steve huffs out a laugh. 

 

————

 

Bucky looks up at his calendar and sighs. Only a week and a half until Christmas break. He likes college, way more than he ever thought he would, but he misses Natasha, and Steve… and even Clint. His finals are coming up, but he can’t seem to focus on those just yet.

 

“You going home for Christmas?” He asks Monty, who enters the room, loaded down with textbooks.

 

“Can’t.” His roommate responds, “too expensive to fly home for only two weeks.” 

 

Bucky frowns, “That sucks, what are you going to do?” 

 

“I’m not sure.” Monty says with a yawn, “probably just stay around here.”

 

A thought crosses Bucky’s mind, “you know…” he thinks, it wouldn’t be too bad to have Monty come. He’s a good guy. “You’re welcome to stay at my house. I know my mom would love to have you and feed you. Especially her cookies.” 

 

Monty looks at him in surprise, “really? You think so?” 

 

He laughs, “yeah man. I know so.” 

 

“Well…” his roommate starts, an unsure smile on his face, “I’ll think about it. Thanks.” 

 

Bucky shrugs, “no problem.” 

 

————

 

It’s the last day before Christmas break. School let out at noon, but Steve is stuck doing a makeup test that he missed last week due to a bad fever. Students are talking and jabbering to the teacher as he tries to focus. So instead he just takes out his hearing aid and sets in on the desk. 

 

Quiet envelopes him and he takes a deep breath. He really needs to do well on this test. He’s missed too much school and if he doesn’t do well, he’ll end up with a ‘C’ and he can’t stand the thought of that. It’s not like he’s Tony or Natasha when it comes to school. He’s no genius, but he does like to get high grades and he knows he could be doing better if he wasn’t absent all the time. 

 

He’s honestly just thankful she’s letting him take it now, after school, on a day she could leave early. 

 

He feels a tap on his shoulder. He looks up and his teacher is holding out a note. 

 

I have to talk to a student’s parents in the office. Will you be okay here while I’m gone?

 

He nods and she holds out her hand. He tilts his head in question. 

 

Can’t leave you with your phone during a test , she adds to the note. 

 

Steve laughs, “oh.” He digs it out of his pocket and gives it to her. She makes sure that he watches as she puts it in a drawer in her desk. Then she mouths, I’ll be right back. 

 

He nods and she’s gone. Only a few students remain. 

 

He’s halfway through when the last student leaves. He works diligently, taking his time, grateful that she isn’t there just staring him down, waiting for him to finish. 

 

Steve leaves a few questions unanswered as he waits for her to return. He’s unsure of a few things and he wants clarification. 

 

He finishes and she’s still not back. 

 

He sits patiently for a while, knowing how talks with parents can go. 

 

Then Steve tilts his head, it is kind of quiet. 

 

His eyes catch on his hearing aid and he laughs. He puts it in and expects noise from the hallway to register. 

 

But it's quiet. 

 

He waits only a few more minutes before standing up and grabbing his test. Maybe he should find her in the office. He walks to the door and pulls it open. Surprised to find the hallway light is off. 

 

He squints through his glasses in the dark and shuffles forward. His legs have been feeling a bit stronger so he’d been leaving the cane home more. He walks, turning down the next hallway, only to see that the lights are off there too. 

 

The back of his neck prickles as he makes his way slowly towards the office. 

 

A sharp sound registers in his hearing aid and he winces. He looks behind him but sees nothing. Fear and adrenaline start to spike. 

 

And it sounds again. 

 

And he knows that sound. 

 

He turns, about ready to head back the way he came when he hears a distressed cry, in another hallway, followed by a voice, “—you think you can just walk away from how you treated me!” 

 

“I’m sorry, please, just let me go, we can talk to the office, we can figure this out! Please—“ 

 

An angry shout and two more gunshots go off. 

 

Steve takes a deep breath and turns back around. 

 

—————

 

Chapter Text

Howard looks down at the little alert that tells him Steve’s heart rate is too high. He frowns. A bit of a quick onset too. He looks at the time, could be Steve’s walking home… he pulls up the tracker to see that Steve’s still at school. 

 

His finger hovers over the ‘ call’ button. Then he sighs and watches as the monitor starts to slow, Steve’s heart rate calming. 

 

Howard takes a deep breath and laughs, “let him be.” He tells himself. Something Maria and Sam and even Tony kept trying to get through his thick skull. 

 

So he gets back to the work he was doing. 

 

—————



It takes him more courage than he’d like to admit to peek around the corner once he finally manages to make it to the correct hallway. His test is long dropped and forgotten in that first hallway.

 

A boy he doesn’t recognize is holding a pistol in one hand and a rifle slung across his back. A large bulky jacket is crumpled on the ground and Steve’s brain supplies that that’s how he must have hid them. The teacher is in a heap on the ground, crying and covering her head with her arms. The boy is shouting and waving, mostly incoherently, or that’s what it seems like to Steve. 

 

“Let’s go!” The boy shouts, reaching down to grab the teacher by her hair.

 

“Stop.”  He hears himself say. He doesn’t remember commanding his mouth to say the word, and he’s not sure how it sounds so steady. But it gets the attention of the two people halfway down the hallway. 

 

He steps out, facing them, hands raised a bit, mimicking what he’s seen people in movies do when they’re trying to calm someone down. The teacher is looking at him in shock but still huddled in fear.

 

Suddenly the pistol is pointed at him, “what the hell are you doing here! I told them to tell everyone to get out!” 

 

Ah. He must have missed the announcement without his hearing aid. He wonders why the alarm hadn’t gone off… the one with the flashing lights that are required by the state, that would have got his attention… But it doesn't matter now, he’s here and he’s not leaving the lady alone. 

 

“I didn’t hear it.” Steve says easily, hands still up, he gestures to his ear, “my hearing aid was out.” 

The kid is obviously thrown off by that answer and there’s a pause of silence where Steve takes advantage, “What’s your name?” Steve asks. He has no idea why that question gets priority, his mouth is doing whatever it wants while his brain is screaming at him to run run run

 

“Shut up.” The kid says, “get out of here.” 

 

“No can do.” Steve responds, “you’re stuck with me now.” 

 

A gunshot whistling past his ear makes his hearing aid screech and he gasps, clutching at his ear and ripping it out. The sound disappears and he looks up, eyes wide on his face as the boy’s hand shakes in his direction and the teacher curls up tighter on the floor. 

 

He’s panting now, his heart rate starting to accelerate as pure adrenaline from what just happened starts to crash his system. He slowly puts his hearing aid back in. 

 

“You’re a good shot.” Steve hears himself say, “you take training?” 

 

He has no idea what is possessing him at the moment, his brain is a jumbled mess, but he shoves his shaking hands against his sides and takes a step forward. 

 

“Yeah, I’ve trained.” The kid hisses, “I’m the best shot in my league.” 

 

Steve nods, another step closer, “that’s cool. I have a friend who’s does archery. He’s a good shot too.” 

 

“Not as good as me.” The kid snaps.

 

“For sure.” Steve agrees easily, “you could be a sniper I bet.” 

 

“Hell yeah I could.” 

 

Something in his brain tells him that this is working. The compliments. “You should try out for the army rangers. Or marines maybe. They’re known for good marksmen, right?” 

 

He has no Idea what the hell he’s saying. He knows nothing about the military. He watched some movie with Bucky and Clint once, but he doesn’t remember a thing. And before the other kid can respond, Steve is asking, “So what are you doing here?” 

 

The boy lets out a snarl and the teacher whimpers, curling tighter around herself. 

 

“This BITCH made me fail my course! And then reported me to the office acting like I was being crazy, but I wasn’t being crazy! ! And that shit lie went on my record! And now no I’ve got the dumbass at the recruiting office telling me I’m somehow being told that I’m ‘unfit to serve’!?” The boy hisses and rants and says other stuff that Steve can’t make out, he can see the kid is talking to himself. Worry spikes through him. And obviously this kid was insane to want to come and threaten a teacher in the first place, but now Steve is starting to see the deeper mental unbalance. “It was her!” He suddenly shouts, waving a pistol at her face, “she called the army and told them I was unfit to serve! She’s ruining my life!” 

 

“No—“ the woman croaks out, “I didn’t! I wouldn’t!” 

 

“Liar!” The boy screams, “you’re a liar! You’ve always hated me and you’re ruining my life!!” 

 

Unhinged. 

 

Okay. 

 

Steve’s mind starts to settle, racing with strategies to deal with what’s in front of him. 

 

What would calm down a person who is so set on an idea? 

 

Believe them. 

 

“Wow.” Steve says, looking at the teacher and schooling his face into annoyance, “I can’t believe you would do that.” Her eyes widen more and she starts to protest, but he shakes his head infinitesimally. And she catches it. “I just feel like that’s a terrible thing to do.” He continues walking closer.” The kid is staring at him, studying him, trying to find a deception. And Steve hates to admit it but he’s gotten good at lying the past year or so. He gently pushes the bridge of his glasses up from where they were slipping down his face. “I’m Steve Rogers, by the way,” he says again, “I never got your name…” he waits, hand outstretched for a shake. 

 

“Emil.” The kid says gruffly, his eyes still a bit wild, “Emil Blonksy.” 

 

“Nice to meet you.” Steve says with a smile, “hey you know what.” He points to the teacher, trying very hard to feel nonchalant about the pistol hanging in the kid’s hand. “She’s not even worth it.” He waves at her like she’s nothing. 

 

Steve hears a distant phone ring and it surprises the kid, making him level the pistol at the teacher again, “who did you call!” 

 

The teacher looks terrified and can’t respond. 

 

“Probably them calling for a list of demands.” Steve says, nodding as if that would be a natural thing. It could be a random phone call. But if the school knew Emil was in here with a teacher and a gun then the police would probably actually try to negotiate with him. Steve’s mind briefly wonders if they know that he is here too. 

 

When did his life go from a tragedy to an action movie? 

 

“What are you going to demand?” Steve asks, taking a slow and subtle step in between the teacher and Emil. 

 

“What do you mean?” The confusion on the kid’s face makes Steve wonder if anyone ever had ever listened to this kid. 

 

“Well, you’re here. You hold all the power.” He says with a shrug as if he doesn’t mind that, “so what do you want?” 

 

“I want this bitch dead.” 

 

Steve’s blood goes cold at the blank and unfeeling way he says that. 

 

“Well,” Steve starts, trying his best to sound calm and unaffected as his heart starts to hammer, “I mean you could… but truthfully I just think that would not help your case.” He shrugs and teeters as his knee joint wobbles. He uses the motion to take another step between Emil and the teacher, “if you kill her—“ he starts, and then he somehow manages a derivative chuckle, “even if she deserved it—“ he hates the words as they exit his mouth but he doesn’t stop, “they might try to use that against you too.” He turns to the teacher who is looking at him in fear and he sees the ring on her finger. He’s never taken a class from her, but he knows she’s married, thinks she’s even got a little kid at home. He mouths ‘ stay quiet ’ before turning back to face Emil, now fully between them. 

 

“You don’t want to give those bastards any other reason to turn you down so you?” He laughs again, trying not to sound forced, “what if they try to pin you as some murderer huh?” He asks, “you definitely don’t want that. I say,” he looks up at Emil who is listening to what he’s saying, “we go in there, we call them and you give your list of demands,” he points towards the direction of the front office, “we get this whole thing taken care of and then you never have to see—“ even now he can’t manage to call her a bitch, “— her again. What do you say?” 

 

Emil looks torn. His main goal must have been vengeance on this lady who he’s somehow decided is at fault for all his failures. His linchpin in his actions. Steve’s eyes look at the butt of the rifle, poking up from behind Emil’s shoulder. And the logo on it makes him physically ill.

 

Stark Industries.

 

“You know—“ Steve starts, his voice a bit hoarse, he clears it and continues, “I think we just go to the office and make your demands and get this thing rolling.” 

 

The boy reaches down and yanks on the teacher's arm, “get up!” He snaps, yanking her forward. 

 

Steve groans internally, he’d been hoping the guy would leave her there, but no such luck. 

 

Emil walks with heavy boots on, his slightly long and kind of greasy hair flopping as he walks. Dragging the teacher who’s following quietly and trembling. 

 

“So,” Steve tries again. Hoping to keep him calm, “how old are you?” 

 

He doesn’t hear the answer though. He tries to calculate in his mind how long this could have been going on. It had been a solid thirty minutes of just him alone taking that test. So anytime from when the last kid left that classroom till now, and Steve’s been with them for just under 10 minutes so far.

 

Idly his mind wonders what the BPD response time is to school shootings. 

 

They arrive at the office door and Steve pushes it open, leading into it. The files on the floor, a spilled coffee cup, and the mess of paper clips tell him that everyone in here left in a panic. Had Emil started in here? 

 

The phone for the All Call is still hanging off its receiver. He picks it up and sets it on its hook. He hears the loud speaker click off. He tilts his head, “you said you told them to get everyone out.” He starts, getting Emil’s attention, “why not have them set off the alarms?” 

 

The kid scoffs as if he’s the idiot. “What, you think I want the police showing up or the fire department? Hell no.” 

 

Steve looks at the teacher who looks stunned. 

 

Surely this kid has to realize they’d come anyway. But maybe the extra seconds bought him time for his psycho plan. Steve steps around the puddle of coffee on the floor and picks up the office phone. He holds it out to Emil, “you want to talk to them?” 

 

“No.” He snaps, gripping the teacher’s arm tighter, you talk to them. You tell them I have two hostages now. More bargaining power.” 

 

Steve does not respond to his new label. He does however dial 911 and wait as it rings. 

 

911 what’s your emergency.” 

 

“Hi, uh, I’m here in Brooklyn High—“ 

 

Hold please -“ 

 

He only has two seconds to be surprised at her abruptness when a new voice comes on the phone, “ hello, this is Sergeant Fury, is this Emil Blonksy?” 

 

“Oh-“” he says, startled by the brusqueness of the tone, and the fact that they already know who the shooter is. Although it makes sense, someone had to have seen Emil and recognized him, “no, it’s not. This is Steve.” 

 

There’s a pause, a weighted heavy pause, “Steve, are you hurt?” 

 

“No, sir.” 

 

Are you in the room with Emil?” 

 

“Yes, sir.” 

 

Can I speak to him?” 

 

Steve looks up at Emil who is still holding the teacher in a vise-like grip and staring straight at Steve, “what?” 

 

“He wants to talk to you.” 

 

“Tell him to eat shit. I ain’t talking to no one until I get what I want.” 

 

Steve's mouth opens in surprise, but he doesn’t respond, just lifts the phone and holds it to his ear. “He doesn’t want to talk to you.” He says truthfully. 

 

I heard him .” The man says deeply, “ what is it that he wants?”  

 

“What do you want?” Steve asks, locking eyes with Emil, “they want to know.” 

 

Uncertainty crosses Emil’s face, he looks down at the teacher and then around, as if the room might give him the answer. 

 

“Money.” Emil says, but even Steve can tell it’s more of an ‘expected demand’ than something Emil even cares about. “And I want her fired. And in jail.” He snaps, pointing to the teacher, “and I want whatever she put on my record to be stripped off it! And I want her to call the marines and fix it, and a position with Seal Team Six.” 

 

Unhinged just took another notch up to Absolutely Unhinged. 

 

But Steve doesn’t argue. He goes to relay the message but Fury is speaking again, “ I heard him. Can he hear me?” 

 

“No sir.” 

 

The tone the man is using is calm, as if he’s speaking to a young child, “ Tell him we will need time to see if we can meet his demands. Is Mrs. Sammons there with you? ” 

 

Sammons. That’s her name. 

 

“Yes, sir.” 

 

Is she hurt ?” 

 

Steve looks at the teacher and tries to see if she’s injured. Emil follows his line of sight and snarls, “what are you doing!” He snaps, tossing the teacher to the ground and striding forward, “what are you telling them!” He snatches the phone from Steve’s grasp and slams it back down. “They know what I want. They can call back. Get over there—“ he shoves Steve forward, and Steve stumbles hitting his knees on the carpet and rolling over so he’s sitting up against a wall. 

 

Mrs. Sammons is shoved his direction and they both sit quietly. There is a bruise forming in the woman’s face but other than that she looks okay. 

 

Emil pulls out a cellphone and starts typing something. 

 

“Are you okay?” He whispers, trying to get her attention, “are you hurt anywhere else?” 

 

She shakes her head and he watches as tears leak out of her eyes, “I’m sorry.” She rasps out, “you shouldn’t be the one doing the protecting, that should be me—“ 

 

He stops her, “he’s not after me. He’s after you, it’s all fine. It’s going to be fine. I’ve been in worse scrapes than this—“ he says it as a joke, to try to lighten the mood “—I promise you, we’ll be okay, okay? We’ll get you home.” 

 

The teacher blinks at him in surprise, her eyes slid to Emil and back to him, “how can you be so sure?” 

 

Steve shrugs and leans his head back against the wall, letting his eyes stay closed as he responds, “it’s all gonna work out. We both have people we told “see you tonight” to, didn’t we?” He lets a lopsided smile cross his face at the memory of Peggy’s text 

 

Christmas Break is finally here! I can’t want to see you and kiss you senseless. Good luck on your test, see you tonight!

 

He looks at her, “didn’t you tell someone this morning that you would ‘see them tonight?’“ 

 

She thinks only a second before she nods, “I told my husband I couldn’t wait to see him for dinner tonight. My mom is babysitting our son and we’re going out to eat to celebrate my husband’s work promotion.” 

 

Steve nods, “are you one to break promises?” 

 

She tilts her head, “no…” 

 

“Neither am I. We both made promises this morning. I intend for us to keep them.” 

 

More tears slip out of her eyes as she looks back to Emil. “But he wants me dead.” 

 

Steve reaches out, his thin and bony fingers resting on her arm, “I’m not going to let that happen.” He takes a deep breath, “just don’t argue with him, don’t agitate him, he—“ 

 

The phone rings and all three of them jump. 

 

Emil grabs the phone and points at the teacher this time, “you, answer it!” 

 

She stumbles over and grabs it, 

 

“Hello?” 

 

A response they can’t hear. 

 

“No, just the three of us.” 

 

Emil frowns but says nothing. The teacher blanches, but swallows hard, “okay, they’ve agreed to fire me and put me in jail.” She says in a shaky voice, “but to do that, you have to send me and Steve out—“ 

 

“What they think I’m a moron!” Emil shouts, “tell them they’re not getting either of you until every demand is met!” 

 

And the worst idea in history presents itself to his mind. 

 

Steve stands, groaning at the protest of his knees and the new bruises he’s sure are forming there. “They can’t fulfill putting her in jail unless you send her out.” The logic of that makes Emil’s face twitch. “What if you sent her out, and just kept me. I’m still a hostage, still a negotiation chip.” The teacher’s eyes widen but he ignores her look of protest, “hell, I know you’ve figured out I’m the more valuable target anyways. You’re a clever one. I do wonder how you figured it out though. Care to explain?” 

 

The teacher is quiet and her brows are furrowing in confusion. 

 

Emil looks lost and annoyed about it. “What are you talking about!” He hisses, about to shout something else but Steve laughs. Loud and long and clear. 

 

“Come on, no need to pretend.” He says with a smirk, “I believed you at first. You had me going there about the teacher and all, but I’ve caught on to your smart little scheme. You win.” 

 

They both still look confused, which is fine by Steve, who just gestures at the rifle. “I mean come on, the rifle was a bit much, but I should have known. So listen, you get rid of the teacher. Toss her out as a Good Samaritan gesture and I’ll call him.” 

 

It’s pin drop silence as they both stare at him. He can hear the Sergeant on the phone still listening. 

 

“Call who?” Emil demands. 

 

Steve scoffs, “come on, there’s no need to pretend anymore. I know you know who I am. So it’s fine. I’ll call him. And I’m sure we can work all this out. But he won’t work with anyone else in the room. So Sammons here has to go.” 

 

And Steve is surprised by the fact that she has the courage to ask, “wait, who?” 

 

Steve’s smirk belies the dread in his gut, he gestures to Emil’s rifle, “Howard Stark of course.” 

 

———————-

 

Clint’s sitting in class when his phone buzzes. 

 

He ignores it until it buzzes again and again. 

 

It could be the group chat, but it’s probably just about tonight. They’re all supposed to meet up for the first night of Christmas break. 

 

He continues working on his notes until the door to the classroom is opened. Everyone looks up including the teacher. 

 

“Uh, is Clint Barton in this room?” 

 

He stands, “that’s me.” 

 

“Your mom’s on the phone? Says it’s an emergency?” 

 

He grabs his stuff and is out the door with the lady in a second. She leads him to the next door office and gestures to a phone, he picks it up, “Melissa?” 

 

“No, it’s Laura.” She squeaks out, whispering, “sorry I tried your cell—“ 

 

Now his worry gets worse, why would she be so desperate to get ahold of him? 

 

“Laura? What’s wrong?” 

 

“Um…” she starts, we were in class with some cops, they were coming to talk about what drug addictions look like you know? And suddenly they’re bolting from the room and—“ her voice breaks. “—they were called away to Brooklyn High. Because there’s a shooter.” Her voice goes quiet on the last word. Clint feels his heart drop as Laura continues to talk, “I texted Steve but he didn’t respond and maybe he’s not there I just—“ her voice drops off, a whisper, “I thought you should know.” 

 

His grip on the phone is bone jarring, “how long ago?” 

 

“They left not even 10 minutes ago.” 

 

“Okay.” Clint says, his mind in a haze of worry, “I’ll call Steve.” 

 

“I tried that too.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

Is he breathing? He should be breathing. 

 

“Clint, I don’t even know if he’s there, maybe he’s not even there—“

 

“I’m going to call Sam—“ Clint says haltingly, hanging up and fumbling to dial the number to the house. 

 

“Hello?” 

 

Not Sam. 

 

“Sarah?” He rasps out, his voice a deep cracked thing.

 

“Yes this is Sarah, who is this?” 

 

“Is Steve home?” 

 

“No. Not yet, who is this, can I leave a message?” 

 

He hangs up and for what feels like the thousandth time, is running. 

 

—————

 

Emil stares at him, and Steve sighs, “come on, you don’t have to keep up the act.” He says with an eye roll. “You’re clever though, all the little bits and pieces you needed to get me here as a hostage? That’s a good character study. You really nailed me to the wall. Don’t know how you did it, but hey, I’m impressed.” He walks forward, gesturing for the phone. “We’ll call you back.” He says easily, hanging up on the policeman. Then he pauses, he doesn’t actually know Howard’s number by heart. But he knows someone who does. 

 

Two rings later and Tony’s picking up. Steve puts it on speaker. 

 

Hello?”

 

“Hey Tony. It’s me, Steve, hey I don’t have my phone and I need your dad’s number.” 

 

“Steve? How the hell did you lose your phone again? Geez.” 

 

Steve laughs, “you know me. Anyways, can I get it?” Tony recites it and is about to ask another question when Steve cuts him off, “okay thanks, see you later. Bye!” 

 

Emil stares at him in wonder, “I know that voice. That was Tony Stark.” 

 

Thank goodness for famous friends with recognizable voices. 

 

Steve turns to Emil, “so, now that you know I’m about to call Howard Stark, can we get rid of the unnecessary lady?” He waves at the teacher, “she’s useless to you now. You got what you actually wanted. Bravo.” 

 

He’s flying by the seat of his pants, but what the hell, that’s what he’s been doing his whole life anyways. Better to get her free now.

 

Relief floods through him when Emil nods, his eyes calculating and wild. 

 

Steve picks up the receiver again and clicks redial. 

 

“Sergeant Fury.” 

 

“Mrs. Sammons will be exiting out the main doors in a few minutes.” 

 

A moment of surprise before, “ and you?” 

 

Steve just hangs up. 

 

————-

 

Tony shoves his last bag into the taxi when he gets a phone call. It’s not a number he recognizes, but he answers it anyway since it’s a Brooklyn number, his mind remembers the time he’d gotten a random call from a bodega owner. Steve had been knocked out in a fight and they’d helped him and used his phone to call the last number dialed.

 

Now Tony answers almost every call.

 

“Hello?” 

 

A short exchange with Steve and then the kid’s hanging up on him. 

 

“Who was that?” Bucky asks, appearing with his own bag. 

 

“Steve. Lost his phone again.” 

 

Bucky laughs, “he does manage to misplace it a lot. Why’d he call you?” 

 

“I dunno, just needed my dad’s number I guess. Got all your stuff?” 

 

“Yep.” Bucky responds, slamming the trunk shut, “let’s get to the airport before the rest of the holiday rush.” 

 

Tony nods and the taxi driver takes off.

 

——————

 

Once Mrs. Sammons is gone for a few minutes, Steve relaxes. She’s safe. 

 

“Call him.” Emil says, pointing to the phone, “call Howard Stark.” 

 

Here comes the worst part of the plan. 

 

“No.” 

 

Emil looks up in surprise, his grip on his pistol tightening, “what do you mean no?” 

 

“I mean, no, let’s talk this out, I know a lot of people who can help you, will you let me help you?” 

 

Emil gets stiff, “call Howard Stark NOW.” 

 

Steve can see the last remaining mental stability draining from Emil’s eyes. “Emil, let’s be honest, you’re not walking out of this with your hands free. You threatened a teacher and you shot at us. Do the right thing, give yourself up and ask for help.” 

 

Email’s face turns blood red with anger, “I can still kill you!” 

 

The words hang in the air like icicles, sharp and clear. 

 

“True.” Steve finally says. “But I’m dying in less than four years anyway. All you’d be doing is adding more years to the jail time you’re sure to have. But walk out with me, turn yourself in, and I’ll tell the judge what you did and get you the help you need. Okay?” 

 

He has no idea why he thinks this will work. The kid is obviously pretty far gone mentally, but something in Steve’s heart won’t let him just abandon the kid or lie his way out of this. Now that the teacher is safe, Emil’s the next one who needs help. 

 

————-

 

“Sir?” He looks up to see a pale Jarvis standing in the doorway.

 

“Yeah, Jarvis?” 

 

“Sir, I think you need to come upstairs.” 

 

There are few things Howard takes more seriously than a worried Jarvis. He sets down his tools immediately and follows Jarvis to the main living area. He’s surprised when he’s led to the living room where the news is playing on the TV. 

 

Active shooter at Brooklyn High

 

The ticker tape reads along the bottom. 

 

Steve’s heart rate. 

 

“Jarvis, get the car.” 

 

“Yes, sir.” 

 

—————

 

Something about what he said is causing conflict in Emil's brain. The kid is muttering to himself and gesturing. Then he’ll get angry and let out a bursted snarl and yell and shout at the room until he’s back to muttering and glaring at Steve. 

 

This happens a few times, each time Steve watches the pistol, hoping it doesn’t get pointed at him again. 

 

————

 

Clint scans the crowd, looking for Steve’s face. When he doesn’t see it, he tries to tamp down the worry. Just then, a shout and a cheer goes up as a haggard looking teacher bursts out of the door. She goes running into the arms of a waiting police officer and she’s hysterical. “He’s still in there, get him out! You have to get him out!” 

 

She’s led to an ambulance and Clint loses sight of her. 

 

Get who out? 

 

The attacker? 

 

Or someone else. 

 

He turns to a kid with a backpack on. “What’s going on?” 

 

“Kid from last year came back and lost his mind on some teacher. He’s got a gun.” 

 

“And it’s just the shooter guy inside now?” 

 

The kid shrugs, but then before Clint walks away, the kid says, “I think there’s someone else. Or wouldn’t they be busting inside?” 

 

He hates that that makes logical sense. 

 

He approaches the  police crowded around the entrance, “hey!” He shouts, approaching the tall black guy with an eyepatch, “you in charge?” 

 

“Who the hell let this kid slip past the barrier?!” The man barks, “get him out of here—“ 

 

“Who else is in there?!” He shouts, raising a fist to punch the police officer coming to escort him away. 

 

“Details are confidential, kid, get back to where it’s safe.” 

 

“No!” Clint says flatly, slipping past the officer and around the car before they can blink. “Is there a student in there? Is his name Steve?” 

 

They pause just long enough for it to give Clint the answer. 

 

“Shit!” He shouts, kicking the fire of the police vehicle. He turns, ready to run in the building when an arm grabs his, “hey let me go!” 

 

“Where the hell you think you’re going?” 

 

“Inside!” Clint snaps, “lot of help you’re going to do from out here!”

 

The man looks annoyed and impressed at the same time, “this is a hostage situation, kid, we go in guns blazing and we’re more likely to get Steve killed then save him.” 

 

“So he’s alright?” Clint asks, trying to wrench his arm free from the man’s vice grip. 

 

“Last we spoke to him he was. We’re about to try calling again. How do you know him?” 

 

“He’s my brother—“ Clint snaps, not caring if that’s technically not true.

 

“Still can’t let you get inside.” The man says, hauling Clint backwards. 

 

He tries to scrabble out of his grip but he can’t. He’s handed off to another police officer, a guy named Dugan. “I won’t run.” Clint lies, “you can let me go.” 

 

The man laughs, a younger cop than the rest but a positively massive frame, “they may call me Dum-Dum but even I won’t fall for that.” The man leads him back towards the police line and stays there with them. 

 

Clint huffs and stares out at the building, they said he was okay, so far— his thoughts are shattered by the sound of another gunshot. 

 

————-

 

Steve hadn’t even known his watch could ring. 

 

It never had before. 

 

But suddenly the screen lights up and a shrill tone is emitting from it and Emil loses his mind, letting off a round in the small room. 

 

“What did you do!” He bellows, ripping Steve up by the collar from where he’d been sitting against the wall, “you called for backup, didn’t you!” 

 

Steve shakes his head, his ear ringing again and this time the smell of gunpowder making him sneeze. “No I didn’t. It’s just my watch.” 

 

Emil grabs Steve’s wrist and looks. The watch is still ringing and the screen just has a pulsing button with ‘ answer ’ underneath it. 

 

Emil snarls and his fingers dig under the band, wrenching it hard. Steve yelps as his wrist bone snaps under the pressure. “Get it off!” Emil demands. Steve’s fingers fumble with the back latch as his wrist aches. “Hurry up!” 

 

Steve eyes a pair of scissors on the desk and cuts through the thick rubber band, handing the kid his watch. Emil sets it on the floor and shoots, the watch blasting into shreds at the close range. 

 

Steve’s arms fly up to protect his face from the debris and he takes a shaky step back. 

 

“Who did you call.” Emil asks through gritted teeth, “who did you call!” 

 

“You’ve been here the whole time!” Steve retorts, “I haven’t called anyone—“ 

 

They’re both cut off as the office phone rings again. 

 

Emil points the pistol at him. “Answer it.” 

 

Steve numbly walks over and picks it up. “Hello?” 

 

We heard gunshots, are you alright?” 

 

“I’m fine.” He responds quickly, “we’re both fine.” 

 

Why is he shooting then?” 

 

“Misunderstanding.” Steve grits out, his wrist starting to swell. 

 

Steve, I need you to listen to me, if he’s agitated say yes, if he’s calm say no.” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Okay. Stay calm and ask him what we can do to resolve this situation. What gets you both out the door?” 

 

“Emil,” Steve asks quietly, “they want to know what they can do to get us both out safely.” 

 

“I want her fired!” He shouts, his eyes wild and far away. “Where is she?!” He looks around the room and sanity is so far gone that Steve feels the shift happen. Emil’s eyes fly up to Steve’s “you tricked me! You tricked me into letting her go!” The pistol is suddenly in his face and Steve hears the worried sound that exits his throat as he drops the phone and backs away. Hands up in front of him in surrender. “You’re a liar!” 

 

“Steve?” He can hear the voice through the phone say, “ Steve are you there? ” 

 

“Emil.” He whispers out, “don’t do this.” He eyes are on the gun that is in Emil’s angry trembling hand. 

 

“You took away my one chance to fix it! The one chance I had to prove to them that I’m not crazy! ” 

 

Steve closes his eyes, “Emil, listen to me, you don’t want to be a murderer, okay? This is all just one big mess but we can figure it out together, okay?” 

 

“No!” Emil shouts, “you told me you’d help with Stark and you lied!” 

 

Those words sting because they’re technically true. But he hadn’t actually wanted Howard getting involved, that had just been a ploy to get Mrs. Sammons to safety. 

 

Although now that he thinks about it… that had probably been Howard calling on his watch. 

 

“I can call him now.” Steve relents, “I’ll call him.” Emil lets out an angry guttural sound and shoots the phone receiver, adding its plastic casing to the debris on the ground. 

 

It’s too late!” Steve’s back hits a wall and suddenly he has nowhere else to go. Emil stabs the muzzle of the gun against his body, “you’re just like everybody else! A liar! You think I’m crazy too!” 

 

And it’s ironic that in Steve’s next words he fulfills Emil’s accusations, “I don’t think you’re crazy, Emil.” He lies quietly, very aware of how the gun is pressing against his ribs. “I think you’ve been through a lot. You need help. Let me help you.” 

 

“You can’t help me!” Emil snarls, face too close for Steve’s comfort, then Steve watches as a shift happens in Emil’s eyes, from crazed to desperate, “they’ll kill me if they catch me.” 

 

“No,” Steve protest, “not if you—“ 

 

“They’ll call me crazy and lock me up forever. I’m not crazy.” He looks at Steve. “I won’t be locked up.” 

 

Steve doesn’t know how to respond, but it doesn’t matter because a soft thud sounds above them and both of their heads point up, as if the ceiling might reveal what the sound was. 

 

The crazed look is back in Emil’s eyes, “they’re coming for me.” And Steve doesn’t know what to say. 

 

“Just let me go.” Steve tries one last time, “we’ll go out together, we can work this out—“ 

 

The sound of the gun going off surprises him. 

 

Emil’s backing away, “don’t you come after me.” He snarls, “you deserve this, you liar!” Then he’s gone out of the room, Steve can hear his boots thudding as he runs down the hallway. 

 

The pain comes then. He looks down, blood seeping out between his fingers as he stands frozen. He wonders why the blood is vibrating only for his pain-addled brain to supply the information that it’s not, his entire body is shaking. Searing sharp pain makes him double over and gasp. His already bruised knees hit the floor again and his wrist protests as he tries to catch himself. He cries out in pain as he tumbles to the ground, looking up at the ceiling and wondering for the life of him how he always manages to end up bleeding and alone.

 

—————

 

Clint manages to slip Dugan’s grasp eventually. He slips around the building and uses the old brick wall to make it to the first floor windows. He climbs the brick, glad for the old details that provide handholds and allow him to get to the next level. He looks behind him but there’s not really an exit for the shooter to leave through, so they’re not watching this side. Only one or two patrolmen who haven’t noticed him. 

 

He slides the window of an empty classroom open and drops in. He’s as quiet as he can as he walks out the door. He slips past hallways and is heading down the stairs when he hears a gun shot. 

 

The office. 

 

He’s sprinting now, running down the linoleum lined hallways until he turns the corner and someone else is running towards him. With a pistol in his hand and a rifle on his back. 

 

They both screech to a stop and the guy raises the pistol, pulling the trigger and making Clint flinch. But the sound of an empty clip makes the kid growl and gives Clint precious seconds to duck into the nearest room. He looks at the classroom and races to the teacher’s desk, picking up the mug of pencils and pens and scissors sitting there. He sprints to the other door, the one that will get him closer to the person and he bursts out of it. The kid has the rifle perched against his shoulder, ready to fire, but Clint’s faster. The scissors lodge into the guy's knuckles, drawing a vicious snarl from his throat. Clint flicks the pencil sharply, the sharp point hits his face, not impaling him but causing him to flinch back. Clint uses every archery aiming tactic he knows to barrage the kid with projectiles until it’s just the mug. He says a silent prayer as he hurls it towards the guy. 

 

It shatters against the guy’s temple and he crumples to the ground. 

 

He’s about to ask where Steve is when he hears a choked sound of pain around the corner. He levels a kick at the guy's temple, hoping to keep him unconscious long enough.

 

Clint’s heart stops as he turns the corner to see Steve holding a bloody hand against his side and trying to drag himself out the office door on his stomach. 

 

“Steve!” He shouts, sliding onto his knees and hovering his hands over Steve’s body, “Steve!” 

 

Steve’s head angles up and glassy eyes find his, “Clint?” It’s slurred and comes out more like ‘ lint’ but he’ll take it. 

 

Relief floods his chest, “yes, it’s me, Clint! Hold on-“ he gently flips Steve onto his back and then gasps at the gaping wound on Steve’s side and the burn around it. He knows more about guns than he has ever admitted to the group, and the way this looks was point blank range, muzzle pressed against Steve. He chokes back a roar of rage and gently prods Steve’s back, feeling the exit wound. “Okay, hold on,” he grits out, “we need to get you help.” 

 

“—‘eacher,” Steve slurs out, “safe?” 

 

Clint rolls his eyes as the tears start to well up in them, angry hot tears, “yeah, Steve, she’s safe.” 

 

Steve sighs in relief. Then his bloody hand grabs Clint’s wrist, “think I’m clocking out here.” He says calmly, his eyes getting clear and coherent for a second.

 

Dread coils in Clint’s stomach at the words. It’s a phrase his boss uses at work all the time. They always have to let Coulson know when they’re leaving for the day for safety protocols. Clint’s always lightly teased him about it and he’s told Steve how ridiculous he feels everytime he says “clocking out for the day”. 

 

But now the double meaning has Clint sick. 

 

“Permission denied, Steve.” He snaps back. “Stay with me.” He presses his fingers against the still bleeding wound and uses his other arm to work under Steve’s shoulders. He hauls the kid onto his own feet, and huffs as Steve’s weight settles against him. “Come on, kid.” Clint says, taking a step forward and practically dragging Steve forward with him, “we got things to do this break. You promised me an oreo eating contest. I’m holding you to that.” 

 

And the slur is back as Steve’s head sags forward and he grumbles out, “not ‘ungry.” 

 

Clint huffs out a laugh and is silently thankfully for how light Steve is, making it easier to haul him through the hallways. He briefly glances back to the dripping trail of blood following them. 

 

He holds Steve steady and raises his leg, kicking the crash bar of the front doors and slamming them open with heavy force. Surprised faces turn his way and he just makes out the red face of Howard Stark yelling at the black man with an eye patch before all hell breaks loose. 

 

——————

 

Howard leaps out of the car when the traffic won’t let him get any closer to the school building and he’s running like he hasn’t run in years. He feels his tie flapping behind him, and he knows he causes some wild stares to those who have the second to recognize who he is before he sails past them. He’d tried to call Tony only to remember that he and Bucky were in the air by then. 

 

He makes it to the police barricade where he sees a large blonde man with a mustache arguing with a black man with an eye patch, and they look like they’re the ones in charge. He doesn’t question as people let him pass, it’s pretty typical when people see him in crowds. Surprised faces turn into awed faces as they split apart. 

 

“Howard Stark” he hears them whisper as he passes, “what’s he doing here?” 

 

He reaches the two arguing and hears the last insult, “Listen Chief!” The blond man says with a gruff respect, “he slipped my grasp and took off! I’m sure he—“ 

 

“Excuse me.” Howard says, cutting in, “I need to know what’s happening in there.” 

 

The man with the eyepatch turns to him with a glare, “doesn’t anyone understand that this is official police business!” 

 

“I need to know if one of my kids is in there!” 

 

The man whose silver name badge reads Fury throws up his hands, “what the hell is happening here! The details of what’s happening cannot be shared with bystanders, now get behind the line! ” 

 

He raises his finger, stabbing it in the man’s direction ready to tear into this guy when the doors blast open and Howard looks up, seeing Clint standing in the doorway, holding a limp and bloody Steve. 

 

He doesn't remember racing up the stairs, but he must because suddenly he’s taking half Steve’s weight and helping Clint get him down the stone steps. Paramedics rush forward and get ahold of him. Clint’s telling the eyepatch man about the kid who might still be in the hallway and suddenly police are entering the building, guns raised. 

 

But Howard’s not paying attention to that. 

 

He and Clint stand there quietly, covered in Steve’s blood, as they strap him into a gurney and load him onto the ambulance. Then Clint’s climbing in the back and even though someone tries to say “only one ride-along” Howard glares at her so fiercely that she backs away and he climbs up. They each hold one of Steve’s hands as the siren starts up and they’re driving. 

 

They hit a pothole and Steve groans, “Steve?” Howard asks, “you okay?” 

 

The kid turns and looks at him, one eye barely open and throat raspy, “whys’ur mustache sad?” 

 

Clint snorts out a disbelieving laugh at the comment and Steve rolls back into unconsciousness as the paramedics do their best to keep him stable. 

 

“How the hell did you get into that building?” Howard asks, looking at Clint who is staring at Steve. 

 

“I climbed.” 

 

And Howard doesn’t ask any questions after that.

 

———————-



Chapter Text

Monty’s laughing at a story that Tony is telling as the plane lands. Bucky had been able to convince Monty to come home with them and spend Christmas break somewhere non academic. 

 

“—no, I swear!” Tony’s smirking, “we never even made it past level—“ he stops, looking down at his phone. Bucky looks down to see it lighting up with messages and calls he missed. One call from his dad and one message that just says: call me the minute you land. 

 

Tony tilts his head, “maybe something came up and he needs someone else to pick us up…” he says it lightly, but Bucky knows Tony well enough to hear the concern in his tone. 

 

He tries his dad, but it rings through going to voicemail. Tony hangs up and they sit there quietly as the plane taxis to the gate. 

 

They’re about to disembark, bags in hand, standing in the line when Tony’s phone rings. He answers it immediately.

 

“Dad?” 

 

Bucky can’t hear what Howard is saying but Tony goes absolutely rigid, color draining from his face. 

 

“No—“ Tony chokes out.

 

“Tony?” Bucky asks, panic ratcheting higher, “Tony what is it?” But Tony just turns, his wide blank eyes meeting Bucky’s and no words exiting his mouth. “Tony!” Bucky growls, feeling sick to his stomach, he can feel Monty shifting awkwardly behind him even though they’re still stuck in the line. Tony still doesn’t respond, so Bucky snatches the phone out of his hand and puts it to his ear, “Mr. Stark? What’s happening?” 

 

And he hears it: “Dr. Ephraim to the nurses’ station please—“ the pa in the background of the phone call sounds over the phone and Bucky’s heart drops, those are hospital noises. 

 

“Mr Stark?” He asks again, weakly. 

 

“Jarvis is coming to pick you up.” A cracked voice says before the line goes dead. 

 

He looks up at Tony who is still staring blankly at him, “Tony,” he growls, “what did your dad say?” 

 

And Tony blinks slowly before the words exit his mouth, flat and emotionless, “Steve’s in surgery, they don’t think he’s going to make it.” 

 

He hears a gasp from Monty or maybe that was from him. But he can’t be sure because he’s forgotten how to breathe. 

 

“Please move up!” A stewardess at the front of the plane calls, the gap between Tony and the person in front of him in line growing. They move like robots, stiffly walking off the plane and down to baggage claim where Jarvis waits for them, looking absolutely miserable. 

 

——————-

 

Sam gets home from his quick trip to the VA where he was meeting with an old buddy while Sarah watched the house. He slips up to the room to shower and change and then walks down to the kitchen, expecting to see Sarah starting dinner, but instead she is standing staring out the window by the sink. 

 

“Sarah?” 

 

She turns to face him and her eyes are red from crying. “Sarah what happened? What is it?” 

 

“I didn’t want to tell you over the phone.” She whispers, “I know how much you dread it being over the phone.” 

 

Something about that statement makes him go on high alert. “What are we talking about right now, Sarah?” 

 

“Sam,” she starts, and she chokes off, her voice thick as she starts crying again, “Steve—“ 

 

His brain goes haywire, “Steve what!” 

 

He doesn’t wait for an answer, he runs out of the room and bounds up the stairs, bursting into Steve’s room only to see his bed made and empty like he’d left it that morning. A few of the kids look at him curiously. “Anybody seen Steve?” He asks, using every fiber of his being to sound calm. 

 

Peter speaks up, “no, he hasn’t come home from school yet.” 

 

Sam’s knowledge of the time tells him Steve should have been home hours ago. 

 

“Sam!” He hears Sarah call, “Sam get down here.” 

 

But he can’t. He checks the other room, the bathroom, then he walks down the stairs and ignores Sarah calling his name. He checks the living room and then even his room and the small room next to it. He’s got to be here somewhere. 

 

“Steve?” He calls out, his voice cracking, “Steve?” 

 

A hand appears on his shoulder, “Sam, he’s at Brooklyn Med. Howard called a while ago—“ 

 

“How long ago?”

 

“Maybe an hour or so—“ 

 

“And he didn’t call me!” Sam’s panic morphs into fury, emotion roiling and not knowing how to express itself. 

 

“No, no, he called here for you, and when I told him you were gone he said he would call you but I told him not to.” 

 

“Why!” Sam shouts, “why!” 

 

“I didn’t want it to be over the phone,” she whispers, “and it wouldn’t have made a difference in time, Steve will be in surgery for hours.” 

 

Sam short circuits, “surgery!” He sucks in a deep gasp, “for what!” 

 

“He was shot.” Sarah says, her eyes squeezing closed, “today at school—“ 

 

Sam’s not seeing. He’s grabbing keys and his phone and he’s running out the door so fast he thinks he leaves it wide open. 

 

——————



A hand rests on his ever bouncing knee to still it. He looks up to see Howard, staring off into the distance. 

 

They’re both still covered in Steve’s blood. They’d been relegated to the waiting room as they’d rushed Steve into the ER. 

 

And now here they sat, helpless and useless and impatient. 

 

Tony had called just minutes ago. So now he and Bucky knew and we’re on their way. 

 

Clint had called Natasha not long after arrival but her phone had gone straight to voicemail. 

 

Then he’d called Laura and cried over the phone, hiding behind a vending machine as she tried to soothe him through the phone. Steve’s tired expression and eerie calmness when he’d found him in the hallway making Clint panic that he wouldn’t fight hard enough to make it through. 

 

—————

 

Bucky had never been in a car ride so silent. A part of him felt bad for Monty who was sitting quietly and looked very concerned. But his brain was so preoccupied with his thoughts running rampant about what happened that he couldn’t do anything about that right now. 

 

So as they walk into the waiting area, he’s not sure how it can get worse, until he sees a blood-covered Clint and Howard sitting quietly side by side. 

 

“What the hell.” Tony rasps out, stopping in front of his dad, “what happened to you!?” 

 

Howard looks down where Tony is gesturing and confusion is on his face before his tired eyes look up to Tony. 

 

“This isn’t mine. It’s Steve’s.” 

 

Tony looks to Clint, taking in his bloody clothes as well and takes a step back, “what, was he vomiting blood again?” And it’s almost like he hopes that’s the right answer. 

 

Bucky steps closer, wondering the same thing.

 

“No.” Howard starts, standing and cracking his neck back and forth, “no, that’s not what happened. We actually don’t know much of what happened yet. But sit—“  he gestures to the chairs across from them. Neither of them move. Howard pinches the bridge of his nose, “Anthony, James. Sit down.” 

 

Hearing his first name makes his knees buckle and he’s sitting. He sees Monty sit off to the side. 

 

Howard points at Clint, “you know more than I do.” 

 

Clint is now leaning back, his head tipped towards the ceiling and eyes closed, “I got a call from Laura—“ he starts, his hands gripping the material of his jeans, “she told me that some cops left her class to respond to a school shooting at Brooklyn High—-“ 

 

Tony freezes beside him, but he’s bolting out of his chair, “no—“ he feels his stomach rolling, and the blood on their clothes becomes that much more visceral. He lurches forward, finding a trash can and vomits into it. The pretzels and soda he’d eaten on the plane burning his throat as they make a reappearance. 

 

A hand rests on his back and he looks up to see a concerned Monty standing over him, paper towel in hand. He takes the towel, thanking him weakly before wiping at his mouth. 

 

He sinks down shakily onto the ground and leans against the trash can. After a minute he reaches his hand up and Monty hauls him up, helping him back to his chair. 

 

Clint hasn’t moved and Tony’s still frozen. “So I run to the school.” Clint resumes, “and when I get there I find out that it’s just the shooter, Steve, and a teacher in there. But—“.

 

“You better tell me what the hell is going on!” They hear a shout and they look up, “I’m his dad!” 

 

Howard stands, “I’ll get him.” 

 

They fall silent until minutes later when Howard walks back around the corner with Sam in tow, both looking positively unbalanced. 

 

“Start over.” Howard tells Clint as Sam sits, looking more upset that Bucky has ever seen him. 

 

Clint recounts the first part of his story, “then I climbed up the outside of the building. And when I made my way into the office I ran into the kid.” His face gets dark, “if I’d known he’d already shot Steve, he would have gotten a lot more than scissors to the knuckles and a mug to the head!” His voice is hard as flint as eyes clenched closed. They’re deathly silent as Clint continues, “then I round the corner and Steve’s on his stomach, dragging himself out of the office—“ his voice cuts off, covering his face with his hands, “and he was bleeding so much, out the front and back and he looked so tired and he told me he was ‘clocking out’ and I told him he better the hell not and then I dragged him up and out of the building and suddenly Howard was on the steps with me and the paramedics were already there and then they rushed him to the OR and now we’re here.” 

 

Somehow Tony manages to find the voice that eludes Bucky, “how did Steve even manage to be the only student in the whole damn school who stayed in the building??”

 

“We don’t know anything.” Howard responds flatly, “we left in the ambulance with Steve. They haven’t released details yet.” 

 

Tony looks up to Clint, “did you call Nat?” 

 

Clint nods, “straight to voicemail.” 

 

Howard looks at them, “what about Carter, anyone call her?” 

 

“I’ll call her.” He dials her number. It rings but goes to voicemail too. So he leaves a voicemail not giving too many details. Just a message for her to call, same as Natasha.

 

Sam stares out into the distance, fingers gripping the arm rests so hard that his fingertips are white. 

 

“What do we do now?” Tony asks, looking around as if the answer might pop out of nowhere. 

 

But Howard sits and his hand snakes out to still Clint’s bouncing knee. “Now we wait.” 

 

—————

 

It’s an hour later when a frantic Scott comes bursting into the waiting room. He takes in the group of them and sinks into a chair, head in his hands. 

 

And Bucky suddenly feels angry at the kid, “where were you!” He snaps, “I thought we discussed you protecting Steve!” 

 

“Bucky—“ Sam admonishes, but Scott looks up miserably. 

 

“I had to go home right after class.” He stares quietly, “I had an appointment and Steve said he had a makeup test to take.” 

 

Sam draws in a deep breath, closing his eyes, “he did. He told me he had to take a test today or he wouldn’t like his ending semester grade. I told him it was fine since you guys weren’t coming in till later and he was so set on getting this last test in.” 

 

“I have to call Pepper.” Tony says, face looking pale as he stands and walks away. 

 

————-

 

Peggy zips up her bag and hauls it off the bed. Her last final had taken significantly longer than expected and she is more than an hour and a half behind her original planned schedule. She checks her phone. 

 

A message from Steve sits unread from this morning. She clicks on it now. 

 

I’ll be happy to be kissed senseless by you. See you tonight. Milo’s at 7, don’t you dare be late. Good luck on your final, you’re going to do amazing. 

 

She smiles and types back. 

 

Running late now, but I should still be able to be there by 7!

 

She looks at her watch and then at the missed call and voicemail from Bucky. He’d called her earlier this week to ask about what sorts of things his mum should have in the house for his British roommate who was coming home with him this week. She hasn’t had the chance to get back to him and she feels bad for putting it off just now but she really does need to get moving. She’ll call him back after the train ride when she has time. Or maybe she’ll try to speak to him at Milo’s. She had sent a text message to her own mother about it and her mum had replied that she’d put some things together. So she’ll grab that before she heads out to meet with them.

 

——————



Shooter in custody as details develop. One victim is at Brooklyn General, their status is unknown. 

 

Clint reads the little subtitles as they appear on the screen in the corner. He looks around, taking in the sign that clearly says Brooklyn Medical. “Why are they reporting that he’s at Brooklyn General?”

 

“Because I don’t want anyone knowing where he is.” Howard says flatly, typing something on his phone. “When Steve makes it out of surgery. I refuse to have more quack job reporters trying to sneak into his hotel room.” 

 

The kid in the corner that Clint guesses is Bucky’s roommate, looks up with wide eyes, he mouths the question to Bucky, more?

 

Clint watches as Bucky’s shoulders sag, “tell you later.” 

 

Tony reappears and looks vaguely calmer. “Tried Natasha again. Still no answer.” 

 

“Anyone try Peggy again?” 

 

Clint shakes his head, as do the others, but no one moves to take out their cell-phone. 

 

Clint can’t even imagine how she’ll react. She and Natasha are somehow some of the most calm yet terrifying people he knows. 

 

Bucky turns to Sam, “what did you tell the kids?” 

 

Sam sighs, scrubbing hands down the sides of his face, “nothing yet. I texted Sarah to tell them that Steve’s sick for now. That I took him to the hospital. But if things get worse—“ his voice cuts off and they go quiet again. 

 

——————-

 

Natasha’s scrambling. Her phone had died and when she finally got back to her room after a brutal dance final, she’s discovered that the cord to her charger isn’t working, or maybe it was the brick or the outlet or who the hell knew. She usually is pretty organized when packing, but she is so ready to be home for break that she shoves everything into the bag, grabs her shoes and she’s running out the door, hoping to catch the bus to the station she needs. 

 

The tunnel traffic makes her physically want to drag her nails on a chalkboard but she sits, fiddling with her dead phone. And just picturing how nice it will be to sit down at Milo’s tonight and just hang out with the group. 

 

—————-

 

Peggy gets home, greeting her parents and the family dog before flopping onto her bed in a rather undignified way. She shimmies out of her school clothes and changes, picking out the red sweater that she knows Steve likes and putting on comfy leggings and brown boots that will do well in the cold outside. She grabs the basket of items her mum had put together for her. 

 

“I’ll be home later tonight!” She calls, dashing her coat around her and looking at her phone, pushing Bucky’s number. 

 

Hello?”

 

“Bucky! Hello, sorry I’m just returning your call. My mum put some things together for your roommate and I’ll bring them to Milo’s. Is that alright?” 

 

Peggy.” 

 

She stops in the middle of the street. Basket in hand, and phone clutched in her glove. That’s not Bucky’s normal voice. 

 

Peggy, can you hear me?” 

 

Yes.” She whispers. 

 

“We’re at Brooklyn Medical.” He starts, his voice starting to get tougher as he speaks, “Steve’s—“ her heart leaps into her throat and she’s walking, ignoring the looks she gets as she shoves past people, bounding down the nearest subway station. “He’s…” she hears before the static of the subway station blocking his signal starts to crackle. “Just come soon—“ the call goes dead but it doesn’t matter because she isn’t listening anyways. 

 

—————-

 

Natasha bursts through the door at Milo’s at 6:58. Her suitcase is in her hands and she looks around, expecting to see the group or some of them sitting there. 

 

Surprisingly she’s the first one there. She squints at the clock. She uses her fingers to calculate backwards. Bucky and Tony and the roommate guy they were bringing should have been in Brooklyn hours ago. And Steve and Clint should definitely be here… she looks up hoping to see Clint’s uncle Ricky, but it’s another worker behind the counter that she doesn’t recognize. 

 

She waits for a few minutes, standing in the warmth of the little deli before her gut tells her something’s off. So she trudges back out into the cold and makes her way to the house. She walks in, and it seems relatively quiet and subdued. She sees a few kids in the living room with the tv on, but Sam’s office door is open and dark, and the kitchen is quiet. 

 

She makes her way upstairs and enters her room. 

 

Sarah sits on a bed, talking to some of the kids quietly. 

 

“What’s going on?” She asks, dropping her stuff and getting their attention. “I went to Milo’s but nobody was there, where’s Steve?” 

 

Peter looks up, and he waves hello, “he’s sick again. Sam took him to the hospital.” 

 

“Oh.” She nods. She guesses that makes sense… But Sarah’s tight facial expression makes her pause. Yelena gets up and she hugs her, “how’s school?” She asks. 

 

“It’s good.” Yelena responds. And she and Yelena and Wanda talk for a while, but Sarah keeps staring at her and Natasha knows something else is happening. Pietro and Peter sit, playing with some toy as the rest of the kids mill about quietly. 

 

It’s awfully subdued for being the first day of Christmas break. 

 

“Sarah?” Natasha asks, catching the woman’s eyes on her again, “everything okay?” 

 

Sarah pauses for a moment, “where’s your phone?” She asks casually. 

 

“It’s dead.” Natasha replies, “died earlier and my charger quit on me. Why?” 

 

Sarah shrugs in an approximation of calm, “I think Clint called here earlier trying to get ahold of you. You should call him back.” 

 

The tone of that statement has Natasha’s senses on high alert. “Okay.” She responds, standing and walking out of the room. She walks down the stairs and to the phone in the kitchen. 

 

It rings twice before Clint answers, “hello?” 

 

Clint, it’s me, Nat. Sarah said you were trying to get a hold of me—” 

 

It’s Nat—“ she hears Clint say, “Nat.” His voice cuts off and she knows something is very wrong. 

 

“Clint,” she starts, “Clint what is it?” 

 

“It’s Steve. We’re at Brooklyn Medical and he’s in surgery.” 

 

Her mind whirls, “what! Surgery for what!? His heart?” 

 

No—“ Clint whispers back, “everyone’s here, you better come soon—“ he sounds distracted, not all with it. 

 

“Clint, surgery for what?” 

 

Mr. Wilson, Mr. Stark?” She hears a voice she doesn’t recognize in the background of the phone call. 

 

“Clint!” She calls again, but there’s no answer. She hears muffled noises as if the phone is brushing up against something and she realizes Clint’s not holding it to his ear anymore. 

 

She hangs up the phone and only briefly remembers grabbing her coat before heading out the door. 

 

—————

 

Howard and Sam look up at the sound of their names. But everyone stands, watching as the doctor stops in front of them. 

 

“I’m Dr. Shepard.” The man says, “you’re the family for Steve Rogers?” They nod and the man grows solemn, “the bullet did a lot of damage going in and coming out. The bleeding was very severe.” They stand silently, waiting for the shoe to drop or for hope or anything. “We’ve debrided the wound and will continue to do so as necessary, and the wound has also been drained and may need to be again depending on his healing. The swelling has gone down, but there may still need to be a fasciotomy. We’re not sure yet. He may need skin grafts over the hole.”

 

Sam furrows his brow, “skin grafts?” 

 

“Point blank.” Clint whispers. And they turn to him, he looks up looking miserable. “I could tell it was a point blank shot. He’d been burned by the muzzle.” 

 

The doctor sighs and nods, “he is correct. The muzzle of the gun must have been pressed against his skin during the shot, but more than the actual burn, the force of the gunshot so close caused quite the hole as it tore through. So depending on how the surgeon is able to close the wound will decide whether he needs a graft or not.” 

 

“What’s another fucking scar on this kid!” Tony snaps, jaw clenched and eyes full or anxious fury, “what else can happen huh? What the fuck else!” 

 

“Anthony.” Howard says sharply, then he turns to the doctor, “so they’re hopeful he’ll make it out of surgery? Because when we first got here—“ 

 

The doctor holds up a hand, “I can’t make any promises. Doing so, guessing the outcome is dangerous. Surgery is tough on even the healthiest bodies and Steve—“ 

 

“We know!” Sam snaps, cutting him off. “We know.” 

 

The doctor nods, “Steve’s heart rate is erratic and there’s no telling how the rest of it will go. But we just wanted to alert you that now that we’re past the part of an open wound, we will be beginning the blood transfusion.” Sam nods and the doctor retreats. 

 

There’s no time to go over what he just says as the far doors burst open and Peggy comes running in.

 

—————

 

Bucky looks over as Peggy comes to a skidding halt in front of them, “where is he—“ she asks, her chest heaving from presumably having run a far distance, “is he—?” Her voice cuts off, eyes searching all their faces. 

 

“He’s still in surgery.” Howard manages to get out, “we don’t know yet.” 

 

She sinks into a chair and covers her face, “what the hell happened!” She asks finally, looking up, “is it his heart?” 

 

And Clint sighs, starting his story for the 4th time. 

 

—————

 

Natasha walks quietly through the halls, she’s pacing back and forth, Bucky watches her from the chair he’s sitting in, although his eyes are glazed. They’ve been there for hours and still haven’t heard much. 

 

The last thing the doctor came out to say was that Steve’s transfusion went alright. 

 

She turns and catches Clint who looks miserable but refuses to leave the hospital to go change. The same with Howard. 

 

Sam’s on the phone, updating Sarah and working on details for the house.  Tony and Pepper are talking quietly. Her face is pinched in worry and Tony looks like he’s pretending not to be having the anxiety attack he’s been fighting for the past while. 

 

Scott’s sitting in a chair, barely paying attention to the deck of cards he’s shuffling and reshuffling every few seconds. 

 

Laura has appeared and disappeared, bringing coffee and pastries and going back to get whatever else people need who aren’t willing to leave the vicinity of the waiting room. 

 

Then Natasha’s eyes catch on Peggy. 

 

Peggy who has been silent and stoic since the moment Natasha arrived. Peggy stands at the big glass window overlooking the street below. Her hands crossed tightly over her chest and fingers gripping her own ribs. 

 

Natasha’s about to go over there and try to talk to her about something when Monty, Bucky’s roommate who she hasn’t met yet, appears at her side. He holds up a cup of something that Natasha can see is steaming from here, and says something quietly. 

 

Peggy lets out a surprised watery laugh and the group looks up. She responds with something they can’t hear and Monty is chuckling, nodding along as he sinks to the ground, patting the floor and leaning against the glass. Natasha is surprised when Peggy relents, sitting down for the first time in hours and resting her back against the window. 

 

————-

 

Steve’s been in surgery for almost 6 hours when a doctor appears and gets their attention. 

 

They all stand, a giant gaggle of people waiting on his every word. “He’s out of surgery and he’s stable for now.” 

 

A visible wave of relief flows through them. “When can we see him?” Bucky asks, stepping forward. 

 

The doctor grimaces, “I’m afraid that won’t be possible for a while.” 

 

“Why not?” 

 

“As you’re all aware, his immune system is quite weak, and the autoimmune disease isn’t helping at all. His heart, and his body are in a very fragile state. He’ll be in a separate room, quarantined away from contaminations or anything that could weaken his body more. He needs every ounce of strength to heal from this wound and keep his heart running.” 

 

Peggy’s suddenly at the front, “I don’t care if you have to douse me in bleach or put me in a beekeeper's suit, I’m sitting with him the moment he’s settled outside of the operating room.” 

 

The doctor’s eyes blink back in surprise as he looks at Peggy who is perhaps the most intimidating thing Clint has ever seen in his life at the moment. 

 

“Well, you—“ 

 

“Well, nothing.” Peggy snaps, “you said he needs to be kept safe. I’ll do nothing less. I’ll scrub every ounce of my skin until you’ve no choice but to let me sit with him, do you understand?!” 

 

And no one quite knows how to respond to that so the doctor just blinks and then backs away, leaving quickly. 

 

“Damn, Carter.” Tony says with a huff, “you’re terrifying you know that.” 

 

She turns to him and Clint almost expects her fists to be raised with how defensive she looks. “I’ll not have anyone’s cheek about the matter. Steve doesn’t need to sit in some white walled room alone. He needs us. Our support.” 

 

And no one disagrees. 

 

——————-

 

Another hour passes but eventually a nurse walks her way and looks at them warily. “We don’t have the ability to have you in the room yet, but we can take you outside his room so you can see him.” 

 

Peggy looks about ready to protest, but the woman holds up a hand, “we’re going to try to get you in that room. But we have to be cautious. So be patient with us and we will work with you. I promise.” Peggy snaps her mouth shut and nods. “Okay, we’re going to do three at a time. Alright?” Peggy stands, as does Sam. There’s a brief pause where Bucky glances at Howard, but when the man nods at him, he stands and joins the group. “Right this way.” 

 

They follow her though a few hallways and down a far corridor until they come to a glass window that stares into a small room. 

 

Bucky hears Peggy gasp but he can’t look away from the sight in front of him. 

 

Steve lays on the bed, looking so small and fragile. A gaunt face and dark circles haunt his eyes, and an oxygen mask covers the lower part of his face. 

 

Everything under the neck is covered in blankets. 

 

“He kept shivering, as his body is having a hard time regulating temperature after the blood loss. Hopefully that self corrects, especially with the transfusion, but for now the room is warm and the blankets are helping him conserve body heat.” 

 

The side of Sam’s fist is resting against the glass as all three of them stare at the sight before them.

 

————-

 

They take shifts, sitting in the waiting room or watching outside his window. 

 

Mrs. Stark shows up later that night and drags both Howard and Clint home to shower and change. Natasha watches in wonder as the usually quiet and reserved woman commands with a power that Natasha is in awe of. 

 

Sam leaves in the morning but promises to be back the minute he’s able or if Steve wakes up. He looks absolutely torn about leaving, but they assure him that the other kids need him too since Sarah has to go to work and that Steve would want him to go take care of them. So eventually he does. 

 

Scott leaves too, looking forlorn as he walks away. His family needing to leave for their holiday trip. 

 

Pepper and Laura both say their goodbyes once midnight passes, but promise to check in often and offer to be liaisons for whatever is needed. They continually remind the ones left that they’re just a text away. 

 

Around 5am, Clint returns, showered and fresh and with food from Mrs. Stark in a bag in his hand. They eat quietly and Clint informs them that Howard has a few things he wants to get done before Steve wakes up. So he’ll be back eventually. 

 

Clint, Natasha, Bucky, Tony, and Peggy sit quietly in the waiting room. They’d been gently shoo’d away from the window when the nurses had needed to change Steve’s bandages and take him for scans. 

 

The sun is rising, lighting up the room with a warm glow when the two policemen arrive. 

 

Bucky notices them first. A man with an eyepatch and another with a mustache. 

 

The cops stop at the nearby nurses station. 

 

“We’re here to check in on Steve Rogers.” The man with the eyepatch says in a low tone. 

 

The nurse looks up and her brow furrows at the cops in front of her, “what is this regarding?” 

 

“We need to get his statement.” The mustachioed man says. 

 

“He’s not awake.” The nurse responds flatly. “Come back later.” 

 

They look about to follow that order when the mustache man looks over and sees their group. Bucky feels rather than sees Clint slink down in his chair. 

 

“Hey—“ the mustache man says, “you’re that kid!” 

 

The two cops walk over and Clint looks up at them, “oh. Hey.” 

 

They stare at each other for a moment before the man with the eyepatch looks at the group, “are you all here for Steve Rogers?” 

 

They nod and the cop looks at each of them, then his eyes land on Clint, “how’d you get into the building?” 

 

Clint looks at the man and then sags in his chair, “I climbed up the outside and into a second story classroom.” 

 

The mustachioed man laughs, “no shit.” 

 

“That was a very dangerous thing to do, young man.” The other cop says, “you could have made the situation worse.” 

 

Clint glares at the man, “least I was getting something done.” The group widens their eyes but he doesn’t stop there, “what the hell even happened, huh? Why did the teacher get released before a student!” 

 

The man steps forward, causing Clint to fall silent as he sits in a chair beside Natasha, “Steve, from the story the teacher has told us, was very brave.” He looks at each of them but back to Clint, “we’re here to get his side of the story, figure out why he was still in the building in the first place, but Mrs Sammons, that’s the teacher, explained to us that Steve tricked the shooter into letting her go.” 

 

All of them sit there frozen. Peggy’s fingers are gripping Bucky’s arm, and his hand is gripping over top of hers. 

 

“How?” Tony asks, “how!” 

 

The mustached man sits then as well, speaking to Tony, “she said he called you. To get your father’s number?” 

 

Bucky feels his throat go dry. The phone call. Tony’s eyes catch his and they lock. 

 

“Holy shit!” Tony shouts standing, clutching at his hair and his chest heaving. 

 

“Calm down, Tony.” Natasha cautions, stepping over and putting a hand on his shoulder, “deep breaths.” 

 

The cops watch in confusion as Tony sits on his heels, clutching at one of the chair legs and sucking in pained sounding breaths of air. Peggy is still grasping his arm. “He called him?” She whispers, “while he was in there?” 

 

Bucky nods numbly, “we were getting ready to leave for the airport and Tony gets a call. Steve said he lost his phone again and needed Howard’s number.” 

 

The policeman is nodding, “the teacher said that somehow, Steve managed to convince the kid that he was the bigger target. Could get him in with Howard Stark and—“ the man pauses, “well we’re not exactly sure what he promised him. But the kid agreed. Letting the teacher go in exchange for contact with Howard Stark.” 

 

Tony makes a little choking noise and Clint looks ill. 

 

“Why didn’t your dad tell us he’d called?” Natasha asks. 

 

“He never did.” All five look up to the mustache man. He nods and continues, “no call after the last one to the police outside was made from that phone. And at some point that phone was shot to smithereens.” 

 

“What happened?” Clint asks, “what happened after the teacher left?” 

 

The man with the eyepatch stands, “that’s what we need to ask Steve. The kid in custody isn’t talking much sense. We’re gathering the camera footage from the school, but that won’t give us audio. So we will be back when he wakes up.” 

 

They leave and the group sits quietly as Tony tries to regain his breath. 

 

Peggy’s hand relaxes on his arm, and he feels surprise as her hand slips into his, interlocking fingers and gripping his hand for support. 

 

He grips it back just as tightly. 

 

—————

 

When Howard returns, Tony hauls him off to the side and Natasha watches as Howard grows pale and stiff at what Tony is telling him. 

 

—————-

 

It’s days of Steve being unconscious. 

 

They take shifts, somehow weirdly grateful that it’s Christmas break and none of them have school or anything to attend to. 

 

Clint does call his boss, telling him a brief recount of what happened and how he wouldn’t be taking a shift for a while. Mr. Coulson informs him to take all the time he needs. 

 

So they sit. And they wait. And they hope. 

 

—————-

 

Sam looks harried. Between running back and forth from the house and trying to be near Steve. 

 

Eventually they watch as Howard pulls him aside and tells him to go home. They’ll call him the minute they have news. And when Sam starts to protest, Howard plays dirty. “Steve would be mad that you’re here, twiddling your thumbs instead of taking care of his siblings. There’s nothing here you can do for him, so go home and take care of them.” 

 

Natasha fields yet another call from Yelena asking how Steve is doing. Natasha had broke down and told her after the first night, and she knows that Wanda and Pietro know now, but they’re still keeping the details from the younger kids. 

 

Peter’s very worried, Yelena tells her, but he still just thinks Steve’s really sick. 

 

Tony, Clint and Monty are at Tony’s at the moment, getting a shower and a nap in before heading back. 

 

Peggy’s parents have stopped by once, hugging and sitting with their daughter who has practically refused to go anywhere. 

 

Natasha has gone home a few times. Seeing the other kids and her sister. She looks over at Bucky and Peggy. Who have become practically inseparable through this ordeal. They’ve left the hospital the least. Only when absolutely necessary and when others are shoving them out the door. But it’s always for only a few hours and then they’re back, staring at the nurses station as if that might manifest good news. 

 

The Barnes have come by often. Bringing food and snacks and even books or things to help keep their minds and hands occupied. 

 

“He’s starting to fidget.” 

 

Natasha looks up at the nurse who is smiling at them. 

 

“What?” Peggy asks, standing and dragging Bucky up with her. “He’s what?” 

 

The nurse turns to her, “he’s starting to shift and move in his sleep. That’s a good sign. Movement and motion on his own is good. It could be a sign that he’s going to wake soon.” 

 

She leaves and they all stare at each other, a little ray of hope growing in each of their chests. 

 

——————

 

Christmas Eve arrives and Uncle Ricky appears, loaded down with subs and chips and drinks for the group. 

 

He stays for a bit but then ruffles Clint’s hair and is gone. 

 

A small pile of presents sits on one chair. All have Steve’s name on them. 

 

Sarah’s stops by, kissing each of them on the cheek and hugging them so hard it makes each one of them want to cry. 

 

Mr. And Mrs. Stark leave to go to his work's Christmas Eve party, but Howard looks miserable doing so. 

 

Monty, who Bucky is infinitely apologizing to for the situation, sits good naturedly in a hospital chair, reading a manual from Howard’s lab that he’s been fascinated with. 

 

Peggy and Bucky sit back to back, trading barbs about who is going to yell at Steve more when he comes to. 

 

Natasha and Clint sit cross legged in front of each other, playing magnetic travel checkers.

 

Pepper and Laura had dropped by, given their gifts to their boys and then had to go for family events. 

 

Rebecca and the Barnes’ have been and gone. A plate of Christmas Cookies and a gift for Steve left on a little table. 

 

Suddenly Tony sits up. “Where is Steve’s phone?” 

 

Bucky looks over to him, “what?” 

 

“Steve said he lost his phone. that he didn’t have my dad’s number. But why? When did he lose it?” 

 

No one answers because no one knows. 

 

Tony pulls out his cell and starts tapping away. After a moment he makes a confused noise, “it says it’s in the school.” 

 

“What?” Natasha asks, leaning over his shoulder, “where?” 

 

“Just on the left side of the building, I can’t get more specific than that.” He stands, “I’m going to get it.” 

 

Peggy looks up in surprise, “what? Why?” 

 

“Because maybe he left it for a reason? Why didn’t he have it on him? What’s the reason for calling me?” 

 

“Tony—“ Natasha cautions, “what are you going to do, break into the school? It still is a crime scene right now.” 

 

But Tony’s already walking away. They stare at each other in surprise as they scramble to their feet. Bucky and Peggy and Natasha all start to follow him. But Natasha stops looking back at Clint who is still sitting with a pinched face. “I’ve seen it. I don’t want to again.” Monty makes an ‘I’ll just stay here gesture’. And Natasha hurries after the other three. 

 

—————



The school is dark, police tape still lining the main doors. But Tony just cracks the lock on an old window in the back and they crawl in. 

 

They use their phone flashlights and follow the signal to a classroom. They stop at the teacher's desk. 

 

Natasha leans in and pulls on the top desk drawer. It’s locked but Tony just hands his phone to someone else and gets to work. 

 

The drawer pops open and Steve’s phone sits on the top. 

 

“Do teachers take phones when they give tests now?” Bucky asks, “maybe that’s why it’s here?” 

 

The phone itself is dead as they make their way back out to the hallway. 

 

They come across a little yellow marker and stop. 

 

A flop of paper sits in the middle of the hallway. Natasha leans down, shining her flashlight on it. 

 

She takes a step back and shakes her head, “it’s his test.” 

 

Bucky looks down and sure enough, Steve’s name is written in his clear handwriting on the top of the first page. They don’t touch it, walking past and down the stairs. More yellow markers and drops of blood greet them. Broken shards of a mug tell them where they are. 

 

By silent consensus they make their way to the office. 

 

The phone’s light catches on the yellow marker by the giant smear of blood right outside the door. 

 

Peggy grabs his hand and he holds it back. They step around it gingerly into the office, careful not to touch anything. 

 

The blood splatter and bullet hole on the wall make Tony crouch down, head in his hands, while Peggy and Bucky and Natasha all grip each other’s hands so tight it’s painful. The long trail of blood from where he crawled makes them sick. 

 

“Let's go.” Natasha says, more calmly than she feels, “there’s nothing here.” 

 

—————

 

“Mr. Stark?” 

 

Tony blinks his eyes awake, rubbing at them and sitting up, “huh?” 

 

“He’s waking up.” 

 

Adrenaline shoots through Tony as he stands, looking at the nurse in disbelief, “what?” 

 

She smiles brightly, “he’s waking up. Merry Christmas by the way.” 

 

Tony scrambles to wake the others and they follow her to the hallway where the glass window shows them Steve’s room. 

 

They watch for what feels like forever, but eventually Steve’s eyes open and stay open.

 

A nurse is in the room, talking to him, but Steve is looking at her in confusion. He hasn’t noticed them yet and the nurse furrows her brow. She says something else and Steve’s hand twitches. 

 

She leans in, checking his pupils and then gently grabbing his hand. He sits there staring at her and something uneasy curls in Tony’s stomach. 

 

She grabs a pen from her pocket and writes something down on her clipboard. She shows it to Steve who nods and the nurse smiles, making an ‘okay’ gesture.

 

“Guys—” Clint says hoarsely. But he doesn’t get to finish as the nurse walks out. 

 

“Sorry about that,” she says easily, “his chart only mentioned hearing loss in one ear. But he’s awake and coherent. So feel free to tap on the window to get his attention.” 

 

Peggy does so immediately. Steve turns and his eyes widen a bit as he catches sight of them. The deep circles under his eyes do nothing to lessen the smile that spreads across his face. 

 

Peggy lets out a choked sob and her hand presses against the glass, leaning forward. “Steve.” She says softly. She turns to the nurse, “can we please go in there? Please? It’s Christmas. Please.” 

 

The nurse looks extremely torn, and then she sighs, “you’ll have to follow strict protocol to enter, but if you do, then I think we can manage something.” 

 

————-

 

Steve’s already back asleep by the time they clear inspection and make it inside. Sadly his gifts and the food don’t get to make it in, but they don’t complain. They’re washed and gloved and masked to the gills but they enter the little room, quietly sitting in the chairs circling the bed. 

 

Peggy sits on his left, holding his hand gently, and Bucky on his right. 

 

It takes a few hours but eventually he stirs again. Blue eyes opening and catching them. 

 

Steve makes a sound in his throat that gets their attention and soon they’re crowded around, “Steve!” Peggy says sharply, “don’t you dare scare us like that again.” 

 

Steve winces and shakes his head. Then he lifts a shaky frail arm to his ear. 

 

Tony reaches into his pocket and pulls out the hearing aid Sam was handed the day after the accident. They’d given him all the belongings they’d found on Steve. Tony turns it on and gently pushes it into Steve’s ear. 

 

Steve tilts his head and then sighs. “Hi.” He whispers with a dry voice.

 

And everyone sags into their chairs in relief at that. 

 

——————-

 

Chapter Text

“Steve..” Peggy says, grasping the uncasted hand in hers, “are you—“ she pauses, and Natasha can see the hesitation in asking the question, “how do you feel?” 

 

Steve blinks at them and then turns his head slightly to the IV stand by his bed, “not much.” 

 

Pretty drugged then, which makes sense, his eyes are a bit glazed, although he seems to be straining to keep focus. 

 

No one knows what to say at the moment. Natasha can see the questions burning in everyone’s minds, but each one able to hold the barrage back from spilling over on the exhausted looking form in front of them. Peggy’s fingers ghost over Steve’s cheek, the dark circles still prominent and deep on his face. 

 

Steve looks at each of them, “how long?” 

 

There’s a beat of silence. “It’s Christmas.” Bucky finally says, “Merry Christmas, Steve.” 

 

Disbelief crosses Steve’s face, “no—“ he starts, and his heart rate climbs, the monitor beeping, “what—“ his voice cuts off as his chest heaves, panic crossing his face and Peggy leans forward. 

 

“Slow down, it’s okay.” She tries to remain calm, to sound calm but her voice has an edge to it too, “It’s alright, everything’s alright—“ 

 

“Christmas—“ Steve chokes out, as he hunches forward, then he gasps and stretches back, his heartrate now sending louder beeps and the group can hear the nurses coming. 

 

“Steve—“ Clint starts, “deep breaths, come on—“ 

 

Tony’s no help, he’s backing up, his face paling and his own breathing getting raspy. 

 

“Tony—“ Natahsa warns, “don’t. Or get out if you need to—“ She says it calmly, not trying to undermine his feelings either, but two people having an attack— 

 

She turns back to Steve and feels confusion. “Does he need his inhaler?” She asks. 

 

But Steve’s breathing while elevated doesn’t seem to be the issue. 

 

He’s having a panic attack. His injured fingers stick out from the cast and are trembling as he clutches at his hospital gown. 

 

The nurses burst in and take over, sending them all outside where they watch helplessly from the window. 

 

—————-

 

“What happened!” Sam says, practically jogging into the waiting room where all the kids sit quietly. 

 

“He woke up.” Bucky says quietly. “Then he—“ They don’t know how to say it. They hadn’t really discussed it since being ushered to the waiting room. 

 

“He what— “ Sam snaps. 

 

“He panicked when we told him it was Christmas Day. But then he tore his stitches and then he was in pain and then they sedated him.” Clint finishes. 

 

Sam sinks to a chair and holds his head in his hands. 

 

“But he was awake.” Peggy says. The first words they’ve heard from her since Steve’s room. “He was awake, and he was as coherent as those drugs would allow, and he’s going to be fine.” 

 

When no one responds she looks up and out the window, her gift for him twirling in her hands. “He’s going to be fine.” 

 

——————



Christmas Day is fading into night when Steve wakes again. 

 

The nurse comes to collect them. “He’s awake.” She says with a smile, “and he’s calmer.” 

 

They follow sanitization protocol again and walk into the room quietly. Steve is sitting up a bit and looks guilty. “Sorry.” He says quietly. 

 

Peggy sits on the edge of his bed and the rest pull up chairs or anything they can find to sit on. “Do you feel better?” She eyes the IV. 

 

He nods, “my head’s a bit clearer. Sorry for freaking out.” 

 

“You’re entitled.” Peggy whispers, “it’s a lot to take in.” 

 

Steve looks at all of them, “you guys haven’t been here the whole time have you?” 

 

“We’ve been rotating.” Bucky lies. “Sam should be back soon.” 

 

Steve shakes his head, “no, tell him to spend the day at the house, it’s Christmas.” 

 

“He’ll want to see you—“ 

 

But Steve’s eyes get a bit panicked, “no, I’m fine. I promise. I’ll see him tomorrow, okay?” There’s an awkward pause before Steve forces a smile, “so, you guys should go home too. It’s Christmas, I’ll still be here tomorrow. I promise.” 

 

Tony steps forward, and looks annoyed, which is better than the anxiety he’s been displaying earlier, “look around this room Steve.” He points to Bucky, Natasha, Clint, and Peggy, then himself, “you think you can pull the wool over all of our eyes? What gives? Why are you trying to get rid of us? We just got you back.” 

 

Steve glares at Tony but then grins, “come on, Tony, you’ve got your parents and family stuff to do. And Natasha, Yelena and the others will miss you. Bucky, you’ve got that roommate here right?” He smiles easily, “and Becca will be mad if you’re not home for christmas, didn’t you say you got her that new hair thingy she wanted?” He turns to Peggy and his face gets tight as he forces a smile, “Pegs, your parents have been missing you so much. You should go spend time with them. You’ve been wasting your Christmas break here—“ She’s about to protest when another voice speaks up. 

 

“What about me?” 

 

Steve’s eyes go to Clint. Whose face is flat and an eyebrow raised in annoyance, “who you got for me to ditch you for? My dad and Melissa are out of town. The Starks are no more my family than they are yours. So I get to stay?” 

 

“Clint—“ 

 

“No.” Steve looks back in surprise at the vehemence in Clint’s tone. “No. Whatever the hell you’re trying to do, or you think you’re trying to do, stop it.” 

 

“I’m not—“ 

 

“Not what.” Peggy asks, jumping in, “not pushing us away? Because that’s what it damn well feels like.” 

 

Steve sighs and leans back, closing his eyes, “I’m not.” 

 

“Okay. Then we’re staying.” 

 

And they don’t expect the crack in Steve’s voice as he says “fine.” 

 

Bucky leans forward, “Steve, what happened in there?” 

 

“Can I not—“ Steve whispers out, “can I not talk about it right now?” 

 

“Okay.” Peggy says looking at Steve and squeezing his free hand, “okay. That’s fine, is there anything else you need?” 

 

And Steve looks up and there’s a spark of his old self as he raises an eyebrow, “well since you guys have been doing rotations and have therefore been doing other stuff so far during christmas break, tell me what you’ve all been up to?” And the collective pause makes Steve roll his eyes, “see, that’s what I’m talking about. Everytime I’m in the hospital, which is all the time , you guys put your lives on hold! I’m sick of it. Go home , leave me be, I’ll be here, just go.” 

 

Clint surprises everyone by standing and walking to the window that looks out to the side of another building. “Steve.” Steve doesn’t verbally respond, just looks towards Clint at the window. “What do you remember?” 

 

Steve furrows his brow, “about what?” 

 

“After you got shot.” 

 

Bucky watches as Steve’s eyes unfocus, “I—“ he starts, “I don’t know. Not much.” 

 

Clint turns back, nailing Steve with his glare, “Well I remember. I remember finding you on the ground, with half your blood trailed behind you—“  Steve goes sheet white, eyes locked on Clint. “And I remember you telling me that you were clocking out. You were giving up Steve. You promised you wouldn’t give up!” 

 

Even though they’ve all heard the story from Clint’s perspective, they all wince at the accusation. 

 

But then Steve leans forward, grasping at his side and grimacing before looking Clint dead in the eyes, “how did you get into the building?” 

 

Clint pauses, “why?” 

 

Steve closes his eyes. “Was it on the second story?” 

 

A longer breadth of time passes, Clint’s eyes on Steve, who is now leaning back and his eyes are closing. “Yeah. Why?” 

 

And Steve lifts his head, opening his eyes and looking at Clint with a resigned expression. “Nothing. It doesn't matter.” He reaches over and tries to shift the blankets, his hands trembling as he tries. Peggy moves, shifting the blankets for him and waiting until he nods. “Thanks.” He says quietly. “So.” He shifts the subject, “is the teacher okay? Did she make it out fine?” 

 

But Clint pushes forward, getting close to Steve’s face, “what do you mean by it doesn’t matter. Tell me why you asked.” 

 

Steve’s eyes shift away from Clint. “The teacher?” He asks again, “is she okay?” 

 

“She’s fine.” Clint snaps. “Thanks to you, she’s fine. Now tell me.” Steve shifts and doesn’t respond to his urging. “Steve. Tell me why you asked.” 

 

“Clint, It’s not—“ 

 

“You tell me right now, Steve! I mean it! You tell me right fucking now.” 

 

Steve glares at him, “I don’t have to tell you anything !” And it’s sharp and pointed and it hits all of them hard. 

 

“Steve—“ Natasha tries. 

 

“Please, can I just not talk about this right now!” Steve grouses, throwing up his uninjured hand. “I know I just got shot. Thank you for the information. But can we talk about literally anything else?!” He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, trying to remain calm, “what do the kids at the house know?” 

 

“The older ones know the truth. Peter and younger think you’re sick.” 

 

Steve nods, “okay. That’s fine. Did they get to have a normal Christmas?” 

 

“Yeah.” Tony pipes in. “Sam made sure they did.” 

 

“Good.” Steve sighs, then winces as he shifts, “they say when I can get out of here?” 

 

“We don’t know yet.” 

 

This he takes with another sigh and nothing else. Just resignation. 

 

“You have presents out there.” Peggy tries, keeping her eyes on Steve’s face, “and lots of people have stopped by with their well wishes.” 

 

Steve’s face softens a touch, “that’s really nice of them all.” 

 

The nurses come in a bit after while they’re just talking about their school semester and administer some more pain meds and change his IVs. 

 

Steve’s eyes start to droop and the nurse informs them that he should get some rest. 

 

They’ve all filed out of the room except for Peggy and Bucky who are shuffling around his bed. 

 

“You need to go now, dears.” The nurse says kindly, switching the lights off to give Steve some darkness to rest. Peggy nods and she turns to go, but Bucky sits on the chair closest to Steve’s head, “Steve?” 

 

He blinks, opening his eyes, “yeah, Buck?” 

 

“Why’d you ask where Clint entered the building from?” 

 

Steve sighs, yawning and shifting down further onto the bed as the pain meds take over. “Doesn’t matter.” He says, then he yawns again, “he probably would have shot me anyways.” 

 

Bucky’s wide surprised eyes flick up to Peggy, whose mouth is gaped open as Steve falls into unconsciousness. The implication of his words hanging heavily in the air. 

 

——————-

 

Bucky walks with Peggy back through the hallways to the waiting room. 

 

“So, if Steve asked where he came from, but knew it was the second floor… Then that means Steve, and therefore the shooter, heard him enter.” 

 

“Clint said that he caught the guy in the hallway. Running away.” 

 

Peggy curses and spins on Bucky, pointing a finger at him, “that means that the noise Clint made caused the shooter to pull the trigger.” She curses again and shakes her head, “we cannot tell Clint that.” 

 

“No way.” Bucky agrees. “Never.”

 

She sighs as they make their way, getting closer to the group, “It’s not like it’s his fault. The shooter is obviously mentally unstable and Steve just said he probably would have shot him anyways.” 

 

Bucky nods as they step to the chairs where the rest are waiting, “yeah.” He looks at Clint whose eyes are unfocused, and Bucky grimaces. They may not tell Clint, but that doesn't mean he won’t figure it out.

 

—————-

 

Howard makes an appearance and once Steve is awake they head back to his room. 

 

—————

 

Steve watches as they file in, Howard now among them. 

 

And his mind flashes to the kids' guns. The retro looking logo stamped into the sides of the rifle and pistol in the kid’s hands. Stark Industries .

 

And the words spill out of his slightly addled brain before he can think about the consequences of saying them. 

 

“I didn’t know you made guns.” 

 

And maybe the lack of response should clue him into the fact that the room has gone silent, but he’s still coming out through the fog of medicine. He yawns, cutting off the first part of his sentence “—ught you were a scientist.” When no one responds again, he blinks and looks around, “what?” 

 

————-

 

Tony feels his chest constrict. 

 

I didn’t know you made guns

 

He turns to his dad who is frozen just inside the door, staring at Steve like he’s a ghost. 

 

And Tony’s brain puts the pieces together. Everyone’s looking at Howard, confusion on most and understanding on Clint’s. 

 

What were the odds? 

 

Tony steps to his dad and puts a hand on his shoulder, “Dad?” His dad’s eyes stay trained on Steve. “Dad, he’s okay.” And somehow it shifts to Tony comforting his dad instead of the other way around, “it’s fine. Steve’s fine, see?” He gestures to the still groggy and drugged up kid in the bed. “He’s fine.” He tries to pull his dad forward but he’s not budging. “Dad.” Tony urges, “snap out of it.” 

 

Guilt ridden eyes snap to Tony’s, “he shot him with SI guns?”

 

Tony winces and whispers back, “I don’t know,” even though he knows the whole room can hear. 

 

His dad looks sick, then he looks to Steve and steps forward. But Steve sees the sudden movement and flinches back. Tony feels the air leave the room at the motion and suddenly his dad is backing out of the room. “I’ll come back later.” He gets out, before turning on his heel and disappearing. 

 

The group slowly turns back to Steve who is still blinking slowly and eyeing them, “what?” He asks slowly, as if he was just coming in halfway to a conversation and missed what was said last. 

 

—————

 

30 minutes later Steve’s finally coherent enough to hold a conversation and then he looks up at Tony, “where’d your dad go?” 

 

Tony grimaces, “uh, he said he’d be back.” 

 

Steve looks pensive for a moment before nodding and pushing the food around on his plate. 

 

“You need to eat, Steve.” Peggy says softly, “you need strength.” 

 

Steve takes another quiet bite. “What about you guys?” 

 

“We’ll eat later.” Bucky says easily, “non-hospital food isn’t allowed in the room.” 

 

Steve’s brow furrows, “it’s not? Why?” 

 

“They’re worried about outside contaminants.” Natasha says with a smile, “that’s why we’re all dressed like we’re about to head into surgery.” 

 

Steve smiles, probably the first genuine smile they’ve seen since he first woke up, and then, “I guess I was wondering that in the back of my mind.” He looks up at Tony, “Is this the hospital Dr. Strange works at?” 

 

Tony thinks, “uh… I don’t know. Why, you want a second opinion?” 

 

Steve laughs softly, “no, I just thought about him the other day.” 

 

Bucky reaches up and taps gently on Steve’s ear with the hearing aid. “When were you gonna tell us?” 

 

Steve scrunches his nose, “I was gonna tell you this break, I swear.” 

 

“So… Sam knows?” 

 

A sheepish expression crosses Steve’s face, “uh—“ 

 

They all collectively roll their eyes, “what are we going to do with you?” Natasha sighs. 

 

The eye roll Steve gives back to them makes them relax as he huffs out a laugh, “I was caught off guard when it happened.” He taps at his ear, “I was hoping it was just plugged from my last cold or something, but it never got better, then it faded to practically nothing, but there must be something still working because the aid works.” 

 

Tony nods, “where are your glasses?” 

 

Steve looks around, “oh—“ he squints at the bedside table, “I had them—“ he shrugs, “dunno, maybe they got left somewhere.” 

 

And they continue, just talking about normal things for the next while. Even though they’re desperate to know the story, they all wait, just talking and pretending like Steve isn’t in a hospital bed on Christmas. 

 

—————

 

The police come back on December 27th. 

 

Clint watches as the large man with the mustache and the scary guy with the eyepatch check in at the nurses station.

 

Tony’s up and out of his seat, disappearing down the hallway to Steve’s room. 

 

“Where’s he going?” Bucky asks, looking up from his phone. 

 

Natasha shrugs and leans back in her chair, her feet resting on Bucky’s lap. 

 

Clint feels his phone buzz and he looks down. Tony

 

“Uh.” He starts, showing the screen to the other two before answering it. “Hello?”

 

“Don’t hang up.” Tony’s voice says in a whisper. 

 

Clint hears a knock and then a door opening. “ Hello, are you Steve Rogers?” 

 

He hears Steve clear his throat, “yeah, that’s me.” 

 

“Could we speak to you briefly about what happened?” 

 

Clint can hear the resignation in Steve’s voice, “Oh. Uh, yeah, I guess.” 

 

“If you’ll excuse us.” One of the police officers say. 

 

Clint hears Tony’s voice again, but further away, “Pegs, lets go.”

 

“But—“ 

 

“But nothing. Be back soon, Steve!” 

 

Clint looks up, to see Bucky and Natasha staring at him, waiting for an explanation that he doesn’t have. 

 

But soon Peggy and Tony are back, Peggy looking miffed at being manhandled. “What is this?” Clint asks, raising his phone. Tony plucks it out of his hands and hits the speaker button and the mute button.

 

“Don’t have any bugs on me. So I had to improvise and leave my phone in the room.” 

 

They don’t understand until they hear the voice come through the phone. 

 

“—ant Fury of the NYPD. And this is Officer Dugan. We spoke on the phone.” 

 

It takes a second but then Steve responds, “ I remember.” 

 

“We’d like to ask you about the details of that day.” 

 

“For what?” 

 

Natasha rolls her eyes, but they all gather around, dragging chairs in a circle to hear what’s happening. Clint has to admit that Tony thinks fast and acts faster. 

 

Our investigation is ongoing. But Emil isn’t making too much sense in custody, and we’re still missing a lot of pieces.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

“Would you be willing to answer a few questions?” 

 

And then Steve asks something that makes all of them grin, 

 

“Do I need my lawyer?” 

 

Clint hears the other policeman laugh, “ You’re not under investigation.” The man laughs again, “ but I like your style. You’re welcome to have someone here present with you as you speak if it would make you more comfortable.” 

 

There’s a long pause, and Clint can almost feel the hope that Steve may take them up on their offer, but instead they hear a deep breath and “ no, it’s fine.” 

 

“Okay, let’s begin.” Fury says in a calm voice, “ tell us why you didn’t leave when the announcements were made to evacuate?” 

 

“I didn't hear them.” Steve starts to explain, “I took out my hearing aid, and I’m deaf in my other ear. When I was taking my test, the other students were being loud, so I took it out.” 

 

“So you didn’t stay on purpose?” 

 

Steve huffs, “What? No.” 

 

“When did you realize something was wrong?” 

 

“When the teacher didn’t come back.” 

 

“So what did you do then?” 

 

There’s a long pause. Longer than normal and they all look up in worry, wondering why Steve is hesitating. 

 

“I, uh…” Steve starts, “ I walked out of the classroom and accidentally walked into the hallway with Emil and Mrs. Sammons.” 

 

There’s a weighted pause, “You just… exited the classroom and there they were?” 

 

Steve’s voice is clipped, “yep.” 

 

Hmm…” Fury responds, “ is that so…” 

 

Steve doesn’t respond and it's a long period of silence. 

 

“I’m confused.” The other policeman, Dugan, says calmly.

 

“Me too.” Fury says. 

 

Steve stays quiet and they start feeling anxiety ratchet up at the turn this conversation is taking. 

 

“Why lie, Steve?” 

 

Steve’s voice is strained, “what do you mean?” 

 

“You know the school hallways are video recorded right?” 

 

Tony’s eyes flick up and widen. “Don’t.” Natasha snaps. “Not now. We can look at them later.” 

 

Tony sags but nods and returns his attention to the phone. 

 

Steve’s voice is small, “oh…” Then his voice gets annoyed, “ why ask me questions then if you know it all.” 

 

“It’s video recorded. Not audio recorded.” 

 

“Oh.” The sound of Steve leaning back onto the bed and sighing heavily. 

 

“So let’s start again.” Fury says , “What happened when you exited the classroom?” 

 

Who gets to know the details of this?” Steve asks suddenly, “ who is going to know what I tell you?” 

 

There’s a pause where the group can almost feel the curious looks from the policemen, “only the police precinct will have the report. And the judge if it goes to court.” 

 

“I don’t want to go to court.” Steve snaps. 

 

Another curious pause, “you’d only go to court if you pressed charges or were called to the witness stand.” 

 

“I don’t want to press charges.” Steve responds quickly, “ and I don’t want to be a witness, but—“ he makes a throat clearing sound and then his voice gets firm, “ that guy, Emil, he needs help. I know what he did was wrong, but he’s not sane. He needs serious mental help.” 

 

Tony’s eyes are closed, and his teeth are clenched tight, “Is Steve… defending his shooter?” 

 

“We know, Steve .” Dugan responds, “we can tell. But the school is pressing charges. So that will all be figured out later. Let’s get back to the beginning. What happened when you exited the classroom?” 

 

“I don’t want any of this getting to my family.” Steve says sharply, “I don’t care if they ask, please don’t tell them.” 

 

“Why not?” 

 

“Because they’ll be mad and I made promises I didn’t keep.” 

 

They meet eyes and dread fills their stomachs. What is Steve talking about?” 

 

Okay… ” Fury agrees slowly, “let’s say for now, as long as there’s no extenuating circumstances, they only need to know what you tell them.” 

 

Steve’s voice relaxes, “ Okay .” There’s another pause but then Steve starts talking, sounding calm and detached, “ when she didn’t come back, I put my hearing aid back in and went out to the hallway. But the lights were off. So, I was kind of confused about that. I felt like something was off, but I didn’t know what. Then I was walking towards the office, hoping to find the teacher, when I heard the first shots.” 

 

“Is that where we found your dropped test?” 

 

“No,” They can sense Steve shaking his head, “ no, I dropped it a few hallways down.” 

 

When you heard the first gunshots, what did you do?” 

 

“Well,” Steve says softly , “the first time I heard it, I don’t know if I registered what it was, but then I got closer and heard them talking, and then when I heard the next two shots, I finally realized what was happening.” 

 

“And instead of running away from that, you…” there’s a pause, they’re waiting for Steve to speak. 

 

And when he does he sounds annoyed , “would you have run away?” 

 

“No, but we’re trained policemen—“ 

 

“And I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, huh?” Steve snarls, “what the hell does it matter? I’m not going to run away when people need help.” 

 

“That’s very brave.” 

 

Steve groans and makes a sound of pain in his throat, “It’s not brave. It’s the right thing to do, and I got no right to do anything less.”

 

“And this is what your friends and family will be angry about?” Dugan asks. Clint looks up to see the tight way everyone is holding their faces, Steve had purposely walked towards the situation. Of course he had. It’s Steve. What had they expected ?

 

“Yeah,” Steve huffs, “ I promised them I’d stop finding myself in trouble. But I what was I supposed to do, huh? Abandon her? Leave her all alone with that guy? No way.” 

 

“So, what then?”

 

“Then I followed the noise to the hallway. And I never had seen the kid before, but I remembered hearing about him causing issues with that teacher last school year.”

 

“Why did the kid shoot at you in the hallway?” 

 

Bucky looks up, and confusion is on the rest of the faces. 

 

“He got mad because he told me to take off but I refused, so he let off a shot by my head. But I could tell he wasn’t trying to hit me, just scare me, so I just started talking to him, about one of my friends who’s a good shot. Tried to get him distracted and calm down.” 

 

Bucky looks up to Clint whose eyes are closed. They all know Clint’s the best shot out of all of them for anything. 

 

“Did calming him down work?” 

 

“Kinda, I mean, I pretended to be on his side. He was unhinged, thinking the teacher had called up the whole US military and told them all to not recruit this guy.” Steve exhales through his nose, “ he was so sure she was the one keeping him from getting enlisted or whatever it’s called. That’s when I really knew he was unstable. But I pretended to agree so he felt like I was on his side, I was hoping to get him away from her.” 

 

“That’s when you shake hands.” Dugan asks.

 

Yeah ,” Steve responds, “finally got his name and was about to try to get him to walk away when the phone rang. He got real agitated at that, even when I explained it was probably you guys calling for demands. I didn’t know, I only guessed.” Steve doesn’t pause, “when I asked what he wanted, he said he wanted her dead, but I tried to tell him that that would give them more ammo to use against him and he wouldn’t want that. And somehow that seemed to make sense to him because he at least agreed to walk to the office and talk to you guys before shooting her.” 

 

“That’s when you called 911?” 

 

“Uh-hmm, didn’t know how else to get you guys, forgot about redial. He got made when I was checking the teacher to see if she was injured.” 

 

“Tell us why he released her.” 

 

There’s a long pause, “I mean…” Steve sighs heavily , “I knew it was a risky idea. But I had to try something. So I switched tactics. He was obviously mentally unstable and I figured I could confuse him into letting her go. And it worked.” 

 

“But how exactly did you confuse him?” 

 

Bucky knows they know at least part of it, but it’s clear they want Steve to tell them. 

 

“His guns had the Stark Industries logo on them.” Tony’s sucking in sharp breath, “ And well…” Steve’s voice gets amused, “honestly it felt like I was supposed to be there. Who else in the whole school has a direct line to Howard Stark?” His voice is shifting to rueful, almost cynical, “it’s like a cosmic joke.” 

 

“What is?” 

 

“Nothing.” Steve says quickly, “never mind. I told Emil that his game was up, that I’d figured out that he knew about my connection to Howard. That I knew I was his target all along.” Tony’s eyes are closed, and Natasha is resting a hand on his shoulder, Peggy stands, hands clenched on her legs. 

 

“That little shit!” Clint is gasping out, “how could he!” 

 

They want to talk more but Steve’s still going, “— I knew if I could convince him that I was the actual person he wanted, then I could get her to safety.” 

 

“That was very risky indeed.” Fury is saying calmly, but there’s an edge to his voice, “ what happened then?” 

 

“Well, then I realized my phone was still locked in my teacher’s desk from taking that test, so I had to call Tony to get the number, which actually worked out a lot better than planned because once he recognized Tony’s voice, which he did, I was able to get him to believe I was going to call Howard, but I convinced him that he had to let her go first.” 

 

“That’s when you called us, letting us know she was coming out?” 

 

“Yeah.” 

 

“So then why didn’t he let you call Howard?” 

 

They hear Steve shifting a bit on the bed, and he yawns, “ sorry ,” he apologizes, “ No, uh, it wasn’t that he didn’t let me, but once I knew she was safe, I, uh…” Steve pauses and there’s a deep sigh, “I just refused to call him.” 

 

“What—“ Bucky breathes out at the same time as Dugan asks, “ why?”

 

And Steve huffs out a laugh, “You don’t know Howard Stark, but that guy he—“ Steve’s throat gets tight, “I know he would have done anything I asked to keep me safe and I just couldn’t let that happen. I didn’t want him involved. Richest guy alive at the mercy of some unstable guy all because of me? Hell no. Nothing’s worth that.” 

 

“Not even your life?” 

 

And the humorless laugh that comes out of Steve chills them to the bone, “Sir, I’m dying in like 4 years. It’s for sure not worth that.” Then they can hear him start to backpedal, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that that way, I just… I mean… It’s not like I wanted to die or get shot or anything, but…” Bucky’s breathings erratic as he hears Steve’s next words, “If anyone should die, it should be me, I’m limited on time anyways, what’s losing a few years compared to that teacher who has her whole life? And a family, a kid even, right?”

 

Peggy’s fingers are clutching at her skull and the rest of the group is dead silent, as are the policemen on the other side of the phone. 

 

Steve clears his throat, “ don’t… ” he clears his throat again, “please— you gotta understand, I felt like there was no other way to get her out of there, and if tricking him into coming after me meant saving her, then it was worth a try.”  A pause, “And look, it worked, right?” He adds weakly. 

 

“What happened after you refused to call Howard?” 

 

“Well, I just tried reasoning with him, which I know, pointless and all, but he was having some sort of mental fight in his brain, so I just kept trying, then my watch rings, which I didn’t even know it did and that creates a whole new problem because he somehow thinks I’ve been contacting people without his knowledge—“ 

 

“Who was calling?” 

 

Dunno.” Steve admits, “but I assume it was Howard.” 

 

“How do you know Howard Stark, Steve? Seems like an unusual relationship.” 

 

Steve scoffs, “ you’re going to pretend you don’t know? You work for the police. You either know, and are fishing for information, or you’re shitty policemen.” 

 

Clint lets out a choked gasp, “holy—“ 

 

“Tell ‘em, Steve.” Tony hisses, listening in. 

 

Dugan laughs, “ smart kid.” 

 

Steve just huffs and falls quiet. 

 

“So—“ Fury starts, unphased by Steve’s outburst, “what happened when your watch rang?” 

 

“Kid lost his mind, ripped at it, breaking my wrist—“ they can hear him lifting his casted hand, “then once it was on the floor he shot it to pieces.” 

 

“And that’s when we called for the last time.” 

 

“Yep.” 

 

“And then?” 

 

“Then his brain rerouted. He kinda sorta figured out that I’d tricked him, I think, and so he flipped out and accused me of lying, which was true, I did lie to him, and then he’s shooting the phone because I lied and he’s shoving me against the wall and screaming in my face.” There’s a long pause, “ I mean, he really started to panic then, he was so worried about being caught. But he still hadn’t pulled the trigger. I think that maybe…” Steve sighs, “I don’t know, maybe I could have done something else to calm him down, talk him down some more but then we h—“ 

 

Bucky’s hand collides with Peggy’s as they both reach for Clint’s phone frantically. They accidentally shove it from the table and the group goes scrambling as it hits the ground. 

 

“What the hell!” Tony yelps, grabbing it off the floor. He glares at the both of them as he wipes it on his jeans. The sounds coming from it are muffled.

 

Bucky looks at Peggy’s wide eyes as Tony sets the phone back on the table. Everyone’s looking at them in confusion, but Steve’s still talking, “ —it’s hazy after that. I think I was in shock or whatever it’s called.” 

 

“You were crawling out of the office..” 

 

Steve sounds surprised, “I was?” 

 

“Yes, that’s where your friend Clint, the climber, found you.” 

 

Oh .” Steve says softly, “I don’t really remember that part yet.” 

 

“Well, Steve, is there anything else, any other details you think we should know?” 

 

“I don’t think so.” 

 

“Well then, we at the NYPD would like to commend you on your bravery in such a stressful situation. Mrs. Sammons has been trying to reach you to visit and say thank you, would you be okay with us telling her how to find you?” 

 

They can hear Steve’s grimace, “ can it wait till I’m out of the hospital?” 

 

“Of course.” Fury responds, “ hopefully we won’t need anything else. Get better soon.” 

 

They hear Fury walk out the door, but a voice clearing alerts them to the fact that Dugan is still in the room. 

 

Steve .” He says, his voice a deep rumble.

 

Uh, yeah?” 

 

“I’ve seen my fair share of tough situations. Of bad luck and poor timing and just straight up evil…” the man pauses and they can almost feel the intensity of the man’s presence, “I’ve watched the footage, and now I’ve heard your story and I feel compelled to tell you how impressed I am.  The way you handled it under such duress and with absolutely no training or knowledge of hostage situations is astonishing to me.” 

 

“Oh—“ 

 

“If you ever decided you would want to serve in law enforcement or hell, as a hostage negotiator, well, it would be an honor to serve beside you. There’s not many people who would do what you did. And I wanted to make sure you were told just how brave that really was.”

 

“I didn’t—“ 

 

Dugan laughs, “I know, Steve. I know. You didn’t do it because it was the brave thing. You did it because it was the right thing, right?” Dugan lets out another deep chuckle, “man we could use a whole army of you you know that?” 

 

Steve’s voice is soft and a bit cracked, “thanks, I think.” 

 

“My wife, ” Dugan says with a lighthearted tone, “her name is Rose and she works here in this hospital. I’ll make sure she knows you’re here. She’ll make sure you—“ 

 

A loud voice clearing its throat makes all of them jump. They look up to find Fury staring at them, an eyebrow raised. 

 

Tony’s hand swipes the phone out of sight and they all stare awkwardly at each other. 

 

“Steve’s family.” 

 

It’s not stated as a question but they all nod anyway.

 

Fury looks at each one and then points to Tony, “You’re the Stark boy,” then Clint, “You’re the climber and—“ he points to him, “you two are the ones who located him in the dumpster, right?” 

 

They gape and then Bucky finds his head nodding, “yes.” 

 

Fury moves to Natasha, “your name came up as well, I looked over the courtroom proceedings.” 

 

“Why?” Tony asks, eyes glaring at the man. 

 

“Well, while Steve was unconscious, we had to do our due diligence. Emil has been making comments about Howard Stark and Steve, and when Steve’s name brought up all those incidents, it did make us wary that the kid may have been after him. Which is why we wanted Steve to tell us the story from his own mouth. But as I’m assuming you all over heard, that was not the case.” 

 

“What’s going to happen to him?” Peggy asks, “to Emil?” 

 

Fury’s eyes find hers, “and who are you?” 

 

Peggy narrows her eyes, “I asked you what was going to happen to Emil?” 

 

Fury raises an eyebrow and eyes them all with a detached amusement, “he’ll be tried and probably sent to a detention center where he can hopefully receive psychiatric treatment as he serves his sentence. There’s no pleading ‘not guilty’ in his case, but there could be an insanity plea if his lawyers go that direction. But I don’t know for sure. Nothing’s happened yet.” 

 

Dugan reappears and they sign out at the nurses station and leave. 

 

Bucky feels the weight of what they just heard settle on all of them. 

 

Peggy’s up and at the nurses station. They watch as the nurse nods ‘yes’ and then Peggy’s heading back to Steve’s room. They pick up and follow after her. 

 

—————

 

Steve feels exhausted. Telling the whole story has taken it out of him. Peggy enters looking at him with sad eyes. 

 

“What?” He asks, worried, “what happened?” She doesn't answer, just deftly slips into the space on the bed of his uninjured side, resting her head on his shoulder and grasping his arm between her palms. “Peggy?” 

 

But then the door opens and the rest of them enter. All with various expressions on their faces. 

 

“How did it go?” Tony asks, not quite meeting Stev’s eyes, “talking with the police?” 

 

Steve nods, “fine, it went fine. Glad it’s over with.” 

 

Peggy’s thumb is rubbing circles on his arm, “how long was it?” He asks. 

 

“Maybe half an hour.” Bucky says, “not too long.” 

 

“Why do you guys all look sad?” Steve asks, feeling confused at their subdued expression. 

 

Then he watches as Tony walks to the side of his bed, and pulls out a phone that was hidden on the little computer stand the nurses use. 

 

He holds the screen out to Steve where an ongoing call to Clint is going. Then Tony pulls out Clint’s phone and clicks the ‘end’ call button. 

 

It takes Steve only a few seconds to put it together. His chest constricts and then he glares at them, “you guys suck you know that!” He’s angry, “what, I can’t have a single second of privacy!? You—“ Then his eyes snap to Clint, guilt blooming in his chest, “I promise it would have happened anyway.” 

 

Clint’s brow furrows and Peggy’s suddenly clutching at his arm, “Steve.” She says softly, “we’re sorry. We just can’t help ourselves can we.” She tugs him down to kiss his cheek then quietly whispers, “he didn't hear that part.” 

 

Oh. 

 

Clint looks ready to ask another question but Steve doesn't let him, “so now what? You all going to yell at me? Scream that I should have run away or done something differently?” He feels his anger on the edge, waiting for all their overprotective sides to lash out at him. 

 

But Bucky just walks over and sits on the side of his bed and rests a hand on Steve’s calf. He’s surprised to see red eyes when Bucky looks up at him. Bucky’s voice is tight but soft, “that all must have been really scary, Steve.” 

 

A lump grows in his throat, heat rises from his chest and his eyes and nose burn with emotion. 

 

Natasha settles in the chair next to him, her chin resting on the bed as she reaches out and rests a hand on the blanket over his thigh, “what you did was really brave, Steve.” 

 

Now he can see even less than normal, eyes watering up as he tries to blink it away. 

 

Peggy’s holding him tighter, careful to avoid his bandaged side. “I’m so proud of you, darling.” She says softly, pressing another kiss to his cheek and then his shoulder. 

 

And as the dam breaks, his chest cracking open with a choked sob and the tears falling from his eyes, all he feels are the hands that stay connected to him. That remind him that he’s not alone and that he’s safe now. He cries for just a bit, the fear of everything that had happened rolling through him and then out. The tension of the last few days overwhelming him, but then abating as Tony climbs onto the end of the bed, sitting cross legged and gently tapping out a soft rhythm on the blanket where Steve’s feet are. He can feel Clint next to Natasha, their hands resting on his legs, a reassuring weight he’s grateful for. 

 

Peggy’s fingers run through his hair and Bucky picks up a pen and draws absently on his cast. And in a few minutes he’s done. Even more exhausted than before, but a good exhaustion. Empty and clear and ready to sleep. 

 

He tries to keep his eyes open, but the comforting pattern of Peggy’s fingers in his hair and the rhythm Tony’s keeping, lulls him to sleep feeling safe. 

 

—————-

 

Chapter Text

A chill runs up his spine and he wakes up. The room is dark and he shivers, feeling cold. He buries himself deeper in the blankets and tries to fall back asleep. 

 

—————

 

“How are you feeling?” The nurse asks him in the morning, “you look a little pale.” 

 

Steve yawns, “I don’t know. I kind of feel cold.” 

 

The nurse’s eyes glance at the thermostat that displays the temperature. It reads 78. 

 

“Hmm.” She steps closer and places a gentle hand on his forehead. Her mouth sets into a line and she forces a smile. “I’ll have the doctor stop by in a bit to check on you.” 

 

Steve nods. He knows what a fever feels like. 

 

—————-

 

Tony walks down the stairs, not using the elevator so his dad isn’t alerted to his presence. 

 

He pushes the door open quietly and slips through, walking to the support beam that will block him from view. Then he peers around into the lab from behind the glass wall. His heart drops at the sight of his father bent over the pod, a half empty bottle in one hand and a wrench in the other. 

 

He hears a curse as the wrench hits the ground, and another curse as his dad accidentally bumps his head on the corner of the lab table bending down. 

 

Tony steps forward, swiping his card and pushing the door open once it unlock. 

 

“Dad.” 

 

His dad looks up, red eyed and squinting, “Tony? Hey, Tony. Good to see you down here.” 

 

Tony grimaces, “you need to come up for air.” 

 

His dad waves him away, sloshing the liquid in the bottle. A few drops land on the ground and his dad’s eyes get transfixed on them. Tony steps forward and snatches the bottle out of his hand, walking over and pouring it out. 

 

“Hey!” His dad cries, “that’s expensive!” 

 

“Buy another one.” Tony snaps, “when you’ve got your head screwed back on straight!” 

 

His dad glares at him and grumbles under his breath reaching behind him to the little fridge. 

 

Tony picks up a rubber seal and throws it hard. It slaps against his dad’s temple and he reels back, “ow!”

 

“Snap out of it!” He strides forward and grabs his dad’s shoulders, “yes is sucks that it was your guns, but you didn’t shoot him!” 

 

“Might as well have.” His dad responds, closing his eyes and hanging his head. 

 

“No.” Tony responds, shaking him, “no, you didn’t. That kid is psycho. You can’t blame yourself. Maybe figure out how he got his hands on—“ 

 

“Legally.” 

 

“Huh?” 

 

His dad looks up, “I checked. He bought it legally from a gun shop.” 

 

Tony frowns. “Oh.” 

 

“Yeah.” 

 

“Still not your fault.” 

 

“How can I look at Steve again?” His dad asks, “knowing I put the weapon out there that did this.” 

 

“If it wasn’t your gun it could have been someone else’s, Hammers or Sig. It doesn’t matter. The kid is the one who wielded it, and his aim wasn’t even Steve. So you drowning your sorrows in alcohol is not going to help you save him. So snap out of it.” 

 

His dad sags and he takes a deep breath, “what if I don’t get this machine working in time?” 

 

“You will.” 

 

“What if I don’t?” 

 

And he doesn’t mean to let the desperation in his voice peak through but it does, “you will. You have to.” 

 

His dad mouths those words, have to. 

 

“Dad?” They lock eyes, “you’re going to. You’re the smartest guy I know. And you’ve got me and Erskine and Bruce and that’s half the brain power in New York, right?” He tries to laugh and his dad smiles at him a bit, “you know we’re getting close. So don’t give up. Yes, this is one hell of a set back but all the more reason to get this done. So get some coffee and some water and get back to proving that you’re the smartest guy in the world, huh?” 

 

His dad blinks at him and then a grateful half smile crosses his features, “thanks kiddo.” 

 

—————-

 

“So.” Natasha starts, looking at Bucky but keeping Peggy in her peripheral, “what’s the deal?” 

 

“Deal?” Bucky asks, not looking up from his phone. 

 

“You and Carter scrambling for the phone.” 

 

Both of their eyes snap up and Natasha catches the way Bucky’s eyes flit to Clint who is over in the corner on the phone with Laura. 

 

“Nothing.” 

 

“Bullshit.” Natasha says, “what is it?” 

 

Peggy runs her fingers through her hair, “it’s complicated.” 

 

“Uncomplicate it.” 

 

Bucky looks over to Clint and then scoots forward, closing the distance, “you can’t tell Clint.” 

 

“Why not?” 

 

“Because…” Bucky starts, “like Steve said, it probably would have happened anyways, but… Steve was starting to talk the guy down, maybe convincing him to let him go, until they heard Clint come into the building. That made the guy spiral and shoot Steve, worried he was about to get caught.” Natasha’s hand flies to her mouth and her wide eyes meet the sad ones in front of her, “so Steve doesn’t want Clint to blame himself.” 

 

She buries her eye sockets into the palms of her hands, because that’s exactly what Clint would do.

 

“Shit.” 

 

“Yeah.” Bucky says, gently pulling her hands away, “so don’t tell him.” 

 

“I won’t.” 

 

—————

 

“So,” the doctor started, “we’re seeing your temperature rise, and I don’t like that, so let’s check your bandages and see what we see.” 

 

Steve nods and the doctor comes over, lifting up the gown and gently peeling the tape away from his skin. The area is still quite bruised but that’s not what makes the doctor pause. Inflamed red edges and puffy shiny skin around the wound draw their eyes. 

 

“When was this changed last?” 

 

“Uh,” Steve thinks back, his eyes on the stitches, “maybe yesterday? Or the day before?” 

 

“Why so long in between checks?” The doctor asks, but more to himself than to Steve. 

 

“I think it has been healing well.” Steve answers anyways, “there were no signs of infection before.” Surprise flits across the doctor’s face. Steve lets out a chuckle then a wince, “I’m sick a lot.”

 

“Well,” the doctor sighs, “this is definitely infected. So we will need to start you on antibiotics.” 

 

He nods, “okay, sounds good.” It was nearing the end of Christmas break and he wanted to be out of the hospital pronto. 

 

“I’ll order those and have the nurse hook it to the IV as soon as possible.” 

 

Steve nods and leans back as the doctor talks to a nurse. She cleans and rebandages the wound and then he’s left alone once more.

 

————

 

Clint hangs up with Laura and walks over. Natasha and the other two seem unusually quiet. 

 

“What?” He asks, sitting down. 

 

“Nothing.” Bucky says, a smile forced on his face. “What are we going to do about New Years?” 

 

“I’m going to be with Steve. I know he said he doesn’t want any of us there, but I don’t care. I’m not having him be there alone.” Peggy leans back and eyes them with a raised eyebrow. 

 

“I’m taking Yelena, Wanda and Pietro to Times Square this year.” Natasha says with a sigh. “They’ve been begging and Sam finally said yes. I think he wants to cheer them up. Steve’s absence has been really hard on the house.” 

 

“Tony said he has his parents’ annual party but would be there after. But that’s when Steve said he didn’t want us coming or leaving our plans for him.” Bucky says, “so I don’t know if that changed his plans.” 

 

“Pepper is supposed to be in town.” Peggy adds, “he may be with her.” 

 

“Laura is inviting me to her family’s party. So I’ll be there, but then I am planning to go to the hospital on New Year’s Day.” 

 

Natasha nods, “so Peggy will be there in the evening, and some of us will be there the next day. So he won’t be alone. Sam is taking the rest of the kids with Sarah to the Stark’s. So does that cover everyone?” Then she turns to Bucky, “what about you?” 

 

Bucky looks around his room and sighs, “I don’t know.” 

 

————

 

Steve steps through the door and into the school hallway. He starts walking, but the hallway seems to keep elongating in front of him. He starts to walk faster, but suddenly his cane is in his hand. He looks at it strangely, but doesn’t question it, still walking. He hears a sound that makes his blood run cold and he tries to stumble forward faster. But the linoleum starts to liquify, holding his feet, making his steps labored and difficult. 

 

Fear runs through him as the lights flicker off and then red flashing lights make the hallway seem hellish. 

 

He hears another shot and he gasps, crashing to his knees. Sirens start to sound and he clutches at his ears. Then the sound of boots make his heart leap. His breathing starts to accelerate and his heart is racing so fast it makes him dizzy. He starts to crawl forward on his knees, but then his knees slip. His chest hitting the ground. He looks back to see a trail of blood behind him, and he looks down, blood sleeping through his hospital gown. 

 

“Steve.” A voice calls. “Steve, come back.” Emil’s voice echoes through the hallways, “I need to finish my mission.” 

 

Fear jolts through him and he crawls faster, forcing himself through the sticky floor and towards the illuminated exit sign. But the hallway is only getting longer, and he cries out in frustration and fear. 

 

“Steve, can you hear me?” 

 

He flinches away from the hands grasping at his gown and Emil’s face looming in front of him. 

 

His heartrate pounds so fast he swears it’s going to escape his chest. And then his breathing cuts off and he remembers nothing else.

 

—————-



“Tony, Tony wake up!” He grumbles and turns over, about to put his pillow over his head when it’s ripped from his grasp. “Tony get up, I need you to drive.” 

 

That gets his attention. “Huh?” 

 

“Jarvis is upstate with your mother and I can’t drive on my own right now, wake up!” 

 

He sits up and looks. His father is rumpled and his mustache askew. And while Tony can tell he’s sobering up, he isn’t quite there yet. “Drive where?” 

 

“The hospital. Steve’s heart stopped.” 

 

And his dad must be more drunk than he thought because dropping that information with no warning makes Tony shoot straight up, “what!” He throws off the covers and stumbles out of the bed, “what?!” 

 

“The hospital called.” His dad says, “he was thrashing and then his heart gave out.” 

 

Tony felt his knees start to go. He sits down hard on his bed, “you’re…” he feels his chest constrict, “I just saw him yesterday.” He looks at the clock and it reads 2:14a.m. “He was fine.” His dad is walking back towards the door. Tony hears the rasp in his own voice as he speaks, “does Sam know?” 

 

“I assume they called him.” His dad says as he disappears into the hallway. 

 

Tony feels numb. Disbelief coursing through him as he blearily pulls on shoes and grabs his keys and wallet. He follows his dad’s stumbling steps into the garage and slides into the driver’s seat. “What about the others?” Tony asks, “do I need to tell them?” 

 

“You can call them from the hospital.” 

 

“I don’t want to tell them over the phone.” 

 

His dad looks at him in confusion, “why not?” 

 

Tony looks at his dad in disbelief, “I’m not going to tell Bucky that Steve is dead over the phone!” 

 

And his dad reels back and blinks at him with wide eyes, “what are you talking about? Steve isn’t dead!” 

 

Tony feels his brain crash, “you said his heart stopped!” 

 

“It did! But they got it going again—“

 

“Well maybe fucking tell me that part next time!” Tony seethes at his dad, shoving the key into the ignition. 

 

His dad groans, rubbing at his temples. “Sorry.” 

 

Tony just peels outs and heads towards the hospital.

 

————-

 

Sam is already there when they arrive. Looking drawn and weary as he listens to the doctor explain what happened.

 

“—he developed an infection around the wound, which could have been caused by multiple reasons. So we started him on an antibiotic that would not interfere with his other medication. But he started showing reaction symptoms almost immediately. So we removed that antibiotic, but we couldn’t start another one until that one was weaned off, and sometime in the night, his fever overtook his body, before we could start the next medication. The nurse was going to fetch cold cloths and ice packs when his fever spiked suddenly. His heart rate accelerated so fast that it sounded the floor alarm and he was seizing when she came into the room because of his fever. And before he stopped seizing his heart flatlined and a crash cart was called. It took a few tries but he came back online and began breathing on his own. He hasn’t woken up yet, so I’m not sure about his brain. But the fever is down now and the new batch of antibiotics is working.” 

 

“What now?” Sam asks, “what do we do now?” 

 

“Now we wait and see.  But his immune system is shot and he has been moved to isolation. When he wakes we will be able to know more. But his infection is not worsening. But we will need to do heart and brain scans to see if there was any additional damage done.” 

 

Tony pulls out his phone and his finger hovers over Bucky’s number. But then he clicks his screen off and slips it back into his pocket. The clock reads 3:07am. He’ll call him in the morning when they know more.

 

————-

 

The roll Steve back into his isolation room and remove the protective equipment before hooking him back up to the monitors. Tony stands next to his dad outside the glass window partition and they wince at the red patches on his chest from the defibrillator. Then he’s in a gown again and laid back. He has yet to regain consciousness, but they think it’s more from exhaustion than something more troubling. 

 

He glances at the clock, its 6:57am. He should call. 

 

“Dad, I need to call the others. They’re already going to be mad I waited this long.” 

 

His dad nods and rests a hand on his shoulder, “I’ll watch him while you call.” 

 

Tony nods back and walks out to the waiting room, clicking Bucky’s number.

 

—————

 

When his phone goes off before 7am and it’s a Stark, he’s instantly awake. “Hello?” 

 

Bucky, hey it’s Tony, uh—“ 

 

“What happened?” He asks immediately, reaching for the athletic pants draped over his desk chair, “is he okay?” 

 

Tony huffs out a laugh that doesn’t have much humor in it. “ He’s stable now, but we don’t really know—“ 

 

“What happened?” 

 

Infection leading to fever, leading to seizure ending in heart attack. Or so the doctors say.” 

 

The phone slips out of Bucky’s grasp as he freezes reaching for his tennis shoes. “What? When?” 

 

Around 1am.”  

 

“I’m on my way.” 

 

Can you call Nat? I’m going to call Carter.” 

 

Bucky winces, not envying that conversation in the slightest. “Yeah, I’ll call Nat and Clint. I know Peggy will want more details.” 

 

Yeah…” Tony responds, “wish me luck.” 

 

“Good luck.”

 

——————-

 

An hour and a half later, all 5 of them stand at the glass partition watching Steve sleep. His face is drawn and gaunt and he looks terrible. 

 

But he’s breathing on his own and his brain scans show nothing to be concerned about. 

 

His heart scans on the other hand… 

 

Well, Clint didn’t understand too much of that. Just that it wasn’t good. “Anyone feel helpless?” Tony quips mirthlessly. “Anyone? Anyone? Just me?” 

 

Natasha shoves him gently and he sighs. Bucky and Peggy stand side by side, staring at Steve like if they look away he might disappear. 

 

Sam and Howard are somewhere discussing options and heckling doctors for more information. 

 

“Peter’s getting suspicious.” Natasha says quietly. “Steve’s not usually sick in the hospital this long, but also…” she glances back, “Sam’s doing his best to stay calm and relaxed but the stress of this and keeping it from the kids is eating at him. Peter’s perceptive. He knows something else is wrong.” 

 

“Maybe he should tell them what really happened.” Tony offers, “the older kids already know, and the younger kids will figure it out eventually. Just rip off the bandaid.” 

 

“Maybe,” Natasha says, then her eyes get sad, “what are we going to do?” She asks, looking at them briefly before turning back to the glass, “Steve’s…” and for the first time that Clint can remember, Natasha’s voice cracks with emotion, “he’s really dying.” 

 

Clint doesn’t miss the fact that Peggy’s knuckles are white as she grips the metal windowsill. 

 

“He’ll pull through.” Bucky states without hesitation. “He’s going to be fine.” 

 

“Fine for now.” Natasha shoots back, “but for how long? Until something else ridiculously horrible happens to him? Until another sickness lands him in the hospital? He said 4 years, what now huh? How much damage has been done? Is it less time now?” 

 

That’s a doom and gloom thought Clint hadn’t considered. “We take it one day at a time.” He says, resting a hand on the glass, “Steve’s going to live as long as he’s supposed to.” The words grate coming out but he says them, willing it to be a long long time. “So we make sure we’re there for every one of them.” 

 

Natasha’s hand finds his and she grips it tightly. Her other hand slips into Bucky’s who holds Peggy’s who then grabs Tony’s, and they stand there solidified in their goal. 

 

—————-

 

He’d describe that it feels like someone cracked his chest open when he’s finally lucid enough to think coherent thoughts. 

 

His heartbeat feels sluggish but not in a bad way, like a drugged way. Something’s holding him down and his body isn’t ready to wake up just yet. 

 

So he lets it rest for a bit longer until he feels more like a solid being in a body than a floating presence bouncing around his skull. 

 

Before he opens his eyes, he shifts his hand, reaching out for something, but only finding blankets. Eventually he drags his eyelids open and stares at a white ceiling. 

 

Soft sounds make him look over and more monitoring equipment is there than there was before. He frowns, knowing that’s a bad sign. Then he turns to his right and sees 7 pairs of eyes looking at him. Howard and Sam stand behind the rest, but the front row looks at him so intensely he expects to spontaneously combust. 

 

He raises a rather weak hand in hello and they seem to relax a bit at that. 

 

——————-

 

Peggy almost refuses to go back to college when the time comes, but Steve, still behind the glass partition, sits up, points at her, and frowns, “if you don’t go back to college then don’t even think about coming to my prom. I want to take you but I’m not taking a college dropout.” He says it with a serious face but his eyes have humor in them. 

 

She begs to be in a suit and be able to say goodbye in the room but the doctors deny her and Bucky watches as she waves from behind the glass and Steve waves back. And he ignores the tears streaming down her face as he hopes they ignore his. 

 

—————

 

Clint waits anxiously for Sam to come out of his room. It’s January 27th and the doctors have cleared Steve to be able to exit the isolation room. And if he does well, he’ll be able to come home in a few days. 

 

“Sam, come on!” Clint calls. Thankfully the rest of the kids are in school. 

 

“I’m coming!” Sam calls back, appearing and tugging on a jacket, “lets go.” 

 

—————-

 

Clint and Sam wait impatiently until they’re called. The nurse beckons them forward and they walk behind him, until they come to a room. They walk in and there he is, awake and smiling and listening to a doctor talk.

 

“—doing really well, so if we can keep that up then you’ll be out of here before you know it.” 

 

“That’s the goal.” Steve responds, “no offense but I’m tired of being here.” 

 

The doctor laughs and then bids farewell, telling Sam he’s available if he has any questions. 

 

They both turn to Steve who is beaming, “hey guys.” 

 

Sam walks over and rests a hand on Steve’s now too long hair, “hey kiddo.” 

 

Steve laughs and Clint walks over, plopping into a chair and reaching out, grabbing Steve’s hand. “It’s real. You’re actually out of that prison.” 

 

The chuckle that Steve gives is a relieved one. Clint feels the semi-shaky muscles that Steve grips his hand back with, “I’m finally free. Good to have human contact again.”

 

“Well we’re not going anywhere.” Sam assures, “and hopefully we will have you home in no time. I’ve already contacted the school and we will have your work sent to the house—“ 

 

“What?” Steve interjects, “why?” 

 

Sam pauses, “what do you mean why?” 

 

Steve tilts his head, “why would you have my schoolwork sent to the house, I want to go to school.” 

 

Clint feels his own surprise and watches as Sam tries to process that. “Well…” Sam starts, “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” 

 

Steve sighs, “why not?” 

 

“The school was very willing to work with you when I mentioned you may not want to go back to the building.” 

 

Steve’s eyes narrow in sarcastic amusement, “and you decided that I didn’t want to go back without asking?” 

 

“Well, I assumed—“ 

 

“Assumed what, Sam?” 

 

“I assumed you wouldn’t want to.” 

 

“And why did you assume that?” Steve asks, and Clint has to hand it to the kid because he’s not backing down. He’s going to make Sam spell it out. 

 

Sam, to his credit, does not back down. “I assumed because of the trauma you experienced in that building that you wouldn’t want to go back.” 

 

“Well you assumed wrong.” 

 

“Steve—“ 

 

“No, Sam. You’re the number one proponent of dealing with past trauma right? You and I talked about watching my mom die, and we talked about the Schmidt’s, the dumpster, and it may have taken a while but I agreed to open up about my symptoms. I don’t understand why you’d want me to regress and hide from what happened.” 

 

And Sam’s eyes close, “maybe I’m not ready to let you back in that building.” 

 

Steve’s response is gentle but firm, “you don’t get to make that decision for me.” 

 

“Howard’s going to lose it.” 

 

Steve laughs, a genuine full laugh, “Howard’s always losing it. I can handle him.” 

 

Clint wants to beg to differ that the way Steve looks in the bed he couldn’t handle a fly. But Steve’s never survived off physical strength, it’s been the sheer will power he’s displaying even now. 

 

“Well,” Clint says, cutting off whatever Sam was going to say next, “let’s work on getting you out of here before we argue about where you’re going next.” 

 

Sam ruffles Steve’s hair, “you need a haircut.” 

 

Steve chuckles, “I need a lot of things, like an actual shower.” 

 

Clint leans in and pretends to sniff him. Then he makes a face and Steve laughs, waving him away. 

 

——————

 

Bucky sits next to Tony in Tony’s dorm room, watching the video of Steve, dressed in regular clothes for the first time in over a month, get wheeled out of the hospital doors. Bucky’s watching with bated breath as Steve pushes himself up, standing on his own two feet and smiling at someone past the camera. Then Steve notices the camera, “Clint, what the hell, stop.” 

 

They can hear Clint laugh and respond, “this is a momentous moment! We need to document!” 

 

“I walk out of hospitals all the time.” Steve says dryly. “Not that momentous.”  

 

Carter asked me to, so unless you want to argue with her…”

 

Steve rolls his eyes, and steps forward. He wobbles for one second and they see Sam appear as if to help but Steve snaps at him, “Sam don’t, I got this.” 

 

Sam retracts his hand and Steve takes another step, stronger this time. “Okay—“ they hear Howard’s voice, “car’s here, let’s get to hopping.” 

 

“Mr. Rogers,” they hear Jarvis call, “so good to see you.” 

 

Steve pushes his glasses up and smiles, “hey Mr. Jarvis, thanks for picking us up.” 

 

My pleasure.”  

 

Steve turns to Clint and looks directly at the camera, “I’m sure this is going to make it to more than Peggy’s phone. So now you all have proof, okay? I’m fine. Focus on your classes and stop being such mother hens!” Steve winks at the camera and covers the lens with his hand. The video ends and Tony looks at Bucky. 

 

“You heard the man. Go do your engineering project for Greisel’s class.” 

 

Bucky groans and leans back, twirling the pen in his hand, “I don’t wanna.” 

 

“Can’t disappoint the invalid, so get.” 

 

Bucky stands and looks at Tony, “he’s alright.” 

 

And Tony looks at the phone in his hand and spins it, his face reflecting off the screen, “he’s alright.” 

 

————-

 

Steve steps through the door of the house to much fanfare. The kids cheer and scream and he smiles and there’s lots of hugging and hello’s and questions that he can’t answer all at once. Dinner is served and Peter is like glue to his side but he doesn’t mind. Peter knows the truth of what happened and even though he’s smiling and cheerful through the evening, his grip on Steve’s hand doesn’t loosen and everyonce and awhile Steve will catch a look that makes him want to shiver. 

 

Peter’s own Aunt and Uncle had been killed by a mugger, gunning them down on some street and leaving them for dead while Peter sat at home with a babysitter waiting for them to return. 

 

And now the weight of what almost happened sits heavily on Steve’s shoulders. Peter almost lost another family member to a shooting. And Steve hadn’t even thought about those repercussions when he was in that hallway. Not that he would have changed his course of action but… seeing the sad brown eyes that find his every few seconds make his chest tight. 

 

But he doesn’t run outside like last time. He grips Peter’s hand just as tightly and tugs him along as they get ready for bed, Peter seeming equally unwilling to let him go. 

 

And when Peter falls asleep on Steve’s bed while they are catching up, Steve just shifts so there’s room for both of them as he falls asleep. 

 

——————

 

Every few hours Peggy finds herself pulling up that video and watching Steve walk out of the hospital. 

 

It brings her a sense of peace and even though she doesn’t let it affect her studies, she finds herself looking at the calendar more often, counting down the days until she can go home and see him. 

 

——————

 

Howard and Sam both stand at the bottom of the stairs. 

 

“I’m not changing my mind.” 

 

Both men stare at him, varying expressions running the gamut on their faces. 

 

“I’m going to be fine. It’s just a building.” 

 

“It’s too soon.” 

 

“It’s February. Over a month.” 

 

“Too soon.” Howard repeats. 

 

“He wasn’t a student at the school.” Steve reminds them for the thousandth time. “He’s in prison.” 

 

“You’re getting tired quicker. Where’s your cane?” 

 

“I don’t need it.” Steve snaps, then takes a deep breath, “I don’t need it right now, okay?” 

 

“Steve, you gotta give us a bit of leeway.” Sam tries softly, “it’s all kind of fast.” 

 

And then Steve glares at them, putting his hands on his waist. “I’m the one with a bullet hole, huh? I think I can handle sitting in a classroom.” The men wince and Steve rolls his eyes, “it happened. We can’t change it. So I need you guys to let me live my life. Honestly, it wasn’t worse than the dumpster. Not by far.” 

 

“Okay I’m going to forget you said that.” Howard says, pinching the bridge of his nose. 

 

Steve steps down of the last step, willing himself not to wobble. He doesn’t and he smiles at the guys in front of him. “I know you’re worried for me, and I appreciate that. But I refuse to be held in another room forever just because you’re worried. I was stuck in that hospital bed for over a month, and I’m tired of being cooped up. So unless you’re going to let me drop out of high school, I’m going.” 

 

He raises an eyebrow and walks past them. He’s unsurprised to see Happy standing there with the car waiting. 

 

“Morning Steve.” 

 

“Morning, Happy.” 

 

“School?” 

 

“Yeah, thanks.” He turns to the door where Howard and Sam are watching him with intense eyes. “Goodbye, see you when I get home.” He calls overly cheerful before slipping into the backseat. 

 

—————

 

Except maybe he didn’t think it through because the minute he steps into the hallway, it falls quiet. And he walks slowly, keeping his balance as best he can without a cane and the eyes of his peers follow him. 

 

He’s at his locker when he feels a presence. He turns to see the vice-principal, a lady he hasn’t really ever interacted with. 

 

“Good morning, Mr. Rogers.” She says with a forced smile, “we didn’t know you were coming back today.” 

 

He looks at her and shrugs, “I didn’t know I needed to let you know I was coming back on a certain day. I thought my dad called—“ 

 

“He did.” She responds quickly, “he just didn’t say a day, we were hoping to have a nice welcome ready for you—“ 

 

“No.” Steve snaps, a little too loudly, “no.” He takes a deep breath, his chest twinging, “please don’t, o don’t want anything. Please. I’d like to just return to normal if that’s okay.” 

 

Her eyes search his face before she nods slowly, “okay, I think I can let the office know that.” She reaches out and places a hand on his shoulder, “we are glad to have you back.” She says earnestly, “we hope you’re doing okay.” 

 

He nods, “I’m doing fine, thanks.” 

 

She nods in return and then steps back and away. 

 

“She wanna give you a medal or something?” 

 

Steve smiles, knowing the voice before turning to see who it is. 

 

“Nah, but I think if they’d known I was coming there might have been balloons or something.” 

 

Scott chuckles and he raps on Steve’s shoulder, “saw the video of you getting out of the hospital. 

 

He groans, “I swear he sent that video to everyone.” 

 

“Sorry I couldn’t visit much—“

 

“Scott, watching me from behind a glass wall wasn’t all that exciting. It’s fine”. 

 

“Yeah, I know, but—“ 

 

“But nothing. How bout you keep me company here and we call it even?” 

 

“Yeah.” Scott says with a grin, “okay.” 

 

Steve stifles a yawn. “How’s Hope?” 

 

The grin turns giddy on Scott’s face, “she’s still ignoring my texts, but the other day she liked one of them. So I think that’s progress.” 

 

Steve laughs and then hides the wince from the way it pulls on his still tender skin. “Good for you.” 

 

—————



Natasha glances down at her phone as it buzzes. A text from Yelena pops through and she puts down her textbook to look at it. 

 

It’s a photo of Yelena in a prom dress standing next to Wanda and Rebecca who are also in dresses. She can tell they’re in a department store changing room. 

 

Y: what do you think? 

 

N: Wanda looks fabulous, but Rebecca should wear a full length, she’s got an elegant face and she needs a dress to match! And you—

 

She pauses evaluating the pale yellow dress that compliments her sister’s hair but kind of washes out her skin

 

you’re too dangerous for that dress ;) you need something deep colored, maybe blue to match your eyes, or green to give off a warrior vibe. Just my opinion.

 

Y: knew I could trust you. I’ll send updated pics when we have them. 

 

N: can’t wait! 

 

——————-

 

Steve and Clint stand on the platform, waiting for the train to come in. Peggy was due in on the next train and Laura was due the one right after. 

 

“Can’t believe we’re going to go on a double date for Valentine’s.” Clint says for the thousandth time. 

 

“You’re literally the one who came up with this idea.” Steve yawns and then huffs, “stop acting so surprised.” 

 

“I know but like, now it’s here. What did we do last year for Valentine’s?” 

 

“I was sick.” Steve says with a laugh, “Bucky and Natasha went out I think, and Pepper and Tony were arguing I think? I don’t remember about you and Laura.” 

 

Clint’s head is bobbing as he remembers it, “think she was busy with something, but hey, now we’re going somewhere.” 

 

“And that somewhere is?” 

 

He grins at Steve, “stop trying to spoil the surprise!” 

 

Steve frowns, “I’m not much for surprises.” 

 

Realization curls in Clint’s gut, “oh.” He turns to Steve, “I’m sorry, I didn’t—“ 

 

“No.” Steve cuts him off, “no, I didn’t mean it like that. I’ve never been a fan of surprises. It’s fine.” 

 

The train rumbles closer and Clint watches as Steve takes a deep breath and excitement builds on his features. 

 

Before the doors even finish opening, she’s out of it and practically bounding towards them. She drops her bags with a thunk and wraps Steve in her arms. He laughs and returns the hug, and Clint steps back a few feet to give them some semblance of privacy. 

 

The way Peggy kisses him though leaves little for the imagination as strangers whistle in amusement. 

 

“Peggy.” Steve says a bit breathlessly, pulling back, “I’m happy to see you too.” 

 

She doesn’t respond, just kisses him again so hard that they almost topple over. Then they’re talking quietly to each other, Peggy’s fingers running through Steve’s hair that he has yet to get cut. 

 

Suddenly Laura’s at Clint’s side and she’s smiling at them and whispering to him, “is this their first meeting after…” 

 

She trails off but Clint knows what she means, “yeah.” He nods, “first time in person. But I know they talked over video call.” 

 

Steve is blushing and laughing at something Peggy is saying and Laura smiles happily up at him, “but everything’s better in person.” 

 

Clint leans down and places a soft kiss on her lips, “you betcha.” 

 

————

 

Chapter Text

Apparently Clint’s idea of a romantic surprise was a black light mini golf. 

 

Which, as Peggy’s fingers trail along the back of his hair, and she kisses at the back of his jaw… Maybe he wasn’t too far off.  Clint and Laura were one hole ahead of them, and they were giggling like idiots as Laura hit her ball into the fake pond again while Clint had yet to not get at least one under par. 

 

“I was skeptical.” Peggy whispers softly, “but I’ve been converted. This is fun.” 

 

He laughs, “It is, isn’t it?” They move forward and start on the next hole. Steve’s ends up in the pond as well, and Peggy laughs behind her hand. “You make fun of me all you want, we will play chess later and see who is laughing then!” He says with a frown. 

 

She scoffs at him and swats his shoulder, before leaning down and pulling him in for a kiss, “I love when you threaten me with a good time.” 

 

And Steve just smiles at that. 

 

————————-

 

Afterwards, they go to a small diner, that Clint swears has the best strawberry waffles, and they sit and eat, laughing and talking about their scores from the game. 

 

Steve feels his body getting tired. He hasn’t been out this late in a while, and he’s starting to lag. 

 

Soft fingers in his squeeze gently and he looks up to see Peggy looking at him knowingly. 

 

“I should head home.” She says, thanking the waitress who takes her plate, “I have to catch the earliest train.” 

 

“Me too.” Laura agrees, “but thank you Clint, this was so much fun.” 

 

“Yeah.” Clint grins, leaning back against the booth, “I’m glad.” 

 

———————-

 

They’re saying goodbye at the train station and Steve thinks Peggy is reaching down to grab his hand, when it diverts to his t-shirt. Her fingers gently lift up the side and he looks up in surprise as her palm rests on the scar left from the bullet. It’s mostly healed, and doesn’t bother him too much, but bending certain ways can be painful. 

 

“Peggy—“ 

 

“Steve.” She says, her throat getting tight. “I thought I might lose you. And I thought—“ her fingers clench at his bare skin and she rests her forehead against his. She’s a bit taller than he is but she doesn’t seem to mind. “I need you to promise me you’ll take care of yourself. That you actually will run from danger next time.” 

 

And Steve feels his throat catch, and he can’t respond. 

 

Because that’s just not him. 

 

The last time he “ran” from danger was when he stopped trying to call CPS on Mrs. Schmidt. And that was to save the other kids. And he hated every second of letting her lord over them. 

 

“I’ll be careful.” He says instead. 

 

She opens her eyes and looks at him meaningfully. “You have something against running away?” 

 

He grins, “you know I do.” 

 

She kisses him deeply and then hugs him again. “I know. And I love you all the more for it. But do be safe won’t you? I’ll not have any more terrifying voicemails.” 

 

Steve nods, “I promise to not go looking for trouble.” 

 

She laughs, as this is a common joke between Steve and everyone else. “It finds you my darling.” Peggy sighs, twining their fingers together. Her train starts to approach the station and she looks at him, “I’ll see you at the beginning of April.” 

 

“I’ll be the one on the tuxedo.” Steve quips, kissing her fingers.

 

“And I’ll be the one in the dress.” 

 

She kisses him once more before grabbing her bag and stepping onto the train. 

 

He smiles and waves as she leaves but he doesn’t miss the fact that her eyes get worried as the train disappears.

 

——————

 

Natasha yawns as she unwraps her ribbons and puts them in her bag. Her phone buzzes but she doesn’t check it right away. She’s sure it’s Bucky texting her their itinerary for the weekend. He and Tony (with help from Howard) had surprised herself, Steve, and Clint with tickets to Boston to come visit and that were just two days away. It would be a fast trip, but she was excited for the change in scenery and to see Bucky again. 

 

Her room is empty when she gets there and she begins sorting through what she’ll need for the trip. It’s mid March so they told her to come with sweaters and a bit warmer clothes. She smiles as she remembers Tony’s strict instructions that Steve bring a beanie or five to keep his head warm. 

 

Steve had sent a thumbs up. Only the next day to send an irate audio message saying: “ stop texting Sam to make sure I bring warm hats! I’m not a toddler, I can pack by myself Anthony!” 

 

Tony had sent a frowny face and Natasha couldn’t help but roll her eyes. 

 

——————

 

Clint’s walking down to the lab to ask Howard something when he hears a conversation. First he thinks Howard must be on the phone, but then he hears Steve’s voice. 

 

His brows furrow as it’s not the right day for Steve’s bi-weekly check-up. Clint walks to the door, scanning his thumb and entering. He stops right inside the doorway, Howard’s too focused on something to hear his entry, and so Clint stays quiet for a moment, wondering what he’s doing. A projection flickers, catching his eyes, and Clint realizes he’s engrossed in some video that he’s watching. 

 

He’s about to ask what when he hears Steve’s voice again. 

 

No I didn’t. It’s just my watch .” 

 

It doesn’t sink in what’s happening, what Howard is watching, until Howard clicks a button and the angle of the camera changes. 

 

Showing Steve. Standing in the school’s office. At gunpoint. 

 

His chest gets tight, but he doesn’t speak up, eyes frozen as the conversation continues. The security cameras… He hadn’t even known Howard got ahold of this. 

 

And every few minutes, Howard will pause it, write something down, or make an audio note on the computer in front of him, and switch angles. Then he always takes a deep breath and presses play again. 

 

And Clint stays. He stays and he watches with one hand on the glass door behind him. 

 

They’ll call me crazy and lock me up forever. I’m not crazy. I won’t be locked up.” 

 

Clint hears Howard sigh heavily as both Steve and Emil go rigid, and their heads swing upwards, in unison, towards the ceiling.



they’re coming for me.” Clint hears Emil say, his voice now sounding completely crazed. 

 

Just let me go. ” Steve’s voice cuts through, sounding scared, “ we’ll go out together, we can work this out—“ 

 

The sound of the gun going off makes Clint’s blood run cold. 

 

don’t you come after me! You deserve this, you liar!” Emil is shouting as he backs out of the room. 

 

Clint’s not sure what he expects, but it definitely isn’t Howard rewinding the video. 

 

They’ll call me crazy and lock me up forever. I’m not crazy. I won’t be locked up.” 

 

Emil repeats, and Clint watches in confusion as Howard watches until they swing their heads up to the ceiling. Then he clicks pause. 

 

And Howard’s voice is tired when he makes this audio note. “In agreement with the police report. Clint Barton entered the building on the second floor right above the office, the sound agitated the assailant—“ 

 

He presses play again, but Clint’s heart is being squeezed, chest hollow and cracking as the words float through the lab and through him and out again, over and over. 

 

the sound agitated the assailant—“ 

 

The gun shot sounds again and this time Clint startles, stepping back and clunking against the glass door. Howard whips around, and his eyes catch on Clint, widening so far Clint’s fuzzy brain worries his eyeballs will fall out of his sockets. 

 

“Clint!” Howard snaps, “what are you doing down here!?” 

 

But the video is still playing in the background. 

 

Steve’s sinking the floor, hands trembling and covered in blood as he goes down, knees hitting the carpet, then falling face first. 

 

Howard’s hand slams down on something and the video stops. But Clint can’t take his eyes off the video. 

 

“Clint—“ Howard starts, somehow appearing right in front of him, “Clint, can you hear me? Clint, come back, come back, it’s okay—“ 

 

“I—“ Clint starts, then his voice cuts off. 

 

“It’s all fine Clint, everything’s fine, take a deep breath, come on, breath with me now, your lips are turning blue, breathe —“ 

 

Clint sucks in a gasping breath but then he’s choking on the realization, “my fault—“ he gasps out, “it was my fault—“

 

“No!” Howard shouts, “no.” He shakes Clint’s shoulders, “no way. That kid was unhinged and on the warpath anyways—“ 

 

And Steve’s words echo loudly, “— I promise it would have happened anyway—“ 

 

He had thought Clint already knew. 

 

The phone. Bucky and Peggy reaching for the phone. They knew it was his fault. 

 

He rocks forward, hands wrapping around his chest as he struggles to come to terms with this information. “I got him shot—“ 

 

“Clint, it is not your fault—“ 

 

“You just said!.” He rasps out, anger and guilt rolling through him in equal measure, “you just said that you agree with the police! That he maybe wouldn’t have shot him if hearing me come into the building hadn’t freaked him out—“ Howard winces, just realizing how much Clint had heard. 

 

“Clint, this is not a line of thought you should be entertaining—“ 

 

“Steve could have died —“ 

 

“But he didn’t.” Howard says sharply, “and there’s nothing we can do to change how it went, but there’s no sense putting blame on yourself when it’s not your fault and you couldn’t have known! Emil is mentally unwell! You can’t know what he would have done— ”

 

“I should have stayed.” Clint whispers, nose pressed between his knees, “I should have obeyed the cops.” 

 

“Clint, stop. You know Steve would be so upset if he knew you were beating yourself up like this.” 

 

His hands are trembling and he slams them against his eyes. He thought he’d saved Steve. Had been there to help drag him out of that building and situation, but… it was the opposite. 

 

He shoves up and back away from Howard. 

 

“Clint—“ 

 

But he doesn't listen, he bursts out the lab door and up the stairs leaving Howard calling after him. 

 

—————-



Steve looks down and sees a call from Howard. 

 

“Hello?” 

 

His hand clenches the phone as Howard speaks and he feels the way Peter’s eyes go up to him. He must have started breathing too fast. 

 

“It’s fine—“ Steve whispers out, “I’ll find him.” 

 

Peter’s reaching out, shoving his school books off his lap and coming towards Steve. Howard’s half frantic voice is on the other side. 

 

“No.” Steve says quietly, “That’s not necessary. I know where he’ll go.” 

 

A question. 

 

“Yeah.” Steve says, ruffling Peter’s hair and giving him a sad smile, “I do.” 

 

——————

 

He looks up at the unfinished bell tower and sighs. This used to be a lot easier. Steve reaches up, his joints aching and chest protesting. But he doesn’t stop. Climbing through the trellis and up teh route Clint had taught him. He hasn’t climbed this in months. Basically since the beginning of last school year. And he grimaces at the way his body has changed since. 

 

His breathing is heavy as he finally makes it to the top level, the metal and woods squeaking as it rocks gently with his weight and the wind. The cool stone of the tower greets him as he pulls himself over the ledge and he huffs and puffs for a second before standing up and walking across to where he can see just the touch of blonde hair. 

 

Clint lays on the small jut of the roof. Way too dangerous and precarious of a position for anyone else, but Clint manages just fine. He has an arm thrown over his eyes and Steve’s pretty sure he has headphones in. 

 

He doesn't want to startle him and make him fall, so Steve climbs on to the bell tower’s window ledge, a wide enough space that he’ll be fine, and waits. 

 

—————-

 

—we go in guns blazing and we’re more likely to get Steve killed than save him.

 

That’s what that cop, Dugan, had said. Had warned him. 

 

And he’d ignored it. Thought he was smarter. 

 

What an absolute idiot he is. 

 

Clint lays there for a long time. The music in his headphones playing just to keep his brain from falling over the edge. He had briefly thought about calling Laura but… He was so ashamed and he didn’t want her to know. 

 

Bucky and Peggy knew. Which means Natasha knew. And if Howard knew then Tony probably knew. 

 

Everyone knew. 

 

And they hadn’t told him. 

 

Trying to spare his feelings probably. 

 

The thought makes him so furious he sits up and growls out in frustration. 

 

“Sad boy hours, huh?” 

 

The voice startles him, and he scatters a bit to the left, away from it. 

 

He looks behind him to see Steve sitting there on the window ledge. Knees up to his chest and dressed warmly in a hoodie, color high on his cheeks. 

 

“Steve—“ Clint’s voice leaves him, and the crushing weight returns. 

 

“So it’s your fault, huh?” Steve asks, eyeing the setting sun as it starts to glare across the skyline. 

 

Clint’s throat dries out, and he can’t even look at him. 

 

“Clint?” Steve asks, when he doesn't respond. “I hear you think it’s your fault?” 

 

“It is my fault.” 

 

“Okay.” Steve says with a shrug. Then he eyes Clint with a raised brow, “And what does that mean to you?” 

 

He pauses looking at Steve, “what do you mean?” 

 

“Well, you’re so dead set on putting the blame on yourself. So is anything I’m gonna say change your mind?” 

 

“No—“ 

 

“Okay then.” Steve snaps, then pauses, taking a deep breath, “I guess it doesn’t matter that I have my own free will and choose to walk towards the gunfire I heard in the first place, but yeah, sure, let’s say it’s all your fault. What now?” 

 

And he’s stunned into silence, and Steve just looks at him expectantly. 

 

When he doesn’t give an answer, Steve sighs and throws up his hands, “What now , Clint? Are you to be drawn and quartered? Thrown in the dungeons? Turned over to the police?” He still can’t respond and Steve points a boney finger at him, “are you going to stop being my friend?” 

 

And that thought is worst of all. He doesn’t want that. Steve’s not just a friend, he’s family , they all are, their whole group. He can’t lose them. 

 

But even now, with those thoughts, the shame of his actions rise up, and he doesn’t feel he has the right to say he wants to stay part of the group. 

 

And what he’s thinking must be telegraphed across his face because Steve scoffs in frustration and leans forward, one of his tennis shoes dangling into the free air. “Listen here, Barton. If you’re taking blame for that, then there’s a whole lot of blame I gotta take for Mrs. Schmidt. You know she starved the kids when I called CPS? You know she hurt Peter when she was mad at me ? That Wanda and Pietro and the rest were kept in the basement with no food after she found out I called CPS again ?” 

 

Steve’s face is anguished as he remembers those moments. And Clint feels his chest constricting at the thought of all they went through. 

 

“No.” Steve finally says. The glow of the sunset making his hair gleam “No, those weren’t my fault. That was her fault. She was in charge of her own actions. No matter what I did or said to “goad” her. She chose to hurt us and starve us and burn me.” His eyes glow in the light too and they find Clint, “you are no more to blame for me being shot then I am. Yes, I walked towards the gunfire, and yes he got scared when he heard you come into the building. But the one pulling the trigger was him .” Steve’s head lifts up and Clint is mesmerized by the way Steve suddenly seems so grown up, and almost regal. The way his jaw is tight and eyes far off into the horizon. “I have lived through a lot of different things. And I know who I want by my side as I go through the rest of it.” His head tilts to the side and he looks at Clint with such a compassionate face that it makes Clint’s chest ache, “I’ve got some tough times coming up.” Steve says softly, flexing his fingers and wincing at what must be a painful motion, “you gonna leave me alone to go through all that by myself?” 

 

“Steve, I—“ 

 

“Steve, nothing. You don’t owe me an apology. Like I said in the hospital, he probably would have found a way to shoot me anyways. And the way I see it, instead of shooting me and killing me, or hitting me multiple times, you did scare him away, giving me a chance to escape and live. Maybe if you hadn’t spooked him it would have been a headshot or—“ 

 

“STOP.” Clint pleads, “Stop, don’t say that—“ 

 

And Steve sighs and leans out, his hands gripping the stone wall, “there’s a lot of shoulda coulda wouldas Clint. Stop drowning yourself in the worst one.” Clint is quiet. He doesn’t speak and Steve kicks at the air, “you know… Howard and I had to have a similar conversation.” 

 

His head jerks up in surprise, “what?” 

 

“Yeah,” Steve nods, “he was blaming himself too. Since Emil used a Stark Industries gun. So he somehow decided that it was his fault I got shot. Do you think it was his fault?” 

 

“No.” Clint says easily. 

 

“Good.” Steve agrees, “me either. So now we’re all on the same page. It’s no one’s fault but Emil’s.” 

 

A bit of relief starts to loosen the ache in his chest. Steve pulls out his phone, swiping across the screen, “hello?” 

 

A voice is speaking on the other side. 

 

“Yeah, I found him.” 

 

Howard, probably. 

 

“Just somewhere. We will be back soon.” 

 

Steve hangs up and slips the phone back into his pocket. “It’s nice when he pretends he doesn't know where I am.” He quips with an eyeroll. 

 

“He doesn’t actually track you that often.” Clint manages out, “only in emergencies.” 

 

Steve laughs and rolls his neck, “I should probably head down before my joints get much stiffer. You coming with?” 

 

And that’s when it dawns on Clint that Steve had climbed the entire bell tower just to reach him. 

 

To get to him

 

“Steve—“ Clint rasps out, “you shouldn’t have—“ 

 

“Hey.” Steve snaps at him, annoyance across his features. “Don’t start. I climbed it just fine.” 

 

“Yeah, but Howard—“ 

 

“Worries about a lot that I can’t change. You want me to stop climbing bell towers? Then stop having crises in bell towers!” The smile on Steve’s lips lets him know he’s teasing him. 

 

“Wow.” Clint admits, “you climbed the whole thing? And you feel okay?” 

 

“Yeah, I was just a bit winded, but I did fine.” 

 

Clint smiles, “maybe you’re getting better?” 

 

Steve laughs, and nods, “yeah maybe I am.” He’s about to step over the ledge when Clint reaches out, grabbing his wrist and pulling him into a hug. 

 

Steve huffs in surprise, and pauses. Clint has noticed this. Even with Peggy Steve doesn’t initiate physical contact a lot. He usually receives and then reciprocates. They’ve had a small discussion on why that might be. 

 

But Clint hugs him anyway, burying his head against Steve’s significantly shorter shoulder and holding him tightly. 

 

After a second Steve relaxes and winds his arms around him, “it’s all good, Clint.” He says softly. 

 

“I am sorry Steve.” 

 

“If it makes you feel better then I forgive you. You don’t need my forgiveness. But I give it freely anyway.” 

 

Clint pulls away and Steve eyes him curiously, “we should get you home.” 

 

Steve rolls his eyes, “don’t talk about me like I’m some geriatric grandpa.” 

 

Clint huffs out a chuckle and shrugs, “okay then young whippersnapper, let’s go to a party.” 

 

Steve frowns and lightly shoves Clint, “you’re annoying.” But he’s smiling and they climb back down the scaffolding, dropping onto the cracked and beaten up cement. 

 

“You okay?” Clint asks, when he sees Steve take a step and falter. 

 

“I’m fine.” Steve replies breathily, “just don’t tell Howard about this, he’ll be pissed.” 

 

“I won’t.” Clint assures, “but promise me you won’t climb any more bell towers, and I promise not to hide in anymore.” 

 

Steve straightens and smiles, “deal.” 



——————

 

Steve looks at the toothpaste in his hands. 4.5 oz. 

 

“Crap.” He says with a sigh. “Sam!” 

 

“Yeah?” A voice calls up. 

 

“Do you have travel size toothpaste?” 

 

“Let me check.” 

 

A minute later. 

 

“No…” 

 

“I need to go grab some.” 

 

“I'm sure they have some you can use.” Sam offers, the voice getting closer.

 

“Yeah,” he admits, but then he wrinkles his nose, “but the flavors they always use are nasty.” 

 

Sam appears in the doorway, “you are particular about your toothpastes.”

 

“Yeah, and then I can get a travel soap too, so I don’t have to smell like whatever crazy soap Tony’s currently using.” 

 

Sam laughs and nods, “you got cash?” 

 

Steve nods, “I’ll be back soon.” 

 

“Can I come?” Peter bounces on the bed and Steve laughs, 

 

“Sure, Peter. Quick trip to the local mart sounds like an adventure?” 

 

Peter nods and they get their shoes and head out. 

 

—————

 

Peter’s eyeing the candy shelves and Steve’s deciding between two soaps when he hears a voice. 

 

“Well, speak of the devil twice.” 

 

Steve feels his spine straighten as he turns. 

 

Brock Rumlow stands at the end of the aisle, looking genuinely surprised and eyeing him curiously. “What brings you to this fine establishment?” 

 

“Just need soap.” Steve says flatly. Maybe he’d say something another day. Maybe he’d let Brock Rumlow know just what he thinks of him. 

 

But not today. 

 

Not with Peter only a few feet to his right. 

 

“Soap to clean off all those dirty orphan germs, huh?” He says haughtily as he saunters to stand right besides him. 

 

Steve’s hand closes tightly around the small plastic bottles. “Steve?” Peter asks, stepping up to his side quietly. 

 

Brock notices his presence and leans down, “hey there, squirt. Who are you?” 

 

Peter, who is smart and observant, takes in the tension Steve must be exuding. 

 

“Who are you?” He asks back. 

 

“I’m a pal here of Steve’s.” Brock says with a nasty grin. “He and I go way back.” 

 

Steve grabs Peter’s hand and starts to lead him past Brock. “Bye.” 

 

Brock blocks the aisle. “Wow, where’s the fire, huh?”

 

“We need to be getting home.” Steve tries again to walk past him but Brock rests a hand on Peter’s shoulder and stops them. Steve reacts without thinking, yanking Peter out of his grasp and shuffling him behind his own body. He can feel Peter’s hands clutching at the back of his shirt, and he must be really unsure of what’s going on because he’s not fighting against Steve’s overprotective reaction. 

 

“Whoa there!” Brock says with a mean chuckle, “you’re acting like something’s got ya spooked.” 

 

He hasn’t seen Brock Rumlow for years. And still just the sight of him brings everything back. They told him how Brock had orchestrated the whole thing. How he had sought out the brothers. Almost gotten Steve killed because he was mad about what, a softball game? 

 

But even as Steve thinks that he knows that’s not it. Somehow, someway, Steve had hurt Brock’s pride. And that’s an unforgivable action in Rumlow’s eyes. 

 

And Steve’s terrified of him still trying to “right” the “wrong” that Steve put him through. Which is why Steve’s hand winds back, blocking Peter further. 

 

“What do you want, Brock.” Steve asks sharply, hoping to get to the point so they can get out. 

 

Brock steps forward, and it takes everything in Steve’s willpower to not step back. 

 

“I want to make sure we’re all squared up.” Brock says, while a slow smirk spreads across his face. “I just feel like we left things a bit open ended. You know. Where’s the closure?” 

 

“And what’s left to be squared?” Steve asks, defiance and steel in his tone. Inside he feels his insides reacting, terror for his family and anger for himself in equal measure. 

 

“You and me, Stevie.” Brock responds, leaning down mockingly till they’re even height. “I hear you’ve got the Starks wrapped around your finger. Must be nice having all that attention.” 

 

His mind whirls back to the lawyers and everything that was said about him in that courtroom. 

 

His blood runs cold. 

 

“What’s your deal?” Steve snaps, “what did I really do to piss you off so much? You want an apology or something? What?” 

 

Peter’s fingers start clenching his shirt tighter and it reminds him to stay calm. He can’t pick a fight or stand up to Rumlow, not with Peter here. 

 

“I just want to make sure that you—“ his eyes scan to Peter and then back to Steve, “and all your little friends know exactly where you belong. I don’t like people who get too big for their britches, you know? People get to thinking too big about themselves. Forget their place in society—“ he grins, “like take us for example. I belong in the line of power. I got what it takes to lead. You know? And you…” he takes a step back and gestures to Steve, “well, you belong in the dumpster.” He holds up his hands in surrender, “I don’t make the rules. I just make sure people don’t forget them.” Then he’s at the end of the aisle and he looks back, “don’t forget that, Stevie.” And his eyes get narrow and any hint of joking or humor disappears from his face. “Don’t you ever forget that.” 

 

As Steve hears the bell jingle, signaling Brock’s exit, Peter’s suddenly in front of him, “Steve? Steve? Who was that, who was that? Was that one of the brothers? Steve?” 

 

His chest is so tight he can barely register enough air to answer. “No.” He says hoarsely, “no, it’s no one. Just a jerk from school.” 

 

Can’t tell Peter who it was. He might accidentally say that name in front of Sam or Natasha. 

 

“He’s too old to be at your school.” Peter says with a frown. And Steve remembers for the thousandth time how smart and observant Peter is. 

 

“Not this year.” Steve says again, “he’s older than me.” 

 

“He said you belonged in a dumpster.” Peter’s face is a deep frown and sad eyes. 

 

“Like I said, just a jerk from school.” He tugs Peter’s hand and they walk to the counter. And Steve keeps his head about him. Can’t lose it here. Can’t freak out here. He pays for the soap and the toothpaste and he talks as normally as he can with Peter on the way home. But Peter’s sad and observant watchful eyes tell him he’s not doing a great job. 

 

“Go on in.” Steve says to Peter as they reach the front steps. “I’ll be right behind you.” 

 

Peter looks at him hesitantly, “you want me to get Sam?” 

 

“No.” Steve says quickly. Too quickly. “No, no it’s fine, Peter. I promise. I’m going to go talk to Mrs. Barnes, okay? There was something she wanted me to bring to Bucky.” He smiles and walks back down the steps, using the railing as his legs wobble. He can fee Peter’s eyes on him, but he doesn’t look back. The bag swinging, hanging from his wrist. 

 

But he doesn’t knock on the front door. He loops around the buildings and quietly enters their backyard through the gate. He replaces the key in its hidden location and barely thinks as he climbs up the fire escape and onto their roof. 

 

And that’s when sinks to his knees and clutches at his chest. Raking in ragged breaths of air and holding his trembling arms against his body tightly. 

 

The panic overwhelms him for minutes, feeling the crushing weight surrounding him and he does everything he can to not suffocate in the anxiety. 

 

Why couldn’t Brock just leave him alone . Why does it always come back to that damn dumpster? 

 

He crawls to one of the chairs still up here, curling up in it and shoving his face into his sweater. 

 

——————



“Steve, baby. Steve, you have to wake up.” 

 

He turns and squeezes his eyes, knowing he doesn’t want to wake up to this world. 

 

“Come on baby, they’re here to pick you up.” He feels smooth cool hands rest against his cheek and he blinks his eyes open. Soft brown eyes ringed by soft brown skin and curly hair look at him sadly. “I’m so sorry baby, but the service people are here.” 

 

She pulls him out from underneath the nurses station where he’s been hiding/sleeping for the past few hours. Her strong arms hold him close and he wraps his legs around the nurse whose hip he’s resting on. 

 

A lady in a suit is standing right in front of the nurses station. 

 

“Hello Steve, I’m Ms. Dawson. I’m here to take you to your new home.” 

 

Steve clutches the nurse he’s holding. She’s familiar. He’s played and talked with her when waiting for his ma to get off shift, or when she came to visit their home. “I don’t want to go.” He says quietly. “I want to stay here.” 

 

The fingers clutch him tighter and the lady looks at him sadly, “oh baby, I wish you could, I’m so sorry, you have to go with this nice lady, she’ll take good care of you and get you to a good home okay? And I’ll come visit.” 

 

“Don’t worry, Steve.” Ms. Dawson says with a smile, “I’ve found a nice house that will take you in, and it’s in Brooklyn still, won’t that be nice? Be around home?” 

 

He looks at the nurse, “where’s my ma?” 

 

“She’s gone baby, remember? The people came and they took her body away. But remember, she’ll be placed in that cemetery in your churchyard, okay? You can visit her all you want.” 

 

“I want to see her now.” He whispers, digging his face against her neck, “I miss her.” Even though she was quiet and stiff when he last saw her, he wants her now. He’d rather her than some strange home. 

 

The lady who is holding him is crying now, “oh Steve, sweetheart, I’m so sorry, oh if there was something I could do, I would!” She kisses his forehead, “you’re a strong boy and I know you’ll be fine, but just remember that you’re loved okay? Your mama loved you and we love you, come back and visit and us nurses will visit too, okay?” 

 

Ms. Dawson holds out her arms and Steve cries, clinging to the nurses scrubs but eventually being transferred to this new strange woman. 

 

“It’s all going to be alright.” She repeats over and over, “I promise.” 

 

They walk quietly to a car and she drives him to a home. They knock on the door and a surprised woman opens the door. 

 

“Uh-oh.” The woman says immediately.

 

Ms. Dawson tilts her head, “are you Mrs. Pearson?” 

 

“I am, but I’m assuming you didn’t get the call?” 

 

“What call?” 

 

“We had another placement just last minute.” She looks at Steve sadly, “we’re full here now, I’m so sorry.” 

 

Steve looks past her and sees kids playing on the floor of a living room. Ms. Dawson is digging her phone out of her pocket, “oh you’re kidding?” She says softly looking at her screen, “hold on. Steve?” She crouches down looking at him softly, “stay right here okay? I need to make a phone call.” He nods, eyes slowly going back to the kids playing. 

 

The woman at the door looks at him, “I’m sorry about the mix-up, but I’m sure they’ll find you a nice place to stay, okay?” 

 

“I want to go home.” He whispers, feeling tears start to come back. 

 

The woman coos and hugs him and he cries again in this new stranger's arms. 

 

“Okay—“ Ms. Dawson says, “I’ve found a placement, there’s been a shift in management so that’s why there was the mix-up.” She grabs Steve’s hands. “It’s just a few blocks from here.” 

 

They get back into her car and drive a few minutes, parking along a side street. 

 

She helps him out of the car seat and she closes the door and starts to walk around to the front of the building. But Steve hears a giggle and it gets his attention. He turns and sees two kids, hair dark and skin tan and they’re waving sticks at each other and the littler one, the girl, screams in glee and waves her arms wildly, “Bucky, come on!” She calls out, laughing 

 

“Becca, hurry, mama’s waiting!” The older boy calls and they move past, where Steve can no longer see them. And Steve thinks that maybe if he’s allowed to play with them it won’t be so bad. 

 

“Steve!” He hears a voice call, and he’s walking towards the front, his little feet scraping hesitantly along the asphalt. He sees a couple, tall and sort of commanding looking standing on the front stone steps. 

 

Ms. Dawson smiles widely at him, “come over here Steve. Meet your new guardians. Mr. And Mrs. Schmidt!” She gestures to them and he swallows nervously. Ms. Dawson sets down the little duffel bag his ma had bought for him when she’s talked about going to the beach that upcoming summer. Filled with clothes and shoes and his toothbrush. 

 

She hands it to Mr. Schmidt who looks at him with an uninteresting gaze. 

 

“Steve—“ the woman says, and her voice makes his chest constrict. “Welcome—“ 

 

———

 

“Steve? Honey, Steve, wake up, you’re scaring me, baby.” 

 

He feels hands again, but this time they’re warm and a bit rough. He blinks awake to Mrs. Barnes’ kind and worried eyes, “there you are, are you okay? What are you doing up here?” 

 

He looks around blearily, the memory in his dream still clinging to the edges, “I—“ he starts but his throat is dry and it cuts off. He swallows and clears his throat, “I’m sorry—“ he says quietly, wiping at his eyes, “I shouldn’t have come up here without asking.” 

 

He moves to stand